"What is that?" asked Ron, staring back at the eyes peering up at them with a repulsed sort of fascination.

Harry jumped to his feet, feeling dread creep up. Before he had fully analysed what he was doing, his wand had found its way in his hand. Ron and Hermione scuttled away, getting to their feet as well. The eyes inside the locket swept over all of them, before settling on Sirius.

"What the world has come to, the last heir of the House of Black rattling inside the dilapidated remains of your family home, whiling away your time with only children for company," a voice hissed from the locket.

Sirius' face darkened as he slowly got to his feet as well. His lip curled in disgust. "What are you?"

"Can you not guess yourself? But your knowledge of the deeper forms of magic is sadly deficient – much to your detriment, you'll find."

"Not being adept at the dark arts is not something I regret. You're something of his – Voldemort's. Therefore evil. That's all I need to know." Sirius reached for his wand, not trying to be subtle about it.

The locket cluttered with malevolent magic. "You may not understand what I am, but I understand you. I have seen your heart. I have seen your fears, Sirius Black. You wonder what you might have missed, if you can trust your mind not to fail you, after all those years in Azkaban. And what a shame it would be, especially now with the children around – and you so eager to introduce me to them"

Harry had heard enough. He pointed his own wand at the locket. "Diffindo." It had no effect. He frowned, trying to think of a more effective spell he could use. "Sirius, can you try something more destructive?" he said impatiently.

But as his godfather raised his wand, the locket quivered and the eyes inside gleamed scarlet. Then a grotesque bubble rose from it, growing, taking on human features, until it stood full-sized. It resembled a young man, dark-haired, not as tall and broad-shouldered as Sirius, nor as handsome, but Harry had seen enough photographs of his godfather from his teenage years to identify the apparition as his brother.

"Sirius, that thing is evil, " Harry implored. "We need to destroy it!"

"Yes, I know…" said Sirius, but made no move, did not even glance away from the apparition.

Ron had slowly made his way over to Hermione, who had pushed herself against the wall, her eyes not darting away from the apparition. "What's a good spell to try, what do you reckon?" he asked her, sounding calmer than Harry felt.

He had to ask again, but finally Hermione suggested a couple options.

"What do you think you know?" Regulus' apparition kept speaking to Sirius. "Always so reliant on your own understanding. Had to know better than us – your own family. But in the end, you always missed the most important thing, didn't you? Trying to atone for having failed me? Grasping at straws to find some trace – some shred of hope – that perhaps I wasn't quite so loyal to the Dark Lord after all?"

"You're not Regulus…" was Sirius' feeble retort.

The apparition looked strangely too young somehow. It was impersonating Regulus in his late teenage years, yet seemed almost younger than Harry. The boys both tried Hermione's suggestions, to no avail.

"All the while trying to ignore that it was you who stopped being loyal to me – to us. Sticking to that make-believe that you always hated it here. Don't you remember being happy here? Or did the dementors suck those memories out of you?"

Sirius visibly drew back, then caught himself. His wand slashed through the air, without effect. "Stupid thing, refuses non-verbal spells," he muttered. "Confringo."

The spell blasted through the floorboards around the locket, which merely rattled, undamaged. Harry tried to use the levitating spell to keep it from falling through the cracks, but it did not work. Thinking quickly, he levitated a book from the nearest shelf under it, catching it mid-fall.

"Careful!" he admonished his godfather, who once again was not looking at him.

Harry levitated the book with the locket on top some distance away from the window – and their belongings. The apparition's venomous gaze had settled on him, clearly angry at his interference. He finally lowered the locket nearer the entrance, where there was a little more space. Sirius had overtaken him, putting himself in front of the door. Ron had joined his side, pulling Hermione along.

"Let's try casting together," Harry said impatiently to his friends.

Hermione still had not drawn her wand. Her friends had to remind her to do so, but finally, her "Reducto!" joined her friends'. It was not enough. The book had been damaged, but the locket was unchanged.

"Oh, no, it's what I feared—" muttered Ron.

Harry rounded on him, urgently demanding an explanation.

"What if—" Ron swallowed, looking miserable. "What if it's like the diary?" he finally forced out.

Hermione's breath hitched. "Oh, no. You don't think—"

"Sirius' brother was a Death Eater, wasn't he? Like Malfoy." Ron's lip curled in disgust.

