Chapter 1: The Beginning
The Basilisk toppled to one side, its massive head sliding off the blade of the sword Harry had pulled out of the Sorting Hat, while the fang that had pierced Harry's arm splintered and snapped off. Harry staggered, dropping the sword with a loud clang. His legs felt like jelly, and they gave out under his weight. Harry was struggling to breathe; he couldn't seem to be able to get enough air into his lungs. Spots of black were dancing across his vision, and what colours he could see were swimming. He could barely make out the form of Tom Riddle, looking triumphant, and something red soaring around him.
"You're dead, Harry Potter," Riddle said. His voice was soft and soothing. He made it sound like he almost cared about what was happening to Harry. "The poison of the Basilisk is the most deadly venom known to man. It will paralyse you, blind you, and begin to digest you from the inside out." Riddle's shadowy form crouched down inches away from Harry, and a cold, long-fingered hand reached out to tilt Harry's face up. Riddle was smiling. "It will spread through your body," Riddle continued, "using the beating of your own heart to kill you faster."
Harry opened his mouth, but couldn't speak. It felt like lava was running through his veins instead of blood. He managed, just, to gather enough strength to pull the Basilisk fang out of his arm. It wouldn't save him.
"This is the end," Riddle murmured. He was so close, and he was speaking his cruel words so tenderly. "You're going to die here, Harry Potter, and Ginny Weasley's last chance of survival will die with you."
Something in Harry's gut twisted sharply, and a scream tore from his throat. Riddle laughed and pulled away, letting Harry collapse sideways to curl up on the Chamber's stone floor. Harry bit down hard on his lower lip. He didn't want to give Riddle the pleasure of hearing any more of his screams. The pain was excruciating; it was white-hot agony that burned through every part of him, from his eyes to the tips of his fingers.
Then, all of a sudden, it was over. Harry lay, panting for breath, with his eyes screwed shut, as the pain faded into nothingness. Riddle was still laughing, and the high pitched sound made Harry grit his teeth as it grated on his nerves.
Slowly, carefully, he opened his eyes. His vision was blurry, and there were strange colours superimposed over his vision, but he could see enough. The diary was lying open inches away from his face.
He pushed himself up slowly, ignoring Riddle's cry of confusion. He didn't know how he had managed to survive, but he did know that he had to finish this. He had to finish Riddle; destroy the diary. Ginny was running out of time.
He grabbed the broken off Basilisk fang and with one swift move, he stabbed it straight though the middle of the diary.
"NO!" Riddle screamed, but it was too late. Blood, venom and ink spurted up out of the pages and began to spread across the floor. Riddle's form convulsed once before exploding in a flash of brilliant white light. Harry dropped the fang and relaxed, flopping back down onto the cool stone floor.
Fawkes landed next to him, regarding him through beetle-black eyes. The weird colours Harry had noticed earlier made Fawkes look like he was glowing red and white. "Thanks," Harry mumbled. His voice sounded hoarse and croaky. "I couldn't have done it without you."
Fawkes gave a happy little trill that soothed Harry's still-aching muscles. Harry smiled faintly and pushed himself up again. He crawled over to Ginny, ignoring the pitiful remains of the diary.
The weird colours over her image were changing from blue and purple, through green, to yellow and red and – just over where her heart was – white. He reached out to shake her gently, and was pleased to feel that she was warming up again.
"Ginny?" he called out to her. "Ginny?"
She groaned softly before her eyes snapped open. He helped her up slowly. She looked up at him in confusion before realisation hit her, and she burst into tears.
"I'm so sorry!" she sobbed. "I…I tried to t-tell you b-b-but I c-couldn't say it in front of P-Percy! I d-d-d-didn't mean to d-do it. R-Riddle t-told me to. Riddle! Where is he? I c-can r-remember him coming out of the d-d-diary and…and…I'm s-so sorry!"
He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly. He felt incredibly uncomfortable with her crying, but he couldn't think of anything to say. He edged away from her and began to collect things from around the chamber. He picked up his wand, the diary, the fang, the Sorting Hat, and the sword he had pulled out of it.
He handed her the Sorting Hat and smiled when she looked up at him in confusion. "It's over now," he told her quietly. "Come on."
She sniffled softly before bursting into another wave of hysterical tears. "They're going to expel me!"
Harry sighed and wondered if shy little Ginny Weasley had always been capable of making so much noise.
He led her out of the chamber, past the rock fall and into her older brother's waiting arms. Ron held her tight as she wept into his shoulder, shooting Harry a worried look over the top of her head. Harry just shrugged.
"How are we going to get out of here?" Ron asked, ignoring the obliviated Lockhart's stupid comments.
Harry looked around, searching for another exit, only to see Fawkes hovering by the entrance to the pipe. The phoenix was waving his long tail feathers at him, and Harry suddenly remembered what Dumbledore once told him about the bird. "I think he wants to give us a lift up," he told Ron, indicating the phoenix with a wave of his hand.
"Do you think it'll be able to lift us?" Ron asked.
Harry smiled. "Fawkes is a very special bird," he said. "He'll manage."
The flight was short, and soon the four of them were on their way to Dumbledore's office. As they approached, Ginny's loud sobs thankfully decreased until by the time they had reached the gargoyle, she had gone silent.
Dumbledore's office was occupied when Harry pushed the door open. The headmaster was sitting behind his desk, and Snape and McGonagall sat on either side of him. All of the Weasleys were in the room. Mrs Weasley was weeping hysterically into her husband's robes, while Mr Weasley hugged her tight. Their sons looked tired and pale.
That all changed when they looked up to see who had entered.
"Mr Potter!" McGonagall cried. Her normally stern expression had been replaced with one of absolute shock. Snape looked equally stunned for a moment, before his usual sneer reappeared. Dumbledore just sat there beaming at him, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. Fawkes soared across the room to sit on his lap.
At the same time as McGonagall's cry, Mrs Weasley had shrieked "Ginny! Ron!" and lurched forward to gather he two youngest children into her arms and hold them close. Harry looked away from them, feeling awkward once more.
He walked forward and placed the Hat – he'd taken it from Ginny again after they had left Myrtle's bathroom – the sword, the diary and the fang on Dumbledore's desk.
Snape leaned forward curiously to study the fang. The look he shot Harry when he straightened up was indecipherable.
"I believe there is an explanation for all of this, Mr Potter," Dumbledore said quietly. He too was looking at the fang, and the way the residual venom on it was burning into the surface of his desk.
So Harry launched into his explanation. As he spoke, his audience was silent apart from the occasional gasp or choked cries and sobs from Mrs Weasley. When he got to the part where he'd realised where the entrance to the chamber was, he couldn't help but shoot Dumbledore an angry look. "Myrtle died when you were the Transfiguration teacher here, Professor," he said. "When her ghost appeared in the castle, why didn't you ask her how she died? Why didn't you ask if she knew anything? You might have been able to catch Ginny opening the Chamber before things got too bad, if you had."
Dumbledore offered no answer. He merely waved his hand and murmured "Continue, please, Harry." His eyes had stopped twinkling.
Frustrated, Harry continued. When he got to the part where he'd killed the Basilisk and been bitten at the same time, he was interrupted.
"Dare I ask how you managed to survive, Potter?" Snape asked coolly.
Harry simply shrugged. "Phoenix tears, Professor," he lied. "They have amazing healing properties."
Snape sneered at him. "I am aware of that, Potter," he snapped.
Harry opened his mouth to retort, but Fawkes interrupted them with a calming trill of song. Harry looked at the bird, to see it watching him. He could see the knowledge in its eyes – Fawkes, of course, knew he had lied – but he could also see that the bird was not about to betray his confidence. He wasn't even sure if it could.
The rest of the story was considerably easier to relate and took far less time than the rest. By the time he had finished, Dumbledore had a thoughtful look on his face. Then, surprisingly, he changed the subject altogether.
"You will be pleased to know that you will not be expelled, Miss Weasley," he said. Ginny looked up from where she had been ensconced on her mother's lap.
"I'm not?" she asked. Her big brown eyes were wide with hope and her voice was shaky.
"No," Dumbledore assured her with a kind smile. "Although I hope that you will be more careful in the future and report any strange occurrences to a member of staff immediately."
She blushed furiously. "Yes Professor," she said.
"Now," Dumbledore said. "I think a celebration is in order. Severus, please alert the kitchens and have them prepare a feast. But before that, perhaps it would be best if you escorted Gilderoy to the Hospital Wing. Minerva, please show the Weasleys to one of the guest suites near Gryffindor tower. I believe they need some time with the children. After that could you alert the other teachers, and have the students gather in the Great Hall. Harry, my boy, stay behind, please."
The occupants of the room sprang into action, McGonagall leading Ron and the other Weasleys out of the office, Mrs Weasley still clinging to Ginny. Snape swept out after them, Lockhart scurrying nervously next to him.
Harry sat down in a chair Dumbledore conjured up for him and sank back into the soft cushions. He was tired; physically exhausted. He had realised, part way through his account of the events down in the Chamber, that the Basilisk's venom was still having an effect on him. Random muscles would twinge, and his chest and stomach ached. Somehow, he knew that it was nothing life threatening, but it still worried him slightly. He wasn't going to tell Dumbledore, though. He didn't like the way the headmaster was studying him.
"First, I want to thank you, Harry," Dumbledore said gently. "You must have shown me a great deal of loyalty down in the Chamber, to be able to call Fawkes to you."
Harry shrugged. He hadn't recounted the exact details of his conversation with Riddle – nor did he care to – and Dumbledore was clearly fishing for information.
Dumbledore sighed at his lack of an answer. "I must ask you once more, Harry, if there is anything you need to tell me," he said. "If there is anything about tonight's events that you did not want to say in front of an audience. I am willing to listen, if that is the case."
"No sir," Harry said softly. "There isn't anything."
Dumbledore frowned. "I would have thought that, upon meeting Tom Riddle, you would have a few questions, at least."
"None, sir," Harry replied firmly.
Dumbledore nodded. "You are excused then," he said, sitting back in his chair. He was still frowning, and he sounded so disappointed, but Harry ignored that. He stood up slowly, and made for the door. Dumbledore's voice stopped him. "You will be awarded a Special Services to the School Award for your actions tonight, Harry," the headmaster said. "And both you and Mr Weasley will receive two hundred points for Gryffindor House."
"Thank you, sir," Harry said politely, glancing back over his shoulder. He hoped Dumbledore didn't call him back; he just wanted to get a shower and go to bed to get some rest. "Sir, is there anything specific you would like to ask me?"
It was Dumbledore's last chance to ask an actual question instead of just fish for general information. Harry saw the old man hesitate. He saw him open his mouth as if to say something, only to close it again and wave Harry off. So Harry walked out without looking back, and set off for his dormitory.
He wouldn't be attending the feast that night. He was too tired and aching to bother.
Chapter 2: The Bargain
The rest of the year passed quickly and quietly. The incident in the Chamber had been a week before school broke up for summer, and Harry was determined to enjoy the company of his friends as much as he could before he was shipped back to the Dursleys'.
His friends – and indeed, some people he didn't think he'd even met before – seemed to have other ideas. They wanted to know what had happened in the Chamber, how he had killed the Basilisk, how he had survived without a scratch… Some of them, Hermione in particular, wanted Harry to show them the Chamber. They thought it would be 'brilliant' to be given the chance to go into the Chamber of Secrets now that the Basilisk was dead. In each case, Harry refused. He didn't want to share what had happened down there with anyone else, now that he had told the headmaster. For some reason it felt extremely personal to him. Ron, on the other hand, was more than glad to share the – highly exaggerated – tale with an audience. The other students lapped it up, though they always looked to Harry for confirmation.
The only thing that Harry was up to talking about was how Fawkes 'healed him'. Harry was hiding the still present wound from where the Basilisk's fang had pierced his arm. He had torn up one of Dudley's old T-Shirts to make bandages, and was careful to wear long sleeves. There was no way he should have survived the bite on his own, without a swift application of phoenix tears and the last thing he wanted was to advertise the fact that Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, had survived something he shouldn't have yet again. So he kept the injury quiet and told no one about the odd colours floating over his vision and the occasional twinges in his body.
He didn't know what, exactly, those things meant. They didn't really bother him; he could block out the pain from the tinges, and the strange floating colours were easy to ignore – he could still see past them, anyway. But even though they didn't bother him, he wanted to know why they had appeared.
Unfortunately, what research he could do in the school library revealed nothing. According to the few books he found that spoke of Basilisks, no one had ever survived a bite from one before unless they'd had a phoenix handy. Even more unfortunately, every time he tried to research them, he would have to deal with Hermione poking her nose in. He respected her intellect and researching abilities; he knew Hermione was cleverer than he was and that she would be a great help in finding what he needed to know, but he couldn't allow it. For the same reason he didn't want to take her, or anyone else, down into the Chamber, he didn't want to involve her in his research. It was too private; too personal, and her bossiness and habit of nosing in on his business grated on him. He knew she was only trying to help, but he couldn't let her.
So, for the most part, Harry spent his last few days of his Second Year at Hogwarts lazing on the school grounds with his Gryffindor classmates. He relished the opportunity to sprawl out in the warm sun in peace. Even the Slytherins seemed content to leave them alone.
The time to board the Hogwarts Express and return to the Muggle world came far too quickly, in Harry's opinion. The thought of going back to number four, Privet Drive filled him with dread, and made his breakfast sit like lead in his stomach. Would they treat him the way they had the previous summer? Would they lock up him up away from his trunk and lock Hedwig up in her cage? He wouldn't put it past them.
His glum mood was obviously noticed by his friends, as Hermione leant over the table during breakfast and touched his arm gently. "It's going to be okay, Harry," she said. "I know last summer was hard for you, but you've just got to keep your head down and your temper in check."
Harry grit his teeth. "It wasn't my fault, you know," he muttered. "It's not like I asked for Dobby to come and ruin a dinner party."
"Yeah," Ron chipped in. "And it's not like locking someone up and starving them is a normal punishment, either Hermione."
Hermione bit her lip. "I know," she said. "But Dumbledore wouldn't send Harry back if they really hated him. I mean, it's not like they're going to hurt him or anything, is it?"
Harry decided not to mention the fact that he'd spent the better part of his childhood locked in a cupboard, or all the beatings he'd received after performing accidental magic. Hermione's faith in authority, particularly Dumbledore's authority, was unshakeable.
"Yeah," he mumbled. "Right, Hermione."
She sniffed. "In any case, you should try your hardest to avoid confrontation, Harry," she said. "I'm not saying it's all your fault, but keeping your head down and going with the flow should keep your relatives off your back."
"I know, Hermione," Harry ground out. "I grew up with them, remember?"
Hermione just smiled at him. "I know, Harry, but sometimes you are a bit stubborn."
Harry ignored her, returning his attention to the scrambled eggs he'd been pushing round his plate for the past twenty minutes. Another thing that had changed since the Chamber was Harry's appetite. He hadn't been feeling very hungry at all. The Dursleys would probably appreciate the lack of appetite.
The train journey itself was rather subdued. Ron talked about having Harry over again at some point, and they played a few games of Exploding Snap while Hermione read. Malfoy made his customary appearance in their compartment so that he could try to get in a few last minute sneers and barbs before the holidays.
Harry dragged Ron back into his seat after Malfoy left, and shot his friend a warning look. Ron's face and ears were flushed a brighter red than his hair, and it looked like Hermione was gearing up to go into lecture mode.
"I swear he's going to get it next year," Ron grumbled. "I'm going to get a new wand, and when I see Malfoy next I'm going to hex him so hard his ancestors will feel it."
"Ron!" Hermione started. "I really don't think that -"
"I don't know, mate," Harry cut in. "That's what he wants, isn't it. For you to lose your temper, I mean."
"Probably," Ron admitted. "But it would make me feel brilliant."
Harry laughed. "But think about it, maybe if you just ignored him for once, then he'd be the one to get annoyed. I mean, prats like Malfoy love attention, so giving him none would really piss him off."
Ron seemed to think about it. Harry continued. "If you tried to get control of your temper over the summer," he said. "Then when September comes it'll be easier to pretend he doesn't exist."
Ron's face split into a grin. He nodded. "Right," he said. "But…I could still encourage the twins to prank him in revenge, right?"
Harry nodded. "Sure, join in, even. Just don't let anyone catch you."
Ron sat back in his seat with a dreamy look on his face. Hermione shot a disapproving look at Harry, who caught her eye and shrugged. Ron responded better to encouragement than disapproving lectures, and this way, at least, he would stay out of trouble.
Hermione wouldn't see it that way. Harry figured that Hermione not speaking to him was marginally better than Ron getting into more fights with Malfoy.
Uncle Vernon looked just the same as he always did: ruddy faced, fat and scowling; his bushy moustache bristling in anger. He was standing at an obvious distance from the Weasleys, who he clearly recognised from last year, and glowered at Harry as soon as he laid eyes on him.
Harry, on the other hand, ignored him completely until after he had greeted Ron's family and thanked them for his Christmas present. Then he turned, squared his shoulders, and made his way over to his uncle.
"You took your time, boy," Vernon growled as soon as Harry was in earshot.
"Sorry Uncle Vernon," Harry said immediately.
Vernon snorted and started to walk off. "Don't drag your feet, boy," he snapped. "We're in a hurry. Got to make the house ready for Marge coming."
Harry's blood ran cold. His Aunt Marge – not his actual aunt, seeing as how she was Vernon Dursley's sister – was every bit as mean-spirited as her brother. She was a large, rotund woman with a moustache almost as big as Vernon's. She spent her time breeding bulldogs and had a love for hideous tweed suits. She also, like most Dursleys, worshipped the ground Dudley waddled on, and treated Harry like dirt.
"A-Aun Marge is coming?" Harry asked, breaking into a jog to catch up with his uncle. "To stay with us?"
"Of course, you stupid boy," Vernon sneered. "She hasn't seen our Dudley since he was eight and she's missed the boy." His round face contorted into a grimace. "Of course, she's bringing that ruddy dog with her as well."
Harry shuddered. He had bad memories involving Ripper – Aunt Marge's favourite dog. Last time she had visited, Harry had accidentally stood on its paw, and had ended up being chased up a tree. Aunt Marge hadn't called Ripper off until after the sun had gone down.
And Hermione thought he was deliberately confrontational…
"Um, Uncle Vernon," Harry said. "I was thinking. Aunt Marge doesn't really like me very much, and I'd only get in the way, so…if I do my chores and stuff before she arrives, then maybe I could go and stay somewhere else while she visits. There's a pub in London that has rooms going – and it's run by my lot – so maybe I could stay there and get out of the way."
Vernon hummed as his frown turned thoughtful. Harry knew he was offering his uncle a good deal: most of the holiday without Harry's loathsome presence, and the difficult or tedious chores still done in the meantime. And no one, not even Vernon, could deny how much happier Marge would be if Harry wasn't there while she was visiting.
"Alright boy," Vernon said as he watched Harry struggle to load his trunk into the boot of the car. "You've got a deal. You do your chores and behave for ten days before Marge arrives, and I'll drop you off at your bloody pub. Where is it?"
"Charing Cross Road, Uncle Vernon," Harry replied. "Thank you, sir."
Vernon snorted. "Don't thank me, boy," he said nastily. "I'm not doing you a favour. We'll all be happier with you not around, and when you're at home you'll be worked as hard as possible, you understand? And I'm not paying for your little holiday excursion. You can find the money for it somewhere else."
"Yes Uncle Vernon," Harry chirped
He'd be fine, financially. And he had just ensured himself a summer of freedom. Now all he had to do was keep up his end of the bargain.
Chapter 3: Chores and Changes
Aunt Petunia had left a hunk of cheese, a piece of bread and a banana on the kitchen bench for Harry's supper. Next to it was a terse note informing Harry that it would be the last time he would eat anything truly substantial at their house as Dudley had been ordered to go on a diet. Apparently, despite Aunt Petunia's pleas to the contrary, the school nurse at Smeltings had noticed that Dudley was morbidly obese. In an effort to cool Dudley's temper, Aunt Petunia was also insisting that the whole family went on the same diet. It was family support or something like that.
The diet was all very well for the members of the family who were given proper portions at meal times; certainly both Dudley and Vernon could do well to lose a stone or two in weight. Harry, on the other hand, had always been subjected to measly meals – whenever they had bothered to feed him at all – and he could guarantee that his portions of salad and vegetables and grilled chicken or fish would be considerably smaller than was healthy. Not that he was very hungry at all these days.
Ignoring his stomach's cry for meat – the one thing he had been craving recently – Harry wolfed down his pitiful supper along with a glass of water and headed into the living room. Vernon was explaining their deal to his wife and son – both of whom looked pleased with it – with a nasty smile on his face. No doubt he was thinking up different ways to punish Harry for existing this summer.
Aunt Petunia spotted him as soon as he entered the room and wrinkled her nose as if he smelled unpleasant. Harry ignored her.
"Well Pet?" Vernon asked. "What do you think?"
Petunia hummed in thought before nodding. "I think it's for the best, Vernon," she said. "It'll be a lot cheaper without him to feed this summer as well as everyone else, and with him out of the way we can go on all sorts of outings once Marge arrives. Yes, for the best. Will you be able to drop him off in London before you collect Marge from the station?"
Vernon nodded. "Shouldn't be too much of a detour, Pet," he said. "And it's no bother to get rid of him."
"Is the freak not staying with us?" Dudley piped up, not tearing his eyes away from the television.
"Not very long, poppet," Petunia simpered. "He'll be leaving before Aunt Marge arrives."
Dudley grunted, sounding very much like the pig he resembled, and Harry sighed. He supposed it would be best to get an early night. No doubt he would have to be up at the crack of dawn to do his chores. The Dursleys would probably spend their evening thinking of all the things they could get him to do, and even making a few of the tasks up for their own sadistic pleasure. Vernon had warned that Harry would be worked hard, after all.
"Goodnight," he called as he made his way out of the room. He grabbed his trunk and Hedwig's cage from the bottom of the stairs – grateful that they hadn't been locked away this year – and started the trek up to his room. He got no reply.
Harry was indeed woken up at the crack of dawn by his aunt hammering on the door. He yawned and stretched, feeling his jaw click as he did so, and clambered out of bed to dress. He made sure to change his makeshift bandage over carefully, and peered at the wound to check for infection. It looked fine, and was healing nicely, so he bound it up again before pulling on some of Dudley's old hand-me-downs. The short sleeved T-Shirt – which looked more like a dress on Harry – showed the bandage off, but Harry doubted that his relatives would care in he was hurt.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Harry found another banana waiting for him on the bench, while his aunt stirred at a saucepan full of porridge at the stove. She shot him a nasty look over her shoulder, as if it was his fault that she hadn't woken him up in time to make breakfast for the family instead.
Next to his banana was a list of things for him to do. He read it as he chewed morosely on the fruit and grimaced. Surely the Dursleys didn't expect him to do all of this in one day?
As if she had heard his thoughts, Aunt Petunia spoke up. "Those are all the major chores that need doing," she told him. "And as long as you get all of those done before Marge arrives, you can leave. You'll get other, smaller tasks to do as well, mind you."
"Yes Aunt Petunia," Harry replied automatically. Clearing out and cleaning both the loft and the garage, washing Uncle Vernon's car, clearing the guttering, repainting the eaves, repainting the garage door and the shed, mowing the lawn, pruning the flowers, doing the weeding, building an exercise bike…
"Exercise bike?" he asked before he could stop himself.
"The school nurse at Smeltings recommended it for Dudders," Aunt Petunia said with a sniff. The distain in her voice said exactly what she thought about the school nurse. "She said he wasn't getting enough exercise. Rubbish, of course. Dudley's already going out playing football today. But she insisted, so there we are. It'll go in his room so that he can watch the television while he's working out. That's what they do in gyms these days, after all."
Harry didn't dare tell her that while Dudley would be playing football with his friends, the ball would actually be some kid from the estate, and that the exercise bike wouldn't do anything but sit and gather dust.
"You'll assemble it correctly, mind you," she continued. "It was expensive and we don't want to have to fork out more because of your stupidity."
"Yes Aunt Petunia," Harry replied. "Is there anything in particular you want me to start with?"
She nodded. "Sort and fold the laundry," she ordered. "Then once Vernon's out at work you can start on the garage. You can do the bike once Dudley goes out with his friends. I don't want you to get in his way this summer, and none of your funny business."
"Yes Aunt Petunia."
He left his aunt alone, then, and went in to the utility room to sort the clean laundry out.
Harry woke up that morning with a splitting headache. He groaned softly and raised a hand to rub at his forehead. He didn't dare open his eyes for a few moments; the headache was focussed right behind them and he knew for a fact that the sunlight filtering through his window would hurt them. Even his eyelids hurt.
Aunt Petunia, however, was not sympathetic in the slightest and set him to painting the garage door as soon as he surfaced. The monotonous movements helped slightly, but the glare of the sun on the wet paint was agony to look at. Unfortunately, there was no way he could get away with trying to do the painting with his eyes closed. If there were any faults in the new paintjob at all then he knew he would be forced to redo the whole thing, and that was the last thing he wanted.
Fortunately, he finished by lunchtime and – after putting away the extra paint and cleaning and putting away the brushes – could retreat into the cool shade of the house. Aunt Petunia scowled at him when he entered, but jerked her head towards a small plate of browning salad with a few wrinkled baby tomatoes that she'd set aside for him. Dudley, who was sitting at the kitchen table with his eyes fixed on the kitchen television, was picking at a huge salad complete with some kind of dressing and pieces of grilled chicken.
Harry's mouth watered at the sight of the meat, but he turned away. He didn't want the Dursleys to think that he was being 'ungrateful' by looking hungrily at Dudley's plate instead of his own. That would just earn him more chores to do.
"Thanks Aunt Petunia," he said as he picked up his plate.
She nodded stiffly and said nothing.
When he was done, Harry managed to escape up to the bathroom. He had come to the conclusion, about half way through the second coat of paint, that something was wrong with his eyes. They had been hurting all morning, his eyelids had been hurting, and his vision – except for the floating colours, which had remained the same – had gone blurry. He had decided to check them out in the bathroom mirror as soon as he could get the chance.
He was slightly disappointed at first. His reflection hadn't changed at all apart from the red flush he had developed on his cheeks from being out in the hot sun all morning. He removed his glasses and placed them on the edge of the sink, before gently pulling his eyelids wider apart with his fingers.
His eye looked slightly bloodshot, but other than that, he couldn't see anything wrong with it. He sighed and lowered his hands, blinking to stop his eye from drying out. That's when he spotted it.
Harry froze, then leaned back towards the mirror again and blinked slowly. There! He hadn't imagined it after all. There was a milky white film that moved up and down, covering his eyes as he blinked.
He pulled his eyelids back with his fingertips again and blinked. First, a clear film moved up and outwards over the surface of his eye from the inner corner, closely followed by the milky film, which acted like a second set of eyelids.
Harry jerked back from the mirror in surprised, but the films stayed in place. He could see through them, he noticed, but they obscured the colour of his eyes.
"What the hell?" he whispered.
The blinked again and they were gone. He assumed they had returned to their hiding places behind his normal eyelids.
He was jolted out of his thoughts by someone pounding on the door. "Hurry up boy!" his Aunt Petunia called through the door. "You've still got to repaint the front door and polish the brass fittings."
Harry sighed, he was not looking forward to going back outside and spending his afternoon polishing the letter box and repainting the front door so that it matched the garage door. "Coming Aunt Petunia," he called back.
He turned away from the mirror and stared. He could see perfectly. Everything was clear instead of blurry. But that wasn't all. By the door, Harry could see the floating colours in the vague shape of his aunt's body. He couldn't see his aunt, but he could see the colours that were usually superimposed over her, even though they were faint.
He shuddered. It was creepy.
When he left the bathroom, he tucked his glasses into his pocket. He didn't need them any more.
Harry woke up with the same headache he'd had the day before, and wished that he hadn't woken up at all. He couldn't help but wonder what this one would bring. Yet more eyelids?
But he couldn't sleep in. He had another day's worth of chores to do, and since it was a Saturday, one of those would be the washing of Uncle Vernon's car. Harry groaned. The very thought of the bright sun shining off water and the shiny paint of his uncle's car made his aching eyes hurt even more. The reality, he knew, would be worse.
And even worse, Uncle Vernon wouldn't let Harry near his precious car without supervision, which meant that Harry would be stuck with his uncle peering over his shoulder and making snide comments about his work all afternoon.
He thought back to Hermione's words at breakfast before they'd got on the Hogwarts Express and snorted. He'd like to see her cope with living with the Dursleys for a summer.
Carefully, he closed his second and third eyelids, leaving his normal ones open. Hopefully, the milky white film would help protect his suddenly sensitive eyes from the glare of the sun.
It became obvious that day that Aunt Petunia had told Uncle Vernon about the extended bathroom break he'd taken the day before. He wasn't allowed a moment to himself, and he got even less food than the day before. Vernon Dursley spent his time tailing Harry round the house making disparaging comments, just to make sure that Harry didn't 'slack off' again. So by the time Harry was allowed to retreat to his bedroom, he was exhausted and sweaty. Fortunately, he wasn't very hungry as his uncle had decided that Harry's punishment for 'slacking off' yesterday would be to send him to bed without any dinner.
Harry remembered, barely, to check his eyes again before he crawled into bed. His headache had faded throughout the day, so by the time Uncle Vernon had decided that it was time Harry got out of their way, he wasn't in pain anymore.
What Harry saw when he looked into the mirror on the back of his wardrobe door, once he'd remembered to open his second and third eyelids, made him groan in exasperation. His pupils had changed shape. They had gone from being round to being slit-shaped like a cat's.
What the hell was happening to him?
Harry was ridiculously happy when he woke up to realise that he wasn't in any kind of pain. He stretched lazily and yawned, his jaw clicking as his mouth opened almost impossibly wide. He slid out of bed and padded across the room to his wardrobe, ready to start the day.
He knew that despite the work load, he would have a fairly quiet day today. Uncle Vernon always liked taking Dudley out on Sundays to the local golf course to 'bond'. That meant that he'd be free of Vernon and Dudley's snide comments, at least.
He'd just finished pulling his T-Shirt over his head, and was about to head to his trunk to pull out another makeshift bandage for his arm when he caught sight of his reflection. He froze in horror. There, right down the middle of his head, was a bald stripe.
Harry felt his head frantically. It was definitely not his imagination. The stripe was two inches wide and ran all the way from the front of his head to his nape. With wide eyes he looked back at his pillow to see that there were locks of black hair strewn all over it.
He whimpered. Aunt Petunia was going to kill him. She'd always hated his hair, but now instead of merely looking messy, it now looked ridiculous. He thanked his lucky stars that Vernon and Dudley would be out today.
By the time he managed to get his still present hair to mostly cover the bald stripe, Vernon and Dudley had gone, and Aunt Petunia was sitting at the kitchen table sipping a cup of tea through pursed lips. Her eyes widened in horror when she saw him.
"What on earth have you done to your hair?" she shrieked, placing her teacup down with a clatter.
"I didn't do anything!" he protested. "I just…it…I woke up with it like this."
Aunt Petunia looked disbelieving, but nodded. "We can't have you going outside like that," she said after a moment. "You eat your breakfast. I'll get you something to cover that up for now."
Harry bit his lip. "Thank you Aunt Petunia," he said.
She stood and left and Harry crossed over to the bench to pick up his banana and his list of chores. Apparently he would be outside in the garden today: repainting the shed and the fences. It would take him hours, and he'd be stuck out there during the hottest parts of the day.
He found himself wondering once again if Hermione and her motto of avoiding confrontation would have been able to handle this.
Fortunately Aunt Petunia didn't take very long, and when she returned, she thrust one of Dudley's old caps in Harry's direction.
"Thank you Aunt Petunia," Harry repeated.
She sniffed and returned to her tea. "When you've finished your breakfast you can get to work," she snapped.
"Yes Aunt Petunia."
After that his day was quiet. The work was boring but physically draining and the meagre salad he was provided with didn't provide nearly enough energy. For the first time since he had entered the Chamber of Secrets, he felt hungry, but he knew that there was no way that the pitiful salads that the Dursleys had taken to feeding him would even begin to sate his hunger. He craved meat, for some reason, something that the Dursleys considered too expensive to be 'wasted' on the likes of him.
By the time Vernon and Dudley returned home Harry was starving, and his stomach was rumbling loudly. Vernon glared at him suspiciously as soon as he laid eyes on him, before heading out to the back garden to check the work Harry had done. Dudley on the other hand, scowled at Harry for a moment out of his little piggy eyes and rounded on Aunt Petunia.
"Mum!" he whinged loudly. "The freak's wearing my cap! Make him give it back!"
Aunt Petunia shot Harry a nasty look as she finished dishing up dinner. "Give Dudley his cap back," she ordered.
Harry sighed, not having had a look at his hair since that morning, and pulled the cap off. He handed it to Dudley without a word, and immediately his cousin began to inspect it. Vernon chose that moment to come back into the house.
For one moment, Vernon Dursley stood and stared at him, before his already ruddy face turned puce in anger. "What the bloody hell have you done to your hair?!" he shouted.
"I -" Harry started, but Vernon interrupted him immediately.
"Get to your room!" he shouted. "And don't think you're going to get any dinner tonight, boy. Any more of this freakish nonsense and the deal is off!"
Harry tensed, and then nodded. "Yes Uncle Vernon," he said automatically.
Once he'd got up to his room, he opened his wardrobe door to check on his hair. His jaw dropped. He didn't have a bald stripe anymore, that was for sure. Instead, there was a two inch wide stripe of vivid scarlet hair down the middle of his head. The hair was the same length as the rest of the hair on his head and just as untidy, but it was very, very red.
He swiftly shut his wardrobe door and leaned back against it. He desperately wanted to know what was going on, but he had no way of knowing. He had no books on Basilisks or the Chamber of Secrets, and he had no idea if this was normal for wizards. He absolutely refused to write to Hermione or even Dumbledore about it, though. They thought Fawkes had healed him; they couldn't find out Harry had lied.
He crossed the room and flopped onto his bed. As the clinking of cutlery and the delicious scent of grilled tuna wafted up to his room, Harry grimaced and buried his face in his pillow, resigning himself to an empty stomach and a weird life.
Harry was still starving when he woke up, and his morning banana did nothing to help. Aunt Petunia studied him closely when he went downstairs, but said nothing. She just glared disapprovingly as the red stripe in his hair.
Harry, on the other hand, quite liked the stripe. He had studied it again that morning in the mirror and he had to admit that it was growing on him. It was certainly individual.
He ended up spending the day up a ladder, clearing out the guttering and painting the eaves. He didn't even get a break for lunch as Aunt Petunia shouted up to him that she wanted it done before Dudley came home at three. Harry agreed with her as he didn't trust Dudley not to kick the ladder out from underneath him out of spite.
By the time he was finished, and had cleared away the rubbish, the paint, the brushes and the ladder he was aching and sweaty and desperate for a cold drink. His back was itching from sunburn, too, as he had been too hot to keep his T-Shirt on while he worked. Petunia wrinkled her nose at him when he entered the house and shooed him in the direction of the stairs.
"You reek," she snapped. "Go upstairs and take a shower. Then when you're done you can do your laundry."
"Yes Aunt Petunia," Harry murmured. He didn't remind her that the real reason why he smelled so bad was because she's had him doing manual labour ever since he'd come back from school, and he hadn't been allowed to shower yet.
"And make it quick!" she screeched up the stairs after him. "I want you out in ten minutes!"
"Yes Aunt Petunia!" he called back.
The shower, while short, was absolutely heavenly. It soothed his aching muscles and his itching back, though it did very little for his rumbling stomach. Dudley, he knew, would be allowed a snack when he got in, but Harry would be forced to wait until dinner time before he could eat – if he was even allowed.
Harry finished scrubbing himself down and stepped out, grabbing one of the soft, fluffy towels off the rail. He wiped down the mirror, turned his back to it and twisted his head round to check how bad his sunburn was and paled in shock. Something weird had happened again.
Running down the length of his spine, from the back of his neck to the crease of his arse were dull, bright green scales the exact same colour as the ones on the Basilisk. He reached back and touched them gently. They were hard and had tiny ridges running down the length of them, but they were as warm and natural feeling as the rest of his skin.
Harry studied himself more closely. The scales were definitely similar – possibly even the same – to the ones he had seen on the Basilisk in the Chamber, and he supposed that the stripe of scarlet through his hair was similar to the crest on a male Basilisk. His slit pupils were another snake-like feature he had developed.
"Please don't tell me I'm turning into a Basilisk," he whispered.
Uncle Vernon did a passable imitation of Aunt Petunia's evaluating stare when he arrived home. Fortunately he didn't ask to take a look at Harry's back, so he was given dinner. Admittedly, watching the Dursleys tuck into grilled pork chops – with the fat cut off, of course, much to Dudley's displeasure – and roasted vegetables while he was stuck with a few pathetic looking baby tomatoes and a single browning lettuce leaf was nothing short of torture, but Harry was careful not to let them see him glance longingly at their plates.
The first thing he would do in Diagon Alley, he decided, was get a steak or two from the Leaky Cauldron. And he would have them blue.
Harry woke up feeling slightly nervous. Of course, with the number of changes his body had been through over the past few days, it was understandable. So, as he roused himself that morning, he did a mental check of his body parts to make sure they were all in the right place.
His check shuddered to a halt when his hand landed on something sharp when he made to push himself up and out of bed. He hesitated before looking down, offering a short prayer that it wouldn't be something important.
It was a tooth. One of his teeth, to be exact, and the rest were scattered about on his bed and pillow. He shot out of bed, flung open the door to his wardrobe and opened his mouth.
He had teeth. They were long, pointed and thoroughly wicked looking. His canine teeth in particular looked deadly. He shuddered. They weren't the teeth he was used to, but they were there, which was a bonus. They had to have grown in while he had been asleep.
"Great," he muttered. "As long as I don't grin at the Dursleys, they probably won't notice."
It was a good thing Harry never, ever grinned at his relatives. He didn't even smile at them. Still, it made him feel better that he would spend the day cleaning the loft. He'd definitely be out of the way there.
It was just as well that Harry was out of sight that day as, sometime around noon, he felt a searing pain in his tongue and his throat. He dropped his feather duster in shock, immediately raising his hands to clutch at his throat as he fell to his knees. It was agony; white hot agony.
He whimpered in pain, which only made it hurt more, and clenched his eyes shut. A couple of tears leaked out to run down his face but he didn't notice. The pain was too extreme. It felt like his tongue was being torn in half!
Then, as suddenly as it had hit, the pain was gone, leaving Harry curled up on the attic floor, gasping for breath.
Once he was sure it was gone, he pushed himself up and stuck his tongue out, trying to get a look at it in the gloom. However, even the dim light from the single, bare light bulb above his head was enough to tell him that hiding his tongue from the Dursleys would be a lot harder than hiding his teeth and his back. It was very, very long, very black, and forked.
Harry pulled it back in and groaned, burying his face in his hands. He was turning into a snake.
Harry knew something was wrong the instant he woke up. The pain in his hands and feet was incredible. It felt like his fingers and toes were on fire. Dreading the sight that would meet him, he raised one of his throbbing hands to his face to inspect it. It took everything he had not to scream in shock. His fingernails were missing!
Cursing his luck and his life – missing finger and toe nails would make manual labour even harder than usual – he clambered out of bed and pulled the covers off entirely. His nails were spread out on the sheets; much like his teeth had been the day before, and he grimaced at the sight of them.
Automatically, his forked tongue flickered out past his lips. He had discovered the day before that it acted sort of like a second nose, only it was much more sensitive to pretty much everything. His tongue – like a snake's – could detect minute vibrations and changes in the air. It could tell him what species someone was just by tasting their pheromones. It had also told him last night that his salad had definitely been…off.
Harry wondered briefly if the salad had damaged it. His tongue was telling him that a snake had slept in his bed last night, rather than a human.
He ignored it. Somehow, despite the agony in his hands and feet, he managed to change the dressing on his injury, get dressed, and dispose of his nails before Aunt Petunia had to call him twice.
The note with his breakfast banana told him that he would be spending his day out in the garden.
Normally one to work in the garden with bare hands, Harry decided to wear gardening gloves that day. He didn't want to risk infection by getting soil and fertiliser into his raw nail beds. He couldn't help but wonder, though, why he hadn't grown a new set of nails overnight. It had happened with his teeth that way, after all. Surely they didn't take longer to develop than teeth.
By lunchtime, he had managed to work past the pain. He had to. There was no way Aunt Petunia was going to let him neglect her precious roses just because something 'freakish' had happened to his nails.
He had just made it down to the bottom of the garden, and was attacking the weeds there with vengeance, when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. It was the floating colours again, telling him that something small was hiding close by. When his tongue flickered out to taste the air – it had been doing that automatically ever since it had changed – it told him that there was food nearby.
Proper, edible food.
He lashed out with his hand, snatching at the red shape. There was a high pitched squeal of terror and Harry froze. Food wasn't supposed to squeal…
He looked down at his hand. Half hidden in the folds of his gardening glove was a small brown mouse. Its beady black eyes were bulging in terror, and it was squirming in his grip, trying desperately to get free. He dropped it, jerking away from the flower bed as it scurried off into the bushes.
He'd thought it was food. His tongue had told him it was food. But why? He was human, wasn't he? Humans didn't eat mice….
"Boy!" his aunt shouted from the back door. "Get on with it!"
"Yes Aunt Petunia!" he called back.
He straightened up again, reached for the trowel, and got back to work. But he couldn't stop himself from thinking about the mouse.
Harry's new nails had grown in by the time he woke up, so he spent a moment to study him. They were really, really noticeable, unfortunately. They were long and pointed, very thick and strong, and they were matt black in colour. They were more like claws than nails.
