Harry Potter and the Chamber of Commerce
Rated SAFE
No Pairings

Chapter One

Brinkie popped into the lab when Severus was in the middle of a widdershins set of stirs. Despite being startled, Severus kept his hand steady. “What is it?” Severus refused to let himself worry. For all he knew, the boy had chosen to spend the night with a friend, but the instructions he had given the house elf would require him to report.

“Harry Potter is hungry, Master Potions.”

Severus frowned. “Surely he still has food in his trunk.”

“I’s is thinking he does. But Harry Potter is not having his trunk.”

Severus cast a stasis charm over his caldron. “Where is his trunk?”

“Harry Potter is having family who is not liking magic. They is putting the trunk under the stairs with many, many locks. Harry Potter is not having his trunk at all.”

What? Severus had checked the charms himself. Whoever had sold him that trunk had included powerful notice-me-not charms that should have kept his family from even seeing it. So how had they locked it away?

“What is the boy doing?”

“He’s is working harder than elfling. Long-faced woman giveses him lists of chores, and I’s is doing a few when I’s can without being seen, but yesterday I’s is busy in the kitchens, and the walrus man came with much yelling. Then Harry Potter is much hungry.”

Severus rubbed a hand over his face.

“And I’s is having trouble not being seen when there’s is another elf coming to the house.”

Severus lowered his hand. “Another elf?” Could Potter have borrowed an elf? He was friends with Zabini, Goyle, Longbottom and Draco—all young men who would consider house elves necessary for life. One of them could have loaned Potter an elf. That would be a violation of the Statue of Secrecy because keeping an elf in a non-magical area was an invitation to disaster. However, eleven- and twelve-year-olds were not well known for common sense. And it would not explain why Potter was working like an elfling.

“Do you know this other elf?”

“No, Master Potions.”

“And what is this elf doing for Harry Potter?”

“He’s is stealing mail. He’s is stealing much mail,” Brinkie wailed. “And Harry Potter’s is so unhappy, but Master Potion saids Brinkie is not to be being seen so I’s is not stopping the bad elfsie.”

Severus sighed. This is why he hated house elves. They considered any failure to serve catastrophic. However, saying that Potter was working as hard as an elfling was concerning. This whole story was concerning. However, if he went to Albus now, he could be cutting off his own nose despite his face. Albus had already dismissed far too many of Severus’s concerns. However, no borrowed elf would steal mail, and if Potter had not borrowed an elf, that implied a wealthy family was targeting him.

Albus would take note of that.

But he might ask the goblins to set up ward to preclude house elves altogether, and that would make life difficult for Severus. He had to supervise the boy during the school year, and while he was not the troublemaker Severus had expected given the boy’s father, he did not want to spend his summer chasing Potter’s spawn as well.

Besides, Severus did not want to visit Potter’s house too often. Elves could mask their magical signature or even mimic the signatures of others. If Severus spent too much time around Potter during summer, Albus would find out.

So he had to find a way to manipulate this situation to his own benefit. He needed to tell Albus about the unauthorized elf visits, but he had to do it in such a way that Albus couldn’t handle it himself. First, he needed an excuse for knowing that an elf was visiting, and then he needed to wait until Albus could not handle the problem himself.

The ICW had regularly scheduled meetings he could take advantage of. He wondered if he should get Minerva out of the way to make sure Albus didn’t task her to deal with the problem, but Albus had never asked her to get involved, not even when Severus had loudly protested having to escort the boy to Diagon Alley to get his eye exam. And the more active a role he took, the easier it would be for Albus to see his hand in the scheme.

With a tentative plan made, Severus dismissed the teary house elf. Brinkie’s ears drooped When Severus did not take immediate action. No doubt, he wanted Severus to rush to Potter’s side and save him. That was the nature of an elf. However, Severus was playing this game against Albus, so he had to move slowly and carefully. If Potter had to go hungry for a few days, that was preferable to Severus losing access. He had to consider how to protect the boy over the next decade, not how to coddle the child.


“Albus,” Severus said as he walked into the office. He had timed it well because stacks of paper waited for Albus’s attention. The fact that the headmaster had three such important roles made him an inappropriate guardian, but it made Severus’s job easier.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? I assure you, I have found a professor for the defense position, one with a wide range of practical experience.” Albus smiled at Severus, a twinkle in his eye. Severus assumed that meant that Albus had hired some academic who could not tell a vampire from an exhausted potions master. Severus had never been so tempted to murder someone. As far as he was concerned, Higgins had been the singularly least effective Defense Against Dark Arts teacher in a long and illustrious line of teaching failures.

“I look forward to having to, once again, tutor extensively to ensure my students pass their NEWTs,” Severus said dryly. He and Filius had debated ending their long tradition of teaching defense in-house and allowing Albus to be hoisted on his own petard when Hogwart’s entire graduating class failed national testing; however, they could not justify the damage that would do to their students’ futures.

“You always say you have too much on your plate. You are not required to tutor students outside your instructional area.” Albus’s voice had a touch of censure.

“And what would Lucius or the others say if I failed to prepare their children?”

“Yes, yes. I trust you to tend those relationships, especially now that Tom may pose a more immediate threat. Has there been a change to your mark? Is that why you’re here?”

Severus was now the center of Albus’s full and complete attention. “No. It remains the same. However, I have concerns about Potter.”

Albus immediately disengaged. “He is fine. I have to attend a meeting, so if you will excuse me, Severus…”

“I am less concerned about Potter than the strange house-elf who visits every day. Is it one of yours?”

Albus twitched. That was enough to let Severus know the man was silently panicking. “House elf? I’m certain you’re mistaken.”

“I set the wards myself, so I am sure I am not.”

“You set wards? I told you the boy was fine.” Albus’s voice had a thread of anger now.

“You also said the Dark Lord had the Philosopher’s Stone. So I set a few wards far enough away from the house to warn me if any unusual forms of transportation were used. Black loved that motorcycle of his, even though it was illegal, and he may have provided illegally modified muggle transports for other Death Eaters. Instead, my ward line identified a house elf making incursions into the area. I found elf magic around Potter’s owl and his room.”

Albus took a deep breath.

Severus continued. “Only goblins can ward against elves, and clearly the house must be warded. I recommend you request Bathsheda take over as guardian. As a new guardian, she can be encouraged to review security, and she will—without a doubt—notice the elf magic. She is currently in Haltwhistle. An owl can reach her in a couple of hours, or I can carry a message to her before I return to brewing.”

“Why do you believe Bathsheda needs to be involved?” Albus moved papers about on his desk.

Severus crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the headmaster. “Your inability to identify the problem suggests you are too busy to provide proper oversight. I believe I have said that before. However, I have research projects and potions brewing I can only complete in summer. That means another must contact Gringotts, arrange for an elf-ward to be installed, oversee the installation and then attempt to track this elf back to its master.

“Either that, or you sent the elf to test my resolve to protect the child’s life. If so, understand this, Albus. I will protect his life, but that protection does not extend to spending time around his muggle family. It does not include giving up my own projects, and it does not mean I want to spend one minute with the boy during summer. I am already blessed with an excess of Potter’s foolishness during the school year. Let someone else take responsibility for him in summer.”

“He is Lily’s child as well,” Albus said, signaling that Severus had retreated from the boy more than Albus wished. Just as Albus would invoke James Potter’s name any time Severus showed any positive emotion toward the child, he invoked Lily when he wanted Severus to do something for him. Either Severus had learned to identify Albus’s manipulations far more accurately than in years past or the man was growing more obvious.

Or the ground work Albus had prepared for years had been derailed by the boy’s sorting. For ten years, Albus had told all the teachers how much the child was a replica of James. Only Potter’s placement in Slytherin had allowed Severus to see through that lie. After all, James Potter would have dropped out of school rather than socialize with snakes. He would have set fire to the Slytherin common room. He would have loudly accused his dorm mates of wanting him dead. He never would have defended the house to the rest of Hogwarts. And James Potter never would have asked for Severus’s advice and then followed his suggestions.

Sometimes Severus wondered if he would have seen through Albus’s schemes had Harry sorted into another house, but with the boy in the house of snakes, Severus could see the truth well enough.

Severus narrowed his eyes and engaged his mock objections. “Lily would want him to have a magical guardian with time to properly care for the child, and that is not me. Do not ask me to give up more of my life for James Potter’s progeny.”

“You made a life vow. If you feel that the boy is in danger from the attention of an elf, you should take action.” Albus began placing papers in his satchel. “You have the key for the Hogwart’s bank account. Use the facilities fund.”

“If you are not concerned, then I take that as sufficient evidence that there is no reason for concern at all and I will return to my brewing.”

Severus left the office. He was down the stairs and almost to the entrance hall when Albus’s patronus reached him. “I expect you to contact Gringotts today. Arrange for elf wards when you can supervise,” said the phoenix in Albus’s voice before it disappeared.

Keeping up the appearance of aggravation, Severus indulged in several creative insults for several generations of Potters and Dumbledores as he walked out into the muggy Scotland summer. That had been easy. Too easy. Severus hoped that Albus was distracted and not that he suspected Severus was moving against him.

When Severus had first turned against the Dark Lord, he thought spying against his former master the singularly most terrifying endeavor in the wizarding world. However, the Dark Lord had about as much sanity as Bellatrix and he lacked the focus to notice any inconsistencies in the stories of his underlings. If he couldn’t see a betrayal through legilimency, he had no ability to perceive it at all.

Acting against Albus was far more fraught.

However, this was the path Severus had chosen when he swore to protect Lily’s child, and he would not fail in his task, no matter who he had to protect the child from.




Chapter Two


“You! Go away!” said Petunia after she opened the door. Severus put a foot in the opening to prevent her from slamming it in his face.

“Tuney. Where is your… husband?” Severus had any number of other words to describe Vernon, but he wanted to shift some of the Dursley’s anger toward Dumbledore. That meant he had to play this carefully. And to that end, he had waited until their unpleasant son had absented himself and he could deal with the parents.

“Go away!”

Severus pushed the door open and stepped inside. “I’m sure you don’t want to have this conversation in front of your neighbors.”

“We took that boy in on the understanding that you freaks would stay away from my family.”

“Be grateful I came. I am here to stop a magical being who has been invading your home.” He strode into the parlor just as Petunia’s walrus of a husband was struggling to get off the sofa.

“Pet? Who is this?”

Petunia pushed past Severus. “He’s one of the freaks. He’s the one who told my sister about that freak school.”


Severus waved his hand, casting a wordless and wandless spell to silence the fool. “I wish I could leave, but the headmaster has found a vulnerability in the protections on this house. That vulnerability has allowed a magical creature to visit your house several times this summer. I have come to supervise a team that will close that hole. The sooner they can complete their work, the sooner I can leave.”

Severus pulled his wand, and both Petunia and Vernon stumbled back toward their couch, clinging to each other as if they were facing their own deaths. It was ironic because Severus had not baited muggles in at least twelve years. He hadn’t killed them for sport in longer than that. He swept his wand in an arc and a team of three goblins apparated into the room with a loud crack.

Petunia shrieked, but Severus’s silencing spell held so Vernon could only gape like a dying fish on dry land.

“These are ward setters. They will ensure that house elves cannot breach the house defenses.” Except for his own, of course. Severus had paid dearly for that exemption with his own money. The goblins walked away, one upstairs and two to the opposite sides of the house. They would only require a few minutes to complete their work and set the runes, but muggles wouldn’t know that. Meanwhile, he had time to manipulate the Dursleys. “While they work, I will check the boy’s summer work. His penmanship is atrocious and I have found his work questionable at best. He requires supervision, so fetch him,” Severus ordered Petunia before he sat on her horrible floral-print couch.

Petunia’s hands fluttered around her neck.

“Well? Get the child.”

“Professor?” a small voice asked. Harry stood at the doorway, most of the confidence Severus had seen develop over the year had vanished. Instead, he tried to vanish into shadows.

“Potter.” Severus made himself sound weary. The boy never seemed to take Severus’s moods to heart. Where another child would be terrified to see the dungeon bat in his living room, Harry’s fearful gaze was locked on his uncle. That suggested many things—none of them good.

Harry slipped another inch into the room. “Professor. Why are you here?”

“Have you been missing mail, Potter?”

“Um. Yes, sir.”

“Did you not think to contact anyone about this?”

“Um… no?”

“Are you truly such a dunderhead that you don’t realize that anything that can intercept your mail may pose a danger to yourself?”

“Danger, sir? Um, no. I never…” He swallowed. “I apologize professor.”

“Stop saying ‘Um.’ You sound like a fool. Get your potions homework. No doubt I shall have to correct any number of errors.”

Harry swallowed, looked at Vernon Dursley, and then looked at Severus. The boy projected terror and his hair looked like sun was shining on it. Apparently he didn’t have full control of his metamorphmagus powers. Whatever was going on in this house had escalated beyond the neglect Severus had seen in Harry’s mind. “Sir… I haven’t started my homework.” He swallowed again, no doubt wondering whether he should say that he had no access to his trunk.

“Lazy boy,” said Severus. “This is the trouble with muggle-raised children. They do not invest the proper time require for revision. They think summer is a time off from studies rather than a time to magically recharge their core and review theory. I will not have laziness in Slytherin, Mr. Potter.”

Harry stood a little straighter. “No, sir. I apologize, sir.”

“If I have to come back every week to check your homework, I will, but if that is necessary, I will have you in detention every day until Christmas, am I clear?” Severus carefully didn’t look at the Dursleys so they would not realize he was playing to their fears.

“Yes, sir.”

The threat to return should put the Dursleys on their best behavior. “Good. Now, I am not leaving until you have produced at least twelve inches on the significance of different stirring techniques.”

“Sir?” Harry sounded panicked now, and his hair took on orangish highlights.

Severus stood and stalked toward the boy, hoping to distract the Dursleys from the evidence that the boy was innately magical. He wondered if this Black family gift had inspired his family to hate him more than usual. “I am not leaving until I see you have started on your work. If you have not begun already, I suggest you get up to your room and start now. I have no patience for fools, Mr. Potter. GO!” Severus shouted, and Harry was halfway up the stairs before he stopped.

“Um, sir. My work is in my trunk, which is locked in the closet under the stairs.”

“Do you try to annoy me, Potter?”

“No, sir,” Harry quickly said.

With an aggrieved sigh, Severus walked to the cupboard and spelled the locks so he could levitate the trunk out of the space. A quick glance revealed that this dirty and spider-infested space had served as the boy’s living quarters for far too long. If Severus did not have a cover to protect, he would take revenge on the Dursleys, but that would have to wait. Clearly Harry knew what Severus had seen because several curls had turned pure white.

Severus levitated the trunk up the stairs, studying the charms as he did so. A master had had corrupted the runes. Now the trunk would attract the attention of muggles. That was not only malicious, but dangerous. As much as Severus wanted to undo the work, he suspected Albus had done it, and he could not risk tipping the headmaster off. Rather than challenging the old fart, Severus was going to have to work around him.

“Work quickly,” Severus said loudly as he started back down the stairs. “I will not be here one minute longer than necessary, but I will not stand for slovenly or inaccurate work, Mr. Potter.” Severus walked back into the parlor where Petunia now stood slightly behind her husband, hiding behind his sizable bulk.

Severus withdrew a potions journal from his muggle jacket and sat on the sofa. “If the boy has not finished the twelve inches before the ward setters have finished their work, I will have to return. I regret the day the boy landed in my house. He is more work than ten other children.” Severus gave Petunia and her husband a sympathetic look. “No doubt you have already discovered that.”

Petunia looked at her husband who opened his mouth but still could not speak.

Severus waved a hand to remove the spell. “Do not shout at me, Mr. Dursley. I am as unhappy about being here as you are about being forced to host me. However, my current visit will ensure that the house elf that has been breaking into your house will no longer trouble you, and if we are both lucky, I will frighten the boy into doing his homework so I am not forced to return to correct his lack of diligence.”

“What do you mean an elf has been breaking into MY HOUSE?”

Severus lifted an eyebrow because the end had definitely been a shout. Vernon Dursley clenched his jaw.

“I mean,” Severus said in his coldest tone, “that a house elf, a magical creature, has regularly crossed the ward lines set to protect the property. The headmaster tasked me to handle this, perhaps because I have been cursed with your nephew’s presence in my house at Hogwarts.” No doubt Albus would check the ward work, and Severus needed to make sure that any stray thoughts the Dursleys might have around Albus supported Severus’s strategy to publicly distance himself from the boy.

It was what Albus wanted. And going against Albus’s desires was dangerous.

Vernon turned on his wife. “THEY PROMISED WE WOULD NOT HAVE MORE FREAKS IN MY HOUSE. WHAT IF DUDLEY HAD BEEN HERE? WHAT IF DUDLEY HAD SEEN AN… elf.” He whispered the last word the way some people whispered curses or the Dark Lord’s name. He then glared at Severus. While Vernon was distracted with his own anger, Severus slipped into his mind.

The headmaster had sent a letter apologizing for Hagrid’s appearance the previous summer. He had promised that no other staff would bother them. So he had promised them that the magical world would not supervise their treatment of their nephew. Given the sort of narrow-minded and insecure mind Vernon Dursley possessed, that was an invitation to either abuse or neglect the child. Albus would understand that. What was the man playing at?

“I made sure to come when your son appeared to be absent,” Severus said. He wondered if he dared push this situation a little further. “If Harry visits friends in our community, I could check on him at the Longbottoms or Malfoys to inspect his work.”

Severus would not be allowed on any Longbottom property, and Severus would empty out his vault if it would keep Harry away from Lucius. However, he could not publicly take a stand against Harry’s relationships with the Malfoys, and the excuse would be enough to allow Harry to travel now that he had his wand and could summon the Knight Bus.

Petunia wrung her hands. “That might be best.”

Severus narrowed her eyes. “Assuming the boy has work to check. Hogwarts is a prestigious institution. He must take his studies more seriously. I thought I had impressed that on him during this previous year, but perhaps I need to be more forceful. I refuse to be held hostage to his need for supervision for the next six years. I find it better to instill enough fear their first year or two that they maintain their grades through their NEWTs.”

“Fear is the only thing that motivates that boy. We never should have taken him in,” Vernon said. He gave Severus a half-smile. When Severus slipped into that greasy mind, Vernon was joyous that Harry’s head of house hated him. He’d been afraid that Harry would find success—specifically more success than his own son. He had grown more abusive because the boy had returned from school happy while his own had been targeted by older boys and the staff had sent letters home questioning the Dursleys’ parenting. That was a petty jealousy Severus could manipulate. Severus found an old memory, words whispered between Vernon and Petunia in the dark of their bed, and he pulled them forward.

Unsurprisingly, Vernon leapt on the memory and immediately asked, “That man, the old one with ridiculous clothes, he said we had to keep the boy here because of some Nazi leader in your world.”

Petunia threw her shoulders back and looked down her nose at Severus and followed her husband’s lead. “I heard you followed that Nazi, Severus.”

“I had a trial. I was acquitted.” Severus gave her a cold look, and slipped into her mind. She was terrified. Before losing contact with Lily, Lily had explained muggle-baiting and the massacres and the horror of the Dark Mark hanging in the sky over the skinned bodies of the Dark Lord’s enemies. Petunia thought Severus’s answer meant that he had escaped justice.

Severus wasn’t going to disabuse her of that assumption. Fear was a useful tool.

Petunia also nursed not only a deep jealousy of her sister but also a stark terror that the magical world would take her son the way it had Lily. Her disagreeable son was the center of her life, and she would do anything to keep the magical world away from him and him away from the magical world.

If Severus couldn’t keep the Dursleys from noticing the trunk, perhaps he could use Petunia’s fear to make sure she kept her husband and son out of Harry’s room. He opened his journal and started to read. “Tell the boy he has at least an hour before the goblins finish, but he had better hope he has twelve inches of quality work before that happens.”

Petunia looked at Vernon. “Go on, Pet,” he said. “I’ll keep an eye on the freak.”

She scurried away. The moment she saw huge desk that came out of the trunk, she would do anything to keep the others out of his room. That was the best he could do for Harry. He took one more look into Vernon’s mind and found a smug satisfaction that the adult responsible for Harry was a murderer. He hoped that Harry’s status as an orphan meant that Severus would target the boy if he had any stray homicidal urges.

Severus was having murderous thoughts, but they were not targeted at Harry. The human race would be better off without the Dursleys, but that was the sort of thought that had led Severus to follow the Dark Lord down a path so dark it had stained his soul and precluded any forgiveness. So Severus contented himself with fantasizing about what he might have done had he met the Dursleys thirteen years ago. Severus was reading an article on the declining quality of botanicals in rural England when a wave of magic swept through the house. The goblins had finished and left.

Severus kept reading.

Forty minutes later, Petunia herded Harry down the stairs. Harry held out his parchment like an offering, and Severus unrolled it.

The work was sloppy and rushed, but he had expected as much from the child. Hopefully now that he had access to his trunk, he would redo the work. After all, the threat of having Severus camp in their parlor would ensure that the Durleys were properly motivated to allow Harry to do his homework. And Petunia’s fear of her family members seeing that trunk should ensure that she banned them from Harry’s room.

“You have an unacceptable number of blotches, the penmanship is atrocious and you have only used one source for your research.” Severus looked at Harry over the top of the parchment. “Even a fool knows to cross-reference information. However, giving those limitations, it is minimally acceptable.”

Harry beamed. “Thank you, sir.”

Severus snorted and returned the work. “Redo the section on widdershins stirring. You have too much speculation.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said.

The child was terrifyingly willing to accept criticism. However, Severus could not address that problem. He stood. “I assume you do not require another intervention to complete your work.”

“No, sir. I promise I’ll work on the homework every day.”

There wasn’t enough for even the slowest student to work every day, but hopefully that meant the boy would spend at least some time with the occlumency book Severus had slipped in among his school books. “Do not make a promise unless you follow through. If I must, I will stand over your shoulder while you work to ensure you do not put Slytherin’s reputation at risk with your academically slovenly ways.” The boy was in the top twenty percent of his class, so he should understand that Severus was being hyperbolic.

“Of course, sir.”

Without another word, Severus left. When he reached the end of the street, he slipped into the shadows and apparated away. He had done what he could for the boy, and now Harry had to take advantage of the tools Severus had given him. Severus was not in a position to hold his hand, not when the Dark Lord had the Philosopher’s stone and Albus had some reason for wanting to drive a wedge between Harry and his head of house.

If Harry wasn’t clever enough to handle his family now, he had no hope of surviving having the attention of two such manipulative, old wizards.


Chapter Three

Harry understood full well that Professor Snape had come to help him. Not only did Harry have his trunk back, but he’d found the stasis compartment full of Hogwarts meals, and the fact that the professor had made such a production out of hating Harry meant the Dursleys were mollified.

Never before had Harry come home happy, so he hadn’t realized what a tactical error it had been. So now, when school came up, Harry talked about how mean Professor Snape was in class and how Professor McGonagall gave detentions if a person was even an inch short on an essay (which wasn’t true), and how Hagrid was cruel (which sort of was—Harry still teared up when he thought about the note Hagrid had written saying that Harry’s parents would be disappointed in him for going back to the castle during that disastrous detention).

It meant the Dursleys had returned to their previous course of ignoring him except for the dedicated homework time from one to four every day. No matter what chore Harry was doing, his aunt would chase him up to his room. One day she had even come to the public library to shriek at him about his summer homework and that night she had refused him any supper since he was not being responsible.

But that didn’t matter anymore because Harry pulled out roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and glazed carrots for dinner, and ate it with a large pumpkin juice.

To pay the professor back, Harry had spent extra time researching his potions essay and writing it in his best penmanship. He even copied it over twice because his quill had made splotches. Nearly everyone had splotches on their homework, but Harry wanted to show his appreciation. He also suspected the little book on Occlumency had come from the professor. It was the sort of thing a Slytherin would study. So Harry threw himself into meditating. He created a landscape of fire—a firestorm with winds that whipped around and orange flames that would warm Harry as he drifted off to sleep every night.

And Harry was getting his mail again. Hedwig was flying all the time—going to Italy with letters for Blaise and France to find Hermione on vacation and to the Malfoy and Longbottom manors. Harry had even exchanged letters with Millicent, explaining that he hadn’t been ignoring her father—his mail had been intercepted, and Professor Snape himself had needed to get involved. Mr. Bulstrode forgave him, but insisted that Harry come to the house in August.

Best of all, Harry could now arrange visits with Draco. Of all Harry’s friends, Draco was the most fun. Yes, he was spoiled and a prat, but when he got excited about something, he would drag Harry along. Harry had never really known how to be friends, so Draco’s enthusiasm made it easier. Harry didn’t have to do any work at all.

They arranged to meet at the Leaky Caldron, and Harry used the Knight’s Bus by himself for the first time. Without Hagrid’s large hand to pin him down, Harry got thrown around a lot more, but it was exciting and a bit challenging, and he reached London faster than any train. Harry was smiling when he stumbled off and ran into a small blonde girl. She fell to the pavement, and Harry started apologizing.

“I’m sorry. I was dizzy from the bus because it goes so fast. The Knight Bus, you know. Do you know? Have you been on it?” Harry wasn’t sure if riding the Knight Bus was common because it never seemed to have many people on it.

The girl looked up with silvery, gray eyes that reminded Harry of Draco. Maybe she was a cousin. “Oh, that’s fine. I was looking at the Blibbering Humdingers and I didn’t see you.” She looked toward the entrance to the pub, and three girls were huddled together, giggling and staring. Harry frowned. As bad as it was when people whispered about him behind his back, it was worse when they did it in front of him.

“It was still my fault,” Harry said as he helped her up. “What are Blibbering Humdingers?” Harry didn’t have any of them in his creature cards.

“They gather where people whisper,” the girl said. “They get tangled in people’s hair and brains. I’m Luna Lovegood.”

Harry took a small step back, wondering if there was something wrong with her. Creatures couldn’t get tangled in a brain. At least, Harry hoped they couldn’t. But politeness dictated that he offer his name in return. “I’m Harry Potter,” he introduced himself.

Luna’s gaze didn’t quite meet Harry’s. She focused over his head, and Harry looked up but there wasn’t anything there.

“She sees things that aren’t there,” one of the girls called out.

“You mean she’s a seer?” Harry asked. His book on famous wixen had several seers—some who could prophesy the future and others who had supernatural insights on the present. One, Matilda the Backward, had even seen events in the past, which had been a useless skill until she backward-saw the murder of the king, leading to a magical civil war in Bulgaria.

“No, she’s just crazy,” the tallest girl said.

“That’s not very nice.” Harry stepped between Luna and the girls.

“But it’s true,” the dark-haired girl said.

“It can be both true and not nice. Harry’s right. We should be nicer,” the redhead said with a dimpled smile in Harry’s direction and Harry recognized her as Ron’s sister—the one who had waved at him on the platform.

Harry turned his back on the trio. “Are you going in the Leaky Cauldron?” Harry asked.

Luna shook her head. “But you should. The Leaky Cauldron needs a solid wall.”

“Um, what?”

Luna finally met Harry’s eyes. She leaned closer and put a hand on his chest, which was definitely against every rule Draco and Blaise had pounded into Harry’s head. “Things change too fast in there. They need a solid wall.”

“You mean they shouldn’t have the moveable wall to the Alley in there?” Harry guessed.

Luna laughed. You have heliopaths everywhere. They like walls. It tells them where to go.”

Harry bit his lip and suspected that the three girls were right. They were also cruel, but Luna did sound a little crazy. She patted his chest. “Draco needs a wall even more than the Leaky Cauldron.” Then she turned and wandered down the street, her gaze on the sky. The sky. The centaurs in the forbidden forest had done that—they’d looked up while they’d talked as if being distracted by something so amazing in the night sky that they didn’t dare look away except for quick glances.

Shaking off the strange encounter, Harry headed into the Leaky Cauldron.

“Harry!” Ron’s sister called. “I’m coming to Hogwarts this year.”

Harry offered her an insincere smile. “Good for you.”

She shot her two friends a smug look and then darted toward Harry and reached for his arm. Harry spun away and put his back to the wall. “What are you doing?”

“A gentleman should escort a lady into a building,” Ron’s sister said with a frown, as if Harry had broken some social protocol.

“Only if the gentleman in question has shown a social interest in the girl, and I don’t know you,” Harry said.

“But you’re Ron’s best friend, and I’m Ron’s sister.” She set her mouth in a hard line.

“Finnegan is Ron’s best friend, and after he acted like a complete prat at the end of the year, I will be happy if I never see him again,” Harry said firmly. “I’m friends with Blaise and Draco and Neville and Hermione, not Ron.”

Her eyes grew huge. “Mother says you’re friends with Ron. Ron is supposed to show you how everything works in the magical world.”

“I believe someone else would be best suited to do that,” a deep voice said. Mr. Malfoy stood in the open pub door, a look of disgust on his face. “And you should not use certain words while on that side of the door given the company on the street.” He looked around with even more disgust at the muggles walking past, their eyes sliding over the Leaky Cauldron and its notice-me-not charms. Harry loved Draco, but his father… he was a bit of a racist. Harry could see that. He also thought that explained why Professor Snape looked so pained when he was around Mr. Malfoy.

At least Harry assumed that was the expression he was reading. In Slytherin, recognizing other’s expressions was a requirement. They actually practiced it in the common room. Harry was getting better, but he still often confused flirting looks for disgust, so he wasn’t the best.

Ron’s sister looked furious. “Harry doesn’t need you to get involved.”

“Such a rude child. I will be sure to notify the authorities that you are violating the Statue of Secrecy when you are still too young to get your wand. Tut-tut. Such a lack of proper upbringing and breeding.”

Ron’s sister turned bright red. Harry hated seeing the bullying side of Draco’s father, so he hurried to change the subject. “Is Draco here?”

Mr. Malfoy continued to glare at the child. “Inside.”

Harry darted past him and into the dim interior of the pub. “Oh my, if it isn’t Harry Potter,” Tom said loudly. Like Hagrid, the barman was less than discreet.

“Good morning,” Harry said. He still thought Tom looked like a toothless walnut, but he smiled at the old wizard.

“So nice to see you. Come in, come in.”

Draco waved from a table near the center of the bar. “We’re over here!” There were two butterbeers and something amber in a skinny glass on the table already. “Father wasn’t sure you had time for breakfast, so he ordered something light.”

“That was kind of him,” Harry said. He’d had beans, eggs, and toast out of his trunk, but he’d eat a little something to make Mr. Malfoy happy. His occlumency book talked about legilimency where someone could see images from another’s mind, and Harry wondered if Mr. Malfoy had seen the number of times Harry had gone hungry in Harry’s memory or if he had just made a guess based on the fact that the healer’s report said Harry didn’t eat well. Mr. Malfoy might not be nice to everyone, in fact he was quite mean, but for those he did decide to be nice to, he was a very generous and thoughtful person.

Not trustworthy, but thoughtful.

“Ah, boys. Our food should be here soon.” He gave Tom a weary look before settling into his chair. “Harry, I understand Draco gave you a book on how laws are passed in the Wizengamot. That is an area in which I have some expertise. Do you have any questions?”

Harry tried to think. Not having questions when an expert offered their assistance was beyond rude, so he needed to ask something. “Why are there years and years and decades when no laws pass?”

“Ah. That is a complex answer.” Mr. Malfoy leaned back in his seat. “It has to do with how broadly power is shared in our society.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

Mr. Malfoy’s smile was calculating, and Harry had the feeling that Mr. Malfoy had just won a point in some competition Harry didn’t realize they were having. “Take this proposed Muggle Protection Act. The Wizengamot has a minority who are firmly in favor, a minority firmly against, and the majority in the middle who could be swayed either way. However, those in the middle generally prefer to change nothing. They are comfortable in their lives, and change threatens that, even if they believe the ideas behind the Act are good.”

“So most of the time, the Wizengamot does nothing,” Harry said. “But then why do laws get passed at all?”

“Sometimes one person has gathered enough proxies from the uninterested majority that one person has enough votes to make things happen. During these periods, our society can and has changed rapidly.”

“Are laws changing now?” Harry asked. From Mr. Malfoy’s reactions, he assumed they were and the person with all those proxies was someone Mr. Malfoy didn’t like.

“Indeed. The Muggle Protection Act is only the most drastic of the changes to come before the Wizengamot in the last year, but everything from the required thickness of caldrons to import taxes to Ministry department budgets has been challenged.”

Tom put a plate with cut fruit and pastries in the middle of the table. “Thank you,” Harry said while the two Malfoys said nothing.

Draco asked, “What does the Wizengamot want to do to protect muggles?” By the end of the year, Draco would say muggle in an even tone, but the derision had returned.

“They would search people’s homes looking for muggle objects that have been charmed—things like keys designed to shrink when no one is looking so muggles thing they’ve lost them.”

“What?” Harry sat up. “They search people’s houses? Like without having specific evidence that people have created this stuff? That’s horrible!”

“It is!” Draco said loudly. “The Ministry just wants to look in manors with their family wards.”

“That would never be allowed in the muggle world,” Harry said. “Police have to have a reasonable cause and a specific item they’re searching for. They can’t just go through someone’s house. I can’t believe the wizarding world would be so backward.” Harry stopped when he realized everyone was looking at him. He expected Mr. Malfoy to give him a disapproving look and maybe even cancel Harry’s visit. Instead, he looked around the pub with unvarnished smugness.

“No doubt you will be on the Wizengamot one day. You may have already been gifted one of the hereditary seats. Do I assume you would vote against this Act?”

“Well, yes. I mean, I’m in favor of protecting muggles, and if someone is charming items to tease muggles, they’re putting the Statute of Secrecy in danger, and that’s bad. That’s about the worst thing I can think of because I’ve lived with muggles and I know how violent they can get when they feel threatened. So doing things that draw muggles’ attention is hugely bad, but this law… it’s not fair. The police shouldn’t be just searching people’s houses when they don’t even know what they’re looking for.”

“The wizarding world doesn’t have police. The DMLE assigns investigators, typically Aurors,” Mr. Malfoy corrected him. “I look forward to the day you join the Wizengamot, Harry.”

“If that’s the sorts of laws that get passed, I don’t think I am going to look forward to it.”

“Perhaps you can change the balance,” Mr. Malfoy said. “Now, I believe Draco wants to share our plans for today.”

Draco’s face lit with excitement. “Father got us passes into the Dragon Reserve. Isn’t that exciting?”

“Whoa. Dragons?” Harry knew how much Draco wanted to see them, but he was a little afraid of giant, fire-breathing lizards that could eat him.

“It’s going to be wonderful. And Father knows someone who can get us into the private areas, so maybe we can get up close to one, just a small one or maybe an older one, not like a nesting mother or something dangerous.”

“I’m pretty sure all dragons are dangerous,” Harry said. The baby Hagrid had hatched nearly burned down the forbidden forest, and it had taken down a trained dragon handler.

“We’ll be fine with Father,” Draco said with confidence. Then again, Draco tended to think his father could fit anything. Unfortunately, Harry assumed a dragon would be as willing to eat Lucius Malfoy as anyone else.

“There will be adequate security,” Mr. Malfoy said, “although I am grateful one of you has the good sense to be concerned.” He gave Draco a look, but Draco was practically bouncing in his seat. Harry wasn’t sure Draco would notice if a fireball hit the street. “Both of you eat up. We have a big day. We need to visit Gringotts and check the Potter accounts before we can leave for the reserve. But first, I am going to go speak with an acquaintance.

He left the table and sat across from a woman in her forties. She had curled, blonde hair, jeweled glasses, and wicked long fingernails painted brilliant red. “Who’s that?” Harry asked when the woman stared at him.

Draco glanced over. “No idea. She comes to the manor sometimes, but Father has never introduced us, so she can’t be important. So, the reserve has the oldest Welsh Green dragon in the world.” Draco went on to regale Harry with the story of the dragon’s capture in the 1700s after it had burned down a muggle village, but the whole time Harry watched the woman meeting with Mr. Malfoy. Harry was missing something—he just didn’t know what.


Chapter Four

Mr. Malfoy stood in line at Gringotts, one hand resting on Harry’s shoulder. Draco was almost bouncing in place, and if they didn’t leave for the dragon reserve soon, he might explode. When they reached the front of the line, Mr. Malfoy urged Harry forward.

“Good morning. I need to speak to someone about the Potter accounts,” Harry said, keeping eye contact with the goblin in front of him. Mr. Malfoy had explained that they were a warrior race that considered eye contact and direct communication polite. He’d then descended into a racist description of why goblins were incapable of governing themselves.

Sometimes Harry wondered why Narcissa stayed with the man. He was kind of a jerk.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I wrote asking for one, but I didn’t get an owl back,” Harry said. The goblin growled, and Harry stepped backward, pressing himself against Mr. Malfoy. The goblin grabbed a paper and wrote a note.

“Wait in the north lobby,” he snapped. Harry was about to thank him, but Mr. Malfoy pulled him away, guiding Harry and Draco to a room half the size of a classroom with dozens of ornate doors set into three of the walls.

“Is this going to take long?” Draco asked.

Mr. Malfoy have him a distinctly unhappy look. “If your mother and I were not here, you would have to take responsibility for the estate. It is never too soon to learn these skills.”

“Yes, father,” Draco said, although he didn’t sound interested.

“Harry, do you have your list?”

Harry reached into his pocket and touched the narrow slip of parchment. “Yes, sir.” Harry could not ask Mr. Malfoy to handle the goblins or they would never respect him. They also might lie if they thought Harry was giving too much information to Mr. Malfoy because the Potter account goblin would not want to help a Malfoy. So Harry had to handle this, although Mr. Malfoy had helped him write his questions down.

A door opened. “Mr. Potter?”

Harry jumped. “Yes, that’s me.”

The goblin looked unimpressed. “Follow me.”

Harry gave Draco and Mr. Malfoy a smile before he followed the goblin down a corridor and into a cramped office. “What can I do for you, Mr. Potter?”

Harry swallowed and curled his fingers around the list he’d prepared. “I don’t know who has my vault key. I assume it’s my magical guardian, but I don’t know who that is.” Mr. Malfoy suspected it was Headmaster Dumbledore, but Harry didn’t know for sure. Mr. Malfoy hated the headmaster, so it could just be that he hoped it was Dumbledore so he could tell everyone what a horrible job the headmaster had done of preparing Harry for the magical world.

The goblin looked over his glasses. “It’s the responsibility of wizards to safeguard their own key.”

“I never held my own key.”

“That is not my problem.”

“Can I get a new key made and all the old keys melted?”

The goblin pulled a paper out of his desk. “Fill this out and return it to a teller.”

Harry pulled the paper closer. “Who currently has a key?”

The goblin glared at him.

“Or who is my magical guardian since he should know where my keys are.”

“Ask at the Ministry.”

“They won’t give me an answer.”

“I am a banker. I do not keep track of whatever idiocy wizards engage in.”

“Then tell me who has been in the Potter vaults,” Harry tried.

“Anyone with a key,” the goblin said with a malicious smile.

Harry curled his hands into fists. Mr. Malfoy had made him practice the conversation, but Harry had thought he was exaggerating goblin stubbornness in order to make Harry practice his logic. Well, if the goblins wanted to play like that…

“I suspect someone is stealing from me, and Gringotts is being unhelpful.”

The goblin slammed both hands down on his desk. “Thieves do not get past our guard.”

“The ones you recognize don’t, but I see no evidence that you can protect my money. I don’t have any statements.”

“Not my problem. Gringotts has sent them.”

“Then you’re incompetent and can’t ensure your owls fly to the right recipient?” Harry demanded. The goblin started to growl. Mr. Malfoy had assured him that meant he was winning, but since the wizard was on the other side of a closed door and Harry was on this side with an angry goblin, that wasn’t a big comfort.

“We have the best trained owls in the UK.”

“And yet I don’t have statements. I don’t even know how many vaults I have or how much money comes in each month. I don’t know if my properties are rented out and are earning gold or if any need repair.”

“Your magical guardian should tend such matters.”

“But I can’t tell if they are because you will not tell me who that is.”

“Because we do not get involved in wizarding politics.”

“So it is someone politically important,” Harry concluded. The goblin looked homicidal. “Maybe I should ask Mr. Malfoy to have the Wizengamot pass a resolution to request an audit of my accounts.” Harry knew the goblins would consider that a horrible insult, but they weren’t being helpful. Not even a little. And Mr. Malfoy didn’t mind insulting goblins and had offered to draft that resolution, which seemed dangerous given they controlled the money.

Harry sighed. Mr. Malfoy had recommended that he never back down, but that didn’t feel right. Harry let all his anger fade away, leaving weariness behind. “I’m not an adult. I can’t fight or reason or make money like an adult, but if an adult is stealing from me, I have a right to know. Everything my parents left me should be in those vaults, and I need to make sure that if someone is taking that away from me, I know where to prepare for battle.”

The goblin leaned back in his chair and studied Harry. “This is a battle you cannot win, child.”

“Oh, I know. I suspect I know who my magical guardian is, but I don’t want to waste time fighting the wrong battle if I’m mistaken, and I need to know what he’s taken so I know what I might need to fight for.”

“I served Fleamont Potter. You remind me of your grandfather.”

“Is that a compliment?” Harry asked. He knew what people said about James Potter, and there was a fairly even split between compliments and insults. More people seemed to like his mother. Even the Malfoys who were not fans of muggle-borns admitted that Lily Potter was brilliant and dangerous—two traits every Slytherin admired.

“He could be too soft. He compromised instead of taking out his blade and chopping off the arm of the person offending him.”

“Oh.” Harry considered how that might look from a goblin point of view. Probably not good. “I can’t swing an ax, so I try to make my enemies miserable and cut them off from support.”

“Are you any good?”

Harry thought about Draco and Theo—once his two biggest enemies in his own year. Draco had come around to Harry’s side after the duel. When he wasn’t around his father, he was even less racist. Being a parselmouth in Slytherin had its advantages. And by defending Theo publicly, he had confused him so much that Theo had basically retreated, leaving Harry to make his own allies unimpeded. “So far it’s worked.”

“And the elder Malfoy?”

Harry took a breath. He could potentially impress the goblin, but he could risk his relationship with the Malfoys, who had been his best supporters so far. However, he could also tell Mr. Malfoy that he had said whatever he needed in order to get his way. Mr. Malfoy would appreciate that, or at least he’d appreciate an edited version of the story.

Mind made up, Harry said, “I let him use me because he can get information I can’t. But I’m mostly aware of when he’s using me,” Harry said. “Right now I am trying to get his son to stop following his father’s beliefs.” Mr. Malfoy hated creatures as much as muggleborns, and the goblins had to resent that. “My mother was muggle-born and I don’t think goblin or elf or centaur magic is any less than human magic.”

The goblin snorted. “It is far stronger.”

“I don’t know because I’ve barely started studying human magic, and I don’t know anything about non-human magic users, but I’m trying to get Draco to see the world differently. He’s stopped insulting muggle-borns, so I think I might be winning that battle. I’m pretty sure I would lose if Mr. Malfoy knew I was doing that, but as long as I’m the only one who knows we’re fighting over Draco, I think I can win.”

The goblin templed his fingers. “You are an interesting human child.”

“I’m a desperate one who has to protect his own interests because I don’t have a family who can.”

“We all have to protect our own interests. Most leaders are killed by their own families, and that is as true for humans as goblins. Do not rely on others, especially family.”

“Yes, sir.”

For long seconds, the goblin stared at him, then he pulled a chalice out of his desk and slammed it down on the desk. A ceremonial knife followed, then a charmed parchment and several vials. “This will require five drops of blood, Mr. Potter, and the considerable cost will come out of your main family vault.”

“Yes, sir.”

The goblin snarled at him, but they didn’t exchange any other words other than simple directions required for the identity test. Harry had known they would need one to rekey his vaults, but as the charmed quill kept writing and writing and writing on the parchment, Harry was surprised.

Once the quill stopped, the goblin cast a final spell on the parchment before thrusting it at Harry. “Now, go away,” he ordered. “Pick up a new key from any teller, but don’t bother me again until you are old enough to do something about that. I am here for commerce, Mr. Potter, not to help you fight your battles.”

Harry scrambled out of the room with the parchment held close to his chest.


Harrison James Potter

Father: James Fleamont Potter (deceased)
Mother: Lily Jean Potter née Evans (deceased)
Godfather: Sirius Castor Black (incarcerated)
Godmother: Alice Longbottom née Sayre (incapacitated)
Physical Guardian: not on record
Magical Guardian: not on record

Potter (inheriting upon majority, paternal)
Family Vault: 619,894 G / 2,865 S / 451 K
Heir Vault: 12,834 G / 1,945 S / 298 K
Properties: Hogsmead house (rented); Godrick’s Hollow (confiscated by Ministry); Potter’s Acreage (house destroyed, land available)
3,817 tomes; 219 on loan to Albus Dumbledore
12 wands; two on loan to Albus Dumbledore
14 pieces of jewelry; four on loan to Albus Dumbledore
Invisibility cloak on loan to Albus Dumbledore
Assorted household goods
On loan to Albus Dumbledore: cursed chest, six inches; sword, 22 inches; tarot set, 17th century; foe glass, 12 inches; sneakoscope, 18 inches; charmed chalice, 14th century; magic carpet, 16th century.

Black (heir, assigned by godfather)
Heir Vault: 34,081 G / 57 S / 9 K

Harding (assigned inheritance as gift upon death of previous estate-holder)
Family Vault: 9,710 G / 81 S / 823 K
Properties: Coatbridge house (illegally occupied)
9,725 tomes
Assorted household goods

Loren (assigned inheritance as gift upon death of previous estate-holder)
Family Vault: 214 G / 78 S / 51 K
Properties: London flat (confiscated for repayment of debt)
56 tomes

Norris (assigned inheritance as gift upon death of previous estate-holder)
Family Vault: 89 G / 2 S / 3 K
1 tome
2 pieces of jewelry

Sher (assigned inheritance as gift upon death of previous estate-holder)
Family Vault: 61,871 G / 275 S / 12 K
Properties: Aberdeen home (illegally occupied)
914 tomes
224 wands
162 pieces of jewelry
Assorted household goods

Turner (assigned inheritance as gift upon death of previous estate-holder)
Family Vault: 9,710 G / 81 S / 823 K
Properties: Exeter farm (illegally occupied)
193 tomes
7 wands
11 pieces of jewelry
Farm equipment
Variety of magical and muggle creatures
Assorted household goods

Yenurro (assigned inheritance as gift upon death of previous estate-holder)
Family Vault: 179,812 G / 5,698 S / 7 K
Properties: Cardiff home (illegally occupied); Ballycastle home (illegally occupied); Matoury home (illegally occupied); Addis Abba flat (destroyed); Cairo home (illegally occupied)
5,712 tomes
24 wands; 2 staffs
1,745 pieces of jewelry
Assorted household goods.

Whoa. Harry was the Black heir. He as fairly sure Draco would throw a fit over that, but maybe not. Harry knew he couldn’t claim an heirship until he was thirteen, and the Black family magic might reject him. From what Narcissa said, Black magic was wilder than most. So Draco might openly congratulate him and then hope the magic rejected Harry’s claim. That would be a Draco thing to do.

Weirder, six people had made him their family heir when they died. Harry wondered if those people had lost all their other heirs in the war or if they’d just hated their surviving family. That could make for a real mess, especially if Harry tried to reclaim properties that people were illegally staying in. If those families had surviving members who thought they owned the properties, Harry didn’t want to take them away. He could only live in one place, so he didn’t need all those homes.

But the most important revelation was that Albus Dumbledore wasn’t doing his job. He had to be Harry’s magical guardian because that was the only way he could have borrowed so many objects out of the Potter vaults. But Harry assumed the Goblins were upset because Dumbledore had never done anything about all the properties that were illegally occupied. A proper magical guardian was supposed to not only prepare a person to enter the magical world, but they were supposed to protect the child’s interests in that world.

The headmaster was not taking care of Harry’s accounts and the goblins were not getting rental income coming into the vaults. That would explain why the goblin told Harry to come back when he was old enough to do something about the mismanagement of his accounts.

Maybe Harry couldn’t take control of his own finances, but he was willing to bet Mr. Malfoy could do some damage with this information. After all, if Dumbledore was his magical guardian, then he was the one who had decided Harry should live with the Dursleys. If that was the case, Dumbledore deserved whatever Lucius could do to annoy him. And Lucius was very annoying.



Chapter Five

After the bank and the dragon reserve, the rest of the summer was boring by comparison. Harry traded history and charms essays with Blaise, herbology with Neville, and transfiguration notes with Hermione to get someone else to check over his work. Twice a week, he went to the Malfoy manor. Draco introduced Harry to his dueling tutor, who included Harry in a few lessons, and Narcissa taught Harry to eat a formal dinner using far too many knives and forks, but his days mostly consisted of doing chores for the Dursleys in the morning before heading back to his room.

Draco had told him in excited tones about Ron trying to attack him in Flourish and Blotts. Knowing Draco and his father the way Harry did, it sounded like Mr. Malfoy had made fun of the Weasleys for not having much money, but he had to agree with Draco that Mr. Weasley physically throwing himself at Mr. Malfoy had been way out of line.

Harry couldn’t even figure out why a wizard would try to punch someone like that. They carried wands. But maybe Ron had inherited his temper from his father. Since Harry didn’t know the Weasleys, he didn’t figure he had a right to judge.

But Draco had been terribly smug and prattish about their father’s fighting because—according to Draco—his father had won. Mr. Weasley’s lip was bleeding before Hagrid had broken up the fight. After an entire school year of trying to make Ron and Draco show some respect, Harry had given it up as hopeless. Instead, he convinced Draco to go with him to a muggle movie theater and an amusement park in a quest to get the boy to let go of the worst of his racism. That was more effective.

The end of the summer vacation came too quickly for Harry’s liking. He was looking forward to getting back to Hogwarts, but he had found a rhythm to life at the Dursleys—one that he actually enjoyed. Going back to school meant more homework and stupid house feuds and quidditch. No matter how many times Harry said he didn’t think he wanted to spend his afternoons playing quidditch in the rain and snow, Draco insisted they had to try out.

