Sunday morning dawned warm and bright. Entirely too warm and bright for Severus's tastes, even if the child he had sworn to protect wasn't missing — despite Dumbledore's certainty and the rumors already racing through the school, Severus was not convinced that Harry Potter was truly dead — and the one person most likely to know anything about it lying unconscious in the hospital wing, recovering from what seemed to have been a spectacular beating, though her assailants had stopped short of anything permanently damaging.

Well, she might be conscious by now. Poppy had said, when she turned him away, that the aurors needed to question her before anyone else was allowed to speak to her. As though they were likely to get anything out of her. Aurors, on the whole, were unwilling to throw pain-inducing magic at fourteen-year-old potential witnesses, or threaten to poison them if they didn't cooperate. Or, if it proved necessary, actually poison them and refuse the antidote until they'd cooperated.

Severus wasn't.

Not when the life of Lily's son was on the line.

He would simply ask her first, but she knew as well as he did that he would use more extreme methods of interrogation if he felt it necessary — even the unspoken threat might be enough to get something more from her than she would tell the Aurors. Some confirmation that the Aurors were wrong, and Dumbledore's monitoring spells had somehow been fooled — that Severus was right, and Potter wasn't really dead.

The Aurors believed, based on the scene, that both Potter and Black had been assaulted at the same place — taken by surprise, perhaps, as there was no evidence of an altercation at the spot where their paths diverged — after which several of the attackers dragged Black off to the Shrieking Shack, presumably to conceal her body and give them more time to get away, while one of them continued on with Potter to a place where, they were certain, a gate spell had been used to whisk him off to Knockturn Alley.

That trail ended there, as they apparently set fire to the building before apparating or flying or even just walking away, their trail lost among thousands. No one had seen anything, because of course they hadn't, it was bloody Knockturn. Similarly, those who had remained with Black waited until a lookout alerted them that Potter and Black had been discovered missing, then lost themselves in the crowd of Hogwarts students headed back to Hogwarts, probably disguised as students themselves. The wards did not recognize anyone entering who was not a professor, an Auror, or currently enrolled as a student, which meant they had managed to slip away somewhere along the way back, perhaps using a portkey to depart from one of the carriages on the way up to the school.

Severus had his own theory.

He had been the first person alerted to the situation. Miss Granger had found him when Bellatrix failed to show up to turn back with her at three o'clock (and after Miss Granger had failed to find her in her second iteration of the period of time during which she had to have gone missing). At first, Severus had thought little of it. Had in fact dismissed her concern. Because, out of all the students at Hogwarts, Bellatrix was not only the most capable of taking care of herself, but also the most likely to decide that she could not wait another twenty-four hours to run off to London or Edinburgh if it struck her fancy, and quite frankly, he couldn't care less.

So Miss Granger had turned back again, wasting their last chance to head off the disaster. He had had a time turner of his own, a relic from the days when the senior Bellatrix had used him as a test subject for that project, but the junior Bellatrix had broken into his office after she realised he must have one, to be filling in for Lupin and also teaching his own lessons, and had somehow managed to render it non-functional in her efforts to study it. It could have been worse — she could have blown up the dungeons. And at the time Severus had seen it as a foolproof excuse to tell Dumbledore to bugger off when he asked him to fill in for the wolf, so he hadn't put up much of a fuss about it, or made any efforts to repair it. (Though he had gotten Filius and Ashe to re-work his wards.)

He therefore held himself at least partially to blame for the disaster, which of course they hadn't yet known was an impending disaster.

Granger had knocked on his door again only seconds (and/or eight hours) after she disappeared, looking uncharacteristically grim. "I can't find Harry, either."

"What does Potter have to do with anything?" he'd snapped, far more interested in the article he had only just picked up again upon her second interruption than in the interruption itself.

"Lyra said she had something to talk to him about this morning — she implied it was some House Black matter — and they wandered off toward the Shrieking Shack together, and—"

That was the point at which Severus started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, anxiety worming its way to the forefront of his consciousness. "Potter was in Hogsmeade?"

"Well, yes — Professor McGonagall said it was okay, since Sirius is definitely in France and probably innocent, anyway."

Because no one had told Minerva that the senior Bellatrix was on the loose. So far as Severus knew, no one had told anyone. He only knew because Dumbledore had wanted his 'professional opinion' on the 'events' — read: massacre — outlined in the Aurors' preliminary report.

(In Severus's 'professional opinion' — it always irritated him slightly when Dumbledore referred to Severus's time as a Death Eater in such a way as to imply that he didn't constantly judge him for the mistakes of his misspent youth — a couple of complete morons had underestimated the Blackheart despite his warnings, allowing her an opportunity to free herself and gain control of a knife (through some method as yet undetermined). And after that, well... Anyone who'd fought on either side of the war could have predicted what would happen next. Quite frankly Severus was surprised she'd left any survivors at all, though those who had escaped had thought she'd been wounded, so she might have had incentive to choose the most direct untraceable route off the island: heading straight for the shore and transfiguring a bloody boat for herself.)

That had been two days ago. There had been no sightings of her since. The DLE had yet to determine exactly how they were going to handle the news — so far they'd managed to keep it quiet. Severus suspected they might try to cover it up entirely, to avoid a similar panic to the one surrounding her asinine cousin's escape last summer.

He'd reached for the tracking spell he'd laid on the boy — not that it worked on a target within Hogwarts, of course, but after he'd run away from Petunia over the summer Severus had thought it best to have some way to find the boy outside of the school — only to find it...missing. Or rather, deliberately untethered, broken in such a way that he wouldn't notice until he made to use it. That was the point at which anxiety became fear.

Dumbledore had been out of the castle — something to do with the Wizengamot, he thought, but that didn't stop Severus from entering his office to look for one of the trackers he had enchanted to find the boy. Their anchors were, he believed, more subtle and esoteric than the one Severus had used, it was possible that they hadn't been detected or removed. He never got as far as looking for it, however, because as soon as he entered the room, he was assaulted by alarm-bells whistling so loudly and shrilly he was surprised no one had heard them even through the sound-dampening wards.

All three of the indicators which were meant to track Potter's general health and well-being were reporting...nothing.

Severus thought he could be excused for calling the Aurors at that point. Dumbledore had been rather annoyed with him when he'd finally returned from London — even with Harry Potter missing, he would have preferred to keep the investigation in-house — but that was largely overshadowed by the fact that Dumbledore's own enchantments, designed so that no matter where Potter went at least one would still function despite interference from various wards, were telling them that Potter was dead.

Dumbledore had been...well, after the initial shock and disbelief had passed, Severus didn't think he'd ever seen the man so close to losing control, horror and grief and loss and guilt nearly overwhelming him. (He had not for a moment considered that the boy might not be dead.)

It hadn't taken long to find the junior Bellatrix, unconscious in the Shrieking Shack, covered with spell damage, including traces of an Obliviation Charm and the Cruciatus Curse, the broken pieces of her wand left lying beside her like so much rubbish. Potter (or his body), however, eluded the search party. It was actually another Auror squad, tracking the source of a suspicious fire in Knockturn Alley, who had put them onto the trail, following the path of a gate spell to an unassuming spot half a mile up the trail from the turn-off which led to the Shack, the traces of Potter's passage and that of his abductor nearly — but not entirely — obscured.

Severus hadn't had time to closely examine the scene before Poppy had summoned him back to the school. Light healing spells were doing more harm than good for Bellatrix, and Poppy's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy regarding the illegal and/or idiotic circumstances under which students were injured made her loath to send the girl to St Mungo's. Their healers were legally bound to report such things as fourteen-year-old black mages.

By the time Bellatrix was sufficiently repaired that Poppy saw fit to release him, Severus had managed to calm himself somewhat — had managed to think through the situation more rationally. If the Blackheart had taken Potter, Severus was certain she would either have left his body for them to find, or else the monitoring spells would still be reporting him as alive, giving them false hope that they might find him even as she slowly tortured him to death for his involvement in the Dark Lord's fall.

He had also, in that time, had an opportunity to closely examine the remnants of the spells cast on the junior Bellatrix, and (despite their attempts to conceal the fact) had come to the conclusion that at least five or six casters had been involved. Given the nature of the curses they had used, aiming for pain rather than debilitation or permanent injury, and the inexpert casting of some of the more advanced spells — neither the Waterboarding Curse nor the Obliviation Charm should leave that many traces, assuming the caster knew what they were doing — he was inclined to say that her attackers had been students. Dark Powers knew she'd had something like this coming.

However, this strongly suggested that Potter's disappearance and Bellatrix's abduction were unrelated events, or at least not perpetrated by the same individuals.

Given the little he'd seen of the scene of Potter's disappearance — not murder, there was no point in carefully removing all of the tracking charms on him if his abductor was just going to kill him — he had developed an altogether more absurd, and paradoxically more likely theory.

Dumbledore, the Aurors, and soon quite possibly all of Magical Britain would believe Potter dead, resulting in nation-wide mourning and political upheaval as Dumbledore's failure to protect the national treasure that was the Boy Who Lived shook his followers' faith in him. The method used to abduct him relied on complex, archaic enchantments, and the collateral damage had involved a building burning down.

The whole situation had Bellatrix Black written all over it.

(The fact that Dumbledore and Filius insisted that it was impossible to disrupt all three of the monitoring charms at once without actually breaking them — any spell that would mask one or two would interfere with spells to mask the others — really only made it more likely that she was involved.)

And as soon as he was allowed to speak to her, he would have confirmation.


"Enter," he called, in response to a firm rapping at the door of his office.

A small tug of freeform magic opened it to reveal a very unhappy-looking Nymphadora Tonks. She flopped into a chair without being invited and sat there with her lank brown hair and worried frown, apparently waiting for him to say something.

"Am I to take it that you and your fellow Aurors have concluded your interrogation, Miss Tonks?" He'd asked Poppy to floo him when they'd finished, but he wouldn't be surprised if she'd delegated the task to Nymphadora — he had been rather short with her, earlier.

"Auror Tonks," she corrected him halfheartedly. "She says she doesn't remember anything, and Pomfrey says there were traces of an obliviation on her, but she wouldn't let our legilimens in to look for anything salvageable."

Severus snorted. Before he could say something disparaging about the Aurors' interrogation strategies, however, she cut him off.

"Oh, don't give me that, I know she's lying. I was there when she woke up. She didn't ask what happened, or why she was in hospital, just went for her wand to check the time. Stopped when she remembered it got snapped, which she obviously remembers, because she didn't ask what the fuck we'd done with it." That was...a surprisingly good bit of deduction on Tonks's part, Severus thought. "And I'm pretty sure she knows what happened to Harry, she wasn't nearly concerned enough, when we told her he was missing, presumed dead. I thought she'd be furious — she considers him her responsibility, you know." Severus tried not to feel too relieved as his suspicion was confirmed, or at least corroborated. "And Pomfrey said she's likely still in shock, but... I just don't know why she's lying, or what to do about it."

"I believe standard protocol states that you ought to inform your Senior when you need advice on interrogating a witness, not your former Potions Professor," he snapped, eager to have done with this conversation so that he might go interrogate the girl himself.

"Fuck you, Snape."

"Some other time," he replied automatically — the only other person who routinely used that phrase with him was Aurora Sinistra.

Tonks pinked slightly at that — her hair as well as her face — which was vaguely amusing, but certainly nothing he cared about at the moment. "Oh, shut up, you know what I... It's just...she's family. And on top of... Do you, um, know what happened on Mann?"

"If you're referring to the escape of your favorite Auntie, then yes, I am aware."

She sighed. "Of course you are. We're not supposed to tell anyone. Not even people who really, really ought to know. Like my mum, for example. And... They showed us a bunch of memories from the war, so we know what we're up against, and if she decides to go after her... But she doesn't even know she's escaped. I just don't know what to do."

Severus rolled his eyes. He sincerely doubted Andromeda Tonks would tell anyone that her daughter had broken secrecy to warn her that her murderous ex-sister was loose. He also rather seriously doubted she hadn't taken precautions as soon as she'd realised Bellatrix was no longer in Azkaban — surely she would have been able to predict her impending escape as easily as Severus. "Do I look like your bloody mentor, Tonks?"

"Yeah, well, I can't ask him, he'd say to—" She cut herself off rather abruptly, realization dawning on her face. Something along the lines that Moody would tell her she owed her loyalty to the Aurors, and she clearly didn't want to hear that, he expected. She nodded, just once. "You're really good at this advice thing, you know."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." It wasn't as though he'd made that comment with the intent of her drawing the obvious conclusion about her divided loyalties. He simply had no desire whatsoever to play therapist for the conflicted Auror, especially now, when he had much more important problems on his mind. Such as the whereabouts of Lily's missing child. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have business elsewhere."

"Er, yeah, right. Sorry. We're done talking to Lyra, Pomfrey said to tell you..."


Bellatrix was sleeping when Severus arrived in the Hospital Wing — or pretending to do so rather convincingly. She stayed still and silent, eyes closed and breathing regular for the several minutes it took for him to raise proper privacy palings around them.

He paused for a moment to summon the appropriate emotion. "Levo hilaritudo."

"Aaah!" The girl writhed in pain under the unexpected light magic, her eyes flickering open after a second or two.

"Where is he?"

"What the fuck, Your Honor?!"

"Where is he?" Severus repeated.

"Where is who, you sadistic, spiteful bastard?"

"Potter. What have you done with him?"

"Er... Nothing?"

"Did the Cheering Charm not indicate to you that this is a situation in which it would be best not to test my patience? Because I assure you, it was intended to."

"I don't remember anything, I was obliviated."

Ha. "And I'm the bloody Queen. What. Have. You. Done?"

"What do you think I've done?"

"Harry Potter is missing. The monitoring spells on him all went silent at once indicating that he's dead. The trail goes cold at a building in Knockturn Alley that burned down earlier this afternoon. You were ambushed, taken from a point where your path and Potter's apparently diverged for no obvious reason, while he ostensibly continued on in the presence of someone who obscured the traces of their passage just enough that they would certainly be found, and yet rendered unidentifiable. The authorities are in a panic — they suspect your alter-ego, but then, they don't know there are two of you..." He wasn't going to tell them, either, unless she really had done something to endanger Potter's life. He was still cognizant of the agreement they'd made at the beginning of the school year. But she didn't need to know that.

"So, what, you think I kidnapped Harry, then ambushed and tortured myself?"

"Were it not for the fact that Miss Granger alerted me to the situation when you failed to appear to turn back with her this afternoon, I would not consider it to be out of the question. But no, I think you kidnapped Potter, laid a false trail, and were ambushed while backtracking and obscuring the traces of your initial passage."

She pouted at him, looking uncharacteristically pathetic. Whoever had abducted her really had done a decent job of working her over. (Albeit with spells which should have been easily reversed, if this Bellatrix weren't somehow even more thoroughly steeped in the Dark than her counterpart.) Probably better than the Unspeakables had managed with the senior Bellatrix before she'd escaped. Severus had only dealt with the more serious wounds — burns, the deepest cutting-curse slashes, and those broken bones which weren't beyond salvaging — before returning to his analysis of the crime scene, leaving the girl to deal with the more superficial cuts and abrasions herself. Poppy had been annoyed about that, but she couldn't force him to waste time and energy on injuries that were cosmetic at best, and she was perfectly capable of vanishing bone fragments and administering Skele-gro and bruise balm without him.

"How the fuck do you do that, just fucking know what I did? Because I know you're not reading my mind, and it's just— Really? You couldn't even let me have one day to enjoy it?"

He almost laughed at that. How could he look at the results of one of her ridiculous plots and instantly deduce that she was behind it? Years of practice. Years of staging and cleaning up crime scenes, years of unraveling the plots of his Slytherins, years of studying her older counterpart, trying to understand what passed for logic in her mind out of sheer self-preservation. "That depends entirely on what you have done with Potter."

"So, if I tell you, you won't tell anyone?"

"That depends entirely on what you have done with Potter," he repeated, growing more annoyed by the second.

She sighed, but capitulated shockingly easily. "He's fine. He's at Ancient House. He agreed to go on holiday with Sirius and me. Don't tell anyone."

"He agreed to— Where are you going?"


He cast the Cheering Charm on her again, simply to vent his irritation — though he was immensely reassured by the fact that she was openly discussing Potter as though he was still alive. Bellatrix simply wasn't subtle enough to toy with him by pretending that Potter wasn't dead. Not this one, at any rate.

She winced. "We're going abroad, travelling as muggles. He'll be using an assumed name for anonymity so Not-Professor Riddle can't track him down. I'm not telling anyone where we're going, so you might as well stop with the light magic, but you have to admit it'll be a hell of a lot more difficult to get at him if no one can find him than if he were just sitting in Surrey relying on that stupid blood ward."

Well, Severus couldn't actually argue with that. Anonymity was a hell of a protection — probably safer than sending him back to Petunia, even if the blood ward Dumbledore had enacted wasn't almost entirely useless.

(He had not been pleased with the memories he'd seen when he'd asked the muggle twat about Bellatrix's little visit. Which of course she'd had no recollection of whatsoever. Severus's presence, however, had made her think of Lily, and then her son, and then the abuses she and her husband and the fat pig they called a child had visited upon him over the past ten years. If Bellatrix wasn't already clearly addressing the situation — he assumed for reasons related to the Blacks' responsibilities toward Sirius's godson — he would have had to take steps to deal with it himself.)

Considering whether the Blacks would challenge Dumbledore for custody, however, brought him to the...slightly horrifying and yet entirely hilarious thought that... "Does Potter know you faked his death? Or...does he just think he's going on holiday?"

Bella shrugged. "I'm sure he'll figure it out...eventually. By the time we come back to school for sure."

So, no. The entire student body was already whispering about what might have happened to delay their return home, rumors of Potter's death or Bellatrix's or both, spreading like wildfire. It was only a matter of time until the entire bloody country was looking for him, alive or dead, and he had no idea. Severus stifled an entirely inappropriate bubble of amusement.

Encouraging Bellatrix could only end poorly.

"And I'm certain it was entirely necessary to foil Dumbledore's monitoring spells in order to do this." Because while it made sense to remove the tracking charms on Potter in order to secure their anonymity, the monitoring charms would not help them locate him, but simply reassured them that he was alive and well.

"Well, no, but Trelawney did predict that he was going to die, so."

So he should be pleased she hadn't actually killed him, Severus supposed. Though he would still be demanding proof of the boy's wellbeing before he left.

"Wait, did you say Dumbledore's monitoring spells?"

"Whose did you think they were?"

She shrugged. "I didn't really think about it at all. But if it's Dumbledore... Oh, this is going to be even better than I expected!" Her delighted grin was rendered lop-sided and grotesque by bruises and bandages, but she was unmistakably pleased as she realised the potential consequences of her little prank.

"I don't suppose it would do any good to point out that causing an entire nation to mourn the loss of a celebrity figure and publicly embarrassing the Supreme Mugwump when he turns out not to be dead, causing the destabilization of the current political status quo and making Magical Britain even more of a farce in the eyes of the world, is unreasonable on an entirely different scale than giving the whole school a babbling potion."

"Um... Does that mean you're going to tell him? Because I didn't think you actually supported the Light. And I didn't do anything bad to Harry, so..."

He glowered at her. His involvement in politics was almost entirely non-existent — the only bloc he had publicly expressed support for in the years since the war was the Nexus, whose primary goal was to create a House of Commons for the Wizengamot — but it was hardly a secret that his ideals were still more closely aligned with Narcissa and the Allied Dark than Dumbledore and the Light. It was also not a secret that he had only avoided Azkaban on Dumbledore's testimony regarding his role as a spy. He held no love for the old goat, and had made efforts to build up an independent reputation of legitimacy for himself over the past decade, but it was not out of the question that if Dumbledore's star waned Severus would be dragged down with him.

"I don't. But I made a vow to serve Dumbledore and his interests until the Dark Lord is dead, which would lead to difficulties if he were to realise I had known this information and failed to act to prevent the destabilisation of his political position."

"A, that was a really stupid thing to vow. B, weren't you a spy? I mean, it's not like I'm going to tell him. Dora did corroborate your claim that I accidentally burnt down a building in Knockturn, and I don't really need a felony arson charge to deal with at the moment."

