Author's Note: Hope everyone's new year has launched without problems! Here is, hopefully, the last chapter I have to write by smartphone. I'm back to work preparing for spring planting, so don't expect super frequent updates, but driving a tractor always helps me brainstorm (not much else to do when plowing but stare and think.)
The wonderful artwork for this story was done bydolphydolphiana. Look her up on Deviantart to see the whole picture and her other great works.
On my profile is a link to the forum, which contains a detailed guide to Harry's Runes, and other story notes.
Thank you so much, everyone who has reviewed! I try to respond personally to everyone who takes the time to give me feedback. A Note: some people ask questions, but have private messaging blocked on their profiles. I then have no way to respond to you. So, please, if you are wondering why I haven't answered, check your settings!
Many thanks to jdh41 for betaing this chapter! *hugs*
Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.
They all met together after lunch the next day, the start of a two hour study period for both the Gryffindors and Slytherins.
Harry sat beside Hermione, meeting three pairs of curious eyes, and tried to prepare himself.
He had been hiding his true self for too long, from too many people. Sure, the Steel Wings knew his secrets, but they were Muggles; they couldn't really understand what it was he had done, couldn't understand the true gravity of it. The purebloods across from him would. They would know better than even Hermione, who had accepted his whole self without reservation. How would they react? Hermione had such faith in them all, but she always thought the best of people. Always was prepared to extend good will and forgive, forget.
Harry looked between the Slytherins and the Gryffindor, and wrestled with himself. It was his hardest fight, the greatest enemy he had to overcome.
Beside him, Hermione reached across and grasped his hand. Harry looked over at her, and she smiled, tightening her grip. Harry took a breath; then he looked over at his friends. It was time to show trust.
Haltingly, Harry began.
"Hermione told you some of my story. Of the Muggle who raised me, of the tattoo and the wings."
Almost as one, his friends nodded. For once, Draco was silent, his eyes calculating. Harry echoed their nod, before looking down at his hand inside Hermione's.
"She left out some things."
Harry heard a snort, and smiled a little as he met grey eyes.
"I know, hardly a surprise, right?"
Harry shrugged, then once more looked at Hermione before speaking, as if hoping she would put a stop to this. She only tightened her grip briefly, a silent show of solidarity.
"This Muggle, he didn't give me the tattoo by accident. He knew how such a thing would react if the child was a wizard."
Harry heard someone suck their breath in, but ignored it, simply staring into brown eyes and pretending for a second that it was just him and Hermione in a stone room.
"And this Muggle, after confirming me to be what he thought was a muggleborn, then had a plan to hide my abilities. Or, at the least, give me an edge over the wizards he suspected would inevitably come for me. It was all in an old history book, one I found out later was banned by the Ministry. A history book called "The Ancient Wizard." It was all about wizards in the time before wands, before Rome and Greece, before staves and magical swords and shields. When instead of enchanting an object to channel magic, a wizard enchanted their very body."
Harry paused, and finally turned to meet his friend's eyes, and saw the knowledge slowing growing there. None of his friends were ignorant of where this could be leading.
"Runes, it spoke of, the kind that could be anything, in any language, dedicated to powers greater than any on earth, ancient things that were neither evil or good, but sentient beyond our own understanding. No morals, no motives, only pure magical light. Such bright, overwhelming light…"
For a moment Harry drifted off, seeing the wide pale face of the moon, and felt a slight burn throughout his body, the calling of the ritual, the ache that would only grow until he once more cut a set into his flesh. The ritual had him now, had him in its grasp and would not let him go until it was satisfied, until all seven sets were done and magic had its hold on his soul.
His name brought him back, and Harry quickly glanced at Hermione, saw the worry in her face and smiled grimly.
"The Muggle was ignorant, in many ways, and careless. He simply let me stumble into the magic, and eventually would no longer even help me design and implement the sets… but that's misleading. He never helped me with the rituals themselves: those I did alone, at first in a clearing in the woods not far from the cottage, then later in other places. Alone. The other boys in the house, they found out of course, and they worried. It caused a lot of… strife. But we were family, and Steel said it would help me, would keep me safe from the evil wizards when they came to take me away. I believed him for a long time."
Harry stopped, suddenly unable to continue. As if waiting for the signal, Blaise broke in harsh words, his eyes hard.
"How dare he! The man ought to be turned in,Harry! None of this was your fault, none of it! The Ministry would understand, everyone would. You were just a child! They can't blame you for blood magic..."
"Blood magic?" Neville squeaked, having gone pale. Draco took up the sentence, looking between his housemates with a fierce light in his eyes.
"I agree, Harry. You were just a child, right? Before Hogwarts, you didn't know anything about us. You're lucky that tattoo didn't turn you into a squib completely, then to find some Muggle was using you for some sort of sick experiment? Its horrid! He would be thrown into Azkaban!"
Harry wanted to laugh. Wanted to agree. Instead, he shook his hand free from Hermione's and stood abruptly, turning his back and interrupting Draco with a simple sentence.
Silence followed his statement, cold and awkward. Harry turned back, meeting his friends eyes.
"And perhaps the Ministry would have forgiven a child. Maybe there, in the beginning, that first week of Hogwarts I could have confessed it all, given proof. But what about after first year? And then after second, this last summer, when I finished my fourth set? Was I child then, as well? What are the universal rules of magic, Blaise, the ones that matter across every language, every country, every type?"
Harry saw they didn't want to answer, but Neville quietly spoke, his brown eyes full of what could only be sympathy.
"Its the numbers, isn't it? The basic's of arithmancy? One, then three, then seven."
His other friends gave the shy boy surprised looks, to which he responded with a small shrug.
"I looked into it when deciding which electives to take."
Harry smiled slightly, then looked away from them, up at the glass windows high in the wall beside them.
"I knew from the beginning it was seven. Each set of seven runes, all tied together. Seven sets of seven, all together, to complete the ritual. Flamel, when I first met him, saw the truth. He knew that I had done three already, was in the midst of preparation for the fourth, and knew he couldn't stop me. He is… was, perhaps, the only person alive who had actually known a runic wizard. It was rare, even in ancient times, for one to finish. Many wizards only did one, or at most, two sets, when they could still walk away. To finish three, then four? Many would die trying. Flamel knew what was happening to me, and he tried to help, though his own knowledge was second-hand. Even his wife had never started the ritual, and he told me more than once how thankful of that he was."
Harry turned and looked at Draco.
"So you see, I can't tell the Ministry, can I? What would they think, knowing their Savior is himself a dark wizard? Addicted, enslaved, by a blood ritual, one that requires the highest sacrifice of all; self?"
Hermione suddenly stood, stepping closer to once more grasp his arm. Harry let her, though his arm hung limp in her hold. He didn't look away from his friends, letting his helplessness and anger and sorrow all show on his face, holding nothing back.
"This is who I am. Something that must be hidden, perhaps forever."
Draco stood, walking over, his mouth set in a firm line.
"Blood rituals are nothing new to me, Harry, and nothing new to my family. We are Malfoys; to us, blood is sacred. Our family has never looked down on magic of any kind, and has always been known as dark. Why would you think I would judge you? If anything, this only makes me more certain that I am glad you are my friend. We are Slytherins. We know the dark movements of magic, the rituals done in the night, under moon and stars."
Harry only shook his head, unable to explain that it wasn't about Dark or Light, that if any power should be feared it was the Sun, burning harsh upon the skin. He saw Blaise walk over as well, the dark skinned boy solemn.
"We're with you Harry."
Harry simply nodded, then finally looked over at Neville, who still sat on his chair with an expression of consternation. When he met Harry's gaze, the Gryffindors fidgeted, smiling apologetically.
"Honestly, Harry, I still have no idea what's going on. I mean, I get the blood magic bit..." He quickly clarified, a flush rising on his neck. "and, I guess that means rituals and stuff and obviously all that's illegal, and, yeah. But, why does this really matter to us? And what does it even do? You just said something about magical conductors, I guess, and… well, you haven't been going off sacrificing animals and stuff, right? Cause… I don't think I could do that."
Harry stared for a second, and beside him Hermione began to chuckle. Draco and Blaise both looked scandalized. Draco spoke, his tone haughty.
"Animal sacrifices? This is not the Middle Ages of Sorcery!"
Blaise, beside him, scoffed.
"Quit acting like a twit. Why would Neville know anything about Dark Rituals?"
Hermione walked over to Neville, nudging him slightly while glaring at the Slytherins.
"You two act like you know, which I doubt."
Draco glared back, gearing up for an argument, but Harry interrupted them with a sigh, feeling relief rising through him at their easy acceptance.
"No, Neville. No animal sacrifices. And none of you will be doing this ritual, if I have anything to say about it. It's not… safe."
Harry almost said it wasn't worth it, but remembered the freedom of his phoenix from, the power of Heth, the feeling of the Moon and Sun, and couldn't.
"I bet it's worth it."
Harry's gaze cleared, and he met Draco's obstinate gaze. Harry spoke again, not looking away.
"Voldemort was after that book. I found out in First Year. I don't doubt he too was considering if the rituals would be worth it. But is anything worth death? Knowing what I know, I doubt the Dark Lord would have risked it."
Draco flinched at the mention of Voldemort's name, but didn't relent.
"But you would do it again, wouldn't you?"
Hermione cut in, her voice harsh and cutting.
"You don't know what you are saying!"
Harry stopped her with a soft touch on her arm, shaking his head at her fierce look. Then he turned back to Draco, and pressed his lips together in thought.
He couldn't let them even think of it, couldn't risk telling them the process if he thought they might do it themselves. What could he ever say, though? How could he ever describe with words? Harry looked into Draco's grey gaze and saw the stubborn streak there, and beside it the longing for power, for control, that lay at the bottom of every movement and thought. It was what his godfather would see and call evil. But Harry could understand wanting control, could understand what would bring on that fervent desire: the lack of control, the abuse of trust and faith in one's childhood years.
And there was only one way he could show Draco that runes would not give him control, but wrest what little he had gained from him.
Harry stepped close to the blonde, reaching out a single hand to touch his brow, hesitating a hair away from skin.
"Let me show you."
His voice was low. Draco's gaze narrowed, then he nodded once, quickly, his chin raised in defiance.
Harry prepared himself, closing his eyes and bringing out his magic, feeling Dread shift in agitation. Then he touched his friends forehead, bringing his own magic with the touch, his light shining so much brighter than the Slytherin in front of him, like a sun beside the moon, and harsher for it. Harry felt Draco quake slightly, could almost taste the emotion of fear and awe and longing.
The Harry let a memory go with the magic touch, a memory of harsh light and brutal heat, a lash of emotion and pain.
The Sun had him, had his heart in its hands. It? Was it an entity at all? the heavy grasp holding his entire being in a presence so large it could not be comprehended, powerful beyond all imaginings of mortal men.
It squeezed, not amused but interested in the way Harry screamed, his body now only a thing of pain and light and power, so small and helpless and futile. It held him high above the earth surrounded on all sides by the Sun, until he felt as if he was only a small fragment of the air, an element of wind bound and governed by the presence that held him, thankful only to exist still, and hopeful to exist no longer.
He felt it reach inside, pulling and tearing at his magic, rearranging bone and skin and blood, printing itself on his soul in the shape of a feathered bird of magic, and in his ears he heard ringing the phoenix song.
He looked over and saw a shape, small and dimly lit in the harsh light, and recognized the form.
Fawkes, so small and weak, struggling to reach him with tears on his scarlet cheeks.
Then the Sun let him go, its eye turning to other things, and it was with relief that he felt himself fall.
The skin under his hand abruptly wrenched away with a wild yell, and Harry opened his eyes to see not the Egyptian desert but Draco, shaking and pale, his eyes wide and panicked. He had fallen to the ground, his hands outstretched to touch the cool stone, his breath coming in harsh pants. Beside him Blaise had knelt, trying to hold him but Draco only shook him off with another yell.
Dimly, Harry spoke, finding it hard to let the vision go, to stop the self-destructive longing in his heart.
"I doubt he wants to be touched."
At his words, Draco looked up, eyes wild.
"I'm still falling, Harry. I'm falling."
Harry felt more of the fog clear from his mind, and inwardly cursed. He shouldn't have given such a powerful memory without experimenting first, should've practiced before simply shoving such an experience into the mind of his friend.
Harry knelt beside Draco, and reached out, not allowing the blonde to move away but grasping him firmly by the hand.
"We stopped falling. We came back to ourselves, and we landed, and everything was alright."
Draco's eyes began to clear more, his shaking growing less pronounced, but his grey gaze was full now of something Harry had never seen there before; despair.
"But you didn't want to stop. I was there."
Harry heard Hermione make a noise that sounded suspiciously like a sniffle, and didn't look over. He wouldn't see her pity. Wouldn't have her sorrow. He spoke quietly, lifting Draco to his feet with a firm hand.
"No, at that moment, I didn't. But I did."
Draco nodded, swallowed, spoke.
Harry agreed with a quiet, "Yes. I wouldn't have made it without him."
Draco nodded again, then looked helplessly down at himself, shaking his head.
"I'm sorry. You're right. It's not worth it."
The Slytherin backed up, falling into a chair, and Neville and Blaise huddled around him. Harry didn't reply, didn't correct the boy. It had been worth it, to him, and even now his mind was turning more and more to his next upcoming ritual, longing to bring out Dread as cold steel and light. The serpent moved inside him, its long sinuous form winding about his heart.
"Release us then, Master. Let me taste the air of these nest-mates."
For a long moment Harry was tempted, wanted to show this last secret held at his heart. But he was afraid now, afraid that Draco would forget the feeling Harry had shown him, afraid the cool Slytherin would regain his wits and overcome the emotion, would see what it was Harry had not admitted to.
That it was all worth it, that every ounce of control lost was returned a thousand times over with power and light.
And the one thing the boy would be missing was the dagger, the ritual knife, the implement that could cut both skin and magic and remake it into something new under the light of a celestial power. No, let them think he had only used a simple knife, a long blade.
Harry saw Hermione step up to him, and tried to smile for her worried gaze.
"I'm fine. I only gave him a memory of the last ritual. It was the toughest yet."
Hermione nodded, then bit her lip.
"Harry. Let me help, next time. Please."
Harry paused, then nodded, reaching out to let her hug him.
She nodded, then stepped back, pasting a bright smile onto her face.
"Well. I promised to let them see your wings, Harry!"
Harry groaned, but Neville and Blaise were both coming closer, eagerness bright on their faces, followed by a slightly dampened Draco.
After showing off his wings, and proving just how sharp they were with the wooden legs of a few unfortunate desk chairs, he took a breath and began to go into his runes.
It was hard to get across the extent of what they did. Both Hermione and Draco were too focused on hard facts and inflexible rules, on symbols only having one meaning, and that one meaning simple and uncomplicated.
Harry tried to describe the complex meanings of them, how each one correlated with the rest, how strands of light could be braided together and tied in knots of magic. He saw them trying to understand, and eventually gave it up.
Instead, he settled on simple effects of each one, though many did not sound glamorous. Harry could tell many of them disappointed the Slytherins. A rune for temperature? Who cared if it was cold, get a coat! Health? Wizards hardly ever get sick!
Harry tried to remind them he was only ten when that one had been cut, and had indeed gotten very sick before the ritual, but the boys did not understand. They had potions, after all, for almost every imaginable illness. Hermione rolled her eyes at them, and Harry marched on.
They were impressed with the teleportation aspect, and most of all with the phoenix form.
Except for one, Draco, who had shuddered violently at the mention of the painful transformation, his face paling in faintly remembered agony.
When Harry finally leaned back, the topic exhausted to his mind, Blaise spoke.
"So, whats next?"
Harry hesitated. Draco spoke up, glaring at Blaise, who looked surprised at his housemates attitude.
"Its his own business. He'll tell us when he wants to."
Harry interrupted with a sigh.
"Its not something I want to talk about, not now. It's too...well. Personal."
Draco nodded in agreement, and Blaise rolled his eyes at the Slytherin before sending Harry a small smile. Neville looked up from his notebook, where he had been scribbling notes that Harry fervently hoped did not end up in anyone else's hands. Seeing his worried look, Neville quickly shook his head.
"I didn't write down anything specific, Harry! Just things I want to look up on my own."
All three of Harry's friends looked surprised at that, and the Gryffindor flushed.
"I do use the library, you know."
Hermione cleared her throat, looking vaguely embarrassed at her previous surprise.
"We know, Neville."
Suddenly Hermione's eyes widened, and she quickly cast a Tempus spell. At the time, she jumped up, gathering her things.
"We've got to hurry if we don't want to be late for Potions! We're on the whole other side of the castle."
Harry's other friends followed suit, gathering bags, but Harry stayed seated, feeling a bit lost. Hermione turned back, frowning.
"You alright, Harry? See you at Dinner?"
Harry merely nodded, putting on a smile to ease her worry.
"I'm fine. Its good to... tell everything."
Hermione brightened, nodding, before turning to usher the others out.
When they were gone, Harry looked about the room, the sudden quiet almost suffocating. He closed his eyes, leaning back in his chair. Inside him, Dread moved again, his voice filled with aggravation.
"I want out, to stretch wings and taste flesh between my fangs. Let me hunt this rat, Master. Let me free."
Harry only paused a moment, keeping his eyes closed and relaxed.
"I can not, Giving-Great-Fear-In-Troubled-Times. The rat must be caught by wizard-hands, and your presence kept secret-safe."
Dread coiled again, his wings folding about his body. It didn't speak again, but Harry could sense its dissatisfaction. He sighed, forcing his body to relax. Patience was the key. Pettigrew was here, in Hogwarts, he knew it. He could think about runes later, after the rat was dealt with. Until then, all thoughts of rituals and blood and stars would have to wait.
Exiting Potions, Neville split from his friends to begin the slow walk over to the dormitory. He paused at the entrance to a side hallway, his gaze caught and arrested by a slim blonde figure dancing slowly in circles. A passing group of girls giggled at the figure before continuing, skirting around him with sideways glances.
Frowning, Neville approached, wondering what in Merlin's name the Ravenclaw was up to this time.
Luna smiled and courtesied, but never stopped her slow swaying. Neville looked about self-consciously, slightly embarrassed to even be standing in the proximity of a girl whose sanity he was beginning to doubt.
"What are you doing?"
