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The Art of Self-Fashioning

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Harry tried, once.

There was a teacher at the primary school that he really liked. Mrs. Jute seemed to see into everyone and everything. She knew when people were copying their homework off each other, and she knew when someone was playing a game instead of paying attention in class, and she even stopped Dudley and his gang from bullying Harry a few times.

And she had even laughed when Harry turned another teacher’s hair blue. So Harry thought he could trust her.

He told her about the Dursleys. He told her about the cupboard, and when she asked in a faint voice, “What else did they do to you?”, he told her about the yelling and the way Dudley beat him up all the time, not just those few times she was there to see. He told her about the chores and not getting enough to eat.

Mrs. Jute bent down in front of him, in the end, and pressed his hand with hers. She looked as if she was going to bite someone’s head off. Harry knew the expression from Aunt Petunia, but he’d never had someone do it for him.

“It’s wrong, what they did to you,” Mrs. Jute told him quietly. “We’ll make sure that someone takes you away from there. I’ll go, right after school.”

And Harry believed her. 

*

He realized, later, how stupid that was, when the caseworker came to the house, and Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia turned her around so easily. They just told her it was lies and jealousy, and that Harry didn’t have any friends and Dudley did, so he’d made up lies to get Dudley in trouble. They showed her Dudley’s second bedroom and told her that it had all the toys Harry had broken in his rages. They said sadly that they’d tried to discipline him by giving him some chores, but it didn’t work, and they’d been terribly repaid for their kindness.

So the caseworker left, and after that, Mrs. Jute looked at Harry with pity and tried to talk to him about his “anger issues.” But no one else ever believed him.

And the yelling got worse, and even though Uncle Vernon never hit Harry, he threatened to all the time, especially when Harry found himself on the roof of the school building after running from Dudley.

Harry learned something from that: the things which mattered most to you, you never told anyone, because it wasn’t safe and it wouldn’t change things anyway.

*

Harry was weeding the garden one day when he heard a faint cry. He looked around, thinking for a second it was another kid Dudley had beaten up. That was the way Harry sounded sometimes, when they’d been kicking his ribs.

But instead, the grass moved, and something small and black came out of it. It was a black kitten, Harry saw, with no white on it. And it had green eyes, like his. It sat down, and stared at him, and cried.

Harry immediately poured some water from the hose into a small dish that he’d been using to water the most delicate flowers. The kitten lapped like it hadn’t had water for days. Harry sat there and watched it. He knew the feeling, after hours of being trapped in his cupboard.

He hadn’t ever met something as thirsty as he was.

He wouldn’t have done it for himself, but he sneaked into the house when Aunt Petunia was in the back garden gossiping with one of the neighbors, and stole a bit of bread and some of the roast that they were going to have that night. The kitten ate it so fast that it almost choked, and Harry had to stroke its back. Then it curled up next to him and purred so loudly that Harry was more worried about that attracting attention than he was about the crying.

He managed to keep the kitten hidden all that day when he worked in the garden, and then he smuggled it into the cupboard. He got food that night, and he shared it with the kitten, and when he was let out to go to the loo, he smuggled water back in his cupped hands. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and Dudley were all watching the telly. No one noticed as Harry held out the water to the kitten, and it lapped and lapped again, and got the floor wet, and rolled on its back to bat at the hanging edge of Harry’s jeans hem.

Harry went to sleep that night with the kitten dozing on his stomach, and the purring enough to shake his mattress beneath him.

*

It lasted three days.

Then Aunt Petunia opened the cupboard earlier than she usually did, and found Harry feeding the kitten with smuggled fish. She screamed, and grabbed Harry. Then Uncle Vernon stormed into the cupboard, and grabbed the kitten.

Harry, twisting furiously, got away from his aunt, and rushed after Uncle Vernon as he carried the crying kitten towards the door. He almost got there in time. Then Aunt Petunia snatched him back again, and Uncle Vernon was outside roaring about “Filth!” and “Freaks!” Harry heard the kitten cry one last time.

It was more like a scream.

Harry didn’t know exactly what happened, but Uncle Vernon came in with blood on his hands and yelled in his face for ten minutes, and Harry learned something else: animals were better than humans, but you’d better not show off that you liked them, either.

*

Uncle Vernon was sitting at the table one night and talking about someone he worked with at Grunnings who could never keep the orders straight. Harry was cooking dinner, a new chicken recipe that he had to be careful with because the spices were tricky. 

Uncle Vernon knocked back yet another glass of alcohol and said, “So then, I said, ‘What you want, Drummler, is a fine boy like Dudley. Not that pack of girls you have. The more time a man spends around girls, the more girly he gets.’ Well-known fact.” He swallowed again and nodded to Aunt Petunia. “And what do you think Drummler said to that?”

“That it was untrue because you’re prissier than anyone else he knows?” muttered Harry.

*

Harry sat in his cupboard later nursing the burns on his hands from where Uncle Vernon grabbed the meal away from him and the bruise on the back of his neck. Uncle Vernon grabbed him there, too, just like he did with the kitten.

Uncle Vernon yelled at him so loudly and shook him so much that Harry actually missed most of his words. But he knew what some of them were. Harry was a freak and ungrateful and a brat and if he ever, ever did something like that again, then he would find out where people Uncle Vernon didn’t like went. Because Vernon Dursley knew people and he could make those people know Harry, too.

Harry had a lesson that didn’t disappear when the burns and the bruise did: you can be sarcastic all you like, but keep the words inside. They can’t do anything about what you think, but they sure can about what you say.

*

Harry blinked and pushed his glasses up his nose. He couldn’t believe that those were his marks. It wasn’t like he had never been interested in school before, but this year, he had been really interested. They had new teachers who were more passionate about all sorts of subjects, even maths, and Harry had done well.

It was a new experience, to have people smile approvingly at him, and he had worked harder probably because he wanted more of it. Harry shrugged. He still knew that good marks could get you important things. Great jobs and good money and admission to university. He would need those things if he ever wanted to get away from the Dursleys.

He went home daydreaming. He hadn’t done that in a long time, and that meant he wasn’t as careful about hiding the evidence of his good marks as he should have been. Dudley found it, and took it to his parents, and Aunt Petunia came out to Harry where he was digging a new flowerbed for her roses.

*

Harry rubbed his hands. This time, the thorns had stung him when Aunt Petunia spun him around and started telling him off for cheating. That was the only way she thought he could have got such good marks, cheating off Dudley.

And now he was on no food for three days, and then bread and water for a week. 

Harry leaned his head back and stared up at the spiderwebs hanging from the ceiling of the cupboard. He thought for a second about the things he’d learned about spiders in school. How they spun webs and laid their eggs.

Then he looked away. He might need good marks to get away from the Dursleys, but how was he going to get them if he starved to death before he got out of Privet Drive? He would just have to wait, and hope that by the time he and Dudley went to different schools, his aunt and uncle had changed their minds. Maybe Dudley would make lots of rich friends and be good at games, and so they wouldn’t care anymore that Harry made better marks.

And he learned a lot about lying with his face and his body, because of the new lesson. You could be intelligent all you liked, but you had to keep it hidden. There were too many people who would assume the wrong thing because Harry the Freak just wasn’t that smart.

*

Harry spent a second wishing his clothes weren’t so bad. Then he shook his head and walked into the new bookshop that had opened a short distance from the Dursleys.

The woman who was putting some books on the shelves turned around and looked at him. She had short brown hair and small round glasses, and Harry tensed for a second, because she looked like a teacher. But he didn’t think she would report him just because of that, so he cleared his throat and said, “Hullo. I saw a sign in the window. It said you were looking for part-time help.”

“You’re, what, ten?” The woman’s voice was blunt, but not unkind. “You’re too young to help me.”

Harry nodded, because he was ten, but he said, “I know that I can carry heavy boxes. And I can alphabetize books. And I know the neighborhood around here. I can take books to people if you want me to.”

The woman opened her mouth, and hesitated. Then she said, “Do you have a place to live, boy?”

Harry flushed. He knew it was the clothes. But he tried to speak clearly when he said, “I do. I just really want to earn a little money. We don’t have a lot.” At least she would take that part as true because of the way he looked, too.

“Hmmm.” The woman picked up one of the boxes sitting on the floor beside her. “See about lifting that.”

It made Harry’s arms sag, but he could do it. Of course he could, he thought. He’d had to carry heavier shopping on the rare occasions that Aunt Petunia consented to take him along to London or Surrey.

“Well, now.” The woman leaned back on the counter. “I wouldn’t be able to pay you much, and it would be unofficial, you understand. I can’t really hire people your age.”

“Even a little would help,” Harry said, and tried not to smile too widely at her. It would probably make him look mental. “Thank you.”

*

It looked like it was all going to work out, until Aunt Petunia came into the shop, and made a fuss over Harry, and managed to imply to the woman, without actually saying it, that he was a bit touched in the head, that his family had plenty of money and he was just greedy. The woman’s smile grew fixed, and she nodded them out of the shop.

Aunt Petunia gave Harry a slap on the back of his head that made his ears ring. For the next week, he was in the cupboard whenever he wasn’t at school. And then when it was the summer holidays, Harry was in the garden or the kitchen whenever he wasn’t in the cupboard, right where Aunt Petunia could keep an eye on him.

Harry learned something else, then. He could work, but lots of people probably wouldn’t care about that. You might as well work on what you wanted to, and just not tell them. They would get loads of visible work out of you anyway.

*

Harry learned a lot as a child, but not as much as he did on the day a week before his eleventh birthday, when a tall woman with a stern face and black robes knocked on the door, holding a letter in her hand, and introduced herself as Professor Minerva McGonagall. 

Chapter Text

Minerva looked around with a shudder as she walked up the street towards what the letter claimed was the right house. Everything was—pale.

Well, all right, there were flowers in plenty of the gardens, and some of the houses also had those small plastic decorations that Muggles seemed to be so in love with. Those were a gaudy red and orange and green, or sometimes blue or white.

But to Minerva, the world was still pale without that patina of hovering magic that marked Hogwarts and Diagon Alley and even villages or houses where individual wizards lived among Muggles. There was an extra depth to the colors there. A resonance to the sounds. A feeling that she could turn around and see someone smile at her in a friendly way, which lasted no matter how hostile the wizard in question really was.

(Minerva had been somewhat disconcerted to notice that feeling of “home” persisted even when she was at Severus Snape’s house in Spinner’s End, an experience neither of them wanted to repeat).

As she raised her hand to knock on the door, she wondered if perhaps the lack of magic was a sign that Harry had turned out a Squib. Then she bit her lip and told herself not to be stupid. He wouldn’t have received a letter in that case.

The door opened at once. A small boy looked up at her through glasses that he threw back with the motion of his head rather than pushed back with his finger.

Minerva found her voice had deserted her. She could only stare. His eyes were exactly the shade of Lily’s as McGonagall had last seen them, distant and glazed and no longer recognizing her.

“Who are you?”

His voice wasn’t rude, but it had the same odd lack of resonance as the whole neighborhood. McGonagall told herself that wasn’t his fault. Any magical child growing up in this environment had probably been stifled.

Old anger made her voice probably sharper than it should have been as she replied. It wasn’t the boy’s fault, Merlin knew. Everything had simply worked out so unfairly. “My name is Professor Minerva McGonagall. I know you probably know all about magic, but since you grew up with a Muggle family, I thought it best for me to come and introduce myself.”

The boy simply stared at her. Now that she looked more closely, Minerva saw James in his shaggy dark hair and even the shape of his hands—Seeker’s hands, most likely. But neither of his parents had had that pale skin, or that sharp, wary gaze.

James as he was. Not as he is.

Minerva swallowed again, and started to ask if the boy would rather that she left the letter and went away, but that was an unacceptably cowardly response for a Gryffindor. She substituted, “I suppose that your aunt and uncle already explained everything?”

“Explained what.”

It wasn’t a question. And as Harry—he must be Harry, although how unlike the cheerful, bouncing baby she had met a few times—turned and stared back into the interior of the house, Minerva knew why there was no magic here. One didn’t consciously express and spread around what one didn’t know one had.

Her wand appeared in her hand as a large man charged in from another room that, from the glimpse of the table around the corner, was probably the kitchen. Minerva warned herself to be careful. She hadn’t become as gentle and forgiving as she should have after years of peace. The war-instincts were always there, getting her ready to cast at sudden movements—or transform.

But then the man roared at Harry, “Who is this?” His gaze went to Minerva’s robes, before he straightened up and yelled, “FREAK!”

Not so unneeded, after all. Minerva ignored the urge to Transfigure him into something more aesthetically pleasing, and waved her wand at an ugly vase standing on a shelf instead. “Commuto fideliam felim!

The vase blurred and struggled for a moment, and then a black cat was crouched on the shelf, tail lashing. The fat man shut up. Minerva smiled. She had found that a bit of unexpected animal Transfiguration was almost always effective at doing that.

She glanced down at Harry, who was watching with wide eyes. He didn’t look frightened, though, despite his apparently total ignorance about things that should have been his rightful heritage. His eyes were wide with glee. 

“Now,” said Minerva. “Neither of us are freaks. I am Professor Minerva McGonagall of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and I came to take Harry to the shops in Diagon Alley.” She glanced at Harry, who didn’t seem able to look away from the cat, for some reason. “It seems that I will need to explain magic to him and the war and who his parents really were, as well.” 

“Those freaks,” said a woman’s voice. Minerva turned to see who else needed a lesson.

There was an incredibly thin woman in the kitchen doorway, with a boy so fat behind her that he looked like a couch she could sit on. Minerva studied the woman’s face, but ended up shaking her head. She had known Lily had a sister. No resemblance was visible, though.

“I told you not to call us that,” said Minerva, pleasantly. 

“I’ll call you whatever I like!” The woman’s voice was so high-pitched that it reminded Minerva of some bats she’d caught. “My bitch of a sister, the way she was always talking—and to think we have to have it in the house—”

Commuto felim leonem.”

She probably shouldn’t have done that, Minerva conceded, as black twisted into gold fur and the lion leaped from the cracking shelf to land in between her and Petunia. It was childish. It was undignified. It could be classed as Muggle-baiting.

But as the lion roared in his aunt’s face and she staggered back, fainting, while the fat boy behind her ran shrieking away and the fat man followed him, Minerva happened to glance down at Harry Potter.

His face was so alight with joy that she would have forgiven herself far worse transgressions.

*

Professor McGonagall had taken Harry to a small café—a Muggle café, he knew now—to eat lunch before they went to Diagon Alley. She’d also set up a spell around them that she said would keep people from knowing they were talking about magic. Harry ate a sloppy sandwich with so much bacon on it that it kept coming off. It was the best lunch of his life.

And Professor McGonagall had said she would answer his questions. Harry had lots of them.

“If I can do magic, why can’t I do the things you do?”

Professor McGonagall gave him a faint smile and patted at the corners of her lips with a napkin. Harry tried to imitate her. He knew his table manners weren’t the best. Aunt Petunia told him that all the time.

If he was snatching food off the table in a desperate attempt to eat it before they took it away, of course his manners wouldn’t be the best. But he didn’t have to worry about that here.

“Because you don’t have a wand,” Professor McGonagall said. “Transfiguration is an extremely advanced branch of magic, one that most adults need extensive training in before they can achieve the effects I did.” She bit the inside of her cheek once. “But I must impress on you, Mr. Potter, that in most cases, one can never use magic in front of Muggles. I did it only because it was a special situation and I thought your relatives were already aware of magic.”

They were. I wasn’t.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Harry cocked his head, then nodded. She was offering an apology that he thought was acceptable. It didn’t sound as though she was full of pity for him, which was something he’d always hated.

“So I won’t do magic in front of Muggles. But I did some things, like turning one of my teachers’ hair blue.”

“Yes.” Harry knew Professor McGonagall was hiding a smile, although he only knew that because of how closely he was looking at her. He thought she was pretty stern a lot of the time. “That is called accidental magic. Children wield it in moments of extreme emotion, without wands. When they receive their wand and start their training, at Hogwarts or another school—or sometimes with their family alone—then their accidental magic usually calms down.”

Harry thought carefully about what he was going to say next. He didn’t want to show too much to Professor McGonagall, who was probably going to be sympathetic, but might—do things that he didn’t want her to do.

“I’ve had plenty of times when I felt something extreme. And my magic didn’t do anything.”

Why couldn’t I save my kitten?

“That would be the lack of training. The discipline at Hogwarts will teach you how to cast spells when you want to, and with what effects you want, instead of relying on what is essentially a chaotic mixture of power, will, and desire. You may have been powerful enough emotionally at the moments when you wanted something to use magic, but not magically powerful enough. Or your feelings may have been more powerful when you were younger than they are now, although they wouldn’t seem so because your awareness of your own wishes has increased. For example, I’ve seen babies able to summon a favorite toy to themselves, but they haven’t been able to will their own nappies clean, even though they cried harder in the second circumstance than the first.”

Harry didn’t like the comparison of himself with a baby, but he knew enough to be able to keep quiet about that, too. He traced his finger over the table for a second, and then asked, “What can you do with Transfiguration?”

Professor McGonagall smiled. Harry had to smile back. She reminded him of that enthusiastic maths teacher at primary school. She really seemed to love it when someone was interested in her subject.

“Change objects into animals, as you saw. Change animals into other animals, or objects into other objects. Animate objects for various purposes. Change yourself into an animal, as I can.” Professor McGonagall looked around as if to make sure that her privacy spell was holding, and then she leaned towards him and lowered her voice anyway. “I can change myself into a cat. I will show you later, if you like, when we are in magical surroundings. It’s not the sort of thing I would want to risk in front of Muggles who know nothing about magic. I’ve already bent the laws enough as it is.”

“I’d like to see that,” Harry said at once. 

His mind was humming and buzzing. He was wondering about other things.

Could I change objects into animals to defend me? Or keep me company? Could I change my nails into claws so I could scratch Dudley? Could I turn the doors in the house into monsters so they would leave me alone?

He didn’t think it would be a good idea to ask all those questions aloud. Besides, he had others. “You said something about a war earlier. What war?”

Someone should have checked up on you!” said Professor McGonagall passionately, and Harry flinched a little. But she calmed down almost immediately, so he didn’t think she was upset at him. 

“There was a war that began when your parents were still young and in school,” Professor McGonagall said at last. “There was a Dark Lord—a wizard who practiced evil magic—and proclaimed himself and his followers superior to all other wizards. According to him, people with any kind of Muggle blood, or Muggleborns—”

“What are they?”

“Wizards or witches with two Muggle parents. There are people with one magical parent, others with two, but there are also many others with Muggle family.”

She paused. Harry thought she was going to say something about his supposedly Muggle family, but Harry stared silently back at her and thought as hard as he could, I have no family.

Either Professor McGonagall could read his thoughts, too, or she had drawn her own conclusions about Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, because she said in a choked voice, “And people who have two magical parents, or who have had magical ancestors for the past several generations, often refer to themselves as pure-bloods. They think of themselves as superior. They formed a large part of this Dark Lord’s following.”

“Why?”

“Which why? Why did they follow him or why do they think themselves superior?”

“Both.” Harry wondered if he would always have to clarify what he wanted to know. She ought to realize he didn’t know anything about this world—this world that should have been his—so he would have a lot of questions.

Professor McGonagall just nodded instead of getting upset, though, so he supposed he hadn’t sounded that rude. “They think of themselves as superior because they’re more distant from Muggles, who they see as clumsy, rude, and ignorant. Muggles are deliberately kept ignorant of our world, of course, by order of the government, but that distinction seems to escape many pure-bloods.”

Harry grinned.

“And they think of Muggleborns, who often don’t know anything about magic until they get their Hogwarts letters, as sharers in that same inferiority.” Professor McGonagall shook her head, a few strands of hair escaping from the tight bun at the back of her head. “I can’t represent their perspective fairly, I think, since I fought against You-Know-Who.” She seemed to sense the question this time before Harry asked it, because she added, “The name most people give this Dark Lord. He was so feared that people created aliases for him. They also call him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

“What’s his real name?”

Professor McGonagall shuddered a little, but said, “Lord Voldemort.”

Harry thought for a second, then said, “That sounds stupid. I think I’ll just call him Dudders. After my cousin.”

Professor McGonagall gave a full-throated laugh, of the kind that Harry didn’t think she often gave, just based on his impression of her so far. A second later, she clapped her hand over her mouth with a guilty motion. Harry smiled at her again. He liked her, and not just because she was the first magical adult he’d ever met. She was just—nicer than other people.

“Well, I would advise you not to use it in many contexts, because others won’t understand.” Professor McGonagall cleared her throat a bit primly and returned to her story. “So You-Know-Who amassed many followers together. He promised to get rid of Muggleborns, and he promised those who followed him power and the chance to torture others. That was enough for many to turn to him. Others followed out of fear.”

Even more like Dudley. But that might have given Professor McGonagall too many clues about the Dursleys, so Harry only nodded and asked, “Is he still around?”

Professor McGonagall shook her head, and her face took on a bit of awe. “He was defeated when you were one year old. He attacked a family called the Longbottoms—pure-bloods, but they’d fought against him instead of joining him. Both Frank and Alice Longbottom, who were parents to a single baby boy, died under You-Know-Who’s wand. But somehow, no one knows exactly how, that baby boy, Neville Longbottom, survived You-Know-Who’s most powerful spell, the Killing Curse, with only a scar on his forehead. And You-Know-Who vanished.”

Harry blinked. It sounded fantastic to him, but, well, there was magic in the world. “So he’s a hero?”

Professor McGonagall smiled. “Yes. He’s called the Boy-Who-Lived, and honored in our world. He’s your age, in fact. He’ll be attending Hogwarts with you. You might end up friends.”

Harry was more interested in something else right now, though. “So my parents died in the war, too?” At least it was a lot better excuse for leaving him with the Dursleys than the nonsense stories the Dursleys had told him.

And Professor McGonagall stared at him, and spoke the seven words that changed his life forever.

“But, Mr. Potter, your parents aren’t dead.”

*

Minerva had never once thought…

He didn’t know about magic. She should have thought of that. But still, she would have thought that his relatives had simply told him some ridiculous story about why his parents weren’t around now. She had never thought they would have told him James and Lily Potter were dead.

“What do you mean?” Harry whispered. His voice was so small, and his eyes fixed on the remains of his lunch as if it might lash out at him.

Minerva controlled the temptation to reach out for him, and instead balled her napkin up on her lap. She would have to remove the spell soon, or the Muggles would begin to wonder why no one was sitting at this table. But she did manage to say, “This isn’t the best place for that discussion. Perhaps we’ll get some ice cream?”

Harry nodded. Minerva canceled the spell, paid the bill when the apologetic, muttering waiter rushed over to them, and then followed Harry outside, keeping a close eye on him. Harry was stumbling. He stood in the street and turned back and forth as if he had forgotten what other people looked like.

Minerva steered him firmly to a small shop that sold so many different favors of ice cream she dithered, making up her mind. By the time she chose chocolate with vanilla swirls, Harry seemed partially recovered. He got pure chocolate, and followed her to a small outdoor table where Minerva raised a more secure privacy charm.

“Tell me.” Harry hesitated a second later, and then softened the stark words with a politeness Minerva suspected didn’t come naturally to him. “Please.”

Minerva sighed. Her first instinct was to conceal part of the truth so as not to wound him.

But looking into his eyes, she doubted he would forgive her if she did that. She had already altered his world with careless, blunt words. The only thing she could do was go on with similar bluntness and hope that would make up, in some sense, for the failures of others.

Including myself. But the Wizengamot, who had briefly discussed the matter because of inheritance and James having no Potter relatives left, had seemed so satisfied to place Harry with his Muggle family that Minerva had thought no more of it.

“Your parents were also attacked,” Minerva told him quietly. “Not by You-Know-Who, however. Followers of his—they are called Death Eaters—pure-bloods named Bellatrix and Rodolphus Lestrange. They tortured your parents with a particularly painful curse known as the Cruciatus. Your parents went insane from being held under it. They are long-term residents in the wizarding hospital, St. Mungo’s.”

“Were they weak?”

He is not going to be a Gryffindor. Minerva could at least conceal her sadness, though, and give him what she had to give. “No. They each spent more than ten minutes under it. Two minutes is usually enough to permanently maim someone, or kill them.”

Harry nodded, his eyes bright. “What were their names? I mean, their full names? I know my mum’s name was Lily, because sometimes my aunt yelled it at me.”

I am going to do something. “Your father’s full name is James Charlus Potter—Charlus after his uncle. Your mother’s middle name is Joyce, I believe. After her mother.”

Harry inhaled as if he was breathing in the scents of a whole garden full of roses. “Will you take me to see them?”

Minerva had to blink back her tears. He won’t be a Gryffindor, but he’s as brave as one. “If that’s what you want. The sight of them is—hard.”

“You’ve visited them?”

“A few times.” To Minerva’s further shame, she hadn’t gone in the last year. It was so hard to see those bright, vital students of hers reduced to staring and mumbling wrecks. But shame shouldn’t have prevented her from doing what was right. “I’ll take you this afternoon.”

Harry nodded and finally swallowed some of his ice cream, a full mouthful that he almost slurped from the bowl. Minerva thought of correcting his table manners, and refrained. Not today.

“What happened? I mean, why did they get attacked?”

“Your parents were war heroes,” Minerva said softly, her mind full of the past, of James Potter dueling Rabastan Lestrange to a standstill on a crowded battlefield and Lily darting out to rescue two fallen Order of the Phoenix members before she Apparated away with them. “You-Know-Who hated them for their defiance of him. Also, your mother was Muggleborn, and I already told you that he hated them on principle. James represented the pure-bloods who wouldn’t follow any Dark principles, especially after he married Lily. And so, You-Know-Who sent some of his most powerful followers after them.”

“How did they get in? Aren’t there security systems that keep magical homes safe?”

“Yes,” Minerva replied, and tried not to twitch. “You and your parents were under one of the most powerful protective enchantments of all, the Fidelius Charm. That involves someone else promising to keep the secret. As long as that person is faithful, the secret can’t be wrested from them, even under torture.”

Harry sat up, and his eyes were cold as Minerva had never seen Lily’s. “So someone willingly betrayed them?”

Those were the eyes of someone who had been betrayed multiple times, Minerva would wager. She nodded. “They trusted the wrong person. They had a friend, Peter Pettigrew, who had been with James for so long that I think James believed no one could turn him away from their side. But Pettigrew was a Death Eater in secret. When James and Lily told him their location, he went straight to You-Know-Who and revealed it, and he passed it on to the Lestranges.”

“Is Pettigrew in prison?”

“Perhaps better than that,” said Minerva, and smiled for just a moment, before she remembered what else that containment had cost them, and winced. “He’s dead.”

“How?”

“Your parents had another friend,” said Minerva, and stared blindly at her ice cream until it stopped swimming in her vision. “Sirius Black. I suppose you would say—he was a sort of blood brother to James, closer to him than anyone. He was your godfather. Originally, your parents were going to use him for the Secret-Keeper, but they thought You-Know-Who would suspect him because he knew all about James and Sirius’s closeness. So they switched to Pettigrew instead, and…

“Sirius knew what had happened the instant he saw your parents lying on the floor. He turned and took off, bellowing about Pettigrew, and we couldn’t guess where he went in time. He tracked Pettigrew down and dueled him. It was so grim and ferocious that they both died.”

Minerva had to fully close her eyes this time. She’d had to identify Sirius’s body, and Pettigrew’s, too. So many of her students dead, she’d stood there with ashes in her throat, even as the rest of wizarding Britain sang and danced in celebration of the end of the war.

“Does he—does he have a grave I can visit?”

No need to ask which of his parents’ old friends Harry meant. Minerva forced her eyes to open, her lungs to breathe, her world to go on. She had a lot of practice at that. “Yes, he does. We held a funeral for Sirius a few days after the duel, and although he’d been estranged from his family for a long time—they followed You-Know-Who and I believe abused him—his brother Regulus placed a gravestone for Sirius. It’s in Godric’s Hollow, where your parents lived.”

Harry nodded as though he was committing the information to memory. He probably was. He was the most serious and solemn little boy Minerva had ever met. “I see.” He slurped some more ice cream. “Can we go? I want to see everything.”

*

And they did.

Harry had a series of images in his head. They flashed past him, and he knew he would remember them forever, long after the other parts of the day had become nothing more than unimportant connecting corridors he walked down.

First, they went to St. Mungo’s. There, Professor McGonagall had to argue with some wizards in green robes for rather a long time over whether they could see his parents at all. Then Harry had stepped forwards and whispered, “Please, let me see them. I never knew them.”

One green-robed witch gave a choking gasp and nodded, then ran off. As they walked further into hospital, Harry looked at Professor McGonagall for an explanation. She gave a small, uncomfortable smile, and said, “You have your mother’s eyes.”

Harry had never known that. He looked around when they were escorted into the Janus Thickey ward, and he immediately saw the woman who had green eyes. She was sitting on the edge of a bed, staring at her feet. She had red hair—Harry had never known that, either—and she wore a shapeless robe.

“Lily?” Professor McGonagall’s voice was very gentle. “I’ve brought Harry to see you. Your son.” She touched Harry’s shoulder.

Harry didn’t need a push. He went forwards. He felt as if he were floating, walking in a dream.

His mum looked up. Her eyes were wide and glazed, and seemed to look a little past him. She blinked and struggled and reached out with one hand that shook. Harry took it carefully, holding it even when he thought she would pull it away. It was cold and dry, and she had chipped nails.

His mum cupped his chin and looked at him, then looked away with a murmur of, “Slytherin green.”

“What’s Slytherin?” Harry asked Professor McGonagall. He didn’t need to ask to know that his mum didn’t recognize him. That was okay. There was already a savage determination growing in Harry. Something he was going to do.

“One of the Houses at Hogwarts. All students are organized into them, and you’ll be Sorted into one of the four at the start of the school year.” Harry knew from just hearing the word that “Sorting” was important. “Slytherin is—a House that has a somewhat unfair reputation for producing Dark wizards. It was You-Know-Who’s House, and the one many followers of his came out of, as well.”

“So my parents weren’t in it.”

“Well, no. But there is—a large bias against Slytherin that is not exactly fair. Slytherin’s defining traits are cunning and ambition. It doesn’t mean that everyone who’s in it is evil.”

Harry didn’t care. He wasn’t going to be in it. “What House were my parents in?” He looked around for his dad, but didn’t see him yet. Maybe he was in the bathroom.

“Gryffindor.“ From the way Professor McGonagall smiled and her voice warmed, Harry had no difficulty in guessing what her House had been, too. “The House whose colors are red and gold. And whose defining traits are bravery and chivalry. It was mine, too.” She paused. “I am the Head of Gryffindor House.”

“That’s mine, then.”

“Do not attempt to force yourself into the mold of your parents, Mr. Potter. They would not want that.”

Harry didn’t answer, partially because his father was coming out, and his dad wore glasses. Just like him. His hair was messy. Just like Harry’s. Professor McGonagall introduced them, but Dad, although he shook Harry’s hand, seemed even less likely to recognize him than Mum. He sat down on the bed, heaved a great sigh, and started talking in a mumbling stream. His mouth shook, so sometimes drool ran down his cheek. Straining his ears, Harry could make out “brooms” and “Sirius.”

The other reason Harry didn’t answer was because no one had ever tried to force him into the mold of his parents. The Dursleys had tried to force him out of it, although Harry hadn’t realized they were doing it at the time.

If Harry wanted to be like his parents, that was his right. The right he hadn’t even known he had.

*

Second, Professor McGonagall took Harry through an uncomfortable, squeezing kind of teleportation—she said it was “Apparition”—and they landed in front of a grave. Harry started forwards. He supposed it was an ordinary sort of graveyard, with silence and benches and tombstones everywhere, but then, he’d only sometimes seen one on telly or read about it in a book, so he wouldn’t know.

The grave was a big, green mound. There was a carved stone at the head of it. It bore everything in capital letters except the last line:

SIRIUS BLACK
3 NOVEMBER 1959-1 NOVEMBER 1981
BELOVED FRIEND
TOUJOURS PUR
He died trying

Harry looked in silence at the stone, and at the grave beneath it, where his godfather slept. He noticed there was a tied bunch of flowers lying next to the stone; they looked like roses, except they were black. He turned around and pointed silently at them, looking at Professor McGonagall.

“Black roses,” said Professor McGonagall. She had her cloak wrapped around her, as if she was cold. “Conjured flowers. I believe his brother leaves them on a regular basis.”

“What do the words on the grave mean?” Harry stared at the dates and calculated in his head. Sirius Black was almost twenty-two when he died. 

Harry had sometimes doubted whether he would ever live to be twenty-two years old, himself, but for an adult, it seemed so young.

“He was your father’s best friend,” Professor McGonagall murmured, voice almost lost beneath the rising wind. “And close to your mother, too, before the end. Toujours pur is French—the motto of the Black family. It means ‘Always pure.’”

Harry smiled a little. “But he wasn’t always pure, was he?”

He was viciously proud of that. It was like the opposite of the emotion he had felt when Uncle Vernon killed his kitten. His father had been the “wrong” kind of pure-blood, and so had his godfather. That was great. Harry didn’t want anything to do with insane Lord Dudders and his pure-blood scum.

“No, he wasn’t.” Professor McGonagall hesitated once, and then added, “I’m not sure what the last words mean. Regulus had them added. Maybe he means that Sirius died trying to do the right thing.”

“Killing someone?”

“Well—the Blacks do have a certain reputation, Mr. Potter. For being pure-blood, yes, and fanatical followers of various Dark Lords, but also for having obsessive tendencies to the point of insanity. It is perhaps, fitting, from a Black point of view that Sirius died the way he did.”

Harry ran his hand down the stone. “He was in Gryffindor, too, wasn’t he?”

“Yes. The only Black in Gryffindor ever. The rest of his family was all Slytherin.”

Harry said a silent farewell and hello to the godfather he’d never known, and made a silent promise. He wasn’t going to be in Slytherin, no matter what happened. He supposed he had some traits that might make him fit there. He was cunning, or at least smarter than the Dursleys. They only won because they could simper and they were stronger than him. And he had an ambition, born in him the minute he understood what had happened to his parents.

But he wasn’t going to be a Slytherin. He wasn’t going to be a pure-blood—although he probably couldn’t anyway, since his mother had been Muggleborn. At least if he was understanding Professor McGonagall right.

He was going to exist to be a bother and a pest to the people who had tortured his parents into insanity and killed his godfather. And when he got older, he was going to be much worse than that.

Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. Harry turned around, presuming she wanted to leave. He went still when he saw her offering him a conjured bunch of white flowers.

“Lilies,” she said. “For—your mother.”

Harry nodded, and turned, and placed them carefully on the other side of the grave, opposite the black roses. Then he turned around and they left. 

He thought he caught a glimpse of a tall dark-haired man, in a cloak and robes like Professor McGonagall’s, watching him from the far end of the graveyard. But when he turned his head, the man had turned and strode on. And then they Apparated away, so Harry didn’t get the chance to make sure.

Well. If the man was an enemy, Harry intended to be ready for him in the future.

*

Third, they were in a wand shop, and Ollivander was trying Harry with wands.

Harry tried wand after wand. Ollivander named their woods and cores as he handed them to Harry. He seemed particularly hopeful with a holly wand, but none of them worked. The oaken wands almost shook themselves out of Harry’s hand. A blast of cold air blew across the shop when he handled a rosewood wand, but that didn’t seem to be the result Ollivander wanted.

Finally, Ollivander turned around, looking harassed, and gave Harry a larger wand, announcing, “Ash, dragon heartstring, thirteen inches, unyielding. If this one doesn’t work, we’ll see about the—”

Harry had already felt a surge up his arm, welcoming and toothy at the same time, like Professor McGonagall’s Transfigured lion trying to lick his face. He waved the wand. A white puff of smoke shot out and became a mouse running across Ollivander’s counter for an instant before it turned back into smoke.

Ollivander clapped his hands and cackled with glee. “Yes, yes, that’s exactly the one! And extremely powerful in Transfiguration, if I do say so myself.”

“Mr. Potter is wise enough to wait to learn Transfiguration until he has had some training,” Professor McGonagall snapped.

Harry touched his wand, and smiled.

*

Fourth, Harry was back in Privet Drive, lying on the bed in Dudley’s second bedroom for the first time in his life, watching the sunset out the window. Professor McGonagall had had some quiet but extremely vicious words with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, and they had moved Harry up here and then retreated with mutters. Harry lay there, kicking up his heels and looking at his wand and at all the books he had bought at Flourish and Blotts. Professor McGonagall had said they were his birthday present from her, especially all the ones on Transfiguration, even though they’d gone to his vault at Gringotts and it looked like Harry had plenty of money.

Professor McGonagall had strictly warned him not to use his wand outside of school. That could get him expelled from Hogwarts. Harry had agreed eagerly. He had plenty to read, anyway, and that was what he most wanted to do now.

Because he had figured it out.

Transfiguration was powerful. Professor McGonagall had said so. Ollivander had said that Harry had a wand particularly suited for Transfiguration.

Magic could do lots of things. And that meant magic should be able to heal his parents.

Obviously, it couldn’t just make the Cruciatus Curse never to have happened. But Harry had thought of something he bet would work. 

It would take training. And time, and study. Professor McGonagall hadn’t actually got around to showing him her cat form; Harry didn’t blame her, with all the other things that had happened. But she had said it took her a long time to become that kind of witch. 

Harry would take the time. He would study everything. He would get to know things. He would Transfigure objects and animals until he was good at it. He would read all the books. He would make sure that other people didn’t know what he was doing, because they would probably try to stop him.

And in the end, he would Transfigure his parents’ brains back to the way they should have been. They would be normal and healthy, and he would have them back again.

Harry nodded in determination, and picked up the first book, and began to read.

Chapter Text

“This is the place.”

Harry stepped out of the car and looked around, nodding. This was King’s Cross Station, where Professor McGonagall had told him to come. And when he turned his head to the side and sort of relaxed his eyes for a little, looking at what was there instead of what he expected to be there, he could see the hurrying people in robes, with owls in cages.

Harry put a hand on his own wand, concealed in his pocket, close to his hip. He would do what was necessary to fight for his parents, and that included being on the alert for people who might try to harm him.

He’d read books on magical history, including recent history, in the past month, too.

“We don’t want you back over the holidays. Hear me, boy?”

“Yes, Uncle Vernon.”

Honestly, they matter so much less than they did, Harry thought, as he began to walk towards where Platform 9 ¾ must be. He would still defend himself from the Dursleys if he had to and get his revenge on them someday, but they just weren’t as important as his parents. He didn’t think they ever would be again.

Harry wandered up and down dreamily for a little while, thinking of what would happen when he Transfigured his parents’ brains, how his mum would look at him with recognition and his dad would make sure he had the best glasses. Then he looked around and noticed there wasn’t actually a Platform 9 ¾ anywhere.

But once again, all he had to do was look, and he saw the people in robes with the owls in cages. Three of them waited until most people other than Harry were looking elsewhere, and then ran straight at the barrier between Platforms 9 and 10. He saw them sparkle for a moment, stars seeming to leap to life around their bodies, before they just disappeared. 

That was it, then. Harry strolled after them, and he had to wait even less time for people to look away, because he didn’t have an owl or anything strange like that. And he had practice in getting people not to look at him. He was just the freak, the Dursleys’ unwanted nephew.

That’s going to help when I’m at Hogwarts, though. Everything Harry had read told him that Transfiguration was dangerous and nothing he wanted to do had been attempted before. If he knew teachers at all, that would make them feel that they ought to “protect” him for his own good.

But they couldn’t stop him if they didn’t know about him and his plans.

When Harry came through the barrier, he did stop and gape. The Hogwarts Express was a giant, scarlet steam engine, and it was so loud and busy with people rushing around and clutching their hats and trolleys and hugging each other and yelling at each other that it made Harry’s head feel hollow.

He shook that head determinedly a minute later, though, and walked on, into the middle of the billowing steam and the noise. He didn’t want to pause or slow down. The train might leave without him! He’d barely been able to persuade the Dursleys to bring him on time. Uncle Vernon had probably only agreed because it meant he’d be gone for ten months.

Once Harry got on the train, it was less crowded and quieter, and people ignored him. They all seemed to be looking for their mates or their siblings. Harry slipped into an empty compartment near the back and settled in with his trunk and his books.

*

“Who are you, then?”

Harry looked up. A few people had peered into the compartment as the hours went by, but they’d all left again when they realized they didn’t know Harry. Harry had bought a few Chocolate Frogs from the lady with the sweets, first because he was hungry and second because he wanted to know how the enchantment on them worked. 

But these people didn’t seem to be leaving. Two of them moved to the sides as if they wanted to block the door. Harry slipped his wand into his hand. He knew bullies from watching Dudley and his gang. 

This time, though, he would be allowed to use the spells that he couldn’t practice all summer. Harry had read about some of the defensive ones until his head was buzzing with information and flicked his wand until his muscles knew the movements by heart.

“Are you mute? I asked you a question.”

The one in the center was blond and swaggering. He wasn’t as fat as Dudley, but Harry thought that was the only real difference.

“Why should I introduce myself to you when I don’t know who you are?”

The blond boy blinked, and then shook his head. “You ought to know who I am. I’m Draco Malfoy. Lucius Malfoy is my father.”

Harry would have laughed, but he thought he wouldn’t stop. Malfoy’s name had been in the most recent history book he’d read. He’d been a Death Eater. Oh, he’d said sorry after the war and claimed that Lord Dudders had him under something called the Imperius Curse, but Harry doubted that. It was like when Vernon flattered his bosses and then complained about them behind their backs.

Harry wanted to say something about exactly how little worth he put on the Malfoy name. But this Malfoy had two large boys with him. Not worth it.

“My name is Harry Potter.” No one would know his name, Harry was sure. He wasn’t famous like the Boy-Who-Lived.

But, to his surprise, Malfoy started and stared at him. “The one with the parents who need help to use the loo?”

Harry didn’t plan it. He was on his feet and across the compartment and he had his wand pressed against Malfoy’s throat before he thought about it. It just was. One minute here, the next minute over there. Malfoy began to choke.

The two large boys started to swing around, pumping their fists into their other hands.

“If you touch me, I’ll turn him into a beetle and step on him.” Harry didn’t know if he could do that yet, but it was an interesting threat.

And it made the two boys hesitate. It was probably the voice he’d used, Harry thought. And the stare. It was the calm voice and stare he’d used on the Dursleys during August. Even Uncle Vernon sometimes looked at Harry as if he didn’t know what had happened to the boy he used to spend the day terrorizing.

“You can’t do that,” Malfoy gasped. He was almost on his toes now. Harry’s wand was in front of him and the compartment door behind him, and neither one was moving. “I’ll tell my father! You’ll be in so much trouble!”

Harry laughed. The two boys stopped moving altogether. Malfoy looked as if he’d faint.

“I live in the Muggle world,” Harry whispered to him. “Your father can’t do anything to me there. And he can’t complain to my parents, either. Can he. I don’t like you, Malfoy. I know who your father is and what he fought for. And I’ll fight any Death Eater who comes after me.”

Malfoy reached up and made a little gesture. The two big boys opened the compartment door and took one, careful step back. 

Harry considered the kind of truce they were offering. Then he lifted his wand and stepped back, too.

Malfoy coughed one final time and massaged his throat. He stared at Harry and shook his head. He didn’t look frightened, anymore, but more disbelieving. “You’re going to pay for that, Potter. You may not know how yet, but you will.”

“I told you what I’d do.”

Malfoy turned and walked away, tossing over his shoulder, “Crabbe, Goyle. Let’s go. It’s not like this one’s going to be in Slytherin. We’ll teach him and the other Gryffindors a lesson later.”

The boys, Crabbe and Goyle apparently, looked at Harry and cracked their knuckles meaningfully. Harry just smiled at them, then shut the compartment door. After a second, he tried the Locking Charm on it. 

The door seemed to snick more comfortably into the wall. Harry nodded and settled back down with his book, content to know that no one else would disturb him.

*

“Firs’ years! Firs’ years over here!”

The gigantic man calling Harry and the others was waving an equally huge lantern. Harry found it easy to follow him down from the train and to the lake, where people crowded into boats. Everyone seemed to be aiming for one where a brown-haired boy sat, his hands folded and his eyes on his lap. Harry wondered absently if that was Neville Longbottom.

He ended up sharing with a blond girl who didn’t talk, a tall boy with dark skin and a frown on his face, and a grinning sandy-haired kid who wouldn’t stop talking. That actually made it easier. No one asked him his name. Harry just nodded and mumbled a few words of nonsense in response, and then turned and gaped along with the others when they sailed around the corner and Hogwarts came into view.

It shone, Harry thought. It had so many windows and towers and turrets that it must have lots of places to hide. And the stone walls loomed, and Harry thought he could practice magic on them and never knock them down. He reached out a hand, then realized what he must look like and pulled it back to his side.

“Are you okay?” That was the sandy-haired boy, looking at him in concern.

I feel like I’m coming home. But then they would ask why Harry felt like he’d never been home before. Harry managed to smile. “It was just overwhelming, that’s all.”

“Yeah, I know. Like it takes away your breath.” The boy grinned at him and thrust out his hand. “Seamus Finnigan. My mum’s a witch, and she told me all about it, but she also told me that I would still gasp when I saw it.”

“I didn’t hear you gasp.”

Finnigan laughed cheerfully. “You were too busy gasping yourself, mate!” He cocked an eyebrow at Harry, and Harry decided that he could say his name. Finnigan didn’t sound like the name of a Death Eater. Of course, if only his mother was a witch, she might be someone on the wrong side of the war who had married to hide her name.

But probably not, not if she married a Muggle. “Harry Potter.”

“Heard of your dad,” said Finnigan, and gave him an awkward pat on the back. “My mum says he was a good bloke. Sorry.”

“Yeah,” Harry said softly. “Thanks.”

Finnigan turned to the other people in the boat and stared at them. After a moment, the tall boy shifted, said, “Blaise Zabini,” and glanced away.

The blond girl nodded and murmured, “Daphne Greengrass.”

Zabini’s name was unfamiliar, but Greengrass was the name of an accused Death Eater family—one of the ones who had supposedly only donated to Lord Dudders instead of fighting for him. Harry made sure there was a little distance between them.

“Well, there’s probably two different Houses here, then,” said Finnigan cheerfully. “My mum’s third cousin to your mother’s brother-in-law, I think, Greengrass. Or one of those things. I never bother to listen when she tells me about it. She says that your lot always Sort Slytherin.” He ignored the way Greengrass was staring at him and turned to Zabini. “And you look like the kind to carry secrets with you into Slytherin.”

Zabini blinked, but didn’t disagree with him. He only said, with a glance in Harry’s direction that Harry didn’t like, “And where you do you think Potter will be?”

“Gryffindor, of course! With parents like his? Of course,” Finnigan scoffed.

Harry smiled. Zabini didn’t look impressed, but Harry was starting to think he never did. And he didn’t owe someone who would be in Slytherin anything. 

The boats slid into a dark tunnel and finally stopped at a set of wide steps. Everyone tried to pile out at once, except for Harry’s boat. Finnigan was the one who hauled Harry out onto the steps at last and in between the dodging students, only to stop and gasp at something in front of them.

Harry looked. Ghosts were swooping towards them, one of them with his head hanging off his neck. Another one looked like a monk. Harry stood there and stared at them. He wondered if his godfather had become a ghost, if there was some way he could speak to him.

“Good to see you here, then!” The ghost with his head mostly gone nodded to them. “I hope to see you in my House. I was Gryffindor, you know.”

The monk-like ghost tried to say something, but Professor McGonagall stepped into view just then, holding a long scroll and looking even sterner than Harry had seen her when she visited him. Harry relaxed. Professor McGonagall only had to look around and say, “Silence,” once. Then everyone was silent. Harry caught a glimpse of blond hair from the side and hoped that Malfoy was cold and uncomfortable.

“I will escort you into the Great Hall,” said Professor McGonagall. “You will place the Sorting Hat on your heads, and it will tell you your proper House. I will call your names in alphabetical order, so maintain it.” For an instant, her eyes lingered on someone behind Harry, as if she thought they would disrupt the order if they could. “Be ready.”

She turned around then, and Harry stood there and listened to the beat of his heart. He wondered how many names down the list his own would be. Maybe there would be a balance and he would be right in the middle, the way someone with a P-name should be. That would make more people forget about him.

It occurred to him abruptly that Finnigan had never said where he would be Sorted, and he glanced at him. “Where are you going?” he whispered.

Finnigan winked. “Gryffindor. No doubt. With the way my mum was?”

Harry wanted to ask how his mum was, what it was like to grow up with magical parents or at least one, but the doors swung open in front of them then, and they walked into the Great Hall.

*

Minerva told herself sternly that shaking hands, at her age, were simply a girlish habit, and she straightened her chin and turned sharply away from the first-years to her scroll. She had seen Harry among the others, looking too calm. And there was a Malfoy this year, and the Boy-Who-Lived. She was more anxious about where this lot of first-years would go, which ones would be hers to care for during the next seven years, than she had been for a long time.

Pretend that boarhound of Hagrid’s is after you. That always calms you down.

It did this time, too. Minerva pictured scratching the brute’s nose during the Sorting Hat’s song, making it as detailed in her head as she could, and her voice was steady when she read, “Abbott, Hannah!”

The blond girl who wavered up to the stool and put the Hat on was predictable. Minerva smiled when the Hat sang “HUFFLEPUFF!”, and would have applauded along with the rest, but she had a list of names to read.

“Bones, Susan!”

Minerva stood back and nodded as she watched the others come up. She smiled when the Brown girl became her first Gryffindor. Minerva had known members of the Brown family for most of her life, and while—Lavender, she thought the girl’s name was—would be the first Gryffindor among them for some years, she was upholding a fine tradition.

The rest of the Sorting seemed to hurtle past, towards the one that Minerva most awaited—or perhaps awaited secondmost, beyond seeing where Harry would go. There was only one hitch, with a girl named Granger, who sat beneath the Hat with her mouth moving in small argumentative ways for at least five minutes. Minerva cocked her head. At least once she thought she saw the word “Ravenclaw,” but in the end, the Hat cried “GRYFFINDOR!”

Minerva decided she would keep an eye on the girl. There might be some small problems with the girl settling in if she had a personality that the Hat had thought would make her work better as a Ravenclaw.

On the other hand, that’s what someone else might have thought about me, once.

Then the moment came when she called, “Neville Longbottom!” and watched the rest of the Hall react to the name.

That’s him?”

“I thought he’d be taller.”

“Or less pale.”

Longbottom’s face was indeed pale as he jogged forwards. But Minerva didn’t think that was remarkable. She knew Augusta, his grandmother, would have kept him indoors at study and what little wand training he could have before his eleventh birthday as much as possible. Augusta had lost her son and daughter-in-law in one sudden evening. She was sure to try and cling to her grandson as much as possible.

Once he was beneath the Hat, Minerva could see him sitting with his eyes closed and his fists desperately clenched. She sighed. She thought she knew where Longbottom wanted to go, but the Hat was taking even longer with him than it had with Granger.

But finally, the Hat said “GRYFFINDOR!” And her table cheered, and Longbottom stood up and wobbled over in a way that showed how tense he’d been, and Minerva caught sight of Severus sneering from the corner of her eye.

She resisted the temptation to sneer back at him when the Malfoy boy went into Slytherin at once. Of course. But the problem was, Severus would take the presence of the boy in his House as a triumph instead of the punishment Minerva would have considered it.

And then came the moment when she found herself staring like an anxious parent, as the Sorting Hat lowered over Harry Potter’s head.

*

Ah, Mr. Potter. I see what you want to be. And I see what you are.

Someone who can heal my parents? It hadn’t even occurred to Harry that a Hat who could read his thoughts might be able to tell him whether he’d succeed at his task. Then again, he hadn’t even known there was a Hat who could read his thoughts until he was here.

The Hat paused. Harry didn’t know how he knew it was doing that, but he did. Then it murmured, I can tell you that you are not suited for Gryffindor.

Harry felt as if the Hat had told him he couldn’t heal his parents, after all. Or at least that Sirius wasn’t a ghost and Harry would never get to talk with him.

But that’s what I am. That’s what they are. And isn’t it brave to want to do something to heal them and bring them back? Give them their lives back?

Harry was pleading as he had never pleaded with anyone since he was six. He realized it, and winced. At least no one else could hear this.

You are brave. But Gryffindor is about more than bravery. It also relies on an—honesty that you do not possess. The Sorting Hat hesitated a second, and then added, Mr. Potter, in truth, of all the Houses, your nature would find its truest expression in Slytherin.

No.

Slytherin is not all evil, the Hat said in a coaxing tone. Their ambition can carry them to those heights, but also in other directions. Many great Healers and experimenters have come out of Slytherin. You could—

No.

You should think about other things than simply whether your parents would be disappointed in you. You are your own person. You have the right to a fate and a destiny that would make you independent of your parents, if that’s what you wanted. 

NO!

Harry could sense people staring at him. The Great Hall had been silent with each new name, because they probably wanted to hear which House they would be in, but now there were murmurs and whispers.

That was the last thing Harry wanted. People who thought he was strange would spend time trying to figure him out, and then laugh if they discovered what Harry wanted. He had to hurry up and make the Hat choose Gryffindor.

You can’t make me do that. The Hat’s voice was gentle. I can let students have options, but I can’t simply place you in a House that’s completely wrong for you. And I’ll always suggest the one I think best.

Slytherin wasn’t an option, though, no matter what the Hat said. Harry struck out for second best. What are my other choices?

Let me see.

Harry thought the Hat was stalling for time, but then he felt it rifling through his head, as if his memories were being flipped like the pages of a book. A second later, the Hat emitted a soft whistling sound, although that was probably only in Harry’s head, too. Well. You have a passion, don’t you? And that passion is an intellectual one. Better be—

“RAVENCLAW!”

Harry whipped the Hat from his head as a table over to the left began cheering. Their colors seemed to be blue and bronze, and there was an eagle on the banner behind them. Harry marched over to them with his stomach churning as if he was about to throw up.

He’d wanted to be like his parents. But if he had to, he would choose not to be completely unlike them. That was acceptable.

People shook his hand and thumped his back when he came over to them. There was someone who introduced himself as “Prefect Fleamont Iverson, my grandfather knew yours, tremendous to have you, Potter,” all in one breath, and several students in his own year who stared at him curiously. None of the ones he’d shared a boat with, though. Finnigan had gone into Gryffindor, as he’d cheerfully predicted, and Greengrass into Slytherin, and Zabini was still waiting to be Sorted.

By the time Harry got some of his mental balance back, Zabini had been Sorted, and yes, it was Slytherin. Finnigan had been right about him.

I wish he was right about me.

Iverson stopped talking during the Headmaster’s short, odd speech, but kept right on going after that. Harry listened because he didn’t have a choice, even when they were eating mashed potatoes or thick ice cream that he thought would have kept Dudley’s mouth gummed shut.

“…we try not to say we’re the best House, it encourages House rivalry, and the professors already have enough of that to deal with when it comes to Gryffindor and Slytherin, you know? Childish, they are. Never shut up about My Grandfather Married a Muggle this and But My Mother’s Family Cut Ties With Muggles Nine Generations Ago that. But we do have the best marks. And we’re the House where you can really study and be in school. The rest of them treat it like a social club, half the time. Well, the Hufflepuffs aren’t bad. And a few of the Gryffindors recognize that we’re here for a higher purpose than having fun. But you ought to see those Weasley twins, what a waste of potential, they could put their older brothers to shame if they only studied. And the Slytherins are counting on having their family connections leverage them into jobs instead of their marks. Not that most of them will have jobs other than sitting on their duffs and counting their Galleons. And then they come to us for help on exams and act like they’re surprised. So it’s the best House for being a good student, you see, which, after all, is what we’re here for…”

“You just said that we’re not supposed to say we’re the best House,” pointed out a dark-haired student in Harry’s year, who had introduced himself as Boot.

Iverson flushed a little. “Yes, right. But when one looks at the Houses…”

That was going to be one problem, then, Harry thought. They would notice if he didn’t keep up his marks. And he had no intention of doing that. Keeping his intelligence hidden would serve him as well here as at the Dursleys. The professors would pay attention to students who impressed them, which meant they would figure out what he was doing. He would probably have to try to be an average Ravenclaw. There had to be a few.

Harry glanced at the Head Table. The Ravenclaw Head of House, Professor Flitwick, was a small man who resembled the goblins at Gringotts. Harry thought he was the most cheerful of the bunch, bar perhaps the odd Headmaster. That might be a good thing. Happy people tended to see happiness everywhere and were easier to fool.

There was Professor McGonagall, looking as stern as ever, and a man who wore a turban and looked prone to jumping at the mere twitch of McGonagall’s robe. And there was a man next to him who had oily dark hair and who was glaring.

At Harry.

Harry stared back in silence for a second before he straightened his shoulders. He knew that kind of glare. It was the one the Dursleys always gave Harry. For existing. The man was a bully, someone who had decided he hated Harry already.

“Who’s that?” Harry finally asked when he could get a word in edgewise around Iverson’s torrent.

“That?” A second-year girl called Chang was the one who followed his pointing finger, and she shook her head a little. “Professor Snape, Head of Slytherin House. He teaches Potions. You don’t want to get on his bad side.”

Harry half-smiled. The professor had turned away from him, back to his meal, but Harry already knew what was likely to happen. Professor Snape would try to bully Harry, for not being a Slytherin or being the son of Gryffindor parents or for some other reason, who knew. 

And Harry wasn’t going to stand for it. He knew how to deal with bullies.

They would be only one more obstacle along the path to his goals. If Professor Snape didn’t bother him that much, Harry would ignore him. If he did, he would make sure that Snape couldn’t injure him, the way he had with Malfoy.

He thought again of his mother’s glazed, blank eyes, the way his father could barely control his mouth.

And all around him, the chattering and the possible alliances and friendships and politics he didn’t know about faded into insignificance. 

What mattered more than the hell his parents were enduring?

Nothing.

Chapter Text

“Hi. We didn’t really get introduced properly at dinner, with Iverson doing all the talking. I’m Terry Boot.”

Harry nodded and accepted his yearmate’s hand. “Hello. Harry Potter.” He moved slowly through the Ravenclaw common room, staring at the ceiling. It was painted with stars. Some of them seemed to shine softly, echoing points of light that gleamed off the bookcases and the tables and chairs scattered around the room.

Harry carefully studied the tables, but had to shake his head. It would be hard to work on what he needed to work on, here. There was next to no privacy. Anyone could just walk up to you and ask what you were reading. Maybe the library would have more hidden corners.

“Something wrong?”

Boot was still close beside him. Harry wished he’d had more friends in primary school, so he would know how to talk to him now. “No. Just wondering how much time we’ll actually get at these tables. The older students probably take up most of them, right?”

Prefect Iverson, who’d been standing near one of the shelves showing some of the books to a first-year girl, immediately turned around and came over. “No, we’re always fair, Potter, I promise. Professor Flitwick has a list of the popular tables and books on the wall, see?” He nodded towards one of the windows, and when Harry looked closely enough, he could see the parchment list hanging on the wall beside it. To be fair, it was easy to miss with how high the windows were and all the decorations. “That means people have a schedule for when they get to sit where and when they get to read the books. All you have to do is add your name to the list. It’s impervious to Copying Charms and the like. And anyone who moves their name around or crosses someone else’s name out gets a talking-to from Professor Flitwick. He’s not very stern, but you don’t want him disappointed in you. It’s like disappointing a puppy dog. You ought to see his eyes—”

Harry decided that if he ever wanted to know anything about Hogwarts, he could just mention a vaguely related subject to Iverson. And it was making an excellent distraction for Boot from Harry’s lack of small talk.

He decided he might as well bring up what he’d wondered about. “What about the library? Is it as nice as this?”

“Not as nice. Nowhere near as nice. We’ve got the best common room, Potter, don’t let anyone else tell you differently.” Given that Harry was completely uninterested in comparing common rooms with the other Houses, all he had to do was nod solemnly and widen his eyes. Iverson charged on. “The library has all these darkened corners where the light’s hard to come by. And the arrangement of the shelves is not logical. Here, all our books are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. The best way to do it, without a doubt. And the library is under Madam Pince. Disappointing her is a lot more painful than disappointing Professor Flitwick—”

“Don’t talk the firsties’ ears off, Fleamont,” said a tall, dark-haired Ravenclaw girl, stepping up beside Harry. She gave him a friendly nod. “I’m the other fifth-year prefect, Claudia Anorana. Come and see me if you ever need a map of the school. I had it memorized the first week I was here.”

“Oi, Claudia, you did not.”

“Perhaps you could show them their bedrooms before we argue about this?”

Iverson flushed a little and nodded, leading Harry, Boot, and two other boys across the room to where a marble statue of a woman with clasped hands stood against the wall. Harry blinked at her. She looked familiar, and he assumed he must have seen her face in one of his books.

“Rowena Ravenclaw, our House’s founder,” Iverson said proudly. The statue was already shifting aside to show stairs. “Up here are your rooms. This is where you’ll spend your next year. The beds should already be set up…oh, good.”

Harry stepped into a room that was large and comfortable, decorated in blue and bronze like the rest of the Tower, and had a hearth with a merrily roaring fire off to the left. The beds were spaced evenly to the right. They were huge four-posters with curtains that could probably be pulled closed around them. Harry could see a door beyond the last bed. He supposed it led to the bathroom.

“Your trunks are at the base of your beds. The beds have charms for comfort on them, but tell the house-elves if you have trouble. You can also drop your dirty clothes in the basket near the end of your bed, but if you leave them on top of your trunk, the elves will still come for them. The only thing is to make sure that you don’t—”

Fleamont. Professor Flitwick wants us to report to his office with the other prefects.”

“Coming, Claudia,” sighed Iverson as he walked back towards the door of the room. “She’s a pain,” he added over his shoulder, as if he thought it was a deadly important fact he had to impart right away, and then closed the door behind him.

Harry found his bed, the second in line from the fire. The others all had animals, he noticed; there were empty birdcages near Boot’s trunk and the tall blond boy’s bedpost, and the other, shy-faced boy had a rat on his pillow that he sat down and promptly clutched for comfort.

“You don’t have a pet, Potter?”

Boot seemed to assume they were friends now. Harry didn’t bother to correct him. He shook his head. “I live with my Muggle aunt and uncle,” he explained as he took out his books and began to arrange them on the table next to the bed. It unfolded into a small bookshelf. “They don’t really care for animals.”

“But Potter’s a pure-blood name.”

That was the blond boy, who had flopped onto his bed and stretched his arms out as if he wanted to hug his pillow. Harry glanced at him. “I didn’t get your name,” he said.

“Oh! Sorry. Anthony Goldstein.”

“Michael Corner,” added the boy with the rat. He had put it down and turned around to sit cross-legged on the bed, as if he didn’t have to be as cautious around them now.

“It’s a name,” Harry agreed. “But my mother is Muggleborn. And it’s her Muggle relatives I live with.”

“What happened to your parents?”

Boot made a large shushing motion at Corner, but Harry didn’t see the point in pretending. Maybe it would give them a reason for his quietness. “They got tortured during the war. They’re in St. Mungo’s.”

“Oh.” Corner turned pink, and hid behind a book he’d taken out, one on Potions.

“Sorry to hear that, mate,” Goldstein offered. “My aunt, she’s a dragon, but she likes owls. And my mum is brilliant. And…”

Harry let the words wash around him, just nodding now and then. Then Boot had to start talking about Quidditch, and Corner asked about everyone’s study habits, and Harry had to contribute a little. But it was pretty easy to ask a question about Boot’s broom or Goldstein’s family, and they were off and rambling. They talked almost as much as Iverson.

Harry was glad when he could finally slip into his bed and close the curtains around him.

I have to find a private place. It doesn’t sound as though the library is going to do it, not with an interfering librarian. But the castle is too big for this many students, anyway. Surely there’s some corner somewhere that no one would miss.

*

Minerva’s mouth twitched a little as she watched the first-year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs hurry into the classroom. This was one of her favorite classes, honestly, as much as she liked teaching her new Gryffindors and learning their strengths and weaknesses. The Ravenclaws were studious and often did well in Transfiguration because of how much concentration the subject needed; the Hufflepuffs were hard-working enough that they didn’t disrupt the class.

She rose and stretched one back leg, then the other. She was sitting on her desk in her cat form, and new scents were filling her nostrils. Many of the first-years smelled like cloth, sweat, ink, and paper. After years of learning to separate them, Minerva could turn her head from side to side and bring a new scent more powerfully swirling up to her nose, if she wished.

At the moment, she didn’t particularly wish. She sat down again, ignored the temptation to groom herself, and waited for the students to notice her.

Only a few glanced at her, most continuing to look at the door. Harry Potter sat with his chin in his hand and his eyes fastened on her, though. Minerva wondered for a moment whether a natural talent in Transfiguration had enabled him to tell the difference between an Animagus and an ordinary cat. Some people could do that.

But usually not without extensive training. Which there’s no way he could have had, not knowing what magic was until his eleventh birthday.

Minerva turned her mind from the puzzle for now, and concentrated on the other students instead. There seemed to be the usual gaggle: the chatterers, the gigglers, the awed, the nervous, the confident. She wanted to say that Harry was unique among them, but that might be her fondness for his parents speaking.

The number of people in the classroom at last matched the number of names she had on her roll. She stood up and sauntered to the edge of the desk, then sat and meowed to get their attention.

“What’s that cat doing here?” one of the Ravenclaw boys sitting next to Harry whispered. “It has markings around its eyes. Huh. Like glasses?”

think it’s cute,” said a Ravenclaw girl that, from her general resemblance to one of Minerva’s new Gryffindors, must be Padma Patil.

“It can be cute all it likes, but it shouldn’t be on the desk, should it?” asked Susan Bones, remarkable for her resemblance to her grandmother.

“I don’t know. I suppose that’s up to Professor McGonagall.”

“If she ever gets here!”

One Hufflepuff in the back row was starting to doodle with his quill on a piece of parchment. Minerva counted sixty heartbeats from that moment, and then walked to the edge of the desk and jumped off.

On the way down, she transformed, clothes into fur and long legs into arms and claws retracting with that odd tickle they always gave when she changed this way and her feet settling flatter on the floor than they did when she walked as a cat and her whiskers sinking back into her face. She resisted the temptation to sneeze, as always, when they were gone and her sensitivity to air currents and smells went with them, and faced the class.

Most of them looked stunned. Some had their mouths open or guilty flushes on their cheeks, probably afraid of what she’d overheard. Harry had a slight smile on his face, the kind that showed in his eyes more than on his lips. Minerva had sometimes seen the same thing in his mother’s eyes when she had cast a successful Untransfiguration, always the harder task for her.

And of course Harry knew I was an Animagus. I told him myself.

Pleased with the solving of one intellectual puzzle, Minerva looked at the first-years over her glasses and said softly, “I think you will learn quickly that what you think you are experiencing in Hogwarts is not always what is there. And Transfiguration is a subtle, boundary-blurring art. What you will learn here is that animals and objects are not always separate. Nor are humans and animals.” She was watching closely, and saw a few of the Muggleborns bristle, as well as a few pure-bloods. In their own separate ways, both of them had traditions that would make that statement peculiarly offensive to them.

If you look in a mirror, you would see how much your own face resembles an ape’s, she wanted to tell them, but she ignored it. She reached for the roll and began to go down the list, pausing when she reached the name of the Hufflepuff who had doodled on his parchment. “Zacharias Smith.”

He started and gave her an expression that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be guilty or haughty. Minerva merely raised an eyebrow and pretended to make a small mark next to his name. That unnerved some of them like nothing else.

When she had put down the roll, she stood near her desk and surveyed them. So small. So young. Even smaller, she thought, than the Slytherins and Gryffindors. Both those two Houses seemed to have got all the tall first-years this Sorting.

“Transfiguration is the most difficult art you will learn here at Hogwarts. It will be some time before you can manage even elementary transformations. You must master the incantation and the wand movements, as will be important in every other spell you cast here at Hogwarts, but more than that, you need to place a harness on your imagination. If you visualize a detail wrongly, what you create might be very pretty, but it will not be a correctly Transfigured object.”

She turned to her desk. She had turned it into a pig when she had her first session with the Gryffindor-Slytherin class, but she felt the need to be mischievous this time, or perhaps it was only as a sort of gift to Harry, who seemed never to have blinked once as he watched her.

To increase the surprise, she did it wordlessly, despite the extra effort that took from her. She would lecture in this class, and not permit any of them to attempt a Transfiguration until they had written at least a few essays. 

Commuto mensam pardum.

The power flowed and flowered through her veins and struck out from her wand, wrapping around the desk. The class gasped in unison as gold and black threaded through the plain wood, and then—because Minerva could manage special effects when she had the inclination—the wood seemed to fly apart and reveal the animal underneath it, instead of simply transforming.

The full-grown female leopard now standing in front of the class lowered her head and snarled. Minerva let them gasp and shout for a second, then waved her wand and intoned, “Commuto pardum mensam.” The leopard froze into a wooden statue, before her back grew larger and lengthened and some of the rosettes on her coat became the knobs of drawers.

When the leopard was a desk again, Minerva turned around and nodded to them. “An expression of the power of Transfiguration. You may have read about the defensive or convenient uses of Transfiguration; they are certainly the ones most emphasized in biographies on Chocolate Frog cards. And using animated furniture to guard a house or creating a table out of dust to hold a cup is certainly useful.

“But one can also utilize Transfiguration for offensive purposes. Think about the ability to Transfigure the ground at an opponent’s feet into ice, or acid, or a pit of fire, or a nest of vipers. Think about, if you were locked up in a prison cell, Transfiguring a rat into a monkey that could climb through the window and hand you the key. Yes, Mr. Smith?”

“That would mean they would have to let you have your wand in prison, though, right, Professor?”

Minerva almost smiled. At least the boy had spirit and a proper sense of respect, when he wanted to use it.

“That’s correct, Mr. Smith. Although wandless Transfiguration is possible in moments of extreme emotion or extreme training. But I want you to keep your mind open to possibilities. I would never discourage imagination. It is only that the imagination must be properly trained and disciplined, or you could end up with a one-legged, pink leopard that could only hop awkwardly at your foe.”

That raised a giggle from Patil, Bones, and a few of the others. Minerva looked back at Harry. He was sitting bolt upright, and his eyes were so bright it was hard to look at them.

Minerva had to smile as she turned and added the first of the theory she wanted them to take notes on to the board. James would have been so proud to see his son as a Transfiguration prodigy—which Harry seemed to be well on the way to becoming.

*

Harry finished scribbling down the last of the notes, and shook his hand a little once he wasn’t holding a quill that would spot the whole parchment with ink. Then he stood and folded up his notes, stuck them in the outer pocket of the bag he’d bought in Diagon Alley, and walked towards the front of the classroom.

There were some things he wanted to ask Professor McGonagall.

“Aren’t you coming to lunch?” Boot called from behind him.

Harry gave him a smile he hoped looked natural. Boot was still under the delusion that he and Harry were best mates. “Yes. I just have to ask Professor McGonagall something. It’s confusing, you know. Being raised by Muggles.”

Boot nodded sympathetically and rushed after Goldstein, who was talking about a Quidditch play. Harry turned back to Professor McGonagall. She was watching him with calm eyes that had a bit of a feline glow to them, Harry thought. He wondered if they also shone red when she was in the dark. 

“You paid close attention, Mr. Potter. I could see that. What was it you wanted to ask?”

Harry took a deep breath. His heart was still hammering, the way it had been from the moment Professor McGonagall asked them to start imagining the possibilities of Transfiguration. But he would have to take care not to show that.

“I just wondered if there was a common theory behind all kinds of magic, Professor. I mean, do Charms and Transfiguration have a lot in common?”

“They certainly do. They’re the most Wand- and Will-based classes that you’ll take as a first-year.”

Harry stared. He had read those words in his Transfiguration books from Diagon Alley, but he hadn’t found definitions. It was hard when the authors were sometimes using them in different ways than just “wand” and “imagination,” and then sometimes using them to mean the ordinary things, anyway. “What are Wand and Will, Professor?”

“It’s a bit advanced for first-years.” Professor McGonagall studied him through her glasses. “And it’s only one way of looking at the theory, in any case. An older perspective. You’ll find books that talk about it in much more modern terms.”

“I want to hear your terms, Professor.”

“If you’re trying to flatter me, Mr. Potter…” But Professor McGonagall let the thought trail away before Harry could deny it, shaking her head. “No, I think you wouldn’t do that. At any rate. The theory is complicated for first-years because it can be hard for them to tell the different components apart.

“But there are three aspects to the theory: Wand, Word, and Will. The movements of your wand during the actual casting of the spell are the first one, but also the little movements of your body that you make when you adjust your position, lift the wand, bow before a formal duel, and so on. All of them affect the spell’s success. Are you following?”

“Perfectly, Professor,” Harry breathed. He felt as if something had opened up inside him and was absorbing the words. He understood them better than he had ever understood anything in his life.

“Word is the incantation, of course. But it also relates to the words that you speak before and after the spell, your pronunciation of the Latin, and the way you’ll echo the words in your head when you learn nonverbal magic.

“Will is the trickiest component to master. In Transfiguration, it mostly relates to the imagination.” Professor McGonagall nodded to her desk. “Before I could master the spell to turn my desk into a leopard, I had to know exactly what I wanted the leopard to look like. And I had to train myself in wanting.”

“Wanting,” Harry echoed. I’m good at wanting. I know what it’s like to want food, and want to escape from the Dursleys, and want parents more than anything.

“Yes. For that moment, and that moment alone, I had to want my desk to turn into a leopard—that exact leopard—more than I wanted to keep breathing, so that I could use all my breath in the Word.” Professor McGonagall smiled at him. “You can see why Transfiguration can be complicated to master.”

“Yes,” Harry mumbled. “So all three of those work together?”

Professor McGonagall inclined her head. “But not all your classes use them equally. Potions is an art consisting almost entirely of Word for first-year students. You’ll be following Professor Snape’s instructions in brewing. He won’t let you use your wand, and your Will is only important in that you have to learn how to concentrate on the ingredients of the potion.

“Flying, on the other hand—you haven’t had your first lesson yet?” Harry shook his head. “It requires almost pure Will. You use a surprising amount of body movements, but not in conjunction with your wand, unless you’re playing Quidditch. And the Word is little use except if you’re actually studying Quidditch plays. You have to want the broom to jump into your hand. I’m sure Madam Hooch will have you use a word at first, but you don’t need it. 

“Astronomy, like Potions, is an art of the Word. You have to learn the names of the stars, the relationships of the constellations to each other, and what the various rotations of the planets indicate. Herbology is Word-based alone until you get into the upper years. Then Professor Sprout will start letting you use your wand for spells that water the plants, protect you against dangerous ones, and so on.”

“What about Defense?”

Professor McGonagall gave the barest grimace. “Defense is an art of the Word for the younger years. You have to learn about curses before you can counter them, and you’re not generally allowed to cast anything but the simplest curses in the confines of a school anyway. As it should be,” she added quickly. “Never imagine that I don’t approve of this state of affairs, Mr. Potter.”

Harry smiled a little. “But eventually, it involves Wand and Will?”

Professor McGonagall nodded. “Yes. As does Charms. And Transfiguration.” 

“But Transfiguration is the best, right?”

Professor McGonagall laughed a little. “Can an artist not be proud of her art? Yes, Mr. Potter, I do think it is. It makes the greatest demands on the Will, for reasons I have already told you. The Wand and the Word are simpler to learn, but they must work together perfectly—and a Transfiguration on a human being, gone wrong, could be fatal. Imagine if you were trying to help someone hear better and sharpen his ears, and in the middle of the spell you got a flash of what he would look like with rabbit ears instead.” She gave him a sharp glance. “Human Transfiguration is forbidden to students younger than third year, Mr. Potter.”

Yes, I do have to keep it quiet in case she tries to stop me. Harry had no intention of waiting until third year. And anyway, he wouldn’t be putting anyone else in danger. He had known and accepted from the beginning that if he wanted to perfect the art that would heal his parents, he had only one human subject he could safely practice on: himself.

He had one more question to ask, though, before he would have to go back to pretending to be just an ordinary student who wasn’t more interested in Transfiguration than anything else. “When you turned the desk into a leopard, I felt—it wasn’t magic, I think? Something else, brushing through the air above you? Or hovering around you?” Harry hated the way he was stumbling. It was hard to put into words, though. “Like an aura.”

Professor McGonagall straightened up sharply. “The fourth component.”

“What, Professor?”

“It’s not supported by the classical theory. With Wand, Word, and Will, you can replicate the results. Other people can do them, and the same way once they’re taught,” Professor McGonagall added, as though she thought he wouldn’t understand her. “But if there is a forth component, and not all theories agree there is, not all people feel it. The ones who do don’t report it the same way. So it’s not included.”

“Does it have a name?” Harry knew he’d felt it. Like lightning, like breath.

Professor McGonagall slowly nodded. “My professors called it the Wild.”

“What does it do? How is it different from Will?”

“I must emphasize, Mr. Potter, that you are not to practice this on your own.” Professor McGonagall bent down a little as if she thought she’d be able to see the truth in his eyes.

But lots of people looked Harry in the eyes and didn’t see the Dursleys. So he just nodded earnestly and lied, “I promise, Professor.”

“It means,” said Professor McGonagall, reluctantly, “that you feel the will of the animal you create. It happens only with animal Transfiguration, or human, if you are changing a human into an animal—also not allowed. You didn’t sense it when I changed the leopard back into my desk, did you?”

Harry shook his head. He knew he hadn’t. And he hadn’t sensed it when Professor McGonagall turned back into her human form, either. He hoped he’d get to see her turninto a cat, and maybe feel it then.

“Yes. Well.” Professor McGonagall folded her arms. “This is a controversial idea in Transfiguration theory, Mr. Potter. If the animals we summon have their own will, their own—sense of wildness, to explain why it is called the Wild, then perhaps we should not change them into something else, or change them back into what they originally came from, or simply make them cease to exist at the end of a lesson.”

“But most people don’t think they have anything, do they? Because you said most people can’t feel it.”

Professor McGonagall nodded. “And I must admit that I do not sense it in every animal Transfiguration. Not when I change my desk into a pig, for example, as I did in another lesson. I can only surmise it is because the pigs I Transfigure are not wild animals. If I chose to want a wild boar or a warthog, then perhaps the Wild would be there.”

“That’s another reason Transfiguration is so difficult, isn’t it?” Harry mused, his mind skipping along paths he hadn’t ever traveled and yet which felt perfectly natural to him. “Because even with the same spell, people still get different results. One person would have a pig, and another one a warthog, and other people’s leopards wouldn’t look exactly like yours. Or someone could have a leopard cub instead of an adult.”

“Very good, Mr. Potter. Five points to Ravenclaw.”

Harry snapped back to the present. Professor McGonagall was looking at him with a faint, pleased smile, and attention. Harry swallowed a little. That was the last thing he wanted. How was he going to make poor marks in Transfiguration class now?

As if she’d heard the thought and wanted to mock it on purpose, Professor McGonagall reached behind her desk and drew out a heavy book. “The third-year textbook. I’d enjoy a conversation with you about any questions you have after reading it.”

Harry took the book. He didn’t have any good reason to reject it, and anyway, Professor McGonagall wouldn’t understand if he did.

“Thank you, professor.”

She smiled and shooed him out. “You’ve let me keep you here talking too long, Mr. Potter. Lucky for both of us that it’s lunch now.”

Harry slid the book into his satchel and walked out of the classroom, head spinning a little. If Professor McGonagall was going to pay special attention to him and ask him questions and expect him to do well, he had a problem.

But then he began to think about what he’d learned in class that day, Wand and Word and Will and Wild, and he shook his head. That wasn’t a problem. It was an inconvenience, and he’d handle it somehow. After all, so far Professor McGonagall only knew he understood the theory. That wasn’t the same thing as being good at spells.

And the only thing that was a problem, the only thing that mattered, was thinking about how he was going to get his parents back.

Chapter Text

“The Longbottom boy is a mobile disaster area.”

Severus spoke the words without looking at Minerva. He knew what she would do: bristle in defense of her lions. She always did it. It was almost not worth taunting her about them in private, because her response was always predictable and would lead to hours of dragging conversation. The sin Severus could accuse most people of now was boring him.

In this case, though, they were sitting in Albus’s office, and Albus had asked them to converse about the topic. So Severus spoke the words, and then settled back and tried not to let the rising sensation of intolerable greyness consume his mind.

“Why do you say that, Severus?” Albus’s voice, so soft and quiet that Severus had once thought it was kind. He didn’t make that mistake now.

He looked at the bridge of Albus’s nose and answered, “Not a class goes by without him melting a cauldron. He almost pisses himself when I look at him. I hear from Filius that he can’t write an essay on Charms theory to save his life, either. So many splotches and misspellings and simply wrong information. What is the point of the extra training he’s received, if he can’t answer questions that an ordinary first-year should be able to?”

“You know the way he’s grown up,” Minerva snapped, on cue. Severus sighed, which only provoked her further. “That much training would take a toll on anyone. And the stress of being an orphan, and the Boy-Who-Lived, and not even knowing how you survived—I’ve had to stop the others from asking Mr. Longbottom about his parents’ deaths three times already!”

Severus thought about informing her of some of the things his peers had asked him about, when he had been a first-year student. But there was a reason that both Minerva and Longbottom had never been considered for Severus’s House. He said only, “If he makes a menace of himself in Potions class, then he deserves what he gets. Where was his vaunted training then? He could have learned at least the basics of Potions theory.”

“You must be kinder to him, Severus.” That was Albus, and Severus felt something unpleasant stir to life in his gut. That was far closer to the kind of thing he would have expected Minerva to say. “You know what sorts of hopes ride on his shoulders. Minerva is right. It’s a burden too great for a single child to carry.”

It had been a tiring first month for Severus, for more reasons than Longbottom, but Longbottom had contributed his share to that exhaustion. He raised an eyebrow and asked, “Then why have you required him to carry them?”

“What?”

It is like Albus to play innocent now. Severus didn’t intend to back down. He leaned forwards a little and said, “You could have raised him—had Augusta raise him—in one of two ways. In the first, he undergoes training until he becomes the hero that you keep claiming we need. In the other, he would be a normal boy and face the Dark Lord down with the power of love alone that you keep harping on.”

“The power of love saved the boy. I’m certain it was Alice’s sacrifice that—”

Severus kept on rolling, ignoring Minerva’s gasp as he interrupted the Headmaster. She would see worse than that if she wanted to stay. “But you cannot have both at once. You cannot tell us that he has undergone extensive training and still expect us to coddle him. I expected to see an extraordinary boy or an ordinary one, one or the other. Not a pathetic one.”

“You have no compassion in you, Severus Snape! You have no idea what that boy has gone through—”

Albus raised a hand. He and Severus were looking each other in the eye now, and Severus could feel the subtle push against his Occlumency shields that it seemed Albus exerted with everyone, whether or not he meant to. He couldn’t help it. “Leave, Minerva, please.”

“Mr. Longbottom is my student.”

“And we will discuss him later, I promise you.” Briefly, Albus broke the staring contest to look at Minerva and smile. “I will value your input on him. For now, though, old friend, please.”

Minerva gave a deep sniff and a shake of her head, then stood up and departed muttering about things. Severus was certain she would waylay him to continue the discussion later.

He did not care. He would be able to lash back with more surety than he could in Albus’s office. For now, he waited, and did not look away even when Albus folded his hands on the desk and tried the “I am disappointed in you, my dear boy” glance.

“You must not denigrate Mr. Longbottom. You do not know what he has suffered.”

“I know exactly what he had suffered. You and the press and Minerva and everyone else told me so often enough.”

“Mr. Longbottom has a problem with—self-confidence.” Albus was picking his way more carefully through this confrontation than Severus had expected him to. “He’s been told all his life what heroes his parents were. He has a lot to live up to.”

“He can do it outside my classroom.”

“Severus, you knew that he would be involved in his education—”

“I did not expect to be involved in his rearing.”

Albus let his eyebrows furrow. “You mean that. You think he is not ready to be the Boy-Who-Lived?”

“Is that all you see him as?” Severus shook his head. He did not like the boy, although Longbottom was not the stuck-up prat Severus had thought he would be. The way he moaned and shook when Severus even spoke to another student was as annoying as a puffed-up head. “I wonder if that is why he seems so young. You tell him how great a hero he is, he doesn’t feel he can live up to it, so he tries to be a child to hide.”

“I only ask you to be patient with him, Severus. You know as well as I do that Augusta would intimidate anyone.”

Severus held back the snap he wanted to give. He said only, “At least Mr. Longbottom is tolerable. Mr. Potter is not.”

Albus blinked, and Severus could almost see him wrenching his mind out of whatever groove it had run along. “What do you mean, Severus? I haven’t heard anyone talk about Harry Potter as if he caused trouble. Minerva has nothing but praise for his Transfiguration ability. Filius says he is quiet, but fitting right in with his Housemates.”

They do not see him in Potions,” Severus spat. “They do not see James Potter in him.”

“Well, but how? Tell me.” Albus gave him a sad smile. “It would be a relief to my mind, to turn from talking about the boy on whom our world depends to one who has troubles more befitting an ordinary student.”

Severus hesitated, but he knew Albus wouldn’t be as protective of Harry Potter as he would of Longbottom. Albus had favored James at one point, true, and Lily had been one of his favorite students. But ten years spent in St. Mungo’s had erased most emotions for them except pity from Albus’s mind.

“It started with the first Ravenclaw-Hufflepuff Potions class,” he began.

*

“Who are they, Harry? I think they’re looking for you.”

Harry turned his head. Boot had whispered into his ear, but most of the other first-year Ravenclaws turned around when he did. Harry had noticed that they tended to move in a pack. He wondered sometimes if they were afraid of older students hurting them if they didn’t, but he hadn’t bothered asking.

Draco Malfoy was swaggering towards him with the two bulky students, Crabbe and Goyle, behind him. All three of them wore Slytherin ties, of course. Malfoy didn’t carry any books, though. One of his minions probably had them, Harry thought, standing still. They were in the middle of a public corridor, and Malfoy couldn’t simply hex Harry and get away with it.

“He insulted my parents on the train,” Harry told Boot. He’d shifted around like he was waiting for an answer.

Bad move,” Corner announced. He was shy enough to be intimidated by Harry, but he acted like he was happy when Harry might hurt someone else. Harry didn’t understand why. Then again, he had never claimed to understand people.

Before Harry could respond, Malfoy and his minions came to a halt in front of them. Malfoy looked around and gave a faint sneer. “Surrounded by half-bloods, Potter?”

“At least we don’t insult people’s heroic parents,” said Goldstein. 

“Did I talk to you? No, half-blood.” Malfoy turned dismissively back in Harry’s direction. “Or are you his mouthpiece now? Too good to do your own talking, Potter?” Malfoy laughed, and on cue his minions chuckled, too.

Harry sighed. He was bored. Malfoy was going to be an obstacle. He’d already shown up twice in the library when Harry was trying to study Transfiguration and made loud comments at the air, although he’d also left in disgust when Harry didn’t respond.

“Not too good to do my own laughing.”

Malfoy immediately shifted a little forwards, ready for the attack. “You should be smart enough to know what will happen when the Dark Lord rises again.”

Several people around Harry sucked in their breaths, shocked. Harry just stared at Malfoy and said emotionlessly, “At least my parents fought him instead of bowed down to him. Tell me, were the hems of the Dark Lord’s robes dirty? Your father must have spent a lot of time looking at them, so I thought you’d probably know.”

Malfoy flushed and spluttered in rage and grabbed his wand. Harry didn’t bother drawing his. For one thing, several other people around him had already drawn theirs. 

For another, he’d seen a swirl of dark robes from the corner of his eye.

“What is this? Ravenclaws fighting in the corridors? How disappointed Professor Flitwick will be.”

It was Snape, the bully who had glared Harry at the first feast. Harry thought he’d seen Snape watching him several times since then, as well. Harry just looked calmly up at him and then away, towards Malfoy’s drawn wand.

“Malfoy was going to hex us first, Professor.” That was Patil, speaking earnestly, the way she always did when something offended her sense of justice. Harry sighed without making a sound. He could have told her it was useless. “He just came up to Harry and insulted his parents, and—”

“No, Professor, that’s not the way it happened at all.” Malfoy had a silver tongue around adults, at least, Harry thought. Of course, so did Dudley. “I was walking along not bothering anybody, and Potter was the one who decided to insult my parents.”

“Detention, Mr. Potter. With me. This Friday evening at seven.” Snape stared at them with his eyes glittering for a minute, and then added, “And I believe that you are about to be late for my class, little birds.”

That galvanized the lot of them into motion. Harry followed along behind Boot. He did glance back once, to see Malfoy talking earnestly to Snape, waving his arms around as if he thought that would make his story more convincing.

Snape wasn’t looking at him, though. He still had his stare fastened to the back of Harry’s robe.

Harry turned away. So Snape was a bully. He had known that. The task would be to let it keep from interfering with his plans.

*

“I’m nervous. I know Snape doesn’t like Gryffindors, but no one ever said anything about him not liking Ravenclaws…”

Harry smiled as comfortingly as he could at Boot while they set their cauldron up. Boot was his partner, of course, the way he was Harry’s partner in most of their classes. Harry didn’t mind that. Boot was talkative, but he did his work fast, and mostly well, and he liked to read. Harry could have had someone like Malfoy want to be his partner instead.

“It’s unfair!” Boot brought his cauldron down with a ringing slam on the table. “He shouldn’t favor his own House and hate all the others.”

Harry thought for a second about telling Boot that he was fairly sure the other Ravenclaws had nothing to worry about. It was Harry Snape hated, Harry he kept staring at even before the little fight with Malfoy in the corridors. 

But he didn’t give up any secrets he didn’t need to, and he had to hold onto this one, too. It might be useful someday. Or at least it would keep people from trying to hurt him with it.

Snape spelled the door shut when he came in, making it bang to with a tremendous crash. A few of the more timid Hufflepuffs shrieked or squeaked. 

Harry had been waiting for it because that was one of Dudley’s favorite tricks, and he didn’t jump. He just looked at Snape as he strode to the front of the classroom and spun around, his arms folded.

“You should already have read ahead in your books,” Snape said, after a glance that silenced the people who were still trying to talk. Harry watched him. Snape began to pace along the front tables and then back again. He did it slowly, not fast. Like a stalking tiger, Harry thought. He had started researching animals, and some of the books in the library had pictures in them of how the animals moved.

“You should already know that Potions is a different type of magic than all the other foolish wand-waving classes you might take in this school. Here, a word in the recipe can make the difference between a successful potion and an inferior effort.” Snape showed his canines when he grinned. “Between life and death.”

An art of Word. Professor McGonagall was right.

“But you would only know that if you have spent time with your books. Surely not a hard proposition for a Ravenclaw.” Snape spun and ended up with his nose pointing at Harry and Boot’s table. Boot dropped the quill he was holding from a limp hand. Harry looked at Snape. “Mr. Potter.” Harry knew he was probably the only one who heard how much hatred rested in that word.

It was a different kind of hatred from Uncle Vernon’s. Not worse, though.

“Where would you look if I asked you to find me a bezoar?”

Harry tilted his head. He had been reading the Potions book last night and had had to look that strange word up. It was probably the only reason he knew the answer to Snape’s question. “In the stomach of a goat, Professor.”

“And?” Snape pressed forwards as if he wanted to leap right over the table and come after them. Boat moaned a little. Harry just stayed quiet. Moaning wouldn’t help with bullies. He’d learned that a long time ago. “What is it, boy?”

Boy. That was what Uncle Vernon called him almost all the time, and Aunt Petunia half the time.

At least he probably won’t say “freak,” since he knows magic, too, Harry thought, and answered. “A stone that can cure poisons, Professor Snape.”

“It does not cure them, it neutralizes them, and not all poisons. Only most. Five points from Ravenclaw.”

Harry blinked. He wondered for a moment whether Snape was going to be that picky with everyone, but he didn’t think so. It was just Harry, for some reason.

And then he saw the way Snape looked at him. Harry wondered something else. What’s he waiting for? Snape liked to pace and walk around the classroom, that much was certain. Did he think Harry should apologize for not knowing something Harry doubted anyone else knew, either?

Then Harry almost smiled. No. He’s waiting for me to do what Boot did. Show some fear. Break down because he took points. Shriek that it’s not fair.

Harry stood there, and met Snape’s eyes, and waited.

“We are going to brew a potion to cure boils today,” Snape announced, and turned away, slashing his wand savagely at the board. Instructions appeared. “Go fetch what is needed and obey these instructions. Now.”

“Snape’s a monster!” Boot whispered as they moved towards the storage cupboard. “He didn’t even call our names. How does we know who we are and who’s going to do the potion right?”

“Not a proper teacher, not really,” Patil agreed. Her face was hostile when she turned to look at Snape. “I heard some people say that he didn’t aspire to be a professor at all. He only accepted this offer to be Potions professor at Hogwarts because they needed one and Snape might have gone to Azkaban otherwise…”

“That’s not the kind of gossip it’s wise to repeat, Patil,” Zacharias Smith said warningly, stopping in front of them for a moment. “Nothing was ever proven.”

It was proven enough for Harry, though, especially since Patil only shook her head and said, “My parents wouldn’t have told me that if there wasn’t some truth to it.”

A former Death Eater. That explains a lot. Of course he hates anyone who’s the child of people who fought on the right side.

Harry decided he didn’t need to worry about it. Harry’s Housemates seemed to think what Snape had done was unfair, instead of blaming Harry for losing the points. That meant they wouldn’t get in the way by being tiresome. 

And Snape wouldn’t care about Transfiguration or Harry’s parents in particular. He was unlikely to do any more than take points and yell in class.

