Chapter 1: Wherein Hogwarts Discovers Harry
Harry stared at the castle as they drew closer. The man took his arm to lead him at first, but Harry snarled and pulled back. He was already captive, he could tell by the taste of the magic. The man didn't need to rub it in.
He shied away when they reached the doors of the castle, which meant that the man grabbed his arm again. Harry really didn't want to go inside, but it seemed he wasn't being given a choice.
He had considered two options when it came to being caught by the adults. Sent back to the Dursleys, or sent to the police. He still wasn't sure which one this was going to end up being, unless this was a magical police station. Harry was dragged through a large hall and up a flight of stairs, down several drafty stone corridors and up a couple more staircases, some of which they had to wait for because the staircases were moving.
Harry spent the whole walk gawking at his surroundings. The paintings were moving around, peering at him and waving. There were knights in armour and tapestries and Harry thought he might have seen a ghost. Everything tasted powerfully of magic, and now that he was inside the castle, the taste was less oppressive and more ...pervasive. The whole place was layered with rich, old magic. It was heady. Harry let his mouth hang open to better breathe it in. Even the gargoyles that leapt aside to reveal a staircase when the man spoke to them tasted richer than the most decadent meal the house elf in Wiltshire had ever brought him.
The man who sat at a desk in the room at the top of the stairs was white haired and long bearded. He had a long nose and a cheerful expression. He looked like he wanted to be Harry's friend. Harry distrusted him immediately.
"Harry!" the old man exclaimed, standing up and clapping his hands together. Harry scowled. This man knew his name! He liked him even less now. "It's good to see you. We were worried about you."
Harry stared up at him, then cast his gaze around the room. It was filled with tiny devices that tasted of the kind of sticky magic that had fallen on Harry when he first passed through the gates. Harry wrinkled his nose.
"He has yet to speak," the dark haired man said. "I found him sleeping in a tree on the Isle of Mann. He managed to evade me for several hours."
Longer than that, Harry thought to himself, though he didn't say anything. There was an advantage to these people not knowing if he could speak. He wasn't sure what it was, but he knew it was there.
Harry kept the two men in his peripheral vision as he edged away and began exploring the room. They let him go, speaking to each other about the dark haired man's search and capture of Harry. Apparently they had been hunting him for years now. Harry felt proud for having evaded them for so long, and climbed up on the windowsill, wondering if there was a way he could escape now that he had been captured. He tested the latch. The window was too high up to jump, but the walls outside this window were encrusted with vines. He could maybe climb down.
"Harry," the bearded man said, turning to him. "You should be informed that the Dursleys-"
Harry stiffened and opened the window more fully. He wasn't going back. He wasn't a house elf.
"They have been arrested," he said. "For child neglect and abandonment. They are currently in a muggle criminal institution, and your cousin has been removed to a foster home."
Harry wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but it didn't sound like they were going to try to put him back with the Dursleys. He relaxed minutely and poked his head out the window, curious. The view of the grounds was panoramic from here. There was a lake and a forest and what looked like a Quidditch pitch similar to the one in Wiltshire, but bigger.
"As you are now eleven years old," the bearded man said, "You will of course be starting at Hogwarts in the fall." Harry turned around and squinted at him. He had heard magic people talking about Hogwarts before. It was a school for wizards. But this man was confused. Harry was an elf. He wouldn't go to a school for wizards.
The bearded man stepped closer to Harry, which caused Harry to back up toward the window, holding his bag close to him. The man only wanted to hand him a thick envelope, though, and Harry took it, peering down at it and turning it over in his hands curiously.
"He's been missing since he was six years old, Albus," the dark haired man said. "Who's to say he can even speak full sentences, let alone read?"
The front of the letter said:
Harry squinted at it some more. The lettering was very elaborate and almost difficult to read. He tore open the side of the envelope and pulled out the thick parchment it contained.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore (Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)
Dear Mr Potter,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry...
Harry scowled. He wasn't a bloody wizard, and he wasn't going to some wizard school. He looked at the bearded man, who was still standing nearby, and caught his attention. The man raised his eyebrows in a welcoming gesture, and Harry handed him the letter back. The man took it, frowning, and Harry let himself out the window.
The two men in the room shouted as Harry rappelled down the vines as fast as he could manage. The dark haired man stuck his head out the window for a moment, but Harry was already far enough down that he was able to use several other protruding windowsills as shields. He made it to the grass in under thirty seconds and was on his way to the gates in no time. The dark haired man burst out of the front doors of the castle not a minute after Harry started running, but Harry was fast. He made it nearly to the gates before the man was suddenly upon him, and managed to weave and dodge away from his grasp for several crucial seconds.
Harry reached the gates, ready to pull them open and dive through to freedom, but when he tugged at them, they didn't budge. He frowned and began scaling them instead, but the man had caught up by now and snatched him off the gate by the middle.
"Mr. Potter, this is unacceptable," he said in a low, warning tone. Harry struggled and tried to set the man's arm on fire, but he just put it out again and ignored Harry's struggles as he carried him back to the castle.
Harry tried everything, even bit the dark haired man, but his fangs were nearly nonexistent and all it got him was a round of cursing that was impressive for a human, and a firm grip on his chin.
"What are we doing?" the snake asked when Harry finally stopped struggling. He had poked his head out of Harry's bag and took Harry's wrist when it was offered in sullen silence, politely ignoring how badly Harry was shaking. "Who is this man? He tastes terrible."
Harry hissed in wordless agreement. The man tasted like a thousand different deaths. It was part of why Harry had been so alarmed by him upon first seeing him back on the Isle of Mann. Forests tasted that way in autumn when everything was starting to die, but there was a sense in the forest that everything would come back eventually. This man had none of that feeling about him.
"Do you want me to bite him?" the snake asked, curling around Harry's bicep. "I could bite him if you would like."
Harry shook his head and hissed out a low 'no'. He didn't want to risk his friend, not with a man who tasted like that, and not when having the snake could prove a useful secret later.
When Harry and the man were situated back in the room behind the gargoyles, the bearded man sat down behind his desk, more amused than ever. "You're quite clever, aren't you, Harry?"
The dark haired man muttered something he probably thought Harry wouldn't catch. Harry had hearing beyond the normal human range, what with being an elf, so he heard it just fine. What a git.
"Do you want to go to Hogwarts, Harry?" the bearded man asked. Harry narrowed his eyes and hunched his shoulders. He wished the man would stop using his name so much. It made him uncomfortable.
"He is probably mute," the dark haired man said, annoyed. "He is uneducated and-"
"I don't want to go to Hogwarts," Harry said, fed up with the dark haired man's commentary. "I'm not a wizard, and I'm not uneducated, and I'm not going to Hogwarts."
The bearded man leaned forward, intrigued. "If you aren't a wizard, Harry, then what are you?"
Harry scowled at him. "Stop calling me that. I'm an elf."
The silence that met these words was deafening.
"Not a house elf," Harry said after a moment, anticipating their initial concerns. "Everyone always thinks I'm a bloody house elf. I'm not. I'm a forest elf."
"Albus," the dark haired man said eventually.
"And I'm going back to the forest," Harry said. "Wizards go to Hogwarts. Elves don't."
"What do elves do, then?" the bearded man asked, curious.
"That is none of your concern," Harry said, drawing himself up. "That is a Secret of the Elves."
"Are there other elves?"
"Of course there are other elves," Harry lied. He stepped over to the desk and started poking through the papers there. The two men watched his every movement. "But like I said, they are none of your concern."
"You are not an elf," the dark haired man snapped. "You are a wizard. Your father was a wizard. James Potter. Your mother, Lily, was a witch."
Harry blinked. How did he know Harry's parents' names? He didn't like how much these wizards knew.
"They went to school here, too, Harry," the bearded man said.
"Stop calling me that," Harry said, and thought about this. Had they really known his parents?
"Isn't 'Harry' your name?" the bearded man asked. Harry cast around. Of course it was. He just didn't like being addressed by it. It seemed too familiar.
"It's rude," Harry said. "Elves don't call each other by their names unless they've been given permission."
The dark haired man made a sound of derision. Harry scowled.
"May I use your name, then?" the bearded man asked. Harry glanced at him, still frowning. He picked up a feather that had been recently dipped in ink and examined it. It was very beautiful.
"No," he said. "I don't like it. I don't know who you are."
"Of course," came the reply. "My apologies. My name is Albus Dumbledore. I am the headmaster of Hogwarts. This is Severus Snape. He is the Potion's Master here."
Harry looked around again. So this was the school, not a magical police station. That made sense. Wizards did seem to like their castles.
"That still doesn't tell me who you are," Harry said, stepping away from the desk to examine a shelf of books. There were a few he would have liked to look through in greater detail, if the two men weren't staring at him so much.
"I went to school with your mother," the dark haired man said, after a brief moment of silence. "Lily. She and I were close when we were young."
Harry cocked his head, listening. He had his back to the two of them, but he was still tuned to their every movement. The dark haired man was standing stock still.
"I knew your aunt Petunia as well, when we were children," he continued. "She was very jealous of Lily's powers."
"She was stale," Harry agreed. He had never actually tested this theory, but it seemed obvious to him that all the Dursleys were stale.
"She... was a Muggle," the man agreed after a pause. "Lily and I were in the same year at Hogwarts, but different Houses. She was in Gryffindor, and I was in Slytherin. She met your father in Gryffindor."
"I was the Headmaster of Hogwarts while your parents went to school here," the bearded man volunteered. "I worked very closely with them after they left Hogwarts in the fight against Voldemort. I knew you when you were very small, before they died."
Harry nodded again. This was all interesting information about his parents, and he appreciated it.
"Thank you for telling me," he said. "It was slightly unpleasant meeting you. But unless you want a boon, I think I should be going."
"A boon?" the bearded man asked. At the same time, the dark haired man cut in.
"We can't let you go off alone again, child."
"I'm not a wizard," Harry said, annoyed. "No matter what my parents were. I don't live in places like this. I live in the forest with the others."
"Your parents wanted you to be here," the bearded man said. "There are dangers out there that you don't understand. We just want to keep you safe."
"My parents are dead," Harry said, feeling a faint twinge of sadness. The idea had always upset him, ever since he first understood what it meant and that he was alone. The Dursleys' abandonment had only served to underline that fact. "I live in the forests. I understand about danger. And I'm not alone. I have others to keep me safe."
"Can we meet one of these other elves?" the bearded man asked. "Just so that we know you truly are safe?"
"Of course not," Harry snapped, backing toward the door. "Elves don't speak to humans unless they're giving a boon. I shouldn't even be speaking to you right now. I don't want to be."
"What is a boon?" the bearded man asked. "Would you allow us to have one?"
Harry paused. "It's a trade," he said, relaxing a bit. "You give me something, I give you something."
"What kinds of things do you usually trade for?"
"All kinds of things," Harry said, shrugging. "We trade for food and useful objects and information."
"And what do you give, in return?"
Harry smiled. He had read this in a book, and had been wanting to use it for a while. "Wishes and dreams," he said. "Safe passage and flight. Though I only give flight to those I really like."
"What if we made a trade," the bearded man said. "We would provide you with food and information and objects."
"What kind?" Harry asked, gripping his bag more firmly. He still didn't trust this man. He seemed far too keen on meeting Harry's eyes. In the forest, you didn't make eye contact unless you were ready to fight.
"All kinds," the man said. "Three meals a day, information in many fields, clothing and books and games and-"
"And in return I would go to your school," Harry finished dryly. "Where all the students receive these things daily, I'm sure. And I would have to do more than come here. I would have to stay."
"You would have to stay," the bearded man allowed. "But there are breaks, afternoons and weekends and holidays, where you would be free to move around the grounds as you wish."
Harry was done here. This was almost insulting. "How about you give me this book, and leave me alone," he said, hefting one of the tomes from the shelf and holding it up. "And I give you runespoor fangs."
He had read in one of his books that the fangs from his former friend were very rare in potions, and very valuable. He eyed the Potions Master with his head tilted, and waited.
The dark haired man blinked several times. "Where did you acquire runespoor fangs, child?" he asked, clearly sceptical. Harry reached into his bag and fished out the sealed jar from toward the bottom of one of the pockets. The snake hissed a question at him from the bag, and he responded reassuringly.
"They were given to me," he said. "Immediately after the death of the third head." He held up the jar and tilted it so that the man could see them glint. The preserving magic that had been built into the jar meant the fangs were still as fresh as the day he'd sealed it, back in the Forest of Dean. The dark haired man eyed the jar, and Harry could see he was interested.
"The book does not, unfortunately, belong to Severus," the bearded man cut in. "My price for it is that you take a tour of the castle and grounds with us."
Harry cast one more glance at the dark haired man's covetous expression, and stowed the jar back in his bag. They'd talk this out later.
"This is the Great Hall," the bearded man said as they entered an enormous room. Harry could see the sky overhead, and smiled at it. He'd missed it. He'd been inside for over twenty minutes now. It was disconcerting.
He took a deep breath and basked for a moment in the taste of the magic in the room. It was thick on the tables, and in the air, and...
"That's not the real sky, is it," he realized suddenly. "That's magic."
"It's charmed to match the sky outside," the bearded man explained. Harry scowled, less impressed with this room now.
"And the library is right through these doors," the bearded man said, opening a set of double doors and stepping back to let Harry through first.
This room, he could appreciate. It was enormous, and full to the brim with thick, old books of all shapes and sizes. Harry had a special place in his heart for libraries. They let you stay for as long as you wanted, didn't ask where your parents were, and had actually been the conduit for Harry's discovery of his elfish nature. When he had first been starting out alone, he wouldn't have survived without a library.
"This is the library?" Harry asked. The bearded man said it was, and led him through the room up to a giant desk, where a woman sat mending a book. Harry stopped when he saw her, and walked into the stacks instead.
"Madam Pince," he heard the bearded man say as he wandered away. "Harry Potter has come to visit us and take a tour of the school. He... is examining our fine collection as we speak."
Harry scowled. The man had just given his name out to someone Harry had never met before! Wizards were callous and rude.
He continued his perusal of the stacks in a bad mood, though it didn't stay for long. They had books on every useful subject Harry could imagine, and many, many more on useless subjects. He could spend days just looking.
"All students have free access to all the books you see," the bearded man said. "Except for the Restricted Section, of course, which is open to older students, unless you have a note from a professor."
Harry, who had been about to duck under the velvet rope next to the sign that said 'Restricted Section', made a face and kept going. He wasn't a student here, so those rules didn't apply to him, and neither did the bearded man's admittedly impressive admonitory tone.
He peered around at all the books, noting that the bearded man hadn't followed him in. They looked particularly interesting. This place was tempting. It was almost worth staying a while, being allowed to read these books.
As they left the library, Harry gave the bearded man the cold shoulder, still irate at having his name revealed so casually to a stranger. If the bearded man noticed his discontent, he said nothing.
"Professor McGonagall teaches Transfiguration," the bearded man said to Harry, who was still standing just outside the doorway, tense. He didn't like being introduced to all these people. He had already met more humans today than he had in most months over the past several years. This tour had been worth more than one book. "Professor McGonagall, this is-"
"I am an elf," Harry interrupted, glaring. The bearded man looked surprised for a moment, then bowed his head.
"I apologise," he said. "My memory is not what it once was. Minerva, we have a visiting forest elf at Hogwarts today. He is taking a tour."
The older woman looked back and forth between the bearded man and Harry, frowning slightly.
The bearded man nodded once, and Harry noted with annoyance that his eyes twinkled.
The woman turned back to Harry and tipped her head at him. "An honour," she said. "Enjoy your tour."
Harry stared at her, still standing in the hallway, and said nothing.
"I do not like all these people," the snake hissed when Harry dipped his hand into his bag for comfort. He wound through Harry's fingers, clearly just as agitated. "When will we leave?"
"Soon," Harry responded, and when the bearded man finished talking to the woman and finally stepped back out into the hallway, Harry frowned at him.
"This is a very long tour," he said. The bearded man smiled.
"It is a very large castle," he replied. They began walking again, down the hallway, past a tapestry of two unicorns dancing with a centaur. Harry nodded absently as the bearded man pointed out classrooms and offices, though fortunately, they didn't stop again until they were at the top of a tower.
"This is the owlrey," the man said. Harry looked out at the view from the unpaned windows and sighed. At least this was real sky. The owls shifted around them, and one of them hooted at Harry. Harry trilled back a greeting, and it settled down, eyeing him beadily. All the snakes he had ever met disapproved when he talked to the birds (except for when he was hunting them), but Harry did it anyway. Birds were fun, if a bit dim.
"Can we see the grounds now?" he asked. "I would like that."
"Certainly," came the reply. "Right this way."
He led Harry down the stairs and out the doors in the large front hall into the sunlight. Harry took a deep breath. He had been inside for far too long.
The bearded man walked with Harry through the grass, pointing out highlights like the Quidditch pitch, the greenhouses, and the lake. They neared a hut on the edge of the forest, and as they approached, a dog came running out, barking excitedly.
It came to a halt right in front of Harry and the bearded man. Harry smiled and yipped at it, dropping down to sit on his haunches. The dog trotted over and sniffed at him, and Harry sniffed back. The dog tasted and smelled like a friendly sort, so Harry let the dog lick him.
"I see yeh met Fang." Harry looked up at the voice and encountered the tallest man he had ever seen in his life.
"Hello," Harry ventured, still communing with the dog, who was nosing around in the outer pocket of Harry's bag. Harry reached in and pulled out the pheasant leg the dog had undoubtedly been after, and let him have it.
"Mornin'," the man replied, sitting down in the grass with Harry. He was still taller than Harry would have been standing up.
"Hagrid," the bearded man said, sounding jovial. "I'd like to introduce you to this young forest elf. I've just been giving him a tour of our facilities."
"Aye," the large man said, smiling. "Nice meetin' yeh."
"You live out here?" Harry asked. "With the forest?"
"Tha's right," the large man said. "I'm the keeper of the keys and grounds here at Hogwarts."
Harry accepted this and stood. The dog leaned against his legs and let his tongue loll out. He looked up at the large man who was smiling at him from his seated position, then back at the bearded man.
"Will he be coming with us for the rest of the tour?" Harry asked. The large man lumbered to his feet.
"If you would like him to," the bearded man said with a smile. Harry nodded.
Harry made a beeline for the forest. A cough from behind him made him pause and turn his head.
"That's the Forbidden Forest," the bearded man said. Harry raised an eyebrow.
"Sure." He kept walking. The bearded man coughed again.
"It's called that because it is forbidden," he explained. Harry felt a scowl forming.
"You wanted me to come to school here, but you expected me to never go into the forest?" He glared at them. "I am not a second class citizen!"
The large man's bushy eyebrows shot up. Harry had gotten that line from a drunk wizard in a pub. This reaction was better than he could honestly have expected. He soldiered on.
"I am an elf," Harry elaborated. "Elves don't live indoors. We live in forests. You can't forbid me from going to the only place I'd feel comfortable."
With that, he dismissed them both and kept walking into the forest. This tour was over. He eyed the trees and the undergrowth, and took a breath. This was a magical forest, which made sense, considering where it was situated.
He felt something run into the back of his legs and grinned. The dog had followed him. He patted him on the head and kept going until he heard someone bustling through the forest behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that it was the large man. The bearded man had not followed. Harry nodded at him and kept walking until the trees were sufficiently close together.
"Do you like it there?" he asked eventually, leaping onto one trunk and pushing off to grab a high branch on another tree. The large man paused and watched as Harry scaled the tree and kept walking, head slightly above the large man's now.
"At Hogwarts?" the large man asked. Harry made a noise of agreement, and grinned down at the dog, who was racing from tree to tree beneath Harry, putting his front paws on the trunks and whining. He barked reassuringly, and the dog grumbled back.
"Hogwarts is my home," the large man said, hitching a large crossbow up on his shoulder. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."
"But you're not one of them," Harry said, making a face at the idea. He had been curious about that, actually. This man didn't seem so bad. "You didn't go to school there, did you?"
"O' course I am!" The large man stared at him. "O' course I did!"
Harry frowned. "You're a wizard?"
"I'm a wizard," the large man agreed. He glanced around the forest and leaned forward. "I'm part giant, no lie," he said. "But that don't make me any less o' a wizard."
Harry mulled over this as they ventured deeper still into the forest.
"So you can be a giant and a wizard?" he asked after a while, taking a brief detour around a magical tree as he spoke.
"Half-giant," the giant corrected, watching Harry's movements with caution. "And o' course you can."
He and the giant talked for a bit longer, and the giant showed Harry around the forest, which Harry was intrigued by. It was even more magical than the Forest of Dean, and Harry had a feeling he wouldn't find a barrier to keep the stale people away here.
The magic felt less sticky the further they walked from the castle. He was getting used to it after the oversaturation he'd experienced at first. Now it was becoming an enjoyable pressure against his skin, though he could still taste a new, strange kind of magic lingering around him. It unsettled him, like an unexplainable bad odour.
The sun was starting to set when the giant stretched his arms above his head. "We should be gettin' back," he said. "Get some rest."
"Sounds good," Harry said. "I am a bit tired."
They started walking, and Harry fell behind, waiting. Once he was sure the giant wasn't paying him any attention, he slipped off in a different direction, choosing an area they hadn't already walked through.
Go back to the wizards? Not hardly. He travelled swiftly, moving until he could feel the restrictions on his skin lifting, though the strange lingering taste remained. He frowned at that and disappeared a few times until he found a tall tree he thought might provide suitable camouflage. He'd sleep here tonight, then get away early tomorrow morning.
The next morning found Harry in a state of indecision. He and the snake travelled southward through the delightfully enormous forest, debating.
"They are humans," the snake said.
"Yes, but they knew my parents," Harry replied, frowning. "And the giant said you can be not human and still be a wizard. So maybe..."
"Maybe they will trap you," the snake hissed, curling his tail around the strap of Harry's bag. "And maybe they will keep you in a cage and never let you leave."
"I got away yesterday, didn't I?" he shot back. "I can leave whenever I want. I can get out of the castle and I can get out through the forest. I just want to look around a little more. Didn't you see all the books in that library? And there are things I want to learn, and I think they can teach me there."
He was thinking about the barmaid who had made his bag so much more useful. She had said it was easy, and Harry wanted it to be easy for him, too. He didn't want to have to rely on boons and wizards when he needed something done.
"What about the fact that they're humans?" the snake repeated. "You cannot forget about that. Humans put creatures in cages. They didn't want you to go into the forest!"
"And I went anyway," Harry said reasonably. "I'll still do what I want. I'm not one of theirs. But I'm curious."
The more they argued, the more Harry convinced himself. He'd go back, just for a little while, just to see. He'd leave if things got bad.
Chapter 2: Wherein Harry Discovers Hogwarts
Hi, this is actually round_robin posting for evansentranced. She's away and largely without internet access so she asked me to post some chapters for her while she's away. I'm to cross post on fanfiction.net as well, the problem is, however, that fanfiction.net doesn't seem to want to cooperate. So I guess AO3 gets the exclusives until I can figure out what's what with that. I was also asked to check the chapter over for typos and I already have, but I might've missed something. In case of that, leave it along with your comment and it'll be seen to when evansentranced gets back. Hope everyone enjoys the story!
“You came back,” the bearded man said, smiling at Harry. “Welcome.”
Harry crossed his arms. “We’ll have a boon for every day that I stay.”
“What kind of boon?” the bearded man asked, frowning curiously at Harry over his half moon spectacles. “Food--”
“I can get my own food,” Harry said dismissively. “Other things. And I come and go as I please. I’ll stay on or around the grounds if you continue to make offerings, but I won’t follow your rules if they don’t make sense to me.”
“You’ll stay on the grounds,” the bearded man said. “Or in the castle. And if our rules don’t make sense, you may discuss them with me and I’ll explain them. You may come and go as you please, but you will need to check in with Hagrid or Professor Snape or myself every morning to receive your boon and every night so that we know you are safe. And we will renegotiate before September.”
“When is September?” Harry asked, cocking his head. The bearded man smiled.
“In three weeks.”
Harry nodded. He could stay here for three weeks. The forest was large, and it would take him longer than that to explore it fully.
Over the next three weeks, Harry began to feel suspicious. The people from the castle gave him the strangest offerings. On the first day, he got a trunk. Harry did like it though, especially since it fit into his bag. He used it to store his books and more delicate amulet-making materials. After that, they presented him with a series of items including clothing, parchment, a cauldron, phials, gloves (he already had gloves, but these were apparently dragonhide), books, vials of things like beetle eyes, shrivelfigs, nettles, and other odd organic materials (he didn’t really object to these or the books, he just thought the choices were strange), and one day, an owl.
He wasn’t really certain why they had given him an owl, and was incredibly offended by the cage that came along with her. He let her out, then tipped it over and let it clank down the steps into the dungeons of the castle, to the dark haired man’s consternation, along with the food. She could bloody well feed herself. Even Harry’s snake was repulsed by the idea of caging the creature, and he hated birds.
He chirruped at the owl in greeting, and she cooed back. She was snowy white with small black spots, and seemed friendly enough. Harry went outside and let her fly off into the forest, ignoring the dark haired man’s protests.
About one week after Harry had agreed to stay a while, he noticed a large crowd of people at the gates to the grounds. He had been exploring the Quidditch stands when he spotted them, and recoiled slightly. There were at least twenty people out there all pacing around, obviously wanting entry.
“They’re reporters,” the giant explained when Harry asked about them. “They heard you’re here and they want to talk to yeh.”
“What?” Harry scowled and stood. “How did they find out I’m here? And why do they want to talk to me?”
“Yer famous, o’ course,” the giant said. “They found out through that woman who told Snape about you, I reckon.”
“That arsewipe,” Harry fumed, ignoring the giant’s admonition. Wizards and humans never liked it when he swore. “She was an awful woman.”
The giant shrugged and patted the dog on the head when he came racing up.
“Why am I famous, anyway?” Harry asked suddenly. “I mean, I know you’re not used to forest elves--”
“Oh, it’s not to do with elves,” the giant interrupted. “It’s because o’ what happened when you were a baby...”
The giant’s story about Harry’s miraculous escape from the evil dark wizard only served to bolster Harry’s good opinion of his elf nature. No wizard had ever survived the killing curse, as the giant had explained.
Then it was fortunate that he was an elf instead of a wizard, Harry had replied, which caused the giant to fall into a thoughtful introspection.
The next day, the dark haired man met Harry at the castle steps wearing a cloak. He didn’t taste or smell like death today, but Harry knew better than to forget things like that. He waited for the man to offer him some new trinket.
“Today, we must travel to obtain your item,” he said instead. Harry frowned at him.
“Where are we going?”
“We are going to a center of commerce,” the dark haired man said. “Diagon Alley, in London.”
“How are we getting there?”
“If it wasn’t for the gaggle of reporters, we would apparate,” the dark haired man responded. “As it stands, flooing is the better option. If you would follow me.”
The man returned to the castle, and led Harry up to the bearded man’s room. There was a fire burning in the hearth, which Harry thought excessive considering it was a beautiful summer day outside.
“Flooing entails travel through fire,” the dark haired man explained, lifting a small jar from next to the fireplace and offering it to Harry. There was powder inside. “You take a pinch of floo powder, throw it in the fire, and call out your destination,” he continued. “You must focus on the name, and try not to move around too much once inside the Floo network.”
Harry took a pinch of the powder and examined it, fascinated. It tasted of strong magic and dust. He had never heard of travel by fire, but there was definitely something to this powder.
“If you will,” the dark haired man said, stepping back and indicating the fireplace to Harry. “Enunciate clearly. Diagon Alley.”
Harry narrowed his eyes, struck with a sudden thought. “Are you having me on?” he asked. The man sighed. He seemed to exist in a state of almost constant exasperation, as far as Harry could tell.
“I am not, Mist-. I am not having you on,” the dark haired man said. “This is a common method of travel. Plebian, even.”
Harry remembered the white haired boy from Wiltshire using that word once or twice, but he had never been completely sure of its meaning outside of it being an obvious insult.
Either way, Harry decided to give this a try.
“Hang on,” he said to the dark haired man. “Hey,” he whispered, lifting his shoulder to get the snake’s attention. “We’re about to travel somewhere through fire.”
“Are you having me on?” the snake muttered. “That sounds dangerous.”
“It’s safe,” Harry said, though he didn’t really know this. “Think of how warm it will be.”
“Hmm.” The snake fell silent and curled himself around Harry’s upper arm, a sign that he was ready to go. Harry smiled. The dark haired man was staring at him askance, but he had told the wizards he could talk to animals. It wasn’t Harry’s problem that the dark haired man was skeptical of everything.
He threw his pinch of powder into the fire, took a deep breath, and said, “Diagon Alley.” Then he stepped forward.
After a minute or so of vivid colour and stomach wrenching spinning, Harry was spat out of the flames in a pub.
“I feel sick,” the snake moaned. Harry agreed, clutching his midsection. He wasn’t feeling too fantastic himself.
“We’ll go back a different way,” Harry promised, glancing around the pub. It was dark and tasted just like almost every other magical pub Harry had ever been to. The dark haired man whirled out of the flames a moment later, and they were on their way.
The street the dark haired man led him into was crowded. Harry had never seen this many people in one place. He took one look at them all and stepped back into the small alley they had just come out of. The taste was more overwhelming than the castle, if only because of all the different people mucking up Harry’s senses. The snake lifted his head and hissed in alarm as well. After a few seconds during which Harry stood stock still in the alley, the dark haired man glanced back, did a double take, and turned around.
“What is the matter?” he asked, stepping back into the alley. There was that exasperation again. Harry stared past him at all the people and crossed his arms.
“I don’t like it,” he said.
“We have to go in there to get your item,” the dark haired man said. Harry shook his head.
“I don’t want it, then,” he said. “We’ll do today for free.”
The dark haired man raised an eyebrow at him, then looked back at the bustling street.
“What don’t you like about it?” he asked, sounding resigned.
Harry waved his hands demonstratively. “There’s too much... the tastes are too... and there are so many...” The dark haired man stared at him. “The people,” Harry said, crossing his arms over his chest and sticking his chin in the air. “There are too many people.”
After a pause during which the dark haired man continued to stare at Harry, he spoke. “I am willing to apparate us to our final destination.”
“What’s apparate?” Harry asked, wrinkling his nose. All these new travel methods were unpleasant.
“We disappear and reappear at a new location,” the dark haired man explained. Harry’s face cleared.
“Oh,” he said. “No, I can do that. Where’s our destination?”
“You shouldn’t be apparating,” the man frowned. “You shouldn’t even be able to manage such a feat at your age, never mind the illegalities. It is incredibly dangerous.”
Harry shrugged. “Elves can disappear when they’re little. Just because wizards can’t...”
The dark haired man shook his head. “I will apparate you.”
“Like you did last time?” Harry glared, backing away. “I don’t want to. I can do it myself and I will. Just tell me where we’re going.”
The man’s lips were pinched as he stared at Harry’s uncompromising expression, but he eventually sighed and lifted a hand. “It’s a small, dark shop further down this street on the left hand side. It is called Ollivanders.”
Harry nodded. He could do that. He took a deep breath, cast one more glance at the crowd, and disappeared to a small alley part of the way down the street. From his new position, he glanced around. No shop. He spotted another alley further along, and disappeared there next. He moved quickly, jumping to each new location, eyes darting around for his destination. He spotted it after four jumps, and disappeared right up to the door.
He slipped inside and looked around. The dark haired man followed him inside a moment later, looking faintly relieved.
The store was small, dusty, and box lined. It tasted strongly of ancient, tamed magic. A part of Harry wanted to walk around and breathe in each box.
“Harry Potter.” An old man appeared from a back room, and stared at Harry with protuberant eyes. Harry frowned at him, and then at the dark haired man.
“It is good to see you back where you belong, unharmed,” the old man said. “You will be wanting a wand, I presume?”
Harry took a step back.
“No,” he said. “Elves don’t need wands, and I don’t want one.”
The old man and the dark haired man both stared at him, nonplussed.
“You are attending Hogwarts?”
“No,” Harry frowned. “I’m visiting right now.”
“He’s considering it,” the dark haired man said, with a dour expression. “Please match him for a wand.”
“I don’t need a wand,” Harry insisted.
“You want to do magic, don’t you?” the old man asked, already puttering around at one of the shelves.
“I can do magic just fine, thanks.” Harry was offended. To demonstrate his words, he sent the boxes the old man was setting on the desk into the air. The old man stopped muttering to himself and turned back to Harry, staring.
The dark haired man sighed.
“You require a wand,” he said. “When you move on to more advanced magic--”
“No, I don’t,” Harry insisted. He sent the boxes flying around the room above their heads, and set his hand on fire for good measure. “Elves don’t use wands.”
Harry disappeared back into the alley behind the pub. He didn’t want a bloody wand, and that meant he was free to go.
“What do you think?” he asked the snake as he slipped back into the pub. “Want to go to Essex again?”
“Is that where we found the long-tongued furballs in that village?” the snake asked, interested.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “Those were pretty tasty. We’ll go find some more.”
He spotted the door and darted around several tables to slip outside before the dark haired man could figure out where he’d gone and follow him.
Harry’s eyes widened as the door to the pub shut behind him. However much it tasted like most pubs, this one had one very salient difference. It wasn’t located in a small village or on the outskirts of a rural town.
It was right in the middle of a bustling city.
Harry pressed himself against the wall as people jostled past, feeling somewhat panicky. There were no nearby alleys on this street, and no tall trees. He didn’t know what to do.
What’s worse, the moment he edged away from the pub, all he could taste was stale. None of these people were magic or even interesting. The buildings were stale, the cars were stale, the traffic meters were stale, everything. It made the strange magic still clinging to Harry all the more obvious. He pawed at his jaw with his palm, trying to rub the magic off, but right now it was really the least of his worries.
Harry breathed through his nose and tried not to compare this place with the castle and grounds, or even with the crowded street on the other side of the pub. He thought instead of one of his forests, and felt faintly sick. This was as far from a forest as he had ever been in his entire life. Even the Dursleys’ house had flowers and grass and trees.
Harry spotted a gap in the crowd and began walking at a brisk pace, trying hard to remain unobtrusive despite feeling like a sore thumb. He decided disappearing was way too likely to attract attention in this place, which was a shame because he powerfully wanted to be somewhere else. He ducked down the first side street and sighed with relief. There were a lot less people on this road, though still too many for his liking.
After about twenty minutes of speed walking through concrete and asphalt and buildings and stale, and far less grass than Harry thought was proper, he saw a tall tree up ahead. He started jogging. He didn’t like the looks he was getting from the humans around him, and was worried that one of them might contact the police. He needed to get back into the countryside. He hoped this wasn’t a false alarm like the last tall tree he’d seen, which had been standing disappointingly alone in front of an elaborate building.
The tree was in what looked like a rather large park. Harry would have approved, but it was mostly wide stretches of grass and there were a lot of humans wandering around, mucking up the place. He climbed the tree anyway, as high up as he could, and reached into his bag for his map of the UK.
Hyde Park had been what the sign said at the beginning of the green space. Harry looked it up in the index and flipped to the London map.
London was vast.
And he was right in the middle of it.
It would take at least a day’s walk to get out, if not more. The buildings got in the way of Harry’s calculations. He couldn’t just go through them, and in such a large, stale, populated area, he couldn’t disappear out either. It was bound to attract too much attention.
“This place is awful,” the snake said, flickering his tongue out. “What are we doing here?”
“We’re trapped,” Harry said in a wavery, scratchy voice. “I don’t know how to get out of this place. It’s too big.”
“Trapped?” the snake wound down around Harry’s wrist to inspect the map. He flickered his tongue at it and dismissed it. “How? Can’t we just leave?”
“There are too many people,” Harry said. “One of them will catch us.”
“We should wait until the night,” the snake agreed. “They sleep at night.”
Harry took a deep breath and tried to calm down. His snake was right. He could try disappearing then, when less people were around to notice. He and the snake sat in the tree and waited, tense, speaking to each other at intervals but mostly trying to avoid the notice of any of the stale people below them.
After a couple hours, a voice from the ground called up to them.
“Come down now,” it said. “Cease this childish game.”
Harry peered through the branches. It was the dark haired man. The relief Harry felt upon seeing him was palpable. He was a familiar sight and a magical taste, and Harry felt himself relaxing almost immediately.
“I don’t want a wand,” he called. “I won’t use it. Elves don’t use wands.”
The man sighed. “Don’t use it then,” he said. ”I am unmoved by the prospect. But we must purchase one for you.”
“Why?” Harry felt himself pouting, and tried to pull himself together. After spending a couple hours in the stale world, the prospect of returning to the castle actually sounded pretty attractive.
“Because it is a requirement of being a student at Hogwarts,” the dark haired man said. “We would like you to eventually hold that position.”
“But...” Harry wrinkled his forehead. “I didn’t agree to that. I don’t know if I want to go to your school.”
“You want to keep your options open, don’t you?”
Harry bit his lip and thought.
“Are we going with the dark haired man?” the snake asked, letting himself dangle off his branch to better peer at the man standing in the grass below.
“He still wants me to get a wand,” Harry explained. “But he said I don’t have to use it.“
“Sure,” the snake said. “That doesn’t sound like a trap at all.”
“I’ll just chuck it in the lake,” Harry suggested. “Then they can’t make me.”
“If you’re sure,” the snake said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Harry said, and offered his wrist to the snake. After he was secure, Harry swang himself down from the tree in a series of graceful leaps, eventually landing in a crouch in front of the dark haired man.
“Ready?” he asked, offering his arm. Harry made a face at him, but took it. He couldn’t disappear that far on his own, and he just wanted to leave this awful place.
It took a while, but Harry eventually had a new wand, holly and phoenix feather. He stuffed it into the bottom of his bag and forgot about it, having decided to wait until he made up his mind about the school before chucking it in the lake.
The next night, he met with the bearded man.
“September begins in three days,” he told Harry. “Have you made your decision regarding your presence at our school?”
Harry squinted at him. “What would I have to do?”
The bearded man leaned back in his seat and steepled his hands together. “On September first, you will be Sorted along with the other students. After that, you will live in your House and go to classes with them.”
Harry raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t a house elf. He most certainly would not be living in a house. He’d had enough of that sort of thing when he was little. Not having noticed Harry’s reaction, the bearded man carried on with his monologue.
“There are seven classes: Charms, Transfiguration, Potions, Astronomy, Herbology, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and History of Magic. You will receive a schedule detailing when and where your classes are. Breakfast begins at seven am, lunch at noon, and dinner at five thirty. Curfew is at eight o’clock for first years.”
Harry frowned and prodded at the delicate instrument he’d been examining. That sounded complicated. “What are classes like?”
“Your professors will use combination of lecture and practical application, depending on the class,” the bearded man explained. “History of Magic is mostly lecture based, for example. Story telling and explanations. Potions is largely practical, which means you will be creating actual potions in class. You will be assigned homework, which you are to complete out of class and return on the assigned day.”
That sounded complicated, too. “Wait,” Harry said. “How do I know when I’m supposed to be places?”
“As I said, you will be given a schedule.”
Harry wandered over to the perch sitting in the corner, filled with ashes. He poked at them thoughtfully and watched them shift. “So how often would I have classes?”
“Most of your classes occur two or three times a week,” the bearded man said. Harry’s forehead wrinkled and he shrugged off the mess of information. He’d figure it out later.
“And you feed me three times in one day?” He hadn’t forgotten that part. The bearded man watched Harry wander away from the perch, toward a shelf of books.
“Breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he said, smiling. “And the kitchens are always available.”
“What kind of food?”
“We serve a variety of dishes at Hogwarts,” the bearded man said. “Just about anything you can imagine.”
“Pheasant?” Harry asked. He liked pheasant. The bearded man nodded again.
Harry leaned back against the bookshelf, satisfied.
“I’ll give it a try,” he said. The bearded man beamed. Harry held up a hand. “But I make no guarantees. If I don’t like it, I’m leaving.”
“I would request that you first come to me with any difficulties you may have,” the bearded man said. “We can be flexible, if you do not find some aspect of life at Hogwarts to your liking.” He paused. “But I must ask you to compromise as well, or mutual satisfaction will be hard won.”
Harry nodded, focusing distantly on the design in the carpeting. He knew this would be different from what he was used to. He was inside a building right now, even! He was compromising already. “I understand.”
“Wonderful! The robes we have provided you with are your uniform,” the bearded man said. “You should wear them during the Sorting Feast, and during classes.”
Harry shifted uncomfortably at the idea of a uniform, but assented. He could try it on a trial basis.
“The Sorting Feast begins at seven o’clock in three days time,” the bearded man told him. “I would like for you to be here at sunset, so that we can be certain you are prepared.”
Harry nodded again. Seven o’clock was a bit of a mystery, but he could do sunset.
The night of the Sorting Feast found Harry pacing anxiously on the grass outside the castle. Sunset was approaching. Having tried on the robes and found them uncomfortable, he compromised by leaving his tunic and boots on and donning the unfastened robes over them.
He even took a dip in the lake earlier and trimmed his hair a little bit with his knife. He and the snake were ready, but Harry was beginning to have doubts. The snake had never stopped having them.
“They said there were other students,” Harry said. “What if there are a lot of them?”
“It is a large castle,” the snake agreed. “There will probably be many of them. Maybe fifty.”
Harry paled a little bit. “Do you think I have to stay in the room with them after I get Sorted?” he asked.
“I don’t think they would make you do that,” the snake said. “That wouldn’t make sense.”
“Do you think the classes will really happen every day?” Harry frowned and held his wrist up to look at the snake more clearly. “I was thinking about it, and that is a lot of classes for a lot of time.”
“I hope not,” the snake said. “Are the classes outside, at least?”
“I don’t know!” Harry ran a hand through his hair. “The bearded man said he would give me a schedule, but I don’t know what that is. It’s supposed to explain everything.”
“Maybe some kind of book?” the snake suggested. “Or magic of some sort?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. “Want to just go?”
“Yes,” the snake said. Harry started walking across the grass toward the forest, but stopped suddenly.
“But I made a boon with him,” he said. “I can’t break that.”
“Why not?” The snake curled comfortingly around Harry’s wrist. Harry paused.
“That’s a good point,” he said, and started walking again. Before he got very far, though, the door opened.
“Come inside now, it’s nearly time.” It was one of the women Harry had met a few weeks ago. He looked at her as she waited in the doorway, and stepped forward cautiously.
“We’re not going?” The snake poked his head out from under Harry’s restrictive robes and hissed. “Be careful, at least.”
“I will,” Harry murmured, and went inside. The woman directed him to a small room, where he immediately went to the largest window and crouched on the sill, watching. She frowned at him and spoke.
“Fasten your robes,” she said. “And where is your tie?”
Harry looked down at his clothing. “My what?” He remembered dimly that Uncle Vernon had used to have things called ties, but he didn’t remember if they were the things you put on your feet or the things you put round your neck.
She produced a length of black cloth and offered it to him. The neck one, then. Harry decided that he hated those.
“You should leave your bag here,” she continued as Harry stared at the tie. “The house elves will take it to your room for you after you are Sorted.”
Harry perked up. “There are house elves here?”
“Yes,” she said, frowning at him in a pointed fashion. “They will take your bag for you.”
“I don’t want them to,” Harry said. He never took his bag off unless he was having a swim. “I’m fine, thanks.”
She stared at him, her mouth a thin line.
“I will speak with Dumbledore about this,” she said eventually, and left.
Harry backed up against the window and watched the sky outside. This window didn’t open, which was upsetting on a few levels.
“I have a tie now,” Harry told his snake, who had travelled up his arm during the conversation and was now situated comfortably on Harry’s collar.
“What’s a tie for?”
“It’s a bit of cloth you put around your neck,” Harry explained, holding up the fabric for the snake’s perusal. He flickered out his tongue.
“It does.” Harry decided his snake could substitute for the tie, and put the cloth in his bag with the others. He had been using them to tie his new clothing into bundles, and for that at least, they were useful.
“I must ask you for a favour.” The bearded man had arrived in the room. Harry stared at him with suspicion.
“Tonight is a wizarding ceremony,” he explained. “And part of the ceremony is that each child to be Sorted will have their name called out.”
“So everyone in the room will know my name?”
The bearded man bowed his head. “I’m afraid they all already know your name. You are quite well known in our world.”
Right. The dark wizard that killed his parents had made sure of that. Harry wrinkled his nose. He liked it better when his parents had died in a car accident.
“Fine,” Harry said ungraciously. “But I want that in exchange.”
He pointed at the bearded man’s hat. It was petty and he knew it, but it made him feel better all the same when the bearded man handed it over without comment.
“Your professors will have to be able to call you something,” the bearded man ventured, conjuring a new hat with bright purple polka dots and settling it on his head. “You will be one of many students in their classrooms.”
That sounded awful. “Well they bloody well don’t get to just make something up,” he said, feeling anxiety bite at the back of his throat. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
“Language,” the bearded man admonished, and left.
