Harry felt the now-familiar pain of the Cruciatus curse, his body jerking violently and yet frozen in a silent scream all the same. He saw Crouch Sr.'s limp body, Winky's lifeless eyes, his parents' ethereal forms disappearing as he ran from them, his heart growing colder with every step. He saw the flash of green light, his mother's scream, felt the excruciating burn of torture.
"I'm sorry," Winky said, and then there was that corridor again, the one with the locked door at the end, the one Harry could never enter.
"You're not good enough," Dumbledore told him, in a voice that sounded nothing like the charming, affable headmaster Harry had grown to know, but whom he maybe didn't know at all.
And then there was Voldemort, pacing in front of a fireplace, his followers shrouded by shadows. They were shrinking away from him, wrath radiating off him in forceful waves. He was silent, but his anger and frustration were obvious; he was desperate, he was — and Harry was consumed by the throbbing agony of the Cruciatus curse once again.
He awoke in a sweat, more confused than ever. His dreams always got jumbled up these days — his parents' deaths, the graveyard, whatever Voldemort was planning with his followers, and that infernal door that must be important, but which Voldemort never gave him any clues about.
Sirius hadn't told him anything more about Voldemort's plans than he had this past summer, and Harry certainly didn't expect Dumbledore to be confiding in him anytime soon. Voldemort letting something slip was his best option, but his dreams were cryptic.
Except the graveyard. That was all too real.
He slipped his glasses on, but it didn't help any seeing as it was still dark out. Harry heard only silence instead of the usual cyclical rhythm of Neville's snores. His friend must be awake, too.
Feeling restless — he'd never get back to sleep now — Harry threw off his covers and padded quietly out of his bed, careful not to wake Ron, Dean, or Seamus. He glanced in the direction of Seamus' bed, hidden by his bed curtains.
While Lavender had come around after Sirius' Defense lesson, Seamus was still avoiding Harry, throwing him dirty glances or looking away uncomfortably whenever their eyes met. Seamus had always been a stubborn sort, and it was like he'd just doubled down on his stance the more people criticized him.
Dean thought Seamus just didn't want to upset his mum, but that just annoyed Harry more. It wasn't Harry's fault Seamus had a gormless git for a mother, nor was it Harry's fault Seamus was too cowardly to be civil to Harry when she was nowhere near Scotland (not to mention Hogwarts) with no clue what went on here. Besides, what was she going to do: Send him a howler for passing Harry the potatoes at dinner?
Even measured, diplomatic Dean was spending more and more time with Luna — or Ron, who loudly proclaimed Seamus a tosser whenever he was in sight.
Ron seemed to take Seamus' stance particularly personally.
Neville's bed curtains were open, and while it was dark, Harry could see his friend wasn't lying beneath the messy bunches of blankets.
Weird. Neville wasn't the sort to go adventuring around the castle at night by himself. He'd gone with Harry and Hermione a couple of times to search for Helga Hufflepuff's office, and once Neville and Harry had snuck out to Sirius' quarters to play a late night game of cards with Sirius and Nearly Headless Nick (which was an experience, given that Nick needed someone to levitate his hand for him). But Neville had never initiated those trips and he'd never gone alone.
Harry descended the stairs. There was a low flicker of a flame in the fireplace and moonlight streaming in from the windows. He saw the outline of a figure hunched in his favorite squashy armchair.
"Neville?" Harry whispered, venturing forward.
The head turned. "Morning, Harry."
Harry glanced at the dark sky outside. "Not quite," he said, as he took a seat on the sofa next to Neville's armchair. "What are you doing up?"
Neville shrugged. "Couldn't sleep."
His tone was listless, his demeanor guarded. Usually, it was Harry who got the nightmares — but Neville had told him he got them sometimes, too.
"Bad dream?" Harry asked.
Neville eyed him perceptively — his friend knew why Harry was awake — and then shook his head. "Just thinking about our last Defense lesson."
It hadn't been particularly memorable for Harry. Sirius had awarded him 15 points for saying Voldemort's name three times (a routine occurrence now; anytime he said Voldemort in Sirius' class, Harry was awarded points, which meant Harry was contributing almost as many points to Gryffindor's tally as Hermione). The class had worked on their stunning spells, while Harry and Hermione dueled each other, transfiguring handfuls of pebbles into bubbles and butterflies.
It had been a typical lesson.
"What about it?" Harry asked.
"I was thinking about what Sirius said about righting past wrongs," Neville elaborated, staring studiously at the waning flames in the fireplace.
