Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Circumstance
Rated SAFE
No Pairings


Second year has ended and Harry is starting to see all the reasons for distancing himself from the headmaster. After all, what could a Slytherin like Harry expect from someone with so many prejudices against the Dark and all of Slytherin House. However, he has his own allies and a growing understanding of the magical world that gives him the confidence to start moving away from the path that has been chosen for him. What he does not know is that Voldemort has returned and reclaimed most of his soul. That means that Voldemort is more cunning and dangerous than ever, but he is moving carefully to avoid revealing his plans to either Dumbledore or the Boy-Who-Lived. One this is sure... third year is going to be different than anything Harry could have expected. The escape of a distant Black cousin out to kill him isn't even on his list of top ten problems to worry about.

Chapter 1

Lucius adjusted the labels of his gray suit. He would rather be anywhere other than this dirty muggle street filled with the houses of simpletons, beasts, and mudbloods; however, he would not deny his Lord. After the mistake with the diary, he could not afford to fail in any way. His family’s lives as well as his own were on the line, and if the Dark Lord wished to take a more subtle approach to attacking muggles and the old fool at Hogwarts, Lucius was bound to follow. Literally.

The Dark Mark had never felt so suffocating. The other Death Eaters said that their Lord had returned more sane, more charismatic, more able to lead the Dark to victory. Lucius had heard it all from those trusted enough to be called to Obstrepan Nott’s manor to meet with the Dark Lord. But Lucius chafed under the Dark Lord’s more intense gaze. The man was more critical, even if he was less likely to torture his followers. He demanded detailed reports and micromanaged every plan Lucius brought to him.

Never had he regretted his choices as much as he did now, but to help the Dark to victory, he would suffer the Dark Lord’s attention and carry out his duties as assigned.

He walked up and rang the bell as he had practiced with Geoff Bulstrode. After a second, a woman answered the door. She had dark skin, and thick hair pulled up into a massive top knot with strands artfully escaping. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m Lucius Malfoy. Are you Mrs. Granger?”

“Yes.” She sounded suspicious. Wise woman.

“My son goes to school with your daughter, Hermione. In fact, I am currently auditing the school. I was hoping I could speak with you.”

“Of course. She stepped back to allow him entrance into a perfectly plain box with mundane furnishing tucked against the walls. Lucius schooled his features into a pleasant expression and stepped far enough in for Mrs. Granger to close the door behind him. “John, we have company.”

John. What a perfectly pedestrian name. It fit this dreadful house. A man came out of a narrow door, balding and wearing shorts with a hideous blue and green pattern that looked like no plant Lucius had ever seen.

“Hi,” the man said. “John Granger.” He held his hand out.

“Lucius Malfoy,” Lucius said as he emulated the gesture and then gripped Mr. Granger’s hand in his own.

“Oh, Malfoy. That would make you Draco’s father,” Mrs. Granger said. “Draco, Harry and Neville are the boys Hermione often studies with. You remember, John.”

Lucius fought to maintain his smile. His son was associated with a mudblood and a Longbottom. He wasn’t sure which was worse, but at least Draco was in Harry Potter’s good graces, and with the Dark Lord’s most recent commands, it seemed as if that was the safest place for his son.

“Oh, nice to meet you. Call me John and this is Monica.”

“Please, call me Lucius.” If his father had seen him reduced to this, Abraxis would have burned the Dark Lord alive before pledging his family to the cause. However, Lucius was a survivor, and when the tides turned, he turned with them. He had no choice given the circumstances.

“How can we help you?” Monica Granger asked.

“I was hoping we could sit and discuss the Hogwart’s curriculum.”

“Of course, come in. Sit. Would you like something to drink? I have water and lemonade,” she offered.

Lucius chose a dull-colored chair and sat, leaving the couch for the two Grangers. “No thank you. I’m actually here on business. I don’t know if your daughter has told you, but I’ve been asked to serve as the Inquisitor to investigate the rapidly declining scores at Hogwarts.”

The Grangers exchanged a concerned look. The father spoke. “Hermione mentioned that you got a teacher replaced. Apparently there was a ghost who was not doing his job, and you were responsible for Professor Jones coming in halfway through the year. She is one of Hermione’s favorite professors.”

Monica laughed. “Most professors are Hermione’s favorite professor. However, she hasn’t said anything about dropping scores or standards.” She frowned.

“Indeed. At one point, Hogwarts had the highest scores in Europe and was among the best schools in the world. More recently, Beauxbatons in France and Durmstrom in Eastern Europe are both regularly outperforming Hogwart’s students. Our students cannot even hope to compete with those from Japan or Uganda.

“I wanted my son to attend Durmstrom, but the fact is that the house system ensures that students who attend school outside of the UK will not have a fair chance of employment inside it. Why should an employer hire an unknown when he can ask someone about how a Hogwart’s applicant acted during school? The system is biased toward Hogwart students and that has kept enrollment relatively high despite the dropping scores.”

“That is concerning,” John said. “How can we help?”

Lucius smiled. “I’ve already sorted history, and I am waiting to see who the headmaster hires for Defense this year, so my current concern is Muggle Studies.”

“Hermione plans to take that.” Monica rested a hand on her husband’s arm.

“The curriculum is supposed to prepare students to interact with the muggle world, but the instruction is so poor that the teacher does not dare take students on a field trip. I had thought the problem was Professor Burbage, but as I investigated, I found that her books have so many inaccuracies that she cannot possibly teach using them. I’m afraid the books have not been updated since the late 1930s.”

“Oh my.”

“What does this have to do with us?” John asked. “Why would you bring this to us?”

Lucius smiled. This was going largely the way the Dark Lord had predicted. “I have a magical container here with a number of books if I could unshrink it.” He took a ring-sized box out of his pocket and waited for permission. It galled him to look to a muggle for that, but needs must.

“Of course,” Monica said.

Lucius removed his wand from his can and tapped the box. It expanded into something slightly larger than a suitcase. “I have a number of books in here. Some are used in the current class. Some are travel guides for wizards who want to see the world. Some are translations of books used in Muggle Studies in other countries, and some are muggle books. Since you are muggles, I was hoping you and some other muggle parents could review these books and rate them for how accurately they present the muggle world and how useful they would be for students hoping to understand it.”

Monica opened the case and immediately pulled out a half dozen books. “Which are the ones currently assigned to the class?”

“I am not telling anyone that because I do not want to prejudice anyone. If you and the other parents say the current class books are the most accurate, we will continue to use them.” Lucius pulled a form out of his pocket. “Since this is magical, when you mark your evaluation, your tally will immediately show on my master copy.”

“When do you need this back by?” the father asked as he took one of the books from his wife.

“If I want to insist on new books for the coming year, I would need a conclusive answer within a month. Any surveys I get back after that could be used to modify the course in future years, but we would have to leave the curriculum the same for the coming year. The headmaster is older, and he resists most changes to the curriculum quite vehemently, so I require a conclusive reason to exert my authority.”

“I won’t have Hermione waste her time on an outdated class,” Monica said firmly. Lucius knew they would have their surveys back well in advance of the deadline, and hopefully they would choose the Oxton texts. Those were explicit about the muggle threat–detailing muggle weapons, surveillance systems, domestic unrest, and cultural differences.

If the muggle families preferred the Flemper booklets, the threat would not be explicit, but students would be able to read between the lines. Flemper did have a nice section on carrying weapons, particularly on muggle transport and across country borders. As a bonus, Flemper was explicit about racism. That would shock the muggle-lovers who assumed those without magic were cute and harmless.

Ironically, the book Harry Potter had given Nott for Yule his first year was another Lucius hoped they chose. It gave horrific detail on the technological advances muggles had made, enough to drive Lucius to drink. But no matter what decision the muggle parents made, students would learn how dangerous the muggle world could be because they were not going to choose the useless books the headmaster had.

“I’m going to visit the families of other muggle-born students, so I hate to rush away, but I must. If you need to reach me, owl post sent to Lucius Malfoy at Malfoy manor will reach me. To shrink the box down for transport, have Miss Granger tap it with her wand, and it will shrink. That will not show up as underage magic.”

As Lucius stood, the two Grangers did as well. “Thank you so much for the work you’re doing for the school.” Mr. Granger put his hand out again, and Lucius shook it.

“My own son attends, so I have a vested interest,” Lucius said. He didn’t tell them how much of a vested interest. As long as he held the reins on the school and kept Dumbledore from outsing him, he had a way to impress the Dark Lord. Lucius would expend every ounce of political capital and use every bit of blackmail to make sure Fudge kept him in this position, and every time Lucius uncovered genuine malfeasance at Hogwarts, it became easier.

Mrs. Granger put her hand out in a manish gesture that mimicked her husbands. Ignoring his own discomfort at treating a woman as though she were a man, Lucius shook it and gave her a smile.

“Very nice to meet you. To be honest, Draco is exceptionally frustrated that he can’t unseat your daughter from the top spot at school. Given how spoiled my son is, the fact that he still studies with her despite that says a lot about your daughter’s intelligence and social skills.”

Monica laughed. “I believe that’s the first time Hermione’s social skills have ever been complimented. It’s very nice to meet you as well. I’ll show you to the door.” The Grangers escorted him out, and Lucius walked away feeling victorious. Dirty, but victorious.

Now he had to visit the Creeveys, the Cadogans, the Thomases, the Coppers, the Finch-Fletchleys, the Aldertons, the Smiths, and the Chins. The number of Gyrffindors on the list added salt to the wound, but he understood his Lord’s reasoning. The old fool couldn’t argue against muggle-born parents from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. Lucius had been banned from surveying anyone with connections to Slytherin, so even though Millicent Bulstrode’s mother was muggle, she would not be allowed to give her input.

Lucius was not used to his house being excluded, and he didn’t like it. However, the Dark Lord rarely cared for the opinions of his underlings. He may have come back different, but that had not changed. So Lucius needed to complete this unpleasant task before he could move on to more pleasant matters, like his family’s vacation in France. Cissa had secured permission to take Harry, so Lucius had to make sure that Draco kept his good favor.

He would offer to teach the boys Dark magic. While Lucius doubted Draco would have a knack for it–his emotions were too wild to harness them to his magic, the Potter boy had promise. And if Lucius was the one to introduce him to the art, that would move Lucius up in the boy’s favor.

If the Dark Lord continued moving in his current direction, the boy would become a pathway to power, and one far less dangerous to tread than the Dark Lord. That was the path Lucius would choose for his son. It was certainly a better one than his own father had chosen for him.

Chapter 2

Lucius apparated to the manor. Narcissa was directing the elves to lock the manor down for the summer, and she cast a quick look in his direction before she finished. Lucius walked over to pour himself a whiskey. The property here and the Malfoy home in Cap d’Ail had an illegal floo connection that allowed them to bypass international travel laws. The French knew about it and ignored it as a private family matter. The English were entirely oblivious. But it meant that they did not have to adhere to any travel schedule.

Lucius waited until the elves had all popped away, and then he moved to his wife’s side, wrapping an arm around her. He did adore his wife. She was a viper–lithe and venomous and so very dangerous. And beautiful. He had been the luckiest man alive when she had agreed to marry him.

“Is everything arranged with Harry?”

She hesitated long enough that Lucius knew she had unvoiced concerns. Only then did she answer. “His Aunt Petunia not only lacks personal conviction but has a multitude of flaws that make it easy to prey upon her weakness. Within an hour she was demanding to sign the paperwork.”

“Excellent.” Lucius kissed the place where Narcissa’s shoulder and neck met.

Narcissa allowed the touch before she turned to face him. “What is our friend going to command of us? I cannot call Harry cousin and see him fall asleep in our family home and watch him…” She stopped and pressed her lips together. Lucius understood her fear. While he would not mourn Harry the way Narcissa would, his own actions with the diary had nearly put Draco in that same precarious position, even if Narcissa would never know. So he understood how she felt.

Lucius wasn’t sure she would ever forgive him if his actions cost them their son. Lucius would never forgive himself.

“Our friend is much changed.” Lucius gathered his thoughts. Some things were not to be said, even within the privacy of one’s own home, not when one had a curious teenager or two about the place. Lucius trusted his privacy spells, but he also knew the trouble his little dragon could get into, and that was doubled when Harry Potter was at the manor.

“Since he has gained access to a great and old library, he is very much changed.” Lucius watched his wife as she processed that information. She would be able to narrow their lord’s host down to either Nott or the Carrows with that information, and hopefully she would understand what Lucius dare not say.

Lucius continued. “He is fascinated that the boy is a parselmouth and he has asked for a full family tree to find the Slytherin connection.”

“The Blacks had Slytherins marry into the family, but so often the names of other families were not recorded since Blacks saw themselves as the only wizarding family of note,” Narcissa commented.

“I will tell him to look into girls who married into the family before surnames were regularly added to the records.”

Narcissa moved away from Lucius’s touch and perched on the edge of the sofa, smoothing her skirt over her knees. “I so often think about Bellatrix. Walburga was near mad with grief, trying to pull her back from the Black madness, but whatever Bella had done… sometimes Dark magic makes changes that cannot be undone.” Narcissa’s gaze was sharp enough to suggest she was more concerned about the Dark Lord currently plotting in Nott’s manor and less concerned about her cursed sister.

“Your sister was a child when she got into whatever trouble she found. You know she wasn’t right by the time she started Hogwarts.” Lucius remembered the other Slytherin students trying to contain her before she put their house into negative points with her behaviors. Once she got her OWLS, her mother Druella had kept her home to finish her studies.

Dueling and Dark magic had been the only topics she had any interest in. Lestrange had finally married her only because Cygnus and Druella had offered a fortune in dowry. She had shown no interest in men, marriage or children. Lucius had thought her uninterested in anything until she had accompanied her husband to a meeting of Death Eaters and had fallen in love with the rhetoric of the Dark Lord. Possibly she had loved the man as well, with Bellatrix it was difficult to tell.

“But you cannot deny that some Dark rituals and spells cannot be easily repaired,” Narcissa countered.

“And some can be given the correct information,” Lucius said, and he was endlessly grateful that Obstrepan had managed to provide whatever information their Lord had lacked before. Lucius wondered if the diary he had so carelessly given away was related to whatever Dark magic their lord had abused or if his anger over the diary was only a side effect. Narcissa settled, temporarily accepting Lucius’s reassurance that the Dark Lord had regained his sanity or at least reversed some of the damage he had done to himself. Perhaps this was the best time for Lucius to broach another subject.

“You know, I suspect your sister would have a problem with the new duties of my job,” Lucius said.

Narcissa studied him. “Which ones?”

“If I hope to convince the headmaster to choose a new Muggle Studies text, I must get feedback from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff parents… muggle parents.”

Narcissa wrinkled her nose.

“Yes, most distasteful,” Lucius agreed. He hesitated before adding, “Obstrepan Nott has ordered his son to marry a muggleborn or halfblood.”

“What? Why?” Narcissa was deeply incensed. She had made an exception for a half-blood Black, but she clearly did not approve of diluting magical blood in general and thought Nott a fool.

“You know Obstrepan and his research,” Lucius said lightly. He hated having to advocate this position, but the Dark Mark gave him no choice other than to obey. The problem was that Narcissa was not marked, and she would likely protest the Dark Lord’s newest decree. Given that Lucius had already failed the Dark Lord by nearly losing the diary to the headmaster, he could not have his family challenge it.

“His research?” she said slowly.

“He found a common denominator in the magic of those with the strongest magical cores–Grindelwald, the headmaster, Nicolas Flamel, The Dark Lord, even McGonagall and Severus and the Scamanders.”

“They all have a common element to their magic?” Narcissa spoke slowly. No doubt she understood what he was suggesting by discussing the subject of power so soon after bringing up muggles.

Lucius nodded. “Obstrepan suspects this element being missing might account for the Black madness that stalks your family.”

“No!” Narcissa shot up from the couch and put her hands on her hips. This was normally where Lucius would beat a hasty retreat, but he could not afford to.

“You have felt Harry’s core strength. And after generations of the unique Black family talent vanishing, the only two Blacks of the youngest generation are both metamorphmaguses and are both half-bloods.”

Her nose flared, and Lucius knew he was very close to getting hexed. He might have already been sending a message to Severus asking for a rescue if it were not for the children being in the manor.

“Cissa, look at it logically.”

“Lucius, no. And I cannot believe you would say that about… about our friend.”

Lucius lowered his voice to a whisper. “He says it about himself.”

Narcissa stared at him, eyes wide. She was a Black, and they did have strong opinions on blood purity, but Lucius could not allow her to continue to openly embrace those ideals. She could and likely would believe that any wizard with blood less powerful than a Black’s required strict blood purity to avoid diluting family gifts, but she would have to believe it quietly. As Lucius would.

“The boy does not suffer a lack of raw power,” Lucius said.

She crossed her arms over her chest.

“And Severus has always been able to best me,” Lucius continued. Obstrepan’s research made him feel better about that. It had always bothered him that a half-blood could magically overpower him every time they dueled.

She was not moved. Lucius ceded the field for now. “Where are the boys?”

“Upstairs packing. Harry had no swimming trunks, no summer clothes, no summer robes for formal events. He had nothing that would be appropriate for a vacation, so Draco and I took him shopping. Harry wanted to organize his trunk, and Draco needed to make some decisions about which of his clothing to take with us and which to leave here.”

Meaning Draco had purchased more clothes that would fit into an expandable trunk. Given that he would be a different size next summer and would need to purchase more clothing, that seemed a waste, but what was the point of wealth if Lucius couldn’t indulge his family. Since Narcissa was in a dangerous mood, Lucius retreated to Draco’s bedroom.

That would give Narcissa some time to think about what he had said.

Chapter 3

Harry loved France. He loved the sea. He loved vacations. This summer was a whole new world for him, and he loved all of it, even when he stumbled over French words and didn’t know which fork to use at dinner. Narcissa would smile and explain without any judgment. It made it a little easier that Mr. Malfoy wasn’t spending much time in France with them.

Apparently he still had to work. In fact, Hermione had written that Mr. Malfoy had invited her parents to be on a book committee with other parents of muggle-born students in order to redesign the Muggle Studies class. Harry was impressed that he took his job as a school auditor so seriously that he went to muggles for help.

Harry hadn’t expected that. Maybe he had misjudged Mr. Malfoy’s prejudices.

“I’m stuffed,” Draco complained.

“You ate like a pig.”

“It was good,” Draco defended himself.

“You’re going to regret eating that much when Mr. Newman gets here,” Harry warned. Dueling practice was his favorite part of summer, and this year their dueling tutor was coming three times a week. He said that as they got older, their cores could handle more strain. That was funny because dueling never felt like a strain. Harry loved it best when he paired off against Mr. Newman and he could throw his spells full strength. He tried to temper them when he fought Draco to avoid any jealousy.

“Maybe I’ll skip today.” Draco opened one eye and looked at Harry. “You could skip, too. We could go back in the water.”

The sea was perfect for swimming today, but something pulled at Harry, warning him that he wasn’t safe–not even here. He had to learn how to protect himself. He shook his head and pointed to the rational danger that Draco would understand. “You don’t have the headmaster trying to manipulate you. I do. I need to be able to defend myself.”

Draco gave a dramatic sigh. “Right. So we let the madman torture us with spells for a while.”

“I’m not sure Mr. Newman would describe himself that way.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Narcissa said. Harry sat up, but Draco just tilted his head to one side so he could see his mother. “Dragon, change into your dueling uniform. Mr. Newman wants to assess you. Harry will be along as soon as you’re finished.

“But today isn’t a good day for that. I ate too much lunch.” Draco's voice edged toward whining.

Narcissa raised an eyebrow. Other than Professor Snape, she had the most expressive eyebrows of anyone Harry knew.

“Fine,” Draco said with a huff. He pushed himself up and grabbed his towel off the sand. “I’ll let Newman torture me.”

Narcissa smiled as Draco marched off, dragging his towel over the rocks at the edge of the beach. “You got another letter.”

“The headmaster?” Harry asked.

“It is unsigned, but it requests that you return to the Dursleys immediately.”

“The headmaster.” Harry really hated the headmaster. Loathed. Despised. The worst part was that he never even tried to explain why Harry should go back to an abusive family. He just made grand proclamations, like Harry should go to a muggle family who hated him instead of his wizarding relatives, and the whole wizarding world just fell in line. And he expected Harry to do the same.

“Burn it?” Narcissa asked.

“It’s not like it’s signed, so we can’t return it with a curse on it.”

Narcissa smiled sharply. “Unfortunately, we cannot. He is still addressing them to you, and not us, so I believe your aunt has not told him who she signed temporary custody over to this summer.”

“I doubt he asked,” Harry said. “He never acts out in the open.”

“Which is wise.”

“When I’m the target of his plots, it feels more manipulative than wise.”

She leaned closer. “It always does when a Slytherin targets you, and the headmaster has more than a little Slytherin in him, despite his Gryffindor roots. You have a guest who would like to speak to you.”

“Blaise?” Harry sat up. He had said he would visit this summer, but his mother hadn’t given him permission yet.

“No. Severus is here.” She turned, and Professor Snape stood at the glass door watching them, his black robes looking wildly out of place in the sunny French chateau. Harry got off the ground, and brushed the sand off his knees. Narcissa said, “I’ll leave you two to talk.”

She walked toward the kitchen wing and Harry climbed the stairs toward the patio, where Professor Snape had taken a position in the shade of a crepe myrtle.

“Potter,” he said when Harry got up to the patio area.

“Professor Snape. How are you, sir?”


Harry avoided pointing out that the professor would be more comfortable if he wasn’t wearing his school robes. Cap d’Ail was warm. “Yes, sir.” Harry wasn’t sure what to say from here. Professor Snape sighed and sat at a small tiled table with two chairs. Harry sat in the other.

“Are you working on your homework?”

“Yes, sir. I have my potions work done and Draco and I have been working with the dueling tutor. We’re going to start working on runes next week.”

Professor Snape stared at the sea with an expression that made it seem like it had personally offended him. Harry squirmed. “Since you do not have an involved guardian, Lucius spoke to me regarding your education,” he said.

“You mean the French potions?” Narcissa had bought him potions that made it easier for him to learn French. He still had to work hard, but between hearing French all day every day and his lessons and the potions, he was learning quickly.

He grimaced. “I am uninterested in your language acquisition. I am more interested in the fact that Lucius would teach you magics that the headmaster would be adamantly opposed to you learning.”

Harry swallowed. “Dark magic.” Draco was excited because his father had said that thirteen was old enough to start learning it, but Harry hadn’t realized he had the option to join them. Professor Snape watched him carefully.

“Do you want to be part of the lessons?” he asked.

Harry wasn’t used to adults asking for his opinion. “Um.”

“Try to show some decorum, Potter. ‘Um’ is not an answer.”

Harry ducked his head. “I apologize, sir.” Harry felt like explaining that his school manners got rusty in summer, but that didn’t seem safe. “I would like to learn a new branch of magic, but one thing worries me.” Harry chewed his lip for a second before asking, “Why do people fear the Dark arts?”

“Dark magic is fueled by emotions,” said Professor Snape. “You must hate someone to throw crucio; you must embrace your greatest joy to cast patronus. But indulging in emotion that way is dangerous. That is why most practitioners of Dark magic use occluding to limit the potential damage. And if one can’t control one’s own emotions and the attached Dark magic, then the result is madness of the sort Bellatrix Lestrange nee Black suffered. The danger is magnified if you indulge in darker emotions, which she often did.”

Harry winced. “That sounds horrible. Why do people use Dark magic?”

Professor Snape sighed. “It is part of our culture. My mother started teaching me Dark magic before I went to Hogwarts because it touches our core. It is the heart of magic and the most powerful expression of it. The headmaster refuses to allow the study in Hogwarts and has been instrumental in banning the practice in the UK; however, he often uses it himself.”

“But he wouldn’t want me to know it,” Harry said softly. It wasn’t a question–he knew the headmaster wouldn’t. If he considered sacrificing the educations of all Hogwart’s students an acceptable price to damage the political reputation of Professor Lockhart, then Harry’s education wasn’t worth much to him.

“He would not. He does not trust people with that sort of power. He believes that no one is immune to the lure of Dark magic and that any who practice it will eventually be tempted to abuse the power.”

“Then he would hate me knowing it,” said Harry softly. Professor Snape didn’t disagree.

“It is time for you to decide if you are willing to walk away from the path he has set for you,” said the professor. “And if you are, you must learn to be more adept at keeping secrets. For example, the headmaster would also be most unhappy if he learned of Lockhart’s death.”

“Professor Lockhart is dead? How?” Harry wasn’t surprised, but he thought the newspaper would have carried the story. Every time a reporter tracked down the actual hero who had performed the feats Lockhart claimed, it had made the front page.

Professor Snape studied him. “You know. You were there.”

“No, I wasn’t. I was hiding,” Harry said, but as he stared into Professor Snape’s dark eyes, he suddenly doubted his own memories. “Wasn’t I?”

“You were afraid the headmaster would learn that you were a parselmouth–that he would learn about the parselmouth passages–so we agreed that I would hide the memories of what happened in the Secret Chamber after you fled Lockhart’s room. I told you that I would have to unlock the memories because you cannot allow that sort of trauma to fester in a dark corner of your mind.”

As Professor Snape spoke, Harry didn’t remember as much as he felt flashes. Scales under his hand. Fear. Water spraying like a fan-shaped splatter painting.

“However,” continued Professor Snape, “if you wish to learn Dark magic, we shall work on not only processing the trauma of seeing Lockhart’s death but also strengthening your shields so that you can control the emotions and protect your thoughts from the headmaster.”

“He tried to get in my mind before,” Harry said.

“I am aware.”

“But if he doesn’t want me to study Dark magic and he doesn’t want me to know occluding, why would you offer?” Everyone knew that Professor Snape had different political beliefs than the headmaster. He always warned the house if the headmaster was showing interest in particular students, and there were books in the Slytherin dorms that never would have been allowed in the unrestricted section of the library, but that wasn’t the same as openly defying the headmaster.

Professor Snape sighed. “There are many things you do not know, Potter.”

“I know. People would make more sense if I knew everything.” Given that Harry didn’t understand most of Slytherin, he figured they all knew things he didn’t.

Professor Snape stared out across the sea. “I grew up when the Dark Lord was rising to power. Most of Slytherin followed him.”

“Including you,” Harry guessed. He assumed Theo’s father and Draco’s parents and the Crabbes and Goyles had all been big supporters. He wasn’t sure about the Bulstrodes or Blaise’s mother.

Professor Snape was silent for a moment before he nodded. “However, the difficulty was that I was known for having a Gryffindor friend. The strain between the two houses was much more pronounced then because we all suspected we would have to take sides in the war once we graduated.”

Harry thought about that for a second. “Is that why my father bullied you?” Harry had heard the stories from students who had parents and older siblings in Hogwarts at the time. Harry sometimes wondered how Professor Snape could be so nice given how Harry’s father had treated him.

Professor Snape seemed to freeze for a moment before taking a deep breath. “Perhaps. I certainly didn’t help matters by antagonizing him. You see, my best friend, a girl I thought of as a sister… Potter decided to pursue her. He was a pureblood through and through, and I assumed he would use her and drop her because she was muggle-born, and in the wizarding world, girls who have a reputation for sleeping with men before marriage have a particularly difficult time.”

“Are you saying you were friends with someone he liked before my mother or are you saying you were friends with my mother?” Harry asked softly.

The briefest flicker of pain flashed across Professor Snape’s face. “Your mother and I promised we would be friends for life. I had no siblings, and she had only Tuney, so we vowed that no matter what happened, we would be family for each other. Always.”

Harry sucked in a startled breath.

He rubbed his face. “And then we were put in separate houses. Gryffindors pushed her toward Potter, and Slytherin pushed me to condemn her as a mudblood.” He sneered at the last word. He then sighed. “It turns out that when you promise someone forever, life does not always allow you to keep that promise.” He gave a rough laugh. “Immaturity does not allow it.”

“So, if it weren’t for the war, I would have grown up with you as Uncle Severus?” Harry asked. That was a strange thought. He knew his parents had been stolen from him, but he might have had a whole network of friends and relatives. He wondered if he would have still ended up being friends with the Malfoys. They were Slytherin to the core, and it sounded like his parents didn’t like Slytherins.

He wondered if they would have liked him when he sorted Slytherin. Maybe he would have pushed the hat to let him join Ravenclaw.

Professor Snape’s mouth twisted into a shape halfway between a sneer and a smile. “Perhaps. We can never know what could have happened. After all, the headmaster filled me with tales of how spoiled you were–how much you were like your father. Had you been sorted into Gryffindor, perhaps I would have loathed you as much as I once did your father.” His voice echoed with regret. “I suspect I would have.”

He stared off into the distance before he continued. “I never wanted to teach, and being forced into the job has made me bitter. Even when I try to be better, I often fail.”

This conversation made Harry deeply uncomfortable, but Professor Snape wouldn’t be sharing these details unless Harry was supposed to get something important out of it. That’s why Narcissa had gotten Draco out of the way. “How can someone force you into teaching?” asked Harry.

“I could not forget that your mother and I had promised to be family forever. I suspect if my life were in danger, she would have taken desperate steps to save me, so when I learned the Dark Lord would target her and her child, I begged for her life.”

Professor Snape stopped, and Harry heard what he hadn’t said. He’d begged for his friend’s life, but not for the life of James Potter or their son.

“I bring this up now because you have to know the danger. By the end of the war, the Dark Lord had lost himself to madness. Some magic can fracture your mind. He could not be reasoned with, and his political goal to save the Dark had vanished under unadulterated violence, so I knew I could not trust him to save Lily. I went to the headmaster and begged him to protect her. The price I paid was being forced to spy on the Dark and follow the headmaster.”

Harry sucked in a breath. “Does Mr. Malfoy–”

“No,” Professor Snape said. “The other Death Eaters do not know.”

Cold panic swirled through Harry’s stomach. He had to make sure Mr. Malfoy never found out or he would kill the professor. When the Dark Lord had fallen, the Malfoys had lost a lot, and he would never forgive Professor Snape.

“However, to return to your question, I would teach you occluding and I would encourage you to learn Dark magic because you are what is left of a young woman I loved like a sister. So often when my father was drinking, her parents, your muggle grandparents, would take me in. I would fall asleep watching television on the couch and Mrs. Evans would put a blanket over me and let me stay the night, knowing I was safer with them.”

Harry’s eyes grew large. “I wish I would have had a friend like that,” he confessed.

“And I wish the same. No child should be raised in a family that has such abhorrent views on magic. I fear my father had the same attitude as the Dursleys. It is not a safe situation for a wizarding child.”

“Then why did the headmaster leave me with them?”

The professor studied Harry’s face for a long time before saying sadly, “I do not know. He does not trust anyone with his plans, but I believe he had some hidden reason. I’m sure he believes it a valid one.” Professor Snape smiled. “I prefer to find you here. It will be easier for me to help you refine your occlumency and for Lucius to teach you Dark magic if we do not have to work around the headmaster and his wards.”

Harry thought about what the professor had said about Lockhart’s death. “You used legitimacy to lock away my memories, didn’t you?” Harry asked. He wasn’t sure how he felt about someone rearranging his mind. After Lockhart had threatened to do it, he was irrationally afraid. But he trusted Professor Snape must have had a good reason. If Harry had been there, if Lockhart’s death had something to do with the parselmouth passages, he could understand the need to hide the truth from the headmaster. His occluding wasn’t that effective–not yet.

“We agreed together to do it, although I warned you that I would have to undo the work as well. However, I need an answer on whether you wish to learn Dark magic so I can decide how much we must work on your occlumency shields this summer.”

“I don’t want to end up like Bellatrix… or the Dark Lord. Do you think I can study it without losing myself?” asked Harry. He found the professor preferred brutal honesty, so if he thought Harry couldn’t, he would say so. But Harry did want to learn.

“I believe you will be fine. You have always sought a softer form of power, one many Slytherins overlook. They forget that if you are respected and trusted that others will willingly share power. And because that is your path, I don’t think you will be tempted onto the darker paths that I lost myself on.”

“You were lost?”

The professor nodded. “I thought magic could solve any problem. I thought I could prove to Lily that James was a horrible person if I could just find a spell dark enough to make him show his true colors. It led me to make terrible, unforgivable mistakes. I still do practice Dark magic, but I am now more likely to remember to honor magic and respect the limitations of it. I believe you have the strength to avoid my own mistakes, but if I see you in danger of repeating them, I will step in.” Professor Snape gave Harry a forbidding look.

Something had changed. Professor Snape had always been a protector, but he’d always kept a certain distance. He’d never shared any part of himself. But Harry knew he wouldn’t be able to get any information the professor didn’t want to share. So he was going to have to put this change down to one more case of people knowing something he didn’t.

Harry knew Dark magic was dangerous, but so was fire, and it was dead useful. “I do want to learn, but can’t you teach me?” Harry respected Mr. Malfoy, but he didn’t like him. Worse, he didn’t trust him.

“Dark magic relies on an individual maintaining control of their emotions. You are the child of the woman I loved like a sister and a man I loathed with every fiber of my existence. I am not certain I will be able to maintain enough control over my own emotions to teach you occlumency. I will not risk teaching you Dark magic. Lucius is more likely to maintain the even demeanor required for such lessons.”

“Yes, sir.” Harry was disappointed, but he understood.

“I shall speak with Lucius. He will begin with the dangers inherent in the misuse of magic, so if he attempts to get you to cast any Dark spell before at least a month of instruction, refuse and come speak to me. Tonight, I will unpick the spell I wove to hide your real memories, and you may have a rough night. Death is a difficult topic for anyone, but someone your age is particularly unprepared for the realities of it.”

Professor Snape practically fled the patio. Harry watched as he vanished in a flurry of black robes so quickly that he might as well have apparated rather than just hurried into the house.

Narcissa came out once the professor was inside. “Life has not treated him well.” She sighed. “It’s time for you to have your assessment. Get into your dueling robes, Harry.”

Chapter 4

Teaching occlumency was more of a chore than Severus had expected, but he was unwilling to pass that task to Lucius. There were too many opportunities for Lucius to learn secrets that he could not be trusted to protect. Lucius had and always would put his family first, and Harry was not part of that. Not for Lucius. Harry was a potential chess piece he could use to protect his own son.

So that meant Severus had to control his own emotions, and that was growing more difficult. The Dark Lord had charged him with admitting the full truth to the boy, and Severus could not. How could he tell Harry that Lily had died because of him? He had carried that prophecy to the Dark Lord. Severus had carried half the prophecy and precluded the chance that the Dark Lord would have seen the different possible interpretations.

The emotional turmoil meant Severus kept retreating to Spinner’s End. France might be beautiful, but Severus preferred his privacy. He was brewing a rejuvenating potion when his floo alarm made the air shimmer. He checked the cauldron before casting a stasis spell. He did not need the potion since it was only part of his cover for the Dark Lord, but he would rather not ruin any potion. Once he secured his brew, he headed upstairs.

Albus stood next to the fireplace studying the titles on Severus’s bookshelf. Severus knew he disapproved of several of the darker texts, but none were illegal. Severus carefully hid those books.

“What can I do for you, Albus?”

“What have you heard from Voldemort?” That was unusually direct for Albus.

Severus strengthened his shields and placed his constructed memories near the front of his mind. “He continues to obsess over his lost wand. Despite every Death Eater denying any knowledge of its location, he refuses to call a convocation or move on his agenda until someone finds it. As I told you last time, I believe this is a delaying tactic to hide his infirmity.”

“And you continue to brew strengthening and rejuvenating potions?” Albus asked.

“I do. My skill has allowed me to escape the worst of his temper.”

Albus walked to the window, stroking his beard. “Tom never understood the magics he tried to wield. He would find one reference to a spell and assume his natural brilliance could overcome his own ignorance.”

Severus did not point out that most adolescents were horrifically convinced of their own brilliance. Severus had been, and he refused to believe the headmaster had been any different. Teaching Dark arts would prevent that very problem. Few witches or wizards could maintain their own arrogance when faced with stories of Delphinis the Rude who had accidentally skinned himself alive or Herpo the Foul who fractured his soul.

“Do you know where young Harry is?” Albus’s voice was deceptively soft.

“I assume with his foul relatives,” Severus lied. He wanted to demand to know why Albus showed a sudden interest in the boy, but he had a cover to maintain.

“He is not.”

“Then check with his friends. The most likely to host him would be Zabini, Draco, Granger or Longbottom.”

“Longbottom?” Albus sounded amused. “As I understand it, Augusta is quite put out with him for his statements in front of the press.”

“I have also heard the Longbottom and Weasley boys discuss how their families are concerned that Harry spends too much time with Slytherins. I gave them both detentions for slandering my house, of course.”

Albus sighed. “Of course.”

Severus had never wanted to be a teacher, and he had certainly not wanted to be head of Slytherin at twenty-one when he was fresh out of a war and trying to control eighteen-year-olds, half of whom thought he’d betrayed the Dark and half had thought him just too incompetent to serve the Dark Lord well. However, he did get his petty revenge by targeting Albus’s favorite house.

“Harry only spent a few days at the Dursleys’ this summer.”

Severus made a production out of sighing. “Albus, I am forced by my contract to show some minimal interest in the comings and goings of children during the school year. Right now, I do not care where any of them are. Unless Potter is in some danger that my Vow requires me to intervene in, I would rather spend time in the company of the Dark Lord than waste my summer keeping track of teens.”

“Severus,” Albus said in a disappointed tone.

Severus rubbed his face. “Is he in some danger I need to mitigate? If not, I am going to return to my brewing.”

“Lily would be disappointed in you, my boy.” Albus didn’t even bother facing Severus. He continued to look out over the overgrown lawn.

Severus’s head snapped up. “You can stop trying to manipulate me, Albus.” Severus had to play this carefully. Albus expected him to strain the leash, and Severus needed to meet that expectation without making the headmaster wonder if Severus had managed to break it. “The Dark Lord has returned more insane than ever, and my potions are the only thing keeping me from enduring unending crucios. I do not have time to care what Lily would have wanted because I am far too busy trying to keep myself alive and relatively undamaged. If the boy is in danger, I will save his life, but do not expect me to care where he vacations.”

“He is not with Hermione, Ron or Neville,” Albus said softly.

Severus scrubbed a hand across his face. He did not have to feign the weariness. “Then I hope he is with Zabini. His mother is both neutral and powerful enough to protect him.”

“She is as Dark as witches come, Severus,” Albus said in a chiding tone that made Severus twitch with rage.

“And she refused to join the Dark Lord, maintaining her neutrality over his campaign.”

Albus finally turned. “And her neutrality is the main reason I believe she would avoid having ties to Harry. That leaves the Malfoys.”

“Or he has other friends in the muggle world,” Severus snapped.

“He doesn’t.” Albus looked sad for a moment, but then he smiled and the benevolent grandfather facade returned. “His friends are all in the wizarding world, but we cannot allow him to maintain such strong links to the Malfoys, especially now that Voldemort has returned.”

“And given my position, I cannot interfere, even if he is with them. Lucius must believe I will support his schemes. He is searching for ways to impress the Dark Lord.”

“Surely you can concoct some reason for visiting them and removing Harry from their home,” said Albus in a disappointed voice.

“I don’t even know where they are,” Severus said. “Since the Dark Lord returned, Lucius has made himself scarce, saying he is busy with his quest to undermine you at Hogwarts.”

Albus sighed and walked over to the couch. He had to move several newspapers before he sat. “He has expended a lot of political capital on a few irrelevant changes. A new teacher, an added requirement for Divination, a different Muggle Studies textbook. It is quite unlike Lucius.”

Severus sat in his favorite chair. “I think he is less interested in making genuine changes than he is in appearing to accomplish something. He wants to have some success to report each time the Dark Lord calls him, and as long as he has even an inconsequential offering, he saves himself from torture.”

Albus continued to stroke his beard. “Voldemort always wanted the grand gesture.”

Severus flinched at the pain his Dark Mark inflicted. “I’m not sure he can distinguish between a grand gesture and a trivial offering at this point,” Severus said with a snort. “And I think Lucius has noticed. So he does as little as he can. No doubt if the Dark Lord begins to demand bigger results, he will shift accordingly. Lucius is exceptionally skilled in the art of survival.”

“Which is why we must retrieve Harry.”

Severus closed his eyes. He was growing too tired to balance all the masters who had claims to his loyalty. “Then go to the Ministry, declare your guardianship, and have them send a demand letter to Lucius. He is trying to work within the law, so he won’t risk ignoring a summons.”

Albus gave him a disappointed look. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Then assign custody to Bethsheda and have her go to the Ministry.”

“My boy, you are overly complicating this. Simply ask to visit your friend, and once you know where the Malfoys have hidden themselves, return with Harry.” Albus made it sound so simple. If the Dark Lord were as insane now as he was before he disappeared, removing the boy would have led to his death. No doubt the headmaster was trying to protect the child, which Severus could respect, but under different circumstances, he would have been trading away Severus’s life.

“And what should I tell Lucius when he asks why I’m removing a politically powerful piece from his sphere of influence?”

Albus smiled. “I’m sure you can offer him some story.”

“I’m sure I cannot.” Severus crossed his arms over his chest.

“It is imperative that Harry spend at least four weeks with the Dursleys. The blood wards may collapse if he does not.”

That was the opening Severus had been hoping for. “The Dark Lord will not directly attack Potter. I’m fairly sure that most of the second-year students could defeat him in a duel right now, which is why he is only summoning those with the Dark Mark who are bound to obey. So having a protective spell that is only good against the Dark Lord is of no real value. If he wants Potter dead, he will send someone else.”

“Voldemort is not the only danger.”

Severus was tired of Albus intentionally making the mark burn, but he could not react to the name or Albus would double his efforts. “What other danger could blood wards address? They certainly don’t stop Petunia’s wretched child from regularly beating Potter. And I myself have the Dark Mark and have touched the boy countless times while attempting to save his ungrateful hide. Therefore any Death Eater can touch him.”

Albus studied Severus with calculations in his eyes. Either he was about to reveal some truth or he was searching for some manipulation that would bring Severus in line. Severus gazed back and waited.

“The blood wards are critical.”

“I doubt that,” Severus said dryly. He was pushing Albus far harder than he normally would, but Severus needed information. He had to understand the battlefield if he was to position himself and Harry in such a way to survive it.

“Severus.” Albus’s tone carried a strong warning now.

“If it were critical, you would go to the Ministry. I have potions to brew, and if I fail, I will be on the floor in unending pain. Your disappointment does not compare to that imminent threat.”

“You always did serve yourself first,” Albus said sharply.

“No one else did, so I had to,” Severus returned. He took a breath and reined in his frustration. He could not afford to alienate Albus, no matter how good it felt. “I am under extreme pressure. The Dark Lord knows school is out, and he has claimed all my time. Albus, I cannot afford to have this conversation. I must complete my work.” And if the headmaster looked in the basement, he would see evidence of an obscene amount of brewing, most of it staged and most of the final potions coming from France since Severus had been spending considerable time there.

Harry had handled the memory of Lockhart’s death better than Severus had feared. Better than he had hoped, even. Harry had said that the basilisk had simply acted on instinct and nothing could have changed the outcome. His occlumency studies had been more uneven. He was now able to maintain his fire storm, although odd emotions that Harry denied feeling would sometimes break through.

Albus’s expression softened. “Tom was always unreasonable.”

He was not the only one, although Severus did not say as much.

“My concern is that Harry may become vulnerable without the blood wards. I am trying to find a solution, but if I cannot before he turns eighteen, he may be lost.”

Severus sat up. “Why?” If there was a danger, he needed to know.

“When Voldemort attacked Harry, the wound left residual Dark magic. When I tested it, I found Voldemort’s magical signature inside the scar.” Albus was trying to keep his voice light, as if none of this mattered. It made the hair on the back of Severus’s neck stand on end.

“A curse wound. That explains why it didn’t heal well, but that’s not a danger.” Severus had any number of curse wounds, many of which still carried the magical signature of the caster. Near the end of the war, the Aurors had cast curses laden with personal magics intentionally so they could later identify any masked Death Eaters through the wounds, which had been essentially signed.

Albus sighed. “I also found more than a magical signature. I found a tiny fragment of Voldemort himself. I believe he tried to possess Harry, and the blood wards prevented him from taking over. However, if the blood wards fall, Harry may be in danger.

Severus frowned. “The Dark Lord is sitting in a ruined estate hidden by a fidelius. He is not in Harry Potter.”

“I believe that is why he is weak. He has lost a fragment of himself. The blood wards protect Harry from Voldemort. I believe they also protect him from being possessed by the fragment of Voldemort’s soul in that scar.”

Severus winced from both the use of the Dark Lord’s name and out of revulsion from the idea of Harry being essentially infected. However, that didn’t explain why the Dark Lord had returned more sane and more dangerous than ever. If his soul were fragmented, why was he making such subtle moves–setting himself as an illegitimate Potter through blood adoption, having Lucius move slowly with the educational reforms, working through the Wizengamot to slow muggle encroachment into sacred areas instead of burning down towns? This was not a man with a soul as fragmented as Herpo the Foul’s.

Severus’s eyes grew wide as he made the connection. “Are you saying he created horcruxes?”

Albus pursed his lips. “I doubt it.” His toe traced an arc against Severus’s rug and he shrugged a little too slowly for the gesture to connect to the words. He was lying. He did know it was a horcrux, but that meant for Albus to succeed in killing the Dark Lord, he would first have to kill Harry.

The pieces suddenly slotted neatly into the puzzle. He wanted Harry to love the Wizarding world–to love it enough to fight for it, since he would have to kill the Dark Lord. However, for the Dark Lord to stay dead this time, Albus would then have to kill the child. That’s why he didn’t want Harry to have close ties to powerful people. He had pushed the Weasley friendship because he would control that family and had allowed Hermione because her natural abrasiveness meant she would be unable to rally support around Harry.

Albus was planning the child’s death while appealing to Severus’s Vow to keep the child alive. And the blood wards were to contain the Dark Lord’s fragment. It was manipulative enough to be worthy of a Slytherin, and Severus had to admire the man even as he silently panicked. Keeping Harry alive required him to turn Dark, now more than ever.

Severus kept an impassive face and controlled every gesture. “None of this provides any excuse I could offer Lucius. I could, however, contact a shaman I know who is an expert in possession. He might be able to exorcize the spirit.”

“I have consulted with my own experts, and we are preparing a ritual.”

“Albus, I hate to rush you, but either you need to give me a way to retrieve the boy that does not depend on Lucius being too distracted to notice me stealing his prize or you need to leave so I can complete my work. I must attend on the Dark Lord soon, and I must provide the proper number of potions.”

“Yes, yes, of course, my boy. Can I see what a weekly delivery entails? I am interested in how much effort Tom is exerting in order to remain in his new body.”

Severus translated that to the headmaster checking on Severus’s alibi. Luckly, Severus was much better at lying than the headmaster. “Of course. I have a stasis charm on the last potion which is incomplete, but you might see a pattern in a few of the more obscure potions he’s requested. Either he is giving them to someone else or he is taking potions which will counteract each other. I no longer know what to believe.”

“One can hardly dabble in Dark magic and retain one’s sanity,” Albus said cheerfully as though Dark magic and not the abuse of Dark magic were the cause of that. Severus followed him down to the potions lab he kept in the basement and returned to his brewing while Albus poked around the potions already in the carrying case.

Six strengthening potions, five rejuvenating, twelve malnutrition potions, one aihotsy draught, three manegro potions, a fergus fungal budge, nine pepper-ups, and a large flagon of doxycide. Let Albus muse that over for a while.

Chapter 5

Severus apparated to Nott manor, but Theodore rather than Obstrepan met him at the ward line.

“Professor,” he said.

Severus studied the boy. The wards were still up, so clearly Obstrepan had sent his son to play gatekeeper. It was unforgivable to put the boy in such an unenviable position. “Mr. Nott,” he said. “I must speak with your house guest.”

“You no longer serve the Dark Lord,” Theo responded.

Severus sighed. He had hoped Obstrepan would have some discretion–that he would keep his son clear of this conflict as long as possible. Lucius was keeping Draco free of the machinations that were happening behind the scenes, but clearly Obstrpan had chosen differently.

“I still serve the Dark. And the news I bring is of vital interest to the Dark Lord.” Severus pinned Theo with his most formidable glare. Draco would have wilted immediately. Most Slytherin students would have quailed in fear within minutes. Theo stared back at him.

Severus raised an eyebrow. “And you risk displeasing him by denying him information.”

“You could tell me your news.”

Severus drew himself up and clenched his fists. “I most certainly shall not. Get your father or open the wards or you will suffer my displeasure as no Slytherin before ever has.”

Theo finally twitched. So the child was not as immovable as he pretended. He glanced back toward the castle as though calculating Severus’s ire versus the displeasure of those in the manor.

“I promise this is vital to the Dark Lord. I would not put you at odds with your lord,” said Severus, reassuring the boy that he would not place Theo in an untenable position. For a moment more, Theo stood strong. Then the ward line opened. “Thank you,” Severus said. He disliked intimidating one of his Slytherins, but this was not an issue to be discussed with anyone other than the Dark Lord. If Harry was a horcrux, the Dark Lord needed to know this immediately.

They started to walk toward the house. “He is not my lord,” Theo said.

Severus tensed. “That is not a conversation to have here. If you want to talk at school, you are welcome to come to my office.”

Theo stopped and gave Severus an almost amused look. “My father and the Dark Lord have decided that Harry requires someone in his inner circle who can provide better protection and guidance than Draco Malfoy.” He sneered at the name. Obstrepan had never made a secret of the fact that he disapproved of Lucius and Narcissa’s coddling. Clearly Theo had inherited his father’s attitude.

“You will not earn his favor by insulting someone he likes.”

“Does Harry respect Draco?”

“I do not know.”

Theo snorted before he continued up the path. “It seems rather easy to keep his favor.”

“It is easy to avoid conflict with him. It is not as easy to keep his favor. Do not make the mistake Ron Weasley has made.”

Theo frowned at him.

“Have you not seen how they interact?”

“Potter studies with Weasley. He has allowed him back into his inner circle.”

“No, he has respected that others, such as Granger and Longbottom, have connections to him, but if you are more diligent with your observations, you will see that Potter never laughs at his jokes, never argues with him. If anything other than polite conversation happens, Potter will absent himself. Draco, Blaise, Longbottom, Bulstrode, Granger–they can all disagree with him and he respects them enough to listen.”

Theo frowned. If the Dark Lord was setting Theo the task of becoming part of Harry’s inner circle, Severus needed him to understand a form of power few Slytherins ever sought. They could see the end result in individuals like Lockhart or Dumbledore, but they could not see the pathway to it.

Perhaps Lockhart was the best example to use. “Why was the headmaster unwilling to challenge Lockhart?”

“He did not want to waste political capital by attacking someone so popular.”

“So, Lockhart possessed a power equal to the headmaster–one the headmaster had to maneuver around rather than attacking directly.”

Theo was frowning more.

“Harry has power–more than he appears to. And each time he is the reasonable one, the one who forgives, the one who eases the conflicts between Slytherin and Gryffindor, that power grows. He will one day have the ability to bring the Longbottom vote into negotiations with the Dark because Neville Longbottom will trust Harry to be reasonable, even if they disagree politically. He will trust Potter to find a compromise and trust that Potter will act with everyone’s best interests in mind. Could your father bring a Longbottom to negotiations? Could I?” Severus stared down at the child.

Nott looked shaken, now. Clearly he had not seen the type of power Harry had subconsciously cultivated. Simply by insisting on treating everyone fairly and with respect, but doing it from within Slytherin, he had changed the long-standing power plays Slytherin students relied on.

“His power base does not allow him to seek large short-term gains, but by the time you are all adults, he will have power Lucius Malfoy would assassinate a rival to obtain.”

“But will he respect the Dark?” Nott asked, and this seemed like his actual fear. The Notts had great respect for Dark magic, as did Severus, and the idea of being given to a faction that might not respect it would be frightening for a boy like Theodore who had been raised to believe he would take his father’s place at the Dark Lord’s side. His whole life had been planned out, and now he had been told he must prepare himself for something different. Worse, he had spent two years distancing himself from the boy his father now told him to embrace and support as his faction leader. It was unkind.

“He is a parselmouth and a metamorphmagus. And he asked me to teach him Dark magic,” Severus said. That pleased Theo. “Due to my unique circumstance, I am unable to do so, but he is studying with Draco and his father.”

“Draco won’t have an affinity for it. He has a unicorn hair wand.” Theo grimaced in disgust. That was a rather unusual wand core among members of the Dark.

“But Lucius Malfoy believes Potter is worth investing the time and energy to train him. He is risking being caught teaching Dark arts to the headmaster’s ward; he is that convinced that Potter’s power will bend in our direction. I would argue he knows Potter better than you.” Severus turned toward the manor. “But my information must be delivered to the Dark Lord. Make more careful observations of Potter, and you will see for yourself.”

Theo followed silently as Severus made his way to the Nott library where he had last seen the Dark Lord. Severus still didn’t remember stumbling out of the manor that day. It had taken him days to recover from the forceful stripping of his mental shields, and Albus had delievered nerve tonic, believing that Severus had been tortured.

Now he was returning a traitor, exiled from the Dark Lord’s service and surviving only as long as it amused the Dark Lord to allow him to. If Harry ever truly trusted Lucius, Severus might find himself unnecessary to the Dark, and a grave would shortly follow.

But for now, he had to serve Harry, and in doing so, serve the Dark Lord.

As soon as the library doors opened, Severus entered the room and sank to his knees despite the fact that Theo and Ostrepan remained on their feet.

“I did not call for you, Severus.”

“The headmaster just left my house, and he said something which I felt you had to know.”

“Well?” asked the Dark Lord after a moment. Severus had kept his gaze on the floor up until now, but he glanced toward Theo.

“I believe I should tell you alone so you can decide if the information should be shared. I do not know if you have told anyone this information the headmaster has discovered.” In truth, Severus wasn’t sure the Dark Lord himself knew. If Harry was a horcrux, he had not been made intentionally. The Dark Lord had no time for that. But if a soul had already been split, it might happen accidentally.

“Interesting. Look into my eyes and allow me into your mind, Severus.”

Severus swallowed, remembering the pain of the Dark Lord raging through his mind. He would not survive many such encounters before he was as lost as Longbottom’s parents, but he dare not refuse. Severus looked up into the storm-gray eyes of this new Dark Lord.

Rather than the searing pain Severus expected, there was only a firm pressure. Uncompromising and intimidating, but not harmful in and of itself. Severus replayed the memory of Albus’s visit, the nuances that had convinced Severus that the man was lying, the headmaster’s reaction to the word horcrux. For the first time since he had reported that prophecy a decade ago, he held nothing back.

After a time, the Dark Lord withdrew. “Obstrepan, three whiskies. Theodore, I must ask you to give us privacy.”

“Yes, my lord,” Theo said, bowing deeply before backing out of the room as though the Dark Lord were a ruling king.

Severus did not move from the floor until the Dark Lord gestured to one of the chairs set next to the fireplace. “I had wondered how you would interpret a command to make the boy your lord, but this makes your path clear, does it not?”

“Yes, my lord,” Severus said. The Dark Lord looked distinctly unimpressed, and Severus knew he should not try claiming the Dark Lord as his ever again.

“What is it?” Obstrepan asked before he handed a whiskey to Severus. Severus could only hope the man hadn’t poisoned it.

“It seems we underestimated how much damage my soul had taken.”

“My lord?” Obstrepan asked in alarm, not an ounce of confusion or deference in his voice. He had known the Dark Lord had made horcruxes. Severus began to form theories about why the Dark Lord had regained much of his sanity. After all, Herpo the Foul had stolen the horcrux ritual from others who had used it far more effectively, but those older texts were not available in the UK. At least, not outside what an extensive collector of Dark arts might hide deep in a private library. Even Severus had heard only rumors about what the Egyptians had been able to accomplish.

“Potter is a horcrux. Given he was my sixth, the fraction of my soul he holds is small, but…”

Obstrepan sucked air through his front teeth. “My lord, you had only one and a half percent of your soul when you possessed Quirrell.”

“That would explain some of my less rational choices, not that I was making wise choices with three percent.” He smiled at Obstrepan as if they were nothing more than old friends sharing a joke. Severus remained silent. Six horcruxes. A person should not be able to function with such a fragmented soul. For the Dark Lord to have regained his sanity, he must have reabsorbed many of them.

Severus suddenly thought of Lucius and his desperation to retrieve the book from Ginerva Weasley. Surely Lucius would not have been so careless as to trade away a piece of the Dark Lord’s soul, even a small piece.

Then again, he would have inherited the book from Abraxis, and that man–like Obstrepan–hoarded information. Lucius may not have known. Perhaps Severus was being paranoid and seeing conspiracies where there were none. Obstrepan had probably held the soul pieces.

“What will the old fool do?” Obstrepan asked.

The Dark Lord looked to Severus. He had always been the expert on Albus. “He will try to set the boy against the Dark Lord. He believes the prophecy, so he believes that Potter is best situated to kill him. He will then, with great regret and many speeches about the greater good, kill the boy.” Severus frowned. “Or he will convince the boy that he must kill himself. However, the headmaster is too nervous. He does not have his plans finalized or he would be amused at himself for arranging the situation to his satisfaction.”

“He searches for the horcruxes then.” The Dark Lord and Obstrepan exchanged a knowing look. Severus had no right to their secrets, however.

“This latest situation complicates matters.”

“It does.” The Dark Lord studied Severus. “How is the boy doing this summer?”

“He is in France with the Malfoys. He is practicing dueling to great effect, although he holds himself back when Draco is there. He has more talent and does not want to cause a conflict over it. Lucius has agreed to begin teaching him Dark arts, and I am working with him, refining his occlumency. He has accepted Lockhart’s death as a natural consequence of the man’s actions and does not seem to carry any guilt or blame the basilisk.”

“The boy found the Chamber?” Obstrepan asked. “I’m surprised.”

“He’s resourceful,” said Severus.

“Those brought up in suffering usually are, assuming they survive to escape that state,” said the Dark Lord. He tapped his fingers against his glass, and Severus sipped carefully at the whiskey. He trusted Obstrepan would not poison him without permission. “Lucius sent an interesting report from his allies in the Ministry. It appears Fudge did something to aggravate Sirius Black.”

Severus gritted his teeth. The idea that Black had the Dark Lord’s favor while Severus did not was a bitter pill now that the Dark Lord had regained his sanity. This was the Dark Lord he had been promised, one sane enough to lead the Dark, one that never would have targeted a baby.

“He is insane,” Obstrepan commented.

“The Blacks often are,” said the Dark Lord. “But Severus, the greater concern is that shortly after speaking to the Minister and bemoaning that ‘he is at Hogwarts,’ Sirius Black escaped.”

Severus fumbled his glass, and whiskey soaked into his robes before he could right it again. “Escaped? To what end?”

“The Ministry believes he wishes to avenge me,” said the Dark Lord with some humor.

“And will he?” If he came to Hogwarts, Severus would find a way to kill him. He was no longer indebted to the Dark Lord, and as Harry’s ally, he had an obligation to avenge Harry’s parents. That would require him to avenge James as well as Lily, but Severus could swallow his displeasure long enough to enjoy gutting Sirius Black.

“I have no idea,” said the Dark Lord. “Obstrepan, thoughts?”

“The Blacks have inbred for so long that one can never expect rational thought. The stories of Belvina still make entertaining dinner conversation. They say she insisted on being fed fish by hand as she swam about her bathtub. An extended stay in Azkaban would have severed any last threads of sanity. I would say that everyone is at equal risk.”

“Those at Hogwarts should certainly be wary,” said the Dark Lord.

Severus swallowed. “Does he know of my betrayal?” If so, Black would certainly come for him.

“I have no idea. With the dementors betraying the Dark and returning to their masters in the Ministry, I don’t know what alliances they may have made inside the prison or whether they feed equally on all prisoners.”

“They could not be regularly feeding from Black or he would not have been able to escape, but that could either be a deal with dementor or some Black family magic protecting him,” Obstrepan said. “Lucius’s missive suggested that the Ministry is trying to keep this quiet for a time, both to give Aurors a chance to search for him and to obfuscate the timing. Fudge does not want it known that Black escaped right after they spoke.”

“That sort of detail will fuel the rumors that are the life’s blood of the Ministry. He will never be able to keep it quiet. But it is important that you keep an eye on your charge, Severus. Now that we know that he carries a part of my soul, you know the consequence for failure will not be as merciful as death.”

“Of course, Lord Voldemort.” Long practice with Albus allowed Severus to control his wince, but Obstrepan jerked as the Dark Mark burned him.

Sirius Black. Severus had never expected to set eyes on the man again, but it seemed that his fate was forever bound to the cursed marauders. When the Dark Lord waved his hand in dismissal, Severus stood, bowed and strode out of the room with his new mission.

If Sirius Black came near Harry, neither the Dark Lord’s favor nor the Black magic would save him. Severus would do what he should have done a decade early. He would gut the man and watch him bleed to death. He might even summon a glass of champagne to truly enjoy the sight.

Chapter 6

Dark magic was less dramatic than Harry had expected. For the most part, he and Draco read about rituals and studied arithmancy and focused their emotions at ritual circles. But Harry learned to feel the swell and flow of magic. His core seemed to sing, and Harry understood why people loved Dark magic because it was beautiful and eerie and Harry loved the feel of that deep pool of power flowing under his skin.

Draco seemed less interested. He quickly went from excited about lessons to sneaking out to go swimming. More than once Harry took lessons by himself. Work must have been going well for Mr. Malfoy because he had turned into a different man–patient, interested in teaching, and happy despite Draco’s disinterest.

Mr. Malfoy seemed to think Draco might be more interested when he was older, and he insisted on continuing Harry’s studies.

Professor Snape, on the other hand, was more tense than ever. Sometimes he got too rough when he tested Harry’s occlumency. He would always apologize and half the time he would leave immediately, insisting he was not in the right frame of mind for such delicate teaching. But something was wrong.

As the summer passed, Harry wondered if he should ask. Professor Snape had been much more forthcoming this summer, but Harry was afraid of getting shut out. So week after week passed, and Harry continued his lessons without pushing for answers. Narcissa had started haunting the patios when he and Draco swam; Harry had the feeling she knew what was going on, too.

But Draco didn’t seem to notice. He insisted on shopping; he wanted to eat at restaurants so fancy that Harry was afraid of touching the gold silverware. He got Lucius to take them to see a mermaid colony and a dragon reserve and to the semi-finals of the European Dueling Association. So despite the adults getting increasingly odd, it was a good summer.

Harry was searching the chateau for Draco when he found Narcissa sitting in the main parlor, staring out the tall windows at the sea.

“Good morning,” Harry said.

She turned and smiled at him, but there was sadness in her expression. “Harry, we need to speak.” Narcissa patted the settee cushion next to her, and a stone grew in his belly. Something was wrong. Really wrong.

“Okay,” he said slowly. When he sat, she caught his hand in hers.

“You know your godfather is Sirius Black, my cousin.” She stopped, and Harry realized that she wanted him to respond.

“Yes. He was the only Black in Gryffindor with my parents, but he turned on them.”

She sighed. “He did. To be honest, I am surprised he did that. Blacks are generally loyal to a fault, loyal to the point of obsession, even. However, Sirius was never the most stable person.” She smoothed her hands over her skirt.

“Did something bad happen?” Harry asked. He’d never seen Narcissa so nervous, and it scared him.

“He escaped,” she said.

“From Azkaban?” Harry’s voice broke. The prison was supposed to be escape proof.

“I am as shocked as you,” she said. “But more concerning, he was heard to comment that someone was at Hogwarts. The Ministry thinks he is headed there.”

Harry felt dizzy. “Is he after me?”

She sighed. “We don’t know. There is a lot of fear in the Ministry that he may be. If Sirius believes you killed the Dark Lord, he may want revenge. The Blacks are rather famous for avenging our loved ones.” She twisted her fingers together. “I cannot express how much I regret that our family poses a risk to your life.”

“It’s not your fault.” Harry put a hand on her arm. He wasn’t used to touching adults, but she smiled at him.

“No, but I can regret it.”

“Is it safe for me to go to school at Hogwarts?” Harry’s French was good enough to order food. Usually. Sometimes he got an unwelcome surprise on his plate, but he was minimally competent in French. However, couldn’t succeed at Beauxbatons. And he definitely didn’t want to go to Durmstrom. Not only would he have to learn a third language, but he would be forever marked as “dark.”

“Minister Fudge insists he can keep the school safe.”

Harry didn’t say anything, but this was the same man who inspired both Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape to roll their eyes every time his name came up in conversation. It didn’t inspire confidence.

“I have another concern,” Narcissa said. She took a deep breath. “Right now, you are a Black heir, but I suspect Sirius is as well. Walburga disowned him for turning against his family, but if he returned to the Dark Lord’s service, she would have reinstated him.”

“What does it mean that we’re both heirs?”

“It means the magic is unsettled,” she said. “If Sirius claimed the Lordship, he would be able to wield a wide range of powers that are part of the family magics. However, as long as he is a wanted murderer, he can’t claim the Lordship.”

“So we’re both equal in the eyes of the Black magic?” Harry guessed. “We’re both heirs?”

She swallowed and her gaze scanned the horizon for a moment. “Right now, yes. However, not every Black has been able to claim a Lordship. The Blacks came to these shores before the Romans, when women were as likely to rule as men. They didn’t give that up when the rest of the society changed, although Aunt Walburga always said she would have been the head of the family if she weren’t a woman. She was quite bitter about it. The fact is that she never had the loyalty to family required of a good Black.”

She wrinkled her nose, so Harry assumed Walburga had been particularly foul. After all, Narcissa loved Mr. Malfoy and he was horrible, so she had a high tolerance for awful people. She continued, “To make sure that the Blacks could choose our own head of household, when the chosen leader can’t officially claim the lordship, it’s possible to still claim the magic by presenting yourself to the heart of the main house and asking to be judged.”

“You want me to present myself?” Harry felt a small niggle of panic. He wasn’t ready to hold the Black magic. Mr. Malfoy had explained the dangers of Dark magic, and the Black family magic was soaked in it.

“If you do not and Sirius gets there first, he may be able to use our connection to the Black family magic against us. However, we will need to convince Walburga to tell us how to access the heart of the house. More accurately, we need to convince the portrait of her in Grimmauld Place.”

“But you said that she would have forgiven Sirius if he turned back to the Dark Lord at the end. Wouldn’t she rather Sirius take control of the family magic?”

“We have one advantage Sirius does not. However, I hesitate to explain it because you are too young for the conversation. If there were any way to wait until you were older, I would. But if Sirius gets to Grimmauld Place first, the consequences will be too grave. I will ask you to not repeat these stories.”

“Of course not,” Harry assured her. “I’m pretty sure I don’t want to repeat any Black stories. They’re disturbing.”

Narcissa laughed. “When you are older, you will enjoy sharing a few stories over a late-night firewhiskey, but for now, that is the wisest course of action.” She shifted in her seat. “The Blacks have a tapestry that shows the members of the family. When Sirius was around fourteen, an empty portrait frame appeared under him on the tapestry. It turned out he had slept with a sixth year Hufflepuff and had gotten her pregnant.” Harry winced. Sixth years were sixteen or seventeen. For one to sleep with a fourteen-year-old was a little creepy.

“I assume no one was happy about it.”

“That is an understatement.” Narcissa sighed. “Walburga tracked the girl’s family down in Diagon Alley and screamed the secret in front of Flourish and Blotts with everyone watching. She magically disowned the unborn child right then and there.”

“What happened to the girl and the baby?” Harry asked. The Wizarding world was not kind to single mothers. Maybe Aunt Petunia and her friends would gossip about a girl, but they couldn’t cast hexes or make sure the girl couldn’t leave the house without being rejected and ostracized. Single mothers in the muggle world had places to go for support, and that wouldn’t have been true of the Hufflepuff girl.

“I honestly don’t know,” Narcissa said. “The spell Walburga used means we can’t use Black magic to track the child, and the girl left Hogwarts before her final year.” She shook her head. “A summer or two later when Sirius was either fifteen or sixteen, I don’t remember which, he got two girls pregnant within a few months. Two muggle girls.”

“Oh, geez,” Harry said softly. The Blacks were about as anti-muggle as Mr. Malfoy, so that would not have gone over well.

“Indeed,” Narcissa said. “And this is the part you must not repeat. Walburga cursed Sirius. She destroyed his ability to have more children. She crucioed him until he lost his voice from screaming, and Regulus told me that he barely made it out of the house alive.”

Harry could not imagine what sort of mother could do that. He’d always thought his aunt was a horrible human being, but she would never torture him. Sure, she would swing a pan in a fit of anger, but he had the feeling she didn’t honestly try to hit him. Hopefully. But Sirius’s mother had intentionally tortured and mutilated him. Harry knew that Dark magic could be corrosive if a person mishandled it, but that was… that was so horrible Harry couldn’t even comprehend it. Walburga made Aunt Petunia look like a saint.

On the one hand, Harry was even more confused about why Sirius would go back to Walburga’s side of the war. On the other, he could now understand why Sirius was criminally insane. The newspaper said he’d laughed after killing all those muggles. If his mother had tortured him until his mind had cracked, that explained it. “Why would she do that? Did she want the Black family to die out?”

“She had Regulus, who she saw as the perfect Black heir, but several years later, he showed up as deceased on the family tapestry, and no one knows what happened to him.”

“So what about the two babies… were either of them half-bloods?”

Narcissa closed her eyes wearily, and Harry knew. Walburga had done something to make sure that no half-blood Black would ever show up on her doorstep. Apparently the family member who thought she was a dolphin was not the worst branch on the Black family tree.

“But I’m a half-blood. It seems like she would rather the family die out or maybe for Draco or one of his children to inherit.” Sometimes magical inheritances would lie dormant for generations.

Narcissa gave him a reassuring smile. “But you are more than the grandson of a Black. Walburga will never see a Black when she looks at Draco because he is a Malfoy. But you… she might overlook your Potter blood because no Potter is a metamorphmagus. No Potter is a parselmouth. The Potters might have traditionally been gray, but all the Potters she knew were firmly entrenched in Light magic, and you are learning Dark. She will see all these traits as coming through your Black heritage. That might even be enough to get her to overlook your blood status. And, you have something that even I do not have, something your grandmother didn’t have. You were born under the influence of a rising constellation. In the Black family, only those born under auspicious stars are named after those stars and are seen as proper members of the Black family.”

Narcissa had some bitterness in her voice at that, but then she–like Euphemia and Dorea and Belvina–had not been named after a star or constellation.

“But she wouldn’t even accept half-blood grandchildren.”

Narcissa sighed. “Let us hope that her desire to see the Black family survive can overcome her prejudice,” Narcissa said. “However, if I ask to speak to her privately, you need to step out onto the front step and close the door because I have a few things to say to my aunt that I am not willing to say in front of a child.”

“I’m almost thirteen.”

“And I am considerably older and unwilling to encourage bad manners through modeling unforgivable profanity,” Narcissa said primly.

Harry couldn’t imagine Narcissa cursing at anyone, but if she felt the need, he understood why she would want some privacy. “I’ll go if you tell me.”

She smiled. “Good boy. Walburga’s portrait has been in an empty house for a long time, so let us hope that the isolation has caused her to mellow. She was an unpleasant woman in life, and I imagine her portrait is the same.”

Chapter 7

Harry plucked nervously at his shirt. He knew Narcissa had arranged every bit of his birthday to be acceptable to all his friend, but he was still nervous about Mrs. Longbottom. She wasn’t Harry’s greatest fan, and she could still meet them at the apparition point only to scream at him and tell him that he could never see Neville again.

Worse, he was terrified because he had decided to tell Neville his big secret. All his Slytherin friends–and even the Slytherins who didn’t like him–knew he was a parselmouth and after the Christmas disaster, Hermione and even Ron knew. So keeping the secret from Neville felt unkind. Neville was as good of a friend to him as Draco. Sure, because of his grandmother, they didn’t spend as much time together outside of school, but he was nicer and Harry trusted his judgment more.

A light tapping on his door startled him. Harry was still trying to get used to people respecting his privacy. The Dursleys hadn’t. Moving in with the Malfoys meant adjusting to a lot of changes, but the existence of a room where he was allowed to be alone and refuse to let even the adults into it… that sometimes made Harry feel like he’d fallen into an alien world.

“Come in.”

Narcissa opened the door. “Are you ready?” she asked. She cast a critical eye at him, but he had put on his nicest robes–summer weight arcromantuala silk in a pale green that would hopefully prevent him from standing out too much.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She raised an eyebrow. She always seemed to know when something was wrong.

“I’m just nervous that Mrs. Longbottom isn’t going to get Neville come.”

Narcissa didn’t dismiss his fears. She came in and sat on the edge of the bed next to Harry. “Many times people are going to judge you by your family or your magical alignment or the choices you make. You can’t control that. So I don’t know if Augusta will bring Neville or if she will use this meeting to vent her spleen. However, I know you are a wonderful young man and anyone who judges you by your heart will always respect you.”

Harry smiled. “Thank you.”

She patted his leg. “She let you meet at Diagon Alley, didn’t she?”

“She let Neville meet with Ron while I was there,” Harry said.

“And she knew you were there.”

“And once Neville got home, she knew I gave him a new wand, which might make her even more angry that the quotes against the Muggle Protection Act.”

“If she is angry about an act of kindness, then you shouldn’t care about her opinion.”

“I already don’t care about her opinion. I just don’t want her to keep Neville away.”

“We won’t know whether she is likely to do that unless we get to the apparition point, and if we don’t leave soon, we’ll be late. I doubt that will impress her.”

Harry stood. “Right. We should go.”

Narcissa stood. “And if she is unkind, I am very willing to point out all the various ways she has failed. I have heard a number of rumors about the neglect in that house and how Neville’s other relatives have taken advantage of her general disengagement. I can emotionally gut that woman before she can turn fast enough to apparate out.” Her smile turned viscous.

Harry did love his cousin.

The headed downstairs where Draco, Gregory, and Hermione stood waiting with Mr. Malfoy. Hermione’s head was still swiveling like one of those children’s toys from the carnival. Dudley had brought one home once. He’d broken it in literal seconds. But she kept staring at every part of the chateau–the charmed portraits, the carved cornices, the tapestries and statues and the view of the sea out the broad windows. It reminded Harry of how he’d felt when he first arrived.

“Harry!” she cried when she saw him coming down the stairs. She threw her arms around him, and Harry hugged her back. Behind her back, Mr. Malfoy looked scandalized. Harry wondered if he was more upset about having a muggleborn in his home or if he was like the Bulstrodes–convinced that male-female friendships were either inappropriate or step one in a courtship. Wizards had so many odd ideas that sometimes Harry had trouble telling which was causing problems at any given time.

“Thank you for inviting us,” said Gregory, smiling widely. Harry was sorry Blaise hadn’t come, but he’d sent a pendant with a phoenix flint chip in brilliant green set in copper. Harry could feel the magic of the phoenix that had created the gem when he held it. The rest of them had left Harry’s presents in the dining room until after their trip.

“Where’s Neville?” Hermione asked.

Narcissa moved to Hermione’s side. “He’ll meet us at the apparition point at the Ministry. We have to take an official portkey since we’re crossing the ocean.”

“I’ve never been to the Americas,” said Hermione, her eyes bright with excitement at getting to explore the grounds of Castleobruxo Castle. They were said to have the greatest collection of magical plants and animals in the entire world. Maybe. The Japanese were fairly private so no one knew what Mahoutokoro had on their grounds despite the fact that it was possibly the oldest magical school in the world.

“Me, either,” said Gregory. Draco had said as much in private, but Harry knew that with the others here, he would never admit that he hadn’t been across the ocean or that he was excited to see the South American castle. It had to be exhausting to put up so many fronts.

“I’ll take Hermione and Harry,” Narcissa said. While Harry knew Mr. Malfoy had apparated Hermione to the chateau, he was more comfortable having Narcissa around Hermione. She didn’t have the same prejudices. “Hang on tightly.”

“I discovered that,” said Hermione with a shudder. Apparently she had not enjoyed her first trip with side-along apparition. Harry hadn’t either. He wondered why they didn’t take the floo to the Ministry, but he just held Narcissa’s arm tightly and closed his eyes as she spun them. With a terrible pulling at his navel, he was jerked through space, and they landed in the first floor lobby of the Ministry.

Various witches and wizards waited at the desk to get signed into the building, but off to one side, Mrs. Longbottom stood in her vulture-topped hat and an old-fashioned robe with a fur collar. When she spotted the Malfoys, she sneered.

Narcissa gave Harry a small nudge forward. She had done her part, arranging a birthday trip to a location with a world-renowned garden and respected teachers who could chaperone, now Harry had to convince Mrs. Longbottom that he wasn’t some slimy Slytherin out to corrupt her son. Harry tightened the curl on his hair a little so he would look more like a Potter. Mr. Malfoy helped by turning on his heel and apparating away, making it clear that he would not be chaperoning the trip.

Harry plastered on a smile and followed Hermione who was already closing the distance. She caught Neville in a huge hug, and Mrs. Longbottom had an expression that matched the one Mr. Malfoy had worn, so Harry guessed it was a boy-girl problem since the Longbottoms had no problem with muggles.

“You look great!” gushed Hermione. “Ron wrote to me about the wand. He’s in Egypt now, so he can’t practice with his, but it’s just like Harry to find out there’s a problem and just fix it.” She smiled at him.

Harry didn’t have an answer. He wasn’t someone who jumped in to fix problems, but Mrs. Longbottom’s formidable scowl had eased some. “His father had the same reputation. Frank often brought home stories from their time at school.” Her expression was wary rather than hostile now. “I would have objected had I known what you intended to do when you met in Diagon Alley, but I have been impressed by how much Neville has improved his wand work. Still, to give away a family wand…”

“Neville had the same objection,” Hermione said. “And Harry just asked how many wands he really needed and said he would rather his friends have wands that matched their cores,” said Hermione as she smiled at Harry. Her expression was so sweet that it was hard to believe she was manipulating Mrs. Longbottom, but she was. She knew that Harry hadn’t given away Potter wands. “Neville, how excited are you about visiting Castelobruxo? I looked them up and they cultivate cobra lilies and prickly cica and leather root, which is extinct in the muggle world. Some people whisper that they even have thaumatagoria, but I bet you have to be a master in something like potions or herbology to see something like that.” Hermione was almost bouncing with excitement.

“I know!” said Neville. “Harry, thank you so much for inviting me. Castelobruxo doesn’t normally allow non-students to go through the greenhouses. I just feel bad because it’s your birthday and we’re doing something I like.”

“I love anything magical,” said Harry. “For Draco’s birthday we went to a merperson village because I hadn’t seen one.”

Mrs. Longbottom cast a suspicious look at Draco, and Narcissa moved smoothly forward. “Augusta.”


Both women sounded ice cold.

“Thank you for taking us to Castelbruxo,” Neville said. “And thank you for getting Harry away from that home. He lets things slip at school, and only rarely getting hit in the head with a frying pan doesn’t sound like a safe home.”

Mrs. Longbottom’s mouth fell open. Clearly Neville had been hiding that until the right moment. Slytherins were not the only sneaky ones. In fact, Gregory was looking at Hermione and Neville with shock and admiration.

“I don’t have to worry about the Dursleys and they don’t have to put up with me, which makes all of us happy,” said Harry. “They asked me to find another place to stay this summer, and Draco was there when I opened the letter, so I appreciate the Malfoys giving me a safe place this summer.”

“Safe.” Mrs. Longbottom glared at Narcissa.

Narcissa narrowed her eyes. “Harry is a Black as much as a Potter, and I will burn the world and the Dark Lord himself before I will let anyone touch a Black child,” she said fiercely. Mrs. Longbottom drew back, clearly startled.

And then Narcissa smiled and the feral edge vanished. “Children, we need to meet our portkey. Come along.” She turned and swept away with a dramatic flair that Professor Snape would have envied. Draco and Gregory hurried after, leaving Harry with the two Gryffindors.

“She’s worried about Sirius Black’s escape,” Harry whispered. “The Ministry thinks he’s after me, and she won’t even let me and Draco swim without standing on the balcony and watching us.”

“I’m sure the Ministry will catch him,” Mrs. Longbottom said.

“He’d better hope so because I wouldn’t want to be him if Mrs. Malfoy catches him first,” said Hermione. “She’s scary.” If Neville had said that, it would have been an insult, but Hermione stared after Narcissa with awe.

“Gran?” Neville asked.

Mrs. Longbottom patted him on the shoulder. “Run along, Neville, but I expect to see you back here at four o’clock sharp. No excuses.”

Neville grinned. “Yes, gran.” He gave her a quick peck on the cheek before hurrying after Narcissa. Harry tried to follow, but Mrs. Longbottom rested a thin, wrinkled hand on his shoulder.

“Do not go anywhere without an adult,” she said.

Harry smiled. “I couldn’t even if I tried, and Narcissa would lecture me until my ears fell off if I tried.”

Mrs. Longbottom huffed. “Maybe she can care for children from her house even if she has very little regard for children from others’.” Without giving Harry a chance to defend his cousin, she spun on her heel and apparated away.

Neville had stopped on the far side of the room to look back at Harry and Hermione. “Don’t tell him,” said Harry. Neville loved his grandmother and didn’t need to know that she was stabbing Narcissa in the back. He would feel guilty about it.

“I wasn’t going to,” Hermione whispered back. “Hurry up.” She trotted across the marble floor, and Harry hurried after them.

