Harry is furious. He can’t believe that Dumbledore is making him spend time with Snape. He meets no one along the way to the dungeons, and he almost wishes to get waylaid by a prefect, or even by Malfoy. He grimaces at the thought, but it’s true. Anything to delay the inevitable. When he reaches the door to the potions room he feels unprepared, as though he has been cheated out of precious time to gather his wits. The best he can do is drag as much air into his lungs as possible, school his expression into something closed off, and quickly rap on the door. When his fingers hit the wood he feels as though they are betraying him.
“Enter," comes Snape’s curt reply, and unless Harry is mistaken, the professor’s voice sounds even more brittle than usual.
The Occlumency lessons are terrible. The fact that it’s the dead of winter only makes them worse. As Harry retreats after each excruciating lesson (his mind laughs at the joke of a title; lesson? Lesson in what? Pain? Humiliation?) tired and conflicted and filled with more hate than he ever thought possible, his breath fogs in the halls. He wonders if the Slytherins derive some twisted pleasure from dwelling in the cold basement of the castle. It suits them, he thinks spitefully.
One night he goes down for the lesson, knocks on the ominous door, and Snape doesn’t call, “Enter,” as usual. Harry knocks again, waits five minutes with no response, knocks again, waits, and then returns to the tower in confusion. He almost wants to be nervous, almost wants to worry about what trouble he’ll be in come morning, but can’t quite manage it. He brushes it off, resolutely deciding that Snape just isn’t worth it. He falls into a restless sleep, the nightmares blooming into horrid reality as soon as he closes his eyes. He dreams of smoke and fire, of ash in his mouth, of mad laughter, and wakes violently when a dementor swoops in front of his face, black and all encompassing.
When he rolls out of bed, sweaty and panting, he catches Ron’s stare. His best friend is sitting and watching him, silently oozing sympathy. Neither of them say anything, Ron because it has become routine by now, and Harry because there is nothing to say. The sympathy, the pity— the way the other boys in their dorm pretend not to notice, it all grates on him suddenly. He is filled with irrational anger, and he hates the way that it squirms inside of him.
When he showers he sets the water as hot as it’ll go, and when he finally steps out, a bout of dizziness has him leaning against the wall and closing his eyes. The fogged up mirror admonishes him in a muffled voice, “Well you shouldn’t have turned the water so hot! Now neither of us can see a thing.”
He doesn’t remember the missed lesson until he goes down to breakfast and the hall is abuzz with nervous excitement. Hermione and Ron are waiting for him in their usual spot, whispering furiously until he approaches. Before he can say anything a Prophet is being shoved towards him. For one terrible moment he is relieved not to see his face or name on the front page, but then his stomach sinks heavily, and he sits with shaking legs.
“MASS BREAKOUT FROM AZKABAN” The headline reads, a full page picture below it depicting the rubble, and, when he looks closely, tiny black-cloaked figures swooping in and out of the wreckage. “DEMENTORS SIDED WITH YOU-KNOW-WHO.”
So that’s where Snape was last night.
“It’s awful,” Hermione says. Her plate has a half eaten piece of toast and nothing else on it. Harry doesn’t bother with loading his plate; he doubts he’ll be able to eat until dinner with the way his stomach is feeling.
Ron answers her with his mouth half-full, “The ministry’s got to be in a panic. If they didn’t believe You-Know-Who was back before, they have to now. It’s obvious.”
The three of them glance at the teacher’s table. Dumbledore, Snape, and Umbridge are all missing; the hall seems half-empty without them. The teachers who are still present are either reading the Prophet or nervously surveying the student body.
“You haven’t heard anything from your father, have you Ron?” Hermione asks.
“Not yet,” the redhead replies. “Everything’s too mental right now.”
Ginny sits with them, and the rest of breakfast passes in hushed whispers and grim, uneasy glances.
Umbridge’s classes only become worse after Azkaban. Her temper is shorter, the lessons are even less involved, and more and more frequently she hands out detentions, until breathing too loudly is liable to get one into trouble. The nightmares come more frequently and vividly. Harry sees the black tiled hallway, and the mysterious door.
Trelawney is sacked in March. It rains for a week straight, and for the students who have not actually been exposed to the mounting war, it is the first real change. There is a note of righteous indignation welling up in the collective. Despite never really liking her, Harry allows Trelawney’s dismissal to simmer in the back of his mind, slowly bringing his other thoughts to a boil.
Snape schedules another occlumency lesson, and it goes terribly. The evening starts out with the regular trading of glares and sneers and petty insults. Then Snape shouts “Legilimens!” enters Harry’s mind, and, rather than skimming as he had up to that point, Snape grabs a memory in a stranglehold and dissects every single moment of it.
“Boy!” The man shouts, his face blotchy, red, purple, quivering, his foots steps thundering down the stairs. Harry is five, and he has snuck out of his cupboard to steal food from the fridge. It is nighttime, and his heart thunders in his chest.
“What are you doing out of bed?” Uncle Vernon yells.
The lights upstairs flick on, and Dudley’s whine comes down through the gloom. “Mummy? Daddy? What’s going on?”
Harry is frantic, and in a moment of blind panic he bolts for his cupboard, but his uncle is already blocking the kitchen entrance. The enormous man catches Harry’s arm, gripping it too tight too tight too tight too tight—
“What are you up to, skulking around at night? What did you touch? What did you take?”
Dudley comes down the stairs, each foot fall a hesitant thump. “Daddy?”
“Now look what you’ve done!” Vernon hisses between clenched teeth, “You’ve woken the whole household!”
Harry is frantically shaking his head, tears streaming down his face, breathes coming in giant panic gulps. Then Vernon sees the food on the counter—
There is a struggle between Harry and Snape, the memory wavers, fuzzes, explodes in sharp colours and noises, and restarts when Snape does something that feels like the mental equivalent of a hard smack—
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—“ five year old Harry is saying as his uncle drags him to his cupboard.
“I should have known that that’s where all of our food was going,” his uncle growls, shoving him beneath the stairs and slamming the door shut. It locks with a resounding click. “You can stay in there all night and day, you good for nothing, pillaging little thief!”
