WARNING: blood.

...

'I'm going to miss you,' Harry confessed as he, Sirius and Hermione stood on the platform.

'I'll miss you, too,' Sirius replied. He was smiling, but there was a definite sad note to his voice. He sighed and embraced Harry in an awkward hug, clearly trying to keep his distance as much as possible. He pulled back quickly and said, 'Well, this is it, then. Stay safe, have fun, and yeah,' he finished lamely, 'be fine.'

'I will. You stay safe, too, and don't let them,' Harry motioned at the crowd, most of whom were giving Sirius a wide berth, 'get you down.' And don't let the other problems get you down, too, he added mentally, thinking of the overheard conversation on his second day in Grimmauld Place.

Sirius only nodded. Harry glanced at his godfather one last time, then followed Hermione, who had already said her goodbyes, down the platform. He would have liked to wait for the Weasleys, but knowing them, they'd arrive at around five to eleven, and all the compartments would likely be full by then, so he and Hermione boarded the train. Harry made to go down the end of the train, but stopped a moment later when he realised that Hermione was not following. He made a vague gesture with his hand and said, 'So, shall we?'

But Hermione suddenly looked uncomfortable.

'Harry,' she said awkwardly, 'I'm sorry, but prefects have to go to the prefect carriage, and –'

'Oh,' said Harry in a small voice. 'Sure. Sure. I'll save seats for you and Ron.'

'Look, I wish I didn't have to, but –'

'It's fine, go on.'

He watched Hermione send him one last apologetic look and set off and turned around and started walking to the end of the train, hoping that the compartment he and his friends usually sat in would be free.

Luckily for him, it was, and he put away his trunk and Hedwig's cage and sat down, looking around as he tried to figure out what to do. He hadn't realised before, but it was incredibly boring without Ron and Hermione there. He decided to read a book to (hopefully) pass the time until his friends got back. He stood up and opened his trunk, not bothering to get it down from the overhead racks, as he searched for a book he hadn't yet read.

'Harry?'

Harry let go of his trunk to look properly at whoever had said his name and gasped when a book fell out of it and hit him on the head.

'Ow!'

He bent down to pick it up and sucked in a breath when his hand touched another, feminine one. He looked up and locked gazes with Cho Chang, who looked just as pretty as ever.

'Hi, Harry,' said Cho, and maybe it was Harry's imagination, but she sounded slightly out of breath. He focused on her face, which was thinner than it had been before the start of the holidays, an uncomfortable reminder of the events of the end of his fourth year. Her black hair framed it just as prettily as ever, though, and it seemed she had done something to it, because it was longer than Harry remembered it being.

'Er, Harry?'

Harry realised he was staring at her and felt his face grow hot. He stood up and tried to hide his blush by turning around to put the book back into his trunk, asking as he did so, 'So – er – what brings you here?'

He cursed himself immediately for asking such a stupid question. Cho laughed and answered, 'Just wanted to say hi. So, um, how have you been?'

Harry grinned and answered, 'Amazing. Ever since Sirius got exonerated, life's gotten much better. He took me to a cinema a few days back, actually.'

'A...see-ne-ma?' asked Cho, frowning. 'What's that?'

'It's – well – you know what a movie is, right?'

'Heard of it. It's like a play, but on a kind of wall, right?'

Harry nodded, 'Well, a cinema is a place where many people can pay to watch movies on a bigger wall than the one they may have at home. It's pronounced cinema, by the way. C-I-N-E-M-A.'

'All right, then, I'm glad you had fun,' said Cho, laughing as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Harry asked, 'So, what about you? How've you been?'

He realised his mistake immediately and backtracked, 'I mean – of course, you – I'm sorry – I should have realised –'

But Cho's eyes were filling with tears, and Harry felt his neck and ears heating up as he stared at her, trying desperately to come up with something to say.

'I – er – I'm –'

He patted her awkwardly on the back. Cho let out a sniffle and choked out, 'It's just – so hard – one minute he was there, and the next –'

'Cho?'

A curly-haired witch whom Harry vaguely remembered as being Cho's best friend was standing in the doorframe of his compartment. Her gaze zeroed in on him and her scowl deepened when she caught sight of the drops of water on Cho's eyelashes. 'What are you doing here with him?'

So, she was one of those who believed the rubbish the Daily Prophet was spouting. Harry narrowed his eyes and said coldly, 'Cho was just talking to me. That's not a problem, is it?'

The girl walked up to Cho, who looked like she might protest, grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the compartment, saying, 'I beg to differ,' as she walked down the carriage and out of sight.

Harry scowled and threw himself back down on his seat, threading a hand through his hair in frustration. Why couldn't he ever have a normal conversation with Cho for more than two minutes? First it was Ron, then this girl...He sighed in frustration and opened the book that had fallen back out of the trunk as soon as he'd put it away, anyway (though, thankfully, not on his head).

...

'Harry!'

Harry perked up and slammed his book shut, grinning when he saw his two best friends squeezing into the compartment.

'So, how was it?'

'Boring,' Ron answered as he put his trunk away and plopped himself down beside Harry, 'completely and utterly boring.'

'Ron!' Hermione admonished as she sat down opposite them. 'It was very – er – educative.'

'Sure, whatever,' said Ron, his grin changing to a scowl. 'Guess who's the Slytherin prefect?'

'Malfoy?'

Hermione nodded, 'And that absolute cow, Parkinson.'

Harry groaned. He could already imagine Malfoy walking around and docking points off Gryffindor first-years for breathing or something equally absurd with that stupid smug smirk on his face.

'Speaking of cows,' said Ron darkly. Harry looked up and scowled when he saw Malfoy standing there, waiting to be noticed. As usual, Malfoy had his two bookends at his sides, and Harry couldn't decide whether they looked constipated or just plain stupid.

'Potter, Weasel and the Mudblood,' said Malfoy with that infuriating smirk on his face.

'Go away, Malfoy,' said Ron, gritting his teeth. Harry would have liked nothing more than for a dementor to suddenly appear behind Malfoy and throttle him, but the blond simply squeezed all the way into the compartment and said, 'Watch your tongue, Weasel.'

'Or what?' asked Harry heatedly.