The Ravenclaw looked up, and Neville followed her gaze. Above them, the stones came together in a roughly circular pattern, though nothing about it seemed spectacular, if but a little odd. Neville jumped when the girl began to speak, surprised to find her voice so soft and gentle even in a busy hallway. He found himself leaning forward to catch every word.
"My father says faeries love to dance. That there is a stone faerie circle, you see it? I had hoped if I danced long enough, they might come out and join me."
Neville gawked, before coughing in surprise. She sounded so... sincere! Faeries? For a moment he stood there beside her, watching her dance. Then, at a loss, and seeing she seemed to have no desire to speak again, he began to speak himself.
"Um..." He paused as her gaze met his own again, and quickly continued before he lost his nerve. " I always thought faeries liked it when things are more… private. And always on specific holidays, like Beltane and such. Or when celestial formations happen. Or even, ah… full moons. At night. With no one around."
He finished lamely, before looking steadily up at the circular stone pattern as if it might divulge the secret to escaping without offending anyone. He had sat with her at meals for weeks now, and still wasn't sure how to speak to her. She was so, so… odd!
"Okay." Neville's eyes flew back to Luna, who had stopped dancing and was staring at him steadily.
"Okay?" He croaked, uncertain. Had he asked a question? Luna smiled, stepping closer and reaching out to grasp his hand as she spoke.
"You are most correct. I forgot to factor that in my excitement of discovering the circle. The next full moon is in just over a week. Will you join me then, as its your idea?"
Neville's eyes grew big. His head shouted denial even as he found himself nodding. Luna brightened.
"Brilliant! I will meet you in the fourth classroom from the end of this hallway after supper that night. We can wait there until after curfew, then sneak here once the moon has risen. Harry truly has the nicest friends. Tell him I said hello? He hasn't sat with us lately."
She walked away before he could agree, with a skip to her step. Neville abruptly caught his breath, and immediately began to mentally berate himself. Why had he agreed? And how could he back out now? She would probably mention it to Harry or Hermione and he would look like a total arse.
With a sigh he walked away. He only hoped they didn't get caught alone together after hours by Filch or, heaven forbid, a professor! He would never live it down with the others.
Harry traveled through the dark hallways of Hogwarts with his mind in turmoil and every sense on edge. It was late, far past curfew, but he had found it hard to sleep. He had been to visit the Steel boys in Australia, to tell them he had told his wizard friends of their existence and some of what he had been through with Mr. Steel. It had gone as well as he could have hoped, he supposed, which meant no one had yelled. But there had been a lot of worried glances.
He tried to visit them as often as he could, but the situation with Sirius Black and Pettigrew had made him too on edge to enjoy a carefree evening. It was difficult to sit and listen to their increasingly mundane life without worrying about what might be happening at home. He doubted the warming charm on his rune traps would work from so far away either, so he risked missing the signal by being away.
Which mean he had to keep his visits short.
He should be resting now, or planning out his next runic set. Instead he drifted through the hallways under an invisibility spell, his mind unable to slow down and rest.
When he stepped off the moving stairs onto the third floor, he automatically headed towards their study room. He had passed Filch on the first floor already, and did not fear the man's presence alone, though he was wary of encountering Mrs. Norris, who seemed able to sense his presence despite the charms. Only under his father's Cloak was he truly untraceable, but he hated the feeling of being draped in a garment, and the hazy film made it hard to see details. He also wasn't as quiet as he could be when he had true freedom of movement.
Harry passed the entrance to the study room, about to enter an adjacent corridor, when he heard a loud curse. He froze, one foot raised, holding his breath for a second as he listened fervently.
He heard another curse, and realized with a start that it was coming from inside their study room.
Was another student up late as well? One of his friends?
Harry turned, creeping over to the door. He narrowed his eyes at the thick wood, allowing himself to see the gleam of wards placed haphazardly over the surface. With a flick of his wrist he disabled them, before reaching for the handle and easing the door open.
Inside, Draco Malfoy sat hunched on a desk, staring down at something in his hands. Harry paused, torn. Should he leave? Perhaps the Slytherin wanted to train alone. Harry doubted he would be welcome, especially if his housemate was having trouble. The blonde never wanted help, it seemed, and Harry had wondered more than once if that was part of the problem with the Patronus charm. It was, at its heart, a charm asking for help. Not just asking, but begging.
The Slytherin did not have it inside him to beg.
Harry began to turn, determined to leave.
For the second time, Harry froze. With a mental groan, he looked back, to see Draco had stood and was staring somewhere over his shoulder. With a furrowed brow, Harry stepped back into the room as another dark form entered, lowering his hood to reveal Blaise Zabini.
Blaise smiled slightly, closing the door behind him and leaning against the wood.
"You're not the only one to sneak up here at night to practice the Patronus."
Draco snarled, a fierce gleam in his eyes.
"I won't fail at this. I won't!" Draco whirled, drawing his wand even as he spoke. "It is not right that a muggleborn could accomplish the charm before two purebloods. No, three, counting Neville!"
Blaise folded his arms, an amused smile on his face.
"And a half-blood cast it first. Why are you so concerned still about the content of our blood, when time and again it has proven to be a less than accurate measure of power?"
Draco did not answer, instead twirling his wand in an aggressive motion, growling out the incantation.
Harry saw the power, a swirling mix of light and magic, brighten. But nothing more than fragile mist came forth. Draco slammed his wand on the desk beside him, frustration evident in every bone in his body. Blaise straightened, walking over with careful steps.
The blonde stiffened, but did not turn. Blaise continued, his voice low.
"I had thought this charm would be easiest for you of us all, once Harry talked about the origin of the charm. It wasn't just a happy memory. You have a strong, proud father…"
Draco finally turned, and his face now was blank and cold. He cut Blaise off, eyes flinty.
"I have a father, yes. But we are Malfoy's. We are never to rely on our fathers, but on the purity of our blood, our Line. My father would abandon me in a second, if it came to it. If I disagreed too publically, if I defied him in some matter. I've learned that now, after second year and what happened then. There was never any warmth from him, and hardly ever any true pride. My mother was always the one to... be there. And my father presented her as weak for it. I thought such caring was weak. Now, I am to envision it as powerful? I am to summon love?"
His tone was harsh, but under it Harry could sense the helplessness. Blaise stepped closer, his voice low.
"It is not so difficult, Draco. Let go of all the negative emotions, and if you can't focus on your father think of yourself. You are the powerful one, the…"
"Oh stop." Draco waved him away, derision filling his voice. "Such pretty words will not inspire me to greatness. Is that what worked for Longbottom? Did you come upon him at night too, give him some speech?"
When Blaise remained silent, Draco snorted inelegantly, raising his hands in a shrug.
"It figures. He would respond to that drivel."
Blaise finally spoke, and it was his turn to speak with scorn.
"Scoff all you want, Malfoy. But Longbottom has cast the Patronus charm, and it was powerful. Can you say the same?"
With that last challenge, Blaise turned and began to march towards the exit. Draco called out to his back, eyes flashing.
"What about you, Zabini!? Have you cast the spell? Are you weak as well?"
Blaise never faltered, leaving the room and slamming the door behind him. For a long moment, Draco stared at it, his posture straight and stiff. Then his gaze fell to the floor and he spoke, voice low and full of barely repressed anger.
"Well, Potter? Tired yet of listening in on private conversations?"
Harry stepped forward, letting the invisibility spell ripple and fall. His emerald eyes met Draco's grey gaze and held it. Draco looked away first, reaching beside him to once more take up his wand.
"Blaise wouldn't of taken down the wards so fast. I knew you were there. Any nugget of wisdom, Savior?"
Harry sighed, and for lack of anything better to do, sat. When he spoke, he kept his tone level and uncombative.
Draco looked over, eyes dark.
"Why this charm, Harry? I know about the Dementors, who doesn't? I've felt their effects. But none of us fainted or anything like some other kids did. Don't even think about them most of the time. And the chances of us coming into contact with them is slim to none, especially once they are no longer posted here. So why the fuss about this charm?"
His tone was heading towards plantative, and the Slytherin abruptly stopped talking, holding his hands firmly at his sides. Harry shifted, uncertain what to respond, and settled on the simple truth.
"When I first tried it I loved the feeling it gave me to cast. Power and happiness and safety. I wanted to share it."
Draco snorted, but there was no longer any heat behind it, only a sort of embarrassed longing. Harry continued, looking away.
"Then, I began to think of it as a sort of… launching ground. A way to get to know one's magic and self enough to continue on with greater magics, wordless and eventually even wandless spells. A beginning."
Draco sat, his wand held in loose fingers, his shoulders slumping in a rare moment of weakness. His voice, when it came, was low in the quiet room.
"And what if I never manage it? Will the others move on to more advanced spells without me?"
Harry shifted in his seat, before standing, moving closer.
"I think the Aurors include this spell in their training for two reasons. One, it is a show of strength and maturity." The Slytherin flinched, and Harry quickly continued. "And also as a way to weed out those applicants who might have a dark past that encouraged them to lean towards Dark magic. There is a reason so few Aurors are from Dark families, and its not just because they consider such work beneath them. The Patronus charm is Light magic, by Ministry standards and by simple practicality. The Dark Lord himself could never cast it, nor could many of his followers."
Draco laughed darkly. "So you're saying I'm too prejudiced?"
Harry shook his head.
"No, I'm saying you are not weak. If anything, perhaps, you are too strong and unwilling to be weak. You might not be able to cast it now, but nothing is set in stone. In the future you may. This will not hold you back from learning wandless spells, you will simply have to find another way to see your magic, to embrace it."
"Like?" Draco drawled, one corner of his mouth drawn down in a frown.
"Meditation? Or perhaps Occlumency, though I do not know how it is practiced. Or any spell that requires intense mental focus and magical power."
Draco looked away, his gaze hard. Harry let the silence grow between them until it was almost a tangible presence in the room. Finally, the Slytherin turned back to him, and Harry saw the determination in his eyes.
"I will find a way. I won't be left behind. You said yourself; many powerful wizards were unable to cast this charm. My godfather is a Master Occlumens; I will speak to him."
Harry nodded slowly, not looking away as he quietly spoke.
Draco's eyes narrowed.
"Is that a problem?"
Harry shifted a moment, before beginning to speak, weighing each word carefully.
"To be a Master at Occlumency also requires at least a modicum of talent in the opposite: Legilimency. With your mind unprotected, he could learn of anything in your life he wished."
Draco's mouth firmed, his face set in stubborn lines.
"I trust him with my secrets."
Harry paused, his fingers unconsciously clenching into a fist. He almost didn't speak, but the challenging glint in Draco's eyes changed his mind.
"Do you trust him with mine, as well?"
Draco's grey eyes went cold, but the boy looked away, his posture stiff and unrelenting. When the blonde remained silent, Harry stood, beginning to walk towards the door. He wasn't sure what else he could say, without offending his friend any more than he might have already done. When he neared the door, Draco spoke from behind him.
"I'm going to speak to him, but I won't make eye contact. Maybe he can give me tips on meditation. There is no reason to look into my mind."
Harry paused, and spoke without turning, his voice quiet.
"And when he asks the reason behind your interest?"
He heard footsteps, and then Draco came up beside him, his hand still grasping his wand.
"I'll tell him the truth: I want to get a better connection with my magic, and find meditation a good way to do so. If the discussion leads to occlumency, I'll merely mention my own father's basic abilities and the reasons any future Lord would wish to protect his mind from business rivals or political enemies."
Harry nodded, then looked down and away.
"I'm sorry if I've offended you."
Draco snorted, his voice coming out with a derisive edge.
"You have a right to protect your secrets, just like I do. Having trusted those secrets to unprotected minds might not have been your best move."
Harry winced, his hands curled into a fist.
"If Professor Snape gives you any advice on books about Occlumency, I'd like them. I may purchase a few for everyone to look over. It couldn't hurt."
Draco slowly nodded, but his frown stayed in place.
"There are not many Legilimens out there, Harry. It requires registration with the Ministry, for one. Besides Professor Snape and Dumbledore, the only other I know of was the Dark Lord himself. I doubt, if we were to come into contact with anyone who was a Master at it, even occlumency wouldn't prevent them from getting a glimpse."
Harry remembered Professor Snape inside his own mind years ago, how the wizard for a brief moment had gotten beyond his own fledgling runes to see a scene from his past, and reluctantly agreed.
"You are right."
Draco smirked, then shrugged.
"I usually am. Still, I'll get you the names of any books."
Harry smiled in thanks, then put up his invisibility charm as he turned. Draco stepped back in surprise, then grinned.
"Thats a nifty trick. Ward the door behind you, please."
Harry began to nod, then remembered Draco couldn't see him. He instead turned and left, closing the door with a gentle snick and then carefully recreating the wards his friend had made, a structure more advanced than he would have thought Draco capable of. His friend was beginning to show a real talent for warding.
When he left, he continued his walk, new thoughts and worries spiraling through his mind to join the others already there.
Hermione huffed, flicking her wand towards a transfigured statue to collapse it back to its original chair. Across the room, sitting casually and flipping through his charms book, Neville chuckled. Hermione glared at him, crossing her arms.
"What's so funny?"
Neville shrugged. It was just the two of them during a Gryffindor/ Hufflepuff study break, while the Slytherins were in Transfiguration with Ravenclaw. Harry was off somewhere again about his own business, and as the two of them had all their homework completed they had voted for an impromptu study session in their room.
"You. If it's so easy, move on to something else."
Hermione sniffed, then turned away to inspect the wooden chair. It was too easy, that was exactly the problem. With all the practice and study their group was doing on their own and with Harry, they had all quickly moved beyond the material in most classes. Hermione herself was beginning to get more and more bored in Transfiguration and Charms, as they studied principles she had mastered months before. She tried to amuse herself imaging different ways to get the same result, and different methods to improve or change a design, but even that was no longer enjoyable.
She needed a challenge.
With sudden inspiration, she whirled around, locking eyes on Neville with a gleam. He looked up and paled. Hermione grinned.
Neville gulped and shifted.
"I... I don't know, Hermione. I mean…"
He drifted off as she stepped closer, her eyes excited.
"Oh come on, Neville, please?"
Neville considered for a brief moment fleeing the room and not looking back. When Hermione placed herself between him and the door, however, he reluctantly began to nod with a sinking feeling.
Hermione's gleeful noise drowned out any groan he might have uttered
Harry opened the door to a war zone.
He immediately ducked aside, rolling across the stone and jumping to his feet with a wordless shield, watching with wide eyes the battle in progress.
There was splintered wood and blackened stone along one wall, and a random flock of birds was perched in the wooden rafters of the room, looking down on the two students casting spells haphazardly at each other.
Neville was behind a glowing purple shield, his eyes determined as Hermione circled, casting spell after spell at both him and the ground around him, her wand in constant elegant motion.
Harry leaned back against the wall behind him, unnoticed as Neville's shield fell and Hermione lunged forward, only to put up a shield of her own as Neville's fumos filled the room with black fog that obscured his movements. Hermione let out a shout of surprise as a yellow spell struck her shield from behind, and she whirled, striking out with an automatic stupify.
It splashed against a stone wall, missing, and Hermione's gaze narrowed as she gathered herself and shouted.
The smoke cleared quickly, revealing Neville sneaking up from her right. She ducked to the side, and cast a spell even as Neville did.
His petrification spell struck the ground where she had been, and her own incarcerous hit him head on, wrapping him head to toe in tight ropes. Harry watched, amused, as Hermione immediately let out a gleeful shout, jumping up and down in victory.
Neville rolled his eyes.
"Let me go, Hermione, before you sprain your ankle in your little victory dance."
She did so, still brimming with excitement as she began to talk in fast sentences.
"That was so great! I should've thought of fumos, it threw me off for a second before I thought to just dispel it. Great distraction technique, I bet it would be even better in a crowded room or, maybe, a forest or just outside if there were rocks and other obstacles. We need to remember that. Imagine if you were surrounded by enemy wizards, you could have them cursing each other! Just think..."
Neville muttered, brushing off his robes, but Hermione continued unheeded.
"...maybe we could train with a routine like that. Maybe break into two groups with all of us on teams of two. Or three against one, that would be fun."
Neville groaned, but as he turned his eyes landed on Harry and he flushed. Hermione followed his gaze, and smiled as she bounded over.
"Harry! Did you see? What do you think?"
Harry straightened, meeting her half way.
"I only saw the ending, there. You look like you've been at it for some time."
Hermione nodded quickly, but Neville answered from behind her.
"Feels like hours. I got her the first time." The last was said with a sumg grin, and it was Hermione's turn to flush.
"Study period isn't even over yet, so it hasn't been hours. And I wasn't expecting you to come out with guns blazing in the first minute."
Neville tilted his head quizzically.
"Guns blaze? Like, with fire?"
"No, its a figure of speech. Well, I guess there are flamethrowers, but that's different."
Neville eyes widened.
"Muggles have flamethrowers?"
Hermione sighed, before looking about the room with wide eyes.
"I can't believe we made this much mess."
Neville snorted and folded his arms.
"I can. You were the one casting spells all over the place."
Hermione began to say it was a shotgun approach, then thought better of it. The phrase simply didn't work when talking to wizards.
"I was trying out a new technique I read about. You keep moving, never staying still, and constantly cast spells. Its supposed to create confusion and disorient your opponent who can't predict your movements. The downside is it will exhaust you much faster, and if your opponent has more power they can simply hold up a defensive shield until you tire then take you out."
Harry noticed that Hermione did look tired, her shoulders drooping, though her face was still flushed with excitement. He spoke when she paused in her explanation.
"If you two are tired, I can clean up here. Meet you in the Great Hall."
Hermione looked over, a denial on her lips, before thinking better of it.
"Alright. You going to sit with us for lunch?"
The question was casual, but he could see the hope in her eyes. With a smile, he nodded. Hermione grinned, then turned to Neville and nudged him in the side.
"You want to help Harry clean, or walk with me to Gryffindor?"
"Is that a trick question?" Neville asked, before looking over at Harry with an apologetic smile.
Harry shrugged. "I offered, I meant it."
The two left with some jostling, and Harry looked around. There really wasn't much to do anyway. He dispelled the birds one of them had conjured, then cleaned the stone and walls of any soot or dust. Finally, with a quick repairo, he fixed the few desks and chairs that had been the unfortunate targets of a missed spell.