However, his hard work over the previous week had a plus side. He had finished all of the tasks the Dursleys had set him. Uncle Vernon had told him as much over dinner the previous night. He'd scowled as he'd said it, but hadn't assigned any more chores. Instead, Harry was to spend his remaining days at the Dursleys hidden in his room.
Fortunately, that made Harry's task of hiding his new…developments a great deal easier. The more time he was hidden away from the Dursleys; the less likely they would spot his…snakey bits.
Harry spent his ninth day at the Dursleys lazing around in his room, curled up in the patch of sunlight coming from his window. He only left the room to go downstairs for meals or to go to the bathroom, and fortunately each time he had to leave he managed to hide his claws and things from his aunt.
The monotony was only broken when, after a thoroughly unfulfilling dinner spent being glowered at by his uncle – who was probably straining what little brain he had by trying to think of new things for Harry to do before he left – he returned to his room to find a dead mouse on his pillow. Hedwig, who was perched on top of her cage, hooted at him softly. She looked pleased with herself.
Harry, on the other hand, wasn't so pleased. He still hadn't forgotten the incident with the mouse in the garden, and the thought of eating one made him cringe. (He had decided to ignore the fact that the idea of a fresh mouse to eat also made him feel incredibly hungry, since that was disgusting and he did not want to eat mice, despite what his body was telling him.)
But now he had to face it. There was a dead mouse on his pillow, and he had to get rid of it somehow before Aunt Petunia noticed it. He knew he could just fling it out of the window, but that would hurt Hedwig's feelings, and she was only trying to help. If he tossed it in the bin then it would begin to rot and smell and Aunt Petunia would definitely find it then.
So he was left with eating it. His mouth watered at the thought. A mouse. A freshly dead mouse.
He snatched it up off the pillow and paused. How was he supposed to eat it? He didn't want to bite into it; that would get guts and blood everywhere. He glanced at Hedwig for inspiration, but then remembered that owls tore their prey apart with their beaks and talons, and that was very messy.
Then he remembered. Snakes ate their food whole! That made him hesitate even more, though. What if he choked on it? That would be…unpleasant to say the least.
But he was so hungry…
Closing his eyes, he tilted his head back and opened his mouth. Slowly, he lowered the mouse down past his teeth and into his mouth.
He had never been happier that he had instincts than in that moment because they immediately took over. One moment he was dangling a dead mouse into his mouth; the next, the mouse was halfway down his throat. It was still whole, but somehow he was managing to swallow it. And oh, it was wonderful.
He closed his mouth and leaned forward again. He grinned over at Hedwig ad held his arm out to her. She fluttered over to him and began to groom his hair.
"Thanks, girl," he murmured.
She gave a soft hoot and nibbled his ear tenderly. He was very welcome.
For the first time in days, Harry woke up not feeling ravenous. For such a small mouse, it had done wonders to his appetite. Feeling lethargic, he crawled out of bed and onto the floor so that he could curl up in his little patch of sunlight. He had almost drifted back off before there was a loud knock at his bedroom door.
"Up!" It was his Aunt Petunia. Wondering what on earth she could want, Harry scrambled to his feet. "Up! Now!"
He pulled the door open and blinked at her. "Do you need anything, Aunt Petunia?" he asked.
She wrinkled her nose at him and gave a disapproving sniff. Harry wondered for one insane moment if his breath smelled of mouse.
"I need your help preparing the guest room for Marge," Aunt Petunia said. "She's coming tomorrow and we want everything perfect. You've got five minutes to get dressed." And with that, she turned and walked back downstairs.
Harry looked down dazedly, to see that he was only wearing a pair of Dudley's old pyjama bottoms – which were cinched tightly round his waist with a drawstring – his bandage, and nothing else. The look of disgust had been about his attire, not his breath.
He relaxed as he hurried to get dressed.
Throughout the day, as he helped Aunt Petunia move furniture, dust and hover the guest room to within an inch of its existence, he noticed that her eyes kept flicking to his bandaged arm and to his claws. She said nothing, though, so he took his cue from her and didn't bother trying to explain.
After dinner – which had been punctuated with talk about Marge's visit and pleas for ice cream from Dudley – Harry slipped back up to his room to check that all his things were ready for an early departure the next day. His trunk was packed, another T-Shirt had been shredded for bandages, and Hedwig was sitting in her cage with her head under her wing.
The only thing out of place was another dead mouse on his pillow. Harry grinned as he snatched it up, and made a mental note to buy Hedwig some more owl treats. She definitely deserved them.
Chapter 4: The Leaky Cauldron
The car journey to the Leaky Cauldron was awkward in the extreme. Harry sat in the passenger seat, his hands tucked under his thighs, listening to his Uncle Vernon complain about anything and everything. Not least about the change to Harry's hair, and the fact that he had to make a detour to Charing Cross just to get rid of Harry. He accused Harry of slacking off and eating too much food – taking advantage of his charity – and generally being a waste of space. And, of course, Harry could say nothing unless he wanted to be abandoned on the side of the road.
He was quite proud of the way he'd managed to hold his tongue during his stay with his relatives. It hadn't done anything to improve the Dursleys' treatment of him, but it had helped give him a relatively quiet life, although that could also be partly due to the bargain he'd struck with his uncle.
It took two and a half hours, but finally Vernon Dursley pulled over at the side of the road, two doors down from the Leaky Cauldron. He turned and looked at Harry, a nasty smile on his face.
"I don't see a pub round here, boy," he sneered.
"You wouldn't," Harry replied. "It's invisible to, er, normal people."
Vernon snorted. "Invisible pubs," he muttered derisively. "Well get out of the car, boy," he said more loudly, "and take that ruddy owl with you. And remember, I don't want to hear from you until your lot ship you back to us next summer."
"Of course Uncle Vernon," Harry said monotonously. "Thank you Uncle Vernon."
He scrambled out of the car, grabbed Hedwig's cage from the back seat and pulled his trunk out of the boot. He had barely closed the boot door when his uncle hit the accelerator and drove off as quickly as the traffic would allow, leaving Harry standing at the side of the road.
Ignoring the strange looks he was getting, Harry dragged his trunk over to the Leaky Cauldron, carefully trying not to jostle Hedwig too much. She had somehow managed to sleep through Vernon's ranting, and he didn't want to wake her up. Before he entered the pub, he tried desperately to flatten his hair over his scar. He knew he looked slightly different from the last time he had been to the pub and Diagon alley, but his scar was still very recognisable.
He made a mental note to find something that would cover it, whether it was some kind of charm or Muggle makeup. It was far too noticeable.
When he was done with his impromptu grooming he squared his shoulders and walked in. Immediately his senses were assaulted. The pub was busy, filled with noisy punters who all had the strange floating colours superimposed over them. He could smell normal food – proper food without a shred of lettuce in sight – pipe smoke and alcohol. When his tongue flickered out, he was able to identify humans among the clientele, along with something that tasted like it should be big and furry, and something that made him think of forests.
He wrestled his way through the crowds, making sure to keep his head down and two sets of his eyelids closed. When he reached the bar, he relaxed against it, only to be startled by Tom when he appeared in front of him. "What can I getcha?" Tom asked, nodding to another customer somewhere to Harry's left.
"Do you have any rooms free?" Harry asked loudly, having to raise his voice to be heard over the din.
"'Course I do," Tom told him. "Just for you and your owl, is it? How long?"
"Um…a couple of weeks," Harry replied. He could always extend his stay if he needed to. Either that or find somewhere else to go. The Leaky Cauldron was a bit too busy for his liking.
"What's the name?"
The last thing Harry wanted to do was give his real name, so he improvised. "Vernon Evans," he said.
Tom nodded and vanished into the back. He returned with a key, the fob engraved with the number five. "'Ere you go," he said. "Up the stairs, turn right and it's the second door on your left. Tell me when you want to leave and I'll give you the tab then, right?"
"Thanks," Harry called to him. Taking the key, he grabbed a hold of his things once more and headed for the stairs.
Once he was away from the main crowd, he relaxed. The noise was muted by a silencing charm, thankfully, and there wasn't a suffocating press of people on all sides on the stairs. His tongue flickered out to taste the air again, and he wrinkled his nose. Something tasted…wrong about the stairwell. He couldn't put his finger on it, but there was definitely something off about the place.
The taste of something off persisted as he slowly climbed the stairs. He could feel his eyes tingling, and his teeth were elongating in his mouth. But the strange colours were telling him that no one was there. His tongue flickered out again. He stopped dead. All his snake-like instincts were telling him to bite and run. There was something wrong, and he couldn't see what it was.
He couldn't get to his wand. It was tucked safely in his trunk where he'd put it to hide it from the Dursleys. He hadn't thought to take it out again before he re-entered the Wizarding world, though he wished now that he had.
He took another step, and had just placed his foot on the next stair up when something grabbed his shoulder. Harry dropped his trunk in surprise and wheeled round to see floating colours in the shape of a man standing right behind him, even though his normal vision didn't pick up anything. Harry blinked. Whoever it was had been the one creating that wrong taste – a brief flicker of his tongue told him that much – but whoever it was wasn't doing anything.
He raised his hand and placed it on the man's chest. He pushed gently, just enough to dislodge his shoulder from the man's grip, but ended up staggering back and falling on his arse on the stairs when the man keeled over with a loud thud and slid back down towards the bar. The man's invisibility cloak fell upwards, revealing a pair of feet and ankles clad in what looked like dragon hide boots.
Harry panicked. He looked around wildly, trying to see if there were any more patches of floating colours that were unattached to bodies. There weren't, but that didn't calm him down in the slightest. Why had this man grabbed him? Why had he snuck up behind Harry under an invisibility cloak?
Someone was trying to kill him. That much was obvious. But why? Was it something to do with Voldemort?
Either way, Harry knew he couldn't stay here. He had to get out of the Leaky Cauldron and into the Alley. He had to get to Gringotts to get more money out and find somewhere else to stay along with a disguise, and he absolutely had to make sure that he wasn't followed.
But first, he had a dead body to hide.
He reached down and covered the man completely with the invisibility cloak again before dragging him up the stairs and into his room. Then he dashed back and grabbed his trunk and Hedwig's cage.
He locked the door behind him and slumped against the wall. He couldn't believe this was happening. He closed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath – or at least he tried to. The breath caught in his throat when he realised that all of his eyelids had been wide open. When had that happened?
He dashed to the bedroom mirror and peered into it. If what he thought might have happened actually had then he really was in trouble.
He stared into the eyes of his reflection and a pair of bright yellow eyes – only slightly dulled by the milky film of his second eyelids – stared back.
"Shit!" he hissed, turning away. He was doomed. Really, truly doomed. It wasn't enough that he had the crest and the tongue and the scales of a Basilisk; he had to have the eyes too!
And he still had a dead body to hide.
The floating colours over the body were beginning to fade to shades of yellow already. He grimaced and approached them. Slowly, he pulled the invisibility cloak back, revealing the face of a man in his early thirties. His expression was twisted into a mask of surprise, and his glassy brown eyes were wide. Harry drew back the rest of the cloak and placed it in a heap on the floor next to him.
The man was wearing dark blue robes with his black, dragon hide boots, and there was a strange crest on the left side of his chest. It looked like a silver archway with a black curtain, with an hourglass, and a pair of crossed wands over it. There was also a wand clutched in his hand. Harry worked it free from his grasp. He knew that there were tracking charms on his own wand, but this man was an adult wizard so the tracking charms on his would have been removed. And since Harry was in a magical area rather than a Muggle one, he should be able to get away with a tiny bit of magic using someone else's wand.
The first thing he did was wake Hedwig up. "Sorry girl, but I'm going to have to lie low for a while," he whispered to her. She looked up at him with big golden eyes and gave a soft hoot. He smiled nervously at her. "Come and find me on September the second, okay girl? Stay safe for me."
She bobbed her head in understanding and took off, soaring across the room and out of the open window. Harry released a shaky sigh of relief. Hedwig would be okay at least. Unlike the dead wizard he was kneeling right next to.
"Why did you attack me?" Harry whispered to him. "Why? I haven't hurt anyone…well, except Voldemort, but…I don't even know you. Why did you try to kill me?"
There was no answer. Wielding the unfamiliar wand, Harry cleaned and shrunk down Hedwig's cage before placing it in his trunk. He locked that up again and cast the shrinking and feather-light charms on it before slipping it in his pocket. He waited a moment, but no owl from the Ministry swooped through his window.
That made things a lot easier.
Using his claws, he ripped the crest off the man's robes and stuffed that in his pocket along with his trunk. Then he levitated the man's body into the wardrobe and locked the door.
"Well that wasn't very nice, dearie," said a voice from behind him. "What if he needs to use the bathroom?"
Harry whipped round and cast a bludgeoning spell, only for it to slam into the mirror he had checked his eyes in earlier, shattering it into tiny pieces. He stared at it with wide eyes for a moment before tucking the wand away up his sleeve. He was being paranoid.
'But then again,' he thought, giving the wardrobe a rueful look. 'It's not really paranoia when they really are out to kill you.'
He bent down and picked up the dead wizard's invisibility cloak, wrapping it around his body and putting the hood up over his head. Then, after a quick glance around the room once more, he slipped back out into the hallway. He locked the door carefully and, when he turned to leave, spotted the maid's trolley by the door to the next room. Moving as quickly and quietly as possible, he slipped the key into her rubbish sack and slipped down the stairs.
Thankfully, the bar was still crowded, so people were already being so jostled that they didn't notice him as he passed. He slipped out the back alongside an elderly witch – who was grumbling about the crush; something about Quidditch on the wireless, not that Harry had heard any Quidditch commentary – and followed her when she opened the gate into Diagon Alley.
He didn't look back as he hurried down the Alley towards Gringotts. He just had to get away.
Chapter 5: The Woodrifts
Harry was very, very lucky that the goblins weren't all that keen on wizards. He'd sensed several invisible people scattered through Diagon Alley, all giving off that 'wrong' taste. He was grateful that none of them seemed to have his powerful new senses. If they had done, getting into the bank would have been a lot harder.
As it was, all he had to do was run as quickly and quietly as he could under his invisibility cloak, and not bump in to anyone.
The goblins were a different matter entirely. They were hardly going to serve someone who was invisible, so when he got into the bank, Harry removed the stolen invisibility cloak before approaching a free cashier's desk.
"Excuse me?" he said. "I need to make a withdrawal."
The goblin behind the desk peered at him closely. "Do you have your key?"
Harry did. He'd taken it out of is trunk while still at the Dursleys'. He'd known that he'd have to visit the bank and had taken it out. He pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over to the goblin, who lifted it up to the light and inspected it closely.
"Very well," the goblin said eventually. "Rentrock will take you down to your vault. Number 511, Rentrock."
Another goblin stepped forward and led Harry to the carts. Clambering in one, Harry clutched his stolen invisibility cloak close, and hunkered down in his seat. The goblin gave him an odd look, but said nothing.
Harry found himself taking far less joy in the journey than he had two years ago. He hadn't been hiding from unseen assassins back then, and he hadn't felt nearly as lost and confused as he did. As the cart plummeted deeper underground, his mood did too. He was a murderer now. A murderer and a monster. When the body was found, it wouldn't take much for someone to make a connection between it and him, and then what would he do? People would come looking for him – wizard policemen, maybe? Would he be arrested? Did wizards even have prisons? Or would he just be slain like the Basilisk?
He bit his lip and blinked furiously. He wouldn't cry. Not now, anyway. Not when he was still at risk. But still, the thought of never seeing Ron and Hermione, or Hogwarts ever again made his throat tighten with grief.
The cart rattled to a halt. "Your vault, sir," the goblin said. He climbed out, opened the door and then stood back while Harry entered. Immediately, Harry grabbed two money bags from a hook by the door and stuffed them full of gold and silver coins. He'd leave the Knuts; he needed as much money as he could carry. But even though he was taking as much as he could carry, he didn't seem to be making a dent in the pile of gold in his vault. Once they were full, he hung them carefully from his belt and got back in the cart while the goblin relocked his vault.
The journey back to the surface was far too quick, but Harry was sure to pull the invisibility cloak back on before he re-entered the main hall. It was just as well that he did, because standing by the cashier's desk was a man in the same robes as the man he had killed.
Harry's breath caught in his throat, and he pulled the stolen wand out from up his sleeve. There was a soft chuckle from behind him.
"Don't worry sir," the goblin murmured. "We won't tell them you were here. Gringotts works on a strict confidentiality policy, especially when it concerns our more wealthy customers, Mr Potter."
Harry swallowed. There was no point in asking how the goblin had known his name. "Thank you Rentrock," he whispered back.
With that, Harry left Rentrock standing by the carts. He crept along the length of the hall, carefully avoiding the man in blue robes and his invisible companions. Whoever these people were, they were serious about finding him.
He slipped out of the doors and back into Diagon Alley. What he saw sent shivers down his spine. Men and women in blue and purple robes were crawling all over the Alley and among them were what looked like hundreds of people in invisibility cloaks. They were stopping regular witches as wizards in their tracks, asking them questions and waving their wands around them. Harry knew in an instant that they were looking for him.
Panic rose up in him once more. How on earth would he get out of this one?
All of a sudden, he felt a hand grip his elbow. "I don't know what you did to piss them off, my boy, but I think it would be best to avoid them for now," a deep voice murmured in his ear.
"W-who are you?" Harry whispered back. He'd clenched his eyes shut as soon as he'd felt the hand on his elbow. He didn't want to kill another person.
"A friend," the voice replied. "I'll explain more later but I think it would be best if you just trusted me for now."
Harry felt torn. On one hand, he didn't know if he could trust this man. He could be one of the men in blue or purple robes, who was trying to lead him into a trap. And even if he wasn't, Harry didn't want to get an innocent man in trouble on his behalf. On the other hand, he desperately needed help. He needed to get past the people looking for him and find somewhere where he could lie low until term started.
But he didn't get a choice in the matter. The man's grip on his elbow tightened, and he felt himself being guided forward. His eyes snapped open, though he was careful to leave his second and third eyelids closed. He had seen what happened when he looked directly at someone…
The man said nothing. He just pulled Harry down a back alley that started at the base of Gringotts' steps. There weren't very many people around, but those who were nodded in greeting as they passed.
Eventually, after they'd turned down another alley, the man let go of Harry's arm. "You can take that cloak off now, boy," he said. "Perhaps it's time that I told you where we're going."
Harry did as he said, bundling the cloak up under his arm. "How could you see through the cloak?" he asked, keeping his eyes fixed on the hems of the man's green robes.
The man chuckled. "It's a talent," he said. "Not many wizards can do it, and usually those who do abuse the privilege. Now, how about you look at me rather than the floor, hmm?"
"I can't," Harry protested. "I'll hurt you."
The man snorted. Then he reached out and placed a hand on Harry's chin, tilting his face up. "Very pretty," he commented mildly. "You don't see that shade of green very often."
Harry felt relief flood through him. His eyes were green again. He wouldn't kill anyone with just a look again. He gave the man a shaky smile.
He was an elderly man – though no where near as old as Dumbledore – with steel grey hair falling just past his shoulders and a neatly trimmed beard. His eyes were grey as well, and they shone with good humour. His face, though serious at the moment, was wrinkled by deep laughter lines. He looked kind, and Harry got the impression that the man really did mean him no harm.
"My name is Tiberius Woodrift," the man said. "My wife and I run a…hostel of sorts, for people such as yourself just off Knockturn Alley. You're welcome to stay with us if you wish. You'll be safe there."
"People like me?" Harry asked curiously. There were others like him out there?
"Near-human beings," Tiberius clarified. "You know: Vampires, Werewolves, Sidhe and the like."
"Er -" Harry started, but he was cut off. Tiberius had started walking again, and Harry moved to catch up to him.
"Not that I know what you are, exactly," Tiberius continued. "But what I heard the Aurors going on about told me that you're definitely not human."
"Aurors?" Harry asked, deciding not to argue the point. He knew that he wasn't really human anymore; it just felt odd when someone else pointed it out.
"Wizard policemen," Tiberius told him. "They're the ones in the purple robes. What did you do to get them on your back, anyway?"
"I don't know," Harry replied.
It was only half a lie. He supposed that the Aurors had come because the body had been found, but the men in blue robes had been looking for him before that.
Tiberius hummed in thought, but said nothing more. He just continued to lead Harry through a series of back streets and winding alleyways. Harry had had no idea that the area around Diagon Alley was such a labyrinth. He knew that they were still in a magical area, since every so often they would come across a small shop selling potions ingredients or fortunes or robes, but most of the buildings seemed to be houses.
Harry pointed this out to Tiberius, who nodded. "Not many wizards and witches live in the city," he said, "but those that do tend to live around here. Oh, you'll get some of the bigger townhouses round Kensington way that belong to the old pureblood families, but your average witch or wizard will tend to end up around here if they want to live in the city. And most of them, by the way, tend to be Muggleborns. Most youngsters with magical parents will end up staying with their parents until it's time for them to get married or they've saved up enough for a proper place of their own.
"It costs money to live in the countryside, my boy, and the bigger houses tend to be beyond anything but the most obnoxious of budgets. Of course, once they've earned enough, most people move out to the country. They say it's a better place to raise a family, but really, most of them just don't like the area and its reputation."
"What reputation's that?" Harry asked.
"This place is considered something of a slum, I'm afraid. And since it's so close to Knockturn Alley and the rest of the 'Dark' district, you can get a few shady characters. But, for the most part, that reputation is over exaggerated. Yes, you can get a few Dark wizards, but who cares? They keep to themselves for the most part, and half the time they're madder than a box of ferrets.
"One of the other 'problems' is the amount of non-human beings who live around here. They aren't accepted by the rest of society, so when the young Muggleborns or runaway purebloods find out that they're living next door to a werewolf, they tend to get a bit shirty."
"How did you end up running a hostel?" Harry asked curiously.
"It was the wife's idea, to be honest," Tiberius said. "Aurora's always had a heart of gold. When we first moved here to open up the shop – yes, we own a shop too – she saw the number of beings who were just passing through, or who'd got themselves in trouble and had landed up on the streets because no one else would take them. So, she started to let out rooms in the house to them. We've been doing it ever since.
"Sometimes, of course, there're special cases: beings who don't have much in the way of money, but who have a special skill. Like carpentry, for example, or cooking or even story telling. In those cases we've agreed to let them stay in exchange for a bit of work done. In the long run it's a fair exchange. We get a new piece of furniture – or an old piece properly repaired – a well cooked meal or an evening's entertainment, and they get a warm place to sleep and a hot bath."
Harry smiled at that. It sounded like Tiberius and his wife really were good people, and he supposed that staying in their hostel would be an adventure in its own right.
"It sounds wonderful," he said softly.
"Oh, it is," Tiberius said, smiling down at him. "You meet some right characters, and you end up with hundreds of stories to tell. At the moment, for example, we've got a pair of eloping Vampire nobles, a Drow who's writing a series of short stories about humans and their adventures, and now you…whatever you might be."
"Some kind of snake-thing," Harry told him.
"A snake-thing," Tiberius repeated.
"It came on quite suddenly," Harry said.
Tiberius gave a bark of laughter and patted Harry on the shoulder. "Well whatever you are, you've got people in quite a tizzy. Any skills? Or will you be paying in coin?"
"Um…I can cook and clean," Harry admitted. "And I've got a couple of stories to tell. They aren't much, though, and I'm not too brilliant at telling them."
"It'll do," Tiberius told him. "No matter how strange and insignificant a story is, someone will have a use for it. And besides, Aurora could always do with a hand in the kitchen. What do you eat?"
Harry blushed. He couldn't really admit to eating mice, could he? But then, Tiberius was used to housing Werewolves and Vampires and they were definitely carnivorous. "Normal food, really," he said. "Mostly meat, though, and I'm quite partial to mice."
Tiberius blinked. "That makes sense," he said. "You being a snake-thing, and all."
Harry grinned. He supposed it did. "Are you sure you don't want money?" he asked.
Tiberius simply shrugged. "I'll take whatever you give me," he said. "Don't think we can't support another mouth to feed. My family's old enough and obnoxiously rich enough to give free room and board to beings for centuries, so don't you worry your stripy little head about it. Here we are!"
'Here' was an archway leading off the alley they'd been walking down. It led into a courtyard decorated with pots of flowers and herbs, which was surrounded on all sides by towering buildings. At the other end of the courtyard from the arch was a set of stairs leading up to a door set into the building on the right.
"The other side of that building," Tiberius said, pointing to the one directly in front of them. "Is on Knockturn Alley. I had to bring you down this way because of the Aurors patrolling the main streets. It would have been quicker to take you down Knockturn and into the hostel through the shop, but you would have been caught and I seriously doubt you want that."
"What do you sell?" Harry asked. "In the shop, I mean."
"Books, my boy," Tiberius said. "We sell books. Some of them are fairly everyday, but others are rare. Some of them…well; I have no idea what they say. I can't read them, you see. But there'll be someone out there who can, no doubt, and if they come calling then at least we'll have something to sell them. Do you read much?"
Harry frowned at that. He liked reading, but he was no Hermione, and over the past two years he'd become used to her doing the reading for both him and Ron. He'd always enjoyed reading when he was in Primary School, so why hadn't he bothered to pick up a few extra books on the Wizarding world to read them for himself instead of listen to Hermione's condensed, opinionated versions?
"Not really," he admitted. "I like to read; I always have done. But for some reason, ever since I found out about the Wizarding world I've stopped."
Tiberius tutted at him. "We can't have that," he said as he unlocked the door. "You're more than welcome to read any book you find here. Maybe we'll get you back into the habit. Now, what do you mean 'when you found out about the Wizarding world'? You can't be Muggle-born if you're a snake-thing, and magical beings always let their children know about the Wizarding world. Mostly as a warning, mind you, but they do it."
"I'm Muggle-raised," Harry said. "My mother was Muggleborn, and after my parents died I got left with my Muggle relatives. They hate magic."
"They must have been overjoyed when they got you, then," Tiberius commented sarcastically.
"You have no idea," Harry muttered.
The small entrance way he'd been led into was simply decorated. The walls were cream and the floor was made of rough hardwood boards. There was an umbrella stand made out of carved wood and a matching table near the door on the opposite wall. On top of the table was yet another pot filled with flowers.
"Shoes off please," Tiberius said. "This way."
The door led into a huge kitchen, filled with similar sorts of things as Mrs Weasley's, although there was far less clutter. Beyond the kitchen there was a dining room, tastefully decorated in shades of green with a beautiful, long wooden table that looked like a tree trunk that had been cut lengthways, polished and put on legs. There were matching benches down either side.
The next room they came to was occupied. The room itself was rather like the Gryffindor common room: filled with soft, comfy looking chairs arranged around coffee tables and a stocked wood fire, though it was decorated in shades of gold, with a deep cream carpet that Harry's sock-clad feet sank into when he entered.
Sitting in one of the armchairs was a woman who looked like she was a couple of years younger than Tiberius. Her grey hair was still streaked with traces of reddish blonde, and she was frowning, although she too had a great deal of deep laughter lines lining her face.
She looked up when they entered, and her hazel eyes widened at the sight of them. "Tiberius!" she said. "Oh thank heavens you're alright. Where have you been? Who's this? Aurors have been patrolling the Alleys scanning passers by. Didn't you think how worried I'd be when you decided to dillydally on your way back?"
While she spoke, she'd stood up and walked towards them. Instead of going to Tiberius, though, she began to circle Harry with a strange look in her eye.
"And goodness, if you don't pick up some strays," she continued. "Look at him. Thin as a rake and dressed in rags. He's in need of a good feeding and a decent tailor."
"This is my wife, Aurora," Tiberius said, directing his words at Harry. "Aurora, this boy's the reason why the DMLE are out in force."
Aurora Woodrift blinked. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"Well, I assume so," Tiberius said with a shrug. "I found him standing outside Gringotts under an invisibility cloak having a panic attack. I'd heard a couple of Aurors talking about looking for a boy with a red stripe through his hair – apparently some type of dangerous magical creature – so when I spotted him, I brought him here."
Aurora stared at him incredulously, before closing her eyes and shaking her head. "Only you, Tiberius, would make a connection between 'dangerous magical creature that Aurors are looking for' and 'someone I have to bring home to meet the wife'," she said. She looked Harry up and down, and then waved him towards a seat. "Come on then," she said. "You're welcome to stay for however long you like, but I think we'd better hear this one from the beginning."
"Which beginning?" Harry asked. "The 'being hunted down by Aurors' one or the 'dangerous magical creature' one?"
"The first, if you don't mind," she said. She waved her wand and a pot of steaming hot tea appeared on the coffee table along with a bowl of sugar, a jug of milk, and three tea cups.
To their credit, they didn't say anything until he'd finished recounting the day's events, and by then both of them were looking very serious.
"Um, I can still stay, can't I?" Harry asked. "I mean, I don't really have anywhere else to go…"
"Of course you can, dear," Aurora said. "We'll sort something out so that no one associates Harry Potter with this dangerous creature they're all looking for."
"Thank you," Harry said, feeling relieved. "Do you know why they were after me? The men in blue robes, I mean."
"Let me see the crest you pulled off the dead one," Tiberius said.
Harry shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled it out. It was slightly crumpled, but that didn't matter. It was still very recognisable, and Tiberius' breath hitched when he saw it. "This is the crest of the Department of Mysteries," he breathed. "They're like the wizard version of the Secret Service. They don't usually go around in uniform, which is why I thought they were a different branch of the DMLE called in to support the Aurors."
He looked over at Harry very seriously. "It looks like you're in some serious trouble my boy," he said. "If the Department of Mysteries is after you. Do you know if you're rare? Or endangered?"
"I don't know," Harry admitted. "I…I don't know what's happening to me."
Aurora reached out and placed a kind hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "It'll be alright, dear. We'll make sure of that. Now, you look like you're in need of a good lunch. Come on, to the kitchen with you."
"Told you so," Tiberius murmured in Harry's ear as they followed her out of the room. "Welcome to Last Hope Hostel, my boy.
Chapter 6: Last Hope Hostel
After a filling lunch of homemade tomato soup and ham sandwiches, Aurora led him upstairs to the guest quarters. As Harry followed her up to the third floor, he couldn't help but wonder why she and her husband were so set on helping him. Did they want something from him? It wasn't as if they had known he was Harry Potter – the famed Boy Who Lived – until he had told them; their surprise had been genuine. But if they didn't want something from him, why were they helping him? He was putting them in danger with his very presence. He could kill people with his eyes – had already done so, in fact – and he was being hunted down by wizards from the Ministry.
He was a murderer, a monster and a wanted man, but they didn't seem to care.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked out loud.
Aurora turned to look at him. She was frowning slightly. "Whatever do you mean by that?" she asked.
"I'm a, well I…"
"Yes?" she asked. Then realisation dawned in her eyes and she nodded. "Ah. You're wondering why we're helping you even though you've got the DMLE on your heels."
Harry nodded. She sighed and shrugged. "Well, from what you've said, it's not really your fault," she told him.
"But I killed someone!" he protested.
She gave him an odd look. "So have most of the guests we've had here," she replied. "All of the current ones, at least."
"But…doesn't that make me a murderer?" Harry asked her. "I deserve to get caught. I killed someone. That makes me a monster, doesn't it?"
He blinked in shock when she smacked him on the back of the head. Her kind face was set in serious lines. "You get those thoughts out of your head at once," she hissed. Then, all of a sudden, her expression softened and she pulled him into a hug. Harry stiffened at the contact, but relaxed into her warm embrace. "If you have to ask if you're a monster, Harry, then you aren't," she murmured into his hair. "Yes, you killed someone, but it was in self defence. You regret it, even though it only happened because you wanted to protect yourself, and that's more regret than most humans show."
He looked up at her. "What do you mean?" he asked.
She smiled down at him kindly. "You aren't human, Harry," she told him. "What you are, I have no idea, but you aren't human so human rules don't apply to you. That's one thing that the Wizarding world forgets too often.
"Like I said, most of the people who stay here have taken lives before. Vampires kill for food; Werewolves by accident…and all of them kill out of self defence because wizards think that that makes them evil. You know, Voldemort killed more people single-handedly than every Werewolf I've ever met combined? And yet Werewolves are persecuted more than any Dark Lord and his followers, just because they aren't seen as human. Death Eaters, for the most part, got trials; Werewolves never do. They're just killed indiscriminately if they bite or kill anyone, even if it's by accident or if the human is at fault."
"Death Eaters?" Harry asked curiously.
Aurora snorted. "What are they teaching at Hogwarts these days?" she asked. "Death Eaters were Voldemort's followers in the last war. Despite harsher laws and lax rules for Aurors, most of them were never caught, and some of them slipped through the net by saying they were being controlled by the Imperius Curse. Oh, a few were caught and sent to Azkaban, but most of them are still out there."
Harry shuddered. That was not good news. Voldemort himself was out there somewhere, trying to come back, and if he had followers out there too, his job would be made much easier.
Aurora ruffled his hair gently. "Don't think on it, Harry," she said. "You'll be all right. We'll make sure of that."
"Thank you," he whispered.
Her smile widened. "You know," she said. "The reason why we called this place Last Hope Hostel is because it's often the last hope people like you have. Whether they need food and shelter, or just a place to hide. We'll help you for as long as you need us to because you're a good person, Harry, whether you can see it or not."
He bit his lip and nodded. For the second time that day, he felt like crying. It was harder to suppress it this time, with Aurora's warm arms wrapped around him, but he managed.
She ruffled his hair again and disentangled herself. "Come on then," she said. "Your room's just along here."
The room was large and spacious – surprisingly so – and a lot bigger than the room that he had been given in the Leaky Cauldron earlier in the day. It had a thick, dark green carpet edged with silver skirting boards. The walls were painted in such a pale green that it looked almost creamy, while the coving was a vivid emerald colour. The furniture was all done in beech wood, and the bed was covered in matching silver and green bedding.
The colour scheme was very Slytherin, but it was tasteful, and far less headache-inducing than the bright reds and gold décor of Harry's dorm in Gryffindor tower.
"It's lovely," Harry said truthfully. "Thank you."
"You're very welcome," she replied. "You can stop thanking me now, by the way."
Harry blushed furiously. "Sorry."
She swatted at him again, but he dodged. She smiled. "You're more polite than I was expecting Harry Potter to be," she admitted. "A lot of people supposed that the Boy Who Lived would be an arrogant little prat, but you're not. I'm glad of that. There're more than enough big-headed pompous dullards in the Wizarding world as it is."
Harry blinked at her owlishly. "I get that a lot," he replied. "I keep thinking that I'm letting people down."
"Nonsense," Aurora said. "And if anyone ever tells you otherwise, give them a smack from me."
Harry grinned at that. Aurora's little speech had given him the mental image of the diminutive, kindly old woman taking on Professor Snape head on. It would be quite the sight to see, he thought, though he'd put money on Aurora winning.
"Now," she continued, changing the subject completely. "You've got an ensuite bathroom through this door. Dinner is served at eight in the evening. It's late, I know, but the other guests are nocturnal and it's easier to serve everyone together then than have two separate sittings."
"Right," Harry said. He remembered what Tiberius told him about the other guests being two Vampires and a Drow – whatever that was – and he couldn't help but feel a bit nervous about meeting them.
As though she'd sensed his trepidation, Aurora shot him another kind smile. "They aren't a bad lot, you know," she said. "A little odd, perhaps, but they're good people. You'll do well to ignore a lot of Wizarding prejudice, especially since some of it will be directed at you as well now. Besides, Vampires only feed off mammals, so as a 'snake-thing' you'll be perfectly safe."
"What about the Drow?" Harry asked curiously.
Aurora laughed. "Tiberius told you about our little author, did he?" she asked. "He's been staying here for almost two years now, gathering stories from our other clients. He'll be very interested in you, you know. If what you told us downstairs is anything to go by, you've had quite the eventful couple of years. I can guarantee that the only thing he'll want from you is a few of those stories you're carrying around with you."
"He doesn't eat snake-things then?"
Aurora shook her head. "Don't tell him I said this, but he's a bit like a fruit bat. He comes out at night, devours a few fruit salads, and sleeps during the day. I think I've only ever seen him eat meat about ten times in two years. Rare of course – goodness knows those teeth have to be that sharp for a reason – but for the most part he just eats fruit, white bread and honey."
Harry relaxed. It really did sound as if he was safe here.
"Now," she said. "Do you have any things with you?"
He pulled his trunk out of his jeans pocket and placed it on the bed, then pulled the stolen wand out from up his sleeve. She frowned at the wand and snatched it from his fingers. "You're a bit too young to be performing magic outside of school," she said. "Your wand won't have had the underage restriction charms taken off it yet."
"This isn't mine," he told her. "I, er, kind of took it off the…person I killed."
"You 'kind of took it'," she repeated. "Merlin, either you took it or you didn't, Harry. And if you did take it, then I seriously would not recommend using it."
Harry swallowed nervously. "I already have," he admitted.
"I figured as much, with that shrunken trunk of yours," she said. Her lips were pressed into a thin line. "Where did you use it?"
"Only in the room in the Leaky Cauldron where I left the, um, body," he admitted.
She released a slow breath. "Good," she said. "That's something at least. You're up against the Department of Mysteries, my boy, and they're called that for a very good reason. They're the ones developing spell technology; no one knows what that department is truly capable of. They've probably sent out tracers on this wand that'll let them know when and where it's used."
Harry paled. "That's possible?" he asked.
"Oh yes," she said. "Who do you think designed the tracing spells they put on all new wands in the first place? The ones that they put around the homes of Muggleborns and Muggle-raised students to make sure they don't do magic outside of school?"
Harry winced. "Oh," he whispered.
"Now," she said. "I'll resize your trunk for you, and I'll be taking this so that you aren't tempted to use it. We'll think of a way to get rid of it later."
"Right," Harry said. "Thank you."
She smiled and tucked the Unspeakable's wand into the pocket of her robe. "Take a bath and get some rest," she told him. "You look like you could use it. See you at dinner?"
She nodded once and pulled a wand from up her sleeve. She waved it in the direction of his miniature trunk, restoring it to its proper size. "Make yourself at home, dear." With that, she turned and left, closing the door to his room behind her. He watched the floating colours that floated over her body faded away as she walked back down the corridor, and listened to her fading footsteps. He felt slightly naked without a wand he could use, but he supposed that if he absolutely had to defend himself, he could just use his new abilities. He didn't think that he was in danger here – Aurora had put his fears at rest – but it was still good to know that if he absolutely had to defend himself then he could.
Whether or not his snaky abilities would be the slightest bit of use against an angry Vampire or a Drow – he still didn't know what that was – he had no idea, though it worried him slightly that he was even thinking about it. They worked against humans, and that was bad enough. He didn't want to know if he could kill anything else.
With a sigh, he pulled his trunk off the bed and onto the floor. He opened it and rifled round, finding clean clothing and a new T-Shirt bandage. He grimaced at the sight of the old hand-me-downs – Dudley had been nine when he'd last worn those jeans and they were the closes to Harry's size that he had. He would have to go clothes shopping at some point, if he had the chance to. The chance was slim, what with the Alleys crawling with Aurors and Unspeakables out for his blood, but the thought of new clothes all to himself would be nice.
Leaving the folded clothes on the bed, he went to investigate the bathroom. It was roughly the same size as the one at the Dursleys with a combined bath and shower, a toilet and a sink. There were even complimentary towels, shampoos and soaps. It was much like every other hotel bathroom in the world, but to Harry it was like heaven.
He stripped and stepped into the shower, intent on having a long and leisurely wash. The hot water felt wonderful, and he lingered under it even after he finished washing his hair and body. The Dursleys had never allowed him to take long showers, and even the ones he'd had at Hogwarts hadn't felt as good.
He wrapped himself in the warm, fluffy towels after he stepped out and dried himself quickly. He didn't want to get cold – the cold affected him more these days, it seemed – and went back into the main bedroom. He glanced at the clock as he got dressed and realised that it was only one in the afternoon.
He sighed and shook his head. So much for the leisurely day shopping that he'd had planned.
Deciding to take Aurora's advice, he slipped out of his jeans once more and folded them over the end of the bed. Then he slipped under the duvet to get some sleep. The bed was comfy, and there was a small heating charm placed on the duvet. The pillow smelled faintly of lavender, chamomile and vervaine – herbs he recognised as being ingredients in the Dreamless Sleep potion – and Harry soon felt himself falling asleep.
It struck him, in his last moments of wakefulness, that in the hour he had been in Last Hope Hostel, it had managed to feel more like a home than Hogwarts ever had.
Chapter 7: Dinner and a Helping Hand
Harry was woken up to the sound of a bell ringing. The sudden noise started him out of his deep sleep, and for a moment Harry wondered where the hell he was. He definitely wasn't at the Dursleys' or Hogwarts, that was for sure. Then the events of the day caught up with him and he cringed. It had all certainly been eventful.
He lifted his head off the pillow and turned so that he could look at the clock. It was five to eight in the evening. He blinked; he was sure Aurora had said something about that time… It was a loud gurgle from Harry's stomach that reminded him. It was dinner time in five minutes, and it was time for him to meet the other lodgers at Last Hope Hostel.
He scrambled out of bed as quick as he could and pulled his jeans back on. His T-Shirt was rumpled, but he looked presentable. Well, as presentable as he could be in Dudley's clothes…
He checked the bandage around his forearm once more and headed for the door to his room. He didn't want to be late. He was hungry – hungrier than he'd been for a while – and he was looking forward to spending more time in the company of Tiberius and Aurora.
He shut the door behind him and hurried down the corridor and down the stairs. He crossed through the living room, which was devoid of life, and opened the door to the dining room and peeked in.
Sitting at the table were three people who were clearly the other guests. Two of them – a man and a woman – were gaunt and pale. The Vampires, Harry realised. The man had long curly black hair that was tied back into a ponytail and dark eyes set in an aristocratic face. His blood-red lips were curved into a smile as he listened to something his companion was saying. She was dark haired too, though her hair was brown rather than black, and her eyes were a startlingly pale shade of blue. They were both very good looking, Harry supposed, but the other guest outshone them.