It continually astounded Severus how very bad this Bellatrix was at maintaining any semblance of control she might have over any given situation, especially in comparison to her counterpart. At the very least, he would think she ought to recognize when she was handing over significant leverage to someone she had no reason to trust. "An excellent point, Bellatrix. If I were to reveal your actions to the authorities right now, not only would I be reducing a potential risk to myself, but also ensuring you are safely removed from a position to retaliate."

She frowned. "I think you're underestimating Meda. Plus the House of Black still has some influence, and I'm not stupid enough to leave actual proof that I did it, and you're a legilimens, so no one is going to trust any memories of this conversation that you provide to the Wizengamot. Dealing with getting an arson charge dismissed would definitely ruin my holiday, but I highly doubt I would end up 'safely removed from a position to retaliate.' Not to mention, even if I did, Eris's reach is far greater than mine. She was unusually enthusiastic about this whole Trelawney thing, I'm guessing this is why."

Well, fuck.

Being a black mage was just cheating, as far as Severus was concerned. For a brief moment he considered dedicating himself to one of the other Powers just to even the playing field, but that would be absurd.

"I could still convince Dumbledore not to invest himself in publicly confirming Potter's death—" (Possibly — he had already advised waiting until the aurors had independently confirmed the evidence of his monitoring charms. Albus had dismissed the advice on the grounds that the rumors would soon grow entirely out of control. But there was no reason Bellatrix needed to know that.) "—and frankly I see no reason not to do so. As I understand it, your Patron has no objection to my attempting to mitigate the damage you cause, so long as I do not act against you directly."

Granted, he was largely extrapolating from the lack of retaliation in the wake of his circumventing the Tower of Babel prank and a few random comments Lily had made about the Powers nearly two decades past, but his working theory was that Chaos found conflict far more appealing than the actual dissolution of social order. After all, complex societies offered far more opportunities to upset order than did simple ones. 'Winning' the eternal battle between Chaos and Order would be boring. Therefore, so long as he didn't prevent Bella from acting entirely, Eris would not mind his opposing her plans. In fact, he suspected she might find it more amusing than if he'd stepped aside and allowed her Dedicate free rein.

The girl pouted at him again, suggesting that he was sufficiently correct to warrant negotiation. "Fine. What do you want?"

Fair question — what did he want? Something other than limiting the disruptions she caused, he knew better than to ask the impossible of her. "Of course I will require confirmation of Potter's health and wellbeing," he began, simply to give himself more time to consider. He hadn't been angling for a bribe, but since it was now on the table...

"That's it? Done. But only if you promise not to tell anyone anything about my role in Harry's disappearance."

"No, that's not it, that's simply a prerequisite for any deal whatsoever — without proof of life, we have no grounds for negotiation."

"Ugh, fine. So what do you actually want, then?"

"You are aware, are you not, that the Department of Mysteries will be demanding the return of Miss Granger's time turner when she returns to her parents' home tomorrow?"

"Yeah, she's really annoyed about it. Even though I promised I'd make her a new one, I just need to get the enchantment schematics from Other Bella."

Severus refused to be distracted by the horrifying idea that the junior Bellatrix was somehow in contact with her older, more homicidally dangerous counterpart. "Well, until that happy day, my leverage over you seems on the verge of expiration, does it not?"

Bella's eyes grew wide as she realised where he was going with this. "No, you can't mean—"

"Oh, but I can." He gave her the most sadistic grin he could manage. "And I do. All of the marking through the OWL level, for the next four years, or until you leave Hogwarts."

"No, Your Honor, please, I—"

"How much do you want to see Dumbledore publicly humiliated, Bellatrix? How much do you want to see the political instability which will inevitably erupt in the wake of this little deception unfold?"

"You are so fucking spiteful, you know that? You have to want to see the Dark make a comeback just as much as I do, I refuse to believe you don't."

"But I can live with the status quo. Have been, for years, in fact. You, on the other hand... Let's just say that as long as something hurts you more than it hurts me, it's worth it." He cast the Cheering Charm at her again, just to emphasize the point. It was rather uncomfortable for him, and ridiculously difficult for such a juvenile effect, but it didn't hurt him, not like it clearly did her.

She winced again, scowling at him. "Stop it, I get it, okay. But I'm not going to have a time turner next year, making me mark all the bloody essays you assign is completely unreasonable."

That actually startled a laugh out of him. "You're concerned about something being reasonable? You? Let me remind you that you just faked the death of a national hero as part of a prank on your bloody Divination teacher. I manage to mark all of the essays I set without time travel, you spend significantly less time in class, ergo you should have plenty of free time to mark the first- through fifth-years'."

"Not if you keep assigning extra essays just because you don't have to mark them," she grumbled, which he took as an encouraging sign. "And Harry's only a national hero because no one in this bloody timeline has the slightest bit of common sense."

Severus strongly doubted whether people in her original timeline had had much more common sense. "One essay per class per fortnight for the first four years, one essay per week for the fifth-years," he offered. That was the schedule he'd kept to before this year.

"One per month for the firsties and second-years," she countered, pouting again. "There's going to be at least twice as many of them as the third- and fourth-years."

"Done. Provided you also provide proof that Potter is alive and well. And in exchange, I will tell no one about your role in his mysterious disappearance."

He extended a hand for her to shake. She crossed her arms stubbornly. "I want more than that. I know you got around Dumbledore's orders not to let us know Professor Wolf Wolf is a werewolf."

That was because Dumbledore was an overly-trusting old man, and "Professor Wolf Wolf" a potential danger to the students. He'd had no intention to attempt to circumvent his side of this deal. It wouldn't even matter after Dumbledore announced Potter's death, which he was bound to do soon — at that point, he would hold Severus equally responsible for failing to report her in time to stop him. He repeated the offer, adding, "I further swear that I will be bound by the spirit rather than the letter of this agreement."

"Fine. I swear that I will immediately provide a means to confirm Harry Potter's health and wellbeing as of this moment, and mark your stupid essays under the terms discussed, upholding my side of our agreement in good faith, with no intention to decieve."

She took his hand, a spark of magic shivering between them in recognition of their agreement. It wasn't a properly binding contract or vow, but it did hold some significance — if either of them broke their word, the other would know.

Then she stuck her tongue out at him before demanding, "Send Blaise to come see me."

"Surely you have not already forgotten you promised immediate proof of life."

"I said I'd provide a means, I didn't say I'd provide it to you." Severus's eyes narrowed into perhaps the fiercest glare he'd ever given anyone. Bellatrix giggled. "You couldn't go, anyway, you're not keyed into the wards at Ancient House. Blaise is. You can legilimize him when he comes back, and you'll have your proof."

"Very well, then," Severus ground out. Not that he actually thought, at this point, that Potter wasn't exactly where she claimed. Her offer of proof was most likely legitimate, if only because if it wasn't he would almost certainly discover that fact before she was able to escape Poppy's watchful eye and find a wand with which to defend herself from his wrath.

"Right. Are we done, then?"

He considered whether there was anything else he needed to discuss with her, taking a moment to calm himself. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me who cast the Cruciatus on you."

"I don't remember. I was obliviated, you see." She managed to say that much completely straight-faced before smirking and adding, "Besides, I really don't think it should count. I mean, if you're going to get a life sentence for an Unforgivable, you should at least have to cast the Unforgivable properly to earn it." Severus had to raise an eyebrow at that — the senior Bellatrix had said something very similar when she'd been teaching his group of recruits the Unforgivables. "So no, I'm not."

"Detention, after dinner, first day of next term, for being out of bounds in violation of your punishment for practicing Runic Casting back in November." It might have been petty of him, but he felt it was warranted, given her little semantic evasion a moment ago. Not to mention, he was quite certain she was going to punish her attackers herself at the earliest opportunity, which would undoubtedly be more trouble for him to deal with. He smirked at her before rubbing it in just the tiniest bit more: "Now we're done."

She scowled at him. "I hate you, Your Honor."

"What is it the kids are saying these days? Ah, yes: if lies make you happy."

He grinned, then tore down his privacy spells and strode away before she could come up with a suitably scathing response, his mood considerably improved. He wouldn't feel fully reassured until Zabini reported back from checking on Potter, of course, but he never had entirely believed the boy was dead, and if he had to keep that knowledge to himself and let Dumbledore twist, well, it was hardly the worst thing a Bellatrix had ever convinced him to do.

(Not even close.)

Hermione couldn't help but wonder if this was it. If this was the day Lyra went too far, and she just couldn't make excuses for her anymore.

Because, it did sort of feel... She didn't know. Like she were on the edge of something, that odd tense anticipation in that moment before stepping over. It had been looming over her all night, ever since the Professors had finally found Lyra and whispers had started shooting across the school.

She wasn't worried about Harry, not really. Lyra might be insane, but she wouldn't hurt him, and she had said she would be taking him on holiday. That was probably all this was, she'd probably just convinced him to leave early for...some reason. Harry, of course, should have known better than to just disappear on them all, but Hermione knew better than anyone how reasonable and convincing Lyra could make the most terrible ideas sound.

That didn't mean there weren't consequences, though, and this was... She could tell that this was going to be much bigger than Harry could possibly have imagined, he would never have left if— People were saying he was dead!

If he came back within a couple of hours, proved himself to be alive and well, it would just be another stupid Hogwarts rumor, less memorable than his disappearance into the Chamber of Secrets last year. But if he didn't...

She'd had trouble sleeping, even more than she usually did, her brain absolutely refusing to shut the hell up. She couldn't even say what she'd been thinking, exactly, it was just...

It was just big, a subtle weight hovering over her, the significance of the moment too tangible to ignore. While everyone else went whispering and panicking around her, she narrowed further in on herself, thinking, thinking about...well, everything.

Somehow she knew everything would change today. The thought was rather frightening, she tried to not dwell on just what this could all mean for too long.

In the end, she didn't get an opportunity to see Lyra until midmorning. She had gone straight to the Hospital Wing after she'd heard she'd been found, but she'd been turned away, told it was late and Lyra was being treated, come back tomorrow. Just so she wouldn't have to wait as long, she'd forgone several turns back, some of the last she'd ever get. She'd been turned away again earlier in the morning, told Lyra was still resting, come back later. Now, finally, giving her a fondly exasperated sort of look, Pomfrey was stepping out of the way, and Hermione was finally let in.

Hermione wasn't entirely surprised to find a few of the beds were occupied — people did always lose their minds a bit in the last weeks before summer, accidents and scuffles were more frequent than in the rest of the year. It wasn't hard to find Lyra at all. The curtains were at least partially pulled around all of the beds, but Hermione would be able to track her down from this distance with her eyes closed.

On Lyra's advice, she had been working to refine her ability to sense magic, and Lyra's was quite distinctive. Now that she could feel it, Hermione was honestly surprised more people couldn't tell what she was. Couldn't most purebloods do this kind of thing? They had all been taught it as young children in Lyra's time, apparently, but...

Pushing her way through the heavy white fabric, Hermione had barely even caught sight of Lyra before she was already speaking, her voice touched with an unusual raspiness. "Gods and Powers, there you are. I'm so bloody bored, Maïa, I hate being in hospital."

For a few seconds, Hermione could only stand there, silently staring at Lyra, all thoughts of the confrontation she'd known was coming temporarily wiped away. Lyra... Well, she looked terrible. Her hair was just gone, leaving her looking peculiarly small and lopsided, her head covered in a dozen bandages, coloured faintly greenish-blue with some kind of potion or something. The skin on a portion of her face, her right cheek stretching up into her temple, had taken an odd, unnaturally smooth texture, visibly more pink than anywhere else — freshly healed, Hermione knew, the both of them had had patches much like that after they'd had to have skin replaced after blowing themselves up. Hermione noticed a few more bandages here and there, all down her arms and legs, a few sickly-looking yellowish-greenish patches, mostly-healed bruises soon to vanish completely. She looked uncharacteristically tired, face drawn, but eyes still bright, still smiling up at Hermione as though genuinely pleased to see her.

(No, that wasn't fair — almost everything about Lyra was genuine, when it came down to it. She was quite possibly the worst liar Hermione had ever met.)

At some point, her tone somewhere between irritated and amused, Lyra said, "Didn't Emma ever tell you staring was rude? I know I look like shite, Maïa, but come on..."

"What the hell did you do to yourself?!"

One of Lyra's eyebrows ticked up, trying to make one of those flatly unimpressed expressions she'd seemingly copied from Snape. It didn't quite work though, the bandages stretching down her left temple were getting in the way. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"You know what I mean, Lyra! God, you always—" Hermione forcibly cut herself off, swallowing down whatever that needless tangent would have ended up being. Letting out a harsh sigh, she dropped into the chair next to Lyra's bed, shaking her head to herself. "I really don't understand how you could... This just seems like really far to go, to me."

Lyra actually had the nerve to look confused. With a narrow-eyed frown, her voice slow and dumbfounded, "You think I did this to myself? Why?"

"To sell the story, obviously." Honestly, did she think Hermione hadn't been paying attention to the shite she'd pulled the whole year?

She blinked. "Yeah, if I were to fake being attacked, I wouldn't go nearly this far. You know I had to have all the bones in my hand and wrist regrown?" Lyra lifted up her right hand — she was holding...well, it looked like a stress ball, smooth rubber a dull green. She let her hand fall back to the surface of the bed, then squeezed the thing, slowly and carefully. A few pained flinches twitched across her face. "Skelegrow is fucking awful, you know, and with all the finicky tendons and ligaments and such, it'll be days before I have full function back. I'll admit I'm insane by any normal standard, but I would never subject myself to that if I didn't have to.

"Also, I'm told I was hit with the Cruciatus at least once, and it's simply impossible for someone to cast that on themselves. So." She shrugged.


Lyra had actually been...attacked and...

And Hermione had come and...

She ran a hand through her hair, taking a moment to collect herself again. And, for once, thanked her lucky stars Lyra was a bloody psychopath — anyone else, if they'd been assaulted and...apparently, tor— Well, if she'd come accusing anyone else in Lyra's position that they'd faked the whole thing, they'd doubtless take that very, very badly. Lyra just thinking she was being a bit of an idiot at the moment was getting off lightly, really.

Oh, God, Lyra had actually been... "Are... Are you okay?" She probably should have started with that...

And Lyra rolled her eyes, because she was absolutely bloody absurd like that. "Gods and Powers, I'm fine. By the time I woke up Pomfrey and Severus had already healed the worst of it. It's not like I even remember it, it's not a big deal."

Okay, ignore the fact that a normal person would be completely horrified at not being able to remember what had happened to them, that was a filthy lie. "Don't give me that shite, Lyra."

Lyra blinked. "Language, Granger."

"I don't know what you..." Hermione leaned a little closer over the bed, her voice dropping into a whisper. "Do you think I'm a complete bloody idiot? I don't care what story you've been feeding everyone else, I know you can't be obliviated."

"I've never said I can't be obliviated. I never said I was obliviated, either, actually. I hear trauma can do weird things to people's memories."

"No, but if you're immune to most mind magic and even the Imperius, then obviously memory charms won't work on you either. And I'm not convinced you even know what being traumatised looks like."

Her lips quirking into a pout, Lyra muttered, "First Severus and now you. I was bloody tortured, and you both still think I'm up to something. So cruel, I think I might be offended."

...No, Hermione, don't get distracted by the torture part, she didn't want to know. "You were up to something. Something to do with Harry."

"I'm certain I have no idea what you're talking about." Lyra's eyes darted away from hers, shooting the rest of the room a significant glance.

"You cast them, if you care so much."

Abruptly, Lyra's face pulled into a glare, one harsh enough Hermione started. "I might," she hissed, "if my wand hadn't been snapped."

Hermione heard herself gasp — her wand had been... But that was huge! She hadn't grown up magical, of course, but she'd still picked up on a few things here and there, and mages took their wands very seriously. A mage's wand was only destroyed under certain limited circumstances. Perpetrators of capital crimes, essentially, and even then only sometimes — it wasn't unusual for the family to be given someone's wand after they're sentenced to life in Azkaban or executed. Snapping someone else's wand, just because they could, that simply wasn't done.

She'd really been attacked. Lyra wasn't just messing around, she...

Doing her best to suffocate the squirming of guilt in her stomach, Hermione cast the privacy charms herself.

"You're right, Maïa, I can't be obliviated, I remembered what happened — the parts I was fully conscious for, at least. I didn't do this to myself, obviously, that would be fucking stupid." All hint of solemnity instantly vanished, Lyra breaking into a grin. "It did work out, though. I didn't even get to finish faking the scene, but I didn't have to, someone else did it for me. The story of the murder of Harry Potter pieced itself together quite nicely without me. I like this version better than mine, actually, it's perfect."

Of course, the instant Hermione started feeling even a little bad for her, Lyra had to go say something completely absurd like that. "What? Why would you try to fake Harry's death?"

And how had she for even a single moment thought that there might be some completely innocent explanation for Harry's disappearance? It wasn't until this very moment that she realised how much she'd been hoping for an explanation like– like Harry had mentioned that he didn't want to deal with the crowd at the train station and she'd immediately apparated him to London, or something.

But no, apparently the whole thing was part of some unfathomable bloody plot of Lyra's. Or it would have been, if Lyra had actually been able to finish her plotting, before...whatever had happened to her. And it had just worked out in her favour anyway (except for the being tortured part), because things just had a habit of doing that around Lyra.

Learning that Luck and Fate were closely tied to the Chaotic Power had put the absurd shite Lyra somehow always managed to pull off into a whole new light.

"Come, now, Maïa, you know the answer to that." With perhaps the most transparent fake-innocent expression Hermione had ever seen, Lyra said, "Trelawney did predict this, back in September. Clearly it had to happen — you can't fight Fate, after all."

"You... You faked Harry's death...because our Divination Professor made a fake prophecy about him dying."

Lyra grinned. "Yep."

That... She didn't...

It took far more effort than it really should for Hermione to keep her amusement off her face. It was just so absurd. She didn't— She was going to hell, that was all, Hermione was so going to hell.

"Regardless, you..." Hermione broke off, took a moment to force her voice level — sounding like she found the whole thing funny would just undermine anything she could say. (It was too late, though, Lyra was already smirking.) "You can't just... You have to tell someone, Lyra. They think he's dead, the rumour's already spreading."

"Well, yes, that is the whole point."

It suddenly became much easier to keep her tone steady. "Lyra, you can't let people think Harry is dead."

"Why not?"

Hermione had absolutely no idea what to say to that. "There—there will be consequences for this— He is going to come back next year, isn't he? There— You can't just fake someone's death, Lyra! You just can't!"

"Obviously I can. Just did, in fact. And yes, he will be coming back. And I'm fairly certain that these consequences of which you speak are of little consequence to me, so."

"You– he— You're insane, Lyra. You're actually bloody insane."

"Er...yes? I thought everyone knew that?"

Well, everyone said it all the time, Hermione had more or less come to terms with her psychopathic logic and chaos-based morality, but this... This was just so far beyond anything she'd done so far... And she was just sitting there grinning like she'd just released another batch of Speaker Spiders on the school. As though it was a mildly annoying, highly amusing diversion with no real consequences for anyone! "You just can't let everyone think he's dead, okay? Do you have any idea how... Everyone's going to know about this, it'll— He's Harry Potter, Lyra."

Because she was just absolutely insufferable like that, Lyra rolled her eyes. "I had noticed that, believe it or not. So?"

"When the news gets out, it'll be huge, and... It'll be everywhere, Lyra, it'll practically be a bloody national tragedy."

Lifting her bandaged shoulders in a light shrug, Lyra said, "Yeah, well, fuck them."

"Lyra, you—!"

"They don't own him, Hermione." Either the sudden sharpness in her voice, or the glare, or just that she'd used Hermione's proper name — Lyra almost never did that anymore, only when she was especially annoyed — whatever it was, Hermione's protest died in her throat, leaving them just staring at each other, silent for a few awkward seconds. "All this Boy Who Lived fucking nonsense, they all act like... He doesn't owe them anything. If he were anyone else, and not their precious fucking saviour, would they make a big 'bloody national tragedy' out of it? No, they only care because of that moronic myth, their ridiculous attachment to the Boy Who Lived, and I don't care, Maïa, I don't give a single, solitary fuck. They can all go fuck themselves.

"I'm taking my baby cousin on a bloody vacation, and you can't make me care about these idiots working themselves up while we're gone."