Sirius talked a lot about the first war during their classes. He'd even had them write some essays about a few of the atrocities — a goblin massacre near Nottingham, the murder of the McKinnon family, an attack on a muggleborn shopkeeper in Diagon Alley, the undersecretary who had been put under the Imperius curse and killed three people. Harry wasn't sure if Sirius' aim was to drive home what life would look like if Voldemort were allowed to terrorize the world unchecked or if Sirius wanted to point out the names of some of the Death Eaters convicted of those crimes. Harry reckoned that you had to be pretty dense to read about Goyle's uncle getting arrested for murdering an old classmate and not wonder which of your classmates would follow in his footsteps.
(Goyle, probably. Of course, that would also require him to be smart enough to figure out which end of the wand he should point at his enemy, so maybe they were all safe on that front.)
Still, the truth was, most of those crimes went unsolved. Harry and Neville were on the relatively small list of people who knew exactly which Death Eaters came after their families. And Neville had faced one of Alice and Frank Longbottom's torturers last year — but now Crouch Jr. was dead and the Lestranges were in Azkaban.
"Are you looking to right past wrongs, Neville?" Harry asked. It discomforted him a bit. Neville was as likely to go looking for a fight as Dudley was to refuse a sweet.
Neville looked at him, his eyes a bit wilder than Harry was used to. "How did it feel?" he asked. "When you caught Pettigrew?"
Harry shrugged. "It didn't really feel like anything," he said slowly, not sure how to describe his emotions at the time. "I was focused on helping Sirius, and then watching Dumbledore and Voldemort duel. And then by the time I did have time to think about it, Pettigrew had lied about Voldemort and we were dealing with that, and —"
Harry cut himself off. That's not really what Neville was asking. He wanted to know about Harry and his parents.
"I didn't feel better," Harry told him. "But I didn't feel worse either."
Nothing would ever make up for what Pettigrew had done to Harry's parents or what he'd done to Sirius. Harry was glad Pettigrew was in Azkaban, unable to hurt anyone else, but nothing would ever lessen the wrongs done to the Potters.
Or the Longbottoms either.
"Do you think Azkaban's really a punishment for them?" Neville asked quietly.
Harry shuddered internally, remembering what it had felt like having a hundred dementors coming after him, feeling the relentless determination of that one dementor when it meant to give him the kiss so Harry wouldn't deter it from sucking out Sirius' soul, too.
"I reckon it's awful. You've seen Sirius' face when he thinks about it."
Neville grimaced, his fingers tightly clutching the pillow next to him.
"Yeah, but Sirius was innocent," he pointed out. "He doesn't go around torturing and killing people for sport. What bad memories could the dementors possibly hurt people like Bellatrix Lestrange with?"
Hagrid had once told Harry he didn't think Voldemort was human enough to die — were the Death Eaters too far gone for dementors to matter much to them?
Still, Neville was asking him to get inside the head of someone like Bellatrix Lestrange, and Harry couldn't think of something he'd like to do less. More than that, he was fairly certain you had to be certifiable to think like her.
"They've got to have some bad memories — meeting a group of baby unicorns or her pet boggart dying or something. Snape's a foul git, but even he's got that time you sent him flying across the room — or, y'know, my entire existence — to feel bad about," Harry reasoned. "And if my dreams are any indication, Voldemort's about as emotionally stable as Moaning Myrtle, and that's all a dementor needs to find your weak spot. Besides, what's the alternative? Break into Azkaban and kill them?"
If anything, Neville looked even more frightened by the thought.
"That could be the plan, couldn't it?" he asked in a hushed whisper. "You said over the summer that You-Know-Who was planning a break in. What if it's Azkaban?"
His voice was a little unsteady, but his eyes were fierce. "I've been thinking about it a lot lately," Neville said, "with all of this research Sirius is making us do about the first war. He'd want his most loyal followers back, wouldn't he? Why not break them out of Azkaban?"
It made sense. Still, Harry had the nagging suspicion that Voldemort had been talking about something else. He couldn't tell you why, but he'd always somehow just known when it came to Voldemort. Harry was certain Voldemort wanted to steal something — and Sirius had said he was after a weapon. Sure, the Death Eaters could be considered a weapon, but Sirius said he didn't know what the weapon did.
"If we've thought of it, I'm sure Dumbledore has," Harry reassured his friend, remembering Dumbledore's words in the hospital wing after the Third Task. "That's probably why he told Fudge to remove the dementors from Azkaban."
A small comfort that was though, since Fudge had done precisely the opposite — meaning all Voldemort had to do was get the dementors on his side and he'd have Azkaban in his control.
Neville seemed to realize that, too.
"Fudge really is the worst, isn't he?" Neville mused miserably.