He – and he was a he, despite his effeminate features – was the most exotic person Harry had ever laid eyes on. His skin was jet black, and even from his position in the doorway Harry could see that he had incredible bone structure. His eyes were long and slanted with vivid yellow irises and slit pupils – making them look a bit like Harry's when he went all snaky – he had long pointed ears and his lips were full and soft looking. His most startling feature, however, was his hair, which shone white as starlight.
Harry flickered his tongue out, tasting the air. The Vampires tasted almost reptilian, while the Drow tasted of something Harry couldn't describe. It was sweet and pleasant, whatever it was, and it made Harry shiver slightly.
That was when he realised he was being watched. All of them had turned to look at him curiously.
"Tiberius!" the male Vampire called, and Tiberius poked his head out of the kitchen. "You didn't tell us there was a new guest."
"He only arrived today," Tiberius replied.
"We noticed," the female Vampire muttered.
Tiberius ignored her. Instead he turned his attentions to Harry. "Come in, come in," he said. "Take a seat. How do you like your steak?"
Steak! Harry could have wept with pleasure. He was being given meat that wasn't mouse! "Um…bloody," he said. He'd honestly never tried it that way before, but his body was telling him that anything more cooked than 'just hacked off the cow and slapped on the plate' wouldn't be nearly as good.
"Blue then," Tiberius said. "Help yourself to water or blood, by the way."
Harry stared at him as he vanished back into the kitchen. Help himself to what? That was when he noticed the pitchers on the table. One was filled with a dark red liquid that Harry assumed was the blood, while the other was filled with water. He slipped into a chair on the Drow's side of the table and poured himself a goblet full of water.
He felt nervous. All the other guests were still watching him.
"Um, hi," he said quietly.
The male Vampire grinned at him, flashing very long eye teeth. "Hi yourself," he said. "I'm Nikolai Dracula, by the way, and this is my wife Isabella Bathory. A pleasure to meet you…"
Harry's eyes widened. Dracula? He hadn't realised there were Vampires who were actually called that. "Harry Potter," he said. "Um, Dracula as in Count Dracula?"
Nikolai sighed. "He's my uncle," he said. "The younger one: Vladislaus. The title actually belongs to Uncle Mircea."
"Oh," Harry said. Then he looked at the Drow, whose yellow eyes were fixed on him. The exotic being understood the unasked question and smiled at Harry.
"I am Linael of the Winter Court," he said. His voice was just as pretty as he was, Harry noticed. "Welcome to the hostel, Mr Potter."
"Harry," Harry corrected. Linael nodded.
"So what brings you here, Harry?" Isabella asked curiously, leaning over the table.
"Tiberius rescued me," he said.
"Too true," Tiberius said, coming through from the kitchen, plates of food levitating before him. "The boy had what looked like the whole of the DMLE and the DoM out looking for him."
"Really?" Nikolai asked. "Why not hand him over then? He is the wizards' saviour, after all."
"Well," Harry said. "It might have had something to do with the fact that they want me dead."
Aurora, who had just come in from the kitchen, heard his comment and tutted. "I'll never understand those Ministry people," she said. "How they can hunt down an innocent boy like that, just because he isn't human I'll never know.
"You're looking a lot better now, Harry," she continued, changing the subject. "Did you have a nice rest?"
"Yes, thank you," he replied, smiling up at her.
She reached across and ruffled his hair, before returning her attentions to placing platters of food in front of everyone. Linael received an elaborate looking fruit salad served with a side order of chunks of raw meat. The Vampires and Harry all received steaks that looked as close to raw as it was possible to be, while the Woodrifts' looked decidedly more cooked.
The food looked and smelled wonderful, and Harry's mouth watered at the sight of it. The others all dug in heartily, and Harry joined them. It was delicious, and Harry's razor sharp new teeth cut through the meat as if it were nothing. The taste of blood on his tongue was incredible, and Harry relished it until he realised that he was letting his newfound snake-ish-ness take over. He lowered his knife and fork and reached for his goblet of water. He was just about to pick it up so that he could wash the taste of blood out of his mouth when Aurora gave a little cry.
Harry looked up at her, startled. Then he noticed that her eyes were fixed on his bandaged arm. Um -" he started, but she cut him off in an instant.
"What happened?" she demanded. "How long has your arm been like that, and why didn't you tell anyone?"
"It's a long story," Harry mumbled.
The expression on her face made him wince. He knew, then, that he was going to have to tell her the truth abut his injury whether he liked it or not.
"It's been like this since the week before the holidays started," he said.
"You were at school when you were hurt?" she asked. "Why on earth didn't you go to the hospital wing, then?"
"I, er, told everyone that Professor Dumbledore's phoenix had healed me," Harry admitted. "I didn't want them to make a fuss."
"Right," Nikolai said, reaching for his goblet of blood. "Dare we ask why you lied?"
Harry frowned at him. He waited until Nikolai had taken a mouthful of blood before replying: "Because normal people don't survive being bitten by a Basilisk without phoenix tears."
Nikolai choked, spraying a fine mist of blood out of his nose and all over the table. He dissolved into a coughing fit, while Isabella smacked him hard on the back. Aurora went white as a sheet and dropped her cutlery with a clatter, while Linael's breath hitched. Tiberius removed the blood with a flick of his wand, before turning his attention back to Harry.
"A Basilisk?" he asked. "How did a Basilisk get into Hogwarts? And why was a twelve-year-old boy left to deal with it?"
"Salazar Slytherin put it in the Chamber of Secrets," Harry told him. "And, uh, I was the only one who could get into the Chamber." He shrugged lamely. "The password was in Parseltongue."
"Ah," Tiberius said. "And being a snake-thing…"
Harry bit his lip. "Actually, I was human before the Basilisk bit me," he said. "I only changed into a snake-thing afterwards."
Aurora had recovered by this point. "And you didn't tell anyone about the changes?" she asked.
"No," Harry told her. "I'd already said I'd been healed by Fawkes – that's Dumbledore's phoenix, by the way – and they would have known that I'd lied if I'd said anything. And besides, I didn't want anyone to know that I'd survived something I wasn't supposed to. Again."
"But how would being bitten by a Basilisk turn you into a magical being?" Tiberius wondered out loud. "That's something of a mystery…"
"Maybe it was a Were-Basilisk," Nikolai suggested.
Harry gave him an incredulous look. Nikolai was…odd. Apparently, if the facial expressions of the others were anything to go by, then he wasn't the only one who thought so. Isabella smacked her husband upside the head and rolled her eyes.
"Forgive him," he said. "The Draculas are known for being a bit deranged. You said you were a Parselmouth before you went down into the Chamber?"
"Yeah," Harry said. "I don't know why, exactly. According to Dumbledore, Voldemort transferred some of his powers to me when he gave me my scar. Apparently Voldemort was a direct descendant of Slytherin, or something. I'm not sure whether to believe him or not, though."
"Why's that?" Tiberius asked. "I know Dumbledore's a manipulative old fruit, but he's generally on the ball when it comes to obscure magic like that."
"Well," Harry said. "In my first year, after the whole incident with the Philosopher's Stone, I asked him why Voldemort failed to kill me. And he said that it was because my mother died to save me, which might be true – I don't know, I can't remember much about that night – but I can't believe that she was the only woman in the whole war that died trying to protect her baby.
"And how would he know that she died to save me anyway? He wasn't there. I'm the only survivor of that night, and I don't remember it, so why would he know a detail like that?"
None of them had any answers. Harry took a sip of his water and looked back down at his plate. There were blood smears on it from the steak, but it smelled so good… He knew he wouldn't be able to resist eating more of it.
"He's wrong about where your Parseltongue came from, anyway," Isabella said suddenly. "It's a bloodline ability; a magical ability that's passed down through a specific bloodline. You must be descended from another Parselmouth; that's the only explanation. You can't transfer bloodline abilities through magic, not even a failed killing curse."
"But the only other Parselmouth in recent history is Voldemort!" Harry cried. "I'm not related to him, am I?"
She shrugged. "It's possible; though I think you're Parseltongue ancestry would be a bit further in the past than that."
Harry looked confused, but Tiberius nodded thoughtfully, while Aurora picked her cutlery back up.
"That might be possible," Aurora said as she cut into her steak once more. "The Potters were an old pureblood line. Predominantly Light, of course, but that doesn't mean anything once you go back far enough. It's possible that the Parseltongue ability was passed down through that line originally, but that it bred out over the years. Sometimes these things do, you know."
"But why would it come back in me?" Harry asked.
"Because you were born a half blood," Tiberius told him. "Magic's a funny thing, Harry, especially when it comes to blood. Blood's one of the most powerful magical substances on the planet but it can be finicky. Abilities like Parseltongue can die out in an old pureblood line for centuries only to come back into being if new blood is introduced into the family tree. Your mother, for example, was a Muggleborn who married into an old pureblood family. If you can find evidence that some of the earlier Potters were Parselmouths, then you'll have found your reason as to why you have that gift."
"Running along the same theory," Linael cut in. "You could also find the reason for your sudden transformation into a…what are you, exactly?"
Harry shrugged. "A snake-thing," he said. "I have no idea what I am. I have scales, fangs, claws, a forked tongue and eyes that kill people. I'm probably venomous too, though I haven't tested that one yet. For all intents and purposes, I'm a humanoid Basilisk."
"Right," Linael said. He sounded fascinated. "Well, as I was saying, you might be able to find out why you became a…snake-thing when you were bitten by the Basilisk. If being a Parselmouth is a bloodline ability then maybe it originated form some magical creature blood in your ancestry that was activated when the Basilisk venom entered your bloodstream."
Harry gaped at him for a moment. "Is that even possible?" he asked.
Aurora answered for him. "It could well be," she said. "One thing you learn very quickly with magic, Harry, is that anything is possible."
The rest of dinner passed in relative silence, and Harry spent most of it deep in thought. He knew nothing about his extended family. He only knew what little things about his parents – mostly his father, for some reason – that he had gleaned from the wizards and witches he had met who had known them. The Potter family itself, he knew nothing about. He hadn't even known that they were an old pureblood family before tonight.
So, when he knew nothing about them and was never told anything about them except how wonderful his parents had been then where on earth was he supposed to find information about them? Did he have a family tree of sorts? And if he did, how likely was that to tell him whether or not his ancestors had been Parselmouths or snake-things like he was?
He didn't even know where to start…and that wasn't his only problem.
If he left his research until he got back to Hogwarts, then he would have to put up with Hermione's nosey questions and Ron's reluctance to spend any time in the library at all. He knew for a fact that if his friends got even a hint of his new research project then they would try to muscle in on it as much as they could, and that was the last thing Harry wanted. And that was even if they had any books on lineage in the Hogwarts in the first place!
He definitely needed to go to Diagon Alley and find some books on pureblood lines. He'd probably find some there, if he could ever manage to leave the hostel without being jumped on and arrested or killed by the Aurors and Unspeakables who were out for his blood.
He just knew he wasn't going to have an easy time of this.
After dinner, he helped Aurora wash the dishes in the kitchen and let her check over his wounded arm before they rejoined the others in the living room. Apparently Aurora had been a Healer once, and she still had quite a knack for it though she mostly spent her talents patching up the occasional injured lodger at the hostel – the ones that Saint Mungo's would be reluctant to admit.
She applied a salve to the wound and placed a new dressing on it, giving Harry strict instructions to come to her immediately should it ever hurt him. She didn't let go of him until she had extracted a promise that he would go to her, and even then she didn't release him until she had scooped him up into a tight hug.
Harry liked Aurora's hugs, he decided. She was warm and kind and it made him wonder if his mother would have hugged him like this if she'd lived.
When they moved into the living room, however, they found the others all deep in conversation with Tiberius, who was explaining what he knew of Harry's situation with the DMLE and the Department of Mysteries to them. All three of the other lodgers looked very serious about the matter, and Harry couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking.
He sat down with them – next to Linael again – and watched as they all turned to him.
"So…let me get this straight," Nikolai said. "You were dropped off at the Leaky Cauldron by your uncle, and were given a room. On the way to your room you were ambushed by an Unspeakable in an invisibility cloak, who you accidentally killed with your Basilisk eyes. You then stole the guy's wand and his cloak, ripped the badge off his robes, stuffed his corpse into a wardrobe, broke a mirror – which is seven years worth of bad luck, by the way – and headed to Gringotts, only to find the Alleys swarming with pissed off Ministry wizards when you leave."
Harry nodded. "Yeah," he said.
Nikolai gave a low whistle. "You've had one hell of a shitty day, huh, kid?"
Isabella smacked him on the head again and sent Harry an apologetic look. Linael's long-fingered hand wrapped around Harry's own fingers and gave them a gentle, reassuring squeeze. The Woodrifts were both looking grave.
"What we need to do now is make sure that no one connects Harry Potter with the magical creature everyone's looking for, and make sure that he can't be found here," Tiberius said. "For that, well, I'm afraid we're going to need some help from the three of you."
"Name it," Linael said.
Harry looked up at him in surprise. He wasn't the only one either: Nikolai had raised one of his aristocratic eyebrows and Isabella just goggled at him. Aurora hid a smile behind a hand, while Tiberius blinked owlishly for a moment. "Alright then," he continued. "We need to somehow get the wand away from the Alleys in case the Unspeakables activate tracking charms on it or something. We need a long-term glamour that will hide Harry's more serpentine attributes; one that cannot be removed by, or seen through with wizard magic. We need Harry Potter to be seen checking into another hotel, somewhere outside of the Wizarding world where people are less likely to stalk him or cast tracking charms on him. We also need to find a way for Harry to protect all knowledge of his snake-ish-ness, the hostel, the five of us, and this plan from anyone who might care to pry into his mind."
"'Pry into my mind'?!" Harry squeaked in shock. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what it sounds like," Isabella said. "There is an obscure branch of magic known as Legillimency, which allows a person to read another's thoughts and memories. It usually requires eye contact to perform, and it can be blocked by its sister art Occlumency. Luckily for you, Vampires happen to be naturally proficient in both of them, to the extent where we can set shields up around another person's mind if we so wish."
"Unfortunately for you, Albus Dumbledore also happens to be a talented Legillimens, and is not above invading the minds of his students in search of information he believes he is entitled to," Tiberius pointed out.
Harry shuddered. That sounded wrong to him. Very wrong. Did Dumbledore not believe that they were entitled to their privacy?
"I will set up barriers around Harry's mind," Isabella announced. "I'm better at Occlumency that Nikolai, so I will find it easier."
"I'll get rid of the wand then," Nikolai volunteered. "I'll be able to get out of there quick if the Unspeakables really are trying to trace it."
"I'll check into a Muggle hotel for the rest of the summer holidays, then," Aurora said. "Under a glamour, of course. I should be able to manage one strong enough to fool a few Muggles."
"I will work on Harry's glamour then," Linael said. "As I expected I would."
"Well," Aurora said. "Sidhe are remarkably talented at glamours."
"Drow," Linael corrected. "Correct though you might be, calling me a Sidhe is similar to calling a human a primate: it's far too generic." He turned his attention to Harry then. "I'll need a photograph of what you looked like before your change, and I'll need to know what parts of you are particularly snake-like. I'll also need something silver that can be turned into a medallion of sorts."
Harry thought about it for a moment. "Would a Sickle do?" he asked.
"It would be perfect," Linael said. "I will need a chain, though."
"I'll provide you with that," Aurora put in, and Linael nodded his thanks to her. Then he turned his attention back to Harry.
"This will, of course, cost you," he said. "I would like, if you are willing, to hear the tales of your adventures. They sound highly…intriguing to say the least."
Harry nodded. "Okay," he said. "I'm willing."
Linael flashed him a grin, revealing several rows of sharp, needle like teeth. "Perfect," he said.
With that, they all split up. Aurora vanished into the private rooms that she shared with Tiberius to find a silver chain, while Harry dashed back up to his bedroom to pull a Sickle out of one of his money bags and his photo album out of his trunk. Selecting the most recent photo of himself – one that had been taken at the end of the school year with Ron and Hermione – he placed the album back into his trunk and covered it with his father's old invisibility cloak once more.
He didn't linger very long. Instead he dashed back down the stairs and into the living room just in time to see Aurora drop a silver chain into Linael's outstretched hand. Harry approached the Drow and handed him the Sickle and the photograph.
"Why silver?" he asked.
"Silver amplifies Sidhe magic," Linael explained. "I'll be able to anchor the glamour to the sickle and the chain, and they will strengthen it."
Harry nodded in understanding. He had heard about – through Hermione, no doubt – people using metals and crystals to amplify magical energies and anchor long-term spells. "So it'll be a bit like a ward stone, only for a glamour," he said.
Linael raised an eyebrow at him, but nodded. "When was the photograph taken?" he asked.
"After I went into the Chamber, but before the changes had gone any further than twinges and floating colours," Harry told him.
"Floating colours?" Nikolai asked curiously.
"Over people and animals," Harry confirmed. "I can see the people and animals fine with my normal vision, but the weird colours are sort of floating over and around them. That's how I can see if someone's hiding under an invisibility cloak. Usually people are red, yellow and white, though. You and Isabella are blue and purple, while Linael is green and yellow."
"It sounds like you're seeing our body temperatures," Isabella said. "Humans are warm-blooded, while we're technically dead so we don't generate body heat. Uh…Linael…"
"Is warm-blooded, though with a lower body temperature than a human," Linael spoke up. "What are the other snake-like features you've developed?"
Harry told him. It was quite embarrassing to be going into that much in depth detail about his own body to someone who was practically a complete stranger, especially when Linael asked to study his snaky bits. He even asked Harry to lift his shirt up so that he could study the bright green scales running down Harry's spine.
Aurora cleared her throat at that point. "If you're done, she said. "Nikolai and I really should be heading off."
"What about your glamour?" Harry asked her.
She looked at the photograph lying on the table in front of Linael and studied it intently for a moment.
"I won't put it on until I'm a safe distance away from here and heading towards the hotel" she said. Then she pulled the stolen wand out of her robe pocket and handed it to Nikolai. "Here's the wand," she said. "Do you know the spell to create a Portkey?"
"Of course," Nikolai said. "What do you take me for? A novice?"
"An idiot, probably," Isabella muttered.
Aurora didn't reply to that. "When you get to a safe enough distance from the Alleys, create a timed Portkey using that wand," she told him. "Then get the hell out of there and head towards the Citadines Apart'hotel at Trafalgar. It's close enough to where that man dropped Harry off and to the entrance to Diagon Alley, so that's where I'll be heading. I'll leave the window open for you, and we can come back here together, alright?"
Nikolai nodded. He looked very serious, and in that moment he reminded Harry strongly of a man in an old painting he had seen in one of his Defence text books. He shivered. Nikolai might be an idiot at times, but he was still a close family member of one of the most famous and dangerous Vampires in history.
"Let's go," Aurora said. With that, she turned and walked out of the door, heading towards the maze of alleyways Tiberius had guided Harry through when they'd first met. Nikolai, on the other hand, headed towards the window, threw it open and vanished into the night.
The silence was first broken by Isabella. She looked worried, but was holding herself with great composure. "Well come on then Harry," she said. "Let's get these shields set up around your mind and let Linael get to work."
Shielding his mind – even though Isabella was actually the one doing most of the shielding – was hard work. Isabella created thick, elaborate barriers around his mind that looked – in his mind's eye – like a sprawling, maze-like castle hidden behind thick walls that were hidden in a twisting, ever changing labyrinth made up of wicked looking plants such as Devil's Snares and roses with knife-like spines six inches long. But while Isabella was the one creating the barriers, Harry was the one having to stabilise them He was the one who had the draining task of implanting the barriers magically into his mind so that he was the one in charge of them instead of Isabella.
By the time they were done, Nikolai and Aurora had returned triumphant, and Linael had finished working on the pendant that would anchor Harry's glamour. When Harry slumped back in his seat, magically drained and with a pounding headache, Linael approached him, holding the Sickle-pendant out.
It looked different, Harry realised, to what it had done before. The silver of the Sickle and the chain now shone with the same starlight lustre of Linael's hair, and the markings on the Sickle had vanished, leaving just a smooth silver disk behind. It was simple to look at, yet beautiful.
Linael fastened the chain around Harry's neck and ran his fingers over the clasp. "If the necklace is removed, the glamour will be removed as well," he said. "However, I have charmed it so that only you can ever remove it. Under the circumstances, I hope you can see that doing so would not be the best idea."
"Yeah," Harry said. "I can see that."
Linael smiled down at him kindly and nodded once before stepping back. Harry looked around the room and realised that these five people had done more for him than any other person he had ever met. The thought left him humbled.
"Thank you," he said. "All of you. I really can't thank you enough doing all of this…"
"It was our pleasure, Harry," Isabella said. "We should, after all, take care of each other in this wizard-dominated world."
"Now young man," Aurora said sternly. "I think it's time you went to bed. You look exhausted, and despite your nap earlier, it's been a long day for you."
Harry nodded and clambered to his feet. He looked up at Linael and shrugged. "Is it okay if we put off the story telling till another night?" he asked.
"Of course," Linael replied. "Aurora is right: you need your sleep."
Harry smiled wearily. "Goodnight then everyone," he said.
"Goodnight Harry!" they chorused back, and he left, heading back up to his room.
That night, he dreamed of a rose labyrinth filled with snakes and starlight. It was the best dream he'd had in a long time.
Chapter 8: Birthday
Harry was pleased to see that after a couple of days, the Auror population of Diagon and Knockturn Allies returned to normal, and the number of Unspeakables under invisibility cloaks dropped too. The relaxed presence of the DMLE made Harry feel safe enough to leave the hostel during the day and explore.
He discovered that Knockturn Alley wasn't nearly as terrifying as it had seemed the previous summer. It was a lot narrower and darker that Diagon Alley, that was true, and its occupants were a bit weirder but the majority of shops were very similar – although Knockturn Alley had a far wider range of goods for some reason.
When he brought this up with Tiberius, the old man grinned at him. "You noticed that, eh?" he said. "Good. It's because Diagon Alley is seen as the 'Light' district, while Knockturn is 'Dark' and Dark Wizards supposedly have fewer morals and so are more open to…borderline legal trading. Apparently. I always took it to mean that 'Light' wizards were a bit more boring."
So while Harry spent his days investigating the Allies, he spent his evenings in the company of the hostel's other residents. He struck up a fast friendship with Linael, who had managed to work his way very much under Harry's skin. He proved incredibly easy to talk to and the two of them could spend hours in deep conversation. In fact, it became normal for Harry to stay up to two or three in the morning just talking with him.
Nikolai and Isabella became like the siblings he had never had; teasing and protecting him in equal measure. Tiberius and Aurora were more than happy to take on the mantles of parent figures, and were determined to educate him in the ways of the Wizarding world.
Harry had told them of his routine of celebrating his birthday at night – something which pleased the nocturnal residents of the hostel no end – so on the night of the thirtieth of July, they gathered together in the hostel's living room waiting for the clock to strike twelve.
Harry felt nervous. This would be the first time he would be celebrating his birthday with other people. He'd never imagined either that people would be willing to sit up with him at midnight to celebrate it then, the way he had always done. The thought, while making him nervous, also made him happier than he'd ever felt. He'd thought, when Aurora had first suggested it a week earlier that no one would be interested. Instead, Nikolai and Isabella had demanded to know why he hadn't told them his birthday was coming up. When he'd told them that it wasn't important and that he always celebrated it on his own, they had offered to go around to the Dursleys' house and slaughter them for him.
Harry had managed to stop them – just – but he still wondered why it was so important to them. Maybe it was a Vampire thing…
So, for the first time in his life, Harry wasn't alone in his countdown to midnight. As soon as the clock struck midnight, Isabella and Aurora grabbed his hands and dragged him out of the sitting room and into the dining room, where – right in the middle of the scrubbed wooden table – was a large chocolate cake decorated with thirteen candles lit with silver fire.
Harry stood in the doorway in shock. He hadn't realised that they'd actually gone through the trouble of getting a cake for him.
"I…I don't know what to say," he whispered. "Thank you."
Aurora pulled him into a warm hug, and when she released him, Isabella did the same. He ended up getting hugs from all of them, right there in the doorway, before they guided him to a chair at the head of the table.
"Go on Harry," Aurora said as she moved the cake closer to him. "Make a wish."
He looked up at her and, seeing the tender smile on her face, he leaned in and blew the candles out. He blushed furiously when the others all burst into applause. He'd seen similar things happen at Dudley's parties, so he knew it was a normal thing, but it still felt odd when directed at him.
Aurora slid the cake away from his again and began to cut it into slices and serve the pieces onto plates. While she did that, though, Tiberius went to the window and opened it. He then started flicking his wand at the window frame and muttering something.
Harry watched him curiously. "What's he doing?" he asked.
"He's opening the wards to allow owls to find you here, so that if your friends send presents they can get in," Aurora said. "He's also setting up a banishing ward that'll get rid of any tracking charms that might be on any of the birds or the mail."
"In case someone finds out I'm here instead of a Muggle hotel?" Harry asked.
Aurora nodded. "Exactly," she said.
"In the mean time," Isabella said, leaning over Harry's shoulder. "You can open these instead."
Harry's eyes widened at the sight of the neatly wrapped presents his new friends were holding. "You -" he choked out. "Presents? I get presents too?"
"Of course you do," Linael said. He reached out and tilted Harry's face up so that he was looking right into Harry's eyes. "We do care about you."
Harry blushed. Linael was looking at him so intensely Harry wouldn't have been surprised if he was trying to read his mind. Linael's warm fingers brushed gently over his face before retreating.
"Are you sure we can't kill your relatives?" Nikolai asked.
"Positive," Harry said. "They aren't that bad."
Isabella rolled her eyes. "Boys," she muttered. She held her gift out to him. "Here," she said. "Take it before I smack you with it for your idiotic bravado."
Harry grinned and took the gift from her. It was wrapped in shiny red paper and tied closed with a blue ribbon that had tiny golden Snitches flying up and down its length. He unwrapped it carefully, ignoring Nikolai's comment of how he didn't even know how to unwrap presents properly – Isabella smacked the back of her husband's head for that – and placed the paper and ribbon on the edge of the table.
She had bought him clothes. There were two pairs of jeans – one black pair and one pale blue pair – three shirts in green, grey and black, a pair of black dress trousers, and four T-Shirts in two different shades of green, grey and black.
Nikolai's present was similar. He had bought Harry several sets of casual robes in the same colours that Isabella had chosen as well as a long black cloak lined with silver silk and that fastened with a silver clasp. It was lovely, and a note pinned to it told him that it had been charmed to stay warm in winter and cool in the summer.
It was obvious that the two Vampires had collaborated on their gifts, but that was to be expected. And Harry certainly appreciated it. At last, he had clothes in his size and that hadn't been owned by anyone else. They were clothes that he could actually wear without looking like a complete idiot or a badly treated House Elf.
"Thank you," he said to them, and got his hair ruffled in reply.
The plates of cake were handed out then, and Aurora gave him her present, which was two pairs of shoes: one smart pair, and a pair of black trainers. "I'm afraid I've burned those ratty things you've been wearing," she told him. "I'm amazed they haven't fallen apart already with all the wandering around you've been doing this summer."
He thanked her, and let her pull him into yet another hug. He grinned into her shoulder. He'd been given that old ratty pair of Dudley's trainers the year before he'd started Hogwarts, after Dudley had torn a gaping hole in the side of one. They hadn't fitted him – Dudley's feet were two sizes larger than Harry's had been then, and Harry's feet hadn't really grown that much over the years – but they had been 'too decent' for Aunt Petunia to throw out, so he'd ended up with them anyway and had spent two years with his feet swimming in them.
Tiberius' present, on the other hand, wasn't really a material thing. Apparently, now that Harry was thirteen-years-old, and because he was financially independent, there was a loophole in Wizarding law that would allow him to have a part time job as long as it didn't interfere with his studies. Tiberius' present was an employment contract, offering him a part time job at his bookshop during the school holidays.
Harry looked up at him in surprise when he opened the envelope, and Tiberius laughed at the expression on his face. "It's really just an excuse to get you back here, Harry, so we can make sure that you're alright," he said. "We can go to Gringotts tomorrow and sort out the wages if you'd like."
Harry grinned. "Thanks," he said. Then, "You really want me to come back?" he asked.
"Of course we do," Aurora said. "We all do. You've been adopted, I'm afraid."
Linael's present was next. He'd bought Harry a couple of books – one filled with Muggle fairy tales, one about different breeds of snake and one on Wizarding traditions and etiquette – and a thin silver bracelet.
"The bracelet's enchanted," he said. "It will heat up when you come into contact with someone who means you harm, and it will also allow me to find you no matter where you are so if you need me you'll just need to whisper my name and wish for me to come to you."
"Wow," Harry breathed. He watched as Linael's long fingers fastened the bracelet around his left wrist. When the clasp was fastened, it vanished.
"Only you will be able to remove it," Linael told him gently.
Harry nodded. He had known that Linael had grown fond of him. Though the Drow had never stated as much, he had received comments to that degree from both Tiberius and Aurora, who claimed that Linael had never dedicated so much of his time to anyone that had come through the hostel's doors before.
He was snapped out of his thoughts by a flock of owls soaring through the window, led by Hedwig who had a parcel tied to her leg and a dead mouse hanging by its tail from her beak. She landed on the table and gave him a muffled hoot in greeting. She presented him with the mouse first, placing it carefully down on the table, before holding out her leg.
"Thanks Hedwig," Harry said. He stroked her white feathers gently. "It's good to see you again, girl."
She hooted again and puffed her feathers out happily. Once he'd freed the parcel from her leg, she used her foot to nudge the mouse towards him. He laughed. She was such a mother hen at times.
He did feel slightly awkward, though. He had admitted to the others that as a snake-thing he was partial towards eating mice, but he had never done it in front of them before. He had only ever snacked on ones he'd bought from a pet shop in Diagon Alley – claiming to have a sick owl that needed him to feed her for now – up in his room. Hedwig would get offended, though, if he didn't accept it and he didn't want to do that.
So he placed the parcel down on the table and took the other parcels and letters that the other owls were carrying before picking up the mouse by the tail. It was still slightly warm, he noticed – its colours were fading from green to blue – so it was fresh. Then, he tilted his head back, opened his mouth, and swallowed it whole.
Hedwig hooted happily.
"You...just swallowed a mouse whole," Nikolai said weakly.
Harry gulped again, his throat muscles pulling the body of the mouse down his throat, crushing it as they did so. Then, once he could speak again, he turned to look at Nikolai strangely. "You drink blood every dinner time," he said.
"Well, yeah," Nikolai confirmed. "I'm a Vampire, remember?"
"And I'm a snake-thing," Harry said. "Snakes eat mice."
"But whole?" he asked.
Harry shrugged. "I don't have a gag reflex anymore," he said.
Nikolai went a little wide eyed, and Isabella smacked him on the head again. Harry didn't know why she'd done it that time – she usually had a reason – but he supposed that he'd just missed something. The two Vampires, Nikolai in particular, were odd.
The presents that the owls had brought were from Ron, Hermione and Hagrid while the letter was from Hogwarts, and contained a list of things that he needed to get for his Third Year. Hagrid had sent a book that tried to take a bite out of him as soon as he unwrapped it along with an ominous note saying that he'd need it for one of his classes next year and a bag of rock cakes.
Ron had sent him something called a Sneakoscope, which looked like a faceted crystal, and which stood perfectly balanced on its point on the dining room table. According to the note Ron had included, it was supposed to light up, spin and give a high pitched whistle around people who were untrustworthy. Included with the note were a short letter and a newspaper clipping showing the Weasley family standing in front of some pyramids. Apparently Mr Weasley had won first prize in some sort of competition. The letter added that Ron and his family would be in Diagon Alley a week before school was due to start again, and a request to meet up.
Hermione's letter, included with a Broomstick Servicing Kit, which she had apparently mail ordered, was a lot lengthier. She was in France with her parents and was finding the local magical history so fascinating that she had to unload some of it on Harry. Apparently she would be in Diagon Alley the same day as Ron so that they could all meet up. She'd included a note at the bottom of his letter saying that he should remember to keep his head down around his relatives and not pick any fights with them as well as a short reminder that he should do his homework – which he had – unknown to her – already completed anyway. It was written in such a bossy tone that Harry was gritting his teeth by the end of it. But he supposed that that was jut Hermione being Hermione: bossy, cocky and overly confident in her own intelligence.
He folded her letter and put it down on the table. It was the only bad part about a birthday celebration that had been wonderful.
"Bad news, Harry?" Aurora asked softly. She had seen the frown on his face and the set of his jaw, and looked slightly worried.
"No, not really," he told her. "It's just one of my friends bossing me around as usual."
She harrumphed. "And I thought you got enough of that with those scumbags who claim they're your relatives," she said.
Harry shrugged. She did have a point, he supposed. He accepted the new slice of cake she offered him and took a bite. He wondered how his friends would react if they found out about all of this: Harry leaving the Dursleys' early, staying in the hostel and transforming into a snake-thing. He couldn't imagine them being particularly happy about it, and he knew for a fact that Hermione would criticise his decision to leave the Dursleys' and want to dissect him to see what he really was. Ron's reaction…he couldn't predict.
Linael leaned over Harry's shoulder and placed his hand on top of Hermione's letter. His pitch black skin contrasted sharply with the cream-coloured parchment, and suddenly Harry found that contrast fascinating. Then Linael placed his mouth next to Harry's ear and murmured: "Don't let her letter disturb you. You should be spending this night in celebration instead of worrying."
Harry smiled at that. Somehow, Linael always knew exactly what to say. "Thank you," he whispered. Linael grinned.
Chapter 9: Gringotts, Gobbledegook, and the Ministry of Magic
Harry only ended up getting five hours sleep that night. Aurora sent him up to his room to sleep at four in the morning, claiming that if he stayed up much longer he'd end up falling asleep on Linael. Tiberius woke Harry up five hours later to take him to Gringotts.
Harry blinked up at him dazedly and groaned. He rolled over, dragging his heated duvet over his head. "Don' wanna," he mumbled. He felt Tiberius tug at his duvet and frowned sleepily. "Noooooooooo," he groaned, curling into a tiny ball.
"It's time to get up Harry," Tiberius said. He sounded amused, and unknown to Harry, the old man was grinning down at him. "We've got to go to Gringotts."
"Nyurgh," Harry replied. He was so tired! He hadn't realised he would have to get up so early. Whose stupid idea was that, anyway?
He felt the tingle of magic rush over him and yelped as he found himself floating about three feet over his bed. Panic surged through him. He really didn't like this… He kicked and flailed, dislodging his blanket in the process. Once the blanket had falling to the bed, Tiberius floated him over to the bathroom door and placed him carefully back on the ground. Harry glared up at him and gave an angry hiss.
Tiberius just raised an eyebrow. "You're the one who wanted to get to Gringotts early," he said.
"Wha'?" Harry said intelligently.
He wracked his brains, trying to find evidence of this fact. He did remember talking to Tiberius about visiting the bank the night before – vaguely – and his cheeks reddened as he realised that it had really been his idea after all.
"Oh," he said.
Tiberius grinned. He opened his mouth to say something when there was a knock at the door. The door opened, and Linael poked his head round. Harry stared. It was the first time he'd ever seen Linael in daylight. He'd briefly entertained ideas that the Drow was something like a Vampire – unable to step into the sun – but now he knew that that theory was wrong.
Linael looked tired – he probably wasn't used to being up this early – and his white hair wasn't nearly as shimmery in the light of the sun as it was at night, but he was still startlingly pretty.
He was also staring at Harry in confusion, as if he was wondering why Harry was curled up on the floor instead of in bed. "Good morning," he said.
"Hello," Tiberius said. "What're you doing up at this time?"
Linael shrugged. "I wanted to tell Harry good luck for today," he said.
Harry blinked at that, but grinned. He guessed that Tiberius and Aurora really had been right: Linael was fond of him. "Thanks Linael," he said.
Linael nodded. Then, "Why are you on the floor?" he asked.
Harry shot Tiberius a nasty look. "He levitated me out of bed," he said.
Tiberius shrugged. "He didn't want to get up," he pointed out.
Linael looked between them and shook his head. "Humans," he muttered. "I'm going to bed now," he said, smothering a yawn. "I'll see you tonight."
He backed out of the door and closed it behind him. "Aw…" Tiberius said. Harry recognised the teasing note in his voice and scowled. "See? He cares."
Harry didn't say anything to that. Instead he raised an eyebrow at Tiberius and asked: "Are you just going to stand there and watch as I get dressed?" he asked.
Tiberius rolled his eyes and left the room. His colours didn't leave though, showing that he was standing just behind the closed door. He was probably making sure Harry didn't go back to bed again. Harry sighed, mourning his lack of sleep, and began to pull out some of his new clothes. There was no way he was going to wear any of Dudley's old clothes now that he had proper clothes of his own.
He slipped into his black jeans and pulled on his black trainers. He stood puzzling over what to wear on his top half for a moment before deciding on the pale green T-Shirt and the green casual robes. He grinned at his reflection when he was done. He actually looked good!
He darted into the bathroom to brush his teeth and give his face a quick wash before leaving his room to meet Tiberius in the hall. When he saw him, Tiberius looked Harry up and down and smiled. "You look good," he said. "A lot better. Are they comfortable?"
"They're brilliant!" Harry burst out. His brain had realised that he was awake now, and his new clothes and Linael's visit had put him in a much better mood.
Tiberius laughed at his exuberance. "Come on then," he said. "We'll be going out through the shop."
Harry nodded and followed him down the stairs. He'd left the hostel through the shop entrance before, and he always liked looking around.
True to his words when they had first met, Books of the Dawn was filled with rare and interesting tomes as well as some of the more common ones. It was, like most shops that sold old and valuable books, quite dark and dusty – and the towering bookshelves only added to the gloom – but Harry had always liked looking around it. He'd found some fascinating books on Defence Against the Dark Arts that he hadn't been able to resist buying. He'd also bought a couple of books on Potions and History of Magic that Tiberius had recommended when he'd heard Harry talking about Snape and Binns.
Harry also liked the name of the shop. It was among the very few shops in Knockturn Alley that actually had an upbeat sounding name, although the first time he'd mentioned that to Tiberius, the man had actually blushed. It had been Aurora who had explained to him that Tiberius had actually named the shop in her honour – Aurora, apparently, was named after the Greek goddess of the dawn – and that he got a bit embarrassed about it when people mentioned it. He thought it made him seem too sentimental.
As they walked through Knockturn Alley, Tiberius kept a firm hand on Harry's shoulder. As the Hogwarts letters had been sent out the day before, the Alleys had got a lot busier, and they were already beginning to fill up.
"If you'd had your lie in," Tiberius told him, "then we would've ended up spending hours queuing at Gringotts."
Harry grimaced at the thought.
They made it to Gringotts in good time, though, and arrived before the queues got agonisingly long. When they were called up to the teller, Tiberius greeted the goblin in a strange, harsh sounding language. Harry stared when the goblin actually smiled and replied in the same tongue.
"We need to set up a direct debit between our vaults," Tiberius said in English. "And Harry here needs to see a financial advisor."
That had been Tiberius' idea. Harry had more than enough money in his vault to live off happily for a good few decades, but Tiberius didn't like the thought of Dumbledore having access to that money before Harry had entered the Wizarding world. He had, after all, been in possession of Harry's vault key.
"Very well," the goblin said. It rang them through immediately and directed them to a small waiting room just off the main hall. Harry spotted Rentrock – the goblin who had taken him down to his vault when he'd visited the bank on the day he'd first come to Diagon alley that summer – standing by the carts He was waiting for a family to get into one of the carts so that he could take them to their vault. Harry caught his eye and waved, and was rewarded with a shocked expression and a hesitant wave in return.
Harry turned back to Tiberius then. "What language were you speaking to the teller?" Harry asked him.
"Gobbledegook," Tiberius said. "It's the goblins' native language. Not many wizards bother to learn it – most think that goblins are inferior so they don't think it's worth the effort – but they do tend to be a lot more helpful if you do speak it."
"Could you teach me?" Harry asked.
Tiberius laughed. "I'm not the best teacher in the world, Harry," he warned. "And I don't pretend to be an expert."
"Please?" Harry asked. He looked up at Tiberius pleadingly, and the man gave in.
"Don't look at me like that," Tiberius said. "I'll teach you. But it'll be awkward while you're at Hogwarts."
Harry grinned. "That's okay," he said. "I can manage. Are there books on it?"
Tiberius nodded. "You won't find any in Hogwarts library, though," he said. "They don't bother with foreign languages. You'll be able to buy some in Flourish and Blotts, though. They should have some beginners' guides and translation books."
Harry thanked him. While waiting to be seen, Tiberius started an impromptu lesson on the subject. It earned them curious looks from the other wizards and witches in the room – one of the more elderly witches actually looked offended – but Harry ignored them. He was paying more attention to the complex pronunciation of the Gobbledegook alphabet.
Their lesson was interrupted by a goblin calling out: "Woodrift and Potter!"
There were several gasps from the gathered witches and wizards, and Harry instinctively tried to flatten his hair over his scar. He slunk into the goblin's office at Tiberius' side, trying desperately to ignore the points and whispers of the people around him.
The goblin, for what it was worth, looked apologetic. "Now," it said once they had sat down. "I understand that you need to set up a direct debit between your vaults, and that Mr Potter here might have a couple of questions to do with his finances. Can I ask what the debit is for?"
Tiberius pulled out Harry's employment contract, which the goblin looked over appraisingly. "That seems to be in order," it said. It then pulled some forms out from a drawer in its desk and handed Tiberius a quill and some ink.
