The circle dissolved. Harry had the sensation of coming undone from himself and flying very fast, very far backwards. A blur of colours, shapes and screams rushed past him, his ears were pounding, he tried to yell but couldn't hear his voice —
And he popped into himself, solid ground beneath his feet, and everything came into focus —
He was in the deserted Hogwarts entrance hall, and a stream of golden light was falling across the paved floor from the open front door. He was standing next to Hermione, and she was young and unscarred. Thirteen or fourteen. She was pressed against him, and the chain of an hour glass was cutting into his neck.
He wanted to hold her and sob, wanted to tell her it would be alright and he'd never let anything hurt her, but he fell to all fours instead, stomach heaving, drawing in great, gasping breaths.
Hermione grabbed him roughly and dragged him across the hall to a broom closet, Harry struggling to help, to get his feet moving. He was off balance as he did, his legs not stretching quite so far as he expected, his body too small. But the body remembered, the back of the brain too, and he soon found his balance enough to not fall, and she pushed him inside among the brooms and mops.
"Are you alright?" she hissed. "I know it can be hard the first time, but — oh, Ron told me you're rubbish with floos."
Harry shook it off, shuffling his feet, feeling his coordination adjusting more and more by the moment. He wanted to cry, wanted to hug her, wanted to shout, but he seemed to have come back precisely when Croaker had thought he most likely would, which meant there was no time to mess about.
Harry said, "We're earlier in the day, aren't we? This is how you're getting to your classes, isn't it? Time Travel."
"Yes. Sort of. It's not true time travel: that's impossible. It's just looped time. This is a Time Turner. Professor McGonagall gave it to me. She made me swear I wouldn't tell anyone. She-"
"We'll talk about it later. What are the rules? Not the Ministry's laws, the rules of how it works?"
Hermione nodded quickly, though he could hardly see it in the darkness of the cupboard. When she spoke, she sounded relieved and brisk at once. "We can't do anything that we know didn't happen, and that goes double for our previous selves seeing ourselves. You can't do anything that contradicts what your earlier self is doing and will have had done, or horrible things happen. But… I don't understand what Dumbledore wants us to do. How is sending us back three hours going to help Sirius?"
Harry said, "We're going to save him, and Buckbeak, and we're going to catch Pettigrew."
"Weren't you listening? We can't interfere with time, it'll defend itself. We need to-"
"Follow the rules, I know. And we will. I just heard us leaving, come on, let's go. Every moment's precious."
They hurried quickly across the grounds, Harry laying out his plans for Sirius and Buckbeak, Hermione more and more confident in it as they spoke.
They hid behind Hagrid's House, and when the opportunity came, Harry freed Buckbeak much as before, though instead of untying the rope, he mangled a Severing Charm so it would look as if Buckbeak had bit through the rope.
That was quicker than untying had been, and they pulled the Hippogriff swiftly into the eaves of the forest. He led Buckbeak and Hermione in a wide arc through the woods, toward the Whomping Willow.
"What are you doing?" Hermione cried.
"Preparing. We can't catch Pettigrew before the events of the Shrieking Shack. They already will have had happened. Meaning we have to catch him after he turns into a rat and escapes. Come on, let's go."
He didn't remember exactly where Pettigrew had got away. He knew they'd got out of the passageway leading from the shrieking shack to under the Whomping Willow, and they'd been heading straight for the castle. How far had they got before the moonlight had come out, before Lupin had transformed?
He wasn't sure, which meant he needed to cast a wide net.
It was near on to dusk when they got into decent position, as shallow in the forest as he dared. Harry immediately began summoning.
"Serpentsortia, Serpentsortia, Serpentsortia." All around him, smallish dark snakes appeared.
"What are you doing?" said Hermione again.
"These are Berg Adders. Magical Berg Adders, in fact. Their venom isn't deadly, but it's highly paralytic. Well, more of a relaxant. It's like the Fully Body Jelly Jinx if that affected your magic too, and it takes effect damned quick. But don't worry about that." He handed Buckbeak's rope to Hermione.
"Make friends with him as best you can, alright. Keep him out of trouble and away from Hagrid's."