"With any luck, he'll be the dementors' first target when they join Voldemort's side," Harry agreed, not wanting to think about what that would mean for the war or for Neville. He'd blamed himself for not standing up to Crouch Jr. properly — who knew how he would react to the Lestranges getting out.
Harry turned his gaze toward the window. The night was dark but the moon was bright, illuminating the grounds in a way that created shadows that felt a little sinister. Or maybe it was the conversation.
There was a flash of motion above the tree line of the forest and Harry jerked.
It was just one of those thestrals. He glanced at Neville — his friend had seen it, too.
"Have you always been able to see them?" Harry asked curiously, glad that he and Neville were close enough friends that he could ask. He was essentially asking him, "So who did you see die?" which was a bit rude, as questions go.
Neville nodded. "Ever since I got to Hogwarts. My granddad died when I was younger."
Neville didn't talk about him much, though Harry knew he had been the one who locked away the portraits of all the Slytherin Longbottoms in the attic. Neville's gran never talked about him at all.
"What was he like?" Harry asked. He'd always thought of Neville and Gran, all alone in their big house, with only Diggy for company. But he knew that prior to the fidelius charm, there had also been Neville's elderly relatives. And his granddad at one point, too.
"He was quite traditional," Neville said. "He was pretty hands off with me — I was Gran's responsibility since she was a woman and women are maternal."
Neville said it as if it were an echo of a refrain he'd heard many times. He paused then, smiling wryly, and Harry almost laughed too. Much as Harry liked Augusta Longbottom, she was about as maternal as a blast-ended skrewt.
"Still, he wasn't mean or cold. Just more interested in adult conversation, I think. I suppose he might have taken more of an interest when I got older," Neville shrugged, "but then he got sick. He just laid in that bed for weeks. Gran used to make me visit with him — said it was the only proper thing to do seeing as he was dying and all, and I should get a real goodbye since I didn't get one with my parents. Not while they were sane, anyway."
Harry had a vision of tiny Neville sitting alone in a room with a decrepit old man, waiting for him to die, while he thought of the parents he always visited but who rarely knew he was there. Harry couldn't imagine what must have gone through his friend's head.
"Did you two talk?"
"Not really. Sometimes Gran or Diggy would sit with me, knitting or dusting the tables, but usually it was the two of us, staring at each other. I didn't know what to say and he couldn't really speak, so I just read to him. It's what Diggy and Gran used to do when I was sick," Neville explained. "Course, my library wasn't exactly extensive back then, so I ended up reading him children's stories."
Harry wondered how well that went over.
"He was a big fan of Beedle the Bard," Neville continued, as if he read Harry's mind. "At least, he grunted less when I read those. That's what I was reading to him when he died. The Deathly Hallows. Fitting, isn't it?"
At Harry's blank expression, a look of comprehension crossed Neville's face. Muggle-raised kids didn't read wizarding fairy tales.
"It's about three brothers who meet Death," Neville explained. "They used magic to evade dying, which Death found vexing. He allowed each brother to ask for a prize, expecting it to be their undoing. The first asked for the most powerful wand in the world — and later gets murdered for it. The second asked to bring his dead love back to life — and receives a resurrection stone that brings her back, but she comes back wrong. He ends up killing himself. The third wanted a way to hide from Death — so Death gave him his own cloak of invisibility. Years later, once he'd lived a good life, the third brother took off the cloak and greeted Death as an old friend."
It was somewhat comforting to know wizarding fairy tales were as messed up as the muggle stories — and Hermione called Roald Dahl depressing.
Harry wasn't sure what to say about Neville's granddad. From the way Neville told the story, it sounded like he was probably alone in the room with his grandfather when he died. Did he realize what had happened? Did he go find his Gran or call for Diggy? How long was Neville sitting in there with a corpse?
No wonder Neville had grown up scared of just about everything.
Harry didn't think there were any good answers to those questions, so instead of asking about his granddad and thestrals, Harry asked about the story.
"Which hallow would you want?" Harry mused, knowing which one he was supposed to say, but also knowing which one he'd likely choose.
Neville blinked, contemplating the question. "I'd rather never meet Death at all," he said, and Harry saw a flash of self-loathing in his expression, like he knew that was the coward's answer.
Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, I don't reckon any of us really wants to. Except maybe Sir Cadogan."
There was a faint smile on Neville's lips.
Light was beginning to dawn outside, and Harry could hear the stirrings of the other Gryffindors above.
"Come on," Harry suggested. "Let's get ready for breakfast."
By the time they went down to the Great Hall, Neville seemed to be in better spirits. Hermione was seated at the end of the Gryffindor table, two seats saved for them.