Harry packed his trunk a day early and spent the last evening before the train with the Malfoys. The house elves created a feast with crusted duck and delicate fish soup and fancy cut potatoes and deserts topped with towers of delicate spun sugar. Hogwarts elves cooked the best homey meals, but the Malfoy elves made food into a art form.

Mr. Malfoy checked both their homework one last time and Narcissa went through their robes to make sure that there weren’t any frayed hems or stains the elves needed to sort out before they left. And then Harry and Draco were tucked into the largest, softest bed Harry had ever slept in.

“It’s going to be the best year ever,” Draco whispered before they fell asleep.

Harry hoped so. But his night was haunted by strange dreams. Luna and her gray eyes kept whispering in his ear, but he was distracted by old fashioned camera flashes all around him. A woman with long, red fingernails kept shoving a microphone toward him, and Mr. Malfoy kept saying, “Tell her. Tell her,” until someone gave a maniacal laugh and then Mr. Malfoy screamed like someone was killing him—or torturing him at the very least.

Harry woke with a start to find light streaming in the windows, and Draco was already combing his hair into place.

“That must have been a strange dream,” Draco said. “You were flailing all over the bed.”

“I didn’t hit you, did I?” Harry asked, embarrassed.

“I was already up. Did I tell you father has bought us all Nimbuses?”

“Yes,” Harry said with a sigh. Draco had told him at least ten times.

Draco looked crestfallen. “Oh. Yes. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about it.”

“Not sick as much as not excited about the idea of playing on the team and potentially messing up.”

Draco whirled about. “Messing up? You’re a brilliant flyer. We are going to have an unbroken six year reign as quidditch gods.”

“Or I’m going to miss the snitch and cost Slytherin the cup, and then no one will ever forgive me.” Between Flint and Snape, that was a terrifying thought.

“You’re a parselmouth. You could single-handedly lose a hundred points a day, and Slytherin would still back you.”

“That makes no sense.”

“But it’s true.”

“Maybe it shouldn’t be,” Harry said as he slipped on his dressing gown. Someone—either the elves or Narcissa—had laid out clothes for him on a dressing bench. “Just because I can talk to snakes doesn’t make me any better than anyone else.”

“It obviously does. You have to be descended from Salazar Slytherin, and power travels in families. You’re learning dueling insanely fast, probably because of your Black blood, and having the blood of Salazar means you’re going to be politically astute and have an ability to bend the world to your will.”

Harry gave Draco an incredulous look. “You can’t believe that.”

“Yes, I can. Most old families do.”

“So, if someone is born in to a certain family, they’re destined to have a certain personality?”

Draco hesitated. “Maybe more likely to have that personality. I mean, if you’d sorted Gryffindor, most of Slytherin would have been torn about your ability. They would have looked for evidence to see if you had inherited Salazar Slytherin’s cunning. But a parselmouth in Slytherin—everyone knows you’re going to be great.”

“I don’t know that.”

“You should.”

“Boys, are you about ready?” Narcissa called from the hallway.

“Yes, mother.”

Harry pulled on his shirt and started buttoning his cloak. He would take it off on the train, but he knew Narcissa would want to see him looking like a proper wizard. Harry tried to grab the handle of his trunk, but Draco stopped him. “Honestly, what do you think house elves are for?”

Harry wasn’t entirely sure, but if he was a magical being who lived to make others happy, he would want to cook or garden or maybe even fold napkins into the fantastical shapes that appeared on the dinner plates before the food. He wouldn’t want to carry someone’s trunk, but Harry didn’t argue.

Mr. Malfoy met them at the floo, and all four of them flooed into Platform 9 3/4. They were early, but Draco had insisted they needed to get a compartment in a prime location. Apparently having both Gryffindor and Slytherin friends made the placement critical in a way Harry simply didn’t understand. Harry was so happy that Draco was considering Neville and Hermione a part of the friend group that Harry didn’t care about the rest (even if he thought it silly).

“Be good for Severus,” Narcissa said. “No chasing down trolls.” Narcissa looked amused. Mr. Malfoy didn’t.

“It was hardly my idea,” Draco said, glaring at Harry.

Before Harry could defend himself, An older student hit his trunk, and with the featherlight charms turned all the way to high, the trunk slid away like it was on ice.

“Sorry about that,” the unfamiliar Ravenclaw said without offering to help. Harry ran after his trunk while Draco called that he was going to claim a compartment. Harry was having some sort of bad luck because twice he almost caught his trunk, only for someone else to kick it. Finally, his trunk slid through the arch to the muggle side of the station.

Panic clawed at Harry. If muggles saw his trunk sliding around without wheels, that was bad. Hugely bad. Monumentally bad. Harry raced after it, grabbing the handle just on the other side. A number of people stared at him, and Harry blushed as he realized he had on his wizarding robes.

“School choir,” he said before he quickly slipped them off. Everyone wandered away, except for one old woman with a vulture on her hat, but she didn’t have any room to complain about how he dressed.

“Stupid trunk.” Harry took the strap firmly in hand and turned to head back to the platform. He stepped confidently forward and—


Harry hit he barrier and bounced backward. Harry was knocked off his feet, and a muggle guard yelled, “What in the blazes d’you think you’re doing?”

Harry blushed. “I tripped.”

“Whatever,” the guard said, but he walked away.

“Harry?” It was Neville pushing a trolly with two school trunks.

“Harry!” Hermione shouted before she ran forward and caught him in a huge hug.

“‘Mione! Neville! You two look great.” Hermione did, anyway. Her skin had darkened and had a glow that suggested lots of time on the beach and her dark hair had sun streaks. Neville, however, looked like he had shrunk an inch and he was watching the woman with the vulture on her hat with fear.

“Neville, introduce us,” the old woman said.

“Gran, this is Harry Potter. Harry, this is my grandmother, the Dowager Augusta Longbottom.”

“Let’s get onto the platform,” Mrs. Longbottom said, although she gave Harry an unpleasant look.

“Right.” Neville pushed the trolley with his and Hermione’s trunk at eh barrier and a half second later—

CRASH. The trolley bounced backward and one of the trunks fell off with a loud thump. Neville ended up on the ground where Harry had been sitting just minutes earlier.

“Really, Neville?” Mrs. Longbottom said in a disgusted tone. Neville hunched his shoulders as his grandmother passed him and strode toward the barrier without hesitation.

A second later, she sat on the ground and her vulture hat was upside down several feet away. “I have never—“ she stopped without finishing her thought. After standing, she snatched her hat off the floor and brushed it off. Several other wizarding families had shown up by then, and they had made a small crowd between platforms 9 and 10.

“What’s going on?”

“Does someone not know how the barrier works?”

“We’re going to be late for the train. If you’re not going through, get out of the way.”

The crowd was getting frustrated by the time Narcissa walked over. She looked as regal and calm as ever, but something in her movements was jerkier than usual. When she appeared, most of the crowd fell silent, and the adults crowded forward. When Narcissa reached Harry, she rested a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, ma’am. My trunk slid through, but I couldn’t get back.”

She nodded and then faced the adults who had clustered around her. “The barrier is closed, and no one knows why. Lucius has gone to stop the train from leaving, so no one will be late, but we need to make our way into bathrooms or private corners and call elves to transport the trunks to the other side. My husband and I are offering Dobby and Tilly to help transport children’s trunks, so once you are somewhere safely out of sight, call their name and ask them to transport the trunk to the platform. Then you can apparate with you children or use the nearest floo, which would be The House of Toby London, southeast of here.”

Mrs. Longbottom drew herself up. “I will not have your elves handle my grandson’s belongings, not after what that sister of yours did to our family. Not with what the Malfoys stand for.”

“That is your choice,” Narcissa said calmly. She didn’t look bothered, but Harry was blushing. Mrs. Longbottom was talking about Bellatrix. She was Narcissa’s sister, but she was also Harry’s cousin.

“Gran,” Neville said softly.

“Do not make excuses for that family, Neville.”

Harry stepped forward. “I’m really sorry for what my cousin did. It was horrible, and I don’t think she deserves to live if she’s willing to do that. But Narcissa and I didn’t have anything to do with that, Mrs. Longbottom.”

Her eyes grew large. “The Slytherin Potter, and now you’re claiming kinship with the Malfoys.” She sniffed.

“I don’t think it’s about claiming it. My grandmother was a Black, and I can’t change that anymore than you can ignore that you’re related to the Abbotts and the Selwyns. But I don’t blame you for what Volent Selwyn did in the war.”

“Well said,” someone in the crowd said, and Mrs. Longbottom turned red.

“Do not try to school me on matters of family obligation, young man.”

“No, ma’am,” Harry said.


“I’m sure Professor Snape would agree.” For some reason, that made much of the assembled crowd laugh.

Mrs. Longbottom’s expression turned almost hateful. “And here I thought Rita Skeeter’s article was fiction. I never thought I would see the day that Fleamont’s grandson would argue against muggle protections, but perhaps that day has come.”

“What?” Harry frowned and looked at Neville. Maybe he could translate his grandmother’s ramblings.

“There was a newspaper article where Rita Skeeter quoted you as saying the Muggle Protection Act was a horrible idea,” Neville said softly. Hermione’s mouth fell open, and Harry knew he was seconds away from getting a lecture.

“I said muggles should be protected, but an act that allowed the government to just waltz into anyone’s house and search for anything they wanted without any evidence that something illegal had happened—that is horrible. Hermione is a muggle-born. I bet if you her or her muggle parents what they think of the government having the right to search your home without evidence, she’d say the same thing.”

Hermione closed her mouth so quickly that her teeth clicked. “What? Is that what the law would have allowed?”

“Among other things,” Narcissa said, her voice as dry as Harry had ever heard it.

“That’s terrible. The government shouldn’t be allowed to have that much power. That would never be allowed in muggle government.”

“Be that as it may,” Narcissa said a loud enough to make most of the whispers die down, “we are making a spectacle of ourselves. Everyone needs to scatter and find a way to get the children and their trunks to the platform. Harry, come along.”

“But Hermione…”

“I’m sure the Dowager Longbottom can help her,” Narcissa said without slowing. Because Narcissa had a hand around Harry’s upper arm, he had to trot to keep up with her. “I respect your enthusiasm, but this side of the barrier is not the proper place for a political rally.” Her voice was low and tense.

“I apologize. I shouldn’t have answered back to Mrs. Longbottom.” Harry hated making Narcissa angry.

She stopped and looked down at him. “No, you shouldn’t have. That said, I believe that is the first time anyone has ever gotten the last word with that fossil.” She leaned very close—so close that Harry could feel her breath on his cheek. “I will never admit I said this, but excellent job, cousin.”

Harry was still smiling when Narcissa led them into a service corridor before calling a house elf named Dobby to carry his trunk to the other side. The house elves at the manor didn’t show themselves—just like the elves at Hogwarts didn’t—but when Harry looked into Dobby’s big, shining eyes, he had the feeling that the elf was the saddest creature alive.

Then Narcissa used side-along apparation to transport them to the platform, and Harry was too busy throwing up to care about anything else. Why couldn’t wizards find a sane way to travel? On the good side, Mr. Malfoy had gotten the train to stay and a team of a dozen wizards was investigating the barrier from the wixen side. The school year hadn’t even started and it was already getting strange.

Harry hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.


Chapter Six

When Harry stuck his head in the compartment, Draco shot to his feet. “How could you get stuck in muggle London in the space of a few minutes? Do you take trouble pills? Are you under a curse?”

“I don’t know, no, and maybe,” Harry answered.

Draco snorted at him, and Harry turned to Blaise. “You look great.”

“I had a whole summer to recover from your heroics.”

“Me? I’m not the one who landed in the hospital wing at the end of the semester. You’re confusing me for a Weasley.”

“You’re the one that went running after Granger when there was a troll lose in the castle,” Draco said as he fell back into a seat.

“A troll lose in the dungeon. That’s the message I heard. How about you, Blaise?” teased Harry.

“I heard dungeon,” Blaise agreed. Drago threw a crumbled candy wrapper at him.

“They’re going to be in one of these compartments,” Hermione said.

“This is Slytherin territory. And maybe he doesn’t want to sit with us after what my gran said.” That was Neville and he sounded miserable.

Harry got up and stuck his head into the corridor. So many students had been stuck on the other side, that it was pandemonium. Everyone was stressed and pushing and generally frazzled.

“Hermione! Neville! We’re in here!”

“Harry!” Hermione waved before she started pushing her way through the students who hadn’t yet chosen a compartment—which meant most of the first and second years. Neville followed in her wake.

“Harry, I am so sorry,” Neville was apologizing before he came in the door.

“If I don’t have to apologize for Bellatrix, you don’t have to apologize for your grandmother.” Harry winced. “Wait. No. That makes it sound like what they did is similar, and it definitely isn’t. Let me try this again. None of us have to apologize if we have family members who are less than kind.”

Most of the compartment glanced at Draco, who didn’t seem to notice.

Neville sighed as Blaise helped him get his trunk tucked away. “Still, I should have stood up for you. Gran is just really excited that the Light party has enough votes to actually pass laws, and that article made enough neutrals cast votes that the Act died when it really looked like it would be an easy pass.”

“Good,” Hermione said firmly. “Doesn’t the magical world have some sort of constitution or human rights guarantee?”

“No,” Draco said. At the same time, Blaise said, “Definitely not.”

“That seems like a bad idea. Maybe I should go into politics and suggest one,” Hermione said.

Draco snorted. Oh no. Harry had just escape the Draco-Ron feud and now Draco was trying to start one with Hermione. Worse, Hermione would verbally shred Draco. She was way less laid back than Ron and she knew Draco well enough to poke all his insecurities. Harry did not want to live with an insecure Draco. None of them did. Vincent and Gregory would declare war on Hermione if she made them endure a year of it.

“What does that mean?” Hermione crossed her arms over her chest. That was her war pose.

“There is a very brief window every hundred years or so when any laws are capable of being passed. After Harry asked my father about it, he explained the history of power in the Wizengamot. By the time you’re eligible to take a seat, Dumbledore will be ready to retire or dead, and the laws will be locked in for another century. The odds of any of us being able to make a significant difference is negligible. Oh, maybe Harry can. He can bring his fame to bear on issues, but the rest of us are out of luck.”

“He’s not wrong,” Neville said.

“Politics in the UK is pazza. This is why I plan to live in Italy. Our politics is cut-throat, but we are generally sane. Relatively.” Blaise wrinkled his nose.

“What are all of you talking about?” Hermione asked.

Harry sat. “Didn’t you noticed that the Wizengamot does all the voting on legislation and acts as the jury for major trials and does the trade stuff that a chamber of commerce would do? If they functioned, the group wouldn’t have time for all that.”

Hermione frowned. “So, they’re not functional?”

“Other than as a jury in trials, not really.” Draco picked at the wrapper on a sugar quill. “There are too many voting members, and most don’t want to take a stand or don’t care. Since legislation requires either majority or two-thirds approval of the entire body to become a law, the Wizengamot generally can’t pass new laws. They’re a bit better with commerce because any area where the law has become unclear only requires a majority of the voting body present in the room to enact regulation. Father explained it all.”

“That’s stupid.”

“You might be right about that,” Harry agreed. He noticed that the three who had been raised in the wizarding world didn’t rush to defend wizarding government.

“But what does the headmaster have to do with that?”

“He’s the Chief Warlock,” Draco explained, “but more importantly, lots of people trust him to make good decisions because he’s the leader of the Light party. So instead of voting themselves or leaving their seat to abstain, they’ve signed their proxy over to him. So out of a hundred and sixteen seats, only fifty of which are actually attending in any given Wizengamot, Dumbledore has around twenty votes.”

Hermione puffed up. “That’s not right.”

“That’s why we get things like the Muggle Protection Act, which should have been called the Snooping into Other People’s Business Act,” Draco said. “Dumbledore hates wizarding culture, and every time he sponsors a new bill, more of our culture disappears.”

“Wait. What?” Hermione frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Blaise and Draco exchanged looks before glancing over to Neville, but none of them spoke up.

“For heavens sake,” Harry said. “Fine, I’ll say it. Hermione, you can’t say any of this stuff to anyone, especially not in Gryffindor.”

“I’m not going to promise that.”

“You should,” Neville said softly. “If he’s going to tell you what I think he is, you don’t want people to hear you talking about it.”

Hermione looked around the room, confusion etched on her face.

“Wixen culture used to be a lot different,” Harry said. “There was a belief that magic had to be balanced—light and dark. People studied the stars because they would perform rituals that required the influence of certain planets. Women and men were seen as opposing forces and a good spell required equal numbers, but whether a person was a woman or a man had nothing to do with their bodies. A woman was someone who channeled female energy and identified as female. A man had male energy and identified as male.

“But then wixen tried to fit in with muggle culture. Suddenly witches stayed home. Even today, our female teachers are unmarried, but the potions teacher before Professor Snape had his wife in the castle, and about half the defense teachers have brought spouses. But married women mostly raise children. Wixen don’t even have primary schools because so many mothers are home to teach them. And we’re not even going to talk about gay wixen. There are rumors that Dumbledore is gay, but gay people can’t be open. Not without being shunned. So people in the Light party will act like you’ve insulted seven generations of Dumbledore’s family if you bring up those rumors.”

“But that’s not like muggle culture at all. Gay people can get married. Most women work outside the home, and men can be stay-at-home fathers as easily as mothers can. Well, maybe not as easily,” she admitted, ‘but it’s not weird or anything.”

“Yes,” Harry admitted, “but wixen live a lot longer and change a lot slower. The culture you see now is trailing the muggle world by decades or maybe even a century, but it’s still more muggle than wixen. Haven’t you noticed that married women don’t have jobs, and the women who do work, like Susan’s aunt or Tonks, dress super masculine? They have to prove themselves because there’s an assumption that those jobs should be held by males because that’s what muggle culture was a hundred years ago.

“And people who advocate for old religions, old rituals or the use certain techniques like gender balancing spells are called Dark.” That was the truth no one had been willing to tell Harry last year, but Mr. Malfoy would always leave books sitting out in Harry’s favorite chair, and over the summer, he’d found his answers. Mr. Malfoy might be manipulative, but Harry could count on him to have access to the good books.

“What?” Hermione practically yelped, and the rest of them flinched. “Dark is You-Know-Who. It’s evil. He’s the Dark Lord.”

“He was Dark because he believed in rituals and old magic and customs,” Draco said, his voice clipped. He definitely would have signed up to follow the Dark Lord if he was still around, and that was really sad because Voldemort wasn’t just a Dark Lord, he was an evil one.

“He’s evil because he thought he had a right to kill people to get his way,” Harry said. “I guess people started associating Dark and evil because so much of Dark culture is illegal, and once you cross the line to do illegal stuff, you don’t care about breaking the rules as much.”

“Not necessarily true,” Blaise said. “Dark magic is much more powerful, and that level of power can be addictive. Young people need to be taught how to handle Dark magics and recognize the signs of over-exposure or they can become too enamored of the magic and make disastrous choices. They say the Black madness is really an inability to handle Dark magic and that if recent generations had been taught better techniques to control the power and recognize the signs of exposure, the family wouldn’t have fallen apart. I’m Italian, and we haven’t banned magic the way the UK wizards have, so I can say that. But if the rest of you suggest that Dark magic can be safely performed, you’re already breaking the law.”

“Wait, it’s illegal to even say that?” Hermione looked around the cabin.

“British…” Blaise shrugged as if they were all too crazy to deal with. Then he added, “The Dark Lord actually started by trying to add classes back to the Hogwart’s curriculum to teach Dark Arts and Ritual. I imagine the warning signs would have been included in the curriculum, but I might be wrong. After all, he had a touch of Dark madness himself. Or more than a touch. He was walking example of pure evil by the end.”

“Worse,” Draco said, “some families have more of an affinity for Dark magic, just like some family lines have a talent for transfiguration or charms.” Draco looked at Harry. “The Blacks have always been revered for their ritual work.” Harry knew what he was implying. Harry was just as likely to be a dark wizard as Draco, although neither of them could know for sure without casting one of the old spells. Just then the door slid open and Gregory and Vincent tumbled into the room.

“I thought for sure we would miss the train. They still haven’t gotten the barrier open,” Vincent said breathlessly.

Gregory looked around the room before closing the compartment door. “What happened?” He asked, alarm in his voice.

Hermione threw her hands in the air. “Oh, I don’t know. The government is non-functional, I’ll never get a chance to fix it because wixen accept decades-long periods of impotence, the Dark Lord had a point, even if he was murderous and insane in how he tried to pursue it, and the entire culture is sexist and homophobic, apparently because wixen were so busy trying to fit in with muggles that they copied the absolute worst parts of muggle culture.”

Gregory and Vincent both stared at Hermione with huge eyes.

“Did I miss anything?” she demanded.

“Ablist,” Harry said. “Stairs with no accommodations.”

“Professor Dumbledore has so much power because people have signed proxies over to him, and he champions laws like the Muggle Protection Act,” Neville added.

Gregory and Vincent both looked like they were ready to run for the hills.

Hermione threw herself back into her seat with a harumph.

“Who told her?” Gregory asked.

Harry raised his hand. For a long time, Gregory and Vincent both stared at him like he was crazy. Then Vincent sighed. “At least they’re less likely to expel the Boy-Who-Lived for corrupting the muggle-borns.”

“Wait, they do that?” Harry asked.

“They used to,” Draco said. “That’s why a lot of people who are frustrated with the current system avoid muggle-borns.”

“That’s horrible,” Hermione said.

“What? The avoiding or the expelling?” Vincent asked.

Hermione threw her hands up again. “Both!”

“Hermione,” Neville said, “people have been associating Dark and evil for so long that if you say anything sympathetic to the Dark, people will see you as evil.” Neville sat up a little straighter and stared at Draco. “And plenty of people who say they only want the right to pursue Dark arts are willing to turn to evil to get what they want. Killing and torturing people makes you wrong, no matter what political arguments you have. Some people deserve to be in Azkaban or dead.” The fierceness in his voice made it clear that the hat had known what it was doing when it put Neville into Gryffindor.

“We all know that,” Harry agreed. “The Dark Lord was psychotic. He slaughtered people, and his cause is worse off now than before he started his stupid war. Whole families are gone, our families are gone, and what did he accomplish?”

“Pain and suffering,” Neville said softly. Harry’s heart ached for his friend.

“This is a dangerous conversation, even if everyone is distracted with the barrier,” Vincent said. “Can we talk about something else, like homework?”

Everyone except Hermione groaned. “Shove over,” she said before moving next to Vincent. “Which essay did you want to go over?”

“Potions. Definitely potions.”

By the time Millicent joined them, Vincent, Gregory and Hermione were deep into a potions text. Meanwhile Blaise, Neville, Harry, and Draco played exploding snap. Millicent took one look at her options and shoved Draco over to join the card game.

The train finally got moving, over an hour behind schedule, and the dirty buildings of London gave way to suburbs and neatly manicured lawns and then carefully tended farms.

Parkinson opened the compartment door, but she took one look at Hermione and huffed off, and none of them tried to stop her. She was another one that Harry thought had been mis-sorted.

A real Slytherin should have respected how much talent Hermione brought to the group, even if they only cynically used her. Even Draco and his jealousy over Hermione beating him for top grades didn’t stop him from asking her for assistance with research. However, Parkinson had mentally labeled Hermione a ‘mudblood’ and dismissed everything else as irrelevant. Harry could see it in her expression every time she looked at Hermione.

As much as Harry loved his house and thought most of the kids in it—like Draco—just needed to be encouraged to develop a little empathy, there were a few that embraced prejudice like a fashion statement. Students like that—like Parkinson—gave the whole house a bad name.

And the worst part was that she tried so hard to suck up to him while refused to do the one thing he expected from his friends—respecting others. Some Slytherins had more ambition than common sense.



Chapter Seven


The fields had long since given way to rolling hills and wild forests when a pair of red-haired boys opened the compartment door.

“Weasleys,” Draco said with a sneer as the twins appeared in the opening.

“Ah, the little Malfoy prince,” one twin said.

“Forgive us for disturbing your majesty.”

“Yes, forgive us, your majesty.” They bounced the sarcasm between them as Draco’s ears turned red. Harry had the feeling that wands (or at least Draco’s wand) was about to make an appearance. He was a little quick to hex when he was annoyed or insecure or tired or making a point or showing off or bored or just about any time. He definitely hadn’t been disciplined enough as a kid, which was probably why he sometimes acted like Dudley.

“The compartment is full,” Harry said before the insults could get worse.

“We don’t want to interrupt the baby second-years,” one twin said. The other finished with, “but we were hoping to have a private word with Harry.”

“Buzz off,” Draco said.

“We will make like bees…”

“After we speak to Harry.”

Harry wondered how they managed to finish each other’s thoughts like that. Maybe their magic allowed them to hear each other’s thoughts or something. The other option was that they practiced every conversation ahead of time, and from what Harry had seen around school, they didn’t seem like the sort to waste that kind of time when they could be planning pranks.

“If you’re just going to prank me…” Harry let his voice trail off.


“Absolutely not.”

“No pranks.”

The twins exchanged a look. “For at least the next thirty minutes,” one finished. Harry looked at Neville and Hermione. They knew the twins best, but neither seemed too concerned.

Harry abandoned his cards. “Okay, fine. Why not?”

Hermione looked up, her eyes narrow. “If you’re going to help your prat of a brother corner Harry and lecture him… again… I am going to practice my hexes on you,” she warned.

They chuckled, but Harry had seen how vicious Hermione could be. He wouldn’t aggravate her. “Trust us,” one twin said, “we are not likely to help Ron.”

“He is a bit of a prat, and since we’ve had to live with him for twelve years, we know that.”

“Says the two boys who boo Slytherins during sorting,” Harry shot back. The twins looked at each other before grimacing.

“The joke has gotten a bit out of hand,” one admitted. Harry crossed his arms over his chest.

“A lot out of hand,” the other added after seeing Harry’s expression. “We admit that, and we are not here to cause trouble. In fact, we are hoping to help you avoid trouble.”

“Fine.” Harry pushed past them into the corridor and called to the others, “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“He’s safe as houses,” a twin added. The other twin headed down the corridor and ducked into a compartment between Slytherin and Ravenclaw territory. Harry followed. He didn’t worry until the second twin closed the compartment door and cast privacy charms, muffling the sounds of students in the adjacent compartments. Then Harry slipped a hand into his sleeves where he had his wand. He didn’t want to be a victim of one of the twin’s pranks, and he’d fight back if he had to.

He’d lose because there were two of them and they were older, but he’d fight.

“So, Harry Potter, the great unifier of Hogwarts.”

“The what?” asked Harry.

“You have friends in both Slytherin and Gryffindor,” said one. “Not many can say that,” finished the other.

“Not many want to say that,” countered the first. “True, brother. Very true.”

Harry was getting a headache. He wondered how these two had survived potions because as cranky as Professor Snape got with just normal kid attitudes, these two had to make him homicidal. Harry respected that Professor Snape knew how to reach his goals and he was a great ally, but he lacked patience or any ability to teach.

“So, Harry Potter. The Boy Who Lived to be Slytherin.”

If this was going to be another lecture about how Harry wasn’t really a Slytherin, Harry was going to help Hermione hex them. “What do you want?”

“Now that sounds like a baby snake in training.”

“He is in Slytherin, so…”

“You’re one to talk. You should be in Slytherin.”

“I thought it was you that the hat tried to put in the snake’s den.”

The first twin made a big production out of thinking. “Was it? I can’t remember.”

The other mimicked his expression. “Huh, me either.”

Harry looked from one to the other wondering if they were insane. Both smiled at him.

One twin sighed and looked greatly annoyed that his superior humor was lost on Harry. “It’s not so much what we want Harrykins.”

“We can call you Harrykins, can’t we?” the other jumped in, “after all, we’re almost family.”

“Are we related?” Harry asked. The family trees of wixen intertwined a lot, but he didn’t think he had any cousins closer than Narcissa.

One twin shrugged. “Some people want us to be.”

The other twin leaned closer. “Some of us have mothers that insist we should offer our protection—our friendship—our proper guidance…”

“…to a young snake who makes inappropriate friends.”

Harry frowned. “Who is inappropriate?” Harry knew lots of Gryffindor kids hated all things Slytherin, but he’d thought adults would be smart enough to avoid making those kinds of judgments.

“In terms of inappropriateness, I think we rank rather high, Forge.” He leaned toward his twin.

His twin rolled his eyes. “You’re Forge.”

“So I am. Anyway, back to our point, a certain maternal unit has tasked us with being friends because our little brother has lost your favor.”

“He’s not handling that well,” the other twin added.

Harry jumped on the word that concerned him. “Tasked you?” Tasks implied someone had an agenda—they wanted to accomplish something and they had steps to reach that goal. But if Harry was a “task,” then he had to wonder what Mrs. Weasley wanted. What was her end goal?

The twins had on matching expressions of utter disinterest, but something in their face made it clear that they felt the exact opposite. Maybe Gryffindors were not as a brash and incapable of plotting as Draco always said. “Well, we can’t have snakes being your best friends. You clearly need a new bestest friend.”

“Or two. I do believe she planned for two.” He wiggled his finger between his twin and himself.

“Why would your mother care who I’m friends with?”

“Now that is a question, little Harrykins.”

“A question for the ages. I mean, I don’t think our dear mother could name three of our friends, so it is puzzling why she is so intimately familiar with your social circle. Blaise Zabini, Millicent Bulstrode, Draco Malfoy.”

“She approves of Hermione. She quite approves of her.”

“And I don’t think she knew about Neville Longbottom, but she would definitely approve of him. I’m glad to see he has friends outside the house.”

The twin grimaced before saying, “Gryffindor has been unkind to him.”

“We should do something about that.” The twins looked at each other, and a chill went down Harry’s spine. It sounded like the twins were on Neville’s side, which was good, but they were a little frightening.

“I would appreciate it if you could help Neville out,” Harry said slowly, “but I think I’m okay with the friends I have.”

“We assumed so, since you’re friends with them and all.” The boy studied him for a second, before adding, “I assume you also know Draco’s daddy is using you for your political clout.”

Harry shrugged. Lucius had never been particularly subtle about it.

“Right, then we figure you can handle your own social calendar, but like we said…”

“… mother dearest is worried. That article Rita Skeeter wrote makes her think that certain people are taking advantage of you, and she might have said a few loud things to the headmaster.”

“Unkind things.”

“Things she would never allow us to say in the house.” Both twins grimaced at that before the same twin added, “She thinks that certain people need to be protecting your interests. Certain bearded, older people. She told him loudly and multiple times that there are entirely too many Slytherins around you.”

“I am Slytherin,” Harry said with frustration. Now he knew where Ron had gotten his annoyingness.

“A fact she dearly likes to ignore.”

The other twin made a face. “Can you imagine if you had been sorted Slytherin?”

“Or you. It might have been you under the hat when it argued that you were best served in the house of snakes.”

That twin shrugged. “But whichever one of us it was, they were brave enough to argue that our ambitions were best served being together in the house of lions.”

His brother’s grin grew predatory. “No one expects a lion to sneak about.”

“And yet they stalk their prey.”

“Well, the lionesses do, Forge. The lions roar at danger and charge right in.”

The one that was now claiming to be Gred, which Harry was almost certain had changed since they had started this conversation, leaned closer. “But we try to embrace the energy of the lioness. Much more snakelike.”

Harry definitely saw why the hat had wanted at least one of these boys in Slytherin. He could imagine one of the twins debating with Flint in the common room. He could imagine it easily. What he couldn’t imagine was their motivation for warning Harry that Ron’s mother wanted to arrange play dates for him the way Petunia had for Dudley. And why did they warn him that the headmaster and their mother had been fighting about him. It was weird. “Why would you tell me any of this? If your mother wants you to manipulate me into being your friend, then telling me all this doesn’t feel very smart.”

“Ah, but you are not the prey we’re stalking. We don’t care if you see us coming.”

“We’d prefer it.”

“Stalking a second-year feels distinctly slimy.” The twin speaking gave a full-body shiver.

“Not like a snake…” “…snakes aren’t slimy.”

Harry looked back and forth between the twins.

“More like a snail leaving a slime train over the leaves.” The twin made a hand gesture that could have been a snail crawling over leaves or a wave. It looked more like a wave.

“I would rather not be a snail…” “…very disagreeable brother.”

“However,” the twin’s voice grew more serious, “as much as we’re ambitious snakes in the house of lions, you’re a snake with all a lion’s loyalty to its pride. That makes us something like each other. If you need something, let us know.”

His brother nodded. “And if you want us to just hang around, it would keep our dear mother or anyone else from pulling any strings.” Strings. Harry’s stomach soured. Had Dumbledore found out that he didn’t have access to the Potter vaults anymore? Did he asked Molly Weasley to get someone close to him? That felt too manipulative for a headmaster who embraced all things Gryffindor, but the timing made Harry suspicious. And the twins had said that their mother was fighting with the headmaster. Nothing made sense.

“And any potential friendship would annoy Ron.” The twins exchanged knowing looks before matching grins broke out.

“That’s just a bonus.”

“Yes, it truly is. Someone needs to learn that wanting something does not mean having it.”

“So, if you need anything, Harrykins, let us know.” They headed out of the compartment, leaving Harry wondering what was going on with the adults around him. The headmaster was letting people misuse his property and using the Potter vault like a lending library, although Harry had put an end to that by changing the key. Someone had sabotaged his trunk, and Professor Snape himself had come to the house to make sure Harry had access to his materials. The professor was not known for spending his personal time on making students’ lives better. And now Ron’s mother wanted to get him Weasley friends.

As the second year started, Harry had the idea it was going to be more eventful than year one.


Chapter Eight

Sitting at the Slytherin table, Harry caught up with those acquaintances he hadn’t kept up with over summer. Parkinson tried asking about his vacation, but Harry focused more on Flint who was giving Harry and Draco very strict rules about what he expected if they made the Slytherin team.

Draco would make the team no matter what because of his father’s donation, but the more Flint talked, the more nervous Harry got. Flint definitely channeled Professor Snape in the intensity department. Harry was saved from part five of a lecture on the importance of quidditch when the main doors opened and Professor McGonagall led in the first years. They trailed after her, a long line of scared-looking witches and wizards in pointed hats. A few of the older students had put on their uniform hats, maybe in solidarity with the newcomers, but Harry had noticed that everyone forgot that bit of the official uniform as quickly as possible.

Wizarding fashion was about as stuck in the past as wizarding politics, but at least younger people knew the fashion sucked.

At the staff table, Professor Snape sat next to a man with curled blond hair and a wide smile and aquamarine robes. So this was their new defense teacher—Lockhart. He and Draco had already read the books, and Blaise had taken time to create an itemized list of reasons why it was impossible for him to have done what he claimed. On the good side, Harry was almost sure this defense teacher wasn’t trying to steal from the school. He was too famous to risk his reputation.

Harry had asked his friends, and no one had any idea where Quirrell had gone. Draco said that when he’d asked Professor Snape, the man had become so furious that Draco had regretted his life choices. Harry understood that. When Professor Snape was in a bad mood, avoiding him was the best strategy. While Harry trusted the man, he didn’t have any illusions about how miserable the professor could make him if he chose to.

Professor McGonagall carried the Sorting Hat out to its stool in front of the newcomers. The aged, patched, frayed and dirty hat opened its brim mouth and started to sing about the four houses. Harry tuned it out and studied Professor Dumbledore. The headmaster sat watching the ceremony, his long, silver beard and half-moon glasses shining brightly in the candlelight. Hagrid was at the end of the table, drinking deeply from his goblet.

Harry didn’t pay attention to many of the students called forward. Elias Harper, Bertram Urquhart, and Zachary Vaisey sorted Slytherin on the boys’ side while Emily Baddock, Cassandra Rosier, Alexandra Bole, and Wilma Pucey joined on the girls’ side. It was a fairly small year for Slytherin, and as the hat called out the names of the other three houses, Harry wondered how many of those students would have chosen his house if they hadn’t been frightened away by prejudice. Having ambitions and wanting to change the world wasn’t bad.

There was another Weasley, the girl went to Gryffindor in record time. She took her place to the sound of thunderous applause. The small blonde Harry had knocked over on the street was there—Luna Lovegood. The hat took so long that she was almost a hat stall, but then she went to Ravenclaw, a smattering of applause following her. Last year Harry had been too nervous to notice, but sorting was a sort of popularity contest with applause marking winners and losers. At least the twins had stopped booing the Slytherins, that was a small improvement.

As far as Harry was concerned, sorting was one more reason to hate the whole system. They invited scared eleven-year-old muggle-borns to Hogwarts and then, day one, showed them how much more popular and accepted everyone else was. At least Gryffindor clapped wildly for every student sorted to them, even when the name was so muggle that the student was clearly either muggle-born or half-blood.

Slytherin and Ravenclaw were not as kind. Within seconds of the hat announcing a house, Harry could tell which students had longstanding friendships with other wixen and which were new to this world. It was cruel. Hufflepuff was kind, but not as loud. For anyone. But at least their new members were quickly swept up into conversations at their table.

Dumbledore gave a welcoming speech that sounded exactly like the previous year’s, including introducing a new defense teacher. Professor Lockhart waved to each table and smiled broadly. Harry was embarrassed for him, and turned away, only to find the youngest Weasley staring at him, her chin in her hand.

Harry quickly turned his back. When the food arrived, he focused on that, and not all the reasons he had to be uncomfortable with how the year had started.

The first week seemed to prove Harry’s fears true. Potions was normal. Professor Snape threatened everyone, took points from Gryffindor and largely ignored Harry and Blaise as they worked on their potion. Neville still excelled in Herbology where they moved to Greenhouse 3 and the more dangerous flora, and Harry regretted that Slytherin and Gryffindor didn’t share the class. Slytherin had Ravenclaw and no one in their class had Neville’s skill, so Harry had to settle for getting Neville’s tutoring after class.

Hermione had done twice the required length on her homework in both Charms and Transfiguration. And she could transform her beetle into a button on her first try. Harry only managed to give it a shiny metal shell as it ran around on his desk. However, Defense Against the Dark Arts was shaping up to be just as much of a nightmare as the previous year, although with less garlic smell, which was good for Harry’s headaches.

Professor Lockhart cornered him after lunch Wednesday. “Harry! I’ve been wanting a word.”

Completely nonplussed, Harry said nothing.

“Professor, we should get to class,” Blaise said.

“Nonsense. Since your next class is mine, I know you can’t be late. But I had to talk to Harry.” Lockhart draped his arm over Harry’s shoulders. “I understand. It’s natural to want a bit of attention, a taste of the adoration the public can endow on their favorites. Who would understand that better than I?”

“Huh?” It wasn’t the more articulate answer, but Harry couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.

“The articles about the Muggle Protection Act. Working with Rita Skeeter—that is playing with fire, my boy.” Lockhart laughed. “I know what you’re thinking. Any publicity is good publicity. When I was twelve and even more of a nobody than you, I would have thought the same. But take it from someone who has won Witch Weekly’s Most-Charming-Smile Award five times in a row,” he smiled wider, “not all publicity is created equal.”

Draco puffed up. “I’m sure my father can advise Harry on such matters.”

Lockhart’s smile grew wider. “Yes, yes. Lucius Malfoy is a powerful force. Very powerful. But Harry has the capacity to outshine him the way the sun outshines the moon, but not if he wastes his influence on politics. Politics, Harry, is where shining reputations are tarnished. Where the light of fame is dimmed by discord. You should avoid it at all costs. Look at me. I haven’t had a political thought in decades.”

Blaise snorted.

“Um, I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Harry said.

“You do that.” He swept away in a swirl of lavender robes. Swooping looked way more dramatic when Professor Snape did it.

Hermione and Neville wandered over from the Gryffindor table. “What was that?” Hermione asked.

“Lockhart being a prat,” Draco said.

“Professor Lockhart,” Hermione corrected him. “He’s a very brave man. He faced off against a werewolf.”

“Doubt it,” Blaise said.

Hermione sniffed. “You’re just jealous. Personally, I’m excited to learn from someone with so much experience fighting dark creatures.”

“Don’t believe everything you’ve read,” Blaise countered. “I showed you my list. There’s no way he’s telling the truth. The timeline doesn’t line up.”

“There are time turners, you know,” Hermione said sharply. “He might have used one during his adventure, or maybe he’s changing the details to protect someone’s identity. Face it, the Ministry personnel are fairly useless in his books, so maybe he changes the time of when he faced the creatures so the Ministry employees aren’t called out for their incompetence. Or.. I don’t know. There are lots of reasons why his books might not be one hundred percent factual.” Hermione pressed her lips together into an angry line.

“Can we get to class?” Harry asked. He knew Hermione wouldn’t change her mind any more than Parkinson or Greengrass had. It seemed like a fair number of girls and several boys had gone silly over Lockhart. The rest were suspicious before the first class even started. Millicent had looked at Blaise’s list of inconsistencies and declared the man a fraud. “Where is Millicent?” he asked.

“She’ll catch up,” Draco said. “You shouldn’t ask about her unless you want people to think you’re courting her.”

“Sexist much?” Hermione muttered. Ever since Harry had pointed out all the ways the Wizarding world looked like the muggle world of the 1950s, she’d been on a campaign to call out all the sexism she found. Draco wisely ignored the taunt. Harry had made it clear that if Draco resurrected the Draco-Ron feud of 1991 with a new victim that Harry would die his hair Gryffindor red and practice hexes on him. After a bit of dramatic flailing, Draco had agreed.

Usually the Slytherins settled in the front of any classroom, eager to impress the teacher and earn top scores, but not this year. Dragging Neville with him, Harry slunk to the very back of the class, where he busied himself with piling all seven of Lockhart’s books in front of him so that he could avoid looking at the real thing. Neville sat next to him and when Millicent came in, she look the third seat at their table.

Draco, Blaise, Vincent and Gregory sat closer to the windows in the last row, but Hermione was right up front with Lavender Brown, Parvati Patil, and Kellah Igwe. Lockhart’s fame meant many students pressed to get close to the front, even some Slytherins who could appreciate Lockhart’s power and influence, even if they didn’t believe his books. Because he came in almost late, Ron and his two friends ended up right in front of Harry near the back.

When the whole class was seated, Lockhart cleared his throat loudly and silence fell. He reached forward, picked up Parkinson’s copy of Travels with Trolls, and held it up to show his own winking portrait on the front.

“Me,” he said, pointing at it and winking as well. “Gilderoy Lockhart, Order of Merlin, third class, Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defense League, and five-time winner of Witch Weekly’s Most-Charming-Smile Award—but I don’t talk about that. I didn’t get rid of the Brandon Banshee by smiling at her!”

He waited for them to laugh; a few people smiled weakly.

“I see you’ve all bought a complete set of my books—well done. I thought we’d start today with a little quiz. Nothing to worry about—just to check how well you’ve read them, how much you’ve taken in—“

When he had handed out the test papers he returned to the front of the class and said, “You have thirty minutes—start—now!”

Harry looked down at his paper and read:

What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s favorite color?

Harry exchanged concerned looks with Neville and Millicent before looking over toward the next table. Draco looked scandalized, but Blaise had a devilish smile as he wrote as fast as he could. That was trouble.

Harry remembered many things from the books. It had become a game of sorts in Slytherin. Lockhart said he used wolfsbane tipped arrows to frighten the werewolf away, so they had looked up how long wolfsbane was effective when painted on a metal surface and the effects of introducing it through the bloodstream. Lockhart claimed to have used mackled malaclaw tail to subdue a hag, so they had looked up effects of it and worked out the impossibility of that working unless he had created a potion using at least six different ingredients to enhance the properties. Indirectly, Lockhart was turning out to be a rather effective teacher because most of Slytherin had invested serious research time proving he was a fraud. They would never say it, not to someone with as much fame and popularity as Lockhart, but the house had a nice stack of evidence suggesting the man was a first-class liar.

And if twelve-year-olds could figure that out, Harry had no idea why the Witch Weekly editors and all those adults who read his books couldn’t. Harry was putting this down as one more example of witches and wizards needing to have a class in logic. Either that or the adults, like the Slytherin kids, were keeping silent until they could use the information. Illogical or manipulative, those were the two options for the wizarding world.

That said, Harry didn’t remember Lockhart’s favorite color. He didn’t even care about it.

Half an hour later, Lockhart collected the papers and rifled through them in front of the class.

“Tut, tut—hardly any of you remembered that my favorite color is lilac. I say so in Year with the Yeti. And a few of you need to read Wanderings with Werewolves more carefully—I clearly state in chapter twelve that my ideal birthday gift would be harmony between all magic and non-magic peoples—though I wouldn’t say no to a large bottle of Ogden’s Old Firewhiskey!”

He gave them another roguish wink. Half the class was now staring at Lockhart with disbelief and horror. Ron leaned closer to Finnigan. “Is he serious?” he asked in a loud whisper. Finnigan and Thomas were shaking with silent laughter.

“…but Miss Hermione Granger,” Lockhart continued, and she gave a start at her name, “knew my secret ambition is to rid the world of evil and market my own range of hair-care potions—good girl! In fact,” — he flipped her paper over—“full marks! Where is Miss Hermione Granger?”

Hermione raised a trembling hand.

“Excellent!” beamed Lockhart. “Quite excellent! Take ten points for Gryffindor! And so—to business—” He bent down behind his desk and lifted a large, covered cage onto it.

“Now—be warned! It is my job to arm you against the foulest creatures known to wizardkind! You may find yourselves facing your worst fears in this room. Know only that no harm can befall you whilst I am here. All I ask is that you remain calm.”

In spite of himself, Harry leaned around his pile of books for a better look at the cage. Lockhart placed a hand on the cover. Finnegan and Thomas stopped laughing, and Neville was sinking lower in his chair.

“I must ask you not to scream,” said Lockhart in a low voice. “It might provoke them.”

As the whole class held its breath, Lockhart whipped off the cover.

“Yes,” he said dramatically, “Freshly caught Cornish pixies.”

Finnigan let out a snort of laughter that even Lockhart couldn’t mistake for a scream of terror.

“Yes?” he smiled at Finnigan.

“Well, they’re not—they’re not very—dangerous, are they?” Finnigan pointed out.

“Don’t be so sure!” said Lockhart, waggling a finger at him. “Devilish trickle little blighters they can be!”

The pixies were electric blue and about eight inches high, with pointed faces and voices so shrill it was like listening to a lot of budgies arguing. The moment the cover had been removed, they had started jabbering and rocketing around, rattling the bars and making bizarre faces at the people nearest them.

“Right then,” Lockhart said loudly, “Let’s see what you make of them!” And he opened the cage.

It was pandemonium. Pixies shot in every direction like rockets. Two of them seized Parkinson by the ears and lifted her into the air. Harry was grateful they had chosen the annoying girl and not Hermione, who was also in the front row. Several pixies shot straight through he window, showering the back row with broken glass, and Harry had to jump out of the way. The rest proceeded to wreck the classroom more effectively than a rampaging rhino. They grabbed ink bottles and sprayed the class with them, shredded books and papers, tore pictures from the walls, upended the wastebasket, grabbed bags and books and threw them out the smashed window; within minutes, half the class was sheltering under desks.

Neville stayed true to his Gryffindor roots and swung his wand like a sword, knocking pixies out of the air when they came too close. Ron fired off spell after spell, at least half of which resulted in noxious-smelling clouds of smoke, but he knocked a significant number of the pixies to the ground. Most of the Slytherins were too busy laughing to launch a defense.

“Come on now—round them up, round them up, they’re only pixies,” Lockhart shouted. He rolled up his sleeves, brandished his wand and bellowed, “Peskipiksi Pesternomi!”

It had absolutely no effect; one of the pixies seized his wand and threw it out the window, too. Lockhart dived under his own desk. The bell rang and there was a mad dash toward the exit. Since they were near the back, Harry, Neville, and Millicent made it out first, followed closely behind by Ron and his group and then Draco with the rest of their Slytherin friend group.

“That was awesome. I am definitely writing my mother about this one. She won’t believe me, but I shall enjoy writing it all down,” Blaise said with unvarnished glee. The Gryffindors headed down the stairs laughing and gossiping before the girls finally escaped the scene of the crime.

“Well, I never,” Hermione said as she marched right up to them, her hair a tangled mess. “He asked us to put the pixies back in their cages. That is not a man who faced off against a werewolf.”

“Nope,” Millicent said, and even though she didn’t utter another world, Harry could practically hear the I-told-you-so in the tone. Luckily Hermione didn’t take offense and all of them hurried down the stairs, eager to get away before Lockhart did something even stupidier.


Chapter Nine

Professor Lockhart had decided that Harry needed coaching in how to handle his fame. He’d spotted first-year Colin Creevey trying to get a photograph and had jumped in, assuming that Harry was not only selling photographs but also autographs. He’d given Harry advice about carrying pocket-sized pictures to hand out to fans, and then immediately advised Harry to not carry them until he was older because hie fellow students might think him arrogant.

So not only was the professor annoying, but he gave contradictory advice. Harry had tried talking to Professor Snape about how to handle it, but he had suggested Harry avoid that man. That was easier said than done.

Harry spent a lot of time dodging out of sight and using the hidden parselmouth corridors. By the time the weekend came, Harry wanted to lay in bed and pretend he was back at Malfoy Manor, although the sheets weren’t soft enough, or even the Durleys’, although there was a lack of yelling about breakfast. Still, he was looking forward to sleeping and avoiding all human contact.

But then Marcus Flint pulled back his sheets. “Quidditch tryouts. Get up. Up. There is no lazing in bed when quidditch is on the line!”

Harry squeaked and sat up, not prepared to deal with Flint this early in the morning. The lake was still dark and the tiny bit of sunlight that was reaching it only served to highlight the shadows.

“It’s too early,” Harry complained.

Draco burst into the room, already wearing his Quidditch padding, although he wasn’t wearing the Slytherin uniform since technically they hadn’t made the team yet. Draco had to go through the motions and let Flint officially announce his appointment and Harry had to actually try out for seeker. “Come on. Hurry up. The sun has been up for ages,” he whined. “Professor Snape wrote a note for us to get in some extra practice because we have new players and new brooms, but we need to get down to the field now.”

