Fitful sleep had Harry rousing before the sun had even risen, back aching fiercely from where he’d fallen asleep in one of the drawing room’s arm chairs next to the dark fire grate. Hermione and Ron had drawn up sleeping bags next to one another on the floor after both refused to be the one to take the sofa, insisting the other sleep there. The two of them were still dead to the world, their chests rising and falling evenly, but Harry had barely slept a wink, phantom aches from his scar following him into slumber. What little sleep he had managed had been wracked by strange dreams, in which he’d found himself being chased by a squawking snow-white peacock, its beady red eyes glaring at him in bald accusation.

As if it were his fault Malfoy was dead.

He rolled onto his other side to face the window. Through the heavy, faded curtains, he could see a sliver of sky, the colour of which hinted dawn was not so very far off—but still too early for sensible folk to be up and wandering about. Harry strained his ears to hear any other sounds in the house, but there was nothing, just the sounds of his friends’ deep, even breathing and the distant backfire of a car elsewhere in the Muggle neighbourhood. He shifted back around, staring down at Ron and Hermione huddled close in the gloom and felt apart from them in more than mere distance—and strangely lonely for it.

He rolled onto his back, staring up at the chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The wedding seemed a lifetime away now, though it had barely been twelve hours. Had there been any casualties among the guests? Ron’s dad’s Patronus had said their family was safe, but that didn’t mean everyone had gotten off without injury. What about Tonks and Remus? Or Kingsley—had he been inside the Ministry when it had fallen? Had he made it out all right, or was he even now being tortured for information on Harry’s whereabouts?

The safety and security of so many relied on Harry completing what he was now realising was quite the daunting task. It had already seemed impossible from the relative comfort of the Burrow, and even Privet Drive. It was easy enough, he supposed, making plans and champing at the bit when you weren’t allowed to go anywhere. But suddenly given his head, Harry didn’t know what to do with himself. Just finding a safe place to spend the night had nearly cost them their lives. How were they expected to not only find the Horcruxes, but destroy them? What had possessed Dumbledore to…

Dumbledore. Dumbledore.

He sat there for several long, aching moments, trying to summon the grief that had dogged him since the funeral—since St. Mungo’s, really—and found it transformed, a different beast altogether now. He was still sad, still had to fight down a lump of emotion even now, just thinking about it, but the conversation with Muriel at the wedding, Doge’s sputtered attempts at defending Dumbledore, the insinuations…they had crawled into the dark corners of his mind and begun to fester, with insidious thoughts creeping their way into his memories and painting Dumbledore in a new light. Doge had warned Harry not to let rumour and jealousy-driven accusations taint his feelings for the man he’d thought of as the greatest wizard ever to have lived, but Harry couldn’t just block these things out, especially not having first-hand knowledge himself. Scrimgeour had sneered that Harry had been toeing Dumbledore’s line, and Harry had been galled by the accusation at the time—but had he been doing that? Blindly following the words of a man he hadn’t really known?

Could Dumbledore have done half the things Muriel had insinuated? Harry wanted to believe that no, of course not, but you didn’t have to actually do something cruel to be party to it. Just look at Dudley. Sure, there was a difference between actively working horrors and just condoning them, but it wasn’t much.

His mind drifted back to Muriel’s casual, crass recollections of the Dumbledores’ lives in Godric’s Hollow—of Kendra and Ariana and the graves they lay in, perhaps nestled cosily in some quiet country church graveyard alongside his own parents’. He thought of Dumbledore’s will and the objects he’d bequeathed to them without explanation or instruction, another task they would be compelled to complete on blind faith alone, stumbling without direction. He thought of the Horcruxes—the ones whose locations and modes of destruction they’d yet to strike on. He thought of all of these things, and the lump of sadness in his throat grew bitter, sour with resentment.

His memories of Dumbledore were being tainted, as Doge had feared—but not so much with anger at the things he might have done as anger at the things he did do. Like how he did keep his past, so intimately entwined with Harry’s, a secret. Or how he did keep from Harry important information he would need to complete this last great task and save countless thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. Or how he did claim to care for Harry but seemed to have only ever intended him to be a tool to be used, as one might care for their wand.

There’d been a time when he’d been only too happy to be that tool—a weapon to be wielded. Part of Dumbledore’s Army—he’d even signed his name to attest as such. And thinking back now, yeah, that fit about right: a soldier in an army, sent off to war, while the actual decisions and strategising were made miles above his pay grade.

He grimaced—pathetic.

Stewing here in his dark, bitter thoughts was getting him nowhere, so he shouldered off the throw he’d wrapped himself in, pocketed his wand, and went searching for a distraction. Hermione’s warnings not to go wandering without them echoed faintly in his ear, but he shrugged them off. He could go for a bit of action right about now anyway.

The gas lamps out on the landing seemed to be tied to the night-day cycle, for they did not flare bright when he stepped from the drawing room back out into the hallway, and he quietly cast Lumos to ensure he didn’t topple over the bannister and break his neck (wouldn’t that be a fine ending to his life’s story?). He mounted the stairs, heading up to the second floor, where he found two bedrooms, including the one he’d shared with Ron when they’d stayed here with the Order in the past. Both had been, to his confusion, thoroughly tossed—drawers had been yanked from chests, the wardrobe doors hung nearly off their hinges, and the beds had been stripped, with the mattresses sliding off their frames. The floor was littered with detritus and a thin layer of dust—whatever had done this, it had happened some time back.

A chill ran down Harry’s spine; had Death Eaters been in here, then? Someone had, evidently—but friend, or foe? There’d been mention of Mundungus scouring Grimmauld Place for goods to pawn—was it that innocent an explanation? Though the more he looked at the place…the more it seemed like someone had been looking for something in particular. He gripped his wand tighter and cast Homenum revelio as Hermione had the night before, but it still showed only three bodies in the house.

Just on the wall outside of the room Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had shared hung the currently empty portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black, one of the rare Black portraits that only snidely sneered at the ‘Mudbloods and traitors’ tramping about the house instead of screeching at the top of their lungs about them at all hours of the day and night. He recalled there’d been a sibling portrait of the former Hogwarts Headmaster hanging in Dumbledore’s office at Hogwarts and surmised that Professor Black was spending much of his time there these days—it certainly had to be a more pleasant environment than here. Harry sighed; so much for asking one of the less blood-thirsty portraits if they’d seen anything untoward going on.

He continued on up the stairs, only glancing long enough at the third floor bedrooms to see they’d also been tossed. That left the fourth floor—which was one, he was realising, he’d never really explored. It only had the two bedrooms: Sirius’s bedroom from his childhood, and that of his younger brother Regulus, who as Sirius put it had been ten times the Black son that Sirius had ever been, at least in their parents’ eyes. Harry had never been inside Sirius’s old room, and Regulus’s had always been bolted shut tight.

This was as good a distraction as any, he supposed, and he reached for the handle on the door bearing the nameplate Sirius, shouldering his way inside, wand-first.

With just the two bedrooms on this floor, each was bound to be spacious—and indeed, Sirius’s bedroom dwarfed the veritable closet Harry had shared with Ron before, matched only in size by perhaps the master bedroom. This room, to Harry’s great relief, had not been ransacked like the others he’d passed along the stairs, though it still showed the ravages of the time, and while it had likely once been as fine a room as any in the house, belonging to the eldest son, it had a sort of faded glory to it now that was only magnified by the thin coating of dust caking every flat surface in sight.

A large bed took up nearly half the space, wide enough probably for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to comfortably sleep all together and covered in a plush burgundy duvet pockmarked with tiny holes that suggested something had been nibbling on the fabric. Curtains in the same shade blacked out a pair of tall bay windows on the far wall, and Harry wondered what the view from them looked like, so high up—though he didn’t dare open them, paranoid they might somehow be spotted.

Wherever he trod, his footsteps kicked up fresh clouds of fine dust that choked, and he covered his mouth and nose with his sleeve. Eyes watering, he swept his wand through the air to gently whisk the dust away. It didn’t do much good—the picture frames on the wall and chandelier turning overhead and the wooden chest resting at the foot of the bed were still powdered with a thin layer—but at least his nose had stopped itching.

Beyond the dilapidated state visually, there was an aroma of disuse—a combination of the dust, animal droppings, and mould. He imagined he could hear the gentle scurrying of little clawed feet in the walls, and it felt like wherever he turned, he had to bat wildly in front of his face as an abandoned spider’s web popped up out of nowhere.

The dour state of the room, though, did nothing to disguise just what sort of wizard had once called it home. With but a glance, Harry could tell that the teenaged Sirius had been something.

Harry had stayed over at the Burrow often enough he thought he knew what a young wizard’s bedroom was supposed to look like—Quidditch posters on the walls, framed photos of friends on the desk, general untidiness all around. His own room might have looked the same, had he grown up proper in Godric’s Hollow.

But Sirius had not been Ron, and he’d certainly not been Harry. No, his room, even now, after years being boarded up and neglected by the Black family in what must have been fervent efforts to forget he existed, bore all the markings of a wizard who more than anything just wanted to piss off his Pureblood parents.

The walls were decked in paraphernalia that would no doubt have driven Walburga Black spare—faded Gryffindor banners from ‘73, ‘74, and ‘76; a bill of sale for a motorcycle that must have been manufactured before Sirius had even been born; and several oversized still-glossy posters of scantily clad women who Harry had to assume were Muggle, as they held still in their teasing poses instead of wandering about shaking their backsides and crooking their fingers in invitation, as they’d done in a magazine Seamus had smuggled into Gryffindor Tower at the beginning of Sixth Year.

Now that Harry took a good look around, the whole room seemed a shrine to Sirius’s time at Hogwarts in some fashion or another, decorated to remind all who stepped inside that he was not and never would be a Slytherin, even if the rest of his family’s blood ran silver and green.

As Harry continued his circuit of the room, admiring all the paraphernalia Sirius had collected over the years to paper over the drab silk walls in his room, he came to what he realised was the only wizarding photograph on display—and it was easy to see why this particular one had held such meaning to Sirius he’d hung it in pride of place. Harry swallowed a thick lump as he stared at a photograph of four young men, wearing fresh Hogwarts uniforms, with arms linked as they laughed raucously at the camera.

His eye immediately went to his father—not quite as tall as Sirius, but still obvious from his messy black hair and glasses with a rakish, effortlessly handsome air that reminded Harry, a bit uncomfortably, of how much a knobhead he’d come off in Snape’s memory. Sirius was leaning against his shoulder, whispering something in his ear and grinning wickedly as he did so. He was striking here, blessed with the fine Black features shared by his cousins. Time had not yet taken its toll on him, and he looked happier in this snapshot than Harry had ever seen him look in life. Remus, too, seemed somehow more comfortable in his skin, not nearly so guarded as he was these days though still a bit rough around the edges. Harry made himself look at Pettigrew as well, though he did not want to, and he tried not to see Wormtail, instead focusing on how he must have looked to his best friends: a little round, a little bashful, but up for anything, simply thrilled to be included in the shenanigans cooked up by some of the coolest kids in school.

