Interlude: Conspiracy Theories

Professor Quirrell threw away his wand as though it had caught fire, lurchedaway from Harry, and blurred down into his Animagus form.

Harry pressed his hands over his eyes, waiting for the pain to fade.

We did it. Professor Quirrell has the Stone.

Harry exhaled slowly. Transfiguration was powerful enough already, and nowthey had the power to make it permanent.

You couldn’t Transfigure specific people, of course, and nor could youTransfigure lost books, but bizarrely enough you didn’t need perfectknowledge of what you were making to Transfigure it - Professor McGonagalldidn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of porcine biology, and Harry didn’tknow the precise specifics of a rocket. In fact, even steel was complicated:there were different sorts of steel with different amounts of carbon and otheradditives. Transfiguration could clearly get information from somewhere thatwasn’t the caster’s brain.

Harry opened his eyes and saw for the first time his surroundings.

The floor was worn and grey with dust, stained oddly brown in places. Aslashed painting hung crookedly above a ruined fireplace, cold ashes spillingout over the floor. Nearby was a chair with three legs torn off. The roomlooked like it had been shredded. The whole place felt uneasy, like thequiet aftermath of a storm.

Harry suppressed a shiver. Ahem, said Hufflepuff, it might actually be agood idea to be afraid of magical haunted houses.

The snake lay unconscious on the dusty floor, a sealed silver pouch behind it.Harry couldn’t Innervate Professor Quirrell, and he wasn’t sure that it waspossible to shake a snake awake. Absently, Harry wondered how the rules forAnimagus transformations worked - if you touched the Stone to an Animagus,were they trapped forever? What happened if you turned into an Animagus whileholding an indestructible magical artefact, then died?

It was probably a good idea to start planning the best applications of theStone, so Harry closed his eyes and thought.

Transfiguration seemed even more strange the more that Harry considered it.The universe, or the Source of Magic, or whatever, would obligingly fill inall the necessary information about nerve configurations and biochemistry andsuch if you said give me a working pig from scratch, but not if you saidgive me a working Hermione Granger from scratch. It would give you all theinformation you needed, and which you absolutely didn’t already know, toTransfigure a computer, but not to Transfigure a nanofactory. That didn’tnecessarily mean that nanofactories were impossible - Harry had tried toTransfigure a computer slightly more powerful than modern-day technology,and it hadn’t worked either.

Harry had been slightly disturbed by the idea that a fully living pig hadpopped into being, then vanished. He had wondered what would happen if youtried to Transfigure a generic human like McGonagall had Transfigured ageneric pig, but had dismissed the experiment as hideously unethical.

That pig had known how to stand up, so its brain had worked perfectly well.Could it have just been some sort of Platonic ideal pig? Probably not, sinceit would be perfectly possible to Transfigure, say, a pig with five legs… HadHarry been too dismissive of the idea that souls existed? The existence ofVoldemort’s Horcruxes was at least weak evidence for them, and it would atleast explain why you couldn’t Transfigure specific people.

You couldn’t Transfigure magical objects, but you could Transfigure somethingmagical into something mundane, so the Stone should cure things likelycanthropy. If magic was based on a marker gene, that probably wouldn’t makethe wizard into a Muggle.

That was when Harry made the obvious connection.

Wizards were essentially Muggles with magic. They counted as magicalcreatures, but that was only a genetic thing. It would be entirelytheoretically possible to use gene therapy to make a Muggle magical.

You couldn’t Transfigure the mundane into the arcane. You could Transfigureall of a Muggle’s genes into the exact same boring old chemical DNA, but withthe genetic marker for magic - the Blood of Atlantis.

That would at a stroke extend people’s lives massively, make them much, muchsafer… There were bound to be problems, but the number of lives saved would beenormous.

There was no reason the Universe couldn’t contain “I-win” buttons like thePhilosopher’s Stone.

Harry began to grin as the enormity of what had just happened hit him. He’dneed to talk it over with Professor Quirrell, but things were looking good forworld optimisation.

Harry opened his eyes and looked up.

He was looking at the tip of an outstretched wand.

The wand fell away. “Harry?” the man whispered.

Bellatrix? was Harry’s first, absurd thought. The man before Harry was talland once-handsome, his beard unshaven and his hair long, but his eyes weredark and hollow, and he looked prematurely old, and thin - as though he’d beenemaciated once, and never quite recovered. Yet his wand was perfectly steady,and he bore an air of danger and power that Harry had come to associate withpowerful wizards.