"Morning," she greeted them, barely looking up from The Daily Prophet. She was engrossed in whatever she was reading, her eggs and beans left untouched on her plate.
"What's going on?" Neville asked, trepidation obvious in his voice.
"Oh, the usual," she sighed, tossing aside the paper. "Fudge is an incompetent ninny and half the Wizengamot has the intelligence of a teaspoon."
Harry glanced down at the paper, his eyes automatically glazing over the words, when one caught his eye — Podmore.
"Hey!" he said, grabbing the paper to read a very tiny, easy-to-miss item about Sturgis Podmore, the Order member who was supposed to be part of their guard when they went to King's Cross. Sirius and Remus had been certain Moody would kill him for missing his post.
"Sturgis Podmore," Harry said, reading through the item. "He's been sentenced to Azkaban for six months for trying to force his way through a top-security door at one in the morning."
Hermione's eyes were wide with shock.
"Six months for a door?" Harry repeated, astonished.
"Well, a top-security door," Neville reasoned, but his eyes were as wide as Hermione's. "It's not like he was breaking into the kitchens. It must've been Fudge's office, or the Auror Department —"
"No need for that," Hermione whispered. "Not with half the department in the Order."
"Maybe the Floo Network Authority then, or the Department of Mysteries," Neville rattled off.
"Well, it all depends what the Order needed him to do there, doesn't it?" Hermione asked.
"If he was even there on Dumbledore's orders at all," Neville commented, turning to Harry. "Has Sirius said anything?"
Harry shook his head, feeling annoyed. "No," he said. "And he hasn't mentioned Sturgis' arrest either. Why wouldn't he tell me that?"
"Maybe he didn't want to draw attention to it?" Neville suggested. "The way we're not supposed to ask too many questions about Hagrid."
"Or you're right and he wasn't there for the Order," Hermione mused, her eyes narrowed and her wheels spinning.
"Or," Harry added, feeling a pit in his stomach, "Sirius just didn't want me asking questions." Or rather, Dumbledore didn't.
"Don't be silly, Harry, Sirius' whole teaching method is getting us to ask questions," Hermione pointed out. "You, especially."
But it was all starting to make sense to Harry.
"Sirius said Voldemort's after a weapon, right?" Harry said animatedly.
Hermione shushed him, glancing furtively at the students around them. Thankfully, it was still early and not many had found their way into the Great Hall yet.
"What if it's at the Ministry?" he continued. "What if Sturgis was after it too — for our side? And Sirius didn't tell me because he doesn't want me asking about the weapon."
"The Ministry seems like a risky place to hide a weapon," Neville countered.
"Not if the Ministry is the one developing it," Hermione added. "I expect that's something they've been working on since the last war — if not to fight You-Know-Who, then the next dark lord."
"Maybe that's why Podmore was after it," Harry whispered excitedly, "so the Order could get it away from Fudge, too."
Hermione frowned. "You'd think they'd send in more of a force. I'd imagine it would be easier for Amelia Bones to arrange something than depend on Sturgis."
"Plus, if it was planned, Remus and Sirius would have been more worried at King's Cross when he didn't show up — they must've known what the mission was, right?" Neville asked.
The three of them all looked at each other, Hermione and Neville wearing matching expressions of worry. Harry couldn't shake the feeling that Sirius must have been hiding this from him.
"I think I'd better talk to Sirius," Harry said, his tone firm.
Harry had plenty of opportunities to talk to Sirius these days thanks to their time learning Battle Transfiguration in the Room of Requirement and their semi-regular dinners.
Over the course of the past month, Harry had heard plenty of stories about Sirius' time at Hogwarts, his dad's stag party (which had featured his dad as an actual stag), and his mum's ability to find the absolute worst combinations of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans and then daring you to eat them. (Sirius was half-certain that she charmed or potioned the beans to be even worse versions of themselves.)
"I just wish I knew more about your time with them," he told Harry wistfully. "Between missions for the Order and your parents keeping a low profile, I didn't get to visit often. Most of what I know about that first year of your life are from their letters — and I've no clue where most of those have gone now. My things weren't exactly carefully stored when I was chucked into Azkaban."
But Sirius had managed to procure something for Harry — a slip of paper with Bathilda Bagshot's address on it. She was the batty old woman who had tea with his mum nearly every day when they lived in Godric's Hollow.
"Still alive, apparently," Sirius told him. "I got the address from Dumbledore. I should warn you most people think she's a certifiable nutter. Dumbledore says her mind's sound enough though."
"Dumbledore's got a bit of a different take than most people about what constitutes a nutter, don't you think?"
