Harry was already thinking of his new broom, even though he would not get to see it for several hours still. He expected that Sirius would not have got him a lesser broom than the one he used to own, but he had a sneaking suspicion his godfather might have gone further. Chances were that in a few short hours Harry would be finding out whether the Nimbus 2001 actually was better than its predecessor, as Malfoy always claimed.

When he finally reached the car, Ron was already behind the wheel, fiddling with the car keys. Hermione was sitting next to him, facing him, the huge book of common laws that had arrived by post the previous day from the library opened on her lap.

"What took you so long?" said Ron, impatiently starting the car before Harry had even climbed in.

Harry had slipped out from underneath his invisibility cloak when he had seen Tonks in Hogwarts, telling his friends to go ahead. He had planned to follow along right away, but everything had taken just that little longer.

"I had to make sure Hagrid wouldn't see me," he sighed. Everything was a bit more complicated without an invisibility cloak.

"But what was Tonks doing at Hogwarts?" asked Hermione, finally lifting her gaze from the book.

"Let's go," said Harry, impatient himself. "I'll tell you on the way."

Sirius was waiting in a clearing not far from there. He took the other back window seat. The newspapers Harry and his friends had ordered from the library lay between him and Harry. Sirius immediately picked one up – and put it down again as soon as he heard what Harry was talking about. Meanwhile, the car took off, and the Forbidden Forest fell far below them.

"You went to the forest by yourself?" He was frowning as he stared Harry down, his tone accusatory.

Before this outing, Sirius had been more paranoid than on previous occasions. In fact, it seemed to Harry the security question had been the only thing his godfather had been willing to focus on in the past few days.

Harry gave an impatient sigh. "There were no dementors anywhere near, I could see Hagrid's hut at all times, and the car was within calling distance from the hut. I was just a bit delayed." He rolled his eyes. "And anyway, I think I might've found another word."

Sirius was regarding him with some suspicion still, but his curiosity about the newspapers seemed to win out and he began leafing through the old copies of the Daily Prophet.

"Really? What d'you reckon it could be?" asked Ron.

Harry shrugged. "Mightn't be a new word. More of a phrase with words I've already found. I think 'truth' and that new one – 'polyphony'."

Ron tried to look encouraging, but ended up grimacing a bit, murmuring something about being far from a phrase himself. He grew even more dejected when Hermione also chimed in, to tell them that she had found another word as well.

"It was yesterday, in the Chamber of Secrets. I haven't been able to guess what it is so far, though," she said.

This caused Sirius to look up from the newspaper. "Why you three bothered to go there is beyond me. That structure's been around for centuries without anyone checking what condition it's in. I wouldn't be surprised if it collapsed any minute. And for what? For Snape's present, of all things—"

Harry had heard similar before. He and Ron looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Sirius soon went back to reading, not involved in guessing what Hermione's word might be. She was a bit vague in describing what it might be, so the boys soon gave up guessing.

Then Harry gave a quick recap of what had been said between Tonks, Lupin, Snape and him. Hermione was not happy about the way Lupin had been treated, and Ron was worried about more secrets being revealed. Sirius did not react at all – his attention fully focused on what he was reading.

"So, what's in that newspaper, then?" Harry finally asked. He had to repeat himself to draw Sirius' attention.

"Hmm? What?" his godfather finally looked up.

Harry repeated himself yet again.

"Oh, I… think it's best to show you when we get there," said Sirius, and then finally – reluctantly – put down the Daily Prophet.

Harry resolved he would figure out whatever was the matter with his godfather before they returned to Hogwarts that night. For the moment, he decided distraction would do. "You were right about that auror, by the way. She must be your cousin – Snape called her Nymphadora."

That finally drew Sirius' interest. He listened to the whole tale of Harry meeting Tonks – Harry had to repeat himself in places. Sirius felt sorry for Remus, angry at Snape, and finally laughed out loud when Harry recounted Tonks' school pranks. But throughout it all, he was still clutching the newspaper in his hand.

It grew dark outside while they were travelling. They settled on working on Buckbeak's case, because it was the most boring, and none of them would be in the mood for it once they arrived at Grimmauld Place. Sirius gave them pointers on where to look for relevant information, and explained the parts that were difficult to understand – written using unfamiliar legal terms. Harry and Ron kept trying to come up with potential arguments and extenuating circumstances they could use, while Hermione kept taking notes – of their ideas, as well as any potentially useful laws, clauses or case studies they could find.