It was his birthday and he had a chance to see the famed golden Castelobruxo castle that stood like a temple at the top of a steep rock cliff. He got to see rare plants and magical creatures, and he couldn’t let the wizarding world’s prejudice against the Malfoy’s distract him from that. It was his birthday and it was going to be wonderful and Neville was going to accept his parselmouth and everything was going to be great. It was. Harry refused to let anything else happen.

Chapter 8

Madam Amechazurra had to practically drag Neville out of the greenhouses. She’d laughed, offering to process his transfer if he’d like to switch into their herbology program, and for a half-second Neville looked tempted. He really did. The greenhouses were huge–perched on the sides of the mountain the school was built on the top of, and each had a whole different ecosystem.

Those greenhouses along with the deep jungle that surrounded the mountain had claimed Neville’s heart.

“My gran would never let me,” he finally said.

Madam Amechazurra just smiled. “Keep us in mind when you’re ready to take a mastery. Few students as young as you would have recognized so many plants.” She turned to Hermione and Draco. “Of course, your knowledge is very impressive as well. Mr. Malfoy, you must be planning a career in potions to have recognized so many ingredients.”

Narcissa stood to the side with just a hint of pride peeking through her calm facade.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Draco. “Potion Master Snape is my godfather and he has promised to take me as an apprentice.”

“We have tried to place a few apprentices with him. He is very respected. Study hard and make sure you are worthy of such an honor,” she said as she walked with them down a stony path shaded by trees that were decorated with brightly colored birds.

“I plan to.” Draco stood a little taller.

“And now we come to our serpentarium. Mr. Potter, I hope you can help us address a few issues here,” said Madam Amechazurra.

“Do you like snakes?” Neville asked in a bright voice. He was still looking around at the jungle, specifically a vine climbing up a thick tree trunk. The flowers were opening and closing like a butterfly’s wings.

Harry cleared his throat. “I can talk to them,” he said.

Neville’s head whipped around so fast that he lost his balance and Gregory had to catch him by the elbow.

Harry winced. “Members of the Slytherin family married into the Blacks, so I inherited more than one Black gift,” said Harry, “but I’m not the Heir of Slytherin like in the blood writing at school last year.”

“No one thinks you had anything to do with Mrs. Norris or Colin,” said Hermione with a huge sigh. “Will you stop being paranoid?”

Harry watched Neville, still worried.

“This is a wonderful gift, yes?” Madam Amechazurra said. She looked around the group in confusion. “We have a serpentologist from India come once a year. He earns a very good living talking to snakes. Only happy snakes provide strong potion ingredients like shed skins, and that requires a parselmouth to translate their needs.”

“It is a little different in the UK,” said Narcissa. “There’s an assumption that those who speak to snakes are evil.”

“Harry isn’t evil,” Neville said loudly. Too loudly. He cleared his throat. “It’s just surprising, but Mrs. Malfoy is right that people will wonder if he’s evil if they know.”

Madam Amechazurra rolled her eyes. “People in the UK have such strange prejudices. The Nagas of India are seen as universally wise and good. But Mr. Potter, are you ready to meet our snakes?”

“Of course,” said Harry as he tried to smile. Neville didn’t believe he was evil, but that didn’t mean he would keep Harry’s secret or that he would accept a parselmouth as a friend. He followed Madam Amechazurra. Just inside the serpentarium’s door stood a tall enclosure that had been magically enlarged to include a pond and several trees. A seven or eight-foot-long runespoor with orange and black stripes was sunning in the square of light that came in from the window.

“Good afternoon,” said Harry.

“Who calls us?” one head said. “Loosen the fangs. This might be a trap,” said another. The middle head swayed gently.

“I called you,” Harry said. “I’ve spoken to a basilisk, but I’ve never talked to a runespoor. You’re beautiful.”

The middle head answered. “Of course we are. We are the lightening in the storm that can destroy the greatest tree. We are the forest fire that can decimate the mountain. We are the flood that can defeat the greatest foe.”

“Oh. That’s impressive,” said Harry. “Do you need anything?”

“Don’t tempt us,” said the right head. “I would like a rabbit or two, something I could hunt later. I never get prey unless I’m so hungry that I end up eating it immediately,” said the left one. Harry translated for all three heads while Madam Amechazurra took notes.

“Wow,” whispered Neville.

“I found out because the carved snakes in the Slytherin dorm are charmed to speak to parselmouths,” said Harry, ignoring the aborted duel he’d had with Draco back in year one. “If I had been in Hufflepuff the way I originally wanted, I might not have ever known. I mean, I talked to a boa constrictor at a muggle zoo once, but it didn’t actually talk back. It just waved its tail, and I thought I was imagining things.”

“That would have been tragic,” said Madam Amechazurra. “There are too few parselmouths since muggles targeted the Naga communities in India. Even among the Nagas nly one in fifty is born with the gift. Our next enclosure as a pair of black mambas. Come come.” She led the way deeper into the building.

Harry had conversations with the black mambas, feathered serpents, horned serpents, several cockatrice, a hydra, several enclosures’ worth of boomslangs, a trio of kebehwets, and one sea serpent in a magically charmed enclosure large enough for a miniature ocean with a sizable island. Harry’s ability to speak to the sea serpent made Draco wonder if Harry could speak to a dragon. When they’d been at the dragon reserve, none of the great beasts had paid them any attention, so Harry hadn’t had a chance to test his parselmouth on them.

Instead of dismissing Draco’s question as silly, Madam Amechazurra looked thoughtful. “Dragons are not native to India, so I’m not sure any parselmouth has tried. Most Naga stay close to their enclosures if they aren’t working, so that could be an interesting experiment, assuming one could get the dragon to stay still long enough to try.” She pursed her lips. “You would have to learn the ruidoso to magnify your voice. No dragon would be able to hear you otherwise.”

“The sonorus spell,” Narcissa translated.

Draco beamed, and Harry a feeling Mr. Malfoy was going to be nagged into taking them to the reserve again.

“Thank you again, Mr. Potter. All of you are welcome to return any time, and I hope we can tempt a few of you away from the UK for your masteries. Our weather is much better, yes?” She smiled at them.

“I think Hogwart’s headmaster might protest you poaching his best students,” Narcissa said.

“He might, but that does not require me to care about his displeasure,” said Madam Amechazurra in an amused voice. “But our time is almost over, and I must get you back to catch your portkey. Come come.” She retraced their steps back down the stone path, through the archway that led to the manicured lawns where more delicate flowers lived and through the grand entrance of the golden castle until they reached the reception room. Instead of having a train, Castelobruxo had a warded room for large-scale portkey travel from every part of South America and beyond. Unlike Hogwarts, they did have a large transfer student population.

Narcissa stepped forward. “Thank you for extending an invitation. I know Harry has not been part of the magical world for long, and being able to see such a glorious institution is an honor.”

“Absolutely,” said Harry. “I kind of want to transfer here for all the snakes, but then I’d be leaving the charmed snakes in my dorm, and they’re sad that they don’t have more heirs to speak to.”

Madam Amechazurra laughed. “Such a sweet young man you are, caring for others like that. Have many, many children and you can send them to all the schools. Then we will forgive you for choosing Hogwarts.” She leaned close and kissed Harry on each of his cheeks. “I shall claim for my school any that inherit your parselmouth.” She turned to Gregory. “Mr. Goyle, I look forward to seeing you join the dueling circuit. It’s never too early to get out in the junior divisions.”

Harry hadn’t even known Gregory wanted to duel, but somehow Madam Amechazurra got him talking about his career goals.

“Miss Granger, I am so impressed by the breadth of your knowledge. We do support cross-curricular masteries. Mr. Malfoy, I am sure you will succeed in your apprenticeship. Your skills are impressive. Talk your godfather into taking apprentices from Castelobruxo and I will be in your debt. And Mr. Longbottom.” She had shaken the others’ hands, but she stopped and studied Neville for a time. “You are a rare talent. At Castelobruxo our greenhouses nurture more than plants. Your knowledge of herbology would make you an ideal student. I would be happy to pay for language potions and a Portuguese tutor if that is the reason for dismissing an offer of a transfer.”

Neville was bright red. “No, ma’am. My grandmother is older, and my parents… I can’t leave them. I can’t leave the UK. Not now.”

Madam Amechazurra leaned in to kiss his cheeks. “We will be here when you are ready for a mastery.”

“Thank you again,” Narcissa said.

“It is a pleasure to speak with young people who consider visiting a school in summer to be a treat. I will leave you to speak before you have to take your portkey home.” She glanced in Neville’s direction before walking out, her high heels clicking against the marble.

“She means talk to me, doesn’t she?” Neville asked.

Harry shrugged. “If you’re going to tell anyone about my parselmouth, I’d just like some advance warning.”

“Who am I going to tell?”

“Your gran,” said Harry.

Neville winced. “Yeah, that wouldn’t go over well. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” He looked at Hermione. “When did he tell you?” His voice was so devoid of emotion that Harry knew he was hiding his hurt feelings.

“He didn’t,” Hermione said. “I might have done something really stupid and potentially illegal to get into the Slytherin dorms to search for the Heir of Slytherin. I heard him talking to the snakes carved into the fireplace.”

Neville looked relieved. “Oh.” He gave Harry a shy smile. “So I’m not the last person you’ve told.”

“You’re the first person I’ve told,” said Harry. “Everyone else found out by accident.” He looked at Narcissa, “or because Draco was so excited he owled them the very night I talked to a snake thinking that every wizard could do the same.”

“It was exciting,” Draco defended himself.

“Of course it was, Dragon,” Narcissa said. “Everyone grab the walking stick. We have about thirty seconds and then we’ll be home.”

“I’m sorry Blaise couldn’t come,” said Harry. “This was a great birthday.”

“How can you say that? You haven’t even opened you presents yet,” Draco said.

Harry looked at everyone crowded around the walking stick. “I don’t care what I get. This is still the best birthday ever.”

“You have low standards,” Draco said, but then Gregory elbowed him. Before Draco could retaliate, they were back in the Ministry of Magic. Neville waved and hurried off to his grandmother while Mr. Malfoy strode over to stand next to Narcissa.

“Did you enjoy your trip,” he asked while watching Mrs. Longbottom the whole time.

“It was great. The castle is amazing,” said Harry.

“You should have seen all the snakes, and the headmistress said that–”

“Later, Dragon,” Narcissa interrupted sharply. Draco turned brilliant red as he realized what he had almost said in the middle of the Ministry lobby. Narcissa smoothed it over. “We need to get home because I have it on good authority that ice cream and cake and all sorts of candies are awaiting us.”

The time Harry and Draco ended up with Mr. Malfoy as they all apparated back to France. Harry did get wonderful gifts, many of them from Slytherin students who he barely knew well enough to recognize, but despite that, having a group of friends as good as his was the best gift of all. Next year he just had to figure out how to get Millicent’s father to let her come without insisting on a marriage contract first. Wizards. So weird.

Chapter 9

A week before school started, they stopped in Diagon Alley to pick up a few supplies that were only available in the UK and take care of Harry’s heirship responsibilities. Claiming the Black heirship ring was anticlimactic. The goblins brought the ring out. Harry put it on and felt a slight tingle, and then the goblin kicked them out of the office because he had better things to do. However, Narcissa was just as happy to get out quickly because she wanted to visit the Black family home.

Harry was shocked when they reached Grimmauld Place. Every wizarding home he’d seen had been fantastical and glorious, but this townhouse was dirty and decrepit. It looked like one good storm would make it blow over. The two muggle houses on either side looked much nicer.

The wrought iron fence had pickets that leaned drunkenly and the gate squealed when Narcissa opened it. “Remember, do not touch anything,” she whispered.

Harry stayed close to her and tucked his hands into his pocket. A hanging porch swing had fallen and the cushions had tumbled to the dirty ground. Two of the cushions were utterly flat and the third had dirty stuffing spilling out the ripped end. Even without the warnings about Dark magic, he wouldn’t want to touch anything. He felt like he would get infected with lice or tetanus or something if he got too close.

Narcissa raised the heavy door knocker and let it fall, then she stood looking utterly composed and calm in the middle of the ruin. It took a long time for the door to open, and then the oldest, dirtiest house elf Harry had ever seen peered around the edge of the door. He was frowning so heavily that his face had deep wrinkles, but then he must have recognized Narcissa.

He moved forward and stood a little straighter. “Mistress Narcissa. Mistress Narcissa is visiting. Come in. Come in.”

Narcissa stepped into the dark, but when Harry tried to follow, the elf stepped in front of him. “No. No mudbloods in Mistress Walburga’s house.”

“Kretcher!” Narcissa snapped. Then he started muttering. “Filthy mudbloods. Dirty, filthy mudbloods won’t contaminate the noble house of Black.”

Narcissa sighed. “Harry, wait here for a moment while I have a word with Aunt Walburga and Kretcher.” She glared at the house elf with far more malice than Harry had ever seen, even when Draco broke a £10,000 glass sculpture when they were shopping or when Dobby decided he had to wail every time someone said “diary.” Harry had only mentioned a diary because Hermione had offered to pick him up a magical self-expanding version she’d found, but everyone in the Malfoy family had figured out quickly to avoid the word. Mr. Malfoy would even flee the room when Dobby got started.

After Harry took a step back, Kretcher took obvious delight in slamming the door in Harry’s face. Harry stood on the stoop, watching people walk past. None of the muggles could see the house, so it must have powerful notice-me-not charms, but maybe those charms didn’t work on animals because a big, black dog sat on the corner and stared at Harry.

Harry had never had good luck with dogs… more specifically with Marge’s stupid dog. Although Harry really shouldn’t call it stupid; he was fairly sure that Marge had trained it to torment Harry. So he hoped that Narcissa could talk Mrs. Black into letting Harry into the house soon.

It took a few minutes, but Narcissa opened the door and ushered Harry into the dirtiest, darkest, most cluttered house Harry had ever seen. He couldn’t figure out why a house elf would live like this. They delighted in making their surroundings beautiful, competing to outdo each other, whether by getting the largest blooms in the garden or folding the fanciest napkins at dinner. But Kretcher hadn’t cleaned anything in years. He couldn’t have.

Narcissa stopped next to a life-sized portrait framed by heavy velvet curtains. The burgundy color was stained by dust and tiny holes showed where moths or doxies had nibbled on the fabric. “Harry, this is Walburga Violetta Black. Aunt Walburga, this is Harry James Potter.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Black,” Harry said with a formal bow. Then he looked at Mrs. Black. She had a long face and high cheekbones that must have made her a handsome woman in her youth, but when she’d been painted, her cheeks had been hollowed and her skin yellowing and stretched taut in places, like someone had tried to magically hide wrinkles. It made her look more like a decoration at a haunted house than a woman. That was reinforced by the heavy black robes and black cap covering her gray hair.

She looked down at him and sniffed. “He looks like a Potter.”

“He can look like anyone, Aunt Walburga.” Narcissa gave Harry a little nod, and Harry made his hair darker and straighter, raising his own cheekbones and shifting his eyes to a stormy blue. He knew he looked like a Black when he did that. If Harry were Walburga, he would have felt manipulated, but Narcissa promised him that Walburga wouldn’t feel that way.

Walburga narrowed her eyes and studied Harry like he was a particularly interesting bug–like she was still going to step on him, but she found him worthy of watching for a time before she did it. Then she gave a harumph. “The traitor’s daughter can do that as well.”

“Nymphadora is not a parselmouth, Aunt Walburga, nor does she study Dark magic.”

Walburga’s eyes narrowed even more. Then she yelled, “Kretcher!”

The house elf appeared as quickly as any Malfoy elf, his ears flapping. “Mistress called?”

“Get the Asclepius box.”

“Yes, Mistress.” With another pop, Kretcher vanished.

Narcissa put a hand on Harry’s shoulder and inched closer. “Aunt Walburga, what is that?”

She sniffed. “Do you think the Slytherins never married into the Black line? There is not a magical line in Europe that has not tied itself to the Blacks. We will see if he is a parselmouth or if he has lied to all of you.”

Narcissa sighed, but she didn’t argue. A second later, Kretcher appeared with an old wooden box with detailed snakes carved so they curled around it. It was large enough to hold the Monstrous Book of Monsters, and covered in a variety of carved snakes–small ones, large ones, some with patterns or tail rattles or hoods, others smooth and almost featureless. Harry had gotten used to the feeling of charmed snakes in the common room, and he felt that here. “They’re charmed snakes,” Harry whispered to Narcissa.

Kretcher tried to hand the box to Harry, but he kept his hands in his robes. Narcissa had been very explicit about not touching anything. Instead, she put her hands out. “I’ll take it, Kretcher.”

“I want to see the boy prove he has the gift,” Walburga snapped.

“He can talk to the artifact, but he will not touch anything in his house unless he is chosen by the Black magic.”

The look on Walburga’s face was thunderous. If she’d still been alive, she would have been reaching for a wand. Considering what she had done to her own son to punish him for sleeping with girls, Harry was glad she was dead. Maybe that made him unkind, but Walburga had not been the sort of family Harry wanted to meet.

“Harry, why don’t you introduce yourself to the snakes,” Narcissa suggested.

Harry focused on the curling knot of snakes. “Hello,” he said.

One of the snakes blinked and a few ripples showed the tiniest bit of movement, but it was like they were asleep. “I’m Harry,” he said. “I think Walburga Black wants me to prove I can talk to snakes. What are your names?”

Harry suspected they wouldn’t give their names, but that question had driven the snakes in the common room into a tizzy. They knew people exchanged names, but to give a part of themselves to others… to leave little bits of their identity behind as if it were shed skin… that was not snakelike. Sure enough, the snakes started to move now, and a few wriggled free of the knot to slide around so they could look at Harry.

“Who tries to grab our tail? Who would know how to summon us?” One little snake waved his tail angrily.

“I wouldn’t summon you unless you wanted to be summoned,” Harry said.

“Lies. Lies. He lies. All humans summon.” The snakes picked up the chorus. They were awake now, but Harry didn’t think he was making a good first impression. The snakes in Hogwarts were far friendlier.

“I’m sorry. I asked for your name because I knew it would upset you, and I wanted you to wake up. I don’t expect you to give me names. I’m Harry Potter. The woman holding you is Narcissa Malfoy nee Black. She brought me here to claim the family magic, but Walburga thinks I’m lying about being a parselmouth, so she wanted me to wake you up.”

A new snake slid around to Harry’s side of the box. This one was larger, and in the snake world, larger meant stronger once venom was off the table. “Hello,” Harry greeted him as politely as possible.

“You spoke words to force us to act when we wished to sleep,” the snake accused him.

“I need to impress Walburga Black,” Harry said as an excuse.

“Why do you need magic?”

“Why does anyone need magic?” Harry asked. He thought for a moment before putting it in terms that a snake would understand. “Why would a snake need fangs or venom? It is part of them, but also how they hunt, how they protect themselves and their nest. That is magic to me.”

The snakes were quiet for a moment. Then the large one asked, “What do you want?”

“I don’t really know. Walburga Black wants me to prove that I’m a parselmouth and she had her house elf bring me your box. I’ll ask her what she wants.”

“Human!” the large snake called, and Harry turned his attention back to the box. “Are you a nestling or a hunting youngling?” Harry’s pride wanted to answer the last one, but he knew better than to lie to snakes. They took that as a sign that a person was hunting them. Snakes only lied when they hoped to get closer to prey.

“A nestling. My own nest is poorly tended, so this summer Narcissa took me into her nest. I am not her hatchling, but we are from the same line. She hopes I will have a more secure nest if I claim the magic.”

The snakes were all awake now, and they writhed around so that the box trembled in Narcissa’s hands. Harry gave her credit because she didn’t even flinch when the snakes slithered across the bottom of the box. The large snake seemed to visit every corner before he returned to the side facing Harry.

“Are you Slytherin or Black?”

“I am a Black, but I attend Hogwarts and I am in Salazar Slytherin’s house, so other humans would call me a Slytherin. I didn’t even know I had a drop of Slytherin blood until Walburga Black told me that Slytherins had married into the Black line. I suppose that’s why I’m a parselmouth.” That caused more slithering and almost silent hisses as the snakes talked to each other.

The large snake returned. “Hold out your hand. Put it on the box,” the snake commanded.

Harry looked at Narcissa. He didn’t want to argue with the snakes, but he wouldn’t disobey Narcissa. “They want me to put my hand on the box.”

Narcissa stood a little straighter and pressed her lips into a thin line. “Do they feel hostile to you?”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t think so, and they asked if I was a hatchling. Snakes might eat hatchlings in a nest if they’re hungry, but they don’t drive them away as competitors for prey.”

Her expression now matched Walburga’s, only Narcissa was looking at the box. “You have to trust yourself and your magic.” She then looked at Walburga. “And if Harry dies, the Black line dies with him. Draco is far too Malfoy to carry Black magic, Andromeda will never allow Nymphadora to take it, and Bellatrix never had children and is now in Azkaban for life. Harry is your last chance to see this family survive.”

“If he is a parselmouth, the box is no danger to him.” Walburga didn’t look angry any more, but Harry was even more nervous about the anticipation on her face. But Narcissa had told him to trust himself and his magic.

Harry reached out and put a hand on the box. The snakes writhed under his palm, all of them pressing toward the top of the box until the flat wooden sides and the golden latch they had hidden under their bodies appeared. Several twined around his fingers so that Harry’s hand became part of the box, but then the snakes slowly settled, sliding back into position around the box, hiding the latch once again. Finally, only one snake was left, curled around his thumb with his head resting on Harry’s knuckle.

Harry waited for it to crawl home, but then Harry realized the snake had detached from the box altogether. He slowly raised his hand, and the tiny snake stayed with him. “Hello,” Harry said quietly.

The snake put his tongue out, tickling Harry’s thumb before answering. “I am Ibnistaran. I will guide you through the book.”

“What book?” Harry asked. The snakes on the box shifted again, revealing the golden latch. Moving slowly so the snakes had time to warn him off, Harry flipped the latch open and lifted the lid. A huge grimoire sat in a velvet tray, snakes decorating the front.

“What spell do you need?” Ibnistaran asked.

Harry thought carefully. He didn’t need any spell, but Walburga might be impressed if he could show that the box would give him ancient magic. “What is the most useful spell for a wizard to use all the time, like every day?” It was a hopelessly vague question, but Harry didn’t know what else to ask.

Ibnistaran hissed and then told Harry to open the book. Harry carefully lifted it out and glanced at the small snake before he opened it to a random page. He had to hold the book steady in two hands, but he quickly forgot his physical discomfort. The page had a moving illustration with a diagram of the movement and an incantation. But the movement didn’t use a wand.

Wandless magic. That would be useful, and this was a shield–one the book promised would be effective against physical and magical force. “It’s a spell. A shield spell. Can I try it?” Harry asked Narcissa.

She smiled indulgently. “Perhaps later. It would not be wise to cast magic in a Black home that does not recognize you.”

Harry had the feeling the time had come. Now they had to convince Walburga Black to let him take up the mantle as head of House Black. Harry’s stomach soured and he had so much energy that he felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin. However, this was the best chance to protect himself from Sirius Black.

Chapter 10

Harry gave the shield spell one more longing look before he addressed his tiny snake. “Thank you, Ibnistaran. Can you save this page so I can come back and learn it later? My nest tender says I have to introduce myself to the house magic before I can try this.”

“Of course, speaker,” the tiny snake answered, and then he put his head down on Harry’s knuckle and went to sleep. Harry could feel the magic ebb. Harry closed the book and carefully put it back in the box and closed the lid. The other snakes flowed over the box, hiding the latch again.

“Thank you for sharing such a beautiful box and I hope to study the magic inside,” Harry said with a bow to Walburga. Her eyes were wide with shock and she looked from Harry to Narcissa. She had thought the box would attack him because she thought Narcissa had been lying about Harry’s skills. Why would they lie when it would be so easy to disprove? That wouldn’t be very Slytherin. Then again, Walburga was the only Slytherin Harry had ever met who had less subtlety than either Mr. Malfoy or Draco.

“He was born under the rising influence of Ophiuchus,” Narcissa said as she carefully put the box on an ornate table.

“Why was he not named appropriately?”

“Because at the time of his naming, James and Lily Potter chose it. James rejected all things Dark and the Black family.”

“And his wife was a mudblood,” Walburga finished. Harry winced at the derogatory name, but at least Walburga said it thoughtfully, like she was trying to figure something out. That was better than screaming at Harry for having a muggle-born mother. Harry ran his finger over Ibnistaran and waited as the women stared at each other. They might be family, but they didn’t actually like each other.

Draco had said that his mother still blamed her Aunt Walburga for Bellatrix’s madness. The three sisters had been playing at Grimmauld when something had happened to Bellatrix. She had never been the same again, even though Draco said Walburga had hired the best healers and had her taken to Romania for a healing ritual that was illegal in the UK. Still, he said his mother had never quite forgiven her aunt for not locking up the Dark artifacts. That’s why Walburga had never met Draco when he’d been a baby. Narcissa refused to expose him to Walburga’s negligence with Dark magic.

Finally Walburga looked at Harry. “So, you are studying Dark magic. Tell me one piece of Dark magic you would never use.”

Harry thought of the most horrific things Mr. Malfoy had shown him. The actual unforgivable spells were nothing compared to some of the things Dark magic could do. “I would never use Pelisaufero.” Harry could not imagine why he would ever skin someone alive. And the spells that required skin that had been stripped off a living body–Harry never needed to cast any of them. Horcruxes equally horrified him, but he didn’t have the same visceral revulsion he felt to Pelisaufero.

“What is one piece of Dark magic you intend on using?” she asked.

“The Wheel rituals. Even if I don’t get a power boost, it feels right to thank Mother Magic for the gifts she has given me.” Mr. Malfoy had explained that traditionally ritual was seen as masculine and magic as feminine and the yearly Wheel celebrations as the seasons turned were the union of the two forces. Ritual called out to magic to join together. The animal sacrifice was unsettling, but as long as the animal didn’t suffer, he didn’t think it was any worse than a farmer going out and getting a chicken for dinner. In fact, it was exactly the same since everyone in the ritual shared a meal from the animal, leaving the bones for Mother Magic.

“Would you use the cruciatus curse?”

Harry took a deep breath. Would he? Would he ever hate someone enough to torture them? Sometimes after Dudley had beaten him particularly badly, he wanted to hurt him back so much that the need to cause pain was an ache under his ribs. But did he really want Dudley to suffer when he’d been raised by his parents to be a horrible person? “No,” he said softly.

“No?” Walburga pulled herself up until she was ramrod straight and glaring down at Harry.

Harry looked up at her and shook his head. “No. My muggle family is horrible. My aunt sometimes won’t feed me anything except my cousin’s leftovers, and my cousin beats me, and my uncle screams about how worthless I am, and I want to hurt them back. I want to so badly that I know if I started using the cruciatus curse that I would cast it and cast it and cast it until I lost myself in the magic.” He lifted his chin. “I fully embrace the joyous parts of Dark magic, and I understand the power of the ritual, but there is some Dark magic I won’t use because I know I can’t handle that power. I have too much darkness in me for it.” Maybe Harry would have more self-control when he was older, but if he used it now, he’d lose himself.

“Oh Harry,” Narcissa wrapped her arms around him, and the kindness almost reduced Harry to tears. He would have cried if it weren’t for Walburga staring down at him.

After a minute, Narcissa let go, and turned to face her aunt. “I am not asking you to think of him as a Black. As a daughter of the house of Black, I am telling you he is a Black. He is a better heir than Sirius. I would trust him to be the head of the House Black, in part because he knows he is too young to dance with magic too dark for him to handle. And as he grows, his confidence with Dark magic will grow as well.” She stared at her aunt with fury in her eyes. This was the expression that made Draco flee, usually with Harry one step behind.

“You are the one who still lives, who will have to live with the consequences of having a Potter as the head of House Black.” Walburga stopped suddenly before giving Harry a thoughtful look. “There has never been a head of house that was not born under a star or constellation.”

“I told you he was born under the influence of Ophiuchus. He is even learning to adjust rituals to tap into that power.”

“Then he must be named after his stars. It is the tradition of House Black. He will be Ophiuchus Harry Black.” She looked very smug.

Harry looked at Narcissa in horror. Draco had gotten a cool name, but he did not want people to call him Ophiuchus. Sure, sometimes he was tired of being Harry Potter and he wasn’t entirely joking when he said he might take his wife’s name, but Ophiuchus Black was a horrific name.

“He will not dishonor his parents. Harry James Ophiuchus,” Narcissa said, her voice cold.

“Ophiuchus Harry James.”

Narcissa narrowed her eyes. “Harry James Ophiuchus.”

“Harry Ophiuchus James.”

“Harry James Ophiuchus,” Narcissa repeated again, her voice louder with every repetition. Now she looked like she was ready to draw a wand.

Walburga threw her hands up. “Fine. Harry James Ophiuchus Black.”

“Harry James Ophiuchus Potter.”

“I will not have a Potter as the head of House Black.” In her frame, Walburga stomped her foot. “Harry James Ophiuchus Black-Potter.”

Harry wondered if either woman planned to ask what name he preferred.

“Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black.”

“Harry James Ophiuchus Black-Potter.”

“Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black.”

“Harry James Ophiuchus Black-Potter.”

At one point when Mr. Malfoy and Narcissa had gotten into a disagreement about where to go to buy Draco and Harry new robes, Mr. Malfoy had given in with a sigh and then told them that it never paid to argue with a Black because they were the most stubborn creatures in the universe. Narcissa had smiled sweetly and swept them out the door, but as the two women screamed at each other Harry could see what Mr Malfoy meant. After several more rounds that ended in unholy shrieking on both sides, the two women settled in silence and glared at each other.

“What’s the difference between Potter-Black and Black-Potter?” Harry asked.

Narcissa finally looked away from her aunt. “The order of the names lists which family will get an heir. If you are Potter-Black and you have only one child, that child will be the Potter heir. The same child may or may not be able to claim the Black magic, but the Potter line is guaranteed to continue. If you are Black-Potter, then no child can take up the Potter heirship until you have provided a Black heir.”

“The Black family must continue!” Walburga shrieked at a volume that made Harry want to slap his hands over his ears. He wondered if the snake book had a shield against screaming.

“The Black magic will choose its own heir. He could have a dozen children and have none chosen.”

“And if that is the case, why should the Potter line be allowed to continue if the Black line cannot?” she demanded.

Harry took a step forward. “I hope that I will be accepted as the head of House Black. I hope one of my children will follow. If none of my children can take the magic, I hope one of my grandchildren will. I know the House Black will survive, but I will not sacrifice the Potter name or family magics. I will be Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black, or I will leave.” Walburga’s mouth fell open.

Harry occluded and maintained what he considered his “pure-blood” mask as he stood in front of Walburga. He could walk out. He was being honest about not needing the magic. Of course, that would leave Narcissa vulnerable, and even Andromeda and Nymphatora. That line had been disowned, but they were still Blacks by blood.

Walburga sighed. “Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black.”

Before Harry could say anything, Narcissa said sharply, “Only if the family magic accepts him as head of house. Otherwise, the duel heirship will stand and I know that would make some people insanely unhappy, and one must beware of angering people of power.” She narrowed her eyes, and Harry got the feeling she was alluding to something she’d said to her aunt while Harry was standing on the stoop.

“Go to Orion’s office. There’s a landscape there open to all the portraits. I will meet you there and reveal the ritual room.” Harry assumed that meant that Narcissa had won. So they had gotten through the first obstacle, but Harry still had to convince the Black family magic to take him. Dark magic was wild and dangerous, and the older the family, the more powerful the magic. The Blacks were directly descended from one of Emperor Charlemagne’s wives, a Dark witch who had, after his death, taken her children and fled before they could become victims of the Emperor’s enemies.

And that unnamed Black had been the daughter of a long-standing Roman family that could trace their lineage back to the days of Plato. All those generations had bred a powerful family magic, and Harry had to impress it.

The idea was terrifying, but not as terrifying as facing a dementor-mad Sirius Black without any family magic. So Harry braced his shoulders and followed Narcissa to the second floor.

Chapter 11

The ritual itself was simple–Narcissa had walked him through the steps before they’d come to the house. However, they never would have found the ritual room. Accessing it required an insane number of steps. A particular book from the second floor library had to be placed on the bookstand. Then the raven statues over the office door had to be moved to the four corners and set on tiny angle ledges that were only visible when a person levitated, or in Harry’s case, Narcissa levitated him up.

Only then could Harry go to the “Toujours Pur” banner carved in the bottom of the family crest and put a single drop of blood in the first “o.” And then one wall of the office slid away to reveal the ritual room. It had been tucked into the twelve or so inches between the office and the master bedroom on the other side, but it had been expanded to the size of a ballroom. The center was marked for Wheel rituals, but the circle was not laid out in chalk or even paint. It was gold and silver and copper and even gemstones inlaid into stone.

Harry stepped into the room first, leading Narcissa, but then he stopped, the magnificence of not only the physical room but the ambient magic shaking him to the core. This was a place for grand ceremonies, for hundreds of people to come together to summon magic and honor her. On the north side was the earth altar, a glittering white salt pillar supporting the sacrificial stone.

The east had a column of delicate ribbons and tiny chimes that tinkled, just from the air movements caused by opening the coor. To the west was a large pool of water, a rock creating a small waterfall and tiny fish darting through water plants, and right in front of the door was the ritual caldron, a huge stone circle ready for the fire.

Harry held his breath as he moved into the space. The Black magic was here–heavy and thick and waiting. If it weren’t for the danger of Sirius claiming this place, Harry would have turned around and left. He wasn’t old enough for this. He knew it.

However, he would not leave his family vulnerable to a madman. Swallowing his fears, he walked to the center of the ritual circle with its eight-point star inlaid in metal. Once he was in the center, he cleared his throat and started.

“I would stand here as Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black,” he started. It was a slight change in wording, but after what Narcissa had said, he didn’t want to claim the name unless the magic accepted him. “I am an heir to the House Black. I ask to claim the magics, to protect the family, and to honor the Dark magic that is the foundation of House Black. I ask the magic to judge my worth.”

Harry jumped when a wind snapped through the room. The four cardinal candles flared to life before a ritual fire so large that it swallowed the caldron roared into existence. The wind column tinkled madly and the smell of petrichor and storms filled the room. Harry could feel the magic like a blanket that would smother him.

Harry tried to keep calm as the burden increased until his legs trembled and the suffocating weight made it hard to catch his breath. The Black magic didn’t want weakness. It knew hardships–starving times and war. Persecutions and burnings. Madness and patricide. It knew it was difficult to carry, and it did not wish to be abandoned again. It did not wish a weak carrier to drag the magic. It wanted to be held aloft with pride.

Harry struggled to stand strong through the judging. This was not worse then when Uncle Vernon had pinned him against the wall and leaned in so that Harry couldn’t breathe. He had survived that, and he would survive this.

Survival. Harry felt the magic pick up that thought and echo it. Survival. Survival. That was a proper path. The magic shifted.

No, Harry thought. It’s not just survival. He could have survived his life in his cupboard, but that would not be life. He had needed to escape. There was a moment of magical silence before the room seemed to shift.

Revenge. The room now echoed that thought even more clearly than survival. This was a familiar path. Well worn. The magic knew it and could serve it.

No, Harry thought, projecting himself even more strongly. If I had sought revenge, I would have suffered with them. Let them have their petty lives. I don’t need them.

The magic swirled, confused and directionless. Harry realized the magic couldn’t judge him until he had chosen his own path. It had offered the paths most commonly chosen by Blacks, but if he didn’t take them, he had to set one of his own.

This moment would define him. Harry knew that. He thought of the Dark magic he had studied and all he had learned. So much was terrible. Harry understood why some people wanted to ban all Dark magic. Having the power to skin someone alive with a spell was terrifying. However, not all Dark magic was that way.

Joy. Harry protected his thoughts forward. He wanted to find the joy in magic. He wanted to stand in the storm and smell the petrichor and cast his magic to the heavens. He wanted to feel his magic flow through him as he did wandless magic. He wanted to touch magic on the high ritual days and hear the Mother sing in his blood. He wanted Dark magic, and he knew part of that was accepting the pain and sorrows of life. Dark accepted all aspects of life. But he wanted to revel in the joy.

The room was slow to echo him, but this path was similar to love, and many Black had chosen love. Storge–familial love. Philia–brotherly and sisterly love. Philautia–self love and the seeking of advantage. These were older paths, but the magic knew them. The magic danced through Harry, seeking to understand Joy.

Harry felt the magic strengthen. The ceiling overhead shifted from darkness to the image of the sun rising, light reflecting off the undersides of heavy storm clouds. Reds and oranges lit the sky while birds wheeled through the air, delighting in the way the coming storm made them tumble through the sky, gliding on currents that were stronger than on sunny days. Harry smiled.


The magic filled the storm for a moment before moving to the birds. Delighting in the moment. Harry smiled. He felt like the magic smiled back at him, and then he gasped as magic slammed into his sternum. He stumbled backward, struggling to stay on his feet. But Narcissa had told him that he needed to be upright and inside the circle during the entire ritual. He had to stand strong.

Despite the fact that his body was impossibly heavy, Harry took the two steps back into the center of the circle. Joy. The word rebounded until Harry had a hard time hearing his own thoughts, and he suddenly understood the danger.

If he couldn’t hang onto himself, the magic would erase everything that was him and replace it with his one path. One emotion was easier for the magic to serve. To understand. Joy. The feeling pushed at him, seeking to erase all else.

Harry desperately clung to all his feelings. He hated Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. They could have accepted him. Loved him. Or failing that, they could have given him to a family that would have. But they kept him for the protection Dumbledore promised and treated him like a burden. Confusion. Professor Snape clearly hid things from him. So many things. Sometimes he seemed to want to help Harry and then he hated him, and then he was so weary that he looked like he might collapse into a pile of robes. Harry didn’t understand him, and that made him nervous because Professor Snape was his best protection.

Terror. Dumbledore terrified Harry. If he thought Harry had saved the Wizarding world the way he had told everyone, why did he want Harry to suffer? He had sent Hagrid to get him his school supplies. What would have happened if the man in the bookstore hadn’t helped Harry? What plot would Harry have been caught in? What plot was he caught in now? He couldn’t match Dumbledore’s power, and that terrified him.

Frustration. Draco frustrated him. He wanted so much to get his father’s approval and he couldn’t see that Mr. Malfoy wasn’t a good man, frustration that his only hope to learn Dark magic was from Mr. Malfoy. Frustration at the stupid division between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Frustration with Ron, who he couldn’t understand from one day to the next. Frustration with older Slytherins who sometimes treated him like a god for being a parselmouth and other times like the monster who had murdered the Dark Lord.

Joy was there, and Harry wanted to feel like the birds soaring on the front edge of the storm, but he had to watch the storm clouds. Joy couldn’t be the only emotion or it would destroy him. The magic pushed, terrifying Harry because he could feel the magic’s desire for a singular path. Madness was an easier riverbed to flow down than the eddies and turns and vagaries of a human mind.

But Harry held tight to those other emotions, clinging to his occlumency and the image of the storm clouds overhead, and slowly and almost grudgingly the magic settled. With one last thought that it could be more powerful in a more streamlined vessel, it finally accepted Harry with all his complexities.

Harry looked over at Narcissa, who stood laughing, her hands over her mouth, and he felt her joy. But then he felt other echoes, distant echoes. One called him more than the others. He felt cold stones under his hands, the wind biting his face and rough fabrics across his body. But none of that mattered because she lived in the magic. A body was irrelevant. He got an image of a little girl with wild curls, Walburga ushering her into this very room and telling her to open herself to the magic.

Harry could feel her now, still open–the breathing embodiment of Black magic. But Harry had changed the magic, and now she laughed. She laughed at the bugs that crawled through her hair. Silly things. She laughed at the dementors that glided past her cell. She lived in magic. They couldn’t touch her. What fools they were. She laughed at the taste of rot in her mouth from her broken teeth. All life was rot. Bodies were rotting from the day they were born, and she found it all so joyous that she laughed with abandon.

“Bellatrix,” Harry whispered. Pure, unadulterated joy responded. When Harry’s sorrow drowned out the last of the residual joy from the ritual, Harry lost the connection. What had Walburga done? Why would she have exposed a child to such wild magic? Harry didn’t know what emotions Orion had focused the Black magic on, but given that revenge was one of the most familiar paths, he could guess.

The fires died and the wind column slowed, the music settling into an occasional tinkle. Harry walked out of the circle, and Narcissa was still giggling. “Oh Harry. You have the Black penchant for drama. What have you done?”

Harry opened his mouth to explain, but he couldn’t. The magic was for him, the knowledge was his, and magic was jealous and secretive… and joyous.

Narcissa put a hand over Harry’s shoulders and tried to compose herself into her ice-queen expression, but she was still smiling. “Let’s go tell Walburga that the House Black has a new head.”

“I don’t like her,” Harry said, thinking of a little girl who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.

Narcissa leaned closer. “None of us do,” she confessed. Harry thought about telling her about Bellatrix, but what good could it do? Nothing changed what Bellatrix did. Even if she had been poisoned with a need for revenge, she still chose to go to the Longbottom estate and attack Neville’s parents. Since he couldn’t go back in time to save Bellatrix or kill Walburga far, far sooner, Harry followed Narcissa out into the Lord’s study.

Kretcher popped into the office, and then Dobby and four other elves–a male and two females, one holding the hand of an elfling who was half her size. Harry froze.

“Lord Black has returned,” Kretcher said.

Dobby just smiled, his ears flapping madly, and the other three elves stepped forward. The oldest female spoke. “The Black family is needing elves, it is. Magic calls us home. I is Indigo. I is granddaughter of Kretcher.”

“I be Moxie,” the other female said. “I be bringing my daughter Ejo.”

The new male then spoke. “Masters be calling me Dirt. Masters before be calling me Elf. What will I be answering to here?” He blinked, and Harry blinked back.

“Oh my,” Narcissa whispered.

Chapter 12

Summer ended and they were boarding the train before Harry knew it. Always before, the end of summer had been a joyous time–the end of his sentence at the Dursleys. Even when he’d gone to muggle primary school, it meant he could spend his days out from under his aunt’s critical gaze.

But this year he dragged his feet as he boarded the train after hugging Narcissa and exchanging a firm handshake with Mr. Malfoy. Harry was going to miss Dark magic lessons and dueling lessons and swimming in the ocean. He would miss occlumency, which gave him a great sense of pride when he successfully held off one of Professor Snape’s attacks. Afterward, Professor Snape would talk to him about anything from his mother’s favorite classes to why some people loved Dark magic so much that they sacrificed their families and sanity. But now, summer had ended.

Instead he was sitting on the train waiting to be dragged back to Transfiguration that went too slow and Defense that probably had another worthless professor and Arithmancy which was definitely going to have too much homework. Draco must have felt the same because he threw himself into the seat opposite with a huff.

The others were in a better mood. Hermione had to describe every detail of their Castelbruxo visit to Millicent, and Blaise was teasing everyone, including an increasingly grumpy Draco. The students had finally boarded and the train jerked to a start as they started heading back to Hogwarts. That’s when Nott showed up at the open doorway.

Harry expected him to ask Blaise to step out so they could speak, but instead he stood in the open doorway with his back stiff, looking like he was facing a firing squad. “Potter, can we talk?” Nott stood so stiffly that he looked like he was a soldier standing at attention.

“Sure,” Harry said with a shrug, “come on in.”

Nott looked around the compartment. Hermione and Millicent were going over a book of dueling spells Millicent had gotten over summer, Draco, Neville, and Gregory were playing exploding snap and Blaise was watching them over the top of his book with an amused expression.

“Or maybe we can go somewhere else,” Harry said.

“Oh, don’t mind us. You know we love to hear our dormmates fuss at each other. I’ve missed it all summer. I had to content myself with white sand beaches and yachts and Mother’s cliffside villa,” Blaise said with a smirk.

Harry gave Blaise the two finger salute before slipping into the corridor. The next two compartments had students, so they ended up some distance from the group. “Did you have a good summer?” Harry asked. He could hope for civility, at least.

“I need to apologize,” Nott said. He held out his hand.

Half-suspicious this was a practical joke of some sort, Harry took it. “You haven’t offended me,” he said slowly.

Nott stood a little taller. “I assumed you were Dumbledore’s eyes and ears in Slytherin.”

“Dumbledore? I’ve only talked to him a few times in my life, and I have no reason to like him.” Harry didn’t mention his long list of grievances against the headmaster–everything from leaving him on Aunt Petunia’s doorstep to his attempts to use legilimency. In fact, if Harry was going to say he hated someone, the headmaster would be high on the list.

“Still… the Potters… bollocks.” Nott seemed to sag. “I’m not saying this right.”

“When something is important, it can be hard to say. I’ll listen,” Harry offered.

Nott gave him an odd look. “You’re rather forgiving for a Slytherin.”

“If I want power, shouldn’t I avoid alienating people?” Harry countered. He knew Slytherins had a certain reputation because they tended to pursue questionable avenues to power, but he didn’t have to do the same.

Nott frowned at him. “Right then, let me start again. My father has always been a supporter of the Dark.” He cast a quick look at Harry as though waiting for an objection or maybe for Harry to channel Ron and start denouncing all things Dark. Harry stroked Ibnistaran and waited.

If Nott knew that he had a Dark artifact on his finger right now, he would be shocked. Actually, he would probably be shocked at Harry’s stupidity for bringing it to Hogwarts, but Ibnistaran had refused to move when asked and had simply gone back to sleep. With a Slytherin thumb ring on one hand and the Black heirship ring on the other, Harry was pretty sure no one would call him Light.

“I’m not going to get into it on a train to Hogwarts, but it’s not like I’m disagreeing with your father,” Harry said. “But I also think it’s horribly dangerous and people have to be careful because the stories out of the Black family alone are enough to make people go screaming away from those old magics.”

Nott snorted. “The last three generations of Blacks have been fools.” He sucked in a startled breath. “My apologies again.”

Nott’s horror startled a laugh out of Harry. “Oh no, you’re completely right. Narcissa and her one sister were the only sane ones out of the whole lot. Well, I hear Regulus was fairly stable, but then he did something to get himself killed, and an accident with Dark magic would be in-character for the Blacks. So maybe not. But with Bellatrix and Sirius in the family, I can’t claim they’re bastions of sanity.” Harry lowered his voice to a more conspiratorial tone. “I met Walburga’s portrait this summer, and I’m fairly sure she was as crazy as a tower full of kneazle infiri.”

“My father suspects inbreeding,” Nott said slowly.

“So, is he not a blood purist?” Harry felt a burst of hope. Blood purity was the only real obstacle to making friends with Slytherins. He’d had no idea Nott was different.

“Magic purist. He said that the Notts have been marrying old families for so long that he wants me to marry a half-blood or muggleborn. If I fall in love with a pure-blood, he wants me to have a blood adoption so I will have a muggleborn mother to minimize the chances of my children being squibs or….”

“Crazy as Blacks?” Harry guessed.

Nott nodded.

“Can blood adoption change a person’s DNA?” Harry hadn’t studied it yet, but that didn’t seem possible, or at least muggle science would say it was impossible.

“Yes. I could end up with different eye color or facial structure. If the woman my father chose for the adoption had strong magic, I could find my core shifting so some magics were harder or easier. If a Longbottom adopted me, I might even lose access to the Darkest magics. They’re that strongly Light-aligned, but my father would never do that to me.”

“Wow,” Harry whispered. He was glad Walburga hadn’t insisted on something like that.

“Anyway, I thought the headmaster was targeting me because my father escaped the trials at the end of the last war.”

“That must have been horrible–sleeping in a room with someone you thought was trying to hurt your family.” Harry sat on one of the benches, and Nott settled across from him.

“I warded my bed and told myself I could handle any attacks. But I heard that this summer you were accepted by Black magic,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “that you actually hold the head of house title, not just the heirship.”

For a second, Harry considered lying, but he had a snake’s dislike of lying to one he wasn’t hunting, and he didn’t want to hunt Nott. Harry nodded. “Before Walburga would give us access to the family ritual room, she even made me change my name. I’m now officially Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black. She tried to make me take the name Black-Potter, but Narcissa told me that would require me to father a Black heir before any of my children could take the name Potter. Since the Black magic is fussy, that could mean the end of the Potter line if none of my children ended up being able to carry the Black magic.”

“Good advice.” Nott offered a strained smile.

“And no one in the Light or even Gray parties can know I have the house magics. That said, if I were Dumbledore’s puppet, I would never be able to hold the Black family magic,” Harry said. He assumed that had caused Nott’s changing attitude.

Nott nodded. “Which is why I know I’ve misjudged you for the last two years, and which is why I owe you an apology.”

“I feel like I should apologize to you because you’ve spent two years uncomfortable in your own room because I was there.”

“Perhaps we can erase the mutual debt.”

“An exchange of names?” Harry guessed.

This time Nott’s smile seemed more genuine. “I would be honored if you would call me Theo.”

“And you must call me Harry.” Harry smiled at him, relieved that they would finally have peace in the dorm room. “Do you want to come meet the others? Well, Neville and Hermione, anyway. You know the rest.”

“Um, sure.” Nott didn’t look sure, but Harry led the way back. When he opened the carriage door, Ron had joined in the exploding snap game, and when he looked up, his shoulders tensed. Mr. Malfoy might have been Dark and denied it, but Theo’s father had never hidden that he followed the Dark Lord. Harry half-expected Ron to explode right then and there, but he stayed seated.

“Everyone, this is Theo. His father and Dumbledore have a feud, and because Dumbledore was my magical guardian, he thought we were feuding until he found out that the Black magic had accepted me.” Harry showed his heir ring and avoided all discussion of being the head of the Black family. “So now we’re trying to make up for lost time. Theo, this is Hermione, girl genius and person most likely to hex you if you annoy her.”

“Draco hexes far more people than I do,” she said with a sniff. “I’m just far better at making it hurt.” She shot Draco a wicked smile. Something had changed with Hermione. She was more confident and slightly blotchier and definitely curvier, even since the end of July. It made Harry a bit uncomfortable.

“That almost sounds like a challenge.” Theo spoke slowly, like he was feeling his words out.

“If you’re willing to throw hexes as girls, either Millicent or I will be happy to beat you in a duel,” Hermione offered cheerfully. Millicent looked up from her dueling book and openly assessed Theo.

“Moving on. Theo, this is Neville, heir to the house of Longbottom.”

“Blessings,” Neville offered with a formal bow of his head.

“And you know Ron Weasley, the youngest brother and the one who has to endure living year-round with the Menace Twins.”

Ron just gave a jerk of his head. Rude.

“Nice to meet you,” Theo said.

Hermione looked at Theo and then at Neville and Harry. “Are we going to do the traditional greeting with new Slytherins?”

“Traditional?” Theo backed up a step.

Millicent rolled her eyes. “Harry will get pissy if you say shite about half-bloods or muggleborns, Neville will murder you with his eyes if you say the Dark Lord was justified in killing people and Ron….” She looked at him with a distinctly unimpressed look. Ron glared back.

“Oh.” Theo looked at Harry as though for help.

“He’s not a blood purist,” Harry hurried to say.

Millicent finally put the dueling book down. “You’re not?” Apparently Harry was not the only Slytherin who had made assumptions.

“No,” Theo said firmly. “In fact, the Notts have been marrying old families so long that father would rather I marry a muggleborn or half-blood. He is very concerned about inbreeding.”

“Finally, one of the old generation with sense,” Hermione said with a huff. She had been talking about genetics and cousins and inbreeding for the last two years, so Harry understood her frustration. Draco and Ron had both insisted muggle DNA had nothing to do with wizards as if wizards weren’t humans.

“Don’t look at me,” Millicent said with some alarm.

“I didn’t!” Theo took another step back.

“Good, because I’m not going to get married. I don’t believe in it. I’m going to be a dueler or a bodyguard.”

“Good for you.” Theo looked like he was regretting coming anywhere near Harry’s friends.

“In fact, Harry, can I be your bodyguard?” Millicent asked. “I’m brill with dueling spells.”

Harry shrugged. “Sure you can. You and Hermione are both terrifying with wands.”

Millicent crossed her arms and looked smugly around the compartment as if she’d just won something. Harry really didn’t understand people. He quickly changed the subject. “How is the wand working for you, Neville?”

Neville blushed. “Gran hired a tutor to work with me on the first and second year curriculum so I could get caught up, and my connection to the wand just keeps getting stronger. Thank you so much, Harry. I owe you.”

“Yeah, mate, me too,” Ron said. “That old wand was a menace. Mum won’t let us practice at home, but I snuck away at Diagon, and I could cast without any smoke or smell or anything.”

Theo sat at the end of the bench looking out of place. “You got them wands?”

“I let them go through one of the vaults that had been willed to me,” Harry said. “It must have belonged to a wand maker because there were a couple of hundred wands and some very weird magical ingredients that we all decided to avoid touching until we knew what we were looking at.” Harry shivered when he remembered the floating eyeballs. It had been worse than potions class and all Professor Snape’s gruesome ingredients.

“Olivander inspected the wands afterward,” Neville said. “Mine is apple wood with thunderbird tail feather, twelve inches.”

“Thunderbird? That’s rare.” Theo leaned closer to look at it. It was a light reddish wand with streaks of cream and a twist pattern carved into the length. “Either that was made outside the UK or it’s an antique.”

Neville nodded. “I let Gran think it’s a legacy Potter wand, so she thinks it’s a sign of the Longbottom and Potter continuing alliance.”

Theo frowned as he looked from Harry to Neville and back. Harry didn’t understand his concern, but Neville smiled shyly. “I tell people I’m Light, but not narrow-minded. If Harry and I want to work together, I don’t need him to denounce his family magic. But Gran does assume that if we’re talking about an alliance, that means Harry is Light-leaning.”

“But he took on the Black heirship.”

Neville sighed. “Light magics aren’t as sentient. The Longbottom heirship passes to whoever is next in line. Even when I thought I was a near-squib because my wand fought me, I still knew I would be the next Longbottom lord. It’s not the same in Light families, and I didn’t really understand how different the magics were until I started spending time with Harry and Draco.”

“So your Grandmother thinks I could be the Black heir and be Light,” Harry summarized.

Nott’s frown grew deeper. “No offense, but that’s…”

Neville sighed. “Yeah, I know. But she’s my Gran, and I’m not going to tell her differently. That said, I still think anyone who tortured or murdered others during the war should be in Azkaban, and they should stay there.” He gave Theo a challenging look, but Theo didn’t rise to the bait. He was much calmer than Draco. Harry wondered if that also meant he was much more capable of wielding Dark magic.

“It’s getting criminals to stay in Azkaban that’s worrying me,” Draco said. “I am part Black, so I know how crazy they are, and now the Minister thinks Sirius Black is heading for Hogwarts. It’s horrible” He gave a full body shiver.

“I never thought I would agree with a Malfoy,” Ron said with a matching shudder. “Did you see the picture from his arrest? There were still body parts in the ground and he was laughing. Laughing! He’s bonkers.”

“Lots of Blacks are crazy,” Draco said.

“Which is why it’s way safer to say on the Gray side of magic,” Harry didn’t think Ron would spy for the headmaster, not after he’d found out that the headmaster had neglected him. However, if he said something to his mother and his mother talked to the headmaster, Harry needed to make sure the right things were said. “I would never get into the Dark magics–the blood writing or animal sacrifice or stuff like that. I don’t want to end up like Bellatrix or Sirius, barking mad and laughing at dismembered body parts. I figure having Black blood is enough reason to avoid Dark magic.”

Draco looked at him oddly, but then immediately his expression vanished.

“You’re a half-blood,” Theo said. Harry braced to defend his mother, but Theo continued, “That should protect you from sliding too far into the magic. My father thinks the last generation of Blacks went mad because Walburga and Orion were cousins. And even before that, the Blacks tended to marry daughters out and then take the children or grandchildren of those Blacks back into the family.”

Hermione wrinkled her nose. “That’s not healthy.”

“No, it’s not,” Theo agreed. “But Harry, your closest Black relative is a grandmother, and you have your mother with her new bloodline, so I doubt you will have any of those problems. Draco is more likely to go insane than you are.”

“Gee, thanks,” Draco said dryly.

Theo winced. “You know what I mean.”

Hermione chewed her lip. “I wonder whether it was a genetic disease, something like schizophrenia or if it was instability caused by Dark magic or a combination.”

“I bet on a combination,” Theo said.

Hermione frowned. “Why?”

Harry tuned out as Theo and Hermione started talking about recessive traits and insanity and Dark-induced instability in the core versus hormonal imbalances from mental illness. He would rather play exploding snap. He sat next to Ron, who leaned closer. “You had to bring another swot, didn’t you?”

“He’s keeping Hermione happy,” Gregory said, slapping his hands down on the cards as the train lurched into motion. “So, what kind of wand did you get?” he asked Ron.

Luckily, Ron was easily distracted. He pulled out a brown wand with dark streaks and tiny Chinese runes carved in a circle around where the handle and wand met. “Laurel, thirteen inches, with xiezhi hair.”


“Chinese unicorn,” Ron explained proudly. “It’s smaller than the English unicorn, but it is known for going to battle against evil.” He waved it and showered the compartment with sparks. Hermione gave him a dirty look before going back to her conversation with Theo. Harry was glad someone was giving Theo a chance. He couldn’t believe Theo spent two years expecting some sort of betrayal. Sure, Harry was uneasy around Ron, but he didn’t expect a betrayal, and he didn’t have to sleep in the same dorm. That must have been horrible.

But hopefully Theo joining them was a good sign that this year was going to be better than Harry had feared, even if he might have a Black madman out for his blood.

Chapter 13

The trolley came by and they bought snacks and then Luna showed up, dragging her trunk behind her and announcing that the heliopaths were much more settled. Harry liked that none of his friends even commented on her weirdness. Theo looked at her oddly, but after no one else said anything, he went back to his conversation with Hermione and Blaise helped her put her trunk in their overhead. The benches were full, so she sat on the floor, leaning back against Millicent’s knees.

They’d been riding for hours and the snacks were gone. Hermione wanted to take her cat out, but Ron had thrown a fit, cradling his rat Scabbers in his hands and insisting Hermione’s pet was a rat murderer. Every Slytherin in the compartment looked revolted, but Luna had prevented a potential fight by loudly explaining all about Umgubular Slashkilters and how they hid in leaf slime to trap the unwary traveler. Harry knew that some of her imaginary creatures represented emotions, but he was almost sure she was making that one up to screw with Ron and Hermione.

Hermione kept trying to look them up in the Big Book of Monsters, but then her book had attacked her, Millicent and Theo before she could get a strap on it again, and her cat was largely forgotten. However, the Slytherins did still cast some suspicious looks at Ron who still held his rat close. The thing looked unhealthy.

The rain thickened as the train sped yet farther north; the windows were now a solid, shimmering gray, which gradually darkened until lanterns flickered into life all along the corridors and over the luggage racks. The train rattled, the rain hammered and the wind roared until the weather seemed to leech the energy from the room. They put up the exploding snap and all of them read through their summer homework, or in the case of Ron and Gregory, tried to do their homework.

The train started to slow. Draco frowned. “Are we early?” he asked.

“We can’t be there yet,” said Hermione, checking her watch.

“So why’re we stopping?” Harry asked. The train was getting slower and slower. As the noise of the pistons fell away, the wind and rain sounded louder than ever against the windows. Harry looked toward the door. Both Theo and Millicent stood, their wands in hand.

“You’re being paranoid,” Ron said. “Maybe there’s something blocking the tracks.”

“Is anyone out there?” Harry asked when Theo stuck his head in the corridor.

“Everyone is poking their heads out, but nothing is out of place.” He had his wand half-raised.

The train came to a stop with a jolt, and distant thuds and bangs told them that luggage had fallen out of the racks. Then, without warning, all the lamps went out and they were plunged into total darkness.

“What’s going on?” Ron asked.

“Ouch! Ron, that was my foot!” gasped Hermione.

“I’m not even standing!”

“Sorry about that,” Millicent said. “I hear something.”

“Do you think we’ve broken down?” Gregory asked. He cast a weak lumos, and Harry thought he saw shadows sliding past the train.

“We’re not supposed to use magic on the train,” Hermione said.

“Extenuating circumstances. We feel unsafe, and that allows us to use magic to secure our persons,” Draco said almost distractedly, like it was something his father had taught him to say.

Ron scooted closer to the window and rubbed a patch clean so he could peer out. “There’s something moving out there,” Ron said. “I think people are coming aboard. I could see better if you didn’t have a light on in here.”

“Did students get left behind? Did the barrier close, like last year?” Hermione asked.

If it had, Harry was going to go to Grimmauld Place and yell at Dobby until he cried, which admittedly, wasn’t difficult. He was more stable now that he had a solid bond to Harry and had other Black elves with the same allegiance, but he still tended to cry if someone suggested he’d done something wrong. Kretcher had taken to hitting him with a pan every time he saw a tear, which Harry had tried to stop, but Indigo had told him that it didn’t do any damage and it was better to let Kretcher and Dobby figure things out on their own.

“I don’t like this,” Neville said. He eased his own wand out of its holster.

Theo talked to someone in the hall. “Cast lumos before you trip and kill yourself,” he said, but he didn’t cast lumos himself. Neither him nor Millicent did, which meant they wanted their wands free to cast other spells.

“Ron? Hermione?” Ginny poked her head in the compartment. “Do you know what’s going on?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Ron said. “Do you want me to walk you back to your compartment?”

When Ron stood, Luna caught him by the hand. “It’s best if you both stay,” she said in her dreamy voice. The whole compartment froze. Even Theo who had never heard Harry’s theories about Luna being a seer clearly picked up the others’ discomfort.

“Luna, Ginny, get to the back,” Harry said as he pulled his wand. He stepped in front of Draco and took position beside Hermione. “Theo, how good are you with a wand?”

“Deadly,” Theo said, and that did not sound like the tone a person used when they were exaggerating.

“Hermione, we go for shielding. I’ll cover Theo, you cover Millicent.” They’d played with this sort of dueling exercise, but it usually ended in giggles, and all of them collapsing on the floor as Draco called them dramatic, but this didn’t feel comical. Ron and Draco both pulled their wands, and Neville got up onto the table and slid between them.

“I’ll cover if anyone falls. I really hope we’re all blowing this out of proportion and Draco is about to laugh at us.”

“I hope so, too,” Draco said, but his voice was shaky. Something in the air made the hair on Harry’s arms stand up, so he didn’t think this was a false alarm.

Theo cursed and took a step back before casting a wordless spell that lit the compartment with red light. Millicent yelled, “Stupify!” and Harry expected something to hit the floor. He’d felt her spells in dueling practice, and she had a powerful punch. But the cloaked figure in the doorway didn’t flinch. It towered to the ceiling, its face completely hidden beneath the hood.

Harry and Hermione both cast Protegos, focusing the magic forward to protect the two in front. There was a hand protruding from the cloak–glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water.

“Bombarda!” Theo yelled.

“Tarantallegra!” Millicent added. Harry knew that one should have made the figure dance, but it took a step forward and drew a long, slow, rattling breath as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.

Millicent and Theo both retreated a step. “Incendio!” yelled Ron, which seemed dangerous in a compartment full of flammable materials, but at least the monster would burn. Only it didn’t. The flames skittered over the black cloak and caught the edge of the door on fire. Neville summoned water to put it out and then Draco cast serpensortia.

Harry gritted his teeth and prayed the snake didn’t attack anyone because he didn’t want to announce his parselmouth in front of Ginny and Luna. However, when the snake hit the cloaked figure’s chest, that decaying hand caught it and the snake began to wither, turning to a husk right in front of them.

An intense cold that might have been physical and might have been terror swept through Harry. His breath caught in his chest, and the cold sank into his flesh, it was inside his heart. The creature pushed past Millicent and Theo and then Harry couldn’t see. He was drowning in cold. There was a rushing in his ears as though of water. He was being dragged downward, the roaring growing louder….

And then, from far away, he heard screaming, terrible, terrified, pleading screams. He wanted to help whoever it was. He tried to move his arms, but he couldn’t… a thick white fog was swirling around him, inside him–

“Harry! Harry! Are you alright?”

Someone was slapping his face.

“Don’t do that!”

“I’m trying to wake him up.”

“By slapping him? Try shaking a shoulder or helping him sit up. Don’t slap people. Really.”

“I’d like to see you help.”

“I cast the serpent summoning spell that distracted it.”

“Enough, both of you,” a tired voice said. “Harry Potter, can you hear me?”

Harry opened his eyes; there were lanterns above him, and the floor was shaking–the Hogwarts Express was moving again, and the lights had come back on. He seemed to have fallen to the floor, and everyone was looking down at him, except for Luna who was laying on the floor with him, watching curiously and resting her chin on his arm. A man with a scarred face and worn robes knelt next to him. “How do you feel?”

Harry felt sick; when he moved to push his glasses back on, he felt cold sweat on his face.

Hermione and the shabbily dressed man heaved him back onto the seat.

“Mate, you look a little pale,” Ron said nervously.

He had a right to be nervous. “Um, was that a dementor?” He had read about them, of course, but he had never expected to see one. “And who was screaming?”

Most of his friends looked at each other in concern. “No one screamed,” Blaise said as he sat next to Harry. “We were fighting–and losing–and then you passed out.”

“We were fighting, you were standing there,” Ron corrected him.

Blaise narrowed his eyes. “I was casting a fortuna spell; you almost burned us alive.”

Harry sighed.

“A fortuna spell is advanced magic,” the adult said.

Blaise got a smug look. “I’m Italian. We teach spells at different levels. And I’m a Zabini. We are known for our spellwork.” He glanced at Ron. “And our admiration for poisons.”

The adult’s eyes grew wide.

“He’s joking,” Harry rushed to say. “But I heard screaming.”

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out an enormous slab of chocolate and started breaking it into pieces. “Here,” he said to Harry, handing him a particularly large piece. “Eat it. It’ll help.”

Draco snatched it from Harry’s hand. “You can’t possibly expect him to eat an unidentified substance out of a stranger’s pocket. Who are you, anyway? This train is for students, and you seem a little old.”

The man gave Draco a smile as if he were amused by Draco’s fury. “Quite right. I’m Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against Dark Arts professor.”

“What are you doing on the train?” Harry asked.

He sighed. “I was hoping the headmaster was being overly cautious, but since the Ministry of Magic has stationed dementors outside Hogwarts to watch for Sirius Black, he asked me to ride the train. The silver mist that swept through here was my spell. A patronus, the only spell that can ward off a dementor. The chocolate will help you recover from the exposure.” He pressed the rest of the bar into Hermione’s hands. “I need to speak to the driver, excuse me…”

He disappeared down the corridor, and everyone settled in again. Ginny was crying, so Ron gave her chocolate and escorted her back to her compartment, and Luna continued to lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling while the rest of them sat in silence.

Harry wiped the sweat off his face. “I could have sworn I heard screaming–terrible screaming.”

Draco and Blaise exchanged a long look, but it was Theo who spoke. “Dementors make you relive your worst memories. The scream was something you remember.”

Harry frowned. He didn’t ever remember hearing raw, naked terror the way he had in the woman’s voice.

“Professor Lupin was wonderful,” Hermione said. Then again, she was the one who had liked Lockhart before the school year had started. Harry winced as he remembered how that professor had died, but Hermione didn’t notice his sudden discomfort. “The silver mist flowed through the room, driving the dementor into the hallway, and then Professor Lupin was there in the corridor, his wand pointed at the thing. ‘None of us is hiding Sirius Black under our cloaks. Go!’ he ordered. But the dementor didn’t move. Then he cast a spell and silver flowed out of his wand, and the monster turned around and sort of glided away.”

“It was horrible,” said Neville in a higher voice than usual. “Did you feel how cold it got when it came in?”

“Good job with the water,” Harry said. He reached over to pat Neville, but his hand was shaking so hard he couldn’t. Neville caught his hand and held it. He was shaking equally hard, although no one else seemed to notice, so he had avoided passing out.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop it,” Millicent apologized. “I tried.”

“You were brilliant,” Harry reassured her. “You stood your ground with that thing right there, and the cold and the feeling like I would never be happy again. I’m the one who fainted.” Harry felt his face get warm. It was a strange sensation–the cold of the dementor and the heat of shame vying for his attention.

Blaise shook his head. “Dementors affect everyone differently. The worse the memory, the more it affects you.”

From the floor, Luna said, “I remember my mother dying.”

Everyone froze, and then Hermione hauled Luna up and hugged her so hard that Luna made a little squeaking noise. Draco pushed a piece of chocolate toward her. “It’s not like I’m going to eat food that’s been in a random person’s pocket,” he said with a sniff when she smiled at him. Then Gregory pulled Luna close, slinging an arm around her shoulders.

“But I just heard the screaming,” Harry said.

“You heard your mother,” Luna whispered before she put her head on Gregory’s shoulder.

Everyone froze. Long seconds ticked past, and then the door opened again. Professor Lupin had returned. He paused as he entered, looked around at the uneaten chocolate in everyone’s hands and said, with a small smile, “I haven’t poisoned that chocolate, you know.”

Luna popped the whole piece in her mouth, and Harry figured if she couldn’t see any danger, it was probably safe. He ate his, despite the small peep of distress from Draco. To his great surprise, warmth spread suddenly to the tips of his fingers and toes.

“We’ll be at Hogwarts in ten minutes,” said Professor Lupin. “Are you all right, Harry?”

“Fine,” he muttered, still embarrassed and now wondering if he had, for the first time in his memory, heard his mother’s voice. She’d been so scared.

They didn’t talk much during the remainder of the journey. At long last, the train stopped at Hogsmeade station, and there was a great scramble to get outside; owls hooted, cats meowed, and Neville’s pet toad croaked loudly from under his hat. It was freezing on the tiny platform; rain was driving down in icy sheets.

“Firs’ years this way!” called Hagrid as he beckoned terrified-looking new students forward for their traditional journey across the lake. After having dementors on the train, Harry wondered why they didn’t skip that step and just get everyone inside where it was warm as quickly as possible. That would be too logical, though.

The group headed onto the rough mud track where at least a hundred stagecoaches awaited the remaining student. Luna caught his hand and pointed to where, Harry could only assume, invisible horses stood in the traces. “Can you see them now?” she asked.

Harry blinked, surprised by the winged, skeletal horses harnessed to each carriage. “Yes,” he whispered.

She smiled at him. “Death is nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “It shows us a truer world.” Harry ended up in a carriage with Luna, Millicent who refused to leave his side, and Blaise. As the carriage trundled toward a pair of magnificent wrought iron gates, flanked with stone columns topped with winged boars, Harry saw two more towering, hooded dementors, standing guard on either side. A wave of cold sickness threatened to engulf him again, and both Millicent and Blaise pulled their wands.

“I’m going to learn that spell the professor used,” Millicent said grimly.

“We all need to,” Harry said. He leaned back into the lumpy seat and closed his eyes until they had passed the gates. The carriage picked up speed on the long, sloping drive up to the castle. The second Harry stepped out of the carriage, he was surrounded again. Not only his friends were there, but also Ron and Ginny and the twins.

“I’m fine,” he said, even though he still felt unsteady on his feet. Millicent kept her hand on her wand even though she’d tucked it away, and Blaise got a hand around Harry’s waist. “I think you need to see Madam Pomfrey.”

“I think I need to avoid humiliating myself more than I already have,” Harry countered. He straightened his shoulders and followed the crowd up the steps, through the giant oak front doors, into the cavernous entrance hall, which was lit with flaming torches, and housed a magnificent marble staircase that led to the upper floors.

The door into the Great Hall stood open at the right; Harry followed the crowd toward it, but had barely glimpsed the enchanted ceiling, which was black and cloudy tonight, when a voice called out, “Potter, stop right there.”

Chapter 14

Harry sagged as Professor Snape’s voice echoed across the marble. The professor had specifically told him to stay out of trouble and not draw any attention to himself this year. This had been the opposite of that order. Harry started to tremble.

Professor Snape stopped at the edge of the group and stared at Harry. Harry felt like he was pinned to a board like a bug in a museum. “Mr. Potter, I understand you encountered a dementor.”

“Yes, sir.”

Millicent said miserably, “We tried to stop it, but nothing worked.”

Professor Snape’s eyebrows went up. “Did you believe a third year with no instruction in the patronus charm could hold off one of the most dangerous creatures in the Wizarding world?” he asked coldly.

Millicent shifted nervously.

“Sir, we were just going to sit down,” Harry said.

“No, you and I are going to visit the hospital wing,” Professor Snape said. “The rest of you, get to the sorting. Mr. Potter, with me.” Harry gave the group a wan smile before hurrying after Professor Snape. Weirdly, Millicent seemed reluctant to go to dinner, and Theo stayed by his side.

“Professor Snape is going to skin you if you don’t follow directions,” Harry warned.

Theo shook his head. “I have to talk to him. Now is as good a time as any.” He walked beside Harry as they went across the entrance hall and along a corridor. Professor Snape stopped at the double doors to Madam Pomfrey’s domain and studied Theo. Harry tended to wilt under Professor Snape’s glares, but Theo just stared back.

“Inside. Both of you,” he ordered. He ushered them through the doors and pointed to one of the beds, so Harry assumed that meant he was supposed to sit there. He felt himself going red in the face. It was bad enough that he’d passed out, or whatever he’d done, without Professor Snape making all this fuss.

“I’m really fine,” he said softly.

Madam Pomfrey came out from behind a curtain. “Ah, yes. Professor Lupin sent an owl ahead to say you had a reaction to the dementors.” Madam Pomfrey clucked disapprovingly, and Harry hoped she was judging the minister for putting dementors on the train and not judging him for passing out.

“Please do a full check.” Professor Snape stood with his hands clenched behind his back looking like a wrathful gargoyle.

“Setting dementors around a school,” she muttered, pushing back Harry’s hair and feeling his forehead. “He won’t be the last one who collapses. Yes, he’s all clammy. Terrible things, they are, and the effect they have on people who are already delicate–”

“I’m not delicate!” said Harry crossly.

“Of course you’re not,” said Madam Pomfrey absentmindedly, now taking his pulse.

Harry really wished Theo wasn’t here to see his utter humiliation. Sure, Draco would make fun of him forever, but he’d make sure no one else found out. Or Blaise. Blaise would spend all year giving Harry that amused look that meant he put up with Harry only because of Harry’s utter ridiculousness, but he found ridiculousness charming. Neville would be perfect. He was all empathy and kindness; that would be better than Theo and his lack of any reaction at all. Now Harry had to worry about what Theo might do with this bit of handy blackmail.

“Does he need a potion or should I send him to the dorm early?”

“I’m fine!” said Harry, jumping up.

“Well, he should have some chocolate at the very least,” said Madam Pomfrey, who was now trying to peer into Harry’s eyes.

“I’ve already had some,” said Harry. “Professor Lupin gave me some. He gave it to all of us.”

“Did he now?” said Madam Pomfrey approvingly. “So we’ve finally got a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who knows his remedies? No surprise there. He was such a good student when he attended.” She stopped when she noticed Professor Snape glaring at her. She cleared her throat.

“Perhaps he should have dinner in the dungeons,” Professor Snape suggested coldly.

“Yes, that would be fine,” Madam Pomfrey said in a much more formal tone.

Professor Snape strode out of the room, his cape billowing around him, which left Harry and Theo to chase after him. Instead of going through the main corridor, which would have led past the welcome feast, Professor Snape led them down into the storerooms before turning toward the Slytherin dorms.

“The headmaster is not pleased, but neither he nor Mr. Malfoy was able to convince Minister Fudge to remove the dementors. They will guard every entrance to the grounds and patrol the borders. Since you have seen one, you understand that they cannot be negotiated with, bribed, tricked, or subverted. Given the chance, they will suck your very soul out, leaving an empty husk behind. If they are particularly hungry, they will leave a desiccated husk, and if they are not, they will leave a rather attractive and still breathing corpse, but either way, you will not survive. If any Slytherin is out of bounds this year, I may kill them myself to avoid the suspense of wondering when they will get themselves murdered.” He stopped and glared at both of them. Harry had the feeling this was a preview of the professor’s welcome to Hogwart’s speech for first years. Poor them.

“Yes, sir,” Theo said. “We need to speak in private.”

“About what happened?”

Theo’s face continued to be an emotionless mask. “Yes, sir.”

Professor Snape sighed. “Follow me.” He took a sharp corner and continued past the point where the last torches burned. He had to cast a lumos, and even then, the sooted walls seemed to absorb the light, leaving Harry shivering. Professor Snape reached a blank section of wall, but he waved his wand in a complex figure, and the bricks shifted to reveal a ritual space.

The large circular markings on the floor had divisions for the seasons, months and days, and runes decorated the outer edge, but it wasn’t nearly as grand as the Black ritual room. It didn’t even have nooks for candles at the four compass points. Theo shot a quick took in Harry’s direction, probably judging how he would react. Maybe Theo understood that Harry wasn’t Dumbledore’s ally, but he was still nervous.

Professor Snape closed the heavy door and then cast a silencing spell. “What is it?” he asked.

Again, Theo looked at Harry nervously. “I don’t know that you would want to advertise–”

Professor Snape cut him off. “Harry has been studying occlumency since the end of his first year. While he is not at your level, he is competent to maintain his secrets here at school.” He lifted an eyebrow, silently daring Theo to challenge him.

Theo shrank back. “Yes, sir. The dementor. It passed all the other compartments. It only attempted to come into ours. And then Millicent and I were up front, and it tried to push past us.”

Harry interrupted. “Wait. Are you saying it was targeting me?”

Theo nodded.

“Bloody hell.” Professor Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. “Potter, can you not go one year without being the target of an assassination attempt? This is why I refused to teach you Dark magic. You strain my emotional control, Potter.”

“I apologize,” Harry said, even though he thought he deserved more sympathy than the professor. If someone was targeting him, that made it three years out of three. He was starting to develop a healthy case of paranoia.

“Sir, there’s another possibility,” Theo said softly. Professor Snape pinned him with a terrifying look. “Um, my father is widely read on a wide range of subjects.”

“Nott, I am well aware of what your father has in his library. The vast majority has been banned in the UK, and a significant subset has been banned internationally, including a few texts so vile that your father may own the last surviving copy because all others were destroyed by individuals attempting to save the human race from its own stupidity.”

Harry shivered as he considered what sort of man the older Nott must be. Mr. Malfoy had scared Harry. He certainly didn’t want to know what the Notts might have in their library.

Nott stood a little taller. “There is a text that describes the earliest encounters with lethifolds and dementors. Specifically, the author described how these creatures had a unique reaction to the presence of necromancers. They always seek to kill necromancers first, leading the author to speculate that a necromancer might have created these species and that another might have the key to destroying them. But of course, necromancy was outlawed a few centuries later.”

Harry blinked. “I’m not a necromancer. I mean, I studied Dark magic this summer, and I am in favor of the wheel rituals, but necromancy? No.” Harry shivered at the thought. There was something horrific about a wizard who could violate the boundaries of death. Did he want to see his parents? Yes. Would he ever perform magic on their souls to pull them across the veil? No. And he didn’t think that he or anyone else should have the power to even try. It was too much temptation.

Professor Snape put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I can research your family tree, and you can check your family grimoires to see if there is a mention of necromancy, but what Theo is suggesting is not that you are a necromancer but that you have a family gift for it the way some family lines have a gift for occlumency. Having that gift does not automatically mean you are capable of wielding that form of magic, but that it is easier for you to learn it.”

“Being a natural necromancer is seen as a powerful gift in some circles,” Theo said.

“Dark circles,” Harry corrected him. “And I don’t need the headmaster or the Weasleys or even Neville and Hermione thinking I’m any more Dark than I am. My position is that I am Gray, as were most of the Potters before the turn of the century. If there is any chance that studying Dark magic is going to push me toward necromancy, I might just avoid Dark magic and actually stay to the celebrations and rituals that are more Gray.”

Harry turned to storm out, but the room was sealed, so he was just left staring at a stone wall like an idiot.

“Harry,” Professor Snape said. Harry turned around, his eyes warm with threatened tears, even though he didn’t understand why. “A family gift is a talent that runs through a magical line. It does not speak to who you are.”

“I don’t want to be a necromancer.”

“Given that it is illegal to pursue that branch of magic in the UK, I would call your reluctance prudent.”

Harry rubbed his eyes. “I’m tired. Can we go to the dorm?”

“Of course.” Professor Snape stepped closer, but instead of opening the door, he rested his hand on Harry’s shoulder again. They stood there for a moment before Professor Snape waved his wand and walked out with the same quick, sure steps. “The headmaster has appointed Hagrid the teacher for Care of Magical Creatures. The man does not have a single OWL to his name, but apparently teaching does not require one to be educated. Other than the addition of Professor Lupin for Defense, all other professors remain the same.”

Professor Snape stopped at the Slytherin dorm. “Ouroboros.” The bricks slid open to reveal the common room. Home. Harry almost darted inside. Professor Snape followed. “Brinkie!” an elf popped in. “Bring the boys dinner. Harry is to rest, so if he leaves the dorms, please notify me.” With that, Professor Snape left them alone.

Brinkie vanished, but a second later, a miniature feast appeared at one of the study tables. Theo started loading his plate. “I would love to have necromancy in my line, but it would scare me. My mother died when I was six, and the temptation to call her back across the veil might be more than I could control.”

Harry sat across from him. “You are the most controlled person I know. We lived in the same dorm for two years, and I had no idea that you thought we were in some sort of alliance feud.”

