Book Four and Three Quarters
by Maeve "Mab" Roberts

~

< >As though moving against her will, Hermione pulled herself away from Sirius and stepped forwards stiffly. Harry had to stifle a warning cry with his fist: Ron was fidgeting next to him, and Snape clamped a hand over both their mouths. Harry fought the urge to bite him; his skin tasted horrible.

< >"So, little girl… since the werewolf won't talk, perhaps you would oblige me?" He reached out and touched her cheek with a horrible gentleness. Hermione shuddered, but seemed unable to do anything to stop him. Harry gagged.

< >"Leave her alone," said Sirius quietly, still trying desperately to move his feet and falling over as he did so. "Get your hands off her."

< >Voldemort looked at him, amused. "How touching," he replied. "But I hardly think so…" Suddenly, his hand pinched Hermione's chin so hard she squealed, and he forced her head up to look at him. Harry and obviously Ron - who was clenching and unclenching his fists so hard Harry was sure they must be bleeding by now - couldn't take any more of it. Before he got a chance to move, however, Remus Lupin and Sirius both acted at the same time: Sirius, who was just within reaching distance of Hermione from where he lay prone on the floor grabbed her back by her robes, and she fell, heavily, to the floor. At the same time Lupin lashed out with his foot and caught Voldemort in the small of his back, causing the wizard to cry out in pain and wheel round furiously.

< >Harry could no longer stand by and watch his friends be attacked like this by Voldemort. If it was him he was after, then he'd get him… Flinging the Invisibility Cloak from him whilst at the same time being careful not to let it slip from Ron and Snape, he charged at Voldemort and skidded to a halt just in front of Lupin. Hermione let out a little shriek.

< >"So…" hissed Voldemort, disturbingly unperturbed by Harry's dramatic entrance. "The prodigal hero returns. How nice of you to grace us with your company. Now: if you would like to go and stand over there, quietly, by your godfather… You will remain silent, Harry. You will not utter a single word until you are spoken to, or you shall be guilty of causing a great deal of pain to one of your friends. Believe me - I have no scruples in killing them in order to retain your obedience."

< >Harry stared at him, incomprehension spread across his face. Why wasn't Voldemort trying to kill him? Why hadn't he even disarmed him? He could easily -

< >"And I would not try to use any magic on me, Harry," added Voldemort as though he could read his mind. "Because I can break any one of your friends' scrawny little necks with a single click of my fingers. Yes - even the two who are too shy to visit me…" He suddenly reached out and whisked the Invisibility Cloak away from Ron and Snape - and Ron's face melted into disbelief as Snape shoved him roughly behind his own black robes.

< >"Playing the hero does not become you, Severus," said Voldemort. "You know as well as I do that I could kill Mr Weasley just as easily with you in front of him as without. But, I suppose the gesture counts in some ways… That was always your problem, you see, Severus. You never truly knew where you belonged. Too nice to be liked by the bad, and too bad to be liked by the nice… Well: you certainly seem to have found your role in life now. Protecting little boys. How sweet. Perhaps you need a little reminder of where your real loyalties lie?"

< >There was a split second of dead silence while Voldemort pointed his wand at Snape, and then a heart-wrenching howl as the Potions master fell to his knees, clutching at his left wrist as though it was alight. Harry suddenly remembered the mark of the death-eaters, the black sign emblazoned onto Voldemort's followers' forearms to bind them to him - and that Snape had chosen to reject. Snape's eyes were blazing with a hatred that surpassed even that he reserved for Harry and the two surviving Marauders. He staggered back up to his feet, and stared Voldemort in the eye.

< >"You are nothing," he spat. "By yourself, alone - you are nothing."

< >"Ah," said Voldemort. "But I am not alone. My faithful servant will be joining me presently - and old friend of yours, Mr. Black, Mr. Lupin, I believe."

< >As he spoke, he wove an intricate pattern into the air with his wand, slashing the space above his head as though he were conducting an orchestra. As Harry gazed, fascinated, the air began to glow gold: it lengthened to four or five feet, and stretched down to the ground. Voldemort finished his muttered incantation with a flick of his wand, and a figure stepped out from the golden haze, surrounded by a light almost too bright to look upon.

< >It was Peter Pettigrew.

< >"Wormtail!" Sirius tried to run forward again and only escaped another fall to the ground as Harry and Ron grabbed an arm each and hauled him back up again. Pettigrew laughed at him.