Tiberius read through the forms quickly and then signed the bottom with a flourish. He then handed the quill over to Harry. "You need to sign them as well," he said.
Harry nodded. He looked over the form, but it was written in some kind of financial jargon and Harry didn't understand a word of it. He signed it anyway. When he looked up, he noticed that Tiberius was watching him with his eyebrows raised. Harry reddened and avoided his gaze.
The goblin took the forms back and scattered sand over their signatures to dry them quickly. Then, once the sand had been disposed of, it filed the forms away.
"Now, Mr Potter," it said. "You have questions?"
"Um, yes," Harry said. "I was wondering about my financial status. I haven't received any invoices or bank statements from you, or anything."
That made the goblin frown. It turned away from the desk, and walked over to a bookcase in the corner of the room. It pulled a large book bound in leather off the shelf and carried it back over to the desk.
"Potter," it said clearly, and the book glowed blue for a moment. When the glow faded, the goblin opened it and began to read.
"Our records show that we have been sending monthly statements out to you for the past twelve years," it said, "and that there have been several transactions in that time."
Harry felt his blood run cold. "That's impossible," he said. "I was only told the Wizarding world existed two years ago."
The goblin's frown deepened. "Our records show that you have been making yearly deposits in the Weasley and Dumbledore vaults for the past twelve years, as well as ordering a yearly transfer of a hundred galleons into the bank account of one Vernon Dursley. There have also been small annual withdrawals for the past two years as well as fee payments to Hogwarts. Do you mean to say that you have not arranged these transactions?"
Harry was gobsmacked. He slumped back in his chair, his thoughts racing. He had been robbed. "No," he said. "I didn't. I only received my vault key two years ago, and I've only taken money out once a year since to pay for school supplies. Before that my vault key was in the possession of Albus Dumbledore."
He wasn't sure what to think. He knew that the Weasleys were poor, and if they had asked him for a loan he would have gladly handed over the money. But for them to take it from behind his back? For Dumbledore to arrange that? Harry couldn't help but wonder how much of his friendship with the Weasleys was based off his money, and just how much of it had been orchestrated by Dumbledore.
Now that he thought about it, a family of purebloods entering the platform through the Muggle entrance instead of just Flooing there like other magical families did, and talking about it loud enough to be heard over all the noises that filled the Muggle station was pretty suspicious.
"What can you do about this?" Tiberius asked. There was something odd about his voice: it sounded hard and cold. Harry realised that for the first time since they had met, Tiberius had gotten angry. Tiberius was angry on his behalf!
"We will stop the direct debits to the Weasley, Dumbledore and Dursley accounts," the goblin said. "Unfortunately, the money is gone and we are unable to retrieve it. However, what was taken amounted to a tiny percentage of the value of the vaults under Mr Potter's name. As Dumbledore is not a Potter, he was unable to access vaults other than Mr Potter's trust fund – the vault Mr Potter has been making withdrawals from. The true Potter vaults have not been accessed, nor can they be accessed until Mr Potter either comes of age or is emancipated.
"All the other vaults under Mr Potter's name have not been accessed due to the same or similar stipulations. The Black vaults are frozen – waiting for either Mr Potter's majority or emancipation, or the death of the current family head. Dumbledore has tried to access other vaults under Mr Potter's name, including the Linden vaults, the Cassidy vault, the Barlow vault and the Meanzies vaults. He has been refused access, however, as these vaults are barred even to Mr Potter until his majority or emancipation."
"Those vaults," Harry said. "How come they're mine?"
The goblin gave him an odd look, but it was Tiberius who explained. "Those are the names of families who married into the Potter family, but whose own lines either died out or were forcibly ended during the last war," he said. "Therefore, their ownership has passed to the nearest blood relative: you."
"There is also a dispute over the ownership of one of Gringotts' oldest vaults," the goblin said. "This has been kept out of the press as well as out of any letters sent to Mr Potter – or Albus Dumbledore, rather, as I presume it was he who intercepted your mail. There has been contention over the Slytherin vault between the Potters and the Gaunt family for several centuries."
Harry's ears pricked up. The Slytherin vault? His family were related to Slytherin?
"Unfortunately, records from that time are sketchy, and true ownership has never been proved, resulting in the freezing of those accounts," the goblin continued. "The last person to bid for them was one Tom Marvolo Riddle in the fifties, however his proof was deemed unsubstantial. If you can suitably prove descent from Salazar Slytherin, Mr Potter, then you will also gain control of those vaults."
Harry closed his eyes. Parseltongue was a bloodline trait, and he was a Parselmouth. It was possible that he was descended from Slytherin. But the sword he'd pulled out of the Sorting Hat at the end of the previous year had belonged to Godric Gryffindor. Dumbledore had said that that meant he was a true Gryffindor.
Remembering the state of his trust fund, and the unauthorised direct debits, Harry decided never to believe anything Dumbledore said ever again.
"Thank you," he said.
He had no other questions, so he and Tiberius left the bank. They stopped by Flourish and Blotts to pick up some books on Gobbledegook for Harry before heading off to the Leaky Cauldron to have lunch. Conversation between them was limited. Both of them were too deep in thought, mulling over the conversation with the goblin, to carry a proper conversation.
Something had stuck in Harry's mind, however. "What's emancipation?" he asked.
"It's when someone is declared an adult before they reach the legal age of maturity," Tiberius said. "It's rare, but it usually comes about when a kid's been abused or when they have no suitable guardians."
"Like me then," Harry said.
Tiberius looked up from his shepherd's pie in surprise. "Yes," he said. "I suppose you could say that. The Dursleys certainly weren't suitable."
"And I don't really have any other potential guardians other than the Weasleys – who were stealing from me – Dumbledore – who was also stealing from me – and you and Aurora."
"As much as we might like to," Tiberius said quietly, "we would never be allowed to adopt the Boy Who Lived. The Woodrifts have always been condemned as a 'Dark' family."
Harry sighed. "I hate that title," he said. "Do you think I could run for emancipation?" he asked.
"Sure," Tiberius said. "I think you've got a pretty good case. But it would take a while. You'd need the Dursleys to sign away your guardianship, you'd need to prove that you're financially independent and well organised, and you'd need to prove that you were being mistreated or were unhappy with your current guardians.
"You've got that down, for the most part, but with the amount of paperwork the Ministry would need from you, and the likelihood of Dumbledore standing in your way, it would probably take about a year to manage."
Harry nodded. "But in the mean time I need to find a way to prove my lineage," he said. "How on earth am I meant to do that?"
"There were several spells and potions a while ago," Tiberius admitted. "But they've since been labelled as 'Dark' and are inadmissible."
"Typical," Harry groaned. "Any other ideas?"
Tiberius shook his head. "We'll talk about it with the others when we get back. Maybe they'll have an idea of what you can do."
They finished their meal in silence. Then, just as Harry had lowered his fork to his plate, Tiberius spoke up. "Are you serious about emancipation?" he asked.
Harry looked up at him and nodded. "It's a way to get me away from the Dursleys and keep Dumbledore out of my life," he said. "Of course I'm serious."
Tiberius nodded. "In that case, I think we'd best visit the Ministry," he said.
They went to the Ministry through the Floo service. Harry felt slightly nervous about going there; Ministry officials did want him dead, after all, but he knew he had to do it. And he did trust in the glamour Linael had placed on him to hold.
The journey to the Ministry confirmed that he hated travelling by Floo. When he fell out of one of the fireplaces in the Ministry Atrium, he staggered and almost fell flat on his face. He managed to catch his balance, though, and his breath, though he had a harder time of controlling his stomach's urge to rebel.
Then Tiberius stepped neatly out of the fireplace behind him, and placed a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Are you alright?" he asked.
"Fine," Harry gasped. "I hate magical travel."
Tiberius chuckled. "You get used to it after a while," he assured him.
Harry wondered how long 'a while' would be. It wouldn't be soon enough, that was for sure.
He followed Tiberius through the Ministry. They had to have their wands registered – though since Harry couldn't use his, he thought is was slightly pointless – and the wizard in charge gawped openly at Harry's scar. Then they had to state their purpose, were presented with badges, and were directed towards the lifts. They had to get off at the third floor for child services.
The lift was filled with wizards and witches, and above their heads flew little paper aeroplanes: inter-department memos, according to Tiberius. Harry was thankful that none of them spotted his visitor badge or his scar. In fact, he was ignored by everyone other than Tiberius for the entirety of the short journey. The anonymity was refreshing. Harry was also glad that they weren't in a lift with any Aurors or Unspeakables. His first encounter with them hadn't left him with a very good impression.
They got to child services without any problems, and Tiberius continued his Gobbledegook lesson from earlier while they were in the waiting room. There weren't very many people in with them, this time. There was only a young couple sitting in chairs on the other side of the room who were engrossed in a conversation of their own, and the receptionist who was flicking through a glossy magazine. Harry had snuck a look at it when Tiberius had registered them and it had been a witches' fashion catalogue.
It had looked incredibly dull.
Dull as it might have been, Harry would have preferred to look through it than sit through the meeting where his emancipation was discussed. The witch they had to talk to was a plump woman with flyaway, greying blonde hair that was tied back in a messy bun. Her lips were caked with bright pink lipstick, and her wide, toothy smiles never reached her eyes.
She also stared at Harry's scar from the moment he entered her office. That alone was good enough reason for him to dislike her.
"Mr Potter!" she cried. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last. This is the last place I thought I'd see someone like you. What can I do for you today?"
Harry grit his teeth. What did she mean 'someone like him'? Was the scar on his head supposed to give him eternal happiness, or something?
"I'd like to file for emancipation," he told her.
Her jaw went slack, and she stared at him with wide eyes. "Whatever for, Mr Potter? Child services have been repeatedly assured that you've grown up happy and healthy."
"Who by?" Harry asked.
"Professor Dumbledore, of course," she said. "Your magical guardian."
Tiberius made an odd spluttering noise, and Harry sighed. He was beginning to get sick of hearing Dumbledore's name crop up in his business.
"I wasn't aware he was anything other than my headmaster," he said evenly. "And I haven't been happy and healthy. Far from it, in fact. The Ministry never thought to check up on me themselves? They never thought to ask me how I was instead of Dumbledore?"
She looked extremely uncomfortable, but said nothing. Harry decided to continue. "Can I file for emancipation now?"
"Of course," she said. She took her time rifling round in her desk looking for forms. As she did, she continued talking. "You do understand that this process can take up to a year?"
"Yes," Harry replied.
"You've also got to have proof that you're financially capable," she said. "As well as have you emancipation approved by your magical and Muggle guardians."
"What if one of my guardians doesn't approve?" Harry asked, thinking of Dumbledore.
"Then the case will go to court," she said. "In that case, the court will try to decide what is best for you."
"Will I be allowed to testify or something?" Harry asked.
She nodded. "Of course," she said. "You'll have to testify that your guardians are unsuitable, anyway."
She finally found the forms and slapped them down on the desk. Harry read through them – understanding them far more than he had the forms in the bank – and signed them. The forms were in triplicate, and Harry had to write down the Dursleys' address so that child services could send someone round to visit them. Harry supposed then that he should probably give the Dursleys a warning about the impending visit from a wizard or witch.
He was just glad that he didn't have to be there to see it.
Once they were allowed out of her office, Tiberius and Harry decided to go back to the hostel. Harry was tired and feeling pretty stressed. The revelations of the day were beginning to catch up with him, and all he wanted to do was curl up in his bed and try not to think about them.
Dumbledore was his magical guardian…but why? Had his parents given him that role, or had Dumbledore chosen it for himself? Why hadn't he ever checked in on Harry? Why didn't he ever tell Harry he was his guardian in the magical world? Why did he take some of Harry's money and give it to the Weasleys and the Dursleys?
And as for the Weasleys…would they stop liking Harry now that he had stopped them from taking money from his vault? Had they ever really cared about him in the first place?
Harry made the journey back to the hostel in something of a daze. He could vaguely feel Tiberius' warm, heavy hand on his shoulder, guiding him back home through the Alleys.
The world only came back to him full force when he saw Aurora, who was sitting by the fireplace in the living room with some sewing on her lap. She looked so happy to see him back, even though her forehead was creased with worry, that he couldn't help but launch himself at her and bury his face in her shoulder.
"He's had a bit of a rough day," he heard Tiberius say.
Aurora said nothing; she simply tightened her arms around him and held him close. It took everything Harry had not to cry.
Chapter 10: The Weasleys
The news that Sirius Black had escaped from Azkaban created havoc in the Alleys. Aurors began swarming around once more, and customers became far more tense – as if Black was just going to wander into Quality Quidditch Supplies on a whim and ask to buy a firebolt.
The morning the news broke, Harry came down to the kitchen to get his breakfast, only to be swept up in another of Aurora's motherly hugs. Once she'd pulled away, she'd studied him for a moment, before sitting him down and preparing his eggs. Harry had shot a confused look at a yawning Linael, who was reading the paper.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asked quietly.
"No," Linael replied. "She's worried about this."
And he placed the paper down in front of Harry. Sirius Black's skeletal face grinned up at him maniacally, and Harry shivered. "Who is he?" he asked.
"Sirius Black," Aurora said. "He was an Auror before they found out he was Voldemort's spy. He's the one who told him where your parents were hiding. Then he went after one of their other friends. He killed him and twelve other people with one curse. And now he's escaped from Azkaban…"
She'd choked up at that and had refused to say anything more. Harry had got the hint, though. She thought Black had escaped so that he could finish the job and kill off the last of the Potters.
But if that was the case, why was Harry the heir to Black's fortune?
Suddenly, Harry got the impression that this year at Hogwarts was going to be even more chaotic than the previous two.
Other than that, the days until Harry was due to meet up with the Weasleys passed quietly. He spent his days working in Tiberius' bookshop or running the occasional errand, and his evenings with Nikolai, Isabella and Linael. They had all become more protective of him since Black's escape, and Harry had a feeling that if Vampires could go out in the sun, or if Drow weren't nocturnal, then he would have three very dangerous bodyguards.
The day the Weasleys were set to arrive, Harry picked up one of his money bags and fastened it to his belt under his robes. He had bought new clothes since his birthday – with a little help from Isabella and a clothing store for Vampires further up Knockturn Alley – and had thrown out nearly all of the rags the Dursleys had handed down to him. The worn T-Shirts did make good bandages, even if Aurora disagreed with him.
The reason why Harry was taking money he'd already taken from his vault was a simple one: he wasn't really happy with the thought of the Weasleys seeing his vault now that he knew they'd been taking money from it. And besides, why should he have to take more money out when he already had a lot spare?
He left the hostel through the shop entrance and headed to the Leaky Cauldron where he would be meeting them all. His stomach felt like it was twisted up in knots, and the feeling only got worse the closer he got to the pub. Would they hate him now that he'd stopped the debit? He hadn't heard anything from Ron since his birthday, so he hoped not.
He slipped into the bar unnoticed, for once. The Weasleys hadn't arrived yet, so Harry took a seat at one of the tables and waited. He didn't have to wait long before the twins descended on him.
"Hello Harry," they chorused. They were smiling widely, and Harry couldn't help but smile back.
"Looks like we didn't have to rescue you again," one of the twins said. "Right Gred?"
"You're right, Forge," said the other. "And it looks like Ickle Harry-kins has gone all wizard on us."
"Robes and everything," the first twin commented. "Next thing you know -"
"He'll be carrying one of Lucius Malfoy's canes -"
"And practising his sneer!"
Harry dissolved into laughter. He was glad that the twins hadn't changed, at least, though he found it hard to believe that they would have gone along with stealing his money if they knew it was happening.
They sat themselves down on either side of him and grinned like Cheshire cats. Ron was down the stairs next, with Ginny just behind him. Ron grinned and waved as soon as he saw Harry, but Ginny blushed scarlet. Harry sighed. He'd hoped that Ginny's crush on him would have faded, but it seemed that that wasn't the case.
"Hello Harry," Ron said, sitting down at the table, opposite Harry. "Good summer?"
"Great, thanks," Harry replied. It was true, for the most part. The only downsides to his summer were all the people he had found who wanted to either kill him or rob him. "What about you, though? Egypt sounds amazing!"
"It was brilliant," Ron said enthusiastically. "Bill showed us round loads of tombs and stuff, and there were all these mutant skeletons from when people had broken in but forgotten about the curses."
"Those Egyptian wizards," one twin started.
"Were really inventive," the other finished.
"We got loads of ideas," they added at the same time.
Harry looked between them and the worried expression on Ron's face, and sniggered. "I wouldn't tell your mother that," he said.
The twins both shuddered.
They were soon joined by Percy, who was wearing a brightly polished Head Boy badge, and Mrs Weasley, who swept Harry into a tight hug as soon as she spotted him. Harry couldn't help but compare the hug to one of Aurora's, and found it lacking. While Aurora's hugs made him feel warm and safe, Mrs Weasley's made him feel as if she was trying to break some of his ribs.
"Come along now," she said once she had put Harry back down. "Time to get going."
"But Hermione isn't here yet," Ron protested.
Just as he finished speaking, the Muggle entrance to the Leaky Cauldron swung open, admitting a very tanned Hermione Granger. She spotted them in an instant and hurried over, smiling widely.
"Hello everyone!" she greeted. "I'm so sorry if I'm late. The traffic around here's just awful."
Mrs Weasley pulled Hermione into a hug too before leading them all out the back of the pub and through the archway into Diagon Alley. As they headed down the Alley to Gringotts, Ron and Hermione fell into step alongside Harry.
"You're looking well, Harry," Hermione said. She looked him up and down and smiled a little smugly. "I told you that the Dursleys would be nicer if you just kept your head down."
Harry was relieved to see that he wasn't the only one looking at her incredulously; Ron was too.
"Hermione, I've been staying in London all summer," he said.
Hermione looked surprised. "But it's important that you stay with your relatives during the summer," she protested. "Didn't Professor Dumbledore say that the wards there protected you for the whole year?"
"He did," Harry admitted. "But they don't protect me from the Dursleys, now do they?"
She bit her lip. "Professor Dumbledore wouldn't send you somewhere where you were in danger, Harry," she said.
Ron snorted. "You didn't see him last summer, Hermione," Ron said. "They'd locked him up and were starving him. You can't tell me that's normal Muggle behaviour."
"Of course it's not!" Hermione protested.
"So then why is that okay if they do that to Harry?" Ron asked.
Hermione sniffed. "I'm not saying that it is okay," she said. "I'm just saying that Professor Dumbledore wouldn't put Harry in a situation where he was really in danger."
Ron opened his mouth to argue, but Harry cut him off. "Look," he said. "Can we not talk about this? I've had a perfectly good summer without them. I haven't even thought about them until today, so can you both drop it?"
They both nodded, though Ron looked frustrated, and Harry sighed. For all that he had wanted to see them again; he wished they weren't so argumentative.
They made it to Gringotts without any more arguments, thankfully. Mrs Weasley looked slightly flustered when Harry said he'd already been to the bank that summer, but let him stay with Hermione who was queuing to exchange Muggle money for Galleons and Sickles. Ron, on the other hand, was dragged down to the vaults. Harry wondered why that was when Ron didn't have his own account.
Things got a lot more interesting when Mrs Weasley let them split up to do their shopping. She warned them about Sirius Black – though why he'd tempt fate by going to Diagon Alley on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, Harry didn't know – and told them not to set foot near Knockturn Alley. Fred and George headed off in the direction of Zonko's, while Mrs Weasley took Ginny by the hand and led her off to Madame Malkin's with Percy tagging along.
Harry let Ron and Hermione decide which shops to visit first. Flourish and Blotts was packed enough for Harry to fake getting separated by the crowds so that he could head over to the Politics section. He was looking for a book Tiberius had recommended on laws regarding nonhuman magical beings in the Wizarding world. He found it, fortunately, and managed to hide it amongst his other books by the time he had to rejoin Ron and Hermione.
The most interesting part of the day by far was when they visited Magical Menagerie – a magical pet shop. Apparently Ron's rat Scabbers had fallen ill recently, and Ron was hoping to get some kind of medicine for him. Surprisingly, Hermione was looking for a pet.
"My parents gave me some extra money to buy one," she told them. "I was thinking about a cat. That's normal enough not to raise any eyebrows in a Muggle neighbourhood."
When they entered the shop, Ron headed straight for the counter while Hermione made a beeline for the cats. Harry wandered around aimlessly, not paying attention to anything until he thought he heard something.
"Emperor!" said a chorus of tiny voices. "It's the Emperor!"
He looked around in confusion until he spotted a small tank full of snakes. The poor things looked cramped, he noticed, all stuck together in a tank that wasn't really big enough for them. The Wizarding world' attitude to snakes was really quite pathetic.
He approached them and bent down slightly to peer into their tank. They certainly looked agitated, and were practically slithering all over each other trying to get closer looks at him, their tongues flicking out to taste the air excitedly.
Harry's own tongue flicked out – the glamour Linael had placed on him making it look like he was simply licking his lips – and he realised that he could taste their excitement.
"Emperor!" they kept hissing. "The Emperor has come!"
Making sure to keep his voice low – he didn't want to advertise the fact that he was a Parselmouth after the prejudice he'd suffered for it last year – he spoke to them. "What do you mean 'Emperor'?" he asked.
"He does not know!" they hissed. They sounded confused now. "How can he not know?"
"Know what?" Harry asked them.
Their answering hisses were little more than confused noises that he couldn't translate. He sighed. He glanced around the shop again. Ron was still at the counter, though the shopkeeper was showing him a cage full of glossy black – tasty looking – rats instead of medicine. Apparently Scabbers wasn't going to last much longer.
Hermione was poking her fingers through the door of cage to waggle them at some tiny tabby kittens. Harry hoped she got something bigger. From where he was standing, they looked like lunch.
He looked back at the snakes. They were all the same breed, he noticed, and they were still hatchlings. Their shiny black scales shone in the low light of the shop as they slithered over each other. They were pretty cute, he thought.
His gaze slid to the small tag attached to the outside of the tank. It read: 'Naja morgani. Black Desert Cobra. 8 Sickles each. DO NOT TOUCH: VENOMOUS. Please wait for assistance.
For some reason, Harry had a hard time believing that they'd bite him if he put his hand in their tank. And even if they did, he doubted that they would have much of an effect on them. After all, he had survived Basilisk venom.
"I can take two of you with me," he said. They were small enough to hide on his person, and while he would gladly buy the whole tank full just to save them from it he doubted that would be appreciated by any of his dorm mates. "Who would like to escape this tank and become my familiar?"
The hatchlings seemed stunned. "The Emperor wants us?" one of them asked in a timid voice.
"But we are hatchlings," another said. "Too young to be of use."
"And our venom is inferior," another one said.
"He is the Emperor!" yet another hatchling argued. "He does not need our venom."
Harry groaned inwardly. They bickered more than Ron and Hermione. "Hush!" he hissed at them. They all shut up immediately. "Thank you. Please, do not argue. My reasons are my own. Now, which two of you would like to come with me? Decide while I tell the human that I will be getting you."
He left them to debate over it. Even from the other end of the shop, he could hear them fighting over who would get the honour to go with their 'Emperor'. He ran his hand through his hair. Hopefully he would end up with two of the less argumentative ones. Then once he'd got them to the hostel, he could try and find out what on earth they were talking about when they called him Emperor.
The woman behind the counter looked up when he approached. She had just handed Ron a little red bottle – medicine for Scabbers, no doubt; he'd apparently rejected the healthier looking rats – and he was studying it intently.
"Can I help you dear?" she asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "I'd like to buy two of your Black Desert Cobras."
Ron looked up from his rat medicine in surprise, and the woman blinked in shock. She recovered quickly, though. "Um, yes," she said. "Of course. I'll just get a cage for you and -"
"No need for handling gear," Harry said.
She frowned at him. "Those snakes are dangerous, young man," she said. "We wouldn't want you getting bitten, now would we?"
"They won't," he said calmly.
She tutted at him but relented. He watched as she put a tank together for him. It wasn't very big, but it was large enough for two baby snakes to live comfortably in it. He also bought bedding and some dead baby mice, which had preservation spells on them to stop them from rotting before they were eaten. He also bought a couple of live mice for himself later – though he pretended they were for Hedwig.
Then, leaving the tank on the counter, she followed him over to the tank where the hatchlings were being kept. They seemed to have come to some sort of conclusion, because they were a lot calmer. Their hissing did turn angry when they spotted the shop keeper, though. Harry frowned.
"You're going to have to move them into separate tanks soon," he told her. "Or they'll start to eat each other."
She gave him an odd look, but nodded. Then she reached out and unlocked the tank.
"Emperor!" the hatchlings hissed. "Could you take three of us?"
Three? He could definitely afford it, and the snakes were so small that a third one wouldn't really make much of a difference. "Yes," he hissed very quietly, making sure that the shop keeper wouldn't hear him.
He opened the door to the tank then, and placed his bare hand inside. He heard the shop keeper gasp, but he ignored her. Instead, he kept his eyes on the hatchlings. Two of the larger hatchlings slithered up onto his hand to coil their tiny bodies up on his palm. They were closely followed by the smallest of the hatchlings, which was barely the length of Harry's ring finger. He understood why they had asked him to take the third hatchling immediately: this was the runt of the clutch, and would probably wind up dead without him.
"Thank you," the littlest hatchling hissed. Her voice gave her away as a little girl. Her larger siblings, a boy and a girl by the sound of it, hissed their thanks too.
He smiled down at them.
He carried them back over to the counter and deposited them gently in their new tank. He watched them as they investigated it thoroughly, tasting the air of their new home with their tiny black tongues. They had a lot more room in their new tank, and it was making a good impression on them if their pleased little hisses were anything to go by.
"That'll be five Galleons and seven Knuts altogether," the shopkeeper said. Harry nodded and tore his eyes away from his new pets long enough to put the correct money in her outstretched hand.
"Snakes?" Rona asked him quietly. "Why do you want snakes?"
"Look at them!" Harry said. "They're so cute."
Ron looked disbelieving – as did the shopkeeper, who swiftly turned her attention back to Ron and his rat medicine. Harry didn't care that they disagreed with him, though. The hatchlings were cute. And besides, now that he owned them, he could settle down for a nice long conversation about 'Emperors' with them. He needed to know what they knew.
Whether Ron was going to say anything else about Harry's new familiars or not, he never got the chance to find out, because at that moment something huge, furry and ginger landed on Ron's head before lunging at Scabbers, who was still lying on the counter.
Scabbers squealed loudly and tried to – quite understandably – escape from the fuzzy ginger whirlwind that was aiming for it with outstretched claws, but was foiled by Harry's snaky instincts.
He hadn't actually meant to do it. He just saw a panicked rat racing towards him, registered it as a possible meal and snatched Scabbers up in seconds. The ginger beast lunged for Harry's hand, but was caught by the scruff by the shop keeper.
"What the hell was that?!" Ron yelped. He was reaching for Scabbers, and it took Harry's brain a couple of moments to remember that eating his friend's pet would not help their friendship any. He handed Scabbers back over to Ron, ignoring the way that the rat was shaking and squealing violently.
"He's gorgeous, isn't he," said Hermione from behind them.
Ron rounded one her. "Gorgeous!" he yelped. "That thing tried to eat Scabbers!"
She frowned at him. "It's a cat, Ron," she said slowly, as if she was speaking to a particularly stupid child. "Cats eat rats." She turned her attention to the shop keeper, who was having a difficult time keeping control of the flailing cat. "I'll take him."
Harry had never thought that a person could look that relieved.
He studied the cat. Hermione's statement that it was 'gorgeous' was wildly inaccurate. It looked like it had run face first into a wall, and its legs were decidedly bowed. It was fluffy, he supposed, but the colour was a horrendous shade of reddish orange that would have looked hideous on anything. It was also glaring at him evilly, as if it realised there was something not quite right about him, but knew he was far more dangerous than it could dream of being.
"Just do us a favour, Hermione, and keep it away from the boys' dorm, okay?" he said. "Scabbers is ill and doesn't need the stress, and I'd hate for it to pick a fight with these little guys." He patted the tank with his hatchlings in, and saw her eyes widen.
She nodded. "Of course," she said.
The shop keeper harrumphed. "Crookshanks here wouldn't survive if one of those snakes bit him," she said. "They're lethal."
Ron looked slightly panicked. "Snakes eat rats too," he said.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Look at them, Ron," he said. "I know snakes can swallow things larger than their heads, but that's ridiculous. Scabbers is way too big."
Ron still looked uneasy, but he nodded. Harry sighed inwardly. Did Ron honestly think he was going to let three baby snakes run loose around the school? They'd get trampled to death in minutes, powerful venom or not.
They left the shop after that. Hermione had her arms clamped tightly around Crookshanks, who looked unbearably smug about finally getting an owner – Hermione had got him on a discount too – while Ron was carefully slipping his rat tonic into the pocket of his jeans. Harry, on the other hand, was getting a running commentary of excited hisses as his hatchlings saw the outside world for the first time through the glass walls of their tank.
"Why did you buy them, Harry?" Hermione asked him.
"They're cute," Harry told her.
She, like Ron, looked incredulous. Harry ignored her. If she could think that foul hellcat was 'gorgeous' then he could think baby snakes were cute. He pointed this out to her, and she gave an indignant sniff.
"At least Crookshanks doesn't look like a worm," she said haughtily.
Harry decided not to point out that Crookshanks looked like someone had bashed its face it. Arguing with Hermione took far more effort than it was worth.
They spent the rest of the day in relative peace, sitting outside of Florean Fortescue's ice cream parlour with huge ice cream sundaes. The hatchlings buried themselves in the sandy bottom of their tank and went to sleep while Harry listened to Ron and Hermione go on about their exotic holidays. Both France and Egypt sounded like wonderful places to visit, but Harry couldn't help but feel glad for the summer he'd had. He couldn't imagine what his transformation into a snake-thing would have been like if he hadn't met Tiberius, Aurora, Linael, Isabella and Nikolai.
Hermione was the first to leave, claiming that she had to meet her parents in Muggle London at five. Then the rest of the Weasleys arrived. Harry ended up joining them in the leaky Cauldron for dinner during which Mrs Weasley fussed over him and Ginny blushed furiously, and only left after they had all gone upstairs to their rooms.
He slipped out the back of the pub and into Diagon Alley, setting off in the direction of Knockturn Alley. It wasn't until he had set foot in the dark, narrow Alley that Harry felt truly calm since he'd left the hostel that morning. The irony of the famed Boy Who Lived finding peace in the 'Dark' part of magical London wasn't lost on him, and he couldn't help but laugh as he walked back home to the hostel.
Chapter 11: The End of Summer
After dinner that night, Harry went up to his room to speak to his hatchlings. He had to find names for them, and he had to find out just what they meant when they called him 'Emperor'. He wasn't alone in wanting to question them. He had told the other hostel residents what had happened in the pet shop, and they had wanted to be involved in asking the questions, but Harry told them he needed to do it alone.
Besides, it wasn't as if they could understand Parseltongue, anyway.
The tiny snakes slithered up onto his hand when he placed it in their tank, and he carried them across the room so that he could sit on his bed while they talked.
"I need to ask you a couple of questions," he said once they'd relaxed in their new surroundings. "I need to know what you meant when you called me your Emperor."
The snakes, if anything, looked slightly uncomfortable, but they agreed to tell him anything he needed to know.
"We call you Emperor because that is what you are," the male hatchling said. "You are the Emperor of snakes."
"You mean like a Basilisk?" Harry asked.
"No!" they chorused.
The larger female hatchling slithered up to his wrist to speak next. "The Basilisk is merely a King among snakes," she said. "You are the Emperor. The Basilisk is a lesser snake than you."
Harry gulped. He was a more powerful snake than a Basilisk? That meant that while his snake-like characteristics were like those of a Basilisk, he wasn't actually turning into one.
"Do you know what kind of snake I am?" he asked them.
"You are the Serpent Who Walks Like Man," the smallest hatchling spoke up. "The Emperor: the most powerful snake of all."
They told him that he was a myth told by adult snakes to their hatchlings, but refused to say anything else on the matter. Harry supposed that they were too young – too sheltered by the pet shop – to really know much else. He played with them for about an hour after he finished questioning them, letting them strike dry at his fingers to practise their hunting reflexes. Then he put them back in their tank with a few dead baby mice, taking one of the live ones for himself.
After they were put away, he sprawled on his bed and thought.
In all the books on magical snakes that he owned, the Basilisk was listed as the most powerful of snakes: their King. But he was their Emperor; higher than the King and far more deadly. That meant that somehow, he had turned into a magical breed of snake that no one had ever heard of before.
It was worrying to say the least. It wasn't making his task of finding out what, exactly, he was look any easier.
But Harry was Harry, and he was beginning to get used to his life being far outside of the ordinary.
He closed his eyes and sighed. He felt tired after his excursion with the Weasleys, and the revelations – or lack thereof – that his little hatchlings had made. Before he realised it, he had dozed off, still fully clothed. The bed was too comfortable for him to care.
The rest of the week passed too quickly for Harry's tastes, and before he knew it, it was the day before he had to return to Hogwarts. He'd already packed up his things in a new trunk – one that had more than one compartment; one of which was now dedicated to all the books he owned – and he'd packed a set of his school robes into a holdall.
He felt sad, leaving his room at the hostel behind. He knew that he was welcome back, and that he would be back again at Christmas, but he still felt sad to leave. It was the kind of sadness he'd only ever felt before when leaving Hogwarts for the summer. He supposed that that meant it was a kind of home sickness.
He spent the last day of his summer holidays sitting behind the counter of Tiberius' shop. He'd been offered the day off, but Harry had refused. He didn't want to spend the day doing nothing except thinking about how he would miss the hostel and everyone in it.
The hardest part to accept about leaving was the fact that he didn't know if his friends would still be there when he returned. They might have to move on, or go back to wherever they came from, and the thought of never seeing them again was almost painful. He could reassure himself that Tiberius and Aurora would still be there when he returned, but he couldn't do that with any of the others.
So instead of sitting around moping, he kept himself busy serving customers and keeping the bookshop looking tidy.
That was when he stumbled across the 'Foreign Languages' section. He recognised some of the languages: French, which he'd learned a little of in Primary School, German, what looked like Russian, Gobbledegook, and a strange sort of language that looked like scribbles and strange spirals at first glance, but which changed to English upon further study. He pulled one of the books down off the shelf and looked at it. It was definitely not in English – contrary to what his eyes were telling him – since he doubted Tiberius would make such an obvious mistake with his organizing.
It was also part of a set, along the other two books. They were fairly attractive as far as books went, with creamy parchment pages and a soft leather binding. Curious, Harry took them over to the counter to read while the shop was quiet.
That was how Tiberius found him hours later, pouring over one of the books and practising wand movements with a quill. He peered over Harry's shoulder to see what he was reading, and raised an eyebrow when he saw that he couldn't understand a word of it.
"Interesting?" he asked.
Harry jumped about a foot off the stool he was sitting on and looked around wildly. Tiberius chuckled at the sight of him, and patted Harry on the shoulder. It was harder to sneak up on Harry now that he'd gone through his partial transformation into a snake, but whenever Tiberius managed to do it, the boy's look of utter shock was worth the effort.
"What? Oh, hi Tiberius," he said.
"Hello," Tiberius replied. "I came to see why you hadn't locked up and come in for dinner."
Harry blushed. He'd been so engrossed in those books that he'd lost track of the time. He grabbed the keys under the counter and headed to the shop door. He locked it and flipped the sign to 'Closed' before pulling down the warded shutters. He locked those in place too, and then turned to see that Tiberius had picked up one of the books he hadn't read yet, and was flicking through it.
"Can you read it?" Harry asked.
Tiberius shook his head. "It just looks like squiggles to me, Harry," he said. "I take it that you can, though."
Harry nodded. "I think it's some kind of written Parseltongue," he explained. "They're about casting spells in something the author calls 'the tongue of the serpent', so I assume that's what it is."
"It would make sense," Tiberius admitted. "You're the first person who's ever been able to read these books."
That didn't really surprise Harry very much. Parseltongue was a rare ability, after all, and snake-things were apparently even rarer. "Could I buy them off you?" he asked. He'd bought several books from Tiberius' shop over the summer, so three more wouldn't hurt. And besides, if he was the only one who could read them then Tiberius would probably be glad to get rid of them.
"Of course," Tiberius replied.
They worked out a price for them, and twenty minutes and three Galleons later, Harry was the proud owner of yet another three books. It was then that they realised that they were going to be very late for dinner, and left the shop to dash down the hallway and into the dining room.
Aurora laughed at them when they shot into the room. "Book addicts," she said accusingly.
Harry grinned at her words. She never would have been able to accurately accuse him of that at the start of the summer, but now it was very much true. He wondered if his teachers at Hogwarts would notice the change in him.
He sat down in his usual spot next to Linael and accepted a bowl of seafood pasta. It was delicious, and Harry closed his eyes in pleasure. One of the things he would miss the most about the hostel was Aurora's cooking.
"Looking forward to school, Harry?" Isabella asked him once he had swallowed.
"Sort of," Harry admitted. "Part of me would prefer to stay here, though."
"Are you going to visit the Chamber of Secrets again?" Nikolai asked.
Harry frowned at that. He hadn't really been planning on it. All there was down there was a dead Basilisk and nothing else. It was – frankly – a bit of a let down.
"I wasn't going to," he admitted.
Nikolai looked surprised. "Really?"
Harry blinked at him. "What do you mean 'really'?" he asked.
"If I was in your situation," Nikolai said. "I'd want to go back to where everything had started to see if there were any clues to what had happened."
"But there's nothing down there," Harry protested.
"That's odd in itself, don't you think?" Aurora asked. "I mean, the place is known throughout history as the Chamber of Secrets. You'd think that it would hold more than just a giant snake."
Harry blinked. "I never really thought about it like that," he admitted. "But…"
Of course! The Basilisk hadn't come from the hall where they had fought; it had come from inside the mouth of Slytherin's statue. Why would it have been sealed in there? Why, unless there was something in there that it was supposed to protect? There had been other places in the hall itself that could have made a suitable nest for it, so why in the statue?
And, of course, Salazar Slytherin had been a Parselmouth. He'd been famous for it, in fact. Maybe Slytherin hadn't placed the Basilisk in the Chamber so that one of his descendents would be able to kill Muggleborns with it – which, upon closer examination, seemed like a really pathetic reason to keep such a dangerous snake in a school full of teenagers – maybe he had put it there to guard something. A secret, maybe, that would have damaged Slytherin's reputation if it had got out. It was the Chamber of Secrets, after all.
"That's it!" he burst out.
The others all looked at him in confusion. "Are you alright there, Harry?" Isabella asked warily.
"What? Yeah, I'm fine," Harry said. "I think…I think I might have an idea why the Chamber was built. But I can't be sure unless I go back and check it out."
"I told you so," Nikolai said teasingly. Harry stuck his tongue out at him.
"Hush, you," he said. "Let me revel in my moment of triumph."
"Dare we ask what's got you so excited?" Aurora asked curiously.
Harry shook his head. "I don't want to say anything until I know I'm right," he said. "If I say anything before then, I'll probably sound a bit crazy."
"Because you're sounding perfectly sane right now," Nikolai muttered.
Harry mock glared at him. He knew that Nikolai would never let him live this down if he was wrong. He had to be onto something, though. The Chamber was too well hidden to simply be a store-room for a weapon. It was protected by Parseltongue passwords and a giant Basilisk, and the entrance was hidden in a girls' bathroom for heaven's sake. Generations of Slytherin's descendants would have gone to Hogwarts and heard the legend, but overlooked the girls' bathroom completely.
It was only Tom Riddle, who had been as thorough as he had been insane, who had looked in there. What was to say that Riddle was Slytherin's true heir? He could have just been a descendant who got lucky.
"Let him be, Nikolai," Linael said. "He could be onto something important."
Harry took another mouthful of seafood pasta, desperately trying to stop his thoughts from racing. He couldn't get too far ahead of himself. He had to stay calm, get to the Chamber, and investigate to see if he was right.
"I could be," he spoke up, agreeing with Linael, "but it doesn't matter right now. I have to get back to school first."
For the first time since his arrival at Last Hope Hostel, Harry found himself looking forward to seeing Hogwarts again.
That night after dinner, he went up to his room to pack his new books away and to double check that he really had got everything ready. The book of Muggle Fairy Tales Linael had given him for his birthday was in his holdall with his robes. He had read some of it already, and would try to read more on the train if he could ignore Ron and Hermione long enough to do so.
His little hatchlings were active now. Black Desert Cobras, he had discovered, were actually nocturnal. Their shiny black scales were actually quite an effective camouflage in the darkness.
They had hissed their greetings to him as soon as he had walked in the door, and were now concentrating happily on the dead baby mice he had dropped into their tank. They looked so odd when they fed, trying to stretch their tiny bodies over their larger prey.
He heard someone knock softly on his bedroom door, and turned to see Linael poke his head it. "Hey," he greeted softly.
"Hello," Linael replied. He came all the way in, and walked over to sit on Harry's bed. "You are packed?"
"Yeah," Harry admitted. "I didn't want to have to rush tomorrow morning."
"Sensible of you," Linael said. "How will you be travelling?"
Harry grimaced. "I'll be Flooing from the Leaky Cauldron," he said. "Tiberius is going to shrink my trunk down so that I can carry it in my pocket."
"How will you carry your snakes and owl?" Linael asked.
"Hedwig's going to fly to Hogwarts," Harry said. "So I'll carry her cage in my trunk. I'll be carrying the snakes' tank. I don't want to shrink it down with them in it, and I don't want them loose in the Floo network either."
Linael chuckled, no doubt imagining a hapless witch or wizard finding a dazed baby snake in their fireplace. "It would be safer that way," he agreed. "For everyone. Have you named them?"