"Course he does," Sirius grinned proudly, "he thinks I'm sane, doesn't he? Still, this woman saw you and your parents every day — it can't hurt reaching out if you want to know more. I can do it for you, if you like."
Harry hadn't been sure he wanted to write a complete stranger out of the blue to ask about his dead mum — but he'd carefully, reverently, folded the paper and slipped it into his pocket anyway.
But today he wasn't asking about his parents or the marauders or even what exactly the fallout was from Mary MacDonald's injury. He needed to know what happened to Sturgis Podmore.
There was really no point in beating around the bush — Sirius would see through that anyway. He had this uncanny ability to read Harry, something Harry wasn't sure he'd ever get used to. All his life, the Dursleys hadn't bothered to question what Harry was thinking or feeling; they just assumed it was something nasty and acted accordingly.
"Why did Sturgis Podmore really break into the Ministry?" Harry asked when they had sat down with their roast. He left his food untouched, refusing to break eye contact with Sirius until he answered.
Sirius leaned back in his chair. "You heard about that, did you?" he asked, his voice neutral.
Harry nodded. "Well, it was big enough news to make the papers. The Prophet said he got six months is Azkaban for it."
"What I used to call the Deluxe Spa package in my days there," Sirius confirmed.
"Was he really breaking in?"
"What do you mean, probably?" Harry couldn't hide his confusion. Didn't the Order know?
Sirius sighed. "He was there on Order business, but the mission was never to break in anywhere. If we were planning that, we'd send someone stealthier than Sturgis. Dung at the very least. Breaking and entering is quite literally his profession."
"So what was the mission?"
Sirius took a bite of his dinner, and Harry got the distinct impression he was stalling.
"It has to do with the weapon Voldemort wants, doesn't it?" Harry pressed.
A thousand emotions flitted across Sirius' face — pride, fear, indecision, sadness, anger. Harry knew Sirius wanted to tell him, but that he also wanted to prove to Harry's parents that he could fulfill his promise to them to keep Harry safe.
But Harry had been a baby when they died. For all anyone knew, James and Lily Potter would have already decided to tell Harry everything had they been alive.
"It does," Sirius finally said. "The weapon is in the Ministry — and since Voldemort is after it, we've been keeping tabs in case he tries to steal it."
"Isn't that basically a suicide mission?" Harry asked. "What's one person going to do if Voldemort shows up at the Ministry?"
"Well, we're not exactly announcing our presence there," Sirius explained. "It's a recon mission, not a dueling mission. If Voldemort turned up, the plan would be to alert the others — to alert Dumbledore. Frankly, it would be pretty helpful if Voldemort did turn up himself — it would be a bit hard for Fudge to deny his return then, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, he's still resorting to other measures."
Sirius smiled bitterly. "Amelia managed to get Dumbledore a few minutes with him. It only took them about 30 seconds to figure out Sturgis was under the effects of a powerful Imperius curse."
"Has Voldemort tried again since then?" Harry asked.
"No," Sirius shook his head. "After Sturgis was caught, we weren't the only ones keeping an eye on the Ministry."
"Well, are there any plans to go in and get the weapon?" Harry asked impatiently. "Once Fudge and the Ministry aren't so on guard? If Voldemort tried once…"
Wasn't it crucial to keep the weapon away from him?
"I can't say I disagree with you," Sirius sighed, and Harry heard the mixture of frustration, defiance, and anger in his tone. He shook his head. "But it's a moot point now — Fudge does have eyes on the weapon, so we'd be completely mad to try anything at the present moment."
From his tone, Harry gathered that Sirius didn't quite believe that, but was repeating words that had been thrown at him by others in the Order.
"Where in the Ministry is it?" Harry asked.
"Nowhere you'll be going anytime soon," Sirius answered, shooting Harry a knowing look.
"You can trust me, you know," Harry grumbled. "I'm not going to go off and do anything stupid."
Sirius sobered instantly. "I do trust you, Harry," he said, his eyes boring into Harry's green ones.
Sirius leaned back, sizing him up. He hated being kept in the dark, too. He knew what it was like. "I have your word you won't leave this castle, for any reason, to go after the weapon?"
It was on the tip of Harry's tongue to retort that he'd just said that, but that likely wouldn't help his cause.
"I won't be going after any weapons," Harry agreed.
Sirius considered him. "It's in the Department of Mysteries. But even I don't know what's in there — and given the Unspeakables I know are all a bunch of crackpots, it's not a place any of us want to spend much time in."
Harry's mind raced with the possibilities. No one really knew what went on in the Department of Mysteries, and Sirius still didn't know what exactly the weapon was — but the Ministry had access to magic like time-turners. Whatever the weapon was, it must be something extraordinary.