Malfoy grinned and answered, 'You see, Potter, I, unlike you, have been made a prefect. Which means that I, unlike you, have the power to hand out punishments –'

'Yeah, but you, unlike me, are a git,' Harry interrupted, 'so get out.'

Malfoy's expression contorted, his pale skin reddening, and he said, 'How does it feel, Potter, to be second-best to your pathetic idiot of a friend?'

'Better than it feels to be you, I bet,' said Harry, and, before Malfoy could retort, stood up and pushed him out of the compartment, locking the door behind him. A crash from the other side meant that Malfoy had crashed into his sidekicks, and Harry grinned vindictively as he sat back down.

'You shouldn't have done that to Malfoy, Harry,' said Hermione. 'He could make your life difficult.'

'Puh-lease. Like he could do anything to me,' scoffed Harry, then added darkly, 'Not sure about the others though. You just know that he's going to abuse his power as much as possible.'

'Yeah,' said Ron, then brightened, 'I can't wait to get his mates for something, though. I'll make Goyle write lines – yeah, it'll kill him, he hates writing,' he scrunched up his face and started writing in the air with an imaginary quill, grunting, 'I...must...not...look...like...a...baboon's...backside...'

Harry and Hermione burst out laughing.

Later, Harry wanted to tell Ron everything, but eventually decided against it – after all, how easy would it be to be overheard on the train?

...

The Sorting Feast was amazing, as usual, and three helpings of treacle tart later, Harry's stomach felt uncomfortably tight. He mostly zoned out during Dumbledore's speech, but snapped back to reality as Dumbledore announced this year's changes in staff.

'...We are all very pleased to welcome Professor Umbridge to the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor, as well as welcome back Professor Grubbly-Plank, who will be taking over Care of Magical Creatures for our very own Hagrid while he's away.'

Where was Hagrid? And wasn't that woman –

'Hey, I remember her! She was at my trial!' whispered Harry so that only Ron and Hermione could hear him.

'Really?' asked Hermione. 'What's she like?'

Harry frowned, 'Not very nice. She was one of those who voted against me.'

'Well, bollocks,' said Ron, groaning, 'there goes a good year of Defence.'

'That's all well and all,' interrupted Hermione to a derisive snort from Ron, 'but where's Hagrid?'

'Sirius mentioned something about him being away, didn't he? I'll have to ask him.'

Harry would have continued the conversation, but then Dumbledore started talking about the Quidditch try-outs, so he shut up and listened attentively.

'...Tryouts for the House Quidditch teams will take place on the –'

'Hem hem.'

The Hall immediately went silent. Never, in all the years anyone had been at Hogwarts, had anyone dared to interrupt the Headmaster. Who did this woman think she was? Whispers started to permeate the silence, but everyone went quiet again when Umbridge stood up, smiling a sickly sweet smile. Dumbledore looked at her for a moment, then nodded and sat down smartly, his smile back on his face.

'Thank you, Headmaster, for these kind words of welcome. And how lovely to see all your bright, happy faces smiling up at me.'

No one was smiling. Harry had a very bad feeling about his favourite subject this year. No one who spoke to teenagers as though they were five-year-olds could be a good teacher.

'I'm sure we'll all be great friends.'

'That's likely,' Fred and George muttered in unison, while Lavender Brown said to her friend, Parvati, 'I'll be friends with her as long as I don't have to borrow that cardigan,' and the two dissolved in giggles.

Umbridge paid no heed to the clearly not happy, bright and smiling faces of the students before her and continued, 'The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizard of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills...'

Harry yawned. Only a few sentences in, and he was already bored out of his mind. Next to him, Ron rubbed his stomach and muttered, 'I'd rather eat another chicken leg than listen to this nonsense.'

Looking around the Great Hall, Harry saw that barely any students were paying any attention. Naturally, Hermione was part of those few who were. Across from them, the twins were whispering together, bent over a piece of parchment. Harry scowled when he saw that Malfoy and his ilk were smiling smugly, even if Malfoy's eyes were glazed. He had no doubt that Malfoy or his father was somehow in on it.

'...Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.'

'Thank you, Professor Umbridge, that was most illuminating,' said Dumbledore, clapping politely. A few students followed his lead, though the applause was very soft.

'Well,' said Hermione thoughtfully, 'he's certainly right in that it was illuminating.'

'Illuminating?' said Ron, 'What a load of waffle!'

Hermione looked to Harry, but he just shrugged his shoulders helplessly, so she let out a frustrated sigh and said, 'Oh, didn't you listen at all? It means the Ministry is interfering at Hogwarts.'

...

Harry was still reeling from Hermione's revelation once they were back in the fifth-year boys' dorm, so much, in fact, that he almost forgot to tell Ron.

'Hey, Ron?'

'Yeah?' Ron looked up from where he was unpacking his trunk. 'What is it, Harry?'

In the background, Harry could hear Dean, Seamus and Neville talking about how their summers went. He moved so close to Ron that their noses were almost touching and whispered out of the corner of his mouth, 'I'm ready to tell you. Tonight, at midnight in the common room.'

Ron paled slightly under his freckles. 'Are you sure it's safe?'

Seamus was confessing that his mother didn't want him to go back to Hogwarts.

'Yeah, Sirius taught me some spells to prevent us from being overheard.'

Ron nodded and they parted, just as Seamus said loudly, 'Because of Potter.'

Hearing his name, Harry turned around and asked, 'Because of me what?'

'Me mam didn't want me to come back to Hogwarts. Because of you.'

'What do you mean, because of me?'

'With what the Daily Prophet's been saying about you lately –'

'So she believes that, then, does she?'

Harry couldn't believe it. He'd met Mrs Finnigan at the Quidditch World Cup, and she'd been a very nice woman. To think that she would believe the rubbish the Daily Prophet was spouting...

'Well, you have to admit, it was suspicious when you arrived with Diggory's body in your hands last year, and you haven't told anyone what happened. So what really went on there?'

'Just read the Daily Prophet like your mother,' snapped Harry and started furiously changing into his pyjamas.

'Are you having a go at my mum?'

'Well, if she chooses to believe the rubbish Fudge's spouting –'

'You're mad!' Seamus looked at their dorm mates for support, 'He's barking mad, right?' He then directed his next question at Ron, 'Do you believe what he's saying?