After years of the Dursleys, it was all very survivable.

*

The Potter brat’s mind was filled with images of his parents.

That was all Severus had seen when he tricked the boy into looking directly at him. Nothing about Potions, books, frantic musings on homework, even the relatives that Minerva was telling all and sundry didn’t treat Potter as they should. Ridiculous, Severus knew. The Wizengamot had determined that James had no surviving relatives, and Lily no magical family at all, and therefore the boy would have to grow up with her sister. They had sent several wizards along to explain the situation.

Severus had heard about that only secondhand, but in those days, his hatred for what had happened to Lily had burned so hot it compelled him to seek out every shard of news connected to her. He knew enough to satisfy him.

Three Wizengamot members in full splendor had descended on Petunia and offered her the boy, and outlined the situation, including what would happen to her if she mistreated a magical child. Petunia was easily cowed. Severus would say it was her only attractive characteristic. She might dislike any child of her sister’s, but she wouldn’t mistreat him.

But no. His aunt wasn’t there in Potter’s mind, even though she must have been the one he spent the majority of his time with. It was James lying drooling on his bed, and Lily gazing at her hands.

Lily…

Severus let his hand rest for the hardest moment on the edge of his desk, and shook his head a little. He had found that if he allowed himself a minute or so to think about Lily each day, then it was all the easier to forsake the reality of her in St. Mungo’s and turn back to the reality that had to matter to him, that of Hogwarts and his classes.

He turned about just in time to see Potter shoot his hand out and grab Boot’s. Severus swooped towards them. He heard Potter say, “No, we can’t add the porcupine quills yet. See? We have to wait.” 

“How do you know that, Harry? You’re so good with everything, I swear.”

Potter just smiled quietly—in the way James would have smiled if someone praised him, Severus thought—and shook his head. “I only followed the instructions. I just read.”

“But you’re still good.” Boot reached for his mortar and pestle.

You should have read those instructions on your own, Boot. I expect better of a Ravenclaw.” Boot stiffened, and Severus gave a little nod. At least someone was as terrified of him as they should be, instead of using the image of a broken James Potter as a shield of some kind. “The next time you enter this classroom, both you and Potter will have found new partners.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

Boot sounded as though he was trembling and hated himself for it. Potter sounded as though he was being told the definition of a word he already knew.

Infuriated, Severus skimmed the surface of Potter’s mind again. He saw James coming out of the bathroom, and Potter’s complete and utter enthrallment with the man’sglasses, of all things. He looks like me.

Severus pulled himself out, sickened. That was at least one thing he would say for James Potter. The man didn’t spend any time on his appearance, and didn’t care who knew it. He would even brag about the wild mess of his hair as though carelessness showed a superior moral strain of the soul.

For Potter to think so about his appearance…

Well. Severus would see what mettle Potter showed in his detention.

*

Potter showed none.

He arrived, and Severus laid down his quill and spent some time surveying the boy. Potter acted as though Severus wasn’t looking at him at all. He simply turned his head from side to side, eyes sweeping across the glass jars on the shelves of Severus’s office. He seemed to be as interested in what he saw there as he had been in the instructions for the Boil Cure potion that morning.

Not very, Severus concluded, and jerked his head at the back of the office, where he had cauldrons stacked that bore stubborn, complicated, spreading patterns of stains. “You are to scrub those. Without magic. Work until I tell you to stop.”

Potter nodded.

“What do you say, boy?”

Potter looked momentarily surprised, as if he hadn’t thought Severus would care that he’d got a nod rather than a verbal answer. “Yes, sir.”

“Get to work,” Severus snapped, and turned back to the essays he was marking. He continued to watch Potter out of the corner of his eye.

Potter didn’t complain about the wire scrubbing brush. Or the stains. Or the number of cauldrons. Or the length of time it was taking. He simply used the brush, and bent over the cauldrons, and tipped it over so that flakes of rust and discarded dirt slipped out, and then went to work on the next one.

But he was doing something. The closer Severus observed him, the more he could make it out. Potter was whispering to himself, the words so soft Severus could, in fact, only guess they were words. Severus frowned and cast a spell that would let him hear what Potter was saying.

Unguis, that’s claw. But also finger. Sanguis, that’s blood. Callum, skin…”

Potter was muttering Latin to himself? Severus sat slowly back. He wondered for a moment why. None of those were words that Potter would use regularly anywhere in the first-year curriculum, even in Transfiguration or Charms. Perhaps Potter’s sudden obsession would have made sense if he had a Dark Arts class, as they did at Durmstrang, but here, Severus could not place it.

Unless he wants to impress Minerva by studying ahead for her subject. Or appearing to study ahead. The boy has next to no imagination, given that obsession about his parents. Ordinary children let their minds wander sometimes. 

That had been the remarkable thing. Severus had dipped into Potter’s mind several times during the Ravenclaw-Hufflepuff class, and every time, Potter was thinking about his parents. Not lunch or when the class would end or even what petty rivalries and friendships he must have springing up with his Housemates. 

Obsessed with his family legacy. Of course he is. I wonder what he would do if I told him his father was a bully?

Severus did not intend to make the test, as that would have meant he would also make Potter wonder how he knew. 

“You will cease muttering to yourself, Potter,” he said crisply. “This is detention, not your study session.”

Potter promptly shut his mouth. Severus stared at his back. That would have merited a protest from most students. Potter, it seemed, had so much supreme ego that he didn’t care what anyone else said or did.

His father in miniature. If in a different way than I expected.

Severus turned back to the essays. He had already spent too much time contemplating James Potter’s warped spawn.

But he did retain one spark of amusement. The boy was going to get some unexpected results if he tried the Latin words he had been practicing in Transfiguration essays. For one thing, callum didn’t simply mean skin. It meant hard skin, specifically. 

Imagine if he tries to write about softening his skin, and uses that word instead. Imagine the look on Minerva’s face.

*

Oculus, that’s eye. And pupula is the pupil of the eye. If I want to give myself sharper sight, then I have to remember the difference between them.

Harry leaned across the top cauldron to scrub harder at the other side of it. In the meantime, with his free hand hidden inside the cauldron, he practiced the wand movements he would need to make to cast one spell he’d found in the third-year Transfiguration book, Oculus Aquilae, Eagle Eyes. That book and Professor Flitwick and other books Harry had found in the library said you had to get your muscles used to performing wand movements, or it would be difficult to learn them later.

Around, down, up. No, probably not at that sharp angle. The book said he had to be careful of that, or he could end up giving the eagle eyes to someone else.

Around, down, up. That was better.

Harry moved on to the next cauldron, and worked his hand through the motions of a Tiger Claw spell there, until Snape snapped, “Dismissed.”

Harry turned around. Snape was glaring at him. Harry shrugged mentally as he laid down the scrubbing brush on the table and walked to the door. He didn’t know why Snape hated him, the way he didn’t know exactly why Uncle Vernon hated him so much. Yes, he had magic, which Uncle Vernon had known and he hadn’t, but Harry thought it would have made more sense to tell him about the magic. Then he could have worked on controlling it.

Snape was even more of a mystery. But if he could use Snape’s detentions to practice his spells, then Harry thought he could get used to them.

Even better, he still had half an hour before curfew, and everyone had warned him that Snape’s detentions were unpredictably long. That gave him a little while to look around for a secret spot where he could study. The dungeons were probably the best bet. Even the Slytherins only seemed to spend time in a small portion of them.

*

“Harry!”

Harry turned around in surprise. Finnigan had come up behind him and draped a casual arm around Harry’s shoulder. A few of the Gryffindors with him gave them odd looks, but kept on walking. 

No one in their House cares about someone being friends from another House. I bet the Slytherins do. Harry had already seen Malfoy challenge one of the other Slytherin first-years for talking to a Hufflepuff girl.

“I was really surprised when you didn’t get Sorted into Gryffindor,” Finnigan chattered on as he tugged Harry towards the Gryffindor table. Boot stared at them, but didn’t say anything. “You were the only one I was wrong on, you know. Greengrass and Zabini both went to Slytherin, and here I am.” He grabbed his red-and-gold tie and shook it happily.

Harry hoped he didn’t look as envious as he felt. The Gryffindors were yawning and eating and joking with each other. There seemed to be most of a whole red-headed family there. What would it be like to have sisters and brothers that you went into the same House with?

“You only predicted four people, though,” Harry said, feeling like he had to say something when Finnigan turned to look at him. “I mean, it would be more impressive if you’d had a larger number to predict. If you only got one wrong out of ten people, that would be something.”

Finnigan laughed. “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that you went to Ravenclaw, after all! That’s such a Claw thing to say.”

Harry wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what would be good. He settled for shrugging, and Finnigan knuckled his hair playfully and let Harry go.

“You’re welcome if you want to sit with us, though,” Finnigan continued, waving a hand at some of the other Gryffindor first-years. “This is Dean Thomas.” That was a tall boy with dark skin who smiled a lot more than Blaise Zabini had. “And Ron Weasley.” What must be the youngest of the red-haired boys nodded at Harry. “And…” Finnigan lowered his voice a little. “Neville Longbottom.”

Harry blinked as he looked at the Boy-Who-Lived. He looked permanently pale, sort of like Malfoy. His lightning bolt scar stood out so redly on his forehead that it reminded Harry of the sores he’d sometimes got when he lived with the Dursleys.

But Longbottom gave him a wavering smile and whispered, “My Gran told me a few things about your parents. They were b-brave. I hope I can be as brave as they were one day.”

“Thanks,” said Harry. “I heard about your parents, too. I’m sorry they’re gone.”

Longbottom nodded and turned away to eat. Harry thought he saw a tear quivering at the corner of Longbottom’s eye, but he certainly wasn’t going to call attention to it. He sat down and listened to Finnigan talk to Thomas and Weasley about Quidditch, and noticed the way that Longbottom seemed to be alone even though he was always surrounded by people who wanted to talk to him.

It must be lonely to survive Lord Dudders like that.

Harry was glad he didn’t have to deal with the burden. At least he was just an ordinary person most people would ignore and he had a chance of getting his parents back someday.

He imagined what it would be like when he had healed his parents. How his father would smile. The look in his mother’s eyes when she smoothed her hand over Harry’s hair.

It hurt to imagine. But Harry knew he had to, because someday he would have it.

*

Harry went to Charms after breakfast, with the Gryffindors splitting up because they needed to go to Potions. Longbottom had begun shaking when Finnigan mentioned Professor Snape’s name. Harry had wondered why Snape hated Longbottom, but then remembered, again, that Snape was a Death Eater.

He probably hated Longbottom even more than he’d hated Harry. Harry felt sorry for the boy.

“That was kind of low, Harry.”

Harry blinked and looked up from his Charms book. Boot dropped into the seat beside him and glared. Goldstein sat down on Harry’s other side, looking equally upset. Harry couldn’t see how Corner looked because he was sitting beyond Goldstein at another table.

“What are you talking about?” Harry asked. He was at a loss as to what he’d done. He hadn’t even lost more House points since the ones Snape had taken from him in the corridor for talking to Malfoy.

“You went over and ate with the Gryffindors, and acted all friendly with them when you haven’t even spent time with them before.” Boot was taking out his Charms book with big, clumsy movements, like the kind Harry used to make in class when he was trying to hide how much Dudley upset him. “We’re your Housemates and we spend time with you all damn day and you still act like you can’t stand the sight of us.”

“Language,” Corner whispered in an awed voice.

Boot ignored him, leaning towards Harry. “I thought I was your friend. And I just realized I’d never heard you call me by my first name and I’ve never seen you smile at me the way you did at Finnigan.”

Harry stared. His first thought was to wonder why anyone would care. No one had ever cared at his old school. In fact, kids would have screamed in fear of Dudley if Harry had smiled at them or acted friendly towards them. Harry had sometimes done it to people he didn’t like very much, purely to upset them.

But here…

“I—didn’t know you wanted me to do that,” he said finally. “I didn’t have many friends in primary school, you know.”

“Your family never took you to visit anyone else?” Goldstein frowned at him. “My Muggle cousins met my magical cousins. We all knew each other.”

“I didn’t know I was a wizard until the day I turned eleven,” Harry said, shaking his head. He decided telling them a little couldn’t hurt. It wasn’t like they would owl the Dursleys to complain. “My aunt and uncle don’t like magic much. Neither does my cousin. They kept from telling me about magic. Well, I don’t think my cousin ever knew.”

“What does that have to do with friends?”

Harry turned to look at Boot. “My cousin kept me from having friends at school. He would beat up anyone who tried. He said that I was—” No, Harry still wasn’t ready to tell them about the word freak. “Weird, and anyone who wanted to spend time with me was weird, too.”

They all stared at him again. Harry sighed as he watched Patil come into the class. If she heard about this, Harry would never hear the end of it, because she would analyze it to death. “So that’s it,” he said, and shook his head a little. “I really wanted to be in Gryffindor, because my parents were. I shared a boat with Finnigan the first night, and he told me he was sure I would be in Gryffindor. So I was just spending time with them because Finnigan pulled me over there, and it was nice for me to pretend that I was part of the House I wanted to be in for a while.”

Boot paused, then said, “Well, my name is Terry. And you can act like you know I exist.”

“All right, Terry.” The name still sounded really strange on Harry’s tongue, but it seemed to keep Boot happy. 

“And I’m Anthony.”

“And I’m Michael.” Corner’s voice was so quiet that Harry mostly only knew what he said because he already knew Corner’s first name.

“Anthony, Michael.” Harry nodded to them and looked back at his Charms book. Goldstein moved over next to Corner and started talking to him about the Defense essay they’d apparently been working on last night. Harry had already finished it. He wondered if he should show that he did feel all right towards them by saying something about it.

But Boot nudged him and made Harry turn around. Boot’s face was pale, like Longbottom, like Malfoy, and he looked deadly serious.

“I need to tell you something, Harry.”

“Okay.” Harry waited. If Boot was going to say something about the Dursleys being abusive, Harry knew how to make him stop thinking about it. 

But Boot shocked him. “I think you’re one of the least Gryffindor people I’ve ever met. So I think it’s fine if you have Gryffindor friends and want to spend time with them, but you don’t really fit in with them. Finnigan’s blind if he thinks you do. Maybe you should accept your true House.”

Harry found himself clutching the side of his trousers. “But I stood up to Malfoy the other day. Wasn’t that brave?”

“I don’t know.” Boot peered at him. “I can’t tell so many things with you, Harry. I never know what you’re really thinking or feeling.”

Not Slytherin. I’m not Slytherin.

But the last thing Harry wanted was to say that, in case it started Boot thinking about things he shouldn’t think about. Harry ended up lowering his head and shrugging. “Sorry. Like I said, I don’t have a lot of experience making friends. So I probably do sound strange, just like my cousin said.”

“All right. But—please talk sometimes? It’s strange having you around when you almost never say anything. Like having a ghost for a Housemate.”

“All right, Terry,” Harry said. If Boot wanted him to talk a little more, then he could. “Do you think that Professor Flitwick meant what he said about giving detentions for not studying enough? I think he was joking, but some of the second-years said he does give them.”

Boot beamed and immediately started in. “No, I think they have to be joking. What’s studying enough, anyway? I need to study more for Defense than Anthony does, but if he punished Anthony, that would just be stupid, because Anthony is really better at the class than I am…”

Harry nodded throughout the lecture. It was simple, when he thought about it. Instead of nods, sometimes he said a few words. And he called Boot by his first name, which seemed to make him really happy.

It wasn’t that Harry resented it or anything. It just astonished him. Why would anyone care that much about what he said? Boot and Goldstein had known each other before Hogwarts, it turned out, and Corner fit right in with them. Why would they want Harry as a friend when they had each other?

It was so weird, having people care about things like that.

Chapter Text

“What did you think of the author’s point about the difficulty of human Transfigurations, Mr. Potter?”

“Which one, Professor? There’s a lot of them.” Harry pulled out the notes he’d made and scanned them for a minute. “I did wonder why they said it was more difficult to transform yourself than others. You ought to know yourself better than other people, right? So it ought to be easier.”

Professor McGonagall leaned back in her seat and smiled. She had invited Harry to her office when he came to return the third-year book she’d let him borrow, and now they were surrounded by wide-open landscape paintings and a portrait of a cat that looked larger and more intelligent than the typical cat. Harry thought it was a Kneazle. He didn’t get a good look, though, because the cat kept creeping towards Harry when his back was turned and then zipping away again when he turned around. 

“I meant the concept in general, but we can certainly begin with that one.” Professor McGonagall cleared her throat. “When you transform someone else, do you think you know and understand their body?”

“You’d have to.”

Professor McGonagall shook her head. “Not if you were Transfiguring them to stop them from attacking someone else, or as an offensive spell in battle, or to arrest them, which are the most common uses of such Transfiguration.”

“Well, and practice in class, right?”

“Even in my NEWT classes, I don’t allow that.”

Professor McGonagall was sitting up and staring at him in the way that meant there would be no smile. Harry accepted that and simply said, “Okay, Professor. But if you don’t know their bodies well, what do you do with them?”

“You simply imagine the form you want them to assume and stuff them into it.”

“So you have to imagine that form well. But not them.”

“Exactly.” Professor McGonagall sighed and sipped from her tea. Harry cautiously tried his. He hadn’t had much at the Dursleys’ or in the Great Hall, where he preferred pumpkin juice. He supposed it tasted all right. Spicy. “This is the main reason that human Transfiguration needs to be so tightly controlled. Most of the people who practice it don’t care about the person they’re transforming. They care for their own safety, or the exercise of their magic. And more accidents occur with Transfiguration than with any other branch of magic except Apparition.”

“Okay,” said Harry, and felt something in him, that had been upset since he read that portion of the textbook, uncoil a little. It ought to be okay when it came to his parents, because Harry cared about them more than himself. “But then why is it hard to transform yourself?”

“Close your eyes, Mr. Potter.”

Harry felt all his wariness rising up in him in rebellion. That was the sort of thing Dudley said before punching him. But he obediently did it, and told himself that Professor McGonagall wasn’t the same as Dudley.

“How many hairs do you have on the back of your hand, Mr. Potter?”

“Which one, left or right?”

“You are already giving the question more thought than most people do.” Professor McGonagall’s voice had the hint of a laugh in it. “But can you tell me?”

“Um.” Harry tried hard to picture the back of his hand. But he got images that could have been his or could be someone else’s. He hadn’t spent much time looking at anyone’s hand except Dudley’s, usually when it was smeared with his blood. “No.”

Professor McGonagall was nodding when he opened his eyes again. “People—most people—have the necessary level of care for their own bodies that transforming themselves sounds as if it should be easy. But they don’t have the knowledge. That’s what the Animagus process is about, getting you acquainted with your own body.”

“I thought it was more of a spiritual thing. I mean, that’s what Grimseby says.”

“You’ve read Grimseby already?”

She sounded impressed. Harry looked at the floor. He didn’t want to be impressive. And so far, he hadn’t had a problem with than in his other classes. Quirrell rarely taught them anything that wasn’t pure Word, and Harry didn’t have much of a knack for Herbology—unlike Longbottom—and Snape wasn’t going to be impressed by him no matter what he did.

“Um, that book mentioned it, so I looked him up.”

“Do you know how rare that is?” Harry had to look up now, because the tone in Professor McGonagall’s voice was weird, and so was the smile she was giving him. “That a student would do extra reading on their own, I mean? I often tell students who want extra instruction to do that, but most of them would simply rather not.”

Harry discovered he was blushing. It was unusual for him. If he blushed for all the things the Dursleys said about him, he would have used up his blood years ago. He shook his head and focused on their discussion. “Is it spiritual or physical, though, Professor?”

“Well. I think Grimseby is in fact an impressive theorist, Mr. Potter, but under the rubric of Will, Wand, and Word, he spends far too much time concentrating on Will. Yes, Will is an important factor in the Animagus transformation, as it is in all Transfiguration. That does not make it the sole factor. One must also learn one’s body, and learn the correct ingredients for the transformation potions, and learn how to be silent. That requires Word.”

“Why? If it’s silent, I mean?”

“You have to know your own body so well that you can find your way back to your proper shape,” Professor McGonagall said simply. “That involves knowing the shape of your fingers, the height of your knuckles, where you are at all times in relation to the objects around you, what is ‘normal’ eye-height for you, how sharp your senses are, and what you cannot know about yourself.”

“How can you know what you can’t know?” It sounded like a riddle to Harry.

“I mean that you know about your own lack of knowledge. So you don’t attempt to delve into them too deeply or worry about them. If, for example, your Animagus form was a swan, you wouldn’t be able to know how you swam in your own body with webbed toes, because humans simply don’t have them. It would be useless to spend time worrying about it. You would have to know about the length of your toes and the way you swam without webs, though.”

Harry nodded. He thought he could see, and he also thought that he knew now why more people didn’t use Transfiguration in healing. It was really bloody complicated,that was why.

But he wanted to ask about something else he had read in Grimesby. “Animagus transformations aren’t the only way you can Transfigure yourself, though, right?”

“I would advise against trying to change yourself the way you would another person, Mr. Potter.”

“No. I mean.” Harry swallowed. This came too close to his own goals, but so far Professor McGonagall seemed to be assuming he had a more theoretical interest. “Could you change your fingernails into claws, or something? Without changing all the way into a tiger.”

“Only if you had the knowledge,” said Professor McGonagall, shaking her head. “All the knowledge. Your body, and the spells, and the knowledge about what kind of animal you were transforming into. And that knowledge is even harder to acquire than the knowledge of your body, because books on Transfiguration elaborate on the behavior of whole bodies, not the parts of animals.”

Harry had wondered whether there were books like that published by wizards, or if he would have to get Muggle books on animals. He was glad to know there were wizarding ones. He had plans for transforming objects into animals.

“Mr. Potter.”

Harry blinked and looked up again. Sometimes he thought he thought too much around Professor McGonagall. He would sit there and plots would turn in his head, and he would forget there was an adult in front of him. Uncle Vernon’s punishment for that kind of thing, for ignoring him, would have been terrible.

Professor McGonagall was bending towards him, and her face was soft and bright with concern. “I notice you don’t have many friends,” she began.

“Oh, Terry and the rest of the Ravenclaws are all right,” Harry told her. “No one much cares that I was raised by Muggles.”

Professor McGonagall nodded, although she looked vaguely disturbed. “I only thought,” she said persuasively, “that you might find a friend in Miss Granger, one of my Gryffindors. She’s also interested in books and advanced knowledge, and she’s good at Transfiguration.”

“We sit at the same table in the library sometimes, Professor.”

Professor McGonagall brightened. It was one of those truths that seemed to imply so much more than was real, and Harry saw her accept it.

In truth, he did sit and study with Granger. It was fine when all she was looking for was a quiet place to revise. It became worse when she wanted to talk, because all the things she wanted to tell him about, like facts from Hogwarts, A History, Harry already knew.

“Good, then. Wonderful.” Professor McGonagall smiled at him again. “Because as much as this is a school and a place to study, something my Gryffindors are apt to forget, it’s also a place for making friends and living your life.”

I’ll have my life back when my parents are out of hospital. “I understand, Professor.”

“Good. By the way, if you’ve read Grimesby, you might try…”

And she talked about other books, and Harry made notes, and listened, and absorbed.

*

He’d finally found a good place where he could practice his Transfiguration spells. It was a classroom, or what he thought had been a classroom because of the old tables in one corner, off one of the damper dungeon corridors. Harry spent a week perfecting his Locking and Silencing Charms before he moved in and set up his little workshop.

He sat there with Latin books, and absorbed things. He understood now why some of Professor McGonagall’s spells sounded different than others. Latin had different forms for words if they were the subject of the sentence, doing the thing, or direct objects—accusatives—which were affected by the subject. The professor was using two accusative forms instead of only one, or none at all, which a lot of more “modern” wizarding spells did. Grimseby’s Latin in Transfiguration explained that, like just about everything else, the Latin words you used influenced your imagination. Two accusative forms of the words probably helped Professor McGonagall think about transforming one object into the other. After all, they weren’t doing it of their own free will. She was doing it to both of them.

Harry decided that he would do the same thing. And with the Latin books in hand, it was fairly easy to find out what the accusative form of a word should be, and learn it that way in his spells instead of the way that some of his first-year textbooks tried to teach him.

He also did what he had to do with the Word part of the spells, since Will was no problem. He recited Latin words for body parts to himself, and he lay back and studied his hand in front of him and thought about what it looked like, how it was pale and red in different places, what directions his veins turned, how long his fingers were.

He had decided that his left hand would be first.

*

Life settled into a routine for Harry. He went to class, he talked with Boot and the others in Ravenclaw until they were satisfied and left him alone, he went to the library during his free periods and read as much as he could about Transfiguration and Healing, he went to his classroom whenever he could and practiced, and he wrote essays in the spare time he had around that. The essays weren’t that hard, mostly boring. Once Harry figured out that most professors wanted you to just say things from the books in your own words, it became a lot easier.

Other people did their routines, too. Boot complained about his family. Granger tried to tell him things he already knew—but she did at least like to listen to things Harryknew that she didn’t, and she would usually go and get a book if Harry recommended one to her, which meant she would read and be quiet instead of bothering him. Goldstein joked with Harry. Corner became gradually less shy around the others, and Patil less righteous. Iverson never did stop talking, but that was okay, since he was also easy to distract.

Finnigan hauled Harry over to the Gryffindor table sometimes, and Harry felt sorry for Longbottom, who was a pale martyr. Malfoy sneered and tried to trip Harry up. Snape sneered and docked him potions in Potions and assigned him detention.

Professor McGonagall smiled at him and talked with him. Professor Flitwick told Harry that he needed to work on his Charms a bit more, and assigned him one extra essay when Harry failed utterly to understand some of the wandwork that separated Charms from Transfiguration. Most of the other professors just looked through him, or—well, they saw him, they read his essays and advised him when he did something wrong in class, but he wasn’t important to them the way he was to Professor McGonagall and, for some reason, to Snape.

Things fell into patterns that Harry knew and could use or enjoy or avoid or duck as he needed to. There was only one exception.

It was an annoying one. It wasn’t like Harry knew ahead of time that it would bother Boot.

*

Their first flying lesson was with the Hufflepuffs, and Harry had to listen to bragging from everyone. Apparently they all had brooms of their own and chances of being chosen for the national Quidditch team in a few years. Harry didn’t begrudge them that. He just got irritated when they tried to involve him in their bragging.

“Don’t you care about Quidditch at all?” Boot was saying in despair as they walked down towards the pitch.

Harry was watching the sky, and the shapes of faint birds that cut the air. He thought they were crows. He was thinking about how he would grow crow wings from his back, and how they would be different from a raven’s. 

“Harry!”

“I don’t, no,” Harry said. “I was raised by Muggles. They never played it or let me know about it.” Some small part of him was pleased each time he could make the Dursleys useful like this.

Boot sighed. “Well, you might like flying. I don’t know.” His tone said that flying was of no use without Quidditch.

Harry didn’t care. He was mildly interested when Madam Hooch told them to hold out their hands and say “Up!” to have the broom jump into their hands, though. It was one of the few spells he had heard so far that wasn’t in Latin.

Boot and Goldstein had their brooms in seconds. Corner struggled for a minute, but eventually got it into his hand on the third try. Zacharias Smith was already proclaiming loudly how bad these brooms were compared to the ones at home, which he didn’t seem to see was making Madam Hooch frown at him.

“Harry?”

“What?”

“How did you get your broom in your hand that fast?”

Harry shrugged. Professor McGonagall had been right about flying being an art of the Will. He could say the word, and he had so people wouldn’t think he was a freak, but he didn’t need to. He willed, and it was there.

“You did it fast, too.” Boot had no reason to be staring at him like he was a Muggle all of a sudden.

Boot shook his head and started to say something else, but Madam Hooch said, “Now, I want you to sling your leg over the broom and start to rise. Gently! If you go fast, then I’ll ground you at once.”

Some people flinched like a grounding was a beating. Harry thought they needed to learn something about life.

He put his leg over the broom, and waited patiently until Madam Hooch signaled. Then he rose.

The feeling that swept over him was indescribable. It was like—like he had known all his life that there was something missing, but not what it was. Like he had known instinctively he should have another direction to walk in, but only this class had shown him what the direction was.

Because now he had it. 

His will and his magic seemed to flow through the broom beneath him, not like a wand but like the broom was a new body part. Harry flung his head back, and the broom moved with him. He didn’t wobble. He just spun.

“Mr. Potter!”

Harry spun smoothly back to Madam Hooch, who was hovering in front of him. She frowned at him. “Go slowly, Mr. Potter. We can race in a moment.”

“Okay,” Harry said. Madam Hooch moved away to help Lisa Turpin with her grip, and Harry watched her fly. It was like that, he thought. Fast and whipping. That was the way he should be flying.

But he did have to wait, until everyone was hovering to Madam Hooch’s satisfaction and she came back to the front of the class and looked at them like a hawk.

“Since some of our students seem to want to race,” she said, and looked off to the side, “I propose a contest. Mr. Boot, Mr. Potter, will you fly over here in front of me, please?”

Harry dipped a little as he flew, because he had to make a swoop or he would just fling all caution to the winds and zoom off on his own. Boot looked at him with compassion as he eased up next to Harry. “Don’t worry. You’ll get better at it as time goes on.”

Harry blinked, and then realized Boot thought his dip was just evidence of fear or something like that. He tried not to smile. “Yes, I know.”

“Race to the Whomping Willow,” said Madam Hooch, and pointed towards an enormous tree on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. “Circle above the tree, not around—it’s easy to provoke—and then come back to me. Pay attention to your form.”

Harry wondered for a second why a tree, of all things, would be easy to provoke, but then Madam Hooch blew her whistle. Boot sped away in front of him, bent over the broom as if it was a horse and he was whispering things in its ear.

Harry didn’t need to bend over. There was no broom. There was just him. He took off the chains that he’d been keeping on his speed.

The world blurred.

There was up and there was down and there was the Whomping Willow, and everything else was unimportant. Harry soared straight past Boot and then around above the Whomping Willow. It was torture to stop there, but grace to make the circle. Harry felt as though he’d never understood things about wind until now, the way it could hit his cheek and make his eyelashes flutter.

He smiled.

He bore back, and passed Boot, who was still on the way there, and came riding straight at Madam Hooch. She held up her hand. Somewhere in the midst of his exhilaration, Harry remembered he was supposed to stop. So he did.

But it was torture, like someone had locked him in his cupboard on a bright and sunny day. Harry sat back with a soft gasp and shook his head.

Madam Hooch eyed him for a long moment, then nodded. “Most impressive, Mr. Potter,” she said. “I daresay that your House Quidditch Captain might want you to try out for the team.”

Harry blinked and touched the broom. “I don’t know anything about Quidditch, though. I don’t want to play. I just like flying.”

Madam Hooch’s face softened a little. “Well. You’ll learn plenty in this class.”

Harry!

Harry turned his head. Boot was beside him again, and he pointed one accusing finger. He was very red in the face. “You said you grew up with Muggles!

“I did.”

“No one raised by Muggles could fly like that!”

“Well, I was and I did.”

Boot just looked at him with betrayed eyes. Harry felt like they were back in the Charms classroom that morning weeks ago after the breakfast where he’d sat with the Gryffindors. Except this time, Harry really didn’t understand what he’d done, and he didn’t feel inclined to do what Boot wanted just so he would stop talking about it.

“I’ve known plenty of excellent Muggleborn flyers, Mr. Boot,” Madam Hooch intervened just then. “I’ll thank you to remember that who you’re raised by has nothing to do with innate skill.” She turned and smiled at Harry. “And you, Mr. Potter. That was a stunning display. As I said, you may want to speak to your Quidditch Captain.”

Harry only nodded to make it look as if he would. Then he hovered off to the side as Madam Hooch chose Patil and Zacharias Smith to race.

“It’s not fair, you know.”

Harry glanced at Boot. “What isn’t fair?”

“You’re so good at flying, and you don’t care about Quidditch.” Boot faced him and leaned forwards on his broom again, but this time he just folded his hands above the bristles and put his chin down on them with a deep sigh. “And you’re good at Potions, but you don’t care about the bad marks and detentions Snape gives you. And you’re so good at Transfiguration that you get to do advanced lessons with McGonagall—”

Professor McGonagall.” It popped out before Harry could stop himself.

“Oh, stop sounding like Granger. Anyway, why don’t you care more about it?”

Harry sighed. Give a little to get a little. Give a bit of information to make Boot go away and stop bothering him. “You want to know what I care about? I care about my parents. I want to know what life would have been like if I could live with them. I wonder all the time if they would be proud of me. If I end up being good at Quidditch, well, Professor McGonagall said my father was good at Quidditch. I would only be happy because I’d be close to my dad. Not because I like Quidditch.”

Boot’s face changed as he spoke. “Oh,” he said finally. He swallowed, and tried to say something, but ended up repeating, “Oh.”

Harry nodded, and turned to watch as the second race finished up, Patil leading.

*

Flying was a joy and a wonder, but also a distraction. The real joy was when Harry was lying on his back in the abandoned classroom with words swimming in front of his eyes and spells in his head and his wand flowing like an extension of his arm.

Because he was going to get his parents back, and then he would be happy.

Near the end of the term, with Christmas holidays around the corner (Harry had signed up to stay at school, and Professor McGonagall had promised to take him to St. Mungo’s), Harry knew he was ready. He felt as he had when he was flying, clear cold air in his lungs and tingling in his chest. He stood up and faced the far wall where the desks were piled. Behind him, his little conjured fire shone, providing him with plenty of light and a shadow silhouette of his wand movements, so he could watch them as extra reassurance.

He swallowed some of the clear cold feeling and recited the spell he’d pieced together out of Transfiguration hints and Latin declension paradigms.

Commuto ungues hominis ungues tigridis.”

There was a long moment of stretching and pulling, and Harry looked at the shadow before he looked down at his hand.

It hurt. But Harry knew pain. He had clenched the fingers of his left hand and thought about the pain he felt when they curled. He had thought about the time Dudley had slammed his fingers in a door and almost broken them, remembering it as perfectly as he could. He knew the height of his knuckles and the look of his nails now.

He watched as his fingernails hooked and curved, pale and long now, and then they were sharper at the ends than normal. The little half-moons at the bottom of his human nails vanished. His hand widened and grew blunter, because Harry knew that he could claw something better if he didn’t have just ordinary fingers with claws growing out of them.

The pain faded. Harry lifted his hand and admired the soft glow of the claws in the firelight for a moment. They were almost the same color as his human nails, but more ivory-like, without a sheen of pink.

Then he turned towards the stone wall. He could have practiced on parchment or cloth first—he had samples of both here—but he wanted to see something else.

He ran at the wall. It felt like he was flying, again. And then he leaped, and brought his hand down as hard as he could, and scored his claws down the stone.

It felt so different from the way it would have felt if he’d been trying his own nails against it that Harry jolted. And then he heard the soft scree and saw a single spark fly free.

When he stepped back, there were five long, pale scratches down the stone wall.

The dungeon classroom echoed with Harry’s laugh of joy.

Chapter Text

Harry checked his gifts for his parents one more time. They were both wrapped in multiple layers of paper, and no matter how many times he shook them, he didn’t hear any noise coming out of them. He smiled, remembering the way Dudley would shake his own presents, and walked down to the common room.

No one else was there. Only two or three other Ravenclaws had stayed for the holiday, and that didn’t include any of Harry’s roommates. Professor McGonagall had said she would meet him outside Ravenclaw Tower. Harry opened the door, half-wondering if she would be late.

But no, she was there, turning towards him with a pleased nod. “Do you have everything you want to take, Mr. Potter?”

“Yes, Professor.” Harry patted the gifts one more time. The one for his mum was in green paper, like her eyes. The one for his dad was in red and gold paper for Gryffindor. He saw Professor McGonagall looking at them with a hint of sadness.

When she met his gaze, she looked away a second later. “You know they will most likely not be able to respond to the presents, Mr. Potter?” she asked in a thick-sounding voice.

“I know, Professor,” Harry said gently. He was surprised that he had to be gentle with Professor McGonagall, who was always so stern. “But I’ll know I gave them, and that’s what counts.”

Professor McGonagall breathed out. “I hope so,” she said, which Harry thought was an odd response, but he didn’t say anything. Professor McGonagall took his hand and led him gently towards her office, where she had a Floo connection that would take them to St. Mungo’s.

*

“See, this is for you, Mum.”

Minerva closed her eyes. She was near tears more often than most people would know; sometimes she felt teary reading about the achievements of past Transfiguration experts and what heights they had reached in the art. But the worst moment of her life—well, at least one of the worst—was standing there while Harry Potter held out a green-wrapped package towards his unresponsive mother, and chattered to her as if she was looking at him.

In fact, Minerva saw when she looked again, Lily’s eyes were fixed on the package. But Minerva knew that was only because she had happened to be glancing in that direction when Harry waved the gift in front of her eyes. That didn’t mean she had any interest in it, or any response.

Harry went on talking as if she did. “And see, this is what I got you.” He unwrapped the package, not seeming to care that Lily simply lay in bed with her hands at her sides, not reaching out at all. When he opened the box, Minerva stepped nearer, curious. She knew Harry had probably simply owl-ordered the gift, but she wondered if he’d had enough Galleons. Being in debt to goblins or shopkeepers wasn’t something she wished for him.

The small wooden flower Harry lifted out of the box made Minerva’s breath catch. It was a lily—of course it was. It must have been the work of a skilled carver. Minerva could see the outline of each petal, even down to the fact that they subtly pointed different ways, which the petals of a real lily would.

“It’s lovely, Harry,” Minerva said, supplying the commentary that would never come from Lily. “Where did you buy it?”

Harry jumped and turned to stare at her as if she had forgotten she was there. For a second, his eyes were wide. Then he shook his head and said, “One of my roommates has a cousin who does wood-carving. I ordered it from him.”

“It will be a good token for her,” Minerva said softly, and watched as Harry laid the lily on the table near his mother’s bed. For some reason, she felt as if a little bell were being rung in the back of her head, or as though someone was ruffling her whiskers when she was in cat-form. Something about the lily…

“And this is for you, Dad,” Harry said, moving over to James’s bed and opening the box in red and gold.

This was also wood, a tiny carving of a broom with glasses perched on the bristles. Minerva smiled. She had never seen something so whimsical. “You ordered that one from the same place?”

Harry gave her a sideways, cautious glance. “Yes, Professor.”

Minerva nodded. Something of the same current of magic distracted her, sighing as it passed over her. What could it be? It wasn’t as though she thought Harry would be giving Dark artifacts as gifts to his parents.

“Do give me the name of that young man,” she said. “I might like to order some of those wooden pieces myself.”

*

Harry felt his face freeze. 

You should have known this would get you in trouble, said a nagging voice in the back of his head that sounded like Aunt Petunia. Harry hadn’t heard it since he came to Hogwarts, but then, he’d been a little more careful than that since he went to school. You shouldn’t have said anything at all. Give her some vague answer. Say you bought it from Diagon Alley.

But Harry would have to admit the truth. He hadn’t because lying had seemed simpler. But he had nothing to offer Professor McGonagall as far as the name of a carver, because these pieces hadn’t been carved. He had simply thought she wouldn’t question the lie, because no one had ever cared enough about what Harry did to ask questions like that.

“Mr. Potter?” 

Harry touched the broom one more time and turned around again. Professor McGonagall was watching him with a look that seemed baffled, as if she thought he was breaking the rules, but couldn’t comprehend what rules those were.

“I was stretching the truth, Professor McGonagall,” he muttered, gaze on the floor. “I didn’t buy those pieces from anywhere.”

“I don’t think you would have stolen them.”

She still sounded confused, but that could turn to anger any second. Harry knew that from long experience with adults. He braced himself. “No, Professor McGonagall. I Transfigured them. From a lily and a little model of a broom with glasses on it that I made of paper.”

There was silence. Harry listened fiercely to his parents’ breathing. No matter what, he thought, they were still his parents and they wouldn’t be disappointed in him. Not like the Dursleys, not like Professor McGonagall might be now.

“Harry. Look at me.”

Harry jumped at the sound of her first name and turned to meet her eyes. Professor McGonagall was bending down in front of him, studying his face. Maybe she wanted to make sure he was telling the truth now, Harry thought.

“I only wanted to know what you were doing,” Professor McGonagall whispered. “Where you got the gifts.” For a moment, she waited, and then she reached out and put her hand on his hair, because Harry supposed he hadn’t answered her quickly enough for her liking. “And I want to know why you lied.”

Harry knew he had no choice now. But he still couldn’t tell the professor the real reason. There was no doubt that she would tell him, sadly, that his parents couldn’t be cured. And Harry didn’t intend to accept that.

Luckily, there was another reason that was closer to the truth right now, and also a lot less dangerous.

“Because it’s advanced Transfiguration,” Harry said. “I thought you would get worried about me practicing outside of class.”

Professor McGonagall smiled at him and shook her head. Her hand stayed on the top of his head. Harry tensed, but didn’t throw it off. If he had to endure that strange touch to get through this, then he would.

“I’m not frightened,” Professor McGonagall said. “I am enormously proud of you, Mr. Potter. I had no idea you could do something like this.” She reached out and picked up his mum’s gift, turning it over in her hand. “Of course, changing flowers into other materials is something I teach my students, but few of them can manage something this perfect. The weight of the wood settling on the petals usually alters their angle and damages them. This looks like a living lily.”

Harry slowly relaxed. Maybe the professor wasn’t about to yell at him after all. “So you don’t mind even though I didn’t do it in class?”

“No.” Professor McGonagall put the lily back down. “But when we go back to Hogwarts, I do have a few questions for you, Mr. Potter.”

Harry nodded, and turned to visit with his parents. Because “when we go back to Hogwarts” wasn’t “now,” and he needed to fill his eyes and ears with memories of his parents to get him through the next few months without them.

*

Minerva waited until they were back in her office and she’d called up some tea and biscuits from the house-elves to speak to Harry. Harry didn’t eat. He kept looking warily between her and the tray instead, as if he assumed he would get scolded the minute he reached for the food.

“Please, eat,” Minerva said at last, when long minutes had passed and Harry hadn’t relaxed. “It’ll make me sick if I eat all this by myself, and I’d feel compelled. I don’t want good food to go to waste.”

That got the tiniest smile out of Harry, and he chose a white chocolate biscuit and chewed on the corner of it. Minerva watched him, and tried to understand.

He was such a silent child. So self-possessed. So solitary. Minerva had thought earlier in the term that some of it came from being at a new school and around magical people for the first time in his life, but now, she couldn’t hide the truth from herself. This was the real Harry Potter, walking around like a little adult and looking at the biscuit as if he thought it would explode any second.

What made him so distrustful? 

Unfortunately, Minerva thought she knew the answer, and none of the letters she had written so far to the Wizengamot had stirred any interest. Children should be raised by family; Harry Potter was with family, and there was no one else who could have taken him that was more nearly related; therefore, he was where he should be.

Minerva knew her world’s prejudice in favor of family, and most of the time, she approved of it. Children should grow up with their aunts and uncles and cousins if they couldn’t know their parents, to give them people who knew their parents and other children to play with. Even grandparents might not be as good, because they were likely to be a lot older than parents’ siblings and wouldn’t have as much energy. 

Then Harry came along and confounded all her explanations.

Minerva sighed. She would just have to keep trying.

“When did you start developing such advanced skill in Transfiguration, Mr. Potter?” she asked. “You haven’t shown it in class.” Harry’s Transfigurations in class were perfectly acceptable, but always a little off—the match still had a gleam of silver in it, the teacup he was supposed to change from china into wood was still fragile—and he never completed the spell first. That was always Miss Granger or Mr. Malfoy or Mr. Smith.

“I can’t do that kind of Transfiguration right the first time.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t care about it that much, Professor McGonagall.” Harry’s voice was soft enough that Minerva had to lean near him to hear it. “Transforming one object into another object is fine, but it’s not—it’s not important. I want to learn how to Transfigure living things.”

Minerva frowned a little. “One of the great lessons of academic life, Mr. Potter,” she said, and picked up a dark chocolate biscuit, “is mustering an intellectual interest in things that don’t interest you much emotionally. You should be able to do my lessons well, with that innate talent you have, even if you like some of them better than others.”

Harry watched her from under his hair. Minerva wondered if he ever cut it. Well, he must, sometimes, or it would have grown past his shoulders by now. But he never seemed to cut his fringe, and he looked at people from underneath it like a sheepdog.

Perhaps that will be his Animagus form. By now, based on his skills that would have done a fifth-year student proud, Minerva was certain he would become an Animagus someday.

But she also needed to caution him about some of the dangerous areas his enthusiasm could lead him into. With a nod to encourage Harry to eat his biscuit, Minerva leaned back in her chair and spoke softly.

“Transfiguring living things is impressive, Mr. Potter, but it will become ethically chancy once you get much beyond changing flowers into wood and temporarily creating animals from objects like combs. Changing one animal into another when you are an inexperienced wizard can result in great pain for that animal.” She paused, even though Harry only sat there like a polite shell and showed no response. “I don’t think you would ever want to cause pain to an animal.”

For an instant, there was hurt in Harry’s eyes that made them look like cracked glass. But it was gone again, before Minerva could find the words to ask what it was about. Harry only said, “No, Professor McGonagall,” and drained his tea.

“And human experimentation…” Minerva sighed. “I lost my temper once when I was thirteen, Mr. Potter. One of my classmates was taunting me about my father, and I changed his ears into rabbit ears. It was a combination of true Transfiguration and accidental magic, and it took Professor Dumbledore most of the term to change them back.”

“Why was he taunting you about your father, Professor McGonagall?”

Strange child. Why ask about that, instead of about the theory of why the spell lasted so long? I know he’s interested in theory. “My father was a Muggle, Mr. Potter.” Minerva shook old sadness away and added, “Blood prejudice was more active in the time I was a young witch at school than it is now.”

“Blood prejudice is stupid.”

Minerva felt her eyebrows creep higher. There was passion lurking behind his words, and she had no idea why. It frustrated her. “It is indeed, Mr. Potter. But do try to use a higher order of language. And thought,” she added. “Think about your Transfigurations before you do them.”

For a single instant, Harry’s eyes met hers. Then they dropped. “Yes, Professor.”

“That is not to devalue your skill.” Minerva leaned towards him. After the criticism, the praise. “You have a stronger talent than anyone I have seen in two decades, Mr. Potter. You will make a skilled wizard indeed.”

*

Good. Then maybe I can heal my parents.

Harry went back to the Ravenclaw Tower with Professor McGonagall’s words whirring in his head. He planned to read up on some more Transfiguration theory and then go down to his workroom in the dungeons. He had a spell he’d practiced the wand movements over and over for, and he thought he was finally ready to try it.

When he entered his bedroom, he paused for a second. There was something wrong with his bed. For an instant, Harry thought some kind of glittery creature had crept in and thrown up in it.

Then he made out the shapes of boxes behind the brightly-colored paper. Harry took another step closer and stared. They were gifts.

Gifts from Boot, and Goldstein, and Corner, and Patil, and Smith, for some bizarre reason. A slender package that had a note attached to it, but no name. And Professor McGonagall, and Finnigan.

Harry shook his head. He could feel air catching in his throat. He gagged. He reeled another step back, and shook his head again.

They’d all got him things. And he hadn’t got them anything.

Why had they—he didn’t expect—had he somehow showed he did expect something? When—

Why did they do it?

Harry fled. He couldn’t deal with this right now. At least one thing was sure, and he found his way to his workroom and cast the spells that would close it up without incident. Then he took out his wand and aimed at a broken pot in the corner that he’d brought from Herbology the other day with the intent of Transfiguring it.

His hand on the wand was steady. He knew exactly what he needed to do, and he did it.

Commuto fideliam murem ex bona fide.”

The pot wavered and drew in on itself, and then Harry saw dark fur rush over it like a tide. Suddenly there were legs where there had been broken edges, and eyes popped into being above a long snout. The jagged top of the pot became a spine and then a long tail, and a second later a brown rat scampered to Harry’s feet and stared up at him, squeaking.

Harry knelt down next to it. The rat leaped into his palm and nuzzled his face with its whiskers. Harry closed his eyes.

He had done it right. He knew he had. 

If he was going to get some of the ingredients he needed, and some of the knowledge he needed, and some of the food he needed during the summers, and stop some people from being obstacles in his path, he knew he would need to have help. He had actually intended to create a mouse first, but the pot had been big, and his concentration on the word “murem” not absolute. So the spell had made a rat instead.

That was okay. That was fine.

And the little addition Harry had made to the spell meant that the rat would be faithful and loyal to him. It would be good to have a friend he could trust.

The rat leaned heavily against his cheek. Harry leaned back, and swallowed all the emotions that he couldn’t deal with right now. He would stay down here until he could deal with them, and then he would Transfigure some things for gifts for the people who had got him things. If he was as good as Professor McGonagall seemed to think he was, that would probably be fine.

The rat squeaked again. Harry looked at him, and blinked. He supposed he couldn’t go on calling him “the rat.”

“Your name is Amicus,” he told the rat. “Because that means ‘friend’ in Latin. Got it?”

Amicus whipped his tail around his feet and stared at Harry with ratty adoration. Harry chuckled and sat down, holding Amicus close to his neck and closing his eyes.

He was going to get up and make other things in a little while. He was. And then he would go up and deal with the gifts on the bed.

But for right now, he would sit here and be happy about having one pet Uncle Vernon would never get the chance to hurt. Besides, if Harry played things right, Amicus would actually help him get revenge on Uncle Vernon.

“Revenge,” Harry said softly. “Would you like that?”

Amicus squeaked.

Chapter Text

“I never knew you could carve like that.” Boot sounded choked-up, for some reason. Harry lowered his book and turned to him, trying to look like he understood what Boot was talking about. “Thank you.”

Then Harry saw the wooden owl Boot balanced on his palm. It was the Transfigured paper owl Harry had made and sent to him for Christmas. Harry hadn’t thought it took much effort, and surely Boot would sense that. After all, Harry had been reading so much about animals that drawing and folding pictures of them was easy.

“You’re welcome,” said Harry, and because Boot kept looking at him and seemed to expect something, he put a smile on his face. “Thanks for the sweets you got me.”

Boot lunged at him suddenly. Harry almost raised his wand, but Boot just grabbed him around the waist and hugged him wildly. Harry stared over his head and patted his back and hoped Boot would let him go soon.

He did, although not soon enough to prevent Harry from feeling like he should shake himself and check to make sure that he still had all his skin—or Boot had all his brain cells. “You really do care,” said Boot, and smiled at Harry. “You really are my friend.”

Harry didn’t see any reason to say he wasn’t. After all, Boot had got that gift for him, and the way he worried about Harry seemed to say he was concerned about him, for some reason. So he shrugged and said, “You’re welcome. I am.”

“Good,” said Boot, and spent the rest of the evening talking to him about several charms he didn’t understand. Harry tried to help as best as he could. He really wasn’t as good at Charms as Transfiguration, though. He just didn’t spend that much time studying it, and whenever he’d mastered the charm Flitwick was showing them this week, he would repeat Latin names to himself and read a book about animals under the desk anyway.

Boot did look a little startled when Amicus launched himself from the bed to Harry’s shoulder and sat there grooming his fur, but then he smiled. “You’re making friends with someone else, too.”

“Yes,” Harry said, and the way he touched Amicus seemed to say something else to Boot, too, because his smile got wider.

Harry thought that people were strange.

*

The next time Harry managed to produce an animal with an incantation, it was a mouse. Amicus waddled up to it—really, he was getting too fat with all the food Harry gave him—and touched his nose to the mouse’s whiskers, then squeaked his approval.

Harry relaxed. He hadn’t realized how much he’d waited for that approval until Amicus actually gave it.

For months, Harry had been studying a book that he’d found on the border of the Restricted Section in the library, one that seemed to have been left there by mistake. It didn’t have any illegal spells in it. Professor McGonagall had taught Harry some signs for recognizing illegal spells—anything that talked about pain, for one thing, and anything that talked about body fluids collected from other people—and this book had nothing like that. It was just about shaping Transfigured animals to your desires.

Harry could do what he’d wanted with some of the spells in here. He could change rags and bits of wood and thorns and other things he collected into mice. He could make them all loyal to him, and even faster than normal mice, if he had the patience to hold still and enchant them one by one.

And sneakier. And smarter.

Harry looked down at the mouse, who had come up beside Amicus and sat there watching Harry with small, bright eyes. Harry nodded gravely back to him.

He was going to have an army of mice. And they would increase on their own, if he made them carefully. Transfigured animals, Harry had discovered in his reading, couldn’t usually have babies. They weren’t made carefully enough; people didn’t imagine wombs and genitalia and all the rest of the things Harry was finding in his careful reading.

And he could do lots of things with an army of mice, besides learn more about Transfiguration. Harry did know that he wanted revenge, on the Dursleys and other people. He’d been careful not to do or think much about it, though, because it would get in the way if he couldn’t do anything about it, and his goal of healing his parents was always going to be more important.

If he had an army of mice, though…

Harry smiled, and Amicus sat up on his haunches. The mouse followed a second later, glancing sideways as if it wanted to learn how by imitating Amicus.

*

“I hope you don’t think things are going to be any different just because you have Dudley’s old bedroom, boy.”

Things are going to be a lot different, Harry thought. He could feel Amicus in his pocket, and his trunk was packed full of mice shrunken enough that they could fit through a keyhole. But he only nodded and said, “Yes, sir,” when Uncle Vernon glared at him through the car mirror.

Uncle Vernon grumbled and swore and talked to himself some more. But Harry got what he wanted: his wand and trunk and Amicus and a few of his Transfiguration books into his bedroom. Uncle Vernon would have taken the trunk to lock in the cupboard, but Harry had already prepared for that. He’d Transfigured a bit of dust into a wasp on the train, and when he set it free of his pocket near the door, Aunt Petunia—who hated them—was so hysterical that Harry sneaked his things right past her.

Best of all, the Dursleys didn’t know that Harry couldn’t do magic during the holidays. So by the time Uncle Vernon did figure out that Harry had his wand, he was too nervous to take it away from him.

Harry sat down on Dudley’s old bed and looked around. Last summer, he’d only seen the broken toys and wondered what it would be like if they were whole and he could play with them. Now, he saw the room as full of things he could Transfigure. And he smiled.

Amicus popped out of his pocket and sat on his knee. Harry stroked his fur and tapped his fat belly.

“You’re going to lose some of that, running around,” he told him.

*

“No breakfast.”

The Dursleys said that. But bacon disappeared from their kitchen and appeared on Harry’s bed, carried by a rat who had got good at popping in and out under Harry’s door.

“No lunch!”

Aunt Petunia said that, wagging her frying pan back and forth as if trying to frighten Harry into compliance. But tiny mice bolted into the kitchen and came back with lettuce that Aunt Petunia had put out for sandwiches and then forgotten about because she was leaning out the window to watch a neighbor, and the end pieces of the bread that none of the Dursleys wanted and didn’t care to pay attention to, and slices of tomato that Dudley rejected when his mum tried to put him on a diet. Harry had a nice sandwich, looking out the window and murmuring Latin names for plants to himself.

“No dinner!”

Uncle Vernon bellowed that at him when he started getting suspicious about the disappearing food, but he also knew that Harry had been locked in his bedroom all day, so he couldn’t blame him. But Amicus showed himself, once, to frighten Aunt Petunia, who ran screaming hysterically out of the kitchen, and most of the steak disappeared upstairs. Harry had eaten it in three bites, and given what remained to Amicus and the mice, and then they had all disappeared into the trunk and into the small shadows that rodents found to hide in, so by the time Uncle Vernon came storming upstairs, Harry was lying on the bed staring listlessly at the ceiling.

They tried putting Harry on one can of cold soup a day. Mice had already escaped into a neighbor’s garden and triumphantly carried off strawberries growing there, and others had gone across the street and found an apple tree that Amicus had climbed. Harry had to teach him how to yank on stems, but once he understood that, there was a merry fall of apples into the garden and a steady stream of them coming back to Harry through the window. The bars the Dursleys had put on the window wouldn’t have let Harry climb out between them, but they were more than wide enough to admit fruit.

Harry gave most of his soup to Amicus, who liked it better than he did, the fat little thing.

It was amazing, the places mice and rats could go, and other than the times that Amicus appeared to scare the piss out of Aunt Petunia, no one ever noticed them. Harry thought of something Professor McGonagall had told him about animals, and why so many wizards found Transfiguring objects into them hard to master:

“Most people don’t pay much attention to animals, Mr. Potter, other than their own pets. Even we, who live closer to them than Muggles do, don’t know as much as we once would have, in the days when horses pulled our carriages and dogs hunted our rats and hawks hunted prey for us. We keep magical creatures at a distance except in specialized contexts like a few classes and potions shops. And chopping up an animal for the apothecary is hardly the best way to learn about it. We have exiled animals from our world.”

Harry noticed them, though. He had animals fetching his food and watching him while he taught them things. He showed them how to break stems, what certain plants and leaves looked like—there were useful Potions ingredients even in a Muggle garden—and what fallen feathers looked like. Harry thought he might be able to trim some of the feathers and make his own quills. Even if he couldn’t, then he would learn a lot about birds from looking at them and touching them and tracing their shapes.

He wanted to make a bird soon.

People said mice and rats were dirty. It was why Aunt Petunia ordered the exterminators to come in (Harry had already taught Amicus and the mice not to eat anything except what he gave them, so the exterminator’s poison didn’t affect them). Harry wondered, sometimes, what Boot or Goldstein would say, if they knew Harry was eating food that rats and mice had carried. He didn’t think Corner would care so much, because he had a rat.

But the Dursleys thought Harry was dirty, too, and a freak, and an animal. Sometimes Uncle Vernon even called Harry a rat when he was in a particularly bad mood.

Harry just thought the food tasted delicious, and although he didn’t eat as well as he did in Hogwarts—except when he broke out some of the food he had smuggled back from Hogwarts—he ate a lot better than he ever had when he lived with the Dursleys.

His birthday was a surprise. But otherwise, that summer was going a lot like Harry had envisioned it, living with his animals and learning more about the theory of Transfiguration than he thought some third-years knew. He was quietly pleased with his life.

*

“You know I can do nothing until either the boy or his guardians complain, Minerva. I am sorry, but that is the way it is.”

Minerva sat wearily back in her office chair and played Albus’s final sentence over and over in her head. Writing letters hadn’t got fast enough results for her. She had finally gone to Albus and told him directly her fears—and the extent of her small knowledge—about Harry’s living situation at the Dursleys.

Albus had listened, and Minerva had known he wasn’t dismissive. In fact, his eyes had clouded and he’d bowed his head. He blamed himself, in part, for the condition of Lily and James. If he hadn’t told them to go in hiding, he thought, You-Know-Who wouldn’t have targeted the Potters.

Minerva had nothing to say about that. She had never known exactly why the Potters had been targeted, or why Albus had told them to go into hiding, or why Pettigrew had betrayed them, except that he had been a Death Eater. She knew only what she should know, and she wasn’t one of Albus’s closest confidantes in the Order of the Phoenix, even if she was in Hogwarts itself. Severus was closer, among other people.

Frank and Alice Longbottom had been closer still.

But Albus had shaken his head slowly at the end and said, “The Wizengamot did a detailed search for Potter relatives, Minerva. There were none who were not either dead or doddering. Or—” He shivered a little. “I suspect that you would not have wished for his Black relatives by marriage to gain custody of the boy.”

“No,” said Minerva unwillingly. Most of the Blacks had been dead, too, or married to Death Eaters. Walburga Black had died only seven years ago, but she had been insane long before the end, from the stories Sirius had told Minerva of his mother.

“So. The Dursleys were the best choice, the only one that had any close blood in common with the boy.” Albus sighed. “I could have intervened, I suppose, if I had known that the Dursleys might be so unsuitable, and pushed to have one of the distant Longbottom or Weasley relatives considered. But their blood is more distant than the Wizengamot found acceptable at the time, and now—you know what would happen if I tried to raise the issue.”

“Yes,” Minerva snapped. One of the things she had learned that most annoyed her, when she was trying to do research on laws that might have helped Harry, was the horrible consequences of a badly-worded law that had been passed two decades ago. Any “blood past the second degree” needed to meet special considerations of age and suitability for raising a child. The Wizengamot had interpreted that to mean “blood past the second year,” because the handwriting of the person who had transcribed the law really was that bad. Albus could only have avoided a protracted legal battle with the Wizengamot by acting within the first two years after the attack to have Harry placed with someone other than the Dursleys.

“It’s one of the things that I always meant to change, when I had time.” Albus’s voice was wistful. “In the meantime, Minerva, you could do a lot worse than you’re doing. The boy needs a champion like you.”

“Yes,” Minerva repeated, unwilling again.

Albus had always been sensitive to her moods. “Is something wrong? Do you think the boy in imminent danger of death or serious wounding from his relatives?”

Minerva hesitated, wishing she could tell him what she feared, if she even had the right to be afraid.

Harry was intelligent. He was fitting in better with his House, Filius had told her in confidence, than he had at first. Filius had been worried about him when he was first Sorted. He had thought Harry was arrogant, and then he had thought he was shy, and then he had thought he was damaged. But he seemed reassured as Harry spent more time with his yearmates and asked older Ravenclaws about research and books and sections in the library.

Minerva didn’t see Harry as often as Filius did. She saw him only in one class. They’d had a few private talks, not many, including the one at Christmas. Minerva found Harry brilliant, not simply intelligent.

But only when it came to Transfiguration. Filius said that he did well in Charms, but not as brilliantly as his Patil girl. (Minerva, who had found herself having to prod herPatil girl through several detentions for not completing homework, could only envy him). Minerva had seen for herself that Harry had marks in Potions below the Malfoy boy and Miss Granger, who was Minerva’s pride and joy in her own House. Harry was apparently good at flying, but didn’t spend much time at it. He was average in History, average in Astronomy, average in Defense Against the Dark Arts—although there, Minerva was more inclined to blame Quirinus’s teaching.

He was as normal as anyone could expect when he’d been brought up by abusive Muggles. Maybe more. If he asked Minerva questions that she thought fifth-year students would find challenging, well, many students had a pet obsession or hobby. Harry probably knew no more about Transfiguration than Ron Weasley did about Quidditch.

But still, the feeling remained. Harry was so self-possessed, so quiet. Minerva had the strange feeling that he merely went through the motions, that school wasn’t for him, despite the amount he was evidently learning. He was always looking towards something else, getting ready for something else.

If only I knew what it was.

“Minerva?”

And Albus was still waiting on her, and how long had she kept him sitting there? Minerva shook her head. “I’m sorry, Albus. I was just trying to think of whether there were any open signs of the abuse that Harry would be willing to talk about, and I don’t think so.”

“Then we can do nothing until he does complain.”

“I could write to Remus Lupin again,” Minerva offered.

“Do you think he’s likely to say something different from what he did the first time?”

“No,” Minerva admitted stiffly. She remembered Remus as someone with a kind of gentle strength, which he’d used to survive being a werewolf. But she had to wonder now how much of his strength had been his friends. With two dead, one a traitor, and two of them confined to St. Mungo’s for the rest of their lives, he seemed to have surrendered to weakness. His letter had explained, in twenty rambling paragraphs, how hard he found life and how it would be no life for Harry.

“Then it would be useless.” Albus shook his head. “Continue trying, Minerva, if you would. I know you said Mr. Potter trusts you. He might tell you things that he wouldn’t tell anyone else. In the meantime, I have a message from Neville’s grandmother. She said that Neville is refusing the training again.”

Minerva nodded, her chest aching. She had done what she could during the year to bring Neville’s self-confidence to new heights, but it hadn’t been enough. She thought that Neville answered with greater ease in her class, and he was doing Transfiguration spells better than before.

That didn’t make up for the way he trembled and turned pale in every other class except Herbology.

“I wish our times did not demand the pain of such young ones,” Albus whispered, and then the Floo closed.

Minerva turned around with a more determined expression. If she could not give Harry immediate physical safety, she would give him mental safety. She could at least distract him and make his summer more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

*

BOY!”

Harry turned his head, surprised. He’d spent most of the day in his bedroom, and then when Uncle Vernon came home, he’d sent Harry out to work in the garden so he would “stop lazing around.” Harry had been out there since, pulling weeds and watering flowers and trimming back the rosebushes. He didn’t know what Uncle Vernon could have found to make him so upset.

Amicus popped his head out of Harry’s pocket. Harry shoved him back down and hurried into the house.

“Yes, Uncle Vernon?” he asked, and then saw the row of owls on the windowsill.

They had all cooperated to carry large books, it looked like. The titles were somewhat hidden by the owls’ wings and the way they were sitting, which twisted the books, but Harry could tell they were Transfiguration texts from the partial words he could see.

He couldn’t hide his smile.

“You KNEW about this!” Uncle Vernon bellowed. He was spluttering so hard that spittle flecked Harry’s face. “You knew—you and your owls—I am going to hurt you—”

He’d threatened that before. Harry knew that most of the time, the threats didn’t mean much. Uncle Vernon would just bluster and not actually do anything to him.

But Harry thought he might take the books away. The way he’d taken the black kitten away that Harry had had once.

Harry drew his wand.

Uncle Vernon choked on air when he saw it. Then he backed away, shaking his hands in front of him and trying to say something. Aunt Petunia, who’d come into the drawing room to see what was going on, ended up cowering back. Harry didn’t see Dudley around.

Harry didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to say anything. He took a step forwards, his eyes locked on Uncle Vernon’s.

“You can’t—boy, put that down—” Uncle Vernon was trying to speak in a friendly tone, Harry thought, but he’d been too angry for too long. A second later, he was back to being angry. “Put that down this instant!” he shouted, into Harry’s face again.

Harry lowered his wand. But this time, he held up his left hand and unsheathed his claws.

It had taken him months to work out the right way to do the claws, to make sure they weren’t obvious and they wouldn’t bother him with using his hand in an ordinary way if he had to. But probably because the Dursleys barely looked at him anyway, they hadn’t noticed.

Now Harry had the claws unsheathed. They were hooked and black, more like an eagle’s claws now than a tiger’s. Harry had done some reading about birds at school before he had to leave for the summer. He knew an eagle could crush someone’s hand if they struck hard enough.

He might not have an eagle’s strength because he had only changed his fingernails and not his entire hand, but wouldn’t it be fun to find out?

Harry was moving forwards. He could feel Amicus stirring in his pocket, but he would stay out of sight. He had his claws. Under his big, baggy clothes, covering him all over, were enormous flaps of loose skin. They would absorb some of the energy like cloth if Dudley punched him, or even if Uncle Vernon beat him. Harry had tried for stone-hard skin, but he’d only managed a little patch, near his elbow, and then he couldn’t turn it back. He thought the pouches were better.

He had his wand. And he had his rage.

Please…”

Harry stopped. He knew that he couldn’t just back down now, though, or Uncle Vernon would get angry and take it out on him later. So Harry said, and made his voice remote, “You’ll let me keep the books and take them upstairs. And you won’t touch the owls.”

“Yes. Yes.”

“You won’t touch me or my things.”

“Yes. Yes.”

Harry watched Uncle Vernon a little while. Then he said, “Good,” and lowered his hand, and sheathed the claws again. He turned away and walked over to gather the books for the owls. Some of them hooted in confusion and tried to look at his left hand. Harry shooed them gently off and took the books upstairs.

Once he was in the safety of his room, he found the note from Professor McGonagall, explaining why she’d sent them.

Harry sat there a while, thinking about that. Then he closed his eyes and sat there for a long time, stroking Amicus, and letting the mice gather around him.

*

Minerva opened the note from Harry with some trepidation. It would make sense if Harry, independent little being that he was, just refused her gifts, even though she had timed them to arrive on his birthday.

The note simply said, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Over and over again.

Minerva lowered it slowly, and breathed out through her mouth. It was strange, yes. But she could feel the depth of the sincerity radiating from the paper.

The only thing I can do is teach him and try to help him. I can’t predict what he’s going to become. He might never become anything as bad as what I fear.

And even if he does…

Minerva squared her shoulders. She liked to think that she had pulled a few students from the madness or the darkness that might have consumed them after the first war. She could do it with another.

He loves Transfiguration. That proves that he isn’t only interested in Dark Arts or casting Dark spells. I’ll reach him through that.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Potter, stay after class, please.”

Minerva walked around the desk to approach Harry, who had promptly sat down and was looking at her with a patient expression, as if he would wait for years if she wanted him to. Minerva sighed a little as she stopped in front of him. She was the only one who saw even that much of an expression, she thought. The other professors had started to complain that Harry would just sit there and stare at them with empty eyes, or blank ones.

“I want to talk to you about the difficulties you’re having Transfiguring one object into another,” Minerva said. “I know you can do well. I saw you do it last year. It seems odd to me that you’re having more problems with second-year than first-year work.”

Harry blinked. Then he said, “I can’t sense the Wild in those objects, Professor McGonagall.”

“But you couldn’t sense the Wild in the objects you Transfigured last year, either,” Minerva felt compelled to point out. She tried to ignore the uneasiness that swirled up her spine like a cold wind. She had kept an eye on Harry since the beginning of the year, and the fear had climbed.

Which was ridiculous. Because Harry did nothing overtly wrong. The only professor he ever received detentions from was Severus, and Minerva had come to believe that that was based on things like Harry having the temerity to breathe in his presence. He didn’t sneak into the Restricted Section, he didn’t seem interested in Dark Arts, he didn’t bully other students, and he didn’t cheat on exams.

The strangeness of it, Minerva thought, was that she was used to students who were going wrong in one of several specific ways. This time, it was only her intuition with nothing else to back it up. It was like trying to explain to someone else exactly what the scents she smelled in her Animagus form were like.

“Yes, I did, Professor McGonagall,” said Harry, and blinked at her again. “They were always there.”

Minerva studied him some more, but she didn’t think this was cheek. Harry spoke as if it was obvious, when, as far as Minerva knew, Wild had never appeared in any object-to-object Transfiguration. As she had told Harry a year ago, it happened only—if it happened at all—when one end of the Transfiguration was a living being. Human Transfiguration, always. Animal-into-animal or animal-into-object or object-into-animal, always. But not when one was changing a button into a discus, or a chair into a wall.

“I want you to show me one of the Transfigurations you did last year,” Minerva said at last, and reached down for a sheet of parchment Mr. Smith had left behind. She folded it carefully into a small paper cat, the one of these she was best at. She put the paper cat on the desk in front of Harry. “Turn it into wood.”

Harry drew his wand and stared at the cat for a second. Then he shook his head and looked up. “I’m sorry, Professor. I didn’t do one of these. I did an owl, though. Can I fold a paper owl?”

“Yes,” said Minerva, and stepped back, watching intently as Harry’s fingers nipped and tucked the paper. No, he did nothing that she could detect there. Sometimes a child’s desire to impress a professor manifested as accidental magic that got in the way of their actual school performance.

But there was none here. It was an ordinary paper owl that Harry put down on the desk and stepped away from.

His body seemed to acquire a kind of stillness that Minerva had never seen in him before, even as quiet as he usually was. He aimed his wand at the owl and hissed out, “Commuto chartam lignum.

The paper trembled and rippled as the spell raced over it. Minerva stared hard, and replayed the memory of the incantation she’d just heard in her mind. There was nothing wrong with either his Word or his Wand technique.

His Will, she couldn’t see, but she thought Harry didn’t lack determination.

And no matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t see or sense any of the Wild.

Harry opened his eyes. Minerva hadn’t seen them close, but she was struck by what she saw in them when they were open. There was a bottomless well of purpose there, as though Harry was going to do whatever was necessary no matter what. Minerva felt it like a dagger pressed against her throat.

Yes, she could safely say there was nothing wrong with his Will.

Minerva reached out a hand, as if she could help Harry with the weight that determination must put on his life. But by then, the spell had already struck the paper owl and splashed back. The owl swayed but remained in place.

Harry blinked. “I should have been able to do that,” he said. “There was Wild there last time. There must have been.” He shrugged a little and turned back to Minerva. “Do you think I should practice, Professor?”

Yes. I don’t know why you need to practice, but I know there is something wrong here.

“Yes,” Minerva said aloud, and rose from her half-seat on the table. She would have liked to spend more time talking with Harry, but she had a training session with Mr. Longbottom coming up. Albus was concerned that the boy’s lack of Transfiguration skills might hinder him in future battles with You-Know-Who. Minerva had to admit there was something to that. The boy’s battle with the troll last year would have been much easier if he could have Transfigured something instead of simply hitting the troll with the club. Even that Charm had been hard for him. “Small objects only. Transform buttons into different kinds of buttons, rags into handkerchiefs, pieces of rope into pieces of string. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Professor.” Harry didn’t seem disturbed. He gathered up his books and slipped out of the classroom.

Minerva watched him go, the worry stirring to life in her again. From the way she had come to understand Harry, he should have been upset at the failure of his spell. He cared too much about success to simply accept such a failure.

But instead, he had…gone on.

Minerva couldn’t spare too much time worrying about it, though. She recognized Mr. Longbottom’s footsteps outside the door, and had to arrange her face in as calm and welcoming a smile as possible, so she wouldn’t frighten the poor boy further.

*

“You never did talk to the Captain about getting on the Quidditch team,” Boot said, and flopped on Harry’s bed beside him, scowling at him.

Harry, who had been petting Amicus while he studied a book of spells that would change the mice’s physical characteristics, turned and blinked in surprise. “Er, no, I didn’t,” he said finally. He was surprised Boot was bringing this up now, instead of the last argument they’d had.

(Boot thought Harry spent too much time studying. Harry had slipped the cover from a larger book of fairy tales over his smaller fifth-year Transfiguration one, a trick he’d pulled sometimes with the Dursleys when he’d stolen one of Dudley’s books. Boot had found out and been upset. Harry didn’t understand why he had even wanted to look).

“Don’t you want to be on the Quidditch team?”

At least it seemed Boot was giving him time to explain. Harry rolled on his back and let Amicus climb up and set on his stomach, something he liked doing and couldn’t do a lot because Harry was usually sitting up while he studied. “No,” he said.

“Why not?”

Goldstein looked over at them curiously. He was involved in his Defense essay at the moment, but Harry knew from experience that he might come over and get involved in the conversation. He got bored of Defense essays quickly. At least this year, with this teacher, Harry couldn’t blame him.

Harry tried to keep his voice low as he said, “Because I don’t really like Quidditch. I like flying, but that’s not the same thing. And I would rather spend my time studying than playing Quidditch.”

Boot sat up and stared hard at Harry. Harry squinted back, and let Amicus nibble around his fingers.

“I was right,” said Boot a second later, shaking his head. “There is something wrong with you.”

Harry shut his eyes. He was trying to remind himself that this was Boot, not the Dursleys, and hear those words in a voice that wasn’t theirs. “What do you mean?”

“Who wants to study instead of play Quidditch?”

“Me.”

“I didn’t mean that.” Boot bounced impatiently on Harry’s bed, making Harry glad that there was so much space under them. That was where his mice hid. “You’ve been here a year, Harry, but I can’t remember seeing you do anything but study. Well, and help me study.”

“And go to meals,” Harry said. “And the bathroom, and class, and detention—”

“That doesn’t count,” said Boot. “Everyone does that.” He scowled for a second. “You’re even different with detention. Everyone who’s worth anything knows that you don’t deserve the amount Snape gives you.”

Harry shrugged, and said nothing. If the book he was reading could deliver on what it promised, he would get some revenge on Snape.

“You worry me,” Boot said softly, and bent over to look into Harry’s eyes. Goldstein had gone back to his essay, so Harry lay still and let him do it. “I think the real question we need to ask is why you’re only interested in studying.”

“No,” said Harry. “The real question we need to ask is why it worries you so much.”

Boot sighed and flopped out so he was lying beside Harry. He scratched Amicus’s back. Amicus made no objection, but then, he was neutral to people Harry tolerated. “Because I think you ought to have a life?”

“Why would playing Quidditch be a life?” Harry had to ask. “I mean, more than Gobstones or chess? If I was interested in them, would you be satisfied, or does it have to be Quidditch for you not to be worried?”

He let his voice get sharp on the last words, because he was honestly pretty exasperated. Boot rolled over and looked at Harry thoughtfully. “Chess could be a start. Do you want to learn how to play chess?”

“No.”

“Then I’m still worried.”

Harry sighed and looked away from Boot. “You don’t have to be,” he said, and his voice was still sharp. “I’m not going to do anything that would lose House points for Ravenclaw. Or get you in trouble. Or Anthony or Michael.”

He thought that would satisfy Boot, but for some reason, it only made him sit up with an arrested expression on his face. “That,” he said quietly. “You really think—you think that’s the only reason I’m concerned about you?”

“What else could it be?” Harry asked, baffled. It wasn’t like Boot knew how bad his life with the Dursleys was, or how much Harry wanted his parents back.

Boot said, “You—” and stopped. He stared at Harry with the weirdest expression on his face, and then he turned away and walked over to his bed. He shut the curtains behind him without a glance at Harry.

“You messed up, mate.”

That was Corner, who so rarely said something like that Harry turned around. “Why?” he asked, so exasperated by now that it hurt a little. “I only told him the truth.”

Corner gave him one more solemn look, and then curled up with his own Charms essay. Goldstein had drawn his curtains, too.

Harry shook his head and pulled his own curtains shut. Amicus squeaked at him and rubbed his nose against Harry’s cheek.

“Humans are strange,” Harry told him earnestly, before paying more attention to his book. Making mice thirsty was probably exactly what he needed.

*

Harry slipped quietly out of Ravenclaw Tower. He had grown more and more used to doing that over the last few months, and now, it was even easier. Since the monster from the Chamber of Secrets, whatever it was, had paralyzed Filch’s cat, most of the students went everywhere in groups or huddled together in their common rooms as much as possible. No one was outside to see where Harry went.

That must be at least partially because Boot isn’t talking to me as much.

Harry sighed a little. Part of him regretted that. Boot was acting as though they’d had a major fight, like the ones Harry and Dudley used to have, snapping at Harry all the time and slapping his books down on the table in every class except Transfiguration and Potions, because neither Professor McGonagall nor Snape would have tolerated that. And the other Ravenclaws were sort of drifting away from Harry, too.

But not as much as they are from Longbottom.

Harry shook his head as he moved quietly towards the dungeons. The poor boy. Everyone thought he was the Heir of Slytherin, simply because he’d talked to a snake at the Dueling Club. Harry admired him for being a Parselmouth. It would sure be a useful gift, to be able to speak directly to animals instead of having to work around them with spells the way Harry did.

And Harry thought animals were better than people, anyway.

But as sorry as Harry felt for Longbottom, he couldn’t help him. He had his own quest. Longbottom’s quest was to destroy the Evil Lord Dudders. Harry hoped he would.

Harry reached the dungeons without running into anyone, and stopped in a small alcove to empty his pockets of mice. They scurried in front of him, keeping to the shadows, darting back to squeak in a specific pattern if anyone was up ahead. But Harry only had to hide once, and he finished the journey in front of Snape’s quarters.

Or, more specifically, the closed door of Snape’s private supply of potions.

It had taken some spying through mice and on his own to find out that it existed, and where the door was. Harry had known that Snape kept finished potions, of course. But they might all have been in his office, or his quarters, or in the hospital wing. Harry hadn’t known for sure there was a separate door in the dungeon walls until he sent Amicus to actually check.

Harry knelt down and cast a wary look at Snape’s quarters. He knew Snape wasn’t there, because he was supervising a detention for Ron Weasley and Longbottom. Still, there might have been a spying portrait or detection spells that would find him.

Nothing scraped. Nothing shrieked. Harry finally turned back to the dungeon door and turned out one more pocket. These were specially altered mice, Transfigured a fortnight ago and filled with the spells in the book Harry had been reading. They had sleek black fur and shining eyes.

They sat in front of Harry, on their haunches, and twitched at him.

“You know where you’re going,” Harry whispered. He knew they did, and they didn’t really understand his words as such anyway, but it helped him deal with the pounding surge of excitement rising in him. “Go get him.” He tapped his wand on the mice and cast the final spell, the one he couldn’t have used before now, unless he wanted the mice to try drinking everything in sight. “Bibilus.”

The mice glowed for a moment with soft brown light. A second later, they were flowing under the door into the private cupboard.

Harry smiled and closed his eyes. He’d also spied a little on Madam Pomfrey, and made sure that the potions here weren’t ones she needed in the infirmary. But it didn’t seem so. Apparently Snape brought the vast majority of things like Skele-Gro and Boil Cure Potions to her right away, and it was only his own private stores of whatever he brewed that went here.

Snape thought a single room where he could keep an eye on it was more secure than one in the classroom or one in his quarters, which apparently had tempted students to try and break in on a regular basis several years ago, when he did keep them there. Harry had found out that convenient little fact from Iverson, who still talked as much as ever.

“A single stone door,” Iverson had whispered, leaning across the table, “with powerful magic on it that people can feel, stops a lot more students than a single door he can’t charm that way. Professor Snape has to be available to students all the time, you see, since he’s a Head of House. That means he can’t arm the door to his quarters that strongly, because someone might have to knock in an emergency when they need him. So students who wanted to steal potions would try to break in in the middle of night and disturb his sleep. So Professor Snape did this, and…”

Harry stood up. It would be stupid to linger here too long. He turned and moved back up out of the dungeons, mice scampering along and before him.

*

Severus stood in the doorway of his private storage cupboard and stared in silence.

He had opened the door and stepped on a cork. Then another. Then yet another.

All the corks that sealed his potions were lying on the floor. They had been neatly wrenched out of the necks of his flasks, vials, and in some cases, for the larger potions, bottles.

Severus took in the extent of that disaster—because it was a disaster simply to uncork some of the potions without the proper precautions, as the scorched and blasted walls showed—in silence. Then he looked up.

In the vial or flask or bottle of each potion that hadn’t immediately had a bad reaction on contact with the air floated the body of a mouse. Each one was bloated with liquid. They had apparently plunged into the potions and drunk as much as they could before they died.

Of course, their bodies had further contaminated the potions. Fully three-quarters of Severus’s private supply was useless now. The only potions that had survived were the ones in steel containers, which the mice hadn’t been able to chew through or tip over, and the few that didn’t have wooden corks.

Severus stepped back and looked at the corks on the floor. Yes, when he bent down, he could see the small toothmarks on them. He supposed it was possible for mice to pull them out. There was simply no mouse who had ever wanted to.

He was balanced on a delicate pinnacle of rage. He had felt the spells quiver some time ago, but he had been involved in supervising a detention at the time, and had ignored the sensation. Students did sometimes still challenge the spells he’d implanted in the stone door. They were welcome to try.

In fact, he’d left the detention in a good mood, looking forwards to finding someone imprisoned in webbing that tied them to the door. Now he knew it had been the more volatile potions exploding. The spells he had put on the door had held up against them.

But the work that had been here, the lost months and months of work…

Severus carefully shut the door behind him, so no one outside could hear what he did, just as no one had heard the potions exploding. Then he snarled a promise of vengeance.

“Whoever you are, I will find you and I will destroy you.”

*

“There’s something weird about that Potter boy, though. Really.”

Blaise Zabini dropped his head into his arms. “Shut up about Potter, Draco. Please. He’s nothing special. Half-Mudblood, parents who won’t ever be coming out of the Janus Thickey ward, doesn’t do well in Potions so he can’t challenge you, doesn’t play Quidditch like you do, doesn’t matter. Just be quiet about him.”

“Look at it this way,” said Theodore Nott, on the other side of the table, glancing up from his dinner. His hair looked unwashed, as usual, Draco thought with a sneer, and unlike Professor Snape, he didn’t have a professional reason for it. “As long as he’s obsessing over Potter, he’s not obsessing over the Heir of Slytherin.”

Draco ignored Theo entirely, staring across the Great Hall at the Ravenclaw table. He and Potter were two students who had signed up to stay during the Christmas holiday. Draco knew that Potter would go to hospital to see his parents. There was no other reason he would remain. He didn’t have family wanting to spoil him, so there was no reason to go home.

It was so strange. Sometimes Draco thought he understood Potter. He wouldn’t want to go home if he’d been raised by idiot Muggles, either. But he and Potter were so different otherwise that then Draco would be uncertain, unsure if he could really trust his senses around Potter.

It drove Draco mental.

Potter stood and made his way to the Hall’s door a few minutes later. He had a rat on his shoulder, and he seemed to be talking to it as he walked. Draco rolled his eyes. Then he smirked as he noticed none of the other Ravenclaws running after Potter, the way they would have last year. That just proved even Potter’s own Housemates thought he was weird.

Maybe he is really mental, maybe he got it from dear old Mum and Dad. Maybe that explains everything, and I can stop being paranoid that Potter is hiding something.

But Draco shook his head a little. Everyone had said Potter was brilliant in Transfiguration last year—although this year, that didn’t seem to be the case—and someone mental couldn’t be good at the art that required the highest concentration of Construction. Potter had some other secret. Or he was mental in some way that wasn’t obvious.

Draco was going to find out what it was. His irritating friends would leave during the holiday, and he would have lots of time alone. He wasn’t making any progress in his search for the Heir of Slytherin, so he might as well look into Potter.

*

Harry sighed and sat back against the wall of his dungeon workshop. He always practiced his object-into-object Transfigurations for half an hour before he began his animal ones, because he had promised Professor McGonagall. But he wasn’t getting better at them.

He knew, he knew he had sensed Wild last year when he Transfigured those objects for his parents’ gifts and his Housemates’ gifts. In fact, he had felt it again when he did it this year, creating a small wooden rose for his mother and a wooden Quaffle for his father. For a moment, he had felt the Wild flickering around him, like a crystal wind, and the paper objects had smoothly changed.

But when he tried again, later, on a button, nothing happened.

Harry didn’t know what the difference was, and it bothered him a little. He didn’t want to disappoint Professor McGonagall.

It was only a little, though. Far more important was getting his animal Transfiguration right for the next time he went to Privet Drive.

Harry turned and faced the heap of rags he had carefully gathered together, along with needles, small stones that would heat when he cast a Warming Charm on them, velvet, and more small stones for the muscles. They didn’t look like the paper animals he had learned to create, but on the other hand, they represented what he would need to create a living animal in a different way. Rags for a general body. Needles for claws. Glowing stones for glowing eyes. Velvet for fur. Muscles to leap and spring and hunt.

Harry closed his eyes. The spell reared up inside him, his Will. Then he twisted his wand through the incantation, flourish after flourish, as if he was trying to draw a four-petaled rose in the air, and the words rolled out of him. Wand and Word had to be perfect, and Harry still muttered Latin to himself and practiced wand movements during detentions with Snape, and, lately, any class with Lockhart.

Commuto abundantiam felim.

The words struck out from him, accompanied by a thrill of Wild. Harry opened his eyes and watched in growing excitement as the magic wreathed around the rags, and they began to turn darker. There was a white patch on the animal’s chest, and the glowing stones became a pair of eyes near the floor. As Harry watched, the beast’s head rose, and the eyes blinked, while more fur sleeted over the body and it became real.

There was a cat there, when he was done. A cat with green eyes and black fur like the kitten Uncle Vernon had killed.

Harry bent down. The cat toddled towards him on shaky legs for a second. Amicus had already retreated to hide in Harry’s pocket.

Then the cat leaped and locked its claws on Harry’s face, biting his neck savagely.

Harry cried out and fell back, utterly stunned. The cat snapped and surged around him, trying to bite him and leap over his head at the same time.

Then it squealed. Amicus had risen out of Harry’s pocket and bitten its tail.

Harry whipped around and tossed the cat from him. It landed in a corner and shook itself furiously, before hissing at him again. Harry expected it to run away, looking for an exit, but instead it acted like it would charge him in a second.

Finite Incantatem.

Harry knew his Wand and Word work were perfect, but it still took him a minute to get the necessary Will, and the cat had closed the distance between them by then. Harry almost got a bite on his hand before his magic struck the cat and it dissolved, back into the rags and needles and other things he had made it from. The stones clacked and rocked as they settled back on the ground.

Harry sighed as he sat down and stroked Amicus’s back in thanks. So much could have gone wrong. He would need to think through the theories and decide which was the likeliest.

He’d been envisioning a kitten, but he’d tried to turn the rags into an adult cat instead. It could have been a failure of his imagination.

Cats weren’t social creatures, while rats and mice were. Perhaps his magic couldn’t make a cat loyal to him in the same way.

He’d been focused on revenge, instead of creating something that would help him survive or ultimately help his parents, the way the mice and Amicus did. Maybe that meant he had to think of the cat mostly as something to help him survive or help his parents.

But he had to admit, if it was that one, it would be harder. He had wanted a cat because he wanted another pet.

Harry smiled down at Amicus while Amicus nuzzled his hand anxiously. “Yeah,” Harry muttered when the felt the blood slide down his face. He would have to heal his wounds, or someone would wonder why he’d vanished down into the dungeons looking healthy and come back up with a scratched face. There were a few more Ravenclaws staying for the holiday this time. Harry thought they wanted to research the Chamber of Secrets and the Heir of Slytherin.

He would have to look up a few healing charms before he could do that, though. For now, Harry pulled the hood of his cloak up to shield them and started for the door.

He opened the door of the workroom and immediately paused. There was someone, or something, off to the side. Watching him.

Harry didn’t want to alert the watcher that he knew they were there. He stepped out into the corridor and whistled innocently. Then he strolled a few steps away, and heard steps behind him.

The whistle summoned one of his mice. They scampered past the person, who let out a shriek of horror and disgust.

Harry smiled, spun around, and launched Amicus from his shoulder. Amicus leaped into the shadows, leaped up again, and then twisted. Harry could only see his tail for a second, flickering at the edge of the torchlight, but then Malfoy staggered into view, batting at Amicus, who had a tight grip on his earlobe.

Harry stood there and laughed until Malfoy grabbed Amicus, at which point he walked up to Malfoy and jammed his wand into his throat. Malfoy froze, staring at him.

“I don’t think so,” Harry said. “Hurt my friend, and I’m going to make sure you suffer.” He held out his arm, and Amicus ran up his fingers and back onto his shoulder. Then Harry turned back to consider Malfoy.

He knew a couple of ways of making sure that unwanted observers would suffer, but unfortunately, they were beyond his power. The safest would be the Memory Charm, but Harry had never studied how to cast it.

“My father will hear about this!

Then again, sometimes Malfoy had good ideas, and maybe Harry should just adopt his tactics.

“No, he won’t,” Harry whispered. “Because you still have to sleep in the dungeons, right? The dungeons that I’ve shown I can get into.” He traced his wand gently around Malfoy’s throat, aware that Malfoy had stopped exclaiming and shouting and was watching him with sheer, horrified fascination. “The dungeons I can walk in and out of and not have any trouble with. And I have a rat, Malfoy. A rat who can creep under doors.” He was whispering now, leaning towards Malfoy, and Malfoy was swaying a little. “A rat who can climb your bed. A rat who can bite you other places than your earlobe.”

“Potter…”

What Malfoy was about to say could not possibly have been interesting, so Harry ignored him and went on. He found Malfoy’s jugular and traced his wand over it. “Do you know how quickly biting through this can cause you to die?” he asked. “I’ve studied it. Your blood just pours out. The rat that bites through your jugular would come quietly. It would come into the bedroom, and then it would leave again, and no one would ever know what had happened.”

“Potter…”

This time, Malfoy sounded sufficiently frightened. Harry moved a step back and smiled at him. “Or you could keep quiet,” he said. “About something you don’t have much to say about, anyway. I came out of a classroom no one uses. My pet rat attacked you for screaming. What is it going to be, Malfoy? You keep quiet and go to Madam Pomfrey about your earlobe, or you explain—what little you have to say, and then you die?”

Malfoy’s eyes were as large as Longbottom’s got when he was struggling with a Potions essay in the library. Harry watched him, and watched, and saw the moment when Malfoy surrendered to his fear. He squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.

“I’ll do what you say and keep quiet.”

“Good.” Harry patted Malfoy on the cheek and stuck Amicus in his pocket. Then he ambled away.

He knew Malfoy was cowering at his back. And he knew he had made an enemy who could prove dangerous. Dudley always was, the times that Harry managed to hide or make him look stupid. Uncle Vernon had always been looking for some way to get back at Harry, last summer, for threatening him. Harry had had to shore up the fear, again and again.

He would just have to do the same with Malfoy, at least until he could competently Obliviate him.

But even if the worst happened, and Malfoy told someone, and Harry got—well, he wasn’t entirely sure what could happen to him, other than detentions. He didn’t think he would get expelled, unless everything was left up to Snape. Then it was possible.

But Harry knew how to study on his own, now. He was doing more studying on his own than studying for classes, another reason he had started to fall behind on the more everyday kinds of Transfiguration in McGonagall’s class. Harry was sorry to see the way she frowned at him.

Being sorry wasn’t going to heal his parents, though. Which meant, in the end, it wasn’t worth much.

Chapter Text

“It would help if you ever acted like it bothered you.”

Harry started and turned around. Boot stood behind him with his bag draped over his shoulder and his eyes squinting at Harry. Then again, he squinted like that a lot. Harry sat back silently and waited to see what he would say.

Amicus stirred in his pocket. Harry was supposed to be working on object-to-object Transfigurations; what he wanted to work on was more plans to turn a pile of objects into a cat. Instead, he had to look up Memory Charms. Amicus was bored and wanted to go down to the dungeon classroom, Harry knew.

“And it would help if you would talk to me.” Boot dropped his bag on the table next to Harry’s with a loud thump.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Harry said. “I thought you’d decided not to talk to me anymore.”

“If that had worked, I wouldn’t be here now.” Boot flopped down in his chair, a lot like his bag had flopped on the table. “But you didn’t even notice it.”