< >"Hello, Padfoot," he replied. "How… nice to see you. Not so big and brave now, are we? Not so clever?"

< >"You little rodent…" Sirius was squeezing his hands together, obviously desiring Pettigrew's neck to be in between them. "Wait til I get my hands on you!"

< >Peter sniggered uncontrollably, as if Sirius had just made some wonderful joke. "It won't be your hands you'll have to worry about, Sirius," he said, apparently in stitches. "My hands are the only hands to concern any of you… or to be precise: this hand." He held up his right arm, and Harry saw again the silver limb that Voldemort had given him in reward for sacrificing his previous body-part. He wondered what Pettigrew could be talking about.

< >"Yes," Peter was saying. "I didn't realise at first… I didn't know… But my master, my glorious master - he gave me this for a purpose. For revenge. I, the tag-along, the little fat boy you never really liked - who you only let follow you around because you felt sorry for him - I can claim my revenge!"

< >"Mental," Ron was muttering. "Never did like Scabbers… always thought there was something wrong with him..."

< >But Harry knew this was not true, and knew Ron still ached with the betrayal. However, he had no time to offer his friend comfort, because Scabbers, or Wormtail, or Peter Pettigrew was still explaining to Sirius what he was talking about, and he listened.

< >"It tasted sweet," he was saying. "Revenge tasted sweet when James and Lily died. The first of the Marauders, and his goody-goody little wife…" Sirius, Harry, and Ron dived forwards at this, and Peter ginned happily as they were all rebounded by a shake of Voldemort's wand.

< >"And then I thought I'd dealt with you - big, brave, handsome, funny Sirius - I thought you were tucked away safely in Azkaban - I thought it wouldn't be soon before you given a nice little kiss, and then there would be two Marauders out the way. But that didn't work out." He sounded sulky. "And I thought that soon it would only be me and Moony. Me and - and that thing." He waved his silver arm again.

< >"So now you understand just how brilliant my master is," he said, and now he was walking towards Remus Lupin, too far away to listen to what he was saying. "You understand his beautiful, subtle plans… how appropriate, how fitting it should be that I could taste revenge and at the same time serve his plans… How much I will enjoy this."

< >He had stopped, and was staring at the wall with a curious mixture of loathing and fear on his face. Harry's mind raced wildly as he struggled to understand what the relevance of Peter's speech was, or whether he had, as Ron said, simply gone mad.

< >But Peter was no longer paying them any attention: his eyes were riveted to the same, one spot on the dungeon wall. He was staring at Remus Lupin.

< >Lupin, back in his human form, had been looking increasingly uncomfortable chained up against the wall even before his short interrogation by Voldemort: Harry thought that his arms must have lost their circulation a long time ago, and the chains designed to hold him tight when he'd been a wolf were cutting into his skin. He glanced up as Peter approached.

< >"Hello, Peter," he said, in a friendly enough tone of voice considering the situation. Peter sneered at him, and Lupin's eyes widened as he saw the silver arm.

< >"Oh," he said, looking concerned.

< >Peter stopped just short of him, and stared him up and down appraisingly.

< >"Remus," he said at last. Lupin said nothing, and gazed back evenly, holding his old friend's eye for a long time before Pettigrew finally tore his look away with an angry sneer: holding his silver hand high in front of him, he moved even closer.

< >"You should blame yourself," he spat at Lupin. "You should blame yourself for James's death - for my betrayal of him. I thank you - for forcing me to find better friends… a better master. And I plan to thank you properly, Remus; I plan to thank you properly."

< >Harry blinked at the odd exchange, still highly confused. He wondered what Peter could possibly be talking about. Beside him, Ron was staring at his ex-pet with such loathing that Harry could feel it radiating from him: he noticed Hermione had her hand grasped tightly round Ron's wrist to prevent him from doing anything stupid. Good. Matters were complicated enough without Ron making them worse.

< >Lupin had still said nothing, and Peter carried on. "It was your fault," he said. "I just thought you should know, before I kill you. If James and Sirius and I hadn't ever become Animagi then none of this would ever have happened… if they hadn't felt so noble, if they hadn't felt sorry for you - then I would never have been discovered by my Lord Voldemort."

< >"Then why do you want to kill me?" asked Lupin. "I'd have thought that that's hardly the way to prove your loyalty to Voldemort… killing the man you say caused him to find you. I'd be careful, if I were you, Wormtail. You sound as though you'd rather he hadn't."