“If you’re not serious about the game, I don’t want you on the team,” Flint said in a tone that was clearly meant to be a threat. Harry would prefer not making the team, but Draco’s hopeful expression inspired too much guilt for him to say that.

“I’m up. I’m up. Give me three minutes and I’ll be ready to go.”

Draco’s smile lit the room and Flint’s scowl faded a tiny bit. “You’d better be.” He left, herding Draco out in front of him, and slamming the door behind. Harry pulled off his sleep shirt and pulled on a casual shirt before getting out of bed.

“This had better not be a regular thing, Potter,” Nott said.

“I might not make the team, then he won’t have any reason to be in here,” Harry said hopefully.

Nott snorted. “I’ve seen you fly. You’re making the team, so set your wand to wake you up. You don’t want to see how cranky I can get when I’m woken up early on the weekend.”

“Sure thing,” Harry agreed. Since school had started again, Nott had been crankier than usual, and Harry didn’t want to make his dorm mate annoyed. Well, more annoyed. After using the bathroom, Harry sped through dressing and made it to the common room just as the Flint was heading for the stairs.

“The big one is loud and aggressive this morning, speaker,” one of the snakes advised him.

“Thank you for telling me,” Harry answered. “He hopes to impress potential mates and rivals with his physical prowess, and he is frustrated that I am moving so slowly that his ability to practice these skills will be limited.” Once again, Harry was surprised by the translation that came out of his mouth when he spoke parseltongue. Then again, snakes wouldn’t have a word for quidditch, and the sport was a way to impress girls and rivals. It made sense in a snake-sort of way.

“Do not interfere with others’ attempts to impress mates. It is foolish,” the largest snake said as he coiled tighter.

“Whoa,” a first-year whispered, his eyes wide.

Flint pointed a finger in the boy’s direction. “Slytherin secrets stay in Slytherin. You breathe one word of his parselmouth to a friend, a family member… anyone, and both Professor Snape and I will make your time at school a living hell. Understood?” he asked.

The boy’s eyes grew larger and he nodded.

Flint sighed. “If you’re done talking to the furniture, maybe we can get to the field, Potter.”

“Absolutely,” Harry agreed. He and Draco were not the only second-years trying out. Gregory and Vincent were both there, as were Millicent and several third years that Harry didn’t know well, in addition to the Slytherin team members in their official uniforms. they all trooped out toward the pitch with their brooms over their shoulders. Harry and Draco had Nimbus 2001s to match the team, but the other second and third-years had a wide range of brooms and a couple didn’t have any at all. Harry wondered if they would have to try out on school brooms or if the team members would share the brooms Mr. Malfoy had bought.

The team was in the air, and Flint was finishing the tryout for beaters when the Gryffindor locker room opened and the team spilled out, dressed in red and clearly ready to play.

“Flint!” Wood bellowed. “This is our practice time! We got up specially! You can clear off now!”

Marcus Flint was larger than Wood and Harry had never seen him back down to anyone. He had a look of trollish cunning on his face as he replied, “Plenty of room for all of us, Wood.” Harry didn’t believe for a minute that Flint was offering to share out of the goodness of his heart. Wood and Flint were famous for their quidditch rivalry, and Harry suspected that Flint wanted a preview of what the Gryffindor team had to offer this year. If Gryffindor had found a good seeker, Flint would want advance warning.

Draco had explained that the twins were great beaters and Angela Johnson was probably the best flyer at Hogwarts up until Harry, but without a competent seeker, Gryffindor had no hope of ever winning the cup. That had just made Harry more nervous about trying out for Slytherin seeker against Higgs.

“But I booked the field!” said Wood, positively spitting with rage. “I booked it! And we were here first. We’ve been in the locker room going over plays.”

“Ah,” said Flint. “But I’ve got a specially signed note here from Professor Snape. ‘I, Professor S Snape, give the Slytherin team permission to practice today on the Quidditch field owing to the need to train on their new brooms.’”

“New brooms?” Wood looked around, apparently noticing the large number of Nimbus 2001s on the field.

“Isn’t this a generous gift Mr. Malfoy has made to the Slytherin team?” He held out his broomstick with its polished handle and gold lettering. It gleamed in the early morning sun. “Very latest model. Only came out last month,” said Flint carelessly, flicking a speck of dust from the end. “I believe it outstrips the 2000 series by a considerable amount. As for the old Cleansweeps—” he smiled nastily at the twins who both held Cleansweep 5s. “It sweeps the board with them.”

One of the twins stepped forward while Wood was still sputtering with rage. “One professor can’t just override all the others. This is our practice time.”

“I didn’t say Professor Snape can override McGonagall,” Flint said, his trollish smile wider. “We’re more than willing to share the field. Maybe we can give your seeker a few pointers.”

Harry winced. That was unkind. He wished he had the right words to stop this fight, but most of the players seemed more than happy to take their ire out on each other.

Ron crossed the grass from the stands where he must have been watching. “What’s happening? Why are they here?” He looked at the Slytherins with disgust.

“We have permission to be here, pipsqueak,” Flint said. “It’s dangerous to play on new brooms without practice.”

Draco jumped in. “You need some new brooms yourself. Perhaps the Gryffindor team could raise some money for new brooms by raffling off your old ones. I expect a museum would bid for those Cleansweep 5s.” The Slytherin team howled with laughter.

“At least no one had to bribe their way onto the Gryffindor team. It doesn’t look like Slytherin can say the same,” Angela Johnson said sharply.

Draco’s ears turned red. “No one asked for your opinion. Go back to the women’s parlor,” Draco spat. Angela bunched her fists, but it was Millicent who punched Draco in the shoulder hard enough for him to stumble to one side. She was the only girl trying out for Slytherin, so Harry completely sided with her on sexism built into the system. And with Hermione pointing out sexism at least six times a day, Millicent was primed to take offense.

The Gryffindor team howled with laughter, and now both Draco and Millicent were blushing.

“Hey, Draco, it looks like you got put in your place,” one of the twins said.

Millicent had broken the most sacred of all Slytherin tenants. She had to do something, so Harry wasn’t surprised when she stepped in front of Draco and raised her wand. “The only one I’m going to put in my place is the red-headed blood traitor in front of me.” In the space of a heartbeat, a dozen wands were out, all pointed at the opposing team.

Wood stepped between, holding his hands out. “Enough, all of you. We’ll all be in detention for a month if spells start flying out here. Gryffindor team, we’re going to fly the lake for warmups. We’ll be back in an hour or two, and if Slytherin isn’t done by then, we’ll have to sit in the stands and watch them finish practice.” He gave Flint a smile just as nasty as the one Flint had given him earlier.

“Fine,” Flint said as he holstered his wand. “The team doesn’t need more time than that to get used to the superior speed and handling of the new brooms.”

Wood led his team off, and they mounted their brooms and started flying toward the lake. After giving the Slytherins one last glare, Ron and the few Gryffindor spectators who had come out of the stands once wands had been pulled started walking back toward the castle.

“Good riddance,” Draco said before he rounded on Millicent. “And what the hell was that?”

“I’m sorry! It just happened.”

“You just happened to punch me?”

“You did imply that girls had no business being on the quidditch field,” Harry said in her defense. Most of the team glared at him. Yeah, yeah. Slytherins don’t turn on each other in public.

Millicent stood straighter. “I apologize, Draco. I let my emotions get ahead of my common sense.”

Harry, eager to change the subject, asked Millicent, “What does it mean that you called them blood traitors?”

“You don’t know the term?” She looked at Draco as if educating Harry was his obligation.

“No, so what’s it mean?”

“It means they’ve turned their back on wizarding customs,” Draco said. “They’ve broken marriage contracts or sided with muggles over wizards or done something to hurt the community.”

“Um, I’m thinking marriage contracts should be broken, so I hope you’re not suggesting that parents should have the right to tell kids who to marry,” Harry said. Most of Slytherin looked at him like slugs had spontaneously started falling out of his mouth. Maybe Hermione’s sexism rants were rubbing off on him, too.

“He doesn’t get it,” Draco said to them before he turned to Harry. “Marriage contracts demand that two people spend time together to see if their goals and magic are compatible. Contracts don’t have to end in marriage, but ending without one requires some formal communication and niceties. That said, it’s not legal to force a marriage.”

“Not anymore, anyway,” Millicent said, “although a girl can face a lot of pressure if she decides against a contract her parents wrote.”

“Yes, yes, that’s terrible, but not very common,” Draco said.

“That you know of.” Millicent’s tone made it clear that it was more common that the boys of Slytherin wanted to admit, and seeing as how the Wizarding world seemed to have a fair amount of sexism in it, Harry was more willing to believe Millicent than Draco.

“Why did you call the Weasleys that?” he asked her.

“Some people will call any witch or wizard who stood against the Dark Lord that,” she said almost apologetically, probably thinking about the fact that Harry’s parents had been firmly anti-Voldemort. “But the Weasleys get that more than most because they’re hypocrites. They talk about being kind to muggles and people with no magic, like squibs, but they’re known for putting squibs out of their family like any other member of the sacred 28. There’s a rumor that the current Weasley patriarch has a brother or a nephew who they threw out of the family. He became a muggle accountant. Mr. Weasley works for the Ministry investigating witches and wizards who create magical items that look too muggle, but the rumor is that he has the biggest collection of illegally modified items in the UK.” Harry didn’t say anything, but Ron had described his father’s collection, and it did sound suspiciously illegal.

“Some people call anyone who marries outside a pure-blood family a blood traitor,” one of the older team members said. Harry thought it was Warrington. “Those people bring mud into our bloodlines.”

“That’s crap,” Harry said firmly. “I’m a half-blood, and I can do magic as well as anyone in my year, assuming you don’t count Hermione who is definitely the top of the class. And she has muggle parents. More than that, there are tons of powerful half-bloods. Dumbledore is a half-blood, and even if you disagree with his politics, you have to admit that the man has crazy amounts of power. The Black family magic only showed up in me and my half-blood cousin, Tonks. The full-blood Blacks like Sirius and Narcissa never had the ability to change forms. And lots of people say that Grindelwald himself was a half-blood. I dare you to say he had mud in his blood,” Harry said firmly. He looked at the team in anger, willing to walk away if the team was going to preach blood purity. He wouldn’t stand for it. His head tingled, so he knew his hair had changed color, showing off that Black family trait.

One of the older Slytherins spoke up. “They’re so strange. They act like purebloods, marrying in the old lines and keeping to old rituals. They have to. The older kids were absent on every high-holiday when we don’t dare celebrate every high day on the wheel calendar without getting labeled Dark.”

“And the number of kids they’ve had. That suggests rituals,” another said, “yet the father argues to ban rituals as Dark.”

“It suggests successful rituals,” Flint corrected them. “However that is not a discussion for today. Potter, don’t call people blood-traitors.”

“Got it,” Harry agreed, especially since much of Slytherin probably would have applied the term to him, at least before it turned out that being a parselmouth trumped all other considerations inside the house. He also wouldn’t use it because it sounded like some of the old traditions needed to be broken. Marriage contracts. Harry shuddered. And the blood purity shite was even worse.

But if the team was willing to stop pushing their weird beliefs, he was willing to try out.

Gregory made beater; Vincent didn’t. Draco made chaser, and Harry easily beat out Terrence Higgs. The older boys didn’t even pretend to give Millicent a chance, although Harry didn’t know whether that was because she was the only girl or because she had targeted Draco in front of a bunch of Gryffindors. The rest of the team remained the same from the previous year, making Draco and Harry the two smallest by far. With the current Slytherin team, even Gregory looked tiny when put up against Graham Montague and Cassius Warrington and the others. On the good side, Harry trusted that a team with this much muscle would keep the bludgers away from him.

On the bad side, if Harry screwed up, the team was large enough to pound him into dust. He was just going to have to make sure to catch the snitch. With a new determination to practice as hard as possible, Harry headed to lunch. Draco might have been right about them trying out for the team, though. Flying was glorious.


Chapter Ten


Later that night, Harry was heading to the dungeons after an evening in the library with Blaise and Hermione when a voice made him stop.

“Come… come to me… Let me rip you… Let me tear you… Let me kill you…”

Harry jumped and pulled his wand. “Who’s there?” Harry was even more surprised when his words came out in parselmouth. He could feel the way the sound slithered through his throat. Harry cleared his throat. “Who is it?” He said in English this time. No answer.

Unwilling to take a risk in an empty corridor with a potential murderer, Harry ran for Professor Snape’s quarters.

Professor Snape answered with his wand drawn. Maybe that was because Harry had his out. “What is it?”

“I heard someone.”

“Someone?” Professor Snape stepped into the corridor, his wand sweeping both ends before he ordered Harry into his office. Harry hurried inside, relaxing enough to put his wand away only once Professor Snape had closed and warded the door. “Explain,” he snapped. Despite the rescue Professor Snape had provided over the summer, the man was just as cranky, short-tempered and scary now that school had started.

Harry explained how he heard someone clear as day, the voice going past him as if someone was walking down the corridor. But no one was there.

“Could you have heard a ghost?” the professor asked. He walked over to his potions and brought back a small bottle, offering it to Harry.

Harry drank it and his scalp tingled as he relaxed. He had to go back to meditating every night because his hair color was getting out of control. “I didn’t feel the chill of a ghost, and something in the voice wasn’t exactly human,” Harry said.

Professor Snape settled behind the desk. “There are multiple possibilities, but the most likely one is a prank. Someone could have set a trigger so the first person to walk the hallway would hear an eerie message. It would not be the first prank put in place in the dungeons, although usually I find them before any harm is done.”

“But who would want to scare me like that? The voice was very clear about wanting to kill and tear.”

Professor Snape sighed. “Potter, I know you see how other houses target Slytherins. We are not popular. With anyone. I understand the Slytherin team had a conflict on the quidditch pitch today, so I’m not even particularly surprised to find a prank set up down here, not considering who the beaters are for the Gryffindor team.”

Harry wondered if the twins would have really done that. They had booed Slytherins during the first sorting, but on the train they had seemed sincere. He didn’t know.

“Is there anything else?” Professor Snape asked, clearly wanting to end this conversation. Harry debated running for his dormitory, but he could always trust Professor Snape to tell him the truth, even if it wasn’t what Harry wanted to hear. Especially if it wasn’t what Harry wanted to hear.

“The twins said their mother wanted them to be friends with me. They warned me that they had been ‘tasked’ with being my new best friends because Mrs. Weasley thinks I have too many Slytherins around me. Why would they pull a prank if they’re supposed to be nice to me?”

“They said this to you?” Professor Snape’s voice had a quiet sharpness to it that made Harry suddenly afraid.

“Yes, sir.”

Professor Snape sighed. “They may not have meant for you to trigger the prank, so I would not take it personally, Mr. Potter. I will patrol the corridor tonight to make sure there are not any further surprises, but I am sure you will be safe in your room.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said. He suddenly felt foolish. What Professor Snape said made sense. All the Slytherins knew to be wary of the twins. Their pranks were legendary, and not in a good way. Lots of students targeted Slytherins, but the twins were devious enough to be a real danger, even to the upperclassmen. That made them infamous.

But Harry still felt betrayed. On the train they had acted like they felt some sort of kinship with him, so for them to pull a prank like that… even if it wasn’t aimed at him, the fact that he’d embarrassed himself by running to Professor Snape made him angry.

The next morning, Harry was out of bed before the others were stirring. He strode past Millicent who tried to talk to him and charged up to the main hall. The twins were usually up early. Apparently dawn was a good time to set pranks because they were often the first Gryffindors in the room. Today was no exception.

A couple of Hufflepuff and a single Ravenclaw were eating together under the blue and yellow banner and a half-dozen Slytherins read papers and ate their breakfast, but the twins were alone at the Gryffindor table. Harry marched straight over to them.

“That wasn’t nice,” he said.

The twins blinked at him, and then looked at each other before the one on the right asked, “What’s not nice?”

“Often we aren’t,” the other said, “but I can’t think of anything particularly not-nice we’ve done in at least… oh…”

“A week,” the other finished. “That’s when we put itching potion in Percy’s lotion.” They shared a look of devilish glee.

“You set up that prank in the dungeons.”

Both twins gave him blank looks.

“I’m not buying it,” Harry said. “Gryffindors and Slytherins have a conflict on the pitch, and the next thing I know, I get hit with a prank and I embarrass myself in front of of Professor Snape. That has Weasley twins written all over it.”

“It does kinda,” one admitted.

“But we didn’t do anything.”

“And if we were going to do something, we would have targeted the Malfoy prat.”

“But then he got punched by a girl from his own house, so that revenge sort of took care of itself.” The twins high-fived each other.

Harry narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t tell if they were lying or not. “You didn’t set up a voice to play in the dungeons?”


“But it’s a good idea. We could do all sorts of things with disembodied voices.”

“We really could.” The twin smiled, but then his expression turned more serious. “Harry, we didn’t do anything last night. We’ve been called blood-traitors so much it doesn’t matter anymore. Most of Slytherin would call you a blood traitor because you don’t support You-Know-Who.”

“Maybe not,” the other said. “There’s a definite reduction in the use of terms like blood-traitor and mudblood last year and this one, particularly in the younger Slytherins.”

Both twins studied Harry for a long minute before one of them said, “You’re a good influence on them.”

“Which is ironic because our mother fears they’ll be a bad influence on you.”

Harry looked from one to the other. “But you didn’t set any pranks?”

“They didn’t,” a girl said. Harry turned to see Luna Lovegood standing behind him, her gaze unfocused, but targeted somewhere near Harry’s left ear. It occurred to him that it would be hard for anyone to read her mind because she never met anyone’s eyes. “They often generate Blibbering humdingers, but they haven’t in the last few days.”

“You’re sure?” Harry asked. The girl was strange, and a little part of Harry didn’t want his Slytherin friends to see him with her because he knew what they would say about the girl. She was wearing radishes for earrings, after all. However, his gut told him that she knew things. His book on famous witches and wizards talked about how every seer was strange. Even Grindelwald who was only a good enough seer to have one or two true visions in his entire life had a reputation for being odd.

She nodded and then looked him in the eye before smiling sweetly.

Harry looked at her feet and frowned. “Where are your shoes?”

She shrugged. “I’m going to go visit the thestrals. I just needed blood.” She held up a bucket, and Harry realized she had chunks of meat floating in blood. He gagged, but she walked off with a smile, swinging the bucket back and forth in a way that made Harry dread what would happen if she tripped. Finch would kill her if she spilled that mess.

“That was strange,” one of the twins said.

“Are thestrals real? Should we worry about what she’s doing with that much blood?” Harry asked. The Slytherin common room had a book on blood rituals that listed all sorts of horrible things a person could do with that much blood. Lovegood didn’t look like the sort who would perform Dark rituals, but seers were notoriously hard to predict, ironically enough. And she was definitely too young to channel Dark magic without horrible consequences.

“They’re skeletal winged horses that are only visible to people who’ve seen death.” The twin who said that looked concerned as he watched Lovegood leave the hall.

“And the blood?”

“Oh, thestrals are meat and blood eaters. That’s perfectly normal.”

Normal. Harry sometimes thought wizards needed someone to define that word for them because they didn’t use it the way the rest of the world did.

“Wait, but if you didn’t set up a prank, why did I hear a voice in the dungeons threatening to kill and tear me apart?” Harry asked. Both twins sat up.


“That’s what the voice said,” Harry said.

The first twin pointed to the bench across from him. “Sit, eat, and tell us the entire story.”

“But this isn’t my table,” Harry said.

“It’s Sunday. Who cares?” the other twin asked. “But someone threatening you is worth caring about.”

Feeling a little out of place, Harry sat at the Gryffindor table and filled his plate as he told the twins what he had heard in the dungeon. The whole story took less time than eating his banana, but the twins kept brainstorming possible ways to recreate a disembodied voice and then asking Harry if that matched what had happened.

Had he felt a thread or wire across his shin? Had any of the stones shifted? Had he noticed any shimmering spots in the wall. Neville looked startled when he showed up for breakfast, but the twins gave him a brief summary and then went back to brainstorming possible ways to set up the prank. Hermione showed up a bit later and got a second summary and then nearly had to flee from everyone’s ire when she had asked if it was possible Harry had voices in his head.

She’d backed down quickly, but once the words were out there, Harry did worry a little. Maybe he was hearing voices. Sometimes he felt like he was being watched all the time. And then he’d turn around and see first year Colin Creevey and his camera, and he knew he was being watched. Maybe paranoia was catching up to him.



Chapter Eleven

October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the ground and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Her Pepperup Potion worked instantly, though it left the drinker smoking at the ears for several hours afterward. But not even smoke kept Flint from forcing the quidditch team to practice insanely long hours. More than once Harry had regretted letting Draco talk him into playing, especially when raindrops the size of bullets thundered on them as they practiced.

The lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and the quidditch pitch became a center of espionage. Fred and George regularly spied on the Slytherins, and Flint threw more than one fit. The problem was that seeing the twins and catching them were totally different.

And Harry was seeing more of the twins now. When he studied in the library, the only real place he could work with both his Slytherin and Gryffindor friends, the twins would show up and drape themselves over the nearest chairs.

They split their time between annoying the group and helping them with homework, but Harry got the feeling they were worried. Either that or they were trying to follow their mother’s directions, but if they were trying to force a friendship, telling Harry about it up front was a fairly poor way of starting.

“Oh, did you hear about dungeon five?” Fred asked. Harry thought that was Fred. The twins were now around enough that he was starting to get a sense of which was which.

“No, what?” Blaise asked, always ready for gossip. Draco rolled his eyes, but then he’d made his opinion of the twins very clear. He’d even protested their inclusion, but as Harry pointed out, they couldn’t meet with Hermione and Neville without being in public, and if that was the case, the twins had every right to follow.

The twins exchanged a sly look. “It seems like someone might have gotten ahold of bad frog brains.”

“They must have been spoiled.”

“Must have been. What else would make them explode?” The twins shared a conspiratorial grin.

“Explode?” Draco looked up. “If you’ve set people up with exploding potion ingredients, Professor Snape is going to pickle you for potion parts. Potions is dangerous. You have no right taking your pranks into that room.”

George held his hands up in surrender. “Did we say anything about pranks? There are plenty of ways for third-years to mess up a potion without us getting involved.”

“And lots of apothecaries sell spoiled ingredients. That’s what happens when you buy discount.”

“At least if you buy discount without knowing what to check for,” George finished.

“Whose frog brains exploded?” Harry asked, even though he was on Draco’s side this time. Even Hermione looked outraged, and when Draco and Hermione agreed on something, Harry had learned they were generally right.

“It’s just rumor, but I heard it was Marcus Belby and Marietta Edgecombe.”

Blaise pursed his lips, clearly pleased at the bit of information.

“That’s horrible for them,” Neville said weakly. He was definitely the most empathetic of them.

“They’re both prats. They probably deserved it,” Millicent declared. Gregory was sitting very close to her. Harry wondered if he was copying because Millicent was way better with essays.

“I heard Finch took two hours to clean the ceiling,” George said.

“Real pity, that,” Fred added gleefully.

Draco sighed. “Great, so we get another week of the man screeching at us when we have to walk back into the castle after herbology. How does he expect us to walk to the greenhouses without getting mud on our shoes?”

“Magic,” Harry said with a smile. Draco scowled at him.

Fitch wasn’t the only one in a bad mood by the end of the month. Nott had grown surly, snapping at Harry and even refusing to talk to Draco. He would practically run out of the dorm room every morning, but Blaise had reassured Harry that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He explained that Nott’s father had been sending more owls lately, so something must be wrong at home.

Harry could understand that—not that he ever got letters from the Dursleys. But when he’d been in primary school, if he’d had a bad day at home, he often didn’t want to interact with teachers and students. So he gave Nott space.

By the time Halloween arrived, Nott was practically sleeping in the common room to avoid them. He’d even offered to switch beds with Draco so he could be in with Harry the way he wanted, but the prefects had shut that down. So Harry tried putting it out of his. mind. That was easier when he saw the Great Hall glittering with gold plates and candles and pumpkins floating in the air.

“Samhain is better,” Blaise muttered, but he followed the rest of Slytherin to the table. Most of the tables were covered in all sorts of candies and confections, but the Slytherin table was loaded with nuts, fruited breads and apples. Several large roasts dotted the table with bowls of colcannon and spiced squash between. There were still piles of chocolate and a large number of deserts including Harry’s favorite treacle tart, but the Slytherin table was definitely different than the other three.

They were in the middle of pudding, after politely clapping at the performance of the dancing skeletons when Harry heard something in the distance. “What is that?” he asked.

Blaise gave him a strange look. “What’s what?”

Abandoning his half-eaten tart, Harry hurried to the corridor that led to the dungeons, and Blaise followed. “… rip… tear… kill…”. It was the same voice, the same cold, murderous voice he had heard that night after the conflict on the quidditch pitch. He pressed his ear to the stone wall, listening with all his might, looking around, squinting up and down the dimly lit passageway.

“I’m getting the professor,” Blaise said.

Harry heard the voice farther down the corridor toward the main staircases. “So hungry… for so long… kill… time to kill…”

The voice was growing fainter, moving upward toward the floor right above the Great Hall. Harry stared at the dark ceiling. How could it be moving upward? They weren’t to the staircases yet. Was it a phantom? Harry didn’t feel the chill.

Determined to find out, Harry started running up toward the voice. The babble from the Halloween feast was echoing out of the Great Hall and through the hallway, almost drowning out another voice.

“Mr. Potter, where do you think you are going?” Harry turned to see Professor Snape striding toward him, his cloak doing a good impression of a bat’s wings.

“Sir, I can hear it.” Harry closed his eyes. “I smell blood…”

His stomach lurched as the foul odor drifted past.

“It’s going to kill someone!” Harry shouted. Ignoring Professor Snape’s alarm, he ran up the next flight of stairs three at a time, trying to listen over his own pounding footsteps—

Harry flung himself around. a corner into the last, deserted passage. And then he stopped dead. Something was shining on the wall ahead. No more than a second later, Professor Snape was there, his hand on Harry’s shoulder pulling him back. “Stay behind me, Mr. Potter,” he said. Harry was more than happy to comply, especially when Professor Snape took out his wand. There was nothing scarier than Professor Snape with his wand at the ready.

They approached the spot slowly, squinting through the darkness until the professor issued a quick lumos to supplement the low torches. It illuminated foot-high words that had been daubed on the wall between two windows, shimmering in the light cast by flaming torches and Professor Snape’s wand.


“What’s that?” Harry asked, pointing to something hanging on the wall. Professor Snape stepped forward, his footsteps squelching in the wet hall.

“I believe it is Mrs. Norris,” the professor said. The caretaker’s cat was hanging by her tail from the torch bracket. She was stiff as a board, her eyes wide and staring.

“What could do that?” Harry asked. He inched closer to the professor, who swept the corridor with his wand, searching for an enemy. A rumble, as though of distant thunder, told them that the feast had just ended. From either end of the corridor where they stood came the sound of hundreds of feet climbing the stairs, and the loud, happy talk of well-fed people; next moment, students were crashing into the passage from both ends.

The chatter, the bustle, the noise died suddenly as the people in front spotted the hanging cat. Harry stood next to Professor Snape, wishing he could disappear into the man’s robes as silence fell among the mass of students pressing forward to see the grisly sight.

Before anyone could speak, Professor Snape ordered everyone to head to their dorms. The prefects were as immobilized as everyone else, but after the professor yelled at a few by name—Gemma and Percy and Cedric in particular—they started herding the students away from the horrible sight. Blaise, Draco and Hermione all argued that they should stay, but Snape had ordered them away, threatening them with detentions and point deductions if they didn’t clear the corridor. Harry would have followed, but Professor Snape caught him by the shoulder and held him as the students, now quietly whispering, retreated and the teachers pressed forward.

“What’s going on here? What’s going on?” Argus Filch shouldered his way through the students. then he saw Mrs. Norris and fell back, clutching his face in horror. Harry had never felt sorry for the foul man, but he had a little pity at the grief in his face. “My cat! My cat! What’s happened to Mrs. Norris?” His popping eyes fell on Harry.

“You!” He screeched. “You! You’ve murdered my cat! You’ve killed her!”

“Control yourself!” Professor Snape snapped in a voice so sharp that Harry flinched. “The boy was with me, and neither of us had anything to do with this.”

Headmaster Dumbledore moved to detach Mrs. Norris from the torch bracket. “Come with me, Argus,” he said to Filch. “You, too, Mr. Potter, and Severus, if you would accompany us.”

Lockhart stepped forward eagerly.

“My office is nearest, Headmaster—just upstairs—please feel free—“

“Thank you, Gilderoy,” said Dumbledore. Most of the professors stared, horrified, but Dumbledore strode past them. Lockhart, looking excited and important, hurried after Dumbledore; so did Professor McGonagall. Professor Snape kept his hand on Harry’s shoulder, the whole way, which was the main reason Harry wasn’t running for his room.

As they entered Lockhart’s darkened office there was a flurry of movement across the walls; Harry saw several of the Lockhart’s in the pictures dodging out of sight, their hair in rollers. The real Lockhart lit the candles on his desk and stood back.

Dumbledore laid Mrs. Norris on the polished surface and began to examine her. Harry watched for a moment before he took a step back and sank into one of the chairs outside the pool of candlelight. He didn’t know what the voice had to do with Mr. Filch’s cat, but he trusted Professor Snape to speak for him.

The tip of Dumbledore’s long, crooked nose was barely an inch from Mrs. Norris’s fur. He was looking at her closely through his half-moon spectacles, his long fingers gently prodding and poking. Professor McGonagall was bent almost as close, her eyes narrowed. Snape stood in front of Harry, half in shadow, wearing a most peculiar expression. It was as though he was trying to avoid looking at Harry, keeping his back to him no matter how he shifted. And Lockhart was hovering around all of them, making suggestions.

“It was definitely a curse that killed her—probably the Transmogrifian Torture—I’ve seen it used many times, so unlucky I wasn’t there, I know the very countercurse that would have saved her…”

Lockhart’s comments were punctuated by Filch’s dry, racking sobs. He was slumped in a chair by the desk, unable to look at Mrs. Norris, his face in his hands. Harry couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him, even if Filch had accused him for absolutely no reason.

Dumbledore was now muttering strange words under his breath and tapping Mrs. Norris with his wand, but nothing happened. She continued to look as though she had been recently stuffed.

“… I remember something very similar happening in Ouagadogou,” said Lockhart, “a series of attacks, the full story’s in my autobiography. I was able to provide the townsfolk with various amulets, which cleared the matter up at once…”

The photographs of Lockhart ont he walls were all nodding in agreement as he talked. One of them had forgotten to remove his hair net.

At last Dumbledore straightened up. “She’s not dead, Argus,” he said softly.

Lockhart stopped abruptly in the middle of counting the number of murders he had prevented.

“Not dead?” choked Filch, looking through his fingers at Mrs. Norris. “But why’s she all—all stiff and frozen?”

“She has been petrified,” said Dumbledore (“Ah! I thought so!” said Lockhart). “But how, I cannot say….”

“Ask him!” shrieked Filch, turning his blotched and tear stained face to Harry.

“I will not have my student maligned or my word called into question. The boy was with me,” Snape said firmly.

“No second year could have done this,” said Dumbledore firmly. “It would take Dark Magic of the most advanced nature.” Despite his words, Dumbledore did study Harry intensely. Harry summoned thoughts of his mental firestorm and avoided making eye contact.

“Mr. Zabini sought me out because Mr. Potter was not feeling well. At no time was Mr. Potter alone, so his inability to preform the magic and his ignorance of Dark Arts are both moot points. The boy and I found the animal. We did not raise a wand,” Professor Snape said, glaring fiercely at Mr. Filch. Apparently Snape’s power to intimidate transcended age because Filch wilted in the face of Snape’s anger.

The whole time, Dumbledore was giving Harry a searching look. His twinkling light-blue gaze made Harry feel as though he were being X-rayed.

“My cat has been petrified,” Filch shrieked, his eyes popping. “I want to see some punishment!”

“We will be able to cure her, Argus,” said Dumbledore patiently. “Professor Sprout recently managed to procure some Mandrakes. As soon as they have reached their full size, I will have a potion made that will revive Mrs. Norris.”

“I’ll make it,” Lockhart putted in. “I must have done it a hundred times. I could whip up a Mandrake Restorative Draught in my sleep—“

“Excuse me,” said Snape icily. “But I believe I am the Potions master at this school.”

There was a very awkward pause.

“You may go,” Dumbledore said to Harry. With a last look at Professor Snape, Harry went as quickly as he could without actually running. When he was one floor down from Lockhart’s office, he did run all the way to the dungeons.



Chapter Twelve

After Albus had dismissed the others, he asked Severus to accompany him to his office. Severus followed, uneasy at how Albus had reacted to Harry’s presence at the scene.

Albus had clearly attempted legilimency, but he didn’t seem pleased at the result. Hopefully Harry had managed to hide the existence of the voice. The firestorm he had developed as a result of his occlumency studies was incomplete and gaps in the storm allowed thoughts to surface for a few seconds at a time, but it was far better than last year. Albus would have to work to get anything coherent from behind Harry’s shields, and Severus did not believe he’d had the time to do that sort of nuanced effort.

However, Severus did not know how to play this without seeing more of Albus’s reaction. So far the man was controlling all displays of emotion. Once in the office, Albus sank into his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him. So he was plotting. Something about this situation was not of Albus’s making, and he was having to alter his schemes.

Severus stood on the other side of the desk and waited, ignoring how similar the situation was to when he had been summoned to the Dark Lord and then forced to wait until the madman had collected his thoughts.

“Severus, this is a serious issue.”

“I have no doubt, Albus, but I am not sure what you expect me to say.” Tests at the scene suggested the blood was fowl blood, so no person had been bled and prefects said all students were accounted for.

Albus’s gaze grew sharp. “How did you come to be in that corridor?”

Severus strengthened his occlumency. “As I said, Mr. Zabini came to tell me that Mr. Potter was feeling ill. Given the boy’s inability to stay out of trouble, I found it wise to supervise whatever foolishness he had chosen to get into.” Severus had no real reason to hide the information that the boy had heard a voice… twice. However, he felt uncomfortable sharing it with Albus when he did not understand why Albus acted the way he did around Harry.

“And you chose to go up a floor rather than down to the dungeons?”

“I was following Mr. Potter.” And Severus dearly hoped Harry used this time to come up with some plausible story. He assumed his friends would coach him even if Harry was not Slytherin enough to do it on his own.

“Have you seen any odd behavior in him lately?”

Severus frowned, unsure about what Albus might be referencing. “No, and I have been watching closely. The Weasley twins have taken an interest in him, and I have no intention of allowing them to infiltrate my house with their inane pranks using a naive second-year.”

Albus leaned back and tapped his index fingers together. “I find it reassuring that Harry seems to have taking a liking to the twins.”

Severus had seen them studying together, and Harry was cautious around the twins, so he wouldn’t have characterized the relationship in those terms, especially when the twins had revealed that Molly had sent them to befriend him. Molly and her two brothers had always been some of Albus’s staunchest supporters. If she was moving, then Albus was the voice motivating her.

Motivating or manipulating. Molly’s sympathetic nature would make the second easy enough given that Harry was small for his size and a war orphan. Severus feared that his own hatred of James Potter might have made him equally as vulnerable to manipulation in different circumstances.

“Has there been any change in his personality?”

“None.” Severus said both firmly and honestly.

“And your mark? Is it the same?”

This was concerning. While Severus did not know the connection between these two topics, he trusted there was one. He pushed his sleeve up to show the faded skull and snake that branded him as Dark Lord’s property. “Exactly the same since the day the Dark Lord was banished.”

Albus grabbed a lemon candy and popped it in his mouth. “I find myself suspicious of the timing. Tom has the Philosopher’s stone, and now the Chamber is open.”

Shocked, Severus stared at Albus. Why would he immediately assume the Chamber—the mythical secret passages left by Slytherin’s founder—would be open? “You can’t possibly believe a bit of stray graffiti left on a wall on Halloween. If you want suspects for this madness, I would look to the Weasley twins.”

“Now Severus, they’re good boys. They wouldn’t do something like this, not with blood. Too many Dark rituals start with blood writing.” As always, Albus dismissed any source of trouble outside the dungeons. The twins should have been suspended for some of their pranks. Their first year they had caused extensive damage to an antique mirror and stained two paintings. Unforgivable. But Albus defined the world by those who did Dark magic and those that did not. Ironically, Severus had found the stain of Dark magic in this very office more than once, but the great sainted Albus Dumbledore was not limited the way mere mortals were.

Severus took a deep breath and calmed himself before something of his aggravation slipped free of his control. He could take his revenge on the twins during their next potions lesson. “Dark rituals. Why do I have the feeling you are about to ask me if any of my Slytherins have been acting suspicious lately?”

“Have they?”

“No,” Severus said firmly, hiding any stray thoughts of Theo Nott who had grown almost desperate to remove himself from Harry Potter’s dorm room. Severus suspected he would not buy a Yule gift for his dorm mate this year, but young Mr. Nott had been in the Great Hall enjoying the feast when the message had been left.

Albus stroked his beard. “You cannot blame me for asking.”

“I once again remind you that many of the Death Eaters came from other houses. Sirius Black and Barty Crouch Jr. are certainly proof of that.”

“Yes, yes. But you must admit the majority came from Slytherin.”

“The majority of the ones who were caught. Even outside of these hallowed halls, people do look to Slytherins first when there is trouble, and that means we are more likely to get noticed.”

“So you have said in the past,” Albus said in a dismissive voice.

Severus crossed his arms. “And I maintain the same now. If you suspect a student, call in the heads of all four houses and ask them if any of their students have been acting strange. Ask Filius if any of his claws have been reading about blood writing. After all, they are the ones most likely to search out old magics. Ask Minerva if any of her lions were missing from the feast. Vandalism this brash does have the mark of her house. In fact, ask her where the twins were tonight.”

“No need for such dramatics, Severus,” Albus chided him.

“It is late.” They had each magically investigated the graffiti, the entire corridor and the cat. They had checked on the location of all students and walked the ward lines. It was almost midnight and Severus wanted to go back to his quarters. The other heads had been dismissed, and he resented Albus’s habit of targeting him and his house.

“It is,” Albus said softly, his tone suggesting that the words carried far more meaning than was immediately obvious.

Since he was not going to be dismissed soon, Severus sank into one of the guest chairs, the very one where he’d been sitting when Albus had told him that the Dark Lord had been parasitically attached to Quirrell during the previous year. “You need to do something about Lockhart.”

Albus’s twinkle returned. “Whatever do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” Severus said darkly. The man’s ignorance was glaringly obvious and having him claim he should brew a potion for the school… Severus had not been so offended in many, many years. And he taught obnoxious children who disobeyed for their own amusement.

“He is quite popular. When I hired him, I received hundreds of owls from witches and wizards congratulating me for managing such a coup.”

Severus snorted. Either Albus was exaggerating or the Wizarding world was even more naive than he had assumed, and Severus had a rather low opinion of the average wizard.

Albus took out his watch and tapped the glass before pinning Severus with an expectant expression. Severus’s aggravation was reaching all-time highs when a burning pain engulfed his arm for one second before it dulled into an all-too familiar throbbing ache. Severus clutched his arm and stared at Albus in alarm.

Albus nodded. “I had wondered. This is one of the high holy holidays, so it made sense for Tom to return to life today. Given the time—one minute after midnight—and the use of the Elixir of Life—I can make a reasonable guess as to which spell he used. Hopefully that will reveal some vulnerability we can exploit.” Albus said it all so calmly, as if he wasn’t describing Severus’s worst nightmare.

The Dark Lord was back. He was back, and Harry was in his crosshairs. Severus’s mind whited with terror for a moment as he realized he now had to stand between Harry and two powerful men. He was not a Gryffindor. Self-sacrifice was not a move he would ever make, but he did not know how to manage this new horror without resorting to the unthinkable. In fact, his Vow would allow nothing else.

“Is he calling you?” Albus asked as if he were asking for the color of the sky.

Severus shook his head, still unable to speak. He pulled up his arm to find his tattoo as dark and stark against his pale skin as it had been the first day the Dark Lord had put it there.

“I suppose we shall simply have to wait and see what move Tom intends to make next. I do hope the Chamber was a warning meant to throw us off-guard and not a genuine warning. The last time the Chamber opened, Tom used it to destroy a good man. I will not have him repeat that same trick again.” In that second, all the grandfatherly affectations vanished, and the man sitting behind the desk revealed himself as a powerful wizard, perhaps the most powerful alive. His aura made Severus draw back, and then in a blink, it was gone.

The facade was back. “You really should go to bed, Severus. You don’t look well at all.” He smiled his dismissal, and Severus stumbled out of the office. He should go to the dormitory. He should check on his students who were now in the crossfire of a war they didn’t even know had begun. He should do many things. Instead, he hurried to his room, curled under his covers and shivered. Tomorrow would have to be soon enough because tonight he had to, once again, adjust to the feeling of the Dark Lord’s magic crawling under his skin.



Chapter Thirteen

Harry rushed through the opening and closed it behind him. He should feel safe in his dormitory, but it seemed like all the Slytherins were in the common room, watching him, studying him like he was a bug pinned to a board.

“Well?” Draco demanded.

“The cat is petrified, not dead, and the professors don’t know what’s going on.”

“The Heir is back,” Warrington said. “Now the blood-traitors and mudbloods will have something to fear.” He sounded gleeful at the idea of other students being petrified or even worse.

“Don’t start that blood purity shite,” Harry warned.

Warrington stood and stalked closer. “Don’t assume you’re on the top of the hierarchy anymore, little boy.” He loomed over Harry, his smile vicious.

“I’ve never assumed I’m on the top,” Harry said. Warrington looked shocked, and even the students who had been whispering fell silent. Since the students were being weird, Harry walked over to the fireplace and asked the snake, “What is the chamber and who is the heir?”

“You are the heir, speaker. You are. You are,” returned a chorus of voices. That was confusing because Harry was only the Black heir. The Potters weren’t established enough as a family to have an official heirship, and the Blacks had nothing to do with Slytherin except for getting sorted into his house.

“What is the Chamber?” Harry asked.

The largest snake uncoiled and slid forward, the wood swelling to allow him limited movement. “The founder created the Chamber and the passages. He saw how two-leggers were. They burned witches and wizards and hated magic. Salazar Slytherin feared the persecution and wished to separate from the outside world. He believed students born to non-magical two-leggers would reveal us to muggles and then the school would be vulnerable. The passages and the Chamber have protections against non-magicals—powerful ones that would kill any who tried to walk in their shadow.”

“And the queen, tell him of the queen!” A smaller snake called. The others echoed its words.

“He put the queen in the Chamber, a great lady who would be the final line of defense, and put her in a Chamber so large that all the students could hide inside. She would kill all the two-legged attackers.”

“So that’s the Chamber of Secrets?”

All the snakes echoed with yeses.

“Secrets, yes. Many secrets. When the other three founders would not listen to the warnings about the danger of the two-leggers, Salazar sealed the Chamber and passages and told them that if they trusted those without magic they could live without the protections he had constructed. He hid his most powerful magic in his Chamber. Secret magic. Secret to all but the heir, guarded by a little one. A little one who does not show himself to us.”

A little one—that was the snake’s name for the tiny carvings that functioned as locks on the passages. They’d told Harry where to find them, small curved snakes hidden in the stones or beams that would only open the passage if Harry asked in parselmouth. If those passages were meant to evacuate students to the Chamber, then they should lead there. But Harry had never seen anything like a giant chamber. The parselmouth passages just led from floor to floor, and were far faster to use than the stairs.

“But I’m not the heir,” Harry said. “I didn’t write any warning.”

“You are the heir; you speak our language,” the large snake insisted. “You are the only heir since Tom.”

“Who is Tom?” Harry asked.

“The last heir. He was here when two-leggers were having a great war. He asked the one in Godric’s office to stay here to avoid the two-leggers’ weapons that would destroy entire nests without coming close enough to strike.” All the snakes hissed in anger at such a thing happening. An enemy should fight his own battles, not send weapons from afar and not destroy nests that he didn’t need for himself.

Most of the students scrambled away from the snakes’ anger, but Blaise took the opportunity to move to Harry’s side, and Millicent was not far away, her face devoid of any emotion.

“Tom wished to find the Chamber so he would have a safe place to stay in summer. The old one in Godric’s office conspired with the one who held Godric’s office before him to say that no magicals could hide in the castle. He sent Tom to a nest in danger of being destroyed. Tom found the Chamber, but he didn’t tell us where and he didn’t stay in summer.”

“Tom changed.” The smaller snakes took up an anguished chorus about not being able to protect the heir and how they would bite Dumbledore to death for putting their heir in danger.

“That’s terrible,” Harry said. They had to be talking about World War II. That’s when the bombs were dropping. But if some parselmouth had been in a dangerous area, why wouldn’t Dumbledore and the headmaster before him allow him to stay? That didn’t make sense. Harry knew he didn’t have it as bad at the Dursleys as this Tom had with Nazi bombs dropping, but he felt some camaraderie with him. They shared more than the ability to speak to snakes.

Blaise put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Harry?” he asked.

Harry dropped into the chair closest to the fire. “There is a Chamber that only a parselmouth can open. Salazar Slytherin created it in case muggles invaded the castle and tried to burn the witches and wizards at the stake.”

“They wouldn’t have the chance,” Warrington said coldly.

Flint crossed his arms. “I’d like to see muggles even try.”

Before Harry could come up with a response, Millicent answered. “Back then, they would have been outnumbered. Every one witch or wizard could kill twenty or thirty muggles, but the muggles would have sent an army. And today… we all heard those stories from Nott’s book on muggle technology. Today they could kill us all by pushing a button.”

Most of the students paled as they remembered.

Harry said quietly, “Salazar charmed the parselmouth passages. If a muggle steps into them, they’ll die. It’s part of the school’s defenses.”

The crowd of students stirred, and Warrington said, “Good,” in a vicious tone. The sad thing was that Harry couldn’t disagree. If muggles were invading, the students would need the protection. After all, students couldn’t defend themselves until they were in their fifth or sixth year, so most would be essentially defenseless. Harry had an image of Ron or Neville rushing forward, raising wands to hold against a line of invading soldiers. Both would do it, but they’d get shot down in seconds. Hermione would be more likely to try to talk them out of an attack, but Harry doubted that would work against a mob. Yeah, Harry wasn’t sorry the passages were deadly.

“So, did you put the words there?” Draco asked slowly.

Harry glared at him. “No. And I don’t understand what’s going on because the snakes say there hasn’t been another heir here since World War II. Someone named Tom wanted to find the Chamber because Dumbledore and the headmaster before him wouldn’t let him stay in the castle during summer and he lived in an area that was being bombed.”

“So, probably London,” Blaise said. “Why wouldn’t the headmaster let a child take refuge during the war?”

Harry shrugged. “The snakes don’t know and they’re upset that they couldn’t protect their heir. But if he was here in the war, he must be in his sixties. I don’t think a sixty year old man would sneak into a school to paint graffiti in blood.”

“And you didn’t write it?” Warrington asked.

Harry glared at him. Despite Warrington’s earlier aggression, he was back to looking cautious.

“Who wrote it, then?” Millicent asked.

Harry looked at her blankly. He had no idea. “I’ll tell you one thing, it wasn’t someone who knew parselmouth,” Harry said firmly. “The snakes remember Salazar Slytherin, and they say that the only enemies of the heir are muggles. No one else. He didn’t hate muggleborns,” Harry said while pinning Warrington with a dark glare. That wasn’t exactly true since he hated that muggleborns had muggle families attached to them, but that wasn’t the same as the ridiculous blood purity the old families preached.

“He feared muggles would come around with torches and pitchforks and start tying witches to stakes because that’s what muggles did back then. The passages are set to kill invading muggles, not half-bloods or blood traitors or muggleborns or whatever other craziness people have added onto his legend later. So if someone wants to target the enemies of the heirs, they wouldn’t find any in the school.”

“That’s not true,” Nott said. He pushed someone out of the way and stood in front of Harry radiating fury. “Slytherin’s monster was left to cleanse the school—to make sure that only those from all-magical families are left. The monster will kill the half-bloods and mudbloods so that the magical community can return to its roots and stop pandering to the feelings of mudbloods and their ridiculous religion.” He was breathing fast like he had just run. Harry had never seen Nott like this, even if he had been extra strange lately.

“I tend to believe the magical enchantments that existed at the time of the founders over some legends and rumors that have been repeated and changed for hundreds of years.”

“Right,” Nott said, his voice full of derision. “And we’re all supposed to believe you when you translate for the snakes. We are supposed to believe the Boy-Who-Lived, who has been under the guardianship of Albus Bumblebore his whole life and who doesn’t know anything about our community—the son of a mudblood.” He spat the last word.

Harry shot to his feet and pulled his wand. He would not have his mother insulted. The whole of Slytherin pulled back, a few wands coming out in the audience, although Harry didn’t know which of them the older students planned to back. Maybe they didn’t know, either. “Has it occurred to you that the Potters are not related to Slytherin?” Harry demanded. “If I’m related to him, then it’s on my mudblood mother’s side.”

“How dare you say that!” Nott lifted his wand.

“The wizarding world doesn’t care about squibs and rarely even tracks the lineage of the daughters that marry out of the family. Fathers and sons, that’s what they obsess over. Fathers and sons and passing on the family name and magics. Who knows what Slytherin daughter or squib dropped off the family tree, but that is literally the only way I could be a descendant of Slytherin, so maybe you should think about that when you start insulting muggleborns. What long-vanished magical line could they be carrying?”

Nott threw his hands up and turned his back, so Harry tentatively lowered his wand.

“Why do you all believe what he says?” Nott demanded of the crowd.

Harry understood their hesitancy. “If I could find Tom and bring him here so he could tell you—”

“STOP SAYING HIS NAME!” Nott bellowed.

“Who? Tom?” Harry asked, confused.


Harry looked around, and suddenly Draco slapped a hand over his mouth. “What?” Harry asked. One after another, students’ eyes grew wide and a couple dropped into chairs. “What?” Harry demanded louder.