Harry nodded. He'd named two of the snakes. "The male's called Apep," he said. "And the larger female is Nyx. I don't know what to call the little one, though. She says that she doesn't mind, but I think it's beginning to bother her. What's a good name for a snake in your language?"
Linael raised an eyebrow at him before lapsing into thought. He rested his chin in his hand and tapped one of his fingers against his lips. Harry had seen him do that with a quill before, when he was writing.
"My language is very strange, Harry," he said. "And we tend to give rather poetic names to things. My name translates as 'lake star', for example."
"I'll bear that in mind," Harry said. Inwardly he thought that it suited him.
"Dawlygin," Linael said, "translates as 'night time serpent' with a female ending."
Harry repeated it, trying to mimic Linael's pronunciation as closely as possible. He had to be corrected a few times, but eventually he got the hand of it. It was an odd sounding name, but he liked it and he thought that the little snake hatchling would too.
"Thanks," he said. "I'll tell her as soon as she's finished eating."
"I'm glad I could be of service," Linael said. He was smiling, Harry noticed, and his eyes were shining.
Harry swallowed nervously. It was at times like this that he honestly wondered if, after looking at Linael, he could ever think that someone was beautiful ever again.
"Are you alright?" Linael asked him.
Harry nodded, tearing his eyes away from the Drow. "I'm fine," he said. "I'm just a little nervous about going back to Hogwarts. I mean, I've probably pissed off the headmaster by stopping him from taking money from my vault and by filing for emancipation. And what if I don't find anything in the Chamber? I'll just be stuck back where I was before: right in the middle of a mystery."
"That's true," Linael said. "But you have to admit that it is better to check and find nothing than to not check and possibly miss something."
He had a point.
"And as for your headmaster," Linael said. "You are in the right, no matter how angry he may be. You should keep your head down during the day, and do as little as possible to attract the attention of your teachers, and perform your investigations under the cover of night."
Harry smiled at that. Somehow, Linael managed to pass on very similar advice to Hermione, but made it sound less annoying. "I know," he said. "But I don't attract attention or trouble; they find me."
"The words of a true trouble maker," Linael commented dryly.
Harry swatted at him, and the Drow dodged easily only to throw one of Harry's pillows at his face.
Harry spluttered as the pillow dropped away. He couldn't believe Linael had just done that. "How old are you?" he asked incredulously.
Linael shrugged. "Older than Hogwarts," he replied. He was grinning wickedly, showing his long needle-like teeth.
Harry hit him with the pillow. It was war.
They were lucky that the pillows didn't burst and shower them with feathers. Instead, they were thoroughly intact – though slightly mangled – by the time the pillow fight wound down, and Harry flopped down to lie on his bed next to Linael.
"I'm going to miss you," he admitted quietly.
Linael turned his head to smile at him. "I'll miss you too," he replied. "You'll have to tell me about Hogwarts when you get back."
"You'll still be here?" Harry asked.
Linael nodded. "Of course," he said. "This place has become home to me, since I left my people. I will stay here for as long as Tiberius and Aurora allow me to."
Harry grinned at that. He had been worried that Linael would leave and he would never get to say goodbye. "Can I write to you?" he asked.
"Yes," Linael replied. Then he stretched slightly and got up, slipping off Harry's bed silently. "I will leave you to your sleep, Harry," he said. "You don't want to lie in tomorrow."
He was right, Harry knew that, but he still wished that Linael would stay for a bit longer. He didn't say that, though. Instead he called out: "Good night," just before Linael closed the door.
He fell asleep just twenty minutes later.
Chapter 12: The Train
Platform Nine and Three Quarters was packed, as usual, with students and their parents. Harry slipped through the crowds, keeping his head down to hide his scar behind his fringe and stepping around groups of his classmates. His fellow students were greeting each other happily, already chattering away loudly to their friends about their summer adventures, while their parents looked on.
Harry spotted a crowd of red haired people and slipped as far away from them as he could. He had spent a lot of time thinking about the Weasleys this summer and he wasn't sure that he could deal with them. Not least because with Ron came Hermione, and she had been quite obnoxious when it came to him lately. He would much rather sit by himself and read than hold his tongue around his friends for the whole day.
He slipped into a compartment near the back of the train. The compartment wasn't empty; there was a man with greying hair wearing patched robes sitting in the corner. Harry flicked his tongue out, and noticed immediately that the man tasted odd. He tasted wild and predatory – inhuman – though he tasted like an average wizard as well. Harry shrugged it off. He was fast asleep, and Harry was reluctant to disturb him. He looked like he needed what sleep he could get.
Harry carefully set his snake tank down on one of the seats and placed his holdall next to it. Then he pulled his trunk out of his pocket. Tiberius had shrunk it down for him that morning, but now that he was on the train, he could resize it. The Underage Magic restrictions were lifted at the start of term, after all, and the Hogwarts school year started with the journey on the Hogwarts Express.
He resized it with a wave of his wand and placed it in the overhead rack. His trunk was heavy, and lifting it above his head like that was hard work and he struggled, but managed. Panting, he slumped into his seat. He caught his breath – wishing not for the first time that his transformation had brought superhuman strength with it – before leaning over to check on the hatchlings.
Since it was daytime, they were meant to be sleeping; buried in the sandy floor of their tank. He wanted to check that that was what they were doing, since he hadn't been sure how they would react to the Floo Network. As it turned out, he needn't have worried. He could just hear tiny, snuffling snores coming from inside the tank. He smiled fondly. They really were quite cute.
He closed the tank up again and reached for his holdall. He supposed that he might as well start reading now, just in case he was interrupted. The book was a collection of Muggle fairy stories from places all around the world – The Virago Book of Fairy Tales by Angela Carter – and Harry loved it so far. He'd never really got the chance to read or listen to stories like that when he was younger, so he appreciated receiving it as a gift.
He had just opened it when the door to his compartment slid open. He looked up, dreading the sight of Ron or Hermione, but instead saw three nervous looking boys. They looked like they were First Years, coming to Hogwarts for the first time.
"Um," one of them said. "Do you mind if we sit here?"
Harry shook his head. "Go ahead," he said. "Be quiet though. He's sleeping." He indicated the sleeping man, and was relieved to see the three boys nod.
They filed in with their trunks, and he helped them put them up onto the racks. He knew from experience that it was easier to put trunks away when you had help.
Once the trunks were dealt with, Harry returned to his book, blocking out the excited whispers of the new First Years. He could remember his excitement on his first trip to Hogwarts as if it had just happened yesterday. He didn't blame them in the slightest for being excited; he was just glad they were being quiet. He was also glad that they were there: it meant that there wouldn't be room for Ron and Hermione and he would be able to concentrate on his reading.
He felt slightly guilty about trying to avoid his friends. He couldn't really blame Ron for something his parents and Dumbledore had done – he didn't even know if Ron knew about the money – and it was in Hermione's nature to be bossy and obnoxious.
The train had been moving for almost two hours when the witch with the sweet trolley came round. He watched as the three First Years bought their share – far more sweets than they could possibly eat – before waving the witch away. Aurora had packed him a lunch of raw steak chunks in a magically cooled box with a flask of water – a diet far more suited to a snake-thing than a pumpkin pasty. He would try to be subtle when eating them; he didn't want to freak out the younger students.
He had just returned his attention to his book when the door to the compartment slid open again.
Harry sighed. He recognised Hermione's voice in an instant. He'd been found.
"There you are, mate," Ron said, barging into the compartment. "We've been looking for you."
"What are you doing in here?" Hermione asked.
"Hush," Harry told them. "He's sleeping." He indicated the sleeping man again. "And I was reading, actually."
Ron grimaced. "Turning into a second Hermione, you are, mate," he said. He didn't sound too pleased by the idea.
"What're you reading?" Hermione asked. Not waiting for him to reply, she scooped the book out of his lap and looked at the cover of it. She snorted in derision. "Fairy stories, Harry?" she asked. "Honestly. I can't believe you're reading this. It's kids' stuff. And they're just a load of rubbish, anyway."
Harry snatched the book back. "It's interesting," he told her. "And unlike some people, I didn't get to read them when I was a kid, so leave off, alright?"
She tutted. "Still," she said. "You should be concentrating more on your school work, Harry. Your grades aren't what they should be. Did you finish your homework on time?"
"I finished it ages ago," Harry said.
Ron groaned. "You really are turning into a second Hermione," he said. "Look, are you going to come to our compartment or not? We have food…"
"And we've missed you, Harry," Hermione interrupted. "We didn't get to talk nearly enough in Diagon Alley."
Harry sighed. He supposed he couldn't really avoid this. He marked his place in his book and pushed it back into his holdall. "Okay," he said.
"Bloody hell," Ron said. "No need to sound so enthusiastic."
Harry fastened his bag up and picked up the hatchlings' tank. He saw the three first years looking at it curiously. He ignored them.
"I'm just tired, Ron, that's all," he said. "I had a late night last night."
"What were you doing?" Hermione asked curiously.
"Packing," he told her.
She sniffed. "And I thought you were trying to be organised this year," she said. "You really should have started packing earlier."
Harry debated telling her the truth: that he had been up late because he'd wanted to say goodbye to the nocturnal residents of the magical hostel he'd been staying in, and that he had ended up having an impromptu pillow fight with a Drow. He doubted that she would take it well, if she believed him at all, so he kept quiet.
The train corridor was relatively quiet. Most of the people on the train were preoccupied with the sugary treats they had bought from the trolley witch. The compartment Ron and Hermione led him to wasn't much different. The twins were there, talking between themselves, along with Ginny and Neville, and were working their way through a mountain of sweets, cakes and pasties. The very air tasted of sugar.
Harry took the seat by the window and placed his snake tank on the table. The three hatchlings still hadn't woken up, and that was good news. He didn't want all his moving around to disturb their sleeping pattern.
"Hello Harry," Neville greeted. "What's that you've got there?"
"Snake hatchlings," Harry told him. "How was your summer?"
Neville smiled at him before launching into a description of some of the work he'd done in the greenhouses and garden at his home. Harry smiled as he listened. He liked Neville; he hadn't spent a great deal of time with him, but he liked him. He wondered if it would be possible for him to get closer to the unassuming and shy boy while drifting away from Ron and Hermione as he planned to.
"There were some grass snakes in the garden too," Neville told him. "I found an old rockery down at the bottom of the garden, hidden by long grass. There were a couple round there."
Harry grinned. "That would have been an ideal habitat for them," he said. "There'll have been mice hiding in that grass too, and that's what they'll have been eating. What did you do with them?"
"Nothing," Neville said. "I tidied the grass up a bit and put a couple of new plants in, but I left them alone. They didn't seem to mind what I did because they didn't leave."
"Ugh," Ron said. "Do you mind talking about something else? Snakes are awful, slimy things. And why do you care so much about them, anyway Harry?"
Harry felt like saying 'because I'm their Emperor', but he restrained himself. "I'm a Parselmouth, remember?" he said.
"Yeah," Ron said. "But that doesn't mean that you have to go all creepy and snakey."
Harry frowned at him. "Just because I'm a Parselmouth, it doesn't mean that I'm a Dark wizard," he said. "I don't see why I should ignore a talent just because the Wizarding World has silly prejudices."
Ron flushed, as did Ginny oddly enough, but Neville nodded. Hermione rolled her eyes. "It's not just a silly prejudice, Harry," she said. "There's a direct correlation between Parseltongue and Dark wizards."
Harry raised his eyebrows at that. "Maybe," he said. "Or maybe it's just that the Parselmouths who turned Dark were the ones who got attention, because I can tell you now that there's nothing 'Dark' about your average snake. They're more concerned with finding a meal and a good hiding spot than infecting the minds of young wizards with their insidious plots."
"The Basilisk -" Ron started.
"Was just like every other snake, only it was magical and sixty feet long," Harry said. "And whenever I heard it hissing, it was talking about food. Nothing dark about that, apart from the fact that the only food source in the school that was big enough to satisfy a sixty foot snake happened to be the students."
There was silence for a moment. Ginny, Harry noticed, looked incredibly uncomfortable with the situation. She had every right to be, he supposed, but he hoped she didn't blame herself for the Chamber incident. It hadn't been her fault.
Then Hermione spoke up. "What's wrong Harry?" she asked. "You've changed."
Harry couldn't tell her just how true that statement was. "Nothing's wrong," he said. "I'm fine, Hermione."
She didn't believe him, but dropped the subject. He silently thanked her for that.
Chapter 13: The Chinese Princess
The fairy tale mentioned in this chapter really does exist, and can be found in The Virago Book of Fairy Tales by Angela Carter. The title is that of this chapter.
Harry couldn't believe he'd passed out, but he was angry more than embarrassed. Who on earth thought it would be necessary to surround a school with Dementors – foul, soul devouring fiends – to keep students safe from someone who already knew how to get past the damn things? Clearly, whoever it was hadn't really thought things through.
The worst part of passing out hadn't been being force-fed chocolate by the man who had been sleeping in his first compartment, or being dragged off by Madame Pomfrey as soon as he'd set foot in Hogwarts. It hadn't even been seeing Malfoy doing impressions of him fainting – rather dramatically – when he'd finally entered the Great Hall.
No, it had been the concerned looks on everyone's faces. He didn't mind them being worried, but it was so irritating that they just wouldn't believe him when he said he was fine. And even after the feast – after he'd gone a good couple of hours without showing signs of a relapse – his friends hadn't let up.
"You will keep an eye on him, won't you Ron?" he'd heard Hermione say just as he'd started to head up to his dorm.
"Yeah, sure," Ron had replied.
He'd looked at Harry with that searching, concerned look again when he'd entered the dorm and Harry had fantasised briefly about biting him. He was not an invalid!
"Goodnight Ron," he'd said instead. "Goodnight Neville, guys."
"Night Harry," Neville had called, already tucked into bed behind his curtains.
The hatchlings had wished him goodnight as well, and Harry had hissed it back to them. He'd seen Ron shiver from the corner of his eye.
But Harry couldn't sleep. Every time he shut his eyes he saw the rotting, scabbed hand of the Dementor who'd come into their compartment. He heard the rattling of its breath and he felt the bone-deep chill of absolute terror.
Maybe, he thought, Ron and Hermione had a right to be worried about him. It had affected him more than he was letting on.
He lay in bed until he heard Ron's snores fill the room, and then slid out of bed. The feel of the cold stone floor on his feet made him shiver, but he ignored the chill. He grabbed his book of fairy tales off his bedside table and paused. He didn't feel like being alone, but his dorm mates would kill him if he woke them up. So instead, he unlocked his snake tank and dipped his hand inside. It wasn't long before he felt three tiny bodies slither onto his hand.
He lifted his hand out, and looked at them. They looked happy to be free of the tank for now.
"Behave," he told them "I'm just going to sit by the fire in the common room. I don't want you three getting lost."
They all bobbed their heads in agreement, and Harry set off down the stairs. The common room was empty, though the fire was still burning merrily in the grate. Harry settled himself down on one of the sofas, lying back so that his head was on one of the arm rests and his body was stretched out over the rest of the sofa. He placed his snakes on his stomach, and they seemed content to just slither over the wrinkles in his pyjamas.
He opened his book and began to read.
It was about one in the morning when one of the stories made him sit up and take notice. It was a Kashmiri tale about a man who had married a beautiful princess from China, but who had fallen ill shortly afterwards. An investigation into his sickness by a Guru revealed his wife was the cause of the illness as she was a wicked spirit – a magical snake who could take the form of a woman.
Harry's eyes widened. It couldn't possibly be that simple, could it? The book even gave a name for the creature – a Lamia. But…there were parts that didn't fit. A Lamia, according to the tale, was a snake who had not been seen by a human in three hundred years, and it was female. Harry was neither.
But, he supposed, some of the facts could be wrong. He was taking them from a book of Muggle fairy stories, after all.
"You taste excited, Emperor," Dawlygin hissed. "Are you well?"
"I'm fine," he told her. "I think I've found a clue to what I might be, though."
"You are the Serpent Who Walks Like Man," Apep said. "The Emperor of snakes."
"I know that," Harry said. "But that doesn't tell me what species I am."
The three hatchlings looked awkward. It was amazing how they managed to convey expressions so well, Harry thought.
"We do not speak the name," Nyx said eventually. "No snake will speak it. It is said that our venom is not strong enough for that name to slip from our tongues."
Harry didn't know what the hell that was supposed to mean. He marked his place in the book and placed it down on the nearby table.
"I need to write to Linael," he said quietly. "He's the one who gave me the book. Maybe he'll know if there's some truth in it. And I need to go into the Chamber. None of this makes sense."
"You'll find your answers," Dawlygin said reassuringly. She nudged his hand with her head, and he raised a finger to rub at her scales. "We cannot tell you, Emperor, but we can listen. And just because our venom is not strong enough to speak it -" again with that weird saying "- it does not mean that yours is not. You are our Emperor for a reason, after all."
"Lamia," Harry hissed. From the way the three of them shuddered, he guessed the book was right after all.
He gathered the snakes and his book back up not long after that, and crept back up to his dorm to try and sleep. His thoughts were whirling. He couldn't seriously be a kind of magical creature only mentioned in fairy tales, could he?
He was legendary among snakes – his hatchlings had already mentioned that – and he had only found clues to his true nature – so far – in a book of Muggle fairy tales. Was that why the Department of Mysteries was after him? Because he wasn't supposed to exist?
His life was getting ridiculous.
He barely managed to remember to put the hatchlings back in their tank before he fell into bed. Sleep was a long time in coming, however, as his thoughts were filled with beautiful women, dressed in rich silk robes to hide their serpentine bodies.
He was shaken awake rather roughly by Ron what felt like ten minutes later, though Harry knew that a few hours had to have passed. His first instinct was to bite, but he fought that down, and closed his second and third eyelids over his Basilisk eyes. He didn't want to start his first day back by killing someone.
"I'm awake, I'm awake," he grumbled. "Get off Ron."
Ron pulled his hand back. "You were hissing in your sleep, mate," he said. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," Harry replied automatically. He was really beginning to get sick of that question.
He got out of bed and dressed in his robes, running completely off autopilot. He could hear Ron saying something, but he wasn't paying attention. His thoughts were still going in circles. Would he be able to transform into something a bit more snakey? Why hadn't he already done it if he could?
He yawned widely, and felt his lower jaw begin to unhinge. He closed his mouth quickly. Going to school and hiding his new characteristics was going to be a lot more effort than he had thought.
Hermione was waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs, tapping her foot and looking impatient. She brightened when she saw them, and beamed at them both. "There you two are," she said. "I was wondering what was taking you so long. Come on, hurry up. We've got to get to breakfast and get our timetables."
"Yes Hermione," Harry and Ron chorused.
They were just beginning to set off, when Harry felt hands land on his shoulders. He tensed and jerked away, but managed to keep his snake eyelids closed so that whoever if was wouldn't get killed when he rounded on them.
It turned out to be Fred and George, who were looking slightly bemused by his reaction.
"Alright there, Harry?" one of them asked.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Fine."
He was unspeakably glad of Linael's glamour and his own self-control. Killing the twins wouldn't have been the highlight of his day.
"We were just wondering," the other twin started.
"If we could have a word," the other finished.
"But -" Hermione began to object. Ron looked slightly panicked, Harry noticed.
"You guys go on ahead," he said. Ron really didn't look happy now, and Hermione looked dubious. "I'll be right down, okay?"
"Okay Harry," Hermione said. "See you at breakfast?"
"See you," Harry told them.
Hermione dragged Ron out of the common room, and Harry led the twins up to his dorm. They passed Seamus, Dean and Neville on their way there, so Harry knew that the room would be empty. That was good. Whatever the twins had to say, it sounded important.
"We think you should sit down," one of the twins said while the other closed the door and threw up privacy wards.
Harry sat. He now felt incredibly wary. "What's wrong?" he asked.
The twins looked awkward. "Listen Harry," the first twin said. "This isn't easy for us."
"We'd rather we didn't have anything to tell you," the other said, running a hand through his hair.
"And we swear we didn't know before this summer," the first one continued.
"Or we would have told you ages ago," the second twin added.
Harry's mind boggled. The way they were speaking was making him feel a bit dizzy. "What is it?" he asked.
They were silent for a moment. They both looked incredibly guilty – a look that didn't really suit them at all – and for the first time since he had met them, they seemed lost for words.
"The thing is," the first twin said slowly. "Mum told us that Professor Dumbledore's been taking money from your vault and giving it to us for years."
"Ever since your parents died, we think," the second twin added. "Mum's been using it to pay all our food bills and stuff -"
"- With seven kids, you run through a lot of food -"
"And to pay for holidays since Bill and Charlie left home. We only found out this year because she wanted to make sure that the two of us, Ron and Ginny stuck close to you."
"Dumbledore's been worried about you since the Chamber," the first twin said. "Apparently he's been saying that you might start turning Dark now that you've been exposed to that sort of thing."
"And he set our family on to you," the second twin finished. "But we couldn't go along with it. I mean, some thanks you get for saving our sister's life."
"And that's another thing," the first twin interrupted. "He's apparently going to draw up an engagement contract between you and Ginny. He wants to anchor you to a Light family, Mum says."
As they spoke, Harry felt himself slowly get angrier and angrier. Dumbledore was interfering again! He was using his friends to spy on him. He was trying to set Harry up with Ginny.
His eyes were burning. He buried his face in his hands and felt his claws scratch his scalp. He hissed furiously – violent swearwords he'd picked up from Nikolai over the summer, translated into Parseltongue – and tasted fear spike in the air.
Then he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He got a hold of himself. He couldn't take his anger out on the twins; they were trying to help him.
"Sorry guys," he said quietly. "This is…I…"
The hand squeezed his shoulder and Harry, after making sure that his second and third eyelids were securely closed, looked up into the worried face of one of the twins. The other was standing close by too, looking just as worried.
"Thank you for telling me," Harry said eventually. "I already knew about the money, but… Why? Why is he interfering like this?"
"We don't know," the twin whose hand was on his shoulder said. "We don't know, but we're sorry."
"Emperor?" said one of the hatchlings. He recognised Dawlygin's voice – she sounded frightened – and turned to look at the tank. The three hatchlings were peering at him through the glass, all huddled up together and looking scared.
Harry felt a wave of guilt wash over him. He'd frightened his hatchlings when he'd lost his temper. "I'm sorry," he told them. "I just got some bad news, that's all. I'm alright now. Go back to sleep."
He watched as they buried themselves in the sand on the tank's floor and turned back to the twins. "I scared them," he explained quietly.
"You scared us too," one of the twins admitted. "Nasty temper you've got there, Harry."
Harry smiled. "One day, I swear, Dumbledore's going to find out just how nasty my temper can be."
They didn't argue with that, or try to dissuade him. Instead they lowered the wards they'd placed around the room and walked him down to breakfast. Ron and Hermione looked up at him when he entered, and Harry could practically see the guilt radiating off Ron. Hermione just looked curious.
Dumbledore was watching him too, he noticed, but he refused to meet the man's gaze. He didn't trust himself not to kill the old man right then.
He sat next to Hermione, and ignored her questions, instead choosing to take his timetable from her. He studied it intently and smiled. He had History of Magic first thing. Perfect. It was a brilliant opportunity to write a letter to Linael, and another one to Tiberius. Harry knew that he would need them to help him find a way to beat Dumbledore's plans.
He clenched his fist, watching in fascination as his claws – hidden by the glamour – drew blood. Dumbledore was going to have a fight on his hands.
Chapter 14: Confrontations
The rest of Harry's first day at Hogwarts was very awkward. Hermione was determined to find out what the twins had wanted to speak to him about, and Ron was just as determined as Harry for her not to find out. At the same time, however, he wanted to find out what exactly it was that they had said for himself. This had led to Ron and Hermione bickering about Harry's privacy all the way up to History of Magic.
They didn't even notice when Harry slipped away from them to walk alongside the much quieter Neville.
"Hello Harry," he said. "They're arguing again, then?"
Harry nodded. "It's getting on my nerves," he admitted. "You don't mind the company do you?"
Neville smiled shyly. "Of course not," he said. He paused, and then spoke up again. "You seem different this year, Harry."
"I had an interesting summer," Harry admitted. "I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened last year, and stuff. I think I've grown up a bit."
Neville nodded in agreement. "As long as you're alright," he said, "that's what's important."
Harry grinned. "Thanks Neville."
He spent History of Magic sitting next to Neville, writing letters to Tiberius and Linael. Hermione kept on shooting him frustrated looks from across the room, but thankfully, Ron had been bored into a stupor by Binns' voice. Harry was glad he'd taken the time to study History on his own over the summer; it was so much more interesting that way. The goblin rebellion Binns was currently droning on about was actually supposed to be one of the most exciting, brief and blood-soaked battles in goblin history.
By the time the lesson drew to a close, Harry had finished both his letters and was engaging Neville in a game of hangman. He'd managed to stump the other boy with a four-lettered 'non-human being' – Drow – when the bell rang. He gathered his things together swiftly and had just finished putting them in his bag when Hermione appeared in front of his desk.
"What were you writing?" she asked.
"Who says I wasn't taking notes?" he retorted, wondering if she too was in on Dumbledore's little scheme.
"You were messing around with Neville at the end," she told him. "And you've never been interested in history before."
"That's because it's so badly taught here," Harry replied. "It's actually really interesting when you study it on your own."
"So what were you writing?" she asked.
"Hermione," he said slowly. "Do you actually understand the concept of privacy?"
Hermione jerked back as it he'd slapped her. "There's no need to be so rude, Harry," she said coolly. "I'm just worried about you."
"Why?" he asked. "Why are you so worried? I'm happy, Hermione. I got free from the Dursleys, had a good summer on my own and I started to take more of an interest in my studies. I'm happy. Why are you so set on making me unhappy?"
"It's not like that," she said. "Professor Dumbledore wrote to me over the summer saying that you might have a hard time adjusting to the things you saw in the Chamber, and that I should watch out for you to see if your behaviour changed."
So she was in on it. "Dumbledore's not the authority on my life," he hissed at her. She flinched. "If you wanted to know if I was alright, then you should have just asked me and believed me when I told you the answer."
"Harry -" she started.
"I'm fine, Hermione," he snapped. "Now leave me alone."
"But you never talk about it Harry!" she cried. "It's not healthy to bottle things up like that. You need to talk about what happened."
"What do you want me to say, Hermione?" he asked. "That a twelve year old boy was terrified because he had to face off against a sixty foot Basilisk on his own? That I got nightmares about it? Do you really want me to tell you that, because I'd be lying if I did. Is that the sort of thing that you want to know? That you and Dumbledore want to hear?"
"But Harry, we're just worried," she said.
"You don't have a reason to be," he told her. "I don't need you to be."
She drew herself up. "You can't hide your feelings forever," she said. "Everything's going to come out in the end. When you need to talk, you'll know where to find me."
She walked off, and Harry looked down at his desk. His claws had dug into the wood, and he removed them carefully before he tried to rip the desk apart. Hermione was so stuck on being righteous.
"Harry -" Neville started.
"If you ask me if I'm okay, I'll hex your ears off," Harry told him.
"Um, right," Neville replied nervously. "I'll bear that in mind. I was going to ask what that was all about, actually."
Harry looked at him. Neville looked worried, but his face was so honest Harry could tell that he wasn't trying to deceive him. He sighed. "Dumbledore's got Hermione, Ron and the rest of the Weasleys spying on me," he said quietly. "I don't know why, either. He's trying to mess around with my life."
"That's…worrying," Neville said. "I mean, he's just a headmaster. I know a lot of people respect him, and stuff, because he's so powerful, but he is just a headmaster. He's not social services or the Minister of Magic."
Harry nodded. "I think he's afraid I'm going Dark," he admitted.
"Are you?" Neville asked.
"No!" Harry burst out. Neville jumped. "No, of course not. I'm just…older, I guess."
"Oh," Neville said. "That's alright then."
Harry looked at him in confusion. Neville shrugged. "I don't know if you've noticed, Harry, but you're the most powerful wizard in our year," he said. "Probably in the whole school, come to think of it. And when you come into your full powers, you're going to be scary. If you went Dark, then we'd be screwed; since you aren't, everything's okay."
"Um, right Neville," Harry said weakly. "I'll bear that in mind."
Neville rolled his eyes. "Oh come on," he said. "Do you think that any ordinary wizard would be able to block the Killing Curse? That any normal twelve year old would be able to fight a sixty foot Basilisk on his own and win? That an ordinary eleven year old would be able to do…whatever it was you did in First Year? You're strong, Harry, stronger than the rest of us by far."
"Dumbledore said that it was my mother's love that saved me," he said quietly. "From the Killing Curse and Quirrell."
Neville looked incredulous. "I can't believe you honestly believed that Harry," he said. "Lily Potter wasn't the only mother You Know Who killed or tortured. She wasn't the only person to try and defend her baby. Yet you're the only one who lived."
Harry cracked a smile. "I think we can safely say that Dumbledore's a liar then," he said.
"Oh probably," Neville said. "Either that or he's jumped to conclusions so high that he needed a Levitation Charm to reach them."
Harry sniggered. "Thanks Neville," he said. "Come on, we'd better get going or we'll be late for Charms."
They weren't late, but Hermione shot the two of them a glare when they met the rest of their class in the corridor. Ron looked worried. He kept glancing between Harry and Hermione like he was sure one of them was about to explode.
Charms passed quickly, and soon it was lunch. Harry was not looking forward to it. Not only would he be stuck in a room with Dumbledore – who was definitely not his favourite person at the moment – he would also be acting on a decision he had made that summer.
He had realised, with no small amount of horror, that his snake instincts were not very keen on the idea of him flying. He had tried hovering on his broom one day, while in his room at the hostel, and he had managed about a minute or so before sheer panic had him retching into the toilet in his ensuite. The thought of playing Quidditch made Harry's blood run cold.
He was going to have to quit the Quidditch team.
He was under no illusions of how unpopular that decision would make him. It was likely that Oliver would never forgive him, and that Professor McGonagall would drag him into her office for a stern chat – possibly even send him to Dumbledore – for not resuming his position as Seeker when she had bent the rules to make him one. His house mates would hate him too, for effectively cutting their chances at the Quidditch Cup into tiny pieces.
Professor Snape would probably appreciate it though. Harry was pretty sure that the man would actually get some kind of kick out of it, which would probably make Professor McGonagall's reaction even worse.
"Save me a spot," he told Neville quietly. "I need to talk to Wood for a bit, okay?"
"Sure," Neville replied.
Harry approached Wood and the rest of the Seventh Years with no small amount of trepidation. 'Snakes aren't meant to fly,' he told himself. 'Not this snake, anyway.'
Hey, Oliver?" he said nervously.
Oliver turned to greet him with a warm smile. "Hello Harry," he said. "Looking forward to the next Quidditch season?"
Harry shifted nervously. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about, actually," he said. "I'm giving up my place on the team."
It took a second for the words to sink in. When they did, the reaction was explosive. "What do you mean you're quitting!" Oliver shouted. Harry winced. He had known this wouldn't go down well, but Oliver's reaction was…
"You can't quit!" Oliver continued. By this point, he'd successfully drawn the attention of the entire hall. "You can't! You're our star Seeker!"
"Yes, Oliver, I can," Harry said. "I'm sorry, but I have to concentrate on my studies more."
He kept his voice low. It didn't matter. The hall was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
"I know that the Quidditch Cup means a lot to you and our House, but I have to get my priorities straightened out."
"But…but…" Oliver stammered.
"I'm sorry," Harry said with finality. He turned and walked back to the place Neville had saved him, and fought the impulse to run and hide. Everyone in the hall was watching him.
Neville was gaping at him in amazement, as if he had never actually looked at Harry before. Harry sank into his seat and reached for the jug of water. He wasn't very hungry.
He felt even less hungry when the entire Slytherin table burst into applause, rising to their feet to give him a standing ovation. He could hear wolf whistles and yells of 'thanks Potter' over the sudden noise. He sank lower in his seat and snuck a glance at the Head Table. McGonagall was staring at him in shock, her face white, while Snape looked…stunned, and mildly curious as if Harry had suddenly turned into a unicorn.
Dumbledore was watching him too. His blue eyes weren't twinkling, for once, and he looked very serious. Harry reached for his goblet and raised it in a mocking salute, making sure not to meet Dumbledore's penetrating gaze as he did so.
"You certainly know how to stir things up," Neville said quietly. He could barely be heard over the Slytherins' cheers.
"So," Harry said. "Are you still okay about being friends with the most unpopular boy in Gryffindor?"
Neville laughed. "Sure," he said. "Just give me a warning before you do something this mental again."
Harry mock pouted. "But that would take the fun out of it," he complained.
Neville just shook his head and laughed.
Chapter 15: The Serpent and the Wolf
His first week back at Hogwarts was less than comfortable to say the least. The whole of Gryffindor, apart from Neville and occasionally the Weasley twins, treated him like he was diseased. The fact that Percy Weasley loudly advocated his decision to anyone who would listen made his situation worse, in Harry's honest opinion, since Percy was widely known for being Gryffindor's resident windbag.
Still, the barely concealed hostility that his House mates directed towards him just gave Harry another reason to spend as much of his time as possible in the library. He also used that time well, by doing as much research on Lamiae as it was possible to do without breaking into the Restricted Section again.
He didn't find much, and what he did find was confusing. Apparently, according to the only book he could find with decent information in, Lamiae were always female – which Harry most certainly wasn't – and that their prey of choice were human infants – which sounded pretty disgusting, if Harry was honest with himself. And besides, he didn't think he could open his mouth wide enough to swallow a baby.
Lamiae were also supposed to be very rare; to the point of being mythical even for wizards. The confirmed sighting had been in China somewhere around 500 CE, and it had been killed by local wizards for eating their children. Kind of understandable, really, but not all that helpful considering that Harry was pretty sure he was male, alive and not in China.
In short, what he had been able to find out was pretty much useless. The only part that could prove useful, in his opinion, was a brief description of what Lamiae were supposed to be able to do – which was probably overblown by centuries of myth and fairytales anyway. They were supposed to be able to chance their shape between that of a serpent with a human torso and head and that of a woman, and they were supposed to be almost impossible to kill – the one killed in China had had its head cut off and its heart cut out before its was set on fire and its heart placed in a box and thrown into the sea. Harry thought it might be overkill, but it certainly explained why he was resistant to Basilisk venom and the Killing Curse – as well as inhumanly attractive and able to breed with humans.
The only thing was, no one was quite sure how Lamiae came into being anyway.
It was frustrating to say the least, and all of the facts Harry had been able to uncover about his apparent species made him want to smack his head off the table. Not only did he have to be the Boy Who Lived, the Wizarding World's child saviour and scapegoat, but he also had to be one of the rarest magical beings to have ever existed in the entire history of magic.
However, at least he could say that he had found something even if it was a collection of facts from magical and Muggle fairy stories. He hadn't been able to find anything on Drow at all – he'd looked out of sheer curiosity as to what the hell Linael was meant to be – though he had discovered that Sidhe was a blanket term for 'humanoid beings capable of minor magics' – the author clearly hadn't actually seen what one was really capable of – 'whose greatest charm is their appearance, though even that in some cases, is lacking'.
That statement had been followed by a list of beings and creatures that fell under that blanket term – though Drow were noticeably absent from the list – and it had made Harry feel like he'd suddenly stepped into some kind of alternate universe. The thought that beautiful, exotic, powerful Linael was distantly related to Dobby the House Elf and the Fairies that Flitwick used to decorate Christmas trees every year boggled his mind.
His other research project, on the other hand, had given him far better results. He now knew exactly what Dementors were – in a way; he supposed that the details involved Dark magic at a level that made the author and the rest of the Wizarding World a bit squeamish – what they did, what they fed off and how to get rid of them.
The spell in question was called the Patronus Charm, and it was supposed to create a shield of pure joy – it fed off the caster's happiest memories – which would drive the Dementor away. In its most powerful form it would take the form of an animal of some sort – the animal would be unique to the caster – although corporeal Patroni were very rare, since the spell was apparently so difficult that most wizards couldn't even manage its most basic form.
It was well above Harry's level, but he knew he had to try it. His reaction to Dementors was a huge weakness – not to mention embarrassing – that he couldn't afford. The problem was that it was pretty hard to practise it without a Dementor present. He could manage a thin silvery mist, which was pretty impressive for a thirteen year old, but he couldn't make sure it was working probably without an actual Dementor present.
But on the other hand, he wasn't exactly going to go and confront one of the ones on the grounds. He rather liked his soul where it was, thank you.
By the time Friday rolled around, he had spent more time in the library of his own accord than Hermione had managed to bully him into during their whole two-year friendship. It was fairly impressive, really.
After breakfast that morning, he walked down to the dungeons with Neville. Neither of them were looking forward to their first Potions lesson of the year, but they were eagerly anticipating the lesson that would follow it. Professor Lupin had already built himself a reputation for being pleasant and – perhaps more importantly – competent. In any case, he was an improvement on both Quirrell and Lockhart and Harry was rather looking forward to actually learning something in Defence for once.
But the fairly good mood he had managed to muster up that morning vanished as soon as he entered the dungeon corridor where Snape's classroom was. The Slytherins, as always, were already there – Harry could have sworn that they knew a shortcut down here from the great hall – and he arrived in time to see Malfoy do an oh-so-hilarious impression of him fainting. Again.
"Wow that's getting old," Neville commented quietly.
Harry nodded in agreement. The quiet sound of Neville's voice had drawn Malfoy's attention, and the blond boy drew himself up and smirked at Harry. His eyes flickered briefly towards Neville, but he ignored him for the most part; staying focussed on Harry.
Harry willed his second and third eyelids to stay closed. Killing a Slytherin outside of Snape's classroom would be suicidal, no matter how close to immortal he apparently was.
"So Potter," Malfoy said. "The general consensus is that you've either gone mad or Dark. Care to fill us in on the right one?"
Harry raised his eyebrows. "If people really think I've gone Dark just because I quit the Quidditch team, then you're asking the wrong person if they're crazy, Malfoy," he said.
Neville choked, and a black Slytherin boy with long straight hair sniggered. "He's got you there, Draco," the Slytherin boy said.
Malfoy glared at him over his shoulder, before turning back to Harry. "I see you've dropped Weasley and the Mudblood," he said. "Pity about Longbottom, though."
Harry shrugged. "You just don't appreciate loyalty and a good sense of humour," he said. "Now are we done grandstanding yet? It's getting kind of dull. To be honest, I'd rather watch you pick on Ron; at least that way you'd get a decent reaction."
Malfoy gaped at him for a moment, before sneering yet again. Harry supposed that must be his default facial expression. There was a flicker of apprehension in his eyes, though, as if he wasn't quite sure what he was dealing with.
Harry grinned at him and turned away, moving to lean against the cool stone wall. His reptilian body protested against the chill, but Harry ignored it. He couldn't allow himself to slip out of 'normal human behaviour' down here.
"What was that?" Neville asked him just as Ron and Hermione arrived.
Harry grinned. "I've decided that outright hostility with people who are sneakier than me isn't the way to go," he said. "I might be able to deal with them in the open, but if they go behind my back then I'm screwed. So I'm going to stop giving them reasons to go behind my back."
"Um, right," Neville said slowly. "I guess that makes sense."
Harry beamed at him.
"So Weasley," Malfoy said, having recovered enough from his confrontation with Harry to pick on his favourite targets. "How does it feel to have been replaced as Potter's favourite charity case?"
Ron went red. "Not that it's any of your business, Malfoy," he said, "but this is just a misunderstanding."
Harry wondered if all of Ron's misunderstandings involved thousands of Galleons and a betrayal of friendship.
After the build up and the apprehension, Potions itself wasn't all that bad. Harry managed to stop Neville from blowing their cauldron up, and he learned not to taste the air while in Potions class ever again. It was disgusting, and he barely managed to keep his breakfast.
He really hadn't wanted to know what the contents of his Potion tasted like, especially since the Flobberworm saliva had been fermented.
Still, it was a relief to be out of that classroom and away from the Slytherins, even though his taste of the putrid dungeon air had destroyed his appetite enough to make going to lunch absolutely pointless. He went though, mostly to keep Neville company.
Then it was Defence Against the Dark Arts.
On the way up to the classroom, Harry began to feel nervous. The previous Defence teachers hadn't exactly set a good track record, and he had the unshakeable feeling that something was going to go horribly, horribly wrong. He hoped it was just paranoia.
The feeling deepened as Lupin led them away from the classroom and into the staff room, where they came across Snape sitting in an armchair with his nose in a book. For one wild moment Harry wondered if they were going to have a lesson on how to hex greasy bastards, before he noticed the wardrobe Lupin had moved to stand next to.
It was rattling slightly, and he heard Neville swallow nervously.
"Gather round," Lupin said, not looking in the slightest bit perturbed by the fact that he was standing next to what looked like a very pissed off piece of furniture. "Now, in this wardrobe is a creature called a Boggart. Can anyone tell me what a Boggart does?"
Predictably, Hermione's hand shot in the air. Lupin nodded to her.
"It takes the form of our greatest fear," she said smartly.
"Good," Lupin said, smiling at her. "Five points to Gryffindor. Now, I don't suppose that anyone can tell me what problem this might create for the Boggart if it comes across more than one person?"
It was Hermione who answered again. "Because there is more than one person, the Boggart would be forced to take on the appearance of the combined fears of the people it comes across. So if one of them feared decapitation, and the other feared slugs, it would turn into half a slug."
"Well done Miss Granger," Lupin said, beaming at her. "Take another five points. Because of this, you will be taking turns in confronting the Boggart so that it doesn't become confused. The spell you will be using to counteract its abilities is 'riddikulus'. For the incantation to work correctly, you must think of something that will cause the Boggart's form to become amusing rather than frightening."