The time passed much faster than anticipated, and by the time London appeared on the horizon, Harry felt like they had not achieved much at all.

Reluctantly, their notes were packed away, and by the time the car had landed, excitement was beginning to simmer under Harry's skin. He and his friends had worked hard on their spells and had made a fair amount of progress. With any luck, the partial transformations they were about to try might let them guess the animals they would be becoming by the end of the day.

The inside of the house was cold, was the first thing Harry noticed. It was winter, of course, but even so, from his previous visit, he had expected differently. At the staircase, Sirius hesitated. He stepped on the first stair, looked up, then muttered something about doing things in order.

"I think dinner first, before we start working. What do you say?" he then asked them.

They all agreed – Ron most enthusiastically.

So Sirius turned around and walked across the hall, gesturing them to be quiet again. They went through a door and down a flight of narrow stone steps, at the bottom of which was another door that led to the kitchen. It was a dimly lit, cavernous room with rough stone walls. Sirius crossed the length of it in quick strides, reaching the far end where Harry noticed was a fireplace.

"I don't know how I forgot to do this," Sirius spoke to himself while he started a large fire.

Harry, Ron and Hermione hurried over to the source of warmth. In the light of the flames, Harry could see more of the room – the iron pots and pans hanging from the dark ceiling, the long wooden table in the middle of the room, with some chairs around it. It was as glum as the rest of the house, but without even the faded glamour of the upstairs. However, the table looked like it had been cleaned, and it was invitingly filled with an assortment of food. Most notably, there was a sizeable pile of fish and chips, spread out on top of greasy muggle newspapers.

Sirius grimaced as they all sat down around the table. "I'm afraid I didn't think to get something early enough. And, well, most places were closed…"

Harry was not sure what Sirius was apologising for, and neither did his friends, based on how quickly the food disappeared.

"It's so weird that they just stay in one place," Ron could not help but comment on the muggle newspaper photographs.

Next, there were mince pies from a muggle shop, and Sirius once again apologised, this time for a lack of butterbeers. He had some mulled wine instead. He claimed it was only for himself, but he let Harry and Ron have a little bit. Hermione declined. Then they managed to wrangle with the tea pot and produced passable tea to go with the mince pies.

The youngsters were still enjoying the dinner atmosphere, when Sirius jumped to his feet.

"Right, then. Let's clean up the rubbish and then we can go upstairs to start working—"

Harry felt a lot more like chatting than working, but he supposed that was the reason for them being in London. He shifted reluctantly, as did his friends—

A loud pop and the appearance of Kreacher derailed their plans. Ron and Hermione had never met a house elf before, but even for Harry he was a strange encounter, old and filthy, with the voice of a bullfrog. Obsequious to Sirius to a ridiculous degree, and ignoring the rest of them, while at the same time muttering insults about all of them, he left the impression that he was not quite right in his head, but Sirius angrily shot down that suggestion down when Hermione made it.

It seemed Kreacher wanted to know who the visitors were, and had managed to circumvent Sirius' direct order to stay away. Hermione tried to introduce herself and the boys. Sirius cut her off – but was not quite on time. Kreacher jumped away in revulsion from Hermione after realising that she was a muggleborn, and managed to get in a few choice comments before Sirius angrily forbade him from insulting his guests. He then tried to send Kreacher away – even while Hermione was trying to defend the house elf – after making him promise not to mention under any circumstance that they had ever been at Grimmauld Place.

"He has a nasty habit of getting around direct orders," Sirius spoke almost as if to himself, still staring at the spot where Kreacher had just disapparated from. "Except he had been doing so well since the last time I sent him away. Hadn't seen him all day—"

It was at that point that a horrible racket could be heard from upstairs – and an enraged Sirius was then forced to introduce them to the portrait of his mother as well that Kreacher had woken up, trying to get around Sirius' direct order again by talking to her.

~HP~

Sirius still seemed in a mood as he led them up the stairs to the library. Noticing Hermione's eyes glued on the cut off house-elf heads, Harry asked about seeing the rest of the house, but his godfather informed him that the only rooms he had 'made safe' were the library, the downstairs bathroom and now the kitchen as well – and that they should by no means try to explore the house without him.

Upstairs, the library was in a disarray. The corner opposite the armchair where they had set up to work was filled with books, some piled up, some strewn around on the windowsill, the armchair, the floor. Not far from there, behind the nearest row of bookshelves, Harry spotted a couple packages – one of which was shaped just like a broomstick.