Blaise cleared his throat. “The last heir was the Dark Lord.”

Harry blinked. The Dark Lord had been a boy during the war, a boy afraid of bombs who had asked for protection. A boy the snakes mourned their inability to protect. A boy they had said changed after he found the Chamber. The Dark Lord was named Tom.

Harry couldn’t reconcile that and the man who had led massacres and slaughtered innocent people for sport, the man who had murdered his parents.

Warrington stepped into the middle of the room between Harry and Nott. “I think we all need to get to bed. If Professor Snape comes in and we’re still arguing, he’s going to have all our guts for garters.”

Students started to wander away. Nott went up to a third year and announced, “I’m sleeping in your room tonight.” Then with one last hate-filled look at Harry, he followed them to their dorm.

“Oh Harry,” Blaise said softly, “you do keep it interesting.”

“Doesn’t he,” Millicent added.

“He was named Tom?” Draco asked in a horrified voice so soft it was barely more than a breath.

Gregory caught him by one arm. “Come on. Let’s get to bed.”

Harry followed Blaise up to his own bed. God he hated Halloween.





Chapter Fourteen

Obstrepan Nott chanted as he carried the ritual goblet to the homunculus laid out on his ritual table. His most powerful Abraxan had carried the infant homunculus and then the body had grown in the ritual space below the Nott castle.

“Take us to the body,” the Dark Lord ordered. Obstrepan averted his gaze to avoid seeing the Dark Lord’s wraith form attached to the back of Quirrell’s head. It was obscene. However, Obstrepan kept his mind focused on his task. He had been charged with returning his Lord to a body, and the magic was difficult enough that he could not allow himself any distractions.

As the clock slid toward midnight, Obstrepan spelled the Elixir of Life into the hormunculus’s stomach and the wraith slid free of Quirrell, the dark smoke of his form settling around the lifeless body. Quirrell fainted, his limbs sprawled at awkward angles, as Obstrepan completed the ceremony.

For years Obstrepan had studied the old family lines in order to track the loss of magic for his lord, and he had used blood from his lord’s first body to make this new one, so he hoped to return his lord to his original form. By the end of the war, whatever magic had stolen his lord’s sanity had also taken his looks.

As long as the Dark Lord looked monstrous, he would never attract new followers. Of course Obstrepan had already committed Theo to their Lord’s service, and others would follow: Malfoy, Goyle, Crabbe, Selwyn, Warrington. However, new people would not follow someone they found physically unattractive, no matter how much they believed in the Dark Lord’s position. At best, those people would be silent supporters, and after the Dark’s losses in the last war, they needed fighters.

After a time, the darkness sank into the body, and it glowed. As the clock slipped over to one minute after midnight, the Dark Lord gasped, his body arching up off the table before he sat up, his dark curls matted with sweat.

Obstrepan clutched his left arm as a stabbing pain in his mark settled into a dull throbbing ache. As the Dark Lord sat up, Obstrepan felt the fealty bond settle again. When they’d both been young men and Tom had first put his mark on the Knights, it had felt very different. Part of Obstrepan had hoped that with his lord reborn, the mark would return to that original feeling of security. True, even in the beginning it had been confining and had inspired some claustrophobia, but now there was an almost oily feeling of corruption in the mark. But he cleared his mind and bowed to his lord.

“Welcome back, my lord.”

The Dark Lord swung his legs off the table and ran fingers through his hair. “This body feels strong.”

“I am glad, my lord. I recommend you continue to take the Elixir of Life for a full year to establish your spirit in the new body.”

“Now I will have my wand returned to me,” he said.

Obstrepan kept his head down in a bow. “I am unaware of where to find your wand, my lord. I bribed officials at the Ministry, and no one knows where your wand went.”

“Give me your wand.”

Obstrepan drew his wand and offered it. The Dark Lord’s fingers were long and graceful as he claimed the wand, twirling it between his fingers. Then his voice snapped out, “Crucio!”

Pain coursed through Obstrepan, setting his nerves on fire and sending him crashing to the floor. In his flailing, he kicked the antique chalice, and it skittered across the stone floor. He trembled as the after effects of the Cruicious curse coursed through his veins. As soon as the pain eased, he gasped out, “I apologize, my lord.”

The Dark Lord fingered Obstrepan’s wand. “This is a poor substitute for my wand. You will find Wormtail. If the Ministry does not have my wand, he does.”

Obstrepan got on his knees. “He is dead, my Lord. I will search any property he had access to until I find it.” Obstrepan screamed as the hated curse turned his nerves to fire once again. He writhed helplessly until the Dark Lord finally ended the spell. Obstrepan breathed heavily, struggling until he could—once again—kneel at his Lord’s feet.

“If the rat were dead, I would know. However, he is currently in his Animagus form, making it impossible for me to summon him.” The Dark Lord’s anger filled the space with wild magic. Obstrepan swallowed as the feeling of such power surrounded him.

“I was unaware, my lord. Everyone believes him dead, killed by Sirius Black.”

The Dark Lord chuckled, his voice making the hairs on the back of Obstrepan’s stand on end. When the Dark Lord released his full power, that turned into a full body shiver. This was the man with the power to stand against Dumbledore and his machinations. Obstrepan buried his regret that his Lord was no longer as sane as he had been as a young man. Just as his physical appearance had deteriorated, so had his sanity. His magic, however, was untouched.

“The Black idiot deserves his fate. He would have supported the old fool until his dying breath. He never bent his knee to me because he never realized how the fool used him as a pawn in his own games. I delight in the idea that the fool cast away such a valuable piece. I must know of every member of the fool’s Order, and I will know the fate of each Death Eater.” He paused. “I will call them when I have a suitable wand.”

He still suffered paranoia, then.

“Yes, my lord. If I may take my wand to Gringotts, I will retrieve my family’s collection of wands. I own sixteen generations of wands going back to the earliest days of the art. I hope you will find a less offensive wand in that collection.”

“You only hope to save your wand for yourself,” the Dark Lord accused him.

Obstrepan lowered his head until his forehead touched the ground. When the Dark Lord had started his movement, he had not required such obsequious displays, but he had the power to enforce his will. Obstrepan would perform whatever rituals were required to show his respect because he trusted the Dark Lord to save the Wizarding world from Dumbledore and his minions.

“No, my Lord. I will place my own wand among those I offer. If my wand is best for you, I would rather you claim it. My own magic is less powerful and so it will be easier for me to perform with a less ideal match. But many know of my allegiances, and I cannot go to Diagon Alley unarmed without risking my life. And if I die, I cannot serve you.”

The Lord ran his fingers down Obstrepan’s spine, his fingers performing a delicate dance across the vulnerable skin. “Are you still so loyal?”

“Of course,” Obstrepan said. “You are the one best able to challenge the fool. I see what my Theo learns at school, and I know how our community is being systematically neutered. In your absence, we have suffered loss after loss in the Wizengamot and with our best duelers condemned to Azkaban, we cannot openly strike at the enemy.”

“And what of Harry Potter?” The Dark Lord’s voice was low and thrummed with power.

Obstrepan cursed the madness that still held the Dark Lord in its thrall. The boy was no threat to someone as powerful as him. However, Obstrepan knew the folly of saying such a thing. “He is at Hogwarts. My son watches him. The youngest Malfoy has befriended him.” The Dark Lord’s fingernails dug into Obstrepan’s flank, and Obstrepan hurried to provide some useful information that would save him from more pain, something his lord wouldn’t have learned from haunting Quirrell as he taught. “The Malfoys have uncovered certain evidence of neglect and abuse, although the Ministry—at the fool’s direction—have blocked his attempts to intervene.”

“Abuse? Why would the old fool allow his prophecy-child to suffer?” Shocked colored his voice.

“I do not know, but it is muggles who have misused him and the child has reached out to Slytherins to explain the magical world to him.” Obstrepan held his breath. Either the Lord would demand that the Potter child die immediately or he would see an opportunity to subvert Dumbledore’s plan. Obstrepan knew what the young Riddle would have done, but it was harder to predict this version of his lord. The strategy and subtle manipulation that had once characterized the man had vanished under demands for immediate results.


“Yes, my Lord.”

“I must see the full prophecy before I know how to handle young Potter.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“If Lucius has involved himself, have him take the child to the Department of Mysteries and claim the orb.’

“Yes, my Lord.”

Obstrepan hoped Lucius was still loyal. The man had always been more devoted to his family than he was to the Dark cause or the Dark Lord. Many escaped punishment by claiming a Death Eater had used the Imperious curse. However, Lucius had condemned the cause with a fervor that left many believing his tale.

“Now!” The Dark Lord demanded with a sharp hex to Obstrepan’s backside. He scrambled to get out of his Lord’s sight.

Obstrepan scrambled away, eager to send Lucius an owl. Or not. The fact that the Dark Lord had returned was not something to trust to an owl. While spells to corrupt or divert owls were rare and difficult, Dumbledore was a formidable enemy and Obstrepan a common target for those in the Light party. The Muggle Protection Act that had just failed had been a clear attack on Lucius and himself. Ironically, it had been Harry Potter’s political influence and Lucius’s connections in the press that had derailed that attempt. He could only hope their lord saw the value in corrupting the child rather than killing him.

While he had no objection to killing those muggles that settled on land sacred to wixen or who expressed hateful religious beliefs, he had never cared for the indiscriminate killing the Death Eaters had relished by the end of the war and he loathed the idea of killing a child.

But he had given his loyalty and accepted his lord’s mark and he would follow where his lord led. That was the vow he had taken.

Rather than leave a floo trail another might trace, Obstrepan apparated to the edge of the Malfoy estate and began walking toward the front. He was unsurprised to see Lucius at the Manor’s door, waiting. All the marked Death Eaters would have felt the return of their lord.

Lucius had a wild expression, and he held his wand in hand as though expecting to be called on to raid the Ministry this very night. When he saw who had come to the property, he hurried over.

“Is it true?”

“You have seen the mark.”

“But have you seen him?” Lucius asked.

Obstrepan nodded. Lucius’s expression turned to sadistic glee. No doubt he was thinking of all the ways he could make the Light pay for their insults, but Obstrepan wasn’t sure he had considered that the Dark Lord might not approve of how Lucius had publicly denied him. “Our lord has a task for you.”

Lucius’s smile grew wider.

“You have access to the Potter child. You are to find a way to escort him to the Ministry and have him claim the prophesy.”

All the glee vanished from Lucius’s face. “If we touch it, the headmaster will know we claimed it for our lord.”

“Most likely,” Obstrepan agreed. “The alternative is to disappoint our lord.”

Lucius swallowed.

“He is as uncompromising as ever,” Obstrepan warned. That was the best warning he could offer Lucius.

After tucking his wand away, Lucius nodded slowly. “In six weeks the school will go on break. I can arrange for Potter to have a doctor’s appointment.”

“And would that give you access to the boy?”

Lucius nodded. “The headmaster expects heads of households to escort students off Hogwart’s grounds. Severus would give me access.”

Severus. For all Lucius’s faith in the potion master, and even their lord’s faith, Obstrepan did not trust that one. Even when the Dark Lord condemned mudbloods in their society, Severus had begged for the life of one—the very one who later helped set a trap that denied their lord a body for a decade. If any other Death Eater had made that request, they would have died screaming. But because Severus Snape shared so many similarities with young Tom Riddle, their lord never examined Snape’s motives properly.

However, Obstrepan’s duty was to deliver the task. The rest was up to Lucius.

“Do not fail him, Lucius. He has very little patience.”

Lucius’s smile had returned. “Of course. I will, and with the Dark Lord back to full power, we will return the Wizarding world to wizards.” He turned and strode back to the house where Lady Malfoy waited at the door.

Such blind prejudice Lucius indulged in, but Obstrepan would not argue against his lord’s position. With a quick turn on his heel, he apparated to Diagon Alley so he could collect the wands from his vault. The Dark party was back, and this time they would not be defeated by an infant in a crib.


Chapter Fifteen

Obstrepan had laid his family’s wands out on the sideboard according to core. His own wand was in the first collection with the other dragon heart-string cores. Then he had the phoenix feather cores. When the Dark Lord had claimed a wand using a feather from Dumbledore’s own phoenix, the Knights of Walpurgis had seen it as a sign that Tom Riddle was destined to rise from the ashes of Dumbledore. Perhaps another phoenix feather wand would serve. The third section was much smaller. Unicorn hair wands were not well suited to Dark magic, and Obstrepan did not expect the Dark Lord to choose one of those.

The older wands were at the end. Before Ollivander had decided to limit English wands to the three major cores, older wand makers had used many magical artifacts. The Nott family had been in England since their first Viking ancestors had claimed land from those too weak to protect it. The old wands had Veela hair and centaur hoof, threads from dementor cloak and basilisk venom, thestral hair and acromantula fangs. One of the oldest even had kraken skin. It had come from an ancestor who had vowed to never step foot on land after his brother betrayed him.

Obstrepan hoped his lord would find a reasonable match. There wasn’t a better collection of wands outside of a wandmaker.

Theo’s owl swooped over the table and dropped a letter, and Obstrepan untied it and began reading. The letter was a factual description of events, but he read carefully. Theo understood the position the family was in now that the Dark Lord had returned, so he trusted his son would not bother him with trivialities. He was almost to the end of the letter before Theo described, in the blandest terms possible, the threat that had been written in blood on the wall of Hogwarts.

The Heir of Slytherin.

He remembered too well when it had opened before. Tom had invited the basilisk into the school proper until Myrtle had seen it in the girl’s bathroom, dying instantly. None of them had mourned her death, but the headmaster had almost closed the school. Tom had been furious.

Obstrepan took the letter and hurried to the guest suite. He knocked and waited until he was invited in, falling to his knees just inside the door.

“My Lord.”

“What have you brought?”

He held out the scroll, waiting as his lord read. Dark magic lashed the room, and he swallowed as the raw power whipped through him, summoning his own magic to respond. Opstrepan held his magic close as the Dark Lord picked up a twelfth century vase and flung it into the wall.

“Bring me your wand,” he demanded.

Obstrepan returned as quickly as possible, offering first his wand and then his left hand to allow the Dark Lord to press the mark. A nearly orgasmic pleasure washed through him as he felt their lord’s magic interact with his own so intimately. A second later, a crack filled the air, and Lucius stood in the room, his robe open. He fell to his knees.

“My lord.” His voice was full of reverence.

“Lucius,” their lord said, his voice velvet and soft and exceptionally dangerous.

“Welcome back, my lord.”

Their lord stood, his dark robes swirling around him as he turned to face Lucius. “Where is my book, Lucius?”

Lucius looked at Obstrepan in confusion before looking back toward their lord. “Book, my lord?”

“My book, Lucius. Surely your father told you to keep it safe.”

Lucius lost most of his color and took on the appearance of a ghost. “My lord?”


Lucius fell to the ground writhing. A minute passed. Two. Four. Lucius urinated on himself and his screams grew weak and hoarse before their lord finally stopped. Lucius lay on the floor, twitching and moaning so piteously that Obstrepan felt sorry for him. He’d known Lucius since he’d been a spoiled two-year-old holding onto his father’s robes. He’d grown into a spoiled man with a talent for shaping the world to his whims, but their lord would not be shaped. It was best for Lucius to learn that now. Their lord was a wall—a stone wall that would not yield to the machinations of those like Lucius or Dumbledore.

Their lord looked down at Lucius with disgust. “Again, Lucius, where is my book?”

Lucius struggled to get to his knees, but failed as his legs twitched uncontrollably. “There was a book my father told me to keep safe, but he did not say it was yours, my lord. I would never betray you, my lord.”


His screams were weaker now, and Obstrepan feared the man would have permanent damage. Hopefully their lord would relent before Lucius joined the Longbottoms in St. Mungo’s. He stopped, and Lucius was too weak for anything more than a few whimpers. The smell of urine and fear was thick in the room, and his silk robes were forever ruined with the stench of it.

The Dark Lord smiled coldly and crouched down to stroke the side of Lucius’s sweat-stained faced. “I will not repeat the question,” he said in a deceptively kind voice. This was, no doubt, Lucius’s last chance.

“I gave it to a girl. It was so Dark that with the new Muggle Protection Act, I feared being caught with it, and I thought to humiliate Arthur Weasley by forcing him to either admit that he had somehow come into possession of a Dark artifact or by having him caught in the act of disposing of it. I had people watching him to see if he would perform some cleansing ritual. They were ready to call the Aurors. My people report that he has done nothing to suggest he is in possession of the most illegal of artifacts.”

Obstrepan immediately understood what Lucius had done. “You gave our lord’s book to Ginerva Weasley who is currently at Hogwarts.”

Lucius swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Yes.”

The Dark Lord stood and turned away, his robes swirling. “You will get that book back or you, your wife, and your son will all suffer unimaginable tortures at the end of my wand. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord. I shall retrieve it, my lord. I will not fail.” Lucius babbled and again tried to climb to his knees. This time he managed it, and he knelt, twitching and jerking.

“You will not or every last Malfoy will beg for death before that mercy will be granted.”

“Yes, my lord. And I have the boy, my lord. Harry Potter. He trusts me. I can bring him to you.” Lucius rushed to offer up another child in place of his own who was now at risk. There was the Malfoy dedication to family. His lord could have found no other threat to motivate Lucius properly.

“I will deal with the boy. You will perform the tasks I have assigned you. Under no circumstances will you tell anyone that I have returned or that you have spoken to me. Not even other Death Eaters will hear of me through you, Lucius.”

Lucius pressed his forehead to the ground. “Of course, my lord. I will not say anything, my lord.”

“Get out of my sight,” their lord hissed in a tone that would have better matched his previous appearance. His handsome face with soft curls did not match the furious expression or the dark magic that filled the room.

Lucius struggled to his feet and stumbled out. No doubt he would have to find some corner in which to rest before he attempted to apparate. Otherwise he would splinch himself. The moment the door closed behind Lucius, the Dark Lord raged, his power lashing the room and smashing priceless heirlooms. A carved chair, a charmed tapestry, a silver dressing set—they all crumbled to ash as their lord released his true power. Obstrepan slipped back onto his knees and waited.

“He gave the book away. He gave away a piece of my soul—the largest piece of my soul. He will pay for such a betrayal!”

Obstrepan sucked in a breath. There was only one spell that would divide a person’s soul and empower an object to carry part of it. He had read of Horcruxes—a favorite spell of ancient Egyptian wizards. However, he had no idea that this lord had dabbled in such Dark magic. He reviewed his memories. Tom had changed after the Chamber of Secrets during their sixth year, and Myrtle had died. That could have been the first Horcrux.

He had been colder after that, but he had retained his sanity. However, after he had been denied the job at Hogwarts, he had become even colder and more ruthless. When Aurors had used the killing curse on Bartholomew Buckthorn, their lord had lost what sanity he retained. After that, his schemes had devolved into wanton violence and fury. He would dispense Crucios with abandon, and he flew into battles with no thought of strategy.

It had worked. For a while, it seemed that his aggressive approach had cowed the rest of the wizarding world into silence, and then Severus had brought the prophesy. All their lord’s attention had turned to the two Aurors expecting children—Longbottom and Potter. Their push to grab Wizengamot seats had languished. Their drive to reclaim wizarding holy grounds had stopped. Nothing else had mattered, and then their lord was gone. Banished—Dumbledore said—by an infant.

No doubt Dumbledore concocted that story to make the Dark Lord appear impotent and ridiculous, but so many wizards believed it.

However, it made sense now. Their lord had made Horcruxes—perhaps even more than the three the books recommended. But he had not reabsorbing the larger pieces. Tom Riddle had lacked access to an ancient library, and if he had done what Obstrepan suspected, he did not understand the price this spell required—the price beyond the murder that allowed the soul to split. “My lord,” he whispered. “I have an ancient book.” Obstrepan hesitated. His Lord needed to read the text. “It could help you move such a powerful and precious force to a more secure location.”

The Dark Lord grew dangerously still. “You know what I have done.” The quiet in his voice warned Obstrepan that his lord was on the verge of either torturing him to insanity or killing him; however, Obstrepan had an obligation to serve his lord and make sure he had the information required to use Dark magic correctly. The Egyptians understood that a person could not function with thirteen percent of their soul. The ritual required creating three Horcruxes and then reabsorbing the first two. That would leave the wizard with an almost whole soul and an artifact with twelve or thirteen percent of the soul to keep the soul anchored in the mortal plane until the wizard was ready to move on.

“I do, my Lord. The fool has banned even the mention of Horcruxes, but the Nott library has Egyptian texts that detail the spells.” He kept his gaze on the floor. The silence was terrifying. Then the Dark Lord began to laugh.

“The old fool thought he could hide such magics from me. He thought himself infallible. He thought that by controlling the library at Hogwarts he could control magic itself. But I found the ritual in a hidden corner of a forgotten text. For all his vigilance, he failed to control me. At sixteen years old, I outsmarted the old fool.”

Obstrepan feared his Lord had outsmarted himself as well. “Shall I get the text from my family library?”

“Go. Fetch this book.” Obstrepan rushed to obey. All he could do was provide the book and hope his Lord understood the danger in creating more than one—or rather the danger in creating more than one and not immediately reabsorbing the largest pieces. At one point, the Egyptians had used this spell with great success, but even the raw power of the Dark Lord could not overcome the side effects if the spell were misused.

And if Lucius could not retrieve the book with their lord’s soul, Obstrepan feared the repercussions, not just for the Malfoy family, but for their lord and for Dark wizards everywhere.


Chapter 16

For a few days, the school could talk of little else but the attack on Mrs. Norris. Filch kept it fresh in everyone’s minds by pacing the spot where she had been attacked, as though he thought the attacker might come back. Harry had seen him scrubbing the message on the wall with Mrs. Skower’s All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover, but to no effect; the words still gleamed as brightly as ever on the stone.

When Filch wasn’t guarding the scene of the crime, he was skulking red-eyed through the corridors, lunging out at unsuspecting students and trying to put them in detention for things like “breathing loudly” and “looking happy.”

The attack had also had an effect on Hermione. It was quite usual for Hermione to spend a lot of time reading, but now Neville whispered that she worried because she did little else. When Harry asked her what she was reading, she would reply with a short “Nothing important,” but clearly it was. Even Draco’s pestering couldn’t get her to open up.

Meanwhile Harry had to deal with students looking at him with new suspicion. A Slytherin had found the cat, so the Slytherin must have petrified it. That was the judgment of most of the school, and the fact that Professor Snape provided an alibi had not convinced students to see it any differently. Justin Finch-Fletchley actually ran away from him when they met in the corridor. If it weren’t for his friends, Harry would have hidden in one of the parselmouth corridors and never come out.

As they were wading through the throne of students hurrying to class, Colin Creevey went past.

“Hiya, Harry!”

“Hullo, Colin,” said Harry automatically.

“Harry— Harry— a boy in my class has been saying you’re—”

But Colin was so small he couldn’t fight against the tide of people bearing him toward the Great Hall; they heard him squeak, “See you, Harry!” And he was gone.

“What’s a boy in his class saying about you?” Hermione wondered.

Before Harry could say the obvious, Draco jumped in. “Didn’t you know Slytherins are to blame for everything that goes wrong in Hogwarts?” he asked sarcastically. “Harry wears green; therefore, he must be to blame for any event he witnesses.”

“Students aren’t quite that bad,” Hermione argued, but Draco and Blaise just stared at her blankly. Harry sighed.

“Alright. They are,” she admitted. “You could have made your lives easier by choosing a different house.”

“You don’t choose houses,” Blaise said.

Both Harry and Hermione stopped and stared at him. Luckily the crowd had thinned now so they didn’t have upperclassmen shoving them out of the way.

“You can’t,” he repeated.

“The hat wanted to put me in Ravenclaw, and I told it that I was tired of no one seeing anything other than me being smart. I told it that great leaders had come out of Gryffindor, and that’s where I was going.” She had her ‘test me’ voice on, and Harry could imagine her thinking in exactly that tone to the hat.

“I asked for Hufflepuff,” Harry said. “In Diagon Alley, the woman in the trunk shop said that I would have protective friends in her house, so that’s what I wanted. But the hat said that I would hurt their feelings because they wouldn’t understand me, so I had to pick another house. Any other house I wanted. It said I would fit in all three. I picked Slytherin.”

Blaise looked at Draco and both blinked as though their brains required time to retire. “You picked?” Blaise asked.

Draco threw his hands in the air. “Why are you never normal, Potter?”

“Hey!” Harry objected.

Hermione crossed her arms over her chest. “Maybe if you didn’t assume every custom and tradition is written in stone and questioned the hat, you would have had a choice, too.” She narrowed her eyes and practically dared Draco to go off on one of his tradition-good speeches. Harry understood both sides. Wizards had their own cultures and traditions that deserved respect as much as any other culture. However, Hermione had a point that they clung to things like marriage contracts and letting an inanimate object define their school experience by picking their house for them.

“I would have chosen Slytherin anyway,” Draco said. “Maybe the professors and students are unfair, but once you leave school, you’re going to see the truth. Slytherins are the power behind politics in Great Britain.”

Harry could smell the fight coming, so he changed the subject. “Do you think the Chamber is really open? Did something come out of it, or did someone cast a petrifaction spell on the cat?”

“I don’t know,” Hermione said, frowning. “Dumbledore couldn’t cure Mrs. Norris, and that makes me think that whatever attacked her might not be—well—human.” As she spoke, they turned a corner and found themselves at the end of the very corridor where the attack had happened. They stopped and looked.

The scene was just as it had been that night, except that there was no stiff cat hanging from the torch bracket, and an empty chair stood against the wall bearing the message “The Chamber of Secrets Has Been Opened.” Everyone had seen Filch keeping guard from that spot.

They looked at each other. The corridor was deserted.

“Can’t hurt to have a poke around,” said Harry with a look toward his Slytherin friends. If the Chamber was guarded by one of the little ones, somewhere in this corridor there was a tiny carved snake waiting for the command to open. Harry had searched the parselmouth corridors since logically they had to empty into the Chamber if they were used for evacuations, but he had failed.

“I’ll keep watch,” Draco said, likely to avoid having to get on the ground to search the floorboards.

“I’ll take high,” Blaise said, and he turned his attention to the beams overhead, casting a spell that magnified the surface so he could search for a carving. Hermione gaze turned calculating, but Harry didn’t notice right away because he was on his hands and knees, crawling along as he searched.

“What are you looking for?” she asked slowly. She knew they had a secret, and her expression suggested that she was not above torturing them to find out what it was.

Just then, Harry spotted something on the floor. “Scorch marks!” he said. “Here —and here—”

Hermione walked over to the window. “This is funny….”

Harry got up and crossed to the window next to the message on the wall. Hermione was pointing at the topmost pane, where around twenty spiders were scuttling, apparently fighting to get through a small crack. A long, silvery thread was dangling like a rope, as though they had all climbed it in their hurry to get outside.

“Have you ever seen spiders act like that?” said Hermione wonderingly.

“No,” said Harry.

“I’ve seen bowtruckles act like that,” Draco said. “We had an ignumis infection in the forest near the manor, and all the bowtruckles fled the area, single file like that. My father had to call in specialists to get rid of the infestation before they burned down the forest and our manor with it.”

“What are ignumis?” Hermione asked.

“They’re like moths only they have fire tails during mating season and they love to eat bowtruckles.”

Blaise leaned against the wall. “So, something that likes to eat spiders has come into the castle?”

“Ew.” Hermione wrinkled her nose.

“I second that,” Harry agreed. “You know, when Professor Snape and I were up here, we were splashing through water. It was at least an inch deep. Where did that come from?”

“Probably the toilet,” Blaise said, poking a thumb toward a heavy door with a brass knob and a large sign reading OUT OF ORDER. “A lot of trouble starts in the girls’ toilets around here. Remember the troll?”

Hermione gave a full-body shiver. “Never bring that up again.”

“Should we search the bathroom?” Harry asked.

“It’s a girls’ toilet!” Draco objected, his voice almost squeaking in horror.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “It’s not like anyone would be in it. That’s Moaning Myrtle’s place. If you go in there, you run the risk of having a sobbing ghost tell you all the reasons why she’s miserable. We all avoid it. And if you aren’t nice to her, she’ll throw toilet water all over the bathroom.”

“That’s it,” Draco said in an almost normal voice. “I’m putting my foot down. We are not going to risk getting splashed with toilet water.”

“Awww, are you afraid Drackey?” Hermione teased.

He glared at her. “I will face a troll for you, Granger, but I will not risk toilet water touching my silk robes.” Her turned and stalked off. Slytherins were not supposed to walk the halls alone, so Blaise took off after him, but then Harry would have to separate from Hermione at some point because they had different schedules, and that would put him alone, so he had to run after Blaise.

After a second, Hermione followed. “Really. I thought boys were supposed to be braver.”

“Risking toilet water is not brave; it’s stupid,” Draco said, “and that is clearly the realm of Gryffindors.”

Harry was still laughing at both of them when the reached the stairs. Ron was there with his two Gryffindor friends and Neville. Harry stopped and eyed the boy who had once offered him friendship. They had been on first-name basis, but Harry didn’t know how to address him now. If he called Ron “Weasley,” Ron would probably take that as an insult. But they weren’t on a first-name basis.

“What, are you waiting to insult Harry?” Draco demanded in his snottiest voice.

Harry sighed. “Draco, he hasn’t said a word yet. At least let him accuse me of being the Heir of Slytherin before you get offended.”

“Heir of Slytherin? What?” Ron looked genuinely confused.

Neville spoke up. “Lots of students are saying that Harry found Mrs. Norris, so he probably did something.”

If anything, Ron looked more confused. “That’s dumb. If this is the Heir of Slytherin and not some practical joke, why would someone start with a cat? Why would Harry petrify a cat?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know, but people have literally run away from me in the hallway.”

“People are stupid,” Ron said. “Someone is trying to frighten all the squibs and muggle-borns out of Hogwarts, and Harry defends his mother’s blood status. Now other people…” Ron let his voice trail off as he stared at Draco. “You could be Slytherin’s descendant. Your father’s definitely evil enough.”

“Take that back!” Draco pulled his wand.

“You could’ve had the key to the Chamber of Secrets for centuries!” said Ron. “Handing it down, father to son.” Thomas and Finnegan started whispering behind Ron. Apparently they liked that theory.

“Except he was at the feast,” Hermione said.

“Did you see him there?” Ron demanded.

“I did,” Blaise said. He put a hand on Draco’s arm to stop him from throwing any hexes. Draco did not have a lot of self-control in that department.

“Another Slytherin.”

“I saw him,” Neville said firmly. “Parkinson was trying to catch Harry’s attention, and Draco was distracting him every time she tried. It was funny to watch.” Neville shrugged an apology, probably because Draco was very sensitive about people calling him funny.

Ron huffed. “Fine, so maybe he set something up ahead of time. The twins have all sort of ways to make their pranks go off only after they’ve left the area.”

Harry didn’t doubt that at all; however, he thought Ron was looking for an excuse to blame Draco. Yes, Draco could be a prat, but ever since Ron and Draco had fought on the Hogwart’s Express before first year, Ron had looked for reasons to insult Draco.

Hermione spoke before Harry could. “Really, Ron. Everyone knows you hate Draco, always complaining that he and his father are corrupting Harry—”

“They are!” Ron shouted. “Mr. Malfoy is awful, and he probably ordered his son to be friends with Harry, and one of these days, you’re all going to see it.”

“Did he arrange to marry a Black so I would be related to his family?” Harry asked sarcastically. He expected Ron to explode, but he got quiet and stared at Harry for a long time before he answered.

“You don’t understand how bad things were in the war or how long Malfoys can plot and plan. One of these days, he’s going to show his true colors, and I hope for your sake and the sake of the Wizarding world that it’s not too late for you to defend yourself when that day comes. And when that day comes, remember that I warned you and that I would still be your friend if you stopped believing everything that certain people tell you.” This time Ron glared at both Draco and Blaise before turning his back and stalking away.

Finnegan and Thomas followed, leaving Neville behind.

Neville sighed. “Your father is awful, Draco, but that doesn’t mean you are.”

Draco frowned as if unable to decide if that was a compliment or insult. Finally, he sniffed and turned his nose up. “Whatever,” he exclaimed before he strode off doing his best impression of his father.

Neville gave Harry a worried look, and Harry shrugged. “I know he’s a manipulative politician and raging racist,” Harry said, “but I like Narcissa.”

Neville nodded before he turned to follow the other Gryffindors.


Chapter 17

Since the disastrous episode of the pixies, Professor Lockhart had not brought live creatures to class. Instead, he read passages from his books to them, and sometimes reenacted some of the more dramatic bits. He usually picked Harry to help him with these reconstructions; so far, Harry had been forced to play a simple Transylvanian villager whom Lockhart had cured of a Babbling Curse, a yet with a head cold, and a vampire who had been unable to eat anything except lettuce since Lockhart had dealt with him.

After nearly three months of Lockhart’s teaching, even Slytherins were struggling to make the best out of the situation. The house had conclusively disproved every adventure using the timeline and rampant impossibilities in the book, so it wasn’t fun finding more inaccuracies.

Professor Snape had doubled the number of hours he dueled with fifth and seventh years and had started assigning independent homework in-house. The extra work was making him even shorter tempered than he had been last year when Quirrell had been trying to steal from the school. He assigned the fourth and fifth years to teach the younger students while the seventh years worked with fourth through sixth years to make sure they knew their defensive spells and practiced their own.

When Hermione had found out that Slytherins got tutoring, she had finally admitted that Slytherins were better at some things and then promptly demanded that they teach her. Draco and Blaise demonstrated a few hexes and shields, but it was Millicent who truly stepped up. She was brilliant at learning new defensive skills, and she delighted in teaching Hermione. Harry split his time between the boys who had privately told Harry they were uncomfortable fighting girls and the girls who had no such compunctions about throwing hexes against the opposite sex.

And having worked with both, Harry knew Millicent and Hermione were the better duelers, by far. Harry couldn’t figure out why the Slytherins had any compunctions about female duelers because Bellatrix had been the Dark Lord’s most feared fighter. They should know that women could duel just as well. And if they didn’t know that, Hermione and Millicent should be enough evidence.

Neville, on the other hand, refused to work with any of them and insisted that he would stick with Professor Lockhart’s instruction. While the others practiced in an empty classroom, he would often sit with Gregory working on homework. Vince, weirdly, had taken to hanging around with Nott. For a while, Gregory had done the same, but now he was back to spending time with Draco and his friends.

In their next Defense Against Dark Arts lesson, Harry was hauled to the front of the class to play the part of a werewolf. If he hadn’t had Slytherin rules pounded into his head—including to never be disrespectful in public—he would have refused to do it.

“Nice loud howl, Harry —exactly— and then, if you’ll believe it, I pounced—like this—slammed him to the floor—thus—with one hand, I managed to hold him down.”

Harry didn’t believe it, and the Slytherins all had on their polite masks to hide their own disgust at the blatant lies. However, since Harry was pinned under Lockhart as he played werewolf to the professor’s hunter, he tried to look somewhat interested.

“With my other hand, I put my wand to his throat—I then screwed up my remaining strength and performed the immensely complex Homorphus Charm—he let out a piteous moan—go on, Harry—higher than that—good—the fur vanished—the fangs shrank—and he turned back into a man. Simple, yet effective—and another village will remember me forever as the hero who delivered them from the monthly terror of werewolf attacks.”

The bell rang and Lockhart got to his feet.

“Homework—compose a poem about my defeat of the Wagga Wagga Werewolf! Signed copies of Magical Me to the author of the best one!” Students scrambled to escape the room, but Lockhart had helped Harry to his feet and now had a strong grip on his shoulder. He waited until most of the students had left before saying, “So, Harry, tomorrow’s the first Quidditch match of the season, I believe? Gryffindor against Slytherin, is it not? I hear you’re a useful player. I was a Seeker, too. I was asked to try for the National Squad, but preferred to dedicate my life to the eradication of the Dark Forces.”

Blaise had been one of the students to remain behind, and his expression turned thunderous at the insult to all Dark magic. Lockhart didn’t notice.

“Still, if ever you feel the need for a little private training, don’t hesitate to ask. Always happy to pass on my expertise to less able players….”

Harry made an indistinct noise in his throat and then hurried to join Blaise and Neville. Once they were out of the room, Blaise said, “Never be alone with him.”


Blaise caught Harry by the arm. “Never be alone with that man. He’s offering private tutoring? Why?”

“Because he wants to impress me and tell everyone he’s a mentor to the Boy-Who-Lived.” Harry hated his fame, but he did understand how others valued it.

Neville looked down the hall nervously before he said, “I agree with Blaise. He shouldn’t be offering private tutoring. It’s strange. I don’t like how he singles you out and touches you, and magic can do things.”

“Things?” Harry looked from one to the other.

Blaise sighed. “Magic can make you agree with things or make you forget things that other people have done to you.”

Harry frowned, not understanding. Blaise gave a put-upon sigh. “Just don’t ever be alone with him.”

Harry huffed. “It’s not like I want to spend time with him. Where are Draco and the others?”

“Hermione headed back to the tower,” Neville said. “She hasn’t said anything, but I think this stuff with the Heir and the Chamber is really bothering her. She looked up what happened in the war, and I think she’s freaking out.”

“You mean the muggle-baiting?” Harry asked. He’d seen some of those articles in old newspapers.

“And massacres,” Blaise said. “You know I am a believer in teaching Dark Arts so they will be handled responsibly, but what happened in the UK… It horrified the world. It was unforgivable.”

“But the world didn’t send any help,” Neville said bitterly.

“We were still recovering from Grindelwald.”

“It seems like the world is going from Dark Lord to Dark Lord,” Harry said. “Why?”

Blaise sighed and gave Neville a sidelong look before answering. “Because good people want part of what these Dark Lords are offering and they’re willing to accept the other parts to get it.”

“So, murder and torture are acceptable side effects?” Neville asked. He looked on the verge of tears.

“Absolutely not,” Blaise said. “That’s why I called what they did massacres and horrific. But people feel shut out of the political system, and that makes them irrational.”

“It makes them evil,” Neville said.

Blaise’s expression was full of sympathy. “It does,” he agreed. But evil is more than the Dark Arts or even Dark Lords. I suspect evil is in that classroom claiming to be a hero standing against the Dark.” Blaise looked back at Lockhart’s door, and when Neville did the same, he got a wry expression on his face.

“You might be right about that.”

Harry woke early on Saturday morning and lay for a while thinking about the coming Quidditch match. He was nervous, mainly at the thought of disappointing Professor Snape. The man had been so angry and waspish lately, and Harry didn’t want to let him down. Everyone knew he had a huge rivalry with McGonagall in Gryffindor, so this match mattered.

As eleven o’clock approached, the whole school started to make its way down to the Quidditch stadium. It was a muggy sort of day with a hint of thunder in the air. Hermione and Neville were absent. They claimed they had no interest in the match, but Harry worried that she was still scared to be in a crowd where anyone might be a psychopath trying to drive muggle-borns out of the school. However, Blaise, Vincent, Millicent and even Nott had settled in the front of the Slytherin section. All of them except Nott waved as the Slytherin team took the field.

Draco grinned at Harry before slapping Gregory on the arm. “Right then, get into the air, all of you,” Flint ordered. He had already drilled them on strategy, which seemed to involve a lot of fouling and suggestions that Harry fly literal circles around the Gryffindor Seeker who was simply bad. The boy couldn’t see a quaffel flying at his face. And Angela had a Gryffindor habit of flying to the rescue of any teammate being tormented. So if Harry could lure her away, the Gryffindor team would be even more incapable of winning.

Harry would rather find the snitch as fast as possible and get the game over with, but Flint liked to humiliate his enemies, and Harry liked to avoid annoying much larger upperclassmen.

Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff sported red and gold scarves and Gryffindor banners, but Harry had expected that. Slytherin house supported them by soundly booing the Gryffindor team when they appeared on the field. Madam Hooch, the Quidditch teacher, asked Flint and Wood to shake hands, which they did, giving each other threatening stared and gripping rather harder than was necessary.

“On my whistle,” said Madam Hooch. “Three… two… one…”

With a roar from the crowds to speed them upward, the fourteen players rose toward the leaden sky. Harry flew higher than any of them, searching for the snitch. The Gryffindor seeker was flying a slow loop around the field squinting at every corner, but Harry’s strategy was to watch the whole field, his eyes slightly unfocused as he searched for movement. Nothing moved like a snitch. One of the twins shot under him, chasing after a heavy black bludger. He had almost caught it when it changed course and came pelting toward Harry. Harry avoided it so narrowly that he felt it ruffle his hair as it passed.

“Close one, Harry,” said George, his club still in hand, but Gregory and Lucian Bole flew right at George so fast that George had to dart away to avoid a collision. “We’ve got your back,” Gregory called.

“Oy! I didn’t even hit that ball!” George objected. As if to prove George’s words, the bludger changed direction midair and shot straight for Harry again.

Harry dropped to quickly avoid it, and Lucian hit it toward George’s face. Instead of reaching its target, the bludger swerved like a boomerang and shot at Harry’s head.

Harry put on a burst of speed and zoomed toward the other end of the pitch. He could hear the bludger whistling along behind him. What was going on? Bludgers never concentrated on one player like this; it was their job to unseat as many people as possible…

Fred Weasley was in front of him, his bat raised, and for a horrible moment, Harry thought Fred was swinging at him. He ducked, but then Fred hit the bludger with all his might; it was knocked off course.

“Gotcha!” Fred yelled happily as Bole and Gregory reached their position. But Fred was wrong; as thought it was magnetically attracted to Harry, the bludger pelted after him once more and Harry was forced to fly off at full speed with not only the Slytherin beaters but the Gryffindor ones covering his back.

It had started to rain; Harry felt heavy drops fall onto his face, splattering onto his glasses, and he silently thanked Narcissa for buying all the charms that would fit on quidditch glasses. Over the speaker, he heard Lee Jordan say, “Slytherin lead, sixty points to zero—” but Harry didn’t have time to celebrate. The mad bludger was doing all it could to knock Harry out of the air. Gregory and Bole covered him on the right while Fred took his left and George flew just below him, and all four of them had to work to keep the bludger away from Harry.

“Land!” Bole yelled. “Land now!”

“But the snitch!” Harry called back. He would rather face a mad bludger than Flint and Snape.

“Someone’s tampered — with this — bludger,” Fred grunted, swinging his bat with all his might as it launched a new attack on Harry.

“We can take a time out,” Bole said. “Now land.”

Harry aimed his broom at the ground and Madam Hooch’s whistle rang out. Harry raced toward her, trusting the four beaters to protect him from the mad bludger.

“What’s going on?” Flint asked as he strode over. “Potter, why aren’t you in the air?”

Harry was ready to launch into the air to avoid Flint’s displeasure when Bole landed next to him. “The bludger is trying to murder Harry,” he said without a hint of exaggeration or humor. Flint’s eyes grew large.

Gregory was out of breath when he landed with Draco right behind him. “It won’t leave Harry alone. Someone must have sabotaged it.” He glared at the Gryffindor team, which seemed unfair because even Harry had to admit that sabotaging a ball was more Slytherin than Gryffindor.

Madam Hooch and Professor Snape were walking toward them. “Listen,” said Harry to the two Slytherin beaters as they came nearer and nearer, “with you two flying around me all the time, the only way I’m going to catch the snitch is if it flies up my sleeve. Go back to the rest of the team and let me deal with the rogue bludger.”

“Did you hear the part where the ball is trying to kill you?” Draco demanded in a shriek.

“I’m not going to forfeit the match!” Harry cried. He’d grown up the least popular student with Dudley as a cousin. He was a veteran of some of the cruelest dodgeball games ever seen on the playground and he’d survived Harry Hunting. He wasn’t going to lose his team the game the very first time he took to the air.

Madam Hooch joined them. “Ready to resume play?” she asked Flint. The Gryffindor team was huddled up several yards away, and the twins were watching Harry with concern.

“No!” Draco blurted before Flint could say anything. “The bludger has been tampered with to target Harry. It’s trying to kill him.”

“It’s not that bad,” Harry said. “I can outfly it, and I’ll find the snitch.”

Madam Hootch raised her whistle, but before she could blow it, Professor Snape physically shoved her to one side. “Are you risking your life for a game?” His voice was low and dangerous and all the hair on the back of Harry’s neck stood on end. Draco crossed his arms and looked smugly satisfied. Prat.

“Um, no?” Harry guessed.

Professor Snape’s expression grew darker. “Rolanda, capture the bludgers and let us see if the charms have been corrupted.”

“The rules don’t allow—”

Madam Hooch swallowed when Snape turned a hate-filled look toward her. “Perhaps we can reschedule the game,” she admitted.

“Perhaps we can,” Snape said softly but with no less malice in his tone.

Headmaster Dumbledore was now walking across the field with Professor McGonagall as the rain began to fall more heavily. “Are you forfeiting, Severus?” she asked in a tone Harry usually associated with Draco.

Snape practically growled at her. “I am protecting my students from faulty equipment.”

She stopped. “Faulty equipment?” McGonagall looked at Madam Hooch who shrugged. “Really, Severus. I didn’t think you would stoop to participating in your student’s machinations.”

Snape’s expression grew so cold that the Slytherin students retreated a step.

“Professor,” George said, “we were up there. The bludger won’t be turned away from Harry. It’s going for his head and his head alone.”

“It’s turning midair to target him,” Fred added. Finally McGonagall and Dumbledore looked concerned.

“Rolanda, capture the bludgers,” the headmaster ordered. “A quick check will tell us if they’ve been tampered with, and if so, we will reschedule the game for next week.”

With a nod, Madam Hooch pulled out the ball box and enlarged it to proper size with a tap of her wand. One of the bludgers and the quaffle flew down immediately. Snitches didn’t like to be penned, so it was always tricky to put one away without catching it, but more importantly, the second bludger didn’t respond.

Madam Hooch and Dumbledore exchanged a concerned look. Madam Hooch tapped the box with her wand again, and everyone searched the air for the last bludger. A millisecond of whistle warned Harry before WHAM.

The bludger had hit him at last, smashed into his elbow, and Harry felt his arm break. Dimly, dazed by the searing pain in his arm, he watched as Snape pulled his wand and cast a spell that turned the bludger into dust that hovered for a moment before the rain washed it out of the air. Harry stumbled sideways and then he was caught in a black cloak and lowered to the ground as he struggled with a need to pass out.

His arm was hanging at a very strange angle. Riddled with pain, he heard, as though from a distance, a good deal of shouting. Rain continued to patter against the ground, but Snape’s cloak shielded him from both rain and from the people who rushed onto the field.

“Not to worry. I know how to fix this,” a voice said.

“If you raise your wand to one of my snakes, you will have no hand left to use one ever again,” Snape threatened.

“Now, Severus, I’m sure Gilderoy is only trying to help,” Dumbledore said.

“He can help by leaving my students alone.”

Harry tried to sit up, but the pain was terrible. He heard a familiar clicking noise nearby.

“I don’t want a photo of this, Colin,” he said loudly.

“Mr. Creevey, if you do not understand respecting others, I will be happy to explain the concept over a month of detentions.” Clearly Professor Snape was even more angry that usual, but Harry was a little grateful. Madam Pomfrey pushed Severus aside to kneel beside Harry.

“Where does it hurt?”

“Um, my broken arm?” Harry had thought that was obvious.

“Anywhere else?”


She pulled out a bottle of Skeleton-gro and held it out. Weirdly Snape took it and examined the bottle, even sniffing it before he handed it to Harry. “This will hurt,” she warned him, but Harry figured it couldn’t hurt worse than the broken arm. He was almost right. It burned Harry’s mouth and throat as it went down, making him cough and splutter. Meanwhile, Madam Pomfrey immobilized his arm, forcing the bones straight while Harry wavered in and out of consciousness.

“Well, I suppose we can reschedule for next week,” McGonagall said. “All of you, back to the castle. It isn’t as if you’ve never seen a broken bone before. Scoot.” She started herding students away, but Harry’s friends sans Hermione and Neville huddled around him, as did the Slytherin team.

“Who cursed the bludger?” Draco asked.

“I don’t know,” Snape answered, his voice sharp. Harry had a feeling that when Snape figured out the answer to that, someone was going to regret their life choices. However, right now he didn’t care about who wanted him dead as much as enduring the pain without humiliating himself. Millicent grabbed his good hand and held it tightly while Madam Pomfrey levitated him toward the castle. Harry was just grateful for all his friends. Draco and Gregory and Blaise and Millicent and even Bole and Warrington were all walking around him like an honor guard. Even Nott and Vincent were here. It made Harry feel safe.


Chapter 18

Hours and hours later, Harry was asleep in his bed when he woke in pitch blackness. His curtains were drawn, and he never drew his curtains. He listened for Blaise, but there was an eerie silence right before he was horrified to realize someone was touching his arm.

“Get off!” he said loudly. Even though he didn’t have his wand, he cried “Lumos,” and his magic responded, casting a harsh light on the house elf standing on the edge of his bed. It took Harry a second to recognize him from the manor. “Dobby?!”

The house-elf’s goggling tennis ball eyes were peering at Harry, a single tear running down his long, pointed nose.

“Harry Potter came back to school,” he whispered miserably. “Dobby tried and tried to send Harry Potter away. Sir, why didn’t Harry Potter go home when he couldn’t get through to the train?”

Harry sat up. “What are you doing here? And what do you know about me getting trapped on the muggle side of King’s Cross?”

Dobby’s lip trembled and Harry was seized by a sudden suspicion. “It was you!” he said slowly. “You stopped the barrier from letting me through.”

“Indeed yes, sir,” said Dobby, nodding his head vigorously, ears flapping. “Dobby hid and watched for Harry Potter and pushed his trunk through the barrier before sealing the gateway and Dobby had to iron his hands afterward” — he showed Harry ten long, bandaged fingers— “but Dobby didn’t care, sir, for he thought Harry Potter was safe, but then Lady Malfoy be calling me to take trunks through to the other side because everyone found another way to get to the train.”

