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Whispers filled the Great Hall from the floor to the grey, overcast clouds floating across the ceiling. They grew louder as the teachers drifted to staff table one by one and the click of pink heels never rang across the floor.

‘I heard the curse got her,’ Seamus muttered.

‘Maybe someone pushed her off the moving staircases,’ Dean suggested.

Hermione sighed. ‘The aurors almost certainly came after she started using veritaserum on students.’ She glanced at Harry. ‘Being given too much can do some nasty things to you. I read about it last night…’

Katie took his wrist. ‘How much did she make you drink?’

‘Three drops.’ He patted her hand. ‘I’m fine.’

Katie’s lips twisted. ‘I’m keeping an eye on you.’

‘You just want an excuse to ogle me.’ He grinned at her. ‘I’m onto you.’

She twitched. ‘Oh?’ Katie reached for the jug and knocked her goblet across the table. ‘You are, are you?’

‘Definitely. All those jokes… The teasing… You’re an incorrigible flirt.’

She laughed and caught her goblet. ‘Congratulations, Harry. You’ve seen right through me!’

‘You know what I think.’ Lavender tucked her lip gloss into her cleavage and giggled when Ron’s eyes followed it down. ‘I think Professor Umbridge left her office to meet up in the greenhouses with Filch for a midnight tryst, only to be snatched and consumed by the Venomous Tentacula.’

‘Some girls are into that sort of thing,’ Katie whispered in Harry’s ear. ‘All those snaky green vines everywhere. Could be a lot of fun…’

‘Doesn’t it digest things while they’re still alive?’ Harry asked. ‘Can’t imagine that’s fun.’

Katie shrugged. ‘No idea. I hate herbology.’

Professor McGonagall rose to her feet. ‘As you are all aware, Professor Umbridge is no longer at the school. She is unlikely to be returning, so I will be stepping in as headmistress until the summer.’

A cheer rose from the four tables, sparks were launched into the air from upraised wands, and Katie sent her goblet flying. Water splashed over Harry’s breakfast.

‘What deep-seated issue do you have with goblets?’ he asked.

‘None.’ Katie beamed, then stole the one slice of bacon she hadn’t drenched. ‘I’m all daddy issues.’

Harry snorted. ‘Is that why you’re such a tomboy? Trying to be the son he never got?’

Katie cocked her head. ‘You know, that might actually be true. He did want a boy to begin with.’

‘Sorry.’ Harry grimaced.

‘What’re best friends for, if not diagnosing psychological issues?’ Katie offered him the toast rack.

Harry shook his head. ‘I don’t think I have any.’

Katie’s eyes lingered on him, then she snagged a slice of toast. ‘Harry, my love, you have loads.’

‘My love?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Shall I call you darling, Katie dearest?’

‘I don’t mind.’ She turned a little red and lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Not if Frenchie won’t set you on fire for it.’ She took a huge bite out of her toast and munched away. ‘And who’s going to tell her, me? Nope. My lips are sealed. I’m your best-friend, not hers.’

                ‘Fair enough.’ Harry poked her in the cheek. ‘You have butter on your nose, Katie darling.’

‘So what do you think happened, Harry?’ Ron asked.

‘Hermione’s usually right,’ he said. ‘The use of veritaserum on children would’ve probably earnt her a long and unpleasant holiday in Azkaban once Magical Law Enforcement heard about it.’

‘It’s no less than she deserves,’ Ron muttered, clenching his fist round his fork so tight it turned white. ‘If scum like her weren’t corrupting the Ministry…’

And if Dumbledore hadn’t sent him into danger for no reason. Harry sighed. He doesn’t want or need my pity, it changes nothing.

‘What are you up to today, then?’ Katie asked. ‘Want to make use of your sudden freedom and come to Hogsmeade with me? I need someone to carry stuff for me and Alicia and Angelina are ditching me for their boyfriends.’

‘So I’m your stand in, am I?’ Harry laughed. ‘No, I’m going to dust off my reputation as a dark wizard and do some creepy ritual magic.’

Katie beamed. ‘Can I come?’

‘It’s a date…’ He drummed his fingers on the table. ‘No, I think I might nip off elsewhere today.’

She pouted. ‘I just can’t win, can I?’

‘Next time.’

I need to ask Salazar about healing magic and do the next ritual. Harry counted the days. I should have enough time to recover before it’s time to go after the prophecy.