< >Pettigrew looked like he was struggling hard with himself not to punch Lupin. However, he mastered himself, and carried on.

< >"That isn't true," he snarled. "I know it, and my master knows it. I just want to make sure you're aware of your responsibility for James and Lily's deaths. If you hadn't been a werewolf - a freak - in the first place they'd still be alive now."

< >To Harry's dismay, Lupin seemed to accept these words. An expression of self-disgust had surfaced on his tired face, and Peter smiled exultantly. He brought his silver hand up close to Lupin's face, and touched him gently on the cheek.

< >Harry was not prepared for the result of this action. Lupin's head snapped sideways as though someone the size of Hagrid had struck him, and a deep purple graze blossomed across his cheekbone. Peter laughed hysterically, and tapped him again.

< >"What's he doing?" gasped Ron. "Why's he - what's wrong with - "

< >"It's silver," came Hermione's glum whisper. "Werewolves are… they're allergic to it. A traditional 'cure' for a werewolf is a silver bullet. They can't bear the touch of it. I remember reading it when Snape set us that essay to do. Remember, back at the hut, when you were ill, Ron? Snape's experiment? He wouldn't stop fiddling with his buttons - they were silver."

< >Harry could only stare in horror as Peter continued to touch Lupin with his silver hand: for such a gentle action to have such a hideous effect was terrible to watch. Lupin was all but unconscious: Harry winced in sympathy as Pettigrew suddenly thumped him round the face as hard as he could - which, noted Harry, was a rather pathetic attempt - and his head whacked back hard against the stone wall.

< >"STOP IT!" he shouted, unable to contain himself any longer. Pettigrew jumped, but Voldemort turned to him, amused.

< >"I thought I told you to be quiet?" he said mildly. "Dear, dear Potter . . . it seems I shall have to ask Peter to give you some lessons in obedience, as well as our tame werewolf there. Did you know, Harry, I could easily destroy him just like that?" He gave an elegant flick of his wrist and Harry heard Lupin gasp in agony. "But I won't," smiled Voldemort cheerfully. "I could kill any of your little friends, Potter. The wolf, the dog - " Sirius's body was flung upwards from the floor with another wave of Voldemort's wand - "My old, faithful, spy - " Snape gave such a howl of pain as he clutched at his left wrist that Harry's insides lurched at the sound.

< >Voldemort was still talking. "The gentle giant who was foolish enough not to take up my offer of employment," he continued, and Hagrid, though still unconscious, began to moan aloud. "Or your special friends, perhaps… the little witch has potential - perhaps I should recruit her…" Hermione, to Harry's surprise and admiration, spat at Voldemort and then let out a strangled choke as he pointed at her with his wand.

< >"No!" yelled Ron wildly, jumping in front of her, violently pulling his own wand from his robes and pointing it shakily at Voldemort. "Don't touch her."

< >"No?" said Voldemort, raising an amused eyebrow. "Very well. Maybe the ginger brat? Would you like to see your best friend - now that would be amusing… maybe you would like to see your overprotective little best friend try and kill me? I'm sure he'd be delighted to… it could be quite interesting to observe…" He raised his wand hand to shoulder height, and pointed it at Ron, who stared defiantly back and looked very much as though he would dearly love to do exactly as Voldemort had suggested.

< >Harry clenched his fists at his sides. "Don't you dare," he said in a loud, clear voice. Voldemort laughed and lowered his wand.

< >"Ah," he said. "I didn't think you'd like it. You see, Harry, I could kill each one of them… I could easily do that. But I'd like you to realise just how kind I can be, when the mood takes me… Now, I think the time has come for you and I to strike a little deal. Just how far are you prepared to go to save your companions' lives? How hard a bargain will you push? I have a proposition for you… See if it sounds attractive. I am willing to forego killing your friends in exchange for you. Give yourself up, Harry. Give yourself up like your noble, foolish parents did and I swear your friends will walk free. One life in exchange for six. Now, I can't say fairer than that."

< >Harry stared at him, the room spinning round his head. One life in exchange for six… yes… the odds were more than even: how easy it would be, just to give himself up with the knowledge that the others would live. Hardly realising what he was doing, he took a step towards Voldemort.

< >"Harry NO!" He stopped short at the sound of Ron's horrified shout.

