In the end, Harry agreed to travel by car as well. There was the cold of a December night, which he finally felt after the excitement had died down. Besides, the inside of the Ford Anglia was pleasantly larger than the outside and very comfortable. Sirius had walked some paces away from the rest of them to make sure there were no tracking charms on him – and to deal with his unfortunate accident – before rejoining as well. The car flew north, London quickly falling behind.

The mood was shifting between the exhilaration and the fear of the narrow escape. Sirius' little owl, picking up on the charged atmosphere, was whizzing around the tight confines of the car interior. Despite the late hour, none of them were sleepy. Instead, they had begun a chaotic questioning of their actions. Ron and Hermione thought that from what they could see, there was a good chance that Harry had got away without activating the Trace and without anyone recognising him, but they had no way of knowing if it was so.

Sirius then added to this by reminding them of one of Kreacher's revelations of that night. "Do you understand what it means that Cissy's been talking to the aurors?"

This led to a moment of stillness, as the three friends considered the implications.

"She knew to ask Kreacher about your guests," Hermione said faintly.

Ron groaned. "'Course she did. The Malfoys are helping Pettigrew, and he knows that we're in contact with you, Sirius."

Harry swore. "Lucius Malfoy's been giving the aurors 'hints' about me, hasn't he?"

Sirius nodded. "For months now, I think. All this time, it should've been obvious – the aurors' presence in Godric's Hollow on Hallowe'en, when only Pettigrew could've guessed that I'd be there; and all that surveillance on you, Harry, when all they had to go by was a single letter you sent me two years earlier."

It was a sobering thought that Lucius Malfoy was not only working towards getting Sirius caught, but was also trying to get Harry in trouble with the law. Malfoy knew a slew of incriminating things from Pettigrew. He knew they were in contact with Sirius, knew Sirius' animagus form. If the aurors were listening to him, all they were missing was proof, which they might have given them that very night—

"Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves," said Sirius. "Malfoy can't just throw around unsubstantiated claims and not make the aurors suspicious. Just how do you think he'd explain how he knows anything about this situation?"

The adolescents thought it over, while trying not to get too annoyed at the owl fluttering in front of whoever was talking.

Ron snorted. "Yes, imagine Malfoy telling the aurors he had a 'feeling' that Sirius turns into a dog – a very specific, grim-shaped one."

"Right…" Hermione grew pink in embarrassment at her momentary panic. "So… he can't do much more than make 'guesses' and hope the aurors will find something to incriminate us – as well as catch Sirius." She still was not reassured. She brought up her time-turner and how easily it might be traced back to her—

"I also wouldn't worry about that," said Sirius. "Think about what tonight's events would've looked like from the aurors' perspective. When they managed to get in, I was alone in the house, with only Kreacher for company. From Kreacher's reaction, they'd have surmised that I became aware of his absence and return – and that I got him to confess what he'd done. They knew I was expecting them. Then they saw me in the attic, just as their tracking spells would've told them. And then someone from the outside came to my rescue—"

Harry caught the silly little owl. "Which you needed because of this guy here."

Sirius' grin was sheepish. "I forgot all about him. I felt so guilty when I saw him right there in the attic. The aurors probably wouldn't have done him any harm, but I just couldn't leave him behind." He waved off his embarrassment. "Anyway. Why would the aurors even consider something as outlandish as a time-turner? No, no. Neither them, nor Malfoy, could possibly have thought of that."

"Alright." Some of the tension drew out of Hermione at hearing that. "Yes, I guess time-turners are rather unusual. And secretive. Even most of the teachers haven't been told that I have one."

"The people from the Department of Mysteries tend to not share any more information than they absolutely have to. Unless there's actual evidence against you, Hermione, the aurors won't be told you have one, I'm pretty sure." Sirius nodded at her reassuringly.

"Well, could the aurors have recognised Harry?" asked Ron. "The invisibility cloak mightn't have covered all of him at all times. What if they recognised his clothing or something."

Sirius shook his head. "I doubt it. Cissy would've dutifully reported to the aurors that I had guests. But without Kreacher's evidence, she couldn't possibly have told them that you three were my guests. Again, how could she possibly justify knowing that to the aurors? And without her 'hint' why would the aurors even consider the presence of Hogwarts students in my house in London?"