Harry wrenches his way back to the present, gasping and trembling, he falls forward at Snape’s feet, the world swimming dizzyingly into focus. He scrambles to stand, making eye contact with the dreaded bat. Snape is gazing at him dispassionately, the traces of a sneer lingering at his lips. Harry looks away, more embarrassed than he has ever been in his entire life. He snatches his wand from the floor and turns to leave, mortified by the burning in his cheeks and his ragged breathing.
“Potter!” Snape calls after him, obviously not ready to let him go.
“Fuck off!” Harry shouts, slamming the door behind him. With every step that he takes out of the dungeons he expects to hear the door opening, expects Snape to come after him, robes billowing and point deducting like mad. But there is no shouting, no points taken, no nothing. The journey back up to Gryffindor tower is uninterrupted, and it is unnerving. There is no sense of satisfaction for finally telling Snape off. There is only cold humiliation.
Harry doesn’t attend anymore of the occlumency lessons after that. Snape watches him coolly over breakfast the next morning. Harry pretends not to notice, resolutely staring at his plate and the food upon it, which is utterly unappealing. Hermione and Ron are visibly concerned, but tactful enough by now to wait until they have a modicum of privacy to ask. Ginny sits at his side and smiles weakly at him, trying to encourage him to eat something, please.
If Snape said anything to Dumbledore, Harry can’t tell. The headmaster seems preoccupied anyway.
The more Harry thinks about it, the more unnerved he becomes. He is just waiting for Snape to tell someone— Dumbledore, Voldemort, McGonagall, his Slytherins, anyone who will listen. Harry is sure the man is plotting as he sits at the head table, just waiting for the opportune moment to release the information, to do the most damage. Harry is afraid that Snape will get curious, demand more lessons so that he can rummage through Harry’s memories.
The whole point of learning occlumency is clear to Harry now. He understands the importance of protecting his mind from his enemies. Not just from Voldemort, but from Snape too, and anyone else who might decide to suddenly take a peek into his thoughts. Well, Harry thinks, I won’t let him. Never again. Sod all if Dumbledore thinks he can make me. Harry doesn’t even trust Snape, he never has. He’s quite sure, in fact, that the greasy git has just been telling You-Know-Who everything he’s gleaned over the past few months about the Boy-Who-Lived.
Harry makes up his mind and leaves breakfast early, “Going to the library—“ he explains at his friends curious looks.
“Oh, perfect, I’ll come with you,” Hermione says, hurriedly downing a glass of pumpkin juice and shoving a piece of toast in her mouth.
Ron frowns, a look of complete bewilderment on his face, “What for?”
“Research,” Harry says, and sends Ron an apologetic half smile. The redhead just watches them go, chewing his food resolutely as though the whole world has gone mad.
The library is empty, but Hermione goes to work without hesitation. Harry spends several minutes looking for tomes on occlumency, and when he finds them he debates whether or not to sit with his friend. He hadn’t really wanted her to accompany him. He admonishes himself for being like that— he has nothing to hide, and Hermione is the closest person to him in the world.
Finding her among the many benches and tables, Harry sets down the books he’s found and seats himself across from the girl. They read in amiable silence for several minutes before Hermione says anything.
“So, are you going to tell me what’s going on?
Harry glances up at her and then back to the page, marking his spot, “I just had a really bad occlumency lesson with Snape last night.”
“Aren’t they all like that though?” Hermione asks, not missing a beat.
“And you’re actually reading about the subject now—“
“I’m not going anymore, Hermione. I’m studying to learn it on my own.”
Hermione frowns. “Did Snape let you off, then?”
Harry wants to just say yes, but he’s never been very good at lying to his friends. And Hermione has stuck so close to him this year.
“Actually, I told him to ‘eff’ off,” he admits quietly.
“You didn’t—“ Hermione says, leaning forward in an attempt to make eye contact.
He just shrugs.
“You did— oh Harry, you really did? What did he do?”
“Not much, actually. He hasn’t said anything about it yet.”
Harry can see the gears working in the girl’s head, and he waits for her to speak.
“He didn’t seem agitated at breakfast. Maybe he’ll want to talk to you after class today?”
Harry groans at the thought. He wishes that Hogwarts was like a muggle school, where you could skive off and no one cared. Hermione must have guessed what he was thinking, because she gave him a concerned look and said rather sternly, “You have to go Harry. We’ll just have to hope that he doesn’t give you detentions for the rest of the year.”
Harry buries his head in his arms. Just what he needs— detentions from Snape on top of the blood quill detentions from Umbridge.
“Do you think he’s told Professor Dumbledore? And you can’t just decide to stop going, Harry, the—“
“I’m not going back, Hermione. I don’t care what Snape says anymore. I don’t care if he gives me detentions until I graduate, I’m not letting him in my head again.”
He can feel the sympathetic look she gives him, and it’s the same silent, pitying look that Ron gives him each morning.
“We need to get to class,” he says, standing and gathering the books into his arms.
Hermione starts, “You’re right!”
Harry walks ahead of her, eager to leave the library, and feels guilty when she calls after him. “Harry— do you want me to read through those for you? I can make notes and outline the important passages…”
His shoulders drop and he forces an apologetic smile (the second one of the morning) onto his face. “Sure ‘Mione. Actually, that’d be great, I owe you.”
“Oh honestly,” she says, obviously pleased, “if I held you and Ron to all the times I’ve done this sort of thing for you both—“
“Our vaults would be empty and you’d be a wealthy witch.”
The tentative good mood lasts only until Potions. They have a practical, and the room is filled with the sound of bubbling, chopping, and whispering. Snape sits at his desk correcting papers and occasionally sweeping his gaze over the students. At the end of class he calls for them to bottle and label their potions. The papers are handed back and Snape dismisses them.
No detention. No talk. Hermione and Harry exchange confused glances. Ron is oblivious and light heartedly comments, “Well, that was relatively painless.”
A week passes and still nothing. Rather than feeling relieved, Harry is positive that Snape is biding his time. If the headmaster knows anything about what’s going on, he says nothing to Harry. Harry wonders if Snape is keeping secrets from the headmaster, or if the headmaster just doesn’t care.