Had they been Animagi at this point, already bound by a fantastic secret? He wondered, idly, what these three unregistered Animagi and their werewolf friend would have thought about Malfoy and his own efforts to learn the craft—and then decided he didn’t want to know. He hadn’t even told Mr. and Mrs. Weasley the truth about what had driven Malfoy to attack Gryffindor Tower; he didn’t think he could have explained the gruesome details to his father or even Sirius. Remus might have understood, or at least had some advice to offer, but there’d been no time to discuss it during their brief encounters. ‘I should have Owled him,’ Harry thought, before remembering that Hedwig was dead, and Malfoy too, so the point was moot.

Certain that Sirius wouldn’t begrudge Harry requisitioning this bit of their shared past, he reached to remove the picture from the wall—but it held fast, evidently stuck with a Charm along the same lines as the one worked upon Walburga Black’s portrait. Harry frowned to himself—he really wanted to bring it with him—and resolved to see if Hermione had ever figured out a trick to remove the Charm.

That would have to wait for later, though, and he left the picture be for now, continuing his exploration.

While the room had not been tossed like the others downstairs, it was by no means tidy, and the floor was covered in the detritus that had built up over the years—old school papers and motheaten robes and one very old, very mouldy half-eaten pumpkin pasty sitting on a chipped saucer. By now, dawn had broken, and a shaft of light slipped through between the thick curtains covering one of the bay windows, falling over a pile of books that had toppled from their shelf.

Harry slipped into a crouch and began picking through the books with great care—Hermione might want to go through them to see if any merited adding to their library. He sincerely doubted Sirius would have kept books on Dark magic—let alone Horcruxes—in his bedroom, but they might still find something they could use on the run.

Scattered amongst the books, too, he found several loose sheets of paper—free-fluttering pages that had long since parted ways with their source material. Absently, he scanned the text: the running header of one marked it as a page from an old edition of Defensive Magical Theory, wherein all instances of ‘wand’ had been scratched out and overwritten to say ‘cock’; another looked to be a heavily hand-edited motorcycle maintenance manual (“Do NOT fill tank with Firewhisky! Eyebrows take forever to grow back!”). Still another, though, wasn’t from a book at all. It was a piece of correspondence, handwritten and crumpled, and Harry smoothed it out, reading.

Dear Padfoot,

You’re officially Harry’s favourite godfather, hands down! You should have seen the look on his face when that wrapping fell away—brighter than a Lumos Maxima! It’s been a right chore trying to get him off the thing; at this rate, he’ll be playing reserve for the Cannons by Christmas! James reckons he’ll go professional right out of Hogwarts. I’ve told him I’ll have divorce papers ready if our Harry’s anything but an academic. I’ve already had to completely rearrange the sitting room so he doesn’t destroy all our knick-knacks (though I’ve left that vase Petunia sent us last Christmas around just in case; fingers crossed!), but I fear this child’s on a mission. If you do anything to further encourage reckless behaviour in our boy, I’ll thump you so good they’ll have to call the RSPCA on me. Behold the horrors you have wrought in the attached picture.

We didn’t do much for Harry’s birthday itself, the times being what they are—just a spot of tea with old Bathilda (she’s been so sweet, doting on Harry like he was one of her own, and the stories she’s got!) and a cupcake from the bakery in the square. We really wished you could have made it, but I know you’ve got important Order business, and besides, there’ll be dozens more for you to attend once everything’s settled down.

It’s pretty quiet around here, but I don’t need to tell you James would rather it weren’t. I feel bad for him—he wants to be out there with you lot so badly, in the thick of things, but he knows we’ve got to stay lying low, and he wouldn’t trust anyone else to protect me and Harry. Dumbledore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak, so he’s stuck here making sure Harry doesn’t figure out how to remove the baby-proofing Charms on the broom and go zooming out the cat flap. He could sure use a visit from his best friend right about now—any chance of you making it around our way in between Order business? Moony’s been out of touch (You two aren’t messing about again, are you? You know how he gets this time of the month! Don’t be a tease.), but Wormy dropped by just last weekend with a pick-and-mix from Honeydukes that James and I finished off in a single evening (don’t worry, we regretted it sorely the next morning).

Other than him, though, we’ve mostly been keeping ourselves sane by chatting with Bathilda—she’s the closest thing to entertainment we get these days. Her being a historian, I would’ve thought her stories would be dry as dead leaves, but she’s got quite the collection and she isn’t shy about sharing it! Especially her tales about Dumbledore! If this were coming from anyone else, I’m not sure I’d believe them, because it seems incredible that Dumbledore

The letter cut off abruptly, evidently continuing on another page.

It was the dead of summer, but Harry felt frigid, his fingers numb and goosebumps pimpling his arms. He held the paper in both hands, just staring at the writing, wondering if in doing so he might be able to brand it onto his very eyeballs—god, this letter!

He was a bundle of conflicting emotions, spanning the spectrum from joy to grief to amusement to confusion and round and round in dizzying circles until he felt like he ought to sit down—so he did, settling onto the bed, which accepted his weight with a groaning creak.

He took a breath and licked his lips, forcing himself to read the letter again, to try and glean more from it and actually understand what was written rather than simply marvelling in the understanding he was reading Lily Potter’s writing.

She had lived. His mother had been a real person, not just a phantom found in memories and old photographs and miscast spells. Her hand had moved across this parchment, her quill had penned these words—words about Harry, her son. He brought the parchment to his nose, inhaling, and rubbed his cheek gently over it, imagining he could still smell the perfume dabbed at her wrist or the warmth of her hand.

He swallowed down a thick lump forming in his throat and read the letter what felt like a tenth time, muttering the words to himself and pausing at each full stop to parse what his mother had written.

He’d been gifted a broomstick for his very first birthday from Sirius. A broomstick! It was a wonder to learn he’d ridden a broom before that first class at Hogwarts years back—and a funny thought struck him that Sirius had now given him two broomsticks, though both of them were lost now, probably in a thousand pieces.

And his parents had been close with a ‘Bathilda’—Bathilda Bagshot no doubt. God, first her connection with Dumbledore, and now with his own parents! More than ever, he wanted to meet this witch, to speak with her. He had so many questions!

Dumbledore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak

Why had he needed James’s Invisibility Cloak? He’d told Harry years back that he didn’t need one to become invisible. And they’d been well out of school by that point, so it hadn’t been confiscated or anything…

Wormy dropped by just last weekend with a pick-and-mix from Honeydukes

He fought down a shudder of revulsion, certain that the timing of the letter meant by this point, Pettigrew had likely already betrayed Harry’s parents. If Lily had written this letter just after Harry’s first birthday, it would only have been another month, maybe two, before their death… Had the gift been a sort of farewell, guilt weighing on him that he was probably seeing them alive for the last time? Had he already set in motion a plan that would leave Harry an orphan, forced eventually to take on this mission he felt in no way prepared for?

His eyes caught on the final words in the letter.

it seems incredible that Dumbledore

Incredible that Dumbledore what? There had to more to the letter, and he turned the parchment over, but it was blank. He hopped off the bed and sank to his knees, rifling through more of the scattered pages, but everything was written in typeset, his mother’s quilled script nowhere to be seen. He moved to the great desk, tugging open drawers and rifling through cabinets to no avail. He grabbed the books that hadn’t been knocked from the shelf and shook them open, considering that perhaps Sirius had hidden his letters from friends between the leaves, and even dragged a chair over to the wardrobe, feeling along its top for hidden catches.

While his efforts did not turn up a second page to the letter, he did stumble upon the photograph Lily had mentioned including for Sirius’s amusement hiding under the bed frame next to a particularly large fuzzball. It was a moving magical picture—he didn’t know why he’d expected otherwise, it was just strange to see himself there, a chubby-cheeked black-haired baby clutching fat fingers around the shaft of a child-sized broom and weaving in and out of the frame. His face was split into a gummy grin, a few white teeth poking out, and now and then, a pair of jean-clad legs likely belonging to one of his parents would step into the frame to chase after him.

As this photograph wasn’t tacked to the wall with a Permanent Sticking Charm, he slipped it into his pocket, along with Lily’s letter, and continued his quest to find the rest of the letter, certain there were fantastic secrets hidden therein.

When another twenty minutes failed to turn up anything, though, he at last allowed himself to accept it had been lost to time, likely thrown away carelessly by Kreacher—where was he, anyway?—or else stolen by mice to rip up for bedding. He didn’t want to consider that Grimmauld Place had indeed been raided in the interim by Death Eaters and they’d stolen the next page. Whatever had struck Lily as incredible about Dumbledore, Harry wasn’t likely to figure it out.

“Harry?” Hermione called from the floor below, her voice muffled and not a little strident. “Harry! Harry!

“Up here!” he answered, moving to the door. “What’s wrong?”

She came charging up the stairs, her bushy head of hair whipping around when she cleared the landing, searching for his voice. Her eyes widened when she finally spotted Harry standing in the doorway to Sirius’s room. “We’ve been looking all over for you!” She shook her head, leaning over the banister and calling down, “He’s up here, Ron! I’ve found him!”

“Yeah? Chuck him over the railing for me, then!” came Ron’s annoyed voice, echoing from several floors below.

Hermione stepped up onto the landing proper, arms over her chest. “I thought we agreed we wouldn’t go wandering! Have you any idea what thoughts went through our heads when we woke up and you weren’t there?” Harry winced as her voice went a bit shrill; the time had gotten away from him, and he’d meant to be back downstairs in the sitting room before either of them had roused.

“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you. I just couldn’t get back to sleep, so I…” Went exploring probably wouldn’t go over too well, and there was no use disguising what he’d been up to, so he left it.

She drew closer, poking her head into Sirius’s freshly ransacked room with a frown. “What’ve you been doing in here? It’s a disaster area…”

“Er, it was partly that way when I got here—but look what I’ve found.” A good distraction was just what he needed to smooth her feathers back into place, and he pulled out his mother’s letter, waving it under her nose. She accepted it with a wry smile, suggesting she knew what he was about, and then began to read, mouthing the words to herself.

When she reached the end, she looked up at him with an unreadable expression. “…Where on earth did you find this?”

“In a pile of papers with some of Sirius’s other stuff—and not just that, this too!” He passed over the photograph, and Hermione’s grin shifted into something properly amused this time, chuckling softly at the sight of baby Harry zipping about on his new broom. Harry glanced over his shoulder. “I think there’s more to the letter—you can see it kind of cuts off abruptly. I’ve been looking for it, but no luck so far.”

“Is that why the other rooms look like a bomb went off?”

“What? Oh, no—that wasn’t me. They were already like that when I checked earlier.”

Hermione nodded. “Someone was looking for something, it seems.”

Harry swallowed. “You reckon the Death Eaters got in after all?”

She chewed on a nail. “I…don’t think so. What would they have been looking for? And for that matter, why haven’t they grabbed us yet, if they’ve already gained access? Whether it’s the Trace or Malfoy or something else altogether, if they’d been here before and the Fidelius was broken, they would have found us by now.”