"You think You-know-who gave Regulus this locket for safekeeping?" said Hermione. "But what for? There's no other Chamber of Secrets to be opened, is there—"

"No!" Sirius cut across her frantically, finally glancing away from the apparition, if for a moment, to scowl at them. "No. Regulus was killed by Death Eaters for betraying them—"

"Was he now? Wherever did you hear that? All you know is that I died and that the Death Eaters were not to mention my name. But loyalty's such a tricky thing, isn't it? How do you know I didn't do exactly as the Dark Lord wished me to? Chasing after some imaginary trail, hunting for the Gaunt family heirlooms, robbing an impoverished family of their last trinkets – all so that you could prove yourself to be right." The apparition twisted, stretching to get closer to Sirius, until he drew back, stumbling, falling against the door. Still the apparition advanced. Then it changed its appearance. The red, malevolent eyes were peering from behind James Potter's face.

"No." Sirius' voice was choked off.

"You do always miss the obvious, don't you? Always thinking your understanding so superior. You know that Regulus defected. Just as you knew who the spy could – and couldn't – be—"

"Bombarda!"

Sirius' desperate spell broke through the floor again, the sound of the explosion echoing strangely in the room, and Harry had to levitate the remains of the book with the locket yet again, to keep it from falling through.

"Sirius, stop it!" he all but shouted at his godfather. "Can't you tell that's what it wants you to do?"

The condescending smirk on the apparition's face broke through its pretence of innocence, but did not stay there for long. Instead, the disturbing likeness of his father's face turned fully towards Harry. It was upsetting to have that face looking at him with obvious malevolence, when Harry could only ever remember his father look at him once, through the Mirror of Erised, with a wholly different expression—

Sirius lowered his wand, though he still looked like he was only too eager to keep attacking, pointless as that was.

"W-well, he's right," Hermione forced out, swallowing her fear. "Clearly. Clearly you're trying to get him off the trail he's found! Trying to get us to doubt that the ring he found was You-know-who's, that Regulus wanted you destroyed against You-know-who's wishes!" The more she talked, the more the fear faded from her voice, ending on an almost triumphant note. She looked at Ron, having refuted his theory. He nodded, agreeing with her.

The red eyes landed on her. The apparition sneered. "You believe Padfoot's muddled theories? After all the things he said to you? You trust his judgement, after a decade living as a dog in Azkaban—?"

"Don't talk to them!" Sirius snarled. He followed it up by flinging books from the nearest shelf at the apparition, which went right through it.

"There's nothing wrong with Sirius' mind!" Harry protested at the same time, soon joined by his friends.

Hermione drew in a sharp breath. "Ron, I think you may be right. That thing really is like the diary – Sirius! It's affecting you! It's – it's feeding off of your emotions!"

Sirius glanced at her, and a number of uncomfortable emotions ran across his face. He nodded, looking away, and then began casting a more complicated spell. Harry hoped it would be something less explosive. Then another thought came to him.

"You're him! Riddle! Voldemort—" Harry all but spat that name.

Riddle's apparition rather enjoyed putting the face he was wearing to good use to taunt Harry. He clearly had learned a fair bit of his shared history with Harry through Sirius, who would not stand to listen to that, and began loudly arguing back.

"Oh, that's why it wants us to keep attacking!" said Harry. "We can't destroy the locket, and it's getting stronger the more we engage with it!"

"Harry, you have to close it! Try it, please," implored Hermione.

"Afraid, are we?" the apparition taunted. "However did they let you into Gryffindor house? Not that any Hogwarts house should've been the place for you, mudblood—"

"Wait, I thought of something," said Ron just as Harry was about to try speaking parseltongue again.

He disappeared behind the shelves leading to the window where they had stashed their belongings, and a moment later they heard the noise of a bag being turned inside out. A protesting exclamation came from Hermione, as it could only have been hers.

"Oh, where is it—" they heard his frantic voice. A moment later, he ran back.

The apparition's gaze had followed him as well, for all its pretence of confidence. The abuse he directed at Ron was expected, focusing on what the apparition had witnessed that day, of Ron not being as far along with his animagus spell as his friends.

Ron did not seem to react at all. He did not even pause in what he was doing – uncorking the vial in his hand, pouring its contents on his wand tip, then walking straight up to the locket and essentially stabbing it with his wand.

The apparition barely had time to look surprised, barely tried to shift back to his actual appearance of a still teenaged Riddle, when he disappeared.

Only then did Ron look shaken. He sat down on the floor, pushing some books away and avoiding the gashes in the floorboards. "I used our remaining vial of basilisk venom," he finally said. "It worked with the diary, so… I think I emptied the whole thing." He pointed at the almost empty little vial thrown on the floor.