It took a moment for Hermione to regain the ability to speak again. Just, she thought that was the most strongly she'd ever heard Lyra emote, ever. Well, except maybe that time she'd gotten offended over Hermione bad-mouthing Eris. (Which, in retrospect, had been extremely tactless of her — she had essentially been insulting Lyra's god to her face, she couldn't reasonably expect anyone to react well to that.) And, well, it wasn't made easier by...

Dammit, this was supposed to be a proper confrontation, she didn't... Why did Lyra have to be so bloody reasonable all the time? Well, okay, no, this was only reasonable in Lyra logic, but... They really didn't have the right to obsess over Harry the way they did, he really didn't owe them anything. Hermione wouldn't go so far as to think faking his death was a good idea, but...

Lyra always had to make everything so bloody complicated.

Still, she couldn't just leave it like this. This was just... Lyra was creating a huge bloody mess, and a lot of people would be hurt, if only temporarily and if only due to their own silly hero-worship, but... "If you don't tell anyone I will."

Lyra snorted. "No, you won't."

God, if that smooth overconfidence wasn't just infuriating. "You can't stop me from telling whoever I like whatever I like." Well, she could, obviously, but she would have to somehow compel her, something Lyra was philosophically opposed to, or just kill or otherwise incapacitate her. By this point, Hermione was all but certain Lyra wouldn't actually seriously hurt her unless she gave her a very, very good reason to — threatening to ruin her little prank wasn't nearly enough. So Lyra could theoretically stop her, but she wouldn't, so it didn't really matter.

"Well, no," Lyra admitted, with a hint of exasperation, all but confirming Hermione's evaluation of her, "but you're still not going to. You wouldn't like the consequences."

She gave Lyra back one of her own unimpressed stares. "And what consequences are these?"

"If you did tell someone, how would you explain knowing what you know? You can't, really. If you admit I told you, that would mean I lied to the Aurors about being obliviated, which is bad enough by itself, but they know someone tried to obliviate me, so you'd basically be telling them I can't be obliviated, which will directly lead to them wondering why. They'll almost certainly figure it out eventually — there are only so many reasons one might be able to resist obliviation, especially after being tortured for a few hours, and no one would believe I'm a legilimens. Since becoming a black mage is Unforgivable in this timeline, I would have to leave, and I could never come back. Somehow, I don't think you'd be comfortable with risking that."

Hermione glared back at her, jaw clenching hard enough it actually hurt a little. Because she wasn't wrong.

In all honesty, most of the time Hermione tried to avoid really thinking about the mage thing. Rather like knowing who Lyra had originally been and where she'd come from, it made everything a whole lot less complicated if she just...pretended there wasn't anything so surreally strange about her. Because... Well, it made her feel kind of awful, but mostly because if she pretended none of that stuff was a thing, she didn't have anything about it.

And she knew she should do something about it. Or, at least, she was pretty sure she would have felt she should do something about it a year ago.

Just who she was... Okay, yes, Lyra didn't bear any responsibility for anything her counterpart had done here — they were literally from different universes, after all, saying Lyra was guilty of Lestrange's crimes would be completely absurd. Hermione had had some time to think about it now, and she was...mostly certain that Lyra was even far less of a danger than Lestrange was. Apparently, Voldemort had been twisting Lestrange to suit his needs since she was five years old, had personally taught her since she was seven, he'd essentially created the monster Lestrange had become.

On the other hand, the person who'd had that role in Lyra's life, the person she'd been apprenticed to at seven (which Hermione still thought was absurd, but purebloods), had apparently been a wardcrafter–cursebreaker of some kind. Hermione didn't know who that was — she assumed the "Ciardha" Lyra had offhandedly mentioned a few times, not that that was particularly helpful — but it didn't matter so much. He would obviously have been a far better influence than a bloody Dark Lord.

If Lyra was going to do something just for fun, she was far more likely to come up with some complicated enchanting project — those portals of hers came to mind — than run around cursing people. She was frustrating, and confusing, but she simply wasn't dangerous the same way Lestrange was.

And Hermione was almost certain she wasn't just making excuses for her.

But that aside, she still felt she should maybe be tempted to tell people about the time-travel thing anyway. If only because, well, she was lying to everyone, including the Ministry — falsifying official documents was just as illegal here as it was in the Britain she was more familiar with. Hermione couldn't even guess how many laws Lyra had broken just getting herself into Hogwarts.

And she was pretty sure she should care about that...but she didn't. It wasn't like whatever Lyra had had to do to legitimise her existence in this timeline was really hurting anyone. And, really, what else was Lyra supposed to do? If she just came out and said she was Bellatrix Lestrange from an alternate dimension thirty years ago, she somehow doubted everyone would just calmly accept that (or even believe her). Lyra hadn't even intended to come here, she'd essentially just been making it up as she went along. When it came down to it, committing who knew how many counts of fraud had been her only choice.

But that was Hermione coming up with excuses. If she were being completely honest with herself, when she'd first learned who Lyra was and how she'd come to be here, the thought of informing someone in a position to do something about it, turning her in, it had never even crossed her mind. Not seriously, anyway. No matter how...uncomfortable the revelation had made her, Lyra was still her friend.

If nothing else, her first two years at Hogwarts had already proven that Hermione was perfectly willing to go to unreasonable lengths for her friends. And she honestly did get on with Lyra better than she ever had either of the boys, so, just, not turning her in for committing victimless crimes was hardly a dilemma at all.

Even if she felt it probably should be.

Even with something far more illegal than a little fraud here or there. By magical British law as it stood, Lyra had committed a capital offense — she could literally be executed if it ever got out. Though, if anything, Hermione was actually less conflicted about that than she was the time-travel and the fraud. For one thing, civilized nations had serious issues with ever executing a minor for any crime, no matter how serious. Especially given that the...event itself had happened when Lyra had been seven, yeah, if something similar were going on in the muggle world she could just imagine the public outcry such a thing would cause, it would be a massive scandal.

Especially given the nature of the 'crime' itself. Hermione would admit she didn't know everything there was to know about black mages, of course. The very idea of the existence of the Powers was still a little overwhelming if she thought about it for too long. But, when it came down to it...she didn't think it shouldn't be thought of as, well...

It was basically religion, wasn't it? Religion that happened to be factually true, yes, or at least true enough, but that wasn't the point. If Hermione were to put what Lyra was in more familiar terms, she was essentially clergy in a minority church. Sure, certain...radical elements of this church had done horrific things in the past, but the same could be said of virtually every religion on the planet. Religious ideology, whether Christian or Muslim or Hindu or whatever, had motivated people to do despicable, violent things innumerable times over the course of history, and even through to today, but all modern followers of those faiths weren't held collectively responsible for the crimes of adherents they had nothing else in common with. In fact, civilized nations guaranteed their freedom to exercise their faith however they wanted, so long as they harmed no other people in doing so.

If a black mage committed a serious crime, sure, they should be prosecuted for that. But, just for being a black mage? Lyra might be unnervingly powerful, and just unnerving in general, and the Eris stuff plain scary, but just being what she was, that wasn't actually hurting anybody. There wasn't any good reason to just execute her. Hermione wasn't convinced the whole thing was any different, conceptually, than mundane religious oppression. Especially since white mages were (theoretically) just as vulnerable, despite their beliefs and practices being almost entirely beneficial to society — black and white mages both were being targeted simply for their private religious expression, and nothing else.

Since the Powers did actually, demonstrably exist, it wasn't quite the same thing, but Hermione still thought the comparison was applicable. She had no doubt that, should the Statute crumble tomorrow, this was the position most first-world governments would take on the matter.

Hermione wasn't even close to comfortable with it herself, which was why she preferred to just not think about it at all. But when it really came down to it, how she felt about Lyra being a dedicant of Eris was completely irrelevant. She had every justification, both personally and on principle, to make sure the authorities didn't find out about it. She certainly wouldn't go blabbing about it intentionally, but she shouldn't let it get out accidentally either — she had tried to reduce suspicion the day after Walpurgis for a reason, after all.

(Which, technically, meant she was sort of an accomplice now. She felt she should feel guilty over that, or at least conflicted, but... She wouldn't feel guilty for hiding Jews from bloody Nazis — the comparison wasn't entirely appropriate, but...)

She wasn't entirely convinced Lyra's logic was flawless — whatever Eris had done to her wasn't the only way to resist obliviation, it didn't necessarily follow that the Aurors would figure out everything if they knew she was lying. It was, however, possible. Though, it also wasn't the only potential negative consequence: she wasn't familiar with the law on this side, but faking someone's death had to be illegal, especially since Harry was technically a Lord of the Wizengamot and everything, there was probably some ridiculous aristocratic nonsense involving that. Lyra could get in serious trouble if they found out.

And she would have to leave, and she could never come back.

Admitting it in her own head did make her uncomfortable, she couldn't help the thought that she was somehow...she didn't know, that it was some kind of moral failing. But she was perfectly willing to say nothing if the consequence of speaking out was losing Lyra.

(Hermione didn't know what was happening to her, but she wasn't certain she didn't like it. And that made her uncomfortable.)

But, thinking about it... "No, I wouldn't tell them you told me. I'd tell them Blaise told me."

Lyra blinked. "What?"

"The train was delayed, yes, but he's already moving his stuff back home, since he has travel plans and all. Harry is part of those travel plans, so he'll surely 'discover' Harry in the process. He has no obligation to tell the authorities, but it's not unreasonable to think he might tell Harry's friends. And he'll back me up for exactly the same reason — if he told them I was lying, they'd eventually work out that I was protecting you and ask why. So I don't need to implicate you at all."

"Um..." Her face had gone peculiarly blank, flatly staring at her for a couple seconds. "Well, you would in the end, though. If they find out Harry's still alive, and that I got him to Ancient House—"

With an almost vicious smirk, Hermione said, "Before you were obliviated. No one could blame you for not telling them about something if you don't remember it."

Lyra's mouth opened, then closed a moment later. She frowned. "But I didn't just send him to Ancient House, I made a false trail for them to follow and everything. Apparently my gate spell collapsing even burned down a building in Knockturn — which is more dramatic than I was aiming for, but still. I count five separate Azkaban-worthy offenses right there."

"I'm assuming you covered your tracks." Hermione did know she was capable of it. Before moving it all to Ancient House through one of those neat portals of hers this spring, they'd been using spells designed to fool forensic magic whenever handling their illicit books — she'd looked into the subject herself, and there were plenty of spells to remove traces after they were already laid as well. And she had to have planned on an investigation.

"Well, yes, but—"

"So, there's no proof you did it. You can just continue to claim to not remember anything, which you're already doing. In fact, you were going to end up questioned about it eventually anyway, when you get back from California — I'm just moving it ahead a few months."

Lyra glared at her, though the expression was far less effective than it might have been. There was an odd sense about it, a lightness, obviously fake, weakened by the laughter in her eyes, the hints of a grin pulling at her lips. "How devious of you, Maïa." If she hadn't gotten the hint already that Lyra wasn't actually angry, using her nickname sealed it. "Someone has been a terrible influence on you."

Glaring right back at her, Hermione felt the warmth spread across her face. Because, well, she wasn't wrong, but "You don't have to sound so damn pleased about it."

The fake annoyance vanished entirely, Lyra brightly grinning — which was less...distracting than it might have been, with all the bandages and wounds and such, she did look rather horrid. "But I am pleased, though. I wasn't sure about you at first, but you're far more fun than you seemed back in September."

Hermione just frowned back at her. She wasn't certain whether that was meant to be a compliment or not.

"Honestly, you're my favourite person I've met since coming here." Lyra paused, blinking. "Well, maybe Sylvie, I guess — favourite human person, anyway."

Okay, definitely meant to be a compliment. Not that she had any idea at all how to respond to it, probably better to just ignore it. "Could we get back to the subject at hand, please?"

Smirking, Lyra drawled, "You and Harry, both so awkward all the time, don't get it. But, fine, I can be nice." (Hermione doubted it.) "I guess there's nothing else for it. If you really want to go about telling people Harry isn't dead, that's fine, your choice."

Hermione should be pleased — she had just essentially won the argument — but instead she couldn't help a peculiar sense of wary unease. If she really had won, Lyra shouldn't still be smirking at her. She spent a couple seconds thinking the whole thing over, what she knew of what was going on around their ears and the whole conversation they'd just had, trying to find what it was, she had to be missing something. But she couldn't think of anything. "Oh, just come on out and say it, then."

That damn smirk only grew wider. "You can ruin my scheme if you like. Of course, I have already gotten what I wanted anyway, so it wouldn't actually be ruining it, but limiting the damage, I suppose. You'll just also be ruining the first real vacation Harry'll get in his entire life. It's up to you."

"You— He doesn't... What?!"

"Well, you did say the rumours are already getting around. If only to stop something really crazy from spreading, people coming up with whatever absurd theories they like, Dumbledore will need to provide an official narrative. And soon. I wouldn't be surprised if he decides to announce Harry's death to the entire school at lunch. Of course, he could try to cover it up until he knows what happened, tell them Harry just left early, but he believes he does know what happened, and he likes to seem decisive in times of tragedy. So. Lunch is, what, an hour away? Unless you turn back to tell him, which will create other problems, it's probably already too late to do anything about it. Which means he'll make the announcement, Trelawney will probably flip, everyone will be reminded about her prophecy from the beginning of the year.

"And then — a day or two later, however long it takes for whoever you tell to get their shit together — the announcement will be retracted. Cue doubt and disparagement directed at Hogwarts, the Ministry, and prophecy in general, and Trelawney and Dumbledore specifically. I get what I wanted out of this scheme. But, there will be a big media circus, and probably investigations and hearings and whatnot, which will require Harry's and my participation to some degree. Which means we won't be able to leave the country, which means Harry doesn't get to go to California. Being stuck with me and the Zabinis is better than his muggles, but still, no proper vacation. And he'll have to deal with everyone being fucking morons about the Boy Who Lived all bloody summer.

"So." Lyra shrugged, her grin sharp and bloody. "Go ahead and tell whoever you like, if you want. You'll just be hurting Harry, in the end, for the benefit of people who you don't even know and I doubt you honestly care about the slightest bit. Because it's the right thing to do — as if that means anything," she finished in a derisive mutter, rolling her eyes.


Hermione had absolutely nothing to say. For long seconds, she just stared back at Lyra — still grinning at her like a lunatic — struggling to compose any sort of response. Finally she stood, walked out of the Hospital Wing without another word.


She was right. Hermione couldn't bring herself to do that to Harry, even if she was just putting it all off until September.

God, she hated that bitch sometimes.

(She didn't, she really didn't. But she couldn't help feeling she should.)

The Gryffindor table was unusually subdued on the day after the last day of term. Of course, unusually subdued still meant there was quite a lot of gossip — in this case about what had happened to the two third-year students who'd gone missing the day before — and speculation about why the train wasn't running.

The two things were probably related, Neville thought, though no one asked him.

"I heard the train caught on fire!" a second-year girl 'whispered' to her friend, loudly enough that half the table probably heard her.

"You just made that up," Ginny Weasley said flatly.

"Shut up, Weasley, no one asked you!"

Ginny met the girl's furious glare with cool disdain. "Stop spreading filthy lies, Janine, and maybe I will."

"I heard Harry Potter got into a fight with Sirius Black, and Black killed him. That's why the Aurors were in town, yesterday," the younger Creevey told his brother, sounding very worried.

"Don't be stupid, Sirius Black is in France! I heard he got into a fight with Lyra Black — no one's seen her since yesterday either!" Neville didn't recognise that kid, but his theory was even more far-fetched than Creevey's.

Lyra was scary, yes. She was insanely smart (and also just insane) and had a terrible sense of humor and was way too good at magic to be fourteen. But he didn't think she would have hurt Harry. She might be insane and weird and deliberately unconventional, but under all that, she was exactly what he would expect from a properly trained heiress of her House — Gran had been making noises about trying to get an introduction, and figure out if she's been talking to anyone about a betrothal (which Neville didn't even want to think about) — and Harry was the bloody godson of her Head of House. She'd been treating him like a younger cousin since her first day here, but if she was Sirius's ward, or would be when his trial ended, then they were really more like brother and sister (even if they hadn't met until this year). Either way, everyone knew the Blacks were insane about their Family (as well as just insane).

Neville could see Lyra killing someone for Harry — his muggles, maybe, some of the things he'd overheard Harry telling Ron made them sound worse than Gran and Uncle Algie — but not killing Harry.

...Unless there'd been an accident of some sort. Like she'd dragged him off to the Forest again and something had happened...but Neville was pretty sure the main reason Lyra went out there was to hang out with the wilderfolk. Which was...really weird. Like, uncomfortably weird. Just the idea of wilderfolk was kind of... And quite frankly, he didn't see the appeal. Even if she didn't mind where wilderfolk came from (which apparently she didn't, which was itself uncomfortable and weird), they still weren't human. Not really. It would be like going to hang out on a werewolf reservation, or something — it just wasn't done, yes, but why would you want to, anyway? Harry had gone with her once, just to meet that one wolf Lyra had brought to the quidditch match with the dementors, and he'd said it had been awkward. But he'd also said that the wolf-girl knew the Forest really well, and she wouldn't have taken them anywhere that wasn't safe.

Besides, if Harry were dead, he was pretty sure Hermione, who had been cornered by the Weasley twins at the other end of the table, would be more weepy-mourning upset and less furious-frustrated-guilty upset.

"What do you think, Nev?"

It took a moment for Neville to realise Dean had been talking to him, lost in other people's conversations as he was. "Huh? What do I think about what?"

Dean gave him a how-are-you-this-stupid look. "First Ron, now Harry and Lyra... Something's going on with our year."

"Something's always going on with Harry at the end of the year," Neville pointed out.

Seamus frowned at him. "Yeah, but something we all know about — he doesn't just disappear. The Aurors don't get called."

That was true. The Aurors hadn't been called before, as far as Neville knew — and his Gran was on the Board, she'd have said something for sure, if they had been. But, "He did disappear last year. Him and Ron both, you know, when we were supposed to be in our room, when Ginny was—" He cut himself off, shooting a guilty look across the table.

She had looked up at the sound of her name, and had obviously put together what they were talking about because she glared at him.

"...missing," he finished weakly.

" the bloody Chamber of Secrets," she corrected him, her voice very even and very cold. "There's no point avoiding it, everyone knows."

He nodded in acknowledgement and she went back to her book. He couldn't see what it was about from here, but it looked bloody ancient. There was something weird going on with her this year, too, he thought. Probably not bad, like last year. She was just starting to give off the same dangerous vibe as Lyra, but more serious and dragging around books like Hermione. He'd heard she was sleeping in their room, now, too. (Lyra had somehow managed to get a separate room for herself and Hermione. Neville still didn't know how, none of the girls would talk about it, though they all obviously knew.)

"Yeah, but when that happened, they had us stay in our commons," Seamus objected. "Didn't Weasley say we all had to be here for lunch, some kind of special announcement?"

"Some special announcement they couldn't've just told us yesterday, and let us go home today? My mum's going to go spare, you know," Dean said. "I haven't got any way to tell her the train's not running, and it's not like she can get on the platform to look for me even, she'll be frantic."

"Oh for Christ's sake, Dean," Hermione snapped, plopping onto the bench on Neville's open side. "Just tell McGonagall after lunch that you need to use her floo and floo to King's Cross. You'll get home at the same time we would've anyway."

"Are you going to do that?"

"No, I owled my mum telling her not to come, that the engine had a break-down. I'll just floo to Oxford when we get in tomorrow and they can pick me up there."

"There's a public floo in Oxford?" Neville said. "I didn't know that." He did, actually, he just thought it was weird that she did. Not that there was any reason she shouldn't, he just couldn't imagine she'd spent much time flooing around during hols, what with her parents being muggles, and all.

She clicked her tongue at him. "Yes, of course there is. Though Lyra didn't tell me until after I'd already taken the Knight Bus to London to floo to the Zabinis' for Yule. Bloody inconsiderate..." she muttered, trailing off into mumbling silence.

Maybe Lyra's weirdness was contagious, Neville thought. Because the idea of Hermione going to a Yule celebration at the Zabinis' was just... It was weird that Zabini would invite her (or more likely, allow Lyra to invite her), and it was even weirder that she'd gone. What did a muggleborn care about Yule?

"I don't suppose you know what happened to her," Dean asked.

"Or Harry," Seamus added.

Neville was almost certain she did, but equally certain she wouldn't tell them. She obviously hadn't told anyone else, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when she scowled and cast a privacy charm around them. "Lyra's in hospital. She was attacked by someone. They used the Cruciatus on her and broke all the bones in her right hand. And snapped her wand."