Slowly, the worries began to recede, the questions slowed, until there was a moment of quietness – swiftly interrupted by the owl's querulous call.

Harry regarded his unworried godfather. "So the paranoia of the past days really was the locket talking, wasn't it?" He felt like taking back his words, as he watched his godfather's face fall at the reminder.

Sirius began apologising again. This time, when the three friends tried to interrupt, he persevered. "It wasn't just fear the locket made me feel – although it was probably the most damaging. But I was also obsessed, impatient, which in turn made me harsh – especially to you, Hermione. When actually you were right about a number of things."

Harry groaned before Hermione had found the words to respond. "I'll have to report the Firebolt, won't I?"

Despite Ron's caution that the aurors might hear about it and confiscate the broom, despite Sirius' obvious regret, Harry agreed to Hermione's plan, doing his best not to be too sullen at her vindicated expression.

Sirius grimaced. "Maybe you had a point about Kreacher as well, Hermione."

The girl was taken aback by that. "But… what you said to him… I realised I don't know much at all about the history between you two."

Sirius stilled. Then shook his head. "It doesn't matter any more. Our situation has changed. He's bound to me now. So I have to find a way to relate to him without either of us killing the other – or actually release him."

"And is there no way that could work?" Hermione asked longingly.

"If you can convince him to accept clothes without a fit, by all means." Sirius shrugged. "But only after I've questioned him properly."

Harry realised midway through asking what about that Sirius was thinking about the locket. Ron pulled a comical face, guessing right away that Sirius was planning to retrieve the fake locket his brother had left in the cave, in hopes of learning more. Hermione brought up the narrow escape they had had, to caution against taking the risk of doing something that dangerous. Harry, on the other hand, said right away that he wanted to go along. This led to his friends – even erstwhile reluctant Hermione – to demand the same.

Sirius laughed, once again more amenable to his wishes than Harry had anticipated, promising not to go without them without needing much convincing at all. They all heard his muttered, "Considering how often you three end up rescuing me…"

Then, with growing excitement, they began to plan. The first hurdle was Kreacher, who had been left at Grimmauld Place, in the company of aurors. They would need him to tell them every detail about the location and protections of the cave.

"The aurors won't arrest him, will they?" asked Hermione.

Sirius shook his head, suppressing a grin. "I doubt it. House elves can't disobey their masters – at least that's the commonly held view. Thus, they're not held responsible for fulfilling their masters' orders. I gave him permission to say whatever he needs to get out of any further entanglements with the aurors. Hopefully, he'll stay exactly where we left him."

Hermione perked up at hearing that, and in a much more engaged mood began to speculate on what Kreacher had told them. She brought up the potion the house elf had needed to drink. Sirius was insistent they needed to know exactly what it was and – hopefully – how to counteract it. Harry and Ron immediately brought up their Wolfsbane brewing with Snape – and the potential to discreetly question the potions master during those sessions. Sirius was not entirely happy about that and cautioned them to be careful and not to let Snape become suspicious, but soon relented, because he had no better ideas himself.

Hermione next brought up the small boat Kreacher had mentioned and how all four of them could make it across the lake.

Sirius mulled it over a moment. "It's probably impossible to avoid it – being part of the cave's protections… You three will need to be animagi before we go," he concluded. "Hopefully, none of you will be so large that we won't fit in that boat. Besides, chances are that Voldemort didn't account for animagi in his protections, just as he didn't account for house elf magic."

"Speaking of – I cast the animagus spell after I destroyed the locket," Ron interrupted excitedly. "I found new words – maybe a phrase. It's something about the least important becoming, er, important? I'm not sure about the exact words yet—"

Harry and Sirius began to congratulate him, but Hermione interrupted with, "What about that ring you found, Sirius? If it's like the locket, how are we going to destroy it? If only we had more basilisk venom – but we pretty much got all that we could from the carcass."

"Maybe if we just get one of the basilisk fangs. They're still covered in venom, aren't they," suggested Ron.