Harry sat in the room alone, wishing the windows would open. After about half an hour, a thunderous sound from the hallway made Harry’s ears perk up.
“What is that?” The snake poked his head out of Harry’s collar, flicking his tongue out.
“I don’t know,” Harry answered. They both considered the strange scent for a long moment, before realizing what it must be in unison.
“People,” Harry said. “Lots and lots of people.”
“More than fifty, even,” the snake said in a soft hiss. Harry pressed closer to the window.
“They won’t all come in here, right?”
The thunderous noise died down, and Harry sighed. A smaller sound started up not soon after, and moments later, the door opened, admitting a crowd of children about Harry’s age. Harry plastered himself to the window, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.
The children chattered at each other as they waited, and soon the woman came back, ordering them into lines.
“Everyone line up,” she said pointedly, and Harry finally slunk down from the windowsill and joined the back of the messy lines. The other students organized themselves more uniformly, not having noticed his arrival in their midst. They all marched out of the room, Harry trailing them cautiously.
Their destination was the large room with the fake sky. Harry considered that room the best of a bad situation, and felt slightly cheered until the doors opened and he saw how many people were inside.
All the tables were full. Those tables were long. Harry didn’t even know how many people that was. As many as the wizarding street the dark haired man had taken him to, maybe.
The woman led the crowd of children into the center of the room, but Harry hovered in the doorway, his eyes darting around in a panic.
“They want us to go in there?” the snake hissed. “That is a lot of humans.”
“I know!” Harry said, his voice slightly higher than usual. “And they’re going to say my name to all those humans!”
He watched as the hat sang. Not soon after, the first name was called out. Abbott, Hannah. The child sat on a stool in the middle of the room, and they covered her eyes with a hat.
Harry watched as each child went through this ordeal, one by one. A different house name was called out for each. Harry counted four, so far. There were five tables. He looked at the last and realized it was made up of the people he’d been told were professors. The bearded man was there, and the dark haired man. They were both watching him in the doorway. The dark haired man looked less exasperated than usual.
“Patil, Parvati,” the woman called out. She went to Gryffindor.
“Potter, Harry,” she said next. The room filled with whispers, and some people even repeated the name, to Harry’s consternation. Everyone was looking around for him. The dark haired man was staring directly at him. Harry took a bracing breath and crept into the hall.
As he passed the other children, people started noticing him and the volume of the whispers increased.
He glared at the woman as he approached the stool. She tilted her head at it expectantly. He took one more look at the bearded man and the dark haired man, then sat down.
She dropped the hat over his eyes, and Harry shoved it up immediately, looking around the hall. There must have been hundreds of faces staring at him.
The hat tasted of absolutely ancient magic. It was strange and compelling, and Harry breathed it in again and again, trying to distract himself from all the eyes.
“Calm down,” a voice said inside his head. “None of them will hurt you.”
“Who are you?” Harry asked suspiciously, still staring around the hall. He tried inching off the chair, but caught sight of the woman from the corner of his eye, watching him closely.
“The Sorting Hat,” it replied. “Weren’t you listen-- no, of course you weren’t. It’s alright. I’m just going to Sort you, and then you can go sit down.”
“In here?” Harry asked. He hoped he could get his incredulity across without speaking out loud. The hat chuckled.
“They won’t hurt you,” the Hat repeated. “Now... an elf, hmm?”
“Yes,” Harry said stubbornly. “Not a--”
“Not a house elf, a forest elf,” the Hat finished. “Yes, I see that. You realize... yes, you do. Or you will. Alright. Now where to put you?”
“What’s the difference?” Harry asked, shifting uncomfortably on the stool
“Quite a bit,” the Hat explained. “Each has its own qualities, you know.”
“Well pick one, then,” Harry said. “I don’t like it up here.”
“You have the makings of a good Ravenclaw,” the Hat said. “The library very nearly won you over all on its own, didn’t it?”
Harry shrugged. “It’s a good library.”
“Indeed,” the Hat agreed. “But Ravenclaw isn’t quite for you. Gryffindor... no. You’re brave, but necessarily cautious, aren’t you?”
Harry waited impatiently.
“Your loyalty is strong,” the Hat continued. “But your loyalty is predominantly to yourself... You are ambitious and clever, aren’t you? And you would be with the Malfoy boy... yes, you need a friend right now.”
“With who?” Harry asked, peering up at the woman, who was watching him with a frown.
“Yes, I think you’d do best in SLYTHERIN!”
The Hat was removed from his head, and Harry stood up. The whispers had stopped, but everyone was still staring at him. After a moment, the table on the far left seemed to gather themselves and started clapping and cheering. Harry narrowed his eyes at them and glanced back at the professors’ table. The dark haired man had covered his eyes with one hand.
Well. He was Sorted. His job here was done. He started walking toward the door, thinking to head out into the forest for the night. He had nearly reached the exit when an older student hurried up to him.
“The table is over here, Potter,” he said, pointing at the table full of people wearing green. They had stopped applauding and were watching him. Everyone was watching him.
“But I...” Harry backed away from the student and pointed at the door with a vague gesture. “I was gonna just go...”
The student frowned at him. “No, you have to come sit at the Slytherin table now. We’re going to eat.”
“But I already ate today,” Harry protested.
“You can’t walk out halfway through the Sorting,” the student told him. He gestured toward the table. “Come on, go sit with the other first years.”
Harry looked back up at the dark haired man, who looked thoroughly exasperated again. He jerked his head at the table and raised an eyebrow a fraction.
Harry sighed. “Fine,” he said, and approached the table cautiously. The woman called out the next name as Harry edged toward the people dressed in green. They all stared at him as he watched them through narrow eyes, at least until one of the other new students waved a hand at Harry.
“Over here,” he called as the table decorated in yellow clapped. It was the white haired boy. Harry stared at him, the only familiar face in an enormous sea of humans. He hurried over to where the boy sat and ducked down to speak to him. He breathed in the magic surrounding the boy. It was his old companion from Wiltshire for sure.
“You’re in Slytherin,” he said. “Just like you said you would be.”
“You’re at Hogwarts!” the boy said, wide eyed. “Just like you said you wouldn’t be. And you’re Harry Potter! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Elves don’t give out their names, usually,” Harry said, staring darkly up at the woman, who was still reading off names. “The bearded man and I have an agreement.”
“But you’re Harry Potter!” the white haired boy exclaimed. “You’re not an elf at all!”
Harry glared at him. “I am! I’m both.”
The white haired boy rolled his eyes and glared at the boy next to him. “Budge up,” he demanded. “Here, Harry, sit down.”
“Don’t do that,” Harry said, glaring at the other boy until he moved over even more. Harry sat down next to the white haired boy, leaving enough space for another chair between him and the next boy over. “I didn’t tell you you could call me that.”
The white haired boy stared at him. “Well, can I?”
Harry huffed. “No.”
“Fine,” the boy said, frowning. “And also! You said we’d see each other again soon!”
“We can see each other right now,” Harry said, feeling rather grumpy and inching closer to the white haired boy when a girl across the table smiled at him. “How’s that?”
“That’s not soon,” the boy pointed out. “It’s been almost three years.”
The tone in his voice made Harry glance at him. The white haired boy looked genuinely hurt. Harry felt like a git suddenly.
“I would have come to visit you,” he lied. “But I couldn’t. There are rules, and then I was being chased by the dark haired man, and--”
“What rules?” the white haired boy asked in a low tone. “You’re Harry Potter!”
“I’m still an elf,” Harry said. “We have rules.”
“What dark haired man?” asked the white haired boy, apparently willing to accept Harry’s lies for now.
“That one,” Harry said, pointing up at the table where the professors sat.
“With the nose, right.”
“Why don’t you call him Professor Snape?”
“Elves don’t use names,” Harry said, making a face. “It’s weird and rude and strange, and it’s not how things work in the forest.”
The white haired boy paused. “You’ve really lived in the forest all this time?”
Harry sighed. “Yes.”
“Well...” the white haired boy glared around at all the nearby students, who were staring at them and clearly eavesdropping. “What are you doing here, then?”
“The dark haired man caught me,” Harry began.
“Snape,” the white haired boy interjected.
“Right,” Harry said. “And he brought me here. And he and the bearded man--”
“I guess. The really long white beard. They explained about my parents and gave me a tour and gave me daily boons--”
“Like Dobby and I used to.” The white haired boy shook his head. “You tricked us.”
Harry smiled at the memory. “Maybe.“
“You tricked them too!”
“Maybe. And then they explained about school and showed me the library, so now I’m here on a trial basis, to see if I like it.” Harry considered mentioning his conversation with the giant, but he thought the giant might like to keep to himself too. He wasn’t here right now, which said a lot. Harry wouldn’t be here if he had the choice.
“You’ll like it,” the white haired boy promised. “Hogwarts is going to be great, you’ll see. There’s Quidditch and Hogsmeade and learning magic and my mum is going to send me sweets all the time, and you can even have some, and--”
“Shhh!” The older student who had forced Harry to come to the table scowled at them. The Sorting had finished and the bearded man was speaking now. Harry put his chin on his fist and shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t like chairs. He much preferred sitting on the ground or on a tree branch.
He was just wondering when he’d be allowed to leave when the bearded man clapped his hands and piles of food appeared on the table in front of Harry. His eyes went wide and he stared for several moments as the other students reached for serving utensils and filled their plates.
“We just... eat all of this?” he asked, glancing at the white haired boy for confirmation.
He nodded and frowned at Harry’s empty plate.
“Eat,” the white haired boy ordered. Harry nodded and reached for what looked like a turkey. It was large, and would feed him for at least three days all by itself. Harry considered the bread as he pulled out a bit of cloth and wrapped up the turkey.
“What are you doing?” The boy on the other side of Harry was staring at him as he worked. Harry inched closer still to the white haired boy and glared.
“Getting food,” Harry said. He pulled a piece of turkey off the bone and held it up to his collar. The snake hissed a thanks and ate it whole. Harry stowed the turkey away and picked up the bread next.
“Hey.” The white haired boy swallowed a bite of potato and stared at Harry. “You’re supposed to eat it now.”
“What about later?” Harry asked, still wrapping the bread.
“They’ll give you more tomorrow at breakfast,” the white haired boy said, exasperated. “You can’t take all that for yourself. You have to share.”
Harry looked around at the other students, several of whom were still staring at him.
“The bearded man said we get three meals a day,” Harry said, having just remembered. “So... okay... I guess I can...”
He put the bread back with jerky motions, and hoped the white haired boy wouldn’t comment on the turkey. He wasn’t quite that prepared to accept this idea at face value.
Harry fidgeted in his seat for the rest of the meal, having eaten his fill quickly and efficiently. He still didn’t like the crowd, but now that it was less focused on him it was easier to bear, though still a source of anxiety at the back of his mind. The old, familiar presence of the white haired boy next to him was helpful. Harry would have left ages ago if not for that. The stress was making his head hurt terribly, which was unusual and upsetting.
When they were finally dismissed, Harry shot up out of his seat like a cork and made a beeline for the doors. Ignoring the shouts behind him, he left the castle, aiming for the forest. He had done quite enough for one night, and was exhausted. He climbed a tall tree that let him have a decent view of the castle and settled in, breathing in the familiar scent of forest, and the familiar taste of untamed magic.
“That was lovely,” the snake commented. Harry snorted.
“You only liked it because of all the food.”
“I ate five different kinds of bird tonight,” the snake answered, slurring his hisses in his satisfaction. “I like that place.”
“I think they’ll want me to go back tomorrow, too,” Harry said, biting his lip as he watched lights go on all around the castle. “I don’t know when classes start. I should check, I think.”
“Will they feed us again?” The snake slipped a coil over Harry’s shoulder in a lazy way.
“Yes, they said three times a day.”
“That might be too much, even,” the snake said, delighted. Harry had been thinking the same thing.
“I don’t think we have to eat each time,” Harry offered. The snake hissed with amusement.
“But we can, if we want to.”
“I guess.” Harry continued staring at the castle as his snake drifted into a satiated sleep. He didn’t like how much work this was taking. If it didn’t get easier soon, he didn’t know that he’d stay. But he wanted to try.
Chapter 3: Wherein Hogwarts Adapts
Hello. Once again, this is round_robin posting for evansentranced. She's still away but you can have her updates! I did give this a read through before posting, but if there's anything I missed, please include it along with you comment and it will be seen to.
Harry crept up to the castle the next morning just after sunrise, stepping into the front hall with caution and staring around. There were a few people in the hall with the fake sky when he looked inside, including the dark haired man. Harry approached the table and stood in front of it, waiting for the dark haired man to look up from his meal. He eventually noticed Harry’s presence and sighed, reaching into his pocket.
“Your schedule,” he said. Harry took the piece of parchment and looked it over. It said things like ‘Monday, eight o’clock, Charms’, and ‘Thursday, two o’clock, Transfiguration’.
“How does it work?” Harry asked, flipping it over. There was nothing on the back.
“At eight o’clock on Monday,” the man said, “You should be in Charms. When it is Wednesday, and two o’clock, you should be in Defense Against the Dark Arts.”
Harry stared at the schedule. “I don’t understand. How do I know when it’s Tuesday? Or two o’clock?”
“Your fellow Slytherin first years have the same schedule,” the dark haired man said. “You should be spending most of your time with them. They will be able to guide you to your dormitory as well, since you seem to have gotten lost last night.”
Harry stared at him. “My what?”
The man sighed. “The place where you sleep, and where you keep your things. Your bedroom.”
The term only caused a bare sort of flicker in Harry’s brain. He squinted and blinked up at the dark haired man.
“I had a nest for a while,” he offered. “Once I had a cupboard?“
The man stared at him. “This would be more like the nest,” he said. “Though I may be being overly optimistic.”
They frowned at each other, but before Harry could ask what he meant by that, the white haired boy appeared.
“Good morning, Professor Snape,” he said, and glanced at Harry. “Good morning. Can I call you by your name today?”
Harry frowned. “No.”
“Good morning, Draco,” the dark haired man said. “I trust you will keep an eye on our resident elf?”
The white haired boy grinned. “Yes, sir.”
The white haired boy grabbed Harry’s arm and led him over to the table.
“It’s time to eat,” he told Harry. Harry looked at the schedule he still held in his hands.
“The dark haired man gave me this,” he explained, showing it to the boy.
“Snape,” he corrected, and looked it over. “Yeah, we have Charms first thing today, after we eat.”
Harry realized quickly that the safest thing to do was stick with the white haired boy. They had all the same classes, and the white haired boy seemed to be able to find his way around to them at the right time.
His classes were all filled with people, which alarmed Harry. He made the white haired boy sit in the back with him so he could be near a window and keep an eye on the rest of the room. Otherwise, it was dull, and the professors expected him to sit at the desks, which was uncomfortable.
They learned how to make a feather float in Charms, which was easy. Harry made his feather float by raising his eyebrow at it, which made the professor squeak alarmingly and pay far too much attention to him.
In Transfiguration, the woman who had called his name out for the Sorting told Harry to take out his wand to change his matchstick into a needle.
“I don’t have it anymore,” Harry said. She reacted with more upset than Harry thought was strictly necessary.
“How did you lose it?” she asked.
“I gave it to a spider I met in the forest,” Harry said. “He wanted to try it out.”
The spider had been rather large and alarming, and the wand had literally been the only boon Harry could think to offer that the spider had considered worth Harry’s life. The giant had warned Harry about the acromantula, but Harry hadn’t thought he was near their nest at the time. It turned out he still had more to learn about the forest.
“A spider?” the woman spluttered.
“He was a rather large spider,” Harry offered. “He tasted magical. He might even be able to do something with it. Anyway, elves don’t use wands.”
She protested further, but Harry waved off her concerns and went back to trying to change the matchstick. There wasn’t much of a point to this spell outside of practice, as far as Harry could see. Usually he had no use for either matchsticks or needles, considering that he had magic. It seemed like a luxury, using his magic for useless things, and he spent the entire class period trying to decide if he liked it or not.
By the end of class Harry had a couple of red tipped, pointy bits of metal to show for his work. He put them in his bag next to his jars and vials and left with the white haired boy, who was still gaping about Harry’s wand.
“I told you,” Harry said, for what felt like the fiftieth time. “Elves don’t use wands.”
The white haired boy also knew when it was time to eat, which was useful. They really did eat two meals before the sun even started to set; Harry was feeling a bit overstuffed and sleepy. It had been a long day, and he was beginning to think about a nap.
“Potions next!” the white haired boy said. Harry groaned.
“Schedules are hard,” he said. The white haired boy laughed and took his arm, leading him down into the dungeons.
Harry had been down here once before, to investigate the room where the dark haired man worked. They were going to a room near that, which was lined with what Harry assumed were ingredients for the potions they would be making.
This room explained why the dark haired man tasted like death. It tasted the same way, powerfully. The smell wasn’t much better, and the chill in the air did nothing to improve matters.
“What is this place?” the snake asked, curling up under Harry’s hair to speak quietly into his ear.
“A class,” Harry responded, trying not to let his nerves show in his voice. “It’ll be okay.”
“If you’re sure,” the snake said doubtfully, and wound his way down into Harry’s bag instead.
They were set to work concocting a potion to cure boils. The white haired boy spent most of the lesson snapping at Harry.
“The shrivelfigs have to be three centimetres each,” he said. “Didn’t you read the instructions?”
Harry looked at the book. “Yes.”
“Three centimetres,” the white haired boy repeated. He went back to adding ingredients, then glanced back a minute later to see Harry weighing the pieces. “Centimetres! Not grams!”
Harry blinked at him, baffled. The white haired boy handed him a ruler, and when Harry stared blankly at it, pointed out the three centimetre mark.
“One, two three,” he explained, pointing at the ruler. “They need to be that long.” He even cut a few to show Harry how it worked.
‘Ohh,“ Harry said in comprehension, and picked up the knife. “I understand. I always wondered what that meant. The books never explained centimetres.”
As they packed their things up after Potions ended, Harry blinked with heavy eyes at the white haired boy.
“What next?” he asked, leaning against the uncomfortable desk for support.
“We’re done with classes for today,” the white haired boy said, referencing his schedule. “Do you want to--”
But Harry was already gone, racing out of the dungeons and onto the grounds. He made it to the forest in record time, and swung himself up into a tree with weary grace.
“Is it over?” the snake asked. Harry hissed a confirmation and sagged against the trunk of his chosen tree, closing his eyes with relief. That had been exhausting.
He spent a large portion of the night roaming around in the trees and exploring the forest, though he made sure to get a few hours’ sleep before it was time to go to the castle, reasoning that he’d be exhausted again otherwise.
Just like yesterday, it didn’t take long after he arrived in the near-empty eating hall for the white haired boy to show up.
And just like yesterday, the white haired boy knew what to do. It was useful. The first class of the day was exciting. It was held outside, in the greenhouses, and Harry loved it. It was all about magical plants and things.
The second class was incredibly boring, but the teacher ignored the students entirely. Harry sat under the desk instead of at it. It was very comfortable, in large part because no one could see him and he was protected on all sides by the desk. This was the most relaxed Harry had felt so far inside the castle, though he would still rather be outside.
He spent the class chatting idly with the snake about some of the creatures they had met already in the forest, and what was for lunch. Harry had foregone breakfast, remembering yesterday. He really only needed one or two meals a day, if that. More made him feel sick.
One of the other students, a girl who was wearing a green tie, leaned over her desk halfway through the class to peer down at Harry. When she saw the snake, her eyes widened and she sat back in her seat abruptly.
After class, the white haired boy pulled Harry aside and looked at him seriously. “Daphne said you were talking to a snake during class!”
“Yeah, well you were sleeping,” Harry said defensively.
The white haired boy stared at him. “So you can talk to snakes?”
Harry shrugged. “Well, yeah. Elves can talk to most animals. Want to meet him?”
Harry lifted his shoulder, and the snake poked his head out. “What do you want?” he hissed.
“This is the white haired boy,” Harry said, pointing at him. He looked back at the white haired boy and continued. “This is the snake. I met him just after I left Wiltshire.”
The white haired boy stared at him. “That explains the accent,” he said weakly. “You hiss your esses, did you know? And you probably shouldn’t talk to the snake in public.” Harry rolled his eyes.
“Whatever,” he said. “Let’s go eat.”
At the end of the first week, the dark haired professor cornered Harry after class.
“Professor Dumbledore would like to speak with you,” he said. “As would I.”
“Harry,” the bearded man said, once they’d reached his office. Harry scowled, but allowed the breach of manners. None of his professors had been very polite in that respect. Wizards in general were very rude about names. “After your first week of school, we have noticed a few areas where you might require... assistance.”
Harry waited. If this was about the red-tied second year who had given Harry all his pocket money for a set of ‘magic stones’, well then Harry and the bearded man would be having words. Harry had every right as an elf to make trades, even if he was trading with a dunce.
“Some of your professors have noticed that you have not been turning in homework,” the bearded man said. “Others have noted that your writing skills are somewhat less than stellar.”
“Homework,” Harry repeated blankly. He then dismissed this in favour of being annoyed at the second comment. There was nothing wrong with Harry’s writing system. It contained a few words that Harry knew how to write, but was mostly just pictures and made up symbols. It made sense to Harry, however distressed his Charms professor had been.
”Yes,” the bearded man said. “Professor Snape and I have discussed the situation, and we believe we have a short term solution.”
He handed Harry a feather quill, which Harry examined curiously. It tasted differently to the other quills he’d used.
“The dictation quill will write for you,” the dark haired man explained. “In the meantime, you will have lessons.”
“Speaking of lessons,” the bearded man said, his voice going stern. “You must attend all of your classes, Harry, even if you don’t like them or don’t feel like it.”
Wrinkling his nose, Harry protested. “But there are so many of them,” he said. “And I get tired.”
“Sleeping in your dormitory might help with that problem,” the dark haired man cut in. “Have you even stepped foot inside the Slytherin common room yet?”
Harry thought for a moment, then shook his head. Usually, when the white haired boy said they were done, he raced back to the forest as fast as his feet could carry him.
“You are still not wearing your uniform, either, I see,” the dark haired man continued. “And I was informed yesterday that you swore at length at a prefect for trying to guide you to the Great Hall.”
Harry bristled. “He tried to touch my arm! I don’t like when people do that. He’s lucky I didn’t set him on fire.”
The dark haired man pinched the bridge of his nose. Harry scowled.
Harry allowed one of the friendlier house elves to clean his tunic and attach the Slytherin crest to it while he was taking a bath in the lake that afternoon. He could compromise with the best of them. The squid in the lake tickled Harry’s toes as he swam, and he grinned.
He really did like it here. He’d show them. He’d go to all the classes tomorrow, and perhaps even investigate this common room everyone kept talking about.
The next morning, Harry reached the Hall to find it emptier than usual. He sat on the table where they usually ate and waited, but the white haired boy never arrived. Harry stared up at the sky through the magical field over the ceiling, concerned. He was going to miss the classes! And he didn’t even want to!
It was all the white haired boy’s fault, Harry decided. He’d have to track him down and get them to the classes. The sun was higher than it should be. They were definitely going to be late.
Harry began his search for the white haired boy in the lowest levels of the castle. He found a bright hallway lined with portraits, and peered up at them.
“Where is the entrance to the common room?” he asked a red haired woman dressed in chain mail. She frowned at him.
“I would hardly tell the likes of you, now would I?”
Harry was taken aback.
“You’re not allowed in the common room,” she explained, eyeing him. “We don’t want your sort nosing around, causing trouble.”
The portraits were usually nicer than this. At least, the ones that didn’t live in the lower levels of the castle were.
Harry glared. “Go stick your head in a pig,” he told her, and walked away.
It was probably a trick. Everyone had been so insistent on his going to the common room. She must be biased against elves or something. Harry had met people like that before.
Well, Harry would find the common room whether she liked it or not.
He sulked in a nearby corridor until a small girl in braids passed him by, and he followed her to a pile of barrels in an adjacent hallway. She glanced around suspiciously, but he had already ducked around the corner and went unnoticed. Peering around the wall, Harry watched as she leaned in and whispered something to a specific barrel, and crawled through a gap that had opened up in the pile.
That seemed simple enough.
An hour later, the white haired boy showed up at the Hall, finally. Harry glared at him, still slightly damp and smelling strongly of vinegar. Gaining access to the common room hadn’t been as simple as it had looked.
“Where have you been?” Harry demanded. “Did you attend the classes without me? Why would you leave me behind? I don’t-”
“Hey, shut up,” the white haired boy said, and frowned at Harry quizzically. “It’s Saturday.”
Harry glared back, ignoring a small niggling at the back of his mind that recognised the relevance of the word. “I don’t know what that means.”
“That means,” the boy said, “That it’s the weekend. We don’t have classes today or tomorrow.” He leaned away from Harry and wrinkled his nose. “Listen. Har- listen. I know you’re used to living in the forest, and they don’t really care there, but you smell. Let me show you how indoor plumbing works. Please.”
Harry ignored the last part of this address, choosing to focus on the important part of his statement. “No classes? Really?”
The white haired boy nodded.
“I’ve been inside all day for no reason?”
Another nod. “Yes, but, listen, about that bath--”
“Bloody goat fucking hell,” Harry said, and left.
Three days later, the dark haired man came trudging up to Harry where he perched on a branch, hooting sporadically at the owl that had been offered to him before classes started. She hung around sometimes, mostly because Harry frequently fed her and they practiced bird songs together. He wasn’t really sure what else to do with her.
“You are late for class,” the dark haired man said. “About two days late, as a matter of fact.”
He seemed irate. Harry tipped his head to one side and hooted. The man stared at him, unmoved. Perhaps it would be best to go quietly, Harry thought, eyeing the silent stare with some trepidation.
“It’s not my fault,” Harry said, somersaulting down from the tree and landing in a crouch at the man’s side. “The white haired boy said we were done.”
“For the weekend,” the man said as they began walking back toward the castle. “You get five days of classes -- that’s five sunrises and five sunsets, and then you get two days of rest. Two sunrises and two sunsets. After the second sunset, you come back to classes the next morning. Do you understand?”
Harry nodded. He had thought it was too good to be true. “So what class am I supposed to be in right now?”
“Right now, you are missing Defense Against the Dark Arts,” the dark haired man said. He looked like he had a headache, and that he was angry at it. “I will escort you to the classroom.”
By the time they reached the castle and made their way up to the requisite room, the class was at an end. This was fortunate, because Harry realized upon their arrival that this was the class he hated. He had skipped it entirely after the first lesson last week, and waited on a nearby balcony for the white haired boy to be finished.
This class gave him a headache. Harry glanced at the teacher, who had turned away and was stacking papers on the desk. He was a tall, pale man with a turban, and Harry felt a sharp stabbing pain begin behind his eyes when he looked at him.
“Hey, you’re back!” Harry turned away from the teacher and smiled thinly as the white haired boy approached.
“Can I call you--”
“No,” Harry said. Morning ritual complete (late though it may be), he continued. “Where are we going now?”
The white haired boy took his arm, which Harry allowed. “We’re headed downstairs,” he said.
Harry followed him, curious despite himself. Usually the white haired boy just told him what the class was called, and Harry didn’t ask questions about where or which way the staircases were going.
They went down as far as the room where the dark haired man’s class was held.
“Potions?” Harry asked. The white haired boy only shook his head and stopped in front of a blank wall.
“Decoro serpens,” he said, and the wall opened of its own accord. Harry raised an eyebrow and allowed himself to be ushered in.
Inside, the ceiling was low, and the fire cast a flickering light over green furniture and dark wood. Harry blinked, nonplussed.
“Welcome to the Slytherin common room,” the white haired boy said, gesturing for Harry to move inside further.
“This is it?” he asked, peering up at a large statue of a snake. There were a lot of snakes. Harry could approve of that.
“Our dormitory is this way,” the white haired boy said, walking away. Harry followed curiously. He still wasn’t entirely clear on what he was meant to do with a dormitory.
The room the white haired boy led him to was filled with the same furniture, six times over.
“That’s your bed,” the white haired boy said, pointing to a bare set of furniture at the end. “I had Blaise and Theo clear it off for you. They starting using it as a catch all once they realized you weren’t sleeping in it.”
Harry peered at the bed, tilting his head. He remembered that his aunt and uncle had something like this, before he stopped living with them. He thought his cousin might have had one too. “What do I do with it?”
He crouched down and looked under it as the white haired boy stared at him.
“You, ah...” he said. “You sleep on it.”
Harry gripped the post. It seemed sturdy enough. He pulled himself up onto the upper frame and adjusted his position.
“It could be more comfortable,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “And what is all this cloth for? Seems like it’d get in the way.”
He swung his foot, letting it catch on the hangings.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the white haired boy said. “You sleep down here. On the bed.”
With that, he flopped down on his back on the pile of cloth in the center of the frame. Harry nodded slowly. That did make sense. He turned around and let himself fall backward onto the pile, hearing the white haired boy yelp as he scrambled to shift over in time to avoid being landed on.
“It’s quite fluffy,” Harry said thoughtfully, laying sprawled out next to the white haired boy, who was making displeased muffled noises. “Sorry,” he added, pulling his cloak off the white haired boy’s face.
“Ugh,” the white haired boy said. “Right,” he added a second later. “So this is your bed. And that’s your desk, and your wardrobe.”
“What do I do with those?” Harry asked, sitting up on his elbows to stare at them.
The white haired boy closed his eyes. “You-- we’ll cover that some other time. I want to introduce you to everyone.”
Harry leapt out of the bed. “What?”
“The other Slytherins that live in the dormitory with us,” the white haired boy said. He sighed when Harry took a step backward. “Look, you might as well get to know them. You’ll be going to classes and living with them for the next seven years.”
“Seven years,” Harry said, making a moue of distaste. That sounded like forever. He doubted he’d stay here that long. “Eh.”
“How about just meeting one or two of them, then?” the white haired boy asked. “You’ll like them, I promise. They’ve all got good connections. And they all want to meet you.”
Harry narrowed his eyes. “Aren’t we supposed to be in class right now?”
The white haired boy shrugged. “It’s lunch time.”
“Then we should be eating,” Harry said, though he wasn’t actually hungry and didn’t like being in the Hall when it was full anyhow.
“Then let’s go eat,” the white haired boy said cheerfully. “Blaise and Theo are--”
“Never mind,” Harry sulked, and sat back down on the bed. It was strangely soft. He didn’t think he liked it.
Harry did not end up trying the bed out again. He realized quickly that the other beds in the room meant that the other boys would be sleeping there too, and Harry was not about to speak to them, let alone sleep in front of them. If they wanted to make a boon, that was one thing, but this was another matter entirely.
Two red headed boys cornered him later that week, and Harry nearly gave them boils before he realized who they were. He’d been glancing through a few hex books in the library recently, and wanted to try some things out.
“How did your amulet work out?” he asked them from his perch in the window of the owlrey. They grinned at him.
“Shockingly well,” the first said.
“Considering it was made by Harry Potter--”
“--and not an elf at all, right Fred?”
“That’s right, dear brother, mine. If only ‘Boy-Who-Lived’ had been in our Fantastic Beasts book.”
“Maybe we could write the author?”
“Oh shut up,” Harry said in a sour voice. “First of all, I am an elf. I’m just also Harry Potter. Second of all, you’re not Fred.” He jerked his head from one twin to the other. “You are. Think I’m stupid, do you?”
“Right, and that’s another thing,” the first twin said. “How do you know which of us is which?”
“Even our mum can’t get it right half the time,” said the other.
“Elf secret,” Harry said stubbornly. When one of them lied about their names, the other’s magic flared a bit. But he wasn’t about to tell them that.
“What are you doing up here, anyway?” the first twin asked. “You’re supposed to be in class, aren’t you?”
Harry shrugged. He would not budge on this issue, no matter how many meetings the bearded man and the dark haired man called with him. The turbaned professor gave him a headache, and what’s more, his magic tasted awful. Harry wouldn’t go to those classes. He had never agreed to anything like that.
“Not really,” he explained. “I have an understanding with the white haired boy. He’ll come find me for the next class.”
“You mean Malfoy?” the other twin made a face. “I know you’re in Slytherin, but hanging out with that kind of slimy--”
Harry cocked his head and listened as the two twins abused the white haired boy’s family name, general appearance, and parents. It reminded him of late nights with the three headed snake and the ferret. He did miss that forest.
“He doesn’t like your hair colour or your freckles,” Harry informed them. “He said all the redheads in school are from your family, and you were all born in a shack perched on a dung heap. Is that true?”
“Not hardly,” the first twin snorted. “And there are only two others. There’s one in your year. The tall kid. He’s in Gryffindor like us.”
Harry drew a blank. He shrugged.
“Whatever. Why aren’t you in class?”
“We have a free period right now,” the other twin said. “We’re up to a bit of tomfoolery.”
He picked out an owl and attached a roll of parchment to its leg. It hooted and took off out of Harry’s window. Harry chirped goodbye and watched it wing away from the castle.
“How do you like Hogwarts so far?” This from the first twin.
Harry made a face. “It’s large. And there are a lot of people. And I have to be places at the same time every day. Inside. They want me to do strange things. And people keep using my name.”
The other twin waved a careless hand. “You’ll get used to all that.”
“It’s loads of fun here,” the first one added. “If you know where to look.”
“Have you found the kitchens yet?”
Harry shook his head mutely. The twins shared a glance.
“So young,” one of them said.
“So naive,” the other agreed. “Listen, what class do you have next?”
Harry shrugged. “The white haired boy keeps track of that sort of thing,” he explained.
“Right,” the first twin said, and pulled out a sheet of parchment. The two of them poured over it for a minute.
“Well, Malfoy’s in Defense right now,” the other twin said.
“Right, and Ron’s there too. Which means--”
“-- he has Transfiguration next, and if we remember our first year correctly--”
“--which we do, dear brother. It stands to reason that our elf should be there too, in half an hour.”
They rolled up the parchment and looked up at Harry.
“Right. Let’s go!”
“We’ll show you around and get you to your next class in one piece.”
Harry hopped out of the window and followed them, blinking curiously at the pocket the parchment had disappeared into. It had looked like a map. Useful sort of thing, that.
Knowing where the kitchens were freed up a lot of Harry’s time. He no longer had to go to meals to acquire the kind of food he couldn’t get in the forest, and he knew exactly where to find a house elf if he wanted to have a chat.
The white haired boy gained more status in Harry’s eyes when Harry discovered he was able to call his own house elf to the school at will. Harry and the white haired boy’s house elf had been good friends back when Harry stayed in Wiltshire. Their reunion was happy. The house elf even cried a bit.
After more than a month or so of following the white haired boy obediently to classes, Harry thought he had a handle on things. He even knew which class they were going to next, usually. And he had figured out weekends, too, enough to make it to his first class at the beginning of the week almost every time.
He had also been reintroduced to indoor bathing, which he remembered from living with the Dursleys. Usually, he bathed once every few weeks or so in a lake or river, but standards were high at Hogwarts, and the white haired boy had been getting increasingly strident on this point.
The white haired boy cornered Harry outside under a tree one afternoon and dragged him to the Quidditch pitch. There were a few small buildings under the stands, and he pulled them inside. Rows of tall metal lockers lined the front of the large room, but the white haired boy pulled them all the way to the back, where the walls and the floor were both white and tiled.
“What’s this?” Harry asked suspiciously.
“This is a boon,” the white haired boy said. “You have to shower at least three times a week. At least! You should shower daily, honestly, but we’re taking baby steps here.”
Harry frowned. “And how is that a boon?” he asked. “What do I get out of it?”
“Basic hygiene!” the white haired boy exclaimed. “And I’ll continue being seen in public with you.”
After a long minute of Harry staring at him, he sighed. “And I’ll talk to some of the older Slytherins about getting you a regular supply of passes to the Restricted Section.”
“Done,” Harry said without hesitation. The books in the Restricted Section screamed when you didn’t have a pass with you and you tried to look at them. It didn’t matter what book the pass was for, Harry had found. It only mattered that you had one, and they only worked for one visit each.
“Good,” said the white haired boy with some relief. “And make sure you use soap.” He handed over a bottle of goopy potion which Harry examined with interest. “Now, I’m going back to the castle. You should shower.”
“Sure,” Harry said, already shucking his bag and tunic. “Get me those passes.”
The white haired boy spent a lot of time trying to introduce Harry to people, which was somewhat distressing for Harry. It wasn’t that he minded meeting them, necessarily. He spoke to people sometimes when he had been living on his own. It was just that there were so many of them, and they expected him to recognise them when he came across them again. And they thought it was okay to talk to him after they’d been introduced. And he just couldn’t keep track of them all.
He was beginning to understand the point of names.
“They’re...for categorization purposes,” Harry explained to the snake one afternoon, during the class with the ghost teacher. “Because there are so bloody many of them, right? And all the humans look alike, really. So they need to be able to have an easy way to tell each other apart.”
“You cannot tell by tasting?” the snake asked, curious.
“Not in this place,” Harry said, wrinkling his nose. “They all taste alike here too, unless you’re paying really close attention. And I don’t want to have to remember that many tastes for people I don’t even want to talk to. I think names are easier.”
So he tried it.
“Where to next, Draco?” Harry asked, just like he’d practiced. The white haired boy’s head swung around to stare at Harry. He was startled.
“You know my name!” he exclaimed, a grin blossoming on his face. He turned to the boy who was packing up at the table next to theirs. “Blaise! He knows my name!”
“Brilliant,” the boy said. “Maybe next you can teach him to roll over.”
Harry scowled. That boy was not getting a name.
“Fuck off, Blaise,” said the white haired boy. Harry felt pacified. He’d stick with Draco, then.
Chapter 4: Wherein Harry Adapts
I'm back from Kenya!
Well, that's not true. I'm in Turkey now. But I'm back from not having electricity or internet or toilets! God, I missed toilets. I should be posting regularly from now on. Sorry about the hiccup! You'll probably get another chapter before the new year, too, as a Solstice present. Or Christmas, or Hannukah, or Saturnalia, or Hogswatch, or whatever it is you celebrate. I'm doing the Solstice.
And before you ask, there isn't much information on dwarves or trolls in Rowling's universe, so I'm using Discworld canon because I want to and it's awesome. So there.
There was a large gathering going on in the Hall during dinner one night. Harry took one look inside and turned on his heel. It hadn’t been that full since the first night, when he’d been Sorted. He didn’t like crowds of that size. Draco had promised it would be fun, which was the only reason Harry hadn’t disappeared into the forest hours ago. The liar.
He wandered down toward the common room. The dark haired man (Snape, Harry reminded himself) had been hinting heavily after class today that Harry should spend some time there. He thought perhaps the-- Snape had left something for him in his dormitory.
He always had such difficulty finding the place, though. It was just a wall. How was he to remember where it was? The walls all looked the same to him -- dreadfully boring and dank. The taste of the wall wasn’t something he’d recognise yet, either, considering he’d only been through once.
Harry was standing in a corridor, debating with the snake over whether this was the right blank stretch of wall, when he heard a strange dragging sound coming from the next hallway over.
Harry decided to investigate, and poked his head around the bend.
It was a troll. A mountain troll by the look of it. Harry frowned and pulled his head back. Strange, that a mountain troll would be in the dungeons of a castle instead of in the mountains where it belonged. Probably it had gotten lost somehow. Magic could do that.
“Hello,” Harry said, stepping out into the corridor. The troll looked up at him and grunted. It scratched its head and stared at him. Harry stared back, thinking about what he knew about trolls.
The troll finished its consideration of him first. It lifted its club to hit him, out of sheer lack of any other ideas, from what Harry could tell.
“Hey!” Harry said, jumping out of the way. He knew from dwarves he’d met that trolls were stupid, and they were even stupider when they were overheated. It wasn’t that hot down here in the dungeon, was it? Outside, the snow would be starting soon.
Harry threw cooling magic at it anyway, just to be on the safe side. The troll dropped the arm holding the club and looked around, surprised.
“How I get in dis goohuloog place?” it asked in a deep, almost guttural voice. Harry shrugged.
“No idea,” he said, jerking his head at the hallway. “Come on, get your taka taka, we’ll get out of here.”
The troll grinned at Harry, exposing mossy slabs that passed for teeth. It hoisted its club and dropped into step next to Harry, who had to jog to keep up with the troll’s longer stride.
“Do you live near here?” Harry asked as they climbed the stairs to the exit. The troll grunted and shifted its shoulders.
Harry nodded thoughtfully. Mountain troll. Right. “I stay in the forest, usually,” he explained. “If you’re ever in the area, drop by.”
The professor with the turban came running down the stairs as Harry opened the front doors for the troll.
“What are you doing?” he cried. “That creature is very dangerous!”
“Ghuhg humans,” the troll muttered as it lumbered through the door and down the front steps. Harry nodded with feeling, a headache prodding at the edges of his consciousness. The turbaned professor was incredibly rude.
“I’ll walk you to the forest,” Harry said. “I’m headed there anyway.”
“No food?” the snake hissed with disappointment as Harry loped into the gathering darkness of the woods at the troll’s side.
“I always bring something for you,” Harry hissed, rolling his eyes and plucking a bit of turkey from his bag. “You know that.”
“Oh.” The snake’s syllabant glee filled his next words as he savoured the meat. “You are a good elf friend.”
Harry beamed. “Thank you! You are a good snake friend.”
The troll hefted his club on his shoulder and waved when they reached Harry’s usual clearing.
Harry waved back and climbed a tree, feeling sleepy. Being indoors for too long did that to him.
It was cold in the forest these days. Too cold to sleep in trees anymore. Harry had been thinking about what to do about his sleeping arrangements, and decided that the greenhouses would be best. He avoided greenhouse six after an unsettling run in with a bush that tried to bite his hand off, but greenhouse two was pleasant.
He was getting the hang of this whole school thing. Once a week, he sat down with the tiny professor who taught Charms, and finished up all the extra work that no one had mentioned prior to their agreement about classes.
“And what are we working on today?” the little professor asked as they sat together on cushions in the small ceiling-less room that they used for these meetings. It was filled with plants and there was a light breeze, and it was Harry’s favourite room in the castle. Being able to see the sky made it all much more bearable.
Harry sifted through the piles of books and papers that made up his school work. The professor (Flitwick was his name) insisted that Harry keep himself organised. To this end, he had provided a small case that stretched like an accordion when Harry opened it, and explained that he expected Harry to sort his papers by class inside of it. Harry made a sincere effort most of the time, but still occasionally found the odd newt tail in his Transfiguration notes, and had misplaced his list of celestial objects a week ago and had no idea where it had gone. He suspected foul play on the part of the snake, who had taken a dislike to telescopes.
“I have to... write an essay for Potions,” Harry said, peering at the notes Draco had scribbled for him. “About the properties of mineral compounds in potion making. Rocks and stuff?”
Harry glanced up at the professor (Harry thought he might be half goblin, and liked him better for it), who nodded and waited for him to continue, hands folded neatly in his lap.
“I also have the stuff from your class, and I have to read and outline three chapters for Transfiguration and write an essay for Herbology about what we learned in class yesterday.”
“And what did you learn yesterday?”
Harry’s face brightened. “We learned about dangerous plants. Did you know a devil’s snare can suffocate a deer in under a minute, if it wants to?”
The tiny professor (Flitwick, Harry reminded himself firmly) raised his eyebrows. “Did Professor Sprout tell you that?”
Harry shrugged. “Well, no. I use them sometimes when I’m hunting. The trick is getting the deer back, and then of course you have to leave a bit for the snare, else it won’t be as cooperative next time and you get a reputation for being selfish.”
Flitwick nodded slowly. “You can put that in your paper,” he told Harry. “Write it down -- no, not with the dictation quill. Write it by hand, now. We must practice!”
Harry picked up the quill and began tracing out the letters with a grudging expression. He hated this part. “Why do we have to write so many essays?”
“Practice!” Flitwick repeated cheerfully. “You aren’t the only student who has had precious little experience with writing prior to Hogwarts, though admittedly, most have at least the basics. We spend a lot of time in first year teaching writing standards.”
Harry actually felt better, knowing that he wasn’t the only one suffering. He and Flitwick spent the next two hours working out what he would write and how he would finish each assignment, with an occasional interjection from the snake.
The snake was fascinated by Harry’s work, and often had Harry dictate it to him in Parseltongue, even as Harry wrote it in English. In the first week, one of the professors tried to have a talk with Harry about ‘approved pets’ and ‘terrifying the other students’, but Harry was having none of it. He wouldn’t ignore the snake or send him away. The snake had feelings, too, and he was Harry’s best friend, not a pet.
“If you can turn animals into objects, can you turn objects into animals?” the snake asked while they were working on Transfiguration. Harry remembered his Transfiguration professor changing her desk into a pig, but he still wasn’t sure on the details of the thing. He asked Flitwick.
“You can,” Flitwick confirmed. “Though you won’t be trying that for a while yet.”
Harry relayed this to the snake, who hissed thoughtfully.
“If you turn an object into an animal, can I eat it?”