“…Yeah, I suppose so.” For some reason, he didn’t want to tell Hermione about his vision of Malfoy’s mother, and what he’d heard. He thought maybe he just didn’t want to hear Ron’s Good riddance or Hermione trying to summon false grief. He didn’t blame them, might have felt the same way himself under other circumstances, but he doubted they’d understand how Harry felt like he’d had a hand in Malfoy’s unfortunate fate. Like he could have done more, asked more questions of Kingsley or Arthur or maybe even Moody, and had always put it off for later.

She flipped the letter over. “And you haven’t found the rest of the letter?”

“Nope.” He pointed to the final line on the page. “My mum was shocked to learn something about Dumbledore, but there’s no mention of what it was; I’ve practically turned the room upside down trying to find the rest of it.”

“I can see,” Hermione said dryly.

Her tone suggested it would take some convincing if Harry wanted to be sure she didn’t dismiss his concerns out of hand. “Look, this Bathilda my mum mentions in her letter—you know who she is?”

“Haven’t the foggiest.”

“I think she’s Bathilda Bagshot, the author of—”

Hermione gasped. “A History of Magic!” And now he had her interest. “So—wait, then your parents knew her? One of the most famous magical historians to ever live?”

“Apparently so—and she’s still alive, living in Godric’s Hollow, probably the same place she lived back when I lived there with my parents.”

Still alive? She must be ancient—where’d you hear that?”

“Er, well, Ron’s Aunt Muriel got to talking at the wedding—”

Muriel? What were you talking to Muriel for? Did she put you in a Body Bind and force you to keep her company?”

Honestly, it had felt a bit like it at the time. “She butted in on a conversation I was having with someone else—but look at the letter!” He tapped the last line again. “Bathilda knew Dumbledore, too! Enough she had stories to tell about him. I dunno about you, but sounds like she’d be pretty interesting to talk to, if nothing else.”

Hermione continued staring down at the photograph in her hands, but he could see her throat working, and her lips were pursing—she wanted to say something, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t Oh that sounds like a fantastic idea, Harry! He snatched back the photograph, slipping it along with the letter into the Mokeskin pouch hanging around his neck instead of into his pocket as before. It rested near his heart, and there was something comforting about that.

She didn’t protest, only leaned against the doorjamb, hands clasped before her and looked entirely too understanding for Harry’s taste. He looked away, pretending to be interested in one of the old Gryffindor banners hanging on the wall. “…I’m sure she would be really interesting to talk to Harry, I agree. She’d probably have all sorts of things to tell you about your parents, and about Dumbledore too, evidently. But…” He heard the wince in her voice, even if he couldn’t see it on her face. “I doubt she’d know anything about Horcruxes, or else Dumbledore would have sent us to her himself. Now—” She laid a land on his shoulder. “That’s not saying you could never go, just—we need to focus on the mission before us, and it’s dreadfully dangerous to go there at all right now. Those Death Eaters found us just like that yesterday.” She snapped a finger. “Coming here was risky enough, seeing as it’s a place you’ve got a documented connection with, but at least we have the Fidelius protecting us. If we went to Godric’s Hollow… They have to be expecting you’d want to go there and be waiting for you.”

She thought this was just about Harry’s parents, about needing closure or some rubbish like that—but it was more. It was about needing to know exactly whose orders he was following, even from beyond the grave. “…Muriel told me about more than just Bathilda. She had lots to say about Dumbledore too—some things that sounded…well, quite suspect.” He locked eyes with her. “I need to know how much of it was truth and how much just rumour and gossip.”

“…What sorts of things?”

He tried not to be too pleased at the worried expression on her face; maybe once she heard Muriel’s story, she’d understand Harry’s drive to visit Bathilda and Godric’s Hollow.

They didn’t have a clue where to start with the Horcruxes—but this? This was a mystery they could solve, only too easily.

He unpacked everything Muriel had told him, leaving nothing out. It was difficult to get a read on Hermione’s expressions, though, and when he had at last finished, she said in that same frustratingly understanding tone, “I can certainly understand why that might give you pause—”

“You think it shouldn’t give me pause? That I should just dismiss it outright?”

“You mean to say you actually believe—”

“I don’t know what to believe. That’s why I want to find out—if Bathilda’s such a great historian, and if she knew my parents, if she babysat me, I’d like to think she’d have the right of whatever happened with Dumbledore and his family back then.”

“Harry, it’s ridiculous you’re even crediting this story as potentially plausible—we’re talking about a woman who practically worships at the altar of Rita Skeeter. She clearly hates Dumbledore, to parrot such things without evidence. You knew him firsthand, saw the sort of wizard he was—”

“I saw what he wanted me to see,” he muttered, and Hermione sighed.

“Did you even read that letter? I mean really read it? To the end? Whatever your mum’s talking about, it can’t have been anything too dramatic, can it? She hardly sounds scandalised.”

She had a point, but the letter and Muriel’s story were two completely different things. “You know as well as I do that there’s a grain of truth in everything Rita writes.”

“Yes, a grain, a grain that gets twisted and blown out of proportion until it’s unrecognisable, doing immense harm to anyone caught up in the matter.” She shook her head. “You actually lived the experiences you had with Dumbledore—the likes of Rita and Muriel? They’re just acting on rumour and hearsay. If I were you, I’d put their accusations straight out of my mind.

Harry fought down a wave of frustration and bitter resentment, certain she’d be able to read his feelings on his face otherwise. She was as bad as Doge, thinking he could just choose not to believe something, when he didn’t know the man in question well enough to discern the truth himself. Maybe Doge could, maybe these stories didn’t fit the man he’d known at all. But Harry didn’t have the same luxury, and he was getting more than a bit tired of everyone telling him what he should and shouldn’t care about.

There was an odd tension between them, and after a little pause, Hermione suggested gently, “…Maybe we ought to see about getting some breakfast? Ron’s probably already down in the kitchen, rooting around.”

Harry gave a half-hearted shrug, going along with the suggestion largely because he was starving—he’d felt so terrible after his vision the night before that he’d all but collapsed into his chair in the sitting room, succumbing to the draw of sleep and fitful dreams. Hermione headed for the stairs, and Harry followed her back out onto the landing and past the door that led to Regulus’s room—and paused.

Regulus’s door bore a similar stately plaque to Sirius’s, marking the room as his own, but beneath it sat another sign, one Harry had not noticed on his first pass. It was not quite as handsome as the placard above it and appeared handmade rather than professionally crafted, but its message was clear all the same, written in a neatly calligraphied hand.


Without the EXPRESS Permission of

Regulus Arcturus Black

A frisson of excitement rippled down Harry’s spine, though he was not immediately sure why—only something tickled at the back of his mind. He read the sign again—and a third time, just in case, and then he licked his lips.

“Hermione.” When she didn’t respond, he raised his voice. “Hermione!”

What?” She was already one flight of stairs down.

“R.A.B. I…I think I’ve found him.”

What?!” she gasped, racing to join him and following his eye to the sign. She clutched Harry’s arm so tightly he worried she was going to rip it right off, her nails digging in painfully. “Sirius’s brother?”

Harry nodded. “Sirius told me about him once. Apparently he was gaga over Voldemort and joined the Death Eaters when he was really young, before he’d even graduated Hogwarts. But then something happened and I guess he got spooked about the whole thing. He tried to leave, and the Death Eaters killed him for it.”

Hermione gave his arm a shake. “But—that would make perfect sense! As a Death Eater, he would’ve had access to Voldemort and the Horcruxes! Or at least better access than anyone else. Then if he got spooked and wanted out, he might’ve thought about taking Voldemort down in the doing! And clearly he managed it!” She shoved Harry away, nearly launching herself from the balcony landing as she leaned on the railing and called out, “Ron! RON! Get up here! You’ve got to see this!”

Clearly thinking them in danger and in need of saving, Ron came thundering up the stairs, red head popping up onto the landing only a moment later. He stood on the topmost stair, doubled over and panting with his wand in his hand. “Couldn’t—your emergency—have waited—‘til after—breakfast?” He winced, cracking his back as he straightened. “Or taken place on the first floor?”

Hermione said nothing, only silently pointing at the sign on Regulus’s door, and Harry nodded, brows raised. Ron plodded over, face red, and flapped his shirt to cool himself as he squinted at the calligraphied notice. “That was Sirius’s brother, wasn’t it? Regulus.”

“Regulus who?”

“Regulus—Black?” Hermione made a motion for him to continue, tapping the Arcturus in his name. “Regulus Arcturus…wait.” He finally caught on, eyes bugging. “R.A.B.! The initials from the locket! You think that’s him?”

“Only one way to be sure,” said Harry, and with his wand at the ready, not knowing if perhaps Regulus had protected his room with more than just a KEEP OUT sign, he pressed down on the handle.

It didn’t budge, and when Harry just frowned in confusion, Hermione shook her head fondly and pointed her wand at the handle. “Honestly, six years at the best magical school in the Western hemisphere, and you’re flummoxed by a bolted door? Alohomora.”

Well, all right, if you wanted to be fancy about it.

The door swung open for them with a gentle creak, and Harry was the first to step over the threshold.

Being the second son, Regulus’s room was a bit smaller than Sirius’s had been and lacked the handsome, wide bay windows, but it held the same sense of former grandeur. However, where Sirius’s room had been decked out in the bright scarlet and gold of his Hogwarts house, here Slytherin colours dominated. The Black family crest had been branded into the very wood of the bed frame, along with its motto, Toujours Pur. This was a boy who’d been Pureblood and proud of it.

Hermione and Ron shuffled inside after him, splitting up to explore opposite corners of the room, while Harry was drawn to the far western wall, which had been papered over in dozens of newspaper clippings, now yellowed with age. Hermione noticed his interest and moved up behind him, but Harry quickly moved on, not sure what he was looking for but certain he’d know it when he found it. He gravitated toward the collection of old school photographs sitting framed on Regulus’s desk, some knocked over, their glass cracked.

“…These are all about Voldemort,” Hermione said, marvelling at the clippings. “Sightings, murders attributed to him, op-eds in support of his motives if not his means…” She turned back to them. “Whatever he might have felt by the end, clearly he’d been very keen on Voldemort and his ilk at some point.”

“You probably had to be, to join up so young,” Harry said, leaning down to get a closer look at the photo frames.

Ron joined Harry at the desk, pulling out drawers and feeling underneath for hidden catches.

Harry picked up one of the frames that had caught his eye: a Hogwarts Quidditch team in robes that looked a bit old-fashioned. They were all smiling and waving, and though the colours were faded, Harry was confident this was the Slytherin House team. While Harry had never met him, it was no trouble picking out Regulus from the rest of the lineup: he had the same sculpted features and dark hair as his brother, though he was slighter and looked a bit underfed, like he’d been standing in Sirius’s shadow all his life and it showed.

Harry frowned, noting Regulus’s position in the picture. “…He played Seeker.”

“What?” said Ron absently, having moved on to the wardrobe to Harry’s right.

“Regulus. He’s in the middle of the front row in this picture, that’s where the Seeker…” But Hermione was still engrossed in the clippings, and Ron had dropped onto his hands and knees, peeking under the valance. “Never mind.”

