Elfish Welfare - Tyrannic_Puppy - Harry Potter (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Potters are Dead Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 2: Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon Chapter Text Chapter 3: Those Who Can't, Teach Chapter Text Chapter 4: Look Before You Leap Chapter Text Chapter 5: The Power of Friendship Chapter Text Chapter 6: Memento Mori Chapter Text Chapter 7: How to Free Friends & Influence Goblins Chapter Text Chapter 8: Nightmares and Missing Moonys Chapter Text Chapter 9: Hermione's Magic Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10: Wand Up Chapter Text Chapter 11: A Touch of Magic Chapter Text Chapter 12: Her Embrace Chapter Text Chapter 13: Pomp and Circ*mspection Chapter Text Chapter 14: Many Happy Returns Chapter Text Chapter 15: The Darker Side of Fame Chapter Text Chapter 16: Probing the Defences Chapter Text Chapter 17: Baiting the Rat Trap Chapter Text Chapter 18: One Big Happy What Family? Chapter Text Chapter 19: Black Hole of Family Chapter Text Chapter 20: Decisions, decisions Chapter Text Chapter 21: The Long Road Ahead Chapter Text Chapter 22: That Potter Luck Chapter Text Chapter 23: A Series of Firsts Chapter Text Chapter 24: The First Task Chapter Text Chapter 25: Fame and Friendship Chapter Text Chapter 26: The Blissful and the Bothersome Chapter Text Chapter 27: Eggs and Potatoes Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 28: December Blossoms Chapter Text Chapter 29: Obvious and Oblivious Chapter Text Chapter 30: The Second Task Chapter Text Chapter 31: Aftermath Chapter Text Chapter 32: Rebuilding Chapter Text Chapter 33: Politics Chapter Text Chapter 34: Tests, tests, tests Chapter Text Chapter 35: Goofing Off Chapter Text Chapter 36: Preparations Chapter Text Chapter 37: Revelations Chapter Text Chapter 38: The Third Task Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 39: Rough Landings Chapter Text Chapter 40: What Comes Next Chapter Text Chapter 41: Morning After Chapter Text Chapter 42: If You Know, You Know Chapter Text Chapter 43: Heading Home Chapter Text Chapter 44: Testing the Waters Chapter Text Chapter 45: Breakout Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 46: Reverberation Chapter Text Chapter 47: A Moment To Breathe Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 48: Convalescence Chapter Text Chapter 49: Mistrust Chapter Text References

Chapter 1: The Potters are Dead

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Elfish Welfare - Tyrannic_Puppy - Harry Potter (1)

Cover by EnchantedPixie495

Sunday 31st October 1981.

Dead eyes stared up at Sirius Black as he knelt over the still-cooling body of his best friend.

His brother in all but blood. The grief he felt in that moment was so profound it took him several minutes to realise the frantic sobbing he'd heard when he walked through the destroyed front door was now conspicuously absent.

Tearing himself away from James, he quickly bound up the stairs to see the nursery door in a similar state to the front one. Though without the assortment of ordinary debris around it this time. Only the jagged ripped walls where the hinges had held on surprisingly well against the onslaught. Without even stepping inside another spear of grief ripped through his body as he saw the still red hair cast across the doorway. Both of his dear friends were dead.

Struggling furiously against the desire to simply give in to his agony, Sirius finally entered the room and could not keep his eyes from caressing the lifeless form of Lily. She was still as beautiful in death as she had been in life, but there was no longer the fiery glow in her warm eyes.

Unable to fight any longer, Sirius collapsed to his knees and wept as the reality of his world came crashing down on him with full force. The rat had betrayed them, and now he was completely and utterly alone.

No!

One thought pierced the grief and pulled Sirius from the brink of the despair he was so close to surrendering to.

Harry.

Sirius dragged himself, barely crawling to the broken crib in the corner. He was all Sirius had left, and Sirius was all the boy had. He must be strong for Harry. As his eyes crested the deformed mattress he beheld the ruined bedding.

Shock set in as he realised the crib was empty, but for a few dark drops of blood. Harry was gone. Agony wrenched through his body as Sirius fell back against the now-useless child's bed and let everything wash over him. Tears fell, his chest heaved, and the weight of it all crushed him down into a tiny shredded ball of despair. Time meant nothing anymore and he would never again smile as he watched his dear friends holding their bubbly baby boy.

Hours must have passed before any semblance of rational thought managed to break through Sirius's mood. He, at last, noticed the ragged cloak and pale wand of the once-feared Dark Lord bunched over by the wall opposite the crib.

The unrecognisable lump of mangled flesh that oozed out from within like a morbid tube of toothpaste lit a tiny glimmer of pride in Sirius as he realised that at least his friends had managed to take that dark bastard with them.

Whatever had transpired tonight had destroyed not only Harry but Voldemort as well.

The glimmer only lasted a moment before a fiery need spread through his chest. There was one more thing that Sirius could do for his friends. He could give in to the anger his 'family' had so sought to brew in him. Yet they had never succeeded in aiming it where they wanted. Sirius was all fire without James to help temper his hotheadedness, and he knew exactly what he was going to burn now.

He would hunt down the rat and end him for good.

The spark was back in Sirius's eyes as he stood, walking from the room and back downstairs. He wished Lily and James goodbye as he passed them both. Reaching down and closing their eyes. Unable to let his last memory of their faces be these masks of death. Now they could be mistaken as sleeping.

"I'll make him suffer for this, Prongs. And we'll meet again when it's over."

Sirius knew his friend would have grilled him for that comment. But there was nothing but revenge to live for now. And once that need was filled, Sirius Black would not survive long in this world.

He stepped out of the cottage and into the cold night air. The chill seeped deeper than usual as he stood, and took a single deep breath.

Sirius closed his eyes and focused. And then, with a crack, he was gone.

ϟ

The lungs on the lad were truly something to behold. Mipsy almost wished she were as half-deaf as Pops often pretended to be when they played up. Her large bat-like ears magnified the sound to a painful degree.

"Mipsy, sit him down in the rocker, please."

"Yes, mistress, of course." The house-elf replied.

"Harry, sweetie," the voice cooed, trying hard to be heard over the wailing boy, "Mummy's right here sweetheart. Please don't cry."

Bright green eyes opened, and Mipsy got her first good look at the young master. He had been kept away from her his entire life and now he was alone, but for her and the others. She had followed her instructions to the letter but had been unable to break through the enchantments Mistress had placed. She'd had to wait for them to fall before she could enter the ruined building.

"That's my brave boy. Yes, you are."

Mipsy looked at the portrait of the young couple, practically crying as they attempted to calm the young lad that Mipsy was now rocking gently back and forth, just as she had been in this very same rocker a few years beforehand.

"You must be so frightened and tired. Mipsy is going to watch over you and care for you now. But you can talk with me whenever you want, too."

Young Harry was transfixed by the portrait. He knew it wasn't quite his parents but was too young to properly tell the difference. The confusion and longing were written on his face as he reached out to the painted surface eagerly trying to touch the dead.

"I'm so sorry, my sweet baby. I so dearly wish I could hold you right now. But you need to rest. Tybalt!" A soft popping sound heralded the arrival of her brother. "Mipsy is going to take Harry to his crib. I want you to take us and place us on the wall above it. Do it at the same time so Harry can see us."

"Right away Mistress." Tybalt bowed, nose brushing the floor, before gripping the frame firmly and watching his sister closely.

A moment later and they were all in a different room, a much brighter room with snitches and brooms adorning the walls. The nursery the young master and mistress had been preparing before old beardy had suggested they go into hiding. The mistress had warded the new cottage so heavily that even the elves could not go there.

Such was the twin's coordination that Harry's eyes never left his mother.

"Perfect. Time to sleep now, my baby. I'll be here with you all night. Rest sweet child, for tomorrow, is a new day."

Mipsy lay Harry as gently as she could in the scarlet bedding and made sure he could see the portrait the entire time. Leaning over the wee figure, she pressed a delicate kiss to the boy's forehead, as she knew her mistress would want to do herself. Stepping back, she watched in silence as the painting sang soft lullabies and whispered kind words until Harry's eyes could resist no longer, and fell closed for the first night in his new home.

ϟ

Tuesday 2nd November 1981.

The gamble had worked. Voldemort was destroyed. The prophecy appeared to have been fulfilled.

Both parties had died in the encounter, which was truly unfortunate. As was the loss of the Potters. They had been fierce and loyal members of the Order. While the two often spared little quarter to their enemies, Albus had to admit they were the single most effective fighting force in the Order after himself. Challenged only by the Longbottoms and Alastor.

It would have helped society heal faster if any of them had lived, to be a beacon for the people to rise behind as the dust settled, but no matter. Albus had steered them well these past several decades, this most recent disaster notwithstanding; and now resolved.

An old man could be forgiven a few mistakes. This result still meant peace and was a victory for all things good in this world. If only it didn't mean that he now needed to deal withthem.

Albus Dumbledore would ensure the security of their world, but it was still the bastard goblins that maintained the security of what he now sought out.

For almost half a century he had held the first. The most sought-after and generally considered the most powerful. By lesser minds who never had to consider the true might of the others. Yet it had fallen into his hands by sheer happenstance. And now he was its master in ways he believed none before him had ever managed. Not even his friend. That these beasts had taken from him in his hour of victory.

Yes, their Nation had suffered somewhat under his friend's might, but to kill an unarmed man as he lay defeated in the arms of his lover…

The very memory of it made him fume as he sat in place. Why were these infernal creatures taking so long? He had other things that he needed to do with his time right now than sitting here waiting for a meeting.

Ever since James had revealed the second to him, Albus had pondered what else might lay within the depths of that family's vaults. And now pure chance had seen fit to allow him the opportunity to look.

The law was clear on this. Made so by some former Chief Warlock during a war that predated even Albus himself. The Chief Warlock would take control over any unclaimed inheritance as a result of wars that occurred within their borders. To ensure proper distribution was, of course, the reasoning given in the wording of the ancient law.

But it also meant he would have free reign to search for the third. The most important and in his opinion, the most powerful of the three. For no amount of magic could be channelled through the first that could reawaken the dead.

He knew that for a cold hard fact.

"Mister Dumbledore." The voice broke the old man's train of thought.

"Yes?"

"Gragnar Ragnok will see you now." The goblin gestured at the enormous silver doors opposite his seat, a horrid grimace deforming its features.

"Very good. About time."

He straightened his bright purple robes and strode through the opening doors. He knew how to make an entrance, looking every bit the reincarnation of Merlin himself. Generally, he only did so because he enjoyed the way it discombobulated his enemies and spurred his allies. It also did give him quite the warm feeling inside to have people look up to him that way.

While he would never use his position for his own gain, it did leave most he met in a certain level of awe. If they weren't already so thanks to his many achievements in life.

He felt a spike of displeasure as the flair seemed wasted on these vicious creatures. The armoured goblins along the walls smirked maliciously and Ragnok himself seemed unperturbed as Albus sat opposite him at the ridiculously large stone desk. Perhaps he would take the concept for use in his own office at Hogwarts.

"Mister Dumbledore" Albus rankled at the goblins' continued use of the plain title. As if his lifetime of achievements were completely meaningless to them. Albus had worked hard, not to garner his many titles, most having been bestowed upon him by others in thanks. Yet these cretins seemed determined never to use them. "How can Gringotts help you today?"

Clearing his throat Albus drew himself up as he addressed the leader of the Nation. "I have come to peruse the contents of the Potter Estate, as per the law."

"I'm afraid that would be impossible." Ragnok gruelled back.

Albus concealed his shock well. "Whatever do you mean? That is the law. As Chief Warlock, I must preside over all unclaimable inheritances caused by this egregious war."

"Indeed." Ragnok stared him down, not moving an inch. "Despite that pretty trick you all slipped through over a century ago, the Potter Estate is not unclaimable."

This time he failed to keep the shock from his face. "And why is that?"

Ragnok smiled as evilly as it was possible for a goblin. "Because the beneficiaries of the Will still live. With legal inheritors, the Estate is to remain sealed until they can rightfully claim it."

"That makes no sense." Albus mused, confused by the matter. "I was present at the Potters' filing of their Will. I know that all who are listed upon it are now deceased or currently reside in a cell in Azkaban."

"Wills can change, Mister Dumbledore. And accidents happen." The glare directed at him by the Director of the Bank sent a cold chill down Albus's spine, even as he mirrored back a corruption of words that Albus himself had once said to Ragnok. While he was surely a very powerful wizard, raising his wand in these halls would see him cut down by the hundred beasts surrounding him. The unspoken threat bothered him.

Did the goblins somehow know what he sought in the Estate, and hoped to deny him out of spite?

"Very well then, as Chief Warlock, I request to see the adjusted Will so that I can see to its enactment." His usual serene look returned to his face as he considered the option that would still allow him to peek within, even if it was only during a change of hands.

"No."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said, no! Are you deaf as well as daft?"

"How dare you. I have every rig…"

"Youhave no rights while seated in Goblin territory to demand anything of us if our clients see fit to keep it hidden. As the Potter Will was sealed by order of James Potter three days before his death, you have no right to overturn said decision. It shall only be opened by the executor and inheritors at the approved time."

Albus ignored the gnashing of weapons behind him as he glared back at the vile goblin scowling at him like he were vermin.

"Now see here…"

"If that is all,MisterDumbledore, I have other matters to attend to." Ragnok waved a hand dismissing him.

A fiery rage overtook Albus at the dismissal by those who had wronged him so. As he stood and felt his fingers slipping up his sleeve.

"I wouldn't if I were you." Ragnok chided, without even glancing in Dumbledore's direction.

Albus grimaced again, reigning his temper in without giving any outward sign of it. "Good day." He spat as he turned on his heel and beat a hasty retreat from the room.

He would just have to come at the problem from another angle.

ϟ

As the door swung shut behind the manipulative old goat, Ragnok was a blur of motion.#Buhgor, get your ass in here. And bring Farkor with you.#He shouted into an enchanted speaker on his desk.#Darkblade, watch that miserable coot closely. He will not give up at this. He wants something…#He called to his chief guard as the side door swung inwards bringing the requested goblins inside.#Sit.#

The two goblins quickly sat in the indicated chairs as Ragnok continued scribbling furiously on the documents on his desk. As he finished, he grabbed a silver blade from the desktop and sliced his thumb, allowing several drops of blood to hit each piece of parchment.

#You have 24 hours to complete a full audit of the Potter Holdings. I need it on my desk by this hour tomorrow, or your head will take its place, Buhgor.#

The aged goblin gulped deeply at the threat before taking the offered parchment and speeding from the room. Such was his terror that he forgot the customary nod as he left the office. Ragnok smiled to himself at his ability to strike fear into those he needed. There was a reason he was the unchallenged Gragnar of the Goblin Nation in this corner of the world.

He turned his attention back to the younger of the summoned goblins.#Farkor. You are proving most resourceful. I wish for you to contact the Potter Elves. I know several still live on their properties and suggest that they lock them all down as heavily as possible. The wizards may think young Harry dead, but magic tells us otherwise. Whoever has him will likely come for the same thing the stupid old bastard was after. You have five hours to have their response on my desk. Understood.#

Farkor clearly felt the same fear that had sent Buhgor sprinting from the room, however, he did not show it on his face.#Of course, Gragnar. Right away.#He calmly leapt from his seat and strode from the room, remembering the customary nod as he left.

#That lad is going places.#

Notes:

A/N:#Indicates Rhovak speech#, otherwise known as Gobbledygook, GIbberish or Goblin Speech.

Chapter 2: Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon

Chapter Text

Thursday 4th November 1981.

The soft breathing and occasional muttering were music to his ears.

All the planning and plotting had not been in vain. Glancing beside himself, he drank in the imitation of his wife. As talented as Rohan had been, he had been unable to fully capture all that made Lily Potter so great.

But there was enough.

Her fiery hair glowed in the shimmering lights from the nearby lamp and an unbreakable will shone forth in her beautiful emerald eyes. They were locked, unmovable, on the sleeping form of their only son, just below their frame in the crib he'd built for the boy with his own two hands.

Well, his own hands, Padfoot's interference and several bottles of Firewhiskey.

Lily had been furious when she had come home, heavily pregnant to the chaos of timber and tools scattered around the living room. Padfoot had fled quickly upon seeing her face, but the look she directed his way only made James love her even more.

That had been only days before Dumbledore had told them of the danger, the prophecy. One he had apparently known about for months, but that had only come to possibly refer to them after their most recent tangle with Voldemort and his Death Eaters at a muggle shopping centre.

Where he, Lily and the Longbottoms had faced the man himself and managed to drive him away. Supposedly painting all four of them, and the children they carried, with Fate's mark as a result.

James had been frantic to see that Lily was alright, but she was her usually fiery self afterwards, as Dumbledore had questioned if they had a place to hole up in. James had initially suggested they come here. To the Manor in which he had grown up.

Charlus and Dorea would have welcomed them with open arms. And he knew the locale to be secure. His father had explained his tests on the wards many times. But those green eyes had swayed him.

Lily had been uncomfortable placing her faith entirely in wards she could not understand the arithmancy of. Worried there might be a hole in them that Voldemort might exploit. And the complexity of the wards over Potter Manor were far beyond any of them.

The secrets of their creation were now well lost to the history of a dying race. Even his father's years of research had barely scratched the surface of how Irabelle and the dwarves had managed the feat.

Instead, Lily had convinced James to buy the small cottage in Godric's Hollow in secret. Not leaving any trail that could link the purchase to them.

At which point she and Alice had worked tirelessly to prepare the perfect safehouse. Every protection that she could fathom was laid down over those stones before they moved in. Identical to the ones being laid around the Longbottom home to defend them, as both of them could apparently fit this mysterious prophecy that Albus refused to divulge to them. Beyond the fact that it involved their unborn sons.

Both homes were made into magical fortresses. Layers upon layers of powerful and vicious spells and enchantments protected every square inch against intruders.

And then they foolishly tied it all to a single Fidelius Charm. Whose secret James agreed to entrust to a dirty stinking rat. He should never have trusted Pettigrew.

Not with his family.

Instead, he trusted his brother. Sirius had seemed so sure that the bluff would work. It would keep the Death Eaters chasing his tail like the dog he was while the secret remained safe in their most unassuming friend. And yet, they had heard nothing from the man in the days since. Despite not being the Secret Keeper, Padfoot knew the backup plan was to retreat here.

James considered that he was probably hunting Pettigrew in his honour, and the thought brought a smile to his face. At least they would have retribution once Sirius arrived with the traitor's corpse. Though, Padfoot was supposed to be here. Helping them with Harry.

Yet James could not help but blame himself. To wonder if there was something else, anything else, he could have done to protect Lily and Harry.

Mipsy's sudden snores broke his reminiscing. The young elf had only just become of age to help around the house when he had started building the crib. She was to be Harry's personal elf, to help him with whatever he needed, keep him in line when James couldn't be there himself, and help to teach Harry his place in the world. She would still get to be that for the boy, but now it fell to her and the others to raise him entirely.

A portrait cannot truly cry, as they are not truly alive. Instead, the canvas on which James's eyes were rendered seemed to weep a clear oily substance. The only thing he could now give out into the real world were these cold imitations of real grief.

James would never truly teach his boy to ride a broom. How to talk to girls. The best pranks to pull on his teachers. He could pass on his knowledge, but it would never be the same. He fell to his knees as the reality of his mistakes finally overwhelmed him. Hard sobs wracked his body as Lily's arms snaked around him and pulled him tight.

"I failed him," James sobbed softly.

"It is not your fault, my love. Voldemort would not be stopped. If anyone screwed up here, it was me. You were right, we should have come here and trusted your ancestors."

"I don't blame you, Lily. Your magic was astounding. It was my fault for trusting the wrong person." James assured her as he quaked in her grasp. All of the failings that led them here weighed upon him. His son was alone in the world. "Harry deserved better than this."

"Get over yourself, Potter."

James sniffed and looked up in disbelief at his wife, a broad smile splitting her face.

"What?" he asked in confusion.

"We messed up, but Harry lives on. Our son needs us to be strong for him. He needs our love and our guidance, not our pity and regret. So," her grin grew even wider as he became lost in her eyes, "get over yourself. Please."

James couldn't help the smile that broke over his face at her words. For so many years she had refused to even consider the idea of dating him. He'd been a jerk and he deserved her scorn. Mostly due to her baffling friendship with Snivellous. But then that had broken and James had still not had any luck.

So he had reassessed himself, and found himself wanting in many areas. He committed to changing, to being a better man, and not long after that, she had finally turned those emerald eyes on him in desire.

Lily made him a better man. And she understood how his mind worked better than even Sirius could claim these days. She knew that empty words and platitudes did not sway James Potter. But that fire in her, that could turn his will on a knut. She was so strong, and so was he with her by his side. Even in this state.

He reached his hand behind her head, tangling it in her hair and pulling her down. Their lips were millimetres apart when a shrill cry broke through their moment. Harry's cries solidified the boost his wife had given him. Harry would always come first. He was their only responsibility now.

Mipsy was quickly roused by the hearty cries of the young child. She shot out of the small chair by the crib and was checking over Harry with her magic, trying to find the cause of his discomfort.

"Mipsy, he's hungry," Lily called, catching the elf's attention. "Trust me, that cry is hunger. You'll come to know them all well."

The elf simply bowed and popped away, returning after a moment with a bottle and gently picking the boy from his crib and settling back into her chair as he drank. James felt the remorse and regret tickling at the back of his throat at the scene below him. Just another thing he'd never again be able to do for his boy.

"Stop it, James." Lily chided him again softly as she held him close. "He'll be grown before you know it and we'll wonder where the time went. Stop worrying about the past and focus on Harry's future."

ϟ

Farkor grinned to himself as he held the small envelope in his claw. He had sent the Director's message off to the head Potter elf, suggesting that the elves secure and lockdown all the Potter properties to protect them against whoever might come searching.

The small wax seal on the rear of the letter proved it had been received by the correct party. It was the Potter seal, but the wax was steeped in natural magic that did not flow through human veins. There was no mistaking its source. Ripping into the parchment, he unfolded the letter and spread it on his small cubicle's desk.

Respected Banker Farkor,

We thank you for your concerns regarding the Potter holdings in these darkened times. Rest assured, the properties in question have been sealed since our Master's command many weeks ago now.

The elves have completed a thorough assessment of the possessions and properties of our Masters and found most to be in their proper place, with only a few known exceptions.

Our Master's commands that Buhgor continue to manage the affairs of the estate until such time as,there was an obvious pause in the writing,a suitable Heir comes forward, has never been countermanded. As such, we would greatly appreciate them continuing in this regard.

Should you have further questions, please contact me in the same manner.

Regards, Pops.

Head House Elf of the House of Potter.

Farkor smiled again. Though the letter was fairly vague, it had contained a few pieces of information that he was sure the elf had not meant to convey.

The boy lived, and the elf knew exactly where he was. It was only a small break in the pressure of the writing that assured him of this hunch, but it did not fit in its place in a piece of official correspondence from the Head elf of the Potters. Charlus was a stickler for such things in his day, or so he had been told.

Analysing handwriting had often seen Farkor ridiculed by his peers. But the skill had often come in handy since he had begun working in the bank. More was revealed by the form of the lettering than others seemed to fathom.

Poor Pops was beginning to show his age, as he would normally have completely rewritten the letter to erase such a mistake. Such knowledge would help the Nation stand ready to assist the boy at the proper time for the correct price.

But for the moment he would sit on this little sliver of information. He had done as his Gragnar commanded. He had not asked to see the correspondence and as such Farkor would have time to verify his hunch. Perhaps he could convince the elf to part with the information willingly. But it mattered not.

The young goblin had his methods, and he would get what he needed eventually.

ϟ

Monday 8th November 1981.

Dumbledore stood in the Gringotts atrium with a full half of the Wizengamot behind him.

While a number of them had not been his first choices, they did hold a significant amount of sway in their world as part of their courts. And many had large fortunes banked with the goblins. Perhaps that would be enough.

He felt off for how he'd had to sell the idea to several of them as well. Comments like 'An estate as broad and strong as the Potter's could not be left to the greedy administration of the goblins' had a few of those in attendance smirking with anticipation.

And Albus wondered for a moment if he had made a mistake in their inclusion.

He'd had to make certain concessions to other members to garner their support. Some wanted money, some support on a doomed bill being put to the Ministry which he could offer without actually making any difference. Albus had become very good at maintaining the status quo when necessary.

Practically everyone thought that he was on their side to some degree, and no one ever questioned him when their attempts at change fell in a heap at their feet. Surely it was never the fault of the Chief Warlock.

Still, others had wanted favours. All would be called in eventually. But as with the support, Albus had long ago mastered the ability to slip free of his obligations, without it seeming that was what he was doing. Or holding some long-forgotten mistake over the one trying to manipulate him into their corner.

An advantage of having seen so many of the members of this society pass through the halls of Hogwarts. He knew a lot of their dirty little secrets.

"Mister Dumbledore."

Albus seethed internally. He knew the little sh*ts were doing it now to anger him before the meeting. "Yes?"

"The conference room is through here. If your party would like to join us."

Without waiting for a reply, the goblin shot off down a side corridor and the wizards were hard-pressed to keep up without breaking into a jog. The goblins were trying to unsettle them before the meeting. A simple distraction tactic that Albus himself had employed many times in the past. Clearly, these rodents had forgotten who they were messing with.

As the goblin came to an abrupt halt in front of a pair of floor-to-ceiling doors etched in gold, the now panting wizards finally fell in behind him. "Enter."

The doors swung inward and the small goblin disappeared, leaving the assembled wizards to enter and join the arrayed goblins already seated inside. They had clearly been sitting comfortably for some time, and Albus fumed silently at the attempts to throw him off his game.

"Welcome," Ragnok addressed the new group as they all sat, "Mister Dumbledore." He added, nodding purposefully at the aged warlock.

Dumbledore's eyes narrowed at the malicious grin on the goblin leader's face.

"Manager Ragnok," began another of Albus's group, who clearly knew very little of the goblins if he thought such incorrect titles mattered to them, "we're here hoping we can resolve thisissuewe seem to be having with the poor Potters' last wishes."

"There is noissuewith the Potters or their wishes. They are quite simple and quite clear." Ragnok replied, eyeing the upstart wizard angrily.

"Quite," Dumbledore added, "but it is the opinion of the Ministry that something must be done regardless. It is not wise to ignore a problem until it becomes too big to clean up."

Dumbledore smiled, his time had come now and he would have a modicum of revenge against these little bastards today. Not only for their former transgression, but for the sake of what he sought. They only ran this institution due to the kindness of wizards after they were thrown down and beaten the last time. A small concession to appease their retreat from their benevolent vanquishers.

"You still seem to be bumbling about under the assumption you have the ability to pass laws that matter in some way to the Nation, Mister Dumbledore." The twinkle that had been in the old man's eye quickly vanished. "Pass all the laws you want, it won't get you what you desire."

The grins on the goblins were now bordering on hysterical as the gathered wizards began to chatter and moan to one another at the gall of these creatures to deny them their rights.

"Director, we are the rightful law of this magical world. All are subject to its reach, as clearly noted in our treaty." The foolish young Undersecretary Fudge called, a smug smile on his face as he believed he had put the goblins back in their place.

"Perhaps, young fool, you need to read the treaty again." Ragnok glared, "I, however, know it very well. Seeing as my father signed it when you lot were tired of fighting any longer."

Dumbledore was truly struggling to keep his anger in check. These creatures were beyond the pale if they thought they could get away with this after all that they had done.

"We seem to be veering off the topic here," he corrected, trying to get things back where he wanted them. Where he could control them.

"Again, you labour under false pretences, Mister Dumbledore. The treaty in question is the heart of the matter. Did any of you think to read it carefully before calling this meeting?" Ragnok met the eyes of every member in the chamber all of whom looked away bashfully apart from Albus himself.

He would not be so easily rumbled, though it had been some time since he'd availed himself of the treaty's inner workings. Not wanting to interact with those who killed his joy so long ago any more than he needed to.

"As I said," Ragnok continued, "I know the treaty by heart. I have studied it long and hard, long before I took the seat of Director of this Bank. You would all do well to familiarise yourselves with it once more.

"According to the articles of the treaty of 1865, the matters of inheritance law fallsolelyunder the auspices of Gringotts Bank. Furthermore, they also categorically affirm that the running of said Bank shall remain thecastigationof the Goblin Nation for their efforts in rebellion.

"Now I assume that you learned men understand the wording of the treaty just fine, but I think it should be pointed out to some of our younger members. That is to say that you, the wizards, decided togiftthe goblins the task of managing your bank as punishment for our actions in the rebellion. However, the wording of the treaty leaves no clause under which we can be removed from the management of said affairs.

In other words, you put your defeated foes in charge of all your money."

Ragnok paused and his smile broadened even further. A state that to most humans looked like a feral creature ready to strike, with their sharp pointed teeth on full display.

"You were then stupid enough to leave the assessment and distribution of all inheritance and estate management to the above-mentioned bank. So, in short, challenge us on the Potter Estate. You are correct that you write the laws of the magical world. But by the words of the existing treaty, if we were to acquiesce to your wishes, it would require the reassessment ofevery single inheritancethat has ever been our duty to oversee."

Several of the gathered wizards paled considerably at his last words. Money had long been passed, probably under this very table, to ensure the proper wizard was always the one to receive his 'due' from a will. If the goblins were to thoroughly reassess even half of the wills they'd been 'forced' to oversee, the entire balance of power in their world could change overnight.

"As it stands, there are individuals listed as inheritors of the entire Potter Estate. Those people are alive and well, though not presently able to enact their recieval of said Estate. If any were to attempt to cheat those individuals out of said inheritance, the members of Gringotts, the very Goblin Nation itself, would be most," Ragnok stared steely-eyed directly at Dumbledore, "displeased."

Though his face showed none of the shock he was feeling, Dumbledore began to see the full extent of the goblins' threats. If he were to push matters, none of his political goodwill would be enough to let him survive the feeding frenzy that would go down in the papers the next day.

"And just to be absolutely clear, we have just finished an entire audit of the Potter Estate, as per the request of the Will. We know where every Knut, spoon and sock are located and how many there are. Should anything listed under it become misplaced, we will close the doors to this building until such time as the items are returned and the one responsible hands themselves over for judgment under the terms of our lovely treaty. Is that understood?"

Every wizard in the room shifted uncomfortably as Ragnok again made eye contact with every one of them. Each nodded their head silently as he passed from one to the next. The other goblins in the room were grinning openly as the truth of their victory became evident to the fools who had believed they had won the last war between their peoples, but who had been too stupid to read andunderstandall the terms of the documents they were signing.

Ragnok fixed his gaze one last time on Albus, an enormous grin spread from ear to ear "Then, you are dismissed."

Chapter 3: Those Who Can't, Teach

Chapter Text

Saturday 25th July 1985.

"I'm worried about Harry."

The other figures in the painting stopped their game and all glanced up at Lily as she stared beyond the frame. Harry was curled up in the corner of the library with a book dangling perilously from his fingers as gravity sought to claim it for its own. The house-elves had draped a light blanket over him and left him to slumber there at the instruction of those in the painting.

James glanced at the boy sleeping in confusion, "what do you mean, love? He's fine."

"Not the sleeping in the library, the boy has proven it to be his favourite room in the whole building." James shook his head, mildly ashamed that Harry would sooner sit in here and read than learn to fly. "I'm worried about friends."

"Friends, dear?" James's grandfather asked, shuffling the cards on the table.

"Harry has none," Lily replied. "Well; none that aren't house-elves."

"He'll have plenty of time for friends at Hogwarts, Lil. Don't fret about it."

Lily stared back out into the real world, watching the gentle rising and falling of Harry's chest for the next several minutes. She felt a sickness at the thought of her boy spending the next several years cooped up in this house.

As it was, they practically had to bribe the boy to go out and play. If left to his own devices he'd have read every book in the house by now.

"What about studies? We can only teach him so much."

James looked back at his wife, "he's a smart boy, Lily. He's like a sponge for knowledge, just sucks it all up."

"You could always have some of the other youngins come to visit him from time to time. Does well for a lad to get out and about. See the sun, feel the fresh air." One of the Potter ancestors claimed, blowing a particularly thick cloud of cigar smoke over the table.

"Be hard to keep knowledge of the boy quiet if you invite half the magical world to visit. Word will spread quickly once they realise he is alive." Another interjected.

"Best to keep him safe here where no one can find him. Too much danger for the wee boy out in the world. The elves can only protect him so much." A third ancient figure said, nodding to themselves as if that sorted matters.

Lily watched the sleeping boy for several minutes. The others were right, the world outside was far too dangerous for him at the moment. The letters they had received from Gringotts showed there were many out there trying their hardest to get their hands on the Potter Estate, and if they found Harry they could force him to hand it over. Or worse.

And he was learning a lot here with them. Every day he would be up bright and early, fed and ready sitting in front of them here in the library before most of those in the portraits had awakened. Most of them having been painted far later in life than she and James had.

And James was right, Harry absorbed information like a sponge. He was a delight to teach and was always asking questions about one thing or another. He'd almost learned everything they had to teach him about his place in the family and his future responsibilities to the Estate as the sole Heir.

Lily was sure the boy was only just short of having an eidetic memory. He devoured every morsel of information like it would be his last. Yet could recite it all back to you as if he'd only just read it moments ago.

This, too, worried her. It was important to be keen on your studies, but it had almost become Harry's entire life and that wasn't normal for a boy of his age. And that spurred a new thought in her mind. The magical world was indeed unsafe for him.

"He'll be five in a few days. He's the right age, James." Lily said, sliding her arms around her husband.

"The right age for what?"

"School."

"He can't start at Hogwarts until he's eleven, dear. You know the rules."

"Muggle school, James. He can learn and be with kids of his own age. No one from the magical world will be there to see him and spread rumours. He'll be safe," she looked down at the boy once more, "and happy."

"I don't know sweetheart. The Muggle world can be a dangerous place. We can't protect him outside the Manor. The magic protecting this place is beyond anyone's understanding. No one is breaking in here to get at him. I wish we hadn't left in the first place." James whispered as he trailed off. Clearly not wanting to mention it had been her idea to leave last time.

"I know that. I regret my mistake more than you can imagine." She replied, offering a silencing hand when James made to rebut her. "And I know that when they married into your family, the Peverells took this place off the map more than just figuratively. I remember the day you first took me for a walk in the grounds and we walked a dead straight line from the house until we hit the other side of it again.

"I always wanted to research those wards. To figure out how they worked. It's like they ripped the whole area out of the world and stuck it in its own little bubble. One I should have trusted then. But now Harry is trapped alone in that bubble. There is so much he will miss out on, I can't bear to steal this from him as well."

"What about his lessons with us? He's learning quickly, but there is still so much to go over. The family histories, and his place in the wider world. He'll be famous just for his last name, not to mention the fact he'll be coming back from the dead."

"I'm not talking about boarding school, James. We send him to state school during the day, so he comes back to us each night. Those are the type of children he needs to be around anyway. He'll meet enough of the snobs when he goes to Hogwarts."

James leant back in his chair staring up into Lily's eyes, he could see the concern etched on her face and smiled to himself.

"Why do I argue with the smartest woman I know?" He pulled her lips down and kissed her softly. "If you think we should send him, we send him. Mipsy loves that boy just as much as we do, I'm sure she can watch over him at school without a fuss."

Lily may have blamed herself for her refusal to use the Manor as their hideout when Voldemort was searching for them. But she was extremely grateful to her past self for having registered Harry in the muggle system at his birth.

Even though she knew he was going to be a powerfully magical child. She just could not bring herself to entirely abandon her heritage. No matter how cruel her sister had become over the years, there were still many incredible things about the world she had first grown up in.

That foresight would serve them now by providing the necessary paperwork to register Harry into the school system. Just as it had gotten him a couple of early vaccinations. Even if James had assured her that magical folk never fell sick to those muggle diseases. It brought her simple peace of mind to know he was protected.

A wide smile broke over Lily's face. "Thank you. It will bring a little peace to my heart. I'll help Pops prepare the documentation he'll need. He can... pretend to be our butler or something for the meetings. People will still ask questions, but we'll hardly be the first 'absent parents' sending their kids off and never checking up. As sad as that is."

Pops's interesting ability was another subject Lily had once intended to investigate. That elder house-elves developed a magic that allowed them to take on new forms. Almost like a metamorphmagus.

James had somehow convinced Pops to use the ability in order to trick her for an evening, and she smiled at the memory. Before she then sighed at yet another thing she would never hope to achieve anymore.

The remaining Potters just shook their heads at their whipped descendant and dealt out the next hand. Harry softly slumbering away beneath them, completely unaware.

ϟ

Monday 2nd September 1985.

"Master, Harry! Please don't run in the house!"

Harry ignored the wizened elf as he tore into the study and plonked himself on the chair facing the currently empty portrait. He shook with anticipation, rocking on the very lip of the chair as he waited for his mother to appear. He knew he didn't have long, but he refused to go without seeing her first.

"Harry," her disapproving voice came a moment before she entered the frame, "you need to listen to Pops. You'll be the end of him if you keep driving him mad like that."

The smile she wore as she spoke took most of the sting from her reprimand. But Harry still felt bad. He never liked being told off by his mother. Not because he didn't like the talking to, that he never minded so much. It was the fact that afterwards, she could never wrap her arms around him and make him feel better.

Words were all they had to comfort him, and it was never the same. The only hugs he'd ever had were from Mipsy. None of the other elves felt it was appropriate to hug their Master.

Though he was very young at the time, Harry could still remember the feeling of being in his mother's arms. Of the warmth and security, he felt wrapped up in her. It was the thing he missed the most since that horrid night.

"Sorry, mum." Harry dipped his head as he spoke, the feelings of loss overwhelming him as his memory took a turn to its darkest reach.

"Harry, look at me, sweetie."

His eyes raised to meet with her own. His near-perfect recall was a double-edged sword for Harry. He could remember all his lessons with perfect clarity. Recall any book he'd ever read with minimal effort.

But he could also remember the pure perfect shine of his mother's eyes, and he knew not one of the paintings in the house, no matter the canvas or paint used, could ever properly convey them. He missed the fine details of his parents that were lost now to all but memory, and tears began to slip down his cheeks.

"I'm sorry I can't be there now to hold you, love. You didn't deserve this fate. We do all we can to protect you from the dangers out there, we often forget about the ones in here. I know that you miss your father and I."

Harry nodded as she spoke, giving voice to the feelings he never did. He wanted to be their strong little boy. Never their soldier. Harry had used that term once after finding it in one of his storybooks and James had reprimanded him fiercely. They never wanted him to be a soldier.

"Come on, Harry. Aren't you at least a little bit excited?"

Looking back up at his mother Harry could see the love in her eyes. But also, the trepidation. This would be the longest he had ever been away from her since the night they died. At first, he'd thought he had done something wrong when his mother suggested it. That they were sending him away.

It had been a long and emotional discussion. Harry had begged them not to send him away, promised to be a better son, to do anything they asked. Lily had to call Mipsy to hold him as they explained their reasons.

This was not a punishment, but a reward. He knew there were still a lot of things to learn about his responsibilities and the magical world he would rejoin one day, but he knew there was something else he was missing. As much as he loved his family and the elves who were raising him, something else called at the edge of his soul.

A dull throbbing ache that would never go away. Never getting stronger or weaker, just there. His mother had explained friends to him and while confused by the concept, he was also excited to meet these friends.

Lily was still watching him closely as these thoughts whipped back and forth through his mind. The troubles were ebbing away, and the excitement was building once more, and his eyes began to take on the glow he had once seen in his mother's. She smiled at him as he wiped the tears aside and smiled at her.

"Yes, mum. I'll make you and Dad proud."

Lily's smile grew even wider. "That's wonderful, darling, but you already make me so proud. What I want you to focus on today is making you happy. It might be frightening at first, but I know you will make some really strong friends. Just remember, it might not happen right away."

Harry looked a little frightened at the idea of being away from home and without friends for a long time. How long would it take for them to like him?

"Be calm, Harry," Lily called, drawing his eyes. "How do you feel right now?"

"Scared, but excited. What if they don't like me, mum?"

"That, Harry, is how every one of them is feeling right now." Harry's gaze went wide as he contemplated his mother's words. "They want to make friends just as much as you, but they are worried they won't be liked either. All you have to do is be yourself, and the friends will find you."

A feeling of purpose rose within Harry's chest. He would make friends. He would make his family proud of him. He would make the best friends anyone had ever seen. Determination settled on his face as Lily laughed gently at her boy.

"Now are you sure we have everything? You can't be expecting Mipsy to pop back and forth because you forgot your pencil case or lunch!"

Harry tapped the backpack he wore and grinned. "I checked it three times this morning. All there." A proud grin spread across his face.

"Then come here and give mummy a kiss goodbye."

This was the reason for their discussions in this room. The picture in the study was almost touching the floor and was the only one in the house where Harry could stand at face height with his parents without them lying on the floor of the painting.

Lily leant down so the wee boy could press his lips to the slightly raised portion of canvas that was her cheek. Neither one could feel the warmth of the other, but the motion, in itself, brought some small form of pleasure.

"I love you, mummy. I'll make you so proud."

"I know you will baby, now take Mipsy's hand and remember, you're there to have fun."

Harry nodded vigorously as he took the elf's hand. She nodded to her mistress and with a loud pop, Harry left the house for the first time since 1981.

ϟ

Friday 10th January 1986.

Harry sighed as he ate the delicious sandwich that Pops had prepared for him.

His legs swung to and fro beneath the bench as he sat and watched the other children running about on the playground. He felt the pull to climb on the equipment with them, but something was holding him back.

Despite his talk with his mother on his first day, he still felt trepidation at the idea of talking to the strange children. Even though he'd known them for several months now, none of the ones playing in the playground had connected with him as he had hoped.

Not for lack of trying either. Harry had talked with every one of them, at least eight or nine times. While some were nice and talked happily back, none gave him the feeling that they were his friends. They still tended to gather with the same small groups of people every time they went for recess. Groups that never seemed to include him.

And for some strange reason, Harry could not understand, his performance in the classroom actually made some of the children seem angry with him.

Eagerness to learn had always been encouraged in his studies at home. When he learned something new, his entire family would praise his achievements. They even arranged a small party the day he had been able to recite the entire Statute of Secrecy to them, amendments and all. Knowledge was his first friend and he loved learning.

School life was so different from home. There, his entire family would be focused entirely on him. It was almost as if they had no other life outside of Harry. But here, he was just one of hundreds of students. And while the teachers here seemed happy when he provided answers in class, they never focused on him the way his family had. Their attention tended to go to other students in the class instead. On anyone who was struggling with their work.

And those other children seemed to resent his knowledge. Only one other child in the class seemed to enjoy learning as much as he had, but he could never find her at playtime to talk.

She would disappear out the door before he could catch up and by the time he reached the playground she was gone. Harry was becoming frustrated with his inability to make friends. He could learn anything, why could he not succeed at this? How hard could it be to make friends?

"Oi, Scarface."

Harry closed his eyes as he downed the last portion of his sandwich. While he was still having trouble making friends, it seemed the opposite took care of itself.

"Yes, Thomas?" Harry turned to the third-year boy towering over him, thanks to being almost twice Harry's age.

"What you bring me for lunch today, eh?"

It had been slow at first, but after news of Harry's intelligence spread, Thomas had made it his mission to knock the know-it-all down a few pegs. He'd been roughing Harry up every day for the past couple of months, but Harry never gave him the satisfaction of reacting.

"Sorry," Harry shrugged, "I'm afraid I've already eaten it, but if you like I can bring some more to share with you tomorrow."

Harry knew it was not why the older boy was asking, but he knew that playing along usually meant a shorter encounter. The bully clearly didn't like his lack of reaction but was determined to teach him who was in charge around here.

"You little pig. Hope you left some room for more."

Thomas grabbed Harry by the arm and dragged him to the nearby sandpit before grabbing a handful of sand and attempting to force it into Harry's mouth. Knowing he was weaker than the tall boy, Harry did not try to pull free of his grip, that would only result in bruises which his parents would ask about. Harry was determined to resolve this himself. He would not go crying to his mother as Thomas liked to taunt many of the children.

Though, most importantly, Harry forced himself to hold his emotions in check. He was still barely able to consciously feel his magic, much less control it. The few occasions where it had gotten out of control at home had been interesting, to say the least. Here, the need was far greater.

His parents had impressed on him the importance of remaining hidden from magical folk for the time being. An accidental magic incident at the school would surely see people from the Ministry attending to investigate.

"THOMAS MITCHELL! You let Mr Potter go this instant."

Harry grinned slightly through sandy lips as his teacher stormed across the yard. This was how most encounters ended. He knew fighting back would only get him in trouble, so Harry let the scenario play out, knowing the teachers at this school were very prompt in reacting to the bullying. At least in his experience.

He suspected Mipsy had a hand in drawing their attention whenever something happened to him. He knew the little elf was watching somewhere nearby, but he had forbidden her from personally interfering. As with his own accidental magic, elf magic in a playground was a recipe for the disaster his parents seemed so worried about.

Thomas released Harry and quickly dusted the sand off his hands behind his back. Mrs Grevillea towered over them both as she arrived and looked down at the taller boy.

"What exactly do you think you were doing?" She asked the older boy.

"Harry fell into the sandpit, Miss. I was only helping him up." Thomas smiled his I-did-nothing grin.

Harry giggled at the foolishness of it, as there was no sand anywhere but his face, but did not contradict the boy. That would only lead to more attacks. He could handle what was happening. He was no coward and he would not ask the teachers to fight his battles for him.

Mrs Grevillea stared at the boy, the look on her face conveying she clearly did not believe a word of the story. She glanced at Harry and merely raised an eyebrow, requesting his version of events.

"It was nice of him to help like that, Miss." Harry smiled, dusting the sand from his lips.

She stared down at them both before asking Thomas to accompany her back inside. Neither boy said a word to one another as they went their separate ways.

"Why don't you stand up to him?" A timid voice called as Harry reached his bench once more.

He spun about to see the young girl standing behind him. It was the girl he most wanted to be friends with. His eyes raked over her, taking in her messy hair much like his own. A smile spread across his face as he saw the curiosity and fear in her brown eyes.

"He'll only get worse if I do. Same if I were to tell on him." Harry shrugged, "I can handle a bully."

Harry didn't mention the fact he worried about becoming a jerk like that too. He had heard several stories of the things his father and his friends had done during their time at Hogwarts. And he didn't like the idea of hurting others for amusem*nt. So he tried to avoid getting into confrontations at all.

The girl looked terrified at the idea of standing up to Thomas. Her eyes kept flicking to the tall boy as he walked away.

"Why? Does he do that to you too?"

She just nodded vigorously as her eyes met his again. Anger built in Harry at the boy for the first time. He knew that he could take the punishment, but the girl in front of him looked afraid. As though even this conversation might bring the wrath of the lanky third-year down upon her.

"It's why I always spend playtime in the library. He never thinks to look in there." Harry giggled at the thought, causing the girl to look at him oddly. "How exactly is that funny?" Small tears grew in the corner of her eyes.

"Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. It's him. I imagine he's allergic to books, like vampires to garlic. He'd probably burst into flames if he ever set foot in a library." Harry chuckled.

The tears ceased and a wide smile broke across the girl's face at the thought. "Probably." She giggled.

The sound filled Harry with happiness as he saw the change come over her. "I'm Harry, by the way. Harry Potter."

He extended his hand to the girl who watched it closely as it approached, as though afraid of it. A small finger of anger leapt through Harry again as he wondered exactly what Thomas had done to the poor girl to make her so afraid of a handshake. He smiled broadly and held his hand perfectly still, letting the girl make the decision to take it or not.

She looked back and forth from his hand to his eyes, clutching the book in her arms tightly as she did. He could see the indecision and fear warring behind her eyes with something else, something he didn't recognise.

Very slowly, she reached from the book and took his hand. Harry beamed as they gently shook, surprised at the soft feel of the girl's skin compared to the House Elves. Their skin felt almost leathery, but hers was smooth and warm. He very much liked the feel of it.

"I'm Hermione Granger." She replied, her voice cracking softly.

"Nice to meet you, Hermione Granger. Would you like to be friends?"

A new war began in her chocolate eyes as she studied him closely, not letting go of his hand. Harry had the odd feeling that he was hooked up to a lie detector and she was searching his grip and eyes for any sign he was trying to hurt her. He simply continued to smile at her as he watched the thoughts flitting through her mind.

"Yes." She finally said, giving his hand one last shake before breaking contact and hugging her book tightly once more.

"Brilliant," Harry beamed, "Can I join you in the library for lunch tomorrow? I'd go today, but I'm already finished."

The bell rang loudly across the yard and the children all groaned and headed back inside. Hermione remained frozen for a moment, looking at Harry's face.

"Yes." She replied, before quickly turning and rushing back into the classroom.

Harry gathered his things with a broad grin. The tugging feeling he'd had for years had finally settled. He had made a friend.

ϟ

"MUM!" Harry yelled as he dashed through the hallways.

He was ever so eager to tell her about his day. After returning to class he had found a space free next to Hermione and he had quickly taken it. The girl had looked at him, a hint of suspicion still present in her gaze, but it had quickly vanished as they had worked diligently side by side for the rest of the day.

She had looked into his eyes as they gathered their things and prepared to leave for the day. Wishing him a good day, she quickly dashed from the room, a slight pink colour on her cheeks as she disappeared.

"Mummy, where are you?"

Harry tore back and forth, up and down the corridors passing many portraits all with his ancestors watching as he darted about.

"For goodness sake, James, how can you manage to pull pranks in a portrait?"

Harry grinned as he heard his mother yelling at his father from the room at the end of the hall. He ran quickly through the door and his eyes fell on one of the smallest paintings in the house. It was full of horrid-looking green smoke, that Harry had a distinct impression did not smell very good at all.

"Mum, Dad. I have to talk to you!" Harry shouted at the small picture.

"Oh Harry, darling. Welcome home. Meet me in the study, sweetie. We do not want to be in here right now."

Harry could not see either figure in the painting but knew the look his mother was giving his father right now. And he could picture the grin that would adorn his father's face in response. He quickly made his way to the study and dragged one of the heavy chairs, so it would be right in front of the frame and sat. He was so excited to tell them of his day, that he hadn't even shed his school bag, which was still perched on his back.

He was practically bouncing in place as his parents walked into the frame, Lily waving her hands about as though trying to clear the air. James wore the very grin Harry had imagined as they both caught sight of him eagerly waiting.

"Hello, Harry," his father greeted, "how was school?"

Harry rocked forward on the chair and rushed headlong into a detailed account of his day, from their quiz in the morning classes to the new subjects they'd brought up. But the most detailed of all was the end of his lunch break. He had forgotten one thing in his excitement and haste to tell them of his new friend.

"What do you mean, Harry? How long has this Thomas boy been picking on you?" His mother asked, a severe look on her face.

Harry mentally kicked himself as he realised he had never told his parents about the bullying. He wanted to be their strong boy and deal with the problem himself. He'd even asked Mipsy not to tell them, but as he wasn't of age, he technically wasn't her true Master. His parents could override his instructions. All of this must have shown on his face because his mother immediately called for the elf.

"Mipsy, what has been going on? You are supposed to be protecting Harry!" James roared.

"Please don't yell at Mipsy, Dad. It's my fault."

"No young Master, Mipsy is being a bad elf."

"No, you did exactly as I asked you to."

"You did what now, Harry?" his father interrupted again.

Harry looked up at his parents with trepidation. "I knew you asked Mipsy to keep me safe. But I know the Statute. If she does something magic to protect me, we all get in trouble. So, I asked her not to interfere. But I know she still does, don't you?"

Mipsy looked bashful as Harry stared at her, pleadingly. "Yes, Master. I cannot go against your orders, but you left a loophole Mipsy could use."

"You make the teachers notice, don't you?" Mipsy nodded and hung her head, awaiting punishment for going against orders. "Thank you. I thought you did."

Mipsy's head shot up as she caught her master's gaze. He was smiling fondly at her and popped off the chair to hug her tightly. He had grown a lot in the years she had been watching him and while they once were the same height during these hugs, he now was much taller than her.

Lily watched the interaction in silence, thinking about whether to reprimand Harry. "Harry, why didn't you tell us sooner? You've been going to school for months now."

"I wanted to be your brave boy," Harry replied bashfully. "And I didn't want to risk being a bully back."

Lily watched as Harry mumbled something further under his breath. "What was that last bit, Harry?"

He locked eyes with his mother, momentarily pleading with her. She just stared back, silently demanding an answer.

"He teases me. Says I'll run home to mummy and cry." Lily gasped and Mipsy wrapped Harry in her arms again. "I don't want him to be right. I'm not afraid of him, Mum."

A determined look filled his eyes as he stared up at his parents.

"My word, Harry. I know where you are going. Ravenclaw my foot." James said, looking at his wife. "But being brave doesn't mean you have to take everything on yourself, lad. We're your parents, and you can tell us anything."

Harry relaxed slightly as he sunk into Mipsy's hug. He was worried about what his parents would say if they ever found out about the bullying. He didn't want to give Thomas the satisfaction of being right about him running and telling on him. He'd never once told anyone about the bullying, believing he was stronger if he just took it in silence.

"Now," Lily drew his gaze as Mipsy stepped back again, "tell me all about this Hermione."

She smiled widely at the glowing grin that spread on her son's face. He had finally found the friend he'd been looking for since he started school. Many nights he had come home and shared all about his classes, but he had always avoided talking about friends and the other children. Lily had heard what he wasn't saying. She could see the longing in his eyes.

She felt a little guilty, for filling his mind with the wondrous ideas of friendship, which had until now evaded him at the school. But she could feel it in his voice and see in his eyes that he now understood every word she had said. And he was happier than she had seen him in a long time.

ϟ

Hermione curled up on her bed struggling to read the page she had been staring at for the last three hours.

She was furious at herself. Not for talking to the boy she had been watching for weeks. Harry was smart, like her and he wasn't afraid to show it as she was becoming. She was upset because he was distracting her from her book now.

The other children would pick on her for knowing the answers. They made fun of her for spending her free time reading books instead of playing. But most of all she hated that they made fun of her hair and her teeth. Especially some of the students in the older grades, many of whom seemed overly concerned with their appearance in Hermione's opinion.

The other things she could deal with, those she did by choice, but she had tried so many times to tame her wild hair and nothing could be done with it. She had broken several brushes her first week of school trying to tame the mane and had cried herself to sleep many nights since knowing her parents wouldn't fix her teeth. As dentists, they assured her that she would grow into them soon. But while she was growing, the other kids would keep picking on her.

It felt like everyone except Harry had made fun of her for something. At first, she'd thought he was too, laughing at her hiding in the library. But she had to agree, the picture of Thomas in flames running about the library had been funny. But the fear was still there.

When he sat next to her, terror filled her as she waited for him to mock her. Or to steal her pencils. Some of the other girls liked to take her things and she never got them back again. She was so upset that one of them had taken the notepad her Nanna had given her on her first day. She lived so far away that she hadn't seen her since, and the notepad had filled her with joy any time she had written in it.

Now she was waiting for the other shoe to drop with Harry. Surely, he would see what everyone else did and abandon her. Or worse, join in the mocking. Hermione didn't think she could take it if he did it as well. She had been terrified when she was fleeing past the playground as Thomas picked on Harry.

She couldn't understand his reluctance to tell the teachers what really happened. Curiosity had finally won out and she had to ask.

And now she had a friend. He had said that they were friends, and he had sat with her for the rest of the day. His attention baffled her.

When she looked at him, there was no malice in his gaze. His smile was warm and when he put his hand on hers a few times, her heart had beat so fast she thought she would pass out. She was dreading Monday, as she was sure he would change his mind over the weekend and hate her come school next week.

These kids really had done a number on her. Her insecurities would swarm her all night, egged on by the cruel comments she had to endure all day. But there was a tiny little part of her, deep down inside that thought maybe, just maybe, Harry was different.

Maybe he really was her friend.

Chapter 4: Look Before You Leap

Chapter Text

Monday 13th January 1986.

Harry had never been so excited to go to school.

Over the weekend he had been having trouble focusing on his studies. His grandfather had told him off multiple times during his classes, but it had not been able to break Harry's mood. He was ecstatic that he finally had a real friend.

Mipsy had made a strange face the first time Harry had voiced that thought aloud in front of her. But quickly cheered up as he wrapped her in a warm hug and reminded her there was a difference between friends and family. Watching a house-elf blush is always a funny sight but seeing her do so while being spun around by a laughing child was something else altogether.

Harry by no means had a sad childhood. Mipsy had made sure he played and had fun. But for the last few years, his idea of fun had been reading. It had become such a strange occurrence for a child's laughter to fill these halls that many of the portraits would probably have let Harry get away with anything, just to keep the sound coming.

Now he was following Tybalt as he moved about the kitchen preparing the lad's lunch. He was constantly asking if it was ready yet, as it was the final thing keeping him from heading off to school. But every time Tybalt was ready to say it was done, Harry would ask him to add something else. He wanted to share his lunch with his friend but had no idea what she liked to eat.

Mipsy finally had enough, as she was unfamiliar with this version of Harry and wasn't sure how to handle him. She put her hand on his shoulder, stopping him from following her brother and turning him to face her.

"Master Harry, if you keep changing your mind, we'll never get you to school. Is that what you want?"

Shock suddenly flew across Harry's face at the idea of being late. "No, Mipsy. I'm ready to go."

Tybalt silently thanked his sister, handing over the well-overstuffed lunch bag for her to tuck into Harry's bag.

Harry was so excited that he forgot that his parents were waiting for them in the study to wish him a good day, and he grabbed Mipsy's hand firmly.

"Let's go, Mipsy, I want to get there as quickly as possible."

Unable to ignore the request, Mipsy sighed and popped them from the Manor.

ϟ

Harry could not contain himself. He had begun running for school the moment they had materialised in the small park a few blocks away. Mipsy had chosen it because the trees offered a great deal of natural cover for her appearance. Anyone seeing a child suddenly pop out from behind a tree in the park would just write it off as them having been hiding as they approached.

And it gave her the time needed to vanish herself. Mipsy could not hide herself while popping with Harry and if someone spotted her before she could become invisible, it would cause trouble. Though again, someone catching a momentary glimpse of her holding a child's hand before she vanished behind another tree would likely be mistaken for a child with a large stuffed toy.

Now though, she was having trouble keeping up with the exuberant youth as he tore past strangers rushing down the pathways he had long since memorised. She couldn't help but smile at the difference between him now and his first day. He had been so hesitant to go that first time, slowly puttering beside her as she guided him, invisible hands on his shoulders guiding him forward. It had taken almost half an hour to make the walk that first day, but this time they would arrive in moments.

As the school came into view over the roadway she watched the boy charge ahead, others watching as he swept past them towards the same destination.

Unfortunately, Harry had become too single-minded in his rush to arrive at the school and did not stop at the edge of the road to wait for Mipsy as he crossed. It was a moment of forgetfulness that would cost him dearly as he stepped onto the street and was immediately struck by the car he had paid no attention to.

Mipsy froze in horror as her young master was flung backwards down the road and came to a rest a few feet in front of the skidding vehicle. Every eye in the area was now fixed on the still body of the boy lying in the street.

She silently popped to his side and cast a notice-me-not charm over his body. She could see he was still breathing, but there were very obvious injuries over his entire figure. Mipsy didn't know what to do. She was trained in basic first aid, all house-elves were if they were to be a personal elf. But this was beyond what anyone had taught her.

And despite the charm, people were still gathering nearby. The charm stopped them from directly seeing Harry's body now, but they were aware that something major had just happened in front of them. The skid marks laid out behind the car gave a very clear indicator of what sort of event had occurred, but right now the Muggles could no longer see what the car had hit.

Mipsy looked about and noticed a hubcap had come off the car as it stopped and lay not two metres from Harry's prone form. She quickly cast another notice-me-not on it before transforming it into a small dog. It was a sad distraction to leave outside a school, but she needed something to keep people from noticing Harry. With the intensity with which they were all looking, her charm would not last for long.

She pulled the notice-me-not from the transfigured dog and reaching gingerly out she pressed her hand to Harry's forehead. He did not react to her touch in the slightest and she began to fear the worst. She laid her other hand on his chest and his body groaned in pain at the contact. She could feel the shattered bones under her touch and knew he was far too wounded to move. She would only cause more injury. But she had none of the materials needed to treat such wounds.

Which left her only one recourse. The most dangerous of all, and the one that would surely see her given clothes.

Mipsy pressed both hands back onto Harry, one on his head and the other on his chest. The soft groan came once more, but Mipsy ignored it as she pushed her magic out and just willed it to repair the damage to her young master.

It was one of the deepest secrets of house-elf magic. That magic itself was not so regimented and cautious as the wizards claimed in their classes and books. Children showed that it was not every time they cast accidental magic. The energy they released was unformed and caused random accidents.

But if one simply pushed with enough intent, they could often force their magic to do things that many thought to be impossible. The trouble with such magic was it was very rarely repeatable. And it could not be taught. It was pure instinct and willpower made real. True unformed magic.

Mipsy could feel the bones clicking back together as Harry moaned out in pain. He was still unconscious, but pain like this could still be felt, even through such boundaries. She could feel her magic coursing up and down the small body, repairing bones and soothing the developing bruising on his organs. Time began to blur as the people around them disappeared into nothingness. Mipsy focused her entire being on fixing Harry.

Her magic began to falter as she pushed all of it into Harry, willing his injuries away with all of her strength. And as she began to black out from the strain Harry's eyes shot open and a scream of pain shot past his lips.

Every one of the gathered Muggles currently trying to keep their young children from seeing the wounded dog in the road heard the horrid screech of pain, but before anyone could notice the odd pair laid on the pavement, a soft flash shot out and both bodies were gone.

ϟ

Hermione walked towards the gathered group with trepidation. Crowds were not her friends. They often hid those who most wanted to do her harm. But unfortunately, this one was gathered in front of her school, so tightly packed she had to push through it to get to the gates.

As she passed she heard the parents whispering about the poor dog who had been hit by the car on the road. He'd shot out from the footpath and been struck dead in a moment. She had no desire to see such a thing and was glad that she had been running a little late that morning.

All she wanted now was to be free of the crowd and see if her hope had come true. That she still had someone at this school who wished to call her a friend.

Finally breaking through the group and rushing to her classroom, Hermione put away her things and settled into her desk, awaiting Harry and the start of class.

She was a little surprised when the teacher called the class to order and the bell sounded. Harry had yet to arrive. She was seated right by the door. It made for the fastest getaway from the bullies and was close enough to the teacher to answer questions. Surely, he could not have made it inside without her noticing. She glanced about the room and saw the many gossiping faces. All were surely discussing the scene outside the gates. But not one of them was his.

The teacher drew her attention once more and the class got underway, but throughout the entire day, Hermione found herself wondering what could have happened to Harry that he would skip class. He seemed as keen to learn as she was, and she was sure she'd never miss a day of school unless something terrible had happened.

But beneath it all was the doubt. The voice in her head telling her it was her fault. Harry had not wanted to come back to this school and be friends with a weirdo like her. And the teasing and bullying from the other students did nothing to ease her suffering. By the time the final bell rang, Hermione was in tears rushing to retreat from the pain that school had suddenly become.

She burst in through the front door and shot up to her room, discarding her things and launching at the bed. Her entire body was racked with the sobs that consumed her. She had known it was too good to be true.

She would never have a true friend.

ϟ

Harry groaned as his eyes opened slowly.

The bright light washing over him was blinding and his head throbbed heavily. His whole body ached, and he had no idea where he was. The last thing he could remember was rushing to school. Why was he suddenly here instead of there? His eyes began to focus, and he began to recognise the features of the room. He had been in here often. It was Mipsy's personal room in the attic. She had refused to take a normal room as he had requested, instead settling here.

Harry loved visiting her room. It had the best view over the whole grounds, and that very window was where the bright light of the near noonday sun was pouring in, hitting him directly in the face. He groaned again and closed his eyes to protect them from the bright light. He tested his other senses and could feel something heavy on his chest. Peeking downwards he saw Mipsy. Her head was resting on his chest and she looked utterly exhausted. He had never seen her so pale before and it chilled him.

"Tybalt!" He called in fear.

The little elf popped into place beside him with a look of utter confusion on his face. "Master Harry?"

"Something is wrong with Mipsy, Tybalt. Help her" he yelled.

Tybalt rushed over and rolled his twin sister off his master. She was indeed very pale, she looked sickly and unwell. He pressed his hand to her head and gasped. She was almost completely exhausted of magic, a death sentence for a house-elf if not rectified quickly.

He glanced at his master and a moment of indecision froze him. He knew what needed to be done, but only a wizard could provide what she needed. Normally the master of the house would slowly have all present contribute a little magic to the elf to trigger its own body to absorb the ambient magic around it, but in this house, there was only one wizard. And he was far too young to ask such a thing of. But if he did nothing, his sister would die.

"What? What is it, Tybalt? Tell me now!" Harry screamed, afraid he was losing his oldest friend. His family.

"She is not well, young master. She needs magic, but I cannot ask it of you."

Harry shook his head as she leant forward over his Mipsy. "What do I need to do?" He asked, his eyes fixed on the sickly elf.

Tybalt hesitated again, afraid of what the other masters would say when they learned of this. Harry tore his eyes from Mipsy to glare at Tybalt. A lump formed in the small elf's throat at the intensity of the look and he took Harry's hand and laid it over Mipsy's forehead.

"Just will a little magic into her master. Only a little, or you'll be in the same state she is."

Harry had not been trained in magic yet. The one or two small accidental outbursts had been quickly dealt with by the elves, so his parents had not thought it necessary to bother him with such training. And given most accidental magic was the result of intense emotion, Harry hardly had to deal with it at all, his home life was calm and peaceful.

With no experience to draw upon, Harry instead went upon instinct. He knew he didn't want his family to die, so he followed the instructions and felt a warm surge rush up his arm and into the prone elf.

A pale glow began to surround Mipsy as Harry's magic surged through her small form. Tybalt watched as the magic did its work, and he felt his sister becoming stronger for the sharing.

"That is enough, little master. You must stop now."

Tybalt reached out and lifted Harry's hand from his sister and received a jolt of Harry's magic through his body as he did, throwing him back against Mipsy's bed.

"I'm sorry, Tybalt, are you ok?"

Tybalt shook himself off and felt amazing as he stood. "Yes, Master Harry, we elves live off the magic of our masters, it's just not often we get it so directly. Bit of a shock to the system."

He moved back over to check on his sister and found her colour had returned and she was now resting comfortably. He clicked his fingers and she rose into the air and hovered over to her bed. The covers enfolded about her as he settled her in and tucked them down around her.

"Rest. That is what she needs now. And you too master. You gave her a lot more magic than you should have. Please, come lie down."

Tybalt guided Harry through the house back to his own room where he quickly collapsed into his own bed, snoring softly before his face hit the pillow.

ϟ

When he woke again, it was dark in the room. Except for a pair of pale blue eyes staring at him from the darkness, well within arm's reach. Harry grinned internally as he would recognise those eyes anywhere.

"Hello, Mipsy."

He rolled onto his back and groaned. His body was still stiff and sore, but he still couldn't remember why. Surely it wasn't from sharing his magic.

"HARRY JAMES POTTER!"

Harry sprung back into the bed head as he saw his mother fuming in the portrait opposite him. This was the original portrait painted of them. It had rested above his bed ever since this had become his room, only changing sides once he had outgrown the crib and gotten his current double bed. He had never seen his mother so angry in all his life and he was afraid of her for the first time he could ever remember.

"I'm sorry, mummy," he cried, tears falling freely from his face, "I couldn't let Mipsy die."

Harry was sure he was in trouble for helping her, but what else could he have done? His family was dying.

"Harry Potter, you know full well that is not what you are in trouble for!"

He looked up at his mother stunned, turning to see if Mipsy could shed any light on the argument, but she was looking fixedly at the floor, refusing to meet his gaze. It was almost as if she was waiting for him to yell at her for something.

"I don't understand Mum. What did I do wrong?"

"YOU STEPPED INTO TRAFFIC!"

Harry sat gobsmacked as he struggled to remember any such event. He could remember rushing towards the school and being so excited to see Hermione…

"Oh no, Hermione!" Harry yelled. "Does she know?"

Lily smiled softly at the comment, unable to help herself. Her boy's first thought after being told he was hit by a car was concern for his new friend. She was going to have to find a way to meet this girl for herself. But that was a discussion for another time.

"Don't change the subject, mister. What were you thinking? You know you are supposed to wait for Mipsy before crossing the street."

Harry became bashful once more as his mother yelled at him. He knew why he hadn't waited, he was eager to get to school. He wanted to talk with Hermione before classes started and instead had left her alone with the bullies all day long.

He felt terrible, not only had he let his friend down, but he had upset his mum, and he was sure he was somehow responsible for Mipsy's condition earlier as well. Harry had never felt like this before in his life. Not since the day his parents had been murdered.

"I'm sorry, mum. I wasn't thinking."

"Well, that much we can clearly agree. Gryffindor indeed. No Ravenclaw would do something so stupid."

Lily was still angry, but now it was fading behind the concern. Mipsy had told her what had happened after she'd been summoned. James and Lily had been worried when they hadn't seen either Mipsy or Harry before school, but when neither one appeared long after school should have finished, she became panicked and summoned the elf.

Mipsy had cried and bowed and apologised profusely for her part in things, but Lily had been so afraid for her son that the conversation had ended, and she had stood watch in this portrait ever since.

"You are grounded," Lily growled, James chuckled softly behind her, drawing her gaze before putting up both hands and backing out of the frame. "No library for a month. And you are to help Mipsy and Tybalt with all their chores for a month as well."

"Mipsy is not fired?" She squeaked her first words since the conversation with Lily.

"Mipsy, why on earth would you be fired?" She asked, her anger suddenly cooled at the look in the poor elf's eyes.

"Mipsy was a bad elf, she failed to protect Master Harry." She whispered. "And when he got hurt, I couldn't help. All I could do was…"

She trailed off, unable to say what had transpired. No one had yet interrogated her properly, so they had no idea how she had healed Harry. When they knew, she would be out. House-elves did not corrupt wizards with their magic.

"What's wrong Mipsy," Harry pleaded.

"I am so sorry, Master Harry. You were so badly hurt, and I didn't have the supplies and there was no time." Mipsy was rambling as she stared at the boy she loved more dearly than anything in this world. "I had to."

"Had to what?"

"I healed you with elf magic." Mipsy buried her face in her hands and began to sob in earnest. She was a disgrace to her family and she was about to be sent away.

"Thank you, Mipsy." Harry's arms wrapped around the crying elf delicately. She flung herself into his arms and cried on his shoulder, soaking his tattered shirt.

"Mipsy," Lily called, "Why on earth would you think we would care how you saved Harry?"

James stepped back into the frame and there was a deep frown on his face.

"She shouldn't have done that, Lily. It's not right."

Lily rounded on her husband once more, the anger spiking at the comment. "You'd rather she watched our son die on the pavement?"

James cowered under her gaze, but he knew this was a case of her being a muggle-born. She didn't understand what had transpired.

"Of course not, Lily. But you don't understand. For an elf to push so much magic into a wizard, it changes them. He's lucky he didn't die altogether from the shock." James defended, stepping towards the angry redhead. "Harry will never be the same again."

"I don't care, dad. I'm proud of what Mipsy did." Harry glared at his father. Never had he been so angry at his father. Mipsy was in tears over this and he was making it worse. She needed their support, not anger. "She was so tired after she needed my magic just to survive."

Both parents turned back again with a strange look in their eyes. "What did you say?" James asked.

"Tybalt said she was dying. She needed magic. He told me how."

"TYBALT!" James roared.

The small male elf popped into the room cowering under the gaze of his current master.

"What the hell did you do?!"

"Tybalt is sorry Master, sister was dying. Master could not help, only Master Harry could save her. My sister was dying."

Lily softened at the waterworks in front of her. She'd had enough of this pureblood nonsense. "James, go. NOW!" Her voice remained soft and quiet, but James stared at her with hard eyes. Harry had never seen his parents fight like this before. He knew something serious was going on but not what. "Go. We'll talk in the library later. GO."

He glared at her for a moment before ducking out of the portrait and storming off to the library. Lily looked down at the three youngest members of her household. Mipsy was still crying hard into Harry's shoulder and Tybalt looked about ready to flee out the window, despite being on the second floor.

"I want the whole story. Slowly, calmly and from all three of you. Go sit on the end of the bed and let's talk."

ϟ

A few hours later, once Harry was again tucked into bed sleeping and the two elves were not fearing for their very lives, much less their positions, Lily stepped into the frame in the library to find the entire Potter family present and waiting for her. She sighed and stepped over to the table.

James turned on her, anger still visible at his dismissal from such an important conversation.

Lily just pointed at the chairs and the family gradually settled at the table.

"So, what are we to do with those two?" James demanded.

"Mipsy and Tybalt are resting after a trying day. Tomorrow, Tybalt will return to his tasks and Mipsy shall escort Harry to school again." Lily replied calmly.

James looked about to pop like her sister's husband at the first sign of magic. A vein was throbbing in his temple and his lip was twitching. If he weren't already dead, Lily would fear he was having an aneurysm.

"That's it? They corrupted our son, Lily."

"No James, they saved his life. Our son charged like a Gryffindor into the road with oncoming traffic. He was flung 10 metres by the impact and had so many broken bones and busted organs he'd have been dead within 5 minutes.

"Mipsy did the only thing she could at that moment and healed our son. Even Poppy would have lost him to the sheer number of injuries he received."

James's head of steam seemed to lessen somewhat as the extent of the damage was made clear to him. "But, that elf corrupted Harry's magic. He'll never be a proper wizard now."

"Rubbish, James. That will be more pureblood arrogant nonsense, like most things when it comes to house-elves." James looked ready to interrupt again. "No, shut up and listen. That poor elf just about gave her life saving your boy and you want to give her clothes. No matter how cruel that is, to begin with, she would then have to go out into the world. With no obligation to keep your family secrets anymore. Think about that James."

James rocked back in his chair as the obvious finally sunk through his mind. While it was possible for a house-elf of her age to live alone, house-elves generally lived with wizards in order to share the magic of their environment, and when part of a family the wizards and witches of it.

It was supposedly one of the main reasons for their service, they syphoned off small amounts of the family's magic and in return served the family. If he were to dismiss Mipsy, with her magic in flux after this incident, she would likely have to seek out another family to survive, or somewhere magically potent like Hogwarts.

Once there, the new master could potentially convince their new elf to talk. And learn all about their previous family's secrets, including that Harry Potter was alive and well. There was a reason his friend's family beheaded their elves rather than give them clothes. Dead men tell no tales after all.

If they were to keep Harry a secret, the elves would have to stay. But years of pureblood teachings and rumours were still warring with this knowledge in his head.

Seeing James was finally starting to calm slightly, Lily continued, "Now as for corrupting his magic, Mipsy did no such thing. Harry's magic will be just fine. He performed a simple test for me and his magic worked as expected. There will likely be some outbursts as his body adapts to the change, but he is very much still able to cast magic. He is not a squib if that's your fear."

James had the decency to look bashful at the thought. His family was long thought to be one of the kinder members of magical society, but they still suffered the rumours and whisperings of most pureblood families. One of the dangers of interacting with other purebloods. The fear was always there that the family would fall to nothing, die out into non-magical bloodlines and be lost forever.

"Now I have grounded Harry and for the next month, he is not allowed to step foot in this library and will actively help the elves with their tasks. If you see him shirking these tasks or standing about doing nothing, get Pops to find him something to do. That is the only punishment that will be taking place because of this. Any questions."

It was a testament to the fiery temper of the Evans girl that not one member of the extensive Potter family portraits dared to question her on this. All felt cowed at what she had said. Many were obviously questioning what they 'knew' to be true when it came to elves and magic.

But in the end, they all truly cared for both Harry and the elves. And no one present really wanted to hurt any of them by sending away the one elf that Harry was closer to than anyone else on the planet. Mostly due to their own actions, or lack of ability to perform outside their painted existence.

"Good," Lily said as no one argued further, "now if we're done, I'm going back to Harry's room. I'm still scared he still might disappear." She added softly as she departed the frame.

Chapter 5: The Power of Friendship

Chapter Text

Tuesday 14th January 1986.

Hermione had not wanted to come to school today.

There was nothing there worth the pain she would feel. She told her mother that she was feeling unwell, but Mrs Granger was not buying her story. The problem with medically minded parents, they could see right through her lie.

She was angry at her mother for refusing to let her stay home. Her mother had questioned her as to why she was trying to skip school, something she had never done before. Hermione had clammed up and refused to answer, so her mother had driven her to the school and watched her walk inside.

Trudging through the corridors was even harder than normal. For a fleeting moment, she had seen the light. She had someone to call a friend, and then it had been snatched away. Like so much joy she had found since starting school.

"Hermione!"

She walked into the classroom and slumped heavily into her seat. Not even bothering to pull her things out of the bag or put them on the desk. It wasn't worth the struggle anymore. School was meant to be wonderful. Learning with other people her age, all excited to devour the knowledge being given out. Instead, it was just cruelty. The knowledge was there, but all that accompanied it was the pain of rejection.

"Hermione?" A hand softly pushed her shoulder.

She ignored them. They would just tease her like they always had. She needed to rebuild her armour. She had let it down for a fleeting moment and the world had stabbed her sharply in the heart.

"Hermione." Two hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to face the boy beside her. "Are you alright?"

She glared into the green eyes of the boy holding her. She was about to yell at him, unleash months of pent-up rage and hurt when her brain finally recognized what she was looking at. Harry Potter was on the seat beside her. His face was filled with worry, and he was staring straight into her eyes.

Her breath caught in her throat at the intensity of the gaze in which she was caught. He was here. He was real. She hadn't imagined it.Wait.She thought. His presence wasn't a guarantee of that. She knew he was a member of her class, she couldn't have imagined that much. But his presence alone didn't mean what had happened on Friday wasn't an act or a lie.

"Mrs Grevillea. Hermione isn't feeling well, so I'm going to take her to the nurse."

Hermione didn't move as the teacher walked over and watched her closely. Her eyes did not leave the boy beside her. She couldn't yet figure out how this could possibly end in her ridicule. Why was he doing this?

"Come on, Hermione." He gripped her under her arms and slipping an arm around her waist he guided her from the room.

The pair were completely silent as they walked through the corridors. Hermione was looking ahead but could still see Harry out of the corner of her eye. His gaze was still fixed on her as he guided her onward, taking her to Nurse Joy's office. When he set her down on the bed and spoke to the nurse, Joy Matthews, she barely heard a word of the exchange. She just continued to stare at the boy.

Joy became extremely worried about her lack of response and rushed from the room to call her parents.

Harry knelt in front of her, grasping both her hands and looking up into her eyes.

"Please, Hermione. Please be alright."

"You were gone." She finally said the words barely a whisper.

"I'm sorry about yesterday. I was," He paused, thinking a moment, "not feeling well yesterday, Hermione."

"You didn't want to see me."

"Rubbish." She recoiled back slightly at the intense edge in his voice. "I was so excited to spend the day with my friend. You are the only friend I have here, Hermione."

Months of anguish fought with hope inside her. She couldn't open herself to the possibility and have it taken away again. She would not survive.

"We are still friends, aren't we?" Small tears were forming in the corner of Harry's eyes and Hermione couldn't resist the hope anymore.

She lunged forward, the most movement Harry had seen from her all day as both arms wrapped tightly around him. Harry was no stranger to hugs from Mipsy, but this was completely different. This wasn't even like the times he remembered his mother's arms around him. He felt like he was home. A warmth spread throughout his body as he wrapped his arms back around the girl he was so worried about.

Her arms were like a vice squeezing him tightly, but Harry was revelling in it. He'd never felt joy like he did at that moment. Hermione began to cry into his shoulder, soaking it through to the skin as she pulled him tightly against her. Hope sprouted deeply within her at the thought it wasn't a joke.

Harry really wanted to be her friend.

Both children were so wrapped up in one another they didn't notice the nurse returning with Hermione's mother. Both ladies were stunned at the sight in front of them. They both had been privy to some of the things Hermione had gone through in her few short months at the school. Neither had expected to see the sight that greeted them.

Harry whispered softly in her ear. "I'm your friend, Hermione. I will be forever if you'll have me."

Hermione's sobbing became audible as the joy raked her body in ways she had not experienced since beginning school.

"Hermione, sweetheart?" Her mother cooed, squatting down beside the pair.

Hermione pulled her face from Harry's shoulder and looked up at her mother's face. Tears continued to stream down her face, but except for the occasional sob, she contained herself in the presence of the adults.

"What happened, dear?" Natalie wanted to wrap her little girl up and never let her go, but she would not release her grip on the boy in her arms.

"A misunderstanding, Mrs Granger. It was my fault." Harry said, drawing her attention.

"And you are?"

"Harry. Harry Potter. I'm Hermione's friend." Harry beamed.

This was a shock to the elder Granger. Hermione had made no mention of any friends at school. In fact, she had made a point of telling them just how much most of the students enjoyed mocking her. She was certain that if she had made a friend that she would have told her own mother. She looked at Harry with suspicion wondering if the lad could be trusted, or if this was some long-winded attempt to hurt her daughter.

A scowl must have broken out on her face because Harry suddenly looked afraid of her, and Hermione let Harry go for the first time since they had entered. "Mum! Don't you dare judge, Harry. Heismy friend."

Natalie was taken aback by the tone of her daughter's voice. A tone she had never heard from the timid girl before. She looked between the two again and this time she tried to do so without the rose-tinted glasses of her experience with the children of this school.

If Joy was to be believed, this boy had practically dragged her daughter from the classroom to her office. He had continued to sit with her the entire time and had been hugging her so strongly she doubted she'd have been able to fit a sheet of paper between the two of them.

There was also a look on both their faces. A challenge against anyone who would seek to try to pry them apart. Hermione's arm was wrapped back around Harry's as they sat there staring at the adults in the room.

"A pleasure to meet you, Harry." Natalie extended a hand to the boy.

He hesitated a moment, looking at Hermione for her thoughts. She nodded softly, and he took the offered hand in a firm handshake.

"A pleasure to meet you too, Mrs Granger. Your daughter is really something else."

A beaming smile spread across her daughter's face, the first one the nurse could recall seeing on the young lady since she started at the school. It gave her a glow, despite the tears and the messy hair.

Natalie snuck as close to Hermione as she could get, attempting to whisper in her ear and keep the others from hearing. "Is this why you didn't want to come today?"

Hermione contemplated a moment before slowly nodding her head and tightening her grip on Harry's arm. She was afraid that her mother would misunderstand and try to take her away from Harry.

Natalie ran her fingers gently through her daughter's hair. "Sweetheart, you don't look up to school today. How about we go home, and you have a lie-down?"

A shard of fear ripped through Hermione as her grip tightened even more. "Can… can Harry come too?" It was barely a whisper.

Natalie smiled and turned to Harry. "Would you like that?"

Harry looked torn. He wanted to, more than anything, but he remembered the talking to his mother had given him last night. He was grounded. "I really would, but I need to check with my mum first."

"Of course. Hermione, you need to let Harry go for five minutes so he can get permission."

Hermione stared into the boy's green eyes begging him to return as she released the iron grip she had on his arm. He squeezed her hand softly as he stood up. "Five minutes, I promise."

Harry rushed from the room and shot back into the classroom. He grabbed both his and Hermione's bags and without a word shot back out of the room before anyone could say a thing, and ducked into the first closet he came across. Fishing through his bag he searched for the gift his parents had given him his first day so that he could always get in touch with them if he needed. He wrenched the mirror free from its hidden partition and held it to his face.

"Home."

The surface of the mirror shimmered before the reflection disappeared and was replaced by an empty picture frame hanging on a wall.

"Mum," Harry called into the mirror and waited a moment as a figure stepped into the picture frame.

"Harry? What is going on? You haven't gotten in trouble two days in a row, have you?"

Harry grinned, but quickly realised this was the wrong thing to do as his mother scowled.

"No, I promise, I'm being as good as I can. It's just… Hermione, she is not feeling well. She wasn't responding when she came in this morning. I had to take her to the nurse's office."

"Oh my, is she alright?"

"I think so, her mum is here. She is going to take Hermione home, but I think they're afraid she'll freeze up again. She thought I abandoned her yesterday, mum. She's never had a friend at school. I can't leave her again. Her mum asked me to go with them. Can I Mum, please?"

Lily was shocked by the situation. The poor girl must have been having a terrible time at the school. "You know you are grounded, Harry. But given until now you never had anywhere to go outside the house, that really meant being locked out of the library."

Harry now understood his father's chuckle at the fact that he was grounded. The entire situation had gone over his head as he was rather distracted by his mother's wrath at the time. A feeling of dread built in his chest that she would say no, and he would be forced to break his promise to Hermione.

"Yes, Harry. You can go. When you get there tell Mipsy and she will summon Tybalt. I want both of them watching over you while you're there. We haven't had the chance to vet these people yet, and I don't want you at any unnecessary risk, understood?"

Harry barely stopped himself from whooping and jumping up and down, probably a good thing given all the cleaning supplies surrounding him.

"Thank you so much, mum. I love you."

Lily smiled as the mirror call ended and Harry shoved the glass back into the hidden section of his bag. He shouldered it quickly and grabbing Hermione's bag he shot back off towards Nurse Joy's office. He slid to a stop just inside the door almost exactly five minutes after he had left. The look of relief on Hermione's face brought a grin to his own.

"She said yes."

A wide grin spread across Hermione's face as she leapt up and hugged him tightly again. Natalie and Joy had a quick conversation before she led the two children out and into the car. They did not let go of each other's hands as they both climbed in through the same rear door and settled into the seats, clipping on their belts and smiling at Natalie as she settled into the driver's seat.

She smiled to herself as she started the engine and began the short trip home.

ϟ

The day spent at the Grangers was one of the best of Harry's short life.

Shortly after arriving, Mrs Granger called her husband to inform him that she was taking the day off and would be home watching over Hermione and her new friend. She settled them in by making an amazing early lunch.

Harry had tasted some rather amazing dishes with several house-elves cooking solely for him, but somehow the food made by Mrs Granger was a cut above. Hermione sat with amazement through the meal that not only did she have a real friend now, but he was also sitting in her house talking to her mum. The joy she experienced was beyond anything she had known before.

The moment they had both finished eating she dragged him through the entire building showing him every nook and cranny. She even filled him in with some rather embarrassing stories of events that had taken place in them over the years.

When they reached her room, Harry was amazed at the number of bookshelves wrapped around the blue walls. There were no dolls or girlish toys that he had expected to see. It was clear his new friend was a complete bookworm and, at home at least, proud of it.

She showed him all her favourite books, of which there were many spread throughout the home. Almost every room had at least one bookshelf in it and Harry felt a little guilty that he couldn't tell her about the library he had back home yet.

As the day wore on Mrs Granger suggested the children spend some time outdoors and after a few minutes of showing Harry around the yard, they settled under the tree in the middle of the yard. Hermione's favourite place to sit and read. She chose to read him her favourite book together.

Harry already loved the Lord of the Rings, even though he sometimes had to stop and get help with the words. But he loved it, even more, when Hermione read it. She used different voices for all the characters and some of them were truly out there.

The laughter coming from the backyard had Natalie smiling constantly. She had known Hermione was having a hard time at school but hadn't thought things were as bad as she made out. When she had begged to stay home for no reason, she couldn't figure out what had come over her normally bubbly little girl. After the story about how they had first met and how Harry had to miss school on Monday came out, it all began to make a little more sense.

In her first month at the school, several children had pretended to be friendly to Hermione to get help with their homework, or some just as a cruel joke, but in the end, all of them had ended in heartbreak for her daughter. Aware now of what she had been feeling that morning, she felt terrible for forcing her to go. But was now so glad that she had, as it had led to these two sitting under the tree happily chatting away.

Both children were disappointed when Hermione's father came home, and they realised just how late it was becoming. Harry thanked the Grangers for having him but said he had to go home before his parents became worried, but he promised Hermione he would see her again at school the next day and if for any reason he couldn't make it on a day he would make sure to get a message to the school.

Before he could leave Hermione grabbed him firmly in a hug that Harry swore he would never tire of. There was just something so completely different about being hugged by a human than his elves. And Harry was quickly coming to love the feeling, as he squeezed the girl back in return.

He walked out the door with a huge grin on his face to see Pops standing there, appearing to all to be a wizened old man in a neat, dark suit.

"Thank you for having the young master," Pops said to the two adults, who gave him odd looks before glancing down at Harry slightly differently.

Harry knew that Pops's disguise as his family's servant made him seem a bit pompous, but he wasn't worried that Hermione would judge him for his family. He had a real friend now.

"He was a delight. He's welcome back anytime." Natalie replied and Pops nodded to them both.

Waving to the Grangers, Harry took the elf's hand as Pops led him down the street to a concealed copse of trees by the very same park that Mipsy arrived in for school Where, with a pop, they both headed home.

ϟ

The days passed quickly after that and before Harry knew it his grounding was over. This was the best thing in the world because, except for that first time, his parents hadn't let him go back to Hermione's house again while he was grounded.

She had taken it well this time, understanding the punishment and making sure he had as much fun as possible when they saw each other during school hours, but things quickly became normal between them.

They would always eat their lunch together in the library under the watchful eye of Miss Holmes the librarian. One time Thomas had figured out where two of his favourite punching bags had been vanishing to and tried to start something in the library but was summarily tossed out on his ear by Miss Holmes. The letter home to his parents did not go well for the third-year and his bullying was severely toned down after that.

Harry and Hermione had only giggled with each other as he was being escorted out, discussing how disappointing it was that he hadn't actually burst into flame.

With the added benefit of a reliable and helpful study partner, the pair quickly shot to the top of their class, stunning all the teachers with their combined abilities. Harry was more excited every day to go back to school and almost dreaded the weekends that he had to spend cooped up at home learning about the magical world.

While he knew these were important lessons that would help him immensely when he was finally revealed to that world again, he much preferred the occasional weekend he got to spend all day hanging out with Hermione.

His father had looked at him with pride and anguish the day he came home and described in detail how Hermione had taught him to ride a bike.

After Harry had gone to bed that night, Lily had held James in the portrait above his bed as the man cried for hours at the loss of yet another major bonding milestone in his son's life.

ϟ

Saturday 15th February 1986.

During one of the more boring weekend lessons, Harry felt his mind drifting to his friend, wondering how Hermione was spending her time while he was cooped up inside, listening to great, great, great, great, great Uncle Reginald waffle on about trade practices and their impact on grain something or others.

He felt his stomach trying to eat itself as he had not been terribly hungry at breakfast, but Reginald would never end a lesson early and let him get a snack.

While wishing hard that he could just grab something sweet to eat as he listened, Harry looked up when the talking stopped and found himself sitting in the kitchen being stared at by Tybalt as he steadily poured a bottle of milk over the floor rather than into the bowl he had hopefully been aiming for.

"Um, Tybalt, you're making a mess."

The elf quickly pulled himself together and snapped his fingers, cleaning away the spilt milk. "Young master, how did you do that?"

"Do what?"

"You just appeared. Like we do."

"Huh?." Harry replied, with all the elegance of a child on display. "I was just really hungry, and Reginald wouldn't stop talking."

The elf laughed. Even Pops was too young to have been around in Reginald's day but the elves had all had many run-ins with the man's portrait over the years. Of all the Potters he was the most difficult to remain awake around. Mistress Lily had once said he reminded her of Professor Binns at Hogwarts, not that Tybalt really knew what that meant.

Tybalt quickly fixed Harry a small snack and suggested he head back to his lesson, but he made a note to bring up the strange appearance with Harry's parents when he had finished preparing the marinade for tonight's dinner.

And so it was that Harry and Mipsy were summoned to the study to discuss the matter.

"I didn't do it on purpose." Harry defended immediately upon entering. "Just Uncle Reginald is boring." He finished under his breath.

Mipsy laughed and Lily looked at him sympathetically. James had an odd expression, torn between humour and concern. Given that Mipsy was summoned as well, Harry was pretty sure he knew what his father thought had triggered the strange ability.

"Harry, I want you to concentrate really hard on something for me. I want you to picture yourself standing on the other side of the room, just by the window, but looking this way. Can you do that for me?" His father asked, seriously, for a change.

Harry shrugged and closed his eyes, focusing intently on what his father had requested. He didn't feel anything unusual, but after several moments he heard several gasps and opened his eyes to see what had everyone so flustered. Only now he was looking at the portrait from a different direction. He glanced about and was now standing exactly where he had imagined himself to be.

"But, I didn't do anything?" Harry exclaimed.

Mipsy suddenly looked unhappy and James was glaring at the little elf. "This is your doing."

Lily smacked James softly on the shoulder. "We have talked about this James. We thought something might happen but it's hardly something to get upset about."

Harry was still confused. "What is going on? I'm getting scared. Am I going to disappear from my bed in the middle of a dream?" Tears began forming in his eyes.

Mipsy quickly grabbed her young master in a firm hug, shaking her head. "No little Harry. You must really mean it. You can't pop about in your sleep. Elsewise we elves would be popping all over the place."

"So, he is elf apparating?" Lily inquired softly.

"It certainly felt like it, Mistress," Mipsy replied, looking bashful.

"Excellent," Lily replied with a bright smile. "That means he never has to deal with the horrible feeling of apparating."

"I'd hardly call it excellent." James jibed before being silenced by a look from his wife.

"Harry, it's nothing to worry about. It will get easier as you practise, which Mipsy will help with over the next few weeks. Then you can pop wherever you need to. And unless I'm mistaken, you could even pop in and out of Hogwarts once you start going there. I know the elves in the kitchens certainly can."

Harry started to feel a little better after the talk with his parents, and as he lay trying to sleep that night, he heard a rather heated argument coming from his parent's portrait. But decided it was none of his business and allowed himself to drift off, knowing tomorrow was Monday and he would see Hermione again.

Chapter 6: Memento Mori

Chapter Text

Monday 1st June 1987.

Over the next year and a half, things became quite routine for Harry Potter.

He would spend his days at school, studying hard with Hermione as they both shot ahead of the class.

While Thomas had been mostly dealt with after the few times he'd tried to get at them in the library, the few other bullies still tended to target them for being show-off know-it-alls. But together the pair quickly found ways to avoid or deal with the bullying and school quickly became a lot of fun for both of them.

They would spend almost every day after school hanging out at Hermione's house. It had become so routine for them to be found under the tree in the yard reading that it was the first place either Granger parent looked upon returning home from work of an evening.

While they would occasionally be found doing their homework together, they usually finished it so quickly that it was much more likely to find them sharing yet another story together. They would take turns reading and both loved how the other would portray the characters.

Hermione tended to put on silly voices, giving each character their own mannerisms and speech patterns. While Harry would jump about and act out scenes with fervour, dashing back and forth through the yard, and rolling about as he continued to read.

Both resulted in childish laughter echoing about the yard and house and the Grangers were happier than they had been in years now that their daughter was happy at both school and home.

Mipsy and Tybalt would both watch over the children whenever they were at the Granger home, and both had become so enraptured by the children that they awaited storytime with the same glee as the young humans. And when arriving back at the Manor, they would happily help Harry share the details of his day with the portraits.

It had become the habit for dinner to be taken in the atrium of the library as it was the only room with enough portraits assembled in one place that the entire family could listen in firsthand.

The only difficulties that arose came from Harry himself. And even those were not his fault.

It quickly became clear that while Harry's own magic had not been diminished by the merging of magic with Mipsy, as James had initially feared, it had certainly been affected.

Accidental magic outbursts, which had been almost unheard of for the small boy, became much more frequent. The first of which had changed the colour of the entire first floor of the Manor when he had become truly angry for the first time since the accident. It had taken the elves two whole days to reverse the change and that had only been the beginning.

There was talk of removing Harry from school, to prevent an outburst from hurting someone or alerting the Ministry, but Harry had rebelled forcefully against the idea. It had taken almost a month to fix all the damage that outburst had caused, and Harry had become terrified of the idea of his magic hurting Hermione.

It was this fear that had him begging his parents to help show him how to control the outbursts, and his lessons on the weekend had quickly shifted focus to training how to direct and control his unstable magic.

James had wanted to 'ground' Harry while they began his training as he worried teaching him the basics would allow the magic to release easier when he was away from the house, but Harry couldn't do that to his friend. He would miss her terribly if he was confined to the house again and promised to do everything he could to learn fast, so it wouldn't be necessary.

After his initial negative reaction, James soon came to see the benefits of the blending. Years of pureblood rumour scratched at the back of his mind as he came to witness first-hand just how wrong they had been.

He had quickly called Mipsy and Tybalt aside one morning before Harry went to school, hiding in the most distant room of the house as far from Lily as possible, as he apologised to them both for his reaction. Mipsy had wept at the apology, still slightly afraid that one day she would be taken to task for her actions.

So, while Harry would still spend his days with Hermione during the week, his evenings and weekends were spent sitting in the nursery surrounded by the soft rustling of wind through the leaves as his mother and father helped him to focus on his magic.

It took weeks to finally feel his magic consciously and when he had, he'd been so surprised he'd unleashed a wave of it across the room. The sudden growth spurts the magic gave the plants turned the quiet nursery into a veritable jungle of overgrown and wild plant life.

His parents had been slightly worried, but Harry had loved the result. He now had a room he enjoyed spending time in as much as the library. When he wasn't practising control, he was exploring the now enclosed pathways leading amongst the greenery.

Lily would often become fretful when he disappeared among the plants, knowing there were some dangerous seedlings in the nursery, but Tybalt stuck close to the boy whenever he would wander off, and always pulled him out of danger before anything could happen.