They all looked around at the mess the library had become. After a moment's hesitation, Sirius levitated the books back to their place – although some of them looked worse for wear, and there were a few stray pages and a stray cover still left on the floor afterwards.

"I'm so very sorry," he said quietly. "I have no idea what I was thinking. I knew it would be something of Voldemort's, I'd dealt with the sort of dark magic the ring was protected by – and still I involved you—"

Harry joined his friends in telling him there was no need for the apology, reminding him of the influence the diary had had on Ginny the year before. Ron could not help but add in the jab that getting the basilisk venom from the Chamber of Secrets had been a good idea after all. This finally lifted the mood, as it drew a suppressed chuckle from even Sirius.

Throughout it, Harry was distracted. He had this feeling that he may be missing something. The locket had not been around Sirius nearly long enough – and Sirius had not actively confided in it. It had not strengthened in the same way that the apparition from the diary had. It had not become solid, had not been able to actually attack them. Yet, it had done its best to antagonise them, to get them to attack. Why had it not been trying to get away? Or had it—

Harry looked around again, his head swivelling in all directions, until Hermione asked him if he had lost something.

"No… I was thinking… Was the locket trying to fall through the cracks in the floor? It would've meant getting away from us for the moment, but…" Something was not adding up.

Hermione stilled. She attempted to say something, hesitated, then turned to Sirius with a grimace. "I… think Ron may be right. About You-know-who leaving the locket to Regulus. Look, I know why you'd disagree," she added hastily, "but what if the locket was trying to get to its surviving protector?"

Sirius shook his head decisively, protesting that possibility. Harry, however, held his gaze and nodded. "I thought I heard something out of place when you cast the more destructive spells. A sort of crack – like apparition makes. I thought it was part of the spell, but it definitely came from the wrong direction…"

Hermione looked guilty, as well as worried, and was rapidly talking about not blaming the house elf for trying to fulfil his orders.

Harry found it difficult to look at his godfather, who was fighting the possibility so hard. "Sirius—" Harry was not sure how to go on, but he did not have to.

"Kreacher!" shouted Sirius. He set his jaw, glanced away from Harry.

The house elf must have been close by, for he walked through the door a few seconds later. "What does Master wish of Kreacher?"

The deep bow followed, then the complaining under his breath about Sirius' fickle commands, first telling him to stay away from his visitors, then ordering him among them – among the "blood traitors and mudbloods" as he put it. However, all of this stopped as soon as Kreacher spotted the destroyed locket. His eyes glued to it and he began to shake, falling silent.

"Tell me all you know about this locket," Sirius said. His voice was even, controlled. But it was not difficult to detect the weariness, the grief, the pain underneath that.

Harry looked away from his godfather with a heavy heart, thinking he knew what he was about to hear—

Kreacher's tale was not what any of them had been expecting. It began with Voldemort requiring a house elf – to everyone's surprise – and Regulus volunteering Kreacher. Then, through sobs and moans, the house elf told them of a cave beside the sea, with a cavern beyond it, and a black lake inside the cavern which had to be traversed by a boat to the island in the middle.

The elf quaked from head to foot as he recounted how he was made to drink the potion from the basin and the effects it had.

Up until that point, the tale had not veered too far from the expected. However, as Kreacher explained that Voldemort had placed the locket inside the basin, refilled it with more potion and then left the house elf to die, Sirius' eyes sharpened. His back straightened and he drew in the breath he had been unaware he had been holding.

Hermione tried to comfort Kreacher, who shied away in disgust when she tried to touch him. Then she had to ask Sirius to stop the house elf from punishing himself for calling her a mudblood against another one of his direct commands. Ron and Harry silently communicated their horror as Kreacher then described dead hands dragging him under the surface of the lake.

"So Voldemort left you with the inferi?" Sirius cut across him. "He didn't require you to go back, then? To return to Regulus?"

Kreacher, who had by that point collapsed into a pitiable heap on the floor, shook his ugly head, looking up at Sirius with his bloodshot eyes. "Master Regulus told Kreacher to come back."

"How did you escape the inferi, then?" asked Sirius.

Kreacher did not seem to understand the question, repeating what he had said before, until Ron guessed that he must have disapparated.

Sirius shook his head. "Then the inferi make no sense—" With a grimace he was forced to explain what inferi were, adding, "They're an extreme form of protection. Why would Voldemort have those, but not employ the far simpler anti-apparition ward…"

"Elf magic isn't like wizard magic, is it?" Ron said. "I mean, they can apparate in and out of Hogwarts when we can't."

"Of course. You-know-who would've considered house elf magic beneath his notice." Hermione's voice was icy.