He continues to read the books from the library, and Hermione’s notes help him tremendously. It turns out that he is actually interested in the subject. Occlumency is a multifaceted subject, more about feelings and willpower, than logic or talent. Harry finds himself sitting in his four poster bed late into the night, reading by wandlight.
At first the meditation exercises seem stupid and pointless, but after a few tries he gets used to sitting in silence. The books explain that, rather than trying to think about nothing, he must acknowledge his thoughts and come to terms with them. The process is uncomfortable, even painful at first, but he finds himself craving it. He starts to look forward to sitting alone and sorting through his mind.
Harry doesn’t realize it at first, but his nightmares dissipate. He finds it increasingly easy to simply not care when other students stare at him in the halls or snicker when he passes.
The first dream is unremarkable; in fact, Harry doesn’t even remember it the next morning. He is standing in a foggy grey room with no walls, or furniture, or features. It’s hardly a room, except there is a sense of it being a room. It is quiet and calm, and in the room he doesn’t feel any sense of pressure, or foreboding. When he wakes he feels completely rested for the first time in years.
Dumbledore and Fawkes disappear from Hogwarts. The ministry is in an uproar, and Dolores Umbridge becomes the self-appointed headmistress. The Inquisitorial Squad is formed, and Harry finds himself dividing his time between classes, teaching the DA, and studying occlumency. A calm sense of purpose has begun to infuse each day. Hermione is proud of him, and Ron, surprisingly, has stepped up to the mark by matching their studiousness. Even though the ministry still denies the return of the Dark Lord, there is a general grimness among the student body, as though the war has already begun.
When he dreams of the grey room again, it is a little brighter, and he remembers the first dream. He explores it curiously, slowly. There are shapes forming in the fog. They are simple and unthreatening. He finds one shape that is strongly reminiscent of a young boy. There is no face, and it doesn’t move. Harry sits next to it and thinks.
The next day the twins depart, leaving Umbridge in a rage and a swamp in the dungeons. For the first time all year Harry is genuinely happy. Some of his year mates sneak butterbeer into the dorm, and they stay up all night thinking of ways to undermine Umbridge’s authority.
The third dream has him bemused— he thinks of the strange recurring dreams he’s been having all year, the dreams of the black corridor, and wonders if he should tell someone. He finds the boy almost immediately this time— it is definitely a boy, but his age is difficult to determine. There is a pale wash of colour to him. He has brown hair.
Harry sits next to him and meditates.
The fourth time Harry comes to the grey dreamspace there is more to see. The room still lacks walls, but there are familiar objects standing in piles. Mostly things he has seen during the day. It reminds him of the Room of Requirement, and there is something comforting about that. He finds the boy sitting on the floor and gazing about himself with a sleepy expression.
There is just a little more colour now, and Harry contemplates the softness of the boy’s features. Deep blue eyes are framed by stray locks of hair and long, brown lashes. There is an agreeable pallor to the boy’s complexion. His eyes are shadowed and his mouth is a perfectly even shade of pink.
“What are you looking at?”
Harry starts, not expecting the inquiry. The voice is strong— directly contradicting the boy’s features. He almost recognises it, feels as though he should recognise it— but then the boy speaks again and Harry finds himself entranced.
“And who are you?”
“I’m Harry,” he says, as though it should be obvious. It’s his dream, after all.
“Oh.” The boy says, looking away.
“Who are you?”
But the boy doesn’t answer. He’s staring off into space with a sad look on his face.
Umbridge is no longer secretive about using the blood quills. The halls are lined with weeping first years and the other professors look afraid. The student body is split between Slytherin and everyone else. The great hall has become a place of tension. Only the common rooms are safe.
Despite his new found inner calm, Harry still grits his teeth in the toad’s class. He glares openly at her, and tries to ignore the itching, sensitive skin on the back of his hand, and how it flares when she looks over at him, a smug, self-satisfied air about her.
“Is there something you’d like to say, Mr. Potter?” Her smile is lined with acid. Harry imagines her eyes dropping out and her face sinking in.
“No.” He says, looking down at his desk. He can feel everyone in the room looking at him. They are waiting for him to do something outrageous again.
He returns his glare to Umbridge, and funnels every ounce of vitriol he has into it. “No, Professor.”
She smiles at him, and he can imagine her thinking that she is doing a good job. She is proud of her work with him, with all of the students who are too loud, or confident, or independent.
Hermione grips his hand under the table, shooting him a worried look. Harry grips back. It says don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.
He enters the grey room as soon as his head hits the pillow. He has started to think of this place differently from his other dreams and visions. He remembers everything that happens here, and it doesn’t feel like a normal dream. Walking through the piles of things, he picks up his Practical Defense textbook. He flips through it idly, and on every page is a conversation he has had with Umbridge. He sets it down and lets it go.
He finds the boy surrounded by objects from Harry’s childhood, carefully going through them. He is holding one of Harry’s toy soldiers and examining it as though he cannot understand its function.
“It’s a toy,” Harry says helpfully. “Children play with it.” He almost adds children like you, but that’s not quite right. The boy isn’t a child. His age is difficult to decipher, he could be eight or twelve or fourteen. And, as Harry watches, the boy’s features shift, so that for a second he could be Harry’s age.
“You came back.” The boy says, setting the toy down and looking at Harry.
Harry blinks in confusion. Had the boy been waiting for him? “Who are you?” he asks again.
The boy looks like he will answer, but then he doesn’t, and it’s as though he can’t, or perhaps he doesn’t know who he is. But then he brightens a little and smiles at Harry. “Do you know where we are, by chance?”
Harry finds himself taken off guard by the open beauty of the boy, and he has to force himself to speak. “In my head, I suppose. This is a dream, after all.”
The boy gives him a scrutinizing look, as though trying to detect any hint of a lie, then seems to accept what Harry has said. “Oh. You’re Harry, right?”
“Yeah, Harry Potter. And who’re you?”
The boy’s lips thin out. Again, it is obvious that there are many things going on in his head, but he says none of them. “My name isn’t important.”
Harry sits cautiously across from him, afraid of sending the boy into another bout of quietness. “Right, well— I have to call you something.”
The boy says nothing, and Harry finds himself at a loss; between Ron and Hermione, he never has to say all that much.