The boys gasped. They'd snapped it? But a wand was... It was almost a part of you, wasn't it? An extension of your magic. And a witch was her magic. Breaking it was like... Neville shuddered, his fingers straying involuntarily toward his own wand pocket, just because...well, to reassure himself it was still there, he supposed.

Ginny, obviously included in Hermione's spell, despite being on the other side of the table, dropped her book. "Are you fucking kidding me? They— Who?"

"Yeah, what she said," Seamus muttered, nodding.

"She says she doesn't know, that they obliviated her."

Something about the way she said that made Neville think Lyra knew exactly who had attacked her, even if they had obliviated her. And he was pretty sure he did, too, now that he knew she wasn't dead, or even seriously — permanently — hurt. (Though snapping her wand was just...barbaric.) It wasn't really that hard to put together.

A few weeks ago, maybe a month, Draco Malfoy had cornered him in the dungeons after Potions — Snape made him stay behind to explain exactly how he'd managed to mess up his potion with the available ingredients, which he couldn't, because there was literally no way to make those ingredients do that, unless one of the newt eyes had really been a transfigured beetle or something... (Which was the answer Snape eventually accepted, much to Neville's surprise.)

Anyway, Malfoy had been waiting for him by the stairs, dragged him into an empty room and asked him how he felt about Bellatrix Lestrange.

Which was a bloody stupid question — Bellatrix Lestrange was responsible for every single bad thing that had ever happened in Neville's life. Every single one. If he could choke the life out of her with his bare hands, he thought he might actually do it. He hadn't actually said that, of course, he'd managed to stutter out something much more political, seeing as Lestrange was Malfoy's mother's sister. (Lady Malfoy had practically disowned Lestrange in the wake of the War, but that didn't mean she might not secretly still be as insane about her family as any other Black.)

Malfoy's eyes had narrowed dangerously, obviously knowing exactly what he'd meant, anyway. "What if I told you Black is her daughter?"

Well, then...Neville would probably be a lot more concerned about Gran's hints about a Longbottom–Black union than he already was, honestly.

(She couldn't possibly be serious about that. If she was, he might have to tell her about the wilderfolk thing. Because Lyra might be a brilliant witch and the obvious heir to her House, but she'd also obviously gotten the Black Madness in spades. That alone should be a disqualifying factor, because her children would probably be equally insane. All the more so if she was Lestrange's daughter, because the crazy obviously bred true. Not to mention — Lestrange's daughter by whom? You Know bloody Who? Because she did look like Bellatrix, but she didn't look like a Lestrange at all.)

He knew that wasn't what Malfoy had meant, of course. He'd probably expected that Neville would want to get some kind of revenge on her, for her mother's crimes against his family — the Longbottoms had had a couple of rather notorious blood feuds with other Houses over the centuries — but...Lyra was the same age as them. If she was Lestrange's daughter, she wouldn't even be able to remember her, and it wasn't like she could help who her parents were, anyway. She'd always been nice enough to him. Nicer than Malfoy, at any rate.

Plus, he somehow doubted Lestrange would care if he cursed her daughter on her behalf, so there would be absolutely no point in it at all. Which was what he'd actually ended up saying, when he'd managed to find the words. Malfoy had called him a pansy (more or less cordially), and Neville had told him to bugger off (more or less cordially), and they'd both left. Overall it had been one of the least terrible interactions he'd ever had with Malfoy — he was a lot less intimidating without his pet trolls following him around — and Neville had managed to forget about it fairly quickly, because as far as he knew nothing ever came of it.

He'd thought Malfoy was just trying to make trouble among the Gryffindors. But if he'd been trying to rally people against Lyra, there were plenty of older students who'd lost family to Lestrange in the War, it was hardly just him. And they might not know Lyra personally well enough to care that she wasn't the Blackheart, even if they were related.

So he didn't know exactly who had tried to use Bellatrix Lestrange's favorite spell on her daughter, but he had a pretty good idea who might have been responsible for arranging it.


If she didn't do something to get back at Malfoy, he'd probably have to tell her, Neville decided. But it could wait — it wasn't like she'd be able to do anything now, except tell the Aurors, and knowing her she wouldn't. Humiliating her cousin in front of the entire school like she had back in September was big and showy and intimidating and, just...well, very House of Black. Telling the Aurors that Malfoy might know something about her being Crucio'd wasn't.

"Yes, yes, she's fine," Hermione said impatiently, drawing Neville's attention back to the conversation, of which he seemed to have missed a few exchanges. "She looks like shite and she'd been alone for all of twenty minutes between talking to the Aurors and Snape and me, so obviously she was bored silly, but she's fine."

"Yeah, but what about Harry? We heard they were together when they disappeared," Dean said.

Hermione bit her lip, then set her jaw stubbornly and muttered something that sounded very much like stupid bloody prophecy before saying, "She was planning on taking him on holiday, and he really hates crowds, everyone staring at his scar, you know. She might have sent him on early, helped him sneak away, or something. I mean, I don't know, and if she was obliviated, she obviously wouldn't either, but it makes more sense than these ridiculous rumors that he's dead, doesn't it?"

"Well, yeah, but—" Seamus began, but he was cut off by Dumbledore's entrance.

He came in not through the side door nearest his office, or the one behind the High Table, but through the main doors, walking slowly down the centre aisle of the Hall, between the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, silence spreading in his wake.

He was wearing black, and for once looked every bit of his hundred-plus years, haggard and old.

The professors were waiting at the High Table, every bit as impatient as the students to have out with whatever announcement had required their presence. Even Hagrid and Trelawney were there, and they never came to lunch. Even Madam Pomfrey — Neville didn't think he'd ever seen her in the Great Hall before.

He turned to face them, sorrow etched in every line of his face. Neville was pretty sure that everyone knew what he was going to say, even before he said it.

"If I may have your attention, please." (The Hall was already quite silent, every eye trained on the Headmaster.) "Many of you will have already heard the terrible rumors that have been spreading since the Aurors arrived in Hogsmeade yesterday. Most unfortunately, and to my great sorrow, I must confirm them: Harry Potter is dead."

He paused then, as though to let the words sink in. For the space of a heartbeat, maybe two, shocked silence reigned, but then... It seemed as though everything happened at once, everyone suddenly talking — "I told you so"s fighting to be heard over denials and disbelief; Hagrid sobbing into his hands; Professor McGonagall, grim faced, shouting for order as the Headmaster just stood there, head bowed, hands clasped before him, staring out over the crowd, waiting for the impact to fade.

All Neville could do for what seemed like a very long time was stare back at him. He heard Dean saying, "He, but— He just can't be— I... We just saw him yesterday..." but distantly, as though he was suddenly on the other side of a quidditch pitch.

After...maybe a minute, maybe five — Neville couldn't tell — Professor Snape stood, his face completely impassive, as though Harry's life and death meant nothing to him. He silenced the hall with a wave of his wand. Neville didn't feel the magic, it definitely wasn't any silencing charm he'd ever seen before, but over the course of a few seconds, the commotion died away, even Hagrid's sobbing dying down, though his shoulders still shuddered silently.

"Thank you, Severus," Professor Dumbledore said quietly. "Many of you knew Harry personally. He is — was — a—"

The Headmaster was cut off there, his speech interrupted by Professor Trelawney standing so suddenly that her heavy wooden chair overturned.

"No," she muttered, her voice carrying as well as Professor Dumbledore's in the sombre silence which otherwise filled the Hall. She backed away from the table slowly, nearly tripping over her felled chair, one of her scarves catching on one of its legs, her rheumy eyes, magnified as always by her enormous glasses, blinking furiously. She pinched herself, still muttering, ever louder, "No, no, no, NO, NO, NO—"

"Sybil?" the Headmaster said, cutting her off, or trying to.

She just kept backing away, shaking her head. "It can't— NO, I'm dreaming, it's not real — it can't be real, I didn't mean it— I didn't mean it!"

"Sybil?" Professor Dumbledore said again, sounding even more concerned this time.

"I'm sorry!" she wailed, breaking into pathetic sobs. She'd backed herself all the way into the wall behind the high table, slowly began sinking to the ground, as though her legs could no longer hold her. "I'm SORRY! I didn't mean it! He wasn't going to die, he was never going to— It was— It was fake— It just — to make it more interesting — I— This can't be real– can't be– can't—"

The Headmaster cleared his throat quietly. "Poppy, could you...?"

Madam Pomfrey stood, her own eyes and nose rather red. She nodded, approaching the now completely incoherent Divs professor, raising her from the floor, still crying and muttering, leading her out of the Hall.

A wave of whispers and giggles and comments rose in her wake, the one which drew Neville's attention coming from Hermione, watching the drama with an oddly...sour expression. "I suppose it's something she didn't get to be here to see that."

"Er...what? Who?" he asked. He wasn't really sure why. Maybe so he didn't have to think about the speech Dumbledore had returned to at the front of the Hall, talking about Harry and his life and friends and how they still didn't know what had happened, but the Aurors were on the case.

Hermione glowered into the middle distance for a second, then bit her lip before apparently deciding to tell him. "Lyra." Neville didn't think he'd ever heard her say her best friend's name with that much...rage? Scorn? He didn't know, really, but it left no question in his mind that Hermione disapproved of whatever Lyra had gotten up to now. "She's been trying to drive Trelawney mad all year, you know, making her stupid fake prophecies come true."

Trelawney's words suddenly made sense: I didn't mean it; It was fake; To make it more interesting — a memory of their very first Divs lesson came to mind, his worry about breaking his teacup driven entirely from his mind by the professor declaring dramatically that Harry's cup held the Grim...

"She's been... What? And why?"

Hermione's face twisted into...almost a sneer, though Neville didn't think it was directed at him, so much as at the absent Black. "Why does Lyra ever do anything? Because she thinks it's bloody hilarious, that's why. It's all just a prank to her, a ridiculous, esoteric game that no one else knows they're playing."

"So, wait," he said, as quietly as he could, leaning in slightly closer. "Are you telling me that Lyra actually did...this...somehow? That Harry's not..."

"I'm sure he's fine. Didn't I just tell you she's been planning to take him on holiday? I bet you anything he'll be back in the fall, even if she somehow manages to keep him out of the public eye all summer."

"Er... Hermione... Not to sound, well..."

Hermione fixed him with an almost pitying look. "You think I'm in denial."

Neville shrugged, becoming uncomfortably aware that his earlier confidence in Harry being fine, or at least alive, was based on Hermione's reaction. But it kind of seemed more likely to him that she was in denial, if Dumbledore was saying Harry was...

"It's just, Professor Dumbledore seems awfully convinced," he said carefully. "He wouldn't tell us all if he wasn't, would he? And didn't you say Lyra was obliviated?"

"She designed a babbling potion with secondary effects to give a cold to the entire school. She sat the Runes and Arithmancy OWLs last week without even taking the classes. She tricked the bloody Castle into giving her her own bedroom, and has all the resources of the House of Black at her disposal, including their library! You really think she couldn't find a way to trick Dumbledore into thinking Harry's dead?"

Her volume rose over the course of her little rant, enough that Dean, on Neville's other side, overheard at least part of it. "No offence, Hermione, but that sounds like something you'd read in the Quibbler. I know you don't want to believe it, but..."

The girl turned a furious glare on him. "Why do you all want to believe it? Where's the proof? Dumbledore just said they don't have his body, how do they even know he's dead, not just preemptively running away from his horrible aunt and uncle instead of waiting until halfway through hols? Even if he was really kidnapped, there's no reason to assume he's dead! Why are you all so quick to give up on him? Do you want him to be dead?"

Neville exchanged an uncomfortable look with Dean, and Seamus down the bench beyond him. Neither of them had an answer, so he supposed it fell to him. "It''s not that we want him to be dead — of course we don't! But it's one's seen him, and Dumbledore has to have some reason to think he' know, even if he can't tell us what it is. He did say the aurors were still investigating, that happens sometimes, that they won't release the details of an open case..."

"Of course they won't," the muggleborn scoffed, her voice low, but vicious. "But they will let people just go around declaring missing people to be dead, when they've yet to close the case! Why not just say that the investigation is ongoing? It's not like anyone making up rumors has any idea what's going on! But no, we've got to be all overdramatic and– and— He's not dead, okay? Harry's not dead. Lyra faked his bloody death. Even if no one can prove it, they can't prove he's dead either because he's not!"

"Er...Hermione," Dean said softly, as though he thought she might do something irrational at his words. "Are you... Maybe you should go up to the Hospital Wing. Just, you know, something you calm down. A little."

Neville nodded. "I don't want to believe it either, Hermione—" He couldn't even bring himself to say it — couldn't even think it. "—but...Dumbledore wouldn't tell us if he wasn't sure..."

Hermione's furious expression froze, then vanished, as she looked from him to Dean and Seamus. "Oh. My. God. This must be how Cassandra felt..." she said, half under her breath — then more loudly, pushing herself up from the bench, "That's it. I'm going to sit with the Slytherins, at least they don't believe our bloody Headmaster is infallible!"

"I'll come with you," Ginny said from the other side of the table. Neville had forgotten she was apparently in on the privacy charm, though a quick glance around them suggested that no one else was. The students all around them didn't even seem to have noticed Hermione's ranting, and while she hadn't been loud, she hadn't exactly managed to keep it down entirely.

Hermione didn't acknowledge Ginny's tacit support. She stormed away toward the back of the Hall, ignoring Professor Dumbledore's ongoing speech. She wasn't the only one out of her seat, though most were heading for the doors, overcome with grief. Neville himself felt like he might be ill, his stomach in knots, heart pounding what felt like way too hard, mind scrambling for a distraction, for anything to think of other than Harry being...

"You'll...make sure she's alright, won't you, Ginny?" He found himself asking. She had sounded rather hysterical there, toward the end.

Ginny fixed him with a completely unreadable stare which seemed to last much longer than he thought it must have done, really.

After a short eternity, she said, "I think she's right. She knows Black better than anyone. If she says Black could trick Dumbledore into believing Harry's dead, I believe her. And, well," her mouth curved into a tiny, slightly sardonic smile. "Harry may not like being the Boy Who Lived, but he is very good at not dying."

Neville wished he could believe Hermione, too, but he just...couldn't. There was nothing to be gained in deluding himself when even Dumbledore said it...

Harry was dead.

—Well, fuck, Blaise thought, going to tug back the curtain around the bed Pomfrey had indicated Lyra was occupying, only to find it fixed in place with some sort of sticking charm.

—"Lyra?" he said, though without much hope of a response. If Lyra had wanted to keep the curtain closed, it was a good bet she'd cast anti-eavesdropping spells, too. Even if they could hear him, they wouldn't be able to respond.

—Great. Snape was going to be so pleased, delaying his confirmation that Harry was completely fine for however much longer Maïa took, talking to Lyra. At least, he was pretty sure it was Maïa, there was something familiar — recognisable — about her mind, even though she'd gotten good enough at occlumency that he couldn't just casually eavesdrop on whatever they were saying. Not to mention, that particular attempted-denial-of-amusement/socially-mandated-outrage feeling was almost characteristic of Maïa talking to Lyra. Even if it was mixed with genuine horror and guilt at the moment.

—He flopped onto the next bed over to wait — knowing Maïa, this could take a while. He didn't imagine she was pleased with Lyra right now. Faking Harry's death was orders of magnitude more disruptive than anything else Lyra had done this year, even if it was a logical conclusion to the Trelawney prank. Of course, he didn't think she really comprehended how everyone who actually knew Harry personally would take the news of his death. It had taken weeks for him to convince her to tell Harry's friends that she was taking him on holiday rather than just disappear with him.

—She still hadn't told Harry. See, when she'd floated the hypothetical plot, asking about the likely fall-out and whether Harry would go along with it, Blaise had told her that if she gave Harry a choice between leaving and having everyone think he was dead or staying, he would stay. So Lyra had decided not to tell him. She was, in fact, planning to keep him ignorant of the rumors of his demise and the consequent chaos as long as possible, because the longer he didn't know the funnier it would be when he found out.

—Blaise thought this was incredibly stupid, but not nearly as stupid as her asking Blaise to keep it from him. True, he could easily keep Harry away from the pertinent memories. He was still a much better occlumens than Harry was a legilimens. But there was absolutely no way he would later be able to deny any knowledge of the prank — it was patently impossible that he wouldn't have heard something before returning home for the summer. And when Harry inevitably realised Blaise had chosen to deceive him on Lyra's behalf, all the progress he'd made in getting Harry to trust him would be ruined.

What a tragedy, cutting off your ridiculous teenage romance before it could bear fruit.

Romance probably isn't the right word... Blaise thought back. Not that he knew what the right word was. Harry's feelings about their relationship were definitely headed in a more romantic direction, but he didn't think his own feelings toward Harry were really different from those he held for anyone else he considered to be one of his people. More like a sort of ownership and accompanying responsibility than romance, really...

He caught a complicated sense of nostalgia and a brief flash of Lily Evans before Snape shut down his response. He ignored Blaise's unarticulated question, too. I'm not your bloody therapist, Zabini. I have no desire whatsoever to discuss the intricacies of your feelings for Potter or the lack thereof.

Good, neither did Blaise. Now to make sure Snape would think twice before mocking his "ridiculous teenage romance" again... We could talk about yours. Was that Lily Evans?

Snape forcibly re-oriented his point of focus toward the memory — the mind-magic equivalent of grabbing him by the hair to turn his head. While they'd been chatting, they'd missed several minutes of Blaise lying around speculating about Lyra's likely reaction to his just telling Harry. Because while he didn't think Harry would leave if he knew people were going to think he was dead, he was pretty sure that he could convince him not to go back.

—A thought slipped through Maïa's occlumency, tinged with misgiving and half-denied joy. I'm her favourite person? But— Okay, definitely a compliment, then, but...I have no idea what to think about that.

—Well, someone was laying it on thick. Maïa must have been even more annoyed with Lyra than he'd expected. Probably because she wasn't in on the plan.

—A few minutes later, the privacy wards fell. Maïa heading directly for the door, seemingly not even noticing the greeting he called as she walked away.

—"Maïa's your favorite person?" he said, in lieu of a greeting to Lyra. "I think I might be hurt."

—"You're not people and you know it."

—Blaise, unlike Maïa, knew a compliment from Lyra when he heard it. "You say the sweetest things. So. Snape said something about proof of life?"

—"He can't possibly actually think I killed Harry."

—"Well, no, I don't think he thinks it's likely, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want proof. He did know Bellatrix, you know."

—Lyra pouted. "Other Bella wouldn't have actually killed him either. Fake prophecy, fake murder. Actually murdering him wouldn't make sense. But I need you to go to Ancient House anyway. There's a bag of wands in the second drawer to the left of the range in the kitchen, I—"


—"Yes, wands, those bloody twats snapped mine. Fuckers. So, I need you to go get one for me."

They snapped her wand? That was just... Even if she didn't seem particularly angry about it — annoyed and edgy, sure, but not nearly as furious as he knew he would be, if someone had the temerity to destroy his wand — that was just incredibly stupid of them. Blaise didn't even want to know what she was planning as retribution.

Probably something mind-bendingly absurd and gratuitously painful, though not permanently damaging, Snape thought, his mental 'voice' unmistakably resigned.

—"Er. Which one? Or just bring all of them...?"

—"It really doesn't matter. I only kept the ones that worked passingly well for me. Here," she said, plucking something white from a shadow beside her and throwing it at him.

He caught it, barely. A bundle of white cloth, apparently, with runes stitched into it. "What is it?"

—"It's a portal. It goes to Ancient House. Don't use it here, it'll kill all the enchantments in the area, and then Pomfrey will kill you."

—"A portal?" he repeated, unfolding the thing. "You...enchanted a bedsheet as a bloody gate?"

Snape's incredulous disbelief echoed Blaise's own, confirming his initial impression that this wasn't the sort of thing people did.

No, Zabini, that isn't the sort of thing people do. He didn't elaborate on why not. Ask Ashe. She'll explain exactly why it's impossible. Then ask Bellatrix how she did it. While they're in the same room, if possible.

—"It's not a bedsheet, but yeah, figured why not?"

Well, presumably for all the other reasons no one used these things anymore outside of international travel, but Blaise wasn't objecting. He liked gate spells much better than the Floo. "Er, right. does it work?"