For some reason, this connection struck him—and unbidden, the image of Regulus Black in his mind was overlaid with that of Draco Malfoy: proud Pureblood boys with expectations heaped on their shoulders, getting mired in a war they had no business being involved in, trying to get out…and then paying the ultimate price for their decisions.

Harry shook his head and replaced the photograph, putting it out of his mind. Malfoy was dead, and that was a terrible thing, but Harry couldn’t bring him back. Many others decidedly more innocent than Malfoy would die before this was all over if Harry didn’t buckle down. Hermione already thought he wasn’t focusing enough on his task; he didn’t want to give her any more ammunition.

He put these unhelpful thoughts away and forced himself to join Ron and Hermione in their search for the locket. Like Sirius’s room, this one had also been treated more lightly than the others downstairs, but there was still evidence it had been tossed. The floor was littered with schoolboy detritus in the form of overturned inkwells, textbooks with pages torn out and scattered about the room, and a still-knotted Slytherin tie looped around a bedpost.

“Oh, wait!” Hermione snapped up straight from where she’d been bent over inspecting the large wooden chest sat at the foot of Regulus’s bed. “We’re being silly.” She stepped to the doorway, facing the room, and raised her wand as she said, “Accio locket!” But nothing happened, and she frowned at the tip of her wand, slapping it in her hand a few times as if something just needed jiggling loose.

Ron sighed and regarded the bookcase, where he’d been tugging on spines in an effort to trigger a secret compartment to open, with a resigned expression. “Guess that settles it, then. He’s stashed it somewhere else.”

“Well, not necessarily,” Hermione said, just a touch testily, though she was biting her lip in a manner that suggested she’d been certain a Summoning spell would have saved the day. In her defence, simple spells forgotten by both Ron and Harry but remembered by Hermione had solved a great many of their problems before. “Regulus might have placed it under anti-Summoning enchantments. It’s a powerful, dangerous artefact, after all. He wouldn’t have wanted to take any chances. It could still be here, somewhere.”

Ron let his head fall forward to bang against the bookcase. “…So we’ve got to keep searching by hand, then? Without even knowing if it’s here at all, just digging around blindly?”

“Afraid so,” Hermione said, and Ron returned to tugging books off the shelf, all the while muttering darkly to himself under his breath.

They wasted another hour picking the room clean, turning it inside out and upside down and checking every possible hiding place, until like Harry with the second page of his mother’s letter, they had to conclude that they’d searched as thoroughly as was humanly possible and the locket just wasn’t there.

“It was a long shot expecting to find it in his room to begin with,” Hermione reasoned as they glumly clomped down the stairs, heading for the kitchen in the basement and a long overdue breakfast. “He must have known dozens of good hiding places. Though I don’t see him letting it go too far from sight—it must be somewhere on the property, so we’ll just have to keep looking until we find it. That’s all there is to it.”

“Lucky for us Grimmauld Place is so tiny, then,” Ron muttered, but even his dejected spirit could not quash Hermione’s determination.

“All the better to hide something you wouldn’t want a Dark Lord to find, don’t you think? And simply hiding something probably wouldn’t be enough when it came to You-Know-Who. There’d need to be protections. Remember all those horrible traps we found when we were cleaning this place out with the Order? Maybe they weren’t just nasty Pureblood memorabilia; maybe they were put here for a reason, so that anyone who came searching the house for the locket would very much regret doing so. We could have been disarming Regulus’s protections the whole while without even realising it at…at…”

She trailed off, voice cutting out, and Harry and Ron turned as one in concern—finding her stood stock still a few steps above them, one hand on the banister and her mouth agape in shock. “‘Mione…?” Ron said. “You okay there?”

“…at the time,” she finished in a whisper, gasping. “Ohmygosh!”

Ron jolted. “Wh—what? What’s wrong?”

Her eyes were wide—but not with fright. “There was a locket!”

“What?” Ron asked, while Harry immediately pressed, “Where?”

“The drawing room cabinet! Remember? No one could open it! So we…we…” Her shoulders slumped as recollection hit her, and Harry felt his rising spirits plummet, for he too now recalled the locket—and its fate. God, he’d touched the thing, held it in his hands, and he hadn’t felt anything. It’d just been a piece of costume jewellery as far as he’d noticed, and with Mrs. Weasley’s permission…they’d thrown it out, along with all manner of other dangerous junk, thinking good riddance.

They’d thrown away a piece of Voldemort’s soul—where it likely now sat in a rubbish tip somewhere, never to be found.

But Ron brightened, striking his open palm with his fist. “Wait—Kreacher!”

“What about him?” Hermione frowned.

“He was pissed as anything we were tossing out all that old crap—we caught him digging through the refuse nicking some of it back, remember?”

Indeed they had, Harry recalled, mouth dry. He didn’t want to get his hopes up again, but it was a difficult thing, and he could feel an oncoming headache spurred by so much emotional whiplash in the past five minutes alone. Oh, he prayed the elf’s dedication to the Black family ran as deep and recalcitrant as they’d come to suspect over the years.

“Nicking it—and then doing what with it?” Hermione asked.

“Didn’t he have a cubbyhole? Down in the kitchen?” Ron and Hermione’s eyes widened, and as a unit, they thundered down the remaining flights of stairs. Walburga Black’s portrait caught them on the ground floor landing, and her screeching cries of, “Filth! Mudbloods! Scum!” echoed after them as they dashed past, hurtling through the kitchen’s swinging door. Harry tore across the room, skidding to a halt just outside of Kreacher’s cupboard, and he banged on it thrice in succession.

When no response came, and despite a reproachful look from Hermione (“How would you like someone barging into your home without your permission?”), he wrenched the door open.

It was empty, save for a dirty, wadded up blanket fashioned into a cosy little nest, with a copy of Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy tucked securely under, as if Kreacher had been using it for bedtime reading. Harry immediately grabbed the blanket, savagely shaking it out, but there came no welcome clink of metal hitting the flagstones—only a puff of dust and the frantic skittering of dozens of roaches scattering.

Ron and Hermione took generous steps back. “Harry…” Hermione started, but Harry shook his head.

“Not yet—” He threw his head back and bellowed, “Kreacher!

CRACK, and Kreacher popped into view, standing in front of the cold Floo grate with his hands clasped behind his back and head half-bowed. He was still as Harry remembered him: bent and decrepit with age, barely reaching their knees, with stringy white hair sprouting from his ears and a bulbous nose reminiscent of a turnip. His expression suggested he was just as thrilled to see Harry as Harry was to see him—which was to say not at all. He cut Harry a look so contemptuous Harry had an apology ready on his lips before he caught himself.

“What a pleasant surprise,” croaked Kreacher, spilling the greeting mealy-mouthed onto the grimy kitchen floor as he bowed low, muttering to his knees. “Master has once again invaded my proud mistress’s ancestral home, despoiling its grandeur with the presence of Mudbloods and blood traitors—”

“Yeah all right that’s enough of that,” Harry growled, just barely holding himself back from wringing the elf’s neck. “I don’t wanna hear the words ‘Mudblood’ or ‘blood traitor’ pass your lips ever again, got it? Or we’ll see about adding your head to the decorations.” Hermione looked like she wanted to chide him for speaking so harshly, but the little bastard was responsible for Sirius’s death, and if Hermione needed reminding of that, Harry was happy to do so.

Kreacher grimaced, lip curling, but if he had any backtalk to give, he held it behind his tongue.

“Right, I didn’t summon you for a chat over tea, if that wasn’t obvious. We’ve got some questions that need answering—and you’re gonna answer them truthfully, got it? I’ll know if you lie.”

“As Master wishes,” Kreacher said, contorting himself into another jerky bow and still muttering to himself but silently now, perhaps because all the terrible things he wanted to say, Harry had just forbidden. Harry didn’t care, honestly, his heart racing now that he had Kreacher here, before them, with answers to important questions potentially only a mouthful of words away

“All right, so a couple years ago, when the Order was here cleaning out the drawing room upstairs and chucking all sorts of dangerous paraphernalia, we came across a golden locket in one of the cabinets. None of us could open it, so we threw it out. You wouldn’t happen to have confiscated it before it got taken away with the rest of the rubbish, would you? And remember, you’d better tell the truth.”

There was a long moment’s silence, during which Kreacher straightened up, looking Harry square in the eye with his chest puffed out. He then croaked with a sneer, “Yes. Kreacher did take it back.”

He probably thought himself terribly brave, standing his ground in the face of an unworthy half-blood. Let him—Harry had much more urgent matters on his mind. “Shocking as it may seem, that’s actually precisely what we wanted to hear. Now—” He dropped to one knee, looking Kreacher square in the face. “What’ve you done with it? Where is it now?”

He expected more defiance, he expected Kreacher to spit in his face. What he did not expect was for Kreacher to look absolutely miserable, grabbing at his ears and tugging sharply on them as he grimaced and grit out, “…Gone.”

“Gone?” The joy that had blossomed in his chest at hearing that Kreacher had stolen the locket away fizzled back into nothingness. “What do you mean it’s gone? Where’s it gone? What did you do with it?” Kreacher shook his head sharply, clasping his arms around himself, and Harry felt his frazzled patience snap. “If you’ve hidden it someplace, then I order you to—”

“It was stolen! By that thieving Mundungus Fletcher!” Kreacher wailed, tugging his ears around to cover his eyes. “He stole Master Regulus’s locket and the family portrait albums and my mistress’s fineries and the goblets with the family crest and the Order of Merlin, First Class and—and—” His ears flapped back, and Harry could see that his eyes had a wild, manic gleam to them as he swayed on the spot. Harry was struck by the urge to reach out and offer him a steadying hand, though he couldn’t be sure Kreacher wouldn’t bite him, so he kept his hands to himself. “He took it all, he took it all, and—”

“Er, Kreacher, you’ve got to slow down and—”

“Kreacher failed!” he yowled. “He failed Master Regulus! Master Regulus trusted him, begged him to complete his task, and Kreacher couldn’t do it! Bad elf, bad elf, bad elves must be—they must be—”

Kreacher whirled on his heel and made a wild lunge for the Floo grate, going for the poker leaning in its stand, but Harry got there first, sending the poker rolling across the kitchen floor and grabbing Kreacher by the ankle when he dove after it. “Don’t—even—think about it—” All four of Kreacher’s limbs were flailing, and his foot caught Harry’s nose, knocking his glasses wild. “Kreacher, I order you to leave off! Hold still, dammit!”

Kreacher froze as commanded, dangling helplessly in Harry’s grip as great teardrops spilled onto the flagstones with loud splats. Harry carefully reached down for his glasses, awkwardly wiping the lenses one-handed before fitting them back on his face.

“Oh, Harry! Harry, don’t hold him like that!” Hermione pleaded. “It’s humiliating! Let him go!”

Harry turned on her, scowling. “Didn’t you see what he was trying to do?! I’m not gonna let him beat out his own brains! We need him!”