Dinner was more relaxed after that, with Sirius asking plenty of questions about Harry's new friends. He, Hermione, and Neville had recently spent quite a bit of time in the library with Hannah, Ernie, Susan, Luna, and Ginny, going through Hannah's family journals.
Harry had gotten on with the Hufflepuffs for the most part in the past, but he'd also never spent quite so much time with them. Ernie was a bit full of himself, but surprisingly, Harry liked him anyway. Susan's favorite pastime appeared to be bringing Ernie down a peg — Harry figured she probably felt the same way about him as Harry did. And as for Hannah — Harry had always gotten the impression she was nice… but that forgettable sort of nice where she might as well be part of the wallpaper.
Then he saw her with Hermione — and while he couldn't quite believe two people could get so animated about lists, the proof was right in front of him. Hermione's eyes sparkled a brilliant brown whenever they got on the topic of historical Hogwarts, and even her laugh was different. It struck Harry that Hannah was the first friend Hermione had who shared all her interests, and suddenly, Hannah didn't seem quite so boring anymore.
After dinner, Sirius went to his room for a pack of cards, as they had time for a quick game, while Harry wandered over to the sofa, his eyes falling on a stack of letters on the table. The top one was written on a piece of very fancy parchment, and even at a distance Harry could tell that whoever wrote it had impeccable penmanship. Harry figured it was likely sent from Augusta — Sirius didn't have very many correspondents, and it looked a bit like her handwriting — but when he leaned in closer, he saw it was from Andromeda.
"We're going to have to work on your stealth," Sirius said loudly, and Harry nearly jumped. He turned to face Sirius in the doorway, pack of cards in hand.
"I wasn't reading your letter," Harry said. "I was just…"
"Reading my letter?" Sirius finished, but he didn't sound mad.
"Curious about the sender," Harry corrected. "Are you going to write her back?"
Sirius shrugged, settling down across from Harry and shuffling the cards. Sirius couldn't fool him — if he really wanted nothing to do with his cousin, he would have chucked her letter in the fireplace. Instead, he had opened it and read her words.
But anytime Harry asked another question, Sirius deflected the way he had over the summer — he was busy with the Order, busy teaching lessons, busy learning how to decipher the abysmal scrawl of some of his students (Snape just gives those a D, Harry told him).
"You've still got plenty of time for dinners," Harry pointed out, "and we're not under the fidelius anymore. Or have you got more scarves to knit for Augusta?"
"I was knitting with Augusta," Sirius retorted. He was starting to look a bit annoyed.
"Well, maybe you could knit with Andromeda," Harry suggested. "Tonks said her mum is the domestic sort."
Sirius snorted in disbelief. "Blacks aren't domestic."
Harry shrugged. "Maybe she's changed. Course, there's only one way to find out."
"And how would you feel if someone kept pestering you to have dinner with your awful cousin?" Sirius asked. His arms were folded across his chest and he sounded more than a bit petulant.
"Terrible," Harry replied. "But my awful cousin's favorite pastime was Harry Hunting. What did yours like to do?"
Sirius deflated instantly — likely because of how matter of fact Harry was about the whole situation, like what Dudley did was normal for families. Anger, remorse, and (worst of all, in Harry's opinion) guilt flitted across Sirius' face.
"Nothing," Sirius murmured.
And then, almost off-handedly, he added, "Though her sister was fond of putting bubotuber pus in my pants."
All right, so maybe Harry Hunting hadn't been so bad.
"Don't be so loud, Harry, we don't want to be caught," Hermione whispered.
"It's Hannah and Ernie's turn to patrol, Hermione," he pointed out as they walked down the darkened corridor. "What are they going to do if they catch us? Tell us off for looking for the secret room they're trying to help us find?"
Hermione sighed. "Rebecca Ellerby's out tonight, too," she said, her voice dripping with distaste when she said the head girl's name. "And she's got it in for us."
Harry really wasn't worried about Rebecca Ellerby.
"She can get in line after Voldemort."
"I just don't understand why she hates us so much," Hermione said, sounding frustrated. "It's not like she's prejudiced against muggleborns, and she doesn't seem to be a Fudge supporter."
Harry shrugged. He'd given up trying to figure out his reputation a long time ago.
"Don't worry about it," he reassured her. "Cedric said he'd keep her off our backs."
After Ellerby caught them kissing on their first patrol, she'd gone to Cedric, expecting him to back her up and go with her when she reported them to McGonagall. But Cedric pointed out that half the prefects used patrols to find a broom closet or two, and Rebecca herself had been known to frequent the Astronomy Tower on patrols, back when she was a fifth year prefect and her boyfriend still attended Hogwarts.