“Do you have any nicknames? Or maybe a made up name I can call you?” For a moment Harry wonders if he doesn’t actually know his own name. The boy seems generally disoriented, after all.
“No,” he says. “No one calls me anything.”
“Well… what do you want to be called?” Harry feels a kinship with the boy. He remembers what it feels like to be no one, to be just, “the boy,” no nicknames and no one to use his real name.
Blue eyes are inspecting him curiously, and don’t look away when Harry meets them.
“You’re weird.” The boy says.
“I suppose,” Harry replies, amused. If anyone else called him weird he would be genuinely offended, but for some reason when the boy says it, Harry just agrees. He is a little weird.
Giving him a scandalised look, the boy grinds his teeth speculatively before seeming to reach some sort of inner consensus. “Do you want to know a secret?”
“Sure,” says Harry.
“I’m weird too,” the boy whispers.
When McGonagall calls him into her office and asks what he wants to do with his life, Harry is honestly at a loss. There are pamphlets in neat piles on the professor’s desk, with bright and shiny titles like, “So You Want to Be an Auror?” Harry tells her that he doesn’t know what he wants to be, because he doesn’t have the heart to tell her that everyone already knows what he is going to be. He wonders why everyone still goes through the motions with him. For as long as Harry can remember people have treated him differently. He has never had the opportunity to just exist.
When he meditates before bed he goes through every unfair incident, and asks himself why? He realises that it isn’t his fault. He was merely dealt a lousy lot at birth, and no one has ever given him the opportunity to make decisions on his own.
When he enters the grey room, it has become bright; a soft white glow infuses everything, and there are washes of colour here and there. The brighter things are recent memories. The boy is wandering between rows of stacked objects, a few books tucked under one arm. His hair is falling in his face and his mouth is silently whispering the names of the objects he touches, as though he is trying to memorize them. He stops at the Goblet of Fire. His fingers gingerly touch each part of it, and there is a hunger in his eyes.
“Do you know what that is?” Harry asks.
The boy turns to look at him. His expression is neutral. “What is it?”
Harry approaches the Goblet; there is no fire in it now, but it still gleams with power and allure. “It’s called the Goblet of Fire. Hogwarts participated in the Triwizard tournament last year, and I was entered into it as a participant.”
“Against your will?” The boy asks. He is staring again, openly, and seems interested in the answer.
“Yeah,” Harry replies. “So do you know about Hogwarts?”
The boy crumples into himself, a dark cloud covering his features. “I… don’t know.”
“Are you a wizard?” Harry tries a slightly different tact. He doesn’t want to drive the boy away— he has never wanted to talk to anyone else quite so badly before.
“I’m… different.” The boy says, holding himself around the middle.
“Do you know if your parents were magical?”
“I don’t know,” the boy says, “I don’t know.”
Harry reaches out to touch the boy's shoulder. He doesn’t actually know how to comfort someone, but it seems like the sort of thing to do, and he feels at ease in this place. Despite that, the boy flinches violently away from him.
Harry frowns. Any other day he’d be more than happy to back off, but for some reason he feels like he’ll be letting himself down if he doesn’t help this boy.
“I never knew my parents,” he says, because it is the first thing that pops into his head. He practically stammers, and his thoughts become a bit frantic, because he has never spoken like this to anyone, but he just keeps talking— “They died when I was a baby. They were murdered. I can sort of remember it. Sometimes I hear my mother screaming… that sound use to haunt my dreams— it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”
The boy is watching him quietly. Harry can’t tell if the boy wants to hear any of this, but he no longer looks like he might break down, so Harry continues.
“I didn’t want to enter the tournament last year. My name was put in there by one of Voldemort’s followers. It was part of this plot to kill me, and I ended up fighting him in a graveyard.” Here, he pulls up his sleeve to reveal the scar where Wormtail had cut him. “He took some of my blood to come back to life,” he is remembering the ring of cloaked figures that had surrounded him, their bone masks gleaming in the moonlight, “when our wands met, something strange happened… I spoke to my parents.”
He remembers his father’s kind face, and his mother saying words of encouragement. “I’ve been alone my entire life.”
The boy blinks at him, his expression unreadable. Then he smiles and asks, “Do you have any more books in here?” He gestures to the books under his arm. “It won’t take me long to read these.”
Harry doesn’t know how to take the abrupt change of subject, but the boy seems generally happier now, so Harry doesn’t dwell on it. “Umm, I dunno. Let’s see,” he says, looking around himself. They explore the room looking for books until he awakens.
During the day Harry finds himself thinking of questions to ask the boy. He longs to explore the room, to see what it will look like with more colour. He finishes the occlumency books and checks out several dream books. Hermione gives him an apprehensive look, probably remembering their disastrous lessons on dream interpretation in Trelawney’s class. Harry assures her that the books are related to occlumency, and his desire to protect his mind. In reality, he is no longer worried about protecting his mind. The visions have ceased, and Snape doesn’t seem interested in Harry anymore, especially with Dumbledore gone. Harry is still waiting for the other shoe to fall with Snape, but he no longer thinks the Potions Master is going to blackmail him.
He knows he is becoming distant when Hermione takes over teaching the DA, telling him to take some time for himself because he seems distracted. Ron chalks it up to stress, pats him on the back, and tells him to get some sleep.
He dreams of the room nightly now, and the boy is always waiting for him.
“What’s this?” The boy asks, holding one object or another. Harry patiently explains the things around them, offering stories of his life along with them. The boy soaks up the information, becoming more solid daily. After awhile he starts to offer information about himself in return. It’s through little things— concessions of interest, facial expressions, his general air of curiosity. Harry finds it endearing, and soon enough they have established an easy routine.
When things are going particularly well Harry tries to ask the hard questions; “What do you remember? Where were you before this? What is your name?”
The boy concedes nothing, until one night when Harry finds him curled up beneath one of the tables from the great hall. He is clutching a tattered book in his hands and crying.
“Hey… what’s the matter?” Harry asks in a voice that he hopes is comforting.
The boy sniffs loudly and wipes at his eyes.
“Come on, you can tell me,” Harry says with a self-depreciating grin, “it’s not like I’m going to tell anyone. And I’ve already told you half of the embarrassing things that have ever happened to me.”