When he was done, he left the room, heading back up to his own small quarters. He had thought of talking with his friends, but seeing how tired they were changed his plans. Instead, he would continue reading through Flamel's notes on wordless wand magic. It was the next thing he planned to bring up in his freinds study sessions. It would mean relearning the basic spells they had already mastered with a wand, but would also help them continue on the path to true wandless magic. Once overcoming the reliance on incantations, the world of magic would truly open up to them, if they were ready. And willing.
He entered his room, closing the door behind him and absently warding it with the force of habit.
He was startled by a tapping at the window, and frowned, walking over. Hedwig waited patiently on the ledge, a letter tied to one black leg. Harry opened the window on a oiled hinge, letting the owl inside. He absently brought out her treats and left her on her rarely used perch, walking to sit at his desk and look over the letter with a frown.
The envelope was made up of brown parchment, rough to the touch, and sealed with an elegant red wax letter M. Harry's eyes narrowed.
The Ministry of Magic.
He conjured a letter opener from the pencil on his desk, using the slim metal to slice the seal.
The letter consisted of the same elegant parchment, and was dimly scented with something floral he did not recognize. He began to read, his puzzlement growing into anger.
Master Harry James Potter,
Heir to Most Noble Houses Potter & Black
The Ministry of Magic officially extends its congratulations on your recent inheritance.
Harry thrust the paper down, standing to pace the length of his room and back. They knew of his inheritance of the Black estate. Hadn't Draco said something about the paper the other day? Harry turned, summoning the recent edition with a flick of his wrist. He read, his ire only deepening. The article was pure rubbish, and he had dismissed it after ascertaining that the trail on Sirius was still cold. But there were good facts behind it, facts someone in the Ministry had put together. It hadn't been Sirius Black who had visited Gringotts, but himself. He should have known the Ministry would be informed somehow. Harry returned to the desk, picking up the parchment again to read.
It has come to our attention that you have not filed paperwork regarding your mandatory tutor for the upcoming school year. As the education of every witch and wizard is of vital importance to the Ministry, we would like to provide a list of Ministry approved professors who are each Masters in their respective fields. We know this is an important personal decision, and wish to help in any way we can. Each professor has passed rigorous tests to prove their eligibility and suitability for the important task of teaching young wizards.
As you know, the deadline for registering is the first of July. As it is now nearing the end of April and the end of the official term of other main teaching establishments, we are sure you can see our concern. The Ministry is willing to share in the extensive expenses of hiring one or more of these respectable wizards and witches, and is also willing to host your classes on our premises if a more suitable location is not agreed upon.
If you do not register before the first of July, you will be automatically enrolled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for your Fourth or equivalent year based on Ministry testing.
We look forward to working with you in the future. If you have questions or concerns, please contact The Department of Magical Education.
- Dolores Umbridge,
Senior Undersecretary to the Minister
Harry slowly placed the letter aside, holding his rage in check. The Ministry was trying to get its sticky fingers on him, and had written a thinly veiled threat to go along with its 'suggestions'. He looked over the names on the second page. Many he did not recognize, but was sure with a little research he would find all of them to be firmly in the Ministry's camp. After each name was their degree title, many of which had more than one, like Potions Master, Charms Mistress, and even one that read Master of Herbology. He snorted in sudden humor, wondering why the Ministry thought he would wish to be taught by someone in such a profession. Then his eyes snagged on the name last on the list.
Mrs. Narcissa Malfoy, Mistress of Transfiguration and Arcane Arts
His fists tightened on the list, creasing the parchment with a crinkling sound. He had known the Malfoys had the Ministers ear, but couldn't believe the nerve of the man he had confronted a year ago, to put forth his own wife, the wife of a Death Eater, to be his tutor! Would he be expected to have classes at Malfoy Manor? Put himself at the mercy of a family that had never made a secret of its true beliefs on blood purity?
Had Draco known about this?
Harry stood again, letting the list fall as he once more paced. He doubted his friend knew, because the Slytherin would have immediately told him. Which made him wonder just what the angle was here. The other names were unsuited to him at a glance, and he doubted he would find any evidence to the contrary. It was obvious Mrs. Malfoy was being provided as the logical choice, and he couldn't help but be slightly intrigued by the idea.
But he would never give in to such a letter, and the very thought of pretending to follow along at the Ministry's heels like a well-trained dog caused his magic to roil about him in barely contained fury. However, he wasn't sure what move to take. He had no tutor lined up, and few options. He simply did not know many adult wizards, and wasn't sure how he could extend trust like that to someone whose motives were unclear. How could he be tutored by someone who could not know of his true abilities? Was he to pretend to use a wand, to pretend he had no special abilities? It would be worse that taking classes at Hogwarts, worse than writing basic essays and casting simple charms. It would be a hobble, of his magic and his talent.
It was unacceptable.
Harry paused in the middle of his room, looking up at his stone ceiling with a sudden feeling of helpless frustration.
He was stuck, well and truly, with no where to turn. The Ministry would not allow him to slip by, and would jump on the chance to hound him if he broke any of their regulations. His only option, as he could see it, would be to talk to Dumbledore. As much as the idea irked him, it was preferable to the Ministry and its political ploys. And the old wizard knew, or at least suspected, many of Harry's abilities. A list of names from him, while probably just as biased, was the lesser of two evils.
Harry glanced one last time at the Ministry letter, his eyes lingering on Narcissa Malfoys elegantly written name. He would speak to Draco, and soon, about his mother and his father.
With a twist of his fingers, the parchments burst into brilliant white flame.
Harry cornered Draco on the second floor of the library, near a small alcove the Slytherin liked to use for private study. He slipped into a leather chair, and when the Malfoy Heir raised an eyebrow, spoke.
"Were you aware Narcissa Malfoy had applied for the Ministry appointed position of tutor?"
Harry saw the shock ripple across the blonde's face, and leaned back, watching as from that one sentence his friend built the facts. His face tightened and cooled, the grey eyes flinty with repressed emotion. His voice, when he finally spoke, was calm.
"No. Under what qualification?"
Harry answered, his own voice quiet in the space, crowded on all sides by large tomes of books.
"Transfiguration and Arcane Arts. Of which I can only presume Ministry regulated magic is practiced."
Draco slowly nodded, before looking down at the books laid out in front of him.
"The letter was from the Ministry then?"
"Along with an entire list of names, of which only your mother's was remotely interesting. It's a plot, and a blatant one. Only a fool wouldn't see it."
Draco sniffed, his face haughty.
"My mother is more than qualified. She would have preferred to tutor me herself, while my father preferred Durmstrang. Hogwarts was their compromise."
Harry shook his head, his fingers clenching.
"I'm not saying she isn't good enough. I'm also not going to choose her."
Draco's face only tightened.
"You are saying one by doing the other. It will be an insult to my family."
Harry gritted his teeth at the obstinate wording.
"Would you have me trust her, your father's wife? Would I learn from her in your Manor? Would I be safe, Draco? Would you have me be leashed by the Ministry's good intentions!?"
Draco's expression twisted, a mix of frustration and anger, and the blonde abruptly pushed his notes away from him, leaning over the table with a snarl.
"No! What do you want me to say? That my family is untrustworthy? Should I turn against them as well?"
Harry leaned back, his eyes shuttered. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes and forcing himself to take a step back. When he finally spoke, it was in a quiet murmur.
"Will you have the choice not to choose between us?"
Draco stiffened, then leaned back with a graceful slump. His own eyes closed for a moment, and Harry could see him donning his Slytherin mask. Harry tensed when that cold gaze met his once more.
"I do not know their motives, though I can guess easily enough. Being your tutor will impart both a positive image for the teacher, and a small measure of political power. It is not a light matter to be the one responsible for teaching the Savior of the Wizarding World. However." Draco paused, his eyes flickering, before continuing. "However, I doubt that is the only reason. I am sure your mind has already gone down that path. There is the control. Both of you, and those who follow you so easily. And proximity. Keeping tabs on you, and guiding you down whatever road it is they want you to take."
Draco casually propped his elbows on the side of his chair, never looking away.
"If I were you, I would choose no one put forth by the Ministry. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Harry didn't answer right away, choosing his words carefully.
"I'm sure your mother would've made a great teacher."
Draco smiled slightly, though the warmth did not reach his eyes.
"She would have been the best, of course. She's a Malfoy."
Harry stood, his hands going to his pockets.
"And a Black, as well."
Draco inclined his head, then purposefully turned his attention to his books, dismissing Harry without a farewell. Harry didn't mind, but took the escape granted. It always seemed like Draco and he clashed, coming from two so very different families and ways of life. It was something he couldn't ignore, or take for granted.
It took a week for Harry to truly see how much of a toll the waiting was taking on Sirius.
Harry had taken to visiting his godfather in the increasingly more comfortable cave, to discuss both the hunt for Pettigrew and to make sure the wizard had not run off on his own.
Currently, the black-haired man was leaning back in his wooden chair, his face drawn in heavy lines that emphasized the gaunt lack of nutrition. Across from him Harry sat upright and on edge. They had just finished going over, again, the preparations they had made for after Pettigrew was caught. Sirius insisted on breaking the news first to his former best-friend, Lupin. He maintained that, once proof was in hand, the werewolf could be persuaded to act as a go-between with Dumbledore, and from there, the Ministry.
Sirius insisted they leave Harry's involvement out, as much as they could. He did not want things to look bad for Harry if something went wrong, a thought that Harry did not bother to contemplate. He couldn't really imagine the press being any worse for him than it had after Ginevra Weasley's death, a fact he had attempted to explain to Sirius, but failed. The man insisted still on treating him as some sort of quasi-adult, old enough to help but not old enough to take care of himself. It put Harry on edge, but he made himself relent from an outright display of rebellion. The man was his godfather, and they had barely known each other a matter of weeks. There was time yet to make his independence stick.
For now, Harry tried to distract his godfather whatever way he could and prevent the man from doing something stupid.
Like attempt to enter Hogwarts again.
"Did my parents have any friends outside of Gryffindor?"
Harry asked casually, absently twirling his long phoenix wand between his fingers. Sirius looked up, a grin spreading across his face.
"Oh, your Dad and I, we didn't. Knew a few in other houses, of course, but we stuck together. The Golden Gryffindors, some of the teachers called us. The ones who liked us, anyway. Now, your Mum, she was a bit more… lenient, I guess. Had a few girls she hung out with regularly in Ravenclaw, if I remember correctly. She was a complete bookworm. James teased her unmercifully about it, always having her nose in a book."
Sirius paused, looked over at Harry with a contemplative look, before continuing.
"She did have a best friend, at one point. We called him Snivellus. He was a Slytherin. She met him before even coming to Hogwarts, so I guess she could be forgiven for having a friend in Slytherin. Still, she eventually saw him for what he was, a no-good slimy bastard. Always following us, trying to get us into trouble."
Sirius stopped with a triumphant grin, his eyes seeing something in the past that made him smile. Harry only frowned.
"You do know I was placed in Slytherin."
Sirius looked over, his grin not dimming.
"It was a mistake, I'm sure. Surely you've seen for yourself, right? Prejudiced, the lot of them. All about blood superiority and power and ambition. How can anything good come from that?"
Harry didn't want to argue, not when he was getting along so well with the wizard, but his own house loyalty, such that it was, would not let him take the insult.
"Slytherin fit me, Sirius. It was no mistake. Yes, most are ambitious in that house, but the reasons behind their ambition are not so black and white. Prejudice exists in one form or another in every house. Does Ravenclaw accept those thought less intelligent? Does not Gryffindor pick on the shy ones sorted into their house? And tell me, can you of all people say nothing bad has ever come from Gryffindor's scarlet common room?"
For a second Harry saw the shock ripple across the black-haired wizards face, his eyes widening. Then the anger came, and Sirius sat up from his slumped position, leaning forward across the small table.
"Don't throw Pettigrew in my face. You weren't there during the war. Almost all the Death Eaters were from Slytherin! The Dark Lord himself was proclaimed its Heir. Slytherins are dark, everyone knows this!"
Harry mimicked his godfathers motion, leaning forward aggressively as well.
"What is dark? Are you talking about magic unsanctioned by the Ministry? Cause if so, you have best look at me again, Sirius Black. I belong in my House."
Sirius's face went slack, and the man leaned back with a huff, his shoulders slumping as he shook his head.
"No, Harry, please. I'm sorry, let's just… put that aside. You are loyal to your House, I can appreciate that. You probably even have friends within your own house, and I'm sure they must be different too. But you can't argue with the facts, the statistics. We were taught them in the Academy. Certain environments breed evil, though a few do manage to break the pattern. In any case, you aren't there anymore regardless. You're just, what, using the library?"
Harry frowned, unwilling to let it go.
"You say you were taught these 'facts' while in Auror training, and yet you had already judged a Slytherin classmate in school, long before you ever graduated. What explains that?"
Sirius shook his head again, a smile coming over his face as he spoke placatingly.
"You weren't there. That boy was always snooping around, and he turned on Lily when she started to date James. He called her foul names, rescinded their friendship. He deserved what he got, all of it. He almost gave away Moony's secret, even! Followed us one day down to the Shrieking Shack, where Moony had his transformations every month. He almost got killed, except your dad saved him. Still, Dumbledore had to threaten him to get him to keep his mouth shut. I'm surprised he hasn't given away Moony's teaching position yet, somehow. He hates us."
A sudden suspicion had begun to grow in Harry's gut. He felt a shiver go down his back, and closed his eyes in denial even as he spoke.
"Snivellus. You are talking about Severus. Professor Snape."
Sirius scoffed, his eyes almost fiery with aggravation.
"Professor, Ha! What a total wash. The man is probably as greasy as the boy, always skulking about. He was a Death Eater, Harry, don't let him fool you. He might have claimed to be a spy, but I never trusted him. Never. You spy on one side, what's to make you not turn and spy on the other?"
Harry sighed, leaning back in his chair and slumping. It would just figure that his Head of House happened to be his godfather's arch-enemy or something. No wonder the man was trying so hard to undermine Professor Lupin's position. It all made sense now, the essays on werewolves and the angry expressions. Harry also doubted Sirius's side of the story was the only one. He figured Professor Snape would have a very different story to tell.
Before he could speak again, a loud meow by his foot sent him stumbling to his feet, eyes wide and wand coming up in an instinctive defensive gesture.
Across from him Sirius burst into laughter as a large ginger cat fluffed up to an incredible size, his wicked teeth bared and hissing. Harry relaxed, shaking his head with a grin.
The cat-kneazle hybrid deflated, its tail erect as it jumped on the table and sauntered over to Sirius, turnings it's incredibly fluffy butt towards Harry with a feline sniff.
"Looks like at least this critter can catch you off guard."
Harry shrugged, sitting back down and ignoring the cat with the same grace as it was ignoring him.
"Haven't met him face to face yet. Hermione says he keeps to himself most of the time."
At the mention of his mistresses name, Crookshanks spared one long glance over his shoulder, before affectionately butting his head against Sirius and then sauntering away to sit Sphinx style at the edge of the table. He kept his stare focused on Harry, who shifted a bit in discomfort. Sirius chuckled.
"He visits occasionally. Sometimes we talk a bit, he can sort of tell me things. Not much, but I get a gist. Have you heard of a mix-up in the Magical Creatures class?"
Harry lifted a brow, shaking his head. Sirius leaned back, reaching out and absently stroking Crookshanks back. The furry beast began a rumbling purr.
"Apparently Hagrid, the Groundskeeper, has taken over teaching the class. Got it in his mind to have kids ride Hippogriffs, which sounds nice and all but can be dangerous. With that man, there's only one kind of interesting animal."
"Dangerous." Harry confirmed, remembering seeing the man about the castle but never bothering to stop. "And preferably violent."
"Exactly. Well, it went well enough, except some of the students were less than courteous, and the beasts demand respect, aggressively. Got a good talking-to afterwards, by the Headmaster himself. Still, Hagrid's down and out about it. Crookshanks here likes the giant. Apparently, he keeps a saucer of milk handy."
Crookshanks yawned. Harry snorted, shaking his head.
"The cat is better informed than I am. Haven't heard a thing about it."
"I might have some facts wrong. Crookshanks can understand a bit of English, I think, but he puts more stake in body language. If a person is saying one thing and meaning another, he gets more of the meaning than the saying, if you get my gist. Kneazles make good familiars."
"You've said that before." Harry confirmed, though he nodded. He could see the upside to having a pet that could communicate with you. And spy for you, he thought, watching has Sirius stroked the cat.
"I didn't tell Hermione you were best friends with her cat. She might've been a bit ruffled."
"Save it for a day you want to ruffle her feathers, Prongslet."
At the affectionate name, Harry lifted a brow.
Sirius shrugged, and his face suddenly looked self-conscious. The older wizard shifted in his seat, and his hands returned to his lap much to Crookshanks dismay.
"Used to call you that, when you were a small youngun. Your mom wasn't keen on it, but we all… that is, James and Remus and I, we thought you had to have a name if you were going to be one of us. One of the Marauders. Since you were Prongs' little boy, well... little prongs. Prongslet."
The man ended his sentence with an embarrassed look. Harry slowly nodded, giving a small smile.
"I remember something of that, I think. My mother told you I wasn't a deer."
Sirius looked up, his face if anything only going paler.
"Oh. Yes, I suppose you might have seen some of that."
Harry wanted to kick himself, looking down at the wand still in his hand. He shouldnt of brought up his brutal use of legilimency, or the memories it had raised from the depths of the mans mind. Sirius made a motion, and Harry looked up as his godfather coughed, leaning forward with earnest eyes.
"I'm sorry, Harry. Me and you, we still aren't very used to each other I guess. I'm glad you came to visit."
But please go. Harry heard the words unsaid. He stood, holstering his wand and attempting a small smile.
"I've got to go. I'll come back tomorrow, or the day after."
Sirius stood as well, drawing him into his usual farewell hug. Harry bore it easier than he had the first few, not tensing up but relaxing into the loose grip. When his godfather pulled back, the man's grey eyes met his own.
"Give me time, Harry. It's all still so fresh for me."
Harry nodded, rolled his shoulders in a casual gesture, then turned. Before he could leave, he paused, a sudden thought striking him. Harry turned back to his godfather, met his unguarded eyes.
"Sirius. Why was Voldemort after my parents?"