Harry shook his head, a little confused. “I thought you didn’t want to be my friend anymore. You don’t have to be my friend. You have the right to decide for yourself.”

Boot stared at him. His eyes were so wide they reminded Harry of Malfoy’s eyes in the corridor outside his dungeon workroom. Then Boot turned and buried his head in his arms, running his fingers roughly through his hair.

“You don’t handle anything like a normal person,” he whispered.

Harry chose not to say anything, and turned back to his books. At the next table, Neville Longbottom was working by himself except for Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Granger kept leaning towards Longbottom to whisper encouragingly and pat him on the arm. Weasley was glaring around as if searching for intruders.

Harry was glad Longbottom had people to be to him what Amicus was to Harry. Being able to talk to snakes shouldn’t leave you alone that way.

“I just wanted to be your friend,” Boot continued, in a whining tone that got on Harry’s nerves. “And you wouldn’t pay any attention to me.”

Harry sighed and leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling of the library. Amicus stirred in his pocket again, but Harry held him down. In his mood, Amicus might bite Boot, and Harry didn’t want that.

“Look,” said Harry. “My friendship isn’t going to hurt you if you don’t have it. You’re friends with Goldstein and Corner. Much better friends than you have been with me. You have Quidditch to interest you, and even other people in our House and the other Houses to be friends with. We don’t fight. We don’t curse each other. You’re safe in our room. You don’t have to worry about me locking you up or poisoning your food or anything like that. Why are you so insistent that we have to be friends?”

Boot stared at him in silence. Harry stared back. He thought this was the part where Boot probably got up and stomped out of the library.

Instead, Boot breathed, sounding like he was in shock, “You don’t have any idea.”

“Not why you’re so upset that you can’t have the friendship of this one specific person, no,” Harry said, although it hadn’t sounded like a question.

Boot looked around, and then he drew his wand and cast a bubble around them. Harry blinked. The other sounds in the library promptly became muffled, and he couldn’t see other people well, either. Everything blurred like they were underwater.

“Where’d you find that spell?” Harry knew it hadn’t been on the regular list in Charms.

“You’re not the only person who can do some extra studying when something matters to him,” Boot said grimly.

“I never said I was,” Harry started. He was tired of being accused of things he’d never said.

“Listen to me,” Boot said, and something about his tone made Harry do it, if only because there was the chance that Boot would leave him alone faster if he did. Boot put his hand on Harry’s arm and said, “What the Muggles did to you was wrong.”

“I know that, of course. You think I don’t know that?”

“But the way you responded to it is also wrong.”

Harry turned away in silence. Boot didn’t know a thing about it.

“You need—Harry, you need someone to help you.”

“Go talk to someone if you want. Professor McGonagall already has. The Wizengamot can’t find any other family for me, so I have to stay there.”

“Not like that.” Boot sighed, and his hand tightened on Harry’s arm. “I mean someone to help you get over it.”

Harry just turned around, and this time Boot flinched like Malfoy.

“You don’t know a thing about it,” Harry whispered. “You don’t know a thing about what I’m trying to do, or what I’m going to do. And you don’t know what would help me get over it. Go away.”

“But I’d like to.”

“What?”

Boot shook a little, as if it was taking all his courage to keep him there instead of running away. There was a reason he hadn’t been Sorted into Gryffindor, Harry thought. “I’d like to know,” he repeated. “What would help you get over it. And I don’t—I promise I won’t threaten to go to Professor Flitwick or anything like that. I won’t even tell Anthony, if you like. But I want to know.”

Harry stared at him. Boot still didn’t flinch or back down, and Harry didn’t think it was a joke. It was a bit much for a joke.

Why?” Harry finally exploded.

Boot lifted his head. “Because I’m your friend, even if you aren’t mine. And I don’t want you to suffer.”

Harry stared at him and said nothing. Because there was nothing to say. He just didn’t know what in the world Boot could hope to gain from this, and that paralyzed him with indecision.

“What can I do?”

Harry looked down and away. Boot didn’t try to make him look up. He just sat there, and Harry realized he would probably go on sitting there, waiting, for as long as it took.

I’ve never had someone who would do that for me.

But that was a lie, because he had Amicus. And he would have the cat once he made it. And Professor McGonagall would probably have done the same thing for him. Harry knew she just didn’t know enough.

But he hadn’t thought Boot knew enough, either. He had discovered things and looked for them because he wanted to—

I’m not powerful. I’m not famous. I don’t want to do anything but heal my parents. I could understand if I was the Boy-Who-Lived and he was flattering me like those people did who wanted to look at Longbottom before he showed them he’s a Parselmouth.

“Do you finally believe me?” Boot whispered then. “That I’m doing this because I want to, not because I’m trying to trick you or for whatever other reason you think I couldpossibly do something like this?”

Harry finally breathed in and turned back to Boot. “I do.”

Boot smiled, and he really looked like he was eating a great sweet. “Good. Now do you think you could call me Terry and mean it, this time? And we’ll discuss what would make you better together.”

*

Severus had not yet found the enemy who had wrecked his potions. Nor had he fully finished replacing them, even though it had been months since the assault.

It infuriated him. Not even Rubeus or Filius would willingly sit next to him at meals now, and Albus had taken to watching him with narrowed eyes, as if he thought the time would come soon to do something about Severus.

Severus ignored that completely. If Albus had something to say, he should say it. Severus was already wasting precious brewing time in useless training of the Longbottom boy, not to mention tutoring his Slytherins to make up for the desolation on their marks that Lockhart was performing in his classroom.

Severus did not question Albus’s decisions, not since the day that Albus had pointed out that many people would think sparing Severus from Azkaban was one of the more questionable of them. But he did think, and seethe, and plot, and look.

He looked into more inane teenagers’ mind during those months than he had in the eleven years before. He soaked himself in images of them snogging, wanking, cheating on their exams, copying each other’s essays, playing Quidditch like children. He knew he would have to keep looking. There was no way that someone could have planned an assault like this alone. They would need co-conspirators, and Severus need stumble on only one of them to bring the whole edifice crashing down.

The only people he could exempt absolutely from suspicion were his Slytherins—none of them would have dared—and Longbottom. Longbottom was so terrified of Severus he sometimes forgot to breathe in his presence. Pathetic for the supposed savior of the world, but since it meant less Legilimency work for Severus this time, he was prepared to forgive it.

But every sixth-year and seventh-year mind was free from incriminating information, and so were the fifth-years. Severus hesitated to work his way further down than the Ravenclaw fourth-years. Younger students might have participated, but only as the tools of older ones. They would not have known the details of the plan or been able to perform the complicated spells necessary.

Then he reminded himself again of the value of learning about co-conspirators. And it wasn’t as though he would be unable to punish someone who had helped the real culprit, simply because they might not have done all of it.

So he went lower and lower, and even stooped to scraping his mind through third-year thoughts and second-year anxieties about the Chamber of Secrets. Nothing came to mind. Snogging, homework, childish games, petty rivalries and insults and jealousies. Sometimes Severus thought it was no wonder he despised most of his students, when these were their thoughts.

The only exception was Potter, and he only thought about his parents, day in, day out. Severus could not stand to hear such worship of James Potter, and even Lily.

Everything that had made Lily the person Severus had known and loved was gone. It would never come back. Severus could not stand to stare at images of her that Potter had made up or accumulated only on visits to St. Mungo’s. He pulled himself roughly out of Potter’s mind each time.

Still there was no trace of the person who had destroyed his work, and still Severus stalked in search of them.

*

“Isn’t this better now that you have some friends to share it with?”

Harry gave Terry a small smile and turned his gaze to the Quidditch players darting around the pitch in front of them. He wanted to say that he wouldn’t have been here at all normally, but yes, it was better to watch the game in company. At least it was entertaining to see Corner come out of his shell and leap up and down cursing the players who made mistakes.

Harry watched the Huffelpuff Beaters chasing down the Slytherin Seeker. The Seeker was Malfoy, who had apparently bought his way onto the team. Harry watched him critically, but Malfoy never looked in his direction.

Terry had told him that the Seeker was the most important player on the team, and most people would give anything to be one. That meant Malfoy shouldn’t be paying attention to people on the ground. Harry could have tried a Memory Charm on him without being observed…

Except for the hundred other people huddled around him. Harry left his wand in its pocket, and simply watched as Malfoy leaned out and caught the Snitch with a little motion of his hand. There were groans from around him, and Terry slumped back, shaking his head hard enough that Harry heard snapping noises from his neck.

“That’s torn it, then,” Terry muttered. “Slytherin as good as has the Quidditch Cup. For the eighth year in a row.” He looked out of the corner of his eye at Harry and raised his voice a little. “If we had a decent Seeker on the Ravenclaw team, then we might have a chance.”

Harry said nothing. For one thing, he still had no intention of spending all his time flying around on brooms after a bunch of stupid balls. For another, he had no idea why Terry thought Harry would be a good Seeker instead of Chaser or something else, and no intention of asking.

“We have a more than decent team now,” said Iverson, seated in the row behind them, leaning down. As a sixth-year, he was still as chatty as ever. “It’s just that Hardin doesn’t want to put anyone out, so he doesn’t hold practices as often as he should. And Mallory is getting ready to start studying for NEWTS, so he’s said he won’t fly next year. And Chang looks promising, but I don’t know that she’ll be able to overcome that way she flinches when people are staring at her…”

Harry felt a wave of intense sympathy for Chang. He would have hated everyone staring at him, yes.

He caught a glimpse of a pale face from the corner of his eye. Longbottom was sitting near the front of the Gryffindor stands, surrounded by protective Weasleys. No paralyzed people had turned up lately, but that didn’t keep a lot of students from thinking Longbottom was the Heir of Slytherin anyway.

Harry wanted to shake his head. Longbottom was probably afraid of tree branches tapping on his window at night. The last thing he would have done was enter a Chamber and wake up a terrifying monster.

And if he was a great actor and just hiding it all, the way that even Terry was prone to insisting sometimes, wasn’t it convenient that his disguise collapsed when he began enacting this powerful, evil plan? And that none of the professors, who seemed to know everything else that went on in the school, had seen him actually speaking to the creature in the Chamber?

The creature. It’s a serpent, of course. That was the most reasonable guess, with Slytherin’s gift being Parseltongue.

Harry would have tried to tell people if he thought that anyone was interested in hearing him. As it was, his voice would probably do Longbottom more harm than good. Goldstein and Corner were still hesitant to accept Harry as a real friend, and Terry was his only link to the rest of Ravenclaw now. No one else—bar Snape and Professor McGonagall—seemed to know who Harry was.

Which is a very useful disguise, Harry had to admit as he stood up to leave the stands with his chattering acquaintances. Just not one that lets me defend other people.

Still, Harry could do something. He hung back a little—easy to do, with Terry sprinting ahead to commiserate with the Hufflepuff team and Corner and Goldstein intensely discussing the game—and waited until the Gryffindors passed. For a second, Longbottom was looking right at him.

Harry smiled as sympathetically as he could and mouthed, I believe you.

He didn’t think Longbottom was going to react. Maybe he hadn’t seen, and Harry was an idiot for even putting himself that much out there for someone.

Then Longbottom’s head went up, and his step took on a sort of spring. He didn’t strut past Harry, but he walked a little more confidently.

There. I don’t really have friends, but that cost me nothing. And someone else who likes animals should have more support.

*

“Stay after class, please, Mr. Potter.”

Minerva hated what she had to do. But she had made more mistakes in the past than she cared to reflect on.

She was determined that the way she handled Harry Potter would not be one of them.

Harry turned and waited for her without showing any sign of apprehension. Then again, he never did, Minerva thought, sighing a little as she cast the charms on the door that she more often used when she conducted Longbottom’s lessons.

From the way Harry stiffened a little, he might recognize the spells. But he never took his eyes from her or turned around.

He has that level of trust in me, at least. With a relief as heavy as tar, Minerva laid aside her wand. “What progress have you made with object-to-object Transfigurations, Mr. Potter?”

“I still can’t do them well, Professor.”

Harry spoke as though that didn’t bother him, and his eyes were steady and unwavering. Minerva slowly shook her head. “What is lacking when you Transfigure something, Mr. Potter?”

“The Wild. I need the Wild, or I can’t do it.”

Minerva raised her eyebrows. “Mr. Potter, you must remember that the Wild is the—the most imaginative component of Transfiguration, but it is not the only important one. Because it changes so much from practitioner to practitioner and is so difficult to sense, it cannot be the basis for your art. You might as well insist that everyone should be able to picture the same kind of animal when they Transfigure a cat from a cushion.”

“But I’m not insisting on that, Professor.”

Minerva looked at him sharply, a little hopefully. That was the closest to cheek she had ever heard from Harry, other than when she had first met him and he didn’t know how to act around a Hogwarts professor. It was—well, she would like it, at this point. It would mean his distant mask, that he still maintained despite her trying to show him he could trust her with anything, had started to crack.

Harry smiled at her. His smile was warmer than it had been. Minerva remembered that she had almost had to reprimand him and his friend Boot the other day, that they had been talking past the time she cleared her throat. Harry normally never did things like that.

Then she looked into his eyes, and felt her hope wither on the vine.

Harry’s eyes were still a doll’s eyes, distant and flat and blank.

Minerva looked away and said softly, “I assumed you had a passion for Transfiguration, Mr. Potter, and would wish to master all its aspects, not only changing objects into animals or animals into other animals.”

“I do wish to do that, Professor.”

“Then why insist that Wild is important for every Transfiguration you make?” Minerva found herself pleading a little with the boy, as she hadn’t pleaded with even the most talented student for a long time. “Mr. Potter, you know that is not the case.”

She paused for breath. Harry sat there and watched it, and Minerva had the strange sensation that she was fighting for far more, arguing for far more, than Harry simply spending more time and attention on a class he claimed to love.

“You must master all aspects of magic,” she said. “For Transfiguration, at least. And I know that you could do better in your other classes than you have. I know—Madam Hooch told me how well you flew, the day you had flying lessons.”

There! The first crack in the façade. Harry had stiffened and was staring at her warily. Minerva pressed on.

“Transfiguration is beautiful, and wonderful, and the most impressive of the Arts,” Minerva said. “I think so. But you need to have other interests in your life, too, Harry. You are one of the most advanced students in Transfiguration I’ve ever seen, but your Head of House tells me you are only average in Charms. I know you could do more than that, if nothing else for your mastery of Wand and Word. Why not try? I know Professor Flitwick would be more than willing to spend time with you practicing your Charms, as he is with any student who shows interest outside of class.”

Harry only stood there looking at her, and Minerva waited. She had made the most passionate plea she could. Harry would have to come meet her at least halfway.

“I thought you wanted me to be good at Transfiguration, Professor,” Harry finally said.

“I do.” Minerva longed to reach out and place a hand on his shoulder, and with some other students she might have tried it. But not with Harry Potter. Lily, James, how I wish you could have been here to raise your son and give him the childhood he needed. “But I wish you to have a life outside this one class, Mr. Potter. I’m—I’m not sure you do.” She smiled, hoping to soften the pressure she might be putting on Harry. “Forgive an old professor’s concern, but I want to be sure that one of my favorite students is thriving, not only studying.”

*

Harry blinked once. Then he reached down and put his hand on Amicus’s head, stroking him through the cloth of his robes.

Professor McGonagall doesn’t think I have a life. Well. She would be right about that, the way most people think of it.

But Harry didn’t think of things the way most people thought of them. That was all right. Most people had parents, and no one else would suffer that much no matter what they did.

There were two people who stood to lose a lot if Harry let himself get distracted, though.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be great at Transfiguring one object into another,” Harry decided to tell the professor. It was the only fact he knew which might comfort her. “I need the Wild to do that, and I can’t feel the Wild.”

Professor McGonagall nodded once. “Do you think you can improve your performance in your other classes?”

“Not in Defense while Lockhart is teaching, Professor.”

Professor McGonagall sighed faintly. “Yes, I see the problem there. But in Charms? In Potions?”

“Not in Potions while Professor Snape is teaching, either.” Harry met her eyes and hoped that he didn’t sound too unpleasant when he spoke. There was the faint chance someone might decide that he was good enough at Transfiguration and hated Professor Snape enough to be the one who had taken revenge on him. “I’ll talk to Professor Flitwick about extra time for Charms, though. It would be good to be good at that.”

Professor McGonagall didn’t ask him what for, luckily. She simply considered him, opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something else, and then closed it with a faint sigh. “It’s a beginning,” she said. “Remember that even a Ravenclaw must do something other than schoolwork some of the time.”

“Yes, Professor,” said Harry, although that didn’t make much sense to him. Why would a professor care whether a student was spending all their time on schoolwork?

He remained there, waiting, until Professor McGonagall said, “Yes, you may go. My apologies for having kept you for so long.”

“That’s all right, Professor,” Harry said, and opened the door. Terry was waiting for him. He nodded impatiently to Harry and took off down the corridor. Harry followed more slowly.

He was working on a new theory for why his object-to-object Transfigurations were going so wrong. And while he would need a little more testing to prove it true, he was almost certain he was right.

“Come on, Harry! We have a study session with Padma in the library! She said that she’s actually figured out an easy way to memorize the information from Lockhart’s books…”

Harry grimaced, but nodded. He wanted to go if that easy way existed. Lockhart was a disgrace to teaching, and Harry didn’t want to waste his time actually reading the git’s books.

But tonight, no later, he would have to slip away to the dungeon classroom and work on his own spells.

*

Commuto abundantiam felim!

The words vibrated in Harry’s mouth and the magic trembled out of his wand. And this time, he could sense the Wild, sweeping around him and down to the miscellaneous pile of rags and stones Harry had collected in the corner of the dungeon classroom.

Harry slumped a little against the wall, sighing as he watched the collection begin to turn into a kitten. A kitten with black fur and green eyes, just like the one Uncle Vernon had killed.

This time, it had been easy. And Harry knew the reason why.

It was almost the last day of school in his second year, almost the time he would have to return to the Dursleys. Desperation was driving him now. There were some things a cat would be more useful for than a mouse or rat, and he suspected that those were the only things that would keep him safe over the summer. Uncle Vernon would have had ten months to decide he wasn’t really afraid of Harry. The kitten would play a part in a new plan.

Harry had to survive if he was going to heal his parents. He would willingly put his life in danger for them; in fact, he would probably have to, with some of the riskier areas of his research. But he wouldn’t do them any good if he died along the way because Uncle Vernon got enraged and finally hit him, or if Dudley and his gang pounded him too hard.

That’s the difference, Harry thought, as he saw the kitten open eyes that looked like his own. I have to care about it. It has to be for my parents.

Harry couldn’t do something just to please his professors, or because someone else had asked him to, or for revenge and nothing else. He had done the Transfiguration of the mice who’d got into Snape’s potions for revenge, but even the last one of those he’d tried to do, a week ago, had been unsuccessful. On the other hand, he had a rat and mice who could help him keep going until he could heal his parents.

And now he had a cat who could help him do the same thing.

Harry had imagined a white patch, sort of like a lopsided T, on the kitten’s chest. He saw it now and smiled as the kitten scampered up to him, crook-backed, and batted at his fingers. When Harry picked him up, he purred.

Amicus stuck his head out of Harry’s pocket and looked in profound distress at the new arrival. The kitten didn’t even look at the rat.

“He’s not interested in chasing you down,” Harry murmured. “He’s not interested in anything except fish and insects.”

Amicus gave a loud sniff that perfectly expressed his opinion of that and climbed out of Harry’s pocket to do some grooming. Harry sat down with the kitten on his chest, and pondered.

He hadn’t been able to hold to his original plan of doing average work in his classes, at least not in Transfiguration. But now he thought he’d just gradually and slowly fall behind in a natural way. He’d looked at the third-year books, and while they had a lot of theory on Transfiguring animals, almost all the practical work concentrated on objects. Until Harry found an object he could create that would help his parents, he would continue not to do well at those, because he simply didn’t care enough.

Professor McGonagall would have to accept that she’d been mistaken, that Harry wasn’t a prodigy or a genius. He could do things that looked remarkable for a first-year, but the older he got, the less smart he’d look.

That suited Harry fine. He liked Professor McGonagall; she was still the one who had done the most for him and the one who’d taken him to visit his parents. But she was busy, and the Head of a different House besides, and she couldn’t take his mum’s place. And she wouldn’t approve of the experiments Harry had started reading about in a book he’d got from the Restricted Section.

Harry snorted. All he’d had to do to get into the Restricted Section was ask for a pass from a professor. He supposed he couldn’t say Lockhart had been useless, after all.

Harry knew he was a long way from being able to complete those experiments, yet, or even start them. “Look how long it took me to make a kitten,” he said aloud.

Said kitten hooked his claws in Harry’s shirt and tried to bite him on the chin. Harry held his head down and chuckled.

“But at least they caught the damn giant snake and no one died, so the school will be open next year,” he said, and jumped up. “And I can read a lot of Muggle books about brains this summer, so I can start practicing on myself when I can use my wand again.”

He put the kitten on the floor. Amicus promptly skipped up his arm. Harry stretched and began the personal Transfigurations he would need before he went back to the Dursleys. Claws on both hands this time, retractable so they wouldn’t bother him during these last days at Hogwarts; the stone-hard skin on his chest, legs, and arms to resist Dudley’s punches, which he’d finally perfected; and, after a long hesitation, the powerful muscles he’d decided he could add to his legs. It would mean a few days of walking hunched or not much at all, but that was okay. Exams were over, and the Ravenclaws were used to Harry spending a lot of time sitting in one place, studying.

With that done, Harry bent over and looked at the kitten. He purred attentively.

“I think,” said Harry, fingering the white fur on his chest, “that I have a good name for you. You can be Cross.”

The kitten jumped to his left shoulder, opposite Amicus, who tensed unhappily but at least stayed still. Harry spent a moment rubbing the kitten’s head.

“What do you say, Cross?” he whispered. “Shall we go bother some Dursleys?”

The kitten purred loud enough to make Harry’s ear hurt this time. He was smiling as he opened the door of the workroom and stepped out into the corridor.

Chapter Text

“It’s going to be different around here this summer, boy. If you think for one minute that I’m going to let you—”

“I never thought you’d just let me, no,” Harry said, as he stepped through the front door of the Dursleys’ house with Cross on his shoulder. “That’s why I just have the plan to take what I want. Ultimately more painless for everyone, even if you don’t believe me.” He gave Vernon a sharp smile.

But Vernon’s eyes were fastened on the kitten. Harry had been a little worried he wouldn’t remember the one he’d killed, which would mean Harry had wasted some time making Cross look the way he did. From the color Vernon’s face was turning, though, he remembered exactly.

“Get that thing out of here,” Vernon said, his voice so weak Cross could meow louder than it.

“No,” said Harry. He stroked Cross’s side, and Cross stood up and meowed the way Harry had been just thinking of. “I’m going to step back, and Cross is going to jump at you, I think. His claws are pretty sharp. I think maybe he could take out an eye with just one scratch. I know he could rip open a nostril—”

There was a complicated movement from off to the side, and Amicus jumped up on Harry’s other shoulder, already in position to strike if he had to. Dudley didn’t try to punch Harry, though. He got in between Vernon and Harry.

“Don’t h-hurt my d-dad.”

Dudley was blubbering, and his eyes were almost shut, and he made stupid little jabs with his fists in the air that wouldn’t have hurt Harry even if they were coming anywhere near him. But Harry had to pause and look at him with some respect anyway. He’d never thought Dudley capable of doing anything like this. It was as if Draco Malfoy had suddenly acquired some bravery.

“I won’t if he leaves me alone,” said Harry. Dudley probably thought he would attack instead of talking, because he didn’t stop jabbing for a second. Then he dropped his hands and stared at Harry. “That means,” Harry said softly, and met Vernon’s eyes over Dudley’s shoulder, “that he stays out of my way. He doesn’t threaten me. He doesn’t starve me. He doesn’t assign me chores.”

Vernon tried to bluster one last time. “If you think you’re going to laze around instead of earning your keep, boy, you need to think again!”

Cross crouched on Harry’s shoulder and wriggled his little butt the way he would if he was jumping on a mouse. Harry nodded and smiled, and then Cross almost sailed off his shoulder towards Vernon.

Only almost, though. Harry had practiced this with Cross before they left Hogwarts, and Cross’s claws were caught in the shoulder of Harry’s jumper. Vernon had covered his face with his hands and was yelling with all his might.

“All right, all right, I’ll leave you alone!”

“Good,” said Harry softly. He eased Cross back into his first position and glanced at Dudley. “And maybe you ought to ask your dad why he’s so scared of a little black kitten with green eyes. It might be interesting to find out.”

Dudley just stood there, bewildered. Harry took his trunk and his wand and Amicus and Cross and the collection of mice in his pockets upstairs. He smiled as he went.

He thought this was going to be a very good summer.

*

It was.

Harry had his army of mice to bring him food, and Amicus and Cross to keep him company. And Cross lay on his stomach and purred, and Harry petted him, and felt for the first time as if the wound ripped open in him when Vernon had killed his kitten was being soothed.

The Dursleys left him alone, and didn’t even look at him, other than Dudley, who kept giving Harry confused glances when he thought Harry wasn’t looking. Whenever Harry looked back, gently and steadily, Dudley would turn pale and waddle away.

Harry couldn’t practice his magic with a wand, but he could practice his Latin, and his wand movements with a stick, and his theory. He read more and more about the Wild, and he read Muggle books about the brain.

He ran into a problem when he did that, though. Most of the Muggle books agreed that drastic personality changes could happen when you damaged your brain, but they didn’t know how to change them back. There were studies and experiments and therapy, but not enough healing.

Harry thought about that as he lay in his bedroom on hot summer days with the window wide open—the bars were gone—and no locks on the door and watched Cross sleeping in the sunlight.

I don’t want my parents not to be themselves. I don’t want them to be shadows I made up, or slaves.

Harry read, and read. The application of charms for healing the brain had been tried, and had failed. Most Mind-Healers concentrated on people who had Memory Charms on them they wanted to break, traumatic memories they wanted to deal with, or people with some specific disease, like the aftermath of the Imperius Curse. They shrugged and left the mad patients alone in the Janus Thickey Ward.

Harry tapped his feet on the bed, and watched the shadows pass across it, and read more about Transfiguration.

If anyone had ever tried Transfiguration for healing the brain, Harry couldn’t find a mention of it. Most wizards didn’t seem to assume that the minds of mad people had suffered a physical wound. It was all mental and spiritual and magical.

There was physical Healing magic, but that was only for regular Healers, not Mind-Healers. Harry couldn’t find anything in his books, or the ones he ordered by owl—his uncle staring at him, but not daring to protest—that indicated the disciplines had ever been combined.

So the problem with what I want to do, Harry decided as he lay there stroking Amicus while Cross went out hunting grasshoppers and the like, is that no one’s ever done it before and most of the research I would need doesn’t exist.

As the days turned on and he read more, Harry knew he had to decide whether the risk was going to be enough to deter him.

And his mind turned more and more to the experiments detailed in the book from the Restricted Section. The experiments that Professor McGonagall would be horrified if she knew about. Although Harry knew that without really knowing why. Professor McGonagall turned things into animals and then back all the time. If you created a living being from an object, did you have to treat it kindly? Did Transfiguring it back into a desk or rags or whatever count as treating it kindly?

Sure, Harry treated Cross and Amicus and most of his mice kindly. But he’d also created the mice that had drowned themselves in Snape’s potions.

In the last days of the summer, Harry made his decision. He would take the risk. If he went wrong and caused permanent damage to himself, well, that was just too bad. What else did he have in the world, except his parents? Who would love him, except his parents?

Why else do I exist, except for them?

*

“Harry…Potter.”

Harry blinked. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor was strange, he thought. He’d reportedly paused on Neville Longbottom’s name, which was usual for everybody, but he also stopped and stared at Harry when he said his name, and that was unusual.

Terry frowned at Harry. Harry lifted a shoulder. He supposed everybody was entitled to be strange in one way, and Professor Lupin was reportedly nice and taught important lessons. Harry thought he might make more of an effort at Defense this year.

When Professor Lupin showed them the boggart, he had Michael go first. Harry winced as he watched Michael walk to the front of the line. He was so timid; the boggart might easily disorient him. Supposedly Longbottom had been able to manage his just fine, and he was timid too, but then, Longbottom had received specialized training.

The door of the wardrobe flew open, and a writhing shape flew out. Harry squinted. For an instant, it seemed that the boggart couldn’t decide what form it wanted to change into. Harry watched in interest. It looked a bit like the cat that he’d made before Cross. Perhaps boggarts might be fun to Transfigure.

Then the shape finally formed itself into Michael’s rat, lying on the floor, dead. Michael gave a great gasping cry and backed away from it.

Lupin bent down next to Michael and whispered something; Harry could only make out the word of the incantation he’d already showed them. Michael aimed his wand and stuttered. The rat shape didn’t change.

The second time, with Lupin leaning on his wand arm and guiding him, Michael said, “Riddikulus!” correctly.

The dead rat turned into a circus of rats playing ball, walking tightropes, and running around wheels. Michael smiled, and Professor Lupin smiled back at him and motioned him out of the wall. Padma, who was next in line, started to step forwards.

But Professor Lupin said, “I think we need Mr. Potter up here.”

Harry blinked again, and ignored Terry’s glance. He didn’t have any information to share with him. Maybe Lupin had heard that Harry hadn’t done well in the class last year and wanted to test him now.

Harry had to admit he was curious to see what his boggart would be, too. He suspected, but he wasn’t sure, and it was useful knowledge to have about himself.

The boggart danced in front of him when he approached it, and Harry stopped and let it have some room to recover itself. The circus of rats still writhed and lashed their tails for a second until they faded, and then what appeared—

Harry stepped back before he could stop himself. His parents stood in front of him, and they didn’t look the way they did in St. Mungo’s. They looked the way they did in his dreams, whole and healthy and healed.

Except they were sneering at him.

“I didn’t know my sister had that much sense,” said Mum, shaking her head so her lovely red hair fell down and touched her shoulders. “She said you were a freak, and she was right.” Her voice cut Harry like a diamond. She sniffed and glanced at Dad. “Wouldn’t you have thought Petunia would be wrong, dear?”

Dad nodded, and Harry found it harder to meet his eyes because he was looking through glasses that resembled Harry’s almost exactly. “About our son? Of course. But he really is a freak. That magic he’s using, the fact that he doesn’t have any real friends…”

Mum said something else, but Harry couldn’t hear it. He heard his breathing instead, through a heated rushing in his lungs that hurt. He reached out with one hand, not sure what he was reaching for, only knowing that Amicus and Cross couldn’t save him from this.

Professor Lupin’s voice suddenly appeared in his ear. He sounded shaken himself, but maybe that was only because boggarts weren’t supposed to talk. “Remember the incantation, Harry! This isn’t real. The boggart preys on your fear. It can be understood and defeated. Think of something funny about this and say ‘Riddikulus.’ I know you can.”

Harry opened his eyes. It was hard to think of anything funny about this. This had been something he secretly worried about all the time when he was a child, even when he thought his parents were dead. If he ever met them, they would just agree with the Dursleys and laugh at him.

But, he remembered, his real parents were lying in St. Mungo’s, and they were relying on Harry to save them. They wouldn’t approve at all if he was defeated by such a shallow, pathetic image when he needed to be strong.

Harry aimed his wand. He found an image at the back of his mind, one he had imagined when he was far younger, and snapped, “Riddikulus!

Colored smoke flew all around the boggarts. When it cleared away, Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were standing there in awkward wizard robes, with masks of his mum’s and dad’s faces dangling from around their necks. They backed up as Harry glared triumphantly at them, and then huddled on the floor away from him.

Professor Lupin cleared his throat. Harry turned to him. He thought the professor looked a little pale, but he gave Harry an encouraging smile anyway. “Very good, Harry. Five points to—Ravenclaw. Now, if you’ll move out of the way and let Mr. Boot have a turn?”

Harry did, and watched Terry walk forwards while calming down his breathing. Terry’s boggart turned out to be an ordinary giant worm with sharp teeth, and while Terry screamed and turned it into a small worm squashed by a giant boot, Harry could calm the ringing in his ears and convince himself he wasn’t going to faint.

And notice Professor Lupin’s faint, curious looks that kept coming back to him whenever someone wasn’t actually defeating a boggart.

*

Minerva knocked briskly on Remus’s door. When she had found out who Albus’s choice of Defense Against the Dark Arts professor to tutor Longbottom was that year, she had been first shocked and then pleased. It would be easier for Remus to run away from her in letters than it would be face-to-face.

Remus opened his door. He looked haggard and pale, but he’d just had time to settle into the demanding routine of the school year. Minerva was sure that she’d looked far worse her first year here. “Yes, Minerva?” he asked, and smiled.

“I wanted to talk with you about Harry.” Minerva smiled and stood there immovably. Unless Remus was actually sick, then she would wait until he invited her in.

Remus stiffened, in a way that Minerva couldn’t mistake. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Well—won’t you come in?”

“Thank you,” said Minerva, and eased in, looking around. These had last been Quirrell’s rooms, and Minerva couldn’t imagine that Remus would have left up either the garlic or any signs of the man’s secret allegiance to You-Know-Who.

Nor had he. Remus had Transfigured most of the walls into bookshelves, and made a few alcoves that held cages of Dark creatures. He also had a shelf that seemed to be full of varieties of teas and nothing else. Minerva smelled cinnamon as she watched him fiddle with a kettle.

“Your first lesson was inspiring,” Minerva told him as she leaned against the huge chair in the middle of the floor. Remus kept his back to her, hands moving in a finicky way over the tea. “My Gryffindors could hardly stop talking about it, even in Transfiguration.”

Remus turned to her and smiled, the first sincere smile Minerva thought she had seen from him in years. “Thank you.”

“And how did your first session with Mr. Longbottom go?” Minerva knew Albus had invited Remus to tutor Longbottom at least partially because of his expertise with Dark creatures and the fear that You-Know-Who might use vampires or werewolves in his assaults. But she hadn’t heard a whisper about how well Remus had actually managed to teach the boy.

“I can’t believe he’s Frank’s son.”

Minerva smiled a little. “Yes, Neville is his own person. But that doesn’t mean he’s hopeless.”

“His lack of confidence is going to cost him more than anything else.” Remus turned to her with a frown and a full teacup. Minerva accepted it, as well as the chair he motioned her to in the next second. “I don’t understand how he can have gone through all that special training and still be most afraid of Severus. If he doesn’t fear You-Know-Who most of all or failing the wizarding world, do we have a hope?”

“Because Severus is a danger he sees on a daily basis, while the most impact You-Know-Who has yet had on his world is taking away his parents.” Minerva sipped a bit of her tea and smiled. Remus did know how to brew it.

And she had the perfect segue to Harry. “I am glad that Neville was able to grow up with his grandmother, at least,” Minerva added, crossing her legs. “Although I don’t think she did much for his self-confidence, either. But another boy grew up with relatives who treat him badly.”

Remus looked at her and then away. “You mean Harry.”

“Yes.”

Remus shuddered. “His boggart was horrible. James and Lily calling him a freak and saying his aunt was right about him.”

Of course it would be. Minerva closed her eyes and struggled to speak around the stone in her breast. “Then you see how that indicates he should be taken away from his relatives. Muggles who call a wizarding child a freak merely for having magic shouldn’t be trusted with a wizarding child.”

“Albus told me there was no other alternative. And the Wizengamot looked very thoroughly into James’s relatives. I do remember that.”

“There was an alternative.”

Remus cracked the cup with the force of his squeeze. He started, and Minerva cast the charm that dried the spilled tea, and then Reparo on the cup. If she let Remus get up and start cleaning, he was likely to evade the issue she was trying to bring home to him altogether.

“So,” said Minerva, when she had waited a few minutes for Remus to say something and to refill his cup. He had done the second thing, but not the first, and he sat with his head turned away from her, as if she had asked him to do something shameful. “I think I know now why you didn’t want to care for Harry.”

“I wanted it,” Remus whispered dully. “I wanted it with every fiber of my being. But it would have meant—it would have meant admitting that I was a werewolf in public.” He turned around. “That’s already something I can’t do if I want to keep this job.”

It was Minerva’s turn to start. “I assumed that the Board of Governors must know.”

“No. Albus presented them with my school records, which never showed it, and the records from the education I had in Defense in France, which never mentioned it, either, because no one there knew.”

Minerva closed her eyes. She hated to push against this old student, one of the few people who still remembered Lily and James as they should have been, and Sirius Black laughing with the wind in his hair. But she had no choice. “If you adopted Harry, you would have enough support from his Potter vaults to raise him. You wouldn’t have to keep a job among prejudiced people who would sack you for something like that.”

“I prefer working and living on my own. And—” Remus’s voice turned ragged. “I don’t think I would be so good for Harry.”

“If his own relatives called him those names—”

“Minerva.” Remus waited until she was looking at him, which took longer than Minerva would have liked. She’d had to conquer the traitorous tears that stung her lashes. “The Harry I saw today in class is like no one I thought he could become. I would never have known he was the child of James and Lily if it wasn’t for his looks.”

Minerva took a long moment to speak. She had to be sure the words were right. “Blaming an abused child for what he’s become to survive is something I thought beneath you, Remus.”

Remus shook his head. “There’s something cold in him, Minerva. I’ve already heard the ranting from Severus about how Harry doesn’t try in any class except Transfiguration. I assumed you must have noticed.”

“He is very lonely. He cares more for theory than almost anything else. And about his parents most of all.”

“That’s not it. There’s still something—the way he walked forwards to the boggart, he didn’t look frightened or tense or even curious. He was so detached. And he didn’t respond to me as a person, either. The others did, all peering at me and muttering about whether I would be better or worse than Lockhart. Not Harry.”

“He’s very self-possessed,” Minerva began.

Remus interrupted her again. “All right, I didn’t want to bring this up, but—Minerva, he smells wrong.”

Minerva sat up at once. “As though he has some illness? As though someone has been hurting him?” Remus had once brought her a story of smelling blood on another student in his year who had turned out to be abused, although at the time Minerva hadn’t known he was a werewolf and Remus had claimed that he’d accidentally ingested a potion that sharpened his senses.

“No,” said Remus. “Parts of him don’t smell human. And he stinks like someone who’s been around the Dark Arts, but not the same. As if he was using poisoned Potions ingredients.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Minerva. I can’t explain it better than that.”

“So you won’t try to take him from the Dursleys,” said Minerva heavily. In the end, that mattered more than the smells, although Minerva would be talking to Harry about those.

“No.” Remus sipped at his tea again. He sounded composed, and terribly sad. “I would have given anything when he was a child. But now—I don’t think I would be good for him, Minerva. I’m not strong enough to raise a child who’s been dabbling in the Dark Arts without prejudice. I go Dark myself once a month, and I’m afraid of what would happen if I lost control around Harry. I don’t even know if I’ll have a regular supply of Wolfsbane over the summers. Severus refused to brew it until I actually set foot in the school. I didn’t have it during July or August.”

“Severus Snape,” said Minerva precisely, “is a partial, prejudiced, ignorant man.”

Remus’s tired smile still had the potential to transform his face. “He is. But—Minerva, I know you think I’m a coward, and I’m sorry. But I don’t like the smells around Harry, and I’m prone to reacting the wrong way to people who smell wrong. Sometimes it’s justified, the way it was when I smelled Darkness on a wizard who later tried to murder people in the village I was staying in. But it wouldn’t be with Harry. But I might still do something that would make him worse off than he is now.”

“You don’t trust yourself,” Minerva finished.

“Yes,” said Remus, and drained his cup.

*

Harry closed his eyes and curved up and up and up on his broom, up into the region of the air where his nostrils stung and his eyes ached. Then he turned and fell back into the trees, into the embrace of the Forbidden Forest.

The book from the Restricted Section had made it clear that he would need certain stones for his experiments. Not just the collection of pebbles he’d used to make Cross and his other cat. They would have to be bigger than pebbles, for one thing, and they needed to have veins of quartz or other highly reflective material. Maybe flakes of mica.

Harry had searched diligently around the school, and found nothing. It was time to take his search further afield, into the wildest place he knew.

He landed in the center of a small clearing with rocks scattered all around, and distributed mice from his pockets. They arranged themselves at the edges of the clearing, ready to squeak a warning if they sensed anything dangerous. Then Harry busied himself looking for the right stones.

He was examining a grey rock the size of his fist with glittering specks in it when a hoofbeat sounded and a mouse squeaked from the left side of the clearing at the same time.

Harry turned, crouched slightly with his wand in hand. His claws were ready to shoot out if he needed them. Harry kept his hands Transfigured at all times now, since he had figured out the best way to create claws that wouldn’t get in the way of his ordinary activities. It was just easier that way, in case a sudden confrontation happened.

The centaur that paused in front of his mouse stood with one hoof upraised, nocked bow and arrow trained on him. Harry waited. He had got used to walking with the extra muscles in his legs by now, and since he’d so cowed the Dursleys, he hadn’t actually needed to use them during the summer. He might now.

“What are you doing in a place marked by the stars?” the centaur asked. He had a chestnut coat and a long tail that swayed slowly back and forth. Harry had no idea what that meant.

He didn’t know what the centaur’s words meant, either. He shook his head. “Looking for objects to Transfigure.”

The centaur waited again, this time as if he was consulting with someone in the back of his head. Then he said, “That is not an acceptable answer.” His raised hoof quivered and came down on the ground.

Later, Harry realized he was probably only going to come closer, not shoot. But he was paranoid enough not to care, and his enormous leap, using the muscles that graced his legs and gave them some of a kangaroo’s power, brought him soaring out of the path of the arrow.

He landed on the other side of the clearing and whirled around. The centaur had stopped. The arrow remained pointing at the place Harry had been before. Nor did the centaur move it as the mice flowed over to Harry in a small tidal wave.

“What are you?” the centaur asked in a musing tone. “Not part goblin. You would not stand so tall. You would be marked by the dust if you were part fairy. None of the other heritages I know fit in, either.”

“I’m partially Transfigured.”

The centaur lowered the bow finally. “It is not many humans who expect to adopt parts of an animal heritage when they become masters of Transfiguration,” he said.

“I suppose I’m an unusual human.” Harry didn’t mind that. It was hardly the worst thing he had been called.

The centaur considered him some more. Then he said, “I am Corwin. I am guardian of this part of the forest, and I have been watching the stars for nearly a century. They did not predict that one such as you would come.”

Harry shrugged, not caring about that. He had chosen to take Care of Magical Creatures for the obvious reasons, and Ancient Runes because he thought it might let him understand more about designing the spells he would eventually need to. He knew nothing about Divination, and his Astronomy classes hadn’t talked about the way you could use stars to predict anything.

“You smell strange,” said Corwin, and pawed the ground with the hoof he’d raised before. “What are you doing?”

Harry thought about it a second. There was still that bow, and he thought Corwin could probably gallop more quickly through the forest than Harry could leap. He also hadn’t even known there were centaurs living in the Forbidden Forest as more than a rumor. If anyone would keep Harry’s secret to themselves, it was them.

“I’m looking for ways to practice Transfiguration on human brains so I can heal my parents. They have brain damage from the Cruciatus.”

Corwin stared at him. Harry looked back, and he was a little amused. It was the first time he had ever said it aloud to anyone besides Amicus and Cross, and neither of them was with him now, because neither of them liked flying.

“Do you know,” said Corwin, and then let the words drift on the breeze. After a moment, he said, “You do know. You know how dangerous it is. I can see that in your eyes.”

“Yes.”

“You will do it anyway.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because what matters are my parents, and restoring them to health. Not me.”

Corwin took a step back. Harry thought he might trot into the forest, and welcomed that. This was a little amusing, but he needed to get on with finding the stones he needed. He had a study session with Terry at three, and Terry was one of those annoying people who would always notice when Harry was late, although he would make all the excuses in the world if he was late.

“You should reconsider,” said Corwin, his voice a distant, deep boom, like muffled thunder. “Whether you wish to pursue such a dangerous course.”

Harry shook his head. “I’ve already thought of every argument someone might bring up against it. There’s nothing I want except this.”

Corwin studied him some more. At least he hadn’t aimed the bow again. But Harry wondered what in the world could interest a centaur in him. Was it just that he hadn’t seen someone who wanted to Transfigure his parents’ brains before?

“You walk in the light of the blood-red dancer,” said Corwin. “But your rage is directed against fate, and life.” He shifted his weight so that his back was facing the forest he’d come out of. “It would be well for you if you had more concrete enemies.”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “Is the blood-red dancer Mars?” Professor Sinistra had said something last year about how planets were sometimes called dancers.

“Yes. Find another enemy.” Corwin sounded as grave as Harry thought Professor McGonagall would, if she ever found out about this. “Someone you can defeat. You need the defeat before you can advance.”

And that sounded like the sort of typical riddles that Harry knew were associated with centaurs. He smiled, said, “Thanks for the advice,” and crouched down to study the stone flecked with mica again.

“I know what you do, Harry Potter. And it will corrupt your soul.”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t think there’s much of my soul left to corrupt, Corwin. But thank you for the concern.”

The centaur didn’t speak again. By the time Harry chose three suitable stones and stood up, he was gone. Harry almost left without looking where he’d stood, either. But a gleam of light caught on something that didn’t look simply like a hoofprint, and Harry strolled over to see it.

It was a hoofprint, after all, the first of a series of them that made an abstract design on the ground. Harry studied it. It took him a few seconds, because of the angle and the odd material it was made of and the poor light, but eventually he recognized one of the elementary runes he’d started learning a month ago.

Wynn. It meant “joy.”

Harry blinked. Then he shrugged again. Maybe Corwin was trying to protect himself from whatever Darkness he thought lay on Harry’s path by writing the rune. Or maybe he thought that centaurs led joyful lives and Harry wouldn’t have one.

Whatever it was, Harry didn’t need to concern himself with it. He mounted his borrowed school broom, and did have one brief moment of heart-stopping joy, before he flew back to the Quidditch pitch and put the broom away in the supply shed.

Terry was watching the Ravenclaw team practice on the edge of the pitch; he ran up to Harry at once, beaming. “Did you change your mind about trying out for the team?” he demanded.

Harry shook his head and smiled at his friend. “No. I was busy looking for spell components.”

Terry rolled his eyes. “You’re the most exasperating person I know, Harry,” he said, but he sounded fond instead of upset the way he would have last year. “Come on.” And he dragged Harry into the school, and up to their study session, which easily enabled Harry to banish thoughts of centaurs and runes and even the experiments he wanted to do from the front of his mind.

*

He had gone through every mind in the school, including those of the first-years who had entered a month ago and were extremely unlikely to be involved in any misdeed to do with his potions, unless they were the younger brother or sister of a conspirator.

And still Severus did not know who his enemy was. Still no one had spoken up and claimed the credit to identify themselves.

That surprised Severus most of all. He had thought any Gryffindor, like the Weasley twins, who had come up with such a clever prank would be unable to resist bragging. A Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff might have been quieter, but they would still have whispered to friends, who would whisper to others. Little stayed secret in Hogwarts for long.

Severus did have a choice, though, one that would not have been open to him last year. He knew that Minerva had given the Granger chit a Time-Turner, of all the outrageous gifts. He could not borrow it himself to go back to the time of the attack, because Time-Turners would not operate over such a long span as ten months, but if he could use some of the sand from its hourglass, he could brew a Retrocognition Potion that would enable him to see who had done it.

And in return for borrowing the Time-Turner for the hour or so it would take him to collect sand without damaging it, he would agree to keep quiet about what Minerva had done.

*

Harry smiled as he watched the Slytherin common room door open. It had been easy enough to locate it, for all that the Slytherins believed they were so secretive. They still had to train and trust people like Crabbe and Goyle.

Malfoy came out, adjusted his heavy robes, and strutted towards the Great Hall. It was Halloween, and of course he decided he should wear dress robes to the feast, Harry thought as he trailed along behind him. Malfoy was ridiculous. At least his ridiculousness had worked in Harry’s favor this time, by making sure that he had lagged behind the rest of his Housemates.

Harry moved softly behind him. They got around a corner, and the stairs leading up to the entrance hall came into sight. Malfoy moved a little faster, with a disdainful glance and sniff at the shadows around him, as if he couldn’t imagine what would threaten the Great Draco Malfoy.

But he had still glanced around.

Harry stepped to the side and let one of his claws rasp on the wall, harshly enough to draw Malfoy’s attention. He turned around and went white. Harry wished suddenly that he’d thought about having Amicus sit on his shoulder. It would have made Malfoy’s expression the perfect terrified one.

He didn’t want to waste time, though, and so he didn’t call Amicus out of his pocket. He simply aimed his wand and murmured, “Obliviate.” His study of Memory Charms had advanced to the point where he could comfortably cast it, finally.

From the rumors floating around near the end of last year, Harry now thought he could have asked Lockhart for help. He hadn’t known then, though.

The Memory Charm struck Malfoy dead-on, and Malfoy swayed and stood there with blank eyes for a second. Harry put his wand away and approached. When he thought he was close enough, he stared at Malfoy and said, “You don’t remember anything about the location of my workroom or what you saw when I came out. You were in bed asleep that evening. And you slept late tonight, too.”

“I…slept late,” Malfoy murmured, swaying a little more. Harry nodded and patted him on the shoulder, keeping his claws retracted.

“You did,” Harry confirmed, and then he turned and slipped down the corridors towards his workroom, more than pleased with himself. In seconds, he was at the door of his workroom and stepping inside.

He put down the stones with flecks of mica and studied them for a second. Then he nodded and opened up the book from the Restricted Section. Cross was already asleep in a corner of the room, but he came awake and purred at Harry as he sauntered over. Harry petted his head absently as he studied the book.

He had the stones. He would need particular leaves, too, including ones from plants that probably didn’t grow in the Forbidden Forest. Harry bit the corner of his lip, thinking. He’d never paid much attention to Herbology, but he knew Longbottom was a genius at it.

And even though Harry wouldn’t really say he and Longbottom were friends, they were people who knew each other. He didn’t think Longbottom would mind helping him get these leaves, including some mandrake ones.

After the leaves would come other ingredients, ones that might actually take him all year to gather. Amber with a creature imprisoned inside—and it had to be a spider, not any other type of creature. Pure marble carved for a statue’s head but not actually used. A broken black rose.

He might not be completing his experiment this year after all.

Harry stood still, and ignored Cross’s worried purrs, as his emotions broke across him. The first was relief. As if part of him didn’t want to do this experiment, had never wanted to do it. And that was strange.

He knew what he had to do. He’d accepted it. That meant he was committed to going ahead no matter what.

After all, even if he Transfigured his own brain, that was only one. How else was he going to know what spells worked if he didn’t also Transfigure some objects into a human being?

Chapter Text

“I won’t keep you long, Mr. Potter.”

Harry leaned back in the chair in Professor McGonagall’s office and nodded shortly. He knew he should feel less impatient than he did. He still had months and months of the school year left. He could research all sorts of things in the Hogwarts library. He could do almost anything he wanted. He had some ingredients for the human Transfiguration he would do on the way.

He wasn’t losing much by accepting Professor McGonagall’s invitation to tea. He would still have the chance to rescue his parents.

“But I will keep you as long as I need to,” Professor McGonagall said suddenly, and that startled Harry enough to make him really look at her for the first time since he’d entered.

She sat with her teacup on her knee, and her eyes on him were bright and kind. Harry squirmed. He thought he knew what she looked like. She looked like Mrs. Jute, the primary school teacher who had briefly believed him about the Dursleys’ abuse.

“What did you want to talk about, Professor?” Harry asked. Perhaps he could hurry this along.

“Your behavior is beginning to concern me, Mr. Potter,” Professor McGonagall answered. “You still don’t spend much time with your friends, and Professor Flitwick has told me you never went to him for Charms tutoring.”

“I did,” Harry said, confused. “Last year.”

“But not more recently?” Professor McGonagall sighed into his silence. “Mr. Potter, you must do well in more subjects than only Transfiguration—and you are no longer as much of a prodigy in that as you once were.”

Harry sat still, because both frowning and smiling would seem suspicious. It was true that he’d never got better at the object-to-object Transfigurations that Professor McGonagall had assigned him. And what he was good at was starting to be highly illegal.

“You must have other things in your life besides your schoolwork, Harry.” Harry’s senses went on full alert. When Professor McGonagall started to drop the formality, something bad was about to happen. “And Professor Lupin is concerned about you, as well. His expertise in Defense makes him sensitive to Dark Arts. He told me you have the reek of Dark magic about you.”

“I haven’t used Dark Arts, Professor,” Harry said quietly. That was true. Only certain Transfiguration spells were classified as Dark, mostly the ones that did something like change the shape of someone’s throat so they would suffocate. They could test his wand until it snapped and find nothing incriminating.

“There are ways and ways of being Dark, Mr. Potter. Which is to say that I believe you, but I also believe Professor Lupin.”

Harry felt as though someone had slammed his face into the pavement. For a moment.

Then he shrugged to himself. Adults always believed other adults, in the end. He had thought Professor McGonagall was different, but he shouldn’t have started thinking that. It only made him weaker, more vulnerable to pains like this.

“I wonder what you really care about,” said Professor McGonagall then. “You’ve been my student for two years, Harry, and yet I feel I don’t really know you at all.”

Harry looked up at her. She had that same stern, kindly look in her eyes she got when she watched Padma putting too much power behind a spell.

“I don’t know what you think of your friends,” Professor McGonagall continued, “or your professors, bar a few entirely justified comments on the incompetence of Professor Lockhart.” She obviously wanted him to smile, so Harry did that. Professor McGonagall relaxed in a way that Terry probably wouldn’t have noticed. “I don’t know what you like to do to relax.”

“Transfiguration, Professor. And reading.” Harry thought the last answer was probably a safe one. So did Ravenclaws.

“Novels? Poetry? History?”

“Transfiguration textbooks.” She should know. She’d lent him most of them.

Professor McGonagall’s relaxation faded again. “But you must have other interests, Harry.”

Why must? Harry thought, but he did begin to understand then. This was the opposite of the kind of masks he’d had to learn with the Dursleys. There, people wanted him to look normal when they thought he was really strange and freakish. Here, people wanted to think he was normal to reassure themselves that he wasn’t strange and freakish.

Harry hadn’t used his acting skills as often at Hogwarts, but that didn’t mean he’d lost them.

He relaxed a little and stared past Professor McGonagall’s shoulder at the wall. “I like animals a lot, Professor,” he said softly. “My—family didn’t encourage that. I wish I could feed birds and watch insects, but they wouldn’t let me put up a birdfeeder or anything like that.”

“You could do something about that interest while you’re at school,” said Professor McGonagall at once. “I know that you’re taking Professor Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. Why not spend time helping him tend the animals? I think he’d be grateful for the help.”

Harry gave Professor McGonagall a restrained smile. He enjoyed magical creatures, but he had already seen that Hagrid really had no ability to teach him about them. The only interesting thing that had happened so far in Hagrid’s classes was Malfoy insulting a hippogriff that had nearly trampled him.

Hagrid had managed to drag Malfoy out of the way in time. Harry had been more disappointed than he’d wanted to show.

“I have a rat and a cat, Professor,” said Harry. “I spend a lot of time with them.”

“What about an owl? Would you like to have one that would carry letters to your friends for you?”

Harry was about to remind her that his only friends were ones he didn’t really need to write letters to, since he saw them all the time, but then he remembered how important the acting was. He smiled. “That might be interesting, Professor.”

This time, her smile and her relaxation lasted longer. “Do you want me to order one for you?”

Harry felt as though someone had plunged lightning into his chest. It was so strange to remember that Professor McGonagall was like this, committed to doing nice things for him if she could.

“Um, no thank you, Professor. I would rather pick out my own.”

And apparently that was exactly the right thing to say, because Professor McGonagall stood up and crossed the room and gave him a small hug.

“I’ve been so worried,” she whispered into his hair. “But you’re going to be okay after all, Harry. If you can want something, if you can make your own decisions and your own desires felt, then you’re not Dark in the way I thought.”

Or you’re just easier to fool, Harry thought, as he hugged her back, remembering the way he’d seen Dudley do it with Aunt Petunia. You’re nice, and I feel sorry for you, but you are easy to fool.

*

“These are some of the ingredients you wanted, Harry.”

Harry blinked at the petals and leaves Longbottom was holding towards him. “Wait, you got them?” he asked, cupping his hand to receive them. “I thought for sure I would have to order them.”

Longbottom smiled and leaned against the wall of the greenhouse. The red lightning bolt on his forehead was so bright it made Harry squint sometimes when he looked at him. “No, some of them grow fine in enchanted conditions. It’s just that outside Hogwarts Herbology classes, those conditions are hard to replicate.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, and peered at the ingredients again. Longbottom had even got him the broken black rose. He smiled and looked up. “What can I do to repay you?”

Longbottom shifted around, and swallowed, and shuffled his feet. Harry studied him in curiosity. He thought Longbottom wanted to ask him something specific, but seconds went past and he kept on not saying it.

“I just want to know what you’re doing with those ingredients.”

“I’m using them in a Transfiguration ritual,” Harry said. “Didn’t I tell you that?” He was getting better at letting the faint surprise show up in his voice, and at blinking, but not too fast. “I thought I had.”

Longbottom hesitated once. Harry thought he was going to get away with it. But then he turned around and stared at Harry with eyes that shone as brightly as his scar.

“You told me that, but you never told me what kind of ritual it was.”

Harry tilted his head back and let his eyes harden slightly. “I don’t see why that concerns you.”

Longbottom closed his eyes, and his bottom lip quivered. Any second now, Harry thought, he would run away. That was what he did with Professor Snape and Professor McGonagall and some of the creatures in Hagrid’s class and just about anything that was a little bit frightening.

But Longbottom surprised him. He said, “I got you those ingredients. They’re pretty rare. Th-they could be used for lots of different things. I’m responsible for making sure you don’t do something Dark with them, since I’m the one who found them.”

Harry stared at Longbottom. He cared about things like that? Harry had thought he only cared about Herbology and shrinking away from his fame.

Longbottom stood there and bit his lip some more. He didn’t move away, and he didn’t attack Harry, and he didn’t laugh and say that he’d always thought Harry was Dark. Since those were the only reactions Harry had ever imagined someone having if they even started to know what he was doing, it shook him profoundly.

Then Longbottom said, “Can’t you just—you can tell me the truth? Who else am I going to tell? No one else would listen to me about something like that. They just always want to know about V-Voldemort and whether I’m like my parents.”

Harry heard how much courage it took him to say Voldemort’s name. Even though he would probably have to say it all the time. Although maybe not hear it all the time. Harry thought Dumbledore was the only one who said it on a regular basis.

And still he stood there, afraid and knowing that Harry might get upset with him, but needing answers.

Why?

Harry blinked once. Then he said, “It’s like you feel that the whole world is your responsibility, right? That you can’t help someone do something bad even by accident, because that would be wrong for you. For your responsibility,” he added, when Longbottom only stared and blinked some more.

“I—I don’t think it’s my responsibility to save the whole world. That would be silly.”

“But you can think something’s silly and still go on thinking it.” Harry ought to know that. He had believed for most of his childhood that he would get away from the Dursleys even though it was a stupid thing to think, and there was no one else who could help him, and his own attempts always failed. But he had gone on believing it.

“I can.” Longbottom shut his eyes. “Can you just tell me?”

“I want to help heal people,” said Harry. Which was perfectly true and made him feel better about the strange ringing in his ears that had started when he realized Longbottom wanted to help people.

“Oh. Well, that’s good.” Longbottom opened his eyes and gave him a happy smile. “I like healing. I kind of wish I could be a Healer, but I think my grandmother’s going to make me be an Auror. Like Dad,” he added, before Harry could ask why.

Harry wondered if there were people who would think that he should be an Auror like his father. But that would require more people knowing who his parents were, and caring more about them. He knew Snape hated his parents as much as he loved them, but two people out of thousands, or millions, weren’t much.

I’m free, in a way, because I can do whatever I want to heal my parents. But poor Longbottom has to live up to all these other people’s expectations.

Harry put a hand on his chest. There was a strange burning sensation there, like indigestion. It was one he’d only learned at Hogwarts, because there was never enough food at the Dursleys’ to cause it.

What is that? Harry hadn’t even had food recently. You’d think that the indigestion would leave him alone until then.

“Are you okay, Potter?”

Harry looked up, and met Longbottom’s eyes, and nodded. He hesitated once, then added, “You know, if you want some tutoring in Transfiguration, then I could help you. I know you could do better in that class.”

Longbottom shuffled in place again. “Well, I’ve already got some tutoring from Professor McGonagall, and honestly it didn’t seem to help,” he murmured. “I’m just not that good at Transfiguration. I was thinking about concentrating more on P-Potions and Herbology…”

The burning in Harry’s chest intensified. Absently wondering if one of the Slytherins had cast a curse on him when he wasn’t looking, he leaned forwards and tried to look as persuasive as he could. “But it might be different with a fellow student helping you, right? I mean, I really like Professor McGonagall, but she is intimidating.”

Longbottom stood upright and stared at him with his mouth a little open. “I didn’t know anyone else thought that,” he said. “I mean, Hermione’s always talking about how she’s a great Head of House, and Ron acts a little sheepish when she catches him out in class, but he doesn’t say it like that.”

Harry snorted. “Maybe they all think that Professor Snape is so bad it messes up their standards.” He also privately thought Longbottom needed to spend some time with someone besides Weasley and Granger. Plenty of Ravenclaws respected McGonagall and thought she was intimidating at the same time. “I’d be happy to tutor you.”

“Just for helping with your ingredients?” Longbottom looked at the plants and petals in Harry’s hand again.

“Because I want to help you.”

The burning sensation seemed to dim. Harry blinked. That was it? That was the only thing he had to say to get the curse taken off?

But when he thought about it, that was ridiculous, really. There wouldn’t be a curse on him to say nice things to Longbottom. If anything, one of the Slytherins would have cursed him to say nasty things to Longbottom, because that was the only thing they’d value.

“I—that’s awfully nice of you, Harry.” Longbottom paused shyly for a second. “Can I call you Harry?”

“Of course you can.” Harry decided being nice to Longbottom was probably easier than being nice to most other people, because he expected so little that he was overwhelmed by whatever you wanted to say.

“Good.” Longbottom waited for something Harry couldn’t sense again, and then added, “You can call me Neville.”

Harry reached out with one hand, not the one that held the ingredients Longbottom had given him. Longbottom shook it firmly.

“Neville,” Harry repeated, and thought he would have to get used to it, just like he had with Terry.

*

Severus stepped slowly back from the Retrocognition Potion, keeping his eyes locked on it. This was the trickiest moment of the brewing. He would have to use all his skill and concentration to make sure it proceeded as it was supposed to.

The potion bubbled, golden smoke-rings drifting up from it, and Severus tensed a little. This would be harder to handle the moment the smoke-rings turned from golden to yellow.

And he could not act a second too soon or too late, or the potion would be ruined. Any number of brewers Severus knew would not have been able to say where the line between golden and yellow lay.

But he was watching, with every sense tensed and flickering out from him, sweeping over the rings, and he knew.

It was…now.

Severus’s wand flicked out, and he snapped the proper Latin incantation. “Apprehendo!

The moment ticked and slid over. And the smoke-rings remained motionless, not drifting up towards the ceiling on the journey that the rest of them had taken, would naturally take.

The potion did not explode and drench Severus in liquid that would have proven harder to get rid of than burning hot tar, either.

Severus half-closed his eyes for a moment, and let himself drift in almost pleasant exhaustion. As long as he had done this right, then the next step would not be impossible—would be merely challenging, in fact.

When he opened his eyes, the smoke-rings remained in place, a perfect ladder that ran the gamut from gold down into the subtler shades of yellow. Severus walked closer to them, around them, and considered them for a long moment before he cast the spell that would bind them to the cauldron. The smoke swayed a little as he did it, but didn’t change the shape of the rings or their colors.

I have done it right, yes.

Severus didn’t ride the crest of his triumph as he might have been able to do with another, less complicated potion. He still had several steps ahead of him before he could declare the potion mastered and force it to release the vision he wanted to see.

But he knew, now, that he would see his enemy.

For that level of gladness, he was willing to wait.

*

“It’s not my imagination that he’s getting better, is it?” Remus asked, leaning over to whisper to her at the Head Table.

Minerva didn’t look away from Harry among his Ravenclaw friends—and one Gryffindor—not wanting to answer until she thought she had an answer. Longbottom was talking softly, intently, to Harry, about a book spread out in front of both of them. Minerva knew only that it wasn’t a Transfiguration book; none of them that Harry had borrowed from her or used in class had colors or pages like that.

Harry had a surprised expression on his face. He flipped the page, appeared to read something, and then nodded to Longbottom.

Longbottom sat back with such a triumphant expression on his face that a few of the Ravenclaws stopped eating to tease him or congratulate him or maybe both; Minerva couldn’t tell from this distance. But Longbottom’s triumph stayed, even through the teasing, if that was what it was.

And Harry was smiling.

Minerva breathed out slowly. She didn’t know what had made Harry want to spend time with Longbottom, if it was a purely practical matter of receiving help in Herbology or pity. She found it hard to imagine other motivations, as self-possessed as Harry was. But there they were.

A friend, outside his House. A friend whom even now, after the debacle with the Heir of Slytherin had been resolved last year, some people stayed far away from.

“He is getting better,” Minerva said, with a nod to Remus, who was sniffing as if he could actually pick up on Harry’s scent from this far away. “He has to be. There’s no other explanation.”

*

Things had changed. Harry knew they had. He just wasn’t entirely sure how or why.

On the surface, he knew Neville was the one responsible for most of the changes. He visited Harry all the time now in the library, and even came back with him to Ravenclaw Tower on the weekends. Harry had tensed up the first time he did that, but other than a few curious glances, no one seemed to notice.

Well, one person did.

“Off to spend time with Neville again?” Terry would ask, and the question gradually became more and more hostile. Harry finally turned around about the sixth time he asked it and stared at him.

“And if I am,” he asked, “what’s it to you?”

Terry turned as red as Neville’s tie. He spluttered a little. Harry stood and listened to him doing it, while he stroked Amicus in his pocket. Amicus was getting restless now that they didn’t spend as much time in the dungeon workroom. Cross seemed to have adapted better. He slept on Harry’s pillow and ate the treats that Neville fed him.

“I—I want to know because you were my friend first.” Terry squared up his shoulders. “And I spent all this time telling people you were my best friend,” he added in a muffled voice. “It makes them doubt me when you go off and spend all your time with someone else.”

Harry blinked. “I thought Anthony was your best friend,” was all he could think of to say.

Terry turned his head to the side. And sulked.

Harry ran a hand through his hair. He knew that made it stand on end, and Aunt Petunia hated it. Even Snape seemed to sneer at him more often when he did that. Not until he looked more closely at some old school photographs of his parents that Professor McGonagall had got hold of from “somewhere” did Harry see that his dad had had hair exactly like this when it was ruffled.

He tried to run his hand through his hair all the time in Potions class now.

“I didn’t know you felt that way,” he told Terry. “But you can come with us if you want. No one said you couldn’t. You just never asked, so I assumed you didn’t want to.”

Terry turned back, his eyes intent. “I don’t think we should only study for Transfiguration and read about Herbology.”

“We don’t. We also study Potions.” Neville was getting a little better at them, although Harry heard that it didn’t show much in Snape’s classes. Apparently Snape didn’t snap at Neville as much during his private training, though.

Terry rolled his eyes. “I want to go flying.”

“Neville hates flying. He’s scared of heights.”

“Which means you are choosing him over me. I knew it.” Terry turned his back and wrapped his arms around his legs.

Harry stared at him. He had that burning feeling in his chest again. He rubbed it. Last time, he had helped Neville and that had got rid of it, but this time, he had no idea what would work. He couldn’t stay here and leave Neville by himself; he couldn’t go flying with Terry because it wouldn’t be fair to Neville.

Amicus popped his head out of Harry’s pocket and stared at him with his whiskers twitching. He was used to Harry solving problems easily, Harry thought absently, and probably didn’t understand why Harry couldn’t solve this one.

And it was simple, when Harry thought about it. “All right,” he said. “Neville and I will take our books to the Quidditch pitch. Come with us. You can fly, and we’ll watch you. Neville might even have some comments on your technique.” Harry never did, since he hadn’t grown up with Quidditch and wasn’t interested enough to learn about it.

Terry turned around and perked up. “Really?”

“Sure.” Harry shrugged. “It’s the only thing I can think of that will make everyone happy, and I want both you and Neville to be happy.”

Terry came flying off his bed. For the merest second, Harry thought there was someone behind him Terry was attacking, and he tensed, but then Terry simply grabbed him and swung him back and forth, muttering nonsense words that only came clear a second later.

“You do care, you do care.”

Harry patted Terry’s back. And Terry let go of him and stepped away a second later, coughing and looking around even though they’d been alone in their bedroom all afternoon.

“Right,” said Harry cautiously. Terry had his own broom, unlike all but a few of the students in Ravenclaw. “Come on, then.”

Terry made no sense, Harry thought as he turned around. Harry understood Neville because Neville had a responsibility to the rest of the world the way that Harry had a responsibility to his parents. But as far as Harry could tell, Terry didn’t have a burden like that. He just liked to go to classes and make jokes and groan about their homework and read.

And fly.

But the important part was that the burning sensation in his chest had gone.

*

“You think there’s that much of a relationship between plants and the potions they’re used in all the time?” Neville stared at the book in awe.

Harry smiled at him. It was nice to be able to teach people things. Nice to be smart and not punished for it, the way he would have been at the Dursleys’. And Neville wasn’t stupid. He just needed a lot of encouragement.

“Not all the time. This is a special case.” Harry tapped the page with one finger, which listed the number of chopped-up nettles that one needed to use for a Skin-Stinging Potion. “But you can probably come up with a way to memorize how the potions relate to the plants. You know lots of things about plants I don’t.”

Neville nodded, but not arrogantly. It was just the way he was, Harry thought, so used to being told Herbology was his best class that he accepted it. Then, abruptly, he looked up and shook his head. “You’d never catch the Snitch like that, Terry!” he called.

Harry looked up, too. Terry was weaving all over the pitch, leaning to the side. Harry supposed he was practicing looking for the Snitch. Terry had bragged about wanting to be the Ravenclaw Seeker, although as far as Harry knew, Davies had no intention of replacing Chang.

Terry flipped back up and flew down, landing in front of them and plowing a long furrow in the dirt. “You’re probably right,” he panted, and tossed his hair out of his eyes. “Why don’t you show them how it’s done?”

Harry would have got upset, except he realized Terry was holding the broom out to him and not Neville, which meant he wasn’t making fun of Neville.

He shrugged. “I don’t know how to catch the Snitch because I don’t know how to play Quidditch,” he said, and turned back to the book.

“Harry.” Terry bounced the broom at him. “I just meant I want you to get up and show me how you can fly. Unless you’re scared.” He lowered his voice.

Neville turned scarlet. Harry narrowed his eyes. Amicus stirred in his pocket, and Harry took him gently out and put him on the ground so he could run instead of join the flight with Harry.

“I don’t want you to make fun of him,” Harry said back, as he took the broom.

“I won’t.” Although Terry might have meant he only wouldn’t because he was getting his own way, Harry thought sourly, as he watched Terry move back and fold his arms, staring at Harry expectantly.

Harry shrugged and slung his leg over the broom. He knew he would disappoint Terry because he didn’t know any of the fancy maneuvers and techniques for playing the game that you had to in Quidditch. He flew like himself, and that wasn’t like anyone else.

Still, with the sky above him and the thick snow they’d got since Christmas only drifting down in tiny flakes now…

I could invent a game of my own.

Harry kicked off from the ground without a coherent plan in his head, only that he wanted to soar. He twisted and turned, bucking around the snowflakes, taking points from himself when he felt them touch his skin. Then he drew his wand, cast a Color-Changing Charm on one particularly large snowflake, and aimed after it.

He was diving then, the air all around him charged with excitement and streaming past his ears. His cheeks stung. He held out his hand and turned to the side just as the colored snowflake swirled on a stray breeze and almost escaped.

It didn’t escape. Instead, it came to rest in Harry’s palm. He whooped and tossed it up, then blew on it. It was already half-melted from the warmth of his hand; it melted the rest of the way in his breath as he watched.

Bloody hell, Potter.”

Harry turned swiftly around where he was hovering a few meters above the pitch. That didn’t sound like Neville’s or Terry’s voice.

Nor was it. Roger Davies stood behind him, his own broom gripped in his hand, his jaw dropped. Behind him stood the rest of the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, wrapped in thick practice robes. Harry blinked. Now he remembered that there was practice today. Terry had said he’d only fly a little while because of that.

“Sorry for taking up the pitch when you wanted it, Davies,” Harry said, and hoped it was smooth, the way his acting needed to be, to fool people. He flew down, hopped neatly off the broom, and took it back to Terry.

Terry refused to take it. He mouthed something Harry couldn’t make out and pointed excitedly at Davies. Harry stared stonily back. He wasn’t interested in being on any teams.

“That was some hard flying,” said one of the Chasers, his voice almost hushed. Harry thought his name was Jeremy Stretton. “I don’t think my brother could do something like that, and he was a good enough Seeker that he thought about playing professional Quidditch!”

Cho Chang smiled at Harry when he caught her eye. “I think you were really good,” she said quietly. “Where did you learn to fly like that?”

And there it is again, Harry thought, in an agony of bitterness and frustration. They all wanted to know how he could do this, the way Terry used to wonder how he was so good at Transfiguration. And if he even tried to explain, that it just came naturally to him, they wouldn’t believe him. And it was so annoying to hear that again and again. As annoying as it used to be to hear the word “freak” from the Dursleys. This was another kind of freakishness.

“I just do,” Harry said. “And I don’t know the rules of Quidditch, and I don’t want to be on the team.” Terry still wouldn’t take his broom, so Harry dropped it on the ground at his feet and turned towards the school.

“I didn’t say you had to be on the team.” Davies was jogging to keep up with him. “We have a Seeker.”

“Good.” A few of Harry’s muscles unclenched. Neville had followed him and now trotted behind Davies, looking anxiously back and forth between Harry and the Captain.

“But I do think it’s strange that you never tried out.” Davies looked at him again, and Harry had the unnerving feeling Davies was seeing into his muscles and bones, the way that Harry tried to when he imagined animals he could Transfigure objects into. “Didn’t you want to? We don’t always take second-years, but you could have done it when your third year started for sure.”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t like the game. I just like flying.”

Really?”

And now Davies was staring at him as if he was, yes, strange and a freak, and Harry couldn’t stand it. He broke into a run, and Davies was at least kind enough not to follow. Harry thought he heard Terry trying to explain something when he was most of the way up to the school. He couldn’t clearly hear the words and didn’t bother trying, though.

“Harry. Harry! Wait up.”

That was Neville. Harry was moving too fast for him. He slowed down, but continued walking with his head turned away. Neville panted up on the other side of him, and didn’t stop panting for a while, even though they were shuffling along now compared to the earlier pace.

“Do you always do that?” Neville asked finally.

“Do what? I don’t think there’s anything wonderful about being offered a position on a Quidditch team that I don’t want. I told Terry last year and the year before that I don’t want to play, and--”

“I didn’t mean that,” Neville said. His voice was almost back to normal now. “I mean, do you always run away when someone says something nice to you?”

Harry stopped and stared at him. “No,” he said plainly. “Or I could never have become friends with you.”

Neville flushed. “I learned to stop saying how good you were in Transfiguration and Potions, though,” he said. “And how unfair it is that Snape takes so many points from you just because of who your dad was--”

Is.”

Neville paused, then said, “It’s really all about your parents, isn’t it? Today was the first time I saw you look embarrassed, but you also say you don’t really enjoy Quidditch and I think you mean it. You only act angry or upset or interested when someone’s talking about your parents, though.”

It hit Harry like a wall, the remembrance that he had barely spent any time in his workroom the last few months. All the hours in the library with Neville and Terry, and helping Anthony with Defense Against the Dark Arts, and getting kidnapped by Finnigan so he could ramble at Harry in the Gryffindor common room, and doing homework, and lying on his bed with Cross purring on his stomach. He’d done all that. He’d also gathered some ingredients for the human Transfiguration he was going to do.

But he hadn’t thought hard enough about healing his parents’ brains. He hadn’t practiced on his own brain. He hadn’t started the human Transfiguration, even though by now he had enough ingredients that he could do a partial one.

It’s like you never cared about us at all, said his mum’s voice in the back of his head.

Harry turned and ran, and this time he ignored Neville’s shouting behind him. Neville was part of the problem.

*

Harry panted as he bolted into the dungeon workroom and locked the door behind him, finally. He’d had to wait a few increasingly desperate minutes for the Slytherins who’d been standing outside their common room, laughing, to actually move and let him find the door.

Amicus had come running to him when he entered the school, and now he hopped out and leaned his nose against Harry’s cheek, without even squeaking. Harry fell to his knees and gasped a few times. His chest was tight. It felt as if he didn’t have enough room for his lungs.

Then he stood up and moved determinedly towards the pile of ingredients he had in the corner. He was going to make a human. He even had the carved marble block for the head now. He would do what he had to do.

He was going to make a human and experiment on its brain. Because nothing mattered except his parents.

He drew his wand and stood there. He knew the incantation; he had practiced the words until they literally came to him in the middle of his dreams. Commuto abundantiam hominem. He knew them the way he knew the shine his mum’s eyes would have when she was healed and she could see him—

But long moments passed, and he couldn’t move.

Then Harry made a soft noise and fell to his knees. Amicus raced around him in a circle, squeaking. Harry stared at the collection of objects and didn’t cry, because he had left crying behind him a long time ago.

The tight feeling in his chest grew worse and worse, until he actually thought someone had his organs in a fist and was squeezing them.

The burning feeling hadn’t been a Slytherin casting a curse at him. Harry didn’t think this was a curse, either. Only something he should be able to conquer and hadn’t so far. He sagged back and laid a shaking hand over his heart.

He should be stronger. He shouldn’t have wanted to spend time around Neville and Terry so much. He shouldn’t have felt, for even a second, hurt at Neville’s words.

He should be stronger than this. If he cared about something other than his parents, then what was he?

Someone who didn’t even do the experiments on himself that he promised he would. Experiments you could have done a long time before you stated gathering the ingredients you would need to Transfigure a human.

Harry lifted his wand and aimed it at his temple. There was a little pause while his hand shook and his lungs shook from the force of his breath. He could do the spell. He had looked up those incantations, too, although he didn’t know them as well as the spell that would change objects into a human.

He closed his eyes. He opened his mouth.

Small teeth grabbed the wand and wrestled with him for it. Harry opened his eyes and found himself staring at Amicus, who stared back and tugged fiercely at his wand.

Harry let it go. Amicus ran off into a corner with the wand and crouched over it, staring at him.

Harry shook his head a little. He had cast spells on Amicus, so he wasn’t simply an ordinary Transfigured rat, like the ones they had made in Professor McGonagall’s class. He was loyal to Harry. He served Harry’s goals. He was smart enough to do lots of things that even a trained rat couldn’t do. And Harry had added to the spells as he got older and found more that could improve Amicus and make him smarter.

Why would he take the wand from me? I know I cast spells that would make him loyal to my ultimate goal. He shouldn’t even be able to do that!

Harry took a step towards Amicus. Amicus chattered at him in warning, then bent down and opened his teeth above the wand.

Harry froze. He could bite through it. Maybe not completely, but certainly enough to make the wand malfunction. Harry had seen what happened when Weasley’s wand wasn’t working right last year.

And Harry couldn’t afford that. He needed his wand whole.

He and Amicus stood there and traded frozen glares until a new thought squirmed to life in Harry’s head. Amicus served his ultimate goals. That meant he could stop Harry in small actions along the way that might seem profitable but wouldn’t serve him in the end. He had herded Harry off to bed before instead of letting him study all night, because getting ill wouldn’t help Harry heal his parents.

Could it be—

That trying to Transfigure his own brain wouldn’t help? Or maybe even trying to Transfigure objects like these into a human before he was ready?

Harry shuddered. As if they had only been waiting for that barrier of acknowledgment to fall, objections were piling up thick and fast in his head now.

Neville already knew some of the ingredients. He might not be suspicious now, but he could get to be, and he could give that information to someone else. And Professor McGonagall was already concerned. And Terry was jealous and suspicious about where Harry went when he wasn’t with him. He might follow Harry down here.

Both Neville and Corwin, the centaur, knew about Harry’s goals. It wouldn’t take much for them to tell, after all, or for Neville to add some of the evidence together and come up with the right answer.

Harry had to be careful. He couldn’t do whatever he wanted and take risks, because healing his parents was more important than anything—more important than the qualms he suffered along the way or the shortcuts he wanted to take or the impatience he felt.

Harry fell to his knees. He distrusted the answer building in his head, because it felt too much like giving in to his weakness, like saying it was okay to spend time with these “friends” after all and even fly, which was the greatest distraction he’d found.

But it was the answer. Harry knew it by the way that Amicus immediately ran back to him with his wand when Harry bowed his head, and pushed the wand into his hand, and then nuzzled his palm with whiskers that tickled.

Harry wasn’t good enough to practice human Transfiguration yet. If he let himself get distracted and thwarted this easily, and if he was about to rush ahead and do the spell without enough preparation, he really wasn’t ready.

Harry opened his eyes. Amicus sat upright on the floor in front of him, forepaws resting on Harry’s fingers and eyes peering anxiously at him.

“You think that’s right?” Harry whispered. “You think it’s all right to wait a while and even act—normal?”

Amicus made a sound that he usually only made when he saw cheese and leaped, landing on Harry’s shoulder beside his cheek, where he rolled his fur over and over against Harry’s nose and the corner of his eye.

Harry closed his eyes and slowly raised his hand, stroking Amicus’s back. His friend had saved him from making a shameful mistake. He would have to wait. He would have to accept being weak for a time until he was stronger.

The tide of relief he felt made him kneel there and ask another question. Was it—maybe—all right to have some friends and some flying for himself? Some time when he didn’t work on healing his parents?

I suppose, if Mum and Dad love me, they would want that for me.

It was a difficult thought, and Harry sat there on the floor of the workroom until he had time to get used to it. Then he stood, slowly, and made sure that no one was in the corridor outside the workroom before he left.

He would go upstairs, and study. He would find Terry and Neville, and apologize. He would take some time to think and discover and do what he could to make sure that he was ready for this, and not distracted, and didn’t long so much to do something else that he would make mistakes.

All the way out of the dungeons, Amicus never stopped rubbing against his cheek.

Chapter Text

Severus sat back and laid the last stirring spoon down beside the cauldron. His hands shook. He stilled them with sheer force of will, not moving, not folding them, not taking his gaze from the cauldron that steamed, with a thin layer of golden liquid on the bottom.

The potion was complete, and now he had only to drink it tonight, which was the time of the next full moon, and it would reveal his nemesis to him.

Severus grimaced. Of course, he must also make sure that the werewolf’s next Wolfsbane potion was ready before the full moon.

Why did Albus hire Lupin? He cannot think that Lupin really knows more about Defense than I know, and I am already working far too many hours training the Longbottom boy.

Severus sighed. He thought perhaps that Lupin being a werewolf had more to do with it than anything. Albus wanted Longbottom to learn how to counter Dark creatures, and there was no denying that Lupin knew much about them from firsthand experience.

Severus would never like Lupin, but he hated the Dark Lord more. His mind flinched whenever he touched the image of Lily Evans lying broken and staring in St. Mungo’s.

He turned and lifted the single ladle-ful of potion from the cauldron. It shone, murky dreams moving in it. Severus closed his eyes and cast the charms that would lock his door securely and block the Floo. Last, he set up a shimmering shield around his own body. He must not be touched for the time that the potion proceeded through changing him and altering his perspective.

He would see the vision of his enemy twice: once from the outside, and then from the inside, as though he was within the enemy’s head, sharing his thoughts. The first vision would not be especially dazzling. Severus had read that the second part was worse than crashing into the fully-prepared barriers of a master Occlumens.

He tipped the ladle. The potion ran down his throat.

His throat burned.

And the world exploded.

*

Harry stood outside the door for a long time, frowning. He didn’t want to think that what Professor McGonagall had told him was true, because that meant—well, it meant his parents had had almost exclusively bad friends, except for Sirius Black. One who betrayed them and one who was a coward.

Harry wondered for a second how anyone could have such bad taste in friends. He knew that he had friends, but he also had the means to prevent them from hurting him. Dudley had taught him that.

Finally, Harry knocked on Remus Lupin’s door.

Lupin opened it at once. He looked pale. Harry wondered if Professor McGonagall had told him that Harry was coming to talk to him.

Now that Harry was watching for it, he could see the small start when Lupin saw him, and the way his eyes instantly swept over Harry and down the corridor, as if he was looking for someone else he could focus on and talk to. He never spent long talking to Harry in class. The day with the Boggart had been the longest time. He never took points away from him or reprimanded him—because Harry did nothing in Defense class worth taking points away for or reprimanding—but he would look away as if the sight of him was painful.

“Hello, Mr. Potter. What do you need?”

“Professor McGonagall told me that you know my parents. I’d like to have some memories of them that aren’t just them staring at me with blank eyes when I tell them my name.”

Lupin recoiled. His hand came up as if he would wave Harry back down the corridor. Harry didn’t intend to let that stop him. He stepped inside and stood there slowly twirling his wand through his fingers.

Amicus stirred in his pocket. There were mice there, too. Harry had brought them in case Lupin was going to be difficult. He didn’t think that would really happen, but then, he didn’t think his friends would betray him, either. He still had to be prepared in case it did.

“You know them,” Harry said again. He didn’t think Lupin’s reaction was due to shock, or innocence.

“I knew them.” Lupin sat down hard on a chair in the middle of his rooms, shaking his head. “I haven’t been to visit them much since they went into St. Mungo’s. I—it hurts too much.”

A great, calm, patient rage began to move through Harry on soft feet. He told himself he couldn’t let it explode, though, any more than he could let Cross actually attack Uncle Vernon. He stood to lose too much if he did. He moved forwards and took the chair across from Lupin, a wooden one, even though he hadn’t been invited. He reckoned Lupin owed him at least this much.

“They’re still your friends.”

“Not the vital people they once were,” Lupin said hoarsely, and wiped at his eyes. “You didn’t—well, at least you can’t remember. They were so happy when they had you. You were literally the light of James’s eyes. I never saw them sparkle more than when he was looking at you.”

Harry sat still and let that hit him like a stone, accepting the bruise for the sake of its beauty. Then he said, “I want to know more. If all you can tell me is what you remember them as, that’s still more than I knew before.”

Lupin looked him over carefully. “You never knew? I mean, Lily said her sister was awful, but I thought she would at least take you to visit them.”

Harry hid a smile. It seemed Professor McGonagall hadn’t told Lupin enough about the Dursleys for him to recognize what a ridiculous statement that was. Well, Harry could use it as a weapon. He couldn’t even help it. If people kept leaving weapons lying next to him, he would have to use them.

“My aunt has no patience with what she calls freakishness.” He said it the way Petunia would, and saw Lupin flinch back into the chair. “She never even told me my parents were alive. I had to learn that from Professor McGonagall. I grew up thinking they were dead, and even if they weren’t, they would have abandoned me at my aunt and uncle’s house.”

“God,” Lupin whispered. He bowed his head. Harry saw his hands trembling. “That’s—Minerva told me a little, but I had no idea.”

Harry paused, and then continued, “Professor McGonagall told me you had some reasons for not coming to get me, Professor Lupin.” Lupin’s head snapped up, and he looked panicked. “I don’t know what they were. But I think the least you owe me is telling me what my parents were like.”

Lupin heaved a painful breath. Harry wondered for a second if it would work. He thought other people would have done it better. Some of the Slytherins, probably. Professor Snape. They would have been able to manipulate Lupin without him even knowing he’d been manipulated. But Harry had done the best he could with what he had.

Amicus stirred in his pocket again, reminding Harry that his best was really better than what most other people could muster.

“All right. Yes, of course. You’re right.” Lupin looked up. “I never saw anyone as intelligent as your mother. I mean, Miss Granger is rather bright, and of course some of the professors here are masters in their subjects. But your mother—Lily was just good at everything she tried. Potions, Charms, Defense.” He gave Harry a considering look. “Your father was the one who was good at Transfiguration. This is something I’d like to tell you, but you need to not repeat it, to Professor McGonagall or anyone else.”

Harry wanted to laugh at the notion that he went around repeating secrets, but he only nodded and said, “I won’t, Professor.”

“Your father became an unregistered Animagus,” said Lupin softly. “He was a stag.”

Harry sat there and felt the revelation explode through him. It felt better than anything, he thought. Better than learning to master Transfiguration. Better than hiding his secrets from people. Better than flying.

My father was like me.

Lupin was talking on, something about Black being a dog Animagus and Pettigrew a rat Animagus, but Harry could barely listen. Wings were lifting him from his chair, and he wanted to say something. But there were no words that would be enough.

No, he wanted to go to his workroom and start work right away on the creation of a spell that would bring his father back.

But Lupin was still talking, and Harry forced himself to pay attention. “—that was the only way Sirius knew where Peter had gone. No one else would have thought to look for a rat, but Sirius did. He even trapped him in a place he wouldn’t easily be able to escape as a rat.” Lupin sighed deeply. “And it cost both of them their lives.”

Harry appreciated Black’s heroism, he had no tears to spend for Pettigrew, and he was more interested in his parents anyway. It would probably look strange if he showed no interest in Lupin, though. “What kind of Animagus were you, Professor?”

Lupin turned paler. He was sweating a little, even, as if he thought Harry would run right out and report his dead friends and Harry’s dad to the Ministry. “It—I wasn’t as good at Transfiguration as the others, Harry. I wasn’t one. I loved to play with them, though.”

Harry just nodded and asked, “You said my mother was brilliant at Potions. Is that one reason Professor Snape doesn’t like me?”

Lupin smiled in a strained way. “In part, Harry. You see…”

*

Severus twisted around and landed in the corridor outside his storage cupboard. He didn’t waste time looking around for clues that would tell him when it was. He had concentrated too hard on the time he wanted to see when he was brewing. The potion would not have brought him back to a different one.

He waited and watched, his senses quivering. A second later, a shadow stirred around the corner. Severus found himself falling back and holding his breath even though his enemy could no more sense him here than they could have in a Pensieve memory.

The shadow did puzzle him. It seemed to be too small, and there was only one. Severus had been so sure there was a conspiracy. Perhaps older students had put a younger one under Imperius and commanded him to do their dirty work?

But no seventh-year students last year had been accomplished Occlumens. Severus would have found them. And the ones who had been sixth- or fifth-years and had come back this year had had their minds read more than once.

The figure came around the corner.

It was Potter.

Severus stared. Surprise kept him still as Potter knelt on the floor. A flowing wave of mice surrounded him, and for an instant Severus thought they were illusions. But the bodies in his potions could not have been, not to ruin them, and in a minute the mice gathered around Potter.

Severus moved to the side so he could see Potter’s face. His green eyes were remote and cold, the eyes of a hawk. He cast a glance at the door to Severus’s quarters, and turned back to the mice in front of him. His face was almost blank, except for the fire in his eyes.

“You know where you’re going,” Potter said, and Severus realized he was talking to the mice. “Go get him.” His wand raised and came down in a precise motion, far more precise than any of the motions he’d made in Severus’s class. Of course, Severus did not allow students to use their wands in there. “Bibilus.”

The brown light that surrounded the mice betokened no spell Severus was familiar with, but he knew enough Latin to figure it out from the incantation. It made the mice thirsty, so they would jump into the potions.

What Severus did not understand was how Potter had learned to cast such a powerful spell, or learned the spells that themselves would make the mice loyal. Had he simply captured the wild mice of the castle and tamed them? But even that was beyond the skill and patience level of a typical student.

Potter was very much a typical student. Minerva had been used to praise his progress in Transfiguration, but lately she had had to admit that Potter had slowed down and didn’t seem to have as much gift for the art as she had thought.

Transfiguration.

Potter could have Transfigured the mice from objects. It was not difficult for someone with a lot of power and a good grasp of Latin.

But Severus shook his head a second later. Potter had neither. Severus could not have missed that power when Potter was brewing, whether or not he allowed the boy to use a wand in his class. Severus would have felt the pressure of his core, and his potions would have turned out correct more often than they did.

It seemed he was about to learn what Potter had really done, because the world turned sideways and he slid into an explosion of constellations. The potion was preparing him for the second vision, taking him inside his enemy’s head.

Severus felt for a moment as though he had hit a wall at high speed. He shook his head groggily. The potion had never promised this physical a reaction, and for a moment he wondered if he had read the descriptions right, or if they had left out something about intense pain.

Then he realized the pain was background.

Potter knelt in front of Severus’s supply cupboard with a mind full of jagged shards of pain. Severus could not grasp all of them, because Potter had not been thinking of all of them during the moment when he was outside that door. But there was enough to let him know it was mostly about Potter’s parents.

Severus sneered. Ah, yes. For his father’s honor he takes revenge on me. He doesn’t even think to compare himself to Longbottom, whose parents are dead. At least Potter can look into his mother’s and father’s faces and know what they looked like from something other than photographs.

Potter’s thoughts burned and blazed around the pain, and Severus touched an arrowhead of pure purpose that made him recoil. It felt as if he had sliced himself on it, and that mattered more to him than the agony and fury in Potter’s mind, because it was his own pain. He stepped slowly back and watched with suspicious eyes as Potter cast the spell that made the mice run into Severus’s cupboard and drown themselves.

There was a flux of magic when he did, of thoughts and plans and memories that made Severus’s nostrils flare. Potter was far more powerful than Severus had thought—powerful enough to brew correct potions and cast correct charms and stop wasting his professors’ time. The only art in which Severus saw the correct intent and determination, however, was Transfiguration.