His godfather followed his gaze. "You'll have to take those along with you to open tomorrow morning – if you can wait that long." He walked to the windowsill, moving the books there out of the way to deposit the newspapers they had borrowed from the library.

Hermione sniffed, looking in the same direction. She was giving Harry a reproachful look, and shook her head at his glance. "I still think—" She cut herself off, though, falling silent.

"Right, then. Who wants to go first?" said Sirius.

Harry frowned. "What about that mystery project of yours? You said you wanted to show us something—"

For a moment, Sirius hesitated, clearly tempted. He looked over to the windowsill, but then he shook his head. "I do. But I want your full attention for that. So let's deal with this first."

Hermione went first once again. Sirius thought she could try the whole phrase – 'I follow and pursue justice' – and when she did, her nose began to look like a snout, the transformation worked its way down, covering her chin and throat in white fur, then extending to her arms, which began to shift into paws – and Hermione just had time to reverse it before the spell reached her wand. At that point, the boys were exchanging long-suffering looks, wondering how to break it to her that she definitely was transforming into a dog.

But Hermione surprised them. "I guess I might've been wrong," she said with a rueful smile.

Harry went next, trying out his new word – 'polyphony' – which landed him with a dark brown beak with a bit of yellow at the tip and edges. He just about managed to reverse it before he would have become unable to speak the spell properly.

Ron's choices were more limited, and Sirius was not entirely happy for him to try either 'intercessor' or 'modest', but then relented and let him have a go at the former, as his calculations told him that that one was going to be a little easier. It started off well enough – Ron's mouth turned into a rounded muzzle with whiskers – but it soon became clear that something was wrong. Ron jerked, then produced an odd bellow, as his hands reached for his throat. His friends were quick to tell him to reverse the transformation, but he was not doing anything. The spell, however, was. As it lost power and became unstable, the outline of Ron's face blurred, beginning to alter in size and shape rapidly.

Sirius needed more than just the simple untransfiguration spell to undo the damage. He first halted the transformation, and then slowly reversed it. But for all that he had remained collected throughout, he also visibly breathed a sigh of relief with the rest of them once Ron was back to normal.

"I… I couldn't speak any more – not even the untransfiguration spell," said Ron, still sounding shaken.

"An internal change, I guess…" muttered Sirius.

He then went to fetch an ottoman from between the bookshelves for Ron to have a rest, while Hermione sank into the only armchair in the corner of the room. Harry and his godfather made do with the windowsill.

"All in all, not a bad effort," said Sirius, as soon as they looked recovered. With one sweeping motion, he lifted the first newspaper from the stack next to him and unfolded it. "Now, if you could come closer so we can all have a look at this—"

"But—" Hermione frowned. "What, are we done working on the animagus spells?" At the universally surprised looks she received, she jumped up from the seat. "Well, I for one want to try another word. How about 'loyalty'?" With that, she drew her wand.

"Wait," interrupted Sirius. "I don't think it's a good idea for you to try that one yet."

Hermione began to frown. "You keep saying that. But it had a lower value than the phrase I used – I saw your calculations, Sirius," she went on before he could argue.

"And I saw how you glanced at Harry's present," Sirius said impatiently. "So let's leave that for next time—"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hermione sounded more affronted than surprised.

Sirius swept his long hair out of his face and levelled her with one of his haughtier looks. "It means I don't think you're in the right mindset to – experiment – with that word – regardless of how large or small a change it may cause."

"It's my word!" Hermione argued back – again, without a trace of surprise. "So whatever mindset got me to find it will still be there—"

"If you still haven't figured out what word you found in the Chamber of Secrets, then clearly not. Worse, if you can guess but don't want to face it—"

So Sirius had been paying some attention to their conversation in the car. But never mind Hermione's new word—

"Hold on," said Harry. "What does my present have to do with anything?"

But Hermione had grown too upset to answer him. She glared at Sirius, who was looking at her expectantly, as if daring her to explain herself. "I was loyal yesterday – I guessed Harry's new word. Just like when I first found the word. And I still am. Here, I'll show you—" She cast the spell before Sirius could react to stop her.