“Of course we can’t let him do that—but he’s clearly in pain! Just look!” And Harry did look; Kreacher was convulsing with silent sobs, and his ears and nose and cheeks were flushed tomato-red, though whether from the emotional onslaught or being held upside down, it was difficult to tell. “At least put him down!” she pleaded, looking to Ron for support, and the traitorous bastard actually shrugged as if to say What’s the harm.

Biting back a growl of frustration, Harry shook a finger in Kreacher’s face. “I’m going to put you down—but you’re not to punish yourself again. I’m tired of having to snatch away fire pokers and cast-iron skillets from you just to get a straight answer.” Kreacher didn’t respond, but when Harry placed him back onto the floor, he slumped forward, ears drooping, and did not make a move to grab the poker a second time.

“…Right, let’s try this again. Kreacher: you said Mundungus Fletcher stole the locket?” Kreacher nodded mutely, eyes fixed on the dirty flagstones beneath him. “How do you know he’s the one who took it? Did you see him take it?”

“Kreacher saw him. Kreacher saw him take the family portrait albums and—”

Focus, Kreacher,” Harry urged.

Kreacher took a rasping, rattling breath to compose himself. “He ransacked my Mistress’s home, stealing all the precious goods of Black generations back and back and back, and when he’d finished with the family rooms, he came here and rifled through Kreacher’s cupboard. He dug about, placing his grimy mitts all over Kreacher’s carefully collected treasures, and when Kreacher caught him, he told the sneakthief—” He glanced at Harry, as if checking to see if this insult was allowed, “—to stop, but Mundungus Fletcher did not stop. He ran. He Disapparated, disappeared with everything…”

Kreacher was looking more miserable by the second, so Harry hurried to prise more information from him before he dissolved into another tearful fit. “…Okay. Yeah, that sounds terrible. Er…” If Mundungus had Disapparated, there wasn’t much chance of Kreacher having followed him, he supposed. “The locket—you called it Master Regulus’s? Do you know how he came about it? Where’d he get it from? Were you able to—” Hermione placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder, not chiding this time, just steadying, and he nodded. “…Kreacher, we want to help get that locket back. It was very important to Regulus, and it’s very important to us as well. But we need your help to get it back, so we need you to tell us everything you know about it—starting from the very beginning. What did Regulus have to do with that locket?”

With great reluctance, Kreacher managed to pull himself together, drawing his knees to his chest and burying his face against them, shoulders shaking. Harry wondered if he was going to have to rephrase himself and make it a direct order, but at length, Kreacher finally spoke, his bullfrog-gruff voice echoing off the walls of the dark, empty kitchen.

“Master Sirius may have been the firstborn of my mistress—but he was a naughty boy, always bringing shame and sorrow to the family. But Master Regulus knew his place, he knew his duty—and he saw to it he carried his name with pride. When the Dark Lord began his rise to power, Master Regulus spoke highly of him, eager for the day when the Dark Lord would bring about the ruin of the Muggles and Mu—Muggleborns, paving the way for wizards to take their rightful place in the scheme of things. When he came of age, my mistress finally gave him her blessing to stand at the side of the Dark Lord and bring honour back to the Black name.

“Master Regulus performed the duties expected of him as one of the Dark Lord’s trusted servants for a full year—until he came to Kreacher one day with news that his master required an elf.”

Harry frowned, turning to Hermione and Ron. They were similarly puzzled but hanging on Kreacher’s every word. “Voldemort…needed an elf?” He had an army of wizards and witches at his beck and call; what would he have needed a house-elf for?

Kreacher did not seem to hear the question—or else he didn’t care to answer, as he had not been ordered to do so, only continuing with his tale. “Master Regulus had always been so kind to Kreacher, always caring and not a nasty little—” He bit back what must have been several choice words, “—like Master Sirius. So of course…” His voice carried a tremor, and he took a breath to steady himself. “Of course Kreacher did as he was bid. Master Regulus t-told Kreacher what an honour it was—that he had volunteered Kreacher, for he was a g-good and loyal elf who would see any task set him completed. Kreacher was to g-go with the Dark Lord, help him however he asked, and then…” He took a stuttering breath. “Then he must r-return to Master Regulus’s side.” Harry could sense another attack on the horizon as Kreacher began to rock in place, the hitches in his voice cutting him off every few words. “So Kreacher was a good elf, and he went with the Dark Lord. But the Dark Lord…” Kreacher’s expression went dark. “He was not a kind master like Master Regulus, or even a cold, indifferent one like Master Sirius. He was a cruel one.”

“Tell him he’s allowed to use whatever insults he likes with that fucker,” Ron said, and Harry snorted softly—only holding off issuing the addendum because he wanted Kreacher to get on with the story.

Kreacher wrung his hands, shuddering in memory. “He took Kreacher to a cave beside the sea—and inside, there was a deep, dark cavern…with a black lake full of terrible, dead things that reached and grabbed and dragged…”

Harry felt his flesh break out in goosebumps despite the cloying warmth of the enclosed space, and his mouth went dry. If he closed his eyes, he could see the cave Kreacher was speaking of, could hear Kreacher’s voice echoing off the high stone walls rising up over that dark water, lurking with grasping death. He knew where Voldemort had taken Kreacher, and he was starting to understand why.

“There was a b-boat that moved without oars…and an island with nothing but a basin…” Kreacher grimaced, and Harry did not envy him his recollection, but they had to have it all out, no matter how unpleasant. “The basin held a potion—and the D-Dark Lord told Kreacher he must drink of it until the basin was empty. Kreacher did not want to, it tasted foul and made Kreacher’s insides burn, but still the Dark Lord bade him drink and drink and drink, until it was all gone.” He clenched his eyes shut and plugged his ears, shaking his head. “The potion made Kreacher see terrible, horrible things—it showed him Master Regulus, cut into so many pieces, begging for Kreacher to save him; it showed him Mistress Black in her finest dress robes, standing aflame while the home of her ancestors burned. Kreacher wept, he wept enough to refill the basin ten times over. And when he had drunk all of the potion…the Dark Lord produced a golden locket and placed it in the bottom of the basin.” Kreacher lifted his head, his watery eyes staring out at nothing. “And then the Dark Lord sailed away, leaving Kreacher on the island, alone.”

“But—how did you get away?” Harry asked, whispering despite himself, as if speaking any more loudly would break the spell Kreacher’s story had cast upon them.

“Kreacher is a good elf. He did as Master Regulus told him to and came home.”

“Well, yes—but Voldemort left you on the island alone. How did you get back across the lake?” House-elves had some fantastic magic, but flight wasn’t one of their many skills, he was pretty sure. He turned back to Hermione and Ron. “There were Inferi in the water—there’s no way he just swam back.”

“Master Regulus told Kreacher to—”

“Yes, I know—but I’m asking how you managed it.” His irritation was piquing; it was difficult to tell if Kreacher was being this obtuse on purpose or not.

“He’s telling you, mate,” Ron said. “His master gave him an order, and he executed it. Probably just Disapparated.” Ron snapped his finger for show. “Poof.”

“But you couldn’t Apparate into or out of the cave—we tried!”

Ron just shrugged, though. “Yeah, but house-elves don’t operate on the same rules as wizards and witches. Their magic’s different from ours—like how they can Apparate around Hogwarts even though we can’t.”

And oh, Harry supposed he had a point. “So Voldemort didn’t realise, then… He thought he’d tied up loose threads, but Kreacher escaped.”

Hermione gave a sharp, derisive snort. “He didn’t realise only because he wouldn’t have cared. He asked for a house-elf in the first place because he needed someone—something—disposable. He didn’t even think house-elves had feelings—how could he be expected to comprehend the intricacies of their magic?” She favoured Kreacher with a fond smile he most certainly didn’t deserve, after how he’d treated her. “A house-elf’s greatest duty is to his master, and his highest law his master’s bidding. Regulus told him to come home, and no amount of wizarding magic was going to stop him.”

Kreacher had turned away from her, as if the full force of her praise was too much for him to bear head-on. At least he was no longer rocking jerkily or muttering under his breath. “…All right, so you came back, as your master had commanded. How did Regulus take it? What did he say when you told him what had happened?”

Kreacher’s bushy brow furrowed, new lines forming on his face as he donned a deep, troubled frown. “…Kreacher’s return worried Master Regulus, especially once he heard what Kreacher had been tasked with, knowing that the Dark Lord had meant for Kreacher to stay in the cave forever. He would be most cross to learn that Kreacher had returned to his master, had told his master of what he had seen. He ordered Kreacher to stay hidden, told him he was not to leave the house, not for anything, and not to let any guests see him either.” Kreacher shuddered, seizing, and then held stiff. “…But then, one evening, Master Regulus came to Kreacher’s cupboard, under cover of night. He was behaving strangely, not as he usually was. Disturbed of the mind, Kreacher thought, but Kreacher is now thinking he was just very, very frightened. He had another task for Kreacher: he wished for Kreacher to take him back to the seaside cave, to the cavern beyond the lake where the Dark Lord had travelled.”

And now, Harry could see in his mind’s eye Regulus’s simple, perfect plan. How he had plotted to take down Voldemort—he wouldn’t need to rely on others among the Death Eater ranks or his own Housemates or companions, who might themselves be spies for Voldemort or who wouldn’t hesitate to turn on him. No, he only needed his loyal old house-elf, who had already been to the cave and seen the locket’s hiding place. Who knew what it took to take the locket for himself.

Harry grimaced at the thought. “Regulus…he made you drink that potion, like Voldemort had? Again?” It had nearly undone Dumbledore—Dumbledore! He felt a twinge of pity for this poor creature having had to go through such an experience not once, but twice.

Kreacher’s bulbous eyes shone anew with unshed tears, and when he spoke, his voice was choked with emotion, the most raw and real Kreacher had ever seemed to Harry. “He did not ask it of me. Kreacher offered—Kreacher wanted to, he wished to help Master Regulus, to spare him the terrible images and the horrid haunting memories. But Master Regulus only produced a new locket, just like the Dark Lord’s. He gave the locket to Kreacher and told him to switch the lockets once the basin was empty. After he had switched them, Kreacher was to leave—without Master Regulus—and take the Dark Lord’s locket home and destroy it. He must never ever speak of it to the family, only destroy the locket and forget he’d ever heard of it.”

Hermione’s hands leapt to her mouth, expression stricken; she seemed to have understood something, but Harry needed to hear it. He needed to hear all of it. To know every fine detail of Regulus Arcturus Black’s final moments.

“A-and then Master Regulus—d-drank the potion—all by himself—” His speech was interrupted by rasping sobs, and it was growing very difficult to understand him now, but Harry hung on his every word. “And K-Kreacher did as ordered—he switched the lockets, pocketed the Dark Lord’s—a-and watched as…” Kreacher rubbed at his eyes, heaving. “Master Regulus was…dragged beneath th-the water by th-the dead things—and…”

And that was the end. Regulus hadn’t died valiantly in battle but alone and terrified in a cold, dark cavern surrounded by decay and Dark magic, with only the faintest of hopes that what he’d done might somehow matter.