'Yeah, actually, I do!' said Ron, his ears red.

'Then you're mad, too!'

'Yeah?' Ron drew himself up to his full height, which was a head taller than Harry, 'Well, unfortunately for you, I am also a prefect, and if I hear one more –'

Seamus shook his head and disappeared behind his curtains. In the ensuing silence, Ron said, 'Anyone else got a problem with Harry?'

'My parents are Muggles, mate,' said Dean, raising his hands in a peaceful gesture, 'they don't know anything about what's going on, and I'm not stupid enough to tell them.'

Ron's gaze moved to Neville.

'My Gran says that if Dumbledore says he's back, then he's back. She's cancelled our subscription to the Prophet because of how inaccurate it is. We believe Harry,' said Neville simply, and Harry felt a surge of appreciation for his dorm-mate. He looked at the other occupants of the dorm and said, 'I think I'm going to turn in.'

His dorm-mates, barring Seamus, wished him good night and Harry climbed into bed, closing the curtains and whispering an anti-eavesdropping charm Sirius had taught him. He picked up his mirror, which he'd thrown on the bed earlier, and said, loudly and clearly, 'Sirius Black.'

A moment passed and Sirius' tired face appeared. Harry noticed that, although it was nearly ten in the evening, his godfather was not wearing pyjamas, and his hair looked like it hadn't been washed yet. Still, Sirius smiled brightly, some of his tiredness disappearing when he saw Harry.

'Hi, Sirius.'

'Hi, Harry. So, how was your first day of school?'

Harry frowned. 'Not that good, actually. Hagrid's gone, a Ministry woman named Umbridge is the Defence Professor, the Ministry is apparently interfering at Hogwarts, and a lot of people believe the Prophet, including Seamus.'

'Seamus is your dorm-mate, right?' At Harry's nod, Sirius said, 'Don't you mind them, Harry. They'll know the truth eventually.'

'I know. I still don't like it,' said Harry, but he let some of the encouragement in Sirius' voice reassure him and the weight in his chest lessened slightly. 'So, what about Hagrid? Where is he?'

'He's – er – it's a mission for the Order,' Sirius scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably, 'I'm not technically supposed to tell you.'

'But you will, won't you?' said Harry, looking at Sirius beseechingly.

'I – oh, fine. You know, sometimes, I feel like you're my son, with those puppy eyes you've got. Just, don't tell anyone I told you.'

Harry grinned. 'Sure.'

'Right. Well. Hagrid's gone...' Sirius paused dramatically, '...to Thailand to buy a pink unicorn and fly it all the way to the moon.'

'Sirius!' exclaimed Harry, laughing.

'What?' said Sirius, a look of faux innocence on his face. 'Okay, okay, I'll be serious from now on.'

Harry couldn't quite contain his chuckle. No matter what anyone (namely, Remus) said, that joke never got old.

'Anyway. Hagrid's gone to liaise with the giants.'

'Really? I suppose it would make sense. What are they like, the giants?'

'They're big,' Harry snorted, 'and brutish. Kind of like the Crabbe and Goyle you told me about. They have bloodbaths constantly. It's not easy to get on their good side.'

'Will Hagrid be all right?' asked Harry, worried for his half-giant friend.

'Yeah, of course,' said Sirius, waving a hand, 'Maxime is with him and he's part-giant, so they ought to accept him.'

Harry wasn't so sure (and he suspected Sirius wasn't either), but decided to change the subject and asked, 'So, do you know much about Umbridge?'

Sirius scowled as he answered, 'Umbridge is a high-ranking ministry official, who hates anyone who isn't a pureblood and what she calls "half-breeds" – centaurs, house-elves, werewolves and the like. I'd advise you to be cautious around her. She's a very bad person with a lot of power. She could make your life hell, and you've already given her plenty of reason to do that. So, yeah, keep your head down and don't give her any more reason to hate you.'

'Would you have done so?' asked Harry sceptically, imagining Sirius and his dad staying up late to decorate Umbridge's office with pictures of excrement or something of the like.

After a small pause, Sirius answered, 'Yeah, we probably wouldn't have. We'd have gone all out on her. But I am not you, and I advise you to be better than I was at your age.'

Harry nodded. 'I'll get you the fangs as soon as I can be alone.'

'Good. Good night, Harry.'

''Night, Sirius.'

Harry put the mirror away and went to sleep. His mind still swimming with everything that had happened and everything Sirius had told him, he forgot all about a meeting at midnight and a redheaded boy who couldn't wake him because of the charms he had put on his bed's curtains.

...

'Morning, Ron,' said Harry as he stumbled out of the bathroom.

'Morning, Harry,' said Ron, looking a little put out by something. 'Sleep well?'

'Yeah, why – oh!'

Harry felt his cheeks heating up. 'Oh, Ron, I'm so sorry, I forgot all about –'

'Yeah,' said Ron, looking even more put out. 'I tried to wake you, but the curtains –'

'I put charms on them for – well, I'll tell you later,' said Harry, shooting a glance at their three other dorm-mates, who were just waking up.

'Sure,' said Ron with a hint of bitterness in his voice. 'Later.'

...

Harry couldn't quite control the loathing he felt as he stared at his Potions Professor, who was calling out "P"s and "A"s mercilessly as he graded the Gryffindors' potions. He hated what he was about to do, but he just had to know.

'Er – Professor?'

Having to address Snape politely was something he hated just as much. Snape looked up, his face looking decidedly uglier than the jar of frog insides next to him, and asked, Harry's loathing reflected in his own voice, 'Potter, what do you want?'

'I – er,' Harry looked around to confirm that the last of his classmates had left, then leant in slightly and said, lowering his voice, 'I know it was you who told Voldemort the prophecy.'

Snape dropped the phial he was holding, which rolled off his table and shattered somewhere on the floor, and paled rapidly. Harry backed away quickly as Snape seized his throat and slammed him into the nearest wall. His voice was deathly quiet as he said, 'Detention, Potter, for spouting off nonsense.'

Any sane person would have nodded meekly and made to get away as far and as fast as possible; but then, sanity was overrated, anyway. Harry squirmed in Snape's grasp until he fished his wand out of his pocket and pressed it to his throat as he panted, 'Do...you...regret...it?'