Harry wondered what he was most afraid of. Voldemort? Why would he fear someone who had failed to kill him twice and probably would never be able to succeed? Dumbledore? Hardly. He was just annoying. Uncle Vernon? Not at all, despite how the man had treated him. The Basilisk? Not particularly frightening considering he was a far deadlier and more powerful snake.
The memory of a scabbed, rotting hand pulling open a train compartment door floated up in his mind. He shivered. The Dementors… That made sense, at least, but how was he supposed to make a Dementor funny?
"If you'll excuse me, Lupin, I'd rather not watch the third year Gryffindors fail spectacularly at another academic task today," said a cold voice. It was Snape, and he was finally removing himself from his armchair. "I'm not sure if anyone has told you, but this class contains Longbottom, who manages to turn even the simplest of tasks into a disaster."
Lupin smiled at him blandly. "I have the greatest faith that these students will be allowed to complete the task admirably," he said.
Snape scoffed. "That in itself, Lupin, shows that you have no experience in teaching," he said. And with that, he swept out of the room; his black robes billowing out behind him. Behind his back, Lupin rolled his eyes.
"Now," he said. "Mr Longbottom, would you like to go first?"
"Not really," Neville muttered. "Yes Professor," he said, raising his voice enough for Lupin to hear.
Harry patted him on the back. "Don't worry about it," he said. "You'll be fine."
Neville's smile was slightly strained. "Right," he said. "Thanks Harry."
Lupin opened the wardrobe and a perfect replica of Snape stepped out to loom over Neville; sneer twisting already ugly features. Neville gave a decidedly undignified squeak.
"Come on Mr Longbottom," Lupin said. "Remember the incantation."
Harry darted his tongue out to taste the air. His classmates as a whole tasted of anticipation and excitement, though there was a hint of sheer terror that obviously came from Neville. There were two other tastes that Harry didn't recognise: something that tasted of fur and danger and fury, and something that tasted sour and rotten. The latter, he presumed, was the Boggart, so that meant that the furious furry taste was coming from mild-mannered Professor Lupin, which made no sense at all unless…
Unless Lupin was hiding something.
"Big surprise there then," he muttered, wishing that for once they could have had a Defence teacher without any potentially dangerous secrets.
"R-r-r-riddikulus!" Neville choked out. The Boggart paused, stopping its slow, menacing advance, and looked at him with Snape's soulless black eyes. "Riddikulus!" Neville tried again, and this time it worked and Harry was unable to hold back his laughter at the sight of Snape in a green dress with a vulture-topped witch's hat.
The rest of the class roared with appreciative laughter, and Harry knew immediately that stories of this would be around the school in a matter of hours. He winced then. Snape was going to give Neville a rough time over this.
Lupin chuckled. "Well done Mr Longbottom!" he said happily. "Alright, who's next?"
The Boggart was quickly passed through the class, but after Ron had removed his giant spider's legs and the body rolled to a halt at Harry's feet, Lupin darted forward; a look of fear on his face.
The Boggart transformed quickly into Dementor, but Harry only got a brief glimpse of the ragged black cloak before he was pushed out of the way by his teacher and it transformed again. This time it took the form of a lowing white orb hanging in the air above Lupin's head, and he banished it calmly back into the wardrobe.
It had looked almost like the full moon.
Harry glared up at Lupin – making sure to keep his second and third eyelids tightly closed – and stood up from where the deceptively strong teacher had shoved him to the floor. The urge to bite the man was almost overwhelming, and it took a moment for Harry to get his temper back under control.
Why had Lupin shoved him out of the way? Did he think Harry was too weak to face down a Boggart of all things? Even if Lupin didn't know of Harry's status as the ridiculously powerful Emperor of Serpents, he surely knew that Harry had taken on a sixty-foot Basilisk at the age of twelve and won. And besides, he had let Harry's classmates – all of them – take on the Boggart. Why, if it was so unsuitable for Harry to face, had he even done a lesson on it that was aimed at his class?
Harry began to suspect that Lupin wasn't particularly good at his job.
"Are you okay?" Neville asked him quietly.
"I'm fine," Harry said. It was a lie. He was pissed off and the urge to bite was still there.
He lingered after the lesson. He wanted answers. He leaned against the wall and watched as Lupin gathered up his things. When the man turned to leave, he blinked in surprise at seeing Harry still there.
"Can I help you, Harry?" he asked.
That was odd, Harry thought. Lupin had gone through the entire lesson referring to the other students by their family names, but he was on first name terms with Harry?
"Actually, Professor, I was wondering why you didn't let me face the Boggart," Harry said, willing his voice to remain calm.
Lupin looked surprised, as if he'd thought that Harry would have automatically known the reasons behind his intervention. Harry made a note to look up Legillimency at some point; it would probably make things easier.
"I would have thought that was obvious, Harry," Lupin said.
Harry raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid it isn't, Professor," he said.
Lupin smiled at him gently. "I didn't think that it would be a good idea to have a copy of Lord Voldemort – even an inferior one – in the classroom," he said.
Ah. Well, Harry supposed that made sense, considering he seemed to be the only person who could escape Voldemort on a semi-regular basis.
"That would be working off the assumption that I'm afraid of him, Professor," he said quietly, "which I am not."
Lupin frowned at him. "I've heard of your misadventures over the past two years, Harry," he said. "I would have thought that that would have taught you caution when it came to the Dark Lord."
"Caution, yes," Harry admitted, "and a healthy dose of paranoia, but not fear. I don't fear things that I can fight back against." He pushed himself off the wall and smiled pleasantly, wondering if the expression looked as faked as it felt. "Good day to you, Professor," he said.
He left the staffroom then, and headed towards the library. He wasn't hungry.
Chapter 16: Shedding Skin
He received a letter from Tiberius and Aurora the morning after his conversation with Lupin. In it were some simple passages in written Gobbledegook he was meant to translate and a long and lengthy diatribe against Dumbledore, culminating in a note from Aurora that said exactly what she thought about Dumbledore's little engagement idea. It made for very entertaining reading. Amongst the ranting, however, was a piece of advice that Harry was going to follow: he was to write to the Ministry's Social Services department and tell the people who were handling his emancipation case what he had heard from Fred and George.
They also included a letter from Linael. It took a moment for Harry to decipher his elaborate calligraphy, but when he'd got the hang of it, the letter proved worth the effort. In addition to the basic greetings, Linael had included some information on Lamiae which managed to be more informative than all of the books Harry had studied combined.
The Lamia is known to my people. The last Lamia we knew to inhabit the British Isles lived a thousand years ago, around the time your school was founded. She had been Greek in origin: a female Basilisk who had hidden herself from view in a magical area for three hundred years, and who emerged a Lamia. This is, it seems, the manner in which all Lamiae are created whether from magical serpent or no; they must hibernate for three hundred years in a magical area so to absorb the magical aura and be transformed. The exact details of her ability were not recorded, but she was certainly capable of taking on a human form, and it is likely that she would have kept those abilities she had while she was a Basilisk. The Keeper of Records – the librarian of my people and a good fried of mine; the one from whom I obtained this information – says that she vanished from all accounts not long after the construction of Hogwarts had been completed. I hope this information if of use to you.
To answer your other question, I did not know of the Lamia fairytale in the book I gave you before you told me it was there. A mere coincidence, I think, though a pleasant one. I am glad, however, that my gift has been of use to you, though isn't it ironic that a Muggle fairytale holds the correct facts of a Lamia's evolution from a serpent while Wizarding texts remain in the dark?
Harry could have kissed him for that information. Instead he settled for clutching the letter to his chest and cackling with glee; startling a bleary eyed Neville into choking on his morning porridge.
"Good news?" Neville asked him.
"Very good news," Harry admitted
He caught sight of Ron and Hermione watching him – and not being too subtle about it, either – and returned his attention to his scrambled eggs. They could be curious as much as they liked, but he wasn't going to tell them anything. They would report it to Dumbledore in minutes, and Harry would be screwed.
"That's good then," Neville said. "You might want to tune the manic laughter down a bit, though. Dumbledore's watching you."
So he was. Harry couldn't bring himself to care about it though. He could sit and wait for an explanation that wouldn't come, just like Ron and Hermione.
"Right," he said. "Thanks for the tip off."
"No problem," Neville replied. "So…do I get to ask why you made me choke on my tea?"
Harry shrugged. "I'd rather not say," he admitted softly. "Not because I don't trust you, or anything, it's just that I don't trust Dumbledore not to read your mind for the information later."
Neville went wide eyed. "He can do that?" he asked.
Neville gave an indignant snort. "So much for privacy," he said. "What did you do to Lupin, though? Ever since you came out of the staffroom last night he's been looking like someone killed his dog."
Harry glanced at the head table and saw that Lupin did indeed have a very hangdog expression on his face. As Harry watched him, he looked up and his gaze locked with Harry's. Harry saw him wince slightly.
"I asked him about the Boggart and why he didn't let me face it," Harry said. "He said it was because he didn't want to end up with a Boggart version of Voldemort in his classroom."
Neville twitched at the name, but nodded. "I can see his point," he admitted. "I mean Snape's bad enough, but You-Know-Who would be even worse."
"I suppose," Harry said, wondering if he had been a bit too harsh with the man. "Bit he assumed – wrongly, might I add – what my greatest fear was and made me seem too weak to take it on, in front of my classmates who had all already dealt with it."
"I don't think they think any less of you, Harry," Neville said slowly. "I mean, most of them probably would have assumed that it would turn into You-Know-Who – like Lupin did – and are probably pretty glad that Lupin shoved you out of the way in time."
Harry hummed in thought. He poked at his egg with his fork, before taking a sip of water. "I wonder why he's afraid of the full moon, though," he said.
Neville blinked. "Was that what it was?" he asked. "Lavender keeps going on about it being a crystal ball, for some reason. I don't know…maybe he's a werewolf?"
Harry remembered the taste of fur and anger and hatred on his tongue and grimaced. "Maybe," he said softly.
Neville shrugged. "Werewolf or not, at least he's not another Lockhart."
Harry fervently agreed.
Over the weekend, spent mostly in the library, he noticed Hermione paying a lot of attention to him. He ignored her as much as he could, though sometimes the sight of her retracing his steps to various shelving stack just after he'd returned to his table made his eyes tingle in a way that told him that they had gone yellow. He always made sure that his second and third eyelids were closed when they did that.
She wanted to know what kind of books he was looking at. He thought she could go hang for it.
He had roped Neville in to tutor him in Herbology, though. It was one of his worst subjects, and Harry thought that he would do well to try and improve his grade as much as he could. He never knew when it could come in handy. It also happened that Neville was very good at Herbology – better than Hermione, in fact, as he had talent rather than just book smarts – and was more than willing to help Harry in return for a bit of Defence Against the Dark Arts tutoring.
So it happened that what time they didn't spend in the library under Hermione's watchful gaze, was spent in an empty classroom practising the Patronus Charm or in the greenhouses learning the properties of the different plants. Professor Sprout was incredibly helpful when they explained to her what exactly they were doing in there.
It was on Sunday that he first noticed it. His skin had gone paler than usual, and it felt kind of papery to the touch. It was weird, he thought, but he chalked it up to being another snakey thing and hoped that it would blow over soon.
It began to blow over – in a most inconvenient way – on Monday morning, part way through History of Magic.
Harry had been sitting at his desk, doodling mindlessly and trying not to fall asleep – unlike Neville, who had his head pillowed on his arms and his eyes closed – when he had caught his wrist on the corner of his desk. There was a tearing noise – not unlike ripping parchment – and Harry froze. He saw Hermione's head whip round, so he returned his attention to his doodling, thankful that Linael's glamour would keep her from seeing anything odd.
Once she'd turned back around, he pushed his sleeve up to inspect his wrist. What he saw made his eyes widen in shock. A large piece of papery skin was hanging off his wrist; fine, pale scales showing through the gaping hole where it had been. He nearly screamed. His skin was coming off! His skin!
He pushed his sleeve back down to hide it, and stared down at the rose he'd doodled on his parchment. There was a snake twisting in between its wicked-sharp spines.
He was shedding his skin.
The thought of it was kind of disgusting, but it was understandable in a way. He was a snake, after all. And at least he had a glamour to cover up the fact that he was getting scales on the rest of his body now.
He wondered why they hadn't come through when the green ones down his spine had, though he supposed that that was just the way these things worked. Maybe they'd needed longer to develop because there were more of them.
Though shedding did present a problem that no amount of glamours would get rid of. What on earth was he meant to do with his old skin? Leave it lying around on the bathroom floor? Hide it somewhere? Burn it? Feed it to one of Hagrid's pets? Attach it to the Quidditch posts like some kind of flag, maybe?
It was a skin! An entire, human-shaped skin was hardly the least obvious thing to deal with in the world. What if someone found it before he could get rid of it? What if bits fell off in class? People would definitely know that he was hiding something – possibly leprosy – if they saw pieces of his skin fall out from under his robes.
"Oh hell," he muttered.
He escaped from the company of his peers that evening, having spent the entire day worried that the flap of loose skin was going to fall off and he would be either pounced on by an overly curious Hermione, or dragged off to the hospital wing for Madam Pomfrey to inspect. Once he was on his own, locked in a shower cubicle in the third year boys' bathroom, he stripped off his clothes, hung them up and dodged behind the curtain so that he could tear his own skin off.
It was one of the less pleasant experiences of his live. It was weird, and there was so much of it, that Harry was really beginning to worry that he wouldn't be able to get rid of it all without someone noticing.
Once he was done, having picked flakes of it out from between his now scaly toes, he wrapped the skin up in his robes and turned the shower on, being careful with his hair in case that decided to shed itself too.
It didn't, much to his relief. As annoyingly untidy as his hair was, he didn't want to go through life bald. And besides, he liked his red stripe even if he was the only one who could see it.
After his shower, he dried off and changed into his pyjamas while still in his cubicle, before picking up his robes – still with his shed skin wrapped in them – and returned to the dorm. Neville was waiting for him, his nose buried in a book on magical plants. Harry placed his robes carefully on the end of his bed so that his skin didn't spill out of them and looked at Neville curiously.
"Oh, Ron and Hermione were getting annoying," Neville said, explaining his presence. "They kept asking me if you'd been acting at all weirdly. And when I said that you hadn't, they started looking at each other as if I'd said something significant that only they understood the meaning of. I left before they could ask me anything else."
"I don't blame you," Harry said.
Neville shrugged. "I was lying, though," he said. "I've never seen you act like this before."
"But you don't want to tell me why you've changed, and that's okay," Neville continued, as if he hadn't noticed how Harry had gone far more still than any human should have been capable of. "I don't really care, to be honest, because you're happier this way and what's your business is your business."
"Thanks Neville," Harry said, well aware that he was staring at Neville as if he'd never seen him before. Somehow, Neville had just managed to prove himself a better friend in under two minutes than Rona and Hermione had done in two years.
Neville just grinned at him before returning to his book.
Chapter 17: Siessa
It was half way through October by the time Harry got the chance to return to the Chamber of Secrets. He decided to go at night time under his invisibility cloak so that he could avoid the speculation of his housemates. He'd already had Ron nosing around after he'd caught Harry on his way back up to the dorm a little after midnight the night he'd shed his skin for the first time. Harry had been down there to burn it, and had watched it go up in smoke, only to return to bed to find Ron leaving the bathroom.
There had been an awkward silence, before Harry had torn his gaze away from his ex-best friend and slipped into his bed.
So he had learned that if he wanted to be out of bed after hours then he had better be under his invisibility cloak, whether he was outside of the common room or not. Not that he would have left the cloak behind when sneaking around the halls anyway. He wasn't stupid.
The stone floors were uncomfortably cold beneath his feet as he made his way down to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, but he ignored the chill as much as he could. It was one of the downsides to suddenly being a giant snake: he felt the cold a lot more than he used to. The trek felt far shorter than it had in second year, but then again, Harry supposed that he was looking forward to visiting the Chamber this time. He was going to – hopefully – get some answers.
When he opened the door to the second floor girls' bathroom, Myrtle poked her head through a cubicle door. "Who's there?" she asked.
Harry tugged his cloak off. "Hey Myrtle," he said. "How's things?"
She goggled at him, and for a moment Harry wondered if Linael's glamour worked on ghosts. Then she smiled. "You're asking how I am," she said. She sounded amazed, and her cheeks flushed silver.
"Yeah, I am," Harry said.
She giggled. "I'm alright," she admitted. "Not much has changed, but…I'm sorry Harry."
He blinked at her. "What for?"
She looked guilty. "You won't like me when I tell you," she said.
Harry had a sneaking suspicion that Dumbledore was involved in this somehow. "What is it, Myrtle?" he asked.
She picked at a spot on her chin. "The headmaster asked me to tell him if anyone came down here who shouldn't, especially if it was you. He said that if he found out I didn't tell him then he'd banish me from the castle," she said, sounding thoroughly miserable.
"Can he do that?" Harry asked. She nodded, and Harry sighed. He ran his hand over his face and thought. He had to go down to the Chamber and Myrtle had to tell on him anyway, so he might as well just do it and hang the consequences. He'd deal with Dumbledore later if he had to.
"Go on then," he said. "Tell him I was here."
She blinked at him. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes," he told her. "Go on."
She left her cubicle, and Harry kept his eyes on her until she floated out through the door, no doubt heading to Dumbledore's office on the third floor. As soon as he thought she was gone, he turned to the correct sink and opened the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets.
He shoved his invisibility cloak into his schoolbag and slipped into the pipe. Before he slid down, however, he hissed "close" at the entrance, and pushed off just as the sink ground back into place. He didn't want anyone following him down, and since he was the only one who could open the entrance to the Chamber, there was no chance of being followed if he closed it. Of course, that left him with the problem of getting out, but he'd deal with that when it came.
Better being stuck in the Chamber for a few days than have Dumbledore down there with him.
The pipe was just as disgusting as it had been the last time he'd slid down it, and by the time Harry reached the bottom, his pyjamas were covered in slime.
"Ew," he grumbled, and cast a cleaning charm at himself. Once the slime was gone, he set off again, crawling through the gap in the rock fall and opening the door that led directly to the Chamber.
The Basilisk lay exactly where he'd left it, though it was looking considerably worse for wear. It was also the source of the putrid stench that made Harry choke as soon as he caught wind of it. The Basilisk was rotting.
He stepped into the Chamber, trying as hard as he could to ignore the smell and the taste of the air. It was foul, sickening, and reminded him strongly of the taste of the air in Snape's classroom, which was a comparison he really could have done without. He could also have done without the floating colours over his vision telling him that the process of decomposition was actually heating the Basilisk's corpse slightly.
He looked away from the dead Basilisk and walked towards Slytherin's statue. He peered up into the stone face and took as deep a breath as he dared. He felt queasy, and he knew that it wasn't just from the smell of the rotting Basilisk. He was nervous. He was dreading finding nothing, but dreading the answers he needed all at the same time.
"Speak to me Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts four," he hissed.
He supposed that he might as well get this over and done with as soon as he could.
There was a loud grinding noise and the statue's mouth opened slowly. Harry grit his teeth and reached up, grasping the stone lower lip and pulling himself up. It was very dark inside the statue's mouth, but Harry's heat vision told him that it was quite warm in there, and the floating colours mapped out the room in shades of green and yellow.
He could see the outline of a human sized door at the back of the small chamber. Slytherin really had hidden something other than a snake down here.
"Bingo," he whispered, and let himself drop to the floor of the Basilisk's one-time nest.
He didn't linger in the nest, instead choosing to head straight for the door. Dumbledore would have answered Myrtle's summons by now – he still couldn't believe the old man had threatened her like that – and he would be heading to the second floor, possibly with other teachers, intent on catching Harry. Harry felt his eyes burn yellow, but he didn't try to suppress the instinct for once; didn't try to hide them behind his second and third eyelids. There was nothing down here that they could hurt, after all.
He pressed a scaled hand against the door at the back of the nest and pushed. The door didn't budge. Harry smiled slightly, and stepped back. It figured that this door would need a password just like the ones leading to the Chamber. Considering that Slytherin had gone through the trouble of hiding a secret room in the nest of a Basilisk that was hidden in another secret chamber, whatever he had been hiding had to be important.
"Open," Harry hissed. Nothing happened, and Harry frowned. It had worked on all the other doors, so why not this one?
But then again, a different password opened the statue's mouth. Harry's frown deepened. Apparently this wouldn't be as easy as he'd thought.
"Serpent," he tried to no avail. "Slytherin, cunning, hidden, secret, Gryffindor sucks." When not even the last try worked, he glared at the door furiously. That didn't do anything either.
Harry kicked it. He was never going to find out about Lamiae at this rate… He froze. It couldn't be that, could it?
"Lamia," he hissed.
The door swung open and dust billowed out. Harry coughed and spluttered, backing away from the door as he waved his hands around his face, trying to waft the dust away from him.
When the dust settled, Harry peered in through the door and felt his jaw drop. A thousand years worth of dust coated what looked like a library. Illuminated by floating balls of light, Harry could see that huge bookshelves lined the walls, filled with ancient tomes, and at the far wall there hung an incredibly dusty tapestry. Next to it was a smaller statuette that was so covered in dust that Harry could barely make out what it was, let alone what it was meant to be.
"Linael would love this place," Harry whispered to himself. It was true: the Drow would probably go into fits of rapture if he could see the room right now. The promise of knowledge that it contained – knowledge that hadn't been seen in a thousand years – hung heavily in the dusty air.
Harry grinned. This was his; all of it was his. This room would drive any self-respecting academic wild, and he was the only one who could access it. He stepped into the room, leaving footprints in the thick dust on the floor. He would inspect the tapestry first. Its very presence in the room called out to him like a beacon; he had to know why it was there.
When he reached it, he touched his wand to the cloth. "Scourgify," he said clearly, and he watched in fascination at the layers of dust covering it vanished into thin air. He would never get over how cool magic could be at times.
The tapestry, it turned out, was exactly what Harry had been looking for. It wasn't actually a tapestry at all; rather it was a family tree embroidered in green and black on a creamy coloured cloth that was edged with silver serpents. It was beautiful.
The names at the top of the tapestry caught his eye immediately. There was the name of a wizard – Mordred Levay – written in English in black thread, but next to him was a name written in bright green squiggles and swirls that Harry recognised immediately as written Parseltongue and again in English just beneath. The name they formed sent shivers running down Harry's spine. Siessa: the Parseltongue word for 'Empress'.
According to the family tree, Mordred Levay had married a snake called Siessa. There was no other reason for her name to be written in Parseltongue, and the implications were obvious. Sure enough, in the next line down from them, was the name Salazar Slytherin – also written in both Parseltongue and English with green thread – along with several other names in Parseltongue, though they were written in black. There were English names in black on that line too, though Harry noted that the dates of birth and death accompanying them indicated that they had died very young. The date of death on one of the Parseltongue names on that line also caught Harry's eye.
Born 914 – Died 1992
The Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets had been Salazar Slytherin's brother.
"Holy shit," Harry breathed. No wonder Slytherin had built a series of secret chambers to hide all of this. If the tapestry was correct, Slytherin had been the son of a Lamia and the brother to not just one, but five Basilisks all of which were now – thankfully – dead.
Harry let his eyes trail down the tapestry.
A descendant of Slytherin's had married some bloke called Peverell, and their line had turned into the Potters which ended right at the bottom with a name written in green thread, in Parseltongue and English.
Harry James Potter
Born 1980 –
Heir of Slytherin
His was one of only three names in green on the tapestry. He was a Lamia, his ancestress Siessa certainly was, so that meant that Salazar Slytherin himself had been a Lamia too.
Male Lamiae couldn't be created; that much was obvious, since the thousand-year-old male Basilisk in the Chamber had still been a Basilisk when he'd killed it. If it had been female, it probably would have evolved considering that it had been hidden from human sight in a magical area for so long.
However, it seemed, male Lamiae could be born.
Harry stepped back from the tapestry, his mind racing. Something must have happened to draw out the Lamia gene in him; a thousand years after a Lamia had last bred into his family line. Was it his mother's Muggle blood? Was it the failed Killing Curse? The Basilisk venom? Or was it a combination of all three?
He closed his eyes and wished he wasn't alone down here. He wished he had someone to talk to; someone who he could unload all of this onto because he felt like he was going to burst if he didn't say something to someone. Someone like Linael.
A hand landed on his shoulder, and Harry jumped about a foot in the air. He wheeled around and came face to face with Linael himself, though the Drow's eyes were closed.
"Are your eyelids closed?" Linael asked.
Harry blinked and closed his second and third eyelids. "Yes," he said. "What are you doing here? How did you even get in here?"
Linael tutted at him, and indicated the silver bracelet fastened around Harry's wrist; the bracelet he'd given Harry for his birthday. "I told you that that would tell me if you needed me around when I gave it to you," he said. "I found you through that, and…where are we?"
"The Chamber of Secrets within the Chamber of Secrets," Harry told him. "Um…family tree."
He pointed at the tapestry, and Linael followed his outstretched finger with his gaze.
"A self-updating family tree?" he asked.
"Read it," Harry told him.
Linael moved away from him and stood in front of the tapestry. Harry stared at his back as he waited for him to say something – anything – about it.
"Well," Linael said eventually. "That is interesting." He looked back over his shoulder at Harry, and smiled. "If you presented this to the goblins then you would have no problems in claiming your Slytherin inheritance."
That wasn't what Harry had expected him to say, but it was a good point. "How am I supposed to get it out of here, though?" he asked. "Dumbledore will be waiting for me at the exit of the Chamber."
"You told him you were coming down here?" Linael asked.
"Of course not!" Harry cried. "But he's bullied the ghost who guards the bathroom where the entrance is into telling him if I go in there."
"Ah," Linael replied. "I daresay you're going to have problems once you leave then." He shrugged. "But don't worry about sneaking it out past him. I can take it with me if you wish."
Harry grinned. "Would you mind taking the books out too?" he asked.
Linael looked like his birthday had come early. "Did you honestly think I would?" he asked.
Harry laughed. "No, but I had to ask," he said. He grinned widely, and then a thought occurred to him. "How did you get in here anyway?" he asked.
"Hogwarts is not warded against my kind as it employs House Elves to do the work, and any wards that would impede a Drow such as myself, would strip the House Elves of their powers completely," he explained. "As for the actual method of travel…my people have the ability to travel through shadows."
"And there's plenty of shadows in here," Harry finished for him. Linael grinned, flashing his needle-like teeth.
"You've got it," he said.
Harry thought that that would be a really convenient – and pretty awesome – ability to have. It opened up a lot of possibilities, that was for sure.
He looked around the room again. He knew he would have to leave soon so that he could face the music, but he didn't want to. He liked this room, dusty though it was. He felt at home here.
His eyes landed on the statuette once more, and he flicked his wand at it, freeing it of dust with a muttered spell. It was made of polished black stone that almost looked like glass, and it was crafted in the form of a woman. Harry stepped closer to it and picked it up. It was surprisingly heavy for its size, but now that he was closer to it he could see that it wasn't really a woman at all. Her upper body was that of a human, but her legs had fused together to form a beautiful, scaled serpent's body.
He felt the air shift as Linael stepped behind him to look over his shoulder. "A Lamia in her true form," he murmured in Harry's ear, making him shiver. "You will be able to take that shape, I suspect."
Harry looked into the statuette's beautiful, noble face and nodded. He knew who she was: the Empress of Serpents. The person who'd started all of this.
"Hey, Linael?" he said.
"Do you think you could take me direct to my dormitory?"
He looked over his shoulder at the Drow, and saw wicked humour shining in his yellow eyes. "You want to bypass Dumbledore, don't you," he said.
"Do you blame me?" Harry asked.
"Not in the slightest," Linael admitted. He straightened up and stretched before holding out his hand. "I'll take you up there, then come back and empty this room," he said. "Alright?"
"Perfect," Harry said, placing the statuette of Siessa down once more. "You're the best."
Linael looked smug. "I know."
Travelling by shadow proved to be an odd experience. He couldn't see a thing, and his body felt freezing cold, but Linael seemed to know what he was doing so Harry clutched at his hand and held on for dear life.
They left the shadows in a darkened corner of Harry's dorm room. He could hear Ron's familiar, loud snores and Neville's softer ones, and he could see that there were no teachers waiting to pounce on him.
He'd done it.
He stepped out of the dark shadow and turned to look at Linael, who still stood half-obscured by the darkness. The only part of him Harry could see clearly was his shimmering hair – which caught the light of the full moon that streamed through the window and shone brilliantly – and his glowing yellow eyes.
"Thank you," Harry said to him.
"You are very, very welcome," Linael replied. "Now get some sleep. You'll have a long day tomorrow."
Harry nodded. He was right.
Chapter 18: Tea and Venom
When Harry entered the great hall next to Neville the next morning, he couldn't stop himself from glancing up at the head table. What he saw made him grin wickedly; Dumbledore was looking at him with a slight frown on his face. When the headmaster spotted Harry looking back at him, he wiped the expression off his face, but it was too late; Harry had already seen it.
And Harry felt good.
"Uh-oh," he heard Neville say. "What's that grin for?"
Harry looked at him in confusion, only for Neville to roll his eyes.
"You look like Christmas has just come early," Neville explained. "And since it hasn't, I'm reserving the right to be worried."
Harry laughed softly. "It's nothing too bad," he said. "I just got one up on Dumbledore last night."
"Right," Neville said. "Are you sure you should be provoking him, Harry? I mean, he is our headmaster after all, and he's powerful. You could get in a lot of trouble."
"I know," Harry told him. "But it's going to be fine."
Neville didn't look like he shared in Harry's confidence. Even Harry wasn't so sure that Dumbledore wouldn't try something and he was proved right when, just as he'd finished serving himself a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, Professor McGonagall appeared at his side. She looked down at him sternly, as if her glare of disapproval would force him to confess to all of his sins.
"Mr Potter," she said. "Professor Dumbledore would like to see you in his office as soon as you've finished with your breakfast."
"Yes Professor," Harry said respectfully, though he could see Neville goggling at him out of the corner of his eye.
McGonagall's lips pursed slightly, and Harry thought he saw a glimmer of sympathy in her gaze. "Be careful, Mr Potter," she said.
He gaped at her retreating back. He hadn't been expecting that; a warning from a member of staff who was known to be highly loyal to Dumbledore. He looked at Neville, who sighed and rested his chin in one hand.
"You don't do anything by halves, do you," Neville said calmly, though his gaze was worried.
"Apparently not," Harry mused. He wondered if Dumbledore's reaction would have been like this even if he hadn't gone down into the Chamber; if he'd only gone to the second floor bathroom to visit Myrtle. Chances are that it would be. Dumbledore clearly wasn't going to give him any leeway this year; not when it came to things that Dumbledore didn't want him to do.
"She's right," Neville continued. "You're going to have to be very careful in that meeting with him."
"I know," Harry told him. "I won't do anything stupid."
Neville looked relieved, but the privacy of their conversation didn't last long after Harry had made his promise. Hermione and Ron joined them, Hermione placing her text books down at the setting next to Harry's very deliberately.
"What was that about?" she asked curiously. "You aren't in trouble are you?"
Harry grit his teeth in annoyance and firmly closed his second and third eyelids. He may have fallen out with Hermione, and she might be annoying him, but he didn't want her to become his second victim.
"Hermione…" he ground out.
"Honestly Harry," she said. "I thought that giving you space would calm you down. Obviously I was wrong. You shouldn't -"
"Hermione, shut up," he said, interrupting her before she could get into full flow.
She gaped at him, and her cheeks flushed. "Harry, you -"
"I don't want to hear it," he said. "I'm not in trouble, and even if I was it wouldn't be any of your business."
She looked as if he'd slapped her, and he felt a tiny twinge of guilt, which he quickly squashed. He wouldn't be treating her like this if she hadn't been so obvious in her spying for Dumbledore.
"Hey, there's no need to treat Hermione like that," Ron said angrily. The tips of his ears were turning red with anger, and Harry found himself smiling slightly.
"There wouldn't be if she wasn't reporting my every move, from sneezes to behaviour in lessons, to our dear headmaster," he said. Ron turned a bright shade of red that clashed interestingly with his hair. Harry leaned over the table. "And I wouldn't be so sickened with you if you hadn't taken payments from Dumbledore – the money was from my vault, by the way – to be my friend."
He heard Neville gasp in shock, but ignored his reaction. Hermione hadn't reacted at all to the news; she had known. That just made the betrayal even worse.
"You're both scum," he said. "And I want both of you out of my life. So back off and leave me alone."
He shoved his plate away from him – not having had the chance to even touch the food he'd served himself – and stood up, grabbing his bag.
"Might as well get this over," he told Neville. "See you later."
Neville nodded shakily. "Okay Harry," he said.
Harry gave him a small wave before he turned and marched out of the hall. He didn't look back; he didn't want to see Ron and Hermione's faces as he left. Nor did he want to look at Dumbledore, who was no doubt slipping out of the staff entrance and heading up to his office.
When he got out of the hall, Harry took a moment to collect himself. He reigned in his temper, and closed his eyes; waiting for them to stop tingling and return to normal. He still wouldn't lower his second and third eyelids, though. He knew that they'd become the poisonous yellow eyes of a Basilisk soon enough, and he didn't want to risk killing Dumbledore.
Even if the thought of it was pretty tempting.
With a sigh, he set off for the third floor. The walk seemed to take a ridiculous amount of time as trepidation set in. When he eventually reached the gargoyle, he looked up at its stone face and sighed. He didn't know the password – though it was probably something sweet related – and he didn't really want to stand there guessing it. He didn't want to be standing there at all, and he found himself wishing that he was able to muster up some of the bravado he had put on in front of Neville.
He was nervous; frightened, even. He was finally going to talk to Dumbledore about the madness that was going on in his life, but he doubted that he would get any answers. Dumbledore would sit there fishing for information, and then send Harry away with a pat on the head and a suspicious stare.
Then, the gargoyle moved to one side. Harry jumped when it moved, then glared. Dumbledore was pretending to be omniscient – Harry might have fallen for it if he hadn't known that Dumbledore knew nothing about what had happened in his life since the end of the previous school year – and it was probably intended to make Harry respect his awesome power and make him even more nervous. Instead it just served to irritate him.
He stepped up onto the moving spiral staircase, and let himself be transported up to Dumbledore's office.
The game was about to go up a level.
He knocked on the oak door when he reached it, and heard Dumbledore call for him to come in. Harry obeyed, pushing the door open just enough for him to slip into the room.
"You wanted to see me, Professor Dumbledore?" he asked.
"Ah, Harry," Dumbledore said kindly, looking for all the world like the perfect, wise old grandfather. "Sit down, please. This shouldn't take very long. Would you like some tea?"
Harry nodded. He hadn't had the chance to have any at breakfast, after all.
Dumbledore poured some out for him, and Harry took the cup and saucer. Dumbledore didn't pour any for himself, however; he already had a cup. It was that – the sight of Dumbledore's tea cup already filled with steaming liquid – that made Harry do it. He darted out his tongue, safe in the knowledge that all Dumbledore would see was him licking his lips, and tasted the air.
He could taste the tea, the milk and the sugar that he had seen go into the cup, but there was something else there too. It was faint, but there was a definite hint of something that tasted similar to Snape's classroom – all rotting animal parts and dried herbs – and it was enough to make Harry keep his mouth closed as he forced himself to take a sip.
Dumbledore's kind smile widened, and Harry placed his tea down on the desk. He felt sick. He didn't know what the potion was, but he would bet his entire Gringotts vault that he wouldn't like the effects if he drank it.
"I hope your little spat at breakfast wasn't too serious, Harry," Dumbledore said. He sounded concerned, and Harry felt the urge to bite him well up in his chest.
His teeth suddenly felt slick and he tasted something bitter on his tongue.
"I don't think it was, Professor," he said. "Is that why you called me up here?"
"No, Harry, I'm afraid it isn't," Dumbledore said. "I wanted to ask you why you visited the second floor bathroom last night."
He looked deep into Harry's eyes, and Harry felt something brush up against the defences around his mind. He saw the skin around Dumbledore's eyes tighten as if he were suppressing pain, and felt the presence draw back. Apparently the thorns of his rose labyrinth were as sharp as they looked.
"I wanted to visit Myrtle," he said. "I promised her that I would visit her at the end of last year, and I wanted to keep that promise."
"I see," Dumbledore said. "Why did you leave, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "I'm not supposed to be there," he said. "It's a girls' bathroom, and it was in the middle of the night. When Myrtle left, I left too because I didn't want to get in trouble. I'm not in trouble, am I?"
"No, not at all," Dumbledore said, and Harry caught a hint of frustration in his voice. "I was simply curious. You've had a lot of people very worried, Harry, and the second floor bathroom is not quite as innocent a place as it seems as I'm sure you know by now."
"If you want to know if I visited the Chamber again, you should just ask, Professor," Harry said calmly.
"Did you?" Dumbledore asked.
"No," Harry said. "I've seen enough of that place for a lifetime."
Dumbledore smiled slightly. "I'm sure you have, my boy."
Harry inwardly bristled at the endearment. It sounded horribly fake to his ears. "Is there anything else, sir?" he asked. "I don't want to miss too much of my class."
"Just one more thing, Harry," Dumbledore told him. "Where did you stay this summer?"
Harry remembered the name of the hotel that Aurora had booked into while imitating his appearance and told him that. It was the cover story his friends at the hostel had helped him create, after all, and if he didn't stick to it then things could get very…awkward.
"I see," Dumbledore said. "Why did you leave your relatives, Harry? I'm sure that they wanted to see you."
Harry felt something brush against his mind again, and he found himself smiling faintly. Dumbledore wasn't going to get anywhere with him. Not today. Not ever.
"They never want to see me, Professor," he said. "They hate me."
"Nonsense, Harry, I'm sure that -"
"With all due respect, headmaster, you've never met my relatives," Harry said firmly, taking another fake sit of his tea. Dumbledore's bright blue gaze lingered on the cup, and Harry felt his own eyes change.
He didn't dare meet Dumbledore's gaze now, even with two sets of eyelids closed. At this distance, Dumbledore would notice the change in an instant.
"Is that why you have applied for emancipation?" Dumbledore asked.
"Yes," Harry said simply.
Dumbledore sighed. "I'm afraid that I can't allow you to do that, Harry," he said. "Your mother's protection lingers on through your blood relation to your aunt. If you don't return there, the consequences will be severe."
Harry felt his blood boil, and the slick, oily sensation on his teeth only increased. "Let me, Professor?" he asked. "You're my headmaster; not my mother, and if you want me to stay with the Dursleys then you obviously don't have my best interests at heart."
"The wards around their residence will protect you from Voldemort," Dumbledore said. "They are built on your mother's sacrifice and she would want you safe there."
Harry grit his teeth. "They might keep me safe from Voldemort, but they don't keep me safe from the Dursleys," he said, "and I'd rather take my chances with Voldemort."
He stood up sharply, his hands clenched into fists and his claws digging into his palms.
"Is that all, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, my boy," Dumbledore said. "You may leave. But you must understand, Harry, that I will fight you every inch of the way on this."
Harry glared at the door. "I wouldn't expect anything else from you, sir," he said. "Excuse me."
He escaped Dumbledore's office, and slumped heavily against the corridor wall, trying to calm his pounding heart. He felt so angry; so helpless. Dumbledore was going to make his life as difficult as possible, and Harry had no idea why he even wanted to.
He stuck one of his bloody fingers in his mouth and swiped it down the length of one of his teeth. When he pulled it away, he saw that there was a thick amber-yellow liquid clinging to it. He grimaced and wiped it off on the stone wall, only to watch in amazement as the stone began to dissolve.
Apparently, he was venomous after all. And if his venom could dissolve stone, what could it do to a person?
He grinned tiredly. His new Lamia body apparently hadn't run out of surprises to spring on him yet. Feeling oddly better, he walked off down the corridor, leaving the entrance to Dumbledore's office behind him. He had to get to Transfiguration.
Chapter 19: Quidditch and a Conversation
The rest of October was spent in relative quiet until Friday the thirtieth dawned. It was pouring with rain and cold, and Harry really didn't feel like getting out of bed. He had noticed that he had been feeling lethargic lately, and had been worried about his health until he'd remembered that he was a reptile now. He'd checked with his snakes, and they'd confirmed his suspicions. He was getting ready to hibernate.
The thought of going to sleep for the whole of winter was very nice indeed, even if doing it would arouse even more suspicion.
But there was no chance of Harry going back to sleep for the rest of the day, not with his dorm mates making the racket that they were. That day was the first Quidditch match of the season, and everyone was buzzing with speculation as to how Gryffindor would do with their new Seeker: a fifth year girl that Harry didn't know. Harry couldn't really bring himself to care – maybe he would have if the match was in summer – but everyone else did, and the accusing looks that the other Gryffindors were still giving him were beginning to set him on edge. Harry knew for a fact that if they lost the match today then he would officially be the most hated person in his house.
"Come on, Harry, get up!" Seamus called through the curtain.
Harry groaned and rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. His bed was so warm…
"I'm not going!" he called back. "I'm going to go to the library."
A stunned silence filled the room beyond his curtains, and Harry was just about to close his eyes again when he felt someone grab his ankle. He closed his second and third eyelids and turned to glare at Seamus over his shoulder.
"I quit the team so I could spend more time studying," he hissed, sticking to the story he'd told Wood. "Going to the match would kind of make that pointless."
"But you have to go," Dean whined, peering over Seamus' shoulder. "You're like a Quidditch good luck charm."
"No," Harry said firmly.
He didn't yank his ankle away from Seamus' grip, though. His skin was beginning to loosen again in preparation to shed, and he didn't want to risk leaving Seamus with a handful of scaly skin. That would take a lot of awkward explanation.
Seamus tugged at him again, but Harry didn't budge. He dug his claws into his sheets and stayed still.
"Leave him alone, guys," Neville said quietly.
Seamus huffed. "Fine," he grumbled. "But it's your fault if we lose, okay Harry?"