‘Fine.’ Katie shoved the rest of her toast into her mouth. ‘You can all ditch me to go mess around, I’ll go flying.’ She swung her legs over the bench and stormed off.

Oops. A small knot tightened in his stomach as he watched her go. I’ll make it up to her and go next weekend.

Harry headed for the chamber.

Myrtle drifted in circles through the cubicles, her hands pressed to her temples and her eyes screwed shut. ‘Don’t keep a lady waiting,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t keep a lady waiting.’

Harry frowned, then shook his head and hurried down into the chamber. ‘Salazar, I’m back.’

‘How is your illustrious headmistress?’

‘She’s a little tied up.’ Harry recalled her tear-streaked, pale face peaking out through the cocoon of webbing as she’d been hauled up into the trees and grinned. ‘Very tied up.’

Salazar scowled. ‘Not dead? That woman ought to be dead. A spiteful, slimy creature like that will only stick a knife in your back if you show her mercy and even if she never gets the chance to hurt you, she’ll manage to hurt someone else.’

‘Acromantula keep their prey alive while they eat,’ Harry replied. ‘Aragog and his family will leave little more than bones and that lurid pink cardigan.’

‘Good.’ Salazar steered the head of his serpent away from under his chin. ‘Now there’s no obstacle between you and the Department of Mysteries.’

‘I intend to complete the next ritual,’ Harry said. ‘I’ll speak to Sirius, too.’

‘Come to make another small sacrifice…’ Salazar’s eyes darkened. ‘Remember, Harry, to measure the price of victory before you commit to paying it.’

Harry rolled his eyes. ‘You recommended this ritual, you senile self-portrait.’ He levitated the ingredients for the ritual off the desk, then, grabbed the time-turner. ‘I can start to recover from the ritual before I even do it.’

Salazar nodded. ‘Take me with you, too. I can’t help you with the runes, but if you do have questions….’

Harry hauled him off the wall and carried him out over the bridge into the main chamber. The jar of salamander’s blood, the griffin’s claw, and the shimmering unicorn tail hair floated after him.

‘Three triangles,’ Salazar instructed. ‘Draw them so each triangle has two points shared with the other triangles. That way your three triangles form another triangle between them at the centre.’

Harry inscribed the design on the floor in purple flames. ‘Simpler than the other one?’

‘It’s actually a less complex ritual,’ Salazar said. ‘You’re improving the existing template of your body by increasing what’s already there. It’s like having a number, then tripling it. The other ritual required you to rewrite the template of your body to fix your eyes. You had to erase the number and make a new one.’

Makes sense.

‘Before I do this, can you teach me how to heal myself?’ Harry asked. ‘I don’t want to have to stagger down to see Madam Pomfrey again. She might start to worry if I keep turning up with the same injury on my forearm all the time.’

‘Of course.’ Salazar frowned. ‘I should’ve made sure you could do this a long time ago.’

‘Where do I begin?’

‘The first thing you need to know is the better your grasp of human biology the better your healing spell will be. You can intend to heal someone, but the more you know about what you actually want your magic to do, the better your focus will be and the more efficient the spell.’

Harry flicked his wand into his palm.

Salazar shook his head. ‘No point practicing now, you’re about to injure yourself anyway. The incantation you want to heal cuts or lacerations is vulnera sanentur, for bones, use ossio sanentur.’

‘What’re they capable of healing?’ Harry enquired.

‘For you, probably all but the worst cuts or breaks. You’ve strong intent and focus, but I’d still suggest reading up on anatomy to improve the effect. These spells won’t do much for burns, though, nor injuries that are resistant to magic.’

‘Best to avoid them all in the first place, really.’

‘Exactly. And I’d suggest improving your knowledge of human biology if you want to be able to competently heal anyone other than yourself. Your mind and magic have a subconscious, inherent image of how you should be which can act as a focus, so strong intent is often enough. It’s a lot less effective on others without that subliminal source of focus to direct your magic.’

‘I see.’ Harry scratched his chin. ‘For now, I’m happy just being able to fix myself up after this ritual.’

‘It’s something I pursued on my own for the same reason,’ Salazar said. ‘Blood magic is always expensive and I did more than dabble.’

Harry etched the runes for the ritual in three concentric circles around the triangle, glancing back and forth at the page. Some of these have different meanings in this book than they do in my books.

‘There’re a lot of threes for this ritual, but no sevens,’ Harry mused.