And that was when Harry’s brain finally made the connection, the conversationwith Hermione that felt a lifetime distant. Harry looked directly into theeyes of Sirius Black.

Do not react. You are an innocent little boy who has never seen a picture ofSirius Black before.

“Who- who are you?” Harry asked, tingeing his voice with nervousness.

“Oh, Harry,” said the man, looking at him with strange, sad fondness. A noteof confusion coloured Harry’s mind. “You look just exactly like your father.But with your mother’s eyes…”

Black trailed off, looking exceptionally uncomfortable, like he wanted to saysomething but had no idea how to. He sat down heavily in a padded chair thathadn’t been there a moment ago.

“You knew my father?”

Black pressed his bony hands over his eyes.

“Oh yes. It was my fault, Harry, I’m sorry, I as good as killed them…”

Can we ever have a conversation that’s not_ cryptic?_ asked Gryffindor.

Black took a deep breath. “My name is Sirius Black. I was your father’s bestfriend, and he named me your godfather.”

Within himself, Harry barely flinched at all. His parents hadn’t been perfect,hadn’t been omniscient, he knew that well enough. On the outside, he lookedappropriately horrified.

Black winced. “I know, I know what they all think about me. I didn’t do it,Harry, not deliberately.” He pulled up his sleeve, revealing a bare arm. “Iwasn’t the one who showed Voldemort where your parents were hiding.” His voicehardened. “It was Peter.”

“Um,” said Harry, “what?” Pettigrew was the one almost all the conspiracytheories blamed… it wasn’t wrong just because the conspiracy theorists saidit, in fact, if anything it was very weak evidence that Pettigrew really wasto blame, but even so…

Black sighed, and conjured a chair for Harry. “Peter is a Metamorphmagus, hecan change how he looks, and he used that in the war. He was working as a spy,and he turned it against us.” In the dim, non-magical lamplight, Black’s skinlooked grey. “He came to me, asked where James and Lily were hiding. Please,Harry, understand that Peter and I had been friends for years. I thought hewould have died under the Cruciatus before telling Voldemort anything. Like afool, I told him, and…”

Black’s voice trailed off.

OK, could this be genuine?

Complexity penalty, said Ravenclaw. The problem is that actors this goodare rare… probably not that rare amongst Death Eaters, though…

“So, um, Mr. Black, how did you end up being blamed, then?” Innocent-Harryenquired tentatively.

“Just Sirius, Harry.” Sirius withdrew a bar of Honeydukes’ chocolate from hispocket and offered some of it it to Harry, who refused politely.

“James and Lily were killed, and I…” Black seemed to be struggling to get thewords out.

“James and his family, they took me in - my own House disowned me because Iwasn’t stupid enough to hate Muggleborns. And Lily brought out the best inJames, once he’d grown up a bit, she was like a sister to all of us. I don’tknow what else you’ve heard about them, Harry, but they really were some ofthe best people you could hope to meet.”

Sirius took a bite of chocolate.

Harry was feeling strangely warm, like he hadn’t quite felt since that day inthe hallway with Severus. I’m tentatively saying genuine, said Slytherin.Perfect Occlumens…es? Occlumentes? Are rare, and this doesn’t sound like alie.

Motivated cognition, said the Inner Critic.

“Peter came to me, disguised as an Auror I knew fairly well. He said he’dtracked Peter to a Muggle neighbourhood. I was too angry and hurt to thinkstraight, and I followed him. He’d kidnapped someone, fed them Polyjuice tolook like Peter, bewitched them to shout about how I was a traitor. We wereboth Disillusioned, and he changed into me, dropped his Charm, and blew halfthe street apart before I had time to think.”

“How did the real Peter escape, then?” asked Harry sceptically.

Sirius stood up abruptly and blurred into a large black dog, then back again.“Your father, Peter and I were all Animagi.” Sirius’ expression grew distant,and wistful. “Have you met Remus, Harry?”

Harry nodded.

Sirius looked carefully at him. “Remus is a werewolf.”

“I see,” said Harry. That explained a lot, actually - Mr. Lupin was a skilledwizard, and yet his robes were shabby and he drifted from one job to another;those scars on his face never faded. Werewolves were deadly even to some adultwizards, and unable to control their actions once transformed. They were alsoentirely harmless as long as they took Wolfsbane Potion once a month, whichwas reasonably cheap, and yet the Ministry didn’t provide it for free towerewolves because people were stupid.