< >"Stop!" That was Hermione, dragging herself up from the ground and lunging towards him as though to pull him back.

< >A choked cry came from Hagrid, evidently awake now: "Don't take another step, 'arry - don't move…"

< >"You're the only person who can stop Voldemort," said Sirius. "No one else has ever been able to. If he kills you - we're all lost."

< >"Do you really think he'd let us go, just like that?" added Remus Lupin hoarsely, despite Peter's attempts to quiet him.

< >Voldemort sneered at them all. "Think it over, Potter," he said. "Remember what I can do…" Again, he flicked his wand over Harry's crowd of friends and each one cried out loudly.

< >"Harry." Harry started in disbelief as Snape spoke. He couldn't remember ever having been addressed by his first name by the Potions master before in his life. "Harry, don't be so foolish," Snape gasped. "If it's a choice between us, and the rest of humanity… Don't be selfish."

< >Harry stood still, and thought. Don't be selfish . . . Would he be classed selfish in sacrificing himself? he wondered. What would be more selfish, saving his friends by dying; or saving the world - as everyone seemed to believe him capable of doing - by living? Harry let out a short and mirthless bark of laughter. The Boy who Lived. That was his job. He knew what he had to do - knew he had to give his friends' death sentence - knew he would hate himself for the rest of his life by doing so -

< >"Harry?" said Ron quietly. "It isn't worth it. Destroying Voldemort is more important than my life: don't do it - don't kill yourself. We need you. I'd rather die knowing Voldemort wasn't going to kill my family than walk out of here alive with you dead and him in power. Please, Harry. Don't do it."

< >"Ron's right, Harry," said Hermione. "This is more important than anything else. I don't mind - honestly I don't. None of us do. Please… please, don't do it."

< >Harry's face was screwed up in pain. What could he do… what could he do…

< >Voldemort, he suddenly realized, was looking just a little bit worried. Did he really think he couldn't kill Harry? He'd failed twice, but surely with his new power… Still. He couldn't do what the others were asking of him. Harry opened his mouth to offer himself, but somehow the words stuck in his throat, and he walked forwards again instead. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he knew that he had murdered his friends. That would make him as bad as Voldemort himself. Voldemort grinned maniacally as he approached.

< >And then, suddenly: "HARRY! STOP!" Sirius it seemed had decided to make Harry's decision for him. Somehow managing to free his feet and throwing himself forwards, he landed in front of Harry, blocking his way to Voldemort. With a roar of anger, the dark wizard pointed his wand at him.

< >"Think of your promise," reminded Sirius mockingly. "His life for ours… if you kill me, it won't stand. So go on: do it. Kill me."

< >"No!" said Harry, thrusting his way in front of his godfather. This was growing farcical. Ron and Hermione had run to join them: and Snape, and Hagrid. Voldemort was looking confused.

< >"You'll have to kill us before you kill him," announced Ron, determinedly. "D'you hear me? You'll have to kill us first."

< >Harry's head swam. It was happening again. His parents had given their lives to protect him, and now his friends were going to do it. No. This couldn't be happening. It wasn't right.

< "Your logic seems to be slightly flawed," came Remus Lupin's voice.

< >"Shut up!" snarled Peter. There was a thump, a hiss from Lupin, followed by another thump and a cry of pain - this time from Pettigrew - and then Lupin continued, slightly breathlessly.

< >"It would work," he said, "If Harry was prepared to give himself up for us. Which he obviously is. But it won't work if we're all equally prepared to die for him."

< >"Which we are," added Sirius. "You don't seem to have the measure of human emotion very well covered, Voldemort."

< >"Nonsense!" bellowed Voldemort, enraged. "I'll kill you - I'll kill you all!"

< >"Now then," said a voice that hadn't been there a second before. "That would not be a very wise move."

< >Albus Dumbledore walked into the room smiling, and his wand was pointing straight at Voldemort.

~

< >"You," hissed Voldemort, some of the angry colour draining from his face.

< >"Professor!" cried Harry. Thank God!

< >Dumbledore acknowledged them all with a pleasant nod. "Glad to see you're all… safe," he said. Harry thought he had been about to say 'well', but the Headmaster had obviously taken in the sight of the various injuries the little company had received. Ron's eyes were goggling: it seemed that his definition of the word 'safe' differed quite considerably from Dumbledore's. Harry was inclined to agree with him.