Snape stared at him with the utmost loathing for a moment, and then, using strength Harry hadn't known the man to possess, lifted him by his robe and threw him out of his office, shutting the door behind him. Harry supposed it was only the shock at being asked such a personal question that had stopped him from finishing him off then and there.

Still, Harry had seen the look in his eyes, and it was enough for him to know that he did regret it. Harry would never come to like the man, but the revelation that Snape hadn't meant for his parents to die felt as though a weight that had settled in his stomach was now gone.

...

Harry hated that woman.

He'd tried to hold his temper as best as he could, but he'd lost it when Umbridge stated that she, in essence, thought that his godfather was better off back in prison. She hadn't used those exact words, of course. Harry had no doubt that she was a Slytherin, with how she could be sickeningly polite and unabashedly rude at the same time.

In hindsight, saying that he'd heard a rumour that the Sorting Hat had tried to put her in Azkaban probably wasn't the best idea. Luckily, he'd managed not to say anything about Voldemort's return, so she'd only given him two nights of detention.

Which was where he was headed now. Harry grimaced when he saw the excessive pinkness and the kitten plates that adorned the walls of Umbridge's office. Said grimace turned into an audible groan when he saw the roll of parchment that lay on the desk which was clearly intended for him. Really, as if the class itself couldn't get more boring, with them being made to read a stupid and incorrect book on defence theory (and Umbridge had also stated that they won't be casting a single spell over the course of the school year, something Hermione had said she would work on finding a solution for), now he was going to be made to do lines? And, from what he'd seen of Umbridge so far, she'd keep him there until the wee hours of the next day's morning.

'Good evening, Mr Potter,' said Umbridge and gestured to the seat in front of her. Harry didn't deign to respond as he sat down and bent down to retrieve a quill from his bag.

'Ah – ah – ah,' said Umbridge, wagging a finger at him, 'you'll be using one of mine.'

She then proceeded to hand him a black quill. Harry shrugged and took the quill.

'I want you to write "I must not disrespect authority".'

Harry scowled and said, 'You've not given me any ink.'

'When I give you directions, Mr Potter, I should like you to reply with "Yes, Professor Umbridge". As for ink, well,' her smile turned into, in Harry's opinion, the embodiment of pure evil, 'you won't need it.'

Harry had a bad feeling about this. He was proven right when, as soon as he touched the tip of the quill to parchment, a searing pain erupted in the back of his right hand. As he wrote the first letter, the letter "I" appeared in red on the back of his hand and healed immediately. It occurred to him then that the red "ink" was actually his own blood. He looked up at Umbridge and felt the strongest hate he'd ever felt flare up inside of him.

'Yes, Mr Potter?' she asked with an infuriatingly sweet smile.

Harry was a hair's breadth from telling her everything he thought about her, which would have Mrs Weasley gasping repeatedly at his language, but he just shook his head and went back to his parchment, grimacing as letters carved themselves into the back of his hand.

I must not disrespect authority

I must not disrespect authority

After about 30 lines, the back of his hand was numb from the pain.

I must not disrespect authority

I must not disrespect authority

After 50, the cuts stopped healing.

...

After the second detention, Harry's hand was still bleeding when he exited Umbridge's office at half an hour to midnight. He sucked on the cuts to stop the blood flow. His blood left a metallic taste in his mouth. A fleeting thought of telling somebody was instantly squashed down when Harry realised that doing so would mean giving in. And he did not want to give Umbridge the satisfaction.

He scanned the dark corridor with his eyes and nearly jumped when he saw Ron crouching behind a suit of armour, a broom in one hand.

'Ron? What're you doing here?'

"Deer in the headlights" would have been an appropriate expression to describe Ron, whose eyes widened comically as he stepped out from behind the suit of armour and awkwardly moved himself in front of his broom.

'Oh – er – Harry, fancy seeing you here!'

'What are you doing here, Ron? And why do you have your broom with you?'

Ron looked like he was about to answer or continue denying everything, but then his eyebrows moved together into a scowl and he said, 'I'll tell you later.'

Harry thought he could detect a hint of mocking in his voice.

'What do you mean, you'll tell me later?'

'Exactly what I said, Harry,' yes, his voice was definitely mocking now, 'I'll tell you later, just like you'll tell me later.'

'Look, it was an accident, okay?'

'And the charms on your curtains were an accident, too?'

'I had to put the charms because –'

Harry faltered as he realised that the mirrors were another thing he couldn't talk about in the open.

'I'll tell you later,' he finished in a small voice.

'I thought so,' said Ron. 'Bet you and Hermione had loads of fun together, keeping secrets from me –'

'Don't bring Hermione into this! What's so wrong with me and Hermione being friends, anyway?'

Ron reddened, but didn't say anything, and instead pushed past Harry and walked down the Fat Lady's corridor and out of sight.

...

'I confronted Snape yesterday, you know.'

'You did what?!'

Harry winced as Sirius' yell attacked his eardrums painfully and repeated, 'I confronted Snape. And he regrets it.'

'Oh, and he told you that, did he?' asked Sirius bitterly.

'No, but I saw it –'

'Oh, don't start with all the cliched "I saw it in his eyes" rubbish. How can a pair of organs show emotions or any of that sappiness? Besides, Snape's the best Occlumens I know. He wouldn't show his emotions so freely.'

'Well, I saw it,' Harry repeated stubbornly, 'and I don't care if you think he lied –'

'Harry, let me explain it to you,' said Sirius slowly, and Harry reluctantly closed his mouth. 'I don't know what heroics you see in Snape's actions, because there are none. He only regrets his actions because Lily died.'

'Well, and how is that –'

'No, Harry, you didn't understand,' said Sirius, raising his voice slightly, 'He regrets it because Lily died. He would have been fine if it had been any other family – heck, he was all for you and James dying, just so he could have his love.'

'But surely –'

'The only thing that man cares about is his creepy obsession with my best friend's dead wife,' snapped Sirius, looking decidedly irritable now.

Harry supposed he had a point, but he refused to accept that Dumbledore would keep a man like that out of Azkaban, and even go as far as to employ him at Hogwarts. Despite his recent problems with Dumbledore, he still trusted the man and his judgement – at least enough not to start screaming, 'Death Eater!' in Snape's classes. And now, he supposed he didn't have to suspect Snape anymore, as he doubted he'd join Voldemort again after that. Dumbledore's trust in him seemed more reasonable now that Harry knew of the relationship between Snape and his mother.