She grinned. "Well, the paired enchantments create basically a tiny trans-dimensional tunnel through—"

—"I'm sure you know I meant how do I turn it on."

Lyra rolled her eyes. "Psh, you have no appreciation for awesome enchanting. Just push enough magic into it to activate the siphoning array, that will draw in enough power to activate the rest of it. can cast a Protego around it to snuff it out, I guess." Presumably there was another, far more complicated 'correct' way to terminate the enchantment, but the Protego option sounded just fine to Blaise. "Don't cast any magic directly on it, though."

Blaise didn't think he wanted to know what would happen if he did cast magic at it directly. "Er...right. Anything else?"

—"Uh...don't fold it up while it's activated?"

—"Don't fold up a hole in the fabric of reality, yeah, I think that's pretty common sense, Lyra."

—"Well, actually, I kind of want to see what would happen if you did, so just don't do it without me. And yeah, I really need that wand, so."

—"Yes, yes, going. See you in a bit."

Blaise skimmed over the part of the memory where he walked down to an unused former potions lab and cast spells to prevent interruption by anyone else looking to use the abandoned space for a clandestine meeting. He tried to skim over the part where, because he couldn't use magic to stick the thing to a wall or something, he'd opted to just spread it on the floor, and consequently fell flat on his arse as soon as he stepped through it, but Snape obviously still caught it.

His mocking amusement echoed through Blaise's mind. That may be the least graceful thing I've ever seen you do, Zabini.

It was, he was pretty sure. At least no one else had seen it. And Blaise was pretty sure Snape had already seen every embarrassing thing he had ever done, anyway. Not that there were many, but he was always acutely aware of those moments when he failed to meet Mirabella's standards of grace and comportment.

(The exasperation Snape always felt when Mirabella came up was barely noticeable. Blaise ignored it. He was well aware that Snape considered her expectations of him to be entirely unreasonable. Snape was equally aware that his opinion wasn't going to stop Blaise acting in accordance with them.)

He picked himself up, straightened his robes, and shouted for Harry. Harry, predictably, wasn't within earshot — it took a few minutes of wandering around to orient himself, but when he did, he realised that he was in an entirely different wing of the house than the one that elf had been renovating as Lyra's living quarters. He headed in that direction, under the assumption that Harry would have taken one of the bedrooms that actually had a bed, wondering exactly what the best way to broach the issue of his supposed death might be.

He eventually located Harry in the bedroom closest to the only working kitchen in the house, ghosting past the doorway to grab a wand for Lyra, first — she would be beyond annoyed if he got distracted and came back without it. There were half a dozen in the drawer she had mentioned, and though she had said it didn't really matter which one he grabbed, he still found himself lingering over the choice, picking up one, then the next, trying to decide which one felt the most like her magic. None of them really did — a couple would work well enough for him, but Lyra's magic was darker than his and more... He couldn't really put his finger on the difference, but he knew they couldn't possibly actually be well-matched to her.

He was still trying to decide which one to take when Harry, drawn by the sounds of his rummaging about, appeared in the doorway behind him.

—"Blaise? What are you doing here?"

The tension in Snape's mind hadn't really been noticeable until it relaxed with the confirmation that Harry was in fact alive, at Ancient House, exactly where Lyra said he ought to be.

That will be sufficient, Zabini.

Yeah, but you should keep watching, you're going to think this is hilarious. Blaise had come up with a rather tidy solution to the problem of Lyra's ridiculous demands conflicting with his own plans for Harry, if he did say so himself.

—"Hey! Um...I wanted to talk to you about something, but Lyra asked me to grab one of these for her while I was here, and I didn't want to forget."

—"No, I mean, I thought the train didn't get in until later this afternoon." Though I guess if the train was here, Lyra would be here, too... And are those wands? Why would Lyra need a spare wand? Why couldn't she just come get it herself? "Is something wrong, Blaise?"

—" should probably sit down."

Harry, of course, did not sit, instead coming closer to grab his arm and look him directly in the eye. "Blaise. What's going on?"

—"Nothing. It's just a misunderstanding."

—"Blaise. Why aren't you on the train? And where's Lyra?"

—"She's still at school. Everyone's still at school, actually. The train isn't running today."

—"Are you specifically trying to not tell me something?"

—"No, I'm just...trying to find the right way to tell you something."

Harry stepped back, made an open-armed I'm-right-here gesture. "Just tell me."

Blaise grabbed a wand at random and shoved it into his pocket alongside his own before dragging Harry into the nearest sitting room and shoving him onto a sofa. "You know how there were a bunch of tracking charms on you?"


—"Yeah, well, there was also a set of monitoring spells, you know, the kind of thing that you put on nursery kids just to make sure they're happy, safe, and so on."

Harry very clearly didn't know what to say to that. His thoughts were a jumbled mess — They put fucking baby monitoring charms on me?! warring with Lyra didn't say anything about anything like that... and Wait, but. What would be the problem, then...? In the end, that one appeared to win out. "I don't get it. I mean, if they know I'm safe and happy... How is that a bad thing?"

—"Ah. Well. It would be a good thing, actually. I think Lyra was counting on them reassuring everyone that you were fine, despite disappearing on them, but, well... They're only a good thing if they work. See, the wards here are interfering with them, somehow, and, well..."

A sneaking suspicion was growing in the back of Harry's mind — not only that this was a Very Bad Thing, but also that Lyra would definitely have mentioned if there was some way that everyone would know he was okay while she was trying to convince him to leave in the first place. "AND?"

Best to just do it, Blaise decided — tear off the bandage. "Dumbledore thinks you're dead."

Harry was momentarily stunned, his mind going entirely blank in shocked disbelief before stuttering back to life. "I— You— What?! Dumbledore thinks I'm dead?! Why? How? I mean..."

—Right. Better distract him before he realises Lyra did this on purpose... He was close, after all, with that thought that she would have told him if she'd known the monitoring charms would work in their favor. Fortunately those poor idiots who had attacked Lyra had provided just the thing. "Well, it's not just Dumbledore — between you disappearing and Lyra getting attacked—"

—"Lyra got attacked?! Is she okay? She didn't kill anyone, did she?"

—Well, that worked perfectly. Blaise laughed. "No, she didn't. She actually got her arse kicked for once. She's in hospital, looks like shite." He pushed an image of a pathetic, bandaged (but awake and clearly furious) Lyra at Harry.

—"She looks... Fucking hell, Blaise, what happened? Who did that to her?" It...wasn't Riddle, was it? he wanted to ask — it was the right time of year for that sort of thing, and he couldn't imagine anyone else managing to do that to Lyra. But it was just too absurd to actually say aloud (even if he did think it clearly enough that he might as well have).

—"Snape thinks she got ambushed by a bunch of students. Take away her wand and tie her up with actual ropes, and Lyra's not much more dangerous than you are." Blaise was good enough at mind magic that he'd probably be more dangerous than Lyra if they were both wandless and tied up. That was a very weird thought... "She's claiming they obliviated her, but I guarantee she knows who they were. She just doesn't want to get them chucked in Azkaban for torturing her."

Do you know who they were? Snape asked, a distinct note of suspicion radiating from his presence.

Some of them. Malfoy. Brown. Probably le Parc. Maybe Rowle. Not sure who else. Why? It's not like they actually hurt her.

No. But you know as well as I do that she will take their actions as a guideline for the severity of her retaliation, and those morons have almost certainly escalated the conflict beyond a level of violence they are capable of tolerating or maintaining. I would simply like to know which students may be in danger of...somewhat overzealous payback.

Blaise threw a wave of exasperation at him. It wasn't like Lyra was ever very subtle about her plans. He was pretty sure he'd be able to manage whatever she decided to do to them, steer her away from hurting them too badly. But, fine, I'll find out.

—"Torturing her?"

—"Ah...Snape gave me the run-down, but I don't think you really want details. There was at least one Cruciatus, and she had to have all the bones in her right hand re-grown."

Harry winced, recalling the de-boning of his own right arm. "Isn't the Cruciatus Unforgivable? They should be in Azkaban!"

—"Nah. She's annoyed, I mean, they did break her wand." Harry winced again, this time recalling his and Weasley's ill-fated trip back to Hogwarts for their second year. "But she's not ruin their lives and burn their Houses to the ground annoyed. I kind of got the impression that she's actually a little pleased with whoever it was."

—"What—" Harry said abruptly, cutting himself off sharply when he apparently realised he didn't know how to finish that question. Blaise assumed he meant, what kind of twisted, Lyra logic leads to her being pleased about being tortured?

—"If people retaliate, you know, for her pranks and generally acting like an arse, they're engaging with her, playing her game."

—"Game? Blaise, you said they used a fucking Unforgivable on her!"

—"Yes, game," he smirked. "You may have noticed, Lyra likes to play rough." He pushed a memory of Lyra wrestling with a snarling Sylvie at him, followed by one of Lyra's duels with Theo, before school started. He considered throwing in the highlights of one of their snogging sessions — he didn't mind her being a violent heathen child nearly as much when he was getting off on it — but Harry didn't know about that. "I guarantee that's not the first time someone's cast an Unforgivable on her, and it's not like she doesn't know she pisses people off all the bloody time, I'd be shocked if she wasn't expecting someone to try something like this eventually. She will do something to get back at them, but nothing that will end the game."

Harry just gave him a flat, disbelieving look.

Blaise sighed. "Just chalk it up to Lyra's insane and leave it at that. She's not going to turn them in. It wouldn't be cricket." Judging Harry's initial outrage to have worn off sufficiently to return to convincing him not to ruin the prank, he added, "Also, she thinks it's hilarious that between their attack on her, and your sudden unexplained disappearance, everyone thinks you're dead. In fact, she asked me not to tell you, because she thinks you're going to run off and ruin our holiday just to reassure your adoring public that you're alive and well."

—"My adoring— I call dragonshite! She just thinks it's funny that Dumbledore's— Wait, everyone?!"

—"Well, obviously our friends aren't going to believe the rumors. I mean, if Lyra tells them she's taking you on holiday and I tell them I've seen you in person since you 'died', do you really think they'd believe gossip and Dumbledore over us?"

—"Well, no, but..." Harry very nearly objected on principle before Blaise nudged his thoughts toward the way Magical Britain had reacted to his reappearance in 1991 with their fawning hero worship, and how quickly they had turned on him with the revelation that he could talk to snakes.

The memory froze. Shite. He'd forgotten about that. Now he was going to have to sit through—

Zabini, what have I told you about that sort of manipulation?


Blaise knew the conversation Snape wanted him to recall. Well, his habit of reminding people of certain facts and events that were relevant to the conversation at hand in such a way that they were unlikely to think he was blatantly manipulating them had actually come up several times. Technically it wasn't even a compulsion, just a suggestion, but Snape still didn't approve. He'd asked why once, and Snape had refused to tell him, but after looking at Gin and Harry's memories of Riddle's horcrux he suspected it was just because it reminded him of Not-Professor Riddle. It certainly hadn't stopped him from using it on Blaise in their lessons, anyway. But he's a legilimens, he's fair game.

Have you taught him to recognise such subtle alterations in his thought patterns?

Well, no, but you never taught me, either. Hardly the same situation, since Blaise had figured out suggestions when he was ten, but.

You realise your attempts to feign stupidity are even more transparent when I'm in your bloody mind, do you not? Potter is hardly a competent legilimens — he hasn't even fully come into the talent. He can hardly be considered fair game.

Fine, whatever, Blaise thought emphatically, putting as much exasperation behind the idea as he could. He didn't do it very often, anyway — Harry wouldn't take it well if he realised that Blaise was manipulating him. He probably also wasn't going to take it well when he got good enough to realise that there were memories Blaise had been hiding from him entirely, but he was quite certain Harry wasn't ready to know that Blaise had been an accomplice to multiple murders.

He's also not going to take it well when he realises the extent of your relationship with the junior Bellatrix, Snape noted.

Oh, shut up.

It wasn't as though Snape was actually concerned for Blaise's relationship with Harry — he just really didn't like the fact that Blaise and Lyra were snogging. (Given the two options, he would much rather see Blaise play Evans to Harry's Potter than Riddle to Lyra's Bellatrix.) He wasn't wrong that Harry wasn't going to take it well, but Harry had comprehensively failed to make any sort of a move on Blaise himself, and Blaise wasn't about to stop snogging Lyra or his Hufflepuffs while he waited for him to work up his nerve. And he definitely wasn't going to escalate their relationship himself — with Harry's control issues (or rather issues with his complete lack of control over his life), it would be far better to let him set the pace.

If and when Harry decided to move things in a more romantic and/or sexual direction, Blaise would tell him about Lyra. Until then... Well, he could reasonably claim he hadn't thought it was any of Harry's concern.

Before Snape could tell him that was a terrible plan (in defiance of his stated disinterest in Blaise's romantic entanglements), Blaise resumed the memory.

—"Dumbledore wouldn't even think you were dead if he hadn't been spying on you." (Good. Fucking. Point, Harry thought.) "Or if he was willing to listen to Lyra, or investigate properly rather than just trusting his monitoring spells to be infallible."

—"Are you really going to tell me that Lyra told Dumbledore that I'm alive?"

—"Well, no. Actually, I don't think she's seen him since she woke up. Pomfrey's still got her locked up in hospital. But Snape went up and threw Cheering Charms at her until she admitted he was right about what happened — you know, her sending you off and then getting ambushed—" (He sent over a second-hand memory of Snape looming over Lyra's sick-bed all furious and protective on Harry's behalf, with Lyra pouting at him and complaining about his immediately unravelling her plots.)

Was that really necessary, Zabini? Snape complained, embarrassment shading his annoyance as though the consequences of his own ill-fated teenage romance were somehow shameful. Granted, Blaise didn't know Snape's exact circumstances at the end of the War, but he had managed to piece together that he had decided to protect Harry after Lily's death. That duty weighed on him even more heavily than his duty to his Slytherins (and Blaise was pretty sure Snape had killed Defense Professors to protect his Snakes).

Not really, no. But he was starting to get angry at you for hurting her after she was just, you know, tortured—

(Disbelief and a hint of scorn rose in response to the idea of Lyra being tortured, the mental equivalent of scoffing and rolling one's eyes. Blaise declined to pursue the thought, or more likely memory, behind it. It was probably something with Other Bella, during the War. Blaise suspected that Snape had been intentionally allowing him to gather an impression of the sort of crazy Lyra might eventually grow into, as though that would put him off.)

and as funny as it is when Harry goes off on a Snape-is-evil rant, I was trying to have a conversation with him.

Oh, yes, I'm so evil, throwing Cheering Charms at an agent of bloody Chaos.

Blaise radiated amusement in response to the snark. He could tell Snape wasn't nearly as put out as he sounded, presumably because he appreciated the irony, even if Harry, who had no idea that Lyra was a black mage, couldn't.

Yes, yes, I'm sure Potter's ignorance is a constant source of amusement to those who are not responsible for his safety and general well-being. I do, however, have other things to do today. Is there a point to this little recitation, aside from showing off your ability to manipulate an ignorant half-wit?

Oh, fine. It was a more impressive bit of manipulation than Snape was willing to admit — Harry was actually relatively suspicious of others' motives in regard to...pretty much everything. But that wasn't the part he'd thought Snape would enjoy. He skimmed forward, skipping the twenty minutes or so he'd spent convincing Harry not to just go to Mira's house (away from the wards disrupting the monitoring spells) and generally getting him on board with the idea of letting 'The Boy Who Lived' spend the entire summer dead.

Harry nodded, then half-seriously asked, "Do you think I could just arrange to come back as a transfer student? Just, I don't know, pretend to be my own cousin, or something? Because I really don't want to have to deal with all that shite when we come back, either."

—"Ah...probably not. Mira could get the transfer papers, sure, but there'd be issues with House Potter...stuff." Blaise wasn't actually certain what that stuff entailed, but Lyra had definitely mentioned something about it not being a problem over the short period of the summer holiday, which meant it probably would be a problem if Harry tried to stay dead indefinitely.

Harry pouted (adorably). "I didn't ask to be the last Potter any more than I did to be the Boy Who Lived, you know."

—"Yeah, but see, being Lord Potter means you can propose a law to abolish Mondays if you want. That's much less stupid than the whole Boy Who Lived thing."

He chuckled at that, genuine amusement washing over Blaise. "Yeah, well, no arguments here. I still don't buy that Lyra didn't do this on purpose, though."

Blaise shrugged. "You don't really care, either." Harry gave him an exasperated glare — it always annoyed him when Blaise told him what he was feeling, even when he was right. Sometimes especially when he was right. "If you really want to do something about it, just don't let her figure out that you know until we get back to Britain."

—"Er...what? Why would that...?"

—"She thinks it'll be funnier to just not tell you and let you find out when you get back to school. If you manage to keep the fact that you know from her all summer instead of her keeping your 'death' from you, she'll be forced to recognise that she's not as smart as she thinks she is, and you're not that easy to fool. And also, she'll spend the whole summer trying to keep you away from newspapers and anyone who might mention your 'death' for nothing, it will be hilarious."

A slow grin spread across Harry's face as he considered this idea, quickly developing into an evil smirk. "Yeah, alright. Let's do it. I can't wait to see the look on her face..."

Snape pulled out of the memory, dragging Blaise's focus back to the real world as well.

He was laughing.


Blaise gave him one of his own flat, sardonic expressions in response. "I told you you'd like it."

After a few seconds, he managed to get a hold of himself. "For once I find myself in complete agreement with Potter — I do hope you manage to pull it off, because the look on her face...

"Five points to Slytherin, Zabini."

It had been three hours — three hours and twelve bloody minutes — since Dumbledore had announced Harry's death, and everything was...

Well, quite frankly, everything was terrible. Just...awful.

Hermione was beginning to think she'd had no idea what guilt felt like before today.

She'd spent the last couple hours telling herself, over and over, that she'd known this was going to happen, but she was also beginning to think that was just making it worse. Nothing had actually changed since that annoying (and confusing) conversation in the Hospital Wing. She'd known the Headmaster would have to make an announcement soon. She'd hoped Lyra was wrong, that Dumbledore was smart enough to wait and let the Aurors decide whether Harry was dead or not, and make them break the news, after everyone was home — let them read it in the Prophet, let the news pass relatively unnoticed, avoid creating panic and spectacle, rather than make a huge bloody production about it. She hadn't held much hope for it, but enough to convince herself that maybe she didn't even need to say anything, and everything would be — well, not fine, but not...this.

Not Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster, Chief Warlock, Supreme Mugwump and generally speaking the most well-respected person Hermione knew of in Magical Britain, standing before the assembled student body and delivering the crushing news with the full weight of his authority behind it: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, was dead.

Harry being who and what he was, there couldn't not be a reaction to that. And she just...

She'd just let it happen.

And now...

She hadn't realised what it would mean, was all. Well, she had, but— The...mess it would cause had been just theoretical, and she'd thought she could handle it — just keep her bloody mouth shut, for Harry (and Lyra).

But now it'd become all too real, and she didn't know if she could handle it — it was just—

The ridiculous theatre of Dumbledore's announcement and the immediate aftermath had been bad enough. She'd just... It'd been hard, sitting there, witnessing everyone's shock and horror and grief. Harder than she'd thought it would be, even — seeing Hagrid crying was particularly difficult — knowing it was pointless, the whole thing was a lie, but she couldn't do anything about it, it was too late, and worse, knowing she could have— Well, she might not have been able to do anything, Dumbledore might not even have agreed to see her before lunch, but she hadn't even tried.

Lyra had won.

Not just the– the stupid prank, the lie, not just that she had made this happen, all these people were miserable and it was all her fault, but she'd won...whatever silent, half-acknowledged ethical struggle Hermione had been trying to ignore for months, now.

She'd been amused at Trelawney's little breakdown — it hardly mattered that the sharp joy of schadenfreude had been followed immediately by a surge of self-hatred and hatred for Lyra (though not enough, not nearly enough), for having done this to her, to all of them, because she knew it wasn't all Lyra's fault. Every minute that passed she became more certain of it, in fact. The mean, vindictive pleasure that Lyra didn't get to be here to enjoy it did nothing to assuage the guilt threatening to overwhelm her because Burke had been right, and she had done nothing.