When the boys looks up at him his eyes are rimmed in red, and two bright blotches stain his normally pale face. His nose is damp and he blinks rapidly, his eyes glazing over.
Harry crawls under the table to sit next to him, and this time when he reaches out the boy doesn’t flinch. He seems to deflate when Harry pulls him into his arms, and once more Harry is left wondering at the boy’s age. Sometimes he seems like a teenager, but other times— now, he seems like a little child. It’s confusing and illusory, like something that disappears when directly looked at.
“It’s okay,” Harry says, rubbing circles on the boy’s back, “It’s okay, whatever it is, you’re here now, and it’s in the past.
Leaning stiffly against him, the boy neither relaxes in Harry’s embrace nor pushes him away. Harry waits for a few minutes until the crying has stopped to crawl out from under the table and help the boy to his feet.
“You can tell me anything,” he says earnestly, “really, I promise I won’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
But the boy doesn’t say anything for the rest of the dream, he just wanders about morosely, occasionally shooting hurt filled glances over at Harry.
Harry feels helpless and at a loss. Eventually he goes back to the table, wondering if the book that the boy had been clutching might shed light on why he was so upset. He reaches under the table and his fingers touch leather bound pages. He drops them abruptly when he catches sight of just what he is picking up. Tom Riddle’s broken diary falls at his feet, warped and still oozing black ink.
Harry has trouble sleeping for the next few days. He feels as though he is missing something important, and he skims through every book about dreams and the mind arts that the library has to offer. Hermione wants to help him, but when she asks Harry can’t tell her precisely what he’s looking for, because he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.
When Harry sees the boy again the diary is gone, and the boy seems to have gotten over whatever it was that had upset him. He continues to ask Harry about anything and everything, and he seems genuinely interested in the answers.
Harry makes a peculiar observation; the boy is more solid on the nights when he seems younger. On the nights when he appears to be older there is a thinness to his substance, his colours fade and his expressions are foggy.
“What is this?” He asks, holding up a box of dog biscuits and shaking them lightly.
Harry frowns, the unpleasant memory coming back to him in a rush. “Oh… my Aunt Marge gave me those.”
“I dunno. She thought it’d be funny, I guess.”
The boy gives him a piercing look. “She favoured your cousin, didn’t she?”
Harry is somewhat startled by the inquiry, and wonders if he had told the boy about the dynamics between his family. He would remember doing so. He hadn’t.
“Yeah, but it’s not like she was my real aunt, or anything. Not by blood, anyway.”
The boy sets the box down and picks up a broken alembic, studying it closely.
The answer comes to Harry all at once, during the day, when he is sitting at lunch and thinking about his next class. The occlumency books had described an exercise that includes finding a room within one’s mind. He quickly leaves for the library, certain that he has figured it out, and Ron mumbles to his back “I swear, you’re as bad as Hermione nowadays,” and Hermione hits him with one of her books, but Harry doesn’t notice because he has already left the hall.
The book reads: Finding the Soulroom is something that every accomplished occlumens must do. The process is not to be attempted until one has a firm grasp of both the theory and practice behind occlumency, and should be observed carefully by the practitioner’s Guide. Attempting to reach the Soulroom without careful supervision may result in mental instability, as each step of the process involves interacting with delicate aspects of the occlumen’s psyche.
The Soulroom is where information regarding id, ego, and super-ego is stored. Through careful exploration and rearrangement one can alter the substance of their personality…
Harry skims down to the next passage: To reach the Soulroom generally requires years of meditation and constant practice of occlumency, as well as strict mental discipline when it comes to the navigation and storage of one’s thoughts…
He wishes he had a decent teacher to help him with this. Snape is out of the question, Dumbledore is out of the picture, and for once Hermione doesn’t know everything there is to know about a subject. Harry cards his fingers through his hair, frustrated by the level of difficulty he seems to experience with all aspects of his life. He is fairly certain that the place he has been visiting is his soulroom, but apparently that’s not possible unless he has somehow managed to master the art of occlumency without realising it.
He reads through the key passages again, and firmly concludes that that isn’t the case. There are several basic aspects of occlumency that he has yet to even begin to grasp, such as the ability to sense the minds of those around him, or to catalogue his own thoughts in an orderly fashion. He hasn’t been practicing shielding himself at all. In fact, his experience with the dreams seem to be entirely singular. The dream space, however, matches the books description almost perfectly, the only deviation being the boy. The book doesn’t mention anything about finding another person in your soulroom.
The boy greets him now, waiting with inquiries and information and secretive smiles. “Hullo, how was your day?”
“All right,” Harry says, “Potions was a nightmare. We had a quiz and I think I got maybe two of the questions right.”
The boy smiles “Don’t you study for your tests?”
“I do,” Harry defends, “but Snape is just a slimy git. He’s one of those teachers, you know, who doesn’t really want to teach, so much as just terrorize his students.”
“I know,“ the boy says, and Harry wants to say You do? What do you know? but refrains, because he’s tried so many times now and the results are always the same.
When the boy is in a good mood, they explore, and Harry tells him stories. When the boy isn’t in a good mood (half of the time) they sit quietly. Harry meditates while the boy reads. The books he has access to are the books that Harry has read, and even though the boy expresses distaste at some of them, he still reads them all. He is nearly finished with them, and Harry feels a bit embarrassed that his mental repertoire is so small. He vows to read more, so that the boy will have more to entertain himself with.
“Read something educational.” The boy says, “Read books about history.”
“Don’t you want something more interesting?” Harry asks, and the boy gives him a deadpan look that clearly expresses distaste at Harry’s lack of culture.
So he makes time in his schedule to sit in the library and read history books. Ron thinks he’s officially lost it, and even Hermione seems concerned. She asks if he is feeling well.
“I’m fine, Hermione. I’m just realising how behind I am compared to you. I feel like I should know these things if I’m going to survive.” It’s a lie, of course, he almost can’t stand all the reading he is doing, but it works.
When he can no longer stand the history books he says to the boy, “Please, pick something else. Anything, so long as it doesn’t involve dates or treaties.”
The boy isn’t amused, but at length concedes with a curious pink tinge to his cheeks. “Could you read the stories by the Brothers Grimm?”