He saw the shock flood across the man's face, followed by grief and anger and pain. Harry almost took back the question, almost left anyway. But Sirius swallowed, his voice raw, and spoke.
"It wasn't about your parents, Harry. It never was. I don't know the whole story, only Dumbledore and your parents did. You, Harry, you were something that Voldemort feared. You represented his downfall. I heard hints of a prophecy, but it was a need-to-know thing, kept very secret, and you were not the only one who could've fit. Except, well. It was you Voldemort went after. And you were his downfall. Maybe it was a prophecy. It would explain things nicely."
Harry felt his heart hammering in his chest, and only shook his head in a helpless motion, incredulity rising in his throat.
"What? What? All this, all that happened, all because of some prophecy? Something that might not have even been about me?"
Sirius stepped forward, reaching out a hand to steady Harry as he swayed.
"I'm sorry, I don't know. We were just told you were important, that you had to be kept safe. That you might be the one who could end the war. And you did."
Harry only shook his head, and in a sudden movement jerked back from his godfather.
"Thank you, Sirius. You didn't have to tell me."
Sirius only narrowed his eyes, his expression dark.
"And perhaps I shouldn't have. I forget you are still just a child."
Harry's head flung up, his eyes wild with sudden anger. His voice was low and heavy in the air.
"I am not just a child."
Harry turned, and was stepping into fire before his godfather could reply, his overwhelming anger flooding through him. How could it be something so simple, so stupid? A prophecy? Did any of them ever come true? Couldn't they mean anything, anything at all? How could something like that lead to so much heartbreak?
For a long time Harry floated in hazy white flame, letting the glowing warmth hold him steady and safe.
Then he turned his focus back to his goal, away from the thought of prophecies and gullible fools.
He would get answers, if he had to drag them from the very mind of Albus Dumbledore. But there was one other who might also know if there was a prophecy, one who would be helpless in his grasp and easy to overcome.
The Weasley twins huddled together, their eyes wide and innocent as they looked up into the scowling face of Professor Severus Snape.
"We can assure you, revered Professor Snape…"
"That we were most certainly not in the hallway when the sixth year Slytherins walked into that.."
"most dreadful and despicable jinx." Fred finished his brother's sentence without a blink, his face guileless. Professor Snape's frown only grew.
"I may not be able to prove it, Mister and Mister Weasley, but I know who the real culprits were. Now, give me the parchment."
The two Weasleys looked at each other, then back at him.
"dreadfully sorry sir, but.."
Professor Snape's mouth tightened, and he gestured roughly at the pack slung over George's shoulder.
"My students said you two were casting charms on a parchment in the hallway right before they were jinxed. If it is a cursed paper, I will be forced to take points from Gryffindor. Now, hand it over."
The twins shifted as one, huddling even closer together as if to protect the object in question. George quickly spoke, his tone just desperate enough to make Professor Snape's suspensions solidify.
"Oh, sir, it's just a prank piece of parchment, nothing to worry about! We're charming it, you see, as kind of a…"
He looked at his brother, who picked up the sentence with an eager nod.
"a side business! We'd like to open a prank shop of our own one day."
The professor snorted, the extended his hand with an impatient gesture.
"Hand it over. Now, Mr. Weasley, and do not make me ask again. I'll examine it, and if what you say is true then you can have it back."
Reluctantly, Fred reached over and pulled out a slightly overlarge piece of parchment. Professor Snape scowled at it, flipping it over and inspecting it for any writing. Then, to the twin's horror, he drew his wand and cast a revealing spell.
For a moment, nothing happened, but just as Professor Snape began to hand it back in disgust, writing began to appear.
Professor Snape moved the parchment closer to his face, his eyes narrowing as his face began to purple with absolute rage. The twins couldn't see what was said, but they had their own history with the map, and began to edge slightly away.
Professor Snape's eyes slowly rose to theirs, his fingers tightening on the map.
"Ten points from Gryffindor. Out of my sight."
The two scattered, though they glanced back with longing eyes and, once in the privacy of their dorm, shed a few tears for all the lost prank opportunities. Then, with a grin, they toasted the last prank of the infamous Marauders, and moaned at the bad luck that Colin Creevey hadn't caught the moment on camera.
They had never seen quite that shade of color on the Head of Slytherin House before.
They were ready, their mission set. It was us against them, the kidnappers, the child-stealers. Was it consent if such consent could not be remembered or confirmed? Did the parents truly have a choice, when the question was asked, if they could not say it had been so?
It wasn't just for the wizards, but for those among the organization who preached patience, and tolerance, and the benefits of segregation. There needed to be an example made, and they were ready for when the wizards finally came calling. The measures were in place, the protocols and drills and practice runs.
It was time for the first shot to be fired, the prelude to war, the trumpet horn of an oppressed people. It was time to shout the anthem of the suppressed and their righteous demands. It was time for sides to be taken by all who watched and began to understand.
A drop in a bucket, some would say. Such a small thing, each action taken a piece at a time as worthless and inadequate. But there was not just one drop, but hundreds and soon thousands.
Even floods were made of the littlest droplets of water.
Rufus Scrimgeour looked up from the letter, and with a sudden burst of anger flung a crystal bobble on his desk against the wall. It fell with a dull clunk to the floor, its unbreakable charms holding firm, though another dent was added to the already battered surface of the wall.
He stood and paced in his faltering gate, his leg stiff with the wet weather.
Kingsley Shacklebolt was not known to take action without first gaining permission from his superiors. That he had done so, meant he had firmly believed himself to be correct, and had also firmly believed the course of action was warranted.
When Rufus considered the Ministers potential reaction to the the supposition that Muggles were responsible for the abduction of Ministry employees, he couldn't help but see Kingsley's reason. Still, the Auror had acted directly without authority, and was even now attempting something that could, if the man's hunch was correct, put him in the path of danger. There was no guarantee these… people, whatever their motives or allegiances were, allowed every imprisoned wizard the chance to escape.
He weighed his options as he paced. He could immediately send a team to investigate, which would place the scrutiny on himself as well for having given the investigation to Kingsley on the sly. He could wait for Kingsley's signal of distress and location, then gather the necessary team and prepare to retrieve his wayward Auror.
Rufus stopped, looking out the window enchanted to show the Muggle city of London. The implications were too large to even comprehend, and the backlash if it were true unimaginable. The Minister would have to be informed. The Wizengamot convened. It might even enter into the next session of the ICW.
Muggles, targeting wizards, for purposes unknown.
He could see why Kingsley had gone in alone. Rufus returned to his chair and sat in it limply, a headache brewing behind his brow. They had to be absolutely certain. He would wait for the signal, but would not be idle. He would assemble a team, have them prepared and alert.
When Kingsley called they would be ready to answer.
"I want to speak to your superiors."
Kingsley stood tall and commanding, his eyes resolute.
The two Muggles across from him, wearing what he recognized as lab coats, cast eyes at each other, uncertain. Then looked back at him with firm lips.
"I'm sorry." The one on the right spoke. "You must return to your room."
Kingsley nodded slowly, before crossing his arms, his wand held firmly in his right hand. The gesture, while looking relaxed, was not, but an opening into his favorite dueling stance.
"I can not do that. I am an employee of the Ministry of Magic, and sent here to investigate the disappearances of eleven witches and wizards, and the attempted abduction of twenty three others."
At this, he saw the shock spread across their faces, and watched as they both as one took a step back. Kingsley heard the sound behind him, and whirled, his face calm as he brought up the silent shield.
Beyond the thin ripple of magic, he saw the slim metal dart fall to the ground. Beyond it, two Muggles holding metal guns lowered their weapons, looking uncertain. Kingsley heard shouts, and prepared himself, determined to see this through. Two more armed Muggles appeared, and their guns were subtly different from the others. From what he knew, these were the real things. He tensed, preparing himself.
But these Muggles, while holding their guns pointed at the ground and ready, did not aim in his direction. Kingsley backed himself towards the wall, keeping all the Muggles in view, and waited.
Two men appeared, calm and collected, walking casually towards him with interested gazes. Both were dressed in suits, unlike their counterparts medical outfits. One had slick black hair and dark grey eyes, his gaze filled with, of all things, humor. His resemblance to Sirius Black came as small shock to Kingsley, but he could detect no magic about him. The other man's intelligent green eyes were warm, but he hung back slightly behind the younger man.
Kingsley kept his wand raised as the leader spoke.
"Welcome. I suppose you are one of the famed Aurors?"
The Muggles voice seemed excited, and Kingsley tamped down on his own dread, allowing no emotion to show on his face.
"I am indeed. May I ask to whom I am speaking?"
The Muggle clapped his hands together, looking at his companion with a wide grin.
"This is Nathan, my assistant, and you may call me James. I'm so very glad your Ministry finally decided to meet with us. We were wondering about that, you know. It truly seemed you cared no more for your employees than you do your muggleborns."
The last word was spit out in an abrupt shift to anger, and his dread grew, as did his suspicions. Kingsley met that slightly mad grey gaze, and spoke the way he would speak to a wild beast, slow and calm.
"You have taken our citizens against their will. Are you holding them as well? I am required to inform you that a locator charm has been cast on the premises. I know where we are, and with but a spell can send for reinforcements. We will not appreciate resistance, which can lead to injury of your men and my own."
He saw the taken aback expression on the leaders face, and for a moment calmed. Then James turned to Nathan and spoke as if Kingsley was not even present.
"Protocol Ten, please. Prepare the vehicles. Leave them."
Kingsley shifted, and James turned back to him as his assistance quickly walked off. He noticed more Muggles had filled in behind them, all armed and expressionless, wearing dark padded clothing that looked bulky and unmanageable. Quietly James spoke, stepping closer to the boundary of the wizards shield, his words a snarl.
"We are not afraid of you, wizard. And we are no longer willing to remain quiet. We will have change, if it must be cut from your bleeding bodies. Here are our first demands: Stop the Silencing. Stop the Memory Wipes. Stop the Disappearances."
Kingsley cooly tensed for a fight, his expression serene. He had been trained for hostile situations against foes who made this James' anger looked like the weak mewing of a kitten.
"You don't know what you are talking about." He intoned, but James merely stepped back, his smile returning to his face.
"Farewell, wizard. Men: keep him here. Leave him alive to pass on his message."
Kingsley lifted his wand a fraction higher as the Muggles shifted, their guns raised to point at his sheild. The black-haired muggle turned with one last wide smile, walking away in no true hurry. Once he had passed a corner and turned, the armed muggles began to move closer.
Kingsley readied himself, closing his eyes in a brief silent curse. Then he cast, lifting his wand to point towards the ceiling.
"Hic Ego Sum!"
The magic rose, passing through the ceiling above with no issue. He knew above the building the large symbol of the Ministry would have risen, and knew he faced a reprimand for casting the charm in such a populated area. But there was no choice, and he didn't know if the hostages were inside the building and for how long they might remain in a good condition.
He heard loud sharp reports filling the hallway, and the reverberations against his shield pushed him back slightly, his shield trembling. The noise was incredible, echoing off the polished walls and floor. The Muggles had fired in a short burst of coordinated gunfire. The blast took him by surprise, pushing a considerable force against his shield. He had never tested magic against muggle weaponry, no one had ever though to try. The standard shield for blocking physical objects would not be enough for long. He watched the bullets fall to the ground, and grit his teeth, pouring more magic into the shield. Another burst of gunfire, and it trembled, but held. Kinsley was not a weak wizard, but he was also not a fool. He was not sure how long before the aurors arrived, and might need to conserve his magic for a longer time than warranted. It was time to move.
He abruptly dropped the shield, jumping to the side in a falling roll, the sound suddenly louder in the hallway. He came up low on his knees, casting a quick chain spell with deadly accuracy.
It was a minor chain of three instead of a chain of seven, developed for speed and movement. He saw two muggles fall, and lifted his wand again when an unexpected pain slammed into his side, sending him sprawling forward. He felt as if a large spike had been dug into his side, pulsing and burning. It seemed the response of muggle guns was much faster than a curse or jinx, with no warning incantation to allow him time to counter. He jumped to his feet again, ignoring the pain, eyes grim and focused as he prepared to cast again, holding up another wordless shield.
A sudden huge explosion rocked the ground under his feet, and he heard the sounds of plaster and pictures falling in the hallways, along with a sudden clear shout.
The Muggles began to back away as one in a obviously practiced maneuver. Eyes dark, Kingsley pointed at his side and cast a quick spell. "Praerigidus."
It wasn't a healing spell, but as he felt the numbness grow to cover the pain, knew it would do. He would regret it later, but for now he could still function. He took quick stock of himself to see if he was injured anywhere else, then stepped past the puddle of his own blood. He took a limping step, checking the hallways in front of him for any sign of movement.
The muggles were gone, taking their fallen companions with them. He wobbled, leaning against the wall with a single hand. He lifted his wand, coughing as dust rained down from the ceiling, before intoning the name of the witch most recently abducted.
"Point Me Erica Flocerturn."
He began to follow it's direction in a slow but steady shamble, turning each corner with practiced defense. He had a job here to do, and his main objective was to recover the missing witches and wizards. Whatever had set off the previous explosion could have also killed them, whether it was a plan by the Muggles or a miscast spell. He needed to find and recover them, before he could possibly pursue the others.
Where were his reinforcements?
Kingsley paused, panting, then finally looked down at his side, wincing when he saw his torn robe and gaping wound. He had seen pictures, of course, in the training academy, of the damage Muggle weapons could do. It was usually outdated information, and often dismissed, but it had stuck with him.
This was worse than the photos. His side looked like a chunk has been taking from it, as if it hit with a stone that had then exploded on contact. It did a lot of damage, but he supposed would not kill unless hitting a major artery or left untended. After recounting what the Muggle had said, he figured it was designed for just that purpose, to render wounded but not dead.
His wand lead him to a single door, and he unlocked it with a quick charm, straightening and holding himself ready as he swung the door open.
On a single bed in a white room, the witch lay still and quiet. Kingsley ambled over, collapsing into a single chair and casting quick diagnostic charm, before leaning back in satisfaction.
She was unharmed, at least.
He heard another shout, and stood, falling into a battle stance. A surge of adrenaline allowed him to forget his weariness and prepare, his face calm and ready to face whatever came.
He almost sat down again with relief when he saw the red robes, but held steady with a grimace. The Auror, young enough to be a recent recruit, glanced in, then turned to shout over his shoulder for a mediwizard before quickly jumping forward to catch him when he began to sag. As Kingsley felt dizziness rising into him,he mentally cursed the blood loss, then grasped the aurors robe in weak fist and quickly spoke.
"It's Muggles… they just left, might still catch… there are more wizards, search everywhere… big explosion…. if not wizardry, might be more explosives set…. carefull…."
He mumbled the last, and as the room began to spin, fell into unconsciousness.
He was more excited than annoyed.
While unexpected, everything had been prepared and practiced, and it was so exciting to have finally met a true wizard, and an Auror at that! The adrenaline was still racing through his blood. He wished they could have had a proper discussion, but the wizard's threat had true backing. A shame.
James leaned back in the leather seat, looking over at Nathan tapping beside him into a portable laptop. They had been in the car a good hour, and the man was still busy with his computer. They were in route to the predetermined meeting coordinates, and from there would travel to the next safe house.
"Everything down?" James asked pleasantly.
Nathan looked over, his green eyes carrying a sadness that James pitied him for. The man was entirely too sympathetic.
"The explosives took out all the data sets that were considered expendable. All else has been successfully retrieved and is in route. ETA in fifteen minutes. We will get there slightly behind them."
"The back-up cameras?" James idly questioned, examining his perfectly filed nails.
"Still online. The wizards appeared in the parking lot one block over. Same red robes as reported standard for wizarding task forces. They observed the beacon the Auror placed above the building. They then split into two groups, one of which dispelled the beacon and began to organize memory wipes of all civilians in the area. The other group entered the building, and were able to locate the Auror with minimal difficulty, using a location charm. One gave the wizard medical treatment, the rest gathered the subjects and teleported them out. It was all organized and clean. Thirty minutes after the first arrival, another team arrived, light blue robes, and switched out with the team performing memory wipes. They seemed much more rehearsed and professional at their work: I am guessing it is their main job, sir. We will observe the data transmitted more in depth on the larger computers at the next location."
Nathan paused, then after moving something on screen showed it to James. A large man, with an unruly mane of russet hair and a slight limp, moved on screen, periodically intercepted by other wizards. Nathan continued.
"This man appears to be a commander of some kind. Perhaps the leader of the police... sorry, Auror force. He is treated with more courtesy by the others, and gives several orders. He personally teleports out with the wounded Auror after taking some sort of statement."
James nodded, before looking back out the window.
"Looks to be the general type. Anything else of note?"
Nathan closed his computer with a gentle snick, pacing it away and pulling out his mobile phone as he spoke.
"Evacuation Protocol Ten went without a hitch. So far, The wizards have shown no interest in the camera system or the computers. They may have done a sweep for explosive devices, but it was hard to tell. There was a lot of wand-waving, but the direct feed is visual only, no audio. The building, at approximately forty-five minutes post-retreat abruptly went black. No trace from contacts on the street. Two report forgetting the location ever existed. Holly called, confused. She didn't understand how she was to get to work."
James waved away the mention of the secretary.
"So they have blanked the building from the outside, but we still get intel from inside? Make a note of this. It might be an anomaly, but its worth investigation. It might be a loophole in their spells."
Nathan nodded, then looked up from his phone with an uncertain expression. For a moment he seemed to weigh his words. Finally, he spoke.
"Sir, you seem... much happier than I would have thought you would be."
James grinned, his white teeth glinting in the sun shining through the cracked window beside him.
"I am happy, Nathan. Practically giddy with it. Don't you see? It was a success!"
Nathan frowned, folding his hands in his lap.
"I am not following. We were forced to retreat."
James shook his head with a laugh.
"On no, not at all! We merely advanced in another direction. We lost no men: we saved all data. The recovery project had reached its natural end in any case. No reason to continue it. And we have gained valuable data, and the potential for more!"
Nathan slowly nodded, but did not look pacified. James leaned over and nudged the brown haired man with a jovial hand.
"Buck up. This is the beginning. The first skirmish of the war."
Nathan tried a smile, but knew it fell pitifully short.
"Are you not concerned that the wizards will act against us?"
James scoffed, though his eyes now held a new glint.
"No. Not yet, in any case... but when they do…"
He drifted off, his voice ending on a low note that hinted at dark things to come.