'Sirius –'

'Harry, how can you justify that man's actions? He's the reason your parents are dead!'

Harry was about to say that he wasn't justifying anything, but caught onto the second sentence and asked hopefully, 'And you don't blame yourself for it anymore?'

'Well, I – er – still do,' Harry felt his heart sink, 'but how is that related to Snape?'

Harry shook his head and said, 'Can we just agree to disagree?'

'Fine,' said Sirius, scowling. 'For the record, let it be known that my faith in your judgement of character has just dropped by, like, a thousand percent.'

Harry just sighed.

...

Any dreams Harry Potter may have had of letting go of his hatred of Snape were crushed in the next evening, when Snape made him scrub cauldrons for five hours straight, lecturing him on the importance of having brains all the while, the slime-ball.

...

Sirius made a face and the man who'd been staring at him for the past half an hour while he was picking out candy (Merlin, there were so many new ones! Of course, Sirius was intent on trying out them all) jumped in fright. He sighed, dropped 2 Galleons and 3 Sickles on the counter and made his way back out on the streets of Diagon Alley, rolling his eyes when those closest to him immediately gave him a wide berth. It happened whenever he went out; people would avoid him while whispering behind their hands and calling him a deranged criminal just loud enough for him to hear.

Granted, just as many were feeling sorry for him, but Sirius didn't know what was worse: being hated or having his entire existence romanticised to hell and back.

He turned around, wondering where to stop next, when he came face-to-face with someone he remembered very well. Receding mousy brown hair, a pale thin face, dirty clothes that gave off the impression of not having been washed in a long time – Amanda Pettigrew certainly didn't look like she'd had an easy fourteen years. Sirius felt a surge of anger at the resemblance to the rat that her features bore, but it was gone in an instant. The mother wasn't to be blamed for the sins of the son, after all, and not every child was the direct product of their upbringing – Sirius knew that only too well.

So, he inclined his head in what he hoped was a polite nod and said, 'Mrs Pettigrew.'

When no answer came, he added jokingly, 'Long time no see?'

Maybe, that wasn't the best way to greet her, Sirius reflected a moment later, when Mrs Pettigrew screamed and lunged at him.

She was very frail and it wouldn't have been so hard to get her off him, but she'd grabbed his wand before he could react, helped by the element of surprise, and he was too busy making sure that his second wand didn't get snapped as well. A moment later, though, his wand got thrown down the street and a woman who'd just arrived and probably thought that Sirius was attacking Amanda, and not the other way around, picked it up and tried to snap it, so Sirius used all of his bodyweight (which wasn't much, as he still hadn't recovered from his starvation period in Azkaban) to throw Mrs Pettigrew off and ran up to the woman, yelling, 'No, no, no, no! Don't snap it! She attacked me – not the other way around!'

Luckily for him, some other bystanders stopped the woman from snapping his wand and explained everything, while others helped restrain Mrs Pettigrew. The latter was still screaming that Sirius had killed her son as Aurors arrived and dragged her away, while Sirius and passerby quickly explained what happened to one of them. He wondered if she had even heard the news of his exoneration. Probably not, as it'd looked like she hadn't gone out in days. Sirius also wondered if Euphemia Potter would have reacted the same way, had she still been alive. After all, he had killed her son.

Finally, the Auror – someone by the name of Elan Burns, so he had to have joined while Sirius was incarcerated – nodded and Disapparated, promising that there would be a trial and that their on-scene testimony would be enough.

The woman, meanwhile, passed Sirius his wand, and it was then that he got a good look at her.

'Andy?'

Andromeda flushed and said, 'Hi, Sirius.'

Sirius felt his face split in a grin. Andromeda had been his favourite cousin, despite her being a Slytherin, and still was. She was the one who had planted the proverbial seed of doubt in him, actually, after she had taken him to Muggle London and demanded to know if he still thought Muggles were filthy and stupid.

'So – er – how've you been?'

...

Two hours and a long conversation later, Sirius returned home, a grin on his face. Talk about the past fourteen years had moved to talk about Dora and the Order, and soon they'd been conversing freely, just like before Sirius' incarceration. Andromeda had extracted a promise to meet up again from him, and Sirius had gone home feeling happy about another relationship he'd treasured being restarted.

His mood worsened somewhat when he entered the gloomy house, and his thoughts immediately went back to his encounter with Mrs Pettigrew. Her reaction really was perfectly understandable. She'd tried to do to him what he'd always wanted to do to the rat.

Sirius deposited the potions ingredients he'd bought on the kitchen table for Kreacher, who had become more bearable ever since Sirius had promised to destroy the locket, to pick up and proceeded up to – you guessed it – the library. As he sat down at his usual table, still pondering the subject of death, he realised that he'd never asked Kreacher how Regulus had died. He'd been afraid, of course, afraid to be told about the last minutes of his brother, but maybe, it was time to get over his fear.

'Kreacher!'

Kreacher appeared with a pop and said, 'Yes, Master?'

Sirius steeled himself for what he was about to do. 'Kreacher, I want you to –,' his voice shook and he cleared his throat, '– to tell me how Regulus died.'

Kreacher's dull eyes filled with tears and the elf fell to his knees and started beating his head against the floor, screaming, 'Master, please! Master...Master...'

To Sirius' surprise, his heart clenched slightly at the display. He shook his head and said loudly, 'Kreacher, stop!'

The elf paused in his head-banging, looking up at Sirius, beads of tears slipping out of his large eyes.

'Kreacher, I order you to tell me how Regulus died.'

The elf immediately burst into tears again and started rocking back and forth. Still, he started talking, 'Master Regulus c-came to Kreacher and s-said that the Dark Lord needed a – a house-elf, and Kreacher was honoured, of course, how could he n-not? And Kreacher went to the D-Dark Lord, and the Dark Lord t-took Kreacher to a cave, where the Dark Lord made Kreacher drink nasty p-potion. It made Kreacher see things – t-terrible things.'