"She's not going to say anything," Cedric promised Harry, "but maybe wait until she's not in the corridor next time?"
Thinking of Cedric's words, Harry glanced down at the map. Rebecca was nowhere in sight.
"Maybe we should just call it for the night?" Hermione suggested, her tone defeated. They'd been exploring the castle for hours and still had no luck. "I've still got a bit of my Charms essay to finish."
"Wasn't it three feet long already?"
"Yes, but I haven't even mentioned protean charms!" Hermione lamented.
Harry had never even heard of protean charms. Of course, Hermione had a tendency to be overly thorough with her essays.
"Are you honestly going to work on a Charms essay at one in the morning?" Harry asked incredulously, and from the expression on Hermione's face, the answer was yes.
"I'm sure it's already the best essay in the class," Harry added.
"I'd still like to finish it," Hermione sighed. "I've still got an Arithmancy problem set to do, that Transfiguration essay, and I've got to research forgetfulness potions for Slughorn's class."
Their OWL year was more work than ever with every professor loading them down with essays and exams — and it wasn't even October yet.
"And," Hermione added, "we've still got to finish our essays on You-Know-Who's rise for Sirius' class."
Well, when she put it like that… Harry felt his chest start to tighten, thinking of all the extra work they had to do — and Angelina wanted them to have a quidditch practice as well.
"Maybe I can convince Sirius to submit my essay verbally," Harry sighed. "Get five points every time I say Voldemort's name."
He grinned a bit at his joke, but when he looked at Hermione, she wasn't smiling. She looked abashed.
"You realize why he's doing that, right?" she asked. "He's trying to shame the rest of us because we don't say it."
And apparently, it was working. Harry stopped walking and studied her. She looked positively embarrassed.
"Why don't you say Voldemort's name?" he asked. "I get why Neville and Ron don't — they've been taught to be scared of it since they were old enough to understand words. But you…"
Was it because she was a muggleborn? Harry didn't think it was that.
Hermione bit her lip, uncertainty evident in her eyes. And then, just like that, she seemed to come to a decision. She grabbed his hand, pulling him into an empty classroom. It was dark, but not so dark he couldn't see her, see the way she paced around, twisting her hands together. He recognized it as her gathering her thoughts.
Harry leaned against the professor's desk.
Finally, she spoke.
"At first I said You-Know-Who because I honestly didn't know," she said. "All of the books I read when I found out I was a witch, all of the papers — none of them mentioned his name. I asked the shop employee in Flourish & Blott's about it and he about died of shock before he screamed at me."
That sounded about right.
"Then you said it — and Ron was so petrified by it," Hermione continued. "And then it was just another reminder that I wasn't raised in the wizarding world, that so many wizards didn't think I belonged. There are so many little ways witches and wizards have of letting you know you're different. You didn't grow up on a broom, you didn't grow up listening to Celestina Warbeck, you don't have a favorite quidditch team. So saying You-Know-Who just seemed the thing to do."
Harry furrowed his brow. "So you're not scared of the name?" he asked.
Hermione bit her lip again, her eyes searching his. She sighed, a heavy, dark sound that Harry didn't like. She sat down on the desk next to him, her shoulder brushing his.
"Do you remember our detention in the Forbidden Forest first year?" she asked quietly.
They had smuggled an illegal dragon out of Hogwarts to save Hagrid from legal trouble, and gotten a detention tracking down a dead unicorn for their trouble — it was a bit hard to forget.
"Yeah," Harry said.
Something was killing unicorns," Hermione whispered, and he could hear the anguish in her voice. "That wasn't some silly magic that Madam Pomfrey could fix with a potion. Whatever was in that forest was monstrous."
Considering "whatever" turned out to be Voldemort, she was right.
"And then Hagrid made you go with Malfoy, and Neville was so scared. He couldn't stop sniffling or clutching my arm, and you were alone in the forest with something killing unicorns, Malfoy, and Hagrid's cowardly dog. It was awful."
She shook her head, her eyes glittering. He could picture her and Neville, completely terrified, following along behind Hagrid in the dark, foreboding forest. He could picture their fear, the way Neville would have looked to Hermione for guidance, the way Hermione would try to reason with herself that this was all perfectly normal.
"And then we heard the scream," she whispered, her voice thick. "And Neville made this awful sound, and Hagrid started to tell us to stay where we were, but I just ran. All I could think was that you were by yourself somewhere with something that killed unicorns.