Harry faced the confused snakes and took a deep breath. This could be hard. He'd practiced with Croaker in the desperate few days when they'd formed their plan, but commanding snakes was still harder for him than just talking to them.
"There will come a group of humans with a man who will turn into a rat," he hissed. "Catch the rat. Bite it. Paralyze it. Don't eat it or kill it. Where you are now will become much too cold in the winter, and you'll die. You only get to go home if you catch the rat and give it to me not dead."
"Bastard!" hissed one snake.
"So I am. But I have spoken, and this is necessary for all the world. Go. Do as I say."
Reluctantly, the snakes slithered into the grass and sparse trees.
"Serpentsortia, serpentsortia, seprentsortia," said Harry, summoning more and more snakes, planning to fill the whole area with irascible, hungry rodent catchers. He paused just long enough to say, "Hermione, Transfigure me a glass jar with two small air-holes in it. Make it as sturdy as you possibly can, and fashion a secure way of holding it while we fly on Buckbeak."
Time passed too slowly and too quickly all at once. Hermione kept up a constant stream of reassurances and strokes with Buckbeak, and Harry had to hold some of the more belligerent snakes back from taking action when Sirius came by in dog form, dragging Ron, Ron clutching Scabbers.
The earlier Hermione and Crookshanks were next, along with the much younger Harry. He felt a stab of remorse for the 13-year-old of version of himself who had suddenly stopped existing, but when the world itself looked at you in a way that said clear as day that something had to happen, you didn't argue.
Lupin came by, and Snape. After they were both gone, Harry tried out several spells, did several stretches, making sure he had control of himself, making sure he had a full handle on his magic and his body. His magical skills seemed nearly intact, if a little slow and clumsy, and while he could feel that his magical strength wasn't quite where his 17-year-old self had been, it was plenty for what he needed.
And at long last, the lot of them came back out. Lupin walking next to Sirius, his wand pointed at Pettigrew, who was chained to Ron as well. The unconscious Snape was drifting weirdly ahead. The earlier Harry and Hermione were bringing up the rear.
As they'd agreed, Harry and Hermione got up on top of Buckeak. The great Hippogriff took off into the air, wings beating, and circled above, the three of them looking down on the past. They had crossed more distance than he'd remembered, it seemed, crossing nearly halfway to the castle. Below, he could hear his many snakes keeping pace, making a tightening ring around the group.
And then it happened. A cloud moved overhead, and moonlight shone on the ground. Lupin transformed, and the scene below dissolved into chaos. Sirius transformed to counter Lupin, Pettigrew got brief hold of Ron's wand before earlier Harry blasted it away, and then Pettigrew had transformed into a rat, scurrying off into the grass.
Harry paid no more attention to how the rest of them dispersed. All his ears were for the near silent — yet to him, clearly audible — whisper of Parseltongue below.
And when hisses came that they'd caught a rat, it was all he could do to not whoop for joy.
Only Snape was left, unconscious and floating eerily. Ignoring him, Harry and Hermione dove down on Buckbeak to the writhing knot of snakes below.
"Give it to me!" shouted Harry. "Give me that rat!"
The rat appeared in the mouth of a snake, bitten several times, but not dead. He plucked it out and lit his wand with a thought.
It was Scabbers alright, missing toe and all. "Stupefy! Hermione, seal him in that jar." Quick as thought, he dismissed the snakes back to their southern African highlands, and Harry and Hermione hurried back onto the tolerant, perhaps excited Buckbeak, Hermione still sealing the jar with her wand, Buckbeak racing up into the air.
"We have to save ourselves from those Dementors now!" Harry shouted.
"I was the one who saved us. I know, I saw my later self. I know I can do it now, because I know I've done it."
They set down on the other side of the Lake and pulled back into the trees to wait, Hermione murmuring to the agitated Buckbeak the whole time.
They came: Sirius, earlier Hermione, and earlier Harry.
Harry watched and waited.
When Sirius and earlier Hermione had collapsed, when earlier Harry was quailing and the dementor had drawn its hood back — only then did Harry step out from the trees.
The silver stag raced across the lake, scattering the dementors like a crowd of horrible crows charged by a dog, scattering and scattering them, driving them far off.