Here, Kreacher burst into tears again, and it took a Draught of Peace to get him to calm down enough to continue. The pit of dread in Sirius' stomach was growing larger with each word Kreacher spoke.

'And then th-the D-Dark Lord put a locket and filled it with n-new potion and left, but Kreacher had order from M-Master Regulus to come b-back, so Kreacher c-came back. Master Regulus d-didn't like it, and Master Regulus was g-growing s-sadder w-with each d-day, and then – then, one d-day, he t-told Kreacher that he would be going to – to n-nasty place, and Kreacher couldn't t-tell family.'

Kreacher's stuttering was increasing progressively, and Sirius was growing more horrified by the second.

'A-And M-Master R-Regulus went t-to n-n-nasty place a-and t-told Kreacher t-to d-destroy locket and d-drank n-nasty potion, and M-Master R-Regulus screamed a-and screamed. AND THEN,' screamed Kreacher, now bawling hystericaly, 'THEN M-MASTER REGULUS F-FELL INTO W-WATER A-AND INFERUISES D-DRAGGED HIM D-D-DOWN. And Kreacher w-wanted to save h-him, b-but Master Regulus h-had t-told Kreacher t-to g-go h-home a-and d-destroy the locket, b-but nothing Kreacher did destroyed it, and...'

Sirius ignored Kreacher's continued ramblings and promptly stood up and rammed his forearms into the nearest shelf. Books rained down on him, but it didn't matter, because Regulus, little baby Regulus, had died a hero, and he, Sirius, had done nothing to prevent it.

...

Harry didn't need to attend the Quidditch tryouts, strictly speaking, but Ron was trying out for Keeper and he wanted to cheer him on.

He and Ron had made up the next day after their fight. Ron had told Harry about wanting to try out, while Harry had told him that he had a device that enabled him to talk to Sirius, hence, the anti-eavesdropping charms. That was as much as he'd been able to tell him, because they hadn't been sure that the other boys were sleeping. He'd promised to say more whenever they had the chance.

Besides, the stands provided an amazing view of Cho Chang, who'd come along with the rest of the Ravenclaw Team to watch Gryffindor's tryouts. Harry waved at her and she waved back, smirking, to which Harry shook his head and yelled, 'No spying will help you!' across the field.

Harry cheered as Ron made another save. He was doing fairly well, and only Viktoria Frobisher and Geoffrey Hooper could match him so far. Beside Harry, Hermione scowled and turned away determinedly. She and Ron had had another fight yesterday – about studies, if Harry recalled correctly, because Merlin, it was incredibly easy to lose track with how often they fought – and she hadn't spoken to him since.

Apparently, Ron noticed that, because he missed his next shot completely. And it only went downhill from there. Harry cringed as Ron missed shot after shot, choosing instead to glare at Hermione. His nerves weren't helping the matter, either.

Eventually, Angelina called everyone down and, after about five minutes of careful decision-making, began to read out the results. Harry leaned in once she got to the Keeper spot (everyone else retained their old positions, including Harry).

'...Keeper – Geoffrey Hooper!'

Harry groaned.

...

Harry grinned as he saw the twins selling Pig Paste. A third-year and a cluster of fourth-years were all oinking and occasionally spitting out pigs. He made a mental note to tell Sirius during their nightly mirror calls.

His grin disappeared when he saw Ron sulking on a nearby sofa. He tried to share a glance with Hermione, but she looked away determinedly. Still, she followed him when he approached Ron and said, 'Mate, condolences.'

Ron looked up and mumbled, 'Yeah.' His eyes moved from Harry to Hermione and his features twisted as he bit out, 'Not that I should expect anything from you.'

'Excuse me?' said Hermione, looking affronted.

'Excuse you! Just get out of here!'

'What? I've a right to be here! I'm a Gryffindor, in case you couldn't tell!'

'No, you're not!'

'What? Why, you –'

Harry let his best friends' yells wash over him as he slowly sneaked away up to the dorms. He wished they'd stop fighting, but with the new heavier course load, Umbridge being made High Inquisitor and Ron and Hermione having the most incompatible personalities he'd ever seen, he knew that a wish was all it was.

...

Sirius' hands shook with excitement as he said Harry's name into the mirror, his voice giddy with anticipation. Every inch of him was itching to go back to the library and continue planning, but he couldn't wait to tell Harry what he'd just found out.

'Sirius? Why're you calling now?'

Harry's tired face appeared in the mirror. Sadly, tired seemed to be a perpetual state for both Harry and Sirius lately.

'Harry, you won't believe the breakthrough I just made.'

All signs of fatigue disappeared from Harry's face instantly.

'What breakthrough? Is it about –,' Harry lowered his voice, '– about You-Know-What?'

Sirius nodded eagerly, 'Voldemort used Regulus' elf, and he gave the diary to Malfoy, which we know now is an H. It would stand to reason that he gave one to another of his inner circle. Who is rumoured to be his right-hand follower? That's right, Bellatrix Lestrange. Well, knowing Bella –'

'"Knowing"? How do you know Bellatrix?' Harry interrupted, 'And why are you calling her "Bella"?'

'She's my cousin. Anyway –'

'She's your cousin? Why didn't you ever tell me?'

'Does it matter if she's my cousin?' Sirius snapped, rueing the day he was born into the Black family. 'We're not family, as far as I'm concerned. She's certainly not my family.'

Harry only nodded and gestured at Sirius to continue, for which Sirius was thankful. He hated it when people reminded him of his relation to that bitch.

'Well, anyway, knowing Bella, she'd hide it in her Gringotts vault. She was always proud of having enough money to have a personal vault, and she kept rubbing it in my face by hiding everything she owned in it.'

'So you mean...No way,' said Harry, 'No way am I letting you break into Gringotts. Have you seen the weapons those goblins have?'

Sirius imagined himself speared on a skewer and almost laughed. 'Harry, Gringotts isn't the place I'm going to be breaking into.'

'You mean...' Harry's eyes widened, 'So you are going to break into somewhere!'

Sirius nodded, 'Lestrange Manor. It's a tradition in the pure-blood circles to have a spare key in case you're imprisoned while your main key is on you. I even know where exactly she would have hidden it. Pure-bloods aren't known for their imagination.'

Harry was silent for a moment, and then his face split into a grin and he said, 'What have you planned so far?'