"And then we found you and I was so relieved," she sniffed. "But when you told me and Ron about it, how Firenze told you who it was drinking that blood… that's when it all became real to me, I think. He wasn't a deceased dark lord or some historical villain; he was very much alive and here — and he was targeting you."
She laced her fingers through his, as if she needed the reassurance of his touch. He squeezed her hand willingly, wishing (not for the first time) that he could just be a regular kid holding his girlfriend's hand. They could just be two Hogwarts students, snogging in an empty classroom, instead of discussing the dark lord who wanted Harry dead.
Her words echoed in his head. Thanks to his dreams and the pain in his scar, Voldemort had been an active presence for Harry since he joined the wizarding world. Hermione had always believed him, of course — but it was one thing to know something was true and another to see the dead unicorn as proof of it.
"I didn't want to say his name after that," Hermione finished quietly. "It's silly, I know — it's just a name. But the way he went after you, what could have happened if Firenze hadn't been there — that was the first time I was truly scared of him."
Harry hadn't realized that. He remembered thinking that Hermione and Ron didn't seem as worried about Voldemort as him, not until the day they decided to go after the stone. Had he just been so wrapped up in his own fears that he didn't see theirs, or had she been trying to keep her own worries a secret? Just how much energy did she exert hiding from him just how much his life scared her?
And what could he possibly do about it? It's not like he could just trade his life in for a safer existence.
"Do you think it's stupid?" Hermione asked.
"No," Harry replied.
"I've never even faced him, though," she said, her voice brimming with self-annoyance. "You have and you say the name."
"It's not like I'm never scared of him," Harry said. "I'd be an idiot not to be."
Hermione leaned her head on his shoulder. He liked the comforting weight of her.
"I know," she said softly. "I know you're not some hero from an action film, Harry, reveling in your adventures. Bravery isn't the absence of fear, but doing what's right in spite of it. And you're the bravest person I know. You've got this way of making us all wish we were a little more brave — and sometimes, around you, we are."
She was giving him too much credit.
"That night, in the graveyard, I didn't feel brave," Harry said quietly. Hermione stilled. He'd talked a lot about the sequence of events that night, but precious little about how he felt.
But suddenly, it was all coming out — his fear, his panic, the way it felt when he had to let go of his parents. She listened intently, her hand never leaving his; he focused on the steady pulse in her wrist, a constant just like Hermione herself. It terrified him, saying the words aloud, saying them to her. Hermione had just told him just how much him being in danger scared her and here he was, admitting to his own fear.
Maybe he was a bit stupid, after all.
But he knew her. He knew that nothing could scare her off, that nothing would ever make her abandon him — if the past few years hadn't done it, what could? And didn't she deserve to know? It was terrifying laying his emotions bare like this, but maybe she made him brave, too.
When he stopped, he didn't look at her, unsure what she would say. In reality, he probably hadn't said that much — he wasn't a poetic person, nor was he particularly good with emotions… but it was more than he'd ever said on the subject.
Her hand reached up to his cheek, caressing it softly, as she gently turned his face to look at her. He didn't want her to say anything — he didn't want pity, or fear, or commiseration. He had just wanted her to know.
"Oh, Harry," she said, her eyes glittering. Her breath hitched, and then she leaned in, her lips coaxing his. The kiss was soft and comforting, a gentle reminder that she was there.
He felt dizzy at her touch, glad for the assurance of her, but then comfort turned to need, and Harry crushed her mouth to his, drinking in the taste of her.
"Oh!" she murmured, rewarding him with one of those moans he craved. She melted into him, her hands cradling his face, her fingers electrifying him with their graze.
And, for a moment, Harry was just a regular kid, snogging his girlfriend in an empty classroom.
Whatever semblance of normalcy they had, it didn't last long.
Two days later, The Daily Prophet delivered some most unwelcome news.
"I don't believe it!" Hermione gasped, her knuckles clutching the paper.
"What is it?" Harry asked, a pit in his stomach.
He and Neville exchanged a worried glance. Had someone died? Had Voldemort attacked? Had there been a breakout at Azkaban? Was the weapon gone?
Hermione read aloud.
"In the latest squabble between Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, the Ministry has passed new legislation designed to exert its own influence over the running of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. Delores Umbridge, known in some Ministry circles for her curious obsession with cats, has been appointed to the newly created post of Hogwarts High Inquisitor.
In advocating for the legislation — which narrowly passed — Fudge pointed to recent inquiries into the standards of teaching at Hogwarts."
Hermione skimmed the rest of the article, then looked up at them, her face very pale.
"Umbridge is going to have the power to interfere at Hogwarts — to sack teachers if she thinks they're not up to snuff," she said, her voice trembling, "and it's all my fault."