"Why? I'm not playing," Harry said. "If they lose, blame the team."
They didn't reply, and Harry knew that in the case of Quidditch, logic was beyond them. Seamus let go of his ankle, and Harry quickly pulled his foot back under the covers, curling up in a ball at the same time.
He listened to them leave, and when the door shut again, he stretched out lazily and yawned. His jaw clicked as it opened far wider than any human was capable of, and he felt the jaw pop back into place when he was done. He was just about to lay his head back down on his pillow when his curtains were pulled open again.
It was Ron. Harry hissed angrily and pulled his covers over his head. "Come to ruin my morning?" he asked.
"No," Ron said sullenly. "I wanted to talk to you."
"Same thing," Harry muttered, but he sat up anyway. He saw Ron's eyes linger on the Sickle necklace that held his glamour in place, and he frowned slightly, tucking it into his pyjama shirt. Ron would report it to Dumbledore, he knew, but there weren't any rules against wearing jewellery at Hogwarts.
"What do you want?" he asked.
Ron sat down on the edge of his bed. "I wanted to apologise," he said. "About the money. I didn't know until this summer, I swear. I just…I couldn't tell you."
Harry frowned at him. "Why this summer?" he asked.
Ron shrugged and looked away from him. Harry tasted the air. Ron was nervous about something. He was scared. He was definitely trying to hide something.
"Were you told to become my friend in first year?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Ron admitted sullenly. "Mum told Fred and George to find you, and then tell me where you were sitting so that we could travel together and I could make friends with you."
Harry sucked in a breath. "When did Hermione get involved?" he asked.
"I don't know," Ron told him. "You'd have to ask her."
Harry fisted his hands in his blanket. "Why are you telling me this?" he asked. "Dumbledore won't be happy that his little pet's playing both sides."
Ron flinched. "Look," he said. "I didn't know it was your money until you told me."
Harry looked up at him disbelievingly. "You weren't going to apologise at all, were you?" he asked. Ron looked guilty. "You were happy to take money to be my friend and report my movements to Dumbledore, but you're apologising because the money you were taking was mine? Thanks a lot, Ron. Really. I can tell that you really mean it."
"Piss off," Harry said shortly.
"Harry you can't push us away like this," Ron said. He sounded almost pleading, and Harry found himself wondering if Dumbledore had spoken to him and Hermione about the state of their deteriorating friendship. "Hermione and I agreed to do this because we care about you. We're worried about you."
"There's nothing for you to worry about," Harry spat. He reigned in his temper sharply. The urge to bite had welled up in him again. "Go and enjoy the match, Ron," he said dully. "And don't talk to me again."
Ron sighed and stood up. "We're doing this – all of us, even Dumbledore – we're doing it for your own good, Harry."
Harry covered his face and his deadly yellow eyes with his hands and forced his anger down. "I think I know what's best for me better than any of you," he said.
"But that's it!" Ron burst out. "You don't! You do stupid things like rushing off into danger when -"
"It wasn't quite so stupid when Ginny was down in the Chamber, now was it?" Harry snarled. "It wasn't stupid when it was your sister I was trying to save. Stop being so hypocritical, Ron or leave me the hell alone."
He slumped back into bed and rolled onto his side, facing away from Ron. He pulled his covers up over his head and glared at the underside of the duvet.
His own good? Somehow, he couldn't quite believe that.
He spent the rest of the day avoiding everyone except Neville, who ventured into the library to tell him that Gryffindor had lost the match, that Dementors had attacked the players, and that at least half of Gryffindor wanted Harry forcibly reinstated on their team.
Harry was suddenly very, very glad that he'd quit. Dementors attacking the players? Were they being controlled at all?
According to Neville, Dumbledore had been furious with them and had banned them from the grounds, but Harry still thought that he should never have allowed them near the school in the first place. What good was having them as security when everyone already knew that Sirius Black could get past them, and when they would attack the people that they were supposed to be protecting? It was like some sort of seriously bad joke.
It was like they were inviting something bad to happen.
It was also completely pointless, since Hogsmeade weekends – the highlights of the third-year-and-above's year – were still going on. If that wasn't a breach of security, Harry didn't know what was.
Not that he would be going, of course. Students needed permission from their guardian to go, and since Harry had only got the form once he'd left the Dursleys' house – and since the Dursleys were still, for now, his guardians – he didn't have permission. He wasn't really all that bothered about it, either. It gave him another opportunity to avoid Ron and Hermione like the plague, and Neville had promised to bring him back some sweets from Honeyduke's anyway.
He had to sneak back into the dorm that night, leaving dinner early so he could get a head start. Dinner had been spent with Oliver Wood trying desperately to get Harry to change his mind about quitting the team, and Harry refusing in between bites of his steak. Neville had grimaced when Harry had selected one of the blue steaks, but had said nothing, although he did avert his eyes from the blood smears on Harry's plate. Wood was too busy begging him to notice.
After he fled, Harry shut himself in his dorm, drew the curtains around his bed and buried his nose in the book of fairytales Linael had given him, narrating them in soft hisses to his snakes. They coiled themselves up on one of his knees and listened, watching him intently with their tiny black eyes.
They were due to shed too, though Harry suspected that they would have an easier time of it. It wasn't as if they had to hide what they were doing.
"Do you think I'm doing the right thing?" Harry asked them. "By quitting the flying game?"
Parseltongue had no word for Quidditch.
"Yes," they said unanimously. "Serpents are made for the earth and for water. The air is beyond us."
It was comforting, at least, to know that some people thought he was doing alright, even if they were baby snakes.
"Tell us another," Apep pleaded, indicating Harry's book with a jab of his tail.
Harry grinned. "Okay, okay," he said. He turned the page, cleared his throat and –
"Does it have serpents in?" Nyx asked.
"I don't think so," Harry admitted. "Would you like to hear the one with the snake-who-walks-like-man?" He'd picked up the baby snakes' saying for 'Lamia', not wanting to make them nervous.
"Yes please, Emperor," Dawlygin and Nyx chorused, while Apep nodded vigorously.
Harry flipped back a few pages until he found it. "The Chinese Princess," he read aloud. "Once upon a time…"
Half an hour later, when Harry was giving the story its second run through of the night, Neville poked his head round the curtains. He saw Harry sitting cross-legged, with a book in his lap and a trio of enraptured baby Black Desert Cobras on his left knee.
"I don't think I want to know," he said faintly. "Goodnight Harry. See you tomorrow."
And he pulled his head back. Through the thick material, Harry saw his colours cross the room, and saw the colours of Ron, Seamus and Dean turn to him.
"What's he doing?" Harry heard Ron ask.
"I think he's reading them fairy stories," Neville said dazedly.
There was a long pause. "Well," Seamus said after a while. "So much for Parselmouths being evil."
Harry grinned, and kept reading.
Chapter 20: Silver and Black
On October the thirty-first, Hogwarts fell almost completely silent. It was eerie, Harry thought, how quiet it was when there was only the first two years worth of students and the teachers left behind, and he wondered why he had never noticed it before. Then again, before he'd had Ron and Hermione constantly at his side to distract him.
By ten in the morning, Harry was bored. No matter how much time he'd spent in solitude so far that year, the noise that echoed out of the halls behind the library door had become comforting to him. Now, without it, the school became creepy. He didn't even have anything to occupy his time, either. He had already finished his homework and his snakes were asleep. He had finished the books Linael had given him, and there was only so much extra reading he could do for Potions – still his worst subject – without wanting to beat his head off the table.
Bored, he decided to wander through the halls and explore the castle.
The portraits rustled their painted clothing and whispered among themselves as he walked by them, though he didn't catch any of their words. He studied a few of the more interesting ones – those that looked like they might share features with some of his classmates – but ignored them for the most part. The rhythmic tapping of his shoes against the stone floors lulled him into a state of almost total peace. He was walking aimlessly, not knowing or caring where he was going. He hadn't even noticed that he'd reached the third floor until he bumped, quite literally, into Professor Lupin.
Startled out of his thoughts, Harry began to tumble backwards, only to be halted by a hand grabbing his wrist. Lupin pulled him back upright, and then let go as quickly as he could; jerking back as if he had been burned. Harry looked down at Lupin's hand – trying to avoid looking him in the eye when he knew that Lupin would be able to see that his eyes had turned yellow – and saw that he actually had been burned. The blackened imprint of fine chain links was branded into Lupin's rapidly reddening palm.
It was a perfect imprint of the bracelet Linael had given him.
Harry quickly closed his second and third eyelids, and tried to will his eyes back to their normal green as he looked up at Lupin's face. The skin around his eyes and mouth were tight with pain and his strange, amber coloured eyes were wary.
Harry couldn't believe it. The joking conversation he'd had with Neville after the lesson with the Boggart had actually unearthed this Defence teacher's big, potentially dangerous secret?
"Good afternoon, Professor," Harry said politely.
"Er -" Lupin said, looking worried. "Good afternoon."
"Sorry about running into you like that," Harry said, deliberately keeping his tone light and trying desperately to hold back the laugher that threatened to bubble out of his throat. He couldn't believe that they'd been right! "I was completely out of it," he continued.
"It's alright," Lupin said hurriedly. "Why aren't you in Hogsmeade?"
"I didn't get the permission slip signed," Harry said. Then an idea struck him, and he smiled up at Lupin. "Actually, can I have a word with you, Professor?"
Lupin looked even more worried, but he nodded. "Of course," he said. "Why don't we head to my office and get some tea? It's a bit more comfortable than the corridor."
"It's not too much bother?" Harry asked.
Lupin shook his head and guided Harry back down the corridor. Harry saw him glance at his left wrist – the one with the bracelet – but he said nothing about it. The hand he'd burned was clenched into a fist.
He held the door open for Harry and waved him towards a seat while he gathered the makings of an afternoon tea from one of his cupboards. Harry studied a tank of water on Lupin's desk, and blinked in surprise when a bony little green thing grinned at him evilly before vanishing back among the weeds. He supposed it was one of the future subjects for one of their lessons.
Then Lupin sat the tray down and Harry turned his full attention onto him. He looked nervous, and he wasn't doing a very good job of hiding it; his hands were surprisingly steady as he poured Harry out some tea, but his face was like an open book. Harry flicked his tongue out – remembering the last time he'd had tea with a member of staff – and almost sighed in relief. The tea really was just tea, though the taste of fur and fury – the taste of Lupin's disease – was stronger than usual.
Harry realised that it was the full moon that night, and he hid a grin. How clichéd. The full moon was on Halloween.
"So," he said, looking for a good conversation starter. "How does lycanthropy affect you while in human form? None of the sources available in the library were clear on that."
Lupin almost dropped his teapot. Harry grinned at him cheekily.
"I don't think any of the authors bothered to interview actual werewolves," he continued.
"Harry," Lupin said after a moment. "I -"
Harry sipped his tea and leaned back in his chair. "Look," he said. "The last Defence teacher was an incompetent, moronic coward. The one before that had Voldemort sticking out of the back of his head. Frankly, I don't care if you turn furry and four-legged once a month; I'm just glad you aren't trying to kill me."
Lupin blinked at him owlishly. "You aren't…bothered by this?" he asked.
Harry shook his head, thinking that it would be incredibly hypocritical of him if he was. Then again, he wasn't going to tell Lupin that.
"It makes me colour blind," Lupin said. "I can only see in shades of grey. And it makes me stronger than a normal human, but that's it. A lot of people think that werewolves have super-enhanced senses while in human form, but that's an urban legend."
"Same as the hairy palms and the bad eyebrows," Harry quipped.
Lupin smiled at him. "Quite," he said. "You won't tell anyone, will you?"
Harry shook his head. "You're the best Defence teacher we've had in at least two years," he pointed out. "Why would I want to get rid of you? But, uh, I should probably tell you that your Boggart was slightly obvious."
Lupin winced. "I realise that," he said. "Although it was a far more pleasant alternative to having a potential Boggart Dark Lord in the classroom."
Harry conceded the point. Now that he'd calmed down – and talked to Neville – he could see that Lupin had been acting in the best interests of all of his students, rather than treating Harry like he was a delicate flower, too weak to face such a low-level creature.
"Actually," he said, remembering his idea. "That was why I wanted to talk to you, actually."
Lupin raised an eyebrow, and indicated for Harry to continue. Harry licked his lips and wondered how best to put forth his idea.
"I'd like to borrow the Boggart, if you still have it," he said.
Lupin looked slightly surprised. "Why?" he asked.
Harry shifted awkwardly in his seat. He hadn't want to tell anyone about the extra-curricular studying he'd been doing – Hogwarts students weren't meant to learn about Dementors until seventh year – but he had to do it if he wanted to improve any.
"I've been trying to learn the Patronus Charm," he said eventually. Lupin's jaw dropped. "I'm doing okay at it, I think, but I can't tell if I'm doing it right without practising on a Dementor and I don't want to borrow one of the guards. So, I figured that if a Boggart would turn into a Dementor when it saw me then I would be able to practise on that. Do you think that would work?"
Lupin seemed to come back into himself and took a gulp of tea. He seemed to think about Harry's proposal for a moment before nodding. "It won't dispose of the Boggart," he said, "and a Boggart Dementor will be far weaker than the real thing, but I see no reason why it shouldn't work. I can't let you practise unsupervised, though. You could still get hurt, especially considering your strong reaction to them."
Harry nodded. He should have expected that, but the practise would be worth it, wouldn't it?
"Thanks, Professor," he said.
They fell silent for a moment, before Lupin voiced a question that had clearly been weighing on his mind since their encounter in the hallway.
"Why are you wearing a silver bracelet?" he asked.
Harry blinked at him before shrugging. "It was a present," he said, "and I like it. Why shouldn't I wear it?"
"Well," Lupin said slowly. "Most thirteen-year-old boys wouldn't want to wear jewellery like that, no matter what the sentimental value."
Harry fiddled absently with the bracelet in question "I didn't get many presents growing up," he said awkwardly. "So that makes each one I get all the more precious."
Except for his collection of Weasley jumpers. They had been binned when he'd found out that the Weasleys had been taking his money.
"I'm sorry," Lupin said.
Harry raised an eyebrow. It sounded like Lupin actually meant it. "It's not your fault," he said. "That's just the way things are."
Lupin sat back in his chair. "You're remarkably level-headed for someone your age," he said. "Nothing like what I was expecting."
Harry smiled ruefully. "Fighting a Basilisk will do that to you, Professor," he said.
Lupin looked stunned. "What?" he asked. "Basilisk?"
Harry stared at him. "The Basilisk that was set loose in the school last year," he said, eyeing Lupin suspiciously – surely Dumbledore couldn't have neglected to mention that sixty-foot long, deadly fact. "The one that caused all those students to be petrified. Didn't Professor Dumbledore tell you about it?"
"No," Lupin said. He sounded angry, and when Harry flicked his tongue out, he could taste his teacher's anger as well. "No he didn't."
"Then what, exactly, were you basing your expectations on?" Harry asked.
Lupin looked slightly embarrassed. That, combined with his lingering anger at Dumbledore, made for quite an odd expression. "I, well, I knew your father in school," he said. "And I thought – I was told – that you were quite like him."
Harry licked his lips. "That would kind of be hard," he said calmly, "since I can't remember anything about him."
Except for what the Dementors brought up, but he wasn't going to tell that to Lupin. He didn't want the man to pity him even more than he already did. Harry didn't need it. Why was it so hard for the people who compared him to his parents to remember that he was an orphan and that he had been for twelve years? He didn't know anything about his parents other than what he was told – which wasn't much – and while he was mildly curious about them, it wasn't the most pressing need in his life.
He had a new family, after all, and they were waiting for him at Last Hope Hostel.
He stayed until the teapot was empty, and then excused himself. He ran into Snape – carrying a smoking goblet that tasted of something poisonous – in the corridor, and greeted him quietly as he passed. Snape only sneered at him, but Harry didn't care.
His skin was itching, and he needed to shed it. At least the fact that everyone was in Hogsmeade would allow him to do so in peace rather than in a panic in the shower like the first time.
By the time that his classmates returned, Harry was finished shedding and disposing of his skin. He'd burned it on the common room fire again, and had retreated to his dormitory. He was tired. He could feel the cold from the stone walls and floors seeping into him, and it was making him feel incredibly sleepy.
By the time they returned, Harry had cocooned himself in his blankets and was sleeping soundly in bed. Seeing him like that, Neville shrugged, deposited the bag of sweets he'd bought for Harry on his bedside table, and headed down to the feast. Ron had protested leaving him there; had wanted to wake Harry up and find out what was wrong, but Neville – along with Seamus and Dean, who had overheard Harry's accusations against Ron and Hermione – didn't let him, and dragged him back down to the common room.
Harry was completely oblivious to the furious, but silent scuffle, and remained asleep until a loud shriek woke him from his slumber.
He forced his eyes to turn green again and slid out of his warm cocoon of blankets, picking his wand up off his bedside table. He spotted the sweets, and realised that the others were back, only there was too little sound coming up from the common room for the scream to have been any of his house mates. They were all at the feast, he realised.
But who, then, had screamed?
The common room was deserted, but the floating colours in front of Harry's vision told him that there was someone standing outside of the entrance to the common room. When he approached the back of the portrait, he heard someone pounding on the frame.
"Let me in, you old hag," someone said.
It was a voice that Harry didn't recognise, and he frowned.
"Never!" he heard the Fat Lady reply. "I'll never let you in! You'll be caught! The other portraits are already running to Dumbledore!"
Well that was interesting. Dumbledore was using the portraits as spies? No wonder he was able to pull of his omniscient act so well.
He heard whoever it was outside give a furious sounding snarl, and he made his decision. He opened the portrait door, and peeked out, only to look right into the surprised face of Sirius Black.
Black opened his mouth, but Harry pressed a finger to his own lips and gave him a meaningful look. Then he beckoned Black inside. The Fat Lady was shrieking something about traitors in her House, but Harry ignored her. He'd opened the door so that he could see who it was Dumbledore wanted to catch. The intruder being Black was a surprise – though not all that much of one, all things considered – and made things a little awkward. Black wanted to kill him, didn't he?
Harry couldn't help but feel a little nervous about that. He knew he could kill Black before the man laid a hand on him, but still; meeting him face to face was a bit nerve wracking.
He definitely looked like an insane, serial killing convict. Though there was something about the way that he was gaping at Harry in shock that made Harry wave him towards one of the empty seats.
The air around Black tasted of dirt, dog and sickness. Sure enough, the man sneezed as he huddled up in a chair by the fire. His eyes never left Harry, though.
"You look so much like your father," Black rasped a moment later.
Harry thought that was one hell of an odd thing for the man who had supposedly handed his father over to Voldemort to say, but he went with it. Black was supposed to be crazy, after all. "I get that a lot," he said.
He sat down opposite Black, feeling decidedly surreal, and leaned back in his chair. "So," he said. "I heard you wanted to kill me."
"No!" Black snarled, looking amazingly fierce for a moment, before he shrank back again slightly. "I'm innocent."
"All convicts say that," Harry told him.
"I… How much do you know?" Black asked.
Harry sighed. "More than Dumbledore would like me to, probably," he admitted. "I know that you were arrested for killing one wizard and twelve Muggles with one curse on the sixth of November nineteen-eighty-one, and that you were suspected of handing over my parents to Voldemort. You were automatically sentenced to life in Azkaban and didn't receive a trial."
"Right," Black said. "Only it wasn't me. It was Peter Pettigrew that betrayed your family. He's the one who blew up the street and killed the Muggles. He cut off his finger and faked his own death, slipping into the sewer like the rat he is."
Black fished out a photograph torn from the Daily Prophet. He brandished it at Harry excitedly, and Harry took it. The picture – filthy though it was – clearly showed the Weasley family on holiday in Egypt that summer. Black stabbed a finger at the rat balanced on Ron's shoulder.
"Pettigrew cut off his left middle finger," he said.
Harry bent over the photo to study it closely. Sure enough, Scabbers was missing the middle toe on his left forepaw. And hadn't he belonged to Percy Weasley before Ron? He was very long-lived for a common rat with no magical abilities at all.
"Okay," he said. "Let's say that Scabbers is Peter Pettigrew. How do we prove it?"
"Animagus Revealo," Black said. "It's a spell that forces an Animagus to reveal its true form. If it's really a rat then the spell won't harm it."
Harry nodded. It was worth a try then, he supposed. Black was oddly lucid for a mad man, and when he thought about it, Scabbers' unnaturally long lifespan was suspicious.
"Stay down here," he said. "Hide just in case anyone else comes up. I'll get him."
"Thank you," Black said. "Thank you thank you thank you."
Harry frowned at him. "Don't thank me just yet," he said. "It might be the wrong rat."
Humouring the crazy person seemed like a good way to deal with him. Black didn't move as he walked past him, his wand still clutched in his hand. That was a good sign, Harry supposed, since there weren't any portraits in the great hall, and Dumbledore was at the feast, so he would be alone up here with Black until either it finished or Black left, depending on which came first.
He climbed the stairs back up to his dormitory, and spotted Scabbers snoozing on Ron's pillow. The rat looked terrible; patches of its fur were falling out, and it was a lot thinner than it had been before. Harry could remember Ron telling him that Scabbers had fallen ill while they were in Egypt, but wasn't that also when the news of Black's escape came out?
He darted his tongue out. Scabbers tasted different from all of the other rats he'd seen – and eaten – but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Scabbers was a pet, after all.
Brandishing his wand, he cast a quick stunner, and picked Scabbers up off the bed. He was fairly sure that he could catch Scabbers even if he ran, but it would be a lot easier on both him and the rat if he stunned it first. Then, with Scabbers' limp body clutched in his fist, he went back down to the common room to confront a crazy man.
Harry realised that this was probably one of the stupidest things he had ever done, even when compared to racing after Quirrell at the end of his first year, and he inwardly cursed himself for it.
The common room, when he arrived, looked empty.
"Black?" he hissed. He darted his tongue out, and realised that Black was definitely still there. The floating colours told him that he was hiding underneath one of the sofas.
Then, from under the sofa in question, a huge black dog crawled out. It shook the dust out of its already filthy fur, and looked up at him with pale eyes. Black's eyes. Black, apparently, was an Animagus as well.
Harry's thoughts went instantly to Trelawney's predictions that the Grim was following him, and he snorted with laughter. The Grim was really Black. So maybe she wasn't quite as much of a quack as he'd thought; she just didn't know how to interpret what she was Seeing.
Then Black transformed. "You smell like a snake," he said.
Harry shrugged. "I own three of them," he said. "It kind of makes sense that their scent would rub off on me."
He wasn't sure if that's how things worked with scent, since it was his sense of taste that was super developed, but Black looked convinced, so Harry supposed he was right. Harry lifted Scabbers up. "One rat," he said. "On the house."
Black looked at him as if he was crazy. "You don't act like a teenager with a psychotic mad man trying to kill him," he said.
Harry shrugged. "You get used to it after a while," he admitted. And it was true. He was horrifyingly used to people trying to kill him. Voldemort, Quirrell, Lockhart – through incompetence – a Basilisk, Black, the Ministry…it wasn't like he was short on would-be assassins.
Though now, apparently, he was meant to replace Black with Pettigrew on that particular list.
"So," he said. "Are you going to cast the spell or not?"
Black looked slightly awkward. "I don't have a wand," he said.
Harry was now pretty sure that Black definitely couldn't do anything to him. An unarmed wizard – albeit one who could turn into a big dog with big teeth – up against an armed Lamia with the abilities of a Basilisk? It would be a very brief, one-sided fight to say the least.
Harry placed the stunned rat onto the table. "What was the incantation again?" he asked.
"Animagus Revealo," Black said. "But I don't think you'll be able to -"
"Animagus Revealo," Harry said, flicking his wand towards the rat.
There was beam of bright, blue-white light. When it faded, Harry watched in amazement as Scabbers' body twisted and grew to form the unconscious body of a rather rattish-looking, balding man who looked like he'd lost an awful lot of weight recently. He was, thankfully, still stunned.
"Pettigrew," Black growled, and he began to move forward, but Harry caught his arm. He wrinkled his nose slightly, trying not to imagine what kinds of dirt Black had managed to collect.
"If you kill him, then he won't be able to testify in a trial and prove you innocent," Harry said.
"But Harry, he betrayed -"
"So what?" Harry asked. "They've been dead for twelve years. It's not like I knew them."
Black looked stunned. Horrified, even, and the expression was remarkably similar to the one Lupin had worn earlier that day when Harry had told him the same thing.
"I'm an orphan," Harry said. "Get over it."
Black's gaping mouth shut with a click, and he looked towards Pettigrew again. "So what do we do with him?" he asked.
Harry shrugged. "Hand him over to Dumbledore, I guess," he said, inwardly dreading the conversation that would lead to. He wiped off the hand that had touched Black on his pyjama bottoms. This was looking like it was going to turn into a very long night.
Harry found himself wishing that one day he might be able to live a quiet, normal life. Somehow, he doubted that would ever happen.
Chapter 21: The Man Who Was A Rat
By the time the portrait swung open, admitting a panicked looking Dumbledore, Sirius Black had fulfilled part of his duties as Harry's godfather and had taught him how to play poker.
They were sitting at one of the tables in Gryffindor common room, with Peter Pettigrew's unconscious body lying on the table neck to them, with a pack of Exploding Snap cards and a pile of the sweets that Neville had brought back from Hogsmeade laying between them. Black was beginning to get a bit irritated by the fact that Harry kept winning, but he said nothing as Harry gained the upper hand.
Harry couldn't help but feel slightly smug about the whole thing, but knew that he'd probably end up giving Black the sweets anyway. He didn't want to put anything Black had touched into his mouth. Ever. Well, not unless the man washed himself thoroughly first.
This was the sight that Dumbledore and the rest of the Hogwarts staff were treated to when they burst into Gryffindor. Harry looked up when they appeared – surprise making him close his second and third eyelids just in case his eyes changed again – and Black twisted round in his seat.
Then, Harry placed down his royal flush and reclaimed the rest of his sweets. "Damn," Black muttered, throwing his cards down onto the table, where they gave off a small explosion.
The sudden noise snapped the teachers back into action. "Mr Potter!" McGonagall cried, stepping forward with her wand raised and pointing at Black. "What is the meaning of this?"
Harry glanced at Black and shrugged. "He isn't armed, Professor," he said. "And Ron's rat turned into him." He pointed at Pettigrew for emphasis.
McGonagall looked down and gasped. Her face went pale and she looked at Black with wide eyes. "Pettigrew!" she said. "What is the meaning of this, Black? Couldn't you just let the man rest in peace?"
Black waggled his fingers at her. "I don't have a wand," he said. "So I taught Harry here Animagus Revealo."
McGonagall glared at him. "That is an OWL level spell. Do you honestly expect me to believe that –"
"It's easier than just transfiguring a rat into a human," Black commented.
She opened her mouth to argue, but then realised that she couldn't. She looked over at Dumbledore for help, though she kept her wand trained on Black.
"I was not aware that Peter was an Animagus," Dumbledore said calmly, stepping forward away from the portrait hole and letting Snape and Lupin follow him into the room. Lupin was gaping at Black in amazement, Harry noticed, while Snape was looking as though he'd like nothing more than a chance to gut the man. Harry wondered if there was some sort of history between the three of them, considering that Snape wasn't exactly Lupin's biggest fan either. He decided that he didn't really care. Snape hated pretty much everyone; that Lupin and Black were part of this number wasn't all that interesting.
"We all are," Black said. "Were, I mean. Me, James and Peter." His gaze travelled to Lupin, and Harry inwardly sighed. There was definitely some history there.
"You have no right to utter James Potter's name," McGonagall hissed, sounding remarkably like an angry cat. Black rounded on her and glared. She stepped back.
"I didn't hand James and Lily over to Voldemort," he snapped. "That was Pettigrew."
Dumbledore looked between Black and Pettigrew, before turning his gaze on Harry. Harry met his gaze, safe in the knowledge that his gaze wouldn't kill and that Dumbledore wouldn't be able to get past his Occlumency barriers. "He's telling the truth," he said. "I think."
He wasn't going to explain that Black didn't taste like he was lying. He didn't want to think about the things that he'd tasted in the air around Black because, honestly, he would rather forget. He just knew that lies had definitely not been one of them.
"I see," Dumbledore said slowly. "But there is another mystery here. Why weren't you at the feast today, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "I wasn't hungry so I went back to bed. I got woken up when Black decided to have a screaming match with the Fat Lady."
"You can call me Sirius, you know," Black interrupted, and Harry saw Snape roll his eyes. He grinned and nodded at Black.
"Sirius, then," he said. "Anyway, I heard yelling so I came down here to check it out. I opened the portrait and, well, I let him in." That sounded incredibly stupid in retrospect. "He started talking about coming to kill Pettigrew and showed me a picture from the Daily Prophet. You know, the one form the article about Ron and his family going to Egypt? He said that Ron's rat – Scabbers – was really Peter Pettigrew, so I went and got the rat. I mean, you have to humour crazy people to stop them from getting violent, right?
"So he taught me this spell, Animagus Revealo, and I performed it on Scabbers because Sirius didn't have a wand and I was hardly going to give him mine. So I did it and Scabbers turned into this guy –" he pointed at Pettigrew's limp form "- which is pretty suspicious even if he isn't Pettigrew. I mean, seriously, what kind of person turns himself into a rat so that he can sleep in the same bed as a thirteen year old boy?
"After he changed into a man, Sirius said that he was Pettigrew, so I told him not to kill him yet because if he is Pettigrew then there's a chance that Black really is innocent after all, but killing him would make Sirius's defence a bit shaky. Speaking of which, why didn't he get a trial in the first place? So we waited for you and Sirius taught me how to play poker."
He took a deep breath and gave a little sigh after he finished speaking. It struck him that this was probably the most he'd said to any of his teachers – bar Lupin – since he'd returned to school. And for good reason: he'd felt Dumbledore brush up against his Occlumency barriers at least three times during his speech. He was really, really beginning to get frustrated by Dumbledore's complete disregard for his privacy.
"I see," Dumbledore said. He looked down at Pettigrew. "In that case, we'll take Pettigrew and Mr Black to the Ministry."
Sirius twitched at being addressed with a title, and Harry smiled. Then he looked at Dumbledore and shook his head. "With all due respect, sir, I'd rather the Ministry officials were called here so that I could see them take Pettigrew away."
"You don't trust Professor Dumbledore to do that, Mr Potter?" McGonagall asked, finding her voice once more.
Harry shrugged again. "Not particularly," he said. It felt so odd admitting that. "It's nothing personal, sir; it's just that this case is pretty personal. If Pettigrew really is the person who betrayed my parents then I want to make sure that he's arrested."
"Very well, Harry," Dumbledore said. He swept over to the fireplace and threw some Floo Powder in before kneeling on the hearth rug and sticking his head into the emerald green flames. Harry looked away from him and leaned back in his chair to see Sirius watching him in shock. He grinned.
"Where are the other students, Professor?" he asked McGonagall, who stiffened slightly at the sound of his voice. She still had her wand pointed at Black.
"Once we received the portraits' message, they were ordered to stay in the great hall with the prefects and head boy and girl acting as security," she said.
Harry nodded. It wasn't much of a defence against someone of Sirius' supposed calibre, but then again, Hogwarts' security was pretty lax anyway.
"Mr Potter," she said awkwardly. "Why…why aren't you scared?"
Harry looked up at her in surprise, and then shrugged his shoulders yet again. He'd been doing that an awful lot recently. "He's nowhere near as intimidating as Voldemort, Professor," he said.
Snape snorted while McGonagall, Lupin and Black all flinched at his words. Harry turned to look at Snape to see the man hiding a smirk behind a long-fingered hand. He glared when he caught Harry's eye but he hadn't been quick enough to his amusement. Harry almost started looking for other signs of the apocalypse. He'd made Snape laugh?
Dumbledore chose that moment to step away from the fire, which faded back to red before exploding in a shower of emerald sparks and admitting a man Harry recognised from the newspaper as being the Minister of Magic. He was followed closely by men in a very familiar purple uniform that made Harry's eyes tingle and his teeth begin to feel slick. Even though he knew that they weren't here for him this time, he still didn't like being so close to some of the people who had tried to kill him this summer.
Not that the room hadn't already had someone who wanted him dead in it…
It was pretty funny, though, to see the Minister's expressions change from pompous self-confidence to absolute terror to bewilderment before settling on a cross between the latter two that made him look slightly constipated. The Aurors just looked confused, but Harry didn't care much about them. As long as they kept their wands pointed away from him then they could do what they liked. He'd really hate to have to defend himself in the middle of the Gryffindor common room, especially since his new way of defending himself seemed to involve a lot of death on the behalf of other people.
"What is the meaning of this, Dumbledore?" the Minister asked, barely managing not to stutter.
"It would appear that there has been a mix-up in the case of Sirius Black," Dumbledore said. "As you can see, Peter Pettigrew is alive and well."
Fudge leaned in, wrinkling his nose as the action brought him closer to Sirius who did smell rather pungent. "He looks awfully still, Dumbledore," he said.
Harry rolled his eyes and heard one of the Aurors cover a snigger with a very false sounding cough. "He's stunned, Minister," he said calmly.
The Minister jumped and looked at Harry with wide eyes as if he was just noticing that Harry was sitting there. "My goodness," he said. "Harry Potter."
"A pleasure to meet you Minister," Harry said calmly, holding out his hand. Fudge shook it – and Harry inwardly cringed at how clammy the man's hand felt – and took the opportunity to look at Harry's forehead as if to check that the infamous scar was really there.
"Am I to understand that you are the one who apprehended the, ah, criminal?" Fudge asked.
Harry was tempted to ask him which one he meant. Innocent or not, Sirius was still an escaped convict after all. "Yes sir," he said.
"Ah," Fudge said. He looked slightly disconcerted. "Well done my boy. Well done."
He patted Harry's shoulder and straightened. "Very well," he said. "We'll take them both, if you don't mind Dumbledore. Black and Pettigrew."
Dumbledore nodded and indicated the fireplace with a wave of his hand. "Of course Cornelius," he said.
"Minister," Harry spoke up, "will Sirius get a trial this time?"
Fudge definitely looked very awkward. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his brow before tucking it away once again. "Yes," he said. "Yes of course. We wouldn't want the mistakes of the past to repeat themselves now would we?"
Harry smiled at him. "Thank you, Minister," he said.
He watched as Pettigrew was chained in special bonds that would, apparently, keep him tied tightly even if he transformed into a rat again. Sirius held his hands out and let one of the Aurors put cuffs on him. The Auror looked surprised that Sirius was going with them so calmly.
That, though, wasn't what was bothering Harry. Why had Dumbledore not put up more of a fight? Why had he so willingly helped? He had a sneaking suspicion that the old man was plotting something to do with Sirius, and Harry knew for a fact that if he was then Harry would not like it.
He sighed softly and made a mental note to write a letter to Tiberius as soon as possible. He knew that he would need the man's help pretty soon.
Chapter 22: Letters of Freedom
It was in the papers the following morning. The headlines screamed that Sirius Black was innocent and that Peter Pettigrew had been found alive at Hogwarts, bringing up more questions about the trial – or lack thereof – than the Ministry was comfortable with.
Harry couldn't help but grin when he saw the articles at breakfast that morning. He read them avidly, his grin not fading in the slightest, as he munched on a toasted bacon sandwich. Across the table, Neville watched him nervously.
"You know, you grinning like that makes me think that you're plotting something," he commented mildly as he dropped a couple of bacon slices onto his own toast – already thickly slathered with ketchup.
Harry shrugged and took another bite. He chewed, swallowed, and looked up from the paper. "I'm not the one who plots things," he replied, indicating the head table with a jerk of his head to show who he was really talking about. "I just react. Though, I've got to admit that I was expecting more interference."
Neville mumbled something that sounded a great deal like 'scheming git' before raising his voice to normal conversational levels again. "Why?" he asked. "Wouldn't helping your godfather go free be something Dumbledore would do just to make you like him more?"
Harry sighed softly. "Not really," he said. "Not when he wants me to go back to my relatives. Sirius has a legitimate claim on my custody, you see, and since he's a wizard - one to whom the Ministry's now in massive debt – the Ministry would be more likely to send me to him instead of back to my relatives or agreeing to my emancipation." He paused to run a hand through his hair and glance down at Sirius' photo on the front page of the Daily Prophet. "It makes me wonder if Dumbledore's got something on him."
Neville gave a soft, thoughtful sounding noise. "Possibly," he said. "That would explain why he isn't complaining more. Maybe he'd prefer you to go with Black than be on your own since that would mean you'd still be under his influence or something." He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed it over slowly, swallowing before he spoke again.
One thing Harry liked about hanging around Neville was that he actually had table manners – unlike Ron.
"Of course, this having you under his influence thing is completely stupid anyway, since he's a headmaster rather than a politician."
"He is the Head of the Wizengamot," Harry pointed out.
Neville nodded. "True, but he decided to stick with teaching rather than politics," he said. "And besides, the Head of the Wizengamot really shouldn't be showing this much interest in a school boy. A crazily powerful and possibly influential school boy, admittedly, but you're only thirteen. It's kind of…unhealthy."
Harry wrinkled his nose. Neville had a point: one that he had become more and more aware of over the past few months. "Yeah," he said quietly, and Neville dropped it.
The day passed in a blur after that. Harry was aware of the rest of the school watching him closely – it had been publicly announced that Sirius Black was his godfather that morning, after all – but he managed to ignore them and focus on his classes. He even managed to ignore Ron and Hermione, who seemed to be even more intent on studying him than they usually were. The impression of being mentally dissected was slightly less that day, and Harry knew that the only reason that it was like that was because he was worried more about Dumbledore's plots than he was about the reactions of his fellow students.
Why had Dumbledore let Sirius' innocence get spread over the front pages? He could have – quite easily – refused to cooperate and hidden the whole Pettigrew thing from the Ministry. Why hadn't he? Harry knew that Sirius would want custody of him once he'd been cleared in the very high profile trial that the Ministry were arranging for him. Wouldn't that go against Dumbledore's plans for him? Or was Neville right: did Dumbledore have something over Sirius?
Either way, as friendly – albeit slightly mad – as Sirius had seemed the previous night, he didn't want to go and live with him. He'd much rather go back to Last Hope Hostel; he just hoped that Sirius would be able to understand his need for independence. He'd hate to have an argument with the man over it.
Besides, it wasn't as though Sirius had put Harry's safety first in the first place. He didn't exactly have a good track record as being guardian material.
The next morning was far quieter. The papers were still going on about Sirius, but the students – for the most part – seemed to have accepted the fact that he'd been found in their school, despite just how disturbing that information was. Rather, they seemed more interested in the debate the Ministry was having over whether or not they should remove the Dementors from the school grounds. From what Harry could gather, the Ministry wanted the Dementors to stay at Hogwarts as the school clearly needed the security and were completely disregarding the fact that Sirius had managed to break in despite the presence of the Dementors.
Parents, the School Governors, the staff, the residents of Hogsmeade and the students themselves all seemed to recognise just how stupid the Ministry was being over this and wanted the Dementors out. Harry knew that, personally, he would be much happier with them gone; he just couldn't help but feel slightly bemused by the fact that there was a debate over it.
It was that morning that Hedwig swooped down at the Gryffindor table and presented him with two letters before helping herself to his bacon rinds and a beak's worth of pumpkin juice. He lifted his hand to gently stoke the soft feathers on the top of her head and she gave a weary hoot. He picked up the two letters and studied the handwriting on the front of the envelopes. It wasn't hard to tell who they were from: one had his name written in Tiberius' neat print, while the other had his name written in Linael's elaborate calligraphy. Before Harry had met Linael, he hadn't know that it was possible to fit that many loops into the name 'Harry'.
He grinned down at the letters, and drew his hand back from Hedwig's head in order to open them. He opened Tiberius' first.
'Harry' it said.
'Aurora is currently panicking about whether or not you were the mysterious Gryffindor mentioned as being 'instrumental' in helping the Ministry discovering the truth behind Sirius Black. (Not that they couldn't have just asked the man under Veritaserum, of course.) If you could write back to assure us all that you are well – even if you are not the instrumental Gryffindor in question – then it would be much appreciated.
'There's good news in all of this, though. That fascinating tapestry you had Linael bring back from the Chamber has sent the goblins into some sort of frenzy. Apparently it's more than enough evidence to name you as the heir to the Slytherin name and vault, which is good, though I think that at least half of their excitement is due to it being a self-updating family tree. They're very hard to tamper with, by the way, at a level well beyond the skills of most wizards, and the fact that this is the family tree of Salazar Slytherin makes it a historical artefact in its own right. I'm not sure how well you studied it, but it is truly fascinating. Some of the names on that tapestry are the most famous in all the Wizarding world! Not to mention, of course, that it seems that Lord Voldemort is your illegitimate third cousin twice removed from a bastard line. Although that's not exactly good news…
'The jist of this is that the goblins are willing to hand over all control of the Slytherin vault to you. Once you reach your majority or you get emancipated – an update on that process later – then you'll be able to introduce yourself at parties as Lord Slytherin. Although, to be frank, there are very few parties of people who would be willing to have a Lord Slytherin among their number and the only one that I can think of at the moment is a group of less-than-sane Dark wizards who used to grovel at Voldemort's feet.
'Onto the emancipation process: it is, you'll no doubt be pleased to hear, going very well. The Dursleys were very happy indeed to sign away all responsibility of you, which makes me think that Dumbledore wasn't bribing them with quite enough of your money for their liking. So, at the moment, you are an official ward of the Wizarding State of Great Britain. This will not, however, last much longer as the Ministry appear to be pushing things through for you a lot faster than they normally would for anyone else. – I suppose that that scar of yours does have its uses after all. However, gaining emancipation will be a lot more difficult now that your godfather – the man appointed as your legal guardian by your parents – has been freed and is on his way to being declared not guilty. If he applies for your custody then there is a high chance that he will get it unless you know of anything that would prove that he wouldn't be a good guardian for you.