"Back onto Buckbeak," Harry said.
The flew up but not far, landing in the branches of a mighty old oak which would have loomed and spread over every tree in Privet Drive as if they were knee high. They were well out of danger from Lupin, and Harry strained his eyes while the moonlight was still with them, watching where they'd fallen.
Snape came, put them on stretchers, and carried them off.
And again, they waited.
"Seventh floor of the west tower, isn't it, where Sirius will be held?"
"Yes. 13th window from the right. I'm glad you forgot — at least now I've been some use, and not just luggage. I had no idea you'd be so, well — I guess I won't wonder anymore how you beat Quirrell and that diary and the basilisk. It's like you switched a flip and you're a whole different person."
"And then there's your magic. Earlier, when we grabbed Pettigrew, you did the Wandlighting Charm wordlessly!"
Had he? He'd been in an awful rush. He would like to tell her everything, but Croaker had told him he wouldn't be able to. Until the date on which he'd gone from the past came back around, everything in that timeline would be like a secret in the Fidelius Charm, and while he knew the secret, he wasn't the Secret Keeper.
He tried anyway, but all that came out was, "Ah, well."
There were things he could say, it was true, things he knew about how the world currently was that he had no way of knowing, and the line there could get fuzzy, with predictions and the like, but Croaker had warned him that he shouldn't try to cross that fuzzy line, that Time was being generous enough as it was and he shouldn't test its patience.
Harry said, "You had the Time Turner, you've been taking care of Buckbeak, you made the jar. You've been a big help. As for the magic, I reckon working on the Patronus Charm has been good for me. Learn a spell that advanced, and lots of things get easier."
"Maybe. For me, anyway."
"That's another thing I don't understand. The Patronus Charm is very advanced magic, you'd been working on it for months, and you weren't able to do it just a few hours earlier, but you did it just now."
Harry froze a little inside. He remembered how upset she'd been with him sixth year. He still couldn't say why. They'd never really talked about it. Had part of it been buried anger for nearly leading her to her death at the end of her fifth year, after ignoring all her insistence that he ought to buckle down and learn Occlumency?
Or had it been for his eagerly accepting credit and praise for the notes in a used book while all the time he'd had maybe the worst understanding of Potions of anyone in class, a book that had had dark curses written in the margins? He'd gone so far as to make it look like a new book again, just so he could be 'top of the class.' In retrospect, it was the sort of swollen-headed bufoonery he might've expected of Malfoy or Dudley.
Or, and this was what he was afraid of, had she simply been unable to stand him outdoing her at something? She'd never minded him being better than her at Defence, had been proud of him even, but maybe that was because it was only the one subject, and her worst at that.
He said, slowly and carefully, "Yeah, but I'd already seen myself do it, so I knew I could." And there was something else, something he hadn't realized consciously until his fifth year, when he'd been teaching the Patronus Spell. "And before, the happy memories I tried were about the first time I flew, getting my Hogwarts letter, things like that. Good memories, but they were all about me. But seeing the dementors, it wasn't me I was worried about so much as you and Sirius. That works better for Patronuses, I reckon. Memories about other people."
"What did you use, then?"
"Halloween of first year," said Harry. "When you, me, and Ron were walking back to the dorm together after beating the troll, and suddenly we were friends. At the time, I was more scared than happy, but looking back..." he shrugged.
She went rigid for a moment, then squeezed him very hard, but Harry leaned forward, hardly playing attention. A light had gone on in the window. Harry couldn't see into it, not at this distance, and he knew no spells to help. He wished for his omnioculars, but he hadn't bought them yet.
They could do nothing but wait, keeping a close eye on the West Tower, and a closer one on their watches.
At what they hoped was the right time, they rose up from the tree. Another cloud had passed over the moon Harry urging Buckbeak high into the black sky, unseen and unheard.
Harry's wand was already out when they reached the right window. A quick glance showed Sirius was already there, and alone, probably only just locked in. Harry cast the Unlocking Spell before they were even stopped, and launched himself through the window as Buckbeak hovered.
Sirius shot to his feet.
"Jar," said Harry back through the window. "Quickly and carefully!"