For a long time it was silent, before the car pulled over. James brightened.
"Time for phase two. Ready?"
Without waiting for a response, James slid from the car, bounding up the steps to a elegant stone building. For a moment, Nathan remained sitting, his heart heavy.
Then with a sigh, he grabbed his laptop case, and rose to join his boss.
"Muggles! Muggles? You expect me to believe this, this… debacle was the work of Muggles?"
Fudge emphasized each word with a sharp rap of his meaty fist on the desk he sat behind. In front of him, Rufus Scrimgeour stood tall and did not allow himself to favor his aching leg. It had seen more action today than it had in his years behind the desk in his own office.
"I've seen the evidence with my own eyes, Minister, and read Shacklebolt's report. Muggles were capturing wizards on their way to work, holding them in a facility in Muggle London for an as yet unknown purpose, and routinely allowing them to wake and attempt escape. None of the wizards and witches we have recovered have awoken yet, but I presume they are the ones who do not have the ability to apparate away."
Minister Fudge steadily grew redder as Rufus spoke, until he interrupted him with another pound of his fist on the desk.
"Ridiculous! This is all circumstantial. What I would like to know, Scrimgeour, is why Shacklebolt was sent on a covert mission without notifying me first? These disappearances were already being investigated by a team handpicked by the Department and myself. You went beyond the bounds of your authority."
Scrimgeour clenched his teeth, but kept his voice civil when nothing would have pleased him more than to shout just like the primping buffoon in front of him.
"I am the Head of the Auror Department. It is well within my authority to assign whomever I please to whatever I deem necessary. Let's not forget that Shacklebolt in one week has accomplished more than the entire team has in the last six months. We have retrieved the hostages. There were Muggles there. They had guns, Muggle weaponry, which coincides with the injuries Auror Shacklebolt received. It was a muggle building, and muggle technology was present. There was a muggle explosion on the premises."
The Minister was silent for a moment, his narrowed eyes trained on Scrimgeour. When he spoke, his voice was sickly sweet.
"No witch or wizard will believe that Muggles are capable of capturing them at any moment. If they did, could you imagine the fallout? The terror? Such a story would cause a mass panic that our population can not afford at this time, with the criminal Sirius Black on the loose. It's political suicide."
He said the word Muggle like it was something distasteful. Fudge reached out, and picking up a steaming mug of tea, sipped. Then he continued.
"Let me tell you how this is going to happen, Head Auror Scrimgeour. These attacks were obviously the work of dark wizards, using the thin guise of Muggles in order to stay under the radar of our trained Auror teams. The… injuries… that Auror Shacklebolt sustained on an unsanctioned investigation were the cause of a jinxed projectile. Anything said to the contrary will result in an official investigation into your own methods of running your department, and into Auror Shacklebolt's abnormally clean record. Will you chance not only your own career, but the Auror under you with this preposterous story? You have no proof but a wild tale and circumstance. Really, I am doing you a favor, Scrimgeour. "
Rufus forced himself not to do something he would regret. In his younger years he had been known for his hot outbursts. The war with Voldemort and his injuries might have taught him self-control, but they had never dampened his innate temper. In the face of such blatant disrespect, and his own inability to fight back, he would have loved nothing better than to call the Minister out on his bluff and run with the story, continuing the investigation and drawing attention to the situation.
But the Minister had not attained his office by being stupid. He knew that Scrimgeour would be willing to risk himself, but not any of his men, especially one who had only been following his own orders.
And he also knew that it would take support from nearly every political power to truly investigate any matter dealing with Muggles. There was the Statute, for one, and all the ramifications of it. He had thought of it himself, when first reading Shacklebolts conclusions.
With a forced smile, Scrimgeour inclined his head courtesly.
"Of course, Minister. If you will excuse me, I would check on Auror Shacklebolt's condition."
Minister Fudge leaned back in his elegant chair, beaming.
"Of couse, of course. Please, extend my own blessings for his health to soon be returned."
Scrimgeour nodded stiffly and turned as fast as he was able without showing any limp. When he closed the door behind him, he reached out and grasped the cane he dreaded, leaning on it heavily as he headed towards the lift, ignoring the curious glances from the two secretaries.
And he began to make his own plans.
Hours later, alone in a small office he had commandeered, Nathan went through his data again, preparing reports and documents for a morning briefing with the heads of three other nearby Hound groups, and the subsequent data transfer to their multiple networks.
But there was one small piece of information that would prove extremely vital, if it was not a fluke.
"You summoned me?"
Nathan looked up at the droll voice, as James leaned indolently against the frame of his office door. The man's eyes were bright, but his face was strained with fatigue. It had been a long day and a longer night. The both of them should, by rights, be in bed.
There's no rest for the wicked, Nathan supposed, and held up a print-out as he spoke.
"You'll be interested in this. We know of the spells that the Auror cast on the men in the hallway, though it was a unique combination. All three were standard latin-based variations of a spell to stun and incapacitate. All three hit. However, only two worked."
Nathan pointed, then saw James eyes flicker with interest. He continued unbidden.
"We looked over all three men. The two woke up at approximately the same time the Auror collapsed in one of the subjects rooms, giving further evidence of some spells failing once the caster is incapacitated. The third showed no ill effects from being hit after being examined. However, he was wearing a different type of body armor than his fellows. A more expensive kind, utilizing refined alloys and synthetic metallic fibers. The one I think is key is in the steel alloy, a certain chemical element called ferrum."
James looked up, a smile growing on his youthful face.
Nathan returned the smile with a tired one of his own.
James handed back the photos, clasping his hands together in glee, all traces of fatigue momentarily wiped out as excitement blossomed inside him.
"So there is some truth to the legends and myths. Knights did not wear all that heavy armor for nothing! and the folklore, of witches bane and the power of iron… This is wonderful. Wonderful! It will need to be tested, of course, somehow. That blasted boy, if only we could simply…"
James abruptly stopped talking, and his expression had cleared into cold purpose. He turned to Nathan.
"Commission new armor to be built. More of that stuff, or something even better. It might be the spell, it might be the placement, the percentage of iron versus carbon in the steel... there is no sure way to know. But any advantage, any advantage at all, is in our favor. I will work on procuring us a wizard."
Nathan nodded, and James spun on his heel and walked out. With a tired sigh, Natan dragged a hand over his face and dug the heel of his palm into his eyes. He wanted a shower, and a bed.
But James was like a hound on the scent, and expected all his men to bay the hunting call right along with him.
With another sigh, Nathan resettled in his chair and got to work.
Kingsley opened his eyes, his senses immediately alert. He tensed, his wand going to his side, even as he observed his surroundings with thin tendrils of magic, a practice he had refined after his many years on the force.
One never completely trusted the eyes, after working to put wizards in prison. The trickery of illusion had done in many a Auror finer than he.
But the sight that greeted him was confirmed. He was in the infirmary in the Auror department; which both told him his injuries weren't serious enough for St. Mungos, and that he was under observation of a more enforced manor.
He sat up at his name, pleased when he felt no pain from his side. He had feared the Muggle bullet would cause more lasting damage from the amount of pain he had felt. He turned, straightening at the sight of Rufus Scrimgeour.
Scrimgeour waved him down.
"Relax. You are still recovering."
Kingsley felt at his side with tentative fingers, then frowned.
"I feel fine, sir. Was it a simple healing?"
Scrimgeour pulled over a wooden chair, then sat with a grateful sigh. Kingsley saw the tell-tale signs of sleep deprivation around the older man's eyes, and guessed it to be past midnight.
"Simple enough. Whatever projectile hit you passed through. The rest was a simple matter of re-growing tissue and muscle. No bones broken."
Kingsley felt a small chill go down his spine, the careful wording working through his mind.
"Projectile." He said simply, and saw the emotions flicker over his superiors face. Scrimgeour slowly nodded.
"Yes. The official investigation has been closed. A new team is being assembled to hunt the dark wizards responsible."
Kingsley let out some sound of denial, and Scrimgeour reached out a gentle hand to lay on his own.
"Just relax, let yourself heal. You will give your official statement in my office first thing in the morning."
Scrimgeour gave a deep nod, his eyes darting from Kingsley over to something over his shoulder then back. Slowly, Kingsley nodded, swallowing any questions.
"Of course, sir."
Scrimgeour patted his hand, then carefully stood.
"You did a good job, Auror Shacklebolt. A very fine job."
Kingsley smiled, his dark eyes flickering.
Once the Head Auror left, Kingsley lay back down, his mind drawing its own conclusions.
After a brief few hours of fitful sleep, Rufus flooed directly to his office from his home. He was upset, disappointed, and disillusioned with his own government. He had never thought the Minister would sink so low as to actually turn a blind eye to evidence right in front of his own face. That he had done so, and was in the process of twisting and falsifying reports to suit his own political agenda was the final straw in a long list of problems.
The Minister was dangerously incompetent, and Scrimgeour was left with very few options.
There would be an election in a year, but no candidates strong enough to win had come forward. The Ministry of Magic had fallen into a rote tradition of the Ministers staying in power until they decided to retire of their own volition, with no new candidates coming forward. It was considered rude, and greedy, and the few who challenged a current Minister were often smeared though the papers as such, and always lost.
So there would need to be something scandalous enough to topple Fudge from his pedestal.
Scrimgeour had few allies who would be willing to help with the task, and all those who would be willing would have agendas of their own.
Lord Malfoy was the main financial backer behind the Minister. Scrimgeour had no doubt the dark wizard would be more than willing to have ammunition to continue with his blood purity movement, and an attack by Muggles would be just the ticket. If Lord Malfoy got wind of it, he would probably be willing to dump his current puppet and seek a new one, willing to run on just such a platform as Muggle Reformation.
But not the kind of reformation that would work out well for the Muggle side of things. Scrimgeour had never believed the man to be innocent of his Death Eater crimes in any sense of the word.
Amelia Bones would be willing to help. She held the seat on the Wizengamot reserved for the Bones family, and was currently the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. She had made motions before of retiring and taking a less political role in the Ministry, and as a renowned duelist, she would be welcomed with open arms. She was both solid and trustworthy, and a firm supporter of the light while also supporting deregulation of many Ministry laws.
But who would run for Minister, even if they were able to overthrow Fudge? Who could be trusted to not simply follow the orders of those responsible for putting them at the helm?
A knock at his door drew him from his thoughts. He straightened back in his chair, glancing at the revealing spell over the threshold and recognizing Auror Shacklebolt.
He spoke with a brief wave of his wand towards the door. Shacklebolt stepped through, coming forward to stand in front of his desk. Scrimgeour stood, lifting his wand towards the door and quickly putting up warding and silencing spells. When complete, he gestured toward a chair.
"Sit, please. Because I most certainly am."
With that, the two wizards sat and observed each other in silence. Rufus looked over Shacklebolt's calm facade, his stalwart bearing. The Auror was one of his best, and more than capable to handle any situation he had been placed in before. It was time to test his mettle.
"So. By now, I presume you have reached several conclusions."
Shacklebolt did not shift in his chair like a younger man might have, but spoke in his deep and solemn voice.
"Yes, sir. The Minister is covering up the actions of the Muggles to prevent a panic."
Rufus sighed, and drew a rough hand over his temples in a rare gesture of fatigue.
"Yes, and no. The Minister is more interested in protecting his seat. He thinks admitting to Muggle involvement is political suicide, and extremely foolish."
The Auror nodded, his face neutral. Rufus leaned back.
"Let me get to the point, Auror Shacklebolt. You are to give a official report stating you believe the Muggle activity was a disguise put on by dark wizards; a mere ploy. However, you and I both know this to be false. And I am not willing to let it go at that. Are you?"
Shacklebolt did not hesitate.
"Then let's get down to business."
There was little they could do about Fudge, not on their own. However, the investigation could go on privately. They would have to be careful, of course, not to draw attention to it. Rufus held no doubts that Fudge would have the both of them watched, and any others who had argued with the cover-up. But there were things they could do.
The Muggles might be a random group who had discovered their presence. But based on Shacklebolt's report, Rufus preferred to think they were much more educated on wizards than could be discovered by chance. They must have more intel than that, perhaps a captured wizard who had been forced to speak of their world. Perhaps they had books, newspapers. It was possible; such things had happened before. The Obliviator Headquarters dealt with it on a daily basis, its employees kept busy wiping memories and covering up obviously magical incidents.
The demands the proscribed leader of the group had spoke resonated with Rufus as personal.
Stop the Silencing.
Perhaps they had had a wizard relative, a squib cast-off or friend that had told of what they knew before suddenly being unable. Perhaps even a parent of a muggleborn who had managed to share some of what they knew.
Stop the Memory Wipes.
That was more straight forward. It was daily business keeping the wizarding world secret from the Muggles. There had to be dozens a day who had minutes or hours wiped from their minds. Sometimes hundreds. Across the world? Thousands easily, sometimes tens of thousands. It was possible with those kind of numbers for some people to slip through the cracks, to share what they knew. But how? How were they communicating without it also coming to the notice of the Muggle Liaison Office?
Stop the Disappearances.
This one was the one that made his heart sink the most. He had watched Shacklebolt's memory in his Pensive a dozen times, saw the way the leader, James, had leaned forward, his eyes alight with vicious fury. It could mean anything, of course. Maybe a Muggle had fallen foul of dark magic, and their death covered up. Perhaps it was a case of a memory wipe going wrong, as sometimes happened, and the Muggle wandering off to parts unknown, unable to find their way home. Perhaps... but no. No, that look he had seen before, in his younger days as a grunt.
It was the look of one who had lost family to magic itself, to the regulations that kept them apart. The laws that made muggleborn wizards unable to communicate with their whole family, with the teachers that taught them at a younger age, with friends who they had known from childhood. The slow separation of the school days that could so tear apart the family of a muggleborn witch and wizard.
And then, eventually, upon graduation; the disappearing. The entering of the wizarding world for life, no longer able to keep speaking to their Muggle family or risk breaking the Statue that had been so easily turned against muggleborns. Another way of prejudice, a rotten one that crept up in later years of school when a muggleborn learned that the families that birthed and raised them were inferior, and that the magicals presence in their life could only lead to heartache and punishment. How easily it was to let something slip to loved ones, to invoke the wrath of the Improper Use of Magic Department with a careless habitual spell. Watching parents and siblings and friends have moments of time stolen from them because of it. It was a harsh world a muggleborn lived in, a society that looked down upon them and yet would demand they stay separate from the lowest of all, the Muggle.
So, the choice: disappear from their lives for the betterment of all; or be erased from magic itself, confined to life as a Muggle, cut off from even the memory of magic.
Some could recover, but they were few.
It was perhaps the greatest wrong in the Statute of Secrecy, but also, at its core, the most important to its success. They had to prevent the flow of information out of the Wizarding world. That the children were allowed even during their school years to return to their Muggle parents was a small blessing, and one that could be taken away if current legislative trend continued, despite the silencing of the parents.
And now, all evidence pointed to a monster that its very success might have created. A monster of hatred and sorrow and rage, of injustices and failures stacked upon each other a million times over. Scrimgeour could almost pity them, could almost relate.
But he knew his very world could be in danger, if this Muggle group was not small or disorganized. If there was even the possibility that this could be widespread, the consequences unseen since the Witch Hunts themselves.
Muggles outnumbered magicals more than a hundred thousand to one. And wizards had lost touch with the other side of humanity. Few knew what Muggles were capable of. Few knew of the 'technology', few understood even how to defend against it, let alone actually overcome it with magic.
And they sat with their hands tied by their own government, unable to even begin to prepare the populace for something coming over the horizon darker than even the last war.
Once Shacklebolt had gone, leaving behind a false statement, Rufus sat in his office alone and contemplated the ramifications of what he was about to set in motion.
Harry walked into The Headmaster's office directly after lunch.
The elderly wizard was sitting behind his desk in the large office, Fawkes perched beside him on a golden stand with a large tray for ashes underneath. The phoenix sang a greeting, and Harry smiled despite the aggravated emotions swirling inside him. Dumbledore smiled in return.
"Ah, Harry. I was hoping you would stop by. How is your research going?"
Harry sat in one of the high backed chairs in front of the desk.
"It's going well, sir. Thank you for letting me stay."
The headmaster waved away his thanks, before offering a tray of lemon scones that Harry politely declined.
"Good, good. Can I help you with anything, my boy?"
Harry abruptly was unsure how to proceed. He didn't want to ask for help from this man, but at the same time he needed to. The matter with the potential prophecy had shaken his world yet again, and a part of him knew that the man in front of him might have all the answers. But it could wait, for now, while he still might be able to get the information from another source. The Ministry letter and its ramifications, however, could not.
"Headmaster, do you personally hire professors for Hogwarts?"
Dumbledore leaned back slightly, observing him over the rims of his wire glasses.
"I do, along with the Deputy Headmistress McGonagall."
Harry took a deep breath.
"Would you know any witches or wizards who might take on a student privately?"
The Headmaster let out a deep breath, running a hand absently over his long white beard.
"I had hoped you might come to me on this matter, though of course I would hate to disappoint you. You will never find a man like Nicholas again."
Harry felt a knot rise in his throat and swallowed it down. Now wasn't the time to mourn the past.
"I know that, sir. But someone similar wouldn't hurt."
The Headmaster smiled and slowly stood, walking over to a large stone column. Touching something on its side, a part of the column revolved and opened, showing what seemed to be files and files of papers. Dumbledore reached in, his hand warping slightly as it passed some barrier, before withdrawing holding a single large file folder.
"I do not encounter as many professors as you would think. Rarely do we hire except in the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts. Professors tend to stay for a lifetime tenure. However, I keep tabs of those mentioned often in the publications of each respective field. There are names that everyone knows, and every year I get sixth and seven years considering apprenticeships over universities of magic or entering directly into the job market. I think you would be better off to look in that direction. You are young, of course, for a Ministry-approved apprenticeship, but several of these wizards and witches might consider taking you on under the tutor/teacher regulations. It's only one extra set of paperwork."
Harry slowly nodded, amazed at how much those last few words had expanded his viewpoint. He had never thought to search in the apprenticeship/master lists. Neither, for that matter, had the Ministry mentioned it. That fact alone made it worth considering. Dumbledore sat, opening the folder and beginning to flip through, occasionally tapping a paper and somehow transferring information from it to another piece of parchment beside him. He continued talking as he worked with an ease that suggested the wizard had been through this process many times before.