His training with Mipsy helped him to focus and channel his magic as well. He found he only had to picture a location in his mind and he could Pop there without trouble. They had even tested distance when he Popped to the school late one night. Mipsy and he had been so busy celebrating they'd nearly been spotted by the night janitor before they escaped.

He was, however, forbidden from Popping to Hermione's house, and Pops would always be there to collect him from the Grangers in the afternoons.

ϟ

Monday 9th June 1987.

Two tiny dark eyes watched calmly as Albus Dumbledore paced back and forth across his large open office.

Fawkes tracked the man's every step as he sat in the pile of his former self's ash, slowly gathering his strength after his most recent burning. The bird was thoughtful as he quietly watched.

His friend of so many years had changed since their first meeting during the war with Grindelwald. His drive to teach the young of the world had been replaced by a brooding manner. In no small part thanks to the hurt in his heart caused by the goblins.

Unintentionally on their side, the bird knew, they only sought recompense in their own way for the ills committed against their people by Albus's former lover.

And then during the more recent war, when Riddle had risen to power in spite of his friend's efforts, Albus had drifted even further from his original purpose. Fawkes often wondered if the bond they shared could continue much longer if he could not nudge his friend back onto the correct path.

A phoenix always felt a pull towards a good soul, and Albus had shone in the darkness of the world fifty years earlier. Amidst all the chaos and death, he was a beacon to such a creature. One of the few lights in that void of agony.

While the man was still brighter than most people that Fawkes met, his aura had shrunk significantly over the past few decades. The more he brooded on thosethings, the worse it became.

Albus had wasted many months now, striving to find ways to discover the identity of the mysterious heir to the Potter estate. Even long after the Ministry had given up on the idea. He seemed hell-bent on locating the final part of the trio, though Fawkes was sure it would not bring Albus the peace he believed.

Fawkes trilled softly, attempting to break his friend's mood, but to no avail. He doubted if Albus had even heard him in his current state.

Locking eyes, so to speak, with the crumpled hat perched opposite him on the wall, Fawkes trilled again. The hat at least acknowledged his cry with a nod and scrunched his face up more than usual.

Both were worried about what it would mean for the school and the students if Albus kept up his singular focus. But neither had the power to change his mind once he had it set on a course. They had tried a great many times throughout the years.

Fawkes trilled softly once more, before closing his eyes and snuggling deeper into the warm ash, hoping something would come to him in his sleep.

ϟ

Friday 31st July 1987.

Today was Friday, Harry Potter's seventh birthday. He had always loved his birthday as he would share it happily with his entire family. The elves would bring a cake and all the portraits would sing happy birthday and cheer as he blew out the candles.

But today, Harry was thrilled for another reason.

Today, he was celebrating his birthday, not in the library surrounded by portraits, but in the Grangers' living room.

His best friend watched eagerly as Harry gently peeled back the tape on his present, carefully as he did not want to ruin the delicate paper his friend had spent hours wrapping carefully if her mother's whispers were to be believed. There was a shadow of fear in her eyes as he finally broke the package free from its festive wrapper. She was worried about what he would think of her gift.

She had been so excited when she had found it in the local bookshop, finding it hilarious and hoped that he would share that humour when he read the title.

Harry gasped as he read the cover, looking up at his friend agape.

"Where did you find it?" He asked.

"It was in Demming's. I thought you might find it funny. Even as fanciful as the stories inside are."

A lump formed in her throat as she watched him peruse the contents page reading through the titles of the stories within.

Harry was unsure of what to think about the strangeness of the gift. In his hands was a compendium of stories all with one central thread.

Harry Potter – The Boy-Who-Lived

Harry looked up at Hermione again. He smiled widely while watching her face carefully. Did she know something? The stories inside were all ridiculous by Muggle standards. A five-year-old boy fighting dragons, saving damsels and fighting evil. He recognised the publisher as well; Obscurus Books. Several of the tomes at the Manor bore their mark. They were a magical publishing house based in Diagon Alley.

"I… I love it, Hermione, thank you." He smiled again as the fear left her eyes and she launched at him, wrapping him in her arms even tighter than she had the book in its wrapping.

"I'm so glad. I thought it was so ironic to find a storybook with your name on it while I was searching for a present for you. It was almost like it was meant to be. He even sounds as though he'd look a bit like you. Messy black hair and green eyes."

Harry relaxed into her arms, all thoughts of conspiracy and danger from the Grangers leaving his body. He could never stay angry or upset when in a Hermione Hug.

However, a small shard of worry lodged itself in his stomach.

Harry knew of the rumours in the magical world. Pops had shared them with him after he had found some strange letters from some goblin when helping the elder elf tidy up one of the many rooms of the Manor. Apparently, because his body was never found with his parents, people theorised that he had lived through the night.

Not just that, but that a baby of no magical talent had ended a war they had been fighting. Now it appeared they were writing storybooks about him. The book wasn't overly thick and the tales inside were quite short, leading Harry to believe these were meant as children's stories. Much like the Beedle the Bard stories Mipsy had read to him as a child.

The worry was as to what such a book was doing in a Muggle bookshop all the way out in Crawley.

But things like that were for other times. He squeezed his friend once more and pulled back, setting the odd book with the other gifts he had received from the Grangers. Smiling, he grabbed her hand and led her out into the yard, where they both snuggled together under their favourite tree continuing the Narnia book they had been reading the day before.

ϟ

"Sirius Black?" James asked, looking at the confused boy in front of him.

"Yep, he's the main antagonist. Every trouble Harry fights is somehow orchestrated by him. He's meant to be really evil." Harry replied, showing his father one of the few pictures in the storybook, of a tall man with shaggy hair and dark eyes glaring out of the page. As soon as he'd opened it in the Manor's library the pictures inside had begun to move.

"Well, I'll admit, Sirius was a troublemaker, but evil?" Lily scoffed looking at the nonsensical picture in the book. "Where do they get such an idea?"

"The appendices say it's because he betrayed the Potters…"

"He did no such bloody thing!" James called, standing and pacing at the slight against his friend.

"I'm sorry, Harry. Your father gets a little touchy about that subject."

"And why wouldn't I? We were betrayed alright, but not by my best friend. By a bloody rat!"

Harry looked at his parents' portrait in confusion. Ever since he had returned and shown them all the presents he'd received from the Grangers he had been confused. His parents had both reacted poorly to the book Hermione had given him.

"Sit back down, sweetie," Lily sighed, "I think it's time we tell you everything that happened that night."

Harry quickly sat in the nearest chair, shutting the book and resting it on his lap.

"First thing you should know is that nothing that happened was in any way your fault, Harry." James began, leaning heavily on the back of his own chair. "War is not a fun place to be, and we'd been in one since we finished Hogwarts. Dark wizards were causing chaos everywhere. One in particular, Voldemort, was terrorising Britain."

"Your father and I were part of a group trying to stop him," his mother continued, "called the Order of the Phoenix. The Ministry, for some strange reason, refused to label his group of followers, known as Death Eaters, as criminals. Instead claiming it was a slew of random acts caused by radicals. They were ill-prepared once things escalated in the late 70s. Albus Dumbledore was the head of the order. He is also currently the Headmaster of Hogwarts.

"Anyway, after several encounters, a couple you were even present for," Lily said, smiling tightly at him in his chair, "the old man came to us. Turns out some loopy bag had given him a prophecy stating a boy born in July would destroy Voldemort and end the war. You were due to be born right in the window the prophecy gave, so we were to go into hiding."

His mother sighed heavily and looked away, as she felt guilty over something.

"Your father wanted us to hide here. Where you would have been entirely safe. But I thought I knew better." His mum admitted, looking so sad now. "So we bought and prepared a special safe house for us all, the Longbottoms as well, as they were equally involved. And so, like fools, we left the Manor for a little shack of a house in Godric's Hollow.

"We suspected someone in the Order was giving Voldemort information, so Sirius suggested that we tell everyone that he was our Secret Keeper when we actually chose one of our other friends, Peter Pettigrew. People would search for Sirius, but even if they caught him, he couldn't reveal the secret. We would be safe. You would be safe."

"Except we trusted a stinking rat!" James growled, returning to his pacing.

Lily and Harry watched his father for several long silent minutes as his anger subsided and he sat heavily in his chair.

"You see, Harry, they were all very good friends at Hogwarts. James, Sirius, Peter and another boy named Remus Lupin were such good friends that they learned how to become Animagi together. Peter was a rat, your father a stag and Sirius a large dog."

"Padfoot…" Harry said softly, recalling the enormous black dog that he had occasionally fallen asleep curled up next to as a very young child. "What about Remus? What was he?" Harry enquired, becoming quite excited at the story of his parents' schooling.

"Moony wasn't strictly an animagus. His furry little problem was more lunar based." James replied, the first sign of a grin spreading over his face as he remembered his school days.

"Remus is a werewolf, Harry. He's a lovely man though, I can't believe we ever thought he would betray us. He was sent away to Europe to talk to the other werewolves while we went into hiding. Unfortunately, we received word that he died there as well. We successfully hid in the cottage for several months.

Lily paused for a moment before she looked into Harry's eyes and smiled. "It was a bit maddening, sitting about not knowing if or when he might come for us. So I took to research. Digging in old tomes here at the Manor and bringing them back while we looked after you. There is so much obscure magic in there. And I tried everything I could to keep you safe."

Her eyes flicked to James who was watching her closely now as well. "I eventually found dozens of spells that might have helped. I cast them all. I don't know which one might have done the trick, but somehow, they kept you safe. When Peter led Voldemort right to us."

Harry's father walked over and wrapped Lily in his arms. Holding her tightly as she settled once more. The tale having left her sniffling.

"I tried everything I could to keep you safe." James finally said forcefully, releasing Lily and looking at Harry once more. "I can't believe I left my wand upstairs. I guess I became too complacent. With no magic to use, I gonged that bastard over the head with your mother's favourite vase. Sorry love."

James smirked at Lily as he continued. "He tossed me about the living room like I was nothing. Whenever I landed I grabbed for the most solid object I could get my hands on and kept hitting him over and over. None of it worked. And then he must have grown tired of playing with me. He just hit me with the Killing Curse and I woke up in here."

Lily wrapped her arms around her desolate husband. "Trust me, you didn't want to be there for the next bit. I could hear him coming up the stairs as I laid you in your crib. We had faced him before, several times. But that was always together. We thought that we had prepared as best we could for him, but it wasn't enough. He knew the secret, and thus walked through every layer of protection like it wasn't even there. He ripped the door away like it was made of tissue paper and stepped into the room.

"I was so proud of you, Harry. I could see you standing in your crib watching him. You didn't cry once as he threatened to kill you. All over some stupid prophecy. He told me, you know, James. He told me who told him. I still can't believe that Severus fell so far."

"Damned Snivellus. He's lucky we're dead, or he bloody would be." James snarled.

"When I refused to just step aside and let him kill you, he used the Killing Curse on me too. I woke up here in James's arms with him crying over me. Mipsy was watching us in confusion and I shouted at her to get you out now. She tried so hard to push through the enchantments Alice and I had added to our houses, in the hopes of keeping him out.

"But we stupidly never told the elves the secret. And all the enchantments were tied to the Fidelius. If you knew the secret, it would be as if they weren't there at all. If you didn't, nothing would get you through them. So when she suddenly vanished I knew what had happened."

Both of Harry's parents were crying now, holding each other tightly as they remembered the worst night of their lives, which was, ironically enough, the end of them.

"I know what happened next," Harry whispered, distracting both Potters from their memories.

"You what?" James asked, blinking back the tears in his eyes.

"Like Mum said, I was awake and watching. My memory works too well sometimes." Harry looked down at the floor as he continued bashfully. "He stepped over your body, Mum. Laughing as he stood over me. His red eyes looked at me and I just stared back. I was waiting for you to stand up and make him go away.

"I could feel you, as though your arms were wrapped around me, but I could still see you on the floor. He pulled some shiny thing out of his pocket and waved his wand over it. He was hissing at it as he moved before holding it between us.

"Then he… pointed his wand straight at my face. Right here," he tapped the wide branching scar on his forehead as he continued. "And he saidAvada Kedavra. I remember because he pronounced it much slower and clearer than when he did it to you.

"There was a horrid green flash and I felt you squeeze me even tighter. It hurt so bad when it hit me. My whole body hurt more than when I woke up after the car hit me."

Lily and James were pouring tears as they watched their poor baby recount the most traumatic event of his young life.

"And then you let go." Harry stared straight into his mother's eyes, tears streaking down his face. "The green light pooled in front of me, pushed away by a bright white glow, and then it rocketed back at him. Whatever trinket he held between us was broken and the green and white lights hit him right in the chest.

"He flew across the room and the green light and the white glow exploded. But the white glow stopped it from coming towards me and you. It all went to the sides and back at Voldemort. Made a real mess of his body and blew out the walls of my room.

"I cried so hard then. I couldn't feel your warmth around me anymore. I wanted my mummy. And then Mipsy arrived. She stood right in front of me. I didn't know why she was there but all I wanted was to see you again. And then she brought me here, just as someone was rushing up the stairs."

"Oh Merlin, Harry." James whispered, "You shouldn't have to remember something so horrible. I am so sorry."

"It's ok. She brought me back to you. It's not the same, I can't hug you. But I got to keep growing up with my parents."

"Who do you think that was on the stairs?" Lily asked James.

"Probably Wormtail, coming to rescue his master. Or maybe Sirius. He would have come running when he felt the magic lift. Oh, gods no!"

"What?"

"Lily, Sirius! What do you think he would do if he found us both dead and Harry missing?"

"Oh, bugger! POPS!"

"Yes, mistress." The elderly elf bowed low as he appeared beside Harry, his nose scraping the floor.

"Where is Sirius Black?" James called without preamble.

"Master Black is in Azkaban prison. He was sent there for killing twelve Muggles and one Peter Pettigrew."

Chapter 7: How to Free Friends & Influence Goblins

Chapter Text

Friday 31st July 1987.

Silence reigned over the room. No one knew what to say to that.

James looked much like a fish as his mouth repeatedly opened and closed, but no sound came out. Lily simply looked shocked. And Harry didn't know enough to look anything more than confused.

Finally, Lily broke the silence. "Say that again."

"According to the papers, Master Black betrayed you all tohim, then went after Mister Pettigrew to finish the job for his master. When he found him on a muggle street, Pettigrew accused him of betraying you both and Black blew him, and twelve nearby muggles, to bits by blowing up half the street. He was found by the Aurors laughing and occasionally muttering 'my fault'. They stunned him and took him in."

"Given that he wasn't our secret keeper, he can't have betrayed us. Surely that would have been revealed at his trial?" Lily asked the aged elf.

"There was no mention of a trial in the papers, mistress. Just a small section a few days later that he had been sent to Azkaban for his crimes. It happened the same day the Lestranges were sent there for their failed attack on the Longbottoms."

"Pops, why didn't you tell us about any of this?" James growled, looking angry.

"Master told Pops to read the papers and keep track of the news for word of young Master Potter. You were very clear that it was more important than anything,everythingelse was secondary. I thought I was following your instructions, master."

Again, the room fell to silence as they realised that could be taken as the word of their orders. And as a result, Sirius was locked up in the worst place they knew of and had been there for years.

"Dumbledore…" Lily growled.

"What now?" James replied, turning to look at his now livid wife.

"He witnessed the will. He knows Sirius is Harry's guardian. He could have pushed for a trial and it would have at least come out that Peter was the secret keeper, even if he killed the rodent. For people to believe otherwise, Sirius can't have been questioned at all."

"What can we do?" Harry asked quietly, reminding his parents of his presence.

"Leave it to us, Harry," James called, standing tall in his portrait. "Why don't you see if Hermione's parents are okay with you staying over again tonight?"

Harry looked between his parents before nodding and heading out the door.

"Now, Pops. Tell us everything. Leave nothing out."

ϟ

"So, let me get this all straight," James said, slumped in his chair, "Padfoot is thought to have betrayed us, then gone after Wormtail, our real secret keeper. He blasts the rat and a street full of innocent muggles to pieces and they throw him straight into Azkaban without so much as a question."

"So it appears, master."

"Then Moony, who apparently is not dead, learns of all this and refuses to return thinking there is nothing left to live for in Britain. You're sure he's still alive?"

"Indeed, master. We kept track of him as best we could for a while, in case you ordered us to bring him home. When we checked in last June, he was draining pubs all over the continent, well on his way to a decade-long bender."

"Sounds like fun." James quipped, as his wife's eyes narrowed. " I can't believe we thought he was dead. Anyway, most of the Death Eaters who weren't caught actually torturing someone managed to get off by claiming they were under the 'Imperius'." The elf nodded again.

"And now," James continued, "you inform us, nearly six years after the first occurrence, that Albus f*cking Dumbledore has been trying on and off to either take ownership of the Potter estate outright or learn the identity of any of those listed in the will so he can take control of them for some unknown purpose. Information the Goblins freely gave youwithin a weekof Harry arriving back in this house."

Pops looked thoroughly chastised at the summary. "Yes, Master James."

The anger was evident on James's face. Most of it was directed at himself for being so narrow with his orders as to let such a dire situation spiral beyond their control. It was only Harry's continued absence from the world that had kept him safe.

"I… can't. You deal with him."

With a twirl of his finely painted robes, James vanished from the portrait and began ranting as he stalked the halls of the Manor. Lily looked at the aged elf kindly. "Don't worry Pops. He's still getting over his death. He doesn't blame you. He blames himself."

"He is well within his rights to do so, mistress. I kept useful information from my master. Information that could harm the little one."

"Harry is fine. He's probably tucked under that tree reading some fantasy book with his best friend. A relationship you have been instrumental in protecting, my friend. How many times have you kept the Grangers from asking too many questions about James and I, and why we are never around our son? We trust you with our… well with Harry's life. And that is the dearest thing on this planet to either of us."

Soft tears rolled down Pops's face as he nodded his acknowledgement.

"How much longer do you think the goblins can stall Albus?"

"He long ago ran out of legitimate channels to pursue. Though, if anything, that may make him more dangerous. His remaining options would infringe on the 'magic given rights' of some very powerful and rich families, so are unlikely to get the support needed to succeed. I believe for the foreseeable future; young Harry's future is in safe hands. But it will not remain so if given sufficient motivation. Whiskers could be diabolical when pushed."

Lily suppressed a giggle at the elf's nickname for Albus. If he referred to McGonagall as Kitty again, she would lose it for sure. It had become near impossible not to imagine her straight-laced head of house bouncing around the castle chasing a ball of string.

"So, for now, we must keep our eyes and ears open and shore up our defences. Can you think of no way to prove Sirius's innocence? We cannot believe he would be responsible for the muggle deaths. Peter must have screwed up his own spell and blown apart the street catching himself in the blast."

"Short of the Rat confessing his crimes, I am at a loss, mistress. No proof was ever given as to his guilt, but the lack of investigation also gives no evidence of innocence either."

"Fat chance of that if the bastard managed to blow himself up. What I don't understand is why Albus is still so fixated on the estate. Surely, it's more trouble than it's worth at this point. Beyond money, what does he really stand to gain?"

"I am unsure, mistress. The goblins will not share the finer details of the estate with me without my master present. The entire account is locked down until claimed by the heir. If we weren't self-sufficient here, we'd have long ago run out of supplies and money for the caring of the young master. As it is, the money spent gathering the papers and magazines for news has nearly drained the local funds."

"Alright, Pops. Send off a letter to Remus. Sign it from the Potter Estate and request his return. Hopefully, he'll pull himself out of a bottle long enough to read it. If not, we'll deal with it later. And once you've done that, I want you to go to Gringotts, in person this time. We need to get them to see if there is any way to free Sirius. Harry is growing well, but he needs an adult in his life that he can actually touch. Understand?"

"At once, Miss Lily." Pops bowed low, his old floppy ears brushing the surface of the plush carpet before he popped away.

Lily sighed. This was going to be difficult. Resigning herself to that which she couldn't change, she stood up and went in search of her wayward husband.

ϟ

"For the last time,elf. I cannot authorise a meeting with Farkor without a message from your master. Tell him to get his lazy wizard arse in here and maybe we can do something for you."

Pops was growing angry at the belligerent teller he had managed to get. He had much to do and this hideous moron was standing in his way. While Pops was typically quite well-mannered with the other species, this fool was a particularly hideous example of the race. He was practically deformed, and the elf was left wondering why the goblins had him out dealing with the public.

"I have corresponded with Mister Farkor for many years now on behalf of my master. He is aware I hold discretionary powers and low-level access to the Estate and its overseer. As such I do not need the presence or command of my master to arrange a meeting with him. Even though it is their command."

The goblin stood higher behind its desk, looking down on the old house-elf below and made to continue his tirade when a tap on his shoulder distracted him. Looking back, he saw Manager Farkor glaring at him dangerously.

"I'll see my customer now, thank you,Teller." The hierarchy of the bank was very evident in the tone of their voice.

"Of… of course, Account Manager." The goblin squealed in fear as he resumed his seat and waved the elf through the gate.

"Apologies, some of our tellers are new. Still acclimatising to their roles. Perhaps a few extra shifts in the Deep might teach them better manners regarding our clients." Farkor stated as he very slowly walked Pops past the shuddering teller.

They quickly traversed the marble and onyx hallways, passing few others despite the busy hour of the day. Not many had cause to go further into the bank than the main floor. However, Estate business couldn't exactly be expected to take place in the open where just anyone could hear.

Turning at last into a large office, Pops took his seat in front of the desk and ignored the vicious accoutrements hanging from the walls. He was far too old to be threatened by goblin window-dressing.

"How may Gringotts assist the House of Potter today, my friend."

"My master has asked me to discuss two matters with you today, my good Farkor. A slight restoration of the Manor's funds is required. A few small matters need to be addressed in the building and it would not do for the ancestral home of their line to become… dilapidated in their absence."

Farkor smiled. They had been playing this tune for years now. He would imply that the elf knew where Harry Potter was, and the elf would divert and act unaware. Neither thought the other stupid or unworthy, just that to state matters aloud without express permission would be uncouth.

"And my master has decided something must be done about the travesty of injustice related to Sirius Black. Too long has this innocent man languished in the company of the foul Dementors."

This quickly removed Farkor's smile. Not for any judgment on Black. The goblins couldn't care less if a wizard found himself locked away unless it adversely impacted their own income. Nor did they care about their activities, as long as they did not attack the Nation itself. After all, they did a great deal of business with those 'acquitted' Death Eaters.

And as Arcturus still lived, his primary heir being a prisoner didn't affect their income in the slightest. No, what Farkor hated, what all goblins hated with a fiery passion, were Dementors.

They had long since driven the demons from their underground lairs, clearing more room for Gringotts and the Nation to grow. But when they found the humans had employed the monsters as guards… It had damned near started another rebellion. Many goblins had been killed horrifically, drained of their very souls, when they first encountered the Dementors while delving in the Deep. And the collective memory of the Nation was long and vengeful.

"Indeed." Farkor drawled. "I take it you have some evidence to provide that casts doubt on Mr Black's incarceration then?"

"I'm afraid while such does exist, it is impossible to bring it to light in the current climate. What with the Ministry making plays for greater control of the Bank, we cannot risk certain knowledge being placed in their reach."

Farkor could read between the lines. The one with the information couldn't come forward so long as Dumbledore was attacking the sealed Estate. The problem was finding a way to release funds to the elf without implying or showing activity on said frozen account. To do so would open new avenues for the hairy bastard to attack them.

"A true shame then. I take it you wish us to find some avenue to assess the legality of said imprisonment then? A loophole that frees the individual from the need to come forward?"

"Such would be appreciated by my master. And would be greatly rewarded should such efforts bear fruit."

"Indeed." Farkor thought carefully. They had access to the records, but to go digging now could also give the old goat means by which to challenge the bank. They would need a clean third party who could act without drawing suspicion on the bank directly.

"A troublesome pair of plights we find ourselves embroiled in, my friend. Give me a few days to assess the issues and see what method Gringotts can bring to bear."

"As ever, Farkor, it is a pleasure to speak with you." Without waiting for the response, Pops vanished.

Farkor sighed, he had mentioned to management a few times about the house-elves' ability to pop in and out of the bank unchecked. To date, all they had done was ward the vaults against this ability, they assumed at least.

Someday, he had a feeling, they may regret that hole in their security.

ϟ

Saturday 19th September 1988.

Hermione hadn't had the best childhood before she began schooling. While her parents loved her deeply, they never fully understood her growing up. A daughter not quite interested in sports enough for her father, and a bit too bookish even for her nerdy mother.

She had been teased harshly by other children ever since she first went to places where they gathered in large groups, be it parks or pre-school. One-on-one they were alright, but whenever multiple children came together, the jibes would begin.

As such, she had developed a shell that had taken years for Harry to truly penetrate. Now she couldn't imagine life without him in it. Yet today she felt a little of that old fear creeping back in, even though he was still his normal effervescent self around her.

He had given her the customary morning hug when he arrived, escorted by the tall man he only ever referred to as Pops. They studied the morning away, finishing the last of their outstanding homework from the week. And now they were ensconced under the favoured tree reading the oddity that was the Boy-Who-Lived book.

Everything was as normal a day as had ever been between them. Except for two small things.

The first was the odd look Harry had been giving her out of the corner of his eye all morning. A look that said he was deeply debating something and that he wasn't yet ready to share it with her. She was more than patient enough to wait on this normally and would have let it go had it not been for the second point.

Today was Saturday. Specifically, Saturday the 19th. Of September.

Her ninth birthday and Harry had not even said happy birthday to her. And that was what had some of her old fears resurfacing. Was Harry thinking about ending their friendship? Every other birthday they had shared it had been the first thing out of either's mouth. Yet today he was too busy thinking his puzzle over to even notice.

Nor had he noticed she had just reread the same page to him for the fifth time.

"Harry?"

He glanced at her once more from the corner of his eyes, the puzzling look still evident within but he showed no sign of having noticed her comment. In fact, she was sure the glimpse had been independent of her question.

"Harry!"

This time he gave a barely audiblehmmmand turned his ear to listen better.

Beginning to anger, Hermione set the book in her lap, licked her finger and poked it into his ear canal. "HARRY!"

"Argh, what?" He jumped at both the wet willy and the volume of her shout.

"You've been ignoring me for at least the last twenty minutes." She huffed.

"No, no I haven't." He flashed her his best 'innocent' grin, trying to distract her.

"I read you the same page of this book five times and you didn't even notice."

"Of course, I did, I thought you were being funny."

"Then tell me what the page is about." Hermione tucked the book under her loose shirt to prevent him from seeing where in the text they were.

"Er, what…"

Hermione nodded. She was not going to make things easy on him if he wanted out. Her armour was reforming as they spoke, and she would not let it show how much the idea hurt her.

"Wanna get out of here?" Harry asked suddenly, the puzzled look leaving his eyes for the first time that day. Whatever he had been thinking on, he had finally settled his internal debate.

"My parents aren't going to be home for hours, Harry. They trust us to stay home without messing the house up, but we can't just go anywhere we like. Unless you want to go to the park?" She asked, pointing past the flats at the end of the close, in the direction of the large open space that was Southgate Park.

They were allowed to go there and back unsupervised as that was the path that Hermione always took to get to and from school. Often meeting Harry at the edge of Hawth Woods along the way. And there were several facilities around the park with other adults that the Grangers knew quite well who would always keep an eye out for the children.

As long as they stayed clear of the big roads and the railways, and the shiny new theatre that had just been built at the far end of the woods, they were allowed to explore the entire block freely. So long as they left a note before going to play. Not that they ever really made use of that freedom. Preferring to play or read together in the backyard.

"No, I know the rules. And I'll have you back on time. They'll never know. But it's somewhere special. Somewhere for just you and me. Something I have to show you."

The grin was back and this time she was sure it wasn't a distraction. Harry was up to something. That was definitely his up-to-something face. He held his hand out to her, standing as he did. The early afternoon sun tickled his skin as the leaves of the trees cast shifting shadows across his body.

"Please?" He begged, his eyes pleading with her.

"Fine. But it better be good."

As she stood beside him, he took both her hands tightly in his own. "Ready?"

"For what?" She asked curiously when he did not release her hands. They needed to leave a note…

With a pop, her thought was derailed completely as the garden was replaced by a momentary feeling of displacement before her brain reconnected with the fact that her surroundings had changed. There was no other indication of movement. One moment she was in her own backyard, the next in the biggest library she'd ever seen, staring at towering rows of books as far as the eye could see.

"Happy birthday, Hermione." Harry's grin broadened as he watched her take in the massive room of books.

When finally, her wits returned she looked back at her friend and wrapped him in the tightest hug she'd ever given. Before jumping clean out of her skin at a shout right behind her.

"HARRY JAMES POTTER! WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?"

Hermione spun to see a fuming woman towering over her. Her red hair was whipping wildly about her face and her eyes, Harry's green eyes, were glowing! As Hermione watched a man joined her, passing what must have been the edge of the doorway as he appeared from nowhere. He looked a lot like an older version of Harry, except for the eyes, which were brown and tucked behind glasses. He took in the scene in front of him and collapsed on the chair behind him with poorly suppressed laughter.

"WELL!" The woman screamed again.

"Nice first impression mum," Harry muttered. "Hermione Jane Granger, meet Lily Jasmine Potter. My mum. And that quivering lump in the corner is my dad, James Charlus Potter," Harry introduced the pair.

Hermione gave a slight curtsey that finally allowed the now entirely unsupported Boy-Who-Lived book to tumble free of her shirt with a thump. She squeezed Harry's hand tighter as she looked up at the woman still fuming above her before she spoke. "Pleasure."

"It's lovely to meet you too dear," Lily replied, the anger on her face almost clearing for a moment before she turned back to Harry. "You, mister. Are grounded. A whole bloody year this time. How could you be so stupid?"

"Mum, you're ruining her birthday present."

"Oh boy, abort son. Abort!" James giggled, hiding behind the chair.

"Shut up, you moron. Explain yourself now!" Lily growled.

"She's my friend," Harry replied as though that explained things entirely. He stood resolute under the withering gaze of the still clearly livid woman.

"If it's a bother, I'll just go, Mrs Potter."

"Stay right there, young lady. You can't go anywhere yet."

"MUM!" Harry warned, making Hermione gasp as he pulled her behind him.

"Don't you 'Mum' me little man. Do you have any idea what you've done?"

"Yes!" He snapped back ferociously, drawing Lily up short.

"You did this on purpose?" She asked, flabbergasted. Finally seeming to understand something that was still unclear to Hermione.

"I gave it a lot of thought. All of it. Every. Bit."

"You're definitely grounded. Go to your room and we'll discuss it later. Pops!"

"Yes, mistress?"

"I need you to take Miss Granger home and wipe her memory of this place."

Harry remained resolutely in front of Hermione as the odd creature that had suddenly appeared seemed to sway uncertainly from one foot to the other.

"What is it, Pops? Out with it now." Lily demanded.

"Elf's don't have memory magic, mistress. It's why we're so good at not being seen."

Pops bowed his head and looked as though Christmas had been cancelled. Hermione couldn't help herself as she stepped around Harry and hugged the small creature. She had no idea what it was, beyond apparently being an elf. But it was upset because she was here. The least she could do was offer it some comfort.

"Well that's hardly your fault is it Pops?" She said as the shocked elf stared at her in disbelief.

Harry just laughed at the look on the old elf's face. And she glared at him for having instigated the event that led to him feeling so adrift.

"You don't… then, how do we? James?" Lily asked, looking even more unsettled than Pops.

James just stood behind his chair and shrugged his shoulders.

"You can't." Harry stepped forward, once more placing himself between his parents and Hermione. "Unless you plan to call the Obliviators. Now, I'm off to show my best friend the rest of the house."

He stepped over to her again and held out his hand. Hermione was a whirlwind of thought and emotion. She was still in the most impressive library she'd ever even heard of. Was currently hugging something she'd never even heard of before, and Harry was acting like there was nothing his parents could do to stop him, despite them standing right behind him.

He simply grinned at her as she released the, she believed, elf. And took his hand again, glancing uncertainly at Lily as she huffed at her son. He winked at his parents and led her out the door she hadn't noticed to their left and into the hallway. As they walked away, she couldn't help but glance back at the Potters and noticed the perspective of their doorway seemed off but she was unable to fully assess it before they were out in the hall.

"Sorry, Hermione. Mum is usually really nice. It's not you, trust me, she is going to love you once she gets to know you."

Hermione's mind continued to whirl as she followed Harry in a daze. "What do you mean? Why is that?"

"She's really smart, too. She adored books growing up, just like you do. She's half the reason the library is so big. Although, the Potters have always had a lot of books. She's mad at me right now, but she'll calm down once she thinks it all through."

Silence reigned for several moments as her brain attempted to process everything she'd seen since the garden. She still had no idea how they were even here. Was she hallucinating? Maybe she'd just fallen asleep in the garden and this was all a weird dream. She pinched her arm just as Harry stopped them beside a tall door.

"Ow." She yelped, rubbing the spot where she had pinched.

"What'd you do that for?" Harry looked at her oddly, rubbing the spot for her too.

"Dream," Hermione mumbled. "Trying to wake up."

Harry laughed gently and took her hand again.

"Seems I've seen yours, and it is so cute by the way, I thought we'd start here."

He kicked the slightly ajar door wide open and led her inside. She found herself in a large bedroom with a huge bed taking up most of the left wall. Directly opposite the door was a floor-to-ceiling window that showed a beautiful garden stretching out from the house and disappearing into the distance. Six tall metal poles, in two groups of three, rose out of it in the middle distance.

The other wall had a large fireplace flanked by two huge bookshelves and above the fire was a large still-life portrait with bowls of fruit beside a pair of comfortable recliners.

"My room," Harry said proudly.

Hermione stepped inside and wandered to the window. The view was sublime, and the weather looked heavenly. Colourful flowers of every variety stretched away from her and she could now see that the garden ended quite a way out, but long before the odd poles that seemed to rise from some low seating.

Tearing herself from the view, she turned to the bookshelves and began perusing them. Many books had no titles but looked to be bound in ancient leather covers. She grinned to herself as she saw that pride of place had been given to the books she had gifted to Harry over the years. With the empty space obviously belonging to the book now lying in the massive library.

Looking back over at her friend she saw he had kicked his shoes off and was lounging back on the bed watching her explore. His smile vanished, and Hermione spun to the door as the same voice from before piped up loudly.

"Don't think you've gotten out of discussing this, young man."

Hermione was confused. The voice was clearly originating from inside the room, but she couldn't see Mrs Potter anywhere. Turning to Harry she saw him scowling at the painting above the fireplace, and she stepped back to better see what he was looking at.

A soft eep left her mouth as she saw Lily Potter standing inside the still-life painting glaring at her son. Her head began to swivel back and forth as both pairs of green eyes locked on one another, refusing to blink.

Harry's mother was a painting? Hermione was still so confused by everything else that had happened today she figured she must have finally snapped. What was going on?

"Well!?" Lily called, drawing her attention again.

Harry glared at the painting and waved his hand before collapsing back onto the sheets and staring up at the ceiling. Hermione watched as Lily continued to yell at Harry, but now no sound came out. Her hair was whipping about even more violently than before, yet no sound was audible. Hermione crept forward until she could stand on her tiptoes and peered at the bottom edge of the painting.

She ran her fingers along it and it felt like any other painting she'd ever seen. But she felt as Lily's feet passed her fingers, as though there was a slight bowing outward where she existed in the paint.So, not a screen of some kind. It's really paint.

"Um, Harry?" Hermione asked, turning from the angry woman. "What's going on?"

"Don't worry, she's just angry because I technically broke the Statute." He said with a roll of his eyes. "But I don't care. I thought it over and your friendship is worth it. And I knew you were getting suspicious with me never inviting you round. I just couldn't keep this all from you anymore."

"And Pops?"

"Yeah, that's him. He can make himself look human."

"So, he isn't then?"

"Not human? No, he's a house-elf. They've raised me since I was fifteen months old. Since the night my parents were killed." Harry's face darkened at the thought and Hermione was quickly on the bed hugging him tightly.

"Thank you, Harry. I know you are in trouble because of me, but this is the best birthday present I've ever had."

"I'm in trouble because I chose to be. Not because of you." Harry said, smiling at her brightly. "And I would do it again. Because being your friend is worth any amount of trouble."

Neither noticed as Lily stormed from the portrait.

ϟ

"He silenced me!"

"He what?" James asked as Lily stormed into the family portrait.

"Silenced me. With a wave of his hand." She slumped into a chair as she demonstrated with a lazy wave. "I think we're in trouble."

James moved over to hug his wife as Charlus piped in. "Why's that?"

"He's testing us. And he knows we really have no way to discipline him.HEbrought her here. Didn't get one of the elves to do it for him. Just popped into the library with her right in front of me."

The others began to chatter as the full extent of what she was saying began to sink in.

"We can't ground him. Unless he cooperates, we can't contain him. And now he knows it. And that wasn't a normal silencing charm. That was elf magic. It's coming to him naturally now. I doubt he knows he cast it. He just wanted me to be quiet. Probably so busy hugging he hasn't even noticed I've left." James chuckled beside her. "Don't you laugh. This is your influence. He used to be such a well-behaved boy."

"Wasn't me, dear. I may not be the best role model in the world, but it was your actions that started this."

Lily glared at him and James knew he had moments to head off the explosion.

"School dear! Sending him to that school was your idea, love. Remember? 'Get him real friends'. Well, he has them now, or one at least. And like a true Marauder, like the both of us in fact, he'll move Gringotts itself to please them. He'll be more loyal than any badger.

"You better hope that girl can exercise some control over him because we sure can't anymore. This was supposed to be Padfoot's job. He still wouldn't have been able to control him, and probably would have joined in half the time, but he'd be there. In-person. To fix anything."

"It's been over a year since Pops first approached the goblins," Dorea noted, "and they've yet to find anything that could help free your friend, dear. I doubt that will change anytime soon."

"And your other friend practically ignored the letter that Pops sent," Charlus added. "Got so morose that he managed to give even the elves the slip."

"Remus," Lily whispered, considering the elder Potter's comment. The elves had tracked the man once before.

"Say what Lils?" James asked.

"We need Remus. Pops is great, but Harry needs a proper adult. Someone he can't push around. Remus kept you lot under control as a prefect, mostly. He's the one we need."

"True, but as Dad just pointed out, he's somewhere off in Europe trying to drink himself into an early grave. I figured he'd be happy to hear from us."

"But he didn't hear from you," Lily explained, suddenly realising why their former friend might have run for the hills upon reading that letter. "He heard from his dead friend's estate. He believes he has nothing to live for here in England. We both know he'd refuse any amount of money you wanted to give him.

"However, if we can get him back here, he'll live for Harry. And maybe he can do something to help free Sirius. Then Harry can finally have a real family again."

The other Potters all nodded and for the first time in ages they were all in agreement on a course of action. James in particular seemed to embrace the idea. The smile on his face was reminiscent of happier times and usually accompanied some form of prank.

"Tybalt."

"Yes, master?" The elf asked, appearing in the room beside the book the girl had dropped earlier. The one that had spurred all of this into action.

"Need you to do something big for us, buddy," James said, giving Tybalt a wide smile. "Our friend Remus Lupin. Track him down again for us and give him a message fromme." James added particular emphasis on himself. "In person this time."

James paused to consider the message for a moment before he spoke again. "Tell him that 'Moony needs to pull his head out of his arse and get back to England. Prongs wants a word with him about Padfoot and the fawn.' Tell him that, those exact words, and we'll see how he reacts. Take your time, do it right. If you need help, ask us. But under no circ*mstances are you to tell Harry. Understood?"

"Yes, Master James."

"Always thought those nicknames of yours were ridiculous, lad." Charlus chided as Tybalt popped away. "Glad to see them finally being useful."

ϟ

Harry shuffled into the family room quietly, hoping not to draw attention.

While today had been fantastic, showing Hermione his home and chatting away, it couldn't last. He took her home before the Grangers were due back from their unplanned weekend work and after a short party with her family, returned to face the music.

He knew what he did was wrong. The Grangers were muggles, they weren't allowed to know about magic. But he also knew there was no one who knew about him that could perform the memory charm. Now she knew and there was no way to reverse it without involving the Ministry.

Harry was proud of his actions. He had felt horrid hiding a portion of his life from Hermione when she was so completely open with her own. She had no secrets from him, and yet he was keeping a huge one from her.

He still wasn't being completely honest with her. She'd implied that the elves were the magic ones and that everything was their doing, and he chose not to correct her.

It was still a lie, but enough of the truth that he could live with it for now. Given the odds of him attending Hogwarts, or some other magical school, in four short years, he wanted to make the most of all the time he could get with his friend before life took her away.

He fronted up to the enormous picture containing every member of his Potter family. Most were sleeping or at least pretending to do so. Except for two. James, who was clearly trying to suppress a laugh. And Lily, who was watching him closely with unreadable eyes.

"I'm sorry." He mumbled.

"Missed that, Harry. Please speak up." James called, quietly enough to not wake the family.

"I'm sorry." He repeated, louder. "I know it was wrong, but I couldn't lie to her anymore. She deserves better than that Mum."

He locked eyes with Lily and another staring contest began. James interrupted before it could go too long.

"Enough you two. Harry's sorry. The kneazle is out of the bag, and unless we want the world to know he's alive, it's going to stay out. How much did you show her?"

"Not much. We just walked around the house and talked. She guessed the elves are magic and I let her think they were responsible for everything. She has no idea I'm a wizard. But she is still confused about the both of you. Doesn't understand how my parents can be in a painting. She thinks you were tricked or cursed or something now she knows magic is possible." He finished with a smirk. "Bet you anything tomorrow she's at the library trying to look up painting curses."

"See Lils. Not a total catastrophe."

"Harry, do you realise how serious this is?" Lily asked, ignoring her husband. "You exposed our world to muggles. Just because the Ministry doesn't know does not make it ok. I lived in that world once, I know how muggles react to magic."

There was a pained look on her face and Harry knew she was thinking of his aunt and her horrid husband. They had said very hurtful things to his mother and refused to attend their wedding. She had also told him about people's reactions to her accidental magic when she was in primary school. His mum took the divide between their worlds very seriously on some matters.

"Hermione is not Aunt Petunia. She won't tell a soul. Not even her parents."

"Intent isn't important here, Harry. You intentionally broke the law. An international law. You could end up in the cell right next to Sirius for this."

"Only if the Ministry finds out. I'm not going to tell them. Are you?" Harry retorted defiantly.

James grasped his wife's shoulder hard, derailing her response and drawing her ire, but his look kept her quiet.

"As we discussed Lils, this is partially your own fault." He said, a soft look adorning his face as he spoke to her. Before he turned and sent a far sharper look at his giggling son. "Yours too Harry, don't get co*cky. What's done is done. Harry will do as he is told from now on, won't you?"

Harry nodded and became bashful again.

"He has definitely inherited your temper, my love. He may look a lot like me, but underneath he is all you. You are grounded for the week. Straight here after school. No detours. And no library. In fact, no books of any kind except for schoolwork. And all day tomorrow we are going to go over the Statute from top to bottom."

Harry groaned. Revision bored him stupid. His memory was such that he could recall almost anything he had ever heard, seen or read. So, reading and listening to Reginald drone on about things he already knew was a sure way to a bored Harry.

"Take it as punishment. If it doesn't seem to sink in, you'll be doing a whole lot more revising, and might find yourself grounded a lot longer than a week."

"Yes, Dad. Sorry, Mum."

Harry walked over to the painting and on his tiptoes, pressed his lips to his mother's cheek.

"Good night." And with a turn, he was gone.

Chapter 8: Nightmares and Missing Moonys

Chapter Text

Friday 25 November 1988.

Tybalt was cold.

He'd never felt a bone-deep chill quite like the one he felt now. This Siberia place was not somewhere he wanted to spend much time. But he was tasked with finding his master's Wolf, and that was what he was going to do.

He'd been at it now for months. Every time he felt he was getting close the trail would jump away again. At first, it had zigzagged all over France. Spending a lot of time centred around the areas where the muggles made their wine. It appeared that Wolf had used them for work while on his travels and this added a whole new level of difficulty to his search.

While Pops was a master of disguise in his elder years, able to take on different forms using his magic, Tybalt was still far too young to master such techniques. And a house-elf questioning muggles without a disguise was a tricky proposition. He'd had to resort to subterfuge and misdirection. Talents he had learned over many years of reading under the guidance of Mistress Lily and perfected while caring for Master Harry.

Back when the young master was still too young to do much, and Mipsy was his main minder, Tybalt would spend hours in the library learning to read at Lily's insistence. His favourite stories were the mysteries and spy thrillers she had brought into the library years before.

And the talents of the detectives and spies in those novels were now being put to good use.

He felt a little bad for kidnapping people for a night and holding them in a dark interrogation room, usually an unoccupied room in their own home that he used magic to distort, with a bright light shining in their faces. Disguising his voice as he asked his questions.

Unknown to him or the Potters, this would be responsible for a huge surge in reports of alien abduction reports in those areas for months. But he was a good elf. His master had given him a job to do. A big job he had called it as the wee elf left on his journey, and Tybalt would not fail in his quest.

This vineyard tour had continued into Italy and after several weeks onto Greece. It was here that Tybalt had the most difficulty finding the next leg of the trail. Wolf seemed to hop back and forth around the many islands in this area for some time before he moved on again. Sometimes using the many forms of muggle transport between them and at others seeming to simply apparate from one to the next. Following that path had taken almost a full half of the time Tybalt had spent on this journey.

The many magical sites that he went through on his way north allowed for quicker passage as he tracked up through Bulgaria and Romania. Had it not been for the run-ins with a few hungry vampires in this area, elves being a particular delicacy to blood drinkers, he likely wouldn't have taken more than a couple of days to track him northward.

The trail appeared to be following a mostly straight line north but had suddenly shot a huge distance to the north-east at the border of Belarus. The residue of several portkeys made this one leg rather difficult to keep up with. Which is what led to Tybalt standing here, shivering despite his many warming charms and thick clothing he had acquired nearby. On the shore of a near-frozen sea, staring up over the breaking waves.

Starokadomsky Island lay before him now, cold and desolate. But it was still early morning, and the moon was still glaring down over the frozen hellscape. He could clearly hear the howls of the island's inhabitants as they ran over its bare flanks.

This particular pack seemed to have found a safe place to turn. The island held no homes, no people of any sort that he could see. Not even any trees grew there. Only ice and dirt. Though it meant others were safe, the wolves themselves would suffer greatly. With nothing else to turn their claws and teeth to, they would attack each other. It would be a very long night for them.

And so, Tybalt waited.

Waited for the moon to set and the wolves to rest so that he could question them. Even from here, he could sense he was too late. Wolf was not among those running amok on the island. But he had been with them very recently.

Perhaps they could lead to him finally catching him up, as he would not be very comfortable travelling over the next few days.

It would be nearly ten in the morning before the small boat they had left anchored a few hundred metres offshore slowly rowed past the more southern Maly Taymyr Island on which Tybalt had spent the morning, on its way to the mainland with its ten passengers. There the group had left a set of portkeys to take them off to their next destinations.

Tybalt stood, watching like the lone man keeping his lighthouse for several moments. Before he popped over to the boat, balancing on its tip and surprising the occupants severely.

His questioning of the werewolves did not take very long. They were still weary from their night of pain and only wanted to be free of the questioning elf so that they could find a hot meal and a comfortable bed. So, Tybalt soon had what he wanted. Switzerland.

After a quick restock for supplies at the Manor, a detour that took the elf no time at all due to its unique magical location, he was on his way.

Wolf had told the pack exactly where he was headed, and why he was breaking off from them after almost nine months of running with them. His guilt had been growing at the contentment he'd felt with them. They had tried to convince him to stay, but he had still left them. And only days earlier.

His destination now was a glacier,Blau Gletscherli, to the north of a tall mountain. With his extensive reading, Tybalt understood the reference that Wolf was making with his choice of destination. While the glacier and the mountain were not that unusual, the nearby village to the south had a very particular name for anyone in the magical world.

Grindelwald.

And it was here, in the cracks of the glacier a little north of the village, that Tybalt finally caught up with his mark.

The magic he felt in the crag was the same he had been following now for months. And it also was quite an impressive transfiguration. Both ends of the thin gap in the ice had been filled with slanted flat plates of six-inch-thick iron. The tips were rounded to prevent purchase and silver mesh laid over top discouraged repeated attempts at escape.

At their base, a small fire still burned on charmed wood to prevent it from going out and the passed-out man by its side looked as ragged as any Tybalt had ever met.

His clothes were shredded and spread across the open ground, some even smouldering beside the fire. But the most common item about the campsite was empty bottles. Mostly of terribly strong liquors. The smell was horrendous and nearly knocked out the poor elf. But at long last, he had the chance to complete his mission.

He quickly prepared his message, carving it deep into the ice walls on both sides of the crevice. However, now he'd caught up to his mark, he wasn't about to leave him alone. And an idle house-elf is never a good thing. So, he set himself to cleaning the camp, repairing the clothing as best he could and clearing away the bottles.

And the smell.

ϟ

Remus shook himself awake and immediately regretted his decision. The pounding of his head was only worsened by the jerky motion and the bright white walls of ice under the evening sun assaulted his eyes if he opened them even a little.

Last night had been the worst full moon in years. Locking himself in such a small space after running free with a pack for several months had resulted in the wolf within turning on him. He could feel the deep scratches and angry bites slowly healing all over his body. The wolf was angry at him and had not shied away from expressing that displeasure.

But such was what he deserved. Family, belonging, home. These were things for people who were whole. Who hadn't allowed themselves to be sent away when their true family had needed them the most. When he had failed them. This was his penance, as best he could perform it before death, at last, took him and he got to suffer anew in the hell his cursed soul was damned to.

Stretching added a new dimension to the pain running through him as the healing damage was stressed and, in some cases, broken open anew. The odd feeling of the ice at his naked back and the roaring heat of the fire on his side caused even more stress to his already tasked nervous system. Pulling a deep breath through his nose helped to clear his clouded senses a bit, but as he took his second breath, he froze.

There was a new scent in his lair, one that had not been there the night before.

Opening his eyes, he again regretted it as the sunlight glinted off the links of the silver mesh he had covered his hovel with. And it only magnified brighter as it reflected off the sheer walls of the glacier and burned at his retinas.

But he pushed through the pain, turning his head slowly to the side his senses were telling him the scent was located. And now he was certain he was still dreaming.

For sitting by his fire, on an intact chair was a house-elf dressed in a deep blue shirt dotted with pockets, drinking a steaming mug of something, while reading a book.

Remus blinked several times as he tried to will his imagination to remove the odd display, but no matter the method, it remained resolutely in place. It took him several minutes before he realised the elf wasn't reading but was instead watching him silently from over the top of the book.

"Good evening," the elf said, the sound echoing about the small space and attacking Remus's sensitive ears.

"If you say so." He replied, rolling onto his side to find his clothing folded and perched on a second chair with his name on the back. Clearly, whoever this elf belonged to, they knew who Remus was. "Can I help you?"

The elf smiled as he placed a bookmark in the novel,To Kill a MockingbirdRemus noted, and set it beside himself.

"I've been tasked to find you. And convey a message."

The elf waved a lazy hand to either side as Remus stood and again stretched his haggard body. His feet rebelled at the cold they were now being subjected to, as his back and side were now so numb, they hadn't cared about the cold. He slipped into the prepared clothing, which felt thicker and warmer than the day before.

"And what would that message be?"

The elf smiled again and waved his hands to the sides, not taking his eyes from Remus. Confused, this time Remus followed the wave to the side and finally he noticed something was carved deep into the thick ice walls on either side of him. He had ignored it at first, believing it was simply the result of the wolf trying to climb its way free. Now he looked closer and saw the text carved into its surface and highlighted by the shadows cast by the sun and fire.

Moony needs to pull his head out of his arse and get back to England. Prongs wants a word with him about Padfoot and the fawn.

Remus froze again.

While his Marauder name was hardly a secret, given how often they'd used them during very public pranks, there were not many individuals who knew all four identities. The phrasing of this message was nearly identical to several his old friend had used when he would mope over his condition in their school years.

Adding in the term fawn, too. While Moony's condition was relatively known, very few knew the lengths his friends had gone to to help him manage that condition. Nor their forms. Or that one of them was a deer. The one of them who had a child of their own.

This was a message from James Potter.

But that was impossible. His friend was long dead, betrayed by Padfoot all those years ago. The whole family had died that night. Lily and the fawn included.

Could it just be a delay in the message that had resulted in this odd moment? Surely that must be the case. James had sought him out before his death and his stupid mission for Dumbledore had meant he'd missed the message until it was far too late.

"You're a little late passing on the message." Remus barked, allowing his frustration to colour his voice. "They're already dead. Not much I can do about that now, elf."

"My name is Tybalt, Mister Wolf. Please use it." The elf's expression took on a darker note for a moment. "And I am not late unless my master says so."

"I'm sorry, Tybalt. But I don't know what you expect of me. If your master is James Potter, this message can't help him now." He turned to face the iron wall and felt himself fall into memories of happier times.

"And why would you think that?"

"Because I failed them and they're dead!" Remus roared, rounding on the elf, who didn't even blink at the sudden anger. "I failed to protect my pack,my friends, and now they're all dead. James, Lily. Harry." He sank into the chair and sobbed into his hands as he broke down. He'd managed to suppress this all for so long. "Even Peter. And I can't even avenge their deaths because Black is already locked away. All I can do is remember."

"So, you didn't know?" Tybalt asked, an inquisitive look on his features.

"Didn't know what? That Black would sell us out? Of course not. I'd have killed him before he had a chance. The wolf would have ripped his heart from his chest and eaten it before his dying eyes."

Tybalt smiled widely at the man. Why would he enjoy that?

"Your information seems to be dated. The message also comes with an offer. I was to talk to you to find out if it was safe to make that offer."

Remus was beyond confused now. The pain he had been hiding in his heart for years was running rampant through his body. The agony of that Halloween had haunted him all this time and now this damned elf was churning everything he'd tried to lay behind him back up. Whoever had sent the blasted creature was playing with fire if they thought they could bring all this up and he'd help them with much of anything.

"What offer?"

Tybalt smiled again and fished something from his pocket and threw it at Remus. Even in his intoxicated and pained state, his reflexes were sharp enough to swipe it from the air. He hadn't expected to have the feeling of a portkey triggering to rip him from his camp and send him swirling into a heap on the floor of a tiled room.

The pain in his body and brain kept him from moving for several minutes. A pop nearby signalled the elf following him. The small bag of knickknacks and clothing he had concealed on the other side of the iron plate was dropped before him and the sound of running water filled his ears.

"Master requested you take a bath and change first. Once you are presentable, call for me. I shall take you to him."

Remus pulled his hand free from under his crumpled form and looked at the item he had caught. It was a small stuffed animal. A wolf. The very same one he had bought for Harry on his first birthday, that matched the dog, rat and stag the others had given him.

ϟ

Harry honestly loved the Grangers.

As much as he loved his parents, there were just some things they couldn't do. Giving him a hug good night. Tucking him into bed and pressing a kiss to his forehead. And both the Granger parents would treat him to these things on a regular basis.

While he could understand his parents cared for him on an intellectual level, the Grangers could prove it in a physical sense and this had resulted in him latching onto them as much as he had to their daughter.

When they had opened the wall between his spare room and Hermione's bedroom so that they could share the room, he had been unable to contain the happy tears. It had taken almost half an hour for his friend to console him enough to settle in for the night.

He was truly amazed at how understanding the Grangers had been about his occasional need to stay over the night with little warning. Tonight, he didn't even know why he had been sent to stay. Just that Tybalt had returned from some extremely long trip he wasn't supposed to ask about and it required him to stay at Hermione's.

Not that he ever minded. There were few places in this world where he felt happier or safer than 53 Ringwood Close.

In the months since he had first brought Hermione home to the Manor, his sleepovers had increased a lot. He was now there almost twice a month and was fast coming to think of Richard and Natalie as his second parents.

When he had accidentally called Natalie 'mum' tonight as she had tucked him in, she had started, and Harry was worried at what her response would be. After a few short seconds though she had kissed his forehead and wished him a good night before doing the same to Hermione and leaving the room.

Harry's heart had pounded for ages after that and it wasn't until Hermione slipped in next to him and wrapped him in a hug that he settled.

"They love you, you know. She already thinks of you as a son." Hermione whispered into his ear. "I don't mind in the slightest. There is no one I'd rather share my family with than you."

Harry nodded and snuggled tighter against Hermione, finally letting the worry clenching at his heart go and relaxing into her arms. And it didn't take him long after that to drift off to sleep.

ϟ

Remus had never set foot in such a brilliant Manor before in his life. Thankful for their ignorance of his condition, his many stays with Sirius's family in their youth had shown him the opulence of the darker purebloods, but this was a cut above even that.

The building managed to be light and open despite all the rich furniture and fancy paintings decorating the walls. The place had a homely feeling to it and many of the people in the pictures along the wall gave him soft greeting smiles as he passed.

It had been several hours since the elf had dropped him in a bathroom that put even the Prefect's one at Hogwarts to shame. Making the most of it, he had scrubbed himself clean and now felt better than he had in years. But curiosity was a tough thing to avoid, and instead of calling for Tybalt as he was instructed to do, he had set off into the house to find some clue as to where he was.

Looking out the many windows was no help. The gardens that stretched out from the Manor showed no obvious clues and the clear starry night just meant there were no muggle settlements full of electric lights nearby. He could have been anywhere in the world with what he saw outside. So, he was left to use internal clues to figure it out.

The architecture looked right for a rich pureblooded family from England, but it was not one he had ever visited before. Not that many of the British purebloods would welcome a werewolf knowingly into their home for anything other than sport.

He'd kept track of news from the island of his birth and knew that some horrid woman by the name of Umbridge had helped pass some appalling laws regarding his kind while he'd been away. He was unlikely to find much in the way of employment in that country anymore.

But these were thoughts for another time. He realised he could hear voices in the room just up ahead, and he went into Marauder mode in order to sneak close enough to hear.

"He finished in the bath ages ago, mistress. He is currently wandering the halls."

"And you just let him? He's a werewolf!"

"Be quiet, Bob. Just because you were a bigot doesn't mean anyone else here has a problem with his condition. One that is not his fault in the slightest." A familiar voice echoed down the hall. A voice he'd not heard in many years but was still unable to place. "Do you plan to invite him to join us anytime soon, Tybalt?"

"Yes, master."

Remus froze as the elf stepped out into the hall and looked directly at him. There was no accusation in its eyes and he now realised they had known exactly where he had been as he wandered the halls. A cheeky grin spread across his face as he straightened up and nodded to the elf who now directed him into the room.

"Yes, well. Too right." Remus said as he straightened his clothes and walked into the room, looking about to see the people who had been talking with the elf.

He found no one. The room was empty but for three chairs and a large painting that took up the entire left-hand wall of the room. The chairs were angled toward the painting and each had a small table to its right with a platter topped with glasses.

"Over here, Remus. Long-time, no-see." The familiar voice called.

Remus spun to the painting and took in those within. It was a massive family portrait filled with over a hundred faces staring at him. Hair and eye colours ran the gamut and while many had similar noses, or chins, there were a lot of different ones as well. It took him a moment to locate the waving figure who had called his name and he gasped aloud as he finally recognised the face of Charlus Potter.

"Perhaps a seat?" Charlus stated, angling a hand at one of the chairs.

Remus fell into the seat heavily and continued to stare at the father of his long-dead friend. The long-dead himself father of said friend. This was Potter Manor. He had not ever visited the Manor before, not trusting himself in his youth to be around the family of his closest friends. While he had no worry for the Blacks after the stories Sirius had shared in their schooling, James and his family meant a great deal more to the werewolf.

"You look a bit shocked. A drink perhaps?"

"Tea, please," Remus said as Tybalt stepped up beside him and he attempted to resettle his disjointed thoughts. "You sent the message?"

Charlus smiled at him. "No dear boy. While I knew about your little troupe, I wasn't the one reaching out to you. Just the one chosen to be your initial greeter."

"I sent the message."

Remus's head wrenched around, and he knew he'd done some small amount of damage, but his brain ignored it. That was a voice he would never forget. His eyes locked on the face of his oldest friend.

"James…"

"Hiya Moony. How's the liver?"

Several different responses sounded from the painting at the greeting, from laughter to scolding. Remus was too shocked to speak. When had James found the time to have a portrait done? He looked the same as the last day he'd seen him, even wearing the same shirt and robe.

"How?"

"Well, you see, Moony. There are a group of people in this world, let's call them artists. And they use brushes and paints to record…"

An almighty smack put an end to James's comments as his head rocked forward and the figure hidden behind him finally came into view. Her red hair and vibrant green eyes were filled with amusem*nt as her hand dropped once more and she locked eyes with Remus.

"Hello, old friend." Lily cooed.

"How?" Remus echoed.

"Magic," Lily replied, echoing James's joke with a wide grin on her face. "Day you left we had it done. Took the whole damned day. But Charlus here demanded it. And we're very glad he did."

Her eyes flicked to her father-in-law and he nodded in response.

"Is Harry in there too?"

"Not right now."

"Right, too late. Little tyke'd be sleeping." Remus said to himself, missing the looks between those in the painting.

"We didn't ask you here to reminisce, Remus." Lily continued. "We have a job for you if you're willing."

"A job? After what happened with Black, you'd trust me?"

"If you can show yourself to be trustworthy." James cut in. "We learnt our lesson about blind trust a long time ago now."

An angry look covered his features as he spoke, and Remus felt he knew the cause. They had all trusted Sirius in their youth and had all been burned by that trust.

"For now, some questions. Why did you never come back, Remus?" Lily asked, "You've been hiding away on the continent for so long it took Tybalt ages to find you. Especially after you ignored our first letter."

"That was you? I figured it was just a delayed message from Gringotts. All it did was reopen old wounds…" He replied, pausing as he felt the melancholy wash over him once more. "What was there to come back to? You were all dead. Sirius had already killed Peter and gotten himself locked away. Even I can't infiltrate Azkaban to take revenge. I chose to spend my time… reflecting I guess you could call it."

"I call it one hell of a bender." James quipped, shuffling further away from his wife in the process. "Lucky your furry little problem helps you heal quicker or you'd have drunk yourself to death by now from everything we've heard."

"Don't think I didn't try. It just felt like giving up like that would be too easy. I deserve to suffer for failing to protect you."

"You're a right idiot you know that, Moony? Voldemort himself came knocking on our door. What were you gonna do? co*ck a leg on him?"

"It wasn't a full moon. I could have helped. I should have stopped Black."

"And you can give that rubbish a rest too." Remus looked at his friend in confusion. "Sirius Black is, was and ever has been our friend. He would sooner shack up with Fenrir Greyback and try for a baby than betray any one of us."

"But he was your secret keeper? You told me yourself! I watched the ritual!"

"And he was, for about a week, before we came up with the plan to change it out for someone less likely," Lily added. "Peter Pettigrew was our Secret Keeper. We just continued to tell everyone it was Sirius, so they'd go looking for him and never find Peter."

"Turns out that the animagus transformation showed not just his inner animal but his true nature. "James grumbled. "Bastard sold us out to Voldemort the first chance he got."

Remus was stunned into silence, and the others just sat and allowed him to process. If Black was innocent, he'd been hating his loyal friend for years, doing nothing to help him gain his rightful freedom as he instead wallowed in his own self-pity. Pettigrew had betrayed them.

Now that he was confronted with the possibility, it screamed itself as the truth. Sirius would have never betrayed the Potters. He would have fought and struggled to the bitter end, but he would never have given them up.

But Peter? That Remus could actually believe. He was their friend too, but the rat had always felt a little more disconnected from them. While they cherished his friendship and included him in everything they did, Remus often wondered if the smallest of them felt the same way. With the right motivation, something Voldemort was very good at dishing out, he could see Peter giving up the information.

Looking back up at the painting, his eyes took on a resolved sheen. "Please, tell me everything…"

ϟ

Harry felt the churning of the waves as they rocked the boat as he hung from the rigging. A pirate's life was for him as the sea air kissed his face and filled the sails. The sun beat down from above as the frothing waves churned about his craft and he looked ahead to the tropical island fast approaching.

It was an odd feeling, but he loved it, nonetheless. Looking down at the ocean he was surprised to see it looking so flat. He could feel the churning movement that should have been caused by a moody sea. If not waves, where was the motion coming from?

Feeling arms tighten about him dragged Harry from his dream as he felt the blankets slipping off his body. His left hand was tangled in Hermione's bushy mane of hair, and her own arms were wrapped almost uncomfortably tight around his waist. Looking beyond her sleeping form he could see the floor.

It was entirely on his left side and was swaying back and forth as though he were still aboard the ship of his dream. It hadn't been the boat that was moving, but the whole bed.

Looking back at Hermione, he saw her face scrunched up in fear as the world moved once more around their bed. Now the floor was above him, their hair began to hang down from the bed, and the covers had completely fallen to the floor as the bed hovered upside down above the thick carpet.

Harry gasped loudly and tried his hardest to reign in his magic. His dream must have bled through and now he was levitating the bed. And if he didn't flip them back over, they would be squashed when the bed succumbed once more to gravity.

"No… leave him alone…" Hermione mumbled as her arms tightened even further.

Harry was now in pain from how tight her grip had become and even breathing was becoming difficult.

"Hermione… I can't…"

He ran his fingers through her hair to try to calm her and loosen her grip so that he could focus on righting his magic and setting them back down safely.

Suddenly her eyes flew open and spotting his face she yelled. "NO!"

A burst of energy surged from her body, her hair zapping Harry with static electricity as the blast hit the floor and flipped the bed end over end making a cacophonous noise as it landed on Hermione's own thankfully unoccupied bed.

She was panting loudly and sobbing into his shoulder finally releasing her grip from his waist and lifting it up to around his neck. Harry was stunned to silence as he tried to hold them from slipping off the oddly angled bed.

"Why would they do that? I begged them to stop. They were hurting you. They hurt my parents. Oh, Harry." Hermione continued to sob away as he stroked her hair with his free hand while holding tightly to the bedhead with the other.

The lights flicked on and he blinked up to see both Richard and Natalie looking at the room in shock. Harry's bed was lying half on Hermione's and except for the bookshelves, everything seemed to have been knocked out of place and was lying on the floor.

The adults quickly focused on the sobbing girl in Harry's arms and rushed over to settle her down.

ϟ

"And so, that is how we find ourselves here, Moony. Stuck inside with no agent who can leave these walls in our stead." James finished, eyeing his friend now seated before him with his face buried in his hands.

"Innocent? I've thought the worst of him all these years." Remus mumbled into his hands.

"You weren't to know, Remus. Though I had hoped you'd have handled everything better."

Remus glanced up at them, tears in his eyes and covering his face. "I failed you all. How can you stand the sight of me?"

"Oi! Knock it off, Moony. The woe-is-me trip didn't fly when we were kids, I'm not going to let you wallow in it now. You are a loyal friend, you always have been. And now we need your help to make things right. I cannot even step outside this house, much less make it to Gringotts. Pops has tried, but they cannot give him the access required without written authorisation. Something a painting can hardly provide."

"So, why would they listen to me? I've no proof I can provide?"

"Not true." Lily smiled down at him. "We made concessions. Preparations. You'll find yours in a safety deposit box in a muggle bank in central London. It names you specifically, so was of no use to Pops." She added, as one of the elves handed Remus a key. "As many outcomes as we addressed, we never considered none of you being around to help carry them out."

Remus winced at the slight tone at the end. They'd made their displeasure at his sabbatical known quite plainly.

"But first, you need to clean up your mess."

He nodded lazily, and James could clearly see the thoughts whirring through his mind.

"Moony, the past is gone. Worrying and self-flagellation will not change it. Let's focus on fixing the present so we can look to the future."

More nodding accompanied Remus's reply. "I did leave quite the noisy trail, didn't I?"

"Tybalt enjoyed the chase, Master Wolf." The wee elf contributed. "It was fun."

The Potters chuckled and even Remus managed to look less morose at the wee elf's words.

"Be that as it may, if Tybalt could follow it so easily, and so quickly, others could too. And once you start enacting these plans, they will come looking. We need to prevent that as long as possible."

"But you still can't tell me why?" Remus replied, looking up at the painting.

"In due time, Remus. When we do, you will see that there is a very good reason for it," came Lily's soft voice. "Until then you just have to trust us."

Remus nodded at the comment. Clearly considering all that they had shared with him. "Could I see Harry, one time before I go clean things up? Surely he's in there with you?"

"How about we keep that as your first reward for a safe return? My brother." James smiled. More because he knew they couldn't produce Harry right now, he'd be fast asleep at the Grangers, than a lack of any trust. But it was also a bad idea to have Remus running about Europe with the knowledge that Harry survived in his mind.

He could see the indecision on Remus's face, the idea that they may still not trust him fully.

"Remus." James started, drawing the werewolf's lowered gaze. " I trust you with that which is most precious to me. In all the world. But timing is everything. This is more important than anything we've ever asked of you, I promise."

Silence gripped the room as everyone digested the tension among them. James longed to tell Remus the truth. There was nothing that would motivate him more than the knowledge that Harry was alive, but until the mess he'd left on the continent was cleaned it was too dangerous.

"Tybalt will accompany you. He will ignore any orders to return or deviate in any way until the task is complete. That way we can be certain that no one else can use a house-elf to follow it. This will work, Moony. And will be worth all the heartache."

"Master!" Mipsy called loudly as she popped into being between Remus and the painting.

Everyone could see her panting and there was a fear in her eyes Lily had not seen since the Incident years before.

"One moment, Mipsy," James said, looking back over to Remus. "We have a deal?"

"Yes," the werewolf replied, eyeing the newly arrived and clearly frantic elf, "I'll head back for a couple of weeks and settle any outstanding affairs and be back as soon as I can. It shouldn't take more than a month or so to fix."

James and Lily glanced at one another. A month was a long time, but they had already been playing a long game. Rushing now would only cause more problems.

"Good. We'll see you then, Remus." Lily finished, nodding alongside James as Remus stood. "Tybalt will take you where you need to go. And we'll have another surprise for you when you get back."

Remus grinned softly and held out his hand to Tybalt, who took it and they popped away in an instant.

"What is it, Mipsy? You should be watching Harry tonight." James asked briskly after the interruption.

"Mipsy was, master. But something happened…"

"What!?" James yelled, "Get Harry back here now!"

Mipsy frowned deeply but was unable to ignore her master's direct order so she popped away.

"James, we don't know what happened. If he was in danger, surely she'd have brought him along." Charlus scolded as they waited for the elf to return.

A loud pop broke the silence and Harry was looking around in confusion until he spotted the painting and everyone staring at him.

"Now tell us, what happened."

"I was having a weird dream, and my magic manifested. My bed was levitating." Harry told the gathered Potters quickly, clearly uncomfortable under their gaze.

"Excuse me, young master, but that's not true."

"What? What do you mean?" Lily asked frantically, obviously worried about what the muggles would do after being exposed to magic like that.

"Master Harry didn't levitate the bed. I know the young master's magic. I feel it inside me still. This didn't feel like his magic."

"But the only other person in the bed was Hermione." Harry fretted, worried about his friend.

The shock on the Potters' faces as this sank in would have been priceless to Harry in any other situation. Right now, he just wanted to get back and make sure Hermione was ok.

"Harry, we need to speak with her. Bring her here as soon as you can without it being suspicious. Please." Charlus asked, watching his son and daughter-in-law still trying to process what was happening.

"Fine, I'll be back."

And with a pop, he was gone.

Chapter 9: Hermione's Magic

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Friday 25th November 1988.

Hermione continued to sob heavily into her mother's shoulder. The images of her dream refused to clear, even as she felt the strong arms of her parents wrapped around her shaking form.

Every time her eyes closed, she could see them suspended in front of her, dangling upside down as their blood dripped from their hair into the expanding pool below. She was officially swearing off television forever. Books had never given her such a horrid nightmare, but the images they'd seen in the few moments while channel surfing that afternoon had left a deep mark. Why had the batteries in the remote chosen that moment to stop working?

The depraved laughter still echoed in her ears as the figures in the royal blue cloaks had taken their evil tools to her best friend, strapped to the floor, her parents' blood dripping on either side of him. She was no longer sure what was transference from the few moments they had seen and what was her powerful imagination taunting her with her greatest fears.

A soft pop sounded behind the ruined bed and she noticed Harry sticking his head around her mother's shoulder.

"Hermione?" He whispered, a look of fear on his face.

A new round of sobbing came from the small girl as she worried that her secret was uncovered. That Harry would not want to be friends with a freak who couldn't control her powers. She could have killed him tonight.

"Shhhh, it's ok sweetie. It was just a nightmare."

"I… they… oh, mummy."

Hermione wanted nothing more than to press her face into her mother's chest and lose herself in the comforting embrace, but that just brought back the images.

Her mother continued cooing and stroking her hair as the three Grangers rocked on the oddly angled bed.

"I'm s… sorry, Harry…" Hermione sobbed, looking once more at her concerned friend. "I should have… told you…"

Harry shuffled forward and placed a soft hand on her shoulder, looking into her eyes as he spoke. "Told me what?"

"I'm…"

More sobs prevented her from going on, but her father's voice continued for her.

"Hermione is telekinetic. Do you know what that means?"

"Telekinetic… she can move things, without touching them?" Harry asked, looking confused.

"Though she hasn't had an episode like this since she met you," Natalie added, smiling softly down at him.

"I was so scared. They had already…"

"No, sweetie… don't try and tell us. Just forget it." Her mother cooed, pressing her closer to her chest and increasing the gentle rocking. "Think of unicorns and fairies. Rainbows and the gentle sea. Let your mind drift into the calm waters. Just like we practised."

Hermione followed her mother's instructions. It had been years since she'd had more than a small episode with her ability and she had stopped doing her calming techniques before bed. She let her mind drift into the place she had created as a four-year-old terrified of her own shadow.

The meadow soon resolved in her mind's eye and the soft waving flowers and grass caressed her hands and her soul as she let herself slip fully into the calming mindscape. In moments the air was full of dancing fairies swirling about and singing gentle songs that soothed her ragged edges. They were soon joined by Caius, the silver-haired unicorn with the golden horn she had not seen in years.

He approached her ever so slowly, his powerful muscles rolling gently under the gleaming coat. While it appeared to be made of molten gold in near-constant flux, the horn felt like silk as it gently slid against her cheek, and she leant heavily into the touch.

Behind her, she could hear the soft rolling sound of waves sliding over the white sand beach that bordered her mental meadow, and she knew that if she were to turn there would be a giant bright double rainbow stretching up from its calm waters, despite the fact her brain knew such a thing could not exist in the bright cloudless sky of her mind.

Feeling the contentment of her happy place, Hermione opened her eyes and realised the tears had stopped.

She noticed that she was only wrapped in one of her mother's arms now and that Harry was tucked against Natalie's other side, looking straight at her, a look of deep concern still written over his features. She allowed a small grimace to show on her face and she could see him relax at the sight.

"I'm sorry, Harry," Natalie told him, running her hand through his messy hair. "It had been so long. And she has never had an incident when you're around. I hope you don't blame her. We thought it best if she kept it a secret."

"Blame her? I think it's brilliant." Harry replied, smiling broadly at his best friend.

Hermione felt the last remnants of her fear washed away by the soothing waters as her friend confirmed he wasn't terrified of her. Every other child who had witnessed her ability had run screaming. And if ever asked about it, they always acted like she was crazy, saying they had no idea what she was talking about and giving her strange looks.

It had only further ostracised her from her peers as she could never tell if they were serious or not. For a few minutes there she had been terrified that Harry would be the same. Despite years of friendship, she feared that more than the dream that had triggered everything.

Richard stood and shooed the trio off Harry's bed, shoving it firmly back onto the floor next to Hermione's. The room was still a chaotic mess, but apart from having a bed land on and pushed off it, Hermione's bed was still immaculate. He pulled back the covers and patted the mattress.

"In you hop, pumpkin. You too, Harry. We'll go get some hot chocolate to help you sleep."

Hermione was loath to leave her mother's embrace, but Harry wrapped his arms around her and helped guide her to the bed. They were just being tucked in once more when the front doorbell rang.

Her mother glanced at the clock on her bedside, but it must have been yanked from the wall in the fracas and showed only a blank screen.

"Who could be calling at this hour?" She still asked, as she and her father quickly headed for the door and down the stairs.

"Hermione… my parents." Hermione tensed noticeably at Harry's words. Had he just been pretending in front of her own parents? "They want to talk to you about what happened. I think they can help."

As he finished, he snuggled tighter to her allowing her to relax once more. No, not pretending. Not Harry. He'd never do that to her. It was only old fears cropping up after such a fright. She gently nodded and felt Harry's arms tighten and his smile against her forehead.

And with a soft pop, they vanished moments before several robed figures entered the now empty room.

ϟ

It took almost two hours for Hermione to tell the entire story to Harry's parents. They listened calmly as Harry held Hermione on his lap in the tall wingback chair and Mipsy kept a steady supply of steaming hot chocolate in her cup.

She told the Potters everything. The gritty details of her nightmare, the cloaked figures with their deformed silver animal masks. The vicious things they had done to her parents and her friend while she was chained up against the wall. How she had awoken to find Harry in her arms and, still in the befuddled half-dream state, had pushed hard with her power to make the people in the cloaks go away.

And even further back. She told them of all the times that she had summoned books and toys her parents had taken away. All the items that they'd needed to replace over the years, broken in a tantrum or moment of intense emotion. The incidents around other children where they had been knocked over or their things had shot to the other side of the room.

James couldn't suppress his chuckle as Hermione explained how the other children never seemed to acknowledge or even remember the events.

"Sorry, Hermione," he offered as she glared at him, "it's the Obliviators. It's their job to cover up accidental magic. The kids really don't remember. They wiped it from their memories."

"You mean that I made it worse by referring to it?"

"I'm afraid so, sweetie," Lily added. "Had you acted as if nothing had happened, they would have just ignored it as well."

"That is so unfair. They could have told me at least." Hermione sniffled. "No wonder they were so horrible to me. They think I'm crazy."

Harry squeezed the girl in his arms a little tighter before looking back up at the painting.

"So, you're sure?" Harry asked, watching his parents closely.

"I think it's pretty clear. You, Hermione, my dear girl, are a witch." Lily smiled.

"But, how?"

"No one knows. Muggleborns have been popping up for centuries. There are many theories, but no one has ever done any real research on it." James answered.

Lily scoffed. "Yeah, magicals doing proper research is like trying to get Sirius to behave like his name."

James couldn't help but laugh as well at the highly accurate statement. But he noticed both the children yawning and their eyes drooping quite heavily.

"Perhaps that is enough for now. Mipsy, take them both back to Hermione's. Tomorrow you can bring the Grangers over and we can explain everything to them as well. I'm sure Harry will relish the opportunity to show Hermione some of the things he's been forced to keep hidden until now."

Both children smiled softly at the Potters as Mipsy vanished the hot chocolate and took both their hands.

They quickly settled back into the bed as Mipsy checked on the Grangers and confirmed that they were both back asleep in their own room. After all the excitement and with bellies full of warm milk and chocolate, it took no time at all for the pair to drift back off to sleep. Neither noticed that the room had been set back to rights.

ϟ

Saturday 26th November 1988.

"She's a what now!?"

"HOW DARE YOU…"

Harry giggled slightly at the raised voices of the elder Grangers, which cut off as the door fully closed, as he led Hermione further down the hall to his second favourite room in the Manor.

When they had awoken that morning, the Grangers had both acted as though nothing odd had happened the evening before, and Harry just assumed that they were so used to Hermione's 'power' as they thought it, that they paid the incidents no mind after the fact. Even if they hadn't seemed to mind that the two had gone missing and had gone back to bed themselves.

After taking their hands and popping them both to the Manor however it had quickly become apparent that Obliviators had visited the Granger home while the children had been explaining things to the Potters, and it was only their absence that had saved their own memories. And kept Harry's presence there from coming to the attention of the Ministry.

Once his parents had calmed the Grangers down about the idea their minds had been messed with, likely multiple times in the past as well, they moved on to the real reason for the visit. They dismissed the kids to go and do their own thing while the adults chatted, and the last thing Harry heard as they left was James explaining their daughter was a witch.

"It's not funny Harry. What the Ministry does is wrong." Hermione chided as they walked.

"Hey, I agree. I get why they do it, the Statute is our world's highest law." He recited in an odd voice, as though repeating something he'd been told several times before. "But how they do it, stupid if you ask me. Some of the Obliviators are really lazy. They'll just modify the memory of anyone present and not even look into the incident properly. Must have been a pair of them that struck last night. Not even noticing that the only people in the house at the time were muggles." He shook his head at the idiocy of it all. "C'mon."

Silence fell between them once more as he directed her into a large room with a wide glass ceiling. Had it been on the ground floor, she'd have expected it to open out onto the yard as a sunroom, so surrounded was it by glass windows. The small balcony visible beyond the open French doors looked down over the densest part of the beautiful gardens.

There were a couple of wingback chairs about the room, which she knew to be Harry's preferred form of reading chair, all bracketed by a small side table with a set of glasses on one side and a rolling trolley like those used for returned books in a library to the other. Several with books stacked inside.

She could see why this was his second favourite room in the house. It was perfect for losing oneself in the sounds of nature outside and the contents of the book in your hand.

Looking back toward the doorway, the only solid wall in the room, she saw a pair of paintings on either side that, as with most she had seen in the house, were simple landscapes stretching over the blank white wall that would have been there in their absence.

"This is amazing, Harry."

"Yep." His grin was infectious as she stepped out onto the balcony and looked down into the garden, seeing numerous animals she couldn't identify from this distance flitting about the vibrant spring colours.

"So, I was wondering," Harry mumbled, "now that you know about magic, if you wanted to see some more?"

Hermione twirled on the spot so fast that her colourful dress swung wide catching the bright morning sunlight coating the balcony and sending her messy hair flying about.

"Really!?"

"Um, if you wanted, that is."

"Yes please!" Hermione shot back over, and the pair took a seat on the thick plush rug in the centre of the room. It was so soft it almost felt like sitting on a cloud, but without the wet bum.

Harry cast his eyes about the room looking for something he could use before his eyes settled on a stack of cards on one of the side tables. Snapping his fingers, the cards began to lift into the air one by one all following the same path. They weaved up and down, doing large circles in the air and rolling end over end, following the path directed by his hand.

Hermione was amazed, tracking the cards as they soared through the air. Sometimes, when she really focused, she could direct a single object to move in a single direction, but never had she accomplished something so complex.

She continued to sit wide-eyed as the cards began to settle on the floor in front of her, separating themselves out by suit until all the cards were stacked ace-high in front of her.

"That was amazing!" She whispered as if afraid too much noise might break the spell. "Can you teach me to do that?"

Harry just smiled at her and looked about again, searching for something else to show her. With another snap of his fingers, one of the wingback chairs began to trot about the room on its clawed wooden feet, making a clacking noise against the marble floor.

Hermione quickly got up from her spot and moved over to the ambulant chair before jumping onto the seat and giggling at Harry over the back.

Harry animated a second chair and the pair were soon racing them around the room, though Hermione quickly noticed that her chair seemed to win all the races. She gave Harry a judging look and he merely shrugged back at her.

Another snap had both their clothes constantly changing colour through the entire spectrum before Harry popped away momentarily, returning with a sleek-looking broom in hand.

"Teach me to do that as well?" Hermione asked forcefully as she dismounted her now inanimate chair.

"Sure, that's why I went to grab it."

"Not flying," Hermione responded, eyeing the broom as though it were responsible for the events of the previous night, "popping about like that. I want to be able to do that. Teach me, Harry."

The enthusiasm on the girl's face was intoxicating and Harry was unable to say no.

"OK, but you have to keep it a secret. It's a special type of magic."

Hermione nodded so fiercely that her face disappeared occasionally behind her wild locks. Harry looked about, noting that both paintings by the door were empty.

"Elfin, please." He said aloud, though clearly not directed at Hermione.

A small elf, about half Mipsy's age, popped into the room in front of the children and eyed Harry.

"Yes, young master?"

"How are you today?" He replied.

The elfin co*cked its head to the side, appearing confused before answering.

"I is well, young master. How may I be serving you today?"

"I wanted to ask you for a favour. But this is not an order. You can say no. Do you agree?"

The elfin nodded vigorously as Hermione circled her, eyeing the younger elf closely. She was clearly still in whatever the elves called their adolescence. She was shorter and thinner than the others, though not sickly so. Her ears were shorter, and her nose would not have been long on a human adult. But her eyes were a vivid and shining violet.

"I need to hear you say it, please."

"I acknowledge this is not a command. I can says no."

Harry nodded to himself as he turned to look at Hermione.

"You see, Hermione, the reason I can pop is thanks to the accident I had just after we first met. Mipsy needed to heal me and the only way she could before moving me was to push her magic into my body. It nearly drained her, and I had to do the same to her once I woke up."

Hermione looked somewhat nervous now, worried that she might have to be injured in some way first.

"Don't worry, I'm sure it will work with you already healthy. In fact, I bet it will work faster and require less magic. Mipsy and I were both exhausted afterwards." Harry grinned, pulling over the nearest seat.

The elfin was now eyeing Hermione closely, watching the girl as though trying to read her.

"So, do you think you want to try?"

Hermione knelt before the wee elf on the thick rug and stared into her bulbous eyes. Harry remained silent as the pair sized one another up, yet no words passed between them. His excitement was radiating off of his body at the idea that Hermione would soon be just like him.

"Ready to try?"

Both Hermione and the elfin nodded together much less vigorously this time.

"Ok, place your hand on the other's chest." He paused, allowing both to do so. "Now on the count of three, you need to pushgentlywith your magicintothe other. Don't push too hard, you don't want to knock each other over. Just focus on letting it pass into the other."

They both nodded again, though Hermione still looked a little apprehensive.

"You don't have to do this Hermione. Most magicals learn to apparate when they graduate from Hogwarts."

"No, I want to do this." She replied sharply, tearing her eyes from the elfin to glare at Harry.

"Ok," he replied, holding up both hands, "three, two, one. Push."

The experience felt very different from what Harry could recall of his own experience. He could feel the static building in the air as both magicals in front of him began to expel magic outwards, though he could sense most of it was passing down their arms and into their partner. He closed his eyes and revelled in the feeling of foreign magic washing over him.

It felt like he was being held in Hermione's arms in one of her tight hugs, but there was something else there as well. Raw energy he'd not felt before and he realised it was the immature elf. The Potters still only had the three mature elves, Mipsy, Pops and Tybalt. But they had several younger elves, most were the descendants of former Potter elves who had been rescued from other horrible families throughout the centuries. Too young to bond with a family.

As Mipsy was already bonded with him after the incident, and that was the purpose she had been assigned as she finished her training while Lily was pregnant with him at that time, Harry felt uncomfortable with the idea of letting Mipsy bond again. He had no idea what a second bond like this might do to her, especially if he and Hermione were ever to give her conflicting commands. He doubted even giving her clothes could properly sever their connection now.

Tybalt was away again on whatever mission his father had sent him to complete. And he knew that his father's commands still superseded his own when it came to Tybalt and Pops. So, if the elf was doing something important, he wouldn't even respond to Harry's call. And Pops was old. He was so old that he had changed the nappies of Harry's great-great-grandfather as one of his first tasks as an official Potter elf.

And Harry worried about what the effect of sharing like this would be on him at his now very advanced age. It would not do to kill the only one in the house who keeps the Muggles from asking difficult questions about his parents, though they would cease coming from the Grangers now at least. Not that he would ever risk Pops's life even if there were others doing those tasks. He loved the old coot, just as much as Charlus or any of the other Potters he never actually got to meet in life.

"STOP!"

Harry's eyes shot open and the feeling of static in the air vanished, as did the warmth of Hermione's magic against his skin. His eyes quickly locked on the figure in the painting by the left of the door and he noted a foot disappearing out the side of the frame.

"What the devil do you think you are doing? Wasn't once enough, boy?" The figure chastised, looking ruddier than Santa.

Standing, Harry's eyes narrowed as he approached the painting, not glancing at the girls as he passed.

"Like you're one to talk, Sampson. I remember my family history well. I know what you used to do for fun, you bigoted murderer."

Hermione gasped from behind him as he confronted the figure.

While most acknowledged the Potters were generally kind and giving, not every member of a family followed the grain. Sampson Potter had joined up with some long-forgotten Dark Lord sometime in the mid-13th century and Harry hated that he still thought what he had done was the right thing. However, before any further words could be exchanged between them, a bunch more figures entered the wide landscape. The collected Potters looked down at the rug behind Harry and his parents immediately locked their gaze on him.

"What did you do?" Lily asked.

Harry refused to back down. "What Hermione wanted to do, and nothing more."

Sighing heavily, Lily ran her hand down her face before replying.

"I love you dearly, Harry James Potter, but sometimes I do not understand you. We still don't know the long-term effects of sharing magic like that. Yours was a special case."

"Well, Hermione is special to me. And if she wants elf magic then she can have it." Harry replied petulantly, crossing his arms and steadying his stance, preparing for another epic argument with his mother. They had not had many, but they had almost all related to Hermione in some way.

"Spilt milk, my dear," Dorea called, laying her hand on Lily's shoulder. "Look at the elfin. The process is complete."

"She's right, love. Whatever the consequences," James paused as he glared at his defiant son, "they all have to live with them now."

As James finished speaking, the Grangers both came running into the open doorway and took in the scene before them. Their daughter was still kneeling on the floor with her hand on the shoulder of one of those wee elf creatures, who appeared to be shivering slightly despite the warm day. Harry appeared to have squared off against a painting that was filled with the Potters they had been talking to until a distraught woman had shot into the frame and demanded that they follow.

"What is going on? What's wrong with Hermione?" Natalie demanded as she ran over and wrapped her arms around her daughter.

"Nothing, Mrs Granger. She just worked out how to use a few new abilities, that's all." Harry claimed, his broad smile once more settled on his face.

James scoffed behind him and Harry momentarily glared at his father over his shoulder.

"A few weeks. Merlin, give us the strength." Matilda Potter called from several rows back in the painting.

Harry ignored them as he knelt beside the quivering elfin. "You aren't in trouble. I asked you to. I take all the blame."

"What is going on?" Richard demanded, stepping behind his family and staring at the Potters.

"Hermione has shared her magic with one of the adolescent elves. It's what happened to Harry after he got hit by a car a fe…"

"My daughter was injured!?" Richard yelled, cutting the old Potter off.

"No, sir. They just shared their magic. There was no danger." Harry supplied, reaching out and squeezing Hermione's hand.

"You got hit by a car?" There were tears developing in her eyes as she stared at him.

"Little bit." He replied with a shrug, looking bashful. "I was in a hurry to get to school. Didn't look properly before crossing. Stupid really, having a school on such a busy road." Hermione launched herself at Harry and wrapped him tightly in her arms. "I wanted to see my best friend again. I hadn't seen you in two days. I was young and foolish."

"Most would say still are, young man." Lily chided from the painting.

Harry refused to take the bait and continued softly stroking Hermione's back until she pulled away. He smiled softly at her and turned to the young elf only to stop in shock. Before him was no longer a wee immature elfin. She now stood almost as tall as Mipsy, who was now posted behind her, one hand on the shaking elf's shoulder. And her eyes were no longer violet.

He glanced back at Hermione for confirmation. They were now the exact same shade of brown as hers. "Oh."

"Figured it out, did you, boy?"

"Shut it, Sampson," James growled.

"I didn't think…"

"Again, very clear, Harry."

Harry again ignored his father, turning to Hermione. "Guess you need to give her a name then."

Hermione looked at him quizzically. "What?"

"Apparently if you share your magic with an unbonded elf, or at least an elfin, they bond to you. Mipsy and I were already bonded as part of the Potter family so nothing changed there. She is now your elf."

"My elf?" Hermione mumbled, turning to gaze at the now taller and healthier-looking creature. "Is that what you want?"

The elfin nodded vigorously once more, gazing longingly at Hermione.

"What was your name before?"

"Elfins don't have names, Mistress. We don't get a name until we reach maturity." The elfin replied.

"Usually the name is chosen by our first master," Mipsy added. "In my case, young Master Harry was too young when I was assigned as his elf, so Pops chose my name at Master James's insistence."

"You have no name?" Hermione asked. The elfin shook her head, not letting her now deep brown eyes leave Hermione's. "Do you have a preference?"

The elfin finally broke the connection between them, looking to Mipsy as if asking permission. Mipsy nodded and the elfin vanished with a loud crack before reappearing a moment later with a thin book in hand. She held it out to Hermione who took it and inspected it. It had no title or markings on the thick leather cover but was clearly very heavily worn. The bindings of the book were nearly falling apart and when she allowed it to fall open, it became clear that it usually sat open on a very particular page.

In the centre of the page was an image of a man wrestling a mighty lion. The beast stood almost twice his height as he grappled it from behind with only his bare hands, not even using the club hanging from his belt. Hermione immediately recognised the image from her own readings. The man was Hercules and he was wrestling the Nemean Lion.

The elfin pointed at the lion and then to herself. Hermione pondered a moment. This was apparently the young elfin's favoured story.

"You want me to call you Nemea?"

The elfin nodded vigorously. "Yes. If it would please the Mistress."

"It pleases me a great deal, Nemea," Hermione stated, laying her hand on the elfin's shoulder as a short flash of light leapt between them and Nemea grew another few inches.

"Thank you, mistress." Nemea bowed.

"I think we need to talk about all of this, Harry," Hermione whispered, not taking her eyes offherelf.

Harry made to reply but was immediately cut off by Richard. "What you need, young lady, is to come home with us right now. We need to have a family talk about all this nonsense."

"Daddy…"

"None of that. Someone, take us home now."

Harry sighed before nodding to Mipsy, who grasped the three Grangers and vanished almost silently compared to the crack Nemea made earlier. He turned to the newly bonded elf, who looked confused.

"How about you go back to the quarters and have a rest? I'm sure you're feeling drained after all of that."

"Yes, young master," Nemea replied before popping away much quieter herself.

Standing once more, Harry ran his hand nervously through his hair before turning to face the painting.

"So…"

Notes:

A/N: For everybody's reference in this elfin is to elf what calf is to cow. I was going to use elfling, but I like elfin better.

Chapter 10: Wand Up

Chapter Text

Thursday 1st December 1988.

"Master Harry," Mipsy called, as she tugged softly on his sleeve as he sat reading in the sunroom.

"Yes, Mipsy?" He replied, not taking his eyes from the book.

"Miss Hermione is upset. She be asking if you can come get her."

This finally drew his attention fully from the text. "What? Why?"

"Her parents are upset that she can't control the elf magics. Apparently, it's like when she was an elfin all over again. But they can't get her here themselves."

"Of course, tell them I'll be right there." He replied, putting the book aside without even marking his place.

The one thing he hated most about living in this huge manor was it was occasionally difficult to find his parents. Even the elves didn't have a way of determining exactly which painting they were in at any given moment unless summoned.

It took several minutes of jogging through the halls before he found them both tucked under the tree in a tiny little landscape hanging midway down the main hallway. He should have known, as it was his mother's favourite place to think, the light Italian lakeside apparently as good as a vacation in amidst the often-dreary British artwork.

"Mum, Dad. I'm going to Hermione's. Something is wrong."

"No, you aren't. You are grounded, mister." James replied simply, not even turning to look at his son from the lapping waves.

Harry's eyes narrowed at the painting wanting to retort but decided it was not worth the struggle of an argument right now. His friend needed him.

"Fine, see you."

And with a pop he was standing in the Granger's dining room being stared at by the adults before Hermione assaulted him from the side, wrapping him up in her arms.

"Harry, thank you. I can't help it."

"Shhhh, Hermione. I know what it's like, trust me."

"So, you knew this was going to happen?" Richard growled from the far end of the table.

"Daddy! Stop it."

"No, Hermione. First, some painting tries to tell me my daughter is a witch, a ridiculously offensive thing to say, by the way. Now your gifts are going haywire because of some freakish little monster. I want you to fix this, now boy."

"Fix this? What do you think I can do to fix this?" Harry asked, looking at Richard over Hermione's shoulder, eyes narrowing once more. What was with all these adults?

"Get that little beast over here and take it back. Surely you can undo this nonsense and give me my daughter back."

"Give her back?" Harry was stunned by this. In all the time he had known the Grangers, he had never seen any of them behaving in this manner. "Your daughter is right here,sir. Crying on my shoulder because her father is scaring her."

"Harry, don't," Hermione whispered.

"No, Hermione. He needs to hear this. Your daughter is special. In a world of ordinary, she was already amazing. Her brain alone made her stand out. Throw in her magical abilities and she became something else altogether. Now she is broadening those abilities and you are angry at her for it. Why?"

"It's not right. Moving things with your mind is one thing. I'd made peace with that. But some of the things she's done in the last few days. The walls on the second-floor bathroom still won't stop changing colour. My best golf club vanished because she yelled at me while I was practising my swing, and then there is this!"

He held up a #1 father mug that looked to Harry to be in fine condition. His confusion clearly showed as Hermione piped up next to him.

"I broke it a week after giving it to him on Father's Day when I was 3. There should be a crack running through the number one. But I picked it up to hand to him this morning and it just healed. I didn't mean to."

"That crack meant something to me, boy. It was a connection to my daughter and this, mutation took that away. Fix it!"

Harry was beginning to see red now. His arms tightened around Hermione and he was about to unleash a torrent of words that would likely to get his mouth washed out.

"Don't, Harry. Please."

Distracted from his rage for a moment he looked at his friend, tears still streaming down her face. He'd only ever seen her like this once before and that was the night, they'd learned she was a witch. Years of being her friend in happiness and in less than a week since learning of her magic she seemed to be miserable.

"Fine," Harry stated, answering both Hermione and Richard at once.