“You knew I avoided you.”

Harry snorted. “Lots of people in Slytherin avoid me. I’ve learned to not take it personally.”

Theo studied him for a minute. “Hopefully this year will be better.”

“So far, it hasn’t been.”

“I don’t know. I’ve had a good first day. You forgave me and I didn’t even have to trade away any favors or grovel. I count that as a success.” Theo smiled around his roast beef.

“You have a low bar if that’s all it takes for you to have a good day.”

“Maybe,” Nott said.

Chapter 15

Harry settled between Blaise and Neville in Transfiguation. Draco gave him a betrayed look before sitting with Gregory and Vincent, and Millicent glared at him before taking up a seat right behind him, but Harry wanted to catch up with Neville. Luckily, Slytherin and Gryffindor seemed to have most of their classes together. Usually Slytherin spent more time with Ravenclaw, but the change allowed Harry to sit with his friends.

Hermione came in and made a beeline for Millicent, but Ron stood at the back of the room looking from Finnegan and Thomas to Hermione and then back. Finally he headed over to his dorm mates, and Theo left his back row seat and slipped into the seat next to Hermione.

“I didn’t want to steal your friend’s seat,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me sitting here.”

“Ron rarely sits with me in class,” Hermione said. “He’d learn to pronounce his spells faster if he would, but…” she shrugged.

Harry noticed two of the Gryffindor girls kept staring at him. “Do you know what that is?” he asked Neville. Neville glanced over before shrugging.

“They are getting older,” Blaise said in a tone that suggested he thought that was an answer. Harry and Neville both stared at him blankly, and he rolled his eyes. “Fourteen is when many parents start setting up betrothal contracts, so it’s perfectly normal for thirteen year olds to start considering eligible young men. True, most girls look to boys who are a few years ahead of them, but you are Harry Potter.” He rested his hand on his chin and studied the Gryffindors. “They’re certainly acceptable.”

“I don’t want girls looking at me like that,” Harry said in horror.

“That is unavoidable, I’m afraid,” Blaise said.

“The Wizarding world is so backward,” Hermione said with a huff. “Our frontal cortices have only started to develop. We are not ready to make decisions about what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives, particularly because divorce is such a taboo subject. You know that only locks women into abusive relationships, right?” She glared at the Slytherin boys as though they were trying to marry her right then and there. Millicent held up a hand for a high-five.

Harry wasn’t sure it was safe allowing those two to sit together.

He turned back to the front and opened his transfiguration text. The first chapter was review, and Harry knew he could do every spell. Even though he’d been in France with the Malfoys, Rufus Newman had drilled them in both transfiguration and charms because he said any spell could prove useful in a duel. If anything, Harry had to hold himself back to avoid making Draco jealous enough to get nasty. It was funny, when Harry was better at a spell than Hermione, she got excited because it meant he could help her improve. But Draco considered it a personal insult.

McGonagall started class with a detailed explanation of Animagi (wizards who could transform at will into animals), but Harry had already read all about it, so he wasn’t surprised when she transformed herself in front of their eyes into a tabby cat with spectacle markings around her eyes. Most of the class ahhhed and ohhhhed, but Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil didn’t even seem to notice.

Professor McGonagall turned herself back into a person with a faint pop, and smiled at the rest of them before she turned to the two girls. “Are you two alright?”

Lavender Brown looked over toward Harry, her eyes shining with tears. Harry had an immediate sense of doom and panic. Making girls cry was never good. Never, ever. And in the Wizarding world, it had to be a million times worse because girls were seen as helpless and in need of protection. Well, except for girls like Millicent and Ginny who seemed to go around proclaiming how much better they were than other girls because they didn’t act like girls. And Hermione who went off on fully justified sexism rants. But Brown and Patil were definitely on the girly side of girl, and Harry squirmed as they stared at him doe-eyed.


Parvati Patil answered in a watery voice. “We’ve just had our first class with Professor Trelawney, and she’s wonderful and all…”

“Wonderful,” Brown echoed.

“But… um…”

“Ah, of course,” said Professor McGonagall. “There is no need to say any more, girls. Tell me, which of your classmates will be dying this year?”

Harry gasped and most of the class sat up straight in near-panic. But it was easy to tell the small handful of students who had been allowed to take Divination because they all looked near tears and many of them kept glancing toward Harry.

“Oh, bloody hell no,” Millicent muttered so softly that McGonagall didn’t hear her–either that or she chose to ignore the rude language.

“Me?” Harry asked, his voice breaking. If Professor Trelawney was as good as Luna, that was not a good sign.

Professor McGonagall fixed Harry with her sharp gaze. “You should know that Sybill Trelawney has predicted the death of one student a year since she arrived at this school. None of them has died yet. Seeing death omens is her favorite way of greeting a new class. If it were not for the fact that I never speak ill of my colleagues–”

Professor McGonagall broke off, and they saw that her nostrils had gone white. She went on, more calmly, “Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic. I shall not conceal from you that I have very little patience with it. True Seers are very rare, and Professor Trelawney–”

She stopped again, and then said, in a very matter-of-fact tone, “You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in.” Most of Slytherin and a good number of Gryffindors laughed. If the professor was wrong that often, she clearly wasn’t as good as Luna. Then again, Luna only predicted things that were happening or were about to happen, so she wasn’t trying to see in the future. Harry knew that took a considerable amount of raw talent.

“So, let us turn to Transfiguration, a much more precise discipline that requires you to apply yourself. We are going to review second year skills. Open your texts to animate transfiguration review and let us begin with Avifors. Your practice boxes are on your tables. Begin.”

Harry raised his wand and focused on his magic before flicking his wand and saying the incantation firmly. He was confident up to the point that his practice box exploded into a dozen ravens, a hundred ravens, all flinging themselves up into the air with raucous calls. Students dove under desks as the flock doubled again, feathers erupting into the air and fluttering down. Luckily, everyone seemed to find the mistake hilarious. Students laughed as they waved their hands over their heads to ward off the birds and Ron was turning as bright red as his hair as he couldn’t catch his breath. Even Blaise smiled broadly and Draco chuckled, and they both prided themselves on their pure-bred occlumency masks. When a bird got caught in Lavender Brown’s hair, making her look like she’d shopped at the same hatmaker as Neville’s grandmother, Vincent and Gregory tumbled off their chairs as they roared with laughter .

“Finite Incantatem!” Professor McGonagall said, and the black clouds of ravens vanished leaving a few stray feathers to tumble through the air, and Harry’s wooden practice box clattered to the ground and split open. “What in the world?”

Neville pushed his practice box toward Harry’s side of the table. “I apologize, professor,” Neville said. Harry was so shocked that he stared at Neville, his words frozen in his throat.

“Mr. Longbottom?” She raised her eyebrows.

Neville blushed and ducked his head.

“But–” said Harry.

Neville continued. “Harry let me pick a wand from his vault because my old wand was my father’s and it didn’t work for me, but I didn’t realize that having a compatible wand would make that much of a difference. It won’t happen again.” Neville said. He glanced at Harry. “I’ll practice to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“Please do so, Mr. Longbottom. Clearly your new wand is much more compatible with your magic, and you could cause real damage if you are not careful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Professor McGonagall smiled at him. “However, I am very happy you have found a wand with such a strong affinity for your magic. Ten points to Gryffindor for an excellent transfiguration.”

Draco made a sound like a drowning cat.

She smiled at Harry. “And ten points to Slytherin for supporting your classmates.”

“He got Weasley a wand, too,” Draco pointed out. Professor McGonagall sighed, pinned Draco with an unhappy expression and returned to walking the class. Draco huffed, and cast a particularly strong transfiguration charm. A white peacock stood on his desk and gave an eerie cry. When McGonagall glared at him, Draco ended the spell and crossed his arms in aggravation as he watched the students who hadn’t been able to practice over summer or who hadn’t chosen to. He didn’t even help Vincent or Gregory. Hermione had to turn around to help Gregory, and Vincent still hadn’t produced a bird before they moved on to the classic Beetle Buttons transfiguration.

After class, Harry gave a tug on Neville’s robe, and he nodded. Harry found that when he absolutely couldn’t understand why people acted a certain way, it generally meant that they knew something he didn’t. Neville followed Harry up a set of stairs away from the Great Hall while the rest of the students were rushing to lunch, but weirdly, Millicent followed them.

“I need to talk to Neville for a second,” Harry said.

“Okay,” said Millicent, but she didn’t leave.

Harry stared at her. She stared back. “Um, can we get some privacy?” he asked.

She stared at him in horror, as though he had suggested that she eat transfigured dung or something. “You do remember that a Black madman is probably right outside Hogwarts and that dementors tried to kill you, right?”

“We’re inside. I’m fine.”

Millicent crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. She clearly wasn’t moving.

Harry sighed. Sometimes having friends was very wearying. “I wanted to talk to Neville in private. Secret stuff, ya know?”

She tilted her head and seemed to consider his request. When she pulled her wand, Harry would have jumped back, only Neville was right behind him. Before he could ask her what she was doing, she raised it into the air. “I vow on my magic to defend Harry’s secrets and never share what I learn in confidence.” Magic swirled around them, and then Millicent nodded. “Okay then, you’re safe to talk.”

Harry looked at Neville, but he seemed as flummoxed as Harry.


Neville shrugged.

“Right.” Sighing, Harry realized he had lost this round. Other than secrecy, he had no reason for asking Millicent to leave him alone. “Neville, why did you take the blame for my mistake?”

Neville ducked his head, which usually meant he was afraid he was about to say something unpopular. He glanced at Millicent before taking a deep breath. “You took up the Black magic, didn’t you?”

“The heirship. Yeah.”

Neville shook his head. “No. Heirships don’t change a person’s magic. You somehow took the head of household position for House Black, didn’t you?”

For a second, Harry considered lying. It would be the safest action, but lying to Neville felt like marking him as an enemy, and he wasn’t. Of all Harry’s friends, he trusted Neville the most. He was the one friend who would never plot and scheme and leave Harry out. And maybe that wasn’t fair to Hermione because she had been trying to protect Harry during the Polyjuice plan, but it hadn’t felt good to be excluded.

“Yes,” said Harry. “Is that why my magic was so much more powerful?” Harry should probably talk to Professor Snape and ask for help toning his magic down before casting in class again. Technically Mr. Malfoy would be better because he taught Dark magic and definitely understood Black magic the best, but Harry still didn’t trust him.

“Yes, but that’s not why I knew,” Neville said. “My gran lets me read family diaries, and my family members fought Blacks lots of times.” He gave Harry an apologetic look. Considering what Bellatrix had done, Harry didn’t think Neville had any reason to feel guilty about his family members targeting the Blacks. Harry even suspected he would have been more likely to fight on the side of the Longbottoms in most of those battles.

“It’s fine. It’s history, and it doesn’t affect what we choose to do. All this pureblood stuff about children having to follow in their parents’ footsteps is right up there with blood purity and sexism,” said Harry.

Neville nodded. “I have an uncle who fought Orion Black and a grandfather who fought Arcturus Black. They both talked about the danger in fighting the head of House Black. The Black family magic is pure emotion, and no matter what spell they cast, they can project strong emotions. My grandfather Eugene said that when he fought Arcturus, he was overwhelmed with a terrible darkness that left him trembling with rage and striking out at his own allies.”

“Is that what you felt?” Harry was horrified.

“No!” Neville caught Harry’s hand and held it tightly. “No, of course not. You would never… I mean…” He took a deep breath. “You’ve changed the Black magic. When you cast your spell, I could feel this overwhelming joy. Lavender had a live bird pulling her hair out, and I wanted to laugh at how delightful it all was. I had to tighten my occlumency to get control, and that’s when I realized that you were projecting your emotions.”

Harry winced. Holding Black magic was so much harder than he had expected. He definitely needed to talk to Professor Snape.

Neville tilted his head. “You don’t want people to know, do you?”

Harry shook his head. “Some people don’t want me near the Black magic. If they know, they’ll assume that I’m as corrupt as Bellatrix and Sirius, and I’m afraid they would start moving against me.”

Neville looked at him sadly, but he didn’t contradict Harry.

“And I didn’t want you to know because of your parents.”

“Didn’t you just say we didn’t have to worry about what our families did?” said Neville sympathetically.

“I didn’t want you to know that I could cut Bellatrix off from the family magic and I chose not to.” Confessing that was the hardest thing Harry had ever done, but Neville deserved to know the truth. Harry wouldn’t cut her off. Sometimes he caught wisps of her joy. A single sunbeam filtering through the clouds could send her flying with ecstasy for hours. Given where she would spend the rest of her life, he didn’t want to take that away from her.

“She’s a strong fighter. If you want to keep your family magic strong by keeping a connection to her, I won’t tell you that you can’t.” Neville’s voice was devoid of any emotion.

“No! It’s not that. I wouldn’t keep her in the family for any amount of power,” Harry rushed to say. Now Neville looked confused. So did Millicent. “Have you heard any stories about Walburga Black?”

“Orion’s wife?” Neville asked.

Harry nodded.

“My grandmother hated her. That’s about it.”

“Everyone hated her,” Harry said. “She thought she should be the head of the house, and some Black women have been, so she resented that that magic didn’t choose her.” Harry wondered how to approach this. “When I took the magic, I saw something. I don’t know why Walburga did it, whether she hated her niece or hoped to make her the next head of the family or what, but when Bellatrix was seven or eight, Walburga took her into the ritual room and told her to open herself to the magic.”

Neville’s eyes widened until the whites showed all the way around his iris and Millicent sucked in a startled breath.

“That doesn’t excuse what Bellatrix did, and I will never use my position as the head of the Black family to excuse her or try to get her out of Azkaban because she is insane. She chose to channel that insanity against your parents. But Walburga was the monster–Walburga and Orion who never tried to protect the children in the family. Bellatrix was not the only child she destroyed.” Harry hated that Sirius’s children had died for the sin of being half-bloods. Their mothers had probably died too, killed for the sin of sleeping with the Black heir. In some ways, she was worse than Voldemort.

Neville started blinking. “Grandfather Eugene said the Black magic was pure anger, pure… vengeance. He could barely close his mind against it. She exposed a little girl to that?”

Harry nodded. “That’s why I won’t cut Bellatrix off. She made terrible, evil choices, but magic put Orion’s anger into her soul when she was too young to defend herself. She was a prisoner long before she went to Azkaban. Now that I have pulled the magic toward joy, I want her to be able to feel happy, maybe for the first time in her life.”

Neville sat heavily on the stairs. “Harry, no offense, but your family is terrible. Truly, truly terrible. Unforgivable, even.”

Harry sat next to him. “When Bellatrix and Sirius can’t even compete for the title of worst Black, you’re not wrong. It makes me wonder who they would have grown up to be if it weren’t for Walburga and Orion Black.” Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “The more I hear about the family, the more I think the ancestor who spent years thinking she was a dolphin might have been the sanest one in the bunch. I bet she was the nicest.”

Neville wrinkled his nose.

Harry shoulder-bumped him. “Come on, let’s get some lunch.”

“You have an appetite after that conversation?” asked Neville.

“When you’re a Black, you either need a strong stomach or you’re going to skip a lot of meals.” Harry stood and Millicent looked at him with sympathy. This was the other reason he didn’t want to talk about the Blacks. He didn’t need anyone’s sympathy. Yeah, the Blacks were horrible, but he’d grown up with the Dursleys, so he’d never had any other kind of family.

Chapter 16

Harry was pleased to get out of the castle after lunch. Yesterday’s rain had cleared; the sky was clear, pale gray, and the grass was springy and damp underfoot as they set off for their first-ever Care of Magical Creatures. Luckily he wouldn’t need his wand for this class because he was still struggling to get control over the wild magic that pulled to break free when he wasn’t concentrating. Before Harry hadn’t truly understood the danger of Dark magic, but it required a lot of control and practice.

Harry walked with Hermione, and Ron was on the other side of her. Since school started, he hadn’t had a semi-private moment with Ron. “Thanks for the train,” Harry said.

“Wot?” Ron frowned in confusion.

“The train,” Harry said. “You threw the fire spell, and I never thanked you for putting your wand in the fight.”

“Of course I did, mate!” Ron seemed almost offended, and Harry ducked his head, not sure how to talk to him. Of all the students Harry spent time with regularly, Ron was the quickest to take offense. Okay, that wasn’t fair. Draco was far, far easier to offend, but he didn’t get offended with Harry.

Hermione gave him a sympathetic look. In front of them, Blaise and Draco were exchanging significant looks, so clearly the Ron versus Slytherin feud was not in danger of ending any time soon. They all walked in silence as they went down the sloping lawns to Hagrid’s hut on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Hagrid was waiting for his class at the door of his hut. He stood in his moleskin overcoat, with Fang the boarhound at his heels, looking impatient to start.

“Come on, now, get a move on!” he called as the class approached. “Got a real treat for yeh today! Great lesson coming up! Everyone here? Right, follow me!”

Draco turned and gave Harry a concerned look. They had considered dropping out of the class when they’d learned Hagrid was teaching, but Draco did love animals, and Harry didn’t want to abandon his friend. However, neither of them had forgotten that Hagrid tried to force them into the Forbidden Forest at night after the centaurs had warned them that something dangerous was in the woods. He’d even tried sending them off with only Fang as protection, and everyone knew Fang was a coward.

When Harry mustered a small smile of reassurance, Draco straightened his shoulders. That was his ‘Malfoys are superior’ pose, which was a dead giveaway that he was feeling insecure. For a Slytherin, he wasn’t very subtle. Then again, like father, like son.

Hagrid strolled off around the edge of the trees, and Harry thought he was leading them into the Forbidden Forest. Again. Instead they stopped outside a kind of paddock. There was nothing in it.

“Everyone gather ‘round the fence here!” he called. “That’s it–make sure yeh can see–now first thing yeh’ll want to do is open yer books–”

“How?” Draco asked in a cold drawl, his expression full of contempt. He was definitely feeling insecure.

“Eh?” said Hagrid.

“How do we open our books?” Draco repeated. He took out his copy of the Monster Book of Monsters, which his father had bound shut with a length of charmed rope after it had eaten the bottom of one of Draco’s best robes. Other people took theirs out too; some, like Harry, had belted their book shut. Others had crammed them inside tight bags or clamped them together with giant binder clips.

“Hasn’t – hasn’t anyone been able ter open their books?” said Hagrid, looking crestfallen. Had accessing the book been a test of some sort? A challenge? If so, the whole class had failed, and Harry didn’t expect the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs to do any better.

“You’ve got to stroke ‘em,” said Hagrid as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. “Look–”

He took Hermione’s copy and ripped off the Spellotape that bound it. The book tried to bite, but Hagrid ran a giant forefinger down its spine, and the book shivered, and then fell open and lay quiet on his hand. So it was a test. Hagrid was trying to teach a lesson about showing gentle kindness to creatures that snapped and bit. Harry wasn’t sure that was the wisest lesson.

“Oh, how silly we’ve all been!” Draco sneered. “We should have stroked them! Why didn’t we guess?”

Harry winced. So Draco realized it had been a test, and he was frustrated at having failed it. A frustrated Draco was far more dangerous than a biting book. Blaise looked over his shoulder in horror, and Harry could only shrug. Now all of Slytherin would have it out for Hagrid for bringing this side out of Draco.

“I – I thought they were funny,” Hagrid said uncertainly to Hermione.

“Oh, tremendously funny!” said Draco. “Really witty, giving us books that try to rip our hands off!”

Harry considered getting involved, but then Draco would turn that ire on him. He didn’t think Draco would challenge him to another duel, but with Draco, you never knew.

“Right then,” said Hagrid, who seemed to have lost his thread, “so – so you’ve got yer books an’ – an’ – now yeh need the Magical Creatures. Yeah. So I’ll go an’ get ‘em. Hang on…” He strode away from them into the forest and out of sight.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Hermione said as soon as he was gone. She didn’t have to live with Draco, so she could call him out.

Draco crossed his arms over his chest, and Gregory moved closer as though ready to back him up, or possible to grab Draco’s wand arm if he started throwing hexes. “Class hasn’t even started yet and he’s endangering student lives.”

“He isn’t endangering more than a few fingers,” Hermione corrected him sharply, but Draco didn’t seem impressed. Even Ron winced. That hadn’t been the most robust defense.

“God this place is going to the dogs,” said Draco loudly. “That oaf teaching classes, my father’ll have something to say about this.”

Most of the Gryffindors looked furious at that statement. It was one thing for Mr. Malfoy to get rid of Binns and make Trelawney miserable–they weren’t the most popular teachers. The student body even cackled when it passed rumors that Mr. Malfoy had Lockhart run out of town because the headmaster wouldn’t allow him to sack the man. But Hagrid had support, and Draco was damaging his father’s reputation.

“Your father wants you to learn about magical creatures. If Hagrid can accomplish that, he’ll approve. If Hagrid can’t teach, your father will step in before anyone gets hurt,” said Harry.

Draco looked at him with tragically betrayed eyes, but then Blaise leaned in and whispered in his ear. Draco’s expression faded into his pureblood mask. Maybe Blaise had explained the politics of it. After all, the headmaster himself had avoided challenging Lockhart, so Mr. Malfoy couldn’t go after a popular teacher without significant ammunition, and clearly Hagrid had a huge support network in Gryffindor.

“Ooooooooh!” squealed Lavender Brown, pointing toward the opposite side of the paddock.

Trotting toward them were a dozen hippogriffs. Harry loved hippogriffs. They had the bodies, hind legs, and tails of horses. They were a huge part of the children’s card game he had that projected holograms of battles when creatures were pitted against each other. When Harry played a hippogriff card, the creature would often kick out with powerful legs. But they were at their most deadly when they faced an enemy. They had the wings, heads and front legs of a giant eagle with steel-colored beaks and large, brilliant orange eyes. When they reared back, those front claws could do terrible raking damage. They were a surprisingly strong card to play when he was trying to remove a dangerous creature. Harry really needed to go back and thank that woman in the trunk shop who had given him that children’s card game. However, he was surprised to see hippogriffs, especially when students like Brown were staring at them with awe-stricken expressions instead of the respectful fear they should have.

Sure, they weren’t territorial or aggressive like dragons, but these were not tame or safe creatures, either. Each of the beasts had a thick leather collar around its neck, which was attached to a long chain, and the ends of all of these were held in the vast hands of Hagrid, who came jogging into the paddock behind the creatures.

“Gee up, there!” he roared, shaking the chains and urging the creatures toward the fence where the class stood. Everyone drew back slightly as Hagrid reached them and tethered the creatures to the fence.

“Hippogriffs!” Hagrid roared happily, waving a hand at them. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

Harry agreed. They were beautiful with gleaming coats that changed smoothly from feather to hair, each of them a different color: stormy gray, bronze, pinkish roan, gleaming chestnut, and inky black. However, Hagrid probably should have focused on how dangerous they were because Lavender Brown looked ready to leap into the paddock, and most of Gryffindor was pressing forward. Neville and Hermione were the exceptions, which did suggest Harry had made friends with the only Gryffindors to have more than an ounce of common sense.

“So,” Hagrid said, rubbing his hands together and beaming around, “If yeh want to come a bit nearer–”

Surprisingly, not even the Gryffindors did, at least not until Ron inched forward cautiously. After a second Finnegan and Thomas moved up with him. Apparently Gryffindors weren’t as brash as their reputation suggested–or at least not all of them were although they were eager enough from a distance.

Hagrid ignored the general unease and continued. “Now, first thing yeh gotta know about hippogriffs is, they’re proud,” said Hagrid. “Easily offended, hippogriffs are. Don’t never insult one, ‘cause it might be the last thing yeh do.”

Hermione caught Harry’s arm in a strong grip, and Draco took a step back from the paddock. Blaise and Gregory did the same. This was going to be trouble. Slytherins didn’t like being embarrassed, and while Blaise and Gregory might be willing to let the social humiliation go, Draco was going to do something to make Hagrid regret this lesson. Harry shot Hermione a look before he eased closer to Draco so he could intercept any potential stupidity.

“Yeh always wait for the hippogriff to make the firs’ move,” Hagrid continued. “It’s polite, see? Yeh walk toward him, and yeh bow, an’ yeh wait. If he bows back, you’re allowed to touch him. If he doesn’ bow, then get away from him sharpish, ‘cause those talons hurt.”

Harry suspected those talons could kill a student if the hippogriff put a mind to it. None of these seemed the sort to get that violent, but Harry would still rather keep his distance. He’d watched those card animations often enough to see hippogriffs mutilate hundreds of creatures far larger than a third-year student.

“Right – who wants ter go first?”

Most of the class backed farther away in answer. Even Ron, Finnegan and Thomas tensed. The hippogriffs were tossing their fierce heads and flexing their powerful wings; they didn't seem to like being tethered like this.

“No one?” said Hagrid with a pleading look.

Ron cleared his throat. “I could – I mean – um, yeah. I could do it.” Ron turned around to look at the rest of the class before he straightened his shoulders and climbed over the paddock fence.

“Good man!” roared Hagrid. “Right then – let’s see how yeh get on with Buckbeak.”

Harry was very impressed as Ron managed to not blink, bow and stand without fidgeting until the gray hippogriff bowed back. Hagrid cheered, and then offered to let Ron ride the creature. Even as Ron protested that he didn’t need to, Hagrid had hoisted him up onto Buckbeak’s back and slapped his hindquarters.

Ron gave a scream as twelve-foot wings flapped open and the creature leapt into the air. The Gryffindor girls ooooohed and awwwwwed as Buckbeak did a lazy circle in the air above them and then flew back down. When he landed, Ron slid off the side, but luckily he fell toward Hagrid who caught him and put him on his feet easy as pie. Then he slapped Ron’s shoulder, and nearly sent him nose-first into the mud.

“Excellent work. Just excellent.”

Ron stumbled toward the fence, white as a ghost.

“Okay, who else wants a go?”

The bolder Gryffindors climbed cautiously into the paddock, and Gregory gave Draco a look that made it clear he wanted to, but he also didn’t want to show up his dorm mate. Draco crossed his arms over his chest in the center of the Slytherin students plus Hermione and Neville. “That is a XXX rated creature. Only adult wizards trained in how to subdue them should handle them.”

“You’re right,” said Harry. He’d found that was the quickest way to tempt Draco out of a bad mood. “But we should take advantage of Gryffindor bravery by watching how they do it and taking notes.”

Draco frowned, but the rest of Slytherin seemed amenable. They moved to the paddock, standing outside and watching while Gryffindors across the paddock bowed to their chosen hippogriffs. Brown was in a staring contest with the black one and Thomas had already earned the approval of the roan and he was petting it as the animal’s eyes fell closed. Draco looked ready to burst with envy as students across the paddock succeeded.

“It doesn’t look hard at all,” Parkinson said before she ducked into the paddock and rushed toward the animal Thomas was petting. The roan threw his head up when she approached, and she bowed. It stared down at her, and she kept turning her head to the side to watch. It didn’t seem to like that.

The roan’s unease seemed to transfer to the other hippogriffs, and several started tossing their heads.

“Calm down, now. Everyone needs ter be calm,” Hagrid said in a softer voice than usual, but two of the hippogriffs started hopping on their front feet.

Students started backing away from the animals and Finnegan managed to back right into the black hippogriff. It reared back, pawing the air as Finnegan fell to the ground, and Hagrid waded through fleeing students to grab Finnegan by the back of his robes and haul him out of the path of the aggravated hippogriff.

Everyone made it to the fence safely, but Hagrid had to run around the grab lead chains. “Right then, you lot wait here,” he called as he started coaxing the creatures back toward the forest.

“I told you this was a horrible idea. Who hires and oaf without a single OWL to his name or a wand he can use to cast protective shields to teach a class this dangerous?” asked Draco with a sniff, but the Gryffindor students were so loud in their congratulations toward Ron that no one except Harry and Hermione heard.

Lavender Brown and Kellah Igwe were practically hanging on him, and Ron was beaming with pride and standing tall.

Draco snorted. “Being dumb enough to go near a hippogriff when there isn’t a competent adult around to intervene if there’s a problem is not worthy of admiration.”

Hermione wrinkled her nose. “He’s right about needing someone who can cast a shield.”

“I can cast a shield,” Harry said. “Draco can, you can, Millicent can. We have no shortage of people who can cast shields.”

“One strong enough to withstand a hippogriff strike?” Hermione demanded.

Up until this point, Theo had been haunting the edge of the group, but he said firmly, “I could. I felt Hermione’s shield on the train, and I think her shield could handle a glancing blow. I don’t know about the rest of you.”

“That just sounds arrogant,” said Draco, which was rather ironic.

“My family comes from a line of Vikings. We value nothing more than the ability to fight.”

“But you love to read,” Harry said. Then again, he’d never seen what Theo was reading, so maybe it was all defense and dueling and Dark arts books.

Theo seemed to wilt a little. “I love research, but my family’s admiration for fighting skills means I have honed my own.”

Once again, Harry was struck with how backward the Wizarding world was. Ron’s family supported Dumbledore, so he had to. Mr. Malfoy was arrogant, so Draco seemed to try to cultivate his own. Theo’s family was full of fighters, so he was embarrassed by his love of research.

Hermione’s parents were dentists, but she wasn’t following in their footsteps, and Harry definitely didn’t feel like he had to be his father, but so many of his classmates did. Sometimes Harry was grateful he hadn’t been raised in the wizarding world, even if he would have had a happier life with the Malfoys.

“I think research is brill,” Harry said. “Someone has to advance magic. But if you’re that good at dueling, maybe you could give the rest of us some lessons.”

“Definitely,” said Millicent. “If Black breaks into the castle, I want to be able to take him on, and everyone knows how hard Death Eaters trained.”

“If Black breaks into the castle, we all need to run,” argued Hermione. “Fighting is foolish.”

Millicent stood a little straighter. “You run and I will cover your retreat.” She exchanged a look with Theo, one that suggested the two of them knew something they weren’t sharing. Harry didn’t have a chance to pry the information out of them because Hagrid was returning without the hippogriffs.

“Right then – that was just so yeh knew what sorts of creatures yeh have to prepare for. We’ll be doin’ somethin' a mite bit easier next lesson. We’ll be goin’ to the lake to look at some grindylows, so yeh need to look ‘em up in yer book before next class.”

When the class started to head back to the castle with over an hour left in the period, Hagrid called, “Harry, can I see yeh?”

Harry’s friend group exchanged concerned looks. “I’ll be fine,” Harry said. “Go on without me.”

“There are dementors patrolling just outside the grounds, that’s not fine,” said Draco with a worried frown. “And Black. Don’t forget Sirius Black.”

“I’ll stay and watch,” Millicent offered.

“You take north, and I’ll take south,” Theo said. “If we’re closer to the boundary than Harry, we can intercept any danger.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “All of you are being ridiculous. Yes, the train was horrible, but Hogwarts has the best wards of any place in the UK. The dementors can’t get past the ward line and Sirius Black can’t get through the dementors.” Hermione’s reassurances didn’t convince anyone.

“We need to get the new Defense teacher to show us that silver mist spell,” Draco said. He looked toward the castle and then back toward Hagrid. “You should come back up with us,” he told Harry.

Harry shook his head. “He’s a professor now. I’m going to see what he wants.”

Harry turned, but Theo caught his arm. “If something happens, you need to run. We won’t retreat until you do, so if you stay and fight, you’re trapping us in that fight,” he said in such a serious tone that a chill went down Harry’s spine.

“Now you’re being dramatic.” Hermione rolled her eyes. “Hurry up, Harry. Gregory and I will watch from here, but there’s really no need.”

Gregory’s eyes went large. “I was going to go with Millicent and cover the north.”

“Oh my god!” Hermione threw her hands up in the air and headed up to the castle without the rest of them.

Theo watched her for a second before saying, “She puts a lot of faith in ward lines. Most of the old families have had their wards broken by the Ministry at some point or another.”

“Yeah, but she tends to believe anything written in Hogwarts: A History,” Harry said as he watched her back. He should probably explain wards better. The Black family was famous specifically because their wards had never broken. Their wards were more likely to eviscerate, immolate, decapitate, lobotomize or dismember attackers than break. Mr. Malfoy had checked the current wards, and while he said they were weaker than he remembered when he’d been courting Narcissa, they were still strong enough to repel Dumbledore leading an army of dragons. Most wards weren’t that strong, and generations of Dark students had studied various Black properties to try to learn the secret.

“She does trust that book. Actually, she trusts all books,” said Neville. He looked around at everyone. “Tighten your occlumency. If Harry casts quickly or uses full power, you’re going to catch the backlash. I’ll stay behind and back up whoever needs it,” he offered.

Harry was grateful Neville stayed because a little part of him had been wondering if they weren’t all being overly dramatic. It wasn’t like Hermione to dismiss danger that way, but if Neville saw the need for cover, Harry felt better. He smiled at his friend, and Neville smiled back.

“Right, I’ll stay with Longbottom,” Draco said. Gregory and Millicent moved toward the forest to Harry’s north, and Theo toward the south. Hagrid was watching them with his head tilted so it reminded Harry of his dog, Fang. When the others stopped just a few feet closer to the forest than the paddock, Harry walked over to Hagrid.

“What’s with them?” asked Hagrid.

“They’re worried about dementors and Sirius Black,” Harry explained. “They don’t like me being so close to the boundary.”

“Huh.” Hagrid frowned. “Anyways, I wanted to invite yeh to my place. I’ve got a present for yeh. I made it a while back, but I haven’t had a chance to give it to yeh.”

“Um, that might not be the best idea. Everyone is nervous, and with your house being close to the ward line, everyone would feel better if I got back to the castle.” Harry smiled apologetically.

Hagrid studied Harry’s friends, all of whom had their wands at the ready. “They’re mighty protective, huh?”

“Too protective, sometimes, but they jumped in front of me when dementors attacked on the train. They’re good friends,” Harry confirmed.

Hagrid looked even more confused. “Right then. Wait here.” He trotted off toward his little house. In no time at all, he came back with a book in hand. “I’ve got yeh a present.” He held out a handsome, leather-covered book. “I suppose it’s a bit of an apology. I didn’t think the forest was so dangerous, but Firenze and Minerva both lit into me. Children aren’t as durable as me, they said, and I shouldn’ta agreed to take you and Malfoy in there.”

Harry didn’t ask who Hagrid had agreed with when he took them into the forest. Most bad things that happened in Harry’s life came down to Dumbledore in the end.

“I kept hopin’ yeh might come back down, but I understand why yeh didn’t think yeh could.”

Harry opened the book curiously. It was full of wizard photographs. Smiling and waving at him from every page were his mother and father. They looked so happy together, sometimes sitting on the stands by the quidditch patch and sometimes at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall and sometimes sitting in the grass by the lake. Some of the pictures had other students and one had a younger McGonagall. Harry flipped the pages and saw a man with pinched features leaning close to his father in a conspiratorial pose. Once his mother was in the middle of a group of girls wearing Gryffindor scarves.

Several of the pictures had Sirius Black at his father's side–those storm gray eyes clear of the madness that later claimed him. He looked happier in the album than he did in Black family pictures–at least the few Kretcher had saved after Walburga had decided to burn her first-born’s existence out of the house. She’d even scorched the tapestry. It was going to cost a fortune to repair that, so Harry had to wait until he had access to the main Black vaults.

“Sent owls off to all yer parents’ old school friends, askin’ fer photos… knew yeh didn’ have any… d’yeh like it?” Hagrid shifted his feet nervously.

Harry swallowed. “I love it.”

Hagrid’s smile was wide enough to split his face.

Chapter 17

Classes were fairly boring until late on Thursday morning when they had potions. Like in most of their classes, Gryffindors and Slytherins were together. Draco was still pouting about the fact that he hadn’t gotten an apology gift from Hagrid, so Harry was distracted when a few cauldrons away, Neville got in trouble.

Neville regularly went to pieces in Potions lessons, no matter how many times Harry had tried to explain that Professor Snape was harsh because he worried that a potions accident could blow up a whole class of students, which would be far worse than a rampaging hippogriff. But potions continued to be his worst subject, and his great fear of Professor Snape made things ten times worse. His potion, a Shrinking Solution, had turned orange instead of the bright, acid green it should have.

“Orange, Longbottom,” said Snape, ladling some up and allowing it to splash back into the cauldron so that everyone could see. “Orange. Tell me, does anything penetrate that thick skull of yours? Didn’t you hear me say, quite clearly, that only one rat spleen was needed? Didn’t I state plainly that a dash of leech juice would suffice? What do I have to do to make you understand, Longbottom?” Professor Snape was in fine form today, and Harry suspected someone other than Neville had annoyed him long before class began. It was still horrible of him to take that out on Neville who was genuinely trying.

Neville was pink and trembling, but it was Hermione who spoke up. “Please, sir, I could help Neville put it right–”

“I don’t remember asking you to show off, Miss Granger,” said Snape coldly, and Hermione went as pink as Neville. “Longbottom, at the end of this lesson we will feed a few drops of this potion to your toad and see what happens. Perhaps that will encourage you to do it properly.”

Harry couldn’t take it any more. He picked up his potions text and walked over to where Ron was sitting next to Neville. He was wide-eyed and frozen in place. Ever since he had ridden the hippogriff, he’d been a bit of a hero in Gryffindor, but apparently Professor Snape had shocked him into silence.

“Trade seats with me,” Harry said. He stared right at Professor Snape.

Ron glanced at Harry’s seat between Draco and Blaise before looking at Harry with a horrified expression. Harry glanced at Neville, and Ron got the message. “Right, we’ll switch.” He grabbed his cauldron and shifted it over while Blaise moved Harry’s cauldron and brass scales to his new seat. The whole time Professor Snape glared at Harry and Harry glared back.

But Harry knew something Ron and Neville and Hermione didn’t. He knew that Professor Snape was trapped in teaching. He was frustrated and angry and taking it out on his students because he couldn’t take it out on the headmaster. He was human and horrible in the ways humans could be, but Harry wasn’t going to let Neville suffer for that.

“I’ll help you,” Harry said. He waited to see if Professor Snape would hex him or assign him detention until the end of the universe, but the professor stared at him, nose flaring, until he stalked off in a swirl of black robes.

“You’re going to pay for that,” Blaise whispered, and Harry knew he was. Next time the upperclassmen dueled, Harry was going to get an invitation for a special lesson.

“You shouldn’t have,” Neville whispered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Harry assured him. “So, Hermione, any thoughts?” Harry whispered. Neville had bollocked up the potion so badly that Harry didn’t know where to start. His own potion had too much yellow, and so he needed more leech juice, but he had no idea how Neville had gotten orange.

Hermione glanced toward Professor Snape, but he seemed determined to avoid them at all costs. He had even turned his back as he praised Parkinson’s potion, leaving Hermione free to coach Neville through the steps to save his potion and his toad. Threatening a pet was so far beyond the pale that Harry had to believe Professor Snape wouldn’t do it… either that or he had an antidote ready the way he had when the exploding firework had splashed most of Slytherin with Swelling Solution.

“Have you heard?” Seamus Finnegan asked, leaning backward to talk to Harry. “They reckon Sirius Black’s been sighted.”

“Where?” On the other side of the room, Draco, Theo and Millicent all seemed to have taken a special interest in the conversation. So did Ron, for that matter.

“Not too far from here,” said Seamus, who looked excited. “It was a muggle who saw him. ‘Course she didn’t really understand. The muggles think he’s just an ordinary criminal, don’t they? So she phoned the telephone hotline. By the time the Ministry of Magic got there, he was gone.”

Draco leaned closer. “Don’t you dare think of trying to catch Black,” threatened Draco. Normally Slytherins wouldn’t gossip in class because Professor Snape had very strong opinions on talking while brewing, but he was still pretending their corner of the room didn’t exist.

“I wouldn’t,” Harry said. He suspected he could handle Sirius because he was a Black and Harry was the head of House Black. However, he didn’t have enough experience handling family magic to even try to use it against him. So he would stay safely inside the ward line.

“You should have finished adding your ingredients by now; this potion needs to stew before it can be drunk, so clear away while it simmers and then we’ll…” Professor Snape stopped, cast a glance in Neville’s direction and stopped.

“Don’t worry,” whispered Hermione. “The color is coming back nicely. Trevor will be fine,” she promised as Neville sweated. He didn’t answer her as he stirred his potion feverishly.

Harry took Neville’s and Hermione’s extra ingredients with him so she could supervise Neville while the rest of them packed stuff away and went to wash their hands and ladles in the stone basin in the corner.

“I mean it,” Draco hissed while they stood next to each other in line.

“Calm yourself, Draco,” Theo said. “Millicent and I have eyes on him at all times. He’s not going to sneak off anywhere, and Black is not going to get him alone.”

“I don’t need babysitting,” Harry snapped. Theo gave him an expressionless look that silently questioned whether Harry had even two brain cells capable of firing in tandem.

Draco nodded. “Just make sure you keep eyes on him. Let me know if you need someone to cover. Do you have extra wards in your room?”

“Of course we do,” sniffed Theo.

“Are any of you listening to me?” demanded Harry.

“No,” Draco, Blaise, and Millicent all said at the same time.

Ron was farther back in line, but he said, “Mate, for once, I’m agreeing with Slytherins. Black is bad news.”

The end of the lesson in sight, Snape stood next to his desk, staring at Neville from across the room. Neville stood shivering by his cauldron. Maybe Harry’s disrespect had empowered Hermione because she stood up a little straighter. “The potion is ready if you want to test it on Trevor,” she said in a sweet voice that dripped with condescension. Given that last year Snape had helped a Slytherin curse her during Lockhart’s dueling club, that wasn’t safe.

“Five points from Gryffindor for cheek. All of you, get out of my sight,” snapped Professor Snape. “Potter-Black. Stay here.”

Slytherins and Gryffindors alike cast sympathetic looks toward Harry as they hurried away. Not even Harry’s self-appointed honor guard was willing to brave Snape’s fury. Professor Snape didn’t move or say a word until the door closed.

“How well are you controlling the Black magic?” he asked wearily.


Professor Snape sighed. “Sirius Black is moving this way, and you are struggling to yoke the Black family magic to your own. I have concerns.”

Harry wondered if that explained the professor’s foul mood. For someone who practiced occlumency, he didn’t have good emotional control the second Harry was involved. And Harry understood. In some ways, Harry felt like Narcissa was his only family, and he didn’t know how he would react if she were in danger. He’d turn all the Black family loose on anyone who touched her, and he’d probably do the same in defense of Draco. And Harry was all that was left of Lily.

“I’m better,” Harry said. He could cast in Transfiguration and Charms without making everyone collapse in hysterics, although Harry noticed people would be in a better mood after class. Given that Orion and Arcturus had chosen revenge as his path, Grimmauld Place must have been horrible when he’d been alive.

Professor Snape didn’t look impressed by Harry’s answer. “Sirius Black has spent a decade in Azkaban. Dementors do not just strip a person of every happy memory; they damage a person’s control. Black will not make a measured attack. He will fling his magic about like a whip, without concern for any damage he may do to bystanders or even himself.”

“Yes, sir. I understand.” Harry hesitated. “Sometimes I get flashes from Bellatrix. A fly crawling on her windowsill leaves her ecstatic because the magic is all she feels. There’s no rational thought or survival instinct.”

Snape frowned. “Bellatrix lacked balance even before she went to Azkaban, so Sirius may have more control than that, but he will not be rational. You can not expect him to take a strategic or even rational approach to whatever goal he has set for himself.”

“Do you think he’s after me? Do you think he wants to avenge the Dark Lord?”

Snape sighed and for a minute he looked a million years old. “The Dark Lord never allowed his Death Eaters to see each other outside the inner court. Sirius was not in the inner court, so I never knowingly interacted with him or got any sense of how deeply committed he was to the Dark Lord. Were there men in masks who would sacrifice themselves, their magic, their children to the Dark cause? Yes. Would those same men make those sacrifices to avenge the Dark Lord?” Snape hesitated. “The headmaster believed they would have. I tend to see those who practice the Dark as more practical than that, but I have no way of knowing.”

“So he might be willing to die if he could kill me at the same time.”

“Yes,” Professor Snape said. “We will spend more time in the dueling room, and that will include Draco, Nott and Bulstrode. Do you want to include Zabini?”

“Yes, sir.”

Professor Snape nodded. “The time for childish play is over. We need to train you to face a mad Death Eater intent on revenge because we must assume Sirius Black is exactly that. Dementors and madmen. Potter, can you not have one normal year?”

“I honestly try to be safe, sir. We were going to ask Professor Lupin to teach us the patronus spell so we could protect ourselves from dementors.”

Snape winced.

“Should we not?”

“You should.”

“Could you teach us instead?” Harry asked.

“That is a very personal question,” Professor Snape said. “A patronus takes the form of your deepest love, your greatest vulnerability, your most vital core. Death Eaters will not reveal the form of their patronus to anyone, and many if not most will insist they are incapable of casting the spell. Only a fool believes them, of course, because the Dark Lord had many spies among Aurors, and they must all cast the spell during training.”

“Really? They hide them, even when being able to cast the spell shows the strength of your magic?”

“I did,” Snape said. “My patronus is a doe. I could not afford to have the others see that.” Harry frowned in confusion. Snape’s voice grew softer. “It matched your mother’s patronus. Two does. Family. Your mother’s doe took her form from your father. He was a stag. A stag and a doe–a mated pair. Your father took his form from the Potter crest. It shows his pride in the Potter name and love for his family. In each case, the patronus reveals something which an individual may want to hide from others.”

“So if we learn to make a full patronus, we’re revealing our vulnerabilities to others,” Harry summarized.

“Yes, but compared to the danger the dementors represent, it is still worth pursuing. If Lupin refuses to teach you, I will. The incantation is a difficult one for me to teach, though, so do your best to convince Lupin.”

“Yes, sir.”


Harry was halfway to the door before he turned around. “Sir, do you know if Mr. Malfoy has a patronus?”

Snape smiled cruelly. “He tells people he never bothered with the spell. He has told a few that his patronus is a dragon, the animal on the Malfoy family crest. However, I saw his patronus once. It was a wolf. Family-oriented. Shy. Unwilling to engage in conflict without provocation, but exceptionally dangerous once cornered. It is an animal that is also very willing to eat carrion or steal from smaller predators. It must because alone it is weak, and it finds strength only in a pack.”

Harry swallowed. “Mr. Malfoy must hate that.”

“Yes,” Snape agreed, “I’m sure he does.”

Chapter 18

Professor Lupin wasn’t there when they arrived at his first Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson. They all sat down, took out their books, quills, and parchment. Blaise was giving them all the details about Sirius Black’s most recent sighting–details he hadn’t had ten minutes before–when Professor Lupin finally entered the room. Lupin smiled vaguely and placed his tatty old briefcase on the teacher’s desk. He was as shabby as ever but looked healthier than he had on the train, as though he had eaten a few square meals.

“Good afternoon,” he said. “Would you please put all your books back in your bags. Today’s will be a practical lesson. You will need only your wands.”

A few curious looks were exchanged and Ron elbowed Thomas, clearly excited about not having book work. They had never had a practical Defense Against the Dark Arts before unless you counted the disaster with the pixies. Of course the Slytherins were already looking smug because the private dueling lessons meant they would have the advantage. And normally they took most of their classes with Ravenclaws, who also had in-house dueling lessons, so they would be evenly matched.

But with the new class schedules, Slytherin was about to show Gryffindor what two years of practicing with upperclassmen could accomplish. Okay, one year. During their first year, the only dueling had been the aborted duel between him and Draco that had ended when Harry outed himself as a Parselmouth. Only fifth-year and up had spent any real time in the dueling room that year.

But things had changed last year. As soon as Hermione had found out they were practicing on their own, she had pushed hard to master all their spells, but that meant Blaise and Draco had to stay ahead of her, so they’d started regularly dueling, dragging Gregory and Harry along, and then Millicent had joined, and somehow that had snowballed into all of Slytherin hitting the dueling rooms as hard as panicked fifth-years coming up on OWLS.

“Right then,” said Professor Lupin, when everyone was ready. “If you’d follow me.”

Puzzled, but interested, the class got to its feet and followed Professor Lupin out of the classroom. He led them along the deserted corridor and around a corner, where the first thing they saw was Peeves the Poltergeist, who was floating upside down in midair and stuffing the nearest keyhole with chewing gum.

Peeves didn’t look up until Professor Lupin was two feet away; then he wiggled his curley-toed feet and broke into song.

“Loony, loopy Lupin,” Peeves sang, which was weirdly the same song a few of the Ravenclaws would mutter under their breath when Luna Lovegood was around, only with her name instead of the professor’s. “Loony, loopy Lupin, loony, loopy Lupin–”

Rude and unmanageable as he almost always was, Peeves usually showed some respect toward the teachers. Everyone looked quickly at Professor Lupin to see how he would take this; to their surprise, he was still smiling.

“I’d take that gum out of the keyhole if I were you, Peeves,” he said pleasantly. “Mr. Filch won’t be able to get into his brooms.”

Harry wasn’t sure why he needed brooms at all because Hogwarts had elves that delighted in taking care of the castle, but maybe they had too many elves that liked cooking and gardening, and not enough that wanted to sweep floors. Regardless, Peeves paid no attention to Professor Lupin’s words, except to blow a loud, wet raspberry.

Professor Lupin gave a small sigh and took out his wand.

“This is a useful little spell,” he told the class over his shoulder. “Please watch closely.”

He raised the wand to shoulder height, said “Waddiwasi!” and pointed it at peeves. With the force of a bullet, the wad of chewing gum shot out of the keyhole and straight down Peeves’s left nostril; he whirled upright and zoomed away, cursing.

“Cool, sir!” said Dean Thomas in amazement.

“Thank you, Dean,” said Professor Lupin, putting his wand away again. “Shall we proceed?”

They set off again, the class looking at shabby Professor Lupin with increased respect. He led them down a second corridor and stopped, right outside the staffroom door.

“Inside, please,” said Professor Lupin, opening it and standing back.

The staffroom, a long, paneled room full of old, mismatched chairs, was empty except for Professor Snape who was sitting in a low armchair. He looked around as the class filed in. His eyes were glittered and there was a nasty sneer playing around his mouth. As Professor Lupin came in and made to close the door behind him, Snape said, “Leave it open, Lupin. I’d rather not witness this.”

He got to his feet and strode past the class, how black robes billowing behind him. “Do try to avoid putting any of the students in any mortal danger,” he snarled. Both Theo and Millicent went ramrod straight, and both started studying Lupin more closely, as if they were about to draw wands and curse him.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Professor Lupin said, but he had twin red spots in his cheeks. Harry looked from one man to the other, wondering if they knew each other.

Professor Snape cast one last sneer in Neville’s direction before he left, shutting the door with a snap.

“Now, then,” Professor Lupin said, beckoning the class toward the end of the room, where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall. That sounded significantly larger than pixies, and students started to exchange worried looks.

“Nothing to worry about,” said Professor Lupin calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. “There’s a boggart in there.”

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about, but Harry didn’t remember any boggarts from his creature game cards. He glanced over to Theo. If he was scared, then Harry knew he should be terrified. However, Theo was so focused on Professor Lupin that Harry couldn’t judge his attitude toward a “boggart.” Neville, however, gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnigan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively. Draco was slowly backing up, and Hermione was looking about, clearly as confused as Harry.

“Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,” said Professor Lupin. “Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks–I once met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice.

“So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a boggart?”

Hermione put up her hand. “It’s a shape-shifter,” she said. “It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us the most.” Ah, so she did recognize the name, meaning she was just confused about how their classmates were reacting.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. “So the boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a boggart looks like when he is alone.

“This means,” said Professor Lupin, choosing to ignore Neville’s small sputter of terror, “that we have a huge advantage over the boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?”

Trying to answer a question with Hermione next to him, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet with her hand in the air was very off-putting. Even when Slytherin had shared a schedule with a room full of Ravenclaws, no one had been so desperate to answer, but Harry tried to focus.

“Er–because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?”

“Precisely,” said Professor Lupin, and Hermione put her hand down, looking a little disappointed. Draco forgot to retreat toward the door and rolled his eyes. “It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a boggart make that very mistake–tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening, although very disgusting.” He smiled at the class, his scars making the skin across his lips stretch oddly.

“The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finished a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you will find amusing.”

Harry exchanged a quick look with Neville. With the Black magic roiling under his skin, Harry could produce laughter as easily as breathe. But the problem was that he couldn’t let just a little out. He either flooded the room or he kept it tightly under his control. Harry saw more practicing in his future.

“We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please… Riddikulus!”

“Riddikulus!” said the class together.

“Good,” said Professor Lupin. “Very good. But that was the easy part, I’m afraid. You see, the word alone is not enough. Neville, perhaps you can assist me with the next step.”

The wardrobe shook again, though not as much as Neville, who looked back at Harry with dismay. Harry moved to Neville’s side. “Maybe someone else could volunteer,” he suggested.

Lupin looked confused. “It’s perfectly safe,” he promised.

“I could do it,” Ron offered. He stepped forward.

Professor Lupin looked at Neville again before sighing and giving Ron a sad smile. “Right then. Ron, first things first: What would you say is the thing that frightens you most in the world?”

Ron shivered. “Spiders.”

“A common fear,” Lupin said. “All those feet and those eyes.

Ron hunched his shoulders and made a gagging noise. “Right then, can you imagine what would happen if the spider had on tap shoes, shiny black ones that would slip and slide on this floor. And if he’s going to be a cool spider, he would need sunglasses. Dozens of them, all jammed onto his face to try and cover as many eyes as possible. Can you see it?”

Ron nodded. “And a bow tie,” he added.

“What color?”

“Yellow with red polka dots. Gryffindor colors,” Ron said.

“Good. Can you picture the details very clearly, Ron? Can you see them in your mind’s eye?”

“Got it,” said Ron with confidence.

“When the boggart bursts out of this wardrobe and sees you, it will assume the form of a spider,” said Lupin. “And you will raise your wand–thus–and cry ‘Riddikulus’--and concentrate hard on the tiny shoes and the glasses and that polka dotted tie and how funny it all looks.” The wardrobe wobbled more violently.

“If Ron is successful, the boggart is likely to shift his attention to each of us in turn,” said Professor Lupin. “I would like all of you to take a moment now to think of the thing that scares you most, and imagine how you might force it to look comical…”

Professor Lupin’s words caused a quick shuffle. The Gryffindors were standing their ground, but the Slytherins had no shame about retreating to the rear and Harry pulled Neville back with him. “I can do this,” Neville whispered.

“Yeah, but do you want everyone to know your greatest fear? Do you want Vincent seeing that?” Harry asked.

Neville glanced over toward the cantankerous Slytherin and allowed Harry to drag him to shelter behind a wall of burgundy and yellow. Only then did Harry think about what scared him the most.

His first thought was Lord Voldemort–a Voldemort returned to full strength. However, after talking to the snakes in the common room, Harry had trouble separating the monster who had led a war and the boy who had just wanted to be safe and had been denied that. Sympathy made it hard to sustain any real terror, although Harry knew the wizard was evil.

Next he thought about Dumbledore. The man had manipulated every part of Harry’s life, just like he’d done to Tom Riddle and Professor Snape and who knows how many others. He’d made the whole school suffer through a year of Lockhart, and he justified everything by saying that he was doing it for the greater good. But as much as Harry feared Dumbledore, he also saw him as a pathetic old man who thought he had answers when he didn’t. He could have protected the Philosopher’s Stone or stopped Lockhart before that day in the Chamber of Secrets, but he was so busy trying to find the greatest good, bad stuff happened all around him.

No, the only thing that came to mind when Harry thought about real fear was a rotting, glistening hand, slithering back beneath a black cloak… a long, rattling breath from an unseen mouth… then a cold so penetrating it felt like drowning…

Harry shivered.

“Everyone ready?” said Professor Lupin.

Harry felt a lurch of fear. He wasn’t ready. How could you make a dementor less frightening? He tried to imagine it with tap shoes and sunglasses, but that didn’t help. Everyone else was nodding and rolling up their sleeves, so hopefully he was far enough in the back to avoid having to confront his greatest fear.

“Ron, we’re going to back away,” said Professor Lupin. “Let you have a clear field, all right? I’ll call the next person forward… Everyone back, now, so Ron can get a clear shot–”

The Slytherins were already at the walls, and both Parkinson and Greengrass were eyeing the door. But now Gryffindors stood in front of them, leaving Ron alone beside the wardrobe. He stood up taller and clutched his wand.

“On the count of three,” said Professor Lupin, who was pointing his own wand at the handle of the wardrobe. “One–two–three–now!”

A jet of sparks shot from the end of Professor Lupin’s wand and hit the doorknob. The wardrobe burst open. A spider–three feet tall and six across–scuttled out of the wardrobe, pincers clicking. Harry could see that Ron had frozen. The spider was bearing down on him, drool sliding over his mouth and dripping down.

“Ron!” Professor Lupin called.

“Riddiklus!” shouted Ron. There was a noise like a whip crack. The spider started to tap dance, sunglasses tumbling off it’s face as it kept slipping on the stone floor. A few students started laughing, and the spider tap danced faster. That made more and more students laugh.

Professor Lupin shouted, “Parvati! Forward!”

Parvati walked forward, her face set. The spider turned toward her and with another crack, where he had stood was a blood-stained, bandaged mummy; its sightless face was turned to Parvati and it began to shuffle toward her, dragging its feet, its stiff arms rising–

“Riddikulus!” cried Parvati.

A bandage unraveled at the mummy’s feet; it became entangled, fell face forward, and its head rolled off.

“Nott!” roared Professor Lupin, but Theo didn’t move. The mummy continued to roll around on the ground until Professor Lupin called “Seamus!”

Seamus darted past Parvati. Crack! Where the mummy had been was a woman with floor-length black hair and a skeletal, green-tinged face–a banshee. She opened her mouth wide and an unearthly sound filled the room, a long, wailing shriek that made the hair on Harry’s head stand on end–

Riddikulus!” shouted Seamus.

The banshee made a rasping noise and clutched her throat; her voice was gone.

“Malfoy!” Professor Lupin called, and Draco looked at Harry, but he shook his head. Draco had too many enemies in this room to show them his greatest fear. Lupin sighed and called, “Lavender!”

Crack! The banshee turned into a rat, which chased its tail in a circle, then –crack–became a rattlesnake, which slithered and withered before –crack– becoming a single, bloody eyeball.

“It’s confused!” shouted Lupin. “We're getting there. Press forward.” The Gryffindors did, ceding the perimeter to the Slytherins. Even Hermione was in front. Crack! It became a severed hand, which flipped over and began to creep along the floor like a crab.

Someone shouted the incantation and the hand was trapped in a mousetrap. Crack! A man covered in festering blisters. Crack! A dragon, only it had the head of a rhinoceros, and it was too heavy for it so the head fell to the ground, leaving the body writhing and struggling to lift it.

Professor Lupin stepped between the Gryffindors and the boggart, and for a second, it turned into a bright ball hanging in a dark sky, and then Lupin was forcing it back into the closet. “Excellent!” cried Professor Lupin as the class broke into applause.

“Excellent, well done, everyone.. Let me see, five points to every person to tackle the boggart, and five each to Hermione and Harry for answering my questions correctly at the start of the class. “Very well done, everyone, an excellent lesson. Homework, kindly read the chapter on boggarts and summarize it for me… to be handed in on Monday.”

Even though class was only a little over half over, Professor Lupin said, “Gryffindors, dismissed. Slytherins, please stay behind for a short time.”

The Gryffindors hurried out of the room, talking excitedly and casting disgusted looks toward the Slytherins. Harry imagined they were going to tell everyone how the Slytherins were afraid to face their fears, but if Death Eaters, who were the terrors of the wizarding world, wouldn’t reveal their weaknesses, then third-year students shouldn’t have to either.

“Neville?” Hermione called at the door.

Neville shook his head. “I’m staying.” She gave him a sympathetic look before following the other Gryffindors. Harry could still hear them excitedly talking in the hallway, telling each other which boggart had been theirs. Once the door closed, Professor Lupin looked at them wearily. “Is there a reason why none of you were willing to step forward?”

Most of Slytherin looked to Harry, even Greengrass who Harry had never exchanged two words with. But because the students had all looked to Harry, now Professor Lupin was as well.

Harry cleared his throat. “Did you attend Hogwarts?” he asked.

“I did.”

“Which house?” Harry asked, although he had a pretty good idea. He had been calling Gryffindors by their first names, but with the exception of Harry, the Slytherins were all addressed by their surname.

“Gryffindor,” said Professor Lupin.

“The rivalry can be very intense. I don’t want to show my boggart to people I don’t trust. They don’t need to know what my greatest fear is, and it was foolish of Ron to put himself up front like that. Now anyone who is angry with him knows to use spiders. I bet even his brothers would use that information to customize their pranks, and his brothers are terrors.”

Most of the Slytherins started nodding.

“It’s important that you learn to cast spells. Defense is not just about reading the incantation in a book.”

“We know,” Harry said. “And I want to face the boggart. Don’t you guys?” About half Slytherin nodded this time, and Draco was in the half that remained stubbornly still. “I would be happy to do the exercise with Neville, Blaise, Draco, Theo, Millicent, and Gregory,” said Harry. That left a mishmash of students that he hadn’t included. Suddenly they were all sizing each other up, trying to find an alliance they would be willing to work with. Vincent shot Gregory a desperate look, but Gregory ignored him.

“Now?” asked Professor Lupin.

Harry nodded. “My group would be happy to wait in the hallway if the other group wants to go first.”

“Do we have to face the boggart?” Parkinson asked.

“No,” said Professor Lupin slowly. “It’s entirely voluntary. I won’t demand that students face their greatest fears.” Harry wondered if Lupin had always felt that way or if Harry’s speech had made him realize the difficult position he was putting students in. The Slytherin girls looked at each other and then hurried out of the room. After that, Vincent left, and then the few stragglers, some of whom Harry still couldn’t name despite sharing a house, all followed.

Draco gave Harry a desperate look. “Leave if you want,” Harry said softly, “but I want to learn to cast magic.” He stepped forward.

“I want to start,” Neville said, even though he was shaking. Professor Lupin gave him a smile.

“Alright, let’s start the same way I started with Ron. What is your greatest fear?”

Neville whispered, “Professor Snape.”

Harry ached for his friend. As much as he understood why Professor Snape was so angry, he had no right terrorizing Neville the way he did. Unfortunately, Harry had no way to protect his friend. The most he could do was sit next to him when Professor Snape was at his worst.

Lupin’s voice was very kind when he asked, “I believe you live with your grandmother, a rather eccentric woman?”

“Yes,” said Neville “But I don’t want the boggart to turn into her.”

“No, no. You misunderstand me,” said Professor Lupin. “I want you to think of the most outrageous outfit you’ve seen her wear.”

Neville smiled as he realized what Professor Lupin wanted. “She has a hat. A tall one with a stuffed vulture on top. And a long dress… green, normally… and sometimes a fox-fur scarf.”

“And a handbag?” prompted Professor Lupin.

“A big red one,” said Neville.

“Right then, picture those clothes very clearly. Can you see them? Visualize them?”

“Yes,” Said Neville.

Lupin turned to the rest of the group. “There are fewer of you, so everyone has to have a clear image of how to make their fear ridiculous.”

Harry focused on the bloody mummy that had unraveled and tripped. He pictured the dementor’s cloak getting snagged and turning into a pile of thread. He visualized those skeletal hands scrambling to grab the thread and trying to knit it back into place, the dementor’s fingers getting tangled in it like when kids at recess had played that game with lengths of string. Hopefully that would be enough.

“Everyone ready?” asked Professor Lupin for the second time today. Harry’s band of friends nodded. “Back away,” Lupin said. “Give Neville room.”

Again, Professor Lupin counted down before shooting a wordless unlocking spell at the wardrobe. The wardrobe burst open. Hook-nosed and menacing, Professor Snape stepped out, his eyes flashing at Neville.

Neville backed away, his wand up, mouthing wordlessly, but Snape was bearing down on him, reaching inside his robes. Did Neville fear the professor would actually hex him?

“R-Riddikulus!” squeaked Neville.

The boggart changed with a sharp crack. Snape stumbled; he was wearing a long, lace-trimmed dress and a towering hat topped with a moth-eaten vulture, and he was swinging a huge crimson handbag.

The Slytherns tried to maintain some decorum; Harry could see them biting their lips and standing stiff, but then Harry couldn’t keep it in. He might respect Professor Snape but looking at him, bewildered… with that hat… Harry laughed. Draco was the next to break, and then they were all laughing, even Professor Lupin.

Harry stepped forward, and the boggart turned to him and crack! A dementor reached for Harry, slick, skeletal fingers stretching toward him. “Riddikulus!” Harry must have let his Black magic slip because the dementor unraveled so fast, that it didn’t have time to do more than flail before it was a pile of thread with two hands sticking out of the top, waving helplessly.

Millicent stepped forward, and crack! A noseless Lord Voldemort stood in the room. The laughter died when he pointed his bone-white wand at Millicent and cried, “Half-blood. Mud-blood!”

“Riddikulus!” she shouted in anger, and the spot where Voldemort’s nose should be–where it wasn’t–slowly started to split until his whole head peeled away like two halves of an orange.

Blaise stepped forward, and crack! It was a dying man, crawling on the ground, reaching out with bloody hands. Crack! He started to wiggle, and then Harry realized he was doing that strange muggle dance move where people undulated on the floor.

Gregory stepped forward and crack! A herd of fire-animals rushed toward them, but then the lion at the front of the charge sneezed, and the fire rolled up into a ball.

Draco moved in. Crack! Lord Voldemort was there again. Younger and more handsome this time, but he swung his wand in an arc. Luckily the boggart had no magic, but the image was terrifying until he became an old man leaning heavily on a cane as he hobbled forward, peering at them from behind the thickest glasses Harry had ever seen.

“Excellent work! Keep going!” cried Professor Lupin.

Neville rushed back to the front, and Professor Snape was there in the vulture hat, but then Millicent stepped closer, and the clothing stayed the same while the face became Voldemort’s. Voldemort with Dowager Longbottom’s hat was too much, and Harry howled with laughter. The boggart exploded, burst into a thousand tiny wisps of smoke, and then was gone.

“Excellent! Excellent! And you managed that with a very small group. I’m impressed.”

“We destroyed your boggart. I’m sorry, Professor,” Neville said.

“Quite alright. This lesson is for third years, and if I need another, a castle this size has plenty.” He turned to Harry, “You are quite right. Those were not fears to share with the larger group.”

Harry ducked his head. “It’s fine, professor. We didn’t mean to make your first lesson awkward. It really was a brill lesson.”

“Why, thank you.” Lupin took a bow. “And you are all impressive young people. That was some powerful casting.”

“Professor,” Millicent said, “on the train, the dementors targeted our train car. We threw everything we had at it, and we couldn’t stop it. All of us were hoping that you could show us the spell you used–the silver mist that drove the dementor away. Hermione wants to learn it, too.”

Lupin looked at her with sympathy. “That is a highly advanced spell–well beyond Ordinary Wizarding Level. It’s called the Patronus Charm.”

“How does it work?” Neville asked.

“Well, when it works correctly, it conjures up a patronus,” said Lupin, “which is a kind of anti-dementor–a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the dementor. However, this is not the sort of magic taught to third-year students.”

Theo stepped forward, and Harry realized he had never engaged the boggart. “We’re not your average third-years.”

Lupin looked around at their group. “No, no you are not.”

“Then will you teach us?” Harry asked.

For a long time, Professor Lupin stared at Harry. Theo was shifting uncomfortably by the time he finally broke eye contact. “I’ll think about it,” he said. Harry supposed that was the best he was going to get. It wasn’t a ‘no.’

Chapter 19

In no time at all, Defense Against the Dark Arts had become most people’s favorite class. Draco was the only one who had anything bad to say about Lupin, and that was just a few rude comments about the state of his shabby, patched and fraying robes. Harry had told him to either purchase the man new robes anonymously or shut up, so Draco had subsided into muttering.

Lupin’s next few lessons were just as interesting as the first. After boggarts, they studied Red Caps, nasty little goblinlike creatures that lurked wherever there had been bloodshed: in the dungeons of castles and the potholes of deserted battlefields, waiting to bludgeon those who had gotten lost. From Red Caps they moved on to kappas, creepy water-dwellers that looked like scaly monkeys, with webbed hands itching to stangle unwitting waders in their ponds.

So many of the creatures that had been nothing more than cards in a children’s game Harry had played in his room at the Dursleys suddenly became real.

And after the awkwardness of the first Care of Magical Creatures class, Hagrid settled into a groove. Everyone noticed that his class was very much like Lupin’s, except Hagrid taught them how to care for creatures that seemed eerily similar to the ones Lupin taught them to defeat. They had a nogtail that Hagrid showed them how to feed until the Ministry sent their pack of albino bloodhounds to kill it before the curse attached to the creature could damage Hogwart’s wards.

They gloved up and collected African Streeler venom, and then used it to drive mushroom-like horklumps out of areas where the thestrals lived. Thestrals loved meat, and since horklumps were largely stationary lumps of flesh, they would eat them, and then get terribly ill. Then the Ministry came and confiscated the Streeler since it wasn’t legal to have such a toxic creature on Hogwart’s grounds because of the number of protected plant species.

Eventually Hagrid figured out that Draco was reporting his animals to his father, which led to betrayed glares and weeks of flobberworm care. They had to be some of the most boring creatures in existence.

“Why would anyone bother looking after them?” asked Ron, after yet another hour of poking shredded lettuce down the flobberworms’ slimy throats. He glared at Draco, who had–hopefully–learned that running to his father had a certain cost. Even the Slytherins weren’t thrilled with him, and he often hid behind Harry to avoid their ire.

Arithmancy was hard, but Harry had learned the basic rules during Dark magic lessons. Harry could see where Dark arts had been cut out of the curriculum. Professor Vector would teach them to solve a problem in twelve steps when it really only took five, but the additional steps would help anyone who studied Dark Arts. They had two Hufflepuffs and a half dozen Gryffindors in the class, all of whom seemed confused when Professor Vector just insisted they might need the other steps later and they had to show all their work. The same was true of Astronomy. Harry could see where Dark Arts had once been taught, leaving lessons that Harry had never understood the purpose of.

Ancient Runes was harder, but Harry had a good study group. He hung different runes all over his room to help him memorize them and Blaise would quiz him at the most inopportune times. The bathroom had become an academic minefield of pop quizzes. The only class that wasn’t good was Potions. Snape was in a particularly vindictive mood these days. He swooped about the room, and more than once Harry had to change seats in the middle of the class because Snape had targeted Neville or Hermione or Ron for his special attention. Ron never cared, but Neville and Hermione would end up on the edge of tears.

At the start of October, however, Harry had something else to occupy him, something so enjoyable it more than made up for a cranky potion master. The quidditch season was approaching. Slytherin started practicing in the early morning, but they didn’t play in the first match. That was Gryffindor versus Hufflepuff. Gryffindor had a new seeker this year–Ginny Weasley. The rest of the team was solid, and both Oliver Wood and Angelina Johnson were utterly brilliant, but their lack of a seeker had put the whole team in a hole they couldn’t fly their way out of.

Flint was afraid that would change with their new seeker. The twins–Fred and George–were strong beaters, so the family likely practiced flying at home, and Ginny had the build of a seeker–lithe and small and fast. Flint was freaking out a little because he had earned the quidditch cup every year he had been Slytherin captain, and if Gryffidor had a strong seeker, it might slip between his fingers.

So they were all on spy duty, ordered to watch for when Gryffindors were hitting the practice field and take notes. It was a pleasant distraction until Ron caught him. Then Harry got a whole lecture on cheating, although Harry pointed out that scouting the enemy wasn’t cheating as much as a strategy. Harry wasn’t sabotaging their brooms after all.

“Still,” said Ron, “you oughten be out here.”

“Students are allowed on the grounds. I’m not actually doing anything wrong.”

Ron cast a glance toward the Forbidden Forest. “No, I mean you shouldn’t be out here. For safety reasons. You’re near the wardline, and Black is out there.”

“Oh.” Harry poked a thumb over his shoulder. “Nott is under the bleachers.”

“Nott?” Ron looked unimpressed. To be honest, Nott hadn’t given himself great odds if the dementors broke through the ward line, but Harry figured the headmaster would have strengthened the wards against them. Sirius Black was the only real threat, and Nott could knock seventh years on their ass in the dueling room. Harry wanted to be Nott when he grew up.

“So,” Harry said, changing the subject while Ginny swooped and circled on her old Cleansweep. If she had a better broom, she’d be killer. “How is Muggle Studies going?”

Ron grinned. “Brill. Truly brill. We get to floo off the grounds so we can play with muggle technology, and television is incredible. I love The Simpsons and Mr. Bean. Which are your favorites?”

“I never watched television.”

Ron looked at him oddly. “But you grew up muggle; the book says that television is universal. Is it wrong?”

“No, everyone else I knew in the muggle world watched it. But the Dursleys didn’t like me. They wouldn’t let me.”

“At all?”

Harry shook his head.

“What did you do instead?”

“Mostly I sat in my cupboard or sometimes Aunt Petunia had me doing the washing up.”

Ron’s expression slid into horror. “Mate…”

Harry didn’t need pity, so he quickly changed the subject. “I never got around to asking, but why did Hermione drop the class?”

Ron frowned at him for several seconds before answering. “Her parents were on some sort of book committee for the school. She read all the books in summer, and she said some of them were so terrible that she refused to take the risk that she would have to memorize wrong information to pass a test.”

That sounded horrible. “Are your books wrong often?”

“Nah.” Ron paused to scream and cheer for his sister when she caught the snitch. Fred and George flew over to give her high-fives and swoop around her on their brooms. “We got one of the books she actually liked, but once she saw how full her schedule was with the other electives, she decided to skip the class. Oxton is fairly honest about all parts of the muggle world. Some of it is really messed up.”

“Some of it is,” Harry agreed.

“But telly… I have got to find a way to get a telly into a magical house. My dad would lose his mind.” Ron grinned madly.

“I bet runes could do it… somehow.”

“Really?” Ron scratched his neck. “I wonder if I should join the class next year. I’d have to study over summer, but my mum knows runes. She’d help me.”

“I could give you my first year book when I’m done.” Harry knew the Weasley’s had trouble affording books, and he could buy one and pass it off as his old text that he didn’t need anymore.

Ron collapsed back onto the bench behind him, spreading his arms. “But it would be so much work.” he complained loudly. “I have to think about whether television is worth it.”

“Think about Mr. Bean,” Harry said, even though he had no idea who that was. Odd name.

“True,” Ron said wisely. Ron and Harry watched the Gryffindor team fly, but when it looked like they were winding down, Harry decided to head back to the castle before Wood could confront him. Maybe Wood was nicer than Flint, but the level of obsession was pretty equal, so Harry didn’t want to give Wood a chance to scream at him.

Harry got enough of that from his own captain. So he waved at the twins and Ginny before he made his escape.

Theo joined him on the path halfway back to the castle. “Wesley is not what I was expecting.”

“He’s changed a lot since first year,” said Harry. “Can you show me the privacy charm you use?”

Theo gave him an odd look, but he showed Harry the wand movements and carefully pronounced ‘muffliato’ so slowly that the magic didn’t take. Harry raised his eyebrows and this time Theo cast the spell. His casting was better than Harry’s, so Harry would rather allow him to cast it. His ears popped when the magic took.

“Ron knows I’m a parselmouth. He and Hermione found out by accident, and Draco was ready to hex him, but he was quick to say that we should keep the parselmouth secret because of how other people would see me if they knew. He makes quick judgments and he listens to adults that I think are full of crap, but he’s a good person.”

Theo gave him an incredulous look.

“Anyway, I have a question. I need a leatherworker and a carver who can make some Yule gifts.”

“You’re asking me and not Draco?”

“Draco is not the most discreet person,” said Harry. He didn’t want to be mean, but Draco had absolutely no discretion, and Theo had to know that. Not only had they lived together in Slytherin for two years, but his father and Draco’s parents had run in the same circles.

“How discreet would this craftsman need to be?” asked Theo suspiciously.

“Discreet enough to not mention that a client sent them basilisk skin, scales, and shed teeth. And they probably shouldn’t mention that the basilisk teeth are twelve to sixteen inches long.”

Theo’s eyes grew huge. “How old–” He froze as if asking the question was taboo.

“I’m collecting them from the Chamber of Secrets. I want to have someone make something from the shed skin, which has the texture of fine leather, and I want the teeth carved into little figurines. I also hope they can take the scales and create rune markers I can give everyone for Yule, maybe with a luck or health rune. Sorry to ruin the surprise, but I don’t know where to find someone who can do the carving without some help.”

Theo opened his mouth, closed it and took a deep breath. “I do not want to offend…” He frowned at Harry.

“I’m really hard to offend. If I’m doing something wrong, I would rather know before I embarrass myself in front of other people.”

Theo moved closer. “Giving someone a gift made from a basilisk would be excessive for a Yule gift. That is the sort of gift that would be better for a milestone.”

“A milestone?” Harry didn’t understand.

Theo hesitated, almost like he expected Harry to change his mind about wanting advice. When he didn’t, Theo braced himself. “The Dark is going to admire basilisk raw materials above almost all else. It is Salazar Slytherin’s chosen familiar and a snake that represents power in it’s purest form. So it would be more appropriate for a once-in-a-lifetime event, something like a graduation gift or a seventeenth birthday when a wizard is finally considered an adult.”

“Oh. I suppose it would be even worse if I mentioned that these are from Salazar Slytherin’s literal basilisk.”

Theo blinked at him.

“She remembers him fondly,” said Harry. At this point he was having fun shocking Theo. But Harry didn’t want to make the queen’s leather or teeth less special by overusing them, even if the Chamber was littered with them. But he still wanted to get something special for the Malfoys. Not only had they taken him in this summer, but Narcissa had stood up for him with Walburga and Mr. Malfoy had taught him Dark magic and Draco had accepted him into his family when he could have gotten jealous and thrown a fit. Actually, Harry had expected that to happen at some point during the summer.

He wanted them to know how much he appreciated them.

And Professor Snape had done so much for him this summer that Harry wanted his Yule gift to be special, but he didn’t need any help to get that gift together. He had to get a potion master potion ingredients. “Could you still help me find artisans and figure out how much to pay them?”

“I’ll owl my father,” Theo said seriously. After a second, he added, “Being friends with you is nothing like I expected.”

“That’s because everyone thinks they know what the Boy-Who-Lived is supposed to be like,” Harry said. In fact, that was one of the things that annoyed him most in life. But eventually everyone would figure out that he wasn’t his father and he wasn’t Dumbledore’s minion and he wasn’t a stereotype of a Slytherin. He was Harry. Just Harry. Well, Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black, but same thing.

Chapter 20

Harry was counting down the days to Hogsmead weekend, and blessing Narcissa who had the power to get Aunt Petunia to do anything. Theo had arranged for the artisans and had even gotten them to agree to accepting payment in the form of basilisk parts. Harry had rarely been so excited about gift-giving.

But it wasn’t just him that was too anxious to focus on studies. In class, the third-years seemed to lack focus. The only classes Slytherin remained silent and respectful in were Transfiguration and Potions. Even Professor Vector had yielded to the power of Hogsmead to distract them and had assigned them to calculate their lucky number for that day. Harry, Draco and Blaise had extra long homework that day, because all three of them had not only been born under the rising influence of an auspicious star, but they knew it and, therefore, had to account for it in their calculations.

Hermione had actually been jealous of the additional work, so Harry promised to help her look up her own star chart if she could get the exact time, latitude and longitude of her birth. Professor Vector had smiled at them warmly during their discussion.

In Transfiguration, Harry had gravitated to the back of the class with Theo. Other students needed her help, but this year, every assignment felt so easy. Harry barely even needed to twitch his wand and it was like materials wanted to transfigure for him. He’d worry that something was wrong, only he could feel the Black magic flowing under his skin when he cast. It wanted Harry to do more.

Harry was grateful he’d had Dark magic lessons and occlumency because sometimes he had to take control of the urge to cast bigger magics. Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape had both warned that magic could breed the urge for more magic, so Harry restrained himself. He wondered if Theo was in the same boat because he didn’t seem to need practice either.

The strangest thing was that when Harry slipped and used even a tiny bit too much magic, he could feel another Black in the magic with him. He used that as his own personal warning that he had sunk too far into the magic and he needed to pull back.

Class was almost over when Professor McGonagall stopped the class as they were about to leave. “One moment, please!” she called. “Anyone from Gryffindor, you should hand Hogsmeade permission forms to me before Halloween. Slytherins, your forms should go to Professor Snape. No form, no visiting the village, so don’t forget!”

Neville put up his hand.

“Please, Professor, I think I’ve lost–”

“Your grandmother sent yours to me directly, Longbottom,” said Professor McGonagall. “She seemed to think it was safer. Well, that’s all; you may leave.”

The class rushed to obey, but before Harry reached the door, she said, “Mr. Potter, a moment of your time, please.”

“Yes, professor,” Harry said as other students poured out of the room. Only a half dozen of Harry’s friends were left when she looked over her square glasses at him. “I wanted to talk to you about Hogsmeade.”

“Yes, professor?”

She moved her papers off to the side of her desk before resting her arms on the polished wood. “With Sirius Black out there, do you really think it’s a good idea to leave the safety of the wards?”

“We’ll stay with him, professor,” Theo said. Millicent nodded.

The interesting reaction was Hermione who chewed on her lower lip. Harry knew that expression.