< >"Well," said Dumbledore, his hand never wavering as it held the wand at Voldemort, "I must say I agree with Sirius on this one. You don't appear to have a very good grip on human emotions, Tom. But then, that's hardly surprising considering your relationship with your parents, I suppose. Well; never mind."

< >Harry winced at the look of hatred on Voldemort's face. Peter Pettigrew had crawled over to his master, whimpering, and cowered back at the sight of Dumbledore. He had a huge bruise spreading across the top of his balding head where Lupin had apparently decided to fight back.

< >"Are you going to kill him now?" asked Ron, hopefully.

< >"Oh, no, I couldn't do that," replied Dumbledore calmly. "Unfortunately, Ron, that time has not yet come. But, if he knows what is good for him - "

< >Voldemort, it seemed, did not. He had raised his wand and it pointed at Harry.

< >"Harry," instructed Dumbledore calmly, "Draw your wand. And then do as I say."

< >Trembling, Harry groped for his wand and finally withdrew it from inside his robes, waiting for Dumbledore to tell him what to do next and breathing heavily. He had not the faintest idea what was going to happen. Voldemort was concentrating on him so hard that he could almost feel the malevolent glare penetrate him, and he was shivering uncontrollably. Everyone else had their eyes riveted to the three figures stood there: Dumbledore, Voldemort and himself.

< >"Now," said Dumbledore, "I believe Tom will try the Avada Kevadra curse, Harry: you must be ready for it. With any luck, it should - "

< >He was interrupted by a flash of blinding blue electric light from Voldemort's wand. Harry gasped, and flung up his wand hand to give a counter-curse: but, to his surprise, it was not directed at him. The blue flew towards the rest of the room: aimed at Ron, and Hermione; at Sirius, Snape, Hagrid and Lupin; at Dumbledore himself - but not at Harry. Voldemort smiled triumphantly as his spell reached out towards Harry's friends, and Harry watched in terror, his mouth open in a silent scream.

< >And then something odd happened.

< >Almost as if it had hit a mirror, the blue light suddenly reflected back before it had the chance to reach any of Harry's seven companions. It rebounded like rubber, and fled back to one, central point: Voldemort's wand. The wizard's eyes were widened in some unidentifiable emotion: he shook his hand, trying to free it of his wand; he let out a scream that reached Harry's bones, a scream that contained such incredible pain it was almost unbearable to listen to. Then there was a loud explosion: Harry was knocked from his feet along with all the others. When he looked up, Voldemort and Pettigrew were gone.

< >Slowly, he picked himself up and watched cautiously as the others did the same. He felt suddenly empty, as though drained of all his energy. It was over.

< >"Tom miscalculated human feeling far more seriously than I thought," was all Dumbledore said, a twinkle in his eye.

< >"What happened to him?"

< "He didn't pay attention to Sirius's warning," said Dumbledore. "He made the same mistake he made thirteen years ago, Harry, when he murdered your parents and tried to murder you. He failed to take into account the fact that someone could die for someone else - or, in your case, several people would die. Your friends' willingness to give themselves up for you confounded him: he sought to place them under a curse - not a death curse, you understand: not even Voldemort would be foolish enough to do that while he isn't yet in his full power - but it malfunctioned. It reversed. It undid him - for a while."

< "Ron's right, Harry," said Hermione. "This is more important than anything else. I don't mind - honestly I don't. None of us do. Please… please, don't do it."

< Harry's face screwed up in pain. What could he do?

< Voldemort, he suddenly realized, was looking just a little bit worried. Did he really think he couldn't kill Harry? He'd failed twice, but surely with his new power… Still. He couldn't do what the others were asking of him. Harry opened his mouth to offer himself, but somehow the words stuck in his throat, and he walked forwards again instead. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he knew that he had murdered his friends. That would make him as bad as Voldemort himself. Voldemort grinned maniacally as he approached.

< And then, suddenly: "HARRY! STOP!" Sirius it seemed had decided to make Harry's decision for him. Somehow managing to free his feet and throwing himself forwards, he landed in front of Harry, blocking his way to Voldemort. With a roar of anger, the dark wizard pointed his wand at him.

< "Think of your promise," reminded Sirius mockingly. "His life for ours… if you kill me, it won't stand. So go on: do it. Kill me."

< "No!" Harry thrust his way in front of his godfather. Ron and Hermione had run to join them, with Snape and Hagrid. Voldemort looked confused.