“We found that out about him by the end of our first year. Wolfsbane didn’texist at the time, so Dumbledore had put measures in place for him - theHogwarts wards tracked him, and every month he came to this place,” Siriusgestured around, “to transform safely.”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “We’re near Hogwarts?”

“Yes. I don’t know how your scaly little friend over there knew about it, butthis is the Shrieking Shack in Hogsmeade. There’s a loophole in the protectiveenchantments on Hogwarts. You can Portkey out through the Shack, but not in.”

That made sense. Hogwarts’ grounds were big - it had all happened too quicklyto notice at the time, but now that Harry looked back they’d come nowhere nearthe boundary of the wards.

“Remus used to keep all sorts of things as Portkeys - twigs, combs, , and healways panicked when we asked what they were.” Sirius smiled fondly. “Hehonestly thought we’d abandon him, the prat. Instead, the three of us learnedto become Animagi - your father was a stag, Harry. Werewolves aren’t veryaggressive towards other animals, so that way we could keep him company, andbe an extra layer of security. We started calling ourselves the Marauders, thegreatest pranksters Hogwarts had ever seen.”

Sirius’s eyes were sparkling. “Speaking of which, I heard about your littleescapade with those bullies. Not bad, young Prongslet, but it doesn’t measureup to the one where we got McGonagall to- well, I’ll tell you another time.”

The smile vanished as though it had never been. “Anyway. Peter was a rat,which suited him down to the ground. When he blew the street apart and framedme, he changed forms and ran away just as the Aurors arrived.”

Sirius smirked bitterly. “It was the second-best prank I’ve ever seen.”

Silence reigned while Harry tried to digest all of that. It… didn’t entirelysound like something a real Death Eater would say, it was too complex, ahardened Dark Wizard would surely just claim they’d been Imperiused ortortured or something. That said, it had pulled his heartstrings perfectly,which was convenient.

Something in Harry felt repulsed at that thought, and it occurred to him againthat that might be how he spent the rest of his life - never quite convincedthat a smile was just a smile. Harry glanced over at Professor Quirrell. Harryhad inherited Riddle’s thought patterns and some fragments of memory. Quirrellhad inherited an input of Riddle’s entire mind. In that moment, Harry thoughthe might have begun to understand how Monroe had felt on that cold Octobernight.

“So our magnificent justice system threw me into Azkaban without a trial. Theynever even stopped to wonder why Lucius stood by and let that one happen. Andthen, one day, while I was sitting there happily losing my mind, Dumbledorebroke me out.”

OK, this is just silly, said Slytherin. It was plausible until now, butcome on. I mean, conspiracy theories are all very well, but this is… whatnext? Were they rescued by, by Draco Malfoy in a Boeing 747? Did they meltthrough the steel walls of Azkaban with the jet _fuel?_

When most people try to make things up, it doesn’t sound like this, saidRavenclaw. A__nd unlikely things do happen. Shuffle a pack of cards, and it’sprobable that that permutation has never happened before…

“Why would Dumbledore do that? How would he even know you were innocent?”asked Harry.

“Apparently, Peter, the idiot, came to Hogwarts in his Animagus form,searching for some cursed object old snake-face had apparently hidden there.Peter was never very powerful. He might have been able to run away and live inanother country, but it must have been a bit of a disappointment. He went froma warrior for the Dark Lord to a rat on the run, and he obviously decided togo back to his old ways.”

Sirius grinned, a curiously canine expression. “Sadly for him, the Marauders’legacy was alive and well. Your friends the Weasley twins happened to show alovely little map we’d all made to their big brother Bill, who noticed thathis brother’s rat was called Peter Pettigrew, and ran to Dumbledore. A coupleof Memory Charms later, and Bill was in St. Mungo’s, Peter was Confunded toturn into me, and I was free.”

I quit, said Ravenclaw.

Harry put his head in his hands. They really ought to start paying me morefor all this.

It had been horrible to do that to Bill… nothing like as bad as leavingsomeone in Azkaban, certainly, and Bill had recovered fully and, the twins hadsaid, was now a curse-breaker for Gringotts.

That seemed like an unusually happy ending, and Dumbledore had shown everyindication of caring for his students. Could the entire story of Bill’spsychosis be pure fabrication? That should get a complexity penalty, but Harrywasn’t even sure that was valid when Dumbledore was involved.