He was rocking backward and forward, shaking his ugly head. “Dobby was so upset he let his master’s dinner burn! Such a flogging Dobby never had, sir…”

Harry slumped back onto his pillows. Dobby belonged to the Malfoys, and if someone was abusing the elf, it would be Mr. Malfoy, Harry was sure of it. While Mr. Malfoy was kind to Harry, he wasn’t a kind man in general. But Harry didn’t know how he could help because Mr. Malfoy wouldn’t listen to Harry. If anything, criticizing him would make Mr. Malfoy even meaner. He was like Draco that way.

Dobby blew his nose on a corner of the filthy pillowcase he wore, looking so pathetic that Harry had to feel some sympathy.

“Why d’you wear that thing, Dobby?” he asked curiously. He’d seen other Malfoy elves and while they wore strange things—skirts made of tea towels and jackets cut from upholstery, they weren’t filthy like this. Harry couldn’t imagine any of the Malfoys letting a creature this dirty touch their food.

“This, sir?” said Dobby, plucking at the pillowcase. “It’s a mark of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir. Dobby can only be freed if his masters present him with clothes, sir. The family is careful not to pass Dobby even a sock, sir, for then he would be free to leave their house forever.”

“Do you want to leave the family?”

Dobby nodded, his eyes watering more. “More than anything, Harry Potter, sir.”

“I could talk to Narcissa,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure if that would help because families tended to hold onto their elves since the creatures tended to know all their secrets, but if Dobby was so unhappy that he was doing things that the Malfoys wouldn’t want, he might be able to talk Narcissa into letting him go.

Dobby mopped his bulging eyes and said, “Do not worry about Dobby. Harry Potter must go home! Dobby thought his bludger would be enough to make—”

“Your bludger?” said Harry, angry once more. “What do you mean, your bludger? You made that bludger try to kill me?”

“Not kill you, sir, never kill you!” said Dobby, shocked. “Dobby wants to save Harry Potter’s life! Better sent home, grievously injured, than remain here, sir! Dobby only wanted Harry Potter hurt enough to be sent home!”

“Oh, is that all? I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why you wanted me sent home in pieces?”

“Ah, if Harry Potter only knew!” Dobby groaned, more tears dripping onto his ragged pillowcase. “If he knew what he means to us, to the lowly, the enslaved, we dregs of the magical world! Dobby remembers how it was when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was at the height of his powers, sir! We house-elves were treated like vermin, sir! Of course, Dobby is still treated like that, sir,” he admitted, drying his face on the pillowcase. “but mostly, sir, life has improved for my kind since you triumphed over He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Harry Potter survived, and the Dark Lord’s power was broken, and it was a new dawn, sir, and Harry Potter shone like a beacon of hope for those of us who thought that the dark days would never end, sir….”

“That was more my parents than me,” Harry objected. He was beginning to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with Draco’s elf.

Dobby continued as if Harry hadn’t said anything. “And now, at Hogwarts, terrible things are to happen, are perhaps happening already, and Dobby cannot let Harry Potter stay here now that history is to repeat itself, now that the Chamber of Secrets is open once more—”

Dobby froze, horrorstruck, then grabbed Harry’s water glass from his bedside table and cracked it over his own head, toppling out of sight.

“Dobby!” Harry cried as he threw himself forward. When he looked over the edge of the bed, he saw Dobby sitting on the floor, surrounded by broken glass and covered in tiny cuts.

A second later, Dobby crawled back onto the bed, cross-eyed, muttering, “Bad Dobby, very bad Dobby…”

“Don’t hurt yourself!” Harry ordered.

“Dobby must. Dobby had said things that his master would not want said. Dobby is very, very bad elf.” When Dobby started punching himself in the side of the head, Harry grabbed the elf’s bony wrist.

“Dark deeds are planned in this place, but Harry Potter must not be here when they happen—go home, Harry Potter, go home. Harry Potter should not be here. It’s too dangerous.”

“Why is it dangerous?” Harry asked. “Has the Chamber been opened? Who opened it? Who opened it last time? Was it Tom? Was it the Dark Lord?”

“Dobby can’t, sir, Dobby can’t, Dobby mustn’t tell!” squealed the elf. “Go home, Harry Potter, go home!”

“I’m not going anywhere!” said Harry fiercely. “Hermione is muggle-born and she’s already afraid. Is she in danger? The person who opened the Chamber, are they angry at muggles or muggle-borns?”

“Harry Potter risks his own life for his friends!” moaned Dobby in a ind of miserable ecstasy. “So noble! So valiant! But he must save himself, he must, Harry Potter must not—”

Dobby suddenly froze, his bat ears quivering. “Oh no. Dobby is too late. Dobby must go!” breathed the elf, terrified. There was a loud crack, and Harry’s fist was suddenly clenched on thin air.

“Too late for what?” Harry asked the empty space where Dobby had been standing. With a sigh, he pushed his curtains opened. While the lake was a mass of shifting shadow and darkness unlike the absolute absence of light that existed when the curtains were drawn, and now that Harry had pulled back the curtains, he could hear Blaise’s wheezing sort of snore. Part of Harry wanted to get up and demand answers from Draco right now, but Draco wasn’t the nicest sort when he was woken, and if Mr. Malfoy was mistreating the elf, going to Draco might get Dobby punished more.

Harry considered going to Professor Snape, but he didn’t think the man would consider a distressed elf any reason to concern himself, and he’d been so disagreeable in the last week or so that Harry didn’t want to risk making him more angry. Realizing that he didn’t have a way to help Dobby right now, Harry resolved to talk to Narcissa privately as soon as possible.

Maybe he could visit Malfoy Manor over Christmas break this year. Professor Snape had a sort-of relationship with Aunt Petunia. At the very least they had bonded over being annoyed by Harry, although Harry assumed Snape was exaggerating his aggravation to make Harry’s aunt and uncle happy. But maybe Snape could get him permission to leave on break.

Harry had never had a real Christmas where he woke up and hurried downstairs to have breakfast with a family and open presents. If he stayed with Draco, Draco would get tons more presents than him, but unlike Dudley, Draco would share those presents and Harry would get plenty of gifts for himself. That was a nice thought.

Harry settled back down under the covers, determined to talk to Narcissa later.

When Harry woke up on Sunday morning, the last of the pain in his arm was gone. He bent his elbow this way and that, but there wasn’t even a twinge of pain. Seeing Blaise awake, Harry offered a quick, “Good morning.”

“Did you hear the news?” Blaise asked, his eyes aglow with the joy of good gossip.

“I just woke up, so no.”

“Colin Creevey was petrified last night.”

“What? How do you know?” Harry demanded.

Blaise got a mysterious expression on his face. “I have my ways.”

Harry suspected his ways involved eavesdropping spells, but since Harry benefited from Blaise’s unscrupulous ways, he didn’t push matters. “Is he going to be okay?” Harry wondered if Colin’s petrifaction had anything to do with Dobby’s appearance or his sudden disappearance last night.

“I assume so. Word is that McGonagall and Dumbledore took him to the infirmary late last night. And whatever petrified him, absolutely melted his camera—so no picture. Do you think it was a spell or this ‘queen’ that the snakes keep talking about?”

Harry sighed. He wished he had a way to tell Hermione about the snakes without making her more suspicious. She would have put these clues together already. But she was so smart that if he showed up with information literally no one else had, she would discover his secret. He trusted her. He did. But she was Gryffindor and they didn’t understand the value of keeping information close to the vest. Harry had seen that with Ron and even with Neville.

When Neville had agreed with Harry and Blaise to hide information from Ron, he had suffered several bouts of guilt, even though the information that Quirrell was after the stone was really none of Ron’s business. Apparently giving away information was a Gryffindor thing. Harry didn’t get it. So he changed the subject.

“Blaise, is there any way for a house elf to tell his family’s secrets to someone else or betray his family?”

Blaise gave Harry an odd look. “Why?” Suspicion colored his voice.

Harry shrugged. “Pretend to believe me when I say it’s hypothetical.”

Blaise laughed. “Only for you, Potter. So, how far off the reservation is this house elf that might not exist?”

“He’s doing things his owner would hate, but then he’s punishing himself for doing it. He ironed his own hands.”

Blaise winced. “That’s not right.”

“No, it’s not. So what would make a house elf act like that?”

Blaise pulled a leg under him and pursed his lips. “If the elf feels like they need to serve two people that are in conflict, that might happen.” He didn’t sound sure.

“Would an elf develop loyalty to me because he believes I banished the Dark Lord and he felt like the Dark Lord treated other magical species like vermin and I stopped that?”

“It shouldn’t work like that. House elf magic runs in families. An elf should only feel an obligation to someone connected to their family. It’s blood magic.”

“Could the Potters have left elves behind? There are two Potter houses that got destroyed. There may have been elves there.”

Blaise shook his head. “First, if there were elves, they would have stayed with you. You’re the last Potter. Your blood would have called to theirs.”

“Unless someone stopped them,” Harry said. He thought about how Dumbledore had left him at the Dursley’s with nothing more than a note and then had never made sure the Dursley’s treated him well. He might have wanted to keep elves away.

Blaise laughed. “Sometimes I forget you weren’t raised in the Wizarding world, and then you say something like that. No one can keep an elf away from their family. No one. You would have to kill the elf to keep them away, and given some of the things you’ve said about your Muggle family, no elf attached to your family would allow them near you. An elf would have taken over raising you themselves.

Harry threw himself backward, sprawling across his bed. So much for that theory.

“Besides,” Blaise added, “The Potter family is not one of the great houses, and generally only those have house elves. Most elves are attached to magical places like Hogwarts or Ilvermorny or Uagadou. I’ve heard that Japan has a number of magical shrines where they live. But elves that have attached themselves to families generally only attach to ancient families. Some say they have magic that lets them know which families will continue for generations. Apparently, the Black family elves started attaching themselves to the girls who married out of the family in the last generation or two, which some say proves that the elves knew the family was coming to an end. Other people believe the elves will only attach themselves to families who have large estates that can support magic.

Harry sat up. “But my family goes back to the Peverells. They’re one of the oldest magical families in England, up there with the Olivanders.”

“But the Peverell line died out, leaving only daughters, and you know how families in England see that.”

“Hermione might have a point about the sexism,” Harry said. “I don’t see what the big deal is about a son carrying on a name. I hate that people judge me without knowing me because of my name. If I ever got married, I might take my wife’s name.”

“I would pay to see Draco’s face if he heard you say that.”

Harry threw a blank scroll at Blaise’s head.

Blaise ducked. “I’m not kidding. Actually, most of England would lose their minds.”

“Your mother is the head of house Zabini.”

“My family is Italian. We have a long tradition of powerful witches and seers.”

“Maybe Hermione and Millicent should move to Italy.”

“We also have a long tradition of driving out foreigners who like to complain. Food poisoning is a powerful tool, and if that fails, there is always actual poison.”

Harry rolled his eyes. Maybe Blaise hadn’t helped with the Dobby issue, but he had made Harry feel better. Now Harry just needed to find an excuse to talk to Narcissa. Maybe he could write her and ask if they could talk over the winter break. He had to get some sort of help before Dobby’s attempts to save him got him killed.

Or before it made Slytherin lose a quidditch match, which would be pretty much the same thing only Flint would murder him after Professor Snape tortured him for a while.


Chapter 19

Severus walked to the headmaster’s office. He wished he could simply leave, but Albus had grown entirely too aware of Severus’s movements since his mark had darkened. He believed the Dark Lord would call Severus soon, but after Severus had targeted Quirrell, he wasn’t sure he still had the Dark Lord’s favor.

When Severus walked into the office, he immediately had Albus’s full attention. “Has he called you?”

“No, but Lucius asked me to come to dinner.”

Albus’s hand tightened on his quill until it bent and left a blotch on the parchment he’d been reviewing. “Is it possible Tom has taken refuge with him?”

Severus considered his answer. “It is possible, but I believe he would want to gather his more loyal Death Eaters first. Lucius always put his family before the Dark cause.”

“I have always felt it interesting which individuals you choose to assume the best of and which you refuse to forgive.” Albus raised an eyebrow.

Severus refused to rise to the taunt, especially when he could just as easily point out that Albus had always forgiven his Gryffindors much more quickly than Slytherins who committed the same sins. “I expect to be back by midnight.”

Albus leaned back. “He is making political moves.”

Severus raised an eyebrow, waiting.

“Harry is getting more and more enmeshed in Lucius web. I believe he gave Lucius a copy of his Gringotts accounts, and Lucius is arguing that I am too busy for all my duties.”

“He knows you’re the boy’s magical guardian?” Severus was surprised that Potter would give that sort of information to Lucius. He had thought the boy had some sense. On the other hand, both Lucius and Narcissa had gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. Severus understood the allure of that sort of acceptance. Severus wished he could step in and offer some sort of sanctuary, but he couldn’t. He was too closely tied to the Dark Lord.

He would like to find a way to get the Dowager Longbottom to take an interest in him. That was particularly difficult for him because the Longbottoms were a bastion of the light. Sure, the most recent Potters sided with the light, but they were historically neutral. If Severus had friendly relations with a Longbottom, he would never be accepted into the Dark Lord’s service again. That meant he couldn’t ask the dowager to get involved, and neither Albus nor Minerva would.

“He has only assumptions, but I have never seen him push Cornelius so hard. He is risking his political position in an attempt to damage me.”

Severus carefully didn’t point out that he had warned Albus of exactly this outcome. Albus had made too many mistakes with Potter, and the lack of health checks, the failure to remove juvenile blocks on his magic, and his lack of vaccinations were the tip of the iceberg of neglect. The Malfoys also had evidence of that neglect. When Severus didn’t say anything, Albus sighed.

“Be careful.”

“I always am, headmaster.” When Albus was silent, Severus left. He had to walk to the edge of the Hogwart wards before he could apparate to Malfoy Manor. Lucius was waiting for him at the end of the walk that lead to the manor’s front doors.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Severus said. He studied Lucius, searching for any sign that Lucius had returned to the Dark Lord’s service. He didn’t see any of the smug triumph he would expect if their Lord had come to Lucius first. If anything, he looked nervous.

“I can walk you to the house. Narcissa has an elaborate dinner planned since we don’t have to worry about Draco’s lack of patience for multi-course meals.”

Severus cocked an eyebrow, but he followed without comment. This was the first time he had seen Lucius since Samhain night, but neither of them mentioned the Dark Mark as they entered the manor.

“Severus,” Narcissa said warmly.


“After dinner, I have something to share with you in the pensieve. The Dowager Longbottom is going to regret challenging young Harry for many years to come. I’ve never seen her so frustrated.” She smiled in delight.

Severus gave Lucius a sidelong look. “And I’m sure you had nothing to do with Potter being quoted in the newspaper.”

Lucius slapped Severus on the arm. “I never thought I would owe Dumbledore for creating the myth of the savior of the wizarding world.”

Severus settled onto a couch in the drawing room where Narcissa had led them. “Speaking of which, should we discuss the ways in which the wizarding world’s savior might have failed to achieve the task Dumbledore has been touting for years?” Severus touched his left arm. Lucius and Narcissa exchanged a look. Severus studied them. Narcissa was worried, but he couldn’t identify Lucius’s emotion.

“Have you heard from our Lord?” Lucius asked.

Severus leaned back and accepted a drink from a house elf. “I have not. Have you?”

“No, but I’m sure he has plans.”

“No doubt,” Severus agreed. Given how Severus had treated Quirrell, torture and revenge probably featured on that plan.

“I need to show him my loyalty,” Lucius said. That was a concerning opening. While Lucius rarely had a stomach for violence, which he found entirely too messy, the moment he was challenged to prove himself, he turned as depraved as Bellatrix.

“And how will you do that?”

Lucius’s smile turned vicious. “I’ve already started. The old fool has left himself vulnerable. Cornelius is listening to me when I explain how Dumbledore has too many jobs to do any of them well. The Potter accounts are in utter disarray and the medical records of the boy’s neglect have done more damage than any plot I could have come up with on my own.”

“Our Lord always insisted that he would handle the boy. If you involve him in your plots or put him in danger, he will not thank you for it,” Severus warned. He hated that his Vow might require him to raise a wand against his friend and leave Draco without a father. He couldn’t imagine any other future at this point.

“Lucius wouldn’t target Harry,” Narcissa said with some ice in her voice. Severus was not the only one in a difficult position. Given Narcissa’s ability to control her family, he could only hope that Narcissa’s goodwill would improve Harry’s odds of survival. However, when the Dark Lord decided to actually make his move, only Dumbledore would be able to keep the boy alive.

Severus sipped his drink and waited for Lucius to reveal his latest scheme.

Lucius sat across from Severus and leaned forward. “I have to show our Lord that I’m faithful, but more than that, I must prove that I always had faith that he would return.”

So this was about Lucius’s machinations in the Wizengamot and his vehement denial of the Dark Lord. Severus raised an eyebrow, unsure of the reason for the invitation to dinner. Severus couldn’t help him with that.

“Did you always believe he was returning?” Lucius asked.

“Of course.” Severus had cursed the fact, but he had never doubted.

Narcissa rested a hand on Lucius’s arm. “I believe I should check on our dinner while you speak,” she said. “Severus.” She graced him with a smile and then swept out of the room.

Severus took another sip of his expensive whiskey and waited.

“When it looked like the fool would get the Muggle Protection Act to pass, I began to pass my Darkest books on to others. Our Lord was a great friend to my father, and he will know if I have purged my library. It will make me weak in his eyes.”

Severus continued to sip, and suddenly Lucius laughed. “You always were a cold-hearted bastard, Severus. That’s why he always favored you. Always.” A ghost of resentment crossed his face.

“So far you have not said anything to suggest I could help.”

“You could.”

“I assumed.”

Lucius laughed again. “Where is that thirteen year old boy desperate to help older Slytherins?”

“He grew up,” Severus said dryly. That maturity had come far, far too late, but he eventually had.

“One of my very darkest books I gave to someone in order to undermine their authority. However, I failed to take into account that some people are inadequate parents.”

“In what way?”

Lucius thunked his own glass down hard enough that some whiskey sloshed over the sides. “I put a cursed book into Ginerva Weasley’s possessions, assuming her father would find it before she left for Hogwarts. I check Draco’s school books and supplies each year, just as I checked Harry Potter’s since he was at the manor. Apparently if one has enough children to field a quidditch team, one no longer feels it necessary to provide such oversight.”

“Cursed book?” Severus’s blood ran cold. He knew what sort of horrors Abraxis and their Lord had dabbled in, and a curse from their hands could be deadly indeed. Severus’s suspicious mind immediately wondered what connection there was between the petrification of the Creevey boy and this dark artifact.

“I do not know what enchantments are on it, but if our Lord is back, I must have it back in my library,” Lucius said with a touch of desperation that might be either genuine or an affectation.

Severus considered the problem. If he told Albus, he would be able to confiscate the book, but if it was a rare book on Dark magic, Albus would then have the power to destroy it. Too much magic had already been lost due to his belief that no one other than himself could be trusted with power. In addition, Lucius would never again trust Severus.

On the other hand, if Severus helped Lucius, he could cement his position as being on the side of the Dark. With the Dark Lord returning, that was more important than ever. Dumbledore had publicly spoken for him in the Wizengamot, the Boy-Who-Lived was in his house, and Severus had been forced to temper his nastier insults toward the house of lions because of Potter’s friendships with Granger and Longbottom and Albus’s affection for the Weasleys.

So many of Severus’s plans for the Dark Lord’s return had been undone when Potter landed in Slytherin.

“Do you want me to search for the book?”

Lucius grinned and raised his glass in Severus’s direction. “I will be there at Hogwarts with you. I simply require some assistance.”

Severus sat up. “What?”

Lucius downed his whiskey. “Did you know there was an old law on the books that the Ministry could assign someone to review the headmaster’s decisions if the Minister decided that the children’s best interests were no longer being served?”

Severus blinked at Lucius, not able to grasp the full implications of what he was saying.

“The history scores have been abysmal for decades, a quick bit of research reveals that the Defense Against Dark Arts scores are only artificially bolstered by you and Professor Flitwick, and the finances are in dire trouble. Last year a troll invaded and multiple students ended the year in the hospital wing, and this year a student was petrified. It was not difficult to convince Cornelius that he has to intervene before the headmaster’s habit of doing jobs halfway costs the nation more than we can afford. Therefore, I am the new High Inquisitor assigned to Hogwarts to review staffing and policy.” Lucius looked entirely too pleased with himself.

Severus could not find words for a moment. Hogwarts was the headmaster’s unchallenged territory. He ruled the school. “High Inquisitor?”

Lucius waved a hand. “The title is archaic, but then so is the law. I never would have convinced Cornelius to invoke the law if not for two factors. The guardianship of Harry Potter proves that the headmaster can no longer keep track of details and the number of foreign students attending Hogwarts and bringing their tuition money with them has fallen to an all time low. At one point the foreign students paid enough to run the entire school, but in recent years, the Ministry has devoted more and more tax money to supporting the school. There’s even some talk of charging students tuition.”

“You’re coming to Hogwarts to challenge the headmaster directly?” Severus could not imagine a more terrifying possibility.

“I’m the natural choice. I’m already on the Board of Governors, and as I pointed out to Cornelius, having Draco there makes me uniquely motivated to ensure that the U.K. offers the most comprehensive and impressive education in the world. You must admit that we have fallen from that pinnacle in recent decades. So, tell me, what changes would you make to the potions program?”

Unable to find his voice, Severus stared at a very smug Lucius.

“I could get you a teaching assistant—move potions preparation into the curriculum for Herbology—redefine potions as a subject for third-year and older only. I could do many things to make your life easier, Severus. Our Lord asked you to take a job you hated, and you have served him and our cause well for all these years, but think of how I could ease that burden. All I ask in return is that you help me retrieve the book.”

Severus rubbed his face. He would have to tell Albus about Lucius’s newest schemes, although he would need to alter Lucius’s motivations somewhat. No doubt Albus would believe that Lucius was desperate to make moves against the Light in order to prove that he was as loyal as those Death Eaters who ended up in Azkaban. “And you are not doing this on our Lord’s orders?” Severus checked.

“If I had heard from the Dark Lord, I would have contacted you immediately, old friend. I know how much you looked up to him, and while you might not have been able to see it, I know how much the Dark Lord favored you. If I had any idea where our Lord was, I would have taken you to his side immediately.”

Severus scoffed. “The Dark Lord never favored me.”

“Other than you, we could all see he did. It drove Bellatrix to despair that no matter how many mudbloods or muggles she tortured, the Dark Lord would still look to you first in every meeting. I’m actually surprised he hasn’t called you to his side.” Lucius gave Severus a suspicious look.

“I am too close to the headmaster. Contacting me could expose his plans.”

Lucius shook his head. “The fool won’t even know our Lord is back until it is too late.”

Severus looked at Lucius for a time before he said slowly, “There are over a dozen marked Death Eaters in Azkaban. Every one of their marks will have turned as dark as our own. I’m sure the guards contacted the headmaster the moment that happened.”

Lucius frowned before shaking his head. “I checked the Ministry records. There’s no record of anything strange happening on Samhain.”

“I trust the headmaster to have his spies and informants in place far more than I trust the Ministry or Cornelius Fudge. The man is useless.”

“True,” Lucius admitted, “but he is a useful sort of useless. And with my new access to first Harry Potter and now Hogwarts, we have a chance to use Cornelius’s authority against our old enemy. The day may come when you get to dance on his grave, Severus.”

Severus didn’t say anything. He sipped his whiskey and considered how this changed the difficult act he was performing between these two groups. First Harry Potter had changed the political landscape and now Lucius was. Severus was growing increasingly concerned about how unsteady the ground was growing. How was he to keep Harry alive was he was beginning to doubt his ability to save his own life?

Severus was unsurprised to find Albus waiting for him at the entrance to the school despite the late hour. It had to be close to two in the morning. Albus cast a quick privacy charm as Severus walked up the steps.

“How is Lucius?”

“Desperate to prove his loyalty before the Dark Lord makes contact with him.”

“So you believe Voldemort hasn’t made contact yet?”

Severus winced as his mark burned at the name. Albus might have intended that as punishment for Severus’s use of the phrase “Dark Lord.” He hated when others offered Voldemort the respect of that title. “Lucius is not smug or arrogant enough to have rejoined He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Instead he is apprehensive. I believe he is nervous that those who sent to Azkaban may be perceived as more loyal.”

Albus sighed. “He was always an insecure boy.”

“He believes he has found a way to put himself in a position of power that will damage you and, therefore, impress his master.”

“Damage me?” Albus sounded amused as he turned and headed into the school. However, he didn’t cancel the privacy spell, so for all his nonchalance, he was worried. “What scheme has he concocted this time?”

“He has convinced Minister Fudge to appoint him the High Inquisitor for Hogwarts.”

That stopped Albus. He turned and stared at Severus with such intensity that Severus had to clamp down on an urge to fidget. He was not a child. He would not quail under the gaze of the headmaster. He would not.

“Why did he tell you about this?”

“He offered to make my life easier—to require Pomona to teach ingredients prep or have potions switched to a third through seventh year class.”

“In return for what?” Albus asked sharply.

“In return for me reporting on your reactions to his decrees and ensuring that Slytherin house supports him.”

“I believe your house will support him regardless.”

“Most will, yes, but there are certain resentments in the dungeons. Not every student comes from a family that supported the other side of the war, and of those that did support the Dark, many resent Lucius for avoiding punishment by condemning the entire political movement. He knows that not all my house will support him, and Slytherins are more likely to effectively undermine him rather than directly challenge him as Gryffindors might.”

“So he fears he will fail. As I said, he was always an insecure boy. Abraxis was not a good father.”

“No doubt,” Severus agreed. Albus spoke the truth, although Lucius was no longer the insecure boy he once was any more than Severus was the boy who was so desperate for acceptance that he took Lucius’s promises at face value.

“What does he plan to do?”

“He mentioned history and the Defense Against the Dark Arts position. However, I am not the most popular teacher at Hogwarts. If he wants favors from others, ousting me from my position may be advantageous for him, so I do not count myself safe.”

“Voldemort assigned you to spy. Lucius would not challenge that.”

“I personally offended Quirrell last year while he was hosting the Dark Lord, so I am not sure I can count on his favor to protect me from Lucius.”

Albus gave him a disappointed look. The castle was quiet, but Minerva came walking across the Great Hall toward them. She said something, but the privacy spell silenced her words. Albus waved his wand to include her in the spell.

“Minerva, Severus was just telling me that we can expect a surprise visit from Lucius Malfoy.”

“Visit?” She narrowed her eyes.

“He has maneuvered his way into a political position evaluating Albus’s decisions,” Severus explained. “He has used Albus’s inaction with the Potter boy to argue that Albus has too many jobs to keep track of all the details.” Severus raised an eyebrow and silently dared Albus to disagree.

“Inaction?” Minerva looked at Albus. So the man had kept secrets from her.

Severus said, “He did not receive vaccinations before attending class and during Christmas break, we discovered he had childhood blocks on his magic.”

Minerva’s eyes grew wide. “Is that why he suddenly had trouble controlling his metamorphmagus power halfway through the year?”

“Indeed,” Severus agreed.

Minerva started turning red. “Albus, really? How could you neglect the boy like that?”

“The child lived with muggles. The Black trait could only put him in danger,” Albus said. “Besides, being a metamorphmagus has made others distrustful of him because it is a reminder that he is as much a black as Bellatrix or Sirius.”

Minerva flinched at Sirius’s name. After all, he had been one of her favorites—a Black who valued the house of lions over his own family. Of course, it had all been a lie because in the end he had been as faithful to the Dark as any other member of his family, and he was suffering in Azkaban right next to Bellatrix and her cursed husband and brother-in-law. Severus considered Sirius even worse because he had acted like Potter’s friend before betraying Potter and Lily.

“Had the blocks not been taken off when they were, his magical core could have been permanently damaged,” Severus said. “Minister Fudge has seen that report.”

Minerva rubbed a hand over her face.

“You should not have allowed Lucius that much access to Harry,” Albus said. He had said as much many, many times before.

“The boy calls Narcissa family, so I have no authority to stop her from taking him for a medical check-up.”

“It should have not have been an issue, because you should have seen to his medical needs,” Minerva said sharply. “I can’t believe you didn’t get him vaccinations. Really, Albus. You need to either pay attention to the details or trust others to help you.”

Severus couldn’t resist saying, “I believe I said the same. In fact, I believe I recommended Bathsheda take over custody to avoid any further oversights.”

Both Minerva and Albus gave him disappointed looks, which was ironic given that Severus was only repeating what Minerva had said. But he was used to others taking offense to his words. Minerva eventually turned to Albus. “How are we going to handle this?”

“There is nothing to handle,” Albus said. “Lucius will push his power too far, and Cornelius and the others in the Ministry will see that. So we allow him to damage his own reputation and wait until the damage is so severe that no one can forgive him for it. Then Lucius will lose this new authority and his position on the Board of Governors.”

“So we give him access to the school?” Minerva demanded.

“We give him access to anything he wants,” Albus said with a twinkle in his eye. Severus did not look forward to this year.


Chapter 20

The news that Colin Creevey had been attacked and was now lying as though dead in the hospital wing had spread through the entire school by Monday morning. the air was suddenly thick with rumor and suspicion. The first years were now moving around the castle in tight-knit groups, as though scared they would be attacked if they ventured forth alone.

Neville said that Ginny Weasley, who partnered with Creevey in Charms, was distraught and the twins had taken to covering themselves with fur or boils and jumping out at her from behind statues. They only stopped when Percy, apoplectic with rage, told them he was going to write to Mrs. Weasley.

Slytherin had divided into students who quietly cheered the thought of the heir returning and those who set up thriving businesses selling talismans, amulets, and other protective devices, some of which had protective magic and others that relied only on the power of superstition. Neville was so worried that he bought a large, evil-smelling green onion, a pointed purple crystal, and a rotting newt tail because he feared that as a near-squib the heir would target him.

But the second week of December created a new round of rumors as Mr. Malfoy appeared at breakfast. “Students,” Dumbledore said after standing. The Slytherin table stilled, but it was several minutes before the Gryffindors or Hufflepuffs quieted enough for him to continue. “Students, I want to introduce a member of the Board of Governors, Lucius Malfoy.”

Draco huffed. “My father is here as High Inquisitor. You would think he could introduce him properly,” he whispered. When Mr. Malfoy stood, Draco fell silent and sat up straighter.

“Good morning, students.” Mr. Malfoy looked around the room. Harry could see the Gryffindors whispering and glaring, but the rest of the room appeared to watch him with caution, even the Slytherins. Slytherins were good at seeing power shifts, and most of them were studying Mr. Malfoy and the headmaster.

Harry was doing the same. The headmaster looked calm, but Harry didn’t believe appearances. Mr. Malfoy’s new position gave him the power to hire and fire staff, and Draco was sure that Professor Lockhart was on his way out. Lockhart certainly looked miserable as he sat between Professor’s McGonagall and Flitwick, so he probably knew his neck was on the chopping block.

Mr. Malfoy continued, his hand resting on his snakehead cane. “You may see me in classes, but I am not here to address any issues with the students, so feel free to continue as if I were not present.” He offered the Slytherin table a smile, and Harry could see which students considered him an ally. But the oddest reaction was Nott. He kept swallowing nervously. Harry couldn’t understand the reaction, but something was going on.

The first place Harry saw Mr. Malfoy was in potions. They were in one of the large dungeons. Twenty cauldrons stood steaming between the wooden desks, on which stood brass scales and jars of ingredients. Snape prowled through the fumes, making waspish remarks. Draco was sitting straighter than normal and he didn’t even try to flick a single puffer-fish eye toward the Gryffindor side of the room, which was a first for him. Normally he took advantage of Professor Snape’s favoritism.

“What are they working on today?” Mr. Malfoy asked as he peered into Harry’s cauldron.

“A Swelling Solution,” Professor Snape said. He sneered at Harry’s potion. “Too runny.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said. He already knew he’d missed his mark. Maybe the puffer fish had been old.

Severus looked in Draco’s cauldron. “Excellent,” he said. Draco puffed up so much that Harry was a little surprised that his head didn’t explode. Mr. Malfoy gave him an approving look, and Harry was almost sure that Draco could have died in that moment and been perfectly happy. Then something crackled, and Gregory’s cauldron exploded.

Mr. Malfoy jumped back, but people shrieked as splashes of the Swelling Solution hit most of Slytherin. Draco’s nose began to swell like a balloon and he bellowed his rage. But Gregory got it the worst. He slapped his hands over his eyes which had expanded to the size of a dinner plate.

“Calm yourselves! Calm!” Professor Snape shouted. He had his wand out and he pointed it at Gregory whose eyes had started to weep so badly that twin trails flowed over his cheeks. Harry held his breath, terrified that Gregory’s eyes would explode or get crushed by his skull or pop out. When an organ, like an eye, was destroyed, magic was limited in what it could do. A flick of Professor Snape’s wand later, and Gregory lowered his hands. His eyes were still dangerously large, but they didn’t seem to be growing any more.

Only then did Harry notice that two fingers on his left hand were enormous.

“Silence! SILENCE!” Professor Snape roared. “Anyone who has been splashed, come here for a Deflating Draught.” He led Gregory toward the teacher desk where he had vials lined up. Harry let other students go in front of him. Draco’s nose was the size of a melon and his head drooped with the weight. By the time he reached Professor Snape’s desk, he had to hold his head up with his hands. “When I find out who did this—”

Half the class ended up at the front desk, some weighted down with arms like clubs, others unable to talk through gigantic puffed-up lips. “Is anyone having trouble breathing?” Professor Snape asked as he started to hand out the antidotes. Harry was still in line to get antidote when Mr. Malfoy walked over to Gregory’s caldron. He scooped out a twisted black something.

“I believe I have found the problem.” He brought it over, levitating it easily. Most of the students probably believed he was using wandless magic, but Harry knew Mr. Malfoy had his wand in his cane. It was a neat trick to convince others that he had innate control.

Professor Snape studied it. “Fireworks. If I ever find out who threw this…” He turned to the Gryffindor side of the room, which was fair because Slytherins were too afraid to act up in his class. “I shall make sure that person is expelled.”

Harry studied the Gryffindors. Hermione refused to meet his gaze, which was weird, but Harry knew she would never have anything to do with a practical joke. She got hives when she fell an inch short on an essay. But maybe she’d seen which Gryffindor had done it. Harry understood loyalty to a house, but Gregory could have been blinded for life. They were all lucky that Professor Snape could cast a freezing spell to stop the swelling before that happened.

“Bottle your potions,” Professor Snape snapped.

“Does that happen often?” Mr. Malfoy asked.

“Not often since I am so vocal in my displeasure.” Snape glared at the Gryffindors again. “However, some students do not have the proper respect for the craft.”

“Have you ever requested a teaching assistant?” Mr. Malfoy asked.

“I have not. I understand the budget would not support such a request even if I made it.”

“You could overcome that by offering to take an apprentice. They would provide another set of eyes in the classroom, and in return you could train them in advanced potions.”

Harry bottled his own potion, and when the bell rang ten minutes later, all the students raced for the hall. Harry tried to get Hermione’s attention, but she and Ron were at the front of the pack headed for the Grand Hall and neither seemed to hear him.

“Gryffindors. They’re just thoughtless idiots,” Draco complained as he poked his nose and looked on the verge of tears. That seemed a little dramatic since Gregory had been the only one in real danger.

“Hermione is the opposite of thoughtless,” Harry argued, but he had to admit that something was weird with her. From the way she was sticking close to Ron, he wondered if she was lecturing him about not playing pranks in potions. Harry just didn’t understand why Ron would have done that. He wasn’t the twins. He had never seemed to enjoy torturing others in the name of humor. Then again, maybe Harry didn’t know Ron that well.

Two days later, Mr. Malfoy showed up in history. They were ten minutes into a lecture on the International Warlock Convention of 1289 when he walked into the room looking regal and leaning on his cane. A half dozen students already had their heads down on the desks, but they sat up as soon as a live adult walked in the room. Professor Binns stopped when he finally looked toward the back of the room.

“Abraxis, take your seat,” he said.

Mr. Malfoy’s eyebrows went up.

Draco leaned closer. “That’s my grandfather,” he whispered. Professor Binns looked at Draco and frowned before he looked back at Mr. Malfoy, clearly confused.

“Please continue with the lesson,” Mr. Malfoy said.

“What is wrong with students today?” Professor Binns complained before he returned to his lecture. Mr. Malfoy looked uniquely unimpressed. “During the convention, Newcastle from the Medieval Assembly of European Wizards proposed that wizards create spaces for wizarding education.”

“What about the 1288 letter from Newcastle to Duggart suggesting that these places should also be safe havens for witches and wizards fleeing muggle persecution?” Mr. Malfoy asked.

Professor Binns froze for a moment before he turned to stare at Mr. Malfoy. “Do not attempt to push your views in this classroom, Malfoy. You’ll never pass your OWLS without spending more time listening and less time talking.” Apparently Binns hadn’t even noticed that he was talking to a man in his thirties.

Most of the classroom sucked in in startled breath. This class was Slytherin and Ravenclaw, so the students respected Mr. Malfoy more than Binns.

“I think it’s safe to say that I’ve left worrying about my OWLS in the past,” Mr. Malfoy said dryly. “Do you plan to address the issues in the Duggart letters?”

“That is not part of the official curriculum.”

“It was when I attended Hogwarts, so I have to wonder when that changed.”

“My lessons are aligned with the OWLS and NEWTS. Now sit down so I can continue with my lesson. As I was saying, the gathering in 1289 as led by Cuthbert Newcastle—”

“And Rolanda of Yorsh,” Mr. Malfoy added. Several of the Ravenclaw students had started madly taking notes.

“She attended, but the European delegation was led by Cuthbert Newcastle,” Professor Binns said very loudly. “And during the conference—”

“There were a large number of concerns and political viewpoints,” Mr. Malfoy said even louder. “On the NEWTS, several questions ask about the development of the separation versus accommodation theories of engagement with muggles. How does this conference contribute to that conflict?”

Professor Binns blinked at him, and Mr. Malfoy stared back. After a long silence, Professor Binns began again. “The gathering in 1289 as led by Cuthbert Newcastle established the right of every wizarding child to attend a magical school, although at the time only two schools existed.”

“In Europe,” Mr. Malfoy said. “There were two magic schools in Europe, but the International Warlock Convention of 1289 was international and Africa and Asia both had well-established schools. In fact, Akari of the Fujisawa clan was the headmistress of Mahoutokoro, and she argued vehemently for the separation of the magical and muggle worlds, particularly after the muggle Emperor of Japan attempted to make himself the head of the magical world in the East under the theory that his very existence was magical. The emperor ordered the deaths of thirty wizards who dared suggest he did not have magic.

“This is outside the curriculum!” Binns shouted. “We are learning how Cuthbert Newcastle encouraged the development of universal education.”

“So, you are covering one topic out of a list of sixteen topics covered during the meeting?”

Binns’ mouth hung open for a moment.

“I have the notes I need for my assessment,” Mr. Malfoy said smugly before he left the room.

“We’re definitely getting a new history teacher,” Draco said in the world’s loudest whisper.


Chapter 21

At breakfast, Blaise slipped in across from Harry and Draco. “Did you see the announcement?”

Harry tensed. Everyone knew Mr. Malfoy was going to make some big changes. So far he had it out for the Divination teacher, who Harry had never met, and Professors Binns and Lockhart. Everyone was waiting for him to announce new teachers. And while Harry didn’t object to having a better history teacher, he didn’t want to deal with a new personality this close to testing. The few times that Hermione had hung out with them in the previous week or so, she had worked herself into a panic about being tested by someone who hadn’t given the lectures.

The twins said their sister was even worse. She messed up a potion so badly that it sprayed noxious fumes all over her and her bag. She ended up in the hospital wing to get destinked and Professor Snape had needed to create a potion to clean her bag. For the first time, Harry understood why the Professor was so mean in class. He was right that potions were dangerous, and with the students distracted by Mr. Malfoy, it was getting more dangerous.

“What is it?” Draco asked.

“They’re starting a Dueling Club.” Blaise’s eyes gleamed with delight. At least half the Slytherins had private dueling tutors, and they all practiced in the common room space, so he was probably fantasizing about the number of Gryffindors he could put on their ass.

“When?” Draco had the same manic gleam in his eye.

“Tonight.” Blaise leaned closer. “The rest of the school finally cares about learning to use a wand for real. I don’t care about this Heir stuff,” he said with a look in Harry’s direction, “but getting a dueling club back is big.”

“Did Hogwarts used to have one?” Harry asked.

“Fifty years ago. Hogwarts turned out some of the best duelers on the circuit. Duelers like Flitwick,” Draco said. “He was a dueling champion and absolutely ruled the circuit when he was younger. I’m sure my father is behind this. He said he’s going to make the school better.”

Harry had to admit that a dueling club was a great place for Mr. Malfoy to start. He looked over, and all the Gryffindors were huddled in excited clusters. So they knew. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs weren’t as obvious, but they were whispering and looking around.

“You’ll be brilliant,” Blaise said to Harry. “I’ve never seen anyone pick up dueling spells as fast as you.”

“I know,” Draco said in a whining voice. “It’s not fair. I have to study and practice and practice and study and maybe get a spell down after a month. My tutor shows this one a spell, and he gets it the first time.” Draco gave Harry a playful punch.

“I’m sorry for being better than you.” Harry raised his eyebrows and made his best impression of a Draco-face.

Blaise burst out laughing.

Millicent plopped down next to him. “What has you in such a good mood?”

“Harry putting Draco in his place.” Blaise rested his chin on his hand and smirked at all of them.

Millicent grabbed the platter with the chicken. “I’m sorry I missed that. So, who is planning to go show those Gryffindors how real fighting looks?”

“You’re going?” Draco asked in shock.

Millicent put her fork down and pinned Draco with the most unamused expression in the history of people looking at each other. Before Draco could say something even more sexist, Harry changed the topic.

“Is Flitwick going to teach it?” Professor Snape was brilliant with a wand, as the troll incident had proved, but he didn’t volunteer to help anyone outside his house. And Harry got it. Slytherins were often belittled and dismissed, and that didn’t make a person want to help others.

“No idea,” Blaise said. “I suppose we’ll find out tonight.”

At eight o’clock they hurried to the Great Hall. The long dining tables had vanished and a golden stage had appeared along one wall, lit by thousands of candles floating overhead. The ceiling was velvety black once more and most of the schools seemed to be packed beneath it, all carrying their wands and looking excited.

Harry let out a groan when Gilderoy Lockhart walked onto the stage, resplendent in robes of deep plum and accompanied by Snape, wearing his usual black.

Lockhart waved an arm for silence and called, “Gather round, gather round! Can everyone see me? Can you all hear me? Excellent!”

“My father did not arrange for this,” Draco whispered in horror.

However, Lockhart was too loud for any of them to respond. “Now, Professor Dumbledore has granted me permission to start this little dueling club, to train you all in case you ever need to defend yourselves as I myself have done on countless occasions—for full details, see my published works.” His smile grew wider as if he were posing for a portrait.

“Let me introduce my assistant, Professor Snape,” said Lockhart. “He tells me he knows a tiny little bit about dueling himself and has sportingly agreed to help me with a short demonstration before we begin.”

Draco leaned closer to Harry. “Snape was one of the Dark Lord’s best duelers. He and Belletrix Lestrange could best anyone.”

Harry shifted uncomfortably. First the snakes in the common room mourned the ways they had failed the Dark Lord and now Draco was reminding him that their professor had followed him. It seemed like Harry couldn’t escape references to Voldemort these days.

“Now,” Lockhart continued, “I don’t want any of you youngsters to worry—you’ll still have your Potions master when I’m through with him, never fear!”

Draco nudged Harry with an elbow and pointed to the far side of the room. Mr. Malfoy stood there, dressed in black with his long, blond hair over his shoulders as he leaned on his cane and looked supremely amused. Maybe Mr. Malfoy had arranged this because Harry had no doubt that Lockhart was about to humiliate himself.

Snape looked furious. His upper lip curled and he stared at Lockhart as though contemplating his imminent death. If Snape had been looking at Harry like that, Harry would have been running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Lockhart and Snape turned to face each other and bowed; at least, Lockhart did, with much twirling of his hands. When they dueled in the common room, Professor Snape would send his nastiest curses at any student who made their bow into a theatrical production. He called it bad form and utter foolishness that only a dunderhead would engage in. He might be right.

Snape jerked his head irritably and raised his wand like a sword in front of him.

Lockhart didn’t seem to notice Snape’s aggravation. “As you see, we are holding our wands in the accepted combative position,” Lockhard told the silent crowd. “On the count of three, we will cast our first spells. Neither of us will be aiming to kill, of course.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Harry murmured as Snape bared his teeth. It wasn’t hard to imagine this Snape at the Dark Lord’s side.


Both of them swung their wands above their heads and pointed them at their opponent; Snape cried: “Expelliarmus!” There was a dazzling flash of scarlet light and Lockhart was blasted off his feet: He flew backward off the stage, smashed into the wall, and slid down it to sprawl on the floor.

Several Slytherins cheered, but the rest of the crowd was divided between those who looked amused at the pompous fool getting the business end of Snape’s wand and those who seemed horrified and worried. Lockhart was getting unsteadily to his feet. His hat had fallen off and his wavy hair was standing on end.

“Well, there you have it!” he said, tottering back onto the platform. “That was a Disarming Charm—as you see, I’ve lost my wand—ah, thank you, Miss Brown—yes, an excellent idea to show them that, Professor Snape, but if you don’t mind my saying so, it was very obvious what you were about to do. If I had wanted to stop you, it would have been only too easy—however, I felt it would be instructive to let them see…”

Professor Snape was looking murderous. Possibly Lockhart had noticed, because he said, “Enough demonstrating! I’m going to come amongst you now and put you all into pairs. Professor Snape, if you’d like to help me—”

They moved through the crowd, matching up partners. Most of Slytherin subtly moved away from Millicent, who was the only second-year girl to come, so Harry moved to her side despite the pouting from Draco, who eventually paired with Blaise. Gregory and Vincent stood next to each other. Since Nott was still avoiding them, the numbers turned out perfect. Closer to the door, Hermione had paired with Ron and Neville was with one of Ron’s friends. That seemed strange, but if Hermione and Ron were friends, Harry didn’t have a right to say anything. She could be friends with whomever she wanted.

Harry continued to tell himself that, even though a little part of him was hurt that she had clearly shifted allegiances.

“Face your partners!” called Lockhart, back on the platform. “And bow!”

Most of Slytherin barely inclined their heads, not taking their eyes off each other.

“Wands at the ready!” shouted Lockhart.

“He hasn’t said what spells to practice,” Harry said.

“Disarming charm plus first year hexes?” Millicent suggested. Harry knew how vicious she could get with those first-year spells, and he prepared to throw up a shield as fast as possible.

“When I count to three, cast your charms to Disarm your opponents—only to disarm them—we don’t want any accidents—”

Harry rolled his eyes as Lockhart told them what spells to use only after having them bow. That wasn’t how it was done.

“One—” Lockhart counted, “two— three—”

Unsurprisingly, Millicent got off her spell first, barely waiting until Lockhart started the word “three”: Her spell hit Harry so hard he felt as though he’d been hit over the head with a saucepan. He stumbled, but everything still seemed to be working, and wasting no more time, Harry pointed his wand and shouted, “Rictusempra!”

A jet of silver light hit Millicent in the stomach and she doubled over, wheezing.

“I said Disarm only!” Lockhart shouted in alarm over the heads of the battling crowd as Millicent sank to her knees; Harry had hit her with a Tickling Charm, and she could barely move for laughing. Around him, Slytherins and Gryffindors and even a fair number of Ravenclaws had devolved into melee practice with spells flying. While Harry was distracted, Millicent gasped out “Tarantallegra! which was a favorite in the common room.

Harry’s legs began to jerk around out of his control in a kind of quickstep. He danced into Gregory and Vince, who pointed their wands at the ceiling to avoid cursing him.

“Stop! Stop!” screamed Lockhart, and several groups did, but Harry couldn’t stop dancing, and Millicent was on the ground laughing, and someone had hit Draco with both an Disarm charm and a Leg-Locker curse, so he was pulling himself along the ground trying to reach his wand so he could cast the counter charm. The Slytherins had definitely been the most brutal in their casting.

Snape took charge. “Finite Incantatem!” he shouted; Harry’s feet stopped dancing, Millicent stopped laughing, and Draco stood and brushed his robes off while glaring at Blaise. But all was fair in dueling… at least as long as the spells didn’t require hospitalization or adult intervention.

Harry looked around and saw Neville and Justin Finch-Fletchley on the floor, panting. Ron was ashen and staring at the ceiling as Hermione crouched next to him issuing apologies. Harry wasn’t at all surprised that she had not only won but done it so decisively that she felt a need to apologize. The older students seemed to be more orderly—either that or they were quicker to shield and use countercurses. That was possible. The second and third years were still sorting themselves when Lockhart started speaking.

“Dear, dear,” said Lockhart, skittering through the crowd, looking at the aftermath of the duels. “Up you go, Macmillan… Careful there, Miss Fawcett… Pinch it hard, it’ll stop bleeding in a second, Boot—” The Ravenclaw had an impressive bloodstain down his chin and dripping onto his robes.

“I think I’d better teach you how to block unfriendly spells,” said Lockhart, as though students didn’t know those spells out of self defense. The corridors were a dangerous place right before a quidditch match, and most students learned at least a few basic shields. But in a duel, shields were no fun. If Harry only had time to cast one spell, he wanted to put Millicent on the floor, not protect himself.

Lockhart glanced at Snape, whose black eyes glinted, and then over at Mr. Malfoy who seemed infinitely amused, before he turned his attention back to the students. “Let’s have a volunteer pair—Longbottom and Finnegan, how about you—”

“A bad idea, Professor Lockhart,” said Snape, gliding over like a prowling panther. “Longbottom causes devastation with the simplest spells. We’ll be sending what’s left of Finnegan up to the hospital wing in a matchbox.” Neville’s round, pink face went pinker. “How about Granger and Higgs?” said Snape with a twisted smile.