“I hardly think a couple of third-years would pose a challenge for Sirius Black,” she said as she gave Theo and Millicent a look that would make Professor Snape proud. Then again, she’d never seen Theo duel. Since Professor Snape had started making Harry’s friends practice dueling more, he had shown off just how much of an advantage he had. Gregory had been caught between admiration and burning jealousy, and Draco had spent a whole week insulting Theo’s clothes in retaliation.

“I know the Ministry and the professors have been patrolling Hogsmeade. I’m sure I’m safe,” said Harry.

She sighed at him. “Mr. Potter, I fear you are not. I recommend you stay in the castle this visit. You can explore once Sirius Black is back in Azkaban.” Her voice had a note of finality.

“I’m sorry, professor, but I have already made plans for Hogsmeade.”

She pressed her lips together in an unhappy line.

“Professor McGonagall has a point,” Hermione said quietly. “Sirius Black could attack you.”

“I’m not going to skip Hogsmeade weekend,” Harry said.

“I hardly think missing a day of eating candy and shopping will do any harm,” Professor Mcgonagall said. “However, meeting Sirius Black would be catastrophic. The headmaster and I both agree that the castle is safer for you.”

She could not have said anything that would have angered Harry faster, but he took a deep breath. “Professor,” he said as calmly as he could, “I am the Boy-Who-Lived. Lots of people who supported the Dark Lord would love to kill me.” Harry ignored the matching winces from Draco and Theo. “I am also the heir to the Black seat in the Wizengamot, for which a completely different set of people would love to kill me. I have never been particularly safe.”

“You had a muggle home with wards that would have kept you safe,” Professor McGonagall said in a tense voice.

“I had a muggle home with an aunt who swung frying pans at my head because I burned the bacon and an uncle who called me a worthless freak and locked me in a cupboard and a cousin who would call his friends over to beat me up when he was bored of pulling the wings off butterflies. I can’t say I was ever safe there.” Even through his anger, Harry could see the utter shock on McGonagall’s face. He just couldn’t stop himself from continuing. “If you wanted to express concern about my safety, any time before the Malfoys took me in would have been appropriate, but I am not afraid of an escapee who has been fed on by dementors for a decade, not when I have good friends to watch my back.”

Harry turned and stomped out of the room. It wasn’t the most mature reaction, but he was so tired of the headmaster and his allies trying to run Harry’s life. He had no doubt that Dumbledore was angry that Harry had abandoned Privet Drive, but this was his life. He had to decide how to live it.

“Harry, just think about what she said. Think about staying back,” begged Hermione. “You’ll still have the Halloween feast that night. And the castle is safer.”

Harry gave her a cold look. “Not now,” he said before he started walking faster. He didn’t want to yell at Hermione, but he also didn’t want to deal with her siding with a teacher over him. He understood that adults had never let her down the way they had him, but that didn’t make him less aggravated right now.


By the time Halloween morning came around a week later, Hermione had decided to not bring up the subject again, although Harry noticed that she mentioned Sirius Black in a lot of her conversations. Every time she said his name, she would look at Harry sadly, as if leaving Hogwart’s grounds was the same as walking to his death.

Harry ignored her.

She wasn’t the only one who worried, though. Mr. Malfoy hadn’t been at the school often this year, but Halloween morning, he stood waiting at the castle door, claiming he wanted to share this milestone with Draco and Harry. Draco practically preened while the rest of the group rolled their eyes. But when Professor Snape came out saying he’d been assigned to prevent any dunderheaded shenanigans, all of them knew the only dunderhead he wanted to catch was Sirius Black.

Given how much Professor Snape had loved Harry’s mother, Harry didn’t blame him for wanting revenge.

Harry noticed the other students clear the way for them. With both Snape and Mr. Malfoy glaring at anyone who came too near, Harry didn’t blame them, but no amount of overprotective adulting could dull the wonder of Hogsmeade. They stared at Dervish and Banges where Draco insisted on getting new broom care kits despite already owning one. Harry suspected he just wanted to drool over the posters for the new Firebolt racing broom. He was probably hoping his father had noticed his interest.

They’d nearly lost both Theo and Hermione in the local Flourish and Blotts before they’d all walked around Zonko’s Joke Shop. Anyone who went to school with Fred and George would be underwhelmed with their tired, old products. Even Harry and Hermione couldn’t muster much interest in Frog Spawn Soap or Biting Teacups.

Honeydukes, on the other hand, was wonderful. A woman in a tall, pointed hat like their neglected uniform hats stood at the door offering fudge samples, and Harry could have melted with pleasure. Inside, it was so crowded with Hogwarts students that the air was stuffy.

There were shelves upon shelves of the most succulent-looking sweets imaginable. Creamy chunks of nougat, shimmering pink squares of coconut ice, honey-colored toffees; hundreds of different kinds of chocolate in neat rows. There was a large barrel of Every Flavor Beans, and another of Fizzing Whizbees, the levitating sherbet balls. Signs announced Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum which promised to fill a room with bluebell-colored bubbles that refused to pop for days. Others flashed with names like Toothflossing Stringmints, Pepper Imps, and Ice Mice–which advertised, “Hear your teeth chatter and squeak!” Fragile sugar-spun quills shared a shelf with exploding bonbons.

One corner even offered UNUSUAL TASTES with Jelly Slugs and blood-flavored lollipops and Cockroach Clusters. Harry peered at every treat and barely restrained himself from buying one of everything. He was having a grand time until he saw a notice pasted on the inside of the sweetshop door.

- - - - - - -

Customers are reminded that until further notice, dementors will be patrolling the streets of Hogsmeade every night after sundown. This measure has been put in place for the safety of Hogsmeade residents and will be lifted upon the recapture of Sirius Black. It is therefore advisable that you complete your shopping well before nightfall. Happy Halloween!

- - - - -

It sounded like the Ministry suspected someone in town was helping Black because the notice definitely sounded like a threat. “Give him up or we’ll torture you with dementors and leave you trapped in your homes every night,” seemed to be what the Ministry was saying.

Harry leaned close to Blaise. “Is anyone here a close ally to Sirius Black?”

“You spotted it, too.” Blaise pursed his lips. “I don’t know, but I could ask around. I’m proud of you, young Potter-Black.”

“What? Why?” asked Harry.

“You wouldn’t have seen the threat back in your first year. You were practically a Gryffindor, taking everything at face value.”

“I wasn’t that bad.”

Blaise gave him a flat look.

“You weren’t as bad at what?” Hermione asked as she came over with an armful of candy. Harry wondered if her dentist parents never let her have sweets at home.

“Nothing,” Blaise said with a smile. Hermione narrowed her eyes. She might not know what Blaise was lying about, but she knew he was lying. Harry escaped by heading over to Draco. Where Hermione seemed to have one of everything, Draco had about a dozen of every chocolate–White Wheezers and Night Owl Dark Chocolates and assorted bonbons. He had everything except Chocolate Frogs, which he always called chalky and cheap.

“I could get more if Father wasn’t watching,” complained Draco softly. When Harry glanced over, Mr. Malfoy’s gaze darted about the sweetshop, while Professor Snape had his back turned and watched the street. They moved like warriors covering each other’s backs, and it occurred to Harry that during the war, the two of them might have fought together.

It was strange to imagine they might have fought Harry’s parents or Neville’s. They definitely would have battled Aurors. But if Sirius Black tried to catch Harry in Hogsmeade, he was going to regret the attempt.

Theo came over. “You ready?”

“Ready for what?” Draco asked.

Harry sighed. “It’s Yule stuff, and you can’t know.”

Draco’s eyes lit. “Are you getting my present?”

“I’m getting someone’s present. I haven’t decided if I’m getting you a present at all,” said Harry.

“Whatever. You’ll get me something awesome,” said Draco with confidence before he headed for the line. Theo watched him go with a look of mild horror.

“Where are they meeting us?” asked Harry.

“Three Broomsticks. There’s an upstairs room.”

Harry sighed and looked at their guards. “I don’t know if I can sneak out. I may have to give the drawings and materials to you, that is if you’re okay with that.” Harry hated putting Theo on the spot, but he was the only one who knew about his appointment, and he couldn’t trust either Mr. Malfoy or Professor Snape when it would ruin their Yule gifts.

Theo froze. After a second, he whispered, “You’d trust me with a bag full of basilisk parts?”

“Of course I would,” said Harry.

Theo closed his eyes. “Would you trust anyone with that bag? Would you trust Weasley?”

Harry snorted. “I’m not an idiot. Some things are only for my Slytherin friends. I’d trust Millicent, Gregory or you with this, but I don’t want to have to explain things to them and they wouldn’t know the artisans. But if you don’t want–”

“I’ll do it,” Theo said. “Slip me your bag when we get to the Three Broomsticks.”

Once everyone bought their sweets, they crossed the road and headed to the tiny inn. It was crowded, noisy, warm and smoky. A woman with a red apron was serving a bunch of rowdy warlocks at the bar.

“Madam Rosmerta,” Blaise sang out, “your beauty never fails to enthrall me.”

Madam Rosmerta snorted. “The Zabini charm has skipped this generation,” she said.

Blaise clutched his chest like he was having a heart attack. “I am wounded. Mortally wounded. If I cannot have your love, I shall leave this world unsatisfied.”

Most of the bar was staring at them, and Harry slipped toward the back of the room, aiming for a small table by the window. He expected his group to split up, but as soon as he sat, the Slytherin upperclassmen at the next table left. Hermione grabbed that table and pulled it closer so they could all sit together.

Gregory stayed with Blaise to help carry the butterbeers, but Draco, Neville, Hermione, and Millicent all settled into chairs. When Theo vanished, Draco gave Harry a conspiratorial smile before complaining about how overcrowded all the venues had been. Five minutes later, Blaise and Gregory came carrying foaming tankards of hot butterbeer.

“Where’s Ron?” Millicent asked.

“He wanted to spend time with Thomas and Finnegan. And Kellah.” Hermione wrinkled her nose. “She is always telling Ron how everything he does is wonderful.”

“Someone has a crush,” said Blaise. Harry focused on his butterbeer, which was much more interesting than who had crushes.

“On Weasley?” Draco sounded scandalized.

Harry focused on Professor Snape and Mr. Malfoy who haunted the far side of the pub, always looking in different directions. They had definitely fought together, which ruled out the dueling ring where every fighter had to stand on his or her own.

Millicent sighed heavily. “I’m going to have to spend the next four years listening to stories about who is interested in whom, aren’t I?”

“If you’re sitting with me, of course you are,” Blaise agreed.

Harry stared out the window. The fall colors had painted the trees with sunset colors, but one of the shadows moved.

“Dear Pansy has been sitting very near Miles Bletchley lately; have you noticed?” asked Blaise.

“Who’s he?” Despite having more Slytherin friends than Gryffindor ones, Hermione still didn’t know even half of Harry’s house. Then again, he didn’t know at least a quarter, so that was fair.

Surprisingly, Neville answered. “He’s the Slytherin keeper.”

“But isn’t he older than us?” Hermione wrinkled her nose and got a look of disgust that very much matched Millicent’s. Outside, the shadow detached itself from the tree that formed it and slipped down the side of a house. It was a dog–a huge black dog. It actually reminded Harry of the huge stray outside Grimmauld, but that was impossible. A stray wouldn’t be able to travel that distance.

“What are you looking at?” Draco asked.

Harry nodded toward the window. “There’s a stray out there. Do the dementors bother animals?”

“Not generally, although some magical animals are the exception to the rule,” Theo said as he sat down and put Harry’s bag on the floor before pushing to Harry with his foot. “Why are we talking about dementors?”

“There’s a stray dog,” Harry said, but Draco reached out and grabbed Harry’s wrist so hard it hurt.

“That’s a grim,” he whispered in a horrified voice.

“What?” squeaked Neville.

“Where?” Millicent pressed closer to the window.

“Don’t tell me you believe all that nonsense about portents and bad luck.” Hermione rolled her eyes. “I swear, you’re as bad as Ron and that rabbit's foot of his.”

“Rabbit’s feet are not magical; grims are,” Draco practically wailed.

In a heartbeat, Professor Snape was at their table, wand drawn, pushing Neville aside. “What is it?” he demanded.

“A grim. Harry saw a grim. I saw a grim!” Draco’s voice rose until at least half the pub was staring at them. Professor Snape continued to study the street, and Mr. Malfoy had moved to a spot right next to the door. When the door opened and a half dozen students tumbled in, Mr. Malfoy nearly hexed them.

“It was a stray dog,” said Hermione. “I saw it too, and it wasn’t a magical creature or a portent. Really, Draco, are you going to let a puppy dog frighten you?”

“Yes, if the dog in question is a grim. That’s just common sense!”

“Maybe we should head back to the castle,” said Neville softly, curling into his chair to avoid touching any part of Professor Snape as he leaned over their table.

“That might be wise,” said Professor Snape, his wand still drawn. “Go on,” he said, his focus still out the window. Harry realized he was covering their retreat as if a stray dog were a legitimate threat. Professor Snape’s wariness made Harry suddenly uncomfortable and he grabbed his bag’s strap.

“It’s been a long day.”

“Absolutely. I’m ready to head back.” Blaise followed that up by abandoning his chair. They all followed, Mr. Malfoy taking the lead outside before allowing them to follow. Up until this point, Sirius Black had felt like a distant threat–like something that might happen the way lightning might strike if you stood in the rain during a storm. But now the Black magic roiled under his skin, and Neville kept casting wide-eyes looks in his direction that made Harry suspect he wasn’t controlling the family magic as well as he should.

None of them spoke outside a few whispers as they walked back up the hill. The dementors at the gate started to drift down toward the group as they approached, and Professor Snape called “Expecto Patronum!” With a twirl of his wand, a tall, silvery doe burst out of the end of his wand and trotted in front of the group, driving the dementors back.

“Wow,” Hermione whispered, but even she seemed to understand that now was not the best time to distract the adults with questions about how to cast a spell. They finally reached the front stairs and Harry suddenly wanted to giggle with relief. They’d practically run back after seeing a stray dog. It was all so ridiculous.

However, he didn’t say any of that because the others (with the exception of Hermione) still seemed on edge. “Do you two want to come down to the dungeons?” Harry asked Hermione and Neville. “There’s a big room right off the main corridor that no one seems to use. It has some couches in it, if you want to compare our purchases.”

“That would be nice,” Neville said. He looked at Snape and Mr. Malfoy, clearly willing to go anywhere the men weren’t. Harry led the way down to his new find. Every time he went in there, a few more pieces of furniture had shown up, and Harry kept expecting older Slytherins to show up and announce it was their clubhouse, but until that happened, it would be a nice place for friends from two different houses to spend time together.

Chapter 21

As usual, Hogwarts had a lavish and sugar-filled Halloween feast and fanciful decor featuring a cloud of fluttering live bats, flaming orange banners and hundreds and hundreds of candle-filled pumpkins. When they all got back to the Slytherin common room, nearly half the students gathered in a circle to remember the beloved dead, describing a mother who had died in childbirth, a grandfather who died of dragonpox or a father who had fallen ill in Azkaban and whose body had never been returned. Harry listened to each story as students shared their pain and the joy-filled stories of who these people had been before their deaths.

When it came time for him, Harry had simply named his parents. He didn’t know them well enough to talk about how they had burned a Yule feast trying to crisp the duck or the way they’d laugh. Harry didn’t know if that made it harder or easier. He couldn’t properly mourn parents he didn’t remember, but he also didn’t have to miss what he had never known.

He ended up going to bed terribly late, and when he finally fell asleep, his dreams were haunted by a high, maniacal laugh and a shadowy grim that slipped through Hogwart’s corridors, moving from shadow to shadow with an ease that suggested he knew every turn.

A terrible shriek and brilliant cursing the likes of which not even Uncle Vernon could match woke him, and Harry grabbed for his glasses. Professor Snape stood in the doorway, clutching his arm, which was dripping blood, and Theo had his wand out.

“Professor Snape! I apologize,” said Theo as he shoved his wand into the sleeve of his pajamas.

“Oh boy,” Blaise whispered.

“Do I take it the trap was yours?” asked Professor Snape. “And how exactly do you intend to prevent students from falling into this trap of yours?”

“Draco is the only one who barges in here, and I showed him what the curse did so he wouldn’t,” Theo said. “And if someone from inside the room leaves, the trap is immediately disabled.”

“Barely sufficient, but I shall accept that answer for now,” said Professor Snape, which shocked Harry. He expected Theo to get hexed into the middle of next week, and from Theo’s expression, he had expected the same. Instead Professor Snape shifted his wand to his left hand and chanted “Vulnera Sanentur,” over and over until the flow of blood stopped. “There has been an alarm in the castle. When the headmaster investigated, he found the portrait guarding Gryffindor tower had been shredded and Peeves claims Sirius Black did it. The headmaster wants all students sleeping in the Great Hall, so bring your wands and pillows.”

“Sirius Black is in the castle?” Harry asked, his stomach sinking.

“Wait in the common room for me to escort you. I shall wake the others.” Still wearing blood-stained robes, Professor Snape swept out of the room.

“You are lucky he didn’t gut you,” said Blaise.

Theo grimaced.

“He wouldn’t do that,” Harry said as he grabbed a clean set of pajamas out of his trunk.

“On purpose, no,” said Blaise, “but if you take a famous dueler who has fought in a war and spring a vicious trap on them, death does seem like a reasonable outcome.”

“I’ll give him the disabling charm in case he needs to come in here again,” said Theo. He wasn’t changing pajamas, but he was strapping a frightening array of blades to his forearms and calves. Blaise and Harry exchanged concerned looks.

“You do know we’re not going to war, right?” asked Harry.

“Sirius Black is in the castle. This is war.” Theo pulled down his pajama bottoms to hide his weapons and then headed out the door.

“He’s not wrong,” said Blaise before he grabbed his pillow and blanket. Harry hurried to follow. All of Slytherin were in the common room, shifting nervously until Professor Snape reappeared.

“We are to evacuate to the Great Hall. Seventh year prefects lead us, wands out and ready. Sixth years follow. Then first, second and third year students.” Professor Snape stared at Harry and then Theo. Theo nodded. Once that silent moment passed, he continued. Fourth then fifth years at the rear. I will be at the back with the fifth year students. Move quickly, but without panic or pushing. The first Slytherin to ignore my instructions will suffer my wrath for the remainder of their days at Hogwarts. Move out.”

Slytherin quickly arranged itself and headed into the dungeon passages. When everyone stopped, there was some nervous shifting until word came back that Hufflepuff was in the corridor and the seventh years were waiting for them to pass rather than having Slytherin divided. Eventually they all reached the Great Hall.

The headmaster cast a sonorus spell on himself before announcing, “the teachers and I need to conduct a thorough search of the castle.” He glanced over to where Professors McGonagall and Flitwick closed all doors into the hall. “I’m afraid that, for your own safety, you will have to spend the night here. I want the prefects to stand guard over the entrances to the hall and I am leaving the Head Boy and Girl in charge. Any disturbance should be reported to me immediately.”

“Is he leaving us here without any adults?” asked Draco.

Up front, Percy had moved to stand next to Dumbledore, obviously relishing his role as Head Boy. “Send word with one of the ghosts if you require help.” Dumbledore paused, about to leave the hall when he said, “Oh yes, you’ll be needing…”

One casual wave of his wand and the long tables flew to the edges of the hall and stood themselves against the walls; another wave, adn the floor was covered with hundreds of squishy purple sleeping bags.

“Show off,” Blaise muttered, but that didn’t stop him from claiming one for himself.

“Sleep well,” said the headmaster, closing the door behind him.

The hall immediately began to buzz excitedly, Gryffindors wandering over to friends in other houses to tell the tale. Millicent left the third year girls to set up her bag near them, and Harry found himself pushed closer to the wall as she took up far more space than necessary. Hermione came over to set up next to her, and Neville followed.

“What happened,” Blaise asked excitedly.

“We were asleep and all these alarms went off,” Hermione said. “Percy and the other prefects rushed downstairs, yelling for George and Fred–”

“They always assume the twins have done something,” said Neville.

“Anyway, they got to the common room, and the magic around the portrait hole was… how did Percy put it?”

“Bleeding. The magic was bleeding.” Neville shivered.

“So Percy goes to leave, but the portrait won’t open. Eventually McGonagall gets there, and she has to open it from the outside because the Fat Lady is gone. Her portrait was shredded and Peeves said she looks horrible and she’d gone to hide her face.”

“Peeves said Sirius Black was there demanding to be let into Gyrffindor tower,” Neville said.

“Gryffindor? Why would he go to Gryffindor tower?” Draco looked almost apologetically toward Harry, as if he didn’t know the man was out for Harry’s blood.

“He lived in Gryffindor, and the dementors have probably left him so insane that he doesn’t know where else to go,” Harry explained.

“You saw the grim. I told you it was a bad sign,” Draco said. Before anyone could point out that no one had actually died or even gotten hurt, Percy was hushing everyone and walking the aisles that had formed between houses. However, Hermione and Neville grabbed sleeping bags and settled in with them.

“Everyone into their sleeping bags!” shouted Percy. “Come on, now, no more talking! Lights out in ten minutes.”

“Do you think Black’s still in the castle?” Hermione whispered anxiously.

“The professors are searching, so it seems likely they suspect he is,” Blaise said.

“I’m so worried about my cat,” Hermione said. “He wasn’t in my room and I couldn’t find him in the tower before McGonagall rushed me out.”

Draco looked at her like she had lost her mind. “You’re worried about a cat? A madman… worse, a mad Black is wandering the castle, and you’re worried about your cat?”

“I love Crookshanks,” Hermione said defensively. “Ron is absolutely horrid to him, but he is a sweet cat.”

Harry noticed that Neville was staring at her in horror. But then they were caught up in the various theories about how Black could have gotten into the castle. Apparating was ruled out because of Hogwart’s wards, but students suggested flying in on a broom, smuggling himself in Filch’s cleaning supplies, hidden passages, ancient transportation ritual–despite the fact that no one could remember even hearing about such a thing–or a simple muggle disguise. Millicent had suggested the disguise and Harry thought it was the most likely.

“The lights are going out now!” Percy shouted. “I want everyone in their sleeping bags and no more talking!”

The candles all went out at once. The only light now came from the silvery ghosts, who were drifting about talking seriously to the prefects, and the enchanted ceiling, which, like the sky outside, was scattered with stars. What with that, and the whispering that still filled the hall, Harry felt as though he were sleeping outside.

Once every hour, a teacher would reappear in the hall to check that everything was quiet. Around three in the morning, when many students had finally fallen asleep, Dumbledore returned. Next to Harry, Theo immediately tensed, so he wasn’t asleep either.

Dumbledore looked around for Percy, who had been prowling between teh sleeping bags, telling people off for talking. He was only a short way away from Harry’s group when Dumbledore came over to him.

“Any sign of him, Professor?” asked Percy in a whisper.

“No. All well here?”

“Everything under control, sir.”

“Good. No point moving them all now. I’ve found a temporary guardian for the Gryffindor portrait hole. You’ll be able to move your house back in tomorrow.”

“And the Fat Lady, sir?”

“Hiding in a map of Argyllshire on the second floor. Apparently she refused to let Black in without the password, so he attacked. She’s very distressed, but once she’s calmed down, I’ll have Mr. Filch restore her.”

Harry heard the door of the hall creak open again, and more footsteps.

“Headmaster?” It was Professor Snape. Harry kept quite still. “The whole of the third floor has been searched. He’s not there. And Filch has done the dungeons; nothing there either.”

“What about the Astronomy Tower? Professor Trelawney’s room? The Owlery?”

“All searched…”

“Very well, Severus. I didn’t really expect Black to linger.”

“Have you any theory as to how he got in, Professor?” asked Snape. Harry held his breath.

“Many, Severus, each of them as unlikely as the next.”

Harry cracked his eyelids. Dumbledore’s back was to him, but he could see Percy’s face, rapt with attention and Snape’s profile. The professor was furious. Coldly, dangerously furious like Harry had never seen, not even when the troll attacked.

“You remember the conversation we had, headmaster, just before–ah–the start of term?” said Snape, who was barely opening his lips, as though trying to block Percy out of the conversation.

“I do, Severus,” said the headmaster, a warning in his tone.

“It seems almost impossible that Black could have entered the school without inside help. I did expression my concerns when you appointed–”

“I do not believe a single person inside this castle would have helped Black enter it,” said the headmaster, and his tone made it so clear that the subject was closed that Professor Snape didn’t reply. They were talking about Professor Lupin. They had to be. Other than Hagrid, he was the only new teacher appointed for this school year, and Hagrid would eat his own liver before helping one of the Dark Lord’s people. Harry was more likely to do that than Hagrid.

But why would Lupin want to help Black kill him? The only thing Harry could think of was that Black had some goal other than murder because Lupin seemed far too invested in protecting life.

But maybe that was a cover. Maybe he was just an exceptionally good actor, but if Harry started mistrusting everything his instincts told him, he might as well suspect Hagrid of being a Death Eater.

“I must go down to the dementors,” said the headmaster. “I said I would inform them when our search was complete.”

“Didn’t they want to help, sir?” said Percy.

“Oh yes,” said the headmaster coldly. “But I’m afraid no dementor will cross the threshold of this castle while I am headmaster.”

Percy looked slightly abashed. Dumbledore left the hall quickly, and Percy wandered back to the Gryffindor side of the hall, leaving Snape watching with an expression of deep resentment on his face.

“Professor,” said Harry softly.

He looked down, the anger of earlier replaced now with weariness. “Go to sleep, Harry.”


“I will explain to you and Theo later, but this is not the time or place.” With that, the professor left. Harry looked at Theo who had his wand in one hand and a knife in the other. Considering that they were in a room filled with hundreds of students, Harry didn’t think they were in any danger from the headmaster’s plots, but he could admit that it made him feel a little better to know Theo had his back.

Chapter 22

The school talked of nothing but Sirius Black for the next few days. The theories about how he had entered became wilder and wilder until Blaise showed up for lunch with a tale of a Hufflepuff that thought he could turn into a flowering shrub. Draco had accused him of making that up because no one was that stupid, but Blaise had insisted the girl had actually said that. Harry stayed out of it.

Neville spent the next class complaining bitterly about the portrait that had taken over for the one that had been sliced. Apparently he challenged everyone to duels, set ridiculous passwords that he changed twice a day and regaled everyone with stories of his great bravery.

“So an average Gryffindor?” Draco had asked smugly.

Neville sighed and Hermione had kicked Draco in the shin under the table they were sharing in Herbology. Harry had tried sneaking off to Professor Snape’s office to talk to him, but the man wasn’t holding his regular office hours and he hadn’t come to the common room to duel with either Harry’s group or his NEWTS students who generally had all his attention in the evening.

All Slytherin was growing uneasy.

Over the next few days, Harry lost any privacy he might have once had. The twins were back to shadowing him. When Harry confronted them, they admitted that their mother had asked them to keep an eye out for Harry, but they also insisted they would have done it anyway. And most of the teachers haunted the corridors when Harry was in the area.

Miles Blechley had even suggested that it was too dangerous for Harry to practice quidditch out on the pitch where Black might attack when the team was relatively isolated. Blechley had nearly died because Flint had threatened to gut him if he threatened Slytherin’s winning streak and Theo had offered to finish the job if Blechley ever again suggested that Theo couldn’t protect Harry. Millicent had then followed up by punching him hard enough to knock him off his chair. Harry felt bad for the guy.

Harry, meanwhile, refused to change his life. He still believed that if he was face to face with Sirius, he could use the Black magic to protect himself. However, even if that wasn’t the case, he had so many people who wanted him dead that he would never leave his bed if he started obsessing over it.

After dinner, he once again bypassed the common room door and walked to Professor Snape’s office. Theo followed, assuring Millicent that he could handle the escort.

She hadn’t looked happy, but while Harry hadn’t been looking a sort of hierarchy had formed. When it came to following Harry duty, the others accepted Theo’s word as final. Except for the twins who weren’t really part of Harry’s friend group and who didn’t listen to anyone–not even teachers. However, when it came to studying, Draco made the final call about what all of them would do. The rest of them seemed to be relegated to some sort of second tier where they were expected to follow along.

Surprisingly Professor Snape answered his office door this time, but he looked exhausted. He had purpling bags under his eyes and he cast the quickest of glances at them before he returned to his potion cupboard. After finding a Pepper up potion, he drank it and steam poured out his ears.

“Sir, about the night Sirius Black broke in,” Harry said, not sure how to broach the subject because Professor Snape had been very frustrated that night.

“I cannot discuss it.” Oddly, Professor Snape had their Defense Against Dark Arts book on his desk.

“But you said–”

“I–cannot–discuss it,” he said sharply.

Theo took a step forward. “Light reading, sir?” He nodded toward the book. Harry frowned, but since Professor Snape had relaxed minutely, Harry just watched.

“I have been forced to cover Professor Lupin’s class tomorrow, as if taking on additional classes with no sleep is in any way safe. Well, I can remedy that in Defense at least. I shall have you reading page 394 and reviewing the materials on werewolves. Every third year should be able to distinguish between the werewolf and the true wolf.”

Harry frowned and looked at the book. “We aren’t anywhere near there in the book.”

Professor Snape’s voice had a deadly calm to it. “Given that Professor Lupin was well aware that he would not be capable of teaching his class, he should have been responsible enough to leave a detailed lesson so I knew where you were. Since he did not, we shall read 394 and I will have all of you write two rolls of parchment on how to identify and kill the beasts.”

Harry sucked air through his front teeth. Professor Snape used the length of the assigned essay as a sort of warning about which potions were hardest or more dangerous, but he’d never assigned two whole rolls of parchment. So they were all in horrible danger from a werewolf.

And Professor Lupin was sick.




Harry sat heavily. Professor Lupin was a werewolf. Snape seemed to sag in relief as he finally settled into his desk chair.

“I suppose you’ll have to cover every month, sir,” said Harry.

Professor Snape sighed. “Either me or one of the other teachers, yes.”

In the last war, the werewolves had sided with the Dark Lord, so maybe Sirius Black had friends and allies in the local wolf packs. Harry swallowed as he considered that one more Defense teacher might pose a danger to the school.

“We had asked him for tutoring. Should we withdraw the request?” asked Theo. He had his own version of deadly calm in place.

Professor Snape waved his hand dismissively. “He is minimally competent at least. Take advantage of the skills he can teach you. But I never want to see any Slytherin outside the dorm after curfew. Potter, if you or any member of your group violates curfew, I will have you scrubbing bedpans in the hospital wing without magic until my general level of aggravation eases. And given that I have been aggravated nonstop for the past twelve years, I would not suggest you test me.”

“I can’t control the others,” cried Harry. Weirdly, both Theo and Professor Snape stared at him blankly. They were itching to say something. Harry could see it. But they both kept silent.

“How dangerous is the situation?” Theo asked.

Professor Snape stared at him, his hand twitching.

He wanted to speak, but he didn’t. Someone had put him under a Vow or a Compulsion to keep Lupin’s secrets, and Harry didn’t need two guesses to know who that would have been. “Sir,” said Harry, “how dangerous are werewolves? In general?”

Professor Snape’s hand stilled. “A werewolf is a man the vast majority of his life. A werewolf is as dangerous as any other man, so look to his allies and you can discern the truth on a case by case basis.” Professor Snape pinched his nose. “Why do you children insist on bothering me? I have entirely too much work. Both of you, get out.”

Harry bolted for the door and Theo followed. Out in the corridor, they stared at each other in horror and then cast a privacy charm. Harry was getting quite proficient with it. “I’m sure Professor Lupin is secured when he’s transformed,” Harry said weakly. All he could think about was a troll stomping down the hallway outside the girl’s bathroom. Hogwarts wasn’t always safe.

“How do we find his allies?”

“He was a Gryffindor. We go to the library and look up the student books from the sixties and seventies.”

Theo nodded. “Sure. I don’t have anything else to read.”

“I thought you had books from home,” said Harry as they walked back to the dorm.

“I finished the ones I brought and father won’t send anything through owl. He doesn’t want to risk the headmaster confiscating it.”

Harry looked down at his sleeping snake ring. “Would you like to read a Slytherin grimoire?” he asked.

Theo physically jerked as though he’d been jolted by electricity. “What?”

“One of the Slytherin girls married into the Black family and brought her grimoire, but the book could only be accessed by a parselmouth, so it was just sitting in Grimmauld for the last few centuries. I’ve learned a shield spell, but I honestly haven’t had time to really study the book, and I know you like to research.”

“What do you want in return?” asked Theo carefully. He had his pureblood mask on.

Harry sighed. “Have you or have you not been doing your best to protect me?”

“Of course I have,” Theo said in an offended tone.

“Then it’s in my best interest that you have access to as much magic as possible. If you find anything good, let me know.” Harry touched Ibnistaran and the tiny snake started to wiggle.

“Why do you wake me, Speaker?”

“I have an ally, one who sets his fangs in my enemies.” As was often the case, Harry was surprised at how the words translated into parseltongue. “I wish for his fangs to grow sharper. Would he be allowed to read your book?”

“If you wish it and trust that his fangs will not find your tail, then it is your right to gift the knowledge to whomever you like, but if the book feels threatened, it will return to the box.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

Ibnistaran flicked his tongue so it tickled Harry’s knuckle. “Be wary of allies, hatchling. They are within your defenses and can harm you more than rivals.”

“You are wise. I will remember your words,” Harry said. Ibnistaran settled his head on Harry’s knuckle and the book blinked into existence. Harry held it out toward Theo who took it and pressed it to his breast in awe.

“The book will go back to its box when it feels threatened, and you probably shouldn’t share any spells.” Harry trusted his other friends. He did. But Blaise didn’t take anything seriously and Draco was bad with Dark arts and Millicent… she had a temper. Given dangerous Dark magic, she might hex half of Slytherin and at least three quarters of the rest of the castle. And as much as he loved Gregory, the man needed tutoring to get lumos. Literally.

“I accept your rules,” said Theo formally. They were too close to curfew to risk going to the library, especially with a full moon out, so they headed to the dorm. They claimed a corner of the common room and Harry explained everything they learned–from Professor Snape being magically forbidden from telling them the truth to Professor Lupin’s affliction. Draco was ready to run screaming through the dorm, but Millicent sat on him and Harry told him to stop acting like a Gryffindor and think about the situation.

Professor Lupin was the first teacher to actually teach them spells, and they couldn’t risk having another Lockhard. So they just needed to make sure they could defend themselves. Everyone except Theo settled in with their Defense book, getting a headstart on the werewolf essay. Theo was so lost in Harry’s grimoire that he didn’t even twitch when Blaise finally got a hand under his elbow and essentially dragged him to bed.


The weather steadily worsened as the Gryffindor-Hufflepuff match approached. This would be their first chance to see Ginny in action, and Flint was working himself up into a frenzy. He had to know what the Gryffindor seeker was bringing to the game before they played her. When Draco suggested that Harry stay at the castle, Flint had gritted his teeth so hard that they could hear the grinding noise. Hermione had cited the weather as a reason for Harry to stay in; Harry had called her ridiculous.

Harry had a harder time standing up to Neville who pulled him to one side and whispered that he was afraid and he would feel better if Harry would skip the match. However, Harry could not let fear rule his life.

When game time approached, Harry marched out with his head up and his best waterproof robes. “Everyone is being ridiculous about Hufflepuff’s new captain. The Gryffidnor girls giggle anytime someone says his name. He’s not that handsome,” said Hermione. When she was nervous, she talked, and she didn’t wait for anyone to add anything to the conversation before she continued. “It’s far more important for a man to be kind or intelligent or ethical. Why do these girls keep obsessing over how everyone looks?”

“Because they’re idiots,” Millicent blurted before Hermione could answer her own question.

“That’s not fair,” Blaise said. “We can all appreciate a beautiful man or woman without wanting to do more than admire from a distance, and that does not require a person to have an equally attractive personality. That’s why I sometimes find it easier to be attracted to someone if they don’t talk.” Blaise looked at Draco and smiled.

“Why do you sound about thirty when you talk?” Hermione demanded.

“Because I’m sophisticated.” Blaise grinned at her. “It comes with being Italian and fabulous.”

“Well I wish everyone would go back to having normal conversations like last year,” Hermione said. I’m tired of hearing, ‘Oh, he’s the strong and silent type.’” Hermione took on a mimicking tone Harry had never heard from her before.

“He’s probably stupid and he doesn’t talk because he’s hoping to get some girl’s favor before she discovers it,” Millicent said.

“If witches and wizards wouldn’t use marriage contracts, that wouldn’t be possible,” said Hermione.

“Are you going to be complaining about wizarding culture all game? If so, I think we can go our separate ways from here,” Draco said as he pulled Harry toward the Slytherin stands. Hermione stood with her mouth open with shock. Neville nudged her toward the Gryffindor section. “Sometimes she is so annoying,” said Draco.

“It is a real burden putting up with annoying people,” Blaise said. Millicent gave an abortive laugh and settled in on Harry’s right on the bench in front of the rest of the Slytherin team. Nott sat two benches further up, not a book in sight. Ever since they’d found out about Professor Lupin’s affliction, his protective instincts were turned up too high. Either that or he thought he had some sort of obligation to Harry because Harry let him read a book.

“She’s not wrong about marriage contracts,” said Millicent.

“You only say that because you can’t get one.” Draco looked down his nose at her, and Millicent looked ready to punch him.

“When I visited the Bulstrodes after our first year, her father was ready to talk to me about a contract until Millicent outlined all the reasons she never wanted to consider a contract with me. It took me a couple of weeks to recover,” said Harry. Not only did his friends go silent, but the upperclassmen who had been joking and roughhousing right above them stared at Harry and then Millicent in shock.

“I don’t want to marry the Boy-Who-Lived. It’s too much pressure,” Millicent finally said when the silence had passed awkwardly.

Hufflepuff had taken the field. Cedric Diggory was a fifth year prefect and much larger than most seekers, but he had a grace on his broom that the other Hufflepuffs couldn’t match. Lightning struck so close that the stands shook with the thunder’s boom, and Madam Hooch raised her wand to check the wards. Broken bones, pneumonia and concussions were apparently normal parts of quidditch, but there were wards against electrocution.

Griffindor took the field next. Ginny was a damn good flyer, but Harry could already see Diggory had the advantage. The winds were buffeting her mercilessly. In a calm sky, her weight would help her move quickly, but this was going to be a tough game from Gryffindor, and the Slytherins were already jeering as they sensed Gryffindor blood on the water.

Gryffindor’s chaser–Angelina Johnson–flew over to Ginny, clearly giving her a pep talk and a few pointers, and Ginny pointed her broom into the wind. Now her red hair whipped out behind her, but she wasn’t getting blown off course.

Madam Hooch moved to the center of the field and both teams dismounted, but the storm whipped her words away before anyone could hear her officially start the match. They only knew the match started because the teams leapt on their brooms and took to the sky. Ginny was fast, but her broom wobbled, and the Hufflepuff team took a quick lead with their new chaster–Zacharias Smith.

Harry spotted the snitch a couple of times, a bright gold spot that flirted with the dark clouds that made it feel like twilight. Ironically it was easier to see without the sun creating distracting glints across the field, but neither seeker in the air had spotted it. Diggory went into a dive that brought Ginny racing toward the grass, but Harry could see the snitch closer to the Gryffindor’s keeper, so it had been a feign–one that Ginny fell for.

Harry made a mental note to brush up on his bluffs and feigns. If he could get her to break her concentration to race across the length of the field, he could catch the snitch before her. Diggory and Ginny both returned to the sky, and the Gryffindor stands went wild when Angelina Johnson did a reverse flip and put the quaffle through the Hufflepuff hoops.

Harry was looking toward the Hufflepuff keeper when he saw a huge black dog standing at the edge of the forest. Lightning flashed, and it was gone. Harry didn’t believe in grims, but he was starting to feel uncomfortable with how often this grim kept showing up.

He looked around at the stands, but he couldn’t see anything dangerous. No signs of coming doom or death. Even though Harry could see most of the bleachers waving gold and red banners above soaked cloaks and battered umbrellas, the storm swallowed the sound. Lightening made the whole field glow for a moment before Wood called his team down for a time-out. They’d started in the early afternoon, but it felt like they were edging toward evening.

“What’s the score?” Harry asked Millicent.

“Gryffindor 110, Hufflepuff 60.”

That wasn’t a large advantage, and Harry still thought Diggory was more likely to catch the snitch. This was setting Slytherin up nicely because a low scoring game meant they would have more opportunity to bury both of these teams in future matches. The teams got in the air again, and the Hufflepuff beater sent a vicious bludger that almost took Ginny off her broom. One of the twins flew over there, shaking his fist.

There was another clap of thunder that followed forked lightning that divided the sky into ragged segments. Harry didn’t notice at first, but an eerie silence slowly replaced the howl of the winds. Cold swept over him, and Millicent’s hand was under his arm, dragging him toward the bottom of the stands over the backs of the Slytherins in front of him.

Nott was on his feet, wand out, and in the upper sections, students were starting to crowd the aisles. Then Harry saw them, near the Ravenclaw stands. At least a hundred dementors, their hidden faces and skeletal hands reaching out as Ravenclaws screamed loudly enough to be heard over the storm. Freezing water seemed to fill his chest, cutting at his insides, and then he heard it again… screaming. His mother screaming.

“Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!”

“Stand aside, you silly girl… stand aside, now…”

“Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead–” Her desperation stained Harry’s thoughts making the world seem suddenly dull and heavy and unimaginably cruel. Numbing, swirling white mist filled his brain. He was falling, but hands pulled at him, getting him moving toward the castle.

“Not Harry! Please… have mercy… have mercy…”

A shrill voice was laughing, the woman was screaming and Harry knew no more.


“I’m not leaving him.” That was Theo.

“My boy, I assure you he’s safe here.”

“He’s our friend, and we’re not leaving him. We already know Sirius Black can get in the castle.” Millicent sounded two seconds away from throwing a hex, and Harry was almost sure that the other speaker was Dumbledore, so that would be bad. So very bad.

“Headmaster, surely it won’t matter if we wait here.” That was Hermione trying to placate the headmaster. Harry tried to blink, but his eyelids were heavy.

“He’s perfectly safe. I’ll stay here if it will make you feel better.”

“I would feel better if I could just sit here until he woke up,” Hermione said. Clearly she had taken over as spokesperson for the group.

“Yeah, it’s not like we’re missing class or anything. Fred and George have gone to get us all some supper, and we’ll just sit here quietly until he wakes up. He should have his friends here, yeah?” Was that Ron?

“I’m sure he will be happy to speak to you once he’s woken.”

Harry didn’t want his friends to leave, so he forced his eyes open a slit. All his friends were there. Ron, Gregory, and Neville were at the foot of his bed, physically blocking the headmaster who was wearing the most luridly green robes Harry had ever seen. Hermione and Millicent were on one side of the bed while Blaise, Draco and Theo were on the other. They had surrounded him so completely that the headmaster couldn’t get near.

“What happened?” Harry asked, but his words slurred so it sounded more like “Whaa –pend?”

“Merlin’s beard, you gave all of us a fright,” Draco accused him. “Dementors swarmed the field, and Millicent was already dragging you back to the castle, but she hadn’t even gotten you off the field before you went down like a sack of potatoes. Gregory apparently forgot he’s a wizard and decided that if you’re going to imitate a sack, he would carry you like one.”

That explained why Harry’s stomach was sore. “But you got me back here safely. Thanks,” Harry said.

Gregory flushed. “Of course I did. I’m not going to get scared off by some dementors.”

“Well I am,” said Hermione. “That was terrifying. It was like the boggart only a thousand times worse and I felt like I was never going to be happy again.” She turned to the headmaster. “Thank you for casting the patronus spell.” She leaned closer to Harry. “His spell drove off like a hundred dementors at once.”

“I believe the cat, doe, and octopus patronuses also helped as well as a few streaks of silver that didn’t take a form,” Blaise offered, “Although I am impressed by the brightness of your patronus, headmaster. That was a masterclass in charms.”

Dumbledore didn’t seem to know what to say to Blaise.

“I don’t care how well they cast Patronus. I don’t think we should have dementors on the grounds at all. It is irresponsible.” Draco stopped before saying his father would hear about this, but Harry assumed all Slytherin heard the sentiment in Draco’s silence.

“I assure you, I am just as angry as you,” said Dumbledore. “I was concerned when I turned around and you were gone, Harry.”

“We weren’t going to leave him unconscious on the field,” said Draco in a horrified voice. “What sort of friends would we be?”

Dumbledore frowned. “Quite right. And you are very good friends. However, I was hoping to speak to Harry alone. That would be alright with you, wouldn’t it, Harry?” He smiled, and Harry focused on a chartreuse swirl on the man’s robes. Harry wanted to say he was too tired and sore and sad to deal with the headmaster, but he knew he didn’t actually have that option.

Harry pushed himself up so he was sitting with his back against the wall. “That’s fine. Can you guys wait in the hall and bring dinner in when Fred and George get back?” Harry asked. That would ensure the headmaster didn’t have all night.

“But–” Draco frowned.

“It’s the headmaster. I’m fine. Just give us a few minutes,” Harry said. Theo looked even more upset, but he pulled Draco toward the exit.

“I’ll track down some chocolate or steal some from Malfoy, yeah?” Ron offered. He patted Harry’s leg and then followed the rest out of the room, leaving Harry alone with Dumbledore. He moved to the guest chair and sat, watching Harry from over the tops of his half-moon glasses, but Harry fed the firestorm in his mind and avoided eye contact. At this point the headmaster had to know Harry knew occlumency, but he couldn’t avoid that. He refused to let anyone into his mind.

“This is what I’ve been afraid of.”


“I told you that your mother had left you with certain protections and that your actions or inactions could weaken them.”

Not Harry! Please… have mercy… have mercy… His mother’s words echoed through his memory.

“She died for me,” said Harry softly. He could feel her desperation and the Black magic swelled under his skin, touched the despair and love for family and determination that had been his mother’s final moments and reverated with the emotion she had felt. Harry’s eyes grew warm with unshed tears.

“She did. A mother’s love is powerful magic in and of itself, but your mother also cast a spell, a very dangerous and illegal one.”


“She cast blood protections on you Harry–blood wards. Normally those are only found in ancient manors, and they rely on family. I wanted you to stay with the Dursleys, to call Privet Drive home, because Lily’s magic has the ability to protect you, but only if you maintain the blood ties that support her spell work.”

“Narcissa is a blood relative.”

“Not on Lily’s side.” The headmaster sighed. “I truly wish the world were fair and I could offer you more, but maybe now you see why I fear that you need the protections Lily cast on you. And unfortunately, your aunt is the only family that can help me maintain the wards.”

Harry thought about that. He could understand why the headmaster wanted him to have more protection. It wasn’t different from Neville being scared and wanting Harry to stay in the castle during the game. But Harry wouldn’t live his life that way.

“Did you know, sir?”

“Know what, Harry?”

“About the police reports, the visits from child services? Because I figure there was no way all those reports just disappeared without muggle authorities doing anything. I visited the Department of Misinformation once and I thought I might like to do the mind magics they cast there, but then I got to thinking about it, and I had teachers who wanted to help me, but the next day they would be sure I was just a trouble maker trying to spread rumors about the Dursleys. I think the Department of Misinformation wrote new stories to convince them that I wasn't abused at all and I didn’t need help.”

“I’m sorry that happened.”

“But did you know?” Harry asked again.

“I have very little to do with that department, and any case involving children is held in confidence.”

“Did you know about how I was treated in the home?”

“I know Lily and James would have given you a home filled with much more love. I’m sorry you didn’t have that, but understand that magic is fickle. You cannot keep Lily’s protection without maintaining a connection to her sister. I have poured a dangerous amount of magic into the wards to maintain them, but I cannot continue. The strain is more than even I can handle. As Christmas break approaches, you need to make amends with the Dursleys.” He sounded so reasonable, so kind. He framed Harry’s actions as unreasonable, forcing the headmaster to sacrifice his own magic because of Harry’s immaturity. But despite all that, he hadn’t answered Harry’s question.

“Did you know about the weeks when I would only be allowed to eat Dudley’s leftovers, and how that left me suffering malnutrition?”

Dumbledore sighed.

“Did you know Dudley used to make a game out of beating me, and my uncle encouraged him? Uncle Vernon used to call me worthless and he said that if I could help Dudley improve his boxing by letting him practice on me, it was only a fraction of what I owed them for taking me in.”

“They are unkind people. I will go and speak with them. I will make them understand that you require their protection and that all of you will suffer if that protection is broken.”

Dumbledore could have done that before, so Harry didn’t know why he should trust the headmaster to do that now. They sat in silence until the door opened and Fred and George came in carrying what looked like half a door, laden with dishes from the Great Hall.

“We come bearing dinner for bad little boys who can’t keep themselves out of trouble,” Fred said.

“Now, Gred, you know Harrykins doesn’t mean to be a bad little boy. No name calling.”

“You’re right, we should take out our frustration on him in other ways. Tell me, Harry, how do you feel about gold and red striped hair?”

“No!” Harry shouted. His friends followed the twins and they all crowded around Harry’s bed. Weirdly, the Weasleys made sure to stand between Harry and Dumbledore, and the Slytherins gravitated to the far side of his bed.

“Mate, you’re a menace. I think this is the only time a spectator got injured at a quidditch game,” Ron said loudly. He bent over to get something off the floor, and the headmaster had to stand to avoid a face full of Ron’s butt. It wasn’t subtle, but at least he had moved Dumbledore farther from the bed. Harry approved, until he saw that what Ron had gotten off the floor had been his partially hairless rat. The thing looked a half-second away from dying.

“Weasley! Get rid of that thing!” wailed Draco. “You’re going to infect us all with bubonic plague or something.”

“Don’t hurt Scabbers’ feelings,” Ron said as he cupped his hands protectively around his pet. Blaise looked physically ill.

“You’re wrong about the injuries, Ron,” said Hermione in the least subtle change of topic in history. “In the 1940s, three Hufflepuffs in the stands were injured when the charms on a broom misfired, sending a Ravenclaw player crashing into the stands. One of the spectators and the Ravenclaw chaser died. My fear of flying is perfectly reasonable.”

“Perfectly reasonable,” teased Harry as he grabbed a chocolate pudding. He needed to get his hands to stop shaking before he could make a proper go of supper. Dumbledore left without a word, but as soon as he was gone, Theo cast the strongest privacy spell Harry had ever felt. The other third-years didn’t seem to notice, but the twins gave him an appraising look.

“What did he want?” asked Hermione.

“To talk me into going back to the Dursleys. He said the blood charm my mother cast is going to break if I don’t go there for Christmas because he can’t keep reinforcing the spell.”

“If the blood wards are active now and the dementors can still affect you that much, I think the spell has faded,” said Theo.

“Or the spell was limited in the first place,” George said. “I don’t think many people cast blood wards against dementors. And they’re most effective if you specify the threat you’re targeting. That’s why older homes have layered wards. Each keeps out a specific class or type of outsider.”

Most of the Slytherins stared at him, and Fred rolled his eyes. “The Weasleys are Light, the Prewetts were Gray. It’s not like we don’t know about blood wards and rituals.”

“I don’t. Why do you know if I don’t?” Ron demanded. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“What are those?” asked Hermione.

Neville leaned closer to her. “Blood wards normally protect places. They’re Dark magic, and emotion-based casting that can be addictive if a caster doesn’t have a strong sense of self and good control over their darker urges. Longbottoms have to hire someone to cast our wards because we can’t cast Dark spells, but the Malfoys and Notts are known for making strong wards and the Black family wards are infamous. Gray families may or may not have a talent for it.”

“Oh, mum’s got a talent for it,” George said. “She taught Bill and Charlie.”

“Yeah, but things didn’t go so well with Percy,” Fred said. “And after that she didn’t teach any of the rest of us.”

“But we can remember watching some lessons,” finished George. “Not well, but we know enough to not get ourselves in trouble. But you have other skills to fall back on Ronikins. That was a good call with the headmaster.”

Ron turned brilliant red. “I just know the headmaster needs mum for something. They talked all the time this summer. So he’s less likely to want a conflict with us, even if he would be fine challenging the Slytherins.”

“Brilliant strategy,” Fred said, “which is why you, Harrikins, are going to have a Weasley honor guard until we can figure out why the headmaster is trying to force you back into an abusive home.”

“And why dementors are targeting you,” added Draco.

“Being Weasleys doesn’t actually help with the dementor problem,” Fred said, “but I think it’s time to nag Professor Lupin. They say you get bonus points on the OWLS if you can cast a corporeal patronus, and we might need those points.”

“If nothing else, mum and her howlers can be very persuasive about convincing teachers to change their curriculum,” said George with a smile as viscous as any Slytherin. “And we all know how mum feels about our OWL scores.”

Chapter 23

Madam Pomfrey finally released him to go to bed shortly before curfew. Harry suspected that she didn’t like her hospital wing being invaded by such a rowdy group. Slytherins were fairly quiet, but with the addition of the three Weasley boys, the Slytherins seemed to feel a need to keep up, insult for insult and shout for shout.

They were giving Harry a headache, so he was happy to retreat into Slytherin territory.

The next morning, Harry found a bunch of earwiggy flowers that looked like yellow cabbages with a get-well message from Hagrid and a note from Professor Snape telling him to come to the office as soon as he woke.

Harry tried dressing quietly, but it didn’t work. “Where are you going?” asked Nott as he sat up in bed.

“Professor Snape asked to see me. He didn’t ask for you, so you should stay here.”

Blaise threw off his blankets. “I’ve got this. You go back to sleep. You’re getting cranky,” he told Nott.

“I can come.”

“And I am capable of shielding long enough to get him to Professor Snape, even if dementors and Black all attack at once. Besides, I want to get information out of him after his meeting.” Blaise grinned.

Theo studied him for a few seconds and then laid back down and pulled the blanket over his head. Harry waited until they were in the common room to say, “I don’t need a babysitter.”

“No, but everyone feels much more comfortable if you have someone to watch your back.” Harry couldn’t argue with that.

“Sometimes I feel like you guys give up too much for me. You could be spending your Sunday morning sleeping in.”

Blaise shrugged. “I’d rather chase gossip anyway, and you know it. So let’s get to Professor Snape before his mood worsens. The man is getting dangerous.”

Harry suspected he always had been dangerous for Gryffindors and even sometimes with Hufflepuffs, but the Slytherins weren’t used to dealing with his capricious moods, that’s for sure. Harry didn’t even have time to knock on the office door before Professor Snape threw it open. He stood looking down his hooked nose at Blaise who rightfully quailed and took a step backward. “I’ll wait over there,” he said weakly.

Professor Snape went back into his office with a swirl of robes, and Harry followed, closing the door behind him. “You sent for me?”

Snape gestured to the guest chairs. “I understand the headmaster visited you. May I know why?”

“He wanted me to go back to the Dursleys. He kept telling me how much safer I would be with my mother’s blood wards, but he wouldn’t answer any of my questions. I asked him if he knew I was being abused and that the Ministry was covering it up. He changed the subject.”

“The Ministry covered it up?” Professor Snape sat up straighter.

“Maybe. When Mr. Malfoy took me to visit the Ministry, we visited the Office of Misinformation. They make up stories and then convince muggles they’re true. In school, lots of times teachers noticed I was hungry or dirty or had clothes that didn’t fit. They’d promise to get me help, but the next day, they would tell me that I was the problem.”

Professor Snape pinched the bridge of his nose.

“The headmaster refused to answer me when I asked if he knew.”

“Few things happen without the headmaster knowing,” said Professor Snape with a sigh. “But I suspect that he considered the price worth it to maintain the blood wards.”

“Everyone says he’s a great wizard and a good man, but he let me be hurt. How can he be good when he lets people be hurt?” Harry locked down his emotions before he cried. He called up the firestorm in his mind and let it burn all his feelings. The Black magic joined the conflagration, and for a second, Harry wanted to bury himself in the magic and never come out again. However, there was suddenly a steel rod in his mind–a force that would not bend–it caught Harry and jerked him out of his own mind.

Harry blinked and found Professor Snape half laying across his desk, one fist wrapped around the front of Harry’s robes. “Do not do that again,” he snarled before he pushed Harry back into his chair and then settled into his own. Harry watched wide-eyed as the professor rubbed his temples. “You utter dunderhead. If you do not maintain control, magic will consume you the way it has Bellatrix. I suspect Ms. Lovegood is the same. If she came into her seer powers too young, she may struggle to reengage with the world. But you are foolish enough to chase the flood. Do not abuse occlumency in such an abominable way.”

“Yes, sir. I apologize,” said Harry quietly. He hadn’t been the target of one of Professor Snape’s screaming fits before, and Neville’s fear made a lot more sense now. The fact that Neville walked into the potions room week after week knowing that this might be waiting for him made Neville the bravest person Harry knew. “I just… I don’t know how people can call him good.” Harry tried to avoid making it sound like an excuse, but it did.

“I suspect they were comparing him to the Dark Lord and Grindelwald and found him the much kinder version of power. Kant would say that his actions are not right and not moral. Mill would say that as long as the outcomes result in more good–the greater good–then he is morally right. The situation is difficult.”

“Who are they?”

“Great thinkers who tried to define what it meant to be good. When I was your age, I struggled with the subject.”

“Did my mom?”

The professor sighed. “Quite the opposite. She was confident about what was right and what was wrong, but I found myself and my dorm mates were often relegated to the latter side in her judgments. I now know how dangerous Dark magic is, but my mother taught me all the ways Dark can be joyous and uninhibited. She taught me to connect with nature and listen to the magic flow of a leyline. Your mother tried telling me that Dark magic was bad, and I refused to listen, even long enough to admit that there are parts that are horrific.”

Professor Snape sighed and stared at a distant point on the wall. Harry got the feeling he was trying to figure out how to say something, but as the silence grew more awkward, he blurted, “I keep hearing my mother screaming when she died. That’s why I pass out when the dementors target me.”

Professor Snape blinked at him, his expression devoid of any emotions. “We are lucky the dementors focused on you or we would have dozens of comatose children who would never recover,” Professor Snape said. “However, we need to strengthen your occlumency so you can function even when that memory is being triggered. There is only one way to strengthen a specific part of your shields.” Professor Snape’s face twisted with disgust.

“You need to trigger the memory,” said Harry. He didn’t want to remember his mother’s fear, and he didn’t want Professor Snape to see it when he had considered her family, but he couldn’t keep passing out every time the dementors targeted him, and he wasn’t as comfortable asking Professor Lupin for tutoring now that he knew the man was a werewolf.

“Yes. Prepare yourself.” Professor Snape didn’t even give Harry time to prepare himself before he pointed his wand and said, “Legilimens!” At first it was like summer tutoring–Harry felt Professor Snape flowing through his firestorm, searching for a vulnerability so Harry could learn to reinforce his protections. But when the professor found that opening, he didn’t wait for Harry to defend his mind. He dove in.

Harry gasped as painful memories rushed past–his uncle slamming him into a wall, Dudley punching him, a teacher sneering at him when Harry asked for help, his aunt swinging the frying pan. Harry was dragged through the memories, farther and farther back in time until his mother’s voice was a whisper in the distance.

Harry flinched from it, but Professor Snape was too powerful of a Legilimens for Harry to resist. “Harry be safe. Be strong,” whispered his mother. Thunder crashed outside and magic flowed through the room, but Harry refused to open his eyes. Still, the scene refused to stop. Something crashed, and then his mother’s voice turned more desperate. Panicked. “Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!”

“Stand aside, you silly girl… stand aside, now…”

“Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead–”

Harry opened his eyes, and for the first time, he saw the scene. Yellow curtains billowed, the glass from the window scattered across the floor. A mobile with tiny owls whirled above his crib. Harry forced himself to turn around and his mother was there. Her hand was up as though she could stop Voldemort by pushing him away.

Voldemort wasn’t human. His eyes were red and slitted. His nose gone. His skin gray. And Harry could feel the jagged, broken magic flowing through him. It was powerful the way rapids were–dangerous, brutal, sharp. He held his pale wand almost delicately, and then he did something Harry didn’t expect. He physically pushed Lily to one side.

She fought him, shoving his arm away to stand in front of Harry again. “Not Harry! Please… have mercy… have mercy…”

Voldemort laughed, and Harry felt his delight at the Dark magic Lily cast, the pure emotion and power flowing from her. Then he raised his wand and cast the killing curse. Her body dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and then the scene froze.


He stared at his mother’s body. Voldemort didn’t even look angry. It hadn’t been a fight. He had simply seen something in his way and removed it with no more thought than one would give a fly.


Harry tore his gaze away and saw a spectral Professor Snape standing in the ruined nursery with him. “It is a memory. It cannot hurt you. But you must accept it and build defenses so this can no longer cripple you.”

“Accept?” Harry looked around the room. The baby version of him stood in his crib, gripping the bars and staring down at his mother. He was so little. Harry had been so little. It didn’t matter what a prophecy said, how could anyone consider him dangerous?

Snape was looking down at Lily, grief in his eyes. “She was powerful and beautiful and kind. I’m sorry you do not remember that.” He cleared his throat. “But you must learn to defend yourself, and that means you cannot leave this memory like a weapon poised to strike your deepest self. What do you see?”

“She died for me,” Harry whispered. He supposed his father had as well, but Harry had no memory of it. This, the desperate begging, physically putting herself in Voldemort’s way… Harry gave a small sob.

Snape moved to his side and put a hand on his shoulder.

“She could have saved herself.”

“Yes. I didn’t know the Dark Lord had given her that opportunity.”

“Why did he?”

They were in Harry’s mind, and here Harry could feel the pain and guilt flowing from Professor Snape like a fog. He finally answered, “Because I begged him. On my knees I begged him to spare my friend. I had not thought he had enough sanity remaining to even try.” Snape walked to where Voldemort was trapped in Harry’s memory, a monster caught in time.

“He did something with Dark magic that broke him,” said Harry. It was the only thing that made sense. He felt magic the way Bellatrix did. She was more lost to the power, but Harry suspected that Azkaban had caused that.

Snape sneered at the Dark Lord. “He did. Some magics should not be touched, and they should definitely not be touched by idiotic teenagers who do not understand them. The headmaster is right about one thing: the Dark Lord was always too arrogant.

“If she had stepped aside, she would have lived,” Harry knelt down next to his mother, brushing her red hair away from her face. She looked so peaceful.

“And I was the fool to believe she would,” said Snape. “I admit that I hoped your father would die, and I grieved that she had to lose her son, but I believed she would step aside if only the Dark Lord offered to let her live. There was a Ravenclaw boy… not a follower of the Dark Lord, but one who was fascinated by the Dark. I had dreams she would marry him and live a long, full life. I was a fool. She never would have forgiven herself for abandoning her baby. Abandoning you.”

“How do I not lose myself to the pain when I remember this?” asked Harry.

“You accept that it happened, the good and the bad.”

“What good is in her death?” Harry demanded. Anger swelled in his chest until he couldn’t breathe.

Snape knelt next to her. “She saved you. She accomplished what she wanted. Feel the magic, Harry. Feel what she was doing.”

Harry blinked back the tears and looked about the room. A sunny yellow cabinet stood in one corner and a rocking chair made to look like a hippogryph stood in another, and wild magic flowed around everything.

“I always wondered why she didn’t have her wand in hand,” whispered Snape. “She could duel as well as any man despite the fact that even Gryffindors had their prejudices against women fighting. But she hadn’t lifted a wand against the Dark Lord.”

“She had flung her magic out,” Harry said.

“She did.”

“This isn’t a blood ward.” Harry didn’t know what it was, but he had studied blood wards, and this wasn’t the carefully directed magic of any ward he knew.

“No,” whispered Snape. “She was always remarkable. Even as many years as I have studied magic, I have no idea what this is. Allow yourself to feel the wonder at what she accomplished. Be proud of her for outsmarting the Dark Lord in the end. Don’t lose yourself to one emotion–allow yourself to feel all of them. That is how you defend a memory.”

“How do I admire the magic that cost my mother her life?”

“You accept that she was an adult who had the right to choose this for herself. We all have choice, Harry, and what we choose to do defines us.” He sighed. “I made choices when I was not much older than you, and they still define me.”

Harry looked over. “You’re talking about joining the Death Eaters.”

“I am. But even before I was marked, I wanted what the Dark Lord promised. I wanted Dark magic to have a place in the world. I wanted to be able to tell everyone about the joy I felt when I cast wild and dangerous magics. I wanted to practice my religion openly at the side of the lake. I thought if I could find the right words, I could explain that to Lily and she would side with me.”

With a sigh, Professor Snape stood. “She never would have accepted the violence with which the Dark Lord pursued those aims, and she should not have. I should not have.” He rubbed a hand over his face, and his self-hatred stained the room.

“I feel like she did abandon me,” confessed Harry. Everyone talked about how great Lily had been for giving up her life, but in doing that, she had abandoned him to the Dursleys and the headmaster and his manipulations. He had suffered for a decade because she hadn’t found a way to survive with him, and he hated himself for feeling so angry about her choice.

“If she saw what happened after she left, she would have made sure to kill a great number of people before she made her sacrifice.”

“I thought you said she was against violence.”

“To protect you, and if she knew the evil other people would subject you to, she would have made an exception. You’re allowed to be angry at her for that, but realize she was a young woman with imperfect judgment. She didn’t know Sirius Black would betray them. She didn’t know the headmaster would manipulate you.”

Harry walked to the wall behind the rocker. There was a shelf with stuffed toys and a child-sized broom. Pictures of him filled the walls. He had been loved. So very loved. He closed his eyes and summoned his occlumency fire. The heat stained the memory, soaking into every crevice of the memory, and Harry felt his emotional storm start to calm.

Out of morbid curiosity, he loosed the memory to continue. Voldemort raised his wand and issued the killing curse. Green light lit the yellow nursery so the whole room took on a sick glow. The curse hit Harry and then rebounded onto Voldemort. A wave of magic blasted the room. Chunks of roof collapsed and rain pounded the floor. In his crib, little Harry screamed in terror, and Voldemort’s robes drifted to the ground almost gently.

Harry walked to the crib and studied the bleeding mark on the baby’s forehead. Wild magic tangled in the wound, like an insect burrowing in. “Something attached to me,” he said, repulsed by the alien tangle of magic he felt.

Professor Snape came to stand over the crib. “I had not known you would discover this. This is the headmaster’s greatest secret, and it could be your death.”

Cold fear ran up Harry’s spine. “Sir?”

Professor Snape ran a finger across the baby’s head, but Harry had frozen the memory again, so he didn’t move. “This is the reason for everything the headmaster does.”

“What is it?”

Snape looked a million years old. “I would not tell you, only you need to accept all parts of this memory if you hope to defend yourself. The magic is called a horcrux. It allows a person to split his soul, leaving part of his soul behind in an object. That horcrux is then an anchor to this world that will prevent a person from continuing their journey into the afterlife.”

Harry stumbled back and ended up falling to the floor. Rather than try to stand, he pulled his legs in and stayed there. “I’m the reason the Dark Lord could return? I mean, all Slytherin knows he could come back, but that’s because of me?”

Professor Snape knelt down in front of Harry. “No, not because of you. He had already split his soul many times. That’s why another fragment could break free when the killing curse rebounded. However, he has many horcruxes.”

“That’s why he was insane,” whispered Harry.

“I suspect so. The magic is Egyptian, but Herpo the Foul brought the spell to the Western world. For some reason, he did not include that the Egyptians would create horcruxes only to absorb the largest soul fragments back into themselves to prevent madness.”

Harry gave a strangled laugh. “So the world suffered a madman’s terroristic reign because Herpo was a piss-poor researcher?” He couldn’t contain the near-hysterical amusement. How many times had Professors McGonagall or Flitwick or even Professor Snape berated the class for poor research? Could the entire world have escaped the violence if Herpo the Foul had teachers who had graded him more harshly?

Professor Snape rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. “Calm yourself.”

Harry rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s ridiculous.”

“It is,” he agreed. “When Voldemort attacked you, he held only three percent of his soul. When he possessed Quirrell, he had one and a half percent.”

“Because the other percent and a half is in me,” said Harry. He didn’t know how to feel about that. No wonder the headmaster considered Harry’s needs irrelevant. If he wanted to make sure the Dark Lord died, he had to kill Harry.

Horror swept through him. “The headmaster wants me dead.”

“Not until after you kill the Dark Lord, and I have Vowed on my magic that I will defend you against both sides, and I will. With my life.”

Harry shot to his feet. “No. No, I do not want another person to die for me. Never again. Never!” he shoved Professor Snape, and when the man took a step back, Harry shoved him again and again until Snape was backed up against the memory of the crib, and then Harry closed his hands into fists and pounded them against Professor Snape’s chest over and over until he couldn’t anymore, until he was held so tightly in Snape’s arms that he couldn’t fight, and then the tears broke free. He sobbed, and the memory slipped forward again.

Harry heard footsteps, but he rested his head against Professor Snape’s chest and ignored them. He lost himself to grief and fear until he heard an anguished voice cry, “Lily!”

Harry turned in time to see a much younger Snape throw himself to the ground next to Lily Potter. His face twisted in agony and he scooped her into his arms, rocking her body. Baby Harry fell into shocked silence, and young Snape sobbed in unvarnished grief.

“Crying when we lose something so precious is normal,” Professor Snape said as he watched himself. “I had thought you constructed this memory from others’ tales of what happened this night, but no one else knows I did come. When I heard the Dark Lord had learned of the Potters’ location, I flew to his side, determined to drag Lily to safety. I didn’t care if she hated me for the rest of her life, I was going to save her.”

Harry wrapped his arms around Professor Snape’s waist. “If I could go back in time, I would tell you to save her,” Harry whispered.

“No,” Snape said. “I would be wrong if I did. She made her choice, and I have no right to dishonor it. However, I would change what I am about to do next.”

Footsteps sounded outside the door. Young Snape looked toward the door, gave Harry only one glance before he fled out the window, sliding down the roof and vanishing from sight.

“It could have been anyone coming. I should have defended you.” Snape sighed. “I should have taken you. Lily will have more than one thing to say to me about that.”

A dark haired man with stormy eyes rushed into the room and looked around wildly. The wild magic of the room was soaking into him, and he wasn’t occluding. “Oh God, no. Lily.” He stared at her in horror, and then baby Harry cried. The man rushed to the crib and picked him up, crooning and bouncing him. He grabbed a blanket that had been draped over the end of the crib and wrapped Harry up carefully.

“Is that…”

“Sirius Black,” said Professor Snape. He sounded confused.

Black bounced baby Harry as he headed out of the ruined nursery, his boots squelching on the rain-soaked rug. Harry and Professor Snape followed. He was on the front porch of the small cottage when Hagrid apparated in. “Sirius? What’s happened?” he pulled his umbrella out. How could anyone miss that he had his wand in that thing?

“He was here. James is dead.” A sob slipped free. “Lily’s upstairs. Dead.”

Hagrid radiated fury in a way Harry had never seen in real life. He was always gentle, but right now, Harry believed the man would kill if he had an enemy in front of him. “Right then, give ‘em teh me. Dumbledore’s tol’ me teh bring him back to Hogwarts.”

Black held Harry tighter. “What? No. You have to go after Wormtail. His house… it’s abandoned. He did something.” He shook his head as if to clear it.

“Indeed he did,” whispered Professor Snape.

But Hagrid was moving forward, holding his arms out. “Dumbledore arranged to have Lily’s sister take ‘em in. He’ll be safe there.”

Harry frowned. “My parents literally just died. When did he have time to arrange that?”

“An excellent question.” Professor Snape sounded distracted as he studied the two men as they acted out Harry’s memory.

“Dumbledore gave clear orders,” Hagrid said as he took another step forward.

Black shook his head again. “Fine. Take my motorcycle. It’s not safe to apparate with children this young. Tell Dumbledore I’ll come find him as soon as I figure out what happened with Peter.”

Hagrid gathered Harry up and headed for the motorcycle and Harry froze the memory. “The magic from upstairs. It’s sticking to him.”

“Explain,” said Professor Snape sharply.

“Upstairs. He wasn’t occluding. The magic was staining him. It’s still stuck on him.” Harry didn’t know another way to explain what he was seeing, and clearly Professor Snape couldn’t see it at all–maybe because this wasn’t his memory.

“Ritual drunk.” Professor Snape rubbed his hand over his face. “If one doesn’t occlude during high holiday rituals, the Dark magic can temporarily overwhelm your own aura. It is called being ritual drunk, and it results in people acting very much like they are drunk and having access to much more magic than normal.”

“So he might not have meant to blow up the street,” Harry said softly.

“There’s something else you need to see,” said Professor Snape, “something that you missed while you were grieving. Do you need help resetting the memory?”

Harry closed his eyes and thought about his mother’s voice.

“Harry be safe. Be strong,” she whispered, and magic flowed on her words, reading her intent and escaping into the world. Harry watched his mother’s death again, his pain still a deep ache in his soul but no longer crippling him. Every word she said was a casting, a subtle magic that she wove like a net. She was defending Harry, and the Dark Lord didn’t even recognize it. She had been amazing.

The failed killing curse struck, and Harry focused more on Voldemort, on the dark mist that splintered into two. Half sailed up through the broken roof and escaped into the night. The other seeped into Harry. Seeing Professor Snape so devastated made Harry ache for him. Maybe he had made every wrong choice, but he had loved Harry’s mum. Then came the moment that he slipped out of the window, fleeing into the night.

Harry heard the same steps he’d heard before, but this time he watched a stooped man with frizzy blond hair creep into the room. He gasped as he looked at the scene of destruction and then darted forward and grabbed the Dark Lord’s wand from the floor.

Harry stopped the memory. “Is that Peter Pettigrew?”

“It is.”

Harry knew him not only from the news reports of his death at Sirius Black’s hands, but also from the research he, Blaise and Theo had done in the student records. Sirius and James Potter had been best friends, but Peter Pettigrew and Remus Lupin were in almost all the pictures published in the student books. In fact, seeing the back of Pettigrew’s head with his distinctive hair, Harry could recognize him from a number of pictures in the scrapbook Hagrid had put together. So the four of them had been childhood friends the way Harry had his close group of friends.

He let the threads of the memory slip through his fingers, and the stalled time continued. Pettigrew slipped out the same window Snape had used to escape before Sirius Black appeared.

“How did Pettigrew get here so fast and why did he take the wand?” asked Harry.

“There is one logical reason.”

Harry waited for Professor Snape to tell him, but Snape just lifted an eyebrow and waited for Harry. Clearly someone had told Pettigrew about the attack. Only Snape had managed to get to the scene faster, and he’d been told about the attack by the Death Eaters who knew before it happened.

Harry gasped. “He knew. He knew the attack was coming. And the wand… it’s never been found. He hid it so the Dark Lord can have it back when he returns. He’s the traitor.” Everything made sense now. That’s why Sirius Black had looked so devastated.

Professor Snape nodded. “Now you are engaging your full mind. You are seeing the scene as it exists, not allowing one emotion to overwhelm all else. Occulude and allow your defenses to fill this space.”

“But… what does that mean about Sirius Black, and what about the headmaster wanting me dead because of the horcrux? And what about Professor Lupin? Why is he at Hogwarts?”

“You know to ask the questions, so you are now in a position to begin to defend yourself, but you must hide this memory Harry. If others know what you have seen here, you will not grow strong enough to mount any defense at all. Calm yourself. Put your thoughts aside and let the memory sink under the surface until you summon it again.”

Harry had never thought of occluding as sinking or hiding thoughts. He didn’t clear his mind. He summoned fire. Fire fascinated him–the energy, the warmth, the play of colors. So Harry summoned his mind-fire and imagined the scene obscured by the dance of the flames and the play between the light of the fire and the darkness of the smoke. It had happened, and Harry hated that so many people had contributed to his parents’ deaths, but that was the past. It couldn’t touch him. He couldn’t change it. So he tucked it away.

Harry knew he would have to come back to this memory over and over. He had to do that with his strongest memories. He had to live through them often enough that he could calm his emotions well enough that they didn’t smother the fire. But eventually he took a deep breath and let himself loosen his hold on the memory.

Professor Snape smiled at him. “Excellent, Harry.”

Then they were back in the office, and Harry was cold with sweat and leaning drunkenly to one side. He sat up and wiped his face with his sleeve.

“Will the dementors have less of an effect on me now?”

Professor Snape pursed his lips. “I hope so. You must tend that memory often. Allow yourself to experience every emotion you have attached to it and then occlude. It will minimize how debilitating the memory will be, but that will not prevent the dementors from targeting you.”

“I hate dementors,” Harry complained.

“No doubt they feel exactly the same about you. From their reactions, we can safely assume you have inherited your ancestors’ gift of necromancy.”

Harry blinked. “What? Seriously? How many Black gifts am I supposed to inherit?”

“You misunderstand. While the Blacks would like to have necromancers in their line, they never have. However, in my research, I found that one family published extensively on necromancy. They even called themselves friends of death. Books they published are still available in parts of northern Africa and Japan, although the texts have been stripped out of libraries elsewhere. I understand you must undergo a ritual before the libraries that still have the texts will even allow you to open one. I had to ask many practitioners of Dark arts and I had to reveal that I had a young Slytherin who suspected he possessed the talent before anyone would reveal the name of the authors.”

“Who? The Potters?” Harry couldn’t believe they would have necromancy in the line. They were historically Gray, but Light families talked about the Potters like they were uniquely aligned with Light.

“The Peverells,” Professor Snape said. “They were world-renowned necromancers, and you are descended from Ignotus, the most prolific writer of the three brothers. His granddaughter Iolanthe married Hardwin Potter. Since girls were often dismissed as being incapable of carrying magical family gifts, no one recorded the Potters as necromancers.”

“Wizarding sexism for the win,” Harry muttered.

“The Slytherin family and the Gaunts were descended from Cadmus Peverell.”

“So I’m related to the Peverells through my Potter side as well as my Black side?”

“You are.”

“The dementors are never going to leave me alone.”

“I fear they will not.” Professor Snape frowned, and Harry waited for him to say something else, but then he looked at the pile of scrolls waiting for him to grade and said briskly, “Dismissed, Mr. Potter-Black.”

Of all Harry’s teachers, only Professor Snape used his full last name, and he only used it in private.

“Thank you, sir, for helping me with the memory. I’m sure it was painful for you.”

“Being a successful occlumens requires one to face the pain we all carry.”

Harry chose to avoid mentioning the times Professor Snape had canceled summer tutoring sessions because he couldn’t control his emotions. He just left the professor’s office. Blaise would want a blow by blow description of everything that had happened, but Harry wouldn’t share even with his closest friends until he understood what was going on not only with Sirius Black but Professor Lupin and Peter Pettigrew.

He wouldn’t feel safe enough to share. One stray thought and the headmaster would know that Harry had discovered his plot. Harry couldn’t believe an adult genuinely wanted him dead. Even Voldemort hadn’t cared about him specifically. He’d heard a prophecy and acted. But the headmaster knew Harry, knew him as a person, and still planned for Harry to die.

The cold calculation of that made a shiver go through Harry.

Chapter 24

When the Gryffindors got to Defense, there was an explosion of complaints the moment they saw Professor Lupin had returned. The red and gold side of the room had not enjoyed Professor Snape’s teaching skills, which probably meant they hadn’t done the homework and didn’t know Lupin was a werewolf.

“It’s not fair,” Thomas complained loudly, “he was only filling in, why does he have a right to give us homework? He’s not even our teacher!”

“We haven’t learned about werewolves–”

“--two rolls of parchment!” Brown practically wailed.

“Did you tell Professor Snape we haven’t covered them yet?” Lupin asked, frowning slightly. Harry gave him credit because he didn’t look upset or stressed at all, even though any student who had done the assignment had to know the truth. Some of Harry's friends had wanted to protest having a werewolf as a professor, but Harry had pointed out that Lupin was the only professor who had actually taught them. If his friends got Lupin exiled from Hogwarts, Harry was going to be exceptionally upset. That had settled them.

The Gryffindor side of the room broke out into babble again.

“He said we were really behind–”

“--he wouldn’t listen–”

“--two rolls of parchment!”

Professor Lupin chuckled at their indignation, and Draco rolled his eyes so hard Harry was surprised they didn’t fall right out.

“Don’t worry. I’ll speak to Professor Snape. You don’t have to do the essay.”

“Oh no,” said Hermione, looking very disappointed. “I’ve already finished it!”

Theo and Blaise exchanged a long look. Yep, they assumed Hermione knew the secret, and Harry did too. However, Lupin pulled out a glass box with a one-legged creature that looked as though he were made of wisps of smoke, rather frail and harmless-looking. “This is a hinkypunk,” he said, and the homework and the unfairness of Professor Snape was forgotten as students leaned forward.

“It lures travelers into bogs,” said Professor Lupin as everyone scrambled to take notes. Kellah was a great artist and she started sketching the hinkypunk, her quill scratching quickly over her parchment.

“You notice the lantern dangling from his hand? Hops ahead–people follow the light–then–” The hinkypunk made a horrible squelching noise against the glass.

When the bell rang, everyone gathered their things and headed for the door.

“Wait a moment, Harry,” Lupin called. “I’d like a word.” He looked startled when nearly a dozen students put their books back down and seemed ready to stay with him, including Ron. His Slytherin friends looked less than pleased by that addition, but they had to admit that Ron had a good point about the Weasleys being more effective at running interference with the headmaster.

Professor Lupin covered the hinkypunk’s box with a cloth. “I heard about the dementor attack,” said Lupin, “and I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s okay, sir.”