Sirius had been remarkably straightforward with Harry for an adult, and atthat thought Harry’s respect for him rose several notches. “Sirius… that wholestory sounds…”

Peter Pettigrew, by all accounts, had been smart. He wouldn’t risk everythingto run back into enemy territory - literally into the enemy castle - just totry to get some mysterious thing. On the other hand, Voldemort might wellhave left orders for his servants to try to retrieve Horcruxes after a giveninterval of time, just in case his creation didn’t quite work as planned.Peter might have further supposed that some other Death Eaters had been givensimilar orders, and feared Voldemort’s retribution if Peter had disobeyedorders…

Sirius gave a bark of laughter. “You’re telling me, Harry.”

Harry rubbed his forehead, then remembered that he was having a conversationwith a man who was either a mass-murdering traitor or his caring godfather.“What have you been doing with yourself?”

A sigh. “Well, the war was done, and Moony- sorry, Remus was the only friend Ihad left in the world, and he’d spent years thinking I was evil. I knew he’dnever forgive me anyway, for what I told Peter.” Sirius looked down at hisrobes.

Harry was about to start talking about egocentric bias and how Remus Lupinwasn’t the kind of person who would hold a grudge against someone for onestupid mistake, but then decided to shut up.

Sirius collected himself. “I ended up drifting back to Hogsmeade, and tookover Honeydukes as ‘Ambrosius Flume.’” Sirius gave an elaborate bow. “SiriusBlack, ex-convict extraordinaire, mass-murdering Death Eater and purveyor ofdelicious sweets to children.”

Despite himself, Harry snorted.

OK. This is all starting to look like some kind of bizarre plot, saidSlytherin.

Who could possibly benefit? asked Ravenclaw. And why make it this complex?And this… well, this?

That story just doesn’t sound right. Pettigrew’s plot was complicated andneeded extremely precise timing, but it went off without a hitch. It’s… itlooks like what Professor Quirrell arranged in the corridor. It looks set up.

Harry shook his head, as though to rid himself of the thought. “What are youdoing here tonight?”

Sirius shrugged. “I live in Hogsmeade. The wards I put on this place when Iwas in school triggered for the first time in years, and I was curious.”

Who could possibly benefit from Peter Pettigrew framing Sirius Black, thenbeing captured himself, then breaking Sirius out of Azkaban? asked Ravenclaw.

What happened as a result of that? mused Slytherin.

Anyone behind this whole thing would have to be unbelievably good, or cheatingsomehow. Suppose somebody needed Sirius completely out of the way temporarily,for some reason, but still had use for him.

What happened with Sirius out of the way?

Well, Sirius would have been Harry’s legal guardian, and in his absenceDumbledore had become Harry’s guardian.

Dumbledore, who had given Harry to his parents.

Dumbledore, who “had some sort of foreknowledge”.

Dumbledore, who was more than powerful enough to fake the whole thing, to makethe scheme work by brute force.

Dumbledore, who had a taste for bizarre, incomprehensible plots.

Dumbledore, who understood the phoenix’s price more than well enough to leavea friend in Azkaban for a few years.

Harry stayed silent for a moment.

“Look,” said Sirius. “I know it sounds strange, and you’re probably right notto trust me. Merlin knows your parents shouldn’t have. But I’m not a DeathEater, Harry, not in a million years. Expecto Patronum.”

A silver dog burst from the end of Sirius’s wand, tail wagging.

Genuine or not, we still shouldn’t trust him, murmured Slytherin.

Harry rubbed his temples in a circular motion. He wasn’t in any immediatedanger. He could afford to take a minute to be tired and confused and elatedand horrified and not thinking straight.

Harry was starting to wonder if the universe was deliberately messing withhim specifically.

“Good evening,” came the dry voice of Professor Quirrell.

Author’s Note:

A/N: clues about the Mirror puzzle, which I now realise was probably much too hard:

1. Even Quirrell can’t fool the Mirror. It’s something he genuinely wants to do.

2. It’s something to do with the fact that the Stone (unlike in HPMOR) can perform otherwise-impossible feats of healing, up to and including, for instance, healing the Longbottoms.

3. It involves a backdoor Dumbledore programmed into the Mirror, in case he or an ally, for whatever reason, desperately needed the Stone for some specific purpose. Dumbledore doesn’t know what the Stone does. He has, however, read enough books to not seal away the Stone completely, especially when it comes to the most salient purpose that he has in mind.

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