Flitwick squeaked with delight when Harry translated this. “What a good question! The answer is debatable. Food is one of the exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration, which you’ve learned about in class, of course. But it is possible to transfigure animals from objects, and for those animals to remain in their transfigured state for a long enough period of time to allow them to be eaten and digested, at which point, the argument goes, should the animal revert to its original state, you would already have gotten what you wanted from it.”
Harry ruminated over this. “So, yes?”
“Not quite,” Flitwick said. “The other argument states that the nutrients you gained from the food might revert to bits of the object in your system, and perhaps make you ill, or at the very least, they might be filtered by the kidneys and then food you ate would be useless, which of course, it would be difficult to know unless one attempted to survive by eating nothing but transfigured food. It all depends, really, on whether the transfiguration is changing the object itself, or simply rearranging the tiniest pieces of it.” Flitwick paused. “This is a relatively new field, of course, brought on by some fascinating Muggle discoveries that I won’t get into now. Minerva knows more than I would, of course. Professor McGonagall, I mean.”
Harry was intrigued. “So, maybe?” he asked. Flitwick nodded, and waited patiently while Harry did his best to explain what Flitwick had told him to the snake.
“He says we should research the field ourselves,” Harry said with a small roll of his eyes. Flitwick beamed at them both.
“I daresay your snake friend would have been in Ravenclaw,” he said happily. Harry privately thought that the snake would do best in whichever House allowed you to be interested only in the things that would provide you with food and sunshine. Which wasn’t a House at all, actually, Harry realized with a jerk. It was the forest.
Harry was well known around the school, which he found suited his purposes once he got over being discomfited by the idea. A significant number of the students had either made a trade with him before he got to Hogwarts, or knew someone who had.
Harry’s elf boons were a legend among wizarding children, it seemed, and now that he was living in the forest and giving Hogwarts a test run, it was even easier to convince them of his legitimacy. They seemed to be very impressed with his name to boot, which was an interesting property of names that made Harry feel a bit more comfortable using them.
As time went on, Harry developed friendships with many of the residents of the castle. He had a lot of time on his hands during meals and free periods, and he spent most of this time talking to the portraits and ghosts. He liked them better than humans, since the portraits at least were incredibly easy to avoid when he wanted to, and the ghosts were polite enough to avoid all use of his name when he asked.
Draco’s house elf (Dobby, his name was Dobby) turned out to be an invaluable friend while Harry was at the school. He was fascinated by Harry’s stories of living in the forest as an elf, and idolized him. He taught Harry all manner of useful little tricks. They even made an agreement, despite there being no boons between elves: Dobby would teach Harry how to disappear on Hogwarts grounds if Harry helped Dobby become a free elf.
Harry wanted to know how to disappear on the grounds rather badly. The one thing that really irked him about Hogwarts was how restricted his movements were. If he could go back to disappearing at will, he might even be able to feel at home here.
That, and if he could get the weird magic off. It tasted awful, and felt like a leash. He knew it had something to do with Snape, the dark haired man, because every time he managed to get it off he’d see Snape, and soon he’d be pawing at his neck again without even realizing it, the strange feeling having returned almost unnoticeably.
Harry was friendly with the other elves at Hogwarts, but none of them were willing to share secrets and tricks with him, as they didn’t have the permission of their master like Dobby did. They were also far more sceptical of Harry’s status as a forest elf than Dobby had been, which Harry surmised more from their expressions than anything they actually said out loud. Harry accepted that they might not like the idea of another kind of elf at Hogwarts, especially a type they hadn’t heard of before, but it didn’t stop him from hanging around down in the kitchens with them and picking things up through example whenever he could.
One night, after the elves kicked Harry out of the kitchens so they could finish cleaning up after dinner, Harry ran into Peeves.
“Stick it in your eye, Peeves,” Harry said in a good natured tone, grinning as a suit of armour clinked and groaned and tried to gore him with its mace.
“I am the vengeful spirit that walks these halls,” Peeves moaned through the visor. Harry laughed. “I search in vain for my long lost--”
“Bollocks,” Harry said. “Come on, get out of there and tell me the latest news.”
Peeves blew a raspberry as he flew out of the visor.
“Potty, Potty, Potty,” he said, spinning like a top around Harry’s head. “Wee little elfy. Who says I have news?”
“Violet from the fourth floor told me you witnessed something scandalous in the Divination tower this morning,” Harry said, and waggled his eyebrows.
“Ooh, Violet said, did she?” Peeves whistled. “Well I’m afraid Miss Violet is not in the know, elfy.”
“Fine.” Harry shouldered his bag more firmly. “I’ll just be off to tell her you said so, Peevesy.”
Peeves swooped down in front of Harry, grinning. “I may have witnessed it a little after noon,” he revealed. “And it may involve Sir Cadogan, his noble steed, and several of the lovely ladies from the second floor vineyards.”
Harry and Peeves cackled together at the innuendo. “The monks will be appalled,” Harry said. “Can I tell them?”
“No way, no how, Potty,” Peeves said. “I saw it, I break the news.”
“Not even for a Fanged Frisbee?” Harry asked, pulling one out of his bag. The caretaker’s filing cabinets had the kind of labels Harry could get behind: Illegal Objects, Confiscated and Highly Dangerous, and Banned Objects were just a few of the drawers he’d dipped into already. When they met, the grizzled old man would yell a lot, give Harry a detention, (which was a slip of paper which Harry supposed was a record of his wrongdoings or something -- wizards were strange) and Harry would create a distraction and nip over to grab something on his way out. He had a lot of new, shiny boon-fodder as a result.
Peeves weakened visibly at the sight of the Frisbee. “It’s an old model, even,” Harry said in his best tempting voice. “None of the new safety features.”
“Awwwuuggh fine!” Peeves snatched it out of Harry’s hand and sped off. “Tell them by tomorrow or I will!”
Harry took a detour to the monk’s portrait on his way out of the castle, and used the information to leverage the Gryffindor password out of one of them that was friends with the Fat Lady. He’d need to use it within the next two weeks, but that wouldn’t be a problem.
Harry left the castle and strolled toward the forest, whistling. He and the snake were due to pay a visit to a couple centaurs who were interested in a potion he’d managed to lift off Snape a couple days ago for a few unicorn hairs.
After the meeting, Harry wrapped his cloak closer around himself and set off for the greenhouses. As he crunched through the new snow on a half formed trail, he paused, an odd sound pricking at his ears. It was like a cloak dragging along the ground, which was odd, because if anyone had a cloak in this forest it was Harry and he certainly didn’t walk around so carelessly and noisily.
“What is it?” the snake butted his head against Harry’s neck as he peered out from under Harry’s chin. “I don’t like it.”
“I don’t like it either,” Harry said in an undertone. He followed the sound, silent as a ghost, and finally found the source in a clearing.
It was a cloaked figure drinking blood from a dead unicorn. Harry recoiled and snarled in the back of his throat. The sound startled the figure, which jerked up and stared around. Harry circled the clearing, snarling again as the headache hit. The figure took that cue to flee, cloak flapping behind him.
Harry had been right to never go to that slimy bastard’s classes. He approached the dead unicorn and knelt in the snow in front of it, bowing his head. Wizards had no respect for the forest. They thought they could do whatever they wanted because they had magic sticks and also because they were enormous bleeding piles of shite. Harry didn’t know why he even bothered to stay in this place.
The centaurs Harry had been dealing with found him after a few minutes by the ball of distressed magic he’d sent up in the air when he entered the clearing. They were silent as Harry stood and backed away from the unicorn.
“They have no right,” Harry said after a while. The centaurs shifted.
“There was great evil in this place,” one of them said. The two of them examined the sky for a long while.
“Mars is bright tonight,” the other offered eventually. Harry nodded solemnly, despite having no idea what that meant.
Harry spoke to Hagrid (the giant) about the professor who was drinking unicorn blood. Hagrid was rightly alarmed, but didn’t seem to entirely believe Harry that it was a professor.
“I’m telling you, it was him,” Harry insisted. “I could taste that awful magic he has around him. And I got a headache.”
After quite a bit of insistence on Harry’s part (and a cup of tea in the pumpkin patch), Hagrid finally agreed to keep a close eye on the forest, which Harry had been planning on doing himself, anyway.
It was frustrating, Harry decided as he climbed through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room, when people didn’t do what they should.
Harry examined the layout of the place, which was empty as it was the lunch hour. It was very red, and rounder than the Slytherin common room. He thought the chairs in front of the fire looked comfortable. Having afforded himself a demonstration, he was satisfied to be proven correct. He’d have to figure out a way to keep himself abreast of the passwords for this room.
He stretched out on a couch and opened his Charms book, reading the chapter due for the next class. Flitwick (the half goblin) was very enthusiastic about Harry’s progress in writing like the books. Harry liked to make the tiny man happy, as he got entertainingly squeaky when he was proud of something Harry’d done. He was thinking of attempting a bit of writing before their next meeting, even.
“But why would they have a three headed dog like that in the school?” Harry glanced up to see a couple other first years enter the portrait hole, talking seriously.
“It’s guarding something,” the boy said. He sounded nervous. “It has to be, there was a trapdoor by its foot.”
Harry went back to his reading. His progress was halted not a moment later.
“Hey!” The girl with the frizzy hair who had spoken first was glaring at him. “What are you doing in here?”
Harry blinked at her. “Reading.” He held up his book, and raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing in here?”
She gaped at him. “This is our common room! Yours is down in the dungeons. If you want to read, you’re supposed to do it there.”
Harry shrugged and went back to his book. “Your couches are more comfortable.”
She put her hands on her hips. Bossy.
“I’m going to get a prefect.”
“Wouldn’t you rather...” Harry pulled the first thing out of his bag that seemed to suit. “Have this book on the history of the development of the runic alphabet in wizarding Greece?”
He glanced at the book. He could part with it. He’d glanced through it, and histories weren’t particularly useful anyway. Judging by the conflicted expression in the girl’s eyes, it had been a good offer.
Harry stopped himself from grinning. He had a knack for knowing what people wanted. It came of experience.
On a particularly cold morning halfway through the next week, Harry found himself alone in the Great Hall, waiting. Draco was usually very prompt in the mornings. This whole ‘not showing up’ thing was not on.
Down in the dormitory, he perched himself on the foot stand of Draco’s bed and willed him to wake up through the sheer force of Harry’s glare.
“Why aren’t you upstairs?” Harry asked as Draco rubbed his eyes and rolled over. Draco yelped and sat up in bed, clumsily brandishing his wand.
“Are you ill?” Harry continued, undeterred. “It isn’t the weekend. It’s only been three days since the last weekend. Are you contagious? I could boil you some willow bark.”
“What are you talking about, Harry?” Draco grumbled, dropping his wand and falling back against the pillow. “It’s the winter holiday. I’m going home tomorrow morning. Don’t you listen to anything the professors say?”
“Not when it’s not about schoolwork,” Harry said, and cocked his head. “What do we do for the winter holiday? Do you mean you’re going to Wiltshire? What will you do there?”
“Yes, it’s Christmas,” Draco said. “It’s really early, Harry. Just go back to sleep.”
Harry leaned back against the post and stared around at the other sleeping boys contemplatively.
“You’re still there, aren’t you.” Draco’s voice was muffled from the pillow he had pulled over his head.
“Yes,” Harry said. “So if you’re going to Wiltshire, does that mean we’re done with classes?”
Draco sat up very suddenly. “No,” he said. “No, that’s not what that means. We have a short break, and you’re not to disappear, because classes start back up in January, and you have to be here for them.”
Harry grinned at him. “I’ll be here,” he said. “When is January?”
Draco paused. “Three weeks from now. Sixteen days.”
“Sixteen days,” Harry repeated. “Sixteen days!” He lifted his wrist and hissed this to the snake, delighted.
“Sixteen days of what?” the snake asked.
“Of no classes!” Harry said. “Want to go to Wales?”
“Harry,” Draco said, but Harry was already up and out the door. Sixteen days!
It occurred to Harry a few weeks into his newly won freedom that he was near Wiltshire. He took a couple days to track down Draco’s manor. When he found it, he stood staring at it, staging a fierce internal debate.
“Should I go back?” he asked the snake, who shrugged.
“It’s up to you,” he said. “I liked the food.”
“You’ve become a kept snake,” Harry accused, and stared up at the manor from his position nestled in a nearby tree.
“I’ve become a fat snake,” the snake said with sleepy satisfaction. “It was your choice to be there.”
“I like it there,” Harry said. “Sometimes. But I don’t like it, too.” He didn’t like the awful professor, or the strange magic that attached itself to him, no doubt through Snape. Harry took it off the second he left the grounds for the holiday and never looked back. He didn’t like having to be inside all the time. He didn’t like all the little rules and requirements and misunderstandings that made going to classes such an effort sometimes.
“Keep your options open,” the snake yawned. “Wait to eat the eggs until you can have the bird.”
Harry nodded. It made sense. Having made his decision for now, Harry disappeared from the tree and reappeared much closer to the manor.
Dobby let him in through a back entrance, twisting his ears at the subterfuge. Harry leaned down to stop him and smiled.
“Today is the day you become a free elf,” he said. Dobby wrung his fingers at his chest and gave Harry a watery smile in response.
“Thank you, Harry of the Forest,” he said. “You is a fine forest elf.”
Harry grinned and set off on his mission. He just needed to figure out a way to get the master of the house to give Dobby clothes. That was the way of things, according to Dobby and the other elves. It couldn’t be too hard.
The problem with freeing Dobby, Harry thought three days later, was that his Master was cleverer than Harry had hoped. Harry and Dobby were in the kitchens, planning a new strategy, and it wasn’t going well.
“So I’m thinking the subtle method isn’t working,” Harry said. He had a map of the Manor laid out on the table in front of him. Dobby was shelling peas and watching without comment as Harry commandeered them to eat or use in his strategizing.
“We should dump all the clothing in the Manor in a large pile in the front hall,” the snake insisted. “Then the Master will order Dobby to clean it up, and Dobby will be free.”
“No no,” Harry said. “I suggested that one already. They have to actually be giving it to Dobby, not just letting him handle it.”
“The clothing has to pass from the Master’s hand to Dobby’s,” Dobby said, guessing at the turn of the conversation despite not knowing the language. “The Master has to not want the clothing.”
“I still think we should,” the snake muttered when Harry translated for him. “It would be funny.”
“We could ruin some of their clothing,” Harry suggested. “And then they would give it to you, and not want it anymore.”
“Maybe,” Dobby said doubtfully.
“Does it have to be the Master?” Harry asked, again. “Could Draco do it?”
“I is thinking it must be the Master,” Dobby said. “Master Draco is not old enough to be making decisions for the household.”
“And I guess I don’t want to get him in trouble,” Harry said grudgingly. “He always gets all high pitched when I get him in trouble. It’s annoying.”
Harry had avoided revealing his presence to Draco since he’d been at the Manor. If Draco knew he was here, the Master could know. When Dobby was freed not soon after Harry’s visit, they might get suspicious.
Besides, he talked to Draco enough at the castle. He thought Draco must be getting sick of him by now. Harry certainly felt drained by the constant interaction.
“You know what?” Harry asked. “I think we’ve been thinking about this too hard. Dobby, come with me and be prepared to catch.”
Harry disappeared through the Manor until he found the Master, sitting in a highbacked chair in one of the libraries. Dobby was keeping his presence undetected through some of his fancy ‘elf of the house’ magic, so Harry could come and go as he pleased.
“Alright,” Harry said, whispering even though he knew the severe blonde man couldn’t hear him. He opened his bag and started rooting through it, looking for something that might work. “Here we go.”
He pulled out one of his hated black ties and rolled it up into a crumpled ball of fabric, which he threw at the Master’s head.
The Master, who had been absorbed in a thick book, startled badly and pulled out his wand, staring around the room in bafflement. He looked down at the book. The tie sat innocently on its pages, and the Master picked it up, letting its length dangle from his fingers.
The Master peered at the tie with narrowed eyes, then looked around the room, even right through Harry at one point. Harry held his breath and pulled out another tie, taking careful aim.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Master demanded as another tie hit him full on in the face. “Show yourself immediately!”
Harry could tell Dobby was probably ready to iron his ears with anxiety, but they had already had this conversation. The Master wasn’t talking to him. He was talking to Harry, and Harry was a forest elf. He didn’t have a Master to obey, so he stayed hidden and lobbed another tie.
The Master stood abruptly, snarling. “Desist!” He flung the ties away from himself, and Harry clenched his fists hopefully. Sure enough, Dobby had managed to position himself right in the way.
“Master?” Dobby held one of the ties in his fist, and plucked another off his shoulder. The Master glanced down at him, and then did a double take. “...Master is... is giving Dobby clothes?”
The Master stared at Dobby, who was holding the ties like precious gems.
“No. You will not--” the Master said, but Dobby was already sobbing.
“Dobby is sorry, Master! Dobby is thanking you for setting him free but Dobby is sorry for being a bad elf!”
Harry strode over to Dobby, grabbing him by the arm. The look on the Master’s face was hauntingly familiar. Harry remembered that look from when he was very small and he’d been caught in the act stealing food from the fridge at Privet Drive.
“Dobby,” he said. “We need to leave now.”
Dobby paused and glanced up at the Master, catching his expression.
“Dobby is thanking you again,” he said hastily, and disappeared away with Harry at his side.
They reappeared on the edge of the Manor’s wards, and Dobby stood for a moment, staring at the home he would never return to. Harry glanced at him out of the corner of his eye and saw Dobby begin to sniffle again. He remembered with a sharp spike of empathy what it had been like, when he first realized he’d never go back to Privet Drive.
“It hurts less after a while,” Harry said, putting a tentative hand on Dobby’s shoulder. “I promise it does.”
That did it. Dobby burst into noisy tears, still clinging on to his ties.
“What will Dobby be doing now?” Dobby wailed. “Dobby is a free elf now. Dobby is a bad elf!”
“You’re not a bad elf,” Harry said reassuringly. “You’ll find your way, I promise. I’ll help.”
They stood at the edge of the wards until Dobby was able to gather himself and turn his back on the Manor with a resolute expression that made Harry proud.
“Dobby is teaching Harry of the Forest how to apparate at Hogwarts now,” Dobby said with a nod. “Dobby is a free elf--” his voice wavered, but he continued nonetheless. “Dobby is a free elf who keeps his promises.”
Harry patted him on his shoulder and grinned.
Chapter 5: Wherein Harry and Hogwarts Come to an Accord
Snape met him at the front entrance to the castle a couple weeks later, looking extremely disgruntled.
“You are nearly a month late,” he said, wearing a severe expression. Harry took a small step back.
“We lost track of time,” he said. “Dobby and I were practicing... well, elf stuff, and we didn’t realize.”
Snape cast a glance at Dobby, then paused and looked more closely.
“Why are you with the Malfoy house elf?”
“He’s not the Malfoy house elf anymore,” Harry said proudly. “He’s a free elf. I’m giving him tips on how to become a forest elf now that he doesn’t have a house.”
Snape pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed as Harry followed him back inside. “This explains all that post from Lucius,” he mutters.
“Where have you been?” Draco exclaimed, waving his arms about in a manner that Harry felt was perhaps a bit overdramatic. “You promised you’d come back!”
Harry furrowed his brow. “I’m right here,” he pointed out. “I did come back.”
“On time!” Draco glared at him. “You said you’d come back on time.”
“Oh.” Harry thought about this. “Did I? I guess I meant to. Sorry.”
“Sorry?” Draco stormed over to a chair in the Slytherin common room and threw himself into it, crossing his arms. “Sorry! Hmph. Do you know how much... how much effort it takes, being your friend?”
“Quite a bit, I imagine,” Harry offered, standing by the chair and looking down at Draco.
“Quite a...! Yes! Quite a bit! Quite a lot! And it’s very bad for my reputation!”
Harry fidgeted as Draco subsided into a sulky silence. Then he remembered what he’d brought with him and perked up, excited. “Oh! I brought you a present!”
Draco looked up at Harry out of the corner of his eye, still pouting.
“It’s a Quintaped foot,” Harry said, pulling it out of his bag by the bit of leg bone sticking out of the top and offering it to Draco with a smile. “They’re like rabbit feet.”
Draco stared at the severed limb with something akin to horror on his face. “Ugh! Where did you get that?”
“A friend of mine from the forest gave it to me for a favour,” Harry said, looking from Draco’s expression to the foot. He brushed a bit of the dirt and dried blood off the end and smoothed out the fur. “Happy Christmas.”
He held it out again hopefully. Draco stood up and tilted his head to stare at the foot in Harry’s hand, making no move to touch it.
“What do I do with it?” Draco asked, biting his lip and pulling out his wand to prod at it.
“Well,” Harry shrugged. “You keep it. It protects you from danger.”
“I don’t have to carry it around with me, do I?” Draco’s expression had twisted with distaste. Harry’s face fell. The centaur who had given it to him had promised it was a practical, even thoughtful present.
“I guess you don’t have to,” he said. Draco sighed and let his shoulders slump.
“Thank you, Harry,” he said. “It’s really... something.” He prodded it with his wand once more before pulling out a handkerchief and wrapping the quintaped foot in it. “I’ll keep it with me.”
“Great!” Harry grinned at him, and Draco smiled back with a wince.
“I got you a present, too,” Draco said. “It’s in the dormitory, come on. It’s not quite a severed limb, but... I didn’t realise we were that close.”
Draco’s present was a quidditch broom. One of Draco’s old brooms, as a matter of fact.
“I wanted to teach you how to fly,” Draco explained. “Seeing as how you never showed up to that class. And we weren’t going to use one of the awful school brooms.”
“What class?” Harry asked curiously as they jogged out to the Quidditch pitch. It was still snowy and cold out, but Draco had insisted that he wanted to give Harry a basic lesson.
“Exactly,” Draco said. “Anyway, the thing you’ll want to remember about flying is that your broom is the only thing keeping you in the air, so you have to take care of it and treat it well.”
“Okay,” Harry said, and sat patiently through about fifteen minutes of Draco nattering on about grip and feints and broom bristles and trajectory.
“Mount your broom,” Draco ordered eventually. Harry copied Draco’s stance. “And when you want to go up, pull up on the handle-- carefully!”
Harry tugged the handle (carefully!), and felt himself rise up into the air.
“What are you doing?” The snake poked its head out of Harry’s cuff, peering around. “You are a bloody bird, aren’t you? Have you been lying to me all this time?”
“Of course not,” Harry said soothingly as he continued to rise through the air. “It’s just a broom.”
“It is bleeding well not just a broom,” the snake said irately. “It is a bit of wood. It is not even attached to a tree! I don’t like this at all.”
Harry stuck out his lip thoughtfully, and carefully lowered himself back down to where Draco stood, beaming.
“Good job, Harry!” he said. Harry hissed a warning to the snake and dropped him on Draco, who let out a surprised yelp and caught him automatically.
“Hang on to him for a second, will you?” Harry asked. “He doesn’t like flying.”
“Do not bite him,” Harry said to the snake in a severe tone. “Remember, I’m the one that gets you all that extra bird meat.”
The snake hissed back a wordless sound of irritation and coiled into a grumpy pile of snake in Draco’s palms.
“Harry, this is an adder!” Draco called after him, staring down at his hands with a wide, frozen stare. “They’re venomous!”
“He won’t bite you if he knows what’s good for him,” Harry said. “Just don’t annoy him.”
“I dunno. Don’t be annoying.” Harry swooped back into the air and grinned as elation rushed through him. “This is great!”
He raced through the icy air, doing twirls and flips and spirals and anything and everything else he could think of. Flying was better than anything he’d ever experienced before.
When the cold finally began outweighing the excitement, Harry corkscrewed back to where Draco stood with his arms outstretched, the snake still resting in his palms. Harry alighted next to them and landed in a crouch, holding the broom in his hand.
“That was fantastic,” he said, grinning at Draco. Draco turned his body stiffly, offering the snake up to Harry, who took him with cheer.
“I am bloody freezing,” the snake hissed, furious. Harry frowned.
“I’m sorry,” he said, dropping the snake down the front of his tunic. “I thought Draco would keep you warm.”
“He tasted of terror the entire time I was with him,” the snake said in a muffled voice from somewhere near Harry’s sternum. “Terror is not warm.”
“Sorry, Draco,” Harry said. “I didn’t realize you were afraid of snakes.”
Draco sputtered, hands stuffed firmly in his pockets. “I’m not, you git! Just... unexpected snakes flying at me from the sky sometimes catch me off guard, that’s all!”
Shrugging, Harry allowed that this was perhaps a good point.
“Go get me some dead bird,” the snake suggested in a dark voice. “I have had enough of your camaraderie with the beasts for one day.”
“Hungry?” Harry asked Draco, and they set out for the kitchens.
Today Harry had a free period while Draco was in the class with the awful man, so he and Dobby got to work on Harry’s tutelage.
“Harry of the Forest is feeling the the wards,” Dobby said. They were in a tree deep in the forest, at the edge of the Hogwarts grounds according to Dobby. He was standing on a branch at Harry’s knee so that they were at eye level. His long fingered hands traced an invisible shape through the air, and Harry peered at the spot Dobby’s hands indicated. “There is many of them, but Dobby is showing Harry of the Forest the apparition ward. It is feeling like folds of fabric.”
Harry furrowed his brow and concentrated on feeling what Dobby was talking about. “Where should I be focusing?”
Dobby thought for a minute. “Is you feeling anything at all?”
Harry took a deep breath without thinking. “I can taste the edge of the magic here, and the pressure of it.”
“Harry of the Forest is focusing on the pressure,” Dobby instructed, “And feeling the movements of it on his fingers.”
Harry closed his eyes and attempted to do as instructed. “Right, sort of...”
“There is many different wards that is beginning here and feeling strongest here,” Dobby said. “There is the protective ward that is keeping unwelcome beings out of the grounds. It is feeling like many pebbles.”
Harry nodded absently, still trying to distinguish the different types of pressure on his skin.
“Harry of the Forest is putting his hands here,” Dobby said, pulling Harry’s arm slightly. “Here is where the pebbly feelings is strongest.”
Harry wiggled his fingers slowly and tried to feel something that wasn’t the breeze. He thought he could feel something slightly bumpy, now that Dobby had moved his arm, but there was so much there to distinguish.
“I think... I see what you mean,” Harry said slowly.
“You is feeling it,” Dobby chastised. “Not seeing it.”
“Right,” Harry said, realizing suddenly that he had opened his eyes without meaning to. He closed them again and continued trying to feel the wards.
Harry was traipsing down from the Astronomy Tower after class one night, Draco nattering away next to him, when a thought struck him.
“You go ahead,” Harry said, waving Draco on as he stared at the rough stone of the wall from about an inch away. Draco paused uncertainly and watched as Harry peered at the crags in the stone and sniffed a few times.
“Er... what are you doing?”
Harry closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers against the rough surface, frowning in concentration.
Draco continued to watch Harry as he examined the wall thoroughly, until several other students caught up to them on their way down from the Tower.
“Right...” Draco said as Harry rubbed his cheek against harsh stone. “I’ll... see you tomorrow I guess.”
Harry ignored him and continued his study. The stone was rough in some places, smooth in others. He fingered the mortar, cataloguing the sensation of little bits of it breaking off between his fingertips. This was helpful.
Two days later, Harry stood outside one of the greenhouses, his wrists and arms plunged deep into a barrel of mulch as he wiggled his fingers with a singular focus. The gardening professor (Sprout) walked past, carrying a stack of pots. She paused and watched him with a puzzled expression.
“...What exactly is it that you’re doing with that barrel, dear?”
She fixed Harry with a look that said she wasn’t going away until she got an answer. Harry wracked his brain for an acceptable response.
“Last night’s homework?”
Her scepticism was clear, but she shook her head and walked away anyway. Sprout was usually very lenient with Harry, probably in large part because of the enthusiasm and experience with wild magical plants he brought to her class.
Once she left, Harry laid his cheek against the mulch and immediately had to take a break from his research to have a short sneezing fit.
In the Slytherin common room that night, Harry leaned against a green wall hanging with his eyes half closed, fingers trailing over the surface and noting every change in the feel of the weave beneath his fingertips. Draco sat by the fire, reading a book and radiating embarrassment.
Snape appeared from an unmarked doorway with his customary purposeful stride, which slowed and eventually came to a halt next to where Harry stood rubbing his nose back and forth against the fabric.
Harry continued noting the texture and composition of the fibers against his skin, waiting for the usual questions without an ounce of contrition.
After a long, silent moment, Snape turned around and walked back through the doorway he’d come in by.
One of the older Slytherins in the room snickered, and Draco made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a groan. Harry ignored them all and decided to see what the fabric would feel like on his toes.
Harry and Dobby were back at the boundary of the grounds during Harry’s free period. Learning to feel the wards had been more of a challenge than he’d anticipated. He had been practising for the past several weeks, and despite all his extracurricular tactile research, his abilities were improving much more slowly than he would have liked. Dobby seemed pleased enough, though.
“You is finding the edge now, if you please.”
“The edge of the... the pebbly one?” Harry asked, eyes firmly closed. Dobby answered in the affirmative, and Harry trailed his fingers through the air with care, trying to find where the magic stopped feeling like shifting, polished stone. He reached to the right, then felt himself instinctively moving his left hand widdershins. “It’s -- there?”
“Harry of the Forest is correct!” Dobby exclaimed, thrilled. “Harry of the Forest is a skilled elf!”
Harry opened his eyes and grinned at Dobby. “You’re a great teacher.”
“Harry of the Forest is kind and generous,” Dobby said. “Now Harry of the Forest is finding the other edge of the pebbly ward.”
Harry laughed and submerged his hand in the ward again. It was thick, and he found that he had to follow it along the branch for about a foot and half before he reached a more smooth texture.
“Is that it?” Harry asked, tracing what felt like the end with his palm.
“Yes!” Dobby said. “The ward is feeling like pebbles because Harry of the Forest is welcome at Hogwarts. If Harry of the Forest was not allowed, it would feel like angry stone.”
Harry nodded. “Now what about the other ward?” he asked. “The one that will let me disappear?”
“You is feeling for curtains,” Dobby explained. Harry nodded and felt around dutifully. “It is feeling like fabric shifting.”
Harry moved his hands through the air, imitating Dobby, but he found only more pebbles and maybe something slightly prickly. Dobby grabbed his hands and moved them to a different spot in the air, and Harry wrinkled his nose and traced invisible edges.
“I... think...” he closed his eyes and focused, thinking in the back of his mind that he needed to be careful not to focus so much that he fell out of the tree. “Is it there?”
“That is being a different ward for the portraits,” Dobby said. “You is wanting the wider one for elves.”
“How does it work?” Harry asked as he rummaged around in the air.
“The wards is blocking the spaces between where it is possible to be travelling with magic,” Dobby explained. “Elves is getting around it by using the curtains. Wizards is not being able to use the curtains because they is not understanding how to part them. The wizard magic is using wands. They is not knowing how to feel the magic like elves can with their hands. They is only seeing and hearing it.”
Harry nodded and focused as hard as he could on the tactile stimulation from his hands, eyes shut tight. “I think...” He reached out and grasped something between his fingers. It felt thin and pliable; textured. “I think... is that it?”
“You is holding the curtain, Harry of the Forest!” Dobby said, his voice going up a pitch. “Very good! Now you is finding the parting and opening it.”
Harry let the magic trail between his fingers until he found an edge, and pulled it aside.
It was as though a weight he had almost stopped noticing had lifted from his entire body. He felt light and mobile again.
“Dobby!” Harry shouted, too surprised and excited to stop himself. “It worked!”
He popped out of the tree, to the furthest reaches of his ability. He took himself to the edge of the forest. The shape of the castle loomed between the trees, and Harry beamed at it.
Dobby popped up next to him, his face bright with pride. “Harry of the Forest is apparating like a Hogwarts elf!” he said. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks, Dobby!” Harry said, delighted. “Let’s go practice a bit, shall we?”
After another couple minutes to pause to find the curtain again (which wasn’t nearly as obvious, here away from the edge of the wards), Harry disappeared up to the castle steps, skipping the tiresome trudge through the snow that he had had to endure to get to and from the forest since the winter began.
Suddenly, he liked Hogwarts a whole lot better.
Harry cheerfully kept the knowledge of his new mobility to himself for a whıle. Secret of the Elves, after all.
The only thing that changed, as a matter of fact, was that he visited the forest a lot more often, though he still slept in the greenhouses as it was still quite cold. Spring came later this far north. There was a nice patch of dittany he usually kipped in, since it was far enough from the bobotubers to give him peace of mind but not too far from the window with the broken latch in case he needed to make a clean escape.
Harry usually fell asleep around sunset and woke up in the late hours of the night. He’d spend a few hours exploring and then sleep until about an hour after sunrise, at which point he’d meet Draco in the Hall for breakfast. It was a good system, and it kept him entertained and aware of the comings and goings of the more nocturnal of the forest creatures.
On a side note, it also allowed him to keep an eye on the sort of dodgy wizards that were up and about in the dead of night, wandering through his forest.
Like tonight, for example. The turbaned professor was out roaming in the dark again. Harry felt sick as he contemplated what had happened the last time this man had been allowed free reign of the forest.
Harry loved unicorns. It was an unspoken rule that you didn’t harm unicorns. They were the darlings of the collective forest, no matter where you were. Their predators were either nonsentient or the darkest sort, and unwelcome as far as most magical creatures were concerned.
Harry disappeared silently after the cloaked figure, holding his breath. Harry couldn’t understand how no one else was as distrusting of this professor as he was. His taste was positively vile. As he went, Harry left distress marks on the trees and bushes, hoping a stray centaur might stumble across one and provide some assistance. Their bows were usually a pretty good deterrent, Harry had discovered. He was thinking of asking to learn how to use one.
Harry saw the glint of white up ahead seconds before the arrow sliced the air inches from his ear and embedded itself in a tree, less than a foot from the cloaked figure. The unicorn disappeared into the trees, and the cloaked figure hissed something angry as he fled as well.
“Fuck,” Harry said as Bane approached. “That was close.”
“You spend time with the wizards,” Bane said, scowling. “It is your duty to keep their rubbish out of our forest, if you want to continue enjoying our hospitality.”
Harry bowed his head. Bane was right. He could, and rightly should, be doing something more about this.
Securing a meeting with the headmaster was as easy as swindling a group of third year boys out of their pocket money and trainers.
“Gambling on Hogwarts grounds is strictly prohibited,” the bearded man said sternly. “You will return those boys’ shoes and galleons.”
Harry glared despite himself and reached into his bag, pulling out all four pairs of trainers and plopping them on the desk. “I want it known for the record that I won those fair and square,” he muttered, adding a small bag of coins to the pile.
“And Harry,” the headmaster began. Harry winced, but allowed the slight in favour of his larger goal. “Using your dormitory is not optional. Nor is attending your assigned detentions. Or all of your classes, for that matter. You must go to Professor Quirrell’s class, or there will be consequences.”
Harry leaned forward. “I won’t,” he said firmly. “He’s an awful man, and I won’t learn how to defend myself from someone who’s hiding something under his turban that tastes like the bottom of a pile of dung. I’d rather leave Hogwarts than go to his classes. Any school that would hire a unicorn killer is not a school I want to attend.”
Harry raised his eyebrows, wondering how the headmaster would defend his decision to keep the professor. He had no illusions about the efficacy of this part, but it was only polite to give the headmaster a fair warning. He had hired the awful man with the turban, after all.
The headmaster sat back in his chair, and his body language seemed to express astonishment. Harry did not look directly at him, as the headmaster still insisted on combatively attempting to meet Harry’s eyes whenever he did. He didn’t need to see the headmaster’s face, though. He could taste the surprise filtering through his magic.
“That is a very serious accusation, Mr. Potter,” the headmaster said, folding his hands on the table and leaning forward slightly. “I can assure you that Professor Quirrell is a distinguished member of the staff, and that he has respect for the creatures of the forest. He would never do such a thing.”
Harry could feel the scepticism etched deeply into his own face; there was no way the headmaster could miss it.
“I know it’s him,” Harry said. “It was the same foul smell on the person in the forest as when he’s in the castle and he’s only covering up his evil hair, or whatever it is he’s hiding.”
The headmaster had no good response for that, though not for lack of trying, as Harry spent the next ten minutes discovering.
No one believed him about the awful man with the turban. Harry shouldn’t have been too surprised. Wizards were probably more likely to trust other wizards than some elf they barely knew, no matter what the headmaster might say about tolerance and compromise.
All it meant was that Harry would have to get rid of the awful man himself, and the first step was figuring out what was under that turban.
Harry knew he had to plan carefully. He didn’t want to get himself trapped somewhere alone with a unicorn killer, and a public shaming would probably be more effective in forcing the awful man with the turban to truly leave the forest alone. He did have all the wizards convinced he was an upstanding citizen, after all. It was time Harry revealed the truth.
The weekend was a time that Harry usually spent in the forest or wandering around the nearby town, so he knew striking then would give him the element of surprise, which he would need if his plan was to have any chance of success.
It was midday on a Saturday when Harry made his move. A large group of the professors were seated for lunch, though there weren’t many students at any of the other four tables. Harry peered through the stained glass at them all with intent. He was perched on a windowsill high above the tables in the Hall, thinking about strategy.
“Do what you did for Dobby,” the snake suggested. “Don’t think too hard, just do it.”
Harry chewed on this advice as he watched the awful man with the turban cut into a bit of steak.
“Right,” he said, taking a deep breath.
He disappeared into the Hall, directly behind the awful man’s chair. Before anyone could react, Harry grabbed hold of the turban and pulled.
“Hey!” The awful man yelped and ducked his head, grabbing at the cloth to try to keep it on as he moved. Harry’s head exploded with pain, but having expected this, he only narrowed his eyes and tried to give the man boils and set him on fire at the same time.
The result was interesting in that it gave the awful man boils that were on fire.
The other professors were beginning to recover their wits. Harry’s Transfigurations professor stood so quickly she knocked her chair over. “Mr. Potter, cease and desist immediately!”
Admiring his handiwork, Harry ignored the reactions of both the professor’s table and the rest of the Hall (mostly just shouting, anyway) as he continued to grapple with the awful man. He had nearly gotten the turban all the way off when the awful man finally managed to free one of his own hands and grabbed Harry’s wrist with it.
Harry felt a growl starting in his throat as his headache spiked, but before he could so much as blink the awful man was pulling away again with a shout, staring in horror as huge blisters blossomed where he had touched Harry.
Fascinated, Harry prodded at the awful man’s other hand as he cradled his own wrist. He howled as more blisters sprang up where Harry touched.
This was a previously undiscovered skill! How anyone of these wizards still had doubts about his elvish nature was beyond him.
Harry wasted no time on his delight. Instead he used the distraction to finally take a firm hold on the turban, just in time for his world to capsize as he flew into the air. He quickly found himself dangling upside down and still holding the turban, which was officially no longer in the awful man’s possession.
Evil hair didn’t quite describe the horror that was another face sticking out of the back of the de-turbaned man’s head. Harry stared and nearly dropped his prize as the professor attempted to hide his extra face, which was snarling as the front end of the head stared wide eyed at the collection of wands that were suddenly pointed at him.
Still upside-down in midair, Harry recovered quickly, smirking and crossing his arms in a gesture of smug victory while the students still in the Hall screamed as they caught sight of what had been hiding under that turban.
Snape flicked his wand and sent Harry flying away to a spot in the air further away from the action. Harry was high up enough that he could see the bearded man and several other professors, Snape and the Transfigurations teacher included, cornering the awful man who no longer had a turban and incapacitating him.
Something rushed past Harry’s head that tasted strongly and foully of anger and rancid magic. Harry only just managed to keep the nausea and dizziness from ruining what had otherwise been a perfectly good morning.
He hoped someone would let him down soon. He wanted to say ‘I told you so’, and he wouldn’t be able to rub it in as effectively if he passed out first.
“We finally got a substitute,” Draco said one morning, about a week later. “You know, to replace Professor Quirrell.”
“Who?” Harry asked, balancing a bit of kipper on his shoulder for the snake.
“The professor with the turban who you attacked during lunch who turned out to be evil?” Draco looked more annoyed than impressed, which Harry thought was just like him. He hadn’t been impressed by the fairy circles when they were eight, either, and Harry had worked hard on those. “You know, the one whose class you never go to? Though you might consider it now, right?”
Harry shrugged. He’d give it a whirl.
The new professor tasted just fine. Even so, Harry sat down for his first Defense lesson, narrow eyed and jumpy. His disappearing-on-the-grounds ability was no longer a secret, not since the turbaned professor left, and Harry didn’t like that people knew. He’d been confronted about it by the bearded man, and explained (once again) that he was an elf, and that elves could do some things wizards couldn’t. They had rehashed this conversation repeatedly since Harry arrived at Hogwarts, for various reasons. Wizards just didn’t listen.
“Her name is Professor Grubbly-Plank,” Draco whispered as they set their bags down. Harry wrinkled his nose and stared around the classroom. His face cleared suddenly.
“That’s nice for her,” he said. “Listen: there’s a cage full of dead kappa in that corner.”
“Yeah, that’s been there,” Draco said, frowning.
“I want one,” Harry said. “Those things are bloody useful. I want you to distract the professor after class and I’ll just nip over and grab a few.”
Draco hemmed and hawed and protested, but at the end of class despite his many and varied objections, he sidled up to the professor.
“Professor Grubbly-Plank, I didn’t catch how many feet you wanted our essays to be...”
Draco was a good friend, Harry thought as he checked to make sure neither of them were looking his way and disappeared from the classroom. He thought he might give Draco one of the kappas, in thanks.
The weather was warming up rapidly, and soon Harry found that he was comfortable sleeping in the forest again. The cloaked figure had not returned since that day in the Hall, and Harry felt secure that the awful man with the turban wasn’t coming back.
He was glad his initial plan had worked. He hadn’t been looking forward to instigating Plan B, as it would have taken ages to get the blood out of his tunic. That stuff stained if you weren’t careful.
One morning, Draco mentioned that the summer holidays were nearly upon them. Harry perked up at the word ‘holiday’ and pressed for more information.
“They just keep getting longer and longer!” Harry said, delighted. “Eventually, they just won’t ask us to come back at all, right?”
“...When we’re seventeen, yes,” Draco said uncertainly. “That’s not for another six years, Harry. Promise you’ll come back after two months. On the first of September, with everyone else.”
Harry shrugged. “Sure. Two months is like, eighty days, right?”
“Sixty-- no, fifty days,” Draco said, his eyes darting around evasively. “Six weeks, really. Not very long at all.”
“Sure, sure,” Harry said. “Two full moons, right? I’ll see you then.”
“No!” Draco said, grabbing on to Harry’s wrist when Harry made to stand up from where they’d been sitting under a tree. “You can’t actually leave for holiday until it starts. That’s not for another three weeks. We’ve still got exams.”
“Exams?” Harry wrinkled his nose. “Explain.”
“The professors have been talking about-- oh never mind,” Draco said. “Exams are when you answer a bunch of questions to prove you’ve been paying attention all year, and that you learned something. They’re important, Harry, and you can’t just leave before they start.”
Harry considered pointing out that he almost certainly could, or demonstrating that fact by disappearing despite Draco’s objections. But Draco was a good friend, and Harry felt the first stirrings of guilt in his stomach when he remembered the last time he’d abandoned Draco. “Fine,” he said. “Three more weeks.”
Exams were a hassle. Harry had been practicing his writing, but he still wasn’t perfect at it, and he still preferred to use the dictation quill. Unfortunately, none of his professors wanted him talking out loud during the exams, so Harry was forced to painstakingly form each individual letter of each individual word, one by one, onto the paper. He would get halfway through his answer and get so caught up in which way the ‘d’ went that he’d forget where he was going with the sentence and have to start over.
Finally, one of the other Slytherin boys said, “I’m so glad exams are over,” and Draco’s eyes went wide.
“You said we had one more tomorrow!” Harry accused.
“I did say that,” Draco said. “Because, er...”
“Liar,” Harry said. “Anyway, we’re done now, right? I can go?”
“Well, no,” Draco said. “We’ve still got a couple days of term left. That’s why I didn’t tell you we were done with exams.” He glared at the other boy, who shrugged.
Harry sighed. “What do I have left to do?”
"Just stay until the train comes to get us," Draco said. "We still have class and all."
"But I'm not going on the train," Harry said. "Why should I wait for it?"
"Well," Draco's exasperated face made an appearance. "Just because. It's time for relaxing after exams."
"But why would I do that here?" Harry was beginning to suspect that this was just like that 'one last exam' thing all over again.
"Because now you can spend time with your friends without the stress of school work!"
Harry was confused. "I don't have friends. Outside of you, I guess," he said thoughtfully. "But I already spend plenty of time with you."
Draco, who had seemed quite chuffed at Harry's calling him his only friend, now stopped looking quite so happy. Having noticed and realized that this conversation was going nowhere good, Harry heaved out a large sigh.