'Of course, if you do decide that you want to live with Black then feel free to just tell us. We'll support you if you do: he is your godfather, after all. Just promise that you'll come and visit some times.
'Tiberius and Aurora'
Harry smiled down at the letter before folding it back up and sliding it into its envelope once more. He was glad to hear that things were moving quickly on the emancipation front; he just wasn't sure how happy he was with the fact that his fame was the driving force behind the speed of the process. But, he supposed, that he couldn't have everything.
He sighed and rested his chin on his hand thoughtfully, still staring down at the opened envelope thoughtfully. Sirius, he knew, wasn't a bad person. He just didn't want to live with him. Harry closed his eyes briefly.
He had been orphaned on Halloween nineteen eighty one; Sirius had been arrested on the sixth of November. Why hadn't he taken custody of Harry? Why had he ended up with the Dursleys before Sirius had been arrested? Aunt Petunia had often mentioned that the first of November that year – the day she had found her orphaned nephew laying on her doorstep – had been the worst day of her life.
Harry shook his head, opened his eyes again, and picked up Linael's letter. As he was slitting the envelope open, he caught sight of Hermione watching him closely from where she sat on the other side of the table, two people down. Harry frowned at her and she flushed but didn't look away. He looked away from her and pulled out the pages covered in Linael's swirling calligraphy. Harry wondered if he'd had to be taught how to write like that or whether it just came naturally to him.
He wondered what Linael's native language looked like when it was written down.
He unfolded the parchment and began to read.
'I do hope that your late night excursion to the Chamber didn't result in too much suspicion being heaped on you, though I suspect that the memory of it has been thoroughly overtaken by your involvement in the Sirius Black affair. Don't think of denying it; I know that it was you. It always is you, am I right?
'This letter, unlike Tiberius' does not hold any purpose. I am not writing to inform you of any legal proceedings or of any financial business. Rather I am writing to ask you how you are. I doubt that a place such as Hogwarts is empty of gossip considering current events and I know how you dislike such things. And, disregarding my desire to comfort you, I would still like to hear from you. Remember that I am here for you if you need me.
'Regarding the items that I took from the Chamber for you, they are all – bar the tapestry, which is now in Tiberius' care – waiting for you in your room. They are untouched, waiting for you to come and decide what will be done with them, though I do admit that it is something of a chore to let such books sit and gather yet more dust.
'I should, I think, tell you that Aurora was not appreciative of my brining so much filth into the hostel. A thousand years worth of dust is, as you have seen, quite the hazard to a tidy home.
'On another Chamber related note, I have asked for more information regarding your ancestress seeing as it is perhaps only the records of the Sidhe that go back far enough to have accurate information on such a figure, especially when it is to be considered that Slytherin seemed determined to keep her existence a secret from all but his own line – and even then a specific person in that line. I wonder if he had considered the possibility of a born Lamia appearing among his descendants. It certainly seems that he was aware that it could happen.
'I shall let you know with any information that the investigation into the archives of the Winter Court turns up, and I shall attempt to gain access to the archives of the Summer Court to conduct a similar search. It will be difficult, but the result shall, I believe, be more than worth the challenge.
Harry blinked. Not that he wasn't grateful to Linael for looking up more stuff on Lamiae for him, but what on earth was the Summer Court? What was the Winter Court, for that matter? He had heard Linael mention the Winter Court before, but he hadn't elaborated on what that was supposed to mean.
He frowned in thought, and wondered if the library would have any information on it. Then again, considering the 'quality' of the information he had been able to dig up on Drow earlier in the year, it was doubtful.
Then, slowly, a smile crept over his face. He tucked the parchment back into its envelope and slipped both of his letters into his bag.
"Good news?" Neville asked quietly.
"Yeah," Harry admitted, glancing over at the other boy.
Neville grinned back at him. "Good," he said simply.
Chapter 23: The Mad Woman in the Attic
The rest of November and December passed in a blur of activity. Classes were getting harder and the weather was getting colder. It was getting harder and harder for Harry to get out of bed in the mornings; his instincts were screaming at him to just curl up and sleep the rest of winter, but he knew that he couldn't do that. Fighting against his instincts was a pain, though, and as the days passed it grew harder and harder to do it.
Neville, he knew, was aware of Harry's growing lethargy. As the one who had to drag Harry out of bed in the mornings, there was no way that he couldn't be. But he didn't bring it up. He didn't ask prying questions as he handed Harry his robes every morning and gave him a friendly shove in the direction of the bathroom, and Harry was grateful for that; more grateful than he was for Neville making sure that he got to his classes on time.
The classes themselves weren't too dreadful. The work was difficult in most of them. Challenging. Harry was becoming more and more thankful for the work ethic that Tiberius and Aurora had managed to instil in him over the summer; he didn't want to imagine what it would be like if he had kept going as he had in first and second year, let alone what would have happened to him if he had allowed that to continue to his fifth year.
Some of his classes, though, Harry just couldn't stand. Potions was no longer his least favourite subject – Snape seemed to consider him some sort of a curiosity now rather than the spawn of Satan and actually left him alone for the most part; taking his hatred of Gryffindors out on Ron, who was a more than easy target – and that had surprised him. He'd had no idea when he'd first signed up for Divination that he would end up hating those hours spent in Trelawney's swelteringly hot tower room more than he would the hours spent in the freezing cold dungeons with Snape. It had seemed impossible to him back then, but he'd been proved wrong. There were worse teachers than Snape in Hogwarts.
It wasn't that Trelawney was cruel and sadistic, like Snape was. She wasn't. In fact, Harry could see that she was little more than a barmy middle-aged woman who looked for excitement by pretending to tell fortunes. Pretending was the operative word. She was a blatant fraud.
No, the reason why he disliked her more than he did Snape was the fact that she had focussed her premonitions of false doom and an early grave entirely on him. It was irritating as hell. Apparently it wasn't enough that he'd almost died in school twice; she had to remind him of his impending death at least twice every lesson.
Not to mention that he would rather taste the air in Snape's ingredients' cupboard than have to breath in a lungful of that incense she insisted on burning all the time. It was foul.
His last lesson on the last day of term happened to be Divination. He had spent the past week in a haze of nervousness and worry. He was heading back to Last Hope Hostel for the Christmas holidays – he'd practically been told to come back – but other than the time Linael had helped him out in the Chamber of Secrets, it would be the first time that he had seen any of them in three months. He was worried that they'd change their minds about him once he returned; that they'd ship him back off to the Dursleys or Hogwarts. He'd received letters, plenty of letters that said that they all missed him, but he still couldn't help but feel nervous about returning.
The tension in his stomach had built to a sort of crescendo throughout the day, and by the time he had to walk up to the North Tower with Neville for Divination, he was pretty sure that he would be skipping dinner yet again. He really, really didn't think that he'd be able to eat anything later. It felt like his stomach had tied itself into a knot.
Walking into the humid, stuffy, incense-laden room to listen to Trelawney prattle on about how he was going to die was the last thing he wanted to do, but he forced himself to do it.
After climbing the silver ladder, he clambered awkwardly into one of the armchairs and tried not to lean back into its squishy cushions. He had learned from an experience earlier that year that Trelawney had somehow managed to procure chairs that like the taste of human flesh. Leaning back into them was a death sentence: the wonderfully soft cushions would swallow you up and not let you go. Neville sat down opposite him, sitting awkwardly in his own armchair, and looked at him over the worn coffee table that sat between them.
"Hey," he said. Harry blinked at him. Neville had been very quiet all day – they both had – and apparently he had finally decided to voice whatever was bothering him. "Are you okay, Harry?"
Harry resisted the urge to grimace automatically at that question. "I…" he said, "yeah. Yeah, I'm okay."
Neville snorted and shook his head. "You know you don't have to tell me anything," he said quietly, "but I don't like being lied to."
Harry smiled faintly. "I'll be okay, Neville," he said, managing to make himself sound a lot more confident the second time round. "I'm just nervous about going back home for Christmas."
Neville nodded. "Okay," he said. "As long as you're alright."
Harry smiled shakily. He leaned against the armrest and narrowed his eyes in thought. He had just referred to the Hostel as his home. His home. Before last summer, he would have thought of Hogwarts as his home rather than anywhere else, but now it seemed that Last Hope Hostel had thoroughly overtaken everywhere else he had ever stayed as a home in his heart.
He bit his lip. He wondered what Aurora would say to that. Or Tiberius. Or Linael or Nikolai or Isabella…he wondered if they felt the same way about the Hostel as he did. They were staying there too, after all.
He gave a small sigh and tore his thoughts back towards the present. It wouldn't do to be spacing off in a lesson, even if he did hate the teacher; even if all he wanted to do was to escape as quickly as he could, get to London, find the Hostel and…and…
Professor Trelawney chose that moment to loom out of the shadows. Her shawl and beaded jewellery glittered in the candlelight and the light reflected off her glasses in such a way that it completely obscured her eyes. She really did look like some kind of dragonfly.
"Welcome, all of you," she said. Her voice sounded quiet – smothered – in the syrupy air. "The Fates have informed me that we shall be continuing our work on tea leaves this session, before moving on to dream auguries after the holidays."
Harry grimaced at the thought of having to drink yet more of the too hot, too weak tea that she brewed. Even that managed to taste of incense.
"Now, collect your cups," she said, "and I will pour for you."
She slipped back into the gloom, until all he could make out were the lights reflecting off her glasses and the colours that floated over her body. He smiled. Her looming out of the darkness trick most likely looked impressive to his housemates, but it was hard to impress someone with tricks like that when they had heat sensitive vision.
He stood, managed to slip his body between the narrow gap between the armrest of his chair and the coffee table, and joined the queue to get a tea cup. Neville followed him. He stood, absentmindedly watching the white and yellow colours glowing through Seamus' robes flicker slightly in time with his heartbeat as he waited his turn. Then, once he'd taken his cup, he followed Seamus to Trelawney's desk, took a pinch or three of the loose leaf tea they were provided with, and waited for her to pour the boiling water into his cup.
Sitting back down with Neville, he watched as his friend grimaced and took a sip of the too hot liquid. "I hate this stuff," Neville commented quietly. "Loose leaf tea, I mean. I keep thinking that I'm going to swallow the leaves."
Harry grinned and took a sip from his own cup. The leaves hadn't been given enough time to disperse their flavour, so the tea was still far too weak for his liking, but the heat of it scalded his lips and tongue. He winced. The colours floating over it were shades of white and pale yellow.
"I just wish it wasn't so hot," he said.
Neville nodded. "Makes me think she's trying to torture us. All this scalding hot tea and incense could be some sort of cruel and unusual punishment."
Harry sniggered. It took effort not to laugh louder, but he didn't want to drag Trelawney's attention onto him too quickly. Braving the heat, he drank the rest of his tea, swirled the cup three times counter-clockwise with his left hand and upended it onto his saucer before sliding it across the table to Neville. Just a few minutes afterwards, Neville mirrored his actions and passed his cup over.
"Right," he huffed. "Let's see how far we get before we're interrupted."
Harry snorted. He pulled his copy of Unfogging the Future out of his bag and placed it on the table. Trelawney headed towards Lavender and Parvati's table and Harry breathed a sigh of relief. She'd be distracted at that side of the room for quite a while.
He turned Neville's cup over, flipped to the right page in his text book, and began to try and puzzle a meaning out of the sludgy brown lumps of tea leaves. "Right," he said after a while. "You have…er, I think that's a duck, and apparently that doesn't have a meaning. But you've got something that might be the sun and that means happiness, so that's good. Then again, it could also be a skull, which means a mortal enemy, and that's not so good."
Neville sniggered. He raised his hand to muffle the noise and indicated for Harry to continue.
"Um…you have a blob that could be any one of five different things, so I'm not even going to go there. And you've got a…a heart? I think that's a heart. Anyway, that means true love, so I'm going to go with the happy meaning of generic blob number two."
Neville's shoulders shook. "Oh good," he said, smothering his laughter. "I'd hate to have a mortal enemy this early in life."
Harry simply shrugged. He slid his book over to Neville and leaned against the armrest. "Go for it," he said.
Neville took a deep breath and turned Harry's cup over. He blinked, glanced back up at Harry, and then looked back down at the cup. "You, er, have two interlinked circles, which means that you're going to get married," he said.
Harry's jaw dropped. He what? Suddenly, he felt very glad that Divination was a load of nonsense. Marriage? Him?
"There's a heart, too, and you know what that means," Neville continued, apparently not noticing Harry's stunned expression. "There's a…a snake, and that symbolises knowledge, and there's an ouroboros too. That means eternity, by the way. Um…that circles the interlinked rings, the snake and the heart. And on the outside of the ouroboros there's two skulls, which means you have two mortal enemies, and there's a…I think that's a dagger, and that means confrontation."
He looked up at Harry then. "Um…Harry?"
"Right," Harry said weakly. "Sorry, I'm still stuck on the marriage part. What?"
Neville chuckled and passed Harry's cup beck over to him. Sure enough, the tea leaves in his cup had arranged them in the exact same way that Neville had described, except for one thing. The ouroboros that went around the bottom of the cup – the giant snake devouring its own tail – wasn't just a plain ouroboros. It had a crown on its head.
A shiver went down Harry's spine and he hurriedly passed the cup back to Neville. His tea leaves had formed the shape of a royal serpent. He closed his eyes and prayed that Trelawney wouldn't find her way over to their table.
For once, his prayers were listened to.
The next morning was frantic. There was last minute packing to do, and even Harry, who had been organised, was dragged out of bed to help find missing socks and lost books. He grumbled good naturedly: he would much rather be sleeping like his baby snakes, but he didn't begrudge helping his dorm mates.
Breakfast was slightly rushed, and the hall was alive with chatter as people said goodbye to the friends they had who were staying at the castle over the holidays. Harry simply drank his water, ate his toasted bacon sandwich, and tried to stay awake. Now that he was no longer helping people look for things, his weariness was setting back in. A part of him envied Neville, who happened to be a morning person, and his ability to feel awake in such cold weather.
Neville was preoccupied with trying to spot the baby snakes. They had buried themselves in the loose sawdust in the bottom of their tank, close to the heat pad, and were sleeping soundly. Harry could just about hear their little hissing snores whenever the noise in the hall came to a lull. He envied them.
"They're pretty good at hiding, huh," Neville commented in between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs.
Harry nodded. "Most snakes are," he said.
"Ugh, did you have to bring those things to the table?"
Harry looked up as Hermione dropped into the seat next to him. Ron sat himself down next to Neville, opposite Hermione, and shot a glare in the direction of the snake tank. Apparently he didn't appreciate their presence either.
"If you have a problem with them, then don't sit here," Harry told her quietly.
Hermione gave a little sniff. "Honestly Harry, you'd think that you would have grown up by now. You know that we're only looking out for you."
"Sure," Harry said, not believing her in the slightest. "Whatever you say Hermione."
He finished his sandwich and stood up, picking up his snake tank. "Come on guys," he said in Parseltongue, taking pleasure in the way that Ron and Hermione flinched. "Let's go and sit somewhere a bit warmer."
There was no response other than little hissing snores. Harry smiled fondly. So cute…
The train journey back to London was long and boring. He sat in a compartment with Neville, his snake tank and some first years who all looked ecstatic at the thought of going home and seeing their families again. For the first time in his life, Harry thought that he might know how they felt.
He tried to read, but ended up staring out of the window for the most part of the journey, or making small talk with Neville. There wasn't really all that much to say, and Harry didn't feel like talking all that much anyway. That was one of the things he liked about Neville: he could be as quiet as he liked and Neville wouldn't mind as long as Harry was happy that way.
The station, when they arrived, was freezing cold, and Harry snuggled deeper into his cloak. Aurora had sent him a scarf a few weeks ago: hand knitted and soft, the exact same shade of green as his eyes. He was wearing it under the black cloak that Nikolai had given him for his birthday. He was thankful for the warming charms that had been woven into the cloak: they were currently keeping him awake.
He dragged his trunk to one side, somehow managing to juggle that along with his snake tank and Hedwig's cage – empty; he'd sent Hedwig on ahead – without dropping anything. Personally, Harry thought it was amazing that he hadn't lost control and ended up with his possessions strewn over the platform.
He didn't have to wait long before he was spotted. Tiberius made his way along the platform towards him, and seeing the smile on the old man's bearded face; Harry couldn't help but grin widely back. But Tiberius wasn't alone. An extremely handsome man with caramel coloured skin and long dark brown hair walked alongside him. As they got closer, Harry got the feeling that he should have recognised him; there was something familiar about the man's high cheekbones and the slant of his eyes.
"Harry," Tiberius greeted him, and Harry couldn't help it. He flung his arms around the man's middle and hugged him. He heard Tiberius chuckle, and felt the vibrations run through his chest. When he pulled back, he blinked up at Tiberius' companion in confusion. The man grinned at him, and immediately Harry knew who he was.
"Linael!" he gasped.
Linael chuckled and stepped forward so that Harry could hug him too. "It's good to see you again," he said, leaning down so that he could murmur his words into Harry's ear.
Harry felt himself blush. "Good to see you too," he admitted.
Then, before they could say anything else, they were interrupted by a loud cry of "Harry!" He winced, recognising that voice as belonging to Molly Weasley. The last thing he wanted right now was a confrontation between the Weasleys and Tiberius, or the Weasleys and Linael for that matter, since Linael was probably more likely to hurt them.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."
But Mrs Weasley had somehow managed to get to them, and she placed her hand on Harry's shoulder. Harry immediately closed his second and third eyelids.
"Harry," she said. "There you are. Professor Dumbledore said that you would be visiting over the holidays, but we almost lost you in the crowd."
Harry gave a little gasp and ducked out from under her hand. Dumbledore had said what? But…why would he have done that? Harry got the sneaking suspicion that he was about to wriggle out of yet another one of the headmaster's schemes.
He turned to face her. "But I'm not visiting, Mrs Weasley," he said. He looked up at her face and gave a little shrug, feigning innocence. "Ron and I had a falling out this term."
"Oh," she said, looking flustered. "Well, what are you doing outside of the castle then? Surely you aren't going back to the Dursleys'?"
"Of course not," he said. "I've made my own plans."
She looked beyond him, then, to where Linael was holding the snake tank and Hedwig's cage, and Tiberius was shrinking Harry's trunk down to place it in his pocket. "Harry," she said softly. "Who are these men?"
He sensed movement behind him, and looked down when he felt a hand land on his shoulder. It was long-fingered with skin the colour of caramel. Linael. "We're his family," he heard Linael say softly, and he couldn't help it. A wide smile spread over his face and he looked up at Linael's face to see the Drow's expression. He was frowning at Mrs Weasley, but when he saw Harry beaming up at him, he glanced down and winked.
"Come on, you two," Tiberius said gruffly. "If you'll excuse us, Ma'am, we're going to be late for dinner."
And with that, Harry turned away from Mrs Weasley, took back his snake tank, and walked away. And even as they walked, Linael's hand didn't leave his shoulder; instead it remained, warmth seeping through Harry's clothes from the simple touch and burrowing deep into his skin. He leaned into the simple gesture, and from the corner of his eye, he could have sworn that he saw Tiberius roll his eyes and Linael smile.
He didn't care what they thought, though. He was too happy to care. He was going home.
Chapter 24: Home
Aurora was waiting for them when they arrived. As soon as she set eyes on Harry she pulled him into a warm hug before ushering him through to the dining room, leaving Tiberius and Linael to manoeuvre themselves and Harry's things around the porch. Harry grinned as he heard muffled crashes and curses. He caught Aurora's eye and she winked at him.
"Serves them right to head off to get you without letting anyone know," she said.
The dining room was well lit as always, and a fire had been started in the hearth. The smell of roasting beef wafted in through the open door that led to the kitchen, and Harry inhaled deeply – flicking his tongue out to taste the air – and sighed. He was home.
"Welcome back," said a voice from behind him.
It was Isabella. She was standing, leaning against the doorframe with a glass of blood in her hand – kept warm with a mild heating charm – and Nikolai stood behind her. She reached out to ruffle Harry's hair.
"Where are the other two?" she asked.
"Causing chaos," Aurora said. "Now come in here. There's no point in loitering in the doorway. Dinner will be ready in a moment."
She vanished into the kitchen, and Harry watched her leave before turning back to the vampires. "They're bringing my stuff in," he told them.
"Ah," Isabella said.
"Too lazy to do it yourself?" Nikolai asked teasingly, moving past his wife to sling an arm around Harry's shoulders. "You're making a habit of it, Harry, what with all that stuff you had Linael bring back here. Tiberius was practically drooling over those books, you know."
"And the goblins practically wept with joy at the sight of the tapestry," Tiberius said from behind them. "What are you all doing in the doorway?"
Sheepishly, Harry and the others moved further into the dining room, taking their seats at the table. Tiberius and Linael entered – Linael's glamour fading away as he walked in; caramel skin turning pitch black and brown hair lightening to starlight-white – and took their places as well, Linael managing to snag the seat on Harry's right.
Harry smiled at him before turning his attention to Tiberius. "You took the tapestry to Gringotts?" he asked.
"Of course," Tiberius replied. "Not that I could do much with it, mind. They have declared you the rightful owner of the Slytherin vault, but they need you there for everything else. Apparently the wards on the vault need changing – your Slytherin blood's too diluted for you to just be able to open it as is – so that you can gain access to it. They've unfrozen the account, though, and it's started gathering interest again."
"Oh," Harry said, knowing that if Tiberius went into any more detail on the financial side of things that he would be completely lost. "That's good. I can make an appointment to see them over the holidays, right?"
"That would be a good idea," Tiberius agreed. "The sooner the better. As for the rest of the things that Linael brought back for you; we put them in your room." He shot a mock glare in Linael's direction. "We weren't allowed to do anything else with them."
Linael just shrugged. "As I told you," he said, "what I saw of the titles looked like the books were written in Parseltongue, meaning that Harry only Harry has a use for them anyway."
Tiberius huffed, but any further complaints he might have had were cut off by Aurora calling for him to give her a hand in the kitchen.
"As you can see, there has been quite a bit of interest in those books from the Chamber," Linael said. "Although it really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, considering whom you left them in a house with."
"It didn't," Harry assured him, smiling fondly. "I'm not surprised at all."
Snow fell outside Harry's bedroom window, but he ignored it. It was far warmer in the hostel than it had been at Hogwarts, and as a result his urge to hibernate had faded slightly. Instead of sleeping, he stood in front of his mirror, studying his reflection.
Linael had taken his Sickle pendant to strengthen the glamour on it and to see if he could make it so that it disguised the feel of his scales as well as the look of them. They were rough to the touch, and Harry knew that his body temperature was naturally far lower than that of a human. He would feel too different, and he couldn't risk wandering around Hogwarts or the rest of the Wizarding world and worrying about whether someone would notice something wrong when they accidentally brushed up against him. That wasn't the sort of life he wanted to lead.
Even so, he did like his scales. He had never really given himself the opportunity to study them in full before, not really having enough time or privacy at Hogwarts, but he liked what he saw. Oddly, he thought he looked better with the scales instead of pinkish human skin; it just looked right somehow.
The scales were smaller than the ones that ran down his spine, and they were lighter in colour too: pale green on his chest, stomach, parts of his face and the insides of his arms and legs, though they gradually darkened to a shade only a touch lighter than the poisonous green ones on his spine. They were dull in appearance, and each scale had a tiny ridge running down the length of it, giving his skin a rough texture.
The statuette of his ancestress Siessa seemed to mock him from its place on his bedside table. No matter how hard he tried, he could not transform into a half-snake form. He didn't even know how, though he supposed that information on the Animagus transformation might help him; he would just have to make things up as he went along, and glean as much information as he could from the books from the Chamber. Looking at the statuette made him feel like he hadn't quite finished his transformation into a Lamia yet and that frustrated him.
All the same, his friends – his family – had told him not to push it; that his transformations would come in time, and he knew that they were right.
It was just so frustrating…
Harry turned away from the mirror. Now that Christmas had come and gone, his holidays would be frantic. So many things in his life were changing, and he knew that he needed to focus on those more than his still-developing snake-side. They were more immediate.
The goblins were more than happy to see him when he arrived at Gringotts on the twenty-seventh of December. When Harry, encouraged by Tiberius, managed to greet them in shaky – yet passable – Gobbledegook, they practically fell over themselves to help him.
His provision of the tapestry – self-updating, with the enchantments still holding after a thousand years, making it a valuable artefact in its own right regardless of the information on it – was more than enough to have him named the Slytherin Lord and have control of the vaults handed over to him.
Tiberius accompanied him down to the Slytherin vaults at Harry's insistence. He was nervous, and he wanted someone there. He knew it was irrational: the goblins weren't out to get him, and he was powerful enough to stop them even if they were, and the Slytherin vaults were just that: bank vaults. But at the same time, the thought of obtaining them made Harry incredibly nervous. Tiberius's presence was reassuring – familiar – and Harry needed that.
"Thank you," he whispered, as they stood in front of the main entrance to the Slytherin vaults.
Tiberius rested a hand gently on his shoulder. "My pleasure, Harry," he whispered back. "You know that you can count on me – on any of us – when you need to."
"It seems so silly, to need someone else here for this," Harry admitted.
Tiberius chuckled and squeezed his shoulder. "It isn't," he said. "It's not a bad thing to need someone else. It doesn't make you silly or weak. It just means that you're human."
He caught Harry's eye, and grinned. Harry laughed at him softly.
"Or not," Tiberius admitted. "But you get the idea."
"Yeah," Harry said, grinning. "I do."
The ritual to update the security on the vaults and switch ownership to Harry sounded as though it would be a lot more complicated than it actually was. Harry couldn't help but be fascinated by the process: Hogwarts didn't teach anything about forms of magic that were different from that of the average witch or wizard. Due to the still-strained relations between goblins and wizards, Harry knew that not many people would ever get a demonstration of goblin magic.
First, the goblin escorting them ground up several pungent herbs together with a pestle and mortar to make a fine green powder. When Harry's tongue flickered out, he could taste something that reminded him strongly of the incense that was kept burning in some of the more obscure shops he had discovered on Knockturn Alley. The goblin then tipped the powder into a bowl made of a black stone.
"I will need some of your blood, Mr Potter," the goblin said.
Harry nodded. "Er, okay," he said. Even he knew enough about magic to know that any ritual involving blood would be incredibly powerful.
The goblin approached him slowly, and Harry closed his second and third eyelids just in case his instincts reacted badly. Tiberius squeezed his shoulder again, and the goblin took Harry's right hand and held it over the bowl. Then, with a knife made out of the same stone as the bowl, the goblin cut a strange rune into Harry's palm. Harry hissed in pain, but his eyes didn't change into their Basilisk form. He wondered at that. Was it because he was allowing the goblin to cut him?
Blood welled up from the oddly shaped cut, and the goblin forced him to tilt his palm so that it would flow into the bowl over the herbs. As soon as the first drop hit the bowl, there was a flash of green light.
"Hm," the goblin said. "Curious. In most cases I have seen, the light was blue." The goblin peered up at him, as if trying to search for the reason for the odd colour in Harry's face.
Harry simply shrugged.
The goblin released him, and began to mix the blood and the herbs together to create a thick paste, which he then used to paint more runes – different from the one that had been cut into Harry's palm – onto the door of the vault. The painted runes hissed and bubbled, glowing green briefly before they sank into the door, vanishing without a trace. Harry flickered his tongue out. He could taste the odd, flowery – geranium – scent of ozone lingering in the stale air of the tunnel.
"You are now keyed in to the wards, Mr Potter," the goblin said. "They will now open for you and you alone."
"Thank you," Harry said, smiling at the goblin.
Four days later, Harry found himself at the Ministry's social services department, waiting to find out news of his emancipation. The Ministry had called him in despite it being New Year's Eve, and his brain – his instincts – were screaming that something important was going to happen.
He closed his second and third eyelids as soon as he entered the office of Hestia Rimple, his emancipation officer. It wasn't because of the woman herself, but rather because of the men who were already in her office. Professor Dumbledore and the Minister of Magic were seated in two of the four, squishy armchairs in front of Rimple's desk. They both looked up when Harry and Tiberius entered, and Harry noticed that while Fudge looked alarmed by Tiberius' presence, Dumbledore looked like he had been expecting it.
Mrs Weasley must have told him about their confrontation at Platform Nine and Three Quarters. The thought made Harry frown. He had realised that she would probably do something of the sort, but the knowledge that she actually had done made him feel empty inside. The betrayal of the Weasleys still hurt.
"Woodrift!" Fudge gasped. "What are you doing here?"
"Mr Woodrift has every right to be here as Mr Potter's employer and landlord," Rimple said, shooting Fudge an irritated look.
Harry had to admit that while his first impression of the woman hadn't been very good – she was too falsely nice for his tastes – she was growing on him slightly.
"Employer?" Dumbledore asked. "I was not aware that Harry had a job."
With a sigh, Rimple indicated that Harry and Tiberius should sit. They did so, though Harry made sure to keep Tiberius between Fudge and Dumbledore and himself. He really didn't want to be near either of them. Just being in Dumbledore's presence was making it hard to control his killing instincts. He knew that his eyes had turned yellow: he had felt them tingle as they changed.
"Harry works part time as a sales assistant in my shop," Tiberius said, "and has done since the summer. Of course, while he was at Hogwarts his contract was suspended, but he returned to his position as soon as school let out for the holidays. He's a good worker, and a pleasure to have around."
Harry smiled faintly at the praise. He leaned back in his chair, determined to make himself appear more relaxed. He noticed Dumbledore's gaze flicker in his direction.
"What is it that you sell in your shop, Mr Woodrift?" Dumbledore asked.
Fudge remained silent. He was gaping at Harry slightly, as if he was having trouble connecting the famed Boy-Who-Lived to a part-time shop assistant.
"Books," Tiberius said.
"But…surely Mr Potter doesn't need to take employment at such a young age?" Fudge said, looking desperately towards Rimple.
"If I may?" Harry said, glancing at the woman, who nodded to him. He took a deep, steadying breath. "I don't need to work. Not really. I mean, I can afford to spend my life mooching off the money that was saved up in my family vaults over the years. But that doesn't mean that I have to, or that I want to. Living like that would bore me. With my job I get to meet lots of people that I normally wouldn't have, I get to study while the shop isn't busy and read the merchandise, and it has taught me to be more responsible with money.
"I don't want to be known for something that I can't remember. If I have to live in the public eye, which at the moment it seems I do, then I want the chance to make my life mean more than the sacrifice of my parents' lives. I realise that being a part-time sales assistant in a bookshop isn't exactly glamorous, but I am only thirteen and I have plenty of time to move on to another job should I wish to. The thing is that it's letting me do what I want at the moment and giving me a bit of independence as well as responsibility, which I will need if I'm ever going to be seen as more than the Boy-Who-Lived."
Fudge looked absolutely flabbergasted, but Harry was more interested in the reactions of the others to his little speech. He was well aware that that was the most he had said ever since he had started changing into a Lamia, and that no one had really been made truly aware of his desire to be something other than the Boy-Who-Lived – which was, in his opinion, a stupid title anyway. Of course, Tiberius had known, but only peripherally.
Glancing at him, Harry could see the look of pride on Tiberius' face, and he felt warmth well up inside of him in response. Tiberius's reaction meant more to him than anything, and even the calculating expression that had flashed over Dumbledore's features and the amazed look Rimple had developed could not detract from the sheer pleasure he felt at knowing that someone he cared about was proud of him.
"Well," Rimple said slowly. "You are full of surprises, young man. That was very mature of you."
Harry smiled at her faintly.
Rimple cleared her throat. "In regards to your relatives, Mr Potter, they were quite happy to sign custody of you over to the Ministry, whose guardianship you are still officially under. Due to the, ah, unnecessary publicity we feel your case might cause, it has been decided that, if possible, we should try and settle this out of court. Is that alright with you?"
Harry nodded, but the happy feeling that had swelled inside of him crumpled like a popped balloon. This was his trial, then, with Dumbledore and Fudge present. He could only hope that he could win Fudge over, or else he wouldn't stand a chance and Dumbledore would have him under control for even longer.
"Yes," he said. He licked his lips nervously, and as he did so, he tasted the air. He could taste nervousness coming from Tiberius, and while he appreciated that he was not the only one, the thought that Tiberius was nervous as well made him even more so. Fudge tasted of confusion, while Dumbledore tasted of confidence. He was sure he was going to win this. Harry steeled himself. At least Fudge was swaying in his loyalties. Harry realised that his earlier speech had probably changed the man's perception of him, and was making him realise that Harry was not a pampered little prince who needed Dumbledore's guidance to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Even so, even if Harry did manage to win Fudge over in this, he would not trust the man. He couldn't. Not with the DMLE and the Department of Mysteries out for his blood – even if they were unaware that it was him they were looking for.
"Very well," Rimple said. "You have already shown yourself to have a mature attitude in regards to your finances and your future, but you are still very young and emancipation is rare in the Wizarding world. We are a very family orientated society, after all."
"You also have a godfather, Mr Potter, who was recently cleared of all charges. While he is currently undergoing a Mind Healing course to try and fix the damage that Azkaban dealt to him, it would be possible for you to remain in Ministry custody while that course is completed, in which case it would be simple to hand custody of you over to Mr Black."
Harry cleared his throat. "With all due respect, I don't think that would be a good idea," he said. "I was orphaned on Halloween nineteen eighty. Sirius was arrested on the sixth of November, by which point I had already been with my aunt and uncle for five days. If he was serious about becoming my guardian, he would have taken me in immediately rather than go after Pettigrew. Instead, he put revenge over the needs of a baby who, by rights, depended entirely on him. While I do like Sirius, and I do want to explore a relationship with him as his godson, I can't see him ever being a suitable guardian for me."
Rimple nodded. "That's quite understandable, Mr Potter," she said. "Now, as I told you at your previous meeting, Professor Dumbledore is also a candidate for guardianship of you."
She was looking at Harry very closely, and while she wasn't using Legillimency – he could feel no probing at his barriers – he got the impression that she could see right through him. Apparently Dumbledore's conduct had rubbed her the wrong way. She wanted him to prove that Dumbledore wasn't suitable.
He took a deep breath.
"Like you said, you were the one who told me that Professor Dumbledore was my magical guardian," he said. "You told me this after two full school years under Professor Dumbledore's eye, during which he told me nothing about any sort of relationship we might have had beyond that of a headmaster and student. In fact, rather than take an interest in my upbringing, as any suitable guardian should have, he left me in the custody of magic-hating Muggles which resulted in emotional and some physical neglect, as well as me receiving absolutely no information about the Wizarding world until he had to send someone to find out why I wasn't answering my Hogwarts letters – the first of which was addressed to the cupboard that I had been forced to sleep in for ten years."
He stopped, forcing himself to reign his temper back in. His teeth were beginning to feel slick with venom and his heart was racing.
"I don't think that Professor Dumbledore has my best interests at heart," he said at last.
"I see," Rimple said.
"I must protest," Dumbledore said, cutting in smoothly. "I felt that Harry would be better off under the care of his relatives rather than forced through the rigmarole of a custody battle so soon after his parents' deaths, especially as many of Lord Voldemort's supporters had not yet then been arrested."
"There shouldn't have been a custody battle in the first place," Harry said. "Sirius should have taken custody of me automatically, headmaster, and a testimony under Veritaserum would have cleared him of all suspicion." Dumbledore did not look happy. "Besides, you are not social services; Madame Rimple is. And, for that matter, nothing was stopping you from checking in on me during my time with the Dursleys, which you should have done if you are as suitable a guardian as you claim to be." He paused. "Sir," he added, as an afterthought.
Dumbledore did not deserve his respect, but that didn't mean he had to be rude. That would just get him nowhere.
"I quite agree Mr Potter," Rimple said. "My predecessor might have let you get away with this, Professor, but I cannot in good conscience allow your magical guardianship of Mr Potter to continue, nor can I sign custody of him over to you as your ward. Minister, may I recommend that Mr Potter be emancipated on the condition that he attends bi-annual inspections of his financial and psychiatric state."
Harry gaped at her for a moment, before closing his mouth with a sharp click. Surely, surely it couldn't have been that easy. He'd just argued his case using logic. Dumbledore's political sway hadn't meant a thing.
His estimation of Hestia Rimple skyrocketed in that moment.
He glanced over at Fudge nervously. What would his reaction be? Everything now depended on this man; a man Harry knew to be a bumbling idiot who was mostly under Dumbledore's thumb. For a moment, Fudge met his gaze, and Harry suddenly realised that – bumbling idiot he might be – Fudge had achieved his position somehow, making him a powerful politician in his own right. The only thing was: who would Fudge decide to have as an ally? Dumbledore the wise, powerful headmaster, or Harry: also powerful, but young and without as much influence.
"I agree, Hestia," Fudge said pompously. "I think that Mr Potter has what it takes."
Harry felt his stomach lurch. What? What had Fudge just said?
"Cornelius, please see reason," Dumbledore said. "Harry is too young, and Mr Woodrift, his employer, is a known Dark Wizard."
Tiberius snorted. "There's a difference between a Dark Wizard and someone from a Dark family, Albus. You used to know that. Harry's a good kid, and an intelligent one. He knows better than to let himself get blindsided and manipulated like how you're suggesting."
Harry grinned at that, catching the meaning in Tiberius' words. Tiberius was letting Dumbledore know that he'd been found out, and that Harry had his backing against Dumbledore's schemes. He leaned forward, and met Dumbledore's piercing blue gaze. The old man's eyes weren't twinkling, for once. He felt Dumbledore brush up against the defences in his mind, and – not really knowing what he was doing; only knowing what he wanted to prove – he lowered them slightly. Not enough to let Dumbledore break into his mind, but enough for him to see a larger part of the extent of his defences.
Dumbledore withdrew, frowning. "I see," he said slowly. He stood. "In that case, Harry, I will see you at school."
Harry smiled. "Goodbye headmaster," he said, before turning to Madame Rimple. "Are there any forms I need to sign, Ma'am?" he asked.
She smiled at him warmly, and for the first time since they had met, he saw her smile reach her eyes. "Of course, Mr Potter."
Harry groaned aloud when she pushed a stack of paperwork across the desk towards him. It would take hours!
Harry laughed as Aurora lifted him off the floor from hugging him so hard. She placed him back on the ground fast enough, remembering that being off the ground made Harry nervous, but his smiling face reassured her that she hadn't done him any harm. Nikolai and Isabella chose that moment to crowd around him, offering him their own congratulations; Nikolai ruffling his hair vigorously and making it stick up even more than usual, and Isabella leaning down to press a kiss to each of his cheeks. Her lips were soft, but almost uncomfortably cold, though the warmth of the gesture more than made up for that lack in temperature. He hugged her briefly, before smacking Nikolai on the arm in retaliation for the attack on his hair.
Nikolai laughed. "One day you might actually be able to put some force behind that," he said.
Harry grinned. "Bite me," he retorted.
Nikolai grimaced. "Nah, I don't like the taste of snake."
Isabella sighed softly and rolled her eyes, before her lips quirked upwards into an impish smile. "You've tried reptile before, Nik?" she asked. She wrinkled her nose and tossed her head, dark brown hair shining in the candlelight. "Ugh. That's decided it. No more kisses for you!"
Nikolai spluttered in disbelief, and Isabella gave Harry a slow wink, making him burst out laughing again. He should have known that Isabella would be a perfect match for Nikolai's offbeat sense of humour.
Linael approached him, then, drawing Harry's attention away from the now bickering vampires. Linael was smiling warmly, and his eyes shone with happiness. Harry felt himself blush under the intensity of Linael's gaze.
"I am happy for you," Linael said once he had reached Harry's side. "I am glad you will never have to return to your relatives, and that you have been made happy with today's news."
Harry nodded. "It's a fresh start," he said, "and now that I am emancipated…there's so much that I can do."
Linael's hand touched his shoulder gently. "You know that we will support you no matter what decisions you make. Your future is your own now, but that does not mean that you will be abandoned to deal with it on your own."
Harry nodded. "I know," he said. "Thank you."
The clock chimed. Twelve strokes. There was a brief feeling of long fingers against his jaw, and sudden warmth against his mouth. For one brief moment, Harry's nostrils were filled with the sweet scent of honey and the faint ozone of magic before there was a flicker of movement and his mind cleared.
He blinked up at Linael, who smiled down at him gently from two feet away.
Harry raised a hand to his lips in confusion. For a moment, he could have sworn that Linael had kissed him.
Chapter 25: Epilogue: The Fork in the Path
It is with very little regret that I must inform you that I will not be returning to Hogwarts next term, or for the rest of my academic career. Several incidents in my time at Hogwarts have shown that the school is not a safe environment in which I can complete my studies. As a result, I am formally withdrawing myself from the Hogwarts student body.
My academic career will not suffer, however, as I have already enrolled on several magical homeschooling courses from other well-known magical institutions. This decision has been fully supported by both Madame Rimple and my emancipation officer Henry Phelp-Jones.
Harry J. Potter
You told me to warn you if I was ever going to do something crazy again. Well, here it is: I've dropped out of Hogwarts to be homeschooled. Hogwarts isn't really safe for me right now, and I thought I'd get a better education on my own. Dumbledore's going to be annoyed, but what can he do? I'm emancipated and this has all been approved by the proper officials.
Anyway, this is your warning, and a note of good luck. Take care of yourself Neville, and don't let anyone get you down. You're the best friend I've ever had, and I hope that we can stay friends even though we won't be sharing a dorm anymore. Work hard, Neville, and give them hell.
P.S. The 'them' in question is open for interpretation. I suggest teaming up with the twins – they aren't gits like their brother – and unleashing mayhem on the school. But, you know, that's only a suggestion. – H.