“Who?” Harry asks.
“They’re muggle authors,” the boy elaborates, obviously embarrassed to ask. “They compiled volumes of short stories, in the eighteen hundreds.”
“Sure,” Harry agrees, curious about what could have the unflappable boy blushing, but when he checks the library he can’t find anything by any Brothers Grimm. He realizes that he’s never seen any muggle books in the Hogwarts library, and despite falling far short of being a book enthusiast, he experiences a certain disappointment.
“The Brothers Grimm?” Hermione says. “Well, yes I’ve heard of them, why do you ask?”
“Just curious,” Harry replies.
“They were muggles, unless I’m mistaken, a pair of brothers. They’re rather well known in the muggle world for publishing completed and well written versions of many classic fairy tales. Like how Shakespeare popularized the story of Romeo and Juliet. It existed before he wrote it, there just weren’t any definitive versions floating around."
“Oh,” Harry says, wondering if perhaps the boy is a muggle. But he knows quite a bit about the wizarding world, so perhaps not. Muggleborn, then?
“They’re very violent stories— most of them have absolutely ghastly endings. But, I suppose that’s part of the appeal.”
Hermione’s last comment sticks in his head worryingly, repeating itself like a mantra. He finds himself writing it in the margins of his parchment, going over the words violent and ghastly again and again.
When he goes to sleep that night he asks the boy, thinking himself clever for it, “What sort of stories do the Brothers Grimm write? I checked the Hogwarts library, but they don’t have them.”
The boy isn’t fooled though; “I know you spoke to your female friend. She told you all about them.”
Harry is startled by this revelation. It’s the first time that his dream world and his everyday life have overlapped in such a way. “How do you know that?” He asks.
The boy glares at him and doesn’t say anything.
“Can you see what I see? Or did you find that memory?” Harry wants to call the boy by his name, and the fact that he can’t frustrates him for the first time. “Just tell me, it’s not a big deal.”
The boy turns away from him and ignores him for the rest of the night.
When Harry wakes he is frustrated, and a little bit mad at himself for not being more tactful. Hermione would be able to get through to him, he thinks. He hasn’t meditated in a few weeks, and he feels irritable. But, rather than going back to it, he trudges through his day and allows himself to be mad at everything.
It is uncomfortably warm in the tower that night, and he falls into a restless sleep. For the first time in months Harry has a vision. It’s the hallway again, and the mysterious door, and this time he goes through it. He finds Sirius, bound and bleeding, his rugged features pinched in pain and tears running down the deep tracks of his contorted face.
“Never,” his godfather hisses, “You’ll have to—“ a humorless laugh, “ah— kill me first.”
“Perhaps I shall.”
It is all Harry needs to see before he is wrenching himself out of bed, waking Ron and all of the other boys in the dorm with his panicked shouts.
By morning of the next day Sirius is dead, the ministry knows that Voldemort is back, and Harry is laying in the hospital wing, unable to fall asleep but too injured and exhausted to leave. Ron and Hermione cannot console him (and when have they ever been able to?), Remus is not to be heard of, and the Headmaster is too busy reinstating order in the castle to do more than gaze sadly at Harry and command Madame Pomfrey to keep an eye on him.
Harry stares listlessly at the ceiling, alternating between clenching his fists until they ache and glaring at the students who come into the infirmary to gape at him. In the end, Madame Pomfrey is forced to spell the doors closed to anyone who isn’t a professor or bleeding to death.
“Just ignore them, Mr. Potter,” she says firmly. She is the only person, after all these years, who doesn’t give him the sympathetic, pitying, I-know-how-you-feel spiel. She just orders him to take his potion, pulls the blankets up around him, and then bustles back to her office.
When he finally sleeps there is a sense of release like never before. The grey room, with its softness and calm radiance, is painfully inviting to his aching mind. He stumbles into it, all of his anguish and anger and guilt coming to the surface. The sensation is overwhelming— he’s never allowed himself to just break down before. He sobs for the first time since he was a child, the sound ugly and animal, coursing through his body and bursting from his mouth like a demon.
He is kneeling next to one of the broken golden statues from the ministry, its immobile face contorted into a grotesque mimicry of rage. He covers his face with his hands, half to block out the sight, and half to hide his own expression. Somewhere in the back of his mind he is watching himself and thinking I look ridiculous, what a mess, I’m too old for this. In the front of his mind he is just seeing Sirius fall, again and again. He is seeing Luna’s face, covered in blood, and Ron screaming as he is attacked by the brains, the hummingbird as it grew larger and smaller, larger and smaller, Bellatrix holding a crying Neville, Malfoy smiling at him with that smug, oily smile, and Sirius’ face Nice one, James! blank, a little shocked, a little bewildered, his lips half open, falling, falling…
There is the gentlest of touches at his shoulder, so gentle that it doesn’t even register, at first. But then the boy is more firm, kneeling next to him and wrapping his arms around Harry’s torso, just like Harry had done for him. And before Harry can register what he even wants to do in this situation, he is clutching the other against him, probably too tightly, and crying messily into the boy’s shoulder.
He doesn’t know how long he cries for. It feels as though he is crying for all of the times that he’s held it in. His mind helpfully plays through his worst memories— the cupboard, Hedwig being locked up, the cat flap, Quirrel disintegrating at his touch, Ginny lying in the chamber, the horror of the Basilisk chasing him, the students ignoring him, snickering, Potter Stinks, the mirror with his parents swaying silently beside him, the dementors swooping over Sirius’ dying body, Wormtail cutting off his own hand— it all comes out, and when his chest finally stops aching, and the hiccups and the gasping stop, he feels a peculiar lightness.
His head swims dreamily and he realizes that he is sitting in a heap with the boy in his arms, and he is terribly comfortable. The boy is resting his head against Harry’s shoulder in a semblance of sleep, until he looks up with curious eyes, true concern, and understanding shining in their depths.
“Better?” He asks.
“Yeah,” Harry says, voice a little raspy. Surprisingly, he does feel better. “Sorry for— I mean thanks for, you know…”
The boy gives him a searching looking before nodding slightly and resting his head in the crook of Harry’s neck. “It’s fine,” he says, “I know.”