Hermione handed it over, and Sirius's questions died in his throat as he saw Pettigrew within.
Harry handed Siruis his own wand, saying, "Open the jar, Stun the rat, Untransform and secure him, properly this time. But don't kill him. We need his testimony."
The jar was opened, and with a bang, Pettigrew appeared. Sickly, breathing laboured, but not dead. Harry judged he wouldn't die, certainly not if he got medical attention soon.
He was bound in chains to the chair, and Sirius said, in rapid succession, "Stupefy. Petrificus Totalus. Infarmarus. Fetter Magius."
Harry took his wand back and conjured a signboard hanging from Pettigrew's neck around his chest. It said,
I am Peter Pettigrew.
I am a traitor, a murderer, and a Death Eater.
I am a rat Animagus.
They clambered through the window back onto Buckbeak, and sealed the window. With one sweep of Buckbeak's mighty wings, they were soaring high upward again. They landed on the top of the West Tower with a clatter, and Harry and Hermione slid right off.
"Sirius, the Hippogriff's marked for death too. Take care of him. And yourself. See ya'round, Godfather."
"What happened to the other-"
"Ron's fine. Pomfrey's got him. Get out the country. I'm going to live with you, but that can wait. I can take care of myself and my friends. Right now, you focus on taking care of yourself. Now go! Get safe!"
And leaving Sirius in the dark atop the tower, he ran down the stairs without a look back, holding Hermione's hand and pulling her after him. "Time?" he called.
"15 minutes. We're going to-"
"We need to make sure Pettigrew is discovered as soon as possible. Dumbledore and Fudge need to be there. If it's just McNair and the dementors, or even just McNair, Fudge and the dementors, they might give the Kiss first and ask questions later."
"They couldn't!" exclaimed Hermione. "They wouldn't."
"Let's not find out. Expecto Patronum!"
Prongs appeared in the stairwell. Hermione looked at the silver stag in awe, extending a hand.
Harry said, "Go to Pettigrew. If he tries to escape, do whatever you can to stop him, but mainly don't let any dementors into the room he's in!"
The stag nodded once and galloped away, disappearing through a wall.
Harry and Hermione reached the Hospital Wing in plenty of time to see Dumbledore lock their earlier selves in. Harry charged right up to him.
"Well-" began Dumbledore.
Harry grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him down the corridor.
"West Tower, Sirius's room, now," he hissed, quiet but urgent.
"My boy, if you haven't got Sirius out-"
"I'll manhandle you like you're the battiest codger in the old folks home if you don't move as fast as your ancient ass can take you. Hurry. Every second could stop disaster."
Dumbledore looked at him in shock and began to jog.
"What've you done?"
"Evidence," said Harry. "You'll see. We need witnesses."
Dumbledore fell silent, focusing, perhaps, on breathing. He'd expected the Headmaster to summon his Phoenix and appear there instantly, but for whatever reason, he wasn't, and Harry thought that was a wash. It meant he wouldn't be stopped on the way to the room.
They ran into McNair, Snape, Fudge and two dementors on the way, the dementors eerie and foul, but their presences strangely retracted, as if they could stop sucking out people's happiness when they wished.
"What is HE doing here?" shouted Snape, face twisting as he saw Harry.
"Mr Potter has insisted that there is something I must see," said Dumbledore. "I believe he wants as many witnesses as possible."
"I have a last question I want to ask of Black!" shouted Harry.
Fudge said, "Harry, go back to the hospital wing, your mind's not right. Albus, take him back by force if you-"
Harry said, "I will be perfectly happy to tell the Daily Prophet of how Minister Fudge wouldn't even let the Boy-Who-Lived say a last word to his parents' betrayer, wouldn't let him have even that much closure. I'll do a whole interview, front page spread!"
Fudge shut up.
They reached the door, and with a tap of his wand, Dumbledore opened it, revealing Peter Pettigrew chained to the chair, comatose, a Patronus standing guard over him.
For as long as he could get away with it, Harry didn't say anything. He just stood there, leaning on Hermione in his relief, listening to everyone's shouting, and grinning.