She had frozen on the spot and sort of crumbled before Sirius had managed to draw his wand. He rushed over to her, his counterspells coming in rapid succession while she continued to collapse, falling to her knees, her breath coming rapidly, sounding laboured as if from pain. By then the boys had begun to panic. Sirius slowly – agonisingly slowly for Harry, who could do nothing but stand by and watch – began to undo the damage. It did not help that he looked fairly close to panic himself. But finally his rapid muttering of spells stopped, Hermione unfroze and could be helped back into the armchair, and finally drew in a breath that did not sound like it pained her. The boys sat down on the dusty floor on either side of her, forming a circle.

Hermione's next breath hitched. She looked down, then away. Harry knew she was trying to hide tears.

Sirius had stepped away, leaning against the windowsill again. "That word – loyalty. I thought it might transform the heart—" He stopped as Hermione's breath hitched again.

"But how was I wrong!" Hermione's voice was teary but defiant, angry. "Harry can't just turn up with a broomstick in the morning, and no explanation. We have to say that it was an anonymous delivery – and we have to appear as baffled as everyone else! There's just no way around it!" She faced Harry then. "If you really had received an anonymous broom delivery, there'd only have been one obvious conclusion – that it was sent by Sirius!"

Harry was going to ask her where she was going with that, but Ron's exclamation of horror cut across him.

"You were going to report it?!" Ron sounded horrified.

"Well, I kept hoping Harry would do it, but—" Hermione said, not conceding her stance.

"But – But they'll take it away from him!" Ron sputtered, becoming outraged. "Don't you get that—"

Harry felt his anger rise, and only the state of her, his recent worry for her, kept him from attacking her. That, and the fact that Hermione could not hold his gaze. Nor Ron's accusatory glare.

Sirius was less swayed by such considerations. "You knew yourself to be right, so what did it matter if your friends disagreed? Trouble is, that counts for precious little compared to what really matters here."

Hermione's rising anger seemed to be holding her tears at bay. "You mean I'm being disloyal." She set her jaw. "When all I wanted to do was keep Harry from drawing suspicion—"

Harry was still angry at her, but an uncomfortable part of him conceded that she may have a point.

"What was the word you found in the Chamber of Secrets?"

To Harry, Sirius' question sounded like a non-sequitur, but Hermione's face went through an interesting array of expressions, from ashamed to hurt to finally angry again. She remained silent.

"After you thought Harry and Ron weren't listening to you," Sirius went on, "just as with the broomstick. You were planning to go behind their backs then as well, weren't you? Before the spell interfered?"

"Now, hold on, Hermione never said anything like that!" Ron immediately came to her defence – despite how angry he had looked at her just a moment ago.

Harry again hesitated, recalling Hermione's jumbled explanations from earlier.

"The spell made you be honest about your insecurities, didn't it?" Sirius did not even glance at Ron, still keeping his argument with Hermione. "When normally you would've just pretended that whatever wasn't working for you just wasn't that important anyway—"

"I never thought duelling wasn't important!" Hermione shot back indignantly.

This time Harry joined Ron in defending Hermione – who had first convinced the boys to learn duelling the year before.

"But you kept thinking you would've been better off if you hadn't told Harry and Ron about Flitwick's notes. You would've had the advantage then—" Sirius went on mercilessly.

"—as I often do, because I bother to read, to learn!" Hermione shot back. It was not a denial. Then she grimaced. "Well, not now. I'm hopelessly behind on my homework, but—"

Harry and Ron exchanged uncomfortable looks at that.

"It was Hermione's idea to get the notes from Flitwick," Ron then said valiantly.

That finally did it. Hermione's eyes welled up with tears again.

Sirius was not done, however. "And then there was the trip to the Chamber of Secrets. That wasn't your idea, I presume. But for all that you kept telling yourself you didn't want to go because you'd rather be working on duelling, the animagus spell told you otherwise, didn't it? You cast it hoping it'd help you argue your point with the boys, telling yourself the problem was that they weren't listening to you—"

It was the shame that had returned to Hermione's expression that finally clued Harry in on where his godfather was going. He was not at all impressed. "Sirius, really! Just a couple hours ago you were telling us going to the Chamber of Secrets was a stupid idea!"

Ron looked from him to Sirius and finally to Hermione, the question plain on his face.

Hermione was the one who broke the tense silence, forcing the words out. "I really didn't think I'd be finding a word like fear…"

~HP~

It was in a wholly different mood that Sirius finally picked up the newspapers and then joined them on the floor. Gone was the excitement – urgency – of before. Carefully, he spread out the faded, fragile-looking pages on the dark wooden floorboards, several of them opened to specific articles. He was taking his time, sorting his thoughts as he was sorting the papers, and Harry would have grown impatient before, but he was not in the mood for more strong emotions.