There is a moment of contemplative silence, and then, because Harry thinks that for once he might be able to get away with it, he says, “But what do you know?”
The boy shifts in his grasp, and doesn’t say anything for awhile. Just when Harry thinks he won’t, the boy sighs, “I can’t tell your memories from mine. Your memories are mine. I remember the chamber, and the girl, and S— your godfather. I remember Wormtail and… everything. There are other memories, too. Memories of things that didn’t happen to you.”
Harry doesn’t understand. When he really tries to wrap his head around it— he just can’t. He’d been thinking up to this point that he sort of understood what was going on, but now he just isn’t sure. “What other sort of memories?”
He waits for the boy to answer, but the boy won’t say anything more on the subject.
People come and go.
At times the hospital is filled with well-wishers, both for Harry and for Ron. Then it is quiet, and there is nothing to do but think. Then the year is over and Harry is packing his things to board the train. It all happens very quickly, and Harry feels floaty and disconnected from his life. When his friends hug him on the platform and promise to write, he just smiles at them, his mind elsewhere. He can’t even bring himself to pretend to be invested in interacting with them, but they seem to understand.
When his uncle comes to pick him up the man is holding a letter. There is a nasty grin on his face.
Our condolences, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley… loss of Sirius Black… Harry is recovering in the hospital wing, if you wish to visit him of course…
Harry realizes with a sinking feeling that he no longer has anything to threaten the Dursleys with. They know he can’t use magic against them, and now with Sirius gone they have no fear of repercussions for their actions. He looks back over his shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Weasley clan, if he could only run back to them… but he sees no hint of red. Not even Hermione’s bushy brown hair. Vernon grabs him roughly by the shoulder and steers him forward.
“You won’t be having the run of the place anymore, boy,” the man growls under his breath. “No sir-ee, just be grateful you’re too big to fit back under the stairs.”
Harry’s heart skips a beat; he nearly trips, but manages to keep his balance. There is a tendril of fear, and a twinge of hatred that unfurls in his mind. It spreads and stretches like a cat waking from a long nap.
“You can’t let them do this to you,” the boy says angrily, pacing back and forth.
Harry just shrugs, not sure how to respond. It’s always been this way with the Dursleys, and he learned long ago to just grin and bear it.
“Well, what can I do? Without getting expelled or arrested, that is?”
“Anything,” the boy insists, “something, just don’t passively accept their disgusting treatment of you. I have to take it too, you know. I have to see that man’s vile face and endure your aunt’s horrible hypocrisy.”
Harry slumps down. “Sorry.” He hadn’t thought of it that way. But still…
“If you don’t so something, I will.” The boy says.
Harry frowns. It’s not like either of them can actually do anything, especially not the bookish, brown-haired boy in his mind.
The boy sighs, seeming to give up.
“You should go to the library and find that book,” he says, changing the subject.
“Huh? Oh, yeah.”
The boy’s lip twitches, but Harry doesn’t see it. He’s too busy staring into space. Since Sirius died he’s been having trouble concentrating on anything.
Soft hands are gripping his face, forcing him to look up. The boy says sternly, yet earnestly, “I mean it. Stand up to them. They’re just muggles, Harry, they can’t do this to you.”
For a moment Harry can’t respond. He is entranced by the feeling of soft skin on his face, the fluttering sensation of the boy’s pulse against his jaw.
“Yeah,” he mumbles. “I’ll… do something.”
But he doesn’t. Petunia hands him a list of chores so long that he estimates it’ll take him the week to finish them, if he works all day every day. Dudley and his gang harass him every time he leaves the house, so that he has to decide between the abuse he receives in public and the abuse he receives at home.
And Vernon mutters derogatory remarks under his breath, as though Harry’s presence is an unbearable burden.
“You’ve always been a freak, just like your parents. Hoodlums, the both of them, and then you picked up where they left off with that man, a murderer. Killed thirteen innocents, and your godforsaken people harbored him, praised him, probably had him on a goddamn pedestal—“
“Shut your mouth, you filthy muggle.” Harry says. Only, Harry isn’t the one who says it, and it comes out in parseltongue. Something has snapped inside of him, some gate opened, and it isn’t of his own volition when he walks towards his uncle with purposeful steps, eyes narrowed dangerously and hands shaking.
Petunia is in the sitting room, and she feels the change in the air. The windows darken and a sense of pressure is building around her. Uneasy, she calls, “Vernon?”
“Both of you,” Harry says without meaning to. His body is moving on its own, words forming on his tongue that he doesn’t mean to say, but he wants to, by god, he has always wanted to.
“My godfather killed thirteen people in an instant, like that,” he says, snapping his fingers, and the lights in the house explode, glass flying everywhere. A dark mist is rising up off his skin, swirling and trailing behind him as he advances on his uncle.
The man is terrified— he retreats to the sitting room, shoving his wife in front of him. Vernon obviously means to warn her, but when he tries to speak he only sputters, saliva shooting from his quivering lips. Petunia is white as a ghost, her eyes wide and glistening.
There is a grin on Harry’s face as he backs them into a corner. “And my godfather wasn’t particularly powerful. He was just a little hysterical, at the time. A little upset about what someone had done to him.
“Me, on the other hand?” He emphasizes his point by gesturing towards himself humorously, his hands crooked and elegant and leaving poisonous purple contrails in their wake, “I have a lot of potential. Maybe no one’s told you this, but it’s up to me to save my world from the most powerful dark wizard who has ever lived. His name is Voldemort, and I’ve already fought, and defeated him…” he takes a moment to count on his fingers, “five times!” He rocks back on his heels. “So that’s what I’m working on right now.
“It might seem strange to you, the idea of an innocent boy my age being expected to kill someone, but I believe we’ve firmly established that my world, is not the same as your world. Magic is dangerous stuff!”
Petunia is shaking uncontrollably and Vernon’s face is redder than it’s ever been before.
“Sometimes magic gets out of control, and people like me end up having to take drastic measures!”
“Out…” Vernon says, his voice choked and quiet, for once. “Get out.”