She'd intentionally focused on the conversation at the Gryffindor table, so she didn't have to listen to the Headmaster's attempt at memorialising Harry. It'd quickly become clear, in only a few sentences, that Dumbledore really didn't know him at all. When she thought about it, why should he? They'd had very little interaction, really — the few times Harry had talked to Dumbledore he hadn't come away with the best impression, he'd told Hermione he thought Dumbledore was bloody confusing and maybe just a little bit mad. (And also rather condescending, apparently, but most adults were when dealing with children.) From what he'd told her, they'd certainly never talked about anything personal. Unless Sirius being innocent counted, but Harry had really just been present for that one, listening to Lyra and Dumbledore snark at each other like crazy people.

If she'd had occasion to consider it beforehand, she wouldn't have thought Albus Dumbledore and Bellatrix bloody Lestrange to at all get on, but she did sort of see it now. They were both brilliant and flamboyant and absolutely insane, it made a mad kind of sense.

What she'd heard of that speech of his — Dumbledore cementing the public image of Harry as some kind of heroic mystical savior (not his words, obviously) — had unpleasantly reminded Hermione of Harry's mother. There had been hints, reading between the lines in old issues of the Herald and the Prophet, that Lily Evans hadn't been the gentle, maternal, self-sacrificing Healer she was made out to be. Hermione had put together that the modern characterisation of her was fabricated on her own — Lily was an incredibly famous muggleborn Head Girl, Hermione had started reading everything about her she could find before even getting to Hogwarts — but she hadn't realised just how thorough it was until this last term.

Apparently, Eris had told Lyra all about Lily — apparently, she'd been a talented ritualist, and one of the Powers' favourites, at that. Hermione had no idea what to think about that.

Nor did she know how to feel about Dumbledore seemingly trying to do something similar with Harry. He hadn't done anything nearly so controversial as his mother, true, but... The boy Dumbledore was talking about, he was a complete stranger. That wasn't Harry at all. Hermione couldn't even listen to it for more than a moment, she...

It made everything more complicated, somehow — Harry wasn't actually dead, true, but if he were...

Nobody would remember him. Everybody would remember Harry Potter, Boy Who Lived, but nobody would remember him. Just Hermione and Ron, Lyra, Hagrid, maybe Zabini, Ginny...the Quidditch team? His roommates? When she thought about it, Harry really didn't have that many friends, only had to look at the absurd drama that had been last year to realise that most of the school had absolutely no idea what he was really like. If he really had died, it'd be the Boy Who Lived who would be remembered. Harry would be forgotten, all too quickly. That realisation made her feel...

Angry. It made her angry.

Hermione hated feeling angry. Especially over something she could do nothing about. Especially when that thing was as stupid as the fucking Boy Who Lived myth.

(She hated that she felt more guilty about focusing on the things that made her angry so she wouldn't have to feel so guilty because — she could have done something about that, about the announcement (maybe) if she hadn't been so... If Lyra hadn't won.)

This whole thing, Harry being 'dead', everyone breaking down over it, it was almost overwhelming. Some of it was just making her furious — she didn't know which was worse, how the real Harry disappeared entirely or the students here and there who didn't care or even seemed pleased. (Bloody racist Death Eater fascist shites, Jesus Christ, she'd been this close to punching Malfoy in his pointy fucking face.)

Some of it was making her feel awful — this was all Lyra's fault, and Hermione was protecting her, and she should feel guilty about that but she just didn't — she should have tried to stop it, yes, she knew that, but– but... There was no bloody justification, she just couldn't bring herself to betray Lyra, even when she was doing something like this — telling herself that she'd only done it, only kept quiet for Harry would be a lie — she just— She knew she'd been doing something wrong, and she'd done it anyway, because...because it was Lyra.

(God, she was a terrible person, what was wrong with her?! Why had she— How had she possibly thought this would be okay?!)

And some of it was just frustrating, she'd never felt so helpless — and talking to the Gryffindor boys didn't make that any better. Bloody idiots. Nobody believed her, aside from Ginny and Lyra's friends, not even Hagrid, she'd tried to tell him Harry was fine, it hurt seeing him hurt so badly, but he wouldn't listen, if Dumbledore said Harry was dead, it was Dumbledore

And she couldn't escape from it. She'd left Gryffindor tower almost as soon as she'd returned, rather than sit there, watching everyone and their suffering and offering their entirely genuine and completely insufferable condolences to her. She couldn't stay in Slytherin, either. Not because she wasn't welcome — it was still a little uncomfortable, but they'd grown weirdly tolerant of Hermione the last couple months, probably because Lyra's friends didn't mind having her around — no, Slytherin dealing with Harry's 'death' was almost as bad as Gryffindor. Maybe worse, though in a very different way.

It wasn't grief, exactly, more a sort of anxious excitement, knowing something was about to happen, and not being entirely sure what, but something big.

Bracing for impact, maybe.

It was partially because of their Truce, Daphne had explained — nobody knew what consequences Harry's apparent murder would have for the silly little social ceasefire the nobility had maintained since the end of the War. Everyone would be holding their breath until they knew who had 'killed' him. But beyond that, the political winds were shifting: Harry Potter being 'murdered' right under his nose would have massive consequences for Dumbledore. (And Hermione could only imagine that when it eventually came out that Harry wasn't dead it would look even worse for him.)

Nobody knew exactly what would happen, but nobody doubted the Dark would capitalise on it — with a leader as brilliant and devious as Narcissa Malfoy, there was simply no possible world in which they wouldn't. Zabini was confident he'd keep the Headmastership — the Board was less susceptible to external political shifts, it'd take something monumental for him to be sacked — but Tracey claimed he'd be very lucky to still be Chief Warlock a year from now. Especially if tidbits about Harry's homelife got around, which some muckraker would almost certainly dig up in the next weeks. Dumbledore's days at the head of the government were numbered.

Hermione hadn't believed it at first, but she noticed the completely serious looks on the other Slytherins' faces, how none of them argued the point. They were more informed about this sort of thing than she was. Maybe...

Maybe this was going to get far bigger than Hermione had assumed it would.

Far bigger than she'd ever realised it could.

(Maybe there was no maybe about it. And that was terrifying.)

Had she— Had Lyra known the complete clusterfuck this would become?! Hermione...couldn't believe she hadn't. Much as she disdained the political state of Magical Britain, she was ridiculously well-informed about its intricacies and the balance of power within it (even if she sometimes got universes confused). Did she have a plan, or did she just...just disrupt things, and let the chips fall where they might?

Hermione didn't know which answer would be more disturbing.

This was getting out of hand. Hermione had to do something.

She couldn't just... She had to do something.

This was just— This wasn't just letting Harry have a holiday and showing everyone how stupid they were about their bloody Boy Who Lived myth, this mattered. Hermione might not agree with some of the political positions of the Light — she might even agree with the Dark about more issues, honestly — but she wasn't kidding herself. Even if Lady Malfoy was willing to say all the right things about muggleborn integration on behalf of the Allied Dark, the sentiments and cultural divisions that had given rise to the Death Eaters still lurked under their politically correct surface.

This was...big. Bigger than Hermione and Lyra, or Trelawney and the absolutely abysmal teaching standards at this school, or Harry and the Boy Who Lived. So much bigger than the cruel but ultimately petty mischief she'd thought Lyra was creating... She couldn't just...

It had been wrong of her not to try to stop Dumbledore making his announcement, but not so wrong that it hadn't seemed worth it, for Harry's happiness and Lyra's protection.

Letting this continue would be worse.

She wasn't sure she'd be able to live with herself, if the entire political landscape of Magical Britain imploded and she hadn't even tried to stop it.

If she... It felt like a betrayal to Lyra just to think it— (God, she had a problem, she should have distanced herself from Lyra ages ago, before she'd managed to turn Hermione into...this.) —but if she told Dumbledore now, he could– could make a retraction, or, or something, stop it getting out to the public, stop everything falling apart. She didn't know, this was too big for her. But Dumbledore would. He would have to.

At least, that was what she wanted to tell herself, her feet carrying her toward his office on instinct. But she wasn't entirely certain she believed it. It'd been growing increasingly clear, over the last couple years, that Dumbledore...wasn't perfect. Which, obviously he wasn't perfect, he was mortal like the rest of them, but try telling the rest of the bloody Gryffindors that he's not infallible, they'd look at her like she'd pulled out a knife and started in on some nasty blood ritual or something. The faith many mages had in Dumbledore was absolutely absurd, he was just a man. He made mistakes like everyone else.

Not that all those 'mistakes' were necessarily bad. She'd noticed, before, that Dumbledore had a tendency to handle whatever happened at Hogwarts himself, without involving outside authorities. If he didn't, Hermione might not consider going to him at all — even if she did say something to incriminate Lyra, intentionally or otherwise, she thought it likely Dumbledore wouldn't tell anyone.

He hadn't told anyone about that time Lyra had blown them up practising runic casting, after all. No matter how absurd she thought it was, runic casting was a restricted Dark Art, they could both be sent to Azkaban just for owning the book they'd been learning it from, much less actually doing it. (And Dumbledore had found the book — he'd confiscated it, they'd had to pop down to the Bookstore to get a replacement.) They, two minors, could be locked up with soul-sucking demons, for who knows how long, over reading a book. Sometimes keeping the things that happened at Hogwarts from the 'proper' authorities was not at all unreasonable. But sometimes...

Sometimes it really wasn't. The whole basilisk incident came to mind. She knew for a fact Dumbledore had managed to keep that hushed up remarkably well — there hadn't been any articles in major publications (the Quibbler didn't count) until he'd been suspended, and even then they had been very sparing on the details. There'd been a monster terrorising the school, presumably directed by one of the other students, petrifying some of them, leaving them laid up in hospital for months, and nobody had known about it.

(Hermione still wasn't comfortable talking to Ginny. She wasn't angry at her for it, of course not, never had been. She understood the poor thing hadn't been able to do anything about it, she was as much a victim as anyone else. It didn't even bother her that much — she hadn't been permanently harmed, and she hadn't even been out that long, it hadn't even hurt, it wasn't a big deal. She'd said as much when Ginny had apologised, back in September. But she could tell the younger girl still felt terrible over the whole thing, and... She didn't know. It was just always there, hanging over them unspoken, it made her uncomfortable.)

Other people she'd talked to, they thought, it was Dumbledore, surely nobody could have handled the situation better than he. But...couldn't they? They didn't have a cursebreaker on staff — the closest thing they had was Professor Babbling who, while brilliant, was more a wardcrafter and enchantress than anything. It had taken a while for Hermione to realise, since Lyra had a distinct predilection for runic magic, but cursebreakers did deal with a much larger range of spells than malicious (and/or protective) enchantments and wards. Who could say what a proper cursebreaker might have been able to do about that petrification, they might not have needed to wait for the mandrakes at all. (Hell, Lyra could have broken it — she'd found an article in some Indian journal — said it would have taken blood magic, which was illegal, but she claimed it wouldn't even be difficult.)

And, that diary, it sounded like a bloody horcrux — which had unpleasant implications, considering that one had been destroyed and Riddle was apparently still out there, which meant he had more than one — and that was seriously powerful dark magic. Seriously dark magic that was, all things considered, quite easy to detect. Give Hermione a month or two to work on her divination (the proper stuff, not the nonsense that drunken fraud babbled on about), and she probably could have tracked it down. Dumbledore was very knowledgeable, yes, but he was focused on light wizardry; the closest thing the school had to an expert in dark witchcraft was Snape, and his focus was on potions and mind magic, not divination.

Not that anybody seemingly knew divination anymore.

Ignoring the fact that anyone with the proper qualifications could have broken the petrification without too much difficulty, ignoring the high probability that the diary could have been traced, ignoring the fact that the puzzle of what was happening had not been difficult to solve — Hermione had figured it out, and she'd been thirteen — one would think securing the school should have been bloody easy! Nobody could tell her the attacks could have continued uninterrupted if the Ministry had, she didn't know, posted a handful of Hit Wizards or Aurors at the school. The second Creevey had turned up petrified, Dumbledore should have called the authorities, gotten people with the proper training in to deal with it. Instead, he'd floundered around, it'd taken Harry to put everything to rights — Harry, a twelve-year-old boy who had no business killing a basilisk with a sword!

It was nothing short of a miracle that nobody had died last year. And yet, Dumbledore had been reinstated as Headmaster. And things went on, as though nothing had happened. wasn't just that. There were a lot of things that happened here that probably shouldn't be kept in-house. Most of the scuffles and harassment didn't get too serious, but Hermione was far more familiar with magical law now — some of the spells she'd seen used, even some Malfoy and his cronies had used on her before this year, were...borderline at best, and a few incidents she'd heard of definitely crossed into assault. She wasn't saying those students should be thrown in prison, especially since prison in magical Britain meant bloody dementors, but... Well, it was setting a harmful precedent, wasn't it? That they could hurt other people without seeing real consequences for it, that wasn't a good thing to be telling them. She was certain Death Eaters had started with similar things, when they'd been students.

(Hell, Tracey had outright told her that the original Bellatrix had helped Blaise's mother consolidate power in Slytherin when they were in school, threatening and cursing anyone who challenged their authority. However downright surreal it still was to think the semi-famous CEO of a quickly-growing muggle tech company, one she'd seen interviewed on television, had apparently been childhood friends with Bellatrix bloody Lestrange, she still wasn't over that.)

And then there were the problems that were... Well, they weren't more systemic than the bullying and assaults, but... Maybe the word she wanted was institutional. Problems that didn't just happen at Hogwarts, but were a part of the school itself.

Maybe Hermione had been spoiled a little, with the schools she'd attended before, but she had serious doubts about the suitability of some of the staff. Babbling and Vector were brilliant, Flitwick was good, McGonagall was acceptable. But the rest? For an educational institution that was supposedly the best in the country, and even one of the best in all of Europe, she couldn't help feeling the instruction was, at times, barely adequate. Well less than adequate, in some cases — Snape was plain awful, and she liked Hagrid just fine, but he was not suited to the job, he clearly had no idea what he was doing at times. Binns was dead!

And Filch? What possible justification could Dumbledore have to keep that horrid little man around? What the hell did he even do here? They had a veritable army of elves on hand, honestly...

And that was without even getting into more...philosophical issues. Hermione tried not to think about all that. But she couldn't entirely help it, sometimes.

So, by the time she got up to Dumbledore's office, she found herself in a very peculiar mood.

Dumbledore was there at his desk, still in those solemn black robes — he looked, just, surreal in plain colours, it was off-putting. Fawkes was perched on the back of his chair, tail turned to drape feathers down his shoulder, head buried in Dumbledore's hair, fussing at one knot then another. (Hedwig played with Harry's hair too, apparently it was a bird thing.) She'd walked nearly halfway across the room before Hermione realised it was unnaturally quiet in here, the constant noise of all his little devices, whatever the hell those all were, completely absent. At least some of them did look to still be working, must be silenced.

"Miss Granger." His voice seemed weaker than normal, thin and harsh. He looked much the same, for once actually appearing his age, frail and tired and defeated. (Hermione couldn't help another twinge of guilt, despite it not being her fault, not really.) "I am sorry, dear girl, but I'm afraid I can't tell you whatever it is you wish to hear."

Hermione wasn't certain what that was supposed to mean, so she just ignored it. Collapsing into one of the chairs across from him, she said, "Harry's alive."

Afterward, she wouldn't remember most of those next few minutes of conversation — mostly because, honestly, she was hardly even listening at the time. He just wasn't taking her seriously, kept turning around with platitudes about how hard it must be to believe, blah blah. It was incredibly frustrating...but not altogether surprising. After all, why should he believe that a fourteen-year-old girl was able to block his suite of monitoring charms? (Wait, what the hell was Dumbledore doing putting monitoring charms on— No, never mind that, didn't matter right now.) She couldn't deny it, it was absurd to think Lyra could best the spellwork of adults far more qualified than she.

But it was far easier to break a thing than to design it in the first place, and Dumbledore didn't know Lyra like she did. Lyra lived and breathed the absurd. The impossibility of a thing held no bearing on the probability it would happen, once Lyra got involved.

(That was part of what made her so fascinating. No, stop it, brain, she's terrible, and it's contagious!)

It didn't take Hermione very long at all to decide she wasn't going to get anywhere, he was simply never going to believe her. Which, frustrating, yes, but she honestly couldn't blame him for it. But it did... She'd tried, at least, and even if it didn't do any good it did make her feel a little better. It wasn't her fault that the truth sounded so absolutely absurd, it wasn't her fault that so many of the students and even Dumbledore himself refused to accept it. She'd done what she could. It was out of her hands.

It was possible she was just making excuses for herself, but she would rather believe it wasn't her responsibility. And why should it be? She was fourteen, honestly...

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

Dumbledore cut off in mid-lecture, sat blinking at her for a moment. "I'm sorry?"

Yes, he should be. She'd thought it before, she'd thought about it rather a lot over the last year, that something about the magical world was... She didn't know exactly how to put it. Whatever disagreement one might have with the government — and she had certainly heard a lot of disagreement over the years, her parents were bloody Co-operative supporters — there was no denying that there was at least a certain level of competence and...professionalism wasn't quite the right word, she wasn't certain what she meant to say. Integrity? Corruption did crop up from time to time, but it was at least recognised as a bad thing that should be avoided. And various schools she'd been at over the years, there were times that, looking back, she didn't entirely agree with decisions the staff and administrators made. But, in both cases, outside of a few particular exceptions, she could see there was at least an honest effort to try to fulfil the responsibilities they'd been trusted with, enough that she could respect them, whether she agreed or not.

She was finding it increasingly difficult to respect authority figures in the magical world. The more she learned, the more she saw, the clearer it was becoming that the people in positions of power had absolutely no respect for that power, they didn't take their responsibilities seriously. Too many seemed to act out of ruthless self-interest — "corruption" wasn't even a concept in magical government, patronage and market-fixing was how their economy worked — or, failing that, simple incompetence.

Which wasn't too surprising, when she thought about it. Magical Britain was an extremely isolated, extremely conservative society, and one with a comparatively small population. She wouldn't expect their priorities to align with those held by the more socio-politically advanced muggle society. The seeming floundering incompetence of their leadership was a natural consequence as well — that was just how population statistics worked, they had fewer available people and thus fewer available exceptional people.

She'd thought Dumbledore was one of those exceptional people. And, in a way, he was — he certainly was a genius, had been a singular prodigy when he'd been her age, there was no denying that. But competence in one area didn't necessarily guarantee competence elsewhere. The magical government was oppressive, much of their law contradictory, poorly-executed, or just plain silly (prison sentences for reading a book, honestly), an incestuous mire of favour-dealing and corruption. The administration of Hogwarts was little better, hardly half the professors seemed to know what they were doing, the students were left to their own devices with no adult supervision far more than would ever be allowed back home, and their safety risked far too often. It'd taken her a while to be honest about all that, but it was what it was.

And, she'd admit, she had swallowed a bit of the propaganda about Dumbledore, at first. But...

He was in charge here at Hogwarts, he was the presiding officer of the Wizengamot. He couldn't be blamed for everything that was wrong with both but, well, one of the first places to look when a ship wasn't running properly was to its captain.

She didn't think Dumbledore was malicious, of course not — he did seem to care, to be genuinely trying. But she definitely didn't agree with him on a lot of things. (His support for the censorship of magical knowledge in particular came to mind.) And, no matter how uncomfortable it might make her to think it, some portion of his inability to effectively combat the worst elements of magical society might be owed to simple incompetence.

Not that she was particularly surprised, or angry or hurt or whatever. More than anything else, her growing disillusionment with the magical world was just...disappointing.

Something she'd read a while ago floated up out of her memory. Instead of elaborating on her disappointment with the authority figures of the magical world, Hermione recited a particular passage. "There is a temptation to view institutions as monolithic, fixed structures isolated from the biases and foibles of humanity. But we mustn't forget that society is a collection of individuals, the nature of power emerging through the character and interests of the dominant class. Societal institutions, which exist solely as devices to exercise that power, must be analysed as a reflection of the character of the rulers, and their attitudes toward the ruled."

As she spoke, Dumbledore's face gradually hardened, even paling a few further shades, staring at Hermione with eyes still and sharp. Once she'd finished, he said, "You must be cautious, Miss Granger, to not let yourself get carried away. Things may seem so compellingly simple when seen with the passion of youth, but some ideas have gone out of fashion for a reason."