He locked eyes with the eldest Granger and, sticking out his tongue, popped away again.

ϟ

Hermione shivered as a soft breeze blew across her wet cheeks. Opening her eyes, she noted she was standing in a small clearing with ankle height grass and bordered by tall swaying trees. The shiver increased as she felt Harry's arms release her as he stepped away and with a wave of his hand one entire side of the clearing became wider as every tree along that edge was ripped from the ground with a violent tearing noise and sent careening backwards into the dark under the trees behind them.

"Fix it! Like you're broken or something." Harry yelled at the air as Hermione watched on, slightly fearful.

She'd seen him angry once or twice, but never had Harry looked this dangerous. His hair was whipping about his face and his eyes seemed to have a light glow pulsing deep in his irises. She could feel power pulsing from him as he stood there puffing at the trees he'd just uprooted.

A quick karate chop to his left sent up another horrid screeching sound. This time he had split the tall onyx block resting in the centre of the clearing in two. What must have been a few tonnes of rock slowly peeled open, only the depth it sat into the soft earth preventing it from just falling flat to the sides.

"A mutation. How dare he. Your ownfather."

As he spat the last word, Harry pushed both hands forward and the split onyx too went flying noisily off into the underbrush.

"Harry, STOP!" Hermione yelled, squeezing her eyes and hands tight as she tried to reign in her emotions from the conversations, she'd just been involved in. When they opened again, she saw Harry staring at her, a look of bashful remorse spread over his visage. He looked every bit the scared eight-year-old again, not the powerful presence that had rampaged over the clearing since their arrival.

"Sorry," he mumbled, collapsing to the ground and hunching forward.

"S'alright," Hermione replied as she plonked down beside him.

"I shouldn't have done it."

"Well, I'm sure the owner might be a bit miffed when he sees your redecorations…"

Harry laughed but did not look up. "The owner is a butthead."

"Harry!" She admonished, slapping his arm.

"What, I am!"

"You… what?"

"It's mine. This clearing is the exact opposite point of the Manor. Or I should say the farthest point from."

Confusion remained the primary expression on her face as she stared at him.

"Right, I never did explain that, did I? Some… one of my many ancestors took the Manor at the time and pulled it out of the world. Don't ask me how." He cut off the clear question in her eyes. "Some magic is just lost to time. But it's why we're here. This place doesn't really exist on earth. You can't get here by walking or driving or flying. From this spot here, walk in any direction and in less than an hour you will arrive at the Manor. No one can get in unless we bring them. Or, sometimes if they've been here before and can apparate. It doesn't work for everyone, though."

Hermione was stunned. If magic could do something like that, what else could it do? "Why you're here?"

"Yeah, figures you'd notice that out of everything I just told you. I'm in hiding. Have been since I was fifteen months old. The night my parents were murdered, and a lunatic tried to kill me."

Her hand flew to her mouth to prevent the questions and scream that her body wanted to unleash. To think only minutes earlier she'd been fighting with her parents over something so insignificant. What if they were to be killed like that? What if it had been her fault?

"Relax, Hermione. I'm not made of glass. Or porcelain." He chuckled.

"Hey!"

"Ok, easy. You know there is no way to break it like that again. You'll just have to try and drop it again."

"Harry." She scolded.

"Fine. Turns out some prophecy said I was to kill the loon. So, he came after me. Dad died downstairs, forgot his wand and tried to snot the bugger in the nose. Zap. Down he went. Mum was in the room with me. Refused to move. Zap. Down she went. Points his wand at me, fires off a curse and Boom. Down he went. That's when Mipsy brought me here. Except for school and visiting your place, I've spent my entire life since then in this 'bubble'."

Hermione was shocked. At all of it. His cavalier description of an utterly life-changing event. The fact that someone who had seemed so alive and worldly during their talks was basically a prisoner in his own home.

"So, I know this place pretty well by now. This is my favourite place to be alone, though. I've never been here with someone else before. I was just so angry at what Dick was saying… Guess I should fix it up though. I think that stone was an anchor for something or other."

Hermione was still too busy processing his story to think clearly, so she sat in silence and watched as he waved his hands about and the massive broken pillar slowly soared back into the open air. A few clicks and claps later and it was once more buried in the earth, a single cohesive piece of rock, oddly smooth and shiny.

"I'll have Mipsy prepare a room for you to crash out in. We'll get her and Pops to show you how to manage the new magic. Then you can go back home again."

Looking up at Harry, he had his hands extended out to her and pulled her to her feet.

"That wasn't a favourite I hope."

Hermione looked at him with confusion as he indicated her shirt. It was now changing colours much like the second-floor bathroom. She scowled at the shirt.

"Can you ask Mipsy to fix that? The bathroom I mean. Dad's had to turn away several visitors because there is no way to explain it."

"Sure, I'll send her over as soon as we get back to the house."

"And, can you finally teach me how to pop about like that?" She replied, a nervous yet determined look on her face.

Harry smiled. All the things that had been forced through her mind in the last hour and she still wanted to learn something new.

"Never change, Hermione."

ϟ

Monday 19th December 1988.

Nemea was happy to have her young mistress back in the Manor again.

The almost week where she'd returned home with her parents had been borderline torture for the wee elf. She felt the absence of her mistress as an almost physical pain. When she had confided in Mipsy, the elder elf had hugged her tightly and promised to do what she could to ease the hurt.

She hadn't expected Mipsy to get her mistress back into the manor though.

Her joy at having more to do than take finishing lessons on how to be a personal elf, rather than the standard household elf she had been getting trained for, was palpable. She trailed after her mistress like a puppy, looking about as happy as one too.

Though her mistress did spend an inordinate amount of time in the library. Something about meddling portraits hiding the good stuff.

Nemea rather enjoyed the muggle books that had been cycled in front of her mistress before the facts of her magic had come out. For it was where she had spent most of her visits to the manor before that fateful day.

"Tea, mistress?" She asked, stepping up with her freshly brewed batch.

Mistress looked up from her book and smiled brightly at her. The sight swelled Nemea's already buoyed presence.

"Not right this moment, thank you Nemea. You should pour yourself some though, if you're thirsty. I know from experience you make a wicked good cup."

Nemea's pallid cheeks quickly became rosy at the compliment. She had heard stories from the other elves of the politeness and fair treatment they received from the Potters. But given the only one she'd ever had to interact with was Harry, she had no personal experience to go off.

The smiles on both their faces quickly vanished though, as Nemea felt a wave of familiar magic surge over her and the nearby bookshelves began ejecting their books out over the floor. Even her freshly brewed tea was knocked aside and shattered on the hard wooden floor.

Tears welled up in her Mistresses eyes and Nemea felt her heart go out to the little lass.

"Pops…" Hermione sniffled.

The elder elf appeared with a soft noise and proceeded to slip onto his behind in the hot tea spread over the floor. He landed with a thud and his eyes quickly narrowed in on Nemea with a disappointed tinge.

"Clean the mess, Nemea." He ordered as he regained his feet and turned to Hermione. "Yes, young mistress?"

"I wasn't even upset this time. And I would never treat books like that! How can this be my unconscious mind?" She waved her hands at the books now spread over most of the visible floor of the library.

"The mind is a perplexing place, young mistress. Nobody truly understands accidental magic. But in this case, if I'm not mistaken you were feeling very happy, were you not?"

Hermione considered a moment before nodding.

"Happiness may be more enjoyable, yet it is still an advanced and powerful emotion. Emotion tends to be the catalyst of most accidental magic, especially in us elves."

He stepped forward and climbed, slightly awkwardly, into the chair facing Hermione in the little nook. He clasped his hands and rested them in his lap as he co*cked his head slightly and looked at his newest charge.

"Put the book on the side table please." Hermione obeyed quickly, marking her place first. "Now close your eyes and your mind. Let nothing in but my voice."

Nemea watched enthralled as Pops ran her mistress through another session of control training. It was the other thing mistress had done since returning, and Nemea thought she was picking it all up so quickly. With young master and all the elves helping her, she had only had one major outburst since her arrival.

"I felt it, Lily, even Harry's wasn't this wild." Nemea heard from a nearby alley of the shelves.

Many thought the bond between owner and elf was a one-way street. That the owner benefited from the magics of the elf serving them and the elf simply obeyed. But she knew now, it went deeper. Or it most certainly did between herself and mistress. The girl's insatiable curiosity had certainly spawned within herself and now she couldn't help but indulge the strong desire welling within her.

She disillusioned her form and snuck forward until she could see the figures in the painting. Old master was pacing, and his bride was watching him closely. Old master's parents watched him pace but said nothing.

"The poor girl had no training at all before she came here, James. Why would she have Harry's natural control?"

"I know, it's just frustrating. The Grangers have sent a nasty letter every day since she arrived. I'd never even heard some of the words in those first two letters. And the whole thing was in capital letters, who does that?"

"The real question," Ancient master added, "if we're training them on this, what's the difference in preparing their normal magic?"

Old master turned to stare at his father, a pensive look on his features. "They'd need wands for that."

His bride smiled at the idea. "You think they run amok now. Imagine the chaos if they were armed."

The quartet broke into soft laughter at the idea, but Nemea was enthralled. She knew she would never cast wizard magic, but she had also never seen it cast in her lifetime. She longed to see it, to feel its flavour wash over her.

"It would be best to focus on it now, that way they have true control before returning to classes. I don't want to keep them from school any longer if we can help it. They both love it there."

"We'd have to find a way to get them to Diagon Alley. I won't trust my grandson with any other than an Ollivanders."

"Oh, Charlus, hush. I know you were good friends with the boy, but there are other options."

"True, Dorea. But Garrick makes fine work. They would serve the children well."

Another soft crack from behind her drew Nemea's attention once more. She turned the corner of the aisle to see her mistress looking much happier, and Pops was nowhere to be seen.

Her mind whirled. The masters wanted the children to learn all magic, and she would be there to watch it. As young mistress's personal elf, she was not required to tend the daily chores, she needed to always be free to assist her mistress. She would be able to see it all, up close.

And a good house-elf showed initiative. They guessed their master's needs before they were given the command. It was why a great elf was never seen, they had already completed the task and moved onto the next. And she knew what the next great task would be.

Nemea smiled as she popped to her room, to await young master's return with Mipsy. Then she would show the family her true worth as an elf.

ϟ

As the soft crack rent the dusty air, Garrick nearly stumbled from his perch on the small step ladder. He was unused to loud noises when not actively seeking a match among his wares and even though the sound had likely been quite faint, in the still air of his narrow shop, it carried like a gunshot.

Softly stepping down to the floor, he glanced down the thin alleyway, walled on either side by his enormous stock of cores and wood to see two young children at the front of the shop, accompanied by a wee house-elf.

"NEMEA! Quickly, seal the door and flip the sign." The boy called, swinging his eyes about as though afraid to be seen.

And Garrick nearly immediately noted why. He may be getting on in years, but neither his craft nor his eyes had suffered as a result. The messy black hair swishing back and forth was unmistakeable for someone who had provided the last three generations of his family with their first wands. One of whom was his first customer after taking over the shop full time. But it was the eyes that removed any doubt. As they flickered over the dark confines of his shop in a panic, Garrick noted the distinct shape and shade he'd only seen once before. So long ago, yet also a blink of an eye for one with as many years as he.

Harry Potter was alive.

Harry spun back to look at the elf who had just sealed his shop. "Obscure me, quickly."

Garrick smoothed his robes and dusted a light feather that he'd disturbed at the crack from his shoulder and shifted his position to the far aisle. It was time for his second favourite part of the job.

"Well, well. What a treat." He cooed as he dissolved out of the shadows on the far side of the shop from the children.

He got the usual thrill as the trio spun to face him and he could see the shock in their faces at his sudden appearance.

"A touch young for Hogwarts yet, I think. But no matter. The law, after all, does not say when one can buy one's first wand, only when and where one can use it."

He was in full mystery mode now as the youngsters eyed him warily.

"Indeed." Came the now disguised voice of Harry Potter.

His eyes now a deep blue and his features distorted just enough that unless you knew him, you'd not be able to put the pieces together. Those eyes locked on his own as Garrick surveyed the boy closely.

He looked exactly the right size for a boy of his age, so he was well kept, wherever he had been secreted. And there was a fire in his eyes that the glamour could not hide. He was ready to fight dependant on the next words from Garrick's mouth. The now sandy coloured hair was James to the root. He'd never seen any other family with hair so unruly, except perhaps the wee girl beside him.

But before the glamour had come down, despite the shock of seeing the dead, he had clearly seen the vibrant green eyes of Lily Evans. The boy was his parents' child, in body and spirit from what he could see.

His eyes flicked to the girl and he noted Harry stiffen. A slight smile tugged at his lips, but decades of experience with mystery mode kept it from showing. But more interesting was the look in her eyes. While Harry was firmly in mid-fight-or-flight, the girl was analysing him almost as surely as he was her. There was a deep intelligence in those brown eyes and so far, she did not seem impressed with what she had seen.

Well, that would not do at all. While he was immensely proud of the quality of his works, what Garrick truly prided himself on, was his showmanship. People always remembered the day they were found by their wand and he recalled them all too.

"Shall we begin?" He offered gently, hands spread in a gesture of peace.

"We need two wands," Harry replied, his posture loosening slightly at the gesture, but still watching him closely.

"As there are two of you present, I had assumed that to be the case," Garrick responded as he quickly circled the counter and disappeared once more down the dusty aisles. He quickly gathered a handful of options before returning to the desk. "Who's first?"

He held a light-coloured wand, handle first, in the direction of the pair. The light apple and unicorn a favourite of his for first attempts. The reaction helped him narrow his focus quickly due to his many years of experience.

Harry slowly raised his arm but froze mid-way up. He turned and smiled widely at the girl. "You first, Hermione."

She beamed back at him and took a step forward, her hand closing about the handle and Garrick felt a jolt at his end. An interesting reaction. One he had not felt in a long time. He looked at her eyes as she gazed at the wood in her light grip, but he knew the look was wrong. It was on the right track, but not the right piece.

He quickly lifted it from her grip and found himself staring into a pair of glowing green eyes. The power seeping over him had overpowered the glamour and his true eye colour now shone out as Harry glared at him, suddenly standing much closer.

"Close, but not right." He lifted the wand and indicated the end to Harry but glanced to the side to see the downcast eyes of Hermione. "Fret not, miss. We'll find your perfect match. It's never the first one."

Hermione brightened at his comment and Harry's throbbing magic receded. Garrick was enthralled by the reaction. He realized he had underestimated the boy with his selection. Something with more power would be needed here.

Harry gripped the end of the apple wand and Garrick watched his eyes closely. The glamour had failed completely, and the green remained as he looked down at the wood in his hands. There was no reaction at all. A complete mismatch as he had expected after that showing.

"Good, good." He whipped the wand from Harry's hand and danced back to the counter.

Unicorn hair seemed to favour the girl, but none of the components reacted to Harry in the slightest. He glanced at the options on the counter and soon freed the next from its box.

"Cypress with a phoenix heart." He held it end first once more to Hermione and she grasped it firmly, as though afraid he'd rip it from her hand again.

He could feel the upswing in power in the air. This was closer to her wood, but the feather rejected her utterly. There would be no true reaction from this wand. He offered his hand and smiled at the girl as she returned both.

Offering the handle to Harry, he watched closely as the boy inspected the wand. There was the slimmest glimmer in the eyes as he held the wand. "Give it a wave, boy."

Harry eyed him before turning to the side and waving it at the wall. A dark red curve of magic followed the sweep of the wood and left a dark gouge in the wall opposite. A deep, dark gouge.

Ollivander's eyes widened at the showing. And with an unmatched wand. He offered his hand again and Harry sheepishly returned the wand as if afraid it might attack the man unbidden. The boy grew uncomfortable under his gaze, but Garrick found himself enthralled. A true prodigy perhaps?

He returned the wand to its box but noted a wave of slight anger in the wood. It had not liked the spell the boy had forced through it.

"I wonder." He shot back down the aisle, ignoring the pile he'd originally brought forth and grabbed a couple of distractions as he approached the back corner. He'd secreted this one away in the seventies, acting as though he'd not made it for the longest time.

He returned with a new armful and pulling the first free of its box, waved the wand and sent the first set flying back to their positions. He held the wand out for Hermione.

"Elm this time. Dragon heart."

She gripped the wand and again he noted a reaction in her, but again it was off. She was difficult, perhaps as hard as Harry would have been, had he not happened upon so brilliant a link.

Still, he passed the returned wand to the boy, keeping up appearances. It wouldn't do to tip his hat too early. An odd feeling permeated the air as his fingers closed on the wood and he turned without instruction and waved the wand again. This time, healing the fracture he had put in the wood with his first stroke.

Garrick was amazed, usually, the magic he saw leaving his wands in here was decidedly mundane. But the boy seemed to have a disturbing level of control over his magic.

Harry returned the wand with a grin; clearly happy he had repaired the damage he had caused.

Garrick spun and dropped the elm wand on the desk and freed the next from its confines. He spun and handed it unceremoniously to Hermione, who did not react in the slightest to wood or core. He was a little impatient now and pulled the wand a little roughly from the girl's hand.

He paused before pointing the handle at the boy. "Holly, with a phoenix feather core."

Garrick watched like a hawk, all his senses now focused on Harry. The moment of truth was here. Harry's fingers closed over the dark handle of the wand and Garrick was immersed in a swirl of magic from the boy. He smiled momentarily as he watched, the wand…

BURST INTO FLAMES!

Harry yelped and dropped the offending piece as an intense white flame spread from the tip downward at a serious clip. Within a second the entire wand was engulfed in the hot white flames and within several seconds, it was completely gone.

"I'm sorry. I swear I didn't mean to do that." Harry pleaded.

Ollivander did not reply, his mouth was wide, and his eyes fixed on the pile of ash laid on the floor before him. A second flare of white flame burst up for a moment and when it receded, a single red feather was sitting on the floor. He flicked his eyes up at the boy again but was still unable to form words.

He turned to the counter and without thought pulled another wand from a box, handing it slowly to Harry, the first he passed as he turned back.

Harry looked at the wand with a perplexed look. Part fear, part confusion. Were his thoughts more composed, Garrick might have reacted, but his mind was still on the obvious choice now destroyed on the floor of his shop. He wasn't even paying enough attention to see Harry attempting to return the wand.

After a moment, Harry handed it to Hermione and a swirl of her magic burst through the store, blowing away the remaining holly ash and causing a few boxes to tumble in the back of the store. Her hair billowed wildly, and a broad smile spread on her lips.

The reaction finally drew Garrick from his own thoughts as he looked at the perfect match in front of him.

"Uh… may I, Hermione?"

She held the wand to him with a look of trepidation. She was clearly afraid he'd take it from her for good. He inspected it closely, remembering forging it some sixty-three years earlier. Made of elder, a most disagreeable wood to work with. He had attempted seventeen elder wands over the years, most in the same vain attempt that all wandmakers fell to at one time after hearing the tale. But this one had paired with a delightful surprise in its core.

"Elder, eleven inches, precisely. Springy, despite the normally stiff nature of these wands. And unicorn hair core. I was very surprised at that as elder usually likes to change hands, while unicorn hair oft refuses to do so. Odd in that the mare refused to offer from her tail, too. This hair came from the most glorious mane of hair I've seen on a unicorn. A truly powerful and loyal wand, I think you'll find this to be."

Hermione glowed as he passed the wand back to her and a lesser reaction occurred once more, this time only blowing her wild hair outward.

Garrick turned back to Harry and realized he'd not even noted the boy's reaction to the girl's wand. No matter, he still had a client to match and now he had to fear for his wares as well.

He eyed the stack of wands left on the counter and noted another oddity among them. He pulled the wand free and spun back to Harry. The glamour had failed further under the pressure from the girl's outburst and now he looked almost himself once more.

"Rowan, this time."

Harry gripped the wand and the entire store shook. Garrick lost his footing at the sudden shaking and bumped his head lightly on the side of the counter as he fell backward. The girl quickly wrapped her arm around Harry's, but his reaction was the most amazing. His eyes flared with a deep glow and his hair whipped about much as the girl's had. There was power pulsing off him as he looked at the polished pale wood in his hands.

Hermione reached out and plucked the wand from his fingers and the reaction ceased immediately. Garrick couldn't take his eyes from the boy. While he had not matched to the wand he had expected, he had certainly proven the belief behind the offering was sound. That boy was dripping power and he seemed to barely notice. Great things indeed.

"Antipodean heartstring that one. One of the few cores in here I didn't collect myself." Ollivander gave as he stood back up, dusting his front and settling the precarious stack of boxes on the counter before they succumbed to gravity.

"I'm told he was the jewel of their reserve, outliving all others of his kind by a substantial marker. And, if the rumour was true, he chose to end his life. Cut out his own heart and laid it before the Reserve Master only a decade ago. A former student of mine at one point, he sent me the central heart-string immediately and I just had to make something special of it."

Harry looked at the wand in Hermione's left hand with awe.

"And rowan is a delightful wood. Tremendously protective, and with that heartstring, powerful too. Great things." His eyes flicked between the pair as he gave a chuckle and he chose not to share the other tidbit about elder and rowan. "Both of you are clearly bound for great things. Curious that they both come in at precisely eleven inches, and are identically springy, given the difference in the woods."

Silence gripped the store once more as the quartet stood unmoving. A silence Garrick broke marvellously as he clapped loudly, causing the other three to jump, and rounded the counter.

"Excellent, most excellent. So, are we paying together then, or apart?"

Hermione glanced at Harry who just nodded, eyes still fixed on the rowan wand, and the girl turned to the elf.

"Nemea, please." She turned back and locked eyes on Ollivander. "How much?"

"Normally not terribly much, but these two pieces are some of my finest work."

"And the Holly," Harry whispered.

"Pardon?"

"We'll pay for the Holly wand too. I'm still sorry about that." He replied, looking away from the wand for the first time.

"Very well, if you wish. All three together would come to 27 galleons, I'm afraid."

Hermione looked confusedly at him. "And how much is that in pounds?"

Garrick eyed the muggleborn for a moment before his eyes flicked to Harry. The boy still looked down for some reason. Why was Harry Potter standing there with a muggleborn girl? Especially one still so young?

"I'm afraid we only accept Galleons, my dear."

"Nemea, home," Harry called and the elf vanished in a moment.

It was several long seconds before she returned with a much older and much angrier elf.

"Pops?" Hermione whispered as the elder elf marched to the counter and lobbed a bag of Galleons onto the countertop, an impressive feat given Garrick couldn't even see the top of his head over the bench.

The elf stormed back over to the kids and held out his hand. Hermione placed the rowan wand in his grip before the old elf grabbed Harry roughly by the arm and, with a crack, was gone.

Hermione looked up at him for a moment before the younger elf slipped her hand into the girls.

"Thank you, sir." And with a second crack, she was gone as well.

Garrick slumped back into the chair he kept behind the counter. That day had definitely not gone as he had expected. The brother was destroyed. The boy was alive. And the mystery of the girl. Garrick was not often given over to a need for answers. He was quite happy in his work and his knowledge, but the day had his mind whirling, and he needed to know.

So, he left the shop sealed and rushed to his office, where he pulled out a quill and began to write a letter.

ϟ

Tuesday 20th December 1988.

Albus grinned broadly as he read the letter. At last, he had the final piece of the puzzle he had been denied so long. No wonder the bloody goblins had denied him. The true-born heir still lived, though how he lived was anyone's guess. Hagrid had shown up too late, no residual magic was detectable in the rubble.

But now he had new options. Before he was acting blindly. Now he had a target.

He leapt from his desk and moved to several small silver objects. The one he needed, a tall tripod with a hanging silver pendulum with a delicate point.

He returned it to his desk and withdrew a map of England from a drawer, placing the tripod over the centre and applying a drop of his own blood to the top of the pendulum before tapping it with his elder wand.

The pendulum began to swivel, soon moving in concentric circles, growing tighter and tighter as the scrying spell sought its target.

Albus smiled, soon the legacy would be in his grip and he'd have what he had sought for so long.

The smile vanished as the pendulum widened again and without warning shifted to almost ninety degrees from the map and shattered violently against one of the tripod legs.

He sank into his chair as the now destroyed trinket wound down.

Scrying still didn't work. Where was the boy being concealed so perfectly? Even Hogwarts would not prevent a scrying spell of that power from finding him.

Where in the world was Harry James Potter?

Chapter 11: A Touch of Magic

Chapter Text

Tuesday 20th December 1988.

Harry was angry as he paced his bedroom. As soon as they had returned, the portraits had started in on them. But it was not for himself that he felt the anger. He was so angry at them for yelling at Nemea. She was only trying to be helpful.

Fine, he understood their anger. Someone outside the family now had knowledge of his existence as the swirling magic of the choosing had broken down his glamour until it had fallen completely. Pops had made sure to remind Harry of that fact when they landed.

But it wasn't Nemea's fault any more than it was his own. And it certainly wasn't Hermione's. His being grounded again was no big problem. It had happened before, and he didn't let it bother him anymore. But they had grounded her too. Where did they get off…?

Harry froze mid-stride.

Panic grew in his stomach. He could feel a foreign magic pulling on him. In a way that he had never felt before, yet something about the feeling turned his blood cold.

"Harry? What is wrong?" He heard from nearby, but he was too busy resisting the feeling to focus on the voice.

It was a few moments after the feeling subsided before his pulse settled and turned to the painting opposite his bed. His great-great-aunt looking out at him from the seat within. The assigned watcher to ensure he didn't escape his punishment.

"Can you please get mum and dad, Rosaline?" He asked meekly.

She looked at him closely and her face paled. She nodded before running from the painting.

Harry understood. He must look frightful. Every part of him was chilled by the feeling that had pulled at him. Something called at his magic in a very demanding way.

"Harry?" His eyes shot up at his mother's voice. He rushed forward but stopped short when he remembered the height of the painting on the wall.

A snap of his fingers had his dresser sidle over under the frame and he quickly climbed the drawers until he was level with the large picture. Silently, he leant forward until he was pressed against the canvas, his cheek resting on the cool surface of his mother's chest. It was the first time he had tried to hug her in years.

She would always get a kiss goodbye when he went to school, and the odd touch when he was feeling particularly emotional. But if he needed a hug, he went to Mipsy or Hermione.

And this sudden change in behaviour was clearly affecting her as well.

"Harry, what happened?"

"I don't know, mum. I'm scared."

When he finally pulled away there were tears flowing down his face.

"Mipsy," the elf appeared momentarily and looked up at the painting and her master standing on his dresser. "Please take Hermione to the library, right now."

Mipsy bowed and popped away again. "You too, Harry. I'll meet you there in a moment."

Her hand caressed the inside of the canvas and Harry pressed his own against it before giving her a forced smile and popping away as well.

ϟ

Hermione was puzzled. She was being punished, somewhat unfairly she thought, for the trip to Ollivanders. Same as Harry and Nemea.

She thought the whole thing had been blown out of proportion, but the portraits had been adamant. They had done something truly bad and she still wasn't entirely sure why it mattered so much.

And yet, instead of being closed in her room and watched over by some distant member of Harry's family as she had been since they returned the day before, she was again standing in the library arms wrapped around her crying best friend as his parents watched on helplessly.

"What is wrong, Harry? Talk to me, please."

"Magic…" Was his mumbled reply as he shook in her arms.

"What about magic?"

Harry sniffed twice before taking several deep breaths. "Something… no, someone pulledon my magic. I've never felt anything like it before but it didn't feel good. I could feel their glee in the magic. What's happening?"

This question was directed upwards at the painting that had filled with every member of the family that could fit. Every Potter ancestor going back over a thousand years watched as the future of their line sat sobbing and frightened. Hermione watched as Lily and James had an inaudible conversation in the front of the frame.

"We think," his father began, "it was Dumbledore. He has known Ollivander for a long time. The wandmaker probably sent him a letter. The timing would fit. An owl would take about that long to go from Diagon Alley to Hogwarts."

"According to the goblins," Dorea continued, "he has been trying to open and access the Estate for years, but for the life of us, we cannot figure out why. Money and power he already has in spades. And while the Potter fortune is substantial, he hardly needs it. The papers would surely have mentioned if Albus was in some sort of trouble, and he'd likely have run out of options long before now, given he's been trying this since you first arrived here, Harry."

"But why is he trying to find me?" Harry mumbled.

"We don't know for sure. We've been looking into this for a while now. Trust us, sweetheart. He will not find you." Lily soothed.

Hermione rubbed his back gently as they snuggled together on the chair that was quickly becoming far too small for the both of them, but right now forced a closeness that Harry sorely needed. Hermione felt terrible for her friend. This had been his life since he was fifteen months old.

She thought briefly about the trouble she was currently having with her own parents and the thought of never being able to hug them again sent a shudder through her entire body. That set her resolve. Now, they would make sure Harry was safe, but once that was done, she would fix things with her parents.

"Harry," the children's attention was once more drawn to the painting looming over them. This time it was his grandfather speaking to them, resting down on one knee to be closer to their faces. "This may seem harsh right now, but I have to ask. Do you understand better now? Why we have kept you so secluded all these years? Why your mother was so scared when you brought Hermione here with no warning?"

Harry nodded, unable to meet his grandfather's eyes.

"Do you trust me, Harry?" Charlus asked.

Harry nodded again, this time glancing up momentarily at the elder man. "Yes."

Charlus smiled back. "Then trust me when I say no one can get to you here. I spent decades investigating and researching the wards on this home, before and after your father was born. Even after all that time, I don't fully understand them, but I know that no one who is not wanted here by the master of the house can get in. Nor can they remain in these halls against their wishes."

Harry's mother blushed in place, looking strangely guilty as his father hugged her tightly. But Harry's grandfather didn't seem to notice and simply continued.

"As I've told you before, this location does not truly exist in the world at large, so even the most powerful scrying attempts will fail. I cannot imagine what it feels like to have your magic pulled on like that, but so long as you remain within these walls, you are safe."

Hermione squeezed Harry tightly as Charlus soothed him. Some of what the man had said had set thoughts whirling in her mind, but now wasn't the time to address them. "What are we going to do?"

"We, dear?" Rosaline asked.

"Harry is my best friend. I'm going to do whatever I can to help keep him safe." Hermione was resolute in her decision. Harry would do the same for her.

Grins spread through the painting at her impassioned words, but she ignored them, focused more on Harry than the others right now.

"Pops," James called softly.

The elf did not pop into being as had become the norm in the large manor, instead stepping around the shelves near the large family painting.

"Yes, master?"

Hermione realised that Pops and Mipsy, who was now peeking around the shelves herself, had been listening to the whole conversation.

"Go back to Gringotts today. We need solutions and we cannot wait for Tybalt to return. I hereby authorise you to disclose what you need to Farkor and any necessary superior to get the information. If they're still as good as they used to be, they probably already know Harry is alive. It's probably why they've been giving Dumbledore such a hard time for so long. Do you understand this command?"

"I am to visit the goblins and not leave until we have a way to protect the young master from the meddlesome one. If I must, I can reveal the identity of the young master in order to gain their cooperation. My dealings with Farkor have shown him to be an honourable individual, but I believe we may indeed need higher assistance for this."

"I trust your judgement, old friend. Do what you think is necessary. Also, see if the goblins can prepare two portkeys for us that will transport the wielder to their catacombs if they should be rendered unconscious. Or somewhere else we can set ourselves. One for each child. I know you can pop anywhere but if someone should get the drop on you, this will keep you safe. But Harry does not leave this building unless it is absolutely necessary for the process." The aged elf nodded and popped away. "Mipsy, you are to stick to Harry like glue. Unless he is on the toilet, you are by his side at all times. You too, Nemea. I know I'm not your master, but please, stick close to Hermione. Keep her safe."

Nemea bowed to the painting. "Nemea will keep her mistress safe, Mister James sir."

"So, am I still grounded?" Harry's soft voice cut through the air of the room which had become very heavy.

The adults smiled at him and Lily spoke up. "You are both to remain on the grounds. You can go outside, but for now, no popping anywhere. If you need something, one of the elves will get it for you. We'll deal with the grounding later."

"Is that really wise, Lily?" Dorea asked her daughter-in-law.

"We don't know how long all of this might take. Do you really think we can keep them locked up separately in their rooms forever? A little freedom freely given should keep them from exercising the desire for it on their own. But they will be careful and stay on the grounds. I'd personally rather you never left this room so I could keep both eyes well-trained on the two of you."

Hermione felt Harry tuck in tightly next to her and she felt his breathing steady and eventually realised he had fallen asleep. While not tired herself, she could only imagine how much the past hour or two had affected her friend. Holding him close, she let her mind wander but kept one part of it constantly fixed on the steady breathing of the boy in her arms.

ϟ

Wednesday 21st December 1988.

Pops sat stiffly on the chair he had been assigned to wait in. It had been the better part of twelve hours since he arrived at the bank and the young goblin he had been dealing with for years had listened intently to the tale he'd told. He had indeed confirmed that he needed to go higher up the chain but swore not to let word slip outside of that chain, before disappearing out the door.

It had been hours since he had last seen the young goblin whisk back into the room with the partially prepared portkeys. They had taken most of the morning to prepare and still needed the destination set in order to function properly, but he had summoned Nemea to take them back to the Manor.

He still had more to arrange before his own return. And while he projected an air of calm after years of serving as the Potters' head elf, inside he was extremely concerned.

He knew the stories of the 'Great and Powerful Albus Dumbledore'. The man was heralded as the most powerful wizard in the modern world, despite being a relic of the previous one, much like himself.

Pops was very well trained after his many years of service, but he still found the exuberance of the younger elves to be frivolous and concerning. Mipsy's incident all those years ago with young Harry would never have happened under his own watch over the boy. And while it had worked out in the end, the fact that it became a problem to begin with worried him.

He was getting too old for this. He could feel the years in his bones and knew that soon he would have to select a new elf to train and take his place for good. But he had reservations about all the young ones.

Mipsy was far too closely tied to young Harry. She would always allow his wishes and needs to come before the household. He could already see the conflict inside her every time that Master James gave her an order that went counter to young Harry's will. Whether the boy voiced it or not. However, she would be utterly loyal to that boy until her dying day, or his. After all, when properly treated and loved, his species tended to outlast even the long lives of the wizards.

Tybalt was more reserved than Mipsy. But he had a mischievous streak that Master James had always encouraged. While he did not have the direct link that his sister did to young Harry, he was invested in the boy. A true head elf must follow only the orders of the head of the house, and work for the betterment of the house. In the past, this had often led to head elves clashing with the younger members of houses as they attempted to do things that would lead to the ruin of their house.

The elfin were all much more suited at the moment as they were pretty much a blank slate until bonded. He could mould one of them into a proper successor, but such a task would take many years to come. Years he may not have if Dumbledore got his way.

His thoughts were broken by the large stone door swinging inwards. But this time it was not young Farkor who entered, but an armoured goblin warrior guard. Several in fact. Followed by a much older member of their race. While Pops had never studied the intricacies of the goblins as some of the elves had, even his limited knowledge informed him that the older goblin was someone of great importance.

"Apologies for the delay, my friend. We've been quite busy here in the Under. You've brought us a fascinating puzzle." The goblin quickly sat across the stone table from him, and Pops returned to his own seat, nodding in the direction of his newest companion.

"Yes. Quite the conundrum. However, should we discuss such things around your guards? It's not that I don't trust them, but… well I don't."

Pops watched the elder goblin pitch his head back and give a hearty if gravelled laugh. "Quite. Fear not, my friend. These are my personal guard, raised from the nest to serve me. They are completely illiterate so cannot write and have no tongue with which to speak your secrets. Does that quiet your fears?"

Pops gave the guards one last glance before nodding.

"Good. You are remarkably well-informed and verbose for an elf, so I can assume you are both well-trained and well-kept by your masters. So if you agree, I would dispense with the game we have been playing for the past seven years and speak plainly between friends. Yes?"

Pops gave a gentle nod once more and the goblin smirked at the silent response.

"Very good. Let's start at the beginning then, shall we? Harry James Potter is alive and well, living under your care at Potter Manor and has been since November 1981."

Only a lifetime of keeping his family's secrets allowed Pops to keep the suddenness of the statement from shaking his calm. Master James had theorised that the goblins were aware of this fact, but they were dead on the money. He gave a soft chuckle to himself as he considered that when it came to money, goblins usually were onto it.

"Yes."

"Come now." The goblin said with a toothy smirk. "I'm being honest and open with you, shall you not return me the same courtesy? Your wee lad was spotted by three individuals on Diagon Alley yesterday during a visit with Garrick Ollivander."

Pops shifted a little in his seat, still embarrassed that Nemea had taken them all by surprise. At first, he had thought Harry or the girl had instructed the elf to take them. But it quickly became clear that Hermione's new elf was simply trying to show her initiative. In any other situation, he might have been proud of her. But now they were busy trying to repair the damage done after so many years of being careful.

At least Harry had bonded with Mipsy, who already knew the stakes. But Nemea was fresh and new. She still had much to learn and thus was eager to prove her worth.

"By a pair of witches who had been a few years senior to the child's parents and recognized a very 'Potter hairstyle' on the lad inside the oddly locked shop as they passed on their way to the Leaky Cauldron." The goblin continued, musing to himself for a moment. "Leaky in every sense. No secret whispered in that establishment has ever remained so for long after. And by a Recovery Agent of our own who had been retrieving something Garrick borrowed a long time ago and never returned."

The elderly goblin leaned back in his chair and surveyed Pops closely. Clearly trying to discern further information from his reactions as he continued once again.

"An odd occurrence, wouldn't you say, for a dead child to need a wand at what would have been only 8 years of age. Things like that have a habit of spreading, though the absurdity of this rumour has kept it quiet for now. But we both know of the long relationship shared between the wandmaker and," the goblin stopped and let out a distinct growl between clenched teeth, "Albus Dumbledore."

Pops couldn't help but smile at this. Clearly, whoever this particular goblin was, he'd had dealings with the old man in the past and they had not ended favourably.

"Before I can confirm anything, I would know your name. I do prefer to do my business properly." Pops offered.

The goblin returned the smile. An action that unsettled most humans due to the sheer number and sharpness of teeth on display But that the elves had long since grown accustomed to.

"That seems fair, Pops. I am Ragnok, the current head of Gringotts Bank and Gragnar of the Under of London."

This again surprised Pops, but he kept that surprise from showing. "An impressive position to hold. Two of them in fact. I take it then that Farkor has been reporting everything to you directly for the past few years?"

"Indeed, it was at my instruction that the lad contacted you in the first place. Buhgor was old and looking ready to train up a successor. I simply took the choice away from him. The lad has done as well as can be expected without direct access to the account holder, I think you will agree?"

"I do, and my master has been pleased so far with your discretion. He was certain that you were aware of at least some of the facts. Harry is indeed alive and well. Healthy and hearty and every bit his parents' child. In good ways, and a few of the bad. He has his mother's love of books and knowledge and a near-perfect memory with which to recall it. But he has recently shown his inheritance of his father's sense of humour and flair for dramatics. It caused some small problems."

"I take it this trip to Ollivanders was one such event?"

Pops sighed at this.

"Harry has a," he hesitated here. While James was his master and Harry's father, he had no right to out Hermione to the goblins, "close friend. They recently bonded with an elfin and the elfin wanted to prove themselves. When talk of wands and Ollivanders came up, they took the initiative."

"I see. So no preparations were made in advance. And now Dumbledore knows of Harry's survival. There is no way that Garrick's eyes have degraded that far yet that he'd not immediately recognize the son of a Potter."

"Hence the need for speed and results. I have orders not to return without them."

Ragnok eyed him carefully a moment before smiling once more. "You're a cagey one. I've not had such a fun conversation in a long time, Pops. You can keep some of your secrets for now. As I'm sure you know, we've been aware of the general situation for some time.

"Since you came to us last year, we've had our most trustworthy scholars scouring our records. While we had no luck finding a way to free Black from his confinement," Ragnok's tone once more showed the Goblin Nation's collective disgust at a prison run by Dementors. "We did note several methods one might use to prevent interference with the boy from the outside."

Pops straightened in his chair. He didn't want to be overly hopeful, but the young master was in danger unless one of these proved useful.

"Unfortunately, most of them can be overturned by the right vote from certain Ministry departments. And that lot will vote for anything that gives them more wealth and power."

Pops slunk downwards in his seat once more.

"As the boy lives with you I am assuming that he currently has no one that could come forward and rightfully claim legal guardianship?" Ragnok queried and Pops nodded in reply. "Then the most secure method would be emancipation. Anything short of that without an active and approved guardian could be challenged or overturned.

"Or worse, the Ministry could assign a guardian of their own. With the way that lot change their mind at the sight of a galleon, that would be impossible to control in your favour. And their listed methods for emancipation almost exclusively require the consent of the Ministry, or their approval afterwards, for the status to stick."

"Meaning we're back at square one with nothing?" Pops was feeling decidedly unhappy. He was failing in his duty.

"Not entirely," Ragnok stated, matter-of-factly. "We just need to use a method that ensures that magic itself acknowledges the emancipation. Once that happens, no amount of laws or shouting can change things. But the methods that get recognized by magic tend to be lasting. And potentially dangerous."

"And how many of these other methods would be safe to be undertaken by a child of eight?"

Ragnok smirked broadly as the pair leant forward over their shared table.

ϟ

"Are you sure about this?" Harry asked, holding the odd round stone in his hand. The length of a fine silvery chain threaded through it would hold it about his neck, ensuring skin contact at all times. "I don't know if I can do this."

"Harry, I trust you," Hermione encouraged, standing in front of him holding a similar stone of her own. "And your parents seem certain that it will work. You have more practice than me, and the elves' magic won't work properly for this. Not in conjunction with the goblins."

Harry took a deep calming breath before clenching his fingers around the stone, the chain slipping between his fingers and dangling beneath, the soft swaying of the material helping to clear his mind and help him focus his roiling magic. It had not stopped reacting that way since he first felt the probe tugging on it the night before.

"Focus, Harry," Hermione whispered, seemingly closer and yet further away. "Calm."

Several breaths followed, and Harry channelled the calming energy into his surging magic, slowly calming it until it felt more like an eager puppy than a violent ocean. It was ready to do his bidding.

"I think I'm ready."

"Good, sweetie," his mother's voice washed over him, "now focus your mind on home, and push that thought into the stone. The portkey magic is already there, you are just setting the destination."

He followed the instructions and felt the feeling of being at home well up inside of him. The comfortable warmth that he only felt in one other place on earth. A small smile split his lips as he focused tighter on the feeling and on letting his magic touch it. He had been practising small tasks like this with his tutors for several months now, and while he'd had middling success, this was the most important task he had ever attempted.

He felt the eager magic pool up and swirl around the thought, intertwining deeply together until they were one and the same. Now his magic had a feeling of home in its depth, he guided the warm glow down his arms and willed it into the cool stone between his fingers.

Harry could feel the energy pass from himself and into the stone, felt it warm as it took on the same feeling of home that he'd summoned in his mind, but there was something else in the stone too. Something that was fighting his magic for supremacy. It felt truly alien to him.

"There's something else in the stone." He whispered, afraid to speak normally for fear of breaking the spell he was channelling.

"That will be the goblin magic, Harry," James advised. "Don't fight it, that is what will make the portkey work. And keep anyone but you from being transported."

Harry focused on merging the two feelings together. But the wilder magic in the stone didn't seem to want to follow his instruction.

"Harry," Hermione's voice was so low he doubted anyone but he could hear it, "remember how it felt when you shared magic with Mipsy?" He nodded. "Good, focus on that too. Don't lose the other sensations, just try to remember it and feel that while you do. The two of you merged two vastly different forms of magic that day. You can do it again. I know you can."

Harry called up the memory of that day, trying his best to sift out the emotions that had been coursing through him and focus only on how it felt to share magic back and forth with Mipsy. The way the two had fought and raged against one another at first before his magic had soothed the wilder magic and allowed the two to merge together. It felt exactly like what was happening with the stone, and that realisation allowed him to adjust his approach.

With a loud snap that startled everyone who had been watching in the nearly silent room, the stone glowed a vibrant green and hummed for a moment as the magics merged and settled together into its featureless black surface.

"Wow." Harry grinned as he looked up at his family. He could feel the approval beaming at him from his friend beside him. "That was cool."

"Very well done, my boy." Charlus congratulated him. "Your control is growing nicely. I think you and Hermione need to find some time to talk so that you can share your secrets with her. I have little doubt she'll pick things up just as snappily as yourself."

Harry turned to his friend to see her blushing under the praise being heaped on them both.

"Faster, I'll bet." He added, earning a gentle nudge from the blushing girl.

"Put it on, Harry. It will self-clean, and you can move it easily enough so it won't get in your way of cleaning either. You are not to take it off unless we tell you otherwise." Dorea instructed him.

"Yes, grandma." He replied, slipping the silvery chain over his head and marvelling at the soft almost fabric feel of the pliable metal. He was eager to learn more about it.

"Now do you want to try, Hermione?"

"I'm not ready yet…" The girl responded, looking worried.

Harry reached out and slipped his hand into her own, giving it a squeeze and drawing her eye. "I believe in you. Your advice helped me the most. Follow it and you'll be fine. Trust me."

He gave her the lopsided grin he usually reserved for when he was being cheeky and she gave a short burst of laughter.

"I do trust you, except whenever you are wearing that grin."

The family laughed and Lily prodded her husband. Harry knew she blamed James for his naughtier habits as she called them.

"Give it a try." He encouraged her again. "It only costs money, we can always get another one."

Hermione opened the hand Harry was not holding and looked at the small white stone. Harry watched her face as she stared at it before she closed her eyes and her fist about the small item. He did not let go of her hand, wanting her to feel his support tangibly.

"Like we've practised. Calm your mind and look deep inside. You know how to find your magic." Harry whispered, not needing to be loud with how close they were standing. "Feel it inside you, and around you all at once. Let it wash through you. Wrap yourself in it."

He could feel the energy as it moved through her, the hairs on his arms standing on end from the sheer amount surging about her body.

"Remember how it felt holding your wand for the first time, and how it felt to share with Nemea. Let your magic take that form and bathe in it." He felt the change as Hermione followed his words. "Now without letting that go, focus on how it feels to be here, in the Manor. The feeling of running your fingers over the spine of the next book you plan to read as you pull it from the shelf. The sound of the wind whistling through the trees around the clearing. How standing here now makes you feel."

Harry noticed a smile growing on her face as her magic swirled out further and further from her body, fanning her hair and spreading outwards, buffeting his own clothes.

"Let all those feelings mix into the magic, like mixing water into sand, and then pour it down your arm and into the stone. It will fight a bit but focus on Nemea and it will change."

Harry felt the hairs on his arm pulse as tiny bursts of magic leapt between them, like tiny static charges. Hermione was pushing her magic down both arms it seemed, and he was in awe of how it felt as it tingled through his fingers.

"That's it, Hermione. Focus, but let it do the work. Relax and follow it along."

A second loud snap filled the air again and the pair jumped out of the insular little world they had been in and looked at the green glow sinking into the white stone.

"You did it!" Harry shouted, breaking her concentration as he wrapped her in a tight hug. "See, even smarter than me. You'll be outpacing me in no time."

Hermione grinned and placed the odd necklace over her head and flicked her hair back over the chain. Harry could see tiny sparks of residual magic echoing through the strands as they settled down over her back.

"That felt so cool." She said, squeezing Harry's hand before stepping over to the chair.

"The same goes for you, never take it off. If either of you are knocked unconscious, be it magically or otherwise, you will be brought straight here." Lily instructed.

"I think that might be enough excitement for tonight. How about we head to bed?" Dorea offered, seeing the tired looks on the children's faces after forcibly expending so much magic.

As if on cue, Harry felt a deep yawn break free of his body noisily.

Dorea looked at him knowingly and he nodded, grabbing Hermione's hand and skipping from the room, heading to wash up and tuck himself into bed, where he was sure he'd have a much better night's sleep than the one before.

Chapter 12: Her Embrace

Chapter Text

Friday 23rd December 1988.

"So, all that the goblins could come up with was to emancipate Harry?" James asked incredulously. "How exactly are we supposed to achieve that?"

"James," Lily whispered, her hand resting on his shoulder.

"No, Lily. It's ludicrous. I can hardly pop down to the bank and sign some documents. Even if the goblins came here with them, we still have no way to sign them. And whether or not magic recognizes Sirius as his guardian, how are we to get documents to him to sign?"

"And the Ministry would certainly be able to overturn most other methods of emancipation I am aware of," Charlus added.

"Maybe, if we let Pops finish, we can find out if there are any other options." Dorea offered, trying to calm her own husband, and leaving Lily to deal with her son.

The tension in the painting was clearly visible to Hermione as she watched from the far end of the library, where she and Harry had been shooed once Pops had returned, Mipsy staying beside him as he talked to the painting. They had been bickering about the news the old elf had brought for what seemed like ages now.

"The only other option it seems we have available is a ritual. It is a form of old magic, something that neither the Ministry, the Wizengamot nor Dumbledore could overturn. So long as the ritual accepts Harry's magic is of age, it would take."

"But he's not of age. He's still just a boy. The ritual would be a failure." Michael Potter shouted from the back of the gathered Potters.

"By your governments' arbitrary rules, no. Harry is not 'of age'." Pops replied. "But he has defeated a Dark Wizard in 'combat', so to speak. Survived near death at least twice. And has the magic of a full-grown house-elf coursing through his system and entwined with his own to a level we still don't really understand. Magic keeps her own council on what does and does not constitute 'of age'."

"You think this could truly work, Pops? I won't risk him leaving unless we can be sure." James asked, kneeling down to be at eye level with the diminutive elf.

"I spent two days doing research with the best teams Gringotts has to offer. It will cost a small fortune, for the specially prepared molten gold runes and the use of the goblin's ritual space. But this is the only option we can find that seems assured of success. We cannotknowMagic's reaction before the ritual, but if she accepts, a lot of problems go away.

"Emancipated, young Master becomes Head of the house. He can officially manage the accounts, which would begin making real money for the goblins once more. Which motivates them to achieve this goal. Of age wizards can use magic outside Hogwarts without special dispensation, making training Harry a much simpler prospect, though I'll eat this house the day that the Ministry can detect magic within its grounds."

Hermione glanced at Harry, trying to suppress a giggle at that last comment, as the pair listened to the meeting. It sounded like the ritual could potentially do a lot more than simply offering protection from this Dumbledore person. She entwined her fingers into his own and squeezed his hand, noting how his eyes widened slightly but he remained focused on the voices at the far end of the library.

"Can it prevent Dumbledore from finding him?" Lily questioned.

"It depends on the method used. The researchers seem to think that Dumbledore has access to several powerful artefacts that can track Harry, regardless of his status. Which is probably why the effect was so pronounced on the young Master's magic. But we've already proven he can't reach him here, by the very fact that he isn't banging down the front door. It would block some methods, but even if he were to locate the boy, the new status would cut off almost all avenues of control. Beyond potioning or charming him to do his bidding, whatever that truly is."

The adults all fell silent as Pops drank the tea he had been provided by Mipsy as he presented his findings. Soft murmuring soon spread through the painting as the many former Potters discussed the options.

"What exactly would be required for this ritual?" Dorea asked.

"From the scrolls I was shown, it is a fully human ritual, though one that hasn't been used in over a millennium. This works in our favour as being so old means it's unlikely anyone is aware it exists. It is also exceedingly simple as far as rituals go. It requires a prepared ritual space with a certain alignment of runes, which can be prepared up to two days in advance. Two people, the child petitioning magic and their guide, enter the circle andaskMagic for her blessing, basically."

"This guide? Do we know more about that role?"

"The guide is the one who opens the ritual and petitions magic on the applicant's behalf. They lead the process and close it out once complete. There are a few words that need to be spoken, and apparently, they can be given in modern language, but they don't seem overly complex. And while in the past this was usually a role filled by the child's guardian, it doesn't appear to require the guide to be such to the supplicant."

Hermione looked at her friend and noticed his attention was no longer fixed on the painting, he instead appeared to be lost in his own thoughts.

"So they would provide someone from the bank to fill the role?" Charlus enquired.

"Unfortunately, no. The oaths that humans must make to the bank would interfere. It would need to be someone outside of their employ." Pops finished.

"No chance. There is no one else besides Remus and Sirius. Padfoot is locked in Azkaban and Tybalt has orders to ignore any summons until the trail is gone. It will just have to wait until he's finished and gets back." James stated firmly.

"I can do it."

Hermione slapped her free hand over her mouth as she glanced from the green eyes staring at her from her side to the painting full of people now watching them crouched behind the shelves. The two elves were looking over the edge of the chair in their direction as well, and Hermione felt her face grow hot. She hadn't meant to say that aloud, but it had slipped free nonetheless. The squeeze she felt on her hand drew her eyes back to Harry who had a soft smile on his face.

"Thank you," he whispered softly, filling her with renewed vigour.

She nodded as she stood and slowly walked to the painting, every eye in the room fixed on her.

"I can be the guide."

"Nonsense, child. Go back to your room."

"Quiet, Sampson." Dorea snarled at the distasteful member of the family before turning a far softer gaze on Hermione. "You are too young to lead a ritual, my dear. It's not safe."

"That's not what Pops said. The ritual is simple. No special requirements beyond the ritual room and some standard runes. All that can be prepared by the goblins. But a human you and Harry trust must be the guide. We can't wait for someone else to be available. Harry is in danger now."

"Harry is fine so long as he stays in the manor, sweetie. We cannot ask you to bear that burden." Lily explained.

Hermione glanced at the redhead and saw the motherly affection in her eyes. Harry's eyes. She knew that she could be a stubborn child at times. She often butted heads with her parents, though never quite to the level they were at just now. Her friend was in danger. And while he could easily stay hidden within the manor forever to avoid it, that was hardly a way to live one's life. This mysterious Remus could probably fill the role, but it sounded as though the Potters had no idea where he currently was, or how to contact him.

"I can help, though. Harry can't stay locked up forever. It will keep him safe but at what cost?"

"Harry has lived inside these walls his entire life so far, dear." Dorea's voice was soft, Hermione knew when she was being talked down to, as though she couldn't understand properly. "Until he met you, he barely seemed to care about what was beyond them."

Harry's head drooped and Hermione felt a new heat grow inside; anger. He may have been content to survive in here before, but he knew of the world he would be missing now. And not in an academic way from reading books. But from having been a part of it himself.

"It won't be the same. Harry is a part of the world now. He has friends out there. People will miss him. And he them." The last was barely a whisper but her resolve grew as Harry squeezed her hand once more. "I care about what happens to Harry just as much as you do. I want him to be safe, but being held prisoner in your own home isn't safe, it's cruel."

"That is what must happen." James countered. "We cannot allow him to leave until we can ensure the success of the ritual. And how are we to explain to your parents if something went wrong during it? If you were hurt?"

"Pops, what is the likelihood of the ritual being dangerous to either participant?" She asked, looking the elder elf square in the eyes.

"As the goblins explained it," Pops replied, glancing nervously at the portrait and receiving a nod from Charlus, "extremely minimal. There are two outcomes. Emancipation, or nothing. The attempt itself is perfectly safe for a ritual. The worst that could happen is exhaustion from being under the judgement of magic itself. But that would fall only on the supplicant."

"So there is no risk of harm to me," Hermione stated, her chest puffing out and her face set.

"You would be out in the world alone. We cannot go with you. You are our responsibility while you are staying here Hermione." Lily's calming tone washed over her, but it did not soothe the anger at being cast aside.

"Icando this. I can help keep Harry safe." Hermione was set, she was going to do this. She would protect her friend.

"We can't let you do that Hermione," James stated, his own resolve evident in his face.

Hermione glared at the painting for a moment, trying to decide how to convince them before an alternative came to mind.

"No, what you can't do is stop me; Nemea." Hermione released Harry's hand, drawing his eye in surprise as the wee elf appeared beside her. "Gringotts Bank."

With a loud displacement of the air, she was gone.

ϟ

Her arrival in the atrium of Gringotts drew several curious eyes, but as they noted the elf by her side, most went immediately back to their own devices. Hermione was startled at the appearance of the enormous space, all marble and stone. It was incredible to look at, but she quickly squashed the awe. She had a purpose here.

She didn't release Nemea's hand as she walked over to join the nearest line. The little elf was glancing about, seeming to be caught somewhere between shock and awe herself.

"It's beautiful isn't it?" Hermione asked.

Nemea nodded slowly in response. "Yes, mistress."

"I'm sorry for dragging you here like this, Nemea. I don't want you to be in any more trouble with your family…"

"What do you mean, mistress? You are my family now." Nemea replied as they shuffled closer to the desk.

"I'm your family? But you are a Potter elf, aren't you?" Hermione questioned, ensuring she kept her voice down in the public atrium.

"I was. But when we bonded, I joined your family, mistress. Do you not want me?" Tears started to form in the big brown eyes.

"Of course I want you, Nemea. But I didn't mean to take you from your old family." Hermione offered the wee elf a big smile to reinforce her statement, which Nemea quickly returned.

Their conversation was brought to a halt as the two reached the front of the line they'd been in. Hermione was slightly startled at the gnarled appearance of the creature looking down at her, and a small corner of her mind wondered, from her reading, if the benches were intentionally sized to make magicals feel inferior when dealing with the goblins.

"Good morning, sir," Hermione began, noting as the goblin raised a single eyebrow as he stared down at her. "I was hoping to speak to someone about arranging a ritual. A… er, Falkor, no Farkor. Farkor if he is available."

Hermione's nerves intensified as the stoic goblin continued to stare at her. By her side, she barely noticed Nemea stand taller and snap her fingers. The goblin's eyes left her own and flicked down to something that had appeared on his desktop, far above Hermione's line of sight.

The goblin glanced at them both once more before pointing to a seated waiting area. "Take a seat," he instructed gruffly, "someone will be with you shortly, miss."

Hermione remained frozen in place as she noted the teller writing something before hitting it with a very heavy-looking stamp and making her jump. Upon hearing her loud eep, he glared at her again, gesturing momentarily with his eyes in the direction of the waiting area before fixing his gaze on the people in the line behind her.

Hermione allowed Nemea to guide her away from the desk and took several calming breaths, trying to steady her heart rate once more. Pops had not given her the impression that goblins were so gruff. Her own banking experiences were few and far between. Just the occasional trip to deposit her savings and the staff were always bright and cheery at her usual bank.

She had only just settled in when another much younger, or at least smoother, looking goblin approached. He looked at her and Nemea closely for several moments before gesturing her forward with a wave of his hand. Hermione swallowed audibly before standing and moving towards him.

"Follow me." His voice was far smoother than the teller and Hermione quickly shuffled along behind him as he guided them off the atrium floor and into much smaller two-toned corridors. The walls and ceiling seemingly hewed from naked stone, which was odd given the bank was above ground from the light she could see coming in the windows of the atrium, and the lower third of the wall and floor made of the finest marble Hermione had ever seen. But she could identify no obvious seam where they came together. One simply shifted into the other. As if the two pieces of stone had grown right on top of one another naturally.

The goblin stopped abruptly and indicated the open office doorway. Hermione hesitated a moment before stepping through, Nemea following closely on her heels before the goblin loudly closed the door and stepped to the far side of the desk, taking a seat.

He waited a moment, merely staring at the pair before rolling his eyes and indicating the chairs on the opposite side of the desk.

"The message from the teller stated you have business with the Potter account. I am its junior account manager, Farkor. What is it you wished to speak about?"

Hermione felt a small measure of relief as she glanced at a smiling Nemea. She figured that the young elf had shown her initiative again and provided some proof that she originated from the Potter family.

"I am here to speak with you actually. To arrange for an emancipation ritual." Hermione replied, considerably cheerier than she had been since entering the bank. A cheer that soon faded once more as Farkor simply stared at her over his clasped hands. "It is terribly important that we start as soon as possible."

"And who might you be to make such a request on behalf of a dead family?" Farkor questioned, making the same eyebrow motion that the teller had.

"I'm Hermione, I'm…" she trailed off. Hermione believed that Farkor was in the know, but she couldn't be certain. She couldn't risk Harry's safety by telling the wrong person about her friend. Panic began to settle on her as she furiously tried to figure out a way forward.

"Stop toying with the girl, Farkor." An extremely gravelly voice sounded from the direction of the doorway.

Hermione spun on her chair to see two figures inside the room and several more heavily armed goblins outside it. Of the two figures inside, one was a tall and very smartly dressed goblin. He looked older than any other she had seen since arriving. The other figure was Pops.

"Pops. Don't take me back. Please, we need to help Ha…" She slammed her hand over her mouth for the second time that day and could feel the colour drain from her face.

The goblin swung the door closed and started to laugh at her as he moved over behind the desk, which Hermione noted that Farkor had vacated. As he sat, Pops took the empty seat to her left and looked at her gently.

"Don't worry, Hermione. You might have acted rashly, but you got the Potters to see sense on a thing or two. Harry has a good friend in you." Pops offered, gently patting her shoulder. "Might I introduce Ragnok? Head of Gringotts Bank and Gragnar of the Under of London. The highest position a goblin can hold on this isle."

She noted that Pops gave a slightly inclined bow to the goblin as he spoke and Hermione copied him as she lowered her hands.

Pops continued the introduction. "Gragnar, this is Hermione Granger. Harry's best friend."

"I like her. Storming into the bank without a plan in the world. Proper raw courage and loyalty." Ragnok claimed, his voice seeming amused. "And it's clear she cares a lot for your charge. So Miss Granger, what is it you came here for? Let's see how far you can take this."

Hermione glanced at Nemea, her heart rate soaring once more as she tried to keep the panic from her face. "Well, um... " she took several deep breaths, hoping to calm her nerves. "Harry is in danger. Pops has informed… us… that you have a ritual that can take almost all of that danger away. And that it requires a second willing and trustworthy human to act as a guide for Harry throughout. I offer my services as that guide."

She tried to sit as straight and still as she could under the scrutinising gaze of the elder goblin. But was thoroughly confused when he once more burst out laughing. She felt her cheeks heating once more with anger. Here she was putting it on the line to help Harry, and he was laughing at her.

"Brilliant. You have provided more entertainment in the past decade than I've had in over a century, Pops. I really like her. She's even preparing to give me what for, for laughing, you can see it in her eyes." Hermione blushed heavily at being so caught out. "You are in luck, Miss Granger. I already have a team preparing an appropriate space with the required runes."

Hermione let out a breath she didn't realise she'd been holding and sagged with relief. She started and sat straight once more as she recalled she was in front of someone very important in the goblin world, which drew another grin from the aged goblin.

"We'll be ready to go after lunch at the latest. But there are a few other things that would need to be addressed first." Pops added. "For the best effect, we'd need to cover the ascension protocol beforehand. The less time Harry is in public at present the better. We never know when another attempt might be made. And the next one could be a summoning rather than a scrying."

"While I have never heard of anyone successfully achieving human summoning, I am in agreement," Ragnok replied, looking at Pops curiously, but still with a smirk. "Farkor can accompany you back to the boy and we can finalise any documents. As soon as he is recognized as emancipated they would take effect"

Ragnok cleared his throat before continuing. "He would be the Head of the Potter family and by their own long-standing laws, free from control as a Ministry stooge. Beyond any of their typical meddling and taxation, of course. The old coot is another case. Laws have never seemed to stop him from acting all that much. If he found a loophole, he would exploit it."

"Does that mean that even if he completes the ritual, Harry could still be in danger?" Hermione asked quietly.

"We're all in danger every day, Miss Granger. You could be killed by so many things in this world just walking around. All we can do is prepare for those we can foresee and hope for the best. In Mister Potter's case, this ritual is the best preparation we can make. Anything further will need to wait until we have the result of the ritual. Speaking of…"

Ragnok trailed off as he signalled to Farkor, who grabbed a large tome from a shelf by the desk and laid it open in front of Hermione. "If you're going to be the guide, you will need to do some reading. There can be nothing besides the two of you in the room during the ritual. No books, clothes, wands, and especially no external magic. Not even an observer. Even your portkeys will have to come off. The room will be sealed until either of you touch the rune by the door."

"Nothing?!" Hermione gulped frightfully.

"The only safe material is the magically inert robes you shall be provided. Fret not little one. Junior robes are much thicker than those worn by adults in ritual." Farkor smiled softly at her as he explained and Hermione relaxed. She and Harry were very close friends, but she wasn't too thrilled at the idea of having to perform her first-ever ritual alone with him without clothing.

"Only extremely powerful rituals performed by groups of adults are done nude," Pops explained with his usual instructional tone. "Simple rituals like this are fine to wear specially-prepared robes. They are usually spun from non-magical spider silk and specially prepared over many years to be completely magically inert. That way they do not interfere in the magic of the ritual. We wouldn't have covered rituals with you both for many years to come in your studies. But as will happen, plans can change."

Hermione took comfort in the elf's words and focused her attention on the book before her. It seemed that she had successfully convinced them that she could adequately perform the role of guide. Now she had to back up that confidence with a flawless performance.

Harry was depending on her.

ϟ

Harry was extremely nervous.

They had spent most of the morning signing parchment after parchment to the point where his wrists ached from the effort. And then he had been made to memorise the entire upcoming ritual. His brain felt like it was full with all the information he'd been asked to absorb in such a short time.

He could see that the family was as nervous as he was. But the ritual was fully prepared, and all the required paperwork was filled out. Farkor had departed the Manor for the Ministry about an hour ago. Taking a circuitous route, just in case the Ministry had made any major leaps forward in tracing magic. He would probably have lodged all of the paperwork with their own department there by now.

An extra level of obscurity that also had the benefit of basically ensuring no one paid it any attention, thanks to the antagonism that continued between the two bodies. A situation that under better circ*mstances, Harry would be eager to analyse.

All they needed to do was head to Gringotts and perform the ritual itself.

Which was where Harry's main problem arose. Ever since he'd felt the intensity of the pull on his magic, he had been afraid. Scared to step outside his home and risk another incident. Would it be stronger out in the world at large? Would the culprit show up and whisk him away? Or do him harm.

Did his ability to pop make him harder or easier to scry and summon? After all, an elf's master could summon them to their side almost anywhere in the world with a word. And for the first time since their blending, Harry was truly afraid of Mipsy's magic running through him.

"Relax, Harry," Mipsy stated, holding his hand tightly. "I'll be with you the whole time except for the ritual itself. I cannot be inside while you perform it. But Pops, Nemea and I will all be outside. Along with a phalanx of heavily armed goblins. And no foreign magic can penetrate the ritual space itself from outside. Except for Magic itself, which is the point."

She smiled at him reassuringly and Harry gave her a soft smile in return. He released some of the pressure he was exerting on her poor fingers.

"Follow your instructions carefully, Harry. You know the words. And Hermione will be with you the whole time. You trust her don't you?" Lily asked.

Harry nodded and took several deep breaths. "I'm scared."

"Me too, sweetie. If I could, I'd wrap you up tight and never let you leave my sight." His mum replied, sighing heavily at her restricted existence. "Be brave, and follow Mipsy's instructions. You can do this."

He rolled his shoulders and stood taller. His parents had faced down their enemy like the Gryffindors they were. He would not shy away now. He would be strong, like them.

"Ready?" Mipsy asked, wrapping her arm around his shoulders.

"Yes." He replied, giving one last deep breath, and with a familiar pop, he found himself in a huge marble atrium, looking into the eyes of his best friend.

"Hello," She smiled, offering her hand. "This way."

Harry took it, drawing comfort from her presence. They were surrounded by almost two dozen heavily armed and armoured guards. Shining silver metal and what looked like dragon scale leather covered them from head to toe, all decorated in fine designs he was too nervous to truly take in.

He could see the curious customers in the background trying to get a glimpse of what was the cause of all the ruckus.

Hermione took the lead and guided him quickly into a side passage, the entire entourage following along behind, except the handful of guards keeping pace to ensure they were protected on all sides. The goblins made surprisingly little sound for how much metal they were wearing and carrying.

Down four sets of fine stairways, they soon arrived outside a domed space with a large stone chunk swung outward towering over them as it hung in the air, suspended by nothing that Harry could see. Pops stood by the opening with a large swathe of white cloth slung over his shoulder.

Beside the elf were several goblins. One he recognized as Farkor, the one who'd had him signing paperwork all day. But he didn't know the goblins on either side of Farkor.

"Welcome, Mister Potter," One of the older goblins said, stepping forward. "We've filed all the paperwork you signed with the appropriate departments. Thankfully the wizards never really look at what we send them most days. By the time they do check, we'll be done. As of now, Harry James Potter, you are the legal and magical heir to the House of Potter. And shall take control of said house upon your future…" he paused and gave a vicious-looking smile, "majority."

Harry couldn't help but grin slightly at the idea. Even if they checked the paperwork, it would only indicate that his parents' will had been executed by the goblins. No one would suspect that he was on the verge of emancipation and that the paperwork would have new meaning by nightfall. And even if they did, they'd be hard-pressed to read it all, understand the implications, and get here to stop them in time.

"Well, let's not waste time shall we?" Another of the older goblins spoke.

Pops stepped forward and guided Harry into the domed room. Inside was the most beautiful room Harry had ever laid eyes on.

The walls and floor were made of seamless solid black marble with tiny filigrees of gold throughout. On the surface were what seemed to be a hundred golden symbols Harry recognized as runes. While they hadn't started studying them yet, he was familiar enough from his own personal reading to know some of them.

The gold seemed to shimmer as it sat atop the shining black surface, almost looking liquid as it did. Though Harry knew from his studies that was not possible for gold at room temperature.

Harry noted that the guards had formed up across the entrance and turned away, blocking all sight from outside.

"Come now, Harry. Let's get you changed. You need to wear this for the ritual." Pops indicated the cloth over his shoulder and quickly helped as Harry removed his other clothes. "Underwear too, lad."

Harry blushed, he'd not been naked in front of Pops since he'd been first able to bathe himself. He passed the folded clothes to Pops and grabbed the white cloth from the elf. It was quite thick fabric but still felt light and airy. It was wonderfully comfortable on his skin.

"Portkey." Pops gave Harry an encouraging smile as the boy reached for the chain around his throat. It was so comfortable, he'd almost forgotten it was there already. He dropped the dark stone into the elf's waiting hand and set his shoulders.

Pops gave Harry a firm squeeze on his shoulder, looking into his eyes as he did. Harry gave him a smile in return and took another set of deep breaths as Pops guided him back to the opening.

"Ready, Harry?" Hermione asked, stepping over to him.

He glanced up at his best friend. He could see his own nervousness reflected in her eyes.

"You don't have to do this, Hermione. We can wait…"

She cut him off by grabbing his hand in her own and squeezing it firmly. The smile on her face was more comforting than anything he had seen in days. "I volunteered for this, Harry. Iwantto help my friend."

Harry couldn't help but return the smile and squeeze the soft hand captured in his own. "Thank you."

The eldest of the goblins stepped forward. He was draped in similar robes to Harry and Hermione, though these were considerably thinner. Harry could see parts of goblin anatomy through them that he'd never wanted to see.

"The space is prepared. Be sure not to disturb any of the runes when you enter. Ensure you have naught but yourselves and your robes on you." His voice was gruff yet smooth and he held out a hand for anything they might still have on them. Harry checked himself over as did Hermione yet they were clean. "Very good. You both remember your roles and lines?"

Harry glanced at Hermione, who nodded vigorously. "Yes, we're ready to go."

"Excellent. The guards are in position around both the space and the outer walls of this room. Your three elves are staying here by the opening. Nothing shall disturb you. Best of luck to you both."

The goblin bowed slightly to them, which the children both returned. Turning to one another, they quickly grasped hands once more and with a synchronised deep breath, turned and entered the space.

ϟ

The large stone door of the room let out a loud boom as it met the floor, causing both children to feel a spike of fear at their isolation. But the isolation was a required part of the ritual they were about to undertake. Any outside magic could be dangerous, even in a simple ritual such as this.

The room itself was dark, the marble gave off no light and there could be no other form of magical lighting in the space. But after a moment, their eyes adjusted to the dim light being let off by the countless golden runes on every single surface.

Hermione took a deep breath and dusted her clean robe down.

She stepped forward, being careful not to step on any of the raised golden runes with her bare feet. The moment she passed over the first ring, she felt a buzz suffuse her entire body. There was a potential energy to this circle of runes, unlike anything she had ever felt before.

The only close comparison she could make was that it was like touching a Van der Graaf machine, but much much more intense and the only thing she was in contact with was the black marble floor.

As she reached her position within the circle, Hermione turned and noticed Harry was still standing over by the sealed door. She gave him a half-hearted smile and beckoned him forward with her hand. Not wanting to speak anything but the required words so that she didn't taint the ritual in any way.

Harry soon reached his own position and Hermione tried to settle her racing heartbeat. She'd been certain she was capable of doing this when they had first learned of it. Had studied the requirements over and over while the goblins prepared the space. She knew there could be no mistakes. Harry was depending on her now.

Nervously yet with a clear voice, Hermione began. "We who are gathered call on Magic itself to bless our purpose and guide our actions."

Strong magic filled Hermione's body before streaming out in all directions, igniting the runes on the floor and walls with a clear flame as it passed over them, massively brightening the space, yet the increase did not hurt her eyes. She noticed Harry's body shudder as it passed through him a moment later.

"Have you, Harry James Potter, taken your place in this circle of your own free will?"

Harry cleared his throat before speaking in a loud yet slightly uneven voice, "I have."

Another small pulse of magic filled the space, emanating from Harry and washing over Hermione. She felt it inside and all around and it felt like Harry's entire form was wrapped around her, even though she could see he was still standing a metre in front of her.

She quivered under the intense and pleasurable feeling it gave her and realised what had made Harry shudder earlier. Her cheeks took on a pink dusting as she refocused on the memorised words.

"We gather today to put forth our petition to the Essence of Magic to look inside of young Harry. To assess his being and decide for all time if he has the strength to stand for Her, the will to fight for Her, the compassion to love for Her. To stand anew as not only one of Her children, but also recognized as one of Her champions as well."

Hermione swallowed around the lump in her throat. They were approaching the big moment, and the longer their small circle was open the heavier the magic churning the air became. It had almost become so thick about them that she struggled to breathe.

"Do you, Harry James Potter, accept the judgement of Magic and choose to receive Her blessing upon your magic!"

"I, Harry James Potter, do hereby accept the will of Magic and Her judgement."

A third, even larger burst of invisible magic rushed inwards from the bounds of the circle itself, engulfing them both in its embrace. Hermione's breath stopped as she felt it wrap around her own magic, as tightly as Harry's was. But this didn't feel comforting as his magic did. It felt heavy and judgemental, and she was afraid of it.

She saw a similar fear in Harry's eyes and remembered this ritual hinged on her. Clearing her throat in the dense air, she commenced the final line.

"I, Hermione Jane Granger, beg the Essence of Magic to render Her decision now, that we may heed Her will."

The pressure in the room became immense and both children struggled to remain standing under its weight. An eternity seemed to pass under the intense gaze of something so much bigger than themselves before the atmosphere changed and suddenly the oppressive magic in the room, without lightening, became comforting as well.

It swirled eagerly about the room, stirring the robes the pair wore before rushing out from the circle, causing them both to stumble slightly.

As the lighter air settled around the pair, they couldn't help but release several relieved giggles at the dishevelled appearance of the other. Hermione's hair was a mess at the best of times, but right now she was glad there wasn't a mirror around. She would have to remember to forbid Harry from ever showing anyone this memory.

"We gathered here accept the judgement the Essence of Magic has bestowed and thank Her for Her guidance." A light swirl of magic danced at the edge of the circle at Hermione's words and Hermione drew heart from the event as she wound up the ritual. "We seal our purpose and return. Let it be done."

With those words, Hermione felt Harry's magic leave her presence as her own swelled within once more, feeling so much denser than it had when they began. It made her feel amazing, helping to make up for the loss of Harry's own holding her tightly.

A snap of bright magic broke over the circle and all the runes became still and dulled once more. The space fell to a thick darkness once more, only barely broken by the lightly glowing golden writing.

Two pairs of uncontrolled giggles filled the space as the children fell to their knees and laughed wildly. It was over, and they were both alive and well. Hermione felt an intense level of relief fill her up, not realising that she had been holding a tension in herself since the pull on Harry's magic right up until it had vanished with the success of the ritual.

Magic itself had decided that Harry was a full part of Her world. Of age as they reduced such a heady concept into paltry language. Unable to be bought and sold for the power and standing of others.

With a particularly strong set of giggles, Hermione felt the world around her darken even further, and with a surprised shout of her name from familiar lips, she fell into the darkness's embrace.

Chapter 13: Pomp and Circ*mspection

Chapter Text

Friday 23rd December 1988.

Albus Dumbledore arrived with a resounding crack, the air peeling forcibly away as his body burst into place.

With a subtle shift of his eyes, he noted all the people up the Alley turning to look at the source of the sound as it echoed its way to the Leaky Cauldron entrance, awe evident on most of their faces. Normal people didn't apparate into the centre of the Alley itself, let alone do it so forcefully.

Years of practice kept his face from betraying the slightly guilty joy he felt from being looked at with such reverence, and with a turn on the heel of his buckled boot, he beheld the towering marble monstrosity that had caused him so much difficulty over the past several decades.

Albus tucked his beard into his belt and straightened the most garish pair of robes he owned and ascended the stairway with a speed that belied his age. Not even pausing to acknowledge the scowling guards, he swept loudly into the wide atrium and once more every eye in range turned to him.

In the early days following the war and his old friend's defeat, such staring had made him uncomfortable. People looked at him with awe and a glimmer that he soon learned was their desire for him to protect them from themselves.

He had naturally shied away from such attention, but through his many years had come to see the wisdom in it. He was one of the oldest, certainly the wisest, and undoubtedly most powerful magical beings alive. He had decades of experience in so many fields that he was easily considered the foremost expert in a great many of them.

Heads of State would often ask his advice and while he always gave it in riddles that left the onus squarely on their own shoulders should it fail, he had gathered even more praise in his years since Grindelwald's defeat than the act itself had garnered him.

And yet, none of that seemed to matter inside these walls. While witches and wizards looked on in unconcealed disbelief at seeing the pinnacle of their kind standing before them in all his glory, the other occupants were not so pleased.

Every goblin eye in the atrium was fixed on him. Some bore dark expressions that made him wonder just how depraved the mind of a goblin might be. There wasn't a guard in the space that hadn't tightened their grip on their weapons and shifted to have a better line to his position.

In their minds, his relationship with one who had so harmed them made him their enemy as well. He was sure that it was only the treaty with the Ministry itself that kept them from acting on it.

With the same centred state that kept him from smiling at the worship of his general public, Albus quashed the desire to scowl at the little mongrels in return. It was they who had wronged him. Taken his heart from him after he had already broken it himself.

But that was irrelevant today.

He had business here far more important than his many years of antagonism with the Nation. Word had reached him much faster today and he had immediately leapt into action. No scrying spell was needed when seven of his most trusted portraits could confirm the location for him.

However, when the message had arrived, he had been in a bath, and the time he'd spent dressing his best for today's events had cost him it seemed. Looking to the far end of the Hall he noticed the one group of people not fixed on his entrance. A gathering of Ministry officials appeared to be arguing with the Head Teller.

Knowing his needs today superseded anything the Ministry could be here for, Albus surged forward, keeping his stately appearance right down to the stride and surged through the gathered group, splitting them down the middle with his presence until he reached the now silent desk.

"Greetings, I am here to collect a ward of the state and bring him to Hogwarts, where he can be kept safe," Albus stated, ignoring the whispers now breaking out amongst the assembling crowd behind him.

"As I was just informing the new Minister here, there are no wards of the State currently housed within Gringotts." The scowl on the goblin's face widened as its gaze flickered between Albus and the freshly elected Cornelius Fudge.

Before the reddening Fudge could speak, Albus cut over him. "I have it from the most reliable of sources that young Harry Potter, an unfortunate orphan due to the horrors of the past war, is within these walls as we speak. Under the authority of the Lineage Protection Act passed during said war, I must take the role of his guardian until such time as one can be appointed officially. Given this will be our first meeting, there will be a lot to discuss, so I must ask you to make haste in bringing him forth. I will have little time for idle chatter today."

Albus pulled himself to his full height, which was impressive for a man of his age and allowed his aura to bulge slightly. He could hear the gasps from the assembled Ministry wizards and even Fudge appeared to have lost his building bluster and was looking at him with the typical awe.

"You wizards and your ever-changing laws." The Head Teller grumbled as he ignored Albus and looked at a fresh piece of parchment that had appeared in his In tray with a large black wax seal. He quickly divested the parchment of the seal and his eyes widened as he read the missive.

Albus let his defences lower in order to use his passive mental abilities to try and read the goblin in its clearly shocked state. Whatever was in that missive unnerved the creature far more than his impressive display had, which miffed him slightly at the wasted effort.

"I really must insis…" Albus broke off as a clangour of metal rent the air and grew louder as it approached. Most of the magicals in the atrium drew closer to the high benches, even those assembled in lines waiting their turn shifting away from the open floor. Albus too recognized the sound, though none had seen the sight that accompanied it since the forties.

A full phalanx of armoured soldiers marched loudly into the atrium. Several of the patrons covered their ears at the noise, and others their eyes in fear. Albus was now shifting from annoyance into true anger at the display of strength the goblins were bringing forth.

He was about to turn and give the Head Teller another more forceful piece of his prodigious mind when he was stopped dead by what he saw in the midst of the shining assembly of warriors. A pale young boy with messy black hair.

"Harry, my boy." He called, using his magic to ensure his voice carried over the sound of armour and weapons clashing as the phalanx came to a halt. "What perfect timing. Allow me to introduce myself."

Stepping forward, Albus smiled serenely at the boy as he turned to face him. "My name is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Order of Merlin, First Class. Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot of Great Britain. And duly appointed Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards."

Albus laid it on as thick as possible, knowing his full set of titles would impress not just the seemingly scared lad, but his entire audience. "It's so good of the goblins to return you to us now you have been found. As your currently appointed guardian, I shall take you somewhere safe, so that we might become better acquainted."

Finishing with a wide-armed flourish that decades of teaching had taught Albus put children at ease in the presence of strange adults, he watched the lad closely. Harry was the spitting image of his father at that age except for the absence of glasses. Already well on his way to becoming a tall fit young man. He looked well-fed and cared for, except for the typical Potter hair, a trait that had only gotten worse through subsequent generations of that ancient family.

But the thing he couldn't take his eyes off was Harry's own. While his body was every bit James Potter, the eyes staring at him were absolutely his mother's. Not only were they the most incredible green he'd ever seen on a human, but they also held that same analysing quality as hers had. Albus had always felt as though Lily Evans could look right through him, taking extra care in her presence as a result, and her child had the same chilling effect on him now as she had all those years ago.

The boy had not moved an inch since he'd laid that penetrating gaze upon him and Albus suppressed the shudder his body craved as he closed his mental shields against the feeling of intrusion. It would not do for the lad to see his mind if he had been gifted with some natural talent in the mind arts. Although this also kept him from reading the boy at all either, Albus was unconcerned. He would have plenty of time for that later once he had the boy alone. The lad probably knew nothing worth digging for anyway, at his young age. Nothing of what Albus was interested in, at the least.

Harry's head co*cked ever so slightly to the side before he pulled his gaze away and Albus let out the slightest breath of relief. While Lily had felt like she could see his thoughts, Harry felt like he was analysing his very soul. As if the child could see his very magic. The boy turned to face the tall goblin to his right and Albus noted Ragnok standing there smirking. He pressed some parchment into the boy's hand and gave a subtle nod.

Resisting the urge to scowl at the meddling old goblin, Albus stepped forward, extending a hand out to young Harry, despite the wall of heavily armed goblins between them. "Come, Harry. We've much to speak about."

Harry looked once more in his direction and Albus ensured he was displaying his friendliest expression. Only for it to shatter into shock as the boy vanished in the sudden swirl of an activating portkey. A growl of frustration rumbled in his chest as Albus stepped forward again only to be greeted by the sharp tips of a dozen poleaxes aimed at his face.

"Where have you sent him goblin? Harry Potter is an orphan of the war, he is my ward and I will not stand here and let you kidnap him."

Albus was furious and allowed his full majesty to show. He had been humiliated by these beasts in front of everyone. But more importantly, his way to the Stone had just vanished in front of his eyes. Taken away from him again by the goblins.

"Where he requested we do so. Now if you don't mind,MisterDumbledore, I'm a busy goblin. I've no time to deal with your nonsense today." Ragnok signalled the closest warriors to him, those in a different uniform to the rest and turned, heading back towards the opening the army had entered from.

"Ragnok! We're not finished. I demand you tell me where you have sent my ward, or we shall have to sanction the goblins for violation of the treaty."

Albus felt something brush past him and glanced down to see Fudge had resumed his red colouring and was building up his own tirade to throw at the goblin Chief.

"How dare you little monsters. We are the duly appointed representatives of the Ministry of this land. We have the right to take the boy and youwillhand him over this instant."

Albus heard Ragnok give a sigh as he turned to face them once more. Though he looked far more resigned than the anger he had expected at having been outmanoeuvred on this matter.

"Yourwarddoesn't exist. Theboy, as you call him, who just left here is the Head of the Potter family." Albus paled heavily. "He was concludingbusinesswith Gringotts at his own convenience and had other duties to attend to today. At Gringotts, we respect the wishes of our customers, so long as they back it up with payment. Had we handed him over to you as you are demanding, we would have been aiding inyourattempted kidnapping."

Albus was both concerned and livid. He had once more been outplayed by the goblins and this time it had been in public. How could the boy have possibly come into his majority so early? He was only eight years old.

"You shall regret interfering in Ministry matters, goblin," Fudge growled, moving to gather his supporters and head towards the doors to the bank.

"I think not,Minister," Ragnok growled, his skin darkening in what Albus knew to be anger. "Yet again you seem to have come into Goblin territory assuming you had the upper hand. It concerns me that your Ministry keeps allowing you to deal with us when you are clearly not privy to the treaty that binds our two nations.

"Instead of assigning it as reading to some junior assistant to spoon-feed you when needed, you might consider taking the goblin approach and educating yourself. Given it is the backbone of every interaction between our peoples, your continuing ignorance of its contents is becoming insulting. We made it required reading for all goblins in their first year of schooling. So that we never have a teller violate it and start a war."

Fudge deflated like a balloon and yet still tried to bluster and prevaricate his way around the situation. Albus though had no time for this foolish back and forth. He needed information and access to the boy.

"Chief Ragnok," Albus wrenched out, attempting civility. "I would request a meeting with the young Master Potter. There are truly vital matters which I must discuss with him. Urgently."

Ragnok glared at him and it took every bit of his not inconsiderable willpower not to react in kind.

"As Mister Potter has taken his place as Head of his family, andallthat such a position entails, he will be a very busy young man for the foreseeable future. But, perhaps we could attempt to arrange a meeting with him on your behalf, for the usual price as an intermediary."

The goblin smiled viciously and Albus took a deep breath to calm himself before responding. "That would be agreeable."

Ragnok nodded in response and the pair both turned away at the same moment. Albus found himself staring at the disbelieving faces of those who had minutes before looked at him as a veritable god among them. Now they saw behind the curtain so to speak. Getting a glimmer of the fact that he wasn't as infallible as they believed.

His day worsened as the low conversation taking place behind him reached his aged ears.

"Remind me to have one of the junior members of the Wizarding Liaison Office contact Mister Potter to arrange Mister Dumbledore's meeting request. Given they never have much to do, what with the incompetence of the current Moronistry, it'll give them some experience in dealing with the better side of wizarding culture."

Albus silently fumed and noticed Fudge doing similar as he gathered his own sycophants and stormed from the building. Albus managed to get himself back under control before following the angry wizard out, wondering how things had gone so wrong, and how he could fix them.

ϟ

Harry was very glad Pops had been at the portkey drop-off point.

Wizards must be a bunch of morons to willingly travel via such a horrible method every day. His head was still spinning wildly when he arrived back in his room at the Manor and Pops guided him over to his bed. He was very grateful that, if the stone now once more securely around his neck ever activated again, he would be unconscious for the nauseating journey.

"Rest, master. We can speak to your parents later." Pops said, snapping his fingers and changing Harry into something more comfortable for sleep as he tucked the covers about him. Something he'd not done in years.

"Thank you, Pops. You're a good elf. I'm proud to call you family." Harry mumbled, causing the elf to blush. "Is Hermione ok?"

"Yes, Master Harry. Rest now." The old elf brushed his unruly hair out of his eyes and Harry felt himself give into the exhaustion he'd been feeling since the ritual had completed, dropping into a deep dreamless sleep.

It was several hours later when he woke with a start to find the room in darkness, indicating just how long he must have slept. Harry found his thoughts full of the image he'd seen upon leaving the bank.

He understood the goblins' desire for him to be publicly seen leaving so that the Ministry wouldn't violate the treaty by arriving to take him with force, but now he had a face to put to his nightmare. A nightmare he'd thankfully been too exhausted to suffer today.

Albus Dumbledore, a man of far too many titles it seemed, and who had an aura about him that Harry immediately mistrusted. Thinking back on the scene he now realised why. The man was drenched in the same magic he had felt pulling at his own a few days earlier.

Dumbledore was indeed the one who had been searching for him.

Today the man had immediately treated him like a stupid child, one he'd been talking to as such for years, despite it being the first time Harry had ever laid eyes on the man. His memory of his first year was splotchy compared to his normal superior recall, but he couldn't ever remember seeing that face before.

The cold blue eyes were devoid of the care and kindness his smiling face had promised and Harry shuddered as he recalled it. How could anyone be so dead inside? He had felt nothing from the old man, and it chilled him.

It left him feeling dirty, and Harry dragged himself into the nearby shower. Hoping the water would help wash away the feeling and the memory. The cold feelings remained, but he felt more able to handle them after cleaning himself down.

With his body more awake, Harry cast his mind back further.

He remembered the urgency with which he had hit the release cluster by the door. Hermione passed out in his arms, unmoving but clearly still alive as he could feel her magic surging inside her. He had been so terrified for his friend that he'd soared through the following conversations on autopilot.

He had wanted to take Hermione and head home right then and there. To have her checked over and treated, but had settled slightly when Mipsy and Nemea had popped her away, promising to take good care of Mistress. He felt so guilty for letting her take on the responsibility of the ritual for him. He had allowed her to be put at risk and she had been hurt as a result.

Harry hurriedly finished his shower and dressed in a rush. He made immediately for the room one door down and across the hall, the closest bedroom to his own.

Pressing open the door, Harry ducked his head inside and saw it was completely dark. Pushing some of his magic into his hand, a dull pale glow emanated from the skin of his palm and allowed him to see his way to the bedside. He took a seat in the chair left nearby and looked solemnly at the pale form of his best friend. The steady rise and fall of her bed cover indicated she was alive, but he would not be truly calmed until she spoke to him once more. There was no telling what damage the ritual might have caused her.

"Stop thinking so loudly, Harry."

He started, nearly slipping off the chair and his magic flared, filling the room with a sudden burst of bright white light from his hand. Harry's eyes hurt as he rubbed them, not considering the fact that the cause of the pain was one of the hands he was using to relieve the annoyance until it surged again and he ended the magic.

"What did you do that for?" Came Hermione's voice from the once more dark room.

Harry rushed to his feet and surged toward the bed, but in the darkness misjudged the distance and collapsed forward when his knees hit the side, his head connecting with a padded knee under the covers.

"For goodness sake, Harry." He heard a firm click and the lights in the room came on.

Harry rubbed his head once more as he rolled onto his side and looked up the bed to see his friend looking at him with her caring brown eyes and a slight smile on her features. She looked like she'd had a bad few days, but she was awake and talking. She was ok.

"How are you feeling?" He asked gingerly, sitting up at the end of the bed.

"I was doing fine until someone tried to blind me and then headbutted my knee." Harry blushed with embarrassment as she smiled at him. "I am not sure what happened though. One second the ritual seemed to be over and the next I woke up here. I'm assuming here is home, it certainly looks like it."

Harry felt a momentary surge of unidentifiable emotion at her words before he nodded. "You passed out when the ritual closed. I think the weight of all the magic on you for so long was taxing. I nearly blacked out myself. Probably would have if you didn't first, but once you fell down the adrenaline kept me going until Pops got me home too."

Hermione nodded at his explanation, her eyes unfocused and he knew she was reviewing her own memories of the events. "So, was it successful then?"

"Appears so. All the paperwork indicates I am now Harry James Potter, emancipated Head of the Potter family, blah blah blah."

Hermione smiled at him once more and Harry felt most of the remaining weight lift from his soul. She didn't seem to blame him for what had happened to her during the ritual.

"Did it feel…" Hermione began, casting her eyes down and wringing her hands. "Did it hurt? I mean… when the third pulse hit. I was so scared, Harry."

He shuffled quickly up the bed and put his arms around Hermione. "Me too. I was mostly scared of what would happen if it failed, but that magic felt so dangerous. I was terrified when it wrapped itself all over me. It was inside me and… I don't really know what I felt, but I don't want to feel it again. It was nice at the end though. And…" Harry trailed off, his cheeks flushed as he recalled the first steps of the ritual.

"Yes. I felt it too, Harry. It seems my magic likes yours. You feel very comfortable." Hermione whispered.

Were Harry not perched against her shoulder he doubted he'd have heard the words, but they filled him with joy. "I felt the same. I feel so safe with you. More so than anyone, even Mipsy."

He felt Hermione nod if anyone could understand just how much that statement meant it was her. The only other person so closely bound to an elf in the way he was.

"Anyways, I'm sure you'd like to have a shower. I felt so much better after washing the day away." Harry stood beside the bed once more, still blushing. After the ritual robes, even mentioning a shower was enough to set his mind whirling on things he was still far too young to be worrying about. "I'll… I'll meet you in the library once you're done."

As he dropped his head in embarrassment, Harry noticed that his rapid dressing hadn't been his finest work, and he blushed even harder. Needing a moment for himself, now that he knew Hermione was safe, Harry gave her hand a quick squeeze and ran out the door.

Ignoring the soft giggle coming from the room behind him.

ϟ

Hermione still felt slightly tired, but Harry had been correct. She felt far better after having her shower and was now back in comfortable familiar clothes.

She smiled to herself as she finished drying her bushy hair, finding it slightly more manageable than usual as she considered something she had said to Harry earlier. As keen as she was to get back to her parents and repair the rift that was forming, she found comfort in the idea she could think of Potter Manor as home as well.

Now finished getting dressed, Hermione walked quickly to the library. As she entered, Hermione found him sitting in front of the usual family painting, eating a large dinner. A second plate had been set beside the other chair and she rushed over and began digging into her own meal, with a slight nod to the smiling figures in the portrait.

"Good to see you both up and eager once more," Charlus commented, drawing a slight blush from both children as their gazes met.

"Finish your dinners. We'll have time to talk when you're done." Dorea added, gently chiding her husband for his cheek.

"I'm finished," Harry replied, setting down his cutlery on the now empty plate, which soon vanished to the kitchen. "I need to tell you all," he paused once more and took a steadying breath. "Dumbledore was there. As I left."

Everyone became still, Hermione pausing with her fork midway to her mouth as they all considered Harry's comment.

"What did he do?" James asked.

"He talked down to me like I was three years old and could barely be expected to tell up from down. And he was cold. There was a smile on his face, but… I couldn't feel any warmth in his eyes."

"You should avoid looking Albus in the eyes, lad. He is a skilled legilimens. His mental abilities are extraordinary for a man of his age." Charlus's voice was firm as he spoke. "It is likely he has similarly powerful mental shields, and you have your mother's penetrating stare. His own shields would have kept any emotion from leaking free."

"Maybe, but he was flexing his aura, too. I could feel it. It's…" Harry trailed off, unable to look up at the painting and Hermione laid her fork aside and moved over to sit with her friend on his chair, snuggling into him. Harry mirrored her movement, pressing himself tightly against her and letting her arms keep him steady. "He's the one who tried to find me. It was his magic I felt pulling on mine."

"All the more reason for us to be wary of him. We still have no idea why he is looking for you." Lily said.

"He said that he was my guardian. That he wanted to take me somewhere safe. I don't trust him. It's not true is it, he can't take me from here?" Harry pleaded at the portrait.

"If the ritual was successful," Dorea asked, watching both children glance at one another before nodding, "then no, Harry. As Head of the family, you hold a different status in law now. You have no guardian. He has norightto take you anywhere against your will."

"Though you're still our little boy. And shall be expected to behave yourself." Lily added, giving him a look both children were becoming well familiar with.

"Yes, mum."

"How was the ritual? Anything unexpected?" James asked.

Both children blushed before Hermione took the initiative. "One of you could have mentioned the whole ritual robe thing. That was very unexpected."

Hermione could feel Harry's skin against her own growing hotter as she spoke. They were both still thoroughly embarrassed by the event.

Several of the family looked down in shock though a few seemed to find their reactions funny.

"I'm sorry, dearie." Dorea apologised. "Rituals weren't something we had considered either of you needing to know about for years. And there are some things that you can forget are not commonplace for some who are new to magic. What about the ritual itself?"

Hermione felt her face redden even further as she recalled how it had felt having Harry's magic wrap about her own, and she knew her friend had matched her for colour. Hermione was regretting her choice to sit by him now as it was making things a lot more difficult to explain.

"It was… good." Harry offered, his voice slightly squeaky.

"Good? How was it good?" James asked with a tinge of amusem*nt in his voice.

"It went exactly as expected. We opened the circle, offered our petition and magic answered." Hermione replied, getting a little aggravated at James. "It was terrifying when it did. I've never felt so judged in my life. I was entirely open to that force and it could see all of me as clearly as I see you all now. I would not call it a fun experience."

"And you, Harry?"

