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.”

Vernon lurched forward. “HOW DARE YOU SHOW YOU FACE. I WILL NOT TOLERATE YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER MY ROOF. GET OUT!”

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

Estates:
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—

CRASH.

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.

“Impertinent.”

“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.

“Nope.”

“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?”

“Nope.”

“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.

“What?”

“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.

THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED.
ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE.

“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.

“STOP IT!”

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.

“Interesting.”

“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?”

“Crucio!”

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.”

“Crucio!”

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.

 

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