< "You have to kill us before you kill him," announced Ron. "You hear me? You'll have to kill us first."

< Harry's head swam. It was happening again. His parents had given their lives to protect him, and now his friends were going to do it. This couldn't be happening. It wasn't right.

< "Your logic seems to be slightly flawed," came Remus Lupin's voice.

< "Shut up!" snarled Peter. There was a thump, a hiss from Lupin, followed by another thump and a cry of pain - this time from Pettigrew - and then Lupin continued, slightly breathlessly.

< "It would work," he said, "If Harry was prepared to give himself up for us. Which he obviously is. But it won't work if we're all equally prepared to die for him."

< "Which we are," added Sirius. "You don't seem to have the measure of human emotion very well covered, Voldemort."

< "Nonsense!" bellowed Voldemort, enraged. "I'll kill you - I'll kill you all!"

< "Now then," said a voice that hadn't been there a second before. "That would not be a very wise move."

< >Albus Dumbledore walked into the room smiling, and his wand was pointing straight at Voldemort.

~

< "You," hissed Voldemort, some of the angry colour draining from his face.

< "Professor!" cried Harry. Thank God!

< Dumbledore acknowledged them all with a pleasant nod. "Glad to see you're all safe," he said. Harry thought he had been about to say 'well', but the Headmaster had obviously taken in the sight of the various injuries the little company had received. Ron's eyes were goggling: it seemed that his definition of the word 'safe' differed quite considerably from Dumbledore's. Harry was inclined to agree with him.

< "Well," said Dumbledore, his hand never wavering as it held the wand at Voldemort, "I must say I agree with Sirius on this one. You don't appear to have a very good grip on human emotions, Tom. But then that's hardly surprising considering the relationship with your parents, I suppose."

< Harry winced at the look of hatred on Voldemort's face. Peter Pettigrew had crawled over to his master, cowering at the sight of Dumbledore. He had a bruise growing across the top of his balding head where Lupin had apparently decided to fight back.

< "Are you going to kill him now?" asked Ron

< "Oh, no, I couldn't do that," replied Dumbledore. "Unfortunately, Ron, that time has not yet come. But, if he knows what is good for him - "

< >Voldemort, it seemed, did not. He raised his wand and it pointed at Harry.

< "Harry," instructed Dumbledore calmly, "Draw your wand. And then do as I say."

< Trembling, Harry groped for his wand and finally withdrew it from inside his robes, waiting for Dumbledore to tell him what to do next and breathing heavily. He had not the faintest idea what was going to happen. Voldemort was concentrating on him so hard that he could almost feel the malevolent glare penetrate him, and he was shivering uncontrollably. Everyone else had their eyes riveted to the three figures stood there: Dumbledore, Voldemort and himself.

< "Now," said Dumbledore, "I believe Tom will try the Avada Kevadra curse, Harry: you must be ready for it. With any luck, it should - "

< He was interrupted by a flash of blinding blue electric light from Voldemort's wand. Harry gasped, and flung up his wand hand to give a counter-curse: but, to his surprise, it was not directed at him. The blue flew towards the rest of the room: aimed at Ron, and Hermione; at Sirius, Snape, Hagrid and Lupin; at Dumbledore himself - but not at Harry. Voldemort smiled triumphantly as his spell reached out towards Harry's friends, and Harry watched in terror, his mouth open in a silent scream.

< And then something odd happened. Almost like it hit a mirror, the blue light suddenly reflected back before it had the chance to reach any of Harry's seven companions. It rebounded like rubber, and fled back to one, central point: Voldemort's wand. The wizard's eyes were widened in some unidentifiable emotion: he shook his hand, trying to free it of his wand; he let out a scream that reached Harry's bones, a scream that contained such incredible pain it was almost unbearable to listen to. Then there was a loud explosion: Harry was knocked from his feet along with all the others. When he looked up, Voldemort and Peter were gone.

< >Slowly he picked himself up and watched as the others did the same. He felt suddenly empty as though drained of all energy. It was over.

< "He miscalculated human feeling far more seriously than I thought," was all Dumbledore said, a twinkle in his eye."He didn't pay attention to Sirius's warning," said Dumbledore. "He made the same mistake he made thirteen years ago, Harry, when he murdered your parents and tried to murder you. He failed to take into account the fact that someone could die for someone else - or, in your case, several people would die. Your friends' willingness to give themselves up for you confounded him: he sought to place them under a curse - not a death curse, you understand: not even Voldemort would be foolish enough to do that while he isn't yet in his full power - but it malfunctioned. It reversed. It undid him for a while."