...

'Harry, go,' Hermione whispered while shooting furtive glances at a pair of shelves which a group of Ravenclaws had disappeared behind a few seconds ago.

'No,' Harry whispered back, and sure enough, a moment later, the Ravenclaws emerged again and took the table across from them. Hermione groaned and whispered furiously, 'Now, you're never going to get away!'

'Hermione, relax. I don't have to do it right now.'

It had taken them two weeks to get some time away from everyone else, but they'd finally managed when Ron, who'd taken his failure to get on the team as a personal insult, had decided to go and train on the field again. Harry had refused to train with him this time, citing a detention from Umbridge; Hermione hadn't even needed an excuse. And now, Harry could finally go and get Sirius some basilisk fangs.

Hermione sighed and said, slightly louder, 'I hate that Umbridge isn't letting us actually practice any spells. How on earth are we going to pass our O.W.L.s like that?'

Murmurs of assent were heard from the next table, much to Harry's amusement. It seemed that hating Umbridge was one thing everybody agreed on – well, except for Malfoy, but the ponce didn't count.

'No idea,' said Harry. 'Maybe we could just practice ourselves? You know, self-study and all that?'

'You know, Harry, that's actually a pretty good idea,' said Hermione thoughtfully. 'But not everyone is as suited for self-study as others...If we just had a teacher – got it!'

'Got what?' asked Harry, a little scared of the glint in Hermione's eyes. And why was she smirking like that?

'You can be the teacher, Harry!'

Harry quickly cast a few anti-eavesdropping charms and exclaimed, 'Me? Are you crazy? I can't teach anyone – I'm not even that good –'

'Oh, but you are, Harry,' said Hermione, giggling, 'You're amazing at it.'

'No, I'm not! And stop laughing at me! And besides, what do you think Umbridge will do when she finds out?'

Not waiting for an answer, Harry got up and searched for a Charms book on the nearby shelf. Part of the pretence was actually doing their homework. To his dismay, Hermione got up as well, walked up to him and whispered, 'Come on, Harry. What can Umbridge do? It's not as if study groups are banned or anything.'

'You've seen what she's doing! She's abusing her power, just look at the Degrees! I don't want her to find a reason to expel you. I can't lose you, and not just because you help me with my homework.'

Hermione laughed, though she was also blushing slightly. She considered him for a moment, and then said, 'You know, I love you.'

Harry's breath hitched. Hermione liked him like that? He'd only ever liked her like a sister. How on earth was he supposed to tell her that without hurting her feelings or ruining their friendship permanently?

Hermione suddenly went red and added hastily, 'Like a b –'

But she didn't get to finish, because Ron appeared suddenly from behind a bookshelf. Unable to help himself, Harry groaned. He was not looking forward to the following conversation. He initially hadn't wanted to lie to Ron, and this was exactly why.

'You – you traitor!' Ron spluttered.

'Traitor? What do you mean?' asked Harry, confused. Sure, he'd lied to Ron, but he hadn't betrayed him...had he?

'You know what I mean! You – you and her –'

Oh. Oh. Harry understood it now. In hindsight, Ron's thing for Hermione had been so obvious, he had no idea how he'd missed it.

Equally as obvious, though, was that Hermione harboured no feelings for Ron at all. That was a bit of a problem.

At the same time, though, Harry was kind of glad that Ron and Hermione weren't ever going to be a thing, because it meant that he wasn't going to be left out while Ron and Hermione did whatever it was couples usually did.

Still, now, he had to reassure Ron that no, he and Hermione weren't a couple.

'Ron, it's not like that. Hermione and I aren't –'

'YES, YOU ARE! SHE SAID SHE LOVES YOU!'

'Oh, would you please just see sense? Hermione and I are not dating!' snapped Harry irritably.

Ron was about to answer something, but then the ever-furious Pince descended on them, demanding that they leave the library unless they wanted to be banned for the rest of their lives. Under her watchful eye, Harry and Hermione quickly gathered their stuff and left, Harry thinking with no small amount of cynicism that at least they now had an excuse for leaving the library, which had been their excuse for leaving the common room.

When they walked out of the library and into the corridor, Ron was already turning the nearest corner, his ears red. Harry sighed and turned to look at Hermione, who immediately blurted out, blushing, 'I meant that I love you like a brother.'

Harry nodded, relieved, and replied, 'I love you, too. Like a sister.' On an impulse, he added, 'I'll do it.'

'You will?' Hermione asked, surprised.

'Yeah,' said Harry, even though he really had no idea why he was agreeing to this scheme of Hermione's.

Hermione bit her lip and said, 'I'll go work out the details, then.'

Harry nodded and replied, 'Just as well, 'cause I have to go do code B.'

That was their code for Harry getting the basilisk fangs for Sirius. Harry watched Hermione leave, then turned around and set off for the girls' bathroom on the second floor.

...

The basilisk hadn't been a pretty sight, and Harry had been forced to swallow back bile as he bent down and retrieved the fangs, dragon-hide gloves on his hands to prevent venom from touching his skin, but generally the visit to the Chamber of Secrets had gone well. Harry hadn't even needed to carry the fangs out of the Chamber, as he'd simply given the leather bag to Kreacher to take to Sirius (students weren't actually supposed to call their own house-elves while at Hogwarts, but they'd been in the Chamber, so no one would find out).

He stopped in his tracks when he entered the dorm and came face-to-face with Ron, who immediately glared at him and the rest of the boys, who were staring at the two friends, likely wondering what had happened.

'We're not together, I swear,' said Harry, pleading silently for Ron to believe him. Was this how he and his first and best friend were going to fall apart, because of love and jealousy? It was like Sirius had once said, romantic love was nothing next to friendship.

'Then why would you lie to me?' asked Ron, and Harry thought he could detect a hint of betrayal beneath the fury. 'You just wanted to get rid of me!'

'No, Ron, it's not like that, I swear – you know how I feel about Cho! Why would I go on and just – Hermione –'

'She said she loves you!'

'Like a brother! You just didn't hear the full conversation. Do you want me to tell you?'

Ron was silent for a moment, then said, his expression unreadable, 'Go on.'