"Like Hermione said, I've never felt so… naked. That force was inside of my being in ways even Mipsy couldn't understand. It was like… the Eyes of the Universe were alone with me in that void and she felt angry. I was scared. I don't think I'd have managed it without…" Harry trailed off and Hermione wrapped him tightly, knowing exactly what he meant.

"I think that's enough talk about the ritual. Has all the paperwork been filed accordingly?" Lily questioned allowing the children to relax slightly.

"Yes. They wouldn't let me go until it was all signed. A goblin took it all the moment the last signature was down and left immediately for the Ministry."

"I expect we'll be seeing a summons of some form or another in the very near future," Charlus said. "Once they've had time to form their rebuttal, that is."

Harry looked slightly worried at the thought they might find some loophole. Hermione whispered into his ear. "I'm with you, Harry Potter. They aren't taking you from me. No one is taking my friend from me."

Harry glanced up at her and smiled, but it faltered after a moment and Hermione felt disheartened. "We have something else to do too. Something urgent."

Hermione wondered what could be so important as those in the portrait discussed possible moves going forward. Harry slid off the chair and took her hand, guiding her from the room before he popped them away from the Manor.

ϟ

The three longest weeks of his life came to an end at last with a truly unmistakable sound in the back garden.

Richard did not wait for them to come to him and rushed out the door, colliding heavily with an object travelling at speed in the opposite direction as he wrapped his arms about it and allowed momentum to carry them both to the slightly damp grass.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't mean it." Richard sobbed softly into the bushy hair in his face.

"I know, daddy. I'm sorry too. Pops has helped me a lot these past few weeks. I…" Hermione faltered as she tightened her grip on her father. "I'd like to come back home again now, if that's alright."

Richard pulled back from his daughter and lifted her chin so he could look into her brown eyes. His eyes. "It's just not a home when you aren't in it, sweetheart."

Despite the tears in both their eyes, Hermione gave a loud choked laugh as she crushed her father in one of her firmest hugs. Time lost all meaning as Richard let himself exist solely in the embrace of one of the two most precious things in his life. All the anger and fear he'd felt upon learning the truth had long since run out and he'd realised what he had done was frighten away one of his reasons for living. Now she had returned, he would make sure she knew just how much he loved her.

After an indeterminate amount of time, he felt Hermione pull away and he delicately wiped away the gathered tears streaking down her reddened cheeks. "Daddy, can… can Harry stay with us tonight, please?"

Richard glanced over her shoulder and saw Harry standing there, one hand rubbing the other arm and looking every bit the child Richard knew him to be. He turned his focus back to his daughter and cupped one cheek in his hand. "Harry Potter is always welcome wherever his best friend goes."

He knew he'd said the right thing as he felt his daughter trying to squeeze his head from his shoulders. Her grip was so tight. This parenting thing was far from easy, but when you got it right, there was no greater feeling in the world.

And Richard's world was healing nicely once more.

Chapter 14: Many Happy Returns

Chapter Text

Sunday 25th December 1988.

Natalie smiled widely as the sound of children's laughter once more filled their home.

She had been confused and a little scared herself of what this new reality would mean for her daughter. Having long ago come to terms with the idea her daughter was special and assumed her abilities were simply a result of her clearly advanced mind.

But magic had taken a few days to truly sink in, and by the time it had, Richard had soundly put his foot in it.

She adored her husband, but he had been known to act before thinking something all the way through. It often left her wondering where Hermione had gotten her brains from as neither of the adults in the family was anywhere close to her level.

Watching the two children tease her husband by popping about the room as he tried to tag either of them washed away all the negative feelings of the past month though.

Richard's blow-up had lasted for three whole days. It wasn't until the Saturday when he had gone to rouse their daughter, that it had truly sunk in that she was gone. Saturdays were the family cheat day, where Richard would make all those breakfast foods they usually avoided as dentists and they'd enjoy a happy and lethargic family meal. Sharing the little things that hadn't been addressed from the week now passed. Before giving a good scrubbing to their teeth as was proper after such a meal.

Opening the door and finding the room empty during such a traditional family moment had driven the facts into his mind like a nail gun and she'd had to drag his sobbing form downstairs, avoiding the straining kitchen table. Simply holding him on the couch. The number of days she would come downstairs to find him staring at the empty coffee mug in his hands had grown worryingly larger as time went on.

Natalie glanced down at that very mug in her hands now and smiled. Richard hadn't yet noticed that in his haste to apologise to their daughter, he had knocked the mug from the table.

She figured there had to be a fault in the ceramic, given that it had broken almost exactly the same way as it had all those years earlier. She couldn't help but smile at the idea of a broken mug symbolising the togetherness of her family and that broken didn't always mean bad.

Her attention was drawn back to the activity in front of her as her daughter squealed loudly as her father wrapped his arms about her belly and tickled in that spot he'd pinpointed after years of such behaviour.

They both fell backwards together onto the couch as Hermione kicked her legs furiously while her father attacked her weak spots, filling the room with high-pitched laughter. Natalie couldn't resist the smile that spread over her face at the proof that her family was healing once more.

Even the wee boy standing behind the couch occasionally prodded Hermione gently in the belly as she squirmed. A boy who had brought so much change to their lives, yet she knew that she would defend him just as fiercely as she would Hermione these days. Harry Potter had long been an enigma to Natalie. His oddly formal butler was the only contact she'd had with his family untilthatday.

Now his behaviour around their family made a whole lot more sense. Why he'd always treasured her hugs and a kiss to the forehead anytime he stayed over. The poor boy had spent so long without the physical expressions of motherly affection most children took for granted.

The change that came over him now though was something Natalie had never seen before. His entire body went rigid as he stood bolt upright and his eyes seemed to unfocus for a moment. She was worried at what had triggered the reaction in the boy but his shoulders sagged again almost immediately and a serene calm passed over his expression.

"Finally…" He muttered, drawing the attention of those still squirming on the couch and as Richard reached his arm up to grab the arm Harry had left hanging over the back of the couch, the boy vanished without a sound.

The movement on the couch stopped instantly as Richard stared blankly at the empty air his hand had closed around and Hermione looked slightly worried before she closed her eyes and her face became intensely focused.

"What's going on? Where'd he go?" Richard asked the room, receiving no answer from the females.

Natalie joined the others on the couch and pulled her daughter into her arms. "What's the matter, sweetheart? Where's Harry?" She whispered to the little girl in her arms.

"He's…" Hermione trailed off, her face screwing shut tightly as she focused on something neither adult could see. Her eyes sprang open and a look of surprise covered her face. "Oh!"

Hermione smiled brightly as she sat up in her parents' odd embrace. Turning to face the open corner of the room, both Grangers were surprised to see Harry appear out of nowhere holding a large bag and grinning like the Cheshire cat.

"Harry!" Richard called, drawing the boy's eye.

"It's ready." He replied simply, before walking out of the room and heading quickly for the backyard.

Hermione untangled herself from her parents' grip and rushed out of the room after her friend, leaving her parents in a daze for a moment before both moved to follow the pair.

They found them both kneeling beside the reading tree, as it had become known in the house. Both of them using their magic to displace the dirt from around the roots of the old English oak. Within moments they had cleared the dirt right to the base of the taproot, the intricate pattern of wider roots almost guarding the central arm.

Natalie watched closely as Harry glanced at Hermione, getting a nod before continuing. He reached into the bag and withdrew a stone that could not have fit within. She wasn't even sure how he managed to pull the large egg shape out of the bag as once it was free of the confines, its girth was wider than the opening.

The surface was a pale pure green and smooth as she had ever seen. Its surface was covered in tiny markings that she somehow knew were indented in the surface, yet did not affect the smoothness of the shape in any way.

With a loud snap of his fingers, Harry displaced the stone instantly to rest, tip down beneath the thick taproot and returned enough dirt to the hole that it supported itself once more.

"There." Harry breathed, seeming to relax further before turning to Hermione once more. "Remember the array?"

Hermione nodded furiously and the pair began pulling another six much smaller stones, all of which were the blackest black Natalie had ever seen. Perfectly smooth but for the deep grooves that seemed to pulse an even darker shade of black, the elder Grangers watched as the duo carefully spaced the six stones equally around the bigger egg-shaped stone amongst the latticed roots.

Natalie was close enough now that she could hear Hermione whispering as she worked. "Onyx, diamond, sapphire, serendibite, spinel, obsidian." Each name corresponded to a stone being placed and covered over with dirt once more.

Once all seven stones had disappeared into the dirt and roots, the two kids snapped their fingers in unison and the area once more looked as it had two days before when the children had arrived beneath its wide canopy.

Not a blade of grass was out of place and you'd never suspect seven stones of such immense value, if Hermione's whispers were correct, were now entwined within the ancient tree's root structure.

"That was wicked," Richard muttered beside her, and Natalie couldn't help herself as she burst into hysterics.

The man who had momentarily ripped their family apart because of theideaof magic was now in utter awe of it. She soon found herself giggling softly on her back on the grass, two small heads on either side of her own panting gently and looking quite tired. As she finally regained control of herself, avoiding looking at her partner's face so as not to set off laughing once more, Natalie addressed the pair.

"What was that?"

"Runestones," Harry replied simply.

Natalie looked at him curiously but it was her daughter that continued the explanation.

"Six small black stones covered in deep goblin runes. They link to the Heartstone placed at the base of the taproot. Burying it under such an old and established tree increases the power they can draw from natural magic in the area and helps to widen the effect."

"Doesn't hurt that the Heartstone is a three-thousand-year-old petrified dragon egg," Harry added, drawing stunned looks from both adults.

"Dragons?" Richard whispered, awe still palpable in his voice.

"Yeah, some long-extinct species, I can't even pronounce the name of it. The six smaller stones are all minerals that the goblins and dwarves have cultivated underground for millennia. But these six were all taken from some of the thirteen stones anchoring the wards of the Manor."

Harry paused as the two adults looked at him with confusion and Hermione had a glow they had all seen many times before, the look of knowledge to be absorbed.

"Don't worry, it didn't damage them in the slightest. The goblins taught me how to extract these bits and then heal the stones again." He looked back up into the air and took a deep breath before continuing. "Centuries ago my family married in a member of the Peverell family. They're famous in the magical world for some truly insane pieces of magic. Three of which inspired a 'children's story' still told to this day. But in my opinion, the most amazing they ever achieved is one no one outside the Potter family has ever heard of.

"The new bride commissioned thirteen stones of different materials from the dwarves, who hadn't yet fallen into obscurity at that time. Each a different mineral that they can grow in their underground cities, all black as the void of space." He counted them off on his fingers as he spoke. "Agate, diamond, jasper, jet, moonstone, obsidian, onyx, quartz, sapphire, serendibite, spinel, tourmaline and zircon. Each stone is thirteen feet tall and seven feet in circumference at their widest point. All magically powerful substances and numbers.

"She then had them engraved by the goblins. Don't ask what the rune work says as I've no idea. The goblins guard the secrets of their rune work so closely that no one has ever been able to translate and rework them. And the goblins who forged the runes on the original anchor stones have long since died out. Taking their family crafting secrets with them. These runes link them as they came from the source stone, but even the goblins that did them don't know the full magic of those main stones anymore."

The boy paused once more as he looked up into the lightly clouded sky through his raised hands. "Somehow, the thirteen stones folded the space around the Manor so that it exists in its own little world. The only way in and out until today was to arrive through some form of magical teleportation. You can literally walk around the grounds and end up back at the Manor, no matter which way you walk. It is my absolute favourite piece of magic, ever!"

The grin on his face showed the truth of his statement as Natalie lifted her own hand and entwined her fingers with Harry's drawing his eye. She smiled at him and he beamed back, clearly enjoying sharing something he found so fascinating with them all.

"The wards also keep out those who are unwanted or mean my family harm. So, before we came the other night, I took the hearts of six of those stones carefully out and brought them to the goblins. They re-etched the required rune work on the surfaces and provided the Heartstone. I could feel the moment they were ready. It felt like a piece of home suddenly became real here in the world again. It was… beautiful. And now that feeling rests here, over your home."

Natalie smiled as she watched Harry tilt his head back and lock eyes with her daughter. It made her proud to see how much they cared for one another and her heart skipped at the idea that Harry had gone to such trouble for them.

"What will that do?" She asked, distracting the young boy.

"It extends the wards of the Manor over your home, and by the feel of it." Harry closed his eyes and his breathing became steady as he paused for several moments. His eyes remained closed as he began speaking once again. "The oaks in the nearby park have long roots. Long enough that they've grafted onto this one. Which means that the magic covers the park and our school as well." He added, sounding genuinely surprised. "That was unexpected."

"How can you tell?" Hermione asked, her own eyes closed and her face screwed up in concentration. "I can't feel it."

"Practice. I've spent 7 years wrapped in these wards. I can feel their edges for the first time in my life and my magic is playing with it right now. It is the strangest yet coolest thing I've ever felt in my life. With time, you'll come to feel them too. Every time you cross out of them, your magic will resist leaving a little, once it becomes comfortable inside. You don't normally notice when leaving the Manor because your magic is leaving willingly by popping. But if you walked outside them here, you'd feel it. Like a tiny light pinch in your magic."

Hermione did not look pleased that time was required rather than study to become good at this particular aspect of magic. Natalie grabbed the girl's hand and squeezed, drawing her attention away from the clear attempts she was making to force her magic to feel the ward like Harry's could. She couldn't hide her smile as her daughter pouted back at her.

"Patience, Hermione. At least you'll be able to feel them eventually." This thought appeared to settle the girl until Harry stood without warning, grabbing the bag and heading for the back door.

"One last thing we need to do. Is there a door in the house that never gets used?" The Grangers all shot up and quickly followed the lad as he entered the kitchen. "It doesn't need to be big, just out of the way."

"Out of the way? Why would a house have a door that is out of the way?" Richard asked.

"Hmmm, that could be a problem."

"What about the one that broke a decade ago that you have lounging in the shed? The one you were going to fix." Natalie questioned, poking her husband in the side and looking at him mischievously.

"It's a hall door. We never used it… oh."

"Perfect," Harry smiled. "Where exactly is the doorframe?"

Natalie took his hand and walked him upstairs to the bedroom hallway. She could see the moment Harry spotted the frame that he'd passed through dozens of times but never really looked at. It was entirely unremarkable, after all.

"Yes, perfect. What happened to the door?" Harry asked as he reached into the bag again, pulling free a few smaller black stones, these shaped almost like flat discs. They would have been absolutely perfect for skipping.

"The mechanism in the handle locked up and DIY Dick decided he was going to fix it, so hauled the door out to his shed and never looked at it again."

"And being a hallway door that was never closed, you never cared to replace it?" Harry asked as he somehow pushed the solid stones into the doorframe without leaving a mark. One behind the striker plate and the other exactly opposite it on the hinge side. "Um, can you?"

Harry looked at her before holding up the third stone and looking at the top of the door jamb, far beyond his reach. Natalie grinned gently and wrapped her arms around his waist, lifting him up until he could reach the jamb.

Once the third stone was in place, she let him down, pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead and getting a bright red face as a reward.

"Uh, thank you." Harry blushed as he popped away, presumably to the shed as he returned a moment later with the door that once rested in the frame she was now standing within. "Pops?"

A fraction of a second later the diminutive form of the 'butler' she'd met many times before appeared before Natalie. "Good morning, Pops. How are you today?"

The elf glanced back and forth from Harry to Natalie before replying. "I am splendid, Mrs Granger. I do hope Harry isn't making a nuisance of himself?"

"Not at all. He's a pleasure to have over. You're welcome to come by anytime yourself, you know."

"Thank you." The elf bowed, then turned to face Harry before speaking again. "You called, Master Harry?"

"Yes. Please stop calling me Master. Can you fix the mechanism in this door, please?"

"Of course." With a quick snap of his fingers, a loud grinding noise came from the stubborn door. It shuddered slightly against the wall before becoming still and silent once more. "Would you like for me to replace it in the frame as well, Master?"

Harry frowned at the elf before holding up one finger and stepping to the door. He pulled another stone from the endless bag and pushed it into the centre of the wood panel. He stepped back and grasped Natalie's hand, gently guiding her out of the frame so that they stood opposite Hermione and Richard on the other side.

"Can you and Richard hold the door in place and touch the handle?" Harry asked.

"Of course," Natalie replied, glancing at her husband as the pair placed the door within the frame and held the handle from opposite sides.

Pops stood by her thigh and with a loud clap of his hands, the door reattached and glowed a bright white before returning to normal. The handle felt warm in her fingers and Natalie turned it slowly, opening the door to see her husband retreating away from it as it moved towards him.

"Well, that's one way to perform home repairs." He joked, bringing smiles to all present.

"Close the door again and open it, but this time think of the Manor," Harry instructed.

Natalie pulled the door closed and focused her mind on the brilliant home she'd only once visited so far. Twisting the handle, she noted it felt warm again and when she pushed it open, she gasped as the room on the other side did not hold her husband and daughter, but a large library instead.

"How?" She asked, twisting to look at the grinning Harry who was now standing there with Hermione and Richard holding his hands and looking into the room dumbfounded.

"Magic!" He replied cheekily before dragging Hermione with him through the door and shouting at the room. "It worked!"

Several cheers coming from the room had her soon following behind and once Richard had joined her, the door slammed behind them, showing a different door occupying a different door frame. The stunned Grangers followed the noise and found the children jumping up and down together in front of the large family portrait that had told her that their daughter was a witch.

"Welcome back to Potter Manor." The red-haired woman in the painting greeted them, smiling at them both with those same cheeky green eyes Harry wielded on her so successfully.

ϟ

Remus Lupin was exhausted.

Tybalt was a slave driver of the worst sort. Though most of the blame for their efforts had to be laid at his own feet. How had he travelled so far and so carelessly in his grief? They had spent about a month eradicating all traces of his former sojourn through the continent.

Tybalt was always intricately thorough, ensuring there wasn't a trace of either the previous trip or this one left to identify either elf or wolf. He'd even had Remus obliviate anyone he had interrogated on his first tracking trip. Remus wasn't the best at the memory charm, but he'd tried his hardest to ensure their safety. Whatever it was that Prongs wanted to keep safe was surely worth the effort.

He'd failed his friend enough for the past seven years, now it was time to make up for that failure. As Tybalt returned him to the room he had not even had a chance to spend the night in on his last journey to the Potter Manor, he looked longingly at the soft bed in front of him as the elf vanished as soon as they landed.

If it hadn't been for the sound of a child's laughter, he'd have face planted on the welcoming surface. But that laughter was a sound he hadn't heard in so long. A sound he longed to hear again. He followed the sounds of laughter and conversation to the same room he had been interrogated in previously and found three elves laughing at the base of the large family portrait.

A pair of strangers occupied the seats facing towards him, both brown of hair and laughing just as hard as the elves. No one seemed to have noticed him yet and he raked his eyes over the portrait as he stepped into the room. He needed to see the little boy he had missed so much in his exile. The child he'd sworn to protect the moment James had laid him in his arms the day he was born, and whom he had failed to do so.

"Moony!" James yelled, drawing his eye and making him the focus of everyone in the room. "Welcome back."

Remus couldn't stop the grin that formed in the presence of his old schoolmate. Dead though he may be, Prongs had managed to find a way to not only find him but pull him out of his self-imposed funk and back into the real world.

"Moony?" A second familiar voice sounded.

Remus's eyes were drawn to the chair facing away from him and leaning around the side was a little girl with wild bushy hair and vibrant brown eyes. Glancing up at the strangers he noticed many similarities between the three and assumed that they must have been the girl's parents.

However, his heart froze as his eyes drifted back to the chair and noticed the eyes peeking over the top. The green of those eyes was extremely familiar, but it had been so long since he'd seen their colour under that black mop of hair that was a Potter family trait.

"Harry…?" Remus choked as he fell to his knees and found himself heaving. His chest refused to cooperate as he tried to take in air, shock keeping him frozen in place.

"MOONY!" Harry yelled as he jumped from the chair and slammed into Remus at full force, knocking the struggling Marauder to his back and further hampering his ability to breathe with a crushing hug. "I've missed you."

Strangled sobs finally lurched free from Remus's throat as his arms enclosed the boy he'd long since thought dead. The family he'd given up on had not only pulled him from his funk but provided an opportunity now in the form of the one he had failed to save once before.

"Harry." Remus sobbed as he stroked the boy's hair and felt tears that were not his own wetting his shirt.

The boy pulled back and looked down at him as he wiped the tears from his face. Those eyes were even harder to look away from at this distance. Remus drank in the sight of the child, every feature an almost perfect match for his father, except the eyes, which were all Lily. And the right ear. It was shaped a little differently to the left, more like his mother than the father. As he looked closer, more of Lily became visible to the Marauder and a smile broke out on his face.

Harry Potter was alive. He was well, by the look of him, and oddly enough, was happy to see him.

A sudden punch to the shoulder made Remus's thoughts halt in shock once more. He looked in surprise at the little fist that had just hit him and then back to the boy perched atop him. "Don't run away again!" Harry demanded as he waved the fist threateningly.

Remus looked at him stunned as laughter broke out in the room once more. He was sure Prongs would remind him of this for months to come. But those green eyes looked into Remus's very soul and he could do nothing but nod his head.

"I promise. I'm never leaving you again, Harry."

"Good." The boy huffed, pulling himself up and giving Remus one more once over. And in that way that only children can, the appraising look was gone and replaced with a smile.

Harry ran over to the sitting area and Remus looked at the painting in confusion. Prongs was doubled over laughing his head off, somehow silently. However, that puzzle was cleared up as he saw Lily standing beside him with her wand drawn. That's odd, he thought, looking at the pair. He'd never seen a painting perform actual magic before unless it was the one spell they were painted performing.

Before he could analyse the idea further though, Harry had returned, hand in hand with the brunette he'd been sitting in the chair with.

"Uncle Moony, this is Hermione Granger. My best friend. And these are her parents, Richard and Natalie." The entire display would have been utterly cute had he not turned that same darkened gaze on Remus once more. "They're as good as my family, so be nice. No pranking."

Remus nodded once more and remained frozen on the floor until Harry's stare softened once more.

The man, Richard, extended his hand to Remus, who accepted it and allowed himself to be dragged to his feet once more with a loud grunt. Harry had hit his exhausted body harder than he had thought. Were he not such a fast healer due to his curse, he'd have been likely to wake tomorrow with bruises. "Pleasure to meet you, ah… Moony is it?"

"Remus. Remus Lupin. Moony is a, er, high school nickname." Remus was uncertain of how much to say, not knowing whether this family knew of the magical world or not.

The girl extended her own hand and when Remus took it, he was shocked once again to find himself across the room. "Hello. We know all about magic." She smirked as she popped away again, leaving his hand empty and his mind swirling with questions.

He glanced blankly up at the portrait and found several of its members now laughing at his expense. It seemed Harry was a lot like his father, forbidding Remus to prank Hermione, but completely at ease with the girl pranking him.

"I think that you broke him," Natalie stated as she walked over and pushed him gently into the seat he was now standing in front of.

He landed heavily in the leather chair and laid his throbbing head back against the headrest. "How?" He finally asked, directed at the painting on the wall.

"Tomorrow, lad." Charlus offered one of the few in the painting who had regained control of themselves. "You're clearly exhausted and this is all a bit much to spring on someone at once."

Remus found himself nodding, his questions could wait a day. Harry was alive, that was the most important thing. He was alive and the Potters were entrusting him with his care. That thought sunk in like a brick hitting him on the head.

This was the secret James had refused to tell him last time. That was not a thought he could have rattling around in his mind while trying to focus on cleaning up his mess. He'd have been distracted the entire time. Especially if he'd not seen the boy, but knew he was alive.

"This is what you weren't telling me?" He growled up at the painting, James locking eyes with him in return.

"Yes." Prongs replied, a broad yet familiar smile on his face. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to pull off a good prank when you're a painting in a place no one can visit?"

Lily quickly slapped James on the shoulder and glared at him furiously. "Do NOT refer to our son as a prank!"

"OUCH!" Prongs replied, clearly not actually harmed or sorry in any way.

Remus drifted his eyes over the others in the room once more. The two younger elves were lying on the floor at the feet of Harry's chair. One he was once again sharing with Hermione. Her parents were once more seated on the wider couch opposite the smaller chair the children were on and Pops was once more on his feet by the painting looking attentive. Though on closer inspection Remus realised the aged elf was watching him closely.

The elf snapped his fingers and Remus found a glass of amber liquid in his hand. He nodded appreciatively to the older elf and took a heavy swig of the liquid. And instantly realised his mistake when he began coughing as the intense burn ravaged his throat.

"Damnit, Prongs!" He coughed out, struggling to regain his composure. "Who teaches their elf to prank? Where the…" Remus paused, glancing at the children. "Where did you find a firewhiskey that strong?"

"That's not firewhiskey. It's muggle alcohol. A friend of mine makes it himself." Richard supplied, clearly suppressing his own laugh and a knowing glance at Pops.

"Alright, fine," Remus said, placing the glass on the side table and standing. "I'm going to bed before one of you does me in with one of these." He jabbed a finger at the painting before continuing. "But tomorrow morning I'm getting some answers, James!"

"Sure thing Moony. Go take a nap, you're always cranky at night." James replied.

Remus bit back a reply as he felt two pairs of arms wrap around his waist. He glanced down to see Harry and Hermione both hugging him tightly and all fire left him.

"Goodnight, Moony. It's so good to have you back." Harry said, before taking Hermione's hand and popping away.

That only raised more questions in Remus's mind, but exhaustion was fast winning out. He nodded as politely as he could to the Grangers and glared at the painting as he walked out the door and quickly returned to his bedroom. This time, he did not resist the call of the mattress.

He smiled at the childish laughter echoing down the hall before Remus Lupin fell asleep happy for the first time in seven long years.

Chapter 15: The Darker Side of Fame

Chapter Text

Tuesday 10th January 1989.

"So, let me get this straight. Harry can cast different types of elf magic?" Remus questioned, glancing over his shoulder at the portrait, a few more Potters disappearing out the side of the frame leaving Dorea alone.

"It was an accident. Well, Harry's case was an accident. Hermione's was… more deliberate, but we were too late to stop them." Dorea supplied, looking out the window from the newest frame in the house.

The entire family were beyond grateful to Remus for this unexpected gift.

Any visitor would be beyond baffled at a room only a metre across that consisted of two doors at either end combined with a giant single-pane glass window opposite a giant wall filled with an empty painting of a ballroom looking out over the gardens of the home. But then, there weren't many unexpected visitors to the Manor these days to notice.

After hearing about how Harry had taken a small handheld portrait occupied solely by Charlus as the elder Potter walked him through the process he'd theorised could expand the wards by using small pieces of the ward stones elsewhere, he'd considered that they must be going mad every time Harry stepped outside the building.

So Remus and the elves had crafted this room the day after his return and he'd had a painter whip up a giant empty frame that the family could use to watch as the children played and practised in the garden outside.

"And that is how they get about?" Remus turned away from the view and looked at the woman alone in the painting. It was odd seeing so much empty space surrounding her, but this image wasn't for him, it was his gift to the Potters for saving him from himself. And a way to burn some of the enormous salary that James had fooled him into accepting, back on the family responsible. "I'm sorry, Dorea. I owe your family so much, but I don't see what you think I can do to stop them."

"You don't have to stop them, dear." She replied. "I don't think there is any hope of controlling them, and if you tried, you'd just turn them against your advice. What we hope is that a physically present adult might be able to get them to control themselves. They're already working so hard to get their magic in check so they can return to school."

Remus laughed gently as he turned back to watch the two children sitting cross-legged in the garden, faces screwed up in concentration. A position they'd been in for four straight hours now. "School. I always suspected Lily would win out on that. I'm surprised that you lot let him out of your sight long enough to manage it."

"The arguments on that matter were long and heated. I think it was the only time some of us spent the nights in our original frames, our equivalent of sleeping in different rooms, you might say. It very nearly cost us everything with the accident. And yet... Harry would never have met that amazing little girl if Lily hadn't convinced us all. And seeing those two sitting there together makes it worth all the heartache and worry. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Friends are important. Look what I did with my life when I thought all mine were gone. Wasted so much time." Remus mused, his mind drifting.

"Then make up for it, lad. Guide them. A little discipline might be necessary from time to time. You've quite the imagination if I recall, so I'm sure you'll find some way to make the lessons sink in. We hold the collective knowledge of centuries if not millennia of the Potter family. We can teach him. What he needs most is love. That you can provide in ways we'll never achieve."

Remus felt moisture gather in his eyes as he considered how hard Harry's childhood must have been. His own was no picnic after Greyback's visit, but at least for a time, he'd had his parents. He'd had his friends.

"I think he already has a bit of that in his life. Richard has taken him under his wing, and Natalie just adores him."

"Yes. Ever since the disaster that was their first visit, she's barely let the lad out of her sight. A mother has an innate sense of such things. She's always doted on him whenever he visits. I'm not sure he'd be as safe and sane as he is today without the Grangers in his life." Dorea watched the children as they suddenly burst up from their calm positions and began to chase one another about the flowerbeds and smiled brightly. "You're going to need help."

"I will at that." Remus took a steadying breath before turning back to face Dorea, his face much more serious now. "Tell me again. Everything we know. Harry comes first, always. But I can go to places you couldn't before. Sirius has suffered long enough. Help me help him, Dorea. For Harry."

ϟ

Monday 13th February 1989.

Albus pondered silently as he ran his fingers over the indentations in the wood, at a loss for how to continue.

He'd spent hours going over all the paperwork, but those little rodents had done their work admirably he had to admit. Every T crossed, every I dotted. The boy's signature was signed in magical blood, impossible to forge or fake. Blood that could have aided his search greatly, but was magically embedded in the paper in a way not even he could circumvent.

Harry Potter was officially recognized by magic itself as his own master. Not that he really cared about controlling the boy in the slightest. It would be nice to ensure his own mistakes couldn't further harm the child, but he was a means to an end. A path to something he'd longed for most of his long life.

He looked down at the engraved surface of his wand and considered it closely.

Forty-some years he'd wielded it now, mastering its intricacies in ways he was sure none before him had ever had the opportunity to try. It changed hands too fast for them to go as deep in their research of it as he had. But his eyes flicked from its pockmarked ancient surface to the cloth draped over the chair opposite him.

While he had mastered the wand to his will, the fabric had resisted everything he had ever tried. It simply wouldn't work for him the way that he had seen it used by James. He'd even occasionally fallen to his emotions and tried to destroy the contrary artefact and was amazed to find it impervious to any form of damage. This had spurred new lines of research that had proven just as fruitless as the rest.

While the wand was fickle and changed hands at the slightest provocation, the cloak was apparently utterly loyal to the blood. So long as a true heir lived it seemed, it would not surrender to the will of an outside force. And that force could not utilise its full nature.

With his countless years of study, Albus was beyond believing the children's story. He was certain that the artefacts before him were made by human hands. While many proclaimed him the greatest wizard since Merlin himself, even the continued existence of his former mentor laughed in the face of such a claim.

The Flamels and the Peverells before them had wrought true wonders of magic, and the Peverells had found a way to bind that magic to their bloodline in ways that would make a Malfoy sing with delight. Some form of proof for their belief that their blood made them better than others. As untrue as that idea normally was.

Anger surged once more and Albus grasped the powerful wand in his hand. The blasting curse was so strong as it slammed into the taunting piece of fabric that it disintegrated the chair it had been sitting on, gouged a groove in the stone floor and exploded the door behind it. Yet the fabric showed no signs of wear beyond the dust settling atop its surface as it lay on the landing at the top of the stairway.

"Renovating, Albus?" Came the voice of his deputy once the dust had settled, drawing his eye from the cloak to her stern face, cresting the upper curve of the stairwell.

Albus centred himself as she entered, followed by someone he could hear but not clearly see.

"Possibly, Minerva. I think I'll try it out for a few days. See how I like it." He replied, tapping his wand on the desk and repairing the damage the curse had made to the far side. "Who is our guest?"

Minerva stepped aside and Albus had to master his frustrations at the sight of the goblin now holding the fabled cloak in his grubby claws.

"I believe you've met Master Farkor before."

"Indeed. Just toss that on the chair beside you, Farkor. How can Hogwarts help the Goblin Nation today?" He eked out painfully.

"Well, I've already recovered one of the things I was asked to retrieve, so the Nation thanks you for its speedy handover," Farkor responded, stuffing the cloak into a bag at its waist and further angering Albus, though he refused to allow it to show. "I have instructions from my client to retrieve any further Potter family possessions you may still retain. Now that the heir is recognized, he seeks to have everything centralised for easier perusal at a later date."

Albus mulled his options as the little bastard handed over a letter listing every single item he had borrowed from the Potter family over the decades. Every item even had an exact current location, something that bothered him greatly as most of them were in places the goblins should not even know about.

He took a moment to calm himself as he passed the paper to Minerva. "Would you kindly help our guest with his efforts, Minerva? I'm afraid I've some urgent legislative matters to attend to this afternoon that would prevent me from aiding him."

Minerva took the list and raised her eyebrow slightly as she read through some of the items. Albus simply raised his own in return and she nodded politely, before gesturing for the goblin to precede her out of the now-empty doorway.

"Good day, Albus." She offered as she departed down the stairway and he had no choice but to watch one of the three artefacts vanish from his grip. And he was still no closer to learning the location of the one he most wished to control.

He glanced down at the singed paperwork on his desk and seethed further. The legislative matters he proclaimed to need addressing had arrived that morning and were a large part of why he had been musing on the Hallows. The Ministry had rejected all his proposals.

Infringing on the rights of honest upstanding citizens was going too far, they had stated. Or in layman's terms: Keep your hands offourrights.

None of them would risk him being able to use the changes on them at a later stage, no matter how much everyone wanted an in to curry favour with, or exert control over, the Boy-Who-Lived as he was now officially known in the papers.

Even the Unspeakables were aching to get their hands on the lad and learn how he had survived the unsurvivable.

The nickname irked him somewhat, though in truth he could not fathom why. Hagrid's poor foolish naivety the night he'd been sent to the destroyed home had led to its creation. The fact that Harry's body was not present in the rubble with his mother and father, led the half-giant to drunkenly speculate on the boy's survival in the middle of a crowded pub.

After all, even Voldemort's body had been present, though mangled almost beyond recognition by whatever the Potters had done in retaliation for the attack. From there, imagination and greed had led to the series's creation. He'd tried his best to squash the books but had found no grounds with which to act in their first year on the shelves, and had given up caring at that point.

His time was better spent elsewhere.

Though how the boy had survived was equally puzzling to Albus. None of the magic he had cast over the house after the fact had provided any clues as to what had occurred. The explosion had destroyed any trace of magic that may have been present. Perhaps if he'd tried harder he'd have learned of the boy's survival sooner.

The soft sound of phoenix song came from over his shoulder and Albus found the twisted emotions that had been boiling inside half the morning finally subsiding.

"Thank you, old friend." Albus sighed, relaxing into his chair as the soothing sounds washed away the frustrations that had built up from setback after setback.

For now, the Hallows as a whole were out of reach. But he saw an option still resting on the horizon. He would let sleeping dogs lie for now.

For in only a few short years, Albus thought as he glanced at the Hat on a shelf nearby, the opportunity would present itself once more.

ϟ

Wednesday 15 March 1989.

Harry raced forward as the small group appeared in the woods, skipping quickly amongst the trees.

"Harry, wait for me!" Hermione called, rapidly catching him up. "You aren't the only one who's excited."

"Slow down!" Mipsy called, invisibly following the children.

"It's been four months, Hermione. There is so much to catch up on."

"I'm aware. I've been doing the homework packets with you, remember." Hermione rolled her eyes at her friend. "I'm really looking forward to the stuff Mrs Parsons said we'll be working on now."

Richard and Natalie walked quietly behind the excited pair, enjoying the morning air, but mostly trying not to show their amusem*nt. They'd spent as much time at the Potter Manor over the past few months as in their own home. Watching the children practise their control, walking the expansive and beautiful gardens, or just chatting for hours with Harry's family.

Remus had been of particular interest to them when he'd bashfully asked for the children to spend the next few days away from the Manor. It had taken several hours of carefully applied subtle interrogation before his secret came out. Richard had made it his own personal mission to cure the werewolf of his self-loathing and get him to see the finer aspects of his condition, whatever they might be.

Natalie was certain he would fail but supported his efforts nonetheless. Those few nights every month made her so grateful to Charlus as she watched the two sleep under the peaceful embrace of the wards now guarding her family.

She'd gone over his copious notes about the wards and had a much finer understanding of how the process worked now, though a lot of the work was supposition as he'd never had the opportunity or location to test his theories until Harry had met Hermione and 'come of age' in magic.

The man had spent decades investigating and analysing the magic at play. But it was the story that Harry had told of ruining and then repairing one of the anchor stones that finally allowed him the last piece of the puzzle.

The goblin stone maester that had been escorted around the property by Tybalt had been fascinated at the precision with which the elven magic had withdrawn the cores without damaging the exterior or the integrity of the stone itself. Something even their long-cultivated stonework magic would have had difficulty achieving. All thirteen stones were now fully restored and stronger than ever, he'd assured.

"Do you remember ever being that excited to learn?" Richard asked, pulling his wife from her thoughts.

"For the learning itself? Not so much. But I do recall a rather nervous lad spending more time eyeing me up than paying attention in dental school." Natalie responded, colouring her husband's cheeks. "You're lucky I'm such a good study buddy."

"I said slow down!" Mipsy yelled once more, drawing the adults' eyes and they once more had to stifle their laughter as the two children bounced off a small distortion in the air, falling on their butts in unison.

Natalie helped Hermione to her feet and brushed off her clothes as Richard aided Harry beside her. "You two have been top of the class since you met. Calm down and have a think. You'll catch back up to the others soon enough."

"I'm just excited to be going back. It's been so long." Harry groaned, bouncing in place as Richard kept the boy's hand in his own to prevent him from rushing off again.

"You could have gone back months ago, Harry," Hermione added, shuffling beside him. "You didn't have to wait for me to catch you up."

Harry quickly grabbed her hand and gave it a firm squeeze. "We're a team, Hermione. We learn everything together. Besides, I had fun helping you out."

Hermione smiled at the boy and the group quietly completed the remaining journey to the school. Natalie remembered well watching the two sitting for hours at a time in the gardens of the Manor or beneath the great reading oak, seemingly lost in meditation. Hermione had told her how she'd struggled to master herself, and how Harry would often use his magic to guide her own. The ease with which they worked together stunned her at times, given their young ages.

Arriving at the school gates, the quartet grinned at the students who were buzzing about to and fro with that energy that only children could muster so early in the day. Just watching them made Richard groan quietly.

"Alright, remember the details?" Natalie asked, squeezing Hermione's hand.

"Yes. Whooping cough that I picked up on holiday in Spain. Harry was with us so he got it too."

"And Nemea and Mipsy," Harry whispered, eyeing the passing children as he did, "will be following the both of us all day ready to get us out and summon Uncle Moony if something goes wrong."

"Perfect." Natalie knelt down and pulled the two into a hug. She smiled as they both snuggled into it, rather than the usual reaction of children their age being shown affection in front of their peers. "Have fun, you two."

The gentle peck she placed on Harry's cheek, however, had the boy pull away and blush violently. "Argh, not in front of them!" He called, rushing towards the entrance.

The adults smiled and Hermione looked a little put out as she remained by her mother's side. Her face relaxed once she received a peck of her own and she smiled at her mother before rushing after Harry's retreating form.

"To be young again," Richard mumbled as the children vanished inside the building.

Natalie nodded beside him as she rubbed the tight bracelet Harry had given her a few days after their second trip to the Manor. The moonstone on her own matched the jasper on Richard's. After spending so much time with the two children over the past months, it almost felt like that first day sending Hermione off on her own to learn.

She sighed as the bell sounded and the children filed inside, hoping that things were smoothing back into place for their family once more.

ϟ

Thursday 23rd March 1989.

Three months of searching and he had nothing to show for it. Remus was beginning to lose hope that there was any evidence they could use to build a case. He'd been through the entire Ministry archive from the time of the arrest three times over.

The arresting officers had taken Sirius's rambling as a confession and simply locked him up. No investigation was done. Hagrid's claim to have seen Sirius flee the Potter's ruined home was all the corroboration they'd needed. His untouched wand went to evidence, he went to Azkaban and no one seemed to have bothered looking at matters again.

"Come on, Padfoot. Help me out here... " He mumbled as he continued searching the news archives. Every moment he had that wasn't watching after the kids was spent looking into his friend's imprisonment, and yet everything he found pointed towards the man's guilt.

Had he not heard the truth of the Secret Keeper from Lily and James themselves, he'd really be struggling to believe it. How had Pettigrew fooled them all? They'd never treated him poorly had they? Years of friendship were thrown away, and for what? What did Peter stand to gain by selling out the Potters? Yet, try as he might, Remus could not bring himself to think of a single thing that could get him to betray his closest friends like that.

Not even a cure to his curse would be enough to break that bond.

He groaned and stretched painfully, the full moon having been the night before, as he cast aside yet another old paper. It seemed the research was not going to provide the evidence he needed. Not even the package prepared by the Potters for him had helped.

The secret was so vital to their lives that they'd concealed it all the way to their own deaths and Sirius's doom.

ϟ

Wednesday 29th March 1989.

Ginny Weasley was excited.

For years she had followed the adventures laid out in the books that Bill had gifted to her. Battles with dragons, sphinx and nundu. Evil wizards thwarted and cast down. All for the hand and love of the beautiful princess. Her flowing red hair and brown eyes had apparently been Bill's incentive to buy them for her to begin with, but it had become a ritual between them nowadays.

She would receive two of them every year. One for Christmas and the other on her birthday during his summers back from Hogwarts. Each night of the holidays, Bill would tuck her in and read the newest tale to her as a bedtime story.

Ginny would drift off to the sound of his voice and enter fantastical dreams where her knight would swoop in and rescue her. Riding atop his pure white winged stallion, wand a blur as he decimated the enemy forces. His green eyes gazed into her own as he lifted her astride his steed and vanished together into the night.

And now, she had proof of his greatness. While her father read it every morning on the day of release, Ginny was the baby of the family. She was at the bottom of the information ladder in the Weasley home, with everyone but Ron reading the Daily Prophet before she did. Ron would simply take the sports pages and disappear to his orange-plastered room, seeking the latest stats on his favourite Quidditch team.

Ginny, however, was enraptured by the tiny figure barely visible on the front page. He looked just like the figure on the covers of her books. Thick unruly black hair sticking up in all directions. And though the paper was only published in black and white, the article below described the vivid green of the eyes no less than four times. All that was missing were the glasses of the Boy-Who-Lived.

Even the massed group of warriors around him looked like something from her dreams.

"Oh, there you are, dear. Come now, Ginny, it's time for lunch." Her mother called, finding her curled up beneath the stairs. "Are you reading that old paper again?"

Ginny shot out from under the stairs and tucked the well-worn paper under her arm, shaking her head in denial.

Her mother smiled at Ginny as she guided her to the kitchen, where the rest of her siblings were gathered about the table, eating noisily. Having nine people in such a small space all talking different things had a habit of getting loud. But thankfully it was still mid-term, so it was only the pre-Hogwarts crew and their mum today.

"I'm going to marry him one day, mummy," Ginny whispered as her mother placed her in her spot at the table.

Ron rolled his eyes next to her and continued his meal while the Twins sitting opposite smiled at her.

"That's nice, Ginny. Eat up, now. It would be nice to have such a sweet boy as part of the family. But you need to finish your dinner if you want to grow up tall and beautiful enough to catch his eye." Molly commented absently as she sat herself down.

Ginny could tell her mother was humouring her. She'd heard the tone often enough over the years. Being the youngest often sucked in a family so large. She'd been given the 'that's nice' tone so much that she had almost injured her eyes permanently from rolling them so hard. It was so rare for her to get the things she wanted, and was one of the reasons she was so fond of Bill.

His summer jobs left him with actual money and he loved to spoil her rotten. Even Charlie had begun a few jobs of his own to bring in some extra money, but he tended to dote on the Twins more than her. Buying them all sorts of odds and ends that they'd hide in their room and make horrible noises with. While they made her laugh at times, Bill was definitely her favourite. Hopefully, the amazing news their father had brought home the day before would lead to a change in her getting what she wanted.

"You'll see," Ginny mumbled as she started in on the food before her. She'd show them all.

One day she'd be the beautiful princess and her green-eyed hero would come to sweep her off her feet. Unaware that across the world, hundreds of little girls were making the same plans and dreams.

ϟ

Sunday 2nd April 1989.

Life had become quite routine for Remus.

His mornings were spent getting Harry and occasionally Hermione ready for school, assisting the elves where possible. The children had tested him a few times over the past few months but his talent for pranking and the mind that had kept the Marauders well under their fair share of detentions had soon taught them a few limits.

Once the kids were at the school, now covered by the strongest wards Remus had ever felt in his life outside of this bubble, he would spend an hour or so catching up with James and Lily. The stories they shared brought almost as much joy to his new life as watching the kids reading to one another under the oak tree in the Grangers' backyard.

After a life full of hits and pain, Remus was finally finding his feet. Richard's refusal to let him wallow in his disease had certainly helped as well. It was almost like the disaster that had nearly destroyed the Marauders had never happened. Happy children, good friends, clean untattered clothing, a soft bed to call home every night.

Stability had not been a constant in his world since the day his parents had died. Until the Potters had dragged him kicking and screaming into it once more.

Settling down to read the paper with his lunch, Remus found the stability shattered once more as half the sandwich he had been eating landed across the room. He rocketed out of his seat, not bothering to clean up as he rushed into the small sitting room in which he knew James and Lily liked to spend their noons. And quickly spun about upon seeing the state of dress of those in the painting.

"Damnit, Prongs, clothe yourself now!" Remus demanded.

"Oi! This is Me time, Moony, bugger off."

"This is important, you jackass!"

"Stag, not ass!" James snapped back, accompanied by shuffling sounds. "Fine, we're decent."

Remus turned cautiously, knowing his friend far too well to trust his word on such things. The last time James had spoken those words he'd turned to find the man standing proud before him. Body-shy James Potter was not. He was happy to find this time they had been serious.

"The same cannot be said for you, Remus. Accident in the kitchen?" Lily asked red-faced, looking at him with her head tilted to the side. Though he knew all too well her reddened cheeks were not thanks to his predicament, but her husband's interrupted efforts.

Remus looked down to find most of the other half of his lunch was resting down his front. Groaning, he tapped the mess with his wand, clearing it away before noticing the paper crushed in his left hand. He picked it up and began to read the article tucked at the base of the front page.

"Ministry of Magic Employee Scoops Grand Prize." He began.

"Moony, how is this more important…"

Remus glared James into silence and continued, "Arthur Weasley, Head of the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office at the Ministry of Magic has won the annual Daily Prophet Grand Prize Galleon Draw this week. A delighted Mr Weasley told the Daily Prophet, 'We will be spending the gold on a summer holiday in Brazil, where our eldest son, Bill, has requested we go as his graduation gift.'

"William, 17, who shall shortly finish his Hogwarts career tackling an impressive set of NEWT classes, is said to be considering his career choices with the trip to South America. Though the paper has received exclusive reports from those close to the boy that the destination chosen has to do with a case of love by letter, and that the lad picked his journey for the chance to meet his long-time pen pal from Castelobruxo.

"With his graduation from the school, Bill leaves behind two younger brothers and the Weasley Twins who are due to begin at Hogwarts in the coming semester. The Prophet congratulates the Weasely family on their good fortune and wishes them a happy holiday."

James began to clap, a mocking look adorning his face as he glared at his friend while Lily just looked perplexed.

"If you interrupted happy time just to tell me the Weasleys won some money, Moony, I am going to find a way to kill you." James chided.

Remus scowled and turned the paper around, showing the pair in the painting the accompanying photograph. The picture showed nine people gathered on the lawn outside Hogwarts. The parents Arthur and Molly stood on either side of their eldest, while the caption informed the viewer that the boys on their left and right were Charlie and Percy respectively. The four in front, however, went unnamed as far as James was concerned as the man leapt forward and growled with rage.

"Spotted it, did you?" Remus smirked.

Lily looked back and forth between the two for a moment before she spoke. "I hope you two plan to explain what is so important very quickly."

Remus glanced at her before pointing to the rat perched on Percy's shoulder.

"Lovely, the boy has a pet rat," Lily replied simply.

"That's Wormtail!" James growled, looking every bit like he wished he could leap into the newspaper and rip the little animal to shreds.

"Impossible."

"I've seen that rat change a million times, Lily," Remus replied. "There is no mistaking it. The picture may be terrible, but you can clearly see his distinguishing marks." Remus pointed out the odd colouring of the hairs about the creature's nose and ears.

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely," Remus replied. "I've been over the reports of the incident forward and back. The only thing left of Peter was his index finger. Look at the right paw. This rat is missing the exact same finger."

"I'll kill him!" James railed, searching the edge of the painting for a way out.

"Calm down, James. This might be exactly what we need." Lily laid a hand on her husband's shoulder, turning him away from the frame. "He is the evidence we've been missing."

The change in James was immediate. "Padfoot."

"Yes." Remus cut in. "If we can capture the rat, we can cast doubt on everything he was locked away for. Maybe even get a confession from Wormtail."

"Moony," James stated, a look of demented glee on his features neither had seen in a long time, "it's planning time."

Chapter 16: Probing the Defences

Chapter Text

Tuesday 4th April 1989.

"NEXT!"

The young secretary looked up at the order and smiled at him, gesturing inside the open office.

Remus stood and brushed himself down, making sure he had a firm grip on the manila folder he'd brought along as he stepped inside the office, finally feeling the weight of the eyes of everyone in the Bull Pit leaving him. The delights of being a werewolf in London once more. He gave a soft sigh as he stepped forward and waited to be acknowledged.

"Sit," the figure stated and pointed absently at the chair in front of him without sending him a single glance.

Remus quickly complied, his eyes drifting across the room behind the figure as they continued writing furiously at the desk. Several half-open boxes were stacked beside more open filing cabinets. A handful of awards had been hung in place on the rear wall shouting the identity of the room's occupant and their proficiency at their job.

His focus was drawn back to the figure as she finished writing and slapped the thick parchment into her outbox, where it self-folded and took off into the corridor.

"What do you want? Finally done wallowing in booze on the continent?"

"Ouch. A pleasure to see you again too, Amelia."

"Dispense with the pleasantries, Lupin. I'm busy." Amelia Bones growled, "Ashton might have been a fine Auror, but he was sh*tehouse at paperwork. I've got a department that's backloggedseven monthson vital records and is criminally underfunded. Barty may have been a bastard, but at least he got his bloody paperwork done. So I've no time for small talk."

Remus nodded. While Bones had been a few years their senior at Hogwarts, she was always a straight shooter. A talent that likely saw her elevation to head of the department at her relatively young age. He opened the folder and placed the paperwork on Amelia's desk.

She grabbed it and began flicking through it immediately. "Three animagus registration forms, a handful of newspaper clippings and outdated arrest records." Her eyes flicked up to him, still looking disinterested, "Summarise."

"Sirius Black is innocent. Had he ever received a trial that would have become obvious."

"And the forms?" She held the three pieces of parchment aloft. "Only one of these is signed."

"I was recently allowed into a safe deposit box that contained some tasks left by an old friend. Seems James wanted to register posthumously. He was a naughty boy after all."

Bones eyed him closely. "And the other two?"

"One for the man currently relaxing in the Ministry's island getaway. I'm sure he'll be happy to confirm it and sign. The other, well, let's say I'm close to tracking the true traitor down. Once I do, I'll happily hand him over and let bureaucracy take its course."

"A rat? Odd form." Bones mumbled, taking a closer look at the unsigned forms. "Seriously? A grim? I don't have time for jokes, Lupin."

"Not a joke, Amelia. I've spent ages trying to find proof." Remus replied, trying not to show the shame he felt that ages only meant months and not the years that Sirius had deserved from his friend. "I'm finally close and thought that you would like a heads-up. I've no intention of stepping on anyone's toes in the process. Especially not ones that are already angry at me it seems." He eyed her carefully but Amelia just stared back.

"Even if I believed you, Lupin. I'm not about to take your word about your former best friend."

"Currentbest friend." Remus corrected, ignoring just how sad a statement that was. "And I don't recall asking you todoanything. Simply passing on the evidence that I have for now."

"Well, you've passed it, I'm still busy."

Though clearly a dismissal, Remus noted that the paperwork was still sitting on her desk and hadn't been dumped yet, leading him to smile.

"That you are. Good day, Amelia."

Ameilia grunted a reply and shifted the papers into a small pile in the corner of her desk, moving back to the work she had been doing. As he stepped back into the hall and all the Aurors began watching him once more, Remus was startled by a shout from behind him.

"Sarah! Find Shack and tell him to get his arse in here. ASAP!" Bones shouted.

"Yes, ma'am."

"And stop calling me MA'AM!"

"Yes… Miss?"

Silence reigned for several moments before Bones quietly groaned, "Find Shack."

Remus smiled at the antics behind him. He'd not expected Amelia to offer anything in their meeting. She had no vested interest in digging into a case half a decade closed while she was settling into her relatively new role. But Remus had felt the need to inform her anyway. It was never a good idea to have the head of law enforcement angry with you. Not when the entire force was already watching you like a fox in the hen house.

He sighed as the grate closed over the elevator and the eyes were once more blocked from view. Richard had been trying for months to get him to see the lighter side of his curse. Even tried using soft words for it to make it sound less of a burden than it was. But stepping one foot back in magical Britain was enough to show he'd never be accepted as a member of this society.

A few deep breaths centred him once more as he stepped off the lift onto level six and moved on to his next task.

ϟ

Amelia slumped heavily in her seat, stretching back against the leather as she tried in vain to clear the cramp in her lower back. If she ever saw Ashton again he'd get a punch in the nose. No wonder he immediately left for warmer climates upon his retirement. She wasn't even making a dent in this pile of crap he'd left her.

A knock at the open door drew her eye. "You called, boss?" The deep voice sounded.

Amelia smirked at her former partner. "Enjoying that, Shack?"

"Immensely." He smirked, nodding at the mounds of paperwork. "Better you than me."

"Bite me." She replied as he sat opposite her. She tapped the thin folder to her right as she continued. "Got a visitor today, seems to think there might be something screwy with an old case. I need you to gather everything we have on the case, review it and give me a summary. I don't have time to bother, not with all of this to clear up."

"Sure, boss. What's the file?"

"Black, Sirius. Multiple homicide. Major Statute breach. Conspiracy to commit murder."

Kingsley's face darkened. "I'm familiar."

"Former friend?"

"Former ally. Or so I thought. He was part of Albus's Order during the war. Back when you were still in the academy." He ended with a smirk.

"Shut up. Or I'll retire and recommend you for this mess."

"I'd have to accept the job." He laughed.

"Then accept this job." She tossed the tiny folder at the Auror. It was nice to have some levity to break up her day now and then. "I know I can trust you to be thorough. And that the former association won't colour your work like some."

Kingsley raised an eyebrow at her as he glanced over the sheets in the folder. "Legit?"

"That's what I wantyouto find out. Now get."

The man stood quickly and gave her a firm nod. "Boss."

Kingsley laughed deeply as he walked away from her as she scowled. While they'd only partnered for a few short years after she finished at the academy, Shack was a hell of a partner. Damned fine Auror too, one who actually finished their paperwork. Amelia glared at the pile that didn't seem to be getting any smaller. At least his summary would be just that.

These stupid forms would be getting an overhaul. Just as soon as she could see the surface of her desk again.

ϟ

Sunday 9th April 1989.

"Mr Lupin… would you like to tell the Nation how you managed to get a perfect copy of the floorplans for the building?" Ragnok asked, looking in stunned disbelief over the plans before him.

"The Ministry makes the same mistakes that most of the magical world does. They assume someone looking to steal information would use magic to do so."

"But you didn't reproduce this from memory, surely?" Farkor questioned, running a claw over the glossy surface of the plans.

Remus smiled at the pair. They'd been enthralled by the fact he'd managed to walk out of the Ministry with a perfect reproduction of the floorplan of the 'Burrow' from the Floo Registration Office since he arrived. Lily would have been delighted to watch such behaviour.

He pulled the culprit free from his jacket and laid it atop the plans. "A simple mechanical Muggle camera. Disposable versions can be bought just about anywhere for a few bob. This particular one belonged to the family of an old friend. Light goes in the front, and makes an 'impression' of sorts on the film inside. There are places that 'develop' that impression into the picture before you. Simple."

"Fascinating," Ragnok whispered, clearly filing the information away for further study.

While magicals had been using the technology for years, their version, like everything they copied off Muggles, was swimming in magic. It was how pictures taken with such cameras moved like their portrait counterparts. And magic leaves traces. Anything that allowed you to gather information on an enemy without being detected was certainly of interest to the Nation.

Remus lobbed a heavy bag of gold onto the table, attempting to move the conversation forward. "Your turn."

Ragnok straightened and nodded to Farkor. The younger goblin withdrew a large set of roughly drawn plans, and glancing at a smirking Remus, laid them beside his own copy. While the layout appeared mostly the same, the dimensions were clearly drawn by hand. And very rapidly at that.

"Sneak assessed the building over the past two weeks. It's hard to be absolutely certain with the children still at Hogwarts, but he seemed fairly certain that this room was the one we want." Farkor stated, indicating a room on the second floor. "It's the most orderly of the group, and the contents match the profile of the boy. Opposite are the Twins. Underneath the girl and above the two eldest share a room."

Remus nodded along as he used his wand to add the detail to his own plan. Being on the second floor would complicate matters. Especially given that the rooms above and beside were currently occupied, making any undetected internal exploration before school let out much harder. There were not many times Remus had cause to celebrate the stiff bureaucracy of the Ministry, but their insistence on a full floorplan in order to connect a Floo was a boon to them today.

"Non-human occupants?"

"The eldest has an owl. Unknown species as it's with them at Hogwarts. The snooty one has a pet rat, also currently at the school. The only other non-human presently is a ghoul that they refuse to evict occupying the attic." Farkor seemed truly disgusted at the prospect of allowing a ghoul to live in his home.

"You have paid for the service, but I have to wonder what you plan to do with this information," Ragnok questioned. "The Nation cannot be linked to someone attacking the home of a Ministry employee."

"Hence why we sourced the floorplan ourselves. All we've paid the Nation for is to fill in some blanks." Remus replied, making his final adjustments to the plan. "What the Nation isn't told, they don't have to lie about knowing. But I assure you, it'll be worth the effort."

Ragnok eyed him closely for several moments. "You are aware," he offered, picking up the bag of gold, "that payment of these services was authorised to come from the family vault?"

Remus smirked again. "Prongs should know better than to try and trick me. This is his repayment for that." He finished, rolling his plan up and dropping it in his bag once more. "I don't do charity, unless it's the giving away part."

ϟ

Friday 21st April 1989.

Amelia breathed a sigh of relief. It had taken weeks, but she finally had a desk again. Though she still bore a grudge against her predecessor for his laziness.

"Miss?" And the assistant that refused to call her Amelia.

"Yes?" She replied, tapping her wand and ordering a tea suitable for the late hour.

"Auror Shacklebolt is here."

"So send him in, Sarah." Amelia rolled her eyes as the young woman disappeared, making way for the larger form of Kingsley to enter. The look on his face was not one she was used to seeing. "Trouble?"

Shack slumped heavily into the seat opposite her and gestured to the now-filling cup on her desk. "I'm going to need a strong one of those. You will too."

Amelia looked at her old friend oddly. "How bad?"

He dumped a file folder on her desk, thinner than one would expect for such a high-profile case as the man who betrayed the ones who defeated Voldemort. Two parchment evidence baggies were laid on top both sporting slender bulges in the middle.

"That bad," Shack replied.

"How so?"

"That is it. That's all we have. I searched the entire Ministry archive from top to bottom. That's what took me so long. We have a wand, never tested." He indicated the first baggy, then the second. "A finger under a decaying stasis charm, confirmed to belong to one Peter Pettigrew. A statement, taken second hand from a man who heard Rubeus Hagrid in a pub talking about how he saw Sirius Black leaving the Potter's ruined home on the 31st of October 1981. And some inane ramblings about something being 'his fault' and repeated cases of laughter consistent with a confundus charm from Black himself."

"And?"

"No 'and'. No questioning. No trial. No records of any kind beyond the very poorly filled-out arrest record. They took Black from the scene, lobbed him into a cell in Azkaban and never looked back."

"Bullsh*t!" Amelia was stunned as Shack reached for the much stronger brew he had summoned on the desk. "There has to be more than that. Could the files have been moved?"

"Theentirearchive, Amy. I went through it all using every combination and variation of terms I could think of to search. This is everything that the British Ministry of Magic has on Black's case." Shack tapped the practically empty folder twice. "He might well be guilty, but the evidence in front of us sure as hell doesn't prove it."

Amelia tapped her teacup and vanished the contents, summoning something much stronger. Her eyes drifted from her own wand to the sealed bag in front of her. She grabbed it and looked at the label. It had never been opened after being sealed on November 3rd 1981. Another tap of her wand broke the seal and her name and the date appeared on the record, proving that the magic on it was sound.

She pulled the wand free, watched closely by Shack as she put the two wands tip to tip. "Prior Incantato."

Pulling her wand away, the pair watched the slightly curved dogwood as it began to regurgitate spell ghosts into the air above the desk. Shock settled on them both as the only spells that came out were general daily use spells. Cleaning charms, opening charms, and a sobering charm. Nothing this wand had cast recently could have caused an explosion large enough to kill thirteen people.

"f*ck me," Amelia whispered as her wand fell from her slackened hand, clattering on the desktop.

"I offered to years ago, but you're my boss now, Boss," Kingsley said deadpan, trying to lighten the mood.

Amelia tried to do the maths in her head. Two thousand seven hundred and twenty-six days. Sevenyears,five months and eighteen days. What would that amount of time and exposure to Dementors do to a man? A quite possibly innocent man.

"f*ck it." She groaned angrily. "I have to go out there. You're coming too. I need this all above board. Find Mad-Eye as well. Anyone who fights us on this will be hard-pressed to question the competence of the three of us. f*cking Lupin, he knew - when he dumped all this on my desk." Amelia replaced the wand that had ruined her day back in the evidence bag, sealing it once more

"Remus Lupin?" Shack asked as his former partner swigged the refilled contents of her teacup in one go. "I thought he died infiltrating the wolf packs during the war?"

"If he did, he's one hell of a ghost. Find Alastor. I need to get this cleaned up now. You know what? I take back what I said about Barty. He was just a bastard. At least the paperwork Ashton left me with was just boring."

ϟ

Saturday 22nd April 1989.

Shack pulled his robes tighter around his body and cast his third warming charm of the boat trip.

Finally looming above the tiny craft was the imposing black stone of Azkaban Prison. The waves chopping heavily about them as a storm system that should not exist in nature swirled about the upper reaches. A perpetual icy rain fell over the dreary island, devoid of any natural flora or fauna. None was hardy enough to survive the constant exposure to the Dementors for all these years.

It had been the better part of three hundred years that the Ministry had held their convicts here. Guarded that entire time by a colony of Dementors that not even the Ministry knew the true scale of. They had never really delved into the depths of Ekrizdis's horrific construction. Nor did they understand how he had built it, seemingly alone, all the way out here.

"Are the Hoods any closer to figuring out how to end these miserable things?" He said aloud, referencing the name often used for the Unspeakables by other departments of the Ministry and getting a grunt from the driver but only silence from the female of his companions.

"Maybe one day," Moody muttered as the boat pulled up to the dock and the magic on the two kept it steady enough in the churning North Sea for the passengers to disembark.

Amelia led the trio quickly from the grey stone dock up to the darker stone doorway. Three silhouetted figures stood in the opening, watching their approach.

"Director Bones." The grey-suited Warden Alfonz greeted. "To what do we owe the unscheduled, extremely early, visit?" He asked, clearly emphasising the hour and his obvious displeasure at having been roused to meet them.

Bones held up her authorisation paperwork as she walked straight past the three and into the slight cover of the entrance to the massive fortress. A few drying charms and several more warming charms allowed feeling to return to Kingsley's extremities as the Warden and his guards led the way to his ground-level office. One of the few rooms in the structure where the effect of the Dementors was completely nullified.

Also one of the only parts of the structure where they would be allowed to retain their wands. Not even the guards could carry theirs deep into the prison. Out of fear of what one of the inmates could do if they ever managed to overpower a guard and take it from them. Only the specially charmed pendants the guards wore kept them from feeling the presence of the terrible creatures as heavily as the prisoners themselves.

Bones didn't bother to sit as Moody took up the position immediately inside the door. One eye on the room and one swirling about, surveying the building.

"I'm here to speak with Sirius Black. Authorisation papers." Amelia was clearly in no mood to chat with the Warden, a man she'd never gotten along with as an Auror, and now she was heading the Department, had suddenly taken a liking to her.

"Advance warning would have been nice." Alfonz smiled.

"Now."

Alfonz lost the cheery expression and eyed Shack and Moody. Clearly unwilling to play hardball with such company. He gestured for one of the guards to bring Black to the office. Shack thought it foolish that it was the only room set up where it would be possible to interview an inmate without Dementor interference. Unless they wanted to use the barracks or mess. But those would be even less suitable. Or defensible.

As the guard returned, Shack felt the influence of the two Dementors guiding the emaciated figure between them. Moody wasted no time in drawing his wand and summoning a Patronus to keep the foul creatures at bay.

"They can wait outside. I've enough bad thoughts in my head at the best of times." Mad-Eye cautioned, eyeing the guard behind him through his head with his magical eye.

"You can't expect me to allow him to be unguarded." Alfonz moaned.

"He's not unguarded," Kingsley commented, drawing his own wand and nodding at the five armed Aurors now in the room with Black.

Amelia seemed oblivious to the banal exchange, instead focusing on the man staring at her. "Sit."

Black immediately complied, keeping his hands visible at all times. "Never had me a visitor. Nice change."

"Quiet, Black." Alfonz chided, moving to take his seat only to find Bones now occupying it and pulling out a folder from her satchel.

"Hardly a good way to conduct a questioning, Alfonz," Moody commented. "We wouldn't have hiked all the way out to this sh*t hole at three in the mornin' if we wanted him to be quiet."

The Warden simply glared at the aged Auror, but said nothing. Not that there were many who would give out to an armed Alastor Moody. Bones finished preparing the dictaquill and stared across the desk at Black, silence filling the room for several moments.

"Recognize this?" Amelia asked, pulling a sealed bag from her satchel, opening it and laying its contents on the broad desk well beyond reach from the far side.

"What the devil are you doing?! Get that away fro…" Alfonz broke off as Shack stepped up to him and tapped his wand on the man's chest.

"If you would be so kind as to shut up." He said in his deep voice.

"Black?" Amelia continued, acting as if she hadn't been interrupted.

"That would be a dogwood wand, with a Vipertooth heartstring core. Decidedly whippy I believe Ollivander called it." Sirius replied, adding a childish emphasis on the word whippy. "Eleven and a quarter inches too. Bigger than James's, if you know what I mean." Sirius smiled at Amelia over the table, winking at her but keeping his hands in place on the edge, palm up. "Used to be mine before I was chucked in here."

"Can you tell me the last seven spells cast by it?"

Black moved for the first time since sitting down. He leaned back in his chair and both hands came up to his head as he scratched at something in his hair and beard.

"Jeez, that's… let me see. I was tidying up after… Nah, can't recall her name anymore." The smile on his face was as broad as Kingsley had ever seen and he could easily figure exactly what the man had been referring to. "Should be four cleaning charms. No, scrubbing charms. Bachelor life after all. We do leave a mess in our wake. Two opening charms got us into the first beers from the night before. After the first two, I put the wand down. Didn't need it for what we were doing. Not that one anyway."

"And the seventh?" Amelia said, face unchanged as she stared down the grinning man opposite her.

"Sobering charm. Me and James hit the sauce heavily the night before. Lily wouldn't let me leave the Cottage without doing one first. Wasn't impressed with mine either. Her's were always rough as guts. Gave you a worse headache than the hangover. Though knowing Lils, that might have been intentional."

"Why were you drinking? And where." Moody asked from behind Sirius, Still facing into the corridor and maintaining the Patronus.

"Junior had pulled a prank. It was a simple one, he'd just started managing sentences and figured out certain ones got different reactions." He paused once more and seemed lost in thought for a moment before shaking his head again. "Can't remember what he said, but me and James loved it. Lily gave out to us four times that night before she tied me to the couch, dumped a blanket over me and dragged James upstairs to sleep."

"So you spent the night of the twenty-ninth at Potter Cottage?"

"I hope so." He replied cheekily. "That's where I fell asleep and woke up on the thirtieth."

"And the thirty-first?" Kingsley asked.

Immediately Black's entire demeanour changed. The surprisingly carefree exterior he'd shown since walking into the room vanished completely and his face became haunted.

"I spent that day at home. Cleaned in the morning, as I said. Went to…" His voice cracked with a growl as he continued, "Peter's house. He wasn't there. He was supposed to be there. No signs of a struggle. Plenty of food in the cupboards. Had the worst feeling in my gut. Never felt it's like before that moment. Wasn't half as bad as the one I got when I went back to the Cottage."

Silence reigned in the room, everyone present was hanging on Black's every word. "Front doorway was a ragged hole. That blasting curse must have been strong. The front door was half-buried in the stairs." A slight grin emerged for half a second. "James fought hard. The bloody idiot must have left his wand somewhere. It wasn't by his body. But there were books and stuff strewn about the doorway."

"What's the significance of that?" Amelia asked, drawing Black's grey eyes to her face.

Sirius smirked for a moment. "The stuff around the door wasn't kept anywhere near there. James must have tried to beat the stupid prick to death." The smile grew even wider as he spoke, before vanishing entirely as he continued. "Not that it saved him. Shame, he had the leg of the couch in his hand. His cold... "

A shudder passed through Black's body and everyone in the room felt a chill that had nothing to do with the Dementors being kept outside. "I don't know how long I knelt by his body. James was my brother. Dorea and Charlus were better parents to me than Walburga or Orion ever managed. And there he was, lying dead in front of me. And it was all my fault."

"Explain that."

Sirius looked up at Amelia again. "I was supposed to be their Secret Keeper. The Fidelius was meant to keep them safe. Link all the charms together so it was safe for visitors but deadly for interlopers. And if people were looking for me, they wouldn't be looking for Peter."

"Why did Pettigrew matter?"

"He was the one I suggested as Secret Keeper instead of myself," Sirius replied, staring deadpan at Amelia as he spoke.

"Nice, a story that cannot be confirmed, with you the only one alive," Alfonz added from the side.

Kingsley tapped his wand on the man's sternum again, silencing him once more.

Black simply shrugged as he fixed his haunting gaze on the Warden, who shuddered under its weight. After a few silent moments, Sirius turned back to Amelia. "That's when I realised it was too quiet."

"The occupants were deceased, why wouldn't it be quiet?" Amelia asked, trying to refocus the conversation.

"I thought I heard…" Sirius paused, a glimmer of pain in his face tinged with hope that quickly faded. "When I came inside, I thought Junior was crying. Could of sworn I heard him. But by the time I pulled myself together, it was quiet. So I rushed upstairs to the nursery.

"Lily was lying on the floor. That fiery hair of hers was a red halo about her. But her eyes were empty. Lily always had the most amazing eyes. Eyes she gave to Junior. They weren't the same after…" Black took several deep breaths, and Shack thought he saw tears forming in the corner of the man's eyes. "I don't know… she was as good as my sister by then. Even after all the flak she gave James at Hogwarts. And she was gone. Wasted on some lunatic's vile dreams.

"When I managed… when I dragged myself to the crib…" Everyone was silent once more, this was information no one had ever heard before. "Junior was gone. Not like James and Lily. There were only a few tiny drops of blood on the comforter. And the four of us…"

"The four of you?"

Black raised his left fist and counted out each one with a finger. "Prongs, the stag. Moony, the wolf. Wormtail, a rat. And Padfoot, the grim."

"The significance?" Amelia's voice was steady as ever, her talent as an interrogator serving her well.

"How I stayed sane in this place."

"Details, Black." Four wands immediately swung to point at the enormous black dog now sitting in Black's chair. "Stand down!" Amelia roared as she stood, glaring at the four Aurors " I said STAND DOWN!" She repeated before the guards finally lowered their wands, before swinging a finger to point at the dog. "You. Hold still."

She walked around the desk, a single length of parchment in her hand. She looked over the dog and compared it to the description Shack knew was on the form in her hand. "Perfect match. Down to the last shaggy detail."

She placed the parchment on the desk in front of the dog and sat opposite once more, pulling a regular quill from her satchel and placing it atop the form. "Sign."

Black morphed back into human form again, leaning forward to read the parchment. "Where did you get this?" He asked, genuinely curious.

"Informant," Amelia replied simply. "Sign, or I'll have to amend your charges."

Black smiled before complying, chucking the used quill back into the pile of paperwork in front of Amelia.

"What happened next?"

"I collapsed by the crib," Sirius replied as if it was entirely obvious. "Could have been hours before I moved again. Not sure. I eventually noticed thathisbody was against the far wall. Whatever killed the squirt must have been powerful. Messed the bastard up good and proper. Looked half like minced meat. Worse even than Alastor's face." He finished with a jab of his thumb over his shoulder at the grizzled man in the doorway.

"Wait… killed? You don't…" The guard went quiet as Amelia glared him down.

"Don't what?" Black asked, looking between the two.

"Not relevant, continue." Bones ordered, staring at Black, but occasionally flicking her eyes at the three staff.

"As I sat there wallowing, it sunk in that Peter had betrayed us. I had nothing left to protect anymore, so the only option left was vengeance."

"Why did it take you until the third to find Pettigrew?"

"Bastard was always good at hide and seek. I knew I wouldn't be able to track him using magic, so I used some ideas Lily had shown me." Sirius growled before a dark smirk fixed itself upon his face. "I caught up to him though. He shouted in front of all the muggles that I betrayed them and the sneaky f*cker caught me by surprise before I could figure out how best to do it. Fired something off behind his back and the street ripped open.

"I hit the wall behind me and was dazed for a few minutes. When I gathered my wits again, I noticed the finger on the street in front of me." Black began to giggle. "Stupid bastard blew himself to pieces. Stole my revenge from me. From us all."

He began to laugh maniacally, but Shack noticed that the way he described things was off. He'd been late to the scene, but Black had been found sitting in the middle of the street, far from any walls. He flicked his eyes to Amelia, who nodded slightly before focusing on Black again.

"Anything else?" She prompted.

Black's laugh settled and he seemed to become aware that he had company once again. "Else? No. The next thing I knew I was here. You lot are the first people I've seen in... I don't know. How long has it been? Two weeks? Twenty years? Hard to tell time here as the sun never makes it past those clouds."

"You've been exposed to the Dementors now for more than seven years. How is it that you can remember these events so clearly?"

Sirius looked into her eyes, his own looking vacant. "Dementors steal happiness, Bones. Nothing happy happened to me on the thirty-first of October. I will never forget the pain."

The seriousness in his voice haunted all present. But Bones didn't let it show. She glanced at Shack, who shook his head. He needed far longer than that to formulate questions given what they'd just been told. "Alastor?"

"Sleeve."

The guards looked at the gnarled man in confusion but Shack stepped forward and pulled up Black's sleeves. Both arms were filthy with muck and dirt, but two quick scrubbing charms, the very same ones recorded on the dogwood wand, revealed the arms to be free of any blemishes. The aged Auror nodded, still back to the room.

"Take him back to his cell. We've got all we need for now." Amelia instructed, and the same guard that had summoned Black handed his wand to the second guard and lifted him over to the doorway.

Bones gathered her files as the pair stepped over the threshold. Black had lost all the pleasantness he'd shown during their visit and his body shuddered as he was pushed out into the hallway, once more feeling the full effect of the nearby Dementors. The two cloaked figures took his arms and whisked him down the hallway, vanishing around the corner.

Shack was not sure which chilled him more. The horrid feeling of those monsters, or the idea that he'd been party to the seven-year imprisonment of a seemingly innocent man.

As much as he wanted to walk him free, he knew that the Warden would never allow it. Without some form of actual proof, all they had was the story of a possibly insane man that they simply could not corroborate in any way.

But he would be damned if he wouldn't try and find some.

ϟ

Saturday 29th April 1989.

Hermione filled in the final squares on her maths work and slapped her pen down on the desk. "Finished!"

Harry groaned in response, looking down at his own almost completed piece. Hermione giggled at his downtrodden face. He'd been so excited at the prospect of winning their little wager. He quickly filled in the final sections, his answers matching her own, though she knew he wasn't simply copying her work.

"I wanted to win, so bad," Harry mumbled, looking thoroughly deflated.

Hermione looked back at her own work and let out a performative groan of her own. "Oh no… no, no, no."

Harry looked over at her, his eyes flicking down to her homework, noting that the answers were correct, he was unsure why she was worried. "What's wrong?"

Her eyes flicked back up to his own and a small smirk tweaked at the edge of her lips. "I forgot to fill in this bit." Her finger pointed to the empty name field on the homework sheet. The one that wasn't due for two months. The last piece of work that had been between the two and being one hundred percent ahead in class again. "No name."

Harry's eyes flicked between the two sheets, noting that he had put his own name where she had not. Hermione's smile grew slightly as she watched realisation dawn on Harry's face and his grin soon eclipsed her own. He leapt into the air, a surprising height from his knees and yelped with joy. Hermione couldn't help but laugh at her friend, his joy at what was coming was infectious.

He whipped around the table and helped her to her feet, before popping them out of the house and into the open green field.

"You're sure?" He asked, looking deep into her eyes.

Hermione nodded, still slightly nervous, but resolved. "Yes." She stated, her voice betraying none of her nerves.

Nemea appeared beside her, looking up curiously as Harry popped away for a moment. Hermione nodded to her friend and the elf plonked down on the soft grassy surface, clearly enjoying the bright sunshine that was currently peeking from behind light fluffy clouds.

Harry's return was louder than usual, but it was the object in his right hand that had Hermione's attention. The subject of their wager. The one she had intentionally thrown because she agreed it was time to learn.

After all, what self-respecting witch didn't know how to fly a broom?

Harry must have noted the slight trepidation in her as he stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. "You'll be fine, Hermione. I promise."

She nodded in response and took hold of the long shaft. "Mount it like this," Harry continued, carefully showing her as he settled atop his own, Hermione mirroring his movements, glad she had worn comfortable pants rather than a dress or skirt today. "Good."

Harry dropped his own to the ground and stepped forward, correcting the position of her hands on the slender wood. "If you grip here, it's easier to steer. With practice, you'll get the hang of using your knees and you can do it without hands."

Hermione's eyes shot to his face, terror clear on her own. "Relax. You won't do that for ages." His confidence soothed her as he straightened her back slightly. She felt a little silly sitting atop a broom like this but Harry had been certain she could handle herself.

"Hermione," Harry whispered, drawing her eye again. "You can do this, I believe in you. Trust yourself."

She nodded and took a moment to settle her nerves, a quick trip to her happy place, which had only grown more amazing in the past few months, doing the trick. "Ready."

Harry smiled at her and grabbed his own broom again, quickly mounting it and standing beside her. "Just jump slightly into the air and let the broom take your weight. Just that. Trust the magic, they're good brooms. Like this."

She watched closely as Harry pushed into the air, but when he reached the apex of his small leap, he did not return to the ground but simply hovered in place. He turned to watch closely as she mirrored his actions and was suddenly being supported in the air by what felt like a very comfy stool.

"Wow!" She said, carefully keeping her balance. The broom somehow supported her body's waist completely, rather than the stick in her butt feeling she had expected.

Harry grinned at her as his legs met the ground once more and he stepped up beside her, gently correcting her posture and hands once more with featherlight touches. She could feel the magic on the broom against her own, exactly as Harry had described. She felt like she could tell the broom to do anything with it and it would respond immediately. She squashed that feeling down, trusting Harry when he said it was better to use that later.

"You ok?" He asked, looking at her closely.

"Mmhmm," She hummed, still slightly nervous, unwilling to speak lest she give that away.

"We can stop, Hermione."

"No." Her voice firm, "I can do this. I want to do this."

Harry watched her closely for a moment. "Alright. To move, squeeze the handle and twist your torso, let your arms suggest the turn to the broom." Harry paused as she did as instructed, slowly twisting to the left and right. "Perfect.

"Up and down are controlled by pulling the shaft up or down respectively." He paused again as she tested the instructions, moving half a metre higher before returning down. "Excellent. Forwards and back are you leaning your torso without shifting the handle. Move slowly, the closer you get to the broom, the faster you'll go."

Hermione followed his instructions and was soon moving slowly over the grass below. She could see the blades trickling past and felt a rush unlike any she'd had before. She was flying. At a very basic level maybe, but she was doing it. It was completely different from when she had been sitting behind Harry as he shot them through the air. Having control made it so much more her speed.

"Still ok?" Harry asked from behind her now, audibly running to keep up, and Hermione nodded as she lowered the broom until her feet met the ground once again.

She dropped the broom and wrapped Harry in a fierce hug, "That's incredible."

"Tell me about it." He chuckled in reply. "Wait till you get the hang of it."

Hermione smiled and grabbed her broom again, climbing aboard much more confidently this time. Harry gradually walked her through the different controls, going a little higher and a little faster each time.

By the time a frantic Remus cracked into view on the edge of the pitch, she was soaring through the air. She loved the way the wind whipped her bushy hair out behind her and she giggled as she watched Harry twirl about his own broom in front of her.

She followed his movements instinctually, letting the rush take her wherever he led.

Remus settled as he watched the aerial dance going on in front of him. When the portraits had located him in the library and screamed to get to the Quidditch Pitch, he'd been terrified of what he would find.

Harry was certainly James's son though. He was even more natural on a broom than Prongs had ever been. And Hermione was following him closer than even Sirius could have kept on James.

The two practically moved as one. Their coordination and skill would put anyone he knew to the test to try and match. It was beyond impressive to watch. So much so that he once more felt a little useless being here. The pair were perfectly fine without his aid.

He vanished from the pitch and reappeared in the thin ballroom, noting that the window had been changed to a lens, bringing the distant pitch into sharp focus. The entire family was gathered watching in awe out the window.

"He puts you to shame, Prongs. A complete natural on that thing."

"Shut up, Moony. Just proves I've got great Quidditch genes." James sniped back.

"And Hermione?" Lily questioned a slightly sinister look on her face. "I sure hope you aren't claiming she has your magical genes."

"Their coordination is incredible. He's only taken her up once before and her magic was too unsteady at the time. Made for a wild ride." Dorea stated. "They were both a little shaken when they came back inside. Now look at her."

"Give him a few more months and he'll have the elves up on those things too. He looks so happy up there." Lily said.

James seemed lost in thought for a moment. "Maybe… if he trains a few of the elfin… we could see a real match again."

"Don't even think about it!" Lily growled looking at her husband and drawing laughter from several of the family as he looked instantly dejected. A far cry from the joy and laughter from the sky above the distant pitch.

Chapter 17: Baiting the Rat Trap

Chapter Text

Monday 1st May 1989.

Sirius Black was not having a good day.

To be fair, good days were hard to come by in Azkaban. The company was detestable, whether human or creature. And your days were a blur of bad thoughts and horrible memories.

But after a while, you kind of got used to it all. It became background noise. Knowing he hadn't betrayed Lily and James helped somewhat as well. But that tended to be balanced out by the knowledge that he had failed to protect them regardless. And his failure to enact revenge.

Pettigrew's last act ruined that for them all.

Now he lived out his days in monotonous pain, reliving his greatest failures over and over.

Still, it had become bearable, knowing he was paying his penance for those failures. And one day his body would give out to the constant torment and he'd be with his friends once more. And such thoughts reminded him of the affable laugh of his brother in pranks.

James had changed his world completely by becoming his friend. The literal Black sheep of his twisted family. The other co*cky boy had taken him in literally when he had every reason to hate and mistrust him. As had Dorea and Charlus.

Two finer parents he doubted existed in this world. Happy to let you dig a hole deep enough to truly get yourself stuck in badly. But they were never cruel in punishment. Sirius had adored his short time living with them.

The delights of their melancholy companion. Remus had been spirited between moons, and his woeful attempts to hide his condition from them had been well and truly torn apart by them all over the years. He owed Moony the most, for if it wasn't for his unfortunate curse, Sirius would not likely have survived this long.

Padfoot was a godsend for his mental health.

The guards had made sure to modify his cell to ensure there wasn't a single crack he could squeeze through, though it was a waste of effort in Sirius's mind. Not only was his form nearly as large as his regular body, but he was also where he belonged.

He might not have actually committed the crimes he was here for, but he was as good as the reason why all his friends and family were dead.

Charlus and Dorea, captured on the street, were murdered brutally by Voldemort himself as he sought James and Lily's location, only a week before they themselves were cut down. Only days before the news of Remus's death at the hands of Greyback had reached them.

That had contributed to the drinking the night Junior had set the two remaining Marauders cackling with delight. A little joy to help wash away the pain of so much loss. A session that Peter had begged off of. Likely too busy off selling them all out to the dark bastard.

But all of that was usual for him in this sullen place.

Rough black stone was his only companion besides his own thoughts. He had considered himself nearly immune to the effects, or at least used to them. But the visit he had been so pleased to attend had given a horrid second unexpected side effect. It had dredged up everything he had managed to forget.

All the bright happy moments that he'd thought stolen away by his guards were still there, but now they were tinged with a pain they hadn't been before.

The knowledge of what was missing from his life was thrown into sharp relief once again. All the pain that had dimmed over what he now knew to be years was back in full force.

Had he been a weaker man, it would surely have broken him for good.

But Sirius Black was not a weak man. He would be strong and suffer his punishment. His failure deserved nothing less. There was nothing for him out in the world anymore.

Only his penance here and the eventual relief of death and the sweet reunion that followed.

ϟ

Friday 12th May 1989.

Shack knocked on the doorjamb and observed his boss's reactions. She was tenser now than when she'd been buried under paperwork. "Busy?"

"Sit down," She replied, not looking up.

He complied and waited for her attention. Several long minutes passed before she looked up. "Results?"

"I went over my memories several times. The scenes don't match. Either he was confounded, or he has succumbed to the Dementors and is losing his mind. There were no intact ground-floor walls nearby after that explosion for him to be referring to. Whatever spell was used ripped into the gas main above the station and erupted. Ironic given all the times MugWE have used a gas explosion to explain away our activities.

"And I went over the reports from Godric's Hollow. They were done properly, unlike Bayswater Road, and there is no mention of children's toys in that crib. Nothing but the lad's blood."

"These boys are lucky they've retired. I've never seen reports so shoddy. How in the hell did Barty let them get away with it? He was a stickler for this stuff." Amelia groaned.

"Maybe they all just wanted done with it. The round-up was still on, and most of them were getting off with the Imperius Defence. I could see him just wanting one open and shut to show some progress."

"I can't even pull him out and have Mungo's look him over. If I took a suspected mass murderer out of Azkaban without tangible proof, I'd be sitting in the cell beside him the next day. Especially with Fudge in charge. That man is incompetent but he listens to his toady's far too closely for them not to take advantage."

"So we're stuck. Without actual evidence, we can't prove anything, one way or the other?"

"Seems so. A few inconsistencies and Black's own possibly addled memories aren't enough to secure his release. As you said, he could well still be guilty. He could have modified his memory before the Aurors arrived in order to keep from remembering what he did to his supposed friends. We just cannot prove either scenario right now with what we have. Which means Black is staying where he is so long as that is the case.

"But I'm not prepared to let this go, Shack. I can't. What if he really didn't do it? Can you imagine what it's like in there? For seven years!" Bones said, and he could see that the idea truly frightened her.

"No. Just visiting was hard enough to take. But what else can we do?"

Amelia looked at him solemnly over her desk and sighed heavily.

What indeed?

ϟ

Monday 22nd May 1989.

"It seems the boy's somewhat obsessive tendencies work in our favour," Remus stated. "Tybalt has done a few recon runs and is certain of the location. Something about the memory of the dust in that spot."

James laughed at the idea. "Dust has memory?"

"I don't know, Prongs. I only know that's what Tybalt says. They're ready to move the night of the return."

"Are we sure about this?" Lily asked. "I love Sirius too, but this is so risky."

"That bastard needs to pay for what he's done to us, Lils," James growled viciously. He was always close to anger regarding Peter these days. "To Harry. You haven't held your baby in years because of that coward. Now we have a chance to make him face the magic."

"Yes, fine. Pettigrew needs to be caught. But what of the risks? I don't like sending the elves out alone to do this."

"They've already done several dry runs, Lily." Remus offered. "We trust them with Harry's care, surely we can trust them to snatch and grab a rat from a sleeping house?"

"Of course I trust them." She replied, seemingly disappointed in both men for missing her point. "I'm worriedforthem, not because of them. And do we need to teach the children such magic already?"

"Pops says that elf magic doesn't naturally lend itself to stunning. They're too used to being subservient to other magical beings. We needed to teach Harry and Hermione to do it so that they could teach the elves.

"Is it not preferable for them both to have defences available should they get in trouble out in the world? We cannot keep them locked inside, Harry has proven that many times now. And the training has proven without a doubt that their portkeys work. You could have told me about that before we started, by the way."

James closed his arms about his agitated wife. "Lily, sweetheart. It's not a perfect plan, but we know better than most that this is an imperfect world. Harry is not safe with Wormtail out in the world. Not to mention the danger to the Weasleys. They clearly have no idea there is a monster sleeping in their house every night. Is there a risk? Of course. But we've done all we can to minimise it."

"We have to do this ourselves," Remus added. "No amount of money can save Gringotts from Ministry reprisal if they were caught raiding a Ministry employee's home. They cannot act in our stead. The elves could get me inside, but the wards will react to a human crossing in ways they won't to elves. If they believe the rat just got free in the night and escaped, things will be much smoother in the long run."

"Alright, fine. I concede it's the best plan we have, but… those two are as good as our children as well. Mipsy is as close as Harry is likely to get to an older sister. And he has taken Nemea as his little one just as quickly. He treats them as family. If something goes wrong, he'll never forgive any of us. And I won't either."

Lily snuggled tighter into her husband and Remus watched his friends draw comfort from the other, wishing he had some of his own right about now.

ϟ

Saturday 17th June 1989.

Harry woke with a start.

He didn't often have bad dreams, but occasionally his mind would dredge up some of the worst ones. That night in 1981 was the most frequent visitor, green light and screaming. Pain and loss.

Though he'd been far too young to understand what he'd lost at the time, in the years since he had definitely figured it out. It was now charred into his mind irrevocably.

Tonight's offender had been a more recent case though. And was the reason he was now searching the house with his magic. He always needed to see her whenever he had this horrible nightmare. Closing his eyes, Harry could still see the pale features and the enormous lifeless eyes in front of him, and it made him shudder.

His eyes whipped open as panic settled over his body. She wasn't there.

He closed his eyes again and focused harder, letting his link to the wards grow and pulse. Ever since the ritual, Harry's magic ruled this land and he could feel every scrap of magic inside its reach. And yet, still, there was something missing from it tonight.

Fear began to mix with the images of his dream, colouring his mind and setting his nerves on fire. What had happened? Where could she be? Was she hurt? Dying?

Harry released his grip on the wards and focused his mind inward, to the tether that had been present since his fifth year on this earth. It was still there, intangible, but still as strong and thick as ever. She was alive, but she wasn't home. His eyes caught the softly glowing clock on the wall, bright enough to read, but not enough to light the room. Three minutes past two in the morning. She should be here.

He leapt out of bed and grabbed a warm jacket from the wardrobe, wrapping it quickly about his form and letting his magic pull on the tether tightly. With a loud crack, he vanished and suddenly reappeared, somewhere he had never been before.

"Mipsy!" He whispered into the dark room, before noting her standing not a foot away.

"Master shouldn't be here!" She hissed back, Nemea standing to her side, looking at the bed that was slowly revealing itself to Harry's adjusting eyes.

The covers on it were shifting and drowsy noises were emanating from the occupant. Harry's arrival had been loud, especially in the still night air. The figure on the bed rose to a seated position and rubbed his eyes sleepily.

"Stun!" Mipsy hissed again and Harry and Nemea both reacted to the command, stretching a hand and knocking the boy back into his own bed linens, once more out to the world. He would not wake for hours with how frantic Harry's magic was right now. Not to mention Nemea's spell.

"What…?" Harry began asking, looking frantically about the bedroom.

"Shhh, be quiet." Mipsy looked quite cross as she waved her hand at Nemea.

The younger elf quickly moved to the dresser opposite the bed and stood before the cage containing a frantic rat. With a quick move of her lithe fingers, the rat became unconscious and she snapped her fingers, removing him from the cage and damaging the lock. Making it appear as if the rat had gnawed its own way free.

Harry was beyond baffled. His friends, his family, were stealing this boy's rat for some reason.

"Harry…" Mipsy hissed once more, holding her hand out to the boy as noises sounded from outside the door.

Harry entwined their fingers and was suddenly back in his room once again, the transport occurring much more quietly this time around.

"What on earth is going on?" He demanded as Nemea had not joined them. "You just stole that boy's pet!"

"Master Harry must calm down," Mipsy said, glaring at him in a very familiar way. Harry had seen it many times growing up.

"I'm sorry." He mumbled, the look taking a lot of his anger away. "I had a nightmare, I needed to see you."

Mipsy guided him to the bed and sat beside him, her arm going partway around his back, Harry had long since grown too large for her arms to circle him entirely. Harry leant into her embrace drawing comfort from her solid presence in his life.

"It was horrible." He sniffled.

"Which one tonight?" Mipsy asked, gently stroking his back.

"Car. But… it was you, not me." Harry's eyes flicked up to the elf's and he saw a familiar spark within, further clearing the sleepy image from his mind. "You followed me across the road and they hit you instead. I didn't know what to do. People were watching and you were going pale. I couldn't save you."

Mipsy tightened her grip on him and let him sob into her shoulder. She had always been somewhere between a surrogate mother and an older sister to him. Always there when he needed comfort and support, and he had raged at her moments before.

Harry spoke after several long minutes of sniffling silence. "Can you tell me what you were doing?"

"No."

He looked back up at her and saw a flicker of fear. "Why?"

"They asked Mipsy not to. You can overrule them if you choose, but I beg you to trust them, Harry. Your parents have their reasons. You'll know when it's right for you to know."

Anger began to boil in his gut once more. Harry knew it was wrong of him but he couldn't help but feel they didn't trust him as they were asking him to trust them. He shrugged free of Mipsy's arms and bounced onto the floor, pacing slightly as he did.

"I…"

"Please don't ask Nemea either. She is no longer bound to them at all, but they've asked her not to tell. I don't know what it would do if Hermione countermanded that instruction."

Embarrassment flared along with the other hotter feelings as Harry tried to calm himself but he could not resist their build. How could they not trust him? The answer was obvious, he knew it even as he raged internally. He had often challenged their authority lately, knowing they were powerless to stop him. Remus had tamed his actions somewhat, but he was still testing his limits. They had good reason to keep something important from him, but it hurt all the same.

Harry stopped pacing and took several deep breaths, but they still didn't help. "I can't. I can't stay here with them right now. Not tonight. I'm going to stay at Hermione's house."

Mipsy looked like she wanted to deny him but she slowly nodded. "Very well. Please remember what I said, Harry. We all love you, remember that too."

Harry nodded once before grabbing the jacket Mipsy had removed while they were on the bed and he popped away.

ϟ

"Wakey, wakey." The voice sounded far away, yet very familiar to the drowsy man.

He'd never felt so tired in his life. Or so sore. His entire body was aching from his toes to his missing finger. A phantom pain that had never gone away, not even in his other form. And something about that seemed important as well.

Sharp pain roused him fully as his left cheek began to ache far worse than the throbbing pain he had been focused on. The light hurt his eyes, beaming into them from up close while the rest of the area around him appeared to be in complete darkness.

"Waas goinon?" Peter yelped into the dark, fear coursing through his body. Adrenaline waking him now better than any coffee could ever hope to achieve.

When no reply was forthcoming, Peter focused on his magic and attempted to transform, knowing his rat form would be free of the bonds holding him within seconds. But his magic would not respond.

The bonds, however, did. They constricted his arms, pulling them tighter behind his back, making his shoulders crack painfully.

"I wouldn't do that again if I were you."

Peter froze again, the familiar voice sounding through the room. A voice that he had not heard in many years, yet sent a spear of ice up his spine.

"P…p...pro…" Peter mumbled, unused to his own mouth after so long being tended to by the prissy redhead.

"That's right,old friend." Came the reply, and directly in front of him, Wormtail saw something that couldn't be real.

Out of the darkness, a human form appeared, taking one small step forward and bringing the figure into another light source, the area behind him was still cast in deep shadow, but the features were clear. James Potter had returned from death itself to punish him for his betrayal.

"James… I, I never!"

"Silence!" A second voice speared out of the darkness to his right, making Peter jump, the chair leaping into the air with him thanks to the bonds.

"Remus!"

"Yes, Peter. It's been a long time, hasn't it? Did you miss me?"

The werewolf slowly emerged from the darkness as well, leaving only the three of them visible in a sea of deep black.

"Am I… is this hell?" Peter whimpered, wetting himself in fear.

Remus stepped closer until he was millimetres from Peter's face. The amber-flecked eyes of the werewolf stared into his soul and Peter fought the urge to cry out in terror.

"Not yet." Remus enunciated, quietly but very clearly in the silent room. "But you will be soon."

"Remus… I… I never did anything…"

"Shut it!" Remus growled, setting his cheek aflame with pain again as his hand shocked across it once more.

Peter squealed in pain this time, casting his eyes about the room looking for some way out. Any way out.