"So how did you happen to have the locket, then?" Sirius continued questioning the house elf.

Kreacher then concluded his tale with the tragic end of Regulus, who had gone to the cave with a replica of the locket, had drunk the potion and ordered Kreacher to return with the real locket while leaving the fake one behind; and who had been dragged under water by the inferi and had died in the cave.

Despite hearing painful details of his brother's death, Sirius' mood lifted, his courage and hope returned. He looked sad, but reassured. "As I thought. He did see sense in the end…" he said.

"So you brought the locket home and tried to destroy it?" asked Harry, determined to know the full story.

The elf wailed. "Nothing Kreacher did made any mark upon it." He went on to describe the lengths he had gone to, to destroy it, and how he had punished himself for his failure to obey Regulus' final command.

When he mentioned that he had realised he needed to open the locket first in order to destroy it, but had failed to do so, Sirius interrupted.

"How did you know? Did you see it opened at any time? Or – or the other one – the one Regulus left in the cave. Did you see that one open at any point?"

"Kreacher does not remember—" moaned the elf, but then stopped. "Maybe. Maybe M-Master Regulus o-opened it right before – right before—" Kreacher shrieked again, dissolving in sobs.

"Did you see him place anything inside?" Sirius asked with some urgency. "Kreacher! Answer me!"

The house elf paused for long enough to ponder the question, then gave a hesitant nod. "Kreacher is not sure. Kreacher does not remember much after – after—" He took in a gulp of air. "Master Regulus was d-dead! Kreacher could not destroy the locket! And his mistress was mad with grief, because Master Regulus had disappeared and Kreacher could not tell her what had happened, no, because Master Regulus had f-f-forbidden him to tell any of the f-f-family what happened in the c-cave…"

Then the house elf began to shake again. "And where was Master at the time?" he began talking to himself. "Master was an ungrateful swine who broke his mother's heart. How Mistress hated him, what a disappointment he was—"

"My mother didn't have a heart, Kreacher," Sirius snapped. "She kept herself alive out of pure spite."

"B-but Master fulfilled the task that Regulus ordered Kreacher to do – that Kreacher failed to do!" the house elf's voice had risen again.

There was something odd about Kreacher's tone. It had shifted from the relived horror to something else.

"Master took Master Regulus' locket from the cabinet. Kreacher thought he must have thrown it away, like he threw away so many of the family treasures, and all the protections Kreacher had placed on it!"

Harry had a bad feeling. The house elf seemed to be building up to justify – something. Was he feeling guilty about something?

"Those weren't treasures, those were vile artefacts seeping evil!" Sirius was beginning to get angry.

The house elf bowed. "Whatever Master says."

"Kreacher, you were here in the library when we opened the locket, weren't you?" Harry asked, aware that there was something off in his tone.

The house elf froze and began to shake, but remained silent.

Hermione grimaced. Harry had a feeling he was not the only one with the same suspicion – but he was not willing to give Kreacher the benefit of the doubt the way she seemed to want to.

"Answer the question!" ordered Sirius.

"Kreacher only had a look. Kreacher did not talk to Master's guests. Kreacher had heard a new voice and wanted to see if – if there was another guest—"

"Heard another voice, did you? Were you listening at the door again?" Sirius asked coldly.

"The apparition in the locket thought he could get away, if only he could fall through the floorboards," Harry spoke before the elf could answer. "But if Kreacher wasn't guarding the locket – if he was actually trying to destroy it – then why would the apparition have thought that—"

A moment of stillness, then—

"Even supposing that the locket couldn't be summoned, just as it couldn't be levitated—" Sirius said, keeping his tone even. "Kreacher, do you know of any reason why we wouldn't then have the time to – oh, just destroy the floor and look for it manually."

The house elf did not respond right away, but there was an unspeakable fear in his face, right before he shrieked and banged his head against the floor, his wailing incomprehensible.

Hermione got Sirius to stop him, but then she froze. "Sirius, you did… you ordered him – in the kitchen – you told him to 'get out'…" she said faintly.

Sirius' eyes widened. "I order you to answer my question truthfully, Kreacher! Tell me everything."

"Master w-w-would not have had the time, because of the aurors waiting for him outside. Any minute now, they will have taken down the wards," Kreacher finally forced out.

There was absolute silence for a heartbeat, as everyone tried to understand the impact of those words. Then the children began to look at each other in incomprehensible terror, uttering jumbled questions, while Sirius' face distorted in rage.

"You – you vile, traitorous piece of scum!" He bodily picked Kreacher up and shook him, before throwing him to the ground. "I should've ended your miserable life as soon as I discovered you were still here!" His wand was in his hand right away.