"Fine, I'll stay awhile," he said in his best aggrieved tones. "But only a couple more days."
It wasn't really fair of Harry to say that Draco was his only friend. He got along very cordially with almost all of the portraits, the ghosts liked him well enough, and he had a mutually beneficial partnership going with Peeves. The red twins were useful in that they frequently showed Harry secret passages he hadn't yet discovered in exchange for his help on a prank, and he would have that fascinating Map off of them if it was the last thing he did. He had also discovered the merpeople in the lake, and a couple of them had taken an interest in him. He was learning Mermish.
Harry didn’t see any reason to spend his last few days at Hogwarts inside, but had agreed to stay nearby in his promise to Draco. As he was such a good compromiser, Harry spent a few hours the next day climbing vines on the outer walls of the castle, peering in windows, and generally being a nuisance to the birds and creatures that lived there.
Halfway up a tower on the west side of the castle, Harry poked his head in a large window and discovered a library.
“Where did this come from?” he asked the snake, who was okay with being up high as long as they were holding on to something. The snake flickered his tongue out and responded with equal curiosity.
“Let’s go in and find out,” he hissed. Harry agreed wholeheartedly, and boosted himself in through the window. The room was empty of people, spacious and decorated predominantly in shades of blue. It was airy and lovely and instantly ranked second or third on the list of Harry’s favourite rooms in the castle, in no small part because of how enormous the windows were.
There were couches and small tables dotted about the place, and a large fireplace took up half of one wall. Harry explored and found a couple staircases that led up to rooms filled with the kind of furniture that had been in the Slytherin dormitory. Beds and things.
“Must be one of the other common rooms,” the snake hissed, having come to the same conclusion as Harry.
“We didn’t even have to find out the password for this one!” Harry smiled to himself and began to poke around under the beds and in the wardrobes. Most of the wardrobes were nearly empty, and Harry remembered that everyone was leaving soon.
When he reached the common room again, Harry found it a bit more occupied than it had been when he’d arrived.
“You!” It was a fifth year. Harry blinked at him.
“Me!” he responded, agreeably. “How can I help you?”
“You aren’t supposed to be in here!”
“You lot haven’t done a very good job of keeping me out, have you?”
The boy pointed at another door and glared. “Get out!” When Harry didn’t react, he drew himself up and pointed at his chest. “I’ll tell Professor Snape that you were here. I’m a prefect, you know.”
“Okay, okay,” Harry said, holding his hands up in a gesture of placation. There was no need to go throwing around words like ‘Professor Snape’ at innocent people. “Let me just take a look at these books before I go, then.”
“Mr. Potter, you cannot go into other Houses’ common rooms,” Snape said in a weary voice. It was some time later. Harry had been coerced into the dungeons by threat of force on the part of the fifth year, and was feeling surly about it. Apparently this one was wise to his ‘set everything and its boils on fire’ defense. He’d have to come up with some new tricks.
“If I wasn’t supposed to be there, I bloody well wouldn’t have gotten in,” Harry disagreed. “I haven’t been in the Hufflepuff common room yet. And why do you think that is?” He leaned forward and pounded a fist on the table for emphasis. “Because they dropped a bucket of vinegar on me every time I tried, that’s why. I wandered into the Ravenclaw common room by accident! That is a shameful amount of security.”
“You can’t ‘wander into’ our common room by accident!” This from the outraged fifth year. “You have to answer a riddle!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry said, crossing his arms. “I wasn’t even looking for it. I certainly didn’t answer a riddle. I mean, the window was wide open.”
Snape was pinching the bridge of his nose. The poor man always seemed to have a headache. Harry could sympathise, though his had been caused by that awful professor and he’d only had to get rid of the man to get some relief. It would probably be more difficult to get rid of Snape’s headache problem.
“Mr. Potter, you are not to climb the outer walls,” he said. “It is dangerous, and against the rules.”
Harry frowned. “No one ever said it was.”
“It used to go without saying,” Snape said, and spared a moment from his headache to glare at the two of them. “Hillard, you are dismissed.”
After the prefect left, Snape spoke. “Professor Dumbledore and I have found a place for you to stay during the summer months. You will be--”
“What?” Harry said.
“You will be staying in--”
“No,” Harry said. “I’ll be on holiday with everyone else. That means I go home like everyone else.”
Professor Snape’s glare was darker than ever. Harry shivered a bit. “And where is ‘home’, Mr. Potter?”
“I’ll probably go to Cornwall this year,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I was talking to one of the merpeople last month, and she said she’d probably be down in the Bristol Channel for part of the summer.” She had actually said the North Sea, and Harry intended to meet her in Norfolk, but Harry didn’t trust Snape not to try and tag along.
“You will not go to Cornwall,” Snape said. “You will be staying in Yorkshire with a friend of your family until the autumn. There’s even a forest nearby for your enjoyment. Mr. Potter, you cannot go off on your own in the future. You are an eleven year old boy living in the wizarding world; you must act like it.”
Snape’s tone was implacable, his expression unyielding.
“Fine,” Harry said, slumping in his chair and crossing his arms. “Be that way.”
“Yorkshire?” Draco asked as he finished packing his trunk and latched it. “Really? Can I write to you?”
“I suppose so,” Harry said, before a thought occurred to him. “Do I have to write back?”
“Yes.” Draco glared at Harry until he nodded his assent. “And make sure you come back in September, okay? At the beginning of September.”
“Right,” Harry said. The two of them walked up the stairs together and joined the crowd heading for the train. When they reached the platform, Harry turned to Draco and said, “Enjoy Wiltshire.”
Draco looked at him again, suddenly anxious.
“Promise me you’ll come back,” he said.
“I did that already,” Harry sighed. Draco bit his lip and stared at him.
“I know, but do it again, and really mean it this time.”
Harry stared at Draco for a minute, frowning. His face cleared as an idea came to him, and he lifted his hand in a complicated motion that caused a ring of fire to burst into life around his palm. “I promise I’ll come back in September,” he said. Draco examined his palm and seemed satisfied by what he found.
“Good.” Draco jumped on the train and turned around to wait for Harry, but Harry had other plans.
“See you in September!” he called as he jumped off the train platform into a grassy field. Draco shouted something after him, but Harry had already vanished into the forest.
He hadn’t promised Snape anything.
Chapter 6: Wherein Harry Settles In
Harry had never quite gotten the hang of not hoarding food even when he had more than enough, so a pocket of his bag that had been covered in preserving charms at some point that year was filled with bread and chicken and jugs of juice from the Hogwarts kitchens. He and Dobby and the snake snacked from time to time, when Harry didn't feel like hunting for something.
They headed south, as there wasn't really anywhere else to go from Hogwarts. He hadn't been lying about his invitation, but he didn't intend to look for the merpeople for a while yet. He and Dobby spent about a week fooling around in the midlands and enjoying the right to sleep and eat and bathe whenever they wanted. It was something Harry was still working on teaching Dobby, so they needed all the practice they could get.
Dobby had disappeared for the day to explore the area. Harry was crouching on the branch of a tree that extended out over a nice big pond, preparing to dive in and perhaps catch a few fish in a net he'd had in his bag for a while and hadn't used, when a sound like a throat clearing caught his attention.
Harry glanced over at the shore and nearly fell out of his tree. Snape was standing at the edge of the pond next to another man, holding Harry's bag and tunic and watching him with a raised eyebrow.
This was exactly why Harry almost never let his few possessions out of his sight.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, wrinkling his nose. Fortunately the snake was in the tree with him, or Harry might have been genuinely alarmed.
"The more pertinent question, I think, is why you thought you could just disappear after agreeing to go to Yorkshire."
"I only agreed that you thought I should," Harry said in what he knew was a petulant tone, though he didn't care. "I didn't actually want to."
"One part of living among other people," Snape said, stepping carefully toward Harry's tree, "Is that you often must balance your own desires against the needs of those around you."
"That sounds like a whole lot of bother for no good reason," Harry pointed out. "And anyway, I promised Draco I'd come back in September. So there."
"At the beginning of September?" When Harry didn't answer, Snape nodded once. "I see."
Harry wrinkled his nose and changed the subject. "Who's that?"
Snape stepped to one side and glanced at the man who had been standing in silence behind him, watching Harry curiously.
"My name is Remus Lupin," the man said. "I was close friends with your father when we were in school. I knew you when you were a baby."
Harry frowned and tipped his head on one side to regard this 'Remus Lupin'. Why the wizards thought knowing him before he could remember them was relevant, Harry wasn't sure. But then...
"You're not human," Harry said, breathing in to taste the magic that emanated from the new person. The man's eyes widened. He stared as Harry crept along his branch toward the two men on shore, trying to place the taste of his magic.
He stopped abruptly when he finally figured it out. He tasted like the creatures Harry stayed in the trees to avoid on the nights of the full moon.
"You're a werewolf!" Harry said, shocked despite himself. The man was taken aback.
"H-how did you know that?" he asked, staring suspiciously at Snape. Snape shrugged and let his lip curl a bit, which meant he was laughing at you instead of with you. Harry could see the humor, though, which meant he was probably laughing at the werewolf.
"It's obvious," Harry pointed out, cheered. "It's all over your magic. Anyway, are you the one I'm supposed to be staying with?"
The werewolf (Remus Lupin) nodded, though he looked regretful. "I understand if you're not comfortable-"
"Nonsense," Snape said smoothly, hefting Harry's possessions again. "Mr. Potter. Your tunic and bag are going to Yorkshire. Will you be accompanying them?"
"Severus, I hardly think he should be forced-"
"Lupin, allow me to deal with my students as I see fit," Snape said in a tone that brooked no argument. He lifted an eyebrow at Harry and waited. "Mr. Potter?"
Harry considered the question seriously. He could find other clothing and a new bag, though a lot of the things in that bag were very useful and highly valuable, if the proper interested parties were discovered. Some of the objects in his bag were irreplaceable.
That was fine, though. Harry could easily start over. The notion was appealing, in a way. It'd be like a practical demonstration for Dobby, and he probably should take the time to clean the bag out, anyway. He'd been lax about it over the past year.
Harry shrugged. "Want to go to Yorkshire?" he asked the snake.
"What's in Yorkshire?"
"I dunno," Harry said. "A werewolf, I guess. Snape wants us to go there, though."
"That seems like a good reason not to go," the snake said ponderously, "Unless there will be dead bird to eat?"
"There will always be dead bird to eat," Harry said with a faint smile. "You should base your decisions on something less plentiful."
There was a pause while the snake thought. "Will there be dead lamb?"
"Lamb?" Harry translated, looking to Lupin for an answer. To his credit, Lupin didn't even blink.
"If you like, yes."
Harry related this bit of good news back to the snake, then asked his own question.
"What would I do there?"
"As I said before the end of term, there is a forest there, and this old werewolf friend of your father's." Snape sneered a bit and gestured at Lupin. "You may do as you wish with both of them."
Harry eyed the werewolf calculatingly. "Does your forest have very tall trees?" he asked.
"I- er." Lupin blinked. "Yes?"
Harry stared at him. "You don't sound especially sure of that." It was a very important question, after all.
"Yes," Lupin said, firming up his tone a bit. "The trees are quite tall." Harry relaxed.
"Good. I guess we'll go, then."
Snape provided Harry with a small pendant which he called a 'portkey', and explained that it would take Harry to where they were going without his having to disappear along with anyone else. Harry approved of the concept, though he didn't like the actual experience of the thing. Wizard travel was unpleasant as a general rule, as Harry and the snake had discovered.
"I've warded off a small section of the forest, for my change," Lupin explained upon their arrival in Yorkshire. "My wolf form can't leave it on the full moon. You'll be staying inside on those nights, of course."
Harry blanched. "No, I won't. I'll be in the forest, where it's safe."
Lupin paused. "I don't think you heard me," he said. "I'll be in the forest. You should be in the cottage. You'll be safe there."
"In the 'cottage'?" Harry glanced at the rather ramshackle building that Lupin persisted in calling a cottage. It looked like it was made of straw and wood, for the most part. It could have been built by Harry himself, given enough time and materials. "I've read this story, thanks," Harry said, shaking his head. "You can't huff and puff and blow down a tree. I'll be fine in the forest."
"I assure you the cottage is well warded," Lupin insisted, though a confused frown marred his features. "Come inside and take a look."
Inside, the cottage was much larger than it first seemed. Harry granted that he might not have been able to pull that off, at this point. He thought the wizards might understand that once they taught him the secret of 'bigger on the inside', he'd have no reason to come back to Hogwarts.
"This is your room," Lupin said, opening a door into a smallish room with a distinctly nature-oriented motif. "Professor Dumbledore suggested the windows," he added, gesturing to the floor to ceiling glass that lined one side of the room. Harry approved, especially when he realized one of them was a door to the outside.
"I have a bed here, too?" Harry asked, peering at the thing. It was smaller than the bed Draco had shown him in the Slytherin dormitories, but the same basic concept remained.
"Of course you do," Lupin said. "I have one as well."
Harry frowned. He had been wondering about that, actually. "Don't tell me you went to Hogwarts, too," he said.
Lupin nodded. "Like I said, I was friends with your father at school."
"Then what I want to know," Harry demanded, "Is why it's called a wizard's school, if everyone and their vampire uncle goes there? Why not just call it a school of magic?"
"I am still a wizard, Harry," Lupin explained. "I'm just also a werewolf. I was bitten when I was very young. In much the same way, you may be an elf, but you're also a wizard. That's why you're welcome at Hogwarts."
"Also a wizard?" Harry considered this, peering around his room with narrow eyes. "I don't know."
"Consider giving it a try," Lupin said with a gentle smile. He never tried to make combative eye contact. Harry kind of liked him.
"I'll think about it," he grumbled.
Lupin turned out to be a wonderful summer companion, in that he didn't expect Harry to check in any more than once or twice a week and knew all the best places to find game in the forest. Once he and Dobby tracked each other down again, Harry continued on with his summer essentially as he'd already planned it, only in a large radius around Yorkshire instead of wandering wherever struck his fancy.
A new problem that arose when Harry got in the habit of visiting Lupin's cottage frequently was that he kept catching Dobby in the act of scrubbing the floors or windows, and having to drag him away.
"Is this your doing?" he asked Lupin suspiciously, after a search for Dobby ended in the kitchen, where he was folding towels and making conversation with Lupin over tea.
"I came in for breakfast and found him chasing spiders in the pantry," Lupin admitted. "And then he made me eggs and kippers. I didn't know how to say no."
"You just said it, though," Harry pointed out, annoyed. "It goes like this: 'No.' It's quite simple." Lupin looked down at his mug with what Harry hoped was shame. Dobby finished the tea towels and sat down at the table at Lupin's gestured invitation to watch him be berated by Harry. It was only a small redemption for Lupin that Dobby already had his own cup of tea.
"Dobby is recovering, okay," Harry explained. "He's very sensitive right now, and I'll not have you taking advantage." He shook his head with disgust. "Eggs and kippers."
"Dobby is sorry for making breakfast for the werewolf, Harry Potter," Dobby said anxiously. Harry turned his attention to Dobby and tried to be reassuring.
"You don't have to apologise, Dobby. It's a bad habit, that's all. We'll rid you of it," he promised. He glared at Lupin, whose expression could not more obviously telegraph 'I hope he finishes cleaning my house first.'
"You have to stop enabling him," Harry told Lupin sternly. "It's not kind."
Lupin took a fortifying sip of his tea and sat up in his chair. "I do apologise, Dobby," he said, glancing at Harry, who nodded. "I promise to be a better friend in the future."
Dobby beamed at the mention of 'friends' and teared up a little. Harry scowled at Lupin. If Dobby ended up trying to clean the werewolf's lavatory, serious words would be had.
Lupin was a decent bloke, once he'd had the Dobby situation thoroughly explained to him. When he wasn't in his wolf form or recovering from his 'time of month', as he said with a touch of humor that Harry didn't really understand, the three of them would sometimes roam the forest together. Lupin remembered bits of his time as a wolf, and was able to give Harry almost as detailed a tour of the forest as he had of the cottage.
As they walked down a deer trail or made detours through the air to avoid deep thistle patches, Lupin frequently regaled Harry and Dobby with stories of Harry's father and mother when they were at Hogwarts with him.
"Your mother was very intelligent, and possessed of more common sense than most witches and wizards," Lupin revealed one day as Harry sat on a low branch and demonstrated for Dobby how to weave rope out of bryony vine. "Which is why it took so long for your father to convince her to give him the time of day. Halloween of sixth year, for example, did not go well for James..."
Harry smiled in spite of himself. He found that he liked hearing about his parents. That explained, perhaps, why the wizards he met felt the need to mention that they had known him when he was young.
Lupin also reminded Harry of his summer work, and suggested that they work on it together out in the garden one afternoon after Harry popped in to prove he was still alive and in the area. Dobby was out running an errand for Harry, as he could disappear longer distances more quickly and his boons needed practice.
"Alright," Harry said, and glanced at his bag dubiously. His homework was all in there somewhere.
He sat down in the grass next to Lupin and leaned against the wall of the cottage, sorting through the items in his bag.
"Do you have your trunk in there?" Lupin asked, peering over his shoulder with curiousity.
Harry pulled the trunk out and thumped it down in the grass next to them. "Doesn't have my assignments in it, though," he said. "Just stuff. You know."
Lupin watched as Harry slowly emptied his bag in pursuit of his books, pulling out object after object in his search.
"The things I need are always at the bottom," Harry grumbled as he reached in down to his shoulder to remove a mace that was blocking access to one of the pockets.
"Where did you get that?"
"One of the knights gave it to me," Harry lied, pulling out a frying pan and tossing it next to the mace.
"I shouldn't have thought you would even be able to lift it."
Harry glanced up. "Magic?" he pointed out, cocking an eyebrow at the werewolf who at least had the decency to look abashed.
"Oh, here they are," Harry said, pulling on a rope that was long enough to wrap once or twice around each of his school books and Flitwick's folder. He kept pulling until he reached the end where his Astronomy text dangled, nearly ready to fall out of its ties. "I'd forgotten I did that."
"Defense first, I think," Lupin said, and Harry shrugged, detaching the appropriate book and settling down to read.
It was halfway between the two full moons of the summer when Harry decided it was time to go visit his mermaid friend (Nerin) in the North Sea. Before he left Hogwarts, she'd taught him a few basic phrases in Mermish, enough to find her when he arrived. He'd been studying ever since with a book he picked up for a couple hippogriff primary feathers from the shopkeeper at Scrivenshaft's in Hogsmeade. He needed actual practice speaking what he'd learned, so he was looking forward to their meeting.
Early in the morning on the day of his intended departure, Harry went back to the cottage where Lupin lived. He'd been near Lancaster for a few days, but he needed to pick up a few things before he set off for Norfolk. He and Dobby were parting ways for the length of his visit, as Dobby couldn't easily follow where Harry was going without a lot more preparation. He'd already made Dobby promise not to clean anything at Lupin's cottage while he was gone.
Lupin found him rooting around in the garden shed that leaned precariously against one side of the cottage.
"Looking for something?" He sipped his tea and watched with some interest as Harry dragged a wheelbarrow up against the wall and climbed into it for better access to a tall shelf.
"Yes," Harry said. He turned around so that he was facing Lupin and gestured to the shed at large. "This is a garden shed. Why don't you have any gardening tools?"
Lupin frowned at the dust and shadows that filled the small space. "I'm sure there must be a few. What do you need them for?"
"A friend," Harry shrugged. "I was going to ask if you'd be interested in a trade. I hear the price has gone up on aconite recently, and I found a nice patch of it down south a few weeks ago."
After a short pause in which Lupin only blinked at him, Harry frowned at him. "You can use it in a potion that'll help with your werewolf transformation," he explained. "Though I hear it tastes awful."
"Yes, Wolfsbane," Lupin said, nodding and looking suddenly very serious. "You said you have a lot of aconite?"
"A fair bit, yeah," Harry said. "I need waterproof gardening tools. They can't rust."
Lupin swallowed the rest of his tea in one gulp and set the cup on Harry's shelf. Harry climbed out of the wheelbarrow and watched as the werewolf got to searching the shed properly.
Not half an hour later, Lupin proudly presented him with a spade and a pair of shears which he'd cleaned up and spelled.
"Entirely rustproof," he assured Harry, who examined the state of the tools carefully.
"Hmm," Harry said, testing the strength of the spade and finding it acceptable. "Throw in that scythe I saw earlier and I'll make it an even half kilo."
"Done," Lupin said, and left to find and fix up the scythe.
"Brilliant," Harry said when they made the exchange. Lupin examined the jar full of aconite and looked somewhat conflicted.
"This... is quite a lot for a few gardening tools," he pointed out. "The trade somehow doesn't seem even."
"That's true, isn't it?" Harry agreed, and slung his bag over his shoulder. "You get the family friend discount, that's all." Harry grinned at the werewolf's expression and straightened up to leave. "I'll be back in a few weeks, then. Keep it to yourself, would you? I don't want Snape tagging along this time. And be nice to Dobby!"
Harry disappeared before the surprise on Lupin's face could become an actual, verbalised objection.
It had taken Harry most of a month and a half to procure enough gillyweed for his visit with Nerin, but he considered it well worth it. He buried his bag and tunic under an oak tree near the water, and said goodbye to the snake there as well.
"Are you a fish or a bird or an elf?" the snake grumbled as he allowed himself to be draped over a high branch. "You confuse me."
"I'm still an elf," Harry said with amused patience. "I'm just going to be under the water for a while. I'll be back tonight. Bite anyone who tries to dig up my bag, and I'll bring you back some cod in seaweed. I'll even cook it for you."
"Lovely." The snake settled down onto his branch, comfortable and satisfied with Harry's promise. "Bring back a crab, too! Alive, if you please."
Harry made his promises and fastened the bag of gillyweed firmly across his shoulder with a leather strap. The tools went around his bare waist with their own strap, and he was already chewing on a ball of rubbery gillyweed as he waded into the water.
He examined his webbed hands with interest, standing chest deep in the water and shivering slightly. The lightheaded feeling he'd been waiting for stole over him with a suddenness that surprised him, but he rallied quickly and dove under, inhaling the water deeply and feeling his gills expand and contract with the movement.
Nerin's teaching skills proved exceptional when Harry encountered his first merman not ten minutes later.
"Hello, I am at peace," he said in what he knew was badly accented Mermish. He raised his hands, palm outward, and continued. "I search for village. Marvisgoyt?"
"You're looking for Morvinsguyot?"
Harry considered this name. "I think yes. My friend Nerin is there."
The merman stared at him and trailed his tail fin through the water slowly. "It's not far," he said finally. "About a league zant that way," he said, pointing in the direction Harry had been swimming.
"Many thanks," Harry said, and was pleased when the merman responded with the version of 'you're welcome' he knew. They said goodbye and Harry swam off in the direction the merman had suggested.
Zant was a new direction Nerin had fortunately explained to him along with a few Mermish phrases, and it essentially meant 'forward and down'. Wint meant 'forward and up'.
After that, Harry found the village with very little trouble, and Nerin spotted him almost immediately from where she and a grindylow were having a swim a few meters above the seabed.
"There you are, little elf!" she said, swooping down on him and grasping his forearms with delight. "It's been tides and tides!"
"How have you been?" Harry asked, grinning back at her and allowing her to spin them in a slow sphere. "I have lost you."
"Missed you," she corrected. "Come, meet Nixie."
Nixie was the grindylow's name. It tried to bite Harry, and Nerin swatted it on the head for its troubles.
"She's my oldest," Nerin said fondly. The grindylow swam up to Harry and tried to bite him again, on the nose. Nerin batted at her as Harry laughed and twisted backward, out of reach. "Get away from him, seaweed! She's always biting, I'm sorry," Nerin continued.
"It is no concern," Harry assured her. "I like her."
Mermish wasn't difficult to follow at all. Harry let Nerin lead him through the water and understood easily as she chattered away about the family she was staying with in Morvinsguyot. It didn't sound terribly different from English, underwater. The difficulty with Mermish was in the actual speaking of the language, as it required very specific contortions of the vocal chords in order to produce the proper sounds. Harry had the basics down, but there were still a lot of words he'd have to learn above the water until he got better, in order to understand how to make the right noises.
Nerin led him to a small dwelling settled comfortably among about twenty others. They were all gentle slopes that leaned with the current. Nerin's had a garden where she tied Nixie next to two other grindylow, who immediately tackled the newcomer. The door to the house was toward the top, and the Nerin held it open so Harry could go first.
The room he swam into had a vertical hallway that led down into the seabed. Harry had never been in a home before, aside from Lupin's cottage and the Dursley's Number Four.
"It is very..." Harry paused, trying to remember the word for 'wonderful'. "It is very hello?"
Nerin laughed. "I think you mean 'nice'."
"Yes," Harry admitted. "I need practice."
"You need air," Nerin agreed. "How far along is your gillyweed?"
Harry paused and considered his feet. The webbing was still thick. His gills felt fine. "I have a while yet."
"Tell me when you're feeling faint," Nerin made him promise. Then Harry waited while she rooted around in a trunk near the hallway and came up with a rectangle of woven seaweed. "Your legs are foreign," she explained. "So I made you this."
Harry admired it and fastened it around his hips. "Many thanks! It is very... nice?"
"Right, perfect," she said, and led him down the hallway and into the house proper. Merpeople were on average about seven feet long, so even the smaller foyer was quite long. The actual living quarters were enormous, and contained two other merpeople.
"This is my sister Assyria, and her mate, Zale," Nerin said, gesturing at the two of them with her tail. "Assyria, this is the forest elf I told you about. We met at the Hogwarts Lake."
"Hello, little one," said Nerin's sister, peering at him with blatant curiousity. She spoke slowly and carefully, as though Harry might not understand.
"Hello," Harry said. "It is nice to meet you."
"Oh, he's adorable, Nerin!" Assyria declared, swishing her powerful tail and rearing back with delight. "That accent! And look at his little flippers! He's such a tiny little thing!"
Zale didn't appear quite so charmed but was still being fairly tolerant of Harry's presence in his home, all things considered. Harry was still alive, for starters.
He was even more tolerant once he realised what the scythe and shears were for.
"I brought them for Nerin," Harry explained when Zale prodded at them with a spear that he'd urged up to their level with his fins. "We made a boon a couple months ago."
"Oh, yes, I have your waterwheel," Nerin remembered, and dove down to the lower part of the giant room, near where several hammocks were strung up above a neat row of crates. Assyria continued to coo over Harry and his webbed fingers and primitive gills while Nerin searched the crates and produced a tightly sealed jar.
"Here you are," she said, sending the jar up to Harry on a current. Harry caught it and examined it from all sides in the light from the glowing, fungi covered shells that were hung at various levels on the walls. "I wouldn't open it, if I were you. It's freshwater."
The waterwheel had a central stem from which rounds of fan shaped mouths protruded. Nerin had provided six rounds, which was generous of her. Harry happily handed over the shears, spade and scythe. He'd get his potion of choice from Snape for even two rounds of his newest acquisition, and he was certain the potion suppliers in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley would be similarly interested.
He had plans for those potions, and the trades he would make with them. This was more than worth the months of preparation involved.
"My feet are cold," Harry realised once he'd finished being distracted by the waterwheel. Nerin frowned and darted up to float in front of him with a flash of green hair and a frown.
"It's about time for another dose," she said. "Come with me instead. We will practice."
Nerin led him to an underground cave with haste, and soon she had him out of the water and onto a small sandy ridge, where he lit a fire and dried himself off.
"Wonderful," Harry said. Nerin screeched the word for Harry and floated on her back in the water. The noise echoed around the cave, but it was enough for Harry to get the basic idea, which was all he needed. He'd only just forgotten that one.
"Er, seaweed," he tried next. This was a much more complicated sound, and it took dampening the echoes in the cave for Harry to really figure it out. They'd know for sure if he had it right when he went back underwater.
"I am swimming home.
"Zale and Assyria.
For perhaps the first time since he had been introduced to school breaks that lasted longer than two days, Harry showed up on the right day for the start of classes.
Draco was extremely pleased with Harry's prompt return, and was convinced to abandon any anger over his recent discovery of Harry's hand in securing Dobby's freedom in short order. This was fortunate because Dobby was doing very well after a summer of training, and Harry didn't want to have to worry about him regressing into old habits and ironing his feet whenever he and Draco crossed paths.
Everything went rather smoothly until a few months into the school year, when Harry finally stopped to wonder why everyone was so tense.
"What's going on?" Harry asked Draco after a particularly strained Transfiguration lesson one winter afternoon. The other students filed out on their way to Defense and Harry trailed after them, noting the way they all huddled together in groups and spoke quietly.
"It's like you don't even go to school here sometimes," Draco muttered. "The Heir of Slytherin? Muggleborns being Petrified by an unknown attacker? Ring any bells?"
Harry shook his head. "I guess... I have been getting a lot of requests for protection amulets lately," he mused. "But it's been pretty peaceful in the forest. Several of the female centaurs gave birth back toward the beginning of winter. It's been a nonstop celebration since the foals made their first celestial divinations."
The snake wound his way up Harry's arm and draped himself against Harry's collarbone. "We are going to Defense now?"
"Yes." Harry grinned. They both thoroughly enjoyed Defense. "Did you know about the people being attacked?"
"I did." The snake lifted his head to glance at Draco, who eyed him warily. "Some of the snake portraits have been talking."
"And where was I?" Harry demanded, put out. He didn't like being the last to know things.
They arrived in Defense and sat in the back, as per usual. The professor had been a bit jumpy ever since the first class, when he had set a load of Cornish pixies loose on the students and Harry and a bushy haired girl had rounded them up and set them loose on his office instead, where he'd been hiding.
Well. Harry had set them loose on his office. The bushy haired girl had admittedly tried to stop him, and failed.
Mostly the professor just did reenactments from the books, now.
"It's slavery, is what it is!" Harry glanced toward the front of the class, where said bushy haired girl sat, gesturing angrily about something to a slightly pudgy boy. "I can't believe Hogwarts has house elves! It's barbaric!"
Harry felt his pointy ears perk up. "Who's that?" he asked Draco. Draco looked where Harry was indicating and made a face.
"You mean that Granger girl," he said. "She's a Gryffindor, and a mudblood. Very unpleasant."
Harry listened as the girl carried on for a bit longer about elf rights, as least until the professor called the class to order and started the lesson. He'd have to keep an eye on her.
Harry did, in fact, keep an eye on the Granger girl.
"She's talking about elf rights again," Harry hissed to the snake, as they sat on a window ledge twenty feet above the heads of the crowd and watched the girl trying to hand out badges with block writing on them in the Entrance Hall. "She wants to free us!"
"You are free," the snake pointed out. "She missed the boat, there."
"Well yes," Harry admitted. "But I had to go free Dobby myself. And you remember what a hassle that was."
"It took days," the snake agreed. "Days and all my ideas ignored."
Harry ignored the snake once more and peered down at the Granger girl again. After a while, he decided a closer look was warranted.
"Hello," he said, disappearing out of his window seat down to stand next to her. She screamed a little and dropped her badges.
"You!" she said, accusingly.
"Me," Harry agreed, helping her to pick up her things. He had that conversation a lot with wizards. "I hear you're interested in freeing elves! I could tell you a little bit about our struggle, if you like."
She stared as he beamed at her. "I want to free the house elves," she said slowly. "You're just a very strange boy with pointy ears."
Harry frowned. "No need to be rude," he said. "I'm not a house elf, obviously."
"I'm a forest elf, and I have been ever since I was freed six years ago," Harry said proudly. "I'll never go back, either. Once you get used to it, freedom is something you never let go of."
The Granger girl stared at him. "Right," she said. "Well, I must be going, then."
"Wait, I want to support your group!" Harry called after her as she began to walk away. She paused, and Harry could see the conflict in her posture.
"My friend Dobby probably would, too," Harry continued, seeing an in. "He's a free elf, as well. I've been training him to become a forest elf, like me."
She tsked at him. "Oh, but you're not!" she said, putting her hands on her hips. "House elves don't even have pointy ears like that! You're entirely human!"
Harry glared, more offended than he ever remembered being. He even mirrored her hands-on-hips posture. "I am not! Take it back!"
"I won't!" she said. "You've been running amok at Hogwarts since we got here! I watched you turn Professor Lockhart's hair into worms just yesterday!"
"He was being a total wanker!" Harry said defensively. "I don't think I've ever met a hag that would say some of the things he claims the one he killed did, and every hag I've met has tried to eat me!"
"How many hags have you met?" the Granger girl asked, eyes wide.
"Only two," Harry admitted. "But neither of them seemed particularly interested in hair care potions, let me tell you!"
The Granger girl stared at him. He looked right back, feeling riled enough to even make eye contact.
"Oh fine," she finally sighed, opening her little box and handing Harry a badge. "That'll be two sickles."
Harry turned the badge over in his hands. "S.P.E.W?" he asked.
"The Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare," she said primly. "I intend to create awareness of the kind of barbaric institution house elf ownership is, and try to get them rights and eventually freedom. I'm selling badges to raise money for a pamphlet campaign."
"Fantastic! I'll take ten," Harry said. He fished through his bag and handed over the sickles, then pinned his badge to his tunic just under his Slytherin crest. The Granger girl reluctantly handed over nine more badges, which Harry tucked into his pockets. "Dobby and I will be your biggest supporters," he assured her.
The Granger girl looked about as thrilled as Draco usually did when Harry had just done something particularly impressive. That is to say, not even slightly.
Harry wasn't worried, though. The struggle for house elf rights needed no-nonsense types like Draco and the Granger girl.
"There's a new snake in the area," the snake told Harry one afternoon, in the forest.
"Whereabouts?" Harry asked. He and the snake were out searching for jobberknoll feathers near where the thestrals usually liked to hunt. Harry had an uncooked bit of venison with him, just in case they wandered across one. He liked thestrals.
"I'm not certain," the snake said. Harry frowned. It was strange for the snake to take note of a new arrival, and signified that the new snake was almost certainly larger and more dangerous. Therefore, it was even stranger that the snake couldn't place the new arrival's general location. "It moves around quite a bit. Not out here, for sure."
"In the castle, then?" Harry was intrigued. Harry's snake companion was the only one that usually stayed in the castle for any length of time, aside from the portraits and tapestries, of course.
"I think so," the snake said.
"Do you think one of the students brought one in?" Harry wondered, pausing to crouch over a patch of valerian and harvest some. "Oh, maybe a python?"
"You would like that, wouldn't you," the snake hissed. Harry snickered.
"Just because you're afraid of them," he said. The snake snapped irritably at his ear.
"If something tries to eat me, I'm going to be cautious around it."
"Or hide in my bag until it goes away," Harry corrected, pleased when he spotted a bright blue feather caught in the bark of a nearby tree. A seventh year needed a handful of jobberknoll feathers for some kind of potion experiment, and he was willing to trade Harry for a detailed explanation and demonstration of fixing spells.
"You are a terrible friend," the snake told him. Harry just laughed and let the snake curl around his wrist and sulk.
"We'll find the new snake," he said reassuringly. "And I won't let anyone eat you, I promise."
"You had better not," the snake said. Pacified, he turned his attention back to their search. "There is an entire blue bird in that tree," he said. "We should catch it off guard."
Harry grinned. That many feathers would get him a lot more than just a lesson in fixing charms.
Recently, Draco had been trying to convince Harry to interact with the other Slytherins more.
"I don't like them," Harry told him as they walked down to the common room. "They're all smirky and the tall one tried to hex me!"
"Harry, you gave him a fake sneakoscope," Draco explained. "Theo knew it should have been whistling the whole time the two of you were talking. Why do you think he gave you forged Chocolate Frog cards?"
"And that's another thing," Harry muttered. "What a cheat."
"They're useful people," Draco maintained. "Some of them are even fun. Blaise is really witty, and Greg and Vince will do almost anything I tell them to. You'll see."
Harry muttered deprecating comments the whole way through the dungeons, and the snake snickered while Draco rolled his eyes and refrained from asking for a translation.
"Harry, meet Blaise and Theo," Draco said when they reached the second year dormitory.
"We've been past this tree before," said the tall boy who had tried to hex Harry. "Several times, in fact."
"Yes, I know, but it's not likely he's bothered to remember your names," Draco explained.
"I didn't," Harry said. "Which one are you?"
"Theodore Nott," said the tall boy who had tried to hex Harry. Harry glared at him some more.
"Theodore Nott," he repeated in a menacing voice. The tall boy who had tried to hex Harry smirked. Harry hated when they did that.
"He'll warm up to you," Draco promised feebly. The other, darker boy grinned.
"I'm Blaise Zabini," he said to Harry, holding out a hand for Harry to shake. "It's a pleasure to meet your acquaintance."
"You've said that every time Draco's introduced us," Harry said suspiciously, ignoring the hand. "Are you trying to wind me up?"
"Probably," the other boy said, still grinning. "Or maybe I'm just trying to jog your memory. It seems to have worked. Perhaps one day, you'll remember my name as well."
"Right," Harry said, drawing the vowel out and narrowing his eyes. That grin was beginning to look suspiciously like a smirk.
"Harry!" Draco said, grabbing his arm and pulling him toward two larger boys. "Have you met Crabbe and Goyle recently?"
"Probably not," Harry admitted. He only vaguely remembered these two.
"That's okay," said the boy who wasn't the tall boy who had tried to hex Harry. "They probably don't remember you either."
The wider of the two large boys grunted.
"I remember him," he said. "He's the elf."
Harry beamed. "I am! And you are?"
"Greg Goyle," he said. Harry resolved to remember this boy's name.
"Well, Greg," he said, taking the large boy by the elbow and leading him away from the others. "How do you feel about Zonkos? Because I have a friend who can get us down there next Hogsmeade weekend, if you're interested."
"Harry, you were just in Hogsmeade this morning," Draco said, exasperated. "You skipped History of Magic to go and get us Honeydukes, remember?"
"And how do you feel about Honeydukes, Greg?" Harry asked, glaring at Draco over Greg's shoulder. Harry could be friends with himself if he wanted. "We've still got some left over, if you want a box of chocolates."
Greg was interested, as was Vince, who also remembered Harry quite well it appeared. Harry was pleased. At least if he was going to be meeting new humans, he could meet useful, respectful humans.
"How do the two of you feel about wood nymphs?" he asked, supervising the chocolate consumption with a pleased eye. Draco huffed and crossed his arms.
"We should get going, Harry," he said. "We have stuff to do."
"In a minute," Harry said, waving him off and ignoring his glare. They didn't have anywhere to be to Harry's knowledge. "Really, though, I have a friend in the forest who says she knows a few wood nymphs, if you two want to meet one."
Draco finally decided to step in and pulled Harry away from his new companions.
"Crabbe and Goyle are my minions," Draco said in an undertone, wearing what Harry would almost definitely classify as a pout.
"I've told you before, Draco, you can't own people," Harry responded, his voice brimming with unending patience. "Vince and Greg can be anybody's minions they want to be. And when's the last time you offered them a wood nymph, hmm? What kind of a friend of minions are you, that's what I want to know."
"It's time to go," Draco decided, and dragged Harry away. Harry waved to everyone as he left. The tall boy who had tried to hex Harry waved back, wearing a grin now instead of a smirk.
Chapter 7: Wherein Harry Tries to Be Helpful
Harry still didn't like crowds. It was something he'd decided he didn't ever want to get used to.
He'd been fiddling with a combination of spells over winter break that would allow him to move through a hallway indoors at any time of day and still completely avoid the crowds. He was pleased with how things had been going so far. Right now, for example, classes had just ended and the corridors were full of people headed to lunch, but he was still able to walk at his ease without being jostled or even glanced at by nearly anyone.
"Oh, hello. How did you get up there?"
Harry looked down and saw a girl with long, straggly blonde hair, tilting her head back to watch him as he strolled along on the ceiling.
"It's a combination of a feather light spell and a few fixing charms on my boots," Harry revealed. He didn't mind so much if she knew his trick, as long as it didn't become a popular mode of transportation. The whole point was that he was the only one up here. "I find that your average human rarely looks up."
"Oh, but that's wonderful!" she declared. Her head was still tipped up to speak to him as they walked down the hall, matching each other step for step. The group she had been walking with had long since pulled ahead, and Harry watched with fascination as other students rerouted around the girl. No one even bothered to look up and see who she was talking to, unless you counted rolling their eyes as they avoided her.
"You're coming up on a low archway here," she pointed out.
Harry frowned and used the fixing charms on his hands to climb down the wall until he could pass through. The blonde girl waited patiently in the arch until they could go through it together, and lifted her fingers to try and touch the ends of his hair as he passed.
"You're the elf that lives in the forests," the girl mused once Harry was back on the ceiling. "My father told me about you, once. He was ever so excited when we learned you had come to visit Hogwarts."
"I'm glad to hear it," Harry said, pleased. Very few people got his species right the first time. "Have I met your father, then?"
"Oh yes, several years ago in the Forest of Dean."
"He must have been that wizard that gave me my amulet book," Harry said after a pause for reflection. He hadn't met many adults in his life before he came up to Scotland. "Bloody useful thing."
"He'll be glad to hear it," the girl said. "I'm sure he'd want you to know our Dirigible Plums are doing splendidly." She reminded him of a centaur, with her absent-minded tone and her head tipped back to look at what was above her, rather than what was in front of her. Granted, that was how she'd noticed him.
"I remember liking those plums," Harry said nostalgically. "I haven't had one in a long while."
"I could bring you some, if you'd like," she offered. "I have a jar full in my trunk."
Harry took a detour around a large chandelier and considered her offer. "What would you like in return? I expect I have a pair of trainers about your size, assuming you're interested."
He only offered because the girl was wearing socks without shoes. He could understand bare feet, and he could understand shoes or boots, but he suspected that most people, wizards or no, didn't usually wander around drafty corridors between lessons in their stocking feet on purpose.
"Oh!" she said, looking down at her feet. "Oh no, I have trainers," she said. "They'll turn up eventually."
"Right," Harry allowed. "Something else, then?"
"I don't really need anything," the girl told him. "You can just have them, if you like."
Harry squinted at her for long enough that he nearly tripped over a light fixture.
"Just... take them?" he clarified. "You don't want anything?"
The girl nodded up at him. "If your customs demand it, I suppose in return I'd like a conversation."
Harry felt himself relax, back on familiar ground. "Yes, alright. On any particular topic? Any specific time?"
"Just a good conversation," she said. "Next time we happen to cross paths."
"Right, and I'll get the plums from you at the same time," Harry agreed, satisfied. "A good conversation it is."
They walked together for another short stretch of hallway, until Harry found himself faced with reaching the next floor from his position on the ceiling.
"It was lovely to meet you," the girl said, and stepped onto a staircase heading downward. Harry waved goodbye as he contemplated his route. Certainly, climbing the wall would do it, but walking up the wrong side of a staircase appealed to him somehow, impractical though it appeared.
As he went, he heard familiar hushed voices on the other side of the stairs. It was the red twins, and they were up to something. Harry could tell because they were alone, and most of the student body had taken to travelling in packs this year, frightened of whatever was attacking people.
Harry went into stealth mode, climbing up the wall to the ceiling without their noticing and trailing them down the corridor. He followed them like this sometimes, as it allowed him to discover even more passages that these two hadn't seen fit to reveal to him.
Unfortunately, one of the downsides to them not telling him about the passage themselves ended up being that sometimes, the way in was less than obvious. It really looked like they had just disappeared in the middle of the hall. Harry couldn't figure out what they'd done.
Harry dropped down from the ceiling and landed on the floor where they had vanished, crouching and staring around. He breathed in, trying to use all his senses to spot the passage. Some were magical, but some were just well camouflaged or honestly weren't there except on Tuesdays, or needed to be tripped in a specific way, like pressing a bit of stone or getting a statue angry. Tasting the air for unexpected magic didn't always work, nor did Dobby's method.
While he crawled around on the floor inspecting every flagstone, the portrait of an older couple nearby watched with open curiosity. Harry had met these two before, and eventually decided he'd cheat.
"How do you open the passage?" he asked the woman. She smiled.
"You've nearly got it, young man."
"A little to the le-" The woman nudged her husband and fussed over her head scarf.
"Dear, he'll be happier to have figured it out for himself."
This may have been true, but Harry shifted a little to the left anyway and found what he'd been looking for. The flagstone depressed only when pushed with deliberation right on a chipped portion, and a small slide appeared in front of Harry.
"Impressive," said the old woman. Harry grinned at her.
"See you later!" He took a tighter grip on his bag and pushed off into the tunnel. The slide spiraled downward at an alarming rate, and Harry laid full out, careful not to knock his head on anything.
The slide spit him out in a windowless hallway in an area Harry didn't recognise. He couldn't get his bearings without the sun, so he was utterly lost and suddenly feeling just a little claustrophobic. He held a flame in his hand to assist the sparse torches on the walls, and set off to explore.
The red twins had long since gone, and it was no use trying to pick up their trail again. Instead, Harry tried to figure out what part of the castle he was in. Wandering around aimlessly until he found a landmark usually did it, so he set out to do just that.