‘Three threes is a very powerful magical combination,’ Salazar replied. ‘It’s one of the most powerful feasible combinations, exceeded only by seven threes, three sevens, and seven sevens in that order.’

‘Feasible?’ Harry stepped back to admire his handiwork, pausing to correct a few less than perfectly drawn glyphs.

‘Every time you increase the number combinations the effects are also improved. Having three threes of three would be more powerful than three threes, but the difference quickly becomes negligible when compared to your objective.’

‘So if I were to draw another three triangles around this, then it would be more powerful.’

‘That would be six threes,’ Salazar said. ‘You’d have to create a three-sided pyramid by drawing those runes in the air around you and levitating your blood.’ He cracked a wide grin. ‘I tried it once. Took me a fair few days to recover, but I was never hungover again. The look on Godric’s face the next morning after I woke up as usual was patronus-worthy.

‘Is it worth me doing it for this ritual?’ Harry asked.

‘No. There aren’t many rituals where the end result needs it. Maybe next time,’ Salazar consoled him.

A faint stab of disappointment struck him. Maybe.

‘I’d best get on with this ritual, then.’ Harry placed his ingredients at the apex of every triangle.

‘I’d suggest not carrying the time-turner during the ritual,’ Salazar said.

Harry slipped the small, golden hourglass out of his pocket and placed it on the floor well out of the way, then drew his wand.

‘And you should speak to your godfather before doing this, just in case you collapse afterwards.’

‘Any other suggestions,’ Harry muttered. ‘Or would you like to wait and list them one at time to annoy me as much as possible.’

‘Ungrateful child,’ Salazar snapped. ‘If you weren’t family, I’d have half a mind to let you carry out the ritual with a time-turner on you to see what happened.’

‘I’d probably end up in my eleven year old body,’ Harry quipped. ‘Forewarned and vastly more powerful than I was before. Voldemort wouldn’t stand a chance.’

Salazar snorted. ‘Get on with it, you don’t have all day.’

Harry stuck out one hand summoned the mirror with a grin.

‘You get far too much joy out of being able to do that,’ Salazar muttered. ‘Godric used to do the exact same thing. The idiot tried to use it on a griffon and it dragged him through the lake because it was more powerful than his spell.’

‘Sirius,’ Harry murmured, angling the mirror so that his godfather would not be able to see more than the dark ceiling.

Sirius’ grey eyes appeared. Dark bags hung beneath them. ‘Harry. You’re ok. We were all worried.’

‘You were?’

‘Of course!’ Sirius frowned. ‘With Dumbledore gone there’s been nobody to keep Dolores Umbridge in check.’

‘She’s gone,’ Harry said. ‘McGonagall didn’t say why, but she openly used veritaserum on children, and even Fudge can’t condone or ignore that.’

‘What Fudge does or doesn’t condone scarcely matters now, the Wizengamot is fighting over who will take his place according to our sources.’ Sirius’s lips curled back into a sneer. ‘If I ever find myself near that absolute cunt, I will rip his lungs out with my bare teeth.’

Harry blinked. ‘Are you ok?’

Sirius let out a sharp sigh. ‘My cousin and her husband were killed a few days ago. All covered up as an accident by the Ministry, but even without the Dark Mark we all fucking know what happened. Little Nym puts on a brave face, but she’s falling apart.’

Harry grimaced. ‘I don’t know if Dumbledore doesn’t realise putting people in harm’s way gets them killed or if he just doesn’t care.’

‘I don’t give a flying fuck at this point.’ Sirius took a deep breath. ‘I’ve planned our trip to the Ministry, Harry. You’ll come via Grimmauld Place, if Umbridge is really gone then you can just floo here. I can apparate us to the entrance of the Ministry and then we can go in with me under James’ cloak. The door probably isn’t easy to get past, but I’m sure we’ll manage something.’

‘What about the guard from the Order?’ Harry asked.

‘Old Mundungus has the evening shift, stops him getting into trouble in bars or down Knockturn alley after dark. We’d not use him for important stuff, normally, but we’re low on members.’

‘So any evening,’ Harry said.

‘As long as it’s after six,’ Sirius replied. ‘It’s Emmeline Vance before then and I can’t bribe her. But the sooner the better. Arthur, Ted, Andi… The longer Voldemort’s left to slither about in hiding the more of us will start disappearing again.’

‘Sooner? So if I came tomorrow, you’d be ready?’