Snape was furious, Fudge was confused and upset, McNair looked like a man who'd been denied a great treat twice in one day, and Dumbledore…
Harry had expected Dumbledore to be as pleased as he and Hermione, and he was certainly smiling now, looking at Harry with a twinkle in his eyes, but at first he'd seemed shocked, tense, uncertain, even displeased.
Then he'd nodded and began to smile mysteriously, winking at Harry.
Harry put it down to Dumbledore being surprised and didn't think of it again that night.
"IT'S POTTER," shouted Snape. "HE DID IT!"
"I think," said Dumbledore mildly, "that how it was done is a great deal less important than what has been done. This man certainly appears to be Peter Pettigrew."
"AND WHAT ABOUT BLACK?! OUT WITH IT, POTTER! WHAT DID YOU DO?"
"See here, Snape, be reasonable," said Fudge. "They've been with Dumbledore the whole time-"
"THEY HELPED HIM ESCAPE, I KNOW IT!" Snape howled, pointing at Harry and Hermione. His face was twisted; spit was flying from his mouth. Pettigrew's appearance was making surprisingly little impact on him.
Harry would be dead if not for Snape. Snape, it seemed, had been on their side all along, loyally following Dumbledore's last orders. In the weeks since that discovery, Harry had begun thinking a number of very charitable thoughts of his former potions Professor. They were quickly fading on being reintroduced to the man.
"POTTER KNEW ABOUT IT!" Shouted Snape. "HE WANTED TO BE HERE TO SEE IT HAPPEN. WANTED WITNESSES."
Harry said, "I was just planning to make a nuisance of myself until you all agreed to question Black under veritaserum before having him Kissed. But I guess he managed to switch with Pettigrew somehow. The papers do say he's a mighty wizard."
Snape howled. It wasn't even words. Dumbledore turned to the dementors and said, "It seems your services will no longer be required. Please leave the castle." He leaned next to Harry and whispered, "Peter's breathing is poor. What ails him beyond the typical spells?"
"Er," Harry whispered, "I'm just guessing, but it might be the venom of the magical berg adder."
Dumbledore addressed himself to Fudge. "However he has come to be here, this apparent Pettigrew must be warded against the animagus transformation, seen to by a healer, and then questioned."
"I suppose you're right," said Fudge glumly.
Harry said, "Shouldn't you call the Aurors now?"
Fudge twitched. Dumbledore said, "With Auroral involvement, matters can quickly spiral out of control. I find it's often much better to leave them out."
At that moment, Professor McGonagall came up the corridor, looked into the room to see, and gave a great shout.
"Peter Pettigrew?!" she wailed.
"But I suppose," Dumbledore continued, "That the time has come. Minerva, would you be so good as to floo Madam Bones' office and ask her to come to Hogwarts at her earliest convenience? And perhaps you could drop Mr Potter and Mrs Granger back in the hospital wing along the way. I'm sure they'd like to rest from their exertions."
"But-" began Harry.
"I can take it from here, my dear boy. But very well done."
They trooped along next to the agitated Professor McGonagall, giving hurried answer to her questions as they did. She left them just outside the door in her hurry to get to the floo.
They found Madam Pomfrey waiting in the hospital Wing, upset with herself for having let them get away, and she pushed them onto neighboring beds and glowered at them as they ate their chocolate, shaking her head and muttering about students on the lam.
When they'd eaten their chocolate and sworn they felt fine, she ordered them to stay there and disappeared into her office.
Harry buried his head in his hands and shook with glee and suppressed triumph. With Pettigrew caught, Sirius would be freed, and Voldemort would never gain his services, and there would be no plot to resurrect him next summer.
It wasn't a fatal blow, not nearly — Voldemort was cunning and resourceful when he cared to be, and there were others in the world who might serve him — but Voldemort had been dealt a great defeat, though he would never know it.
Harry had not had any success so complete and unmarred by death since he was 12! He pumped the air with his fist and laughed softly.
"Yes," said Hermione, smiling broadly. "That went as well as we could ever have hoped."
Harry grinned back. It was really begin to hit him that it'd worked, that he was in the past, or rather, that what had been his present had now never been more than a nightmare of Time, and he felt stupidly happy.