Minerva was right.

Severus ground his teeth as he thought that, and poked a little more at Potter’s mind. He saw the few people, like Minerva, that were glowing diamonds among Potter’s thoughts, but nothing compared to the glowing boulders of thoughts about his parents. He saw experimentation in a dungeon classroom that Severus didn’t recognize, which meant it had surely been abandoned for almost as long as Severus had been Head of Slytherin.

He saw—

Potter working Transfigurations on himself.

Severus felt his gorge and his contentment rise in the same moment. He had seen Potter doing nothing to another student so far, and perhaps Dumbledore would have made him merely discipline and not expel Potter for the attack on his potions. But this activity, this illegal activity, even if it was on himself instead of someone else…

The potion’s grip ebbed at last, and Severus opened his eyes to a ringing in his ears and a small sense that he was forgetting something, which was swept aside by the tide of victory. He had crimson in front of his eyes, and he waited a moment until he could balance and see before he drew his wand to begin seeking Potter.

He could not wait. He would need to bring Potter before the Headmaster tonight.

*

“And that’s why I think Lily agreed to marry James, in the end,” Professor Lupin ended, with a little smile. He seemed to have forgotten he was talking to Harry, since he kept using his parents’ names. He was also staring off into the distance and drinking a glass of conjured water.

Harry didn’t mind. He had learned a lot about his parents that he hadn’t known before, and he felt warm and content and full. He had a lot of new memories that he could try to uncover in his parents’ minds.

That was the goal. It was always the goal. That Lupin might have abandoned him didn’t matter, not next to this. Harry would have good parents, real parents, sooner because of Lupin, and that meant Harry could forgive him.

Besides, if he’d adopted Harry, what might have happened? Harry might have grown up in the wizarding world, and that meant he would have accepted the ideas about only charms being useful in Mind-Healing and not Transfiguration. His parents might have lain in their hospital beds forever.

In one sense, the Dursleys were good for me. They taught me to endure and to value what I could have.

“So.” Lupin shook himself as though coming out of a long trance, and stared pleadingly at Harry. “Does this mean you forgive me for not taking you in?”

Harry thought about it. His forgiveness meant a lot to this man, for reasons Harry didn’t fully understand yet. But he could nod and say, “Yes, Professor Lupin. Thanks for talking to me about my parents. I appreciate it.” He rose to his feet and did his best impression of starry eyes. It was a lot easier after spending time around Neville, who seemed to be like that when he looked at Harry. “Could we talk again? Some other evening? It would be so good for me.”

“I know,” said Lupin, with a single glance out the window. He suddenly stiffened, but Harry couldn’t tell why. He turned back around with a smile that was big but false somehow. “We only have a week left of term, don’t we? Well, I’ll talk to you about them. And please do try to do better in Defense, Harry. Professor McGonagall is always telling me how smart you are. It’d be a pleasure to work with a student like that.”

Harry ducked his head and nodded. He knew he would pass his Defense exam, if only because he wanted to pass it and he’d got lots of extra practice helping Anthony complete his essays. But he couldn’t promise the level of performance Lupin sounded like he was expecting, and Harry wasn’t sure that he would have wanted to even if he could. If Lupin was left a little wanting, a little yearning, that wasn’t a bad thing.

They turned towards the door of Lupin’s quarters. Lupin kept glancing out the window, but he seemed relaxed when he turned back towards Harry. “I certainly hope—”

The door blew inwards before he could finish the sentence. Harry swung around with his wand raised in response. His first thought was that Lord Dudders had somehow come back from the dead, and the second that Malfoy had found out Harry had Obliviated him and wanted revenge.

But it was neither one of them. It was Professor Snape, and he strode in and stood glaring at Harry with eyes like embers. He didn’t even seem aware of Lupin.

“Harry Potter,” he whispered. “So you are the one who destroyed more than a month’s worth of work on my potions.”

Harry bowed his head a little, accepting the charge. He had known all along what he would try to do if Snape ever found out. He couldn’t take that action right away, though, not with a witness. He said mildly, “Only a month?”

And Snape, as Harry had thought he probably would, snapped.

*

Severus felt the insolent response as a bolt through his body. It was as if James had come back to his right mind and stood before Severus again, laughing and taunting him as he had when they were students, and if Severus could only—

Could stop the voice, could shut the mouth, then he would never have to worry about anything again.

He lashed out with his wand and spoke the first incantation that came to mind, even though it was one he would have to revive the brat from later. “Stupefy!

Potter swung aside from it in an odd, crouching motion. Then he turned to face Severus again and cocked his head to the side. His hair looked as windblown as if he’d just been playing Quidditch, the way James’s hair had always looked. His glasses caught the reflection of the open window and the coming darkness, and utterly obscured the color of his eyes. “Is that all you have then, Snape?”

“Severus. Harry. Stop this.”

Lupin’s ineffectual words splashed against the shield Severus had raised against interference in his mind. He could not stop, not when he had revenge almost in his grasp. This time, he answered Potter’s taunting with a much stronger curse. “Alucinor!” Potter would lose the grasp of his thoughts and start wandering wildly through visions, ones of terror and grief.

Severus!

Severus opened his mouth to respond, and left it open.

The Waking Nightmare Curse had manifested as a beam of clear light and shot across the room to strike Potter. Or it should have. There was no way Potter could avoid it, as close as they were and with the speed Severus had cast—

Except that he’d crouched and sprung, like a kangaroo, over the light and into a different corner of the room, beside the fireplace. He crouched, with the chair between him and Severus, and waved his hand in a gesture Severus didn’t think was magical.

A tidal wave of mice came flowing out from behind the chair and towards Severus. The beasts moved fast. By the time that Severus had managed to overcome his surprise and ready his wand again, small bodies were squirming up his legs, teeth were closing in flesh, and there were tiny feet racing across his chest, up towards his wand.

“Call them off, Potter! I have no qualms about destr—”

Potter made Severus do the second undignified thing he’d done since entering the room, next to gaping. He screamed in agony. There were too many rodents now, and several mice were finding their way under the thickest layer of his robe and closing their teeth on his genitals.

Severus gave up reasoning with Potter. He nearly gave up reason. He swept his wand across his robes and barked, “Congelo!

Small icy bodies began to tumble free, and the pain in his genitals sank from gnawing to throbbing. But then more teeth bit his wrist, and Severus looked down and discovered that his spell had missed some of the mice, or there were simply too many of them to kill all at once. The one on his wrist launched itself at his wand and began to bite through it.

Congelo!” Severus barked again, and once more there was a rain of bodies. He straightened slowly. Potter was still behind the chair, as if he believed that he would lose Severus’s interest if he hid from him.

“You will not be losing my attention again, Mr. Potter,” Severus whispered. He began to move forwards one slow, stalking step at a time, a deadly predator.

*

Harry stroked Amicus’s fur soothingly. He knew his friend wanted to attack, but Harry had other plans than letting Snape destroy him.

Harry was going to let Snape come around the chair, and then hit him with one of the spells he’d been working on, a spell that Harry would normally have used on himself. Harry had no interest in giving Snape claws or stone-resistant skin, but there were plenty of other things you could Transfigure in the middle of a battle.

Part of his mind stood back and observed the rest of him curiously. He was breathing calmly, and his thoughts were as clear as glass. He had to survive this time, and he was doing what he needed to to survive. He had never known he would be so good in battle.

He was sorry, for the first time, that he hadn’t done better in Defense. He liked dueling.

On the other hand, if he’d worked harder in Defense, he couldn’t have used Transfiguration so easily in battle. So Harry supposed it worked out in various ways.

Snape’s shadow appeared on the floor. Harry nodded and started to rise to his feet, ready to spring and cast the spell at the same time.

Then something made him stop. There was—another presence in the room. It was as if he’d Transfigured another animal and forgotten about it until now. That wasn’t exactly right, but Harry didn’t know how to explain it better.

Somewhere, an animal had awoken.

And then it growled.

Harry leaped backwards, away from Snape’s hesitating shadow and around the side of the chair. If he was going to fight, then he needed to be able to see.

Professor Lupin was gone. Where he had been, a huge shaggy creature crouched on the floor. It took Harry forever to recognize it. It was as unlike the sleek lines of wolves he’d studied in books as it was possible to be.

But it turned, and he saw something like a wolf in its jaws, and he knew what it was then.

Harry leaped as it came charging towards him, growling insanely. He landed on top of a bookshelf, which started to crash towards the ground. Harry leaped again, and the werewolf, whipping around to follow him, got pinned under the bookshelf. Harry leaped from the corner when he’d landed the second time and deliberately pounded his weight into the middle of the bookshelf, making the werewolf scream. Harry didn’t want to kill Professor Lupin, but he hoped he could knock him unconscious and keep him from attacking.

“Professor Snape!” he called without looking around. “I hope that you’re going to stop him before you try to stop me!”

Snape didn’t get a chance to answer. Lupin lunged from under the bookshelf, his teeth aimed deliberately for Harry’s wrist.

*

The child will be a werewolf.


Severus didn’t mean to stand there and let his own shock take over. This part was not revenge on Potter. But he couldn’t think of any way to stop the werewolf, and the way it moved…

His own terror, so long ago that he had almost buried it, grabbed him with sharper teeth than Potter’s mice. Severus found himself backing away from the werewolf, his breath coming shriller, faster, his wand trembling in his hand.

And then Lupin tried to grab Potter’s hand.

His teeth sheared through the cloth easily enough, but then they bounced. They skidded off the skin of Potter’s arm as though it was made of stone. And Potter stood there and laughed for a moment.

Snape took another step back. He had heard the seeds of madness in that sound, as though Potter would join his parents in St. Mungo’s without any Cruciatus Curse to speed him on his way.

The werewolf was confused only a moment. It lunged a second later, and Potter leaped out of the way and aimed his wand again. He murmured, “Commuto pedem manus.

The werewolf had borne him down by the time he finished the spell, but Potter raised his arm to intercept the teeth, and then turned his hand a little and shot out glitteringclaws that raked the side of Lupin’s muzzle. The wolf howled and tried to leap backwards.

One of his feet was now a human hand, scrabbling at the floor. Lupin tripped and fell, and then Potter stood up and turned to Severus and said, “Are you going to bind him, or not?”

Severus, shaking, drew his wand and did so. The chains that flew from his wand were barely strong enough to hold a werewolf, but they held him still for the slight moment it took Severus to cast the mightiest Stunner he knew. Lupin fell and lay still. Severus promptly used other spells to build a silver cage around him.

He was still shaking. The mice, the madness in Potter’s laughter, the way Potter had leaped, the revelation about who Severus’s enemy really was…

And the fact nagging at him, the thing he had forgotten. He had forgotten to finish Lupin’s Wolfsbane, as he had thought he should, before he used the Retrocognition Potion.

Severus might have died if not for Potter. Or Potter might have died because of Severus’s neglect and carelessness. Or they both might have died, or been turned.

For a moment, the thought made a new place in his mind, something that shone as though someone was pouring sunlight into it. Severus found himself contemplating Potter with thoughts he had never expected to have about him.

And then he crashed back into reality. He now owed another Potter a life-debt. For that matter, they had saved him from the same werewolf.

Severus felt as though his tendons were snapping under the weight of the revelation. No. No. This could not be borne.

It would not be borne. Severus would take the child to Albus right away, and he would have him expelled before the moon rose to turn Lupin back to human. And then Lupin would be stripped of his post as well, for attacking a colleague and student.

Convinced that he understood the right way to do things now, Severus turned back to Potter and raised his wand.

He had to stop again, though. Because the boy no longer looked a mad thing, standing there, watching Severus under a shock of black hair like ruffled feathers.

He looked a wild thing. His claws still glittered at the ends of his fingers. The ripped clothing let Severus see patches of skin that shone like granite with small flakes of quartz in it. Those were probably the hard ones that Lupin’s teeth had slid on. And the rips also showed hints of strong, smooth, alien muscles on his legs.

He wasn’t jumping with the aid of spells. It had been what Severus had assumed at first.

“What are you?” he whispered.

Potter smiled at him and snapped his wrist forwards. A dark shape came flying from it, and Severus flinched back too late. The shape hit his hand, bit him on the inside of his fingers, and made Severus shout.

And drop his wand. In a second, the creature, some other bloody rodent, had sprung free from Severus’s arm, hit the floor, grabbed his wand, and run with it back to Potter.

“I’m something I can’t let you tell anyone about,” Potter said, and pinned Severus’s wand beneath his foot.

To the adrenaline sweat of the fight, the sweat of fear joined itself. But Severus had not battled bullying Gryffindors and stronger predators all his life to show weakness now. He held Potter’s eyes and rasped, “You can do nothing against me. You will be expelled for this.”

Potter shook his head a little. “What Lupin saw won’t matter. He has his own secrets to keep. When I remind him about that, and the way he never came and got me when he could have after my parents were cursed, then it’ll keep his mouth shut.”

He cocked his head at Severus, a wolf-like movement that made Severus flinch. “But you—I wouldn’t have let you stay conscious if I didn’t have a way out of it.”

He leveled his wand at Severus. Severus was shaking with anger now. “You will not get away with this,” he whispered.

Potter laughed, a cracked songbird sort of sound. “Isn’t that the line the hero’s supposed to speak?” he asked, and shook his head.

In the moments before Potter spoke the word, Severus tried to stare at him and imprint everything in his mind, tried to cling to the visions of the Retrocognition Potion, even knowing he had drunk all of it and there would probably be no borrowing the Time-Turner to obtain a second sample of its sand—

Obliviate.”

Chapter Text

“…And so Professor Lupin has decided that he cannot continue teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts.”

A groan rose from almost every throat. Harry ignored that, and the way that Terry and Anthony were furiously whispering about where they would find a good Defense professor to replace Lupin. He kept his attention on Lupin’s face instead, the way he swept up a goblet to return Dumbledore’s toast when he made it, and how he sat there through the praise the rest of the staff heaped on him.

Lupin only looked at Harry once, and it was such a miserable and guilty expression that Harry knew he didn’t have to worry about Lupin telling his secret.

Snape had been the one to present Lupin in his cage and chains to the Headmaster, filling in the blanks the Memory Charm had left with some claim about how he had been hurrying to tell Lupin about the delay in the Wolfsbane Potion when Lupin transformed and attacked him. The only thing Harry had had to watch for the next morning was some sign of returning comprehension on Snape’s part or some sign that Lupin would break and tell the truth.

But Snape hadn’t shown anything. And Lupin had tracked Harry down in the library later that day, invited him to his office, and proposed all the terms Harry could want on his own. He was leaving. He wouldn’t tell anyone the nightmarish memories he had—which he seemed to think were partially made up by his werewolf mind anyway—because he felt so guilty.

Harry had nodded and said, “I forgive you, Professor Lupin.”

It was the perfect thing, the way that Lupin looked after that. He was ashamed and guilty and afraid.

Harry had no problem with people being those things, especially when it meant they would stay out of his way.

Now, Lupin looked away from him and drank his goblet of water again. Harry smiled and turned around when Terry nudged him.

“Can we have you over this summer, Harry?”

“I don’t think so. My relatives really don’t like to be reminded that the wizarding world exists…”

*

“I must insist that you do something about Harry’s situation this summer, Albus. I won’t leave it like it is for any longer.”

Albus put down his cup of tea and folded his hands on his stomach, staring into the fire. Minerva automatically looked with him, but could see nothing that would engage his attention so strongly. She concentrated on his face.

Albus looked tired. Then again, he often did when she saw him in private moments these days. Minerva was determined not to let that stop her. Neville Longbottom was not the only child deserving of special care and attention.

“What alternative is there?” Albus whispered. “I talked to Remus. I thought that, after what you told me of Harry learning from you about his connection to Lily and James, his heart would soften and he would agree to take him. But he didn’t.”

“Why not?” Minerva demanded. She knew Harry had planned to use the knowledge and confront Remus, at the very least. The flare of light in his eyes when she’d told him about Remus’s friendship with James was too bright to be anything else.

“This is to be kept secret, Minerva.”

Minerva bristled in silent offense. If she couldn’t keep secrets, Albus would never have trusted her in the Deputy Headmistress’s position for this long.

Albus looked at her with a faint smile. “I know, my dear friend. But Remus came to me the night before the Leaving Feast. He said that he had changed into a werewolf because Severus was late with his Wolfsbane Potion, and he did it while Harry was still in his quarters.”

“But Harry didn’t—”

“No,” Albus reassured her at once. “That couldn’t have been kept silent. Apparently, what happened was that Harry managed to run away, and then Severus came in and managed to subdue Remus after a battle that destroyed a few of Remus’s personal possessions. But Remus, understandably, doesn’t trust himself around Harry anymore. Nor is he certain that Harry would want to be adopted by him.”

“Remus used that same excuse already. He thought he would lose control around Harry and he said that werewolves couldn’t be trusted with children. But I thought it was more of his refusal to see that he’s a perfectly reasonable person, certainly more reasonable than those Muggles Harry lives with.”

Minerva spoke the words through numb lips, though. It was incredibly different to think that Remus might do something than learning he already had.

Albus bent a gentle gaze on her. “Would it be better for Harry, to live with someone who already lost control around him once? Who could make his life worse than any Muggle ever could if Remus managed to bite him? Who concealed his connection to Harry’s parents almost all year, and only talked about it because you revealed the truth to Harry?”

Minerva looked away. She wanted to say that it would, to protest that Remus couldn’t know everything and Harry would at least be with someone who would never starve him or prevent him from learning about magic.

But he would be with someone who had attacked him once. Maybe that meant Harry would never feel safe.

And someone who had lied to him. Even though Minerva didn’t know as much about the Dursleys’ abuse of Harry as she felt she should, she had the feeling that once someone lost his trust, they lost it forever.

“We have to do something, Albus,” she insisted, while her stomach sank. “We can’t leave Harry there.”

Gently, he took her hand. “I am more than willing to do something, Minerva, but there is no legal or moral alternative I can find. Harry seems close with a few people, you told me, but no one who would be willing to shelter him over the summers. They have their own lives and their own duties.”

Minerva stood up so fast that she ripped her hand away from Albus’s and he leaned back to stare at her in surprise. “So everyone is going to ignore him because he’s just not convenient?” she hissed at him. “I’ll take Harry myself before I let him go back there!”

Albus simply sat still, gazing at her. Then he said, “My dear, if you think Harry will go with you, you are welcome to try.”

*

“No, thank you, Professor McGonagall.”

Harry had to work to keep from sounding puzzled. He knew Professor McGonagall meant well. But it was just strange for her to come up to Ravenclaw Tower right before they were getting ready to get on the Hogwarts Express and tell him she wanted to adopt him.

He could imagine, years ago, before he knew about his parents, jumping at the chance. But only his real parents had the right to be parents to him.

“Mr. Potter.” Professor McGonagall took a step towards him. Her face was agonized. Harry blinked. His first thought was that Professor Lupin had told the truth after all, but he really didn’t think so.

With a little wave of her wand, Professor McGonagall cast a spell that prevented anyone else from hearing anything, although Harry noticed Michael, the only other one still up in their bedroom, casting them glances as he packed. Then the professor bent down towards him.

Harry blinked. He could see compassion in her eyes that he thought was sincere, and dark, and blazing. It was the sort of emotion he would have hoped to see in Lupin’s face.

“I know your relatives mistreat you,” Professor McGonagall whispered, as if imparting a great secret. “I want to spare you that. I want to let you spend a summer in the wizarding world, and become the wizard you should become.”

Harry bit his lip to keep from laughing and stared for a moment at the floor. Cross sat on his shoulder, flicking his tail a little, and Amicus was in his pocket. There were mice layered all along his robes.

They’d proved themselves in battle. Well, not Cross. But he’d scared Vernon, which was all Harry wanted.

“They don’t mistreat me now,” Harry said, and he looked up. “They’re too afraid of magic. They didn’t try to take away the books that you sent me by owl, and they don’t starve me.”

Professor McGonagall paused, staring at him. Then she said, “People like that don’t change, Harry. They may be acting like they’re frightened at the end of the summer, but now that you’ve been gone a year, they might decide that they can hurt you again.”

Harry shook his head firmly. “Really, Professor McGonagall. That’s not it. They were afraid of me when I was younger, too. I just never saw it. But it got a lot worse when they saw I had a wand. And animals,” he added, because he doubted Professor McGonagall would miss the major difference of Cross and Amicus being with him. “Now that they’re so afraid, they won’t dare lay a hand on me.”

Professor McGonagall obviously brooded. Harry waited patiently for the next part of this. His main comfort was knowing it couldn’t last long, since they had to get on the Hogwarts Express soon.

He saw the moment when Professor McGonagall decided to throw caution away. Harry felt a little pang for her. It was like the moments when he was a child and had tried to make someone understand about the Dursleys.

Just like him, though, she wasn’t going to succeed.

“I know they’ve done worse than mistreat you physically,” Professor McGonagall said. “They’ve made you think that you can’t trust and rely on adults for help, that we’ll only turn you away and hurt you. I’ve tried to find someone else to adopt you, Harry. I’m sorry my efforts have come to nothing. I hoped Professor Lupin would do it, especially after he came here for a year and met you, but—well. He has his reasons that make it difficult for him to do that.”

Lupin is a disgusting coward. I would never consent to go with him anyway.

But Harry knew he wasn’t supposed to be too upset Lupin was a werewolf, so he kept his face sober and just nodded, and Professor McGonagall went on like a soldier. “I’ve left it shamefully long. I was trying to find a legal method that would let the person who took you in keep you and not just send you right back to the Dursleys if the Wizengamot got involved. But now I’m near the end of my patience.

“I’m ashamed of myself. I should have offered to take you right away.” Professor McGonagall looked him in the eyes. “But I’m doing the best I can to make up for that mistake. Please let me do it.”

Harry felt a sharp aching in his heart. She did want to make up for it. He thought Professor McGonagall was one of the few sincere and trustworthy adults he’d ever met in his life.

And she’d taught him so much about Transfiguration. Maybe if it had been right after his first year, Harry would have considered it.

But even if he stayed at Hogwarts with her for the summer, Harry knew she would have a much closer eye on him, and he wouldn’t be able to do what he needed to. And she might not even stay at Hogwarts for the summer. Harry had heard rumors, and in some cases facts, about most professors having houses elsewhere. He didn’t want to be confined in a little house with Professor McGonagall clucking over him.

“It’s better now,” he said, and looked at her as firmly as he could. “Better. I know it’s not ideal that they’re afraid of me, but—”

I think it’s ideal.”

Harry blinked, then grinned. Yes, it was too bad that he couldn’t make a real ally of Professor McGonagall.

“I mean, ideal under the circumstances, which are very far from so.” Professor McGonagall stared at him again, then sighed. “I don’t want to force your choice, Harry. I think enough people have already done so.”

Harry nodded slightly. “Thank you.”

“But please send one of your—friends—to contact me as soon as you can,” said Professor McGonagall. “If something happens that you want help with. If they hurt you. Ifanything changes.”

“Thanks, Professor McGonagall. I will.”

Professor McGonagall wavered for a moment as if she hadn’t used up all her questions. Then she surprisingly hugged Harry, as tightly as she could, before she turned and hurried out of Ravenclaw Tower.

“Harry? The train’s almost ready to leave.”

Harry nodded to Michael and went to pick up his trunk, still staring after Professor McGonagall. She really had wanted to rescue him. She really had wanted to do something other than just leave him with the Dursleys.

No one else in his life had ever wanted to do so much.

But Harry smoothly turned his thoughts aside before it could become a distraction. It was like flying: a nice thing that couldn’t be allowed to matter that much, because it wasn’t his parents.

Long before the Express reached London and Terry and Anthony and Neville had stopped saying good-bye to him for the summer, Harry had come up with an idea that he knew should handle the thoughts of flying, focus him some more on helping his parents, and help him get a little revenge. At the very least, it should be interesting.

*

Dear Harry, please tell me if you can come for a visit. Gran said you could, and I’d like to have you over…

Harry smiled and shook his head over Neville’s letter. It was wonderful of Neville to want to invite him. Harry could imagine a time when he would have given the world to have a friend like this, to spend a night over at their house.

Mostly in primary school, though. When he was years away from magic and even knowing his parents were alive, years away from the person he was now.

Harry wrote his polite refusal quickly, glancing at the patiently waiting owl. He didn’t want to keep it waiting, but it was nice to study its talons and golden eyes from this close. This bird made less of a fuss about it than the ones in the Owlery had when Harry had gone up to watch them.

Sorry, Neville, I don’t think I can convince my relatives to let me go to a wizard’s house during the summer. You know how they are…

Neville did indeed have some hint of how they were, thanks to Terry. And this time it was an advantage, Harry thought cheerfully, as he watched Neville’s owl fly away again and studied the curve its wings made against the air. Harry didn’t have to lie and pretend everything was fine. His relatives could be his excuse in another way.

I do enjoy having friends, Harry thought, as he fell back on the bed and picked up his book on birds, pausing to pet Cross. Cross was full-grown now, an adult black cat with the white cross on his chest looking almost like a gallows. He purred absently at Harry and went back to sleep. I like working around them and helping them.

The book was about raptors. Harry was devouring all sorts of information on hawks and eagles, owls and falcons. The local library had plenty of books like that, and none of the librarians thought it was an odd interest for someone his age.

Harry had decided he wanted a bird. It would serve several purposes. Harry didn’t have any flying animals, and this one could be a spy and perhaps protect him from surprise attacks like the one Snape had managed to make on him. It could help him take revenge. It could help him in battle in unexpected ways. If Harry chose an owl, he would have a messenger, too.

And he would be able to fly with it.

Harry had decided. He’d found himself thinking more and more about brooms since that day when Neville and Terry had seen him fly. They weren’t pushy about getting him on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, but the way they talked made Harry actually wake up from dreams of flight.

The distraction had to be handled somehow.

A bird would do that for Harry. Terry would probably even approve of the notion that Harry could fly with it because he would think it might get Harry noticed some more by the Quidditch team. And Harry could pass off a lot of the training he wanted to do with the bird as healthy exercise.

Harry would still have to study, partially because he didn’t know what kind of bird he wanted yet and because a bird’s brain was different from the brains of all the animals he’d looked at so far. They had different kinds of intelligence and different places it was in the brain, as far as Harry could tell. Harry wasn’t yet as skilled as Professor McGonagall, to be able to transform whatever he wanted into whatever animal he wanted. He still needed to spend lots of time imagining it, and then transform some kind of specific collection of objects.

But that would come. The Dursleys left Harry alone except for scared glances when he came out of his room to eat or drink or use the loo or walk to the library. Harry sometimes wished people at school would do the same thing.

Well, not his friends. And the Gryffindors who sometimes asked him for help with homework were welcome, too. Harry had never forgotten that he really should have been in Gryffindor.

But if the Slytherins could go away forever, that would be brilliant. Since the Memory Charm, Snape had spent more time scowling at Harry, but they’d only had one exam and one class left, so he hadn’t had much time to yell.

Harry knew that Snape didn’t remember, though. Otherwise, he would already have wreaked some revenge on Harry, subtle or not.

“It doesn’t pay for people to get on the wrong side of me, does it?” Harry whispered to Amicus as he turned pages. “All sorts of people are learning that. Although only some of them remember it.”

Amicus curled his tail around Harry’s wrist and went back to dozing. He slept a lot when they were in Privet Drive and he didn’t have Hogwarts to run around in. Harry smiled and turned back to reading about a bird’s amygdala.

*

“The Triwizard Tournament!” Terry’s eyes were glowing, and he practically hopped around the Ravenclaw boys’ bedroom. Then he gave up even pretending to unpack, and just sprawled on his bed and sighed dreamily. “Can you imagine? How people would look at you if you won that?”

Harry just shook his head and went on putting his books back on the shelves. He thought he could imagine from the way people looked at Neville, and it seemed pretty unpleasant.

“I know!” Apparently Anthony felt the same way as Terry. “And what you could do with all that prize money?”

“I don’t think it sounds worth the danger,” Michael muttered. He was on his bed, cuddling his rat. His rat seemed to be sleeping a lot, like Amicus, Harry noticed. He would have to make sure Michael’s rat wasn’t sick. He didn’t want Amicus to catch anything, and since Harry had made him a normal rat in a lot of ways even if he was magically loyal and intelligent, he could still get sick.

“But it would be once you won!”

“What if you didn’t win?”

Harry settled into his bed with Amicus and Cross and a book on raptors. He had almost decided what kind of bird he wanted, or at least narrowed it to a few choices. At the moment, he had to make a choice between how noticeable he wanted it to be and how strong he wanted it to be. A bigger bird was going to be stronger and able to do more for him, but also more visible to his enemies.

“Harry?”

“Hmmm?” Harry stuck his head out from behind the book.

“You haven’t told us what you think of the Triwizard Tournament.” That was Anthony, surprisingly, turned towards him and nodding a little as if they all hung breathlessly on Harry’s every word, not Terry this time. But Terry was staring dreamily off into the distance, probably still contemplating the prize money. “Don’t you want to win? Aren’t you going to try to enter? You’re probably the best of us. You could Transfigure that age line they’re setting up into something else.”

Harry snorted. “No. I don’t want the attention or the money or eternal glory or whatever it is.”

“But why not?”

“Because it’s not worth it,” said Michael again. He had a book out himself, his Potions text. Harry sighed a little when he saw that. Snape didn’t pick on Michael as much as he did Neville or Harry, but he saw some of the lack of self-confidence in Michael that he did in Neville, so Michael was his third favorite target.

Someone ought to do something about Snape as a teacher, Harry thought vaguely, as he tried to go back to reading about peregrine falcons.

“I asked Harry, not you.”

Harry stuck his head around the book. “And you don’t need to sound like that when you do it, Anthony.”

Anthony flushed. “Sorry. I just—how can you not want this?”

“Because some people want different things,” Harry said coolly. “I want a family that doesn’t make me feel like coming back to Hogwarts all the time, and I want a home. And Michael wants a good mark in Potions for once and to study tonight. Leave him alone, why don’t you?”

Anthony fell silent for a second. Then he turned and started discussing the Tournament with Terry. Harry shook his head. At least they wouldn’t chatter at him about something so stupid as risking their lives for a bag of gold. There were better things to risk your life for.

“Thanks.”

Harry could barely hear Michael across the space between their beds, but he nodded to him. “You’re welcome.” He paused. Now that Michael felt better-disposed towards him, Harry could ask the question. “Is your rat sick? I noticed he was sleeping a lot.”

Michael smiled, maybe because someone had noticed. “No. But he always sleeps a lot when we come back to school. I think the train ride overwhelms him.” He turned back to his book, and so did Harry, and they read in companionable silence.

Well, silence except for the dreams of glory going on over on the other side of the room.

Glory. Was there ever a stupider motivation?

*

“…And we appear to have a fourth Champion. Neville Longbottom!”

Albus’s voice was choked. Minerva found herself starting to her feet. That was impossible, she thought. Neville didn’t have either the motivation or the magical strength to trick the age line and try to get into the Tournament!

“That can’t be right,” she said in an undertone to Albus, even as Neville wobbled to his feet and towards the side-room. “You know Neville didn’t try to get past the age line!”

“It appears we are all destined to be surprised by our Mr. Longbottom.” Severus was leaning back in his chair, a pair of dark creases between his brows as he watched. “Perhaps you shouldn’t be so surprised, Minerva, when you must know his rule-breaking tendencies better than any of us?”

Minerva glared at him. She knew, none better, that while Neville had indeed defeated a basilisk and stopped You-Know-Who from taking the Stone, those things had been done out of desperation. Neville had done it because he couldn’t find anyone who would believe him and take the burden off his shoulders. Minerva was still ashamed that she hadn’t been there for him when he tried to tell her about his suspicions about the Stone.

“This isn’t the sort of thing he would do,” Minerva said coolly, and walked swiftly towards the little room where the Champions were supposed to gather. She saw a student leave the Ravenclaw table, and started to move more briskly. If the people jeering were any indication, someone might actually attack Neville before he got to his destination.

But then she saw the student was Harry, and she slowed her steps to watch. She saw Harry reach out and put his hands on Neville’s shoulders.

“I know you didn’t do it. I believe in you.”

Minerva saw the words mouthed rather than heard them, but she knew what they must be, with her mind so sensitive and strained, and the way that Harry shook Neville once, firmly, before he stepped away, back to the Ravenclaw table. She shook her head and went to fetch Neville, who looked a little calmer.

In fact, Minerva felt as if someone had poured a bucket of muscle relaxant potion over her head. This eased some of her fears about Harry last year and his determination to stay with relatives who hated him. If he could still care for someone not related to him by blood, he wasn’t in as desperate a case as she’d thought.

And if Neville had a friend, then he might well survive this Tournament Minerva was sure he hadn’t entered.

Her arm around his shoulders, Minerva escorted Neville in to face the angry questions.

*

“You don’t believe Longbottom did it?” Terry asked for the fifth time as they came down the stairs from Ravenclaw Tower.

Harry sighed. He was getting tired of answering this. “Look, Terry,” he said, as he nudged the sleepy Amicus closer to his neck on the left side, and then had to adjust his right shoulder to give Cross room, “you know what Neville is like. Not very self-confident. Do you think he deliberately crossed the age line and did something that would put him in the Tournament? Not to mention, how did he fool the Goblet of Fire into thinking Hogwarts needed a second Champion?”

“I don’t know,” Anthony said, joining the conversation. “But he is the Boy-Who-Lived. Maybe he did it with ancient magic we don’t know about.”

Harry moved away in silent disgust. Terry could at least argue with Anthony instead of him.

When they crossed the entrance hall to go to breakfast, someone shouted his name. Harry turned around. It was Seamus, standing with a small group of other Gryffindors. Harry walked over to them, noting Neville wasn’t with them.

For once, Seamus looked grim. “Look, Harry,” he said. “I know how close you are to Neville. You can tell us. What did he do to fool the age line?”

“Nothing,” Harry said. “He didn’t want to be in the Tournament. He didn’t put his name in the Goblet.”

“Oh, bollocks,” said Ron. “Who wouldn’t want to be?”

Harry leaned a little to the side. Cross was sitting on the shoulder closest to Ron. He had plenty of room to slap Ron on the cheek with his paw, claws sheathed.

Ron actually reeled back from the sheer force of the slap. He stared at Harry, too startled to be angry. Harry nodded calmly at the other Gryffindors, who all seemed stupefied.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” he said. “Of course Neville didn’t do it. You ought to know that if you know anything about him.” He paused. “It’s a sad day when a Ravenclaw believes more in a Gryffindor’s integrity and courage than his own House does.”

Harry turned and stalked back to the Ravenclaws, while Amicus squeaked in amusement on his shoulder. For the first time, Harry wondered if the Sorting Hat had been right not to want to put him in Gryffindor. If this was all it took to make them turn their backs on a friend…

But there was more and worse than that, as Harry saw when they came into the Great Hall.

A lot of people were wearing badges that flickered on their chests. Harry took a close look when he realized Cho Chang had one, too.

Support Cedric Diggory, it said, The Real Hogwarts Champion. Then Chang turned a little to the side, and her arm brushed against the badge. In a second, the letters changed, bleeding from red to green.

Longbottom Stinks!

Harry stepped back and looked Chang in the eyes. She turned pale so quickly that Harry suspected he wasn’t doing a good job of hiding his real expression again. He turned back to his food, shaking his head.

“You’ve had three and a half years in school with Longbottom,” he told the air. “And who made those badges, anyway? I’d have thought better of people here.”

“Well, I mean, we didn’t make them,” Chang said, almost whispering. She winced when Harry glanced at her. “Malfoy did.”

Of course. Malfoy. Harry ate his breakfast thoughtfully. He would have to do something about Malfoy, who didn’t bully Harry as much anymore but still sneered at Neville and would make seemingly random remarks about St. Mungo’s when Harry went by.

But his revenge would have to wait. For now, he had more important things to do, like supporting Neville, who had walked in and stood by the door, staring around at everyone. He was trying to hide his trembling bottom lip, but it wasn’t working very well.

Harry snagged several pieces of toast and a few apples and wrapped them up in a napkin, then walked over to Neville. Neville brightened a little when he saw him coming, and tried to say something. Harry touched his arm instead and took him outside.

They could talk in more privacy out there, and Harry thought Neville would eat better without the constant staring eyes.

*

“Why did none of them believe me? All right, I mean, Hermione did. And you. But no one else. Why?”

Harry spent a moment finishing up the apple, which he’d offered to both Amicus and Neville but which neither of them wanted, and breaking a few crumbs of toast into his hand for Cross. Then he said, “Look, Neville, I’m going to tell you something. It’s not nice, but it’s the way things are.”

Neville gave him a desperate smile. The lightning bolt scar on his forehead shone red through his pale hair. “I think I’ve had a lot of experience in things not being nice right now.”

Harry watched him for a second, then nodded. “A lot of people don’t have a huge audience,” he said. “I mean, their family and friends pay attention to them. But not much of anyone else. And they think that having a huge audience would give them anything they wanted.”

He paused. Neville was listening with such attention that Harry felt as if he was pouring water and not words into his ear.

“You’ve lived with the audience since you were a baby. You know what it’s like. But most of them don’t. All they can think of is that they would like fame, and they would take any chance they could to increase the fame. You should have heard my roommates talk about the Tournament. They couldn’t begin to grasp that some people wouldn’t want the glory and the money.”

“I have plenty of money,” Neville whispered. “I don’t even need it.”

“And that’s another reason that accusing you of putting your own name in is absolutely ridiculous. Anyone who knows you would realize that you’re the last person who needs anything out of the Tournament. I’m sorry most of them don’t know you.”

“How do you know this, Harry? I mean—I heard about you a lot, because Gran would talk about your parents, but not many people know who you are.”

Harry nodded slowly. “It’s because I got stared at and talked about when I was with my relatives. But that was because they made everyone think I was a criminal. It was fame of a sort. But not anything I ever wanted. And being noticed—people think it’s more magical than Transfiguration. Well, they’re wrong. Nothing is more magical than Transfiguration.”

Neville smiled weakly. “For you, I know that’s true.” He hesitated. “Harry—your relatives sound so awful. Why do you stay there?”

“They’ve got less awful as I grew up. We have an understanding now.”

“But you could come visit. Gran would love to have you.”

Not on your life. From the way Neville talked about his Gran, she would notice things like Harry’s claws and extra muscles too easily. And Neville’s house wasn’t big enough to retreat from her the way Harry could retreat from Professor McGonagall in between classes.

“I’ll think about it,” Harry said. “I just don’t want to put you to any inconvenience, you know.”

Neville’s face turned pale. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Gran is awful about inconvenience.” He shivered.

Harry shivered in turn. He had suddenly wondered if some of the problems Neville had with self-confidence didn’t come just from being expected to save the world.

But Neville didn’t look as if he wanted to say anything else about his Gran for now, either. He munched on the second apple with large bites and stared at the greenhouses and sighed.

“I love Herbology like you love Transfiguration,” he mumbled. “I wish they would just leave me alone and let me get on with growing plants.”

Harry nodded. He didn’t want to correct Neville’s assumption that Harry just loved Transfiguration for its own sake. Sometimes, Harry thought he did. But more often, he thought of his parents.

He became aware Neville was mumbling to himself, and he turned around to listen.

“I wish things were different. I wish I wasn’t the Boy-Who-Lived. I wish Mum and Dad were alive. Sometimes I even wish I was dead. That way, there would be no one to care what I did.”

“I think it’s a good thing people care what you do,” Harry said quietly, and Neville blinked and turned towards him. “But the way they do it isn’t always a good thing. I’m going to do something about Malfoy and Snape, though.”

Neville laughed, a little uneasily. “The way you say that, Harry, I almost believe you.”

“I’m going to do it.”

“Just—don’t hurt them, okay?” Neville looked embarrassed a second later. “I know you wouldn’t. But sometimes you look as though you would.”

Harry smiled and made a joke, and stayed as close to Neville as he could as they walked back to their first classes. He offered Neville Cross to take with him if he wanted protection, but in the end, Neville refused and stalked off with his head held high. Harry watched him until he knew he would be late for Charms if he lingered any longer, and then took off running.

His mind buzzed with plans as he did. Transfiguring the badges would probably have been easy enough, since Harry could summon the passion to master the object-to-object Transfiguration when he was this angry, but it wouldn’t have been enough to punish Malfoy for what he’d done.

And then there was Snape…

Harry paused, as a bit of reading he’d done about birds came back to him.

There might be a way to take revenge after all, he thought, as he settled in the back of Flitwick’s class and waved absently to Terry, who was sitting near the front. But it’ll take getting my bird ready first.

*

The hostility of the school settled down into a background buzzing, still unpleasant but manageable, Minerva thought. The Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students were at least going ahead with their own preparations and largely ignoring Neville. Cedric Diggory, the Hufflepuff Champion, was doing his best to get his own House to not wear the badges young Mr. Malfoy had created.

Minerva was able to give Mr. Malfoy detention for bragging about his badges in class and disrupting one of her lectures—a satisfaction, if a small one.

But the hostility wore on Neville anyway. He came to their training sessions more pale and quiet than he had been in the past year. Minerva thought the lack of any sort of attempt on Neville’s life last year had heartened him a little.

Still. One event like this, and he got thrown back into the doldrums Minerva had spent so much time trying to rescue him from.

Minerva sighed, and ignored the temptation to turn Severus’s hair tiger-striped when he bragged about his Slytherins and ran down Harry and Neville in private conversation, and soldiered on.

*

Harry settled back and studied the collection of objects in front of him for a minute. Yes, someday he would be able to transform any object into any animal the way Professor McGonagall did. But that was for the future.

He stretched and gently took Amicus and Cross off his shoulders to put them on the floor of the dungeon workroom. It had taken him longer to do this than he’d thought, because he’d also been helping Neville study for the First Task and try to find a spell that would work on dragons. Neville had run into Ron’s older brother, a Dragon-Keeper, one day, it seemed, and figured out the Task from there.

But now. Harry had golden forks laid out for the legs. He had shining quartz for the eyes. He had a curved blade for the beak. He had small shaped curls of parchment for the feathers. He thought he had done pretty well, given the other calls on his attention and time.

Harry took out his wand, full of anticipation. And then he heard a little sound from the side. He immediately leaped and turned and came down, heart crazy, thinking that someone like Malfoy had found the door that led into his workroom again.

But the sound was Amicus. He was jerking. Harry immediately rushed to his side and knelt down, casting some of the healing magic he’d studied.

Nothing happened. Amicus held up his front paws and squeaked softly. Harry took them, not sure what else he should do. There was—there were white dots on Amicus’s muzzle he had never noticed before, and his tail traveled back and forth more slowly, and—why hadn’t he noticed?

He’d spent too much time thinking about humans, not enough about his animals.

Amicus shuddered once more, and squeaked as if he was having trouble breathing. Then he turned to the side and laid his head against Harry’s fingers, and died.

Harry stared at him in silence. He had created a natural rat, in many ways, even though he was also supernaturally loyal and intelligent. And Amicus had aged, as rats did, and died of old age.

Rats only lived a few years.

Harry had known that. He simply hadn’t thought it would apply to him.

He stood. He knew his wand was in his hand. He knew his head was a rotating mess of thoughts, scraps blowing around a center, crystalline whirlwind. He knew he turned to the collection of objects in the corner without a clear idea of what would come next.

And he aimed his wand and spoke perfectly the incantation that had been hovering in the back of his mind all day. “Commuto abundantiam aquilam.

The image and magic in his head gave a great shudder, and poured out of his wand. They encircled the collection of objects. Harry knelt without meaning to, simply because the effort had been so great, and watched with silent, dazed eyes.

The feathers sprang up and attached themselves to the developing body, and there were many more of them now than Harry had thought there would be, pale brown ones and rushing dark ones and now and then a white. As Harry watched, the stones blinked into amber eyes, less kind and more alive than Lupin’s. The great wings rose and spread, and the hooked beak appeared, just the way he had imagined, so sharp that Harry knew it could bite through his fingerbones.

The bird took a step forwards, its right talon falling hard on the floor. Harry knew, because he’d looked it up, that a single careless squeeze of that talon could crush his hand.

The golden eagle he had chosen to create—not it, but she, because female eagles were larger than males—raised her head and moved it in a curving bob to the side, studying him with eyes incapable of sorrow. Harry knew she was probably deciding whether he was food or not, whether he held any interest for her, or whether he was blocking her way out the door.

Harry had used different spells on her, because he had to. Bird brains were different from mammal brains, and the most useful books he’d found were on falconry. You could work with an eagle, but you didn’t tame it the same way you did a cat.

Or a rat, Harry thought, and the blast of grief that went through him meant he had to look harder and longer into the eagle’s eyes, because she offered him an alternative to simply sitting there and mourning Amicus.

One of the books he had read had said, “You must always remember that you do not teach her to kill; you teach her to return, and to accept you as her servant.”

Right now, the eagle had turned and was considering Cross, and Harry knew, for his sake, for hers, for Amicus’s, where they had to go.

He flung open the door of the workroom and began to run. He felt the eagle’s attention snap to him at once. Then he heard the beating of her wings, following him, drawn after him by the sight of running prey.

Harry began to spring when she got close, trusting in his Transfigured muscles to keep him out of the reach of her claws. He didn’t look back. He had the mice running on either side of them, and he could only trust that they would warn him of someone coming down the corridor in time, as well as manage to avoid her talons.

He leaped up the stairs to the entrance hall and turned that way. He thought he heard her wingbeats hesitate for a beat behind him, as if she was afraid of the open air.

And then she sailed straight past him and up, and up.

Harry didn’t bother tracking her with his eyes. He ran to the Quidditch pitch instead, and the small shed of school brooms kept for the flying classes. He easily Transfigured the lock into a mouse, the one transformation he could do on any object now, and dragged out the broom nearest the front.

The rotating grief in his head had settled down to a focused eddy, and Harry replaced even that a moment later with the real wind, stinging past him as he soared up to her level.

It wasn’t dark yet; Harry had snatched an hour for his work before dinner, considering the study sessions he’d probably be involved in afterwards. And he was glad as he watched his eagle rise, reaching the height where she could circle and glide, her wings flung back and the sunset gilding her pale feathers.

It was cold this high, and with the November air. Harry didn’t give a damn. He rode, and watched the eagle flying, turning her head towards the ground on a regular basis, looking for something to hunt.

Something else Harry had read came back to him: birds of prey were all hunt. They didn’t know how to calm down. There was the moment when they were hunting, and the moment when they were eating, and otherwise they weren’t really alive.

Teach me to be like that, Harry told her without words. Teach me to be alive again.

The eagle gave a soft, surprisingly melodic chirrup and tilted a little to the side. Harry looked down. He had no idea what she’d spotted. They were high up enough that the pitch had become a smear of green, and an eagle’s eyes were so much sharper than his.

That’s something that will have to change.

He had to think of the future, not the past, or he would start remembering—

The eagle tilted and dropped.

Harry followed her without thinking, watching as her wings curved and parted the air, watching as she thrust her head forwards and now and then, as he could just see from the side when he drew level, her eyes blinked. She was flying now with a zig to the side, and when Harry looked down, he saw a sharp burst of motion.

A rabbit. At least not someone’s pet cat or Cross. Harry wouldn’t have to deal with that—

And then he lost all sense of moral concerns, of the larger world, as he watched her throw her feet out in front of her and bind to the rabbit, spilling it the ground, flipping over once as the rabbit kicked and drummed. Her feathers flew up around her like ornaments. She stabbed once with her feet, and ducked her head once, and the drumming stopped.

She turned to look at Harry as he landed beside her, and screamed.

Harry stood there, listening to the high sound. His breath was short, but he no longer felt as if he might come near tears, and the whirl in his head had stopped.

He stood there and watched her dig into the rabbit, beak coming up red, her feathers rising and fluffing out. He thought he could see a slight calmness in her eyes, but they remained wild.

Wilder than Cross’s or Amicus’s. Different from Amicus’s, which was something Harry needed right now.

He had at least two things from this evening, he thought. The knowledge that some of his more powerful and creative magic could come out of grief.

And a friend who could fly.

Harry waited until she had finished feeding, and then decided to see if the other qualities he had imagined in her worked. He held out his arm and caught her eye, then flexed his fingers a little.

It took a lot of concentration to stand there as she flew at him, talons still covered in blood and fur. She landed on the patch of skin on his shoulder he had hardened in anticipation of this, and Harry still winced. He would have to get a special glove and arm-rest, or else he would have to harden more skin.

She stared at him, and Harry stared back, breathing slowly. She was a companion, but she wasn’t tame. Her eyes had none of the savagery of the werewolf’s, but she could still attack. It would just be for a better reason.

“Your name is Yar,” he told her, thinking of the cry she’d given when he landed beside the rabbit.

Yar lifted one foot to clean it of fur, ignoring him. Harry moved slowly towards the school, leaning a little to the side to balance the immense weight.

Later. Later he would come back to the dungeon workroom, and he would take Amicus’s body, and bury it. For now, he had a winged ally to settle. He could accept the congratulations of his friends, who knew that Harry had been trying to Transfigure a bird.

And now that he had Yar, he could get on with some of his plans to help Neville in the Tournament—and get revenge.

Harry couldn’t find it in him to smile, but when Yar peered ahead at the school in a way that anticipated the future, he could do the same thing.

Chapter Text

Harry watched as Neville stepped slowly forwards to confront the Hungarian Horntail. No matter how many plans they’d discussed, Harry knew Neville still wasn’t very confident. He hadn’t known if he could perform the spells they’d found, and he was only right to be terrified of a dragon.

That was why Harry hadn’t told him about the little addition to the Task he’d planned on. Neville was honorable, anyway. He would probably think it was cheating.

The Hungarian Horntail lowered her head and made a sound like all the air in the world being pulled in. Neville’s knees shook a little. He raised his wand and tried to speak a curse, probably the Conjunctivitis Curse, but Harry could already see it wouldn’t come out.

Harry held up his arm and waved his hand, giving a shrill whistle. No one noticed, since so many people were shouting, and the dragon was rapidly building up to a roar.

Yar stooped from above and behind, aiming straight at the dragon’s tail. It hadn’t taken much training to convince her to do this; it was a moving thing below her on the ground, and she could hunt it. In seconds Harry lost sight of her. She was behind the Horntail now, which meant that most people wouldn’t notice her, either.

The Horntail shrieked abruptly as eagle talons dug into her tail. She lunged around and stamped a paw down. The crowd shrieked in turn.

Harry stiffened. An eagle’s natural instinct was to bind to its prey, wrap its feet around it and stay there while it fed. He had done some training with Yar that he’d hoped would get her over that, but he didn’t actually know if it would. He hadn’t had the chance to see, not for sure. He leaned back in his seat.

The dragon’s tail whipped up into the air. There was nothing on it. Harry relaxed again.

Neville shook his head as if he was waking up from a trance, and aimed his wand. “Accio golden egg!” he shouted, the spell that Harry had coached him on using after the Conjunctivitis Curse. The Summoning Charm was one that Neville was pretty good at, since he’d got extra tutoring from Flitwick and it wasn’t violent magic.

(Harry wondered if he was the only one who had noticed that the more violent the magic was, the more Neville hated it. He had almost fainted when Professor Moody had them duel with some strong curses in class the other day).

The dragon swung around again with a roar as the egg went speeding past her and slammed into Neville’s arms. Neville didn’t look at her. He just ran as fast as he could, and the dragon’s blast of fire didn’t do more than give him a hotfoot.

Harry leaned back and closed his eyes. His friend had survived the First Task, and Yar had got away. That was all he cared about right now.

*

“I know you helped me.”

Harry paused and turned to look at Neville, who was standing next to his table in the library. Harry had started reading more about the Cruciatus Curse after Professor Moody had showed it to them in class the other day. He needed to know the side-effects and how people had tried to cure it in the past, he had finally realized, or he wouldn’t be able to do much for his parents either.

“What do you mean?” Harry asked.

Neville sat down in front of him and looked intently into his eyes. Harry could see why some people hadn’t noticed his lack of confidence. When Neville wanted to, he could be intense. And sometimes his scar and the eyes combined were compelling.

“I know you helped me during the First Task,” Neville repeated. “I didn’t tell anyone because I don’t want them to know where Yar comes from. I appreciate it. But don’t do it again.”

Harry nodded once. Terry and Neville were the only ones he had told about creating Yar. The rest of the time, he either trained outside with her, in the Forbidden Forest so everyone would just think she was a wild eagle, or she flew around and hunted things on her own. It was good for her. She was getting stronger and faster.

“Harry, do you hear me?”

“I nodded, didn’t I?” Harry sighed. “Sorry. I was afraid of what would happen to you. I didn’t know you would get the highest score of anybody.” The judges had argued for a long time, but had finally decided that it was really impressive that Neville had performed some sort of spell to distract the dragon they hadn’t even seen, and had awarded him a lot of points.

“I appreciate it,” Neville repeated. “But I really want to survive on my own.” He spent a moment gnawing his lip, and then said, “I have to prove that I’m good enough on my own to survive V-Voldemort.”

Harry gave him a smile. “I understand, Neville. Thanks for being understanding about it this time.”

Neville nodded and left. Harry settled back and thought for a second. No one knew what the Second Task was going to be like yet, except for the judges. No one had figured out what the golden egg meant yet.

But Harry knew he would have to be careful during the other Tasks to help Neville without him seeing it.

*

Severus sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and counted his breaths. It was a useful technique when he was feeling particularly out of sorts, which was the case after the training session he’d had with the Brat-Who-Lived today.

The boy simply could not hold his head up. He stared at Severus in terror and squeaked when Severus tried to show him countercurses, never mind curses! He would not pay attention to Potions brewing that Severus knew, based on his marks in Herbology, he ought to have been able to do easily.

It was enough to nearly make Severus wish Albus had not protected him from Azkaban all those years ago. He would probably be dead or soulless now, but at least he wouldn’t have to teach Longbottom.

This year, what with the extra chance that Longbottom would die in the Tournament and the disturbing pains in the Mark, Severus could finally say that Longbottom was more irritating than Potter.

A sharp headache began at once when he thought of that brat. Severus stood up and stalked across his office to fetch a pain remedy from his supply cupboard.

Potter stared at him with mocking green eyes, and did better than he’d ever done in his class. Severus knew that. But the mockery made him vanish the potions anyway and chide the boy and assign him detentions.

And Potter accepted the detentions without saying anything. As if what Severus did to him didn’t matter.

Severus shut his eyes as he felt the potion begin to travel down his throat, doing its subtle work on the centers of pain. The dittany would spread out and bring the pain under control, the tincture of belladonna would conspire to make him forget what had hurt, his breath would ease from the dilation on the lungs of the diced strangler vine…

Contemplating potions, Severus found it easier to return to what mattered. Not brats, but surviving, and brewing, and finding out the identity of his enemy.

Since the Retrocognition Potion had failed, he would have to try some other method.

*

Harry galloped outside the school. When he looked up at the Owlery and produced the shrill whistle he had perfected just for her, Yar came speeding down towards him from the top of the wall. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that although she could hunt on her own, she got more interesting and varied—and tasty—game when hunting with Harry.

Harry again tore over to the broom shed and removed a school broom from within it. By now, he’d flown with Yar so many times that his transition to the air was almost instantaneous. One moment he was part of the ground, the next he was part of the sky, and soaring with her, winding up in spiral patterns that she mimicked.

It was late afternoon, cold enough that there were no Quidditch teams practicing, as they sometimes did despite the lack of Quidditch this year. Even the Gryffindors seemed less fanatical about that since their mad Captain had left school last summer—without the Quidditch Cup.

Terry had said that. But it wasn’t Terry or his continual plans for Harry to join the Quidditch team that bothered Harry now.

It was Padma, of all people.

Harry bent down over his broom and shot forwards. Yar was gliding beside him in seconds, that easy motion that didn’t seem fast until Harry looked down and saw the amount of ground her shadow was covering.

Harry vaulted up, vaulted down, and then dropped into a dive. Yar followed, her feathers sleeked back by the wind, her yellow eyes gazing intently forwards. There was snow beneath her; that didn’t dismay her. She rose again when she realized there was no prey at the end of his drop and this was a useless dive as far as she was concerned.

Harry kept going. The snow tumbled beneath him, rising. He could have stopped. He saw no reason to do so until he pulled out of the dive with his boots raising white, sparkling scuffles.

In seconds he was up again, twisting around, twisting, twisting. The air was dizzy and radiant in his eyes. He caught a glimpse of Yar, of a songbird streaking away from him, of an owl that was flying in with a message dodging him while it hooted in alarm.

When he was at gliding height again and he could calm down a little, Harry lined himself up with the broom and took a cleansing breath. The air was so cold, up here. He could think in more detail of what had happened without immediately wanting to scrape his skin off or the air out of his lungs.

Padma had asked him to the Yule Ball.

It was so ridiculous that Harry had simply stared at her. Padma, who had started with the confident smile she usually had in class, had stammered to a halt when she’d explained about his “mysterious charm” and how it affected her.

Harry had gone on staring until Padma had withdrawn, white and with tears brimming in her eyes. And Harry had come out here to fly it off.

Not because she had asked him. Harry could have said no and gone on with that well enough. It was the same thing he would say if asked to play Quidditch, or Gobstones, or anything that didn’t have to do with his ultimate goal.

But if other people thought he was “mysterious” and “charming,” if they were noticing him and he didn’t even notice them noticing, then he was in trouble. At any time, he might do something that would reveal himself or his goals, and it might be in front of someone who wouldn’t attack him the way Snape had. Instead, they could withdraw and report it to Dumbledore, or McGonagall, or something.

Damn it.

Harry finally sat up, and Yar circled towards him again. Harry nodded at her, studying her focused golden eyes for a second. This was the way he wanted to be. Yar and other eagles lived for their one purpose, and no one thought they were strange for it.

If I was an animal, certain things would be so much easier.

Of course, if he was an animal, he also wouldn’t be able to bring his parents back, so there were obvious disadvantages. But for the first time, Harry felt his interest stir at the thought of becoming an Animagus, instead of simply Transfiguring parts of himself as needed. He could spend time in an animal’s form then, and it would be a holiday from some parts of reality that were more stressful than he could deal with right now.

In the end, he flew to the ground and Transfigured a rabbit out of a clump of grass. It wasn’t the best rabbit ever, since it ran in a straight line unlike a normal rabbit and didn’t hop very well, but Yar didn’t care. She fell on the rabbit and rolled it, and Harry knew a moment of intense joy when she struck.

That was the joy he wanted. That was the joy he was going to have. Harry sat back slowly and closed his eyes, and listened to the sounds of Yar tearing.

He needed to get Professor Moody to show him the Cruciatus Curse again, and remind him of what his parents had suffered. He would need to get back on track.

*

Minerva closed her eyes and took a slow sip of the brandy. It had been a Christmas gift from Hagrid.

The fire was warm, the carpet thick, the book by the side of her chair welcoming. And still Minerva couldn’t read, because every time she closed her eyes, she saw Harry greeting his parents in St. Mungo’s for his Christmas visit.

James and Lily were the same as always. Staring eyes, wandering limbs, and drooling mouths. They hadn’t changed and wouldn’t, Minerva supposed, except for the changes of whitening hair and mouths falling in as they aged. So far, they still resembled the man and woman she had known in the Order of the Phoenix strongly enough to hurt her heart.

Harry, though…

He was half a meter taller than the edge of James’s bed now, when Minerva could remember him being almost the same height as it. He leaned forwards and talked to his parents with the same intensity, but in an even quieter voice. This time, he had brought his parents small Transfigured scenes in wood, scenes he had made first out of paper. The scene for James was of figures that looked like Harry and James flying on brooms.

The scene for Lily was simply an image of her sitting with a baby in her arms on a chair, smiling down at the child as if he was the center of the world.

Minerva closed her eyes now and drained the brandy the rest of the way. It burned and made her choke, but that was better than choking because of the pain.

She knew Harry could master object-to-object Transfigurations, but, it seemed, only of paper to wood. And only when it was for his parents, or perhaps other people he cared greatly about. Minerva assumed he had given Christmas presents to his friends, but she didn’t know.

And he talked to his parents with such hope in his eyes. Did he hope they would wake up someday? That they would hear him no matter how distant they were, locked behind doors of damaged brain tissue?

Minerva had tried to find out, as they left St. Mungo’s, asking Harry if he thought his parents could understand him. Harry had blinked at her and replied, “I don’t think so, Professor McGonagall. But it makes me feel better to talk to them.”

“I’m glad,” Minerva had said, and had reached out to squeeze Harry’s shoulder. It was the sort of gesture he would sometimes accept and sometimes not. This time, with him turned back to the hospital to stare at it, Minerva didn’t think he noticed. “But—forgive me, Harry. Can you foresee a time when it won’t make you feel better?”

She did wonder, from some of the books she had sometimes seen Harry carrying about, if he had accepted that his parents’ condition was permanent. Perhaps he hoped to learn Healing magic and cure them that way.

“Oh. No, Professor McGonagall.”

Harry’s voice was slow with suspicion. Minerva knew she couldn’t get away with asking these sorts of questions for much longer, not if she wanted him to think she was ignorant of how much the visits to his parents affected him.

But she dared one more. “Do you think your parents are going to get better on their own, Harry?”

“Not on their own, Professor McGonagall. Or it would have happened by now. No, I don’t.”

That didn’t answer the question of whether he believed Healers might come up with a miracle, but Harry had folded into himself the way he so often did after that, his open face closing, his eyes going bright and soft and remote, and Minerva hadn’t felt able to ask any more questions. She let it go, and let Harry go when they returned to Hogwarts—which he promptly did, vanishing in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower.

He rarely came to see her anymore.

Minerva closed her eyes. She had so many things to think well of Harry for. He had passions and interests outside Transfiguration, now. He had friends. Filius had said Harry was doing better in Charms, maybe because he was helping Neville study. Harry had told her he and his relatives had reached a kind of accommodation. At least he saw his parents now, and that was better than knowing they didn’t exist.

So why does it feel like I’m standing here and just watching as he rushes towards a cliff?

*

“You’re a strange one, Potter.”

But Professor Moody said it without any hostility in his face as he stood back to wave Harry into his office.

There were pictures of wanted wizards on the walls, and fewer books than Lupin had had last year. Harry glanced around once before he faced Moody.

“You said you’d show me on a spider again, sir.”

Moody nodded and drew his wand with a dry chuckle. “I didn’t imagine that you came here for the pleasure of my company, Potter.” He paused, and his magical eye rolled over and fixed on Harry with what Harry thought was a strange intensity. “Do you care for the class at all besides this one curse?”

Harry looked at him. He didn’t think there were a lot of adults he could tell the truth to, but this was one of them. “No.”

Moody chuckled again. “Maybe someday something will change that,” he said. “I think you could be an impressive student in Defense if you chose that path.”

“I already chose mine.”

Moody went still for a moment, studying Harry. Then he said, “I knew what I wanted when I was young. I had to sacrifice a lot to attain it. Do you think you can do the same thing?”

Harry felt himself smile. He wanted to tell Moody how much he’d already sacrificed, how much he had learned, how much he was going to do to free his parents from the clutches of the Cruciatus Curse.

But just because Moody was safe to trust with some truths didn’t make Harry stupid enough to trust him with all of them. He only inclined his head.

“You’ll be one to watch, and no mistake,” Moody murmured, with a soft look in his ordinary eye. “Well. Watch, then.” He took a spider from his pocket and once again performed the Cruciatus Curse on it.

Harry bent close to watch the spider’s limbs jerk. This time, he thought, he was really seeing how much the curse affected. The damage was spread throughout the body. It was no wonder his parents were so broken. They would have felt pain from their arms and hands and knees and heads, all at once, as well as their brains.

He glanced up. Moody was watching him, not the spider.

Harry was instantly cautious. Had he let down his barriers again, the way he accidentally had around Padma, and made someone think he was interesting? He said, “I suppose you think it’s strange to be interested in the Unforgivable Curses, sir.”

“Not at all,” said Moody dryly. “After all, a lot of Dark wizards are. And Aurors have to know them so we can capture the wizards who use them.”

Harry offered the truth that fooled everyone. “I want to know what kind of curse took my parents from me. I want to know what they felt.”

Moody’s eyebrows flew up. “Of course,” he said a moment later. “I knew your parents had been subjected to that curse. I knew it,” he repeated. Maybe he was thinking that he should have connected Harry’s interest in the curse to his Mum and Dad before.

Harry shrugged and turned back to study the new spider that was jerking under the new instance of the curse. Moody would only show him two at a time, because to cast more than that was physically draining.

Harry had an idea how he could use the physically draining thing, too. It would just take some work.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, when the spider was done. He stepped back and nodded to Moody and made for the door.

“You know nothing short of a miracle can heal your parents, Mr. Potter?”

“I know that.” And I’m going to be that miracle.

Moody leaned down, and his voice was hoarse in an odd way. “Just remember there are people in the world who can offer you that miracle, Mr. Potter. You only have to find them. And sometimes, you have to pay a high price. But I don’t think any price can be too high, for you.”

Harry studied Moody. He didn’t think Moody had taken an interest in him the way Padma had. He didn’t want to drag Harry into the middle of a stage and make people take notice of him.

No, instead Moody seemed to be thinking he could make someone else important to Harry. Whoever could promise miracles.

But Harry had no interest in following anyone or paying anyone or joining anyone. He made his voice polite as he said, “I would pay a high price.”

“Think about it,” Moody advised him, and opened his door. “When you’re ready to do more than think about it, come to me.”

Which would be never, Harry thought, and slipped out the door.

*

“I told you I was going to do it without your help!”

Neville was flushed and proud and sitting straight on the bench at the Gryffindor table. Harry grinned at him. He didn’t do that often, but Neville deserved it right now.

“Yeah, you did.”

The Second Task had turned out to be underwater. Harry had tried to figure out what he could do when he didn’t have an animal that could swim, and although he had studied fish a few times, he didn’t think he had time to Transfigure one before the morning came.

And then Neville had found gillyweed all on his own, with his Herbology knowledge, and succeeded in rescuing Ron.

Suddenly, though, Neville’s face fell. “I hope you aren’t angry that it wasn’t you,” he told Harry, leaning towards him.

“Angry that what wasn’t me?”

“Angry that you weren’t the one who was under the lake.” Neville looked the way he sometimes did, like he was writhing without moving. “I mean, I value you as a friend. I appreciate you a lot, Harry. It’s just that—Ron is there, and he’s my best friend, and he came back around to believing me after the First Task. You know?” By the end, Neville was almost babbling.

Harry just smiled. He didn’t know Ron that well, but he was a Gryffindor and Neville liked him. That was enough of a voucher for Harry. “No. It’s fine.” Besides, Harry had always known that the things that were important to him weren’t important in the same way to other people. Harry felt close to Neville because he was one of his few friends. But Neville had more friends than he did.

Neville sighed and nodded. “Thanks. I was worried about that.”

“You shouldn’t have been.” Harry clapped him on the back once and made his way over to the Ravenclaw table. Terry stood up as he came towards him, and gave him a little frown. Harry held back a groan. He knew what this would be about.

This was the kind of time when he wished he could have Yar swoop into the Great Hall and land on his shoulder and mantle at everybody, just so they would know not to mess with him.

“Harry,” said Terry, and then glanced over to the right. Harry looked. There was Roger Davies, looking at him with interested eyes.

“You heard that Diggory rescued Cho Chang from the lake?” Davies asked.

“I saw him do it.” Harry had really only been at the Second Task to see Neville compete, but of course that meant he’d seen Diggory come up, too.

“Right.” Davies looked daunted for a moment, which unfortunately didn’t last long enough for Harry to finish a mouthful of toast. “Well, she swallowed some water or had a bad reaction to the spells they used to keep her unconscious down there, I don’t know which. That means we’re without a Seeker for at least a week. She gets dizzy when she gets on a broom. I’d like you to work with us.”

Davies paused, probably to allow Harry to be overwhelmed with gratitude. Harry kept eating.

“Harry?” Terry was practically vibrating with energy.

“No.”

Davies blinked. Then he leaned forwards. “If you’re not confident about your lack of skill, it’s all right. I wouldn’t have given you a chance if I hadn’t seen you fly.”

“I don’t know the rules of the game. You would spend your time training me. And besides, I don’t care enough about it.” Harry smiled a little at Davies, and saw him recoil. Oh, it was one of those smiles, the kind that Neville had tried to get him to stop giving. Too bad. “Do you want to play with an indifferent Seeker?”

“No,” Davies whispered. His eyes were a little wide. Obviously, if Terry had warned him about it, he hadn’t warned him enough.

“Well, then,” said Harry, and went back to eating.

Davies got up after an uncomfortable few minutes and moved some seats down the table. Harry kept eating, and reached into a pocket for a book on Animagus training that he’d managed to get from the library. Apparently information on how to achieve the transformation was commonplace because they didn’t think many people would manage to do it.

Harry.” Terry poked him sharply in the side.

Harry looked up. “What?”

“I had to get up my courage to speak to Roger, and then you treat him like that?” Terry was so red he looked like he had a sunburn. “Most people would kill for a chance like this.”

“And I’m not most people.”

I would—”

“Then ask him if you can play trainee Seeker.”

“I’m not good enough. You are.”

“And I don’t care.”

Terry spent the rest of breakfast trying to talk to him about Quidditch. By now, Harry had practice in concentrating through the yelling of his relatives and the sound of the telly, and he read and absorbed. Terry finally sulked off to sit next to Anthony, and Harry went on reading.

The Animagus transformation is only to be completed under a trained supervisor.

Not bloody likely, Harry thought in peace, and turned another page.

*

Albus stood in the Owlery, watching as a golden eagle sat on the windowsill, ignoring the silence of the owls as it cleaned its feet.

Albus hadn’t taught Transfiguration classes on a regular basis for years, but he could still recognize a Transfigured creature when he saw one.

The odd thing was, no one else seemed to. Albus had heard a few remarks from other professors and students about an eagle flying among the owls, but they all seemed to assume it was a wild one, or else a half-tamed pet that had escaped some student’s control. As it didn’t hurt the owls or any other magical creatures, no one had objected to it.

Albus, though, wondered whether the sure sleekness of the lines, the way the eagle could exist and feed itself without constant supervision, wasn’t enough reason to object.

Minerva hadn’t created it. Albus would have recognized the glow of her magic around a corner with his eyes closed. They had been friends for too many years.

Besides him and Minerva, there were no masters of Transfiguration able to create such a bird in the school. And that meant it had probably been sent her by an outside force, as a spy.

And Albus could think of only one outside force who would do that.

This was the closest Albus had been to the eagle since he started seeing it. He had accustomed it to his presence by standing quietly and not trying to interrupt when it hunted. He thought he would soon gain enough of its trust to destroy it.

In fact, he might have enough of that now.

Sure enough, when he raised his wand, the bird paid no attention. Albus murmured the spell that would dissolve any Transfigured creature back into the components it had come from, whether that was a desk or a collection of leaves. “Finite commuto.”

The minute the spell left his wand, the eagle leaped off the windowsill and was gone. For a moment, as Albus moved forwards to study the flight path of the spell, he hoped the white light would catch up with the eagle and dissolve it in midair. That would be the cleanest and easiest solution.

Nothing of the sort happened. The spell was right behind the eagle, but all the bird did was rise and swerve, and the light earthed itself harmlessly in the broom shed. The next instant, the eagle was up and riding, and disappeared into the clouds.

Albus nodded slowly. That confirmed extra magic had been added to the eagle, rather than simply creating a natural bird out of whatever objects the caster had chosen. The bird had wit enough to recognize threats, and yet it hadn’t fled Hogwarts grounds. It was bound to stay here, on the orders of its master.

Albus would wait and ambush the eagle at a later date. At least its spying could do little harm now that he knew what it was.

He would watch on a higher level of alertness for the next Transfigured spy, the one that Tom might hope would escape detection. And he would step up the preparations for calling the Order of the Phoenix back together. Some of them had already started meeting on a regular basis to train Neville. It would be a small matter to increase the things he was asking them to do, including tracking rumors of a new Death Eater specializing in Transfiguration.

Shaking his head, Albus moved towards the stairs from the Owlery. His joints felt stiffer than they had in years. No matter what he did, the lures of greed and corruption, the main reasons people joined Tom, remained strong.

*

“What is it?” Harry whispered, stroking Yar’s feathers. She had landed on his left shoulder an hour ago—something he hadn’t prepared for, since his right arm was her usual perch—and torn the skin to ribbons. Harry had had to cast some healing spells, and had then tried to cast her back into the air.

She refused to go. She clung to him as he moved through the Forbidden Forest, searching out some more rare stones and leaves he could use as components in one of the potions he wanted to brew on his own, and Harry thought the passage of time would ease her nervousness.

But here Yar still was, her fierce face tucked against his neck. Harry stroked her again and decided something must have attacked her. Perhaps another eagle, but in that case, he thought she would have carried wounds. More likely magic. Maybe a student had got scared and used magic; maybe a teacher had decided no student should have a pet eagle and tried to capture her to trace her owner.

“You know I can find you if you go missing,” Harry said, and played with the edge of her tail, which Yar promptly fluffed out as if she wanted him to put his fingers in between the feathers. Harry smiled and did so. Yar lifted her head and shook out her wings, then flew from his shoulder to a branch and started scanning the leaves with intense eyes.

It had been a minor change, then. But Harry would take the lesson from it that the person who had cast at Yar probably hadn’t intended to teach him.

He would be even more careful, even more attentive to what other people thought of him, Harry thought as he forced his way deeper into the early March woods. And that included the next logical step of learning more about his parents.

*

Harry carefully unfolded the old Daily Prophet behind the cover of a huge Charms book. Neither Neville nor Terry were with him today. Terry had been spending more time with the Quidditch team, even after Chang had recovered, as if he hoped they would grant him a position out of pity.

And Neville had told Harry that Granger wanted him and Weasley to study with her. She seemed to think Neville had neglected his studying too much for the Triwizard Tournament.

Harry thought of telling Granger that Neville had only been trying to survive, but he refrained. He didn’t know Granger that well, but she had stood by Neville when almost no one else had. He wouldn’t antagonize her.

He had thought he would have more trouble finding the information he needed. As it turned out, it was almost—simple. All he had to do was ask Madam Pince, and she showed him the old stacks of yellowing newspapers.

It had proven slightly more trouble to find one that had the appropriate pictures and trial transcripts. But Harry knew the dates he wanted. He simply persevered, swooping up and down until he found them.

The description of the night that the Lestranges had cursed his parents, and how Black had dueled Pettigrew and died.

Harry gently touched the photograph of the young Sirius Black, who was posing with his dad in front of a wall with a plaque on it. Sirius had had wild eyes, even though he wore a formal robe in the photo. Harry could imagine him getting up to the sorts of pranks that Weasley’s brothers apparently did all the time.

I wish I could have known you, Harry thought. Once again, he was glad that his parents had survived, even if it had been horrible for them. This way, at least he could have the chance of knowing them once they were back to normal.

Sirius was gone forever.

And Lupin was alive but Harry wanted nothing to do with him, which was the worst of both worlds.

Harry sighed noiselessly—Lupin was a problem that he had dealt with—and turned the page. At once he saw the picture he had been looking for, although he hadn’t known what the people in it looked like when he began to read. He swallowed noiselessly and leaned forwards.

The picture showed a woman and two men, standing chained in what Harry assumed was a courtroom, although the background was blurry. The photographer had really wanted to just show the people.

The two men had scowls and faces stamped with marks of age and pain. The woman was beautiful in an insane way. She faced the camera and laughed with her mouth open. Her hair was long and dark, and her eyes were huge and dark.

Harry memorized the face, and then his eyes went to the caption.

Bellatrix Lestrange, with her husband Rodolphus and her brother-in-law Rabastan, facing the Wizengamot.

Bellatrix had a memorable face. Harry read a little of the article and wasn’t surprised to find out she was related to the Blacks. She did look like Sirius.

But while Sirius had done his best to reject the evil he’d grown up with and chosen to be in Gryffindor, it sounded like Bellatrix had been happy and proud to bow down in front of Lord Dudders.

And to torture my parents.

Harry touched the edge of the picture with his finger. He was keeping his emotions to himself. He held them and they shook him, but he was their master. If he hadn’t been, he would have torn up the photograph.

Instead, he read all the articles he could find about the Lestranges and his parents’ torture and how long the Lestranges had been sentenced to Azkaban, and then he returned the papers to their proper places. His mind blazed with faces as he went out to fly and be with Yar, Cross scampering at his heels to play with a string dangling off Harry’s robes.

I am going to make them pay. They won’t even know who I am or where I’m coming from, but they will pay.

That day, as he flew with Yar and watched her scan the ground for prey, Harry felt as if he understood her better than ever.

Chapter Text

“You could be a better student if you only applied yourself.”

Harry blinked and stood up, his hand on his wand and his pocket boiling with mice, for a second before he caught himself. The voice had startled him. He hadn’t expected to hear it in the library.

But for whatever reason, there Professor Moody was, looming in front of him, hands on his hips as he stared down at Harry. He had both eyes firmly fixed on him instead of having the magical eye watch out behind him for danger, which was unusual. Harry’s senses felt as though they were tingling with the intensity that he concentrated on Moody back.

“I read your essay,” Moody whispered harshly. A flick of his wand, and a faint, shimmering wall like a bubble appeared to cut them off from the rest of the library. Harry was pretty sure it was a shield that would keep anyone from overhearing them.

“You may fool the rest of the professors, but you don’t fool me anymore,” Moody said, taking a step towards Harry that made his wooden leg thump. “You’re perfectly capable of doing anything you want to. You understand the theory.”

“Theory and practice aren’t the same.” It was something Snape said over and over again in class whenever Michael didn’t brew a potion right. Harry had never thought he would be grateful to Snape for an aphorism.

“Theory’s more than half of practice,” Moody retorted. “The people who cast spells without knowing what they’re doing, ones they can’t handle, ones that they think are good countercurses when they just magically exhaust them and don’t get rid of the threat…they’re the ones in trouble.” He took another step forwards. Harry judged the jumping angles and the way he could lunge, where his claws would land on Moody’s body if he did. “Why are you holding yourself back?”

“I’m not holding myself back, Professor. I just don’t care that much about Defense.”

Harry had thought the truth would calm Moody down. He seemed to be pretty good at sensing lies. But instead, Moody pointed his wand straight at him. Harry’s legs twitched wildly, but he managed to keep from leaping. Moody hadn’t cast at him yet.

“You should. With what’s coming, what any sane wizard knows is coming, you should.” Moody leaned towards him, eyebrows bristling like the hair on Cross’s back when he got upset. “I’m going to test your reflexes, Potter. And I damn well want to see what you’re keeping up your sleeve.”

At the moment, Harry didn’t have any animals up his sleeve, but he also had the feeling that Moody hadn’t meant it that literally. His legs twitched again anyway. He wanted to Obliviate Moody. He wanted to strike at him. He hated being cornered.

But at the same time, he didn’t want to do anything that would confirm Moody’s suspicions. Harry only said plainly, “You said something about help once before, sir. Someone who could perform miracles.”

Moody paused and held his wand back a little. “Ah. You’ve thought about that, Potter?”

A strike to the hand, to take his wand away, then a leap to the side and a strike for the hamstrings. Now that he had a battle plan in mind, Harry was a little calmer. “Yes, sir. But I don’t trust someone who claims to perform miracles. Some people have told me they can. It always ends up the same way.”

“What way?”

Harry considered Moody. He didn’t trust him the way he did Professor McGonagall, but on the other hand, that lack of knowledge meant he might be able to pass off half-truths as the whole truth.

He took a step towards Moody and lowered his voice. Moody promptly bent down in front of him, magical eye almost sitting still in his face.

Harry whispered, “I don’t like my relatives. They treated me horribly just because I had magic and they didn’t. I tried to get some people to help, like some of my teachers when they were in the Muggle world. And it always came to nothing. I learned not to trust anyone who promised a miracle.”

Moody was smiling, or at least doing the sort of clenched grimace that Harry thought was the closest he could come to a smile. Harry still didn’t like being this close to anyone who wasn’t an animal or his parents, but he could put up with it for a little while longer.

“I think you would like the man I have in mind. Not only is he magically powerful, he was raised by Muggles who hated him and didn’t understand him, either,” Moody breathed. “He is…incredible. He trusts few people, like you do. But he never held back in school, Potter. He knew he had to apply himself if he was going to become an important person.”

I don’t want to be an important person. I just want to heal my parents.

Harry consented to give a small shrug of his shoulders. “But why would he want to help me? I’m just a student who can’t do a whole lot for an adult who’s that strong.”

“Right now, he’s at the mercy of his enemies,” Moody said. “But he could return to power more easily with help. He would be able to achieve it on his own. Never doubt that!” His voice rang out solemnly. “But it would be easier with help.”

I don’t think much of this power he’s talking about. And isn’t Moody supposed to be an Auror, loyal to the Ministry? He can’t be talking about the Minister or the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement or anything like that.

Having entered the game, though, Harry knew he couldn’t back out immediately. It was like the time he had tricked Dudley’s friend Piers into believing something horrible would happen if he touched Harry. He had to keep up the pretense for as long as it was necessary.

“I don’t know, sir. I only want to do one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Take revenge on the people who hurt me.” It was true, even. Healing his parents and torturing the Lestranges would take revenge on the people who had hurt him. But Harry wasn’t going to tell Moody about the healing his parents part, either. Moody would probably think Harry should put this powerful man, whoever he was, first. And Harry didn’t intend to do that. He could only put his family first.

And Moody, like all adults, would probably try to stop Harry from healing his parents because it would be something dangerous. Not fit for a child to do. Plus Moody would have the additional idea that he had to “save” Harry because he wanted Harry to be useful to his miracle-worker later.

“I promise that my lord can help you with that,” Moody said. “You’re a strange child, Potter, not like the others. But powerful, like he was. He can help you. I’ll help you.”

Harry held still, as if he was thinking about it, while in the back of his mind a thousand voices seemed to start laughing all at once. He only knew a few people who would get called “lord” in the wizarding world. It wasn’t like the Muggle world, where there were some people who had inherited political power because of a title.

Dark Lord Dudders.

Of course, if he showed he knew that, then Moody was likely to use a Memory Charm on him at best. Harry would have to go on playing the game the way he had with Piers, and with Malfoy.

He looked Moody straight in the normal eye, and said, “But how can you help with my Muggle relatives? They live in a completely Muggle area. And I thought the Statute of Secrecy meant you couldn’t perform magic in places like that.”

Moody gave him a wild smile. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. That’s the first gift I’m going to give you, Potter. Let you come up with a suitable miracle for the man I’m talking about to perform for you. And when you’re ready, come and tell me exactly what kind of vengeance performed on your relatives would win you.”

Harry blinked a little. “You sound like you think I could really help your powerful man, Professor Moody.”

“I think you will because you have the potential,” Moody said. “And I’m the only one who can convince you to stop neglecting that.” He nodded once and went off. The shields he’d raised popped as he went, and Harry saw the curious glances of more than one person in the library.

Harry shook his head a little at them and turned back to his own homework. He wondered for a second if Dark Lord Dudders was so desperate for help that he had to recruit people like Harry. Moody at least made sense, because he was a powerful Auror. But a fourteen-year-old student?

Maybe Moody is crazy and desperate, too.

Harry had to consider what he would do with the knowledge. But in the end, there was only one thing.

*

“You’ll have your wand ready the moment he comes out of the room, Minerva.”

Albus’s voice was gentle and steady. Minerva could only nod. They were both standing outside the door of Alastor’s rooms.

Minerva glanced again at the anonymous letter Albus had received, the one that accused Alastor of working for You-Know-Who. Minerva had been skeptical. She knew a lot of people hated Alastor for the way he had arrested “innocents,” including the Death Eaters who claimed to have been under Imperius during the first war. It would make sense to come up with a damaging accusation if they could and try to get him sacked.

But Albus had spent a day considering it before he approached her, and he apparently had private evidence he hadn’t shared with her. Minerva stood braced for battle as Albus knocked again on Alastor’s door.

It didn’t open, but they heard some shuffling from inside. Minerva glanced once at Albus. “Doesn’t he have a Foe-Glass?” she whispered.

Albus nodded, and then abruptly grabbed her and whirled her to the side. At the same moment, a white blast as bright as lightning broke through the door and headed straight for Albus. It was a formless mass of light, and Minerva’s mouth opened to scream despite some of the things she had seen during the war.

Albus’s wand snapped right, left, right. The shield that took form in front of him looked as if it was made of smooth black bricks. The light broke on it and vanished.

The next instant, Albus had charged into Alastor’s quarters. Minerva followed, murmuring the spells that would animate several of the chairs she could see in the room ahead of her and call them to her side to fight for her.

The chairs whirled around on new paws and scraped the ground in challenge. Minerva turned with them around her. If Albus needed help, she would send the chairs to flank him and Moody, and attack that way.

But a glance made it obvious that she couldn’t actually help. Albus was darting back and forth and weaving a spiral of white light and tiny flying phoenixes inwards on Moody. Minerva winced. The power of the magic in the room was harsh enough to make the hairs on her arms stand up.

Moody responded with a spell that was purple and radiant and coiled on his shoulders and ate the light and phoenixes. Minerva had last seen that spell in the first war, when it had snapped out and eaten the legs off several people who had ended up in St. Mungo’s, never to walk again.

Albus caught her eye and snapped his head to the right.

And Minerva realized she could help after all. Albus was stronger than Moody, but he couldn’t use magic as strong as he would need to defeat him without damaging the school badly. Moody, by contrast, wouldn’t care about what he used.

Minerva whispered instructions. The largest chair next to her crouched, and then jumped over Minerva’s head and landed next to Alastor, swiping his leg with a paw as he made a turn away from Albus’s wand.

Moody snarled and splintered the chair with a wordless Cracking Curse that Minerva didn’t think she could have bettered. But she had provided the distraction needed. Albus finally managed a Stunner that touched Moody’s heart, the one place it would lay him out when he was protected by that dark purple spell.

In a second, Moody was stretched on the floor, and the magic he’d created blazed fiercely, once, and vanished from around him. Albus limped slowly up to look at him. Minerva opened her mouth to call Poppy, but Albus shook his head.

“I’ll be all right for a moment,” he said. “What I don’t understand is how Voldemort could have corrupted Alastor. He was one of the best.”

Minerva looked around the room in a silent, probably fruitless search for answers. On Alastor’s wall hung the now empty and useless Foe-Glass. There was a locked trunk in the corner, and a flask of some potion on the table.

As Minerva watched, steam spurted from the potion, and a very familiar odor came from it—the odor of the “brandy” that Alastor tended to drink even in the middle of meetings with the other professors. Minerva reached out and pulled on Albus’s sleeve. “Look,” she whispered.

Albus turned around, and his eyes widened the moment he caught sight of the flask of the potion. He strode over and spent a moment regarding it. Then he nodded once and said, “Polyjuice.”

“So Alastor—”

“Has to be still alive, but he’s not him.” Albus faced the Stunned man again, and his face was implacable and grave in a way Minerva hadn’t seen since she talked with him about Harry’s relatives. “I wish I knew who had suspected this and didn’t speak up until now.”

Minerva shook her head. She had seen the letter someone had sent Albus, and it hadn’t said anything about Polyjuice, only that as far as that person knew, Moody was someone who probably served You-Know-Who.

But she also couldn’t blame Albus, as they searched the rooms for some sign of the real Alastor and waited for the Polyjuiced man to transform back to his normal self, for looking extra hard at all the letters they found. She knew he was looking for one with the same writing as the owl that had arrived for him.

When they found the real Alastor in the bottom of “Moody’s” secure trunk, and saw the face of a supposedly dead man on the one who transformed, it only led to more questions, not fewer.

*

“I can’t help being nervous, even though Gran keeps telling me that I’ll do fine,” Neville whispered the morning of the Third Task.

“I think it’s fine to feel nervous,” Harry said. The hedge maze they were setting up for the Third Task looked big enough that all sorts of monsters could hide in there, and even Harry’s extra lessons couldn’t completely get rid of the problem with Neville’s self-confidence.

“Yeah. I just hope I don’t have to face another basilisk.”

“I think it’s amazing that you already faced one.” Harry looked into Neville’s wide and worried eyes and tried to make a joke. “And think of it, you didn’t even have me with you to help you that time.”

Neville’s face did clear, and he laughed. “Or Yar.” Then he looked around abruptly and said, “Where’s Terry? He always used to come over when it was time for classes to start. Like he wanted to make sure you didn’t accidentally go to class with us.”

Harry glanced over his shoulder. Terry was talking to Roger Davies, as usual. He spent most of his time with the Ravenclaw Quidditch team now. “I think poor Terry’s finally given up on me,” Harry said, managing to keep his voice light.

“Stopped being your friend?” Neville looked outraged for a second, then guilty, the way he usually did. “Is it because you’ve had to spend so much time with me and he doesn’t like me?”

“No one could force me to spend time with you if I didn’t want to,” Harry said, and waited until Neville gave a little nod. It looked reluctant, but at least he was doing it. Maybe, with time, he would come to believe it. “And it’s more that Terry had convinced himself I was some kind of Quidditch star waiting to happen. I finally managed to make him believe I’m not, and now he’s friends with Davies and Chang.”

“That’s a weak basis for a friendship.”

Harry nodded. “That would be why he’s not around me all the time anymore.”

This time, Neville frowned at the Ravenclaw table. “But he doesn’t care? More than that, I mean? He was friends with you since your first year, and I know he talked to you even when you tried to keep to yourself. It seems strange he would abandon you over something like Quidditch.”

Harry hesitated. There were things he had never tried to talk to Neville about, because he wasn’t sure if Neville would keep being his friend afterwards. But he thought he could try the truth about Terry now, if he could find the right words.

“I think he was worried that I wasn’t normal,” Harry said finally. “He was worried about me, and he thought I wanted friends and I was being left out of everything. I tried to convince him that I didn’t really care about having friends and I definitely didn’t care about Quidditch. But I don’t think he ever believed me. Finally he realized this year that I don’t care. I can’t blame him for moving on.”

“But you’re my friend.”

Harry nodded. “Because we started out helping each other, and you’re brave, and you didn’t seem to mind that much if I wanted to be left alone. But it bothered Terry a lot. If it doesn’t bother him anymore, I can’t blame him.”

Neville just sat there and looked at him with his brow furrowed, which wrinkled the lightning bolt scar. Harry sipped his pumpkin juice and looked peacefully back.

“Well, all right,” said Neville finally. Then he looked over as one of the other Gryffindors said something, and jumped to his feet with a curse that Harry knew would have made Professor McGonagall look sharply at him. “I’m sorry, Harry! We have to go. I don’t want to keep Professor Dawlish waiting.”

Harry nodded. The Ministry had assigned another Auror to teach the Defense classes that Crouch had once taught, and while Dawlish seemed to be nice and even a little dotty personally, he was stern in the classroom.

Harry shook his head a little as he returned to the Ravenclaw table. He hadn’t thought exposing Moody as working for Voldemort would have such profound effects. He had thought it was Moody, not someone who was supposed to be dead and had such strong ties to the Death Eaters.

But it was done now, and no one had even suspected that Harry might have done it. The other students just talked in hushed tones about how maybe one of the other people who used to be Death Eaters had betrayed Crouch. The professors pinched their lips shut and didn’t talk about it at all outside the absolute minimum the students needed to know to accept Auror Dawlish as their new Defense professor.

Harry snatched a scone from the table and stood up. He would walk with Michael to Potions, since Terry was still studiously pretending to be a sixth-year on the Quidditch team instead of a fourth-year who had to go to Snape’s class like anyone else. And while Snape sneered at him and insulted Harry’s potion, Harry would dream of this afternoon, and the training he was going to do.

He had finally decided how to go to war against the Lestranges.

*

“Yes, I had to hood you. Shut up.”

Yar was making displeased little chirrups as she surveyed the clearing in the Forbidden Forest where Harry had brought her. But Harry sensed her interest the minute she saw those dummies he had Transfigured from straw and stone. She was always interested in new things, to see if they were food.

He’d hooded Yar to bring her here because she would ride his shoulder but not always fly after him, and he wanted to make sure they were out of sight and the attention a soaring eagle might draw. Harry lowered the stump he’d used to carry her to the ground and dusted his hands off. Yar, head cocked and bobbing as her neck snaked back and forth, ignored him in favor of the dummies.

“That’s right,” said Harry softly, and then he waved his wand. Several of the sticks lying on the forest floor sprang up and attached themselves to the hands of the dummies—always the right hands, since that was where most wizards carried their wands. “Now. Watch this.”

Yar didn’t pay attention to his words—she often didn’t—but she looked up and focused when Harry created the image of an eagle soaring over the clearing. In fact, she mantled and screamed, crouching in challenge. Harry set a hand gently in the middle of her back, and waved his wand again.

The illusory eagle stooped down, feet thrown out in front of it, aiming for the dummies. It grabbed the right hand of one dummy, the one that held the fake wand, and squeezed. Harry had to cast a different spell to make the hand crumple and the sound of a pained scream echo around the clearing, because the illusion couldn’t affect physical reality. But there it was.

Yar blinked and blinked, golden eyes never looking away from the dummies. Harry created another eagle, and did it again. And again. And again. Then he tossed pieces of meat to the illusory eagles to reward them.

Yar only watched and didn’t fly that day. But Harry didn’t care. It would take him a long time to train his eagle.

But when he was done, her talons that could crush someone’s right hand with a careless squeeze would know to aim for the hands of the enemy.

*

Albus stepped slowly back into the shadows of the Owlery, although he already had a Disillusionment Charm on. He didn’t think he needed a glamour to disguise his scent. Birds didn’t have much of a sense of smell, and in any case, his should be masked by the drifting of feathers and pellets from the owls.