He was just pausing to admire an entirely unfamiliar statue of a dragon when he heard it.
"Hungry,"a voice whispered, somewhere to his right. Harry frowned. "So hungry, for so long..."
"Hello?" he asked. The snake shifted uneasily at Harry's collarbone, and a suspicion dawned in Harry's mind. "Are you the new snake?"
"I am not new," the voice said scathingly. "I have been here for ages. And I am quite hungry. Where are you, little one?"
Harry listened closely and heard a large scraping in the wall to his right. He felt his jaw go slack. That sounded like quite a large snake. Well aware of what happened when you were the smaller one, Harry started wondering in earnest where exactly the slide had spit him out, and how best to get away.
"I'm not anywhere in particular," he said in a breezy voice. "You know, if you're hungry, the castle really isn't the place for finding food."
"Explain yourself," the snake said. Harry's snake was taut with tension, and tasted more terrified than he had been even with the python.
"I mean, the humans in the castle frown upon hunting indoors," Harry said reasonably. "They make a big fuss about it, you know. And I imagine they aren't nearly as accepting of other humans being eaten as snakes are. Anyway, there's a lot more game in the forest."
"Yeah, rabbits and birds and all sorts," Harry said. "And it's much nicer out there, too. You must be cramped in the walls. How often do you get to feel the sun on your scales inside?"
"Exactly," Harry said with satisfaction. "You need to get out of this dreary old castle. Where are you right now, anyway?"
"In the pipes," the snake said. It sounded interested despite itself.
"See, that's not pleasant at all," Harry told it. "We'll have you out on a nice boulder in the sunshine by tomorrow morning. Spring is nearly here; it's beautiful out. You'll see."
After finding his way out of the windowless maze that turned out to be on the first floor, Harry made good on his promise to the large snake and found a sewage drain that led to a part of lake that was very near the forest.
Having climbed cautiously inside and wandered around for awhile, senses on high alert for any sign that the larger snake was waiting around a corner to snap him up, he was as sure as he'd ever be that the pipe would be accessible. After a brief dip in the lake to clean off the worst of the mess, Harry stole back into the castle and headed for the first floor again.
"Hello?" he hissed, wondering if the snake had grown bored and slithered off. "Are you still there?"
It was quite late by now, and the corridors were deserted. Harry had never been inside the castle at this time of night. It was eerie.
"I am here." The hiss came above, and Harry tilted his head to look at the ceiling.
"Great," he said. "Come with me."
He started walking, keeping up a running commentary so that the snake could follow him from within the walls.
"Sorry I took so long," Harry said. He wondered if the snake had an easy way of moving between floors. The pipes must go vertically in some places. "So, what brings you to Hogwarts?"
"As I said, I have always been here," the snake hissed. "I have been dormant for many years."
"Wow," Harry said. "Most snakes I know only sleep through winter."
"My master calls me forth," the snake told him. "He tells me when I may hunt."
Harry's forehead furrowed. "That sounds awful," he said sympathetically. "You'll love the forest. No one has a master there. You can hunt whenever you want."
The snake let out a pleased hiss. "I have been so hungry," he confided. "I have not eaten a proper meal since I was last called awake."
"We'll fix that," Harry assured him, leading them down a long corridor. "Get you a nice big deer."
As Harry and the snake travelled down the corridor, Harry spotted a large pile of something at the end of the hall near the trophy cases.
"Hang on a second," he said. "There's something on the ground out here."
It was an older boy in red and gold, and he was frozen stiff. Harry frowned and knelt over the body, trying to figure out what could have caused it.
"It is difficult," the snake said from the other side of the ceiling. "Once they have turned to stone, they do not digest well."
Harry nodded slowly as several pieces of information clicked together in his mind.
"You must be the one everyone's been scared of," Harry said, standing up and dusting off his hands. "Let's get you out of here. They won't be pleased if they realize you've been the one attacking students."
Unsuccessfully, too, Harry thought. Poor thing was a terrible hunter, no wonder he was so hungry. The wizards would kill him if they found out.
Harry took the snake as close to the sewage drain as he could manage while remaining inside the castle. "Now," he said as they lingered together at the end of a corridor. "You'll want to continue heading south, and stay on this level. If you reach a three way fork in the pipes, you've gone too far. I left most of a chicken by the drain, so keep your tongue out for that."
The snake hissed a confirmation, and Harry nodded back, even though he knew the snake wouldn't pick up on it.
"You'll want to make sure to get as far into the forest as possible," Harry continued. "Wizards are often unreasonable when they're afraid, I've found, and they're afraid of you. More importantly, all the best game is in the parts of the forest that the wizards don't go to."
"Thank you, small one," the snake said. "You have been a great help. If we ever meet again, I will devour you quickly."
"Thanks," Harry said with a smile. "That's really kind of you."
Harry could hear the snake's scales shifting as it slithered away in the direction Harry had indicated. He hoped the snake found his way to the forest. Harry might have been wary of crossing paths with him again, but given the choice of a meeting with that snake in the closed confines of the castle or the open forest, Harry knew which one he'd choose.
He'd just have to be more careful from now on, and figure out what kind of snakes could accidentally turn prey into stone while hunting, just in case they met again.
Tea during lunch with Hagrid in the half-giant's pumpkin patch had become a weekly thing, and Harry had just finished telling a funny story about a dwarf he'd met in Dorset when a thought occurred to him.
"Oh, I let a big snake into the forest," Harry said, taking a sip out of his giant tea mug. "I don't know how big, but bigger than you, at least. You should keep an eye out and make sure he's settling in well. Be careful, too, he's a sloppy hunter. I've already told the centaurs."
Hagrid's eyes went wide. "Where would yeh get a snake that size?"
Harry shrugged. "He was in the castle. Said he was hungry. I didn't want to get eaten, and I figured it'd be a big thing if he actually managed to catch himself a student or something. I didn't want the wizards trying to hurt him because he needed to eat, so I let him out."
"When was this?" Hagrid asked.
"Yesterday," Harry said. "Last night, actually."
They finished up their tea with little incident, and it wasn't until Harry and Hagrid were walking back to the castle (Hagrid insisted; something about it not being safe these days) that they realized something was wrong.
"Aragog!" Hagrid bellowed. He rushed toward edge of the forest, where a myriad of enormous spiders had burst from the foliage and were trampling around the grounds in what looked like panic.
"What is wrong with them?" the snake asked from Harry's wrist. Harry shook his head and together they watched, baffled, as several of the acromantula discovered the Quidditch goal posts and engaged in furious battle with them.
Some of the professors had heard the commotion and raced out on the grounds, trying to round up the enormous spiders. Students were watching from the windows, and when a few of the acromantula decided to try to scale the castle walls, the screaming started.
Hagrid was waving his arms at the acromantula, yelling and trying to calm them down. It wasn't really working.
"Hey!" Harry yelled as a spider scurried past, headed for the Quidditch pitch. "What is your problem?"
The spider didn't even pause, and her pincers clacked furiously enough to drown out whatever she yelled. It was probably for the best that she hadn't bothered to pay him much attention, Harry realized. A few of them were really doing a number on the Whomping Willow, and that tree could have taken Harry down easily on a bad day.
Harry felt himself suddenly upended, dangling high above the chaos. He got a firm grip on his bag and looked around.
Sure enough, Snape was nearby, corralling a bevy of terrified spiders into a section of grass, where they crawled over and around each other and even attempted to climb the invisible walls of his magical barrier.
The incensed glare Snape directed at him kept Harry from attempting to interrogate any more spiders.
"That was your fault and you will explain why and how immediately," Snape barked later, back in the headmaster's office. All the acromantula had been rounded up and Hagrid had set to soothing their agitation while the other professors rounded up students and did the same. Snape had waved his wand and taken Harry, still dangling upside down, straight to the headmaster's office.
Harry crossed his arms and slumped down in the puffy chair the headmaster conjured up. It was too soft, though Harry kept his peace. He understood that now was perhaps a time of compromise.
"How is it my fault that the spiders went crazy?" Harry demanded. He wasn't willing to compromise on everything, after all. "I haven't even spoken to an acromantula in weeks, and if the centaurs were plotting something, I certainly wasn't let in on it."
If it had been the centaurs, he and Firenze would be having words. Harry would have appreciated at least a heads-up.
"Hagrid has said the acromantula mentioned a basilisk," the headmaster said, gravely. "Would you have any knowledge of that, Harry?"
"A basilisk? Really?" Harry leaned back and whistled. "I would never have guessed! We thought he was a big python or some magical species of anaconda or something. Now I'm really glad he didn't come looking for us!
"A basilisk!" Harry told the snake, who hissed a faint, horrified sound and curled around Harry's palm more tightly. "It'll be okay, we'll be careful," he said reassuringly, smoothing a hand along the snake's scales.
"Where did you encounter a basilisk?" Snape asked, passing a hand over his eyes. "Of all things, a basilisk, Mr. Potter?"
"Well, he was in the pipes, wasn't he?" Harry explained. "I heard him talking to himself, so I said hello, and then I felt bad for him, so I let him out. I thought I was doing everyone a favour! Now he won't be going after students any more, right? Weren't you all worried about that?"
Snape looked faintly ill.
"We must alert the Ministry," the headmaster said, standing and sweeping over to the fire. "I am certain Higgs and Diggory will have a recommendation. Mr. Potter, I would suggest that you avoid the forest until such a time as it may be rendered relatively safe again."
"Don't go looking for him just to kill him," Harry said, annoyed. "He only wanted to kill some of you because he was hungry. I bet you won't even eat his remains, will you?"
The headmaster appeared to be amused at this comment. "We will not be eating the basilisk, Mr. Potter, no. With luck, he will be removed to a sanctuary in a more suitable area. Scotland is hardly welcoming to a snake of his size and temperament."
Harry crossed his arms and listened in while the headmaster discussed the situation with the head in the fireplace.
"Alive, if possible," the headmaster said, and nodded calmly through the shouting that came of that request.
"Surely the Romanians would be interested."
The man in the fireplace had several choice words to say about the Romanians as well, and the headmaster beamed at them all. Harry noticed wizards didn't get told off for their language.
"Thank you for your understanding and cooperation, Amos," he said cheerfully. "I hope to be welcoming a contingent from your Department by dinner. I understand roast duck is on the menu."
"Harry, you have to stop doing things like that," Draco said the next day in class. Harry bristled.
"Stop doing what? Saving all your sorry arses from danger you're too unobservant to notice?"
"Too unobserv- ! You- ! No!" Draco exclaimed, gesturing a bit wildly. "No. I meant stop causing terrifying public spectacles." He shook his head at Harry and waved his wand methodically over his rabbits, speaking the incantation to turn them into slippers.
Harry had tried incantations back in first year, but found them to be confusing and difficult to pronounce. Wand movements were similarly useless. Usually he just thought about what he wanted, and used his magic to will it into being. If he was feeling dramatic, he might snap his fingers or lift an eyebrow.
With Transfigurations in particular, it was a lot easier for Harry to figure out a spell if he knew the theory behind the change. So while Draco waved his wand and said words at his rabbits, Harry thought about turning them inanimate, the way they had with the beetles, and gutting them to make room for a foot.
He also thought about terrifying public spectacles. His rabbits ended up looking rather gruesome, as a result.
"So you would have me keep quiet about potential danger so that I don't scare the wizards?" Harry asked, curious. "I mean, I guess that's fine, as long as I'm allowed to protect myself?"
"No, of course not!" Draco's slippers looked slightly less like botched taxidermy than Harry's did. Harry prodded at them thoughtfully and gave his another go. "All I'm saying is that if you can avoid causing acromantula attacks in the future, that'd be really lovely."
"It wasn't my fault," Harry maintained. "All the stories I've heard about basilisks and acromantula are more obscene than educational, I think. How was I to know?"
When class ended, the two of them left on their own. Despite Draco's objections to his method, the crowds in the castle were on their way to being more relaxed. Certainly, news had spread that Harry had gotten rid of the monster that had been attacking people. The acromantula had been pinned on him as well.
It was great for business. Harry was running a hot trade in amulets, rare ingredients, and contraband. He was barely able to keep up with demand these days.
"Oh," Harry remembered. "Tell Vince and Greg I need that carton of firewhiskey moved to the cupboard in the west wing of the third floor by tomorrow night. They'll know which one you mean."
Draco huffed. "You really have stolen them from me, haven't you?"
"Of course not," Harry said reassuringly. "They're under orders to give you a percentage of whatever they happen to skim off the top. And they're your minions whenever they aren't running an errand for me."
It was lunchtime, so Draco went to eat while Harry headed back to the forest. He and one of the young centaurs, Ruta, were going to spend Harry's break at a stream near the centaurs' territory.
"What are you doing tonight?" Harry asked, gliding through the branches of an fruit tree. He plucked a few of the larger specimen and tossed one down to Ruta.
"We're going to learn how to burn sage properly," Ruta said, catching his apple and smiling at Harry. "And so tell the future."
"What's in my future?" Harry asked, swinging down from the tree with the rest of his cache tucked safely away in his bag. "Do you think we'll convince Magorian to let me join archery practice soon?"
Ruta laughed and tossed the half eaten apple at Harry. "You're lucky Magorian lets you even visit centaur territory while you're still going to the wizard school."
Harry wrinkled his nose. "He does hate them," he agreed. "It's really inconvenient."
"The only reason he tolerates you is because you sent that snake into the other side of the forest, instead of aiming it right at us."
"I would never!" Harry said, making a face. "I know better than all that. You lot would have killed the snake, and then killed me. It would've been a bloodbath."
Ruta paused at the edge of the stream and kicked a splash of water at Harry. "Many lives would have been lost," he agreed. "I thank you for avoiding it."
Harry shrugged, dropped his bag at the edge of the water, and drew a line in the dirt. The snake slithered out to watch as Harry and Ruta dammed up a section of the stream until a pool formed that was large enough to delay the tiny fish and frogs that had previously been travelling down it until they spilled over and continued on their way. Harry was hoping to pull a crayfish, but it was enough to just keep an eye out and hope for a decent catch, whatever came along.
Ruta and Harry splashed around in a desultory sort of mood, chatting about nothing and occasionally divvying up their spoils. When the shadows crossed his dirt line, the two said their goodbyes and Harry set off for the castle in a cheerful mood, flash frying a couple fish in his palm and feeding one to the snake.
Harry passed an adult wizard where the trees started to thin out. The man was clutching one arm and had a telltale gash along that side of his face. It was this and the reflective glasses that made Harry realise that this must be one of the wizards searching for the basilisk.
"You'll want to be careful to the west," Harry called. The wizard, who was using a path about thirty feet to the left of Harry's, jerked badly and whipped his wand out. Harry dropped into a crouch and continued. "The tentacula there have a longer reach than you'd expect from their size. And the nifflers only look like nifflers. They're actually kelpie."
The wizard peered at him suspiciously. He seemed to recognise Harry, but hadn't lowered his wand yet. Harry stood and tilted his head, content to allow the man time to speak, but once Harry was on his feet, the wizard lowered his wand and hurried off without a word. Harry thought about calling out a bit of advice about the snares as well, but he'd be telling a wizard, and a rude one at that. He'd said enough.
Later that week, Harry was minding his own business in a tree near the Whomping Willow, chatting with the snake about an infestation of flesh eating slugs in Hagrid's cabbage patch. The snake wanted to be assigned to eat them, but Harry wasn't so sure. He'd never met a flesh eating slug before, but from what Hagrid said, they sounded large and fierce.
"I am large and fierce as well," the snake pointed out. Harry snorted.
"You are no longer than my arm," he said, dangling the snake in the air to compare. "And no thicker than my wrist."
"You are also large and fierce," the snake muttered, embarrassed. Harry grinned. He'd gotten taller in the past few years, true. But he was still only half an inch taller than Draco, if not quite so skinny.
"Thank you," Harry said. "But-"
"There you are, Potter!"
Harry frowned and looked down at the ground. A tall boy was standing at the foot of the tree, wearing long green robes and padding. Harry recognised him vaguely as one of the sixth years who recently pooled their funds to afford his carton of firewhiskey.
"What do you want?" he asked, laying down along the branch to see the boy better. His arms and legs dangled and the snake wound through them, hissing about rude humans and manners and how he was large and fierce enough to teach this boy a lesson. Harry smirked and tried not to let it show.
"We want you to try out for the Quidditch team," the tall boy said, crossing his arms. "Flint saw you flying the other day and he thinks you're Slytherin enough to join us."
This was a strange development. "Why?"
The tall boy blinked. "Because... we want to win, and you're good."
A slow smile started on Harry's face. "Quidditch is that game you all play, with the brooms and the balls and the goalposts, right?"
"Right." The tall boy nodded. "We'll have a tryout for you on Tuesday-"
"Oh." Harry yawned and sat up again. He wasn't that interested. "No thanks, then."
"What? Wait, why not?"
"It sounds boring."
The tall boy sputtered and glared. "But... look, come down here and I'll tell you all about it. It's not boring."
"Which one are you, anyway?" Harry asked. He watched the boy crane his neck to try and see more than the bottom of Harry's feet, but he didn't feel like helping. The more he thought about it, the more it sounded like just another obligation to the wizards. He wasn't really interested at all.
"I'm Graham Montague," the tall boy said.
"Yes, but which one are you?" Harry repeated, rolling his eyes. Wizards and their names.
"I'm a Chaser?"
"So you're not the captain or anything," Harry helped impatiently. The tall boy shook his head.
"Then what are you doing asking me?"
The tall boy looked offended. "How d'you mean?"
"Is it your job or something? Recruiting?"
The tall boy flushed. "I, er. I drew the short quill."
"I'm not interested," Harry told him. "Thanks though."
The Quidditch people didn't take 'no' for an answer, which was something Harry discovered the very next day.
"Potter, as captain, I'm prepared to offer you a guaranteed spot on the Slytherin Quidditch team," an older boy said to him after breakfast. Draco was standing on his other side, gaping. "We'll even get you your own broom."
"I already have a broom," Harry said with a shrug. "Draco gave it to me."
Draco leaned away from the expression on the older boy's face, and glared at Harry. "I'm sure their broom is much nicer, Harry," he suggested pointedly.
"Doesn't need to be nice. It just needs to work. And it does."
He stepped onto a moving staircase just as it was leaving. Draco, who was used to Harry, managed to follow, but the older boy was left scowling after them.
"Potter, come join the Slytherin Quidditch team." This demand came from another brawny older boy, this time carrying a bat. "We all saw that Woollongong Shimmy you pulled off the other day over the lake. You're bloody good."
Harry actually stopped walking and craned his neck to stare down at the other boy where he stood, looking up at Harry and ignoring the crowd knocking his shoulders as they pushed past. "Thewhat I did the other day? Were those words? Go away."
The boy grinned and hefted his bat. "Come on, give us a try."
Harry just shook his head and kept walking.
"Potter! Hey, Potter!"
Harry, who was already incredibly irritated with the Quidditch people, seriously considered giving this one fire-boils. He'd been trailing the Granger girl, trying to figure out a way to get her to agree to let him come to S.P.E.W. meetings. She'd been very stubborn so far, but Harry was only alive because he was more stubborn than everything that had tried to kill him over the years.
He would defeat the Granger girl like he had defeated a gang of bowtruckles he'd once stumbled upon: by hacking at their claws and throwing woodlice in their faces. Flitwick had explained to him about human metaphors, and he was doing very well with the whole concept. Snakes had them, too, so it wasn't very difficult.
Right now, though, the Quidditch people had ruined his chances of learning the location of her meetings. When this prat called his name, the Granger girl's eyes widened and she stared around the corridor until she spotted him, standing half behind a suit of armour and glaring irritably at the new arrival.
"What do you want?" he demanded of the boy. "I am busy with my friend, here."
"I'm not your friend!" the Granger girl protested. "You're barmy and you're stalking me! Leave me alone!"
"I'm not stalking anyone!" Harry lied. He was actually stalking several people this week, including the red twins and a sixth year girl who owed him five galleons and her Potion O.W.L. revision notes. Potions notes in particular were in high demand by fifth years around exam time, which was only a couple months away. "I'm only trying to help you, I don't see why you can't understand that."
"You are the exact opposite of help," she said, putting her hands on her hips. "Did you know that all the Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs think I've started a Harry Potter fan club? It's awful!"
"Have you got any new members?" Harry asked with interest. She scowled at him.
"Four," she said. "But that's not the point!"
"That's great! It won't just be you, me and Dobby at the meetings anymore!" Harry beamed. "Now if you'll only tell me where you've moved them to, I can give a speech on what it's like to be a free elf, and all your new members will-"
"Augh, no!" The Granger girl stomped her foot and stormed off down the corridor, seething.
Harry turned and glared at the boy, whose eyebrows were practically at his hairline. "Look what you've done now."
"Yes. She was perfectly happy before you showed up."
The burly boy blinked down at Harry. "As far as I can tell, mate, she didn't know you were there before I showed up."
Harry huffed. "And? Your point?"
"Whatever." The burly boy shook his head and got down to business. "Flint wants you on the team. And we're prepared to make a deal."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "I'm listening."
A list materialised in the burly boy's hands, and he started reading.
"If you come and tryout, we'll stop harassing you for one." The burly boy grinned at Harry, who did not smile back. "If you join, you'll get a new broom."
"Heard that one already," Harry said. The burly boy nodded and continued reading.
"And finally, if you join, we won't bring up your refusal to Professor Snape." He looked up as though this was a trump card. Harry stared at him. That grin was definitely more of a smirk. The bastard.
"Fine," he said. "I'll think about it. But you have to stop harassing me now."
The burly boy rolled up his parchment and nodded to Harry as though they'd done a good bit of business. Harry didn't feel that it was out of line to attach a mild but powerful engorgement charm to his nose and ears. They were already big. It might take awhile for anyone to even notice.
Chapter 8: Wherein Harry is Fed Up
It was another day and a half before Harry spoke to anyone in the castle but the snake and Draco. He considered a day without having to talk to anyone else downtime, and enjoyed the peace.
When his brief holiday ended, it ended with a crash.
"We need your help," one of the twins said, pulling himself to his feet from where he and his brother had tumbled down from the staircase above. The first twin pulled the other up with him, and both began a sort of rapid fire monologue-for-two that Harry could only just keep up with.
"We've been looking for you-"
"-It's an emergency-"
"A real one, too, not like last time with all the marmite-"
"Our little sister is missing!"
"No one's seen her since yesterday afternoon-"
"-she's not in her dorm or the library or-"
"-on the grounds or with any of her friends-"
"-and we know she's somewhere in Hogwarts but we can't see where-"
"-it doesn't make any sense! And she's been acting weird lately, everyone agrees-"
"We thought she'd been acting weird all year, but we thought it was just-"
"-nerves and that sort of thing, but she's been weirder recently and now she's missing and-"
"-you have to help us find her!"
Harry raised his hands and the twins fell silent. "Why do I have to find her?"
"Because you're H-" One twin elbowed the other.
"You're a bloody brilliant forest elf," he said. "And you're good at it. If anyone can find her, it's you."
"We've already got Ron talking to the teachers and the Headmaster," said the first. "We just want to make sure we find her."
Harry sighed. Thıs was a prime opportunity. He couldn't waste it by acting too interested. "Fine, but I'll need you to turn out your pockets."
The twins blinked at him. "What for?"
Harry glanced out a nearby window as the staircase passed it. "Look, do you want my help or not?"
They looked at each other and then finally, grudgingly turned out their pockets. Happily, the Map was there.
"Right, I'll need to burn most of this," Harry said. He levitated the pile of sweet wrappers, lint, parchment and quills, into the air in front of him and prepared to do just that.
"Wait!" One of the twins, Fred, put a hand out to stop him. "You can't just burn our things!"
"Yeah," said George. "Some of that stuff is very important!"
Harry glared at them. "Do you want a tracking spell for your sister or not? I need something from a blood relative if I haven't got something from her right in front of me."
The twins shifted. "Can't we just go get something of hers then?"
Harry's forehead creased. "How long has she been missing?"
"We're not sure," Fred said, plucking at the cloth around his elbow anxiously. "No one's seen her since yesterday afternoon, like we said."
"Oh no," Harry said decisively. "That's too long. I'll have to use your things to be safe."
Before either twin could object again, Harry banished the Map to his bag and set the rest on fire. Both twins shouted and reached for the flames, but it was too late. Harry examined the patterns of ash floating in the air with a fine attention to detail while the twins moaned and covered their faces with their hands.
"Still in the castle," Harry confirmed over the sounds of their mourning. One of the second floor portraits had mentioned a small redhead who walked into the girl's bathroom last night and never came back out. She had noticed because she tried to talk to the girl and was ignored, which was apparently unusual. Harry had heard about it as a part of his morning gossip with Violet and the fifth floor nymphs.
"Alright," he said, wrinkling his nose and brushing the dust away. "I've got a lead. Let's go."
He led them straight to the second floor bathroom and marched inside. If the sister had gone in here and not come out through the usual door, that meant she was either still there, or had left by another means.
"Myrtle!" Harry called, glancing around the bathroom. There were no useable windows or doors outside of the one they'd entered by. There had to be another way out, Myrtle's method excluded. "Where's the little girl? Is she still here?"
Myrtle was not impressed. Having flown hopefully out of her toilet at the sound of her name, she wilted upon spotting Harry.
"Oh, it's you," she groused. "Go away, get out!"
He and Myrtle had a bit of a history. It was a testament to how much Harry valued the twins and their Map that he was here at all.
"Go on, Myrtle," Harry tried. "She's gone missing and you were the last to see her! Scandal and intrigue and what-not."
"Bugger off anyhow," Myrtle declared in a voice thick with tears and irritation. "I don't like you. And anyway, why should I help? No one noticed forever when I'd gone missing!" She flew back into her toilet with a splash and a wail. Harry scowled and shook himself dry while the twins watched with open curiosity.
"Oh, come off it," Harry yelled. He had very little patience with her when she got theatrical. "You're useless! I suppose on the day they come to exorcise you, you'll just cry about it, will you?"
All the fixtures in the room began to shake. The twins made simultaneous bids for the lavatory door and bumped into each other in their haste to escape. Harry allowed that goading had probably not been the best way to convince her to cooperate, but rolled his eyes anyway as Myrtle sprang out of her u-bend in a screaming rage, sending a geyser of water out of every toilet and sink in the room - except for one.
Harry shielded himself against the water and eyed the sink. It was completely dormant. Suspiciously so.
He left the washroom in a wave of liquid rage, feeling entirely satisfied with himself. He'd gotten another lead on where the twins' sister might have gone, and he'd gotten Myrtle to scream, but not cry. He hated it when she sniffled and whimpered and teared up. The only people who did that in his experience, were useless people who wanted something. Dudley used to do it all the time to get his way. Harry considered it lazy manipulation, and personally thought she could do better.
"What now?" George demanded. "Why'd you have to go in there and take the mickey? Now she'll never -"
"Follow me," Harry said, wringing out his tunic and setting out toward the stairs. The twins went, grumbling but obedient.
He led them straight out the castle doors and to a rocky escarpment that hung over the lake where it met most closely with the castle walls. It was an area where students didn't often go in Harry's experience, mostly because of the difficulty in managing the steep, rocky terrain. Harry would have disappeared to it if he hadn't had the twins with him.
"Right," he said, coming to a stop outside the grating where he'd freed the basilisk a couple weeks ago. "Here we are."
The twins shared a long look. "Where are we, then?" Fred asked.
"Because it looks like a sewer pipe," George added.
"Right you are, boys," Harry said, and pried the grating off. "Let's go."
"Why are we going in there?" George demanded. He had to raise his voice to be heard, as Harry had already climbed inside.
"To find your sister, you wanker," Harry explained. He liked the way his voice echoed in the pipe, and spoke louder. "Wasn't that the idea? She's in here somewhere. Are you coming or not?"
Harry started crawling along the pipe. Soon, he heard the clanking and banging that told him them twins had decided to follow. Good. He wasn't doing this for his health.
"Why are we looking for Ginny in the sewer?" Fred asked after about twenty minutes of crawling along on their elbows through muck and filth.
"Not that this isn't loads of fun, you understand," George added from behind his brother in a breathless voice. "It's just, this is usually how we like to spend our weekend afternoons, and it's only Tuesday."
"She went into the pipes," Harry said. "It's the only explanation. So we're going to see where."
There was a long silence as they continued to huff and puff and crawl.
"Well. That explains it, then," Fred said. "All my questions are answered."
"Good," Harry replied, and they were all quiet until they reached the slide.
"What is that." Fred stared down into the black depths of the rather large, nearly vertical pipe they'd stumbled onto. "Is our sister down there?"
Harry took a moment, having crawled past the slide, to consult both his mental map of the castle and the Map he stole earlier from the twins. Sure enough, they were just outside the second floor girls' bathroom and there was a name hovering in space nearby, uncertain of what room it was in or what floor it was on.
"Yes," Harry said. "See you in a minute."
If the twins responded, Harry didn't hear it over the whoosh of air in his ears as he slid down the enormous pipe.
He was deposited very neatly on a cushion of small animal bones upon his exit from the slide. Harry dusted himself off and investigated the chamber while he waited for the twins.
"No wonder the basilisk was always so hungry," Harry hissed to the snake, who had poked his head out to have a taste now that they were out of the sewer. "He was far too large to be kept happy with this sort of food."
"I am glad we set him free," the snake agreed, and was interrupted by a whoosh and a thump as the first of the twins arrived. His face went white behind his freckles as he took in his surroundings.
"Don't worry, the basilisk is long gone," Harry said. His words didn't have the reassuring effect he had intended, so they waited in silence until George flew out of the pipe, then set off through the chamber in the likely direction.
"This is lovely," the snake commented. "I could sleep here in the cold times."
"You don't sleep in the winter, you stay with me," Harry said, nettled. "And anyway, I don't like it. I prefer the woods and open space. I don't like how shut in it is here. Where is the sun?"
A door opened up ahead, and they walked into a larger room filled with pillars and statues. A small lump of cloth lay on the floor at the end, with a pile of red hair.
"Oh, hey," Harry said as the twins rushed past him. "There she is."
"Are you okay?"
"Gin, wake up!"
Harry observed this reunion with satisfaction. She was definitely still alive, so they'd just get her to the witch that fixed injuries and all would be well.
Although there was a strange taste down here, something unwelcome, unpleasant, and familiar. Harry breathed deep and took a more thorough look around.
"She won't wake."
Harry and the twins looked up and Harry discovered the source of the voice and the repulsive magical taste all at once.
"You!" he exclaimed, suddenly on the other side of one of his most frequent exchanges.
The young ghost looked amused. "Yes, it is I," he said. "I am pleased that you recognise your betters."
"The bearded man was supposed to fire you," Harry continued. "He must have missed a spot when he kicked you out of school." Harry glared down at a book on the ground, which was obviously the source of the ghost. "A schoolbook? I should have known."
The book-ghost blinked and seemed to search for the right words before responding. "I am not so easy to get rid of," he said. "And soon I will be more powerful than ever."
"Right, okay," Harry said. "This is ridiculous." He saw that the twins looked fairly terrified and were clutching their little sister away from the book-ghost. "Here, look," Harry said, and stuck a hand in his bag to grab a jar of giddy stings. "Take these and go back the way we came. Do you remember the way?"
The twins took a deep breath each and nodded. Fred picked up his sister and George took the stings, both of them eyeing the book-ghost warily.
"It doesn't matter if you remove her from me," the apparition said softly as they backed away. "The process has already begun. Soon her soul will be mine."
Harry frowned, but waited for the twins and their sister to leave the chamber before getting the book-ghost's attention again.
"This is just like that unicorn, you two legged pile of dung," he said. The book-ghost opened his mouth, furious, but Harry had just got an idea.
He started poking around in his bag, looking for something suitable. The ghost-book took the time to be outraged.
"I am the Heir of Slytherin," he declared. "The girl told me everything about you. You are a lowly, delusional child who was lucky to escape from me the first time. It will not happen again. You will show respect or I will teach it to you, boy."
During the brief pause in the book-ghost's diatribe while he waited for a response, Harry found and rejected a pair of dragonhide gloves. He needed those still.
"You will see what happens to those who defy me," the ghost book declared, growing ever more infuriated as Harry continued to ignore him.
"Come to me Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four," the book-ghost hissed in a cold, scary voice. "Destroy this fool."
Harry looked up from his bag, alarmed. After a long minute of nothing, he realised the situation.
"Did you name the basilisk 'Slytherin', then?" he asked, and went back to his bag. "He was a good sort. Terrible hunter though."
The ghost-book stared up at a huge carving of an old, bearded man, and then glared at Harry with a viciousness Harry didn't want to see on any kind of tangible person any time soon.
After another brief rummage, Harry finally found a pair of socks he'd forgotten about tucked away in a spare pocket, and pulled them out with triumph.
"Let's get out of here." He doubled layered the socks over one hand and used them to pick up the book that the ghost was streaming out of. Satisfied, he carried it down to the exit, wrinkling his nose at the taste of the ghost's magic and trying not to breathe in too deeply. Even through two layers of fabric, the magic felt greasy and unpleasant to the touch. Harry couldn't wait to put the book down.
As Harry walked, the ghost-book launched into a diatribe that was actually very frightening. Harry held the book itself at arm's length and sought for a conversational topic that might distract the ghost-book from the sort of talk that included such tidbits as using a butter knife to peel Harry's skin off and feed it to him.
"What happened to your turban, anyway?" he asked. "Don't you need it to hide your extra face or evil hair or something? Though you haven't got an extra face at the moment, I suppose. It's an improvement."
The ghost-book gaped at him, successfully distracted. "What? Who do you think I am?"
Harry shrugged. "You know. Professor Whatsit from last year. You killed a unicorn and tried to make my head explode. I don't like you very much."
The book-ghost's eyes narrowed. "I am far more dangerous than your professor. I am Lord Voldemort, which you would do well to remember. You will show some respect to your greatest enemy."
Harry wrinkled his nose and shook his head. This was a wizard/name thing again, he just knew it. "I already know who you are by your magic. And I still don't like you, but I wouldn't say we're enemies, exactly. It's not really my business. This is wizard stuff."
"You are a wizard," the book-ghost said, glaring. "More importantly, you will soon be at my mercy, and I would suggest that you start groveling now before my full powers return. I might consider killing you more quickly."
"Of course I'm not a wizard," Harry said, unconcerned. "Wanker," he added after a moment. If the book-ghost had the ability to follow through on his threats any time soon, he would have done it already, and he wouldn't be so adamant that Harry show respect. All his talk was just bluster.
Harry reached the place where the slide let them out and decided that the twins and their sister were well on their way. That concern dealt with, he disappeared back up to the surface, shook the worst of the muck off his hair and tunic, then marched through the castle to the bearded man's office.
"Give a wizard one job," he told the book-ghost as they walked. "Just one, and he botches it."
"You are a wizard!" The book-ghost's voice was heavy with irritation. "You are also a delusional child, and I will take pleasure in ending your pathetic life. I demand that you release me immediately." The book-ghost was sounding more and more anxious, the closer to the bearded man's office they came.
"Look, I get this all the time," Harry said impatiently. "I'm not a wizard, I'm a forest elf. That's how it is. You got yourself fired by being an enormous bastard, and if you wanted revenge, you should have thought of that before you put yourself in a bloody book."
The ghost-book had a lot to say to that, but Harry ignored him and carried on with his self-assigned task.
"Let me in," he told the gargoyles when they reached the office. The gargoyles were unmoved by his demand. Harry shifted impatiently. The book-ghost twisted, glancing around the narrow corridor.
"Look, the password is some sweet," Harry said. "Isn't that good enough? Come on, guys. I knew it last time."
One of the gargoyles creaked, and Harry got his hopes up until it turned out the git was just crossing his stone arms.
"Tosser," he muttered, and proceeded to list every sweet he could think of, until he finally hit on the right one with 'Ice Mice'.
"That will be useful to know when I am free of this book," the book-ghost said in a smug tone as they waited on the revolving stairs. "I will kill you first, and then I will destroy the headmaster."
Harry sighed. "You know, I ruined a perfectly good pair of socks to get you up here. There are a lot of things I could have done with a bit of cloth about this size, but now I have to burn these."
The reached the top of the stairs with the book-ghost still spewing threats, and Harry pushed the door open with mounting irritation.
"It's like a bloody infestation," he declared, tossing the book, ghost and all on the headmaster's desk. "I am a busy elf," he continued as the headmaster shot to his feet and pointed his wand at the equally annoyed book-ghost, who had begun a diatribe of his own.
"This is INDECENT! I WILL destroy you, Dumbledore! You will watch as I RIP OFF each of this STUPID child's fingernails until he understands the MEANING of fear! You will go to your death in-"
Harry raised his voice to be heard above this: "I DON'T HAVE TIME TO CLEAN UP YOUR MESSES! The man with the turban was SUPPOSED to be banished from the castle, and that means ALL THE LITTLE BITS AND PIECES he might leave behind, too!"
Harry raised his eyebrows at the headmaster. The book-ghost was trying to outshout Harry, and failing.
"-I SHOULD HAVE KILLED THIS OBNOXIOUS LITTLE BRAT WHEN HE WAS STILL CHEWING ON HIS OWN FEET! The standards at Hogwarts are FALLING, Dumbledore, and I shouldn't be surprised that an OLD FOOL such as yourself would COMPLETELY fail to instill the SLIGHTEST amount of respect for their betters in your idiotic, MUDBLOODED students! You-"
"Fix this," Harry ordered, pointing at the book. "It's not my job to clean up this sort of mess. Do it right this time, would you?"
"Mr Potter," the bearded man said, but Harry disappeared out of his office and down to the sewer entrance, where he found the twins coughing and shaking filth out of their hair. Their sister lay next to them, still unconscious.
"I'll get her to the hospital wing if you'd like," he offered. He was feeling magnanimous toward the twins today. He'd have to sit down and take a thorough look at that Map later on.
Snape tracked Harry down the next day and gave him a very stern speech about yelling at the bearded man. The upshot was that he wasn't to do it. Snape also asked Harry for what seemed liked the thousandth time how he was disappearing on the grounds.
"I." He pointed at his own chest and looked at Snape to make sure the man was following along. Snape raised an eyebrow. "Am. An. Elf!"
Snape let out a frustrated puff of air. "Mr Potter-"
"Only elves can disappear on the grounds! I've heard all sorts of people say it," Harry reasoned, crossing his arms. "Well so can I. Because, and I won't stutter this time-" The glare Snape gave him for this made Harry shrink back a little and continue in a slightly less belligerent tone. "I am an elf."
Snape glared at him. Harry rose to the challenge and met his eyes squarely.
After an interminable minute, Snape rubbed the bridge of his nose and broke their staring contest. A deep crease had appeared in his forehead. It looked like Harry just won that one.
"I understand you are joining the Slytherin Quidditch Team," Snape said. Harry had definitely just won that one, if Snape was changing the subject.
"I'm considering it," Harry told him. "It looks boring, though."
Snape blinked slowly. "I can assure you that Quidditch is anything but boring, Mr Potter."
Harry shrugged. "I'll look into it," he said. Snape nodded and dismissed him.
Harry was still enjoying increased notoriety from having rid the school of the 'monster' that was attacking students. He liked being a minor celebrity, mostly because of an article he'd spotted in the wizard newspaper a couple weeks ago which described him as 'The Elf-Who-Lived'. Snape and the Granger girl might still question his elvishness, but it appeared that the rest of the wizarding world was a bit more sensible.
Proof of the wizarding world's credulity appeared at Hogwarts not long after the incident with the ghost-book. Charms was over, and Harry was intent on nothing more complicated than getting out of the castle for Herbology. Draco walked next to him, and the two of them were sniggering over an incident during class that had resulted in one of the Ravenclaw students growing an extra set of ears.
"Oi! Hey, excuse me! Potter! Elf!"
A fifth year hurried toward them across the grounds, carrying a roll of parchment.
"This is for you," he said, stuffing the parchment in Harry's hand. "From Professor Dumbledore."
Harry glanced at Draco curiously.
"The Headmaster," Draco sighed.
"Oh, right. Thanks," Harry said, and stuffed the parchment in his bag. He and Draco carried on toward the greenhouses.
"You should open that," Draco said. "Now, I mean."
Harry scratched his head and shrugged. He plucked the parchment back out of his bag and opened it. "Sugar Quills," he read. "See me immediately."
Having completed his task, Harry put the note back in his bag and continued on his way. Draco frowned.
"Shouldn't you do something about that?"
"If he actually wanted to see me immediately, he would have sent Snape or come after me himself," Harry reasoned. "I'll go after class. We're working with the mandrakes again today. Sprout told me so."
After class, Harry left the greenhouses and parted ways with Draco, who was on his way to lunch. He found himself confronted near the lake by the headmaster and a shorter man with a bowler cap.
"Ah, Mr Potter," the short man said, beaming. "Delighted to meet you at last. Dumbledore said we might find you out here."
Harry tilted his head and stared. "Who're you?"
"This is the Minister for Magic, Mr Potter," the headmaster explained, smoothing his long white beard. "Cornelius Fudge. He would like to have a word or two with you."
Harry's eyes narrowed at the headmaster and the short man. An idea was beginning to form. "Minister for Magic?" he repeated.
"Yes indeed, Mr Potter," the Minister for Magic said. He was a bit round and his cap was lime green. Harry didn't know how he felt about this new person. "And may I say, it is an honour. We at the Ministry were so relieved when you were recovered last year, and-"
"Does that mean you're in charge of all the wizards?" Harry demanded.
The Minister for Magic paused and looked rather taken aback. He gathered himself with admirable quickness and chortled a little. "Well, I wouldn't say I'm 'in charge', as it were," he explained. "I have been elected to lead wizarding Britain, and I hope-"
Harry nodded. "You are in charge, then. I have a question."
"Mr Potter, you shouldn't interrupt the Minister," the bearded man admonished gently. He looked amused nonetheless, so Harry ignored him.
The Minister gathered himself. "Yes? What is it, then?"
"Am I an elf? Yes or no." Harry crossed his arms and glared at the pair of them.
Judging by the way the Minister looked suddenly like a startled deer, Harry gathered that he didn't know what to make of the question at all. That was alright, as long as he answered it correctly.
"Dumbledore," the Minister said, still staring at Harry. "Er, Dumbledore?"
The headmaster sighed. "I did warn you, Cornelius."
"Well?" Harry asked, feeling that it was rather rude of them to be having other conversations in front of him when his own question hadn't yet been answered.
"I, er," the Minister said, fidgeting with his cap and glancing at the headmaster. "That is, I suppose you might just be, at that. All the, erm, evidence seems to bear out."
The headmaster said nothing. If Harry had to describe his expression, he'd say it was expectant, maybe curious. Definitely amused and trying to hide it. He felt a smile starting to form on his own face.
"So that's a yes, is it?"
The Minister looked again to the headmaster, who didn't look as though he was trying to be particularly helpful. "Ah, yes. Yes, you are."
"A free elf," Harry detailed. "A forest elf."
"Er, right, yes. Ahem. A forest elf."
"I'm very different from a house elf, wouldn't you agree?" Harry asked, blinking up at the Minister. The man blustered about for a moment, but managed to come up with an answer eventually.
"Quite- quite different, yes," the Minister agreed. "Indeed you are."
"Then we agree that there should be a separate classification for my species," Harry said, satisfied. "Forest elves deserve the same rights, recognition, and freedoms as anybody else."
The Minister's mouth opened and closed several times, but no sound came out. The Granger girl was going to be so proud of Harry when he showed up with this news at the next meeting of S.P.E.W. She probably wouldn't even yell or throw him out.
"Dumbledore?" the Minister managed, eyes still locked on Harry, who grinned at him.
"I believe Mr Potter is suggesting a boon, Cornelius," the headmaster prompted gently. "Would that be correct, Mr Potter?"
Harry nodded easily. "We can make it a boon, yeah. I'm pretty sure I can get a hold of a box or two of Montecristo M's, if you like that sort of thing."
The Minister opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "Actually-"
"Minister Fudge," the headmaster said in a pointed tone. The Minister rallied and shook his head.
"No, that won't be necessary just now," he demurred hastily. "I would much prefer the promise of your future assistance, should wizarding Britain require it."
"My... assistance?" Harry repeated, nonplussed.
"Precisely," the Minister said, warming to his topic now that Harry was the one who looked out of sorts. "Should some dire need arise, should some enemy appear that only you are able to dispatch-"
"That seems unlikely," Harry pointed out. The Minister faltered.
"Well, I mean to say," he mumbled, his voice growing more confident as he went. "As you are a- a unique species with unique powers, it stands to reason that you may have unique abilities, you see? Of the sort the Ministry would very much prefer to have on our side, as it happens. That is, if you truly are a forest elf as you claim."
"I am," Harry reassured him, thinking deeply about this new proposition and trying to tease out what exactly it was that he didn't like about it. "But..."