He’d just been a boy on a mission to right a wrong and save those he loved dear. A boy, indeed; he would have been only seventeen or so. The same age as Harry. Could Harry have done something like that? Willingly walked into darkness—death—for the chance to take down Voldemort? He wasn’t sure he’d have the stones. It took something ineffable and inexplicable to face certain doom head-on. Harry had been accused in the past of being fool-hardy and headstrong, but he certainly had no death wish. He took risks when he had some confidence of a happy outcome; what Regulus had done—even what Malfoy had done—was, Harry felt, beyond him.

“Oh, you poor, brave creature, Kreacher!” Hermione rushed him, her face a mottled red mess with tears streaming down her cheeks as she dropped to her knees and tried to hug him. Kreacher was on his feet at once, though, his sour mask of disgust sliding back into place. He cringed away from her, visibly repulsed by the gesture.

“Kreacher has Mudblood germs on himself now—he has been befouled! He must scrub it off.” He then began roughly scratching at his skin, flakes peeling away like a dog shedding hair.

Harry felt his sympathy for Kreacher having to relive such horrid memories burn away in a hot flash of anger. “Oi! I ordered you never to use that word again!” he snapped—and the house-elf immediately threw himself to the ground, slamming his head into the flagstones without the poker near at hand. “Ah, fuck—stop it! Dammit, stop! Enough!” he shouted in exasperation over Hermione’s horrified wailing at the display.

It wasn’t as if he’d ordered Kreacher to punish himself. He wasn’t fond of the elf, but he could see the whole business of their enforced servitude was more than a bit demented. He didn’t like the idea that he owned a slave, though he knew if he freed Kreacher the way he’d engineered Dobby’s freedom, there was every likelihood he’d go straight to “Miss Cissy” or “Miss Bella” and feed them valuable information.

Ron quickly drew Hermione back, shielding him from Kreacher with one arm, and the three of them watched as the elf lay there on the cold flagstones, chest heaving and lids fluttering weakly. He seemed to be staring at nothing, his eyes swollen and bloodshot, and Harry hoped he hadn’t concussed himself or something. Green mucous glistened around his snout, and his breathing was laboured and faint. It was as sad a sight as Harry had ever seen, and that was saying something with Kreacher.

But so near the end of the story, Harry had to know the rest—he had to know what had become of the locket, and he couldn’t wait for Kreacher to put himself to rights. His memory would never be fresher—assuming Kreacher hadn’t knocked himself senseless—and with a guilty glance to Hermione, who had her head hung and shoulders bunched up tight, he pressed with as gentle an urgency as he could, “…You escaped a second time, then. This time with the locket—and your master had ordered it destroyed. Did you manage it?”

Kreacher’s voice was soft and distant, resigned, and he shook his head. “Kreacher tried. He tried his very best. It was his master’s final wish—but Kreacher failed him. He smashed the locket, he dropped the locket from the roof, he threw the locket into the fire grate. Still the locket remained, protected by powerful enchantments beyond Kreacher’s ability to undo. Kreacher could not even open it, as he had seen the Dark Lord do.” He tugged on his ears again, wrapping them around his head to cover his eyes like a blindfold. “Kreacher punished himself most grievously for failing in his duties—and he could not even provide comfort to his mistress, who wept and wept and wept, distraught over the disappearance of her best, most beloved son, for Master Regulus had forbidden Kreacher from telling her what had happened to him.”

Regulus must have known that if word got out what he’d done, Voldemort would kill anyone who’d ever associated with Regulus. It was cruel, Mrs. Black never knowing what had become of her son, but a necessary evil. Harry wondered if the portrait in the hallway was as mad as she was because of this loss. Maybe, once this was all over, he would tell her this story. Assuming he survived, of course.

Kreacher sat there, a slumped lump of elf on the cold stonework floor, and sobbed silently. Hermione was sobbing too, decidedly less silently, but she reined in the urge to try and hug Kreacher again, instead budging up against Ron, who rubbed her shoulder comfortingly—and even he looked troubled, brow furrowed and lips pursed in a sour moue.

“…I don’t get it,” Harry said, half to himself. He’d stood here, listening to Kreacher’s sad story, genuinely sympathising—but there was something he just could not reconcile. “After all that, after all Voldemort did to him—after Regulus died, trying to bring him down… Kreacher still betrayed Sirius to Voldemort.” He spoke, then, directly to Kreacher, hammering home his words, desperate for an explanation: “The very wizard Regulus gave his last full measure to bring down—and you helped him.”

“Harry,” Hermione sighed, rubbing at her eyes. “…It’s just not that simple. You’ve seen the sort of treatment house-elves endure—do you really think being told to drink a potion that made him feel terrible was all that different from what Kreacher might have endured from other Dark wizards who came calling at the Black residence? It was just another dark moment in Kreacher’s long, sad life—meaningless beyond the immediacy of the torture. Regulus had worshipped his ‘Dark Lord’ for so long, what place did Kreacher have hating him? And from the sound of things, Regulus never told Kreacher he ought to feel any other way.” She turned her gaze to Kreacher. “House-elves are loyal to a fault—and they respond to kindness and praise with fierce fealty. He must have felt that Mrs. Black was a decent mistress, never mistreating him unless he thought he deserved it, and clearly Regulus was kind to him—so he emulated them as best he could.”

“But Regulus changed his mind! He—”

“He changed his mind—but kept those feelings to himself, never bothering to explain to Kreacher the error of his ways or how he ought to feel about Voldemort after his passing.” She crossed her arms, biting her lip. “And I think he kept it to himself on purpose; Kreacher and Regulus’s family were all safer if they stuck to their beliefs. Look what happened to Regulus once he got it in his mind to turn against Voldemort, after all. Regulus was just trying to protect them.”

It was a funny thought—not humorous really, but interesting. If Regulus had gone to his brother, confided in the Order, would he have survived? Would Sirius have? If he’d just asked for help—if Malfoy hadn’t been so fucking stubborn and gone to Dumbledore or McGonagall or—or even Harry

Harry shook his head; what-ifs were a dangerous temptation. “But Sirius was his master too. He was a Black, as much as Regulus and Walburga, and even Bellatrix and Narcissa. Sirius—”

“Oh, come off it, mate,” Ron snorted, not entirely with amusement. “Sirius hated the little blighter. You saw how they acted when they were around each other—how Sirius treated him.” Harry felt his temper flare, and Ron raised a hand in defence. “And I’m not saying Kreacher didn’t deserve it—” And now Hermione was looking at him with a reproachful expression, so Ron quickly amended, “I mean, at least a little? The point is, they never got on, so why should Kreacher have cared about helping him more than helping other family members who were actually nice to him—y’know, for certain definitions of nice?” Ron shrugged. “Loyalty to family only goes so far when that family’s been a tosser, I reckon.”

Well, Harry supposed he could agree with that, though it still didn’t sit well with him.

Hermione shook her head, sighing. “I’ve always maintained that wizards would eventually get their comeuppance for the way they’ve treated house-elves all this time.” It was difficult to tell if she was referring to Voldemort…or to Sirius. The truth was probably both.

Harry felt his cheeks heat, half with shame and half with anger, but he said nothing, because Hermione was right—and that pissed him off too. Too many of his heroes, he was realising (or rather, coming to accept), were flawed human beings, and he was getting really tired of these reckonings, though he knew he could no longer ignore them.

Kreacher was loyal, and good in his own way, and Harry was starting to maybe understand that if they were going to get anywhere with him, to really get to the truth of this locket and track it down, they would need his cooperation. Kreacher had been betrayed by wizards his entire life—even his beloved Most Noble and Ancient House of Black had poisoned his mind with their Pureblood-worshipping ‘Magic Is Might’ tripe. If he could learn terrible things, learn to give his loyalty to those who didn’t deserve it, maybe he could be taught otherwise, too.

Harry took a breath, bracing himself for what would be a truly taxing task. “…Thank you for sharing Master Regulus’s story with us, Kreacher. We agree he was…er, a fine upstanding wizard, and his memory should be preserved.”

Kreacher sniffled, giving Harry a long, appraising look. “…Master isn’t family, so Kreacher wasn’t breaking orders by telling him of Master Regulus’s feats.”

“Exactly. And…if you’re feeling up to it, we’ve got a job for you. A job that we think Master Regulus would approve of…and that you’ll quite enjoy.”

Kreacher was still staring at Harry through bloodshot eyes, searching his face for malice or cruel temptation, but he would find none. Perhaps supposing there was no harm in at least hearing Harry out, Kreacher shifted around on the floor, easing himself up into a seated position, and he glared balefully up at Harry. He was no longer shaking with silent sobs—though he still hiccoughed now and then.

“…Right, so there’s a task we need completed.” He tried to keep his tone gentle, not wanting to live down to Kreacher’s already basement-level opinion of Harry—they would get more out of him, he was beginning to realise, if they treated him with a modicum of respect, and at least if he didn’t outright hate them, he wouldn’t so easily turn them over to Voldemort. He glanced to Hermione, checking she approved of his approach, and she gave him a reassuring smile, nodding in encouragement.

“You said the locket—the one you brought back from the cave, Master Regulus’s locket—was stolen by Mundungus Fletcher, right?” Kreacher groaned and clenched his eyes shut tight, grabbing at his ears fitfully, and Harry hurried to deliver his order before the elf decided it was time to start another round of punishment. “We need that locket back—we want…we want to finish the work Master Regulus started. We want to help you destroy it—but first, we need to have it.” He licked his lips. “So we need you to find Mundungus Fletcher and bring him back here.”

Kreacher’s arms dropped to his sides, and he looked up at Harry with wide eyes that seemed to shine with something unnameable. “Find Mundungus Fletcher?”

“And bring him here, to Grimmauld Place,” said Harry. “Do you think you could do that? Er—bring the sneakthief who stole those precious Black family artefacts here to face judgement?”

Kreacher wrung his hands, his lips curling into that familiar scowl, but then he said, “Yes. Yes, Kreacher thinks he might like that… He mustn’t be allowed to make off with my mistress’s and master’s treasures, he must pay…”

“And he will—just make sure you bring him straight back here. He can be a slippery sort, so use whatever tricks you need to grab him.” Struck with a sudden burst of inspiration, Harry reached for the Mokeskin pouch tucked in his shirt and drew out the fake Horcrux locket. “Also…I think you should have this.” He held the locket out by its chain for Kreacher to take, which he did, almost reverently. “I think Regulus would want you to have this, since he cared so much for you—”

Kreacher clutched the locket to his chest and collapsed onto the ground, howling with overwrought emotion as his waterworks started up once again.

“Well if the Death Eaters didn’t know we were in here before, they sure do now,” said Ron, wincing, but Hermione looked beatific.