The eagle was there again. This time, it simply sat on the windowsill and considered the owls. It looked as if it might be counting the numbers of birds and how many had recently gone to carry messages.

Albus was on edge. The information the Ministry had got from Crouch before the Dementors Kissed him was enough to let Albus know that Crouch had entered Neville’s name in the Tournament, but the Death Eater had only laughed when they questioned him about Voldemort’s plans after that. He didn’t know.

He did know there was another free Death Eater working with Voldemort, one who had helped Crouch assume Alastor’s place but always kept his cloak too low to identify him. And unluckily, there were simply too many Death Eaters who had walked away from Azkaban after the first war. Albus didn’t dare make a move without proof, because Fudge wouldn’t listen to him anyway, and for fear of warning his enemies.

But Albus had come up with a better plan than simply destroying the eagle.

He held up a feather now, and worked the Transfiguration with slow, precise sweeps of his wand. The feather changed slowly into a snowy-white band of metal, one that would snap together around a bird’s leg. The band hummed with a small Tracking Charm.

The eagle began to ruffle its wings and act as if it would fly a minute into the Transfiguration. Albus tensed. Now that he knew how smart the bird was, he would do something other than simply cast a spell at it that would send it back into its components.

Treating the bird as a spy of his own necessitated more complex measures, anyway.

After a moment, the eagle’s wings calmed down, and Albus could turn back to the band. He had chosen to add the Tracking Charm during the process of Transfiguration rather than after; that would make it subtler, something that was more part of the band’s inherent structure than attached to the surface. Albus thought he needed that, particularly with someone who had mastered Transfiguration enough to create the eagle.

At last the band was done. Albus moved slowly closer to the windowsill, alert for any twitch of movement in the eagle’s beak or talons.

But nothing happened. Albus flicked a Stunner at the bird from so close that it had no time to react other than leaping slightly into the air, and then he slid the band around the bird’s leg and pressed it tight. The band shut with a little click.

Albus moved back with a faint smile. There were so many wizards who thought they could never learn any useful ideas from Muggles, but Albus wouldn’t have had this idea if he hadn’t read those fascinating Muggle magazine articles about people who banded and tracked birds like this.

He revived the eagle and ducked hastily behind a perch, even given the Disillusionment Charm, as the bird revived with screaming and thrashing. It immediately leaped out the window and was gone, flying towards the Forbidden Forest.

Albus nodded. He would give it a day or so, in case the creator of the eagle was alarmed by his pet’s anxiety, and then he would begin paying close attention to its movements.

Besides, he wouldn’t have been able to give it proper attention today anyway. Tonight was the Third Task, and likely the last time that Voldemort would have to make a proper move.

*

Harry was on his feet the minute he saw Neville staggering out of the maze, so pale he could hardly move, carrying Cedric Diggory’s body.

Professor McGonagall was running towards him, too, and Professor Dumbledore. But Harry was there first. He stared at Diggory, who had died with no marks on him, and then looked straight at Neville. “The Killing Curse?” he whispered.

“Voldemort,” whispered Neville, shaking. “And Macnair—”

Then the professors were there, and shouting, and escorting Neville away, while everyone else screamed and flailed and fainted. Or they tried to escort him. Harry stayed right with him, using the same unobtrusive but quietly stubborn tactics that he had when he’d wanted to get into Crouch’s good graces, and after a harassed look at the audience, Professor McGonagall let him stay.

“We will have to know what happened, my dear boy.”

Harry slanted a little look sideways at Professor Dumbledore, who had dim eyes now—not twinkling—and a near-limp in his step as he walked beside Neville. He didn’tknow? Harry had thought he would know. He’d been close enough to hear Neville speak.

“The Cup was a trap.” Neville hunched over as he walked, until Snape finally thought to take Diggory’s body from him. “I—I got th-there at the same time as C-Cedric, and I s-said we both should share it. So Hogwarts would get the glory.”

His throat bobbed, and Harry Transfigured a button off his robe sleeve into a basin with barely a thought. Neville leaned over and vomited into it.

“It was a Portkey,” Neville continued a second later, as he was wiping his mouth. They were all still walking along, but by now, they were in the school and the noise of the crowd had mostly cut off. “It t-took us to this g-graveyard. Macnair killed Cedric.” He broke off into a sob, and Harry put his arm around Neville. “V-Voldemort tied me to a stone and t-took blood from my arm. Well, Macnair did that, and V-Voldemort got ready to bathe in the cauldron and rise from it. It was a potion of some kind. So he rose, and he called the Death Eaters back, and—”

“We’ll talk about this further once you’re in the hospital wing, Mr. Longbottom.”

That was Professor McGonagall, and Harry found himself relaxing. She would handle things better than Snape would. Harry wasn’t sure about Dumbledore, since he didn’t really know him, but he did know that Dumbledore appeared interested in the story and hadn’t suggested the hospital wing. Professor McGonagall was the only professor here who really cared about Neville.

“Back to Ravenclaw Tower with you, Potter.”

That was Snape, the sneer imprinted in his voice the way it was on his face. Harry looked up at him fearlessly, and saw Snape turn a little pale. Harry didn’t think he was remembering the werewolf fight Harry had Obliviated from his mind last year; in fact, he probably had the more profound reaction because he couldn’t think of a reason why he should be afraid of James Potter’s son.

Harry turned to Professor McGonagall. “Is Neville going to be all right, Professor?”

Her face softened, the way it always did when she saw him acting like a “normal” boy. “I’ll personally make sure of it, Mr. Potter.”

Harry nodded and touched Neville’s shoulder once before he went away. There was no one else in his bedroom when he came into it, and he snatched a book and went right away to the dungeon workroom, pausing only to let a group of Slytherins clatter past him.

Harry had something to do that he had to finish before they left for the holiday, at the very latest. He hoped to have it done tomorrow, so he could give it to Neville.

*

“Is the boy going to be all right, Minerva?”

Minerva raised her head and blinked eyes that felt as if long, gummy strings had been shoved into them. She’d fallen asleep by Neville’s bed in the hospital wing, and she had to reorient her head towards Albus’s questions.

Then she nodded. “Poppy treated him for the aftermath of the Cruciatus and a wound on his arm,” she said. “She thinks that’s where You-Know-Who took the blood for—” She broke off and shook her head. Neville should have been safe. She had thought for sure he would be after they had caught Crouch and learned from him who had put Neville’s name in the Goblet. All he had to do was get through the Third Task, and You-Know-Who’s plan should be thwarted.

“I know.” Albus sat down beside the bed and stared at Neville in silence. Then he looked up. “I think perhaps I will speak with Augusta about Neville spending the summer in training. He could use it.”

Minerva found herself sitting so still and alert that she felt the way she did before she entered her Animagus form. She shook her head and said, “Surely what the boy most needs now is rest.”

“Perhaps. But that is not what the wizarding world needs.”

Minerva stood abruptly. Albus looked at her in surprise. Minerva said, “You can talk to Augusta. If she chooses to make him dispose of his summer that way, then I can’t gainsay her. But while we are inside the walls of Hogwarts, Neville’s protection is mine, and you’ll leave him alone.”

Albus blinked. Then he said softly, “Minerva, I never meant—I never meant the boy must train or I would be displeased—”

“No, but you implied it.” Minerva felt cold and tired. She sat down again by Neville’s bed and stared at him, trying to imagine how much worse he must feel. “I care more about Neville right now than the whole of the wizarding world. Please go away, Albus.”

She had the impression that he lingered for a little, as if hoping to catch her eye. Minerva kept her head bowed and her gaze fixed on Neville’s bed, and finally he left.

Minerva exhaled shakily and touched her forehead with one hand. She knew Albus meant well. She would never have followed him this long if she didn’t believe in his politics and his vision for the school.

But sometimes—not always, just sometimes—he had a tendency to see things in such large patterns and groups that they left the small and the individual behind.

Minerva drifted into a kind of trance, keeping watch over Neville’s bedside, and jumped again when a voice said, “Professor McGonagall?”

Minerva turned with a series of sharp blinks. Harry was standing beside her now, and he had a grey kitten in his hands with the largest and most serious eyes Minerva had ever seen on a cat. They were blue-grey. When the kitten saw Neville, it stirred and squirmed, and Harry put it on the bed.

The kitten walked towards Neville and peered into his face. Then it lay down beside him. A second later, Minerva felt the bed tremble slightly. The kitten was purring, and the thunder of its purr was so loud she could feel it.

“Where did you get that kitten, Harry?”

Harry was watching Neville and the kitten with a small smile. He looked up. “I Transfigured it from a stack of coins, Professor McGonagall,” he said calmly.

Minerva closed her eyes. Then she said, “And you do not intend to simply turn it back into the coins with it’s done?”

“No, Professor. I imagined it as being loyal to Neville, to cheer him up and maybe protect him when it gets big enough. That means I can’t Transfigure it back.”

Minerva opened her eyes. “Harry, you must know that kind of Transfiguration you are practicing is extremely dangerous. I understood why you wanted to do this for Neville, and I think it will help him, but—you must promise me not to do that again.”

Harry looked at her. “I know why human Transfiguration is dangerous, Professor McGonagall. But why is this kind dangerous?”

Harry spoke in such an odd tone, as if he was humoring her. But Minerva knew he was a serious little boy. And she was tired herself from watching all night and prone to interpret things strangely when she was that way, as she knew from long experience during the war.

“Because you can create monsters so easily,” she whispered now. “Cats that would attack Neville instead of comforting him. Things with fangs and claws that you can’t destroy before they hurt you. Man-eating monsters if you imagine a leopard or a lion or the like. You—your imagination is the limit, but the more complexity you imagine into the animal, the more distance from its natural behavior, the more dangerous it is.” She turned and looked Harry in the eye. “It’s already dangerous to make a cat such a loyal being, more like a dog than a cat. Promise me you won’t do it again.”

Harry stared at her with intense, shining eyes. Minerva blinked again. She felt—what? Intimidated, by the force of the will in those eyes? Surely not. She knew Harry was James and Lily’s son, and while he had few friends, he was integrating himself more into the school now. And Harry had a sense of morality developed by his own treatment at the hands of his relatives. His instinct to protect Neville was evidence of that.

“It sure seems dangerous, Professor McGonagall.”

Minerva sighed in relief. And because she felt strange, and tired, she leaned forwards and hugged Harry before he could draw away. He only stood there, and seemed to be thinking about something.

“I know you’ve decided you don’t want to leave your relatives now that they’re treating you better,” Minerva whispered. “But if you ever change your mind, you must tell me right away. I’ll still come for you, and we’ll work out legal guardianship somehow. All right?”

“Yes, Professor McGonagall.”

Harry still stood there passively, not hugging her back. Minerva closed her eyes and shivered again at the memory of his eyes.

But he was James and Lily’s son, he had wanted to Sort Gryffindor, he had done this for Neville at such a risk, and he didn’t bully people or taunt them or hurt them. Surely it was all right. Surely it would be.

She could repeat much the same things to the boy lying so still in the bed, with the change of his parents’ names. Surely it will be.

Chapter Text

Harry looked in silence at the Daily Prophet that had landed on the table in front of him after Chang was done with it. He didn’t have a subscription to it himself, but he’d frequently read it during this year, especially to see the kinds of stupid things they said about Neville.

And now there was another front-page story, about how Walden Macnair had been reported as a Death Eater, and had in fact been caught with the Dark Mark on his arm. But not before he’d managed to reach the island where Azkaban prison stood, overpower the guards with a mixture of magic and persuasion, and free a bunch of the other Death Eaters who were there.

Harry delicately traced the list with one finger. Several names he didn’t recognize; others he’d sometimes seen history books mention.

But three stood out as though they were written in scarlet ink.

Bellatrix Lestrange. Rodolphus Lestrange. Rabastan Lestrange.

Harry smiled.

“Harry?” Terry asked cautiously, looking around the paper. “Cho wants the paper back. To look at the Quidditch section, I think.”

Harry handed the paper over willingly. He’d already read the lead story several times, and it felt as if its words were imprinted on his heart with that same scarlet ink.

“Are you all right?” Terry had handed the paper to Chang without actually turning away from Harry. Harry wondered idly what had made Terry change his mind about paying attention to Harry when he hadn’t in such a long time, but dismissed the worry. It was fine if he had changed his mind; Harry would be fine with being friends again, or with Terry ignoring him if he wanted to.

He had more important things to worry about.

“Yes,” said Harry. “I just thought of some things I need to take care of before we leave for the summer, that’s all.” He swallowed the last of his pumpkin juice and charmed a few sausages with a Preservation spell, just in case, then stood up.

“You should have been packed already,” said Terry, but he stood up, too, and followed Harry back to Ravenclaw Tower.

Harry kept silent, his mind humming with thoughts. He thought it might also make Terry speak up the way it looked like he wanted to, and stop dithering around.

“Listen,” said Terry, sure enough, when they were only a few stairs away from Ravenclaw Tower. Harry turned around and nodded.

Terry fidgeted for a second, and then he muttered, “I saw you flying one day with Yar.”

Harry nodded again. He didn’t know where this was going, but thought it might be another attempt to recruit him for Quidditch, maybe because Davies had asked Terry to do it. Terry was going to be in for a disappointment if that was true.

“And I think—” More fidgeting. Terry then looked Harry straight in the eye and blurted, “I understand now.”

Harry cocked his head. “You understand what?”

“I understand what flying means to you.” Terry massaged the back of his neck and grimaced. “It means more than playing a game. It means escape and freedom for you, and, well—I wouldn’t want to take that away because I want to play Quidditch.”

Harry blinked a few times. Then he said, “That’s very—adult of you, Terry.”

Terry sighed. “Well, that and Davies is telling me I can’t play on the team for at least a year,” he admitted. “And maybe by then they’ll have found someone they like better as a Chaser anyway. Can we be friends again? I’ve been bored.”

“Sure,” said Harry, with a little shrug.

Terry smiled and filled the rest of the journey and their packing with chattering about writing to Harry during the summer. He no longer urged Harry to visit him or wanted to visit Harry, and that was all right with Harry. He didn’t think he and Terry would be close friends the way they’d been before. Harry had disappointed Terry by not being enough like the ideal friend interested in Quidditch.

But if he had friends in other places, that was all right. After all, Harry had Neville, and Cross, and Yar. And he would probably make some more friends before he finished his plans.

And he had his new plans, which were more than enough to occupy his mind by themselves.

Not so much that he missed Neville as they were heading for the train, though. Harry nodded absently to something Terry had said and then muttered, “I need to talk to Neville. Wait a bit.”

“They’re saying—he might have killed Diggory,” Terry muttered, looking uneasily at Neville.

Harry turned around and blinked. Then he said, “Neville? Who can’t even get most Charms right? Who melts his cauldron half the time? He’s more of a danger to himself than anything else.” Then Harry thought about it, and added, “Well, I suppose he can be a terror to weeds when he helps Professor Sprout in the greenhouses.”

Terry looked startled, and then laughed and relaxed. “Right. Okay, I’ll get us a compartment.”

Harry watched him hurry on ahead for a second, then he turned and went towards Neville.

Neville had the grey kitten balanced on his shoulder. He smiled at Harry and said, “Thank you for Dapple.”

Harry nodded. “Sure. Has he been keeping you safe?”

“Well, he hisses at people who talk about me killing Cedric,” said Neville, and appeared as though he was happy and depressed about it at the same time. “And they at least shut up and go somewhere else to talk about it. I don’t know what else could hurt me right now, anyway.” He hesitated. “Except Voldemort. Harry, I know you believe me. And so does Professor Dumbledore, and so do Ron and Hermione. But it’s pretty lonely otherwise.”

Harry lightly touched his elbow. “I know. Write to me this summer if you want. I think my relatives are a little more reasonable about owls now.” Or they would be as soon as Harry had talked to them and explained what would happen if they weren’t.

“Thanks, Harry.” Neville gripped his arm hard enough that Harry had bruises later, and then hurried to catch up with Granger and Weasley. Harry waved once to him and touched the top of his trunk once.

He was sure he had the right Transfiguration books now, including the ones that had the spells Professor McGonagall would frown over. But what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, any more than her not knowing he had animal companions made from Transfiguration would.

Harry glanced up once. Yar had been absent, hunting, for most of the past few days. But then, she had her own ways of following the Hogwarts Express.

*

Albus sat in his office with his eyes half-closed and his mind focused on the Tracking Charm on the Transfigured eagle’s leg. The eagle had left Hogwarts grounds abruptly that morning, which Albus had at first linked to Macnair’s arrest and the disappearance of the Azkaban escapees. No doubt its master needed it helping elsewhere, instead of staying here to make reports as the school year ceased.

But now he knew it was moving south at a steady pace, drawing near to London. Death Eaters would be unlikely to hide there, among the Muggle population they despised, even if the size of the city would make it difficult for the Ministry to search. And there were some Muggleborn Aurors who fit in better than the others and would respond alertly to mentions of people in robes and waving sticks around.

No, Albus feared now that the eagle was tracking Neville. He only hoped that the Apparition Neville would go through the minute his grandmother reached him would somewhat confuse and stall the eagle.

Albus would maintain the Tracking Charm for a few days. He always had much to do at this time of year anyway, as he made sure that all exam results were properly recorded and caught up on the summer destinations of his professors. And he had more to do this summer than usual, including rousing the old crowd and finding a suitable place for a headquarters. It was possible Augusta Longbottom had a few unused Longbottom properties held in trust for her grandson that she might let him make Unplottable or put under the Fidelius Charm.

But then, Albus intended to go and investigate the eagle’s strange behavior.

*

The Dursleys were even more subdued this summer than usual. Harry was sure that had something to do with the way Yar’s shadow had swept across them when they stood by the car with Vernon shakily threatening Harry.

Dudley spent a lot of time outside with his friends, and sometimes Harry, on his way to the library or the shops he now patronized freely with some Gringotts money converted into Muggle money, would hear Piers asking why Dudley kept looking up at the sky.

Harry took out books on birds, still, and books on all sorts of other animals. If he was serious about pursuing the Animagus transformation, then he should have a good idea of the capabilities of other forms.

But he spent more time with what he was coming to think of as the poorly-collated Transfiguration books. Not that they were badly-written, but the people who were in charge of moving books to the Restricted Section had somehow missed these.

Harry wondered if it was because everyone panicked about the Dark Arts, and no one seemed to think much about Charms and Transfiguration. Or maybe they assumed that no one was good enough at Transfiguration to use it in battle unless they’d spent years and years studying, so it was all right to leave these books out for students.

In the end, wondering about those reasons was only an amusing exercise for an afternoon. Harry could only cheer on whoever had thought students should have access to these books.

Transfiguration as he had learned it was divided into several kinds, but there were two large category names that Professor McGonagall had started using more in their second year, as they got used to the theory. “Cross-class” Transfigurations were turning an animal into an object, or an object into a human being, or a human being into an animal, and so on. “Inner-class” Transfigurations were the sort that shaped an object into another object, an animal into another animal.

These books were about the Transfigurations that slipped between the cracks, the Transfigurations that didn’t have a definite end goal in mind. Instead of turning a person into another person or an animal or even an object, there were Transfigurations that changed the shape of a person’s body.

And that could apparently cause agonizing pain.

The books were stingy with incantations. That was all right. Harry understood why, and he also knew he was good enough to come up with incantations of his own if he had to. He read on, pausing now and then only to make notes. Most of the books he expected to read more than once, so he could store the information up in his memory.

He did get one totally unexpected letter, towards the end of the first week.

*

Albus stood, Disillusioned, in the middle of the Muggle street, and turned his head back and forth. This was the center of the eagle’s activity, but he couldn’t see anything incriminating here. No traces of magic, certainly, other than his own Tracking Charm and the eagle itself. No indication that a wizard had been hiding here and sending the eagle on information-gathering raids or creating new creatures to serve him.

In fact, Albus was growing more and more puzzled as to what would bring a Transfiguration master here at all. The area was one of the most thoroughly Muggle ones he had ever encountered. The neighbors seemed content to spy on one another, gossip, garden, and brag about the accomplishments of their children. Albus had a much better opinion of Muggles than the general run of wizards, he knew, but these were the kind that might cause him to grow impatient.

A brilliant Death Eater might well have picked this place for just that reason, as a disguise. But the more Albus searched his memory for Death Eaters who would fit both “brilliant” and “comfortable in this sort of Muggle area without torturing people,” the less he found.

As well, that Death Eater would have to be a Transfiguration master. Albus had made it a point of pride to know the specialties of all Voldemort’s Inner Circle, the ones he was most likely to face on a battlefield. Only two had specialized in Transfiguration, and one had died in the first war and one in Azkaban three years ago.

Of course, that didn’t lessen the possibility that Tom might have drawn in some new, young recruit. But Albus had heard nothing of any wizard skilled in Transfiguration suddenly resigning from his job or disappearing, either—and that was the sort of thing that would have drawn his attention.

That made the most likely choice a foreign wizard who had kept a low profile as he entered Britain, or simply never made contact with the Ministry at all.

Albus sighed and looked towards the cloud that the Transfigured eagle had disappeared into. I did not want to have to fight a war on two fronts so early into Tom’s plans.

But he had long ago accepted that the world did not order itself to his specifications. Albus drew his cloak around himself, set one more spell that would ring an alarm in his office if the eagle flew more than a hundred miles from the current locations it circled, and Apparated.

It was time to wake the old crowd again.

*

The letter was large and delivered by a barn owl Harry didn’t know; he’d come to recognize both Terry’s and Neville’s owls. It looked slightly ragged, as if it had flown a long way. Harry let it drink from Cross’s water dish—a move that made Cross ruffle his back up and spit—and gave it a piece of bacon left over from breakfast as he opened the letter.

Dear Harry,

I know that you might not ever want to hear from me again, and I can’t blame you. But I’m going to come back to Britain for a while this summer on a mission for Albus, and I thought I would contact you.

If there’s anything I can tell you about your parents, any way I can make up for what happened, please let me know. Our last conversation was—cut short. I’d like to continue it in a way favorable to you.

Remus Lupin.

Harry spent a moment tapping the letter against his bed, absorbed. Then he nodded and sat up to write back, while the owl watched him gloomily from its perch on his headboard.

Dear Professor Lupin,

There’s something I’ve been researching since our last conversation. But the Hogwarts library doesn’t have that many books on it, and of course Muggle libraries don’t have anything at all. I’d like to meet you in Diagon Alley and talk to you about it.

Can we meet on Tuesday, at noon?

Best,
Harry Potter.

Harry cast a glance at the owl and laid the letter aside. Unlike some wizards, he didn’t believe in working birds until they dropped. Let the owl sleep for a while, and it would carry his letter with a better will, anyway. And it didn’t need to get to Lupin in the next hour, or even the next day. It was only Thursday now.

Harry would go to the meeting, yes. And he would speak with wide eyes of how much suddenly being attacked by a werewolf had scared him, and how he wanted to hear more about his parents, and how lonely he had been surrounded by people who didn’t know or understand that much about his parents. By the end of his performance, Harry expected to have Lupin lapping out of his hand.

Guilt was the center of Lupin’s life the way fear of magic was the center of Vernon and Petunia’s. Well, Harry would use that guilt as a lever.

He had some questions to ask about werewolves.

*

Minerva straightened her spine. This was the first report Albus had asked her to give to the revived Order of the Phoenix, and she feared she would disappoint him. But he had asked her to look at all the lists of students who had left Hogwarts for someone who could have produced this eagle and joined You-Know-Who. And she had faithfully been through them, including revising her own notes from past years about who had done particularly well on their essays and practical work and who had kept making the same mistakes.

“I found nothing,” she said. “No sign of a Transfiguration prodigy who could have joined You-Know-Who, and especially not within the last few years.”

Albus was opening his mouth; Minerva held up her hand, and he subsided. “I did contact the ones I could find addresses for, Albus,” she said wearily. “Most of them still live in Britain and responded in a friendly enough way. None of them have arrest records. I also looked through back editions of the Daily Prophet to be sure. Most are married and have children, which would make it more difficult to slip away and live a secret life. None live in Muggle areas like the one you described.”

In fact, Minerva thought that the Muggle township, which Albus hadn’t told her the name of—he might not know—but had described as “intensely Muggle,” was even less likely to host a Transfiguration expert than most other kinds of specialized wizard. Transfiguration attuned one to the magic and company of living things, and to the Wild if one followed the old theories. You wouldn’t find it among Muggles only, and especially not in a place with no visible animals and few trees.

“Perhaps it is someone from outside Britain, then,” Albus said in a musing voice, and faced Alastor. “Do you think you could use some of your contacts among the French Aurors to ask questions?”

Minerva looked in a troubled way at Alastor. He had barely recovered from spending almost a year locked in a trunk. She didn’t think it was right to ask him to come to this Order meeting, let alone come up with strategies for fighting You-Know-Who.

But Alastor nodded a little and gave a fierce grin, as if to say that he couldn’t wait for this. “There are a few who have reasons to remember me. I’ll soon get hold of ’em.”

Minerva shuddered as she considered what that could mean, but Albus didn’t appear to have any doubts. He gave Alastor a relieved smile and turned away to consider the other end of the table. “You have anything to report, Severus?”

“No.”

Minerva hid a shudder of another kind. Severus had the greatest burden to bear since You-Know-Who had returned, and she had tried to be understanding. But Severus did nothing except stare at people from beneath his eyebrows and strike at their weakest points with his insults, the way he normally did only to students he didn’t like.

“The Mark has not darkened,” Severus elaborated, when Albus’s chiding glance remained on him. “The Dark Lord has not yet summoned me to him. He may suspect I am a traitor, although since Longbottom said nothing useful about that night when the Dark Lord returned—”

“I entered Neville’s mind and saw his memories myself,” Albus interrupted firmly. “Voldemort did not mention you.”

Severus flinched and stared down at his curled hands. Minerva was glad when Albus moved on to other topics. And even gladder when he reassured them that Augusta Longbottom had agreed to let them use a hidden house, Thornglade, for the Order’s headquarters. They could meet in Hogwarts only for the summer, and even the largest rooms gave a sense of stifling density, the Order had grown so.

Severus lingered by the doorway when the meeting was over. Minerva had assumed he had some private report to make to Albus, but he turned and fixed her with a gimlet stare when she tried to pass him.

“Yes, Severus?” she asked, pausing.

“This grown Transfiguration student Albus is so eager to find,” Severus began, and Minerva concealed a sigh. Did he think she was hiding something she would tell him?

“I don’t know who it is. I would have no reason to hide such information from the Order—”

“I know that.” Severus leaned towards her and lowered his voice. Albus was talking to Alastor at the other end of the room, and Minerva didn’t think either one of them would hear. “But you might overlook something without knowing it. What do you think of Potter as the identity of our mysterious genius?”

Minerva was so used to thinking of him as “Harry” that her mind skipped automatically to James, and she opened her mouth to laugh. But then she realized who Severus meant, and bristled. “That is giving him more credit than you ever wished to in the classroom, Severus.”

Severus flushed, an unattractive look on his sallow face. “You said that he was some sort of prodigy in his first year.”

Minerva shook her head. “He has a gift for Transfiguration, but what he can do has slowed down considerably. I’ve seen it before. A child has a gift for the beginning work of the first one or two years, and then it mellows and slows down when they enter their later years. Harry is still a good student, but in step with his classmates.”

Severus stared at her. Minerva blinked back at him. She knew well enough that Severus was a Legilimens, but in this case, if he was entering her mind, he would find nothing except what she had already said was true. He ought to figure that out soon.

Severus turned away with an impatient curse. “There is something strange about the Potter boy,” he said over his shoulder as he moved away.

And that is the result of secrets you do not deserve. Minerva sighed as she remembered the Transfigured kitten Harry had gifted Neville with. Maybe she ought to have told Albus about that, but there was a difference between such a gift and the eagle Albus was talking about, who seemed to migrate back and forth in response to some mysterious purpose. Besides, Albus had seen the kitten, since he’d spent time with Neville before the students left school. If the same person had made the eagle and the kitten, he would have known about it by studying the kitten’s aura.

I only hope that Harry keeps his promise not to dabble in creating more animals, Minerva thought as she went back to her office. She had plans to create for classes, and she might as well get something besides the Order meeting out of this visit to Hogwarts.

Then again, I think he only managed to create the kitten for Neville because he felt so sorry for him. Harry needs emotion and the Wild to power his magic. What emotion could make him create that eagle and send it roaming around?

And why would he need to spy on the secrets of Hogwarts? He’s already here all year and can see them then.

*

“Thank you for coming, Harry.”

Lupin’s eyes were so wide and guileless. Harry had to hold back a chuckle as he nodded and slid into the seat across from Lupin. They were at Fortescue’s, and there was more than enough of a crowd around them to distract attention. Even if they were notorious, which Harry didn’t think was the case. Most people wouldn’t be looking for a werewolf they assumed was lone gone from Britain.

As for Harry himself, no one would be looking at him, either. More than ever, Harry was glad that he didn’t have Neville’s level of fame. It would be hell to live with.

“What do you want to learn?”

Harry leaned across his bowl of chocolate ice cream and spoke softly. No one was paying attention right now, true, but it was still possible someone might start listening in. “I want to know what your transformation is like.”

Lupin leaned away from him in the chair. Harry’s nose twitched. He had started adding a few modifications there, although he’d only managed to make it a little more sensitive before the summer brought the end of his wand magic. But he thought he smelled fear.

“Why would you want to know that?” Lupin whispered. “Have you been bitten?”

Harry shook his head. “I think you would have known the minute I came in, if I was,” he said, and Lupin nodded reluctantly. Apparently he didn’t want to confirm anything about his condition for Harry. Harry held back another chuckle. “No, I want to know because I’m interested in animals and Transfiguration, and I want to know how lycanthropy relates to that.”

Lupin looked at him blankly. “They’re nothing alike.”

“Transfiguration can reshape the human body. The werewolf transformation does the same thing. Do you think they’re unrelated?”

Lupin frowned and spent a moment raking his fingers through his hair. “I suppose I didn’t think about it. I mean, sometimes James talked about Transfiguration theory, but—”

Raw grief choked his voice for a second. Harry watched him and allowed him that. The more distracted he was, the easier he would be to manipulate.

Lupin sighed and looked up. “I suppose you’ve read the standard descriptions?”

“Yes. But I also know how biased the standard books are, so I don’t know how much useful I’d be able to get from them.”

Lupin gave him a tentative smile. Harry reckoned that even hearing Harry talk about how biased those descriptions were gave Lupin hope, because it put Harry more firmly on his side. “Well, I’ll tell you, then.”

He drew his wand and created a small illusion on the table between them. Harry studied it attentively. It was a naked human, a standardized figure without sex. He had sometimes seen such illustrations in textbooks.

“The change begins in the head,” Lupin said, “and ripples back towards the tail—well, tailbone.” He gestured once with his wand, and the human’s skull seemed to rise up and fracture. Leaning forwards, Harry could see how the nose was getting longer, how the hands extended, how there was a different kind of space for the eyes.

Lupin was good at illusion work like this. Harry felt a smile pull at his mouth when that thought crossed his mind, though. Of course he would know how to show it, having lived through this change each month for years, from the inside.

“There, you see,” Lupin murmured, as they watched the illusion drop to its knees and then the knees turn into part of the hind legs. Harry nodded as he watched the head continue to grow longer, and the body grow shorter at the same time. The shapes writhed and passed through some of the more grotesque contortions he’d ever seen until there was a wolf there instead of a human being.

Like the wolf that stalked me in Lupin’s room, Harry thought, but he wasn’t afraid. They were a week off the full moon, and Lupin couldn’t be much sorrier than if he’d tried to abuse Harry like the Dursleys did.

“That’s the way it is.” Lupin sighed deeply and banished the illusion just as it grew a tail. “I can’t tell you why it happens that way, but it does start with the front of the body and work its way back. Always. If you stumble across any information on why, it might tell you more.”

“What you’ve told me is helpful, thank you,” Harry said absently. His mind was full of visions, most of them centered on the picture of the Lestranges he’d seen in the oldDaily Prophet.

He was going to practice, and he was going to find the incantations that would work to create the images he had seen in his mind. Images that would make the Lestranges suffer for what they had done. Images that Lupin and others would probably be horrified to know he was bringing to life.

Harry did feel a twinge when he thought of Professor McGonagall and Neville, but he shrugged it away. They never had to know.

I do want to have some people to practice on, and they’re the best candidates.

*

Using a wand during the summer was right out unless he wanted someone to arrest him for struggling against the restrictions on underage magic, of course. But Harry found he didn’t immediately need one. He pictured the results he wanted, found the Latin words that would fit them, and began practicing with the movements of his hands and his mouth, Word and Will only, at most of the hours of the day when he lay up in his bedroom.

Forma.” He started with that, the Latin word for “shape,” and varied it with plurals and cases and prepositions until he had to start a list to keep track of the ones he hadn’t used. But nothing seemed right. The movement of his hand could cause emotions to rise up in him, the will was there to make the Lestranges suffer, but he didn’t feel anything of the cool, impulsive Wild. The spell wouldn’t be right until he did.

He moved on to Latin words for specific body parts. Maybe he was being too ambitious. He probably couldn’t change someone all at once, like the werewolf transformation did. He would have to change their head, or their arms, or their hands.

None of those were right, either. None of those fit the incantations the books were hiding from him. Harry was sure.

Frustrated, he was lying on his bed one evening, at the end of an afternoon training Yar in a park he’d walked a couple miles to find. On the floor lay a pillow, which was what Harry gestured at to practice his “spells.” In front of him was one of those books that talked solemnly about Transfiguration between the gaps being possible, but didn’t tell him how to do it.

Harry opened a Latin dictionary and scanned through it again. He already had small pencil marks by most of the words, emphasizing how he’d tried them and failed.

Harry rolled over and let loose a little growl of frustration that scared some of his mice into running under the bed. There had to be something that would do what he wanted! Otherwise, the books wouldn’t make a point of mentioning that there were incantations that could accomplish it, and then refusing to name those incantations.

He flipped moodily through the dictionary once more, about to put it away and go back to studying some of the Muggle medical books. Then he got to the I section, which he hadn’t spent much time with since not that many body parts started with I in Latin, and paused.

There was a word. It leaped off the page at him like a thrown stone, and Harry was an expert on thrown stones after years of being tormented with them by Dudley’s gang. He smiled, and knew from the way his mouth creased that it was an interesting smile, the kind he usually tried to keep from people.

He rolled back towards the pillow and held up his hand. The sweeping motion that started most Transfigurations was second nature by now, and so was envisioning a wand at the end of his fingers. “Informis!” he shouted, a word for “shapeless.”

And the Wild was there, moving around him, kissing the side of his cheek like a dog’s wagging tail. Harry felt it coil around him and tug his arm, and honestly, that would have been enough for him, that ability to feel what the spell would be once he had his wand back in his hand.

But it went further than that. It twisted out, around the imagined wand, and it leaped and came down like a stomping foot.

The pillow twisted into a tortured comma shape.

Harry stared at it and felt a sharp prickle pass along his arm and spine and cheek, almost like the wave of magic going in reverse.

He had done wandless magic.

He had done wandless Transfiguration.

He could practice outside school now, and no one would be able to catch him. He might even be able to make modifications to his body, with enough passion and practice and pausing to sense the Wild.

And he could find ways to punish his enemies.

Harry closed his eyes and fell back on the bed in his intense joy. Cross came creeping out from behind the pillow and curled up next to him, purring.

Harry stroked him, and smiled.

This is the only disadvantage of keeping things to myself. I really wish I could tell somebody.

But he shook the odd mood off, and went feverishly back to the books. He had an incantation. Time to study, anew, what results he might be able to cause with it.

Chapter Text

Harry stepped off the train and smiled a little when he saw Terry waving to him from near the carriages. He’d actually sat with Neville, Weasley, and Granger on the journey to Hogwarts, since Neville hadn’t wanted to leave them and had dozens of questions to ask Harry. Harry found it surprisingly easy to discuss Transfiguration theory with Granger without her guessing what he wanted it for. So it had been enjoyable enough.

But Neville turned pale and jumped, and Harry glanced at him in concern. Neville pointed. “Do you see them?” he whispered.

“What?” Weasley was scanning the area with his wand out. Harry approved. If he supported Neville like this all the time, it would help Neville survive the war.

“The th-things pulling the carriage.” Neville pointed at what Harry thought was empty space. “Look! Don’t you see them?”

Harry looked in interest at the empty shafts of the carriages. He had never wondered what pulled them, but then again, he hadn’t thought to. There was so much magic at Hogwarts that it had seemed like the simplest explanation.

Now he wanted to chide himself. Of course things weren’t as simple as that. He had to learn to look more beneath the surface.

“They’re called thestrals,” said Terry suddenly behind him. Harry jumped, and heard Cross hiss in displeasure from his shoulder. “You can only see them once you’ve seen death.” Harry glanced at him and saw his eyes fixed on the same spot Neville’s were. “They—they’re creatures of death. Like really thin horses with bat-like wings. Right, Longbottom?”

Neville shot him an intensely grateful glance and then nodded. “I reckon I can see them now because I saw Cedric die,” he whispered.

Harry wondered for a second if Terry was going to bring up the rumor that Neville had killed Diggory himself, but he only nodded and tugged on Harry’s arm. “Come on, Harry, let’s get a carriage.”

Harry let himself be pulled. Weasley and Granger seemed happy now that they knew Neville wasn’t crazy, and he had something he wanted to ask Terry.

“So who did you see die?” he asked, when they were settled in that particular carriage alone and rolling towards the castle. Harry concentrated as hard as he could, trying to hear hoofbeats, but there was nothing.

Terry jumped. Then he scowled at him. “Merlin, Harry. That’s not the sort of question you ask in polite company.”

Harry smiled. He liked this Terry, who sometimes told him off and had written angry letters to him a few times during the summer, better than the one who was always concerned about him. Harry really didn’t need the concern, but sometimes anger was beneficial. “Sorry. I just wondered….”

Terry frowned out the window for a second, then said, “Oh, hell,” like he enjoyed the fact that there were no prefects or professors around to correct his language. “It was a long time ago. And nothing like the way Cedric died. My great-grandmother had this idea that everyone should be there when she went. So we all go summoned to her bedside and had to stay there for two days while she demanded Death show up for her.”

Harry nodded slowly. He had never seen a human die, but he supposed that was the best way to see it if you had to.

“Do you wish you could see thestrals?”

Harry blinked and looked up. “No. Why? I mean, they sound interesting, but it’s the sort of thing I could find out from a book, and from you.”

He tried to smile, to make Terry smile with him, but Terry’s smile was a little shadowed. “Because I think that’s one of the strange things about you. That you don’t mind death. I mean, I saw you flying with your eagle, and you must have seen her kill a lot.”

“Yes, but there’s a difference between the way animals kill and the way humans do it. The way animals kill to keep from starving is different from the way humans kill because they want to see something die.”

Terry jerked a little. “Well, but if a Nundu was charging at you and you could kill it to save yourself, then wouldn’t you do it?”

“I don’t know much of anyone who could kill a Nundu,” Harry observed, but Terry scowled at him, and Harry smiled dutifully back before he thought about it. “Yes, all right. I would do that. But if you’re going to kill an insect just because it’s there, or a rat because it bothers you, is that thoughtful and defensive?”

“No,” Terry muttered.

Harry nodded. “I don’t really want to see people die.” I want to see them suffer. “I just thought thestrals were interesting, and I never heard of them before. I assumed the carriages moved by a different kind of magic. I shouldn’t have assumed that. I should never assume anything, the way I shouldn’t have thought it was okay to ask you that question about who you’d seen die.”

Terry was looking at him oddly. Of course, that wasn’t a new experience. Again Harry looked calmly back, and Terry sighed and rubbed his temples. “All right. As long as you don’t want to see someone die to see the thestrals…”

“No. I’m not weird in that particular way.”

Terry laughed dutifully, and by the time they reached Hogwarts, they were talking of other things. But Harry did look thoughtfully at the empty air between the carriage shafts as they got out again, and wondered if he could get Hagrid to tell him about thestrals.

*

“Hem hem.”

Harry looked straight at the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Dolores Umbridge, that was her name. She wore pink constantly, and a sweet smile that Harry knew and felt comfortable around because it was familiar from Aunt Petunia’s face. She despised him and people like him, and that meant Harry could do anything he liked to trick and outwit her.

“Mr. Potter,” she cooed, and bent down next to him, as if she would whisper secrets. But she didn’t lower her voice, so everyone else in the class could still hear. “I noticed you are close to Mr. Longbottom. The one who spreads so many lies about You-Know-Who having returned from the dead.”

“You really noticed, professor?” Harry looked back at her with wide eyes, and had the feeling that she would have liked to read his mind. That was different from the feeling he had with Snape, which was that the man was reading his mind.

Umbridge gurgled a little and patted his hand. “I try to notice such things about all my students, dear,” she said. “And I think you should keep your distance from him. He’s a liar.” For a second, her hand tightened on his, and Harry looked down and watched the marks appear on his fingers. “And crazy. You wouldn’t wish that mental imbalance to pass on to you, would you?”

Harry looked straight at her again. She kept smiling, but the smile faded a little when Harry didn’t back down.

Harry knew what Neville would probably say. He was telling even Weasley and Granger to stay away from him, that it was too dangerous and he contaminated everything he touched. But Harry didn’t care about his marks in Defense the way Granger did, or what people thought of him for being friends with Neville.

“I wouldn’t wish to get a mental imbalance from anyone,” he said.

“Good. Hem.” Umbridge started to straighten up.

Harry looked at her hand.

It took a moment, but she flushed pink as sunset. Then she stood there looking at him for a second, because he hadn’t said anything aloud. Harry thought she didn’t really know how to take points for cheek.

In the end, though, she gave him a detention and sailed back up to the front of the classroom with a tight frown on her face. Harry went back to reading Slinkhard’s book, which was boring, basic information that he replaced in his head with Latin incantations.

“Did you have to do that, Harry?” Anthony whispered behind him. “We didn’t have any Ravenclaws with detention with her before.”

“She gives fierce detentions,” mumbled Michael, who normally never talked in class.

Umbridge turned around, and she had a constipated expression on her face. Harry supposed it frightened the others, though, because they did shut up. Harry thought about the marks he had seen on Neville’s hand, the ones he had covered up and lied unconvincingly about to his other friends.

Well. Only part of it was deliberate, but that works out well enough. I’ve been meaning to talk to her about this.

*

“You will write lines,” Umbridge said, and held up a quill. When Harry looked at it, he could sense the waver of the Wild around it.

Ah. The end of the quill had a sharp tip, as expected, but it also was alive. Harry could sense the will in it, struggling fiercely, wanting to get out and cheer up skin.

“With this quill,” Umbridge went on, probably unaware that he had spent any time looking at the quill—she didn’t seem to notice much of what went on around her, or she would have realized Neville never could have murdered Diggory—and held it out to him.

Harry took the quill and studied it some more. The circle of the Wild was right around the tip, and nowhere else. He wondered if this was another one of those Transfigurations that fell in between classes. It had certainly changed the quill into something not an object and not an animal, although with attributes of both.

“Get on with writing your lines!” Umbridge’s voice was a squeal, as if she had already said that several times, although Harry was sure she hadn’t.

He looked up mildly, and she recoiled in front of him. Harry shrugged to himself. He had that effect on some people, and he wished he knew why. Well, it was obvious with someone like Malfoy, who had reason to be wary of him, but other times Harry thought he looked at people with a normal expression and they were still afraid.

“Yes, Professor,” Harry said, and sat down at the desk waiting in front of Umbridge’s, which had a piece of parchment already on it. “What am I to write?”

“‘I will respect my superiors.’”

Umbridge was grinning proudly, as if she had come up with the words all by herself. Since Harry doubted that, he only watched her blandly back, until she scowled and waved at the parchment.

Harry lowered the quill against the parchment, more curious than ever. If the quill didn’t have skin beneath it to bite, then how was it going to work?

Then he saw. The swirl of Wild around the quill’s tip reached out and intersected with the aura of life around his own body, an aspect of the Wild he barely bothered to pay attention to most of the time. Since he knew exactly what he wanted to Transfigure his own body into, he didn’t have to fight past the Wild of another being or create it as he did if he was changing an object into an animal.

When he moved the quill, the little link between its Wild and his scratched the words into the back of his hand. Lines of blood appeared on the back of his hand at the same moment as lines of ink appeared on the parchment. Harry nodded. The skill behind the Transfiguration of the quill was masterly, and the pain less than the kind he had suffered when growing his claws.

“Do you know who made these quills, Professor?” he asked absently, as he felt the blood flow and the quill dig deeper into the Wild of his aura. If used often enough, the lines would scar over. Harry had no intention of letting that happen. But it was clever.

Umbridge didn’t say anything. Harry looked up. She was cringing behind her desk, eyes shifting back and forth between his hand and the quill.

“Is something wrong, Professor?” Harry asked. He wondered if she had expected screams. Still, it seemed silly to be more disturbed by the lack of screams than their existence.

“The Blood Quill should have hurt you,” she whispered.

“Oh, it does,” Harry said, as he wrote another line and the cuts on his hand opened a little more. “But some things are more important than pain.” He reached the end of five lines and stood up. After all, she had never told him how many he had to write.

Umbridge continued to cower as he marched up to the desk. “For example,” Harry added, his voice lowering, “what will happen if someone were to hint to Professor Snape that you were using quills like this on his Slytherins.”

“I haven’t!” Umbridge breathed, eyes wide. “No Slytherins have received detention with me!”

Of course they haven’t, Harry thought. Sly enough to keep their heads down in her class, and anyway, they have a vested interest in pretending Lord Dudders hasn’t returned. “Well,” he said, “shall we correct that to the future tense? What might happen if you were to use these quills on his Slytherins in a detention?”

“I won’t! I won’t!” Umbridge tried to sit up and twist her mouth into a sickly smile. “Do you want immunity for your fellow Ravenclaws, too? I wouldn’t mind giving that to you. It’s the Gryffindors who cause all the trouble, anyway…”

Harry smiled at her. “I want the quills.”

“What?” Umbridge’s hand strayed towards a drawer of her desk, even as she tried to open her eyes and burble innocently. “But that’s the only one! The one I keep for…” She swallowed back the words that were forming on her lips, maybe because she’d got a good luck at Harry’s eyes.

“We both know that’s not true,” Harry said softly. “Give me the others.”

“Or what?” Umbridge seemed to be recovering some confidence, maybe because he hadn’t attacked her yet. “You’re only a student! You can’t challenge a professor!”

Harry smiled, and looked at the rows of china decorations hanging on her walls, most of which had yawning or squirming kittens on them. A few of the cats hissed at him. But when he held up his wand and spoke the soft incantation, “Commuto catillum felim,” the hostile noises stopped, and the mad-eyed grey cat that leaped from the plate onto Umbridge’s desk hissed at her instead. She gasped and pulled her hand back, eyes darting from him to the cat.

Harry nodded. “Imagine how many cats could come awake in the middle of the night and creep up on you,” he whispered. “Imagine how soft a cat’s paws are. Well, no, I don’t think you have to imagine, I think you know. You won’t hear them coming…”

“Take them, take them!” Umbridge was almost shrieking as she pulled the drawer open and tumbled twenty or twenty-five quills onto the desk. “Take them all!”

“Thank you,” Harry said, and smiled at her as he picked them up. All of them squirmed and snapped with their little individual bits of the Wild, and tried to bite at him. Harry conjured a bag, one of the Charms he was good at, and slipped them inside it. “And no one needs to say anything, do they? Or go anywhere.” He stroked the back of the cat that stood on Umbridge’s desk staring at her.

“No, no,” Umbridge said, and stared at the cat with a dread that Harry enjoyed. It was the kind of dread she had wanted to inflict on other people, and it was very fair for it to be turned back on her instead. “Of course not.”

“Good.” Harry smiled and Transfigured the cat back into a china plate. It fell on the desk with a clatter that made Umbridge clap her hands across her mouth, as if she thought he would change his mind if she made the slightest sound. Harry nodded in approval to her and slipped out of her office. The quills clattered together in the bag. Harry cast a Silencing Charm on them and slipped the bag into his pocket.

He felt good enough to go down to the dungeon workroom. He wished he could have gone flying with Yar, but it was dark and she would be roosting high in the branches of a tree. He hummed to himself as he walked.

This year was already going better than he’d thought it would.

*

“I think I am going to have to do a spell of unbinding.”

Minerva tilted her head back to watch the eagle Albus was so concerned about circling overhead. She made no answer. For a Transfigured creature brought to life out of objects, which would simply return to those objects, one shouldn’t be sad. Their lives were always gifts, not ones that were brought into the world through the act of creation. They weren’t going to be harmed by it any more than conjured objects were hurt if they were banished.

But that was the modern, new-fashioned view. The old-fashioned one, the one that spoke of the Wild as an aura of life, whispered that it was wrong to hurt any creature through unbinding them into their components.

“What is the eagle supposed to have done?” she managed to ask with difficulty as Albus aimed his wand.

“It left Hogwarts and wandered about Surrey, and then returned to Hogwarts,” Albus replied, looking at her.

“Surrey? I don’t understand.” But Minerva felt a prickling rush of understanding up her back, thinking of Severus’s suspicions, and of her own when Harry had brought the kitten he’d Transfigured for Neville to the hospital wing.

Still…

How could Harry have made this creature when he doesn’t do that well in class anymore? How could he have kept it secret? And why an eagle? The kitten was to answer an immediate need for companionship, but an eagle is not a companion in the same way.

“Augusta told me that the Longbottoms used to own some property there, not far from the Muggle town where I found the bird,” said Albus, with a grim nod overhead. “There’s a possibility that the Death Eater who made this eagle thought they still owned it, and he would find Neville there.”

“But the eagle stayed all summer?” Minerva argued. She knew she sounded weak. Most of her attention was absorbed by the turmoil in her head.

I should tell him. If Harry can do that sort of Transfiguration, and he’s doing it on his own and not thinking of the consequences, he needs to be guided. And Albus has gifts Harry could learn from.

It’s also illegal to do things like that unless you’re in class or under an apprenticeship. Albus might not want to teach Harry. He might want him sanctioned and away from the school. If he thinks that Harry is a dangerous influence on Neville…

And what would Harry do if he was expelled from Hogwarts? Would he turn Dark? Would he turn against Albus? Would he even join the other side of the war?

Minerva had to shake her head at the last, though. Harry would never join the madman whose followers had tortured his parents, especially when those particular followers were now back with him.

“Minerva? You know something about this?”

That was the voice of the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, not her old friend, not the Headmaster, not even someone who had once been a Gryffindor with her and was inclined to overlook Gryffindor politics. Minerva drew in a tortured breath and looked at her feet. She knew Albus used his Legilimency indiscriminately, and she wanted to make the choice about what information to give up.

“I don’t know if I’m right about it,” she admitted. “Give me the chance to investigate and see what I can learn.”

Albus was silent. Then he said, “I know you did that the first part of the summer, and you found nothing.”

Minerva lifted her head. “That was because you asked me to look among students who had already left the school.”

Albus’s eyes widened. Finally he said, “I have never known anyone to master such things so young. Even I did not…I experimented, but I would never have done it without the consent of my master.”

Minerva nodded sharply. “But you had the luxury of an apprenticeship.” They were rare these days, at least for Hogwarts students. Most modern wizarding parents seemed to have decided that their children should only learn basic spells; those who had rare talents either had to learn on their own or had to find masters to teach them outside the school.

“There is that.” Albus studied her thoughtfully, and the edge she had found frightening was gone from his voice. “You think you can convince him to join our side?”

I never said that. Minerva had another plan in mind, one that ought to satisfy Albus, if not as much as Harry’s recruitment to the Order of the Phoenix.

But it would be better for Harry.

So I’ve made my choice, after all. Minerva put her hands on her hips and looked hard at Albus. “I don’t even know if it’s a ‘him’ yet.”

“I’m sorry, my dear. I did assume.” Albus smiled at her. “But whether her or him, seventh-year student or sixth, I do hope that you’ll persuade them to see how needed their talents might be in the war.”

If it’s who I think it is, then I’m going to have more trouble than with any other task I’ve ever taken on, Minerva thought, while she smiled and said a few meaningless words. Because Harry has his own agenda. And I don’t think any of it has to do with us.

*

Harry covered a yawn with his hand. He’d spent too much time last night studying the Blood Quills, and he’d barely made it back up to Ravenclaw Tower, with some patrolling prefects on his trail. It made things worse that Anthony was a prefect now, and sat around polishing his badge and talking about his ambitions to catch rule-breakers.

“Harry.”

Harry looked up in astonishment. He was sitting in Professor McGonagall’s classroom, but she wasn’t here yet. And Neville was leaning in the doorway, Dapple balanced on his shoulder, when he should have been on the other side of the school, near Professor Sprout’s greenhouses. If Neville was going to skive off a class, Harry definitely didn’t think it would be Herbology.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked quietly, coming over to him at once.

“Hermione thinks we’re not going to learn anything under Umbridge,” Neville whispered back. “We’re thinking of forming our own defense group. You know, to practice for our OWL’s.”

Harry blinked once, and then again. “Who would teach us? Granger?” He admired Granger’s devotion to her studies and to Neville, but he didn’t think she would be a great teacher. She didn’t have the patience, and would probably only lecture.

“No. Me.” Neville smiled at him, but the smile withered fast. “You know, because I’ve had all the advanced training.”

Harry looked carefully at him. “Is this something you want to do? Or something Granger put you up to doing?”

Neville sighed and lifted a hand as though he was going to trace the lightning bolt scar on his forehead, then let it drop again. Come to think of it, Harry didn’t remember seeing him ever actually touch it. “It was her idea, but I agree with her. And not because of OWL’s,” he said, and lowered his voice even further. “A war’s coming.”

He has more reason to know that than anyone else. Harry nodded. “Well, let me know where the meetings will be.”

“All right.”

“Mr. Longbottom, I think you have a class now,” said Professor McGonagall’s brisk voice behind them. “With Professor Sprout, if I’m not mistaken. Go before I take points from Gryffindor.”

Neville squeaked and scurried, while Dapple rubbed his head continually against Neville’s cheek. Harry looked a little sadly after him. He still didn’t have that much self-confidence, and Harry thought someone who was going to teach a secret Defense group should have a lot of that.

He’d turned to go back into the Transfiguration classroom himself when Professor McGonagall coughed behind him. Harry turned around. “Yes, Professor?”

For a moment, he thought Professor McGonagall was going to tell him something immediately, but she only closed her mouth, sighed, and shook her head. “Into the classroom, please, Mr. Potter, and take your seat. I’ll want to talk to you when the class is over.”

Harry nodded and moved to sit down. It was probably about his relatives again, he thought. Well, he knew what to say to that.

He didn’t know it was a conversation that would change his life. How could he have known that?

*

You are a coward.

Minerva didn’t even have the will to deny her self-accusation. All the while that she lectured on some of the commonest questions on the Transfiguration written exam in the OWL’s, she watched Harry, his head bent over his notes. He wrote down what she said, or some approximation of it. Probably better than most of the others, given what he wrote in his essays.

And all the time, she now suspected, he was hiding much greater talent than she had thought was the case. Why not? James Potter had been supremely talented in Transfiguration.

But the hiding concerned Minerva the most. Did he think she would tell him to stop? Report him at once to the legal authorities or recommend that he be expelled without listening to his reasons for hiding? He had plenty of excuses for distrusting other adults, but she had not thought they applied to her.

She moved through the theory without stumbling—this was one of the classes that were the same every year—and then stepped aside as the rest of the students departed. Potter stacked his notes away neatly and stood by his seat awaiting her.

Minerva wondered, as she walked towards him, why she had never noticed before how far away his eyes were. He looked as if he had a private joke of his own going on, and it was about someone not there, and he would go on appreciating the joke by himself even though no one else would ever share it with him.

He started a little when his eyes fell on her, but he nodded and asked, “What did you want to talk to me about, Professor McGonagall?”

Minerva paused. She had intended to build up it to slowly, but she wondered now if that was a good idea. Harry looked poised, able to deflect it.

The way he’s deflected my concerns about his relatives. And he never made the promise to stop Transfiguring animals last year, after Neville’s kitten, did he? Only told me that he knew it was dangerous.

So she attacked straight on.

“I highly suspect the eagle the Headmaster has been tracking is yours, Mr. Potter,” she told him. “I managed to convince him not to unbind it, because frankly your bird is advanced Transfiguration work and deserves better than that. But you do need to start practicing your skills with proper supervision.” She took a breath that she needed deeply; she felt winded, seeing the way Harry had frozen in response to her accusations. “Therefore, although it’s old-fashioned and will require a lot of paperwork from the Ministry, I am offering you an apprenticeship with me. It’s the best, safest way. You’ll receive the kind of specialized teaching you need, and with some…judicious words, we can convince the overly concerned that you’ve been under my tutelage all along. Which is partially true.” She shook her head, and her wonder and her frustration broke out at once. “Why did you hide this from me, Harry? Why wouldn’t you have come to talk to me about it? You knew I could have helped you with it.”

*

Because of this. Because of this.

With how hard his heart was banging in his ears, Harry was surprised he could still breathe, much less stand still and listen to Professor McGonagall talk as if nothing was wrong. But there he stood. He wasn’t even swaying yet.

“Harry?”

And now Professor McGonagall was bending down and staring at him with kindness in her eyes, and it was too much, too much.

The eagle the Headmaster has been tracking.

I didn’t even sense him doing that. I’ve failed Yar.

More than that, I’ve failed Mum and Dad.

Because an apprenticeship would keep track of what he was doing. Professor McGonagall would never approve. She would tell Harry that he needed to pay attention to his schoolwork. She would say that he shouldn’t try to Transfigure himself and make himself stronger and better and learn more about the way human bodies changed. She would hate his wandless Transfiguration. She would be upset when she learned the way he talked to Remus and other people, and if she ever learned that he hadObliviated Snape and Malfoy…

Harry felt as though a dozen Muggle missiles were rushing at him all at once, and he had to be prepared.

I could use a Memory Charm on her, too, Harry thought, but a second later he decided it was useless. She’d obviously been talking with Dumbledore about this. If she suddenly forgot, Harry was going to get more attention directed at him.

Harry’s only hope was that Professor McGonagall had come and talked to him first, without revealing his identity to Dumbledore. Maybe Dumbledore didn’t know anything except that someone existed out there with the ability to Transfigure an eagle out of a collection of random objects.

“Harry? Please sit down. You don’t look good.”

Professor McGonagall had Transfigured a chair from something. Harry hadn’t even seen what. He sat down hard and closed his eyes, feeling less like a wild animal, the way he usually felt, and more like a machine.

He knew Professor McGonagall was kneeling down in front of him, but he didn’t open his eyes. His mind was spinning frantically, and he only knew a few temporary strategies that could get him out of this.

Then use them. Stall. You can make a long-term plan later. You’ve already stayed here too long anyway. What do you care about OWL’s and NEWT’s? What use would they be to you? You’ll be living a different life after Hogwarts anyway, and this quest could be all your life long.

Harry opened his eyes and smiled at Professor McGonagall as calmly as he could. “I’m surprised that you noticed, that’s all, Professor.” His voice was odd, but adults never noticed when his voice was odd. The chances were that no one would now, either.

Professor McGonagall gave him a strange look, though. “I still want to know why you hid, Harry. With your talent, you could have received extra encouragement and tutoring long ago. Careers are open to you that aren’t open to the average student who will take an Acceptable NEWT in Transfiguration and forget about it, or never qualify for the NEWT class at all. Why didn’t you come to me?”

She sounded hurt.

Great.

This was the problem, Harry thought, with having adults pay attention to him. They acted like it was strange that Harry didn’t want the attention. And Professor McGonagall ought to know better. She knew all about the Dursleys. Why should Harry have trusted anyone with the things he was doing? Either they would think it was freakish and want him to stop, or they would think it was dangerous and want him to stop.

And he couldn’t stop.

Harry.”

Harry looked up. He was surprised that Professor McGonagall was speaking in that tone. Unless she had already decided that he was strange and weird and not worthy of being helped. Which would hurt, yes, but at least it would get rid of the apprenticeship danger.

Then he realized she was staring at his hands.

And her face was appalled.

“What have you done to yourself?” the professor whispered, taking his hand and turning it over. When she pressed down on the back of his hand—something no one had done since he came to Hogwarts—his claws shot out. “Oh, Harry.”

Harry tried to flinch away, but his claws were still out, and he wasn’t used to maneuvering with them like this, where someone could see. He scratched one of Professor McGonagall’s fingers, and with a sharp exclamation, she let go of him.

She looked up at him with gentle, concerned eyes, and Harry knew she wasn’t rejecting him, but she was rejecting part of him. The part that had clawed hands and didn’t want anyone else to know what was going on, and that meant he could never trust her again, and he had to find some way to get out of here—

He raised a Shield Charm as she reached for him again. She hadn’t expected it, which meant that it could bounce her hands off, but she was already standing and reaching for her wand.

“Under the care of Madam Pomfrey and someone like me, we can reverse the transformation,” she told Harry quietly, soothingly. “I promise that you won’t be in trouble. The Ministry need never know. Albus will have to, but when I tell him—”

Harry shook his head. He couldn’t stay to listen to this. He couldn’t stay to let someone undo all the transformations that made him stronger and faster. And then they would find his dungeon workroom, and he would probably be urged to confess why he’d done this, and maybe they would find out about his parents and tell him he had to live his own life instead of helping them, and they might convince him, he knew his own weaknesses, sometimes he had longed for a life like that the way Neville longed to lay down the burden of being the Boy-Who-Lived, and then his parents would remain in hospital, no one had cared to help them so far—

He leaped off the ground, longer and faster than even the leap he’d made to the top of Lupin’s bookcase the night of the battle in his rooms, and got to the classroom doorway while Professor McGonagall was still turning. For a moment, their eyes met.

Harry saw the fear in them. Not of his claws, but of what he wanted to do.

It was the way he had always known it would be.

He took off, leaping down the corridor. It was already past the time when most students had gone to lunch, and he met no one. He was casting Summoning Charms as he went, calling his trunk and books and clothes from Ravenclaw Tower. Mice ran after him, and Cross was waking up and running towards him, too.

He would have to catch Yar and take her to the Forbidden Forest. He would have to remove whatever kind of tracking magic the Headmaster put on her.

And then leave. Go.

The look in Professor McGonagall’s eyes…

I should never have been so careless. I should never have trusted her. She doesn’t understand. I knew she wouldn’t.

I have to be on my own.

Chapter Text

Harry leaped out the front door of Hogwarts and headed in comprehensive bounds for the Forbidden Forest. He was holding up his wand a second later, whistling as hard as he could for Yar. Sometimes she ignored him and went hunting somewhere else. He could only hope she wouldn’t do that now.

He was breathing hard enough to make it feel like a hand was closing around his lungs. He wanted to vomit. He had thought—he had thought he was in control, that no one suspected him, that he would get to heal his parents and no one would interfere because no one would know or they wouldn’t care if they found out—the Dursleys wouldn’t have cared—

And then Professor McGonagall was right on the verge of finding out. She would care, Harry knew. She had tried to take him away from the Dursleys even when it was already okay. She wouldn’t listen to him. She would frown and cluck and shake her head, and then she would probably take him to someone who could read his mind or make him confess the truth with Veritaserum.

Not really. Not her.

But she had more dangerous weapons even if she never used Veritaserum, Harry thought. He was under the branches of the largest trees, and he hopped along more quietly, not wanting to draw the attention of centaurs. He could see Yar’s wings flickering now and then above his head. She would follow him to a clearing where she could land.

Professor McGonagall could look at him with those critical, compassionate eyes and make Harry want to confess. She could make him think he was weak, the way Harry knew himself to be. Sometimes he resented all this endless effort he put in. Sometimes he thought his parents were never going to get better. Sometimes he just wanted to be normal and grow up and visit his parents in hospital but not worry about making them better.

The clearing was ahead, then here. Harry came to a stop in the center and held up his arm for Yar, not flinching as she landed on it. He’d long since hardened all the skin on that arm.

Those thoughts came to him in the middle of the night. Harry lay awake and thought them, and then woke up shuddering. He never wanted them to come true.

Yar turned her head towards him and watched him with wild, wise eyes that knew more than he did, for all his expertise in Transfiguration magic. Harry wished for a second that he’d been born an animal. They had it so much easier.

Then he shook his head and reached out, turning her slowly around. He had to find the Tracking Charm Dumbledore had on her and take it off. Only then would it really be safe to run.

The slim band around her leg disgusted him again when he saw it. It was white. Harry might not spend a lot of time looking at Yar’s legs, but he still should have seen it. And he hadn’t paid enough attention to protect his friend from a threat.

When he touched his wand to the band, it sparked and made Yar screech and lift her wings to fly away. Harry turned sharply to the side, re-balancing her and taking a piece of raw meat out of his pocket. Yar focused on the food, and Harry handed it to her. While she munched, he examined the band again.

It was enchanted to resist any tampering, evidently. Harry closed his eyes and ignored the panic that wanted to rise and consume him. So far, he didn’t hear anyone coming after him. They must not know where he was.

He could figure this out. He would figure this out, and then he and Yar and Cross and his mice would leave.

Harry bent down to study the band more closely.

*

Minerva rounded the corner with a hard step that made her wince and wish she was younger. Her heart was laboring in her chest, and she hadn’t known where Albus was at first, meaning she’d headed for his office and then towards the Great Hall. Completely opposite directions, she thought as she bent over for a second and clasped her hand to her chest. And of no help in finding Harry.

Finally, she’d decided the situation was serious enough to send Albus a Patronus. It had asked him to meet her in the third floor corridor that had once housed the Philosopher’s Stone. Minerva didn’t think anyone would be there. And if she happened to see Harry on the way there because she was taking such a circuitous route through the castle, that was all to the good.

“Oh, dear. Is something wrong, Professor McGonagall?”

Minerva straightened in an instant. Standing in front of her was Dolores, her smile and eyes both wide and guileless. She reached out a hand as if to steady Minerva while shaking her head a little.

“You shouldn’t be working so hard. You should be in bed. Why don’t you come with me to my office? It’s not far. You could have a nice cup of tea.”

Minerva wanted to scream in frustration. Albus had told them all not to antagonize Dolores, so that the Minister wouldn’t suspect the extent to which the Order of the Phoenix was already involved in opposing You-Know-Who. That meant not showing “suspicious attitudes” and doing what she requested as well as not getting upset when students had detentions with her or she made a complete hash of the Defense classes.

But the longer Minerva stood here, the closer she came to losing Harry.

“I’m all right, Dolores,” she said, and forced some humor into her smile. “Just countering a student prank, as usual.”

“Oh, tell me all about it,” Dolores suggested, taking a step closer and turning her smile to winsome. “They should all be punished. I’m sure I could give you some tips!”

And now Minerva was caught in her lie, and she had to figure out what the hell she could say that would still persuade Dolores to let her go in time.

Even as she opened her mouth to speak, though, a ghostly wind seemed to travel down the corridor, and the tapestries on the walls leaped up and down. Minerva couldn’t feel a trace of the wind, but from the way she let go of Minerva’s arm and grabbed her own with a violent shiver, Dolores could.

“Madam Umbridge,” said a hissing voice that came from the tapestry’s weave, or sounded like it.

Dolores gave little sob and ran towards the stairs Minerva had just come up. Minerva stood where she was and smiled faintly as she saw Albus step out of his hiding place the minute the other woman was gone. That spell had once been one of his signatures during the war, when he wanted to frighten enemies away more than he wanted to corner them.

“What is it, Minerva?” Albus asked.

Minerva swallowed, her heart suddenly feeling as if it might burst again. “The Transfiguration master we were looking for is Harry Potter, Albus. And he’s about to run away.”

*

He couldn’t get the Tracking Charm off.

Harry closed his eyes and retreated again into the calm he’d been working on, the calmness that he should have shown when Professor McGonagall had talked to him. If he’d looked her in the eye and come up with excuses for his claws and the other things—he wanted to protect himself from Dudley, and he liked learning Transfiguration but didn’t want to show off in class—she would have believed him.

But he hadn’t.

Harry opened his eyes and looked again at the white band on Yar’s leg. If he couldn’t negate the charm and he couldn’t get it off, then he would transform it into something else. He ought to have enough time for that.

He spent a moment calling up in his imagination exactly what he wanted to see, and then reached out and touched the white band. “Commuto fasciam columbam,” he murmured.

The band seemed to flare with an inner light, and then sag to the side as though someone was pushing it from within Yar’s leg. Then it unfolded, and the white sides of the band became white wings. A dove sat staring near Yar’s feet for a second.

It probably would have flown away in the next second, but Yar slammed it to the ground with one strike of her swift feet and bent to tear at it as it struggled.

Harry nodded. He had to admit to some satisfaction that Dumbledore’s Tracking Charm had died that way. He turned and looked around the Forbidden Forest, considering it closely.

He had thought for a minute about staying here, but it was too close to the school. There was the chance that Dumbledore had already oriented on the Tracking Charm, before Harry destroyed it, and decided to come this way. They wouldn’t hesitate to come into the Forest, not if they really wanted to take him down.

But what other sanctuary do I have?

Harry opened his eyes. What kind of sanctuary were his friends always telling him they had? With their families. If he could move fast enough, he could get what he needed from them and then be gone before Professor McGonagall or Dumbledore or anyone else could come looking for him.

But he would need to move faster than he could even by springing on his legs. He drew his wand.

Accio Cleansweep Six!” he called, the name of the best broom the school had. Then he settled against the tree next to him and waited for it to arrive. He had a few preparations to make before he could fly, notably tying his pockets shut so that the mice wouldn’t fall out and persuading the reluctant Cross to climb into the deepest one. Cross hated flying. Well, now he would have to make do.

Yar, of course, he didn’t need to worry about. Her snapping and gulping and tearing made a suitable background music for his wait, Harry thought.

*

“Where did he get that kind of skill?”

Minerva shook her head as she led Albus towards Ravenclaw Tower. Harry would have gone to get clothes, at least.

“I don’t know. He was doing well in class, but I don’t know how he taught himself so much outside it. I didn’t know he could Transfigure living animals with that sort of skill until he gave a kitten to Neville last year…”

“You should have questioned him then.”

Minerva turned around and glared, and after a moment, Albus sighed. “You’re right, Minerva. I’m sorry. But the thought that a child’s been doing this kind of illegal Transfiguration under our noses, and no one noticed—I don’t know what that indicates. That I’m getting so slow I might lose the war?”

Minerva privately thought that more people than just Albus were fighting the war, but she nodded in understanding and led him on.

She found two of Harry’s fellow Ravenclaws near the tower door, and sighed in relief. “Miss Patil, Miss Chang,” she said, as they turned around in surprise. “We’re looking for Harry Potter. Have you seen him?”

“Not since Transfiguration, Professor.” Patil looked puzzled.

“I thought Roger was going to talk to him again about recruiting,” said Chang, and rolled her eyes a little. “I told him it was useless. Sorry, professors,” she added, maybe seeing that neither Minerva nor Albus had any idea what she was talking about. “Harry’s really good at flying, and Roger keeps thinking that he’ll join the Quidditch team. But Harry doesn’t care anything about the game. I don’t know why Roger thinks he has a chance of convincing him.”

“Do you think he might be on the Quidditch pitch, then?” Albus asked, sounding interested. Perhaps it was only finding someone else who enjoyed flying more than the game, Minerva thought. Albus had often told her that he believed he was the only one with that opinion.

“Yes, maybe.” Chang shrugged, gave them another curious glance, and turned back to Ravenclaw Tower.

Minerva wanted to charge back down the stairs. Albus took her elbow and constrained her to a walking pace until they were out of sight of the Tower, and then cast a spell that filled Minerva with a wave of refreshment and energy. She sighed as she stood straighter.

“Did you notice another interesting thing?” Albus asked, quickening his pace, too. Minerva assumed he had used the same spell, although Albus was strong enough at a hundred and fifty to put most other wizards to shame.

“What?” Minerva’s mind was on Harry, and the loneliness and fear he must be feeling, to make him run from her.

“Neither of those two students seemed concerned about young Harry. Does he have many friends in his House?”

“No,” Minerva said shortly. She wanted to save her breath for moving. But Albus continued to look at her, so she gave in. “Only Terry Boot in his House. And of course he’s close to Neville, but you knew that.”

“Of course,” Albus murmured, and then fell silent.

Minerva wondered what he was thinking, but it was only a fleeting thought in the midst of all that she had to worry about. Especially when she tried to make Albus pick up his pace, and he wouldn’t. They settled for floating down the stairs and around corners, all the time heading steadily for the Quidditch pitch.

*

Harry stepped back with a sigh. There had been a reasonable explanation for why the broom couldn’t come to him after all, one that had nothing to do with his Summoning Charm failing, as he’d feared. The door on the broom shed had been locked so firmly, including with magic, that the broom hadn’t been able to make it out.

But now it was open, and Harry swung a leg over the eager Cleansweep Six and touched his pockets one more time. Cross, mice, shrunken trunk with his clothes. He nodded and pushed off into the air.

“Mr. Potter!”

“Harry!”

Harry’s head whipped around. It was really Professor McGonagall calling him by his first name that did it; he didn’t recognize the other voice.

But there she was, with the Headmaster, and they were both running fast and looking anxiously up at him. Harry wondered for a second what they would do if he went back down. March him to the Headmaster’s office? Arrest him? Tell him he shouldn’t be doing this and send him to Ravenclaw Tower without dinner?

But then he saw Dumbledore’s face. Professor McGonagall might hug Harry and try to help him. He wouldn’t.

Harry curled his legs around the broom and shot into the sky.

“Harry!” Professor McGonagall sounded devastated.

A spell was coming at his back when Harry glanced over his shoulder. It was bright white and it hummed like a hundred of the wasps he had once conjured to bother Aunt Petunia. But Harry knew how to beat it. He was glad, now, that he’d never showed anyone except a few students and Madam Hooch how well he could fly.

He leaned to the side, and the white spell sped past him. Another one was going to hit his head, but Harry ducked and swooped like Yar when she had seen a particularly tasty rabbit. It missed him, too. And soon Harry would be over the Forbidden Forest and away from the school, and away from any spell that Dumbledore might send after him.

“Mr. Potter.”

Dumbledore’s voice boomed around him. Harry didn’t look over his shoulder to see whether he was on a broom. He knew no one could have caught up with him that fast. It was probably the Sonorus Charm.

“We only want to talk to you. We want to know why you have made the changes you have. You will not be harmed.”

Harry ignored that, and kept flying. Adults said that a lot. Aunt Petunia used to say it when Harry didn’t want to come out of his cupboard to be punished. And Harry had believed her, like a fool, several times.

No more.

“You will be stopped, Mr. Potter. Please come back willingly.”

Harry lifted his head and looked forwards at a sound of grating and clanging. The front gates of Hogwarts were swinging shut, and above them was a pair of huge gates made of dancing fire. The magical protections that made Hogwarts safe in times of war, Harry supposed. They were one of the very few things other than goblin rebellions that Professor Binns had ever talked about in History of Magic.

But Harry wasn’t going that way. He swung out in an even broader curve, and sped above the Forbidden Forest before they could stop him.

“Harry!”

He did glance back, compelled by that sound, even though he knew he couldn’t make out Professor McGonagall’s features from this distance. She was standing with her arms raised up to him, though. He saw that.

If she had been alone, he might have gone back. If he hadn’t panicked when she saw his claws, he might have been able to talk to her. But she’d brought Headmaster Dumbledore. And he had tried to imprison Harry and cast spells at him that might have any effect. While he was flying.

He might have made me crash. He can’t care that much.

The Forbidden Forest bent to the south and west, and Harry followed it away from the gates of Hogwarts, aiming for the place where he would be able to circle past that protective magic. He kept his head tucked and turned. Looking back would be bad for him now. He might yield to the weakness that told him to trust Professor McGonagall and return to the school after all.

Better to keep going, and spend the night in the Forest, and then make his way to the Longbottom home where Neville’s grandmother lived, which Neville had told him was in Lancashire. Neville had sent him detailed instructions the summer before last, under the impression that Professor McGonagall might Apparate Harry there.

Harry couldn’t Apparate, and wouldn’t dare use his wand now anyway, since the Ministry could use the Trace to find him. But Neville’s house had a few landmarks nearby that he knew would be distinctive from the air.

And he had a few plans for what would happen after he was able to land and rest for a while. Several of them involved the Lestranges.

*

“Did you know that we would lose him, Minerva?”

Minerva closed her eyes. “No, Albus,” she said dully. “I had no idea that he was so determined to leave.”

She rubbed the side of her face, which ached. She had spent so much time casting spells, ones that would let them walk safely through the Forbidden Forest and search through the eyes of birds above it and Transfigure small creatures that might find Harry before they did, that her jaw hurt. She was more than happy to sit back in Albus’s office and eat the biscuits and other treats that the house-elves had provided.

But Albus was brooding, and Minerva knew that meant she was going to hear about it. With a tiny sigh, she set aside the teacup and opened her mouth to explain what she knew about Harry and his magic.

Albus cut in before she could, looking sightlessly at his phoenix, who was mature now and probably soon to crumble into a small hatchling again. “We must have overlooked him. I will never understand how, but he became a master of Transfiguration despite his lack of formal instruction. And his goals are probably Dark.”

“How do you know that, Albus?” Minerva asked sharply. “He ran away when I confronted him. That’s not the action of a Dark wizard. He might have tried to hurt me, orObliviate me, or even cast a spell that would have made it impossible for me to tell anyone else about him. But he did none of those things.”

Albus looked up with a faint, weary smile. “But in the last half-hour, Minerva, Severus has broken through a Memory Charm barrier that he might have remained ignorant of if not for the surprising news of Mr. Potter. There can be no doubt that Mr. Potter is the one who cast that charm. It covers a battle in Lupin’s rooms in his third year, the night that Remus turned into a werewolf. Harry was there, apparently, listening to Remus tell stories of his parents. He managed to hurt both Severus and Remus, badly, and then modified Severus’s memory so that he wouldn’t know Harry had been there.” Albus hesitated, looking vaguely disturbed. “But Severus didn’t remember him doing the same to Remus. I wonder why Remus never told me. Not even the shock of transforming into a werewolf should have erased such events.”

Minerva said nothing. She felt as if someone had slammed her in the chest, and it was hard to do anything but let her breath labor along for a minute. She had to put a hand over her heart and close her eyes.

How did Harry learn the Memory Charm?

But she knew that, too, when she thought about it. Harry had managed to learn a lot of Transfiguration on his own that she hadn’t taught him. It made sense for him to have studied the Memory Charm.

Which argues that Albus is right, and he always intended to cover up his tracks and do something that would make others think him Dark.

“He doesn’t care about inflicting pain on other people,” Albus continued, his voice gentle, persuasive. “I think we need to warn others about him, Minerva.”

“I think you’re wrong,” Minerva said, opening her eyes. “He’s fierce in defense of his friends. And he cares about animals with a ferocity that…”

Her voice trailed off in the face of Albus’s implacable silence. “What else did you see from Severus’s memories?” It had to be something then, as his interview with Severus and dinner were the only times she’d been away from his side.

“He created Transfigured animals to help him in battle,” said Albus. “And do whatever he told them to, evidently. That was there to see in Severus’s memories, although I doubt he knew exactly what I was looking for.” He hesitated. “He nearly broke Severus’s wand. He had the mice gnaw on his genitals.”

Minerva shuddered again. That didn’t fit with the quiet boy she knew, carrying a kitten into the hospital wing for his best friend to have…

But it might fit with the boy who had claws and wild eyes and claimed that there was no problem with going back to his abusive relatives, not now that they “understood” each other.

“Have you thought of something, Minerva?”

“His relatives abused him, Albus—”

“So you told me.”

The coolness in his tone made Minerva pause. But she pushed on a second later. She owed Harry more than giving up because Albus opposed her once.

“I don’t think he’s on his way to join You-Know-Who or anything like that. He doesn’t seem impressed by the man. He loves his parents, I know that. He wouldn’t join anyone who’d ordered people to hurt them.”

“But he might help him inadvertently, for example by distracting Neville from his studies or causing chaos that Voldemort could use to his advantage,” Albus pointed out, ignoring the way Minerva jumped, as usual. “I think we need to prepare for the worst, Minerva. And that includes finding Harry and giving him an ultimatum. Even if his intentions are absolutely altruistic, he would still need supervision.

Minerva bowed her head. She couldn’t argue with any of it. For Harry to change his own body had shaken her deeply. She knew only a few Transfiguration masters in history who had done that. Most went through the training to become an Animagus instead.

But she also couldn’t believe anything evil of Harry, even if she didn’t have the rational basis for an argument. Her beliefs and feelings were stubborn, wordless, but there.

For now, she would do what she could to find Harry. And when she did, she would go and talk to him, instead of bringing him in for questioning.

Maybe that will finally be necessary. But I do feel I owe him more than that.

Chapter Text

It was early morning before Harry landed quietly to the side of Neville’s house, under a tree. He’d rested through most of the night, since it was too dark for flying. He’d let the mice look for food for him and they’d brought back a few nuts.

As for the rest of the hunger, well, he was used to hunger.

Standing behind a tall, unnaturally straight pine, Harry studied the protections around the house. They danced and flickered in the air, less threatening than he’d expected. Nothing like the fiery gates that Dumbledore had raised over Hogwarts’s real gates. These were so soft and silvery that if Harry hadn’t been looking directly at them, he would have missed them. They swirled into being sometimes, circles of light like Muggle searchlights.

Harry wondered for a moment what he should do. He wanted to say he was a friend, but he couldn’t just walk up and knock on the door.

Then he smiled a little. The house was in the middle of a thick, protected patch of forest with Anti-Muggle Charms all over it. Harry could probably gain attention with no danger by doing something simple.

He held up his wand and fired a fountain of red and silver sparks that rose above the trees. Then he called, “I’m a friend of Neville’s!” as loudly as he could, and waited.

It still took long minutes before someone stepped out of the front door and turned towards him. Harry saw she was wearing a huge dead vulture on her hat. He relaxed. Everyone had talked about how those were the clothes Neville had dressed his boggart in during third year.

The woman stopped at the very edge of the protections, looking towards him fearlessly. Harry saw that she had small, bright eyes and a stubborn frown. He waited for her to find him, and she examined him from head to foot.

“A friend?” she asked finally. “His only friends are the Weasley boy and Granger girl, and you don’t look much like them.”

“And the Potter boy,” Harry said. “I’m Harry Potter.”

The woman relaxed in a rush. “Ah, yes. The mysterious visitor he wanted me to fetch, and I would never consent without knowing why you didn’t want to come.” She reached out and touched her wand to one of the protective spells, tearing it back like a curtain. “Why are you here now, boy?”

“Because the Headmaster found out about how good I am at Transfiguration, and he thinks that I should be under his supervision if I’m going to perform spells like that,” said Harry, knowing he would need to be at least a little honest if he wanted Mrs. Longbottom to stick up for him. He stood right next to the protective spells, since he thought that might let her see more about him.

“Then you were the one who gave Neville his kitten,” said Mrs. Longbottom, and stood upright with a smack of her hands. She was taller than Harry had realized. “He told me that, but I didn’t think a student could be good enough. I’m glad you gave him Dapple. It’s helped him with his self-confidence.”

She took a step forwards, scanning Harry. Harry blinked at her, and tried not to draw his wand. Using it when it had the Trace on it wasn’t smart anyway.

Mrs. Longbottom was old, like Professor McGonagall, but otherwise nothing like her, Harry thought as he saw the sharp temper in the backs of her eyes. She examined him with sturdy concentration, and nodded when she was done. “That’s fine work,” she said, glancing at Cross, who had poked his head out of Harry’s deep pocket now that they were no longer flying. “What do you need, boy?”

Harry relaxed a little. “A place to stay for a while, and something to eat,” he said. “For you not to tell Dumbledore about me, in case he asks. And for you to perform a few spells that I can’t do on my own.”

“Of course, the Trace,” Mrs. Longbottom muttered. She appeared to think for another moment. Then she asked, “What’s your opinion on Voldemort, boy? Yes, I say his name,” she added. Harry’s eyes must have widened without his knowing it. “He took my son and nearly took my grandson, I can damn well say his name.”

Harry smiled a little. “I hate him. He put my parents in St. Mungo’s and made me grow up with relatives who despised me.”

“That’s sincere hatred in your voice,” said Mrs. Longbottom. “Come on, then.” She turned towards the stone house, seeming to assume Harry would follow.

Harry did, with a little tingle and thrum of respect in his veins. He thought Mrs. Longbottom respected him, too. She gave him what he asked for after thinking how much it would cost her.

This was the kind of adult he could get on with. If Professor McGonagall had only been a little less committed to asking questions about him, he thought he might have had the same kind of relationship with her.

It’s too bad I couldn’t.

*

Severus sat up with a gasp and a shaking hand. He knew before he touched his forehead that he would find sweat as sticky as honey, and hated himself for it.

When he leaned back against his pillow, it was soaked with sweat, too. Cursing, Severus sat up and flicked his wand. The fire blazed up from its low smolder, and the torches in the walls came alight all at once.

He had been forced to perfect that spell, which once he had neglected, since his memories of his confrontation with Harry Potter had returned. The nightmares always seemed to start out dark and go darker, narrowing to a single point of intense green light in the boy’s wild eyes as he stalked towards Severus.

And unlike life, the nightmares ended with those claws poised above his eyes, and Potter murmuring orders to his animals to destroy him.

How could the boy have grown so much in power without anyone being aware of it?

Severus had thought, for some time, that Minerva knew about Potter’s strength and had kept it from everyone if only to enjoy a malicious chuckle at Albus’s and Severus’s expense. But the sight of her tears when Albus called the professors together to tell them what had happened had cooled those suspicions. He had to change his mind, too, when Minerva told them in a rasping voice that she wanted to offer Potter an apprenticeship with her in Transfiguration, but that she needed their help, because checking into all the places he might have gone hadn’t revealed him.

Meanwhile, Albus thought the boy a Death Eater.

Severus laughed at that now, although the sound was shaky and he shut himself up when he heard it. There was no way that feral thing he had seen in Lupin’s chambers was a Death Eater. For one thing, he had attacked Severus, and if the boy was trusted by the Dark Lord, he would have known about the Mark on Severus’s arm and at least hesitated.

For another, Severus didn’t think the boy had a side, any more than a beast in the forest might. He had his goals, whatever they were, and he had learned Transfiguration in the service of those, not to serve someone else.

He had told Albus that. Albus had nodded, looking doubtful, and told Severus that Minerva had made much the same arguments—that she thought “Harry” was looking for or wanting something else.

“But it does make me wonder,” Albus said softly, “why he never asked for help with Transfiguration, if his purposes were entirely innocent. He could have gained so much more from a collaboration with Minerva.”

Severus had stared at Albus, and finally asked the obvious question when Albus only blinked at him. “Because he didn’t want anyone else to know what he was doing?”

“But why would he want to hide them if his purposes were innocent?”

Severus had only shaken his head, and let the conversation go. Albus was far too invested in ideas of innocence, guilt, and other things he could understand to pay attention to what Severus thought was obvious about the situation.

Now, Severus sat staring into the fire. He had to do something to rid himself of his nightmares. He had to do something to bring Potter back into a controllable situation so that his own reactions weren’t so clumsy, so ridden with obvious mistakes.

And the only way he could think of to do that…

Was to help Albus find Potter, and corral him to ask questions of him.

At least that should help Albus see beyond the innocence of a child in this case.

*

Mrs. Longbottom was the most accommodating adult Harry had ever been around.

She asked him lots of questions about Transfiguration and his friendship with Neville and why he’d had to flee the school. Harry could answer them, though, without revealing that he wanted to learn Transfiguration to heal his parents.

She just wasn’t that interested in his reasons, Harry thought. She wanted more facts.

And that was what he most wanted and needed. If Professor McGonagall had just taught him instead of worrying about why he wanted to know, then she would have been perfect.

But Harry shook the thoughts out of his head, and finally told Mrs. Longbottom something he hadn’t told anyone else: that he wanted revenge on the Lestranges who had tortured his parents. He told her one morning when they were sitting outside the large front doors of her house, in a clearing dotted with trees where songbirds flitted. Yar was in heaven, and Mrs. Longbottom didn’t object as long as she ate her kills out of sight.

“I think it’s honorable to want to avenge your parents,” said Mrs. Longbottom. Her eyes were shrewd as she watched him over the top of her cup of tea. “But you know that it’ll be hard for you to find them. Especially if they are with You-Know-Who. He doesn’t want the Ministry to believe my Neville, so he isn’t taking open action right now.”

“I know.” Harry ate his scone covered with clotted cream and watched Cross sleeping in the sunlight. “But I think I’ve come up with a way around that.”

“What way?”

“If I could get a bit of the blood of someone related to them. Neville told me once that almost all the pure-blood families are related to each other somehow. I know the spell wouldn’t be as strong if it was a distant relative, but is there someone still alive I could use for a closer match?” He looked at Mrs. Longbottom. Neville hadn’t been clear at all how the Lestranges or the Blacks were related to his family; Harry suspected he knew his genealogy, but he didn’t like reciting it.

Mrs. Longbottom didn’t recoil in horror, which just made Harry more approving. She sat there sipping from her cup for a moment, eyes distant. Then she nodded decisively and turned to look at him.

“There might be a better option. Instead of tracking with blood, you can track with resonances.”

“What’s that?” Harry asked. He couldn’t remember hearing the word mentioned except in some speeches about politics, and they clearly weren’t talking about magical resonances there.

“Resonances are the impressions left when someone has lived long enough in a place or touched an object for long enough.” Mrs. Longbottom reached into her robes around her neck and held out a locket towards Harry. It was shaped like a rising phoenix, and as Harry watched, she folded back one of the wings and showed him a photograph of a tall man with shining brown hair. “This is my son Frank. If he was still alive, someone could track him from it, because he carried it for a long time himself, beside one of my daughter-in-law Alice. And someone could track me from it or the locket.”

“How long does it take for the impressions to fade? Why do they happen?” Harry was certain he didn’t remember hearing about this at Hogwarts.

Of course, it might have been talked about in Defense or Charms or some other class he hadn’t paid much attention to. He had always meant to pay more attention to them, but, well, Transfiguration had kept him alive and running so far.

“They happen because of the force of life that every magical creature carries around them,” said Mrs. Longbottom, with a sharp smile. “It’s what used to be called the Wild in old magical theories—”

She paused. “You’ve heard of that, I see.”

Harry wondered for a second if he should be alarmed that an adult could read him so well, but then flapped the suspicion away. Mrs. Longbottom showed no intention of stopping him, and that was the important thing. “Yes. I’m good with the Wild.”

“With your success at Transfiguration, I’m not surprised.” Mrs. Longbottom took another sip. “So. The Wild leaves its imprints on objects that have been held and deeply cherished, or held for a long time. It wouldn’t include every quill or chair or stone that you’ve ever touched. But someone could track you from your clothes, or from your wand.”

Another good reason not to use it, Harry thought. “Can you use the resonances without your wand?”

“Yes. Or you could use them in a place where magic would be expected. A place where an adult wizard lives and whose magic the Ministry would expect to see, for instance.”

Their eyes met and held, until Harry smiled. “So if I could find something that the Lestranges cherished…”

“Yes.” Mrs. Longbottom nodded. “It would probably be easier to find something of Bellatrix’s, honestly. She was a Black, and the Black properties are still open and active. The Lestrange brothers are the last of their line, and their father died while they were both in prison. Their properties are shut up or not in the family anymore. Even if you could find one that was, it would be much more likely to host them than otherwise.”

Harry nodded. He could sneak in and out of a house that was open, he thought, but he didn’t think he was good enough to face adult Death Eaters in open battle right now. He planned to capture and ambush the Lestranges.

He did have one question to ask Mrs. Longbottom, though.

“Why are you helping me so much?” he asked, leaning forwards until he caught her eye. “Is it just because I’m friends with Neville?”

Mrs. Longbottom faced him like a general. “It’s because you’ve done your best to make Neville feel more confidence. Because you believe him about You-Know-Who returning—the first one who did. Because you made him that kitten. And because you’re carrying the war to your enemies. That’s the sort of thing we should be doing. Not the sort of thing that happens. But we should.”

Harry relaxed. He had thought that maybe, at the end, she would mention something about children not being involved in war or him needing a special kind of help and care, the way he was sure Professor McGonagall would have. But as long as she didn’t, then he could trust her motivations.

She might care about the war instead of him, but she was honest.

*

Harry, where are you? Minerva thought as she Apparated away from Surrey. She hadn’t thought he would really return to the Dursleys, but it had been her last hope, and Albus had insisted she check on the house. Now Minerva collapsed before the fire in her own office and closed her eyes.

She had checked the Forbidden Forest, every corner of the castle, St. Mungo’s, the graveyard where Sirius Black lay, and even the old Potter properties that were still there, held in abeyance while James languished in hospital and Harry was too young to own them, including the mostly-destroyed house in Godric’s Hollow. No sign that he had been anywhere near them. And while she had contacted the families of his friends, both the Boots and Augusta had reported no sign of him, not that Minerva had really expected him to claim sanctuary there when he had never wanted to visit them during the summer.

She leaned back with closed eyes and thought in silence about what would probably happen next.

Albus seemed to want to hunt Harry, but also to accept that they couldn’t find him for right now. Other than telling the Order of the Phoenix to watch out for him, he hadn’t mentioned Harry in several days.

But Minerva could see the hole his going had left.

Not a big one, and not as big a one as the disappearance of a more popular Ravenclaw like Patil or Goldstein would have left. But Boot kept looking around with a disquieted expression. Seamus Finnigan sometimes glanced at the Ravenclaw table and then away again. Filius was quieter and sadder whenever Minerva saw him. She knew that, at least, was because he felt like he hadn’t known Harry at all.