Hermione, who was already pale in distress, turned an alarming shade of gray.

“Excellent idea!” said Lockhart, gesturing Hermione and Terrence Higgs into the middle of the hall as the crowd backed away to give them room. Higgs was not a fan of Gryffindors and he was a year older, so Harry was as uncomfortable as Hermione.

“Now, Miss Granger,” said Lockhart, “When Mr. Higgs points his wand at you, you do this.” He raised his own wand, attempted a complicated sort of wiggling action that Harry had never seen used on the dueling floor, and dropped his wand. Snape smirked as Lockhart quickly picked it up, saying, “Whoops—my wand is a little overexcited.”

“And that’s the man who supposedly dueled a werewolf,” Draco said in disgust.

Snape smirked. “I don’t believe Granger grasped the correct wand movements. Could you show her that blocking spell again?” He asked smoothly.

Lockhart blushed. “Just do what I did,” he told Hermione, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“You dropped your wand. I don’t want to do that,” Hermione protested, and most of the students laughed. She blushed. She never had liked being the center of attention, and most of the school was watching her. Harry had no idea what seventh years were supposed to learn from this. They had probably been excited about getting to duel in a more open space, but now some of them were slipping out the doors.

“No, no. Just shield,” Lockhart said. Luckily, she knew how from dueling practice with Millicent because Snape was whispering in Higgs’ ear. Harry respected Snape, but he also knew that the man always got revenge on students he didn’t like and somehow Hermione had landed on that list. Harry wondered if it had any connection to how weird both her and Ron had been in the last week.

“Three— two— one— go!” Lockhart shouted.

Harry knew how fast Hermione could get a shield up. A person got fast when they practiced with Millicent, but she seemed to be in slow motion.

Higgs snapped his wand up and shouted, “Densaugeo!” Light burst out and slammed into Hermione before she could raise her shield. She crashed to the floor and slapped a hand over her mouth as she cried out.

Higgs looked insanely proud of himself, but Harry pushed through the crowd to get to Hermione’s side. Ron was there a half second later. They both knelt on the stage and tried to comfort her.

“My teeth!” Hermione cried, her voice weirdly muffled. She’d always had large front teeth, but when she lowered her hand, they were now engorged and large enough to cover half her chin.

Ron shot to his feet and pointed his wand at Higgs, but Snape stepped between. “Problem, Weasley?” he asked in a cold tone. Harry caught Ron’s arm and tried to pull him back.

“He told Higgs to use that spell,” Ron said angrily.

“I know,” Harry whispered, “but raising a wand to a teacher will get you expelled.” Harry suddenly understood the whole of Professor Snape’s plan. “That’s what he wants. He knows you’re friends with Hermione and that you’d want to protect the girl in your friend group. He’s setting you up to get yourself expelled and your wand snapped.” Harry kept his voice low, but Snape had ears like a bat. He'd probably heard, which meant Harry would now be on the list of students Snape held a grudge against, but he’d rather that than have Ron get manipulated into striking a teacher.

Ron looked down at Harry and Hermione and then at Snape who had a single eyebrow raised. Slowly he lowered his wand.

Snape huffed. “Take her to the hospital wing. No doubt Madam Pomfrey is prepared for quite a bit of company tonight.

Hermione got up, her face bright red as everyone stared at her. Harry stayed on one side, and Ron on the other as they walked off the stage. As they passed Neville, he took a step toward them. “Should I…?”

“We’re fine,” Ron said. He gave Harry a suspicious look, but he didn’t say anything as they walked with a crying Hermione. Once they left the Great Hall, the whispers grew so loud that they followed them down the corridor and to the first set of stairs.

Once they were alone, Harry said softly, “What did you do to make Snape that angry?”

Ron snorted. “It doesn’t take much to anger the dungeon bat.”

“Not like that. He was honestly hoping you would attack him. I’ve seen him so furious that he offered to tutor a student in dueling just so he could hex him seven ways from Sunday, but I’ve never seen him like that.”

Hermione cried harder, and Ron winced. They’d definitely done something. But obviously Hermione trusted Ron more than him. It hurt more than Harry wanted to admit because he thought of Hermione as being one of his closest friends—right up there with Draco and Blaise. Clearly, she didn’t see him the same way. Harry stopped at the corner right outside the Hospital wing door.

“I hope you feel better soon,” he said to Hermione, and it felt like he was saying goodbye. She cried harder and Ron urged her through the door, leaving Harry alone. Harry rubbed a hand over his face and wished he had skipped the dueling club altogether. Maybe then he could have ignored the signs and pretended that Hermione was one of his best friends for just a little longer.

Maybe the others were right when they said Slytherins couldn’t have friends in other houses.

“Harry.” The headmaster came around the corner, smiling genially. “I hear you escorted Miss Granger down here after an accident in dueling club.”

“I’m not sure it was an accident,” Harry said as he studied the headmaster’s vermillion robes with a checked pattern. It gave him a good excuse to avoid meeting his gaze. “Professor Snape seems pretty angry with her and Ron.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” he reassured Harry. “Professor Snape has been under a good deal of pressure lately, but I’ll talk to him if it will make you feel better.”

It wouldn’t, but Harry didn’t want to openly reject the headmaster’s offer. “Sir, why do you let Professor Lockhart do things like the club? He isn’t good at dueling. It isn’t safe to have him running the club and we aren’t learning about defense in his class.”

“Ah, so you are of a mind with Mr. Malfoy then? Do you also believe we should exorcize Professor Binns?”

“Exorcize? No!” Harry was so horrified that he met the headmaster’s gaze for one second, and he felt a cooling tingling behind his eyes. He summoned his firestorm and looked away. “I don’t think a ghost should be forced to move on if they don’t feel ready, but maybe we could get another history teacher.”

“And then what would Professor Binns do?”

Harry shrugged. “Teachers take vacations. Maybe he could do that. But at least Professor Binns is better than Professor Lockhart. He couldn’t control the club at all. And the wand movements he showed Hermione, those weren’t any shield charm I’ve ever seen.”

The headmaster chuckled and walked over to a stone bench set in the wall under a window. “How many shield charms have you seen?”

Harry wasn’t sure the headmaster knew about the Slytherin dueling practice, and he wasn’t about to reveal house secrets. “In summer I visited the Malfoys and Rufus Newman gave me and Draco dueling lessons. He taught us a number of shields, and Draco and I would practice twice a week.”

The headmaster sucked in a breath. “Students are not allowed to use magic outside of school. That is a serious violation.”

“Wizarding parents are allowed to teach their students. As long as students are under adult supervision and in a magically secure area, students can practice.”

“But you do not have wizarding parents,” the headmaster countered.

Harry stared at the pattern of brick under his feet. The silence grew heavy, but Harry didn’t look up. He let the moment grow more and more painful, and he hoped that the headmaster was thinking about how Harry didn’t have a wizarding guardian who could officially give permission because the headmaster refused to publicly acknowledge him. Sometimes Harry wondered if there was something wrong with him because everyone seemed to pull away. Even Draco, who was arguably his closest friend, had once challenged him to a duel because he was that angry at Harry. If not for Harry’s parselmouth abilities, he wasn’t sure he’d have any friends.

Maybe Millicent, because like him, she was a bit of an outcast in Slytherin.

“I understand your concerns about Professor Lockhart,” the headmaster finally said. “He is a very popular man, but his skills sometimes do not live up to his reputation.”

“I can tell that, and if a twelve-year-old knows he’s a fraud, it feels like the rest of the wizarding world should be able to figure it out.”

Dumbledore sighed. “Often we see what we wish to see.”

Harry looked up at him, summoning his strongest firestorm to protect his thoughts. “You know and you still have him here as a teacher.”

The headmaster’s smile was sad. “Sometimes we must allow things we do not like to happen in order to serve a greater good. I could indeed fire him, but I have to think about how that would impact my ability to function in the wider world outside of Hogwarts.”

Harry could interpret that easily enough. The headmaster didn’t want to do something as politically unpopular as fire a man with thousands or tens of thousands of fans. But his idea of the “greater good” meant that Harry had to deal with Lockhart and his silly recreations of events that never happened. Or at least they never happened the way Lockhart described them.

“It’s not fair to students.”

“Often life is not fair. That is one of the unfortunate truths that one learns when one grows up, but I suspect you learned that much younger than most. Lily and James were wonderful people. I admired their passion, their determination to improve the world. I see a lot of their goodness in you, and it is not fair that you had to grow up without them.”

Maybe it was because he felt so recently abandoned by Hermione, but that barb sunk deep into Harry’s soul and silent tears rolled down his face.

“I wish I could make the world a fair place for all the students, but alas, even magic is incapable of that task,” Dumbledore said sadly. “But we all work to make sure we leave the world a better place. It’s all we can do. Your parents certainly succeeded by that measure.” Again, the silence grew heavy and deep.

“Is Lockhart going to be back next year?”

Dumbledore smiled. “You do not have to fear that. Next year we will have a new teacher.”

Maybe they would have a new teacher because the curse meant that no one stayed more than a year. After decades of that truth, few people wanted to take the position at all, but those who did either left it early to save themselves or suffered a horrible end.

Except Quirrell. He had gotten through the whole year, stolen something from the third floor corridor and then disappeared. Of course, if he was the one who was taking unicorn blood, he was suffering a life incapable of even a moment of happiness, so maybe that was enough to satisfy the curse.

“If suffering a single year of poor teaching can help inform the wizarding world about his fraud, isn’t it worth it?” The headmaster asked.

“I guess,” Harry said. He thought the adults should be able to do that without making an entire school of students suffer, but if he looked at it from a Slytherin perspective, he could see why the headmaster would rather allow students to spread rumors about Lockhart before challenging him. Undermining an enemy before any confrontation was a good strategy.

“The sacrifices students are making this year will make a difference,” the headmaster promised. “I am sorry that Hermione suffered for Gilderoy’s inadequate supervision,” he said with sorrow. “But I know she’ll be fine. You should go and talk to her.”

Harry glanced at the door to the hospital wing. Hermione and Ron had been so close, and Ron didn’t want Harry around. Not really. He wanted to pretend that Harry was someone else—someone brash and loud and Gryffindor. And that wasn’t Harry. But Dumbledore seemed to expect Harry to spend time with them, and Harry remembered how the twins had warned him about Dumbledore and Mrs. Weasley talking about him.

“Thank you, sir,” Harry said before he headed toward the hospital wing. He waited until Dumbledore was gone and then slipped into a parselmouth passage instead.


Chapter 22

By the next morning, the snow that had begun in the night had turned into a blizzard so thick that the last Herbology lesson of the term for Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs was canceled: Professor Sprout wanted to fit socks and scarves on the Mandrakes, a tricky operation she would entrust to no one else, now that it was so important for the Mandrakes to grow quickly and revive Mrs. Norris and Colin Creevey.

Harry had asked in the common room, and the others had explained that Mandrakes were expensive, and if Colin went to St. Mungo’s, his parents would have to pay for the potion supplies, even if the actual medical care would be free. So having the school grow them would save the family from having to go into debt.

Harry had thought the school should pay, but all of Slytherin had shot him down. Apparently, the whole school should not have to lose out on new supplies in order to supply one student with Mandrake root. Allowing some people to suffer in order to preserve the wider community sounded a lot like what the headmaster had said.

But Harry headed to history class with the others. Instead of Binns at the front of the room, Mr. Malfoy stood there in his silk robes and a bright smile. “Good morning students.”

Ravenclaws and Slytherins found their seats quickly, shooting each other concerned looks over the change.

Mr. Malfoy waited until they were all seated before he picked up a stack of scrolls. “Overnight, a specialist spoke to Professor Binns and he decided to move on.”

“You exorcized him?” One of the Ravenclaws asked in horror.

Mr. Malfoy smiled at her. He must be in a good mood because normally he didn’t react well to being challenged. “Nothing so drastic. When he died, he agreed to stay rather than leave the school without a history teacher. A specialist helped him understand that we have four candidates for the history position, all of whom are qualified and more able to adjust to changing standards.”

That caused a flurry of whispers.

“Whoever is chosen will need to get students up to standard, and to assist in that, all classes will be taking an essay test.” Harry was happy that Hermione wasn’t in this class. She would need to have a little advance warning to avoid having a complete panic attack, and Mr. Malfoy would not handle a panicking Hermione well—especially because she was muggle-born.

“Your new instructor will use the results of this work to determine where the class is lacking. These questions are similar to ones you will see on your OWLS, so I expect many of you will leave questions blank, but you need to do your best so your new professor can avoid repeating information you know. So you have until the end of the hour to do your best.”

Harry and Draco exchanged looks and swallowed. Everyone knew OWLS were impossibly hard, so Harry didn’t have a good feeling about this, and with Mr. Malfoy in the room, Draco was going to freak out.

When one of the scrolls reached Harry, he opened it.

—How did the Wizarding world react to the threat of witch-hunters and how did this shape Wizarding culture? Cite examples beyond Wendelin the Weird.

—What is the relationship between the Wizengamot and Gringotts?

—Why did the first meeting of the International Confederation of Wizards break down?

—How did the Soap Blizzard of 1378 affect the Wizarding world?

—What are the clauses of the Code of Wand Use and which have posed the greatest challenge for the Wizarding world?

—Which Goblin Rebellion caused the most change in the relationship between wizards and goblins?

—What forces led to the creation of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy?

Harry glanced toward Draco who seemed to be in the middle of the world’s slowest mental breakdown. He kept running his fingers through his hair before pulling on it. Taking a deep breath, Harry started filling in the questions the best he could. He knew lots of goblin rebellions and could even list the years for most of them, but he’d never even considered how the rebellions affected the relationship between goblins and wizards. All he really knew was that they hated each other.

Well, Harry wasn’t sure his account manager hated him, but the goblin certainly didn’t like him. Harry ended up filling in random facts about goblins and hoping they didn’t make him look like a complete idiot.

By the end of the class period, the Ravenclaws all looked frazzled, and Draco’s hair was going a dozen different directions at once. His hair gel was not compatible with pulling on it. They were all heading out when Mr. Malfoy called.

“Mr. Potter, a moment please.”

“Of course, Mr. Malfoy.” Harry nodded at Draco and gestured for him to go on. He put his bag on his chair and waited until everyone else had left. “Did I do something wrong, Mr. Malfoy?”

Mr. Malfoy smiled at him. “Of course not, Harry. Quite the opposite. I have some business meetings over Yule, so Draco will be staying here most of the holiday break, but Narcissa and I wanted to invite you over on the day of Yule, and we have a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the week after.”

“Doctor’s appointment?”

“It’s been a year, and the doctors at St. Mungo’s would like to make sure the adhesions on your magical core have healed cleanly.”

“Oh.” Harry breathed a little easier. The doctors had given him the signs of a damaged core, and he knew he didn’t have any of them. He’d gotten control over his hair color and could now change his nose and chin shape easily, although he let himself keep the softer features that reminded him of his mother. Tonks assured him it was his natural form, and he had looked so much like his father because the binding had been put on his core when he was in the middle of a shift.

Mr. Malfoy smiled. “How would you like a tour of the Ministry?”

“Really?” If the Black magic accepted him as heir, he'd be part of the Wizengamot one day.

“Of course,” Mr. Malfoy said. “Narcissa is going to take Draco to France for a progress check on his self-study French grammar program, and I thought we could take the day to tour. I’ll show you where you may be sitting one day.”

Harry frowned.

Mr. Malfoy sat on the edge of the teacher's desk. “What’s wrong?”

“Are you sure you and Narcissa aren’t upset that I’m listed as the Black heir?”

Mr. Malfoy sighed. “Draco will inherit my seat on the Wizengamot, so you aren’t taking his place, Harry. Would I like my son to inherit both? Yes. However, neither you nor I can influence the Black magic. When you turn thirteen, the heir ring will either accept you or not. If the Black magic rejects you, it may either choose Draco or not.”

“I would let him have it if I could.”

Mr. Malfoy looked almost amused. “That is not a very Slytherin thing to say.”

“A Slytherin knows that good allies are more important than one seat in a voting body,” Harry countered.

Mr. Malfoy laughed and put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Perhaps you are more Slytherin than I give you credit for. Now why don’t you run along to lunch and warn all the other students that I’m torturing you with essay tests.”

Harry looked at the pile of scrolls Mr. Malfoy had put into a large bin marked Second-year, Slytherin, Ravenclaw. “I think you’re the one torturing the new teacher,” Harry countered.

Mr. Malfoy looked at the bin. “I imagine they’re only going to read a few before discovering that Professor Binns has not been doing his job. History is not about memorizing dates. It’s about learning how events relate and how power flows through time. Hopefully the new teacher will reinforce that lesson. Now run along.” Mr. Malfoy patted his shoulder, and Harry grabbed his bag and headed to lunch.


Chapter 23

Voldemort blinked, dizzy as the spell faded. Obstrepan still knelt just outside the ritual circle, a picture of perfect submission. Obstrepan had never been submissive. Throughout their early years, Obstrepan had lived up to his name, challenging Voldemort when his plans were too risky. During their last year at Hogwarts, he had stopped his friend Tom Riddle from falling for one of Dumbledore’s plots. But since he had regained his body, Obstrepan had not spoken one word against any of Voldemort’s demands.

He stood and stepped over the chalked circle stained with blood. “You feared I was lost to insanity,” Voldemort said. When he’d read the ancient text, he had only feared that his ability to scheme might have been dulled, but now that he had regained half his soul, he saw that he had lost so much more. He had undermined his own success.

Lucius was the only one who knew where the diary was, and yet he had tortured him so severely that a weaker man would have broken. Punishing Lucius had been more important than solving the problem.

Even when Lucius had appeared with the diary in hand, Voldemort had tortured him more for taking so long, even though Lucius’s work at Hogwarts had furthered the Dark cause. With three teachers to replace, Dumbledore was tied up at the school and unable to maneuver about the country.

It was excellent work. But Voldemort had not seen that. It was no different than the prophecy that had sent him after the Potter boy. Illogical. Why had he put such faith in a prophecy he had not even heard? He had only dabbled into divination, but he knew that every prophecy had multiple interpretations, but he had assumed the most obvious one the only possibility?

“I only hope to serve you,” Obstrepan said, which was enough of an answer for Voldemort. His friend had feared that he had lost himself, and with good cause.

“My second horcrux carries a quarter of my soul. If I absorb that, I will still have three to anchor me to this world.”

“Five?” Surprise startled the word out of Obstrepan and his head shot up. He immediately bowed his head again. “My apologies. I am simply impressed with the raw power you possess to accomplish such a task.” In even the brief moment Obstrepan had looked up, Voldemort had read the fear in his gaze. Obstrepan feared that even a brief lapse would lead to torture.

And he had some cause to fear.

Instead Voldemort chuckled. “I had hoped to make a sixth so that I could take advantage of the Arithmancy of six and seven.” Now that he had read the Nott books, he realized that he had gone down a path that had only one outcome—his own destruction. He should have reabsorbed the larger pieces already. “You and I shall retrieve the ring I used for my second ritual. With fifty percent of my soul, I set out to divide my soul into seven pieces, so I do not trust that I have fully regained my senses now that I possess fifty-three percent.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Obstrepan sounded insanely relieved.

“Stand, Obstrepan. We went to school together. I count on you to restrain any idiocy I may contemplate, or in this case to help me correct it. I will not have you on your knees.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Obstrepan stood and smiled. When he met Voldemort’s eyes, his thoughts were open—relief that the madness had ended, hope that Voldemort had found himself again, certainty that the Dark could win if they could unite under a sane lord. For the first time in years, Voldemort felt the weight of those expectations.

He and his knights had developed the mark based on an liege-mark they had found in a medieval text, and with much of his sanity returned, Voldemort felt the obligation to protect his people, the call to go to war against their collective enemies. Perhaps as a young man he had split his soul over and over to avoid these feelings. Perhaps it had been the fear of Nazi bombs alone that had inspired his madness. He might never know.

But it was time for him to act differently. He didn’t need to slaughter entire wizarding families—he needed to remove his political enemies, and Albus Dumbledore was at the top of that list.

“What reports can you give me on Severus, Bellatrix, Avery, and Macnair?”

“Bellatrix is in Azkaban with her husband and brother-in-law.”

“But what of their condition? The dementors pledged themselves to the cause. Have they protected her and the others?” Voldemort hoped so. Bellatrix suffered Black madness before his fall, so if she had been exposed to dementors, her mind might be broken.

“I have heard the dementors have returned to the service of the Ministry,” Obstrepan said.

Voldemort sighed. So she was lost. She was his best dueler. Severus could challenge her in practice, but when it came to battle, he never threw himself into fighting the way Bellatrix had. He thought about protecting his position where she identified a goal and threw herself at it regardless of the consequences. Severus’s reaction was the more sane and reasonable response, but Voldemort would miss the utter devotion Bellatrix offered.

She possessed the Black loyalty, which edged toward obsession. Sirius had been the same, although he’d given his loyalty to the Light, which is why it was so amusing that Sirius had suffered ten years in Azkaban because of his Light allies and their own failure to show him the same loyalty.

“And the others?” he asked.

“Severus continues to work at Hogwarts.” The caution in Obstrepan’s voice warned Voldemort that his old friend didn’t completely trust Severus, but Voldemort understood the sort of fury toward muggles that an abusive parent could inspire. Voldemort trusted his spy, particularly because he had assisted Lucius in retrieving the horcrux. If he served the headmaster, he would have warned Dumbledore that the darkest of artifacts had been smuggled into Hogwarts. Instead he had concocted a plan with Lucius to steal the book back from the Weasley girl.

“Avery? Macnair?”

“Both denied you.” Obstrepan controlled his tone, but his anger was still evident. “They maintain that they are loyal to the Dark, but they were not loyal to you, my lord. They publicly disavowed you.”

“Reasonable given that they did not know what I had done or where I was. However, they will never have my favor the way you do.” Voldemort had known Obstrepan for fifty years, and the man had chosen to retreat to his estate rather than deny the Dark, so Voldemort would always trust him before all others. However, the disloyalty of the others provided opportunities. He would set tasks for them if they hoped to regain his favor. That would allow him to begin to rebuild his own position.

He did not want to rely on Obstrepan’s generosity. “We must discuss my return to public life,” Voldemort said. “For now, it is best that my identity is not known.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Obstrepan agreed. “I have studied the family trees of all those I have blood samples for, and I believe I have identified a lineage that would offer you both respect and a certain level of protection. It would require time to prepare because it is more complex than a simple blood adoption.”

That sounded interesting. “We have to retrieve several horcruxes and I need to reabsorb at least one more, so we have time. What are you planning?”

“Alphard Black never had children.”

“The rumor is he was gay,” Voldemort said. The purebloods did not accept that sort of deviance. While Voldemort found such activities distasteful and he didn’t want to see them, he didn’t believe a person should be cast from a family for making their own choices.

“The fact he kept his life so private creates an opening for us.”

“I assume he would be my father. Who do you have in mind for a mother?” Considering that a blood adoption could influence a person’s magic, Voldemort did not want to be linked to a weak family line. While it wouldn’t degrade his raw magical power, it might make certain magical gifts, like flight, more difficult.

“Henry and Cresida Potter had three children—Fleamont, Charlus, and Lanthe.”

“Lanthe?” He didn’t know that name. Fleamont was James’s father and Harry’s grandfather and Charlus had been disowned by the Potters for courting Dorea, who had originally been contracted to marry Fleamont. However, no one ever discussed Lanthe.

“They reported that she died when she was four.”

“Did she?”

Obstrepan shrugged. “Possibly, but it’s possible that she was a squib. If she was cast out of the family, any children wouldn’t be linked to the Potter accounts.”

“Do you have Lanthe’s blood for the blood adoption?” Obstrepan had always been obsessed with breeding, both of animals and of wizards, but he couldn’t imagine how he could have gotten access to a child’s blood.

“No, but I have blood from both Henry Potter and Cresida Fleamont. We could create a homonculous using their blood and have a naming ritual. The body would be mindless, but we could collect its blood, and magic would recognize it as belonging to Lanthe, daughter of Henry and Cresida Potter.”

“And with blood from Lanthe and Alphard, we could create a new identity for me.”

“One with links to the Potter family,” Obstrepan said. “The old fool has built that family up as the saviors of the Wizarding world, and you could steal his groundwork by positioning yourself as an illegitimate Potter.”

Voldemort steepled his fingers and considered the possibilities. It would mean he was related to Harry Potter twice over—once through Euphemia Black who had been offered up by her family after Dorea had married Charlus and again through Lanthe Potter. If the prophecy required him to kill the boy, it would be much easier to get access to him if he had such strong family links.

“Prepare the homonculous. I will start contacting our people and begin making plans, but we will hold off on any decision until Lucius brings us the prophecy.”

Obstrepan bowed. “Yes, my lord.”

Voldemort closed the distance between them and rested a hand on Obstrepan’s shoulder. “We are going to succeed this time, old friend.”

When Obstrepan smiled, he looked twenty years younger. Voldemort remembered their years together in the Slytherin dorms—the plans they’d made and the spells they’d practiced in their dorm after curfew. Those had been happy days for Voldemort.

He frowned as he remembered something Obstrapan’s son had written. “Did Theo say that the Potter boy is a parselmouth?”

Obstrepan’s smile dimmed some. “Yes, my lord.”



Chapter 24

At last the term ended. Professor Dumbledore announced that Hestia Jones would take over for Professor Binns, and Lockhart looked haggard and worn. Even his hair was flatter than it had been before Mr. Malfoy had started investigating. Older students cast hateful looks toward Mr. Malfoy because he had apparently made the Divination professor cry so often that all he had to do now was appear in her classroom for her to begin weeping.

Harry was so glad he didn’t plan to take that class.

After most of the students had left, a silence as deep as the snow on the grounds descended on the castle. Harry found it peaceful rather than gloomy. It helped that Theo had left and much of the awkwardness vanished with him. Draco, Harry, Millicent, Vincent and Gregory had all stayed, although Vincent was still keeping his distance, but most of the older students had left.

Everyone was still a little tense about Colin Creevey’s petrification, even though nothing strange had happened since then. But the quiet gave them almost free reign of the castle. Most of the Weasley’s had stayed, as had Hermione, but other than a few afternoons in the library, the group seemed to have split between Slytherins and Gryffindors.

It made Harry unreasonably sad every time he saw Hermione sitting in some corner with Ron and the twins. To be honest, it made him hate the Weasleys and even Hermione just a little. If Slytherins were mean, it might have something to do with how everyone else ostracized them.

On Yule, Mr. Malfoy escorted Draco and Harry to Hogsmead where they wandered through shops and ate candy before they all flooed to the manor. The Malfoys had evergreen boughs and holly everywhere, and brightly colored presents were lined up in the family parlor.

“Draco! Harry! How are my boys?” Narcissa called as she came down the stairs in an off-white gown with her hair swept up.

“Mother, you look beautiful.” Draco hurried up the last few stairs and offered Narcissa his arm. She took it with a smile and drifted down the stairs at his side. “Did father tell you he got that horrible ghost replaced? Professor Jones is probably the headmaster’s ally, but she has a sister our age in Hufflepuff, so she has every reason to teach well. It’s wonderful.” Draco looked at his father as if the man made the sun rise. Times like this, Harry envied his friend so much that it hurt to be around him.

Harry wondered if he would have felt the same about James Potter had he lived. Sure, James was a bully. He’d heard more than one story about that. However, Mr. Malfoy was a raging racist, and Draco loved him without an ounce of doubt.

“Most political success comes down to timing,” Mr. Malfoy said. “Even two years ago, too many people believed the headmaster infallible, but I have been chipping away at his power for years now. You have to put in a lot of thankless and subtle work to get the final results,” Mr. Malfoy said, which was funny because Mr. Malfoy was the least subtle Slytherin Harry knew, with the exception of Draco. Every student in school had known exactly which teachers he was targeting within hours of him showing up at Hogwarts.

However, Draco looked at his father with awe. They all settled in the family parlor and exchanged gifts. Blaise had gotten Harry a book on parselmagic and Draco a book on dragons. Gregory had gotten them both candy, and Millicent had given them charms with luck runes—a tiny snitch for Harry and a quaffle for Draco. The Weasley twins had sent a Yule gift, which surprised Harry because he had assumed the Weasleys were more Christmas people, but he opened it to find a set of prank products in hand-made packaging—fireworks and prank candies and magical candles that made everyone look like a walking skeleton when they passed through the candle’s light.

“They are quite talented,” Narcissa said.

“Quite,” Mr. Malfoy said with a sour expression on his face.

Harry bought Draco a magic mirror that gave practical advice on hair and skin products based on the user's appearance and Draco bought him a mechanical bird that sat on a desk and recited any appointments or deadlines for the day based on the connected magical diary. Harry amused himself by writing appointments five minutes from then in order to hear the bird chirp out a warning.

“It’s time for our present,” Mr. Malfoy said as he brought out two matching boxes. Harry and Draco looked at each other before opening them at exactly the same time. Inside were two leather-bound books. One had “Draco: the dragon” inscribed on the front with a star chart that looked a bit like a snake with a very wide nose. The other had “Ophiuchus: the serpent bearer” with a constellation that looked like a top with a couple of extra lines coming out from the sides.

“Both of you were born under the influence of powerful constellations. In the Black family, being born when a star system is dominant is a lucky sign,” Narcissa explained. “If you do any ritual work, you need to know the arithmancy and celestial influences on your constellation at all times, so this is a bit like an almanac, only it will offer you numerical qualifiers you can use to alter any ritual at any time of year to maximize the magical flow.”

Harry knew the books were something special by the way Draco traced the constellation on the front of his reverently with the tips of his fingers.

“It’s not legal to create these in the UK,” Mr. Malfoy said with a sniff.

Narcissa rested her hand on his knee. “I can teach both of you how to use the charts and determine which elements of a ritual or potion to focus on when trying to maximize effects, but some of this will make more sense next year after you start arithmancy.”

Harry opened his book, and the heavy pages had embossed circle charts and star diagrams and lists of numbers. Page after page of tiny figures showed the sky on different days, under different influences. Harry was reminded of the centaurs and their comments about Mars during the disastrous detention in the forbidden forest.

“Is any of this related to divination?”

“Some,” Narcissa said. “Arithmancy and star positioning is more likely to give you probability than an actual prediction, but it’s related.”

“Divination is more than that fraud Trelawney teaches. I’ve never seen anyone take a less systematic approach to a magical discipline.” Mr. Malfoy was unsubtle in his hatred for Trelawney.

“Darling, please. This is Yule. Let us celebrate our successes,” Narcissa said, and Mr. Malfoy settled. It helped that one of the elves had brought him a whiskey. They had an informal family meal in front of the Yule log and explored the constellation books before playing with some of the twin’s prank items. In the end, even Mr. Malfoy laughed when Narcissa ate a candy that made her voice rumble like rocks tumbling downhill. It was deeper than Hagrid’s voice.

Mr. Malfoy was helping to carry the presents—including Harry’s constellation book which he wouldn’t risk having at Hogwarts—up to Draco’s room, but Harry hung back to talk to Narcissa. She waited until the others were gone before she turned to him and asked, “What did you want to say in private, cousin?”

Harry shifted closer. “What would you do if an elf was doing something it shouldn’t?”

Narcissa frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t want the elf to get in trouble because he’s trying to help me, but he’s doing things he shouldn’t—things you wouldn’t want him to—and then punishing himself. I don’t know how to help him.”

Narcissa sighed. “Dobby.” Her voice didn’t have a trace of doubt. A half-second later, Dobby popped into the room with his ears flapping.

“Mistress called?” He looked as miserable as ever, his large eyes darting everywhere to avoid looking at Narcissa or Harry.

“Dobby, have you been in contact with Harry?”

“Dobby is serving all the little master’s friends,” he said. He likely thought himself clever, but Narcissa sighed as if she was used to having these sorts of fights with him.

“Have you contacted Harry when you weren’t serving the Malfoy family?”

His ears drooped. “Dobby is going to iron his fingers for this.”

“No!” Harry practically shouted before he could pop away. “Dobby, I don’t understand why you think you have to serve me.”

“Harry Potter is great wizard,” Dobby said, then he looked at Narcissa and slapped a hand across his mouth in horror.

“This is what I don’t understand,” Harry said. “Blaise said an elf couldn’t have divided loyalty, but Dobby is acting like he does.”

Narcissa leaned back and studied him. “Originally he was a Black elf. If the Black family magic is strong enough in you, he might feel drawn to you, but that shouldn’t happen until you get your heir ring next summer.”

“You talk like it’s a foregone conclusion I’m going to be the Black heir,” Harry said uncomfortably.

Narcissa raised an eyebrow. “Cousin, you are more Black than any other child of your generation. It’s not only your raw magical power but also your fanatical loyalty to those you see as yours. The Blacks are famous for our ability to form unshakable bonds. You are more a Black than even Tonks. I have no doubt the magic will accept you as heir, but that doesn’t explain Dobby.” She turned to Dobby. “Who was head of the Black family when you were born, Dobby?”

Dobby shrank in on himself. “Arcturus, Mistress.”

“Were you promised to any other before me?”

Dobby burst out crying. Huge tears dripped off the end of his nose and onto his dirty pillowcase. A second later, Mr. Malfoy came hurrying down the stairs with Draco right behind. Harry winced. He had been trying to protect Dobby from Mr. Malfoy, but now he couldn’t.

“Cissa?” Mr. Malfoy asked.

“I think I may have discovered what’s wrong with our elf,” she said calmly. Dobby cried even harder.

Draco slipped onto the seat next to Harry and leaned close. “What happened?”

“I have no idea,” Harry confessed.

“I’m interested to hear this considering how much grief this elf has caused.” Mr. Malfoy glared at the miserable creature, and Dobby cried louder. He was practically wailing now.

“Calm yourself,” Narcissa said. Dobby grabbed the bottom of his pillowcase and blew his nose with a huge honking sound that made Mr. Malfoy wince.

“Who were you promised to first?” Narcissa asked.

Dobby almost whispered his answer. “Euphemia Black.”

Narcissa pinched the bridge of her nose.

“My grandmother?” Harry asked.

Narcissa sighed. “I suppose I’m going to have to explain one of the many Black family scandals. Dorea Black was in a marriage contract with Fleamont Potter, your grandfather. Both families favored the match and had set aside considerable wealth to set the young couple up. However, when Dorea spent time at the Potter estate, she fell for Fleamont’s younger brother, Charlus. Rather than officially ending the marriage contract as was proper, she chose to run away with Charlus and not come back until she was with child. At that point, the families had to let Dorea and Charlus marry.”

Harry winced. “Is that like being a blood traitor?”

“Exactly like it,” Mr. Malfoy said. “The Blacks had a number of scandals, but given the family’s power and wealth, most avoided labeling them as such.”

“But the scandal did rock polite society in the 1940s,” Narcissa explained. “To prevent any hard feelings, Charlus separated himself from the Potters and lived only with the Blacks on Black properties. Dorea’s younger sister Euphemia married Fleamont and she separated herself from the Blacks and lived as though she’d always been a Potter. While the marriage was arranged to avoid more scandal, most say the two grew to love each other deeply.”

So much for Draco’s insistence that the old families didn’t push girls to marry. Clearly Millicent had been closer to the truth.

“Mistress Euphemia gave up everything for horrid sister and boring husband,” Dobby wailed.

“Is the elf bonded to Harry?” Mr. Malfoy demanded. Harry shrank away from his unadorned fury.

“Perhaps partially,” Narcissa said. “And partially to us. That would explain why he is unstable.”

Dobby started wailing at a volume that made it difficult to hear Narcissa speak. She patted Dobby on the head and said something to him so his cries slowly started to peter away. Finally he hiccuped miserably and fell otherwise silent.

“I explained to Dobby that Harry lives with muggles and can’t legally have an elf. However, when he moves to a wizarding area once he’s seventeen, we will present him as a gift.” Dobby kept hiccuping, and Mr. Malfoy still looked furious. Harry really wished he was somewhere else. Even Draco had fallen uncharacteristically silent.

Narcissa sighed. “This is why I believe you’ll be accepted as the Black heir, Harry. The Blacks do love our drama, and you are consistently at the center of enough to keep the most pure blooded Blacks happy.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” Draco whispered.

“Oh, it’s not,” Narcissa assured him. “Regulus went missing at eighteen, Bellatrix went on a killing spree and ended up torturing people for no sane reason, Sirius betrayed a friend he’d embraced as a brother after turning against his own brother, Walburga married her cousin and ended up shrieking at anyone who would listen that the universe was out to destroy her family and Belvina spent six years thinking she was a dolphin.”

Draco and Mr. Malfoy had matching looks of horror. For that matter, so did Harry. If that’s what it meant to be a Black, he didn’t think Narcissa was offering him a compliment when she said he was one.

Draco leaned closer. “Your hair is white.”

“Promise me that if I start telling people I’m a dolphin you’ll just kill me,” Harry begged.

Narcissa laughed. “The nice part of being a Black is that we don’t actually care that the rest of the Wizarding world thinks we’re insane. It comes with levels of wealth that not even the royal family can touch. Now, you boys have to get back to school, but before you go, I want a hug.” She opened her arms.

“Mother,” Draco said in a scandalized tone, but Harry threw himself forward.

“Thank you for wanting me in your family, even if your family is crazy,” he whispered.

“Of course, cousin,” Narcissa said. Once Harry had hugged Narcissa, Draco consented to hug his mother, and then they had to go back to school. Harry carefully kept his distance from Mr. Malfoy. Elves were expensive and families didn’t let them go because they carried family magic and family secrets, and clearly Mr. Malfoy didn’t want Harry inheriting either.

Draco tried to talk louder to fill the awkward silences, but even he was struggling to find anything to talk about by the time they got back to Hogwarts. Luckily, curfew was approaching, and that gave Harry a good reason to escape to the dungeons.


Chapter 25

Christmas morning dawned cold and white. Harry wandered over to Draco’s dorm where all three boys had stayed over Christmas. Harry got the feeling that all three fathers had some sort of business, but he was too polite to ask, and they weren’t offering.

All four of them sat on the floor and opened presents from acquaintances who weren’t brave enough to send Yule gifts to Hogwarts where only Christmas was recognized. Surprisingly Hermione and Ron had both sent gifts for Harry, and Hermione had included more gifts for Draco, and Gregory.

“I should send the present I bought her,” Harry said as he stared at the book on quidditch strategy. Ron had given him a book on Ron’s favorite quidditch team—the Cannons. Considering both of them had rooted against Slytherin during the first two games of the year, that felt a little hypocritical. Of course they’d cheered for Gryffindor during the first game. Harry had expected that. But both had been in blue for the Ravenclaw/Slytherin match.

“I didn’t get her anything,” Gregory said in horror. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Don’t you have an emergency stash of small presents?” Draco asked.

“No!” Gregory looked on the verge of panicking.

Draco rolled his eyes and rooted around in his trunk until he found a magical logic puzzle. “Give her this.”

“We should have our owls deliver them at breakfast so it doesn’t look like we forgot her,” Harry said as he ran his fingers across the book she’d bought him. He didn’t know what relationship they had anymore. He just knew that every time he thought about her, he felt worse.

Draco snorted. “She isn’t polite enough to maintain a civil relationship, so I don’t care if she’s disappointed. I’m returning a gift for a gift out of social obligation, not because I like her. I don’t like her at all. Not anymore.” Draco pressed his lips together in a hard line.

At that moment, Hedwig swooped into the room, carrying a very small package in her beak.

“Hello,” said Harry happily as she landed on the bed next to him. Harry stroked her head and she nibbled his ear in an affectionate sort of way, which was a far better present than the one that she had brought him from the Dursleys. They had sent Harry a toothpick and a note telling him to find out whether he’d be able to stay at Hogwarts for the summer vacation, too.

Draco confiscated the note and showed him a neat spell for setting something on fire so it turned to ash before it could hit the ground. They played games until lunch, eating out of their trunks rather than getting dressed and going to the Great Hall. It meant Hedwig had been tasked with delivering each of their presents to Hermione one at a time because they were too lazy to go to the owlry. Luckily Hedwig loved making deliveries.

They did dress for lunch, and the Great Hall looked magnificent. Not only were there a dozen frost-covered Christas trees and thick streamers of holly and mistletoe crisscrossing the ceiling, but enchanted snow was falling, warm and dry, from the ceiling. Dumbledore led them in a few of his favorite carols, Hagrid singing more and more loudly with every goblet of eggnog he consumed.

Mr. Malfoy was absent, and Harry hoped that was because he didn’t want to celebrate a Christian holiday and not because he was still upset with Harry. If Harry had known that his conversation would have cost the Malfoy family an elf… okay, he still would have done it because Dobby was miserable, but he would have felt more guilt up front.

Draco made a few snide comments about the Weasleys and their handmade, oversized sweaters, but Harry kicked him in the shins, and he switched to making fun of their Defense homework. They had to write a poem celebrating the greatest gift of the season—the existence of Gilderoy Lockhart. Not even Mr. Malfoy’s presence at the school could inspire Lockhart to give reasonable homework.

The Slytherins split up after Christmas tea. Harry and Draco headed to the dorms to practice dueling while Vincent and Gregory stayed to have another serving of trifle. Professor Snape had gifted Draco with a detailed book of dueling spells, and they settled in to learn the wand movements and pronunciations. It was harder without a teacher, but if they waited for Lockhart to teach them anything, they would fail their OWLS. Harry was looking forward to summer when they got to work with a dueling tutor.

“I can’t believe the youngest Weasley boy gave you a book on his own favorite team. It’s not like he even asked which team you liked,” Draco said as he practiced the swoop and poke of the hex they were working on.

“I think Ron assumes people like what he likes,” Harry said, although he thought it was more likely that Ron had given him a book he’d gotten as a present in the past. Ron’s family was poor, so Harry didn’t mind that. He just felt guilty that he would never like the book as much as Ron would. Ron should have kept it for himself.

“He’s useless,” Draco said. “Hermione is just as useless, but at least her presents show that she pays attention to other people.”

Harry laid on the couch and stared at the Slytherin ceiling. “Whatever,” he said. Draco huffed, but after a second, he closed his book and put it on the table.

“If your muggle relatives don’t want you at home this summer, you should move in with me.”

“Dumbledore’s my magical guardian. I think he would have something to say about that.”

Draco snorted. “He’d have to admit that he’s your guardian first. After he left you with blocks on your magic, I assume he’s going to hide that fact. So with no one who can tell you otherwise, you can move in with us.”

Harry rolled on his side. “I’m not sure your father is my biggest fan right now.”

“He’s not Dobby’s biggest fan. That elf causes so much trouble, but if he’s not properly bound to either mother or you, that would explain it. Elves get strange without bonds.”

Harry didn’t answer.

“Where are Vincent and Gregory?”

“Dunno,” Harry said.

Draco got up. “I’m going to go find them. Want to come along?”

“Nah, I’m going to talk to the snakes.” Harry gestured to the fireplace where carved snakes watched him. Once Draco was gone, Harry asked the snakes, “What was Tom like?”

“Angry,” one snake immediately said. “Sad,” another argued. “Popular.” “Smart.” “Cruel.” The snakes all chimed in with their own judgements before the large snake hissed to silence the others.

“He was all that. He was a boy, and boys are many things,” the snake said. “You are sad and smart and fearful and brave all at once.”

Harry thought about that. “Sometimes I don’t know what I am or what I feel,” he confessed.

“Tom felt the same,” the snake said. “He thought he was muggleborn because he had no parents and he had been left in a parentless nest with predatory guardians who didn’t care for younglings.”

Harry mentally translated that as an orphanage. “I thought he was descended from Salazar Slytherin.”

“He found that later. He searched for the connection because others told him that talking to snakes made him special. It made him a distant-hatchling of Slytherin. But he knew only muggles before Hogwarts.”

Harry knew Millicent had a hard time because she was a half-blood, the daughter of a Bulstrode and his muggle lover, who most purebloods called a prostitute right to Millicent’s face. She had to be twice as Slytherin just to get left alone, and the other Slytherin girls never accepted her. Harry didn’t know if that was because Millicent wasn’t obsessed with finding the perfect husband or if it was because she was heavier, and even witches were a bit sexist. Plenty of people in Slytherin and out of it commented on her weight and her looks. Harry was surprised she hadn’t punched about half the school.

“He turned into a bad person,” Harry said.

“All people seek to have a secure nest. If he bit others, it was because he felt his nest was threatened,” the snake said.

How much worse would it have been for an orphan who thought he was muggleborn? He didn’t have a family to write home to and the headmaster made him go back to an orphanage where he faced Nazi bombings all summer.

Harry was uncomfortable with how much he sympathized because what he had done was unforgivable. He hadn’t just bitten people to protect his territory, he’s tortured people. He’d literally skinned people and left their flesh hanging on the walls of their houses as a threat to anyone who opposed him. He was evil personified.

The common room door opened and Draco came in, followed by Vincent and Gregory. “I can’t believe you two were still stuffing your faces,” Draco said as Harry finished thanking the snakes for talking to him. Sometimes he felt like the furniture offered better advice than most people.

“Cut them some slack. It’s Christmas,” Harry said.

“Yeah,” Vincent said. Draco gave him an odd look, but then Vincent and Nott had been strange all semester, so Draco should expect it by now. “So, what are you talking about?” Vincent asked.

Draco picked up the book Snape had given him and tossed it over. Vincent fumbled it and had to pick it up off the floor. Gregory looked over his shoulder, his fingers twitching as though he was about to grab the book for himself.

“Do you want to practice?” Harry asked. He twirled his wand between his fingers.

“Um… uh, maybe later,” Vincent finally said. He pushed the book toward Gregory. Whatever they’d been talking about over deserts, they’d clearly made up. Harry was glad because he was tired of the weird distance that was developing in Slytherin. Something was going on behind the scenes, but Harry couldn’t tell what. “So, do you think the Heir of Slytherin is going to strike again?”

Gregory looked at Vincent in horror and Draco just looked confused. “What?” Draco asked.

Gregory spoke faster than usual. “We should talk, you know, somewhere else.” He gave Harry an apologetic look.

Draco looked even more confused.

“Did something else happen?” Harry asked.

“No, do you think something else will happen?” Vincent leaned forward and pinned Draco with an almost predatory look.

“What is wrong with you?” Draco demanded.

“Nothing!” Gregory rushed to say. He hit Vincent in the arm. “We should learn a few hexes.” He picked up the book

“Maybe they want to talk about Tom,” Harry teased.

Draco’s eyes got huge and he slapped his hands over his ears. “No, no, no, no, no. You do not get to stay stuff like that!”

“Like what? Like how Tom was looking for the chamber?”

Vincent and Gregory shared a conspiratorial look the way they used to last year before some strange distance had grown up between them.

“Stop it!” Draco demanded.

He was approaching fit-throwing levels of panic, so Harry slumped into the couch. “If Dippet and Dumbledore wouldn’t let Tom stay at Hogwarts even when his orphanage was getting bombed by the Nazis, there’s no way he’s going to let me live with you over summer,” Harry said sadly. It was far easier to avoid Mr. Malfoy at the manor than it was to avoid his family at the Dursleys’. The best Harry could hope for was Professor Snape showing up to subtly threaten them again.

“Again, he would have to admit that he is your magical guardian to stop you. After all the books he stole out of your vault and after that health report you got from St. Mungo’s, he’s not going to do that. You could just come home with me, and what’s he going to do?”

“Send someone to order me to go home.” Harry suspected Professor Snape might get that job, and while Harry would happily say ‘no’ to the headmaster’s face, he wouldn’t do the same with Snape. For one, Professor Snape was scarier. He’d killed a troll, for heaven’s sake.

Draco scoffed. “My father wouldn’t let them on the estate.”

“I can still come over during the day. It’s not like my aunt and uncle are making me do chores all day the way they used to. If I tell them I need to do homework with you, they practically shove me out the door.”

“They’re horrible human beings,” Draco said. Harry was proud of him for not suggesting their horribleness came from their muggleness.

“They just hate me and were forced to raise me when they didn’t want to.” Something else to blame Dumbledore for. “Let’s practice some hexes.” He grabbed the book from the floor and headed for the dueling space. Last year, pillows and chairs kept migrating into the space, but this year it got used so much that it was always clear.

Draco, Vincent, and Gregory followed, but at a distance. Vincent was whispering to Draco, so he probably thought Harry couldn’t hear him. “Do you think Tom could have opened the Chamber? Could he be the heir?”

“Of course he was the heir, but if he’s back, I don’t think Hogwarts will be his first stop.”

“What would be?” Gregory asked.

Draco spoke up. “Harry, what do you imagine he would hit first if he came back?”

Harry leaned against the dueling room wall. “I don’t know. The Ministry?”

“Maybe. But last time he was more about attacks on muggles. Muggles have started building around the Tamnavulin sacred grove. He might blow up a few houses out there.”

“He didn’t blow up houses. He tortured, raped and killed people who didn’t even understand why he was targeting them. Then he blew up houses after,” Harry pointed out.

“Well, it wouldn’t happen if the Ministry protected Wizarding sites.”

“I don’t care what the Ministry does or doesn’t do, torture and murder isn’t okay.” Harry didn’t comment on the destruction of property, because he did understand that. “But he’s gone, so what’s the point of worrying about it?” Harry asked.

Draco sat on a bench. “Sometimes my father talks about him in present tense, like he expects he’ll be back. I mean, he didn’t leave a body behind.”

“Maybe that’s why people get so freaked out when I call him Tom,” Harry said.

“Wait! Tom is Voldemort!” Gregory shouted.

All three of them stared at him for long seconds. Draco took a step closer. “What are you talking about? You knew that. What’s the matter with you two?”

Vincent caught Gregory by the arm. “We should go. We should definitely go.” Vincent’s voice grew shrill, and Harry suddenly thought about what Narcissa had told him the first time he’d met her. There were magical ways to hide a person’s identity.

Harry pulled his wand and pointed it at the pair. “Who are you?” he demanded.

Gregory gave a hysterical laugh and Vincent stared at Harry in horror.