“Now, I can’t do that,” Harry says patiently, as though he is explaining to a small child. “You see, there’s some really complicated magic involving me, you,” he nods to his aunt, “and this house. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t absolutely have to be. But the Dark Lord is trying to find me right now. He wants to do terrible things to me, and anyone who he thinks I might be involved with, that means you two, and my dear cousin, of course, and if I were to leave then that complicated magic I mentioned earlier would break.” When he says break a cloud of viscous energy rolls off of him. There is so much of it that it climbs up the walls and swirls around the ceiling. He is afraid of it, he is afraid of what he is saying and doing.
“I would be fine, of course, there are a few other safe places where I could hide out. But you guys? Death Eaters would be on you within minutes. And you wouldn’t get the quick sort of painless death that my parents got, who, for your information, were hard working, wealthy, educated, and highly respected human beings… no. You’d both be interrogated. There’s this lovely curse that the Dark Lord is particularly good at, I’ve experienced it myself as a matter of fact, called the cruciatus. It has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? “ Inside he wants to be sick. He is desperately hoping that he doesn’t actually do anything to his relatives. He even prays that the ministry shows up to stop him; he’s emitting enough magical energy to trip the alarms. He has to be.
“Crucio— it literally means ‘to torture,’ great huh? The pain is really… indescribable. But I can tell you what the body does, in reaction to the pain! First it convulses; the cruciatus curse stimulates every nerve ending in the body, simultaneously! Breathing gets really hard, because your heart speeds up uncontrollably and your body is thrashing around, tensing and squirming— it’s a real workout. Then there’s the screaming… yeah, it’s pretty hard to breathe through all of that, and your throat is just all hoarse and raw afterwards. You never really know how loud you can scream until you’ve been crucio’d.”
The smell of piss wafts through the room.
“Naturally, the pain is unbearable. After a certain point you just die— cardiac arrest, you know? But what’s really interesting, is if you lift the curse just before the victim reaches that point. I’ve only ever met two people who have had that done to them. They live in a nice white room uptown. They can’t really talk, or bath themselves, or go to the toilet on their own. Brains are just… jelly, you know? I mean, they’re still functional, but it’s like they’ve retreated inside of themselves. Just decided not to participate anymore.”
Harry stands gazing at the floral wallpaper in idle contemplation. “Yeah… anyways, I’m gunna grab some dinner and head up to my room for the night.” Smiles, and says, “I’m glad we could have this talk— you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to get some of this stuff off my chest.”
Every step to and from the kitchen feels like it takes a million years. His limbs are leaden and move of their own accord. He watches as his hands make a sandwich, seemingly in slow motion, gliding sluggishly through each movement. He knows he isn’t actually moving in slow motion, but it feels like it. It feels like hours have passed by the time he is retreating upstairs. He sits on his bed with the sandwich in his lap, and the mysterious force controlling his limbs loosens.
His face twists into a horrible grimace and he throws the sandwich at the wall, where it falls to pieces. “Fuck,” he says, his throat closing up. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
His whole body is tense and trembling, his face buried in his hands. He doesn’t cry. There are too many emotions running through him for that; anger, fear, confusion, disgust, satisfaction.
He waits. It grows dark. His body cools down and he is left feeling sticky and clammy, as though he is suffering from the flu. It gets cold, and he wraps the blankets around himself. The ministry doesn’t come. No howlers tap at his window. The doorbell doesn’t even ring.
Exhausted, he sleeps, and the grey room waits for him.
The boy is sitting cross-legged, a self satisfied, cat-that-caught-the-canary smile on his face. And Harry knows. He understands it suddenly, and he is furious. A wave of energy surges through him, and he grabs the boy roughly by the shoulders.
“What did you do?” He yells, starting to panic all over again.
“I only did what you were too weak to do!” The boy yells right back at him. “Maybe now they’ll understand their place!”
Harry is breathing too fast, and he lets the boy go in favor of gripping his own head. He walks a few paces away and then, feeling unstable, sits down with his head against his knees. He tries to control his breathing, but his heart is racing faster and faster, and his pulse is pounding in his wrist. He can hear the blood thundering in his ears and he wonders if he can die in this place. Anything is possible, at this point.
The boy gazes at him dispassionately, eyes half covered by his hair.
“Things will be better now.”
“Like hell,” Harry grits out.
“I promise,” the boy says, crouching next to him, “I won’t let anyone hurt us ever again.”
It might be ten minutes, it might be an hour, but Harry calms down eventually and unfolds from himself. The boy is sitting next to him, patiently reading the book of fairytales that Harry had acquired from the local library.
“Better?” The boy asks, not looking up.
Harry nods mutely. Then, quietly, he asks, “What’s wrong with me?”
The boy turns a page before calmly replying, “Nothing is wrong with you. It’s them. What you just experienced was a panic attack; they happen to people who are put into impossible situations with high levels of stress. That was your body telling your mind that you were in a dangerous situation. It’s perfectly normal to feel like you’re about to die— under no circumstances should you have to deal with the sort of situations which you seem to find yourself in on a regular basis. It’s all irrational, of course, but it happens to the best of us.”
The boy turns another page.
Harry swallows thickly. “And… and earlier, when you were… controlling me. How did you do that?”
The boy glances over at him, blue eyes calculating. “I’m not sure,” he says at length. “I sort of just did it. I couldn’t put up with their abysmal treatment of you anymore.”
“Right,” Harry says. He is uncomfortably reminded of Ginny, and of the battle at the ministry not two weeks ago when Voldemort had possessed him. It had been incredibly painful at the time, though, and just now the boy hadn’t caused him any physical pain.
Harry is exhausted. He wants nothing more than to just sleep, but one more detail is nagging at him. “Why didn’t I get a howler from the ministry?”
“None of the magic we did was wanded. It was all 'accidental,' which the ministry can’t track.”
Harry sighs and rubs at his face. “Right… right. I’m going to… go pass out somewhere now.” He’s never fallen asleep in this place before. He always wakes up from the grey room, never the other way around.
“There’s a bed over here,” the boy supplies helpfully, standing and leading Harry through the maze of things.
There is indeed a bed, it’s his four poster from Hogwarts, and he falls into it with a deep sigh. He is asleep immediately, otherwise he would have protested to the boy removing his shoes and tucking the blankets in around him.