‘I would leave now if I could, Harry,’ Sirius muttered. ‘I hate this place. I grew up here and my childhood are the only moments of my life comparable to my time in Azkaban. The only thing Grimmauld Place needs to equal that place is dementors and my mother’s portrait is most of the way to being one.’

‘You want to get out.’

‘I need to get out,’ Sirius said. ‘I can’t stay here and let everyone else fight.’

‘I understand.’

‘I know you do. You were right about Dumbledore. I feel more and more that he tells us only what he thinks we need to know when he thinks we need to know it. He’s buggered off without telling us anything.’ Sirius shook his head. A shadow lingered in his grey eyes, the same darkness that’d swirled there when Harry’d first met him. ‘I make my own decisions and my own mistakes, I have since the day I was burnt off my family tree, and I won’t stop now.’

‘I’ll floo over when I’m ready.’ Harry glanced at the purple flames on the floor of the chamber and the time-turner. ‘It won’t be long, tomorrow or the day after.’

I can get two long uses of the time-turner in, plus the usual day, that’s almost thirty six hours.

‘The sooner the better.’

‘Should I use the mirror to warn you?’ Harry asked.

‘I like surprises.’ Sirius shrugged. ‘Nobody will be here except Kreacher and my mother’s portrait. Nobody listens to my mother, they didn’t listen when she was alive, either, and I’ll order Kreacher not to speak about your visit.’

‘Then I’ll be seeing you soon.’

‘Be careful, Harry.’

Harry ended the connection and put the mirror down outside the runes. I’m so close. The red sunset flashed through the front of his mind. Fleur’s silver hair and blue eyes shone in the dappled light. Her small smile tied his heart in knots. I won’t lose. I can’t.

He flicked his wand into his palm and pressed its ebony tip against his wrist. ‘Anything I’ve forgotten?’

‘No.’ Salazar smirked. ‘Have fun.’

Harry shot him a flat stare, then drew the tip of his wand across his wrist. A line of fire tore across his forearm. Rivulets of blood tricked down his skin and dripped to the floor. He pulled a ribbon of red from the wound with his wand and draped it down across the pattern of purple flame.

And now for the bit that hurts. Harry blotted out the dull, ache in his wrist that throbbed to the beat of his heart. But it’s worth it. Any pain is worth a perfect wish.

The runes flared bright, searing at his eyes, and white sparks exploded from the triangles at his feet. Tiny pinpricks of heat welled up in his toes and fingertips, points of pain so small he wasn’t sure they hurt. The heat sank deep, as if needles had been driven into his fingers and toes.

Merde. He bit down on his lip and a hot, copper tang filled his mouth.

The sensation crept along his fingers, spreading over his body. Every single needle burnt as clear to him as the sun in a blue sky. The prickling specks of pain pierced his chest, his thighs, his face, and even his tongue, then a fluid, liquid heat washed through him and drained away like the tide. Harry opened his eyes.

‘You didn’t collapse,’ Salazar said. ‘How do you feel?’

Harry watched the purple flames fade. ‘Strange…’ He opened and closed his hand. ‘Everything’s moving normally, but a part of me knows I can go faster.’

                ‘Odd feeling, isn’t it?’ Salazar chuckled. ‘Give it a test.’

Harry flicked his wand into his palm and cast a jinx in a seamless blur. A bright blue spell spattered against the effigy opposite him the moment the thought formed to move.

‘Oh my,’ Salazar murmured. ‘That was fast.’

Harry caught a gleam of pride in Salazar’s eyes and swallowed a small lump of emotion. ‘Thanks.’

‘You should heal your arm,’ Salazar said.

Harry inspected the cut. The edges of the wound crept back together. He blinked and looked again. Yeah, it’s definitely healing by itself.

‘I’m healing already.’

‘Really?’ Salazar peered down at his arm, then at the runes. ‘How fascinating. I can’t see anything wrong with the runes…’

Harry glanced at them, then at the book. The old ones…

‘I think I might know why.’ He pointed at a rune at the tip of a triangle. ‘That means strength in your book, but means resilience in my new one, which I read first. I guess my intent was a bit off.’

Salazar nodded. ‘Be more careful, Harry. Time will tell if this is a boon or not. The next time you might not be so lucky.’

‘I will see you five hours ago to take a nice nap.’ Harry plucked the time-turner off the floor and flipped it round. It spun within its golden frame, over and over, then events blurred backwards past him and he closed his eyes with a small, tired smile.

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