Harry motioned Ron into the bathroom and put up anti-eavesdropping charms, hiding a smirk when he heard three boys scrambling away from the door, making noises of disappointment.

...

Sirius drew up his hand and stabbed the locket. Slightly behind him, Kreacher, who was there as a back-up in case anything went wrong, jumped away in fright. In this instance, however, Sirius couldn't blame him. He'd hoped that the Horcrux would just die peacefully, but his hope was clearly in vain.

'You killed James and Lily...You killed them...They hate you...Harry hates you...'

Well, if that isn't my depression personified, Sirius thought sardonically as he gazed at the dark, smoky shadow in front of him, which had formed into the bodies of his best friends.

Perhaps that would have garnered a stronger reaction out of him if they had looked anything like his friends; but Volde-James' smirk was nothing like the one James had always had and Volde-Lily's eyes weren't sparkling with mirth, but hate. Even in his dreams, James and Lily always showed some kind of emotion, be it anger or betrayal; the James and Lily in front of him were nothing but emotionless husks.

As it was, Sirius couldn't help but take a step back.

'You are nothing...You are useless...Harry wanted to live with you because of the Dursleys' abuse, but you aren't that much better, are you?...All you do is waste your time in the library and get drunk every now and then...You get so drunk you get violent with Harry and then wake up the next morning and don't remember it at all...'

Wait, what? Sirius felt a surge of ice run through his body, and suddenly he felt weak at the knees. Becoming like his parents and the Dursleys was one of his worst fears, and if he truly was...if he did...

The locket seemed to feel his distress, because it used the opportunity to turn back into a smoky shadow and zoom right at Sirius, passing straight through his chest and leaving him feeling hopelessly empty, before dissolving into wisps and tendrils of smoke, which eventually disappeared as well, leaving the broken locket and the sweat on Sirius' forehead as the only reminders of its presence in the ritual room at Number 12 Grimmauld Place.

Sirius breathed in and out, wiped his forehead with his sleeve and picked up the locket, barely resisting the urge to fling it across the room. Without the vile Horcrux in it, the locket looked somehow small and weak, despite having been the locket of Salazar Slytherin himself.

'Kreacher!'

Kreacher, who had been curled up in a nearby corner, scrambled to get to Sirius and said, 'Yes, Master?'

'Take this,' Sirius thrust the locket at him, 'and get it as far away from my house as possible.'

Kreacher took the locket and, to Sirius' surprise, bowed low and said, 'Thank you, Master.'

Without further ado, he snapped his fingers and popped out of sight.

Sirius leant against the wall and slid to the floor. He put his head in his hands, leant his forehead on his knees and stared through his fingers at his legs. If he had to describe the state he was in, he'd call it hollow. That was how he was feeling, hollow.

He pulled his mirror out of his pocket and hesitated, then berated himself for being such a coward and said resolutely, 'Harry Potter.'

Before Harry could get a word in, Sirius blurted out, 'Why didn't you tell me about what I do when I'm drunk?'

Harry's face was the epitome of confusion. 'What do you mean, Sirius? You don't get drunk all that often, and I've only ever seen you when you found out about the Dursleys.'

'I – er – destroyed the locket, and it – er – said that I beat you when I'm drunk, and –'

'Heavens, no!' exclaimed Harry, looking truly astonished. 'The idea itself – just – why would you believe a word that comes out of Voldemort's mouth?'

Sirius could have cried in relief. Still, he resolved to never get drunk again. Just in case.

...

Sirius held his breath as he sneaked past the first set of wards on the Lestrange property. He'd had a large and complicated plan on getting past all of the wards ready before Harry had pointed out that, according to Sirius' own research, which he'd shared with him, the Lestranges didn't have an Anti-Animagus Ward, and all of the other wards didn't apply to an Animagus when in their animal form. Sirius still wondered at their sloppiness in defending their property, but reasoned that the Lestrange brothers were known for their arrogance and not for their brains.

In any case, ward after ward was letting him pass calmly, so the point was mute. Sirius padded to the house softly, stood up on his hind legs and pushed the door open softly. Time had done a number on the house, he reflected as he walked past another smashed window. Or maybe someone had wanted revenge after Voldemort's downfall and the Lestranges' imprisonment.

As planned, Sirius walked the rest of the way to the study, where he knew the key would be hidden, in his dog form, even though he had not noticed any other wards yesterday, when he'd last been there. Once there, he counted floorboards until he reached the right one and pressed his paw to the barely visible crest carved on it, not even wincing when a needle suddenly appeared and pricked it before disappearing again. He held his breath for a moment and sighed in relief when the floorboard shook and slid out of the way, revealing a pillow, upon which rested a golden key. The Blacks and Lestranges had been allies for a few centuries, so it made sense for Black blood to be keyed into the wards.

Sirius transformed back into a human and reached out, jumping when the alarms suddenly started blaring. Since when was there an area ward on the manor? Sirius cursed himself for not thinking to check the wards again before breaking in. He quickly grabbed the key, wincing when it burned his flesh, and bolted, not bothering to turn back into a dog, lest he meet the Death Eaters; for Sirius knew that somehow, they'd been tipped off. How exactly, though, was a mystery to him. The only time he'd ever talked of the plan was with Harry, and his house was under a Fidelius, which meant that something had gone wrong on Harry's end. It chilled Sirius to know that Harry had been in close proximity to a Death Eater, even if he hadn't been harmed.

'Avada Kedavra!'

Sirius paused to let the spell fly past him, then skidded around the corner and shot back a Killing Curse of his own; he knew that Dumbledore would likely disapprove, but he really didn't care.

The three Death Eaters which were standing there side by side scrambled to get away from it and two of them tripped over each other and fell. Sirius laughed and sent curse after curse, Stunners being the Lightest of them all. His first real battle in fourteen years caused adrenaline to run through his body, and he involuntarily let out a cackle as one of his Stunners hit the slowest of the bunch.

'Capillum praefoco!'

Another of the Death Eaters gasped as his hair grew and began choking him, falling eventually as he tried to dispel the curse. Good luck countering the amazing Black family magic, thought Sirius, turning his wand on the third Death Eater as he tried to come up with a good curse to finish him off; but before he could do so, a voice behind him cried out, 'Incendio!'

Sirius only had enough time to turn around and watch the flames soar towards him.