Sirius shook his head. "I don't think basilisk venom would work on the ring, if I can't get rid of the curse first. Basilisk venom is… venom. It doesn't destroy things. It needs to get into the bloodstream of its victim to paralyse and then kill."

Harry opened his mouth to argue, but then he deflated. "Oh, yeah. I got some of it on my hand last year. And it did do some damage – my skin peeled off some days later. But…"

Ron gasped. "Oh, right. I'd forgotten about that." He pulled his wand out of his pocket. The once pale ash wood had a very visible stain where he had poured the basilisk venom. He grimaced, looking disappointed.

"The locket and the diary couldn't be harmed by any of the spells we tried," mused Harry. "But they were both destroyed by basilisk venom – which needs to get into the bloodstream of living things to kill them… When I stabbed it, the ink seeped out of the diary like blood…"

His words were followed by silence. He thought he might not be the only one overtaken by a strange foreboding.

"What are they, though?" asked Hermione, and indeed, a note of fear had crept into her voice.

Sirius stilled, hesitated. "I've no idea, but from what we've learned I suspect that we really need to find out. For one, Voldemort really went out of his way to protect them. For another, we've seen how dangerous those objects can be. First that horrible influence they exert and then that parasitic way they have of getting stronger by weakening their victim. Besides, if Regulus was willing to die in order to destroy that locket…"

"Sirius, those other things – the diary and the ring—" Ron began in a curiously even voice. "With the ring, there was the Riddle family, and with the diary, there was Moaning Myrtle. What I mean is—" He broke off, and now his unease could be heard as he quickly asked, "The locket – do you think it's the same?"

"No, Ron. The Riddles were killed to place a curse on the ring, to protect it – like the inferi in the lake are protecting the locket. But Moaning Myrtle was an accident—" Hermione stopped at Sirius' string of curses.

"I think Ron might be right," he said. "Those objects are clearly bad news. If they warrant those sorts of protections, it'd hardly be a surprise if murder was required in order to make them as well. The basilisk attacks stopped as soon as Myrtle was dead, didn't they?"

"And the Riddles were a family of three. He'd have had a murder for creation, one for protection and one to spare," was Ron's flippant summary.

"So the locket…" Hermione began faintly. Clearly, it was difficult for her to imagine that even Voldemort could be that deprived.

"So far we don't know its path from Merope to Voldemort, but it does seem more than likely that we'll find another murder once we do…" Sirius trailed off, looking disgusted.

Harry's feelings on the matter were veering closer to anger. Twisted, ugly, rotten things, he thought, unsure if he meant those objects, or more generally the sort of dark magic Voldemort seemed to have used. If Ron was right – and Sirius certainly seemed to think so – then Volemort had been planning murder when he had unleashed the basilisk the first time around. Whether or not the muggleborns would have been chased away from Hogwarts had been secondary. Harry was not sure why that seemed worse, but something about using an ideological argument – even a vile one – in order to disguise a murder left him chilled to the bone.

Sirius, far from how he had become in the previous weeks, broke the dark mood by reminding them that they had begun destroying those objects and were well on their way to figuring out what they were. He brought up their progress with their animagus transformations and what new words the night's events might have uncovered, congratulating Ron on his presence of mind to cast the spell.

"At least we grabbed all the books about the animagus transformation," sighed Hermione. She twisted around from the front passenger seat to look at their overfilled bags.

"Well… actually, you'll need another book for the final step, but that one's not easy to get your hands on – even for my family. You'll have to steal it from McGonagall—" At the adolescents' surprised exclamations, Sirius held up his hands. "No need to worry about it yet, it'll be a little longer until you need it—"

Hermione was sputtering, trying to express her alarm and dismay, but Ron had another worry. "Where are we going to test our spells, though? Now that we can't go back to Grimmauld Place."

Harry shook his head regretfully. "And we never even got to have that tour of the house…"

Sirius was bemused. "You're not going to miss that horrible old place, are you? We'll think of somewhere else to meet, don't worry—"

Harry began to mumble that indeed, he was going to miss the clandestine trips to the house of mysteries that was Grimmauld Place, but before Sirius could do more than raise his eyebrows in astonishment, Hermione had another concern. Grimmauld Place had also been Sirius' full time residence for the winter months, which meant that he had just become homeless.