Draco did a double-take, looking from Harry to Gregory and Vincent and back. Only then did he pull his own wand. “If they’re not them, we need to get Professor Snape.”

“What? No we don’t. We absolutely don’t!” Gregory blurted. The tone was Gregory, but the speed reminded him of someone else.

“Hermione?” Harry asked. Gregory’s eyes grew huge.

“Hermione?!” Draco practically screeched the name and then he whirled around to see if any of the older Slytherins who’d stayed for Christmas had heard them. He leaned close to Gregory/Hermione and poked her in the chest in a way he never would have if Hermione had still been in a female body. “What are you doing? Are you stupid? Are you suicidal? Other students aren’t allowed in Slytherin, you idiot.”

Vincent shoved Draco away. “Don’t touch her,” he snapped.

Seeing Vincent with his hands clenched into tight fists, Harry knew exactly who it was. “Ron, if you hit him, I’m going to Professor Snape right now,” he threatened in a low voice.

Ron turned red in Vincent’s body as easily as his own.

Draco looked back and forth between them. “You can’t be here. You absolutely can’t be here. We have to get out of the dorms right now. And where are Vincent and Gregory?”

Harry felt a little guilty that he hadn’t thought to ask that.

“They’re safe. They’re in a closet sleeping off a prank cake from the twins,” Hermione said. “They’re fine.”

“They’re in a closet?” Draco’s voice went up again. “What if you overdosed them? Do you know how much cake they eat? What if they stop breathing? Who is there to protect them if someone finds them. Arg!!” Draco threw both hands up, and Hermione cringed away from his anger.

Harry caught her by the arm. “We’re going to go get Gregory and Vincent right now and then you two are going to explain this.”

“We don’t have to explain anything,” Ron said.

Harry glared at him. “If you don’t, you can explain this to Professor Snape. In fact, maybe we should get him anyway.” Ron blushed even more. In fact, even his hair started turning red and his nose was slowly lengthening.

“Then you can explain to him how you can talk to snakes,” Ron shot back. Harry’s scalp tingled as his hair immediately changed color.


Chapter 26

“Oh no,” Draco said. “This is not happening here. We need to get out of here now.” Draco grabbed Ron’s arm and practically dragged him toward the exit. Hermione hurried after him, her hair starting to lengthen.

Draco rushed them down the dungeon passage. As Ron and Hermione started to shrink, they stumbled in the oversized shoes, and Hermione had to kick hers free as she held her robes up high enough to avoid tripping on them. They crashed up the steps into the dark entrance hall. A muffled pounding came from the closet, and Draco gave Hermione a hate-filled look before he cast a quick “Alohomora.”

The door popped open and Gregory and Vincent came tumbling out, wild-eyed and wands at the ready. Harry didn’t want a Gryffindor-Slytherin war, so he stepped between them. “What are you two doing in the closet? You’re lucky we heard you.”

Draco gave him an incredulous look, but luckily the other two didn’t seem to notice. Vincent looked around for a second, and then he stormed off without a word. That was far more in character for him lately.

“What’s going on?” Gregory asked as he kept glancing toward Ron with a confused expression.

Draco spoke before Harry could come up with a good cover story. “Hermione and Weasley got the twins to prank you.”

“What? No we didn’t,” said Hermione. “We bought Sleepy Snacks Potion from them and said we were going to prank Percy.”

Gregory’s face turned to stone. “Why?” he demanded.

“So they could spy on us,” Draco added. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You should go get Professor Snape.”

“Wait,” said Harry. “Let them explain themselves first.” Harry still hoped they could find some sort of common ground where he and Draco didn’t turn them in for assaulting students and they kept their mouths shut about Harry’s ability to speak to snakes. Even if the headmaster agreed to expel them, and Harry didn’t expect that given how the Gryffindors could get away with anything, even if they were expelled, they could still tell everyone about his parselmouth. They could destroy each other, so Harry needed to find a solution that didn’t include that. He just needed to figure out how to make the deal happen. “Why did you attack Gregory and Vincent?”

“It wasn’t like that!” Hermione protested. She had to fist her robes to keep them from sliding off her shoulders, so whatever spell she had used to make herself look like Gregory hadn’t tranfigured her clothing. “We were trying to figure out who the heir was, and we thought Malfoy might know something… you know, because his family has been around so long. I mean, your father is the High Inquisitor and knows a lot, and no one is doing anything to help Colin.”

“And why didn’t you tell us you can speak to snakes?” Ron demanded of Harry, his face as red as his hair.

Gregory took a step closer as if he was ready to punch Ron.

“Because I didn’t want people looking at me like that!” Harry snapped. “And now you’re going to tell everyone, and I’m going to have to hear everyone accuse me of being the heir, as if I had anything to do with that stupid cat or Colin. I didn’t.”

“I didn’t say you did,” Ron said. He stopped when Hermione put a hand on his arm.

“Harry, we never thought for a second you were the heir.”

Ron spoke. “No, but people will accuse him of being the heir if they know he’s a parselmouth. This is bad. Salazar Slytherin was famous for being a parselmouth, so if you’re a parselmouth, people are going to think you’re his great-great-great-great-grandson or something–”

“But he’s not,” Draco said.

“Through my Potter side,” Harry corrected him. “And no one in Slytherin wants to consider that I might be related through my mother. But no matter who I’m related to, it doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t open the Chamber. But being a parselmouth means I do have information no one else can get. The enchanted snakes in the common room said that the last heir who opened the Chamber was a boy during World War II named Tom, and the other students said that’s Voldemort.”

Ron, Draco and Gregory all shivered when Harry said his name, but Harry couldn’t call him the Dark Lord in front of Ron and Hermione and he wasn’t about to call him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. That was just silly.

“Wait, his name is Tom?” Ron asked in a horror-filled voice that echoed Draco’s reaction when he’d heard it. Tom wasn’t exactly a pureblood name.

“We shouldn’t be talking about this,” Gregory said. “We really shouldn’t be talking about this. And why are you dressed like that?” Gregory looked at the robes that Hermione was holding around her.

Draco narrowed his eyes. “You used Polyjuice, didn’t you? How did you buy that? That’s a restricted potion. Buying it requires a license.”

“I made it,” Hermione said as Ron madly tried to hush her.

Draco and Gregory both stood with their mouths open, and Ron slapped a hand over his eyes. Harry assumed that meant that making Polyjuice was really bad.

If Harry hadn’t already figured that out, the slow, sadistic grin on Draco’s face would have made it clear. “Now I know you’re not going to tell anyone about Harry. After all, the punishment for illegal brewing of polyjuice is four to six months in Azkaban. Six months of having a dementor suck every happy memory out of your mind until all you can do is huddle in a corner of your cell and shake. For someone as young as you two, I doubt you’d ever recover,” Draco sounded entirely too pleased at that thought.

“You’re not scaring me,” said Hermione defiantly.

“He’s not lying,” Ron said softly. “The headmaster might be able to get us out of trouble, but I’m not sure I want to ask him for favors.”

That was different. Ron usually talked about how great the headmaster was. Harry put a hand out to stop Draco who looked ready to launch into another tirade of terror. “Why don’t you want the headmaster to help?”

“Your health report? The books he stole? Not admitting that he’s your magical guardian?” Ron threw his hands up. “Mate, betraying a ward is worse than brewing polyjuice. He and my mum are friends. The headmaster was close to mum’s two brothers who did something for the headmaster during the last war, and he promised that you were being raised by a loving family. And I know… I know for a fact that my mum asked if you’d had your dragonpox vaccine.

“Dumbledore said you were living with muggle relatives, so she wanted to come get you and make sure you got your checkup and vaccines and all that before you went to Diagon Alley. He told her that he had arranged for everything, but Malfoy says there’s blackmail material in your health report. And maybe he’d lie, but you didn’t argue with him.” Ron was turning redder. “So did the headmaster make sure you got your vaccines?”

Harry shook his head.

“And Harry had adhesions on his core because childhood blocks hadn’t been taken off. That’s why he wasn’t a metamorphmagus that first term,” Draco added, which was a bit like throwing petrol on a fire.

Ron’s face was fire-engine red. “It’s like the twins said. It’s just like the twins said.” He clenched his fists, and Hermione gave him a worried look. “Have you seen someone die of dragonpox?” he demanded.

“Just calm down,” said Hermione, which did nothing to calm the situation. At least Draco and Gregory now looked amused rather than angry. That was a small improvement.

“The twins tried telling her, and she’s all Albus this, Albus that, like nothing could be wrong if Albus Dumbledore was looking after it, but he stole your family books?” Ron’s expression begged Harry to tell him that had been a lie.

“Books, a sneakoscope, wands, artifacts, some furniture. It’s all listed as being out on loan, but none of it has come back to the bank,” Harry said.

Ron opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Slowly all the anger seemed to leech away, making him look like he’d just finished a double quidditch practice when Flint was in a truly wretched mood.

When he spoke, his voice trembled. “Did you know that the week before school he came over to the Burrow and showed me your picture? He said you were nervous about leaving all your friends behind at muggle school and asked me to look out for you. He said you’d be Gryffindor for sure, and the house was a little rowdy, so you’d need someone to play interference. He said I was used to the twins, so I’d be perfect.”

Harry winced. He could see how Ron, the youngest son who didn’t feel like he got any attention, would react to that sort of manipulation. “I never had any muggle friends. My cousin would beat them up if they were nice to me.”

Draco snorted. “Just like a Gryffindor not to notice you’re getting used.”

Ron and Hermione both looked gutted.

“Maybe we should clean up the evidence of your brewing,” Harry suggested.

“Or get Professor Snape,” Draco countered.

Ron didn’t even twitch, but Hermione turned sickly gray.

“No,” said Harry. “Professor Snape has been in a horrible mood lately, and we are not going to do anything that puts him in a worse mood, especially when we have to share Potions with the Gryffindors. Be Slytherin enough to think this through, Draco.”

Draco clenched his teeth until his jaw muscle bulged.

Harry sighed before turning to Ron and Hermione. “But you two owe us, and I mean owe us big. You brewed an illegal potion, broke into our common room, drugged Gregory and Vincent and then locked them in a closet where they couldn’t get medical help if they needed it. You owe us so much that I can’t even count that high.”

Hermione gave a little hiccuping sob and looked at the ground, and Ron looked everywhere except Harry. “Mate, I’m really sorry. We were so sure it was Malfoy,” Ron said softly, as if that excused any of this.

“Why? Because I hate you and all blood traitors?” Draco asked. “I studied at the same table with Granger, so it’s not like I’m out muggle-baiting and calling for all mudbloods to be expelled, so exactly why did you assume I was the heir?”

Ron looked guilty. He had probably decided that because he couldn’t imagine anyone evil coming from another house. As far as Harry was concerned, Sirius Black was right up there with Voldemort, and he’d been a Gryffindor. And Patricia Rakepick had been another Gryffindor who took the love of dark arts and twisted it into a nice bout of homicide. Gryffindor wasn’t exactly pure goodness. But most of the teachers acted like goodness and not bravery was Gryffindor’s defining characteristic. And the adults around Ron had twisted him around until he agreed with that screwed up perspective.

“Are you going to tell everyone about my parselmouth?” Harry asked. If he was, Harry had to make some plans… some of which might involve running away and enrolling at Castelobruxo. They were supposed to have an outstanding magizoology program.

“Course not, mate,” Ron said in an insulted voice. “It’s not anyone’s business what magical gifts you inherited. We just wanted to find who the heir is and how he’s petrifying his victims. If Colin has to wait for the school mandrakes, he’s going to miss his whole first year.”

“The heir is not a Slytherin,” Harry said firmly. “If it was, the snakes in the common room would have found them. So you need to investigate the other three houses.”

“It’s not like a Dark wizard is going to come out of Gyffindor,” Ron said with confidence. Apparently his epiphany about Dumbledore was rather limited.

“Sirius Black,” Draco snapped.

“Patricia Rakepick, Nubine Singlestone, Beggerly Spinnet,” Harry added.

“Some people call Valeria Myriadd evil because she tortured invading Romans and then traded the survivors to the fairies so they could eat them alive,” added Gregory. “But lots of people consider her good because she did that. Sometimes I don’t understand good and evil.”

“Me, either,” Harry said sympathetically.

Ron frowned. Maybe he’d never heard of any of those people. He wasn’t one for reading outside of class, and class tended to teach the Gryffindor-good, Slytherin-evil party line. Harry had an idea for a book he could get Ron next Yule. No doubt he would enjoy it as much as Harry enjoyed the book on the Cannons.

“Can we talk about this later and maybe go clean up the potion mess?” Hermione asked. She wasn’t looking anyone in the eye, so Harry knew she regretted her actions. He also understood that she’d been motivated by fear. Everyone assumed the heir would go after muggleborns, so Harry couldn’t imagine how it felt for her to be afraid to go to class.

Draco crossed his arms. “I’m not helping you clean up the remains of a potion so illegal that you could be sentenced to Azkaban for even attempting it. I won’t go near it.”

“Draco, do you think you could maybe just not mention this to anyone… like your father? They would owe you one.” Harry nudged Ron with his elbow. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” said Ron. “I’ll owe you. All of you. I don’t think we thought this whole thing through.”

Draco’s expression turned calculating. “Will you swear a Vow on that?” he asked.

“No need,” Harry said as he pushed Ron and Hermione toward the stairs. “We’re all honorable people and Ron would never go back on his word. Would you, Ron?” Harry asked, but he didn’t give Ron time to answer before rushing him up the stairs. He had no idea where they’d brewed, but step one was to separate Gryffindors and Slytherins until the tempers cooled. Luckily, Draco and Gregory didn’t follow.

“Is he going to tell on us?” Hermione asked quietly. Harry got the feeling that she finally understood that she had done something illegal, something so wrong she could go to wizard prison for it.

“Maybe, but I don’t think so,” Harry said. “I think he’ll hold it over your head and you’ll have to be extra nice to him for the rest of the year.”

Ron sighed loudly.

“But if you keep my secret, he’ll be more likely to keep yours,” Harry said. Maybe Gryffindors didn’t trade favors like Slytherins, but maybe they could understand mutually assured destruction. If Harry’s secret got out, the rest of the school would hate him, but Ron would hate himself if he and Hermione ended up in Azkaban for a few months.

“Of course we’ll keep your secret,” Hermione assured him. “I don’t know why wizards are so weird about some magical gifts. Even your shapeshifting makes some of the students in Gryffindor act so weird, as if having a gift from your Black side makes you morally equivalent to Sirius Black. Your cousin, the other one who can shapeshift, she’s an Auror, isn’t she? That doesn’t sound inherently evil.”

“Metamorphmagus,” Ron corrected her.

Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Is this why you’ve been so weird lately?” Harry asked. “I thought you’d stopped liking me.”

Hermione grabbed Harry’s hand. “What? Never! It just got weird because the Chamber opened, and you have no idea how much students in Gryffindor have been talking about it, and then Mr. Malfoy showed up, and everyone says he’s here to support the heir and make the headmaster return Dark Arts to the curriculum. And you’re so nice that we couldn’t talk to you about why we thought Draco was the heir. You see the best in everyone but that means…” She waved her hands through the air. “You don’t always see that people are using you.”

“Like Mr. Malfoy,” Ron added.

Why did everyone assume he was stupid? Harry knew full well that Mr. Malfoy had used him to get Anti-Muggle Act quotes for the Daily Prophet, but he wouldn’t say something he didn’t believe. “Maybe I’m not the only one who trusts too much,” he said. “Dumbledore made Tom go home to an orphanage in London during the bombing instead of letting him stay in the magical world. Would he have turned out to be a murdering psychopath if he’d been raised better?”

“No way, he was bad from the start,” Ron said with confidence.

Harry crossed his arms over his chest. “If people can be bad from the start, does that mean there are obnoxious six- and seven-year-olds that we should track down and kill before they can become the next Dark Lord?”

“What?” Ron yelped. “No! That’s horrible!”

“But you said people are bad from the start and any hardships they might have suffered didn’t matter as much as their core personality. Maybe you think the school should execute anyone who sorts Slytherin because they’re evil.”

Ron narrowed his eyes to slits. “I never said that.”

“You implied it.”

“Did not.”

“Did, too.”

“Boys!” Hermione shouted over both of them. “Can we cover up the evidence of our illegal activities now and argue later?” she asked.

Ron and Harry glared at each other for a moment before following her up the stairs. They had brewed in a girls’ toilet, and Harry couldn’t even imagine drinking something that had been brewed in a toilet. He would have thrown it up immediately. But he gave Ron and Hermione credit for having strong stomachs. He was rinsing the potion tools when he spotted a small carved snake on one of the sinks. It was much smaller than most of the guardian snakes and curled tightly so he was almost invisible. So this was the entrance to the Chamber.

Harry glanced over, but he didn’t want to risk asking the snake to show its secrets in front of the Gryffindors. They already had too much power over him by knowing about his parselmouth.

Once the last of the Polyjuice evidence was gone–flushed down the toilet and rinsed down the pipes after being neutralized with wartcap powder–Hermione set her shoulders and looked at Harry. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Part of Harry wanted to torture her–to make her pay for all the times she had made him feel like he wasn’t worth being friends with, but she looked so miserable that Harry knew she had struggled just as much as he had. She was wrong. No question. But she hadn’t been malicious. “Thinking you’d turned your back on me hurt,” said Harry. “And if you do it again, I won’t accept a second apology, but maybe this time it’s fine.”

“It’s not,” Hermione said. “I am bad at being friends and worse at keeping secrets, and I just knew if I sat with you, I’d end up telling you the whole plan. I’m a horrible person because I didn’t even think how you would feel. I thought you had lots of friends so it wouldn’t matter, and that was dumb. And I’m not normally a dumb person.”

“Yeah, mate,” Ron added. “We never thought you were the heir, but with Mr. Malfoy showing up right after the Chamber was opened, it looked a bit suspicious, yeah?”

Harry shrugged. He would give Hermione another chance because they’d been friends a long time, and she’d never knowingly turned her back on him. She just failed at plotting. But this wasn’t the first time Ron had turned on him. And even now, he was making excuses instead of admitting he was wrong. Maybe he thought that was an apology, but it wasn’t enough for Harry to want more than a civil relationship where Harry was polite and Ron didn’t tell anyone his secret.

“I’ve been a horrible friend, and if you never want to talk to me again, I’ll understand,” Hermione said sadly. Harry caught her hand in his and she smiled at him.

“We went a little mental,” Ron said. “Families tend to go to certain houses, so we thought anyone from Slytherin’s family would go to his house. But I swear we never thought you were the heir. And I promise I will never tell a soul about… you know. Wizards can be weird about that sort of gift.” Ron’s expression turned thoughtful. “I bet that’s dead useful, though, talking to snakes.”

Harry saw an opportunity for polite conversation. “I talked to a boa constrictor at the zoo once.”

“Yeah? Wicked.”

Hermione smiled so wide that all her teeth showed white against her dark skin.


Chapter 27

When Narcissa took Draco to France for language testing, Mr. Malfoy still took Harry to the Ministry for a tour. He got to see the Fountain of Magical Brethren, which seemed a little offensive to the magical races looking up at the carved wizard. Even the witch was looking to the wizard as if she was waiting for him to take the lead, although the magical creatures were looking toward both the witch and the wizard. Apparently there was a hierarchy of prejudice. Hermione had a point about the misogyny built into the system.

Harry was more interested in the Wizengamot chambers and the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The Department of Misinformation was his favorite though. Cecil Prewitt explained how they came up with stories when something so magical happened that no one could possibly ignore it. It was like they wrote fiction for a living because they created possible explanations for impossible situations and then used magic to make their fiction more believable than the truth.

Harry thought he might like to do that. A close second was their visit to the Department of Mysteries. Harry had even had a prophecy attached to his name, which was exciting, but then he’d played it, and suddenly Harry regretted the whole trip. Voldemort had killed his parents because Harry was fated to have enough power to defeat him.

Mr. Malfoy had given him a very odd look after that, but he was still kind. He volunteered to take the prophecy back later so they could go to lunch somewhere quiet. Maybe Mr. Malfoy wasn’t the nicest person, but he could be very insightful. He’d bought Harry three different types of ice cream and had tried to buy him a new cloak that Harry had admired in a window.

The holidays ended with a flurry of students returning on the train. The castle felt loud and crowded after two weeks of having it to themselves, but at least with most students in Slytherin, Vincent’s habit of avoiding them was easier to ignore.

On the other side, Nott was back and stranger than ever. He wasn’t hostile to Harry anymore, but he watched. All the time, he watched. Harry was starting to get really creeped out. The return of students had also driven Peeves and Filch into frenzies. Peeves actually dropped a huge cabinet off a second floor landing and Filch haunted the corridor where the blood writing had been left, complaining about how often Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom overflowed. It was common to hear him yelling as they walked to class.

Gilderoy Lockhart seemed to think he himself had made the attacks stop. Harry overheard him telling Professor McGongagall, “I don’t think there’ll be any more trouble, Minerva.” He tapped his nose and winked knowingly. “I think the Chamber has been locked for good this time. The culprit must have known it was only a matter of time before I caught him. Rather sensible to stop now, before I came down hard on him.

Harry had wanted to sneak into the bathroom and check for himself because he was increasingly sure that the little snake in Myrtle’s bathroom protected the entrance, but with Peeves and Filch on the warpath, he didn’t dare.

Lockhart continued. “You know, what the school needs now is a morale-booster. Wash away the memories of last term! I won’t say any more just now, but I think I know just the thing…” He tapped his nose again and strode off.

Lockhart’s idea of a morale-booster became clear at breakfast on February fourteenth. Harry hurried up to the Great Hall, slightly late because he’d overslept. He thought, for a moment, that he’d walked through the wrong doors.

The walls were all covered with large, lurid pink flowers. Worse still, heart-shaped confetti was falling from the pale blue ceiling. Harry waved to Hermione who seemed to be overcome with giggles before he headed to his place between Blaise and Draco.

“What’s going on?” Harry asked them, sitting down and wiping confetti off his bacon.

“Lockhart is an idiot,” Blaise said. He nodded toward the teacher’s table, and Harry saw Lockhart wearing lurid pink robes to match the decorations. He was waving for silence, and the teachers on either side of him were looking stony-faced. From where he sat, Harry could see a muscle going in Professor McGonagall’s cheek, and Professor Snape looked as sour as if someone had just fed him a large beaker of Skele-Gro.

“Do you think someone should warn him that Professor Snape was once a Death Eater?” Blaise mused.

“I’ll pay you money to do it,” Draco immediately offered.

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” Lockhart shouted. “And may I thank the forty-five people who have so far sent me cards! Yes, I have taken the liberty of arranging this little surprise for you all–and it doesn’t end here!”

Lockhart clapped his hands and through the doors to the entrance hall marched a dozen surly-looking dwarfs. Not just any dwarfs, however. Lockhart had them all wearing golden wings and carrying harps.

“Kill me now,” Draco whispered in horror.

Patsy leaned across the table. “I heard that when Lockhart was in school, he sent himself so many Valentines that they had to close the Great Hall because of the amount of feathers and owl droppings. It got in all the food.”

“Really?” Blaise asked, delighted at the gossip.

Lockhart was still making his annoyingly cheerful speech. “My friendly, card-carrying cupids!” beamed Lockhart. “They will be roving around the school today delivering your valentines! And the fun doesn’t stop here! I’m sure my colleagues will want to enter into the spirit of the occasion! Why not ask Professor Snape to show you how to whip up a Love Potion!”

The look on Professor Snape’s face terrified Harry. His expression suggested that the first student to ask was going to be force-fed the most noxious potion he had in the dungeons. Most of Slytherin cringed. Harry just hoped no Gryffindors had the audacity to follow Lockhart’s suggestion. If they did, Potions was going to be really unpleasant.

“And while you're at it,” Lockhart continued, “Professor Flitwick knows more about Entrancing Enchantments than any wizard I’ve ever met, the sly old dog!”

Professor Flitwick buried his face in his hands.

“Who would send that idiot a valentine?” Millicent asked.

“He’s not that bad,” Patsy said. That explained where one of the forty-five had come from.

All day long, the dwarfs kept barging into their classes to deliver valentines, to the annoyance of the teachers, and as Slytherin was heading to history with the new professor, one of the dwarfs caught up with Harry.

“Oi, you! ‘Arry Potter!” shouted a particularly grim-looking dwarf, elbowing people out of the way to get to Harry. The dwarf cut through the crowd by kicking people’s shins, and when Harry tried to hide behind Blaise, Blaise–the mercenary that he was–pushed Harry right into the dwarf’s path.

“I’ve got a musical message to deliver to ‘Arry Potter in person,” he said, twanging his harp in a threatening sort of way.

“Not here,” Harry hissed, trying to escape. With a new history teacher who actually noticed who was sitting in front of her, he couldn’t afford to be late.

“Stay still!” grunted the dwarf, grabbing hold of Harry’s bag and pulling him back.

“Just get it over with,” Draco said as he shoved Harry back toward the dwarf, which was probably good because a few stitches on his pouch popped.

The dwarf began to sing:

“His eyes are as green as a fresh picked toad,
His hair is as dark as a blackboard.
I wish he was mine, he’s really divine,
The hero who conquered the Dark Lord.”

Harry would have given all the gold in Gringotts to evaporate on the spot. Trying valiantly to laugh along with everyone else, he backed away as Professor Jones came out to rescue him by ordering the dwarf away.

“Was done anyhow,” he complained before he stomped off down the hall. It was especially embarrassing to have Professor Jones rescue him because she was ridiculously young. Blaise said Professor Snape had been younger–just twenty-one when he started teaching. But Professor Jones was beautiful and brilliant and all the things that Harry was starting to think he was attracted to. And now she had heard that.

“Weird,” Blaise said as they settled into their chairs near the front.

“Dwarfs and cupids aren’t anything alike,” Draco agreed.

Blaise gave him an almost pitying look. “Didn’t you listen to what it sang?”

“Yeah, something embarrassing,” Harry said. He sank lower in his chair as pairs and trios of Ravenclaws kept looking over toward him and then giggling.

Blaise rolled his eyes. “The poem used the term ‘Dark Lord’ which suggests it’s from someone with a dark alignment, but it called Harry the hero who conquered the Dark Lord, which would rule out anyone from Slytherin. I mean, we’ve all heard your rant often enough to believe your parents were more likely to set a magical trap than you were.”

“My mother,” Harry said. “Dumbledore said that I still have her magical signature on me, so don’t start this sexist, blood purity shite. I hear enough of that already.”

“I’m just being politically correct and leaving the possibilities open,” Blaise said with a smug smile. “But that and the timing with it coming right before our class with the Ravenclaws does suggest that a lass with a dark alignment is pining after you, you dashing young thing.”

Harry stared at Blaise in horror until Professor Jones cleared her throat and asked the class to take out the homework and compare the political families they’d researched with the maps from 1305, 1360, and 1410 to determine how the politically powerful families had shaped the geographical divisions of the period. Harry focused on the lesson, grateful for a reason to ignore Blaise and focus on medieval human geography.

Unfortunately, the story of his dwarf spread far and wide. By dinner, Fred and George were singing “His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad,” at the top of their lungs from the Gryffindor table. Hermione scolded them, but that just inspired them to sing louder.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to run amuck,” Draco complained. Harry looked toward the teacher’s table. Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape both looked ready to hex the twins, but Professor Dumbledore watched with delight, his eyes twinkling as he waved his fork in time with the boys’ singing. And Professor Lockhart looked utterly delighted.

“Have you figured out who your admirer is?” Blaise asked as he turned his gaze to the Ravenclaw table.

“Why do you assume they’re Ravenclaw?”

Blaise gave him a confused look. “I thought I already explained my reasoning.”

“You explained why it would be a dark-aligned non-Slytherin, which leaves three other houses,” Harry argued. It was hard to get upset with Ron for stereotyping based on house when everyone else did as well.

Draco huffed. “After Slytherin, Ravenclaw is the most likely for dark-aligned families. After all, the old rituals and spells are knowledge, and everyone knows how Ravenclaws feel about knowledge.”

“Maybe it’s Looney,” Patsy Parkinson said with a sneer.

Harry frowned at her.

“Luna Lovegood,” Blaise said. “She has a reputation for being a little strange.”

“A little?” Parkinson turned her nose up in the air. “She shouldn’t be allowed in here. She can’t even keep track of where she leaves her shoes. How does anyone expect her to pass her OWLS? Maybe she likes Potter.”

Harry felt himself blush. He found that reaction harder to control than his hair color. “I don’t think she would be the sort to call him the ‘Dark Lord,’” Harry said.

“Maybe.” Patsy got a nasty look on her face before she swung her legs around and strode toward the Ravenclaw table while throwing a few nasty looks over her shoulder in Harry’s direction.

“I hate her,” Harry whispered.

“She hates you for not chasing her,” Millicent said. “Why do all these girls want to find husbands? The minute they do, everyone is going to expect them to stay home.” Millicent wrinkled her nose. “How can you be Slytherin and have no ambition other than staying home?”

“Ambition doesn’t have to be individual,” Draco said. “A person can have ambitions for their family or their political party. That’s still an ambition.”

“The man who tries to tell me that I should only be ambitious enough to make him look good–he’s going to have two broken legs.” Millicent pounded her fist into her open hand.

“So don’t get married,” Draco said. “Have a career.”

“I plan to.” Millicent watched as Patsy pulled Luna over toward them. “I’m going to be a bodyguard or a curse breaker or a professional dueler.”

“Here she is,” Parkinson said in an annoying voice. “Luna, Harry wanted to ask you something.” She pushed Luna forward.

Luna had on shoes this time, but she was wearing radishes as earrings. “Parkinson is teasing you. You can ignore her,” Harry said, hoping she would leave.

“She does have blibbering humdingers around her, so I assumed,” Luna said with an eerie smile.

“What?” Draco peered up at her. “What are those?”

“Some of her imaginary creatures,” Parkinson said with a snicker.

“Or something she sees because she’s a seer,” Harry countered. He’d been planning on avoiding this issue because Slytherins weren’t forgiving of those who didn’t fit into society. Millicent was more than most could handle, so they would not be able to handle Luna. However, he wasn’t going to stand back and let Parkinson bully her.

“She’s a seer?” Blaise suddenly looked much more interested. “What do you see, luv?” he asked.

She smiled serenely at him.

“She talks about blibbering humdingers whenever the twins pull a prank, so it might be deceit or the confusion it causes. But I think it’s something like that,” Harry explained.

She touched Harry’s cheek. “The heliopaths are confused, but they are starting to find their center.”

“Um, sure,” Harry said.

She turned and wandered away.

Parkinson shook her head. “What a loon.”


Chapter 28

Now that Hermione and Ron had stopped plotting in girls’ bathrooms, Hermione had returned to the study group. The twins had long since stopped hanging out with them, so her and Neville were the only Gryffindors in an otherwise Slytherin group with Harry, Draco, Blaise, Millicent and Gregory all in green. However, come Easter when schedule requests went out for them to choose their subjects for the third year, Ron joined them.

The differences between the two houses had never been more starkly obvious. Ron was furious that Divination was now closed to students without at least a touch of Sight.

“That was supposed to be the easiest class,” he complained. “I will never forgive your father for getting it restricted.”

“I’m sure he’ll be heartbroken to hear of your complaint,” Draco said dryly. From him that counted as polite. He was trying hard to not antagonize Ron, maybe because he didn’t want Ron to tell the school that Harry was a parselmouth and maybe because he respected that Ron hadn’t done it already. Harry wasn’t going to question it.

“If you don’t have the Sight, what’s the point in taking the class?” Hermione asked.

“I heard that as long as you are good at making up horrible predictions full of death and blood and vomit, you can get easy scores.” Ron stared at the electives sheet glumly.

“But then you have to take your OWLS, and you wouldn’t be able to actually use divination techniques,” Draco said. “Besides, what career would you have with that elective?”

“It’s not all about future careers. We should have some fun, too,” Ron said. “Right, mate?” he nudged Neville with his elbow.

Neville stared at the pile of letters he had spread across the library table. All the witches and wizards in his family had given him different advice on what to choose. He stared at the closest letter with a weary sort of resignation and used an index finger to poke it away an inch. “I don’t think any of them sound fun. What do you think is harder, Arithmancy or Ancient Runes?”

“Arithmancy,” Draco said at the same time Blaise offered, “Ancient Runes.”

“No way,” Draco said. “If you’re trying to balance a spell, the number of syllables in the incantation, the number of curves and lines in the wand movement, the number of elements you draw on, the arithmanic foundations of the language you choose for the incantation–they all influence each other, and you have to be able to balance the calculations.”

“But in Ancient Runes, you have to memorize the runes, multiple rune languages, even. And each rune can have multiple meanings depending on which other runes it’s paired with. And then there are rune sets. That’s a lot of memorization,” Blaise countered.

“I’m going to fail,” Neville said sadly.

“You can take Muggle Studies with me,” Hermione offered.

“Why are you taking Muggle Studies?” Harry asked.

“I want to see things from a wizarding perspective.”

“While you’re at it, you might want to teach them actual muggle terms,” Blaise suggested. “Burbage follows the Ministry’s curriculum, and it is so out of date I’m surprised wizards haven’t shown up on the evening news. The class even stopped taking students on field trips to muggle locations back in the seventies because students weren’t able to blend in.”

“It’s not like it’s difficult,” Draco said. “Sure, the bus thing is tricky at first, but muggles have such a wide range of clothing, it’s easy to blend in.”

Hermione and Ron both looked at Draco in shock. “How do you know?” Ron asked.

Draco frowned. “What? Do you honestly think I’ve never gone into muggle London?” He sniffed. “Please. I’m a Malfoy. I can fit in anywhere.”

Harry didn’t point out that when he’d first taken Draco on a field trip into the muggle part of town he’d been a nervous, stuttering mess. “I have a note from the divination professor asking me to test to see if I have enough Sight to qualify for the class, but I can’t imagine why I need it,” Harry said. None of the other Slytherins had gotten a note like that, so Harry suspected Professor Trelawney was another adult who wanted to attach themselves to his fame. It made him want to run away from the class.

“There’s no money to be made in the field,” Draco said. “But you have to take Arithmancy with me.” Draco gave Harry a sharp look. If Harry wanted to properly understand rituals and how to use the constellation chart book Narcissa had bought him, he didn’t have a choice. Besides, Narcissa would be disappointed in him for not living up to his Black heritage and with so few Blacks left, Harry didn’t want to do that. It was strange having the potential of disappointing his family. The Dursleys hated him no matter what he did, so it wasn’t the same.

“I’m definitely taking Arithmancy,” Harry agreed. “It sounds like I would need it for anything that involved making spells or altering potions or anything like that.”

“I’m pants at potions and spells,” Neville said in a miserable voice. “I thought about taking Care of Magical Creatures, but I don’t want to get eaten.”

“Professors won’t let you get eaten,” Draco said. “That’s going to be my fun class. After doing both Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, I’ll need some fun.”

“There isn’t a proper career out there that requires Care,” Blaise said with a sniff.

“Magizoology,” Harry countered.

“No one makes money on that,” Blaise said. “That’s the sort of job where you chase creatures all over the continent and when you catch them, people just demand to know why you didn’t get the job done sooner. No thank you. I’m thinking of doing enchanted architecture. So it’s Runes and Arithmancy for me.”

“Not everything is about money,” Ron said dismissively. Maybe he was noticing the stark differences between Slytherin and Gryffindor as well. He rested his chin on his hand. “But those classes have so much homework.”

“Too much,” Neville echoed. He sorted through his letters again. “Most of my family thinks I should do one or the other because if I do both the hard electives, I’m sure to have trouble.”

Harry hated how negative Neville’s family was. As bad as the Dursleys were, at least they left Harry alone most of the time. They wouldn’t dream of trying to tell him what elective to take.

Ron made two marks on his form. “Maybe I could take Muggle Studies with Care. Lots of people at the Ministry have to work with muggles, and it shouldn’t be too hard.”

“I don’t know why you won’t apply yourself,” Hermione said with a sigh. Harry looked at her paper, and she had checked off every elective except Divination, and she’d put a mark in the column requesting testing to see if she had Sight.

“Are you taking Care of Magical Creatures?” Draco asked.

Harry tapped his form. He would like a class outside, and he liked animals. He didn’t have a lot of experience with them outside of Aunt Marge’s stupid dog that always tried to bite him, but maybe magical animals would be different. “I could try it for a couple of weeks and see if I like it.”

“Brilliant,” Ron said, which made Harry a little uncomfortable. Sometimes Ron acted like they’d gone back to being best buddies and Harry should just forget everything in the middle. “We can study together.”

Blaise gave Ron an almost amused look. “Well, I’m going to go turn our requests in to Professor Snape.” He held his hand out for the Slytherin forms, and they all handed them over. Neville sighed as he shuffled through his letters again.

“You don’t have to take anything you don’t want to,” Harry said.

“My gran will be disappointed in me if I don’t do well.” Neville looked at Harry. “I know she didn’t make a good impression on you because she was upset about the Muggle Protection Act, but she’s raised me from the time I was a baby, and she’s given up so much to keep me safe. She’s never really gotten over what happened to my father, and she wants me to live my life in a way that would make him proud.” He ran his hand over his wand.

Draco looked away. He usually did when someone brought up one of the Dark Lord’s victims. Harry understood why so many of the old families had sided with the Dark Lord, but he wished Draco would show a little more compassion for the people who would rather die than allow that to happen–people like Harry’s and Neville’s parents.

“This is my father’s wand you know,” Neville said softly. “Acacia and dragon heartstring, twelve inches. He fought Death Eaters three times with this, and he won every time.”

Harry knew the story. He also knew the Longbottoms would have been safe if they hadn’t been distantly related to Crouch, Jr, a Death Eater no one suspected because he came from Ravenclaw. Crouch had let Bellatrix and the others through the Longbottom wards.

“Wait, did you say that was your father’s wand?” Millicent asked.

Neville glanced up. “Yes.”

“An acacia wood wand that didn’t choose you? That’s what you’re using in class?”

“Yes,” Neville said slower.

“What?” Draco asked. “Lots of people use legacy wands.”

“And lots of people don’t study wand making,” Millicent said. “Acacia wands are even worse than unicorn hair. They won’t change owners. They’re so temperamental that it can take generations before they’ll switch their loyalty to a new user.”

“Neville, didn’t you say your father is in St. Mungo’s?” Hermione asked. Everyone at the table flinched as she brought up that subject. Draco looked ready to flee, and Ron looked as if he regretted ever sitting down with them. Harry loved Hermione like a sister, but sometimes she was a little blunt.

“Yes,” Neville said carefully.

“Then wouldn’t his wand want to be with him?”

“He can’t have one. It wouldn’t be safe.”

“Yeah, but Neville,” Harry said as gently as he could, “the wand would still want its owner, yeah? I think Millicent and Hermione are saying that you’re probably struggling with spells because the wand doesn’t want to work for you. It wants your father.”

Neville stared at the wand in his hand for a long time. “I do, too,” Neville said in a whisper. Draco turned white, and Hermione’s eyes glistened with unshed tears.

“Maybe your grandmother could take you to Olivander’s,” Draco said gently. Harry had never heard that tone from him.

Neville cleared his throat and looked around as though he had just realized that he had people around him. “My gran would never buy me another wand. It’s fine. I can make due.”

“Wait. Draco, did you say that a lot of people use legacy wands–old wands?”

“Sure, wands are either saved by families for future use or sold back to wand makers. Sometimes they sell the wands secondhand and sometimes they break them down to harvest the cores or focus stones.”

“Neville, would you like to visit Gringotts with me this summer?” Harry asked.

Neville shook his head. “I can’t accept one of the Potter wands. You don’t have any family left at all. Those vaults are all you have left of your family.”

He was definitely the kindest person in their friend group. “Some people left me their estates when they died. I assume the Dark Lord wiped out their families, but I don’t know. Maybe they just hated their families. But one of those people left me over two hundred wands. There has to be something there that will work for you.”

“I couldn’t,” Neville said.

“Neville, how many wands do you think I need? We can go and look at wands and if one feels right when you touch it, great. If not, no problem.”

Neville shook his head. “I shouldn’t. Gran wouldn’t like it.”

“But she’d like it if you got better in Charms and Transfiguration,” Harry said.

Neville’s expression turned thoughtful.

Ron spoke up. “My wand is so old the unicorn hair is poking out of it. Could I come along too?” Harry had no idea whether Ron had said that to make Neville better or not, but it clearly did. Neville looked at Ron hopefully before turning toward Harry. If Ron was showing his manipulative side, Harry approved.

“That’s a great idea! All three of us can go.”


Chapter 29

The weeks passed and the mandrakes had started having raucous parties in greenhouse three so regularly that Herbology had to move to greenhouse two and practice transplanting seedlings. Professor Sprout said that they would soon move into each other’s pots and then they would be ready to harvest them so the professors could revive Colin.

As annoying as the boy had been, Harry felt horrible that he had missed nearly his entire first year. With a new history teacher, he was going to have a lot of studying to do over summer if he wanted to catch up with his class. Professor Jones was so tough that lots of students waxed poetic about the days of Professor Binns.

Harry was coming out of history when Professor Dumbledore appeared in the corridor. Students slowed as they passed him, falling silent near him and then whispering madly once they’d passed him.

“Harry, my boy,” he said. Blaise and Draco both moved closer to Harry, and Hermione gave them both odd looks.

“Headmaster,” Harry said politely.

“I was hoping you had some time for me,” he said with a twinkle in his eye as he looked at Harry over his half-moon glasses. Harry kept his gaze focused on the purple swirls on the man’s robes and summoned his mental firestorm.

“Of course.” Harry gave the headmaster his most polite smile.

“Perhaps we can go to my office.” Dumbledore put a hand on Harry’s shoulder, and Harry shot Blaise a sharp look. He gave an almost invisible nod, so Harry knew he would run straight to Professor Snape.

“Of course, sir,” Harry said. He walked at Dumbledore’s side, allowing the headmaster to guide him because he didn’t know where the headmaster’s office was. Dumbledore led him to the seventh floor where a gargoyle statue sat in an arch. When Dumbledore approached, the gargoyle swung open, revealing a spiral staircase.

“After you,” Dumbledore said. Harry stepped onto the staircase and it started moving, sweeping him up into a huge office. Harry had walked through the office when Professor Snape had taken him to his optometrist appointment, but they had rushed through the room so fast that he hadn’t been able to really look around.

It was a large and beautiful circular room, full of funny little noises. A number of curious silver instruments stood on spindle-legged tables, whirring and emitting little puffs of smoke. The walls were covered with portraits of old headmasters and headmistresses, all of whom were snoozing gently in their frames. There was also an enormous, claw-footed desk, and, sitting on a shelf behind it, a shabby, tattered wizard’s hat–the Sorting Hat.

On a golden perch behind the door was a beautiful phoenix, its red and gold tail feathers sweeping through the air underneath. It watched Harry with a sharp gaze. Dumbledore came through the door and settled behind his desk. “Lemon drop?” he offered with a gesture to the dish of candies on his desk.

“No thank you, sir.” Several of the headmasters’ heads came up as the conversation woke them. A woman in a green corset dress and strange bonnet put a scroll down and stared at Harry, her head cocked slightly to one side.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked you here.”

Harry studied a strange globe made of rings inside rings inside rings, all of which spun randomly. “Yes, sir,” he agreed. “Does it have anything to do with the blood writing outside the girls’ bathroom?” Harry was being careful. He hadn’t even snuck into the hidden passage behind the bathroom wall.

“No. Things have been suspiciously quiet since young Colin was petrified. How has school been going for you, Harry?”

“It’s going well, sir.” Harry didn’t say it, but he was among the top twenty students in his class. Sure, he’d never be able to challenge Hermione or some of the Ravenclaws, but he and Draco constantly battled to make the top ten percent of their class. They had to if they wanted to help balance out the academic failings of Gregory and Vincent. Harry really liked Gregory, but he was slow. So very, very slow.

“I understand you plan to take both Arithmancy and Ancient Runes next year.”

Harry was confused. Surely the headmaster didn’t review everyone’s schedule. “Yes, sir.”

“Arithmancy is a difficult subject.”

Harry stood in front of the headmaster and carefully didn’t make eye contact. He still felt an odd tingling headache that felt like an echo of the garlic headache he used to get from Quirrell. He focused on his firestorm and reviewed his history lesson with all his might.

“I see you declined Professor Trelawney’s request that you test to see if you qualify for Divination.”

“I inherited metamorphmagus so I doubt I have the Sight, too.”

Dumbledore smiled faintly, the firelight glancing off his half-moon spectacles. “One never knows, my boy. There are many gifts that magic can provide. Please do sit, my boy.”

Harry settled onto the edge of one of the visitor chairs. “I don’t think Divination will help me with any future career plans,” Harry explained. He didn’t know why he had to explain, though.

Dumbledore nodded knowingly. “Why did you assume I wanted to speak about the Chamber of Secrets warning?”

“Because I haven’t done anything else interesting. I didn’t think the headmaster of the school would care about my third-year schedule.” Several of the headmaster portraits were now watching curiously. Harry squirmed under their attention.

“You have so few people in your life that I feel an obligation to make sure you’re doing well.”

“Do you do that for all the orphans?” Harry asked. He madly wrenched his thoughts away from Tom. Dumbledore hadn’t been the headmaster then, but the snakes were very clear that Dumbledore had convinced Dippet that Tom was dangerous and shouldn’t be trusted, even when Tom won award after award. Harry wondered which of these pictures was Dippet.

Something in the headmaster’s posture shifted. “I try to,” he said, “but like all people, I am flawed. I can only do my best.”

Harry swallowed. He knew what the snakes said and what the Slytherins thought of the headmaster, but he also knew that his house was as prejudiced as the rest of the wizarding world. This was his chance to get answers. “Did you do that for Tom?” he asked.

Dumbledore went silent. “Very few people know that Lord Voldemort was once called Tom Riddle.”

Riddle. Harry mentally put that name aside so he could look it up later. Knowledge was power. “Lots of the Slytherin students know,” Harry said. It was almost true since they all knew he was ‘Tom’, but he didn’t explain how they knew or how they knew the Dark Lord had been an orphan.

Dumbledore steepled his fingers. “I taught him myself, fifty years ago, at Hogwarts. He disappeared after leaving the school… traveled far and wide… sank so deeply into the Dark Arts, consorted with the very worst of our kind, underwent so many dangerous, magical transformations, that when he resurfaced as Lord Voldemort, he was barely recognizable. Hardly anyone connected Lord Voldemort with the clever, handsome boy who was once Head Boy here.”

Harry considered his answer carefully. He didn’t want the headmaster to know too much, and since he’d found a book on occluding in his trunk, he suspected Professor Snape wanted him to be careful. Other students sure couldn’t get in his trunk with the enchantments on it.

“Why did he turn to evil?” Harry asked.

“That’s a difficult question. I imagine he liked the power it allowed him to wield over others.”

Harry knew that feeling. He had no power at all at the Dursleys. He couldn’t stop Uncle Vernon from throwing him in the cupboard under the stairs or Dudley from kicking him. But from the time people in Slytherin had discovered he was a parselmouth, he’d been respected. It was an addictive feeling, and Harry dreaded going back to the Dursleys. He couldn’t imagine how much worse it would have been to go back to an orphanage and endure bombing raids.

“But wanting power over others is not the same as what he did–the violence, the killing, the terror.” Harry stopped and tried to gather his thoughts. “He wasn’t trying to get power. He was trying to hurt anyone who disagreed with him.”

“Power often leads people to want more power.” Dumbledore hesitated before adding, “And Tom was born under the influence of Amortentia. His mother used it to convince a local muggle to fall in love with her, but the long term use of such love potions can damage the child’s ability to feel love.”

Harry nodded. A lot of things could damage that. He sometimes worried that he would never have a good marriage because of how he grew up. Sometimes he even wished he could do the whole marriage contract thing the Slytherins talked about because then he wouldn’t have to worry about making a relationship work; however, Hermione would kill him and put him in a shallow grave. Then she’d dig him up and kill him again.

“I would like you to consider taking Divination, Harry.”

Harry didn’t want to take the class, especially after hearing how a prophecy had led the Dark Lord to attack his parents, but that wasn’t information the headmaster needed. “No thank you, sir,” he said.

The headmaster studied him, and Harry kept his attention on the portraits. The woman in the medieval dress was leaning forward. There were too many curious people in this room. When the office door opened and Professor Snape appeared, Harry almost threw himself at the professor.

“Severus,” the headmaster said jovially. “What are you doing here?”

Professor Snape’s eyebrows rose. “I was informed you had asked Potter to your office, and I wondered what sort of trouble he’d gotten into this time.” Professor Snape gave Harry a cold look. Harry appreciated that the man was honest. He wasn’t like Dumbledore who acted all friendly but then tried to get Harry to do things he didn’t want to do. Like take Divination.

“Nothing like that, Severus. I hoped to introduce Harry to Melinda Poesy from the International Accreditation Committee. She asked to talk to him about his impressions of school.” Dumbledore smiled, but Professor Snape was as tense as ever. “In fact,” Dumbledore continued, “she should be coming through the floo at any time now.”

“And the chair of the international committee wants to meet one of my students?”

“Our students, Severus. And Harry is quite well-known, so it is not surprising.”

Harry looked from one man to the other. Professor Snape clearly didn’t approve of this, but he wasn’t telling Harry to leave. Harry didn’t know what he was supposed to do, especially when Dumbledore smiled wider. So he sat there with Professor Snape looming over him until the fireplace flashed bright green and a woman with a tailored suit and graying hair pulled into a severe bun stepped into the office.

“Albus,” she said warmly in a French accent. The headmaster stood to greet her, kissing both her cheeks.

“Melinda, how nice to see you.”

The woman turned to Severus next, holding out a hand. “Nice to see you again, Professor Snape.”

“Madam Poesy,” he greeted her with a slight bow that was more a movement of his head than his body. That warned Harry that she had a lot of power. Professor Snape didn’t show deference to many people. In fact, the headmaster was the only one Harry had seen him defer to.

“And you must be ‘Arry Potter.”