"Nicholas was a Master in so many subjects they no longer bothered giving him titles, besides the obvious one of Alchemist. For even the best of wizards, having more than three Masteries is practically unheard of, and usually those are in subjects already related to each other. For instance, many Potions Masters are also Master Herbologists or Master Alchemists, as the three often interconnect. The same can be said with Master Herbologists and Beastologists which both deal with magical flora and fauna, or Master Arithmancers and Masters of Ancient Runes, which both deal with mathematical principles. Its almost unheard of to find someone with a divination degree who does not also have an astrology degree. And so on and so forth."
Dumbledore flipped another few pages, his voice taking on a lecture quality that hinted at the great teacher he had once been.
"The ones to keep your eyes on, however, are those whose degrees are not related. This hints at a talent and understanding of magic that is more comprehensive and less specialized. Take Hilda Gildenleaf, here. She is a Potions Mistress, but also a Mistress of Transfiguration. She's written truly stunning articles on the principles of transfiguration and how they correlate across many branches of magic. Unfortunately, she is ninety-two and very much enjoying her great-great grandchildren at the moment."
Dumbledore glanced up with a smile, before closing the folder. Harry leaned back, realizing with a start he had been riveted to the information pouring forth. Dumbledore must have been a grand professor to have, if he could command attention so easily.
"What about out you, sir? What are your degrees?"
"My boy, I am one of those aforementioned rare wizards with more degrees than you could point a jokers hat at. I was quite the scholar in my youth, and determined to amass more degrees than my best friend of the time."
Harry tilted his head.
"Did you? Get more?"
Dumbledore glanced away suddenly, the twinkle in his eyes abruptly doused.
"For a time, no. But as they say, the last wizard standing wins."
Abruptly, Harry remembered his History books and wanted to take back his careless question. There had only been one wizard who had competed directly with Albus Dumbledore. The one who went on to become the Dark Lord Gellert Grindelwald.
The Headmaster picked up his parchment and passed it over with a small smile.
"Look over these names. Each are masters of their chosen professions, and have good reputations. You would not be done wrong by any of them."
Harry glanced at the list of names that covered both sides of parchment, the writing small and fine. Then he looked back up.
"Sir, I didn't want to ask your help."
The wizard inclined his head slightly, his smile growing.
"No, I suppose you didn't. What changed your mind?"
"The Ministry sent me a letter, along with their own recommendations of only ten names. None of which are probably on this list. I do not appreciate threats or manipulations."
It was both a warning and a compliment wrapped into one. Dumbledore must have noticed, because his gentle expression never wavered.
"I am glad you came to me. I only want to help you, Harry. I wish you could find your home here at Hogwarts, but… wherever your magic leads you, I wish you happiness. Know you are always welcome within these halls."
Harry nodded and stood, walking over to Fawkes to run a single finger down the soft feathers on his long neck. The phoenix trilled, a light happy tone that lifted his heart. Harry turned, meeting the deep blue eyes of Hogwarts' Headmaster.
"Thank you, sir. I'll wait until my friends depart on the train, then relocate to the Potter townhouse on Hallam Street. You may owl me there if you need to contact me."
Dumbledore inclined his head in acknowledgement, and Harry turned to leave. When he reached the door, he paused and glanced back.
"Professor Lupin will not be returning next year, will he?"
Dumbledore raised a single eyebrow, then smiled.
"No, I suspect he will not."
Harry nodded, then left, an idea growing in his mind even as he pocketed the list of names. He would research the men and women on the list, a task to fill his time while waiting for Pettigrew to be caught. But there might be another option, if Ministry regulations did not prohibit it completely and the situation with Black resolved itself satisfactorily. A lot of if's, but still.. a chance.
Harry sat next to Sirius and sighed. There was going to be a full moon that night, and Harry was increasingly feeling the stress of his upcoming ritual. As if sensing his intention, the Moon had begun to tug at him, his runes randomly heating and burning his skin, his magic straining against his control and creating surreal patterns in the air.
It made him more tired than ever, and keeping that from others was even more of a trial. At least the students would be leaving in less than a month, exams taking place the next week. Hermione was on a whole new level, trying to get all of his friends to study and even bringing Luna into her study prep books and exam techniques.
Harry hadn't bothered to point out that Luna was in the top five of almost all of her classes, something that had both surprised and mystified Harry when he had heard of it. How the Ravenclaw could accomplish that when seeming so… disconnected from real life was an oddity.
Harry looked up as Sirius let out an appreciative sigh.
He had eaten his meal with his godfather, a basket filled with food helpfully provided by Dobby. The elf had only just popped out, taking with him the majority of the mess left over, and leaving behind a large chocolate dessert that had made Sirius turn to mush, and which the man had just finished inhaling.
"How you can eat all that and not be sick is beyond me." Harry spoke, shaking his head. Sirius grinned.
"Chocolate is a wizard's best friend, Harry! Helps with the depression, helps with the digestion, and helps with the… hm. I'll work on a third reason mommentary. I'm simply too full to function."
Harry snorted, rolling his eyes, and almost missed the warm sensation as it grew in his chest.
No, not in. On.
The charm was heating! For a full second Harry froze, his mouth open to speak, air caught in his lungs. Sirius, seeing his face, immediately straightened.
He shook his head and kept shaking it, jumping to his feet, his chair falling back with a loud bang. His voice, when it spoke, was rough with excitement and growing determination.
"The ward traps, Sirius! They've been triggered!"
Sirius was on his feet in less than a second, and to him in one large stride, his hands going to his shoulders.
"Finally! Merlins beard, its time! Take me to him!"
Harry felt clarity strike him like a stone, and reigned in his excited emotions with a cool hand. He had to focus, now. Everything had to be done just right. Seeing the seriousness on his face, Sirius closed his eyes and took a deep breath, stepping back.
"I'm sorry. The plan."
"Yes." Harry nodded, absently reaching under his robes to remove the small warm stone as he went over the plan again to steady himself. "I will retrieve Pettigrew, and use the secret passage under the Willow to bring him to the Shack. You will meet me there. We will transform him back to his human state. I will ask him about the prophecy. Then, you will hold him as I retrieve Professor Lupin and explain... Wait."
Harry paused, his mind moving quickly.
"It's a full Moon tonight. We will have to wait until morning."
Sirius walked away, peaking out the curtain before looking back.
"We've hours yet until moon rise, but its probably for the best. He will have his potion, but it will take hours to explain, and the Moon makes him… unreasonable."
Harry nodded, then slid his black robes over his shoulders and buttoned them, keeping hold of the stone in his hand as he spoke.
"The students should be out of the Hall by now, and in their Common Rooms. I will meet you in the Shack, one hour."
Sirius nodded, then abruptly grasped Harry and pulled him into a strong hug.
"Oh Harry, we've got him! We can... we can make everything right!"
Harry only nodded, unwilling to speak and burst the bubble of joy sparking around his godfather. Proving the truth would never bring back his parents, or give Sirius back the years spent in Azkaban. But it could make the next few years brighter; his godfather free and no longer on the run. It was something, at least.
Harry pulled back and prepared himself.
Sirius nodded, then turned, his form rippling and collapsing on itself into the form of a large black dog even as Harry stepped into flame.
Harry stepped out in his room, grabbing his wand and holstering it, then covering himself in an invisibility charm and opening his door. He looked around, then pulled out the stone and held it in his hand. He concentrated, bringing out his magic and observing the flavor of the warning charm, before setting off down the halls at a fast trot. He turned three times then quickly climbed a flight of stairs, before coming out near the second floor of the library. He walked towards a small alcove, nestled between the hallway leading towards the direction of the Great Hall, and one that led off to a few of the main classrooms.
There, on the floor under layers and layers of invisibility runes and a trapping algorithm, a small brown rat squirmed.
Harry knelt slowly, his eyes meeting small beady pupils, and then looked down at the rat's front feet.
One toe was missing.
His heart hammering and his magic suddenly loose and rumbling, he tore down the sticking charms and shattered the runic circle with a quick gesture, the stone in his hand dissolving.
The rat jumped, a skittering move for cover, and Harry's magic swooped down and held it, trapping it in a cloud of power even as Harry simultaneously stunned and immobilized it, sending the rat into paralyzed unconsciousness. Harry carefully picked up the stiff form, then with a grimace stood, holding the animagus carefully to his chest as he turned.
After a moment's thought he extended his invisibility charms to cover the rat as well, then began to stride towards the staircases. Finally everything was coming together.
Neville crouched beside Luna, peaking out of the door into the dim hallway. Luna whispered against his ear, her hair tickling his face and causing him to flush.
"We've got exactly one hour and thirty-eight minutes until official moonrise, but its a cloudy night. We might need to wait until the cloud cover vanishes to dance. Is that okay?"
Neville shifted nervously.
"Oh, um, sure. Thats fine. Yeah." He muttered. Then froze.
"Shhh, someone's coming!" He whispered frantically, then leaned back against the slim girl. They huddled there, listening as they looked through the small crack.
At the corner, a figure paused, a wand held in front of him as he whispered words.
"Point me, Harry Potter." The wand spun in the palm and then stopped, pointing down the hallway Luna and Neville were currently peeking in to. Neville felt his breath hitch as the figure started towards them, and a beam of light from the nearby window shone briefly on a face all too familiar to him.
Neville waited as the redhead passed, holding still and barely breathing. Then he leaned back swiftly, looking up at Luna. The Ravenclaw looked back, her eyes darkly mysterious in the low light.
Neville began to speak, but Luna interrupted him.
"Well, let's go."
Neville's eyes widened.
Luna rolled her eyes in a gesture that reminded him eerily of Hermione.
"Follow him, of course."
She stood straight. Neville scrambled to his feet, stuttering.
"But, but.. the teachers, and curfew, and.. if he sees us…"
But the Ravenclaw was opening the door and stepping into the hallway, pulling her hood up over her silvery blonde hair and turning to smile at him.
"I know you were looking forward to dancing with me, Neville, but this is our Harry. He might be in trouble."
At that, Neville flushed from head to toe and was extremely thankful the light was fading. Then he nodded and stepped beside her, looking down the hallway as he whispered.
"Alright. Follow me."
Severus Snape stomped into Remus Lupin's office and closed the door behind him with a wandless slam that rattled the pictures on the walls. At his desk, Remus looked up with a frown.
The usually dour man looked downright furious, and strode forward with a ground eating stride while holding a large steaming potion in one hand and a large piece of parchment in the other. The former he sat on the desk with a gentleness that was at odds with his demeanor, then he slammed the parchment down with a snarl as he launched into a tirade.
"This despicable piece of prank parchment was found by none other than the Weasley Twins, who I am sure were up to the worst sort of mischief. It, however, will not allow me to activate it and has resorted to amateurish insults in response. If this is some sort of joke on my behalf, I will let you know it is the worst taste."
Remus smiled, shaking his head.
"Severus, those boys are always out to get into trouble. What does it have to do with me?"
The angry man pushed the parchment closer to him with a savager jerk, before lifting it to point aggressively at the names scrawled across the paper.
"Do not think that I believe it to be a mere coincidence that this thing has come to my notice at the same time as your presence here in the castle is about to come to an end. I know what you and your group of murderous friends called themselves! I.."
Severus paused, seeing the color abruptly draining out of Remus's face as the man reached out, grasping the paper and pulling it closer, leaning forward to read the names with a broken voice.
"Messrs Moony, Prongs, Padfoot and Wormtail…"
A sad smile began to tug at the professor's lips, before he closed his eyes, shaking his head.
"I am most sorry, Severus. This is a mere token from our school days. I thought it lost forever, to Filch. I can only presume the Weasley twins acquired it there."
Severus folded his hands, some of the wind gone from his sails as he saw just how ill the wizard looked. He cleared his throat and snarled his words for good measure.
"The Weasleys wouldn't have been so sorry to part from it if it was merely a token. And the thing simply refuses to do anything other than insult!"
Remus's smile turned more genuine, and he lifted his wand.
"It was a protection charm we developed. James was quite good with transfiguration, but Siri... Black, was a master with charms. It just requires the right password. It was Peter's idea to make it insult anyone who attempted to active the map without it." Remus tapped the map, intoning softly. "I solemnly swear I'm up to no good."
Severus snorted, but strode around the desk to look over the werewolfs shoulder.
"We were self-described pranksters and called ourselves The Marauders. Of course we had to have a secret map. Allowed us to get around the school without running into teachers, and helped us map out secret passageways. It was confiscated in seventh year, but by then James and Lily were…"
Remus stumbled to a halt, and cleared his throat before continuing, seeing the man beside him stiffening.
"and other things happened to make pranking suddenly less important. Then the war had started and we were trying to get into the Auror Academy, though they quickly started taking everyone who signed up."
Severus grunted, then tapped the map with a slender finger.
"Does it show the whole school? Dungeons as well?"
Remus grinned, a spark of mischievousness rising in his gut.
"Of course. It was developed using runes already present on school grounds, but inactive. I assume there was once an official map owned by the Headmaster, but it must have been lost or fallen out of use long ago. The runes were scattered throughout the school. I found the hints in Hogwarts A History, and we followed the clues until we found all forty-nine runes, some of them in horrible places like the ceiling of the library, or a statue on the outside of Ravenclaw tower... in any case, we finished in our third year. It was brilliant, putting it on parchment instead of the original stone I assume it was meant for. More portable. We could see who was visiting who, who was out after curfew…and with whom. Black made some interesting blackmail with that kind of information. You just tap and speak a name to bring up a specific person."
Remus demonstrated by tapping the map and speaking the first name that came to his mind.
The map spun and rotated, and instead of zooming in on the quarters Harry rested in it begun to ink in the parameters of the grounds outside. Severus spoke sardonically.
"It appears Potter is out after curfew. Just like his father, no respect for the rules…"
Servers stopped, his eyes seeing the names at the same time as Remus, both men freezing.
There overlapped with Harry Potter's was another name, an impossible one.
"But.. Impossible. Severus, he's dead!"
Remus groaned out the words, his voice hitching. Severus's hand came down hard on his shoulder, his voice a hiss.
"Lupin, look! The willow. The Shack."
Remus's eyes darted over, his already stricken heart dropping like a stone, his head abruptly light-headed as a lupine howl sounded behind his ears, a hunting song, the wolf fierce and strong.
Remus began to talk, his voice a urgent husky growl.
"The willow, he must... I don't know how, I…"
"Get yourself together, and think!" Severus hissed, his eyes roving over the map and overseeing names in rapid succession.
Remus just shook his head, speaking again.
"I don't understand, Severus, but they are moving towards the willow, and that's the path towards the Shack, where Black is waiting…. This makes no sense."
Severus pointed to more dots exiting the castle, his voice grim.
"Looks like we have three more students shadowing Potter. We need to move fast, they will all reach the Shack before we do. You go contact the Headmaster, I will…"
"No!" Remus snarled, standing, his fists clenching so hard on the back of his chair that wood splintered under his fingers. "You can't face him alone, and if Harry has been… compromised, you will need help. It's possible the map is not showing this accurately. This could all be a trick. It has to be."
Severus didn't bother to argue, urgency moving in his body.
"Very well. We have no time to argue. Send out your patronus to the Headmaster, inform him of the situation. He will know how to handle the Aurors, and where to send them. We must get the students out of the situation as fast as possible, before someone is hurt. If possible, we need to keep their involvement from being known by the Ministry, especially Potter's." The two men entered the hallway, moving at a fast run as Remus summoned his patronus and quickly drafted a message.
Behind them, resting innocently on the large wooden desk, a smoking goblet slowly cooled and began to congeal.
Rufus Scrimgeour sat at his desk, filing the same reports he always did this time of night, and wearing the same expression of distaste at having to do so.
It was late, and his secretary had already left, along with the great majority of his men. Only the night shift remained, those on call for any mayhem that might be wrecked while the night was dark and good wizards were in bed. With it being a full moon, that normal shift was doubled. The new werewolf laws had only made it more difficult for the Aurors and the citizens they protected.
The matter with the Muggles had taken up much of his mind. The Minister had completely stonewalled any investigation, and managed to stifle reports in the newspaper to two inches on an inside page. What should have been a breaking news story was little more than a footnote.
But Shacklebolt was on their trail. Rufus had great faith in the wizard, and his ability to infiltrate the Muggle world. While the wizard took a mandatory leave of absence after sustaining injuries on the job, he would be starting work into a more subtle manner, and reporting by owl to Rufus on anything he discovered.
It was all they could do, at this point, while Rufus made his own political plans to displace the Minister himself.
Rufus stamped another paper with his signature, then tossed it into the large bin beside his desk. He had hoped obtaining the position of Head Auror would have more… dignity, than simple paper-pushing, but at times that felt like all he did. A glorified office stamp, that's what he was.
Beside him, his fireplace bloomed with green fire. Rufus straightened, eyes narrowed. Few had direct access to his main office.
From the flames a head appeared, white hair and a long beard, wrinkles set deep around serious blue eyes.
Rufus didn't try to hide his scowl.
"What does the Headmaster of Hogwarts need with The Auror Office this fine night?"
Before the old wizard had finished explaining and disappeared from the fire, Rufus was in action. He activated the emergency charms on the metal bracelets every Auror wore, summoning a task force and setting the location as the Auror Floo Corridor, where several large fireplaces would allow them to floo in mass directly into the Headmaster's office, who was waiting for them.
Within thirty minutes the Aurors were arriving, throwing on red robes and harnessing back-up wands. He gave them a brief overview of the known situation, then set out an emergency owl to inform the Minister, as distasteful as it felt.
Sirius Black was at Hogwarts.
Then he grasped a handful of floo powder and grinned into the rising flames. It was time for some action after all.
It had been simple enough to charm a small pebble to hit the gnarly knob at the base of the Weeping Willow. The large tree had immediately stopped its flailing, freezing into stillness as Harry approached and ducked down, entering the hidden passage at its base.
He carefully navigated the winding cave-like hallway, and realized it took much longer than he had thought to walk underground to the Shrieking Shack. The passage was not completely straight, and had many jagged rocks jutting out from its sides, a rough quality he supposed was intentional, to dissuade any intruders. Or perhaps help them escape, if what was trapped within was to catch their scent. It would be harder for a large werewolf to navigate than a teenager.