"Why, Peter?" James asked, standing perfectly still amid the darkness, staring at Peter as he quivered and looked about. "Was our friendship not enough for you? What did he offer in exchange for our lives? In exchange formy son?"

Fear racked Wormtail as he soiled himself once more. So long he'd been hidden in comfort, safety. The redheaded lad feeding him and treating him like a treasured pet. The only thing he ever had to fear was the Ginger Twins who would try prototype potions on him if they ever got their hands on him and their mother's potion ingredients at the same time. And now all that was gone, only darkness and those he had betrayed in sight.

"That question you should answer, or things will get a lot worse for you," Remus growled, circling behind him.

Peter once again tried to make the change, screaming out loud as the bindings tightened again. Remus was there in a flash, hand on Peter's throat, squeezing tightly and preventing any further sound from escaping. "Don't!"

"Moony," James said calmly from across the room. "Not yet."

Remus released Peter and his whimpering filled the room once more. His entire body was aching both from the tight restraints and whatever was keeping him from changing form. Peter's mind was churning, searching for anything he could use as a means of escape, but there was nothing in the room but the chair and his former friends.

"My frien…" He cut off with a yelp as a loud crack rent the air and a small table appeared between himself and James. Upon it were a handful of items, only some of which Wormtail knew. A newspaper, a wand, and a quartet of stuffed animals.

He began to sob as he looked at the stuffed toys, recalling exactly what they had once meant.

"Yes, Peter. You remember those. You remember the day so long ago that we presented them to my son for his first birthday. How he wouldn't let them be apart, so we placed all four in his crib every night. How he would snuggle up between them, his four protectors against the night. How you made sure they failed to protect him."

James's voice became darker as he spoke, filling Peter with greater dread. He was trapped wherever this was, with no means of escape at the hands of two people he had severely wronged.

"I…" Peter cried, his chest heaving against the terrified sobbing.

"Yes?" Remus hissed, passing behind him once more.

"I'm sorry." Peter wailed. "You've no idea what he's like."

"Oh, I have a very good idea what he's like, Wormtail," James stated clearly, his eyes locked on Peter's quivering form. "I know exactly how cowardly and pathetic he is. How he'd attack a baby on the word of a drunken fraud passed by a vile bastard. How he was so scared that those words might be true that he came to kill a child in the night."

Remus was at his side again, hand on the back of the chair. Peter cried out as the chair shifted backwards, tilting dangerously under his former friend's grip. "WHY!"

Peter yelped in terror again, shuddering heavily as he was unable to look away from the vicious stare above him. "He offered me everything I wanted. I was weak!"

Remus released the chair and gravity took over. Wormtail grunted as his head connected with the rough stone floor, leaving him dizzy and in pain once more.

Remus mumbled to himself as he stormed about the room. "Coward." "Traitor." "Mole." "Deserter." "ARSEHOLE!" He shouted the last from above Peter's prone form.

"I didn't know. He promised such sweet things. Power, money, recognition…"

"And that was all it took for you to betray your oldest friends? To sell us out to a lunatic on an ego trip?" James howled from across the room.

"What would you have done!" Wormtail screamed in reply, unable to see James from his position on the floor.

"WE WOULD HAVE DIED!" Remus yelled into Peter's face. "We'd have gone to the grave safe in the knowledge that we kept our honour. And saved our family. Unlike you, you f*cking coward!"

"Remus, you know what it was like, living in their shadow."

"f*ck off!" The werewolf returned, walking out of the light, once more leaving Peter alone. Not alone, no. With James, who he still could not see from where he was.

"James… you don't know… I never meant for this."

"Up." Prongs commanded, and the chair complied, sending his stomach roiling as it righted violently, nearly tipping forward as the legs caught on the rough stonework. The contents of his stomach succumbed to inertia and left his body, half of it landing on his own torso.

As Peter finished vomiting up whatever he'd last eaten, he kept his head low. He was so sure that James had been dead that night. Lily too.

He'd checked for a pulse as she had shown him that one time and found none. But James had just cast magic to right the chair. Somehow, he was still alive and he was pissed. Not as much as Remus, or at least not that he was letting show.

"Prongs…" Peter spat, along with some of the residual stomach acids in his mouth.

"Don't say that!" Remus roared, reappearing from the darkness, face full of anger. "You've lost the right to call any of us that. You're out!"

Peter shied away as best he could. He'd seen Remus in the grip of the moon before, hairy and wild, but he'd never been as terrified of him as he was right now. And he was sure that should the man turn, James would not be getting between them tonight. When was the last full moon? How long had he been out? Was it a possibility?

"What do you want from me?" Peter squeaked, sounding more like his animagus form than the human he'd so long hidden away.

"The truth," James said, still glaring at him before nodding to the right.

A sound shuffled nearby and before Peter could say another word, darkness enveloped him once more.

ϟ

Thursday 22nd June 1989.

"What now?" Amelia asked, leaning heavily back in her chair as Remus Lupin entered once again, a file folder in his hand just like last time.

"I believed I had made an appointment?" He said confused, though with a rather broad smile on his face.

"Last time you were here you threw an enormous spanner in my works and I still haven't managed to clear the damned thing out." She nodded towards the chair opposite her as the door opened again and two figures entered behind Lupin.

"I do apologise. I try to be as non-confrontational as possible. It was not my intention to mess up your day. Shacklebolt. Mad-Eye." Lupin stated, without turning around.

"Hell of a nose on you, Lupin." Alastor grumped from his place by the door.

"Comes with the curse I'm afraid. I've smelt worse things than you can imagine. Woken up in the forest a few feet from some of them."

Amelia eyed the young man before her as Kingsley took the seat beside him. Something was very different about Lupin from his last visit. She'd never known him to be so glib about his condition before either. Not that she had known about it before taking a role in the Aurors.

"Yes, the lads get twitchy any time your name appears on the schedule."

Lupin's smile slipped a little at that response, but a quick glance at the folder brought it back once more. "Yes, quite. But that's not what I'm here for and you're a busy Department Head, so I'll cut to it, shall I?"

Amelia nodded and watched as he reached into the folder and pulled out something she hoped to never see again in her life. Bone white and horribly jagged, the sharp-tipped wand that had murdered so many of her former friends and colleagues, and even some of her own family, was laid delicately on the desk before her.

"Where the hell did you find that?" She growled quietly, noting Moody now had his own wand trained on Lupin's back.

"Inhispocket," Lupin replied, placing a small moving photograph of a rat on her desk beside it.

Amelia leaned forward, slightly to the photo side, cursing herself for leaning away from the despised wand resting on her desk. She glared at the image as the rat moved back and forth in a small room, the camera far too widely zoomed to make out much detail until with a gasp she watched as the rat became a man that almost filled the tiny space. A long-dead man.

"For f*ck's sake, Lupin!" She moaned, leaning back heavily once more, hands coming up to her face.

"How?" The booming deep voice of her former partner asked.

"As I said, I've been looking for ages, and I finally found the lead that I needed."

Remus laid a newspaper article on the desk, hiding the evil wand beneath it. It was the same paper that was in the foreground of the photo of the transforming rat. The photo on the front was obviously the same and showed a family she was barely familiar with smiling up from the Hogwarts front lawn.

"The Weasleys?" Shack questioned.

"After I traced the rat, I had words with Arthur. Unbeknownst to them, their middle son found a rat in their garden in early January of 1982. It was a few months later when young Percy asked Arthur to fashion a cage to keep him in that the man became aware. Arthur complied, thinking that if the boy could keep it alive, it was as good a pet as he was likely to get.

"They'd hit a bit of a rough spot with the finances after the girl arrived, so they weren't buying any pets anytime soon. Wasn't until I saw that front page though that I realised the significance. And he was immensely grateful for me to remove that problem from his home."

Remus left out the part where he had stolen it in the night before he'd ever spoken to Arthur. They couldn't risk the rat becoming aware and escaping again. He was their proof. He smiled at her over the desk, a questioning eyebrow raised at her asking the obvious question.

"Yes. Alright." Amelia whined. "I checked. The form was right. How long?"

"Sirius was first. Mastered the transformation late in our fourth year. James managed his over that summer. Pettigrew took a few more months but had his down by Christmas."

"Impressive. Why didn't they register?" Shack asked.

"In the middle of a war? Why didn't they give away a major advantage to the Ministry that leaked information like a raging river?" Remus asked with a smirk.

Moody gave a short gruff laugh from the doorway. "Fair point."

"So, where is Pettigrew?"

"Somewhere safe. Somewhere with no small holes for him to scurry out of. If you can guarantee the same here, I'll bring him in."

"Really?" Amelia replied, co*cking an eyebrow.

"I want justice for my friends. The only way to prove that is for him to spill the beans. As you said last time, you can't take my word for it. I'm sure Moody is already thinking up a dozen tests to make sure it's really him."

"Aye."

"Sirius has suffered in Azkaban long enough. Peter can tell you the truth, so long as you can guarantee he can't escape your custody, I'll hand him over with glee." Remus finished.

Amelia took a deep breath, leaning back in her chair and looking at Lupin carefully. "You lot had quite the reputation at Hogwarts. If you're wasting my time…"

"If you remember our reputation, you'll recall I was also prefect. I was the respectable one." Moody scoffed from behind the man. "Fine, themostlyrespectable one."

Amelia watched him closely for several moments before her eyes dipped back to the table. She glanced back up with a curious smirk.

"You've known his location since you read this paper?" She asked.

Remus just nodded in reply, figuring he knew what her next would be. It had been two days after reading that paper back in April that he had first come to her.

"Have you had him all this time?"

"No," Remus replied. "The bastard was with the lad at Hogwarts. Until Friday." They had wasted no time in Peter's acquisition. Scooping him up the first night back at the Burrow.

Amelia considered him quietly again, and Remus knew she could see there were a few things he was leaving out. He had no doubt that she would be having words with Arthur. But the man had been so relieved when Remus had informed him that he no longer had a marked Death Eater living under his roof that he doubted any trouble would come from there.

"Give me a few days to make the arrangements." She said at long last. "Any other disasters you want to throw our way while you're here?"

"One disaster a day is more than enough for me these days, Amelia. I'll leave you all to your work. Good day."

Lupin stood and exited the room, his smile much brighter now than when he had entered. Amelia looked at the folder lying open on her desk and sighed. When she glanced up she noticed the doorway was clear and Shack was watching her closely. They sat in silence for several long minutes before she pulled an evidence bag from her desk and activated the enchantment with her wand.

She delicately pressed her wand to the tip and cast the spell to read its previous spells. Neither of them were surprised at the dark nature of almost every spell.

Using magic, she moved the horrible piece of wood from her desk into the bag and sealed it, unwilling to lay her hands on such a monstrous wand. As she placed the newspaper in a second bag, the two Aurors were distracted by a moody Alastor clomping back into the room and removing a soaking-wet invisibility cloak.

Amelia failed to contain the snort that escaped at the state of the man slumping into the chair opposite her.

"What the devil happened to you?" Shack asked.

"Wherever Lupin is holed up is a fortress. Those wards are more powerful than Hogwarts. Bounced me like a chew toy out 80 miles east of Azkaban like being swatted by the Hogwarts Express and a pissed-off dragon at the same time. My ribs still hurt."

Amelia didn't even try to contain the laughter as she watched Moody wring out his cloak and scowl at the water. At least this meeting had ended on a happier note.

Chapter 18: One Big Happy What Family?

Chapter Text

Wednesday 28th June 1989.

Amelia Bones stepped last from the interrogation room, the other Wizengamot members walking briskly away talking among themselves, most looking truly disgusted at what they'd heard.

She nodded to the pair from St Mungo's, who wasted no time in entering the specially prepared room. Amelia glanced through the see-through portion of the wall at the twitchy man as the healers began their assessment. Should it come back clean, this would have been the most successful interrogation she'd ever pulled off.

She'd had a hard time getting the Wizengamot to attend a trial inside the room, but there was no way she was letting someone who could become something as tiny as a rat out of there while conscious. The sentence had been delivered and, pending this assessment, Pettigrew would be making one final one-way trip to an island resort no one wanted to visit.

"He gave us everything we could have wanted and more." Shack boomed from her side, not drawing her eyes away from the scene within.

She only nodded in reply. "He was very cooperative," Moody added suspiciously from the far side of the observation space. "I hope you didn't rough him up before bringing him in, Lupin."

The glimmer in the werewolf's eyes belied the truth of his response. "I would never."

Amelia let a soft chuckle leap through her chest at the idea. She would have. That… she refused to refer to him as a man any longer. He was an animal of the worst sort. Pettigrew had shown no remorse for what he had done, and he had done a lot.

She had nearly gone at him herself when he had confessed to having been how the Death Eaters had gained entry to Edgar's home. Allowing them to butcher her brother's entire family. While Voldemort himself was still responsible for the death of her parents, the rat in that room had been responsible for gouging out a significant portion of her family.

"Shack, I don't trust these to an intern. See to it that they're entered into record immediately. We've got a trip to make this afternoon." Amelia instructed, handing the tall man the paperwork.

Silence filled the room after Shacklebolt's departure for several long minutes as the three occupants watched Pettigrew's assessment.

"How long did you have him before you brought him in, Lupin?" Moody finally asked from his corner, preferring whenever possible somewhere he could keep his back to the wall and his eye on everyone else. Unless there was a more obvious threat nearby, at which point he would face that while keeping his magical eye roaming the space.

"Bit over a week. Wanted this over as soon as possible." Remus mumbled his reply, glaring in disgust at his former friend.

"Did you coerce him? I have to know your reply for the record." Amelia asked, glancing momentarily at the man beside her.

"No. I may have put the fear of death into him. Or, the idea that I know someone very pissed off at him that might have escaped death." Remus smiled.

"Who?"

Remus turned and smiled at her, simply tapping the side of his nose once before turning back to the healers. The pair were clearly finishing up. All three tracked them as they stepped out, ensuring the door was sealed before stepping over to them. Alastor had put his finest work into that room.

Pettigrew was staying human for the foreseeable future.

"Result?"

"Clean." The Senior Healer replied, passing over his report. "In as perfect health as I could expect for someone who spent so long living as a rat. There is no sign of coercive substances, nor any lasting magical residue beyond his own transformation. So far as I can tell, the twitching is a side effect of such an extended experience as a rodent. They tend to be very twitchy animals. No evidence of physical harm either. My report is that he is one hundred percent in his right mind."

Amelia nodded as she read through the report. Everything matched what the healer was telling her, and confirmed the first assessment done the day he had arrived at the department. Once this was added to the paperwork Shack was already filing, they would have all the proof they needed to act on the injustice.

It was time to make a deposit and a withdrawal at Azkaban.

ϟ

Sirius moaned as he was once more dragged from his cell and directed to the Warden's Office.

He kept his eyes trained on the floor, not caring much for visitors after the pain they'd drudged up the last time. With nothing for him on the outside, he still believed he was where he belonged, the renewed effect of the Dementors on the revived happy memories had taken their toll.

He grunted as he was roughly pushed into a chair by the guards and sat unmoving, ignoring everyone about him as he wallowed in his own mind.

"Mr Black." Came the familiar voice from the last visit. "You look terrible."

Sirius gave the barest hint of a smile. He'd always been close with humour, one of his best friends in fact, but he wasn't really feeling it right now.

"Very well, I need you to sign this please." Sirius glanced up as a document was placed in front of him and a quill laid down beside it.

"What?" He whispered.

"Your release documentation. Already signed by myself, the Minister and the Warden. It just needs your signature and you are a free man." Bones smiled widely at him as though she'd just given him the best present in the world.

"No, thank you." He replied simply, stunning everyone in the room.

"What? What do you mean no?"

"I'm right where I should be. Paying for my failures here is as good as anywhere. Not like there's anything to live for out there anymore."

The people gathered behind the desk all looked gobsmacked. A resounding clap of flesh on hairy flesh drew the observers' eyes upward and left Sirius with a throbbing pain on the back of his head. Turning to look behind at what had struck him, Sirius became certain he had finally gone off the edge.

"Get your sorry arse out of that chair, sign the damn form and get outside, or I swear I'll drag you out by the hair you mangy mutt! And that beach is not made of soft sand."

Remus Lupin looked better than Sirius could remember, the smile on his face a relic of their school days he hadn't seen in a long time. "Moony? Can you believe these loonies want to let me out? Look at me, I'm seeing the dead."

Remus punched him firmly in the shoulder making Sirius growl in pain as he grabbed the wound. "What the hell, Moony?"

"How many more is it going to take for you to accept I'm real? Now sign!"

"But you died. Me and James, we mourned you."

"You were misinformed," Remus replied, raising his hand once more. "You gonna sign, or do I need to break your nose again first?"

"Wait… if you're Moony, name the Marauders' Marks!" Sirius looked smugly at his friend as the other man paled.

"No!"

"Then I'm staying,imaginaryMoony!"

"I hate you so much," Remus mumbled, barely audible even to Sirius sitting well inside the other man's personal space. "Crescent moon, arse cheek, pubes, ear."

"Can't hear you, Moony. I need details."

"f*ck you, Padfoot." The Marauder growled roughly, eyeing Sirius darkly. "Crescent mark on my left calf where Greyback bit me! A blotch on Pettigrew's left arse cheek. James's was a squishy diamond in his pubes, half an inch left of centre, hence why he always kept them shaved off. You just did it to match. And yours is behind your left ear, black as your soul and oval-shaped. Probably hidden under that mop you have instead of hair right now. Happy?"

A smile broke out on Sirius's face, the first since Bones had last visited and one of very few he'd worn in years. With a speed that none present believed him capable of, Sirius leapt from the chair, wrapped his not-dead friend in his arms and hugged him tightly.

"Oh, hell. It's good to see you too, Padfoot, but you reek. Get off me." Remus shoved the scraggly-haired man back towards the desk.

"How?" Sirius asked.

"We found Wormtail," Remus replied with a nasty grin.

Sirius's face soon matched his friend's. "He's alive? Can I see him?"

"Sign first," Remus said simply, pointing at the parchment on the desk.

Sirius twirled and grabbed the quill. Their audience watched as he signed the form. He had failed the Potters utterly, but if Moony was about he had something to live for, someone to live for. And someone to mourn with. Moony would understand their loss.

Without the Dementors sapping his joy, he felt freer than in years. He handed the signed paperwork back to Bones, who nodded to the man behind him. Not to mention the now-promised long-awaited reunion with the Rat.

"I'm not giving this back to you if you're going to see Pettigrew." Bones stated, holding up the evidence bag with his old wand inside. "In fact, maybe I should hang onto it until you've got a clean bill of health."

"Fine by me," Sirius said, twirling back to face Moony. "Take me to him."

Moony smiled at the change in his friend, seeing the spark that Sirius Black was known for resurging in his eyes. "Follow me."

Without waiting for permission or guidance, the werewolf led the pair down several corridors, ignoring the calls to stop from behind as they came to a doorway that looked far newer than those Sirius had passed on the way there.

"Do you like it? New addition. The old area for keeping animagi was in a sorry state. Runes carved into its walls, floor and ceiling make sure no one can transform inside that room. Completely animagus proof. A rat can fit between bars a lot easier than a dog, after all." Moony remarked, flicking open the mesh opening at face height.

Sirius stepped forward and noted the inside of the room was slightly different from the one he'd spent so long in.

Still carved from the dark stone, it was littered with runes and had no windows or plumbing of any kind. He crinkled his nose as he realised what that would mean going forward before his eyes settled on the lump in the corner. He smiled at it with demented glee.

"Hello, Peter." His tone of voice managing to be light and airy, yet full of undisguised malice.

The lump leapt at the sound and tried to curl further into the corner, clearly trying to hide from the doorway.

"Sorry, we haven't spoken in a while. I've been really busy being locked up in this hellhole. You know, after you betrayed us all. It really gets to you after a while. Padfoot helped a lot, but you won't get that relief. Moony tells me this room was custom-built for your form.

"I was so disappointed I didn't manage to kill you on that street. Thought you had taken that chance away from me for good. But knowing what you're going to suffer through in here, I think I prefer it this way."

Remus laid a hand on Sirius's shoulder and the scraggly man looked away for a moment. "Before I go, tell me why. Why you betrayed us all? Betrayed what we stood for.Killed my godson." Sirius yelled as he hammered on the door in fury.

Sirius was growling now, anger surging as he felt the urge to find some way inside to enact revenge. The lump simply whimpered and huddled deeper into the corner, screaming aloud as a shudder ran over his body. A shudder Sirius was intimately familiar with. One that came with an attempt to make the animagus transformation.

"Good to see these morons managed to get that one right," Sirius growled, realising that Wormtail wasn't going to say a word.

"C'mon, Sirius. He's finally getting what he deserves. Let's get started on the rest of your life instead of worrying about the rest of his." Even kind Remus had a vicious edge to his voice as he finished and Sirius realised how betrayed his other friend must have been feeling. He'd only had a few people in this world, and Pettigrew's actions had torn all of them away from him.

Sirius surveyed his long-time friend and finally noticed how worn he looked even at their still young ages. "Geez, Moony. You look like arse. What the hell have you been doing with yourself?"

"St Mungo's now, banter later, boys." Bones said, standing behind them, wand drawn as she gestured them away from the new cell. "He's not going anywhere for a long time. Not with his sentence."

Sirius grinned and wrapped an arm around Moony's shoulder. Justice for the traitor at long last. That was something he could happily live with, even with what it had cost.

"How about a shower first? It would be cruel and unusual to subject the healers to your smell beforehand." Remus commented, weaselling out of Sirius's grip once more, and setting the newly freed man laughing once more.

ϟ

Thursday 29th June 1989.

Remus flicked the golden token into the air as he stepped into the small anteroom.

Life had taken a huge turn for him since the little elf had dragged his half-frozen and fully drunk arse out of that glacier. He had his family back again, and it was growing back to its former size once more.

"How'd it go?" Lily asked the moment she spotted him.

"Wormtail is nice and comfy in his new accommodation in Azkaban and Black is hitting on every nurse and healer that enters his room. Male, female and goblin."

"So, he hasn't been affected by his time in there?" James questioned, his eyes hungry for news on the man he considered true family.

"He stinks and he hasn't eaten properly in years, but somehow, he's still the same old Sirius Black underneath. I'll bet he has some nightmares and residual issues we'll need to work on, but he's still Padfoot." Moony smiled widely at his friends' painting and they cheered and kissed in celebration. "And that's something I wanted to talk to you both about."

The Potters broke apart and turned to face him, both looking curious at the sudden comment. "Natalie suggested something yesterday when I popped by and I think you should agree."

"What?" James drew out the word slowly, looking suspicious now.

"They're going away for a few weeks of the summer holidays. It's been planned for ages. Spain and France. They want to invite Harry along as well."

"I don't know," Lily whispered, James nodding beside her. "Albus is still out there. It's dangerous."

"I'm aware. You know I care about Harry as much as you both do, but we send him to school every week. We want him to live as normal a life as he can, but he's never really gone anywhere but here, school and the Grangers. I think the trip will be good for him."

"I agree he deserves some excitement and fun, but his safety has to take priority, Remus. All those places are now covered by the Manor's wards." Lily countered.

"Of course, but they haven't always been, and you let him go then. Which is why, with Hermione's help, Charlus told me how to make this." Remus held up an orb of stone about the size of a medium dragon's egg that had been concealed inside his bag. "This was made from the primary diamond wardstone. The magic those kids can wield is insane. Took a chunk right out of the middle and healed it back over like it was playdough.

"The more practice they get, the scarier they become. This will erect a portable version of the wards over wherever they happen to take it. Even worked in Azkaban. Didn't feel a lick of the Dementor's touch when we sprung Padfoot."

Lily eyed the orb closely, worry still clear on her features. "And if it gets lost or damaged?"

"We've categorically proven their jewellery works perfectly. All four have taken a trip back here unconscious half a dozen times. If they're knocked out, for any reason or by any means, they come here instantly. No side-along possible.

"Hell, it even worked when Richard knocked himself out in the shed two weeks ago. If they're conscious, who in this world can keep Harry and Hermione locked up? Besides," He added, raising the stone slightly higher, "this is Diamond, Lils. The hardest substance on earth, reinforced with goblin runes. Who is even scratching that without a lot of effort? Let them live a little."

"What's the catch?" James enquired.

"No catch. I've looked it all over. Their planned destinations are all safe magically and muggle. Mipsy and Nemea can tag along undetected with no problem. And those two need the holiday as much as the kids. And the bonus, it allows me to focus on getting Padfoot back to full capacity. Might even be good to go in time for August, or sooner." Remus had a cheeky smile as he said the last.

"Oh. That would be nice for Harry." Lily commented, thinking through their options. "We'd need to talk to the Grangers about this. I can't say yes unless I know more."

"Which is why they're coming over for dinner tonight. I'll keep the kids distracted long enough for you to talk. Harry's been remarkably good about all this cloak and dagger. Thanks to Mipsy, we know he knows we're up to something, and yet hasn't thrown a wobbly besides spending a few nights at Hermione's. I think he's earned a little freedom."

Lily and James conversed between themselves for several moments, keeping their voices too low for even Remus to hear a few feet away. "Fine. We'll talk tonight and see what is what. I promise nothing more than that."

"Deal." Remus nodded, flicking the token into the air once more and catching it smugly.

"What the devil is that thing, Moony?" James asked, his eyes tracking the small golden object.

Remus smiled at the item and held it up for them to inspect. "A gift from an old friend. Seems Mad-Eye still has trust issues. Found it in my pocket after leaving St Mungo's and Harry tells me something heavy bounced off the wards just after I arrived and ended up 10 feet underwater about 80 miles south-east of Azkaban. Any idea why your ancestor set the wards to dump intruders out there?"

James smiled maliciously. "Yeah. It's cold as hell. And as a bonus, ever since whichever one of them shifted it to Azkaban and its wards, they cannot apparate out. Unless they have a very specialised DMLE-authorised portkey on hand, they've got a hell of a swim on their hands. Given the wards go out 100 miles from the island.

"The wards here are so strong that the individual slips straight through those over the island. But then Azkaban's wards make for a hell of a time getting back out again."

Remus looked at the token with a smirk, happy to know that something so strong was keeping them all safe. "Remind me never to piss off Harry when we're at home."

ϟ

Thursday 20th July 1989.

Harry Potter was having the time of his life.

Firstly, his parents had admitted they were keeping something important secret from him. And had even agreed that he would be told what that secret was before the summer was over.

But even more impressive than that was the beautiful clear water of the white sandy beach upon which he currently stood.

The reveal of information had been made conditional on his behaviour on this trip, but Harry was never going to play up with the Grangers ever again if behaving saw him visiting brilliant places like this. The beach was crammed full of people, the most Harry had seen gathered in one place in his life, in various states of summer dress.

Some were wearing colourful shirts, shorts and dresses that fluttered in the light breeze. All the way to the woman he'd seen earlier wearing so little he'd blushed and turned away thinking she was nude.

Today was to be their last in Spain before heading north into France for the second leg of the fantastic holiday, so Harry was cataloguing the many amazing sights they'd experienced in the country. From museums and aquariums, to ancient ruins, palaces and churches. To simple drives through scenery that almost put the gardens at the manor to shame.

He'd seen things he'd never imagined and tasted foods that had charmed his senses. It had hammered home to Harry just how little of this enormous world he was truly aware of and left him in a near-permanent state of awe and distraction.

Something that proved unwise around the Grangers since their introduction to half of the Marauders. Harry yelped as a bucket of cold seawater splashed over his back and drew his attention to the giggling girl standing behind him in a dark purple one-piece, a now-empty bucket in her hands.

"You're going to pay for that!" He called as he began to chase Hermione across the soft sand and into the crystal blue waters. Both screeching as water and sand went everywhere in their tussle.

Harry thought back to the day the pair had first truly met, laughing to himself and getting a mouthful of salty water as his brain considered that it had been sand that day that had brought them together as well. Though that sand had been far coarser than the light wispy sand under his feet now.

He knew that four sets of very relaxed eyes were watching them happily from higher up the beach, safe in the knowledge that the Orb was keeping them safe as they let themselves behave like children were supposed to.

"This has been the best holiday ever." Harry spurted, resurfacing after Hermione knocked him into the sloshing waves. A broad smile on his face, one that had almost never left it since their arrival in the beautiful country.

Hermione returned it with a small laugh. "Spain is great, but we've still got France to go. We've not been in years, but there is so much I cannot wait to show you!"

Harry beamed at his best friend before lunging forward, glomping her into the slightly deeper waters with a squeal and a laugh. He was so glad that Remus and Natalie had convinced his parents to let him come with the Grangers.

He wouldn't give this up for the world.

ϟ

Monday 31st July 1989.

Sirius felt better than he could remember feeling in his life.

Over a month in St Mungo's had repaired almost all of the malnourishment damage that he'd suffered in his years in Azkaban, and he was getting along well with Robert in their sessions.

Moony had sat in on a few and he'd given him both metaphorical and physical slaps to the head, much to Robert's chagrin, for some of the garbage he was holding on his shoulders from the start of the decade. Robert was still trying to get him to accept he wasn't at fault, but Sirius knew the truth.

While he could technically leave and end the sessions at any time, they were conditional for his full clearance by the Ministry after his imprisonment.

The papers had proclaimed him a free and innocent man, though not for almost three weeks after his release, and most people he saw on the street no longer eyed him with fear and suspicion. But he still felt like he was going through the motions a lot of the time. It was fantastic being away from the Dementors full time, but Sirius was still holding so much guilt over what had happened to the Potters that some nights it felt like he was still trapped in that dark cell.

And some days held far worse significance to the man than others.

"C'mon, Moony. Where are we going?" he whined as his friend led him through a densely wooded area that seemed vaguely familiar. "I really don't feel like a run today."

"We're not going for a run and if you're going to be a spoilsport all day then maybe I won't bother with your surprise," Remus replied, looking at him over his shoulder.

"Surprises can wait for good days. Today is not a good day."

"I know, Padfoot, but trust me for five minutes would you," Remus called, coming to a halt at the edge of the trees.

Sirius huffed but stepped up beside his friend and looked out into what turned out not to be a clearing but a wide opening that led over gardens and up to a large stone house. A house that was tremendously familiar.

One in which he had lived for his final Hogwarts years.

Sirius's eyes went wide and a spear of fear went up his spine." Nope! No, no, no, no, no, no, no."

Sirius spun on his heel and began to rush back into the woods he now recalled only to hear a single word yelled from behind him. He was suddenly in a small room with doors at either narrow end, a large window looking out over the woods he'd just been inside, and when he turned about, an enormous painting empty but for two people he'd not seen in almost eight long years.

The man fell to his knees as they smiled at him and he sobbed heavily. The woman's doe brown eyes beheld him with a love he'd never seen from his own mother and stung as she held him in her gaze. "Hello, Sirius. It's been a long time."

"Hello, Dorea." Sirius choked out.

"Dorea? What happened to mum?"

Sirius howled in pain at the thought. The memory of his slip-up on the day of their graduation hit him hard after so long. He felt an arm slip over his shoulder and he glanced to his left to see Moony by his side, looking as morose as he felt.

"They wanted to see you. Their long lost boy."

Sirius nodded as he let the emotions he'd been hiding inside for ages out and found that Robert had been right again. Confronting the pain usually lessened its burden.

"I'm so sorry, mum," Sirius stated, a slight cheek in the final word. "I failed him. I failed them all."

"Bullsh*t, Padfoot."

Sirius looked up to see that two others had joined Charlus and Dorea in the massive painting. One hugged up to Dorea's side, looking at him softly with almost the same look as his surrogate mother. The other was lying on his stomach so that he was eye to eye with Sirius. The brown eyes matched his mother's but his hair was as wild and Potter as ever.

"'Sup?"

Sirius howled even harder and Remus held him tighter, pulling him against his body. The sobbing heaved his entire body as he could feel the gaze of his closest friend watching him break down.

Everyone remained silent and simply let him slowly work through his emotions. The feeling was so strong that it was god only knows how long before he was stable enough to even open his eyes. When he did, he found James now lying on his back, looking at him just the same.

"I'm…"

"If you apologise one more time for that arsehole's actions, Padfoot, I'll reach out of this damn painting and slap you stupid...er." James cut him off loudly.

"It was my idea." Sirius countered.

"So what? We all agreed. I don't blame Lily or Harry or you. Only Wormtail and Voldemort. It's entirely their fault." James paused and rolled onto his front once more. "But it's bloody good to see you, Padfoot."

"It really is," Lily stated, drawing his eye higher up the painting. "Pops, some tea, please. Make it strong."

Silence reigned for several moments before the aged elf appeared with a full tea set. Sirius eyed the elf comparing him now to his memories and struggling to find a single new wrinkle. "Damn it Pops. Don't you ever age?"

Pops glared at him for a moment before passing him a teacup. "Good to see Master Sirius still hasn't grown up and learned that some things are improper discussion over tea."

Sirius couldn't help but bark a laugh at the elf. Given he was the one who had been left to clean up after James and himself so often during their school years.

"Nothing's off-limits with family, Pops," James added, standing up once more. "But some rooms are more comfortable for chats and tea. Meet us in the library, Moony."

Remus hefted Sirius to his feet, somehow managing not to spill his tea in the process and began guiding him through the halls. He'd not been in the Manor in years and everywhere he looked had memories he'd long since forgotten attached.

A vase the two terrors had knocked over and forced Pops to repair. A room they had filled with some horrible smell and forgotten about, catching themselves in their own prank a month later.

He laughed loudly to himself as he recalled the day he and Prongs had transformed and ran through the halls only for Prongs to get caught on half the doorjambs as his antlers had grown too wide. The longer he was away from the dementor's grasp, the more happy memories returned and filled him with joy, even if most were tinged with the pain of those easiest-to-recall memories.

When he was parked into a soft leather armchair, Sirius returned from memory lane and glanced up at the life-sized image of his former family smiling out at him. Many tears were shed and more than a few sorries passed Sirius's lips as he reacquainted himself with his true family. Hours passed and he was pretty much a babbling teary mess occasionally cackling with laughter when he felt a soft hand on his shoulder.

Before he could turn, Pops appeared and took the teacup from his hands. Confused, Sirius turned to see a black-haired blur standing next to him. Wiping his eyes clear of tears, he looked again and was struck dumb immediately.

Wild black hair even messier than his best friend covered the head looking at him silently, a pair of bright green eyes full of joy stared back sitting just above a wide cheeky smile that hadn't changed a bit since he'd last seen it looking up at him out of a tiny crib, babbling nonsense as the Marauders laughed at his tiny features.

Sirius rubbed his eyes again, certain he could not be seeing what he was seeing. His godson appeared to be standing next to him, his hand resting on his arm lightly. "Harry?"

"Hello, Padfoot," Harry replied simply, eyes not leaving Sirius's face. "Best birthday present ever."

Sirius leapt from the chair and had the giggling child wrapped in a firm hug in seconds. He was going to give the others hell for keeping this secret from him until now, though he could see the amusing angle, he had a reputation to enforce.

When he had woken that morning, he'd been saddened to see the date, believing he wouldn't be able to see the birthday boy ever again. Now he understood the smug look Remus had been giving him all day long.

Pulling back, he looked at Harry. "How would you like to have some fun and help me get these old coots back for not telling me that you were alive?"

"They did that to Remus too," Harry smirked.

Sirius turned to glare at the others who were all looking at him with innocent smiles on their faces. He tucked his arms under Harry's arms and hauled the little boy into his lap as he sat back on the chair and only then did he notice the nervous-looking girl standing behind his giggling godson.

"Oh, hello. Who is this?" Sirius asked, mind still whirling from the revelation perched in his lap.

"Padfoot, this is Hermione Granger. My best friend." Harry glowed as he introduced the girl and waved her closer.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mister Black." The girl stated, offering her hand.

Sirius laughed heartily at the address, feeling like he was looking at a young Minne McGonagall. "Pleasure is all mine."

Sirius shook her small hand and was surprised when she released his own to have Harry take the free appendage and haul her onto his lap as well. He glanced at the others in surprise to find them chuckling in his direction.

"They normally sit in that chair together." Lily offered as an explanation.

Sirius nodded in response and considered the pair sitting on him carefully. They seemed as perfectly at ease with one another as he and James had been after a few years at Hogwarts, so he assumed they had known each other a while now. And the fact that the little girl was in a house magically hidden from the world implied something fairly obvious in his mind.

"Given Miss Granger appears to be magical, where did you two meet?" He finally asked, shocking the others with his question.

Harry grinned. "School. But we just got back from holiday yesterday. And my party at Hermione's house today." He turned to the girl for a moment. "Sorry about that, too. I loved what you got me, but I've not seen Padfoot in a long time."

"Don't be. I'd be excited about seeing my godfather for the first time in 8 years too."

The conversation continued for hours, now covering some of the obvious holes Sirius hadn't noticed before where the others had clearly been avoiding speaking of Harry. He was so proud to hear that his godson appeared to be following in the Marauders' footsteps to a degree. It wasn't until both children began to loll against his chest that he realised how late it had become.

"Um, little help," He whispered, turning to glare at the clicking sound as he watched Moony lower a camera with a wide grin. "Oh, funny."

"Adorable," Lily commented, setting James laughing at the look on Sirius's face.

"Yeah, it's cute and funny, but we should get her home don't you think? It's improper for Harry to keep her out past midnight." Sirius quipped, with a wink that did not draw the response he had expected.

The others practically ignored the jibe as Remus walked over and hefted Hermione into his arms, the girl babbling softly as she was moved but refusing to let go of Harry's hand. Sirius stood and moved to take Harry aside, but the boy held fast just as strongly. Sirius glanced up at his friends to find them still smiling at the group.

"Well, she was always staying the night after the party. Looks like they're sharing a room again." Lily smiled. "Pops, if you would?"

The elf appeared once more and with a click of his fingers, Hermione was dressed in nightclothes. Remus stepped around him. "C'mon, Padfoot, I'll lead the way. Mind their arms."

He followed blindly as the werewolf led him to a room he couldn't recall having entered before. He watched Remus lay the girl onto the bed and helped him tuck Harry in beside her sleeping form, the two snuggling together as soon as the covers were laid over them.

"Is this common?" Sirius asked, eyes fixed on his slumbering godson.

"More than you'd think. James thinks they'll be together forever. Says it's him and Lily all over again. Lily likes to remind him that Hermione doesn't think Harry's a show-off that should go dowse his head in the Black Lake."

Sirius watched them silently for several minutes, afraid that if he walked away, that Harry would disappear. He was distracted by a patting sound and noticed Moony smirking at him from the end of the large bed, patting a dog bed he'd conjured atop the covers.

"Very funny." he jibed, ignoring his friend for a moment.

But as he thought about it, he decided ridicule he could live with. Changing into his enormous dog form, Sirius climbed onto the dog bed, poking his bum in Moony's face before settling down and staring at the softly moving lump at the other end.

Harry was alive and happy. And Sirius was home at long last.

Chapter 19: Black Hole of Family

Chapter Text

Thursday 3rd August 1989.

Sirius watched his best living friend glance up and past his shoulder as the group settled onto new ground, tucked neatly into a small unused alcove beside Flourish & Blotts.

This was apparently the biggest group they had ever brought to Diagon Alley at once and it was hard to find a place where they could all appear together. Usually, large groups flooed to the Leaky Cauldron. Only apparating into place when numbering one or two people max. Remus pulled the Orb from the bag at his hip and tapped a couple of the runes on its shiny surface.

Looking back past him once again as he finished, Remus saw something approaching that sent his eyes wide and had him tapping several more of the runes. Activating sound-dampening spells on the gemstone.

"Back into the alcove, kids to the wall." He hissed, making Sirius curious as to what was unsettling his friend. He turned in time to see the owl rear up and launch the red envelope at his face, ducking at the last moment and allowing it to fall to the street. "Answer it Padfoot, the Orb probably can't contain the full volume of an exploding howler."

Sirius glared at Remus briefly before nudging the twitching letter with his foot, causing it to leap into the air and rip open to face him. He braced himself as the howler zoomed right up into his face and the loud voice of the letter washed over them.

" SIRIUS ORION BLACK! I had thought better of you than this. I understand you've had a rough time of it when it comes to the Black family but I never thought you'd be so cruel to a child. You have exactly one day to reply to poor Nymphadora's letters or I am going to track you down and teach you exactly why the Black Sisters were feared as a whole at Hogwarts. Ignore me all you want, but she is an eleven-year-old girl who just wants proof her mother's side of the family is not only full of miserable arseholes. ONE DAY! "

The angry letter ripped and burst into flames. Scattering its ashes over the cobblestones in the middle of the group. A tiny sliver of the former letter flew away into the crowd once more, a delivery notice, meaning the sender would soon know it had been received.

The two children and the muggles in their group looked askance at him as Sirius digested what he'd heard. The voice was one he'd not heard in almost a decade, but he still recalled Andromeda's temper. She hadn't taken kindly to his present to young Nymphadora for her first birthday, not that he could recall what he had actually gotten the girl anymore.

He glanced up again as Remus cleared his throat and noticed the man wasn't looking at him, but over his shoulder, yet again.

Sirius turned to look out into the alleyway and found a pair of brown eyes looking at him with scrutiny and a little anger from point-blank range. The woman's typically wild Black hair was tamed perfectly into brown waves over her shoulders. Her arms were crossed, one hand holding a tiny sliver of singed paper. She was tapping her foot impatiently as she glared at him.

"Andi!" Sirius began with a big grin.

"Don't you 'Andi' me, Sirius Black!" She replied severely. "Three letters. Five if you include mine. What's your excuse? You've been out for over a month. Not bailed up in St Mungo's anymore either I see. Gallivanting about Diagon Alley. Well?"

"I didn't get any letters, Andi." Sirius winced as her eyes narrowed further. "Honestly. The healers wouldn't pass on anything that came for me. Said I wasn't well enough for mail. And where I'm staying right now is a little out of owl range. When did you get an owl anyway?"

"We didn't. I just sent that from the Owl Post Office across the street. Lucky I did, so I could catch you two in the act." Andromeda swept her eyes over the small crowd tucked into the alcove. Sirius shifted slightly to block the temporarily brown-haired boy behind him and her eyes fixed on him immediately. "Don't tell me you knocked some poor girl up before you got locked away!"

"No!" He yelped, blushing heavily at the laughter from the woman behind him.

She stepped past and offered her hand to Andromeda. "Natalie Granger. We're friends of Remus's." She stated, smirking at Sirius as Andromeda shook her hand. "This is my husband, Richard. My daughter Hermione. And…"

"Harry is my friend." Hermione chirped up, holding the boy's hand and looking at the woman defiantly. Sirius cringed slightly.

"Ah," Andromeda said, her face showing a burst of recognition. "I had been hoping to meet you again ever since your front page appearance. You've changed a lot since I last saw you, Harry."

Sirius winced as Harry stepped forward and offered his own hand to his cousin. The boy's disguised brown eyes, which made him look quite a bit like Hermione's brother, but he still had the unruly hair of a Potter if one looked closely, locked on the older woman's as he analysed her before speaking. "Nice to meet you. You look a lot like…"

"My elder sister? Yes. Though I'm told I lack the look of madness in the eyes and my hair is lighter." Andi replied with a smile, shaking his hand in response. "Shall we find somewhere quieter to have a chat?"

Andromeda replaced her gaze on Sirius who was now sweating as he worried how such a conversation might play out. He knew Andi wasn't like most of the Black family, but he'd been out of contact for a long time. People changed, after all.

"We're actually on quite the tight schedule this morning." Richard intervened, "Perhaps we might meet for lunch tomorrow? We'd love to have you all over for a chat. Members of Harry's family are so rare these days."

"Indeed." She replied, considering the offer for a moment. "That would be acceptable. Give this one time to get his brain working again it seems. Though I've not much in the way of hope for that given past experience."

Remus was apparently unable to contain his laughter at that remark and began howling from behind Sirius, something he would happily repay later on, but for now, got him out of trouble.

"Excellent. So, And...romeda. It was lovely seeing you." Sirius fixed her with his cheekiest grin, soon faltering as it clearly had no effect on the woman. "Um, guys, shall we."

Sirius's eyes flicked from one person to the next, clearly begging them to let this hell end yet they all appeared to be enjoying his struggle far too much. One of the downsides of being an irrepressible prankster was it occasionally bit you on the arse quite badly.

"Tomorrow, then. And you will behave with Nymphadora. None of that nonsense you pulled last time." With a polite nod to the group, Andi turned and headed for the Cauldron, Sirius finally letting out a breath of relief and whirling on his so-called friend. "Thanks for helping out there, Moony!"

"Hey, you are on your own with the Blacks. They're your family, not mine."

Sirius replied only with a glare, taking Harry's free hand and heading in the opposite direction. He was very much regretting his choice to take the family out shopping, and now he had a pending lunch date with his long-estranged family looming.

How could things get worse than this?

ϟ

Friday 4th August 1989.

Harry sat in his favourite spot beneath the large oak tree, his fingers gently brushing over the downy feathers of his newest friend.

Beside him, Hermione was cooing over the small slightly squashed face of the part-kneazle kitten that Sirius had bought for her the day before as well. At first, Harry thought the large kitten was all bandy-legged and ugly, but several hours of listening to Hermione extol his many virtues the night before soon allowed him to see the ginger's positive traits.

He definitely preferred his own find though. While Hermione had been introducing herself to the kitten in her lap, Harry had felt a pair of eyes on his back. Sweeping his gaze over the menagerie he had finally located the tiny pure grey-downed fledgling watching him from the corner.

The moment their eyes had met, striking yellow to disguised brown instead of his usual green, he had felt a connection in his chest. She was achingly beautiful and held herself with a dignity that seemed so out of place in an owl her age.

Harry allowed the feeling to draw him in, soon reaching his hand out and jolting in surprise as the lithe bird gave a small hop, passing from the tiny perch onto his outstretched arm. The tiny figure weighed around two or so pounds and her eyes did not leave his own as the pair calmly walked back to where Richard was bickering with Sirius over who would pay for Crookshanks. Hermione finally looked up from her new pet to see Harry and she smiled openly at him.

The regal bird finally turned from Harry, facing her white mask at the girl now staring at her in awe. Harry could feel Hermione's magic reach out to the bird slightly, much as his own had done. He watched silently as the bird gave Hermione's outstretched finger a gentle nip before turning to him and giving a bark of approval. Harry nodded in agreement, he was quite fond of both his girls.

The adults had continued to bicker about payment rights for both animals but the children had been oblivious, far too lost in appreciating their newest friends. While Hermione's new ally had come prenamed, Harry was still searching his mind for something suitable.

Hearing a noise from the nearby back door, Harry glanced up and noted Andromeda watching them from the house. He briefly recalled their meeting the day before and he smiled at the woman.

She seemed kind enough and very familiar with Sirius's mischievous nature. He'd informed them as they shopped that Andromeda had been cast from his family for her choice to follow her heart and marry a muggleborn named Ted. He was currently inside with their daughter as the Grangers and Marauders determined if she was able to keep Harry's secrets.

Harry's eyes flicked between Andromeda and his owl and he noted several similarities between the females. Both had a regal bearing, both were very beautiful and both had a hidden strength he could feel under the surface. The comparison reminded Harry of a book he'd read a long time ago, describing some of the most famous people in what he now knew to be Andromeda's profession of healing.

"Hedwig," he whispered, drawing the eye of the two closest females.

The owl looked into his eyes for several silent moments rolling her head slightly. Harry held his breath as she analysed the word before she finally bobbed her head and straightened once more, giving an affirmative bark.

"I like it," Hermione whispered beside him, close enough in their usually snuggled position for him to hear her clearly.

Hedwig turned to face the girl and Harry was sure the bird appeared to be smiling, despite the impossibility of such a thing happening with the solid bone and keratin of her beak.

"Wow…" Harry's eyes flicked up at the new voice and he realised there were now several people standing quite close to where he was seated.

Andromeda was side by side with a man whose entire figure just yelled the word 'kind' at Harry's mind. He was as fair-haired as Andromeda's was dark and his soft body reminded Harry of how people called Santa jolly, though he wasn't nearly so rotund as the mythical man.

The Grangers were to the Tonkses' left and Sirius was one step closer than the rest, looking stressed yet hopeful in the direction of the girl standing closest of all. She was staring at her exposed arms as if fascinated by them.

The girl was only a few years older than Harry but she managed to look every bit the child of both Ted and Andromeda. She had the same soft kindness in her heart-shaped face that Ted exuded from his own while sharing her mother's poise and eyes. Harry smiled at her and her eyes squished for a moment, when they opened again they were now violet instead.

"Wotcher." She said joyfully, a quizzical smirk on her face. "Can you turn that thing off or not?"

Harry looked at her in confusion until he felt Hermione's magic recede away from him. He glanced at her and noticed a light blush on her cheeks and realised his own must have been getting away from him in their quiet moment.

He steadied himself and felt it pull inward once more. Leaving him feeling a touch colder now, despite the warm sunny day they were experiencing.

"Sorry, it does that sometimes." He apologised, standing up and walking over to the girl, Hedwig now settled on his shoulder. He glanced at the family arrayed about the girl and extended his hand. "My name is Harry."

The girl smiled back as she took his hand but was prevented from replying as Hedwig took the opportunity to hop along their arms to the girl's shoulder. Her bright yellow eyes stared into the girl's violet ones from a few centimetres away, neither blinking for a very long time.

At long last, the girl squeezed her eyes again and when they opened her eyes matched Hedwig's in every way. The owl turned back to Harry and barked once more.

"Hedwig likes you. So far she's been a wonderful judge of character."

"That's good to know. How long have you had her?" the girl asked, turning back to face him, two pairs of identical yellow eyes now watching him.

"Bit over a day." The girl looked surprised for a moment before she started laughing, finally releasing his hand.

"Harry," Andromeda said, stepping closer to the trio. "This is my daughter, Nymphadora." A flash of red coloured the girl's cheeks at the sound of her name. "She is your second cousin, once removed."

"Cousin is just fine. I've never cared for all this removed stuff. And please don't call me… that."

Harry smiled at the difference between mother and daughter. Andromeda's crisp tone and pronunciation versus the other's more easy-going manner. "Nym?" Harry asked.

The girl scrunched her whole face and Harry figured she hated the idea, but before he could speak again, her long mousy brown hair began to recede until it was barely past her ears and became bright pink. Her face was changing too, shifting to look less like her mother for some reason. When her eyes opened once more, they had returned to the violet colouring.

"That is so cool." He whispered, not realising he'd spoken aloud.

"Isn't it? I suppose Nym would be alright."

"Nymphadora is a perfectly acceptable name. I don't know why you make such a big fuss about it." Andromeda clicked from behind the girl, who did not blush this time, but Harry thought that may have something to do with how she changed her face.

"How do you do that?"

"The Black family is very old," Andi explained. "Almost as old as the Potters, and has entwined with many other families over the years gaining and sharing several descendant abilities. Nymphadora has inherited the family's long-buried metamorphmagus ability."

"Means I can look however I like, whenever I like." Nym smiled, raising her arm and allowing Hedwig to hop along it to Harry's shoulder once more. "But we're being rude. Nym."

The metamorph extended the now owl-free arm to the girl who had crept up beside Harry. "Hermione. Can I learn how to do that too?"

Harry laughed at Hermione's insatiable desire for new knowledge and skills. "Unfortunately not," Harry stated. "Metamorphs are only born. Just like I can't teach you how to speak to snakes. Magic is picky on some of its abilities."

Hermione frowned and Harry tried not to laugh, instead wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close. Nym glanced at the two of them but smiled as Harry gestured her towards the tree and the three kids sat beneath its wide shadow. The adults dissolved away, some gathering by the barbeque near the shed, the others at the outdoor setting. But he still noticed the wary glances they cast their way.

"I think they're all worried we're going to eat you or something," Hermione whispered, drawing Nym's attention to the looks as well.

"Perhaps. Mum's always been on me to make more friends. I was pretty sheltered growing up until I managed to get a handle on the meta thing. Hard to send me off to a sleepover if the girl that wakes up the next day looks completely different to the one they tucked in." Nym laughed at what Harry felt was an actual memory, rather than a random example.

"Yeah," He said softly, eyeing Sirius and Remus. "I know the feeling of being coddled a bit too much. I appreciate it, it shows how much they care. But sometimes it makes you want to tear their hair out."

"Be kinda hard for you? Given…" Nym trailed off and Harry noticed she seemed wary of him now.

"Yes," he replied, the wide smile on his face settling the girl as he realised what she meant. "They're dead, but I still get to talk with them at home. Pops and Mipsy were great growing up and now I have the family paintings, and the Grangers, who are so great. Sirius and Remus are like a pair of wacky uncles. And now I've got cousins too. My family keeps getting bigger."

The broad grin on his face showed how much Harry appreciated every member of his broadening family. "You're like a singularity of family, Harry. The more you get and the denser it becomes, the more family it pulls in." Hermione joked, poking him in the side, setting all three laughing.

"So, I've met Hedwig," The owl preened herself at the attention, making Harry feel all warm as he watched her. "But who is this little cutey?" Nym asked, reaching out towards the ginger kitten crawling back into Hermione's lap.

"Crookshanks. He's just beautiful isn't he?" Harry bit his tongue, still not quite seeing the beauty that the girls did, but not wanting to upset either of them as well.

Harry doubted he'd ever understand girls properly.

ϟ

Richard loved the smell of a good barbeque.

As a lifelong Brit, he knew they were a rarity. The grill they were currently standing at had been built at the house around Hermione's fourth birthday and had been used a grand total of twenty times in the intervening six years.

The two adults were often too busy managing their fledgling dental practice on days when it was nice enough to use.

Yet when the weather today had turned out so perfect, he'd quickly convinced Natalie to change their impending lunch to an afternoon barbeque. There was something special about the smell of charring meat in the bright summer air.

"They seem to be getting along well," Remus commented, sipping his beer.

"Harry has that effect on people." Richard laughed, turning the sausages. "Natalie has all but adopted him. You two as well, heaven help us."

Sirius stood by Ted watching the trio under the tree carefully. The few stories the man had told of his family made it clear where his unease originated, but from what Richard had seen of the Tonkses so far, they were good people. "Relax, anyone would think you were Harry's actual dad the way you act sometimes."

Remus spurted beer over the tidy lawn and began to cough deeply, Ted soon soothing his discomfort with a spell that drew Richard's attention from the grill long enough for a burning smell to waft upwards.

"Please…" Remus croaked. "Never put that image in my head again. Padfoot with children."

"Shut up, Moony. It could happen."

"Sure, and I might wake up tomorrow in remission."

Sirius made a rude gesture that got him a firm whack on the hand from the pair of tongs. "Not in front of the kids."

"Ow, you're as bad as Lily sometimes." Sirius groaned, rubbing his sore wrist. "Looks like it's my turn for another round?"

The other males nodded and watched as Sirius transformed and bounded towards the children. All three of them burst out laughing however when he stuck his head too close to the now cantankerous kitten and its sharp claws. The yelp Padfoot let out, set the entire yard full of laughter.

"I'll be honest, there were a lot of times when Hermione was growing up, I thought something like this would never happen. She just never seemed to click with the other kids. Then she met Harry… Talk about a whole new world."

"Meeting James was a similar experience for me. I was bitten as a child, so by the time Hogwarts came about, I had made my peace with the fact I was never going to have friends because of it. James wouldn't have it. He hounded me until I gave in. When they learned about my secret I was terrified it'd be the end."

Remus paused to down the remainder of his beer. "Turns out all it did was spur them all to master a difficult form of magic to keep me company. Harry has shown a similar stubbornness in his friendship with Hermione. I can't say for sure, but it feels like Potters bond early and for life. He'll never let them go."

"Dora seems to be fitting in well too." Ted offered, nodding along with the other men. "Her meta powers meant we often had to say no to her going out. This led her to rebel a lot. Which Dromeda never took well. They butt heads a lot, but I don't think I'd have it any other way. You can see it in her face right now. She's been hiding her Black features for about four months now. It's driving Dromeda mad."

The men all chuckled at the image that wrought. Richard liked Ted immensely. He was very quiet, often seeming to be absorbing all the information around him. But he had a spark to him that Richard was very familiar with.

"Kids, eh?" Richard said at long last as Sirius arrived back in human form with an armful of chilled beverages. That led to a quick toast to those who had brought them together today.

ϟ

"I'd call today a success? Wouldn't you?" Natalie questioned as she picked up the soapy plate.

"Indeed. I worry about Nymphadora a lot. I've seen the darker side of our world from far too close for my liking, and I've let that colour my actions maybe a little too much where she's concerned. She's really chafing under my rule sometimes." Andromeda replied, finding the ritual of manually cleaning the day's dishes to be a good way to clear her mind.

"Hermione's getting to that age now too. And with magic, she's beyond what we could have hoped to manage alone. Harry's habit of building new family so easily has been a godsend. Without Remus and now yourselves, I think Richard and I would be going crazy trying to keep up with her."

"Why did we have girls?"

"We're gluttons for punishment?" Natalie replied and Andi laughed.

"Can you imagine if they'd been boys?"

Both women remained silent for a thoughtful moment before laughing loudly. "No, thank you. Girls are far less trouble." Natalie laughed.

"Yes. One Sirius in the family is quite enough. At least Crookshanks seems to have his measure already. Though kneazles are an excellent judge of character."

"Hermione had never asked for a pet, but the moment she saw that kitten she was gone for him."

"It's possible she's developing a familiar bond. A magical can feel it in their chest when they meet a potential familiar. I once had a sweet little cat of my own. She was much older when I met her though, she died a few years ago now. I can still feel a small space in my magic that she used to fill.

"Harry is most definitely forming one with Hedwig. It's a good thing he seems to like surrounding himself with strong confident women. Imagine if the only role models he had were Remus and Sirius?"

"Goodness, no. They're lovely guys, but sole parents of a little boy. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

Quiet filled the room once again as the pair finished tidying up. It wasn't until the pair were seated at the kitchen table, watching the men chase the kids about the garden as they shared a tea that they spoke again.

"Your family..." Natalie began.

"Sirius is all I claim from that bunch these days. It's odd that the black sheep of the Black family are the ones who show basic human decency. Though I still sometimes wonder if my cousin has that." Andi joked, watching the man bound about as a dog once more. "I was cast out for falling in love with a man they found lacking simply for the fact his parents lacked magic."

"But the way you direct Nymphadora?"

"I know. It's hypocritical of me, but I know what it's like to be a woman in the magical world. And she'll face trouble from some simply because Ted is a muggleborn. Others will want to use her meta powers for their own gain. Or worse. The Blacks might be mad and bigoted, but they instilled many qualities in me that I can see the value of in such a world."

"Does it bother you that she's rebelling against it?"

"Not in the slightest," Andromeda commented, giving a wistful sigh. "The Black Sisters were a force of nature when we went to Hogwarts. No one crossed us. Bella has since proven why no one messed with her. But as much as it may not seem so to Nymphadora, I was once a wild child too. I think once she gets to Hogwarts, she'll begin to see some of my advice bear fruit. I hope she can find people like Harry and Hermione there."

"Yes, I'm so glad they found one another. Though it has led to some struggles I never thought I'd face as a mother. Like Hermione hiding in that library they installed. You can't open the door if you don't have magic, so no visitor stumbles in there. But, she likes to sulk in there knowing we can't get her out."

"If that's the worst she's doing, I'd consider myself lucky."

"Oh, believe me," Natalie said, watching the literal dog pile in the garden. "I do. Every single day."

ϟ

Sirius watched quietly from the far corner of the bed.

Two pairs of yellow eyes watched him in return, one on the headboard and the other curled atop the softly shifting lump in the covers. The three children had continued talking and playing into the far late hours and the adults had caved to five sets of weaponized eyes begging for a sleepover.

However, unlike Hermione's sleepovers with Harry, this house now came with a guardian who wouldn't let him get any closer than the very farthest corner of the covers. He'd been so pleased to win the fight and pay for Hermione to own the little furball that had stolen her heart, but Crookshanks was insanely protective of the girl already. Sirius wiggled his tender nose softly as he considered the animal.

Sirius had never had a chance to form a familiar bond, not risking the pets his awful parents might have tried to saddle him with. Unless one considered his connection with James. The two had been the very firmest of friends from day one. Something he saw in Harry and Hermione more and more every day. It was one of the reasons he'd spent nearly every single night curled at the end of whatever bed Harry happened to fall asleep in.

That and the inescapable fear that when he closed his eyes, he'd open them to find hard black stone and no Harry.

The boy was his touchstone to what he was constantly assured was reality and not the final cruel trick of the Dementors. Sirius smiled to himself as he watched the once more brown-haired Dora roll in her sleep, disturbing Crookshanks from his position. He'd been afraid of letting Harry anywhere near his relatives, but he'd forgotten how much fun little Dora had been, even as a baby.

Andi had always been his favourite cousin, but after so long apart, he worried that things may have changed. He was happy to be proven wrong, and Harry now had as good as a big sister in the playful Tonks girl.

Though he was a little miffed that she could disturb the cat's rest without being assaulted, yet he would be whacked on the nose for the slightest misstep. It was like James's little ginger friend all over again. In fact, the animal looked uncannily like Nibbles but for the yellow eyes, instead of green.

Eyes which were staring at him once more and he let a throaty growl out of his throat at the glare. Perhaps he'd need to buy Harry a new broom so the lad could terrorise this one too.

His head spun at the soft laugh coming from the doorway and his body tensed to pounce when he spotted Andi watching him quietly.

"I didn't believe it when Natalie told me you did this. Remus is right, we need to get you a girlfriend, Sirius."

His eyes refocused on the children. So far as he knew, he had none of his own from before his imprisonment, and the healers had been unsure of his ability to have any now he was free. Not that he cared about continuing his family's deranged line regardless.

But it made him appreciate the little gift James had left him to care for all the more. He would do anything to keep Harry safe. No matter the ridicule it brought him.

He shifted back to human form, sitting cross-legged in the same space he had been occupying. "Harry needs me. I'll be here as long as he does."

Andromeda walked over, standing by the bed. "Needs you? For what, he looks perfectly fine to me?"

Sirius gave his cousin a cheeky grin. "Someone has to protect his virtue. Look at him, wrapped up between two scheming women. He needs me to keep him safe."

Andi laughed softly, getting a glare from Crookshanks as Hermione shifted under the covers. "Sirius Black, Defender of Virtues. That is a new one."

"I'm scared, Andi," Sirius whispered after several moments of silence. His eyes fixed on the woman beside him as he spoke. "Scared that this is all a painful dream. That I'll wake up in thatf*ckingcell. That he'll disappear. I failed him so badly once before, I can't do so again."

Andi placed her hand on his cheek, gently caressing the tears that had begun to fall. Before she pulled back and gave him a very light slap. "Good."

"How did you manage? How do you ever let her out of your sight?" Sirius asked, nodding at Dora as she muttered nonsense in her sleep.

"You don't, Sirius," Andi replied, a tenderness in her voice as she watched her daughter begin to snore softly. "You try your best, and you make mistakes. But you keep on trying. And you love them so fiercely that they'll hate you for it sometimes.

"They'll fight and argue and drive you mad. And I wouldn't give it up for the world. Nymphadora is a gift, and so are those two. We treasure them as such and arm them against the world while we can. Think you can manage that?" She finished, turning to face him once more.

Sirius took a few deep breaths to steady himself. He couldn't bring himself to admit the other reason he liked to curl up on Harry's bed as he slept. The few nights he'd woken from horrible nightmares to find Harry curled up in Padfoot's middle, hugging him firmly were one of the few things keeping him grounded right now.

The month of healers and talking had helped, but Harry made it real in a way no amount of talking could ever achieve.

"I solemnly swear." He whispered, turning back into Padfoot and resting his snout on the warm legs beneath the blanket. Just out of reach of the swiping claws.

Chapter 20: Decisions, decisions

Chapter Text

Friday 1st September 1989.

"Can't you just go next year instead?" Hermione asked, her arms nearly crushing the metamorph as she stood on the platform. "I'm going to miss you so much."

Nym laughed at the girl. The few short weeks they'd spent together this summer had hardly been enough to get to know one another, but they were already keen friends. It had been nice to finally meet people she could be herself with, whatever form that happened to be on any given day. And finally seeing that there was more to her extended family than crazy aunts and bigoted cousins was a relief as well.

Harry had certainly been surprising. The boy had an aura about him that was obvious even now as he stood a foot away. The disguise had thrown her a bit at first, as it made him look like Hermione's brother with the brown hair and eyes. He even held himself much like Richard had whenever they were anywhere but home. Slightly rigid and ever-alert to his surroundings.

His ability to drag people into his orbit was astounding. They'd not even spent a full month as friends and already she felt like he was the little brother she'd begged her parents for.

Hermione, on the other hand, was less of a surprise and more of a handful. The questions never stopped, but they were always interesting. The younger girl craved knowledge in all its forms, and Harry and the Family at large were terrible for indulging her habit. The once small closet in her bedroom was now a fully expansive library full of books on all different kinds of magic.

And yet, Nym still felt the girl was becoming family as well. She was absolutely right that Harry just drew it in, blood relation or not and then he treated you like family. He unconsciously yearned for it and the world yielded it to him in spades.

"I'm only going away till Christmas, Hermione. And just think of all the fun stuff I'll be able to bring back from Hogwarts!"

"But that's so long. And it's so far away. You will write, won't you? I know you don't have an owl, but Nemea will be happy to bring your letters."

Nym had to use her ability to buff up her arms in order to finally break the hold the child had about her middle. "Of course. As much as I can. I'm going to miss you all, too."

Her mother held herself in her usual stoic fashion, but the smile on her face was half proud and half saddened. Nym knew she'd pushed her luck with her mother a lot lately, keeping the Black traits out of her face. But she knew that her mother cared for her, despite the now stiff hug she was giving her.

"Work hard. You know these two won't be slacking off in your absence." Andromeda warned.

"Oh, hell no! I'm not going to be beaten by a pair of little kids. I'm going to learn so many new spells. Then I'll be able to help Sirius prank you all." Nym grinned as she hugged her father.

Her mother was always prim and proper, but her father was modest and unobtrusive. The type of man who could disappear into a crowd without trying. Yet when he got going, he was a barrel of fun to be around. His influence on Nym's manner and demeanour was obvious to anyone who truly knew the man.

"Be safe, be smart, have fun." He whispered in her ear, barely audible over the din of the crowded platform. "I love you, Dora."

"Thanks, Dad. Love you, too."

"Oooooh." Came the now-familiar teasing from behind.

Nym tried a trick she'd only recently perfected, not leaving her father's arms, she morphed her entire body so that she was now facing the sneaky Marauder who looked shocked to be face to face with her so suddenly. She probably looked incredibly weird with her body now backwards in her clothing, but it was worth it to see the shock on Sirius's face.

His wand was half drawn and despite the surprise in his face, he was clearly still up to mischief.

"Don't make me set Hedwig on you again!" Nym warned, a flash of fear appearing in her cousin's eyes at the memory of the one time he'd tried to prank the bird.

"I'll behave." He mumbled, returning his wand to his pocket. "Spoilsport."

"Ignore him. Make the most of Hogwarts. Explore, learn. Get in trouble from time to time." Remus whispered as he hugged her as well once she righted herself once more. This day had been on the horizon for so long that she'd been resigned to a simple farewell from her mother and father. But being part of the Extended Potters came with a lot of goodbyes and hugs. Something she had come to enjoy greatly. "But try not to get caught."

The werewolf winked at her, and she noted the slight weight in her robe pocket. Something she would have to investigate later once she boarded the steaming train. "Of course." She smiled in return, finding herself suddenly wrapped from the side by Harry's arms.

"I'll miss you, Nym. I don't like watching family leave."

"I'm not leaving." She replied, ruffling his hair. "I'm getting professional help to get one up on you for a change."

Harry pulled back and gave her a broad smile. It was still strange looking upon his unusual disguise, and the adults had been mostly tight-lipped about why the boy always needed to wear it in public, but she was getting better at seeing him underneath it.

She winked at him and gave an exaggerated wiggle of her nose just like Samantha from Bewitched, a show the kids had enjoyed watching together a few times in the past couple of weeks. Harry raised his fingers, poised ready to snap and she gave him a warning glare.

"Don't you dare!"

His grin was disturbingly reminiscent of Sirius as he lowered his fingers and tucked in beside Hermione once more, their arms reaching out the moment the pair were close enough to do so. A shrill whistle pierced the air and Nym took a deep breath. As much as she looked ready to go on the outside, her insides were churning with nerves.

Her mother stepped closer once more and whispered into her ear. "Relax, sweetheart." A name she very rarely used, much less in public. "Your hair is changing colours on its own again. Have fun, just remember to try and learn a thing or two while you're up there, too."

"Thanks, Mum."

"Now get yourself on board before you miss the train." Andromeda gave her a gentle push in the direction of the red carriages. The rare unmasked smile she gave was more encouraging than all the hugs in the world. Well, maybe not all the hugs, she thought, glancing at her newest friends.

"I'll see you all at Christmas." She yelped, hopping up into the closest carriage and letting the door swing closed behind her as the train began to slide forward. "And I'll write loads."

She waved at the Family staring up at her. Her stomach was still churning, but she was committed now. Off to the mythical Hogwarts to learn her place in the world.

Though she was already missing everyone, even though they were standing only a few metres away as the train began to chug and shift properly. She watched until the Family were out of sight before turning and walking directly into a surprisingly stocky dark-haired boy her own age, knocking herself back into the door.

"Bugger. Five minutes! Can I not go five flaming minutes."

"Are you alright?" The boy asked, holding his head where she had bounced off of it and extending his other out to her in the stairwell.

"Yeah, I'll be fine. Happens all the time." She grumbled, allowing him to help her up.

"Well, that's… um. Sorry. My name's Cedric. Did you want to find somewhere to settle in?"

Nym considered him for a moment, his bright grey eyes watching her think. "May as well. Let's get this show on the road, then."

The boy looked puzzled by her comment but shrugged it off and headed off down the walkway, Nym following along behind wondering just what this year might bring.

ϟ

Friday 22nd December 1989.

Harry was so happy to see Nym again that she had barely made it off the train before she was knocked to the platform by two babbling children. Her few short months at Hogwarts had yielded a few good friends already, but none had yet compared to the pair wrapped about her waist.

"Relax. I'm happy to see you too, but we're blocking the stairs. You don't want to be the one getting in the Twins' way." Nym advised, trying to return to an upright position without losing her newly acquired human carry-on baggage.

"Fresh meat, George, ol chap." One of a pair of smirking eleven-year-old redheads said from above their prone forms.

"Ideas, brother mine?"

"Leave them alone." A dark-haired boy warned, offering his hand to Nym and helping lift the three back to their feet.

Harry noticed that the smirks on the redhead's faces had not disappeared and the look in their eyes was far too reminiscent of one Sirius often wore. He made a note to watch them as they left.

"We missed you. Lots." Harry whispered to Nym, Hermione nodding her agreement.

Nym glanced at the boys behind her before whispering in return. "I missed you, too."

The three kids smiled broadly as Ted stepped forward and guided them away from the doorway where a large group was now looking out, frustrated at the blockage at their chosen exit and some wondering if they should just head back down the train to another.

"Where are the Tweedles?" Nym enquired as she gave her father a welcoming hug.

Harry grinned. "Grounded."

"What on earth did you do to manage that?"

"Not us," Hermione replied defensively. "And only one of them is grounded. Brought this one entirely on himself though. But there is something we want to try when we get home. An early Christmas present for you if it works." Hermione added as the small group moved towards the exit from the platform.

As soon as the whole group was inside, holding hands, Nym found herself transported not to the open area of platforms nine and ten at King's Cross station as she had expected, but to an expansive open garden she had not seen before.

"What the… Where are we?" She questioned, noticing the smiles on the faces of the others.

"Home," Harry stated plainly before running for the large house behind them. Nym was somewhat stunned at the size of it and Hermione stopped to wait for her at the entrance while Harry rushed into the library.

"We're back!" Hermione said as the two girls finally made it inside with Nym's head feeling dizzy from looking all around as they walked through the impressive house.

"Any trouble?" The painting asked as the others slowly filed in.

"Less than expected. Nym has a couple of guy friends it seems." Harry called, plonking himself in his favourite chair and watching as Hermione led a bewildered and slightly blushing Nym into the room. "We'll have to give them a talking to when she heads back again."

"Don't you dare," Nym warned before she caught sight of the enormous painting that covered the entire wall of the room. Harry grinned, so happy that Remus and Sirius had exchanged the large doorway-sized piece for this one in October. It allowed them to sit in with thewholefamily.

"Hello, dear. It's a pleasure to meet you again." Lily said, drawing the stunned girl's eye.

"I think we broke her," Hermione whispered as she joined Harry on their chair.

"To be fair, you were a little broken the first time I brought you here." Harry nudged in return.

"What?" Hermione replied indignantly, the smile belying the hurt she was feigning. "It's an impressive library. And it was my birthday."

"The best decision I ever made." Harry smiled.

The pair settled back and watched as Nym continued to remain still, staring at his extended family. It wasn't until her mother hugged her tightly that her focus was turned away from the wall. "Hello, Nymphadora. It's good to have you home."

"Home?" The girl wondered, staring about the large space.

"Figure of speech, dear. How was Hogwarts? Your letters were far too infrequent." Andromeda asked as she guided the young girl to a large leather couch. The few armchairs that had been there so long now proved insufficient in keeping up with Harry's growing number of regular visitors.

"It was… good. I'm sorry, are we all just going to ignore this? How did we get here? Whereishere?"

"You are seated in the library of the Potter family's ancestral home." Harry's grandfather explained, stepping forward in the painting. "The Potters have lived here for generations now. As for how you got here, that will be explained in a few minutes. Your mother demanded that she be the one allowed to explain what would happen."

Nym glanced at her mother and noticed a smile spread across the woman's face. "They did it to me. I had to take the chance to do it to you."

"Did what?" Nym replied, growing more confused by the minute. "What is going on?"

"As Charlus explained, this is Harry's home. He's lived here ever since November of 1981. The Grangers have been regular visitors for some time, but before he met Hermione, Harry only had the elves for company."

Harry grinned as the four elves popped in and greeted his practically adopted sister, introducing them all. "Mipsy and Nemea you have met. The others are Tybalt, Mipsy's twin brother. And Pops. he runs things around here."

"And don't you forget it, lad!" Pops cautioned.

"Ok… there is an 'and' though, isn't there?"

"As you know from their letters, we've been tutoring these two on some basic magic since you left. They still go to muggle school during the week, but we alternate weekends with Sirius and Remus and we each try to get them up to snuff on the things that magical children learn before heading to magical schooling. Make sure they'd be ready to go."

"Yeah." Nym drawled suspiciously. "The 'and'?"

"You're so impatient, Nym." Hermione chastised, giggling slightly.

"You can talk. You were up at five this morning begging us to go to King's Cross already." Remus chimed, walking into the room. "Hello, Dora."

The girl waved halfheartedly and turned on her mother, her hair beginning to redden. "Stop stalling and get to the 'and'!"

"Fine, I started the children on basic potions prep last month, and Harry being his excitable self knocked his cauldron full of hot water off the desk. Instead of splashing very hot water over the both of them, Harry snapped his fingers and the cauldron hovered back into place without injury."

"So, Harry can focus his accidental magic? That's the big deal?"

"No, Dora," Ted interjected. "Harry and Hermione both shared magic with Mipsy and Nemea respectively. As a result, the two can manipulate magic the way that the elves do, as well as channelling it through a focus like a wand."

"What!? That's so cool, you have to show me. Wait… is that how you…" Nym trailed off and Harry smirked, knowing she realised she was about to drop them all in it.

She'd been quite put out that she couldn't figure out how the pair had stuck Sirius to the top of their four-poster the morning after he had attempted to prank Hedwig the one and only time. As if the owlet's own revenge had not been enough punishment.

"After talking it over, and Sirius deciding to be an impatient child, we realised that adults cannot share magic with elves. We think it's only the immaturity of their magic at the time that let the process take in these two."

"Wait, Sirius is grounded for trying to share magic with an elf?"

"No, Sirius is grounded for almost killing Pops by trying it while he was sleeping," Harry growled.

He loved his godfather dearly, but Pops had raised him since he was a baby. Anyone who put his family at risk would face his wrath.

"Oh. Are you alright, Pops?" Nym asked.

"I am fine, miss. I have been dealing with Master Sirius since he was your age. It'll take a lot more than him to do me in."

"Doesn't mean I can't be angry," Harry mumbled, drawing a warning glance from the aged elf.

"The family has talked it over and, should you agree, there is an elfin who has volunteered to try the process with you. Only under close supervision, however."

Every adult eye in the room focused on Harry and Hermione, who blushed slightly but refused to drop their eyes. Nym sensed there was a story she was going to be getting out of them both later that night involved in the looks, but considered what her mother and father were offering her.

"So, what you're saying is that Dad isn't the one who brought us all here today?" Nym glanced at her father and he smiled back at her, shaking his head.

"Nope." She glanced over at Harry who vanished from the chair and was suddenly sitting on her lap, wrapping his arms about her stomach and squeezing tightly. "It was me."

"Cool." A moment later, Harry had returned to his own seat and everyone watched quietly as Nym considered the offer. Several quiet minutes passed before she nodded slowly, turning to face Andromeda. "Any side effects?"

"We can't be sure. Those two have been fine ever since, but it knocked Pops and Sirius out for two days. We've been debating back and forth for the last month about it, but it's your choice. We're as sure as we can be though that it is safe for you to try. It might work. It might not."

Nym considered her options again and Harry was practically bouncing in his seat, Hermione feeling equally agitated beside him. "Ok. How do we do this?"

"You don't have to do it right now."

"If age is a factor, may as well do it as soon as possible. What do I do?"

Andromeda stood from the couch but put her arm on Nym's shoulder as she moved to follow her. "Tuck in your feet and face the side." Nym quickly did so and was soon staring into the vibrant eyes of the elfin who had appeared on the couch.

Harry watched excitedly as Andromeda guided Nym through the process he and Hermione had explained to the adults in fine detail over the past month. Several minutes later, the elfin had taken on several of Nym's features, ironically maintaining the vibrant purple colour in his eyes, and things seemed to be as complete as they would become.

"How do you feel?" Andromeda asked, kneeling beside her daughter.

Harry felt it as Nym flexed her body and her magic back and forth for several minutes before frowning slightly. "I'm trying to find the right word… stable, I guess."

"Stable?" Her mother asked, curiously.

"I've always felt in flux. It's why I trip all the time, my feet change shape of their own accord. It made shifting easier but I don't really feel that anymore." Nym went quiet and squeezed her eyes tightly for several moments. Her hair went through all the colours of the rainbow and her body seemed to shift under her robes. "Still got it. Yet, I do feel different, but still me."

"Try Popping." Hermione practically shouted.

"How?"

Hermione jumped up and rushed over to Nym, but Harry quickly interjected. "Hang on a minute, Hermione. Nym needs to give him a name first."

Hermione frowned but nodded and Nym turned to look at the elf who was watching her curiously. The metamorph cast her eyes about the room, lost in thought when she suddenly sprouted a wide grin. Her eyes flicked to Remus for a moment before she turned back to Hermione and the elf.

"I know. It's perfect. And Sirius will hate it. How about Romulus?"

Harry watched the elf consider the name, Moony groaning loudly from his chair. The elf smiled in return and nodded. "Yes. Romulus is good, Mistress."

Hermione jumped in place before hugging Nym tightly and quickly delivering a whispered crash course on how to utilise the teleporting ability. It took several long minutes before the girl was finally able to relocate herself across the room, to cheers from the gathered Family.

"Congratulations. Now try and levitate this book." Hermione appeared more excited by everything than Nym was, but Harry watched her closely. He could feel the girl's magic as she focused on the book and noticed the issue at the same time as Hermione's face fell.

"You can feel it too, can't you?" Harry asked, Hermione turning and nodding at him sadly.

"Feel what?" Remus asked.

"It didn't fully work. She can Pop, and it seems to have helped her shifting. But she doesn't have proper elf magic in her body to the level Hermione and I do. She still feels like Nym. Hermione felt different after. So do Mipsy and Nemea."

"You can feel all that?" Nym asked, still sounding stunned.

"Yeah. It was distracting at first, but now it's nice. I think it's why my magic sometimes goes off doing its own thing, like the day we met."

"You're not disappointed?" Hermione questioned, looking confused at Nym's reaction.

"Why would I be? Popping is the coolest. I couldn't do that before. I've side-alonged with Mum and Dad before. It sucks. Popping feels so much better. That's what threw me about how we got here, coz I didn't feel a thing. And it has made changing even easier. What's there to be sad about?"

Harry jumped off his chair and walked over to Nym, hugging her tightly. He pulled back and looked up at her face. His next words drew smirks from all three children.

"So, what new toys have you brought us for pranking Sirius?"

ϟ

Saturday 13th July 1991.

Nym stretched out in her bed, yawning loudly as she felt the warm sunshine filtering through the nearby window caressing her legs through the covers.

Summers were her favourite time of year.

Her first two full years at Hogwarts had been a lot of fun. Her rivalry with Harry and Hermione had spurred her to study hard and kept her near the top of her year, something that bugged the Ravenclaws as most of them were being outclassed by a simple Hufflepuff.

The teachers would often question her quick grasp of the subject material and her burning drive to master that which she found difficult. Nym would simply reply that she wasn't going to be outdone by her little cousin, drawing odd glances from most of the staff.

The friendships she had built there were great as well. She was on very good terms with her entire house, often getting praised for not only portraying the classic traits of Hufflepuff house, but showing up the other houses and proving that the Puffs weren't all pushovers.

Cedric was her closest friend at the school and had been ever since the day that she'd quite literally run into him head-first on the train. The boy was as kind as her father and very approachable, and he was turning into quite the looker as he got older as well. That thought made Nym blush and she was very glad that neither the Weasley Twins nor Harry and Hermione were in the room to see it.

The redheaded terrors had proven to be great friends as well. Being in Gryffindor had kept them from spending as much time together as she did with Cedric and her fellow Puffs, but she found time amongst her studies to assist them with their fooling around.

Her high scholastic status kept her from suspicion when they managed to get themselves caught, and they'd even promised to share the secret of their success this coming year.

And yet, despite the joy she felt when at Hogwarts, she was ever so glad to be home again.

Today more than usual as a set of dangerously honed puppy dog eyes had allowed her cousin to spend the night. Letting that thought filter fully, Nym realised she was wasting the day with him and she threw off the covers. Hermione chided her for her messiness, but ever since Nym bonded with Romulus, he had been cleaning up after her. Be it at home or Hogwarts.

Nym skipped her way out to the kitchen to find the other three already sitting down to their breakfast. They had stopped waiting for her to rise during the summers before beginning as Nym was want to have a good lie in most mornings.

"Wotcher."

"Morning, Nym. Sleep well?" Harry enquired, making himself another bacon sandwich.

Nym nodded as a plate of her favourite breakfast foods popped into place in front of her. "Sure did. Thanks, Rom."

"I do wish you wouldn't let him do that." Her mother chided.

"He wants to do it, mum. Ask Harry if you don't believe me."

"We tied him up with magic-resistant ropes one morning to keep him from helping her," Harry replied, swallowing a chunk of his sandwich. "He nearly chewed through the ropes to get free. None of our elves has ever been quite so eager before. You must have passed more to him than he did to you."

Nym replied by simply poking her tongue at her cousin and chowing down on her meal. The family ate in peace for several long minutes before the pure white form of Harry's familiar swooped in the open window and landed delicately on the table between Harry and Nym.

"Good morning, Hedwig. Don't you look beautiful today?" The bird preened under the attention. Despite being a female snowy owl, she didn't have a single blemish on her feathers. Ever since she'd lost the grey down shortly after Christmas in Nym's first year, she had been pure white head to toe. Her beak and eyes being the only exceptions. "Were you hiding at Hermione's all night? Odd of her to use you instead of Nemea to send me something."

Nym reached out to take the crisp letter from the regal bird's talons but jumped back as Hedwig barked at her and fixed her eyes on Nym's hand. "Not mine? Then who?"

Harry tilted his head until he could read the fine green ink on the front of the envelope. "Me?" He asked, confusion colouring his voice.

That was quite the surprise.

Though it was public knowledge these days that Harry had survived the attack on his family home as a baby, he still didn't get many letters. Most of the fan mail they now knew existed went to the goblins who sorted it out and summarised it, for a small fee of course.

The few dangerous ones were explained to Sirius and Remus, who had made a game out of punishing anyone who tried to harm their wards. Though Pops and Tybalt often reigned in their more aggressive ideas.

The other oddity was that Harry was so rarely anywhere that mail could arrive to him in person. The magic surrounding his home, school and the Grangers blocked post owls from coming or going. Except for Hedwig. She was far too used to the wards over the locations to be bothered by them. Often spending weeks at a time perched in the massive oak tree in the Grangers' backyard.

Protections that were not present around the Tonks's home, as Harry was unsure if they could be spread another time as they had done at the Granger home. Nor had her mother and father been unhappy with the wards that they already had. They didn't need a fortress for a home.

Nym redirected her hand to gently stroke Hedwig as she gathered a few pieces of her favoured bacon and fed them to her. There was no faster way to Hedwig's heart than fresh crispy bacon. Nym's attention was refocused on Harry as he dropped his fork loudly to his plate. His face had paled considerably and he looked scared.

"Harry? What's wrong?" Her father asked, looking concerned at the boy's rapid change in demeanour.

"I forgot. I'm sorry. I have to go home. Hedwig." The bird immediately leapt into the air and landed deftly on Harry's shoulder a fraction of a second after his jacket was secured in place. His face was still pale and his eyes were flicking back and forth.

"Harry?" Nym questioned, stepping from her chair and in his direction only for him to flinch slightly as she extended her hand.

"Sorry," he mumbled before vanishing with a loud crack.

This surprised Nym more than anything. Having been popping about herself for more than a year now, she understood that the elven magic dulled the speed with which the air tried to fill the empty space left behind when they popped. That was why popping was nearly silent while apparition had its telltale sound. For Harry to make so much noise using the ability meant he was truly frazzled.

"We have to get to Hermione's now," Nym whispered, the sound carrying in the near-silent kitchen.

"What do you mean?" Andromeda questioned.

"Please. We need to go now."

Nym had never felt so worried for her cousin.

He had wormed his way into her heart within the first week she had known him, and their collective hijinks had normally meant that life was bright and airy around his extended family. But this morning he had looked truly afraid.

Her parents wasted no more time, ducking away to their rooms and reappearing only a few minutes later dressed well enough for their impromptu departure. Nym grasped both their hands and a moment later the three were standing beneath the mighty oak in the middle of the Grangers back yard.

"Hermione!" Nym yelled, rushing for the door and leaving her parents behind again. "Hermione have you seen…"

She paused as she burst into the living room and saw four sets of human eyes staring at her and one half-kneazle. Natalie and Richard were seated at either end of their long couch, looking at her with confusion. Hermione was tucked between her parents looking at her with a wide smile as she tended to Crookshanks's fluffy belly, the cat watching her curiously as well.

"Hello, Miss Tonks. How odd seeing you here this morning."

Nym tried to settle her heart rate as she looked at her stern Transfiguration teacher, seated in one of the leather armchairs and lowering a cup of tea from her lips. The smirk on the elder witch's face concerned the girl greatly as her parents finally caught her up.

"Andromeda. Edward. A pleasure. I do say this explains quite a lot." McGonagall swept her eyes back over the faces of the Grangers, the adults blushing slightly under her gaze.

"Hello, Minerva. What brings you by today?" Ted greeted, not allowing the presence of the witch to throw his unflappable nature, taking the armchair beside her and leaning in her direction.

"It's that time of year, Edward. Young Hermione has garnered a place at our fine educational institution. As she is Muggleborn and I am Deputy Headmistress, it is part of my remit to introduce her to our world, as you surely well remember."

Andromeda laid her hand gently on Nym's shoulder, helping her remove her heart from her throat after having run into the Gryffindor head of house in the home of her closest female friend.

"I was beginning to wonder why Miss Granger seemed so unperturbed by my usual efforts. Imagine my surprise to find she knows one of my very own students." McGonagall smirked as she took another deep draw of her tea. "Explains this lovely tea as well. I had thought I might be going mad, tasting Hebron's Brew in a Muggle home."

"A gift." Andromeda offered as she took the other armchair, leaving Nym to stand, still watching the scene before her silently. "Meeting Natalie had been a godsend. Far too much testosterone around the group, and I needed another mother to heart to heart with. Imagine our surprise when Hermione showed some accidental magic a couple of years ago."

"Well, magic is a strange Mistress. She will as she does." Minerva commented, finishing off her tea. "However, it seems that you are in expert hands already, Miss Granger. I do hope you will consider our offer. The questions you have asked me so far speak very highly of your inquisitive nature. That would serve you well at our school."

The green-robed witch stood and gathered her belongings, tucking her wand back into a pocket in her coat. "I shall, of course, forward along the other materials you requested, Mrs Granger. I wouldn't like you to think we're selfish at Hogwarts. Though I personally shall regret it deeply if your daughter chooses to head across the Channel.

"Now I just need to figure out where that beautiful alabaster darling took that other letter." She mumbled to herself as she checked to see if she had left anything behind before nodding to the two families. "Good day to you all."

The woman walked to the front door, the silence of the house allowing everyone to hear as she closed the door behind her and the crack of displaced air shortly after. Nym sagged as she let out a deep breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding since entering the room.

"Bugger me." She sighed.

"Language, dear." Her mother chastised. "That was a pleasant surprise. Even more so that it seems to clarify just what Hedwig arrived with for Harry this morning."

"Where is Harry?" Hermione inquired, gently laying a complaining Crooks on the floor. "Didn't he stay with you last night?"

"He did. But this morning Hedwig arrived with a letter identical to the one your father is holding and Harry became very concerned and rushed home. It was quite… odd." Ted explained.

"Concerned? Oh! Of Course!" Hermione shouted, jumping from the couch and earning a scowl from Crooks as he ducked away from her thundering feet.

"Hermione. HERMIONE! Argh, we best head to the Manor." Natalie said, standing and moving to gather the tea supplies only for Nemea to appear and whisk them away, a look of disgust on her face that Nym assumed came from the fact she had been prevented from preparing the tea by a need for a Muggle family not to have a house-elf prancing about the house in front of the woman responsible for introducing them to magic.

"What is going on? What's with those two?" Nym asked, feeling adrift in the storm of activity.

"Come on, dear. We'll explain on the way. Harry will need you both this morning."

ϟ

Having taken far longer than she would have liked to change into something acceptable, Hermione popped into the Manor directly in front of Harry's bed, the boy clearly present under the balled-up covers. She slipped under the corner and was soon face to face with her hiding best friend.

"I'm sorry. I forgot, too."

Harry just nodded and let her hold him tightly. They'd become so caught up in the pattern of their lives it had completely slipped their minds that they were both eleven this year.

"I think our presence may be required soon. Between your exit and mine, some of the Family are probably in a bit of a tizzy."

Harry glanced up at her, his eyes were still full of fear. He had once managed to show her exactly how the pull on his magic so long ago had felt and she understood fully his fear.

There was no way that Albus Dumbledore wasn't thinking of Harry again right now. He was only safe right now under the cover of the Manor's wards. The pair lay there in silence, simply enjoying the other's presence for they knew not how long.

"I don't know what to do, Hermione."

She squeezed him tightly. "That's why we have the Family." She replied, using the nickname Sirius had given Harry's growing group after having been shown a few classic muggle movies at the Granger home. "You don't have to do anything alone, Harry."

The pair heard a rustling at the door and soon a third body joined them under the covers, only the face intruding into their space.

"What's going on here, Vincent?" Dr Doogie Howser asked, setting all three children laughing as Nym changed back to her normal appearance and shuffled further under the covers. "You gave me a fright running away like that, Harry."

"Sorry. It's a long story." Harry offered, with a weak smile.

"You don't need to tell me right now. I'm here to keep you company, not interrogate you. The parentals, on the other hand, are all chattering away in the usual place. But it's quite comfy in here, I'm happy to let them argue it out if you are."

Hermione smiled at the older girl, she always seemed to know how to cheer both of them up again. "Sounds good to me. As far as blanket forts go, it's not very roomy though."

Harry couldn't contain his laughter at the idea and Hermione felt his magic warming up again. It often reacted to his emotions like that, and the way that Hermione could feel it constantly made her able to read him like one of her favourite books.

"We have to go out there. This is something the whole family needs to decide." Harry explained, squeezing Hermione tightly before shuffling out from under the covers.

All three burst out into the light at the same time to find a panting dog standing in the doorway grinning stupidly, his eyes flicking cheerfully from one to the next.

"Not a word!" Hermione cautioned, positioning her fingers to snap and narrowing her eyes.

Padfoot barked back at them and tore off down the hallway, the sound of breaking crockery sounding down the corridor after him. The children laughed at the childlike man's antics and followed along slowly, repairing the broken vase on their way past. As one, they entered the library and squeezed into the empty chair that everyone knew belonged to Harry and Hermione, three being a very tight fit.

"So…" Harry said simply, tossing the offending letter that had triggered his panic attack onto the small coffee table in the middle of the semicircle of chairs. Hermione knew it would not have been immediate to Harry what it meant. He probably panicked once he saw the Headmaster's name written down on the letter inside.

Silence reigned for several minutes, the adults all staring at the envelope. Padfoot trotted over and lay at the base of Harry's chair, tucking his body under the boy's hanging feet.

"What are the benefits?" Hermione asked, breaking the silence. "You're already training us in magic. Will we learn any better going there?"

"Hogwarts is a wonderful school." Andromeda offered. "We wouldn't have sent Nymphadora there were it not. Every witch and wizard in this room has graduated from that school, no?"

"The school isn't the problem," Lily replied, tucked tightly against James in their painting.

"Dumbledore," James nodded, letting the word settle over the room.

"We still don't know what he wants with Harry. He appears to have been quiet since the ritual, assuming that Harry would eventually walk into his hands at Hogwarts, perhaps?" Charlus pondered aloud. "Should you go, we'd be handing you over for most of the year. While he can't keep you locked up, there are many other options he has available with you sleeping under his roof."

"I'm there." Nym squeaked and Harry smiled at her. "I can help."

"If you end up in the same house, that has merit. But if he sorted into Gryffindor. Most of the families in that house have some form of loyalty to Albus. Or he might go to Slytherin. Harry is quite cunning." Ted explained with a supportive smile at the boy.

"And you have the benefit of the fact no one associates you with Harry," Dorea noted. "Once that becomes public, you will face a lot more attention, Nym."

"We can't pull her out now," Andromeda said. "The law states once you start at a school you must complete at least OWL level there. There are a few loopholes, but it's too late to switch Nym out of there this year."

"I'm not overly fond of changing schools. I like it at Hogwarts. I have good friends there." Nym looked slightly torn.

"Minerva was at the Grangers this morning. Hermione's been offered a place as well." Ted commented. "She now knows we at least are friends with them. And we don't know what Garrick told Albus about that little trip the kids made. It's possible he could make that connection. Especially if we pull her out at the same time as these two refuse to attend."

The adults all became pensive, turning the options over in their heads as Padfoot placed his snout onto Harry's leg.

"Then I won't go," Harry stated plainly. He linked his fingers with Nym. "Keeping you safe trumps whatever I might learn there. If Dumbledore learns you know me, he might try to use you."

"Simple as that, is it?" Remus asked, smiling at him.

"Yes," Harry replied, locking eyes with the Marauder. "Family comes first. I don't want any of you being used because of me."

Harry turned and Hermione looked at him closely, inspecting him the way that Hedwig often did. She realised that his declaration could mean one of two things now depending on what she said next.

"Agreed." Hermione nodded. "Besides, we can learn faster the way we are now. We're already dealing with late second-year material in our weekend studies. Why start over? I'm looking forward to the extra subjects we'll be beginning this year. Plus, we have to keep the heat on Nym. She'll get complacent if we go to Hogwarts."

"Cheeky." The older girl laughed.

"You're sure, Harry?" Dorea asked, watching him carefully.

"Whatever it takes to keep everyone safe. I have a feeling I'm not leaving the wards for a while though." He replied solemnly.

"I guess it's a good thing you chose Wolsey Hall." Natalie smiled at the trio. "Besides it just being a fine school."

"Is there any way that we can figure out what he wants me so badly for?"

"We've been looking into it for years now, Harry," Remus commented. "Without anything concrete to work off, we have come up with nothing. We considered it might be due to your family's link to the Peverells, but he gave up the Cloak without a word according to the goblins."

"Can't believe he still had that. We could have used it back in '81." James grumbled.

"Bygones sweetie." Dorea smiled, patting her son's arm. "Let us worry about the future."

"So it is decided. We refuse." Harry asked, checking every face in the room, all of whom gave a slight nod at his glance. Hermione snuggled tighter against him and nodded into his neck. "I'll write my refusal letter then. Best to send it in and get things rolling as soon as possible."

"Me too. No matter what, you are never getting rid of me, Harry Potter." Hermione smirked against his ear.

ϟ

Sunday 14th July 1991.

Minerva worked a crick out of her neck and reclined in her chair. She truly loved working in the school, passing knowledge to the younger generations, but sometimes the paperwork was a murder. Even with the assistance of magic.

She was surprised from her thoughts by a loud bark and turned to see a familiar white figure perched on her desk.

"Hello there. Brought back my letter, have you?" She smiled at the beautiful menace.

The owl observed her silently, the eyes seeming to look far deeper than the surface before she barked again and flew out the still-open window.

Minerva watched as the lovely bird flew off into the sky before looking down to see several letters scattered evenly across her in-tray. She couldn't recall how many had been in there beforehand, but she pulled one off the top wondering whom the bird had belonged to.

It was not the letter the scoundrel had lifted from her desk a few days earlier.