As Harry did not want to ruin the fragile little seed of trust that was germinating between them, he neglected to order Kreacher to get himself together, so it was another half hour before Kreacher’s sniffles and melodramatic sobs dissolved into quiet murmurs of A Black heirloom of his very own! and Master Regulus’s memory shall never be tarnished now. He eventually found his feet again, though, and after making his way unsteadily back to his cupboard (fitted with fresh linens, a candle stub, and a bowl of mixed nuts), he carefully tucked the locket into the folds of his nest of blankets. After extracting promises from Harry that they would keep careful watch over the locket to ensure it was undisturbed, he executed a low, sweeping bow in Harry and Ron’s direction—not sarcastic in the least this time—coupled with a bob of his head for Hermione that was, Harry supposed, progress. Then, professing that he would return post-haste with the ‘sneakthief’ Mundungus Fletcher, Kreacher disappeared from the kitchen with a loud, bright CRACK.

“Oh damn,” Ron groaned once Kreacher was off. “We should have asked him to make breakfast before he left.”

Alas, it seemed they would have to fend for themselves for a bit, as several days passed with no sign of Kreacher or Mundungus. They tried to avoid going stir-crazy in the meantime, which was a rather difficult task seeing as they couldn’t leave the premises without risking their lives. Ron took up a permanent watch in the sitting room, peeking out the windows facing Grimmauld Square now and then to see if anyone had caught on to their occupation of the Black family home. Hermione discovered on their second day in residence that a fresh copy of the Daily Prophet was delivered to the kitchen table every morning and spent her time carefully piecing through it for any information that seemed relevant.

There had been little thus far, though, to top the front-page spread featuring a photograph of Harry under the headline “WANTED FOR QUESTIONING ABOUT THE DEATH OF ALBUS DUMBLEDORE”, with vague promises of a reward for alerting authorities to any sightings of Harry.

“What do they want to question Harry for, though?” Ron had growled, outraged. “They’ve already got Malfoy in custody, and fifty people saw—well, they saw!” Harry very much doubted the Ministry were seeking to question him for any legitimate reason; this way, Voldemort could have the whole country looking for Harry, eager to turn him over for a chance at immunity for their families.

The coup at the Ministry had been a silent one, for all they could tell—there was no mention of anything untoward in the Prophet, at least, though it was entirely possible the Death Eaters had infiltrated the paper as well. When Harry brought this up, questioning how wise it was to take anything written in the rag seriously, Hermione only said, “This is one of those instances where we’ve got to keep our enemies closer,” and continued to scan the headlines for anything interesting.

The official word on Scrimgeour’s murder was that he’d resigned, being replaced by former head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Pius Thicknesse, a sallow-cheeked man with long black hair and a beard streaked with silver. He looked to Harry like he could’ve been kin with Snape, but Hermione suspected he was merely under the Imperius Curse. “Mad-Eye mentioned Thicknesse had ‘been turned’ only recently—if he’d been working for Voldemort all along, I’m sure the coup would have happened sooner.”

“I still don’t get why You-Know-Who didn’t just declare himself Minister for Magic,” Ron said, folding the Quidditch scores page into an aeroplane and using his wand to make it fly around the room. Nearly two weeks into their covert little holiday, and even the Cannons’ trials and tribulations no longer held his interest.

“Would just be stating the obvious, wouldn’t it?” Hermione said. “With Thicknesse working for him handling the more mundane aspects of running wizarding Britain, Voldemort’s free to act as he pleases without worrying the Ministry will muck up his plans. Plus, if he’d come out and taken over in broad daylight as it were, it might have provoked open rebellion. This way, working from the shadows, he can sow distrust, uncertainty, and fear. It’s a very clever game he’s playing…” Hermione frowned down at the page she’d been poring over for the past ten minutes, running a finger over a headline in a bold font. “…And now they’ve started moving against Muggleborns.”

“What?” Harry glanced up from an old photo album of Regulus’s he’d found in the library, though it was mostly baby photos and pictures from his pre-Hogwarts years. “What do you mean ‘moving against’ them?”

She passed him the paper, tapping an article just under the fold, and Ron slid into the seat next to Harry to read along with him. “‘Muggleborn Register’ — The Ministry of Magic is conducting a survey of so-called ‘Muggleborns’ in order to better understand how they came to possess magical secrets.’

Magical secrets?” Ron repeated, baffled. “It’s not a secret. They’re bloody witches and wizards.”

Harry continued, his blood beginning to boil. “‘Researchers in the Department of Mysteries, hard at work unravelling the mysteries of our magical universe, have recently concluded through rigorous testing and archival exploration that magic can only be passed down through bloodlines when legitimate wizards and witches reproduce. As such, in cases where no magical provenance is obvious or can otherwise be demonstrated—as with so-called Muggleborns—any magical abilities are likely to have been obtained through unsavoury means, forcibly syphoned or stolen from innocent wizarding folk. To address this brazen malfeasance sweeping through our community and put a stop to it once and for all, the Ministry has requested all ‘Muggleborn’ witches and wizards present themselves to the newly appointed Muggleborn Registration Commission for appraisal and interview.’

They sat there in silence for a good thirty seconds, before Ron spluttered, “But—that’s ridiculous! No one will believe that tripe! Who in their right mind would go along with this sort of thing?”

“It doesn’t sound like not going along’s even an option, Ron,” Hermione said. “If you flip to page 2, the article continues—they’re holding ‘interviews’ daily at the Ministry, it seems, and there’s a deadline of August 31st for Muggleborns to show themselves or quote, ‘Be extracted by force and presented to the Commission for judgement.’”

“But their argument’s mental on its face!” Ron shook his head. “If you could just steal magic, there’d be no Squibs around! Certainly not in any Pureblood families, at least—the Malfoys would absolutely bleed someone else dry of their magic before admitting one of their own line lost the genetic jackpot.”

Harry was already on page 2. “I don’t think applying logic’s a popular past-time these days. It says here that unless you can prove you’ve got at least one second-degree Wizarding relative, you’ll be deemed to have obtained your magical power illegally and administered punishment.” The article didn’t elaborate on what the punishment would be, but Harry doubted it would be a slap on the wrist and measly fine.

“Well—that’s just—” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. “Well obviously you can’t go, Hermione. I mean—even if we weren’t probably wanted—we’d find a way around it, at least until the Ministry came to its senses. I mean any decent sort would vouch for you, maybe even claim you were part of their family!” He leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. “Hermione Weasley. Has a nice ring to it, if you ask me.” Hermione choked on the coffee she’d been nursing, and Ron quickly added, “I mean, you know, as a cousin. We’ve got loads of them scattered to the four winds—no one would be the wiser, and I’m sure my folks would go along with it.”

Harry buried his face deeper in the paper, but he could still hear the fond smile in Hermione’s voice as she cleared her throat. “…That’s very kind of you, Ron, but I couldn’t possibly ask you to—”

“Who’s asking? I’m telling you: I wouldn’t let it come to that.” He reached forward and took one of her hands in his own. “You’re family—or as good as. And smart as you are, I’m sure you’d have our entire family tree and all our weird traditions memorised inside and out in no time flat. You could be the new Percy.”

Hermione gave a shaky laugh, running her thumb over Ron’s knuckles, and Harry suddenly felt like he was intruding on something. He tried to lose himself in the paper, pretending to be interested in an advertisement for a new line of heavy-duty Scouring brushes made with Knarl quills, until his eye caught on the name Dumbledore in an article—and he peered closer at the accompanying photograph. It seemed quite old, far blurrier than the other pictures found in the Prophet’s pages, but one could still easily make out the happy family depicted therein. He reread the caption, mouthing the words to himself: The Dumbledore family—left to right, Percival, holding newborn Ariana; Albus; Aberforth; and Kendra.

He glanced back to the picture, matching the names with the figures before him. Harry could have pegged Percival as Dumbledore’s father without the aid of the caption—he had the same twinkle to his eye visible despite the age of the photograph. In his arms sat what must have been Ariana, a chubby little loaf of a baby who waved equally chubby arms at the camera. Kendra looked exactly as Muriel had described her—tall and proud with sharp cheekbones and jet-black hair pulled into a severe bun that reminded Harry a bit of Aunt Petunia. Harry recalled Muriel’s comments about Kendra aspiring to be accepted into Pureblood high society; she certainly had the air for it, shoulders back and a pinched expression on her features.

Standing between their parents were Albus and Aberforth, no older than perhaps nine or ten years, dressed in matching dark suits with fine lace at the collar and sleeve cuffs and boater hats tipped in opposite directions atop their heads. They might have passed for twins at a glance, but Albus was just a bit taller and was smiling brightly, confidence already oozing from his pores, while Aberforth had a bit of a hunch to his shoulders and seemed to be trying to lose himself in his mother’s skirts.

The family looked quite normal, unremarkable even. Harry would not have given them a second glance but for their name.

Harry let his eye drift to the bold headline above the picture: EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM THE UPCOMING BIOGRAPHY OF ALBUS DUMBLEDORE by Rita Skeeter

‘Upcoming pile of shite, you mean,’ Harry thought to himself, but unaccountably curious and concluding that he ought to at least see just how ludicrous this glorified gossip column of Rita’s was stacking up to be—certainly it couldn’t be more lurid than Muriel’s stories—he began to read:

For a witch like Kendra Dumbledore, staying put in Mould-on-the-Would, where whispers and sidelong glances in the wake of her husband’s scandalous crimes and subsequent well-publicised arrest would follow her to the end of her days, was simply not an option. No, if she was to have any hope of climbing the social ladder—or at the very least not sinking any further down it—she would need to either uproot her family and move or spend the rest of her days on a Polyjuice drip. The latter not really being an option for a witch of Kendra’s means, she was forced to abandon her home, children in tow, and set off in search of greener pastures—a small community, she decided, where word of Percival Dumbledore’s hideous crimes and subsequent imprisonment in Azkaban would not have reached the residents. From there, she could rebuild her family’s image in peace.

It was with this in mind that she decided to relocate to the cosy but remote village of Godric’s Hollow. While the town would one day become more widely known as the site of Harry Potter’s infamous escape from You-Know-Who, at this point, in the late 19th century, it was only a sleepy by-town, home to both Muggle and wizarding families and, now, a young Albus Dumbledore.

Kendra wasted no time in letting the rest of the village know she had not come to make friends, spurning her new neighbours’ friendly overtures and quickly developing a reputation for fiercely protecting her privacy.

“She wanted to be left alone,” reports Godric’s Hollow resident and vaunted historian Bathilda Bagshot. “Not surprising, given the past she was trying to escape—but I’m not entirely sure what new life she expected to build here when she slammed the door in every face that came calling. We’d catch occasional sight of the boys about town, dropping by the market or placing an order at the apothecary, but Kendra herself was little more than a ghost—and Ariana…well hardly anyone even knew she existed! I remember the first time I saw her myself: it was a full moon, not too long after they’d moved in, and I was out for a spot of moonbathing. I heard a rustling from the garden just behind mine and snuck a peek—and there was Kendra, dragging along what I thought at first was the family Crup. But when the moonlight hit them just right, I could see it wasn’t a Crup at all but a child, a little girl. I only learned her name a few days later when I managed to run into Albus while shopping for potion ingredients in the village.”