Hermione couldn't help an amused snort — she'd quoted the former Premier Comtois, probably the most popular politician in the history of post-Grindelwald France. She couldn't stop herself saying, "Neo-Gemeenschoppismus has hardly gone out of fashion, Professor," but she almost immediately added, "Sorry, sir, it's just..."

Frustrating. It was incredibly fucking frustrating, was what it was. So much so that she was having trouble keeping tears from her eyes. And she wasn't sorry, not at all. She just really didn't want to get into an argument with the Chief bloody Warlock over politics and political philosophy.

For one thing, she still probably wasn't informed enough about things on the magical side to perform too well, but more importantly, she doubted they'd actually get anywhere. After all, Dumbledore had little reason to take the opinions of a fourteen-year-old girl seriously, especially on a topic about which she acknowledged he was far more thoroughly knowledgeable than she, and even if he was willing to engage in an actual discussion, rather than immediately dismiss her ideas as childishly under-developed, she found most points of his own political agenda problematic in one way or another — for being the so-called progressive bloc, many of the ideas the Light espoused regarding muggles and non-human beings were shockingly paternalistic, their attempts at fostering muggleborn equality ineffective at best, and he was simply never going to talk her around to accepting censorship as beneficial.

A shadow crossed his face, his eyes drilling into her own for several long seconds, a legilimency probe brushing against the edges of her mind, though he didn't press the issue when she turned it away. Which probably only made him more suspicious, but fuck him.

It was incredibly unethical for him to try reading her bloody mind, even if she had just sort of implied she agreed with post-Grindelwald populist anti-Statutarianism — she hadn't expected Dumbledore of all people to take that well. She'd known he wouldn't when she'd said it, it was even part of why she'd said it. (It was probably the most Lyra-ish thing she'd ever done, intentionally saying something pro-Grindelwald right to the face of the man who'd defeated him.) But she wanted him to know how far he was falling in her estimation right now, even as they spoke. His continued insistence on ignoring the information she was offering, simply because he believed himself so superior to everyone else that he would believe Hermione deluded before he would consider that he could have been tricked was bloody well characteristic of the attitude reflected in the agenda of his political party and the policies of his school.

The moment passed, Dumbledore finally dropping his gaze from her accusatory glare. When he finally spoke, his voice was very quiet. "I quite understand, my dear. Loss and the desire for justice can motivate one as surely as youthful idealism. But I must caution you again not to...not to allow it to consume you. It may seem expedient, in times like these, to turn to the Dark, to embrace radical ideas in pursuit of vengeance, but Harry would not have wanted—"

Hermione's eyes narrowed at that. She wasn't entirely certain what Dumbledore thought was going on here, and she might not know more about magical politics than him, but she did know more about Harry, and she wasn't going to sit here and let him try to– to bloody well gaslight her into accepting his white-washed portrayal of the Boy Who Lived as being in any way related to the real Harry. "I'm not being funny, sir, but I think I know a bit better than you how Harry would or wouldn't want me to mourn him, if he were actually dead, which he's not."

Confusion and concern warred on Dumbledore's face before he settled on the latter and started in on the platitudes again. Hermione wanted to scream. There was simply no point in continuing this conversation. There was nothing to be gained from it.

She found herself standing rather abruptly. "You know what? Just— Thank you for your time, sir. I won't take any more of it."

The old man nodded, an expression of grandfatherly understanding plastered across his face. "I know it's hard, my dear, but the first step toward healing is accepting the loss."

She had nothing to say to that. It had only been four bloody hours since he'd made his stupid, stupid speech — even if she wasn't in denial, and Harry wasn't dead, dictating her mourning process was just a step too far. Especially since that didn't even make sense — surely accepting the loss should be the last step in the process.

But fine, she thought, as the spiral staircase carried her away from the infuriating man. She would accept Harry's 'death'. The most influential wizard in Magical Britain was convinced that he was dead, so he was, at least for the purposes of Lyra's bloody prank. And (unintentional?) impending political upheaval.

She had won.

And, at some level, Hermione wasn't certain anymore that she shouldn't — if the authorities were too bloody stupid to figure it out on their own, it really wasn't her job to convince them of it.

She still felt terrible, letting everyone mourn Harry — or rather the Boy Who Lived — for nothing, but she had at least tried to get the statement retracted, and knowing, after that conversation, that telling Dumbledore before his announcement wouldn't have made any difference at all did make her feel much less guilty. And not just because Dumbledore was bloody infuriating.

Bloody stubborn— I suppose I understand why the Slytherins call him the Old Goat, now...

She didn't want the former Death Eaters taking advantage of the power vacuum that the Slytherins seemed to think would inevitably develop over the next year or two. It wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing in the world if the Light was no longer the prevailing ideology in British politics, though. There had to be some alternative viewpoints in the Wizengamot. She was pretty sure Neville's grandmother was part of some other bloc, for example, and there were quite a few more liberal thinkers like Lady Zabini who didn't vote with any bloc consistently. Breaking the status quo would give them a chance to make a power play as well...

Hermione was so wrapped up in her attempt to find some silver lining in this whole fiasco that she very nearly walked into Luna Lovegood. She wasn't sure how, since Luna was still wearing her characteristically bright and clashing colours, but the girl still managed to surprise her, greeting her out of nowhere. Perhaps it was because she hadn't seen much of the younger girl for months now. Lyra claimed they'd broken off their friendship due to a philosophical disagreement, though Hermione suspected Lyra (accidentally) poisoning Luna with that babbling potion had more to do with it than any philosophical considerations.

"Oh! Luna! Hi. Where did you— What are you doing?"

"Thinking. And not thinking. And walking," she said, falling into step with Hermione. "You're not sad."

Hermione flinched slightly. That was one of the reasons she hadn't really tried to figure out why Luna wasn't hanging around Lyra anymore — the little Ravenclaw made uncomfortable observations far too often for Hermione to actually enjoy spending time with her. She was just so...odd. "Er. No, not really. I'm— Well, I've just been talking to Dumbledore and, well... It didn't go very well."

"About Harry? Ginny told me you don't think he's dead."

"He's not, Lyra's taking him on holiday. But of course Dumbledore didn't believe me, wouldn't even listen, really, just kept repeating his bloody platitudes, as though if he called me my dear enough times I'd stop trying to convince him that he'd been tricked, because obviously it's impossible that Albus Dumbledore could be fooled and, well, I...might have ended up quoting Comtois at him, if that gives you any idea..."

Luna gave her a half-hearted smile, though she sobered again almost immediately. "I believe you. Even though it's well after breakfast. Impossible is less absolute for people like Lyra Bellatrix than it is for everyone else."

"Thank you!" It was a bit reassuring to know that at least one other person realised that...even if that person was Luna Lovegood. "But no one else does. They're all just– just following Dumbledore on blind faith, nevermind that he hasn't provided them any proof— The whole reason he thinks Harry's dead, by the way, is a bunch of monitoring charms he had on him. Apparently corroborating evidence is unnecessary to establish whether a national bloody hero is dead!"

"Harry's a national treasure, not a national hero," Luna corrected her, absently. "Lily Irene was the hero, though Mummy always said that was a matter of perspective. Daddy says everyone is the hero of their own story, and the villain of someone else's. Some people just find their way into more stories than others. Like Grindelwald, for example. I've been thinking about him too, lately, you know."

Hermione took a deep breath to steady herself, dragging her thoughts away from Dumbledore — she didn't want to think about how– how stupid he was being. "Why have you been thinking about Grindelwald?"

Luna took a deep breath herself, letting it out in a long sigh. "Responsibilities untended fall to the ones who suffer by necessity," she quoted cryptically. "And the conflict of duty and conscience."

Silence settled between them as the little Ravenclaw apparently drifted back into her own thoughts. Hermione scowled at the floor, entirely incapable of not thinking about the conversation she'd just had with Dumbledore, especially when Luna brought up such a relevant point.

Hadn't she just been thinking that it wasn't her responsibility to try to fix this bloody mess? But if she didn't try, who would? Not Dumbledore, he was part of the problem. Maybe not even just the immediate problem of Harry's supposed death. She hadn't quoted that passage accidentally — there was a not insignificant part of her that did lay the blame for the state of Hogwarts and Magical Britain at his feet.

A part of her that thought that if he wouldn't even consider that Harry might not be dead, he deserved whatever happened to his political career when the truth finally came out.

In fact... A devious, perhaps slightly insane idea started to take form at the back of her mind. Also perhaps slightly cruel, at least to Dumbledore, adding insult to injury — Lyra really was a terrible influence. But he had tried to use legilimency on her, and completely dismissed everything she'd tried to tell him. Not to mention, it would send a message to Lyra that Hermione really didn't approve of this prank. Dumbledore might not believe her, she might not be able to mitigate the effects there, but she could still give everyone who didn't think him infallible an alternative narrative to consider.

That sounds like something you'd read in the Quibbler, does it, Dean? Well, let's see what Dumbledore thinks when it comes out not only that Harry isn't dead, but a fourteen-year-old muggleborn knew he'd been tricked and told everyone before he did. When the Quibbler is a more reliable source of information than the Chief bloody Warlock.

If she just framed it as Lyra and Sirius taking Harry on holiday (anonymously, for his own protection, because he's Harry bloody Potter), didn't even mention the false trail Lyra had laid to make it seem like he'd been kidnapped, and explained Dumbledore's announcement as a misunderstanding based on some sort of malfunction with his monitoring charms (because, as far as she could tell, that was the only real 'evidence' they had that Harry was dead and not just missing) — the "malfunction" easily "inferred" from his telling her why he believed Harry was dead, and the fact that she had been informed ahead of time that Harry would be going on holiday anonymously...

Yes, she was pretty sure she could do that without implicating anyone (because she'd be entirely avoiding any crimes that may or may not have been committed in the course of planning Harry's escape), and Harry would be long gone by the time it was actually published, so she wouldn't be ruining his holiday, either. She was certain that even if Lyra hadn't considered the consequences of the eventual revelation that Harry wasn't dead, Zabini (and Lady Zabini) would have, they must have some plan to deal with the aftermath of apparently kidnapping him, or at least removing him from Hogwarts without the permission of his guardian, so they'd probably be able to handle it if anyone realised they'd taken him to California, and when Harry eventually told everyone where he'd been, or the official cover story, Hermione could plead ignorance (or claim that she'd been deceived for security reasons) for getting the details wrong.

And maybe no one would believe her, at least at first — it was the Quibbler, after all — but time would prove her right (in a way even Dumbledore couldn't ignore), and at least she wouldn't be just keeping her mouth shut and letting Lyra do whatever she bloody well pleased, toying with the emotions of the entire bloody country like this.

Because Lyra might have won — might have managed to fake Harry's death, might have corrupted Hermione so thoroughly that she would compromise her morals to protect Lyra's safety and admit (at least to herself) that she didn't care if people she didn't like or respect were made to suffer for her amusement, and had just deliberately antagonised the head of the bloody government because he was being stupid and stubborn and wouldn't listen to her — but that didn't mean this was okay.

Luna looked at her, her head cocked to one side in a silent question, an instant before Hermione turned to her to ask, "Luna, if I wrote something — an article, open letter, maybe, telling people that Harry just left early for the holiday, do you think your father would publish it?"

"Oh, yes. Daddy always publishes the truth. I already owled it to him, actually."


"One of the other Hermiones gave it to me right after lunch."

Oh. Right. Well, okay... She should probably go write that, then...

Albus Dumbledore had known tragedy, in his life.

Harry Potter was hardly the first casualty he had witnessed over the past century, hardly the first for whom Albus held himself responsible. (So many people had died, trying to correct Albus's mistakes...) But this death struck more deeply than many of the others, coming as it did, not in a time of war, but entirely without warning. It might be more terrible to have ordered soldiers to their deaths, setting children hardly out of school against an evil they could hardly hope to stop, let alone destroy, but he could not help but feel Harry's loss more strongly.

Harry, like Ariana, had been an innocent.

His parents and their friends, everyone who'd set themselves against Tom, everyone who'd fought Gellert's rise, even — they had chosen to fight, knowing that they might die, that they would most likely die, before the end of their struggle. They had fought to defend themselves and each other and the Light, regardless of the danger. Those who had died, died fighting for something they loved more than their own lives, the ultimate sacrifice.

Harry... What had Harry died for?


And to make matters worse, Albus was beginning to fear that the loss of the Boy Who Lived would drag down more than the nation's morale — whoever had killed Harry had achieved a master-stroke in simply vanishing, leaving no trace of him to be martyred. Albus could think of no more ignominious ending to Harry's story than to simply disappear with no fanfare or drama whatsoever. But moreover, the effect on those closest to him... Well, Miss Black seemed to be selfishly unaffected — she had refused to allow a legilimens to attempt to help her recall anything that might be of use in their search on the grounds that she had no desire whatsoever to remember being subjected to torture. But Miss Granger...

He had thought before, on occasion, that Lyra Black reminded him of Lily Evans. Hermione Granger was beginning to remind him of her in an altogether different, and perhaps, given the circumstances, a more disturbing way. It had hardly been a secret that Lily had been politically inclined toward the Dark, as well as a dark witch — it followed rather naturally from her ritualistic bent, he thought, that she would disdain the attempts of more cautious, more rational wizards to curtail certain practices. And now Miss Granger, already involved in at least one attempt to practice forbidden magics along with Miss Black, was apparently reading radical political theory, embracing the ideas that had so enthralled Albus himself when he was only a few years older than she was now. Between that and her obviously emotional denial of Harry's death, he could not help but see Gellert reflected in her as well, history repeating itself yet again, a new variation on the theme...


Albus startled, jolted out of his thoughts by the appearance of a head in the floo. He'd meant to... He looked down at the half-completed letter before him. Oh, yes. Remus. His resignation. Citing the likelihood that Peter Pettigrew would be asked about the circumstances under which he and Sirius Black had become animagi in the course of his upcoming trial. Albus agreed that it was likely best that Hogwarts not have a known werewolf on staff... Though now, he would have to find yet another Defense Professor. Perhaps he could convince Olympe to bring one of her professors to act as a guest lecturer for the subject...


"Yes, Severus?"

"I'm coming through," the dark wizard informed him, stepping out of the hearth almost before his words registered.

"Er... Yes, Severus, what is it?"

The young man glowered at him. "Surely you have not forgotten that you ordered me to report before I depart for the continent."

Oh, yes, he had. There was a small part of Albus which resented Severus's insistence on attending the annual potioneers' conference in Brussels, when everything here was spiralling so entirely out of control, but he was aware that this impulse was irrational — there was nothing Severus could do to make Harry Potter less dead. He might be able to do something about Sybil's apparent psychotic break — yet another staffing problem to handle — but he wouldn't admit it if he could, and Albus wouldn't actually condone such an invasive use of mind magic anyway. And Severus certainly couldn't help with the political situation already brewing in London.

There was one thing, however, that only he could help with. One thing only he and Albus knew of. One thing upon which the entire future of their nation might turn. "Yes. Tell me, Severus, what do you think of Neville Longbottom?"

Severus's eyes narrowed, his lips twisting into a sneer. "I think he would be an even worse candidate to fulfil that bloody prophecy than Harry Potter — if, indeed, the prophecy was not fulfilled in Nineteen Eighty-One — and moreover, the point is entirely moot, because—"

"Yes, yes, I know you think there is a chance that Potter may still be alive, but you must admit, my boy—"

"Ashe agrees with me," Severus interrupted, sneering triumphantly as he drew a scroll from a pocket, throwing it onto the desk between them. "She asked me to give you this, but I'll save you the time deciphering her incomprehensible chicken scratch — it is theoretically possible to block your bloody monitoring charms."

Albus felt his eyes narrow. He ripped the scroll open rather more violently than necessary, his eyes flying over the arithmancy and the notes his Runes Professor had scrawled, a seemingly random tangle of rune strings and arithmancy and predictive geomancy. It was clear from the general messiness that this was Ashe's original work, handed off to Severus to bring to him without actually composing it into something that could more easily be interpreted. Ashe was fully capable of communicating a proof like this in a way that was easy even for amateurs to understand — she had, in fact, literally written the book on ward optimisation — but the work she did for herself was often confusing, elements of larger functions broken down and rebalanced in isolation, before coming back together again in a web of arithmancy that wasn't simple for anyone not already an expert in the field to pick apart.

Luckily, Albus had become passingly familiar with Ashe's methods over the last few years, managed to identify the solution she'd found after a brief moment of scanning the scroll. Ashe had gone a little further, characterising the waste energies the ward would produce — these would have to be compensated for by the greater system over the property, lest the whole thing collapse from deconstructive interference or literally explode due to cascading resonance. She had managed to come up with a solution to that as well, though the exact execution would depend on the structure of the rest of the wards, the character of the ambient magic in the area.

It was possible, yes, through meticulous use of down-tapping and isolation gates, but... "Ashe is an expert in her field, one of the most talented wardcrafters in all of Europe. Are you honestly suggesting that Lyra Black—"

"Not I," Severus interrupted smoothly. "I simply observe that there is no reason to block the monitoring charms and remove the tracking charms if Potter's abductor — or, as is beginning to seem more likely, the facilitator of his escape — intended to kill him. It was Miss Granger who suggested that Miss Black is responsible. And in any case, yes, I do believe Black to be capable of reaching the solution before you."

Albus twisted his face into an expression of abject disbelief. Lyra Black might be exceptionally clever — even Severus and Minerva had admitted as much, and Albus himself would admit that a certain streak of mad brilliance did run in that family — but she was fourteen. And Severus might have spent more time with her than any other adult in the castle — Albus was not the only one who had set detentions for the girl and promptly assigned them to him, Minerva and Sybil had done so several times as well — but he had himself little understanding of Arithmancy. Surely he couldn't understand how utterly absurd it was to suggest that Lyra Black could not only come to a solution that he and Filius had believed impossible and Ashe had clearly spent considerable time working through, much less that she had somehow managed to implement it.

Severus pinched the bridge of his nose, a futile gesture which Albus was certain did nothing more than express his frustration with any given conversation. "You were still teaching when Bellatrix attended this school, were you not?"

He had been. He had taught the first years and NEWT students, in those days. And he would admit that Bellatrix had been one of the more talented students he'd ever had. Also one of the most infuriating — one of those students who never paid attention to the lesson and yet could always answer any question put to her. She had, as he recalled, spent every lesson her first year illustrating (and animating) the effects of the curses in some obscure grimoire. From memory, of course, the book itself was Anathema. He hadn't realised what she was drawing until some years later, he'd simply thought her a very disturbed child. (Not entirely surprising, given her family.)

He was certain, however, that Severus was referring to her NEWT Arithmancy project, which had attained a semi-legendary status in the years that followed: combining the effects of half a dozen spells into a single multi-sensory illusion, reifying it, then translating it into three non-human languages to demonstrate the conceptual influence of casting language on the effects of the spell. It would easily have qualified as a mastery project, and everything about it — from the effects she had chosen (butterflies and sweet nothings, among others) to the presentation (claiming that combining the spells made the exercise simpler, rather than exponentially more difficult) — emphasised the fact that it was all little more than an elaborate jest to her.

"Miss Black is hardly the same person as her mother."

"No," Severus said, sounding faintly amused. "No. Bellatrix spent the vast majority of her life — from the age of seven or eight, I believe — learning to fight and kill and inflict pain. I daresay that by the time she was Lyra's age, she could have bested most grown wizards in a duel. I assure you, Lyra is every bit as intelligent, and she spent her formative years learning cursebreaking and wardcrafting. Bellatrix wouldn't have been capable of solving this particular problem at fourteen, and perhaps not even now; Lyra, on the other hand, might very well be.

"Though, now that I think on it, whether or not Black could accomplish this is irrelevant. It is altogether possible she isn't working alone."

...That was a possibility Albus honestly hadn't considered. Which, well, it was possible he had relied on the givens he'd been provided longer than was reasonable — that was a common fault in the reasoning of many people, a failure to reconsider old information, he was hardly alone in that. He'd had no reason to doubt the general outline of Miss Black's background at the time — that she'd been raised by a 'travelling cursebreaker' (one of the few remaining legacies of the old French nobility, he'd assumed), but had come to Britain after being orphaned in the recent past — so it hadn't occurred to him to wonder whether she might have support from outside the school. Which, it should have, given her demonstrated ability to somehow smuggle in illicit reading material. The easiest solution to that problem was that someone on the outside was supplying her — the very people who had raised her, perhaps, exiles attempting to find a home in the House of Black? It wasn't implausible.