Harry stood. “Yes, ma’am. It’s very nice to meet you.” He gave a formal bow the way Draco had taught him.

She laughed. “I did not expect such charm, Monsieur Potter. I was ‘oping to speak with you about your classes. Would you indulge an old woman with some conversation?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Harry agreed. The headmaster beamed and Professor Snape had no expression at all.

“I’ll leave you to use the office,” the headmaster said.

“No, no, no,” Madam Poesy said. “I want to go for a walk. Come along, ‘Arry.”

Harry looked at Professor Snape before he followed the woman. She seemed to wander randomly, and students watched them from behind corners and balconies. They were all probably wondering who she was, but Harry didn’t actually understand. He just knew she had power.

“How are you liking your classes?” She finally asked when they’d reached the fifth floor and most of the students had vanished.

“They’re interesting. I like learning about magic.” Harry hesitated before adding, “Being raised muggle and not knowing anything about the magical world, it was a big shock and I had to read a lot to feel like I understood the wizarding world and I’m still pants at things like using the floo, but school is probably the easiest part of the transition.”

She didn’t react, but Harry hoped she took that story back to wherever she came from. The headmaster might be good at running a school, but he hadn’t been a good magical guardian.

“How is your new history teacher? I understand the ghost finally moved on?”

“She’s hard, but I feel like I’m learning a lot more. Professor Binns was really odd and he lectured about goblin rebellions for a year and a half. I don’t know if he talked about other parts of history with older students, though. I might not be the best person to talk about the teachers because I haven’t been here for a full two years yet.”

“I’m sure your insights are as valid as anyone’s,” she said kindly. “How are you doing in potions?”

“I work hard to have strong scores. There are so many jobs that require potions that I know I need good OWLS and NEWTS scores.”

“Do you think you’ll get those?”

Harry nodded. “Professor Snape is really tough, so I know if I can brew for him then I’ll do fine on my tests.” He didn’t say that everyone knew Snape was far more critical than any examiners from the Ministry. In class he talked about how useless the testing was because only dunderheads couldn’t pass them. So if a person could get EE or even A from Professor Snape, they were going to pass the OWLS.

“And what about Defense Against Dark Arts? Professor Lockhart, yes?” Her body language stiffened slightly, and Harry finally understood the game they were playing. The headmaster didn’t want to move against Lockhart because he was popular. If he pointed out all the inconsistencies in Lockhart’s stories, people who liked Lockhart would turn against Dumbledore. He’d said as much.

But now Lockhart had been making a fool out of himself for a whole year. So his reputation was damaged because even the students who had loved him were getting fed up with him repeating the same stories over and over. In Harry’s class alone, he’d told the werewolf story three times, two of them with Harry playing the part of the werewolf that got tackled to the floor.

So Lockhart was at his most vulnerable, and Harry had the fame to challenge him. So Professor Dumbledore was asking Harry to risk his own reputation to protect Dumbledore’s position in the Wizengamot. He was worried about alliances and voting blocs. Part of Harry wanted to gush about how great Lockhart was just because he didn’t like being manipulated.

However, this was no different than Mr. Malfoy asking him about the Muggle Protection Act in front of Rita Skeeter. Both men wanted him to make public statements, ones that might make him unpopular in many circles. Both men put Harry in a difficult situation without asking him what he thought about it or explain the consequences.

Mrs. Longbottom would likely never forgive Harry for his comments on the Muggle Protection Act, which made his friendship with Neville infinitely more difficult, and Harry didn’t know who would hate him if he took a stand against Lockhart.

On the other hand, Lockhart was terrible. And after Blaise had pulled him aside and shown him what memory charms could do, Harry had been totally creeped out by how often his recreations of stories required him to grab, tackle, and hold students. Harry wondered how much worse it must be with sixth and seventh years.

“I’m really uncomfortable with how he teaches the class,” Harry admitted. “He wants to recreate events from his books, and he always asks me to play the part of the creature, but that means when I’m playing the werewolf, he tackles me to the ground and pins me there. When I’m playing the hag, he grabs me around the waist and pushes me against the wall, and the whole time he’s talking to the class about how well he handled it. But he never shows us any spells, and when he turned pixies loose in the classroom, he couldn’t even do a shield spell.” The words tumbled out of Harry, and he felt weightless, like all his hatred for Lockhart had been a burden that he’d just let slip off his back.

Madam Poesy’s eyes grew wide. “Oh my.” She blinked, and Harry didn’t know what the appropriate response should be. “Where is his classroom?” she asked.

“The third floor.”

“Perhaps you could show me down,” she suggested, her voice suddenly tentative.

“Yes, ma’am,” Harry said. They had to double back to the nearest staircase, but the whole floor seemed abandoned. Harry thought Lockhart didn’t have class, so if Madam Poesy wanted to watch him teach, she was going to be disappointed. Besides, he didn’t know if she had more power than Mr. Malfoy who had tried and failed to quietly get Professor Lockhart fired.

Now that Harry thought about it, Mr. Malfoy was doing the exact same thing as Dumbledore. He had gotten a new history teacher at Hogwarts. From the way Professor Jones taught, she was more on Dumbledore’s side than the Malfoys’ but she was honest and when asked questions, she could talk about both sides of most conflicts.

Divination had been switched to a class for only those with Sight, so students who took it for an easy grade were now out of luck. But neither Mr. Malfoy or Headmaster Dumbledore would go up against Lockhart. Apparently Harry had to do that.

“This is it,” Harry said as he stopped next to Lockhart’s door.

“Let’s say hello to him, shall we?” She confidently pulled the door open, revealing Professor Lockhart with his shirt off, rubbing something shiny over his chest.

“Who are you?” he yelped as he grabbed his shirt and struggled to get his arms through the holes. “This is my classroom.”

“I am well aware, Professor Lockhart. I’m Melinda Poesy from the International Accreditation Committee. I had hoped to see your lessons and the most recent assignments your students have turned in.”

He drew himself up and pulled on a teal robe. “Excuse me? This is my class. Not yours.”

“And I am in charge of teaching standards across Europe, and I have the authority to review the standards of any class in any school in Europe. Please show me the paperwork.”

Harry eased back toward the door and wondered if he should run for it because this was uncomfortable. Lockhart turned as though he was going to get papers from his desk, but when he straightened up, he had a wand in hand. “Stupify!” he shouted and for the first time ever, one of his spells worked. Madam Poesy fell to the floor in a heap and before Harry could react, either to pull his own wand or to run, Lockhart had turned his wand on Harry, and Harry froze.


Chapter 30

“What are you doing?” Harry asked, his voice squeaking on the end.

“Don’t worry, you won’t remember any of this. I’m quite good with memory charms, and you’ll remember Madam Poesy checking my lessons and being suitably impressed, and then I think it’s time for me to move on. I never thought I would get so much negative mail. People love me. Why are they so upset about how I teach their children?”

Harry held his breath. Being at the end of someone’s wand was so much more terrifying when it wasn’t a pissy Draco on the other side. “You’re a good guy… all the stuff you wrote in your books. You wouldn’t curse a child.” Harry tried to put some confidence in his voice when he said it.

“Books can be misleading,” said Lockhart delicately.

“You wrote them!” Harry flinched when Lockhart raised his wand.

“My dear boy, do use your common sense. My books wouldn’t have sold half as well if people didn’t think I’d done all those things. No one wants to read about some ugly old Armenian warlock, even if he did save a village from werewolves. He’d look dreadful on the front cover. No dress sense at all. And the witch who banished the Bandon Banshee had a hair chin. I mean, come on–”

Harry ignored the rampant evidence that Lockhart had the same prejudices as the rest of the Wizarding world and probably the muggle world too–just because a woman had hair on her chin didn’t mean she was worth any less than any other witch. She was definitely worth more than Lockhart.

“Of course I know you were lying in your books, but you present yourself as the hero. You want to be the protagonist, so you can’t attack us. Your fans will never forgive you. They’ll call you a villain.”

Lockhart flinched.

“There’s no danger of that. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my Memory Charms. I go to all the trouble to track these people down. I ask them exactly how they managed to do what they did, and then I alter their memories. Quite effectively, too. It’s a lot of work. It’s not all book signings and publicity photos, you know. And you’ll be happy to know that you will not remember any of this. In fact, I think you might remember that I am your favorite teacher. An endorsement from the Boy-Who-Lived would undo some of the damage done by these gossiping students and their horrible letters home.”

The whole time Lockhart had been talking, Harry had been reaching for his wand. When Lockhart opened his mouth, Harry bellowed, “Expelliarmus!”

Lockhart was blasted backward, slamming into his desk and his wand flew high into the air. For a second Harry was frozen. He had attacked a teacher. He was so expelled. When Lockhart got to his knees and started searching for his wand, Harry turned and fled.

The castle was big, and he was too far from the nearest teacher classroom, so he stopped at the first pillar and hissed, “Open” to the little snake guarding a passage. Behind him, footsteps followed him at a run, and Harry darted into the passage.

“Potter! Stop. It won’t hurt. I’m really good at this part!” Lockhart had caught the edge of the secret passage before it had closed, and he was closing the distance between them. Half-blind with panic, Harry pounded down the dark corridor feeling like it was longer than it had ever been. He should be in the corridor behind the Great Hall by now, but he was caught in a nightmare where the passage never ended.

Then he hit the end of the passage and hit the release. He expected to come out on the ground floor corridor, but instead the door opened into pitch darkness and silence as profound as the grave. Harry froze, but then he heard Lockhart behind him, and he moved forward, letting the door close behind him. It would take a few minutes for him to find the release, so Harry had a little breathing room to either get back to the main floor or find a hiding place.

He lifted his wand and cast a lumos. Sconces in the wall echoed the spell and flicked to dull life. Now Harry could see that he was standing at the end of a very long, dimly lit chamber. Towering stone pillars entwined with carved serpents rose to support a ceiling lost in darkness, casting long, black shadows through the odd, greenish gloom that filled the place.

His heart beating very fast, Harry stood listening for the sound of the stone door sliding open. When that happened, Harry didn’t know what he would do. He couldn’t fight Lockhart. Well, he could just cast Expelliarmus over and over, but Lockhart would eventually get a spell off, and he was good with stupify.

Harry hurried over to the serpentine columns. The hollow eye sockets of the stone snakes followed him as he approached. “Is there another way out of here?”

One snake sluggishly raised his head. “Is there another heir here?”

“Yes. I’m Harry. I don’t know how I got here, and I need to find a way out.”

The second snake started to move. “This is the Chamber. You couldn’t stumble in here unless you were in danger.”

That explained how the passages could be used for evacuations. They opened to the Chamber only if there was a real danger. “A teacher attacked me. I found out that he was lying and was a danger to the school, and he tried to wipe my memory. He already stupified another adult, a woman who came in to review his teaching.”

The snakes curled around each other for a moment before one of them called out, “Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four.”

The gigantic stone face that decorated the end of the hall began to move. The mouth opened wider and wider, revealing a huge, black hole. Something was stirring inside the statue’s mouth. Something was slithering up from its depths.

A snake snout appeared, bright green and closer to dragon sized than snake sized. The eyes were milky white, so Harry wondered if the snake was blind, but it slithered out easily, immediately moving toward Harry. This had to be the queen that all the snakes had talked about.

“Who calls me?” The snake asked.

“I do, great queen,” Harry said. It couldn’t hurt to be polite to something that had eight inch long fangs. In fact, Harry was almost sure he’d rather face Lockhart than this great creature. She was bright, poisonous green, thick as an oak trunk with a great, blunt head that definitely didn’t belong to a snake. However, she was more snake than anything else.

The snake slid closer, her tongue flicking the air. “Who threatens an heir?”

“A teacher,” Harry said, and the queen snake hissed angrily.

“Who?” she demanded.

“Professor Lockhart. I think the headmaster wanted to expose him as a danger, but Lockhart stunned the woman who challenged him and then said he would alter her memory and mine. He’s going to change me so I will like him and tell everyone else to like him.”

She hissed angrily, and suddenly Harry was enveloped in loops of snake. “He will not touch you,” she said angrily. Where is he?”

One of the column snakes answered. “He is in the third floor emergency passage.”

“Can you lock it against him?” Harry asked. He rested a hand against her huge girth and could feel the muscle rippling under the skin.

“The doors do not lock once someone is in the passage.”

“Then he can get in here?” Harry couldn’t keep the fear out of his voice.

“I am a basilisk. No spell will work against my skin. You are safe.” The basilisk was utterly calm. Her coils tightened around Harry until they were holding him up, and Harry tried to calm his beating heart. Then he heard it–the scraping of stone against stone as the door slid open. Harry froze.

Lockhart appeared at the door, his wand raised, and Harry mentally prepared to cast a shield spell. He wasn’t the best at them yet, but he promised himself to practice and practice all summer if he just survived this with his mind intact. For one second, Lockhart froze as he stared at the beast, and then the queen’s head darted forward. She bit Lockhart in two and swallowed his top half in two gulps, leaving the profusely bleeding lower abdomen and legs, intestines spilling out all over.

Harry screamed, and when he ran out of breath, he screamed again when the queen scooped up Lockhart’s second half and swallowed it as well, his body making two tiny lumps in her tree-trunk sized body.

“You are safe, hatchling,” she promised, and Harry swallowed down more screams. He needed Professor Snape, but he didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t want to go running through the castle screaming like an idiot, especially when any proof that Professor Lockhart had attacked him had vanished when the queen ate him.

A thought crossed his mind, and he knew it was a long shot, but with all the panic and desperation he could manage, he screamed out, “Dobby!!” Nothing. He tried again. “Dobby! I really need you. Dobby! Please come here!”

A loud pop echoed against the stone walls and then Dobby was there in a halfway clean pillow case. “The Great Harry Potter calls for Dobby, he does. Dobby hears.” Dobby flapped his ears.

“I need Professor Snape here right away,” Harry said. “No one can see him come down here, but I need him here.” Right now Harry wanted nothing more than for Professor Snape to stand between him and the Lockhart-sized blood stain on the floor. Harry might be twelve, but he would happily hide his face in Snape’s cloak. If Draco could act like a six-year-old from time to time, then Harry could, too.

“Dobby is being right back, Harry Potter, sir,” Dobby said before he popped out. He popped back with Professor Snape who only had one hand in his robes.

Snape took one look and pulled his wand, casting some sort of dome around himself without a word.

“Who is this?” the queen asked.

“The head of Slytherin house. I called him because any time I’m in danger, he is the one who protects me. He stood between me and a troll that had invaded Hogwarts, and he’ll know how to protect me from anyone who wants to blame me for… um…” Harry didn’t want to call it murder because snakes didn’t understand that concept. From a snake perspective, eating people was perfectly logical if a snake was big enough to swallow one.

“Potter?” Snape’s voice actually sounded a little sharp with panic, and Harry struggled to climb up and over the coil nest that surrounded him. The queen helped by slithering toward Professor Snape and his dome. Weirdly, Snape had cast a spell that enveloped his head with thick, black vapor.

“Potter, is that a basilisk?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said as he climbed over the last coil. “Professor Lockhart was trying to alter my memories and the parselmouth passages only lead here if there’s a danger, so I was trying to get to the Great Hall, but I ended up in the Chamber of Secrets instead, and Lockhard followed, and the queen ate him, but now I don’t know what to tell the Headmaster because he doesn’t even know I speak to snakes, so I don’t think he’s going to be amused if he finds out I fed a teacher to one.”

“That is not a snake, it is a basilisk. One glance at its eyes, and you’ll be dead.”

“I have my inner eye closed because he is not an enemy,” she said.

“The queen is a ‘she,’ not an ‘it,’ sir, and she says it’s safe because she has her inner eyelids closed.”

“I would still rather discuss this somewhere safe. Come take my hand and have your elf take us to the Room of Requirement.”

“I is not knowing where that is,” Dobby said sadly and his ears drooped.

“Oh for…” Snape sighed loudly. “Brinkie!”

Another elf popped into the room. “Yes, Master Potions? You called Brinkie?”

“Yes, I need you to pop Mr. Potter and myself to the Room of Requirement.”

The queen spoke. “Do you trust the guardian of Slytherin house to protect you, young heir?” she asked.

“I do,” Harry said. “And more importantly, he’s powerful enough that I know he can.”

She slithered in a circle. “Very well. Then I will leave you with your guardian and return to my sleep.” She slid toward the open mouth of the statue, her scales rattling over the stone.

“Take my hand Harry Potter, sir,” Brinkie said. Harry reached out for it, surprised when Dobby took his other hand. In a rush of air and a disconcerting swirl of color, they were in a new room, one that had piles and piles of abandoned stuff filling every corner until it looked ready to tip over.

“We is here,” Brinkie said. She turned to Dobby. “This is Room of Requirement or Come and Go room. It comes and goes when wizards be needing it.

The black smoke around Professor Snape’s face dissipated, leaving behind a furious potion master. “Mr. Potter, what exactly happened?”

Harry still felt the panic rushing through his veins, and his brain seemed to jump from one idea to another. He should tell Snape about Lockhart, but then he should start by explaining how Dumbledore was using him and Poesy to get rid of Lockhart without wasting his own political capital, but he should start by explaining the memory charm. All his thoughts were so mixed up that he couldn’t sort them, and even the occluding exercises that were supposed to help him sort his thoughts failed him because he kept seeing Lockhart’s terror in the second before the queen had bitten him in half. He kept seeing the blood spilling out everywhere. He should start by explaining how Lockhart’s blood had the same pattern as when the teenagers reved their motorbikes in the mud, flinging it behind them in a spray pattern.

Harry finally took a deep breath and looked at Professor Snape whose expression had gone from furious to wary. “Can’t you just look into my mind, sir? I… I don’t know how to say half of it.”

Professor Snape frowned. “Potter, are you asking me to use legilimency on you?”

“Yes, sir, if you can, sir.”

Snape stared at him for a long time before pointing his wand at Harry and said “Legilimens!”

Harry was back in the memory, back in the room with Lockhart, but this time Professor Snape was standing in front of him. The professor ran right behind him as Harry fled into the passageway and then the Chamber. He stood next to the door when Lockhart opened it, and right before the queen struck, the memory froze, and Snape walked to him, passing right through the memory of the queen basilisk. “You do not need to see that again.”

“I didn’t need to see it the first time,” Harry said softly. Snape didn’t disagree.

“You believe the headmaster and Mr. Malfoy have both used you to avoid using their own political capital to achieve their goals.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry admitted. He hadn’t realized Professor Snape would be able to access his thoughts and feelings, but it was true.

“You have more subtlety than I have given you credit for.” Snape looked around the Chamber. “If the headmaster knows you were here, he will learn you are a parselmouth.”

“The headmaster wasn’t very nice to Tom because he was a parselmouth. I don’t think he’d be very nice to me, either,” Harry said softly. He knew Dumbledore was Professor Snape’s friend, but he also knew that Snape didn’t have the same politics.

Snape studied him for a long time. “You are likely right. I can hide this from him–hide you from him–but it would require a significant amount of trust on your part.”

“I trust you,” Harry said quickly.

A frown flicked across Professor Snape’s face. “Do not be so quick to give your trust.”

“You wouldn’t warn me about that if I couldn’t trust you,” Harry said. “You protected me from a troll and made sure my aunt and uncle couldn’t abuse me as much and you’ve done more than any other adult in my life has ever done for me.”

He frowned. “That is an abysmally low bar.”

Harry shrugged. It was true. And they were standing inside Harry’s memories, and Snape was still trying to share the truth with him, so Harry stood by his judgment.

After a long silence, Professor Snape sighed. “If you trust me, I will alter your memories. I will lock this truth behind a wall that I can disassemble later and instead put in a memory of you running away and reaching the seventh floor. In a panic, you ran back and forth, sure you heard footsteps after you, although you never saw Lockhart once you fled his classroom. You then found a door that opened to a maze with many hiding spots, and that’s where you will hide until I come looking for you.”

“I won’t remember Lockhart dying?” Harry asked hopefully.

Professor Snape sighed again. “That sort of trauma cannot be hidden forever, but we can hide it until you are safely away from the headmaster. Assuming you want to hide this.” Snape studied Harry as if waiting for a sign or an answer. Most of the time, adults did things to Harry or they manipulated Harry. Giving Harry all the information and waiting for him to make his own choice was a new concept.

Eventually, Harry nodded. “I do want that,” he whispered.

Snape nodded and held out his hand. When Harry took it, they were in the room of junk again, and then Harry slowly faded into sleep.


Chapter 31

“Seriously, you hid?” Ron asked incredulously.

“What was I supposed to do against a teacher? I was waiting until he got tired of looking for me so I could get the headmaster,” Harry explained again. Both Dumbledore and Professor Snape had told him he did the right thing, although Dumbledore had a sour expression on his face while he said it. But now that Ron was hearing the full story for the first time, he acted like Harry should have picked up a sword and gone to battle. Gryffindors. Harry rolled his eyes.

“I think you did the right thing,” Hermione said with a glare in Ron’s direction.

“Me, too,” Neville echoed. “Where are all the Slytherins?” The train was getting ready to leave Hogwarts, so Harry knew they were on it, but he also knew that the politics was getting a little thick. Vincent had been almost cruel to Harry, and Warrington had gone from respectfully distant to hostile to deferential enough to offer small gifts. Harry loved his house, but they were all so odd.

Of course strange was better than brash, which seemed to be the Gryffindor defining trait. Maybe someone should put out a new Hogwarts book explaining what the real traits of the houses were. Gryffindors were brash and rushed into things. Even Neville had when he’d insisted on Gryffindor when he was better suited to Hufflepuff. Demanding to go into the wrong house was so very Gryffindor. Hufflepuffs were patient, both in positive, helpful ways and in how they plotted their revenge. Flint would not make fun of the Hufflepuff seeker again. Ravenclaws were smart, but often in unconventional ways. Luna Lovegood was proof of that. In fact, half the Ravenclaws were at the top of the rankings, and half were at the bottom because they only studied what they felt like.

And Slytherins… Slytherins were practical and super high on the strange scale. Extra super high. They had plots inside plots and depending on whether others thought you were a potential ally or a pawn or an obstacle or an enemy, they changed how they treated you from one day to the next. Harry wasn’t even sure what he was doing to cause the shifting attitudes. He had given up even trying to guess.

“When do you want to go to Gringotts?” Harry asked.

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to talk to Gran.” Neville blushed. “I wrote to her about how Lockhart attacked you and Madam Poesy and about how you drew Lockhart away from Poesy. She was impressed, so I think I can convince her to let us meet.”

“I’m not sure I was drawing him away as much as trying to avoid getting obliviated. Lockhart was going to make me like him and tell everyone how he was a great teacher.”

“Well that was just a stupid plan,” Hermione said. “The second you said anything like that, we would have dragged you to Madam Pomfrey and told her that someone had scrambled your brain.”

“And we would have had a good idea about who to blame,” Neville added. “I’m so glad we don’t have him as a professor next year, not that it was ever a question.”

Hermione sighed. “Don’t tell me you believe all that stuff about the job being cursed.”

“Can you explain why there hasn’t been a single defense teacher who stayed more than one year in decades? I think there’s enough evidence that the curse is real.”

“He has a point,” Harry said. “I do wonder what happened to Lockhart, though. I mean, he only took a few things and I just have this feeling that something really bad happened to him.”

“He had time to pack all his portraits,” Hermione said dryly.

“I hope the DMLE tracks him down.” After a second, Neville added, “And I hope they track down every single one of the people whose stories Lockhart stole and help those people regain their memories.”

“They should get the money from Lockhart’s books,” Harry said. He’d found that if you really wanted to hurt someone, you hit them in the commerce. You made them pay in either money or influence, because that’s what people really cared about. Dumbledore had let the entire school suffer a year of horrible teaching because he didn’t want to spend his own political capital trying to confront Lockhart just like Mr. Malfoy only dealt with the problems that didn’t have enough power to protect themselves–Binns and Trelawney. Harry was starting to think that people were all the same no matter what house they belonged to and how they dressed up their motives.

“Do you really think anyone is going to buy those books now?” Hermione asked as she wrinkled her nose.

“I think more people will buy them just to laugh at Lockhart and how stupid he sounds in them,” Neville said, and Harry agreed.

The doors opened, and Draco stood there. He was smiling until he spotted Ron. “Weasley,” he said in a tone that made it clear he would rather hex the Gryffindor than sit in a carriage with him.

“Malfoy,” Ron returned in the same tone.

Hermione stood and put her hands on her hips as she glared at both of them. “Okay, the rest of us don’t want to put up with any bad behavior from either of you. Ron, you will not comment on Draco’s father. At all.” She poked a finger in his direction. “Draco, you will not use the phrase blood traitor or comment on how much money Ron’s family doesn’t have.” She poked a finger toward him.

Draco narrowed his eyes. “Why do I get two rules and he only gets one?” he demanded.

Hermione sighed. “Ron, you are also not allowed to say horrible things about the Slytherin quidditch team. You know full well they’re brilliant and they win every game, so every time you start whining, you just make yourself sound bad, anyway.”

Ron and Draco had matching sour expressions, but Draco eventually came into the carriage. “Fine, but I’m only sitting in here because Harry’s here, and he’s my best mate.” This time Draco glared at both Ron and Hermione, which was lucky because he missed Neville performing an elaborate eye roll.

It was funny that Draco was jealous of Ron; Harry only put up with him for Hermione and Neville. Ron was a good person, but Harry couldn’t quite trust him, not after he had turned on Harry. And that was hypocritical because his Slytherin friends turned on him all the time–well, except for Blaise, but Blaise also made it clear he found Harry ridiculous at least half the time. And Draco had challenged him to a wizard’s duel and at his lunch with the Bulstrodes, Millicent had listed every single one of Harry’s faults in painful, honest detail to convince her father that she wouldn’t accept a marriage contract.

Actually, all of Harry’s Slytherin friends were assholes, and Ron fit in with them better than Hermione and Neville. However, Ron pretended to be better because of his house and his Slytherin friends never made any claims about being nice. It made their not-niceness easier to handle.

Blaise came in after Draco and started shoving his trunk in the overhead space. “I think they shrink these racks every year just to annoy the students,” he muttered. “So, what are you lot talking about today?”

“We’re wondering what happened to Lockhart,” Harry said.

Blaise threw himself into the seat next to Hermione and gave her a wink and a grin that inspired more eye rolling. “If he’s smart, he moved to a very small island country and set himself up with a new name and all the cash he could carry. He attacked the Boy-Who-Lived. That isn’t something that’s going to be forgiven easily. So, what are your vacation plans, everyone?”

Trust Blaise to find a safe topic of conversation.

“We’re going to France. I did well in my language testing, but mother says I need to work on my accent. We’re going to spend two months on the beach, and mother says you must come along,” Draco said to Harry.

“I don’t know if I can leave home for that long.”

“You don’t have a magical guardian, not officially, and I’m sure my parents can convince your family to approve the travel.” Draco had an almost evil grin on his face.

“I’m sure your father would love to threaten muggles,” Ron said darkly, but his sneer was nothing compared to Hermione who was glaring daggers at him for breaking the rules.

“I think most people like to threaten my aunt and uncle,” Harry said quickly before Hermione could jump in. “Professor Snape showed up last summer and threatened to come to our house every day and throw magic around unless they gave me access to my trunk.”

Hermione was immediately distracted. “Give you access? What?”

Harry shrugged. “They hate magic, so they tried to lock up my trunk so I wouldn’t be able to touch anything magical all summer.”

“But what about your homework?” Hermione whispered in abject horror.

“That’s where Professor Snape’s threats came in. He threatened to stand over my shoulder if that was what was required to get me to finish my homework, and when faced with having an adult wizard in their house every day, my aunt and uncle backed off.”

“But Harry, that’s horrible. Educational neglect is a real thing. Someone should call social services on them if they aren’t letting you do your work.” Hermione was wringing her hands in distress, and Harry made a note to never tell her about the extend of his family’s abuse–the nights he’d gone hungry, the days he’d had nothing to eat but Dudley’s leftovers, the times he’d had to duck when Aunt Petunia swung a frying pan. If Hermione knew half of it, she would have a heart attack.

Harry looked away, and caught Neville’s eye. He was watching with a deep sorrow that made Harry so uncomfortable that he couldn’t hold the gaze, so he focused on Blaise. That was safer. “People used to call social services, but nothing ever came of it. It’s better now because I can get away nine months a year,” Harry said.

“And you’re going to get away this summer. I already talked to mother, and she’s going to ask your aunt for permission, and if she won’t give it, my mother is going to show up everywhere your aunt is and give her pointers on how to better present herself if she ever wants to rise above her working class mediocrity. Mother thinks it will only take a day or two of advice before your aunt will do anything to escape the judgment.”

Harry had seen Narcissa’s disapproval, so he was betting on her in that particular fight.

“My parents said we’re going overseas, but they won’t tell me where,” Hermione said. “They said they want it to be a surprise.” She looked at Neville.

“I’m staying home. Gran is too old for much traveling these days,” he said. “But Professor Sprout gave me some cuttings, and I’m going to work on setting up my own greenhouse.”

“You could come with my family, if you want,” Draco said, but he looked almost pained saying it.

Neville gave him an amused look. “I’m good. I’m pretty sure your father and my grandmother would have mutual heart attacks if we tried asking them for a joint vacation.”

“You have a point,” Draco said. “Especially lately. My father has been so distant and strange. I thought with him being at Hogwarts, I would see him more, but I haven’t, and he hasn’t even written to me as often.” Draco kept his Slytherin mask in place, but Harry knew that had to bother Draco. Draco adored his mother, but he lived to impress his father.

“Is your father going to be back at Hogwarts next year?” Neville asked.

Draco shrugged. It was a testament to how much he was bothered that he didn’t verbally answer.

“I hope not,” Ron said under his breath.

“Well I think he made some wonderful changes,” Hermione said. “Binns was a terrible teacher, and when I did the entrance exam for Divination, Professor Trelawney was horrible. She told me that my inner eye was completely closed and I needed to be less logical. Less logical! How can a teacher get away with telling a student something like that?” Hermione demanded.

“He glared at everyone when he observed classes,” Ron protested. “It was like having another Snape around, only they let this one out of the dungeons.”

“My father would consider that a compliment,” Draco said with a sniff.

The doors to the compartment opened again before Ron could reply. Gregory came in with Millicent. Those two were together so much that Harry was starting to suspect that either Millicent was not as against marriage as she always said or Gregory missed being part of a pair the way he and Vincent used to be.

“One more school year down,” Millicent said as she collapsed onto the seat next to Hermione.

“Thank god,” Gregory said. “Now I have three months to let my brain recover.”

“If you studied in summer, you’d have an easier time when school started again,” Hermione pointed out.

“Yeah, but then I’d have to study,” Gregory protested. Hermione huffed, and Ron’s ears turned red, so Harry guessed he’d said something similar in the near past.

Leaning back against the seat, Harry studied his friend group. Gregory and Ron had a lot in common in terms of their love of quidditch and hatred for academics. Ron and Draco often shared the same reactions to things like Harry’s parselmouth. They’d both known exactly how much the rest of the wizarding world would judge him.

Hermione and Millicent were both determined to rise above the sexism that ran through wizarding culture, and not just for themselves. They had explained to him that the wizarding world had plenty of examples of extraordinary women who had risen above social expectations. They wanted to change the whole system so average women didn't have to climb over social barriers.

Blaise and Neville were both the quiet centers of their respective houses. Neither got upset easily, and both had a talent for smoothing over conflicts, although Blaise’s favorite technique was redirection and Neville tended to go for self-deprecating humor.

Even when he looked outside of his friend group, he saw more similarities than differences. Lavender Brown and Patsy Parkinson were both gossips who used words against people. The biggest difference was that Patsy sneered while doing it and Lavender smiled and tittered and whispered behind people’s backs. But first and second year Gryffindors were just like first and second year Slytherins.

But what concerned him was that the rule didn’t hold true for the upper years. Warrington couldn’t decide how to treat Harry, but he would consistently hex younger students in the corridors, hiding behind suits of armor to catch kids by surprise. Flint didn’t care who he had to foul or hurt to get a win in quidditch. Wood was just as fanatic, but the Gryffindors never valued the win over the people. Hell, the twins had abandoned their own players to protect Harry when Dobby’s bludger had nearly killed him.

Adrian Pucey liked pranks as much as the twins, but Pucey’s pranks had landed multiple students in the infirmary and Pucey sold everything from fake protective amulets after the Chamber of Secrets message had been written on the wall to fake study-aid potions before the OWLS and NEWTS. He didn’t care who got hurt. When the twins pulled a prank, everyone knew it because they were the first to laugh, and people didn’t get hurt. Embarrassed? Sure. Hospitalized? Not once that Harry could remember.

Harry wondered if his friends would change as they grew older. He hoped not.

“Hey!” Draco nudged Harry in a way that made it clear he’d already called Harry at least a couple of times. “Are you up for exploding snap?”

“Absolutely, Harry said. Neville pulled up the table, and everyone gathered around. The future would have to take care of itself. Right now, Harry wanted to enjoy this moment.


Chapter 32

Severus clutched his arm as the burn intensified. He hurried up the stairs to the headmaster’s office and hoped the man had not gone to one of his many meetings. The gargoyle moved before Severus could offer a password, and he let the stairs sweep him up into Albus’s sanctuary.

“Severus,” Albus said with just a touch of coldness. Albus had not approved of Harry hiding from Gilderoy, but he would have been even more displeased if he’d seen the truth. Luckily, Harry had not been lying about the depth of his trust in Severus. He had opened his mind and lowered every defense so Severus had been able to hide the truth deep in Harry’s mind. This summer, Severus needed to find time to teach Harry the nuances of occlumency, not only to improve his shields, but also to help him work through the trauma of seeing his teacher torn apart. No twelve year old had the emotional resources to survive that.

“He’s calling,” Severus said.

Albus looked down at Severus’s arm before nodding. “Be safe.”

Severus said nothing because he could not make any promises. The Dark Lord was sure to be furious because of Severus’s actions toward Quirrell, but ignoring him was not an option. Severus headed out of the castle, his arm burning the whole way. He wondered what it meant that the Dark Lord had waited until after the term was over. Perhaps he intended Severus to continue playing the part of a double agent while serving the Dark. If so, he might survive with little more than a few hours of torture.

How sad was Severus’s life that he was walking toward his potential death and hoping to earn the blessing of a few hours of torture. Sometimes students acted as if the choices they made in school didn’t matter, and so often Severus wanted to scream and rail and call them all fools. Life did not wait for a person to gain enough maturity to make rational decisions. It would take every mistake and magnify it until it defined a person.

Following the pull of the mark, Severus landed outside Nott manor. This did explain Theo’s recent attitude. Severus had suspected as much, although he’d hoped for Theo’s sake that he’d been wrong. The Malfoy manor was the other possibility he’d considered, but Draco was too closely associated with Harry at this point, and Lucius had always been more of an advocate for himself than the Dark cause.

Severus doubted he would have agreed to the Dark Mark if not for Abraxis, which is why it was cruelly ironic that he had convinced Severus to join.

Obstrepan Nott came out the front doors. “Severus,” he greeted him coldly. Severus no longer had the Dark Lord’s favor or Obstepan had some personal objection to Severus’s presence. He inclined his head toward Obstrepan, who then turned and walked into the house.

Severus followed.

The mansion was deadly silent, so either their Lord had not summoned others, or the others had been warned to remain silent until Severus was inside the trap. Severus took several deep breaths and centered himself to strengthen his mental shields. He had far too many secrets from both the Dark Lord and Dumbledore to make a mistake now.

Obstrepan opened the double doors to a massive library, and Severus stepped inside and lowered himself to his knees. He had not yet seen the Dark Lord, but the intoxicating feeling of dark magic swirling around the room was familiar. It felt like home, although Severus knew better than anyone that the feeling was an illusion. He pressed his forehead to the carpet.

“Ah, Severus. I assume your students have all left for summer?” The voice was low and smooth and much younger-sounding that Severus remembered.

“Yes, my Lord. Welcome back, my Lord. I throw myself at your mercy for what happened with Quirrell. I was unaware of your presence until the headmaster informed me after your disappearance.”

The Dark Lord chuckled. “He hopes to make sure you fear returning to me. The fool continues to play his games with the lives of those he sees as inferior.”

Severus remained silent and prostrate.

“Look at me, Severus.”

He would rather not, but one did not disobey the Dark Lord. Severus lifted his head and drew in a startled breath. The Dark Lord had a handsome face, dark hair, and gray-blue eyes that whispered of storms. There was a certain roundness to his features that reminded Severus of the Potters, but all the old families were related in one way or another, so he should not be surprised to see hints of other families. The older members talked about how their Lord had once used his handsome face and charm to enthrall others, but as long as Severus had known him, his Lord had embraced his connection to snakes. He had valued fear over charm.

But now something had shifted and Severus was unsure how to approach this version of the Dark Lord.

“Severus.” Power and dark seduction slithered along Severus' skin at the word.

“My lord?”

The Dark Lord closed the distance between them, running a fingertip across Severus’s cheek. The gentle touch was a promise and a threat, and Severus felt both like the tip of a knife. Before he could say anything, the Dark Lord continued. “I failed you. At the time, I had been magically damaged enough that I did not understand the significance of my failure, but I refused to give you the one boon you ever asked me for.”

Severus froze, his mind spinning through the possible responses. The Dark Lord could mean only one thing. Severus knew how his Lord felt about muggle-borns and about Severus’s love for Lily Evans. She had stood against the Dark Lord so often that when the inner circle spat “the mudblood,” it was always Lily they meant. And Severus had begged for her life, not caring that it set him against his Lord and the inner circle. But now, it almost sounded as if the Dark Lord was apologizing, and Severus had no frame of reference for how to handle that, so he remained silent.

“I do wonder if my failure inspired you to fail me,” he said in a deceptively calm voice.

Severus looked the Dark Lord in the eye. “Never, my lord.” He summoned all his devotion, his love of Dark arts, his frustration at being denied the right to brew based on politicians’ debates about whether a certain potion was dark or not. All of that was true, and he thrust it to the front of his mind, inviting his Lord to look at all the reasons Severus had to be loyal to the Dark cause.

“Your desperation leads me to believe that you are loyal, but I myself taught you the mind arts, Severus. You have had the time to develop your shields, possibly beyond my ability to penetrate them.”

“Never, my Lord.”

“And yet, the old fool knows I have regained a body.”

Severus buried his fear. “He has many spies. He called me in only yesterday to ask if I had heard tales of your return from any Death Eaters, but I had not. I expect he will ask me to spy once you act, and I will be able to provide valuable information on how he plans to counter your moves.”

The Dark Lord sat and tapped his fingers against the arm of his chair.

Severus felt death approaching. He had been living in fear of this day for so long that a numbness enveloped him. With a wave of the Dark Lord’s hand, the second chair flew across the room, hitting Severus in the back. “Sit,” his Lord ordered.

Severus stood, but before he could sit, the chair slid closer, knocking Severus into it and leaving him knee-to-knee with the Dark Lord. Voldemort reached into his pocket and pulled out a vial, spinning it slowly between his finger and thumb. The potion was not a common one, not one that Severus brewed, so it took long minutes for him to identify it from the viscosity, color and shimmer. Bachelor’s Friend. Calemamici.

He swallowed and stared at the Dark Lord in horror that he no longer had to hide. Once he was forced to drink that, his mental shields would fall, he would be instantly intoxicated and unable to defend even his deepest secrets. All his lies, his feelings, his fears would be laid out at the Dark Lord’s feet. Severus would never leave this house—not alive.

The Dark Lord continued to slowly twirl the vial. “If you are loyal to the fool, your death will not come for years. Your betrayed colleagues will be given time to entertain themselves with your suffering. I will keep you alive until such time as we take the country and I can drag you to the Wizengamot for a public sham trial. I will show the world what I will do to traitors.”

Severus trembled. He feared that more than death, but he had no more moves to play. Potions had always been his salvation, his joy, but that one would be his damnation.

“If your betrayal matches mine, if you only sided with the old fool in an attempt to save your mudblood, then I will give you the mercy of a quick death.” He held out his hand, the vial resting against his palm.

Severus stared at it in horror.

“Drink or I will spell it into your stomach and punish you appropriately for defying your Lord.”

Severus was unsure what punishment Voldemort could add to what Severus was already going to endure, but long years of obedience to first the Dark Lord and then Dumbledore had him obeying. The potion was cloying and sweet and thick as it slid down his throat. It tasted like doom.

The world began to spin, and before Severus could brace himself, Voldemort tore through his mind like tissue paper. He was there, flying unaided through the air above Severus as he visited Privet Drive, sneering behind Dumbledore’s back during every meeting, hovering in the corner as Severus adjusted Potter’s memories.

He ripped individual memories from their resting places and tied them together. Dumbledore had placed Harry in an abusive home. He’d denied the boy proper medical care. He’d objected to him forming close relationships with not only the Malfoys but also the Tonks girl. He didn’t want Severus to like the boy. He’d lied to dredge up Severus’s hatred for James Potter. He’d dismissed Minerva’s concerns.

Voldemort mined every fear Severus nursed and then used it to organize thoughts into patterns that no one could mistake. The headmaster wanted the boy to suffer. He wanted Harry to see the wizarding world as his salvation from suffering, but he could not have the boy form connections. He must be isolated. Any move toward strong connections earned Dumbledore’s ire.

Severus clung to the arms of the chair and tried to endure silently as his mind was raped over and over as the Dark Lord arranged things to his liking and then moved the memories again. Severus waited for the moment when Voldemort started to alter the memories, to recreate Severus in his own image to be loyal only to him. Some Death Eaters whispered that he had done that to Bellatrix.

After an eternity, the Dark Lord withdrew with the same lack of subtlety and then summoned a new potion. With a wave of his wand, it vanished, and Severus felt the sober-up potion soak into his cells. The sudden shift made him tumble out of his chair as he body struggled to find equilibrium.

Severus lay on the floor trembling, his head throbbing with pain and his body aching. The two potions were not suitable to be used together, but this was nothing compared to what the Dark Lord would do to him now. The man knew everything. He had details of Severus’s every betrayal.

Always before the Dark Lord had relied on magic to warn him of betrayals, but something had changed, and this new version to the Dark Lord was much more wary and wily. Severus wondered how many of Dumbledore’s allies would share Severus’s grave. He suspected many.

After a long silence, the Dark Lord said, “So, your loyalty is to the child.”

Severus lay on the ground, his eyes closed and his soul resigned.

“I expect an answer.”

“I apologize, my lord.” Severus forced himself up to his knees.

“Is your loyalty to the child?”

Severus hesitated before answering, “Yes, my lord.”

“Not the fool?”

“Never,” Severus said. Voldemort would have seen the truth. Severus served the headmaster only because that was the side Potter was sure to take. His Vow put him on Potter’s side, even if he had spent ten years railing against that fact and hating a child he had never met. Having the boy sorted Slytherin had made his hatred more difficult to sustain, but it did not change the fact that he was pledged to protect him.

The Dark Lord tapped his fingers against the arm of his chair, and Severus waited. He waited to be cursed. He waited for the call for his former colleagues to drag him to the dungeons. A decade of fear had been stripped of him and now all he could feel was a numb weariness and a fervent wish for a quick death. He mourned that he had failed Harry as thoroughly as he had Lily. He was doomed to repeat his mistakes and have others suffer. However, he could not protect the boy now and Albus did not know enough about what the Dark Lord was doing in the shadows to mount a successful attempt.

“The fool attempted to turn you against the boy.”

“I am aware.”

“He manipulated you for years, poisoning you until you felt the Vow like a leash that tied you to what you most hated.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Severus agreed. He had grown painfully aware that all Dumbledore’s stories of Harry’s lenient home life and the tales of how much the boy was like his father were all fabrications. And there was no reason to make up such stories except to poison Severus.

The Dark Lord continued to tap his fingers against the arm of the chair. “He hopes the child will be without resources. Yet Potter has a group of close friends and has claimed kinship with the Malfoys through his Black ancestry. Interesting.”

Severus waited, a tiny glimmer of hope that the Dark Lord might want something other than his death. Every moment that passed without a curse made Severus think he had a small chance to live.

“I have the prophecy, Severus.”

Without meaning to, Severus looked up into the Dark Lord’s handsome face. “How?”

“Lucius asked the boy to retrieve it. He did.”

Severus blinked and lowered his gaze to the floor. That seemed rather lacking in drama for such an important step in the Dark Lord’s plans.

“The full prophecy says that neither of us can live while the other survives.”

Despair clawed at Severus’s ribs. The Dark Lord would stop at nothing to kill Harry, and now he knew that Severus was bound by an Unbreakable Vow to stop that from happening. Severus’s very life was in the way of the Dark Lord’s goals. Severus had nothing to offer that could change that.

“An interesting word, ‘survives.’ Before that Halloween night, I had a powerful army at my call and we were moving toward victory. Potter was a happy child with two loving parents devoted to protecting him.” With a wave of his hand, a tray with a tumbler of firewhiskey and small, sugary treats appeared. Voldemort took a tumbler and drank slowly, studying Severus as he knelt at his feet.

“For the next ten years, I struggled to survive, attaching myself to animals to avoid being pulled toward death while he survived abuse and neglect at the hands of muggles. The year that Potter’s life improved and he rejoined the magical community and began to build his own group of allies is the very year I finally regained my body. Tell me, Severus, if the prophecy had said that neither can live while the other merely survives, would that match reality?”

Severus swallowed as his brain spun through this new interpretation. “He has the power to vanquish you,” he finally said. That was the part of the prophecy that had sent Severus running to his lord, the part that had condemned Lily. That had damned Severus’s soul.

“The power to do so, perhaps, but if he is raised well, I expect he will have no interest. My spies within Slytherin tell me he is a shy boy, quick to forgive and hard to truly offend. He maintains strong ties to Granger and Longbottom despite their faults and has Draco as a close confidante even after they dueled first year, so I cannot see that he will be quick to start casting Unforgivables at me.”

Severus thought the Dark Lord underestimated the fury a child would feel toward the one who had taken his parents. “He will not endure anyone in Slytherin using slurs against the muggle-borns.”

The Dark Lord sighed. “Which will require us to alter our plans, but the strongest wizards alive today—you, the old fool, Potter, myself, even Grindelwald—what do we have in common?”

Severus knew, but he feared saying the word. They were all half-bloods. All of them, although that was not widely known. Severus knew about the Dark Lord because he had brewed the ancestry potion for his Lord when he had hoped to force the goblins into giving him the Slytherin lordship. Of course, Slytherin students had to suspect something since Harry had told them that the Dark Lord had been abandoned in muggle London to survive the war without the protection of magical wardlines. The older students certainly suspected that Harry was implying that the Dark Lord was either a muggle-born or half-blood.

“But you, my little traitor, are no longer mine.”

Severus dropped his gaze to the ground and shivered as all the hope of a moment ago vanished. Voldemort sounded amused, but Severus knew what amused the monster whose feet he’d chosen to kneel at.

“You belong to Potter, but you refuse to truly give yourself to him. You will not give yourself to anyone, and so you are isolated. Dangerous. Unpredictable. So, I give you this path to your salvation, Severus. You will give yourself to the boy. You have one year to give him the complete truth of your betrayals and your loyalties, and bend him away from the fool and toward the Dark cause. You will embrace him as your lord, and while he is younger and he needs council, you will take his word as law.

“And your first task will be to protect him. An unknown relative from the Black family will appear next year, and you will undermine the fool in any way you can in order to place the boy with this newly discovered relative.”

“My lord?” Severus feared that he knew who that relative would actually be.

The Dark Lord smiled, a cold and dangerous expression. “Yes, I will raise the child. I will see him succeed in whatever field he chooses. I will ensure his happiness because I will not be condemned to only surviving. I will have victory over my enemies, and if that requires the boy to achieve the same goal, we shall see that happen.”

Severus swallowed.

“Of course, he will need an inner council of his own, one that answers to Harry, even as he answers to me as his father. Theo will be joining it, as will his current allies—Draco and Millicent, perhaps Blaise if his mother has learned to bend. If not, he will be exiled from the UK as was his mother. You must, within the year I have given you, ensure he is willing to mark his closest allies.”

“What of Granger and Longbottom?”

“They are Harry’s choices. We will have to hide our ultimate goals until such time as Harry is an adult and truly old enough to understand the necessity to stop the Light. At that time, he will have to decide if he trusts the two Gryffindors enough to bring them into his fold.” The Dark Lord tapped his fingers against the arm of the chair. “The moment we remove custody from those disgusting muggles, the fool will change strategies. However, as long as Harry is miserable, my own plans will continue to fail. I’m sure of it.”

Severus considered all the facts through the lens of this new information. “Perhaps that is why the headmaster placed him in an abusive home.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps he believes the interpretation he has championed to you and the others in his Order. With the fool, you can never underestimate his ability to plot.”

Severus did not believe Albus would destroy a child’s life to advance his own goals, but he could not deny that Albus had talked about the “greater good” more than once. “Many Death Eaters will be loath to give up muggle-baiting.”

“Lucius and the other blood purists will have to learn that their prejudices will never come before my success. It’s time we target those opposed to the Dark and not cater to the whims of purebloods. Rise, Severus, and go check on your charge. For every moment of suffering the boy endures in that muggle home, you will endure ten times as much. Understood?”

“Yes, my Lord.” Severus stood on legs that trembled.

The Dark Lord chuckled. “I am no longer your lord, Severus. However, I do expect you to succeed in this task. You have proved yourself unfaithful, so if you are also incompetent, there is no reason to allow you to live.”

“Of course, Lord Voldemort,” Severus agreed. He shivered as he said the name and his Dark Mark burned, but he had no other way to respectfully address his former lord.


With a final bow, Severus backed out of the room and hurried to see if the Dursleys were being reasonable in their treatment of the boy. If they weren’t, Severus just might murder them to remove any possibility of the boy suffering. After all, Severus was no longer tied to the Light. In fact, his new task was to return to the alignment of his childhood and bring Harry Potter with him. If the Dark Lord was right about the true interpretation of the prophecy—and his interpretation did match events—then the only way to save Harry was by serving the Dark Lord.



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