This was followed by chaotic suggestions by Harry and Ron, with Hermione even agreeing that squatting in a muggle house was 'not a bad idea'. Sirius waved off their concerns, clearly unworried himself, saying he would think of something after he had dropped them off in the Shrieking Shack and seen them get back safely into the school.

Despite the many issues still facing them, as soon as the energetic discussion had slowed, they all felt the lateness of the hour. In no time at all, none of the adolescents could keep their eyes open – despite the little owl still showing off for them – and agreed readily with Sirius to try to catch a little sleep on the way. Sirius transformed into Padfoot, curling up next to Harry.

~HP~

It felt like he had just nodded off when Harry was woken up when the Ford Anglia hit the ground. The Shrieking Shack was a dim outline in the darkness outside. The lights inside the car came back on and all the doors flung wide open. Harry recognised the signs. The Ford Anglia was reaching the limits of its patience and wanted to be rid of them.

Wordlessly, and faster than they felt like moving, he and his friends unpacked their belongings before the car spit them all out. Harry had the presence of mind to catch the little owl before he decided to explore his new surroundings.

The cold air managed to wake them somewhat and they followed behind Padfoot, who trotted to the one boarded window of the Shack which could be forced open from the outside. Sirius had transformed into a human and had lit some candles by the time they had all climbed in.

Harry, Ron and Hermione were all holding stacks of books, on top of their bags, Harry's broomstick and the excitable little owl. Sirius regarded them critically, his face shifting somewhere between a grimace and a smile.

"You better leave the animagus books here. It'd look rather strange if your dorm mates spotted them among your possessions, and here I'd also be able to access them if needed," he said, receiving three nods in response.

Hermione held up a wrapped rectangle. "Is this a book as well, Sirius? It was next to Harry's broom, so we took it along."

Sirius glanced at Harry before answering. "It is. I suppose I can tell you now that it's Harry's present for you. He asked me if I happened to have – well, you'll see what it is once you open the present. And I did.

"And on that note—" He called his owl to him, then held it out to Ron. "This may be a bit cheeky of me, but I really don't see how I can take him along with me now. He'll have to stay with you, and you'll have to explain where he came from somehow. I'm sure that Harry got you a fine present, Ron, but maybe you could pretend that my owl was his present instead. Er, owls at Hogwarts are very easy to care for – they mostly take care of themselves—" Sirius was continuing, as a kind of persuasion, but he did not get very far.

Ron unceremoniously dropped the books he was holding on the floor. He held out his hands to cradle the owl to his chest. "You mean I can keep him? He's mine now?"

"That was the idea, yes." Sirius grinned, surprised but pleased at the obvious happiness with which Ron had received the news. "Well, I did cost you your pet. Sort of. So, Happy Christmas."

"I'm going to think of the best name for the little guy," Ron was still saying to himself, but there was no time for him to enjoy the moment for too long.

After quickly stashing away the books that were staying in the Shack, they left through the trapdoor. It was an uncomfortable walk, with the myriad of things they were carrying hindering their speed. Sirius was looking at his copy of the Marauders' Map, trying to figure out how to get into the castle without setting off any alarms. It was quite a few hours past curfew and the doors would be locked.

The original plan had been to go back in time until right after their departure. That way, it would have been as if they had not left the school at all. That was no longer possible, however, because they had already gone back in time once that day and looping time within a time loop was forbidden. That meant they could only go back in time as far as the point at which they had gone back in time previously. That, however, would be cutting it very close to curfew – and they did not know what situation they would find at Hogwarts. Someone might have been close to the school entrance at that time and could potentially spot them.

Hermione was arguing that it was still their safest option, and Harry and Ron, half asleep on their feet, were willing to agree with her as that was easiest.

Sirius cursed and stopped walking. He handed his candle to Hermione and urged them to look at the map. There were three people crossing the grounds at that moment, headed towards the school's entrance. Harry recognised Fudge and Dawlish, and Ron and Hermione recognised Savage as another auror.