Turning away from Hermione, Harry at last allowed himself to look at the other person in the Hospital Wing, and his happiness faded, shadowed by confusion and angst. Ron, lying in the dimness at the other end of the ward, and still asleep without any shouting to wake him.
Rage shot through Harry, at Ron, and at himself. Hope, longing, frustration, resignation. A rainbow of emotions was bound up in his sigh.
Ron had got caught after he'd abandoned them in the Forest of Dean, and then been taken in for questioning. Whether they'd used Veritaserum, the Imperius Curse, Legilimency or plain old torture didn't matter. They'd got the truth out of him, and Harry and Hermione had been caught quickly. That had led directly to Hermione's death, and not too long after, to the world ending in a rain of nuclear bombs.
Harry thought, and Croaker had thought, that there was some small chance that it might all have been avoided if only Ron hadn't left, or hadn't got caught, or if Harry simply hadn't taken him along.
It didn't make Ron a bad person, or even a bad friend, but the fact was that Harry had known he wasn't reliable and had relied on him anyway, and that was one small reason why the world had died.
But this Ron hadn't done any of that yet. This Ron might yet become reliable. Only Harry had no idea how to make that happen. He had lots of plans for what to do better, but none revolved around Ron. The first time round, Ron had had a good family and home, and Harry had been the best friend to him that he'd known how to be, sometimes at the expense of being a good friend to other people. He didn't know what to do different. If the problem was Ron's jealousy and insecurity, Harry's plans for the next year certainly weren't going to help.
He had thought, before he had come back, that he might simply freeze Ron out of his plans and rely on Hermione alone, but now that he was looking at the sleeping red-head, he wasn't sure that he could.
"He'll be alright," said Hermione. "I've seen you come in here looking much worse, and Madam Pomfrey fixed you right up."
He looked at her then, really looked, let himself feel what he'd at first suppressed. She was young and unmarred, full of hopes and dreams, her teeth yet overlarge, her smile not yet beaten down by anything.
It was as if a dam broke. All the feelings suppressed for the sake of action bubbled up, and it was amazing he didn't dissolve into a slop of emotive goo on the spot.
He pulled her into a tight, fierce hug and told her a little of what he'd been wishing he'd told her ever since she'd died.
"I'm sorry about freezing you out this year, over the Firebolt, and over Scabbers. I should've pulled you aside for a real conversation about it, however long or uncomfortable it had to be, instead of just… acting like we weren't friends. You've been a brilliant friend to me, the best friend anyone could ever have, and I haven't. I've been rubbish, I swear I'll do better."
She was crying, suddenly, a mess of her tears falling down her cheeks and onto his neck and shoulders, but she was shaking her head.
"No. No. Sometimes I wish you'd listen more and be more responsible, but you've been a brilliant friend. The best friend. And I'm bossy, I nag too much, I should've talked to you instead of going to McGonagall. I-"
He shut her up by squeezing the breath out of her. She was alive, and it wasn't just her he was hugging, but Sirius, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Lupin, Tonks, Neville, and so many, many more. Everyone he'd ever known was alive again, and he was hugging them all through her.
"Harry," she squeaked. "I can't breathe."
Harry took a deep breath and withdrew. He had to keep it together. He had to stay calm and stay cool. He patted her back and fought with himself. She'd always had a quick trigger to tears, and she was outright sobbing still, tears streaming down her face, so Harry conjured a warm yellow handkerchief and offered it to her. She took it, looked at it, and laughed through her crying.
"Oh Harry," she said, "You're blossoming."
And suddenly he knew that she wouldn't become furious at him over his sudden improvement, that she'd be mainly proud and pleased, and she was his Hermione still, whom he could rely on, and she was alive again, alive.
The tears died down, and he became at length aware that she was looking at him with an oddly shy expression that was quite unusual on her. The longer it went on, the more uncomfortable he got.
"You know," she finally said. "I thought you were very unlike yourself much of this year, but this is more like the Harry I first became friends with."
Before Harry could think of how to answer that, there was a low moan from the other end of the ward. Between their talking and his pain, Ron had woken up. He was sitting, rubbing his head, looking around.