"Sirius!" His words had finally cut through Hermione's panic-stricken litany of 'What shall we do?' and she ran over to almost shield the house elf. "You're not going to k-kill him, are you?" she asked fearfully.

Harry thought it would only serve Kreacher right if Sirius did, but did not like to see his godfather thus enraged.

Without saying a word, Sirius turned, stalked to the window, grabbed the curtain, but thought better of moving it, then turned back around. A moment later, he was once again towering over the abjectly fearful Kreacher. "When did they get here? How many? How?" He demanded.

With difficulty, they got the essentials out of the elf. The aurors had arrived together with Kreacher, who had returned to the house while they were already dealing with the locket apparition. As soon as he had realised what was happening, he had disapparated again, and – he claimed – had tried to tell the aurors that maybe he had made a mistake, and that Sirius was not in after all, but they had not believed him—

"I remember that was when Sirius cast the bombarda spell," said Harry.

"That was fifteen – maybe twenty – minutes ago," said Sirius, and almost looked relieved.

To Harry, it seemed that more time must have passed, but it had been very intense minutes.

"The aurors won't make it through all the wards in much less than an hour, so we have a few minutes—" Sirius stopped at Hermione's suppressed shriek. "Doesn't sound like much, does it?" He appeared far too calm when saying this. "If only we had more time." He looked at her significantly while saying this.

"Oh!" Hermione's hand immediately jumped to the chain around her neck, but Sirius shook his head.

"In a moment," he said. "We do have a few minutes to deal with him first." He gestured at Kreacher, before demanding that the house elf explain himself.

Then Kreacher talked. He told them how he had left the house a few weeks earlier, after Sirius had taken the locket, by riling Sirius up until he told him to leave – to 'get out'. He had gone to Narcissa Malfoy – nee Black – to beg her to be her house elf instead. She had told him that would only be possible if they captured Sirius first.

"Did you mention to her that I had visitors sometimes?" Sirius asked. His voice was low, but the danger was unmistakeable.

Kreacher shook his head, then nodded miserably. "Kreacher told her he had been ordered not to tell anyone, but Mistress Cissy guessed—"

"And you obliged her by confirming it. What exactly did she guess? Did she get you to name Harry? His friends?"

"Kreacher had been ordered not to reveal their identities. Kreacher could not even confirm or deny, Master's orders had been unassailable—"

"Small mercies. But then you agreed to lead the aurors here when my visitors would be here, didn't you?" Sirius snarled.

"Kreacher noticed Master's preparations today – the nasty muggle food, and all that time cooped up in the library. So Kreacher went to tell Mistress Cissy and was ordered to come back and return to her once they were here—"

"You little rat. I should've known. Always looking for a way to spy on me, to tell on me. Regardless of how I phrased the order, you'd find a way to get around it and report back to my parents – and when you knew it'd hurt me the most!"

"My p-poor mistress could never get Master to see sense – to see what was due the name of Black and the dignity of his pure blood – ran away – betrayed the family—" Kreacher's utterances were half-audible, mumbled while he was curled in on himself.

"You talking about betrayal! You little toerag—" Sirius broke off. "The more fool I. Once again, I failed to spot the traitor, to see the obvious. And now I got you all in danger as well," he said under his breath. "Enough of this! Accio Regulus' scarf!"

A moment later, an old green-and-silver scarf flew through the door and into Sirius' hands. It was unmistakeably a Slytherin house scarf, from Regulus' Hogwarts years. As soon as Kreacher saw it, he gave the most blood-curdling scream and tried to crawl away from Sirius.

Hermione looked from one to the other. "Sirius, are you going to set him free?" she asked hopefully.

"Yes. And with something of Regulus' at that. And if I ever see you again Kreacher, I really will kill you—"

But the threat was unnecessary. Kreacher could not possibly look any more frightened than he already did, his breath coming in rapidly, sounding like sobs. Hermione, seeing this, approached him, though remembered not to touch him this time. She tried to explain that he was about to become free, that he should be happy, not scared—

"Come off it, Hermione," Ron said quietly, tiredly. "It's the middle of winter, and the old git's being kicked out of his house. Not that he doesn't deserve it, but—"

This gave Hermione a pause. She looked about to argue with him, but then took in the cold, unmoved expression on Sirius' face. Then her eyes darted to Harry.

"What, er, what'll Kreacher do, once he's, er, free?" Harry asked his godfather.