"But, Mr Potter?" The Minister leaned forward with a helpful expression. "Do allow me to address your concerns."
Harry wrinkled his forehead. "I'll have to think about this. What would I have to do?"
"As I said, you would only need to make yourself available in case of an emergency," the Minister explained. "Should we call upon you, you only need cooperate. And in return, you will have your, ahem. Your being status."
Harry looked from the Minister to the headmaster and back again. Both waited with patient, bland smiles for his answer.
"I-I'll think about it and get back to you," he repeated, worried at the pit of anxiety that was building in his stomach. His instincts were almost never wrong, and his instincts were currently feeling very uncomfortable. "Later," he added, before the Minister could respond.
He disappeared to the other side of the castle and frowned at the cobblestones under his boots. The Minister had asked for something big and shadowy and undefined, and he didn't like that. He didn't like anything about the Minister's request. His own petition had been big, sure, but it had also been outlined rather clearly. This wouldn't be an even trade, and that meant it wouldn't be fair.
He did like the idea of an official status, of no one being able to question him again when he told them he was a forest elf. It would get rid of one of the most irritating things about interacting with wizards.
"Oi, Potter! Don't forget about tryouts tomorrow!"
The Quidditch people had appeared from near the stands, and all of them were staring at him.
"You'll be there tomorrow, yeah?" This from the captain, who squinted at Harry and held a broom on one shoulder. "We've got an agreement and all."
Harry glared at him. "Verbal contracts are invalid until someone follows through on their side of the deal," he informed them. "Now get away, I'm busy."
The burly boy took a step forward. "You're going to-"
The captain cut him off by knocking a hand into his chest.
"We'll see you tomorrow, Potter," he said, and led the team away.
Harry sneered at their retreating backs and looked around the open courtyard he was standing in. It felt small and confined. The cobblestones were uncomfortable under his feet.
"Bugger this," he told the snake, and disappeared.
He appeared in front of the desk in Snape's office, where the Potions Master sat perusing a thick book.
"Is it finished?" he asked. Snape had asked for more of Harry's supply of waterwheel a couple months ago. Fortunately for both their plans, Slug & Jiggers in Diagon Alley hadn't managed to follow through on their promise of a vial of genuine Felix Felicis.
Snape made better potions, anyway.
"It is," Snape said. He marked his place in the book and rose from his chair. Something about his posture looked resigned as he stood facing his shelves of vials and jars, searching for Harry's potion. "I have been waiting for an opportunity to speak with you, Mr. Potter."
"Okay," Harry said. "Here I am."
"You are aware that the Dursleys were punished for their treatment of you?"
Harry blinked and took a small step back. "What?"
"They were wrong to treat you the way they did, and they have been dealt with," Snape continued, glancing back at Harry as he picked up a jar and set it back down again. "You do not, and nor did you ever deserve to be treated like a slave. They were abominable muggles and their actions are not your fault."
"What?" Harry grimaced. "No, you've got it all backward. They were stale. They didn't understand how elves work, that's all. I'll never see them again anyway, right?"
Snape had another one of those headaches, apparently. "No, of course you won't."
"Great," Harry said. "Is that my potion?"
He pointed at a vial on the shelf near Snape's hand, labeled 'Augurvitae Potion'.
"It is." Snape picked it up and waited while Harry fished out the last of his waterwheel and handed it over.
"Nice doing business with you," Harry said, right before he disappeared. "I'll see you around."
He reappeared deep in the forest and detached the school badge from his tunic. He flipped it away into a bush and approached the edge of centaur territory. Two centaurs appeared out of the foliage and approached him.
"I quit the wizards," Harry said, spreading his arms so that they could see his lack of House affiliation. Even the Slytherin tie which he'd taken to wearing around his waist was gone. He didn't belong in a House, after all. He was a forest elf, from start to finish. "And I brought that potion Magorian's been asking after. Can I speak with him?"
"You won't go back?" Bane asked. He and the other centaur were holding their bows at ease as they spoke. Harry eyed the weapons with envy. It was long since officially spring, which meant the young centaurs were learning archery. Harry thought he might still have a chance to join in.
"I don't trust them, and they're becoming useless," Harry explained. "So probably not, no."
He glanced up at the sun. Draco was probably wondering where he'd gone. They were supposed to be in Transfiguration right now.
He figured he had until after the weekend before the wizards started looking for him. That was fine, though. They wouldn't find him.
"Can I speak with Magorian?" he repeated, raising his eyebrows. Bane and the other centaur (Harry thought his name was Madar) exchanged a glance, then looked up at the sky.
"He is still one of them," Bane said to the air.
"I am not," Harry interrupted with a scowl. "And Magorian told me that if I wasn't with the wizards, he'd think about taking me on."
"You have been with the wizards for many months," Bane pointed out.
"And you've profited from it," Harry reminded him. Bane scowled. He was one of the centaurs who made boons with Harry on a fairly regular basis, and he knew it.
"We will speak with Magorian on your behalf," Madar decided, putting a quelling hand on Bane's shoulder.
"Thank you," Harry said. He crouched down with his back against a tree and prepared to wait indefinitely. Bane shook his head as they walked away, and soon even the sound of trotting hooves faded into the distance.
It would likely be a while.
Harry slept twice (in the tree), and sorted through his entire bag before something of note happened. He found and removed eighteen different kinds of tracking magic attached to various objects, and resolved to keep a better eye on his things.
He was replenishing his potion and amulet ingredients with nearby plants when Magorian himself cantered out of the trees, accompanied by a small contingent which included Bane, Firenze, Rowan and Ruta. Ruta grinned at Harry, and Harry grinned back, hopeful.
"How are we to know you are telling the truth?" Magorian asked. "How are we to know you will not reveal our secrets or knowledge to the wizards?"
Harry drew himself up, a picture of affronted outrage.
"I would never!" he insisted. "My loyalties do not lie with wizards."
Magorian sneered. "I suppose they lie with us?"
"Of course not," Harry said, wrinkling his nose. "I'm an elf, not a centaur. My loyalties are with the forest elves."
The centaurs stirred at this pronouncement.
"Your secrets are yours, anyway," Harry continued. "I swear that anything you show me will not go beyond my own ears."
He made the hand motion for promises that usually convinced the wizards, and watched the centaurs stir again as a curl of flame leapt up from his palm. One by one, they looked up to where the stars shone through the trees. Even Ruta's attention was captured. Harry waited, knowing this was a vital part of the centaur decision making process.
At length, Magorian lowered his head to face Harry, regarding him solemnly. "You may stay with us and learn what you have asked for, and no more. You will leave when you are finished and you will reveal our knowledge to no one, or you will die."
"Agreed," Harry said, and when the centaurs turned back to their territory, Harry followed.
Chapter 9: Wherein Harry Makes New Friends
True to his word, Magorian placed Harry with the youngest centaurs, learning archery. They met daily in a certain patch of lavender when the shadows hung just right.
Harry hadn't managed to convince the centaurs to include Dobby as well, so instead he sent Dobby on a mission: survive in the forest without any interaction with wizards for four weeks. Both Harry and Dobby were cautiously optimistic about Dobby's chances, and it gave Harry time to concentrate on the first part of his own training.
At Harry's first lesson, Rowan stood at the head of the group of six, silent and waiting. Ruta nudged Harry, who stepped forward to receive his bow and a set of arrows with carefully concealed excitement. He touched his finger to the tip of one of the arrows and found it razor sharp.
"Today," Rowan said, drawing his bow and slicing an arrow into a tree bough four hundred feet from where they stood. "Your goal."
Harry blinked. This group was way ahead of him.
The centaur foals drew their own arrows and began target practice. Harry turned away from the rest of the group and aimed at a tree to the left of the proceedings, where he wouldn't hurt anyone if he missed. He tried to imitate their stances, but it was difficult with only two legs. Rowan watched his initial attempts without providing any kind of reaction or advice. Harry managed to fit the arrow into the bow, and to draw it with some difficulty. His aim was wild and the bow contracted unexpectedly, sending the arrow into the dirt twenty feet away.
When Harry turned to look at Rowan, the centaur drew his own bow and, holding it firmly in the correct position, gestured with his chin for Harry to imitate him.
Harry pulled his arm back with the string held tightly against his fingers and glanced around at the practicing foals to see that he had it right. He wasn't able to draw his bow as far as even the youngest centaur. Rowan gave him a once over, adjusted Harry's feet with a nudge of his own hooves, and nodded.
"Hold it like that," he instructed, then turned to inspect the progress of the rest of the group.
Huffing, Harry did as he was told and held the bow taut. He watched the sun drift until a dewy leaf it had left half in shadow sparkled and he was struggling to keep his grip firm. Rowan ignored Harry until his grip failed and the arrow shot haphazardly into a nearby tree.
"Good," Rowan pronounced. "Again."
Harry rolled his shoulder and dutifully drew a fresh arrow onto the bowstring. Rowan adjusted his grip minutely and returned to the other centaurs. It took about half as long for Harry's arm to fail this time, but Rowan only glanced at him and gestured that he continue.
For the rest of the lesson, Harry held his bow taut, feeling his arm and back muscles weaken into jelly as he struggled with the weight. Rowan only ever approached him to adjust his grip or footing, and otherwise let Harry struggle alone.
"You are weak still," Ruta explained after practice had ended. Harry was allowed to keep his bow, but had been offered blunt arrows to use outside of centaur supervision. "You have to build up your strength before you can practice properly."
"How long do you think that'll take?" Harry asked, stretching his arms out above his head to try and relieve a bit of the ache.
"Once you are able to draw the bow fully, Rowan will allow you to shoot with the rest of us," Ruta reassured him. "Until then, you must practice grip and stancework."
Harry nodded and turned his new bow over in his hands, examining the fine detail of the carvings and the polished wood. "Want to go to the pond?"
"I would race you," Ruta teased, "But you are still weak."
Harry made a face at her. "If I wasn't so sore I'd thump you."
Harry spent the next several weeks learning to aim and developing his shooting muscles. His body wasn't quite so sore after practice anymore, and he was able to draw the bow further and further. Eventually, Rowan was confident enough in his abilities that he was allowed to keep his sharp arrows after practice ended.
By the time the forest's summer flowers bloomed, Harry was settled in and nearly caught up with the centaur foals. He had managed to avoid capture by the wizards through the simple expedient of remaining deep in the forest and ignoring the many, many owls they sent. Dobby had yet to reappear, which worried Harry even though he knew it shouldn't.
One thing Harry had spent a long time trying rid Dobby of, along with his servile attitude and general cleanliness, was the desire to be punctual. They might have said four weeks, but Harry figured he should be proud if Dobby had taken his lessons to heart and showed up after six instead.
On the other hand, although Harry knew that Dobby could just disappear to his side if anything went wrong, he'd feel a lot better once Dobby proved his skills by returning (as well as proving he hadn't been killed by an angry hippogriff or something).
In the meantime, Harry had several ongoing boons with a few more enterprising forest creatures, and Nerin had even come to visit by way of one of the larger lake tributaries. He was thinking about taking a short holiday down to her village soon, if he could scrounge up the necessary gillyweed. He'd get enough to take Dobby this time, for sure.
The other foals had taken it upon themselves to teach Harry trick shooting. Rowan kept them to a strict regimen during practice, and Harry wouldn't have learned about it otherwise.
"You don't just aim to hit the target," Balen explained one day, after he, Ruta, and two of the other foals had waylaid Harry on his way out of the practice clearing. "You aim to hit it more impressively than any other centaur ever has."
"Or elf," Ruta chimed in, causing Harry to grin at her. "We go to the outskirts after practice to work on our tricks sometimes. Do you want to come?"
"Definitely! Let's go," Harry said, and managed to keep up by disappearing rapidly as the four of them shouted and laughed and galloped past the open field where stargazing was taught after twilight, and out to the edge of centaur territory.
"Watch," Ruta called, drawing her bow and aiming low. Her arrow glanced off a small boulder and probably would have flown wild had she not already loosed another, which hit the first and tipped it to embed itself in a thin branch a hundred feet away.
Harry was suitably impressed. The foals showed off for him for a couple hours, laughing and arguing when one sabotaged another's shot. They taught him a few simple tricks, including knocking his own arrow on course, which he got fairly good at, and shooting straight up in the air to hit an unsuspecting target twenty feet away. Admittedly, he still needed more practice with that trick, and he learned that he also needed more practice with his broader shielding magic when he nearly took out Furze's hindquarters with a stray arrow.
On Balen's instruction, Harry attempted to string two arrows at once. He was not doing an especially spectacular job of it. One of the arrows was sent flying by a slip of his finger, and a screech made Harry and all four of his friends freeze in place.
"You hit an owl," Balen said, investigating the now-dead bird by poking at it with another arrow. "I would admire your shooting, but that was definitely an accident."
Harry joined Balen in front of the bird and crouched down to examine it further. The snake poked his head out from behind Harry's ear, where he was resting on Harry's head like a crown of laurels.
"Did you catch lunch?" he asked, darting his forked tongue out with interest. "You did! That is a fine catch, good job."
"I guess I did," Harry shrugged, fishing in his bag for a leather strap and planning to loop it around the bird's feet. It was a large owl, with dark feathers and a cruel beak. It really was a fine catch. He'd have to defeather and roast it when they were finished here.
"What is that on its foot?" Ruta asked, having cantered over to investigate. The other two centaurs followed as well, and the four of them crowded around and watched as Harry detached a roll of parchment from the bird's leg.
"It's just a letter," Harry explained. "From the wizards, probably."
"What does it say?" Ruta asked, her eyes alight with curiosity. "Are they terribly cross with you?"
"Probably," Harry said with a shrug, unrolling the letter and glancing over it. "It's from Snape. He's the Potion's Master up at the wizard school."
"Is he cross?" Furze wanted to know.
"Looks like it, yeah," Harry said. He grinned a little as he rolled the parchment up and dropped it in his bag. "He's just mad because he can't find me. He doesn't like losing."
Harry hung the bird over a low branch and went back to practising. He and the snake would have it later, after all the other centaurs left for divination.
"That was a particularly delicious bird," the snake commented, after the two of them had devoured the owl.
"Yeah, I think Snape fed him special potions to keep him healthy," Harry agreed. "They made him very tender."
He and the snake were still licking their chops when Harry disappeared to the edge of the star gazing clearing and crept in amongst the young centaurs. Everyone had their eyes lifted to the heavens, so Harry went largely unnoticed as he halted between Balen and Ruta, who reached out calmly and slapped Harry in the back of the head. He bit back a yelp and rubbed at the spot she'd hit, wishing she'd look down so she could see him glaring at her. Not completely unnoticed, then.
"When a centaur observes the fire triplicity, he or she should take especial concern when Mars or the lunar cycle show a particular dignity, as this will almost certainly indicate conflict." Madar, the centaur leading the lesson for the night, lifted a long fingered hand to point at a particular bright spot in the sky. "Alternatively, Jupiter ruled the night when we invited our resident forest elf to stay, so despite his prying into matters that he has not been invited into, we will indulge his curiosity and allow him to continue enjoying our hospitality."
Harry ducked his head, feeling a bit sheepish. A murmur swept through the assembled centaurs, young and old, but they sounded largely amused at his being caught out. The lecture continued.
"As you know, Vettius, a centaur of 2nd century Greece, brought divination out of the realm of guesswork and into the field of art in his Anthology. Through his ecliptic system, he provided his fellow centaur with not only a standard by which to discuss their findings, but a code that would allow us to keep our knowledge from other species, as wizards especially had yet to catch on to basic geometry, and would not manage such a monumental feat for upward of another four hundred years."
Another round of murmuring swept through the group, and Harry clearly heard Ronan and Bane chuckling nearby.
This was a lot more fun than any astronomy class he'd ever been to up at the castle, for certain. Harry tipped his head back and paid attention as Madar pointed out an interesting anomaly in the northern quadrant.
About a week later, Harry was minding his own business with Ruta and Balen, who had been assigned by Rowan to teach Harry how to fashion his own arrows, when an eagle owl appeared from the treetops and settled down in a bush near to Harry's arm, hooting ominously. Harry hooted a greeting, which the owl returned only grudgingly. A vivid red envelope was clutched in one of its talons.
The envelope was smoking slightly. Alarmed, Harry leaned closer, breathing in the taste of the magic. It wasn't anything harmful, so he took the letter from the owl and considered dousing it with a bit of water, to be safe. More smoke gushed from the envelope, and Harry dropped it just in time for it to explode.
"Where the HELL are you?!" the envelope shrieked. Harry reared back and fell on his arse, shocked. Ruta and Balen dropped their sticks and knives and backed away from Harry and the envelope hastily.
"Did you KILL Professor Snape's owl? He said it hasn't come back and MY last owl came back unopened in two days, so there's no reason why his shouldn't have, and I KNOW how you and that effing snake of yours are about birds!"
Harry vaguely thought that this letter was a rather good verbal approximation of Draco when he was having a fit, and then realised that was probably exactly what it was.
"Hello, Draco," he ventured. "I-"
The letter interrupted him almost immediately. "I can't BELIEVE you just WANDERED OFF without telling me you were going to go, I thought we had a bloody UNDERSTANDING! I thought we were FRIENDS! I should unore everbero, aut entomorphis, rictofero, stulte asine! Diminuendo! Interfice te cochleare, melofors, obterant pulmones..."
Harry sat and listened to the stream of Latin, wondering what on earth it all meant. He suspected most of it to be actual curses or hexes, but some of it sounded more like Draco was just insulting him.
"You had better respond to this, else you'll be getting one of these every bleeding day until I track you down and curse you - anteoculatia for example, though you'd probably enjoy it, wouldn't you - I'll curse you so hard you won't be able to climb one of your bloody trees for a bloody MONTH! And if my owl goes missing, I will find you and I will diffindo your stupid pointy ears off!"
Harry reflected that he had definitely been a bad influence on Draco, and listened as the letter shouted a couple more profanity and Latin-laced threats and topped it all off by bursting into flame. He watched until it was nothing more than a pile of ash, feeling as though a tree had been knocked down while he was still in it.
"He sounded upset," Ruta said in the ringing silence, approaching slowly from behind a copse of trees.
"He did," Harry agreed. "I-I might write him back?"
Ruta shuffled her hooves. "He is a wizard," she reminded him. "You said you wouldn't go back."
"I won't," Harry promised, looking back down at the pile of ash. "But Draco's my friend. I... kind of promised."
Harry sat down next to the half finished arrows and rooted through his bag for a scrap of parchment and a quill, and thought about it.
"Well, we didn't actually agree that I would always respond to his owls when I'm away," Harry admitted, frowning as he searched for a bottle of ink. "But I knew he wanted me to, and... I don't know."
Ruta folded her legs under herself and sank down next to him. "What will you say?"
Harry found the ink and shrugged. "I'll just say hello and make sure he doesn't send another exploding letter."
I got your shouting letter. Harry traced these words painstakingly onto the parchment. He was much better at writing these days, but it was still a chore. I am sorry. I will resqo answer your letters as long as they do not explode anymore. Your owl is alive. I did not kill Snapes owl on purpose. I will send him the fethers if he likes. I am taking lessons elsewhere and I am learning a lot. I will see you later.
Harry dried the ink and rolled up the parchment. The bird was still waiting, so Harry handed over the letter and hooted long and low in apology. The bird fluffed himself up and eyed Harry magisterially. Having found him acceptable, he hopped onto Harry's wrist and allowed him to lift him into a better position for takeoff.
Harry stayed with the centaurs for a little more than a month longer, developing his skills with the bow and arrow as much as possible, in addition to sitting in on divination lessons when he thought he could get away with it. Dobby returned two weeks after their appointed time, which Harry had already decided to congratulate him for. Dobby still wasn't allowed to work with the centaurs, but he and Harry found plenty to do in the surrounding forest when Harry wasn't practicing. He knew that once Rowan considered the centaur foals fit to join the rest in patrols, he'd measure Harry against them and decide whether his time with the centaurs was over. He wanted to be ready.
Draco had replied to Harry's response within the day, and they were now exchanging letters with regularity.
You're in the Forbidden Forest, aren't you, you prat? Draco asked in one of his earlier letters.
Harry responded by saying: I am not forbidden from being where I am. I don't know what you mean.
Draco replied with: I won't tell Snape or anyone. It's obvious. You wouldn't be able to respond so quickly if you weren't close by.
When he read this, Harry froze and stared around the clearing as though Draco might jump out from behind a tree with a smug look on his face and try to drag him back to Hogwarts.
Harry didn't address Draco's point in his response, though he did put off writing it for a day and a half.
Draco was not fooled: Crabbe and Goyle want you to know that there's seventh year who has been trying to get in contact with you with regards to a few potions ingredients. Apparently she has a lunascope to trade. Since you're in the Forbidden Forest anyway, it shouldn't be a difficult exchange. I'll enclose the list.
Again, Harry ignored Draco's speculation on his whereabouts, although his return letter included parchment packets containing all the ingredients on the list.
Draco's owl returned from that trip with a package containing the aforementioned lunascope, which Harry examined closely before packing it away into his bag. Draco did not mention Harry's location again.
Another week after this exchange was completed, Draco's owl started taking longer to return. Harry thought about it and decided it must be the summer holiday now, and that Draco was back in Wiltshire.
Draco's first letter after leaving for the holiday was much longer and thicker than his usual. When he opened it, Harry was surprised to find that Draco's handwriting was not in evidence.
Mr. Malfoy has been kind enough to agree to forward this missive on my behalf, though I hope that future exchanges may be received directly.
Your early departure from Hogwarts has caused you to miss many of your lessons. This is a shame, as you have always been one of my more promising students. To this end, I have enclosed all missed assignments from each of your classes, and I will respond to any completed work or questions you may have with my personal owl. I expect that you will want to finish this work directly, so that we may progress onward to your second year exams and keep you on course to graduate with your class.
I look forward to hearing from you.
The rest of the parchment was indeed a stack of assignments and instructions. Harry sifted through it and found it organised by subject.
He sat crossed legged on the ground and read through a few of them, allowing the snake to inspect it all and approve of the scent of Flitwick's magic on the papers. He remembered some of it, but there was a lot of new information in these parchments.
The centaurs wouldn't be happy that he was communicating with someone from the wizard school, but Harry wasn't actually beholden to them. He'd be leaving soon, anyway. That was part of why he liked it so much in centaur territory; they didn't want to keep him by any means. He just had to do his assignments when he was alone, and all would be well.
The idea of getting what he wanted from the wizards without having to actually be at their school appealed to him enormously, and Harry packed all the parchment into his accordion folder with great care. He wondered what Flitwick might want in return for this, but he wasn't too worried. Flitwick wasn't a complicated man by any means. His request would be easy.
"Your time with us has come to an end," Rowan told Harry one day, a few weeks later. Harry beamed and adjusted his bow over his shoulder. He knew how to shoot with an accuracy near to that of a young centaur, now. He could make his own arrows and he could hit a moving target, whether he was the one moving or not. He was getting better and better at the trick shots Ruta and Balen and the others liked so much.
"Congratulations," Rowan continued. "Your future path will surely align with that of the centaurs again."
"Thanks," Harry responded. "I'll see you, then."
The past few months with the centaurs was one of the better birthday presents he'd ever given himself. Draco had sent him a letter pointing it out when the day arrived, which meant that Harry knew on his birthday that it was his birthday for the first time since he could remember. A ward sextant had arrived by the same owl. Harry had been searching for one of those since before he met the basilisk, even, but Draco had yet to respond to Harry's inquiries as to what he wanted in return for such a coveted boon. There was a man in Hogsmeade who was willing to part with two extremely old, extremely valuable bottles of mead in exchange for one, and Harry could get a lot out of two bottles of mead.
He and Dobby said goodbye to the centaurs one last time, disappeared to Hogsmeade to make the trade, and then set out south. Harry was determined to win the summer, and perhaps even the winter, so they were extra cautious about potentially running into Snape. He was getting better at their game, but that only made it more satisfying when Harry successfully evaded him.
Dobby needed practice with his boons, so they took a break from walking in a small village near Glasgow while Harry hunted around for an easy one. He found an old, withered woman in a cottage on the outskirts of the village, and nudged Dobby toward her.
"Just remember what we said," Harry said as they approached the back garden through a grassy field. "Figure out what you want before you talk to them, and don't offer them housework. Remember what happened last time."
Dobby nodded, twisting his long fingers together and watching the old woman stoop over the turnips in one corner of her garden. "Dobby remembers. The wizard tried to turn Dobby back into a house elf. Dobby is a forest elf now."
"That's right, Dobby," Harry said encouragingly. "You're a free forest elf. You demand what you deserve - "
" - and nothing less,' Dobby finished, nodding. "Dobby will attempt to perform the boon with the skill and cunning of the greatest forest elf."
Harry grinned and fell back as Dobby walked the final few feet toward the garden and allowed himself to become visible. The old woman glanced up and cried out, startled. Dobby blinked up at her and managed to calm her with a few words.
Impressed, Harry edged closer to listen. He was still invisible, so he stood right next to Dobby and observed his technique critically.
"Dobby is a forest elf, ma'am," Dobby explained. "We is sometimes giving boons to humans in exchange for favours."
The woman watched him with narrow, uncertain eyes. "What kind of favours? What's a boon?"
"Favours and boons can be anything," Dobby said, looking around her garden. "For example, Dobby could wee-"
Harry elbowed him, effectively cutting off what he suspected was an offer to provide some kind of gardening assistance.
"Dobby, Dobby could... fix your leg," he finished hastily. The woman straightened up as completely as she was able and stared. Harry could tell Dobby had caught her interest, and beamed proudly at his friend.
"Could you do it?" she breathed. "Could you really?"
Dobby executed a complicated little bow. "Dobby could, ma'am."
"And what..." the woman seemed to wilt, and eyed Dobby with suspicion. "What would you ask in return? My firstborn is fully grown, with children of his own by now, I'll have you know. I won't sacrifice any of them."
Harry was certain his own face reflected the shock on Dobby's pointed features.
"Dobby would not... Dobby would never ask for sacrifice, ma'am!" Dobby cried. "Dobby is not a bad elf! Dobby is wanting to be helpful! Dobby is only wanting shoes for his services!"
"Sh-shoes?" she repeated, baffled. "Pardon?"
Harry rubbed his forehead with one hand. He had been so caught off guard by the woman's 'sacrifice' comment that he hadn't been prepared to nip Dobby's request in the bud. It was better than his old default, which was ties. It had taken a couple months and about thirty eight ties to train him out of that.
"A pair of shoes," Dobby repeated. "Ones that would fit Dobby's feet and be comfortable for walking. Dobby is thinking boots would be nice."
Harry grinned down at his own boots. Maybe this wasn't such a terrible request after all, even though he didn't think Dobby really needed boots, as such.
"I could talk to the cobbler in the village..." the old woman said, and Dobby nodded encouragingly.
"You cannot be telling him who it is for," he warned. "You must be keeping it a secret, or else Dobby will disappear."
She blinked at him and nodded faintly. "Of course," she said, picking up her bag of turnips. "Of course Dobby would do that. Let me just go get a measuring tape for your feet, dear. Stay there."
An unexpectedly fierce thunderstorm had Harry and Dobby taking shelter in a cave later that week. Harry spotted it from a glint of light shining out of the mouth, and they approached carefully, hoping that it was the entrance to a dwarf mine and that they might be convinced to allow Dobby and Harry to wait out the storm for a while.
There was no one inside but a rather large dog, although the cave showed signs of having contained a human recently from the thin, tattered bedding and the circle of smouldering coals in the corner.
Harry poked around, investigating as Dobby kept watch at the mouth of the cave. It wasn't a dwarf mine after all, which was probably for the best. The human must have been magical; the taste of unfamiliar magic hung in the air like a perfume, prickling against Harry's tongue and even causing the snake to poke his head out from the shelter of Harry's tunic and taste the air curiously.
Harry turned his attention to the dog, whose only reaction to their entrance had been to perk up its ears and watch the them with canine suspicion. He was blatantly magical, and Harry paused. The unfamiliar magic belonged to the dog. Maybe it was a magical dog with a stale human?
Harry relaxed somewhat. A stale human would have taken shelter elsewhere by now, and would wait out the storm there. It looked like they had the cave for the duration of the storm, as the dog didn't seem to object to their presence.
"We can stay here," Harry said out loud, crouching now to examine the dog more closely. He had shaggy black hair, and it looked as though his human hadn't been feeding him well. "We should probably figure out some way of keeping watch. The human might come back."
"Dobby is putting up warning wards," Dobby said, lifting his hands to the rain. Harry reached a hand out to the dog, who sniffed him thoroughly and seemed to approve.
Having finished his investigation, the dog backed up and sat down on the bedding. A sudden rumble of thunder made him flinch and growl, though this didn't seem to be directed at Harry or Dobby, who had joined Harry on the floor across from the dog and was watching curiously.
Harry decided to cut short the 'getting to know you' period and just make friends with this dog. He reached into his bag and pulled out an entire roasted pheasant, which he handed to Dobby. The dog's nose had come up from his paws when Harry revealed the food, and his gaze was fixed unerringly on Dobby.
"Don't worry, I've got some for you, too," Harry said, pulling out a slightly larger chicken and tossing it toward him.
In a split second, the dog was on his feet with his jaws wrapped around his present, already trying to inhale half the chicken whole.
"Chew!" Harry said, laughing a little. He woofed at the dog and watched him scarf down the chicken, ready to intervene if choking became a problem. The last dog he'd been friends with hadn't even been this desperate, and Harry was pretty sure he'd been a stray. This dog appeared to have a human, who should be taking care of it. Alphas had responsibilities, after all. Harry frowned and glanced at the mouth of the cave, as though the human might suddenly appear and explain himself.
The dog finished the last of the chicken and sat licking his jaws and watching Harry avidly.
"Hello there," Dobby said to the dog. The dog's ears twitched, but he didn't look away from Harry. If the dog hadn't been so clearly pleased, tongue still lolling and tail thumping on the dirt floor of the cave, Harry might have been worried.
"Hello, doggie," Dobby said again, and this time, the dog glanced at him, snuffled, and laid his head down on his front paws, allowing Dobby to scratch briefly behind his ears and ease past him toward the remnants of the fire.
They spent the night with the dog, who turned out to be quite friendly. His human never returned, even though the rain stopped a few hours before sunrise. When Harry and Dobby emerged from the cave the next morning, the dog tumbled out after them and yapped gleefully, bounding away into the undergrowth only to come racing back to trot at Harry's side. Harry couldn't see any reason to object. He liked this dog.
As they walked, Harry became aware of something following them through the trees. He paused and held up a hand to silence Dobby's questions, which had the unintended but appreciated side effect of quieting the dog down as well.
As he stared back the way they'd come, a bird burst out of the foliage and steadied himself before alighting on a nearby branch, squawking and bristling at Harry.
He chirped a greeting to the owl, which was Draco's. He looked more bedraggled than Harry had ever seen him. Obviously, he'd been caught in the storm. "You must be hungry."
The owl squawked and flapped his wings erratically, clearly at the end of his tether. Harry rolled his eyes and untied the letter that the owl was so keen to get rid of, opening it with broad gestures, so that the owl couldn't miss his obedience.
Harry, the letter began, I know you almost never listen to me or anyone else who's actually concerned about your well-being, but I'm asking you just this once to please attend to what I'm about to tell you. You are in danger. A convict, Sirius Black, escaped from Azkaban - that's the wizard prison, and it's almost impossible to get out, but he did - and they think he's looking for you. Please go somewhere safe. If you're still near Hogwarts, go there. If you're down south, come to Wiltshire. My parents don't even have to know you're here, I promise. If you're in the midlands, go to Lupin's. This is serious. This is one of those terrifying spectacles you agreed not to cause again, only worse.
Harry frowned at the letter, which still had several paragraphs to go.
"Draco wants me to go visit him," he said to Dobby. "He's worried about an escaped convict. Huh."
The dog, who had been sniffing around the bushes, froze suddenly and darted off into the forest. Harry glanced up to see what was the matter and saw that three more owls had arrived while he'd been reading Draco's letter. They were all huddled together on the same branch, staring at him.
Harry examined the owls and the letters, and removed all the tracking magic (there was quite a lot) before touching any of the parchment.
"Who are they from?" Dobby asked, leaning forward to look at the letters Harry had pulled off the owls.
He sat down with his back against a tree and sifted through them. "This one's from Snape, this one's from Lupin, and this one is from... Dum-ble-dore."
"The headmaster," Dobby nodded. "What do they say?"
Harry had already opened them all and was glancing through Snape's.
"The same as Draco's, mostly. More details about the escaped convict... 'very concerned for your safety, blah blah, come back where we can keep an eye on you.' ...hmm, Snape's offering to make me Felix Felicis if I come back to Hogwarts, that's interesting... Lupin wants me to visit him, says he'll show me how to make that potion he's always drinking for the full moon, that might actually be useful..." Harry shuffled back to Draco's letter. "Right, and Draco says if I come stay with him he'll let me poke through his father's secret dungeons... and that he'll look the other way if I see something I like... that sounds like a bit of fun, actually."
"What is the headmaster offering?" Dobby asked, sitting down next to him and peering over his shoulder.
Harry skimmed through that particular letter. "He says he'll get me access to my parent's vault at Gringotts and let me have a few of the books in his office." He thought this over for a second. Those books had looked tempting. But ultimately: "Boring."
He really didn't like the headmaster.
"They must be being very worried for you," Dobby pointed out. "The convict is sounding dangerous."
"Yeah, but I've got my bow," Harry shrugged. "And if it came to it, I've got you and the snake and a great big dog. And if Snape can't find me, how would a convict?"
He looked around the empty forest to make his point, and realised the dog hadn't come back. "We'd better get going," he said, standing up and brushing off his backside. "Dispelling the tracking magic is useless if we don't leave the area."
He pulled out a quill and added a note on the back of each letter.
I will consider your offer and let you know, he scribbled to Draco, Lupin and Snape. For the headmaster, he wrote, I am not interested.
He didn't particularly want to continue the boon he'd had going with the headmaster about attending his school, and he certainly didn't want to make another. He didn't trust the man.
Once he gave each owl a chunk of meat and his response, they each took off and Harry dusted off his hands. "Right," he said. "Let's go figure out where the dog went."
"Which way will we go?" Dobby asked, a few hours later. They had reached an impasse, a steep hill with two potential paths winding in totally different directions down to flatter land on either side. Harry squinted down one path while Dobby peered at the other.
"We've been letting the dog lead us for most of the day," Harry pointed out, after a long period of consideration. "It seems to have worked so far."
Harry and Dobby both turned to look at the dog, who had been sitting and panting quietly, watching this process in silence. They'd found him hiding in a large patch of bushes. It took two roast chickens and a lot of cajoling to convince him to come out again. Harry thought he might be afraid of birds, which was strange and perhaps explained why the dog had been surviving on rats when they found him.
"Which way does the doggie think we should go?" Dobby asked the dog, who took this as an invitation to lay down.
Harry sat down as well. "I think he's made his decision," he said to Dobby, and grinned when the dog grumbled and tucked his face under Harry's arm.
"The doggie is being very tired," Dobby agreed. "We should be giving him water and more food."
Once the dog was fed and watered and resting his head contentedly on Harry's shin, Harry leaned back against a tree and fished through his bag for his school work. His stack of papers had slimmed down considerably since Flitwick's first owl, and Harry had worked his way through nearly all of his subjects. He only had Potions, Transfiguration and History of Magic left to complete.
"I don't really see a point to doing the History," Harry said to the snake after a little while, having worked through a few transfigurations and attached his attempts to the theory worksheets to be sent off when Flitwick's owl came back. He'd do a bit of Potions work later on, when they'd found a place to sleep for the night. "It's not like it's anything to do with me, and it's boring."
"Don't do it, then," the snake agreed. The day was hot and bright, and the trees rustled with a faint breeze. The dog had sprawled out on his side next to Harry and was breathing deeply. "I don't see why you should care a whit about Silas the Strange or Wendin the Weird or whatever their names were. Wizards acted like gits toward other species, the goblins gave as good as they got, things burned down, everyone died, no one did or ate anything particularly clever, the end."
Harry nodded, yawning at even the thought of it. Dobby, who had been gazing absently up into the canopy of leaves above their heads, glanced at Harry.
"What is the snake saying?" he asked, producing a yawn to match Harry's.
"Just that we don't see why I should do the History work Flitwick sent, since it's useless and I'm not really planning on going back to Hogwarts anyway-"
The dog's ears had perked up when Harry started talking, and he positively twitched when Harry mentioned Hogwarts. Harry frowned at him. Maybe part of the dog's magic was that he understood human language?
"I think I'm going to go hunting in a bit," Harry said to the assembled group, as a test. "Does anyone have any preferences?" He glanced at Dobby, then the dog. "I know you like rabbit, Dobby, and I saw some half eaten rats in that cave, so I think that's what the dog likes-"
The dog let out a long, low, pitiful whine. Harry grinned. Dobby frowned at him.
"Harry Potter is being cruel to the-"
The dog leapt to his feet, catching Harry by surprise. The snake reared back on his shoulder, and Dobby fell over. The dog barked at Harry, then turned his head and barked at Dobby.
Harry barked back, aiming for reassuring. The dog paused and cocked his head at Harry for a long minute. Harry woofed softly and waited, confused but calm, while the dog edged forward, sniffing furiously at any and every available part of Harry. He sniffed at his bow and arrows, at his bag, at his boots and his tunic, at his forehead, and then at the rest of him.
Having finished his investigation of Harry, the dog backed up several steps and sat down hard, staring. Harry's eyebrows drew together as he waited for the dog to do something else. This was strange behaviour.
"Is the doggie being upset?" Dobby asked from where he had crouched behind Harry, watching events unfold from over his shoulder.
"I... think so," Harry said. "I wasn't really going to get you rats," he told the dog, who had stood back up and was pacing back and forth between the two paths they'd settled next to.
The dog ignored Harry and continued pacing. He was a very strange dog. Just to be safe, Harry disappeared into one of the lower branches of a nearby tree. Dobby followed.
It was a good thing, too, because not thirty seconds after they'd taken shelter in the tree, the dog disappeared with a pop, replaced by a gaunt, dirty man wearing rags and clutching his tangled hair as he paced. Harry and Dobby inched closer to each other in the tree and stared, wide eyed.
"There's no way," the man said, spinning on his heel to point at the spot where Harry and Dobby had been. He blinked at the empty grass and his face contorted.
"Harry?" he cried, clearly distressed. "Harry, was it really you? Have I actually gone mad?"
Harry and Dobby looked at each other, baffled. Just to be on the safe side, Harry nocked an arrow onto his bow and drew, aiming it at the dog-man.
"What is happening?" the snake asked, flicking out his forked tongue to taste the air below them. "Why is the dog now a man?"
"I don't know," Harry hissed back, making an effort to remain quiet. The dog-man shouted for Harry a bit more and dropped to his knees where they'd been sitting, staring at the ground and shaking his head.
"I don't like it," the snake said. Harry agreed, thinking of all the worried letters and talk of escaped convicts he'd dealt with today.
"I have," the dog-man decided. "I've gone mad. The dementors have done it. Bugger."
With a bravery that came of knowing that he and Dobby could disappear at a second's notice, and with the knowledge that the dog-man lacked weapons (his clothing was far too ragged to conceal a wand or a blunt object, and the man himself was clearly weak), Harry took a deep breath and disappeared to a higher branch before speaking.
"Why aren't you a dog anymore?"
His words had a profound effect on the dog-man, who startled badly and stared around for a long minute before responding.
"Where are you?"
Harry wrinkled his nose, adjusting his aim slightly. "I asked you first."
The dog-man tugged at his hair again and grimaced. "If I'm just hearing voices in my head, I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of having a conversation," he announced.
"You already are," Harry pointed out. "Now answer my question. Why aren't you a dog?"
"I can be both," the dog-man said, still staring around the forest for the source of Harry's voice. "It's magic."
"I've never heard of that sort of magic," Harry said, lowering his bow slightly. "What kind of person are you, then? Why are you all dirty?"
"I was..." the dog-man paused. "Are you really Harry? Harry Potter?"
"I'm a forest elf," Harry said. "Who are you?"
"I'm-" He stopped to gather himself, and Harry waited. "I'm- a friend of your parents."
Harry cocked his head and stared.
"Do you know Lupin?" he asked eventually. The dog-man's head came up and he searched the surrounding forest for Harry yet again.
"We were friends too," he said. "All of us, Remus and James and I. And Lily. We went to school together."
Harry calmed down a bit and decided his parents must have had good taste in friends. A werewolf and a dog-man. Clearly, they knew that associating with wizards wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"Alright," Harry said, glancing at Dobby and disappearing back down to his low branch. Curiosity was starting to overtake caution. "What's the most interesting thing you know about him?"
The dog-man looked taken aback. "Remus? Do you mean his... I mean, that he's a, er, that he has a monthly visitor?"
Harry blinked. "He's a werewolf," he elaborated. "I'll assume that's what you meant."
"Yes, right." The dog-man scratched his arm. He still hadn't spotted Harry in the tree. To be fair, foliage was pretty thick. "Good. How... how is he?"
"He's well," Harry said carelessly. "Why are you so dirty? And skinny? Don't you eat?"
"I haven't- look, that's not important. What on earth are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself?"
"I live here," Harry said. "You clearly don't. You're more the 'living-in-a-house' type, I can tell."
The dog-man seemed rather upset at Harry's words. "You live... you can't live out here. Where is- who's responsible for you?"
"I am, of course," Harry told him. "Who else would be?"
"Your, well your relatives!" The dog-man was becoming visibly alarmed. "Remus? Dumbledore, maybe? Someone! You can't be more than twelve!"
"I see Remus sometimes, I suppose." Harry shook his head. "I told you though, I'm a forest elf."
The dog-man scrubbed his hands through his hair and stared around, though looking up apparently still hadn't occurred to him. "You- what? Never mind. Hasn't someone told you about that convict that broke out of prison?"
"Yeah, they did," Harry said. "Wizards and their wizard stuff."
"Wizard stuff?" the dog-man repeated in a baffled voice. "No - someone must be worried about you- searching for you, right? Who's your guardian?"
"Er," Harry said, "I really think we've gone over this already. Do you want something to eat? You seem upset."
Harry had decided that the dog-man was mostly harmless. Even so, when he disappeared back to the ground, he did so with his bow drawn.
The dog-man took a step back and fell silent as Harry and Dobby reappeared in front of him. He stared at Harry like a drowning man who'd been thrown a rope, which made Harry feel somewhat uncomfortable.
"Get him a bit of food, would you?" Harry hissed, and the snake slithered down into the bag, grumbling all the way. Half a loaf of bread pushed its way to the edge of Harry's bag, where Harry took control and levitated it over to the dog-man, his bow steady and aimed directly at the man's heart.
The dog-man ate his bread in wide eyed silence, cowed by the bow.
"You're due for a bit of a bath, as well," Harry told him, wrinkling his nose. "You smell worse as a human than you did as a dog."
"You don't have to-"
"Dobby, which way is the nearest water?"
Dobby leapt to his task, excited to use the skills Harry had taught him. He examined the ground, nearby plants, and listened to the sounds of the forest around them.
"This way, Harry Potter!" he said, and Harry jerked his chin in Dobby's direction and waited for the dog-man to obey before following the two down the left path.
Sure enough, Dobby managed to lead them on a mere ten minute walk to a pond, where Harry looked pointedly at the dog-man and the water until the hint was taken.
"Ah, do you maybe have a towel?" the dog-man asked as he stripped off and waded into the water. He was even skinnier than he'd looked in his rags. Harry rolled his eyes.
"You can just dry off the normal way," Harry said as Dobby examined the man's ragged clothing. When Dobby shrugged and set the whole lot on fire, the dog-man yelped and started wading back to shore.
"What are you doing?" he cried, stopping when the water was still up to his waist and staring back and forth between Dobby and Harry. Harry sighed. This man was so easily distressed.
"We'll find you something else to wear," he explained. "Those were awful."
"Dobby will make a boon for the friend of Harry Potter's family," Dobby announced, and Harry grinned.
"There, see? Problem solved." Dobby gave Harry a toothy smile and vanished.
The dog-man dunked his head underwater and scrubbed at his hair. It occurred to Harry to set down his bow for a second and dig through his bag to find one of the vials of cleaning potion Draco had given him for just this purpose.
"Here, use this," he called when the dog-man resurfaced. When he looked over, Harry half-tossed, half-levitated the bottle over the water to within the dog-man's reach.
The dog-man examined the bottle, then uncorked it and upended half on his head. "Thanks," he said, and got down to scrubbing himself clean.
While the dog-man was working, Harry spotted a fox in the undergrowth near the pond, and successfully felled it with an arrow. The dog-man paused to watch while Harry retrieved the fox and set to skinning it.
"You really live out here in the forest, don't you?"
Harry nodded absently, focused on his knife and the fox. "That's what I said."