Had it been later in the morning, she might have reacted in time, but she'd been too distracted by the owl's amazing plumage to notice her claw absconding with one of the many acceptance letters.

As she flipped the letter open, she considered the return address. It was familiar as she had been there only the day before. The meeting with the Muggleborn girl's family had thrown her as they barely reacted to her usual tricks, forcing her to up her game several times.

Young Nymphadora's arrival had helped clear things up. Minerva had worried she was losing her touch and would have to finally pass the torch to Filius.

She opened the letter and unfolded the paper within.

Minerva frowned as she read the polite yet wordy rejection. The letter didn't even explain which school had trumped her own, preventing her from sending a return to try one last effort to convince the young girl to attend by explaining how Hogwarts bettered the other facilities.

Miss Granger had shown such promise that Minerva was loath to lose her elsewhere.

Placing the letter aside, she picked up the next in the pile and quickly divested the letter from its envelope. If her meeting that morning had surprised her, she didn't know the words for what she was feeling right now.

For years, rumour had circulated their world about the possibility of young Mister Potter having survived the attack that took his parents from the world. And both the Daily Prophet and Albus had confirmed a few years prior that he was indeed alive.

However, rumour was a far cry from seeing what was clearly the boy's own handwriting on the paper in her hands.

Sadness soon overtook shock as she read the once again politely worded rejection. Harry Potter had chosen not to attend the school his parents had. She felt a hollowness in her chest as she considered James and Lily.

The lad had proven a whizz in her favoured form of magic and she had expected to see him achieve great heights before her own former classmate had so cruelly cut him down. Lily had been a treasure to teach. So inquisitive and always seeking more information.

Minerva smiled as she realised just how much the girl she had met the previous morning reminded her of Harry's late mother.

She sighed heavily and returned the letter to its envelope. She had no idea why, but Albus had requested she forward any response from the Potter boy directly to him.

"Ranty?" She spoke to the warm summer evening air.

A pop to her right drew her eye and she smiled at the elf, draped in a crisp Hogwarts towel. "Please take this to Professor Dumbledore's office. And a refill on the tea, if you will."

Ranty nodded and taking the note in hand, popped away, leaving Minerva to the pile of paperwork still urgently requiring her attention before the new school year could begin.

Chapter 21: The Long Road Ahead

Chapter Text

Monday 15th July 1991.

Albus felt hollow as he read the letter for the thirteenth time.

The words had not changed and while they were overly polite and not aimed at him specifically, he could not help but feel responsible.

Harry Potter had refused to attend Hogwarts. What would the media do with such a sensational headline? He had taken so many hits to his persona in the past few years but none had the potential to be so devastating as this.

He placed the letter on his desk, removed his half-moon spectacles and ran one hand through his long beard.

"Where did it all go so wrong?" He asked the empty room rhetorically.

A long sweet trill answered from behind where his once again featherless little friend recovered from a burning. The sound called to the indecision inside of Albus and he stood, shifting to the wee bird and fed him a few Chilli Bites, Fawkes's preferred snack.

"What am I becoming, old friend?" He asked, confused by the bird's accusation.

Fawkes chewed his spicy treat before sounding off several more bright trills that ended with a long sorrowful call. Albus stroked the bird's bald head, feeling several bumpy points where the new feathers were beginning to grow through. He found himself looking inward at his friend's comments.

"Have I gone too far? That Harry fears me more than he desires to walk the halls so full of stories of his parents? What have I done?"

Fawkes chirped for almost a full minute, his tone wavered up and down while the final note seemed very accusatory.

"Do you think so? Perhaps I have lost sight of what is important." Albus gave the bird one final stroke before he stood straight once more and looked about the long-familiar room.

He had been headmaster of this fine school for almost thirty years now, and yet, he'd allowed his focus to drift in that time. His renewed interest in the Hallows, driven by witnessing the power of James's Cloak during the war, had distracted him once again, as it had in his childhood.

"You are, of course, correct, Fawkes. As always. Has it been hard?" he queried, glancing at the phoenix once more.

Fawkes trilled cautiously before giving a happy set of chirps.

"Rightly so. IamAlbus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts. That should be my priority once again." He said firmly, the decision was made.

Immediately he felt a weight lift from his shoulders he hadn't even realized he had been carrying as he once more let go of the past. And his vain search for an answer held on the other side of the Veil itself. After so long, perhaps it was easier to simply live out the rest of his days and find the answer once he joined them there. At least then he could do some more good on this side before he passed over.

He had, after all, done frightfully little in the past decade. So obsessed had he become.

"Excuse me, Headmaster." Eupraxia's portrait above the door drew his attention from his odd conversation. "A man is approaching. I believe he wishes to meet with you."

Albus sighed, rubbing the back of his neck to relieve the soreness that had arisen in it as he stared so long at the piece of paper. He quickly shifted back to his desk. "Thank you, Eupraxia."

A knock sounded throughout the room a moment later as he cast his eyes over the letter once again. "Come in."

The door swung inward and Bartemius Crouch wasted no time as he closed the distance between the door and desk, taking a seat before Albus could offer it, making the older man smile at the younger's continued rushed demeanour. "Bartemius, how are you?"

"Busy, as always, Dumbledore." The man replied shortly.

Albus gave a slight nod as he folded the letter on his desk. He briskly returned it to its envelope and placed it carefully in his third desk drawer. The drawer had a great number of special enchantments protecting its content, but in line with his renewed desire to do better, Albus applied several more with the Elder Wand before addressing Barty once more.

"How might I alleviate your burden?" He smiled.

Crouch passed a thick folder over the desk, the title of which surprised Albus as he flicked it open and read the cover page explaining the endeavour. "We've been trying to get this thing off the ground for years. I was working on it back as Head of MLE. And I am very much tired of things getting in the way. It was meant to be a celebration of our victory over You-Know-Who."

"Ourvictory, Bartemius?" Albus raised his eyebrow at the curt man. "Voldemort's downfall should be rightly credited to the Potters. It cost them greatly while we reap the rewards."

Barty's moustache twitched and Albus chose not to push him any further, he could see the stress he was under weighed on him enough already. "Yes, well…"

"You do recall, I assume, the reason this was cancelled in the first place?"

"Steps shall be taken, of course." Barty defended.

"Of course," Albus replied, with a knowing smile as he closed the folder without looking further. "But I am afraid that until they do, I will not have Hogwarts and her students subjected to the dangers it poses. I have recently been reminded that childhood is a most precious commodity and we should not squander it on their behalf. My answer shall be no until you can convince me otherwise."

Barty began to redden in response and Albus prepared for a vicious retort to come his way.

Instead, the other man simply grabbed the folder from his wizened hands and turned away, stomping heavily towards the door once again. "You know, I used to be respected. All that…nonsense. Black is just the most recent embarrassment. I thought you of all people… I'll be back, Dumbledore."

"I look forward to it, Bartemius. It has been a pleasure to see you as always." Albus smiled, one of the most genuine he could recall in several years. "Have a pleasant evening, and I wish you the best of luck with your efforts. The Tournament will surely be a fine spectacle once you get it all worked out."

Barty huffed once more and slammed the door as he departed.

Despite his eleven decades, Albus felt renewed with his revised attitude. He had failed the Potters resoundingly, especially Harry. They had only met face to face once, but the memory of the event now made Albus shake his head in dismay. He could see how his overzealous need for the Stone had ruined their meeting.

It was high time for him to return to the days when he could be proud of whohewas now, rather than his previous achievements. A man dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge into young minds.

That was, after all, why he became a teacher all those many years ago.

ϟ

Friday 26th July 1991.

Harry felt that something was off.

He was happily tucked under the oak in the Grangers' backyard as Hermione leaned on his side and read aloud. He should have felt utterly at peace, but something niggled at the corner of his mind. Or was it his magic?

He closed his eyes and let his consciousness drift through his form, paying attention to each sense in its turn but found nothing that stood out. But when he seeped into his magic, he felt something nagging at the corners. He couldn't quite figure out what it was, but there was something new there, on the outside looking in.

Harry opened his eyes once more and swept them over the garden, yet found nothing out of place.

Natalie's tools were in the barrow by the small rose plot, where she had been at work earlier that morning. Richard was returfing the section around the shed after he had accidentally chewed it up with the fancy new ride-on lawnmower he had bought after he refused to let Nemea handle the garden and yard. That being the Grangers' favoured way to wind down on a weekend.

No matter where he looked, he could not find the source of what worried him. Was it the idea of being outside the Manor for the first time since the letters had arrived? He was sure it was something outside his own control but he couldn't identify it.

"Hermione." He whispered as he nudged her gently, barely breaking her focus on the book. "I'm going to take us to the clearing. Something feels wrong."

Her reading took an affirmative tone and within a moment, the pair were relocated to Harry's favoured hiding spot within the Manor's world. Back now pressed against the massive stone, he let himself fall into his senses again and was surprised to find the feeling was still there, but this time it had a direction.

Straight ahead of where he was seated. His eyes flicked open and he directed his gaze where he knew the source to now be hiding. A small bush at the edge of the clearing shuddered and Harry froze. Whatever was watching them had followed their elf transportation.

It could get into the Manor.

He nudged Hermione again and this time she stopped reading. He indicated the errant bush and the pair glanced at the other from the corner of their eyes. In another moment the book hit the dry grass and the pair were on either side of the bush.

"Please come out," Harry commanded.

A high-pitched squeak greeted them and a small dirty figure fell forward out of the bramble bush, looking worse for his short time inside of it. Harry realized that the creature wasn't as dirty as he'd first thought when he realized most of what he was seeing was an awful pillowcase, tied above the shoulders and caked in grime and blood, and now torn in several places.

The creature rolled onto its back and Harry finally took in the rest of it. It was a house-elf, slightly smaller than he was used to at a bit under three feet tall which stared up at him with big green eyes. There was a fear within that shocked the boy as he offered his hand to the wee elf.

"Let me help you up."

The eyes widened considerably and tears seemed to form in the corners, which confused Harry greatly. He felt Pops and Tybalt appear behind him but knew they were invisible to their visitor. He gestured for them to remain in place as he took the elf's hand and lifted him to his feet. "My name is Harry."

"Dobby knows who you is, sir. The Great Harry Potter is known to all elveses. Though many thought you were dead. Dobby always hoped it was untrue."

"Hello, Dobby." Harry greeted with a smile, Hermione copying him exactly. The elf twitched again and Harry found it very odd, he'd never seen someone react in such a way to politeness. "May I ask why you've been watching my friend and I? And how you came to be here?"

Dobby looked about frantically at the question, before he leapt back into the bramble bush face first, much to the children's surprise. "What are you doing?" Hermione asked as she fished the elf back out of the nasty bush and walked him a few feet away from it.

"Dobby cannot say." The elf twitched under her grip but she did not yield, worried he might make a run for it again.

"Please, Dobby. Sit, let us talk." Harry offered as he sat in front of the tiny figure. "Would you like some tea?"

Harry was amazed that the already enormous eyes could widen any further but they did. Dobby began to sob heavily and Harry stared between the elf and his friend in utter surprise. He took the moment to look Dobby over closer. He was covered in grime, much like his pillowcase, and Harry began to suspect he was a renegade elf, living wild since the death of its master.

He let his magic wash over the tiny creature and found that its magic seemed fully intact, so if it was free, it had happened recently. Using the link between himself and the elves behind him as a guide, Harry ran his magic over the elf's and noticed the tether to its master was still there, but it was very weak.

"Dobby, where is your master? Who is your family?"

The elf struggled in Hermione's grip and she loosened her fingers to prevent herself from harming him. He managed to slip free and he chanted through clenched teeth as he bashed his head against the ground. "Can't say. Can't say."

"Ok, you can't tell me then. Please stop hurting yourself." Harry could feel concern coming from Pops behind him. The aged elf had snuck closer until he was at Harry's ear.

"Be careful with this one Master," Pops whispered. "He's been abused by his family, badly."

Harry nodded and considered his options. Abused elves were a tricky issue. He had to be very careful with his questions if he didn't want the elf to hurt itself. "Dobby… Can you imply to me why you are here?"

The elf stilled on the ground and looked up at Harry. A tight smile began to form as he sat once more, clearly considering the question. "Dobby… has come to warn Harry Potter."

"Ok, then. I am warned. Can you give any specifics about the warning I should have?"

Dobby considered again before smiling more. "Dobby warns Harry Potter not to go to Hogwarts."

Harry smiled. "Deal."

"Terrible things will happen at Hogwarts. Harry Potter cannot be risked by going. Dobby will stop him if he must!" The elf popped to his feet at the declaration, looking fierce.

"Dobby, relax." Harry held his hand out to the elf. "I'm not going to Hogwarts. I swear."

Dobby looked at Harry's hand with a slight twinge of fear, but mastered himself and extended his own. Harry felt a jolt as the two shook. His initial assessment of the elf's magic had been wrong. It was very poorly underneath, but strong enough to put up a solid facade.

"Please sit, Dobby. I need to ask you something else." The elf complied, crossing his legs and looking straight at Harry curiously. "How are you feeling?"

The elf looked utterly shocked as if no one had ever asked him such a question in his life. "Dobby… Dobby is… Never in Dobby's life. So great. Dobby is fine, sir."

"Please be honest with me, if you can. I truly want to know." Harry let a warming finger of magic touch the elf who shuddered happily under its touch.

"Dobby is not well, sir. Master often punishes Dobby. Or makes Dobby punish himself. They do not care for Dobby." The elf-shot up again, but Harry used his magic to keep him in place, not hurting him but preventing him from running for the bush.

"Dobby, I forbid you to harm yourself in my presence." Harry's voice echoed with power and the elf relaxed deeply. Harry almost thought he had fainted, but the eyes brightened and were still looking between him and Hermione.

He loosened the grip his magic had and the elf sat once more. "Thank you, Harry Potter, sir. That feels much better already."

"Good. So there is danger at Hogwarts, something we already knew, hence why we're not going. Your master is a nasty man who mistreats you for no reason. And house-elves can apparently find us and come and go from here as they please?"

"That's not true, sir." Dobby squeaked, looking shifty all of a sudden. "Dobby managed to find the lady's house, for an elf the wards were obvious in the low magic place. They are very powerful. It took Dobby days to carefully cross them without being stuck. A wizard would not see them like elfs do."

"That's good, but how is it you followed us here?"

"Dobby… could feel sir searching for him. When you left, Dobby held onto your magic. You brought Dobby here with you." The elf looked like he was waiting to be struck.

"I'm not going to hurt you Dobby. I just want to make sure we're safe here. Could you return here on your own now?" The elf nodded, no longer able to maintain eye contact. "But could you have if I didn't bring you here first?"

Dobby shook his head fiercely which made his ears wobble wildly. "If you left without looking for Dobby first, Dobby would have lost you."

"Well, that's good to know. Now, is there anything we can do to help keep your master from hurting you?"

"Dobby is used to it, sir. It is the only life Dobby has ever known."

Pops's voice sounded in Harry's ear once more. "Order him to never punish himself again. It won't stop his master from harming him, but he'll be unable to do so himself. I have a feeling this master enjoys the idea of having Dobby administer his own punishment."

Harry glanced to Hermione, who nodded, indicating she had heard the comment too. His eyes drifted back to the elf who was holding his toes and rocking slightly. "Dobby." The two pairs of green eyes locked. "I forbid you to punish yourself, ever. No matter who gives the order. Do you understand?"

Dobby's eyes widened but he nodded. "I also want you to feel free to visit here if you need to get away from your home. But you cannot bring anyone else here without my permission first or tell anyone about us or this place. Is that understood?"

Dobby rocked excitedly. "Yes, Harry Potter sir. Dobby is very grateful."

"So," Hermione spoke properly for the first time during the encounter. "How about that tea?"

Dobby smiled widely in response.

ϟ

Friday 2nd August 1991.

The more people that filed in the more confused that Sirius became.

He knew them all on sight, and many did not seem pleased to see him or his company present. The letter had been typically vague for the goblins, simply requesting he and Andromeda attend the bank today, with the requested documentation.

Most of the others present were lawyers, representation for those who 'could not attend' for whatever reason. Mostly likely imprisonment. Or sitting beside some unsavoury people from his distant past, which didn't leave Sirius feeling any better about the mysterious proceedings.

However, it was the most recent addition to the room that had him shift uncomfortably in his chair. The aristocratic sneer on the two adults as they noticed Sirius irked him, but it was the way the woman of the trio refused to even acknowledge the existence of the woman a few spaces to his right that really got under his skin.

He and Regulus had never been overly close, but he would have at least acknowledged his sibling's existence.

"The rabble they allow these days." Lucius scowled as he sat in his assigned seat only a few places away. "I feel dirty just sitting here."

Sirius stiffened but resisted the urge to snipe back at the foul git. He stiffened further when the small hand next to him tugged on his sleeve. He glanced down at the empty space, happy the goblins had accepted a few galleons 'donation' and allowed Harry to wear the Cloak they had recovered in the estate audit.

"Not, right now." Sirius whispered over the 'empty' chair. He really didn't want the Malfoy's aware of Harry's presence beside him. While the boy had not been listed on the summons, he'd learned how to use his eyes as a weapon far too well in the last few years. None of the adults could say no when the boy truly turned the green orbs on them.

"Now that everyone has finally arrived." Balrak hissed from the head of the table nearby. "We can commence. Mister Macmillan."

The tall solicitor tidied the papers in front of him and cleared his throat. "You've all been summoned today to attend the reading of the final will and testament of Arcturus Black the Third, Order of Merlin, First Class."

The surprise he felt at the announcement had Sirius turn to face his cousin. She was equally surprised to be present at such a reading, but upon second glance about the table, he noted several others his mother had unceremoniously removed from the tapestry in his childhood home. A building he still refused to enter since his release, and that his healer advised against a return to.

"As his funeral requirements have already been met, we shall skip directly to the estate distribution. To Cassiopeia," Sirius noted the aged woman near opposite him on the table nod. "The unused dowry has been deposited to your account as agreed. Arcturus wished to reiterate his disappointment in your failure to continue the family line, but hoped this amount shall 'see you out'. To Callidora, he offered commiserations on your loss, but wished to remind you of 'the dangers of choosing the wrong side'. Seventy thousand Galleons are to be transferred to your account.

"To Lucretia, you've kept to the family's ways and shall not be held liable for the failures of your grandchildren. One hundred thousand Galleons to you for your commitment. Alphard, at the request of our dearly departed Walburga, the client wishes you to 'return the thirty sickles you traitorous bastard, and hopes you die painfully'."

Sirius tried his hardest to contain the snort but he still caught his uncle's wink from across the table. He was glad to see his uncle did not hold him responsible or begrudge him the aid he'd given in Sirius's escape from #12 all those years ago.

"To Cygnus. Two hundred thousand Galleons and his hearty congratulations on mostly raising your family properly. Distribute it down as you will." Sirius rolled his eyes at the way his other uncle salivated at the reading. He truly despised that branch of the family tree with the exception of the woman to his right.

"And finally, the remainder of the estate and Headship of the Noble Family of Black," Lucius straightened in his seat and inflated, much to Sirius's amusem*nt. "Shall fall to the last surviving male heir able to sire children. His choices have been suspect, but Arcturus knows when it comes down to it, he will hold to the family ways. Accordingly, Headship passes to Sirius Orion Black."

Sirius nearly laughed as Lucius not only deflated but went bright red. A comical state given his usual pallor and hair. It took several moments for the reality of the statement to sink in. His grandfather had named him as full heir.

"What?" He practically shouted over the table, drawing every eye towards him.

"His instructions were very clear," Macmillan replied with a superior sneer. "Mister Black, clarified them several times before his passing. Pending the assessment from St Mungos that you are still capable of fathering children, the Headship falls to you. Should you prove incapable, it will pass immediately and irrevocably to Draco Malfoy, with Narcissa acting as regent until he comes of age."

Lucius glared at Sirius openly and the Marauder smiled at the way the man's hand twitched over the head of his cane. He was insulted at the very idea of Sirius taking what he had clearly assumed to be his right as Draco's father, showing he'd never understood the way the Black family worked.

Control of it would never fall to one who wasn't 'of the blood'.Toujours Purmeant more than just fine breeding to his demented relatives.

"Um, well… fine. Andi?" Sirius asked, turning to his cousin, an odd thought given present company were almost all his cousins to some degree.

Some disgustingly so. Given his own parents had been second cousins. Both descended from the children of the almost universally hated Phineas Nigellus Black. Whose brother Sirius was named for.

Sirius shook his head in disgust at the narrow nature of his family tree.

Andromeda reached into a file in front of her and retrieved the medical documents his summons had required him to bring. He had no idea what was required as they only revealed themselves to the Healer noted to perform the process, but it became clear now.

She passed the file to him and he tossed it in front of the solicitor. The tall man quickly read over it before tapping the unfilled section with his wand entering his details.

The goblin beside him quickly filled their own segment and passed them back to Sirius along with a very large folder that had been sat before the solicitor throughout the proceedings.

"Congratulations, Mister Black. You are now confirmed as Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black." Macmillan finished as he stood. "Good day."

He quickly departed the room and every Black eye in the room was fixed on Sirius. Many looked at him with undisguised hatred. He was the cast-out failed-son of the family and now he held power over every single one of them. "Bugger me." He mumbled, earning a sharp slap to the head from Andromeda and a glance down at the 'empty' chair.

The Malfoys all stood and with one last vicious glare in his direction and one to the nearby goblin warriors, stormed out without a word.

Most of the family followed suit, almost exactly to an action, until only those who had once been burned off the tapestry remained in the room. Alphard broke the silence at last when he broke out into hysterical laughter.

"My word," Andromeda commented, laying a light hand on the invisible figure between them.

"Tell me about it," Sirius replied.

A renewed tug on his sleeve drew Sirius's gaze down and he nodded. Harry came into view and Alphard stopped laughing promptly but smiled instead. "Oh."

"What's all that mean?" Harry questioned.

"It means Sirius is buying dinner tonight," Andromeda said slyly.

"You know what this really means, Andi." Sirius gave her a cheeky smirk.

"Don't you dare. I am quite happy being Andromeda Tonks. My father and sisters have made their opinion on my choice very plain. The family can be damned bar the few sitting in this room. Should Nymphadora choose so, you can do it to her."

Sirius just smiled in response and considered the young girl who had already had a prior engagement to attend. Keeping her from being present as Harry was.

Sirius was still overwhelmed though. He'd never seen eye to eye with his grandfather. But it seemed the man's narrow views of what was proper, and his need to continue the line, had rewarded Sirius in the end. Had he not been such a misogynistic prick concerned only with the continuation of the family name and line, Narcissa would surely have inherited everything.

"Just so's you know Siri, I'm not expecting you to pay me back. Just keep me in fine whiskeys 'til they do me in." Alphard laughed from his place opposite the three.

Sirius smirked at his uncle and tried to get his mind around what had happened. He wondered if he'd still have been named Head had the others not secured his freedom from Azkaban. He certainly wouldn't if his brother hadn't tried to turn tail and run from his Death Eater compatriots.

"I need a drink." He groaned as he buried his face in his hands.

He glanced between the fingers at the sound of laughter to his right and noted both his cousins laughing at his expense. "You know, I haven't valued the estate in a long time, but I bet I can buy a lot of pranking supplies with what's there." He warned.

"Bring it on." Harry quipped in return. "You really need to lift your game, old man."

Sirius narrowed his eyes at his godson and bit his tongue. Letting the words he wanted to say aloud echo through his mind instead.f*ck me.

ϟ

Sunday 1st September 1991.

Nym settled into place on the long bench.

The sound of the surrounding students washed over her but could not shift the sadness in her stomach. Ced sat opposite her and tried again to coax a smile from her. Something he'd failed to do since they had changed into their robes on the train.

The sound of the doors opening drew her eye, but only served to further dampen her joy to be back at Hogwarts, for in that crowd of little firsties was a hole, two people in size that no one else even noticed.

"C'mon, Tonks." Dora Williams said from beside her. "Let's see what the new intake has for us. Hopefully some quality new badgers this year."

Nym gave the girl a hollow smile as the students stopped before the raised dais on which the teachers and the ancient Hat stood. Professor McGonagall swept her eye over the gathered students and gave a shallow sigh, something Nym found curious before she called forth Hannah Abbott.

The tiny blonde girl nervously stepped up to the stool and sat quietly as the Transfiguration teacher lowered the Hat. It took naught but a moment before her house grew by one. "Hufflepuff."

Nym clapped with all the rest, trying not to let the absence of her two favourite eleven-year-olds ruin what was still a special night for the other firsties. As Hannah passed them by, Nym put out her hand and received a cheery high-five from the girl. She redirected her attention to the Bones girl who was already at the stool and watched as it deliberated a moment before shouting again. "Hufflepuff."

"Oh, strong start. Abbot and Bones." Dora commented.

"Yeah, good kids," Cedric added, now watching the sorting closely.

Nym drifted as the process continued. Clapping politely when those around her did.

She dwelled on the decision the Family had reinforced. She knew Harry was doing this for her, but it didn't make his absence any easier. She had greatly looked forward to having him around this year.

It wasn't until the next "Hufflepuff" was called for, a Justin... something, that Nym refocused. The next name showed how close they were to the first hole.

Nym missed Hermione just as keenly as Harry. The girl was a whirlwind to study beside. She'd helped Nym grasp most of last year's revision work faster than ever.

The pair had devoured everything she had to offer. So, when the fourth name along from Justin was called as Greengrass, Daphne, Nym sank in her seat.

"Cheer up, Nym. She doesn't look like the kind we want here anyway. Let the Slytherins have her." Robin chirped.

Nym put up a soft smile, most of it due to her ability. A godsend for a troublemaker.

Her ability allowed her to put up a happy, or innocent, face when she really felt anything but inside. The next two joining her house spurred her to clap harder once again, but the calling of the other of her cousins in today's sorting soured her mood once more.

She watched silently as the pompous little twat strode to the stool like he owned the school. She could feel a couple of the teacher's eyes flick from the boy to her and back, and she realized what conclusion they had drawn to her previous vague responses.

They assumed this was the cousin she referred to when she bemoaned Harry's habit of nipping at her heels study-wise. Boy, were they all in for a shock.

Nym couldn't contain her laughter as the Hat screamed "Slytherin" to the rafters before it had even had a chance to muss up the ponce's prissy slicked-back hair. He smirked gleefully at the word and resumed his pompous walk towards his new house.

Draco made a big show of not turning her way as he passed, which only made it more obvious given the third-years were almost all perched right at the end of the long table.

Nym couldn't resist pulling a face at the Malfoy brat as she twisted her face into a caricature of his stupid father mixed with a pig snout. The others sitting around her laughed loudly and drew the serious eye of the Deputy Headmistress to her antics. A sharp glare was enough warning for Nym to return to normal, but the amusem*nt had managed to warm her up to Hogwarts a little despite everything.

It was another three new Puffs before she realized the next name that should have been called. Perks skipped past her happily, gaining another of her high fives. But every ear in the Hall was now fixed on Professor McGonagall. Clearly, everyone had done the math and, by the whispers and given his few newspaper appearances, were now expecting her cousin's showy arrival.

Nym snorted at the stupidity of it, that Harry would ever make a big show of something like that. She did note the slight frown on the Professor's face as she took a deep breath though.

"Rivers, Oliver."

The entire Hall seemed to sag and Nym cheered the poor boy walking to the stool in the suddenly depressive atmosphere. The puffs around her soon joined in and continued to support their newest member as he smiled. Oliver jogged past and claimed another high-five from Nym as he did.

She noticed Ced watching her oddly from across the table, but a slight shake of her head derailed him for now. She sighed when he turned back to the dwindled mass of firsties though.

This made it truly real. This would be yet another year at Hogwarts sans Harry and Hermione, and despite the presence of many good friends, Nym knew she would miss them more this year than she had in the previous two.

Chapter 22: That Potter Luck

Chapter Text

Monday 19th September 1994.

"Harry?" Hermione questioned as she looked at her friend's eyes. The look in them was similar to one he'd worn on this exact day six years prior.

They flicked to her own in response and he gave her a soft smile, but it did not dispel the indecision on his face. A face that had grown much in the passing years. Along with his ragged hair.

She smiled at herself as she gazed at his long unruly locks, most of it swept back into a dignified ponytail that was immediately undone by those strands too short or too forward to be caught in the band sticking out in all directions.

While her own hair had settled somewhat in the past few years as they mastered their magic, she loved that they both shared this oddity that would not be controlled.

"Is there something on my face? Icing from the cake, maybe?"

Hermione ran her tongue about her lips seeking any errant pieces of the delicious pale orange frosting. Harry's eyes were immediately drawn by the motion and she stopped, tongue still partially out and looked at him in confusion.

After almost nine whole years of solid friendship, she had thought herself a master of his face. Able to tell from the slightest microexpression just what was progressing through his head at any given moment.

The way that their magic shifted and entwined whenever they were within five hundred metres of the other helped aid her thoughts in the right direction as well. But today, everything about him was entirely new for some reason, and it puzzled the girl.

Hermione adored puzzles. She threw herself into them with the same vigour and single-mindedness that had helped the pair guzzle down course after course of advanced classwork. Both in their correspondence secondary studies where they were fast approaching their GCSE tests, and their magical studies.

While their rate had slowed upon adding all of the elective classes possible for self-study at home, she had devoured the new knowledge side-by-side with Harry, as both displayed a fervour their tutors had been astounded by.

"Are you ever going to tell m…" Hermione cut off suddenly as a pair of warm lips pressed to her own and her mind immediately stopped computing anything but the way they felt there.

Soft and yet firm. Warm and slightly moist. Tender, but hungry.

And with the same suddenness they had appeared, they were gone. Of all the things she had expected to receive on her fifteenth birthday, a kiss from Harry had not been one of them.

Hermione's eyes had closed somewhere during the short moment of bliss, but they shot open and her buzz was firmly killed as she felt the absence in the air around her.

The air was suddenly cold despite being perched on her bed in the home away from home. Her magic became frantic almost immediately and within a fraction of a second, her eyes no longer saw the wall of her Manor bedroom, but Harry's Clearing Stone and a frantically pacing Harry Potter.

A heat that Hermione told herself had nothing to do with the tingling feeling still surging through her lips had her stomping forward and grabbing Harry's shirt as he turned to face the approaching sound. Her fingers clamped onto the soft material and Harry's eyes widened. His lips moved to speak but before he could utter a word, Hermione crashed her own onto his and the pair were kissing once again.

As it was only the second time Hermione had kissed anyone on the lips, her technique was far from perfect. Both sets of lips remained closed and mostly just mushed against the other, but to her, this was utter heaven. Her senses were more prepared this time around and allowed her to better take in the experience as she felt Harry's lips twitching slightly as he pressed against her in return.

His arms went slack at his side for a moment before she felt them meet the sides of her torso and his fingers tightened almost as firmly as her own. She allowed her fingers to loosen as she tilted her head which allowed her to press closer to Harry's face, her hands slipped around him, one over and the other under his shoulders and, meeting again behind him, pulled the boy closer.

Their inexperience showed soon after as both pulled away at the same moment and took a deep breath full of air and the flavour of the other, panting lightly as Hermione realized she'd been so caught in the kiss that she had forgotten to breathe during.

"Wow," Harry murmured, his eyes now fixed on her own and Hermione wouldn't have stopped the smile that split her lips for all the knowledge in the world.

She nodded lightly, her uncontained hair brushing against Harry's cheek and she suddenly found herself embroiled in another firm kiss. She had gone from never having been kissed by anyone to her third in a matter of... she had no idea how long.

During the third kiss, Hermione found Harry's lips to be slightly firmer, and he gently used his own to free the lip that was slightly tucked under her upper teeth. She realized she must have bitten it during her panting recovery from their last kiss.

This kiss was shorter than the others but left her no less adrift in her own body. Sensations she'd never before experienced coursed through her mixing with feelings she'd long felt and others that were as brand new as the kissing. Her body sang and her magic danced, she never wanted it to stop. However, her mind was fast re-engaging and, as always, it had questions.

"Why?" She asked aloud, at last, the bright look on her face kept any sting from the short query from hurting Harry.

"Um…" He glanced away from her face bashfully. "Well, you see… Er…"

Hermione smiled at the boy she had been feeling drawn to more and more over the past few months, leading to one of the most embarrassing conversations of her life the night before with her mother and Andromeda, with occasional advice from Lily in the portrait nearby. She felt her cheeks flush at the memory and Harry's eyes were immediately drawn to the colour. Hermione unconsciously bit her lip again and noticed his eyes track that movement as well.

He swallowed heavily and took several steadying breaths before he tried to speak again. "I… er. It's… Argh." He growled, lowly, in frustration. "I happened to see Nym and Cedric on... during her birthday party."

Harry's eyes were suddenly unable to look at Hermione at all, something she found extremely endearing as he was giving it his all, futile as it was, the two still entwined together and she for one was not loosening her grip any time soon.

"Yes?" She asked curiously.

The lightness of her tone seemed to clear some of Harry's anxiety as he glanced back to her eyes for a moment, clearly seeing the mirth within before looking away again.

"Cedric led her away from all the adults and wished her a happy birthday and he…" Hermione could almost picture the moment, despite Harry's poor description, but she wasn't about to let him off the hook after he surprised her so thoroughly. She tightened her arms behind his back and the shock seemed to spur the final words from his lips at a slightly higher pitch than normal. "He leant in and kissed her."

Hermione took that as an invitation and silenced any further thought for several minutes with their fourth kiss. Four. In less than an hour. She'd gone from unkissed to four so quickly.

Harry's hands loosened on her waist and slipped behind her back, mirroring her own grip, just further down her body. This kiss too was short and firm, but Hermione loved it every bit as much as the several that had come before.

When she pulled away, she looked into Harry's eyes. "And that made you kiss me, why?"

Harry took several deep breaths before he answered, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke. "Nym… she's practically my sister, so I never thought of anyone kissing her. But as soon as I saw it happen, it made me wonder." He paused and his eyes fixed on hers, something in them catching Hermione's breath in her throat. "What would it be like to kiss you?"

"And?" She teased, intentionally capturing her lower lip this time watching his eyes shift up and down rapidly.

"Brilliant." He whispered in return.

Hermione giggled softly, enjoying how it made her body feel so closely wrapped around Harry's.

"Can I tell you a secret?" She whispered back, waiting for Harry to gulp and nod before she leaned closer, her lips at his ear before she spoke again. "I've wanted to kiss you for a while now, too."

Harry's body stiffened for a moment before he relaxed into her arms, almost jelly-like. Hermione tightened her arms again and the kissing embrace became yet another of the many hugs the pair had shared through the years. Her mind bounced between analyzing and replaying the kisses that had just taken place and considering her feelings from before and now after they had occurred.

She found them to be nearly identical, simply with a happier tinge.

Hermione had realized that she'd developed a crush on Harry somewhere in the past year and had become more and more aware of how he had changed from the tiny boy with the cute smile she had first met all those years ago to the tall and confident teen in her arms now.

A single thought managed to worm its way atop all the others and Hermione found herself swallowing hard, trying to clear the dryness that had suddenly afflicted her throat.

"So," she paused, uncertain of her next words, "boyfriend, what do you want to do now?"

Hermione tensed as the words escaped her and she strained her ears for Harry's reply despite his mouth being mere centimetres from her ear. His breath gently moving over her shoulder paused and she felt his arms tighten around her back.

"I'm happy to stand here holding my girlfriend for the rest of the day if you are." He whispered, a huge happy smile breaking out on Hermione's face at the words. "Happy birthday, girlfriend."

"Best present ever." Hermione pulled back and mashed her lips to her newly redefined friend and let the feelings wash over her anew as she lost herself in number five.

ϟ

Friday 11th November 1994.

Hermione shivered slightly, the sun hidden behind the mild clouds did not provide enough heat to offset the light drizzling November rain that fell over the immaculate greenery of the hill upon which she now stood.

She tried to hide the surprise she felt as her neck tilted back and she gazed at the marvellous sight before her. Rough-hewn stone and mighty towers dominated her vision, despite their distance from the large structure.

When at last she managed to draw her eye from the imposing figure before her, they flicked to her left where Harry was gazing at the same sight, not with awe as she had but curiosity. "Harry?"

He stood silent for several moments, Hermione able to see the thoughts whirling through his mind. "I don't know."

"Should we go?" Hermione asked, uncertainly.

"I don't think we can." He turned to face her, his eyes not containing the fear she had expected to see. "I was aiming for the Oak, like always."

"You mean…?"

"Wasn't me. It was my magic that made the trip, and brought you along with. But the targeting info seems to be... out." His smile belied the nervousness she could feel in his swirling magic.

"What if I took over?"

"Maybe, but… whatever it is, it's coming from in there. Can you really not feel it?" The way his eyes gripped her own made her shiver, he had opened himself to her as much as he could, but still, there was nothing different to her. She shook her head softly.

Harry looked thoughtful for a moment before he reached out and grasped her hand and suddenly she felt something new.

Beyond her own magic which she felt all the time, lightly wrapped around Harry's presence that was there nearly constantly these days. A warmth that felt like a warning. It was far removed from the pinching feeling Harry had once shared with her, this felt more akin to a guiding light.

"Wow. You've been feeling that for days?"

Harry nodded. "Getting a little bit tighter each day. I think whatever it is wants to talk. That's why we're here."

"But what if it's…" Hermione trailed off, leaving the obvious unspoken.

"It's not. I'll never forget that feeling, and he's not here. Reach out, you can feel it, too."

Hermione was not as familiar with the feel of that particular magic as Harry, but as she searched, she realized it was absent as well. "And if he returns while we're here?"

Harry turned to face her, his intent obvious in his eyes. Without the fear to prevent it, his curiosity had won out. "I need to know what it is."

Hermione nodded softly, squeezing his hand to signal she was still with him regardless.

"Miss… Granger?" A curious female voice sounded from behind the two and Hermione whirled about, Harry remaining in place behind her, their hands still oddly linked. She could feel his body tense.

"Hello, Professor McGonagall."

"It's nice to see you again. You've grown since last we saw one another. How are your studies progressing?" The elder witch stepped closer, unfazed by the dreary Scottish weather, but paused when she noticed Hermione's defensive stance. "I mean you no harm, Miss Granger. Simply curious as to what you're doing at a school you declined to attend. Midterm, even. And within the bounds of its closed wards."

Hermione could feel Harry surge from one emotion to another behind her, so quickly she couldn't truly identify each one, but it distracted her greatly. "It was just…" She paused as a single emotion won out in Harry's fight and she turned to look to her left as Harry walked to her side once more, facing the professor as well.

"Me." He finished for her.

Professor McGonagall took a sudden breath and the surprise was plain to see on her face. "Professor McGonagall, meet my friend, Harry Potter."

"Of course. That hair… the eyes. Forgive me, it's been a very long time, Mister Potter. You look so very much like your father." The elderly witch said, a hint of melancholy in her tone, but her face seemed to lose a fraction of the severity it had borne since Hermione had turned.

Harry smiled at the woman, far more receptive than she'd expected, and Hermione relaxed slightly. "Except for the eyes."

The professor smiled in return. "Yes, those are all Lily." The woman paused as her smile faltered and Hermione's hand tightened on Harry's ready to get them both away if necessary. "I'm afraid I have news to impart to you, Mister Potter. I beg a moment of your time if you will."

Hermione flicked her eyes to Harry who was once more deep in thought. She tilted her head slightly as she saw the decision play out on his face and was surprised at the result. "Ok. But only with you. And Hermione comes too."

Professor McGonagall nodded. "Of course. If you will follow me to my office, we can have privacy and comfort as we talk. It's a bit on the chilly side out here today." The witch indicated the grey sky and continuing rain.

The two teens followed the elder witch inside, they tensed slightly as they passed into the large castle and felt the doors close behind them. Hermione noticed that Harry looked very distracted, his eyes wandered over almost everything as they walked, but she kept her attention tightly constrained to the two people she walked with.

She wondered at the absence of other people in the halls but assumed it must be during classes, being a Friday morning. When they, at last, reached the professor's office she held the door open and gestured for them to enter. "Take a seat, please. Shifty?"

Hermione felt the arrival of the elf before they appeared and was immediately captured by its wide blue eyes. The elf was taller than any she'd seen before, standing almost five feet tall. His scruffy hair was a lot like Harry's when it was short and he swayed back and forth from one foot to the other, looking unhappy to be stuck in one place.

"Tea for three, please." Professor McGonagall requested as she sat behind her desk. The elf vanished and Hermione glanced wide-eyed at Harry, whose expression matched her own. "I do wish that our first chat had been in regards to happier tidings, but we've been trying to get hold of you for days now."

The baffled expression left Harry's face as he focused his attention on the elder woman, not even flinching when the tall elf returned with a large tea set and poured out three helpings.

"Are you aware of a renewed event taking place at Hogwarts this year, Mister Potter?" He nodded and took a sniff of his tea before sipping it slightly. "Very good. Professor Dumbledore had refused to allow the event for several years. Stating that the measures the Ministry had imposed were insufficient to guarantee the safety of the students, but late last year the organising committee finally convinced him they were ready. And with the loss of the Quidditch World Cup finals to Italy...

"As such, Hogwarts is playing host to the first Triwizard Tournament since 1792. Something which I would normally be immensely proud to say. However, the first event of the Tournament, the Selection of the Champions took place on Halloween and, shall we say, all did not go entirely according to plan."

"How so? We heard it went swimmingly. The Champions are all good picks. I'd even considered coming to watch the Tasks." Harry enquired, enjoying his tea before and after speaking.

"Yes, as much as I wished one of my own had been chosen, Pomona is delighted her house has fielded our Champion. I am unsure who provided your information, but once the Goblet of Fire had chosen the three champions and they had moved to the antechamber, the Goblet expelled another name." The professor paused and Hermione could see a certain amount of dread in her eyes as she said the next word. "Yours."

The elderly witch locked eyes with Harry, who had frozen in place. Hermione's eyes flicked back and forth between the two several times before they settled on Harry as well. She could feel something hot build up inside of him as he sat perfectly still. Several silent moments passed before he gently laid down his teacup.

"Well, it's a good thing I'm not a member of one of the three schools," Harry replied coolly.

"Were it so simple. Professor Dumbledore has spent nearly every day at the Ministry with their best people looking into matters. But as it stands, a name being returned from the Goblet constitutes a magically binding contract. Unless we can find a loophole before the First Task on the 24th, I fear you will be required to compete. Or face incredibly dire consequences."

Hermione's eyes burned into the older woman, who at least had the good sense to appear truly put out by the burden she had just laid on her best friend. "How could this happen? Were there no safeguards?" She questioned, her own voice betrayed her growing anger.

"Professor Dumbledore himself secured the Goblet between its unveiling and the choosing. However, no one is infallible. Only Professors Dumbledore and Moody, Ministry officials directly involved in the Tournament and myself have been informed as to the truth of what transpired. Most just assume the final piece of paper was the Goblet completing its duties."

"Piece of paper?" Harry questioned.

McGonagall tapped her wand on her desk and a small envelope appeared under its tip. She opened the cream parchment to reveal a charred torn piece of paper which she slid across the desk. Hermione tensed as she saw her friend's name written on the ruined paper, as that is what it was. Not parchment as she had expected.

Next to her Harry's magic rippled outward, no longer contained as he glared at the offending scrap of paper. They both recognized it, though neither had seen it for three years. Harry's breathing accelerated and he seethed in his seat. Hermione laid her hand on his shoulder but it did not quiet his churning emotions and the magic matching it.

"How?" She asked coldly, no longer prepared to give these people the benefit of the doubt. "How is it possible that Harry was entered into this farce with the signature from the bottom of his Hogwarts rejection letter? Something that was entrusted toyou!"

The woman opposite them appeared quite unsteady, Harry's display had clearly caught her off guard and the venom in Hermione's voice seemed to worry her greatly. "I do not know Miss Granger. I received both of your letters. Albus requested any correspondence from Mister Potter be forwarded to him. Yours I filled in the rejection drawer personally. I did not see Mister Potter's again until the moment it came forth from the Goblet."

Hermione felt the strands of Harry's hair that had fallen free of his hair-band crackle as they brushed her skin. They could not stay there any longer. She swept the charred scrap of paper off the desk and pulled Harry from his chair, his eyes now wild and his magic fast slipping beyond his control.

"Harry!" Hermione called loudly, drawing his eyes to her own as she sent him a slight smirk. "We're leaving."

She noted the tiny flicker of recognition behind the boy's eyes as she wrapped her arms around his roiling body and with one last glare at the woman she had thought trustworthy, she popped them both to the middle of the woods by the Manor.

Where Harry's control slipped completely and a new clearing was violently created.

ϟ

Nym loved the attention she received from most of the school, but the repeated backslapping had begun to leave a permanent sting in her skin.

She'd taken to finding excuses to get away alone somewhere, just to avoid the cadre that followed her about. The knowledge of the castle she'd garnered on pranks with the Twins aided her in losing them every time.

She hadn't expected, however, to find Tybalt standing watch behind the tapestry of Bynor the Blowhard. Nym paused in confusion and the elf wasted no time in taking her hand and whisking her out of the castle. She barely had time to register that she was now in the usual Family meeting place before a body glomped onto her with insane force. Had it not been for the stability her bonding had lent her ability, Nym was sure she'd be on her back on the floor.

"Hermione…" She chastised before she noticed the girl was standing by The Chair. Her eyes flicked down and she saw Harry wrapped around her looking terrible. "Harry?" The boy glanced up at her and she gave him a warm smile. "It's not even been as long as usual. You can't miss me that much already."

Harry gave a small laugh before he released the tight grip on her waist. He quickly grabbed her hand and dragged her to The Chair.

"Come on, Harry. We're a little big now to all fit in there." Nym told the boy before he gave her a firm shove into the chair.

"Two fits fine." He grumbled as Hermione took the place next to her before the fourteen-year-old boy climbed onto half their laps each, tucking firmly against their chests as he had done a few times since they had met several years before.

"What's going on?" Nym asked, concerned.

"We ended up at Hogwarts today." Hermione offered.

"And you didn't come and say hi to your favourite cousin?" She asked as Sirius coughed in the corner in protest.

"You were in class. And we hadn't meant to go." Hermione trailed off as she stroked Harry's long hair with her fingers.

"Nymphadora?" Her mother's voice pulled her attention away from the scene in her lap. "Can you tell us what happened before Halloween?"

Nym was confused, why would they want to know about all of that? "Um, anything in particular?"

"The security on the Goblet and the Selection ceremony." Her father clarified.

"Um, well. Dumbledore unveiled the Goblet in the Great Hall the day that the other schools arrived, I detailed that in my letter. The Goblet was moved into the Entrance Hall by a group of Ministry folk after dinner and the Headmaster cast a whole slew of enchantments around it. Flitwick narrated them for his NEWT students, but I was close enough to hear.

"Let's see, there was the Age Line, the Twins ran afoul of that and are still refusing to let Pomfrey remove their beards, but they are certainly impressive. A powerful shield charm that prevents anyone from just standing behind the line and throwing their entry in and a ward that keeps animals and familiars away.

"Three revealing charms that prevent anyone wearing a disguise while approaching and uncovers any name hidden on their entry so someone can't pretend to enter themselves but enter another name instead. Which apparently also worked on normal cosmetic concealment charms. As Phylis Whitehead found out when she didn't give it a wide enough berth." She leaned down and whispered the next bit to the teens on her lap, "her last name is pretty apt. And…" She racked her memory trying to recall the last few enchantments. "I can't remember the rest but there were about five or six more."

"Was a guard posted to watch the Goblet?" Remus asked.

"No, I didn't want the attention, so I snuck out to enter my name during the night. There was no one around the Goblet when I got there. But Dumbledore must have tied his charms to some of the elves. The Twins arrived as I was leaving, tried an aging potion, as they would have been old enough in April. Didn't work, they got blasted back and grew their beards and then Ranty showed up and gave out to them.

"She's scary when she gets going. They managed to lose her I assume as they haven't served any detentions for being out of bed, even with the evidence on their chins." Harry chuckled lightly against her chest and drew Nym's attention down. "Don't worry, I've commissioned some photos. They're never living those beards down. I'll send them with my next letter."

Harry simply tucked deeper into the girls' arms and remained silent, but Hermione silently thanked her.

"How about the selection? Congrats by the way." Sirius stated.

Nym nodded at her cousin and struggled to remember all she could about the ceremony. "That was on Halloween, which was annoying. I wanted to come home for the vigil. Sorry, Harry." The boy shrugged but gave no other sign. "The feast was first up, second one in a week, so I wasn't too into it. Mostly chatted with Ced and Dora.

"Professor Dumbledore definitely has a dramatic streak though, didn't bother getting everyone's attention once the meal finished, just waved his wand and all the candles dimmed. The Great Hall looks weird with them out."

Remus snorted and drew her eye, wondering just what the Marauders had done in a darkened Great Hall when at the school.

"Anyway, the Goblet started to flare during his little speech about glory and all that. Spat out Fleur's name first, she's the Beauxbatons Champion. Then me for Hogwarts." Nym paused as the family all gave her a cheer, making her blush and the two teens snuggled her tighter. "Then as I was heading to the antechamber, I heard Dumbledore call out Krum's name. He got picked for Durmstrang."

"Did the teachers seem agitated after that?" Dorea queried.

"Um, I dunno, I guess. Professor McGonagall was a little off but I guess she was just worried. The Tournament has had deaths before. And she's a good teacher. Dumbledore handed us all our entries, I've got it in the drawer by my bed.

"He did have something else in his hand afterwards though. And Crouch and Bagman seemed awfully agitated, but the Headmaster kept interrupting them. Why, what is going on? Why does this need a full Family meeting?"

"That other thing in Dumbledore's hand," Lily explained, "was an entry that came from the Goblet before it went out. Someone snuck through the enchantments and somehow convinced the Goblet to spurt out a fourth entrant."

Hermione lifted her right hand and Nym immediately recognized what was in it. A charred piece of paper, almost identical to the one she'd tucked in her drawer. With very familiar handwriting.

"Harry?" She tightened her grip on the boy who she now noticed was shaking slightly. "How?"

"We don't know. The enchantments Flitwick described should have made it impossible."

"So that's where Dumbledore has been lately? Ever since Halloween, he's been at the Ministry every day. I figured they were just finalizing the Tasks. Does he have to compete?"

"The Goblet of Fire is an ancient and powerful magical artefact," Ignatia called stepping forward in the crowded painting. "It was not originally made for the Tournament. Simply repurposed, given its ability to make the decision. The runes were altered to set the conditions and that was that. But the Goblet creates a binding contract with those whose names it ejects. However his name came to be entered, Harry is now contracted to the Goblet."

"There is nothing we can do?" James asked his ancestor.

"No." She shook her head sadly, glancing down at her last living relative curled in the lap of the two girls. "The Ministry cannot overrule the Goblet. If Harry doesn't compete, he will die."

Nym was horrified. No one had explained that the Goblet was so dangerous. She'd entered willingly but had she had all this information beforehand, she would have had serious second thoughts.

And now her cousin, as good as her little brother, was bound to compete as she was.

ϟ

Albus groaned internally as he watched the argument continue to go nowhere. The rest of the organisers bickering loudly back and forth across the table.

Igor was demanding blood exactly the same as he had since the moment the Champions had been released from the antechamber. Olympe often fixed him with the same disappointed look he occasionally received from Minerva that left him feeling like a misbehaving schoolboy. Impressive given the number of years he had on the both of them.

Bartemius simply recited that the Goblet was absolute and there was no rule change that could be made that would circumvent its ruling. Ludo looked like a cat that had caught the canary, and Albus was sure he was already reevaluating his betting prospects for the event, despite the inappropriateness of betting on an event he had a direct hand in curating.

Fudge and his pink lackey sat at the opposite end of the table to Albus and surprisingly were remaining mostly quiet today, but they'd both made clear their disappointment in the committee's failure.

Albus couldn't figure out what had gone wrong.

He'd held the Ministry at bay for years before they'd finally brought him a satisfactory outline. He'd even convinced them that he would provide the protections for the Goblet and he'd given it his all.

There was no way he was going to let someone be shanghaied into the Tournament and yet, somehow, he'd failed a Potter again with his actions.

Worse still, none of them had found a way to contact the boy. They only had thirteen days left to inform him lest he suffer from the dire consequences of breaking the contract.

"Enough!" He finally said aloud, the tone of his voice silencing the entire table and focusing every eye on him.

"You've no place to silence us, Dumbledore. Security of the Goblet was yours to ensure." Karkaroff snapped.

"I'm well aware, Igor. Bartemius knows just how seriously I have taken the safety of our students in relation to this Tournament. But arguing about it for nine days now has gotten us nowhere. The boy's name came from the Goblet. We all know what that means. The contract is binding."

"So Hogwarts gets two Champions."

"Harry Potter is not a student at Hogwarts School." Barty countered. "If he were, this matter would be resolved by now. Surely there are records of his address somewhere in the Ministry."

"I've had the entire archive searched twice. Despite having numerous forms completed by the boy on hand, there is no current forwarding address listed on any of them." Fudge commented quietly.

"'Ave you contacteed ze Goblins? Perhaps zey can communicate with ze boy." Olympe offered the first useful suggestion put forward that day.

Albus noticed the way that the woman by Fudge's side bristled at the idea, but a glance from the Minister kept her silent. "I have begun the process."

"Process?" Albus enquired.

"The treaty is clear, Dumbledore." A sly smirk adorned the man's face. "We must honour its wording in communication with the Nation, after all."

"We can hardly wait out the ten-day waiting period, Cornelius. If Harry is not at the First Task on the 24th, we all know the result." Dumbledore warned, meeting the eyes of everyone at the table. Despite his own long and antagonistic relationship with the Nation, a boy's life was at stake through no fault of his own.

"Such is the way of politics," Fudge said.

Albus moved to argue further when a silvery cat leapt upon the table and stared straight into his eyes. No words came from the animal before it faded away, but Albus got the message. Minerva would not summon him back to Hogwarts from these proceedings unless it was truly urgent. "It appears I am needed at the school."

"Fine." Barty scowled, standing. "We're getting nowhere as usual."

Albus sighed heavily as he too stood. "Perhaps we should take the weekend again, to cool our heads. With luck, the light of a new week will bring new solutions?"

No one replied, but all left the table rapidly. Albus only had time to gather his things from the table before he found himself standing in his study looking at a frantically pacing Minerva.

A glance to his side showed one of the Hogwarts elves holding his robes, before popping off a moment later.

"Albus, thank goodness. I have good news." The relief on her face was palpable as he stepped past her and laid the physical portion of his current burden on his desk. "Harry Potter was here today."

Albus nearly wrenched something in his neck as he turned to face his Deputy. "What?!"

"I arrived back from Hogsmeade to find him staring up at the castle. I informed him of the issue with the Goblet. He did not take it well."

Albus sagged heavily into his chair. At least the boy had been notified. "What did he say?"

"Very little. He was most displeased when I showed him his entry." Minerva paused and Albus glanced up, noting a question on her face. "Did you do it?"

He managed to prevent the shock of the question from showing on his face. Yet another reminder of how poorly he had performed in the past decade, that Minerva of all people should ask him such.

"No, Minerva. I may have made a slew of bad choices in recent years, but no. I wish I knew who did though. They managed to not only gain entry to this office undetected but access to the most securely sealed drawer inside of it. I fear that we shall not like the answer to that question should we finally puzzle out the culprit.

"I am only thankful that they seemed to know what they were after. Young Draco's diary was not taken. That could have been truly disastrous. Just as if we'd not taken it from him on his arrival three years ago."

He placed his face into his hands and considered the black book. He had confirmed it had not been replaced, as that book truly worried him. If it was as he thought, they may have a lot more trouble on the horizon than expected.

"He looked well. The spitting image of James." Minerva stated, settling heavily into the chair opposite him, apparently satisfied with his reply. "But those eyes."

"Yes. Lily's eyes for certain. He sees far more than he shares, I'm sure. Will he attend the Task?"

"I do not know. He left in rather a poor mood." She cut off as with a loud crack a small envelope appeared on the desk in front of them both. Oddly, despite being on his desk, it was addressed to Minerva.

Albus raised his bushy eyebrow as the woman opened the letter and her face betrayed her feelings. "It would seem I am to attend a meeting at the Granger home once more. On Tuesday morning."

He tilted his head in curiosity at the odd comment, drawing a sigh from his old friend. Before she began to explain that Harry Potter had not attended their meeting alone.

Chapter 23: A Series of Firsts

Chapter Text

Tuesday 15th November 1994.

Minerva entered the room quietly, the meeting still running over in her mind.

She had reached the desk before her senses truly took in the figure sitting behind it. Her good friend and former mentor Albus Dumbledore, the man many considered to be the greatest wizard to have ever lived, was absolutely drenched, head to toe.

Her eyes widened as she took in his appearance. "Er… Albus?"

"As you may have noticed, Miss Granger's house is covered by quite an impressive set of wards. Wards that forcibly relocate interlopers out beyond Azkaban island, but just close enough to the prison that one cannot apparate back. It was quite the swim. I ache in muscles I had forgotten I even had."

"Surely that cannot have taken the entire time you were absent?" Minerva asked as she sat heavily opposite him. "You look as though you just came out of the bath, Albus."

"Ah, true. Had I not gone back and investigated the wards further. It seems they take prodding about as well as they do penetration. The second swim took far longer. I'm not as athletic as I once was Minerva."

She noted that his body was shaking quite badly. Only the way he had his hands clasped and rested on the desk kept them from doing the same. "Albus, you stubborn fool." She drew her wand and cast repeated drying and warming charms over her friend until he stopped shaking from the cold.

"Thank you, Minerva. It seems the old saying about curiosity is still very true." His voice was much firmer now he wasn't about to succumb to hypothermia. "I trust your meeting went better than mine?"

"Indeed, though your disappearance put me on quite the back foot. I have, however, learned what happened to Mister Black after his release. He and Mister Lupin were both in attendance. And neither were all that pleased that you tried to tag along uninvited."

"Ah, that would explain the wards and their reaction. For a moment I had thought it was Miss Granger herself that ejected me."

"Quite. They seem to hold rather a firm grudge against you for the actions that led to the Potter's deaths. It doesn't please me, but I have to ask it."

"When I asked you to start being brutally honest with me a few years back, I hadn't considered just how brutal that might often be." Albus sighed heavily. "I freely admit I made many mistakes back then, Minerva. But I did not lead them to die. I made preparations should such occur. Including investigations into who Harry might best be left with if the worst should come to pass.

"However, it was not my choice for them to hide in Godric's Hollow. I simply provided anything they needed to prepare their safehouse and encouraged the use of the Fidelius Charm. I did not conspire with Tom to bring about their deaths.

"They both weigh heavily on me, even now. More so after seeing Harry again. This time without a phalanx of armed goblins between us. Yet I felt more distant from him than ever."

Minerva eyed the man whom she had trusted more than anyone else on this earth. While that trust had been shaken a few times in the past few years, she still trusted him not to lie to her on matters like this. "Very well. Have you recovered from your own stupidity yet?"

The smirk that dressed her lips drew only a slight eyebrow raise from her friend. "Indeed, please do go on, Minerva."

She tilted her head slightly and passed the folder in her off-hand over the desk. "I had to agree to a few concessions. Especially after you left."

"Concessions? Such as?"

"Miss Granger's presence appears to be first and foremost for young Harry." Minerva may have been on the back foot for the entire meeting, but this second interaction with the two teens revealed a lot more than her first. "To be perfectly honest, the way he looked at her made him look more like James than anything else."

"From the long tirade that you gave me after receiving the girl's rejection letter, I have no problem granting such a request. Her presence sounds like it would be a boon to the school."

"Quite so. The Visitor's Lodge in Hogsmeade shall be made available all year long to Mr Black and Mr Lupin. They made matters quite clear that if they did not maintain free and close access to Harry, he would not be coming."

"Is that truly necessary? Do they not trust…" Albus trailed off as he caught her questioning glance. "Right, yes."

"The only downside I could see is anyone visiting for the Tasks might need to share depending on attendance figures. Yet there are ample rooms in the building that two more shouldn't task the system. Again, a small thing for them to ask. Given the circ*mstances."

Albus nodded and began reading through the forms she'd had signed by the adults. "I also managed to win quite the verbal argument with Andromeda."

This drew Albus's full attention once again. "Mrs Tonks? Why was she present?"

Minerva gave him a stern look before she spoke. "I learned on my first visit to the Granger home that they'd happened to make friends with the Tonkses. One of the things that made that visit quite so unique. It's perturbing to watch a muggle family act like the advanced magic you've just shown them is no more interesting than a clock on the wall. I had their coffee table dancing a jig and all Miss Granger wanted to know was which other schools and classes were available."

"Are you saying Andromeda suggested they not attend because of me? I cannot recall doing anything to earn that formidable woman's ire."

"I do not think so, Albus. I get the distinct feeling that Harry has known Miss Granger for some time. If Mr Lupin had bemoaned your past actions to the Grangers as he did to me today, I can see why they would be less than enthusiastic about sending their daughter into your 'clutches', so to speak. Not to mention Black's attitude on the matter, and he was freed long enough before the letters went out to colour their opinion on you."

"It seems I'm overdue for a chat with both Mr Lupin and Mr Black. Will Andromeda require residence as well?"

"She will not. It seems that Black and Lupin are both living off Sirius's inheritance and are free to spend all their time watching the children and laying about. Andromeda, however, still works full-time at St Mungo's like a proper contributing member of society. Though she will be bringing herself, Ted and the Grangers to every event. Another concession I felt no hesitation granting."

"Excellent, though I fail to see how that constituted an argument." Albus queried.

"That wasn't the argument. They agreed that it would be best for the children to be sorted and housed in the castle. None of them seemed terribly thrilled at the idea, but I successfully convinced them the social benefits to the pair would be worth it in the end.

"Though it pains me to admit that the look the children gave Andromeda may have been the deciding blow in the argument, rather than my compelling reasoning."

Albus looked at her closely and she knew he had ferreted out the but. "On the condition that you never meet with the children alone. Sirius or Remus must be summoned to the school if you wish to speak with either child. And there must be an actual reason beyond simple curiosity on your part."

His face and shoulders both sank at the statement. "It seems I have a very long way to go to regain their trust in me." Several moments of contemplative silence filled the air before he glanced back up at her once again. "There is something else?"

Minerva sighed heavily before she spoke. "Even though he has agreed to attend the school during his time here, Harry Potter will not be competing as a student of Hogwarts school."

Albus eyed her oddly as she continued. "He refuses to be 'party to stealing Nymphadora's thunder' I believe was the term he used. Given no school was given on his entry, I don't see how this would present a problem unless we make it one, Albus."

The old man fell into deep thought and Minerva could not read his expression. She occasionally wondered if that had been a part of the reason why he grew out his now impressive beard, given how awful it had looked on him for nearly a decade as it grew out.

"I agree. Will the boy accept our help in the Tournament?"

"Do you see him accepting any given the way he's responded to us so far? I believe that was his intention of having Black and Lupin nearby. But I don't see them taking advice from you very well at present either."

"So they'll be going into the First Task blind?"

"I don't like it either, but that is the very purpose of the Task, Albus. None of them are supposed to know."

"Very well." Albus sighed heavily. "Perhaps Alastor will have some luck with his investigation before it becomes necessary for Harry to compete. I do not think I could face the Potters in the next life should I be so responsible for sending their son to meet them."

Minerva considered that carefully. "No, I would not want to move on with their ire directed at me either."

ϟ

Monday 21st November 1994.

Every eye in the Hall followed Harry and Hermione as the pair walked slowly toward the front of the grand room.

Whispers reached his ear and he thoroughly disliked the things that were being said. The number of people in this room who had apparently read those stupid stories was far too high for his liking.

They'd once been a topic of amusem*nt between himself and Hermione, but in the current situation, they simply reaffirmed his reasons for not having attended three years prior. The idea of being subject to such attention for so long irritated him deeply.

A sudden jab of magic touched his own and Harry turned to glance at the smile Hermione was giving him. He returned the touch lightly before turning to face the stern woman before him for the third time. The stool beside her and the Hat resting on it cemented the reality of the deal they had struck with her.

"Your attention please." The stern professor called needlessly, as there wasn't a single eye in the Hall that wasn't already fixed on Harry. "In an unprecedented occurrence, a fourth name has come from the Goblet of Fire. Most of you should recall this occurring on the night of the selection, but due to the individual in question not being a member of the attending schools, we decided to inform them directly before announcing it.

"As the Champions are aware, this also constituted a binding contract to compete in the Tournament. As such, we welcome two new students to our midst today, Hermione Granger and our wildcard entry, Harry Potter."

She indicated the two of them, but it was Harry's name that set the volume of the whispering into overdrive. While he'd featured in the paper a few times in the past years, thanks to his disguise, they'd never gotten a clear image of him to display upon it.

Now the students were getting their first true look at the rumoured Boy-Who-Lived and he was not impressed with them at all.

"Can we do it without the fanfare?" He mumbled, earning an elbow from Hermione and an amused glare from the teacher.

"They shall be attending classes for their age group while here, but are also self-studying other subjects, so please do not disturb them if you find them doing so. As such, the pair shall now be sorted, to find where they shall be spending their nights and classes. Miss Granger."

The tiny twitch to the elder witch's lips may have been a smile as she gestured Hermione forward and raised the Hat from its place. Hermione gave Harry a smile before she stepped forward and sat deftly on the low stool. The large Hat resting neatly on her bushy hair suddenly became animated.

Harry's eyes flicked with interest between his friend and the odd headgear, noting that despite the silence, she seemed to be having a conversation.

Suddenly, a rip near the brim opened and the hat shouted to the Hall.

"HUFFLEPUFF."

Harry noted McGonagall seemed slightly disappointed as she removed the hat and Hermione returned to her place beside him. "You may join your housemates, Miss Granger."

"I'll wait for Harry, thank you, professor." She replied politely, crossing her hands in front of her and smiling at the woman. Her eyes gestured Harry forward.

Harry smiled back at her as he felt the weight of several of the glares that had been fixed on his back heat up and shift to his friend instead. He decided not to turn about but stepped forward before McGonagall could shout his name into the Hall again.

As he sat on the stool that was far too short for him, he made the mistake of looking up. Most of the faces were still fixed on his own and he chafed at the attention. He felt the odd Hat being placed upon his head and a new voice quickly drew his attention.

'Hello there, about time you arrived, Mr Potter.'

'Are you the Hat?'

'Indeed I am. You've quite the history tucked inside this head of yours don't you.' Harry tensed at the idea of someone reading his mind. 'Worry not, I do not share my charges' secrets, and the work you've been doing with the former Miss Black shall keep them from other interlopers. Though it's nice to see you got to grow under your family's tutelage despite the tragedy that befell you all. And you've found the only young witch I've ever seen more inquisitive than your own mother, too.'

Harry smiled as he looked at Hermione and he noted several of the faces in the crowd flick to his friend as well. 'Yes, she is pretty brilliant.'

'I was almost certain the moment Minerva put me on your head, but that settles it. Go on and join your cousin. I'm sure she's missed you.'

"Hufflepuff."

The collective gasp in the Hall was surprisingly loud, but Harry couldn't care in the slightest as he stood and passed the Hat back to the now obviously surprised professor. He grasped Hermione's hand and headed to the suddenly cheering yellow-trimmed house and within moments he was giving his cousin a firm hug.

"Welcome to Hogwarts, shorty."

"Hey, none of that, cheater." Harry retorted, remembering how she had used her ability during their most recent session at the door frame.

It didn't bother him in the slightest that girls sprouted towards the beginning of puberty and both his friends were currently taller than him, at least that's what he told the both of them. He sat with Nym on one side and Hermione on the other as the bench quickly reshuffled to allow them ease of entry to the house.

"So," The dark-haired boy opposite the trio spoke, "the famous Harry Potter." This drew Harry's eye and he recognized the boy as Cedric. "The mysterious cousin that has driven Nym to the top of the class?"

Harry glanced at the aborted blush on Nym's cheeks and smiled at his cousin. "You didn't really think it was Draco did you?"

The boy laughed and extended his hand over the table. "Nice to see you again, Harry."

This drew several of the nearby eyes from Harry to the other boy, most with shock at the idea their own dreamboat was somehow already familiar with the famous boy and had not mentioned it.

"So, is it always this eventful around here?" Hermione asked, tucking into the food that had appeared on the table.

Nym laughed at the comment. "Eventful? Hardly. Let's see, staff-wise... Kettleburn retired our fourth year and Grubbly-Plank took over with Hagrid assisting. The old Muggle Studies professor, Quirrell returned from his summer trip in our third year to teach Defence now that Burbage had filled his old job. But only for that one year before leaving to write a book.

"That's when Moody took things over. Apparently, he spent the entire summer hunting the source of the famous DADA curse. He must have found it too, because he's been teaching it ever since. He's still mad, but he really does know his stuff."

Cedric took over as Nym started on her own dinner. "There were a few rule changes in our third year too. Things pertaining to tighter security of the castle or something."

Nym nearly choked as she laughed aloud. She swallowed before explaining. "Should have seen whittle cousin Dwaco's face when they announced that just after his sorting. Must have been upset mummy and daddy couldn't send on some of his favourite toys. It was odd though, Dumbledore stood and apologized to us all before he made his announcement. And there was a marked change in the curtailing of bullying behaviour around the school. Which also ruined poor Draco's day."

"I'd say, the closest we ever came to this level of excitement," Cedric pondered a moment, "would be when Hagrid got Grubby's permission to introduce us all to Fluffy. No idea where he got himself a giant three-headed dog, but it's amazing. As big a pushover as Fang though, but it stays in the Forest most of the time."

"Did you really fight a chimaera?" A female voice from Nym's far side asked without warning, and Harry paused as he handed the salt Hermione had wanted to add to her dinner that he hadn't realized he'd picked up.

He turned to face the voice as Nym leant back, a cheeky grin on the metamorph's face. "A fan of those books are you…"

"Dora. Dora Williams. I'm a friend of Nym's." The girl provided as she blushed heavily under his gaze.

"Well, Dora." He smirked at his cousin who glared back at him with no heat. "Everything in those books is a complete fabrication. I don't need glasses for starters. My dad did, but not me. I've never battled any fiercesome monster for a damsel's hand." His own subconsciously entwined with Hermione's as he spoke. "And I really hope that you spread it about that I despise that utter rubbish and would rather not be asked about it every five minutes."

"C'mon, Harry, they're a laugh." Nym joked beside him, covering the now flushed face of her friend from view.

"Maybe to you." Harry snorted. "There is a reason I wear a disguise when I go out in public." He mumbled and returned to his dinner.

"Mister Potter, Miss Granger." A cheery voice sounded behind the pair and they turned to see the jovial head of Hufflepuff house that Nym had often spoken so highly of in her letters.

"Wotcher, prof," Nym smirked.

"Nymphadora." The teacher returned with a smile. "Here are your schedules. Minerva explained you may miss classes from time to time, but I suggest you attend wherever possible. I certainly look forward to seeing you both in Herbology. The First Task is on Thursday at 10 am, so if you need anything, either one of you," her eyes flicked between Harry and Nym, "my door is always open."

She beamed at the students before her and returned to the head table. Harry's eyes tracked her and when she sat he allowed his gaze to drift along the table, trying to put names to each of those seated.

Hagrid was obvious, the stories of his parents' time at Hogwarts included many happy times spent chatting to the jovial giant. Hooch also stood out with her bright yellow eyes. And Moody's face could be mistaken for nothing short of hamburger meat.

But it was the vicious look coming from underneath the greasiest of hair that informed Harry of the identity of his mother's former friend. He sighed and nudged Hermione, the movement imperceptible to anyone but perhaps Nym if she'd been watching. The girl looked without turning her head and rolled her eyes at him afterwards.

"You'd think after so long he might have grown up. Even Sirius managed it." She whispered to him.

"Good thing two of his favourite people in the world are now sleeping just down the road and have unlimited access to come and visit," Harry smirked in response. "Sirius is going to love this."

ϟ

Tuesday 22nd November 1994.

"Harry?" Nym asked, glancing into the room the laughing boy had exited. "Why does Vector look like you petrified her?"

"I did nothing." He chuckled, raising his arms defensively. Hermione blushed under the amused gaze the two cousins fixed her with.

"It's not my fault. She's just surprised. It seems that taking Muggleborns from their world at eleven means she's never taught a student versed in higher-level mathematics."

Nym raised her eyebrow at the girl. "Meaning?"

"Apparently," Harry cut in, "studying mathematical analysis, geometry, calculus and the like prepares one well for taking Arithmancy at Hogwarts. Or as Hermione put it; 'Arithmancy is just maths applied to magic'." He stopped holding in his laughter at this point and leaned against the wall for support.

Hermione blushed deeper in response. "Honestly! I'm not sure why she's so surprised. They were studied side-by-side for centuries before the magicals went into hiding. Of course there would be overlap and similarities."

"Well, you broke her." Nym looked to the new girl who had just joined them. "Oh, hello."

"Nym, this is Padma Patil. She's going to join our study sessions after the Task." Hermione introduced the girl, in an obvious effort to redirect attention away from herself.

"Yes, if this," Padma pointed over her shoulder at the still vacant-looking teacher, "is any guide, I'd lose my rights as a Ravenclaw if I didn't take advantage. She hasn't moved in ten minutes now. I did glance at the notes she was quizzing you from though. They're sixth-year level questions."

The girl looked decidedly miffed at the idea the two newest students were so far beyond her in ability. Nym walked over and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry. I know how you feel. I've been trying to keep up with them for years now." She leant in and stage whispered the last. "They're freakishly talented, but great motivation."

Nym guided the girl away from the room, Harry copied her action with Hermione, still chuckling slightly as they walked towards the Great Hall for lunch. "So, did you leave our Head of House in a similar state?"

"No, turns out she already has her prodigy in Herbology. Longbottom is amazing at it. He agreed to study with us too." Hermione quieted as they passed the Weasley Twins having a chat with Peeves the Poltergeist and handing the cackling fiend a bag. "Whatever that is about, I want nothing to do with it."

"Come on, Hermione. I know you love a good prank." Nym nudged the girl beside her.

"I love pranking Sirius, because he deserves it, and it makes him happy. He's been through a lot. So I don't mind indulging him from time to time. Can you imagine if those four ever met?"

Harry shuddered and shook his head. "Please no."

Nym laughed at her friends. "Well, the Ministry did decide to cancel Quidditch the school year after the Quidditch World Cup. And that was the only thing those two ever focused on more than fooling about. I do miss being in Italy though. It was a beautiful place to hold it."

Harry chuckled. "Can you imagine if they'd held the Cup in England and then cancelled Quidditch? There would have been riots."

"There nearly were." Padma chimed in, Nym noticed the young girl seemed to be relaxing in her presence and gave her a soft smile.

"Those two were on the table in protest during the announcement." Nym and Padma laughed at the memory of Fred and George loudly hollering at their Headmaster.

"A feast is not the best time to be jumping on the tables either." Padma chuckled. "Anyway, I'll talk to you later."

The girl ducked Nym's arm and dashed away to the Ravenclaw table as the trio settled at their own. Nym waited several minutes in silence as Hermione began eating before bringing up her next topic of discussion. "So, when were you two planning on telling me?"

Harry looked at her with confusion but Hermione froze, mouth half full of food. "Tell you what?" Harry asked.

"That you're dating."

Hermione began to cough slightly around the food now caught in her throat and Nym smiled sweetly at the pair as Harry rubbed his girlfriend's back. "What makes you think we're dating?"

Nym looked at him with disbelief. "Please. You don't think I know you both well enough to tell?"

Hermione finally cleared her throat and croaked her reply. "No!"

Nym tried to keep her face straight but began laughing at the indignant look on Hermione's face. The girl quickly washed the offending food down with some water and cleared her throat several times.

"Fine, you're right. Hermione talks in her sleep. But only when she snuggles up with you, Harry." Nym pointed with her fork. "If you want to keep it a secret, maybe find somewhere better to spend the night than the common room couch."

Both teens blushed in response. "It wasn't like that!" Hermione whispered, clearly hoping to keep her private life private.

"Oh, I know. You two have always been total snuggle-bugs. What's wrong with the beds then?"

"They're too soft. I can't get used to it." Harry muttered, arm still rubbing Hermione's back.

"True, took me a while. So you prefer the couch then?"

"No. It's just… you are so frustrating sometimes." Hermione growled softly earning another soft smirk from Nym in response. "It's a little bit of homesickness, a little bit of the beds are weird…"

"And a little bit of you wanted to snuggle your boy toy."

"NYM!" Hermione yelped, which drew several of the other eyes at the table to her flushed face.

"Oh relax, Hermione. I'm just joking. Let's be fair, the way the two of you behave every day, all you two dating means is a little kissing has been added to the mix."

"Yes, well. Please don't shout it in the Great Hall. It's none of their business." Hermione jabbed at the meta with her fork.

"I know, but if you keep secrets from me," Nym eyed her in return, "expect me to fight dirty."

"Nym's right, Hermione. We should have told her. She's family." Harry gently calmed his girlfriend and Nym smiled at them both in return.

"I planned to, I just felt like it was something that needed to be conveyed in person. And we just haven't had a suitable moment since we got here." Nym could tell Hermione was embarrassed at being caught out and looking for excuses.

"Stop, Hermione. It's fine. I'm happy you two finally figured things out. It has been sort of a long time coming." She winked at the flushed pair. "Just keep me in the loop from now on, alright. And you can give me details later." She fixed her eyes on Hermione as she finished.

"Yes, fine. Can you please stop embarrassing me in the main hall now?"

Nym chuckled and Harry tightened the arm around her shoulders. "Never change, Hermione."

ϟ

The remainder of lunch passed without incident and Nym went her own way once Tamsin pulled her off to their own Herbology class. The two new students walked hand in hand towards their next first class and Harry gave Hermione a light squeeze.

"You alright?" He asked his girlfriend.

"I'm fine. I just wish she'd brought it up in private. I know you saw the looks you received during our sorting. This will get out, I'm sure." She raised their joined hands slightly. While it had been common for them for years, the people around them were new to their habits and would surely believe what they liked based on the evidence at hand. "I just don't look forward to the gossip mongers."

"I agree. I don't care if people know, but I do care if they have a go." Harry pondered for a moment before continuing. "Like that Ravenclaw girl yesterday. She's got like a foot and a half on me, who knows what year she's in, but she was eyeing me like I was a piece of meat. It's disgusting."

Hermione nodded beside him as the pair finally stepped into the new classroom, the shutters on the windows from about halfway down the room keeping it dark enough at the front that the only light came from the scattered candles about the desks and shelves.

In a moment, Harry's wand was in hand as a beam of scarlet light soared towards the pair from the dark front of the room. Several of their classmates shouted and ducked aside as Harry firmed his grip on his wand and twisted his wrist as the red beam made contact with the tip. The light curled about the tip almost forming a ball as Harry let the momentum of the energy move in towards his body slightly, but with a move he'd perfected a few months earlier on Remus, he let the inertia carry the ball around in a small arc, very nearly touching his body, and flicked his wrist forward again.

The stunner now rocketed back towards the front of the room accompanied by a red and yellow spell fired from Hermione's wand. The moment the spell left his wand, Harry fired another stunner behind it and Hermione finished her volley with a lavender-coloured Leg Locker Curse. Four of the five spells splashed vibrantly against a shield that had been conjured, but when the second stunner struck the shield, it gave way and the Leg Locker struck true.

The oddest sound greeted Harry's ears as a wooden scrape preceded a rather loud curse before a heavy object in the dark half of the room tumbled to the floor. "Bugger it. That was good work, Potter."

"Identify yourself, or I'll keep firing." Harry retorted, wand firmly in hand as he noticed some of the nearby students were peeking over their desks and one or two had even drawn their own wands. Harry knew Hermione was keeping an eye on them so he focused his attention forward.

Several quick flicks of his wand had the shutters open and he noticed the dark lump shift on the floor in front of the teacher's desk. Dirty blonde hair flicked out of the old and battered travelling cloak, followed by a slightly familiar face that reinforced Harry's desire to keep his wand trained on the man.

"I promise you'll not come to harm, Potter. Nor you Granger. Needed to make sure you'd be able to keep up in my class." The lump slowly stood and Harry noticed the wooden peg leg with a clawed foot had been freed from the natural leg.

"Sorry, but I'll keep my guard up. I'm not fond of teachers who attack me before introducing themselves. You can ask my tutors how I tend to react to that."

"Don't need to ask the tutors. Can see for me bloody self. That was the whole point. Hell of a curse Granger. The other two?"

Hermione let her eyes flick to the odd man at the head of the class. "Vomiting hex and a cutting curse."

The gnarled man's one true eyebrow rose, the second missing and replaced by the fixings that kept his second swirling eye in his head. Harry felt a little nauseous just looking at it as it spun about the room before it came to lock on his face. The electric blue colour was disturbing in and of itself.

"A serious combination."

"I don't take to being attacked lightly," Hermione replied simply.

"Neither of you was attacked, but I am curious where those wands came from. They weren't up your sleeves and neither of you reached for them. That's a hell of a trick."

Harry remained silent as he stared down the odd man. Hermione refused to divulge their secret either and the man began to laugh, the smile stretching his face horribly, a lifetime of scars proving that they would be unwise to lower their defence in his presence.

"Good on you. Never reveal a tactical advantage to an unknown adversary. I like you two. Join your classmates and we can begin." Harry tilted his head curiously. "I'm done, you've nothing to fear from me but tough exams."

As neither of the two new students moved, he began to chuckle once more. "Finally some quality clay to mold. Hopkins, explain to these two who I am, would you? I need to adjust me leg after that dust-up."

One of the nearby Puffs slowly stood from behind his desk, eyeing all three wands carefully. "He's Professor Alastor Moody. Ex-Auror. He's been our Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher since our second year."

"I know who he is. But is it usual for him to fire curses at students randomly?" Harry asked his housemate.

"No," Sally-Anne chirped from her seat. "But we've never had a transfer student before."

"You can sit down. He's a little bit mad, but he's not actually crazy." Susan commented, having been the only one who hadn't ducked the firefight, her own wand being tucked back in her robes as she smiled politely and indicated a pair of empty seats next to the tense pair.

"I heard that Bones. Don't think your Auntie frightens me, girl." Moody chuckled.

Harry nudged his bag into place next to the desk and slowly sat, keeping a weather eye on the man who had his leg up on the table and was tapping it with his wand in several places. Hermione soon joined him, both of them with their wands still out and above the desk.

"Who taught you non-verbal spell casting?" Hannah asked from next to Susan, which appeared to be her usual place in their classes. "We're not supposed to cover that until sixth-year."

Harry glanced at her for a moment. "Our defence tutor is very good. And his assistant is very creative when it comes to testing."

Both girls nodded and everyone focused their attention forward as the sound of wood on wood sounded from the front of the class. Moody still had not put away his own wand, but the stories Harry had heard from his tutors about Mad-Eye had Harry sure the man would never disarm so long as he and Hermione had theirs out.

Nor would they lower theirs until the class was over.

ϟ

"You can stop yer worrying, Albus," Alastor called as he burst in the doorway, his false leg echoed across the stone as he quickly covered the distance to the desk.

"I find that hard to believe, Alastor. About what do you think I can relax?"

"Potter. Granger, too. Tried to take 'em by surprise when they entered me class. Dunno where they were keeping their wands, but they had 'em in hand before the stunner even came close. And Potter returned it. Haven't seen that move in a decade."

"He fired his own spell back at you in class?" Albus asked, concerned.

"Aye, the lass too. Good spell choice. And perfect grouping. Tasked my shield to failure. But I mean he returned me own spell as well as following with one of his own. Whoever has been teaching those two has not been slacking on defence training. Expertly cast, good power, non-verbal."

"Non-verbal casting?" Alastor smirked. It had no effect on Albus as it did on most, leaving them shaken. "You're certain?"

"What was I doing before you asked me here, Albus? I've known Aurors less capable than those two. Stop fretting about it and worry about something you can change."

Dumbledore considered this news. He knew exactly who had been training Harry and Miss Granger. It seemed the Marauders may have considered the possibility of Tom's eventual return as he had and were ensuring Harry had the necessary tools. That Miss Granger, who had not been seen outside Harry's company since they arrived, was as skilled was a surprise, but a welcome one.

Relief spread through him at the thought that his past errors had not cost the boy his chance at either happiness or skill.

"Have you made any further progress on the Goblet?"

"None. It was definitely a confundus, but I cannot figure out when it was applied. It shouldn't have been possible to do once you put up yer spells. Whoever did it is good, Albus. Better than I've seen in years."

Albus sighed heavily. The same conclusions he had drawn. He was greatly regretting his belief that the Tournament was ready. He'd let the small niggling doubt remain unvoiced as he'd signed the approval, and now he was paying for it.

No, Harry was paying for it, which was far, far worse.

"You have made preparations for when the Tournament is over then?" Albus asked his old friend.

"Absolutely. I agree that thing is far too dangerous to be left in Ministry hands. The moment the last task is done, a set of old friends will take possession and ensure its destruction. The Goblet will be no more in a little over seven months."

"Good. I'm loathe to destroy such a storied artefact, but this has certainly proven it has outlived its usefulness."

"Aye." Alastor swigged a large gulp from his hip flask before he continued. "Future looks a lot brighter with those two in it though. This is gonna be a fun year, Albus. I'm looking forward to Thursday, more so after today's performance."

Albus nodded softly to his old friend's thoughts. Harry had proven an enigma at every turn. But he was still far more concerned about the boy's entry than the boy himself.

Whoever had managed to liberate the letter from his possession was a very dangerous threat, one that was still out there somewhere, and in only two days time, they'd have another chance at Harry in a far more public setting.

"I hope you are correct, Alastor. I truly do."

Chapter 24: The First Task

Chapter Text

Thursday 24th November 1994.

"Sirius, calm down," Andromeda instructed as the quartet walked towards the school as the supposedly mature man bounced about with excitement as Padfoot. A form he'd been in all morning as he dragged Remus out of bed and jumped all over herself and Ted the moment they'd arrived.

Sirius changed back to normal as he looked to Andi with a wide smirk. "It's exciting, Andi. We get to see Harry!"

"You saw Harry yesterday, Padfoot. And the day before. And the one before that." Remus deadpanned. "You know, when we were helping him plan what he could do for the First Task, depending on whatever it actually turns out to be."

"It's been hours, Moony!" Sirius whined. "I'm used to seeing him all day every day. Letting them stay at the castle was a mistake."

"Just because you've lost your favourite doggy bed doesn't mean that Minerva was wrong," Andromeda advised. "We've sheltered them too much. They need the chance to interact with people their own age, Sirius. They don't even do so in the muggle world anymore. Their school is great but learning by correspondence, they rarely see anyone their own age."

"That's true," Ted added. "Nym has loads of friends up there she talks about all the time. I don't think she'd be half the girl she is today had we kept her home."

None of their very true arguments calmed Sirius though. Half of his energy was simply due to seeing Harry again. But a large part was the anxiousness. In a few short hours, Harry would be facing something he could not help with. Something potentially lethal. A soft hand on his shoulder drew his attention to Ted looking at him knowingly.

"He'll be fine, Sirius. They both will. Whatever this Task is."

Sirius gave the man a wry smile. Ted was a good man and saw a lot more than he let on. He nodded and within a moment was a dog once more, both for the speed it led to his run to the castle and the duller emotions it offered that kept him from stewing on the fast-approaching unknown.

ϟ

Breakfast had been a somewhat quieter affair than she had expected so far.

Hermione blushed every time that Nym smirked her way, the metamorph having found her snuggled close to Harry in his bed that morning, but had yet to tease her about it at all. She had been unable to sleep with the mystery of the Task looming over her boyfriend and had popped to him in the dark.

Harry had been lying awake himself and had welcomed her presence and the comfort that came with it.

Now, however, she had to deal with the giant black dog that was bounding down the hall towards them. One that proved constantly he had no concept of subtlety unless it furthered a prank. Hermione watched Harry stand only a moment before the massive beast hit him hard and sent them both sprawling. Only her familiarity with the lunatic and Harry's laughter kept her from leaping after him.

The pair on the floor drew curious looks from most of the other gathered students before the dog transformed and hauled the boy into his arms for a firm hug.

"Good morning, Sirius," Harry said, wrapping his godfather tightly in his arms. "You seem excited."

Hermione rolled her eyes at Nym, who mirrored the action. Sirius was always excited. His years in Azkaban had given him an endlessly positive outlook on all factors of life. Every day was something special now he had his family again. Though it hadn't taught him the value of restraint.

"I'm about to watch my godson own this stupid Ministry dog and pony show. No offence, Nym."

The girl just laughed at his comment as yet another well-wisher wandered past to offer them both luck for the Task. "Probably true."

"And how's my other favourite girl?" Sirius asked, turning to Hermione as he sat between Harry and herself.

"Fine, Sirius." She replied, poking her breakfast.

"Doesn't look fine to me," he whispered in her ear and gave her a knowing look.

Hermione hated that he knew her well enough to tell how frightened she was. But his wink convinced her he was in a mature enough mood that he wasn't going to out her feelings to the Hall at large. The sustained look allowed her to see she wasn't the only one who needed to stick close to Harry right now.

"Any new ideas about what this whole thing will involve?" Nym asked across the table.

"No idea here. Maybe Moony and Andi will have some thoughts. They should be here any minute."

The people in question stepped inside right as Sirius spoke their names and Hermione couldn't help the smirk that rose in response. Because stood right beside Nym's parents, were her own. She stood and hurried the length of the hall, trying not to run outright.

The hug she fell into immediately helped allay some of her worries as she sank into her parents' arms. She hadn't realized how much she would miss them being so far away. There would definitely be some ducking away from the castle for visits in the coming weeks.

"Good morning, sweetheart. Did you miss us?" Her mother cooed.

"Yes."

"How are the classes going? Keeping abreast of things I hope." Her father commented, ruffling her already bushy hair.

"Dad. Of course, we are. We're quite a ways ahead in most of them." She blushed again as she considered their aborted first Arithmancy class. "We may have broken one of the teachers the other day though."

Remus laughed loudly from beside her and she glanced at the werewolf. "I can believe that. You two devour knowledge like Sirius devours dinner."

The group slowly moved over to the Hufflepuff table where the students once more parted to allow the guests access to their house without a whisper of complaint.

Hermione wondered if she'd feel as comfortable in the large castle had they not joined the kindest and most welcoming house in the school. She'd already fended off several barbs from some of the other houses. And they'd only arrived on Monday evening.

She glanced across the table to find Nym squeezed tightly between her own parents and smiled brightly. Despite the unknown danger that loomed, having the Family here made everything feel a lot safer. Hermione was glad she wasn't going to be stuck watching the Task alone. She had their support to keep her from going mad as her two closest friends faced off against who knew what.

The hearty and happy breakfast continued for almost an hour before a voice interrupted them all.

"I'm sorry to interrupt." The Family turned to see Professor Sprout standing behind Harry and looking rather grim. "It's time for me to take these two down to the stands, I'm afraid."

Sirius leapt up and hugged the woman who had begun teaching at the school during his own time here. Hermione couldn't contain her laughter at the surprised look on the teacher's face. But it lessened slightly as she heard the whispered request.

"Keep them safe, Pomona."

ϟ

Nym couldn't help but glance at the massive stands beyond the tiny tent that her head of house had led them both towards.

"I wish I could stay with you both," Sprout advised the two as she held the opening to the tent wide, "but the rules forbid it. Be safe. Glory only lasts so long after death."

As the two entered, Professor Sprout gave them each squeeze on the shoulder in support. "Good luck." She said with a tight smile before she allowed the cloth to swing closed and presumably departed, leaving them alone with the two foreign Champions.

"Morning," Harry offered.

The two looked up, taking in the pair standing by the opening. Fleur gave a very half-hearted wave from a hand that barely passed her hips while Krum just inclined his head in their direction slightly. Harry glanced at Nym from the corner of his eye and smirked.

The atmosphere in the tent was tense as Harry and Nym sat opposite Fleur on the benches provided. Nym felt her own stomach clench slightly around her breakfast. She and Harry still had no idea what was waiting for them on the other side of the second opening to the tent. She wondered how her younger cousin was holding up, given he hadn't even been present for the Wand Weighing two weeks beforehand.

She glanced at him again and was surprised to find he looked cool as a cucumber. He noticed her gaze and smiled widely at her. "Stop worrying. Whatever it is, it'll be over soon. Worrying won't help."

He gave her a soft jab in the belly and she twitched, glaring at him in return though it lacked heat as ever. "I know."

Her response was cut short as a swathe of people entered the tent preceded by a bright flash and a witch in horrid glasses Nym remembered well from the Weighing Ceremony.

"Hmmm, what have we here?" Rita Skeeter enquired as she loomed over the two, but she was soon cut off herself.

"There will be time for that later, Miss Skeeter." Mr Crouch called, as he stepped forward. As with every other time Nym had seen the man he was immaculately dressed, his hair styled to precision. It only became more evident standing between Albus Dumbledore in his bright robes and Skeeter in her truly abysmal crime against fashion. "Champions, gather here."

The four teens all stood and assembled in a half-circle facing the crowd of adults. Bagman was right behind the front three, staring at a bag in Crouch's hand like it was made of gold. "You four have been chosen by the Goblet of Fire to compete in a Tournament a long time in the making. Ensure you keep that in mind as you perform today."

Nym stifled a chuckle as she considered the choice of words. That they were nothing more than performers in Crouch's grand play and he'd be most disappointed in them if they failed to act accordingly. His pointed glare at Harry bookended his point nicely as he clearly disliked that something derailed his precious Tournament right from the off.

"We shall go from left to right, so Miss Delacour." Crouch offered the bag forward, a spell over the opening keeping any light from escaping its contents.

Fleur reached inside and with a yelp, pulled her hand back, now wrapped around a bright green growling figure that had her pinky in its jaws.

Nym was shocked at the sight of the small dragon scratching ineffectually at the French girl's fingers, and only another poke in the side from Harry reminded her the bag was in front of her now.

She reached inside and felt the squirming wyrms attack her fingers. It was by far the oddest sensation she had ever felt as they clawed and nipped at her, but their teeth and claws could not find purchase. Her fingers closed around the body of one and she withdrew it from the bag. Its bright silvery-blue colouring was beautiful, but Nym frowned at the shimmering number 1 tattooed on its chest.

She glanced back at Fleur's miniature dragon and noted a number 2 on its chest. Nym was going first. She was going to have to battle a dragon. Alone. With no chance to properly prepare. With nothing but a wand.

Panic gripped her body as reality settled over her. She was going to die.

A pair of firm arms pulled her tight and she looked down to see Harry still smiling at her. "Mr Potter. We're on a clock. Keep your displays for later and take your turn!" Crouch grumbled.

Harry released one arm from Nym's waist but kept the one behind her back as he casually reached into the bag and pulled free his own dragon figure. His dragon was entirely black, but the boy seemed utterly disinterested in it as he continued to hold Nym close.

She smiled in return and tried to settle herself as Crouch offered the bag to Krum, who withdrew a long slender red dragon.

"As you will note, all four beasts bear a number on their throat. This is the order you shall enter. You each begin at the sound of your respective cannon blast."

Ludo stepped forward excitedly. "Now worry not, you don't have to duel the beast. Each dragon shall be guarding a golden egg. The task is simple: retrieve the egg."

He smiled broadly at the four as if he'd simply asked them to raise one hand and wave. With a cheeky wink, the former Quidditch star spun on his heel and departed the tent, several others passing out with him, leaving the Champions and the three front members of the intruders into their tent.

"The task is not time-limited, however, we do have four of you to get through." The man glared at Harry again and Nym felt some of the fear recede, replaced by anger at this idiot.

Their lack of security had entered Harry in the tournament, not Harry himself.

"Anything else?" The girl snapped at the infuriating man.

Crouch held her gaze and somehow managed to huff in her direction without shifting his body at all. "No."

"Then you can all leave so that we can prepare."

Crouch clearly didn't like her snippy comment, but swung about and swooped from the tent without another word. Rita turned her eyes to Harry and Nym tucked the boy closer to her hip in response. As the reporter moved to strike, the Headmaster cut her off.

"Come, Rita. You have a task to report on. Perhaps a meeting with all the Champions can come afterwards."

Nym remembered well the many horrid stories that she'd heard of the Professor over the years, but she felt nothing but gratitude to him now as he guided the gaudy woman from the tent, leaving the Champions alone once more. She continued to stare at the flapping edges of the opening for several moments until Harry jabbed her again.

"Ow, stop that!" She scolded, glaring at his smiling face.

"You can do this, Nym. You're clever. And strong. Stop panicking and think. Don't distract yourself worrying about me either. Focus on your dragon!"

"You do know I'm almost three full years older than you? I'm meant to boss you around."

Harry smirked at her. "I'm up last, I've plenty of time left to panic. You could be going out there at any moment. So focus."

Nym gave her cousin a firm hug and let his comfort wash over her. He was right. She had to go out there and focus on the task. She had a fairly solid idea forming on how to do it too. She could do this.

A loud cannon blast made her jump and Harry pulled her tighter for a moment. "Be safe." He whispered as they pulled apart and for a moment she saw the fright in the fourteen-year-old's eyes.

"Always."

Nym tucked the tiny model that was still trying its hardest to savage her hand into her pocket and pulled out her wand. With a single deep breath, she faced up to the opening and stepped through.

ϟ

The absence of noise assaulted her ears as Nym stepped forth into the morning sunlight.

Surprise took over as she glanced about. She knew they were on one of the rocky cliff areas by the Forest, but the inside of the arena was so different from what she had expected to see.

While there were several mountains not that far from Hogwarts, the arena itself wouldn't have looked out of place among the Alps.