It would explain rather a lot about the curious young woman, in fact. "I take it you have reason to suspect she has confederates out there."

"You do as well, if you would think on it a moment." When Albus didn't immediately respond, Severus let out a thin sigh, eyes tipping to the ceiling for a moment. "Black and Potter did separate in the forest, a third, unidentified individual leaving with Potter. Also, recall the visitor the Dursleys had last month. What is the simplest explanation?"

Albus had assumed the simplest explanation was that whoever had attacked Harry had first checked up on the blood wards, to design some method to harm him that wouldn't trigger a response. Though, now that he thought about it...if that had been their intention, why not simply break the wards? It wouldn't have even been particularly difficult — in theory, killing Petunia and her son should have left him unprotected, which anyone intending to kill Harry should certainly have been willing to do. True, the wards should have prevented anyone harming them...though they were obviously more limited than Albus had thought — according to one of his contacts in the DLE, the intruder had harmed Petunia, broken her arm...

Come to think of it, he wasn't certain the blood wards would trigger at all with Harry so far away — some magics drawing from a physical attribute, such as blood, also required physical proximity to function properly. They should still work if Harry were threatened, but his family...

Albus was skilled enough to invoke them, but he himself was not an expert in blood-bound ritual magics. He had thought it an elegant solution to the problem of protecting the boy while allowing him to be raised in the muggle world — unlike traditional place wards, blood-bound wards had no apparent effect on muggle technology — but he had recently become uncomfortably aware that he couldn't say for certain what the effects would be in extremis. "Why, then would this hypothetical ally of hers visit his family?"

Severus's brow twitched slightly, a momentary glare swiftly halted. "If I were to guess, the Blacks wished to determine whether these blood wards of yours were worth the trouble." They'd already had this discussion — Severus had already argued for their dissolution, in fact, a hint of sharpness on his voice suggesting he still wasn't pleased with Albus's argument on the matter.

But Albus was distracted by something else. "The Blacks? You can't mean Sirius — you believe there are more out there?"

"Obviously. Remind me, Albus, which British family has, over the centuries, produced more metamorphmagi than any other? In all likelihood, there are still dozens of Blacks out there — we just don't usually consider them to be Blacks anymore, don't pay them any mind." For just a moment, Severus hesitated, an odd sort of indecision crossing his face before disappearing again. "Back in September, the Tonks girl intimated to me that her family had recently been contacted by Cassiopeia Black. You remember her, I presume."

"I do, yes." Cassie Black had been in one of his Transfiguration classes, long ago. She would have left school in...'Twenty-Three? Sometime around then, he thought, she would have started at Hogwarts in his first decade of teaching. It was a very long time ago, but he wasn't like to forget: metamorphmagi had natural, intuitive talent for transfiguration, she was still one of his all-time favourite students. Like most Blacks, she had been a bit unnerving at times, but while she had certainly been just as mad as the rest of her family, hers had been a less vicious, more joyful sort of madness. Unsettling, but not particularly threatening.

Rather like, say, Nymphadora Tonks — which wasn't at all surprising, as they were two of only three metamorphmagi to pass through Hogwarts during his tenure, and closely related at that. Cassie had been a bit more...intense, in a way, but she hadn't been unpleasant company. She'd been one of only a handful of dark mages he'd had a passingly decent relationship with, in fact. Albus had actually been considering recruiting her for the Order when she'd abruptly vanished from Britain in the early seventies.

If Cassie Black were helping Lyra... Well, she would certainly be capable of impersonating Lily, as whoever had dropped in on the Dursleys had done. Sneaking off with Harry and Lyra without arousing suspicion, that shouldn't be a problem for a metamorph either. The wards, that wasn't quite on, he didn't recall Cassie being particularly gifted with Runes. If it wasn't just Cassie, though, if she'd recruited more Black metamorphs what, help revive the House? It wasn't entirely out of the question — the Blacks were famously mad in general, but especially mad about their family.

Which would also explain why they would want to block his monitoring charms: Harry was their Lord's godson, their responsibility, and he rather doubted they would appreciate what they could see as Albus sticking his nose in their business. They could just break them — neutralising them was far more difficult — but it also sent a very different message.

It was possible they would have intended to send a message, which could then be misinterpreted as Harry being dead. Say what one would about the Blacks — and they were often quite brilliant — but they had a marked tendency to not properly think through the potential consequences of their actions. (With Severus standing right in front of him, it was impossible to not recall that debacle with him and Sirius, that had been a very Black thing to do.) Perhaps it simply hadn't occurred to whoever had planned the whole thing that Albus would read his monitoring charms going silent as Harry being killed. Perhaps it had, but they hadn't anticipated the panic that had broken out, the pressure of rumour and building scandal necessitating Albus make some official statement, the only one he could in such a situation...

Which, none of that might have happened if Lyra hadn't been attacked. They'd assumed her assault and Harry's disappearance were connected, but if they weren't...

The whole thing, what Severus had suggested, did make a mad sort of sense. Albus wasn't saying he believed it was true — as painful as it might be, that Harry was dead was by far the simpler explanation. It was, however, possible, he couldn't deny that. He could understand how Severus, Miss Granger, whoever else, how they might be able to convince themselves, when the Blacks' history and reputation made such a convenient device for implausible circumstance.

He wanted to believe it. He was quite certain that Miss Granger, when she'd come to see him, had gone away without seeing that. If he could wish it otherwise, he would.

But he would not allow himself to indulge in comforting delusion.

Severus's glare redoubled, even as he came to that conclusion. Albus reflexively checked his occlumency barriers, though he hadn't felt any sign of intrusion. Severus obviously noticed, despite not apparently attempting to gain access to his thoughts, as he gave Albus a sinister smirk. "Unlike some people, I don't casually use legilimency on people." Albus did his best to suppress a wince — had he somehow heard about Albus's attempt to read the Granger girl, when she'd gone quoting Comtois's bloody book at him? "Your face is all too easy to read, however. Whatever you were about to say, save your breath. You are wrong. Not only were your monitoring spells not impossible to block, but your precious albeit useless blood ward is still intact—"

Albus inhaled rather sharply — he hadn't even thought to check that, he'd been far too caught up with the monitoring spells and Harry's obvious fate, hadn't even considered Petunia's wellbeing... But that proved nothing — Lily's sacrifice had been soul magic, it could easily be the case that the wards based upon it would only fail after Harry's soul had entirely moved on, and it hadn't yet been a full three days.

"—and, as Miss Granger so adroitly noted, there is no evidence of foul play to do with Potter's disappearance beyond the use of a gate spell to remove the boy from the outskirts of Hogsmeade — a reasonable alternative to employ even if he left voluntarily, given that she claimed he intended to remain untracked and anonymous outside of Hogwarts for the sake of security."

A rather nasty smile bloomed on Severus's face even as Albus attempted to work his way through that last point. He did recall Miss Granger saying something to that effect, but he couldn't imagine she had gone to Severus and outlined her reasons for believing Harry to still be alive. Not after Albus had so emphatically attempted to disabuse her of her delusions, and especially not considering that Severus was hardly likely to be willing to suffer the hysterical ranting of an overwrought teenager.

"Miss Granger?" he repeated.

"Oh, yes. Had you taken my initial advice and withheld any definitive statement on the matter, perhaps all this could have been avoided, but you were so very determined to dig your own grave and, well..." He pulled something else from his pocket, tossed it casually onto the desk, as he had Ashe's scroll. It was a rather cheap-looking pamphlet, half a dozen magazine-sized pages, the cover sheet declaring it to be an Emergency Edition of the Quibbler. "It seems Miss Granger is rather determined to push you into it."

Albus reached for the pamphlet with quite a lot more trepidation than he had seized on Ashe's notes. Xeno Lovegood was not among his most ardent supporters, to say the least. He was, of course, firmly on the side of the Light — though he did share his sister's anarchist bent, if in a far more moderate form — but he had rather vehemently disagreed with the way Albus had portrayed Lily to the public in the wake of Tom's fall. The Quibbler was still Albus's favorite British news-source, its biting satire and political commentary hidden behind a facade of whimsy and elaborate conspiracy theories, but it was also the most likely publication to shine a harsh light on his statements and actions. No more than any other political figure, and Xeno was meticulous in his reporting standards, but he had a habit of revealing the truth as he saw it with no consideration for political realities and consequences. If Miss Granger had spoken to him...

This was going to be bad.

"I'll leave you to consider this development," Severus said, his tone falsely accommodating. "My portkey leaves in an hour. I'll be back Tuesday next. If you wish to reach me, I will be staying at the Metropole. It's a muggle hotel. I've left the telephone number with Aurora, since I doubt you've the slightest idea what a telephone is. Don't call."

"Yes, yes," Albus muttered as he skimmed through the Granger girl's article — an open letter to the people of Magical Britain, apparently a response to the article which had announced Harry's death in yesterday's Prophet, though it must have been written before the Prophet article, in order to have been published and distributed today. He hardly noticed as Severus swept out of his office.

His initial feeling had been accurate: it was bad. Well, that wasn't entirely fair. It could have been much worse — what Granger had written to Xeno was more or less no different from what she'd told him. Harry was rather shy, extremely uncomfortable with his fame, uneasy with crowds. (Was that true? He'd been a rather quiet boy, yes, but Albus had never noticed...) Black had sent him ahead so he wouldn't have to take the train; she'd then been attacked on the way back to Hogwarts, by some person or persons unknown. With Harry having disappeared, and the last person to have seen him tortured and then obliviated, the investigators had jumped to the worst possible conclusion.

All things considered, Granger seemed to be trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — at least, she was being far more...forgiving, where he was concerned, than he would expect of an overwrought fourteen-year-old girl. She did say the only evidence they had of Harry's death was the failure of Albus's monitoring charms, suggesting the ancient and esoteric wards on some Black property or another had simply done a better job of cutting them off than any would expect; but she framed this as an honest misunderstanding, one that had simply gotten blown out of proportion. If Black hadn't been obliviated, and thus rendered incapable of just telling them what she'd done with Harry, or if the two of them hadn't thought it necessary to sneak around instead of just being open about their intentions for the summer, and if Harry weren't the Boy Who Lived — in the letter Granger showed a surprising degree of scorn for Harry's renown, which was interesting — the whole thing would never have gotten out of hand, and none of this would have happened. Granger clearly thought the whole debacle absurd, but she was just as clearly trying to be charitable.

Funnily enough, the people who got the worst of her ire were actually the Aurors, the investigators on the case. As far as anyone could tell, they had absolutely no idea who had attacked Lyra Black, seemingly hadn't even any suspects, instead focusing entirely on whatever had happened to Harry. But there was no evidence anything had happened to Harry — of course there wasn't, Granger claimed, since he was perfectly fine. However, there was evidence of what had happened to Black. A third-year Hogwarts student had been abducted from the outskirts of Hogsmeade, tortured for who knew how long, and turned up covered in cuts and burns and broken bones, the initial analysis even coming up with traces of the Cruciatus, of all things, undoubtedly a very serious crime all on its own. And yet, Granger accused, the Aurors had summarily dismissed the assault as a less important event related to the abduction and murder of Harry Potter, despite there not being any actual evidence of wrong-doing where he was concerned.

The worst Granger had to say about Albus personally was that he'd jumped to an unwarranted conclusion and that he'd tried to legilimise her. Even there, she said the former was understandable given the circumstances, and the latter mostly harmless, since he'd abandoned the attempt the instant she moved to counter it, soon enough he'd never actually gotten anywhere. Which, by the tone she was using, Albus got the feeling she didn't fully understand just how damaging those particular accusations could be. If anyone with significant influence actually took her seriously...

This could be bad. Very, very bad.

But, despite himself, Albus couldn't help acknowledging that she wasn't...entirely incorrect — the evidence that Harry's abduction and Black's assault were at all related was circumstantial. It was true that the Aurors had swiftly abandoned the attempt to track down Black's attackers in preference for scouring Knockturn Alley in a futile effort to find some sign of Harry. Granger's claim that Harry's disappearance itself wasn't at all suspicious was faulty, though. His trail ended at a jury-rigged gate, the opposite member found at the source of a magical fire, one that had brought the whole building...down...with it...

He found his eyes trailing toward Ashe's proof, remembering Severus's claim that young Miss Black could certainly have solved it independently. He still had his doubts about that, but if Black was working with people outside the school...

Severus had suggested they might have chosen to use a gate spell to transport Harry simply because it was untraceable, a paranoid effort to ensure his privacy. As an added benefit, most other forms of transportation would require keying a person into the wards — if Harry had never been wherever they were going before, using a gate spell would be...comparatively convenient. The greatest problem was, of course, the gate spell itself. They had gone out of fashion for a reason, after all, they were very complicated and infamously delicate. Creating a portable gate would be absurd, but if one truly wished to exploit the benefits of such a thing, and were possessed of mad brilliance such that it seemed worth the difficulties...

It wasn't impossible. These were Blacks they were talking about — "mad brillance" wouldn't be a bad descriptor of several Blacks over the years.

What if the fire in Knockturn...had been accidental? A portable gate must be terribly unstable, it wasn't at all out of the question that it could fail spectacularly. Whoever might have been escorting Harry had obviously made it out — there had been no signs anyone had died on the premises. Of course, there had been no signs anyone had left either, but it wasn't impossible the fire itself had covered up any traces of magical travel. Especially if it were shadow-walking or something of the like — if Lyra were bringing in Black metamorphs, that wasn't impossible. They could have just shadow-walked Harry straight from Hogwarts, but that was detectable, if barely, perhaps they'd simply done it there out of panic, surprised by the fire. It wasn't impossible.

Perhaps Harry's disappearance and the attack on Black were unrelated — given what he knew of the scene itself, that might actually be a better explanation of the evidence. Perhaps... Perhaps Black's attackers were students. According to the Aurors, the attackers had slipped into the carriages, losing themselves among the students, where their trails vanished under far too many magical signatures to distinguish reliably. But, what if that hadn't been a trick to shake pursuit, what if they'd simply been returning to the castle?

That was a disturbing thought.

What if...

What if Granger was right? His immediate reaction had been that it was impossible, that Granger was thinking with her heart rather than her head — understandable, yes, he truly couldn't blame her, he'd much rather think Harry was alive himself. But, it wasn't impossible, Ashe had proved as much, and Granger's argument here was far more rational than it'd seemed in person...


If Harry hadn't been harmed, Albus slowly realised, it would mean Lyra Black had betrayed him. And not just her, but Harry too.

He'd thought to himself, not so long ago now, that there could be great advantages to letting a clearly dark witch like Lyra watch Harry's back. But, no matter the possible benefits, it was playing with fire — it could go badly, catastrophically so. One of the issues was that Lyra's loyalty to the Light, to Albus himself, was born entirely out of association with Harry, his well-being was the only concern they shared. If they disagreed on how to secure their one shared concern, well, he couldn't guarantee she would cede to his opinion on the matter. In fact, if she'd absorbed enough of the mindset of the nobility where internal family affairs are concerned — which, he didn't think it absurd to assume she had — it was quite likely she would consider Harry no legitimate concern of his whatsoever, that he had absolutely no right whatsoever to dictate...well, anything, concerning his life outside the school.

It was quite possible that, should Lyra and the Blacks decide to make any sort of arrangements for the summer on Harry's behalf, they wouldn't even consider it necessary to inform him. Their Lord was, after all, his godfather — their rights superceded Albus's.

But it wasn't just them, no, Harry would have needed to be in on it as well. They could have just taken him whether he liked it or not, perhaps without even informing him beforehand, but...

Harry had come to ask why he needed to go back to the Dursleys' for the summer. Albus had thought he'd convinced him, but...

The Dursleys had gotten that unknown visitor shortly afterward. A visitor Severus suggested might, in fact, be Cassie Black.

Cassie might have gone to analyse the blood wards. She might have come to the conclusion that they weren't worth keeping — much as Severus had, a handful of days later.

Cassie might have told Lyra, who might have brought Harry around to their way of thinking.

Harry might well have gone voluntarily. Despite everything Albus had said on the matter.

It...wasn't impossible. In fact, the narrative he'd just constructed was...darkly compelling. It made a mad, Black sort of sense. A rather large part of him wanted it to be true. No matter how...complicated it would make things, it would mean that Harry was alive and well.

But even if Harry were still alive, Albus might have a very serious problem on his hands.

(He tried to quash the self-interested thought that if Harry wasn't dead, he had just dealt a staggering blow to his own credibility with his mistaken declaration.)

At that very moment, he was drawn out of his thoughts by a soft, pleasant tone, a slow arpeggio of notes coming from shortly away to his left. From behind a very particular selective silencing.

The silencing he'd put over the anchors to his monitoring charms.

Unconsciously, Albus jumped to his feet, his palms slammed onto the desk, leaning forward, staring wide-eyed at the devices, ones he'd personally designed and enchanted twelve years past. Forms of skeletal metal and glowing crystal, they had gone a moody black, blaring with alarm, sick and loud and grating. He hadn't quite been able to bring himself to deactivate them, holding on to some irrational hope he hadn't even been fully aware of, instead blanketing them with a silencing skewed to block out the specific tone of the alarms, and nothing else. Looking at them now, he could only stare, for long seconds unmoving.

They'd changed.

The colours had turned soft and bright, green and blue and pink. Low notes sounded from one or the other every few seconds, forming a subtle pulse, a song always playing at the edge of hearing for seemingly as long as he could remember. With a slight energy to them, but not a bad one, exactly, not under threat — nervous, but excited.

Healthy. He...

He was alive. Harry Potter was alive.

Albus was overcome with relief, drowning out everything else. But only for a minute, one blessed minute, before the mounting horror started to take over. He'd...

He'd made a mistake. A terrible, terrible mistake. Harry was alive — he was alive — but it was too late.

Albus saw, abruptly, the storm on the horizon. And there was nothing he could do to stop it.

We actually finished a thing! No fucking way. I don't think I've ever actually finished anything before, heh...

Took longer to get this chapter out than I thought it would...but it's also a triple-length chapter, so, deal with it xD —Lysandra

So, that's one school year down. We'll post an update/link here when we start posting the sequel, but it's going to be a month or two — we're taking time to actually outline the next one properly. Mostly because, well...these last couple of chapters didn't work out exactly as I'd planned.

Originally, Lyra was supposed to make Harry 'die' and not tell anyone what she'd done, just let Harry think he was on vacation, and Hermione think he was dead. Then I realised that there was no way Blaise would not anticipate the fallout of such a plan and do something to mitigate it. That is his job, after all. So things had to be considerably re-worked, and Hermione's character development arc shifted from what I'd originally expected. Sigh. —Leigha

Not even close to the only things that went off. In the original outline for this we made ages ago, Lyra didn't prevent the hippogriff thing. Buckbeak was moved to another holding site due to an earlier incident (that certainly involved Lyra), and she and Hermione exploited the time turner to break into the Ministry and steal him away. Just goes to show how much spur-of-the-moment decisions we make can throw off major plot points — Lyra deciding to save the idiot just because Narcissa completely ruined one of the major side-plots. The Pettigrew plot also went way different than originally planned, due to Lyra simply being too competent for canon bullshit. Oops?

Though, I'm far more comfortable going off-script than Leigha is — I don't make formal outlines at all for my own work, and I like a lot of the changes we made to plot/character development more than what we originally came up with anyway. But there are a whole lot more threads to keep track of fourth year, so, yeah, I acknowledge plotting it out might be a good idea. I fully expect to fuck it up at least a little within a few chapters, though.

I'll also be rereading the entirety of this monstrosity, taking notes on hanging character/plot threads, just to make sure we don't miss any. So, yeah, might be a little bit of a delay. —Lysandra

We've been throwing around the idea of publishing a few scenes that take place over the summer focusing on...random summer stuff all over the place before we really get into the next part of the narrative. If that happens, we'll post an update/link here as well.

(In case anyone's wondering, Severus doesn't consider arguing that Lyra could have been responsible for Harry's disappearance to be a violation of his agreement with her because A) he wasn't the one who suggested it in the first place and B) there's a rather large difference between saying that such a thing is possible and telling Dumbledore that she actually admitted it to him. Also, C) providing a plausible explanation in the suggestion that Cassiopeia and/or some other Black Metamorph is involved would make Dumbledore less suspicious of Lyra personally, and therefore less likely to look into her abilities closely enough to realise that she's a black mage.) —Leigha