The perennial distress on the dog-man's face returned. Harry ignored it.
Chapter 10: Wherein Harry is Asked Many Questions
...and Gives Incredibly Unsatisfying Answers
The dog-man finished his bath and sat huddled in the sunshine. He looked cold, even with the warmth of the day and Harry's drying magic. Harry took pity on him and unearthed a length of cloth from his bag to drape over the dog-man's shoulders.
"How did you come to live in the forest?" the dog-man asked. He'd spent the last ten minutes staring at Harry, but had only spoken after he was wrapped up in his new blanket.
"In the usual way," Harry said. The snake had slithered up his arm and was inspecting the fox Harry was binding to a spit for roasting. He hissed in satisfaction and turned his attention to the dog-man. Harry let him drop to the ground and slither off in that direction to investigate.
"What's the usual way?"
Harry had liked the dog-man rather better when he couldn't speak English.
"By going into the forest and living," Harry explained. "How did you come to be in that cave?"
The dog-man fell silent for a long minute. Harry thought he'd given up by the time he opened his mouth again. "I escaped from a place where I was trapped. It was a small, cold, unhappy place, and I was very hungry and miserable all the time." He wrapped his blanket tighter around his shoulders. "I didn't do anything to deserve being there."
Harry thought this was a rather odd comment. "Should you have?"
The dog-man frowned. "It was a mistake. And no one cared to fix it."
Harry nodded slowly. "Things like that happen sometimes."
"Do you..." the dog-man hesitated, staring at Harry some more. "Do you know how your parents died?"
Harry set a fire under the spit he'd constructed for the fox, and thought about his answer. "I've heard about the wizard who killed them."
"There's more to it than that," the dog-man said. He scooted toward the fire on his haunches to warm himself. "The only reason that dark wizard was able to find them was because they were betrayed by one of their closest friends."
Harry, who'd been stoking the flames, allowed the rather heavy stick he'd been using to heat up and catch fire. He looked up at the dog-man with pursed lips. "Which close friend is that?"
"His name was Peter Pettigrew," the dog-man explained, and then launched into an impassioned and anger-fueled tale of Pettigrew's betrayal of every single one of his friends. Harry listened curiously, and learned that the dog-man's name was Padfoot. It was a wholly suitable name, and Harry liked it immediately. He'd also mentioned another name, but Padfoot was best, in Harry's opinion.
"-and then, when I tried to confront him the next day, he faked his own death and framed me for the entire thing. I ended up getting sent to Azkaban for what he'd done!"
"Wait." Harry held up a hand. "Azkaban?"
Padfoot shifted uncomfortably. "The, er, wizard prison."
"You are the escaped convict, then!" Harry exclaimed. He'd had a sneaking suspicion ever since Padfoot stopped being a dog and started being a man, but he liked to have his guesses proved correct. "Are you going to try to kill me? Draco said you might."
Padfoot shook his head vigorously. "Haven't you been listening, Harry? I told you I'm innocent. I didn't hurt anyone back then, and I'm not going to now. You have to believe me."
"Oh fine," Harry acquiesced, and gestured that he should continue. The fox was nearly cooked, and Dobby would be back at any time.
"I spent thirteen years there," Padfoot said, and his eyes took on a haunted glaze. "It was the most awful place you can imagine..."
He trailed off into silence. Harry, who had never really attempted to comfort someone who wasn't Dobby before, decided food could quite possibly wipe the awful look off the dog-man's face. In any case, Padfoot was appallingly skinny. He needed fattening.
He tore off a decent chunk of meat and levitated it in front of Padfoot, waiting for him to snatch it up like he had during every other meal they'd eaten together.
Sure enough, Padfoot blinked and took hold of the meat. His attitude jumped from melancholy to shock in an instant, and he dropped the meat onto his blanket.
"It's hot," Harry pointed out, tearing off a chunk of his own piece and blowing on it. "Careful."
Padfoot watched Harry's actions and mimicked him, chewing slowly. "Bit gamey," he said.
Harry shrugged and watched with interest as Padfoot transformed back into a dog right before his eyes. Now he picked up the hunk of meat in his jaws and devoured it cheerfully. The concentration Padfoot gave to his food reminded Harry of his old canine companion, and Harry smiled at the thought. They sat and ate together in peaceful silence until Dobby came back, bearing clean trousers, an undershirt, and a large jumper.
"Dobby has found clothing for the doggie," Dobby announced proudly, holding up each piece for the dog's approval. Padfoot wasn't paying much attention, as he was distracted by sniffing around Harry and the other piece of the fox Harry had been saving for Dobby.
"Padfoot, pay attention," Harry laughed, scratching behind the dog's ears. "Dobby's found you something to wear when you're not a dog."
Padfoot transformed back into a human and took the clothing with relieved thanks. Once he was dressed, he turned to Harry, who had taken the time to fill the snake in on the dog's story. He switched back to English just long enough to say, "The rest of the food is Dobby's. Ask him if you want more."
Rather than heeding Harry's advice and turning on Dobby, Padfoot continued to stare as Harry and the snake spoke.
"You aren't really speaking Parseltongue, are you?" he asked, shocked.
"Elves can speak to most animals," Harry said, then switched back to Parseltongue. "So then apparently they switched Secret Keepers, for some reason, over to a wizard-"
"That sounds like an exceptionally daft thing to do," the snake replied.
"That's what I thought," Harry agreed. "But Padfoot says they all trusted this Pettigrew character."
"Wait," Padfoot interrupted. "What other animals can you speak to?"
Harry scrunched up his nose. "You know, birds and snakes and ferrets and things. And I spoke to you when you were a dog, didn't I? Most animals. And then I've been learning Mermish, but anyone could learn that if they bothered to." Back to Parseltongue. "Of course, they shouldn't have trusted him even a bit, obviously, because he went right to that dark wizard and told him exactly where my parents were!"
"The pissing wanker!"
"That's exactly what I said! And isn't it just like wizards to blame it all on -"
"You didn't speak to me," Padfoot said, frowning now. "I mean, not exactly. It's all body language and tone and scent with dogs."
"Body language is a language," Harry disagreed. "It's even got it in the name. I was able to get my point across, wasn't I?"
Padfoot subsided into thoughtful silence, which gave Harry the freedom to finish up his explanation to the snake without any further distraction.
Flitwick's owl showed up just after twilight, when Dobby had already fallen asleep. Harry was still sitting by the fire, an orb of light floating above his head as he scratched a careful step by step account of his fairly successful brewing of a Swelling Solution at the end of the relevant completed essay.
He chirped a soft greeting to the bird, who settled in comfortably next to him and watched as Harry finished the last few lines. The sample of his potion was already bottled and sealed, so he rolled it up inside his completed work and stuck it in the pouch attached to the bird's leg, alongside a couple other scrolls.
Flitwick's response to Harry's last owl was lengthy, and included a separate parchment which essentially repeated the concerns of the other letters he'd already received that day, and encouraged Harry to come back to Hogwarts. He set this aside and focused on the few paragraphs in a different handwriting which he had come to associate with the Transfigurations professor.
...given your results, I would usually recommend holding the wand more firmly and aiming the second flick more precisely at your squirrel. As your technique is obviously lacking in the second flick, and indeed, any wand movements to speak of, I would instead suggest developing a more nuanced mental picture of the feather duster and perhaps casting with more confidence or interest in the success of your end product. I look forward to receiving a second attempt at a feather duster in addition to your rendering of a nutcracker in your next correspondence...
Harry frowned and reached over to the bird's leg, detaching the pouch with practiced fingers. It looked like he had more work to do before he could send this batch off.
"What are you doing?"
Padfoot, who moments earlier had been an ungraceful heap of dog on the other side of the fire, was now reclining on his back in human form, his face pointed toward the sky.
"Just some homework," Harry said. "I've got to re-do my transfiguration from last week."
Padfoot sat up, confused. "You have school in the summertime? Isn't it still summer?" He paused. "But you go to Hogwarts, right?"
"I went to Hogwarts," Harry corrected. "I didn't like it anymore, so I left. But I've got a deal with Flitwick, so he sends me my work without me having to be there."
"You - you left?" Padfoot looked flabbergasted. "You can't just leave Hogwarts!"
"I don't see why not," Harry said. His thoughts were already turning toward how to capture a squirrel without damaging it, so that he could transfigure the feather duster and send the owl on her way. "I didn't want to be there, so I stopped being there. It seems to have worked out well."
Padfoot rubbed his face and shook his head several times. "How did this happen? Who's supposed to be taking care of you? Why hasn't anyone-"
He broke off, frustrated. Harry got up and left him to his thoughts, intent on tracking down his squirrel.
Padfoot followed him through the forest. "Are you going back next year? It'll be, what? Your second year? Third?"
"Er, third," Harry said. "And no. Be quiet now, I'm working."
Harry shushed him again and picked up his pace. Padfoot scrambled to follow, and Harry shook his head at how loud the dog-man managed to be. Canines could be so clumsy, and humans were even clumsier. Harry held up a hand and decided to compromise.
"Look, if you stay here, I'll answer a couple questions when I come back," he said. "Just don't move and don't make any noise."
Without all the warnings Padfoot brought with him, Harry managed to track and freeze a squirrel in a matter of minutes. He came back with it bobbing along behind his shoulder, and jerked his head back toward where Dobby was still sleeping near the fire.
"Let's hear it, then," he said once they sat down again. "Two questions."
"How are you doing all that magic?" Padfoot blurted. "Where's your- I mean, you don't have a wand anywhere I can see."
Harry grinned. Padfoot could be clever, then. He knew better than to waste an opportunity on rephrasing a question, at least.
"Elves don't need wands," he said. Padfoot was less than convinced, so Harry levitated the squirrel back into sight and set it to floating in front of him. With a bit of concentration, and taking into account the Transfiguration professor's notes, Harry turned it into a feather duster. It looked much better this time, and he felt satisfied as he put it in the pouch.
"How did you learn-" Padfoot paused and pressed his mouth into a line. "Why don't- no... When did y- hmm. Give me a minute."
Harry shrugged and pulled out some parchment. He scratched notes about his second feather duster while he waited for Padfoot to come up with the question he wanted answered.
"Why do you say you're an elf?" Padfoot held up a hand as Harry opened his mouth. "The real answer, not the flippant brush-off you gave me earlier."
"I say I'm an elf because I'm an elf," Harry said. Padfoot raised his eyebrows, clearly waiting for Harry to elaborate, so Harry set his quill down and explained himself. "I'm a forest elf. That means I live in the forest, I can talk to animals, and I can do a lot of things wizards can't. Which is why I don't need a wand."
Padfoot examined Harry for a long time, frowning. "That's not what I asked, though, is it?" he asked finally. "I didn't want to know what being an elf means. I asked why you say you're one."
Harry blinked and tipped his head back to study Padfoot right back. "I say I'm an elf because I am an elf," he repeated, his eyebrows pulling together. Padfoot waited as Harry settled on a more elaborate answer. "When I was younger, I was living in a house with some stale people who thought I was a house elf," he began. "Then they set me free in a park in Kent, and I realised that I was an elf, and not a stale human like I'd thought. That's when I started living like a proper forest elf."
Padfoot let his eyes wander between the fire and Harry's parchments while he absorbed this explanation. "Stale - that'd be muggle, I expect," he said. Harry thought he was mostly talking to himself, so he climbed to his feet and focused on another transfiguration he'd been thinking about since Padfoot's clothing had to be burned. The colder months were on their way, after all.
"How old were you when you were 'set free'?" Padfoot asked, his mouth twisted with some negative emotion Harry couldn't quite place. He crouched down next to Padfoot and picked up his leg by the ankle.
He examined the bottom part of Padfoot's feet while the dog-man watched, openly puzzled. "That was six or seven years ago, I think," he said after a moment's thought.
At Harry's response, Padfoot tensed and growled under his breath. Harry set his foot down and backed up to the other side of the fire, watching him. "Lily's sister and that disgusting husband of hers had better hope they're very well protected," he told Harry, who gave him an uncertain look and went back to his transfiguration. The fox fur would make decent cover for Padfoot's feet when the winter came. Harry had been thinking about the shape and thickness of the soles, and thought he could probably manage something acceptable. As a dog his feet would be fine, but Harry thought Padfoot generally needed a lot more help as a human, anyway.
Padfoot continued to mutter to himself as Harry picked the fur out of his bag and transfigured it into the fox slippers he'd thought up. When he saw that Harry meant for him to try them on, Padfoot stopped short and stared at them.
"For your feet," Harry pointed out. "For the winter. You won't need them yet, but you should try them on so I can adjust them if I need to."
The fox fur slippers fit with only minor adjustments, and Padfoot ended up wearing them almost constantly, despite winter still being a couple months away. Harry would have said something, but even looking at Padfoot sometimes made him feel cold. Instead, he gave Padfoot his ever-warm cloak to wear and kept quiet.
The night after Padfoot's human form was revealed, Dobby and Harry woke at the usual time, when the moon was fully up. Usually they would wander the forest or continue travelling until one of them wanted to sleep again, but tonight they stood over Padfoot's supine body and stared at each other.
"Should we be waking him?" Dobby asked in a loud whisper.
"He woke up on his own as a dog," Harry whispered back. He extended his foot and prodded at Padfoot's back with a toe. He was unresponsive.
"Is he okay?" Dobby asked, crouching down next to Padfoot and peering at him. Harry joined him.
"Yeah, I think he's fine. Dogs sleep a lot." They stared at Padfoot for a while longer, but eventually his soft snores became boring so they sat under a nearby tree instead and chatted quietly.
While they spoke, Harry picked up a short, fallen branch. He stripped it of most of the bark with his magic and handed it to Dobby, who paused midsentence and examined it for a long minute. He took a chunk out of the side in a graceful curve and handed it back to Harry, who twisted the narrower end into a spiral, and handed it back. Dobby tipped his head on one side and was peering at the branch with one eye closed when Padfoot let out a low moan.
Harry and Dobby looked at each other, then leaned around the tree to look at the spot where they'd left the dog-man. Padfoot whimpered and curled up in the foetal position. There was nothing near him but the walking stick he'd been carrying all day.
"Nightmares," Harry said with certainty. They watched for a while as Padfoot huddled in on himself and muttered. This also grew boring, and so they went back to their conversation.
"Dobby is thinking they will be interested, if Harry Potter doesn't mind." Dobby hollowed the wood and handed it back to Harry, who smiled at it. Behind them, Padfoot groaned.
"If you think you can pull it off."
Dobby watched as Harry examined the branch. "Dobby thinks he can. They is being friends."
Harry started carving a series of notches into the sides. "Go for it. You know I wouldn't mind helping out, if you need it."
"Dobby can handle it."
Harry grinned. "Cheers, then. How're you feeling, Padfoot?"
Padfoot fell down next to Harry and curled in on himself.
"Not well," he admitted. "Can we have a bit of light? A fire, perhaps?"
Harry summoned up a handful of flames and held it out. Padfoot hesitated.
"It's perfectly safe," Harry assured him. "Warm, but it won't burn you."
Padfoot brushed his fingers through the fire and frowned. He held out his hand so that Harry could pour the flames into it, and settled back against the tree with it cradled on his chest.
"Thanks," he said. His face was cast with strange shadows by the flickering light. His cheekbones stood out sharply. "What are you two doing up?"
"I think the more important question is, why did you sleep so long?" Harry corrected. "We've been waiting on you for ages."
Padfoot looked up through the leaves at the sky. "I've can't have been asleep more than six hours."
"You shouldn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time," Harry explained. "It's not safe, and it can't be healthy. You need proper food and proper sleep if you're going to stop looking like a skeleton."
Harry's lecture elicited a grimace from Padfoot.
"And what about you?" he asked. Harry didn't understand. He ate and slept well. He even had an extra layer of muscle from all the bow practice. He was no skeleton.
"What do you mean?"
Padfoot sat up a bit and adjusted the flames. "You should be somewhere safe, where you don't have to worry about how long you sleep."
Harry squinted. He privately thought that the sort of places Padfoot meant were undoubtedly filled with wizards, and those sort of places almost always gave him a lot more to worry about than how long he was sleeping. He preferred to have less problems, personally.
"No thanks," he said out loud.
Padfoot's continued protestations did little to change Harry's mind, and eventually Dobby piped up.
"Padfoot is not understanding the ways of the forest elf," he said in his squeaky voice. Padfoot lifted his eyebrow but remained silent, the flames flickering in his cupped hands. "Dobby used to have the same problems as Padfoot does now," he continued. "Dobby was held captive by the wizards, by their word and in Dobby's mind. But Harry Potter showed Dobby how to be free, and now Dobby will help to show Padfoot how to be free!"
Padfoot stared at Dobby, and then looked at Harry, who was grinning at Dobby.
"This is..." Padfoot rubbed his mouth with his palm, then ran his hand through his straggly hair. "This is actually a little bit mental."
"Look," Harry said. "Dobby isn't saying you should become a forest elf. I don't even think you could, honestly." He breathed in Padfoot's magic and tilted his head. While unique, Padfoot wasn't really in the same category as Harry or Dobby. He had his own thing. "We're just saying, you don't have to do things a certain way just because the wizards say that's how it works. You can live however you want to."
Padfoot looked between the two of them with his forehead furrowed. He subsided back to his slumped position against the tree and watched as the conversation picked up again without him, though Harry didn't mind. Padfoot needed time. It was perfectly obvious.
They travelled east until they ran out of land. Padfoot took in the blue skies and calm water with a smile, and they decided to stick to the coast as they meandered on a southward route. Harry and Dobby taught Padfoot how to catch fish. They ate seafood for weeks, even as they detoured around cities and populated beaches.
"Why don't we go up on the cliffs," Padfoot suggested one day. The beaches were gradually giving way to steep cliff faces, and more and more often, they found themselves picking their way through shallow, boulder strewn waves.
"We can if you want," Harry said. "I like it down here."
"Yes, but you can, you know," Padfoot waved a hand in Harry's general direction. "Avoid getting soaked if you want. Float or apparate or what have you."
Harry looked down at the water, which only lapped at his feet when a particularly large wave came in. He looked at Padfoot, who was standing knee deep and gripping a boulder for purchase.
"I'm sorry, you should have said," Harry responded, and gestured for Padfoot to come up out of the water as well. "You like the water as a dog."
"I'm okay with a lot of things as a dog," Padfoot told him, trying not to overbalance at his unexpected new height. Dobby caught his arm and steadied him.
"Would Padfoot like Dobby to dry him off?" he asked, and set about doing so at Padfoot's grateful nod. Harry walked out toward the deeper waters where the waves were more calm, and looked down at the fish darting along below. Nerin's village was less than fifty leagues from here, but Harry didn't know how to send a greeting to her family without gillyweed. Perhaps merpeople had their own version of owl post? He'd have to ask when he saw Nerin next.
"This is much better, Harry, thank you." Padfoot stood next to Harry, newly dry and looking much more cheerful for it. Harry nodded and cast a warming charm over him, just because. Padfoot gave him a pleased smile and continued. "Out of curiousity, are we on our way to anything in particular?"
Harry furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, where are we going?"
"Oh." Harry's expression cleared. "I dunno."
Padfoot blinked. "Alright. Er, in that case, do you know what month it is?"
Harry looked at him, nonplussed. Padfoot made a face.
"Do you have some idea of when it is?"
"Well," Harry said slowly. "The frost won't come at least until the next new moon. I know the equinox should be in the next couple weeks, though."
Padfoot narrowed his eyes in thought. "School will have started again."
"It will have," Harry agreed. "Flitwick and I are working on my final exams right now, and once I've finished those, he's going to start sending my third year work by weekly owl."
Padfoot must have come to terms with Harry's version of getting an education, because he only asked, "How are you taking final exams without actually being at Hogwarts?"
Harry brightened. "Flitwick put a spell on the parchments so that when I write an answer, it will show up on a copy of the parchment in his office. It's dead useful. He's been sending out my exams two at a time, and I take them when the sun is highest on the two days after they arrive, and send his owl back with the practical. Then he sends notes along with my next two exams."
Harry could tell that Padfoot was impressed with this ingenious system, and beamed. He'd thought Flitwick was rather clever for coming up with it, and it was good that Padfoot agreed.
They walked along the water until the shadows grew longer and the wind colder. Dobby took Padfoot along as they disappeared to the top of the cliff and eventually settled down in an open field under the newly emerging stars.
Padfoot transformed into a dog and curled up in a particularly mossy spot at the bottom of a slope, which served as an acceptable barrier from the wind. Harry spread the ever-warm cloak over Padfoot's fur and leaned against his back, looking up at the sky.
"Cygnus is bright tonight," Harry said, pointing it out for Dobby, whose head was somewhere near Harry's ribs. "So is Saturn."
Harry frowned as he spoke. He'd learned enough from the centaurs to know that he shouldn't necessarily consider Saturn his enemy when it was in the eleventh house, but he would have preferred to see Jupiter out on a night like tonight.
"I see the big bear," Dobby said, pointing. They talked about the different constellations for a bit, but Padfoot was already out and the combination of the warmth of the cloak and his even breathing lulled Harry into sleep without his even noticing.
The equinox passed, and Harry thought it best not to bring it up. Padfoot was starting to gain weight and colour, and had stopped looking half dead weeks ago. His nightmares only tended to get bad these days when he slept for longer than four hours at a time, which Harry took as further proof that it wasn't healthy.
The sun was high in the sky, warming them as they sat among the roots under a sprawling oak. It was one of the last warm days of the season, and they were taking full advantage. Padfoot reclined in a bright patch of sun, basking, while Dobby flipped through Harry's battered old amulet book. Harry was practicing with his bow, but had quickly run out of new ideas for tricks. He sat down under the tree and started poking through his bag while the snake watched.
"What are you looking for?" he asked, dropping from his perch on a branch down to Harry's shoulder to get a better look.
"Something fun," Harry said. He grabbed hold of something heavy, and stood up to pull it fully out of the bag. It was a small wheelbarrow, and Harry stared at it, bemused. He hadn't even remembered that was in there.
Smaller objects soon filled the wheelbarrow as Harry continued his search. Eventually, even Padfoot opened his eyes and sat up to see what Harry was doing.
"That's quite a bag," he remarked, shifting around to lean against the tree trunk next to Dobby.
"It is," Harry agreed. He had a thought, and reached into one of the smaller pockets, hoping he hadn't misplaced it...
"Aha!" He pulled out his old practice snitch. "That should do nicely."
Padfoot, Dobby, and the snake watched as Harry released the snitch. He let it flit away into the meadow and counted to ten. Then he raised his bow, took careful aim, and let his arrow fly.
At the very last second, the snitch darted to the left and Harry's arrow missed. He breathed in deeply, thrilled at the new challenge, and raised his bow again.
Dobby looked up from the book occasionally to cheer for Harry when he managed to hit the snitch. Padfoot sat in the dappled sunlight under the tree and watched Harry's game absently, a small, genuine smile settling around his eyes.
"Winter is nearly here," Harry told Padfoot a few days later. "We need to prepare."
They were hovering around the edge of a town. If Harry expected to keep all of them well fed throughout the winter, and indeed, fatten Padfoot up a bit more, he needed to be positive he had a certain amount of surplus food stored away. If they ran into a week where Harry couldn't find any game (which was entirely plausible), he didn't want to run out.
He sent Padfoot into the town as a dog to sniff around and find where the food stores were located. Dobby didn't like to go into stale towns, since most stale people reacted badly to his general appearance. Padfoot blended best as a dog, but Harry would be needed to do the actual work of getting the food. He wanted to know exactly where he was going before he went in.
While they waited, Harry and Dobby scouted around for shelter large enough to fit them. Caves usually worked well for this, though they had utilised a hunting stand for a short period last year.
"Dobby is thinking he will be leaving soon," Dobby told Harry as they crawled through a tangle of low hanging branches. Harry had vague thoughts of weaving the branches together to make a weatherproof room at the center of this patch of trees.
"You're going to head out and find your friends?" Harry asked, pausing as a stubborn patch of brambles threatened to put paid to his plan. "Will you be gone all winter?"
Dobby reached past Harry and parted the brambles to reveal still more brambles. "Dobby is thinking he will. It is being a difficult task."
"That's saying something," Harry huffed, amused. He frowned at the unrelenting bramble patch. "This is a no go. Do you have supplies?"
"Dobby does," Dobby said. Together they disappeared to a less dense part of the forest. Harry turned to Dobby and gave him a long, hard look.
"Good," Harry pronounced. Dobby beamed at him. "Good luck, Dobby. Be careful."
"We will be seeing each other again when Dobby has finished his task," Dobby vowed. "I will be finding you."
Harry grinned. "I'll even let you," he promised. Dobby beamed at him one last time, and disappeared.
"Er," Padfoot said several days later. He and Harry were scoping out a patch of forest settled between two villages. "Where did Dobby go? He's been gone awhile."
"Oh, he left," Harry said. "He's got stuff to do."
"Stuff?" Padfoot asked. A bush caught his attention, and he crouched down to look at it more closely.
"Yeah," Harry said, watching. "He probably won't be back until the weather changes again."
Padfoot lifted his eyebrows. "Is he alright?"
Harry smiled. "Of course. He came up with a brilliant plan and he's going to make it happen. Did you find something?"
He gestured to the bush Padfoot was still crouching over. Padfoot glanced at him with an unreadable expression. Instead of answering, he transformed into the dog and started sniffing around the base of the bush.
Harry followed Padfoot as he followed the scent he'd picked up, through the bush and along a nearly invisible trail for at least a few kilometers until he popped suddenly back into human form, surprising Harry.
He stood up and dusted off his hands. "Was Dobby's plan some kind of personal thing?" he asked, still staring down at the ground with focus.
Harry followed as they carried on the same trail, which tasted to him like a rabbit. He wondered if they were hunting for food instead of shelter now. "In a way," he answered. "It's something he wants to do."
"If..." Padfoot ran a hand through his hair. "If I had a plan... would I have to leave too, to make it happen?"
Harry blinked. "Well, not necessarily," he said. "Dobby's plan was something he had to do alone. If I'm there, his friends will just assume I'm his new master when he's trying to show them he's really, truly free."
Padfoot nodded, lost in thought. They walked until they found the end of the trail, the half eaten remains of the rabbit.
"Probably a fox," Harry said, examining it.
They found a cave before nightfall. Harry inspected it thoroughly and found it to be satisfactory.
"It's a bit small," he said aloud. "But it'll do unless we find something better."
"Why don't we just go up to Hogwarts?" Padfoot asked suddenly.
Harry turned to look at him, frowning. "Why would we go north for the winter?"
"There's plenty of shelter there," Padfoot said.
"There's plenty of shelter here," Harry pointed out. Padfoot looked around at the tiny cave and made a face.
"Plenty of bigger caves around Hogwarts," he pushed.
"We've got a perfectly acceptable cave right here. There's no reason to set out on a three week long walk just to be at Hogwarts," Harry snapped. "If you wanted to go north, you should have said so weeks ago."
Padfoot huffed and transformed into his dog form to sulk. The grumpy expression transferred surprisingly well.
Harry looked around the cramped cave, at the small fire already burning in the corner, at the dog curled up near it, licking his paws as though wounded by their previous conversation.
He wrinkled his nose, determined to be comfortable just to spite Padfoot. Folding his arms, Harry settled in and closed his eyes, meaning to nap.
The soft crackle of the fire soothed him, but Harry couldn't sleep. He opened his eyes and checked on Padfoot, who was finished cleaning and had sprawled out as much as he was able. After a long second of careful examination, Harry could see Padfoot's chest rising and falling. He closed his eyes.
The fifth time Harry felt compelled to slit his eyes open and check on Padfoot, he sat up and exhaled in a loud, irritated gust.
Padfoot woke at the sound and rolled his eyes up to look at Harry. He didn't move from his place sprawled out by the dying fire, and that bothered Harry for reasons he preferred not to think about, but which related to the last dog he'd known. This cave was eerily similar to the ones they had shared before they parted ways.
"Why do you want to go to Hogwarts so badly?" he asked. Padfoot continued to look at him from under sleepy eyes and shaggy fur.
It took another second for Harry's words to register, but when they did, Padfoot yawned and sat up in his human form.
"I have a plan," he said, readjusting the ever-warm cloak around his shoulders. "Like Dobby."
Harry frowned. "What is it?"
Padfoot leaned forward, and Harry watched the firelight flicker in the hopeful, sad eyes that hadn't really changed, even when the rest of him looked so much better. "What if we could catch the man who betrayed your parents and make him pay?"
Harry lifted an eyebrow. "He's at Hogwarts?"
Padfoot nodded urgently. "He's living in hiding, as a pet rat. I saw him in the paper."
Harry leaned forward, intrigued. "He's a rat?"
"He's a rat," Padfoot confirmed with a dark scowl. "In every sense of the word."
Harry pondered this. "What you're saying is, you want to go catch a tiny rat in a giant castle, and you want my help?"
Padfoot hesitated. "I probably wouldn't be able to do it alone, no," he admitted. "They're still hunting for me, I'm sure of it."
Harry settled back against the cave wall. "They'd stop though, if they knew you were innocent," Harry guessed, his face settling into understanding. "You'd be free."
"I would," Padfoot said, and Harry smiled. He could see the appeal of Hogwarts if that was the case.
He nodded slowly. "What will you do for me in return?"
"I- pardon me?"
"It's like a boon, right?" Harry blinked at Padfoot. "An equal exchange."
Padfoot looked around the small cave. "You would gain from this, too. My name would be cleared. I'd be free to give you... a home? A family?" He looked at Harry's blank expression as though he'd known those offers wouldn't work. "A top of the line broomstick?"
Harry's skepticism spurred him on to further speech.
"Well, what do you want?"
After a second's thought, Harry realised: "I don't want anything, actually." He smiled down at his hands. "That's rather nice."
Padfoot's face fell, and Harry directed the smile at him. "Don't be like that," he said. "Dobby and I got him his freedom, didn't we? We'll get you yours, too. Here's what we'll do."
He carefully moved the sleeping snake off of his bag and reached into it. A narrow cabinet rose out at his gesture, filled with hundreds of tiny drawers, each of which contained its own vial. Some of the vials contained amulets, some had potions, but Harry poked through the vials that had nothing more than thin rolls of parchment in them. Appearance was half the point, after all, and Padfoot proved it by looking properly impressed. "I've got a spell in here. We'll say it together, and then you'll owe me three wishes."
Alarmed was probably the right word for the face Padfoot made at Harry's explanation, and Harry hurried to reassure him.
"Obviously there are limits. Nothing you wouldn't or couldn't grant, nothing that involves anyone outside of the two of us, and nothing huge. I'm not a bad elf."
"And I'm not a djinn, you know," Padfoot pointed out, his knees pulled up to his chest under Harry's cloak. A small smile lurked under his still wide eyes, and Harry shrugged.
"I know." He held up the tiny roll of parchment and used it to point at Padfoot. "But you could be." He paused and tipped his head to one side. "Sort of."
Padfoot squinted at the opening of the cave, thinking hard. "If I do this, you'll go back to Hogwarts and help me capture Wormtail?"
Harry nodded, thinking of the Map. "I might as well. It shouldn't take long. I'm sure Peeves will appreciate a visit."
Padfoot hesitated for less than a second before holding out his hand to take the parchment.
Together they clasped hands and chanted the words to bind their agreement with magic. Three blue bands wrapped around Padfoot's wrist once they'd finished, and Harry examined them carefully to be certain everything was in order.
Harry let go and leaned against the cave wall again.
"Lovely," he said. "I suppose we'll get a start tomorrow, then. I can't disappear you like Dobby can, so it's going to be a long walk."
"Three weeks, you said." Padfoot frowned.
"There's no rush," Harry reminded him. "It's not like he's going anywhere, right?"
They set out the next morning. Harry was grateful they had taken the time to prepare when they still thought Dobby would be with them for the winter. Padfoot had Harry's ever-warm cloak and fox shoes, so he was largely warm enough. The temperature dropped steadily as the days passed and they moved further north.
Harry had plenty of thick animal furs to cover himself in, and was experimenting with making his own version of what Padfoot wore. So far his gloves and cloak stayed warm from dawn until well after dusk, but he still had to renew the charm regularly. He made a mental note to write Flitwick about permanency magic in their next exchange. Perhaps he'd send a book.
Three weeks passed with relative ease. When they reached the outskirts of the forest that ringed the Hogwarts grounds, the snake poked his head out from under a rabbit skin to address Harry.
"Thinking about going back to lessons?" he asked, watching with interest as Padfoot picked his way across a culvert that Harry had avoided entirely by disappearing over it. They crouched in a dry spot under the shelter of an evergreen as they waited.
"Of course not," Harry said, irritated. They had already talked about this. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason any wizards should be aware of his presence. Except perhaps Draco. "Why would I do that?"
"I just wondered," the snake said, his scales slipping nonchalance down Harry's shoulder. "Have you missed it, at all?"
Understanding dawned, and Harry huffed out soft laughter. "You miss the food, don't you?"
"The meat was ssso tender," the snake sighed. "We have not had lamb in ssso long."
Padfoot found Harry snickering as the snake bemoaned his lack of cooking ability.
"-and I have learned that the best bird is roasted in its own juices, which you simply cannot achieve with your primitive methods," the snake was lecturing. "Spits are fine for sometimes--"
"We'll visit the kitchens from time to time," Harry promised, crawling out from beneath the tree to join Padfoot as they moved deeper into the forest.
"That is all I ask of you," the snake said, satisfied.
Chapter 11: Wherein Harry Encounters Plotting
I'm writing a one-shot in this universe for the Fandom For Leukemia and Lymphoma Society! It'll be from someone else's POV, though I won't tell you whose just yet (suggestions welcome; I have a good idea, but that doesn't mean there aren't others out there. I don't actually think there can be too many one shots for this universe). Harry will obviously be a pretty prominent character. I can't say who else will be involved. It won't be posted here until after their fundraising deadline.
Here's the link if you want to support them!
It took about a week for Padfoot to recognise their surroundings. They were sat in a glade, shielded from the worst of the wind and snow by the thick branches of the surrounding trees. Padfoot sniffed around in a nearby bush while Harry and the snake chatted idly. Padfoot nosed a patch of flowers, and froze. The hair on his back stood up. His transformation was so quick Harry nearly missed it.
"Are we in the Forbidden Forest?"
Harry frowned. "We've arrived at the forest near Hogwarts, yes," he allowed. "I told you it'd take about this long, didn't I?"
Padfoot sat back on his heels. "We've arrived," he repeated, blinking. "What are we doing sitting around here, then?"
Harry wrinkled his nose. "I like it here," he said.
"He is considering how best to sneak past the centaurs in order to break his vow."
Harry stood at the new voice, his eyes quickly landing on the speaker. Bane and Ruta stepped into the clearing from the east, Bane's fingers lingering near his arrows.
"I'm not going to break my vow," Harry glared. "I'm just going to break into the castle very briefly and steal a rat. They won't even know I'm there."
"That won't do at all," Ruta said, shaking her head. "You'll need to go before Magorian immediately to make your case."
Harry frowned at her, but she only shrugged her own bow more firmly onto her shoulder, face blank. She was part of the centaur guard now. Harry wondered if that trumped their history.
"Fine," Harry said. "Can Padfoot come?"
The two centaurs looked over at Padfoot, who looked like he wished he was still in his dog form.
"No," Bane said, and disappeared into the forest again. Once he was out of sight, Ruta shrugged at Harry and gave him a small smile, which made Harry feel unexpectedly better.
"Don't tell Bane I told you, but we're all very happy to have heard of your return," she said in an undertone as Harry dropped into step beside her. "That's really what this is all about."
"They're going to throw me a surprise welcome back party?" Harry asked, grinning. "Of course they'd send Bane. Magorian always did have a terrible sense of humor."
Ruta shoved at his shoulder. "Not quite," she said. To Harry's surprise, she frowned. "I shouldn't say more. You'll see when we arrive."
It seemed like everyone Harry had known during his stay in centaur territory stood in a ring in the middle of the divination field, awaiting Harry's arrival. Magorian waited at the head of the group, alongside several of his advisors. No party, then. Harry allowed Ruta and Bane to escort him through the group over tamped down snow, looking around at all the familiar, solemn faces and wondering what this could possibly be about. He really hadn't been intending to break his vow.
"Welcome back," Magorian said when they came to a stop in front of him. Harry nodded his head in greeting.
"Thank you for having me again," he said. "Although-"
"You wish to know what brings us all together tonight," Magorian finished, raising an eyebrow. Harry nodded.
"We have a request of you," he said. "It is a task we believe you are uniquely suited to. The forest would be in your debt, should you agree to take up our cause."
They wanted a boon, then. A big one, from the sound of it. Harry waited.
"The wizards have once again brought immense danger to this forest with their carelessness." A scowl darkened Magorian's heavy features. "They fear another wizard, and so they surround themselves with greater fears as an ill-concocted form of protection."
Harry tilted his head, already prepared to be annoyed at the wizards for this alleged crime of stupidity. "What have they done?"
"Dementors guard the buildings and grounds of Hogwarts School," Magorian said. Harry restrained his jaw from falling open as the centaurs in the field shifted and muttered.
"They brought dementors here?" he repeated with incredulity, though the anger of the centaurs surrounding them was confirmation enough. Harry had never run across a dementor, fortunately, but an elf didn't need to meet a dementor to know he didn't ever want to. The stories he'd heard in the forests were enough to curl his pointy ears.
"They restrict the dementors from feeding on witches and wizards," Magorian continued with quiet fury. "So instead, they roam the forest, picking off the weak, preying on our celebrations. The acromantulae sent an envoy to us after a fortnight, looking for assistance. Most inhabitants of this forest have no means of defense against such a threat, and the wizarding government is entirely unsympathetic."
Harry looked up at the stars, noting that few of the centaurs had bothered throughout the conversation. The plan to ask for Harry's assistance was long since decided, then.
He could feel his jaw clenching with outrage at the wizards' audacity, to bring such danger to an unsuspecting forest population with what had likely been zero warning.
"What can I do?" Harry asked, tilting his head down to look back at Magorian. "Is there a plan?"
"We would ask that you return to the wizards, against our previous agreement," Magorian stated. "Coerce them into removing the dementors from their posts by any means necessary."
Harry nodded, gazing thoughtfully at Balen's knee where he stood in the surrounding group. "I would have to reveal myself," he agreed, formulating several plans and then discarding them all immediately. "But..."
He paused and chewed on his lip. "I'll think on it," he decided. "I don't think I'd have to go back to school." He looked up again. "I'll come up with something," he promised. "Quickly."
"The forest thanks you," Magorian said. Harry dipped his head in a slight bow, and a space opened in the circle so that Harry could leave.
Padfoot was waiting for Harry at the edge of centaur territory, prowling on four paws just out of reach of two irritated guards.
"Hey Firenze, Cato," Harry said as he jogged past. They lifted their bows in greeting and watched Padfoot suspiciously as he moved forward to greet Harry.
Harry scratched Padfoot behind the ears and led them away from the centaurs. As soon as they were out of earshot, Padfoot popped up on two legs and looked back.
"What did they want?"
"They want me to get rid of the dementors," Harry said. Padfoot blanched.
"Where are there dementors?"
"At Hogwarts. The wizards brought them. They've become a nuisance in the forest."
Padfoot scoffed. "A nuisance?"
"To put it lightly," Harry admitted. "It's become a rather large problem."
"And they want you to fix it?" Padfoot asked. Harry nodded. "Like our agreement, then. What are they doing for you?"
"Nothing yet, but they know they'll be in my debt."
"So exactly like me, then," Padfoot muttered. Harry shrugged.
"Kind of. We'll need to investigate the situation," Harry said, feeling cheerful in spite of the threat of dementors close at hand. He always liked a bit of snooping, and this was a prime opportunity. "It's a pity Dobby isn't still here. I haven't completely mastered invisibility magic just yet. We'll just have to do it the old fashioned way."
Padfoot looked at him, curious. "The old fashioned way?"
"Exactly," Harry said, grinning a little.
Harry noted the wards aloud for Padfoot when they crossed onto Hogwarts grounds. Padfoot wuffed an acknowledgement, too busy darting from tree to bush to hole in the ground, sniffing frantically. Harry remembered he'd gone to school here as well, years ago. He must have enjoyed the forest in his canine form.
As the castle came into sight between the thinning trees, Padfoot stopped sniffing around and stared up at it as they walked, so that Harry had to occasionally nudge him away from pitfalls he might otherwise have run into.
As they drew closer to the open grounds, Harry began to feel cold in a way that the snow didn't account for. He frowned and pulled his animal skins around himself more tightly, thinking for some reason about his first winter as an elf, how hungry and cold and alone he'd been before he got the proper hang of things. Harry glanced down at Padfoot, whose eyes had dropped from the castle. He'd noticed too, then.
Sure enough, the moonlight caught on a dark cloaked creature swooping past at eye level, far ahead at the edge of the forest. Harry's eyes widened and he drew to an immediate stop, a hand held out to halt Padfoot as well, who hadn't needed it.
Harry shook his head at a glance from Padfoot. It would be stupid to walk right up to a Dark creature in the middle of the night. A hungry one, even, if what the centaurs said was true.
"Detour," Harry muttered, and made a hard left, heading deeper into the forest at the same time. They'd go via Hogsmeade, the nearby village.
The gates to Hogwarts were ringed with dementors. Harry crouched on the roof of the post office, staring as the creatures hovered silently.
"What wizard are they trying to keep out?" he wondered, popping back down to Padfoot's side in a nearby alley. Padfoot had returned to human form while he waited, and Harry repeated the question.
"Er, probably me," Padfoot admitted, glancing at the mouth of the alley. It was late, verging into Harry's second sleeping hours, but neither of them had bothered to settle down. After the conversation with the centaurs and now the discovery of what must have been a hundred dementors at the wizard school, Harry wasn't particularly tired.
"Oh right," Harry said after a moment. "You escaped their prison."
"Yeah," Padfoot said, shifting. "That's where the dementors usually live."
"Oh, so you've probably met them before?" Harry asked, thoughtful.
"You don't meet a dementor unless they're going to Kiss you," Padfoot said dryly. "Whatever you're thinking, stop it now, Harry."
Harry abandoned several ideas with a huff. "Alright, fine. I can get in easily, but since you don't know how to disappear-"
Padfoot's forehead wrinkled. "You can't ap- disappear on Hogwarts grounds."
"Sure I can," Harry disagreed. "Wizards can't. Elves do it all the time. You can't do it at all, so you'll stay here until I can figure out how to get you in."
"Oh, well that's easy enough," Padfoot said. "They don't really notice me when I'm a dog. I'll just walk in the normal way."
Harry glared at him. "You could have mentioned that earlier," he pointed out. "I'll meet you at Greenhouse Six."
He disappeared onto the grounds, into one of his favourite trees. Someone had taken a branch off since he'd been gone, which Harry scowled at.
A few minutes' reconnaissance told Harry that the dementors stayed mostly at the edges of the grounds, near the gates and occasionally near the obvious entrances to the castle. Most of his usual entry points were entirely unguarded.
Harry spent another ten minutes or so poking around, relearning the grounds and cataloging the changes time had made in the campus. He eventually meandered over to the greenhouses, deciding he'd given Padfoot enough time.
Sure enough, Padfoot was waiting in the shadows of Greenhouse Six. Harry jogged over.
"You made it in," Padfoot said unnecessarily.
"Of course I did," he said. "Listen, I was thinking while I was waiting for you."
"The dementors are here because they think you might come to Hogwarts, of all places, right?"
Padfoot frowned. "Right."
"And we actually are here, coincidentally, to find the rat who framed you."
"And I'm meant to get rid of the dementors, by any means necessary, according to Magorian."
Padfoot began to look uncomfortable. "Okay..."
"So that leaves us two conclusions, as I see it," Harry explained, holding up two fingers. "The wizards know you're coming because they either know about the rat and know you'll want to clear your name, or they're entirely stupid and are reacting out of fear. I'm leaning toward the first one because it's better to plan for the worst. If I'm right, when we find the rat, we're probably going to have some resistance from the wizards. At least the ones who secretly know you're innocent."
An enormously relieved expression passed over Padfoot's face as Harry spoke. "Right, yes," he said, nodding. "Good."
"My point is that, if they don't want to admit that you're innocent, it's going to be difficult to get rid of the dementors just by finding the rat," Harry said. "We'll have to have a plot."
Padfoot blinked. "A plot?"
"Yes," Harry said. "When I realised you were the reason they brought dementors here, I thought we might not need one. But now I see that we do."
"Ah," Padfoot said. "Alright, then. What sort of plot?"
"I'll take care of that part," Harry said. "I don't think it'd be a good idea to stay here in the meantime, though. I don't want to be anywhere near these dementors if I don't have to be."
"Agreed," Padfoot answered fervently. "Where will we stay?"
Harry frowned at him. "I suppose there are plenty of caves in Hogsmeade, like you said."