Sirius shrugged. "Go right back to the Malfoys, I guess. If they're not actually interested in an ancient, traitorous toerag like him – as I expect – then try to find another position, I guess. Some gullible family who won't guess right away what vermin he is."

"The Malfoys wouldn't be a good choice, anyway. They used to punish Dobby all the time. A paid position will be much better," Hermione was telling the house elf. "You needn't be a slave any more, but a paid servant…"

But Harry looked at Kreacher, who was old and ugly, and eminently unlikeable. Who would want to include him in their household? With payment, at that? Certainly not the Malfoys. And it was the middle of winter, it was—

"Sirius, it's Christmas Eve," he said softly, then held his godfather's gaze for an extended moment, until the older wizard looked away.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked finally.

"He could help us, maybe," Harry suggested. "He said he tried to get the aurors to leave, after he saw us trying to destroy the locket." He turned to the house elf. "Kreacher, would you be able to put the house back the way it was before Sirius came here? So that no one would be able to tell what books we'd been reading, or—"

"Actually, that's a thought." Sirius looked at the state of the library. "It's rather obvious we've spent some time here isn't it—"

Kreacher uncurled somewhat and looked up, eyes darting between Harry and Sirius. "Master would let Kreacher serve him?" he croaked, tearing up again.

"Last chance, Kreacher. If I find you betraying me again—"

This was cut short by Kreacher's howl, who flung himself on the floor in front of Sirius, asking for forgiveness and promising to serve well.

Hermione, who had been about to protest the plan, paused helplessly at hearing the glimmer of hope, the pathetic gratitude in the elf's voice. "Is that what you want?" she murmured.

Sirius sighed. "If I'm to keep you, you'll have to accept that I'm not like the rest of my family. In fact, Harry, here – my godson – is my family now, so you'll have to obey him as well from now on, an you'll have to treat all our guests with respect—"

Kreacher could be heard thanking Sirius somewhere among his sobbing, then finally got back to his feet. "Kreacher will look to the house, Master. Those nasty aurors will never know what business Master Sirius and his guests had here."

"Speaking of – can you still apparate out of the house?"

The house elf mournfully shook his head. "Kreacher had to come in the front door, even though Kreacher told the aurors Master was not in."

Sirius cursed. "I forgot about that. Then they must think that I ordered you to do so – after I got you to confess the truth – and that I know they're here…"

Then Harry had an idea. He went to pick up the destroyed, blackened locket. "Kreacher, I'd, er, like to give you this. It's broken now, I know, but as a reminder that Regulus' final order was fulfilled. It's yours now, but, er, you mustn't let the aurors see it. Er, happy Christmas—"

"Overkill, mate," said Ron as the elf took one look at the locket, let out a howl of shock and misery, and threw himself back onto the ground.

~HP~

As soon as Kreacher had been sent to the kitchen to begin cleaning up there – and be out of their way – Sirius turned to Hermione. "Right, then. I think the only way we can get out of this is if we use your time-turner."

Hermione took it off her neck right away. "So what is the plan, then? There is a plan, isn't there?" Fear was seeping back into her voice.

"We'll work on it as we go along," said Sirius, and he did not sound entirely unconcerned. "First, you need to collect everything we might need from here. Everything you brought with you, plus the newspaper articles I found. The books about the animagus transformation. Your present, Harry, and the other parcel next to it. We won't be coming back."

The three adolescents had begun grabbing all those items as he spoke.

"But how are we supposed to take any of it with us?" protested Hermione. "The time-turner barely fit around the three of us, and now there's you, too, Sirius. And then to carry all this stuff—"

Sirius grimaced. "Good thing I'm not coming along, then. As for everything else—"

He was interrupted by triple protests.

"Sirius, you're the one who needs protecting from the aurors in the first place!" urged Harry.

"And I'm the one they're expecting to find here. And if they don't, they'll ask themselves far too many questions. They know I'm here, and they've cast all the wards to prevent me from leaving. If I just disappear, they'll investigate in far too much detail, and I don't know to what extent a time-turner can be traced—"

Hermione shifted uncomfortably at that, grimacing at the questioning looks shot her way. "Even if they can – isn't it better to risk that than risk getting caught?"

"And lead the aurors to you? With how heavily time-turners are regulated, it wouldn't be so much a risk, but more of a fail-safe trace back to you. No. You three will get out, and send the car – with the invisibility shield up – to whichever window looks less guarded. Harry can call on the mirror and tell me – once the time has caught up for you—"

"No, there're far too many things that could go wrong with that plan!" Harry cut across him. "What if, instead, you take the time-turner – No, hear me out. If there're two of you running around, then maybe you can let the aurors see one of you, while the other copy can send us the car—"

"And we'd be able to use magic!" added Ron. "There's no way the aurors'll bother with the anti-trace wards."