"Fudge wants Dumbledore's guidance, does he? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained," Sirius spoke to himself. He started walking again as he spoke, forcing his godson and his friends to follow along. "I just thought of a way we can get into the castle. If we hurry, we might just—"

"What do you mean, 'we'?" Hermione asked shrilly.

There was a hint of a smile on Sirius' face that ominously reminded Harry of Fred and George. "I wouldn't mind talking to Albus myself. Once Fudge has woken him up – and has conveniently updated him on what he knows. Besides, it'll be easiest if I get in first and then open the door for you, I think. You'll see what I mean."

He sped up, ignoring the requests for an explanation. He finally slowed once they were at the Whomping Willow, only to ask Harry for his invisibility cloak. "I suppose I could just disillusion myself," he went on. "We're on Hogwarts grounds, so at least we no longer need to worry about the Trace. But the cloak always works that little bit better."

Harry wordlessly handed it over, then demanded to know what the plan was – or at least what he and his friends were required to do.

Sirius first waved his wand over them, disillusioning them. "You come along, as close to the school as you think you can risk without being seen. The aurors will have cast the patronus charm, so being closer to them will be safest. We need to hurry." He had already draped the invisibility cloak over himself. "Keep an eye on the map." His voice was already farther away.

Harry and his friends followed along as quickly as they dared. The tree branches were still frozen, and it was dark enough that they risked getting close enough to the entrance that they could hear the voices of the late night visitors. The aurors' patronuses were providing some additional light, making the entrance somewhat visible. Sirius, they saw on the map, was already mere steps away from the entrance.

Fudge was complaining that the door had still not been opened. "Here, let me try." He impatiently pushed one of the aurors – Savage – out of the way to knock on the door. Sirius' name on the map moved right next to the door at the same time – almost within touching distance from Fudge.

An ear-splitting sound rent the night silence.

Just as Harry began to wonder what had happened, Fudge asked the same. The aurors, surprise colouring their voices, explained that the special wards which should only have responded to Pettigrew or Black had been activated. Fudge did not react well. His voice rose, demanding an explanation. He sounded almost insulted. Instead of waiting for that explanation, however, he knocked again. And again, the shrill alarm sounded.

"What is he doing?" Hermione hissed.

"Sirius keeps touching the door whenever Fudge does, I reckon," whispered Ron.

Hermione scoffed at his amused tone, muttering her fears under her breath – that Sirius would get himself caught. Harry tried not to let her nervousness add to his, aware himself of the precariousness of the situation, of the ease with which Sirius' charade could be detected. It would only take the simplest of spells – something like homenum revelio – to detect him.

Fudge, however, did not ask for a careful investigation of the situation, instead choosing to become indignant when the aurors shot him confused glances.

It took a few minutes of tense waiting. First, there was a voice on the other side of the door prompting the aurors to identify themselves and demand to be let in. An argument ensued through the opened door viewer, until Flitwick finally arrived and opened the door. The person whose voice had first been heard behind the door turned out to be Filch, dressed in his usual getup and carrying a lantern, standing next to Flitwick in his dressing gown.

The Head of Ravenclaw House was certainly no fool. He already had his wand out, casting identifying spells on the visitors. Fudge indignantly demanded that Flitwick recognise him for who he was. Flitwick could not refute that, although he tried to argue that he was merely doing his job of protecting the students in his care.

It was no use. The aurors walked through the door impatiently. The alarm did not sound, the shields did not come up. Fudge was continuously, angrily demanding to be let in and the aurors, fed up with him and with the their late working hours, told Flitwick the same, vouching that Fudge really was who he appeared to be. Even Filch took his side, obsequiously bowing and arguing that the minister ought to be treated with more respect.

And finally, reluctantly – thankfully – Flitwick removed the wards. Fudge rushed inside, sounding even more indignant, rather than grateful. On the map, Harry saw Sirius get in as well, but stay close to the entrance. Flitwick was the only other person who did not rush off right away, putting the wards back up and closing the door.

Then, finally, Harry saw his name on the map move away from the door as well.

A moment later, Sirius called him on his mirror. Harry, Ron and Hermione rushed to the door and opened it – Sirius having unlocked it from the inside with magic, without touching it and setting off the wards.