Lupin piled books into his briefcase. “It is absolutely not okay. I don’t think any of us had seen Professor Dumbledore that angry. They have been growing restless for some time… furious at his refusal to let them inside the grounds…” He sighed. “I hope you know that losing consciousness has nothing to do with weakness. The dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don’t have.”

Theo had gone dangerously still. He was, no doubt, thinking about how Harry’s family history of necromancy didn’t help. A ray of wintery sunlight fell across the classroom, illuminating Lupin’s gray hairs and the lines on his face. They'd found his name in the graduating class of 1978 alongside Harry’s parents and Professor Snape, but he looked much older.

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair. They drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. And the worst that happened to you, Harry, is enough to make anyone lose consciousness.”

Harry didn’t answer, but he was determined that he wasn’t going to react that way again. Professor Snape had shown him how to defend his memories, how to experience them and drain the emotions away so they could be calmed, and he was going to practice until they didn’t have the power to disable him ever again.

“They’re getting hungry,” said Lupin cooly when Harry didn’t respond. “Dumbledore won’t let them into the school, so their supply of human prey has dried up… I don’t think they could resist the large crowd around the quidditch field. All that excitement… emotions running high… it was their idea of a feast.”

And yet the dementors had rushed past easy prey. They hadn’t stolen the souls of a single child, despite dozens if not hundreds being closer at hand than Harry. Lupin didn’t seem to notice that.

“Azkaban must be terrible,” Harry muttered, more to change the subject than anything.

Lupin nodded grimly. “The fortress is set on a tiny island, way out to see, but they don't need walls and water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’re all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought. Most of them go mad within weeks.”

“But Sirius Black escaped from them,” Harry said slowly, watching to see how Lupin would react to his former friend’s name.

Lupin’s briefcase slipped from the desk; he had to stoop quickly to catch it with inhuman speed. “Yes,” he said, straightening up, “Black must have found a way to fight them. I wouldn’t have believed it possible.”

“You cast a patronus on the train,” Millicent said.

“Yes,” Lupin said, “but there was only one dementor on the train. The more there are, the more difficult it becomes to resist.”

“We still want to learn the spell,” Theo said.

Lupin stiffened. If he was a Gryffindor, he probably had all sorts of ideas about how dangerous it would be to put a powerful spell in the hands of a Slytherin. Harry glanced over toward Ron.

“Yeah, that spell is brill,” Ron said brightly. “My brothers are dead set on being able to do one for their OWLS this year, and after seeing what the patronuses did to the dementors at the quidditch match, I definitely want to try summoning one, even if it takes me the next two years to get it down.”

Lupin blinked, caught off guard by Ron’s enthusiasm. Hopefully he wouldn't recognize it as a strategy that Ron was intentionally choosing. Very few people expected strategy out of Gryffindors. “I don’t pretend to be an expert at fighting dementors. Quite the opposite.”

“But if the dementors come to the next quidditch match, I need to be able to fight them,” said Harry.

Lupin looked around the room. Three Gryffindors and six Slytherins. Harry wondered what he thought when he saw how they sat together and now wanted tutoring together. During Lupin’s time, the two houses had been mortal enemies. Harry didn’t want to come back with only his Gryffindor friends, but if necessary, he would bring Ron, Hermione and Neville to patronus lessons with Lupin and take Millicent, Draco, Theo, Blaise, and Gregory to Professor Snape. Harry just didn’t want to when Snape had already said how much more difficult it would be for him to teach the spell.

Lupin hesitated before saying, “I’ll try to help, but it will have to wait until next term. I have a lot to do before the holidays. I chose a very inconvenient time to fall ill.”

Not one of the Slytherins even twitched at the suggestion that Lupin had chosen to fall ill as opposed to suffering a transformation and the physical exhaustion that would follow each full moon.


With the promise of anti-dementor lessons from Lupin, Harry moved on to worrying about other subjects. His Yule presents came, all of them much more elaborately carved and crafted than Harry had expected. He had to wait until his Weasley honor guard–which had now expanded to include Ginny Weasley–was busy before he could sneak back to the Chamber for Professor Snape’s gift.

All his Slytherin friends wanted to go into the Chamber–Harry could see it in their avaricious stares, but none asked. And he didn’t offer. He didn’t want the queen accidentally hurting someone because they didn’t speak parseltongue.

At the end of November, Ravenclaw predictably flattened Hufflepuff, putting Hufflepuff and Gryffindor at the bottom of the rankings. Flint started focusing on Ravenclaw, demanding longer and longer practices even as the chilly haze of rain persisted into December. Theo had found a book on patronuses and would sit in the stands and study the theory during Slytherin’s time on the quidditch pitch, but Harry didn’t see any more dementors. The headmaster’s anger seemed to be keeping them at their stations at the entrances.

Still a teacher was always on hand.

Two weeks before the end of the term, the sky lightened into a dazzling, opaline white and the muddy grounds glittered with frost. There was a buzz of holiday excitement as another Hogsmeade trip was scheduled for the very last weekend of the term.

“We can do all our Christmas shopping there!” said Hermione.

“Yule,” Draco corrected her.

She rolled her eyes. “It’s the same thing.”

Draco looked up from his book and studied her like she was a bug that had crawled onto his shoes. “Do you wish Muslims a Happy Hanukkah? Do you see Buddhists and say Merry…” He frowned. “What do Muslims celebrate?”

“Eid al-Fitr,” said Ron since he was the only one in the group to take Muggle Studies.

“Merry Eid al-Fitr,” Draco finished, pronouncing the words carefully, the way one might when learning an unfamiliar spell that might blow up if you say it wrong. “Have some respect for other people’s religions, Granger. I am getting Yule presents.”

“I thought Yule was an old-fashioned word for Christmas.”

“I’ll get you a book,” Draco said.

“Right. Sorry. But I am doing Christmas shopping. Mum and Dad would really love those Toothflossing Stringmints from Honeydukes. What are you going to get your parents for Yule?” she asked Draco.

Maybe he recognized that as her peace offering. He put his book aside. “I’m not sure. Father has taken to educational reform with a passion I hadn’t expected. I could get him some books or maybe a teacher-type gift like an expandable briefcase. Harry, what are you getting them?”

“I’m getting your father a wallet I had custom made, and your mother a mirror.”

“I could coordinate with those gifts. A wallet usually matches with custom boots. What type and color of leather did you order?”

“Um.. green leather. Something similar to snake-skin,” said Harry.

Draco rolled his eyes. “Green snakeskin for a Slytherin. Congratulations on being utterly predictable. That won’t do. I’ll just have to shop the nicer stores and see what they have available. I certainly can’t buy my father Toothflossing Stringmints for Yule,” he said with a sneer.

“Yeah, I’m sure your father expects something expensive. It wouldn’t be enough to have it come from his son,” Ron shot back in defense of Hermione.

Draco narrowed his eyes. “I’m sure your father has learned that he can expect nothing more than his son’s good intentions since none of the Weasleys–”

Hermione punched Draco on the arm. Draco almost fell off the library chair.

“So!” said Harry loudly, “I hear your father is going to add a new class next year. I’m thinking of taking it.”

“What? What class?” Hermione sat up, immediately distracted from the fact Draco and Ron had both been flaunting the rules of their truce.

“Father has been talking to an Apprentice from Beauxbatons who has been assisting in Magical Artifact Crafting. He’s negotiating a text and trying to work around the headmaster who doesn’t want the curriculum taught in full, as if Beauxbatons would teach dangerous magic.” Draco scoffed. “They aren’t Durstrom.”

“Hogwarts teaches loads of dangerous magic,” Ron said. “I heard sixth years used to brew love potions, and the old Dueling class was ended because so many students ended up in the hospital wing.”

“Dueling ended when people complained the school was training soldiers for the Wizarding war,” Draco disagreed, “But only an idiot would teach students how to brew love potions. Do you know how important family alliances and line continuation and marriage contracts are?”

Hermione narrowed her eyes, and Draco must have realized he was on thin ice and outnumbered by Gryffindors, one of whom was good at dueling. He got back on topic. “Matilda Adroy wants to teach rudimentary wand making, rune charms, ritual circles, metalworking, carving, artwork and charming the artwork after it's done.”

Harry winced. “The ritual circles are a problem, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Draco said flatly. “The headmaster insists that rituals are a gateway to Dark magic. I hear Adroy is considering requiring occlumency to minimize the risk, but that’s going to make it even worse because you know only Slytherins and Ravenclaws ever study that.”

“What’s occlumency?” asked Hermione.

Harry put it into muggle terms. “It’s like guided meditation. You learn to control your emotions and organize your thoughts so that if a ritual pushes too much magic toward you, you don’t accidentally channel that into your emotions.”

“Ritual drunk,” Ron said. “That’s what they call it when you’re in a ritual and you can’t control the magic that flows through you. You act drunk.”

Draco and Harry both stared at Ron in shock.

He shrugged. “I wrote Charlie and asked why Mum stopped teaching us rituals. Percy was pants at occlumency and got ritual drunk and tried to set the house on fire.”

Harry winced.

“Yeah, Mum didn’t want to take the risk after that. But Charlie said that if I’m interested in ritual, I have to study this book he sent me on occlumency first.”

“Are you going to?” Draco asked carefully as if he was trying to figure out how this new and unexpected information fit into his preconceived notions about who Ron was.

Ron shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not like I’m good at studying out of a book.”

“I think you’d do well,” Harry said. “It’s like learning to defend your mind. You put your most vulnerable thoughts farther back and figure out how to set up layers of defense around them. I use the image of fire and I visualize walls of it.

Ron looked more interested now. “I do like strategy.”

“Maybe we could study together,” Hermione said. “I feel like I have loads of extra time. I’m so sorry I dropped Muggle Studies.”

“It’s a good class,” Ron agreed.

“The problem with adding a new class,” said Draco, “is that all the students who are interested would have to take the beginning lessons. So third through seventh year would all be taking introductory classes.

“Realistically, students aren’t going to add a new subject during the NEWT year, and most fifth years are focused on their OWLS, and one year of instruction wouldn’t qualify them to test, so father thinks third and fourth years might have to take classes together, and then any upperclassmen who are interested would all take class together. Adroy might be able to push them faster because they’ll have more experience casting spells.”

“So we have six months to learn occlumency well enough to qualify for the class,” Hermione said eagerly. She looked over at Ron and bounced.

“Oh no.” He held his hands up. “I’ll study occlumency, at least for a while, but I don’t need to take on a new class. I don’t even take runes, and part of the class is crafting rune charms.”

“You already said you’re thinking of studying runes over summer. This would be great.”

“Nope. I am not a swot, and I’m not going to start pretending to be one,” Ron said firmly.

Hermione huffed, but Harry had the feeling she was far from ready to give up this fight. It had to be hard on her, having so few friends in her own house. Neville was the only one who spent significant time with her, and he often sat with his friends from Hufflepuff. In fact, he spent so much time with them that some of the Slytherins had started making bets on whether he would ask to court Susan Bones or Hannah Abbott. A couple of Slytherins suggested it wasn’t unheard of for a pureblood to court two women.

Harry was afraid to spend time with any new girls for fear that the rumors would pair him up with them. At least people were used to him spending time with Hermione and Millicent, so no one made any assumptions. And if they did, both girls were capable of making their thoughts on marriage clear.

Chapter 25

Chapter Summary

I feel like last chapter was a bit of a placeholder, and I've wanted to share this chapter *forever,* so I'm just putting up both.

Harry was settling the last of his presents–both Yule and Christmas–when he noticed that Millicent was particularly quiet. All Harry’s friends had been odd this year. The threat from the dementors and Sirius Black had left all of them raw, so Harry hadn’t noticed at first. He studied her as she sat next to him on the common room sofa. Finals were over, but she still stared at her Transfiguration book with an intensity that rivaled Hermione or Theo.

Harry poked Millicent with a toe. “Hey, are you alright?” he asked softly.

She glanced over at Pansy, Daphne, and Tracy before she nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Harry watched her for a second; she wasn’t fine. Harry wished Blaise were here to poke around because Harry always felt like he was too aggressive when he pushed for answers, but Millicent looked miserable. “Did you know that snakes consider lying a sign that you’re an enemy? A snake only lies to prey.”

Millicent looked at him, eyes wide. “It’s nothing important.”

Harry put his feet on the floor and scooted closer to her. “We’re friends, right?”

Millicent nodded frantically.

“Then I want to help. Are the girls being awful?”

She looked in their direction again before sighing. “Not really awful. Just…” she sighed. “Awful. Now that we’re teens, they’re obsessed with finding the right husband. Daphne and Pansy are both determined to get your attention, and they get frustrated that we’re friends and they keep telling me that you’ll never pick me to marry because I’m a half-blood.”

“I’m a half-blood,” Harry said.

“Yes, but you could get a full-blood wife.”

“They’re all plonkers. I’m not looking for a wife.” Harry thought about the whole argument about whether he should be Potter-Black or Black-Potter. “I think the Wizarding world is too obsessed with marriage and family lines.”

“Amen,” Millicent said softly.

“So, that’s it? The girls being awful?”

Millicent shrugged.

“What else?”

She finally put her book down. In fact, she slammed it shut. “I don’t know. I just don’t feel… right.” Millicent looked ready to shake out of her own skin.

“Have you talked to Madam Pomfrey?”

“Yes, and she says I’m fine, but my magic feels odd. Off. Weird.” She shivered.

Whatever was wrong, it was really bothering her. But if she didn’t know what was wrong with her magic, Harry couldn’t help. But he did know someone who knew a lot about magic. Harry blew on his little snake. “Ibnistaran, are you awake?

His ring started to wriggle. “I am, Speaker. Do you want me to summon the book so we can learn now?”

Theo would gut him if he reclaimed the book before he was finished. Theo refused to take it outside their dorm room, and the magic was beyond complex, so it was taking him longer than usual to master the spells. “Maybe later. I have a friend who has a magical problem, and since you’re so…” Harry swallowed the word ‘old,’ not sure how snakes would interpret it. “Knowledgeable,” he substituted at the last second, “I was wondering if there was a way to tell if someone’s magic was off or not working correctly.”

“Let me smell her.”

Harry rested his hand on Millicent’s wrist, and Ibnistaran flicked his tongue out. The three girls from Millicent’s dorm were glaring at them. He wouldn’t want to room with them, either.

“Your friend is not using magic efficiently, but the magic is healthy,” Ibnistaran said.

Harry frowned. “What do you mean not efficiently?”

The snake flicked his tongue out again. “Your friend is halfway between female and male magic.”

“What’s the difference?”

Harry didn’t know why, but he got the feeling Ibnistaran was judging him. He was a very judgmental snake for one small enough to hide as a ring. “Male energy is explosive, fast, quick to flow and quick to ebb. Female magic swells. Grows. Expresses power over time. Your friend is both and neither. Crossing the boundary between, not as one might intentionally but as prey that stumbles from place to place in search of a spot where the hunter is not.

“Do all girls have slower magic?” Hermione or Millicent learned faster and were faster on the wand than anyone he knew.

“Girl and she and female are not equivalent in humans. Females can be girl/she or boy/he, although most females are girls. Males can be girl/she or boy/he although most males are boy. Humans can change from one day to the next or sit on the border and refuse to embrace either. Magic serves herself. She does not align with human fallacies of thought.” Ibnistaran put his head down and the magic flowed out of him so fast that it made Harry a little light-headed.

“What is it?” Millicent asked.

Harry wasn’t sure how to avoid offending Millicent. Some of the Slytherin boys were horrible and told her she was too manish to ever get a husband, and Harry didn’t want to add to that. “My magical snake ring says that you’re unsettled in how you use your magic, but your magic is fine.”

“Unsettled?” Millicent almost pounced on him. She was insanely proud of her wandwork, so he should have expected as much. “What am I doing wrong, and how do I fix it?”

“You aren’t doing anything wrong.”

“Obviously I am because every week, I feel more and more unsettled. I used to love dueling with Hermione and now it’s like I’m slogging through mud. I’m your bodyguard, and I don’t feel like I can guard you. I need to know what’s wrong with my magic. Now.” She grabbed Harry’s wrist and squeezed it so hard that he winced.

“My snake said that magic can either be explosively powerful and then lose effectiveness quickly or it can build up to full power slowly and have more staying power. You’re wobbling back and forth between the two.”

“How do I stop it? How do I stay on the explosively powerful side of magic?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the building-up magic. If you’re casting a shield, I would think you would want to build up and stay strong for a longer period of time.” Harry frowned. Could a person switch from male to female magics based on which spell they wanted to cast? That would be powerful. Magic and ritual joined on the high holy days, so male and female could connect. There had to be a way.

Millicent poked him in the side. Hard. “I would rather cast offensive magic, so again, how do I stay on the side of explosive power?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then wake your snake up and ask him,” demanded Millicent.

“He doesn’t know either because it’s a human thing.”

“What?” Millicent pulled back. “What’s a human thing?”

Harry sighed. This was going to end so badly, but on the good side, Millicent would stop following him around because she was going to refuse to talk to him. “The snake said that male energy is explosive and most males are boys, but males can also be girls and that humans think about magic wrong. Then he refused to talk about it, calling it human stupidity.”

Millicent frowned. “Your snake thinks I’m a boy?”

“My snake thinks you have boy energy sometimes, and girl energy sometimes, and you’re spinning out of control a bit.” Harry winced, waiting for the explosion.

“But magically… I could be a boy?” A smile slowly formed. “I could be a boy.”

“Do you want to be a boy?” Harry asked.

Millicent snorted. “Of course I do. I always did. My parents were going to name me Emilius if I were a boy–it means ‘rival’ and is an old family name. But then I came out a girl. But Dark families respect magic first and foremost. Your snake is sure I’m a boy?”

“My snake says you’re sometimes a boy.”

“I can fix that. I want to be a boy, my magic is veering toward masculine, so I’m going to write my father and ask him to send me new uniforms–boy’s uniforms–and change my name at the bank.” She punched Harry in the arm and grinned. “This is great.”

Suddenly her smile vanished. “Oh bugger. I’m going to end up like Alicia Littleford, in a room by myself.” She shrugged. “Oh well, that’s still better than living with the girls.”

“Why would you have a room to yourself?” Harry asked. If Millicent was going to change her name to Emilius and live as a boy, he would be happy to have her in his dorm, and he knew Theo would too. Blaise was more of a toss up because he did like having space in the room.

“The headmaster refuses to recognize that as students develop magic, some discover they have been using the wrong gender. So he won’t let me dorm with boys.”

“That’s not right.”

Millicent… Emilius shrugged. Harry was going to struggle with that, but he mentally ordered himself to start thinking of her… him as Emilius. “Let’s talk to the snakes.” Harry went over to the fireplace.

“Excuse me, do you know who we could talk to about a boy who only recently discovered he has male magic, but he’s in the girls’ dorms right now?”

Instead of the big snake, one of the smaller ones slid forward. “Boys are not allowed in the girl dorms. If males and females conduct rituals unsupervised, that can have disastrous results. The boy cannot be unsupervised at night with girls.”

“We know,” Harry agreed. “But the headmaster thinks in muggle terms and believes girls can’t turn into boys and boys can’t turn into girls.”

“The headmaster’s beliefs are irrelevant. Male and female energy is not slaved to a human form. They can magically shed their sex.”

“I agree,” Harry said. “But I want to know who can make my dorm room bigger and put her bed… his bed in the room with me and my two dormmates. Can any of the snakes do that for us so we don’t have to ask the headmaster?”

“We can change the rooms,” a snake who had never spoken before said from near the top of the fireplace. “But the elves have to move the student’s belongings.”

“We can find someone to move them for her… him.” Harry winced. This was going to be hard. He had thought of Millicent as a girl for two years, and his brain kept slipping back into that groove.

“Done,” the snake said.

Harry blinked. “That quickly?”

He got the sensation of the snakes laughing at him, although there was no sound. “How long does a strike require?” a carved cobra asked.

“Hatchlings. They never understand these things until they must hunt on their own,” another snake offered.

“Stalk slowly. Strike quickly,” another said.

Rather than continue to listen to comments about how young he was, Harry caught Emilius’s hand and started dragging him toward the dormroom.

“Where are we going?”

“To our room,” Harry said, “and then we’ll have to get your stuff out of your old room. I can try to call the Black elves and see if they’ll move it for you.”

“What?” Emilius followed Harry up to the boys’ dorms, and sure enough, none of Professor Snape’s alarms went off. The door outside Harry’s room now read, “Harry Potter-Black, Theodore Nott, Blaise Zabini, Millicent Bulstrode.”

Harry winced. “The door has your name wrong. I’m sorry.”

“You have to register name changes at the bank or during a family ritual. I’m sure it will change after my father goes to the bank for me or when I have a chance to go home and ask for a naming ritual.”

He didn’t seem bothered, so Harry pushed the door open and then stood with his mouth hanging open. He’d asked the snakes for a larger room, but he hadn’t expected this. The first part of the room was about the same size, but only Theo’s and Blaise’s beds were in it, meaning there was more floor space. Then a wide arch opened into a smaller anteroom where a bed stood under a window with a desk and shelves opposite it. But neither had any student belongings. Light from the lake flickered across the bare space and illuminated a second arch that led to the last part of the room which must hold Harry’s missing possessions.

While all the rooms were open to each other, the back had much more privacy just because no one had to walk through that section to reach their own bed. “We can switch our beds so you have more privacy,” said Harry. Emilius was going to have to learn to live in a dorm with boys, so he would need that.

“Nope.” He walked over and threw himself down on the empty bed. “This is perfect. If Sirius Black comes for you, he’ll have to sneak past Theo and Blaise, who will probably raise the alarm, and that will give me time to counterattack. I can be a proper bodyguard from here.”

Harry opened his mouth, but no words came out. It had been fine for her to play at being a bodyguard before, but now that Sirius Black had proved that he could get into the castle, that wasn’t safe. But Emilius wouldn’t appreciate any suggestion that Harry wanted to keep him safe. “Wouldn’t it be smarter to put me in the middle? Blaise and Theo will raise the alarm and wake me, and Black will focus on me, leaving you to attack from the rear.” There, nice and strategically sound.

Emilius made a production out of considering it. “That would only work if the rest of us were willing to put you at risk. It’s better this way. So, can I see your part of the room?”

Because the back section was darker than the others, it was hard to see into, even if the archways were wide open. “Sure,” Harry said. He walked toward the back, and the light grew stronger. This part of the room was almost as large as the area Theo and Blaise shared, which felt unfair. It had windows on three sides, making the room feel like it was part of the lake. The windows even curved up and covered part of the ceiling. The center of the ceiling was covered by an underwater mural and a chandelier hung from the center. Harry’s bed was tucked to the right of the arch and his trunk with its wardrobe and desk compartments to the left, and opposite the arch was a sofa with two chairs that matched the ones in the common room and a scattering of floor pillows.

Apparently someone had taught the snakes interior decorating.

“The guys have much nicer rooms than the girls. I should have known.”

“We actually don’t,” Harry said. “Draco is going to have a fit that he doesn’t get to sleep over here.” Emilius gave him an odd look. “No, really,” said Harry. “This room is twice as large as it was a few minutes ago. Draco is going to throw an absolute fit.” Harry grimaced. “And then he’s going to complain to Professor Snape, who is going to demand that we explain ourselves.”

Emilius winced.

“Yeah,” Harry said. He would rather face Sirius Black than an upset Professor Snape. But there was nothing for it. The snakes wouldn’t understand if Harry asked them to make his nest less comfortable or secure. “Indigo!” he called. She had taken the role as the head elf. Kretcher had objected, but she had pointed out that he hadn’t taken care of the home and he had no pride in wielding his magic. Apparently that had settled the matter and she had informed Harry he would call on her first. Harry’s elves tended to tell him what to do, which made Narcissa raise her eyebrows, but she had told Harry that he could run his household however he liked.

She popped into the room, ears flapping. “Master Black calls!” she said happily.

Dobby popped in a second later. “Great Master Harry Potter-Black. Is Harry Potter needing something?”

Indigo growled at Dobby whose ears drooped.

Harry went down on one knee. “Dobby,” he said quietly. Immediately Dobby’s ears rose again. “I am happy to know you keep an ear on me because bad things can happen in Hogwarts. However, I don’t want to pull you away from your projects. How are the third floor and attic looking?”

Dobby grinned and flapped his ears. “Harry Potter must come and see what Dobby does. Dobby makes it all beautiful. Dobby makes it a proper home for Harry Potter, sir. Dobby does.”

“I have no doubt,” Harry said, “and I’m looking forward to seeing it when I’m home in a week. I’m going to look in all the rooms and bring all my friends over, and we’re going to admire everything you’ve done to bring the house back to its glory.”

Dobby flapped his ears.

“But right now I’m at school. I can’t come home. And I called for Indigo because I need her help going into a room where girls live.”

“Dobby can go. Dobby be doing good, going into girls' rooms.”

“You have other work. I called for Indigo.”

Dobby’s ears drooped, and Harry felt like a terrible person, but before he could apologize to Dobby, Dobby popped out.

Indigo sighed. “Dobby is being bad elf.”

“Dobby needs more work,” Harry said. “Is he hurting, being at Grimmauld place?”

Her eyes grew wide. “I be trapping all Dark magic behind elf wards. It can’t poison elveses or peoples no more,” she said.

Harry blinked. Okay, Walburga had clearly kept some pretty dangerous artifacts in the house if they could poison people just by being in the same area. Harry would need to ask Professor Snape to check on that during break. As much as Harry trusted Indigo, anything that Dark was too dangerous to leave in a house.

“I meant that Dobby doesn’t seem to have enough to take pride in. Would he be happier if I found a busier place for him to serve? Hogwarts maybe?” Harry knew the elves in Hogwarts were always busy and smiling. Because so many muggleborns came here, they always had the admiration of children who delighted in elf magic. “Or maybe one of the Japanese shrines. I hear they leave offerings for elves who share their artistic talents.” Harry had no idea if Dobby had talents besides charming potentially murderous bludgers, but if he did, that would earn him the admiration all elves sought.

“You coulds be having children. Many childrens would be making the house better.”

Emilius snorted with laughter, and Harry shot him a disgusted look. It didn’t make him stop.

“I’m too young for children,” Harry explained. He wasn’t sure he even wanted them, although if he said that around Walburga’s portrait, there would be hell to pay. “Is there something else I can do to make your lives better?”

Indigo seemed to think about that. “Drystan be wanting to make rooms under the house. Making new rooms would be taking much magic, and Dobby could be helping. That would make much work.”

“Can you make sure they don’t do something that will make the house fall in a hole?” Harry asked.

Indigo flapped her ears. “I be making sure the house is safe. I be going right now.”

“Wait!” Harry cried.

Indigo blinked at him.

“Can you find the belongings with Emilius’s magic on them and bring them to his new room?” Harry asked.

Indigo snapped her fingers. A sweater and a uniform skirt were draped over Emilius’s bed and a trunk stood at the foot of it, and books were stacked on the desk with scrolls on the floor next to it.

“Can you change my uniforms into the male versions?” Emilius asked as he picked up the skirt with two fingers.

Indigo looked at Harry, and he nodded. With another snap, the skirt magically turned into trousers, and Emilius grinned. “Brill,” he said as he held the trousers by the waistband. “Thank you.”

Indigo beamed. This is what fueled elf magic. Harry knew she would only get a trickle of magic from Emilius because they weren’t bonded, but Indigo still felt it and she stood a little straighter.

“She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” Harry said. “You should see what her and the other elves have done to Grimmauld Place. It was so dirty and worn when I inherited it, and now it’s clean and polished, and they’ve been renovating it, which is really hard because elf magic made it, but they’re redoing cornice carvings and widening windows and I’m so excited to see what they’ve done since I last saw it.”

Indigo’s ears flapped madly, and her joy pulled at the Black magic. Harry let a trickle of it escape his shields and Indigo squeaked in delight before vanishing with a pop.

“You have strange elves, but I like them,” Emilius said. “So, where’s the bathroom and the laundry basket?”

“This way,” said Harry.


The new room gave Harry a lot more privacy, and he was surprised that Blaise and Theo both approved. Draco had stared at the changes in a sort of mute horror, but at least he hadn’t complained. And the room seemed to distract him from any drama around Emilius, who was a hundred times happier now.

But Harry had gotten in the habit of spreading out a little more now that he had the room. The windowsill was wide enough to act like a shelf, and Harry had laid out the presentes he had bought. Hermione was getting a book on Gray magic from Theo and a book on traditional wizarding religion from Draco, so Harry had decided to break with tradition. He bought her a collection of rune charm blanks in dozens of different materials, all sealed in magic-free packaging. Even if she didn’t take the new class, he saw how much she loved runes, and she was going to want to make her own charms eventually.

Draco’s was expensive enough to reassure him that he had Harry’s favor. Nott’s was suitably dangerous, although buying an antique Viking knife for a classmate felt inappropriate. Draco reassured him it wasn’t. Ron’s gift was practical–at least assuming he still wanted to pursue runes. He’d gotten Emilius a collection of men’s jewelry, and Gregory had fallen in love with Care of Magical Creatures, so Harry had bought him passes to the Scotland National Preserve for Dangerous Creatures. That had cost a pretty penny, but Harry had used the Black heir vault for his friends’ gifts, and when he turned fifteen, he would have access to the main vaults, which Narcissa said were functionally limitless.

He was particularly proud of the gifts he’d gotten for Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape. They both had money to get what they wanted, so Harry had gotten creative. Mr. Malfoy’s wallet had only cost him an equal share of skin for the leatherworker, which felt like too little for such beautiful artwork. For Professor Snape, he had a vial of basilisk scales, which held even more magic than the skin. He’d been searching the corners for shed scales when the queen had come out and offered to let him pull loose scales.

That had turned into a good hour of pulling scales and scratching and finding all the itchy places that she couldn’t reach. It had been a good trade.

He’d gotten tiny crystals designed to hold magic and filled each with Black family magic for the house elves, and Mr. Malfoy had helped him find an exclusive tailor to make an embroidered shirt for Blaise. That with the multitude of smaller gifts for his acquaintances made a large pile he needed to wrap. At least he didn’t have to wrap the gift he’d anonymously sent Professor Lupin. But he still had a daunting pile lined up under the windows. He might just wrap the elves’ gifts and ask them to take care of the rest.

He should do that. They needed to feel useful or they would stop thriving.

But now he was musing what he could get the last person on his list. It was weird to get a present for her, but she lived inside the magic in a way that no one else did. He felt her every time he reached that part of himself that was attached to the Black magic, and ignoring her on Yule felt wrong.

So Harry shut out his awareness of the outside world and sank into the wild joy that lived in his core. He found Bellatrix immediately. Her magic twined around him, a perfect copy of the Black magic. Harry had developed a few theories over the months since seeing what Walburga had done.

Narcissa talked about how difficult the family magic was to hold and how she would never have risked him if both Dumbledore and Lucius hadn’t insisted that Harry had a magical core to rival the Dark Lord’s and if Sirius Black hadn’t been a threat. After taking the magic, Harry understood what she meant.

He wondered if Walburga hadn’t been experimenting with Bellatrix, searching for a way to make the magic easier for her sons to carry. Bellatrix certainly didn’t struggle with the Black magic. She lived in it, and it lived in her. Where Harry was the riverbank that directed the flow, she was the river, flowing with it.

If that’s why she had exposed a little girl to the ritual room, Walburga deserved to burn in hell. Harry didn’t even believe in hell, and he still hoped Walburga found her way there.

Bellatrix had been sleeping, but she stirred, aware that someone was in the magic with her. Harry could feel the damp of the prison stones and the cold iron around her wrist. He focused and warmed the magic around him. As the magic flowed downstream, she grew warm, and he sent her a silent wish for a peaceful Yule. She didn’t seem to feel anything other than curiosity. She was inside the magic too far to care about the needs of her body. She only ate because she was bored and it was something to do. But the warmth was not a gift she even recognized.

Harry let himself flow closer to her, aware that this could be a trap and he might be an idiot, but he couldn’t avoid the feeling of obligation. Bellatrix was his in a way no other Black was, and he owed her a Yule gift. She deserved to have someone remember her on the holiday.

As he drew closer, he realized the river split. A steep cliff had formed ahead, and the magic was racing down that cliff at the same time that this part of the river flowed forward until the two rivers met in chaos. Bellatrix was tumbling in the rapids and undercurrents formed by the crashing waves.

Horror swept through Harry. The cliff was made of vengeance. Anger. A pure expression of superiority and a desire to make every person who had wronged the magic suffer. The cliff was Orion Black and Arcturus Black and a half dozen other heads of the family who had followed the path of revenge–this was their river of Black magic.

The river Harry had ridden here was joy. Storm clouds stained the sky and the river had turbulence and rocks, but it was exciting to ride in. Tempting. Harry had to occlude to prevent himself from sinking into the water because he didn’t know if he’d have the power to pull himself back out.

However, Bellatrix was caught between the two, and Harry realized he had broken her. When her river had been vengeance, she could ride it as Harry rode the Black magic now. She’d had some sanity, even if vengeance had defined her. But when Harry had changed the river she had adapted to, that break had been more than she could survive. Her mind was lost, caught in this chaos. And it was Harry’s fault.

As much as Harry knew she was dangerous and deserved to be in Azkaban, he hated that he was one more person who had used the Black magic to torture her.

Now that Harry was this close, he could see the ghostly image of the stark Azkaban cell. Gray light filtered in through the slotted window that allowed in the cold and wind. There was a cot in the corner with a single threadbare blanket, but Bellatrix hadn’t bothered with it. She was flat on her stomach on the stone. She had seen an ant recently. It had been wondrous. She was waiting to see if it returned.

Anything new could give her joy, but Harry wanted to give her something that could last. He sent the Black magic into the cell, feeling the suffocating wards that suppressed magic, but since Harry was outside them, they couldn’t stop him. Dirt had gathered in every corner of the room, in every uneven crack between the stones. Years of it had been compressed down by not only Bellatrix, but by the flood of water Aurors cast at her whenever the stench got to be too much for them.

Flickers of life lived in those corners, thousands of them, all of them slowly dying from the lack of light and the weight of the magic that trapped them and Bellatrix. Harry searched for the right one. He didn’t know the name, but he felt the potential, the love of water, the deep roots that could survive even the harshest conditions, the long, draping branches and the potential for tiny berries.

Harry lifted the seed and found a crack where the cell was exposed to the outside, one near the window. And then Harry did what he rarely allowed himself to do. He allowed the Black magic to flow. At first he controlled it, practicing letting a small amount slide through him, and the seed sprouted, tiny leaves reaching out the crack and into the clouds that surrounded Azkaban.

That caught Bellatrix’s attention. She hurried to the wall and clapped delightedly as the first leaf turned into a small cluster of leaves and roots like gnarled hands grabbed onto rocks that made her wall. Harry let more magic out. A trunk burst out, escaping into the outside air before bending up to grow along the wall. More roots anchored to the stones, gripping them, searching all the hidden places where the wind had deposited dirt, but more than that, the roots absorbed the Black magic, growing strong on it.

Branches appeared next, each knuckle of the branch growing a thorn at the apex so the branches looked like dozens of angles and arches glued together. Olive green, oval leaves erupted from the ends. The weight made them start to bend toward earth, and several bobbed in the breeze, creating shadows across the cell’s floor. Bellatrix bounced and clapped like a demented toddler. Then again, in some ways, she was. Walburga’s cruelty and Harry’s choice to change the magic had broken her.

But he could give her this. Clusters of small green flowers appeared, only to be replaced by reddish orange berries. Bellatrix moved to the window and reverently touched a branch. Her magic danced with the tree, and Harry pulled back. He had only intended to gift her with warmth, but this was better. The magic felt lighter–happier–stronger. Maybe generations of Blacks had given it enough awareness that it knew it had hurt her. He repeated a wish for a peaceful Yule. He couldn’t wish more for her because she had to stay in this terrible place of suffering. He couldn’t wish her freedom. He couldn’t wish her success.

But Bellatrix wasn’t hurting now. The cold and the hunger and the iron chains didn’t bother her in the least. She saw the joy in every leaf, and when birds or insects found life in such a barren place, they would make their homes there, at least until the Azkaban guards destroyed it. But that wouldn’t be easy, not with the tree's roots so deeply entrenched in the stones.

Harry pulled back, retreating up the river and leaving Bellatrix to enjoy the magic. And leaving the magic to revel in being able to soothe the Black child it had been forced to hurt.

Chapter 26

When Harry was standing on the platform waiting for the Hogwarts Express, Professor Dumbledore appeared. He wandered through the crowds of students before coming over to Harry. “My boy,” he said with a tired smile. “I contacted your aunt and uncle. They will be waiting for you at King’s Cross. They regret that they have lost your trust. They would like a chance to regain it.”

Harry blinked at him and summoned his mind-fire. After last year, he knew how wizards could manipulate minds, so that might be true, but Harry knew his aunt and uncle would not have come to that conclusion on their own.

A voice spoke from behind Harry. “How sad they did not come to this conclusion earlier. Harry has made plans to stay with us over the break,” Lucius said.

“Lucius.” The headmaster’s voice had a dangerous silkiness. “I don’t believe you have any claim to Harry’s time.”

“Do you have any claim to him?” Lucius asked with a cruel smile and an arrogant tilt of his head.

The headmaster stared at Lucius for a long time, eyes twinkling over those half-moon glasses of his before he turned and vanished in a swirl of peacock-colored robes. The headmaster was the only person who could match Lockhart’s dress sense.

“Thank you, Mr. Malfoy,” Harry said.

“It was my pleasure. Literally.” His smile softened.

“Father!” Draco came over and stood right in front of his father, his hand twitched like he couldn’t decide between hugging him or shaking his hand. Mr. Malfoy put a hand on Draco’s shoulder.

“How has the semester ended? Did you earn good marks?”

Draco sagged a little at his father’s lack of reaction. “Yes, father. I have strong scores in everything, and the Defense teacher is doing an excellent job covering defense against creatures, despite his… frequent absences.”

“Ah. Yes. That is a topic for another day,” Mr. Malfoy said before he waved his empty hand in the air, his fist tightening around his cane where he had concealed his wand. Both Draco’s and Harry’s trunks levitated. “Let’s find a compartment.” It made him look like he was doing wandless magic. Harry was impressed by Mr. Malfoy’s style, even if his magic didn’t match up.

Harry followed Draco up into the train, searching for an empty compartment. Draco wanted privacy; Harry didn’t want to inflict Mr. Malfoy on any students who might just want to relax on the first day of break. Draco finally found one, but before Harry could go inside, Luna Lovegood darted around Mr. Malfoy and caught Harry by the arm. Her eyes focused on him in a way they normally didn’t.

“Um, hi Luna,” Harry said while Mr. Malfoy glowered.

“Harry,” she said in an urgent tone. “The heliopaths are gathering.”

Heliopaths. She had talked about those too often for Harry to be comfortable. “Go on, Draco. I’ll be right back.” He pulled Luna farther down the corridor before casting a privacy spell. No doubt Mr. Malfoy could cancel it if he wanted to, but that would be rude, and he tried to avoid outright rudeness in favor of underhanded prejudice.

“Heliopaths. Helio–sun. Path–suffering or sufferers. Who is suffering from the sun, Luna?” Harry asked.

“Anyone who gets too close,” said Luna in a tone that suggested she found Harry amusing for not knowing that. “That’s why they stay behind the sun. To avoid the burn.”

“The sun is round,” Harry said.

“But the light is not equal on all sides.” She smiled as if that made any sense. Clearly she did not mean a literal sun.

“But where are the heliopaths gathering?”

Her eyes lost their focus. “Many places. More than before.”

“Before what?”

“Before. But there are more fires now.” She stared at Harry intently. “You must keep your fire burning, Harry. Do not let the flames die down.” She caught his hands in hers and held them tightly. Fear curled around Harry’s heart, and he knew this was something important–not just to Luna but to him as well. But that didn’t mean he understood it.

“How do I do that?”

“If I were evil, I would want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone, you’re not as much of a threat.”

“Is someone going to isolate me?” Harry paused and thought about where he would be heading if the headmaster had his way. “Is the headmaster trying to isolate me?”

She tilted her head to the side. “Anyone who tries to isolate you is trying to extinguish your fire, but without fire, you can’t attract heliopaths, and without heliopaths, you cannot fight those who have armies of them at their backs.” Her eyes lost their focus. “I’m hungry. I wonder if the trolly is selling yet.” And with that, she wandered off. Apparently that was all the information Harry was going to get.

With a little more information and a lot more to worry about, Harry headed back to the compartment under the curious gaze of Mr. Malfoy. He stood next to the compartment and didn’t even try to move aside when other students were trying to pass him. He made them press against the fall wall if they wanted to avoid touching him, and most did.

Then Hermione appeared. “Mr. Malfoy!” she said with obvious delight. His face blanked for a moment, but then he summoned what appeared to be a genuine smile. At least he was trying to be better.

“Miss Granger. I assume I do not have to ask if your term ended well.”

“The classes are a little slower than I expected, but I’ve started studying occlumency because Draco said it might be a requirement for the crafting class next year, and it’s fascinating. Simply fascinating. And I found a reference to legilimency, which terrifies me, but the power a legilimens could hold…” She shivered.

Mr. Malfoy was gobsmacked. “Now, Hermione, don’t go reading everyone’s minds,” Harry teased her.

She punched his shoulder lightly. “That is against the law, of course I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even study legilimency, but you have to admit it’s interesting.”

“And Dark,” Mr. Malfoy said.

“Dark just means emotion-based. I know it’s more dangerous, and I read about how an occlumens can actually get stuck in their own mind if they have strong enough magic. However, I’m not going to avoid magic just because other people label it Dark. That’s foolish.”

Hermione clearly didn’t know that as a muggleborn she was not allowed–in Mr. Malfoy’s mind–to share the same political position as the purebloods. Mr. Malfoy just stared at her as she dragged her trunk past him. Harry could see the entrance, and Emilius stood there like a guard, watching the crowd outside the train like an Auror.

Since Harry had utterly failed to convince either Emilius or Theo that they didn’t have guard duty, Harry went into the compartment. Hermione was regaling Draco with what she had read in the Occlumency book she had ordered from a bookstore in France, and Draco was nervously looking from Hermione to his father and back. He knew his father’s prejudices, and while he didn’t hold them, he wasn’t going to flaunt his friendship with Hermione.

Harry sighed. He should let Draco suffer, but Harry knew Draco struggled with his relationship with Mr. Malfoy. “Hermione, can I see the book?” Harry asked.

“Sure.” Rather than let go of it, she switched to Harry’s side of the compartment and let him read it while she held it. She was so predictable. So was Draco. He gave Harry a grateful look before he turned to his father.

“Why are you riding the train, sir?”

“After what happened on your ride to school, it seemed prudent for you to have an adult present.”

Draco’s eyes went large. “So you can produce a patronus?” Everyone in the dorms had been very impressed by the fact Theo had not mastered the spell just by reading about it. That was not at all normal. He’d even managed the advanced human transfigurations in Harry’s Slytherin grimoire, although neither of them told anyone about that. Still, Theo had grown quite adept at traveling through the castle as a snake, and the transformation allowed him to talk to the common room snakes who definitely had a new favorite.

“Of course,” Mr. Malfoy said, not mentioning what animal his patronus took.

“Can I see it?” Draco practically bounced.


Hermione shot Draco a sympathetic look, which was exactly the wrong response. Harry elbowed her, and she gave Harry a look of tragic betrayal before she planted her elbow in his side. He grunted and glared back.

Mr. Malfoy sighed. “That is quite inappropriate. If you are going to touch so intimately, I will have to ask you to separate.”

Harry froze, and Hermione turned brilliant, flaming, searing red. Draco studied them both with a new interest, and Harry thanked his lucky constellation that Blaise hadn’t been in the compartment.

Before either of them could come up with a response, Mr. Malfoy asked, “What did that girl in the corridor want?”

Draco answered for Harry. “That was just Luna. She’s a little crazy; we all ignore her.”

“No, we do not,” said Harry firmly, ignoring the times he had ignored her because when upperclass Slytherin were around it was embarrassing to try to sort Luna’s messages.

Draco rolled his eyes. “You do not have to be nice to everyone.”

“I’m not. Have you ever seen me be nice to Finch-Fletchley or Zacharias Smith or Warrington?”

“Warrington?” Draco frowned. “What do you have against Cassius?”

“Other than the fact that he changes his opinion about me at least three times a term, nothing. I just don’t trust him.”

“But you like Loony Lovegood more than Cassius Warrington?” asked Draco in horror.

“At least she isn’t nice one day, avoiding me another and then muttering about my mudblood mother under his breath the week after that.”

“That does seem foolish,” Mr. Malfoy agreed. “However, you haven’t told me what she wanted.”

Harry considered telling Mr. Malfoy to mind his own business, but it wasn’t like he had a reason to. “She wanted to warn me.”

“Warn you?” Mr. Malfoy sat up a little straighter.

Gregory appeared at the compartment door. “I found them!” he called into the hallway before he came in. “Is everyone else as excited to get away for Yule as I am?” he asked brightly. Count on Gregory to not notice the tension in the room.

“It’s nothing serious,” Harry told Mr. Malfoy. “She wanted to make sure I didn’t let my fires go out and that if people tried to isolate me, they wanted me weaker.”

“Luna?” asked Gregory.

Harry nodded.

“The last time she warned me that I had blibbering humdingers dangerously close, I turned around and walked the opposite direction. A tongue-tying prank hit a group of Ravenclaws in that corridor not five minutes later.” He shoved his trunk into one of the overhead bins. Apparently none of them trusted the staff enough to store their trunks in the baggage compartment.

Neville, Theo and Ron appeared at the door. Ron took one look at Mr. Malfoy, said, “Merlin’s beard. No, no way,” and turned and walked away. Neville looked like he might follow, his eyes wide and his elbows bent. But then Theo came in and Emilius followed, smiling at Neville, and he crept in after Emilius, sticking close to his side. Mr. Malfoy ignored all of them.

“What are you suggesting?” Mr. Malfoy asked.

“The word ‘seer’ has been used a few times,” said Hermione. “I’ve read about seers, and there are so many different types that it’s hard to tell. I asked her if she was a volgaris or a common seer–someone who can perceive everyday events in the present time, even if they didn’t physically see them. She didn’t seem to understand the question.”

“That is unlikely,” Mr. Malfoy said.

“Why?” asked Theo.

Mr. Malfoy seemed startled at Theo’s question and studied the boy before he spoke. Harry had the strangest feeling that Mr. Malfoy was cautious around Theo.

“A seer who came into powers that young would likely lose touch with reality.”

“Not inaccurate,” Gregory muttered, but Mr. Malfoy ignored him.

“I know the girl saw her mother die in a terrible potions accident. It is more likely that she was traumatized by the death and has simply never learned to cope. Her father is… odd, and likely wouldn’t know how to help her.”

“Odd like strange, or odd like ritual drunk and lost in the beauty of Dark magic odd?” asked Hermione in an innocent tone.

Mr. Malfoy blinked at her.

“The Lovegoods were traditionally Dark although they stood against the Dark Lord,” said Draco, obviously not noticing his father’s discomfort.

After that, Theo asked a question about the potion homework that Draco was happy to elaborate on in painful detail, leading Hermione to offer even more painful elaborations on his elaborations. With Mr. Malfoy in the room, no one offered to start a game of exploding snap, and Neville vanished into an herbology book, only exchanging a few soft words with Emilius. In short, it was such an awkward trip that Harry was almost sorry the dementors didn’t attack.

Chapter 27

Severus avoided holidays at all costs. Every year Narcissa asked him, cajoled him, blackmailed him to come, but he always made his excuses. The most effective one had been the most truthful–for him to maintain his position at Hogwarts, he had to distance himself from the old holidays.

He never told her how the holidays reminded him of his mother. She had been foolish as a girl in school, and her family had disowned her. But at the holidays, she would tell him of the Princes and summon the Prince family magic, so for a precious few days, Severus felt like he was part of something. That he belonged. And then the holidays would end and Tobias Snape would have to sober up enough to go back to work and life returned to normal, only it was more painful for having had a moment’s glimpse into the life Severus might have had.

During school, one of the Slytherin boys had declared that he was gay and his doting parents had banned him from ever returning home. The others hadn’t understood why that had hurt him so much. They either said that his parents were horrible and he was better off without them.

But Severus had understood. To know what it was to feel like you had a place in a family and then to have it stripped away–no, Severus had not been interested in reliving his past by celebrating Yule.

But this year when he got an invitation to a small family Yule, he couldn’t turn it down, not after Brinkie had brought him Harry’s present in shaking hands. Inside a perfectly normal vial were more than a dozen basilisk scales drenched in the wild magic of that old beast that lived under the castle. The aura had sent Severus reeling, and he had to occlude to regain his balance before he cast a stasis spell.

The attached card had only wished Severus a happy Yule and many successes in his future. Severus was not even sure the clueless child understood the value of what he gave away so easily. But when the invitation came, he could not reject Harry, even if the Malfoys had grown used to his excuses.

But now, sitting in the family drawing room, Severus was quite glad he had felt obligated to come. Severus pursed his lips and enjoyed the utter shock on Lucius’s face. No doubt Severus had worn the exact same expression when he had opened his gift, but luckily he had done so in private where he had no audience for his lack of control.

It wasn’t often that someone could strip Lucius–or Severus for that matter–of his carefully crafted veneer. Sometimes Severus wondered if Lucius didn’t have that politely amused expression during sex. It would explain why he and Narcissa had only Draco. But now his mouth was literally hanging open. No doubt his magic told him exactly what he held.

“What is it?” Draco asked, kneeling up to see into the box. Narcissa leaned in as well, although she wasn’t as obvious.

“A wallet,” Lucius said. He shot Severus a desperate look. Severus sipped his whiskey and raised an eyebrow.

“Is that–” Narcissa stopped.

“Basilisk leather,” said Harry. He hurried to add from where he sat cross-legged on the floor, “Of course I didn’t kill the basilisk. That’s from the shed skin. Basilisk don’t shed like normal snakes that only cast off the thinnest of layers, which usually turns to dust. I mean, I’m sure if you killed a basilisk, the skin you harvested would be thicker, but shed skin actually works better for small items. The leatherworker at Hogsmead wrote all about it.”

Severus added a task to his ever-growing list. He would have to learn which merchant Harry had visited and either obliviate him or bribe him into silence. It would depend on whether the man had an affinity for Dark magic. While these sorts of resources would help Harry build a reputation among the Dark, and therefore add a layer of protection, if the man was Light-aligned, he might reveal what he knew to the headmaster.

Narcissa ran a finger over the green leather. “How beautiful. The craftsman did excellent work.”

Lucius swallowed. “It is,” he finally said.

Draco stared at it wide-eyed, and Severus could almost taste the jealousy. Draco had to get control of his emotions or he would destroy himself. Severus still hadn’t decided what to do about the note Draco had sent complaining about Harry’s new dorm room. While Draco accepted Emilius’s new sex–magic mattered far more than a body part–he refused to accept that others might have more space or more privacy than he had. Draco had been patient so far, but Severus would have to address the issue soon before it poisoned the boys’ friendship.

“Open your present!” said Harry, practically shoving a box into Draco’s hands. Draco’s eyes lit with avarice and he tore off the paper. When he got to the box, he opened it carefully, anticipation making his hands tremble.

“Oh.” Draco said the word as softly as a prayer as he stared down.

“Dragon, what did you get?” Narcissa asked.

Draco reverently reached and and brought out a stunningly carved dragon sitting on a gold oval. The curve of the dragon suggested it had been carved from something natural, and Severus feared he was looking at a Basilisk tooth. Potter was giving away priceless artifacts–resources and artwork worth enough to buy small kingdoms. It was almost obscene.

“It’s a quill holder,” Harry said. “You can put the ink bottle on the bottom disk so any ink drips back into it.”

Narcissa was clutching her necklace and Lucius had to clear his throat several times. “What is that made from?”

“A shed basilisk fang.”

Ah yes, Severus would need to find that artisan as well.

“The leatherworker in Hogsmead knew someone who specialized in carving ivory and bone, so he came to Hogsmead for that first Hogsmead weekend to pick up the materials and then mailed it back to me at school.”

Lucius gave Severus another desperate look. At the very least, if the Dark Lord changed his mind about Harry and asked Lucius to betray the boy, Lucius would feel horrifically guilty for the rest of his life. His very short life because Severus would make sure Lucius suffered a painful and incurable bout of poisoning. Severus sipped his whiskey.

Draco grinned like a loon. “This will look great on my desk in the dorm.”

“It absolutely will not leave this house,” Lucius said.

Draco turned to his father with fury in his eyes. No doubt Draco wanted all his friends to see what sort of gift Harry gave him, but Lucius did not look ready to back down.

“It is far too valuable to risk having strange elves and other children touching it. It will remain on your desk here.

“But father!”


Draco flinched. He wasn’t used to being told that.

Harry put his hand on Draco’s knee. “I’m sorry. I should have gotten you something small you could carry.” He glanced at Lucius as if Lucius was going to carry a basilisk wallet every day. Severus suspected that was going straight into the vault and Lucius would only take it out if he needed to ensure he could protect papers from the most skilled of wizards or if he hoped to show off either his wealth or the favor Harry showed him.

“I suppose I’m next,” Narcissa said.

“I hope you like it.” Harry looked almost shy as he handed over a flat box. “I know you have lots of jewelry, so I didn’t want to get you that, and you got me something that related to my name. Sort of. Ophiuchus wasn’t technically my name last year when you got me the book, but I think you suspected it was going to be.”

“I did,” Narcissa agreed. “Black magic is very particular.”

“Tell me about it,” Harry said softly. Given that he held the magic as few Blacks ever would, he would know about the nature of the Black magic.

Narcissa opened the box, not even attempting to maintain her polite mask. Her hand trembled as she touched it. Lucius leaned closer, and his eyebrows rose higher than Severus had ever seen. This was turning out to be quite the amusing Yule. He would have to come more often.

“The queen had the jewels in her lair. A few people have tried to break into Hogwarts through the caves underneath it, and once an army reached the walls. She’s there to protect the grounds, so if someone is attacking, that’s when she kills them. The people who originally had the jewels are just bones in her lair now, so I don’t know how long ago they died. Hundreds of years, at least.”

“The queen?” Narcissa asked in a tremulous voice.

“The basilisk that gave Harry these materials,” Severus delighted in saying. “Actually, I believe she was originally Salazar Slytherin’s basilisk.”

Both Narcissa and Lucius looked at him in utter shock. They were befuddled. Addlepated. Dazed. This was a better gift than the basilisk scales.

“Really?” Draco asked, clearly excited. “Can I meet her?”

“No!” Narcissa screeched. For a moment, she channeled Bellatrix herself with that voice, and Draco looked shattered. Narcissa took a deep breath. “Dragon, a basilisk is so dangerous that the Ministry has ordered them killed on sight. Harry has the advantage of being able to talk to them, but I would forbid him from ever going near it again if I had the power. The danger–” She shook her head and then reached across Lucius to grab Draco’s hand tightly. “Promise me you will not go near it. Promise me, Dragon.”

After a long silence, Draco said, “I promise, Mother.”

Only then did Narcissa release him.

Harry had shrunk back into his seat, either uncomfortable at the drama or regretting his gifts. If he was going to be this generous, he had to learn that people would react to it. And sometimes their reactions would not serve Harry’s interests.

Narcissa took a deep breath and lifted a hand mirror out of the tissue protecting it. It wasn’t charmed. It didn’t speak to Narcissa when she looked in the glass. However, the sides were carved basilisk fangs with fantastic creatures leaping around the oval and the back had the distinctive pattern of a snake skin–no doubt basilisk. Narcissa turned it, and bright, flawless rubies decorated the top and bottom.

“It is stunning. I will keep it on my dressing table and use it every morning,” she said.

“But–” Lucius stopped when Narcissa gave him a sharp look. The man knew to beware his wife’s fury. Purebloods might cling to the sexism that muggle culture had shed decades ago, but in private, they were well aware that the inequality of the sexes didn’t exist and wives had as much talent with hexes as their husbands.

Harry smiled. “I’m so glad you like it. Theo said the craftsmen were the best.”

Severus felt some relief. Nott would have avoided any Light-aligned businesses, especially if he knew what Harry was having crafted.

“They are exceptionally talented,” Narcissa said as she ran her fingers over the edges of the mirror. No doubt she could feel the basilisk’s magic under her hands. Severus could when he removed the stasis spell he’d placed his gift under.

It was wild, joyous, dangerous and sharp and without mercy. If Severus were not desperate to experiment with fresh basilisk scales, he would be tempted to remove the stasis field and simply revel in the basilisk’s magic. The shed materials wouldn’t have as much as scales that still had soft skin attached at the base, and Severus was trying very hard to avoid thinking about how Harry had managed that, but they would still have an echo of the great beast’s magic.

Narcissa cleared her throat. “Harry, I have another surprise for you this weekend.”

“It’s already too much,” said Harry as he gestured at the pile of gifts he had opened. Severus had not seen the reconciliation gifts he would have expected from Crabbe or Warrington or a dozen other Slytherins who were out of Harry’s favor, so either Lucius had removed them to avoid Draco’s jealousy when Harry got too many gifts or those students had not yet discovered how dangerous it was to be out of Harry’s favor.

“This is not a present, per se,” said Narcissa. “When Sirius escaped prison, the bank sent a letter to an unknown cousin.”

“A cousin?” Harry looked confused.

Narcissa nodded. “Castor Black. Alphard Black was his father, but he was adopted out to a woman in America and grew up not knowing he was a Black. It was only once he got the letter from the bank that he had a heritage test done.”

“Apparently he was not that interested in where his blood came from,” Lucius said with a touch of derision. He had best beware of his attitude. Many Death Eaters had noted that Lucius was less than enamored of the Dark Lord’s new policy on blood purity or his willingness to call himself a half-blood. If Lucius wasn’t careful, he would fall from favor. Farther from favor, anyway.

Harry gave Lucius a quick side eye. Lucius was less subtle in his prejudices than he thought.

“I didn’t think Alphard had any children,” said Harry. “There aren’t any names under him on the family tapestry.”

Narcissa put the priceless mirror to one side. “I suspect Alphard may have hidden the child. He tried very hard to avoid the dramas of the Black family.”

“I had always thought him gay,” Lucius said. He had the same tone of voice as when he talked about mudbloods. This time even Draco noticed and turned to give his father a confused look.

“I think he was private, whether he took male or female lovers,” Narcissa said. “But Castor has no other living relatives since his adoptive mother died, and I invited him for dinner tonight. Yule is a time to welcome others, and I thought it was appropriate.”

“That’s nice of you,” said Harry. Having Narcissa introduce the Dark Lord by his new name was wise; Narcissa was a much better liar than Lucius.

“He is family, and technically, you are the head of the Black Family, Harry.”

Harry’s eyes grew wide. “Do I have to do anything? Do I have to officially welcome him into the family or anything?” He looked panicked.

“No, nothing like that,” Narcissa reassured him. “But he will be here soon. Perhaps you boys would like to change into formal robes for dinner.”

“Should I…” Harry looked at the presents and wrapping paper and the other detritus of the holiday strewn about the room.

“You have an elf who desperately wants to help you,” Narcissa said gently.

“Oh yeah.” Harry ducked his head. He called Dobby and asked him to organize his presents and clean up, and Dobby wiggled with happiness as he got to work. The boys, meanwhile, hurried upstairs to change.

Lucius cast a nearly impenetrable privacy charm. “We must meet him at the floo,” he said breathlessly. “The wards are down for him.” He hurried from the room with no attempt at decorum.

Narcissa exchanged a worried look with Severus, but he had no reassurances for her. If she had not been to Nott manor, she would be surprised at how sane the Dark Lord was, but that did not make him any less dangerous. Quite the opposite.

Narcissa stood and smoothed her skirt before following Lucius. Once they reached the reception room, Severus was not sure what to do with himself. He no longer served the Dark Lord. He had signed himself over to the cause and the Dark Lord’s service when he’d been seventeen and convinced that he had known all he ever needed to.

Now he wasn’t sure who he was.

Rather than the glee Severus expected, Lucius looked almost constipated as they waited. After a few awkward minutes, the floo glowed green and then the Dark Lord stepped into Malfoy manor. He was all silk robes and smiles and confidence as he took in the room in a single glance.

“Narcissa, Lucius, thank you for hosting.”

Narcissa curtsied. “Of course, my lord.”

“My lord,” Lucius offered. He made up for the minimally polite greeting by bowing deeply.

“And my lost Severus.” The Dark Lord considered Severus with an amused smirk.

Severus bowed his head. “Happy Yule and blessings for the New Year.” Severus refused to offer luck or a wish for success. Severus no longer had to hide that he would protect Harry over this monster who now wore an attractive face.

The Dark Lord chuckled. “You look well, Severus. Tell me, will you survive the end of the school year?”

Narcissa gasped and Lucius looked at Severus with wide eyes.

“I’m not yet sure,” Severus said calmly. If the Dark Lord chose to kill him, Severus had very little chance of defending himself. He could, once again, throw himself on the headmaster’s mercy, but as long as Albus was scheming against Harry, he would not. He would choose death over betraying Harry just as he risked death when he had begged for Lily’s life at this monster’s feet over a decade ago. “How would you prefer us to address you this evening?”

The Dark Lord’s smile grew wider. “Castor seems the most appropriate title, don’t you agree, Severus?”

“As you prefer, Castor,” Severus said. Severus looked at Lucius, who was frozen in place. “Aren’t you going to offer him a drink?”

Lucius seemed to break free of his shock. “Of course.” He bowed again. “What would you like my… um… Castor?” Lucius seemed almost pained saying the name.

“A firewhiskey, please.” The Dark Lord… Castor… stepped to Narcissa and took her hand in his gloved one, kissing her knuckles. “You look as lovely as ever.”

“Thank you, Castor.” At least she sounded natural saying his name. “Please, come in. Dinner will be ready in less than an hour and hopefully the boys won’t be upstairs too long.” She walked him back to the family parlor rather than the more grand formal parlor the Dark Lord would have demanded she use before his fall.

He stopped at the doorway. “What is that delicious magic I feel?”

“I believe that may be our Yule gifts,” Narcissa said. She went to the table and returned with the mirror, offering it.

Castor accepted it, running his fingers over the carving. “I haven’t felt her magic for many years,” he whispered. “I did not know what I turned my back on when I made that first disastrous choice.” He handed her the mirror back. “I assume Harry is being overly generous.”

“Indeed, he is,” Severus said.

“And what did he get you?”

“Nothing as elaborate,” Severus said, unwilling to be more specific. If he did not belong to the Dark Lord, then he could not be expected to answer questions–especially when it came to Harry.

“As irascible as ever, I see.” Caster went to the nearest couch and sat.

Severus returned to his chair and picked up his own firewhiskey while Lucius brought his lord a tumbler. Narcissa returned to her settee, and when Lucius sat next to her, the room grew stilted and awkward. The only one who seemed comfortable was the Dark Lord who sipped his whiskey and studied the room with unvarnished glee.

The clatter of feet on the stairs presaged the two boys appearing in the doorway. They had both chosen their best robes with embroidered collars and shined shoes. Castor and Narcissa stood.

“Harry, may I introduce Castor Black, also known as Johnathan Donahue of Colorado.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” said Harry. He stepped forward and offered his hand. Castor smiled at him as they shook.

“Nice to meet you, young Mr. Potter-Black. I will admit I am surprised to find I am part of not only a large magical legacy but also one led by the most famous child in the wizarding world.” He turned to Draco. “And this must be the dragon you brag about, Narcissa.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Draco said far too formally for his age. The Dark Lord smiled.

“You take after your mother, Mr. Malfoy.” Draco looked slightly crestfallen, despite the fact that he was being offered a great compliment.

“You didn’t know you were a Black, sir?” Harry asked.

Castor chuckled. “Considering that you are head of House Black, I don’t think you should be calling me ‘sir.’ You can call me Castor.” He returned to the couch and sat, gesturing for Harry to sit with him. “I will admit that I don’t feel like a ‘Castor.’ I often forget to answer to it.” His American accent was nasally and pedestrian and perfect. Severus was impressed.

Harry glanced toward Severus before he followed Castor to his couch. “Narcissa said you were adopted.”

“Yes, and my mother told me that my father was trying to protect me from a damn dangerous family with unique objections to children born outside of properly arranged marriage.”

“To say the least,” Harry muttered. He glanced over at Narcissa immediately. “I apologize.”

Narcissa waved his apology away. “Most would argue that you are more of a Black than I am now since I married outside the family, so feel free to insult them as you like.”

Draco wrinkled his nose. Like his father, he had always admired Black wealth and power without looking at the less palatable aspects of the family history. After all, what was a little patricide or disciplinary torture when the family involved had a large vault? Draco really should aspire to be more like his mother.

“So, what does it mean that you’re the head of House Black?” Castor asked curiously. “Are there duties or do I owe you some sort of… I don’t know what you’d call it. Respect?”

“What? No!” Harry sounded horrified. “I don’t need anything, well except for the right to pull the Black magic out of anyone who attacks me, but I’m thinking more about Sirius Black when I say that.”

“Ah, the Azkaban escapee. It seems my birth father comes from a colorful family.”

“Colorful. Yeah.”

Castor put on an air of nonchalance, but Severus had knelt at the man’s feet often enough that he recognized that Harry had somehow caught the Dark Lord’s full interest. Narcissa looked calm enough, but she realized it as well because her hands had gone utterly still.

“Can you do that? Rip the Black family magic out of a Black?”

Harry wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know for sure, but maybe. If Sirius Black comes after me, I plan to use that as a last defense.”

“Or you could just avoid him,” said Draco sharply.

“Oh, I will try to avoid him. I will put all my effort into avoiding him,” said Harry.

Castor laughed. “That seems wise. So, the other members of the Black family… Andromeda? What’s she like?”

“Pretty distant,” said Harry. “Her daughter Tonks is great though. She’s another metamorphmagus.”

“I heard that. You know, back home, people disapprove of even second cousins marrying, and they say if you don’t have new blood from time to time, magical gifts can actually die out. It seems like you and this cousin, Tonks, prove that.”

“Probably,” said Harry. “My friends Theo Nott and Hermione Granger have talked about genetics and magical gifts and they think the Black family gifts might have vanished altogether if Tonks and I didn’t have muggleborn parents.”

Lucius winced.

Castor gave him an amused look. “Well then, perhaps it’s time for the old world to embrace new thinking.”

“I believe it’s time for dinner,” Narcissa said, inserting herself into the moment before it became too awkward. “Castor, as our guest, will you escort me to the dining room?”

“Of course,” he said in that perfect American accent. Dinner conversation was saved by the boys who got into a spirited discussion of the ways they could see hints of the Dark magic that had been stripped out of the curriculum. They talked about how much better Astronomy would be if they learned how star positions influenced casting. Without that, studying the stars was pointless memorization. They talked about how they could see the hints of ritual in Arithmancy and how Miss Granger was studying occlumency because she wanted to learn to create charmed objects and use rituals.

The Dark Lord listened to all of it with an air of amusement and a few subtle glances toward Lucius that made it clear he expected Lucius to make progress on improving Hogwarts by introducing Dark magic back into the curriculum.

After a decadent dessert, he excused himself and flooed out.

“He’s nice,” said Harry as soon as the Dark Lord had left.

“Let’s go check out our gifts.” Draco practically dragged Harry out of the room.

“I need a drink,” Lucius said before he headed for his study.

Narcissa sighed when it was down to just the two of them. They’d been allies in school–the closest thing Severus had to a friend after he drove Lily away, and he could see how exhausted she looked. “Thank you for coming, Severus.”

He smiled at her. “Of course.”

She moved closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Why are you at risk of dying by the end of the year? Do you need help?”

Severus appreciated the subtlety with which she handled difficult situations. She put on a cold facade, but she was a good woman who might have grown up kind if she had been in another family. “We all have tasks, and failing them often carries a penalty.”

Her expression twisted with horror. Severus leaned in and kissed her cheek. “I have resigned myself to either succeeding or enduring the natural consequence of failure. I am unconcerned.” Severus turned and practically threw himself through the floo before she could ask any other questions.

He never wanted her to notice that Severus was terrified about what it would mean if he had to leave Harry alone to survive the schemes of these men. Even if the Dark Lord considered his efforts less than successful, Severus had to find a way to give Harry the full story.

Ignorance would only lead to mistakes in judgment and failure. He could not fail Lily again. He could not allow her son to walk to his own death like a lamb to slaughter.

Chapter 28

Severus was not surprised to find Albus waiting for him when he stepped out of the floo. The man was entirely too interested in what was happening at Malfoy manor. At least that kept his attention away from the Nott manor. If these two powerful wizards were to go to war now, Harry would be caught between. So Severus needed to postpone the inevitable war as long as possible.

However, he was shocked to find Lupin waiting with the headmaster. The full moon was in less than a week, and he was already starting to look rough.

“I will have the wolfsbane potion in two days. It’s best when it’s fresh, so I do not want to brew too early.” Severus tried to head to the door, but one of Albus’s chairs sailed into his path, blocking his exit. Severus turned to the headmaster.

“I’m sure you’ll will,” Albus said with that infuriating twinkle of his. “I was simply curious as to how your night at the Malfoys went.”

“Uneventfully,” Severus said.

“It’s hard to believe Lucius Malfoy is inviting James’s son over for Yule,” said Lupin. “He has to be plotting something. Maybe he knows the blood wards just failed. Would Harry have told him that?”

“Given that Potter stubbornly refuses to ever return to the Dursleys, I doubt the timing of the blood wards is an issue, but I have no doubt that Lucius has some political goal in mind,” Severus said. “He has already coached Potter to speak against bills proposed by the Light.” It was strange, but Severus had grown used to calling the boy Harry, so much so that the dismissive tone and Potter surname no longer felt natural.

“I doubt Lucius is primarily concerned about political advantages, not with You-Know-Who back in a body and Sirius running around loose.” Lupin looked utterly shattered as he said the last part.

“Yes, let us all be shocked that an adolescent who attempted to murder me became a follower of You-Know-Who.” Severus looked down his nose at Lupin, who had the grace to blush. After all, if Sirius’s attempts to tempt Severus into the hidden passage to the Shrieking Shack had succeeded, Lupin would have been executed as soon as the Ministry discovered a werewolf had killed a fellow student. Even the incident as it had happened–the lure, the werewolf at the end of the tunnel, Severus’s terror–even that would have been enough to get Lupin sent to Azkaban for life even though he had not orchestrated the attempted murder. The fact that James Potter had saved Severus just made the whole incident more galling.

“Severus, that is unnecessary,” Albus said. “Did Voldemort call either you or Lucius while you were at Malfoy Manor?”

“No. He has not called me since school started, and while I have received notes demanding rejuvenation potions, I have no evidence Lucius is the one who has left them. He is well aware of how to clean his magic from parchment, and he has a curious young son, so he knows how children will snoop, even into my belongings–at least when they foolishly believe they will not be caught.

Severus was still furious at Granger, Longbottom, and Weasley for not only stealing boomslang skin but also endangering all of Slytherin by setting off fireworks in Goyle’s cauldron. They were lucky he had no actual evidence or he would have bypassed Albus and taken it to the DMLE. When Gryffindors broke the rules, that was the only avenue to justice.

Arranging for Granger to have her teeth temporarily enlarged had not satisfied his need for justice, and Severus resented Harry for stopping the Weasley boy seconds before he tried to hex Severus. Severus wasn’t planning on shielding at all. An injury would have guaranteed the boy’s expulsion. But now that all three had been folded into Harry’s inner circle, all he could do was annoy them during potions. He hated feeling so impotent.

Albus tapped his fingers against the edge of his desk. “What did Harry get the Malfoys for Christmas?”

Severus wanted to correct him and say they had celebrated Yule, but he had more sense. “He got Lucius a wallet, which Lucius will likely set aside and never touch again.” Severus felt Albus skimming the surface of his mind to judge the truth of his words, which is why Severus was being utterly truthful. He had learned to play this game with the Dark Lord, and Albus could not hope to compete. “He bought Narcissa a carved mirror without any enchantments, and Draco a quill holder that he will leave at home rather than bring back to the dorms.”

“Is there some reason you are interested in the boy’s shopping habits?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Did you get you a gift?” Dumbledore asked. No doubt he wished to judge Severus’s relative place in Harry’s affections. Now that Severus was aware of the horcrux Harry carried, the headmaster's machinations appeared ridiculously obvious.

“A vial of potion ingredients he gathered himself from around the castle. Other than some contamination, it was adequate for a third-year. If I could add potion sourcing to the curriculum, students would have a far better idea of what they should look for when gathering.”

“Yes, yes,” Albus waved him off as he always did.

“Albus, I should return the gift. You said it was the largest single expenditure, and he clearly skipped giving others nice gifts in order to buy it.”

“The boy purchased you a gift?” Severus asked, surprised. All the children raved about Lupin’s teaching–another measure of salt in the wounds Severus carried–but he had not thought Harry had such a strong fondness for him. Perhaps Harry hoped to improve the likelihood of Lupin teaching him the patronus charm.

“Five new robes and two sets of trousers.” Lupin blushed, probably because even students could see his lack of funds.

“He also spent a respectable amount on Miss Granger and young Mr. Weasley,” Albus said in a pleased tone. Clearly the boy had purchased those gifts from his Potter account, which he knew Albus could monitor, even if he could no longer remove items. When the Sorting Hat had first set a Potter on Severus’s metaphorical doorstep, he had thought it a joke. But the boy did have some subtlety in him. Albus continued. “But I only saw modest withdrawals outside those three.”

“Slytherins often exchange favors or tutoring,” Severus said truthfully enough. Albus did not need to know that the boy could source priceless basilisk ingredients or use the Black heir vault. Given that Harry was not subjected to long periods of disappointed scowls from his fellow Slytherins during the month of January, Severus assumed he was using his other vaults to purchase those gifts.

“I should return the robes,” said Lupin.

“Nonsense,” Albus said. “You would dishonor his sacrifice if you did that. He saw you were in the greatest need, and he took action. Severus, do sit.”

Severus gritted his teeth. Of course the headmaster would celebrate Harry’s willingness to make sacrifices given what Albus had planned. He had to intentionally occlude before he either allowed his hatred for Albus to stain the air or he leapt over the desk and strangled the man with his beard. He hoped to guide the boy like a lamb to slaughter, but Slytherins were not so easily led.

“I have been sitting all evening. I prefer to stand.” And by standing, Severus could keep the chair between himself and Lupin who was seated across from the headmaster.

Albus continued with just as much cheer. “Molly was quite surprised Harry had sent such an expensive gift, but apparently young Ronald has played with the idea of studying runes. He wants to make a Wizarding television that can show muggle programs. Harry got him books and rune carving materials. As much as I sometimes worry about the influences in his life, he is a wonderful young man. Very insightful.”

“It is a practical gift,” Severus said, although he doubted Weasley could do anything with it. The twins were abominations, but they were talented abominations. The youngest Weasley boy had seemingly inherited none of that skill. None Severus could see, anyway.

“Still, I don’t need new robes.” Lupin shifted, clearly uncomfortable with Harry’s generosity. Thank Merlin the boy had restrained himself with Lupin’s gift. Lupin would have a heart attack if Harry had gifted him anything of equal value to the Malfoys’ gifts. Of course, that would be one way to rid himself of the man’s presence.

“Be thankful. I absolutely forbid you from dishonoring Harry’s gift by returning it,” Albus said with some steel in his voice. He let his magical aura leech through his shields in a faint echo of the Dark Lord’s favorite way to impress his followers.

Lupin slumped in his seat. “Fine. I’ll keep the clothing and write him a thank you card. But I don’t understand why you don’t put an end to Harry’s visits with the Malfoys. It isn’t safe.” Lupin brought his hand down on the edge of Albus’s desk, and then ruined the powerful gesture by ducking his head apologetically.

“Now, Remus, I’m sure he’s safe for now. Voldemort seems to be struggling to maintain his new body. I don’t believe he is ready to act yet, and he will not allow anyone else to harm Harry. He wants to prove he has the strength to do it.” The headmaster was terrifyingly confident in his conclusions for a man acting on limited information.

“And if he shows up at Malfoy Manor, they will throw Harry on Voldemort’s non-existent mercy!” Lupin shouted. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. “I apologize, Severus. I know better than to say his name in your presence.”

Severus was surprised at the apology.

He tilted his head in Lupin’s direction.

Albus had an expression like he had sucked a lemon. “Unfortunately, Narcissa established a relationship before his first day of school, and Severus has been less than helpful in severing that.”

Severus lifted an eyebrow. “Given that Potter accepts her as a cousin and Narcissa was the one to take him to get his vaccines and who discovered he had gone through a semester of school with a childhood block on his core, I have no way to separate those two.”

“What?” Lupin demanded, a growl in his voice. “What are you talking about–a block?”

Severus looked at Albus, who only sighed. Severus had to answer. “Draco told his parents that Potter’s glasses were inadequate, so they made an appointment for him to get new ones. During the conversation, Potter revealed that he had never been to a doctor, mediwitch, healer or nurse, and Narcissa immediately took him to St. Mungo’s where it turned out that he had missed all his vaccinations and he had childhood blocks on his magic still active and adhered to his core.”

Severus tried to keep his voice even, but Lupin’s subvocal growl filled the air with raw power that left Severus’s knees weak as he clung to his chair to avoid fleeing.

“Calm yourself,” said Albus in a mild tone.

“Calm myself?” Lupin half stood so now he looked ready to leap on the headmaster. Severus pulled his wand and kept it at his side, ready to cast a shield to defend himself.

“The only potential harm would have been to his metamorphmagus powers, a Black trait that I doubt James or Lily would have wanted Harry to have,” said Albus dismissively.

Lupin’s growl actually grew louder.

“Do not indulge your werewolf instincts, Remus,” the headmaster chided, and the reference to his werewolf nature made Lupin immediately stop.

“Why didn’t Harry get medical care?” he demanded.

“It was a simple oversight.”

“Oversight? How do you forget that children need medical care?”

Severus had often wondered that himself. “I had suggested that Albus put Bathsheda in charge of the boy’s needs. She would be an adequate guardian,” Severus said.

Lupin whirled around to stare at Severus. “You recommended that?”

Severus raised an eyebrow. “He is one of my Slytherins, even when he annoys me with his incessant bad habits.”

Lupin clenched his teeth, probably because he was ready to hex Severus for suggesting that Harry was not perfect. Severus knew the boy better than Lupin ever would. He knew the boy’s every fault and could number them easily. He also knew the boy had strength and goodness that outweighed them all, not that he would say as much to either of these men. Severus sighed and changed the subject. “The only incident of note tonight was that Narcissa introduced a hitherto unknown Black cousin–Castor Black.”

“A Black cousin?” That alarmed Albus. “What do you know about him?”

“He has an American accent and a strange way of casting, likely some Yank affectation. And before you ask, of course he is Dark aligned. I can feel the magic, but he has strong enough control that I do not believe he is susceptible to Black madness.”

“His wand?”

“It appears reddish in tone, although I have no way to tell whether it is red oak, blackthorne, redwood, cherry or even some treatment that gives the wood a false appearance. And wand cores is not a polite topic for casual conversation.”

“And his parents?”

“He’s an illegitimate son of Alphard, either that or the man had a secret marriage. No one named a mother, but they were also quite careful to avoid the subject of her life and schooling over dinner, even when Draco made subtle inquiries, so I suspect Alphard Black impregnated some squib or muggle girl. It would explain why the Blacks shuffled the child off to America.” Severus hated the relief he felt at offering up this information. He should only care about Harry’s safety, but whenever he could please his former masters, he felt a flush of temporary safety that revealed his selfish side.

After all, the Dark Lord could kill him as easily as a fly and Albus would need do nothing other than to file a politely worded request to the correct Ministry and he would be investigated, railroaded and shipped to Azkaban before he could protest.

Albus stroked his beard. “Impregnating a muggle–the Blacks would have done considerably more than exile the child.” Albus exchanged a long look with Lupin. Clearly they both knew something they chose to not share.

“Sirius always liked Alphard,” said Lupin, “although he thought Alphard kept his distance from the family because he was gay. If Alphard sent the child’s mother away and was trying to hide an illegitimate pregnancy, that would explain both why he kept his distance and why he left Sirius his flat and his vault.”

“What does any of this have to do with Sirius? Sirius was not born when this new cousin was conceived.”

Again, Lupin and Albus shared a look. Either they were intentionally aggravating Severus or they were utter fools who did not understand how annoying it would be to stand in the same room with someone sharing such a silent conversation. Lupin might be a fool, but Albus was not. However, Severus needed to ask about any heirs Sirius might have sired. If he had illegitimate children, he might be hiding with them. Perhaps Sirius hadn’t betrayed the Potters, but after a decade in Azkaban with people calling him a monster, there was every chance he had become one. The danger to Harry remained.

“Why did Castor come to the UK now?” Albus asked.

“He was sent an anonymous missive from the bank requesting he come in to test his lineage.” Not only had Severus practiced this line, but the Dark Lord had put every piece in place to support the lie. He had a house in Colorado; he had implanted memories of a reclusive neighbor into the local muggles and even a wizarding family or two, and he’d had Lucius send a letter to that American address from the bank. Albus would find no holes in this story.

Albus leaned back in his chair. “So the goblins are afraid Sirius will claim the Black Lordship.”

“He couldn’t take a seat in the Wizengamot. He’s a convicted murderer,” Lupin said, as if a seat in the Wizengamot wasn’t the least consequential benefit of claiming the Black magic.