"It all started with this old article I found in Regulus' room," Sirius finally began. He produced it from the pile, laying it atop the other newspapers. "Morfin Gaunt went to prison for a triple murder, and all he could think of was his ring—"

"Ring? What ring?" asked Harry.

Sirius stilled at the question, then gave a jerky nod. "The article that I showed you last month mentioned a locket, but no ring. That really confused me—"

Harry watched him dig around in the pile of newspapers, becoming rather confused himself. He had been expecting to hear more about Voldemort's past – not some pieces of jewellery.

"This is what started the whole search." Sirius produced a rather mangled piece of paper, which once upon a time might have been part of a newspaper. "Did you notice that wall of newspaper clippings in the Leaky Cauldron? It's full of articles that have mentioned the pub over the years. That's where I found this, after the Sorting Hat told you about Marvolo Gaunt, Harry. Back then, I could still go to Diagon Alley, but now…"

Harry and Ron drew near, and Hermione relocated to the floor, to read what they could between the grease stains. It was a short, mocking tale of an auror called Ogden – member of that Ogden family, apparently – whom the author of the article had found nursing a glass of his family's finest – as well as painful hives – in the Leaky Cauldron during working hours. The auror had justified himself by telling the tale of his run-in with the Gaunt family, who had attracted attention for hexing a muggle, and then obstructed justice by attacking Ogden who had arrived to investigate.

The article concluded with a mocking description of the Gaunts – a pureblood family reduced to beggars and low-level criminals, whose only connection to their 'noble' roots was their one family heirloom ring – something Marvolo Gaunt had kept waving in Ogden's face throughout the visit, according to the auror.

Hermione frowned. "I think there was something like that in the newspapers we got from the library." Her tone was carefully even, as if her argument with Sirius had not just ended.

Harry had only glanced at those old copies of the Daily Prophet, losing interest quickly as they did not seem to hold much information past what Sirius had already told them, but he recognised the page Hermione was holding up. "That was the article about Riddle's uncle and grandfather going to prison because Morfin had cursed Riddle Senior wasn't it?"

"Which only made it easier for everyone to later believe Morfin'd killed the Riddles," concluded Ron. He still seemed tense, but was taking his cue from Hermione, trying to get back to normal.

"The worst traits of purebloods," muttered Sirius, sounding almost regretful to Harry's surprise.

"Yes, but I meant the ring! It got mentioned in another article as well," said Hermione, reaching again to dig in the newspaper pile.

Sirius was faster. "Yes. Just as I suspected – hoped – there were a few articles about that triple murder. This was at the height of the war against Grindelwald, and people needed a distraction. A pureblood reduced to such squalor and killing muggles sounded just scandalous enough, I guess."

Hermione nodded. "All of these articles we borrowed mention how mad Morfin was, talking about that ring of his, and how mad his father would be that he'd lost it – forgetting that his father had been dead for years at that point. He couldn't even give a good reason for why he'd done it – or how."

"But what with his sister marrying that muggle—" Ron grimaced.

Sirius nodded. "The Wizengamot would've thought the same – even though that had happened more than a decade and a half earlier." He pulled out another article from one of the papers borrowed from the library. "And so did the journalist. And it would've been so easy for Morfin to get into the muggle manor and cast a few killing curses – what did it matter if he remembered the exact time, or his exact path to the manor, or if he seemed confounded?"

"But… didn't we agree that Voldemort did it? He was there, the gardener saw him," said Harry.

His godfather nodded. "Yes. And he was very smart about it. That gardener's witness account is the only trace he left. Unless he took the ring."

Harry was beginning to frown. "What's with that ring all of a sudden? Why do you care?"

Hermione gasped. "You haven't found it, have you?"

Sirius grew very still. Then he gave a jerky nod. "In the Gaunts' shack. It was still there, hidden under the floorboards, even though Morfin thought he'd lost it—"

"Yes, but why do you care—" Harry tried again, becoming frustrated.

"Did you bring it back?" Ron asked at the same time.

Sirius drew his hand through his long hair, pushing it out of his face. A nervous gesture. "I guess I can answer both questions at once. No. I couldn't." He shifted, becoming agitated. "Do you know the definition of the dark arts?" he asked them all of a sudden.

Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged confused looks, communicating their bewilderment with each other.

"It's magic that can only be used for evil," said Ron.

Agitated, Sirius got to his feet, pacing to the window, pulled at the curtain to stare into the darkness for a moment, before turning back to face them again. "Right, well. That's what we want it to mean, but things aren't always that simple. You can use jinxes – curses, even – to defend yourself and others. But they're still dark magic—"

"It's something to do with the Law of Opposing Intents, doesn't it?" Hermione said hesitantly.

Sirius nodded jerkily. "The technical definition does, yes. The dark arts are designed to circumvent it—"

"Which means you can do more harm, because there's no opposing intent to stop you," said Hermione, eager to answer questions, even after an argument.

Sirius nodded again. He stepped closer, dropping to the floor once again. "I was searching that miserable hut for any clues. There wasn't anything – until I found the hiding place under the floorboards, and there lay hidden a little golden box. It looked so obviously out of place surrounded by all that dirt, so it was no surprise that there were a really frustrating number of spells placed on it. It took forever to get through them and open the box. The only thing inside was the ring."

"So why didn't you take it, then, if you got through the spells?" Harry asked impatiently when Sirius hesitated again.

"You know, I very nearly did."

There was something disquieting in Sirius' tone that immediately put Harry on alert.

Noticing his concerned gaze, his godfather gave him a wan smile. "Padfoot rescued me once again. I wasn't sure if I'd dealt with every curse, so I opened the box as Padfoot. Often enough, people forget to make curses work on animals as well, or at least the curses work differently. That was the case then as well. In dog form, the compulsion charm was stronger, but easier to resist for my human mind in the background."

Ron was the first to catch on. "A compulsion charm? After all the protective spells you went through?"

Sirius nodded approvingly. "Exactly. The protections that I broke were all ordinary. Very advanced, but… You can't create unbreakable wards without dark arts."

"Like the protections placed on the Philosopher's Stone in our first year," nodded Hermione. "I was surprised that the protections had all been breakable. I thought, why didn't the teachers add something that'd instantly kill anyone who tried to get to it. Then I looked it up."

Sirius nodded. "The worst you can do is something similar to what Snape did. Use something deadly – a poison, in his case – and combine it with something that'll act like a vow – the puzzle you had to solve. If you'd got the answer to the puzzle wrong, no antidote would've worked against the poison – because agreeing to solve the puzzle worked like a vow, binding you to the puzzle's rules."

Harry shifted uncomfortably, not liking that view of those past events. Not that he had been unaware of the danger back then—

"So the ring had another protection, then?" asked Ron, sounding impatient.

Sirius nodded. "A curse that I've never encountered, combined with the compulsion charm."

"And you think it's dark magic?" asked Hermione fearfully.

"Certainly, yes." Sirius sounded far too unconcerned. "Nothing I tried had any effect on it."

"Sirius, what exactly makes a spell get around the Law of Opposing Intents?" Harry asked slowly. "I thought it was like a law of nature – that it was just something that applied to all magic."

Sirius hesitated a moment, then he nodded. "It does. Normals spells are naturally brought into equilibrium according to that law. But if one wants to push past that equilibrium one has to pay. When the spell takes immediate effect, the caster often pays directly. Dark spells you really have to mean. That is, the caster's dark emotions – and the damage they cause to the caster's personality – fuel the spell. But with wards, the – price – has to be included…"

He would not go on. His young audience also remained silent, trying to fill in the blanks.

Ron was once again fastest, his upbringing giving him better intuition. His face scrunched up in disgust. "You mean, like unicorn blood? Like, killing something innocent—"

Sirius drew in a sharp breath, then got up again, turning away from them. "I really shouldn't be explaining these things to you," he muttered. "I'm proving every prejudice people hold against me true…"

"Oh, nonsense," said Hermione impatiently. "We've run into these things often enough. We need to know what we're dealing with!" She hissed in a breath. "The triple murder! Oh, you don't think—"

Sirius swirled around again. "That's exactly what I think." He began to pace. "Muggles are only now beginning to understand that there are forces in the world that we'd be better off not accessing. In the magical world, these things have been around for much longer. And no matter how many laws are passed against them – no matter how we try to bury such knowledge in the past – these things have a habit of resurfacing. And, well, Voldemort is just the sort of evil lunatic to try his hand at that sort of dark magic."

"Well, yes. He killed a bunch of unicorns in our first year. Didn't I tell you?" said Harry.