Had Kendra sought to kill two birds with one stone in her move to Godric’s Hollow, hoping to bury the secret of her odd daughter once and for all? After all, if no one there knew she existed, they couldn’t exactly wonder what had become of her once she disappeared, could they? Indeed, Kendra may have been planning Ariana’s vanishing for years, perhaps even before Percival committed those dreadful acts. Well past the age at which most experts agree children will have demonstrated some manner of magical ability, typically in the form of small bursts of untamed power, Ariana would have seemed to the likes of Kendra Dumbledore, a witch with aspirations beyond her station, less a beloved daughter and more a weighty anchor, a shame from which she could not run as she had Percival’s transgressions.

But with no friends or neighbours around to wonder what became of little Ariana, and with sons who seemed either unwilling or unable to stand up to their mother, Kendra would have been free to imprison her daughter—or worse—as she pleased. In time, Ariana’s existence passed from memory into near-legend, and Kendra Dumbledore drew one step closer to freedom.

Next week: Albus Dumbledore at Hogwarts — the Prizes and the Pretence.

When would Harry learn, he wondered, that his mood could always sour further, especially in the wake of slogging through purple tripe straight from the quill of Rita Skeeter? His head was pounding in anger and frustration, and he thought he might be sick.

Baby Ariana was still waving at him from her doting father’s arms, and he felt his heart clench, more lost now than he’d ever felt before. How much of this was true? Any of it? All of it? The urge to make for Godric’s Hollow and shake answers out of Bathilda Bagshot if necessary was growing too great to fight. He wanted to walk the paths Dumbledore had walked and sit on the benches Dumbledore had sat upon and understand. No, to know, because if he just knew—if he knew the truth—then maybe understanding would come along with it. He didn’t want to sit here, stewing in ignorance, any longer.

He lowered the newspaper a tick, trying not to be too obvious about it as he checked to see if Ron and Hermione’s moment had ended and if they could be persuaded to take a short trip to the countryside with him under Glamours—


Harry nearly fell out of his chair—and Ron did—as a shapeless mass of struggling limbs Apparated right on top of the kitchen table. They all three shoved their chairs back, getting well out of the way of the flailing arms and legs as Kreacher wrestled fiercely with a figure in tattered blue robes. “Kreacher has—returned with the sneakthief—Mundungus Fletcher, Master!” Kreacher croaked triumphantly, as he finally managed to get the wizard in a headlock.

Mundungus squawked and spit, his hands flailing at his waist to draw his wand from a holster—but too late, for Hermione had already snapped, “Expelliarmus!”, neatly disarming him.

Mundungus rolled his whole body over, nearly crushing Kreacher in the doing, until he toppled off the table and onto the flagstones. Freed at last, he scrambled to his feet, diving for his wand, which had begun to roll in Harry’s general direction, but Ron tackled him before he’d gotten two steps and made himself comfortable atop Mundungus’s back.

“Get offa me!” he bellowed, wriggling and squirming in an effort to unseat Ron, but Ron had a fair bit more heft to him than a house-elf, and he elbowed Mundungus in the ribs when one of his flailing kicks connected with Ron’s shin. “What’s the big idear? Lemme go! Lemme go you rotten li’l—”

“Yeah, I think not. Not at least until we’ve had a conversation,” said Harry, marshalling everything he had to keep his tone cool and even. Mundungus responded to threats from power only; if he didn’t think he was in danger of suffering grave bodily harm, he’d find a way to weasel his way out. Harry chucked the newspaper into the cold Floo grate, where Kreacher could use it later as kindling for a cookfire, and crossed over to Mundungus. He dropped into a squat, drawing his wand and levelling it at Mundungus’s pockmarked nose, then jerked his head for Ron to release his hold. “You’ve got three wands on you and a house-elf who’s only too eager to drag your dirty arse back here again should you try and make a break for it. We won’t be quite so genial next time we extend an invitation for you to join us for tea. Sound good?”

Mundungus only gave a wheezing grunt, eyeballing Harry fiercely. This close, it was impossible to miss the stench of old sweat staining his robes and bottom-shelf Firewhisky on his breath, and given the general state of him, from his wild, matted hair to his boots with the soles worn clean through, it was clear Kreacher hadn’t caught him fresh from the shower.

Kreacher hopped up onto the table, arching into a low bow that looked halfway elegant. “Kreacher apologises most deeply to Master for his delay in fetching the sneakthief Mundungus Fletcher. He evaded Kreacher’s capture for many days, sly as Master said he would be, but Kreacher has finally brought him back to face justice,” Kreacher croaked, wringing his hands with his head ducked obsequiously. Where before such a gesture would have been made only grudgingly, Harry felt like Kreacher actually meant these intimations of servitude now, and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that—or how Hermione would feel about it.

“No need to apologise; it’s clear you cornered him in the end.” He gave Kreacher a firm nod. “Job well done, Kreacher, truly.” The elf gave another low, sweeping bow, before popping back up with perked ears and a puffed-out chest, looking fifty years younger for a bit of praise.

Harry turned back to Mundungus, keeping a firm grip on his wand and an Incarcerous ready on his lips just in case Mundungus tried anything. “Right, we’ve got a few questions for you—”

“You can’t blame me, a’right? Weren’t my idear to be a part of your daring-do and all that rot in the first place! And what was I s’posed to do when bleedin’ You-Know-Who’s comin’ right for me? Anyone else woulda took off, right? Can’ force a man to sit there and wait for death to take ‘im! ‘S just cruel!”

“Funny, no one else seemed to have trouble reining in the urge to Disapparate in the face of sudden death,” Hermione sniffed, arms crossed. Harry couldn’t remember the last time she’d sounded so cold. “And Shield spells exist for a reason.”

“And what good’s a Protego gonna do when he’s flingin’ a Killin’ Curse at me, eh? ‘Ave a go at it, if you want!” He spat on the ground. “I choked, what’re y’gonna do abou’ it?”

There was rather a lot, Harry was realising, that he wanted to ‘do about it’. It’d been a while since he’d actually gotten to stand toe to toe with the one responsible for the death of a person he’d cared about—and it sent a dangerous thrill through Harry.

But now was neither the time nor the place to indulge in dark fantasies of teaching Mundungus that there might be more to fear from the likes of Harry and Ron and Hermione than Voldemort. “For your information, Kreacher didn’t bring you here to explain why you fucked off when Mad-Eye needed you watching his back. Which, he’s dead now, by the way. Did you know?” Harry took a step forward, stabbing the tip of Mundungus’s nose with his wand and making his eyes go cross. “So I hope you sleep well, knowing you got a great man killed.”

“Was sleepin’ jus’ fine before you sicced an ‘ouse-elf on me!” He gave a quarrelsome sniff. “So what’s this all about, then? Gonna bitch about the junk I pilfered, even though it was just rottin’ in ‘ere? I already ‘eard the back end of it from Molly Weasl—Morgana’s tits, call ‘im off!

The saucepan Kreacher had just lobbed at Mundungus’s head clattered to the ground with an echoing clang, and Mundungus doubled over to protect himself as Kreacher took a running leap at him, a ladle in one hand and rolling pin in the other. Harry snapped a hand out, quickly separating them. “No—no, Kreacher!”

Kreacher fixed Harry with a curious expression—almost devious, Harry thought. He raised the rolling pin hopefully. “Perhaps a light tap, Master Harry?”

Harry cleared his throat around a chuckle, and Ron snorted. “I do appreciate the backup, Kreacher, but we need him conscious if we’re to find the information we’re looking for. You know, for your old Master?” Kreacher was immediately cowed, slipping the ladle and rolling pin behind his back. “But rest assured, we’ll rely on your talents should he need further persuading, so stand at the ready.”

Kreacher became as a Beefeater, standing stock straight with the ladle crossed over his heart and the rolling pin thrown over his shoulder. All the while, he kept Mundungus pinned with a loathing he’d previously reserved for Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

Mundungus scoffed in his general direction, then turned back to Harry, squinting. “…So, what? Shake me down if you want, I ain’t got nothin’ to give back—”

“You’d better have something to give back, or you’re about to have a very bad day—and that’s saying something, considering the day you’ve had so far.” Mundungus raised his eyes from Harry’s wand to his face, bushy brows furrowed, and Harry felt another thrill run through him. They were so close to one of their goals now—it was like water down a parched throat. To finally have accomplished something, even if they were nowhere near the end of their quest. They needed this. Harry needed it. “Right, so when you were doing your ‘pilfering’, taking all sorts of things from this house that didn’t belong to you—you know, stealing—you decided it wasn’t enough to take from the family’s rooms, you had to go through Kreacher’s cupboard too.” Mundungus flinched again, perhaps expecting Kreacher to come after him for further retribution—but the elf stayed put, only tightening his grip on the rolling pin. “One of those items you took from the cupboard was a golden locket with a stylised S inlay.” His heart felt like it was about to beat clear out of his chest, and all he could hear was its dull, droning thudding and the panting terror of Mundungus Fletcher, convinced he was about to be bludgeoned to death by a house-elf. “That locket—what did you do with it?”

And now Mundungus raked him a shrewd, suspicious look. “…Why?” He wrinkled his nose. “What’s it worth?”

Hermione gasped. “Oh! He’s still got it, then!”

“No,” Ron snorted, “he’s just wondering if he got swindled this time.”

“Swindled, nothin’!” squawked Mundungus with a defeated harrumph. “Practically got it stolen offa me!”

“Someone stole it from you?” Harry’s grip tightened on his wand. “Explain. Who?”

Mundungus raised both hands in defence. “I said practically, didn’ I? Took my earnings down to Knockturn, hopin’ to get a few Galleons for the whole lot, an’ some snooty witch comes saunterin’ up, askin’ if I’ve got a license. I ask what for, she says ‘for tradin’ in magical artefacts’, like I ain’t standin’ there with a couple dinged-up goblets and some ratty old robes. Artefacts! Told her where she could stuff ‘er license, an’ she says she’s gonna write me up an’ fine me for ‘verbal assault’.” Harry frowned—written up? An Auror? “But then she sees the locket in the pile an’ says she’ll be lenient just the once an’ let me off for now but she’s confiscatin’ the locket.”

“She? Who’s ‘she’?” Mundungus screwed up his features like he was thinking, and Harry prodded him with his wand. “Who?”

“Like I know! Some Ministry hag, from her badge.” Harry turned to Kreacher, as if to give an order, and Mundungus sputtered, “Little woman! Lots of lace an’ frills, seemed partial to pink! Had a big ol’ bow on her head.” He then frowned to himself before adding, “Might’ve actually been a hag, now I fink about it. Fat an’ squat—kinda like a toad.”

Harry’s hand spasmed, and his wand dropped from his limp fingers, clattering against the floor and causing it to shoot off a volley of sparks that lit Mundungus’s eyebrows on fire.

Aguamenti!” shouted Hermione, quickly dousing Mundungus, who’d begun to scream bloody murder.

The commotion seemed far away from Harry, though, and he slumped back into his chair at the table, head hung.

Ron muttered, “Bloody hell…” and the scars on the back of Harry’s hand twinged in sympathy.


Men Who Love Dragons Too Much Copyright © 2018 by fencer_x. All Rights Reserved.

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