Albus steepled his fingers. “It would give Sirius unfettered access to wealth the Blacks have hoarded for generations. The goblins must hope they can find another Black heir with a greater claim to the vaults than Harry.” Albus pinned Severus with another disappointed look. He had made his feelings more than clear when Harry had returned after last summer wearing the heirship ring.

“Harry won’t be able to stop Sirius from taking his place as the head of the family,” Albus continued. “After all, Sirius was the one who named Harry his heir, and Sirius can rescind that heirship. Was Castor Black successful in claiming the Lordship?”

“He didn’t wear a ring; that’s all I can say,” said Severus. Even if Castor Black were not the Dark Lord, he wouldn’t have revealed his past and all his political alliances to a virtual stranger.

“Interesting,” Albus mused. Hopefully the Dark Lord was prepared to endure the headmaster’s full attention because he had it.

“Is there anything else you need?” Severus asked.

“No, no. Have a good night, dear boy,” he said condescendingly. Severus bowed his head toward Albus in a mockery of a bow and then left him and Lupin to their schemes. The dungeons were quiet. A few students–mostly fifth and seventh years–had stayed behind to study, but they were all tucked away in bed. Peeves was haunting the corridor, but the moment Severus stepped off the stairs, the Bloody Baron appeared, and Peeves fled. The Blood Baron never spoke to Severus, and Severus never spoke to him. They walked together, side-by-side, to Severus’s office, and then the Baron floated away.

Severus went inside and let his masks fall. Harry had been introduced to the Dark Lord. Severus had to tell him the truth, but he had to do so in a way that Harry would make a rational decision and not panic. This could so easily send him into the headmaster’s murderous arms. After all, the Dark Lord had a legitimate reputation for murder and torture. Harry was not the sort of boy who would stand aside for violence.

He was like Lily that way.

Severus closed his eyes and silently berated himself for not listening to her point of view when he had the chance. Yes, she had disrespected his religious beliefs and ignored the joyous part of the Dark, but he had discounted the very real dangers. And he had assumed that anyone who protected the Dark was virtuous. Or at the very least, he had assumed they were sane.

Severus opened the secret door to his quarters when the office chime sounded. Severus wanted to ignore it, but it could be the headmaster or even Lucius, although Severus did assume the man had stayed home to get drunk. Pulling up his occlumency shields, he crossed the office and opened his office door to find Remus in the corridor.

“I wanted to talk to you.” Lupin hesitated. “About Harry.”

Severus wanted to slam the door in Lupin’s face, but Harry respected the man, which meant Severus had an obligation to be civil at the very least. At least Severus was not tortured by having Harry wax poetic about Hagrid. The giant’s willingness to retaliate against Draco by making the class feed flobberworms for weeks had damaged his own reputation more than Draco’s.

Without mitigating his scowl, Severus stepped back to allow Lupin inside. Even after Severus closed the door and sat behind his desk, Lupin stood shifting from foot to foot like a Slytherin child who had been caught cheating and called to account.

“Yes?” Severus asked, raising an eyebrow.

“What is going on with Albus and Harry?” he blurted.

This was curious. “What do you mean?”

Lupin threw himself into the chair across from Severus. “Albus won’t go to the Ministry and file his guardianship papers even though magic recognizes him as Harry’s official guardian. He could keep Harry safe–keep him away from Lucius Malfoy and the Black family, and instead he does nothing.”

“I am aware.” Severus studied the man, wondering if he would be an appropriate ally for Harry. There was a chance Severus would not survive into the next school year, and if Lupin was willing to challenge the headmaster, it would give Harry an adult who was not beholden to either side.

“Then explain it to me,” pleaded Lupin.

“I cannot.”

Lupin exploded out of his seat, and Severus was on his feet, wand in hand, within the second. Lupin froze. “Severus, you cannot believe I would attack you. I am not the werewolf. I am not a mindless Dark creature.”

Severus scoffed. “And did that stop you from being part of the group that undressed me in front of the entire class, that hexed me in the corridors, that mocked me for my poverty–a condition with which you now seem intimately acquainted with?”

“We were children. And you gave as good as you got.”

“I did,” admitted Severus. “Sometimes I even instigated the matter because I was sure James Potter was another pureblood bastard who would seduce an unsuspecting girl, ruin her reputation, and then abandon her.” If Severus’s own mother had a better reputation, she might have found a better husband than Tobias Snape or at least retained the favor of her parents long enough to escape the abuse. “I have seen that story too many times. However, none of that changes the fact that it was four against one or that you were never punished. Maybe if Albus had allowed Sirius Black to go to prison for six months for endangering my life, he would have reconsidered his poor life choices.” Such as trusting Albus Dumbledore, but that was not something Severus would say to Lupin.

“You thought James–” Lupin’s mouth opened and closed and opened again. It was exceptionally undignified. “James never would have done that to Lily.”

“I had no reason to trust purebloods.”

Lupin ran a hand over his face. “I didn’t know that’s what you were angry about.”

“And I had no reason to share my thoughts with you. However, I believe I have good cause to distrust you when it comes to my safety.”

Lupin sagged into his chair, all energy drained from him. He even put his head in his hand. “But why did you say that word to Lily if you were trying to protect her?”

Severus felt a stab of guilt and pain–one he well deserved. How would his life have been different if his anger hadn’t overtaken him for that one moment. “As you say, we were children.”

Lupin scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’m not violent, Severus. And I wish I would have stood up to James and Sirius back then. As you say, we were children, and I was deathly afraid of being rejected and hated by everyone. How did you put it–a condition with which you are now intimately acquainted.”

“Leave,” said Severus coldly.

Lupin looked up. “I apologize. Severus, you’re the only one I feel like will tell me anything important about Harry. All Minerva talks about is his academic progress, and while I am glad he’s doing so well in his studies, that is hardly the same as knowing how he’s doing. And Albus tells me that Harry’s in danger, that he’s associating with the wrong sort and needs to be protected from his own bad choices, but then you tell me that Albus hasn’t even seen to Harry’s most basic needs. What is going on?”

“Why don’t you ask Albus?”

Lupin threw his hands in the air. “You know how he is! He never gives me a straight answer about anything. So I’m coming to you.”

“I have no intention of giving you any answers at all.” Severus slowly settled back into his seat, his wand still in hand. He wondered if Lupin knew that Black was innocent. That might make him help his old friend, even if Azkaban had likely driven Black as mad as Bellatrix. Innocence ten years ago did not imply he was sane or safe now.

“Is Harry in danger?” Lupin demanded.

“He is the Boy-Who-Lived. His notoriety makes him a target, and it always will.” Severus blamed the headmaster for that myth, and he was glad the deification of the Potter name would soon come back to bite him on his garishly dressed ass. But creating the Potter myth had served his political needs.

“And Lucius? You and I both know what he was like in school. How can you let him near Harry?”

“And what was he like?” Severus asked.

“You know,” said Lupin darkly.

“I do know. He is arrogant, convinced of his own superiority. He respects money far too much for a wizard, and he knows how to make people like him. He is also intimately familiar with the flow of power, and he knows that the Boy-Who-Lived myth has power. He is also aware that if he pushes too hard he will lose access to the boy’s political influence.”

“He would also murder Harry in a heartbeat.”

Severus studied Lupin. “So, you are still convinced that Dark must mean violent. And here I had thought you had grown out of childish beliefs.” This was the moment Lupin had to choose a side, even if he didn’t know he was doing so. Harry was leaning Dark. He would never treat people as a means to his own political ends, but if Lupin couldn’t respect the Black family magic and Harry’s interest in rituals, it was best to drive him away from Hogwarts before his bleeding heart and potential ties to Sirius Black caused more trouble.

“Of course I don’t think that. Andromeda is dark. The Lovegoods are Dark. They are the most nonviolent people I know. But Lucius… he always treated people more like puppets or obstacles than people.”

Severus grimaced. He couldn’t argue the point. “He sees benefit in mentoring Potter, and that is paying off. He is becoming more and more popular in the Ministry for the changes he’s made to Hogwarts. When he announces something in the Wizengamot, the Gray party listens as carefully as the Dark, and parts of the Light are starting to question the rumors of Hogwart’s failing curriculum.”

“It’s not failing,” Lupin said.

Severus lifted an eyebrow.

“Okay, students were lacking in Defense. My third years couldn’t do what I would expect of first years at the end of the year. I mean, I know we had to deal with the revolving door of professors because of the curse, but there were standards.”

“That is no longer true. And while we had respectable Defense teachers, can you say the same of history?”

Lupin sighed. “No. So Albus is slipping, and Hogwarts and Harry are just the victims of his advancing age?”

Severus sighed. He needed to move carefully. Lupin had been one of Albus’s spies–one of his inner circle. It was not time to trust him yet. “I honestly don’t know. He leaves me out of more and more discussions–perhaps as punishment for not being able to separate Potter and Draco. But Draco was raised on stories of the Boy-Who-Lived, so if Albus has now been hoisted on a petard of his own making combined with Draco’s stubbornness, I am powerless to change it. Draco won’t be distracted, and Potter is annoyingly attached to his friends.”

“I noticed,” Lupin said. “Harry wants me to teach all of them the patronus. But one of his friends is Theo Nott. People who are that Dark can’t produce a patronus.”

For a moment, Severus was too shocked to speak. For someone with a mastery in Defense to believe such a discriminatory bit of codswollop was beyond the pale. However, he didn’t react. “You can only do your best. Most of the children will not be able to produce one, but Potter is powerful. Focus your attention on him.”

“You do care about him, don’t you?” Lupin asked, his voice soft.

“He is one of my Slytherins. When I took this post, I told myself that my students would never feel abandoned. I will not compromise my own beliefs just because I have been saddled with James Potter’s spawn.” Severus looked down his nose at Lupin, but the man had the audacity to smile at him.

“Maybe between the two of us we can keep him alive long enough to make James proud.” Maybe Lupin knew he had pushed too hard by invoking James’s name because he left the office before Severus could throw him out.

Chapter 29

Students returned to school shortly after New Year and the talk of Slytherin was the late gift Harry had received–a new Firebolt. Harry had first thought the Malfoys had gotten it for him, but when Draco didn’t get a matching broom, he knew they hadn’t. He’d even insisted that Mr. Malfoy contact Castor to see if he’d purchased it, but his new cousin had no idea where such an expensive gift had come from.

“It could have come from Black,” Hermione insisted. “It’s not safe to fly.”

Draco snorted. “My father sent it to the Firebolt factory, and they confirm it’s unaltered. So if Sirius Black sent it, he’s trying to butter Harry up before murdering him.”

Harry glared at him.

“Still, we should stay close,” Emilius said, as if he had been more than a dozen steps away from Harry at any point since moving into their dorm.

“I still think the dementors are the more serious danger,” said Harry. “Black has probably left the country. The only evidence we have that he was ever here was the word of a portrait too hysterical to stay in her frame.”

Theo looked thoughtful. “Still, I’m glad Mr. Malfoy checked the broom.” Theo fed more dry wood and leaves to the fires keeping his salamander alive. The big bonfire was keeping all the students in Care of Magical Creatures warm. Too warm in the case of Harry. He shed his scarf and went back to adding fuel to the fire. The flame-loving lizards scampered up and down the crumbling, white-hot logs.

“Do you think we could train a salamander to set Black on fire?” Theo mused. Emilius looked entirely too enthusiastic.

“Oh my god.” Hermione glared at them both.

“We wouldn’t let him burn alive. We’d kill him quickly once he dropped his wand,” Theo defended himself. Hermione’s mouth fell open.

She whirled around to Harry. “Are you going to let him say stuff like that?”

“Um… yes?” Harry was almost sure that was the wrong answer. “And what’s wrong with Ron?” He quickly changed the subject to the Gryffindor who was on the other side of the bonfire.

She rolled her eyes. “He keeps blaming my cat for scaring his rat into losing all his hair.”

“Is it?” asked Harry.

“No! It was mostly hairless this summer. It got sick when his family was in Egypt.”

“He’s really upset about it,” said Neville. “If he’s not going to come with us to ask Lupin for the patronus lessons, I guess I’m going to have to play the overly enthusiastic Gryffindor who wants to learn a new spell to be bold and reckless with it.” He sighed. “I’m not good at play acting, not like Ron.”

Hermione gave Theo a dark look. “Maybe Professor Lupin wouldn’t be so concerned about Slytherins if you didn’t joke about burning people and killing them.”

“I’m not,” Theo said, causing Harry to wince before he even finished. “I’m just saying that if Sirius Black tries to kill Harry, I am very willing to kill him.”

That had not improved anything.

“Hopefully Sirius Black is nowhere near. I don’t want to get killed, and I don’t want to kill anyone” (Harry’s mind slipped to Professor Lockhart) “and I don’t want anyone else to have to kill to protect me.”

Hermione’s expression turned sympathetic, and she put her burning branch down to rest a hand on his knee. “We’re safe here. Hogwarts’ wards will keep him out, and if he gets in, you know the professors will defend you. When I have nightmares about the Troll, I remember Professor Snape standing there with his wand. Sirius Black would never survive a duel with him.”

Neville gave the tiniest of squeaks, and Hermione changed the subject again. “So, occlumency!” she said too brightly and too loudly out of guilt for bringing up Neville’s greatest fear. A number of Gryffindors gave her cold looks and she ducked her head and leaned closer to Harry.

“They’ll regret it if we get to take a cool new class and they don’t,” she whispered.

“I think you startled them by shouting,” said Harry.

“Nope,” Neville said. “Hermione talked about the new crafting class in the common room, and Gryffindor is about sixty-fourty split with most thinking that occlumency and ritual are Dark and have no place in Hogwarts.”

“I’m not the most popular person over there right now,” Hermione confessed. Harry put an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him. “I feel like I’m never popular with them.”

“Me either,” said Neville. “I should have said more to defend you. Ron is angry with you, and he still went sailing into that fight. Literally. I can’t believe he punched Kenneth Towler.”

“Who?” asked Harry.

“He’s roommates with the Twins,” Hermione said as if it was no big deal for Ron to physically fight a boy two years older. “But Neville, you told them your gran had you study it, so you did your part,” Hermione assured him. “But I don’t understand why they’re so stubborn.”

“Why are older Slytherins so stubborn about believing that muggleborns have inferior magic?” Theo asked. “Some even believe that muggleborns steal magic from babies and that’s why old families have squib children with no magic at all. It’s stupid, but they believe it.”

“People don’t make sense to me,” said Hermione before she picked up her burning stick and tended the nearest salamander. That ended the conversation for the rest of class, and they trudged back up to the castle through the snow when Hagrid announced the end of the period.

Most of Harry’s friend group had Arithmancy, so they all trudged up to class together, happy to get out of the cold. Professor Vector went back to assigning scrolls and scrolls of homework. They had all thought she had gone soft since the beginning of the year, but apparently she had just needed to catch a second wind. But the best part of the day was Lupin who promised to start tutoring them on Thursday evening in the History of Magic classroom. The full moon had just passed and he had dark bruises under his eyes, but he looked almost enthusiastic about helping them.


At eight o’clock on Thursday evening, Harry and his Slytherin friends except Gregory, who had detention for missing his Tranfiguration homework, met Hermione and Neville outside the classroom door, and surprisingly Ron had come along. However, from the glares that passed between Ron and Hermione, not all was forgiven. Hermione practically hid behind Harry as they entered the dark, empty classroom. Theo started lighting the lamps and Harry and the others pushed desks back. It was only five minutes later that Professor Lupin came in carrying a large pacing case, which he heaved onto Professor Jones’s desk.

“What’s that?” asked Theo suspiciously.

“Another boggart,” said Lupin, stripping off his cloak to reveal one of the robes Harry had bought. “I’ve been searching the castle all week, and I found this one lurking inside Mr. Filch’s filing cabinet. It’s the nearest we’ll get to a real dementor. As long as Harry is closest, we can practice on him, and between lessons, I’ll store him in my office. There’s a desk drawer he’ll like.”

“Why do we need a boggart or a dementor?” Emilius asked. “Shouldn’t we learn to cast the spell before we learn to cast it at something?”

“You would think,” Lupin said, “but the magic I’m going to teach you, or try to teach you, is highly advanced. It summons a protector, and it’s easier to ask for protection if you can see a threat. Now, if you struggle or can’t cast the spell at all, remember, it is well beyond Ordinary Wizarding Level.

The classroom door opened and Luna wandered in. “Am I late?” Everyone turned to Harry, but he shrugged. He hadn’t invited her, but he wasn’t going to ask her to leave, either.

“We haven’t started yet,” said Harry.

She smiled. “Oh good.” She walked in and sat on one of the desks that had been pushed up against the wall. Professor Lupin looked confused, but maybe he knew from class how hard it was to convince her to change her mind, because he sighed and continued his lecture.

“A patronus is a type of anti-dementor–a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the dementor.”

Harry had a vision of himself crouching behind Professor Snape with his wand at the ready. Professor Lupin continued, “The patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the dementor feeds upon–hope, happiness, the desire to survive–but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the dementors can’t hurt it. But I must warn you that many wizards have difficulty with it.” He glanced over toward Theo and Draco. Both bristled at his implication.

“What does a patronus look like?” asked Harry. Theo’s books had contradicted themselves. Some said it was mist, others that the caster had no control over the form, others that the form would reflect the memory the caster used to summon the joy required to cast the spell.

“Each one is unique to the wizard who conjures it,” Lupin said.

“What form does yours take?” Emilius asked.

Lupin ignored him. “The incantation is–” Lupin cleared his throat. “Expecto Patronum! But as you say it, you must concentrate, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.” Harry cast his mind about for a happy memory. Nothing that had happened to him at the Dursleys’ would do. But since joining the wizarding world, he had found friends and joy. He could use the moment he’d stuck his head around the corner and seen Professor Snape alive, breathing heavily after he’d killed the troll.

No. That joy was tinged with fear. He could use the time last summer when he finally remembered Lockhart’s death. The memory hadn’t been joyful–satisfying, but not joyful–but when Professor Snape had sat next to him, his hand resting on Harry’s back, Harry had felt safe and accepted. For the first time, he trusted that an adult would never, ever turn on him. After all, Harry had put himself in danger, run away, and emotionally fallen apart, and Professor Snape had still stayed. However, that realization had also made him sad because he suspected he would have had that with his parents had they lived.

He could use the first time he’d seen Narcissa with his new glasses and she’d looked so delighted to have gotten him something he needed, or when he’d visited Grimmauld place and found the dark and narrow corridors replaced by inlaid marble floors and vaulted ceilings and tall, gothic windows that flooded the rooms with light that streamed in through colored glass.

None of those felt right. The first time he’d been on a broomstick–that had been wonderful and easy and Harry had wanted to laugh with delight.

“Concentrating on your happy memory everyone?” Professor Lupin asked. “Are we ready to try?”

Luna raised her wand and without a dementor–or boggart–in sight shouted, “Expecto Patronum!” Silver light streamed from her wand and coalesced into a hare that sat in front of Luna and twitched her nose.

Professor Lupin’s mouth was hanging open and Hermione grabbed Harry’s arm.

Luna laughed and clapped her hands, and her hare turned into dust that blew away.

“Luna, that was remarkable. Truly remarkable. It took me a month or more to get the first bits of wispy light. That was—” He ran out of words.

“Indescribably,” Draco said in a flat tone that Harry recognized as jealousy. “That pretty much describes Loony.”

Theo punched him in the arm.

“I’m sure I won’t do that well,” said Harry, forcing his thoughts back to his first broom ride. He tried to summon the feeling of freedom and joy. “Expecto Patronum. Expecto Patronum.”

“More emphasis on the second syllable of ‘expecto’,” Hermione advised him. Harry bit down on his frustration and adjusted his pronunciation after looking to Professor Lupin for confirmation.

“Expecto Patronum!” Harry summoned the feeling of flight–the freedom and power. Something wooshed out of the end of his wand; it looked like a wisp of silvery gas, which was far less impressive than Luna’s first try.

“Very good,” said Lupin, smiling. “Everyone needs to practice the incantation. Remember, it’s a simple swoosh with the wand and the important part is to focus on the memory. If everyone can get their wand to react, when we move onto the boggart, we’ll see how advanced you are.”

Theo and Emilius could produce vapor almost immediately. Draco was about to lose patience when his wand finally produced a thin stream of smoke that drifted to the floor, and Luna cast again, and this time her hare hopped about the room, following Professor Lupin, who seemed startled every time he caught sight of it.

Blaise got smoke next, leaving Ron and Hermione, and Hermione was almost in tears.

“Hey, you’re not going to get every spell faster than the rest of us,” said Harry as gently as he could.

“Yeah,” blurted Ron.

Hermione went from tears to fury in a heartbeat. Harry got the feeling Neville and Hermione had undersold the conflicts in Gryffindor tower. Harry slung an arm over Hermione’s shoulders and guided her away from Ron. “Let it go. You’re probably having trouble focusing on a happy memory because you’re aggravated with him.”

“You got it on your first real try,” said Hermione tearfully.

“I mispronounced the incantation twice and you had to help me,” said Harry. “Besides, I’ve been occluding longer, and that makes it easier to set aside feelings that annoy me.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “Ron Weasley does more than annoy me.” She straightened up, and stepped away from Harry. Harry frowned, suddenly uncomfortable in his own skin and how he felt about the distance between them. Harry looked over toward Ron who was scowling at them.

“Right then–ready to try it on a dementor?” Professor Lupin asked. Hermione’s back went stiff, and Harry imagined she was going to try to force the magic through her wand, which was the opposite of what she needed to do, but she would have to figure that out on her own.

“Harry, I need you up here unless we want a return of one of the other boggart forms.” He glanced toward Neville.

Harry gripped his wand very tightly and moved into the middle of the classroom. He tried to keep his mind on flying, but he feared that any second now he might hear his mother again. That memory was so painful, the magic she cast into the room so powerful that Harry worried he would never be able to control his reaction to that day.

Lupin grasped the lid of the packing case and pulled.

A dementor rose slowly from the box, its hooded face turned toward Harry, one glistening, scabbed hand gripping its cloak. The lamps around the classroom flickered and went out. The dementor stepped from the box and started to sweep silently toward Harry, drawing a deep, rattling breath just like Harry remembered from the train.

“Expecto Patronum!” Harry yelled. “Expecto Patronum!” But the classroom and the dementor were dissolving… Harry was falling again, through thick white fog, and his mother’s voice echoed faintly “Not Harry! Not Harry!” Harry jerked himself out of the memory, and Luna’s voice high and clear called out.

“Expecto Patronum!” It was almost funny to see the tiny hare hop madly after the dementor who took one look and fled back into the box, the lid slamming shut over it. Harry could feel Luna’s laughter and love of life radiate off the tiny, spectral hare and then it vanished with a pop.

“Are you all right?” asked Lupin.

“Yes.” Harry took a step back, and Hermione was there, her arm around his waist, and Harry wanted to lean into her forever.

“It was an excellent first attempt.” Lupin handed him a Chocolate Frog. “Eat this before we try again. We’ll have you sit near, but let’s work in pairs to cast the patronus. And Harry, if you get tired, we’ll need to stop.”

Harry stood a little straighter. “I’m fine. We all need this practice, and I’m the only one with a dementor boggart.”

“I don’t want to do this if it hurts Harry,” Emilius said softly.

“It’ll hurt him more if dementors suck out his soul because we couldn’t cast the spell,” Theo said with his usual subtlety. “Partner up so we can minimize how long Harry has to play boggart bait?” he asked.

Emilius nodded. Hermione had grabbed two chairs, and she insisted on sitting just behind Harry, holding his hand tightly as Professor Lupin opened the box with a quick spell. Emilius and Theo both cast quickly. A tiny stream too weak to reach the dementor came from Theo’s wand, and Emilius produced nothing. Just as Harry could hear his mother’s voice in the distance, Luna’s hare charged in, driving the dementor away. At least they knew the boggart would react like a dementor in the face of an actual patronus.

“That was terrible,” Emilius complained in a forlorn voice.

“None of that,” said Professor Lupin. “This is advanced magic. In fact, I am amazed any of you can cast the spell. The Ministry removed it from the OWLS because most fifth years who had all year to practice couldn’t produce one. All of you should be so proud of yourself.”

“Not me,” Hermione said miserably.

Harry tightened his hold on her hand. “You’re just too aggravated to have a happy memory. It’s okay.”

Blaise and Neville stepped up next. This time Blaise’s wand was silent, but Neville’s thin stream was actually stronger than it had been when he cast without the pseudo-dementor. But still, Luna had to send the boggart running. The others practiced in various pairs (except for Ron and Hermione who decided to sit out the practical part of the lesson until they could master the spell), but then Harry was ready to go again.

Harry searched his memories for a happier moment. Maybe when Slytherin had taken the quidditch cup and Professor Snape had stood with a smug expression on his face while Professor McGonagall had scowled. No, not that. It had actually been unkind of Professor Snape to rub her nose in Gryffindor’s loss.

No, he would remember the moment of the win, the feel of the snitch in his hand as he ended that last game knowing that he had brought the cup home for his house.

“Ready?” asked Lupin?

“Ready,” said Harry. Hermione took a step backward.

“Go!” said Lupin, pulling off the lid. The room went icily cold and dark once more. The dementor glided forward, drawing its breath; one rotting hand was extending toward Harry–

“Expecto Patronum!” Harry yelled. White fog obscured his senses… big blurred shapes were moving around him… then came a new voice, a man’s voice, shouting, panicking–

“Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off–”

The sounds of someone stumbling from a room–a door bursting open–a cackle of high pitched laughter–

Harry realized the trap. He had protected the memories from his mother’s death by exploring and accepting them, so the dementor had reached back for something new. It had pulled forward the memory of his father’s voice–the only memory Harry had of his father.

“Harry! Harry… wake up…”

“Lupin was tapping Harry hard on the face and all his friends were staring down at him in shock. It was a minute before Harry understood why he was lying on a dusty classroom floor.

“I heard my dad,” Harry mumbled. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard him–he tried to take on Voldemort himself, to give my mum time to run for it…”

Harry suddenly realized that there were tears on his face mingling with the sweat. He sat up and tried to rub his sleeve over his face before anyone saw.

Luna knelt down next to him and looked in his eyes. “You can’t defend what you don’t see,” she said apologetically, and Harry realized she hadn’t sent her hare to save him this time. She knew he needed to feel the memory long enough to be able to find it later.

“I know.”

She gave him a sad smile.

“You heard James?” said Lupin in a strange voice. Harry wondered if he was ready to admit that he had known James Potter.

Harry nodded.

Lupin looked shaken. “Perhaps we should leave it here for tonight. This charm is ridiculously advanced. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to this…”

“No!” said Harry. He got up again. “I’ll have one more go! I’m not thinking of happy enough things, that’s what it is… Hang on…” Joy. He needed joy.

The Black family magic seemed drawn to his request. It filled him with wonder–pure, simple joy as an emaciated hand reverently touched a new leaf. Bella. Harry remembered the overwhelming feeling as the family magic had finally understood what joy meant. He felt like he was the flock of ravens racing the storm clouds, dancing on the air currents.

“I’ve got it,” Harry said with confidence.

“Are you sure?” asked Lupin who looked like he was doing this against his better judgment. Harry nodded. “Concentrating hard? All right – go!”

He pulled the lid off the case and the dementor rose out of it once more. The room fell cold and dark–

“EXPECTO PATRONUM! Harry bellowed. His parents' voices were there, superimposed over each other, but they sounded as though they were coming from a badly turned radio–softer and full of static. He could see the dementor–it had halted–and then a silvery form flew out of Harry's wand on wings. Because it was a creature of light, it had no color, but Harry knew it would be black if it had. Then a second bird appeared and a third and a fourth. The dementor fled and a conspiracy of ghostly ravens radiating joy pursued it.

Lupin sprang forward and slammed the lid shut on the boggart, even as the birds dive-bombed the case, determined to reach their prey. This was Harry, but it was also the Black magic, and it was something cold and old that crept up Harry’s toes, and then with a loud crack, the flock of misty patronuses vanished.

Harry sank into a chair, feeling as exhausted as if he’d just run a mile. His legs shook.

“Wow,” Hermione whispered. Theo stared at Harry in worshipful awe that made Harry uncomfortable, and Draco blinked. Over and over, he blinked far too fast for normal blinking.

“Mate… that was…” Ron just stopped.

“Yep,” Blaise agreed. Harry wondered if it had been a mistake to bring Blaise because all of Slytherin was going to know about this by tomorrow.

“That was excellent!” Lupin said, striding over to where Harry sat. “Excellent Harry! You’ve exhausted yourself a bit, but with practice, you won’t overexert yourself so much. I can see why Minerva calls your spellcasting amazing. Here–” He gave Harry a good Honeyduke’s chocolate before passing them out to the rest of the students as well. “Practice the incantation during the week, but I want all of you to know that I am proud of each and every one of you. If my fifth years who are actually studying patronuses had been even half as successful as you, I would have been thrilled, but for third…” he glanced at Luna… “and second years to be able to perform such a spell. It’s unheard of.”

Harry wondered if now would be a good time to ask Professor Lupin about Sirius Black and what he remembered about him. He had as good as admitted that he knew Harry’s father by calling him ‘James’ so easily. If Harry asked about Sirius now, Professor Lupin wouldn’t have a chance to make up a lie. But he was so tired.

“Okay, you kids be off, now. It’s getting late.” Professor Lupin turned to the boggart box, and the moment slipped away.

Harry left the classroom feeling proud, but also drained. He hated that the only memory he had of his parents was of their deaths, their last moments replaying inside his head. But that was the only memory he would ever have. He didn’t know if that was better or worse than having no memories at all.

“You okay?” Draco asked softly. More than anyone, he knew how badly Harry missed his family. He saw how Harry held to Narcissa even as Draco chafed under her attention and wanted more freedoms.

“Yeah,” Harry said with a smile. He stopped at the stairs where the Gryffindors and Luna would climb up and the Slytherins would head down. “Thank you guys for coming. I know signing up for extra homework is no fun, and facing a dementor-boggart is even less fun than homework.”

“Homework is my boggart,” Ron said.

“I thought that was a spider,” Draco said. “I mean, you were foolish enough to show all of us that during the first class of the year.”

Ron narrowed his eyes. “Prat,” he snapped and then he headed up the stairs.

Draco rolled his eyes. “Unimaginative plebian.”

Luna laughed. “Thank you for inviting me.” She leaned in and kissed Harry’s cheek before she headed upstairs. Hermione watched with a very odd look on her face.

Blaise leaned close. “Did you invite her?”

“Nope,” Harry said.

“Her spell-casting is impressive.” Theo watched her disappear up the stairs.

“We only saw one spell from her,” Hermione argued.

“Come on,” said Neville as he got a hand under her elbow. “We need to get up to the tower before curfew and I forgot the password again. I can’t wait until the Fat Lady is back because Sir Cadogan keeps changing the passwords and threatening to skewer me. Good night.”

“Night,” Harry and the others answered before they headed for the dungeons.

“So,” said Draco once Theo had cast a privacy spell, “was that the Black magic or just you being ridiculously good at everything?”

“The first few times when I couldn’t do more than produce a wisp of mist was me. The birds… that was the Black magic. I wanted to find joy, and the Black magic rushed in. I didn’t even have a specific memory–just the feeling of the magic in me.”

Theo’s eyebrows went up. “The Black magic doesn’t have a reputation for being particularly joyous.”

Harry still couldn’t talk about what had happened in the ritual room. Some secrets were meant to belong to the head of the Black family. “The Black magic can become whatever the family needs.”

“So you turned it toward joy?” Draco asked incredulously. To be fair, all of the Slytherins looked doubtful.

“It’s not like every member of the family now has to feel joy all the time. It’s just… it’s what I needed.”

“You needed joy?” Theo asked slowly, like he had just encountered a strange new creature and he hadn’t decided if he wanted to poke it or run away screaming.

“Yes, I needed joy. So the magic brought it. But I am just as capable of getting annoyed at all you plonkers as I ever was.” He hurried into the Slytherin common room to find Gregory still wasn’t back. He must have really annoyed McGonagall.


Slytherin played Ravenclaw a week after the start of the term and only a few days after Harry had almost exhausted himself casting his patronus, but at least now he knew he could defend himself if the dementors broke through the headmaster’s wards again.

The game had been brutal–Ravenclaw was still the second best team after Slytherin, although Gryffindor was significantly better this year. Despite the difficulty, Harry loved the game. The Firebolt was a dream to ride. It responded like it could read Harry’s mind, but that couldn’t stop the Ravenclaw chasers from running the bludger all over the field.

Harry swooped and dived in his search for the snitch and to force the Ravenclaw seeker out of her logical search pattern. Over and over, he bluffed her into thinking he had spotted the snitch only to pull up once he had distracted her. She was looking a little homicidal within the first hour.

At one point, Harry could have sworn he saw a big, black dog sitting at the top of the stands, tongue lolling as it watched the game. Harry finally caught the snitch when Slytherin was behind by twenty, so they won, but not by a wide margin. As everyone walked back up the castle, the Gryffindor were busily figuring out who had to win by how much for them to claim the cup.

“That’s the most math you’ll ever see a Gryffindor do,” said Draco.

“They’re right, though,” said Flint. “That was a pathetic win. We could end up losing the cup, and that is not going to happen.” So Flint increased the number of practices, and so did Wood. Harry felt like he was always down on the quidditch pitch. And despite his early success with his patronus, Harry struggled to cast consistently. Sometimes he got mist, sometimes he got a single raven that would hover in front of him. Sometimes he cast and a flock of Black family ravens rushed out of him.

Harry envied Luna and her hare or even Hermione who struggled, but who was consistent. It hadn’t taken a proper form yet, but the mist had a nose and hovered close to the ground in a creature that was longer than it was tall. Ron had stopped coming, and that might have helped her cast as well. Harry would have assumed that Ron was upset with Hermione over the pet situation, but he spent more time glaring at Harry in their shared classes.

But between the patronus classes, which in themselves were more draining than six quidditch practices, and Flint’s obsession with quidditch, Harry had just two nights a week to do all his homework. Draco was the same, and he was about to either pull out all his hair or poison Flint. Poisoning Flint was looking more likely with each passing day. The sitting area of Harry’s room had become a scattered mess of Arithmancy charts, rune dictionaries, potion ingredients lists, crumbled scrolls and star charts.

Theo had suggested that Harry order Flint to hold fewer practices. Harry stared at Theo blankly and contemplated the sort of pain Flint would inflict on him if he even tried. Quidditch was the man’s only reason for living, and if Harry was going to be on his team, he had to accept that.

When Harry didn’t respond, Draco sighed and went back to writing his essay for Professor Snape on undetectable poisons. Given Draco’s current frustration with Flint, someone should probably warn Flint about the fervor with which Draco was attacking the assignment.

Robert Hawking, the sixth year prefect, stuck his head in the room and blinked in surprise at the size of the room before he crossed the front section and stood between Emilius’s bed and desk to talk to them. “Um, Professor Snape wants you in his office, Potter-Black.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Harry got up off the floor, abandoning his half-finished homework. He should have the elves look into replacing his coffee table with a proper study table if this workload continued.

Hawking waited until they were in the hall before he asked, “How did you get a bigger room?”

“I asked the snakes about switching Emilius into our room since the headmaster is strange about telling people what sex they are. When the snakes shifted the rooms for us, they redesigned it.”

“Oh.” Hawking cleared his throat and headed for the dueling room while Harry headed for Professor Snape’s office. Unsurprisingly, Theo was close behind. Harry had given up protesting that he didn’t need guards. He’d lost the fight, and he’d learned to lose quietly when the alternative was to lose after making a big fuss.

Harry was surprised that both Professor Snape and Mr. Malfoy were waiting for him, and Narcissa’s face was in a mirror that was set up on the corner of Snape’s desk. Harry immediately got a sinking feeling in his gut. “Did something happen?” he asked without greeting any of them.

Professor Snape was sitting behind his desk and he leaned forward, scowling at Harry. “I don’t know. Did something happen in Azkaban?”

“Did someone else escape?” If anyone else wanted him dead, Harry was transferring to South America. Sadly, Emilius and Theo would probably follow him.

Snape pinched the bridge of his nose and both Lucius and Narcissa had emotionless masks in place. “Did someone escape?” Harry asked. This had to be bad. So very bad.

“No,” Snape said, drawing the word out. “Potter, did you do something with the Black magic inside Azkaban?”

“Oh,” said Harry when he realized what they meant. “Were they upset about the tree?”

“You put it there?” Mr. Malfoy demanded, clearly shocked. “You breached the Azkaban wards? You cast magic inside the dampening fields they generate?”

“I wasn’t inside the wards,” Harry said, confused. How could wards affect him when he wasn’t there? “I was here. I just let the Black magic loose there.”

Snape sighed. “You need to explain what happened from the beginning, Potter.”

Harry knew the professor was upset when he resorted to that name. “I wanted to give Bellatrix a Yule gift,” he started, but Narcissa interrupted him.

“Bellatrix? Why? You don’t know her, and she did horrible things.”

Mr. Malfoy didn’t say anything, but he leaned forward.

“I can feel her in the family magic. She changed, didn’t she? When she was seven or eight, everything about her changed.”

For one horrible moment, Narcissa’s expression crumbled and she looked on the verge of tears.

Harry couldn’t tell them everything, but he could tell them who was to blame. “It was Walburga. She abused the family magic. Bellatrix is evil. She is, and I would never want her to be free to hurt anyone else. But between the Black magic and Azkaban, she’s broken. If you took her out of the prison, she couldn’t focus long enough to raise a wand.” That neatly omitted Harry’s part in her broken mind. If Harry hadn’t changed the magic so drastically, she would still be functional. Sadistic and psychotic, but functional. Harry wasn’t sure which would be worse, but he did know that Walburga was the true evil. “She didn’t choose to be like that, and I wanted her to have some happiness.”

“Is it that bad for her?” Narcissa asked, and Mr. Malfoy’s hand twitched like he wanted to touch his wife.

“No, it’s not bad at all. She doesn’t feel anything, not the cold or the hunger, or anything, and that’s why I gave her the tree.”

“Explain,” snapped Snape.

Harry gathered his thoughts so he could give a clear answer. “I searched the magic for her because she lives in it like no other Black. When I found her, I sent her warmth and blessings for Yule, but she couldn’t feel the warmth. It didn’t matter to her, so I felt like my gift wasn’t really a gift.” Harry flinched from the memory of the two rivers of magic that had dragged Bellatrix under. “So I felt around the cell and I found the seed of a tree that wanted to be there.”

“Wanted to be there?” Snape sounded on the verge of exploding in a flurry of detentions.

“It liked the water and it didn’t need much soil. It wanted to be there.” Harry didn’t have a better explanation. “So I moved the seed closer to the wall and fed it enough magic for it to grow. That way Bellatrix could have the tree to entertain her until the guards ripped it out again. She had been laying on the floor and watching an ant in fascination, so I figured a tree would keep her entertained for a long time. And she was happy when I left her. She was,” Harry addressed that to Narcissa, begging her to believe that he had given Bellatrix at least some joy.

Mr. Malfoy stared at the mirror like he could will himself through it, and Narcissa’s eyes were shining with tears. But what scared Harry was the way Professor Snape had his hand pressed over his eyes. “Did I do something wrong?”

Narcissa gave the most unladylike bray of laughter.

Professor Snape rubbed his face. “Did it occur to you that growing a tree using magic could pose a particular problem for anyone who wanted to remove it?”

“Um, no?”

Snape looked up at him. “No? NO? And did you think at all or did your blunder into this–” he cut himself off with a strangled noise that made Harry want to flee. Professor Snape breathed heavily for long, awkward moments. “Are you still feeding the tree any magic?” he asked slowly.

“No. I assumed the guards would cut it down.”

Mr. Malfoy spoke. “The guards would love to cut it down, but the tree has far too much magic. And every time they move Bellatrix away from the cell, she reappears to her cell by morning.”

“Oh,” Harry whispered.

“Oh. Is there anything else you would like to tell us?” Professor Snape asked in a dangerously quiet voice.

“Not really,” said Harry softly. “It’s just that the magic liked being able to give something back to her.”

Professor Snape stared at him for a long time. “Get out,” he finally said.

Harry bolted for the door. “Potter!” Professor Snape called, and Harry looked back. “Do not tell anyone. Not a single one of your friends, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter 30

January faded into February without the cold easing. The next Hogsmeade weekend was coming, and Hermione had started getting stranger than usual. She had thrown herself into patronus lessons, although personally Harry thought Ron’s absence from them did more good than all her practicing. However, after their regular Thursday class, she lingered after Professor Lupin had left, shifting her weight nervously.

“Are you okay?” Harry asked.

Blaise scoffed. “Are you truly that clueless?”

Harry looked around, and Emilius, Blaise, Theo and even Neville seemed to know something, and now Hermione was brilliant red. “What?” asked Harry.

“Yeah, what?” echoed Draco, who seemed as confused as Harry. Luna might have been confused, but she had found a particularly interesting shadow and didn’t seem to be paying them much attention.

“Harry, the young woman is interested in you, and given how often you touch her shoulder, her waist, her hand, I suspect you are equally interested in her,” said Blaise. “She is trying to get you alone, probably to ask you out.”

Hermione squeaked.

“What?” wailed Draco. “No! Absolutely not! When people in a friend group date, it gets weird and awkward and someone always gets their feelings hurt. There will be absolutely no dating. Besides, it’s not appropriate. Granger doesn’t even have anyone to negotiate for her.”

“Come on, Malfoy,” Theo said, taking Draco by the arm and dragging him toward the door.

“This cannot happen. It will be a disaster. You’ll all see when I’m right.”

“We’ll be waiting in the hall to walk you back to the dungeon,” Blaise said with a wink, first for Hermione and then for Harry. He was the last one out of the classroom, herding Luna out the door in front of him.

He closed the door just as Draco was loudly proclaiming, “You can’t leave them unchaperoned!” in a horrified tone.

Hermione sighed. “That didn’t go the way I planned. I’m so sorry I made it awkward. I should go.” She tried to leave, but Harry stepped into her path.

“You didn’t. Draco and Blaise… they made it very awkward. But I… um.” Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “I admire you.” That sounded weak, even to Harry, and Hermione wasn’t meeting his gaze. Harry tried again. “I don’t really know much about dating. The Dursley’s never even let me watch television, so I don’t know what happens on dates, but I think I’d like to try.”

Hermione looked at him from behind a curtain of untamed curls. “Really?”

Harry nodded.

When Hermione smiled, she made the room feel lighter. “I don’t really know what I’m doing, either. I always looked down on girls that watched silly television shows or read romances. I guess maybe that was a bad decision because all I know is that couples hold hands and write each other notes and argue about whether their partner is spending too much time looking at other people.”

“We could try holding hands,” Harry said. He wiped his sweaty hand on his robes and held it out. Hermione had never looked so shy as when she slipped her hand in his. Harry felt a rush of fondness, a giddiness that pulled on his magic.

“I thought maybe we could have some time alone during the next Hogsmeade weekend,” she suggested. “Everyone talks about Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Room.”

Harry sighed. “I wish we could, but with the dementors and Sirius Black out there, we’re going to get stalked, even if we ask for privacy. Maybe if we arrange someplace safe, we could negotiate them down to only having Theo in the actual room with us.”

“Theo?” Hermione sounded incredulous. “Theo is a borderline psychopath. He talks about killing people.”

“He talks about killing Sirius Black, a man that the newspaper talks about wanting to kill me. He might be less than discreet, but most of Slytherin and all the professors would raise their wands against Black.”

“If you need someone to play bodyguard, why not Blaise?”

“Blaise?” Harry demanded. “Blaise Zabini? The single biggest gossip in all of Slytherin? ‘Skip the ad, tell a Zabini’ Blaise?” Harry demanded, referencing the joke he had heard at least a dozen times in the common room. Heck, people said that in front of Blaise, and he laughed. Ironically, Blaise was awesome at keeping important secrets, but romantic gossip was like catnip to him.

“At least I wouldn’t have to worry about him hexing someone.”

“Oh, Blaise can throw hexes just fine,” said Harry, “but the chances are, both of them will stalk us, and so will Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape and Emilius. Draco and the others will be two steps behind them.”

Hermione wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t feel romantic.”

Harry sighed. “No, it doesn’t.”

She brightened. “Could we have a picnic by the lake?”

“Sure, but they’re all going to set up camp around the perimeter and Professor Snape will probably disillusion himself and stand six feet away so he can be close enough to step in if a dementor breaks through the ward line.”

Hermione sagged. “I just want to spend time alone with you. I feel like we’re always in the middle of a crowd,” said Hermione softly.

Harry understood her frustration. Even in his own dorm room, Harry always had people watching him. When the snakes had first altered his room, he’d felt guilty about the extra privacy. Now he couldn’t imagine living without it. He would have gone mad and hexed all his friends by now without it.

“How do you feel about house elves?” Harry asked.

“What are those?” Her eyes lit with curiosity.

“They run the Hogwarts kitchens, and it just so happens that I know someone who knows a Hufflepuff who told them how to get into the kitchens.” At the time, Harry hadn’t understood why Luna had told him about tickling the pear from one of the paintings to get it to turn into the doorknob to the kitchen door. He’d wondered if she was telling him to eat more or if she understood that he needed to get away from his friends sometime, but maybe she’d told him because of this moment.

“Do you want to hide in the kitchen?”

“They have tables. Maybe we can have lunch in the kitchen, and we can make the rest of our friends wait in the hallway so we have some privacy.”

“Making them wait in a corridor feels cruel.”

Harry shrugged. “It’s their choice, and I stopped complaining about them treating me like I’m fragile. I just lose the argument. But what do you say? Do you think that tomorrow night you might want to have dinner with me in the privacy of the kitchen?”

Hermione smiled and squeezed his hand. “That sounds wonderful.” The silence that followed grew steadily more awkward.

“Did you see about Sirius Black in the Daily Prophet this morning?” she blurted.

“No. I’m struggling to keep up with homework and anti-dementor lessons and demented Flint’s quidditch schedule.” He pulled her toward a chair so he could sit without letting go of her hand. Patronus lessons still left him weak-kneed, even on a good week. And this had not been a good week.

“The Ministry has given the dementors permission to perform the Denentor’s Kiss. They don’t have to take him in front of a judge or take him back to prison or anything. The first dementor to find him just gets to kiss him and suck out his soul.”

The warm tingles Harry had gotten from touching Hermione vanished. “Oh.” Sirius Black was a cousin. Harry had read about the Dementor’s Kiss–about how it left a victim comatose, their brain and heart working to maintain a shell of a body with no memories, no sense of self, no desire, no awareness. It was something far worse than what Bellatrix suffered when the Black magic broke her.

Wizards believed when dementors did that, the soul was consumed–gone forever. Harry wasn’t as sure about that, but it terrified him to think it might be true. Harry didn’t fear death. He hadn’t since he was a little boy in the cupboard and he’d read a book on different religions. Heaven, reincarnation, having your soul join the universe–it had all sounded better than his dusty little cupboard with spiders as roommates.

But having his soul eaten? Destroyed? That terrified him.

“We should go back to our dorms,” said Hermione. Harry agreed, and when they opened the door, the group was leaning against walls, waiting. Blaise looked impossible amused; Draco seemed even more impossibly outraged.

“No, say nothing!” Harry snapped.

Draco’s mouth had been open, but he snapped it close. However, his stubbornness overcame his usual desire to avoid conflict inside the group. Conflict with outsiders? Draco reveled in that. But he wanted their group to stay united–except for Ron. Even when Ron was friendly with the group, Draco antagonized him.

“I’m going to say ‘I told you so,’” said Draco.

“And we’ll tell you to shut up,” countered Theo. And with that, they all headed back to their dorms.

Dating didn’t actually change much. The next day, Hermione claimed a spot next to Harry, and they held hands as they walked to class. Emilius and Theo had an intense conversation with their eyebrows before shifting around to keep both Hermoine and Harry between them.

Hermione was not amused. “I can defend myself,” she snapped as they were going to a late afternoon Astronomy class.

“So can I, but they do this to me,” Harry said.

Emilius gave both of them pitying looks. “And if Sirius Black jumps out from behind a tapestry, are you going to be fast enough to cast a shield against a Death Eater?” he asked.

Harry grimaced; however, Hermione was not as quick to concede defeat on the issue of the honor guard. “How is Sirius Black going to supposedly get into the castle?”

“How did he get in before?” Theo lifted an eyebrow in challenge. If Hermione dueled with him instead of Emilius, she would be a little intimidated by that expression.

“I’m sure the professors know and they’ve increased security.”

Theo looked unimpressed. “You’re the one who was trapped in a toilet by a troll, and you trust the professors’ security measures?”

Twin spots of pink appeared on Hermione’s cheeks.

“Give it up,” Draco advised her. “They’re both annoying, but they’re not going to stop.” He opened the door to the Astronomy room and Theo bolted ahead, checking the room before the rest of them could go in.

“He acts like he’s a Queen’s guard.”

“As good as,” Emilius said, which confused Hermione, but Harry pulled her into the classroom. He didn’t need her asking why his Slytherin dormmates considered him some sort of royalty. She had too many clues already, and while he trusted her, Gryffindors and secrets weren’t a great combination. Harry even wondered if someone had leaked the secret of his parselmouth in Gryffindor tower. Hagrid had brought in a dozen fenny snakes, and Thomas and Finnegan had spent the whole class period staring at Harry. Even Draco had commented on it.

So he was twitchy about telling any Gryffindor about his position as head of House Black. He didn’t think Hermione or Neville would tell anyone intentionally, but sometimes they didn’t treat secrets as carefully as Slytherins would. They were slower to cast a privacy charm and they didn’t think about ways someone could steal information, like legilimency. Twice someone even had to give Neville back his list of Gryffindor passwords for the week because he’d left it lying around on a desk. He just didn’t seem to guard the secret codes as well as a Slytherin would have.

By the time dinner came, Harry was so sweaty that he kept slipping his hand out of Hermione’s and wiping it on his robe. Draco cast a very unimpressed look at the shiny spot by Harry’s pocket. But then it was time. Harry insisted on going to the Great Hall so Emilius and Theo could grab food because he knew they wouldn’t move from the kitchen door.

Both had argued they should come inside, but Harry had put his foot down. There were no other exits from the kitchen because elves popped everywhere, and he needed time alone, not more time with them watching him from the corners of his eyes.

Inside the kitchen, Hermione sank into one of the short benches and eeped in surprise when a half dozen elves threw themselves forward and offered to get them anything they wanted. Harry was used to it by now, and he knew how to make an elf happy. “Hermione and I are on our first date, and I wanted to show her how wonderful the house elves of Hogwarts are, so I was hoping you could impress her, but don’t make more food that two students can eat.” Harry had learned to put an upper limit on the request when talking to a house elf.

The elves flapped their ears and one did a little dance before they all disappeared into the crowd of elves still preparing food and magically retrieving dishes from the great hall.

“I’m sorry Theo and Emilius are annoying you,” said Harry.

“Are they like that everyday? How did I not notice? They’re overbearing.”

Harry shrugged. “They worry about me. There have been more than a few attacks on Hogwart’s grounds, and they don’t want me to die while they’re off playing exploding snap.”

“I’d be the one to snap if I had to live like that. And I thought Gryffindor tower was awkward.” She huffed.

“What’s going on in the tower?”

“Nothing,” Hermione said, but her eyes were shiny with tears. “So, house elves? Do they do all the work around here?”

Harry watched the elves scurrying around the kitchens carrying piles of food bigger than themselves. “They attach themselves to places with a lot of magic–magical schools, shrines, sacred forests, and the larger manors or older homes of well-established magical families. They share magic with the land, and they generate magic through the appreciation they get from those they serve.”

Hermione watched. “There’s nothing about them in our Care of Magical Creatures book.”

“You don’t care for an elf,” Harry explained. “You let them care for you.”

“How do you know about them?”

“Malfoy manor has several.” Harry studied her, and he could see she was still distracted.

“What’s going on in the tower?” Harry asked again.

A tear slipped free, and Hermione wiped it off angrily. “I hate crying. Only girly girls cry.”

Harry thought about Professor Snape rocking his mother’s body, his sobs filling the room. “That’s not true. I’ve seen some of the strongest men I know cry when they felt like they failed someone they loved.”

A few more tears ran over her cheeks. “Ron’s rat disappeared, and I’m afraid Crookshanks might have killed him. I tried to keep him away from the boy’s dorm. I found a spell–a boundary spell–and I tried to cast it, but either I cast it wrong or Crookshanks is resistant to magic because he’s a keasle, but I think he got into Ron's room.”

“Ron must be devastated.”

Hermione nodded. “But that’s not the bad part. I didn’t want to admit that my spell failed and I’m just so tired of Ron blaming me for not helping him with his potions homework and not explaining muggle terms and not controlling my cat. And he’s been so much worse since he left our patronus lessons. He’s making me miserable, so whatever he said, I just said the opposite. So when he said Crookshanks had killed Scabbers, I told him he had no evidence and his rat was so old it probably just hid somewhere to die of natural causes.”

“What happened then?”

She gave a ragged laugh. “You know how Ron is. He’s furious, and the twins tried joking with him and even offered him money for a new rat, pointing out that Scabbers was old and kinda gross, but he just wouldn’t let it go. He said some really mean things.”

Harry squeezed her hand. “I”m sorry.”

She looked at him with shining eyes. “You’re the only one who shouldn’t be apologizing. I know I should, but I can’t if he won’t, and he’s so angry.”

“Ron’s more emotional,” said Harry. “He’ll come around.”

“Maybe.” She leaned into him, and Harry slipped his arm around her waist. Touching someone felt so good. They sat there, and then an elf came with a bowl of gnocchi with walnuts and green leaves scattered across the top.

“Enjoy,” she squeaked as she put one bowl down and then two sets of silverware popped into existence. Hermione gave Harry a shy smile before she picked up her silverware and started eating.

Harry took one bite, and he was lost in the buttery, pillowy, herby, nutty glory. He’d had fancy food at the Malfoys, but this could match anything that had ever appeared at the Malfoy table. He groaned in pleasure. “I could die now and be happy,” Harry said.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” Hermione agreed with her mouth full. The elf squeaked and vanished in a flurry of flapping hands and ears. Dobby was not the only elf to get a little strange when he was excited. Harry wondered if he should confess about the bloodline bonds most old families used if elves wanted to live on their properties, but he decided to avoid any Dark topics on a first date.

“They are artists, and they love having their art appreciated,” Harry said. He didn’t explain more because he wanted to eat the gnocchi. Dinner was silent, but it was nice having time with just Hermione. The rattling of dishes and the scurrying of elves about the kitchens didn’t distract him the way student conversations did, and Harry only realized he’d been tense when he started to relax. Hermione ohhed and awwwed when the elves then served them roast chicken on focaccia, again offering them one plate to share.

Harry was too-full when the elves finished by offering two perfectly jiggly coconut, passionfruit panna cottas. Harry felt like he’d eaten enough for ten people, but he couldn’t stop until every bit of the wonderful dinner was gone.

“Someone is going to have to roll me up the stairs,” Hermione said. “I’ve never eaten so much, but it was wonderful.” She smiled at the half-dozen elves who had gathered around to watch them finish. “Thank you. All of you.”

“I wish I could eat like that every day, but I’d get so fat I wouldn’t be able to duel anymore, and I do like dueling,” said Harry. “Thank you for giving us a wonderful first date.”

“We’s be here for any time you’s be wanting to have dinner in here,” the elves said, and then with much flapping, they popped away, and all the dirty dishes vanished with them.

Harry took Hermione’s hand and leaned closer. She leaned in too, and their lips touched. It was so strange. Harry didn’t know where to put his second hand, and he was suddenly hyper aware of his breathing. Every breath puffed into her face, so Harry tried holding his breath. Then she moved her lips, and Harry tried to mimic her movements, but his nose hit hers and it was just weird and strange and uncomfortable.

Harry pulled back and offered her an apologetic smile. He was about to promise to do better next time, but Hermione said, “That was perfect.”

“Um, yeah.” They sat at the table talking about her parents and his summer with the Malfoys and their homework until it was so late that they would both need to hurry back to their dorms. When they stood, Harry said, “Thank you for a wonderful first date.”

“Thank you for inviting me even though my attempts at flirting were really terrible.”

“I don’t know how to flirt at all, so you’re ahead of me.” Harry helped her to her feet. When they opened the kitchen door, Emilius, Theo and Neville were doing their homework on a conjured coffee table with a stone patterned top that hinted at its real form.

“Blaise and Draco tried to stay, but we chanced them away,” Neville said. “How was your date?”

“Wonderful, but I’m so full I don’t think I can walk. The elves do amazing work. And I thought the food in the Great Hall was wonderful. I mean, it is, but it can’t compare to what they just served. And I’m babbling. Someone stop me from babbling.” She looked to Harry in desperation

Harry felt the pressure to kiss her, but he didn’t want to demonstrate his great lack of skill in front of Blaise. So he cupped her cheek with one hand. “You are perfect just the way you are, babbling and all.”

Blaise gave Harry a thumbs up gesture behind Hermione’s back, and Neville put an elbow in his stomach.


Harry and Hermione continued to date over the following days, but they didn’t get another chance to practice kissing because their friends were always around. When the Gryffindor-Ravenclaw game came, they chose to sit in the Hufflepuff stands as a sort of neutral ground. Theo was quietly furious because that put them closer to the Forbidden Forest and the dementors patrolling it, but Harry ignored him, and Theo settled two rows back and sat facing the forest instead of the game.

The Hufflepuffs all looked mildly alarmed at the invasion of Slytherins and Gryffindors, and then Luna came over dragging another Ravenclaw. “This is Lisa,” she said and then she dropped down next to Emilius and opened an oversized bag and pulled out a lion’s head hood. She slipped it on, and the face started to move.

Harry was amazed at the spellwork. “Did you charm that?” he asked.

She was sitting in front of him, so she had to turn around. “Thank you. I don’t think I charmed the eyes right, but I’m very proud of the roar.” Draco was at Harry’s side opposite of Hermione and poked her on the shoulder.

“How am I supposed to see the game with you wearing that?”

“You brought a book of defensive spells because you’re sick of quidditch and you’re only playing to maintain your position in the house,” Luna said sweetly. Susan looked around, alarmed and confused. Harry understood because Draco had hexed people for far less.

Instead of getting angry, Draco blinked at her.

“Really?” Harry asked.

Draco wrinkled his nose. “It’s not that I don’t like it anymore. I’m just sick of Flint’s practice schedule and I wish you’d put your foot down with him. If I quit, everyone is going to call me weak. But I have grades to maintain.”

Harry knew Draco was really stressed. “I’ll talk to Flint, but I can’t promise anything,” Harry said.

Hermione smiled brightly. “How can he say no to his star seeker?”

For a while, they were caught up in the excitement of the game. The first time Gryffindor scored, the roar of Luna’s lion-hood was deafening. Normally Harry spent his time during games analyzing the other teams, and he was a little. Gryffindor and Ravenclaw both had strong seekers. Cho was vicious on a broom, and Ginny was shaping up to be a killer player, but Harry was also focused on the way his thigh pressed against Hermione’s, and exactly where his hand was around her waist.

It was exciting and scary and it made Harry flush with warmth to sit so close where everyone could see. Everyone knew that he liked Hermione and Hermione Granger liked him. After all, she was resting her hand on his knee and leaning closer.

“Is that a grim?” Lisa asked in alarm. Harry looked over and a big black dog sat at the edge of the forest. It almost seemed to be watching them.

“It’s just a stray dog that lives in the area,” said Harry. “Hagrid is probably feeding him.”

“It’s huge.” Lisa was clearly not reassured.

“That would make Hagrid more likely to like it,” said Hermione.

Luna looked over and smiled at the dog. “I think he likes to see Ravenclaws and Gryffindors and Slytherins all sitting together in the Hufflepuff stands. It's confusing, but he likes it.” Then she turned her attention back to the game.

Harry frowned and leaned closer to Hermione. “Is that a magical dog or is Luna suggesting that a common dog can have opinions about inter-house cooperation?”

“I don’t know,” Hermione said, but now she was studying it. “It looks thin. If Hagrid’s feeding it, he needs to feed it more.” Their conversation was cut off when Luna’s lionhead issued another mighty roar, and when Harry looked back, the dog was gone.

Chapter 31

Harry woke to a doe patronus gliding into the room, lighting the whole room. Professor Snape’s voice filled the room. “Sirius Black broke into the castle again. Get all your allies into your room and have Nott raise his wards. Do not go into the common room with the others. The professors will search the castle.”

The wisps of light from the patronus swirled around the room and then vanished. Emilius appeared in the arch in his pajamas, wand in hand. “I’ll get Draco and Gregory.” He turned and dashed out of the room.

By the time Harry got out of bed, Blaise and Theo were both up and armed. “How does Black keep getting in the castle?” Harry asked.

“Excellent question,” Theo said in a grim voice.

Blaise pulled out a box and started sorting through what looked like envelopes. He pulled one out and unfolded a parchment. After a second, he folded it and pulled out another one. He continued this four or five times, but when Emilius escorted Draco and Gregory into their room, Blaise slipped his box under his pillow.

“What’s going on?” Draco’s hair was flat on one side and it stuck up on the other. Gregory looked around, realized everyone else had their wands out, and pulled his. Draco stopped, but then he yelped and lurched forward when Theo sent a stinging hex toward his backside. “Hey!”

“Sirius Black’s in the castle,” Harry said. “Move so Theo can set the wards.” The hallway outside was loud now. Other students were up and moving around.

“What?” Draco yelped. “But… how?”

Theo snapped his wand through the air, and Harry felt malevolence and danger far stronger than ever before. Whatever spell Theo had just cast was not Light or legal. He gave Theo a wide-eyed look of panic.

“Black is not getting in here,” Theo said fiercely. “Stay back from the door.”

“What if the prefects come in here?” demanded Draco, which was a reasonable question.

“No prefect could unlock that door,” Theo said. “Not every Death Eater would be able to.” His expression was grim, so Harry assumed he wasn’t exaggerating.

Harry looked around. “So, what do we do?”

They all stared at each other blankly. “I still don’t know exactly what’s going on,” Draco complained.

Blaise answered. “Black got into Gryffindor tower. Someone left a list of passwords laying around, and he must have found it.”

Harry winced. Everyone in the room knew who kept losing his list of passwords. “Was anyone hurt?”

“Ron Weasley woke everyone up saying that Black was standing over him with a knife, but I don’t think anyone was actually hurt because it seems like no one believed him at first.” Blaise definitely knew a lot for someone who hadn’t left the room.

“But…” Draco rubbed his face. “Why would Black go after Weasley?”

“Could he be insane?” Harry asked. “Maybe he keeps going to Gryffindor tower because he thinks he’s still a student here. Maybe Ron is in his old bed.” Harry didn’t tell them that he knew Sirius was innocent of betraying his parents because Pettigrew had been the actual traitor. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t want to share the memories he had of his parents. Sure, he’d shared them with Professor Snape, but he had known James and Lily Potter.

“Or maybe he’s too insane to make any rational choices,” Theo said, “which doesn’t make him less dangerous. In fact, self-preservation limits how much Dark magic a user can cast. If Black is insane, he’s more dangerous than ever.”

Draco sat on the edge of Blaise’s bed. “So, what are we supposed to do now?”

“Stay here,” Harry said. “Professor Snape was very clear about that. He said that even if all the other students were in the common room, we should stay in here.” Harry frowned. “But if Sirius Black gets into Slytherin, I feel like we should help protect the younger students.”

“No,” Theo said fiercely.

Blaise sighed. “I’m not going to be able to sleep. Who wants to work on the Transfiguration essay?”

“We might as well.” Draco glared at Harry. “You’d better talk to Flint and get him to cancel tomorrow’s practice because if I don’t get to catch up on my sleep, I’m going to make everyone else miserable.”

Gregory gave Harry a desperate look.

“I’ll talk to him,” Harry promised.

Throughout the next day, everywhere they went they saw signs of tighter security; Professor Flitwick taught the castle doors to recognize a large picture of Sirius Black. Filch bustled up and down the corridors, boarding up everything from tiny cracks in the walls to mouse holes. Harry wondered if Black could turn himself into vapor or if Filch was just being paranoid.

Apparently Sir Cadogan had been fired for allowing a strange man into the tower. McGonagall had exiled him back to an abandoned seventh floor corridor and Gryffindor's old portrait was back. In class, Neville looked like he had back in their first year. He practically disappeared into the corners and hid among the Slytherins. Some of the idiot Gryffindors loudly whispered that it had probably been some plot Neville had hatched with Slytherin.

Ron, on the other hand, was an instant celebrity. He loudly told the story of waking up to find the skeletal man with filthy hair looming over him. “Then I yelled,” he explained for about the third time that morning, “and he scampered.”

Ron leaned closer to a group of second-year girls who watched him with wide eyes. “But why, though? Why did he run?”

Harry wondered the same thing. However, he knew from his contact with Bellatrix’s mind that he couldn’t expect reasonable responses from a madman. The louder Ron talked, the smaller Neville looked until Hermione twitched his elbow. “Come on. Let’s visit the library.”

Neville followed her lead without comment. McGonagall had banned him from all future Hogsmeade visits, given him a detention, and forbidden anyone to give him the password into the tower. He was supposed to wait outside the common room for someone to let him in. That seemed terribly irresponsible and dangerous to Harry. Sure, the headmaster had hired security for Gryffindor tower, but if Sirius Black got past them, and recent history suggested he could, then Neville would be trapped at the top of a set of stairs with no way to get to safety.

“You okay?” Harry asked. Theo and Emilius walked in front an in back, their fingers constantly twitching like they wanted to pull their wands, but they were largely alone Apparently everyone had been up in the middle of the night, and most of the students had chosen to either grab a lunch and find a quiet corner to stared blearily at a wall or had gone back to bed for an hour or two.

“I’m better than Ron. My life wasn’t the one in danger,” said Neville miserably.

“If that horrible portrait hadn’t changed the passwords so often, it wouldn’t have been an issue,” said Hermione. “You haven’t needed to write passwords down since first year.”

“But I should have paid more attention to where I put the list.” Neville sniffed. “I was just so paranoid about losing it that I kept taking it out to check that I still had it, but I must have not put it away. I could have gotten Ron killed.”

“I don’t think so.” Harry leaned closer. “If he wanted to kill Ron, all he had to do was to bring that knife down or cast a silencing spell or a quick killing curse. But he didn’t do any of it.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “What are you saying?”

“Black’s behavior doesn’t make any sense, and that usually means there are facts we don’t know.”

“Like what?” asked Neville.

“I don’t know.” Harry didn’t. Even if Sirius Black had never sided with the Dark Lord, he’d been in Azkaban for ten years. The headmaster had to have a reason for letting one of his former allies suffer, and Mr. Malfoy had finally admitted to Draco that Sirius Black had fought with Dumbledore’s vigilantes in the last war. But if Black had retained even an ounce of reason, he had some reason for wanting to get into Gryffindor tower. Maybe there was a secret passage or chamber up there like in the dungeons.

Neville offered Harry a wan smile. “I appreciate you trying to cheer me up, but I think I’m going to lay down for a while.” Harry watched Neville trudge away, his shoulders stooped.

“I’ll make sure he gets up there safe,” Emilius offered before following.

That left Harry and Hermione as close to alone as possible. Harry pulled her toward a window seat set into the stone wall and then cast a special privacy charm, one that created a curtain of shimmer that gave an illusion of a physical barrier.

“I was worried about you,” Harry said. He twined his fingers with Hermione’s. “Blaise somehow knew Sirius Black had broken into your tower, and I had no way to get to you.”

“I can take care of myself,” she said firmly.

“So can I, but I’m safer when I have Theo and Emilius and all the others to help watch my back.” Even Gregory would throw himself into a fight, although if it was being fought with wands, he would get knocked on his butt. Gregory was better with punching people. “Who watches your back?”

“Neville has been loads better since he got his new wand. I would have him at my side in a fight any day of the week, and the twins would protect me, and their annoying older brother would stand between me and Sirius Black, even if it was only to lecture him about how he was breaking the rules and disgracing the Gryffindor reputation. I have lots of good people who will look out for me.”

She ran her fingers over Harry’s cheek, and a tingle went down his spine. “I appreciate that you worried about me, but you’re his real target. You need to keep yourself safe.” She gave him a secret smile. “You wanted to leave your room and Theo made you stay in it, didn’t he?”

Harry gave a wry grin. “Maybe.”

She chuckled. And then she was leaning closer. Harry had visualized this moment, plotted and planned for where to put his nose and his hand and how to improve his lackluster performance. They aligned their noses correctly, and Harry pressed his lips more firmly against hers. She groaned, and Harry thought that was a good sign, but then he realized that his hand had missed the mark. Instead of resting on her upper arm, he had shifted too far inward and he was touching what he ought not touch.

Harry gasped in horror, and knocked his teeth against her lip. “Ouch!” Hermione yelped as she jerked back. She hit the back of her head against the stone wall, and when she tried to grab her head, she hit Harry in the chin.

For a terrible second, they stared at each other, eyes wide, and each of them hurting. Then Hermione started to laugh, and the sound was contagious. Soon they were both laughing. “I’m so sorry,” Harry said.

“No, I’m sorry. I thought I could do it better this time.”

“Maybe we just need practice,” suggested Harry cautiously.

“Excellent plan.” Hermione leaned close, and Harry thought she was going to kiss him again. And she did, but it was more like how Narcissa would kiss Draco’s forehead. Affectionate, but quick and almost absent-minded. Her lips had barely touched his before she was pulling back. “Neville doesn’t have the password, and I don’t know if anyone will be there to let him into the tower. I should make sure he’s okay.” Without waiting for an answer, she walked through Harry’s painstakingly learned privacy spell and vanished.

Harry sighed and canceled the spell.

Theo was leaning against the far wall, his gaze sweeping the corridor. “Trouble?”

“Shut up,” Harry said without any heat. Theo laughed at him.

“You can’t read and watch for homicidal maniacs at the same time. Let’s head back to the dorm,” Harry suggested. Poor Theo did not have as much reading time this year, and it was all Harry’s fault. Sort of. Theo didn’t need to assign himself bodyguard duty.

The halls were eerily quiet and Harry breathed a sigh of relief when they reached their room. He threw himself onto his sofa and Theo sat on the other end. “You okay?” Theo asked.


“Are you worried about the unstable and homicidal convict potentially trying to murder you or your relationship with Hermione?”


“Of course.”

Harry grinned at Theo. “I guess I’m trying to figure out how I feel. How do you know if you really like a girl?”

“I hear some boys talk about how they can imagine a future with the girl. They can imagine themselves ten years in the future looking at her across the dinner table.”

Harry had no idea where he would be in ten years, much less envision a partner–any partner. “How do you know? When you like a girl, what do you feel?”

Theo pulled a foot up under him. “I told you that my father wants me to marry a half-blood or muggleborn.” He hesitated and Harry shifted to face him, waiting. Finally, Theo said, “But my father was a Death Eater and everyone knows it. Most of the muggleborns avoid me. The half-bloods like Emilius avoided me until you forgave me. So I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get any girl to look at me. I try to avoid thinking about it.”

“That’s sad.” Harry didn’t think Theo should be judged by his father’s politics. He did wonder, though, how Mr. Nott reconciled wanting a halfblood or muggleborn daughter-in-law with following an unstable and homicidal Dark Lord who murdered muggleborns. The politics was so much more complex than Light versus Dark.

Theo gave him a long look. “I would rather have girls ignore me than have half of Slytherin plotting how to get a marriage contract with me. Like you.”

“What?” Harry’s voice broke.

Theo laughed. “You’d better hope the Malfoys never get official custody of you because most of the old families with girls have sent gifts of interest, and I know of at least two Slytherin boys who have asked their parents to do the same. If the Malfoys had the power to sign a contract of interest, they would face a lot of pressure to do it.”

“What? Why?” Panic grew in Harry’s stomach. “I haven’t seen any gifts.” Harry clung to the hope that Theo was making that up or at the very least exaggerating.

“Mr. Malfoy probably wants to avoid any accusations of favoritism. If he gives you the gifts and then you like one more than another, it will give certain families hope that you might look at their daughters… or sons.”

“But… but…” Harry’s mind blanked out.

“As long as the headmaster is your magical guardian, it’s a moot point. The only girl you need to worry about is Hermione.”

Harry’s acute panic faded into the discomfort he felt any time he spent too much time thinking about Hermione. “I like her, I really do.”

“You should. She’s brilliant and vicious with a wand,” Theo said. Harry wondered if Theo had ever fantasized about seeing Hermione over the dinner table in ten years. But Theo was a pureblood. He probably expected a wife to stay home and run his estate with an iron fist, but Hermione and most muggleborn girls Harry knew wanted to have careers. They wanted to be Ministry officials or magical architects or Aurors or crafters or professional quidditch players or healers or magizoologists or potioneers. They didn’t want to be wives like Narcissa Malfoy.

“She’s great with a wand and she’s smart and she’s always willing to help, and she’s a great friend that I love holding hands with and putting my arm around her. I get an incredible feeling when I touch her, but then we kiss…” Harry sighed. He didn’t want to say it, but it was awkward and felt like when Mrs. Figg made him kiss one of her cats.

Instead of laughing at him the way Blaise probably would have, Theo got a wrinkle between his eyes like he was truly considering the problem. “I haven’t been friends with you as long as the others, but I’ve heard you say a few things. I know your aunt and uncle are not kind.”

“Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon were kind compared to my cousin Dudley who beat me up all the time. Uncle Vernon just screamed at me and Aunt Petunia swung a few frying pans, but I’m not going back there so you don’t need to have murderous thoughts,” said Harry. He was only half joking, and he didn’t want to wake up one day to find Theo had taken revenge.

Theo scooted a little closer on the couch. “May I touch you? Your arm? I want to experiment with something.”

Feeling a little uneasy, Harry held his arm out. Theo took it in one hand and ran his other hand up and down Harry’s arm gently and slowly. Shivers ran up Harry’s spine and he had to swallow heavily and his whole body wanted to twitch. Theo lowered Harry’s arm to the couch and studied him.

Harry swallowed. “Am I gay?”

“Do you want to have sex with me?” Theo sounded oddly unbothered. Most of the people Harry knew from growing up would have asked that only to have an excuse to punch someone.


“Then you aren’t gay, at least not for me.” Theo shrugged. “But when people touch, their bodies produce oxytocin. It feels good and makes people relax and just get more comfortable in their own skin. I have diaries from my ancestors, and they talked about having ship-brothers, brodirs, that they would drink with and sleep with and physically connect with. It wasn’t sexual–it was just their recognition that humans need touch. They couldn’t be good fighters if they didn’t have the grounding that a ship-brother gave them.”

“My aunt and uncle never touched me,” Harry said softly. “Not unless you count grabbing my arm and shoving me somewhere.

“Warriors need to know who they’re fighting for. They need to connect with their people.” Slowly Theo moved closer, watching Harry the whole time. Finally he was sitting right next to him on the couch and he put an arm around Harry’s shoulders.

“How many people in your life have hugged you?” Theo asked. His touch was faint–almost ghostly except for the warm.

“Narcissa does. Hermione has a few times.” Harry struggled to remember any other example of hugging. “I’m sure my parents did. When the dementors make me hear them or when Professor Snape helps me really access my memories, I can tell they loved me. They died for me.” Harry stopped, and Theo’s arm tightened around him. “I feel ridiculous,” Harry confessed. He didn’t need someone to hold him like he was a baby. He wasn’t even sure how the conversation had gotten turned around so much.

“People think my father must not hug me because he trains me so hard to be a warrior–to know how to wield a wand in the deadliest situations–but he does. He hugs me all the time, and when I’ve had a really rough time at school or I don’t understand things, he’ll sit next to me with an arm around me and I tell him everything that’s bothering me. Being strong means doing what’s necessary to be strong.”

“I’d rather he let you do what was necessary for you to be a bookworm,” Harry said.

“That’s what I have you for,” said Theo, “and this summer when we have free time, I’m going to teach you the spells out of that book of yours. The human transfiguration is amazing, and the shields are like nothing I’ve ever seen–same with the wards. I think these spells have been lost over time, and most people would have no hope of deconstructing the spells because they are based on snake anatomy and psychology. My family crest has an eight-legged sleipnir horse, and I wonder if I could build spells or wards around their unique gait.” Theo’s gaze grew distant. Ron would definitely have called him a swot by now.

“Deal,” Harry said. He still felt a little weird about touching Theo, but now that he thought about it, when the group studied, Harry often preferred to crowd together with others on the sofa or to lean against someone’s legs. Maybe he did need that to be strong.

And maybe if he was strong, he could figure out what to do about Hermione because Harry suspected that he liked her as a friend–someone he wanted to study with and hug and lean into, but he couldn’t imagine her sitting across from him at breakfast in ten years. Now he just needed to figure out how to say that to her.


Harry seemed to be the only one who thought Neville had suffered enough. Two days after Black’s break-in was Hogsmeade weekend–and Neville was banned. Neville thought McGonagall was so angry that he might be banned for life. That morning, Neville’s grandmother sent Neville the very worst thing a Hogwarts student could receive over breakfast–a Howler. The moment the bright red letter dropped in front of him, Neville seized the envelope and sprinted out of the hall so fast that Harry didn’t see the actual letter. Blaise had to tell him. But they all heard the Howler go off in the entrance hall–Neville’s grandmother’s voice, magically magnified to a hundred times its usual volume, shrieked about how he had brought shame on the family.

Hogsmeade didn’t feel the same without Neville. Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape were still stalking them, and Harry thought he saw Professor Flitwick in the shadows. But Neville made the visits more enjoyable by smoothing over the rough edges in the rest of the group. Without him, everyone was a little more cranky, and the fight about whether to start at the bookstore or candy shop had left some hurt feelings when Draco, Theo, and Hermione had all refused to budge from their positions.

Harry was determined to find a gift that would ease his friend’s suffering. Another thing that made Hogsmeade awkward was his relationship with Hermione.

They still held hands, and Harry liked her. He did. He craved touch, and when he wrapped his arms around her, everything was perfect and he would convince himself that he just needed time to make this work. He would learn to like her as a girlfriend and not just a friend.

And then they’d separate and Harry knew the truth.

But now that they were walking around Hogsmeade on the weekend closest to Valentines and seeing all the couples, Harry was acutely aware of the fact that he needed to talk to her and he didn’t know what to say to avoid hurting her.

“I hate all this lovey stuff,” complained Draco.

“At least we don’t have trolls delivering love notes,” Harry said. That had been horrible. He was still traumatized by the one that had hunted him down outside of history class.

“I can’t believe Ginny sent you a love note like that,” said Hermione with a laugh.

“What? Ginny? Ginny Weasley sent me that?” Harry asked. Hermione was studying the display in the local Flourish and Blotts window, so she didn’t notice his horror at first.

“Um, yes? I thought you knew.”

“I didn’t. She’s Ron’s little sister. That feels….” Harry shuddered in revulsion.

Hermione shrugged. “She’s over it now. Mostly. Sometimes she glares at me after we’ve been sitting together, but it’s a crush. She grew up hearing stories about the Boy-Who-Lived. All of Gryffindor did.”

“Slytherin did too, but most of us didn’t get the version where Harry was the hero,” Theo said with a smirk.

“I did,” Gregory said. “My father said the Dark Lord had good goals, but he wasn’t going about it the right way. He told me to pay less attention to what someone says and more to what they do.”

“Wise man,” Theo said.

“I don’t know why everyone has to obsess over how you’re the Boy-Who-Lived,” Draco complained. “Even the snakes give you extra privileges.”

“The fact they like me has nothing to do with me being the Boy-Who-Lived. In fact, I doubt they even know that story. I haven’t told them and I don’t think Tom is around to explain it.”

Theo pointed. “Look. Honeydukes has couple-candies.” Pairs of students were cuddled up right outside the door. At first Harry thought they were kissing, but then he saw a new couple put a lollipop with two sides between them. When each sucked on the lollipop, it looked like they were kissing.

“Gross,” Draco declared, and Harry silently agreed. On the other side of the street, Professor Snape considered the couples with unhidden revulsion.

“Whoever finishes first loves the other person more,” Gregory explained.

“It’s stupid,” Theo said, and the he disappeared into the bookstore.

“We’ve lost him for the next hour.” Gregory sighed. “We should have forced Blaise to abandon his date and come along. He’s the only one who can get Theo’s nose out of a book.” But strangely, Hermione didn’t follow Theo.

Harry cleared his throat and watched the couples. “Do you want to—” Harry stopped, not sure whether he should offer to get one with Hermione. He was leading her on by not telling her how he felt, and that made him a terrible human being.

“Can we talk?” Hermione asked gently. “Alone? Or as alone as we can get with everyone watching us?”

Whole flocks of butterflies stirred in Harry’s stomach. “Sure.” He tugged her away from the students heading to Honeydukes and cast a new privacy spell that included only the two of them. “What did you want to talk about?”

Hermione pulled her hand away from Harry’s and started twisting her fingers together. “I like you Harry,” she said. Then she fell silent, her hair falling in front of her face and hiding her eyes.

“I think of you more like a sister and I’m really uncomfortable every time we kiss,” Harry blurted.

She looked up quickly. “Really? Or are you saying that because you think I”m going to say that I think of you like a brother?”

“I mean it, but I couldn’t figure out how to say it,” confessed Harry. “When we kiss, I’m thinking more about where to put my nose and my hands than what it feels like.”