And Neville…

Minerva touched her forehead with one palm. It ached. Nothing like the headaches that poor Neville felt through his scar, she knew, but right now, she felt more empathy for him than she had ever done.

Neville flinched from loud sounds again, something he hadn’t done since second year. He clung so tightly to Dapple that he had actually brought the kitten to Severus’s class, and ignored the demands to dismiss him. And he looked wistfully up at the sky, or the ceiling, whenever Minerva was training him in private. He seemed to think he might see Harry flying back any second, if he looked hard enough.

Then again, Minerva was guilty of the same thing.

She had one more tactic she hadn’t tried, at least. She could send an owl. As tired as she was, she took out ink and parchment and began to write.

Dear Harry…

*

You should know that I’m very worried about you. I won’t say the same thing is true of Headmaster Dumbledore. But we’re both worried about the cost that becoming so good at Transfiguration on your own might have exacted from you. I want you to know that you could have come to me, and no matter what the reason for such intensive study, I would have helped you.

Harry held back a snort as he sat at breakfast with Mrs. Longbottom the morning the owl arrived. One of the mice stood on his shoulder and held the parchment steady, so Harry had a hand free for eating. Mrs. Longbottom was a stickler for manners, so Harry didn’t want to drip food on the table or actually snort.

She wouldn’t have helped me. She would have been too worried about what it would cost me¬—she even says that!instead of my parents. They lost everything. What have I lost in comparison?

The letter continued, I want you to know that if you write to me, or come to me, I won’t report you to Albus or the Ministry. I won’t do anything without your permission. I only want to talk to you, and learn about your learning. What can I do to help? What can I do to make it safer for you?

Yours sincerely,
Minerva McGonagall.

Harry sat back with a little sigh, of the kind that Mrs. Longbottom did permit. It was always about his safety. Never about rescuing his parents, or even worried about the safety of his animals.

Why can’t she see that my life is a tool? Something I can do things with, not something that needs to be shut up in a glass case and protected?

“Bad news?” Mrs. Longbottom asked casually, her eyes locked on his face.

Harry shook his head and laid the letter down. “Not really. Professor McGonagall is worried about my safety and wants me to write to her. Maybe I will, later, when I’ve taken care of the Lestranges.”

Mrs. Longbottom nodded, her eyes glittering. “I hope you don’t mind me saying it this way, Mr. Potter, but the more risks you take, the safer you make it for my Neville.”

Harry smiled at her. “I don’t mind that. Neville’s my friend.”

And more people need to be thinking about him, too. There was an article in the Daily Prophet this morning once again accusing Neville of lying about Lord Dudders and dismissing an attack on a Muggleborn Ministry worker as “a prank.”

“You think you have everything you need to go to Number Twelve Grimmauld Place?”

Harry looked up and nodded. “And you think that’s the easiest to access?”

“In London. With so many other people that you’ll blend in more easily than you would in the isolated areas. And no one lives there properly anymore. It’s so dark and gloomy that the family only visits occasionally.” Mrs. Longbottom slowly sipped her tea. “Yes, I’m sure.”

“Then I’ll start on my way tonight.”

*

Harry moved slowly towards Number Twelve. Mrs. Longbottom had Apparated him into London and then to the street where the house was, Grimmauld Place. She had also cast a Disillusionment Charm on Harry. The house was one of those places like the Leaky Cauldron, not properly visible to Muggles, and Harry would appear suspicious simply walking into thin air, or looking around between the houses.

Once Harry was inside, though, he was on his own.

Harry’s skin prickled with excitement as he made his way slowly up the stairs. He had made more mice while he was in Mrs. Longbottom’s house—she didn’t mind that as long as they didn’t poop in the house or chew up the curtains—and they flowed around him and under the door and through a window that didn’t have everything properly shuttered up.

It is a gloomy house, Harry thought, glancing at the sagging boards and the walls that were thick with dust even on the outside.

The mice were to open the door. Harry hadn’t expected them to find a key, though if they did, they would know to bring it to the door, guided by one of the older ones who had been at the Dursleys’ and knew what a key looked like.

But in the end, they did it the way he had suspected they would, using their sharp teeth on the wood around the lock until the door sagged and fell inwards. It didn’t take that many mice, all chewing in concert, long to do it. Harry smiled and caught the door as it swung, so it wouldn’t make noise that might alert the Muggle neighbors. Then he stepped inside.

Instantly, a shimmering block of white light enclosed him, and a trembling, vibrating alarm began to ring.

Harry cursed heavily as he reached forwards and found that his hand bounced off the inside of the block. However, his mice were still free, and he ordered them up the walls. Magical protections had to be attached to something, doors or windows or walls or torch sconces. They would find it, and bite through it or knock it down.

And perhaps they would have managed it, but Harry heard heavy footsteps coming from the end of the corridor before they could. He stiffened and turned, knowing he could face a lot of pain. Perhaps Bellatrix was here, and that would be bad. But he owed it to his parents to suffer as bravely as he could.

It wasn’t a woman who came into sight, though, but a man, tall and clad in black and moving in a leisurely way. Harry stared at him and realized he knew him. “You’re the man who was in the graveyard when Professor McGonagall took me to visit my godfather,” he whispered. “The first time.”

“Yes.” The man folded his arms and raised his eyebrows a little. He had keen grey eyes, sharp enough to cut. “And you’re Harry Potter. My name is Regulus Black. Why are you breaking into my house?”

Chapter Text

“You still haven’t given me an answer that satisfies me.”

Harry stared at his hands and said nothing, as Black had accused him of. He was sitting now, still encased in that square of white light, on a dusty sofa in an even dustier room. The square bent a little, so he could be more comfortable. Black had said it was the least he could do.

Harry didn’t trust Black. He didn’t trust Black’s smile. He didn’t trust the way that there was dust and neglect everywhere here, just like Mrs. Longbottom had said there would be, and yet Black threaded his way easily between the furniture and conjured a fire in a fireplace where lots of ashes told Harry they had burned recently.

Most of all, though, he didn’t trust the other small blocks of white light that had landed and coagulated around his mice. There was one for every single mouse. Harry had never thought any house could have such formidable defenses.

He studied Black intently as he leaned back on his own sofa and sipped a cup of tea that steamed and stank. He didn’t look much like the photographs of his dead brother that Harry had seen here and there in his parents’ hospital room. Sirius Black had laughed constantly in those photographs, and had bright grey eyes and wild dark hair. Sometimes the hair looked as if it was halfway down his back.

Regulus Black looked more like the photographs of Lucius Malfoy that sometimes appeared in the Daily Prophet, except with dark hair. The way he smiled now made it seem like he was bored most of the time and happy Harry was here because it kept him from being bored.

Harry didn’t trust that kind of smile, either. It was the kind Dudley would give on Saturdays before suggesting that they play Harry-Hunting.

“I know you have no reason to like me,” Regulus said. “Perhaps I have neglected my duty to you.” He looked around, studying Harry’s mice. “But I can only say, if my neglect was what drove you to this level of magical achievement at fifteen, it has had benign results.”

Harry only stared, and said nothing. He had no idea what Black would have expected him to say, in any case.

“Or could it be that you don’t know my brother was your godfather and I could therefore be said to have owed you a duty?” Black shifted in place on the couch and observed him. “No, that’s not possible. I saw you at his grave that day.”

“You had no duty to me,” said Harry. He had to speak now. “You weren’t his friend.”

Black gave a blink as slow as the drift of steam from his tea. “That’s a large assumption to make, isn’t it? Since you don’t know me, and you didn’t know him.”

Harry felt a weaker jolt of the same kind of grief he did when someone referred carelessly to his parents. But at least Sirius was dead and had no idea what his own brother was saying about him.

“You wrote a strange thing on his gravestone, and I know he ran away from your family and lived with my dad’s family,” Harry said. “That means that you can’t have been close.”

“I was under the age of majority when Sirius left,” said Black. “Much like you are now. There was nothing I could have done.”

Harry only stared at him. He could do all kinds of things, and look at the things everyone expected Neville to do. That was silly, Harry thought, to dismiss someone’s abilities just based on them being a child.

Black chuckled, for some reason. “I can feel the force of your doubt from here,” he said, and shook his head. “Well. Maybe I could have protested to my parents, but they forbade me to ever mention Sirius’s name again. I would only have got in trouble for my actions.” He hesitated. “I was a Slytherin, you know, not a Gryffindor. I had somesense of self-preservation.”

Harry looked back at him and said nothing that time, either. Someone who thought it was a horrible thing to be a Gryffindor was not going to be any help to him.

The problem was, Harry wasn’t sure how to get away from here if Black didn’t help, or at least relent. He couldn’t leave his mice behind, and the block of white light wouldn’t shift no matter what he did, including kicking, twitching the muscles in his legs, and whispering incantations in his mind.

Well, to be fair, he hadn’t tried wandless Transfiguration yet. But he didn’t want to show he could do that in front of Black, either.

“I wonder what I should do with you,” Black said. “These are the times I wish I was a Legilimens, so it would be easier to get information.” He sighed and drank some more of his tea. “Or kept up on the news from Hogwarts. I wonder if you’re a runaway or you left with their blessing.”

Harry knew his expression changed. He hadn’t practiced enough lately at keeping it still. Black laughed like a delighted crow in response.

“Should have known! Should have known!” He pointed his teacup at Harry. “Why did you run away, then? To break into my house, yes, I know that, but what else did you want to do?’

Harry gritted his teeth. It seemed, as horrible as it was, he would have to say something to Black of his intentions. Maybe he disliked his Death Eater cousins, or was embarrassed by them. He might help Harry if only to get rid of the stain on his family.

Or maybe he would help Harry because of this “duty” he’d talked about. If he was anything like Lupin, though, his guilt wouldn’t be worth much.

“I want to destroy the people who destroyed my parents. Now that they’ve broken out of Azkaban, I think I might be able to reach them. I came here to see if Bellatrix left anything behind that I could use to track her through the resonances.”

Black’s eyes widened. Harry didn’t know if it was just surprise or something else. He didn’t think he had much chance of finding out.

Black put his teacup down on the table beside him with an emphatic little clink. He shook his head and touched his temple like there was water in his ear. Harry knew that kind of touch. He used to do it after Dudley held his head in the tub for a while.

“You’re mad,” Black said at last. “I wouldn’t dare take Bellatrix on, even after the amount of years she spent in Azkaban. She’s a far better duelist than most of the Death Eaters. And Rabastan is no slouch. I never saw Rodolphus fight.” He peered at Harry. “And you thought you could walk in here and take something that used to belong to her?”

“I thought I would try.”

Black watched him in silence for a time. Then he stood up and walked out of the room. Harry closed his eyes against the impulse to call out after him. He wanted out of this white block of light, yes, but so far it was less painful than many of the things that had happened to him.

Besides, he had one ally who wasn’t trapped in a block of light. Harry wasn’t entirely sure that he could call to her from here, but he had told Mrs. Longbottom to go back and get Yar if he hadn’t returned in an hour.

And Yar had some training in crushing wand hands.

Less than ten minutes had passed, though, when Black reappeared, carrying something in his hands that he frowned at. It was so dark and discolored on the back that Harry could only really see that it was round. Black came to a halt in front of Harry and considered first him and then the object, shaking his head.

He finally turned it around. Harry stared at a dim reflection. Apparently it was an oval mirror, set in a bronze frame that made it seem as if Harry had ruffs and tendrils around his face that reminded him of a sea serpent’s.

“I haven’t used this in a long time,” Black said. “Neither did my parents. But Sirius looked up what it did and wrote down the instructions, and if he was right, then I should be able to use it to reveal something about you. At least enough to know what kind of madness makes you think you can defeat my cousin.” He tapped his wand against the surface of the mirror, and Harry’s reflection suddenly grew brighter, like it was lit up.

“This is the Mirror of Snoitnetni,” said Black. “And I call on it now, by ancient magic and the blood of my family, to reveal your true self. Harry Potter.”

The mirror gave a sudden, heavy chime that made Harry’s breath taste sweet in his mouth. He jerked, thinking for a second that Black had released some potion fumes that might drug him.

Instead, the mirror simply grew brighter and brighter, until Harry had to close his eyes. When he could open them again, Black was standing there with his eyebrows raised but his face otherwise maddeningly calm, the way it had been since Harry arrived.

“Well, what do you know,” he muttered. “It worked.”

He turned the mirror again. Harry could see that the carved frame had changed. Now, a small figure—who might have been him—with mice on its shoulders ran around with his wand aimed at twisted and tormented humans in front of him. A cat was bounding after them, too, and birds were flying from the other direction to claw at their eyes.

His reflection had changed in some ways, given that it now looked as if the glass reflected a rippling pool of purple light around Harry’s face, but he didn’t know what that meant.

“How in the world,” Black asked, “did Lily and James Potter’s child come to be someone who should have been Sorted into Slytherin? And can use Transfiguration like this? And wants to torture people? And cares about a few people and doesn’t give a damn about the rest—including himself?” He touched the outer edge of the reflected ring in the mirror. “There’s a special kind of light that appears here when someone’s just a sadistic bastard and will sacrifice everyone else, but it’s not present, not for you. You won’t sacrifice those few people, but your own life is a tool that you’ll give up if you think you need to. Who are you, Harry Potter?”

Harry only looked back, and said nothing. There was a strange cadence to the heartbeat in his ears. Black had intuited some things about him, or read them from the mirror. It probably looked different to someone who wasn’t reflected in it.

Neville had told him a few things about the Mirror of Erised in first year. If someone could make a mirror that showed different people all sorts of heart’s desires, then someone could make a mirror that only members of a certain family could read, Harry thought.

“There shouldn’t have been any room for you to become this person, from what I know about you.” Black absently put the mirror on a nearby table and paced back and forth across the dim room a few times, his head bowed. “You had parents who weren’t any of those things. I mean, Sirius told me a few times before he ran away that his friend James was good at Transfiguration, but that’s not necessarily hereditary.” He turned around with enough speed that Harry jumped inside the block of light. “And you visited Sirius’s grave with McGonagall. And you must have learned a lot from her if you’re that good with Transfiguration. She’s not the sort of person, either.” He ran his hand absently down the side of his robe to the pocket Harry thought held his wand now. “Who taught you to be so ruthless?”

Harry didn’t see the point in answering. He only had to wait the hour, and Mrs. Longbottom would go back and get Yar. And Yar would come and find Harry, if only because she was bored.

“Oh, dear,” said Black abruptly, and his eyebrows pulled together in a way that Harry also remembered seeing in portraits of Sirius. “Do you think I’m going to disapprove?Or try to kill you, or something like that?” He shook his head. “No. I find you fascinating, instead. I want some answers to my questions, and I won’t let you go until I get them.”

Harry sat. He wished he could see a clock or had cast some spell that would tell him how much time had passed, because he honestly wasn’t sure how much of a waiting period there might be.

“I suppose adults have questions about you in general,” Black murmured, sitting back on the couch across from Harry and regarding him. “After all, someone probably found out about you, or you wouldn’t have left Hogwarts.”

Harry once again couldn’t stop the reaction that jumped like a spark through him. It was stupid and he hated it, but there it was.

“So.” Black folded his hands in front of him. “Are you chased? Have you been expelled? But no, then you wouldn’t have the wand. And I suspect someone brought you here by Apparating. You couldn’t have come this far, this fast, on your own.” Then he chuckled. “Although considering some of the other remarkable things that the mirror hinted you could do…”

Harry only stared back. Did Black think flattering him was the right thing to do? Harry had never been susceptible to it.

Black leaned forwards a few minutes later, tapping his fingers against his chin. “It would be easier if you would tell me on your own,” he admitted. “But I can learn a lot about you just from the way you remain silent.”

Harry remained silent.

“Most children wouldn’t have the patience to do that,” Black said. “They would have to do something. Wriggle around inside the block of light. Ask if they could go to the bathroom. Whine at me about when I was going to let them go. But you’re in control of your reactions. It is fascinating.”

Harry sat.

“Someone has formed you,” Black said softly. He might have been speaking to the mirror or a portrait out of sight instead of Harry. “Trained you, I would say, except I don’t think they knew what they were training you for.” He shook his head. “And not McGonagall, and not your parents, and I can’t think of any professor at Hogwarts who would produce this result.

“Do you know Severus Snape?” Black added suddenly. “Quite an acquaintance of mine, at one time.” He smiled as if something was amusing.

Harry knew he reacted to the sound of Snape’s name, too, but he tried to keep it down to a spurt of breathing or a tremor in his hands, nothing that would tell Black very much.

“I see you do. But he wouldn’t have trained you this way, either.” Black shook his head slowly. “He sees potential in no discipline except Potions and Dark Arts. He neverwould learn how to use some of the simpler charms in battle, as if it was dishonor to do anything except the most elegant things. He couldn’t have shaped and honed you in Transfiguration.

“And if he had sensed your power and managed to overcome his innate prejudices, he wouldn’t have let you go wandering like this. So. Not Severus.”

Black suddenly snapped his fingers and stood up. “The papers! Kreacher saved all the old papers from around that time, the ones with news of Sirius’s death. I think he probably does some sort of ritual cursing of them when I’m not looking, but he does have them. I’ll be right back,” he added, as if Harry would have been worried, and strode out of the room.

Harry tried once again to move his wand, or call his mice. But the blocks of white light remained frustratingly firm.

Black was soon in the room again, sorting through a pile of old, yellowed Daily Prophets that made Harry sneeze. “Let’s see, let’s see,” Black murmured, running his finger down a front page. Harry could see the people in the photograph there scowling at the finger. “No, that’s only the mock trial held in absentia for Pettigrew.” He tossed it aside and started reading the next one.

Harry remained calm. The papers would only tell the story of his life up to the time he was one and a half. The life he wished had stayed the same, of course he wished it had, but nothing Black could use against him now.

Here it is,” Black said suddenly. “Yes, I thought so. Huh. Leaving you with your mother’s Muggle relatives….” He shifted and stared at Harry over the top of them. “They taught you well, didn’t they? How?”

“They didn’t teach me,” Harry said, unable to prevent himself. The quick coil of hatred in his belly at the thought that someone might think the Dursleys were responsible for his skills was too much. He tried to rein himself back again, because Black had smiled, and Harry wouldn’t give him what he wanted. “They let me learn.”

“What kind of relatives would do that, I wonder?” Black’s voice was very soft now, and he took his hands away from the paper entirely and watched Harry with a gaze so intent that it was like being poked with a bunch of sharp little twigs. “Even my parents taught me. Some of what they taught me was revolting, but they never neglected my education.”

“They were Muggles. They couldn’t teach me anything about magic.”

“I didn’t say they were teaching you about magic. They might have taught you the same kind of lessons that my family imparted to me.”

Harry stared at Black. Then he looked around the house. “But it’s too big,” he said, and Black blinked.

“Another piece of the puzzle, then. How could they teach me about smallness or cold here? Or poverty? Did you grow up poor, Harry?” Harry tightened his fists at the sound of his name. “Or perhaps I should tell you that my mother was very good at cold, and it didn’t matter how many fires she had the house-elves light.”

Harry only stared, and then shook his head a little. That could be true, he thought; he didn’t see why Black would lie about it. But why would that make him want to help Harry? People who were afraid of being cold or hungry weren’t sympathetic to other people.

Harry should know.

“Well, then. That makes me understand you much better.” Black stood and walked towards him. “Not why you wanted to master Transfiguration specifically, but why you are the way you are, this cold and feral.” He held up his wand. Harry bunched his muscles and watched. There was a chance—maybe not much of one, but it was there—that Harry would be faster than Black, because he’d had to be faster than Dudley.

“But what does one do with a feral animal?” Black asked. Harry stayed silent, and Black added with a sigh, “That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Now do answer it, or I’ll start having a negative opinion of your intelligence.”

“Destroy it,” Harry whispered.

Black blinked hard. Then he said, “Good God, no.” He turned his wand in a sharp downwards spiral, and the white light around Harry vanished. “Tame it. Make it useful and interesting, to itself as well as to other people.”

Harry tried to bolt off the couch. But in the moment before Black reached out and caught his arm, he saw it would be useless. There were still blocks of white light around every one of his mice, and even if Harry had been willing to abandon them, Black might have tortured them.

Harry turned silently and quickly towards Black. He shot his claws and raked them hard across Black’s arm. Black shouted in surprise and wrung his fingers.

But he didn’t let him go, which was the opposite experience Harry had had with everyone else who got a scratch, whether from him or Cross or his first kitten. He simply swung to the side and caught Harry against the arm of the couch, slamming him in the solar plexus and dazing him. Harry was still trying to catch his breath when he felt Black’s wand come to rest in the middle of his throat.

Harry held still, and waited. He would regret dying now, because that meant he wouldn’t get the chance to heal his parents, but he wasn’t afraid.

“I want to help you,” Black said. “Do call it a neglected duty if you’d like. That’s certainly the way I’ll present it. I thought my brother’s godson was growing up in a loving home. Why not? Most people do. And then I thought he was just intelligent, not involved in something dangerous. But now I’m willing to step in and make sure that he grows up.”

Harry engaged in a bout of energetic but silent wriggling. If he could get his legs in the right position, he would still be able to kick, and with his extra muscles, there was the chance he could break Black’s kneecap. He just needed to get hold of a wand, either his or Black’s.

“You’ve changed yourself a lot, haven’t you?” Black dodged the kicks, his eyes wide and burning with something Harry thought wasn’t anger. “Probably your legs as well as your claws. It’s remarkable.”

He gave Harry a thoughtful glance. “And that’s dangerous,” he murmured. “Did no one tell you that? When you change yourself a lot, get yourself used to a number of different behaviors—although most people who experiment with human Transfiguration do it to others, not themselves—then you become more and more like an animal. Or the people you Transfigure do. Usually it’s only one kind of animal. If you did the claws and gave yourself a pair on both hands and feet, you’d become more like a cat. But you’re getting to be—what? Well, feral. The way you are.”

Harry just waited. Black had some motive, and in a little while, he would figure out what it was. Because of course that story Black had spun about looking after Sirius’s godson wasn’t true, only what he would say to people who asked.

“The way you keep quiet could be a legacy of abuse,” Black said. “Or it could be because animals don’t talk, either.” He shook his head. “You’re already pretty far gone. You barely think of yourself as human anymore, do you?”

Harry didn’t say anything. Why should he? All of the animals he had known were better than most of the humans he had known.

“You could achieve something, if you’ve done this much this young and you don’t vanish into being a beast before you reach seventeen,” said Black briskly. “So I’ll make sure that you make something of yourself—other than a creature. Whether or not you want to.”

“That’s not why you’re doing this,” Harry said.

Black grinned. “No. But it sounds good, doesn’t it? And as to the truth, I’m dreadfully bored. It’s not much fun being the head of the Black family when your only family members are either in prison, dead, tiresome Muggle-lovers, or so occupied in making themselves Malfoys that they have no time for the family they were born into. And the social repercussions against doing whatever I want would be even more boring, and I haven’t found any friends to entertain me in a while.” He shrugged, his eyes lingering on Harry. “You’ll be an amusing project, little cat. For a while.”

Harry didn’t even think before he opened his mouth and hissed at Black. Black cast a spell that made Harry jerk back in surprise. It felt as if someone had flicked his nose, but Black’s hand hadn’t been anywhere near his face.

“Tsk, tsk. A little too feisty for your own good.” Black smiled at him like a dog. “Now, why don’t you introduce me to the one who brought you here? Maybe they’ll want to help.”

Chapter Text

“So you didn’t manage to slip in without someone finding you after all. I’m disappointed, Potter.”

Harry looked at Mrs. Longbottom and then away. He had no idea what to say. Or if he could say anything that would make sense, with Black right behind him and one hand resting on Harry’s shoulder as if he was a puppet Black had played with as a child.

“Augusta Longbottom?” Black sounded no worse than mildly surprised. “You shouldn’t blame him. He appeared to have no idea anyone was here.” He shrugged. “You probably didn’t, either, or you would have taken him somewhere else.” He nudged Harry in the back of the neck, and Harry stumbled a step forwards before he could catch himself. Black wrapped an arm around his shoulders and beamed at Mrs. Longbottom. “And he’s not a disappointment. He’s someone who can change the world.”

Why does everyone who says things like that always think people want to change the world? Harry thought. Dumbledore had thought it, too, or at least he’d thought Harry was a danger to Hogwarts.

Harry didn’t want to change the “rules,” or Hogwarts, or the world, or whatever they thought it was. He wanted to change two specific people’s brains back to healthy ones, and he wanted to change two or three other people into shapeless masses. Those were the only transformations that mattered to him.

“I care about the ways he can help Neville,” said Mrs. Longbottom, and scowled at Black. “He can’t if you’re in tow.”

“That seems strangely heartless.” Black shook Harry back and forth. “When he seems like a fine young man?”

Mrs. Longbottom sniffed. “Mr. Potter knows exactly what I want and what my goals are.” She turned back to Harry as if Black didn’t exist. “Were you able to accomplish it?”

Harry shook his head. He thought he should stay as silent as he could. He didn’t really understand the history between the two adults. They might hate each other, or Black could like her and be laughing madly the way he always did, or Mrs. Longbottom might only care about the war the way she said she did.

Either way, Harry didn’t want to irritate one of them. Mrs. Longbottom was the one who had actually promised to help him, but Black had a hold on him and probably wouldn’t let Harry go easily.

“Then we must go somewhere else,” said Mrs. Longbottom, with a frown. “Come here, Mr. Potter.” She held out her arm the way she had when she’d Side-Along Apparated him to London.

Harry tried to move forwards, and found Black still clutching him. Black clicked his tongue and shook his head. “Did you think you were going to walk away from me? Careful, Harry, or I might start thinking you’re as much of a disappointment as Augusta here does.”

Harry blinked, and still said nothing. He hadn’t been in a situation that puzzled him this much since Professor McGonagall had first come to deliver his Hogwarts letter. Waiting and watching, he thought, were the best things he could do.

Black continued, in a faux cheerful voice, “I might be able to tell you exactly how to track Bellatrix down. We could use blood, which is the faster way and doesn’t require the tricky magic that resonances do. But of course, you would have to accept me as an ally for your journey.”

Then he wrinkled his nose and looked away from Mrs. Longbottom to give Harry a slightly terrifying smile. “Well, she would have to accept me as an ally. You would have to accept me more as a mentor.”

Harry stared at him, and still said nothing. He didn’t think Black was an expert in Transfiguration. And following Harry around and laughing at him wouldn’t make Black a mentor in anything, either. Why in the world did he want to come along?

“Oh, you should know the reason for this,” Black scolded, kneeling down in front of Harry and putting his hands on Harry’s shoulders. He sounded soft and affectionate, but Harry could see his eyes gleaming. That would have made him stop believing in the pretense if he’d ever started. “You’re fascinating. I won’t let someone who interests me slip away when they’re so rare.”

He paused. The laughter died in his eyes. Harry still waited, and still didn’t trust him. He was starting to think that nothing Black did or said could be trusted unless Harry could figure out the way it benefited him.

“And it’s strange to say this,” Black mused, “because it’s more the kind of thing my brother would say. Or at least someone who had an interest in educating young people, which I’ve never had.

“But I do think you have potential going untapped. It might be interesting to tap it.” Black stood up and smiled down at Harry. “At the very least, I’ve never tried teaching. I can try it until it bores me.”

Harry again said nothing. He didn’t know what reaction Black wanted out of him. A proclamation that he was going to do something because he was bored didn’t make him sound much better than Snape, and Black had acted like he despised the Potions master. But Harry supposed someone mad enough to want to work with him when he had no stake in Harry’s success could change his mind about despising bored teachers, too.

“Now.” Black turned to face Mrs. Longbottom. “What is the boy’s situation with regard to Hogwarts?’

Mrs. Longbottom peered at Harry. “You can’t contrive some way to get rid of him?”

“Not yet,” Harry said, when he realized her stare was going to continue until he said something.

Mrs. Longbottom only nodded gloomily, not looking surprised. “Fine, then. The boy ran away. Dumbledore found out about his Transfiguration skills and wants to supervise him, or have him on his side of the war.” She glanced once at Harry, and then added, maybe because of something she’d found in his face, “He also fired spells at him when he was flying on his broom. Mr. Potter feels, rightly, that Dumbledore is too consumed in his side of the war to care much about whether a single student is a Death Eater, as long as they don’t force the issue by showing their skills in front of him.”

Black had raised his eyebrows. “I’m surprised Albus’s thoughts turned in that direction. Wouldn’t he be prejudiced for a Gryffindor, and Lily and James Potter’s son?”

“Mr. Potter is in Ravenclaw, not Gryffindor,” said Mrs. Longbottom. “And I suspect that Albus has forgotten about James and Lily. A lot of people do.”

Black grinned at Harry. “You couldn’t fool the Hat that badly, then? It insisted on putting you somewhere else than the House most people would have thought you destined for?”

Harry turned his head away. He had nothing to say to Black.

“It just gets more and more interesting,” Black said cheerfully, and glanced at Mrs. Longbottom. “So Albus hasn’t raised that much of a protest against the disappearance of a single Ravenclaw. Does he think Harry’s going to come back to him of his own free will?”

“I think he believes that,” said Mrs. Longbottom, and shrugged, and looked at Harry. “But you still want to find the Lestranges and punish them for what happened to your parents, right, Mr. Potter?”

Harry nodded. Mrs. Longbottom understood him better than Black, he thought. Black could come up with all sorts of metaphors, but Mrs. Longbottom was the one who stuck close to the goals, the only adult who would help him with what he needed to do.

“Then we should go,” said Mrs. Longbottom briskly. “Which of the other Black properties would have some of Bellatrix’s property we could take, Black?”

Black only shook his head, in the slow, amazed way that some of the Muggles used to do whenever they compared Harry to Dudley. “Didn’t I tell you I would let Harry use my blood to track Bellatrix down? You aren’t going to need access to the other properties. Or the resonances.” He glanced suddenly at Harry. “Except one property. You are going to stay with me, Harry.”

“No, I’m not,” Harry said. He still thought it would have been stronger to stay silent, but the protest was more or less forced from him. Black would probably think he agreed, otherwise.

“Of course he is not,” said Mrs. Longbottom. “Whatever you think you’re doing, Black, you won’t let him fight the war from inside your house.”

“You do make me sick,” said Black, in so casual a tone that it took Harry a second to realize what he’d said.

Mrs. Longbottom only opened her mouth, and then paused. “You have a lot to learn about tact and diplomacy with your natural allies, Black,” she said.

“I don’t think you’re my ally,” said Black. “I don’t even think you’re Harry’s ally. All you care about is bringing the Dark Lord down, and in a way that will spare your grandson’s life. Harry’s a convenient way to do that, isn’t he? He’ll at least destroy a few powerful Death Eaters for you. Never mind if he loses his own life in the process. Never mind that it shouldn’t be his duty. You’ll still help him destroy himself.”

That isn’t the way it is, Harry thought, more than a little incredulous. He’d thought Black was intelligent, if annoying, but the way he had phrased things was stupid.

“And I suppose you’ll help him out of the goodness of your heart, Black?”

“I’ll help him because he was my brother’s godson,” said Black, and looked down at Harry with a soulful expression that Harry immediately distrusted. “I know Sirius would want me to keep him alive.”

“I won’t kill him.” Mrs. Longbottom’s voice was clipped. “Once again, you forget your place, Black.”

“I haven’t forgotten that since my brother died during the war and I found myself really in the role that my parents had designated me for,” Black replied, which made no sense to Harry. He turned and smiled at Harry. “You want to stay alive, don’t you, Harry? You don’t want Death Eaters to kill you—and they will target you if you kill my dear cousin and her in-laws—and you don’t want to die because you don’t understand how Transfiguration is affecting you.”

“I would prefer not to die,” Harry conceded, in the face of one of those silences that made him feel he had to answer the question. “But there’s no reason for you to put yourself out, sir. I’ve been doing well enough on my own.”

“Oh Harry, Harry, such a twisted definition,” Black said, and reached out. Harry would have dodged, except the hand was too high for Black to cast a curse at him or grab and hurt him. He was astonished when Black ruffled his hair.

“There are too many other people who haven’t done right by this child,” Black explained earnestly to Mrs. Longbottom, who was watching them with no expression on her face. “I want to make sure that he at least survives. It would be a problem if he died too early, wouldn’t it?”

Mrs. Longbottom didn’t say anything, either. Harry wasn’t sure if she was confused by Black, too, or just didn’t agree. He thought, for her, it would be okay if he died, as long as he spared Neville some of the work he had to do because of being the Boy-Who-Lived.

“Maybe not for you, either,” said Black, with the same odd tone in his voice that he’d had when Harry spoke of destroying feral animals. He looked at Harry. “I can see that we’re going to have an uphill struggle, you and I.”

“Can you help me destroy Bellatrix or not?” Harry asked. He thought maybe he could work with Black and put up with his odd notions, the way he’d put up with Professor McGonagall’s attempts to help him with the Dursleys. “If you can, then I’ll do some of what you want.”

“Such a concession.” Black put his hand over his heart. “I feel honored to win it, though,” he added quickly.

Harry turned back to Mrs. Longbottom. “You won’t tell Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall where I am, will you?”

Mrs. Longbottom shook her head, although her eyes moved back and forth from Harry to Black. “Are you thinking of going with him, Mr. Potter? I don’t think he’ll help you. In the end, Bellatrix is still his cousin, and he won’t want you to kill her.”

“If you knew what family means to a Black, then you would know how ridiculous that idea is,” Black said.

Harry shrugged. “At the moment, I think it’s for the best, Mrs. Longbottom. I still get to do what I need to do this way, and I don’t think Black is going to let me walk away.”

“No, I’m not,” Black agreed almost happily.

Mrs. Longbottom spent a moment more tapping her fingers on her folded arms. Then she nodded and said to Harry, “I will write to you. I need to know more about your plans to determine how much I should tell Neville, if he asks. I’ll send your eagle and your possessions to you.” And she turned and Apparated away.

“Your eagle?” Black already had a hand on Harry’s shoulder as if he thought he would Apparate away, even though Harry didn’t know how. “Is this another Ravenclaw you convinced to come along with you? Or do you have an eagle-owl?”

Harry only stared at Black, wondering why in the world he was babbling like this. “Neither,” he said. “I have an eagle.”

Black shot a swift glance at the mice that had climbed back onto Harry’s shoulders and hair once he released them from the blocks of white light. “Transfigured? That’s an interesting choice. Why an eagle? It would be less noticeable to have an owl.”

“An eagle can help in battle, and I know the methods of training one.” Harry tried to shrug off Black’s hand. It tightened. It annoyed Harry that Black seemed to think he would run or turn and claw him. Harry already knew those things wouldn’t work, so why try them? “An owl can only deliver post, and I don’t know how to teach them to do that.”

“You’re so interesting,” Black said, and then paused. Harry stared back, not having any idea what was the matter now.

“And there are some things I need to teach you,” Black announced. “About living with a Black, and in a house like a proper person. Come on.” He turned and propelled Harry, without really squeezing his shoulder, up the stairs and back into Number Twelve.

Harry grimaced as he went. He only hoped it would be actual training and not just more cryptic remarks and laughter.

Although, he had to admit, it was Black’s sincere remarks and not his cryptic ones that made him cringe. They seemed to mean he wanted to improve Harry or something.

*

Neville took a deep breath and reached up to stroke Dapple. Then he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes.

He wanted to cry. He really wanted to. But that would mean Snape would see the memory the next time Neville had an Occlumency lesson, and…

Neville couldn’t bear that.

Dapple purred and wound back and forth around his neck, rubbing his fur against Neville’s cheeks. Neville kept quiet and stroked him. He knew, if he commanded Dapple to do it, the kitten would try to sneak up on Snape and kill him in his sleep.

But Neville wasn’t that brave. Or that twisted, he supposed. That kind of thing was like something Harry would have done.

Professor McGonagall had called Neville to her office after Harry had disappeared and explained a little of the situation to him. Neville was—shocked was putting it mildly. He thought Professor McGonagall had wanted to know if he had anything to reveal about Harry’s destination, from the way she kept looking at him over her glasses and mentioning his grandmother’s name.

But Neville didn’t. He hadn’t known Harry would run. He still didn’t know exactly what had prompted it. Professor McGonagall talked about dangerous Transfigurations, but all Neville knew was that Harry had done that kind of thing for years and he didn’t seem to be any the worse for it. If she wanted to tell him something else, then maybe Neville would have believed her.

On the other hand, maybe not. Harry was his friend. They were too rare and precious, especially now that three-quarters of the school thought he was lying about Voldemort, for Neville to just turn his back on.

He stood up, slowly. He would get over this and go on. He would go up to Gryffindor Tower and study the books on Occlumency Hermione had found. Snape kept insisting that you couldn’t learn Occlumency out of a book, that you just “cleared your mind” and did it that way, but Hermione thought you could learn anything out of a book.

Neville thought that, this time, he would rather believe Hermione.

As he made his way up through the corridors to the Tower, with his head pounding and his scar burning like someone had plunged a brand into it, Neville thought again of the one person he would most like to hear from and believe right now.

Where are you, Harry?

*

“What is this I hear about a Transfiguration prodigy, Severus? One who fled from Dumbledore and has wrapped himself in secrecy?”

Severus rose to his feet from his deep bow in front of the Dark Lord and wondered for a moment who the spy was. Then he dismissed the notion. There were several Marked, older Slytherin students, and the Dark Lord might have learned about Potter from any one of them. Dumbledore had kept the matter quiet enough that not all students knew about it, but plenty had seen something, whether or not they chose to come forwards.

“His name is Harry Potter, my Lord,” Severus murmured. “The son of the man and woman the Lestranges—tortured.” He didn’t know how much nearer to approach the idea that the Dark Lord had been blasted into nothingness by Neville Longbottom at the same time. The Dark Lord’s rage over the mere mention of the Longbottom brat could make him torture anyone in the same room.

“The Mudblood woman who was your friend.”

Severus permitted himself a bitter smile. What he was about to say was nothing less than the absolute truth. “Was, my Lord. There’s nothing left of her, now. I did go to visit her in St. Mungo’s once. A drooling wreck…” He broke off and shook his head.

He hated that he’d made that visit, and not because he’d thought the Dark Lord would return someday and perhaps discern some sympathy for Lily from it. It was because he had stared at James Potter, who couldn’t even return his gaze, and not felt the same satisfaction from it that he had always thought he would.

An enemy who was not either dead while you were alive, or alive enough to appreciate your triumph, was a useless enemy.

“And where did he become so proficient at Transfiguration?”

“Apparently by practicing on his own.” Severus hesitated, but sooner or later, someone would probably tell the Dark Lord of this if Severus didn’t do it, and Severus was the only one who could properly soften the blow. “He also learned the Memory Charm. He Obliviated me after a battle we had in the rooms of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in his third year.”

The Dark Lord leaned slowly forwards. The room of the house he stood in was dusty, the furniture broken, but that didn’t matter when he was the one who made his surroundings royal, instead of the other way around.

“A battle? A duel?”

“Of sorts,” Severus admitted. “He had spoiled some of my potions the previous year. I had brewed a potion to figure out who did it, and once I discovered it was the Potter brat, I went to confront him. He fought me with Transfigured animals, and then Obliviated me so I could tell no one.”

“A weakness, that,” the Dark Lord said, and his mouth twitched in what was probably a smile, although Severus had never realized how hard it was to see that someone was smiling when you couldn’t see their lips. “If one hides one’s talents, one must always fear discovery.”

Severus said nothing. He knew how opposite the situation had been for his Lord. Word of his talents had spread among many people before he openly revealed himself, and they had kept his secrets for the pleasure and privilege of being in the know.

“And now the boy has discovery, if only from Dumbledore.” The Dark Lord laced his fingers together. “What do you think the chances are of our swaying the boy to our side, Severus?”

“Negligible, my Lord,” Severus said, shaking his head. “He thinks constantly of his parents; whenever I read his mind, he was thinking of them. He will not make peace with people who destroyed them.”

“And yet, you did, Severus.”

Severus met the Dark Lord’s eyes fearlessly. He was confident in the strength of his shields, and besides, some days he was no longer certain what side he served. “I did, my Lord. But I had the advantage of knowing you as you rose to power, and you could offer me freedom and a chance for revenge.”

“We can offer the boy nothing?”

The Dark Lord’s voice had gone soft, and that was very dangerous. But Severus knew that backtracking and lying about what they could offer Potter would result in more suffering for him in the end. He stood his ground, and answered calmly, “I don’t think so, my Lord. He wants freedom from Dumbledore. He has that. He can study Transfiguration on his own. He was never a Slytherin and thus never received offers of recruitment from our House, or tales of your glory, either. I cannot see why we should invest any level of effort in him.”

“Powerful wizards should be courted, Severus. And I understood that he was friends with my…nemesis, as well.”

Severus nodded tightly as the Dark Mark burned a little. He hoped that Longbottom was at least writhing in pain, wherever he was. “Yes, my Lord. Closer to him than to most others, although that isn’t a huge statement, given that both Potter and Longbottom lack many close friends.”

“He might have use as a hostage, then.” The Dark Lord waved one hand. “See what you can learn of him from Longbottom’s mind, Severus. In the meantime, listen for rumors. Track them if they come to you.”

“My Lord,” Severus murmured, sinking into a crouch again, and then turned and left when the Dark Lord glanced his dismissal. His gut trembled as he stalked through the corridors towards the room set aside for Apparating.

He did not wish to be in charge of drawing Potter to the Dark. His interest was even less than Potter’s in being part of such an enterprise.

Nor did he think himself capable of finding where Potter had gone to ground, if Dumbledore with all his resources could not.

But he would have to, because what the Dark Lord commanded, his Death Eaters did.

Severus did feel a brief flicker of longing. If things had been different, if Lily had survived and James had not, if the Potter brat had died, even if the Potter brat had been a Slytherin and not obsessed with his parents and Transfiguration, then Severus’s life would be much easier.

But he had his task, and he would succeed in it or die.

If part of his own reluctance to find and face the Potter brat again was fear…

That was not something a Death Eater admitted, either. Particularly not to himself. Severus buried it and Apparated back to Hogsmeade to give his report to Dumbledore.

Chapter Text

Black wanted many things, Harry thought, most of them strange and self-contradictory.

He put Harry in the middle of a magnificent library with huge bookshelves and even bigger piles of dust. Then he shook his head when Harry tried to use his wand—Black said he could, since the old spells on the house would mask the Trace—to clean up the dust. “No, I’m not having you do any chores. I have a notion those Muggles gave you too much already.”

“It wouldn’t be chores if I could use magic,” Harry said.

He sounded, he thought, calm and reasonable. Certainly calmer than Yar, who had come flying in two mornings ago with a thunderous clap of wings and eyes gone irredeemably wild. She’d flown around the dining room and shattered two large crystal vases Black owned when she tried to perch on them.

Black had only laughed, which was something Harry knew no other adult would have done. Well, maybe Professor McGonagall would have come close. But she would be concerned about him at the same time.

Most of the time, Black acted as if he didn’t care, either, except about things like Harry showing up on time for meals and not being rude to him. Then he would do things like this.

“But there are house-elves to clean up the dust,” said Black, and snapped his fingers. Harry jumped when the house-elf appeared.

He wore a thick towel around his waist, and his scowl was so dark that Harry almost thought the elf considered him another thing, like the dust, to sweep up. But instead, he looked intently at Harry’s claws, and his eyes, and sniffed. “Kreacher was not knowing about other creature in house,” he whispered harshly.

“Yes, yes, Kreacher, I know,” said Black. “Just clean up the library, there’s a good fellow.”

The elf bowed low. “Kreacher is doing whatever Master Black desires. Master Black is pure and is not lowering himself to consorting with filth—”

“Yes, and I’m a good boy, my mother’s pride and joy,” Black said, with a sigh. Harry thought it was the first real sigh he’d heard. “Get to work, Kreacher.”

To Harry, it seemed that the elf only clapped his hands, and the dust blew up and marched out the door. Harry blinked. That would be a neat trick to learn.

But no one offered to teach him. Kreacher disappeared again once the dust was gone, and Black nodded to the books and then left the library. Harry looked up at the shelves. What did Black think he would research? Ways to get rid of the Lestranges? Harry already knew what he wanted to do to them.

Then he took down the first one of the books, and found that it was all about the history of the House of Black.

He pulled down another book. A biography of someone called Phineas Nigellus Black, who Harry assumed had been important.

Books on manners. Books on culture as defined in the House of Black. Books on raising children, wizarding robe fashion, distinguishing Muggles from wizards, hunting magical creatures.

All of them had the Black coat of arms on the front. Harry had already seen that in numerous places around the house, carved into walls and furniture and mirror frames, and gleaming in gilt from the backs of old tapestries turned into rags. The part of the tapestry that bore the coat of arms had never disintegrated, for some reason.

Harry shook his head once he had the contents of three entire shelves spread out on the table. What did Black expect him to do with this? There wouldn’t be anything about Bellatrix Lestrange in these books, because they were too old. And there didn’t seem to be anything about the Lestrange family, either.

Harry turned and walked towards the door. He would leave the books out. More than likely, Kreacher would take care of them.

There was a sharp shimmer of light as he neared the door, and something white and fuzzy appeared in front of him. It growled. Harry kept walking.

The white thing grew solid and crouched on the floor inside the doorway, staring hungrily at him. Harry sent a few of his mice forwards to investigate. They should be able to dodge before the thing started snapping them up, if it was real.

Sure enough, they had to dodge, because the thing’s neck extended and its jaws clamped down on air. Harry called the mice back. He heard the beast’s teeth snapping. He wouldn’t risk his animals near it.

The beast flexed its clawed feet into the wood once it saw that Harry wasn’t coming close to it. Harry watched the scratches that appeared in the floor, and tried to think.

Why would Black think it was so important for Harry to stay here? Of course, he was mental, and this could be his way of punishing Harry for having the gall to break into his house in the first place. Or maybe he was curious about how good Harry was at Transfiguration, and expected him to Transfigure his way past the creature somehow.

Harry wouldn’t do that without more reassurance that the beast wouldn’t hurt his creatures, though. He turned away and sat down at the table, listening to the scraping and huffing sounds behind him.

They didn’t stop until he opened a book. But then Harry glanced over his shoulder and realized that, yes, the beast was gone. When he pushed the chair back and started to stand up, the white outlines of the shape appeared again, and Harry heard a faint snarl that was muffled by what sounded like walls.

Again, sitting down and opening the biography of Phineas Nigellus Black made the thing vanish.

Harry shook his head. Did Black want him to appreciate the family Sirius had come from? It was too late for that. Harry would have liked to hear more about Sirius, but other than that, his family was his parents. His only interest in Blacks lay in the ones that he could destroy.

But he picked a few of the books and skimmed them anyway. There wasn’t much about Transfiguration or Lestranges or even Dark Arts in them. The Blacks liked to talk about themselves, though. Harry thought he could have learned the location of a Gringotts vault or two if he’d paid enough attention.

If he’d cared.

Harry lost track of time; the important thing was that whenever he glanced over his shoulder, the shadow of the white beast was still there. Well, until he glanced over and Black was there instead.

“You can come to lunch, Harry,” said Black, and smiled at him. “Did you enjoy your history lesson?”

Harry shrugged. He didn’t know why Black had wanted him to learn it. He controlled the impulse to push past Black and down the stairs, and only walked down them towards the full formal dining room.

“I asked you a question.”

Harry turned his head. “What are you going to do if I don’t answer it?” It was a question he should have asked earlier, he thought. He knew what the Dursleys would do, and the professors at Hogwarts, but not Black.

“I’m going to assume that you’re slipping into the silence of the beast again, and add even more human therapy,” Black said promptly.

Harry turned to stare at him. “This was therapy?”

“You can think of it that way. I think of it that way.” Black smiled at him. “I doubt the Healers at St. Mungo’s would appreciate it. But maybe I’ll write up something about this when it’s done and submit it to them. It could be a foundation of a new kind of care. ‘Hauling Someone Back to Being Human Whether They Want To or Not.’”

Harry only slowly shook his head. “Is this about Sirius?” he asked. “Or your boredom? Or something else?”

Black turned so he was walking down the stairs backwards, and watched Harry with the kind of expert, appraising eye that Dudley used to use when he was calculating how long he could torment Harry before the end of the school day. “It can be about many things at once, Harry. It doesn’t have to be just one. Did no one ever teach you that?”

Harry chose to look away again. If being silent made him look feral and frustrated Black, that was a good thing. Black would probably get tired of him before he made any changes and let him go in time. Everyone except Professor McGonagall and Neville and Terry got bored of him in time.

“I suppose they didn’t,” said Black, and bounded down the stairs, facing forwards again. “Come on, now. We don’t want to be late to lunch.”

Since there was never anyone but the two of them and sometimes Harry’s mice at the meals, Harry didn’t understand why, but he walked faster. The dining room was magnificent and gloomy and Black lit more candles with a careless wave of his wand, then sat down at the chair next to Harry’s, even though there was no place setting there.

Harry looked at it, and didn’t say anything.

“You could ask a question,” Black chided as he floated the plate and the cutlery over in front of him and took a huge bite of the roasted chicken waiting for them. He sighed, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and continued. “I think that’s one of the most worrying aspects, a sign of how far along the animal road you were. You’re silent too much of the time. A normal child would ask questions and permission. Or at least say something about manners or the way he ate at home. You never do.”

Harry shrugged and started eating the chicken himself. He didn’t think he would get a straight answer to his questions anyway, so there was no point in asking them. Look what Black had done with the one on the stairs.

“Harry?”

He nodded, but Black shook his head and muttered, “We need to train you to be verbal. Answer me aloud, please.”

It’s just like Snape doing stupid things in Potions, Harry thought, as he swallowed. Get through it, and sooner or later Black will have to let you go, the same way Snape had to let you out of detentions eventually. “Yes, Mr. Black?”

“Better,” said Black, although his eyes had narrowed a little. “But you can call me Regulus. There’s really no one alive who calls me by my last name now, except people who want to sell me something in Diagon Alley. And I don’t think you want me considering you a shopkeeper.”

Harry shook his head, and then saw Black frowning at him again. He said, “No, R-Regulus.” It was strange to use a first name for someone he didn’t like or trust. True, he used the Dursleys’ first names when he was around them, but most of the time they were just “the Dursleys” to him, a bunch of formless lumps like mashed potatoes.

“Better again.” Black smiled at him. “You can learn. I find it remarkable that no one has divined that about you yet, Harry, and tried to pull you back onto the human road.”

This time, Harry didn’t think that one needed an answer. He ate a few more bites of chicken and had more of the soup—some kind of bisque—without taking his eyes off Black, though.

Black sighed. “There’s so much I want to know!” he said, whining like Harry was holding a toy out of his reach. “Why did no one else ever see how feral you are? Why did no one else try to turn you off this path? I can’t believe that Minerva wouldn’t try, if she knew.”

He looked so unblinkingly at Harry that he reminded him of a snake. Harry looked away and said, “She didn’t know until just before I ran.”

“So you did conceal it,” Black muttered, and shook his head. “I wondered, because I figured out something was wrong when I confronted you, but if no one else ever held you for a time and had the opportunity to study you…”

Harry drank some of the water that had a faint creamy tinge to it, not sure what to respond. Black made him sound like one of the experimental animals that he’d read once were held in the Department of Mysteries.

Then again, why would it be a bad thing to be that? To be an animal?

“Tell me what the Muggles did to you.”

Harry drew back a little. He didn’t understand why Black was constantly leaping from subject to subject, unless it was just to disconcert him. “I don’t want to do that, Mr. Black.”

Black wagged a finger, and at the same time, Harry felt the sensation of one tapping his nose, from one of those spells Black was so fond of that could reach across the table. Harry jumped and hissed.

“Why not?” Black turned and lounged sideways in his chair. “You must know that I’m not going to run out and blab all the details to the papers.”

“The papers wouldn’t care that much about me, anyway.” Harry thought he might as well end any thoughts Black did have of doing that. “I’m not the Boy-Who-Lived, just his friend. And I haven’t done anything noteworthy.”

“Nothing that you told anybody.” Black cocked his head. “That’s another thing I can’t figure out. Why wouldn’t you ask for help from your Transfiguration professor? She wouldn’t approve once she saw the claws and all the rest of it, but at the same time, it was clear that you didn’t know they would turn you feral. So there must be some other reason you were hiding it. What is it?”

Harry pushed his plate away and sat in silence. Black was easily bored, he’d said that himself. That meant he had to jump to another subject soon.

Black cast the nose-flicking charm again. Harry bared his teeth, and Black chuckled. “Answer the question. And call me Regulus. In fact, answer both questions. The one about your relatives and what they did to you.”

“I can’t do that without sounding pathetic,” Harry said, which was one of the main reasons he was keeping it to himself.

Black blinked at that. “Why would you sound pathetic?”

“Because most of what they did to me isn’t bad,” said Harry. He winced as he forced the words out of his mouth, but on the other hand, there was always the chance that Black would get tired of him precisely because he sounded like a pathetic child. “Isn’t that bad, I mean. I knew it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t the way they treated Dudley.”

“Dudley?”

“My cousin.” Harry took another spoonful of soup, to see if that would affect Black’s desire to talk to him at all, but Black only put his elbow on the table in a patient sort of way. Harry had to swallow and go on. “I knew that most people didn’t sleep in a cupboard or not get much food or get told they were freaks. But it wasn’t as bad as using an Unforgivable Curse on me or beating me up all the time.”

“They couldn’t curse you anyway, they’re Muggles.” Black was studying him as if hypnotized. “Is that the main reason you keep quiet about it? Because you think you’ll sound pathetic?”

Harry shrugged. Most of the reason he kept quiet about it was because, frankly, it was no one’s business. And the abuse by itself was nothing compared to the burden Neville carried. He didn’t go around whining all the time, even when he was frightened. Harry thought the least he could do was keep quiet about something that wasn’t even happening right now. Lord Dudders was chasing Neville all the time.

“Harry? I need an answer.”

“No,” Harry finally said. “The main reason I keep quiet is because no one ever believed me when I did complain, and I could live without people making fun of me.”

Black frowned as though struggling to understand something. “I didn’t know Muggles made fun of people who were hurt as children.”

Harry thought of the impossible things he would have to explain: all the children at his primary school who Dudley had persuaded to hate him, and Uncle Vernon and his first kitten, and the way that other adults would listen to the Dursleys and decide that Harry was too much to bother with. He shrugged.

“That shrug is going to get tiresome very soon.”

Harry eyed Black without moving. There was no way that he could do anything else. Black hadn’t asked a question, and Harry was not going to talk about some of the other things the Dursleys had done.

Black aimed his wand without much movement of his arm, calm and proper. “Harry,” he said.

Harry hissed to relieve some of his tension, and said, “They believed the Dursleys when they said I was freakish. It was easier to believe them than think the Dursleys were the freaks, I suppose.”

“Very good,” Black said unexpectedly. He put his wand down. Harry stared at him and blinked, and Black chuckled. “It heartens me that you can say that kind of thing about your supposed guardians. It means that you’re not broken, as I thought you were, down into some kind of spineless mess.”

Harry just blinked and didn’t move. Was Black serious? He thought Harry would turn into a spineless mess from discussing the Dursleys? Preferring not to discuss them was different from being spineless.

“You can blame them,” Black said, and lounged back with his feet up on the table and a confident smile on his face. Harry couldn’t help but look at the scuff marks his feet were making on the table’s wood. Black ignored that. “That means you’re not damaged for life, either. You can put the blame in the right direction. When you said that you didn’t tell people about your Muggles because you didn’t want to be thought pathetic, I thought you blamed yourself for setting them off somehow.”

“No,” Harry said. “They hated me because of the way I was born. There’s nothing you can do with people who hate you for that. Trying to convince them otherwise was a waste of time.”

Black paused, and one of his boots, which he’d started to raise like he’d cross his legs, dropped down with a thump. “So there was a time when you blamed yourself and tried to fit in with them.”

“Yes. Does that make me worse in your eyes?”

Black shook his head. “No. Only that you’re still so young, and you grew out of that stage so quickly.” He tilted his head, holding Harry’s eyes in a way that only Yar usually did. “I would have thought that most children like you would still be in it, holding out for one scrap of affection.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes,” Black said. He had gone back to his frown. “Although I think it did affect you. You went from wanting your relatives to like you to thinking no one would.”

Harry blinked slowly. “My mice do. My eagle does. My cat does.”

Black shook his head. “Animals, Harry. Not people. I told you about the dangers of becoming an animal yourself before.” He paused. “And we come back to the question of why you never told Minerva about your interest in Transfiguration and sought her help to become better.”

“I did,” Harry said. “I talked to her about books, and she gave me some. And she told me I was a talented student. And she taught me the theory of the Wild.”

“Theory? The Wild is all around us. For everyone who can feel it.”

“I know,” Harry said, responding before he thought about it. “I feel it all the time. Every time I do a Transfiguration,” he added, when he saw Black peering at him curiously again.

“That’s strange,” said Black, but he didn’t explain why it was strange. It’s predictable, the first time I want to talk about something, he won’t pursue it, Harry thought in exasperation. “And no, none of the things the Muggles did to you are normal. But it’s not right to become an animal to escape the consequences of what they did.”

Harry said nothing. That wasn’t what had happened, and Black thinking it was was just another sign of how much he didn’t understand Harry.

“I wonder,” said Black, staring off into the distance. Then he shook his head and stood up. “I’ll take you to the house where Bellatrix spent most of her childhood tonight. I want to show you the difference between trying to use the resonances and trying to use blood magic.”

Harry stood slowly, thrown. None of the other adults he knew would change their minds this much, or at least they would provide some sign of what had made them change their minds. Professor McGonagall and Mrs. Longbottom probably would have explained.

“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Black added, watching Harry now only from one eye, peering out from behind that curtain of dark hair. He was examining the peaches on his plate with the other eye, frowning in disgust. “To track down my dear cousin and kill her as painfully as possible?”

Not kill her. Destroy her. That was another thing Harry couldn’t say, because he knew about loyalty to family. Black might think he would want to destroy Bellatrix until he saw Harry torturing her, and then he would probably intervene.

But Harry nodded anyway.

“Good, then,” Black said. “It occurs to me that you’ve been keeping your side of the bargain by staying with me and telling the truth, but I’ve done nothing to help you with your goal. Now you’ll see that.”

Harry walked slowly away from the table. Black had changed tactics again, he thought. This was meant to make Harry confess something.

He didn’t know what, though. Because Harry couldn’t be pressured to confess anything if he wasn’t with Black. He could spend time away from him building up his defenses, in fact, so he couldn’t be taken by surprise.

Harry went back to read in a different library, one that had more books on pure magic, in a divided frame of mind. Black was trying to manipulate him. He knew that. And just because Black was bored didn’t give him the right to do that.

But Black also didn’t seem to want to do anything with the manipulation. The Dursleys had wanted to convince everyone else that Harry was a freak and they shouldn’t have anything to do with him…but what did Black want?

Until he figured that out, Harry thought grimly as he stroked his fingers along the edge of a book on Transfiguration theory, he wouldn’t be entirely safe.

But then, he wouldn’t be really safe until he was away from Black, either.

In the meantime, the book could teach him more, possibly, about healing his parents.

He opened the book and began to read.

Chapter Text

Harry walked slowly beside Black into the house Black had Apparated them to. Harry had no idea where it was, other than a dark moor. He’d smelled crushed plants as they walked to the front door, too. But that might only mean the house had its own garden.

Black had forbidden Harry to bring any of his animals with him. Of course, that really only meant that Harry had to leave Cross and Yar behind. He still carried three mice tucked into the bottoms of his pockets that had stayed silent and invisible through Black’s harsh pats across his robes.

“Welcome to the Dark Manse.”

Black had that odd tone in his voice he got so often when he talked about his family, or Sirius. As if he was mocking them and not mocking them at the same time, Harry thought, tilting his head as he stared around at the house. It was entirely dark inside except for a little glimmer of starlight through a tiny window shaped like a half-circle.

The steps that met them immediately inside the front door were unsteady. Harry reached out in search of a railing and then pulled his hand back with a little hiss.

“Oh, yes, that’s the Eating Moss,” said Black casually, lifting his wand. It glowed, and the slimy black stuff on the walls that Harry had recoiled from recoiled in turn, lifting and waving angrily back and forth like black tendrils growing underwater. “My ancestors turned it loose in here long ago to make sure it would eat rats and the like. It’s too small to swallow humans,” he added, with a glance at Harry.

But it feels disgusting. Even that little touch had made Harry feel as if his fingers were coated in slime. He just nodded and turned to examine the rest of the house.

For right now, he could only see the stairs immediately in front of them. Black led him through and upwards, and Harry shivered in silence as he saw how dark the walls were. They were made of basalt or some other black stone in the first place, and then the Eating Moss had grown over most of them.

“A long time since people lived here regularly,” Black muttered, and set a coil of the moss that had tried to hang down behind his head like a noose on fire. Over the stink of its burning, he explained, “You have to have a certain kind of madness in you. Not many of our people do.”

Harry twisted to stare at him, and Black laughed outright, his eyes gleaming like little stones in the light of his wand. They came into a room that Harry could feel stretching away around them, a lot bigger than the entrance, and Black lashed his wand down again. This time, torches on the walls lit up.

“Even among the Blacks,” he murmured, “there are different kinds and shades of madness.”

And you probably have most of them, Harry thought. Including the kind that makes you interfere in things that are none of your business.

He turned to study the room Black had led him into. It had grooves pressed into the stone floor as though some heavy furniture had once stood in the center, but right now, it was entirely empty. The torch sconces were carved like rampant dragons, clinging to the wall with their mouths open and the fire coming out of their parted jaws. They were all black. Probably iron, Harry thought.

A huge fireplace stood on one side of the room, and a blackened oak door on the far wall. But around them all was a dense silence. Harry shifted under it before he could stop himself.

Black nodded. “Good to see that you can recognize silence isn’t natural to human beings,” he said.

But I’m not a human being, you said. Half the people in Harry’s life had never treated him like one. He looked around the room again. He thought there must be some reason Black had brought him here, but he couldn’t understand what it was.

Black stood and waited. And waited. Harry finally realized what he was waiting for, and scowled at him.

Black smiled. “Scowl all you like. You’re entertaining, little Harry.”

Harry opened his mouth and shaped his breath into a question. “Why bring me here, if there’s nothing that would interest me here?”

“Ah.” Black nodded. “There is something important about this very room that should tell you the answer!” He swept out a hand to indicate the length and breadth of it. Harry followed the gesture doubtfully.

He started with the torch sconces, since they were the most varied objects—and not all the same, he could see when he concentrated on this dragon’s lashing tail, that dragon’s turned head and gleaming eye. He had always preferred looking at animals, even carved ones, to people anyway.

But the dragons revealed nothing in this case. Harry had to turn to the grooves in the floor, the second feature of note.

They could tell him nothing, since Harry had no idea how long they had been there. He didn’t even know if friends or enemies or family had removed the table that had once been there. Or if it would have mattered if he could know. Since Black said his family hadn’t lived here in a while, maybe it had been something as simple as taking all the furniture with them when they left, so the moss wouldn’t eat it.

He turned to the fireplace, the last large feature of the room. The stones it was made of seemed to be exactly the same as the stones of the walls. Harry shuffled to the side so that he could see inside. There were a few scratches on the inside walls, maybe made by children playing in there, and lots of ashes.

And then Harry reeled back a step and blinked, and turned to Black.

“Say it,” Black said. “I won’t confirm it one way or the other unless you say it. Out loud. With words,” he added, as though Harry could have missed his frankly ridiculous requirements.

Harry gritted his teeth and managed to speak without shouting. “There are lots of new ashes in here. And—” He looked around the room, sure, this time, what Black had wanted him to notice. “And no dust.”

“Exactly.” Black smiled. “I promise that the moss on the walls doesn’t eat dust. It’s only interested in living things.” He flicked his wand casually and drove back what seemed to be a curling coil of moss that had sneaked down the walls without Harry noticing.

“So someone is living here?”

“It would seem like it, wouldn’t it?” Black’s mouth hitched up in a secretive little smile. “I said that most of my family doesn’t have the kind of madness it would take to live in the Dark Manse. It used to be that Bellatrix didn’t, either, even when she was more insane than the rest of us. But maybe Azkaban mixed with what was there to give her the right kind.”

Harry turned in a slow circle. He didn’t think anyone was hiding in here to attack them. It was just too open, and Black would have raised some defenses.

“How did you know she was likely to be here?” he asked, without looking back at Black. “Is there some kind of alarm that rang when someone entered the property?”

“You could say that.” Black sounded incredibly amused for some reason, but Harry didn’t turn around. He was breathing deeply, trying to get even more air into his lungs, while at the same time lamenting that he hadn’t brought more animals with him. He might be facing battle without them, not something he had thought would happen. “Yes, that would be a good name for the system that alerts me. Alarms. That ring. Yes, I like that.”

Harry decided that ignoring Black’s words was the best thing he could do for his sanity right now when he didn’t have any idea of the context and Black would take far too much delight in being asked. “Why did you bring me to a house you thought Bellatrix was hiding in?” he asked, gripping his wand.

He could probably use his wand here for the same reason he could at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, but that didn’t mean he relished the idea. He’d always planned to track down Bellatrix and her husband, watch them for a while, and then set up an ambush that would work with whatever place they were living in. That didn’t include pouncing on them in a house they would know better than he did.

“Because you need toughening.”

Harry glanced at Black. “I thought part of your problem with me was that I was too tough.”

Black shook his head. “There’s a difference between the way animals are tough and humans are tough, Harry. And you simply won’t survive in battle if you keep trying to sharpen your claws instead of your skills.”

Harry didn’t have time to respond to that, because Black lifted his head. He looked like a hunting hound when he sniffed, Harry thought. So he should pay more attention tohis surroundings, and less to what Harry was doing.

“Company,” Black muttered. “I really did think they would be out this evening. I suppose not.” He turned casually so that he was facing the blackened oak door on the far wall, and Harry was behind him.

Harry didn’t waste time asking how Black knew those things, or rather why he didn’t know them. He faced the door himself and coaxed the few mice he had with him out onto his arms.

He thought Black might be upset to see them, but he only shook his head, his eyes wearily amused. “I suppose I should have known you would defy the rules,” he said. He was casting a spell that filled the air in front of them with thick smoke, like some of the things Harry had seen the Weasley brothers selling. “But I don’t think they’ll be much use here.”

Harry silently watched the door open. A thin man came through, stumbling a little as though in surprise. Maybe it was. The expression on his face as he stared at Black was hard to read.

Harry supposed he was Rodolphus Lestrange, even though he didn’t look much like his picture in the papers, and the even thinner, almost skeletal man clutching a black wand who came through behind him was his brother Rabastan. But there was absolutely no mistaking Bellatrix when she strolled through the door.

She had long, wild dark hair that brushed the floor, and dark eyes. They fixed on Harry immediately, even before they looked at Black. Then she laughed. Harry felt as if he had been hearing that laughter in dreams all his life, even though what he had really seen was her picture and the results of her having tortured his parents.

“I know you,” she told Harry, and spun her wand faster and faster. “Little Baby Potter. Your eyes can get so big and so green.”

Mum. She’s talking about Mum.

Harry didn’t even think, much the way he hadn’t when Snape tried to corner him in Lupin’s rooms. He drew his hand back and snapped it forwards, imagining power reaching out from his claws and his wrist, following the snapping motion, touching Bellatrix, making her writhe—

Bellatrix screamed. Her hand rose to claw at her throat, and Harry saw the way her neck was twisting out of shape. Harry smiled. The change was flowing down Bellatrix’s throat to her chest, and in a few seconds she wouldn’t be able to breathe. He could picture her lungs coagulating into useless messes, and he knew the way her ribs would pop out like the struts of bat wings, and the way she would start coughing—

Something struck the back of his head and broke his concentration. Harry danced away, rolling at once the way he used to when Dudley tried to kick his face in. He came up near the enormous fireplace and stared at Black.

Black was looking back at him, his eyes wide and his wand hanging almost limp in his hand. “You were going to kill her,” he said. “With wandless Transfiguration.”

The man Harry thought was Rabastan attacked before he could say anything, and he struck at Black with a long spell like a black whip. Black wasn’t there when it landed, running to the side and then around behind the Lestranges. He cast a spell that made Rabastan slump over unconscious, in the seconds before he and his cousin started to duel.

Harry backed up when he saw how fast the duel was moving. He wouldn’t be able to interfere in that without getting killed and getting his mice killed, and Black and Bellatrix were using spells that he didn’t recognize: claws of fire that snatched the air, attacking birds that flashed in and out of existence, charms that turned the floor to boiling tar.

But it did mean that he had Rodolphus Lestrange to contend with.

Lestrange came towards him slowly. Harry didn’t know if that was because of what he had done to Bellatrix or some legacy from Azkaban or something else. But when he cast one spell that did nothing as far as Harry could tell, he seemed to become more confident. He laughed breathlessly and dragged his wand across the air in front of Harry, whispering, “Frango ossa.”

Harry dodged as the air suddenly turned yellow in a sheet-like way and rushed to fall over him, but he couldn’t escape all of it. The sheet hit the edge of his left hand, and he felt the bone in his wrist snap.

It hurt. But so did the thought of his parents never recovering because Harry had never managed to find the knowledge he needed. And he didn’t hate Lestrange the way he did Bellatrix, so he didn’t feel that instinctive longing to kill him.

He held up his other hand and concentrated this time. Lestrange was trying some other spell, but he did squawk and drop it when a mouse launched itself at his eyes.

Harry could see in his head what he wanted. It started out as Cross’s shape, and then it became something else, something considerably more squashed and horrific.

The change started in Lestrange’s legs first, which was probably why he took so long to notice it. He was striding towards Harry, and suddenly the stride became clipped. He turned and stared at his foot.

He screamed. Harry smiled. He knew Lestrange would be feeling how Harry had already reshaped his foot into a paw, without bothering to grow fur and claws. It was just deforming his toes and crushing them to fit into the new small space, whether or not they fit.

And all Harry had to do now was concentrate and that meant…

A spell blasted out of the duel whirling away on the side of him, and disrupted his concentration. Lestrange fell over gasping, but that didn’t matter, not when Harry had lost control of his magic altogether. He gave Bellatrix an angry glance, and saw her wink at him in the instant before the tip of her wand began to glow green.

Neville had told Harry, over and over, about what memories he saw when he faced Dementors. That was the color of the Killing Curse.

Harry drew his wand at once, his mind smooth and calm and the ache in his wrist stopping. He just had no time for it right now. Bellatrix was mouthing something and winking at him again, but he had no time to listen to her, either.

Commuto scipionem felinam,” he said, and the words tasted right on his tongue, and the spell leaped away from him lazily and towards Bellatrix, twining tightly around her wand.

The green gleam of the Killing Curse was suddenly the gleam of light in the eyes of the sleek grey cat that twined around Bellatrix’s wrist and bit her. Then the cat jumped into the darkness, claws scoring Bellatrix as it soared, and the woman was screaming in an unhinged way and running straight at Harry.

Harry’s first thought was how much her upraised fingernails looked like claws, but he couldn’t see the point of Transfiguring her hands into something that would make hermore dangerous. He filled his mind with another vision and hissed, “Commuto digitos mures.

The shriek Bellatrix gave was satisfying, and she slowed down and started jerking her hands back and forth. Harry watched as small humps broke out under her knuckles. A second later, her fingers were mice, erupting from her hand and leaping into the darkness of the room the way the cat had. Harry spared a thought to hope the cat wouldn’t eat them.

“Enough, Harry. Enough.”

Black was beside him, one hand on his shoulder. Harry looked at him sidelong, not knowing what he meant. He wished he did, because Black looked sick and shaken. Harry thought making him look even a little more like that could make him let his guard down, and then Harry would find it easier to run away.

“Bella, Bella,” Lestrange was moaning, limping towards the woman and dragging his misshapen foot in his boot.

Bellatrix didn’t respond with words. She simply screamed on and on, shaking her hands. They were bleeding, stumps sticking out of her palms where her fingers had been. Harry frowned a little. He had imagined things neater than that, her fingers just entirely gone. How was he going to keep someone alive to practice Transfiguration on if he couldn’t even get something this small right?

Black cleared his throat and hit both Bellatrix and Lestrange with whatever spell he’d already used on Rabastan. They slumped to the floor in turn. Harry studied them and then turned to face Black, who was crouching down in front of him.

“I was wrong,” Black said.

Harry eyed him, not knowing what that meant, either.

“I thought you couldn’t really handle yourself in a battle without knowledge of other magical branches.” Black rubbed his mouth, still staring at Harry. “That was one reason I wanted to bring you to battle soon with my relatives. I was never intending it to be a long one. And I thought only Bella would be here, and you’d duel with her, just a little, and see a different way to learn how to defend yourself.”

Harry racked his mind for the meaning of that, and finally thought he had it. “You mean, by watching you,” he said. His throat seemed full of dust. “How you fought.”

Black inclined his head. “I thought you’d be impressed enough to ask for help after that.” He scratched a shallow, bleeding gash on the side of his scalp for a moment, and then shook his head and sat back.

“But I was wrong,” Black repeated. “You are already fantastically dangerous in battle. At least when you can use your wand. And even the way you Transfigured and started damaging Rodolphus’s foot…”

That pleased Harry a little, since it confirmed that his guess was right and the Death Eater he’d been battling was indeed Rodolphus instead of Rabastan.

Black frowned at his arms for a second, then looked up and eyed Harry. “I like proving people wrong,” he said. “I was going to prove you wrong. Wrong that you didn’t need anyone, wrong that you already knew all you needed to know, wrong that you could just sink into being an animal and everything would be fine.”

He drew his wand across the gash to heal it, and added, “You can handle yourself better than I ever suspected. But I still think you’re wrong on the last point, you know. Handle Transfiguration like a human instead of an animal, and you’ll be…fantastically dangerous aren’t the words for it.”

Harry shook his head a little. “But I don’t know what the difference is,” he said. “I fought like a human. An animal wouldn’t be able to imagine turning someone’s fingers into mice or their wand into a cat.”

“I know,” said Black, with a little bob of his head. “So. I’ll show you some of what the difference is. The mirror I learned about you from isn’t the only artifact in the house that was made to give people a clear view of themselves.” He gave Harry a lazy, arrogant smile. “We rather needed that, ourselves, to know when we were beginning to descend into madness instead of clever battle tactics.”

“I’m not a Black,” Harry said. “I’m a Potter.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t go mad,” said Black, and shrugged. “And the pure-blood families have intermarried for centuries, you know. No one else good enough.” This time, his smile had edges sharp enough to cut. “Hell, no one was good enough for my parents but a second cousin each.”

Harry blinked. It was probably only because he had a single cousin and was revolted at the thought of having anything to do with Dudley, but… “That’s sick.”

Black chuckled and slapped his hands together. “There we are! A human reaction. Animals wouldn’t care if they mated with cousins. Well, they might follow natural instincts that would make it less likely, but they wouldn’t be thinking of human cultural concerns if they did decide to mate with them.”

Harry folded his arms, but his mouth twitched as he did so. He reached up curiously and ran a finger along his lip with his claw sheathed. His mouth had moved into a smile without him even realizing it!

Black’s face was somber when Harry looked back at him, but not so much so that Harry couldn’t make out the gleam in his eyes. “There you are,” Black breathed. “There you go. You need to become more conscious of what you’re doing, Harry. Reacting with instincts only gets you trapped.” He glanced at the Lestranges. “And the advantage you had against them in battle this time was mostly one of surprise. Now that they know what you can do, they’ll take precautions to protect themselves.”

Harry tilted his head back. “You speak as if I’ll face them again.”

“Of course you will.”

“But I want to keep them prisoner.”

“To turn over to the authorities?” Black’s lip curled a little. “That would be dangerous for both of us. You because you’re underage and me because I would have a hard time inventing a story to account for them that doesn’t include you.”

“No,” Harry said patiently. He could hardly believe that a man like Black was so dim sometimes. It had nothing to do with human and animal, he thought, and everything to do with different priorities. “To experiment with human Transfiguration on.”

Black made a noise in his throat that sounded like he was either laughing or about to vomit something up. Harry relaxed and shrugged. He had expected Black to be disgusted by that. At least Black was doing something understandable now.

Black scratched another small wound on the side of his brow and said, “I’m going to take them with us. But not for that. There are a few rooms in Grimmauld Place where we can keep them.” He stood up and shook his head at Harry. “I’m going to teach you why what you want is wrong.”

“You’ve already been proven wrong once yourself,” Harry pointed out, and looked up at Black as he began to swirl his wand, creating long streamers of red rope that picked up the Lestranges and bound them at the same time. “Aren’t you worried you will be this time, too?”

“No,” said Black, without looking at him. “Because this time there’s more at stake.”

Harry said nothing, but smiled, and went in search of the cat and mice he had Transfigured. He wouldn’t trust Black as far as he would Bellatrix, because she was more predictable. But it was nice to see that Black had been shaken out of his posture of stupid certainty about what Harry was and what he wanted.

Chapter Text

“They’re not going to get out?” Harry stared at the door of the room Black was closing on the Lestranges. It looked like an empty library, and all he’d done was chain them to the shelves. They could get out of the chains, Harry thought. At least, he would try. Even if Black had taken their wands away.

“Those chains won’t open except at the will of the one who put them on,” Black said, absently, gesturing for Harry to follow him. “More of the rather wonderful artifacts thatsomeone in our family came up with.” He paused and glanced back at Harry. “I need to explain some things to you.”

Harry said nothing, but followed. He carried the slim grey cat he’d Transfigured Bellatrix’s wand into. The mice he’d created from her fingers had run off and wouldn’t come back, but the cat hadn’t gone far. She rode his shoulder now and considered Cross with a faint growl bubbling in her throat.

Cross only padded behind Harry, with the patient look of a cat who knew there would eventually be food. And maybe even explanations.

Black took Harry to yet another room he hadn’t been to, one that was decorated with the Black coat of arms on every piece of furniture from the imposing dark desk to the chairs that stood in front of it. The legs and arms of the chairs were sculpted like diving hippogriffs, probably by the same artists who had made the dragon sconces in the Dark Manse. Harry sat down in one of them, the grey cat on his lap, and considered Black.

Black actually wandered about for a bit before sitting behind the desk, facing Harry. He looked more uncertain than Harry had ever seen him.

“I was like you.”

“A Transfiguration master?” was the only thing Harry could think of to say after a few minutes had passed in silence.

“No. Obsessed with one branch of magic.” Black took out his wand and stared at the shiny dark wood of it as if it held an answer. “Dark Arts, in my case.”

Harry chose to say nothing. Black could think they were alike all he wanted. It might lower his guard, in the end, when Harry wanted to escape. People who looked at you and saw their worst nightmare or some kind of kin were prone to ignoring reality, in Harry’s experience.

“It took a sharper lesson than it should have to snap me out of that,” Black said softly, and put his wand down in the center of the desk. Then he looked at Harry, and that might have been his first serious expression since Harry had entered Grimmauld Place. “I nearly died pursuing one of the Dark Lord’s goals. Then I realized I wanted to do something besides just cast Dark Arts spells all my life, no matter how much they satisfied me.”

He sat up and stared at Harry. Harry only looked back. He wasn’t sure what lesson he was supposed to take away from this conversation, except that Black had been a Death Eater and Harry trusted him less than ever.

“By the time I managed to drag myself out of the coma I’d fallen into,” said Black, “the war was nearly over, Longbottom had killed the Dark Lord, and my brother was dead. My parents—they didn’t draw close to me the way I’d thought they might, even though I was the only son they had left. I think my mother never really forgave me for waking up from my obsession with the Dark Arts.”

“That’s very interesting,” said Harry, the same kind of polite lie he’d learned to give the Dursleys back when they had more power, “but it has nothing to do with me.”

“I thought I would rescue you,” said Black with a sigh. “I haven’t had that much to engage me ever since I finally sorted out the financial mess my parents made of the Black investments. I’ve had pets. They bored me. I’ve had lovers. They bored me. I’ve made alliances, but no one really wants to be my ally for long.”

I wonder why, Harry thought, and Black gave a soft chuckle, perhaps at the contempt on his face.

“Yes, you could say I brought it on myself.” He shrugged, making his robes rustle. “The only thing I haven’t tried is getting married and having children, but there’s no one I would want to marry me who would take me, and vice versa. And then you came along. A child I have some connection to. A slight blood connection, a stronger connection because I was Sirius’s brother and you were his godson.”

“You thought I was like you,” said Harry, and then cursed himself for speaking.

“Yes,” said Black, with a nod. “I thought I could give you the same kind of lesson that I received, but not as sharp. I thought we would confront my dear cousin and those in-laws she brought into the family, and we would duel, and you’d probably get a bit scraped up because all you know how to use in battle is Transfiguration, and they would escape.”

“You took them easily enough.”

“The spell I cast before they entered the room. The one that looked like smoke in the air. It meant they couldn’t dodge a simple Stunner once they breathed it in. It slows down their reflexes relative only to that spell. I used it because I thought we might be in extremis, and have to flee with blood pouring down our faces and leave them there.”

“You never intended for me to succeed at all,” Harry said. It was a strange, numbing realization, like standing in the path of a Stunner cast by someone who hadn’t got the charm right yet.

“I thought there was no possible way you could. And I thought the lesson you would learn by failing more important than success.”

“You aren’t an ally to me.”

“I underestimated you.” Black pressed a hand to his heart, and that stupid grin flashed again. It was the grin Harry had seen in some photographs of Sirius in the Prophet, but on Black’s face, he could only hate it. “As for not an ally...Harry, I’m hurt. Who’s willing to keep his own cousin and in-laws cooped up in a room until he hears what you have planned for them?” He leaned forwards and lowered his voice. “I wouldn’t do that for just anyone, you know.”

Harry studied him, trying to understand. He thought Black’s confession was honest as far as it went, but on the other hand, how could Black know himself? How could Harry trust someone who hid behind mockery so much?

“Tell me this,” Harry said. “If I’d failed to capture the Lestranges and also failed to learn your lesson, what would you do with me?”

Black watched him. The humor had left his eyes. Harry wished he could trust that. Someone who knew as many spells as Black did and could be dangerous, too, was someone he could learn from. But Black was too likely to turn everything Harry did say into a joke.

“Teach you again. Another way.”

“You must have seen that I’m happy the way I am,” Harry said. He stopped, because his words did have an echo like a snarl to them that he’d never heard before. He shrugged and kept on going when he noticed the odd way Black watched him. “Or at least, I can achieve more than you thought and keep going even when someone tries to stop me. Why won’t you let me go?”

“At the moment, I doubt you want to go anywhere. Bellatrix is the key to your heart.” Black sighed a little. “If you only knew how true that was for all the men.”

And once again, Black had changed a potentially serious discussion into a farce. Harry stood and shook his head at him when Black opened his mouth. “I will find a way to take them from you if you don’t give them to me. You have a day to make your decision.”

“I don’t accept that you have the right to dictate threats like that to me. There are people who would. But I’m not one of them.”

“Take it or leave it,” Harry replied, and slipped out of the study. The grey cat leaped down in front of him, hissed at Cross, and led the way towards the bedroom Black had given him with her tail held high.

Harry felt comforted as he looked at the twilight out of the windows later. One more night, and dawn, and noon, and then he would have the answer and, most likely, be free of Black forever. He couldn’t believe the man cared enough about his cousin to stand against Harry for her sake, and he had proven he didn’t have any moral reasons.

People are pretty simple to deal with, once you know how to confront them.

*

Minerva waited until Neville was slumped on the seat in front of her before she said quietly, “I spent too long ignoring one student’s torment until it was too late and he wouldn’t let me help anymore. I’m not going to do it again. Take the bandage off your hand.”

Neville jumped as though she had Transfigured his bandage into a poisonous plant. Well, no, Minerva thought a moment later, as she watched the way he cradled his hand. A poisonous plant, he might have had more luck with.

“I can’t let you just--”

“Why not?” Minerva reached for the Murtlap she’d gone to Severus to get earlier that day. If she asked in a certain tone, Severus would grunt and give her what she wanted with no questions. She didn’t think it was her imagination that he’d done that more often since Harry fled. “I know you’re in pain, Mr. Longbottom. I know Umbridge’s detentions are the things causing it. Take the bandage off your hand.”

Neville tensed, but finally did start unwinding the bandage. Minerva’s heart was sore as she looked at the red lines scrawled on the back of his hand, in writing she knew so well from the extra essays she’d assigned him on the practice of Transfiguration. I must not tell lies.

“How did you know?” Neville mumbled, keeping his head ducked and peering at Minerva from under his eyelashes in a way that made her heart worse. “I thought we were so careful about keeping it hidden…”

“You were trying too hard,” said Minerva, as smoothly as she could, and reached for the Murtlap. “I knew you had a secret. And from there, it only involved listening to some of the school gossip.”

“I didn’t know professors did that.”

Minerva had to smile at his gaping mouth and wide eyes. “We do. How do you think we seem so omniscient?”

Neville chuckled weakly, but even a weak chuckle was better than none at all. Minerva smeared and patted and finally cast the spell Severus had told her about, the one that would work with the Murtlap to make sure there was no chance of scarring. When she finished casting it, the bright red words had turned to indistinguishable white swirls.

“Thanks, Professor McGonagall. But she’ll just do it again. She said I had to keep doing it until I stopped talking about V-Voldemort being back.”

Minerva settled more firmly back in her chair. She knew what Albus would say about her next decision. He had told them all to keep quiet for the moment, to go along with what Umbridge and the Ministry were doing. Let them interfere on the surface of Hogwarts, while the far more important depths, the Order of the Phoenix and the fight against You-Know-Who, happened out of their sight.

But Minerva had worried before that Albus’s policy might cause collateral damage, and now she had proof of that that was simple and undeniable.

She swallowed once, and then made the motion in what she knew was the right direction, the one she should have been following all along if she was serious about being a good Head of House as well as a good professor.

“There is something we can do, Mr. Longbottom,” she said, and Neville sat up, probably because she’d used his last name instead of his first one. “We can speak to your grandmother.”

Neville’s face turned pale. “B-but, she’ll say, she’ll talk about how I shouldn’t have let it happen.”

“We will explain the situation,” said Minerva firmly. She had dealt with Augusta before, in the context of Neville’s tutoring and how she could not expect him to be exactly like his father. “We’ll explain about how Professor Dumbledore is—busy right now.” She knew why Albus was keeping his eyes and attention away from Neville, his fears about the connection Neville shared with You-Know-Who, but she couldn’t countenance it any longer. “And she will do something. She’s a wonderful woman for doing things, your grandmother.”

Neville’s fingers curled around the chair cushion so hard that Minerva was certain he would refuse for a second. But then he looked up at her and whispered, “You’ll really help?”

“Yes. I’m sorry I didn’t before.” I didn’t help Harry soon enough, either. I let myself be put off with platitudes and reassurances and explanations of how hard it would be. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

“Okay. Good.”

Neville had tears at the corners of his eyes. Minerva looked aside and politely pretended she didn’t see them until she was sure he’d knuckled them all away. Then she cleared her throat. “Would you prefer I Floo your grandmother, or start with an owl?”

*

“Your answer, Black,” Harry said, as he walked into the study where the man sat staring out the window at some black roses that grew there.

It was nearly dusk. The lowering sun stabbed rays in through the window, and Harry regretted he hadn’t given himself even more cat-like features. It would have meant he could see the expression on Black’s face more clearly as he turned around and studied Harry where he stood near the doors.

“Something doesn’t make sense to me,” Black said.

Harry smiled indulgently. He’d left no way out of the trap he’d laid for Black, and he supposed he could be kinder than Snape. Neville would probably approve of being kind, he thought, and so would Professor McGonagall. “What were you thinking of, then?”

“You said you wanted to destroy my cousin and my in-laws.” Black stood up and moved a little so the edge of his face was in shadow and Harry still had trouble seeing him. Harry turned smoothly to keep him in sight. If Black thought he could gain an advantage over Harry and attack him this way, he was mistaken.

He might live long enough to learn how mistaken.

“Yes,” Harry said, seeing no harm in the simple answer.

“But you’re driven by purposes,” Black said. “And if revenge was your motive, that leaves one important question unanswered.”

A shiver, a ripple, a whisper of danger passed down Harry’s spine. He kept his face smooth and bland, only shifting once more when Black did so he was still in a good guard position. “Yes?”

“If you wanted to destroy them all along, and that was the only thing you wanted,” Black whispered, “why did you choose to become good in Transfiguration instead of dueling, or Defense? Those obsessions would have made more sense than Transfiguration did.”

“Professor McGonagall was the one who first met me at my Muggle relatives’ house and told me about the wizarding world,” Harry said, unhesitating. “She told me right away that she was the Transfiguration teacher, and what that meant. I thought it sounded fascinating.” He shrugged a little. “If I’d met Snape first and he was actually inclined to consider me something other than a spoiled brat, I probably would have specialized in Potions.”

“No,” said Black, after a long silence in which Harry could have heard insects marching across the floor. “I don’t believe that.”

“Believe whatever you like.” Harry was beginning to wish he had brought Yar with him. He hadn’t because he had thought Black didn’t have any way out. He would either lose control of Bellatrix or he would lose control of Harry.

Now he wished he’d remembered how mental Black was. He might find a way out by being bored, or joking, or just not caring about the things Harry had thought he cared about.

“I will,” said Black, with a nod, as if Harry had been serious. He folded his arms on the back of the chair he’d been sitting in and stared at Harry. At least his face was a little easier to focus on now, with the light and the shadow stabilizing. “And I think that you wouldn’t have chosen Transfiguration to defend yourself and get revenge. And would you have focused on revenge for five years before you made a move? I don’t think so. You’re impulsive. It would have happened before this.”

“Your cousin and your in-laws were in Azkaban until this year. There was no point in me trying to punish them until they escaped.”

“And I don’t think you have the patience to wait around for them to escape, and sharpen your skills just in case you get the chance to take revenge. Thank you for confirming my theory that something else must have happened to make you focus on Transfiguration.”

Harry stiffened, and knew Black saw it, and hated himself for it. But he couldn’t retreat. He had pressed Black to this, and he had to stay.

“Are you going to let me have revenge on Bellatrix? Or am I going to take them away from you?”

“It made me wonder what other motive you might have. What’s the only thing that’s as important to you as revenge?”

“I can summon my animals. My eagle has been trained to crush wand hands.”

“And then it occurred to me. It should have occurred to me the first time you mentioned it, actually. Your parents.”

Harry stiffened even more, and Black nodded and continued in a thoughtful voice. “But there are still things about that that didn’t make sense. Why would Transfiguration help your parents? It would have made more sense for you to learn Healing and try to figure out some miraculous cure to the Cruciatus Curse.

“But then I thought about it even more. After all, no Healers have managed to do anything for any kind of madness like the kind your parents have, whether it was produced by the Cruciatus Curse or not. The Janus Thickey Ward exists for a reason. What would you do with Healing magic? Only replicate their failures. But with Transfiguration, you might be able to change their brains back to what they were—”

Harry snapped towards Black, traveling fast. He wasn’t thinking much about what he would do when he landed. He simply leaped. He had claws, and he had enormous jumping muscles, and he had the advantage of surprise. He was going to take the knowledge from Black, and if that meant doing it by closing his eyes forever, that was what he would do.

He slammed into a barrier he hadn’t even seen. Of course, when he reached out and scraped his claws down it, his not seeing it was understandable. It was solid, but invisible.

“Yes,” said Black, from the other side of the wall. Now that it had been disturbed, Harry could see little shimmers running away from it, distorting the outline of Black’s face. He just looked regretful, the way Professor McGonagall had when she realized she was too late to help Harry with the Dursleys. “I thought you might react that way.”

Harry said nothing. He simply slowed his breathing. He had to get Black close to him, take him off his guard again, or he would get nothing done. He tried to stand up and move away as naturally as he could, and not look resentful.

“This is why it would behoove you to learn some of the other branches of magic,” Black added. “There are charms that would reveal barriers like that to you the instant you come into a room. Or you could have cast a spell that would alert you to Dark Arts—which this is. But you chose not to do that.” He glided his eyes over Harry’s face. “I wish you’d learned it already.”

Harry said nothing. He was considering the barrier and ways he could slip around it. What was the best way to make Black lower it? Pretend Harry thought he was right and he would cooperate? But Black knew him better than that. He might be better advised to let it go for now, and then kill Black later.

Because he knew he couldn’t let Black survive, carrying knowledge like this.

“I wish you’d learned a lot of things,” Black went on, sighing a little. “Because I don’t know if I’m up to the task of teaching you to appreciate the finer things in life.”

Best respond now, or he might think that I’m stupid and stunned enough to agree with him. “I don’t know what you mean by that,” Harry murmured, and moved a little to the side. He would feign leaning against the wall and sulking. “Most people would say that Dark Arts aren’t among the finer things in life.”

“But knowing how to protect yourself is. And how to live after you’ve achieved a goal.” Black pivoted to face him. “What did you plan to do after you healed your parents?”

Harry struggled in silence a moment, and then acknowledged that he’d better go along with this, and accept that Black knew for now. “Live with them.”

Black shook his head. “And you thought your childhood and your efforts to learn Transfiguration to this level would leave you unaffected? You thought your parents would cheer when they found out what you did?”

Harry met him stare for stare. “They won’t be able to cheer at all if I don’t do it. They won’t know anything one way or the other.”

“From everything I know about Lily and James Potter, they were staunch Gryffindors. They would probably be horrified to hear that you knew anything about Dark Arts, let alone that you practiced them.”

“Transfiguration isn’t Dark—”

“The kind you practice is considered so. Because it degrades the human mind to a bestial level. It’s on the level of turning someone into an animal and leaving them there. That doesn’t become better or less wasteful because you’re doing it to yourself instead of someone else.”