When Harry reached the piecemeal wooden door, he knocked and dropped his invisibility charms, and the door opened inwards. He looked into Sirius Black's face, the wizard's eyes alight with joyful intent.
Harry nodded and passed him, looking around the small room. It was bare, except for several pieces of splintered furniture and a twisted iron bedframe missing its mattress. Harry turned to his godfather.
"I suppose Professor Lupin doesn't come here anymore, with the potion."
Sirius only shook his head impatiently, looking Harry over for any sign of the rat. Harry shrugged his shoulders, letting his robe fall back from covering his arms and the animagus trapped within.
Harry watched the transformation fall over him, the grey eyes darkening to molten silver, and felt pressure building as his godfather's magic became agitated with the twisted dark emotion. Harry's fingers tightened around the rat, and he institutively took a step back, shaking his head.
"Calm down, Sirius. We will work this out."
For a moment, his godfather looked ready to challenge him; Harry saw the temptation passing over his face, the desperate longing look at the rat. Then he straightened, nodding, and cleared his throat.
"Alright, Harry. Let's…."
"I knew it! I knew you were foul, Potter!"
The shout brought Harry whirling around, his coiled magic unraveling in response to the threat. Then he paused, his eyes wide in surprise.
At the door, his red hair a fiery halo, Ronald Weasley panted and held his wand lifted out in front of him. His face and robes were dirty, as if he had passed through a dusty area. As the brown gaze met his, the boy began to spew his venom.
"I knew you had to be twisted, but this is the worst. Just wait until the teachers hear of this. Conspiring to help a Death Eater? And what are you doing with Scabbers? Some dark sacrificial ritual? I knew you were slimy, give him back, right now. Now!"
The boy screamed, his face twisted with rage and self-righteousness. Besides him, Sirius shifted, looking over with grim eyes. Harry only nodded at him, his mouth set in a firm line. Then he looked at Weasley, feeling pity and annoyance warring in his gut.
"How did you find me, Weasley?"
As the boys eyes flickered back to Harry from where he had been watching his rat, Harry saw Sirius withdraw his wand behind his back.
"A simple location charm. You think you are so smart, walking about in your invisibility charms and warding your door, but magic always finds a way. I've been following you for months now, trying to see what you were up to. Nobody believed me, they said, 'leave it alone, Ron, before you get hurt' But now, now, I have proof! The Aurors will take you away, and..!"
The boy suddenly froze, his mouth still open in a shout. Harry looked at his godfather, who frowned and shook his head. Then, behind Ron a brown haired head peeked, waving a hand in a helpless gesture as a familiar voice quickly spoke.
"Its me! It's me, Neville!"
Harry gawked, gesturing towards Sirius to lower his wand.
The boy stepped around Ron, then smiled sheepishly. "and, well…"
Then behind him, a slim girl stepped up and smiled beatifically.
"Harry, if you are going to have a secret hideaway you really must clean it up a bit. You really don't want to get an infestation of gulping plimpies. Horrid things to get rid of."
"Luna?!" Harry shook his head, looking from one to the other. Was he dreaming? Beside him, Sirius barked out a laugh.
"And you wondered just how wrong things could go, Harry."
Luna squinted over at his godfather, her eyes confused.
"Harry, your friend bears a strong resemblance to the wanted murderer Sirius Black."
Sirius dissolved into hooting laughter, and Harry groaned, running a hand through his hair. He turned to Neville, glaring.
"Fill her in, please, quickly. We had best get this done and over with fast, before even more can go wrong."
While Neville and Luna put there heads together, the Gryffindor speaking in low tones with wild gestures, Harry set the frozen rat on the ground, then looked over to where Ron Weasley was petrified. He quickly cast a stunning charm, watching the eyes roll back as the form collapsed to the ground, then bound the boy with conjured ropes.
When he looked back at the rat, Sirius was standing closer, his face grim. Then he lifted his pale wand, looking over at Harry with a solemn nod. Harry prepared himself to act should the animagus attempt to escape, calling over the Neville and Luna.
"We're changing him."
He heard their chorused acknowledgements, followed by a bevy of questions from Luna, and grimaced. He did not want them to know of the potential prophecy, and would need to change his preferred method of interrogation. He focused on Sirius, who nodded. The man lifted Caedus, and entoned in a voice that's steadiness was at odds with his trembling wand.
Harry released his magic from the rat as his godfathers spell struck, watching as the rat flew into awareness, his body squirming and squealing as it began to transform, the body warping as it grew, the sharp sound of bone and flesh popping into place. It looked painful, and perhaps an unwilling transformation was. He hadn't bothered to ask, and saw from the gleeful expression on Sirius' face that the man had saw no reason to inform him.
When it ended, a small man hunched over on the floor, his clothing ragged and threadbare. He looked up with a face still oddly rat-like, his front teeth overlarge and his cheeks twitching. He began to speak quickly, holding up clasped arms, eyes wide and blinking too fast.
"Oh, Harry, please, I'm your father's friend! Black is a deceitful liar, he's.."
"Shut up, vermin!" Sirius shouted, his hand coming down hard on the man's balding head and sending him sprawling to the floor.
As his godfather took another step towards the whimpering man, Harry shook his head, stepping between them and casting a quick silencing charm on the cringing man. Then he spoke slowly, keeping his back to his friends who hovered by the door, not wanting them to see the whole of what he was about to do.
"Look at me, Peter Pettigrew. Look into the eyes of James Potter's son."
The man slowly raised his eyes, his body twitching and flinching in expected pain, his forehead shiny with sweat. Then his beady brown eyes locked with Harry's green gaze, and Harry leapt forward mentally in his own unique brand of legilimency, one not taught but found, brutal and unstoppable. A way of riding on light and magic into another wizards mind, and seeing through their own eyes into memories once lived. His view warped and changed, his feet no longer flat on the ground, his form smaller and huddled and trembling and so, so afraid.
He was always the least of the four, but it was better to be least of the greatest than nothing at all.
Ugly, they called him. Awkward. Smelly. But useful. Loyal, like any Gryffindor should be, and brave.
Oh, so, brave.
Brave enough for this.
Peter looked up at the house one last time, windows glowing in the night, then turned his back and walked, walked, walked, each step an echo, and when he reached the woods he braced himself, looking down at the small scar on his left palm, his strong hand, the Vow, the Secret Scar.
To never tell.
But he was brave, and he knew, he knew! Things were too dark, the Dark so strong, the Master strongest of all. And what did brave people do? They changed with the times. They overcame. They survived.
Peter quietly spoke the word, cringing low, eyes closed in helpless terror.
The presence came with cloying power and overwhelming pressure, pushing him down into a bow, making him see only grass and rock, hearing the wind suddenly rushing as magic moved like a snake about him, winding and seeking and questing.
"Do you know where it is, Wormtail?"
Peter slowly looked up, meeting eyes that glowed red with malevolence and power and magic and light and terrible, terrible cold purpose.
"G-G-Godric's Hollow, Master. The P-P-Potter Manor."
It was enough, of course, and his Lord smiled, a grin that made him quake, and then the focus was off of him, looking through the trees.
"Well done. You have earned your reward. Speak."
Peter only trembled, unable to say a desire of his at all, nothing that mattered enough to break the silence, to risk invoking wrath.
The world tilted on its axis, sky becoming ground, the ground a star-filled darkness.
Images passed through his mind, of one other secret meeting, his first, held tight by a Death Eater whose blonde hair hinted at a possible identity, whose smooth voice was amused as it tossed him at the feet of a black-robed wizard on a stone throne carved with snakes.
"He wishes to speak with you, My Lord. Privately."
Peter knew it was ridiculous, of course it was. No one simply spoke with He-Who-Must-Not-
Be-Named, or no one lived to tell of it.
"Speak, then, Gryffindor."
The voice was hissing and cold and terrifying. Peter trembled and stuttered out the words, wishing he was small, a fly on the wall, watching the room with oblivious multi-faceted eyes, unseen and invisible.
He stumbled out his name, who he was, and what he might learn and how.
"What do you want in return, then, Wormtail?"
The Dark Lord spoke the nickname with a sneer, and Peter flinched at hearing it from his sibilant tongue, the name once spoke in fondness by his friends, forever poisoned and changed, not a funny name but a treacherous one.
He was a worm, now. The lowest of the low. But he would live.
The question lingered in the air, daring him to answer, to ask for a boon for the treachery he had committed. He didn't dare, couldn't risk breaking that sharp silence with his trembling words, lest the Lord in front of him turn those scarlet orbs on him instead, and his world descend again into painful agony.
The world tilted, and Peter heard a word, a hissing command, and saw green eyes and red ones overlapping, the same question, the same threats, the same, they were the same, and he was so afraid…
"What is the Prophecy?!"
Peter screamed his answer again and again, terror in his throat, clawing and agonizing as he twisted under the spell, the Dark Lord's mind like grease in his own, a oozing slime that invaded all his private moments and tore them apart, seeking an answer that he did not have to give, finding the truths even he had never faced, and never satisfied with them.
Please make it stop, oh please, I don't know, I swear it, I don't know.
"I don't know, My Lord!"
The silencing spell broke with the heat of accidental magic, Pettigrews terror bringing it forth in a powerful wave, and with it the man began to twist and transform, his frame shaking, seeking instinctively to escape by any means, his scream of denial still echoing in the room. Harry flinched back, taking a step away, feeling soiled and dirty and off-balance. Sirius snarled, caging Pettigrew in his rat form with a quick spell, though he only huddled between them in the floor and let out pitiful squeals of pain and fear, like vermin cornered by a cat with no where left to go.
Harry shook off his disgust and gathered himself, his magic filling the air. Pettigrew didn't know the prophecy, but Harry had still learned more than he knew before. One obviously did exist, and the Dark Lord had sought it with all of his energy and power. Which meant whatever it had said was important. Harry nodded towards his godfather to transform the little rat back into his human form again, and prepared himself, not allowing himself to look back towards his friends, wondering inside what they thought from Pettigrews terrified words. They had to finish this, and bind the wizard in his human form, where there could be no doubt who he was, and where he could no longer disappear into obscurity.
His godfather lifted his white wand, eyes alight, and suddenly Neville let out a shout of warning behind them. Then Harry saw it, a twisted purple spell flung towards his godfather with a speed almost too fast to stop. But Harry had been on edge and ready, and even as his mind thought stop, his magic jumped out, swallowing the spell with a bright burst of light that surprised him. He hadn't meant to command it, the magic had simply responded with something he had not known was possible. Harry spun to track the origin of the spell, and his heart sank as he saw the man framed at the door, his black eyes narrowed in concentration.
Professor Snape spoke, his deep voice harsh.
"Step away from him, Mr. Potter. I don't know what he has told you, but you can not believe him."
Harry didn't move, but cast his eyes down to where Pettigrew had scurried at the distraction, his fat form huddled now at Ron Weasley's feet. Behind Snape Harry saw another form move.
Sirius gasped, meeting the broken and betrayed eyes of his former friend.
"Don't call me that!" The brown-haired man demanded, his fists clenched. "How dare you!"
Professor Snape interrupted, not taking his black eyes off Sirius and Harry.
"If you don't comply, Mr. Potter, we will be forced to believe your mind is not your own, and remove you without your consent. Ms. Lovegood, Mr. Longbottom, step aside beside Mr. Weasley."
Sirius only shook his head, locking pleading eyes on his former friend, gesturing over to Ron and the rat.
"Look, Moony! Look, it's Peter! It's Wormtail!"
Lupin only shook his head, standing beside the Potions Professor as he too lifted his wand.
"It's just a rat, Black. Azkaban has twisted your mind."
"No!" Sirius howled, and Harry felt the threads of his plans beginning to unravel at a faster pace. He stook a step towards the rat, and saw Snape's wand turn to follow him. Harry paused, thinking furiously as he spoke.
"He's telling the truth, professors. They switched secret keepers, it was Peter who betrayed them."
"Your mind is poisoned, Mr. Potter, or you are simply that gullible. I was in the Dark Lord's ranks, I would have known if Peter betrayed them."
Harry frowned, shaking his head at a sharp movement from his godfather, reaching out a hand to the man even as he quickly spoke.
"Did you ever see Sirius there?" Harry saw the eyes flicker, and continued, trying desperately to convince them with reason. "That's because he wasn't! He isn't lying. That rat is Peter Pettigrew, in animagus form! He is missing a finger on his paw! All that was found at the scene of the explosion where Sirius was arrested was a finger! He cut it off!"
Professor Lupin looked unsure, and if it been him alone they might have convinced him. But Professor Snape remained stalwart, his wand raised. Sirius growled low in his throat, raising his wand towards Pettigrew. Snape quickly cast Expelliarmus, which Sirius tossed to the side with a dueling maneuver Harry himself had used only weeks before. The spell hit the wall and fizzled.
With a silence that pulsed like a heartbeat, they watched each other, Sirius and Harry on one side, Professor Remus and Professor Snape on the other, with Ron and the rat between them. To the side, Neville and Luna were pressed against the wall, watching with wide eyes. Harry clenched his jaw. He had tried to reason with them. They could not allow Pettigrew to escape, or his godfather would lose his best chance at freedom. Harry began to nod, even as his magic spread itself out around him, nudging at Sirius with a single thought.
I'll get him.
"You're right, this is all wrong. I don't know what I was thinking." Harry began to edge towards the men and Ron, holding up his hands in a defenseless gesture. Professor Snape's eyes narrowed, but Lupin reached out with a hand, gesturing him forward.
"Come on, then, Harry. Come over here."
Harry inched closer, and as soon as Professor Snape's wand reluctantly wavered towards Black, Harry lunged, rolling to the side and grabbing the rat with his magic, squeezing and holding it still as it squeaked and squirmed. Sirius shouted, holding up a shield, and Harry turned, dodging a spell and jumping towards his godfather. He would grab him, flame away with Peter, and they could explain later…
A spell hit him in the side, sending him spinning to the floor and beginning to bind him with long ropes, flinging Peter from his grasp and towards the door. Harry snarled and flailed out, his magic ripping through the incarcerous spell attempting to imprison him and then lashing out, smashing Professor Lupin to the floor in a giant ripple of power. The man fell like a stone, eyes wide before they closed and the man collapsed to the ground. Harry was forced to back up a step as Professor Snape turned, his face deadly calm, his wand sending out wordless spells with deadly accuracy.
"Heth." Harry whispered, and watched as each light washed against the runic shield, which held steady under the barrage. He looked around for his godfather, passing on the huddled forms of his friends and the sprawled one of Ron Weasley.
Then Harry saw him, through the bright flashes of spell and shield.
A brown rat, scrambling towards the exit.
Harry shouted, his voice impossibly loud and desperate.
"Sirius! The rat!"
There was the sound of a dog's bark, and Professor Snape whirled away from Harry, holding up another shield. But Sirius Black had not leaped for him.
There was a snap, the crunching of bone and teeth, and Harry watched as the large black dog's jaws crunched over the body of a brown rat with deadly purpose.
Harry shouted something, he wasn't sure what: but in the next moment the dog was being flung back, landing in a pile of fur on top of Professor Lupin's sprawled form.
Harry rushed forward, ignoring Professor Snape's spells, Heth still a bubble of protective power around him. But before he had even reached the bloodied rat the thing began to change.
It was smoother this time, like collapsing water from a broken glass, the human flesh and blood pouring out of the small rat in a twisted mess of mangled humanity.
Harry stopped a step away, staring down, the brevity of it striking him like a hammer, and he turned his face away, feeling himself shake all over. There was only one reason the animagus would have lost the transformation; death. He looked towards Sirius, who stood with a brisk shake on four legs, the dogs eyes locked on the damage it had done. And Harry saw the satisfaction there, in those canine orbs, greater than the regret.
"Leave." Harry whispered, his voice breaking in an adolescent crack. The dog looked up, and now Harry saw the sorrow beginning to gleam. He cleared his throat, his pulse thudding in his ears and mouth and making the world seem overly bright and real.
"Black." The dog flinched, lowering its head. Harry continued, striding towards him. "You've done enough."
The dog smoothly changed, bending over and then standing straight, a gaunt wizard with groomed hair and nice clothes, clothes Harry had provided, his expression twisted now. Sirius opened his mouth to speak, then looked away, grasping his wand with tight knuckles as he gave one brisk nod.
The pop was deafening in the small room, like a gunshot at close range, and Harry flinched away and turned, looking at the others in the room.
Neville was pale, gently holding Luna who had apparently been sick after seeing the ruin that was left of the body of Peter Pettigrew. Severus Snape had dropped his shield, staring down at the form with dark eyes. Then he looked up and over at Harry.
Harry let Heth drop, the magic returning to him from the shield with a quick snap. He opened his mouth to speak, but what echoed through the room was not his words, but a hoarse scream. Harry whirled around, unconsciously lifting a hand, and saw horror.
Remus Lupin was twisting on the ground, his voice hoarse and rough. Chills ran down Harry's spine, realization washing over him in a tide of fear. Suddenly a hand grabbed Harry's shoulder, Severus Snape shouting frantically.
"Out! Run! He did not take his potion! There's no time, Harry, run!"
And Harry turned, following the others, as Severus ducked down and gathered an unconscious Ronald Weasley and sprinted behind him, shouting.
Before they had even gotten halfway down the long corridor, Harry heard the howl. It was pure and strong, a vengeful beast of light and magic, and Harry felt a echoing hum inside himself, an acknowledging song of the Moon.
They spilled out of the Willow close together, Severus dropping Ron Weasley in a heap on the ground, turning to cast locking charms on the entrance to the passageway.
For a brief moment Harry took a deep breath, looking over to see Neville and Luna holding each other. Professor Snape growled, speaking as he stepped away, looking towards the castle.
"All of you, to the castle, immediately! fetch The Headmaster and Madam Pomfrey! I'll stay…"
His voice faded away as a loud cracking crash sounded from the base of the tree. All of them backed away, except Professor Snape who looked suddenly solemn, lifting a wand. When he spoke again, his voice was deadly calm and swift.
"Mr. Potter, take Weasley, and get out of here. All of you. This will not hold. He has the blood-scent."
Harry looked towards the castle, watched Neville and Luna already beginning to run, and saw the truth. They would never make it. Remus was a full-grown werewolf, decades infected, and had been repressed for at least a year by the Wolfsbane potion. He would be strong, and immune to much of the magic that could be cast. Snape might, possibly, hold him off, but it would be at the risk of his own life. And if he failed, there was no way to make it to the castle first. Even if they did, they were inside the wards here: the werewolf would be free to roam the castle, and cause untold damage to whomever it came upon.