"What — what happened?" he groaned. "Harry? Why are we in here? Where's Sirius? Where's Lupin? What's going on?"
He couldn't imagine talking to Ron just yet. Not without yelling at him, anyway, for things this Ron hadn't done. And yet he had to, at least a little. He closed his eyes and pretended to be calm. He had prepared himself for this.
"Everything's fine, Ron. You're more hurt than anyone and you're not bad off. Sirius got away, and Pettigrew got caught. We don't know how. The Aurors will probably want to question us tomorrow, and there are some things we shouldn't mention to them."
In a low tone, Harry explained quickly what should be kept secret, mainly to do with certain details of their time in the Shrieking Shack, the both of them shocked at the idea of lying to law enforcement, but nodding along.
As soon as Ron had muttered his last confirmation Harry said, "Go to sleep, Ron."
"Not yet. If Sirus got caught, how'd he get away?"
"Dunno. Maybe he knew another secret passage."
He looked meaningfully at Hermione, shaking his head sharply, and called for Madam Pomfrey.
She came out quickly, fussing over Ron's leg, which was largely mended but still ached, and over his godawful headache.
"Could you give him the Dreamless Sleep Potion?" Harry said, "I bet he won't be able to sleep with the pain."
"I don't need-" Ron began, but Madam Pomfrey was already taking out a silvery vial. With a tut-tut, an assurance he'd feel better in the morning, and a call to stay still, she tipped it down Ron's throat.
Ron blinked. For a moment he tried to fight it, but the sleep potion took hold. His eyes closed, and his breathing evened out.
Hermione was looking at Harry wide-eyed, and the moment Madam Pomfrey had gone back to her office, Harry scooted right next to her and whispered in her ear.
"We committed crimes this night, and it might not much matter how good our reasons were. We'll probably be questioned tomorrow, and the Aurors ought to be good at questioning, seeing as it's their job. So let's not tell Ron about the crimes until we're through with the questioning. It's very important that you didn't think of the Time Turner, and Dumbledore didn't mention it. Our only idea was to make them question Sirius under Veritaserum, and that's what we set out to do. You know what Veritaserum is, don't you?"
"Of course, but I'm surprised you do."
"It came up in one of those court cases I read for Buckbeak's trial. Just keep mum about what we really did, alright? And now I guess we'd better go to sleep soon too, before Madam Pomfrey tells us off."
They washed briefly and took their separate beds. Incredibly, after an hour or so, Hermione's breathing changed to the sleeping rhythm he'd learned so well in the tent. But Harry lay awake, finding not rest behind his closed eyelids, but only long mulling and dark thoughts.
Very late in the night, or early in the morning, another idea occurred to him, one neither he nor Croaker had planned.
He crept to a window, opened it just as far as it would go, stuck his wand tip out, and said, "Accio invisibility cloak."
It had been in Lupin's pocket when he'd transformed him, but Harry was quite willing to bet that it was some bramble somewhere waiting for Lupin to find it once he was back to himself, and Harry saw no reason to wait.
The Summoning Charm, however, didn't catch — it was more advanced than Snake Summoning or Conjuring a handkerchief, and while his soul knew the spell well, it was new to body and brain. But the soul was powerful, and after just a few tries, he managed to cast the Charm successfully.
In hardly a minute, the invisibility cloak came to his hands, a little dirty and twig covered, but neither ripped nor frayed. So garbed, Harry slipped out onto the grounds. Even with an invisibility cloak, it was not precisely simple for the average third-year to sneak out onto the grounds of Hogwarts at night, at least without a broom in hand, but Harry had skills far past the average third year and knew the castle as well as anyone.
Keeping a wary eye out for Lupin, Harry hurried to the shed where the brooms were kept, broke the door, grabbed the broom that looked in best condition, destroyed it as as surely he knew how over the giant compost heap next to the Herbology greenhouses, mixing the dust and bits of twig into the dirt with a spell.
He snuck back into the Hospital Wing having been gone for little more than half an hour, no one wiser. He took back to bed with greater ease, and the sky was lightening when exhaustion finally overcame the business of his mind and he was able to sleep.
To his unconscious displeasure, he dreamed.