< >"You mean, he's not dead?" asked Harry, disappointed. To his vast surprise, Dumbledore threw back his head and laughed.

< "Dead! Dear me, no. I'm sorry, Harry, but we have a long way to go before we achieve that goal. But - " he suddenly stopped laughing, and looked seriously at Harry. "But we're getting there. We have people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to destroy him, and we have you, Harry: and I think that that is an extremely good start, don't you?"

< >Sirius limped up to put an arm round Harry's shoulders, and Harry smiled, as he pondered Dumbledore's words. Yes, he thought. That was good enough - for now.

< "Eh - Mr Dumbledore," boomed Hagrid, his huge frame suddenly appearing beside Harry's godfather and dwarfing him considerably, "Ah don' know about you lot - but ah think ah'd like to be goin' now… an' I think Mr Lupin o'er there's lookin' a mite peaky . . ."

< >Remus Lupin did indeed appear to be slightly the worse for wear. His altercation with Peter Pettigrew had left him decidedly the worse off, on top of his transformation, and with a sudden panic Harry wondered if he was even still alive: he ran towards where he was chained, his head drooping onto his chest, and let out a sigh of relief as he saw that he was breathing, albeit shallowly.

< Dumbledore clapped his hands together. "I believe Hagrid is right," he said. "We ought to be going. Sirius, if you could assist Hagrid in unchaining Remus, then I think I should be able to see Harry and the others back to - "

< Harry swayed. The exhaustion of the last few days finally caught up with him: he caught a glimpse of Ron's face frowning at him in concern as he went dizzy and the room span, and then, almost delirious with relief, Harry Potter fainted.

~

< When Harry woke up again he was in the infirmary - a room almost as familiar to him now as his own dormitory. He'd spent many hours in here during his previous four years at Hogwarts, and doubted anything would change soon. Staring up at the ceiling, he wondered how the others were. Ron he could see, in the bed next to him: various empty chocolate wrappers were sprinkled over his duvet, and a half-melted chocolate frog was trying to raise its head up from his pillow in vain. Harry gave it a sympathetic grimace.

< >Hermione he imagined would also be there somewhere - Madam Pomfrey never missed an opportunity to drag students into a hospital bed if she thought there was the slightest chance they needed medical care. And Lupin, too; Harry wondered what the motherly matron would make of all the wolfbites on his arms. But then, he reminded himself, she would have known of his condition when he'd been at Hogwarts himself. Harry wondered how old Madam Pomfrey was.

< He was considering whether it was worth trying to go back to sleep, when - to Harry's surprise and slight alarm - the door burst open and Professor Snape, with a nicely bandaged arm, was propelled through it as though someone had pushed him. He certainly looked rather reluctant to be there.

< "Professor Snape," greeted Madam Pomfrey cordially.

< "Good morning, Poppy," growled Snape, his black eyes flickering around him. There was a silence of about two minutes during which Snape and the matron both appeared to be trying to think of something to say. Then Madam Pomfrey rolled up her sleeves."Well, if that's all…" she said. Snape shook himself, and looked like he was racking his brain furiously. His mouth was working, Harry noted, but obviously not in time with brain, because no words were forthcoming.

< "How… how is the werew - how is pr… how's Lupin?" he got out at last, the effort to enquire after Lupin's health in a polite manner obviously causing him some disturbance. The matron looked slightly alarmed at Snape's question.

< "Well… broken arm, leg and ribs… bruising, laceration, bite marks…" she reeled off. "But he'll live."

< "Oh," said Snape, not sounding quite as disappointed as he might have done once. "And the Potter boy? Weasley? Granger?"

< Madam Pomfrey consulted a clipboard. "They're all fine, Professor," she said. "Just in need of some rest. Thank you for your . . . concern."

< >Snape looked at her balefully then swept away in a billow of black robes. Madam Pomfrey tutted, and turned back to Harry, who had been pretending to be asleep and concentrating on not laughing at Snape's visit. Truth be told, he was rather shocked that the Potions master had come to see them: he had a suspicion that Dumbledore had had a hand in it."You can stop pretending to snore, now, Potter," said Madam Pomfrey. "He's gone. And you, Weasley."