Harry nodded, beginning to warm up to his idea, when he saw Hermione shake her head. "What? It's not like the aurors are going to hurt us, even if they see us! We can lie, say Sirius confounded us—"

"That's not it, Harry. Don't you remember what McGonagall told us? What you're suggesting isn't safe. There's too much uncertainty about where and when Sirius would be. That's how you end up with horrible accidents."

"Enough," said Sirius. "You three need to leave now. As soon as they can cast the revealing spells, they'll try to trace my exact location – and I don't want them to discover your presence."

Harry reluctantly went along with the final preparations, feeling an almost overwhelming urge to stay. But not a minute later, his backpack was on his back, his still packaged broom was in his hand, they checked the exact time and Hermione dropped the long chain of her time-turner around his neck.

She turned the hourglass.

Once the disorienting turning back of time had passed, they stood in the same space, which looked a lot tidier, a lot more whole. And empty.

"Right, then." Ron checked the time. "It's maybe half an hour before we'll get here with Sirius."

"Let's be quiet," said Harry. "Kreacher did say he'd been out until he found us in the kitchen, but I don't trust him."

This proved to be unnecessary. Leaving the house was uneventful. It was cold outside, but they did not need to wait for very long for their past selves to arrive and leave the car where they remembered leaving it the first time around. As soon as their past selves and Sirius had disappeared inside the house, they got into the car and lifted up in the air.

"A rooftop, I think," said Harry.

They all looked around and found a tall enough house, which was far enough away that the Trace would not be a problem, but close enough that they could see the front and back of the Black family house and its surroundings. The rooftop had a parapet around the edge, which would hide them from view once they vacated the car to send it to Sirius. The inside of the car was warm, but it did not make the waiting any less nerve-racking.

They tried to prepare, but did not know how. Harry and Ron kept bringing up disjointed ideas to try – infiltrate the aurors once they arrived – or try to distract them somehow – but none of those were workable with the Trace around. Harry was annoyed with himself for having listened to Sirius. At least inside the house he would have been able to use magic.

Watching Kreacher leave the house was maddening. Harry felt an almost overwhelming urge to fly over there and grab him and drag him back inside. "Get out, Master said…" he could be heard gloating, before he disapparated.

It was almost a relief to see the aurors arrive after the interminable wait that followed. They appeared in several groups around around the house, holding on to strange long rods, which Ron surmised were portkeys. They regrouped, taking cover behind muggle cars, trees, stairs. Kreacher was among them, being given orders by an auror with tawny hair, who looked imposing despite a slight limp. Next to him stood another man whom Harry recognised as Dawlish. Then Kreacher disapparated.

"That's when he must've arrived in the library, when we were fighting the locket." Hermione's voice was a whisper, even though she could not possibly be heard – or seen.

Then Harry and his friends identified a small number of people who did not appear to be aurors. They were not wearing the same uniform, and were clearly being guarded by the aurors. They began casting complex-looking magic, which kept gliding over the house, causing it to shimmer and distort – like a shield, or an invisibility spell.

"They must've cast the anti-apparition spells and begun taking down the wards," said Hermione even more quietly.

Harry could not stand sitting around. He opened the door—

"At least put on your invisibility cloak," said Hermione.

He drew it out of his bag and wrapped himself in it hastily. He got out of the car and stepped as close to the edge of the rooftop as he could. His mirror was burning a hole in his pocket. But it was not yet time.

A little while later, Kreacher had reappeared. He looked to be arguing with the aurors, waving at them frantically, but Dawlish waved him away. Harry could not hear exactly what was being said, just a few disjointed exclamations from the house elf, until he ran back into the house. It seemed Kreacher had been telling the truth about trying to make the aurors leave after all.

That thought went through him like live wire. It was nearly time. Kreacher was about to be summoned to the library and ordered to confess.

The car door opening again distracted him. His friends were stepping out, crouching to make themselves less visible from below.

"Harry, give us a hand," whispered Ron. "We better unpack anything incriminating. Just in case—" He did not finish the sentence.

Harry did so, rushing to get everything out without running into his friends, who could not see him. It was an inconvenience, but he was too much on edge to deal with it—

"It's time, Harry," Hermione spoke next. "We've just gone back in time."

She and Ron had a quick discussion about which window looked safest – safe being a very relative term – and settled on an attic window towards the garden side. Harry mirror-called Sirius, and the relief in his godfather's voice at hearing him was obvious. Harry explained which window they had chosen, while Ron directed the car towards it.