It was a cold winter's night shortly after Christmas when a battalion of Death Eaters apparated into the clearing where Harry Potter and Hermione Granger had pitched their tent.
Harry cursed, gripping Hermione's wand, and ran into the tent, yelling as he did. Hermione had sat up in bed, full of alarm even before he could reach her. "How'd they pierce our wards?" she cried as she sprang out of the covers.
Harry grabbed her and tried to apparate away. He jerked, shuddered, and they were right where they'd been.
"They've jinxed it!" said Hermione.
Harry reached for his broom, and the front of the tent was blown away. He was tossed through the air, Hermione's wand flew from his hand, and he landed face first in the snow, the breath pushed out of him. He couldn't move, and harsh cords wound tight around him. Brown boots were on the snow right ahead of him, and all around were shouts and jeers.
"I've got him, I've got Potter," said the owner of the boots, and the voice was hauntingly, horrifyingly familiar.
Harry rolled over and saw Ron Weasley. His lip was split and his face was cold, his eyes glassy, with terror and revulsion deep beneath, like a volcanic vent covered by a thick layer of ice.
The Imperius Curse. Sometime after Ron had left, they'd caught him, roughed him up, and cast the Imperius Curse upon him.
Harry couldn't move, couldn't speak. Scar aching, an invisible hand pulled him to his feet, turned him to face Voldemort, pale and snake-like. Slytherin's Locket was dangling from one hand, and Bellatrix Lestrange was at his side casting the spells.
"Ah, the great Harry Potter, caught at last. You've run well, like any thief with another wizard's property, but in the end, a thief is all you are. Not a hero, not a savior, just a boy who's been lucky, but no longer, undone by Dumbledore's own machinations." And Voldemort pocketed the Locket and held up the Deluminator. Harry stared at it uncomprehendingly.
"Ah, you didn't know. Neither did Weasley. But this is, without doubt, the same device Dumbledore used to track you for years and years, and to listen in on conversations whenever he pleased. And he gave it, why, to the one he knew would falter."
Voldemort turned to Ron and extended his empty hand. Ron put his wand in it.
Voldemort handed Ron a bronze dagger. "Kill yourself, bloodtraitor."
Ron put the dagger to his own neck, but hesitated. Muscles strained and veins stood out. His hand stopped, the edge touching just to his neck.
"Go on," said Voldemort.
Ron leapt at him, arm cocked back to throw the dagger. The dagger turned into a snake in his hands, and Ron hit the ground, cursing and sobbing, cords binding around him.
Voldemort laughed. "So you can break it if you try."
"Bastard," Ron sobbed.
"Careful. You may be a pureblood, but I can always rethink my decision to let you live. Or would you rather your blood were shed across the snow?" Voldemort laughed again, cheerful and garrulous, in the best mood Harry had ever seen or felt him.
Ron gritted his teeth, saying nothing, but Harry knew that look. Ron was going to try something stupid. Maybe not now, maybe not today, but soon.
Hermione was pushed over to them, likewise bound, her face in a steel muzzle, eyes wide and desperate.
"And the last one," said Voldemort. "From what Severus and Weasley tell me, the brains of the operation, and the preparedness and work ethic too. Doesn't leave much left over for the thief."
His red eyes turned back to Harry. "My, what a disappointment you've turned out to be. I feared for years that you were a true foe, some inverted version of my young self, but it seems you were never that. Rather, you are a silly boy, quick on his feet, equipped with a little raw power, a dash of charisma, a well-read friend, and as lucky as if you were born under the star of Felix. And something else, my own peculiar blessing."
Voldemort ran one long, cool finger across Harry's scar, and Harry could not hold back the scream.
Well, it's been awhile. Lots of people would rather I continued Geek of Magic. Perhaps I will, but I've been trying to spend less time on Fanfic, and my perspective on Harry Potter has changed of late.
I've long viewed it as a tragedy about a boy and a story beaten down simultaneously, themes of free-spirited eccentricity and self-acceptance replaced gradually by themes of conformity and normality. But that perception has hardened of late, and the hardening has given me a darker view of the story in general, particularly of Dumbledore.
When I thought of this fic, I had to write it at least a little.