“I’m doing what I have to do,” said Harry, and was inwardly proud of himself for how calmly he’d spoken. “You’re not being called on to do anything about it.”

“But I am, because you were my brother’s godson.”

“You ignored me for fourteen years.” Even as he said it, Harry was wondering how fair the accusation was. It could also be applied to Lupin, and Harry had been willing to deal with him if need be.

But Black was an outsider, someone who hadn’t been his parents’ friend. Or even Sirius’s friend, it sounded like, not by the end of his life. Harry didn’t see what Black’s feelings of “duty” had to do with it, when they hadn’t been very strong.

“I don’t like taking on duties or interfering when it’s not amusing,” Black said, with a sigh. “And this isn’t going to be amusing, because it’s obvious that you’re obsessed with your parents, and—”

“I am not obsessed.”

“It’ll take a lot of work to make you think of something else. Probably even to get you thinking about another branch of magic. I’m glad you had the revenge to distract you, but that’s not enough. I wonder what will be,” Black added softly, eyes lingering on Harry for a moment before he turned away.

“You can’t decide to do this,” Harry said.

Black shrugged. “I wouldn’t do it if you weren’t on the verge of becoming feral. But that puts a new spin on things, you know. It would be so tiresome if you slid into mindlessness and someone tracked you back to me. And thanks to Augusta knowing that you’ve been staying with me, they could, you know.”

“It isn’t your concern what I do to heal my parents.”

“What were you planning to do? Transfigure your brain the way that you’ve already Transfigured your body?”

“Experiment on your cousin and in-laws.”

Black stared at him in silence. Harry looked back. After all the things Black had believed—and been right about—when it concerned him, it was faintly amusing that the man would pause before this as if it was an unbridgeable chasm.

“That’s—worse than I thought,” said Black, and he sat down again. He shook his head. “But part of this was my fault for expecting you to be normal.”

Harry simply held up his hands, so Black would remember his claws. However, he could feel his head reeling with mild shock. He wouldn’t have thought Black would admit he was wrong about anything, let alone something like this, that might make him let Harry go.

“The Muggles damaged you,” Black murmured. “So did losing your parents. And whatever people did or didn’t do for you at Hogwarts.” He lifted his head and looked at Harry with the kind of piercing determination that made him uneasy when Professor McGonagall did it. “You don’t have to live your life only pursuing a cure for your parents.”

“I don’t have to. I choose to.”

“And I ask you again, what are you going to do when you heal them?”

“I don’t expect to do it quickly. This is a search that might consume most of the rest of my life.”

Black shook his head a little as if he still didn’t understand that. “But what happens if you do it when you’re seventeen? There’s years, decades, of life still ahead of you. And what happens if you do it when you’re thirty? Then you’re not a child anymore. Simply living with them and depending on them wouldn’t make much sense.”

Harry felt as though someone had run a comb across his mind. He shook his head. “I will always live with them. I could live with them.”

“You could,” Black agreed. “But I think you would find it strange. And so would they. They grew up during a war, remember. They became used to doing things on their own quickly, and James’s parents died while he was still young, so there was never a chance that he could live with them for years as an adult. I don’t think Lily going back to her Muggle family was an option, either. They might ask you questions about your choices. They might want you to do other things. What are you going to tell them?”

There was sweat all over Harry’s claws. He frowned. They would be far less effective weapons if they slipped when he turned them on his target.

“Harry,” Black whispered.

“I don’t know what I’ll tell them,” said Harry, and it was the absolute truth. “I don’t know what kinds of questions they would ask. It depends on how their brains regrow.”

Black stood up as though someone had hit him with the Blasting Curse. Harry found himself dropping into a tense crouch, even though realistically he knew he would have had to know about the spell before it could hit. His senses were too good.

“Then—if you don’t know, don’t you see what you’re doing?” whispered Black breathlessly.

“Since you’re so good at dipping your nose into other people’s business, Black, why don’t you tell me?”

“It means that you don’t know what they’re really like. As people, I mean. You probably didn’t even know that James’s parents died when he was young until I told you. You aren’t interested in them, not really. You’re only interested in creating images of your desires who will do exactly as they’re told.”

Harry actually surged forwards a step before he remembered the Dark Arts barrier and that he would simply crash into it. He controlled himself and spoke with as much ice in his tone as he could. “Spoken like someone who’s never known the love of a real family.”

“Neither have you.”

“My parents love me—”

“Loved you, I think. I don’t know if the kind of state they’re in lets them know love at all. And think about it this way, Harry. Do you want to bring them back when they might only be reflections of your desires, not real people?”

Harry struck out again, and then pulled his hand back before it could hit the barrier. He could feel the breath in his lungs pulsing and pulsing and pulsing. Someone had reached in and gripped his lungs with an invisible hand, he thought. Maybe another of those spells Black was talking about. It was hard to breathe, hard to talk.

He turned his head away, but Black went on talking, relentlessly. “You need to think about this, Harry. You need to decide who you’re going to bring back, the people you can barely remember, or the people you’re going to create.”

“I don’t want to create them,” Harry whispered. That would be worthless. He wanted real people who would love him because they wanted him, not people charmed to do so.

Like the way your animals love you?

Harry shook his head. No, that was different. He was thinking strangely. He was thinking the way Black wanted him to think. And he had to stop, because that way wasworthless.

He stepped back and let his hand rest for a moment on the mice that squirmed in his pocket to make himself think of something other than what Black was saying. It was the way he’d sometimes had to imagine he was holding animals when he was with the Dursleys. Well, except for those three days when he’d had his kitten.

“You know what I’m saying is the truth,” Black said softly, never moving. His eyes and his words seemed to be enough to pierce Harry, even as he sought for more pure, clear thoughts. “You must have wondered it yourself. Even if you could heal the damage, that wouldn’t bring back memories or personalities.”

“Of course it would, if I could change their brains into what they were before they were cursed!”

“But how could you do that? How could you ever know what was their brains and what were your wishes?”

Harry struggled in silence. Then he said, as calmly as he could, “I’ll talk more to their friends and get them to tell me.”

“What friends? Remus Lupin is the only surviving person who was close to them. Frank and Alice Longbottom are dead—as the whole wizarding world knows. My brother’s dead, and Peter Pettigrew. James’s parents are gone, and Lily’s, or you would have been left with them. And a lot of members of the Order of the Phoenix who fought in the first war are dead, too.” Black spread his hands. “I’m probably one of the few who could give you detailed information. And your aunt, and Snape. Whose perspectives are distorted.”

“So’s yours,” Harry whispered. But his breathing was fast. If he went to Lupin and asked questions, and it turned out that Lupin didn’t know, or couldn’t remember…

Now the task loomed before him like a black stone wall, ready to fall over on his head at any moment. How could he have been so stupid as not to realize this before?

“You weren’t stupid,” Black said, and his voice was dim and faint and far away, somewhere on the other side of a tunnel. “You were simply obsessed. And when you’re obsessed, you don’t think straight.”

Harry turned. In the back of his head, he was going to walk out of the room and find a quiet corner where he could sit with Cross or Yar and think. He was going to do it. He could feel his legs moving.

And then he was falling, so distantly and so fast that he couldn’t save himself. What he did think he heard, oddly enough, was a sharp shattering sound, as though Black had broken another mirror over him.

*

Severus staggered back from the cauldron. He was gasping, and not only from the splash of cold liquid he’d taken to his face. Most of it was simply the shock of the delicate spell/potion combination breaking.

He’d created a potion that would let him scry for Potter, since the demands from the Dark Lord were becoming insistent. It ought to have been simple enough. Potter had no defenses against scrying that Severus knew of. Perhaps it would be possible to do something with esoteric enough Transfiguration, but even a fifteen-year-old genius could not have discovered secrets to his chosen art that no book or elder talked about.

Severus had thought he would either see the boy huddled in freezing woods somewhere, or dead. It was the only explanation for how no word had come to Albus about him.

Instead, he’d run straight into powerful anti-scrying wards. When Severus had got close to the boy’s location—which itself wasn’t much of a clue, because there had been a rushing of darkness and light that was the earth and sky, not identifiable places—then the wards had essentially reached out through the potion and punched him in the nose.

Severus sat up slowly, rubbing his face. He had a bloody nose, but the consequences could have been worse. He stared at the cauldron, which had a huge crack down the side of it, and shook his head slowly.

Potter had found either powerful allies somewhere or shelter in an abandoned house that still had wards on it. Severus was not sure what it was, and not sure how he could determine that.

But he would have to do something. The Dark Lord would demand a report.

Severus closed his eyes. Even gone from the school, Potter causes me trouble.

Chapter Text

“If I’d known the way you’d take it, I’d have found some other way to break the news to you.”

Harry forced his eyes open. He was deep in some mound of soft cloth, and after turning over a few times, he identified it as blankets. He’d never wanted blankets this thick on his own bed in Ravenclaw Tower. He tried to sit up.

The world spun at once, and the room, and the walls, and even Black, reaching out a restraining hand. Harry let himself be laid back, but he gritted his teeth as he did so and shook his head a little, even when it made the spinning worse. He would have to come up with some way he could change himself to reduce dizziness. It was stupidto be incapacitated by something so simple.

“The mental confusion and shock,” Black continued. “And then someone tried to find you by scrying, and the wards prevented them at the same time. But it’s always disorienting to be the focus of a scrying that breaks.”

“How could someone scry for me if they aren’t a Seer?” Professor Trelawney was the only Seer Harry knew, and he didn’t think she was all that reliable.

“There are potions that could work their way around most magical defenses. Except the ones my ancestors were strong and paranoid enough to put on this house.” Black looked sour and satisfied, like Aunt Petunia when she’d just heard something bad about one of the neighbors. “It was probably Severus.”

“Professor Snape?” Harry leaned slowly back against the pillows. He could feel warmth against his side where the cats lay and the small bulges along his neck that were the mice, and Yar was on a perch across the room. At least Black hadn’t separated him from his animals. “Why would he care about where I went?”

“Probably because Dumbledore does.” Black grinned at him. “I prefer you still dazed and recovering, I think. You’re positively open with your questions.”

That made Harry shake his head. He didn’t want to be open. He would get over the shock and go back to being close-mouthed and stubborn.

Black only smiled as if he’d heard that vow and didn’t think much of it, and then reached out and scooped up something from a table that stood behind him, out of Harry’s sight. “This soup has a lot of salt in it,” he said, peering into it. “And tomatoes. My mother swore by it when I was sick.”

“You want me to eat something made by a woman who thought Muggles should be hunted down?”

“Well, Muggles. Not Muggleborns. And she never went as far as Cousin Araminta and tried to get it legalized.” Black shook his head. “Besides, my mother is years dead. I made this.”

“But she came up with the recipe,” Harry muttered, and still reached for the bowl. He knew eating the soup was probably just a way to put off confronting what Black had told him. That he had no way to really heal his parents, that he might make them into mindless walking things that did what they were told.

It made his hands sweat and his skin cold to think about it even now.

So he wouldn’t think about it until he had to. He would rest and eat, like an animal, and get stronger. Animals had the right idea. It really wasn’t bad to be wild, the way Black kept calling him.

“Do you know something animals can’t do?” Black said aloud, suddenly. Harry looked up. “They can’t read. They can’t look up arcane knowledge in books and improve what they know about Healing or Transfiguration or Charms, because they don’t know anything at all. They can’t recover from mistakes the way humans do.” Black leaned back in his chair and watched Harry with eyes as huge as Sirius’s in some of the photos. “Because one mistake in the wild usually means you’re dead.”

“That’s not true for cats and dogs.” Harry found it hard to recognize his own voice.

Black blinked in an exaggerated fashion and then bowed from his chair. “Forgive me. I had the comparison wrong. I was thinking of you as a wild animal. I didn’t know you meant to be tame.”

Harry bowed his head and let the outrage that Black was trying to stir up pass through him and like a hot, bright light over his head and into the distance. “How can you help me if you’re always joking?” he whispered.

“Joking seems like a reasonable response to someone who won’t answer me anyway,” said Black. “I can either try to save you and amuse myself at the same time, and sometimes get you to question me or answer me, or I can try to save you and have you sit there like a chunk of rock.”

“I would respond if you were serious.”

“Would you?” Black looked at him, cocking his head. “The most response I’ve seen out of you since you battled Bellatrix was when I told you that I knew the truth about you wanting to heal your parents. Why keep that a secret, by the way?” he added. “I know the Healers might have been useless to you, if they’re so set in their ways they won’t try something new, but Professor McGonagall would have helped you.”

Bitterness welled out of Harry, thick as the syrup he’d sometimes seen Dudley use. “No, she wouldn’t,” he said. “She would have told me it was dangerous, and stopped me. The same way you did.”

“Ah,” said Black, with a sigh that seemed more like the puff of air from a grave than anything else. He leaned back in his chair and studied Harry intently. “So you want to be left alone to destroy your life, and anyone who keeps you from doing that isn’t someone you count as an ally.”

“I want to be left alone to risk my life as I see fit.” Harry had thought it would hurt, putting some of these thoughts into words. It didn’t, although he thought it just as likely that Black wouldn’t understand him no matter what he said. “My life is a tool. I grew up not having parents. If I die trying to heal them, then it won’t change anything anyway.”

Black shut his eyes for a long time. Harry wondered if he was thinking about something else, maybe his own boredom with trying to help Harry. It would be ideal if he was, so Harry sat there and waited for something to happen instead of reminding him of his presence. He had a lot of practice doing that, anyway. Mostly in cupboards.

Black at last opened his eyes. They looked a little dazed, and had something in the corners that made Harry tense. He didn’t think it was good news for him.

“Merlin,” Black whispered. “I didn’t realize—I didn’t know you were that damaged.”

“I survived. I learned.” Harry felt Cross open an eye beside him. He wasn’t as fast as Yar, but he was the closest of Harry’s animals to Black at the moment. He would spring over the blankets and rake Black with his claws if Harry gave him the nod.

“But you didn’t survive in the way your parents would have wanted. They would have died for you like Longbottom’s parents did, wouldn’t they? There’s no doubt in my mind. They got tortured in the first place because they didn’t simply run away and leave you there.”

“They would never leave me alone.” Harry felt his mouth drying out with hatred at the thought.

“Right.” Black nodded. “That’s what I mean. And they’d want you to survive now. They wouldn’t mind if you took some risks, but you don’t care about destroying yourself…that’s horrible, Harry. It really is. They would want you to live, and if you can’t heal them, they would want you to make a life for yourself in a different way. Maybe as a Transfiguration master. But to live.”

Harry found it hard to shake his head. It was like his neck was frozen. “You don’t know that about them,” he said. “Not really.”

“I know they loved you. I know they wished you to live. That was something Sirius talked about all the time.”

“I thought you didn’t have any contact with him the last few years he was alive,” Harry said, glad to know that he could spot the lies and tricks even when he was lying on his back in bed.

Black gave a faint snort. “Not contact. He wrote me letters all the time. I think he was trying to convince me how good his life was and how stupid I was for staying behind to be our parents’ heir.” For an instant, a shadow crossed his face, but it was gone before Harry could think of a good way to use it as a weapon. “He just never actually answered the ones I sent. But he talked constantly about you after you were born, and how much your parents loved you.” Black looked directly at him. “How much heloved you. He did die trying to get vengeance for your parents, and you. If you don’t think you’d dishonor your parents by becoming a mindless, snarling wreck, then think about dishonoring my brother. Maybe your sense of duty to the dead is stronger.”

Harry shook his head to clear it. Black could fill it with dangerous, seductive lies. Now he regretted asking the man to speak more seriously. When he did, he tried to lure Harry away from his goals. “I won’t become a mindless, snarling wreck.”

Black studied him for a second, and then he turned and held up his wand. “Accio Uncle Cgynus’s globe.”

The thing that came flying to Black’s hands perhaps a minute later was a heavy crystal ball of the kind Harry had seen Divination students using. But this one didn’t have a base, and there was a large rune inscribed on the top that Harry couldn’t read at this angle. Black rubbed the crystal clear with one sleeve and then tapped his wand on the rune, murmuring something that sounded like the Black family motto.

The crystal took on a soft glow, white and gold. Black turned it around so Harry could see into it.

The image that took form showed a huge room, one with airy windows and a bed like the one Harry was lying in. It didn’t look familiar enough to actually be this room, but Harry would have bet that it was somewhere in Grimmauld Place or the Dark Manse.

There was a woman chained to the bed. She scrambled around the room on all fours, sniffing the carpets and tearing at them with her fingers. She had dark hair that hung around her face, but when she turned her head to look “out” of the globe, Harry could see her eyes were yellow and glowed like a wolf’s.

She had other differences, too, Harry noted slowly. She had short, thick claws instead of fingernails. Her hair was grey and shaggy, and in a few other places where the torn robes parted, Harry could see more fur. When she sat back and panted, her tongue rolled out of her jaws more freely than a human tongue did.

“Who is she?” Harry asked quietly, not looking away from the globe. He wouldn’t frighten easily, if Black was trying to frighten him.

“Druella Rosier,” said Black easily. “Well, Druella Black, really. She was my uncle Cygnus’s wife. The mother of Bellatrix. She was interested in werewolves, and experimented on a number of them.”

Harry’s claws shot out. Black shook his head. “Of course you’re angrier about threats to people who spend part of their time as animals than you are to genuine human beings.”

“Werewolves are genuine human beings,” said Harry. “And I don’t think she was a werewolf.”

“No. But she became convinced that lycanthropes were stronger and better than humans without the curse. She thought she could gain the strength of the wolf by Transfiguring herself into one, bit by bit, without the trauma and boredom of getting bitten and changing at each full moon.”

“And she became that,” said Harry, staring at the woman in the globe. The yellow eyes flashed as she took one of the bed-curtains in her mouth and started shaking it back and forth. Harry tried to watch her and think of her movements as having a purpose. He tried to think that she would turn around in a minute and tear at the chain, or curl up and pretend she was harmless so someone would come and get her out.

“Yes,” said Black. He touched his wand to the rune on top of the globe again, and swirling mists filled it, then melted. Now it just looked like ordinary crystal or glass, the way it had before he touched it. “Now you see what can happen when someone goes too far into the world of the animal, whether in an attempt to gain the animal’s power or with a greater goal the way you have.” He leaned back and studied Harry again.

“You could have shown me that before.”

“You gave me no indication you would listen.”

Harry shifted back and forth in the bed and stared down at the soup in front of him. “My parents are still more important than me,” he said.

“But they wouldn’t think so,” said Black quietly. “You don’t know what they’re like now. Or, rather, you could say they’re not like anything. They don’t have the power to think about things like you putting your life in danger and make a choice. On the other hand, you know what they were like. If you bring their minds back and it turns out they don’t have an opinion, you’ll know you’ve just created a pair of mindless copies who do what you tell them. If they do have an opinion, then you have your parents back, but you’ve caused them more pain.”

Harry tried and tried to think of a way out of that logic trap. His claws shredded the blankets as he thought about it. Cross crept up to his shoulder, purring, and the mice got out of his pockets and crowded around his neck. Even Yar stretched her wings as if she would fly to him and reassure him.

But there was no way. He wanted his real parents back, and hearing they’d loved him and would do anything for him was good, because that was the way he wanted to be loved.

But those people wouldn’t want him if he changed himself too much. Or if he changed them too much. Or they would be horrified, and his mother would weep, and the last thing Harry wanted was to see her weep.

He stared up at Black. “I don’t want to cause them more pain,” he whispered.

Black nodded to him. “I didn’t think you did. And I don’t think you’ve gone too far, you know. You’ve achieved some remarkable things. You’re not so feral that you can’t turn back to being human. You’ve already talked to me and put more thought into what you said today than you did for three whole days before that.”

“I could have done more if you would have done more.” Some anger was coming back, Harry thought, along with his ability to speak. This time, his claws shredded the top of the bowl that Black had served him the soup in. “You just joked. I don’t—react well to that kind of humor.”

Black looked away and nodded once. “I understand that now. I didn’t then. I told you the truth when I said I’m bored and I’ve been alone for a long time. I think joking is the best way to relate to people because at least it makes them listen to me and try to figure me out.” He flexed his hand as if he had claws of his own. “I’m—sorry.”

Harry blinked some more. He hadn’t ever expected an apology. He touched the blankets again, but this time only to touch them, not to shred them with his claws. “Then—you’ve changed your mind?”

“Yes.” Black put his chin in his palm and considered Harry again. “I’ll do what I can to help you. But not just to achieve your goal of healing your parents or killing my cousin. I’m sorry, destroying her.” His mouth twisted, and Harry saw a glimpse of the grin that was probably always going to be there, lurking beneath any serious façade he adopted. “I’ll try to help you become more human, and find a safer way of healing your parents than sacrificing yourself.”

“What if nothing will work except that sacrifice?” Harry asked, because he had always thought that was true.

“Then I’ll try to make sure you know the full value of that sacrifice.” Black looked as if he was laughing at some private hilarity, although without letting Harry know what it was. “What good would it do to give up something you don’t value?”

Harry rubbed the back of his neck. Again he thought there was something he was missing here, but Black was being honest, as far as he could tell. “You want me to feel bad about doing it, if I do it.”

“Yes.”

Harry considered him again. “That sounded like it wasn’t a joke.”

“I’ll try to keep that tendency in check from now on.”

Harry hesitated again, but he thought this was one of the best offers he would get. At least Black hadn’t reacted the way Professor McGonagall probably would have, by crying over him and trying to lock him up in St. Mungo’s in the Janus Thickey Ward with his parents. And he did have knowledge that Harry could learn from. Sometimes he had acquired things in classes at school that had been useful, even if they would never matter to him as much as Transfiguration.

“I’m not a child,” he said.

“Only legally, and in some kinds of knowledge.” Black shrugged. “You don’t research well. I noticed that when you were reading through my libraries. You don’t know how to track down things that might help you unless they’re obvious from the title of the book. And there’s some Dark Arts you’ll have to learn, to reverse the effects of the Transfigurations you’ve done on yourself. And you could do things with Charms and Healing magic that you could never do with Transfiguration, when it comes to your parents…”

He was off, talking as fast as he’d sometimes done when he was purely joking, but differently this time. Harry began to slowly eat the soup, although he had Cross and the mice both sniff it for potions that might drug him. When his animals didn’t find them, Harry relaxed enough to eat most of it.

Black cast a Warming Charm on it without being asked. Harry nodded at him. They could work together when they understood each other. Just not when one of them was joking all the time and the other was serious.

*

“I must have knowledge of some kind about Harry Potter, Severus.”

Severus bowed before the Dark Lord and spoke the only plan he had. It wasn’t one he rejoiced in, but on the other hand, he was still alive and wanted to remain that way, and this could not hurt Lily worse than being without her mind in St. Mungo’s did. “Longbottom’s mind reveals that the boy is obsessed with his parents, my Lord—”

“That is not news. You told me so when I first asked about him.”

Severus breathed carefully. He would have to if he wanted to survive. “But Longbottom confirmed it. I believe making a threat to his parents would be enough to bring the boy to the hospital, where we could capture him at our leisure.”

The Dark Lord brought his head up and studied him from a distance so close that Severus felt sweat break out on his skin. He was telling the truth and knew he was telling the truth, but he still had the impulse to lock down his mind even more tightly than it already was.

“Did you know that Bellatrix has disappeared as well?” the Dark Lord asked conversationally. “Along with the Lestranges. That means we cannot make the threat to Potter’s parents as credible as we could if we had them.”

Severus blinked, and connected the scrying wards that had held him out with the disappearance of the Lestranges. It seemed Potter had found a powerful ally after all.

But at the same time, he tucked that knowledge in the back of his mind. He had not yet decided how he wanted to use it.

“Perhaps not,” Severus said, after a pause that he could only hope the Dark Lord would take the right way. “But we can use other Death Eaters.” He paused again, and a smile stretched his mouth. “I would be happy to be one of them.”

“Because you cared for the Mudblood.”

“The Lily Evans I know is gone,” said Severus with perfect truth. It was their shared memories and Lily’s bright glow of personality he had loved, and madness had erased them both. “But I would enjoy seeing the Potter boy brought to hand.”

And that was true no matter what master he ultimately served or how he ultimately decided to use that knowledge.

“Very well, then,” said the Dark Lord, and leaned slowly back on his throne. “Then you have six days to execute this, Severus.”

Severus bowed and took his leave. His mind was already burning with thoughts of what he could do and what he might have once he had done it.

The boy would be brought to hand to and to heel, sooner or later. And Severus would see into his mind beyond the thoughts of his parents.

Chapter Text

Harry looked slowly around the room on the second floor of Grimmauld Place that Black had converted into a dueling arena. He had to admit he didn’t have much sense of what a dueling arena should look like. When their Defense professors had them practice dueling, it was always just in a classroom with the desks shoved back against the walls.

This one, though, had softly shimmering shields that looked like gongs set along every meter of wall space. The floor itself was some flat, plain sand that didn’t slip like tile and wasn’t as hard as stone. Harry shifted his feet on it, getting used to it. He made a small jump, and waited, but the floor didn’t puff up around him like dust would, either.

“Good?” Black asked, strolling in at the door. When he shut the door, it blended seamlessly with the wall behind him. He turned and cast several Locking Charms on it. “So no one gets any ideas about retreating too quickly,” he added.

Harry nodded and continued examining the walls. There were small round circles that he had dismissed at first as part of the wallpaper, but now he could see that they were slightly varied in size and placement. He pointed to one and tilted his head at Black.

Black ignored him. Harry frowned and then remembered one of the things they had agreed on before coming in here. He sighed and opened his mouth. “What are those circles?”

Black smiled and answered at once. “They’re more defenses—or offenses, I suppose you could say. Spikes come out of them. They’re designed to discourage duelists from resting their backs against the wall or staying there too long when they’re flung. Ten seconds is what you get.”

Harry blinked. “Some of this room looks like it was designed to injure people more than protect them,” he said, when Black propped his chin in his hand and waited patiently for Harry to speak what he wanted to say.

“It was, in a way. It was supposed to train people to rely on their own bodies and skills and not something to support them.”

Harry fumbled for the words he wanted, in his surprise, and then managed to ask, “Not even to rely on walls and other barriers?”

“Barriers?” Black paced to the side and touched the wall above one of the round spots. “Is that the way you see them?”

“In one of the battles I’ve fought, barriers were important.” Harry thought about the bookshelves crashing in Lupin’s room, and then thought of the way he’d dodged and circled when Dudley and his gang were chasing him around corners, and added, “Perhaps more than one.”

“I believe that.” Black looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. “We’ll work with conjured barriers later. When you’re fighting someone in a room that has a lot of objects, then they’re important. But for the moment, what I need to train out of you is that trust you have in objects.”

“Trust?” Harry couldn’t think of anyone he trusted except his animals, and to a certain extent Neville and Professor McGonagall.

“That they won’t move or otherwise hurt you. You need to learn that every object around you can be a weapon, and sometimes that’s a weapon against you.”

On cue, the floor began to shake beneath Harry. He reacted the way his instincts and training prompted him, springing up, spinning around, and coming to rest on a different patch of floor.

That one was shaking and rippling too, though, and more to the point, spreading up in an immense wave that shrugged dueling sand off its back as it moved. Harry tucked into a small ball, but he still had to come down, and the moment he did, the floor began to move again.

“What are you going to do now?” Black called, twirling his wand between his fingers. He stood near the door, on the one patch of floor that of course wasn’t moving, a faint smile on his face. “You have to land somewhere, and the walls are too round to provide you with a good projecting edge!”

That’s true, at least. Harry wanted to object that the room wasn’t really a natural dueling ground, that most of the time he would have a place to land and something to knock over the way he had in Lupin’s chambers. But he was too busy jumping to have the breath, and Black was too busy laughing to listen.

Harry finally found the answer when he felt the passion to have a place to stand flooding through him. Most of the time, he found it difficult to Transfigure one object to another unless he had enough emotion for it, but right now, he certainly did.

He flicked his wand and reached out with some of his wandless power, too, and the nearest wall twisted and flowed into a windowsill. Harry landed there and leaped again, making his muscles twist and push and flow before he truly thought about it. The less time he spent thinking about it, the less time Black had to react.

He leaped straight at Black, and even when the man raised his wand, Harry was content. He could see the gaping mouth and knew Black had been taken by surprise.

If Harry couldn’t win their first duel, he could do a few unexpected things still.

Black’s next spell grabbed him and slammed him out of the air. Harry struggled against the invisible hand that was holding him in place. And there was another spell that was making the muscles in his legs jerk and twist in random patterns, like a lightning bolt that only affected that part. Harry knew it was probably a common jinx. It just hurt him more because those muscles were so much bigger in him than in other humans.

He could admire Black, using simple spells to his advantage.

But Harry wasn’t defeated.

He aimed his wand at Black’s feet and whispered the first incantation that came to mind, remembering one of the spells that Professor McGonagall had showed them early on in second year. “Commuto caligas mures.

Black went over backwards as his boots abruptly Transfigured into rats. They first bit his feet and then scattered towards the sides of the room, looking for places to hide. Harry hadn’t tried to create them with any special qualities, which meant they acted like normal rats, and wisely wanted to get away from human beings as soon as possible.

Sometimes Harry thought he should have imitated them.

“You’re still only using Transfiguration!” Black snapped, as if it was a personal insult, hopping back to his feet. “Counter this with Transfiguration if you can! Cavea fulgoris!

The air all around Harry twinged in warning, and then he found himself enclosed in a cage whose bars were electric. When Harry tried to get to his feet, the ceiling, made of crackling, circling ball lightning, drifted down towards his head and gave off several warning charges. Harry lay down under it for a second and watched the ceiling come closer and closer.

He had never tried to Transfigure lightning, the same way he hadn’t done it with fire, or smoke, or anything else that wasn’t a substantial object. Even water was tricky to work with unless it had been made into ice.

But that didn’t mean Harry was about to give up.

He Shrank the cage with the common charm that they’d all learned from Flitwick, and caught sight of Black’s startled face before the lightning struck him and burned through him.

For a second, Harry couldn’t breathe, and his muscles jerked and burned and twitched worse than ever, only this time all over his body. But none of that was a new experience, from Dudley hitting him in the solar plexus before and Black shocking him a few minutes ago. He waited it out, forced his way through the pain, and twisted to his feet.

“That didn’t come from Transfiguration,” Black murmured, but his voice was a little softer, and he regarded Harry with interest that Harry didn’t think was feigned.

“I don’t need Transfiguration when I can bear pain,” Harry reminded him, and shot a hand out. When his claws came free, he ignored the trembling that still afflicted his muscles and drew his wand down the air in front of him. Black seemed inclined to stand still and stare at him in wonder, and that was fine with Harry; it made what he did now all the easier. “Ambo!

Black flinched and fell backwards, raising one hand to the fine scratches that now trailed down his right cheek. Harry had cast a charm that linked the air and his face, and should have made him bear deep and bleeding wounds.

Should have. Harry stared at the faint scratches and frowned.

“A good try,” Black said, with a nod. “And something I should have expected. But you’ve let too much strength leak into your Transfiguration and can’t put enough into your charms.”

You want strength? Harry let his wand dangle, as if he was stupefied with doubt instead of aiming it, and then snarled, softly enough that he thought Black wouldn’t hear, “Reducto.”

The Blasting Curse took the floor apart at Black’s floor, but he sprang back and out of the range of flying splinters that Harry had tried to cause. He shook his head. “You might not believe me, but the fact remains that your magic adapts to the channels in your mind and body that you want it to use. If you only concentrate on Transfiguration, then yes, charms and curses are going to be weak.”

Harry cast again, this time a Blasting Curse at the shield behind Black. It bounced the way he wanted to, but Black twisted out of the way before it could hit him, and then Harry was the one ducking and weaving to avoid it.

“You see,” Black said, not even breathing hard, as he stood back up. It occurred to Harry with a hostile prickling of nerves that Black wasn’t dueling him back, not anymore, only watching him and patiently explaining. As if Harry was a kitten trying to climb a tree and Black was the wise older cat sitting up there and watching him struggle. “You need to work on making your curses stronger and faster, and not getting—”

This time, Harry used a wordless Blasting Curse, which he had heard was something you could do. But it only resulted in a faint shimmer to the side of Black, and then a little exploding noise. Black went on without seeming to notice it.

“—Frustrated, because that just makes your aim weaker.”

Harry tensed his hands against the immediate impulse to respond by lashing out. He tried to focus on what Black was saying, make sense of it.

Say Black was right. Or pretend he was. Harry was skilled at that kind of game, even though he hadn’t played in years. He used to pretend that he could have friends around Muggles, that he could make the Dursleys love him, that he could get Dudley to stop beating him up.

Say he was, just for a minute. What would it mean?

It would mean that Harry needed to put more attention into studying charms and curses and countercurses, and stop getting so frustrated when Black did something he couldn’t. And he needed more work on non-verbal magic. He had just seen that for himself.

While he stood there pondering, Black decided it was a duel again and shot a Blasting Curse at Harry. Harry leaped over it casually and went back to thinking.

But would he need that kind of magic to heal his parents? Could he justify spending the time on it if all he did was win duels with Black?

This time, the curse Black tried to use was one shaped like a tornado. Harry couldn’t remember the name, but he knew it would curl around him and imprison him in a whirling wind of dust. He leaped over that, too, and sent a couple of his mice to distract Black.

The mice were nibbling at Black’s bare feet, and his dodging around them gave Harry the time to cast Finite Incantatem on the Tornado Curse, which had curled back around and tried to catch Harry in whirling tendrils from that direction. When the curse dissipated, Harry turned to bring down Black another way.

Black was standing right in front of him with his wand glowing blue and the tip aimed straight at Harry’s collarbone.

Harry stood up straight and breathed a little. He didn’t recognize the blue light, but he could feel its heat from this close, and see the sparks, metallic in color, that arced away from it and landed on the floor of the dueling room. He darted his eyes to Black.

“A smart person would surrender at this point.” Black’s voice was soft and casual. “But that’s a smart person. I wonder what you will do.”

Harry felt his hands tense again, but he couldn’t afford—one lesson he had already learned—to simply snap and flail around because he felt insulted or inadequate. There were things Black could teach him, and while they might not relate directly to healing his parents, Harry had already turned aside from that path. Taking vengeance on the Dursleys didn’t relate directly to that, either, or trying to hurt Black, or ruining Snape’s potions.

He already had other goals. What he needed to do was accept them and assimilate them as part of his practice before that practice consumed him.

He bowed his head slowly and said, “I surrender.” One of his mice crept up to Black’s heels and looked at him inquiringly, but Harry shook his head and reached down a hand to scoop them up.

“Good.” Black stepped back and looked him over. “You surprised me a few times. But that’s a weakness as much as a strength, if you rely on it too much. Can you tell me why?”

Harry closed his eyes. Black had said something about Harry surprising Bellatrix and the Lestranges, too, and it had certainly helped him to capture them. But when he thought about it, it wasn’t too hard to find the answer to Black’s questions.

“Because surprise only works once,” he said. “Against new enemies. Old ones will either know better, or they might even tell new people about what I can do.” The words dragged and stuck in his throat. Harry didn’t want to say them, and not only because he felt silence was wiser most of the time. “The only way to prevent that would be to kill everyone the first time. And I don’t want to kill my enemies all the time.”

“Exactly,” said Black, although he did give Harry a funny look on the last words. Maybe he didn’t believe that Harry didn’t want to kill people yet. Harry tried to stand there and radiate sincerity, but that only seemed to increase Black’s bafflement. “You need to learn other spells. Be fast and flexible as well as unexpected. That’s one thing we’ll work on.”

He paused and then added, “But I can only really teach you some spells you probably already know and Dark Arts, since that was what I specialized in. I’m not a Defense professor or anything like it.”

“That’s all right,” Harry reassured him. “We had horrible or fake Defense professors most of the last few years.”

Black shook his head. “But that won’t make much difference if we want to do something bigger.”

“Bigger how?” Once again, Black seemed to think his words were obvious, and Harry had to remind him they weren’t. His mice wriggled in his pockets, reacting to his distress.

“I tried to do something opposing the Dark Lord when I was very young,” said Black, and his mouth turned downwards. “I failed. I survived, which was something I didn’t expect, but that was the thing that shocked me into realizing I couldn’t use Dark Arts all the time and expect them to do everything.”

“I don’t care about Lord Dudders—”

Who?” This time there was no mistaking the expression on Black’s face. He was desperately trying to hold back a laugh.

“That’s what I call Voldemort. After my cousin Dudley.” Harry shrugged when Black stared at him incredulously. “He seems just as spoiled. He wants to have everything he wants, and he doesn’t care who he has to destroy to do it.”

Black blinked rapidly several times, and then seemed to find his way back to himself. “Well. Yes. I suppose one could see him that way. But why don’t you care about him? His Death Eaters were the ones who tortured your parents.”

“And now I’m learning from one of his Death Eaters.”

“Well. Yes,” Black said again.

Harry nodded at him. He had made up his mind to listen and learn, which meant he could change directions rapidly. Distantly he wondered if Black would be able to keep up with him, and then decided that it didn’t much matter if he couldn’t. Harry would be the one choosing their path, in that case.

“I want to heal my parents,” Harry said. “As you so cleverly discerned. And I want to study other things than Transfiguration. And I want to make the Lestranges pay. That isn’t the same as wanting to bring down Lord Dudders.”

Black paused as if listening to some suggestion from another voice. Harry waited patiently. As long as Black wasn’t succumbing to the madness of the family that several books in the library had discussed, then he could take all the time he wanted.

“But what if those things were connected?” Black asked slowly. “I want revenge, too. Revenge on the Dark Lord for making me waste so many years of my life, before I learned what was really important to me. And causing the death of my brother, indirectly.”

“I thought Sirius didn’t matter to you.”

“He matters more to me dead than he did alive.”

Harry thought some more. In the end, he had to nod. He could understand the reasoning because he thought that his parents mattered more to him mad than they would have sane. If he’d just grown up with them like a normal kid, he would probably be a normal kid, and maybe he would even be like Dudley: spoiled. His parents had loved him a lot, Black said. That could lead to spoiling people.

Harry sort of thought he preferred to be the way he was now.

“I want to bring down the Dark Lord,” Black continued. “And you want to heal your parents, and do the other things you mentioned. We’ll find that easier to accomplish with allies.”

“If you wanted to bring in Dumbledore and Snape, forget it,” said Harry flatly. “Dumbledore will never trust me, and I have my own reasons to dislike Snape.”

Black laughed softly. “I could say exactly the same thing. Well. I wasn’t going to suggest them. I was going to suggest Professor McGonagall.”

Harry folded his arms, feeling the mice sit up in his pockets in readiness. The rats he’d Transfigured Black’s boots into were huddling against the walls. Harry wondered if it would be worthwhile collecting them and trying to tame them. He hadn’t created them for a specific purpose, so they wouldn’t be intelligent and friendly of their own free will, unlike Amicus.

“Why her? If it’s only because she’s the Transfiguration professor and you think you’ll bribe me by including her—”

“What a little beast you are,” said Black, in a voice that was almost admiring. “Why you didn’t Sort Slytherin I’ll never know.”

Harry stared at him. Black had figured out his deepest secret, and he decided this wasn’t exactly one. It was only that no one had ever asked him about it before because no one had ever thought he should be there. “The Sorting Hat told me I could go there.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Lord Dudders. And I fought Malfoy on the train.”

“Mal—oh, Lucius’s son. Of course.” Black shook his head. “Sometimes I lose track of who has what children, since it’s never been a concern of mine. That reassures me. If you’d Sorted Slytherin, then Severus would probably have got you under his control anyway.”

“No,” said Harry positively. “I would never have liked him, and he would never have liked me.”

Black’s shrug dismissed the matter as unimportant. “What I want Professor McGonagall for is that she does understand Transfiguration, and she’ll help you more than I can in adapting your battle skills. And she has the respect of other professors at Hogwarts—if not Severus—and connections to former Gryffindor students who hold high positions in the Ministry. That’s not something I would ever be able to provide. We need connections. We need a unified effort, but a decentralized one. One of the foolish things the Order of the Phoenix did in the first war was provide a large group of opponents for the Dark Lord to attack at once. It was no wonder so many of them died.”

“What about Neville?”

“Longbottom? I don’t think his grandmother would be pleased if we contacted him.” Then Black began to grin. “Of course, looked at the right way, that’s an incentive.”

“What do you have against Neville?”

“Against Longbottom? Nothing in particular.” Black shrugged. “I do think people have no idea how he defeated the Dark Lord and are putting too much hope and trust in him, and not enough in other methods of winning this war. That’s one reason I want to move. I’m not going to sit back and trust in Longbottom to save me.

“But against Augusta Longbottom…she insulted me terribly at Sirius’s funeral. I haven’t forgotten it, and I won’t.”

“So you won’t ally with her?”

“I think allying with her grandson will be enough of a blow to her,” Black announced cheerfully. “What brought Longbottom to your mind? Do you think he would listen to Professor McGonagall if she agreed to ally with us? Would he come? He could be valuable if we can discover how he defeated the Dark Lord and whether he can do it again.”

“He’s in Gryffindor,” said Harry slowly. He wondered if he should protect Neville from Black, and then decided that Professor McGonagall—if she even agreed at all—would help him do that. “And Neville is more than just someone to study.”

“Then you can be his closer ally,” said Black. “I’m indifferent to it, really.”

“But you want to ally with me? I’m the same age as Neville.”

“You’re a much more experienced fighter. And you’re interesting. And you were Sirius’s godson.” Black propped his chin in his hand and studied Harry. “I’m sure I already said this. Are you going to go along with me or not?”

Harry weighed the options in his head. He hadn’t signed any binding contracts with Black, or sworn any oaths. He could break away if he needed to. It would probably be even easier to do that if Professor McGonagall and Neville were here. Professor McGonagall was fierce and could fight back against Black if she needed to.

“Yes.”

*

The owl that brought her the letter was brown and white, not unusual, and Minerva opened it not expecting anything special. But when she recognized the handwriting scrawled on it, she had to put the letter aside for a time and bury her head in her arms on her desk, while she sobbed quietly with relief.

Then she opened it and read through it.

Hello Professor McGonagall,

Please don’t tell anyone about this. My ally says that both Dumbledore and Snape can read minds, so you’ll want to make sure you don’t look them in the eye.

I’m staying with Regulus Black. He’s already helped train me a little and protect me from a scrying attempt that was trying to find me. He says that he wants to ally with you and Neville, too. I was staying with Neville’s grandmother at first, but she ended up bringing me to a Black family house that was supposed to be empty, and Black caught me in it. So we don’t know if we’re going to ally with her yet.

Could you ask Neville if he’d be willing to be involved? I know you and I can protect Black from using him, if he tries to.

Please write me back.

Thank you,
Harry.

Minerva had to wipe away tears steadily for five minutes before she was any use, and then she concealed her face in her hands. No one was walking into her office or even past it at the moment, but she still felt the need to do it.

Then she sat up and reached for the quill and the ink.

This is much better news than I ever thought to receive.

Chapter Text

“W-What did you want to talk to me about, Professor?”

Minerva gave Neville as calming a smile as she could. She understood why the boy was nervous when she’d asked him to stay behind after Transfiguration. It was only a week since she had given him the Murtlap for his hand and encouraged his plan to put together a secret Defense group in spite of Umbridge. She had even promised to cover for them if she could. As far as she knew, Neville and his friends hadn’t chosen a meeting place yet, making the question moot.

But now, she had a different plan to propose. “I got a letter from Harry the other day,” she whispered.

Neville’s face transformed completely. “Is he okay? Where is he? Is he ever going to come back to Hogwarts?”

Minerva had to smile again. She wondered for a moment if Augusta had ever seen this look on Neville’s face, and then dismissed the notion. She honestly had no idea how Augusta interacted with her grandson, except that it didn’t increase his confidence. But Neville had never complained about how she treated him.

Until I confronted him, he didn’t complain about Umbridge, either.

Minerva put the thought away to examine at a later date, and said, “He’s fine. He stayed for a short time with your grandmother—”

“But she said he had no idea where he was!”

“It seems that you have more of a co-conspirator in your grandmother than you knew, then.”

Neville’s face was a study. Minerva told herself sternly not to forget that she wanted to ask him about Augusta later, or at least owl Augusta. The woman was so proud that she might give an honest answer without thinking about the implications.

“As for whether he’s going to come back to Hogwarts, I think it’s unlikely, at least right now. But he’s staying with Regulus Black. And he wants to know if we’re interested in help to take down You-Know-Who.”

Neville actually staggered back a step. Then he reached up and petted the cat who sat on his shoulder, as always, so close and devoted that Minerva forgot about him most of the time. He was part of Neville, like his wand.

“Of course I am,” Neville whispered. “I should have known Harry would never abandon me.”

Minerva nodded briskly. She had the feeling that she should encourage that perception as much as possible. The more faith Neville could have in his friends, the more he would have in himself, too. “He hasn’t. But he can’t do much from this distance, either. It’s up to us to come up with something. Do you want to help me plan here? Or do you want to come to a meeting with me, and Harry, and Black? It’s more of a risk,” she added, when she saw Neville starting to answer, one of the few times that she’d ever seen him act like an impulsive Gryffindor.

“I know that,” said Neville, with a little irritated shiver of his skin like a horse shrugging off a fly. “I want to do it anyway.”

“Good,” said Minerva, and sent him on his way before Umbridge could come around and overhear. Neville received so much post that no one would notice if Minerva sent him an owl when she had a firm meeting place and time.

And now she felt as if she could start breathing real air for the first time since Umbridge had entered the school.

I can finally feel like I’m doing something.

*

Severus stepped slowly inside St. Mungo’s, and concealed his sneer at the weakness of the defensive spells. The hospital had spells in place that would detect blood, and broken bones, and certain curses, and almost nothing else. They didn’t think anyone would break in except perhaps to steal certain Potions ingredients, which were in their own, separately protected, room.

It would be easy to set up an ambush here that would take Potter. Perhaps a bit harder to spread the rumors that would snare him in the first place, but that was why his Lord had given the job to Severus. He was the best.

He could have left, then, since this had been only a scouting mission, and while many fewer Healers were here in the night than in the day, he stood a chance of rousing one. But he trusted in his Disillusionment Charm, and there was something he wanted to do.

There was no separate wall of defensive spells guarding the Janus Thickey Ward, either.

Severus paused with his hand on the door when he reached it, and listened. There were no snores from behind the door, or voices. Severus didn’t know if his enemies were asleep, but at least he could be sure no Healer was with them, either.

He opened the door and glided inside.

Lily and Potter were both awake, lying motionless in bed, their eyes pinned and staring at the ceiling. Severus hesitated when he saw that, but neither turned when they saw him. Perhaps, at that, their normal condition was not so different from sleep.

Severus thought about approaching Potter, but there was no need. He had already come to terms with the fate that had fallen on his primary enemy, and his main regret at the moment was that Potter wasn’t sane to mourn over his son, fallen into the Dark.

But his secondary enemy…

Severus stood beside Lily’s bed. There was nothing left of the girl, the woman, he had known, he told himself. Certainly nothing. Her hands had never been still in the old days. She had never had a glazed or empty look in her eyes. That was the kind of look that belonged to her son, with his damnably obsessed mind. Even when she was bored, she had a low, sullen glimmer in her face, as if she was plotting the suffering of the person who had dared to bore her.

Severus could not help contrasting her with the woman whose face had changed when she heard him say the word Mudblood.

If she was a true friend, she would have forgiven that. She forgave Potter worse.

Severus felt his hands clench, his breathing get fast and shallow. He suddenly couldn’t remember if he had shut the door, and looked swiftly over his shoulder. An open door would bring a Healer in, and some of them would be suspicious enough to call others.

But the door was shut. Severus turned himself back with a shake. It wasn’t like him to forget that.

Lily had always affected him more than anyone else.

He thought about not speaking the words. In truth, he had spoken them to her in his mind long before, and saying them aloud would change nothing when she hadn’t the wit to understand them. And the instincts of the wary predator in the back of his mind said even that soft sound might bring a patrolling Healer.

But in the end, he judged the risk safe enough. And the chances were strong that he would never see her again.

“You could have saved me,” Severus whispered to her. “You could have stood by me. If I had had one anchor to prop me up, I wouldn’t have continued with the Dark Arts. They enchanted me, but never the way your eyes did, your face. If you had smiled at me once more, I wouldn’t have needed to replace the anchor. And the only anchor available to me at the time was the Dark Lord. My friends weren’t enough, they never were. I would have turned away from them at a word from you.”

Lily lay there, breathing only, not blinking, alive only by courtesy.

“Your son has no anchor,” Severus told her quietly. “Transfiguration, perhaps, but just as Dark Arts couldn’t be mine, Transfiguration won’t be his. One needs something to cling to. He has no friends, no leader, no mentor, no Lord.” For a moment, he let his hand touch her red hair.

It felt like nothing.

“I wouldn’t have needed a Lord,” he said again, “if you had stood by me.”

I was wise not to come here, he thought then. He could recognize the same churning emotions rising in his chest that had risen on the night they spoke for the last time. Fear, anger, frustration. Why couldn’t she understand? How could he make her see?

But Severus had spent the last fourteen years understanding that his frustration made no difference, and no one had the right to make him afraid. Even the Dark Lord would pay for that offense, in the end.

That left the anger. And the anger was still great, that she hadn’t fled when she saw the Death Eaters who had come to end her. That she had let herself be tortured into madness and picked that over the life she could have had in the shelter he would have made for her.

Severus stood and fed the anger on the sight of her still body until he knew he would need no sight to rouse it again. Then he turned away.

There is still one pair of blank green eyes in the world that I can inspire to spark with something more than stillness.

*

“Neville. What’s wrong.”

That was Hermione, Neville thought, while he stroked Dapple’s tail with one hand and stared at his friends. When she was really stressed, she didn’t even make it into a question. It was a combination of statement and staring.

Neville didn’t think he should tell her, though, or Ron, who was leaning on the back of her chair and also staring at him. Even though his friends were wonderful and supporting him against Umbridge, because they knew he was telling the truth, this was probably too dangerous for them. Ron and Hermione didn’t really know Harry, and they weren’t as close to Professor McGonagall as Neville was because of all his extra training. He shouldn’t tell them. He should let them stay here.

“Neville.”

But the problem was, the more Hermione spoke like that, the more Neville remembered her standing at his side during the Triwizard Tournament. And the more Ron stared at him like that, the more Neville remembered him coming back to him last year after his little bout of jealousy. And there was the chess game Ron had played to save them all and the Philosopher’s Stone, and the way Hermione had researched basilisks, and how both of them had tried to offer him help during the evenings when he came back exhausted from his extra training or shaken too deep for tears because the training had been with Snape, and how Hermione helped him with homework, and Ron tried to teach him strategy…

They were at his side. Always. And if they found out that he’d kept something from them they would be hurt, and they would probably find a way to tag along and be inmore danger from someone like Regulus Black. And if they didn’t find out until later, that would be bad.

And if a miracle happened and Neville managed to keep his secret, it would fester, buried, between them. They always told each other everything, even if that was because Ron was really bad at keeping secrets in the first place and Hermione spoke before she thought and Neville was just bad at lying.

“All right,” he said. “It’s like this. We’re going to do something to stop Umbridge, Professor McGonagall and I. And we’re going to do something to help stop V-Voldemort.” Ron still flinched like he’d been jabbed with a Blood Cactus’s spines at the name, but Hermione was getting better; she just turned pale. “It’s a meeting.”

“Who with?” Hermione sounded breathless.

“With Harry.”

It took them a moment to recognize the first name. They’d never been as close to Harry as Neville was, never thought of him the same way Neville did—although they’d been entirely approving when they’d found out Harry had Transfigured Dapple for Neville. But then Hermione caught her breath and whispered, “He’s not dead?”

Neville shook his head. “He was apparently staying with my Gran for a little while, actually.” And he was going to have to speak to Gran about that, and figure out what he thought. He didn’t know what he thought right now. He had too many other things to think about.

“Oh.” Hermione seemed at a loss for words, which was so unlike her that Neville caught Ron’s eye and they both smiled. Then Hermione said, “Of course we want to go. We will go, Neville, you know that.”

“‘Course we will, mate.” Ron reached out and nudged Neville’s shoulder with a closed fist. “We’re best friends. We’re Gryffindors. That’s what we do.”

Neville closed his eyes and sighed. He thought he would have Professor McGonagall’s anger to face when he explained, and of all his professors, he hated it most when she was angry with him. It was so much like disappointment. And disappointment led him back to thoughts of Gran, and all the people who hated him right now for not being the shining hero they thought he should be, and not coming back with Cedric alive and Voldemort defeated the way he was supposed to.

But as he felt Hermione grab his hand and Ron move around behind his chair, Neville knew saying whatever he had to say was worth it. And his friends would be there to help him explain, the way they were there to help him do everything else.

The way Harry will be.

*

“This is for your own good, Draco.”

It was the only thing Father had said, the only thing Father ever said when he wanted Draco to do something he didn’t want to do. And Draco knew that struggling and protesting would get him nowhere. At best, it might make Father withhold that new experimental broom he’d planned to give Draco next year.

At worst, it might make him do something…drastic.

And really, there was nothing unpleasant about lying on the divan in the small sitting room while Mind-Healer Selywn examined him. She had a frown that made Draco want to curl up and hide, but she was gentle as she turned his head back and forth and stared into his eyes. Draco had been under Legilimency before, but this didn’t feel like that. Then again, he didn’t know enough about what Mind-Healers did to say what it was. He resolved to learn more about it if he didn’t have to spend several days in St. Mungo’s.

Selwyn finally nodded and stood up, turning to Father with that same frown on her face, but lessened. “You were right, Mr. Malfoy. He is suffering from the effects of a deeply-placed Memory Charm.”

Draco stared at the ceiling, since he knew what would happen if he flinched and looked at Father or the Mind-Healer. But his mind echoed with the emptiness of astonishment. When would someone have Obliviated him? Draco knew most of the secrets in Slytherin House, and he knew he hadn’t suddenly forgotten anything about anyone important.

“I thought so,” said Father, and Draco hid the heretical thought that of course he had, or Selwyn wouldn’t have said that he’d called her in for that reason. Father didn’t know Legilimency, but Draco didn’t want to encourage him to learn. “So. How soon can you break it down?”

“Without pain? It will take several hours and a sedative for your son. With pain? In five minutes.”

“Five minutes, then.”

Selwyn nodded and turned back to Draco, who barely had time to brace himself. Then her wand traced an arc in the air before his eyes, and created a pattern that looked like a rainbow doubled and turned back on itself.

The rainbow flared bronze and began to rotate on its axis. Draco had watched it complete two full rotations before it turned and flew into his face.

Draco screamed and reached up a hand to claw at his eyes. It was going into them, sinking into them, and it felt the way he imagined it would feel to have molten metal poured on them. Selwyn seized his hand and held it back, and when Draco held up the other one, she bound it to his side with some sort of charm.

Draco didn’t know what charm, and he couldn’t know, because he couldn’t see. The pain occupied his whole world, pain of walls falling inside his head, pain of someone stabbing him again and again in the eye. He screamed, even knowing what Father would probably say to him after the Mind-Healer left, because going mad if he tried to keep silent scared him more.

And then it ended so suddenly that Draco went limp. He felt hot, exhausted tears trickling down his cheeks. It surprised him slightly. He’d been so sure that he didn’t haveeyes.

“Ah,” said Selwyn, somewhere outside the pain that now dominated Draco’s comprehension. “Yes. Most interesting, Mr. Malfoy. It seems your son has an enemy whom he caught coming out of a workroom in the Hogwarts dungeons where the other young man was apparently practicing magical experiments. Since the other student wasn’t a Slytherin, he had no good excuse for being there. He threatened your son into keeping silence by telling him he would set rats on him to gnaw him to death.”

Draco gasped in silent shock, ignoring the way, for the moment, the air felt molten in his throat. What? But I don’t remember—

But he did. The memories of Potter were suddenly there, sharp as cracked glass.

“Who would dare to do this to my son?” Father asked.

Draco answered before the Mind-Healer could. “Potter,” he croaked, opening his eyes. “Harry Potter. He was doing—something, and he threatened me with his rat. And then he Obliviated me so I would forget.”

Father was silent, but in the way his eyes sharpened, Draco read his own forgiveness for both screaming and being so weak as to get hit with a Memory Charm in the first place.

“Potter. So.” Father’s hands worked over the top of his cane for a moment. “How interesting. We will…have to do something about this.”

*

Albus leaned slowly back and closed his eyes. In this innermost, private sanctum, the library behind the Headmaster’s office, he could forget about the need to keep up appearances. He could have a Muggle reclining chair here, and no one would fuss at him about how he needed to act like a wizard.

A soft trill sounded from his left, and Albus reached out a hand without looking. Fawkes landed on his arm a second later. Albus marveled, as always, at how light a phoenix was. He looked as if his talons should make him weigh as much as an owl, but instead, he was all air and fire.

But the wonder was half-absent, and Albus opened his eyes with a weary breath and looked at the book in front of him. It was the greatest treasure of his office, passed down from Headmaster to Headmaster over the years. Nothing could remove it from the sanctum; even if someone discovered a way around the magic-soaked stones, it would disintegrate before it went anywhere else.

It was a “book” only by courtesy. Infinitely expandable leather bindings bulged with pages torn from scrolls, copied over from journals and diaries, and scribbled with notes from other books. Everything a Headmaster found useful or interesting went here.

And at last Albus had found a solution to the major mystery he had been researching, but it was not a happy solution.

“Well, no one said it would be,” he told Fawkes, who ducked his head and rubbed his neck against Albus’s. Albus smiled at the old signal—older than the book, maybe, but then even he didn’t know how you would go about estimating a phoenix’s age—and stroked Fawkes’s chin.

Fawkes closed his eyes in ecstasy. Although he often commented on the things Albus struggled and fought with and researched, he hadn’t chosen to do so this time; he just wanted to be petted.

Albus looked around the room as he thought. The walls were stone, but red and gold, not grey. They were so impregnated with magic that the power constantly sought some harmless outlet, and turning the stones different colors was harmless enough. Albus knew the colors altered with the Headmaster, though. They would have glowed silver and green, dark and mysterious, when Phineas Nigellus Black reigned here, for example.

All around the circular room were shelves, set flush with the walls and containing the originals of the silver “toys” in his outer office. These were the instruments that looked after the health of the portraits, told him if blood was spilled in the corridors, detected the presence of Dark Arts, and guarded any number of secret entrances from the Forbidden Forest. Here no one could spy, no one could see. And Albus was as safe here as he could be anywhere.

But other people do not have this sanctuary.

Albus’s smile faded slowly as he glanced back at the Headmaster’s book. He sighed and turned the frayed pages, reading aloud to Fawkes for lack of a better audience.

There is a condition called Lycaon’s Syndrome, rarely seen except among those human children who have spent the years of their childhood with centaurs or werewolves. They will have the eyes and bodies of beasts, their magic shaping them in accordance with their minds’ desires to be one with their caretakers. It is pure Wild without Will or Word or Wand, the most primal form of Transfiguration.

It is to be noted—and this is something that those studying Lycaon’s Syndrome have tried on occasion to exploit—that the Transfigurations created by sick children are permanent. They partake of the Wild, not a Will, which falters, or Words, which fall silent, or a Wand, which is not always waved. They feed moment to moment on that primal magic hovering around the child.

But Lycaon’s Syndrome kills, in the end. It always makes the children who suffer it into beasts, and they turn on those around them as a wild wolf turns on those who would try to make it into a dog. Great masters of Transfiguration they are, but Lycaon’s sufferers will always return to the wild, and the Wild. Their bodies and Transfigurations will dissolve at the end into pure magic, and return to the forest primeval.”

Albus shook his head. Fawkes had gone still on his shoulder, a sign he was listening. Albus stroked his neck and murmured, “I never thought Mr. Potter might be suffering from that, since Minerva told me he had learned Transfiguration the usual way. But it makes sense of his Transfigured animals, and it makes sense why I could not immediately connect him with that eagle. What I sensed around that animal was not a distinct magical signature, but the Wild and the Wild only.”

Albus sighed and shut the book. He had to admit that Potter was low on the list of his priorities right now, between trying to make sure that he nudged Neville gently in the right direction and readied the Order of the Phoenix to bring the war to Tom.

But then, since Mr. Potter and his creations would both dissolve soon, it might not have to be. Only, if he saw him in battle, Albus would know he could expect no more mercy from Potter that he would from a wild beast.

Kill him gently, kill him quickly. That would be the best and most painless way.

“Oh, Lily,” he did whisper, letting his mind linger in contemplation of those who would be hurt. “Oh, James. If you could see what your son has become.”

Chapter Text

“Ah. It seems we’re going to have company we didn’t anticipate.”

“What?” Harry turned around. He had Yar on his arm and several mice in his pockets. Cross and Spellmaker, as he’d named the new cat formed from Bellatrix’s wand, had been left behind in the house; they still made the mice nervous, and Harry had no convenient way to carry them with Yar riding him.

“Not just Minerva and Longbottom. Two others Apparated in.” Black had his eyes closed and his fingers splayed across the surface of a diamond-colored sphere he had found in Grimmauld Place. Harry watched the colors follow his fingers. He hadn’t trusted Black’s explanation about how the sphere worked, not completely, but he trusted that it would alert them to the presence of magical signatures. “I don’t know them.”

Harry winced a little. He couldn’t work the sphere because he wasn’t a Black, and he knew Black himself only recognized the other two because he’d studied under Professor McGonagall and apparently Neville shared his family’s common magical signature. No chance of knowing who the other two were until they approached them here.

“Here” was a long meadow, a narrow patch between two stands of trees, studded with short grass. Harry approved of both the trees and the grass. Enemies might approach them unseen, but they’d have to Apparate in first, and Yar would see movement near the trees and warn him. And it was hard to get across the grass without being seen.

“How much do you trust Minerva, Harry?”

Harry was slow to answer. It was still strange to him to hear Black call both him and Professor McGonagall by their first names. “A lot. I would have let her do something about the Dursleys if she’d offered earlier.”

“And Longbottom is the same age you are. I will allow them to approach. But have your animals ready.”

Harry raised his eyebrows a little, thought about saying that Neville had received a lot of extra training, and then left it alone. He was learning the right way to get along with Black.

Soon enough, the four figures came through the trees. Harry relaxed right away when he saw the size of the ones who trailed behind Neville. Not large enough to be adults, and right now that was all he cared about.

Not all Black cared about, though. He made a noise like Cross when Black had accidentally stepped on his tail. “That red hair means Weasley. Why would a Weasleyhave come with them?”

“Ron Weasley is Neville’s best friend.”

“That isn’t enough explanation for why he’s here. And who is that other one with them?”

Harry knew a strange, short surge of joy that he could say something that would irritate Black. He obediently squinted as if he didn’t recognize the other person either, and then said, “That’s Hermione Granger. His other best friend.”

“Both in Gryffindor. Both students, I assume.” Black paced slowly back and forth as the others came nearer and nearer.

“If it comes to that, Neville is in Gryffindor, too,” Harry pointed out. “And Professor McGonagall is the Head of Gryffindor. And I should have gone to Gryffindor, if the Sorting Hat hadn’t wanted to play some sort of game.”

Black glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “You were never meant for that House. It would have been Slytherin, if certain people hadn’t been stupid.”

He turned to greet Professor McGonagall before Harry could ask who had been stupid in this case. But it was probably him, in which case Harry didn’t care to hear the answer. He would rather to talk to Professor McGonagall and Neville, anyway.

Professor McGonagall nodded to Black, but she had her eyes on Harry. “You’re all right,” she whispered, and it was more than blatant that she was not talking to Black.

“I told you I was,” Harry said, a little confused. He had known she would be glad to hear from him, but he hadn’t thought she would doubt him so much. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing a professor who liked a student should do.

For a moment, Professor McGonagall stood still, and then she smiled faintly. “You did indeed. I’m afraid that when I’ve gone so long without hearing from someone I—care for, then it takes longer for the news to sink in.”

Harry nodded. He could relate. He had gone so long thinking his parents were dead that the implications of them being alive had taken time to sink in. If Professor McGonagall hadn’t taken him to see them in hospital and to visit Sirius’s grave, it would have been even longer.

“Harry.”

And then it was time to turn around and smile at Neville. Harry was glad to see Dapple was still perched on Neville’s shoulder, and that he even glared suspiciously at Harry when he came near. Maybe Black was right about Harry only creating animals that did what he told them to, instead of acting independently, but this was at least proof that Harry could create animals that didn’t obey him. “How have you been?”

“I’m fine.” Neville reached out and shook Harry’s hand, and then suddenly grabbed him in a hug. Only a quick motion with Harry’s arm prevented Yar from descending on Neville to try to wrench his eyes out of his head. As it was, she flapped off in disgust and screeched at them from the top of a tree.

“I was so worried. Even Gran said she hadn’t seen you, and then…”

“I’m sorry. I would have told you where I was earlier, but I wanted to hide from Dumbledore.”

“Did he threaten you or something?” Neville pulled back so he could look Harry in the eyes, but someone else answered before Harry could.

“Professor Dumbledore is a great man! This must be a misunderstanding.”

Harry looked coolly at Granger. He didn’t dislike her, and he knew she was a good friend to Neville, but it irritated him that she didn’t see the obvious. “Who else would I have run away from? Snape doesn’t frighten me enough, and there are no other enemies hunting me. Not like Voldemort is hunting Neville.” He would refrain from using the name “Lord Dudders” for now, but only because no one else would understand it. It was still the way Harry felt about him.

“Well, a terrible misunderstanding, then.” Unlike Weasley, who was watching everyone as if time would tell him the right away to feel about Black and Harry, Granger had leaped into things with both feet. She brushed her hair away from her face and moved closer to Harry. “But Professor Dumbledore wouldn’t want to hurt you. He wants all his students to succeed.”

“In this, Miss Granger, I’m sorry to inform you that you are wrong.” Granger turned with a little gasp to Professor McGonagall, who was frowning. “He did want to try and corral Harry, largely because he was worried about his mastery of Transfiguration. Whether that would have meant doing something more permanent, I can’t say.”

She shot a glance at Harry, who nodded back. She could have said, but it would take time to talk Granger and presumably Weasley around. Take the soft tack first and let them believe what they wanted for now, but work on influencing them subtly.

“The Slytherin way,” Black muttered behind him.

Harry had a lot of practice now in resisting the urge to argue with Black. He just looked Neville in the eye and saw the way Neville nodded back to him. Neville probably had to trust Dumbledore more than Harry did. He still wouldn’t say anything to Dumbledore about Harry.

It would cause problems that he’d brought his friends along, but probably it was better than having them sneak along behind—which Harry knew Gryffindors had a tendency to do—and cause trouble when they got caught, or sent an owl to Dumbledore, or something.

Harry paused at the nature of the thought. It was the first time he’d thought something that was so uncomplimentary about Gryffindors.

Maybe Black is right and I don’t really belong there.

But Harry shook that thought out of his head as he and Black went about setting up the Shield Charms and various spells that would prevent anyone from overhearing them. His House placement didn’t matter right this instant. What did was keeping the meeting safe and secret and deciding what they would do next.

*

Minerva realized, only a minute after she began evaluating Regulus Black, that he was evaluating her in much the same way, and for much the same reasons.

We both want to know if the other will treat Harry right.

It might have been amusing in other circumstances. For now, Minerva could only hope that her initial impressions were correct, because Harry could become so badly damaged if they weren’t.

Black seemed to know where Harry was at all times. He turned his head a little now and then to keep him under observation as Harry raised the spells, which Minerva could only be impressed by; obviously Black had made Harry focus more on his studies in Charms and perhaps Defense. And Black didn’t look contemptuous or fascinated.

He seemed interested, that was all. Watchful.

He kept an eye on Minerva, too, which Minerva couldn’t blame him for. They didn’t know each other well outside interactions more than fifteen years ago as professor and student. And she had been Head of his rival House and fighting in the Order of the Phoenix. Black must know that now, whether or not he had at the time.

Black finally turned and conjured a bench. Minerva Transfigured several taller clumps of grass into chairs. Harry didn’t bother using his own skills, but simply took one of the chairs. They sat in a circle, Black close to Harry, Minerva on his other side, and Neville, Miss Granger, and Mr. Weasley across from them.

“So,” said Minerva. “You wanted to speak with us as allies.”

“Yes,” said Black. “Several days ago, we captured my cousin and my in-laws.”

Neville turned a sick white; his friends merely looked puzzled. Harry nodded in a way that told Minerva her first, stomach-churning impression was correct, and the “we” meant Black and Harry.

“You let a schoolboy face Bellatrix Lestrange?” she asked, and knew her voice had gone as cold as it had during first year when she caught Neville and his friends with a dragon.

Black laughed, sounding enough like Sirius for a moment that Minerva couldn’t speak. “It was more a question of letting dear Bella face him.” He reached out and put a hand on the back of Harry’s chair. Harry’s eyes followed the motion, but that was nothing different; he had always looked at Minerva in much the same way when she was close to him.

I fear that Harry will never trust any adult moving near him without a close look.

“Harry is an accomplished fighter,” Black continued. “He needs to broaden his spells repertoire and work on mastering other disciplines than Transfiguration, but he’s formidable.” He looked at Neville. “And I understand the young Savior has received some specialized training, some of it from you.”

Miss Granger spoke. “That’s the second time someone’s said that Potter’s a master of Transfiguration. What do you mean? And why is it important enough to irritate Professor Dumbledore?” She turned to Minerva.

Minerva sighed. In truth, she hadn’t been thrilled with Neville’s plan of bringing his friends along. They got in more trouble, all three together, than Neville ever did on his own. But it was true that they were loyal to him and added to his confidence. “Can you show them, Harry? If you would,” she added, as Harry’s eyes seemed to shutter a little.

But Harry nodded and stood up. He looked around for a second, then focused on another clump of grass and murmured, “Commuto graminem felinam.

Minerva caught her breath as she watched the shadows on the grass twist into tiger stripes, the edges of some blade-like leaves become claws, and the bright green all flood into the center of its face, where they became brilliant eyes. The cat that leaped out of the air a second later and strolled over to Harry’s feet was compact and assured, a hunter and killer.

And it absolutely glowed with the tingling edge of the Wild.

“How did you do that, Harry?” she whispered.

Harry stared at her. “You were the one who asked me to show them, Professor McGonagall.” And you’re a Transfiguration professor, were the words that he didn’t add but Minerva knew were brewing in his mind.

Minerva smiled at him and ignored the sound of Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley exclaiming over the cat. They had seen Neville’s Dapple. It must be the process of this one forming in front of their eyes that they found strange. “I mean the exact technique that you used. I know your imagination formed the cat and called it forth. But did you use a strong Will? Were the Words so important to you?”

Harry paused thoughtfully, and, for some reason, exchanged a glance with Black. Then again, if what Black said was true, he had been encouraging Harry to focus on other forms of magic besides Transfiguration. While jealous for her art, Minerva could see the need for that. Perhaps Black and Harry would both permit Minerva to pick up Transfiguration lessons again with Harry, while Black handled whatever other skills he thought Harry needed to know, like combat magic.

“I see what you mean. The Words are important because I studied Latin. And I wanted the cat to form because I wanted to show you what I could do—”

“Why?” That was a change from the Harry Minerva knew, who kept so many of his abilities a carefully-guarded secret.

He looked at her in much the same way as the cat was doing. “Because you asked, professor.”

He has changed. But so much is still the same. Minerva tucked away the sense of a dangerous power and added, “But for you, most of the art is in the Wild.”

“Yes. That’s why I couldn’t improve my object-to-object Transfiguration, Professor. I can only mostly do animals.”

Minerva kept herself from smiling, because she knew Harry well enough to know he would take it the wrong way. His body was abristle now with expectation. He thought she would scold him, and try to get him to do things he didn’t want to, and make him equally expert in all branches of Transfiguration simply because she wanted him to be.

But while Minerva still might not understand Harry’s facility with Transfiguration completely, only a fool would deny that he could do certain things beautifully. She nodded. “Then we must teach you a different way.”

“Professor?”

“Teaching the Wild is difficult, sometimes useless, for theoretical reasons that I suspect you know already.” Minerva paused in expectation.

“Because no one feels it in the same way, and some people can’t feel it at all,” Harry said back, sounding like the textbook. Well, she had probably used exactly those words in the past. If Harry didn’t memorize the textbook, he probably memorized her.

Minerva nodded. “It’s hard enough to motivate someone to tame their imagination and really think about what they’re imagining and what the practical limitations of creating something, especially an animal, are. It would become impossible if I also tried to get students to feel the exact same Wild as I do.

“But for a student who already focuses most of his magic through the Wild, that’s a different story. I can teach you a few techniques that will help you feel the same kind of life energy I do. And you can try practicing joint Transfigurations with me. That may improve your ability with objects, because I have more experience at performing that kind of spell than you do, and it might allow me to become better with animals.”

Harry blinked, and blinked again. “But I thought you were already good at turning things into animals, Professor.”

“I can’t make my Transfigurations permanent, the way you can,” Minerva told him softly. “I would very much like to learn how to do that, Harry.”

Harry sat there and blinked some more. Minerva held his gaze. She didn’t fear to. It was nothing less than the truth. Harry could fear the lies adults fed him, and Minerva would even encourage that behavior when she thought it would keep him safer, but he would find no lies in her. She meant every word she said.

*

I don’t know exactly what’s going on. But I want to know.

Neville watched both Professor McGonagall and Harry closely. Ron was watching the cat instead, but in the way that meant he was trying to figure his way through an unexpectedly difficult trap that his chess partner had almost trapped him in. And Hermione was still muttering Transfiguration theories to herself and pointing her wand at the new cat, which responded by hissing.

Dapple hissed back.

I don’t know anything about the Wild. What does it mean that Harry can use it? Why does Professor McGonagall want to help him so much?

It hurt, a little, to see Professor McGonagall smiling at Harry the way she had never smiled at Neville. Neville thought Professor McGonagall was the one person who could stand up to Gran if she wanted to. And she was the Gryffindor Head of House. That her favorite student was a Ravenclaw stung a little.

But Neville bit his lip, and reminded himself that Harry had been through a lot in the last few weeks, and Professor McGonagall had even thought he might be dead. It only made sense that she would be concerned about Harry and want to train him more. Neville wanted to train alongside him and make sure he was safe.

So he listened, and tried to discover even more.

*

Harry turned to Black. He was the one who would have to make the final decision on Granger and Weasley remaining. He had looked at Professor McGonagall with neutral eyes, at least. And Harry could make his own decision on that. Even if Black disagreed with the one he made, he couldn’t actually force Harry to do anything.

Black caught his eye and nodded once. Harry spoke to Professor McGonagall while he listened to Black discussing things with the Gryffindors.

“I’d like to learn with you, professor. It’s just, how would we do it when you have to be at Hogwarts, and I can’t be there?”

“There’s always letters, Harry…”

“You understand why I want to have you here, Longbottom. But bringing your friends argues you can’t keep secrets very well. Why did you invite them along, when you ought to have known this was a very private meeting?”

“Because I’m actually the one who’s in the most danger of betraying you.” Harry knew from the sound of Neville’s voice that he would be shivering, but he would also meet Black’s eyes. “Professor Dumbledore is more likely to read my mind than theirs. Or Professor Snape. So I’m the one who could tell them more.”

“But exposing the secret to more people makes it more dangerous. And what happens if your friends don’t approve of what we’re doing? Would they betray us to the Order of the Phoenix?”

“I’d like it if we could meet for lessons, too,” Harry told Professor McGonagall. It was time to explore something Black had told him, that people wouldn’t get upset if he told them what he would like. It didn’t mean they could do it, but they might at least be inspired to try.

“We can do that,” said Professor McGonagall. “At least, we can meet through the Floo. That would let me see what lessons you’re working on, and I think I could see the Wild operate even through flames.” She smiled hopefully at him.

Harry cocked his head. “So you want to learn from me, too, Professor? You think I could teach you more than just making your Transfigurations permanent?”

“Even that would be something wondrous, and something that would probably take me a long time to master. I don’t know the Wild as well as you do. But there are definitely more things I want to learn after that.” Professor McGonagall hesitated a moment, then reached out and squeezed Harry’s hand. “I can’t envision wanting to stop learning from you, Harry.”

“I won’t tell anyone anything you don’t want me to, mate.”

“And Professor Dumbledore is a great man. I mean, would it be so bad to tell him?”

“You don’t listen,” said Black, in a voice that told Harry how tired he already was of speaking to Granger. Or maybe both Granger and Weasley. Weasley made promises of eternal loyalty, but all Dumbledore had to do was glance at him, and he could read the truth out of his head. “No, we won’t tell him, because he wants to bring Harry under his control. Possibly use him as a weapon. Even kill him.”

“Why would he want to do that?”

“Because he fears what he doesn’t understand, little witch. He always has. He thinks the Dark Arts are a complete and unmitigated evil, which means anyone who uses them even once is suspect for a lifetime. He thinks wizards are more dangerous than Muggles, and so he doesn’t take any threat Muggles present seriously. He doesn’t try to understand opposite political viewpoints from his own. He destroys them.”

“Excuse me for just wanting to be included in the wizarding world! V-Voldemort wouldn’t do that.”

Professor McGonagall caught Harry’s eye, and nodded a little towards the Gryffindors. Harry nodded. He thought they’d said what they needed to, which meant he could attend fully to the other conversation.

He turned to look at Black just as he cast a spell Harry had never seen before. The air in the middle of the circle of seats swirled and turned grey. Harry leaned forwards. He had read about Dementors, and he thought he was seeing them now, darting around a building that could only be a conjured image of Azkaban.

Black homed in quickly on several cells. Harry didn’t recognize the white-haired witches and wizards who lay in them. He didn’t think they could be Death Eaters, though, or Lord Dudders would have broken them out with the rest.

“Julius Rosier.” Black spoke with his eyes fixed on the images, not looking away or at Granger, even though she had her mouth open to ask questions. “Henrietta Crouch-Kellen. Thomas Lestrange—a bastard son, in fact. Deirdre Cyan. All people accused of being Death Eaters during the last war, and imprisoned without a trial.”

Black flicked his wand, and the image vanished. He turned to a pale Granger. “In his position as head of the Wizengamot, Dumbledore could have demanded trials for them. He didn’t. I know Rosier, Lestrange, and Crouch-Kellen had opposed some of his policies in the past. I’m not sure about Cyan, but I know she was considered a practitioner of the Dark Arts.

“He left them to rot. Maybe they were guilty. But the point is that I don’t know. No one knows. Dumbledore could have found out, and he didn’t bother. You should think about that, and whether or not Dumbledore would sacrifice you for his goals if it became politically expedient. The answer, by the way, is yes.”

Black leaned forwards with his hands braced on his knees. “I wanted to discuss a political alliance with Longbottom, who’s necessary, and Minerva, who has a good reason to be wary of Dumbledore after the way he treated a prize student of hers. I didn’t ask for you, and I don’t know what you can contribute to the alliance. If your only idea is telling Dumbledore, then I’ll Obliviate you and you can go back to Hogwarts and think you were studying in the library for the past hour. And the same thing applies to you, Weasley,” he added, turning his head a little to look at the other wide-eyed Gryffindor.

There was silence. Harry was tense, thinking Neville might back out because Black had threatened his friends. Harry didn’t know what he would do, in that case. Neville was his friend, but he wouldn’t trot tamely back into Hogwarts and surrender to Dumbledore to appease Granger.

After a moment, Granger swallowed and said, “I’ll listen. I’ll—make up my mind before I do anything.”

Black watched her for a second, maybe gauging her sincerity in a way Harry didn’t see, before he nodded and said, “Then we can get on with the talk.”

Harry watched Black thoughtfully as he started outlining the plans he and Harry had come up with. He wondered if Black might have a better idea of the prisoners’ guilt than anyone else here. After all, he’d been a Death Eater. He might not know who every other Death Eater was, but he could probably make good guesses.

And if there were innocent people in Azkaban…

It might make a weapon for them, later.

Black glanced at Harry, eyes glinting darkly, and Harry knew his thoughts tended in the same direction. Harry just raised an eyebrow in response. In this, at least, they were of the same mind.

Chapter Text

“What Death Eaters will you take with you, Severus?”

Severus kept his head bowed and tried not to breathe in the odor of aconite that hung around his Lord. Lately, it was there all the time. He thought the Dark Lord was researching certain potions that could give a powerful protective effect for precious artifacts and books—if one could reach the final stages. The aconite, along with other ingredients, was so powerfully poisonous that most of the people who tried to brew them ended up succumbing to the fumes.

“I will take only one, my Lord. Walden Macnair.”

There was a long silence. The Dark Lord was displeased. On the other hand, it wasn’t the sort of displeasure that immediately exploded in pain curses, so Severus silently balanced on his heels and waited for him to speak.

“Why Macnair?”

Severus breathed again. That he had asked about the identity of the Death Eater instead of why Severus was only taking one argued that he was, at least, willing to listen. “Because he has experience with physical weapons, my Lord. I want to create a few diversions before the final trap that centers on Potter’s parents. It will be more frightening for the victims if he uses an axe instead of his wand.”

The Dark Lord made a sound like a snake’s dried skin rasping along the floor. Severus recognized it as laughter, but it was still an effort to keep his face still. “You do not think that others will suspect Macnair once they see axe wounds?”

“Is he the only wizard in the world who uses one of them, my Lord?” Severus asked mildly. “Of course, Macnair will have alibis for all the nights that I need him.”

“What alibis will those be?”

Severus accepted the extra responsibility easily enough, although he knew that the Dark Lord would have been less than impressed if he’d offered to devise those excuses. The difference between those who died and those who survived in the Death Eaters’ ranks was having three different plans ready for every contingency. “That he was dosed under the Draught of Living Death, my Lord.”

The Dark Lord leaned so slowly back that he reminded Severus, not for the first time, of a snake moving in water. “Then explain to me how you will effect that, Severus.”

“Gladly, my Lord.” From the slight hiss to the side of the throne, that was the limit of the insolence Severus could use at the moment. Severus inclined his head, reminded himself to steady his breathing and appear calm, and continued, “I plan to stage an attack on Macnair, one that should also help with the suspicions in the Ministry that he belongs to us. He will be left, apparently, under the Draught of Living Death, and I can assure you that no Potions master exists in the Ministry who can brew the antidote quickly. That will be an alibi for the attacks.”

The Dark Lord considered that for some time. Then he said, “A doppelgänger, of course.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Severus was skilled enough to conjure the body that would look like Macnair and need do nothing but lie still and breathe softly. The simpler a doppelganger’s actions needed to be, the easier it was to create one.

Unlike some, I do not specialize in Transfiguration, but that is no reason to limit myself.

“I am well pleased, Severus.” The Dark Lord sat back up and spoke briskly now, in the way that told Severus his plan had been accepted, although of course the Dark Lord would not be crude enough to say so. “You will go and put this plan into action at once. And make sure that you bring me Potter alive. You said he was a close friend to Longbottom.”

Severus shivered as he stood. Such hatred permeated that one word that he couldn’t help it. “Yes, my Lord, he is.”

“Good,” said the Dark Lord, his eyes distant. “I will want to have Weasley and Granger before the end, of course. But another friend will do now—just as well.”

Severus turned and strode away. He kept his face and mind still as he moved, and did not allow himself to consider whether he was going to play a part in killing his best friend’s son.

He would not let it come to that. He only knew, for sure, that Potter had to be punished. For hurting Severus himself, for somehow guarding such incredible secrets in his mind, for helping land Lily in St. Mungo’s. If he had not been alive and a target of the Dark Lord’s wrath for the same incredible reason that Longbottom was, Lily would be well and laughing.

I will decide what to do with the brat once I have him in my possession.

*

“Do you always open an owl the minute you receive it?”

Harry looked up from his side of the table, where a small owl had just fluttered to a stop in front of him and extended its leg. Black was watching him with a faintly disgusted expression. Since he was the one who had just smothered his eggs with what Harry thought was ketchup, Harry didn’t see how he had any room to complain.

“I’m casting the detection spells,” Harry said patiently. “And you didn’t look out the window.”

For a long moment, Black seemed like he wouldn’t look out the window, just to be contrary, but he did a minute later, and grunted. Yar was waiting on a branch in the garden, delicately balanced, her head bowed so she could keep a single glinting eye on the owl. If it tried something, it was going to get a face full of talons.

“Very well,” said Black, and spread something that looked like a mixture of bread and marmalade on a piece of toast. “Perhaps creating animals that only serve you has some merit to it.”

Harry was tired of arguing about that particular thing, so he didn’t answer. He cast the final detection spell, and the letter remained simply a piece of paper without enchantments on it, while the owl was still an owl. Harry took the letter and opened it with the sides of his hand, holding it so that anything that sprayed out of the envelope wouldn’t hit him in the face.

“I take it back. There’s justified paranoia, and then there’s the simple kind.”

Harry thought about explaining how someone had sent Bubotuber pus to Granger in an envelope last year, when they suspected her of dating Neville, but he didn’t see why Black needed the explanation. He spread the letter out and read it.

Then he read it again. The handwriting was unfamiliar and the contents inexplicable.

You will be responsible for the fate of your parents if you cannot prevent an attack on them. The disappearance of the Lestranges has been noted. The Dark Lord is enraged at the loss of his most faithful servants, particularly when the people those servants were condemned to Azkaban for tormenting are still alive. He intends to attack St. Mungo’s at midnight on the first of November, when most of the Healers will be away attending Halloween celebrations.

The note was unsigned.

Harry laid it down in front of him and looked at it thoughtfully. It was either a Death Eater or someone who had appreciated their goals, given the way they called Lord Dudders “the Dark Lord.” That didn’t argue much for the message’s sincerity.

“Harry?”

No matter how long he looked at the words, Harry couldn’t reach more than the conclusion he already had from the letter. He shrugged and passed it over to Black.

Black read it once, then again. Then a twisted smile crossed his face, and he laid his wand beside the letter and whispered an incantation Harry couldn’t make out. He thought Black was probably keeping his voice low on purpose, the way he often did when he cast a Dark Arts spell in front of Harry.

Harry didn’t see the point, since he’d never told Black that the problem with him was his Dark Arts. But he kept his peace, waiting to see what the spell did.

Dark flames poured from Black’s wand. When they touched the letter, they changed color to twisting grey, with black serpents caught inside them. Black continued to watch them. Two of the serpents finally rose to the top of the flames and twined together.

Black laughed, but Harry could see his eyes and knew it was as insincere as the warning. “I knew it.”

“You know who wrote it?”

“You’re smart when you want to be.” But Black’s voice held no teasing, for once. His eyes were locked on the letter, his fingers tight and quick as they clenched on the edge of the table. “Yes. When I used to communicate with other Death Eaters on a regular basis, they used charms to disguise their handwriting. We used them, rather. We didn’t want to be implicated if someone intercepted the letter.”

He looked up, his eyes still blank. “The charm doesn’t make the handwriting distinctive. Anyone could have written this. We were supposed to use code words to signal our identity. But I got fooled by one Death Eater who wanted to trap me—well, it doesn’t matter. After that, I developed a charm that would tell me who had written the letter out of a limited number of candidates. If it didn’t work, that just meant someone who wasn’t on my short list wrote it.”

“Does it work by showing a symbol for each person in the flames?”

That brought some of the life Harry was used to back to Black’s eyes. He cocked his head and raked his eyes over Harry’s face. Then he nodded once. “Sirius would have been proud of you, you know,” he added. “You would have been a good one for setting up and figuring out pranks, with a brain like that.”

Harry had to pause to soak in the praise, which was at least part of the reason Black had said the words, he was sure. Nonetheless, he pressed on. “So who does the symbol of snakes entwining show?”

Black’s mouth twisted to the side. “Snape.”

Harry did blink. He would have thought any of the other rumored Death Eaters before him. Snape was more likely to be helping Dumbledore in his search, probably, than trying to trap Harry. Unless this was his way to trying to find him, and he just hoped Harry would rush into hospital and he could scoop him up there.

After a moment’s thought, Harry decided it didn’t matter. Whether Snape was working for Lord Dudders or Dumbledore, the idea of the trap was the same.

“So we need to find some way to impale him on his own hook.”

Black’s eyes returned from whatever distance they’d been staring into, and his mouth was twisted with something like humor as he stared at Harry. “What a darling child you are,” he said. “With a great taste for metaphor.”

Harry shook his head, not understanding what Black was going on about this time. “I just think that we need to find a way to take him down. It doesn’t matter who he’s working for. He threatened my parents.”

“He probably did it hoping you would rush off in terror,” said Black, settling back into his chair. “I’m curious why you’re not.”

Harry blinked. “If part of the trap is actually trying to hurt them, then I won’t allow it.”

“But you aren’t raging.”

“What’s the point of showing the rage? Snape’s not here to see it and be frightened out of doing something like this again.”

Black tossed his head back, laughing aloud. Harry continued to stare at him, and knew he probably looked stupid. However, he honestly didn’t know what Black’s problem was. Harry didn’t think it was a particularly feral or animal thing to say. An animal would probably be all about striking as soon as they could, or wouldn’t understand the concept of Snape writing a letter that tried to trap Harry in any case.

“You are a charming child,” said Black. “By which I mean practical. I imagine my mother would have liked you.”

“You said your mother was mad, so that’s not a compliment.”

“Before she went mad.” For a moment, Black looked wistful, and then he shook his head and stood up. “She was intensely practical. But yes, we do need to decide what we’ll do. Do you want to take Minerva or any of our other allies with us?”

Harry waited, thinking about it, then shrugged. “No. It would probably be hard for Professor McGonagall to get away from the school.”

“But not hard for Snape?”

“He probably comes and goes a lot,” said Harry indifferently. “I think Dumbledore would have to be stupid not to know he’s a Death Eater, so he probably thinks he’s reformed and he can trust him completely.”

“And you think he’s not reformed? That he’s actually working for the Dark Lord?”

“The motive doesn’t matter. We know what it is. To trap me. I’m just saying that either Dumbledore knows or he trusts Snape enough to let him get away with something like this, so we don’t have to worry about Dumbledore watching Snape the way he would Professor McGonagall.” Harry wondered why he had to use so many words to explain a conspiracy to Black. He was a Black. Conspiracy ought to be his lifeblood, at least from the histories of the family Harry had read in the library.

Black ended up smiling a little wistfully at him. “I agree with you, at least to the extent that we need to take account of Severus’s motives. But I hope you won’t prevent me from coming with you.”

“No. If only to avoid harm to my animals.” Harry had trained Yar carefully, but she wouldn’t be maneuvering at her best within the confines of a hospital. And Cross wasn’t as battle-trained as she was, and Harry had no idea what Spellmaker was capable of yet. She sometimes seemed inclined to obey him, and sometimes not. Harry wasn’t about to trust her against Snape until he knew.

“There’s that practicality, again.” Black stilled for a moment, watching Harry, and Harry stilled out of habit from being around dangerous adults. Most of the time, Black was always in motion, pacing back and forth and waving his hands and shouting. When he did something out of character, it was probably dangerous, the way it always had been when Uncle Vernon did.

“I don’t think I could have come to care for a child who had none of the Slytherin virtues,” Black said quietly. “No matter how impressively he managed his own defenses.”

Harry blinked at him. Then he said, “But you kept telling me that I didn’t have anything like that. That I was a feral animal who would probably be better off dead.”

“I never mentioned that. Only that you would die if you kept up your present course.”

Harry shook his head a little. He didn’t know what to say, because he had been certain of the sense that lay behind Black’s words, and it was disorienting to be told he had misunderstood. However, he was certain it wasn’t worth arguing about.

“What kind of counter-ambush are we planning?”

Black studied him some more, than gave a noiseless sigh and nodded. “If that’s the way you want to handle it,” he said, which made no sense again. That had been the way they were discussing handling it, before Black’s strange mention of Slytherin virtues had interfered. “I think we should assume that Snape will have at least one other person with him. Most likely a Death Eater loyal to the Dark Lord.”

“Why?” Harry asked in interest. He hadn’t been able to discount the theory that Snape was acting for Dumbledore; he wondered what theory Black had that let him see through the deceptions swarming around Snape.

“Because even if Snape intends to take you back to Hogwarts, he would plan this thing under the auspices of the Dark Lord, for fear of what would happen if he did not and it was found out. And the Dark Lord trusts none of his Death Eaters to act alone except on missions that might kill them.”

Harry considered that, and then nodded. It was nice having an ally who knew the Death Eaters, he had to admit, as deeply obnoxious as it was that Black couldn’t trust Harry to work on his own. “Then how does that change our strategy?”

Black’s smile was as sly as the ones Harry had seen in pictures of Sirius. “Trust one who knows the layout of St. Mungo’s when I say that we can change things so as to turn their trap back on them.”

*

Minerva smiled as she unrolled the first scroll Harry had sent her. She’d asked him for both an explanation of why the Wild worked so well for him and why he had so much difficulty with object-to-object Transfiguration. He’d done the second one first, because he said he would have more trouble writing about the Wild.

Minerva didn’t mind. She was just thrilled that Harry was communicating with her again, and even sending letters to Neville’s grandmother that she would then redirect to him, filled with suggestions for spells that Neville’s Defense group could learn. The more they could offer friendship and caring as a lure to Harry, the less likely he was to turn away and become consumed by whatever goals had driven him out of Hogwarts in the first place.

And someday, I’ll get him to tell me about those, too.

The scroll talked about a little of the theory on Transfiguration and imagination that Minerva was already familiar with. She cut through that part impatiently, looking for the one where Harry’s original thoughts began.

And there it was.

I think objects are less interesting than animals. And they can’t help me much in my goals. The magic only works for me when I’m creating gifts for people who like objects. I can create gifts for people I care about or want to please.