Sirius nodded. "Yes. And whatever that ring is, it's important enough to him that he must've done something awful to protect it. Likely by… Well, you can guess." Sirius drew in a sharp breath. "Which brings me to the locket. From the article Regulus had kept," he added when he saw his listeners' uncomprehending looks.

"But didn't you just explain that the Gaunts had a ring? That ring you found? All the other articles talk about it," said Harry slowly. "So the writer of that article must've confused something—"

"Yes, yes, that's what I thought at first." Sirius was becoming agitated again. "I thought Regulus must've made a mistake – like he did with so many things. But…"

Another article – a muggle one, this time – was put on top of the pile on the floor. This one came from Sirius' pocket, who carefully smoothed out the creases as he unfolded it.

"Riddle running off with Merope Gaunt was bizarre enough that there was an article in the local newspaper. Might seem a bit trivial, but there was war in the muggle world at that time as well, and I suppose they needed less worrying news to fill the pages every now and then. They didn't have a photograph from the wedding, of course, so instead they included pictures of both families side-by-side."

The photographs were telling. The Riddles were shown in a formal portrait, the older pair seated, with their son standing behind them, almost framing his parents. The Gaunts were captured in front of their hut, facing away from the camera, far from the photographer. The image was indistinct, but still made it obvious that the viewer was not welcome by the family.

"An elderly woman living in the neighbourhood saw them run off – Riddle and Merope Gaunt. Here's her quote, saying that Merope had looked just as run-down as always, only wearing an ugly, gaudy locket as adornment." Sirius pointed out something around the woman's neck, which was too blurry to identify well.

"I kept hoping there might be a photograph of it in one of the old copies of the Daily Prophet – a less blurry one. But no such luck—"

"But are you sure that's the locket? Or that there really was any sort of locket in the first place? Morfin was really confused—" suggested Harry.

"No. Regulus went out of his way to keep this article. The only one that mentions the locket—"

"Maybe he wasn't paying any attention to that. Maybe he just got interested in Voldemort's past – his family—" Harry tried once again, becoming annoyed at Sirius, who was shaking his head, not even considering that suggestion. "Look, I still think it's a really flimsy connection. So unless your brother's kept any other articles—"

"Oh, but that's the best part," interrupted Sirius, and some hint of the excitement of the early evening had seeped back into his demeanour. "I found something better. I think."

Carefully, he pulled at something under his collar, until a thin chain appeared, followed by a gaudy, egg-sized locket. He did not take it off, merely holding it for them to see. "I wonder if the 'S' refers to Slytherin. They did pride themselves on that ancestry…"

He was referring to the ornate embossing on the front of the locket inlaid with many small green stones, Harry saw.

"Where did you get that?" Hermione asked right away.

"In the drawing room. Inside a glass cabinet."

"Were there any curses on it?" Harry asked sharply.

"No. Well. It was placed next to some of the more – unpleasant – things my family used to own, but nothing beyond that. Which means that either Voldemort didn't deem it worth protecting – which doesn't explain why my brother went through the trouble of getting it – or Regulus managed to get rid of all dark magic placed on it."

This did not seem like a sufficient explanation to Harry at all. He felt a sense of foreboding, and had to fight the urge to fling the locket far away from Sirius. "Why haven't you destroyed it yet?" he asked.

Sirius stilled. "I… I've been trying to open it—" He tried demonstrably and without success to prise open the golden doors at the front of the locket. "—but so far no luck. I want to know what it is, to figure out what made Regulus keep it."

Ron had drawn in a sharp breath and looked like he wanted to speak, but hesitated at Sirius' words.

"Can I have a look?" Harry asked.

Sirius looked like he would refuse for an extended moment, but then he shrugged with deliberate unconcern and finally took off the chain, handing the locket over to his godson.

Harry regarded the strangely heavy object in his hand. The ornate 'S' looked rather like a snake. "Slytherin was a parselmouth, wasn't he? And so's Voldemort."

It did not take any time at all for the others to catch on to what he was getting at. Ron looked uncomfortable, but he also agreed it was worth a try. Harry squinted a bit. In the dull candlelight the glinting green stones could easily resemble a snake's eyes… He heard himself hiss 'open' in parseltongue on the first try. From behind the opened golden doors, eyes stared back at him – eyes that looked disturbingly familiar. He was so surprised that he dropped the locket, which landed in the space encircled by the four of them.