“Seriously?” asked Hermione dryly, “because last time either you weren’t thinking about your hands at all or you’re not the sort of boy I thought you were.”

“I thought it was your arm!” Harry defended himself.

Hermione studied him for a second before she stuck her hand out. “Friends?”

Harry shook her hand. “Best friends.”

“Good because I want to look for new reading material.” She caught him by the hand and practically dragged him back to Flourish and Blotts. This felt far more comfortable.

Chapter 32

Severus waited until the children had visited all the traditional spots before he signaled Draco. Draco turned to the others, likely making excuses. He would not want the others to know that he had written to complain about Harry’s room. After a second, he came trotting over to Severus.

“Sir,” he said, always so careful with the distinctions between their relationship at Hogwarts versus when they were away from it.

“Come,” said Severus as he led Draco toward the alley. Draco frowned but followed. “We are going to apparate. Hold tightly, please.” He lifted his arm, and Draco moved close enough to grab Severus around the waist.

“Where are we going?” he asked curiously.

“To see something.” Severus wrapped his arm protectively around Draco’s shoulder and then spun on his heel. The magic dragged him through space, dropping them on the top of a hillside.

Below them sat a medieval cottage, the sort peasants and yeoman had built, but this one was preserved by magic. Extra rooms had been added here and there until it was several stories high and dangerously crooked. Only magic held it up, which was a dangerous state of affairs. Four or five chimneys were perched on top of a red roof and chickens wandered a yard cluttered with the detritus of poverty–a rusted cauldron, spare boards bleaching in the sun, laundry hung on the line.

Draco predictably curled his lip in disgust. Lucius and Narcissa had done the boy no favors by isolating him from the world. “What is this?”

“The Burrow.”

“Do people live here?” Horror colored his words.

“Many people,” Severus confirmed. “This is the Weasley home.”

Draco’s expression of disgust intensified. Apparently Harry’s company had not softened Draco’s attitudes as much as Severus had hoped. He would have to make a greater sacrifice for his godson. He wrapped an arm around Draco again. “Prepare for apparition,” he warned before he turned on his heel.

When reality reformed, they were at Spinner’s End. Draco physically recoiled, and Severus had to admit that he needed to invest at least some time in the exterior. At least the inside was slightly better. Severus walked up the path, noticing for the first time that weeds had obscured the paving stones.

“We aren’t actually going inside, are we?” asked Draco, his voice shrill with horror.

“We are.” Severus stepped onto the porch, boards squeaking under him. He rarely approached his house from outside, but now that he had seen it, he did need to do something. Perhaps this summer he could tend the outside, assuming the Dark Lord did not consider his efforts to guide Harry a failure and kill him. Severus could admit that was the most likely outcome of his latest mission.

The hinges on the door squealed when he opened it, and then he stood at the door, his eyebrows raised in a challenge. Draco squared his shoulders and marched into the house as if going to war. Inside, his expression remained the same.

Severus closed the door behind them and went to his favorite chair. “This is my home, where I grew up.”

Immediately all disgust vanished, and Draco presented a perfect mask of polite interest.

With a sigh, Severus considered the possible paths this conversation might take. If Draco was to maintain Harry’s good favor and, therefore, a measure of protection from the Dark Lord’s direct interest, he had to understand the world better than he currently did. “I do not have the resources your parents do.”

“You could come live with us,” Draco rushed to offer. “You could take the green rooms. They’re so far from the family wing that you wouldn’t even hear us and my father could install a potions lab.” He was excited, no doubt already mentally planning where Severus would hang his robes.

“You are a Slytherin, Draco. Is it wise to be that far in another’s debt?”

Draco frowned. Ah, so he had not applied Slytherin principles to his family. How ironic given that Lucius was the epitome of self-interest.

“I have privacy here, and I have independence because I owe no one for providing this.” His parents were long dead, and the Prince line had died out, meaning he did not even have a head of household that could claim this. Had he not traded his life to the Dark Lord, he would be able to live self-sufficiently on this small plot.

Draco took a step farther into the room and looked around. Severus tried to see the room as the boy might. It was dusty, littered with journals and scrolls and papers. The room had never been fine, and since Severus invested little time or magic in maintaining it, every bit showed signs of wear. Draco’s gaze lingered longest on the bookshelves. He no doubt recognized many of the titles as Dark magic.

“Everyone has different resources and must decide how to invest them to create a life suitable to their own wants and needs. As much as I would like to have a full potions laboratory with extensive stores of rare potions ingredients, I do not have the resources to build myself one. I must settle for the space I created for myself in the basement. In summer I experiment with some potions and create others I can sell.”

“My father could…” Draco’s words trailed off. Perhaps he was starting to understand the lesson. “Merlin,” whispered Draco.

“The truth is that no two people will ever have access to the same resources. Your family has more than most, and that has given you a certain perspective on the world.”

Draco frowned. “Perspective?”

Severus pursed his lips. “If the Dark Lord returned and moved into the manor, would you expect your parents to keep the grandest bedroom? Would you expect to have a nicer room than the Dark Lord?”

“No!” Draco recoiled, his back hitting the door.

“Then you understand that your privilege is limited and others will have more than you.”

“Of course. I would never demand…” He swallowed, and Severus could practically feel the fear leaching into the air.

“Draco, did you not complain that Potter had a nicer room?”

“All four of them do!”

Severus had examined the changes the castle had made. “Untrue. Zabini and Nott’s room looks very much like yours and Bulstrode’s area is barely large enough for his bed, trunk, and desk. Potter is the one the castle chose to gift with an excess of space and privacy.”

“It’s not fair,” Draco protested. Clearly he still did not understand the lesson.

“The castle provided the room because Potter is Slytherin’s heir–a parselmouth who can hold the loyalty of the very stones that make up the dungeons. Potter has power to rival the Dark Lord’s. His title as Boy-Who-Lives gives him political leverage, and he will be the Black Lord, giving him wealth, status, and family magic unrivaled in the UK. Just as you have more resources than the vast majority of people you will ever meet, Potter will always have more resources than you. Fairness is not an issue.”

Draco’s face underwent a complex series of expressions that twisted his mouth this way and that. Clearly he wanted to deny this truth.

“But,” Severus said, “you are in his favor. You have the right to go into that space, to sit on the couch next to him and enjoy the privacy. You, Bulstrode, Nott, Zabini, and Goyle have placed yourselves next to power and you have a right to share certain resources because of your wisdom in doing so.” Severus prayed that Draco kept that favor because if Harry could not be convinced to mark his inner court, the Dark Lord would sweep these children up into his own service. Severus wanted better for his godson, and after seeing how Harry handled the Black magic, he trusted Harry would provide that.

Lucius clearly felt the same because he had grown nearly as insanely protective of Harry as he was of Draco.

Draco didn’t look convinced.

“Crabbe distanced himself from Potter. Even after the rest of Slytherin began to accept him, Crabbe didn’t. Potter would be civil to Crabbe if he were wise enough to make an attempt to repair that error, but Potter will never trust him. Potter will never invite Crabbe to sit in that room because Crabbe is on the outside of your alliance. Do not allow jealousy to put you in the awkward situation Crabbe now finds himself in.”

As the Dark Lord had grown more sane and more adamant in protecting Harry’s position, word had trickled down to the children. Harry was to be embraced as a Slytherin. Crabbe had stopped distancing himself, no doubt warned by a parent to stop. However, he did not know how to repair that breach. He would belong to the Dark Lord one day, and Severus could not protect him from that fate.

He just hoped Draco would have a different fate.

Draco looked around the room again, and Severus occluded his embarrassment at having his own poverty revealed in such a stark manner. Teaching paid well enough, but not enough to pay for the expensive ingredients he needed to experiment, and he could not be a full-time potioneer as long as the Dark Lord and Dumbledore had use for him.

“It doesn’t feel good.”

“Seeing Harry with such a large space?” Severus asked.

Draco nodded.

“I have no doubt many students have felt the same when they saw your acromantula silk robes or heard you talking about the manor. Ambition means we want more. But expecting to have more than anyone else is not ambition; it is foolishness. And Harry likely feels the same when he sees you with your parents–a resource he was denied.” Finally Severus felt something shift.

“Do you think that’s why he works so hard to make Mother happy?”

“I do,” Severus agreed. “She is the closest thing he will ever have to a mother. He spent a decade without anyone to love him. I think he would do anything to make sure he is not left loveless again.”

Draco perched on the very edge of one of the guest chairs. “I’m lucky to have my parents.”

“You are.”

“Neville doesn’t have his parents, either, and Blaise lost his father when he was so young that he doesn’t remember him.”

“And Nott lost his mother,” Severus said. The war had taken so many people that few families had escaped losing someone. Another war might claim enough lives to make their community collapse.

Draco sighed. “I’m still jealous.”

“Occlumency can help you process that emotion.”

With a sigh, Draco stood. “Can we get back? I want to buy some chocolates.”

Severus walked to the cupboard and retrieved a box he had bought for Narcissa. He knew Draco liked them just as much as his mother. He turned and offered the box of French chocolates, magically carved into fantastical shapes–flowers and dragons and unicorns. He offered it.

Draco took it and held it to his chest. “Thank you, Uncle Severus.”

“You are quite welcome, brat.”

Chapter 33

Spring break was not exactly relaxing. Third years had never had so much homework. Gregory was approaching a nervous breakdown and he had only added one elective–Care of Magical Creatures. Neville was still creeping through the shadows, hiding within the largely-Slytherin friend group, and a chilly distance had settled in between Slytherin and Gryffindor. Blaise had offered to make Neville an honorary Slytherin, and he nearly stuttered himself to death, explaining how disappointed his gran would be.

Harry considered staying at the castle for Neville, if for no other reason. Most students stayed at the castle for spring break, and that meant Neville had a week without classes when he would have to figure out how to avoid Gryffindor tower. However, Mr. Malfoy said that Castor Black would like to get to know Harry and that they needed to sort Harry’s summer living arrangements. After Emilius and Theo promised to hex anyone who looked sideways at Neville, Harry got on the Hogwart’s Expression with Draco and Mr. Malfoy and waved goodbye to most of his friends.

Professor Snape stood in the shadows watching, a deep scowl on his face. The scowl was normal enough, but Harry still couldn’t escape the unease that stalked him.

Castor Black was waiting for him at Malfoy manor with a smile and a slightly less-formal greeting than purebloods usually used. “Are you confident about your scores in the coming exams?” he asked in his American accent.

“I’m not in the same league with Hermione or some of the Ravenclaws, but I’ll get solid scores,” said Harry as they walked into the manor.

“You’re underselling your talents,” Draco said.

“No, I’m really not,” said Harry. “I know I’m good with the practicals and I’ll ace my wandwork, but I’ve never been as good with the theory. Half the time when I get old ingredients or have an unexpected reaction in potions, you have to tell me how to fix it.”

“You just need practice,” said Draco, dismissing Harry’s very real concern that with two theory-heavy classes–Arithmancy and Runes–his overall grades were going to drop considerably. Harry saw the value in both, but he wasn’t sure he would continue Arithmancy after his OWLs fifth year. Everyone said Runes got more practical once everyone knew the rune sets and could start working on things like decoding rune wards, but Arithmancy was only important if Harry wanted to write new spells. He figured there were enough perfectly good spells in the world that he didn’t need to write new ones.

And if he needed a new spell, he had Draco and Theo around to ask for help. He wouldn’t trust his own work, that’s for sure. But he had signed up for it, and he would struggle through and hope to get an acceptable score on his OWLS.

They all headed onto the back terrace where Narcissa had a table set for tea overlooking the gardens. “Harry,” said Castor, “I know Lucius told you that I wanted to discuss your summer plans.”

“He said he wanted to make arrangements. Would those arrangements include you?” Harry had liked Castor well enough, but he didn’t know him well.

“They might,” Castor said. “You see, I left out an important part of my familial background.”

“Your mother,” said Harry softly.

Castor looked down and nodded. “My birth mother. She died giving birth to me, so I never knew her. After I had an inheritance blood test, I got her name and I looked her up. I will admit that I hoped I would find she had been some great Dark witch. My adoptive mother was not kind, and I hoped to find some home with the people I saw as my real family.”

“I take it you didn’t find that.”

“No. I found my mother couldn’t get more than the tiniest flickers from a lumos and was mentally… she wasn’t smart.”

Harry winced. It didn’t speak well for Alphard Black that he chose to sleep with a woman who wasn’t fully competent. “I’m sorry.”

“I have found that being sorry for life events you have no control over is counterproductive. My circumstances are my own and no longer bother me. However, my mother’s identity might make it easier for me to get custody of you given the current political situation.”

“Sir?” Harry looked toward Draco to see if he knew what Castor was talking about. Draco might be a prat, but he understood people. Sometimes he used that knowledge to push their buttons and make them miserable, but that was Draco. However, now he looked confused.

“My mother was from a traditionally Gray family, but one that is now perceived to be Light.”

“Like the Longbottoms?”

Castor and Lucius both laughed, and even Narcissa had to hide her smile behind her teacup. “No, not like the Longbottoms,” said Castor. “They truly are Light. I doubt they could cast a Dark spell if you held their hand through the incantation. No, my mother was a Potter.”

Harry’s head felt like it was full of wool and spinning. He had to actually grab the table to keep from losing his balance. “A Potter? But… If I had a Potter relative… Why was I…”

The adults waited, but Harry couldn’t get a full sentence out. He’d spent a decade learning how to make himself small, to accept the scraps that were thrown to him. To wear oversized, ripped clothing and sit in the corner when every other student got birthday parties in grade school and Aunt Petunia refused to buy class treats because he wasn’t worth it. He’d done all that, and he had a Potter relative–someone who could have taken him in even if Narcissa was under too much suspicion at the end of the war.

Castor set his cup down. “Your grandfather Fleamont had two siblings, his brother Charlus and a young sister named Lanthe. But she was a squib. When she was a child, she was quietly moved into a house in a muggle area with caretakers, and she was removed from the family tree.”

Narcissa leaned over to put a hand on Harry’s arm. “Back then, it was seen as a kindness to not allow a child to grow up surrounded by magic they could never touch. It was perceived as kinder to allow them to grow up in the muggle world where they would not stand out for their lack of magic.”

“Some families did far worse to their squib children,” Mr. Malfoy said darkly. “I do not see how parents can say they love a child and then abandon or kill them.”

“Clearly the Potters didn’t cut Lanthe off entirely or else I don’t see how she would have met Alphard,” Castor said. “But it means that I am related to you, both as a Black and a Potter. It gives me a good claim to take guardianship, but I won’t do that if you don’t want me to.” Castor rubbed the back of his neck.

“I hadn’t been planning to have children or take an heir, but Narcissa let it slip that you were staying with them this summer because you were neglected, and I…” He blew out a shaky breath. “I won’t promise that I know how to be a guardian and I will likely ignore you far too often or annoy you until you firecall Narcissa so she can mediate. And I have no experience with healthy guardians, so I will make an abundance of mistakes, but if you want me to file for guardianship, I will walk down to the Ministry and fight like hell to get it. And with Lucius on my side, I believe I can.” He smiled at Harry. Harry stared back, his mind frozen.

“Perhaps you can wait until later to make a decision about whether you want that,” Narcissa said to Harry gently. “I know most of your classmates have stayed at Hogwarts to focus on their studies, so I expect you to do several hours each day in our library getting your homework done. Why don’t you boys go get set up in there?”

“Yes, Mother.” Draco grabbed the last few cookies off his plate and hurried back into the house. They were in the main hallway before he turned to Harry. “Wow. I didn’t think any other Potters had survived,” whispered Draco.

“All the old families are related. There are Potters in the Black family, so it’s not like the bloodline will ever truly vanish.”

“Everyone is related to the Black family,” said Draco with a dismissive wave of his hand. “That doesn’t even count. At one point the Blacks were practically kings and queens of the wizarding world, so getting a few daughters into the family was seen as politically wise. But the Black magic is so strong that any Potter blood that comes through that side doesn’t even count. However, Castor is your first cousin, once removed on your Potter side and a second cousin on the Black. There’s no way the Ministry would deny him guardianship unless you said you didn’t want to live with him.”

“So the question is whether I want to live with him.” At one point Harry would have leapt at the chance to live with someone else–anyone else. Compared to the Dursleys, a homeless family under a bridge would have been a viable option. Literally. But he had arranged his life the way he… not the way he wanted it, exactly, but in a way that he felt like he had some control.

The Dursleys stayed out of his room, and they knew not to push him too hard or he could call Professor Snape or the Malfoys to intervene. Even when he didn’t spend his whole summer with Draco, he’d taken the Knight Bus over to Diagon Alley often enough that Harry didn’t feel trapped. But this would be a new person to get used to, a new home, a new set of rules. Harry wasn’t sure he was ready for that. The Dursleys were terrible, but they were familiar.

Draco sat on the sofa and pulled Harry down to sit next to him. “You don’t have to live with him if you don’t want to.”

“But he’s my family.”

Draco scoffed. “No offense, but he didn’t know he was a Black or a Potter until this year. It’s not like you have some great emotional connection with the man.”

Draco did have a way of cutting through to the heart of an issue. “But he is the closest thing I will ever have to a relationship with my father. He was James Potter’s first cousin, so shouldn’t that mean they’re something alike?”

“Not necessarily,” Draco said. “He wasn’t raised the way your father was, he didn’t know him, so I don’t think they’re going to be much alike.” He leaned closer. “Sometimes father talks about people like they’re nothing more than their family. He thinks Augusta Longbottom is stubborn because she was born a Prewett, and they were famous for it. But look at Neville. And the Longbottoms are known for hating the Dark and being on the front lines any time someone suggests burning books, but that doesn’t describe Neville at all. So maybe family isn’t as important as everyone thinks. Besides, they don’t even have the same magical alignment.”

“Why do you say they didn’t have the same magical alignment?”

“If James Potter practiced the Dark Arts, he wouldn’t have been fighting for Dumbledore.” Draco held up a hand to stop Harry before he could interrupt. “I'm not saying he would have joined the Dark Lord. With a muggleborn wife, he would have been an idiot if he’d even tried. But he probably would have stayed neutral. The Light wants even some family grimoires banned, meaning you can get sentences to Azkaban for studying the magic your ancestors left for you.”

“Some of that magic is pretty dangerous,” said Harry as he thought of his Slytherin grimoire. The human transfiguration and wards and shields weren’t dangerous, but there were a few blood-poison curses that would leave a victim begging for death.

“Knowledge shouldn’t be banned,” said Draco. “Sure, some spells should be banned from being practiced unless you’re in really dire circumstances. If I’m attacked by a dragon, I don’t care if a spell is Dark or even Unforgivable, I’m going to throw the curse first and get myself out of legal trouble second, but banning knowledge is terrible.”

Harry sighed. “So do you think I shouldn’t live with him?”

Draco grimaced. “I have no idea. Can we work on homework? At least then I know I can help you. This family stuff is more complicated than Arithmancy.”

“You’re not wrong, and you know how I feel about Arithmancy,” said Harry.


The boys were several hours deep on their mathematical charts when Castor came to the library door. “Harry, I was wondering if you had time for a game of chess with me.”

Harry blinked, his eyes not focusing correctly after staring at numbers so long. “A break would be nice,” said Harry. He would take any excuse to avoid Arithmancy homework. He looked at Draco. “Do you want to come?” It might be nice to have someone else there.

“I’m good. I’ll see you at dinner,” said Draco in a distant voice. Sometimes he was as bad as Theo when he got lost in some project. With a sigh, Harry followed Castor, not to the formal sitting room but to a game room near the back terrace. From the tall windows, he could see the gently sloping lawn and manicured hedges where the Malfoy peacocks and peahens wandered. Most were white, but there was one male walking around with his full color tail, which he would occasionally throw into the air and shake.

“Do you play chess?” Castor sat on an embroidered chair beside a small table with a board. He tapped the board with his wand and the pieces started to wake up, the pawns reaching out to shake their neighbors awake.

“Ron tried teaching me, but I’m pants at it,” admitted Harry. He sat across from Castor and tried to figure out what it would be like to live with the man.

“It’s a useful tool to learn strategy.”

“That’s what Ron says.”

“Is he your Gryffindor friend?”

“Yes,” Harry said slowly. He wasn’t sure what Ron was. Ever since Hermione and Ron had started fighting about their pets, Ron had gone back to spending all his time with Finnegan and Thomas. And those two had been the ones to look at Harry strangely when they’d been caring for snakes in Hagrid’s class. Maybe it was coincidence or maybe the headmaster had plucked the information about Harry’s parselmouth from either Hermione or Ron, but he suspected Ron had been indiscreet and that made Harry want to avoid him.

Castor touched the pieces on the board. “Imagine you are three years into the future, and it’s time for you to start considering taking up the Black seat in the Wizengamot and setting yourself up for success in the adult world. Which of your friends is most important to helping you succeed?”

That sounded suspiciously like Lucius Malfoy. “I don’t think of my friends like that. Even if they have no political clout like Gregory, they’re still my friends.”

For a long and awkward minute, Castor stared at him. “I had thought you were simply better at hiding your ambitions, but you believe that.”

“Of course I do.” Harry was starting to not like Castor Black.

“You are a rare boy to see the world that way. From the outside, people are likely noticing that Miss Granger gives you credibility with the Light party. You are openly rejecting blood purity, and by dating her, you are announcing that you will never compromise on that.” Castor took a green tile from another board game that was sitting on a shelf behind the table and put it between the black and white chess pieces before adding a yellow tile near the white side of the chessboard when he mentioned Hermione.

“I won’t compromise. Assuming that someone is more powerful because they’re more inbred is just stupid.”

Castor considered him for a time before he continued. “Draco brings local political power.” Castor picked up another dark green tile and this time put it on the dark side of the board. “Few people can move the Wizengamot like Lucius Malfoy, and now both he and Narcissa favor you over all Draco’s other friends.”

“Narcissa is my cousin. That’s all.”

Ah, yes. The beautiful and deadly Narcissa Black.” Castor picked up another green tile and added it to the growing pattern in the middle. “As her second cousin, you could easily ignore her and no one would recognize any relationship between you, and yet you openly declare strong ties to her, endearing yourself to the Dark. They see someone who is developing a centrist political power base who might help them if they get in trouble.” He put the new green tile next to the one that had represented either Draco or Mr. Malfoy–Harry wasn’t sure which.

“Your friendship with Theo Nott reinforces that idea, just as your friendship with Longbottom reassures those in the Light party that you will never turn your backs on them.” A green and then a yellow tile were added to the board. “Geoff Bulstrode has kept his mistress and their child away from the dark because the woman is a muggle, not a muggleborn, but a muggle. Your close friendship with Emilius suggests to some that you will reject the Dark Lord’s rhetoric because he is a blood purist.” He added a yellow piece. “But others see you embrace a Bulstrode and take faith that it demonstrates your willingness to embrace the Dark.” He added a green piece.

And then there is Blaise Zabini. His mother is as Dark as a witch can be, but she rejected any alliance with the Dark Lord despite being educated at Hogwarts, leaving her the ultimate symbol of independent Dark witches and wizards.” Again, he picked up a green and a yellow piece and put it on the board.

“If I see the current political situation in England as a quiet war of strategy between the Dark Lord and Dumbledore, then I see you perfectly positioned to either align with or outmaneuver either side. And yet, you claim you don’t see your friends as pieces to move into place.”

Harry studied the board. He knew Castor was dark, and he suspected he hadn’t had a pleasant childhood. Harry could recognize the signs. When he’d lived with the Dursleys, every person in his life was either someone who would carry tales to his aunt to get him in trouble or someone he could use to protect himself from his family. Castor saw the world the same way.

“If my friends are on the board, it’s because they want to be. I never asked them to stand up for me or to help me make alliances with one side or the other. I helped Neville get a new wand because I like him and I respect him and I want him to do well. If he uses that wand for me, I’m happy. If he walks away from our friendship because we can’t reach an agreement, I respect that too.”

“What if he raises the wand you gave him against you?” Castor leaned forward.

“I trust he wouldn’t.”

“Trust is dangerous. The world can back people into corners.”

Harry thought about his mother and Professor Snape. They had promised ‘Always’ and it hadn’t happened despite their best intentions. Harry knew his mother was looking down and smiling at the idea that her friend was still honoring that promise, but they’d both broken it before Harry had been born.

“I know things happen and someone I put my trust in is going to break it. But I won’t stop believing in my friends because of that. It would be too easy to trust no one, and I don’t like who I would become if I didn’t trust at all.”

“It’s safer to trust no one.”

“You want me to trust you enough to live with you, so you want me to have trust in someone.”

Castor smiled. “I would like you to trust that we have interests that align. I want to keep Dark magic from being lost, and I believe you want the same. As to wishing you to have trust in me as a person… I will admit that I lost my own ability to trust a long time ago, so I do not expect it from others.”

That was sad, but Harry didn’t say as much. He knew how much he hated it when someone pitied him because he had lost his parents. Instead he studied the chess board. “The pattern looks impressive because the pieces you chose are large.” Harry touched the green and yellow stones. “But what you see as a political group standing between the Light and Dark is really a group of students who hang out together and do homework.”

“Students grow up to be impressive witches and wizards.”

“Or they grow apart,” Harry said. “Or they stay friends, but have different political beliefs.” As open-minded as Neville was about the Dark, Harry didn’t expect him to support the same sorts of laws Mr. Malfoy or Professor Snape would.

Castor tilted his head to the side as though confused. “If they are your friends, shouldn’t they support your political beliefs?”

“They should respect that I have a certain set of beliefs, but they don’t have to agree with them.”

“Interesting.” Castor tapped his fingers against the edge of the game table before gathering the stones from the center. He was a lot like Mr. Malfoy, but at least he listened. Harry got the feeling he was very curious about how Harry saw the world and his place in it. Mr. Malfoy would go on about how Harry had to protect traditions without actually caring about whether Harry wanted to. He did. But that wasn’t the point.

Castor moved his pawn out two spaces, and Harry mirrored his movements. He did that for a while, counter Castor with his own moves until Castor slid a bishop across the board and Harry sent in a knight despite the knights vehement insistence that Harry should let some of the pawns die first. It turned out the knight had been right and Castor put Harry in checkmate four moves later. With his king penned in by his own players on either side, Harry couldn’t get out of the way.

“You’re a more timid player than I expected,” said Castor.

“Why would you expect me to be more aggressive?”

Castor studied Harry for a long time. A very long time. “I suppose I am listening to the impressive reputation you have. The Boy Who Lived. The Defeater of Dark Lord Voldemort.”

Harry scoffed. “When the dementors come near me, I see that night. My mother cast a spell. It was subtle, like a net, but it settled over everything in the room. Whatever she did, when she died, her power went into that spell and protected me. I didn’t do anything.”

“Willing human sacrifice,” Castor whispered. Harry knew the Dark didn’t consider these things as unthinkable as the Light. There was a wizard in Germany who had killed himself in a ritual circle to conceal a cave system where his grandchildren and most of the rest of a small wizarding village were hiding from the Nazis. Other armies in the war had seen the supernatural as nothing more than superstition, but the Nazis had wizards in their ranks. They had hunted down witches and wizards who took a stand against them.

“She must have been a powerful and impressive witch,” Castor finally said.

“She loved me,” said Harry. In truth he knew very little about her mother other than that.

Castor sighed. “As did mine. As she was dying of blood loss in a muggle hospital, she called for them to let her hold her baby. The story was passed on to the woman who eventually took me in.”

“And she told you?” Harry asked. It hadn’t sounded like the woman who raised Castor had been the kind sort. If Aunt Petunia knew how his mother had begged for him, she never would have told Harry. In fact, she had delighted in telling him how his parents were drunks who didn’t care about him at all.

Castor’s face lost all emotion for a moment. “She told me that a good Christian woman like that shouldn’t have died bringing an abomination like me into the world.”

Harry winced. “My aunt and uncle prefer the term ‘freak.’”

“That’s a story that perhaps we shouldn’t share with others,” Castor said. His face was still devoid of any emotion.

“Of course not. Do you want to play another game?” Harry gestured to the board.

Castor smiled. “Chess is complex with different pieces having different strengths and vulnerabilities. While it is a much more useful metaphor for real armies, perhaps we should start with checkers.” He stood and lifted the chess board even as the pieces cried out in horror that they were being set aside for something as inferior as checkers.


Over the week, Harry got comfortable with his cousin and with the idea that they might live together. He’d announced that he wanted Castor to go for guardianship the third night over dinner, and Draco had loudly protested that he wanted Harry to live with them. He hadn’t stopped until Mr. Malfoy was white with horror and Narcissa had ushered him out of the room with hushed whispers.

Castor chuckled. “So dramatic. It’s not like I will be hiding Harry from him.”

Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “Draco can just be a little excitable.”

“A little?” Castor raised an eyebrow.

Harry hated that his friend looked immature and out of control when he wasn’t. Not really. “It’s just that when he throws a fit, he usually gets his way.” Harry glanced apologetically toward Mr. Malfoy, well aware that Harry was essentially calling him a bad parent. “He isn’t like this at school.”

Castor stared at him blankly for a moment and then started to laugh like that was the best joke he had heard. Mr. Malfoy, meanwhile, got pink spots high on his cheeks. But Harry would rather have his cousin think that Draco was manipulative than have him assume Draco was childish.

“Perhaps the boy is more Slytherin than I gave him credit for,” Castor finally said.


On the last day before they had to catch the train back to school, Harry escorted Castor to Grimmauld Place. Since Castor didn’t have a house in England and he was a Black by blood, it seemed like sharing Grimmauld Place would make life easiest. Harry had visited at Yule, so the changes didn’t surprise him as much, but in spring with the trees in the magically enlarged garden blooming and tall windows, the house was impressive. The rose window sparkled in the sun, marking the front door, but the elves had added a large stone path leading to a side door to bypass Walburga, whose portrait still dominated the front entry.

“Are we not using the front door?” Castor asked.

“Walburga Black’s portrait won’t come off the wall, and I hate her, so the elves created a second entrance.”

“That seems rather dramatic just to avoid a portrait.”

“Walburga Black is…” Harry sighed. Castor was a Black and he had a right to know. “She killed and mutilated children,” he said as he thought about Bella and Sirius Black, and Sirius’s unborn children. The Blacks had so much magic in the family that half-blood Blacks were sure to have been magical, and she murdered them because she feared having her family associated with half-bloods. She was evil.

“Children? Did she have a good reason?”

Harry whirled around. “Is there a good reason to kill a child?”

Castor blinked at him for a moment. “If the child is dying of an incurable and painful disease, if the child has lost control magically and is endangering others and there is no other way to stop them. The situations are exceptionally limited, but I will not say it is always unjustified.”

Harry pressed his lips together and wrestled the anger he felt any time he thought about Walburga. “She didn’t want half-bloods in her precious family, so she murdered pregnant muggles so none would show up.”

Castor’s eyes dilated so the blue-gray color was nothing more than a ring around the black center. “She murdered to stop magical children from simply existing?” His voice was low and rough and dangerous and made the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stand on end. Castor was as impressed with Walburga as Harry.

“She murdered them for daring to be the children of Sirius Black. And she hurt him so he would never have more children and she hurt Bella…” Harry’s voice trailed off. He could still feel Bella when he reached for her, and while she was happy, she was not the woman she could have been if not for Walburga.

And how many people had Bellatrix hurt? How many people were dead or lost because of her madness? All that evil from one woman’s determination to lead her family back to greatness.

“Bella?” Castor asked slowly. “Bellatrix Lestrange nee Black?”

Harry nodded. “I know Bella’s evil and mad, but she didn’t start that way. The elves know that part of me wants to burn the house down just so I can see Walburga’s portrait burn, so they keep me away from her.”

Castor let out a long breath. “That might be best.”

“The new entrance is around to the side. Luckily Drystan, one of my elves, loves expansion charms, so we have a new grand entry between the Lady’s parlor and the front study.” Harry hurried up the stairs and pushed open the ornate door to reveal the restored Grimmauld Place. The inlaid floors glowed and tall windows let sunlight cascade through the space. The double doors to both the parlor and study stood open, so light filled the space.

“Master Harry Potter, sir!” shouted Dobby. Right after popping in, he threw his arms around Harry’s legs. Harry had to pull at him to loosen his hold enough for Harry to kneel down and hug Dobby back. Indigo and Kreacher both popped in a half second later.

“I told you I would visit. And I brought a cousin. He’s Alphard Black’s son.”

Kreacher tilted his head to the side and stared, but then he wasn’t the friendliest of elves. Harry blamed Walburga for that, too.

“Welcomes. I remember Alphard,” Indigo said. “Master Harry already has house Black growing, although we is still wanting babies from him.” She gave Harry a sharp look, and Harry’s ears burned with embarrassment.

Castor gave Harry an amused look. “I take it you give your elves rather free rein over what they say.”

“Of course I do,” said Harry. He didn’t have family secrets to guard, so he didn’t do any sort of blood bonds at all. His elves were there because they wanted to be. “This is Indigo who runs the household and Dobby and Kreacher who has been at Grimmauld the longest.” Kreacher huffed and started muttering, but Indigo poked him so hard with an elbow that he popped away. “Um, I guess the others didn’t want to meet you. They’re shy, but if you stay here, you’ll see them eventually.”

Castor didn’t comment. Castor enjoyed the tour, but he agreed that he didn’t want to stay in the guest rooms because they didn’t have attached studies, and they both might be uncomfortable sharing the family floor.

Well, Castor said that and Harry just agreed. Given how much Drystan had expanded the house, he didn’t think it was a big deal for them to have suites at opposite ends of a hallway long enough to ride a broom down, but if Castor wanted more space, he could have it. Luckily, the discussion about needing more rooms caught Drystan’s attention.

Castor and Drystan talked about adding a new suite of rooms near the dueling room on the lower lower, and Drystan almost vibrated at the idea of needing to add more rooms. He offered to create a new grand entrance on the west side of the building, but Castor said he rather liked the idea of having his rooms accessible through a nondescript door in the kitchen. In fact, he wanted Drystan to make the door look like a pantry to hide the entrance better and then add another entrance to the dueling room for Harry’s friends.

Harry could have friends over to his house.

Until the moment Castor said that, it hadn’t occurred to Harry that this summer he could invite Hermione and Theo and Neville over to his house at the same time. He wouldn’t have to worry that Mr. Malfoy would look down his nose at Emilius for being a halfblood or Hermione for her muggle upbringing.

He could be a normal teenager hanging out. He couldn’t stop grinning for the rest of the day.

Chapter 34

Harry returned feeling much more settled than he ever had in his life. He had no doubt Castor would get official guardianship. After all, he was a Potter and a Black–related to Harry twice over. That had to count more than the headmaster’s nebulous claims, especially since Mr. Malfoy had been chipping away at the headmaster's reputation exactly the same way the headmaster had tried to undermine Lockhart.

Sometimes Harry suspected that Castor was right about all of life being a chess game.

Strangely, Professor Snape was waiting for them. He and Mr. Malfoy exchanged a long look, and then Mr. Malfoy guided Draco away with a hand on his shoulder.

“I understand you have asked Castor Black to take guardianship of you,” Professor Snape said once they had walked a distance from the small group of students hurrying back to the castle.

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you trust him?” Snape asked.

Harry frowned. “I trust him more than my current guardian.”

Snape pulled his lips together into a moue of disgust. “But what are your feelings toward him?”

Professor Snape was worried. Harry was still trying to get used to the idea that he had adults in his life who cared about him, but he was slowly learning to trust that Professor Snape had his best interests at heart, even when he was short-tempered and mean. “I don’t totally trust him, and I’m nervous that this is a big change. I’m not fond of changes and part of me wanted to leave custody like it was because I know how to handle the Dursleys. Sure, they’re abusive, but I can work around them. However, Castor agreed we would live at Grimmauld Place, and I would be able to visit the Malfoy manor whenever I wanted.”

Snape slowly nodded. “You will have the advantage at Grimmauld. Keep it.”

“Do you know something about him?” Harry asked, suddenly wondering if he should have talked to Professor Snape before he made his final decision.

“I know his reputation. He is a powerful man with a talent for spellcrafting and manipulating situations. He is not to be annoyed or trifled with.” Snape hesitated before he added, “but I do not know him well enough to say much beyond that. I do believe you will be physically safe with him. If he posed a danger, I would never allow you to be in the same room with him. However, there are more forms of danger than physical. You are a Slytherin. Show it. Be wary.”

“Yes, sir.”

Without answer, Professor Snape strode off in a dramatic swirl of black robes.


When classes resumed, no one was really talking about the homework or the coming exams. Everyone was focused on the Saturday Gryffindor-Ravenclaw game. It was the last of the season. Ravenclaw was three hundred and sixty points behind Slytherin in the rankings and Gryffindor was four hundred and thirty. If neither of them could score that high, then Slytherin would take the cup.

If one of them exceeded that, they could take the cup, and if the game went particularly long, Slytherin might be pushed all the way down to third place if both teams outscored the gap. Over breakfast, no one could discuss anything else.

“We should have run up the score more against Hufflepuff. Or we could have practiced more,” Flint said loudly from the upperclassmen end of the table. He then glowered at Harry.

Harry kept eating his breakfast and avoiding eye contact. Depending on how this game went, Harry might have a lot of enemies in Slytherin house tomorrow.

“Should we sit with Hufflepuff during the game?” Theo asked. He was probably wondering how many upperclassmen he could simultaneously hex and shield against before one of them nailed Harry with something painful or humiliating. If Slytherin didn’t get the cup, that would be Harry’s future for the rest of the school year.

The desperation to win had led to Slytherins trying to bribe players on each side. Cho and Ginny Weasley had both been offered nice sums if they would end the match as quickly as possible. Harry had heard that both had refused angrily.

“Maybe we could sit under the Hufflepuff stands,” said Harry. “We could treat it like a picnic and watch through the gap between the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw sections.”

“Don't bother bringing food. I don’t think I could eat,” said Draco. “If we don’t get the cup, Flint is going to kill us.”

“I’m the one who asked to shorten practices. I’m the one he’ll kill,” Harry said. When Harry had gone to Flint, the quidditch captain had sputtered and cursed, but he’d reduce practice time to something more reasonable. Harry had been shocked, but the whole team had secretly thanked him.

“He’ll have to get through me first.” Emilius said darkly.

“Everyone knows I’m the one who asked you to go to him. You never push people around unless I’m making you. Why did I value my arithmancy grade over quidditch practice?” Draco practically wailed.

“Because you’re not an idiot,” Theo said without sympathy.

“I don’t know about that,” muttered Gregory, and Draco scowled at him in a way he never would have Theo. Harry had the feeling Draco was a little intimidated by Theo.

“We could still win the cup,” Harry said. “We just have to hope the chasers are really bad.” Harry didn’t mention that Angelina Johnson had been hexed in the hall and had cabbages growing out of her armpits for a while or that Roger Bradley, one of the Ravenclaw chasers, had taken a fall down the stairs. Bribery was not a Slytherin’s only tool, and if Harry ever figured out who was hexing the other teams’ chasers, he was going to practice a few hexes of his own on their hides.

Or he’d sent Theo to practice hexes on them. If they were upperclassmen, Theo would have a better chance of teaching them a lesson. Harry would complain to Professor Snape, but the man’s kindness had limits, and those did not extend to students from other houses.


Despite Draco’s pessimism, Hermione and Emilius did gather a picnic basket with an expandable charm. As they followed the crowds out to the quidditch pitch, Gregory had his whole arm in the basket, sorting through the wrapped sandwiches and fruit and sweet treats the house elves had included. That didn’t pacify Draco.

In fact, the whole walk, Neville hid from the Gryffindors and Draco kept ducking behind Gregory to avoid catching Flint’s eye, and the whole group acted like they were going to their execution. Well, except Hermione who seemed mildly amused by the drama. Still, Harry was very grateful when they all settled into the shade of the Hufflepuff stands.

The stands were separated by wide aisles that would give them a good view of the pitch. Because they were low down, they wouldn’t be able to see the snitch as well, but Harry didn’t care which house ended the game by catching it. He wanted to see if the opposing chasers could run up the score to challenge Slytherin.

A minute or two after they spread out their blankets and settled in, Professor Snape moved into the gap between the two bleachers and positioned himself next to the Ravenclaw seating. Harry had grown so used to everyone’s overprotective instincts that he didn’t even bother rolling his eyes.

The game was good, but Draco winced every time either team's chasers got close to the opposing hoops. Luckily, both teams had more talent with defense than offense. “This is painful. Flint should've fought harder for us to get the last game of the season,” Draco muttered.

“Both Gryffindor and Raven law have great beaters. I think it's going to be a low-scoring game,” Harry said. “We have a good shot of winning this.

“But knowing we have no control over the outcome is horrible.” Draco shoved away Gregory’s hand when he tried to offer a piece of cake as some sort of peace offering. “Slytherin could end up first, second or third in the cup and there is nothing we can do from here.” Draco didn’t even bother hiding his whiny tone.

“Hey, it could be worse. We could be in Hufflepuff’s position and be guaranteed last place no matter what.” Cedric had been bemoaning that loudly enough that the Slytherins had heard him from across the room.

Draco gave Harry a look so full of tragic condemnation that Harry nearly laughed.

“I don't know why you boys are so obsessed with quidditch anyway,” said Hermione. Despite the fact that they had decided that kissing was not in their future, she still often sprawled across Harry's legs, and he enjoyed the weight of her anchoring him.

“Don't lump me in there,” Neville said. “I don't care who wins. I'm just avoiding Gryffindor tower.”

“Are they still giving you a hard time?”

“I'm not sure they're ever going to forgive me.” said Neville sadly. “If resorting were thing, Gryffindor would vote me out of the tower and tell me to go get another house.”

“Gryffindors seem a little quick to backstab,” Harry said.

Hermione scoffed. “Gryffindors? Slytherins are known for stabbing people in the back if not literally stabbing them.”

“Yes, but that's literal hexing and stabbing. And Slytherins never turn on one another in public. Even in our dungeon, we never turn against alliances.” A person who had a reputation for not defending an alliance would never be trusted again. Even if you hated an alliance member, you worked with them and slowly distanced yourself. You never turned on them. Harry wondered if that was because losing the wizarding war had forced them to rely on each other and keep each other’s secrets.

“Maybe I should have pushed to be a Slytherin,” Neville said sadly.

Emilius reached over and patted his knee. “You're an honorary Slytherin in our eyes,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Neville. “I'm glad someone doesn't want to throw me out of the castle for the dementors to hunt for sport.”

“They'll get over it,” Hermione promised him. “They’ll find someone else to be mad at or the Ministry will catch Sirius Black and all the students will be excited, or Percy will catch the Gryffindor team sneaking in after curfew and report them again, and then they’ll have someone else to be mad at. But something will happen, and the password thing will get forgotten.”

“The way Ron has forgotten Scabber’s death?” asked Neville, which seemed a little cruel for him. That was more like something Draco would say.

Hermione set her book to one side. “I need to apologize to him and tell him that I did cast the spell to try and keep Crookshanks away from his room, even if it failed. What he's really upset about is that he thinks I don't care, and I do!” said Hermione quickly, “But I get so frustrated with him.”

“Imagine that,” said Draco, “someone getting annoyed with a Weasley.”

“Don't aggravate this situation,” said Blaise. “Our girl is trying to be mature. While I realize that is a foreign concept to you, it should be rewarded.”

Draco frowned at Blaise. “Why do I want her to make up with Weasley and encourage him to come around us?”

Blaise seemed to think about that for a moment. “I don't know, but it doesn't seem wise to aggravate Hermione when she can leave you crying on the floor when you duel.”

“No she can’t,” Draco scoffed.

“Because you won't duel with me,” Hermione said.

Then Gryffindor’s keeper, Angelina, put a ball through Ravenclaws hoops and the sound drowned out the fight. The Gryffindor stands exploded in cheers and the CRACK of fireworks while Ravenclaw and Slytherin cried out in horror.

“Where’s Luna?” asked Hermione. “I miss having another girl in the group.”

Emilius answered, “I'm not sure. But I saw her headed for the Gryffindor stands.”

“Oh great, now she's cheering against us. Does that mean that we are fated to lose? Flint is going to kill me.” Draco fell back dramatically on the blanket they had spread out on the grass.

Hermione looked at him and shook her head sadly. “Why is it that the Gryffindor boys keep saying the girls are too dramatic when it's boys that have all the drama?”

“Don't say drama like it's a bad thing,” said Blaise, but he looked distracted. “Am I hallucinating, or does there appear to be a Grim wandering this way?” He pulled out his wand and pointed it towards a thin dog that was creeping along the shadows on the underside of the Hufflepuff stands. Theo already had his wand trained in that direction.

Gregory jumped up and stood in front of them. “Don't hex a dog. Seriously, what's wrong with you people?” Other than Hagrid, Harry had never known anyone who loved animals as much as Gregory. “He probably just wants some attention or some food. We have plenty of both. Gregory pulled a sandwich out of their picnic bag and shook it at the animal. “Come on, boy. Come on. Good boy. Who wants some food? Who wants some yummies?” he babytalked.

The dog froze at first, but then he lowered his belly to the ground and whined.

“See,” Gregory said. “He's just scared.”

Draco eyed the dog like it was an invading army. “Aren't scared animals more likely to attack? Isn't that what the oaf said in Care of Magical Creatures? Was he just lying to get me to stop poking the snakes?”

“Probably,” Theo said.

Gregory shot them both disgusted looks. “The dog is scared, and scared animals aren’t necessarily going to attack unless you corner them. He has lots of room to run away if he doesn't want the food. Don't you boy?” Gregory unwrapped the sandwich and tossed it into the grass a few feet away. The dog crept forward, and now that it was this close, Harry could see the patches of missing fur in the scaly skin around his nose. This was a sick dog.

“Do you think we should go get Hagrid?”

“You can, but I'm not moving,” said Draco. If Flint is going to kill us, I want some advance warning. So leave me alone so I can watch the game.”

Gregory was unwrapping another sandwich. “I think he's fine. He's eating well and he doesn't have a drippy nose or watery eyes. I just think he's hungry.” Gregory tossed the second sandwich after the first. The dog had been very suspicious about the first sandwich, but the second one he gobbled down and then he walked up and sat right next to Gregory.

“You're a good boy, aren't you?” Gregory asked. Moving slowly, he scratched the dog's chest. Immediately, the dog's back foot started to quiver and then it jerked into motion as if it were scratching some invisible spot in the air. “Yeah, you're a good boy.” Gregory pulled out a third sandwich.

“Do you plan on leaving any for the rest of us?” asked Theo. “If this game runs for hours, I don't want to be sitting here hungry and bored. I can only handle one of those conditions at a time.”

“Why didn't you bring a book?”

Theo gave Gregory a look that was devoid of all emotion. Gregory squirmed and only then did Theo answer. “Do you really think I want to be nose first in a book when we are this close to the Forbidden Forest? You saw how the dementors immediately targeted Harry. You know that Sirius Black is somewhere in the area. I am not going to put Harry's life at risk, put my life at risk, put everyone else's life at risk because I can't react fast enough because I am trying to mentally sort the Arithmancy on an ancient spell I've never seen before.”

“Thank you very much for putting us at the bottom of that list,” said Hermione.

Theo reached out with his foot and shoved her leg. “I don't worry that much about you. I've seen you cast hexes.”

“Wait a minute,” Harry said, “what are you trying to say about my hexes?”

“That maybe you should practice some more,” teased Theo.

Harry gave him a two fingered salute. Gregory laughed, and when Harry looked over, the dog's tongue was lolling like he was laughing too.

“I think the dog needs water,” said Harry.

Gregory dug around in the basket, sticking his whole head in to search the expanded depths. “There aren’t any bowls.”

Hermione reached over and tapped the discarded parchment paper from one of the sandwiches and cast a quick incantation to turn the paper into a bowl.

“Thanks.” Gregory pulled out his wand and cast a water spell. The dog drank four bowls before he finally decided he was more interested in sniffing all of them. He sat down right next to Harry. Harry scratched the dog between the shoulders, and the dog collapsed to one side, lifting its front leg to show its stomach.

“That means he likes you,” Gregory said. “When a dog wants you to rub its stomach, that means he trusts you. He must like how you smell.”

Draco and Blaise both snickered, but Harry rubbed the dog's stomach and then let Gregory guide his hand down to scratch the spot where the flank and hip met. “Dogs have trouble shedding hair in the area so it's itchy,” said Gregory.

“I didn't know you had a dog.”

Gregory ducked his head. “I don't. I always wanted one and I read everything about them hoping that I could talk my dad into letting me get a crup or a muggle dog or a cerberus or something, but my dad always said that he would get me one if my marks improved with my tutors. I think my dad and I both gave up on the idea of me ever getting a dog of my own.”

“That's terrible,” said Hermione.

“When you graduate, I'm getting you a dog,” said Neville.

Gregory smiled at him. “You're the best.”

The Ravenclaw chaser got through the twins and managed to sink the ball into the scoring hoop, and the stands went wild with cheers. They had charmed whistles that screamed like a hunting eagle.

“We’re dead. I’m dead,” muttered Draco.

Harry watched as Professor Snape sharply turned and his body language grew stiff and defensive, even if he didn't pull his wand. Snape was far enough away that none of them could hear what he was saying, but Theo set up and put his hand on his wand.

Professor Snape jerked his head in their direction and then backed off a few steps as if he wanted to maintain as much distance as possible between himself and whoever was about to walk past him. Harry wondered if it was the headmaster. That would explain both why Professor Snape had told the other person where to find them and why he looked prepared for an attack.

Emilius nudged Hermione and she sat up and looked around. “What?”

“Someone's coming,” Harry said. Now Draco and Neville looked over, and the whole group was on alert. Even the dog looked around as though trying to decide why people had stopped petting him before he sat up.

The entire group was on edge and ready to draw wands when Professor Lupin walked past Snape and started in their direction. Immediately, Hermione laid back down, using Harry's lower leg as a pillow again. “It's just Professor Lupin.”

“You’ll miss him when the curse kicks in and he drops dead or has his whole life ruined in some terribly dramatic and improbable way,” said Blaise.

“I will too,” said Theo. “I didn't expect to have a defense teacher that could actually teach me something. It's been a nice surprise.”

“I cannot believe how superstitious wizards are,” said Hermione in a derisive tone of voice. All of them, including Neville, gave her incredulous looks.

“Hi, Professor Lupin,” Harry said with a wave. Lupin smiled and waved back.

When he was a little closer, he called, “I was looking for you. What are you guys doing down here?”

Neville answered. “They're helping me hide from the Gryffindors who think it's my fault that Ron almost got killed.”

“I heard about that. I hope you know it's not your f–” Professor Lupin pulled his wind and threw the darkest curse Harry had ever felt streaked by his head.

In less than a heartbeat, Theo had thrown up a shield and Blaise sent a flurry of curses back.

Draco scrambled to get to his feet. “Seriously? What is it with defense teachers?!” Harry was still trying to get untangled from Hermione who had scrambled back into him.

Neville got off to a quick curse and then put up a shield of his own as he stepped in front of Harry.

Snape was running toward them now and Harry pulled his wand, not sure whether he should curse Lupin or not. If Professor Lupin was under some sort of influence, he didn't want to hurt the man. He didn't want to see Lupin's blood spray across the green grass, so we hesitated.

But Theo, Blaise and Emilius threw curse after curse without pausing, all of them counting on Neville’s shield to protect them from whatever counterattack Lupin might launch. But with so much incoming spellwork, Professor Lupin had to focus on shielding. Still, he was running at them, his face twisted with horror.

“Padfoot, don't do it,” he screamed.

“Is he mad?” asked Hermione who stood with her wand out, but she hadn’t thrown any spells yet, either.

Mr. Malfoy was right on Professor Snape’s heels, but the players had made another goal or a foul or something exciting had happened because the stands were exploding in cheers and Lee Jordan was yelling into the microphone so loudly that his voice was a distorted warbling mass of syllables with no meaning.

A sonorus-enhanced Snape yelled, “Lupin, put up your wand!” Professor Snape threw a cutting curse right in front of Lupin, and it sliced into the ground and tossed great clumps of sod up into the air. Lupin cast a full circle shield and whirled around to face the greater threat. “It's Black. The dog is Sirius!”

Harry was standing with his left hand resting against the dog's head, and Draco had retreated to a spot just behind it. Harry reached for his Black family magic, reached for that constant undercurrent of joy that lived in him. An answering echo of guilt and sorrow–very human guilt and sorrow and a dusty and faded love–flowed through his fingers.

Lupin had stopped far enough away that he could still get up a shield between them, but he was yelling. “He's your godson, Sirius. Don't hurt him. He's your godson, for Merlin’s sake.”

Professor Snape reached Lupin's side, his wand pointing toward them, but Harry could see that he was waiting for some signal from Harry. They both knew that Sirius wasn't a Death Eater, and he had never betrayed the Potters. Their only fear was that Sirius was mad, but Harry couldn't feel any madness through their connection. He felt hunger and desperation and sorrow so deep that it was an ocean that light couldn't penetrate.

Harry sent ripples of joy into those dark waters, but he feared to push too hard. No one deserved to become what Bellatrix was. He wouldn’t do that to Sirius Black. Harry looked at Snape and held his wand upward in the gesture used to end a formal dual. Professor Snape didn't put his wand up, but he also didn't cast any magic. In fact, he put a hand on Lupin's arm to stop him.

But Mr. Malfoy was wild eyed and running full tilt as he brought his wand down in a vicious gesture that slung dark magic out into the world.

Harry threw up the one serpent shield he had studied from the Slytherin family grimoire. While the serpent shields were designed for Dark magic, he suspected it wouldn't be enough to handle the power of someone like Lucius Malfoy. Maybe Theo felt what spell Harry had cast, but in the blink of an eye he had raised his own more complex serpent shields.

Mr. Malfoy's spell hit Theo's shield first and threw Theo ten feet back into the grass before the spell hit Harry's shield. Harry felt the magic strain under the force of the curse, and the dog surged forward, and suddenly Sirius black was standing in front of Harry, his wand out as he cast dark magic back.

Mr. Malfoy threw up a shield and then tried to return the curse, but Professor Snape was there, leaping between them and throwing up a shield so strong that Mr. Malfoy’s curse rebounded. He flew into the air and landed hard on his back.

“If you ever raise a wand in Harry's direction again, I will not cast a shield at you. You will learn why the Dark Lord kept me at his side and you will not survive my wand,” Professor Snape threatened darkly.

Mr. Malfoy leapt to his feet, a shield in place before he even was standing. “He has Draco,” Mr. Malfoy screamed. “Do you think I care about your mudblood’s child when Sirius Black is holding my child?”

“If you want to survive, you won't cast again,” Snape warned.

Sirius Black took a step forward. “Snivelus? Are you defending Harry?”

Snape turned and backed away so that he would have a better angle to defend from either Mr. Malfoy or Sirius Black. “I don't know what Azkaban has done to your mind, Black, but Harry is your godson. Your magically sworn godson. If you touch a hair on his head, your magic will be stripped out of you and you will have no way to escape the dementors.”

No one would retreat from this battle as long as he was in the line of fire, so Harry grabbed Draco's arm and started backing away.

Sirius Black shook his head. “Are you defending James Potter's son?” He gave a mad bark of laughter.

Lupin stepped forward. “Sirius, he's defending Lily Potter's son. Look at Harry. He's one of Severus's Slytherins. I've heard stories about how Severus has protected him, has taken him for health checkups and stood in front of Harry when a troll attacked. You jumped in front of Harry. I know you want to protect him, so you need to let him come with us.” Professor Lupin held out his hand, although Harry wasn't sure whether he was trying to get Sirius Black or Harry to reach out for it.

Harry continued to back away from the potential battle, and most of his friends started to shift with him. Emilius and Theo took the primary positions with Hermione moving to shield. Neville stood right in front of Harry, ready to fill any gaps in the defense, and Gregory moved to defend the rear. He was the weakest of them all with spell casting, but sometimes that was an advantage. Wizards tended to focus on their wands, and they often forgot that if Gregory Goyle picked up a rock and threw it at their heads, it was going to hurt like hell.

Blaise stood for a moment watching the battle lines form, and then he moved to stand between Emilius and Theo, his own wand raised. Draco even got his wand up after staring in undisguised horror at the sight of his favorite professor threatening the life of the father he worshiped.

Harry had the most cover of any of them, and that gave him time to work on something more complex. He wove together the threads of Black magic–Narcissa’s protectiveness and cold determination to see her family succeed, Andromeda's wariness and suspicion every time she felt the Black magic stir under her skin, Tonks’s enthusiasm and determination to throw herself into battle, Bellatrix’s wildness, and Sirius Black deep well of sorrow. He took the threads and started weaving them with his own threads of joy. Harry couldn't control Sirius Black the way he could Bellatrix, but he might be able to slow the man.

“Moony?” Sirius Black shook his head like the dog he had been minutes before. “Moony, I don't understand. Have you found Peter?”

“Peter?” Lupin took another step forward. “Sirius, you killed Peter.”

“No. No! I failed!” Sirius gripped his long dirty hair with both hands and pulled it, but at least the adults were talking instead of throwing killing curses. Harry was just starting to hope that this might not end in bloodshed when Gregory gave a bloodcurdling scream.


Chapter 35

Harry whipped around to see dark shadows drifting through the wards. He turned to run for the castle, but the dementors had set up a trap and now it was closing. There were more dementors between them and the castle than were coming out of the Forbidden Forest. Professors Snape and Lupin sent streams of patronus mist toward the dementors, but the giant phoenix patronus on the quidditch pitch only served to drive the dementors toward them.

The headmaster was defending the other students, but inadvertently pushing the danger toward their group. Skeletal and scabbed hands pressed closer until the patronus mist was only a thin veil protecting them from death.

“Run,” Theo said.

Harry hesitated for one second, but then Professor Snape twirled his wand around and his doe leaped out of his wand and raced for the Forbidden Forest, cutting a path for them. Harry took off, and after a second Theo caught up with him and then took point.

Snape’s doe had given them time, but the dementors pushed closer. Harry cast his patronus and hundreds of glowing ravens coursed out into the darkness between the trees, casting long shadows as they flew.

Theo seemed to have some destination in mind. He ran with a single-minded focus, and Harry followed, trusting his friend to always have some plan in mind. Never before had he been so grateful for Theo’s paranoia. Or his love of the Dark arts. He threw a spell up into the air, and a snake that looked like the Slytherin crest hovered over them just like the Dark Lord’s mark would hover over the burnt out houses of his victims. Creepy, but the adults would know where to find them.

Emilius and Draco were barely on their feet by the time they stopped on the bank of a rocky stream. Harry cast another patronus, pulling on the Black magic to send ravens of light to drive the dementors away.

“I can’t… run… we’ll hold them off,” Emilius gasped out.

“What? No!” Draco screeched despite being almost as out of breath.

“We’re not leaving anyone,” Harry said, despite the fact that he could feel himself fatiguing. Theo gave him a desperate look, but he didn’t argue.

Sirius Black turned back into a man. “Harry? I didn’t betray them. I would never have betrayed James and Lily.”

“I know,” said Harry. “When the dementors are too close, I remember that night. I remember Peter showing up to take Voldemort’s wand.” Most of his friend group whipped their heads around to stare at Harry when he dropped that revelation. “But right now we need to focus on surviving the dementors.”

“I would help, but I don’t have enough happy memories for a patronus anymore. But if someone can transfigure a harness and two leashes, I can help pull them.” Sirius nodded toward Emilius and Draco, who still hadn’t recovered.

“You aren’t strong enough,” said Hermione. She was breathing hard, too. As Harry’s birds faded, worn away by the presence of the dementors, she cast her own again. Her otter was not as fast as when she had cast it the first time, but it still scampered toward the dementors.

“I’m a Black. We don’t give up easily.” He gave Harry a grin despite their precarious position.

“Make the harness,” Harry said. If Sirius Black wore himself out too much to defend himself, Harry would mourn him, but he wouldn’t sacrifice Emilius or Draco to preserve Black’s ability to flee. However, if they got out of this alive, Harry was going to make them all run laps around the lake. Muggles had a point in assigning kids to take PE classes.

Hermione gave Harry an odd look, but she grabbed a branch and transfigured it. Black turned back into a dog. The dementors were pressing closer, so Theo cast a patronus while Hermione got the harness around the dog and then transfigured a pair of leads.

“We can’t keep running,” Draco said, but he grabbed the lead and then cast his strongest patronus yet. In the classroom, he’d never gotten his patronus to take a form, but now it hopped-ran along the ground before jumping into the air and spreading wide wings. At first Harry thought it was a phoenix, but then he saw the bird’s head and realized it was a peacock. The bird gave an eerie cry before it flew right at the dementors, driving them back.

“We get to Hogsmeade,” Theo said firmly. “There will be wards there.”

“We have to run halfway around the lake,” Hermione said. “We should wait for the professors to catch up.”

Theo shook his head. “They have all students at Hogwarts to worry about. We take care of ourselves.”

Hermione opened her mouth to argue, but Neville put a hand on her arm. “Theo’s right. Mr. Malfoy and the professors were trying to get to us, and they couldn’t. We can’t cast patronus forever, so we keep moving. Shopkeepers will have wards against dementors.”

“We need to move now. They’re gathering,” Theo said.

Harry mentally braced himself. “I’ll clear the path in front.” He felt the wild and almost desperate joy of the Black magic responding to his need. He could also feel the hints of old magic rising up from the earth, stronger than ever. Harry didn’t know where that magic was coming from, but he pulled at it and wove it together with the Black magic before he cast. A huge flock of ravens burst out of his wand and cleared the path in front of them.

“Let’s move,” Theo said. Sirius Black in his dog form was the first to charge after him. Draco yelped, but he and Emilius kept hold of the leads, and they ran after him. Hermione and Neville followed, and Harry followed, leaving Gregory, Blaise and Theo to guard their rear as the dementors harassed them.

Harry could feel the magical exhaustion pulling at him, so when his patronus collapsed, he didn’t renew it immediately. The path ahead was free of the dark monsters for now, so Harry saved his energy. Sirius leaped over a log, and Emilius and Draco both crashed into the side of it, unable to follow. Sirius barked and Hermione cast her patronus. She couldn’t manifest her otter, but her mist drove away two dementors that came through the trees.

Draco crab-walked backward and called out the incantation for a patronus, but nothing came out of his wand. Harry wondered if he was magically exhausted or too panicked to summon a happy memory. More dementors sailed through the trees, and Harry summoned his patronus, but his Black magic felt stiff, like an overstretched muscle.

But the cold creeping up from the earth pulled him to the north, away from the lake. If they were near Hogsmeade or if any of them were in better shape, Harry would have pressed on, but they weren’t going to make it. He could see it, and now Theo had a grim expression that suggested he saw the same thing.

He was going to have to take a risk. “We’re detouring north. Not much farther,” Harry said. Whether magic was pulling him to some destination or not, none of them could run much longer, and every time they paused for even a few minutes, the dementors pressed closer.

“Why are we detouring?” Neville asked.

“There’s a magical pull. If we can get there, I think I can channel the magic into my patronus.”

“Then we detour north,” Theo said firmly. Sirius whined, but Harry had no idea if that was an objection or not.

There was a great rustling in the trees, and Emilius cast a non-corporeal patronus, but the dementor charged through the silvery mist. Only then did Harry realize that it wasn’t a dementor at all. The twisted form of a werewolf stood in front of them. Hermione screamed, and then Sirius Black was there in his dog form, barking madly and darting forward like he was trying to nip the werewolf.

For a second, the werewolf stood with overly long limbs and long snout and patchy hair, and then the creature started jerking and twisting and his bones cracked and his skin rippled, and then Professor Lupin was there in a ragged pair of fraying trousers.

Sirius Black turned back into a human. “Moony! You got control over your form.” He bounced on his feet like this was the most wonderful moment in the history of mankind, but Lupin just stared at him.

After a few seconds, Lupin turned to the rest of them. “There are hundreds of dementors around Hogwarts, far more than the ministry ever approved. Professors Snape and Dumbledore drove them away from the school, but Snape couldn’t get through them to follow you. I shifted into my other form out of desperation. We need to get you to safety.”

“Where should we go?” Hermione asked.

“We’re going north,” Harry said firmly.

“What’s north?” Professor Lupin asked.

Hermione gave him an almost desperate look.“Harry, I’m sure Professor Lupin knows the closest place we can take refuge in.”

“Not really,” said Lupin.

Sirius grinned. “Then we follow Harry north. The dementors don’t bother with me when I’m in my dog form. Do you want me to scout ahead for any obstacles?” He bounced again, and Harry got the impression the Black family would not be making any claims on sanity using Sirius.

“Yes, please,” said Harry.

Sirius shifted back into his dog form, barked and then took off. The trees rustled, and Harry dreaded having to cast again, but Lupin called out, “Expecto Patronum!” and a silvery wolf leaped out of his wand and charged into the forest. Harry wondered if Lupin knew his patronus matched Mr. Malfoy’s.

“Let’s get moving north,” Theo said. “I’ll guard the rear.”

“I’ll take point,” said Harry. When Theo looked ready to argue, Harry added, “I’m the only one that knows where we’re going.” And Harry didn’t have a great idea. He could feel the throbbing under his feet, the sense of age and power that hummed along the ground, but he didn’t know what he was sensing. For all he knew, dementors had a queen, and he was feeling her murderous siren call. Actually, given his luck, that wasn’t out of the question.

However, he believed this was their best chance.

Hermione looked ready to argue, but Professor Lupin moved to Harry’s side. “I’ll stay with you.” They were huddled closer together now, and Harry let the others cast patronus after patronus. Professor Lupin and Draco were the only ones with the power to make a corporeal one anymore, and the first time Draco had sent his peacock out, the professor had congratulated him on finally finding his form.

Draco had looked at the professor like he had just grown a new head. They were all exhausted and running on the thin edge of sanity.

Sirius came bounding back, but he didn’t turn human again. Harry assumed there were not impassable barriers, but it was also possible that Black was too insane to tell them if there were. Ten minutes into walking, Draco couldn’t produce more than mist, and Professor Lupin’s silivery wolf was moving slower. Fifteen minutes in, Harry felt the tingles under his feet intensify. Twenty minutes in, they broke through a thick line of hedges and came out in an old cemetery.

The headstones were mossy and cracked–the rain and time had eroded the names away and the forest had claimed the land, but the evenly spaced markers were unmistakable. “What is this?” Hermione asked.

The dementors were growing desperate, and one screamed as it tried to reach through the silvery mist Theo had sent at the monster’s face. But Harry ignored all of it. Power soaked the ground, and it called to Harry.

“Emilius!” Theo screamed, and Harry turned to see a dementor grab Emilius by the throat. Time slowed as the decaying face leaned closer to Harry’s friend. Harry raised his wand and tried to cast the patronus. “Expecto…” he hesitated. He didn’t have joy or the Black magic to pull on. What filled him was a peace and a desire for quiet–for the end of strife and joy and struggle and hope. He understood that sometimes the cost of feeding was too great, and sometimes the best solution was to stop feeding at all.

The great quiet settled across Harry’s shoulders. “Not yet, young one,” a raspy voice whispered in his ear, and suddenly Harry knew that the patronus charm was a bastardization of something far older–far more powerful. Joy was not the strongest emotion; acceptance was. A guardian was not the ultimate protection; peace was.

Harry could feel the rhythm of the spell he wanted. The patronus was modeled after it–the number of syllables, the pattern of stresses. The cadence. Silver mist was slowly unfurling from Hermione’s wand, and Neville’s and Theo’s. Professor Lupin was caught halfway through an attempt to whirl around, and he moved millimeter by millimeter. Time itself would eventually yield to the understanding that all things must rest, must end.

It was the nature of life to reach completion in death. This was a place of death. Harry began his charm again. “Expecto Terminus!” A great silvery spider flowed from Harry’s wand, eight graceful legs moving in the universe’s oldest dance. The dementors screamed, and the one trying to kiss Emilius pushed him away in an effort to escape, but the spider saw her prey.

She spun her web and twirled through reality as she took what was never meant to exist and unspun the fabric that made it. Dementors collapsed to the ground, their cloaks fluttering to the earth and their power soaking into the cemetery’s ground. Hallowed ground. This was a place where death walked and a necromancer could hear his whispers.

“You are stronger than I expected,” the raspy voice said.

“You’re Death.” Harry had no doubts. Doubt seemed like such a silly concept here. Lupin still hadn’t completed his turn, and his friends all had expressions of horror, as if they hadn’t yet realized that Emilius was safe.

“You have sunk farther into the Dark than your family has in many generations.”

“Is that why the dementors fear me?”

“Yes. You can hear me. Few can. I’ve told that spell to many people, but none heard me. The dementors do not contribute to the world and their existence offends the balance that sustains us all, but the others have lost the spell that would allow them to unravel their existence and they run from me when I try to offer my wisdom.”

Harry wanted to close his eyes and sink into the ground. “Am I dying?”

“Do you wish to die?”

“I’m not afraid of it.”

A cold shiver went down Harry’s arm, and he looked down to see long, graceful fingers that reminded him of the spider’s legs trailing over his arm. “Being afraid is not the same as wanting it. You could stay here, but do you want to?”

Harry had trouble thinking. “Why wouldn’t I want to? Death is peaceful.”

“No, child,” Death whispered. “Death is final. It is not always peaceful. Life is the artwork–the painting you create in colors set by your emotions and experiences and relationships. Death is your signature at the end. If you believe your art is complete and you have nothing more to contribute to the world, then sign your work and come home to me. Is your life complete?”

“Does it matter?” Harry asked.

“It does. If you have an unfinished painting, the empty places in your art will define you forever. Even pain can be woven into beauty, but nothingness cannot be.”

“I don’t know myself well enough to know what I’m missing. So I can’t miss what I don’t know.” Harry was proud of his logic. It was hard to think when he was so tired.

A cold hand cupped his cheek. “Those that pass without knowing what art they are creating are the saddest. They see what others do, and they regret forever that they never had a chance to explore their own possibilities. They come to me and ask what they could have done had they stayed, but I am a being of death. I do not know life. I have no answers for them. It is like the game you just watched. You cared very much for the outcome, but you could no longer touch those who had power over it. Death is like being outside the pitch, but you will still care. If your friends die in this forest, this cemetery, can you claim you will rest well knowing you left them?”

That cleared some of the fog from Harry’s mind. “Are they still in danger?”

“To live is to be in danger of dying.”

“I have to go back.”

“It is always your choice.” Harry had the sense of a great creature closing his wings and vanishing, and then time lurched forward.

Harry fell to his knees, and Emilus was thrown backward to the ground and all around them, dementors’ cloaks fluttered on the breeze. They settled on the ground and grew tangled in tree branches and gently fell on the headstones. Harry threw up as the vivid colors of reality overwhelmed him.

Hands caught him, and Harry grabbed at this anchor to the world. When he finally blinked away the tears, he realized that Sirius Black was holding him tightly, crying and whispering Harry’s name over and over. Professor Lupin stood over them, and he looked ready to cry as well.

“Harry?” Theo asked. “This is a cemetery… did you?”

Theo knew. He had been the first to say the word when all the other students had been at the welcoming feast. “Death gave me the spell,” Harry said, and his voice sounded like gravel. “‘Expecto Terminus.’ Summon a peaceful end. I summoned the end for the dementors.”

“Merlin’s beard,” Draco whispered. Professor Lupin opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, but he didn’t speak.

“I don’t care what stupid Black gifts he inherited. He’s still my godson, and I’ll fight any one of you that wants to say one word against necromancy. I’ll fight all of you,” Sirius said fiercely. That might have been intimidating if he hadn’t looked half-starved.

“It isn’t a Black gift,” Harry said. He struggled to get out of Black’s arms and sit up on his own. “The Potters are descended from the Peverells, and the Peverells are the most famous necromancers in British history,” said Harry.

“You mean James…” Lupin sat heavily in the grass, half on and half off a fallen headstone. That had to have hurt, but he didn’t seem to have noticed.

“If he’d been attacked by dementors, he might have heard Death. He might have learned the spell,” Harry said. He didn’t know if it was true because his father had not touched the Dark arts; however, Harry needed his father’s friends to see him as someone whose secrets they wanted to keep. They needed to see him as James Potter’s son. Because if they told anyone that Harry had dabbled in necromancy, the world would not be large enough for him to find a hiding place.

Theo pointed his wand at his left hand and issued an underpowered “Bombarda.” The curse snapped two of his fingers, and Neville let out a very unNevillelike curse. A second later, the crack of apparition split the air, and Lupin leaped forward, wand at the ready.

“Harry, get behind me.”

“Father,” said Theo, “Harry cast a necromantic spell and killed the dementors. We have to get rid of the evidence that dementors died here and hide any signs that we were here before the headmaster finds out.”

Theo’s father was a much older man, wrinkled and white-haired but still tall and straight. He studied Harry, and Harry got the feeling he was not making a good first impression. “If the headmaster knows you touched any Dark magic, much less that you are now counted among the few practicing necromancers in the world, he will see you in Azkaban for life, child.”

Sirius surged forward. “Over my dead body. I’ll kill you and him and anyone else who touches my godson.”

“Sirius,” Lupin said sharply. “I think he’s on Harry’s side.”

“But he’s a Death Eater. Isn’t he? Am I confused again?” Sirius looked around the cemetery. “I feel confused.”

“So do I,” Neville whispered. “Harry, are you a necromancer?”

“I wasn’t until about five minutes ago,” Harry said honestly. “I knew the Peverells were necromancers, and Theo thought the dementors might be targeting me because of that, but I only called on death because I was pretty sure we were all going to die if I didn’t do something.”

“But calling on Death requires a sacrifice,” Draco whispered in horror.

Hermione picked at the edge of a dementor’s cloak and the fabric fell to shreds as she lifted it. “I think we can safely say there was a sacrifice here, a rather large sacrifice. And for one, I don’t care if Harry killed every dementor in existence. They’re vile creatures. They exist only to torture. Death can have them.” It was a cold response from Hermione.

“I almost stayed with Death,” Harry said. “If he’d wanted more of a sacrifice, I would have made it.”

“No,” Theo said fiercely. “You are not expendable.”

“None of us is,” said Harry. “That’s why I took this risk. I couldn’t let any of us die trying to fight a horde of dementors.”

“You wouldn’t abandon us,” said Draco. He stared at Harry with awe.

“Of course I wouldn’t.” Harry rolled his eyes. Honestly, sometimes Draco was just so dramatic.

“Are you all committed to protecting Harry? Will you hide this from the headmaster?” Mr. Nott looked around. Neville and Professor Lupin were a little slower to nod, but everyone else agreed immediately.

“I need to make sure Harry isn’t going to lose himself to this power. If he was already tempted to remain with Death, he’s vulnerable,” Professor Lupin said. “Having Dark power in your soul requires self-control that few teenagers possess, but without it, the power could be catastrophic. So I can’t promise that I will keep the secret forever, but as long as he doesn’t seem to be a danger to himself or others, I don’t think this is any of Albus’s business.”

Sirius shook his head and his sorrow shifted into something darker and more determined. “Moony, he cast a necromantic spell. You know what Albus would say.”

“And I know how dangerous Dark power is,” Professor Lupin said. “I won’t tell him unless I have to.”

“I’ll study,” said Harry. “I don’t want to lose control anymore than the rest of you want me to.”

“Then we hide this,” Professor Lupin said. “But Pads, your mental shields are falling apart. If Albus sees you, he’s going to find out. You have to go somewhere. Hide.”

“Go where?” Sirius asked softly. “I came here to protect Harry from Peter, but if he can protect himself, where am I supposed to go?” Sorrow rose up and threatened to drown Harry. He had to occlude to separate himself from the Black magic.

Harry thought about Narcissa, but she still thought Sirius had betrayed his friend because he was lost in the Black madness, and any friendships Sirius had once had were a decade in the past. But he knew one person who might help. “Sirius, do you remember your Uncle Alphard?”

Sirius smiled. “Sure. He’s the only decent Black. At least until now. I get the feeling the family has improved some.” Sirius ruffled Harry’s hair like he was a kid.

“Hopefully, it has,” Harry said gently. “But he got a girl pregnant, a squib. And he hid his son from the family. His son was raised in America, but Castor got a letter to come back when you escaped. He’s in the UK now.”

Sirius’s expression grew dark, and Harry wondered if he was thinking about the three children he would have fathered if Walburga hadn’t psychotically targeted the mothers. “Alphard was smart to hide that,” said Sirius slowly.

“Mr. Nott, do you know where Grimmauld Place is? Do you know Castor Black?”

Mr. Nott’s eyebrows went up. “Yes, to both questions.”

“Can you get Sirius to Castor? If he doesn’t have occlumency shields, he’s more dangerous than any evidence here. If the headmaster finds this, he has a mystery. But one look into Sirius’s mind, and he’ll know everything we don’t want him to know.”

Mr. Nott glanced toward his son before he said, “Agreed. I’ll get Black to safety and then return to cleanse this area of any magical residue or evidence. All of you need to get back to the lake path and make up a story for when the others find you. I’m sure Severus is close on your heels.”

“He’s going to kill all of us,” Harry said in a horrified whisper. Professor Snape might scare him more than dementors.

“Maybe literally,” whispered Neville.

Mr. Nott went over and caught Sirius’s arm. “Are you ready for side-along apparition?”

“Wait a mi–”

Mr. Nott spun on his heel and they were both gone. Theo sat on one of the headstones and let his head hang for a second. “My father will know how to get rid of all this evidence, so we just have to decide how to explain our unlikely survival.”

“We don’t know how we survived,” Harry said. “We all cast patronus until we couldn’t produce more than mist. Then a werewolf appeared, and we thought he was going to tear into us before he transformed back into our professor, and then he held off the dementors with his patronus. But we just kept moving as fast as possible. Then when we were about to give up, the dementors all vanished.” The best lies were built on a foundation of truth,

“But why would they do that?” Hermione asked.

Harry looked at her. “I don’t know. You don’t know. But you’re Hermione, so you’re going to ask everyone what dementors are afraid of and why they might flee and whether the headmaster did anything. You’re going to look up everything you can about dementors and this is going to annoy the crap out of you because you want answers for why the dementors would have just given up or how they got through the headmaster’s wards or why they targeted us. You have so many questions. And you’re going to push all those questions to the front of your mind and occlude to hide everything else.”

The more Harry talked, the more Hermione’s fear shifted into curiosity. “What if I find something on necromancy?”

Theo snorted. “You won’t. That’s banned magic. After all, magic that powerful is subversive, so it should be destroyed.”

Professor Lupin said, “Knowing what I do about the history of Dark magic in the UK, I suspect most knowledge was lost with the necromancy grimoires. But despite the fact that the records of the spell were destroyed, the magic still exists. Knowledge never truly vanishes, although magic of his sort is too volatile to allow just anyone to learn it.”

Neville said softly, “We can all agree that Harry isn’t likely to turn into the next Dark Lord.”

Harry snorted. “Leading a revolution and taking over the world feels like too much work for me. I can barely handle Arithmancy, so I’ll leave the Dark Lording to others. But we need to get back to the lake path.”

Emilius tried to get up with a groan before he lay flat on his back again. “I think I need help up. I might have broken something.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t move you,” said Gregory.

“Yes, I’ll just lay here in the middle of a cemetery and hope no one notices the necromantic magic lingering on the air. Merlin’s beard, Gregory, have some common sense. I’ll lay down and die when we get back to the path so help me up.”

“If you die when a broken rib pokes through your lung, I’m not going to feel sorry for you,” he warned, but Professor Lupin cast a bone stabilization spell and Gregory helped him to his feet.

“You need help?” Harry asked Theo.

Theo slowly stood. “I’m fine.”

“You cursed your own hand. That’s not fine,” Hermione shivered in horror.

“It was a distress call, wasn’t it?” Harry asked. Theo had broken his hand to summon his father. That showed a lot of faith in Mr. Nott because Theo was now crippled by pain. If he did that kind of damage to himself and Mr. Nott delayed showing up, Theo would be in a lot of trouble.

“When your own Ministry hates you and you’re going to a school where the headmaster has publicly said that your family should be stripped of their magic and put in Azkaban, you put one or two safeguards in place.”

Neville moved to Theo’s side. “I don’t care what your father did in the war, you’re a good person.”

“I’m a Dark wizard,” Theo said.

“Which says nothing about who you are as a person. Now, if you start killing people to get your way politically, then I’ll have something else to say to you. But right now, I’m glad you’re on our side.”

Theo grinned at Neville. “For a Gryffindor, you’re alright.”

“Let’s get moving,” Harry said. “We need to be on that path before any search parties find us.”

“I’ll repair the vegetation behind us,” Neville said. All of them were broken and exhausted and dirty, but they trudged back south, reaching the lake path about the same time as they started to hear voices crying out their names.

Chapter 36

Albus sighed as he sank into his chair and grabbed a candy. He felt like he’d aged a thousand years in the last day or so. Watching hundreds of dementors swarm the quidditch pitch at the end of the match had been the single most horrific moment of his life. His sister dying, his final duel with Gellert–none of it compared to the horror of seeing dementors flowing onto the field.

And then he had realized that Harry and his friends had been driven into the forest. Albus had expected Voldemort to make a move on Harry’s life, but he had not expected anything so drastic. It was worrying that Severus had not been forewarned, but even Lucius had been caught off guard. His own son had nearly died, after all. Albus knew that Lucius would return to his master’s service, but he couldn’t see him sacrificing his only child.