Then there was more waiting, as Sirius wanted to make sure the aurors saw him before he escaped. After more interminable minutes, there was movement outside the house. The witches and wizards who had been dismantling the wards drew back. Harry urgently communicated this through the window.

Then the aurors got into a formation, and much faster than Harry had thought they would, they flooded into the house, with only a few people staying outside to keep guard.

Harry was frantically hissing this information across the mirror as loudly as he dared.

"I'm on my way," came Sirius' tense response.

Then the window opened. But instead of Sirius jumping into the car right away, they could only see his extended arm, holding a bundle, which wiggled – fluttered – before disappearing in thin air. He must have got it into the invisible car—

The spells came swiftly, and in a much higher number than Harry had thought. He could only hope that Sirius had safely got his hand out of the way. And all the aurors who had gone inside the house must be headed up the stairs already—

"What did he just do?" hissed a frantic Hermione, her chin jutting over the parapet.

"The owl!" Ron's shocked realisation was just as frantic. "Sirius' little owl!"

Harry could have groaned in frustration. Now had not been the time to take him along. Their one moment of surprise had been lost, as spells kept battering the window where Sirius had been.

"I'll try another window," Sirius' voice came through the mirror.

Harry's mind felt blank. Without analysing what he was doing, he picked up his still wrapped present from the ground, shifting the invisibility cloak up his arms, so he rip away the packaging. He stared at the revealed Firebolt, aware that in any other circumstance he would have barely believed his eyes.

"What are you doing?" Hermione had noticed him.

Harry did not have time for an argument. He gave the mirror to Ron. "You'll give us directions once I reach him, won't you?"

The next moment, the invisibility cloak was covering him again and he was up in the air, not waiting for a reply. The front entrance of the house was clear, only one auror standing guard inside, where Harry would not need to worry about the Trace. He was exceedingly grateful for the high ceilings of Sirius' house as he flew over the auror's head, which won him a moment longer undetected.

The spells whizzed past his ears, but he persevered, flying the broom up the stairs. It was fast. It responded to his lightest touch. More aurors appeared in front of him, but he sped past their heads before they had turned around.

They were already by the attic, getting into formation on the stairs. Two aurors were at the top, Dawlish and a scary-looking older man with different eyes and a wooden leg, while the tawny-haired wizard was giving orders from a little below.

Harry only took these things in in passing, not pausing until he was in the attic, by Sirius' side. His godfather had barricaded himself behind a pile of everything he must have found in the attic, and greeted him with a roared, "What were you thinking!"

This almost threw Harry, but then Sirius was on the broom behind him, speaking through the mirror that Harry had arrived. Ron's frantic, whispered directions came a moment later.

The aurors were not far behind, flooding into the attic, spells preceding them. There were three windows in the attic, the one next to them, the one towards the side of the road and a third that would take them past the stairs – and the aurors. But Ron insisted they should go for that one.

Harry flew up and somersaulted to avoid the spells. It was almost like outflying bludgers, came the inane thought. Sirius blasted the window with a spell, and they were outside. Harry dropped, narrowly avoiding the spells whizzing over their head.

He flew in a spiral, quickly gaining height again, while the aurors on the ground could be heard running towards them, casting more spells.

"Get in the car and follow behind us!" Harry heard Sirius' voice a moment later, and realised he was still talking through the mirror.

"You sent the car their way?" asked Harry. The wind was stealing his words; he was not slowing down.

"Barely had to. That car was clever enough to get out of the line of fire by itself and being built by a Gryffindor, I rather think it'd have returned for me—" Sirius paused for a moment, and his arms tightened around Harry. "But regardless, you saved my life, Harry. I can't thank you enough – for all I wish you hadn't taken that risk—" He broke off again and fell silent.

"We're on our way," Hermione's voice came through the mirror a moment later. "I don't think anyone saw us, but we can still see you – and so can the aurors."

"We'll lose them easily between the buildings," responded Sirius.

Harry obliged, diving. Soon, Hermione and Ron had trouble keeping up with them and Sirius had to give them directions. A few moments later, he decided it was safe to land – the aurors were far behind them.

Harry almost argued for staying on the broom. The exhilaration of the flight was beginning to overtake the fear, and he felt like shouting his joy at the escape. He could fly all night. He wanted to. No need to join Ron and Hermione in the car – and if Sirius wanted to, he could stay on Harry's Firebolt as well—

Sirius stumbled off the broom as soon as Harry had landed, turned around and was violently sick.