"Keep the invisibility cloak on," Harry told his godfather. "What with all the portraits…"

Slowly, the tension drained out of Harry while they walked towards Gryffindor Tower. The map told them it was safe, there was no one around to catch them. By the time they had made it past the disgruntled Fat Lady, the lateness of the hour had begun to catch up with him. He was not the only one. Ron and Hermione kept yawning in tandem, and there was absolutely no energy left for a chat between them.

On the map, Dumbledore had finally let Fudge and his companions into his office. Sirius suggested it might be easier to sleep first and see the headmaster in the morning. The adolescents acquiesced, far too sleepy for an argument, and went up to their dorms. Sirius did not take off the invisibility cloak until he was in Harry's and Ron's dorm – where there were no portraits – and then he turned into Padfoot once again and curled up in front of the fireplace.

~HP~

It was very late in the morning when Hermione, wearing a dressing gown, rushed into their dorm, barely waiting to knock so she would not surprise them at an awkward moment. They had slept in without intending to. Breakfast time had long since passed. When they checked the map, they could not find Dumbledore anywhere in the castle.

"He'll join us for Christmas Dinner at lunchtime, I guess," sighed Hermione. "I guess we'll talk to him then."

Padfoot had not turned back and was thus not contributing to making plans.

"Never mind that. Presents first," said Ron. He was still yawning, but was beginning to look eagerly at the pile of parcels at the foot of his bed.

Hermione rolled her eyes, but conceded. She left and quickly returned with a bunch of her presents. Crookshanks was accompanying her this time. He looked very grumpy, with a string of tinsel wrapped around his neck, and was mostly getting in her way while her vision was obscured by the parcels she was carrying.

"We've already seen some of out best presents, haven't we?" said Ron, looking from his little owl, who had finally fallen asleep perched on the canopy of his bed, to Harry's Firebolt. His other presents included a maroon jumper and maroon socks from his family, some chocolate and a poster from Harry and mitts from Hermione.

Harry had received a crimson jumper with an embroidered lion from Mrs Weasley, together with homemade pies, some Christmas cake and a box of nut brittle. These were joined by socks with small snitches on them by Hermione and a bar of Cadbury's chocolate from Dudley – whose letter also promised a mystery second present – once they saw each other. There was also the Firebolt, of course.

Hermione said that she had left her parents' presents – mostly books of fiction – in her room. Mrs Weasley had sent her the same sorts of presents that Harry had received, and finally she unwrapped the book that Harry had asked Sirius to find for her. It was a beginner's guide to tracking and tracing.

"Oh, thank you, Harry," she said with a wide smile. "Bill's notes are great, but they're all theory. Plus, they focus more on warding – on protecting yourself against this sort of thing." She leafed through the pages. "This though – if we put in the effort, we might be able to learn a spell or two from here."

Harry was not too eager to think about more work, instead drawing the letter from Neville closer. He sent his greetings and a packet of Bertie Bott's. Hagrid had also sent them a card, together with some of his rock cakes.

Altogether, they found that they had enough sweets to serve as a late breakfast. Even Padfoot was tempted by the smell and trotted over, finally changing back when Harry reminded him that chocolate was bad for dogs.

They spent the couple hours until lunch working on their animagus spells, working out that Hermione's new word really was 'fear', and Ron's first phrase was 'the least-regarded becoming fundamental'. Sirius looked at the words curiously, beginning to frown. Ron, who had been happy with the phrase he had found, asked what the issue was. Sirius tried to deflect, but then awkwardly explained that they reminded him of another spell.

"Pettigrew's spell includes 'small but crucial' – which isn't the same thing at all—" Sirius tried to backtrack, but the damage had been done.

Ron's face fell and as he no longer felt like working on the animagus spell, the others dropped it as well.

Once lunchtime approached, they checked the map again, noting that Dumbledore had returned. Harry and his friends tried to convince Sirius to remain in the dorm and wait for the headmaster to join him there, but he disagreed. He would not be able to leave the castle from the dorm, so he would need to follow Dumbledore somewhere else, would have to walk through the school. And he argued that it would arouse the other teachers' suspicions more if the headmaster followed the three of them back to the Gryffindor Tower. Besides, he was hungry.