The next morning, Harry decided to drop in on the castle proper and get started on his investigations. He might even be able to catch the rat now and decide what to do with him later.
Except the corridors were empty. Harry waited until the sun stood at its highest point in the sky, but no students appeared.
"The students have all gone, love," Violet, one of the more gossipy portraits, told him. "It's the winter holiday, didn't you know?"
"Bloody blasted buggering bints," Harry swore. "When will they be back?"
"Language!" Violet said, scandalised.
"When will the students be back from holiday?" Harry asked a portrait of a witch and a wizard who were supposed to be in the middle of a duel, though they had stopped for afternoon tea. The dark cloaked wizard frowned.
"Two weeks, I believe," he said. "Two weeks, isn't it, Julia?"
"Aye," said the blue cloaked witch, crunching a biscuit. "About that."
"Oh," Harry said, frowning. "Right then."
"How's the plotting going?" Padfoot asked later that day, when Harry brought back a few rabbits to cook up. He was going to try using the frying pan in his bag, to shut the snake up for a few days.
"Quite well," Harry said cheerfully. He and Peeves had spent the remainder of the day redecorating the fourth floor. It had lacked a certain holiday cheer, according to Peeves. Harry hadn't known dressing Doxy up as Father Christmas and setting them out among the fairies was a holiday tradition, but once he figured out how to keep them from biting him, it proved to be a fruitful afternoon.
Harry skinned the rabbits and decided to cut them into smaller pieces for the frying pan. The snake poked his head out to supervise, and nodded his approval of Harry's actions.
"You could dice an onion in there as well," he suggested. Harry stared at him.
"Where do you pick up suggestions like that?" he demanded. The snake wound down Harry's arm and into his bag.
"Dobby always diced an onion," he said, his voice muffled from the bag. Sure enough, an onion emerged from Harry's bag, the snake butting it over the edge with quiet determination.
"Well, Dobby's always been a better cook than I am," Harry admitted grudgingly. He hoped Dobby's mission was going well.
"Are we going back to the castle tomorrow?" the snake asked, watching as Harry abandoned the knife and used magic to shred the onion into tiny bits.
"I guess," Harry said. "I wanted to visit with Nerin and the Fat Friar."
"Lovely," the snake said. "I have a few snakes to visit myself, in the dungeons."
"The portraits?" Harry asked. The snake rippled in confirmation.
"There's a statue as well," the snake said. "He is an admirable figure."
"Oh right, I've met him," Harry said. Padfoot had the fire ready, so Harry dumped the onion in the pan and levitated it over the heat. "Tell him I say hello."
Two weeks passed with Harry popping around to visit various friends in the area whom he hadn't seen in awhile. He mentally tallied another win for himself in his ongoing game with Snape, as he'd managed to leave and return without Snape managing to interfere at all.
He decided he'd earned an additional point when he acquired gillyweed from Snape's stores without his being any the wiser. One of the storekeepers in Hogsmeade was willing to purchase some from the Potion's Master in exchange for a small vial of boomslang clippings.
Between his visits to the forest, the grounds, the village, and the castle, Harry focused on his tutelage of Padfoot. The dog was barely passable at catching rats, let alone larger game. Harry and the snake made a day of it in the second week after their arrival.
"Use your jaws," Harry said, snapping his teeth in demonstration. Padfoot watched in his human form, eyebrows lifted high on his forehead. "Sneak up on them, catch them by the neck, and squeeze them in your jaws until they die. It should work."
Padfoot nodded slowly. "I'll give that a try," he agreed. Harry nodded back and went back to crawling through the underbrush, hoping to scare out a rabbit or a partridge for Padfoot to practice on.
"Stealth and persistence," Harry called back to him. "You need to work on the first one, that's all."
"His human form is more useless than the dog," the snake pointed out. Padfoot was still sitting on the ground with his legs crossed, watching them with a bemused expression. "What is he doing? Hands are unsuitable for hunting."
"Speak for yourself," Harry hissed, though he thought the snake had a good point. He switched to impatient English. "Padfoot, you have to be a dog for this. You haven't got the jaws for hunting as a human."
Padfoot bared his meagre human teeth and stretched his jaw so that it looked like he was yawning, then chuckled. "I guess you're right, Harry," he said, and even after he was a dog, he seemed to still be laughing.
"Of course I'm right," Harry said to Padfoot's nose as he poked into the bushes to watch Harry rustle around. "Human-shaped creatures haven't got proper fangs at all. That's why I have to use my bow and my knife."
Padfoot's problem wasn't just a lack of stealth, it turned out. He was also just on the wrong side of slow.
"Practice," Harry determined as the sun dipped low in the sky and Padfoot panted on the forest floor. "It'll just take time."
When the students returned from their holiday, Harry wasted no time. He wandered through the halls via the ceiling, keeping a close eye on the students below him. He managed to catch Draco alone before lunch, adjusting his tie as he stepped off a staircase.
"Hello again," he said, dropping down to Draco's side and beaming with good cheer. "How was your holiday?"
"Holy- Harry!" Draco stared at him for a long second, then punched him in the shoulder. Harry fell back a step and lifted a hand to press against the spot, wounded. "Where have you been, you arse?"
Harry dropped his hand and considered. "Forests, mostly," he decided.
"You haven't sent me a letter in weeks," Draco grumbled, but they continued walking down the hall together anyway.
"Sorry," Harry said, fishing through his bag for a bit of parchment and handing it over. "Here's one." Draco gave him a funny look, and Harry shrugged."I didn't want you to know how close I was," he explained.
Draco rolled his eyes and scanned the writing on the parchment briefly before rolling it back up and sticking it in his bag. "You're coming to class, then? We've got Charms now; Flitwick will be glad to see you-"
"No," Harry interrupted, pulling up and letting Draco walk a few steps without him. "I'm only visiting. Actually, don't tell anyone I'm here just yet."
Draco stared at him for a long second. His face acquired a pinched quality. "This is going to be like when you visited at the Manor, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?" Harry asked. "This isn't like that at all."
"It was already a little bit like that before, Harry," Draco pointed out. "You never come into the common room, the Headmaster had to give you boons to make you stay, you were always getting into trouble, and now I can't tell anyone about you. What I want to know, is who's going to be responsible for giving you boons if I'm the only person who knows you're here? How long will you stay?"
He almost looked hurt, which Harry didn't understand at all. Sirius and the centaurs were the ones who'd made boons for Harry's return, and Harry had been inside the common room before. He wasn't even going to touch the 'trouble' comment. He was pretty sure Draco didn't even really mind that sort of thing. He just liked to complain, as far as Harry could tell.
"You don't have to do anything," he told Draco, tilting his head and watching as Draco's pinched expression didn't change. "I'll be here for..." The dementor and rat situation was delicate. It would probably take a while. "A few months, at least," he decided.
"Are you going to stay until everyone else leaves for the holiday?"
"I don't know," Harry said, considering the idea. They didn't leave until summer, and winter wasn't even over. "I'll be here for sure until the equinox," he decided.
"Alright," Draco agreed. "But you have to tell me before you leave this time."
Harry nodded, and they continued walking. "I met a dog while I was away," he told Draco. "He's large and black and isn't a very good hunter."
"Does he have a name?" Draco asked, pausing. Voices sounded just around the corner, and from his glance at Harry, Draco was taking his desire to go unnoticed seriously. Harry grinned at him.
"It's Padfoot," he said.
"That's a good name from someone who doesn't like names," Draco said, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, I didn't come up with it," Harry said. "He told me his name was Padfoot."
Draco nodded, making a face like he couldn't figure out if he should be skeptical or not.
"Tell him I say hello," he said instead. "I have to go to Charms. I'll see you soon?"
"Soon," Harry agreed, putting one foot on the wall and pulling himself up. "Probably tomorrow, even."
"Right," Draco said. Harry climbed the wall and hovered near the ceiling, watching as Draco straightened his back and lifted his chin before rounding the corner and catching the attention of the students there.
Harry continued his studies with Flitwick, even as he worked on the rat and dementor project and bothered Draco. Owls were made to wait several days before setting off for Flitwick's office, so as to allay suspicion.
Despite his prevarications, was Flitwick was beginning to ask more than his usual share of questions regarding Harry's whereabouts. Portraits talked, as did ghosts and students, and of course Peeves didn't have an ounce of subtlety in his ectoplasm. The rumor mill at Hogwarts worked both ways, which Harry knew, but he preferred it when it worked on his behalf rather than against him. He was currently considering the pros and cons of having Padfoot make an obvious appearance somewhere south, as a distraction.
Speaking of Padfoot: "How's the search for Wormtail going?"
"I'm working on it," Harry said. He was hunched over a patch of blue coltsfoot, harvesting the roots under the full moon. According to a few of his herbology books, it increased their potency. Padfoot stood guard behind him, occasionally popping back into human form to complain about the danger of Harry's midnight gardening and to prod at him for news of his progress.
"I do this all the time," Harry pointed out when Padfoot's worried eye darting reached unbearable levels. "And you've never been there before, and I've always been fine."
Padfoot scowled. "That doesn't make me feel better. Why do you need roots, anyway?"
"I told you," Harry said patiently, plucking a worm off his current root and brushing the dirt away. "Blue coltsfoot is very rare. I've only found it in one other forest, and it's always somewhere difficult to get at."
"Like at the top of a bloody cliff," Padfoot grumbled.
"Which is why we're up here," Harry agreed. "The full moon is the best time to get it, and I need it to convince Stannis Derwent to give me a set of Bloodless Lancets, which I need to get to Wormtail."
Padfoot turned on his heel to stare at Harry. "How exactly do you plan to use pointy objects to retrieve him? We need him alive, and-"
"I'm going to trade the lancets to a man in Hogsmeade who knows how to swordfight, which Alfie Brecke wants to learn in exchange for finding out the password to Gryffindor tower."
"Why doesn't he already know it?" Padfoot paused, glancing around the forest again. "And why do you need it?"
"Because he's a Ravenclaw first year with Gryffindor friends," Harry explained. "And Wormtail is currently living in the Tower: the only time he's not with at least one or two other people is when he's up there." Harry had been keeping an eye on the rat through his Map of the school, and he'd decided attacking where he'd be least expected was the most expedient method of capturing the creature.
Padfoot disagreed. "This is a very elaborate plan," he said. "Why don't you just break into the Tower?"
"I do not break into places," Harry said firmly. "Blunt force is for wizards and lazy creatures." If Padfoot had been more aware of Harry's life before they met, he might have been able to scoff. As it was, he just rolled his eyes and turned to look back into the trees when Harry added, "That, and it's more fun this way."
Harry worked on in the silence of the forest, which was broken only by distant howls. Padfoot's frown was evident in his voice when he spoke again. "Out of curiosity, Harry... What do you have against wizards?"
Harry shrugged, and then remembered Padfoot had his back to him and couldn't see.
"I just don't like them," he explained. "They think they're better than everyone else, and they think they can do whatever they want."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, look what wizards did to you, and to my parents." Harry pointed out, stripping the leaves off of the coltsfoot and putting them in a different vial for later use. "And Dobby. And Lupin! And what they've done to the forest with this dementor guard of theirs. Nerin says they treat the merpeople like rubbish unless they want something, and in history, the ghost professor won't say it, but the goblin wars always turn out to be the wizards' fault if you don't fall asleep. And they're always trying to force me to do things I don't want to do."
Padfoot was silent for a long minute. "Your parents were wizards, though, Harry. So is Lupin."
Harry grimaced at the reminder. "Yes, but Lupin's a werewolf too. We talked about it. And my parents..." He chewed on his lip and stared down at the blue flowers in his hands. The one thing that learning about his elf powers and about the magical world hadn't changed was Harry's quiet certainty that his parents were better people than the Dursleys, or most of the people he'd met since, could ever could be. "They were friends with you and Lupin. They wouldn't have treated me like most people do."
"James and Lily loved everything about you," Padfoot said firmly. "They would be proud of who you are." He glanced back into the trees again before turning back to Harry. "And... you know I'm a wizard, too, right?"
Harry's lips pinched together, and he held back a sigh. He'd been worried about this ever since he put two and two together about Padfoot's powers and how similar they were to Wormtail's. Padfoot had never denied that Wormtail was a wizard.
"I know," he said grudgingly. "Are you at least like Lupin? A wizard and something else?"
Padfoot shifted in place. "Er, no," he said, scratching at the back of his head. "In fact, my family were pureblood elitists. I'm about as wizard as it's possible to be."
Harry stowed away the rest of the coltsfoot in stony silence, thinking hard about this new bit of information. Padfoot shifted anxiously in front of him and glanced back into the trees occasionally, waiting for a verdict.
"It's no wonder you're such a bloody awful hunter," Harry said, once he'd put his things away and stood up to leave. Padfoot shrugged and remained quiet as Harry led them back to the cave via the trees, following on the ground in dog form.
Harry spent more time than usual over the next couple of days in the castle, where he wouldn't come upon Padfoot sleeping or hunting or failing to hunt successfully. He was conflicted about Padfoot's newly revealed wizard status. He talked through it as he walked Luna to her dormitory one afternoon.
"I like him," he said, looking down to see Luna's understanding nod. "But I didn't know he was a wizard. I thought he was just a dog who was human occasionally."
"A wizard who's occasionally a dog is an animagus," Luna said. "I don't know what the reverse would be called, though."
Harry took this in with a nod. "You're right. He's a wizard and only sometimes a dog, not the other way around. He told me." He frowned up at his feet. "I don't really like wizards all that much."
"Don't you have any wizard friends?" Luna asked, clutching her books closer to her chest as an older girl shoved past. Harry frowned and her hair fell off as she walked away.
"I suppose there's Draco," Harry admitted. "I haven't held a debt against him since at least last spring."
"Oh, that's lovely," Luna said. Behind them, someone wailed in a very feminine register.
"Stairs," Harry responded, and Luna picked up her feet on her next several steps. "I suppose Padfoot has been a good companion," he continued as they climbed. "And I do like dogs. And he still owes me three wishes."
"You shouldn't hold his birth against him," Luna agreed. "He can't help it any more than you can help being elf."
Harry twisted his mouth up into a grimace. "I guess." He poked through his jar of dirigible plums and selected a juicier specimen. "Enough about that. I see you've found your shoes."
"They always turn up eventually," Luna said with a smile. "I like these. I painted dragons on the sides."
Harry raised his eyebrows and tilted his head. "Can I see?"
Luna was stretching up on her tiptoes to hold one trainer out for Harry when Flitwick happened upon them.
"Luna, dear, whatever are you doing?"
Luna looked up. Harry had disappeared to a nearby alcove, and was watching from a distance. "The ceiling's quite tall."
"Odd, how that happens," Flitwick said. "I'm afraid your shoe isn't quite going to do it. Perhaps Mr Potter could be of more assistance."
Harry narrowed his eyes. "I don't know where he's gone, though," Luna responded. "He may have been captured by blibbering humdingers. They're a house elf's natural enemy, and he is rather closely related to them."
Flitwick gave her a benevolent smile and turned his attention to the corridor at large. "Mr Potter," he called. "I saw you. I'm afraid I must ask for a moment of your time."
Harry hunched his shoulders, annoyed, and watched Flitwick watch him slink out of the alcove with far too little surprise in his face.
"There you are," Flitwick beamed. "Shall we retire to my office? Have a lovely afternoon, Luna."
"And you as well, professor," Luna said. "Bye," she called to Harry, putting her shoe back on and continuing on her way down the hallway.
"I'll talk to you later," Harry called back. Her dirigible plums had been delicious.
He followed Flitwick down the hall to his office grudgingly.
"I thought you might have been in the area," Flitwick said with high cheer, once the door was closed behind them. "There's a certain brand of mischief we don't usually encounter when you've gone. It's good to have you back, Mr Potter."
Harry was pleased despite himself at the compliment. "I'm not officially back, to be accurate," he said. "I'm just around, and in the castle occasionally. I have business here."
Flitwick nodded slowly. "Still, your presence at the castle will make things easier while you are here," he said, sitting down behind his desk and shuffling through a stack of parchment. "I've been pondering how to proceed with certain lessons without your direct presence. There is only so much that can be done by owl."
"Right," Harry agreed. "Did you get my last owl?"
"I did," Flitwick said, holding up one of the parchments. "That is part of my concern. I feel it would be much simpler to demonstrate a spell for you, as opposed to giving you a description and allowing you to guess. Magic can be dangerous when not performed carefully."
"Was there something wrong with my spells?" Harry asked, put out. He thought he'd been doing rather well.
"I can't entirely tell," Flitwick explained, not unkindly. "Transfigurations will give you tangible objects to return to us, as will Potions. Your essays display understanding as well, but without seeing an example of your performance it is difficult to gauge your development, especially in Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts." He folded his hands and nodded. "Given your abilities as witnessed during your tenure here, I was able to give you the benefit of the doubt for quite a while, but lessons become more complicated in year three. I'm afraid I must request a... boon, as you call it."
"I've been waiting for you to do that," Harry said. He'd been feeling uncomfortable about owing Flitwick for these lessons. "What is it?"
Flitwick sat without words for a long minute, regarding Harry thoughtfully across his desk. Harry tilted his head, which caused Flitwick to beam and open a desk drawer.
"I had hoped you would be accommodating," Flitwick said, offering Harry a small pendant. "This is a tricky bit of magic, mostly in its ability to surmount the prodigious wards surrounding Hogwarts."
Harry took it and inspected it. It tasted like disappearing magic and tracking magic. Harry squinted at it, disapproving. "What does it do?"
"It will bring you here on your command, so that we might have lessons together. It will also take you back to your point of origin when we've finished."
Harry nodded slowly. That might or might not explain the tracking magic. "Will you know where I'm going when I leave?"
Flitwick shook his head. "It keeps no records. Once you take it, you will have full control."
Harry closed one eye and breathed in, the pendant right in front of his mouth and nose. The magic worked into the surface was too tightly woven to be completely disassembled by his senses, but he didn't immediately detect anything contrary to what Flitwick was telling him. And the half goblin wasn't one to lie to Harry.
"Okay," he said, tucking it away into his bag. "What command, and when?"
"You must hold it to your skin and say 'Hello', or 'Goodbye', depending on whether you are coming to Hogwarts or leaving us. It will take you to our usual study room." Flitwick paused. "I had thought perhaps every Monday."
"Every second Monday?" Harry suggested instead. He might owe Flitwick, but that didn't preclude him from bargaining.
"Every second Monday, and attendance at all your midterms and final exams," Flitwick responded. Harry made a moue of distaste.
"Every second Monday, attendance at all final exams, one six hour appearance during midterms, and no one else comes to our meetings without my expressed approval."
"Done," Flitwick said, beaming. "I look forward to our new arrangement, Mr Potter."
Chapter 12: Wherein Harry Acquires a Crowd
Harry was still conflicted about Padfoot's wizard status a week later. It weighed heavily on his mind as he checked the Map one final time to assure himself that Gryffindor Tower was empty enough for his plan to be successful.
"He's a wizard," Harry told the snake, frowning. "Incitatus." The portrait hole opened, and Harry climbed inside with the snake on his shoulder.
"He's also a dog," the snake pointed out, playing Devil's Advocate. "And a convict."
"That is true," Harry said. "The wizards have abandoned him. I can't imagine that he's very happy with them."
Harry let the snake slither down his arm and to the floor, rearing up and sticking his tongue out to scent the room. Harry did something similar near the staircases, breathing deeply and sorting out the magic he could sense for an animal that was more powerful than it should be.
"Now would be the time to influence him, if you want to keep him around," the snake said. He hissed and disappeared under one of the couches, chasing out a couple mice and a frog. Harry paused, but none of these were Wormtail.
"He's a decent sort," Harry allowed. "I suppose Draco's a wizard, and I'm still friends with him."
The two of them went up the first staircase, poking their heads into each of the dormitories until one of them yielded a scent that made the snake pause and Harry close his eyes to better catch it.
"Draco has never even travelled with you," the snake said. They shut the door behind themselves, hopefully pinning the rat inside with them. The snake slithered rapidly around the floor of the room, searching. Harry moved between the beds, desks, and wardrobes. They reached the same bed at the same time. A squeak and a flash of grey fur was the only warning Harry was given before the snake lunged forward and caught the rat by the meaty portion of his tail.
"There you are," Harry said in English, crouching down and snatching the rat up by the scruff of his neck as he struggled. He held him up to examine him, frowning. The rat squeaked and writhed furiously, but Harry's grip was firm and the snake hovered just out of range, hissing low and intimidating in his pointed, panicked face. "Wormtail, is it?"
The rat's struggles, which had begun to cease, started up anew. Harry watched with his head tilted as the rat scrabbled at the air and twisted, trying to bite Harry with no success.
"I think you're making a good point," Harry said to the snake, continuing their conversation as though they hadn't been interrupted. He pulled out a small cage and tucked the rat inside, sealing it and stowing it near the bottom of his bag, next to his books. "Padfoot's proven himself to be a good companion. At the very least I'll finish this for him and get my three wishes. Then we can both decide for ourselves if we want to continue the association."
"That seems best," the snake agreed, curling around the strap of the bag and poking his head inside curiously. Harry scolded him and let himself out the window.
"Isn't that... Ron Weasley's rat?" Draco asked, peering at the cage Harry was holding. "No, it is. I remember, it bit Goyle once."
"Your list of crimes is building by the hour," Harry said darkly, holding the cage up at eye level. The rat squeaked and curled in on itself.
Harry was sitting on an outcropping of rock at the edge of the lake. Draco had joined him a couple minutes ago, having spotted him from the Quidditch pitch.
Baffled, Draco watched as Harry set the cage down and fed small bits of grain and meat chunks in between the metal bars. He had to keep Wormtail alive until he'd decided how best to give Padfoot his freedom.
"I don't think he's going to eat if you keep skulking around like that," Harry told the snake, who hissed dismissively and continued prowling the outside perimeter of the cage.
"Harry, really, not that I disapprove," Draco continued, pulling his knees up and setting his chin on them as he watched the display with an expression that suggested he found it bizarre. "I'm just curious why you nicked his rat, of all things."
"He knows what he did," Harry said, in English. He would be less cryptic, but he'd really rather let as few people as possible know about what he was doing. He hadn't even told Padfoot he'd captured the rat yet. "Don't you?"
If the rat had a response, it was lost to terror.
The snow was low on the ground on the day Harry decided to walk to Hogsmeade. He had some business there with a witch who lived on the edge of town and was interested in some of the more stale goods he was able to get his hands on. She wanted to try their sweets and have bicycles explained to her. Harry had fiddled with one or two bikes in the past, taking spare parts or fixing them for children in exchange for lunch. He thought he could do them justice.
He strolled down the long, winding path that led him past the boars that flanked the gates of Hogwarts and out toward the village, minding his own business and only about 'mid day and sleepy' alert.
He and the snake were discussing the color of the sky and what it meant for the weather over the next couple days when he felt the cold wash over him like an exploded bobotuber pustule, unexpected and almost painful with it. The weather was warming up these days. Harry had welcomed the milder temperatures, so to say it was a bit of a shock to his system would be an understatement.
He froze, trying to identify the source of the feeling, but all he could think about was, inexplicably, a night several years ago not long after the dog had gone when his thoughts were still numb and mechanical, and his body cold. He hadn't ventured close to the Manor yet, and on that particular night, hadn't been able to work up the will to keep the fire going.
The pervasive silence of the snow and leaves was suffocating, and the drive that had kept him clawing and clinging to life had faltered. For the first time since he'd begun, it mattered that no one would think twice if he slowed and stiffened and stilled in an empty cave or under a distant canopy of sapless branches. It hurt, in his numb fingertips and his pointy ears and the emptiness of his gut.
He met Dobby and Draco the very next day, but for those few hours when he and the dying embers of his underfed fire were slowly covered with a soft blanket of fluffy snow, his sudden apathy had been more frigid and bleak than the icicles forming at his chin.
It was worse now, to remember it with this new undercurrent of a pleading, feminine voice. He couldn't place her or what was happening to her, but she was intensely familiar and that scared him more than the rest. He didn't forget easily, and if she was being hurt right now, the disorientation he couldn't shake and had barely noticed until he tried to pull away from it was only keeping him from protecting himself or her.
It got his hackles up. She was more distressed than Harry'd been when he realized the Dursleys were never coming back, and- why was he thinking about—any of this? The cold cut into him as though he was standing unsheltered on a mountaintop during a January frost, and he looked down at his hands, half expecting the tips of his fingers to be blue and frostbitten.
The snake was wound too tightly around his wrist, rearing up and hissing viciously at everything and anything that caught his attention. Harry jerked in surprise at the sight of him and at the realization that his wrist hurt. The snake panicked at the movement, sinking his fangs into the fleshy meat of Harry's thumb.
Harry came back to himself abruptly to find that no less than five dementors had gathered in a wide circle around them and were closing in with every moment he didn't react. He experienced a brief surge of terror. They surrounded him on all sides, and it took crucial seconds to remember that he could just leave, that he wasn't trapped and helpless here even if the pressure on his chest reminded him of how easy it could be to just give up, to treat his physical surroundings and disorientation as limitations they had never been in a more sane state of mind.
He scowled at the dementors and set them all on fire, retreating into the safety of fury. Harry didn't give up. The very concept was insidious and hateful and he refused to suffer it any longer.
The fire didn't do a whole lot to the dementors outside of angering them, and Harry removed himself from their trap quickly, reappearing on the road as far from Hogwarts as he could manage while still in Hogsmeade.
Swallowing hard and still trying to catch his breath, he stood dumbly and waited as the awful feelings receded, leaving him jittery and shaken. Harry looked down at his hand to see his thumb bleeding, thick and slow.
He reached into his bag and found a bit of cloth, which he wrapped around the area as his cabinet slid up into view. Harry fumbled for the small drawer that contained the antivenom potion, taking a few tries to find the right one. The pain was already setting in, and his fingers felt thick and useless.
The snake made regretful, apologetic sounds and wound his tail soothingly around Harry's wrists, uncapping the bottle with his fangs at a hissed request. Harry tipped the potion down his throat and grimaced. He'd never had to take this one before. The snake hadn't ever bitten him. Most snakes didn't even try; they saw him as a large, strange member of their species with a mutation in the form of his extra limbs. He wasn't edible to any but the largest of them, so it would have been almost uncivilized and certainly stupid to bite him when he was never anything but pleasant.
The pain was still spreading up his arm, and Harry eyed the drawer, debating the wisdom of another dose. Maybe that would make it work faster.
"I'm sssorry, ssorry, sssso ssssssorry," the snake hissed, his sibilants stretching with anxiety. "Will you sssswell and die?"
"Feels like it," Harry grimaced. The snake slithered rapidly up Harry's arm to his shoulder where he could better reach and examine Harry's face and hand. His tongue flickered out and brushed the cloth over the wound.
"I took the antidote, I'll be fine," Harry assured him.
"You don't tassste fine. You have not been cured," the snake insisted, tongue still flickering away rapidly. Harry wrinkled his nose, assessing his body and pulling the tie back to examine the wound again.
"No, it's working," he decided. It didn't hurt quite as badly as it had even moments ago, and already what swelling had occurred was fading.
"You were not you," the snake said, his regret clear in the hesitancy with which he explained. "I saw you as the Basilisk, come to destroy and devour me, and I acted without thought." He travelled down to Harry's wrist and curled around his thumb, where already there was nothing left of the poison but the stain of too-thick blood on his skin and a bit of soreness. "I don't know why I thought you were the giant snake. I am sssso sssorry."
Harry nodded and hissed reassurance even as the pain receded entirely. He realised he was kneeling in the dirt in an alleyway in the village. His eyes darted around, taking his surroundings more thoroughly as he worried that he might have been spotted in such a vulnerable state.
No one was around to catch him unawares. Not one person passed by the mouth of the alley or stared from the windows of the nearest building. The tension in his shoulders remained, and after a brief moment to be completely certain, he frowned at his thumb and the two puncture wounds that had stopped leaking blood after the potion kicked in. The snake hovered around them, though he avoided contact.
Harry healed the bite and stood, curling his fingers around the coils of the snake in his hand as he disappeared to the roof to check for dementors nearby. Only a couple of shopkeepers and an elderly man carrying a bag of groceries were visible from his vantage point. He sank into a crouch on the pitched roof of a dormer window and watched the town for a long time, unable to relax enough to go find the witch he'd been on his way to meet, or to go back to the castle and grounds. Even the forest was unappealing when he compared it to his current panoramic view.
"I want to get moving with giving you your freedom," Harry told Padfoot the next afternoon. Padfoot looked up at him from where he was leaning against the cave wall, his face lighting up.
"Is that so?" he asked, lifting his eyebrows. "What's your plan, then?"
Harry frowned at his bag for a long space of time. Padfoot managed to not fidget too loudly as he waited for an answer, picking at an old chicken bone even as his eyes remained fixed on Harry.
"I have a potential opening with your wizard Minister," he said finally, hesitant. "I don't trust him, though. He's obviously in on it all."
Padfoot restrained himself for all of five seconds before asking, "In on…?"
"Your imprisonment," Harry reminded him. "The plan to put you back and keep you framed."
"Right," Padfoot agreed, nodding along. "He is the final word on that sort of thing, usually. Imprisoning people."
"Yes," Harry nodded. "I don't like him." Padfoot barked a laugh.
"Couldn't agree with you more," he said when Harry looked at him. His amusement died down as he watched Harry. "But if you have an 'opening' with him, could you talk to him? Make one of your deals or something?"
"Maybe," Harry said. "Probably. I would just need… we have to prove your innocence without a doubt, so we'll need a backup plan if that fails."
Padfoot lapsed into the silence of deep thought, eventually surfacing to say, "Like… what?"
Harry shrugged, using a short stick to trace branching lines in the dirt of the cave floor as he thought. "We could force the situation somehow."
"What, find Peter, throw him up in front of a crowd, and make him confess?" Padfoot suggested. Though his voice lacked a certain sincerity that Harry felt was probably important to making plans of this sort, his idea was sound.
"What kind of crowd?" Harry asked, squinting at his bag. "I think your Minister should be there to answer for his part in framing you, especially if speaking with him has already backfired. It'll be much harder to talk his way out of if he's there when it happens. He doesn't seem to do well when put on the spot."
"You think Fudge helped frame me?" Padfoot repeated, blinking and scratching his head with the chicken bone.
"It fits," Harry shrugged. "But who else would be there? People who don't like him. And one or two wizards, I suppose."
"Remus. And Dumbledore," Padfoot added immediately. Harry wrinkled his nose and nodded. "Throw in a few schoolchildren and professors, maybe a couple townspeople for good measure," he continued, starting to grin.
"Snape and Flitwick, then," Harry said, beginning a mental list and ignoring the face Padfoot made at the mention of Snape. "And I'd throw together a mix of students from all the Houses. Whoever shows up, I suppose. And Dobby and a few centaurs, obviously."
Padfoot eyed him. "Were you planning on sending out engraved invitations to Wormtail's unmasking? And we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. We still need to find him."
"Oh, no, that's been taken care of," Harry said with a dismissive wave of his hand. Padfoot's eyes widened and he sat forward abruptly.
"—and I don't think invitations would be exactly subtle," Harry continued. He glanced at Padfoot and leaned over to poke through his bag. The snake emerged guiltily, and Harry nudged him aside with a roll of his eyes, pulling the cage out and setting it down on the cave floor. "I think it'd be best to… sort of lure everyone there under false pretenses. I thought perhaps-"
"You've had him—how long have you had him?" Padfoot demanded, towering over Harry and the cage in a move that Harry would ordinarily be impressed with from his usually slow wizard companion. Instead, he stood as well and looked Padfoot in the eye.
"A few weeks," he said, and continued speaking over Padfoot's outraged sounds and the high pitched, frantic squeaking emanating from the cage at their feet. "I've been working out how to free you," he said pointedly. "Your revenge isn't in our agreement."
"Is that extra, then?" Padfoot asked, a note of bitterness coloring his words as he bowed his head to eye Wormtail with ice in his gaze.
Harry looked down as well, considering it. "You'll have to wait until after our first agreement's been completed," he decided. "Revenge now might mean you don't get freedom later."
The line of Padfoot's shoulders was taut, and Harry watched him through the long, tense silence that followed his words.
"What if I'd rather the revenge?"
"Then you're an idiot," Harry snapped, and snatched up Padfoot's wrist to show him the rings still circling it. "And we made a deal. You're of no use to me without your freedom. You're of no use to anyone."
Harry had already thought through the implications of failure. If Padfoot never got his freedom, there was no reason for him to disappear back into the wizarding world. It'd be nearly impossible, in fact, and he'd stick close to Harry out of necessity. But he'd be a constant liability, and he'd be miserable. No one liked their movements restricted as his were. Harry couldn't fathom it. Padfoot might not be in the wizard prison, but he was still behind bars in many senses.
Padfoot pulled his arm away from Harry's grip, his eyes narrow as he stared first at his own wrist, then at the uncompromising stare Harry had already fixed him with.
"And I wondered why James Potter's son was Sorted into Slytherin," was all he said. Harry furrowed his forehead at the non sequitor, but Padfoot turned away and transformed back into a dog as he stormed out of the cave, leaving Harry to pick up the cage and stow it back in his bag. He was vaguely aware that he was meant to take offense, but not completely sure why.
"Why shouldn't James Potter's son be in Slytherin?"
To his credit, Snape showed no surprise at Harry's abrupt arrival in his office, nor at the fact that he was back on Hogwarts grounds at all, except to say, "You will learn that owls are for more than dinner if I have to hex the concept into your skull myself, Mr Potter."
Harry folded his legs underneath him, knees up near his shoulders, and settled more comfortably atop the enormous, overturned cauldron in the corner of Snape's office. "I didn't mean to," he said, which was as much of an apology as he was hoping he'd need to give.
Snape only scowled at him. Harry waited patiently for an answer to his original question until Snape seemed to feel he'd glared for long enough and went back to marking a sheaf of parchments up with red ink.
"You are James Potter's son," he said after several minutes of quiet quill-scratching.
"I know," Harry said. "Lily Potter's, too. But I didn't know them and you said you did."
"James Potter was-" Snape stopped and focused on finishing a sentence on his parchment before setting down his quill and continuing. "He was a Gryffindor. The most stereotypical of Gryffindors, as a matter of fact."
"And the Gryffindors are the red ones," Harry prompted, pleased to have that much information. "Draco says they're prats. Are you calling my father a prat?"
Another pause. "I am." Harry put his chin on one of his knees and thought about this.
"What are Slytherins, then?"
"Aside from 'the green ones'?" The sardonic edge to Snape's voice had Harry looking up and spotting the curl at the corner of his mouth that meant Snape hadn't decided to take offense. He went back to studying the middle distance.
"We are resourceful, ambitious, and clever," Snape said, and Harry could only roll his eyes.
"No, what do the Gryffindors call them?"
"Us," Snape corrected. Harry acquiesced with a nod and waited again for an answer. "They call us sneaky, cold, and cruel."
"Oh," Harry said, slotting this newly gathered information into Padfoot's words and understanding them better.
"Who told you that you shouldn't be in Slytherin?" Snape asked, shifting his parchments away as he turned in his chair to better look at Harry. Harry grimaced.
"He only said he'd wondered why," he explained. "It makes more sense now. Thanks."
Snape's dark eyes were fixed on Harry, who shifted uncomfortably and refused eye contact as usual. "He'd wondered, and now he doesn't," he suggested, and Harry shrugged.
"That's what he said," he confirmed. "It's fine, though." Snape's eyes remained on Harry.
"Resourceful, ambitious, and clever," he said eventually, "Fits far better in this instance."
Harry blinked and looked up at him with surprise, the uncertain shape of his mouth curving up a little.
"Yes," he said, setting his chin back on his knee and watching as Snape resettled himself at his desk and went back to his parchments.
"You're not a ghost," the Granger girl said in a loud, suspicious tone. "Ghosts don't knock things over."
Harry cursed his bag. It had fallen away from his shoulder and he'd caught it a second too late. The lousy statue was in pieces on the floor now, and Harry was too irritated to even attempt to fix it. Bathsheba the Bountiful or Lancelot the Lazy or whatever the statue was supposed to be of could rot in pieces for all he cared.
"Peeves?" she asked, and Harry perked up. He could be Peeves. Peeves was easy, and it wouldn't get him caught out. She did hate it when he went to her meetings.
Harry considered the hall and looked up at the tall windows. He made a raspberry sound that sounded like it was coming from the ceiling, and the Granger girl huffed and put her hands on her hips. "Peeves! Leave me alone, I'll talk to Dumbledore, see if I don't!"
Harry made several tapestries bump and knock against the walls as though Peeves were bouncing off them as he fled down the hall, and it seemed to satisfy the Granger girl enough that she turned and kept walking. Harry followed.
"Is everyone settled in?" the Granger girl asked, once they'd reached the classroom where she was holding the meeting. "Good. If you'll all take care to sign the attendance list, we can start," she continued. "Er, Luna, could you pass it along? Thank you…"
Harry took the list from Luna and painstakingly began signing his name.
"Luna, did you—where did you put the list?"
"I passed it along, like you asked," Luna said. Harry, who was sitting on the floor with his back up against her desk, handed the parchment back to her, and she blinked at it in her hands. "Whoops, here it is," she said, handing it off to a mousy haired boy in the row ahead. Harry grinned up at her.
"Right," the Granger girl said, her tone becoming brisk and businesslike. "Welcome to the annual spring meeting of S.P.E.W. I'm glad to see so many of you."
Harry hadn't seen more than four people in the room, including Luna, but perhaps there were others attending covertly like him.
"The first order of business is our pamphlets," the Granger girl told the room, and there was a rustling sound. "We've raised enough sickles to make, ah… fifty copies. Here they are. I'll need those back once you've looked at them."
"I do like the little house elf on the front," Luna commented. "He looks very—oh dear."
Harry snitched Luna's copy and looked at the picture she'd been commenting on. The elf looked vaguely familiar, the wizard looming over him menacingly even more so. One of the other students spoke up.
"Is that Lucius Malfoy?"
"No, that is a nameless, faceless representative of oppression," the Granger girl said.
"No, look, he's wearing the Malfoy crest," the student pointed out. "That's definitely Lucius Malfoy, even if you did blur his face."
A female student piped up. "Where'd you get this picture?"
"Diagon Alley," the Granger girl said, her tone starting to sound a bit worried. "Maybe I should have blurred the crest, too?"
"Yeah, maybe," the female voice said sardonically. Harry opened the pamphlet and started reading it through.
"I could still do it?"
"Good thing you've only got the fifty copies, eh?"
"Well, I did want to-" The rustling of paper stopped suddenly, and Luna smiled a little too brightly at something Harry couldn't see. "Luna!"
"Did you… smuggle Harry Potter into an S.P.E.W. meeting?"
"No, Hermione," Luna said honestly.
The Granger girl's voice became shrill. "His name's on here right after yours!"
"He turned up on his own," Luna explained. "I just spotted him."
There was a commotion, after which the Granger girl appeared on Harry's side of the desk and stared him down, arms akimbo.
"It wasn't Peeves at all!" she declared, and Harry pulled himself to his feet.
"Nope," he agreed, sliding up to sit on the desk instead. She wrinkled her nose at him.
"I thought you'd left Hogwarts!" she demanded, rather than the question Harry thought it was meant to be. He answered anyway.
"I came back, though," he told her, shrugging. "To visit, and all. I just wanted to check in on our progress."
"Our— you're not in this club!" she said, brandishing the attendance list, though it seemed to prove otherwise as far as Harry could tell.
"But without me, you wouldn't have any elf representation at all," he pointed out, frowning now. "That seems a bit rude, to have an elf liberation club and not invite any elves."
The Granger girl's face went red. "I did—ooh, but you're not an elf!"
A sharp crack interrupted the beginning of what had promised to be a quite satisfying argument, and Harry's head turned sharply toward the noise.
"Dobby!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"Dobby has succeeded!" Dobby exclaimed, his face split with a wide grin. Harry beamed back at him.
"Really? That's fantastic! How many?"
"Dobby has freed six elves since he left the forest elf with the centaurs," he explained, and on cue several elves popped up behind Dobby, peering timidly over his shoulder.
"Hello!" Harry looked them over with a welcoming smile, but…
"That's only four, Dobby," he pointed out, waving at the four elves. They all blinked up at him, eyes wide and a little awed. Dobby beamed.
"Gabby and Libby is speaking with other elves they is knowing," he explained. "We is spreading the word among those elves that is not wanting to be house elves any longer." He looked away for a moment, twisting his fingers. "There is not many of us," he admitted. "But we is finding each other and we is freeing each other."
Harry's smile was so wide it almost hurt. "That's bloody fantastic," he declared, dropping to his knees and giving Dobby a proper hug to congratulate him and welcome him back. Dobby hugged back tightly and got a little teary, wiping his eyes on one of his many, many ties. Harry turned back to the Granger girl. "See, look!" he said, gesturing. "I've brought you new members!"
The Granger girl (and the other four who were openly members of S.P.E.W.) had gathered in between the desks to gape at Harry and Dobby and the other elves. Even Luna looked faintly surprised, though she frequently looked like that.
"Dobby wanted to show the other free elves that wizards is wanting to help," Dobby explained to the Granger girl, bowing his head slightly out of what looked like nerves. "We is sorry for interrupting, ma'am."
The Granger girl flapped her hands about, visibly flustered. "No, no, you aren't interrupting, of course not," she hurried to assure him, tilting her head down a little to speak. "We're doing this for you, after all—I mean, for, for the house elves."
Dobby nodded slowly and smiled. "Yes, miss. But Dobby is no longer a house elf," he pointed out, and looked to Harry. "Dobby is a forest elf now, and the others is going to be, too."
Harry was nodding along even as the Granger girl's expression became a little pinched and confused. "Once they've been trained up a bit," he agreed. "Dobby and I are going to show them how to live away from houses and wizards." He looked to his friend. "That's the plan, right?"
"Yes," Dobby agreed, and turned back to the wizards and witches. "Dobby is going to be teaching the new forest elves the ways of freedom, and we is going to help any elf that doesn't want to be a house elf anymore."
The Granger girl gaped at them wordlessly, though her companions all burst into excited chatter.
"Brilliant! I didn't honestly expect we'd get anywhere with this 'free the elves' lark," one of the witches said to the elves over the din. "I just needed to join a club so my mum would stop bothering me about spending all my time playing Quidditch."
"Yeah," said one of the wizards. "That, and Hermione's bloody terrifying."
The Granger girl frowned at him and finally found words for Harry and the elves. "So you're… you're… what?" she asked. "You've just decided not to be elves anymore?"
"House elves," Dobby corrected. Harry raised his eyebrows at her.
"We're still elves," he agreed. "Just not 'house' elves. Forest elves, now. They're two different things."
"Is that… you-! But… but what about the law?" The Granger girl took the pamphlet Harry was still holding loosely in his hand. She fumbled with it and shoved it back at him so he could see the page she'd picked out. "Are they just going to say they're not house elves anymore if and when," she emphasized with raised eyebrows, "The Department for Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures brings them in for doing things their species is restricted from doing, or if one of their old owners decides to make a fuss?"
"It's worked for me," Harry said, looking down at the page. It was a list of rules for house elves, some of which were absurd and some downright infuriating. He narrowed his eyes even as the Granger girl sighed gustily and spoke in a slow voice.
"That's because you never truly were a house elf-"
"You're awfully bossy for someone who's trying to give other people freedom," Harry said snippily. Dobby stood next to Harry, frowning as well, and the other elves shifted and murmured to themselves.
The Granger girl huffed and subsided into a more reasonable tone, her cheeks a little red. "Look, I just meant… it's lovely, how far you've come, but… but… there's the law, too. It has to be changed."
Harry waved his hand at her and her group. "It's a wizard law, you're wizards, go fix it," he shrugged. "We're elves, we're taking care of things the elf way."
It obviously pained her, but the Granger girl managed to bite her tongue rather than say what Harry knew she wanted to. He gave her a faint smile for the effort and turned to Dobby.
"I'm glad you're back; now that it's warming up again we can crack a bit of ice and have some proper fish."
Dobby nodded, his ears flapping. "We will be teaching the others!"
Harry grinned and gestured to the rest of the elves to join them. The group left the classroom, reappearing deep in the forest near one of Harry's favorite fishing spots.
"Right," Harry said, rubbing his hands together in the sudden cold as the six of them gathered in the small open space next to the iced over pond. "First, brilliant to meet you all. Er, the forest welcomes you! I've discussed it with the centaurs, and they've agreed that if you stay out of their territory, they'll be friendly with any elves who wish to live in the forest. Be careful of the acromantula, they aren't very particular about what they eat." He paused thoughtfully. "And that basilisk might still be wandering around, I'm not positive. I'm almost certain he's gone. And of course, you're going to want to stay well away from the castle. There're dementors wandering the grounds, and you won't want to run afoul of them."
The elves' eyes became, if possible, wider, and Harry beamed at them. "So! Fishing! Dobby?"