Harry stepped up beside the professor, eyes locked on the door, not flinching when the wizard whirled towards him.
"Go, Potter, now! Don't play the hero like your pathetic father!"
Harry didn't reply, but waited as another crash sounded with a loud tearing sound. Professor Snape cursed again, lifting his wand, the tip glowing with light and intention, stepping slightly in front of Harry, his back straight and his power flooding the area around him with rage and sorrow.
Harry saw it all, and let his own power loose in open coils, lunging forward and around even as the werewolf crashed through the bark, fangs flashing and bared, claws extended and outstretched. Harry did not have time to think or consider, the seconds flashing by at lightning speed.
He heard his Head of House shout, a loud sound of angry helplessness, and saw the werewolf shake itself, turning its golden eyes to meet his own, the sentience there wild and mad with freedom, its purpose only to taste blood and run under the light of the Moon. Harry's magic rose to meet it as it lunged towards him, and he brought out the phoenix fire inside him, allowing it to envelop them both in sheets of white flame, taking them away, as far away as he could think of so that his friends were safe.
Only, he hadn't really thought, and when they fell in a tangle of magic and steel and fangs it was in front of the house in Kondinin, where he had traveled so many times, the journey a force of habit.
Harry jumped apart, raising his abruptly summoned wings around him in a metallic and menacing gesture, and trying to sing in phoenix tones of light and power, to communicate to the beast that had taken over the mind of Remus Lupin. He did not want another Marauder to die this night.
The werewolf paused, claws digging into the soil, its eyes on his, before raising back on its haunches in an oddly humanoid gesture of alertness. Harry called out again, with light and power, singing of wind and grass, long stretches of empty land, of caves to explore and mountains to climb, freedom to run and hunt and howl.
The werewolf turned, the silvery full moon beating down on him, and Harry was struck by the simple beauty of him, a being full of Moonlight and foreign power, like a tiny reflection of the sun walking about the earth. No wonder the beast was savage, to hold such celestial influence inside and not die from the madness of holding what cannot be comprehended. It took a step away, its paws hitting the grass with graceful silence, its nose upturned to the breeze, taking in air and scents with great whuffing breaths.
The beast turned its head and snarled, its golden eyes gleaming in the darkened night.
Neville's heart hammered in his chest, his side filled with pain. He hadn't ever ran so fast in his life, and not since he was a child had he gone so far at such a speed. But terror chased his footsteps, the last echoing howl ringing in his ears.
"Headmaster! Headmaster Dumbledore!"
Neville screamed at the top of his lungs as he ran into the castle, not caring who heard or woke. Beside him, Luna remained silent, her normally peaceful eyes gone blank with fear as she ran along. She hardly even knew the bare facts of what was going on, and those Neville had only had moments to explain before everything had suddenly went very, very wrong. How had the professors found them? Had they been followed, like they in turn had followed Ron? Why hadn't the professors just listened?
"Professors! Filch! Anyone!" Neville called urgently, his mind frantic. Where were they when you needed them? Why wasn't anyone patrolling the halls? His breath came in quick pants, and he could hardly hear over the thudding of his heart in his ears.
They turned another corner, their feet heavy on the stone.
Neville screeched, then turning another corner suddenly found himself staring into the eyes of several red-robed wizards. Neville didn't hesitate, his fear for Harry overcoming any shyness he might have felt at confronting Aurors.
"Please, quick! Professor Lupin, he's, ah, he's transformed! Werewolf! And Harry, um, Potter, is out there! With Professor Snape!"
The Headmaster of Hogwarts appeared at the base of the Whomping Willow in a flash of fire, Fawkes immediately taking to the air with a questioning song, his dark eyes looking about in concern.
Albus quickly took in the scene, seeing the blasted trunk and twisted roots, the frozen trees, the claw marks on the ground. Mr. Weasley lay slumped and bound to the side, and he quickly ran a diagnostic charm over the child, relieved when it came back that all was well. He unbound the ropes, then turned as as a figure appeared at the dark entrance in the Willow. He raised a wand in stiff fingers, blue eyes narrowed.
Severus Snape stepped out, wand in hand, dark eyes filled with emotions Albus could not name. He lowered his wand as the wizard stepped fully out.
"Severus, where is Harry? And Remus? Mr. Longbottom implied..."
He drifted off as Severus moved aside, and he saw the figure floating behind him. His eyes took in the mangled figure, but pausd longest at the face, one both dreadfully familiar and sickeningly impossible.
"How?" He whispered. Severus lowered the body to the ground, then turned to face him, explaining in quick terse words, falling back on old habits; a spy giving his emotionless report.
"I brought Lupin his potion, and a map I had found. On it, we saw Potter and his friends names, heading straight for Black, along with another name: Pettigrew. I...we, assumed it to be some trick of Blacks. To perhaps lure Potter to him."
Severus cast a glance at the twisted body, then looked away, eyes dark and cold.
"We followed them, Lupin sending you his patronus."
Albus nodded, murmuring acknowledgement before Severus continued.
"When we arrived, Weasley was bound. Longbottom and Lovegood were standing in front of us, but we could see Black had his wand raised at Potter, who had his back to us. I attempted to subdue him, but Potter stopped my spell. Black rambled about Pettigrew being alive, and switching Secret Keepers. We did not believe him. There was a brief exchange of spells. Potter tried to deceive us to, I assume, apprehend Pettigrew and escape with Black. Lupin managed to hit Potter with incarcerous, but the boy broke the charm. Black transformed into a large dog, and leaped towards me… I assumed he was attacking me.. But a rat.. what I now realize was Pettigrew in animagus form, was trying to get past us, and Black, the dog…"
Severus began to falter, then straightened with a sneer.
"The fool killed Pettigrew. Potter demanded he leave. There must have been some sort of plan between the two, of which none of us were aware, because Potter acted as if he had known the man for some time. After Black apparated away, the man had possession of a wand somehow, after he left Lupin began to transform. I realized he had not taken the potion I delivered. We all fled and I attempted to barricade the entrance, but it was no match for the werewolf's strength. I demanded the others leave, but Potter, as you can guess, decided to play hero. When the wolf came through, Potter intercepted it, and teleported away with it in tow."
Albus let all the information sink in, running through the scene even as Severus described it, setting aside doubt and questions until the wizard finished. Then he spoke.
Severus glanced up at the large phoenix flying overhead, then met Albus's eyes.
"No. At the time, I assumed that it was possible Fawkes somehow teleported them. It happened very fast. It was immediate, with no popping sound that I could hear. Flames the same color as a phoenixes, looked like the same texture as well. Very distinctive phoenix flame."
"Fawkes has been with me. When I received the patronus, I flooed Head Auror Scrimgeour. He is currently on his way here, with a team of Aurors. We were on our way out of the school from my office when Mr. Longbottom appeared. I thought it prudent to come ahead."
Albus glanced at the body nearby, and grimaced.
"I see I was right."
Severus grunted, then abruptly sat on a large boulder nearby, looking up at the castle.
"They will be here soon?"
Albus nodded, his shoulder drooping, shaking his head, then called up to Fawkes. The phoenix spiralled down, landing on an outstretched hand. Albus glanced over at Severus.
"How long has Mr. Potter been gone?"
Severus shook his head, eyes grim.
"Thirty minutes, perhaps. Enough time for me to retrieve the... Pettigrew."
"I see." Dumbledore looked towards his phoenix, who inclined his head with a solemn nod, then vanished in red and gold flame. "Fawkes is our only chance to locate them. A phoenix can locate someone almost anywhere. But Mr. Potter and Remus are not our only concern, at this moment."
The Headmaster looked again at the fallen form, and heard behind him the sound of footsteps. He straightened even as Severus stood, turning to meet the alert eyes of the Head Auror, followed by a team of red-robed wizards, all holding their wands aloft in strict formation.
"Ah, Head Auror Scrimgeour. I'm afraid the immediate crisis is somewhat resolved, but we have on our hands quite the mystery. Do you, perhaps, remember the name of Peter Pettigrew?"
Harry whirled on the balls of his feet, desperately casting a stunning spell, which merely washed off the werewolf as it lunged towards the questioning voice with violent intent. Kerr jumped to the side of the porch but not fast enough, one arm raised in unconscious defense. The wolf fell on him, growling and ripping with efficient speed, and Harry grabbed and pulled, his power like the claws of an owl, swooping down at a mouse as it scurried across a field.
The werewolf howled furiously, squirming and ripping at the power that held him, and Harry screamed with the pain, flinging the beast down and holding it, pinned to the red soil with focused intent, unwilling to let it free to kill those he held dear.
Harry drew from deep within himself, deeper than he had ever done, pulling every ounce of magic and control and wrapping it around the beast, pressing it down and down, physically stepping closer and holding, placing his hands upon the heaving wolf's side, its fur rough under his hands, its wild eyes staring up at him with feral rage as it struggled, fighting him with its whole body and essence and the light given to it by its patron, the Moon, who merely looked down at the struggle and remained placid and steady, a soft gentle light at odds with the violent struggle below.
For moment upon moment he held it, each second an eternity, his muscles cramping and straining, his body beginning to howl its own distress, and over it all his power, the unending well of light, rising up from inside him to keep hold of the wolf. It never stopped its struggle, never stopped pressing back against him, the growling in its throat high pitched and desperate.
Then the Sun rose.
He felt it against his back first, a hot wave of power that flooded him like an ocean tide, irrepressible and constant. Harry felt the beast finally fall still, its body quaking, the golden eyes fading to a dull shine as they rolled back, unconscious with the strain of transformation. Harry shakily stood, looking down as the form began to twist and change, and then he heard his name.
He turned, his exhausted green eyes meeting Mike's and saw both the worry and the grief there.
"Harry, it's Kerr. He was bitten."
The news did not strike him as it ought to, his mind too stretched from everything that had already happened, unable to comprehend this last blow against him. He only followed the dark-haired man back over to Kerr, who sat unconscious in a chair, a blood-soaked bandage around his forearm, his face twisted and pale.
It took Harry a long moment to understand why the man had not turned as well, why there hadn't been a second werewolf here wreaking havoc and taking lives.
The Steels were Muggles, and Muggles did not have the innate magic like Wizards and Squibs that would allow them to change, to retain the symbiote of disease that was Lycanthropy. To infect a human, it needed a viable host, of which the man in front of him was not.
But being bitten was no less than a death-sentence for Muggles. The virus, unable to latch on, would instead infect and poison, tearing apart the body and breaking down immunities, until the form finally simply collapsed and died a death more painful than the transformation it could not take.
There was a chance a healer at St. Mungos could fix the damage, if given the opportunity. He wasn't sure it had ever been tried before. But to report it would create a firestorm on top of a scandal, a Muggle in a wizarding hospital, brought by The-Boy-Who-Lived himself, bitten by a werewolf teacher of Hogwarts. And there was the chance they could do nothing at all.
There was a easier way.
Harry stepped back, looking at a hovering Mike, and beside him, Tiny.
"Unwrap the bandage. I will heal him."
He saw the relief wash over them, Mike hurrying to unwrap the careful dressing, and then closed his eyes, focusing his battered mind and magic.
The pain of transformation was, as always, overwhelming. Harry did not hold in his whimpering scream, but let it out in a cleansing breath, the hot fire of snapping bones and sprouting feathers almost a kind of sharp and pure relief. Harry leaned forward and spread scarlet wings, then flew over in a quick leap to Kerr, grasping the arm of his chair with black claws.
Then he leaned over the still form, looking into the open bite wounds, and began to cry.
He had never before tried it, but found the sorrow came easily, and from his beak he began to sing, of healing and moving on and the Sun's cleansing light, that burned the evil of the world with its purity. His tears fell upon the wound, and with them went a part of his light, a thin stream of fiery heat that soaked into tissue and bone and knit together, destroying the infection and overcoming the Moon's power with that of the Sun.
When it was done, Harry leaned back and called up phoenix flame and jumped into it, transforming inside its white heat, and for a long moment drifted there on the healing pain, letting his body recover and his soul attempt to adjust. There Fawkes found him, the phoenix sliding closer, his feathers gleaming with the reflection of flame. The phoenix sang in low wordless tones, imparting only comfort and support. Harry floated in the fire, and realized with a start that he was crying, the tears evaporating in the heat without the slightest feeling of water on his cheeks. He began to laugh at it, the absurdity of crying inside of fire, and made himself stand upright, meeting Fawkes' peaceful gaze.
The phoenix nodded, spreading its wings and vanishing. Harry did the same, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, the air hot and dry.
Then he opened his eyes and stepped out, walking onto the porch mid-stride, his steps slow and filled with latent pain.
And he looked directly into Professor Remus Lupin's eyes, still holding the leftover golden glow of the wolf.
He hadn't always been what he was.
Bright, his teachers had dubbed him at an early age, and had admired his fresh face and youthful exuberance.
"He'll go far, John will."
So his professors had said. They had not been wrong.
His parents had been devout Christians, and dismayed when their youngest son had received a letter to a school of Witchcraft. Their John was a normal boy, smart as a whip of course, but James... he was a dreamer. Always had his head in the clouds, and got up to such strange mischief. But witchcraft?
It had taken a personal visit from a professor to get them to not only believe, but accept. John had thought it odd that their acceptance had come so quickly, as if a simple card trick could change their very minds and personality. They still went to church and studied their Bible and prayed around the table, but never again did they even question the thought of James learning to practice magic.
John had tried to raise the subject, without James present of course, because he was worried about his younger brother going all alone to some strange boarding school. His parents had seemed dismayed at first, which turned to annoyance and then anger at his insistence that something was not right. Finally, they laid down the law: James would go to Hogwarts, and that was that.
And so it was.
When James returned that first summer he was full of energy and life, overflowing with joy at the new world he was in. John felt a little better, and he was a teenager now and had other things on his mind, like girls and cars and music, and so paid little attention as the time passed.
John loved his brother, and only had fleeting moments of jealousy for his younger siblings good fortune and happiness. After all, John was special himself, obtaining awards and scholarships and praise from professors and fellow students. They were merely two sides of one coin, and both could be great; though James never aspired to anything more than his own happiness in his magic.
During James's fourth year something changed. John was graduating early, a ceremony his younger brother had missed, and was losing touch anyway with the distance of time and familiarity, but he still saw it; saw the darkness hiding behind his siblings eyes. And one night that summer he went into his brothers room and sat on his bed as he had done many years past when they were younger and brighter and innocent, and looked James in the eye and asked for the truth.
And James told him of Muggles and their wizarding children, and Half-Bloods and Rights and all the things that sat as a moldy tarnish on the golden world of magic. John had tried to understand, and spent many hours talking and planning. But James went back to school after the summer, and John was in college and perhaps did not write as much as he could, and figured everything must have been alright. When the letters slowed and then stopped, he barely spared a thought, because there were exams and papers and women to catch and hold his attention.
That Christmas, James was quiet but filled with purpose. He gave a short explanation of lions and snakes and badgers, which made little sense to John, and told of connections and holding strong and change. Everything seemed fine, and his younger brother was filled with purpose. John thought, good, and thats that, then.
Then one day, walking through the elegant stone halls of his esteemed college and chatting to friends of politics and gossip, John answered an urgent phone call from his parents. James was home, and it was only March. John had been confused, and even more so at the blank stare in his brothers eyes when he entered his room a day later. His parents smiled, reassured him that James had been in an accident of some sort, had a head injury and minor amnesia but everything was fine, was it a car crash, or was it a train?
Honey, did they say train? Or plane?
His mother stared at his father with blank, confused eyes, and John felt the coldness in the pit of his stomach grow. Quietly, he spoke a single testing word.
His parents looked at him, eyebrows furrowed. Their confused questions only cemented his worry.
When he got his brother alone, James stared up at him with wide eyes. John had knelt at his bedside, saw that his brother had no broken skin at all, no injuries or bruises. He looked the picture of health, except he leaned against the bed frame as if he had no energy at all.
He remembered nothing, nor did his parents.
Hogwarts, magic, all of it, a large gap. His parents fared better, of course, and indeed only worried for their youngest sons increasing despondency. James had lost his inner light, what had been left of it, and seemed to have lost the will to continue. John withdrew from his semester in college, a leave of absence, and stayed to try and help. He tried to jog his memory, tried to mention magic and spells, but those only served to aggravate his brother.
Once, he mentioned a wand, and James jolted, his hand reaching out to grasp something, only to fall limply to his side, his wide eyes heartbroken.
Did I lose something, John? Something precious?
John tried and tried and tried. He bought new movies to watch, games, even read stories to his baby brother, and inside he seethed with growing rage. What had happened? What had been done, that his brother had been exiled from the world he loved? Why had his parents forgotten it all? What was going on?
And then one day John returned from a quick shop at the market, hands filled with bags, and he knew as soon as he closed the door, the awful silence filling the space with its poison. The bags spilled from his hands as he took the stairs two at a time, heart racing and breath coming fast, and he pushed the door open and saw it.
When he cradled James in his arms, held his weak body tenderly, his brother spoke in a frail whisper.
"Who am I, John?"
"James. You're my brother. I love you."
And he cried, great gulping sobs, because it wasn't his brother anymore, not now, with the light gone from his eyes.
Afterwards, when the fury had died down, when he had left his parents weeping together on the sofa, making funeral plans and phone calls to distant relatives, he sat in his quiet room and made a promise.
For his brother, he would find out the truth. For his brother, he would turn the tables on the ones who had done this to him, even if it meant taking on the whole of the wizarding world.
For his brother, for James.
Then he left his parents behind with their grief, filled with cold purpose, and he started a new life and a fervent search for others, for people like him, touched with the sharp heartless stab of the wizarding world. When he first shook hands with a young doctor named Nathan, he introduced himself as James, and felt the smile grow wide across his face for the first time in years.
The world would never forget their name.
Somewhere out among the dark spaces of forgotten data and inactive blogs of the Internet, a small forum abruptly flared back into life.
A single line began to repeat, over and over, scrolling across the page in bright red capital letters.
"...PHASE II. INITIATE PHASE II. INITIATE PHASE II. INITIATE…"
~*~To Be Continued: Ripples~*~