Harry rolled his eyes, not at all happy with Sirius' brazenness, but did not want to be delayed by an argument. The sooner Dumbledore had been informed and could deal with the situation, the better, he thought.

When they got to the great hall, they found that the house tables had been moved out of the way and a single table had been set for twelve in the middle of the room. They would be sitting next to every member of staff still at the castle. Harry almost turned around then, but felt Padfoot, hidden under his invisibility cloak, bump him forward.

With a grim set of his jaw, Harry joined his friends at the end of the table, as far away from Snape, sitting next to the headmaster, as possible. The dinner would have been nerve-racking, had Harry not been so annoyed at Padfoot instead, who, rather than being remorseful, kept bumping his leg in regular intervals, demanding his share of the food.

Needless to say, Harry could not have said how the dinner tasted. He barely returned Ron's grin when Dumbleore offered Snape a Christmas cracker which happened to contain a witch's hat with a stuffed vulture. Dumbledore swapped it for his wizard's hat at once.

Harry nearly jumped when the doors of the great hall opened a little while later as Trelawney walked in. Dumbledore stood up to invite her to join the table, drawing a chair in midair for her, which materialised between Snape and McGonagall. Trelawney did not sit down, however; her enormous eyes had been roving around the table, and she suddenly uttered a kind of soft scream.

Harry's heart gave a lurch, his hand flying protectively in the direction where he expected Padfoot to sit, as if he could shield his risk-prone godfather any better than the invisibility cloak. He felt the soft fur under the cloak brush his hand. Padfoot was trying to comfort him, he suspected. He, instead, felt like shouting back.

Thankfully, Trelawney was only bothered by being the thirteenth person at the table, and finally settled down. Harry watched her intently for a little while, but her gaze did not seem to linger on the spot where Padfoot was hidden. Dumbledore's gaze, on the other hand, kept landing on him and his friends with an uncomfortable frequency, and those glances had a piercing edge which did not quite go with the headmaster's otherwise jovial mood.

Harry was so rattled by the situation that he nearly said something foolish when Trelawney asked after Lupin's whereabouts. He began to say that it had not been the full moon the night before, but Hermione's well-placed kick kept him from making that blunder in front of three other students – one of them a fifth year Slytherin – who did not know of Lupin's lycanthropy.

Harry and Ron were the first to get up from the table when dinner ended, causing more shrieking and predictions of death from Trelawney. Thankfully, McGonagall put an end to that in her no-nonsense manner.

Harry was tensely getting ready to talk to the headmaster, trailing him to make sure that he would not leave without them. Hermione, however, reminded him that they also needed to talk to McGonagall about the Firebolt. Harry could not have cared less about that, but the headmaster was staying around, talking to Flitwick and Derek, one of the first-year students.

McGonagall reacted with as much worry as Hermione had predicted when she told her that Harry had received an anonymous broom delivery that morning. She became even more tight-lipped when she heard that the broom in question was a Firebolt. McGonagall was ready to march back to Gryffindor tower with them right away, but it was actually Dumbledore who extricated them from that situation, telling his deputy that he was planning to have a word with the three of them instead.

McGonagall pursed her lips. "Very well. But do make sure not to so much as touch that broom until I've had a look at it, Mr Potter. In fact—" A smile broke through her stern visage. "I meant to tell you of a little surprise present from Arabella. She asked me to invite you to the staff room this evening for a floo call. I believe you'll be glad to have a chat with the guest she'll be hosting for supper. I'll get you and the broom from Gryffindor tower myself at that time."

Harry, who had no trouble guessing that the guest would be Dudley, was beginning to look forward to the evening – but there was the much more difficult talk with the headmaster looming before then.

Dumbledore's cheerful demeanour melted away as soon as they were past the entrance hall. "I presume we're all of us here?" he questioned them ominously, then held up his hand to forestall any rash answers. "No, not a word until we're in my office, please."

Harry, feeling Padfoot bump against his side, slowly nodded under the headmaster's piercing gaze. Dumbledore, satisfied, turned to lead them briskly to his office.