Sharp spikes of rock jutted up everywhere, leading down towards the edge where an enormous stand full of silently screaming spectators was hanging over the cliff. She was relieved to see the exit from the arena was down there by the base, so she wouldn't have to climb back up the rocky terrain with an egg under one arm and a pissed-off dragon at her back.

That thought refocused her as she realized that she couldn't see the dragon amongst the dull grey rocks. The model had given her to think that it would stand out, being blue and shiny. She tightened the grip on her wand and scanned the environment. All she could see was the craggy 'mountainside'. She took a step forward and noted several smaller rocks shift about her feet.

Nym considered them for a moment before she whipped her wand several times.

Now five little grey creatures darted about her feet. Two dogs, a cat and a pair of rabbits shifted about against the similar rocks. She frowned at her failure to complete the transfigurations fully but tried not to let disappointment distract her.

Five quick commands with her wand had the small critters rush out into the field of stone in different directions and she began to walk cautiously forward.

A few moments passed before a cacophonous thud drowned out the horrid screech of a rabbit and, finally seeing her dragon, she understood why the Short-Snout was described as silvery-blue. Somehow the dragon had managed to blend unmoving against the rocky terrain, and in that state had almost disappeared into its surroundings.

The open ice-blue eyes and stretched claw that had one of her stone rabbits trapped between vicious claws stood out now against the sharper terrain about its hunkering form.

Nym felt her heart rate accelerate, she was barely twenty metres away from one of the most dangerous predators on this planet. The fact the Short-Snout had fewer human kills to its name did not comfort her at that moment. She doubted many people were stupid enough to climb up into the Swedish mountains looking to raid their nests.

She ducked down lower, losing sight of the massive beast as she began to weave her way down the slope and tried to skirt the dragon's reach. She kept her eyes peeled for the nest as she moved but couldn't remember exactly what it would look like through the terror in her brain.

Her wandering mind stopped the same moment her actual wandering did as a wave of heated air came rushing at her from between the rocks. Followed immediately by the brightest blue flame she'd ever seen.

Without warning, Nym felt a tug on her stomach and she was suddenly somewhere else. She was staring into a hole in the rock face, several pinkish flower-like items poking up through the stone.

The lack of light in the crevice had prevented them from opening under the morning sun but they were highly beautiful. They had a shimmer to their surface that almost matched the scales of…

Nym's brain stopped and she looked at them again.

What she had first thought to be petals were, in fact, scales that interlocked over one another in an upward direction, coming to a rounded point at the top. The scales were pink, blue and lavender in colour, and she finally noted the shimmer of gold in between what she suddenly realized were eggs.

She smacked her forehead as she noted she stood directly in front of the very nest she had been looking to find. She shook herself at the obviousness of it, now she could see it. Nym was unsure just what she'd been expecting to find in a mountainous dragon breed's nest.

She wasted no more time as she grasped the golden egg from within the nest and pulled it free, trying not to jostle the other eggs in the nest as she did. She felt eyes lock onto her from above and as she tucked the egg under her arm she jumped from the small outcropping she was standing on to a lower one to the right.

A wave of superhot air rushed past her and she didn't dare look back to see the pissed-off eyes that were surely following her.

The stand was not far away from where she had ended up and she shuffled along the rockface, weaving between the towering spikes hoping they could protect her as she felt much cooler air swirl around her.

Unable to resist, Nym cast a glance back over her shoulder and finally saw the full figure of the Short-Snout as its wide powerful wings carried it up into the sky. It was enormous and beautiful and very, very angry.

The dragon had literally caught her with her hand in the nest and it was out for blood now.

Nym let a shudder run through her lower half and she felt the power in her legs grow. Muscles that would put a life-long mountain climber to shame developed and she dashed between the rocks, ignoring the looming shadow that darkened the path she had chosen.

A tight twist in her stomach resurfaced as another wave of hot air washed over the area she stood in. This time she recognized the feeling, though she'd never had her magic direct it alone before.

She popped back into place only a dozen metres from the opening by the stands that would see her free of this chase. Nym rushed for the exit and felt another wave of cool air as the angered dragon leapt back into the air. She could hear the frustrated anger in its growl as it chased after her once again.

As she reached the flat ground before the exit, she glanced over her shoulder again and saw the shimmering scales of the dragon's throat as it reared back once more. Fear surged with adrenaline as Nym gave everything she had to the muscles in her legs and she leapt through the opening only moments before it was bathed in bright blue flames.

Nym could feel the heat through the opening, but none of the flames managed to enter. She realized that there must be safety methods to keep the flames from ruining the stands and the spectators within.

Nym glanced at the golden egg still tucked under her left arm and smiled. It was over. She'd survived and achieved the goal of the task. She could relax.

ϟ

Hermione released the vice grip she had on her parents' hands as Nym appeared above the stands, golden egg in hand.

The last she had seen the girl was diving in front of a wave of searing hot flame into a small exit to the arena. The adults around her had assured Hermione that Nym would be fine, but it was only the fact Nym was now safe in front of her that actually settled her nerves.

Hermione leapt from her chair and latched onto her friend tightly.

"It's ok, Hermione. I'm fine." The metamorph soothed, returning the hug.

Hermione smirked into Nym's shoulder as she let her heart rate slow. One of her friends was through this awfulness. "That was terrifying. I thought it had you a few times."

"Me too," Nym whispered in her ear.

"C'mon, Hermione. Stop hugging the victorious Champion." Sirius beckoned from his seat. "Let the rest of us have a go."

Hermione blushed as she turned about and faced the adults once more. Most of them were adamantly not looking at the two girls, their gaze fixed out over the edge of the stands. Hermione glanced in the direction they had been looking to see a strange sight.

"Wow," Nym mumbled as the pair took in the arena. What before had been rocky mountainous terrain was fast becoming a hilly grass-covered plain. Over a hundred wizards worked over the surface of the arena preparing it so that it would be closer to the normal territory in which the second form of dragon would nest.

"That is impressive," Natalie stated, looking slightly overwhelmed. Hermione wondered how she'd have taken it if today was the first magic her mother had ever seen.

"As you'll note," The once more magically amplified voice of Ludo Bagman shouted over the stands. "The next stage is almost ready to go and the judges have completed their deliberations. So before we bring out the next Champion, could Miss Tonks please step forward."

Nym glanced at the Family who all smiled supportively. She stepped past them to the long table full of foreign witches and wizards in various colourful robes. "Present."

"Nymphadora Tonks. The judges have assessed your very competent usage of Transfiguration and Illusory magic to complete the task and shall now each present your score out of ten." Hermione quietly coughed into her hand, covering the desire to laugh at the fact every one of the judges had seemingly misinterpreted Nym's performance.

"Jodie Forrester, Prime Magister for Australia, present your score. That's a nine."

A loud cheer went up from the crowd, mostly led by the yellow and black-robed students, but that was echoed by almost every student in Hogwarts attire.

Bagman continued. "Arnold Brown, Vice Minister of Canada, please present your score. That's also a nine." Another raucous cheer went up. "Madame Anastacia Lisov, Minister of International Relations of the Russian League, your score, please. A seven, thank you."

The cheering continued, filling the air despite the lower score, and Hermione could see that Nym was using her innate ability to keep her red cheeks from showing.

"Miss Gabrielle Caldeira, Headmistress of Castelobruxo. An eight, thank you, ma'am. And finally, Minaka Hirakata, fresh off the Japanese team's stint in the finals of the Quidditch World Cup, your score if you please. Nine as well."

The roar of the crowd grew even louder as Hermione tallied Nym's score and realized she was quite well positioned with forty-two points in the first task.

"A very respectable showing by our first champion out today. Congratulations, Miss Tonks. Please take your seat and we shall continue on to the next Champion." Bagman finished.

Hermione jumped and cheered with the Family as a blushing Nym turned back to face them. Forty-two points out of a possible fifty was a wonderful start. But the celebration was cut short by a resounding roar.

The girls spun on the spot to see twenty wizards departing quickly through a side entrance and a large green dragon growling at the sky, still slightly drowsy as she looked about the reformed arena. The next event was about to begin.

Sure enough, a second cannon blast sounded and several moments later the French Champion entered the arena through a concealed opening. Hermione and Nym carefully sat as they watched the Delacour girl sweep the enclosure with her eyes. It was hard to tell from up in the stands at the far side, but she seemed unable to see the full arena from her position by the entrance.

Fleur quickly dashed forward, surprising Hermione with the sudden movement. As she crested the first low hillock, a burst of flame shot in her general direction from the hunkered Welsh dragon, watching her closely as it circled its nest, all four heavy legs somehow whispering through the long grass.

Fleur eyed the animal and Hermione watched in awe as the girl began to sway, back and forth. Her shoulders and hips shifted in a light yet smooth dance. And then she heard the soft singing.

A light voice on the wind, almost coming from all around her, and drowsiness began to take hold. Her mind rebelled, knowing it was far too early to go to sleep. She'd only just woken a few short hours before. She didn't want to sleep. She needed to watch Harry perform.

The name Harry shot through her like adrenaline and the drowsiness passed instantly.

Fleur was still swaying and twirling through the grass before her, but the power of her spell had broken on Hermione. She poked her parents awake on either side of her but as soon as they caught sight of the French girl they slipped into dreams once again.

Certain that she wouldn't be able to keep them awake, Hermione refocused on the arena.

Fleur's spell had nearly put even the dragon to sleep, it was still watching her, but through only one near-closed eye as it tucked into the grassy plain on one side of the small dugout nest. The mottled brown eggs, flecked with green, blended well against its earthen surface, which only made the shining gold stand out all the more amongst them.

Daintily, the Champion approached, keeping her eyes on the now slumbering giant predator mere feet away from her. The dance slowed as Fleur carefully walked closer to the nest, but the voice still carried on the wind.

Fleur gently removed the golden egg from the nest and backed carefully from the rim. Her wand waved back and forth now, completely taking the place of the dancing as she retreated towards the exit, her eyes still fixed on the dragon.

Suddenly, a small girl a few seats away leapt to her feet and began to cheer and the spell over the crowd split, many jerking awake at the noise.

Bagman snorted loudly, his enchanted voice echoing over the stadium rousing those the small blonde girl had failed to and the sound swelled. By the time most had woken enough to see what was going on below them, Fleur had reached the exit and released her spell entirely.

She stepped out of the arena to confused applause as Bagman began to shout as if he'd been awake and commentating the entire time.

Hermione noted several of the judges roll their eyes at the exuberance of the man and she concealed a chuckle as she once again roused her parents. She was aided in her course when the Welsh Green in the field below roared awake and began to sniff about her nest.

The mighty lizard's tongue caressed each egg in turn and she only settled once she had confirmed none of her young were missing.

It didn't feel like it took Fleur as long to join them in the stands as Nym had, but that could have been Hermione's own nerves. As soon as she arrived, the small cheering girl launched at her and Hermione smiled.

Standing together, the resemblance was obvious and a small part of her yearned once more for the younger sibling her mother's condition had denied her. She felt a hand close over her own and turned to see her mother look at her with mild concern. Hermione blushed under her gaze and turned away as Bagman called on the judges to score the French Champion.

Hermione noted that every one of them looked wide awake, and assumed they must have stronger wards by their table, or that they'd been prepared once they saw Fleur begin her dance. But all had seemed impressed by her performance.

Fleur came away with four nines and a seven, which put her immediately in the lead and hard to beat on this event. Though Nym cheered the girl's score just as loudly as anyone else in the crowd, making Hermione smile at the elder girl's sense of sportsmanship and fair play.

The assignment of the scores reminded Hermione of the arena below and she turned to see hundreds of witches and wizards moving about the now undulating landscape as a team of thirty removed the once more sleeping dragon and her eggs from the enclosure.

It was some of the most impressive magic she had ever seen as the organisers converted the grassy plain into what appeared to be a dry river bed. Blades of grass merged to become brown and grey stones. Exotic plants she only vaguely recognized breached the roiling soil and sprouted along the river bed.

Her father gasped in surprise as a river suddenly swelled over the stony bed and rushed along its length, curving back and forth across the arena several times.

The transformation was nearly complete as the crowd of thirty keepers now guided a long slender red dragon into the arena. It looked almost like a giant snake with four powerful legs hanging limply below. A crown of golden spines rested back along the top of its neck but hung open below its sleeping face. Even in its slumbering state, a dull red glow could be seen inside its flared nostrils.

This dragon was different from the others they'd viewed this morning in that it had no wings visible on its body.

The rough-looking handlers laid the dragon along the riverbed and the smaller group stepped forward with the magnificent eggs. They, too, looked almost flower-like, a bright cherry colour that seemed to pulse every few seconds. Small filigrees swirled off the tips of the 'scales' and the thick gloves the handlers wore began to smoke slightly in the winter air, indicating how warm the eggs were.

As they tucked them into a small bowl in the bank of the riverbed, carefully formed to prevent any more than a light trickle of the river from entering, a cloud of steam arose.

The steam cloud widened over the area and was suddenly illuminated from within by dozens of yellow bursts. With a loud roar, the steam was lit even further by a bright burst of red flame that surged out the top and singed some of the nearby plants. Heavy footfalls could be heard, but the dragon and her eggs were very well hidden in the steam.

When at last the only sound coming from the enclosure was the rushing of the river, a cannon blast sounded.

The Family glanced as one to where they knew the entrance to be and watched as a gruff boy stepped through a 'boulder' and into the humid arena. His dark gaze swept over the environment and he cast several inaudible spells out into the concealed space.

A deep thrumming sound rose in the misty air, and Krum focused on the sound like a vulture. Gone was the grumpy indifference that she'd seen on him around the school. He was instead every bit the fixated champion seeker they'd seen in Italy and he had 'spied the Snitch'.

His wand was constantly in motion as he entered the lower section of the enclosure, and he would have disappeared into the heated mist if not for Krum's deft spell work clearing it away before him.

He soon arrived at the surging waters of the river but he did not advance. He stilled and appeared to be listening intently to something on the other side. A flare of light was the only warning the audience had before a mushroom-shaped fireball splashed against the shore, right where Krum had been standing only a moment before.

The Quidditch star had rolled to the side and sent a blast into the water that sent a surge of it up into the air, steaming as it quashed the side of the fireball closest to his body. He did not remain static upon rising and rushed towards some of the tall slender plants by the water's edge.

He climbed swiftly but when he was a bit over halfway up, the plant bent at the base and leant out over the river.

Hermione gasped as she expected Krum to fall into the surging water and be carried helplessly downstream, but the Seeker seemed to be prepared and as the plant descended, he shifted until he was standing on its length and used it as a diving board to cross the river, rolling as he landed on the nearer side.

What began as a light combat roll, devolved quickly into a lengthways roll into the underbrush as a second fireball exploded against the river bank.

Krum finally found his feet and fired a blind shot into the steam cloud. A roar and a renewed fireball were his response and he climbed to his feet.

He ducked in and out between the tall plants, tossing a new spell every few seconds in the direction he knew the dragon to be. The loudest roar of all sounded throughout the arena and Krum smiled. It appeared one of his spells had struck true.

He focused once again on clearing more of the steam away and as a result revealed not only his target, but the clearly angry red dragon that loomed above it.

The golden spines around the base of its neck were pointed outward and twitching violently. The nearest of the dragon's two eyes had swollen shut and was dripping some horrid yellow liquid into the river. Its remaining open eye was now fixed on Krum as it reared back. The mighty dragon roared ferociously, the sound so powerful that even in the stands, Hermione had to cover her ears.

The Bulgarian boy, however, just aimed and fired off a single spell, this one finding its target perfectly as it slammed into the dragon's second eye.

This eye also quickly swelled shut and crusty yellow residue formed over it until the dragon couldn't see anything. It howled with anger and launched several fireballs into the arena blindly as its entire body undulated and twisted. Its four large claws stomped back and forth in anguish and with a shock of realization, Hermione watched as its front left leg descended towards its own nest in its blind frustration.

A moment before the distraught mother destroyed her future offspring, a thick shield shimmered in the air over the eggs, visible not only due to the now trapped steam, but because it was so strong that it had distorted the air itself.

The dragon's heavy claw clanged against it and the huge lizard slipped on the uncertain surface and splashed loudly into the river itself. More steam soared into the air as the hot body of the dragon met the far cooler water.

As the steam began to obscure the audience's view once more, Krum rushed forward and divested the nest of its golden egg, with it tucked firmly under his arm he recast the powerful shield spell over the eggs and began to back quickly towards the exit.

The Champion was drenched in sweat and Hermione wondered how much of it was from the humid atmosphere in the arena and how much from powering such a shield to defend the eggs from their uncertain mother.

The dragon surged out of the river, her head rocked side to side and sprayed water in all directions. Her eyes opened and despite the remaining yellow residue, she could clearly see once more. Hermione assumed that the rushing river water had dislodged most of the gunk from her eyes. They flicked first to her nest but upon seeing the foreign magic all over it, she roared loudly.

The Chinese Fireball lived up to her name as she shot fireball after fireball across the enclosure.

Krum had to roll out of the way several times and he was only halfway to the exit when one struck close enough to send him flying through the air. He managed to retain his grip on the egg, but his focus slipped and the shield fell away.

The mother dragon howled happily as she noted the foreign magic was no longer obscuring her eggs and after a quick check, she reared up on her hind legs and roared. Towering frighteningly high above the thick branches of the facsimile of her natural forest home.

The audience watched on tenterhooks as the third champion regained his feet and no longer concerned himself with the nest behind him. He took off at full pace heading for the marked exit, this time, however, the enraged dragon gave pursuit, and this was her natural habitat.

It was amazing to watch the enormous snake-like movements as she wound her way rapidly through the slender plants. Her claws seemed to sweep across the foliage, always gaining on Krum as she blasted forward at an incredible speed. She had evolved perfectly for moving through the unusual plants. And it was no wonder she had no wings. The Fireball did not need them to fly through these trees.

In moments she was on Krum again and he fired a burst of water from his wand over his shoulder at the looming danger.

It wasn't skill that saved him though, as the humid air had made the ground treacherously slippery and he lost his feet several metres from the exit.

The searing fireball that had been trailing towards him instead soared over his prone figure and splashed loudly against the wooden walls of the stands, but they did not catch, as they had survived the bright blue flame of the Swedish dragon, so too were they warded against the Chinese dragon's flames.

The dragon roared her victory to the air, the sound painfully loud at their close proximity. Krum took the offered moment of reprieve and launched to his feet. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him.

The movement caught the clogged eye of the scarlet dragon that loomed over him, almost looking cat-like in the speed with which she tracked Krum. She reached out with a scaled limb and attempted to swat the nuisance that had dared enter her home. Krum ducked the swipe and with a final lunge, tossed his body into the exit and out of view.

The roar of the crowd almost drowned out the howl of victory the Fireball called into the air as she slithered her way back into the steam-filled 'forest'. Off to once more guard her eggs.

A mournful yowl soon followed as dozens of flares of bright red light splashed against the concealed creature as the dragon handlers moved in. She returned several volleys of fire, but each was smaller than the one before until a loud thud indicated she had succumbed to their assault.

Hermione felt bad for the mighty creature being used for the entertainment of a crowd without concern for her feelings. While the spectacle had been amazing to watch, she wasn't terribly impressed by the wizarding world she had seen so far.

By the time the handlers had the dragon out of the arena, a patched-up Krum who had a handful of scratches and bruises from his energetic movements through the dense foliage had arrived by the judges.

They seemed slightly disappointed at his appearance, and Hermione felt that the three sevens and two eights he received were slightly low for the effort he put into his attempt.

Not to mention his determination to protect the eggs from damage by the mother who would have been devastated had they been harmed.

But as Krum nodded to the cheers of the crowd and wandered off to who knew where, Hermione felt her chest tighten as she noted the new arena, now a mixture of the first two environments, was almost ready to go.

Harry was about to enter that space and face the dragon the handlers were currently moving into the area. It was larger than all the previous dragons, covered in dense black scales and looked tremendously dangerous.

As its purple eyes opened and began to examine its surroundings, a cannon blast sounded, and Hermione felt her heart stop.

ϟ

Harry stepped lightly into the open air, soft green grasses crunching under his feet as he moved into the open.

The arena was full of rather sharp vertical shots of green-covered rock and hills. If he didn't know better, he'd have assumed he'd just been transported to the rocky peaks across the lake visible from Hogwarts itself.

The only factor that ruled this out for him was the warm humid air, highly irregular for Scotland this time of year. It left a dewey residue over almost every surface so Harry focused his efforts on keeping his footing as he moved further into the mountaintop maze.

He could see the wooden bounds of the arena down the slope, and the crowd within, but he could not currently see a dragon anywhere.

His heart was hammering hard at the thought that it could be anywhere nearby, or he might walk into a trap set by the enormous creature, but he held his nerve. As he'd told Nym all morning, panicking and worrying solved nothing.

A rending sound came from his left and Harry ducked behind a tall outcropping as the heavy sound of rock smashing its way down the face of the slope echoed about him. A burst of sustained flame lit the area to his left and he could hear the stone in that direction cracking and warping under the intensity of it all.

But the sound also gave him a direction to focus on. He gingerly worked his way through the rocks and sooner than he'd have truly liked, he beheld a large figure covered in rough black scales arrayed before him. The dragon was faced away from Harry and was eagerly shifting something back and forth across the ground.

As its large maw lifted away, Harry realized where the sound had come from. The dragon had smashed one of the raised peaks of stone out of place, leaving a small craterous shape that it had blasted with flame if its glowing red surface was any guide.

And it was now carefully moving the oddest shapes Harry had ever seen into the heated bowl with her jaws, delicately grasping each one in turn. They looked almost like some kind of tropical fruit, purplish in colour with green furry stripes that rose upward to a peak where the stripes curled outward like fingers.

Each of the fruits jiggled slightly once it was placed in the red-hot bowl of stone, and Harry twigged to the reality of what he was seeing.

They were the dragon's eggs.

He focused once again, this time tracking where the mother was taking them from and sure enough, as her head lifted away with another fruit inside, he noted the glimmer he'd been looking for. Harry glanced momentarily toward the stands to find himself obscured from view by several of the outcroppings.

He smirked as he loosened the grip on his wand.

ϟ

Nym was on the edge of her seat as she watched her cousin move closer and closer to the enormous lizard that had just ripped a chunk of the mountain out of the way as if it were nothing.

Every fibre of her being wanted to rush in there and drag him away. He was too young and inexperienced to do something so insanely dangerous.

The crushing grip Hermione had on her hand was not helping to settle her nerves in the slightest, but when it loosened and the girl beside her began to laugh, she became truly concerned. Hermione had seemed nervous through each of the Champion's attempts, but she was now laughing near hysterically.

Nym's eyes flicked to the girl's parents, who were also looking at her with concern. "Hermione?"

Her eyes flicked back to the arena as she felt a burst of elven magic from that direction, and when she looked back at Hermione, two and two connected in her mind.

"HE DIDN'T!" She growled.

Hermione was unable to speak, but she managed to nod as she slipped from her seat and nearly pulled her mother and Nym down with her. Nym looked out into the rocky field and saw Harry emerge from behind an outcropping of rock.

He tucked his wand into his robes and approached the dragon in front of him, but suddenly Nym wasn't as concerned for him as she had been before.

That little bugger.

ϟ

Harry smiled as he approached the mighty lizard before him. He made sure to kick a few of the loose stones nearby as he walked, to announce his approach, not keen to sneak up behind a mothering dragon.

He stopped, still a good ten metres from the creature as it turned its vibrant purple eyes to behold the interloper in its nest.

~Good day to you.~ Harry commented in the unusual magical language he had used many times over the years, amused at the fact the dragon was looking at him exactly as Nym did when he'd done something foolish, with purple eyes and all.

The dragon growled at him in return, a deep throaty sound that echoed all around him. Harry smiled at her before he bowed deeply.

~I know you're busy, but I just wanted to apologize for your being forced to be a part of this, because of my entry.~ He nodded in the direction of the eggs, still jittering in their warm home. ~I hope that they are all well.~

The dragon tightened about the melted bowl and concealed the eggs from view. Harry gestured that he meant no harm before the dragon gave a series of guttural growls and roars at him.

~Ah, yes. Well… I hadn't considered that. You can understand me though?~ The dragon glared for a moment before she gave a definite nod. ~Huh, that's fascinating. Well, forgive me for taking up your valuable time. I wish you and your clutch the best.~

The giant Hebridean dragon simply bowed her head at him, and Harry smiled as widely as he had all day.

He tightened his grip on the golden egg under his left arm and turned towards the exit, content to leave the mighty mother alone with her young. He'd even managed to turn a foolish blood sport into a relatively safe learning experience. He'd spent a long time in that tent alone wondering and worrying.

At least today hadn't been a complete wash.

A confused crowd looked on from above as he casually worked his way down the rockface and in through the marked exit.

The massive dragon tracked his progress the entire way, but did not move away from the brightly glowing bowl of stone she had created. Wrapped around her eggs protectively as the interloper left.

Harry had emerged above the stands and been glomped tightly by familiar arms before anyone in the crowd began to applaud, and he was fairly certain it was his godfather who had started it.

Though he no longer cared about the crowd as the girl wrapped around him pulled back and crushed her lips to his own in a very public and very welcome kiss. After hours of tension and uncertainty, Harry was finally experiencing what he considered heaven on earth.

When she pulled away, at last, the crowd was cheering even louder and he grinned as he looked into her brown eyes. "I guess that the keeping it quiet idea is over?"

She gently slapped his shoulder as he leaned forward and embraced her lips once more, only stopping the delightful kiss when a tap on his shoulder distracted him. Harry pulled away to find Nym looking at him with a smile.

"Once you've got your score, can we talk?" The older girl whispered.

Harry nodded to her as Hermione dismounted his midsection and the rest of the Family gathered about him, hugs and back slaps galore following as they shuffled him toward the judges.

All of the five foreign magicals were looking at him with confusion and a little bit of awe.

Harry ignored the booming voice of Bagman as he asked the judges to unveil their scores, but he was pleasantly surprised to find all nines shot from their wands.

"Why only nines?" Sirius moaned, quietly behind him.

"Because they can't figure out how he actually did it," Hermione explained. "They can't mark him down, because he finished flawlessly. But I'm sure they think approaching a nesting mother dragon is a little stupid, hence no tens."

Harry shrugged. "I learned something though. We long ago figured out that parseltongue can have an accent. But not to that degree. I couldn't understand a word she said besides MacFusty. Not even sure what that is."

"That's what it was? I could kind of understand you, but the dragon was unfathomable. I thought it was my inexperience." Hermione groaned.

"Nope, her Scottish accent is denser than uranium." Harry smiled as the Family wended their way through the baying crowd and out of the stands.

Chapter 25: Fame and Friendship

Chapter Text

Thursday 24th November 1994.

It wasn't for several hours after the event that Nym finally managed to drag Harry aside without well-wishers or Family getting in the way.

Even the Tournament stooges had taken a bunch of their time to bluster around telling them that the eggs contained a clue they needed to solve for the next task. When at last they'd managed to get alone, the only place she could find nearby to be alone was a broom cupboard.

As she closed the door, Harry looked at her with his eyebrow raised and a teasing smirk. "Nym…?"

"Shut it, nothing like that. I need to talk to you about the task." Harry nodded and sat on an overturned bucket. "Did you do it? On purpose, I mean."

Harry looked somewhat confused at her question. "Of course."

"I don't think it's fair. I know my magic did it too, but that was life or death. I'd be ash if it hadn't. But it's not fair on Fleur and Krum. If we have to retrieve something again, or a race...It'd feel like cheating, popping right to the finish line. Agreed?"

Nym sat heavily as she finished and stared at her cousin. It had been warring with her Hufflepuff nature ever since she'd stepped out of the enclosure. The two of them not only had an unfair advantage over their competitors, but they had both used it in the task. Even if it had been entirely subconscious in her case.

"I didn't think of it like that. I just saw the golden egg and figured why put myself in range of a very upset mother just defending her eggs? But I guess you're right. It's not really fair." Harry said, scratching the hair around his ponytail as he often did when he was thinking hard about something.

"We both know there is no regular magical equivalent to Snapping or Popping." He continued. "Well, apart from Apparating, and legally I can't do that yet anyway. And it's easily warded against." Harry sighed and Nym watched him consider the facts. "If I'm going to be a Hufflepuff while I'm here, I have to do it right. Loyalty, hard work and fair play."

Nym looked relieved and her shoulders sank. She'd been so concerned about how she was going to convince Harry to agree that she had nothing now that he had. "So… how do we do it? I mean, it saved my life in there. I don't want to stop that, I'm not dying for fairness."

"We can just agree not to, I guess. I don't want to be a cheat." Harry said with a shrug.

She considered his option for a moment. Her usage had been unintentional, and while Harry's had not, he understood the principle she was trying to uphold. She extended her hand to the boy and smiled. "Alright then. No intentional use of elf magic during the tasks then, unless we're in imminent danger. Agreed?"

Harry matched her grin and took her hand. The pair shook once before a spike of energy shot up both their arms and they pulled back in shock. "Ow!"

"What the hell was that?" Nym asked angrily.

Harry ducked his head somewhat sheepishly. "I didn't think of that. Because it is so instinctual, Elf magic can be very literal. I don't think it's a choice anymore. I doubt that our elven magic will work during the events even if we tried. Unless it's life or death for us."

Nym looked at her hand concerned. But she had to concede, this was exactly what she'd decided was required, now she just had no chance to go back on that. "Well, in for a knut, in for a galleon, I guess. Shall we go back to the common room and let Hufflepuff get their party on? It does pay to be right near the kitchens."

Harry looked at her with an expression she only saw when he was planning something. "Yes." He said with finality.

ϟ

Ginny Weasley hugged her pillow tightly to her chest as she sobbed.

Dreams of almost a decade lay in ruin before the rest of her presumably long life. That morning she had been ecstatic, for the man of her dreams had finally arrived in her world earlier that very week. He'd sauntered into the Great Hall like a young Greek god, looking even more incredible than she'd imagined from her books.

His eyes were more beautiful than even her imagination could conjure up and his unruly hair looked like he'd just ruffled it before stepping in the door, despite the binding holding it swept back in a regal ponytail.

The first splinter of disappointment had struck when the boy hadn't come to her house as everyone expected. Surely the child of Lily and James Potter was a Gryffindor, and yet he was now housed with the Puffs instead.

A nice enough group from her experience, but housed far away from the Tower she called home. But Ginny wasn't concerned, he was still the closest she'd ever been to him.

She had spied him about the school, studying beside the girl he was always talking to and walking with. Ginny would hide amongst the shelves in the library and watch their quiet study sessions as they worked on odd subjects she didn't understand.

Their work ethic and studiousness had been impressive. Her twin brothers had made a ruckus in the corner of the library and neither one had flinched as the serious form of Madam Pince descended on the chaos and tossed Fred and George out on their butts.

But the girl that she had assumed was an adopted sister was now the one responsible for her shattered heart lying in pieces at her feet. Ginny's entire future had evaporated the moment the boy of her dreams had stepped foot onto the stands and the bushy-haired girl had latched onto him and kissed him fiercely.

The shock had kept her from reacting in the moment as everything she had ever hoped for dissolved out from under her. Several of the other girls she knew had hopes for Harry still seemed to be deluding themselves, that they maybe had a chance, but Ginny was close enough to the event to see the look in both their eyes.

She had only seen that look on four people before. Her own parents in those few moments that they managed to sneak for themselves, away from their seven children, and her friend Luna's parents before the worst had happened.

A deep and abiding love that conquered all and came out stronger.

Perhaps, come morning, she would move past her shattered future and see what this new world would mean for little Ginny Weasley, but right now she tightened her grip on her pillow and mourned the now obviously inevitable death of Ginevra Potter.

ϟ

Hermione watched as her arm rose and fell gently, the swell of the chest around which it was draped comforted her after the day's adrenaline-fueled events.

Harry slumbered softly in her arms and she smiled at the stray strands of his unruly hair that had escaped the lighter binding he often wore to bed.

She'd been utterly terrified watching first Nym and then Harry face down their dragons. Nym had come close to being incinerated a few times, but her magic had kept her safe when the girl herself failed to do so.

Fleur had given her hope that dragons weren't quite as dangerous a bunch as people said they were, but Krum's athletic dance with his dragon had shown just how aggressive they could be as well. Especially when their nest was threatened.

While she'd felt intense relief that left her in hysterics upon feeling Harry subvert the challenge with elven magic, when he stepped toward a giant lizard perched over its nest, her heart had stopped.

Though she'd only understood some of Harry's side of the conversation that had transpired, thanks to his many hours spent teaching her to understand the odd hissing language that allowed him to speak to snakes and other reptiles, it wasn't until she had him back safe in her arms that Hermione was able to relax again.

Hermione flushed in the dark as she remembered the intense kiss they had shared, and the embarrassment that followed at having outed her own relationship to not only the school, but the watching world as well.

She had done her best to ignore the countless sets of eyes staring at her back as she looked into his joyful eyes.

While she knew Harry would have gladly kept it a secret for her as long as was required, he was obviously very proud to publicly call her his girlfriend. And had loudly done so for the remainder of the day.

He'd even used it to butter her up when he'd returned from his secret chat with Nym.

Hermione rolled her eyes again as she turned to her side, back to the stubborn idiot behind her. Today they had learned the level of danger this tournament put him in, and a few hours after they had both stood eye to eye with a dragon, her pair of loyal idiots had sworn not to use their elven abilities in the events.

She huffed into the cool night air as a pair of arms encircled her and a face buried in her hair once more.

Harry was still fast asleep but had followed her movement as he slumbered. She couldn't keep the frustration fueled as a smile covered her face. While it had been that way for years now, any time they slept in the same bed, it still warmed her heart to know he subconsciously sought her warmth and presence.

She wanted to be mad at him for his foolishness, but after several hours of stewing, she knew there was no point. Her own testing of their additional abilities had once resulted in a similar vow.

Hermione had unknowingly promised not to use her additional powers for a week to her parents after a stubborn argument and she'd had to be ferried everywhere by Nemea as her elven powers failed to work.

While her regular magic was completely unaffected in the slightest, the nuisance of being unable to pop at will showed the pair just how reliant they had become on the ability. Especially for access to the hidden Manor that Harry called home.

Sirius had of course taken advantage of the mistake, but she had given as good as she got that entire week, and the Marauder had a new respect for her prowess afterwards.

So, Hermione knew that Harry would still be able to tackle the coming tasks. He would not even be at a disadvantage compared to the competition. Even with his younger age. As his study partner for years now, she knew that he was far too skilled for that.

But she was still slightly miffed that they had just done it without consulting her first.

Hermione sighed heavily into her pillow. That wasn't the kind of friend or girlfriend she wanted to be. Harry was allowed to make his own choices, even stupid ones. But today had reinforced the terror she felt at the prospect of losing him.

In the past decade, they had spent far more time together than apart. Except for the few exceptions where one of them had been grounded, they'd barely gone an entire day without seeing the other the entire time they had been friends. Losing Harry would probably break her entire being in two.

The arm at her waist tightened and she shuffled back, deeper into its grasp. Harry's favourite saying echoed in her mind, that worrying solved nothing. She would sleep now, enjoying the time she could get alone with the light of her life. In the morning, she would tackle the problem, not by fretting pointlessly, but in her own inimitable manner.

Hogwarts's famous library would be getting a workout between now and February.

ϟ

Friday 25th November 1994.

Cedric began howling with laughter as Nym blushed red even with her natural ability.

The sixth-year girl sank lower in her seat and jabbed her male friend in the stomach hard, ending his laughter immediately. "Shut it!" She hissed through clenched teeth.

Harry looked at the pair in confusion as he took a place across the lunch table before Cedric caught his eye and chucked his copy of the Daily Prophet to the boy.

The front page was a giant picture of Nym leaning on him in the tent before the task then suddenly switched to a picture of his kiss with Hermione. Underneath was a massive headline:Boy-Who-Lived: Confused in Love?

Harry raised an eyebrow at Nym as Hermione took the paper and began to read. The meta squeezed her eyes for a moment and her composure returned in full, with one glaring exception: a bright pink pig snout.

"Our lost hero's long-anticipated public return was marred yesterday by the frivolous actions of these girls. One of whom had the gall to kiss the stunned boy before the entire gathered crowd. The gall?" Hermione queried, her eyes shifting to Harry's.

He grinned softly at her and kissed her cheek, no longer afraid to show affection in public after Hermione's own headline-worthy effort the day before. "All the gall." He winked.

His girlfriend smiled in return as she refocused on the paper, a light pink dusting her cheeks. "It is the attention of his competitor, Miss Tanks, however, that has this reporter concerned." Nym glared at Cedric as he chuckled at the words. "Is the elder girl serious in her amorous approach? Their time in the tent already shows a familiarity beyond appropriate, and your intrepid reporter viewed the pair entering a Hogwarts broom cupboard during the post-task excitement. I'm certain many of our lovely readers recall the kinds of things the cupboards of the school conceal from public view, and I shall be keeping a close watch on the halls of Hogwarts, lest our hero be led astray by…"

Hermione cut off as a crack rent the air above the table. Harry smiled at the bright green and pink tie-dye toga on the wee elf now standing on the table amidst the platters of food, glaring about the room looking for something amiss.

"Rom!" Nym hissed. "Off the table! There's food everywhere."

"Rom cannot Miss Nym. Rom will protect his mistress."

"Protect her from what?" Harry's voice had an edge that few present had experienced before.

"Nasty letters. They've been coming all morning, Master. Some of them exploded!"

"Exploded?" Hermione questioned.

The elf nodded as Nemea appeared on the floor behind Hermione. "Some shouty and loud, others flinging yucky filth everywhere. Tybalt nearly got some in the face when the first one popped. Pops is very angry."

"He's not the only one," Harry growled, several of the nearby puffs slipping further down the bench when they caught sight of his eyes. "Can you deal with them safely? I don't want any of you getting hurt."

Rom grinned broadly. "Yes, Master Harry. We's very good at dealing with nasty mails."

The tension in Harry's shoulders lessened slightly at the elf's odd statement. They'd tried to correct him, but he was sure the elf did it at Nym's request, purely to give the girl a laugh. But the matter still bothered him. "Do you know who they are from?"

Nemea climbed awkwardly onto the bench between Harry and Hermione and stood looking between the teens. "Many people, they all say nasty things about Mistress and Miss Nymmie. Such vile things." The elf leaned in closer to Harry's ear and whispered. "Your parents are very angry."

"Do I need to go home? We can help you deal with it all."

Nemea smiled at him and shook her head, her broad ears flapping about. "Pops said no, 'Master is supposed to be learning today. He already had no classes yesterday, and he won't be using this as a way to get out of studying.' Is potions next. And Miss Andi is very excited to hear how it goes."

Harry stared briefly into the elf's enormous brown eyes, eyes that matched his girlfriend near exactly, and yet were so different at the same time. He nodded his acceptance, glad he had such a supportive family around him. He'd hate to imagine what his life would be like if he'd had to tackle it alone.

A soft hand caressed his back, drawing his mind from the hole it had begun to tumble down, and Harry glanced at Hermione, her eyes catching his own from around the wee elf.

He nodded to her and turned back to his lunch. He knew once his family set their minds to something, there was no changing it. Getting around it, maybe; but changing it, no. He did get his stubbornness from them after all. They would deal with the letters, and his elfin friends would keep watch on the girls and keep them safe at the school.

"I can't believe they're being so thick about all this. I've been happily telling anyone who will listen that Hermione is my girlfriend, and," Harry scowled at his next thought, "I'm sorry Nym, but I don't do the whole cousin thing. You'll have to find someone else."

Nym managed to look amused and shocked in equal measure and Harry knew she was hamming it up now. "But Harry, I love you."

"Oh, don't. Clearly this lot," Hermione indicated the newspaper again, "do not understand sarcasm. Or the dangers of inbreeding. Sirius has shown us the family tree. It's no wonder he's such a loon. His parents were just as closely related as you two."

Nym laughed at the girl looking a lot less embarrassed than when they had entered. "Some of these purebloods find cousins to be relationship goals, Hermione. The more they do it, the worse the damage gets and the less they see a problem with it. Hopefully, they'll breed themselves out of existence and we can all move on without them."

They all chuckled over their meals at the idea, even when things went a little bit wrong, life was pretty good for Harry Potter.

ϟ

Hermione found Susan to be a delight to talk to.

The small girl was a bundle of energy, always up to talk about anything, and a sponge for information, much like herself. They had already spent a few nights up late discussing their respective worlds and now she led the way through the dungeons, her rust-coloured braid swinging merrily behind her as she walked in the springy fashion Hermione had only seen the bubbly girl pull off.

"Here we go. I can't wait to see how you fare in here, Hermione." Susan offered as she swung the door open and the trio stepped inside.

Hermione gave a light chuckle as she looked about before she glanced back at the girl beside her. "Good one."

Susan returned her gaze with confusion. "What?"

"Nice trick. I like a good laugh. Brewing potions in a dank unlit basem*nt. Very amusing."

"What do you mean?" Susan glanced about, several of the students already in the classroom were also taking note of the exchange.

"Oh, you're serious. A theoretical classroom then?"

Susan shook her head slightly. "Theoretical potions? All we do is brew."

"All we do is…" Hermione was now stunned. She refocused her gaze on the other students who were all nodding their agreement with Susan. She glanced at Harry who shrugged, a knowing look on his face.

Hermione observed the room closely. There were no windows; wait, no there were two, right by the ceiling in the furthest corner of the room, but the dull green colour beyond them indicated they were looking out not into the open air, but the depths of the nearby lake.

Her eyes noted the moisture gathering on the roof indicating some of that nearby lake water was seeping in, several of these points being over desks where some of the students were seated.

"Is there a problem here." A sallow voice called from the shadows, followed by a pale face melting from the darkness.

Hermione stared at the man as he approached, many stories making a lot more sense to her now. "No, no problem. Harry and I were just leaving."

The stoic face of the man changed immediately to a scowl that might have also been described by some as a smile. "Leaving? You have a class to attend, Miss Granger. Take a seat."

"No, thank you. I like my hands actually. Come on Harry."

"Where do you think you are going?" The voice was tinged now with something Hermione couldn't quite place.

"Somewhere to study that won't have our cauldron explode in our faces. The fact that Hogwarts claims to be the greatest school around is severely hampered by this being your potions facility. Completely moronic."

"How dare you?" The man stepped forward, pale hands showing from under his robes, one holding a wand in its grip. "I am a teacher of this school and you will show me the proper respect."

Hermione raised her eyebrow in response.

"Respect is earned, and if you hold classes in this abomination of a room, you deserve none. The roof is leaking contaminated lake water directly over several of the stations. At least half of the ingredient jars in that wonky cupboard are cracked and I can see twelve different ones from here that are stored side-by-side with compounds they react violently with." The students closest to the cupboard stepped away frightfully. "Not to mention that the complete lack of adequate lighting makes mistakes practically a given."

The scowl on Snape's face was menacing, and yet Hermione did not back down from him in the slightest.

"My potions tutor would have my hide if I were stupid enough to brew a potion in this room. That's only if I managed to survive the catastrophic intermingling of the moisture in the air or the improperly kept ingredients.

"So, goodbye, Professor Snape. We shan't be returning. Come on, Harry. We can work on that maths assignment until we can arrange proper potions tutoring again. At least that won't be a complete waste of our time."

Ignoring the vein popping over the angry teacher's eye, Hermione spun on her heel and grasped Harry's hand, pulling the boy from the room as he was so close to bursting out laughing that he could barely function. A blasting sound echoed out from the room behind them and Hermione heard Nemea's voice.

"Don't you dare, nasty boy. I'm wise to you. Leave my mistress alone! Snivelly!"

Harry's efforts broke down at this point and as a scream of POOOTTTTTTEEERRR! rang out from the classroom, Hermione popped the pair away from the dank corridor.

ϟ

Saturday 26th November 1994.

Harry smiled as he wandered the random stone hallways.

Today he was a rather unusual sight, darting through them alone for the first time since his arrival. Normally he'd have stuck close to Hermione, but his girlfriend was currently in a meeting with the Deputy Headmistress and had asked to do so alone, so he'd taken the opportunity to explore.

As much as he had loved his home studying, Harry had been a little saddened he'd not had the chance to visit the famed Hogwarts before.

Years of stories from his family had painted its halls in such a light, that he had craved to see them someday. And now he had that chance, he wasn't about to waste it, as short as it may be.

Many times he found the castle leading him to dead ends and unused classrooms, making him wonder just how large a population this school could truly house. It also led him to wonder why the two visiting schools insisted on holding their lessons in their transportation rather than one of the many empty rooms tailor-made for teaching.

He'd even found his way through some of the more memorable secret passages he'd managed to locate from his parents' stories.

The one he ducked into now being his favourite story. The entryway concealed neatly behind a suit of armour kept it from view unless you ducked behind the suit.

Inside was a slowly curved incline that wrapped around and out of view as it rose upwards. Its position at the base of Ravenclaw Tower suggested where its upper reaches might have come out, but that was not why Harry was so happy to have found this one.

His father had told him the story of its discovery. He was out after hours, as he often was and had come across the Gryffindor prefect.

The prefect had just sent a few amorous Ravens back to their dormitory when he came up behind her. Taking her hand, he had whisked her behind the suit and unintentionally discovered the passage.

At first, she had been upset, but the reason Harry found this passage special is that it was where his parents had shared their first kiss.

James had finally gotten a yes to his long-winded attempts to date Lily Evans only the day before, and after a swimming day at Hogsmeade, the pair had agreed to continue dating. But it was in this very place seventeen years before, that his parents' relationship had truly begun.

A happy tear rolled down his cheek as Harry ran his fingers over the stone. His father had described the passage as magical. Its late discovery had been why it had never made it onto the Map, but his father had been glad it wasn't, as it gave him and Lily one place they could disappear to where not even the other Marauders could find them.

This became their spot in a castle filled with hideaways and romantic locations.

"I miss you, dad. Mum." He whispered softly to the empty space. As much as he adored the portraits, he knew deep down that they weren't truly his parents. Standing in this spot, even though he only knew about it thanks to those portraits, made him feel a closeness to his parents he'd never truly experienced before. "I love you."

A warm breeze gently tickled over his skin and Harry smiled in response.

His attention was drawn from the tenderness of the moment by a harsh laugh from beyond the opening. Focusing his attention in that direction, Harry moved towards the entrance and listened as he heard several footsteps and the sound of someone being knocked to the ground amid renewed laughter.

"Come on, Loony. Tell us something else funny. I need a good laugh today." A harsh boy's voice echoed down the hall.

Harry frowned and stepped right up behind the suit of armour, a position that allowed him to see several people standing in the corridor looking down at a small sniffling blonde girl on the floor. Oddly, the girl was wearing two left shoes.

Anger filled him at the sight and Harry snapped his fingers, creating several small noises with no source to distract the standing quartet.

"What's that? How'd you do that?" One of the girls squeaked, glaring at the girl on the floor.

She moved to stomp on the defenceless girl and Harry snapped his fingers again, sending the aggressor tumbling through the air to fall into a heap on the far side of the now giggling girl on the floor.

"Think that's funny, do you? Teach her a lesson, Eddie." The taller boy snarled.

A third snap had both boys' robes twist tighter about their bodies and hurled the two against the sides of the corridor. The prone girl smiled brightly and a peal of tinkling laughter filled the corridor.

The remaining bully standing over her was too busy looking at her cohorts to seem to care.

"Peeves?" The blonde asked the air, seeming far happier than when Harry had come upon the scene.

The comment fixed the last girl's attention back onto her prey. "The poltergeist? Nice try Loony, but you don't fool me. Most Ravenclaws are clever, unlike you, you freak."

The girl pulled her wand and gave it a swish through the air. But before she could incant a spell, Harry swiped both hands through the air and four wands soared free from hands and robes, clattering heavily against the wall nearby.

The girl looked at her hands in shock before scouring the corridor for the cause. The two boys had managed to wriggle free of their robes and were standing once more.

Eddie, who was nearest their wands, tried in vain to remove them from the wall. Harry pushed his hand and the wood began to sink tip-first into the wall. "Marcus. Mandy. Help, they're going in the wall!"

"What do you mean?" Marcus asked, stomping over the still-prone girl on the floor and knocking her about. "Get 'em out. Bel, stop shaking, get up and make her stop."

Mandy advanced on the girl on the floor and Harry'd had enough. He stepped into the corridor and cleared his throat. "Morning all."

Five sets of eyes turned on him, one with relief. "What do you want, Potter? Out showboating around the castle?" Marcus growled, giving up on retrieving the few centimetres of his wand that remained outside the stone.

"Just taking a walk, and wondering why my friend was on the floor." The blonde's eyes widened in surprise as Mandy began to laugh.

"Friend? You're friends with Loony. Yeah right."

"Lost cause then, that one. Some of us had high hopes when you arrived. Now I can see why you're in the duffers." Marcus said, advancing on Harry, cracking his knuckles.

Harry tilted his head at the older boy. "I was led to believe Ravenclaws were meant to be intelligent. You lot are really challenging that assumption. How about you run along."

"Not til Loony gives our wands back," Eddie growled, stepping towards the frightened girl.

Harry sighed and with a flick, his wand was in his hand. Two quick waves and all four bullies were now pressed tightly against a thick pane of glass he had conjured across the entire hallway behind the wee blonde. "Really challenging it. Who picks a fistfight with an armed opponent?"

Harry knelt beside the girl and offered his hand. "Are you ok? My name is Harry."

She looked up at him with wide silvery eyes. Harry felt like he was being assessed before she took his hand. "Luna."

"A pleasure." He replied as he helped her up. "Are you ok?"

Her eyes flicked from his own to the pile of bodies standing and pressing against the glass in confusion, then to their wands half-buried in the stone wall, then back to Harry. She nodded. "Yes, thank you."

"Good." He smiled brightly, and Luna mirrored him. "Now, for you lot." He turned to the bullies who were now all standing once more.

Marcus wasted no time in charging at him and Harry lazily moved his head at the right moment to allow the punch to miss him completely, Marcus overextended into the move and tumbled over as he hit nothing.

"Again with that? How did this one get into Ravenclaw?" He asked Luna, who was looking happier and happier with every passing moment.

With another flick of Harry's wand, Marcus slid back across the rough stone floor until he thudded heavily against the glass. The others scattered aside as his body landed between them and they all glanced up at Harry warily. The two girls turned and immediately began banging on the glass, but Harry was sure it would hold. It was about a foot thick and no banging by hand would crack it.

"I think you all should apologize to Luna. I don't like people messing with my friends."

Eddie stared at him, finally looking like the situation was sinking in. "What is this?" he asked, slapping his hand against the glass. "How'd you put it across the whole corridor?"

"Not as much fun when you're the one trapped and helpless, is it, Eddie?" Harry questioned as he took a step closer. "Maybe you can tell me why Luna is forced to wear two left shoes. I have a feeling you all know."

"I don't think it was their fault. The nargles like to abscond with my things from time to time. I ran out of butterbeer corks last week and they struck again."

Harry looked at the girl, she was smiling and seemed completely sure of her words. He glanced back at the four by the glass and saw the guilt in their eyes, and he immediately realized the truth.

"So…" He advanced on them again and the four cowered back against the glass once more. "Any of you know how I might get the nargles to return Luna's things?"

The look in Harry's eye had all four shuddering with fear. Few things angered him more than bullying, and these ones had apparently not contented themselves with merely roughing Luna up. "Anyone?"

"Please, let us go." Bel whimpered.

"We won't do it again." Mandy simpered.

"I'll… see what I can do," Eddie mumbled, his eyes flicking from Harry to Luna and back.

"Good." Harry flicked his wand and the glass vanished, leaving the four to tumble back onto the floor once more. "I'd hate to see what happens if they'd failed to return them by the time I escort Luna back to her dormitory."

All four shuffled backwards, trying to get as far from Harry as they could. Most had managed to get back to their feet by the time they'd reached the corner of the passageway, and without looking back they all took off down the adjoining corridor at a run.

Harry turned back to Luna who was looking at him with an odd expression. "You're somewhat of an enigma, Harry Potter. If I knew where my sum-solving ink was, I could try and work it out I suppose."

Harry smiled at the girl. "I like you, Luna." He offered his arm to the wee girl. "Shall we head to your dorms? I have a feeling there might be a nice surprise waiting for you there."

Luna tilted her head and gave him an analyzing look before she nodded and tucked her arm into his own. "Did you have a nice conversation with the dragon the other day?"

Harry chuckled slightly at the complete non sequitur as he led her into the sloping passage behind the suit of armour. "It was hard actually. Snakes I've no problem with, every one of them I have met loves a good chat. But that was the first dragon I've met. I think they're similar enough that parseltongue works, but she was from a set of islands with a very heavy accent. Turns out even parseltongue can have accents. I could barely understand a word she said."

Luna giggled at the comment. "The mighty brought low then. Having to make do like the rest of us. Mummy says it's good to be proven wrong every now and again."

"Agreed."

"This is a nice passage. I never knew it was here. Is that how you appeared from nowhere? I thought maybe you could do it at will as your cousin did in her task."

Harry stopped and looked at the blonde. While she appeared to have a dreamy expression, he realized her silvery eyes saw more than most appeared to give her credit for. "I can actually, but it's a secret." Luna nodded and zipped her lips. "As for this passage, I heard about it from… well from my parents. I'll tell you another secret if you like."

Luna looked about before she nodded. "This passage is where they shared their first kiss. You could kind of say this is the place where my life first truly began. If not for this passageway, I might not be here right now."

Luna glanced at the passage and a look of awe filled her eyes. "I think that makes this my favourite place in the castle then."

Harry smiled in return as they continued up the slope. "Me too."

"I'm sorry you lost them. I lost my daddy a few years ago. He died trying to save my mummy from one of her experiments. But…" Harry allowed her a moment to gather her thoughts, not wanting to interrupt, but he tucked her arm a bit tighter into his own, "he only did it because I said I was worried. I'd had a really bad feeling all week and I thought something might happen to mummy. He managed to keep her safe, but he…"

"Yeah. It doesn't get easier. I have a portrait of them at home that I can talk to, but it still hurts every day. Being in here… it's the closest I've felt to them in a long time, even if I can talk to them every day."

Luna nodded softly beside him. After a moment of silence, she spoke. "Is that why you snuggle up to Hermione Granger all the time?"

Harry laughed at the blonde's lack of a filter. "Yes, that's one of the many reasons. I'm sure she'll like being your friend too if you'd like her to." Luna smiled and nodded again as they reached the end of the passage. It had looped around and around the tower, and Harry found himself wondering just how far up they had come.

The pair stepped out through a similar hidden entrance to the bottom and Harry found them at the end of a short corridor that curved to the left. "Wow, that's handy. I love it even more now." Luna mumbled as she walked forward, Harry following behind.

A moment later they arrived at a door without any handle or knob. Its wide blank surface was only broken up by a single bronze knocker shaped like an eagle emerging from the wood, the large bronze ring clutched in its talons.

"Good day, Simon." Luna smiled as she gave the knocker a single rap against the door.

Harry watched as the eagle came to life and looked at the girl before it. It glanced aside at him before its beak opened and it spoke. "What can fill a room but takes up no space?"

Luna tilted her head and smiled at the knocker. "Light. Bye, Simon."

The knocker nodded once before returning to stillness and the door swung inwards. Harry followed the girl into the room and was impressed at how airy and open it was. Being housed higher up the castle certainly had its benefits.

A quick glance through the large windows showed a wonderful view out over the lake and distant mountains. The domed ceiling full of stars looked slightly odd during the day but instilled the room with a calm that he assumed the studious Ravenclaws likely enjoyed.

"Hello, Harry. Touring the other common rooms are you?"

Harry glanced towards the voice and saw Padma sitting on a nearby couch. "Just helping Luna back here. We had a nice chat. This is very nice." He indicated the room around them.

"It's lovely, so much nicer than the rowdy Gryffindor common room." Harry gave her a curious glance. "My sister Parvati sometimes brings me in there. The decor is nice, but there is always someone making a ruckus. At least when I visit. Usually the Weasley Twins."

Harry nodded in understanding. He could see why that would be annoying to deal with day in and day out. While he did enjoy the warmth of the Hufflepuff common room, the Ravenclaw one had a sense of peace to it that the other seemed to lack when occupied.

A peace that was abruptly interrupted by four sets of thundering footsteps coming from the entry to the dormitories.

Two boys and two girls came to a stop several metres from Harry and dropped a pair of bags and a pile of odd bits and pieces on the floor. As they stood once more, several pops sounded out as Pops, Tybalt, Romulus, Nemea, and Mipsy all appeared just behind Harry.

The four bullies looked at the elves with shock before, with a glance at Harry, they quickly made for the exit to the common room and were gone without a word. He turned to a surprised Luna who was gathering her things from the floor.

"Helps to have eyes everywhere. Looks like that lot might be helping keep down your difficulties with nargles from now on, Luna."

Padma looked at him confused as the elves glared about for a moment before they too disappeared, but Luna dropped the right shoe in her hand and lunged at Harry, wrapping him in a tight hug. "Thank you."

"You're always welcome, Luna. Friends look out for one another. You can come to me anytime with anything, even if it's just to talk. And I'm sure Padma would be happy to keep an eye out for you in here. Won't you?"

Padma crooked her neck as she looked at Harry before nodding. "It was nice meeting you, Luna. But I have got an appointment with a very snuggly girlfriend to attend." Luna released him from her grip but her smile remained. "See you both at dinner."

With one last glance around the open room, Harry headed for the exit and his picnic lunch with Hermione.

Chapter 26: The Blissful and the Bothersome

Chapter Text

Sunday 27 November 1994.

Viktor palmed the handle of his wand as he walked down the pathway.

He'd seen some of the nasty things the students of this school did to one another when they thought no one was watching, and was not about to let any of them try it on him. Not that his own school was any different at times, but he had certainly learned the value of vigilance.

Yet that still left him confused as to why he was here right now at all. His Headmaster had seen the note and forbidden him to go, but something about it had caught Viktor's interest.

It could have been the summons to the Quidditch Pitch, a surprisingly well-built model for a school in his opinion, that had stirred a longing for his favoured pastime. He'd not sat atop a broom since the end of the World Cup and he missed the freeing feeling of flight.

Or perhaps it was the enigma of the sender. Many rumours filled the halls of all three schools about the boy. And curiosity was a powerful motivator.

"You're here! Excellent." Viktor spun and noticed the smile fell from the boy's face. "Ok, that's unexpected."

Viktor glanced at his now outstretched hand and noted he was holding his wand to bear. The dark-haired boy had caught him off-guard somehow as he had not seen him anywhere nearby as he approached.

So he had reacted as he would back at Durmstrang, where a curse would often be the first warning of danger. He looked back up and saw the girl who never left the boy's side had appeared as if from nowhere as well. Her fingers were twitching as she stared him down.

"You sent note." Viktor offered simply.

"Sure did. Seeing as how I got here late, I figured it would be nice for us all to have a chance to chat. International Magical Cooperation and all that. You did a great job against the Fireball, well, so I'm told. I couldn't see from the tent, as you know."

Viktor's eyes narrowed in confusion. His wand trained to the side as several small pops revealed a pair of tiny elves carrying brooms far too large for their bodies.

"Thank you, Nemea." The girl stated, taking the broom from the elf closest to her without taking her eyes, or her wand now, off Viktor, whose own was pointed at the tiny creature to her left. "Want to put that away? The plan was to have a friendly chat and fly together. You don't have to stay if you feel threatened."

"Pot, meet kettle." The boy whispered as he lowered the girl's wand and stepped closer. "Wrong foot I'd say." He extended his hand and approached. "I'm Harry Potter, it's a pleasure to properly meet you, Mr Krum."

Viktor smirked as he noticed the cleverness the boy showed. While his approach and tone suggested friendship, offering his right hand meant to shake back, Viktor would have to lower his wand.

"Da, wrong foot." Viktor tucked his wand away and took Harry's hand, shaking firmly. "A pleasure."

Harry smiled brightly and gestured the girl forward. "Viktor, may I introduce Hermione Granger, my best friend and girlfriend."

Viktor extended his now empty hand and the girl responded favourably, allowing him to offer a curt bow in greeting. "It is delight to meet you, Miss Granger. Forgive my tvitchiness, Ser Igor is good at making me little paranoid."

"I'll say." A new voice announced, accompanied by a slap on Viktor's back. "How's making friends going, shorty?"

Viktor glanced at the newly arrived person and recognised her at once. Another of his competitors, the girl with the pink hair. Her entire being exuded friendship in waves and Viktor felt it would be very difficult to be around her and not be cheered up.

"Getting a good look?" The girl smirked and gave him a wink. Viktor paled and immediately moved to apologize.

"Nym," Harry warned, though still smiling. "Don't tease my newest friend."

"What fun is life without a little teasing?" Nym winked. "Call me Tonks, or Nym if we'refriends." She finished, waggling her eyebrows.

"Eet seems I am ze last to arrive and you 'ave starteed wizout me."

"Fleur, perfect timing. I'm glad you all decided to come." Harry stated, stepping towards the blonde with his hand outstretched again.

"Any plans to let us in on why you invited us?" Nym asked following Harry's greeting of the French Champion.

"The same reason I showed up here at all. Friendship," Harry stated as if it were obvious, returning to the nearby elves and relieving them of their heavy burdens. "Thanks, you lot are the best."

He walked back over to Viktor and extended one of the brooms in his direction. "I know it's no Firebolt, but I'm sure you'll find it better than the school ones here. I'm told they are truly awful."

Krum paused as he assessed the broom. It was indeed not as magnificent as his team broom back home, but it was a very nice piece of hardware regardless. The shaft was a brilliant oak, shined to perfection. The strokes on the lacquer perfectly matched the direction of the grain as it curved to the rear. Each twig in the tail appeared carefully chosen for aesthetics, which would affect its performance compared to his Firebolt, but made for a much more aesthetically appealing design.

As he took the handle from the boy, Viktor smiled at the feel. This model had a slight weight imbalance to the rear which would allow for faster acceleration as your body accounted for the imbalance naturally. "A most impressive design."

Harry smiled even more and Viktor found himself intrigued. "Thanks, it belonged to my dad. He and his friends made a full set. If you don't mind using homemade brooms that is."

"I vould be honoured. Your father, he knew his stuff." Viktor said as he felt over the broom. The more he explored it, the more its homemade nature became evident, and the more impressed he became at its quality.

"Gryffindor Quidditch Chaser from 1974 to 1977. Everyone says I fly just like him." Viktor noted the wistful sound in the boy's voice. In a moment, Hermione was at his side and Viktor watched their interaction curiously. He could not hear what she was saying to him, but it made Harry's smile return in force. "Shall we? I haven't had a good fly since Nym left."

Viktor mounted the broom and with a deft movement was up once more among the birds and clouds. While the broom lacked the raw acceleration of his Firebolt, it was every bit as maneuverable. A true surprise for something made by a man barely out of school.

The air rushing about his face and body took with it all his worries and concerns about the Tasks ahead. As ever, being in the air was a freeing experience like no other.

He pushed the broom harder and found its rather low top speed quickly as he shot across the pitch. The twigs in the rear proved they were for more than just aesthetics as he found it to be the most stable broom he'd ever sat astride.

The Firebolt was raw power waiting to be unleashed, and as a result, always felt a bit like a wild animal ready to strike and toss you into the naked sky. Viktor, however, trusted this broom instantly.

His drifting thoughts centred as he noted he was not alone in his journey. The bushy-haired friend of Harry was at his heels gaining ever so slightly due to her smaller frame and weight. A smile filled his face as he took the challenge and set about trying to lose the girl, pulling some of his favourite seeker moves.

Yet no matter how he flew, she kept right on his tail the entire time. That was when Viktor realized not only was he not concerned with the upcoming tasks, but he was actually having fun again.

He deftly steered the broom about and headed for the trio hovering at the far end of the pitch, Hermione coming alongside him as he travelled, a broad grin on her face as well. Her size advantage saw her arrive moments before him, but it bothered him not a bit as he sat up on his broom in front of the group.

"Sorry, Hermione can be a little competitive. It's how she feels someone out. You should see her challenge Nym on an exam." Harry explained as the girl blushed beside him.

Viktor laughed in response. "Da, I am same. You haff good friends."

"Hope you don't mind if I count the two of you among that number now?"

"Oui, one can never 'ave too many friends," Fleur stated, before she shot off with Nym on her heels, the pair dancing through the air.

Harry laughed as Hermione drifted up beside the boy and Viktor watched with curiosity. The Headmaster had been concerned this was a ploy to undermine him in the competition, yet the Potter boy was as transparent as could be.

Viktor was going to enjoy being their friend.

ϟ

"We own more brooms," Remus stated plainly, as he sat behind him.

Sirius ignored his friend as he watched the aerial display before him. Countless emotions stirred through his body. Nostalgia at the sight of the full set of brooms he and the others had crafted immediately after finishing Hogwarts in use once more. Longing to be up in the air with them enjoying the easy joy of a pointless flight. Sorrow at the thought of Harry needing him less and less as he made new friends and family.

"Stop whining. Harry will never not want you around, you stupid mutt."

Sirius turned to face Remus, his paws making a loud thud on the wood as they dropped from the railing. He transformed back and glared at his friend. "How'd you…"

"Know? You were actually whining, Padfoot. Your form is a lot easier to read than you are. Not that you're particularly difficult to read. This is why we agreed to Minerva's suggestion. The proof is in the pudding, wouldn't you say."

"I know, and I'm glad he's happy. But I worry. We lost so much time with him."

"And what lesson have we learned from that?"

"Never open up to a Marauder?" Sirius groaned.

"How about 'think before doing', and 'never give up on family'."

"I miss him, Moony."

"You still see him nearly every day!"

"Nearly! I used to see him every single day. He came to me for questions about James he didn't want to ask directly. I can't even slee… never mind."

Remus ruffled the hair behind Sirius's ear. "Awww, is Paddy missing his nighttime companions?"

"Yeah, never open up to a Marauder," Sirius growled, changing back to Padfoot in the seat and looking longingly into the sky.

"Don't pretend to be hurt, you stupid lug. You'd do the same if it were me. We all miss him, Sirius. That's the inevitable thing about being a parent. Be it biological or surrogate. Eventually, they all leave the den."

Remus began to pet him lightly as they watched the five children throw a quaffle back and forth, evidently playing keeping off the poor sod in the middle. Sirius couldn't contain the longing whine that escaped his throat.

"I know, Padfoot. Me too."

ϟ

Monday 28th November 1994.

"Your attention everybody." Professor Flitwick called to the room, silencing the movement as the students prepared to depart. "As some of you may be aware, if you've done your research, the Triwizard Tournament consists of an additional event not restricted solely to the Champions; The Yule Ball."

Whispering immediately broke out among the children and Flitwick waited a moment to let it settle.

"The Ball is an event for all students fourth-year and above. A chance to mingle and have fun socially with our visitors and fellow students. It shall take place on the evening of December twenty-fourth, so those who wish to participate must decide whether they shall attend or be heading home for the holiday."

Further discussion spread at this information, but the whispering quieted faster than the first.

"As the event is a dance, you may invite a date. You may also invite someone from a younger year if you like. The Ball is preceded by dinner at seven o'clock, then dancing until we professors decide it's late enough. Curfew rules are obviously being relaxed for the evening, however," Flitwick paused and let his eyes drift across the students' faces. "Do not let that fool you into believing poor behaviour will be tolerated. I'm certain Mr Filch will be spending the next few weeks preparing the most horrible detentions he can muster for anyone caught dishonouring the school.

"That is all, you may leave early, or talk among yourselves. Mr Potter." Flitwick dropped down from his raised desk and walked over to where Harry was seated beside Miss Granger and Miss Patil. "Has Professor Sprout informed you of the event already?"

"Ah, no. Hermione had mentioned that several previous Tournaments had involved a dance. She didn't explain it in detail though."

Flitwick smiled at the girl to his right. "Well done, Miss Granger. I'm sad such a keen desire for research did not find its way to my own house. She is correct. However, there is a fact you may yet be unaware of. The Champions and their dates open the dance."

"And our attendance is mandatory, I assume?" Filius nodded in response and Harry simply looked at him for a moment before nodding himself. The boy turned away and took Miss Granger's hand. "I would do it fancier, but I want to make sure no one else asks. Hermione, will you accompany me to the Ball, and hopefully, prevent me from making a fool of us both in front of everyone?"

Miss Granger smiled openly and leaned over to kiss the young Potter on the cheek. "I don't need fancy, I have you. Of course, I'll go with you, Harry. Though Sirius will be upset we aren't coming home for Christmas."

"That's true. Professor, would we be able to invite our family to attend? If we're not going to be allowed to go home to celebrate with them, it seems only fair for them to be allowed to attend."

Flitwick sighed. "Unfortunately, this is not a school event, so we professors don't truly have a say in that, Mister Potter. You can ask the Tournament committee, but I am fairly certain the answer will be no. It wouldn't be very fair for the Champions families to attend but exclude everyone else. And if everyone were invited, well, we'd need a far larger Great Hall."

Mister Potter nodded, though the look on his face betrayed his true feelings on the matter. "Very well, we'll just have to figure something else out then. Thank you, Professor."

ϟ

Harry finished gathering their things together and slung the bag over his shoulder. Hermione followed immediately with Padma quickly catching up as they wandered aimlessly through the hallways.

"Why did they have to choose Christmas Eve?" He mumbled as they moved.

Hermione wrapped her arm about his left and snuggled tighter to his side. "I don't know. But given how little intelligence seems to have gone into the Tournament so far, I'm not terribly surprised."

"I understand your frustration," Padma said, "We usually head back to India at Christmas to see the family we cannot visit throughout the year. Dad won't be happy we have to skip it this year, or how little warning we were given."

"At least you have the choice of not attending. I don't get a family Christmas because someone thought it'd be a laugh to enter me into this stupid Tournament."

Harry stopped, the girls alongside him as they turned a corner and nearly ran into a small blonde girl who was listening intently to the wall. "Luna?"

"Oh, hello Harry. I was listening for the Humdinger. Their singing is beautiful. But it suddenly vanished when I came down this corridor."

"That's a shame, I'd like to hear it sometime." Hermione offered the girl, who smiled broadly in response.

"Daddy was working on a way to record them, but…" Luna drifted off for a moment. "I guess I can ask mummy if she's made any progress with it recently when I go home for Christmas, seeing as I'm too young to go to the Ball."

Harry frowned at the mention of the holiday, both for his own difficulties with it this year, and for Luna's sake, not getting a choice either.

"I've got an idea." Padma smiled. "If you don't mind, you can go with me."

Luna turned her large eyes on the Indian girl and tilted her head slightly "You'd go with me?"

"Of course. You seem very nice. I'm not a big fan of any of the boys in this school myself. And we can talk about the Humdingers and things. I think it will be a lot of fun. Not to mention the faces on the snooty Ministry officials at two girls dancing together."

Padma and Hermione smiled broadly at the idea of messing with the organisers in return for their scheduling. "I'm sure Harry will even save a dance for you as well." Hermione finished.

Luna seemed to consider the offer for a few moments, her eyes drifting as she did. "Ok," she nodded. "So long as mummy doesn't mind spending one Christmas alone, I accept."

The waifish girl stepped up beside Padma and copied Hermione's hold on her arm, mirroring the image of her friends. "Excellent. Shall we head to the library?" Harry asked the happier group who nodded in reply and departed the corridor.

ϟ

Tuesday 29th November 1994.

"Mister Black."

Sirius halted in place, a shudder ran up his spine as his mind warred with how to respond. Whether he should continue walking the hallway and ignore the voice or turn around and unleash his pent-up fury on them instead.

"You're a difficult man to pin down. As you were in your days here."

This comment only served to fuel his anger at the voice. How dare he refer to the times before his meddling led to Sirius losing everything he held dear in this world. He spun on his heel and beheld the face he'd spent so long avoiding, for their own safety, and at the urging of Remus.

"You've got a bloody cheek, Dumbledore," Sirius growled.

"So I've been told. How have you been, Sirius?" Albus replied plainly.

"How have I been?" Sirius asked, stunned by the gall of the question. "You care now? Not when I was tossed into Azkaban without even a 'how do you do'?"

"While I had nothing to do with your incarceration directly, I am beyond sorry that I didn't do anything to rectify it sooner. I did not know you were innocent of the charges that sent you there. The danger of playing one's cards too close to the vest."

"So it's my own damn fault? Is that what you're saying?" Sirius felt the blood boiling its way into his cheeks. Normally he was very good at hiding his feelings, but years of anger were coming to a head as he saw the man he felt responsible for all the hell he'd endured standing before him with a smile.

The smile vanished as the elderly man replied. "No, Sirius. Not in the slightest. Fate makes puppets of us all at times. What they did to you was beyond unfair. It took a far better man than me to correct those mistakes, and I will never be able to make up for having been party to your suffering."

"On that, we agree." Sirius snarled as he spun on his heel.

"We still need to talk, Sirius. I know you've received my notes requesting a meeting." Albus called as he approached the corner. Sirius had never been much for controlling his baser emotions, but Dumbledore was pushing all the wrong buttons today.

"Sorry, busy right now. Call my assistant and we'll reschedule."

"Too much television can be a bad thing, Sirius. I know you don't like me, and I've earned that ire, but you need to hear what I have to say."

"Like I said," Sirius whirled and faced the man once more, "I'm busy. Try later…"

"We both know that you are off to the Defence classroom, where you will transform into your animagus form and sit in the back of the fourth-year Hufflepuff class, quietly watching young Mister Potter absorb even more knowledge. As you did late last week as well."

"How did you…?"

"I am the Headmaster of this school, Sirius," Albus replied, looking at him as if the answer to his questions was blindingly obvious. "Do you really think I am unaware of who goes about its halls?"

"You certainly never seemed to know when we went here. Letting the bastard Death Eaters attack students in the halls." Sirius advanced on the old man once more, his anger now steaming inside.

"I have made many mistakes during my long life, Sirius. Some I will never ever be able to atone for. But I've had the error of my ways highlighted to me more than once in the past few years. At times very loudly from those whose judgement I've come to value, often more than my own. You will find my attention is now much more focused on the needs of my students."

"That must be hard when you're out of the school every other week at the ICW and Ministry." Sirius smiled at his verbal parry. Let's see the coot counter that one.

"It seems you are somewhat out of touch with recent events. If you followed the local news closer, you'd know I haven't been involved with the Wizengamot in three years. And I tendered my resignation to the ICW the summer before last. I was not doing any further good in those roles. My focus must be the students and the school. They are the future of our world."

Sirius was taken aback at the revelation. He knew Remus kept up with the news, but he hadn't thought it important to share something like that with the group. Or perhaps he'd simply kept it from Sirius alone, given his often volatile nature when the old man was brought up.

"I get it. All the better to spot upcoming talent and groom them for admission to the Order."

Dumbledore sighed once more. "My actions in the past have been poor, that is true. And I do understand your antagonism. You have a right to it. But no, that is not my intention. Children are a gift to this world, Sirius. I seem to have lost sight of that fact for a while. Our purpose is to provide them with the opportunity to embrace this world as they desire. My job is to create a place where they have access to the knowledge they require and the safety in which to study it so that they may build the world of their dreams when they leave.

"It seems that today we are at an impasse. You still need time, and we have some left to us before the worst might happen. Ask whomever you need, I have learned from my mistakes. Young Harry has nothing to fear from me anymore. I hope that, in time, you can see that."

And, with a frustratingly kind smile, the old fart turned and walked away. Leaving Sirius to seethe alone.

ϟ

Wednesday 30th November 1994.

Harry sighed as he laid his forehead gently against the soft skin of his girlfriend's own. His heart still hammered heavily in his chest as he looked into her smirking eyes.

"Mister Potter? How can he…? Helena assured me…" The voice of Filius Flitwick came from nearby.

"I'm beginning to regret our decision to attend. Just when our snogging sessions start getting good…"

"I'm not going anywhere in a hurry, Harry. Go see what he wants." Hermione chastised, loosening her fingers from his ruffled hair.

"Fine." He grumbled in reply, fixing his rumpled shirt and stepping out from behind the suit of armour to find the excitable little professor scanning the hallway before glancing back down at a note in his hand. "Hello, Professor."

The tiny man gave a start and whipped around, stopping as he found his target. "Mister Potter, there you are. Helena had mentioned you seemed to be around here this morning. It seems I need a word with you."

Harry was slightly surprised at the changed expression on the normally jovial face of the charms professor. "About what exactly, sir?"

"It has come to my attention that several of my students have been having difficulties in their classes this week. When questioned, it came out that someone had taken their wands from them and was holding them to ransom."

Harry shook his head as he laughed softly.

"I'm not sure what you find so amusing about the matter, Mister Potter. Would you care to explain?"

"Let me guess. Bel, Eddie, Marcus and Mandy?"

Flitwick's eyes narrowed slightly. "Close, but not exactly. Miss MacDougal has not complained to me about such an issue. Should she have?"

Harry gave a sound of surprise at the news. "Odd. I didn't think she'd be the first."

"The first to what, Mister Potter? I'm going to need those wands returned quickly. And I think an explanation is in order."

"I don't have their wands, Professor. As Bel has already shown, they can retrieve them at any time."

"Retrieve them from where, if you aren't in possession of them?"

Harry smiled at the wee man once more and stepped seven paces further down the hallway before he stopped and stared at the stone wall, lifting his arm to indicate the surface. The diminutive professor quickly followed Harry as he moved. He opened his mouth to question Harry further before he made a comical double-take upon finally noticing several pieces of thin wood poking out of the normally bare stone wall.

"What in the blazes?"

"You walked right past them, Professor. They're all right where they left them."

The short man walked over to the wall and gave a firm tug on one of the wands. When the stone refused to yield it to him, he drew his wand and began casting spells. But after several minutes of spellcasting, not one of the three had shifted even an inch.

"What is this magic, Potter? I've never seen anything like it?"

"Family secret, I'm afraid," Harry replied, cheerily.

"Indeed. Well, undo it, please. And we'll be heading to my office for a chat about such behaviour."

"Can't." Harry offered in reply, no longer sporting the grin he'd worn since the discussion began.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I can't," Harry repeated, making sure to enunciate the words clearly. "The only way they're coming out of there is the way Bel did it."

"And what, pray tell, is that method? Students of Hogwarts are required to have a wand for classes."

"It's quite simple. They just have to apologize. Sincerely."

"Apologize? What exactly do they have to apologize to you for?"

"To me? They didn't do anything to me. It's Luna Lovegood they need to apologize to. I'm surprised Luna didn't mention Bel saying something to her though."

"Luna Lovegood? She is one of my Ravenclaws too. What do you think they have done to her?"

"I thought you said they had apologized and returned her things, Harry?" Hermione questioned, surprising Flitwick in the process as she came up behind him.

Harry gave a soft hum in reply. "They returned her stuff, yes. But out of fear, not remorse. Nor did any of them say they were sorry in any way before I left. It's been almost four days since and only one of them has apologized satisfactorily."

"And you are the arbiter of what counts for satisfactory?" Flitwick questioned, eyeing Harry with suspicion.

The boy sighed heavily. Up until now, he had quite enjoyed talking with the Ravenclaw head of house.

"No. Magic decides what counts and what doesn't. I may have cast the magic that holds them in place, but it's only the pride of those three keeping them from their wands. I cannot overrule the magic now it has been cast, just as I cannot rescind the magic that saw my name come out of a Goblet I've never even laid eyes on."

He walked over to stand beside the tiny professor and gently flicked the end of one of the handles facing him. "Look, Professor. Maybe I overreacted, but I've never been fond of bullies. Luna was on the floor surrounded by four older students heckling and threatening her, poised to do physical harm as well. And who had clearly done similar to her in the past.

"And, who I also soon found out were responsible for the girl navigating the school with two left shoes, among other lost possessions. I do not regret my actions. If you truly think they deserve punishment, I'll accept it, but I highly suggest you take a long hard look at some of the students in your care and how they treat their fellow housemates."

Harry turned and leaned against the wall by the wands and shrugged. "But if I see something like that happening again, especially to one of my friends, I will act." He finished defiantly, staring at the short wizard.

Professor Flitwick eyed him silently for a long time, neither of them breaking eye contact, the corridor silent but for three sets of quiet breathing and the flickering of the nearby torches lighting the hallway.

"Why are you here, Mister Potter?" The question took Harry by surprise. "You are clearly advanced beyond the fourth-year standard we're teaching you in all. I'm told far beyond in your elective classes, where you're both taking the advanced N-E-W-T levels. You are obviously coasting in my class at least. So… what was your purpose in attending?"

Harry smiled at the professor once more as he pushed off the wall and took Hermione's hand as she stood beside him once more.

"It's true, after the tutoring we've had, most of the standard classes are easy. But that allows us time to do that work while continuing to focus on our correspondence studies. We should both be ready to sit our GCSEs in most subjects come March." Harry grinned and Hermione beamed at the idea they were so close to such a goal already. "But really, apart from having to be here for the events thanks to an ancient death chalice, I'm here to make friends, Professor. To meet people in my own age bracket. And I'm already quite proud of the ones I've made in the last week and a bit."

"Making lemonade out of some pretty sour lemons, one might say," Hermione added.

The teacher considered them both quietly once more, intense thought clear behind his clever gaze. "Very well. I shall inform my Claws of the requirements to regain their wands. I shall not penalise you for your actions on this occasion, Mister Potter. So long as what you have said is true. But should you have any further such encounters with members of my house, please come to me."

"Happy to, professor." The boy smiled in response as the short man turned away muttering inaudibly to himself.

Chapter 27: Eggs and Potatoes

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Saturday 10th December 1994.

Harry sat heavily next to Hermione in the practically empty common room. "She said no."

"No?" Hermione responded. "Why?"

"She thinks it's unfair for us to work together on the tasks. I guess she wants to figure it out for herself."

"Nym knows I'm helping you? Why is she refusing to get help herself?"

"She's stubborn?" Harry replied, looking at her as if the answer were obvious.

Hermione huffed, knowing from long experience how stubborn all three of them could be once they made their minds up on a topic. She just wished this particular one hadn't popped up in regards to the tasks. She still hadn't found a way to get around the pact the two had made regarding their elf magic. "Fine... then, shall we?"

Harry nodded and Hermione waved her wand in a circle about the pair, casting every sound-dampening spell she could to prevent the cacophony that was about to occur from disturbing the handful of others milling about the comfortable common room on a Saturday morning. "Ready."

Harry opened the golden egg once more and immediately a horrible screeching sound emitted from the insides. Hermione couldn't make the slightest sense of the sound and after a few moments, Harry closed it once again. "It almost hurts to listen to."

Hermione nodded as she considered the solid-looking egg. "What do we know about sound? Intensity dropoff? Maybe being further away might help? But it seems unlikely. Sound propagates differently through various states of mass. Through a gas, it's awful screeching. Maybe we should try solids and liquids to see if it changes?"

"Sounds sensible. Though I'm not sure how we'd test solids. If the item we put it in is solid, how do we open it?"

"Well let's hope liquids work better first." Hermione joked, the second twirl of her wand conjuring a small wooden half-barrel on the table in front of them. A tight flick had water shooting from the tip of her wand and she had soon filled the container enough to submerge the egg. "Shall we?"

Harry carefully placed the egg in the water, taking care not to slosh the water over the sides. With a glance at Hermione, he twisted the clasp and the egg fell open again, but this time, there was no horrid screeching. What little sound escaped the water's surface sounded almost melodic.

"I'm never complaining about physics class again." Harry smiled at her.

"Agreed, though it's possible magic has more to do with it in this case. Can you make anything out? It sounds almost like music."

"Not from out here," Harry replied. He tucked his hair back and before Hermione could stop him had half his head submerged in the small space around the egg. A click of his fingers had a quill in his hand and without looking, he began writing crookedly across the piece of parchment laid out next to the bucket. As Harry wrote, Hermione read the words aloud.

"Come seek us where our voices sound,
We cannot sing above the ground,
And while you're searching, ponder this;
We've taken what you'll sorely miss,
An hour long you'll have to look,
And recover what we took,
But past an hour — the prospect's black,
Too late, it's gone, it won't come back. *

"Curious. Come seek us where our voices sound… Do you think maybe it's the Humdinger Luna was following? No… can't be that was above the ground. What can…"

"Hermione?" Harry interrupted, drawing her eye and nearly her laughter as he sat dripping from half his head. "Little help?"

He bowed his head downward and Hermione quickly siphoned the water away and back into the container on the table. "Sorry, you know how I get when I have a puzzle to solve." Hermione blushed.

"I do, and it's one of my favourite things about you. You're my little nerd." Harry teased and she gave him a gentle nudge to the shoulder.

Hermione quickly found herself getting lost in the deep green eyes locked on her own and she leaned in and kissed her boyfriend soundly for several moments, savouring the feeling of his lips on her own as she did every single time they kissed. Though they'd been doing it for months now, it never lost that spark of the first one that he had sprung on her, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Stop distracting me. This is important. We probably won't have much time to study over the break, and the Ball is in a few weeks' time. We need to focus. We need to go to the library and research magical languages. We need..."

"Hermione, the Task is over two months away. I'd much rather sit in this nearly empty room kissing my girlfriend for a bit than worry about it. We have the clue and it's been less than a month since we got the egg. Relax, and have some fun to celebrate."

Hermione blushed again as Harry leaned in and resumed kissing her, all other concerns temporarily falling away.

ϟ

Wednesday 14th December 1994.

Albus Dumbledore smiled as he looked over the paperwork spread over his desk. Most of it works he had avoided a lot in the past decade, to the detriment of the school.

He glanced over the reports from the teachers. Filius had uncovered a rather serious case of bullying in his house and was now dealing with it accordingly. Almost a dozen detentions had been given out and several of his students were facing far worse punishment should he learn of any repeat offences.

Albus knew his wee friend had a temper when riled, but not a person in the school had seen it show since he started teaching at the school. The language used in the note before him told Albus just how upset Filius was over the situation.

The next set was less amusing, but just as important. Most of it was a stack of messages from Severus complaining about the wasted time spent travelling he could be using for brewing. Albus thought this greatly exaggerated. He had only moved the potions classes to the first floor of the castle after all.

Given the number of unused spaces on that floor, he had asked the other staff if they would prefer to move their classrooms as well, but all had declined. As they weren't as inherently unsafe as the former potions classroom had been shown to be, he was not overly concerned.

He sighed as he recalled the six separate meetings Severus had forced his way into following the altercation over the state of his classroom. Albus was furious with his former self for his lack of focus. Twelve years students had been forced to practice in unideal lodgings for the class as he allowed Severus far too much autonomy.

He was fairly certain that, were it not for the obvious signs they had both identified, this could have been enough to drive Severus from the school altogether.

Albus would regret it should such come to pass, but his commitment to the school had to come first. If the worst should come to pass, he needed to know this school at least was a true safe haven for those at risk.

This turned his mind once more to Sirius and their own altercation in the halls. The man still stalked the halls in his animagus form, something the children of the school had come to greatly enjoy after the first few cases of panic over a Grim being in the school. But he was utterly refusing to respond to any messages sent to him. Remus had returned his messages, unopened with a giant NO written on the front.

He pondered this dilemma for a short span, but no new options came to him. He would honour the bargain Minerva had wrought. Time was not yet so short that he needed to risk what tiny fragile amount of trust he may have built up.

Dumbledore placed aside these messages and looked at one of the true issues facing the school. He couldn't help but grin at the next task asked of him. Ranty had taken to sending messages highlighting her frustration.

Albus knew that the elves managed the greatest burden the school had to offer. Feeding and cleaning up after hundreds of children was no easy feat. And food shortages made their work even more difficult.

Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do in this instance to relieve the strange disease affecting their local source of potatoes. The ailment had halved the harvest of their farmers over the past few months. He made several notes to try and find some alternate sources until the disease was resolved.

It would not do for the children to go without their chips and mash. He would also dip into his own personal vault to continue funding their usual sources during their hardship. He had little need for money for himself these days, and certainly had enough to spare for those enduring such troubles.

Pomona's messages were far more enjoyable. Her classes were almost all excelling. The young Longbottom still received particular praise from the amiable woman in nearly every note. Albus was certainly glad the boy had found an area in which he shined.

His first few years at the school had not been the best, but he was certainly coming into his own in Herbology. Were Pomona herself not such a recent addition to the school, he thought they may be looking at their upcoming Herbology professor in the making.

She had nothing but glowing reviews for how her badgers were handling their newest additions. The fact that what was often seen as the least loved house of the school had managed to house two of the four champions of the Tournament had set their morale to an all-time high. And for the house that usually had the cheeriest temperament of the school, that was saying something.

The worst issue she had to highlight for her house was the handful of slightly snootier members who had taken the dual champion situation as a chance to form an air of superiority over the other houses. It had not yet come to a point where they would need to truly step in, but she'd had words with one or two members of the Puffs in private all the same.

Minerva's communication was mostly general administrative matters that simply required his signature to approve. He shifted them into a stack to read through in detail before he signed off on them as well. Nothing was signed these days before he was certain of its contents, even though he had absolute trust in Minerva's work, the buck stopped with him now, as it always should have.

Her few other messages were the same as usual, classes were efficient and progressing as expected, with one exception. Albus gave a hearty chuckle as the veneer came down whenever Minerva began to talk about the progress of one Hermione Granger. Apparently, the girl had a skill for the class she had not seen since Harry's late father's time at the school. The girl was a sponge for information. Irma had made several comments about her constant searching of the library.

It seemed Harry had found someone as ravenous to learn as his mother had once been. And he kept pace with her at the very least in every report placed in front of Albus. He sighed once more as he considered how badly his mishandling of the entire matter could have left things, but felt a small glimmer of relief that the boy was hale and hearty and keen to learn.

While he was eager to talk to the boy and speak with his 'Uncles' about certain matters, he was glad to be kept at a distance for the time being. It seemed Harry Potter was far better off without his interference at this stage.

Poor Septima had nearly had a breakdown after the first few classes with their new students. He had a feeling the woman would be taking a short break in the Muggle world over the summer holiday.

Dumbledore moved on and quickly worked through the remaining staff reports that amounted to mostly the same. He was very happy with the way the school itself was managing. If only the Tournament could proceed so smoothly.

He pondered for a moment before he set that aside as well. Alastor was investigating, and there was no one he trusted to handle it more. The first task had gone off well, despite the late addition of a fourth champion and dragon. He would simply have to hope the remainder went to plan as well.

Albus grabbed the pile of approvals he had set aside a few minutes earlier and began to read over the requisitions for the upcoming Ball.

Hopefully, the event would bring a little extra levity into the castle and help to quell some of his remaining disquiet over the Tournament.

ϟ

Saturday 17th December 1994.

Fleur looked about with curiosity as she sat in the slightly swaying room.

Just arriving in it had already been an experience. While the Beauxbatons carriage was light and airy, just like their school, the Durmstrang ship had an air of menace to it. Or perhaps it was simply the lack of light in the cabin given the overcast Scottish morning and the tiny porthole windows.

Madame Maxine had been hesitant to allow her to attend the meeting. While she had no issue with the Champions meeting up, she didn't like the idea of sending her champion alone into the belly of the dark ship her rival school had arrived in.

But her hesitation was nothing compared to the heavy scowl worn by Viktor's headmaster. He stood atop the forecastle and glared ferociously. It appeared he was not at all pleased to be housing 'the enemy' aboard his vessel.

Viktor's simple smile at the foul man as they boarded and entered the cabin was priceless in her opinion. The brooding face he showed to the world belied the amiable man underneath, and she was very much enjoying getting to know her opposition as more than simply a challenger to defeat.

She cast her eyes about the room curiously, having never actually been on a ship of this sort before. The solid timber walls had a worn look to them, which she assumed was due to the abuses of the sea and its weather. Several small portholes allowed a view out to the Scottish countryside, but it was hard to see anything of merit sitting as far from them as she was currently.

There was very little in the way of decoration in the ship, it appeared to be mostly utilitarian in design. Where function trumped all. It made her wonder if the students had the kinds of accommodation the ships she had read about in stories were known for, or something more akin to the softer bunks of her own lodgings. Though a hammock might be easier to ride out the gentle swaying at night than a fixed bed would.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Nym landed heavily in the seat beside her. "Wotcher, Fleur."

"'Ello, Nym." Fleur returned with a bright smile.

If Viktor was a contradiction of appearance versus personality, Nym was the polar opposite. Her entire body screamed acceptance and friendship. Her oft restyled hair gave a window into her mood of the hour and her ever-present smile was so contagious it should come with a warning label.

"'Ow are you?"

"Alright, I guess. I think I slept the wrong way last night. Got a crick in my back this morning." The bubbly girl closed her eyes and breathed softly for a moment before her smile returned and she wiggled in her seat. "There, that'll hold it til it goes away."

Fleur smiled in return. "I am very jealous of you for zat."

"You're jealous of me?" The other girl's eyes bulged slightly at the idea. "Shall I fetch you a mirror? Not a guy in this school can keep his eyes off you when you walk past. Or many of the girls."

Fleur sighed dramatically. "'Ow I wish zey would. I cannot help 'ow I was born. Zough it did come in handy for dealing wiz ze dragon."

"True. I've been meaning to ask you about that. How did you send it to sleep like that? If it's not some family secret that is."

"Non, is no secret. If you recall at ze Weighing, I said my wand contains a hair from my grandmuzzer. She is a Veela. Zey have much magic zat works on ze concepts of emotion and control. I simply choose sleep razzer than arousal or aggression for ze dragon."

"Good choice. The latter would have made for quite the different sort of spectacle. And I doubt it would have gotten you any higher a score off of those judges." Harry greeted, joining the two at the table, Viktor sitting a moment later.

"Says man sitting in first place." The Bulgarian boy gently mocked Harry in reply.

Harry blushed heavily and his eyes flicked to Nym before down at the table. "Oui, 'Arry. 'Ow did you manage to acquire your egg? Seems we are sharing tactics." Fleur gave him a soft smile and the boy's blush deepened.

"I, er… got very lucky. The dragon mustn't have liked how the organisers had set out her eggs. She was moving them to a fresh nest she had created. Gave me an opening."

"Lucky…" Nym scoffed from her side, but Fleur kept her eyes on the younger boy. Something in his tale wasn't adding up.

"Yet, you had ze egg already when you approached ze dragon."

The boy was refusing to make eye contact with anyone around the table and Fleur began to feel as though she was pushing too hard. The silence about the table was growing increasingly uncomfortable but none of the four seemed willing to break it.

"Viktor!" A cheery voice broke the tension as another Durmstrang student approached the table. His thick dark hair nearly brushed the low ceiling of the room as he stepped behind Viktor and gave him a solid clap on the shoulder. "You've brought friends today!"

"Da, Ilian. I think you do not need introduction."

"Nyet. Who doesn't know the names of you all right now? You made impressive spectacle of the task. An honour to meet you all."

Harry blushed brighter still at the praise, and Fleur noted the elder boy's eyes seemed to linger on her as he swept them over the group. Nym, however, met the boy's searching gaze right back. A cheeky smile on her face as she leaned forward.

"Enjoyed the show then, did you?" She added a glimmer to her eye that made the boy look away from Fleur, and he suddenly seemed to realize he was leering.

"Ah, da. But you are busy. I shall leave you be." His eyes flicked back to Fleur once more, to which she gave her typical shallow smile, trying to seem ok with it when inside she hated the way her skin constantly drew her unwanted attention.

"So," Nym asked, breaking the silence as Ilian disappeared out the doorway, "how is everyone coming with their egg?"

Harry looked at her in surprise. "You said you didn't want to work on it together!"

"No, I said I wasn't going to work on it with just us. I don't see any harm in puzzling things out as a group. If everyone is involved it's not unfair."

Harry's head hit the table hard and Fleur looked at him in surprise. "'Arry?"

"You can be the most stubborn and difficultgit," He growled, looking back up at the smiling metamorph, "you know that!"

"And you love me for it." Nym winked.

Fleur looked to Viktor who was smiling, though she could see in his eyes he was just as surprised by the easy familiarity between their two fellow champions.

"Ignoring my pain in the butt of a cousin for five minutes," Harry said as he leaned back in his chair and rubbed his forehead, "Hermione and I sorted the clue out of the thing last week. How did you all get along with it?"

Fleur swept her eyes back to the youngest of their group in surprise. "Impressive. Did you recognize ze merfolk language, too?"

Harry glanced at her sideways. "Er, no. We simply figured that sound travels differently through certain materials. What was screaming in the air sounded totally different once you dumped it in a bucket. That's merfolk language?"

Fleur nodded. It fascinated her that the boy had come to the same result through such a different approach. While the merfolk language was well known to her grandmother's people, she realized that most other magicals don't have cause to hear it out of the water.

"Oui. My grandmuzzer made sure Gabrielle and I both knew all ze old stories. I recognized ze sound ze moment I opened ze egg."

The two glanced at Viktor who was looking away bashfully. "I… Da. Dmitri knocked it into bath."

The quartet all laughed aloud at the idea of Viktor reclining in the bath mulling over his egg. It helped to further lighten the mood of the group.

"Nym?" Harry asked cheekily, his eyes fixed on his cousin. "How did you do?"

The girl scowled at him in response and crossed her arms over her chest. "I was still working on it." She mumbled.

"HA!" Harry sang as he pointed across the table. "Knew it!"

"Oh, pipe down, shorty. I'd have figured it out eventually." She crowed in response, huffing in her chair as she leaned back heavily.

"So, we all know where ze task will take place?" Fleur asked the group, moving the topic back to the upcoming challenge.

Viktor nodded and pointed downward with two fingers. "Unless organisers plan to ship us elsevere, it vill be in lake."

"And we have to retrieve whatever trinket the organisers decide we'll miss the most," Harry added.

"Oui, zis was my belief as well."

"I was this close, I swear," Nym grumbled to herself again.

"Nym, cheer up. We're working on it together now, just like you wanted." Harry prodded from across the table.