< >Ron and Harry sat up and looked at each other, grinning."All right?" they both asked at the same time.

< >Madam Pomfrey bustled around, checking temperatures and supplying them with chocolate. Ron was still grinning weakly as he withstood a barrage of gentle scolding, while Madam Pomfrey scraped what was left of the decomposing frog from his bed.

< "How many times will you have to be told, Mr Weasley," she began, and Harry drifted off as the familiar voice lulled him into a gentle doze.

< And then he sat bolt upright.

< "Sirius!" he said. His godfather had entered unobtrusively and was sitting at the foot of his bed, eating Harry's chocolate and laughing silently at Ron's pathetic attempts to salvage his own food supply. He threw him a pepper imp and Ron stuffed it furtively into his mouth before Madam Pomfrey could stop him.

< >"Ron!" she exclaimed. Then, at seeing Sirius, "No visitors! No - wait a moment. Sirius Black? You, again? Good Lord…" She disappeared hurriedly out of sight with Ron's dirty pillowcase.

< "What was all that about?" asked Harry, bemused. Sirius shrugged.

< "I have no idea," he replied modestly. "But I remember I always did have a similar effect on her… I must have spent as much time visiting Remus in here when I was at Hogwarts myself as I do you, now, Harry. I think perhaps she got rather tired at my… er… sense of humour, eventually."

< Harry could imagine."How's Lupin?" he asked.

< "Fine," said Sirius. "Nothing he can't handle. He'll be fine."

< "Good." Harry sank back into his warm pillows, and looked through the window as he mused. He didn't want to have to ask the next question, but he had to know the answer.

< >"Sirius…" he said finally.

< >"Mmm?"

< >"You know… you know you're my family - kind of…"

< >"Yes." Was it Harry, or did Sirius suddenly hide a little grin of pride?

< "Well… you know I came to stay at your house for the holidays this year?"

< "Yes..."

< "Well can I come again next year as well? Can I leave the Dursleys? Won't the protection work just as well with you as with them? Can't I - "

< >"Oh, Harry." Sirius's tired voice stopped Harry in mid-flow and he looked up uncertainly. "You know I'd like nothing more than to have you live with me," continued his godfather - and it was his turn to stare out through the window now. "But it's just not safe. It was foolish of me not too realize that this year… Firstly, I'm a convicted murderer - the Ministry of Magic is still searching high and low for me - and what kind of environment is that to bring someone up in? I can't risk that, Harry. I owe it to your father, and I owe it to you. I couldn't place you in danger just because I'm too selfish not to realise what's for your own good."

< Harry was tempted to point out that very few things could possibly be as dangerous as living with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon - not to mention Dudley - but he waited patiently instead for Sirius to finish.

< "And secondly," he was saying, "This whole business with Voldemort… I don't have to tell you how serious it is, Harry. Work must be done now: The Order of the Phoenix must be reassembled; Voldemort has to be destroyed and I - we - have to place that before any of our personal wishes. Please understand me. But Harry," he said, taking Harry's chin and tilting it towards him, ignoring the tears that threatened to burst forth any minute and looking into his eyes, "Harry, if - no. When this is all over, when Voldemort is defeated, and this little business of me having murdered your parents is cleared up, then I promise you we will live together. We'll buy a house and have Ron and Hermione to stay every summer and Christmas and any other time you want, and it will all be all right. Honestly."

< And suddenly he enveloped Harry in a hug - tentative to start with and then rocking him back and forth as he finally let go of his emotions and did something he'd never, ever done before.

< >The Boy who Lived cried.

~

< >Much, much later, when Sirius had been shooed out by Madam Pomfrey and everyone else was sleeping, their snores reassuring in the darkness, Harry was still awake. He re-lived every word of the conversation he'd had with Sirius earlier, and nodded to himself.

< >It will all be all right.

< >Well - Harry wasn't so sure, at the moment, but if Sirius said it would be then he had to at least hope that he was right. Voldemort would be back, he was certain of it: but then, he thought, more cheerful than he'd felt for a long time, but then they'd already dealt with him once - and he hadn't won yet. They'd already faced the enemy: they'd withstood his attempts to destroy them - again - and they were all still alive as the living proof of it. They even - and this seemed the strangest and most bizarre achievement of all - appeared to have reached some kind of truce with Professor Snape.

< >And all this before the school term had even started, thought Harry ruefully. Despite himself, he grinned. It was going to be an interesting year.

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