He wondered if this would drive a wedge between the Malfoys and Voldemort. Narcissa was famous for her overprotective nature. She would curse Voldemort herself to save her son. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage. If Voldemort was ready to move, Albus needed more pieces on the board. He felt woefully underprepared.

He had been trying to protect Harry from having to enter the war too early, but it might be time to start preparing the boy.

His wards shivered and Albus waved a hand to open the door. He could feel the Dark magic that clung to Severus, but despite that weakness for Dark magic, Severus was one of the best people Albus knew. He had stood against the dementors and had followed Harry and Remus into the woods. Given Severus’s fear of werewolves, his willingness to do that spoke volumes.

When he came through the office door, he looked even more worn than Albus. “All the students are safe,” he said, taking his normal position standing next to the guest chair.

“Do sit. I am far too tired to look up at you.”

Looking intensely uncomfortable, Severus settled on the edge of the chair.

“Is there any sign of where the dementors might be?”

“None,” said Severus. “We are lucky because a few more minutes and none of the children in the forest would have survived.”

“You should thank Remus,” Albus said. Severus twitched. No doubt he didn’t want to think about the fact that Remus had been there for the children when he couldn’t. It hadn’t just been Lily’s child out there, either. The Malfoy boy was Severus’s godson, and the Bulstrode girl and Zabini and Goyle boys were Slytherins. Remus had been instrumental in saving all of them. Severus refused to respond.

Albus sighed. “How are the children?”

“All of them except Mr. Goyle are suffering magical exhaustion. The patronus is not a charm they have the resources to cast multiple times the way they did.”

Albus rested his chin on his hand. “I am very grateful Remus managed to teach the spell to so many of them.” He had been sure that the Slytherins would be too Dark to master it, but perhaps they–like Severus–would be willing to turn their back on their families’ corrupting magics.

“Draco finally cast a corporeal patronus,” said Severus. “He was physically exhausted from running and Mr. Bulstrode, who was also exhausted, suggested that Mr. Potter leave them both to make better time to Hogsmeade. Mr. Potter chose to stay with his friends even when the dementors were drawing close. The joy of knowing that Harry chose to stay with him gave Draco the power to cast the spell.”

Sometimes Albus looked at Harry and wondered if the boy was lost. He saw how Harry commanded the loyalty of Slytherins and embraced his Black family legacy and he saw shadows of another boy. Tom had been much the same. However, days like today reassured Albus that he was on the right track. Tom never would have risked his own life for his classmates, but Harry cared about others. He embraced love.

And now Harry had pulled the other boys away from the Dark. A Nott could cast a patronus. It was quite remarkable. Harry was quite remarkable.

Severus continued. “Nott cast a poorly timed Bombarda in a futile effort to drive the dementors away when his patontrus failed, and he hit his own hand. Madam Pomfrey said he will need two days in a splint to ensure full use of the fingers. Mr. Bulstrode cracked two ribs when a dementor threw him to the ground and Draco fractured a kneecap stumbling into a fallen log. But the worst off is Harry who is so magically drained that Madam Pomfrey believes he should not cast for the next month.”

Albus knew the boy would hate that. He favored wandwork over studying, another difference from Tom who had searched for archaic magic almost from the time he had first arrived at the school. Harry made no secret of the fact that he would happily never open a book again if he could do the more practical parts of magic. Albus needed to worry less about the boy being pulled off the path of Light. Remus had even said his patronus was one of the strongest Remus had ever seen, although he did not have the control of Luna Lovegood.

Albus realized his thoughts were wandering. He had put far too much power into his own patronus, but then he had to cover the entire quidditch pitch. Who would have thought that the combined joy of Gryffindor winning the game and Slytherin winning the cup could have tempted the dementors across the ward lines.

“Albus, there is another issue. He is calling,” said Severus. “The call is not yet painful or persistent, but he demands my attendance.”

Tom. The self-styled Lord Voldemort. Albus had thought Harry would have time to grow up. He’d not wanted to even broach the subject of the Dark Lord’s survival until Harry was seventeen and an adult in the wizarding world. However, Albus was running out of time. He had no idea how Voldemort would react once he learned his plot had failed.

“Please stay until Minister Fudge has left,” Albus said.

Severus stiffened. Even now he feared interacting with government officials, as if Albus would allow any of them to arrest Severus. Of all those who fought for the Order in the first war, Severus had been the most helpful.

Sirius had been overly enthusiastic, and in hindsight, Albus should have suspected him of treachery just because of the utter abandon he’d shown when throwing himself into a fight. Remus had spent more time mourning his own cursed nature than fighting Death Eaters, and Neville’s parents had been only fair-to-middling fighters. During their battles with the Dark, luck had saved them more than their skills.

Mad-Eye Moody had been their best dueler, but his suspicious nature and crude personality made it difficult to convince others to work with him. The Prewett twins–Molly’s brothers–had been brilliant, but Voldemort had targeted them early in the war. Lily had the magical strength to fight and the temperament to be a real asset, but she had never stopped questioning Albus or his strategy. She had been a difficult woman.

No wonder the last war had nearly been lost when Albus had been saddled with a hodge-podge of fighters. And sadly, he feared he might be in little better shape this time. Albus had hoped to have more time to develop a new set of fighters. Tonks was a strong contender, even if her Black connections made Albus wary. The two older Weasley boys both excelled at dueling and had strong Light connections, and Albus hoped to develop Susan Bones from Hufflepuff and several sixth and seventh year students.

Time had slipped away, and now Albus felt like he was unprepared to go into yet another war. Although he was more prepared than the Ministry. Minister Fudge ignored every veiled hint Albus tried dropping and had actually suggested that Albus’s handling of Harry Potter implied that Albus should release a few of his responsibilities.

Utter lunacy.

“I do hope Remus comes soon.” Albus gave Severus a long look. “And after he risked his life to protect the children–including your Slytherins–I expect you to give him your full support,” Albus said. Too many people had seen Remus change forms. Many of the Ravenclaws had fled up into the stands to escape the dementors on the field. While foolish, this had left them able to watch Severus and Remus fight their way toward the forest–Remus in his werewolf form.

That did worry Albus. Only those who embraced the Dark magic of their wolf could turn outside the full moon, but Albus hoped that only desperation to save Harry had made that possible. But still, Albus might have to alter his plans to ask Remus to develop a closer relationship with Harry.

He still needed a strong Light figure to counterbalance any influences this new Black cousin might bring, but Remus might no longer be the best choice. Perhaps Albus should bring in Moody. No one could compromise Mad Eye Moody’s moral compass. “Ah, here he is,” Albus said as his wards went off again. He opened his office door with a wandless, wordless spell, and Remus appeared.

Severus truly must be exhausted because he didn’t stand, and normally he stood with a wide dueling stance anytime Remus was in the room. No doubt Remus had noticed.

“Is this the end of my teaching?” asked Remus. “I knew the curse was likely to force me out before the end of the school year, but I thought I would have a couple of more months with Harry… and I didn’t think it would make me transform in front of half the school.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Severus said. “No more than two dozen students saw it.”

“Does it matter?” Remus asked.

“Perhaps not,” admitted Severus. Albus tended to agree, although he wanted to keep Remus for the remainder of the term. He had hoped to advocate for more humane werewolf laws by introducing the students to a werewolf aligned with the Light to such an extent that he could control the Dark. That required him to reveal Remus’s affliction before the end of the term. However, the current situation opened other options.

Fudge had miscalculated. He had insisted–over Albus’s public and vehement objections–on keeping the dementors on guard, and now they had broken out of Ministry control and most of them had fled to parts unknown. And in the middle of the chaos, a werewolf had protected children. If Albus played this correctly, he could maneuver Fudge into a position much more in line with Albus’s views of werewolves.

As a bonus, Remus could stay to the end of the term and Albus could observe his interactions with Harry to see if Remus was still an appropriate mentor. Unaware that he was the center of Albus’s thoughts, Remus collapsed into a chair not far from Severus. Other than a twitch, Severus didn’t react.

Albus felt like a small miracle had occurred, although it was more likely that both men were too tired to react to each other.

“Albus, I ache, I’m exhausted, and I am very near requiring Pomfrey’s assistance myself. Is there a reason you called me here?” Remus asked.

“Minister Fudge should arrive any time now. Lemon drop?” Albus offered the muggle candy as he plotted his moves. With the Ministry involved and Voldemort in the background, Albus was playing a three-sided game of chess, and every move counted. Every pawn tucked into a corner could become a vital piece. Every concession provided vital ground he would need once Voldemort moved into the open.

Remus waved him away without saying anything, and then the three of them sat in silence, the gizmos around them spinning and clicking and flashing, each according to its own nature. Eventually the floo flashed bright green, and Minister Fudge stepped through, a frog-faced woman dressed in all pink right behind him.

“Albus, how could you let this happen? Dementors attacking students for the second time? Word is already getting out, and the Ministry is receiving howlers. You’ll get your own tomorrow.”

Albus had no doubt of that. “Good evening, Minister Fudge, Undersecretary Umbridge. Lemon drop?”

Both of them stared at Albus. Remus had moved out of his chair and Fudge immediately claimed it while Remus moved closer to Severus. Nothing would end old animosity like a new enemy.

“This is terrible.” Fudge snatched his lime green bowler hat off his head. “Simply terrible.”

“I did warn you that placing dementors so near children who are both highly emotional and largely unable to defend themselves was a foolish move,” Albus said.

Umbridge drew herself up and made huffing noises of horror that Albus would dare challenge her minister. Fudge was a useless Minister of Magic, unable to distinguish between the appearance of good and the actual existence of it, but at least he was better than Umbridge. Albus had met two Dark Lords he liked more than the officious and self-righteous woman.

“But for them to break through your wards….” Fudge carefully emphasized “your” as if Albus didn’t already know that Fudge intended to blame it all on him.

“I said in the last Wizengamot session that children’s emotions would be too much temptation for dementors and the DMLE had used brute force attacks to take down powerful wards, such as those around the Malfoy and Nott manors, so they could not expect more of Hogwarts’ wards. I hate to remind others of my prescient warnings, but…”

Severus looked almost amused at that. Of course, he was one of the few people Albus would often crow in front of. Albus enjoyed bragging as much as the next human being, but it was only with Severus that he would indulge in all the ‘I told you so’ that he wanted to.

“The Minister is protecting all of us from Sirius Black, the real threat,” insisted Umbridge.

“Sirius Black didn’t terrorize a school full of children and attempt to consume their souls,” said Albus softly. “Nor did Sirius Black chase a group of students into the forest and attack them until they required hospitalization.”

Fudge did not appear overly concerned. Of course not. He saw the children as less than pawns–as obstacles, really. And until they were old enough to have political power, he ignored the danger to them. Unluckily for him, not all the children in the forest today had been powerless.

“I dare say Lucius will have something to say after he visits his son in the hospital,” said Albus in a mild tone. Fudge turned white, and Umbridge kept opening and closing her mouth in a most unattractive manner.

Lucius had been a thorn in Albus’s side all year, with his latest projects being the magical crafting class and a redesign of potions. No doubt the potions curriculum was an attempt to divert Albus’s attention from the fact that the crafting class would reintroduce ritual to Hogwarts. However, Albus was amused at being able to use Lucius’s presence as a piece in his own chess game.

“You can hardly blame the Minister for that!” Umbridge said in her annoyingly girlish voice. “You’re the headmaster and responsible for everything that happens on Hogwarts’ grounds.”

“True,” Albus said. He tapped his fingertips together. “Very true. But unfortunately, a number of students were cut off from safety. Ravenclaws ended up huddled at the top of their stands, quite trapped had the dementors focused on them. I had an obligation to them. But that forced young Draco and his friends to take refuge, not on Hogwarts’ land but in the forest surrounding it–forest the Ministry specifically took responsibility for when they chose to bring in dementors.”

“Now see here!” Fudge started.

“Luckily Harry had been practicing his patronus charm.”

“Harry?” Fudge seemed to swallow the word in the middle.

“Did I not mention that Harry Potter was one of the students pursued into the forest?” Albus smiled. “How remiss of me. Yes, Harry Potter was in the forest, in Ministry jurisdiction, when he was attacked by Ministry employees in a brutal assault that has resulted in him having to take at least a month off any spellcasting lest he permanently damage his core.”

Fudge dropped his bowler hat and clutched his chest like he was having a heart attack. Umbridge looked at him and then at Albus before she giggled like a possessed toddler who had been fed too much candy. “Now,” tee hee, “I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding. We’re all friends.” Tee hee hee. She simpered at Albus. Albus would prefer Voldemort’s open malevolence.

“Luckily Professor Lupin is a werewolf and could use his Dark form to break through the dementors. He reached the children and changed back just in time to cast his own patronus.” Albus allowed himself the smallest of smiles and Dolores Umbridge stumbled away from Remus and fumbled to get her wand out of her little pink purse.

Fudge stopped breathing for a moment before he turned in his chair to face Remus. To his credit, he didn’t pull his wand, but his fingers twitched.

“Without him, I would be planning Harry’s funeral, along with attending the funerals of Theo Nott, Millicent Bulstrode, and Neville Longbottom.” Albus saved that name for last. Augusta was known to strike fear into the hearts of much braver men than Fudge. “You owe him quite the debt. Don’t you agree?”

“I’m sure the Minister is just glad the children will recover,” Remus said after a long, awkward silence where the sound of Cornelius Fudge’s raspy breathing was the only sound.

“Of course. Yes. Yes, of course. It would have been dreadful to lose those children. Absolutely dreadful. Dreadful.” Fudge groped blindly, searching for his hat without taking his eyes off Remus. Severus had rarely looked so amused, although Albus suspected the others wouldn’t recognize the expression.

Remus rubbed a hand over his face. “Since students saw me transform, I imagine both of you will be getting some howlers about my placement on the staff.”

“Oh, I’m sure the minister would love to explain how you saved the children,” Albus said.

“What?” Umbridge’s girlish voice vanished under a shriek of horror.

“Or we could share the story of how dozens of dementors have gone missing and are no longer responding to Ministry demands that they return to Azkaban,” Albus said. Blackmail was not his favorite tool, but when one dealt with the likes of Umbridge who represented the worst of Slytherin and Fudge who embraced his house’s ridiculous need to be liked, Albus had to use the tools he had available.

Fudge opened and closed his mouth. “You are the headmaster. You allowed the creatures on your grounds.”

“I cast the patronus that protected hundreds of students,” Albus countered. “But you are welcome to explain things as you like.” Albus gave him a kind smile. “Sometimes you are so blinded by the power of your popularity that you forget that truth has its own influence. Students will carry tales home. The parents will know who was warned to remove the dementors and who protected the students.” Albus smiled at Remus. “They will know of the many people who protected students, and you can only benefit by putting yourself on the same side as at least one of those individuals.” Albus gestured toward their local werewolf.

“But… but…” Fudge couldn’t seem to get any farther, but Umbridge exploded.

“He’s a werewolf! He’s a Dark creature! He has no business being anywhere near good wizarding children!”

“Dolores,” Fudge pleaded softly.

Albus leaned forward. “Do you think Lucius will condemn my decision to bring a werewolf on staff when he not only taught the children the charm they used to defend themselves but he also put his own life at risk to save them? Do you think Augusta will side with you or her grandchild? What would Obstrepan Nott do if he knew you were refusing to support the teacher who saved his only remaining heir?”

Obstrepan couldn’t ever leave his estate without risking arrest, but the man still had a lot of allies, and Lucius and Augusta could control the Wizengamot if they ever agreed on anything. This was a power that Cornelius could understand.

The minister stood. “Dolores, we need to prepare a press announcement. Headmaster, you have made enemies today.”

Albus smiled. He was hardly afraid of Cornelius Fudge. “I am not interested in making enemies–only in pursuing the truth.”

Cornelius strode toward the fireplace, flooing out with Umbridge without another word.

In the silence that followed, Remus sighed. “You didn’t need to protect me. I should pack because parents will be calling for me to leave before long.”

“I doubt that.” Albus leaned back in his chair. Up until now, he hadn’t challenged Fudge or his cronies, but it was time to start making inroads into creature rights. Maybe then they would either help the Light or remain neutral. That would undermine Voldemort’s base of support. “Let Fudge make his public statement. Even when he finishes trying to claim the glory, you’ll come out a hero,” said Albus. And anyone who saw Hogwarts’ name attached to the story would understand that Albus and not Fudge had pushed for a werewolf to be recognized as the hero of the day. Symbols mattered, and Remus could become a powerful symbol.

Sadly, in the last war, Albus had hesitated to lean too heavily on Remus because he had suspected that Remus and not Sirius had been the traitor. James had been dead set against the idea that either would betray the Light, but James had not been the best judge of character. But perhaps now was the time to move Remus onto the board and take advantage of having a Light-aligned werewolf.

Severus stood. “I must go,” he said.

“Wait. I’ll go with you,” Remus said.

Severus lifted an eyebrow. “He is calling me.” He gestured toward his left arm, and Remus lost most of the color out of his face.

“Be safe, Severus,” Albus said. At the beginning of summer, Voldemort had been so sadistic that Severus had needed to call for help and he’d spent three days in bed with Albus bringing him pain potions. Every time Albus sent Severus off to that monster, he worried that Severus would face that again. However, Severus was also facing his own mistakes. Albus hadn’t been able to forgive himself for once following his Dark Lord until he faced and defeated Grindelwald. By facing Voldemort and enduring the pain, Severus would find the strength to make different choices. Albus had faith in him.

Severus tilted his head in Albus’s direction and then strode out of the office.

Chapter 37

Severus apparated to the grand dueling room in Grimmauld Place. The Dark Lord had set privacy wards that would exclude even Harry’s elves and the Black wards would keep out everyone else who did not have an invitation.

Since this was the first time apparating into the house, Severus feared the famously lethal wards would shred him, even with the invitations issued by “Castor Black” and Harry; however, he arrived safely in the largest dueling space Severus had seen outside of Malfoy manor. Apparently the Black elves were as ostentatious as the Malfoy ones.

To one side, grand double doors stood open, and three men waited in a large library that radiated Dark magic. Castor Black and Obstrepan Nott were both dressed in formal robes while Sirius Black had on a mismatched set of dirty and torn muggle clothing.

“Snivelus?” Black asked. If the tone had been confrontational, Severus would have thrown a curse, but he just sounded confused.

Severus sighed. This was his penance for siding with an insane Dark Lord during the last war. “Black,” he returned.

“But…” Sirius looked from Castor to Obstrepan to Severus. “I don’t understand. Where’s Harry? I should go get Harry. You don’t understand. The rat. The rat with the Weasley boy. He’s Peter. We were animagi.” Sirius started pacing and the Dark Lord rolled his eyes.

Sometimes Severus could see hints of the Dark Lord in this new person, but right now, he could well believe this was Castor Black–the illegitimate child of an unpopular Black and an exiled Potter. He sat behind the large desk and leaned back in his chair. Obstrepan had chosen one end of a settee, and Severus settled into an upholstered chair done in green with snakes carved into the wood.

“Peter’s in Gryffindor with Harry,” Black said loudly. “We have to stop Peter from getting to Harry. Who knows what he’ll do.”

“Black,” Severus said sharply, and he stopped and looked at Severus. “Harry is safe. He’s in the hospital wing with magical exhaustion, but he’s safe and with his friends.”

“Hospital wing? I should be there with him.” Sirius started toward the door, but the Dark Lord waved his hand in that direction, and the door slammed shut in Black’s face.

Black whirled around. “Oh, you’re the head of the household, so now you’ll tell me what to do? You should ask dear old mother how that ended.”

“Black,” said Severus loudly. “Harry is safe.”

“And I am not the head of House Black,” said the Dark Lord.

Black ignored Severus and stalked toward Castor. “I felt the magic shift. I felt it. Someone took up the lordship. Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not.” The Dark Lord looked amused. “Narcissa brought Harry here and had him claim it through the ritual room. I think there was talk of being afraid you might lay claim to it and hurt the boy. Narcissa is convinced that you’re suffering Black madness and she’s afraid for both Harry and Draco.”

“Draco? Who’s Draco?” Black dropped into a chair matching the one Severus had chosen. “I don’t understand.” He rubbed his face. “I don't understand any of this. YOU!” He pointed at Obstrepan. “You’re a Death Eater.” Fury colored his words.

“And you have a godson who has cast a necromantic spell on hallowed ground using a living sacrifice,” Obstrepan returned.

“What?” All Black’s fury vanished under layers of confusion.

“How long will the Wizengamot send him to Azkaban for performing that kind of necromancy?” Obstrepan asked.

Black narrowed his eyes. “I will burn the whole Wizengamot to the ground before I’ll let them touch Harry.”

Obstrepan chuckled. “That is exactly what I said when that fool sitting in Hogwarts started pushing to ban magic that my first son was well-known for using. He had already taken books out of Hogwarts, and I complained but did nothing. But when he moved into the Wizengamot and began to make moves that would have turned Noah into a criminal, I had to act.”

“So you tortured muggles. You terrorized the country. I know you. I know magical signatures. We fought.” Sirius leaped to his feet and pulled his wand, but Castor performed a wandless and wordless spell and the wand flew out of Sirius hand and landed on the floor near Severus.

Severus moved his foot on top of the wand without touching it.

Sirius whirled toward Castor, his hands curled into claws.

“I believe a calming potion and several nutritional potions might be in order,” Severus said.

Black whirled on him. “You! You’re a Death Eater.”

Severus resisted the urge to pinch his nose. This was worse than dealing with teenagers. “To my eternal regret, I was. However, I agreed to spy for the headmaster in return for keeping Lily safe. Clearly, the headmaster failed, but I have continued my work with him in order to protect Harry.

“However, that is now more complicated because Harry used a necromantic spell, and he got that spell directly from Death.” Harry had, once again, invited Severus into his mind. The raw power from the Black family had rocked him to the core, but then Severus had found a memory where Death stood at Harry’s side and greeted him as a beloved child. Severus turned his attention to Castor. “Death spoke to the boy–called him off the path and to the cemetery so their connection would be stronger. He then taught the boy the original necromantic spell that the patronus is based on. It grants a peaceful death by allowing people to let go of their concerns.”

“So the boy is a full-fledged necromancer capable of contacting the Lord of Death,” Obstrepan whispered, awe and wonder in his voice.

Black sank down into the chair. “How? What has happened? What has Harry been doing for the last twelve years?”

“Harry took the Black family magic, got attacked by dementors and pulled on his Potter and Peverell family magics to protect himself. You were there. You understand that Harry has done nothing wrong,” said Castor. “And you understand that the headmaster is touting Harry as the savior of the wizarding world, the champion of the Light, which is now a problem.”

Black snorted. “If he’s a necromancer, I don’t think anyone would call him Light. Merlin’s beard. James had a family affinity for necromancy.” Black scrubbed his face with a dirty hand. “And all those children were there. They’re going to tell.” Black bolted to his feet. “We have to get Harry. Right now. We have to go get him and bring him back here.”

Severus was exhausted just being in the same room with Black; he couldn’t imagine how Black was living in his own skin.

“None of Harry’s friends will betray him,” said Severus, but Black was shaking his head. “Neville Longbottom was there. Longbottom. There isn’t a family more likely to turn against a necromancer, and I don’t care if they’re best friends. We have to get Harry.”

A few years ago, Severus might have agreed with Black, but he had watched these children through too many difficulties to believe that now. “Neville will never betray Harry,” said Severus in his firmest tone–the one he used to intimidate Ravenclaws who wanted to experiment with potions they didn’t understand in his classroom.

Black blinked at him owlishly.

“My larger concern is what to do with you,” said Severus. He then looked to Castor. Severus might not serve the Dark Lord anymore, but he would not pretend he had any control when he sat in the same room with someone so powerful.

“Cousin,” Castor said, “I think you need to rest and recover.”

“But Harry….”

“We will protect him and his friends, one of whom is my only surviving son,” said Obstrepan. “I cleansed the cemetery, and I will keep his secrets.”

“NO! Harry’s mother was muggleborn. You want muggleborns killed. You accuse them of stealing pureblood magic.” Black spat the words, and Severus half expected Obstrepan to throw curses. The man was a first-rate duelist.

Instead, he laughed. “I never had a problem with muggleborns. From the way Theo described the muggleborn Granger, I can see he is interested in her. According to Theo, she is smart and magically gifted as well as endowed with a wealth of loyalty. He was distraught when Granger started to date Harry and he carefully controlled his tone when he described their breakup, so I know he wants her and has not decided how to broach the subject.

“I have already given him my blessing to pursue Granger, and while I doubt I shall live to see her become my daughter-in-law, I hope it happens.”

“You doubt you shall see it?” asked Severus, alarmed.

Obstrepan gave him a wry smile. “I endured many curses during the war, and I while I won every duel in the field, I have not escaped certain consequences. I am dying, and I have already switched the manor’s wards to Theo because I believe I have no more than a year of life remaining. The most I can do for my son is ask he remain neutral in any conflicts until he has graduated from Hogwarts and tell him that I am proud of the choices he has made so far, and that includes his interest in Miss Granger.

“But… you were there.” Black’s voice was distant as though remembering something.

“Where?” Obstrepan asked.

Black shook his head. “Christmas Eve. Diagon Alley. The massacre. We fought.”

Obstrepan sighed. “I regret many of my actions. I wanted to protect the Dark, but I went too far.”

Castor spoke up. “It sounds like your chosen Lord went too far and you had vowed to follow him, trapping you in his madness.”

Severus froze, staring at Castor in shock. This was the Dark Lord–Obstrepan’s chosen Lord–however, he had clearly expressed similar ideas in the past because Obstrepan chuckled.

“The Dark Lord was magically brilliant and powerful, but by stripping out Dark magic from the Hogwarts’ library and leaving only vague references, the old fool ensured that he would abuse the Dark and suffer madness.”

“You’re blaming Albus?” Sirius Black asked, clearly shocked.

Obstrepan sighed. “I would blame the Dark Lord for being arrogant enough to believe he could control any magic he found, but we were all such arrogant teens at one point. I blame myself for not helping my friend realize the danger. I blame families like the Malfoys and Blacks and Carrows who tangled love of the Dark with their idiotic beliefs about blood purity and refusing to align with the Dark Lord unless he embraced a racism that was unnatural to him as a halfblood. I blame the old fool for not teaching any of us better. There is enough blame for everyone.”

“Voldemort was a HALFBLOOD?” Sirius yelped.

“I brewed an inheritance test for him when the goblins refused,” said Severus. “Magical mother from the Gaunt line, muggle father.”

Sirius looked around with wild eyes. “But Mother… she said… she LOVED him.”

Castor gave a dark chuckle. “Then she loved a halfblood and now the halfblood Harry Potter is the head of House Black, and from the stories others have told, she deserves to suffer endless unrest in the afterlife as she realizes how badly she failed those ridiculous ideals of hers.”

Black buried his face in his hands. “I’m so confused.”

“I suggest dreamless sleep after several nutritional potions and then a long rest so your body can recover. You may be able to think more easily afterward,” said Castor. “Harry’s new elves have delighted in expanding and updating the house, but I believe one of the two locked bedrooms on the second floor is yours if you want to stay in your childhood room. Otherwise, you may be most comfortable on the third floor where Harry will be staying once school has ended.”

Castor stood, and Sirius reached for his pocket as if to grab for his wand, but that was still on the floor by Severus. Severus stood, retrieved the wand and then offered it to Black.

Black hesitated. “But we’re enemies.”

“I thought James Potter was toying with Lily’s affections. I considered her a sister, and I was ready to hex all of you into oblivion to protect her from the cruelty that unfairly follows a girl with a certain reputation. Had I understood that he actually loved her, I would not have been your enemy, Black.”

“But you’re a Death Eater.”

This was torture, and all Severus could do was endure. “I was, but I too am a halfblood and I have no interest in muggle baiting. I wanted to protect the Dark, and I was too young and too stupid to recognize the danger. Since you followed a man who allowed you to remain in Azkaban for a decade despite your innocence, I assume you understand the foolishness of youth.”

“Albus is a good man,” Black whispered as he reclaimed his wand.

“The headmaster abandoned you, and he will do worse to Harry if he learns he is a necromancer.”

Black looked ready to collapse emotionally and physically.

“Come,” said Castor, “let’s find you a bedroom and a bath and some food. Then I will ply you with the potions Severus has suggested and then perhaps in a week or so we can talk again. Just know that every person in this room will kill to protect Harry, and his friends are loyal to a fault. Harry is safe. And if he is not–if he is in any danger–I will invite you to the battle we will wage to save him.”

“You care about him.”

“We all do,” Obstrepan said. “He is the future of the Dark, able to defend us without forcing us into a war that will only damage our community more. I would give my life for him because defending him is defending the Dark’s best chance of changing the world. Defending him is the same as defending my son.”

Castor got a hand under Sirius Black’s elbow. “Come along. I doubt you could find anything with as much rearranging as the elves have done, so I’ll get you up to the third floor.” Castor–the Dark Lord–walked out with Sirius Black. Sometimes Severus could not keep up with the shifting alliances ever since Harry had rejoined the magical world.

Severus was left with Obstrepan and for a time they sat in silence. Severus had trouble believing this strong man was dying, but if he had assigned the manor wards to Theo, he clearly didn’t feel strong enough to maintain them. “How badly was the area contaminated?” Severus finally asked.

Obstrepan blew out a long breath. “It took all my remaining strength to finish the ritual. Necromantic magic had leached into the soil and lingered on the air. The boy has incredible power, but very little control.”

“He had been attacked by hundreds of dementors and had exhausted himself casting several impossibly strong patronus charms. I doubt he had any energy left to devote to control. That would explain why he nearly stayed with Death. I doubt many people accidentally sacrifice themselves, but he nearly did.”

“Is he alright?” asked Ostrepan.

“Magically exhausted and traumatized.” Severus paused before he added the detail that he believed would pose the greatest danger to Harry’s mental health. “Emilius Bulstrode tried to convince Harry to abandon him because he couldn’t keep up.”

“Merlin’s beard,” whispered Obstrepan. “I thought the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds who joined us on the battlefield were too young. These children are thirteen, Severus. They are infants.”

“They are not,” said Severus. “They defended themselves better than most adults, and they kept their heads about them. We will protect them as best we can, but you know better than most that they must grow up.”

Obstrepan grimaced. “I have raised Theo since birth to understand that I am dying and he must become the head of House Nott before he is ready, but Harry? Longbottom? The Granger girl? The muggle world is far kinder than ours. Surely she is not ready for such a challenge.”

“They have all grown to face challenges together,” said Severus. “They will endure.” He had to hope he was telling the truth, and he had to find a time to tell Harry the last of his own secrets or he had no doubt the Dark Lord would kill Severus and find another who could raise the boy to love the Dark.

Not Lucius. Harry was still wary of the man, and with good cause. But Severus refused to allow anyone else to watch the boy. If Harry was to stand with the Dark, Severus would teach him the dangers and the benefits before the boy repeated the mistakes the rest of them had made.

Chapter 38

It was almost a month before Harry got the summons he’d been expecting. Even in Potions, Professor Snape had swept by him, barely sparing him a single glance. In Defense, Professor Lupin had become much more timid. When they studied werewolves, he answered students’ questions in a hesitant voice that didn’t match the powerful wizard who had shown up to protect them from dementors.

The Gryffindors had reacted by circling around the professor and treating every comment in class like a personal attack against Lupin or a condemnation of werewolves in general. Considering that no one in Slytherin was attacking the professor, it had made class awkward. And Lupin had been slow to step between the two groups of students.

But after supper tonight, Harry had finally received a summons, and Harry reported to Professor Snape’s office as ordered. He hoped the professor had an update on Sirius Black. The man had survived Azkaban by living as a dog more often than as a man, but it sounded like he was still suffering greatly. Indigo had appeared in the dorm room one night to tell him that Sirius Black had gone into his childhood room and started casting Dark magic against the walls, ripping through walls and wards and charms and structural beams.

Drystan had stopped part of the house from collapsing, but Harry had told her to allow him to vent his anger. Harry couldn’t imagine how he would feel if he’d been abused like Sirius had been, and if walls were the only thing he attacked, that seemed fair.

Professor Snape opened the door wearing a simple dark green shirt and tailored trousers. The change in clothing left Harry off balance. “Follow me,” he said and he turned to the back of the office, but instead of sitting behind his desk, he touched the wall, and the bricks slid apart to reveal a sitting room.

Feeling more nervous than ever, Harry followed. Being in Professor Snape’s personal space felt dangerous in a way his office didn’t, but Harry sat on the edge of a chair with wooden arms when the professor gestured toward it.

Snape settled on a dark brown sofa. “Since you will be going home to Sirius Black in Grimmauld Place, it’s time for you to understand the relationship I had with him and with your father, and to a lesser extent, Lupin and Pettigrew.” The professor sounded stiff. The words were almost clipped. “And this also relates to why your mother and I were not friends during our sixth and seventh years.”

“Sir, you don’t–”

“I do not want interruptions.” Professor Snape glared darkly at Harry.

The continuing silence suggested he wanted an answer, so Harry swallowed and said, “Yes, sir.” As much as Harry was curious, part of him didn’t want to know. Sometimes it made it hard to love his father when he knew so much about how he had bullied his fellow students. Harry didn’t want to know similar details about his mother, but he wasn’t going to argue with the professor.

Snape gave one sharp nod. “As I said, James Potter was always interested in Lily. At first, she treated his advances as an annoyance–as if he were nothing more than a fly buzzing about her head. If he got to close or spoke to either of us disrespectfully, she would swat him away with a cruel word or sharp hex. She was not above using the Dark hexes I taught her, either.

“We both thought that would dissuade him, but despite the fact that he dated other girls in his house, he never had a serious relationship with any of them and he continued to pursue Lily. I found this childish. I never believed in anything as trite as love at first sight and saw his pursuit as proof that he wanted to put the powerful muggleborn witch in her place by humiliating her.” Professor Snape sighed and silence pressed into the room.

Harry could feel the pain from Professor Snape.

“By the time fifth year started, she would laugh at Potter’s and Black’s antics. She was a prefect with Lupin, and I blamed him for encouraging her to see the best in those two miscreants when I continued to see them as nothing more than bullies.

“I told her as much, and she told me that I was judging them unfairly. She told me I would like them if I got to know them, which I took as a great betrayal. Hating James Potter and Sirius Black had become a game for us. I saw her moving toward them and believed she was moving away from me.”

Professor Snape sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “As an adult looking back, I believe she was trying to pull us all closer together. I know you will not believe me, but the perceptions of children are often inaccurate.”

Harry could believe it, and he suspected that this would have been the period when Walburga had driven the Hufflepuff girl out of Hogwarts, and the muggle girls might be pregnant. If not, Sirius was about to get them pregnant. He was pretty sure Sirius would have been in a foul mood.

Professor Snape sounded miserable, and Harry was miserable listening to the story, but he trusted that Snape had a reason for telling him all this.

“The conflict grew worse over fifth year. I pushed Lily to keep her distance from them–specifically Black and Potter. The hexes and jinxes and eventually curses grew worse on both sides. I cast a curse that was especially upsetting for Sirius Black. It pulled their magic toward the Dark. Potter refused to cast in class for three days until Pomfrey could clear it. But Black refused to stop casting, and every time his magic edged toward the Dark, he would get more and more angry.”

Harry winced.

“He tried hexing me in the corridors, but I had developed strong alliances in Slytherin by then. Most of the house relied on either my tutoring or my potions. It made me nearly untouchable, except when I chose to leave my housemates behind and meet with Lily. I felt like I had won.” Professor Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. “Like all teenagers, I was an idiot because I was pushing Lily away. But at the time, I couldn’t see it. I was just angry that she didn’t condemn them the way she used to.”

Harry could see the story from Professor Snape’s point of view, but he could also imagine a young Sirius Black living with darkness that had been the Black family magic and then coming to Hogwarts and having a classmate push Dark magic onto him.

“Then we took our OWLS,” continued Snape. “I was excited, and I left my housemates behind to go find Lily, and she was… she was with them. I tried to hex Black.” He cleared his throat. “Potter magically hauled me into the air by the leg, exposing my underwear while all the students out on the lawn laughed.”

Harry felt ill. He’d heard from others how bad his father had been, but that was assault. Honestly, all these people sounded terrible. Harry didn’t think he would want to know the teenage versions of any of them. His mother was the least horrible, and even now Harry could hear the longing in Professor Snape’s voice, but she hadn’t helped the two groups understand each other. Harry spent lots of time trying to get his Slytherin and Gryffindor friends to respect each other.

Snape continued. “Lily tried defending me, but she scolded them. She didn’t throw curses or defend me the way my house mates would. She stood there with her hands on her hips and told them to let me down and said they were being mean.” Snape drew a deep breath. “I made the second biggest mistake of my life and called her a mudblood. The word was so ubiquitous in Slytherin that I hadn’t thought how she might react. I was too angry to think at all. I left and didn’t try to talk to her for three days.”

“She didn’t forgive you,” Harry guessed when Professor Snape had been silent long enough that Harry itched to escape the room.

“When I tried to apologize, I was too late. Potter had convinced her I was a Death Eater in training who cared about blood purity, when she knew I thought the Black and Malfoy position on blood purity was racist nonsense. But I had done myself no favors by not apologizing immediately, and there was little I could do without alienating my allies in Slytherin who I needed more than ever.”

Snape sighed. “We were all at fault, myself most of all for using that word, but also Lily for believing I would endorse the idea of blood purity and Potter and Black for that spell. If a student undressed another today, I would argue to expel them, so I also blame the headmaster and Minerva for not stopping the bullying.”

Harry agreed with the professor about that. When Neville talked about Gryffindors being mean to him and Professor McGonagall calling him a fool for losing the passwords and refusing to give him any more so Neville had to stand outside in the corridor and wait for someone to let him in, Harry had wanted to throw a few hexes of his own.

“Sixth year grew worse,” Snape said in a miserable voice. “Black’s curses were no longer meant to amuse. He threw Dark curses as often as I did.”

“Was this after he had moved to the Potters?’ asked Harry.


Then this would have been after Sirius’s unborn children had been killed and after he had fled his house in fear for his life while his mother cursed him to never father more children. Yeah, Harry understood that anger.

Snape said, “I grew obsessed with catching their merry group doing something worthy of expulsion since no one had taken my humiliation seriously, and I found evidence they were sneaking out of the castle. I believed they were drinking–a rather common pastime for Gryffindors. Black dared me to catch them, and on the night of the full moon, I followed Black to a hidden passage.”

Harry twitched in horror.

“Yes, by your expression I can see that you understand the significance of the full moon. The Shrieking Shack was built to house Lupin during his transformations, and Black led me into the passageway. He must have transformed into a dog since werewolves will not attack animals, but I was in very real danger when your father came running.

“By that time, Lupin was charging down the corridor at me. I was frozen in terror. Potter used his animagus form to distract Lupin long enough to save my life, but we all ended up in the headmaster’s office.”

“Merlin’s beard,” whispered Harry.

“I wanted Lupin expelled and Black arrested for attempted murder. The headmaster forced me to swear a vow to never tell anyone–otherwise he threatened to have me arrested for casting Dark magic in the halls of the school. I had no money, no family to advocate for me. I would have gone to Azkaban.” His sneer twisted into something cold and deadly.

“Then how can you tell me?”

Snape gave a rough laugh. “I told Albus that you and I needed to reach an accord because your ability to find trouble was outstripping my ability to keep you safe. But I said that I needed to explain my anger toward you and your father if I hoped to repair the damage I have done to our relationship.”

Harry frowned. “You’ve never been angry toward me.” True, in the beginning, he had been cold and had said he didn’t like Harry to Harry’s face, but that wasn’t the same. Harry had seen anger–homicidal fury that made his aunt swing a frying pan–but Snape had never been more than mildly annoyed.

“No, but Albus believes I have been, and I have allowed him to continue assuming we have a difficult relationship because he has wanted me to keep my distance from you.”


Professor Snape stared at him for a long time. “Because of the horcrux.”

At first, Harry was confused, but then he understood what Professor Snape meant. “Because the Dark Lord can’t die unless I do, he doesn’t want adults to protect me.” A shiver went down his spine.

“He wants you protected for now; however, he does not want me so emotionally involved in your life that he will be unable to distract me later,” said Snape. “I took a vow to protect you, but once he moves against the Dark Lord, he will need to destroy you. And he does not want you knowing any of this until you are far enough down the path he has chosen for you that you cannot deviate. Otherwise you might choose to avoid any confrontations with the Dark Lord.”

Snape took a deep breath and then burst off the couch and strode toward the far side of the room. It started Harry so much that he nearly jumped out of his skin. He waited until the professor had poured himself a cup of tea. “Sir, should I have a confrontation with the Dark Lord?”

Snape returned to his seat looking a million years older. “I can’t answer that, Harry. Should you want to challenge him, I would recommend you avoid that confrontation until you have at least a couple of decades under your belt. He is far more dangerous now than he was before the end of the last war.”

Harry’s breath caught in his chest. Snape could compare the Dark Lord the way he had been then and how he was now. “You’ve seen him,” whispered Harry. His mouth was a desert. “Recently, I mean. You’ve seen the Dark Lord.” Harry was horrified at the idea of the professor meeting with a homicidal maniac.

“I have.” Snape sighed. “He is much more dangerous now because he has repaired the damage he did to his soul. He still does not hold others’ lives in high regard, but he is no longer willing to indulge in random violence.”

The professor stared at Harry for a long time, and Harry had the feeling that he was judging whether Harry could handle any more surprises. Harry took a deep breath and let his mindfire rise up to soothe the fear that crawled through his belly. If he walked out now, he would always wonder what else Snape knew.

After Snape’s tea was gone, he put the cup down and leaned back, pushing a sofa cushion to one side. “He knows you’re a horcrux, and while you carry less than two percent of his soul, he would rather you be protected. He also believes that the prophecy means that neither of you can thrive while the other merely survives.”

“But…” Harry frowned. “Then why did he kill my parents?” he finally whispered.

“Because the Dark Lord had magically damaged himself to the point that he had lost all reason. By the end of the last war, he would torture people to death when they had information he required. There was no sane reason for most of what he did. However, he is not the same man now. That makes him less likely to use violence, but it makes him far more dangerous and more likely to achieve his goals.”

“What are his goals?” Harry asked softly.

Professor Snape closed his eyes. “I do not know.” He opened them again. “I have kept the headmaster in the dark as to my true allegiances, but with the Dark Lord returned to his full faculties, he suspected I betrayed him. You see, I am the one who carried the first half of the prophecy to the Dark Lord. I am the one who foolishly and ignorantly set events in motion that led to Lily’s death.”

Harry couldn’t move. Horror stained his skin and gnawed at his bones.

“When I realized how the Dark Lord was interpreting the partial prophecy, I begged for Lily’s life on my knees. So when the Dark Lord repaired his mind, he realized that my love for Lily might have caused me to turn against the cause. He tore through my mind to find the truth of my allegiances.”

Professor Snape’s hands shook, and he interlocked his fingers together and rested them on his lap. It controlled but didn’t stop the tremors.

“Had I truly turned to Albus, he was going to torture me. Had I sided with the Light only to protect Lily, he promised to make my death quick. However, he found that my vow and my loyalty was to you. By that time he had decided that the prophecy meant that your fates were tied together, so he has allowed me to live, at least for the moment.” Professor Snape stared into space, and Harry could not find words to describe the tangled knot of confusion and fear in his brain.


“I chose to follow him, Harry,” the professor said softly. “Decisions we make when we are young have consequences, and I am not strong enough to fight off his magic. He could reach through my mark and rip the magic from me right now.” He stroked his left arm where the Dark Mark sat.

“But…” Harry stopped again. What did he say? What could he say? “Couldn’t you cast a spell? Break the bond?”

“I willingly gave my permission for him to access my magic. I put no limit and no time restraint on that permission. There is no spell that will undo the mistakes I made then. However, the part you must remember is that he is determined to move against the headmaster. How far he wishes to push his agenda to legitimize Dark magic I cannot say, but the Malfoys, Obstrepan Nott, the Bulstrodes, and a dozen other families are already with him, and this chess game will eventually end with a confrontation between the standard bearers for the Light and Dark.”

“And the headmaster wants me to lead the Light,” whispered Harry. Harry loved Dark magic. He understood the danger; there were spells that should be banned forever, but he loved the wild, joyous feeling of unrestrained magic flowing through him. And he was a necromancer. Theo had loaned him books so Dark and dangerous that they only read them when they were alone in the room and hidden inside Harry’s bed curtains. But the moment a person with a talent for necromancy found their connection with Death, they were changed.

Harry could ease a person who had given up on life into their final Death. That is why he was so dangerous to dementors. They had no purpose. They were hunger personified with no creative spark or reason for living. They did not even properly think the way a sentient creature would. Only fear of death motivated them to continue to live when they had no purpose, and Harry could ease that fear long enough for them to slip over to the other side.

Harry could speak with spirits who lingered just on the other side of the veil. He could hear their whispers if he chose to listen and help them finish their business so they could slide into the afterlife. He could even call those lingering spirits into a body. He was Death’s helper, easing the transition between worlds, and nothing would change that now that he had heard Death’s voice.

“I can’t. I can’t lead anyone against the Dark.”

Professor Snape sighed. “I am well aware, and I do not suggest you should. You can, however, remain neutral if that is your choice. The Dark will respect that as a necromancer, you will not want to send people to their deaths. That is not your role.”

“But if I’m neutral, the headmaster is still going to want to kill me.”

“Only after the Dark Lord is dead. Until then, he believes you are the best chance of defeating him.” Again, silence filled the room and the professor seemed to grapple with what to say. “I do believe the headmaster regrets that you must die. I believe he refuses to tell you any of this because he hopes you will have happiness and joy until the time comes that your death is necessary to secure the safety of the wizarding world. He sees himself as preparing for the coming war and shielding you from the horror of knowing the fate that awaits you.”

Harry stared at Professor Snape in horror. “But… he let me be miserable and abused and neglected for ten years.”

“This is, of course, speculation on my part, but I do believe he regrets that. He needs to make sure you do not escape into the muggle world, and so he has ensured that you dislike the muggle world and everyone in it, but I see him struggle when others bring up their concerns for your wellbeing.”


Harry snorted. Feeling bad about a kid getting abused without helping the kid did not excuse anything.

“Harry.” Professor Snape stopped and seemed to gather himself. “I will never stop regretting the choices I made as a young man.”

“At least you aren’t plotting my death,” Harry said darkly.

“No. I am not,” Snape said. “And I believe, although I cannot confirm, that neither is the Dark Lord.” He paused again, and Harry waited until he collected his thoughts, but then the mask of casual contempt slipped over his face and he became the crotchety teacher Harry knew so well. “I have work. Leave,” said Snape. Harry felt like the world had returned to its normal shape.

“Yes, sir.” Harry headed for the wall, and with a wave of his wand, Snape opened the hidden door. Harry quickly escaped into the dungeons. Emilius had been leaning against the wall, but he quickly moved to Harry’s side.

“All good?” he asked.

“Yep. Well, except Arithmancy. Arithmancy definitely is not good.”

Emilius laughed. “Gregory was making fun of you for taking that one.”

Harry shrugged. He loved runes, though, so he wasn’t sorry he had taken the class. He needed a basic understanding of the numbers in order to form rune chains, so it was worth it.

A shadow separated from the wall. “Harry?”

Emilius threw himself forward, wand out in an instant. Mr. Malfoy had bought them all quick-draw wand holsters as “congratulations for surviving your near-death experience” gifts, but Harry thought some of his friends were a little too quick to use them.

Professor Lupin was there, holding his hands up. “It’s just me.”

Emilius dropped his wand to his side. “Sorry, professor.”

“It’s fine. I noticed you two were down here, and I wanted to talk to Harry.” He smiled, but Emilius’s back was stiff with worry. The whole disaster with the dementors had turned everyone’s protective instincts up to full blast. Even Draco had taken to haunting Harry’s steps.

“We can talk here,” offered Harry.

Professor Lupin’s smile was sad. “That’s fine. I wanted to talk to you about your houseguest.”

Harry wondered if his professors had coordinated this. “I know you were friends, and friends with my mother, and I know you have a difficult relationship with Professor Snape,” Harry quickly said. He didn’t want to continue this conversation.

“Oh. He… Um, Severus told you?” Lupin looked shocked.

Harry nodded. “I know about the prophecy and about how you guys cursed each other. What you did was not okay, but some of what he did wasn’t okay either,” said Harry as he thought about the curse that forced Sirius’s magic to shift toward the Dark.

“That’s a very mature attitude, but it’s not… I mean… I wanted to talk to you about your houseguest. Harry, his family has always been involved in the Dark arts, and Dark does not mean evil. I mean, I assume you know that because you have friends who have never shied away from… not that I’m saying they….” Lupin seemed to wilt. “Merlin’s beard I’m not saying this right.”

“I’m pretty sure this is one of those things you shouldn’t say at all, not without privacy charms,” Emilius muttered.

Lupin smiled at him. “You’re right.” He cast a powerful privacy charm and took a deep breath.

“Is something wrong with Mr. Black?” asked Harry.

“Don’t call him that. It has bad connotations. He’d prefer you to use Sirius,” said Professor Lupin. “He’s no worse off than ever and improving every day, but you’ll be going home soon, and I’ve been trying to catch you away from the others. You are a hard student to catch alone.”

“You could have asked me to stay after class,” said Harry.

Lupin shook his head. “So far no one is too angry about my placement here, but I know many parents are worried, despite that article that came out in the newspaper. I am trying to avoid calling students into private meetings.”

Harry could understand that. The article had made Harry and Professor Lupin sound like heroes, but many students were still uncomfortable with a werewolf teacher.

“I was hoping I could come over to your house this summer,” Lupin said. He seemed more collected now. “I think Sirius needs a friend. When he was your age, things happened in that house, and he associates Dark magic with the worst parts of his life. He insists Grimmauld Place is better now and the family magic is less corrupt, and Severus says your elves have revamped the entire house, but some of Sirius’s letters are…” Lupin winced.

“Walburga was horrible,” said Harry.

Professor Lupin studied him. “I’m afraid to ask how you know.”

“Narcissa. And Walburga left a portrait behind. I hate it so much that the elves have moved all the hallways so I don’t run into it by accident. They’re afraid I’ll burn the house down.”

Lupin’s eyes got large. “Oh. Um, well you and Sirius might have more in common than I feared. But anyway, I’m sure something will happen to force me out of this job by the end of the year, and I thought if I could spend some time working with Sirius, I might be able to help him. Your cousin Castor seems like a very nice man–very willing to give Sirius room to work on his issues–but he is a Dark wizard and he has friends who are Dark….” Lupin looked at Harry, probably wondering if this was a surprise, but it wasn’t.

Castor had met the Malfoys first, and they would have introduced him to everyone who hated the headmaster.

After a minute, Lupin continued. “Being around that many Dark wizards is just difficult for Sirius, despite the irony of him being a Dark wizard.” He stopped.

“You’re welcome to stay at the house,” Harry offered. “The elves get terribly frustrated without having enough work to do, and Dobby is dangerously enthusiastic, so be very careful when asking him for favors, but they’ll love having more people.”

“Um, I’m not terribly comfortable with house elves, so I doubt I will ask them for anything.”

“They’re not blood bound,” said Harry, guessing that someone as nice as Lupin wouldn’t be okay with doing that to magical creatures. “They all showed up when I claimed the Black magic, and they stay because they want to.”

“Oh.” Professor Lupin blinked, clearly surprised.

“Maybe you could catch us all up with the first and second year curriculum,” said Emilius. “It’s not like we had good professors.”

Professor Lupin gave Emilius a huge smile. “That might be a good idea. I do hate that students have such an uneven education with Defense. Someone really should break the curse. Well, you two have a nice evening.” He tucked his hands into his pockets and headed up the stairs out of the dungeon.

“I can’t believe you invited a professor to live with you,” Emilius said in a horrified tone.

“He was one of Sirius’s best friends, and one of my father’s, too. I think they would both want me to look out for him.”

Emilius shook his head.

“Besides, that way I’ll have someone to entertain the Azkaban escapee. I think having more people in the house would be a good thing at this point.” Harry didn’t add that he was also going to have to learn to handle his cousin. Castor did seem like a nice man, but Harry still preferred someone he knew–like Professor Lupin.

Emelius didn’t say anything as they headed back to the common room.


Despite everyone’s assumption that tragedy would befall Professor Lupin, the end of the year came and he oversaw their practical and written finals without anything more dramatic happening than Hermione having a panic attack because she ran out of time on the essay portion and Professor Lupin physically took the parchment out from under her hand.

She nearly cried.

Of course, she still earned an Outstanding, although not as high as Harry’s. She made up for that by tying Ravenclaw student Padma Patil for top scores in Arithmancy. Harry earned a Poor–his only failing grade, although Professor Vector assured him that he had almost passed and some extra homework over summer would catch him up.

Gregory had been very sympathetic.

He had earned a Dreadful in Transfiguration, and Professor McGonagal had not said nice things about his ability to catch up. However he had earned his first ever Outstanding in Care of Magical Creatures. He had stared at the score so long that Draco had thought someone hexed him.

Draco, of course, earned at least Exceeds Expectations in everything, and Theo had thrown his grade report away without even glancing at it. He’d announced that only the OWLS and NEWTS counted and he didn’t care what professors thought of his performance, especially because he couldn’t cast the Dark magic he preferred.

Emilius had been shocked at his grades. In years one and two, he had earned mostly Acceptables with a rare Exceeds Expectation or Poor, but now he had EE in everything except Transfiguration, which they all agreed was the hardest class after Arithmancy. And Neville had taken one look at his grades and promptly started crying. He had earned EE in Runes and an Acceptable or better in every other class. Of course he had earned the top Outstanding in Herbology, but apparently this was the first semester he hadn’t failed even one class.

Gregory had moved seats to put an arm around Neville’s shoulders as he continued to sniff back tears.

By the time the school year had ended, Harry felt like he had finally figured out how to be a Hogwarts student. It was strange, but a dementor attack had been less traumatic than Professor Lockhart, and now that Professor Snape had talked to him, Harry felt like he understood the adults more.

So he wasn’t surprised when the headmaster found him at the train station waiting for the Hogwarts Express to pick him up and take him back to London.

“Harry, my boy, how are you doing?”

“I'm doing well, sir.”

“Any plans for this summer?” He looked over the heads of the students, and Harry wondered if he noticed that Harry’s friends were spread out in a rough circle around them… or at least his Slytherin friends were. Hermione and Neville didn’t seem to see the danger in the headmaster, but Harry wasn’t in any hurry to explain horcruxes and murder plots to them, so that wasn’t their fault.

“I need to study my Arithmancy, sir. I earned a Poor, and I want to bring it up to Acceptable. I mean, I know I’ll never be good with numbers, but I want to pass my OWLS.”

“Ah, an excellent plan. I see you signed up for Magical Crafting.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you sure you should do another elective? You already have one failing score.”

Harry suspected the headmaster was more concerned about the rituals and the number of Slytherin students signing up for Crafting. After all, if the headmaster had his way, Harry wouldn’t need a career because he would be dead. So as long as Harry was willing to sacrifice himself to destroy the Dark, grades didn’t matter.

Harry took a deep breath and summoned his mindfire to sweep all those thoughts away. This summer he was going to spend a lot of time allowing himself to have many, many negative feelings so he could successfully tuck all his thoughts into place.

“I earned an EE in Runes, and much of Crafting requires rune work, so I’m looking forward to the class. It should be fun. And I’ve never gotten to paint or carve before, so I’m looking forward to doing the artistic part of the class.” Harry tried to make himself sound impossibly young and enthusiastic.

“Of course, of course.” The headmaster stroked his beard. “I assume you are staying with your cousin this summer.”

“Castor,” Harry confirmed. The Ministry had almost thrown the guardianship papers at Castor the minute he had requested custody. Someone at the Ministry did not like the headmaster. “He seems very nice.”

“Do be wary. It is not wise to trust people too quickly,” the headmaster said, which was horribly ironic.

“Yes, sir.”

The headmaster hummed and then wandered off into the crowd. Harry only relaxed when he spotted Professor Snape watching him from the edge of the platform.

Professor Lupin strode through the crowd of students. “Harry! I think I am going to ride with the students if you don’t mind an old man hanging out with you.”

“No, that’s fine,” said Harry. “I see you’re still listed as the professor for next year.”

Lupin laughed. “I may even revise my lesson plans just in case I am the first professor in fifty years to teach a second year, but I’m assuming something will happen over summer.”

Theo came over. “I hope not. You’re a good teacher, and fourth year is curses. I don’t want to risk getting another teacher like Lockhart.” Theo shivered at the thought of Lockhart’s silly teaching, and Harry shivered for a whole different reason. The others were moving closer now.

“I would love to see you again next year,” Emilius said. “Some defense teachers are terrible about wand practice once students start with curses.”

Draco snorted. “That’s because they have no control over their classes. A good professor can handle a few students throwing low-level curses.”

“Lockhart wouldn’t have,” Theo said with disgust.

Harry was startled when a blonde head leaned against his arm. “Luna,” he said softly while the others started an argument about whether Quirrell or Lockhart had been worse. Lupin seemed amused at the ridiculous stories everyone was sharing about the incompetence of the two.

“Are you happy?” Luna asked.

Harry wasn’t exactly happy. He had one of the most powerful wizards in the world plotting his death, and the Dark Lord was apparently stalking him because Harry had a sliver of his soul. The situation was too complicated for something as simple as happy. “I’m content right now,” said Harry.

Luna smiled. “Right now is all we have. The past is always being rewritten by our own needs and the future is an illusion.”

“Excellent point.”

“Some heliopaths need help remembering that.”

“Um, okay.”

“But remember. Anyone who wants you isolated would like to see you become a weaker version of yourself. Connections are strength.”

Harry turned to Luna, catching her hands in his, and the conversation behind him stopped as his friends finally noticed that she had joined them.

“Would you like to come to my house this summer?”

“I have already come to your house this summer,” said Luna.

Hermione had joined the group, and as usual, she rolled her eyes when she noticed Luna had joined them.

“Summer hasn’t started,” Harry said.

Luna smiled. “In some ways. Did you know that when you live in the future often enough, the future can become the present, and since the present is all we know, then we can know the future.” She smiled at him and then pulled her hands out of his and wandered away.

Professor Lupin sighed, but Hermione went off on her usual rant about Luna. Theo slipped a hand under her elbow and herded her toward the train that had just stopped with a squeal of brakes. Draco and Gregory started talking about the Care of Magical Creatures homework, and Gregory seemed somewhat flummoxed to have Draco asking him for help, and Professor Lupin trailed behind them all.

And on the far side of the platform, Professor Snape still watched.

Chapter 39

Summer started well. Harry found he liked Sirius on his good days. A lot. When he was happy, he laughed with abandon and told wild stories about how Lily Evans had hexed everyone who annoyed her. He didn’t mention Professor Snape, but Harry could tell where he would fit into that story, the Slytherin standing shoulder to shoulder with the Gryffindor he considered a sister–the one he later called horrible names and lost forever. It was sort of sad.

And Sirius would play jokes. He charmed the dinner dishes to run away once they had food on them, and Harry had laughed so hard that he’d almost fallen off his chair, and that made Lupin and Sirius laugh until Sirius did fall to the floor and bounced back up in his dog form, tongue lolling.

Even Castor had laughed in the end, although he was far more reserved and serious than the rest of the house.

But other days Sirius haunted the shadows and flinched from any movement. He built the fire in the fireplace up high even though it was summer, and Lupin would wrap himself around Sirius for hours. Harry was reminded of Theo’s explanation about how strength required a warrior to have someone to fight for and hugging family meant reminding them that you were there. So sometimes Harry sat down on the other side of his godfather and hugged him, too.

With Theo’s words in mind, Harry had even one night hugged Castor. For a moment, the man had stood frozen and stiff. But Harry didn’t let go and Castor finally let his hand rest on Harry’s shoulder before he hugged Harry back. Only then did Harry let go.

As Sirius, Professor Lupin and Harry had walked to their rooms on the third floor, the professor had said, “Well done, Harry.”

Sirius had ruffled his hair. “We have a good pup, Moony.”

Harry had flushed with pride.

And summer was great because all his friends could visit. Hermione learned to ride the Knight Bus and she came over several afternoons a week, bugging Lupin to reteach first and second year spells. She might complain about the unfairness of students being able to use magic on the old pureblood estates, but she took advantage of it. Theo and Draco visited to work on their summer homework, and both fathers made regular trips to the basement where Castor had his study.

Some days Obstrepan would stay for dinner, and other days Narcissa would floo over to join Mr. Malfoy and they would all eat in the formal dining room. Harry felt like he had a normal family. Maybe the Dursleys thought they were nicely normal, but they weren’t. This was.

Several times, Neville came over to visit the gardens. Harry had given him rooted cuttings out of the garden for Yule, but he hadn’t realized that one of the plants he’d given Neville were extinct outside the Black estate. Neville practically cooed at the climbing vine every time he came over.

It was only three weeks into summer when Professor Snape visited that things took a turn. Snape had been stiff and formal, standing in the front (actually the side) hall in his black robes.

“Severus,” Castor said warmly. His voice even had a touch of amusement that he normally only got around Theo’s father.

“Lord Castor,” Snape had said with a bow of his head that went far lower than politeness demanded.

“Let’s take this downstairs to my study,” Castor said.

Harry had the feeling they had something important to discuss, so he took a step backward. “I’ll just be upstairs.”

“Harry, I believe you should join us,” Castor said.

Harry looked to Professor Snape who gave a small nod. Then Harry agreed, “Sure.” They headed to the lower level library where the titles of the books had names like “Necromancy through the Ages” and the “Artfully Delightful Art of Cursing Others” and “Poisons for Fun and Profit.” Harry suspected most of these books were illegal enough to land the rest of them in the cell next to Sirius if the Ministry ever broke through the Black wards.

Luckily, that wasn’t a danger. Harry could feel the house’s wards–the wild magic and feral desire to protect family. It felt like an enormous pack of wolves that would curl around each other a half second before viciously attacking a bear that threatened them. The violence was tucked under the love of family, but it was there… waiting… poised to do maximum damage.

“Harry,” Castor said as he settled behind the desk. Instead of taking a seat, Professor Snape stood, so Harry did the same.

“Yes, sir?”

Castor sighed. “I have to admit that you are not what I expected. I never wanted a child because I associated children with the monsters I grew up with in the orphanage.”

Harry frowned. Caster had grown up with an adoptive mother.

“But you remind me of the joy I once took in every discovery I made. I will admit that I find myself loath to have this discussion because I do not want discord between us.”

“Castor?” Harry shifted nervously from foot to foot.

He sighed. “That is my name now, and through blood adoption, it is my legal and magical name. Magically I am the only child of Alphard Black and Lanthe Potter. But that is not the name I was born with.”

Harry started to get an uneasy feeling.

“I was born Tom Marvolo Riddle,” Castor said.

Harry looked at Castor and then at Professor Snape, hoping one of them would tell him that this was some odd wizarding tradition–to terrify a new ward. It was a prank. It had to be.

Castor sighed. “I do not apologize for wanting to bring the Dark back to power, but the way I did it… that was a side effect of the magic I abused. I regret that more than I can possibly explain, and I lost more than I understood as a young man.”

Harry’s brain spun as he tried to fit this new fact into his view of the world. It didn’t fit. It utterly didn’t fit. Only it did. Obstrepan came to dinner so often that he insisted Harry use his first name, and he and Castor were so comfortable with each other that Castor’s wry humor would come out around the man. And Castor defended the Dark. Vehemently. He and Sirius sometimes fought until Walburga at the distant end of an abandoned hallway would start to yell and demand attention.

And he was so good with magic. He’d tutored Harry in a few spells, and his magic was so powerful that Harry would have to call on the Black family magic to keep up a shield.

Castor was Voldemort.

Voldemort was hiding as Castor.

Harry struggled to make that fit into his brain.

“You murdered someone to make your first horcrux,” Harry said. And he’d done it when he had his whole soul because it took a murder to create a horcrux in the first place.

“I did,” Castor said. “Myrtle. And instead of regretting that my stupidity cost Myrtle her life, I saw her death as an opportunity. I was grateful.” He sighed. “I was a frightened child who refused to admit that I was scared. I lied to myself, convincing myself that I loved Dark magic so much that I was willing to explore every forgotten corner of it. That was not my true motive. I see that now.”

Horror stole Harry’s voice for a short time. “You murdered my parents.”

He grimaced. “I regret that I did. I won’t pretend to feel any specific regret for the deaths of your parents. At the time I killed them, I could not imagine why their deaths would be important, but now I regret that I caused you such pain, in part because I do respect you.

“What’s more, the Potters are a powerful family, and losing that family magic would weaken us as a community. You know the respect the Dark has for necromancers, and by killing your father and trying to kill you, I nearly eliminated the last of that Peverell line. You must know how I regret that. But more than that, I regret that I tried to kill a young man I now see such potential in. You are a good man, Harry, one that has not been bent by the prejudices of the headmaster despite his every attempt to manipulate you. I also knew Severus loved your mother dearly, and killing her cost me his loyalty. So I am honest when I say that I never would have attacked if I had been in my right mind.”

“The prophecy. Are you going to…” Harry looked at Professor Snape. He had always trusted the man to protect him, but he was quiet. Snape stared at a spot on the wall, unmoving in the presence of his master.

“The prophecy says neither of us can live if the other survives. I believe that means neither of us can live if the other is merely surviving. Your worst years in that muggle household were my worst years as I leapt from one animal to another, struggling to hold onto life. So, as to what I want, I want you to succeed.”

“Because you want to succeed. You’re using me.”

Castor raised his eyebrows, and at that moment, he looked very much like Professor Snape. “And you hoped to use me to escape Dumbledore. This is the nature of living–each creature must carve a place for himself. We all use each other.” He stood and came around to the front of the desk.

Harry swallowed, not sure what to say.

After a long silence, Caster sighed. “Severus,”

“Lord Voldemort,” Professor Snape said, sliding to his knees. Harry backed up a step, horrified at the subservience in the professor’s body.

“Show him your mark.”

Professor Snape pulled his sleeve up to reveal a dark tattoo–a snake crawling out of the mouth of a skull, coiling around itself, its head at the bottom, fangs bared and ready to bite.

“Do you regret taking my mark?” Castor asked in an almost amused tone. Harry still had trouble reconciling the man he’d gotten to know and the monster who had murdered his parents.

“I do,” Professor Snape whispered.

Caster walked to Professor Snape’s side, and the man tensed. Harry half expected Castor to torture him for that insult, but he just rested his hand on Professor Snape’s shoulder. “He hoped to use me to save his precious Dark magic–the potions and spells forbidden by the Wizengamot. He is a talented spell crafter as well as possibly the most talented potioneer of the century, but with Dark magic banned, he cannot access the well of deep magic without risking Azkaban.” Castor smiled down at Professor Snape, who kept his gaze on the floor in front of his knees. Harry felt like he shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t see this. There was something terribly intimate in the moment–not sexually, but in terms of power.

“But making horcruxes drove me to madness. I could not see that the only thing Severus loved more than Dark magic was Lily Potter. He begged me for her life, and I betrayed him. In return, he betrayed me.”

Harry frowned.

“Tell him the truth, Severus.”

Professor Snape glanced over his shoulder at Harry. “He knows the truth. I have explained how I offered myself to the headmaster out of desperation and how I suspect the headmaster is plotting Harry’s eventual death.”

“Yes, the headmaster knows the basic truth of life as well as anyone. Living creatures use one another.” Castor was definitely amused.

“Not always. I don’t use my friends, and they don’t use me,” Harry said, but the moment he did, he realized that wasn’t exactly true. He asked Hermione to help him with charms and Neville to help him with herbology. He and Theo tutored most of the group in defense, while Draco stood to the side and pretended he didn’t need the help and he just wanted to watch. Draco used those tutoring sessions to strengthen his own dueling, and his father used Harry’s political power. But then Harry had used the whole Malfoy family to escape the Dursleys.

“We help each other because we all benefit.”

“That is the best path, but the hardest one to maintain. So often someone starts to grow jealous because they believe another gets more out of the situation than they do. It is politically unstable. That is why my Knights and I developed this.” Castor ran his fingers over the Dark Mark, and Snape shivered. “It is a liege mark. I can feel my followers, know when they require assistance. In return, they owe their allegiance to me. And because I command them as a king does his lords and barons and squires, I can provide one direction instead of each part of the Dark trying to forge a unique path. It will give us power in the Wizengamot.”

“It’s like slavery,” Harry whispered as he stared at the mark in horror.

“No, child. No more than a marquis is a slave to his king. I am stronger when my followers are strong.”

“Is that why you make Professor Snape kneel?” Harry demanded, anger outstripping his common sense.

Castor rested his fingers on Snape’s neck. “But he’s not mine. He took an Unbreakable Vow to another, so he is marked and his magic is mine to command, but I no longer have an obligation to protect him because he is a traitor.”

In that moment, Harry felt the jaws of the trap he stood in. Grimmauld would answer his calls for help. His elves would die for him. The doors would open to him. Harry might escape. But Professor Snape’s life was forfeit because he had taken a vow to protect Harry–because he had loved Lily enough to spy on the Dark. Professor Snape was tense, one hand braced against the floor. Harry realized he was ready to fling himself at Castor to give Harry time to escape if that’s what he chose to do. He would still sacrifice himself to give Harry a better chance to live.

Harry took a step forward and raised his chin. “What do you want?”

“As I said, for you to succeed. I will provide a safe home, tutors, supplies. I will protect you from Dumbledore. I trust you do not want the Dark hobbled and destroyed, so I have no need or wish to fight you. You know about the horcrux you carry, you know what it means?”

Harry gave a jerky nod.

“Then you know I will fight to protect you and the headmaster will do anything to see you dead, preferably after you have killed me. But Severus has brought us the information to escape this trap. He has served me well for many years. I regret that I have lost him. But I gave him one path to salvation. He is marked, and he will remain marked, but I told him that since you hold his vow, you can also hold his mark if you choose to accept his service.”

Harry’s stomach lurched.

“Harry,” Professor Snape said, and Harry focused on the problem at hand. He didn’t have time for emotion when he was in a room with Voldmort, fighting for Snape’s life. He looked down and Snape studied him, concern in his face.

“Come,” Castor said. “Touch the mark, feel the magic. I will guide you.”

Harry wanted to run away, but he forced himself closer one step at a time.

“The incantation is ‘regnum threica non novit.’ It means king’s mark or king’s helper.”

Harry reached out, flinching when Castor touched him, guiding his hand to Snape’s tattoo. Days ago, Harry had sought Castor’s touch as much as Sirius’s, but now he was hyper aware of Castor’s fingers on his arm and the distance between their bodies. Then Harry felt the magic moving under Professor Snape’s tattoo, threads twining and tangling and tying Professor Snape’s magic to Castor’s. To Voldemort’s.

“I, Castor Black, also known as Lord Voldemort and Tom Marvolo Riddle, give permission for the magic in this mark to transfer to my ward, Harry Potter, also known as Harry James Ophiuchus Potter-Black.” Magic swirled around the room and Professor Snape had fisted his trembling hand. “Cast the incantation and believe that Severus is yours, yours to direct, yours to protect. Intent replaces any wand movement with this spell.”

Harry didn’t know about directing Professor Snape because that sounded dangerous and foolish, but it was time for Harry to protect the professor the way the professor had always protected him. He focused on those threads and loosened his hold on the Black magic, willing it to help him. “Regnum threica non novit!”

He felt the threads press against his fingers, a few strands catching at the ends, and he willed the threads to come to him. He willed it with all his heart and soul. He released the Black magic and called the mark to him, called Snape to him. More threads clung to him, sinking into his skin, and Harry closed his eyes and felt for his own magic. He heard whispers, hints of formaldehyde and pepper and grief that tasted like Professor Snape and Harry clung to those, pulling them into himself.

At first he had to strain and only a trickle of magic penetrated Harry’s core, but then it was like the balance had shifted on a teeter totter and suddenly Harry felt the threads, all of them, tying Professor Snape to himself. He felt Snape’s power like a prop holding him steady, and as he pulled the Black magic back to himself, he realized the mark made that infinitely easier. It was as if Snape’s control over his magic now bled into Harry.

Harry looked at Castor, suddenly realizing why no one had been able to defeat him in a duel, even with his fractured soul.

“Ah, you see,” Castor said with some amusement. “And that is an interesting mark.”

Harry looked down, and the snake remained. It was still coiled in an ouroboros. However, the skull was gone. The top loop of the snake and the part that had once come out of the mouth had merged into a stylized tree of life, its branches and leaves forming a perfect circle on the top. The roots of the three blended into the snake’s pattern so the snake became part of the roots of the tree.

And the snake had changed, too. It’s mouth had closed and its tongue was out as though flicking through the air in search of information. It still looked fierce and deadly, but it wasn’t poised to strike.

“Severus, I would suggest hiding those changes is your first task, but you would have to ask your lord.” He walked to a chair next to the fireplace.

Professor Snape shifted to face Harry, but he stayed on his knees. “My lord?” he asked.

Harry backed away.

“Harry!” Professor Snape said sharply. Harry stopped retreating; Snape’s frustration was much more stable ground for him. Snape sighed. “You are my lord. I am pledged to support you the way a general will support the prime minister.”

“A general can quit,” Harry argued.

“Not in the middle of a war, he cannot. And I do not wish to quit. The headmaster is a danger, you know that as well as I. If I leave you to face Dumbledore alone, Lily will find me in the afterlife, and she could rival any Black when it comes to her temper.” He smiled at Harry. “Besides, as much as my magic is strengthening you, I can feel your hope and joy soothing old pains in my soul. I do not regret taking your mark or calling you my lord.”

Harry grimaced. “This is just weird.”

Castor laughed. “Since you are one of his students, I’m sure this is uncomfortable for you. Severus may not have the advantage of birth or fortune, but he does know how to wield his personal power.”

Snape bowed his head toward Castor. “Thank you Lord Voldemort.”

“Perhaps we should use Lord Castor,” Castor said with a glance toward Harry. Harry understood that he wanted to avoid reminding Harry of his original identity, but it wasn’t as if Harry was going to forget any time soon. “We have only one other item on the agenda and then we can have lunch. A classmate of yours has requested an audience.”

“They all know you’re Voldemort, don’t they?” Harry guessed. All the hostility he’d endured during his first year in Slytherin had vanished. None of the glares or whispered insults or students leaving the room when Harry sat in the common room. Harry thought the students had gotten used to him, but if Voldemort had told them that Harry was essential to the Dark’s victory, their change in behavior made more sense.

“My closest do,” Castor agreed. With a wave of his hand, he opened the ballroom doors.

Geoff Bulstrode walked in. He was a heavyset man with a mustache that reminded Harry of his Uncle Vernon, but Mr. Bulstrode was strident without the undercurrent of meanness Uncle Vernon had. When Harry had gone to their house for dinner the summer after his first year, Harry had mostly liked him. Now Harry didn’t know how to feel. Mr. Bulstrode and Professor Snape and everyone else seemed to know that Castor was Lord Voldemort.

Well, almost everyone. There was no way Professor Lupin and Sirius knew. They talked about how much they hated Voldemort.

A second later, Emilius followed his father into the study. Mr. Bulstrode stopped and bowed deeply. “My lord.” He offered Harry a more shallow bow. “Lord Black, Severus. May I present my son, Emilius Bulstrode.”

“Well met Geoff and Emilius. Emilius, I understand that my previous willingness to indulge in some Death Eaters’ prejudice regarding blood purity gave you concern. Can I assume you are more comfortable now that you know of my own blood status?”

Emilius gave a half-bow. “Yes, my lord.”

“I am not your lord, Emilius. In fact, I understand you came to pledge yourself to another, so addressing me as such is a disservice to Lord Black.”

Harry sucked in a startled breath. “What?”

Snape flowed to his feet gracefully and moved to stand right behind Harry. “Calm yourself,” he whispered.


“Not now.”

Harry was used to obeying that voice, so he closed his mouth and watched in barely disguised panic.

Emilius turned to Harry and smiled. “Before you, I knew my father wanted to find me a match with a Death Eater who would respect and protect me to the best of his ability, so someone in the Dark Lord’s favor, but I didn’t want that. And I was afraid that being a half-blood would mean I would end up with a horrible husband, which is why I was so angry with so many Slytherin boys, because I knew my father was looking at all of them to see if I favored one.

“But then you started talking about how women could do anything and you and Hermione included me in dueling practice and you argued for me to be on the quidditch team, and I thought maybe I could get your attention. I knew my father would never approve and you were going to be on the front lines of the war, so you would likely die, but I thought if I were promised to you, that would protect me from other boys.”

Harry glanced over at Mr. Bulstrode who looked gutted at having made his child so unhappy.

“But then you said I could be your bodyguard, and for the first time, I saw a path that wasn’t getting married. I’m good with spells, and you trusted me to stand up front when the dementors attacked on the train. I mean, I stood shoulder to shoulder with a Nott, and I was so proud of myself.” Emilius turned to look at his father, and he smiled warmly.

Emilius stood a little taller. “Following you has given me my greatest joy, and I would be proud to carry your mark.”

All Harry could feel was horror. “Emilius, you don’t have to.”

He smiled. “Of course I don’t have to. I’m choosing to.”

“We’re teenagers. We shouldn’t be making decisions about the rest of our lives.”

Everyone looked confused at that statement, and Harry thought about how the Slytherin girls were trying to pick potential husbands already. And no one, other than Hermione, pointed out that waiting might be wiser. Wizards. They were so strange.

Harry threw his hands up. “You might decide to go on the dueling circuit or study transfiguration or travel.”

Emilius frowned. “Then I will ask permission to do that, and I believe you would respect my request, but until you are safe from the headmaster, my place is at your side, and the mark will allow me to better serve you.”

Harry looked over at Castor who watched with amusement.

Severus stepped between Harry and Emilius. He leaned close and whispered, “This will keep him away from the Dark Lord. Anyone in your inner circle can shelter behind you. And the prophecy ensures that you are safe from him.”

Harry looked at Professor Snape, horror and fear curling through his stomach. “But to mark him?”

Emilius took a step forward. “You said I could be your bodyguard, and I am holding you to that. And I will be able to do my job better with a mark,” Emilius insisted.

“You can pay for his mastery, ensure he can pursue any career, protect him from his father’s and the Dark Lord’s political machinations,” Professor Snape whispered, and Harry thought about that. He knew how much the professor tried to protect his Slytherins, so for him to say that meant that he believed it. Harry leaned to the side to look at Emilius.

Emilius took a step closer and settled on his knees.

Harry moved around Professor Snape and caught Emilius by his arm and hauled him to his feet. “No. Don’t. Don’t kneel to anyone.”

“Is that a rule, my lord?” Emilius asked with a devilish smile. Harry could only make that a rule if he marked Emilius, and if Harry didn’t, then Emilius would end up on his knees in front of the Dark Lord. Harry didn’t know what to do.

He looked at Professor Snape who gazed back. He had given his advice and now he waited for Harry to make up his own mind. Harry looked at Castor, who seemed equally ready to accept either answer. Mr. Bulstrode, on the other hand, was rocking forward onto his toes, his hands clenching.

But Emilius looked amused, like he had already won and he was waiting for Harry to figure it out. Because of course Harry couldn’t abandon Emilius, not when they were friends. Harry rolled his eyes. “If you regret this, there’s no undoing it.”

“That’s true of most things in the Wizarding world,” Emilius said. “I’d rather be trapped in a liege bond than a marriage.”

“You could try avoiding either.”

Emilius shrugged. “I avoided the one I wanted to avoid.”

Harry put his hand on Emilius’s shoulder and closed his eyes. “Five years,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure he could change the magic, but he focused his thoughts. “The mark will last for five years.”

Harry felt the magic object, and he realized it was Emilius. He was frustrated. No angry. He was angry at being denied the place at Harry’s side that he wanted. He was Slytherin, and this was his ambition.

Harry shifted and searched for the threads of magic as he spoke again. “Five years, and at the end of that time, I will grant you the right to request that I mark you for life.” The pressure eased and Harry followed Emilius’s magic to its source. He wanted something small… something Emilius could hide if this whole thing went wrong. He didn’t want his friends marked the way the Death Eaters had been. It made them targets. Of course in the case of the Death Eaters, that had been good because it made it easier for the Aurors to send them to Azkaban, and Harry thought they deserved to be in prison, but apparently he was doing this.

He summoned Emilius’s magic, feeling the threads of it tickling his palm. Only then did he let the Black magic fill the room. “Regnum threica non novit!”

When Harry had cast the spell with Professor Snape, the magic had fought him until it reached some tipping point, but Emilius’s magic lept toward him joyously so their power tangled. Emilius gasped and then the magic settled. He turned and looked back toward his father before he pulled the neck of his robe to one side, exposing the skin low down on his shoulder.

The tree and snake mark was there, the size of a half-dollar. Maybe Harry would regret this later. Maybe Emilius would. But for now, this was the best choice.

Castor stood. “So, are we ready for lunch?”

Harry grimaced. “I think I lost my appetite.”

“Really?” Emilius asked. “Because I wanted to celebrate.”

“An excellent idea,” Mr. Bulstrode said. “We have so much to celebrate, my lord, Lord Black.” Harry wasn’t sure he agreed, but he had learned to deal with the Dursleys and then how to succeed in Slytherin, and now this was one more place where he simply had to figure out the rules… and then work around them.

Harry was good at that.



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