"Yeah, sure. In the lake, something taken. I'm listening."

"The hour-long concerns me. Do you really think your Ministry vould take the item forever should ve fail to succeed in hour?"

"I zink not." Fleur pondered. She hadn't really given the clue much thought past the initial obvious points. Swimming had never been a preferred pastime of hers. "Surely it is just extra motivation. Zat Barty man seems to want ze Tournament to run a very particular way, non?"

"He's a real jerk," Harry grumbled quietly.

"He acts like you put your name in the Goblet just to spite him personally." Nym chirped, looking at her cousin softly. "Like you'd want to be in this Tournament for some mental reason. I mean, had I known all the details going in, I don't think I would have put my name in."

"Da. Dragons vas a surprise ven Headmaster told me."

Both Nym and Harry's eyes shot up and locked on the Bulgarian student, naked shock on their faces. "You knew?"

He co*cked his head in confusion. "Headmaster informed me three days before the task. On the night the dragons apparently arrived here."

Fleur realized what their shock meant. "Do you mean… Nobody told you what ze task would be?"

"No, not a one. Harry?"

He shook his head in response. "No. But I think they knew. Remember how shaken Professor Sprout looked?"

"Bloody hell. Who told you?" Nym asked her.

"Madame Maxine told me ze same night as Viktor found out. I assume zey both witnessed ze arrival. Surely your Headmaster would tell you?"

"Seems not. Not that he's allowed to talk to me anyway." Harry mumbled the last and Fleur was once more confused at the enigma of a boy.

She moved to ask a question but felt a gentle hand on her left arm. She turned to see Nym looking at Harry, but her fingers were resting gently on her arm, clearly advising her not to ask. She gave a slight nod in return.

"So," Viktor called, drawing attention to himself as Harry moped. "No Miss Granger joining us today?"

Harry looked up once more at the mention of the girl he spent the majority of his time with. "Ah, no. She said we needed time to bond as a group. Without any interference. She's in the library."

"Hermione alone in a library? We'll never get her back now." Nym joked and Harry's eyes lit up with mirth once more. "Any advances on the snogging front?"

And with that, his mirth vanished to be replaced once more with embarrassment and flushed cheeks. "Nym!"

"What? We're all friends here. Share the goss! I want details, shorty."

"I'm not discussing my relationship with Hermione in public, Nym. Drop it."

Fleur laughed at the easy camaraderie around the table. She was most grateful for her decision to join the Tournament with friends like these as her reward.

"I was unsure about joining ze Tournament, but I am glad I 'ave. Meeting you all 'as been a delight. I 'ave made more friends in ze past month zan in ze year before it."

Nym gave her a soft slap on the back and smirked. "Friends is what I do, missy. It's good to have you. Both of you." She smiled deeply at the three champions around the table and they all smiled in return.

ϟ

Hermione wandered aimlessly as she continued reading the book in her hand.

She had searched all over the library and found very little on the subject of house-elves so far. It was annoying her greatly that she couldn't find some way to undo the deal Nym and Harry had made, but she would not give up trying, even if it took until June, she would find what she was looking for.

Her supersensory charm pinged and she looked up to find herself at a dead end. The charm was particularly useful in the ever-changing school, preventing her from walking into walls or off a missing staircase as she walked and read. But this time there was something additional in the notification.

She turned around to find half a dozen girls of various houses standing behind her, all with their wands drawn. She had expected something like this, but it still annoyed her that people needed to learn this lesson the hard way.

"Afternoon." She greeted them, tucking the book into the bag at her hip.

"Granger. You know why we're here?" The tallest of the group, a Gryffindor, asked.

"I have an idea, but why don't you spell it out for me?"

"We want to know what you've done and how to reverse it." A Slytherin girl who couldn't be more than twelve practically shouted.

"Then one of us can take Potter to the Ball, as is proper," Hermione smirked at this, given it was the tall Ravenclaw girl who had been creeping Harry out with her weird looks since the day they arrived.

"What I've done?" She questioned, intending to play dumb for as long as possible. It had been a while since she'd had the opportunity for a good pranking. Despite Sirius's presence in the school most days.

"Clearly you have got Potter under some sort of enchantment. Is it spellwork or potion?" The sole Hufflepuff asked, making Hermione's smile fall slightly. She had considered everyone in that house to be quite friendly.

She shook her head in response. "None that I am aware of."

"Stop playing dumb." The young Slytherin girl shouted again.

"Looks like she wants to play things the hard way, girls." An elder Slytherin offered the group. "This ought to be fun, as well as rewarding. Ready, Mudblood?"

Hermione saw red at the comment. Not only was it a foul term in its own right, but Hermione had also learned the story from Lily of how her once friend had said it to her. Hermione hated people who thought they were superior for such stupid reasons, and now she had cause to act.

"Alright," she feigned, "you want to know why Harry is with me?" The girls all looked at her and several nodded. "Very well. All it takes to date Harry Potter is nine years of close and committed friendship and love."

All the girls facing her looked stunned and she couldn't help but laugh at their faces.

"You stupid snot. I'll teach you a bloody lesson you won't forget."

Hermione's wand was in hand in an instant and she shot forward, wand digging into the underside of the tall girl's jaw, a look of fear on her face replacing the anger from a moment earlier.

The other girls quickly moved to surround her and she realized just how loosely this group held together. Not one of them was hesitating to attack, despite her position.

She shook her head slightly as she felt the first spell leave its wand and she popped out of the circle of girls, leaving behind a slight afterimage of herself in place, a trick Remus had figured out how to do when they popped during their defence tutoring, but that she was still having trouble getting right.

Not that it mattered in this case as a dozen spells quickly flew across the tight circle, passing right through the illusory image and smacking into walls and the girls on the opposing sides, sending several of them tumbling to the floor and others howling out in pain.

One had boils all over her visible skin, some of them looking ready to burst already, such was the vile intent behind the casting. Another had two black eyes and her nose looked as though she'd been in the ring with a boxer. Two more were out cold on the floor, most likely stunned. While the other two were quickly trying to reverse their extremely fast-growing teeth and hair.

"Idiots. The lot of you." The four standing girls all spun to see her now standing beyond them in the corridor, most looking afraid that they had no idea how she had managed to get there without them seeing.

"How did you…?"

"Quiet," Hermione growled, silencing them as they pulled back from her anger. "You had your chance to be smart. Now I'm talking. Harry is not bewitched in any way, but even if he were, he'd never look twice at people like you. Harry despises bullying. The Ravenclaws above all should know this." She directed this at the tall ringleader of the group. "Just ask Professor Flitwick how Harry treated the last lot he found running about the school.

"Harry is free to choose to be with whomever he likes, and if he decided to go with someone else to the Ball, I'd happily let him..."

"That's not going to happen." A familiar voice called out behind her and Hermione smiled. "You lot should pick yourselves up and head to the Hospital Wing before I really give you a reason to need it."

Harry stepped forward, a look of fury in his eyes as he looked at the girls before him. Hermione gave him a soft smile, and his expression softened slightly when he looked at her, but hardened instantly upon returning to the girls before him. He gave two quick jabs with his wand and the two passed out girls woke as well.

"I'll say this once. So listen carefully. Attack Hermione again, or any of my friends, and I will not be merciful as she was. Run."

His growling voice echoed through the corridor, magically enhanced and every girl gave a shout of surprise. They all tried their best to shuffle around the pair in the middle of the corridor before darting off out of the dead end.

Hermione rolled her eyes as she felt one last spell shoot out from behind the corner and rush at her back. She glanced sideways at Harry before she twirled on the spot, catching the mustard-coloured spell with her wand and launching it back into the face of the elder Slytherin girl, knocking her off her feet once more.

The girl screamed in pain as she twitched on the floor, Hermione was unsure what spell she had used but was definitely glad she hadn't gone with Harry's preferred power move of simply taking the hit and growling at his attacker in response. Something that Sirius and Remus found both amusing and terrifying in equal measure.

"You are a stupid one aren't you." Hermione laid her hand on a now furious Harry's arm and stepped forward herself.

"You really are. Do you honestly think I need Harry Potter to protect me?" The girl looked up at Hermione in fear despite her obvious pain. "You surely take Defence here. Ask Alastor Moody what he would consider your chances were in a fight between the two of us. Maybe then you'll understand how out of your depth you are.Finite."

Hermione cast the spell with extra power and was surprised to find nasty acne flared up over the girl's previously perfect face and her hair lost its sheen. Her spell had removed all existing spell effects on the girl and she couldn't help but laugh at the vanity of the girl before her. She turned away, no longer caring what the fool decided to do.

"And you! You were meant to be having a nice talk with the other Champions. I don't need you to come to my rescue like a knight in shining armour."

Harry smiled at her in reply. "I didn't. The meeting ended an hour ago. I was coming looking for you in the library when a new friend told me you were this way. I just happened to arrive in time to see you hand them their own arses. Which is very cute by the way. I really want to kiss you right now."

Hermione gave a slight huff as she looked at the boy, but she soon softened. She walked toward him and his smile broadened. Hermione made a show of puckering her lips, but as Harry leant in to meet her, she ducked to the side and their lips both met cheek.

"Mwah. There's your kiss." She smirked at the hurt look on his face before she broke out laughing. "Don't try the kicked puppy routine with me, mister, I'm still in a bit of a mood."

"Ok, ok. Later, maybe."

She chuckled again at her boyfriend's inability to get enough of her. It certainly helped to keep her buoyed throughout the day. "You said something about new friends?"

"Yes, she was in the library talking to Luna. It seems they have several classes together. Though she seems a bit of a quiet type."

"Hmmm, I look forward to meeting her then." Hermione smiled as she took Harry's hand and led him away from the corridor.

Notes:

* Clue taken from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Chapter 28: December Blossoms

Chapter Text

Friday 23rd December 1994.

Filius growled softly to himself as the students assembled in front of him.

Expressions on several of the twelve faces clearly showed that many of the children before him still believed they were being unfairly treated. While he'd only had their side of events, he had been far more sympathetic. But the actions they had taken, often against members of their own house, were not something he would tolerate under his care.

The rest were moping unhappily, but he assumed that had more to do with the instruction he had given to have their things and meet him in the entrance hall no later than 8 am this morning. Which had meant a rushed morning and a harried breakfast that the last was only now coming from, trunk rolling along behind.

He swept his eyes over the assembly as several other students walked past, looking at the group with curiosity.

"You all know why we are here." He said firmly. "I have sent detailed letters home to every one of your parents, and they are all aware of why you are returning with the Express today. I hope you will use this time to consider your actions, because come the new term, there will be no more leniency for such behaviour in Ravenclaw House."

Filius glanced at Miss Sheringham, one of his former seventh-year prefects, and he sighed to himself. She looked the most livid of any before him, though that may have been due to having her prefecture stripped from her rather than the fact she would be missing the Yule Ball.

However, when he had learned she had led a group of girls to corner young Miss Granger in a corridor and attempt to curse the girl into staying away from Mister Potter…

In the five years he had been the Head of Ravenclaw House, he had never been so disappointed in his students. One whiff of fame had been enough for many of them to lose their heads and behave abominably.

"If everybody is ready?" He called to the group as he turned.

"No, I am not." Filius sighed again as he turned once more to look at the eldest student in the group. "This is ridiculous."

"Ridiculous is how you have behaved, Miss Sherringham. Youwere," he emphasized the word heavily as he turned, "one of my prefects. A position I awarded you out of trust that you would support and aid your fellow students. We do not reward misbehaviour, and the way you twelve have behaved is not something we accept at Hogwarts."

His eyes locked onto the tall girl and he continued. "Should you return in January, you will be expected to behave far better than you have so far. But should you find this stance untenable, you are welcome not to return."

Most of the anger seeped from the girl as she had clearly hoped her last-ditch comments might change his mind. But Filius was set, and Minerva agreed heartily. This behaviour was unacceptable for Hogwarts students.

If Albus could see that and begin ensuring he monitored the school better, how could Filius do any less? He hadn't even realized how hands-off he had become with his own house until this matter had risen, and he was going to correct that mistake fiercely going forward.

"Now, follow me. The Express will not be leaving without you all aboard, and I'm sure the handful of other students heading home will be most upset if you cause them to be late for their holidays."

He spun about and began to walk out of the Hall, the dejected group following along behind with the sound of dragged trunks echoing in the large space.

ϟ

Saturday 24th December 1994.

Harry guided Hermione gently through the side opening to the large Entrance Hall, his hand delighting in the feeling of the soft fabric beneath his fingers as they rested on her lower back.

It had taken over a full minute for his train of thought to recover when he had first seen Hermione step out of the girls' dorm in the floaty blue dress she now wore, but it was so worth it to see her smile. Nemea and Mipsy had worked on it for hours, getting every detail just right to her specifications and it made her look even more beautiful than he already found her to be every day.

There were already dozens of students in the large hall, milling about and talking before drifting through the large doorway and into the Great Hall. He couldn't yet see any of his few friends in the crowd, so the two moved toward the doorway only to be stopped short by Professor McGonagall.

"Not quite yet, you two. The Champions shall enter together once everyone else is seated. If you please?" She indicated a small alcove to the side of the door and the two retreated into it, looking out over the other students.

There were many bright and varied colours of clothing amidst the group. From the Durmstrangs and their heavily furred cloaks and jackets in earthy reds and browns. To the silvers and golds most of the Beauxbatons boys and girls were adorned in.

A large portion of the Hogwarts students bucked the trend and were decked in what Harry could only describe as an old and tacky black tuxedo with a long tail that brushed the floor.

From the faces he recognized, most of these students hailed from the Slytherin House, and he considered this might be one of those pureblood tradition things he'd occasionally heard about while travelling the school. A tug on his sleeve had him turning to follow Hermione's gaze and he noted a pair of girls coming down the stairway from upstairs.

The first was in a flared yellow skirt that had a colourful repeated pattern of exotic flowers embroidered evenly across its surface below an identically coloured crop top with a similar pattern which was much tighter in its arrangement. Over her left shoulder and arm rested a see-through shawl of lighter fabric hanging down almost to the floor with her arm pointing down as it was now. A sliver of dusky skin peeked out from between the skirt and top and her right arm was completely free of fabric. A pair of golden earrings completed the look as Padma casually descended the stairs into the hall.

Luna beside her, however, was wearing a dress that screamed her personality all over the castle in spades. It was a shining silver in colour, covering from her collar to mid-calf above the absent shoes. The look on the girl's bright face showed Harry this was by choice rather than missing items though, so he didn't allow it to worry him tonight. Over the surface of the fabric was a pattern similar to Padma's, though hers were of varied animals that were animated and dancing over the dress all of their own accord. Harry only recognized some of the animals as they frolicked back and forth.

Rather than shiny jewellery to match her companion though, Luna had a pair of thin corks hanging from her ears. And a necklace made of very small but shiny yellow fruits that appeared to hover slightly above her throat as she walked. They gestured the pair over and were only given a slight glance by the Deputy Headmistress as they arrived before she returned to watching for the other champions.

"You both look lovely tonight." He offered as the pair stopped inside the alcove as well.

"Thank you, Harry. You look rather dashing yourself," Luna replied, smiling brilliantly as she took in his dark green robes and swept-back hair.

Hermione gave the two girls an overplayed look of shock and tightened her grip on Harry's arm. "Back off ladies, he's all mine." She joked and the four began to laugh quietly in their little private corner. "Looking forward to the dance?"

"Very much so. Mother was most approving of our decision. She made my dress herself. Parvati's is much more flashy, but basically the same. Hers is entirely red, though not made of nearly as much lace as she had originally asked mother to use. Sometimes I think she forgets we're only fourteen."

"We all try to grow up too fast sometimes." Hermione acknowledged and the others nodded.

Hushed whispering through the other students in the hall drew their attention as Fleur glided up into the entryway through the front doors. She too wore a silver dress, but hers shifted in the light all on its own, appearing to be made of some liquid material as it wove and flowed over her figure. Her silvery blonde hair was up in a complex bun of some sort that Harry couldn't figure out as she stepped forward and the crowd broke around her and her date, a boy Harry remembered seeing on their visit to the Durmstrang ship for lunch a few weeks before.

"Eevening," Fleur greeted with a gentle curtsey as she joined the group, not even needing McGonagall to direct her over. Evidently, Fleur had been to far more of such events than Harry or Hermione had.

"Hello," The four replied almost in unison, setting off a new spate of laughter between them all. "That dress is incredible," Padma continued, admiring the moving fabric.

"Oui. Maman and grandmere made it togezer. A nearly lost art of ze Veela." Fleur smiled at the group before she turned to the boy by her. "Zis is Alexi, 'e is from Durmstrang but 'is conversation is quite good."

"A pleasure." The boy greeted them with a tight bow, and they returned in kind as more muttering from the crowd drew their attention once again.

Another beauty of Fleur's calibre was standing in the entryway on the arm of Viktor Krum, and Harry was unsure which of the two was getting the most adoring looks. It made him very glad he'd spent most of his life out of the spotlight. He hated when strangers looked at him like that. With an air of practice, Viktor and his date soon made their way through the crowd and noted their position, joining them quickly.

With a sharp bow that clicked his heels together, Viktor silently greeted them all. The girl on his arm had fiery red hair that was held up in a similar style to Fleur's and her skin seemed to shimmer even more than her golden dress that appeared to also be made in the same style as the female champion.

Viktor pulled his wand for a moment and tapped it quickly against the air, the sound from behind him dropping off and drawing another raised eyebrow from the nearby Deputy.

"Much better. Good evening, I vould like to introduce you all to Mady..."

"Madeline!" Fleur called when she caught sight of the girl, drawing her eye with a smile. "When were you going to tell me, cousin?"

"And miss zat look on your face, nevair. Eet is good to see you, Fleur. Viktor tells me you did very well een your task."

"Cousin?" the confused Durmstrang champion questioned.

"Oui, my grandmuzzer is also her grandmuzzer." Mady smiled as she glanced over the group.

"Vere you going to tell me?" The boy asked softly.

Mady smiled at him and gave him a soft peck on the cheek. "You know I like to surprise you, dear."

"Oh, fresh." Nym's cheery voice broke over them as they noticed her standing there in the nearly empty Entrance Hall. "Love a good surprise, me."

The group parted to allow her to join but before anyone could speak, Professor McGonagall tapped the two Ravenclaws on the shoulder. "Inside girls, we'll be starting in a moment, now all the Champions are present."

She guided the two away and they waved before disappearing into the Great Hall. The eight remaining teens gave each other a slight grin as the conversation had been momentarily derailed by the interruption.

"Surprises," Viktor said to himself before looking up at the others. "If you don't mind, I have request." His eyes flickered to Fleur as he steeled himself for the next part. "Mady and I hoped to use tonight to officially announce… our engagement."

Fleur gasped aloud and her eyes fixed on her cousin with a look that demanded answers. "Sit wiz me, cousin. We'll talk zen." Mady replied.

"Surprises indeed." Nym laughed, drawing Harry's eye to her. He smirked at the dress she wore, a black thigh-length flared skirt over ripped black stockings, with wilted dark red roses over the bodice. It was very Nym.

He turned to the boy at her side and was stunned for a moment with surprise filling him now as it was not Cedric as he had expected. The boy on her arm was from Beauxbatons and seemed like he was out of his depth with the topics of conversation they had walked in on.

Harry gave her a questioning eyebrow and Nym just smiled in return.

Before any further discussion could be held, McGonagall was once again interrupting.

"Champions, gather round, please. You will be entering shortly, in a line if you will. Your name shall be called and you and your date shall proceed inside and to the table at the front of the hall. Dinner shall be first, then you will open the dance. Any questions?"

When no one replied, she waved a hand, indicating they should line up and with a couple of nods, Viktor took the front of the line and handed McGonagall a small sliver of paper. Upon reading it, the Transfiguration professor's eyebrows took another trip skyward and she glanced at the smiling pair before her. With a nod she watched as the others lined up behind, Fleur slotting in behind her cousin before Harry and finally Nym.

"We will begin momentarily." The professor smiled as she ducked inside the hall, their view being immediately cut off as a magical snowfall filled the large doorway behind her back.

Harry felt butterflies begin to squirm in his stomach. He hated this publicity stuff so much. And he felt slightly bad for hoping that the famous Quidditch star's big announcement pulled some of the stares he knew he would gather over the coming event. A soft hand squeezed his own and his eyes flicked to his partner, a gentle understanding smile on her face.

He took a moment to take in her beautiful gown and light jewellery and returned her smile. "You look beautiful, Hermione."

"As do you. Now be good arm candy and smile for the sycophants please, dear."

All four Champions laughed aloud at the comment with the two boys accompanying Nym and Fleur looking confused at the comment. But before either could ask a question, a loud voice called out.

"Honoured guests and eager students. Introducing Bulgarian Quidditch Star and Durmstrang Champion, Viktor Krum and his fiance Madeline Celice."

Loud whispers immediately spilled from the hall as Viktor and Mady grasped hands and entered looking far more regal in their movements than Harry felt he could hope to achieve. He smiled as he noticed Fleur's slightly reddened face as she tried to cover the fact she was still shocked by her cousin keeping something like that from her.

As Viktor made it about halfway into the hall, the announcer spoke again. "Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Beauxbatons Champion, Mademoiselle Fleur Delacour and her date Alexi Romanov."

Harry glanced at Hermione who appeared to share his surprise at the name. Both clearly wondered if the boy was related to the former royal family of Russia, or if it were simply a coincidence.

It would explain the vanishing of the last daughter from the public muggle record if she had joined a magical family. The pair refocused on the opening to the hall, now bare before them and Harry gulped as the announcer spoke again.

"Wizards and witches, introducing our Wild Card Entry and the Boy-Who-Lived," Harry growled to himself and Hermione tightened her grip on his hand, "Harry Potter and his escort Hermione Granger."

Applause louder than either of the previous Champions had received spread over the hall as the pair moved forward. Harry tried to glare at the announcer on his way into the hall but his eyes were instantly drawn to the incredible change the hall had undergone.

The floor appeared to be covered in ice, yet was every bit as grippy as the stonework tended to be normally. All the walls too were covered in a layer of ice, but there were patterns carved into the cold surface. Lions and eagles, snakes and badgers in countless combinations surrounded the walls.

The Hogwarts crest was proudly arrayed on the back wall behind two tables on the Teacher's plinth at slight angles so those sitting at them would face both each other and the hall at large.

The students were gathered around large circular tables with about a dozen seats at each that had replaced the usual long straight tables. Each had a small ice sculpture of a magical creature perched in the centre that moved and seemed to converse with the students gathered about it.

The delay of shock upon seeing the hall full of such grandeur had led both his fellow Champions to have made the walk to the front so almost all eyes had swung about to fix on Harry and Hermione as they stood stunned in the entrance.

He began moving forward and felt the stares follow his movements, so he distracted himself by further inspecting the hall. Winter vines draped from the upper reaches of the hall around the walls, dangling artfully over the walls and forming large columns in the corners.

The ceiling, as ever, showed the night sky beyond, but Harry wondered if the Ministry had performed a weather control ritual to get the perfect cloudless starry sky that still somehow had a light flurry of snow falling above the Great Hall.

When they finally made it halfway down the lengthy hall at their sedate pace, Harry heard the announcer speak once again. "And finally, introducing the Hogwarts Champion, Nymphadora Tonks," Harry couldn't help the smile on his face as he pictured the face his cousin would currently be sporting at having her full name shouted to the entire school, "and her date Jordi Barbero."

Harry glanced over his shoulder and saw Nym enter through the curtain of illusory snow at the far end of the hall, her face every bit as disgruntled as he had expected before she too noticed the decoration.

In the momentary glance, however, he now noticed that on either side of the large doors, the rear wall had enormous renditions of the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons crests on the left and right respectively.

He couldn't help but feel impressed at the amount of work the Ministry had put into changing the Great Hall of Hogwarts into a veritable winter wonderland for the event. His attention returned forward as he and Hermione reached the step up onto the dais that normally held the long teachers' table and the pair headed right to the half-empty table for the champions.

He smiled at his fellow competitors as they rounded the end of the table and took their seats beside Fleur's date, noting that the French champion was busy chatting with her cousin in French far too quickly for him to catch much of anything they were saying.

The chairs that had been provided were far more comfortable than the usual hard wooden bench and he got quite comfortable as he watched his cousin approach slowly up the centre of the hall.

A quick glance across to the other table on the raised platform showed the Ministry representation of Bagman, Crouch, a woman in the most garish pink dress and cardigan Harry had ever seen, and a slightly familiar man in dark robes that were horribly offset by his bright green bowler hat.

Bookending them on either side were Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall at the left and Karkaroff and Maxine to the right. Matching the eight seats that were arrayed on their own side.

When Nym arrived and sat beside Hermione, the man in the green hat stood and addressed the hall.

"Good evening all, and welcome to the Yule Ball. We at the Ministry congratulate our Champions on a marvellous showing in the first task and hope that we'll all enjoy the two remaining tasks to come. But for tonight, we are gathered for merriment and friendship. To that, I raise a toast." Glasses of a sparkling liquid appeared on all the tables in front of everyone and they all grabbed the glass to join the toast. "To our Champions and their schools. Best of luck to all."

Everybody took a swig from the glass and Harry was surprised. It had a similar texture to the champagne that Natalie had let him try on their last visit to France, but he could tell there was no alcohol in it. As the toast ended, a round of applause sounded throughout the hall and the man bowed before retaking his seat and everyone's focus was drawn to the small menu laid upon their plates.

Harry focused on his own and noted a very rich beef stew he found to be intriguing and he tapped it with his finger, but nothing happened. He glanced up at the table opposite them and noted the adults were all ordering their meals aloud.

He copied their action and immediately the menu vanished and a high-sided bowl full of steaming stew appeared on his plate, accompanied by a second smaller plate of buttered chopped up breadstick. His stomach growled at the sight and the table filled with laughter as the champions all heard the sound.

Harry glanced to his right and noted Hermione had gone for some sort of fish and vegetables while his cousin had gone for steak and chips. He smiled at them both and soon lost himself to the delicious texture of the stew he had ordered.

Harry leaned closer to Nym as they ate and whispered quietly. "So… going to explain there? I thought you were dating Cedric?"

Nym gave him a cheeky smile in return, swallowing before answering. "We kissed, sure. And a lot more." She said with a cheeky wink. "But we both think we're better off as just friends. I mean, he's my best friend after you two. But it seems he has a bit of a crush on Miss Chang over there."

Nym nodded to where her Hufflepuff classmate who was sitting with a beautiful Asian girl dressed in a dark blue dress covered in lilac flower petals. He seemed engrossed in conversation with the girl and Harry chuckled to himself at the sight.

"So, who is this then?"

"Jordi is a delightful chap who asked me out last night. Seems most people had figured the same as you. So, I said yes and we spent a few minutes in a broom closet to celebrate."

The poor Beauxbatons boy to her other side coughed and sputtered as he choked slightly on his food at her words. He glanced fearfully at Harry who simply smiled in return, knowing how much his cousin loved messing with people. Though he had no doubt the snogging in question had occurred as she said.

While it seemed Jordi was confident enough to ask her on a date, he wasn't quite prepared to deal with a conversation with Nym's family on said date. The meal progressed mostly in silence after that, with only Fleur and Mady continuing their discussion toward the end of the table.

Apparently, Mady was related to one of the members of the Bulgarian Mascots and had met Viktor during the previous Quidditch season. The pair had hit it off immediately and had secretly been dating for almost two years. Viktor had surprised her by asking for her hand the day of the World Cup Final, and Harry was mildly impressed they had managed to keep it a secret until now.

Dinner passed quickly into dessert, with another slim menu replacing the empty bowl and, with dancing soon to be on the cards, Harry decided to go for a lighter option. He placed his order and as before the menu vanished to be replaced by two thick biscuits that looked fresh from the oven, a glimmer of steam rising from the golden-brown surface. the chocolate chips embedded in the surface looked sufficiently molten and it was accompanied by a chilled dollop of whipped cream to the side.

He licked his lips and got a slight nudge from his right. Harry smiled at Hermione who was digging into her own fruit salad while once again Nym was biting into what looked to be almost a full quarter of a deliciously indulgent chocolate cake topped with strawberries and cream with an ice cream side.

Harry broke apart the warm biscuit before him and delighted in the smell as it wafted up to his face, the steam lightly caressing him as it whispered over his skin. Dipping the sharp edge into the cream he took a bite and his taste buds danced at the flavours.

He made a note to give the elves a visit in the morning and congratulate them on a job damned well done. The food had been sublime.

As the Champions all finished up their dessert the table was cleared once more with a single note appearing before them all instructing them to stand.

Both the Champions and the adults opposite stood almost as one and with a flicker both the tables they had been using were gone. The sound of chairs scraping against the smooth icy floor filled the air as the students copied them and within moments all the tables had gone.

In their place, long straight tables had appeared along the walls covered in finger foods and bowls of punch, all the ice sculptures that had been centrepieces were now spaced evenly along these new tables while a large empty space filled the middle of the enormous hall.

The sixteen on the dais moved forward, the champions following as the adults led down and to the side and with a final flicker of magic, the dais was no longer empty. A full set of instruments appearing atop it and a new set of adults ducking out of the side chamber at the back of the hall brought a rousing cheer from the students.

Harry recognized the Weird Sisters, though he'd never seen them in person before as they grabbed their gear and prepared to play.

Another tug on his hand had Harry's attention turn away from the now stage and back to the floor which the adults had quietly shooed the students to the edges of, leaving a large open space that the four champions moved into with their dance partners, ready to commence the second portion of the evening's frivolities.

As the band struck up a familiar tune, Harry smiled and pulled Hermione close, his hand closing on her own and his other lightly resting at her waist. Soon the world fell away as they began the dance and all that was left in their world was the other.

Brown eyes looked into green as the pair simply moved together. Harry didn't even have to think about the moves of the dance, and could have looked a fool to all the world for all he cared right now. All that mattered was he was sharing a school dance with his girlfriend.

This moment was one of a few he'd experienced recently that clarified why they had made the slightly dangerous choice to attend the school. Safety was good and all, but keeping himself locked away in the Manor hadn't prevented someone from entering him into the tournament.

While he may have been bodily safe, he wasn't perfectly so. And with their preparations and guardians on hand, they felt confident that they could have the experience that had been mostly kept out of reach, without risking their safety in any major way.

Something like a school dance might not be every fourteen-year-old boy's greatest delight, but in Hermione's arms, Harry found there was nowhere he would rather be tonight than right here.

A gentle bump to his side knocked Harry loose of the fantasy he had descended into and drew a giggle from his partner as he looked up to see two towering bodies wending their way across the floor. The large Rubeus Hagrid gave him a mortified look of apology that Harry simply returned with a broad smile.

The tales he'd heard of the giant man from his family made it clear he didn't have an angry bone in his body and he sometimes simply forgot how large he was.

Harry's eyes continued over the dance floor and he noticed it was a lot more crowded now as the other students had joined in. He noticed that a completely different song was playing and wondered just how long he had become lost in Hermione's presence, and how long he would have remained so had the Gamekeeper not bumped him on the way past.

As the new song ended, Harry found a familiar pair standing beside them as the students all clapped the Weird Sisters who were announcing a slight pace change.

"Having fun?" Luna asked, a broad smile on her face as she released Padma's arms, the pair having been waltzing about without a care in the world a moment ago.

"Very much so." He replied and with a glance to Hermione, offered the wee blond a hand. "May I?"

Luna smiled brightly at the two of them and Padma offered her own hand to Hermione. "You may."

They positioned themselves for another round of waltzing and were surprised when a far more modern sound spread out from the stage and the students around them began to hop and shift in time with the music. The four laughed together and switched to a foursome dancing like carefree children rather than the more strictly formed dances they'd been doing before.

They soon found the other Champions joining them and the larger group began to do some wacky dance moves, laughing and giving each other suggestions as the hours passed in the simple delight of spending time being foolish with people you called friends.

In fact, they were so busy having fun that they barely noticed they'd formed a slightly impenetrable barrier that managed to turn away the many fame-eyed people seeking dances with Viktor, Harry and several of the others.

Beyond their initial small group, only a handful of other friendly faces managed to break through the barrier, with the likes of their recent additions of Neville and Ginny managing to join the group, further swelling its ranks and strengthening the barrier against unwelcome approaches.

It was several hours of vigorous dancing later that a slightly exhausted group were informed the dance was over by the attending teachers and the students began filing from the hall through the suddenly small seeming cavernous entryway. Hundreds of bodies still taking quite a long time to funnel through the bottleneck. As most of the students had stuck it out dancing right until the end.

Which was how Harry came to be in the position Luna found him in right now. "Look at that, mistletoe."

Harry glanced up and there were indeed several pieces of the plant hovering about the crowd. It seemed they were set to hover over couples as he saw a second one above Viktor and Mady, who quickly followed tradition and kissed.

Harry turned to a smiling Hermione and leaned in, happily meeting his lips with her own and Harry thought it was a perfect end to the wonderful experience of the night. He couldn't help but smile when he heard Luna once more though.

"Good idea. Mistletoe is usually infested with Nargles, but they don't like to bother people who are too happy."

The boy smiled heavily as he pulled away from his partner and gave Luna a gentle hug. "Never change my friend. Never change."

Chapter 29: Obvious and Oblivious

Chapter Text

Sunday 25th December 1994.

Hermione smiled as the pair walked once more into the Great Hall, all the decoration from the night before vanished into naught but a memory.

The tables were already half full of students chattering away about their time at the ball and the developments that had arisen within. Hermione's mind, though, was still drifting over the chat they'd just finished with the Hogwarts elves a few minutes earlier and the gifts Harry had given them for their superb work.

She had to admit, the food from last night had been beyond incredible. Her taste buds were still relishing in the sense memory of the delectable meal.

"Hermione, Harry. Morning." The affable Gryffindor lad seated among the Hufflepuffs offered.

"Hello, Neville. How was your evening?" She replied as they sat opposite, next to a beaming Luna.

"Wonderful. Everyone is so welcoming," he smiled in return.

"You're easy to be welcoming with, Nev." Harry chuckled as he began loading a plate up with food. "From what I'm told, you are really blossoming this year, mate."

The Gryffindor blushed at the comment, unfortunately at the worst possible time as Harry's chronically cheeky cousin sat beside the lad. "Blossoming, eh?" She eyed the boy for a moment before continuing. "I can see it."

Nym waggled her eyebrows and Hermione shook her head at the incorrigible young woman. "Be nice Nym, he's not used to you yet."

The poor boy blushed harder still as his date from the night before settled in on his other side sitting opposite Luna. "Good morning, Ginny. You look rather radiant this morning."

The ginger blushed an almost equal shade to Neville as she glanced at the boy out of the corner of her eye. Her eyes flicked to Harry for a moment, but already she had lost the glimmer that Hermione had seen in them the first couple of times she'd sat with their group.

"It was lots of fun. I'm…" The girl trailed off, still slightly embarrassed by the company she was now keeping.

Hermione hoped that with time she would grow out of it. Harry leaned against her shoulder and laid his head beside her own. "Yeah. That was totally worth all the grief."

"No second thoughts then?" Nym questioned as she started in on her own breakfast as several more of their growing group of companions joined their table. Viktor and Fleur sitting without their dates from the night before.

"One or two." Harry winked before turning to the newest arrivals. "No one on the arm this morning, Viktor?"

He smiled but shook his head. "No, Mady could not stay on. Her family is travelling to America before the New Year. I shall not see her again before Second Task. Is vhy last night vas chosen for announcement."

"The papers this week should be good. Biggest announcement you could have made last night." Nym smiled.

"Dah." Viktor chuckled, getting a slightly dirty look from his fellow champion.

"I cannot beelieve zat Mady kept zat from me. We do not talk as often as we used to, but I zought we were still close."

"Ve told no one, Fleur. It vas big secret. Only our parents knew before last night. And even they were only told before I left for Tournament."

Hermione glanced at Harry upon the further mention of family, expecting to have to rouse his spirits at the fact they were being kept from celebrating the holidays as a family as they usually did. Instead, she was surprised to find him looking pensive, a look she had come to both treasure and fear in equal measure. As realization spread across his features, she felt a slight bit of trepidation before he locked his eyes on her.

She tilted her head in response and both were silent, completely unaware of the couple of stares they had drawn at the strange exchange. But within seconds, Hermione had figured out Harry's train of thought. And she thought it was genius.

"Question for you all. Who'd like to be at home with family for the holiday?"

Everyone nearby gave a slightly less than enthusiastic affirmative response, and Hermione smiled at her partner in crime this morning.

Luna sighed. "That would be lovely. Shame the Express left two days ago."

"The Hogwarts Express, yes. But there is another express that can get everyone home for a few days of family time." Harry offered.

Several hopeful looks turned to Harry and Hermione couldn't shift the grin on her face. "Shifty?"

A pop sounded and the extremely tall elf they'd come to like arrived behind them, unable as ever to remain completely still as he stood there. "Yes, young miss?"

"Is there somewhere out of the way we can gather as a group? Preferably not a classroom?" She paused and glanced at the number of folks already present and considered the few more they might wish to accommodate. "Preferably somewhere big."

"Of course. Seventh floor, opposite the tapestry of the tap-dancing trolls. Press your hand to the wall opposite and ask for a room as large as you need."

"Thanks, Shifty. Great work yesterday too." Harry added.

"Thank you, young sir." And with a pop, the elf vanished again.

"Well, you heard him. Finish up your breakfast, grab what you need for a few days at home and meet us there." Hermione finished, as she and Harry stood and headed for the door.

As soon as they could, they ducked into an unused secret passage and, holding hands, vanished from the school, arriving with looks of surprise among the living Marauders in the school's Hogsmeade lodgings.

"Morning, head home. We'll meet you there later." Harry informed the stunned pair, both frozen with their cutlery halfway to their drowsy faces.

Without further comment, the pair popped away again and were now facing the enormous tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy, covering almost the entire wall of this passageway, with the wall opposite almost completely devoid of anything that belied the normality of its existence.

The pair quickly stepped up to the wall and followed Shifty's instructions, asking the wall for a room large enough that all their friends could gather with supplies before moving on. In an instant, the wall began to change, forming a large doorway that looked quite similar to the one on the Great Hall, simply not as high.

When they swung the door inwards, they found a large space with a couple of couches by the wall and to Hermione's delight a small bookshelf in the corner. She dashed forward and began to look through the titles on the shelves and found they were all books she hadn't yet read.

Taking one down, she settled into the nearest couch and lost herself to the words within, storing away the wonderful new information in her incredible brain.

It was several long chapters later that she was interrupted by Harry and looked up to see all their friends were gathered looking at her with smiles on their faces. Everyone had a small bag by their side and Harry was watching her with a look she'd seen many times before. One that said he wanted to snog her senseless.

She blushed slightly and tucked the book into her pocket, intending to continue it later as their hands entwined again and they faced the happy yet slightly confused students before them.

"What is this room, guys?" Cedric asked. "This is an exterior wall. There can't be a room here."

"No idea. I'm sure Hermione already has plans to further examine it once we come back. But for now, everyone grab the hand of one of these elves." Harry paused as all their elves appeared in the room, not popping in as she had expected. "They'll take you where you need to go, just picture home clearly in your mind and let them take you. If it's a really long trip, you may make a pit stop on the way, but they'll get you there. I promise. Then we just return on the Express on the sixth."

A couple of the faces looked slightly unsure, but Hermione gave them a happy wave and in a few series of trips, the room was once again empty. Harry quickly wrote out a note on the nearby table and sent it off with a snap of his fingers as the others travelled away.

When only Nym, Harry and herself remained, the trio smiled and popped home to the Manor with a laugh.

ϟ

Remus stared at the empty air near the table for several long minutes, his arm growing tired as it supported the weight of his breakfast hovering just before his mouth.

He was still throwing off the remnants of sleep.

While it had been a week since the full moon, his body was particularly stiff lately and it took far longer than he would like to properly awaken.

Not even the large pot of coffee that one of the elves had prepared had been enough to throw off the drowsiness, and now he was seeing things as well. "Sirius…"

"No, I saw that too. They looked far too bright and cheery for this hour. What is the hour?" His friend groaned, looking about the room for a clock.

Remus glanced down and saw his hovering food and at last let his arm drop back to the table, relieving the tension in his already sore shoulder. "No idea. Should have never let you convince me to spend last night drinking just because we weren't having a regular family Christmas."

"Don't try and pretend you've got a hangover, Moony. You're just grumpy. There is a big difference. I'm going to have a shower."

Sirius stood from the table, leaving over half his breakfast uneaten as he swayed his way out of the room and Remus tried to figure out why the kids would have asked them to head home. Due to the Ball, they would be spending the rest of the break at the castle. He groaned to himself and took another gulp of his coffee, hoping the liquid might soon help conjure some semblance of consciousness into his weary brain.

He soon gave up on that hope and stumbled his own way to the bathroom, hearing the shower running as his long-time friend tried an alternative method of waking up. Remus gave a slight chuckle as he shucked his robe and without a how do you do, stepped into the large shower behind his fellow Marauder.

"Shove down and pass the soap."

"What the f*ck, Moony?" Sirius growled, trying in vain to cover himself up. "Wait your turn!"

"Please, I've seen it before you jackass. This'll be faster." Remus chortled, nabbing the soap from the other man's hand and lathering himself up.

"Crossing a line here, mate," Sirius said, still trying to protect his modesty. A funny sight to anyone who spent more than five minutes with the manchild back at Hogwarts.

"Get over it." Remus hissed, chucking the soap back to his friend who reflexively caught it without thinking as Remus elbowed his stomach to get some purchase under the water, knocking Sirius back into the far corner of the small tub. "If you're just gonna stand there I'll be out of here even faster."

The hot flowing water helped alleviate most of the remaining aches in his body and he was soon feeling a lot more alert and refreshed. His brain beginning to better analyse the kids' behaviour. They had both seemed happy and in a rush to get somewhere. They probably ought to make their way to the Manor as fast as they could.

Once he was satisfied that he was clean, Remus turned to his friend who was still standing in the corner, half-covering himself and half looking like a transformed James in headlights.

Remus laughed to himself as he stepped out and took the nearest towel from the rack, quickly drying himself off as he headed for his room to dress. "Hurry up, Padfoot." He called over his shoulder as he departed.

It was almost a quarter of an hour later when Sirius finally rejoined him in the main room of their little flat fully dressed and giving him a very dirty look.

"Finished sulking now? We've a previous engagement to get to." Remus questioned his moody-looking friend.

"We're mates, Moony. But that is a step too far. Never again, you hear?" Sirius had a look Remus hadn't seen in many many years. And he finally had an idea what kind of prank James must have played on their mutual friend all those years ago that Sirius had adamantly refused to divulge.

"Relax, Padfoot. You're not my type. Can we go now?"

The now well-awake pair stared the other down for a moment before Sirius sighed and disapparated from the flat. Remus smirked before he too turned on the spot and vanished from the space, soon arriving in his room at the Manor. He found it the safest place to return as you never knew what James or Sirius might be getting up to in the halls of the home.

it didn't take him long to find his way to the family room, the name most gave the small reading room at the end of the library where most family chats went on.

The paintings looked on in rapt attention as Hermione regaled them with the tale of the night before. Of dresses and girl talk. Extravagant dinners and hours of dancing. Friends and laughter.

Remus couldn't help but smile at the two sequestered in their normal chair as Nym and her parents arrived as well and the family took their usual seats.

"So, you enjoyed yourselves then?" James asked from the canvas, smiling down at the children.

"Very much," Harry admitted. "I was worried when we agreed we should actually attend, and not just pop in for the events, but it has definitely been worth it so far. We've made really good friends. There are people there that I just click with, in ways I didn't when we were going to muggle school."

"Exactly." Hermione concurred. "I think we were a bit too mature for our old peer group." Sirius chortled from the corner at that, and Remus recalled him often calling Hermione older than they were. The girl just spared him a momentary semi-hard glance before continuing. "But people like Padma and Fleur, they get the need to learn and push ourselves."

"It's great."

"You've no idea. Hogwarts was good fun these past few years, but it's just so different having you there at last. I didn't realize how much I missed you not being around until you were there every day." Nym added, tucked between her parents.

"I'm so glad you're enjoying it." Dorea smiled at the youngins, before turning to Sirius. "Any further run-ins with him?"

He scowled for a moment before speaking. "Not again since, no."

"Run-ins? With who?" Harry questioned, staring at his godfather.

"Dumbledore. He wants tochat. I told him he could shove it. He hasn't come near you has he?"

"No. I can feel his magic and he's never come closer than at dinner times. Well, except in the tent before the First Task. But he didn't try anything there. Should I be worried?"

The figures in the painting shared several knowing looks. "You should always be wary, Harry." His grandfather offered. "We still don't know what he was after, or why he stopped searching for it once you refused to attend Hogwarts. He hasn't made a single suspicious move that we've been able to detect in the past three years and that almost worries me more than when he was gunning hard for the estate."

"Yes, be that as it may… It is Christmas. Can we talk about happier things today?" Remus chimed in, drawing smiles from most in attendance. "How were the presents?"

ϟ

Friday 6th January 1995.

Minerva stood by the main doors, watching as the children filed up from the carriages.

She always tried to call this duty so that she could watch the youthful exuberance as friends met for the first time in weeks, as well as the bright faces of the first-years taking their second trip on the mysterious Thestral-pulled carriages.

It brought great joy to her heart to see the children in their element and helped reaffirm her reasons for being here as a teacher and an administrator.

Her mood broke slightly as the most recent arrivals jumped from their carriage and the small crowd headed up the slope towards the entrance. The last of the names on her list. She vanished the board and took up her usual stern stance as they approached.

"Mister Potter. Miss Granger. Welcome back to Hogwarts. A word, if you please." The professor gestured inside to a small doorway off the main Entrance Hall.

"Of course, professor." Miss Granger smiled as she and Harry waved to their friends and stepped into the room.

As she followed, Minerva tried her best to squash the smile that threatened to emerge upon seeing the two chattering as they passed her, still holding hands as they did whenever they had them free in their travels about the school. She was still sore that she'd been unable to convince the young Miss Granger to attend from first-year, even more so now she had arrived and shown her true potential.

The three came to a stop in the small room with a set of stairs leading off towards the boathouse. Minerva closed the door and turned to face the smiling pair. "Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

Mister Potter's face scrunched up in thought but he shook his head and replied. "Not that I can think of."

Minerva sighed for a moment before she continued. "I am very glad you both agreed to actually attend the school, and I know we gave you a great deal of freedom to come and go as you need. However, that freedom does not extend to you deciding to take a number of students from the castle with you. Especially not without the permission of their parents or guardian first."

The two children glanced back and forth for a moment and realization seemed to spread over Mister Potter's face. "You mean…?"

"Yes, Mister Potter. When we had over a dozen students suddenly missing come lunchtime on Christmas Day, students we knew had attended the Ball the night before including allfourChampions. Given Hogwarts is responsible for the well-being of all students in attendance, even the visiting ones. Well, needless to say, there was somewhat of a kerfuffle."

"I did send you a note. Didn't you get it?" Mister Potter claimed, looking rather distraught.

"Indeed, but only when I returned to my office. We professors do like to take a small break from sitting at our desks all day, every day during the holidays as well, Mister Potter. By the time I had found it, we had already sent off owls to all the families. Thankfully they all responded promptly and we confirmed where all but two of the students, you two, had vanished to. I would like to request that you inform me, in person, if you will be departing the school in the future."

"Of course, Professor." Miss Granger agreed. "We're sorry. It's just, sometimes we still get so excited we forget ourselves. It's caused a few problems in the past too."

The young girl glanced at Harry and the pair blushed heavily at some other remembered event. Minerva was unsure if she wanted to know, given James's habit of misbehaving and Lily's level of talent that Harry had clearly inherited. The possible options were virtually limitless.

"Yes, well. In future, either myself or your Head of House are preferable. Any teacher will do in an absolute pinch. Are we clear on this?"

"Very much so." The two replied in unison, slightly unnerving the elder woman.

"Good show then. Off you go. The term begins again on Monday and I expect you two to continue exceeding expectations."

Miss Granger smiled brightly and quickly dragged Mister Potter from the room. Minerva sighed again and hoped this wasn't the beginning of Mister Potter taking up the mantle and causing havoc across the school.

She wasn't sure she could take a new batch of Marauders at the same time as the Weasley Twins.

ϟ

Saturday 21st January 1995.

Harry closed the book and rubbed his face.

Researching was always something he enjoyed, but his eyes were beginning to unfocus as they had been at it so long that day. Coupled with the fact that they had two viable methods already worked out and had even been practising the spellwork required to the point he could almost cast it silently, and he was left wondering why they were sitting in the Manor library at all right now.

"You've had enough, haven't you?" Hermione questioned as she glanced at him over the corner of her own book. Harry blushed slightly but nodded in return. "Very well. I suppose we've solved the breathing problem sufficiently."

Harry leaned back in his chair and smiled softly at the girl opposite as she packed her book away and snapped her fingers, returning both tomes to their place on the shelves.

"And the first batch of the gillyweed we ordered should be arriving next week. So we can test it out in the lake and confirm its properties. Neville seemed confident it would work, but there is debate about fresh versus salt water. If you haven't mastered the bubblehead enough to recast it underwater, we need to know the plant will be a sufficient backup."

"I know, Hermione. What's got you so bothered?"

The gaze she fixed him with was one he didn't often see from the girl. Uncertain was not a feeling he got from her often. "I still can't find a fix." She mumbled.

Harry sighed and reached out for her hand across the small table. "The deal is a problem, but you don't need to run yourself ragged looking for an out. We made a mistake. But we know from experience you still had full use of all your magic besides the elf abilities when it happened last time. I think we'll be ok."

"Think isn't good enough Harry. Last time you faced a dragon. What if they add more creatures to the lake? Ones that we aren't ready for?"

Harry stepped around the table and took her in his arms, relishing her warmth after hours of sitting nearby. "Nym and I have discussed how we worded it. We're certain that if it should be a matter of life or death, the magic will act on our behalf. It's done it before. All we promised was not to consciously use the magic to get ahead of the others in ways they can't replicate using ordinary magic."

He pulled away and pressed a gentle kiss to her hair. "If this task is as we expect, we have to recover something from the lake, there are only two forms of elf magic that would apply. Popping, which is absolutely cheating. We'd be in and out with our item before Viktor or Fleur even had the chance to get wet. Or Snapping. Same thing if we snap our trinkets into our hands, the only difference being that by Snapping even Nym and I wouldn't get wet."

"I don't want you to be in danger!" Hermione exclaimed, pulling him tightly and squeezing his ribs hard.

"I'm not exactly fond of it either. But there is a nasty ancient cup that says I must. Would you rather I cheated the others and won by a landslide? I know Nym is the most Hufflepuff of us all, but would you think that fair?"

"If it kept you safe. I'll take the shame." Hermione pulled back and looked into his eyes fiercely. "I can't remember a time in my life where you weren't the most important part of it anymore. If I lose you…"

"You won't lose me. I'm yours until you decide otherwise. I might be able to recall the time before we met, but there is little point when life is so much better with you in it."

"How can you promise that when we don't know how restricted you'll be on the day?"

"Faith," Harry replied simply. "Faith in you, faith in my magic, faith that neither I nor Nym would ever want to make a promise that would result in either of us dying. Elf magic is more literal than regular magic, but it's still driven by our intent. You know this. We couldn't make a deal that would result in our deaths. I cannot believe otherwise. But if you need reassurance, I'd be happy to spend the rest of the afternoon giving it to you."

Harry gave her an overdone wink and the morose girl couldn't help but laugh in reply. She squeezed him tightly again and pulled back far enough to press her lips to his own.

"Be careful, Harry. I know we had to forbid the elves to get involved in the tasks, given the Goblet might react poorly. But if I see you in danger in the second task… I cannot promise I won't get involved. I won't promise that. I'll risk the wrath of that stupid cup before I'll stand there and watch you get hurt."

"And people wonder why I love you. When it's so obvious." Harry kissed her again and let his feelings wash through his magic and his lips. Time seemed to vanish as he lost himself in her presence as she responded in kind.

Both were left panting slightly when they finally broke apart and Harry pressed his forehead against Hermione's, their eyes locked together. "Yours forever, Hermione. No stupid cup or tournament is strong enough to keep you from me. In this life or the next. Deal?"

Hermione nodded and kissed him fiercely once more. Whatever came, they would conquer it together.

ϟ

Monday 13th February 1995.

Luna followed the tall elf silently through the corridors, a look of slightest confusion as he led her on a rather circuitous route but still refused to tell her just where they were going or why.

He'd found her alone in the back corner of the library and had now spent almost twenty minutes guiding her somewhere at Hermione's apparent request.

It had only been a very short few months since she had met the two new arrivals, but already she trusted them absolutely. Had anyone but they made this request, she would have been concerned she was walking herself into a trap of some kind.

At first, she had thought the behaviour of her housemates to be typical towards new students, but she had soon noticed that she was the only one on the receiving end of it. And then it had gotten even worse.

Until that day when Harry Potter had stood up for her. It had been quite the display, and yet he never bragged about it. He never asked for anything in return except for the chance to be her friend.

The tiny blonde smiled as she recalled the time that she had spent with the boy and his girlfriend since. Being included in their study sessions had led to her improving even further in her studies. Also greatly aided by the fact her supplies were no longer vanishing in the night. And she dared to believe that their other friends were also perhaps coming to see her as a friend in her own right as well.

A small ball of hope had been building within her over these past few months and it almost managed to cover the never-ending pain of losing her father all those years ago. Not that that would ever truly go away.

"Miss," Shifty called, drawing her attention and pointing inside of an open room. Luna tilted her head slightly as she glanced through the doorway, unable to see what awaited within beside the bookshelves on the far wall.

"Thank you, sir." She replied and stepped inside the room, which was surprisingly dark given the time of day.

Her eyes reacted slowly to the sudden addition of bright light in the room as the door closed behind her and her ears rebelled at the sudden shouting voices. But when her senses cleared, Luna couldn't help but smile brightly at the gathering before her, arrayed around a table covered in snacks, a giant cake and a large pile of presents.

Her gingered-haired friend stepped forward from the place closest to her and took her hand softly. "Happy birthday, Luna." Ginny offered as she guided her to a seat at the table.

Luna took in each face in turn and recognized most from the dancing group the night of the Yule Ball. While the three oldest champions were not present, all the younger students from the group were. As she sat, each one offered her a personal birthday wish and she was startled as they moved the presents forward towards her, smiling as she reached out in a surprised stupor and began unwrapping them.

If you'd asked her afterwards, she wouldn't have been able to tell you what a single one of the gifts was. Her mind was fully involved in enjoying the fact that people at the school had not only learned about her birthday, they had arranged a party for her and bought her things.

Luna Lovegood had true friends at last.

ϟ

Tuesday 14th February 1995.

Harry ran in terror, the sound of countless footsteps thundering behind him as he fought his body to move faster.

He needed somewhere to hide and he needed it now. Fear, like he'd not felt before, was coursing through him, generating adrenaline in massive quantities, helping his muscles get him further from the approaching vultures.

He'd lasted a whole twelve minutes in the Great Hall before he'd had to run. It had taken all his willpower not to simply Pop away right then and there. But now he was approaching salvation. He dove into an alcove he knew concealed a hidden passage and without looking back, he allowed his magic to embrace the suppressed desire to vanish. With a whisper of magic, he thumped heavily onto the thick rug in the sitting room and exhaled.

He rolled onto his back and panted heavily, the running he'd just done more exhausting than any of the swimming he'd been doing with the other Champions in preparation for the upcoming task. But the task was far less terrifying than what he'd just left behind.

"Pay up!" A voice sounded into the air around him and Harry jolted in surprise. He leant up on his elbows to see his godfather holding a hand out to Remus with a huge smirk on his face.

"I thought you were better than this, Harry." Remus groaned, handing over a small bag to Sirius.

"That's because you were the quiet nerd of the group at school, Moony. You didn't care for girls until far too late, and you always let the furry problem keep you from acting on it."

"What?" Harry mumbled, confusion filling him.

"They bet on how long it would be until you ran screaming from the baying crowds." His father chuckled from the nearby portrait. Thankfully empty of all other family at present.

"You bet on me?"

"Entertainment can be light on around here now you two are at school all the time," Sirius explained, weighing the bag in his hand before tucking it into a pocket. "Besides, this was inevitable."

"Youbeton me?" Harry asked again, the disbelief filling him with anger. "How about warning me instead?"

"If you needed to be warned about this, you are not as clever as we all think you are, Harry." Remus offered gently, despite the accusation.

"How could I have foreseen that? I thought we'd sorted this out. I took Hermione to the Ball. I've been calling her my girlfriend to everyone who will listen to me for more than a minute since the day of the first task. Are they all stupid?"

"No, Harry. They're much, much worse." James called, now looking utterly straight-faced and serious. Harry gulped. "They're hormonal teenage girls. And you're famous."

Harry scowled as his father's countenance broke and he fell to the floor of the painting laughing once more, his supposed support group laughing along with his father as Harry fell back against the floor and groaned again.

"Whoever invented Valentine's Day is a bloody moron!" Another familiar voice filled Harry's ears and he glanced up to see a face he thought he'd actually be happy to see above him. Until he saw the expression on her face.

"I swear it's not my fault…" He tried to explain to his girlfriend as she towered above him, looking livid.

Her scowl lessened as she looked down at his proline form. "I'm not angry at you. I knewthatwas going to happen. You're Harry Potter. TheBoy-Who-Lived. They better hope I never find out who wrote those stupid books."

Hermione lumped herself down next to him, crossing her legs and tossing a pile of paper in her hands into the nearby fireplace, setting it ablaze with a click of her fingers.

"So, you're not mad at me?"

"No, Harry. I'm mad at the seven idiot boys who saw you run out of the hall and thought it was a good time to give me Valentine's cards."

"They what?" Harry's voice hardened and Hermione smiled at the look on his face.

"There's my Harry. I swear half the school are deaf or stupid. It seems subtlety doesn't penetrate their thick heads."

Sirius roared with laughter as he fell off his chair. Remus laughed too, but not heavily enough that he couldn't answer their questioning glances. "If you two think what you do is subtle, we've failed as instructors."

"What?" Harry growled.

"Harry, you spend almost every waking moment staring at Hermione longingly. You have for years. You two reach out for one another in your sleep. The first night Sirius returned to us, he tried to pull you two apart but you wouldn't be moved without the other."

"Honestly, Harry. It's been obvious to all of us that you two would get together for years. You two are the last to know in this instance, I assure you." James explained to the now heavily blushing pair.

"Well," Hermione asked, "if it's so damned obvious, why aren't they taking the hint at Hogwarts?"

"Because they're teenagers and you're both powerful, strong-willed and rather nice on the eyes. You're both a catch. And kids can be stupid. Teenagers even more so." Nym explained from the doorway, looking down at the two on the floor and flicking her eyes momentarily to the giggling Marauders. "Luna didn't get a chance to give these to you before you bothran away."

The metamorph walked over and handed them both a pair of brightly coloured cards with hearts on the front and the pair glanced at one another before opening them. Harry smiled at the message inside. He had worried for a moment that the younger girl had become as besotted as the others at Hogwarts, but she had simply written a rather heartfelt thank you for the lovely day before.

"She's lovely, Harry," Hermione said, looking happily at her card. "I'm happy you found her. But from now on, we have Valentine's Day in private, agreed?"

Harry nodded in reply and fell flat on his back looking up at the roof. "Agreed."

"Good," Hermione replied, joining him flat on the floor as the others continued chattering away. "Otherwise, people are going to be spending most of the day in the Hospital Wing."

Chapter 30: The Second Task

Chapter Text

Sunday 19th February 1995.

Hermione was quite pleased with her most recent find.

It was winter in Scotland, just about as far north as one could go, pouring rain in buckets. And yet she sat here now on the shores of the lake, not only dry thanks to her umbrella spell, but warm due to the most powerful warming charm they'd managed to find so far.

Luna hummed softly to herself as she sat to Hermione's right and watched the surface of the water. It had been about twenty minutes since the quartet had vanished beneath it and they were due to return any moment now.

"Do you think, after all the Tournament hype has died down, we could all go in and explore it someday?" Luna asked quietly, drawing Hermione from her thoughts.

"I don't see why not. We've got the required spells and knowledge. And it's certainly a worthy place to explore. Almost seven and a half miles long and who knows how deep. We know for a fact there are merpeople and a giant squid living in there. And that's just this end of the lake."

Luna's face brightened even further at the thought of unknown creatures living in its depths just waiting to be discovered. Since her father had died several years before saving her mother, the number of random creature sighting reports the Lovegoods received had diminished, but Luna seemed to want to travel the world once she graduated and find as many of the curious creatures as she could.

Hermione sometimes wondered if the creatures she described could even be real, but given she had spent a large portion of her youth believing dragons to be myth and legend only to watch her two closest friends face down one each only a couple of months before, she was a lot more open to fairytales and other myths nowadays.

"I think it would be a lot of fun to…" She drifted off as a pair of familiar eyes breached the surface and locked onto her, though no other part of the face came above the waterline.

Hermione chuckled to herself slightly as her boyfriend hovered in the water, looking very much like the story-tale version of the creatures he was out to locate in the deep water, gazing up at the land dwellers and plotting to entice them down into the depths.

After a few silent moments, his head fully breached the surface and Hermione knew the plant had run its course. Three other figures breached beside him and she smiled at the four Champions as they swam back towards the shore and pulled themselves out of the chilly Scottish loch.

"Definitely looks like fun." Luna smiled as the two stood and waited for the four to approach.

"A lot more fun with that warming charm," Nym called as she came closer. "I know I should be freezing right now, but I feel fine. Even this torrential downpour isn't bothering me. I could stay out in this all day."

"Da. I am used to the cold, but this spell. I think it will be very popular back at Durmstrang."

"Oui, zis 'as been ze most pleasant swim since we arrived. And I am used to ze waters of ze Mediterranean. I wonder 'ow long ze spell will last in zis weazzur."

"We can put it to the test," Harry suggested, Hermione now very wary of the smile he was sporting as he knelt down by the shore.

"Harry… don't you dare." She got no further before a loud splat sounded from Nym's back and all three older Champions just stood there in surprise. When Nym turned to face her attacker, Hermione noted a large glob of sticky mud slowly sliding down her wet back.

"You didn't!" Nym growled, diving for Harry and sending the both of them sliding on the soft edge of the lake, both coming up far muddier than they had been a moment beforehand.

As Nym knelt up, Harry's hands became visible on either side of the tall girl and another two loads of mud shot away from the pair, soaring at the other two Champions who were unable to move in time to avoid the ammunition splattering against their swimwear.

"Oh ho. Is on my friend." Viktor chortled as he swept down, grabbed two big handfuls of mud and raced over to where the cousins were wrestling on the shoreline. He dropped both hands onto Nym as she sat on Harry's chest, the resulting impact spreading the dirty payload so that it dripped around her form and onto Harry giving Viktor a doubly successful effort.

Hermione shook her head as she stood and was surprised to feel a small glob smack into her right thigh. She turned and saw Luna standing there a giant smile on her face and a very dirty right hand. "You sneaky…"

The older girl released the umbrella spell, no longer caring about the falling rain and she grabbed her own fistful of mud and began to chase the wee blonde girl as the sounds of battle raged on the shore.

She caught the waiflike child as she dived behind Harry, making Hermione's shot go wide, but splattering the front of her robes as she landed in the soft wet mud of the lakeshore regardless.

Another shot connected with her back and Hermione spun again to see Fleur standing on the high ground preparing a second volley with a broad smile of her own. Hermione gave a wicked grin and stood quickly, dodging the second attack which hit someone behind her and dashed the short distance to the French witch, not bothering with ammo this time as she simply tackled the surprised girl to the muddy ground as well.

Fleur quickly managed to wriggle free of her grip and get back to her feet, dashing away towards the even muddier figures by the water's edge and Hermione followed, now planning to get Nym and Harry who had flipped positions, with Harry now looming over his cousin as she tried to fend off his extremely mud-laden arms as he plastered the mud all over her front.

Hermione grasped two big handfuls as she approached and slopped them over Harry's unaware head, covering both him and Nym in a substantial amount of the substance and making Luna and Viktor laugh at the looks on their faces.

They all froze as a throat cleared behind them and the group turned as a muddy unit towards the sound. Professor McGonagall stood there, her own umbrella charm keeping the rain off her typically neatly robed form.

"I do hope none of you are planning on going back inside like that. Mister Filch would be devastated should you spread that all over the castle."

Hermione blushed and tucked her filthy hands behind her back as she tried to hide the evidence from the stern woman, but her eyes bulged out in shock as a ball of wet dirt soared past her vision and splattered across the thick front of the professor's robes. The group gave a collective intake of breath as the teacher looked down at her front and gave a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth.

Her eyes shifted upwards once more and with a deft flick of her wand, which didn't even break the umbrella spell, a large portion of the lakeshore lifted up and dumped over Harry's prone form, covering him from head to toe in the thick gloopy substance.

"My apologies, Miss Delacour, Mister Krum. I seem to have gotten a little on you there. A delightful game, Mister Potter. Your father and his friends enjoyed a round or two themselves. Do clean off before coming inside. I wish you all well in your preparations."

As the teacher turned and walked away, a second flick of her wand cleaning her robes, the group turned as one to look at Harry, who was now almost buried in a pile of mud, but still grinning like a lunatic.

He reached out and Hermione leaned down to assist him up, but instead found herself pulled down into the sticky mud and with a cackle of laughter, the game was on again.

ϟ

Friday 24th February 1995.

The knot in Harry's stomach had been growing all morning.

It had begun as a small pinch in the back of his abdomen, that had Harry thinking he'd slept the wrong way once Hermione had gone off to her own room for the night. But as time had moved forward and he'd gotten dressed and joined the usual group for breakfast, he found it getting stronger and spreading throughout his torso.

To add to his worry, Hermione was still not here. She'd not waited for him in the common room, and that was odd enough, but now he was here in the Great Hall he could see that she was not around. And worse yet, none of the others had seen her anywhere in their own travels to the large hall.

He wasn't too worried, he could still feel her presence nearby but was having an unusual amount of difficulty pinning down exactly where she was. Harry grabbed several pieces of her preferred toast from the table and, without a word to the others, headed off towards the library.

Perhaps she was simply trying her best to find an answer to his foolish promise before push came to shove at ten o'clock when the task was due to begin.

The small knot however became a tight clenching when Madam Pince confirmed that Hermione had not been in the library since she was kicked out right on curfew the night before. Something that had apparently confounded Professor Snape who had been waiting nearby hoping to find her out after hours and yet had not been able to catch her in the act.

Harry focused his magic inwards and followed the feeling that always led him right to her. Even without a defined location, he should be able to pop to wherever she was holed up and find out why she was hiding from him, today of all days.

She had been upset when he had begged her not to stay with him last night, as he was certain whatever the organisers were planning to take would be taken then, and he didn't want her getting in trouble for being found in the boy's dormitory.

As he settled his mind, he followed the connection, but still could not locate the other end. When he tried to pop to it regardless he found a stern negative response from his magic and panic set in as realization dawned.

It wasn't a trinket.

His movements through the school had confirmed her location was outside of the building and fear threatened to overwhelm him as he considered his options.

Without any further thought, he popped to the only other place he could think of. Surprised shouts greeted him as Harry looked up at the family gathered at the dinner table in the small flat Remus and Sirius had been occupying since his arrival at the school.

The tether in his magic now pointed back up at the school, confirming Harry's worst fear as several unclear voices washed over Harry's panicked face.

"HARRY!" Sirius finally broke through as he felt a firm grip shake him out of his mind. "What's wrong?"

"Hermione's missing." He mumbled, voice so quiet he doubted if even Sirius had heard.

"Missing how?" Remus questioned, stepping over to join them.

"I can't find her in the castle. She's been missing all morning. No one has seen her…"

"Can't you find her?" Natalie questioned, kneeling beside Sirius and laying a gentle hand on Harry's shoulder. The soft smile she gave him hurt almost as much as the feeling in his chest. She was expecting him to find her little girl, but Harry knew now that he could not.

"No." He whispered. "I can't reach her."

"What? How?" Andromeda queried, standing behind the adults in front of him. "We've never been able to keep you two apart before."

"Because… me and Nym…" Harry was terrified. Not only was she in danger, but he was responsible for her being stuck there.

"Harry, take a deep breath and talk to us. We can't help if we don't know what's going on." Natalie smiled again, and Harry felt his shame grow.

"She's what I'll miss most. She's in the lake. They've taken her."

The shame and terror slowly twisted in Harry's chest and took on a new form as the adults digested what he had just told them.

"Well, that was obvious to anyone with eyes. You've told anyone and everyone who'd listen what she means to you." Sirius smirked, giving his arms an encouraging squeeze. "Pop on down there and get her out. If it's part of the task they can't stop you."

"That's exactly why I can't," Harry mumbled once more, drawing odd looks from the crowd.

"Why not?" Natalie asked softly.

"I can't use elf magic in the tasks. Nym and I promised. It would be cheating. So we made a deal. And now…"

He felt tears begin to well in the corner of his eyes and the feeling in his chest churned once more.

"They've taken her. Taken my friend. And I can't pop to her, because she's part of the task now." The churning in his chest heated and began to coalesce into something entirely new. "They've taken her." Anger began to tinge his voice and he stood taller than before.

"Harry?" Remus's voice felt distant now as his focus shifted back up to the school.

"They… THEY TOOK HER!" Harry shouted and with a surprised gasp from the adults, he vanished once again.

He was lucky that no one was present in the Entrance Hall when he arrived with a crack, his usual calm demeanour gone, replaced entirely with the angry visage he reserved for those who crossed him and his family.

These idiots had taken Hermione down into the lake, and from the way Natalie was talking, they hadn't even bothered to get her parents' permission to do so. He stormed once more into the open hall full of students and quickly located the other three Champions.

"You three. I know what they took. It's already down there." He puffed as he rushed up to them all.

"Good morning to you too, Harry. Breakfast? We'll be going for a swim soon and it's advisable not to swim for an hour after eating, you know." Nym quipped in her usual fashion.

Harry turned his eyes on her and her mood shifted instantly. "What… what is it?"

"Hermione. She's down there. And probably people important to all of you, too." He explained without preamble. "We have to gonow."

The other three immediately nodded, none caring for food now that they understood the stakes. The two foreign attendees seemed to be considering just who might have been taken as their own hostage and by the looks on their faces, he didn't think they were liking the answers.

They all ignored the odd looks from the confused students still eating as the four exited the castle together and headed for the lake past the trickle of students already heading out to the stands to wait. "You're sure, Harry?" Nym asked as they passed a group of chattering Hufflepuffs who waved at them as they passed in the cold morning air.

"Positive. I…" He glanced around and noted there was no one within earshot. "I can't pop to her. You know what that means."

Nym went white, something that was nigh impossible given her ability and Harry knew he'd hammered the reality home to the older girl.

"Let's go get her then."

Harry nodded as they quickened their pace, the other two Champions hot on their heels.

ϟ

Amelia yawned as she stretched her back while the trio of new arrivals headed off to their assigned locations.

She glanced over to the stands and rolled her eyes. Some of the students had already started filling it and the workers still hadn't finished it. Assembly had been completed the afternoon before, but they were still working on it adding flags and decorations. Pointless minutiae she couldn't care less about.

Her job was simple, keep the attendees safe. She had three-quarters of the Auror force on site today, spread throughout Hogsmeade and the grounds of the school. Despite having been instructed to arrive at dawn, some were still filtering in even now.

She was very glad she had assigned Moody to handle the deployment in Hogsmeade for the day. She'd still be down there herself with the rate these idiots were moving and the task was due to start in a little over an hour.

A quiver shot up her spine and Amelia spun on her heel to find Alastor approaching from behind, wand drawn and a smirk on his face.

"Good to see a few years in the big chair hasn't lost you yer edge. Village is set to go. Seems word went out an hour ago that you'd assigned me as a third party for setup. The last few arrived five minutes ago looking like they well remembered my last visit to the Academy."

"Glad I could make your morning, Alastor. Formations good?"

"Aye, they've got Hogsmeade covered, lass. How bout these lazy bastards?"

She sighed as she watched three of the Aurors she'd just sent to guard the stands lean against its structure chatting away to one another. "You're sure I can't convince you to come back? Academy standards aren't the same with you here."

"I'm sure. I actually like it here. Don'thaveto spend all my time looking over my shoulder. Plus, give me a few years and the standard will be up across the board. Get 'em early, Amy." He said with a wicked grin.

"Please tell me you aren't putting firsties through the usual wringer you used at the Academy?" She questioned, staring at the old man.

"No, not firsties." Both his eyes avoided her gaze as he stepped back towards the nearby tree.

She chuckled as she shook her head at the man's behaviour. At least it meant this generation might actually have a bit of backbone and talent if they joined her corps. Unlike the idiots currently standing guard over the new dock that the organizers had installed which was to be the launching point for the task.

A point four figures were fast approaching. Figures that not one of them seemed to have noticed in the slightest.

"Move!" The youngest of the quartet demanded trying to rush past them and onto the dock, only to be stopped by two of the Aurors putting their arms in the way at the last second, seeming utterly surprised to see someone there.

"Oi, whatchu doing? Dock's off-limits til the task starts. Stands are over there, kid."

The young Potter boy fixed the Auror with a stare that looked wrong on his small face. "Move, now!" His voice was almost icy and he didn't raise it at all. It slightly chilled her that such a young man could fill his voice with such anger.

"You deaf? Stands are over there. Only Champions on the dock, and not until the task is ready to start."

"We are the Champions, you blithering moron!" The Tonks girl hissed, her complexion ruddy as she stood behind Harry.

"Good fer you. Tasks not started yet. Sod off and come back later."

The girl laid a warning hand on Harry's shoulder as Amelia sighed heavily again, glancing over at Moody who had both eyes fixed on the encounter, but didn't have his wand trained. Instead, he had a grand smirk on his face and seemed to be enjoying the show.

He noticed her gaze and his smile grew as he nodded back towards the group. Great, she thought. Teachable moment?

"Eef you do not move, we shall be forced to move you." The French Champion added.

All three Aurors laughed as they looked at the four children before them and Amelia rolled her eyes. This lot needed some serious work on how to handle the public. While keeping people off the dock was the command she'd given them, mocking the Champions was certainly not what she had in mind.

"Last chance," Krum growled, and Amelia could no longer stand and watch.

"Trouble here?" She asked as she approached, just out of the eye line of all the Champions.

The three Aurors straightened. "No ma'am, just following orders."

"Move," Potter whispered.

"No!" Clemens replied again. "It's not time yet!"

"What is the problem, Mister Potter?"

"My girlfriend is down there. And if these idiots try keeping me from her any longer, I'll kill them."

The Aurors' faces collectively fell at the perfectly delivered threat. The boy hadn't raised his voice or made any silly gestures. Just delivered the line as though he truly meant it while staring them down. She doubted Moody could have delivered it and sounded any more sincere.

"Now see here, lad. You can't be threatening an Auror like that!"

"I didn't threaten an Auror. I threatened three. NOW MOVE!"

The boy raised his voice for the first time and Amelia could feel the pulse in the air from here. "You really think that this can work?" She questioned.

"Yes." He replied, quietly once more.

"Wasn't asking you." The Aurors and older Champions all turned to stare at her in surprise. "This lot each faced down a fully grown nesting mother dragon alone and they all won. If the idiots running this show have truly taken 'what they'd miss most' and you're the only thing standing between them and it. Do you really think you can keep them from it?"

She smiled at the Aurors before her who seemed to realize the magnitude of the threat that stood before them and finally drew their wands. Which was apparently the final straw for Potter.

Out of nowhere, a wand appeared in his hand and with a growl he swept both hands from right to left. With a wave of purple energy, all three Aurors were tossed like leaves to the left, landing hard. Before any of them had hit the ground though, the boy had waved the wand a second time and a bubble formed over his face. The two silent spells from the youngest of the competitors had even Amelia surprised.

"sh*t, grab on or get left behind," Tonks shouted as she too conjured a bubblehead charm and shot off down the dock after the boy.

Amelia watched as the other two followed suit and Tonks fired a lasso spell around Potter's waist, the shimmering rope of magical energy wrapping around his core, the two foreign Champions following on auto-pilot. They each cast a lasso of their own that wrapped around each of the boy's legs. Her confusion mounted as the spells didn't seem to bother the charging boy as he leapt into the air and cast one final spell.

"Accio mervillage!"

The power she could feel in that spell chilled her as he shot into the water like a dart and realization settled over her.

"f*ck!" She moved back from the water and tapped her badge, sending a message out to all the attending Aurors. "Task has begun, get everyone along the lakeshore and prepare to levitate any debris that breaches the surface. We're going to have large chunks of stone coming up. If the water surges, combine shields and hold it back."

She felt Moody come up beside her again, face far less amused this time. "When this is over, you and I are going to have a chat about that boy, Alastor. I hope like hell that village has good foundations."

He nodded in return and they both faced the lake, wands at the ready.

ϟ

Harry was beyond angry at this point.

Hermione was in danger because of him and people were getting in his way. He could feel the pulse in his magic getting stronger as he descended through what he knew from personal experience to be freezing cold water, but he didn't care right now. His anger was keeping him warm and Hermione needed his help.

He felt the muscles in his legs and stomach twitch occasionally under the pressure he assumed came from his fellow Champions as his wand drew him ever onward.

Water and unknown particulates rushed past his face and he thanked the power with which he had cast the bubblehead charm as it acted not only as a breathing source, but a buffer against what would have been a series of very painful impacts at the speed they were achieving.

Out of the darkness came a large looming shadow and Harry prepared to fire a spell before he recognized it as stone and he used a burst of unformed magic out of his left hand to dash to the right around it, having to push harder at the last moment as the tension around his body and limbs kept him from moving as far as he had hoped.

The chunk of rock looked as though it had been shaped as it rushed past but he refocused his attention downward. Thankfully, wherever the mervillage was located, it didn't take him directly through some outcropping of rock, all that was ahead of him was open water as far as he could see. With the exception of the occasional additional chunk of rock shooting up past them.

A small corner of his mind wondered how the merfolk could launch such heavy objects upwards through the water, but that was a query for later. He could see the lake's bottom coming into view below him now, dark reeds flickering in the gentle currents and when he looked forward once more, a much larger looming shadow formed. The village was directly ahead.

He called his magic to his hand once more and as the buildings became clear, used it to maneuver as he twisted and turned and shot between them, up an alleyway that seemed to lead further in. He picked up speed as he zipped between the buildings and it felt like a weight had been lifted off of him.

Harry had to dodge a few pieces of buildings that jutted out beyond the norm, but soon he was free of what he assumed were houses and was now in a large open square with a giant statue at its centre.

He had no time to take in the design though as the spell finally ran its course and he twisted hard against the bindings, moving quicker than expected as the bindings no longer seemed to be there, bringing his legs to bear as he impacted the ground hard.

An enormous cloud of silt and debris filled the water around him and Harry groaned at the pain in his legs from the impact. But he did not let it distract him now. He was close, the call in his magic was stronger than before. Hermione was here somewhere.

Harry moved to stand but was knocked free of the lake bottom as a loud shudder travelled outwards and several groaning sounds filled the water around him. He turned in the water but could not see any immediate threat in the clouded vicinity. He closed his eyes and found the thread that led him to Hermione when he popped and noted it was now behind him.

He turned to face the feeling and dug his feet into the thick goopy soil. With a thrust of his wand, he conjured a stream of water and waved it in front of him to clear the debris from his sight. A strange hissing began to sound all around Harry, but he paid it no mind as he could once again see the large statue in front of him and his blood chilled while his anger peaked.

Hermione was tied to that statue and the sight of her there would never leave him as long as he lived.

Her skin was pale as ice in the deep dark water and her hair shifted in the gentle current stirring the water around her. She could have been sleeping, but there was no discernable movement of her chest, so could just as easily have been dead. A thought Harry immediately regretted as she now looked to him like a corpse tied to a rock at the bottom of a lake and Harry's anger boiled.

He wasn't even sure what the spell was, but magic pulsed up his arm and through his singing wand. The rowan wood relished in the enormous amount of energy it channelled and with a groan the entire statue imploded, tossing the poor hostages about but releasing them all from their bonds.

Harry felt a hand touch his shoulder but it immediately released and he launched forwards, his feet coming free from the lakebed with a squelch and he sailed through the water towards his goal.

At long last, after hours of worrying, Hermione was back in his arms again.

But he did not relax. She was still not responding. Her body felt cold in his arms and she was limp against him. Turning in the water, he pointed his wand downwards and forced another jet of water from his wand, gradually propelling him directly upwards, he hoped.

Harry could feel his magic seeping into the girl in his arms, trying to warm and wake her from her slumber but nothing seemed to have an effect. After what felt like ages, he finally breached the surface and felt a pair of familiar arms instantly grip him tightly.

Relief filled his body as he blinked away the pain of going from dull to bright and noticed a pair of brown eyes looking into his own.

"Good morning, Harry." Hermione smiled before she leaned in and gave him a gentle kiss.

Harry felt the knot of tension he'd been holding all morning break and he pressed into the kiss as well. "I was so afraid."

"Wish I could say I was. All I remember is going to sleep last night, worried about you and wishing I could hold you in my arms. Apart from being freezing and wet, this is still one of my favourite ways to wake up."

Harry couldn't help but laugh at his girlfriend as he gave her a good look over checking for any lasting damage from her time below. When he was finally satisfied she was okay, he turned in the water and shifted Hermione onto his back.

He could see the other three Champions all had their respective hostages and were already helping them out of the water and onto the dock. Harry grinned as he got another kiss on the cheek and an amused voice sounded in his ear.

"Giddyup seahorsey."

He smiled as he tucked his arms up under Hermione's bottom with his wand pointed behind them and used the same stream of water to push them forward, though not at nearly the same frantic pace as before.

By the time they arrived, all six of the others were out of the water and Fleur and Krum reached out to help them both from the water. Hermione refusing to let go of her piggyback ride.

"That vas most impressive, Harry. But you made something of a mess." Viktor chuckled as he helped him to his feet on the dock.

Harry looked around to see what he meant and saw the large chunks of rock that had soared past them in the water had been going fast enough that they'd breached the surface of the lake. And they weren't rocks, but large chunks of the merfolk village that his anger-fueled summoning spell had wrenched free of their structures.

He blushed slightly as he noticed several Aurors were still levitating one of them over to the far side of the lake where the Giant Squid was collecting them and disappearing beneath the waves.

"Well, serves them right," Hermione growled from her place on his back and Harry nodded in agreement. Had they taken some foolish little trinket, he'd have been content to take his time in retrieving it.

"It seems, Madame Bones 'eard your spell and arranged ze Aurors. Zey managed to catch all ze pieces zat we dodged. Zough Nym took an 'it to 'er shoulder. Ze nurse is fixing 'er up right now." Fleur explained, a tinier version of the girl latched onto her waist and looking about fearfully at the gathering adults at the far end of the dock behind Moody and an unfamiliar woman.

Nym was seated nearby, a water-logged Cedric sitting next to her as the school nurse tended to the girl's shoulder, but she looked alright, so Harry allowed his eyes to drift further.

Just behind Krum where he stood at the end of the dock with Harry was his fiance who looked a lot less fancy dripping freezing lake water rather than dressed in veela finery. He gave her a soft smile which she returned as he caught sight of movement approaching down the dock.

While Moody stood at the far end, wand drawn and keeping anyone from coming closer, a woman was approaching who he thought could give Professor McGonagall a run for her money when it came to the looking stern stakes. She lifted a monocle that was affixed to her robes to her eye and swept it over the scattered Champions and their hostages before coming to a stop at the group and fixing her eyes on Harry.

"Well, that was a rather impressive show of magic you all just gave us." Harry recognized her voice from before he'd tossed the Aurors aside, and now he noticed the badge on her robes, he paled slightly at the idea he might be about to face the music for his rash actions. "A shame that half the audience hadn't even managed to sit down before you returned. Barty had spent a fortune on a tracking… I believe he called it a camera, to follow your progress and relay it to the crowd."

"So the plan wasn't just to have a crowd staring at the surface of a lake for an hour outside in February. That's a relief." Nym chuckled from the floor.

"Quite." The woman replied. "Mister Potter, I wondered if I might have a word?"

"And you are?" Hermione queried from her place atop Harry.

The woman smiled at them softly, breaking the stern face she'd borne so far. "Yes, my manners are lacking there. I am Amelia Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. I was here to ensure the security of the task. Was here for the last one too, but didn't actually get to see most of the action then."

"Neither did I. But I'm told these three performed spectacularly." Harry smiled at his fellow competitors.

"Of course. So, that word?"

Harry shrugged and Hermione gave a light chuckle at the movement. "Go ahead. I've nothing to hide from this lot."

Madame Bones glanced at the other Champions, several of whom still had their wands to bear as though they didn't trust her at all right now. Harry certainly didn't blame them.

While she seemed amiable enough, this woman did work for the same group who had just kidnapped his girlfriend, what looked like Fleur's sister, Krum's fiance and Nym's closest friend outside the family. Madame Bones pulled out a notepad, leaving it hovering in the air and set a quill on it with a tap of her wand.

"Alright then. For starters, what on earth motivated you to summon the entire mervillage?"

"The person I care about the most in this world was at the bottom of this lake tied to a statue for the entertainment of a crowd. I wasn't letting her stay down there any longer than necessary." Harry deadpanned, not letting his eyes drift from the woman's face as he spoke.

"Not a fan of swimming?" A couple of the others laughed at the comment, but Harry did not. He was still wary of exactly where this conversation was going and he felt his skin heating again with anger as he was reminded of just how dangerous this tournament could be. "But why summon the village?"

"That is easy." Hermione chimed over his shoulder. "If you need to get to something, or bring it to you, but have no idea how it is secured, would you summon the item you wanted, or the thing holding it?"

Madame Bones looked at her in confusion, so Harry clarified for her.

"I knew Hermione was being kept down there. But was she inside a structure? Was she tied in place? If tied, was it by the foot? The hand? The neck? What would have happened had I summoned her and she was chained to something by the throat? I could have killed her while trying to save her."

Bones's eyes widened as she considered that as Harry continued. "I knew that the merpeople were involved in the kidnapping, due to the clue, and that the group living in this lake did so in a village. I assumed it would be secured to the lakebed in a manner that would make it a good anchor point.

"If you try to summon something that cannot be moved and pump enough magic into the spell, you get pulled to it instead."

Harry shrugged again as he explained what he had considered at the time to be patently obvious. He felt Hermione's arms tighten around him and her smile at his neck as she pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek. "My clever little hero."

He blushed in response. "Did you consider that parts of that village might not be as secure?"

"No, that was a surprise. It does make a lot more sense though than the idea that the selkies had formed some form of underwater trebuchet and were lobbing giant chunks of stone upwards through the water."

The others laughed at his face as he stated this, and even Harry had to laugh at the ludicrousness of the idea that had occurred to him on the way downward.

"Very well. Almost have what I need. There were two occasions, very close together where the water surged heavily. The Aurors managed to contain it at this end so there was no damage. But, what caused them?"

Harry turned to Hermione, who nodded to him before he turned back and sighed. "I think, can't really confirm, but think that maybe the village wasn't as well secured as I thought. Once I impacted the lakebed, there was a significant shifting of it under me once the summoning spell ran out. I think…"

He looked bashfully at the others on the dock before continuing. "that I may have lifted the village a few centimetres off its foundation. The up was gradual, the down was sudden."

Harry ignored the surprised looks directed his way as he continued. "The second one, if I had to guess, was probably when I released the bonds of the hostages."

Nym fell over cackling with laughter as Madam Pomfrey gave her a foul look, picking up the hand she had been healing for burns. "Released the bonds. Harry, you vapourised the whole statue."

"Non, eet was still zere. 'E turned it to dust in ze water. But it made quite ze shockwave."

Madame Bones looked shocked as she stared at the words on her notepad. "Well, yes. I suppose that would do it. Not intentional. I think that should be all I need for now."

"Happy to help." Viktor chimed, holding Mady's hand as the Champions came down from their collective mirth and glared at the woman.

"Quite." She replied and with a nod, she tucked her supplies away and headed back up the dock.

Hermione once more snuggled tightly against Harry's back and he felt her lips at his ear. "Have you calmed sufficiently now?" He pulled away enough to see her face and gave her a curious look. "Harry, you're dry. You were so angry that your magic was giving off heat."

He glanced down to check and noted that she was right, his clothing was completely free of water and his skin had a red tinge to it.

"She's right," Nym added, standing in front of him. "That's how I burned my hand. The water was boiling off of you when we caught up down at the bottom of the lake. After you managed to shake us off by zipping between the damned buildings, you maniac."

Harry blushed again, but their comments led his thoughts back to the fact Hermione had been taken from her bed. "Can you cover for us?" he asked his cousin. "We've somewhere we have to be."

"Sure thing, shorty. Go have yourselves a snogging session while I get teased mercilessly for Cedric being what I'd miss most."

Harry and Hermione smiled at the meta as she gave herself some extra heft, enough to keep them hidden from the adults now coming down the dock and without another thought, they disappeared into the air.

Chapter 31: Aftermath

Chapter Text

Friday 24th February 1995.

Hermione closed her eyes and relaxed against Harry's back further as she felt his magic well up in and around them signalling their favourite form of travel.

There was none of the squeezing of apparition that the adults used when they needed to be taken somewhere. No nausea-inducing spinning and yanking on the stomach that the portkeys created as they were dragged from point A to point B.

Were she not still a little damp and uncomfortable, Hermione could have fallen back to sleep during the translocation. When she opened her eyes again, however, she was still surprised.

She had expected to see portraits and books, the familiar trappings of home, but they were surrounded by carved stone walls covered in shelves on one side and weapons on the other.

Over Harry's shoulder, she could see a familiar face staring back at her with surprise evident even on his goblin features.

His eyes narrowed slightly and he mumbled to himself in the guttural throaty sounds of Rhovak.#How many times have I told them…#

"Apologies for barging in, but we have a problem," Harry stated, stepping towards the desk without greeting Farkor in any form, leading Hermione to dig her knee into his side. "Sorry, how are you, Farkor?"

"I'm fine, Mister Potter. Miss Granger. What problem is that? Surely you should be preparing to partake in the second task right now."

"The task is over. I'm what was taken." Hermione replied, finally letting go of Harry and sliding to the floor. It felt weird to have cold dampness at her back contrasting with the warm mostly dry robes at her front. It felt as though she had laid down or her back in a puddle, and then stood up.

Though she was far from cold. Harry's magic was cocooning her entire form, even now as she stepped away from him and his body followed her. Hermione doubted she would be going anywhere without him hanging on in some way for the rest of the day at least. And that warmed her more than enough to ignore the residual water.

"Taken? I'd not have thought you would consent to such a thing." Farkor queried, looking at her anew as if assessing her all over again.

"She didn't," Harry growled, his skin reddening once more. Hermione laid her hand on his arm and pushed him into a chair, settling herself once more in his lap and holding him closely.

"We think that I was taken directly from my bed. All I recall before waking at the surface of the lake was going to bed the night before."

"I'm not sure I understand. I've witnessed your abilities on several occasions. In combination with your portkeys, I'm not sure how someone could take you against your will."

"And therein lies the problem," Hermione added, finally realizing why Harry had brought them straight to the goblins. "We've tested the portkeys time and time again. If we lose consciousness, we go. But what would happen if someone stunned us while we were already asleep?"

"Why would anyone do something so cowardly?" The goblin asked aghast and Hermione realized the problem.

"You've never tested them against such a thing, have you?"

She could feel Harry's anger rising again and she tried to settle him without breaking her gaze on Farkor. The goblin wasn't averting his own gaze in reply, but she could see he was considering the concept for the first time.

"While we may take the opportunity for subterfuge whenever possible in banking, with interpersonal disagreements, a goblin holds honour higher than any other trait. To willingly attack someone in their sleep… They would be subject to the worst punishments we could contemplate. So, no. We've never even considered the idea that someone would be taken while sleeping."

He let loose a torrent of what Hermione assumed to be expletives she still did not know in the goblin language before he settled and stood from his place. "Give me a moment, I'll fetch someone with greater knowledge about the magic. Feel free to freshen up while I'm gone."

"Could you also summon a healer?" Hermione chirped as the goblin passed them, pausing for only a moment to nod before he exited the room, clearly needing the journey to wrestle his own anger at the foreign concept rather than simply sending a summons.

"A healer? You said you were fine." Harry asked.

"I am, but you are burned all over from your anger. We left before Madame Pomfrey could look you over."

"I won't apologize for that."

Hermione smiled and kissed his forehead. "I'd never ask you to. But I still need to know you've been fixed up. I don't like seeing you in pain any more than you do me."

"It doesn't hurt."

"Because you're still angry. You haven't come down yet. What are you holding onto that's upsetting you so much?"

Hermione threaded her arms around his shoulders and drew him to her chest. He sighed heavily and pulled her tighter as he breathed in her scent. "You don't know what it was like down there. When I saw you..."

Without warning, Hermione felt a flash in her mind and suddenly she was surrounded by deep green water with very little light. Particulate and silt floated all around her as she spun and a jet of water from her wand cleared the water around her, revealing her own form floating in the darkness then rapidly getting closer only to be replaced a moment later with something she had never seen before.

Red hair splayed out on the floor in a halo around a familiar face that also looked wrong. The green eyes she knew so well had none of their shine, and her face was even paler than usual. As the flashes passed, she understood Harry's pain.

She pulled him close and stroked her hand through his hair. Somewhere in the morning, he'd lost the binding she'd gifted him a few years ago that he usually used to contain the hair into his preferred ponytail, and was now hanging loose.

"I'm alive, Harry. I'm so sorry you had to see that. We'll talk to the family and see what we need to do. But I'm here, I'm not going anywhere without you."

Harry began to sob softly into her form, and Hermione let him, cradling him against her as he let go of the pain he'd been hiding since the moment he saw her seemingly lifeless form in the lake.

It both thrilled and chilled her to learn he had associated that sight with his mother. That he loved her as deeply as he did the woman who gave birth to him, but that he now had a memory in his mind that linked her to his mother's death.

Hermione sat in place, gently stroking Harry's hair and allowing him to finally stop and deal with all that he had felt that morning, but had been avoiding in order to remain strong enough to find and rescue her from the lake.

Their solemn reverie was broken by the sound of the door opening and within a second she felt Harry calm himself and wipe away the tears on his face. She loved him to bits, but he was such a boy sometimes.

The goblin healer was an imposing example of the species, and she wondered if he had once been a warrior in the race before something turned him to healing.

"Bloody hell, did you boil yourself or something?" He asked, taking in Harry's very red skin.

"Pretty much exactly that," Hermione replied with a smile on her face at Harry's groan.

"Alright, hold still and I'll get to work. Usual payment method?"

Harry nodded and held Hermione gently as the goblin began setting up his gear and casting the required healing spells and incantations. Hermione watched with her typical fascination at how the goblins had mastered their magical arts.

It also made her chuckle to herself that the Ministry considered them no threat these days as they were forbidden to wield wands, something that the goblins thought would be nice as an option, but clearly did not need in order to pose a threat.

The group lost track of time as the process continued and were only broken from their thoughts by a loud pounding sound coming from the hallway beyond. A giant familiar black dog came bounding into the room, overextending and slamming heavily against the stone wall under the shelves, knocking several books free before righting itself and hobbling over.

Harry chuckled lightly at the limping figure as it approached. "Looks like he might need your touch before you go, too." Padfoot placed his head on Harry's free thigh, getting a warning glare from the goblin in the process, and stared balefully up at the boy. "I'm fine, Padfoot."

The dog whined loudly, and Harry began to scratch his favourite spot just a few inches behind his neck, making the dog's eyes roll in pleasure. Hermione continued to stroke Harry's hair in a similar fashion and it was to this scene that the rest of the Family and Farkor returned.

"If you're nearly done. I've come with visitors that were making a scene on the bank floor. Apparently, you two weren't at home."

"You gave us quite the fright, Harry," Natalie said, kneeling beside the group at the chair. "Popping in and out like that."

"By the time we managed to get dressed and down to the lake, the Champions were all dripping on the dock and you two had vanished," Remus added, standing behind the chair and resting a hand on Hermione's shoulder. "Are you alright?"

"I am fine, I was out through the whole thing. Some form of stasis spell that was broken by contact with the air."

"Any ideas?" Andromeda questioned the small figure beside her as the female goblin stepped up to the group and fished Hermione's portkey up from inside her partially sodden robes.

She cast several spells over the small pale stone, tapping it occasionally with a thick fingernail. The surface tinted with several colours as the woman worked before she let it fall from her fingers, seemingly satisfied with the results of her tests.

"A few of the minor charms could do with updating. The cleaning charm in particular is beginning to wane, but the portkey itself is still functioning perfectly. What is the problem you're having with it?"

"Would I be correct in thinking the way it works is by sensing a change in body chemistry?" Hermione asked, the adults in the room looking at her curiously.

"Indeed. Though the specifics of that magic are trade secrets. I will not reveal how." The woman replied, looking almost affronted at the young girl cutting to the heart of how their secret magics worked.

"Would you say that stunning puts the body into a similar state to sleep?"

"Again, yes. Magically they're almost identical. Why?"

"So if someone were stunned while asleep, would the portkey activate?"

The woman's eyes bulged and a low growl began to emanate from her snarling mouth.#You bastard! You should have told me!#

#Please answer the question.#Harry interrupted, surprising everyone in the room but Hermione with his guttural vocalization. "What, we deal with the goblins a lot. So we thought it would be worth learning Rhovak."

"Rhovak?" Ted queried from his place by the door.

"You wizards call it Gobbledegook," Farkor growled. "Most offensively I might add. Gibber