Minerva let out a little sigh. No saying which category she fell into for Harry, then, if it was true of both.

On the other hand, perhaps you actually fall into both.

Minerva read through the rest of the scroll, nodding. Based on that opening, Harry integrated his explanation with the theory he’d already quoted, and Minerva had to admit it made sense. Harry could imagine an animal having an independent life beyond him (no matter how little that was actually true of his Transfigured creatures). He couldn’t imagine much purpose for an object.

If I had to create a knife to defend myself with immediately, maybe I could do that. But most of the time, I just prefer to change an object into an animal. Either it’s going to help me or I’m going to get it out of the way in battle.

Minerva underlined that last sentence. Harry had told her about Transfiguring Bellatrix Lestrange’s wand into a cat. She supposed that it didn’t matter to Harry what the cat did after that, as long as it didn’t leap on him and try to claw his eyes out.

And made with the Wild, could it even do such a thing? When Minerva came to think things over, she had to admit there was honestly little difference between Harry’s Transfigurations and the ones she made to help her or show off to students. They were still for a purpose, not natural creatures. Harry’s just lasted longer.

Perhaps it isn’t so horrible after all that he creates animals to be loyal to him or other people, as long as he can be conscious of what he’s doing.

Minerva finished annotating the scroll and glanced at the clock. There were a few books in the Hogwarts library she wanted to complement her studies of Harry’s methods, and she doubted Madam Pince would have closed the library yet. She liked to linger among the smells of old ink and paper as much as Minerva had when she was still a student, and her living quarters were nearby.

Minerva did cast a Disillusionment Charm on herself as she walked, though. Just because she was out on another errand didn’t mean she couldn’t catch students sneaking about after curfew.

She had almost reached the main staircase that led from her office to the library when she saw a dark shape gliding beneath her. Minerva narrowed her eyes and hurried a little. A student, of course, but on the other hand, it had looked too tall for a student…

And it was. When Minerva rounded the corner and found the shadow standing in the middle of the corridor, casting charms on himself, her glasses almost slid off her face in her shock. It was Severus.

Going where in the middle of the night?

Of course, it could be a mission for Albus. Minerva knew as well as anyone that Severus spent some time on missions that might include spying on You-Know-Who, and it could be more than awkward if a student saw or questioned his preparations.

But with the instincts of a Gryffindor prefect who had once had to avoid more than her share of Slytherin pranks, Minerva thought this was something more than that. Severus would normally make the preparations outside the school or in his office, not in the middle of a corridor. And he was capable of setting most students to the rightabout with a scowl.

Now, he was also checking the inside of one pocket, and he held up a glass vial to the light for a moment before he cast the Disillusionment Charm. Minerva wanted to gag when she smelled the fumes that leaked to her nose.

That was a drug that acted as a sleep aid. Minerva narrowed her eyes. Madam Pomfrey used it in the hospital wing, and most of the time, she would have assumed Severus was taking it there. But now he was a shimmer of motion in the air, since he had cast the Disillusionment Charm, and he was walking briskly towards the exit.

Why would he need that potion for associating with Death Eaters? They would use spells to Stun someone and wake them up again.

There was probably a reasonable explanation. You-Know-Who could want it to torture someone in a new and inventive way. Or Albus could have asked Severus to test a new potion for the sake of the Order of the Phoenix.

But Minerva still went after him even though it might not be any of her business. Some of her instincts were still banging their wings against the edges of her skull, and even if she was wrong, she would rather be wrong and chastised than right and of no help.

If he has to torture Muggles or something like that, perhaps I could even stage a rescue without compromising his cover.

Severus did glance over his shoulder, once. Minerva paused and let him get ahead of her, around a corner, and then she concentrated and assumed her Animagus form without releasing the Disillusionment Charm, stretching luxuriously as her newly expanded vision revealed scurrying mice and scents poured into her nose.

She followed Severus with an even softer tread. She could Apparate in this form, if she had to, but she would much prefer to get so close to him that she could lean against his robes and be taken along. She could easily spring aside once they arrived at the destination—Death Eater or otherwise—and she could hide.

Then the real fun can begin.

Chapter Text

“Give me a moment to do the unraveling.”

Harry waited patiently as Black attacked the protective spells on the hospital with a series of muttered charms or jinxes. Harry didn’t know the difference yet, and for this particular strategy, he didn’t need to care. He watched, instead, as small sparks of light dancing on the walls and pavement around St. Mungo’s began to melt away one by one.

The unraveling would only last a minute, Black had warned him; more than that and they risked alerting other alarms primed to note the absence of protections. Harry began counting under his breath the instant the last lights disappeared.

“Now.” Black sped forwards and leaped lightly across the invisible line that he seemed to have decided was the strongest concentration part of the protective spells. It might even have been, Harry thought, as he silently ran after. He wasn’t about to argue with Black if he said it was. It just wasn’t something Harry could sense.

Long before his count finished, they were inside St. Mungo’s, crouching by the reception desk. Harry opened his pockets without waiting for Black to assure him it was okay. Mice poured out and flowed over to hide in the darkest corners. Cross leaped down from his right shoulder and followed. Harry reached up and touched his left shoulder, where Yar sat on a leather bone protector.

Surprisingly silently for an eagle, Yar unfolded herself and flew down the corridor, and towards the stairs. Harry followed. The letter was right. The hospital seemed almost deserted, and they would probably hear any Healers coming long before they saw them.

“Remember that you can’t go charging in the minute you see your parents,” Black breathed behind Harry, and touched his shoulder.

Harry turned around and stared. What kind of child did Black think he was, anyway? “I know that,” he said. “The ambush might take place right at the door of my parents’ room, and trap me if I did that.”

Black’s mouth crooked as if he was trying not to laugh. “Right.”

He probably thinks I’m a normal child, Harry thought, and began to move after Yar towards the stairs, listening for the noises of her wings. Nothing had interrupted them yet. They couldn’t control themselves if they saw their parents in danger, so they would run right up and into whoever was going to ambush them there.

But if Black had started thinking Harry was normal, there was probably no hope for him, either. Harry decided that Black should get out and meet other people more, and then maybe he would have a normal life instead of being obsessed with Harry.

The corridor at the top of the stairs turned to the right to approach the Janus Thickey Ward, and to the left towards the Spell Damage Ward. Harry remembered that from coming here with Professor McGonagall, the way he remembered everything about his visits to his parents. He thought the place was too wide, without enough doors and corners, for an ambush, but he sent mice running down both corridors to make sure anyway.

They came rustling back that all was clear, and Harry cocked his head. Was it only that there was no good place for an ambush here? Or had the letter been real, the warning not feigned, and his parents really were in danger?

“I can see what you’re thinking, you know,” said Black, and actually shoved past him, rude and loud, to make his way towards the Janus Thickey Ward. “My charm wouldn’t have worked on the letter if it wasn’t Snape writing to you.” He paused and turned to look at Harry, his face insolent. “And where would Snape have heard about this plot against your parents?”

“The Death Eaters,” Harry said, but he knew his voice was low and uncertain.

“And he chose to tell you when he’s never cared for you or wanted to help you before?”

Harry shook his head silently. If anything, Snape would want revenge when he could remove the Memory Charm and realize that Harry was the one who had destroyed his potions and hurt him in the battle in Lupin’s rooms.

“Exactly,” said Black, as if reading his thoughts again. “Now, let’s not have any more silly worries that there won’t be an ambush or that we’re doing the wrong thing. That’s an undeniable downside of you becoming more human.” He sniffed at Harry and led the way down the corridor with a long stride.

Harry paused, wondering if he was strange for taking comfort in Black’s words, then shrugged and followed. They had come this far, and there was no reason to discard their carefully-made plans without more hard proof than Harry had.

And if it came to that…

Harry touched the robe pocket closest to his heart. He had sculpted a secret weapon when he was alone in his room, come to that.

*

“Where is Potter? I thought you said he’d be here by now, Snape.”

Severus closed his eyes and wished that he could rub his forehead. But Macnair was one of the most volatile of the Death Eaters. Severus had requested him for this mission for several reasons, but one of them, carefully unstated, was that he could leave Macnair to take the fall without regret and with plenty of justification should something go wrong.

“He will be here soon, Walden,” Severus said, and shifted his position carefully. They were just outside the Potters’ room, under a complex mix of charms and defensive spells that would blur the sight of them as well as the sound, the smell—just in case Potter had some of his animals or the werewolf with him—and the sheer sense of their magic. But there was no reason to take stupid chances. “It is not yet the time stated in the letter.”

“You should have told him to be here earlier, Snape.”

Severus made no reply to this one, only strengthening, with a wave of his wand, the charm that would muffle their voices. If Walden spoiled this ambush because of just talking, then Severus would gut him, and enjoy it.

The silence around them stayed quiet and neutral. Severus could almost lull himself into thinking nothing would disturb it, including the few Healers who had been left out of the Halloween celebrations to go on rounds. But his newly-recovered memories of the battles in Lupin’s quarters made him fiercely alert.

Potter must not be allowed to get away with humiliating him twice.

And he must fall into Severus’s hands. It would be a kindness to Lily as well as a kindness to his own pride. Albus wanted to use the boy, the Dark Lord to use, torture, and kill him. And he endlessly risked capture if he was on his own. He would be safer in Severus’s hands than anywhere else.

If he happened to pay for the damage he had caused in Severus’s hands…

Lily would still understand. Severus could never ask her, but he might be able to go, stand by her bedside, tell her, and imagine her response in the surrounding silence.

Severus glanced at the open door of the Potters’ room. Knowing she was there was a constant distraction and torment. He had already created a rippling silvery shield to ensure that no spell could get into the room if they happened to erupt into a full-scale battle.

The only way that would happen was if Lupin was with Potter, Severus was sure. Otherwise, Potter would attempt to flee. But it was better to be prepared, to guard his love from all manner of trouble.

“What’s that?”

Walden’s words made Severus snap around and pay attention to the corridor once more. There was a small shadow near the entrance where it turned to join one of the narrow staircases leading up to Healers’ offices.

Severus wanted to sneer when he realized it was a mouse. Of course Potter had brought his animals with him. They were the only trustworthy allies he had. But the spells Severus had cast on himself and Walden should keep them safe from even a rodent’s keen senses, and Severus watched with supreme indifference as the mouse moved closer.

It did sit up on its haunches when it was close to them and twitch its whiskers. Walden gave an irritable little snarl, but he hushed it when Severus nudged him in the ribs with his elbow. No sense pushing the limits of the spells when they could just as well be quiet.

If the mouse sensed them, it certainly gave no sign. It explored back and forth, running along the wall and even into the middle of the corridor as if looking for food, and circling in a broad ring that didn’t come close to brushing the bottom of their robes, the one unforeseen contingency Severus thought might occur. Then the mouse turned and headed back the other way, with a long swish of its tail.

Severus settled his wand arm comfortably against the wall and waited again. Potter would come around the corner soon, and Severus had dozens of spells prepared for all sorts of things. Albus said Potter had an eagle. Well, Severus could deal even with that.

And then Potter would pay. For being there on the night that the Lestranges had tortured his parents, and being part of the reason they had. For living when all that Severus loved best in Lily had died. For continuing his father’s vendetta.

He would pay, but not die. Severus considered himself a compassionate man. Even if Severus had to disable Walden and make sure that his spells went wide, Potter would live.

He might not find that the best thing.

*

Minerva hadn’t yet changed back from her Animagus form. She sat comfortably within the circle of the spells Severus had cast that kept him, and, yes, the other Death Eater from detection by most people and animals outside the ring. She hadn’t yet decided if she should complement Harry once he began to attack or if she should begin now.

But then she saw the mouse, and recognized it for one of the little creatures Harry had had with him that night they had met in the field. It would be battle soon, and Minerva would have to make her decision.

She chose. If Severus was doing this as some sort of cover or on orders for Albus, he could simply say that he shouldn’t be blamed, because he hadn’t known she was here, and so this wouldn’t affect his cover with You-Know-Who. If he was doing this for his own personal vengeance, then Minerva had an interest in stopping him.

She backed up, edging into the shadows that extended around a corner from the low lights that St. Mungo’s kept burning all night long. Then she dashed forwards, the soft sounds of her paws covered by the other Death Eater’s noisy breathing, and leaped lightly into the air.

She came down on the Death Eater’s shoulders, and whipped one paw across his face, ducking the clumsy swing of one arm. She hissed and spat, and felt his spell go past her, singeing her fur but not hurting her. Fighting as an Animagus, one of her biggest advantages was that all her enemies expected her to be bigger on her first attack.

Minerva’s paw did its work, and she dug her claws deep into his right eye, blinding him on that side.

His scream made her delicate ears twitch, and Minerva leaped into the air and twisted to avoid another spell, one she thought came from Severus this time. There was blood everywhere, a lot of it, and sweat, and leather from their boots.

The other great advantage of fighting as an Animagus was the keen senses and faster reflexes of an animal. Of course, when they were fighting an ordinary animal, the humans won most of the time, because they had the intelligence to compensate.

On the other hand, when there was human intelligence in an animal body…

Minerva landed, leaped again, and landed again, and leaped again, and let her momentum and her flexible spine carom her off the wall, straight back at the other Death Eater. She landed hanging on his belly, exactly where she wanted to be, and his robe was flapping open, because she had landed hard enough to knock it aside, and Minerva dug her front legs into cloth and raised her hind legs.

They came down in the raking disembowel movement that cats wouldn’t normally ever use on a human, because their instincts would deter them from seeing creatures so big as prey. But Minerva wasn’t a normal cat.

The other Death Eater shrieked. Minerva couldn’t cut all the way through to the entrails, as she would in a rabbit, but her claws were slitting flesh and muscle before they caught and she had to spring away, and the man wasn’t going to think about anything but his bloody slashes for a while.

Minerva spun on her hind legs, precise as on a Knut, and spat at Severus. He had his wand raised, but his curse halted as he stared at her.

Probably saw the spectacle markings around my eyes, Minerva thought, and bolted out of the protective circle of Severus’s spells as the other Death Eater sagged to his knees. On her way down the corridor, she shrieked and yowled for all she was worth, and few things could make as much noise as a cat determined to be heard.

Soon she heard the rush of paws coming towards her, and smelled the scent of her own kind as well as human, and the soft tempting meat of prey, and an alien avian predator that made Minerva crouch instinctively as a rush of great wings went overhead. Then she turned and ran beside the black cat that was striding with the light of battle in his eyes. He twitched his whiskers at her in welcome.

She had to flatten herself again as something leaped overhead. Her mouth gaped a little as she saw it was Harry, jumping with modified muscles in his legs around the corner. There was a roar of pain, and the mounting noises of battle.

Black wasn’t far behind, but he couldn’t match their speed as Minerva and Harry’s Cross joined the fight.

Well, he is only human, Minerva thought tolerantly, and ducked a curse.

*

Minerva. That was Minerva!

Severus had only a moment to work past the stunning realization and prepare himself for what it probably meant. His hand went into his pocket and withdrew two potions. One was a Blood-Replenisher for Walden.

The other was…special. Just for him.

He tossed the Blood-Replenishing Potion at Walden, and saw him catch it in a fumbling hand. Severus turned away with a sneer after that. Frankly, he couldn’t be bothered with those who couldn’t take care of themselves after such a start.

He lifted the other potion to his lips.

Something winged and wild and overwhelming swept around the corner, and Severus ducked the talons that he thought were reaching for his eyes. Too late, he realized he should have thought about how devious the little Potter bastard was.

The talons closed, casually, around his right hand, the one that held the potion.

Severus shrieked in agony as he felt the potions vial splinter and the glass sink into his palm. And then more than that, it was more than that, it was pressure unimaginable severing his tendons and driving through skin and crushing bone, and he sagged to his knees, staring at the ruin of his right hand, understanding in a second that he wouldn’t get any use out of it again without immediate Healing magic…

The fucking eagle screamed in triumph above him, and swirled on to Walden. Severus couldn’t see what happened next, couldn’t look away from the ruin of his hand, but he could guess, from the pathetic whimpering moan and the sound of wood snapping. A wand, it was Walden’s wand.

Potter was coming, and Severus and Walden had lost before the battle had even begun.

And then a rage so thick and deep that he had never felt its like except when James Potter humiliated him in front of Lily reared up in Severus. He reached out and deliberately picked up his wand in his left hand. He sat back on his heels and readied himself.

Potter came leaping towards him, as he had been leaping in that battle in Lupin’s rooms that he had taken the memory of away from Severus.

Severus looked at him and spoke the single word that most tingled and most burned in him. “Crucio.”

*

Pain took Harry out of the air.

He was flying one moment, he was falling the next. And long before his back actually hit the floor, he could feel the cramping madness in his muscles. They were jerking out of control, no longer his own, as if his legs were trying to transform themselves back into the human ones that he had been born with.

And then the agony.

Harry rolled to his side and tried to stand. It was impossible. Someone was stabbing bars of iron through his ribs. Someone was kicking his ribs in. Someone was preying on his heart, his liver, everything that mattered, with tongues of fire.

He knew he would go mad. He knew it, in a way he had never known it before. He could feel the panic burning right behind the flames, because all he could see, with his eyes screwed shut with the pain, was the blank look in his parents’ faces, who had been tortured with this same curse, and he knew would join them soon.

He heard, as if from a distance, a yowl, and then Snape’s voice, so blank that it was like hearing it from a further distance still.

“Stay where you are, Minerva. Tell the damn cat to stay where he is, too. And the mice. And Black.” Snape’s voice faltered for a second. “Come any closer, and I’m going to hit him with the Killing Curse. He’s not Longbottom. He’ll not survive it.”

Harry tried to think, he tried so hard to think, but the pain was ripping him apart. He knew he couldn’t stand more of it. He knew he couldn’t go mad like his parents, because then he would be useless in freeing them.

And he knew he couldn’t die, because the same thing would happen.

Those truths grounded him. He didn’t have to think about those truths, because he knew that they were so self-evident. He stretched out a finger and twitched it, and then managed to flatten his hand against the floor. He heard his claws digging in, screeching on the floorboards.

Snape was snarling something else. Harry paid no attention. The relevant facts were that the pain continued, and he wasn’t dead yet.

He flattened his other hand. At the same time, he flattened his feet, and a small action formed in his head, a sequence of images he had once seen in a book he read on birds forming in his head.

He looked up. Yar clung to a rafter, looking down at him with those strange, wild eyes. Harry tried to whisper something to her, but the pain controlled his mouth too much. And he couldn’t spring up and kick Snape as he’d been planning on.

But he looked from Yar’s head to Snape’s shoulders, and he hoped that would be enough.

Yar stooped. Snape was still saying something, but he must have heard the sound of her wings. She didn’t fly silently like an owl did.

On the other hand, Yar was so fast and heavy that Snape couldn’t stop her. She smashed into Snape and bound to him, feet to prey, wings mantling out, her screech so loud that Harry’s ears hurt from the echoes.

Snape shrieked, and the pain stopped.

Harry kicked himself up from the floor immediately, and took a hop forwards, and whirled on his heel to lash out. He could feel the power coiling in his muscles, how it felt so good to move, how they trembled but that was more than enough, he could overcome that easily enough, when he thought how Snape might have killed his parents—

He kicked.

There was the sound of a bone breaking.

Yar wasn’t letting go of Snape, even as he screamed. Harry knew she wanted to feed. She had done as he asked, had attacked the way he’d trained her to, and the reward of that was supposed to be food. But Snape was in bad enough shape that Harry didn’t think he would survive if Yar tried to eat his eyes or throat, and they needed some answers as to who he was here for and who he was working with.

Moving quickly enough to hold her attention but not to make her scream at him, Harry stooped down and picked up a shard of glass from the floor. It had blood on it. Maybe Snape had been holding it when he was attacked, or the other Death Eater. Harry moved it slowly back and forth, and Yar gave the snake-bob of her head that meant she was interested.

Harry concentrated as hard as he could and Transfigured it into a rabbit. Then he threw it up into the air, and it began to run down the corridor, bolting in sheer terror.

Yar released Snape and was airborne before Harry could comprehend it. Then she slammed into the rabbit, and this time she was feeding before it completed its tumble to the floor. Harry could see the kicks of the rabbit’s legs and knew it was still alive even as Yar ripped into the fur and the meat.

A soft spell went past Harry, and he turned to see that Black had drawn his wand and killed the rabbit. Harry nodded to him and started over to see how badly Snape and the other Death Eater were hurt, but Black caught his wrist.

“What?” Harry snapped, then winced as Black cast a spell that shone a bright light into his eyes. Even as he tried to get away, Black shook his head and cast another one that made a faint ringing sound show up in Harry’s ears and then dissipate.

“You’re not badly affected by the Cruciatus, then,” said Black, in a tone that made it sound like he was surprised.

“I thought about my parents suffering from it,” Harry said, not seeing any reason to hide that now that Black knew about the way he wanted to heal his parents. “And I decided that I wasn’t going to die like that.”

“Harry! Are you all right?”

Professor McGonagall had transformed back to human form and was standing in front of him with her arms spread out. Harry let her hug him, because she seemed to need it, and then smiled at her. “You were brilliant, Professor.”

“I was—rather on fire with the battle,” Professor McGonagall admitted. “That hasn’t happened in a long time.” She turned as Black stepped past her and began casting spells. “Are they both alive?”

“They are.” Black glanced over his shoulder. “Macnair is blind in one eye, has scratches all over, and has had his right hand crushed and his wand destroyed. Snape has a destroyed right hand, a broken right leg, and slashes on his chest that aren’t that deep. We should get them back to my house if we want them to be in any condition for telling tales, though.”

“I thought—well, I thought Albus might have sent Severus here to do something concerning the Death Eaters.”

“No.” Black laughed a little. “He sent Harry a letter mentioning an attack on his parents that would take place at midnight tonight. Even if Dumbledore knew about that plan, I don’t think much of him that he let it take place.”

Professor McGonagall turned around, while Cross and the mice came up and eddied around Harry. Harry looked at Yar, but knew calling her off her meal right now would probably get him a talon in the face.

“Why did you decide to come in force like this?” Professor McGonagall asked him quietly. “I can understand wanting to defend your parents, of course, but why like this? When you knew it was Severus?”

Harry looked at her, then at Black. Black turned his head away in a manner that suggested he wasn’t going to tell her anything.

And Harry turned back and said, “Why don’t you come with us, Professor? I’ll tell you.”

It’s time.

Chapter Text

"You were going to tell me certain things, Harry."

Harry nodded. He'd asked Black if they could use one of the sitting rooms near the top floor of Grimmauld Place, and he'd agreed without even smiling about it. He'd gripped Harry's shoulder when Harry was on his way out of the kitchen, too, as if he approved of what Harry was about to do.

Harry had no idea why Black thought it was his place to approve or disapprove of anything Harry did. But the warmth of the touch seemed to linger anyway.

Professor McGonagall sat in front of him on a couch so gaudy Aunt Petunia would have approved of it, and watched him. There was a steaming cup of tea at her elbow, placed there by a house-elf, but she hadn't touched it so far.

"I thought my parents were dead until I met you," Harry said. "And then I realized they weren't, and I could still get them back. But I had to heal them, because no one else was going to do it. And you talked so much about Transfiguration, and it sounded so powerful, that I decided that was the way to do it."

Professor McGonagall leaned close like she tended to do when she was squinting at mistakes in someone's practical work. For a second, Harry missed Hogwarts fiercely. "You were going to Transfigure...?"

"Their brains."

Professor McGonagall's mouth fell a little open. That did make Harry blink. He'd thought she would immediately tell him how dangerous that was, because she thought everything else he'd done was so dangerous. But she seemed stunned.

"Why did you start with animals?" she finally whispered.

"Because that was a good place to begin," Harry said. "No one would mind if I made animals. They probably wouldn't even notice. And the animals helped me survive and made things better for people, like Dapple did for Neville." He held up his hand and let her see his claws fully for the first time. "Plus, it made for some good experimentation before I began on myself. I needed to know what claws were like before I could do them."

Professor McGonagall shut her eyes and gave a little shuddering breath. "You experimented on yourself."

"Well, at one point I wanted to make a human to experiment on, but I decided I couldn't do it."

Professor McGonagall looked at him a little blankly. "But if you aren't changing yourself anymore and you've decided not to Transfigure humans, then what are you going to do to--help your parents?"

"Black and I captured the Lestranges. I was going to use them." Harry thought of, and then decided not to tell her, that Professor Snape was also maybe a possibility. She had to work with Snape, after all. And she needed to know some things, but not every stray thought that went through Harry's head.

"Harry."

Professor McGonagall actually got on the floor in front of him. Harry watched her in concern, strong enough that a mouse popped its head out of his pocket to see what he needed. Wouldn't she hurt her knees?

"Promise me you won't do that," she whispered. "It would cross a line that shouldn't be crossed. Yes, some of the things you've done so far are illegal, and I am concerned that you reached this level of modifying yourself with so little regard for your life. But nothing you've done is immoral as such, except to people who love you. Don't torture others. Don't let them make you into something you're not."

Harry had to sigh a little. "I think I have to research more about how to Transfigure human brains, Professor. Black already told me that. I don't know enough about my parents. I don't want to bring them back as mindless people who only love me and don't do anything they would want to do."

Professor McGonagall climbed slowly to her feet and reached out to take his hand. She turned it back and forth to look at his claws. "And that's the only reason that you regret what you have become so far."

"Well, Black also told me I was on the path to becoming an animal. He showed me a picture of what could happen if I did that. And then I really wouldn't be able to help my parents anymore."

Professor McGonagall looked as if someone had punched her in the heart. Harry rolled his head and flexed his claws. This was the reason he hated confessing to people. What was wrong with her?

*

It was not as bad as it could have been--for example, if Harry had still believed the things that Black had apparently persuaded him not to believe--but it was bad enough.

He can still sit there and calmly tell me that he planned to experiment on himself.

That, then, was the worst of what the Dursleys had done to Harry: convinced him that he was only worth something in pursuit of a larger goal. It was close to what Augusta had tried to convince Neville of, and only Minerva and some of the other professors who trained Neville speaking up loudly and often had held Augusta back.

What protection had Harry had, with his parents altered beyond recognition and no one close to him who would value his life simply because it was his life? Of course he would decide to risk everything to bring back those he might trust to value him.

Minerva reached out and covered Harry's claws with her fingers, slowly curling them in so that they couldn't damage the skin of his palms. Harry watched her with calm eyes, bright ones, still more animal than human in their lack of fear or understanding.

"I would not want you to do that," she said.

"I know. Because it's wrong."

"Not--everything, Harry. But I wouldn't want you to sacrifice your life in pursuit of your parents' health even if it might not be morally or legally wrong."

That made him blink. Minerva wondered how she had missed it, that brightness, that way Harry had taken so many steps along the feral path. Other adults might not have much reason to be concerned with Harry, but she had. And she could even admit to some jealousy of Black. She ought to have been the one who knew this first, who could confront Harry and make him see sense.

"But everyone loved my parents."

It was Minerva's turn to blink. Her mind hadn't followed Harry's in whatever jump it had made this time. "What difference does that make?"

"They were wonderful people. I've heard that from you. And they had strong friends, or Sirius wouldn't have been willing to die for them and hurt Pettigrew when he found out what happened. And they fought on the right side of the war, which not that many people had the courage to. And I can still see how handsome they were. Or beautiful, I suppose, in my mum's case." Harry frowned, as though he didn't like not being able to apply one word to both his parents. "So why would you be bothered if I sacrificed myself trying to bring them back?"

Minerva made a noise that caused two mice to jump out of Harry's pockets, and reached out, and dragged him against her.

He resisted at first, squirming silently in the circle of her arms, doing his best to escape without actually hurting her. And then he seemed to realize that she wasn't squeezing him, and relaxed, although he still stared at her without understanding.

"Just because they may have been wonderful people," Minerva continued when she was sure she had Harry's attention, "that doesn't mean your life is worth any less. Remember, your parents fought to preserve that life. I know they would have died for you like Neville's parents did if the Lestranges had been there to kill them."

"But if you could have them back..."

"I would give a lot to have James and Lily back. But not you."

*

Harry felt as though Uncle Vernon had struck him. He laid his head back on the couch and stared up at the ceiling, and took a deep, gasping breath.

It made a lot of sense. It explained a lot of Professor McGonagall's actions that he hadn't been sure about, and the way she'd reacted to his confession.

And it made him--it made him feel so strange. As though he was still the boy under the stairs who had waited for someone to turn up and tell him he was special. As though that person had turned up after all, and he'd done something other than immediately decide that he had to heal his parents.

He reached out and put a gentle hand on Professor McGonagall's shoulder. She looked at her with tearful eyes, but smiled and said, "It's true."

"I know it's true," Harry said, because he knew it like he knew the Latin terms for "paw" and "hand" and "claw," deep down in his bones. "I just--didn't know it before."

"Then learn it now." Professor McGonagall stood up, but pulled him with her, so she was still hugging him. Harry hugged her back, or at least leaned against her and put one arm around her. It was hard to say how good he was at this when he had never properly hugged someone before. "I swear to you I would have helped you find some way to heal your parents properly, Harry, without torture and without Transfiguring yourself. If you had come to me, if I'd been watching more closely, if I understood what you needed."

Harry had to ask her something. "What if torture is the only way I can do it?"

"There must be some other way," Professor McGonagall said fiercely. "There must. And now that I know what you want, I can start doing the right research. I have access to a lot of books that a student wouldn't, you know. Some of them even better than those in the Hogwarts library."

Harry paused. He had never considered that. He had been focused on the knowledge that she would stop him if she could; it was the only thing that it made sense for her to do. But if she would help him instead...

"You would really do this?" he asked, testing. If she wanted to save his life so badly, and didn't care about having his parents back the way he did, she might not go all the way, or she might do something that he never would.

"I would."

Professor McGonagall's eyes were steady and shining. Harry found that he did believe her, after all.

And he wasn't alone anymore in his struggle to get his parents back. Black seemed to think he would never accomplish it, so there was no point in helping. There was no one else at school Harry would trust with this, no one who wouldn't be horrified. Until tonight, he would have put Professor McGonagall into that same category.

But she wasn't. That meant he had her at his side.

And the feeling of not being alone anymore lifted some of the weight from his shoulders. Just a little.

*

"It wasn't very wise of you to do this, Severus."

Severus had planned to hold his tongue if Potter or Regulus--of all people, of all former Death Eaters who must have helped Potter figure out part of Severus's plans--came to talk to him. But instead, it was Minerva, and she sat down and gave him the kind of plain disapproving gaze that she had used on him at the High Table when he sneered at Hagrid.

It was too much, even with his wounds healed. His hands were still bound, and he was in a room somewhere in Black's residence, and he had no idea where Macnair or his wand were. He had no idea what the Dark Lord would do to punish him when he learned how Severus had failed.

He turned his head away--

Only to gasp as something stabbed his foot. He whirled around and found that Minerva had changed into a cat, and was scraping her claws slowly down the side of his boot. Severus lost the sneer he'd been planning on. He had seen Minerva blind Macnair in such a form. He could not afford to disregard her.

Minerva changed back with a small wriggle and thrum of magic. "Albus didn't know about this, did he?" she asked.

Perhaps only her uncertainty that it might have been one of Dumbledore's plans had kept her from hurting him the way she had Macnair, Severus realized with a chill. But his best ploy now was to act to appease her, and appeal to her, not shiver from the chill. "No," he said, meeting his gaze. "It was my plan to fool the Dark Lord and draw in the Potter boy the only way I knew how."

"Why did you want him if Albus hadn't commanded you to find him?"

Severus swallowed back the acid retort that apparently Minerva had done more than a little disobeying of Albus's commands herself. Sarcasm wouldn't help him now. "Because he is still Lily's son. And I had no idea where he was, what he was doing. I was surprised he managed to remain alive this long on his own. I wanted to keep him safe."

Minerva looked at him with her eyes shining, a feline reflection in the darkness. Then she frowned and shook her head. "No. I don't believe that."

"What?" Severus had never doubted his ability to fool Minerva before, and it was disconcerting to feel his stomach churning now.

"Maybe I would have, once," said Minerva. "But not now. I saw the spells you set up. You could have ambushed Harry in a different way than taking him blind outside his parents' room. And why were you there with another Death Eater?" She folded her legs beneath her. "Black won't speak up for you. Harry wants you as an experiment. Convince me that you deserve to be let go."

"What kind of an experiment?" Of all the possible ways that Potter might have taken vengeance, Severus had never envisioned that one.

Minerva gave him a smile that would have looked gleeful if it was less condescending. "To practice Transfiguration on."

It made sudden, and awful, sense to Severus. The boy could never have achieved his mastery of Transfiguration only creating animals and adding muscles or claws to his own body. He must have experimented on something, and it only made sense that it was more like "someone." He heard his own breathing turn harsh in his ears, and Minerva nodded in something that might have been satisfaction.

"So. You still have a better chance of convincing me than you do of convincing them." Minerva stared him directly in the eye. "Talk."

Severus bared his teeth. He would at least have the chance to speak to an audience, then, although it was an audience hardly likely to be sympathetic to him. He would take the present and leave the past and the future to themselves for the moment.

"He destroyed Lily."

"You-Know-Who? Rodolphus Lestrange?"

Severus glared. If he could have an audience, he wondered why it had to be one who would make desperate excuses to avoid guessing the obvious. "Of course not. Potter."

"James Potter suffered just as she did--"

"That bloody boy is the one I'm talking about! If Lily had never had him, she would never have been a target!"

Minerva stiffened. Her eyes took on another, different shine, more cat-like and yet more disturbing, and Severus would have shrunk back if the magical, invisible bonds holding him had permitted movement.

"Harry did not destroy Lily," Minerva said quietly. "The Lestranges did, and the war did. What did you intend to do with Harry once you had him, Severus?"

Severus turned his head away. What did it matter? The audience had not worked out in the way that it never did. Once again, as she had when he was still a student, Minerva disbelieved Severus and defended a Potter. "You have no interest in my answer."

"Oh, I do," said Minerva, and the words were near a purr, but Severus could not prevent himself from flinching. "I want to know because I want to know if I should allow Harry to do as he wants, or protect you."

The breath left Severus's lungs. The only thing he could think of was being used as Potions ingredients, cut up and hung, or vivisected. "You--would not let that happen."

"I thought so when I walked into this room, too," Minerva said, right back to that disturbing purr. "And then I heard what you intended to do to Harry, and I decided that now I'm uncertain." She gave him an angelic, hard smile. "Details?"

"I did not know what I would do with him," said Severus, "other than keep him to myself, and decide how to hurt him later."

Minerva waited. Severus kept his head turned away. He knew what he would see reflected if he looked at her, and right now, he couldn’t stand it.

“That wasn’t the right answer,” Minerva said in a strange voice, and stood. “But it was what I needed to know.” She nodded to him and left the room.

Severus sat there, feelings twinges of pain that didn’t all come from his newly-healed leg, and tried to think about whether he had made the situation worse or better.

*

Minerva forced herself to walk slowly towards the bedroom Black had given her as a courtesy. She still burned with anger the way she’d burned with battle-lust a few hours ago.

There was—nothing but hatred in Severus’s voice.

Minerva had pitied him always, had wished many times there was something she could do for him, had tried to think of ways to help him when he returned to the school wrapped up in his bitterness and his pride. She had never seen into his soul, had never known that he was carrying around this immense burden of grief and loathing.

She had liked Severus sometimes, respected him as a Potions master always, even as she deplored the way he taught. She had thought he was the Head of House Slytherin needed.

And now it turned out that was…

A lie. Or worse than a lie. He was willing to blame a child for his parents’ madness, and try to capture him for something that might have ended up worse than death.

Minerva sighed. She couldn’t even think too hard yet about the lies she would use to fool Albus when she slipped back into the school. She was thinking, instead, about the way that this night had changed her so completely.

A pair of conversations, and her motives and her loyalties were overturned.

Because she would still have to explain her absence to Albus. But not before she came up with a way to pledge herself to Harry and help him decide what to do about Severus, utterly and completely.

I’m committed now.

Chapter Text

 

“You’re sure that he’s convinced?” Harry heard Black mutter behind him.

He was speaking to Professor McGonagall, not Harry, and so Harry felt free to continue leaning forwards, looking through the concealed window into the room that held Snape. The window looked like part of the wall to those inside, and it was recent anyway; Black had only added it after Professor McGonagall spoke with Snape.

Snape sat with his hands chained behind him, to a stake in the floor, and with his head bowed. His breathing was noisy.

“Yes, he is. I hated to do it, in a way. I’ve known Severus a long time. But what he wanted to do…”

“We are agreed that any threat to Harry is unacceptable.”

“Yes.” Harry felt Professor McGonagall staring at him, and Spellmaker, on his shoulder, arched her back and made a complicated sound between a growl and a purr. “So yes, I think he’s convinced that Harry is going to use him for parts and we’re going to let him.”

“Good.” Black sounded maliciously satisfied. He came up beside Harry, looked in at Snape himself, and then nodded to Harry. “You know the part you have to play.”

Harry nodded, and lifted Spellmaker down from his shoulder to the floor, although she cried about it with protesting noises. For a cat he hadn’t created to be loyal to him, and for one made from an enemy’s wand, she was surprisingly affectionate. But Harry needed another of his animals for this.

When he raised his arm, Yar flew down and gripped it, shifting. Harry had hardened all the skin along it, though, down to his fingers and up to his shoulder, and she would have to work harder than she was inclined to do if she wanted to inflict damage.

Harry turned and studied Black and Professor McGonagall. “Ready?” Black asked.

Harry nodded. Black reached out and snapped his fingers in his face, which would have made Harry jump if Yar’s weight hadn’t been holding him, in part, to earth. “None of that, now,” said Black sternly. “You know what you have to do. Verbal answers, and only act the part of the scary feral monster after we get in there.”

Harry rolled his eyes. For all his positive feelings about Black, and the way he managed to work together with Professor McGonagall, Harry still came close to hating him sometimes. “Yes,” he said. “I’m ready.”

“Good.” Black opened the door of the room—which had been a sitting room at one point, but the furniture had all been taken out—and strode in. Professor McGonagall followed him with a delicate scamper that reminded Harry of her Animagus form. Harry marched in after her with Yar, and shut the door just in time to keep Spellmaker out.

Luckily, the door was thick enough to muffle her protests.

Snape turned his head without raising it to look at them when they came in. Harry was a little puzzled for a second, and then saw the thick chain around his neck, linking back to the stake and his arm-chains. He hadn’t been able to see it from his position at the window.

Black was grinning. Harry prowled carefully around to the side, heaving his arm a little. Yar spread her wings and clattered them in response.

Snape had been trying to look just at Harry, but he did jerk his head to the side and stare at Yar before he could help himself. Harry held back a snigger. It wouldn’t fit with the silent menace he had to play.

“So,” said Black, lounging against the door. Professor McGonagall had taken up a position between him and the wall, and was looking around with wide eyes, as if she wanted to say something but didn’t quite dare. “This is the way it is, Snape. Harry’s asked to have you for parts for his spells. Or maybe he wants your whole body for his experiments. It’s not really clear.” He paused and glanced at Harry. “It’s hard to discuss much with dear Harry, right now.”

Harry, on cue, uttered the growl he’d been practicing. Professor McGonagall had helped him with the Transfiguration of his throat, which was something he found it hard to see even with a mirror. And she had made sure it was only partial and they could turn it back when they were done here.

Snape gave him an absolutely horrified look. Harry smiled at him and moved forwards, raising his arm as if he was going to launch Yar at Snape. Snape promptly ducked and covered his face with his shoulder.

They’d mended his hand, with the help of some healing spells Black knew that Harry highly suspected were illegal. But Harry could still see new wrinkles along Snape’s fingers and twists in the bones that hadn’t been there before.

“She could do worse to your other hand,” said Black, on cue. “Or this time, I could let her do it and leave you unhealed. We didn’t bother with healing Macnair.”

Yar needed no encouragement to crouch and spread her wings. She always wanted to hunt, except when she was actually doing it. Harry watched in fascination as the man he’d hated and feared scooted backwards as much as his staked chains allowed, all composure utterly destroyed.

“Minerva,” Snape whispered hoarsely. “Will you let them do this?”

“After hearing what you wanted to do to dear Harry,” said Professor McGonagall, and looked down her nose in a way Harry loved and immediately wanted to learn how to imitate, “I’m not sure that I care enough to stop them, Severus.”

Snape turned slowly back to Harry. And Yar. Harry noticed the way he couldn’t stop looking at Yar, and he had to admit, he was delighted. He raised his arm higher and advanced slowly.

“How are you going to explain my absence to Albus?” Snape’s voice was low, and he didn’t turn away from Harry and Yar at all, even though Harry was sure he was talking to Professor McGonagall.

“Oh, that’s done,” said Professor McGonagall, with a coolness Harry also wanted to learn. “I told him that I saw you leaving and tried to follow you, but you Apparated and I couldn’t trace you. That I’m afraid you’ve run afoul of the Death Eaters. I told him I wanted to stay away from the school for a while to try and find you—that I felt it was my fault I didn’t stop you when I had a bad feeling about what I saw you do.”

“Ingenious,” said Snape, and flinched and bowed his head when Yar stared at him with bright eyes and mantled.

“Of course,” said Black, his voice soft and still managing to make Snape start, “there might be an alternative. I said an alternative, Harry,” he added sharply, when Harry took another step forwards.

This was all part of the plan, but Harry was startled to feel how intensely he wanted to keep moving. To threaten Snape. To tear out at least one of his eyes, the way Professor McGonagall had done to the other Death Eater, and maybe crush both his hands. Then he would have paid for his crimes.

Perhaps. He had tried to set an ambush outside Harry’s parents’ room, after all.

“Do listen to me, Harry,” Black appealed, and moved forwards, into his path. Harry touched Yar on the breast when she would have screamed. They would lose part of their power over Snape if he thought Yar would act like that with everyone. “What you want to do—there might be a potion we could use to accomplish it instead. Of course, there’s only one person here with the skill to tell us if that’s so, and actually brew the potion.”

Harry growled again. Snape had tossed his head back and was looking between them with piercing eyes. Black had told Harry in even more detail about Snape’s Legilimency, so Harry tilted his head to the side and made sure not to meet Snape’s gaze head-on.

“Tell me what you want, Black.”

“Harry wants to use people for experiments, since he’s finally tired of Transfiguring himself,” said Black, and reached out to squeeze Harry’s shoulder. It was a bold gesture with Yar so near, but although she quivered, Harry touched her breast feathers again, and she didn’t attack. “But we might be able to do much the same things with a potion that we can apply to a dummy and which models nerve pain.”

“There is—there are a few such potions,” said Snape, and now he was alert and straining against his bonds without seeming to realize what he was doing. “But why should I brew them?”

“I have the ingredients,” said Black.

“I have the ability to hold Harry back if you agree to do this,” Professor McGonagall said.

Harry thrust his arm out in silence, flashing his claws, to show what he had.

Snape lowered his head. “There is no choice,” he whispered. “There never was. Without my agreement, you will not stand in Potter’s way, will you?”

“I have to admit that I see no reason to,” said Black, mildly.

Professor McGonagall didn’t speak, but she was twirling her wand between her fingers. Her face was blank, but still threatening. Harry really wanted to spend a little more time with her. All these gestures were ones he could make with a human face, and probably hands and other body parts, too.

Snape looked up again, and Harry, still being careful not to stare directly into his eyes, saw that they must have convinced him. He didn’t look as though he was planning to break free, or hurt them, or reserve judgment. He looked as though they believed that Harry would torture him to death, or slice him up for his organs, if he refused.

“Then I agree.”

Harry watched Snape in silence as Professor McGonagall and Black started telling him what they wanted. Honestly, he didn’t think that Snape’s conviction was a bad thing. And not only because it would give them the potion they wanted, which would mean Harry didn’t have to experiment on anyone.

Because, without them there? Harry would have experimented. He was mostly not doing it because it seemed to upset Professor McGonagall when he talked about it.

On his own, as long as he was doing it carefully and not exposing himself to danger (which also distressed her, and Black), then Harry didn’t see the problem with doing it on a known enemy like Snape.

*

I do not understand how the boy has corrupted and changed her. But he has.

Severus had given up on any attempt to read Regulus Black. He had never known the Death Eater boy that one had been well, and then, after his brother’s death, Black seemed to have assimilated a Marauder spirit to his own. Trying to guess what he would do next was an exercise in futility.

Severus also carefully turned his brain away from any attempt to comprehend Potter. It was true that he had underestimated him criminally. The next time they came to blows, Severus would be prepared for what a dangerous creature he was dealing with.

But Minerva…

Black and Potter had finally left her alone with Severus while they went to prepare for whatever conditions they needed to set up the potion. Ingredients, and probably placing defensive spells around the lab so he couldn’t send any messages, too, Severus imagined. But Minerva remained, watching him with a still face.

Severus cleared his throat. “A drink of water?”

Even then, she didn’t come near him, instead conjuring a glass and then casting Aguamenti into it before floating it over to his lips. Severus sipped from it, narrowing his eyes further as he watched Minerva’s face stay the same. He had wondered if she would relax with Black and Potter gone, and tell him what plan she had under the surface to free him when he’d complied with their demands.

“Why did you do this?” Severus finally asked. Sometimes Gryffindors responded to blunt honesty, and Minerva was a product of her House.

“I already told you that,” Minerva said calmly. “You threatened Harry, and made it clear that you blame him for the way Lily and James—although I suppose you don’t care about James—ended up. It’s frankly insane, Severus. I’m doing what I need to to protect him from you.”

Severus shook his head slowly. Now Minerva was acting as if she was more than a product of her House, as he had never seen her act. “I would not have killed the boy.”

“I never thought you would have. But tortured him? I can believe that of you, Severus.”

“Then why are you plotting to help him do the same thing to me?”

Minerva shifted a little. The sunset light coming through the window caught and flared in her eyes, making them golden and inhuman, feline. Severus shivered and glanced away. As much as he hated to admit it—indeed, he could only do it now because Potter wasn’t in the room—she frightened him, too.

“I prevented that, didn’t I?” Minerva said, so quietly that Severus wouldn’t have heard her if his senses hadn’t got hyper-sensitive the way they always did around danger. “I don’t enjoy seeing people in pain, Severus. But some of the pain that you suffer, I can do nothing about.” She paused. “And I suspect Lily couldn’t, either.”

She swept out, and Severus glared at her back. Then he went about calming and focusing on his mind, thinking of some of the exercises that he had learned when he was first beginning to practice Occlumency.

He would do as they asked. He would brew the potion and hope this would lead to freedom, eventually. He couldn’t imagine how they would let him go when they couldn’t risk him going to Dumbledore or the Dark Lord and he could resist an Obliviate, but he would not give up in despair yet.

However.

The list of people I want vengeance on is growing depressingly long.

*

“Go, Mr. Potter!”

Minerva watched intently as Harry exhaled and opened his eyes, focusing on the collection of tins and coins she’d assembled on the floor of this bare room. She hadn’t allowed Harry to choose them, only briefly handle them. She wanted to see how well he did Transfiguring objects into animals when he hadn’t gathered the ingredients himself.

Commuto abundantiam felinam sparsam!

Minerva caught her breath. She hadn’t told Harry what to create, and she had told him not to tell her, either. She had expected a more precise spell from him, however. Perhaps a cat, but these words were for “speckled cat,” which might be—

The collection of metal stirred and rattled. Minerva watched two Galleons soar up and open as golden eyes, high on a head that was spinning into being from tin and other common metals. It was remarkable, watching the golden fur blossom to sheathe skeleton-like legs and a straight spine turn flexible. The Knuts darkened in color and transformed into the black spots, spinning into place on the gold like the coins they no longer were.

The cheetah looked around the room, sniffing with arched whiskers and a lashing tail. Harry had even got the black stripes around its nose and eyes, and the blob of white fur on the edge of the tail, right. Minerva let out a shaky sigh.

“Banish it before it becomes dangerous, Harry,” she whispered, as she watched the cheetah pace towards the door and then turn around and look at them. Its throat bubbled with a growl that reminded her of Harry’s.

Harry flicked his wand. He said no “Finite Incantatem,” no incantation that would return the cheetah to its former state as a pile of metal, but one moment the burning, glorious creature was there, and the next it was not.

Minerva pressed her hand to her chest and looked at Harry. “That was remarkable,” she said. “But why did you use such an imprecise expression? ‘Speckled cat’ could have produced almost anything.”

Harry blinked at her. “Because I couldn’t find a Latin word for cheetah, Professor.”

Minerva was silent, thinking, both about that and about the shivers and stirs of the Wild she’d experienced in the air while Harry did his Transfiguration. Only when she thought she was ready with her theory did she speak. Harry waited her out, stroking the black cat on his shoulder.

“You have incredible control of your imagination,” she said at last. “Your Will and Wild are one. The problem with a spell like the one you chose is that you might have ended up with a leopard, or an ordinary spotted housecat, or a jaguar, instead of a cheetah. Most people trying this spell at your level would either not have studied the differences between the animals enough to end up with the right one, or would not have the skill and control you do. Their creatures would be half-formed, not what they wanted, or actively dangerous.”

Harry inclined his head, his eyes sparkling. But they dimmed as Minerva went on. “However, you have almost no use of Wand or Word. Even though you chose a good incantation and I saw you make the wand movement,” she added, because she suspected that was what Harry was opening his mouth to protest about.

“How can you say that I’m not using Wand or Word, Professor?” Harry demanded. “I am using them.”

Minerva had to smile despite his tone, because this was what she had wanted: a more normal student who would challenge her and stand up for himself. “I mean that you’re not relying on them,” she said. “Will and Wild are creating your animals. That probably explains why they’re so loyal to you most of the time, as well. The Wild resonates with your emotions, and makes them into what you want them to be. And with Will…of course they do what you want them to do.”

Harry looked down with a blank face. “And you can tell because my wand movements are small and I used imprecise words.”

“Yes.” Minerva bent down in front of him when he wouldn’t look up at her. “Listen to me, Harry. What you can do is remarkable.”

“But limited in scope,” Harry finished, so astutely that Minerva blinked and cleared her throat a little uncomfortably.

“Yes, that was going to be my objection,” she said. “Without using more Wand and Word, I don’t see you ever being able to Transfigure one object into another. Objects don’t have emotions or a will for you to command. What you need to do is shape them via your wand movements and your incantations. Like sculpting the wood or other material that you’re making them into.”

Harry remained still for a few moments. Minerva wondered idly if that was part of his feral nature, too. Pacing back and forth or moving as if he had a tail seemed more natural to her, but she had seen prey who froze in front of her when they realized she was close to them.

Harry wasn’t prey, though. His stillness would always be dangerous.

“Do I have to learn to do that, though?” Harry finally asked. He had a quiet voice, but not a whisper. He was looking through her, and a few mice popped their heads out of his pockets as Minerva watched. They seemed to be asking what he needed. “I mean, if I don’t want to? I can do remarkable things, you said.”

“And I think that you have a gift for Transfiguration,” Minerva said. “The whole art, not this limited subset of it.” She conjured a chair and sat on it, mostly because that brought her face low enough that Harry couldn’t avoid meeting her gaze. “I think you can become more than I have.”

Harry jumped as if she’d pricked him with a claw. “But you’re a great teacher, Professor. I don’t—I don’t want you to think I’m arrogant and planning on taking your place.”

Minerva laughed, if a little sadly. “It’s hard to imagine you returning to the halls of Hogwarts, Harry. No, I was thinking that you might become a magical researcher, or someone who takes on private students, or someone who actually creates an entire new field of Transfiguration. We haven’t had one since the last research into Animagus forms in the 1700s.”

Harry blinked, and blinked again. Minerva paused, then added, “You told me that you were going to look beyond the immediate future and try to find something else for yourself, Harry. That you wouldn’t restrict yourself to only thinking about your parents.”

“I know that. I wasn’t planning to stop looking. Only to get better at the kinds of Transfiguration I already know.”

Harry was playing with his wand and stroking his cat, not looking at her. “Do you feel disloyal to your parents because you’re no longer concentrating just on helping them?” Minerva asked him gently. Her chest ached.

“A bit.” Harry’s voice was a whisper. “But—more—I could do this. I know I’m good at this. I don’t want to fail.”

Minerva nodded. “That is a very human emotion, Harry.” He jerked a little and looked at her with eyes that Minerva highly suspected were less wild than they’d been when she came to Grimmauld Place. “It took me a long time to overcome my fear of failure and try aspects of the art I wasn’t good at. But you won’t get better without trying. You’ll only spiral deeper and deeper into a small set of skills, achieving things that will become harder and harder for anyone besides you to use or understand.”

Harry still looked unconvinced, so Minerva added, “Think about the ways that you might be able to ease your parents’ lives if you could Transfigure objects, even if you couldn’t cure them yet. More comfortable beds, more elaborate gifts than you’ve given them so far, rests for their heads…”

Harry perked up, and Minerva held back a sigh as she began to outline the kinds of spells she wanted him to try. She hated that she still had to make Harry interested in his future by appealing to his love for his parents.

But it was a beginning. He was listening to her, doing things that didn’t directly connect to helping Lily and James. He listened to Black and sometimes even joked with him. He had stopped talking as if torturing people was simply something that had to be done.

Although I’m not sure that he agrees with our objections, or if he’s doing this because he knows we would disagree and he wants to please us…

Minerva dismissed the thought firmly from her mind. For now, she would simply concentrate on the chance to work with an extraordinary student.

Chapter Text

“Do you think Umbridge did something to Professor Snape?”

Neville caught himself automatically shaking his head, and then coughed a little when he saw Hermione staring at him. It was always more awkward disagreeing with her than saying he didn’t know, because she would demand where he got the knowledge.

And he couldn’t exactly reveal to Ron and Hermione that Harry had told him something about what was being “done” to Professor Snape.

“Did you hear something, Neville?” Hermione leaned forwards until she was almost falling off the couch in the Gryffindor common room. Neville sighed moodily and looked at the fire.

Hermione was the one who had helped him start the Defense Association. She still sometimes came up with strategies that relied on people outside the school, and he knew that she counted on him to pass those on to Harry and Black. She had hunted down Rita Skeeter, revealed the secret of her Animagus form, and blackmailed her into writing a good article about Neville for once.

But still, Neville sometimes wished he hadn’t chosen to bring Ron and Hermione with him when he went to meet Harry and Black.

“I didn’t really hear something.”

“You read it? A letter? From Potter?”

Ron winced a little and raised a Silencing Charm around them. Hermione would have done that, Neville knew, but when she got excited like this, she wasn’t discreet.

“I know that Snape went away to do something to Harry,” said Neville, deciding that vague would at least reassure Hermione that Snape wasn’t going to come back and either help them or hinder them any time soon. “Harry caught him and stopped him. He and Black are dealing with it.”

“Are they doing something illegal?” Hermione demanded promptly. “I could see that Harry didn’t like Professor Snape. And Black seemed like someone who disdained all forms of authority. Professor Snape isn’t all bad, really. How are we going to pass our Potions OWLS without him?”

“And now we come to the real reason you’re worried,” Ron muttered, rolling his eyes. “Besides, it might be good for some people’s OWLS that he’s not here.”

Neville saw the way Ron glanced at him, and couldn’t help nodding a little. Even with all the extra training Snape had given him, Neville had never been confident around Potions. Gran kept telling him he should be, since he knew all about Herbology and had received knowledge on cauldrons and stirring rods and proper brewing procedures since before he came to Hogwarts.

But the plain and simple knowledge was that he wasn’t. And he thought he would relax a lot more if he could take his Potions OWL and study for it without Snape peering over his shoulder and shaking his head in disgust.

“But who are they going to get to teach Potions, if Professor Snape doesn’t come back? And Professor McGonagall! Who’s going to teach Transfiguration?”

“I think Professor Dumbledore is doing pretty well at that, Hermione…”

Neville leaned back in his chair and let their bickering drift out of his attention while he stared down at Dapple. The way the cat was sleeping right now, one leg dangling down his shoulder, comforted him. Even though Harry had created Dapple so that he was only loyal to Neville, he would probably yowl or make some sign if Harry was in danger or hurt, right?

Or dead.

Neville swallowed as the thought drifted through his head. No, he wasn’t going to think that way. He was going to keep hoping that Harry would do well with Black and Professor McGonagall—Neville knew she was there—and could handle Professor Snape on his own. He had other things to worry about.

His fingers wandered towards the back of his right hand, and he pulled them away before Hermione could notice. So far, Umbridge’s detentions hadn’t scarred him, the way they had other people. Neville knew enough about Murtlap essence and the other plants he could mix with it that that wouldn’t happen unless she kept him writing lines for seven hours or more.

But she was still there. And no matter how much Neville tried to talk to Professor Dumbledore, especially now that he was teaching Transfiguration, it never worked. Dumbledore simply turned away as if he didn’t see him and walked out of the classroom, or started talking to another student.

Even when he handed Neville’s homework back, he never looked him in the eye.

Neville sighed, and tried to concentrate on the harmless conversation Ron and Hermione were having now, about schoolwork, without rubbing either the scar that might form someday on his hand or the one on his forehead that sometimes bled, and sometimes burned. He couldn’t think about his duties all the time, or he would go mental.

*

Like old times, Albus thought, as he shook his head over the frankly atrocious spelling errors in the Gryffindor essay he was correcting right now. It was a little hard to have House pride when they insisted on doing things like that.

He looked sideways at Fawkes, who had gone to sleep about halfway through the marking process. Albus had to smile. He liked to read aloud particularly bad sentences and shudder through them, but his phoenix found it less entertaining.

Not even when Albus stood up and walked over to the fire did Fawkes stir. Albus sighed and raised the fire with a flick of his wand. Then he called a house-elf and asked for a mug of hot tea, and bundled a blanket around himself when he went back to his chair, but no matter what he tried, nothing made him warm.

He suspected he might have lost the loyalties of both Severus and Minerva, and there would be little more devastating to either the Order of the Phoenix or the war effort, except Neville’s death before his time.

And over Harry Potter. Albus simply had to shake his head. Severus had reason to hate the boy, but Albus had never thought he would defect in his favor.

And Minerva?

Albus sighed again and stroked his beard for a moment, looking at the essays without seeing them. He suspected that Minerva had simply allowed her protectiveness for Harry to overcome her common sense. She had forgotten there were other students who needed her as well, Neville Longbottom not least among them.

I was excited when I discovered how promising a student Minerva was in Transfiguration, but I never lost my head over her.

Then again, Minerva had sentimental connections to James and Lily Potter that Albus had had to overcome. Of course he had grieved when he heard what had happened to them, but he had done the same thing when Frank and Alice Longbottom died. He was a general in that war the Order of the Phoenix had fought almost alone against the Death Eaters. He couldn’t allow personal concerns to cloud his mind.

If Minerva had gone and wasn’t returning, and Severus wasn’t, either, whether he had gone to join Minerva and Potter or had joined the Death Eaters in truth…

Making arrangements for a new Potions professor—right now, the classes were being taught by a rotating schedule of Aurors and experts from the Ministry who were only too happy to have the opportunity to snoop around Hogwarts—was the least of his worries.

*

“I don’t know what’s going on with you, Terry. But get your head in the right pace, or you’re going to fall all your OWLS. Let alone probably get kicked out of the Tower.”

Hearing such words from Michael, of all people, was what had really pulled Terry up short. Michael had told him that and then stormed upstairs. Or not stormed, really. Simply run away before Terry could say anything. Even though he was doing pretty well in the D. A. and dating Ginny Weasley of all people, Michael was still timid.

And Terry had to consider that his advice was pretty good advice, as he slumped in his chair in the Ravenclaw common room, biting his lip and staring into the fire.

He’d been upset when Harry left, and people were sympathetic. A lot of them thought it showed that Harry had never been his friend, running off like that without a word to him, and so they nodded and offered advice on mental healing books and covered for him when he skived off a couple of classes.

But now they were impatient. They thought he should be over it by now. Terry had even been asked by a few snide sixth- and seventh-years if he was in love with Harry or something, the way he grieved over him.

It wasn’t easy when he sat in an armchair that was so comfortable, but Terry’s hands slowly made fists.

It was simpler than that. It was a lot simpler than that.

Lots of things had been happening with Harry that Terry never knew about. He hadn’t asked questions because he’d thought that was the best way to lose Harry’s friendship. He’d just waited and assumed that someday Harry would tell him the truth, because no one could keep secrets all the time.

Instead, Harry had run away. And sent one owl that said, vaguely, he was okay, and Terry shouldn’t worry about him or try to search for him.

That was weeks ago now.

Terry was in Ravenclaw for a reason. He was observant. He saw the way that Neville went around with his head drooping for a while, and then one day he walked into the Great Hall and he was smiling. He sat down and laughed and joked with Weasley and Granger, and everything was fine.

He’d heard from Harry. More than that he was okay, because Terry knew the other boy well enough to realize such shit wouldn’t have satisfied Longbottom any more than it would have satisfied him.

But when he’d tried to speak to Longbottom in the DA meetings, he got lots of stares and mumbles about, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then Longbottom had assigned someone else to teach him the Shield Charm, as if he assumed that would satisfy Terry or had even been what he was really asking about.

It didn’t.

Terry had had enough of being left out of things. He’d held back and tried to find out secrets just by searching for them, and listening to the right conversations, and talking to the right people. And look where it got him. Trapped in a school among a lot of increasingly paranoid Ravenclaws, some of whom Terry thought would already have gone to Umbridge if not for Granger’s threats.

The only real knowledge and training in the school was happening in the DA—which couldn’t meet all the time—and in Gryffindor House. Terry wanted to survive and know that he’d done something grand. He wouldn’t get that if things just went on as they were.

Oh, and he wanted to find Harry and ask him what the hell was going on, so he would know if he was stupid for having been his friend for so long. Terry hated wasting his time, but he hated not knowing if he was wasting his time even more.

The Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin for my ambition, Terry thought, as he sat up in his chair and gave a nod. A few people glanced at him, but not for long. He’d developed a reputation as someone you didn’t want to bother.

All right, then. Let’s go about doing this.

*

“I want to be included.”

Neville paused. Terry Boot had walked past their table, which was an everyday thing, and then stopped, which wasn’t. And he was glaring at Neville and Ron and Hermione as if they had started a secret DA and then not invited him to the meetings.

“What?” Neville asked because it was the only thing he could come up with to say.

Boot unfolded something on their table. Neville leaned over to look in spite of himself, because it looked like a runic circle. Hermione did the same thing on his other side, and then gasped and stared accusingly up at Boot.

“What did you do?”

“You’re not the only one who can modify common charms when you’re really desperate, Granger,” Boot shot back, his eyes narrowed. He kept his voice low so as not to attract attention, but Neville thought they would already have it, except it was too early for Umbridge to be up. “And yes, I eavesdropped on your conversations by casting the charm on a runic circle and putting the circle in your bags a few times. So. I know you know where Harry is. I want to know, too.”

Neville swallowed. He didn’t understand all the implications of what Boot had done, but he also knew they weren’t going to get rid of him easily, the way he was standing there with his arms folded, bulking like Crabbe and Goyle.

“He was already upset because I brought Ron and Hermione in. I don’t think he’ll want me to tell you.”

“Too bad.”

“Why don’t you just owl him?” Hermione demanded. “There’s nothing preventing you from doing that, and that way, you would actually know where he is, and you don’t have to involve us.”

“With the way that she’s standing ready to intercept the outgoing owl post? Not as smart as you look, Granger.”

The next instant, Boot sat down beside Ron, his head ducked. Neville followed the line of his gaze and saw Umbridge coming in at the entrance to the Great Hall. She didn’t seem to see Boot, probably because he’d chosen to hide behind the tallest of them. But she did catch Neville’s eye, and smirked.

“Go about your business, students,” she said in her false cooing voice, and then turned and walked out of the Great Hall.

“If you stay around us,” Neville said, leaning over to whisper to Boot, “then you’re going to get in trouble.”

“Give me a secure way to contact Harry and do whatever you’re planning, and then I won’t bother you anymore,” Boot said instantly. “Or I can fight beside you and tag after you and probably get you in trouble because I can’t take all the precautions you know to take. Your choice.”

Neville stared at his friends. Hermione drew her wand and mouthed “Obliviate?” at him.

But Neville shook his head instantly. The last thing he wanted to do was become like Umbridge and all the other people who would probably think that was a good idea. It wasn’t Boot’s fault that he’d got frustrated and come to look for them. Neville would probably have done the same thing in his place.

At least I know more of what’s going on because I’m the Boy-Who-Lived.

It was the first good thing Neville had ever been able to think about it.

“All right, Boot,” he said, and leaned over to whisper, just in case Umbridge came and peered back in. “You can know a little of what we know, but there’s no way that I’m going to tell you everything. I don’t know how discreet you can be.”

Boot just nodded, eyes calm and focused. Neville paused. It wasn’t really the look he would have expected to see from one of Harry’s friends who had just been told how to contact him. “Do you want to talk to Harry that badly?” he added.

“I’m really angry at him,” Boot said simply. “I’m looking forward to a chance to tell him how angry.”

Neville swallowed, and decided that he wouldn’t get in between Boot and Harry. The most he could do was prevent Boot from causing trouble.

Well, maybe not the most, he thought, as he began to write down directions for Boot to meet them in a specially-transformed Room of Requirement later. Maybe the most I can do is give us another ally and Harry another friend to count on.

Maybe. After Boot is finished yelling at him.

*

Albus paused when Fawkes abruptly poked his head out from under his wing and crooned. He hadn’t done that in almost a week. Albus stood up and walked over to the door, hand on his wand just in case. Fawkes and he sometimes had different ideas of who was welcome in the Headmaster’s office.

But when he opened the door, he saw that they’d been in accord. Minerva was standing there, bedraggled but smiling.

“Albus,” she whispered, and then all but collapsed into his arms.

Albus immediately bundled her to a chair and helped her sit down, casting Warming Charms on the blankets that flew over to wrap themselves around her. Minerva grasped and drank the cup of hot tea he ordered from the kitchens, too. Albus reached out and tenderly took one of her hands.

It was so cold that he almost dropped it again.

“My dear, what happened?” he whispered.

Minerva looked up at him, and for an instant her eyes were hawk-like, piercing. Then she said, “Albus, swear to me—tell me—that you didn’t know Severus was loyal to You-Know-Who.”

The stomachache Albus had experienced sometimes in the recent past when he thought of Harry Potter converting both Minerva and Severus to his side redoubled. Perhaps he should have hoped for that.

“What?”

“You didn’t.” Minerva slumped in the chair and stared down at her hands, clasped around the teacup. “You didn’t,” she repeated in a dead voice.

“I need you to tell me what happened.” Albus didn’t like the flutter in his voice, as if he was the fledgling phoenix who had landed on Minerva’s shoulder. He sat down. “Tell me everything, my dear.”

Minerva took another long, fortifying swallow of tea. After how cold she had been, Albus could hardly blame her. And then she continued in the same dead tone. “I followed Severus when he Apparated because there was—an air about him. Most of the time, when I see him in the corridors—I suppose I should say when I saw him—he’s hurrying to his office or to meals or making rounds to catch students. You know how he moves when he’s doing that. Striding or stalking. Preoccupied.”

Albus nodded. He had tried to encourage Severus to take an interest in more than the round of daily life at the school. It was one of his notable failures.

“This time, he was walking as though he didn’t want to be seen. Not the way he would sneak about to catch students, either. As though he didn’t think he had a right to be where he was. And then he did cast a Disillusionment Charm on himself.” Minerva swallowed again, this time without the benefit of tea. “I followed him as a cat. I was able to hang on when he Apparated. Onto his robe,” she added, with a brief smile that flickered and died before Albus could try to warm it back into life. “He never noticed me.”

Albus managed a smile himself, but it was shorter than hers. “And then?”

Minerva’s hands shook. She closed her eyes. “I never knew that he hated the Potters so much.”

“What?” Albus breathed, and felt a dark, sick wave break through him.

“He was plotting with another Death Eater to set up an ambush outside the Potters’ hospital room. The other Death Eater seemed like Walden Macnair to me. And apparently he’d already alerted Harry that he should come there, that there was a threat to his parents.” She looked up, her eyes burning. “He was planning to ambush a fifteen-year-old, Albus.”

Albus wanted to say that the boy was no ordinary fifteen-year-old, but the words died on his tongue. Hadn’t he already decided that Harry had Lycaon’s Syndrome? Which meant he was, in essence, a sick animal. There was no threat in that, no hope of revenge. Severus had done something petty and underhanded, terrible, for revenge on an animal.

It was a worse failure than I realized.

“And then what happened?” Albus whispered.

Minerva laughed. “I made myself visible to him. He—didn’t like that. From the way he attacked me, I am absolutely certain that he no longer considers us on the same side.” She wrapped her arms around herself, nearly upsetting the cup, which Albus rescued. “And since I’m hardly a secret member of the Order of the Phoenix…”

Albus nodded somberly. Most of the Order members understood that Severus might have to take extreme actions to maintain his cover, and in front of another Death Eater, that would ordinarily count.

But he had always alerted Albus when that had to happen. And this wasn’t a raid, or a battle. It was a secret ambush that had probably been set up with some hope of revenge in mind.

“What was his motive for setting up the ambush?”

Minerva looked at him and smiled without humor. “He blames Harry for Lily’s madness. He thinks that if the boy hadn’t existed, she wouldn’t have fought so hard to protect him, and the Death Eaters wouldn’t have tortured her in the first place.”

Albus hid his head in his hands. That perhaps wasn’t a common Death Eater motive, but it was—it was one. There was nothing Harry could have done to earn this, except being born and being the son of a woman, it was clear now, Severus had never stopped obsessing over.

“That was the only reason?” He still hoped, somehow, to hear something that would redeem Severus.

“I heard something he mentioned,” Minerva said, and her voice was reluctant, slow. “It might have been just a show for Macnair.”

“What was it?”

“That Harry is Neville’s friend, and that he might bring the boy before You-Know-Who so he could learn more about Neville’s weakness. Or torment him with it.”

Albus’s head drooped. Yes, that was the kind of excuse Severus would invent for cover.

Except that he shouldn’t need a cover for ambushing a student, or former student, in the first place. Except that Albus was so far from authorizing this that Severus must have been deranged.

Or, perhaps, so damaged that he had never even considered whether his vengeance was worth the cost.

“What happened then?” Albus asked wearily. He had to know the story, had to experience the worst, but he almost wished he could stop, and leave what had happened in the past.

“We fought,” Minerva said. Her voice trembled. “It was an exhausting battle. But he didn’t succeed in hurting Harry. I think that maybe Harry was never even fooled.” Now there was a note of pride in her voice, and Albus considered telling her about Harry’s disease, but decided that, in the end, her delusions would hurt less. “After that…well. I wounded Macnair, but not Severus, not badly enough.”

Albus studied her trembling hands. “You’ve been in hiding, haven’t you?”

“Yes.” Minerva sighed out the words and bowed her head. “More exhausting work. Severus has evidently invented some interesting potions, and I didn’t know that so many Death Eaters could Apparate so fast.” She looked up at him and offered a tremulous smile. “I’m sorry, Albus. I would have contacted you sooner, but with that pink woman here…”

“Yes.” Albus made his decision. He had been trying to go along with Dolores and the Ministry for now, lest his real plans for the Order attract too much attention. But this had gone far enough. “I plan to do something about dear Dolores.”

This time, Minerva’s smile was real. “Thank you, Albus. I think Neville and the other students need her gone more than they need anything else right now.”

Albus pulled her to her feet and hugged her. She was still trembling against him. “Rest for now, my dear, and for the next day. I’ve been covering the Transfiguration classes, and Horace has agreed to come out of retirement for Potions, for me.” He hesitated once more. “You don’t think Severus will ever come back, do you?”

“I think it’s safe to say that no, he won’t.”

*

Minerva straightened her shoulders and sighed down to the bottoms of her toes. The real exhausting performance had been walking the thin line in Albus’s office, convincing him to accept her back so she could help Neville and the other students here, and yet have enough flexibility that she could leave to tutor Harry when he needed her help. She had told Albus that she still wanted to see Severus punished, and might leave on his trail sometimes.

Albus had been disturbed, but he had let it go for the same reason he had let Severus’s obsession with punishing students go unchecked for so long.

And she hadn’t been able to lie. Mostly, one couldn’t, not to a Legilimens. But some careful wording, some stating of facts that Albus had thought were answers to questions, and she had danced with the truth just enough.

Of course, it’s easier to fool someone who already trusts you.

Minerva sighed and leaned against the wall as she rode the staircase down. Time to think about other things, like how Black had been so certain she wouldn’t be able to lie well enough and she’d done it anyway.

And the lessons she was going to continue to teach Harry.

Chapter Text

“Let’s see the progress you’ve been making in your training, Harry.”

Harry turned around and put down the book on the history of the Unforgivable Curses that Black had lent him to read. Black left him alone a lot of the time now, outside of meals. In return, though, Harry had to be willing to show him what he’d learned from Professor McGonagall every time Black wanted to see it.

Harry had to put Spellmaker on the floor first. She’d decided that she liked to sit on his shoulder, even though he hadn’t created her loyal to him, but her weight messed up the subtle flicks of the wand he needed to cast his Transfiguration spells.

Ignoring the cat’s displeased mews, Harry took a few steps away from the dark wood table in the center of the library with his books on it. He looked at Black, who stood by the entrance to the library with an intense look on his face.

“Go on,” Black urged him. “Whatever you like.”

Harry nodded and conjured a small flower, a simple charm that he’d learned in fourth year. It was a white daisy that he laid on the floor and studied for long enough that he thought he understood something about the shape of the petals and the length of the stem.

Then he flicked his wand and muttered the incantation that Professor McGonagall had told him to spend the majority of the week working on. “Commuto florem arcam.

The daisy trembled and shuddered a little. Then its petals changed to wood, and the stem elongated and flowed up to grow sides. When the magic was done, an imperfect wooden box lay on the floor. Its dark sides still had some of the white shade, and Harry could feel yielding petals when he reached down and poked at it.

“Hmm.” Black crouched down on the other side of the box and examined it in the same way. “Too slow, and the amount of concentration you have to do…that sort of spell wouldn’t be much use in the middle of a battle, would it?”

Harry stared at him. “Why would turning a daisy into a box be useful in the middle of a battle, anyway?”

“Point.” Black moved back with his head cocked and his eyes fixed on the box, his fingers tapping on his leg. “But that doesn’t mean that changing living objects to inanimate objects is never useful. There were some great Transfiguration masters of the past who could change attacking soldiers into stone, for example.”

“I bet some of them were your ancestors.”

Black smiled. “Why do you think I learned about it at a young age?” He examined the box again. “It’s strange. It does still feel like a flower when you touch it, but not the way mistakes did in Transfiguration class when I was young.”

Harry shrugged. “It’s probably just been a long time since you touched a Transfiguration someone did a terrible job on.”

“No. I remember the sensation—I remember it well, because I had a friend who was terrible at it and always asking me to check his work.” Black rolled his eyes. “Stupid Collier…But I still wonder what makes this different. Transfigure another one for me.”

Harry did, this time trying to spend less time concentrating on the daisy before he transformed it. It didn’t seem to help, really.

Black bent down in front of the Transfigured flower and stared at it as if it was fascinating, though. Then he picked up the broken box and rolled it between his hands. Harry stood watching him and wondering if this meant he could go back to reading the book on the Cruciatus soon. There was information in it that was at least new to him, even though ultimately it might not help him much.

“Hmm,” said Black. He put the box down and looked from it to the first one. Then he nodded. “Make me one more?”

“A daisy this time, or some other flower?” Harry wearily prepared to cast the spell again. He didn’t like doing things that only proved they were mistakes over and over, but Black’s gaze was oddly fixed.

“A daisy again. I want to see what it’s like with three examples.”

Harry shrugged, made the daisy, and again Transfigured it into a wooden box. This one was harder than the others, but had small green leaves sticking out of the bottom. Black picked it up and juggled it from hand to hand.

Then he reached out and gathered up the other boxes, with a sidelong glance at Harry for permission.

“Do whatever you like with them,” Harry said, waving a hand. He turned back to the desk. He had actual research to do, unlike the playing that Black seemed intent on.

“Thanks, Harry. You’re the best.”

Harry snorted and sat down, not looking away from the book in front of him. Sometimes Black sounded like a schoolboy younger than Harry. Well, Harry supposed that was appropriate, given that his sense of humor seemed permanently frozen at that age.

*

“I want you to brew me a potion that detects the presence of life-force in an object.”

“Impossible,” Severus said, without glancing away from the cauldron in front of him. The Blood-Replenisher Potion was just coming to a boil. “It cannot be done,” he added, when he realized Black was lingering. He reached out and swept the cauldron off the fire at precisely the right moment. “There is no life-force in objects to detect.”

He was turning to clean his hands when something clattered to his feet. Severus leaped back and instinctively tried to draw his wand, but he hadn’t had it in what felt like weeks. He grimaced and bent over to look at the boxes Black had thrown.

“I want you to take a look at those,” said Black, and his mouth twitched when Severus glanced at him. “Then give me your opinion about the potions again.” He turned and left the cellar, locking the door behind him.

Severus took a long moment to study the door, even though he had done it before when Black had immediately left and he had found nothing. The spells locking it and closing off the latch, hinges, and wood of the door itself from Severus’s touch were blood-keyed. Someone else would have to be of Black’s family to even touch it.

Severus might have tried to use certain potions to trick the magic into thinking he was a Black, but he had none of the ingredients for those potions.

At last, with nothing better to do, Severus picked up the boxes and placed them on the table in the center of the lab. The cellar Black and Minerva were keeping him in had at least been fully outfitted. There were even sharp knives for slicing and fine, thin cuts, although they all dulled their edges when Black appeared in the room.

Black was clever in a way Severus had never appreciated when he knew the man among the Death Eaters. It was another thing to remember, deplore, and get revenge for if he could.

They cannot keep me here forever, Severus thought, as he often did, while he arranged the boxes in such a way that they could withstand several blows of a hammer without falling or sliding off the table. They would have to tell Albus something. The Dark Lord will summon me. He will want to find out what happened to Macnair and the Lestranges.

But so far, his Mark hadn’t burned. The Dark Lord might be playing a waiting game, or…

He might have discarded Severus, the way he tended to do with Death Eaters who had once failed him.

Severus shook away the thoughts that could not help him now, and turned to the boxes. He recognized them almost immediately as the result of failed Transfigurations. One of them still had leaves, for Merlin’s sake. He sneered. Was baby Potter having trouble with his magic? Did Black think Severus would teach him?

They could force him to brew potions, but they couldn’t force him to teach the boy. Severus would prefer to be cut up and studied before that happened.

But Black had acted like there was something special about these boxes, so Severus sighed and reached out to lay his hand on the one with the leaves. He immediately gasped and snatched his hand back, staring.

Something had buzzed at him when he touched the box, as if there was a bee trapped inside it. Or, Severus had to admit after a moment, as if there was something alive in it. It had actually felt more like touching the side of a deeply sleeping animal than touching wood, even wood imperfectly Transfigured.

Wary, Severus let his fingers brush the side of each box. They all felt basically the same, although the one that looked most like a box had the most life in it, as if the animal was about to wake. For a moment, Severus suspected this was a trap and the boxes would change back into animals and eat him.

But no, there would be no point. He thought Black would enjoy torturing him too much to kill him like that. And the leaves suggested they had once been flowers.

Severus could not fathom the life force in them, though. Transfigured plants didn’t feel like that. Even Transfigured animals didn’t.

His fingers clenched, and once again, he wished for his wand. But he would have to rely on the observations of his senses. He bent down near the boxes, still instinctively flinching in case something reached out to him from them, and sniffed them the way he would with Potions ingredients when he was trying to determine their fitness to be used.

The smell of a living animal, warm, rank fur, rose to his nostrils.

Severus staggered back, shaking his head. This was—not possible. Transfigured animals could smell like that. Not boxes. Not flowers.

He found himself nearly bumping into one of the finished potions that was cooling in a large open flask before he could put it safely into vials. Severus moved to a stop and stood a moment with his arms folded, his eyes half-lidded, and calmed his breathing. He would have no power here if he was too excited.

This was—not possible. But it had apparently happened. And Severus was sure that it was a result of Potter’s magic.

His first thought was that Potter had simply discovered or used some rarer branch of the Dark Arts, something that was strong enough to trick the senses. But again, he had to admit Black would recognize that at once. Probably no one better, with that library of Dark Arts books upstairs plus experience as a Death Eater.

Besides, why would Black have brought Severus the boxes at all if he didn’t want outside confirmation?

To torment me.

Severus grimaced and shook his head. He knew better than that, honestly. Being a Death Eater meant Black knew better ways to torture him, for one thing. Like rendering him absolutely helpless and incapable of doing anything but what he was told.

His hand clenched again, but Severus turned back to the boxes. There was another explanation, although Severus was going off theory rather than experience. He had never seen anything like this before.

Potter was casting with almost pure Wild. He infused it into everything that he Transfigured, even things not meant to be alive.

Severus shook his head the moment he had the thought. It could not be so, because that was not what the Wild was. The Wild was life force and will and animal magic, and sometimes human magic for those who could expand their wills and imaginations to embrace it. It was present in Transfigurations that involved animals, either one animal into another or an animal into an object or from an object. It was not—

It did not belong here.

Even the fact that these boxes had been flowers did not account for it. Flowers were a different kind of living being, one that did not resonate with the Wild.

Severus’s next thought was that perhaps the boy had turned animals into daisies, then daises into boxes. But in that case, there was no reason for Black to bring the boxes to him. He would have understood the source of the Wild.

Too plainly, he did not. He wanted Severus to tell him.

Severus grimaced as he felt the draw wake to life in his mind, as present as that rank smell. He did not want to be intrigued by anything that infernal boy had done. But it was true that he was more bored here than he had been since the start of the war, and this was a puzzle like nothing else he had ever seen.

And if he gave enough good answers to Black and Potter’s probing questions, if he brewed enough of the potions they wanted, if he feigned enough meekness…

They might let down their guards. It was not impossible.

And when they did, Severus would be waiting.

*

Harry quietly shut the door of the ancient library behind him and stood near the wall, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He heard Bellatrix cackle, but he’d expected it, and it didn’t make him jump.

The Lestranges were tied up with bonds, as usual, this time on pallets that Black had conjured in the middle of the room. Black came in and used magic to unbind them and exercise their muscles at least once a day. He said if they were going to hold them captive, then they needed to make sure they didn’t suffer. He said it was humane.

Harry didn’t see that, but he was willing to acknowledge that Black was a lot more human than he was, even now.

“Has the ickle baby Potter come to see us?” Bellatrix made kissing noises at him. Harry studied the length of her throat. He imagined Transfiguring it into a swan’s neck, and then changed his mind. No, a giraffe’s neck would be better. Then her head would fall over, and she wouldn’t be able to lift the weight. “Baby Potter who still hasn’t decided what to do with us?”

Harry saw the way her fingers clenched around the rope bonds, and had to smile. Bellatrix tried to disguise it, tried to pretend that she was happy to stay here and wait for the chance to torment him, but it drove her mad that she couldn’t be out there torturing and slaying for Lord Dudders.

Well. Drove her madder.

“Leave him alone, Bella,” said Rabastan, wearily, sagging against his pallet as he stared up at the ceiling. “You know as well as I do that it’s never going to change, and we won’t get the chance to take revenge.” But he turned his head and eyed Harry darkly under lowered lids anyway, as if he was estimating the distance between them.

“You might,” said Harry, and cocked his head. He hadn’t brought Yar with him into the room, even though he had been tempted. She was too strong, and the Lestranges wouldn’t dare try too much around her. Even though Black didn’t want Harry torturing them, he hadn’t forbidden Harry to tell them about what had happened to Snape’s hand and Macnair’s. “You might be set free to duel me if you impress me enough.”

Rodolphus frowned, Rabastan hesitated, but Bellatrix lunged forwards against her bonds. “Set me free now, Baby Potter!” she screeched. “If you want to be fair about it…”

“But I don’t want to be fair about it,” Harry said, and took a step towards her. He felt his stomach surging and cooling as if someone was pumping cold water into it. “I want to be horrible. I want you to hurt. You tortured my parents.”

Bellatrix waited until she was sure she was watching, and then she nodded and licked her lips. “And they suffered so beautifully, I’d do it again. And again.”

Harry wanted to hit her. He wanted to cut her apart. But the cool anger let him hold onto his temper and say, “You’re going to help me help them.”

“How, ickle Potter? There’s no coming back from that kind of madness! I know! We did our little experiments, too, during the war.” Bellatrix chuckled hollowly. “We always killed them later, of course, but they’re not coming back.” She leaned towards him and lowered her voice even more. “Does Potter miss his mummy?”

Harry didn’t respond. He concentrated on the air above her, around her. Professor McGonagall had taught him to do the opposite of this when he was trying to Transfigure objects. Those had no Wild, and so he had to look at the object itself, and imagine it changing into whatever he was trying to create.

But living beings had Wild. And Harry wanted to see if he could sense a human being’s when he wasn’t in the middle of battle and just trying to stop them from striking him, or knock them down.

Bellatrix’s taunting went on, but Harry didn’t hear it. He was hearing something on the edge of his listening powers, something that interested him far more than her words. He knelt down, absently making sure he was out of reach as she lunged with her teeth snapping.

Yes. He could feel it. There was a sort of aura around her, a blanket of thick warmth and will that followed the outline of her arms and legs. It was weakest around the head, which surprised Harry, but after a moment’s thought, he decided he knew why. After all, the head could lose heat as well as get heated up. Why wouldn’t it lose the heat of the Wild?

“Little baby Potter,” Bellatrix sang, and Harry looked harder at her and then reached out to the Wild around her.

He didn’t use his wand. There was no object to manipulate. He didn’t actually want to Transfigure her. He wanted to see if he could alter the Wild around her body, and what would happen if he did, if he could make it flow and melt at his command.

Bellatrix shrieked.

Harry blinked. He’d fallen so far into the consideration of that warm aura that he hadn’t paid attention to what was happening with Bellatrix. He shifted the mice in his pockets, in case they had to protect him, and watched her.

Bellatrix sagged, panting, the minute Harry stopped concentrating, but she turned crazed, hate-filled eyes on him. “What are you doing? You can’t do that to me!”

Harry felt a small smile play over his mouth. Really, so many of the “fearsome Dark wizards” people were so scared of reminded him of Dudley. The one time a kid at primary school had stood up to Dudders, he’d been astonished. He was the one who chased people and beat them up and threw rocks at them. Not someone at him!

“You’re the only one who gets to torture people, right?” Harry asked her, gently. His hand was on his wand, but his attention kept wandering back to that aura of the Wild. It felt like velvet against his hands, or his mind, when he twisted his will the right way. “Of course you are. Of course you are.”

“Potter! Baby Potter! I hate you!”

Since Harry didn’t know how he’d actually hurt her before, he decided it wasn’t breaking his promise to Black not to torture them. He reached out to the Wild again, keeping one eye on Bellatrix in the meantime.

Her screams stopped suddenly, and her eyes went blank. Harry realized he was focusing on the Wild that fluttered around her head, the place he’d previously ignored.

Rabastan and Rodolphus were shouting at him this time, but Harry ignored them with the ease of long practice. He crouched down in front of Bellatrix and stared into her blank eyes, seeing the way her mouth twitched and a small line of drool was running down her chin.

She looked…just like his parents.

Harry let her Wild go abruptly. And then he turned and strode out of the room, ignoring their screams at his back again, but what he was shaking with wasn’t hatred or fear. It was excitement.

The Cruciatus Curse manipulates the Wild in someone’s body. I don’t know all the details yet, but it obviously affects the brain. It shut down some things, probably. Changes others. Warps them.

I don’t have to Transfigure brains if I can learn enough about manipulating the Wild.

*

Black knocked on the door of the library where Harry had pulled down several books on the theory of the Wild perhaps two hours later. “There’s a letter for you from Hogwarts, Harry. And Severus has discovered something remarkable about those boxes you Transfigured.”

“That they have an aura of the Wild even though inanimate objects aren’t supposed to?” Harry asked absently, twisting his head so that he could make out the small marginal annotation in the tome he held. “Yeah, I figured that out, too.”

He heard Black come to a stop behind him. “How could you? You didn’t touch those boxes after I took them to Severus.”

Harry rolled his eyes a little. When he called his enemies by their first names, it was because he wasn’t afraid of them. But Black kept sounding almost affectionate about “Severus.” Harry just hoped that he didn’t let his guard down around him. “I was looking at the Wild around Bellatrix’s body. When I touched it where it pooled around her head, she started to react the same way my parents do to most stimulation.”

“I told you not to torture them—”

“You specified the spells I shouldn’t use and the limbs I shouldn’t break. I didn’t even know that I could touch the Wild outside a spell.”

Black was silent for a few moments, and then he moved around in front of Harry, staring at him as he shook his head. “You’re always going to be cold and somewhat inhuman, aren’t you?”

“Probably.” Harry looked back at him with eyes that he had considered altering to take in more light like a cat’s, but he didn’t know enough about eyes yet to experiment, and blindness would weaken him. On the other hand, perhaps manipulating the Wild would give him another way to do it. “You got to me too late.”

“Well.” Black sat down on the other side of the table and looked at the books Harry had chosen with an absent eye. “It might have been too late from the time that you grew up in your relatives’ loving care.” He sighed. “At least this way we can find out what a gift you have. It has to be a powerful one, to manipulate the Wild like that.”

“And not limited to Transfiguration?”

“How did you know that?”

“That’s what some of the books said. They seem to agree that you could perform what are essentially charms and curses on people, as long as you had some definite end result in mind. But there are notes in most of the margins disagreeing with them. I have to read them to find out if I can really do that, or if it’s speculation.”

Black got up and came around the table, putting his hand on Harry’s shoulder. Harry stilled and looked up at him patiently. He had come to realize that both Black and Professor McGonagall liked to touch him, in ways that didn’t have anything to do with disciplining him.

Harry had decided to permit it. It would make good practice for when he got his parents back and needed to endure hugs.

“You’re still remarkable,” Black said softly. “I’ll do what I can to help you. To help you actually heal your parents, not curse them or hurt them further. For now, I think you ought to read your letter.” He nodded to the parchment he’d left lying on the table, which Harry had honestly forgotten about. “Your friend sounds angry. You should reassure him.”

“Why would Neville be angry?”

“It’s not from Longbottom.”

Harry blinked and opened the letter, and stared when he saw Terry Boot’s handwriting. He knew it from plenty of study sessions together, and he blinked harder as he realized that Terry had cared enough to write to him, instead of being relieved when Harry disappeared so that he didn’t have to put up with him anymore.

“It’s enlightening,” Black added, and disappeared out the door before Harry could even have time to be irritated that he’d read Harry’s post.

Harry settled back against the chair and read, absently stroking Spellmaker, who had found her way into the room and was curled up on the chair next to him. She purred, and somehow the sound ended up winding its way into Harry’s contemplation of the letter and making him think.

Harry,

I won’t use anything like “Dear.” You’re not. You’re an irritation and a prat. Why did you never write to me? You wrote to Longbottom, and you didn’t spend nearly as much time with him as you did with me. And apparently Granger and Weasley know something, too, and I know that you were never close with them.

I should just be able to give up and not write to you if I’m angry. I know you would probably say that. You’re so bloody practical all the time, you expect other people to be the same. But you can be stupid for all that you’re so smart, Harry. You never thought that other people might like to really know you, just because you didn’t care about knowing them.

Now, I want to know some things. What did you grow up like? Why did you leave the school? Were you really Transfiguring any animals that you wanted to out of objects, and how did you learn to do that?

And there’s something going on with Malfoy, too. Not that you deserve to know, not if you don’t reply to me, but I’ll tell you anyway, because that’s what friends do. Unlike you, Mr. Secret-Keeper.

He’s been strutting around more lately, and dropping dark hints about his father and “Potters in general.” I don’t really know what he can do against your parents, but he seems to think he can do something.

Reply to me, prat. Or don’t, and then I’ll consider this friendship closed and I can move on with the next chapter of my life.

Terry.

Harry rubbed his forehead, a gesture he’d picked up from Neville. He knew what he would have to say if Terry was here, even if he would probably punch Harry and think he was stupid. Harry had had no idea that Terry would be angry. He hadn’t thought Terry cared about Harry except as a mystery, a puzzle to solve.

Because that was the way Harry cared about most people.

Harry sighed. Terry had taken the time to write to him, and be honest, and warn him about Malfoy, and even if Harry hadn’t had the feeling that he would please Professor McGonagall by thinking about people other than his parents, that last part deserved some kind of reply.

It was just—awkward, because Harry hadn’t done anything like it before.

It took a lot of time, and hesitations, and asking Black for paper and ink because his first three tries didn’t work, but at last he was watching the owl fly away with the letter for Terry, and shaking his head.

It was strange, how people like Professor McGonagall and Neville and Terry and even Black seemed to care about Harry when he knew he didn’t do many things worth caring about. It wasn’t like they were his parents.

Then he went back to the books on the Wild.

Chapter Text

Thank you again for all the reviews!

Chapter Thirty-Six--Darker, Like Approaching Night

Terry knew he made a greedy snatch at the owl when it flew past him, but he could hardly help it. With none of the other Ravenclaws in the know about where Harry was, they would hopefully think it was news from his parents and nothing more.

He still didn't read the letter in the open, though. One had to be careful, with Umbridge around. He looked at the outside and rolled his eyes as if recognizing the handwriting pained him, then stuffed it into his satchel and flopped back in his seat with a huff.

"Okay, there, Terry?" asked Roger Davies, with a sympathetic smile. He hadn't put Terry on the Quidditch team, but since Terry spent so much time around the players and helped cast spells to do things like pull the Snitch back in when they were done, they were friends of a sort.

"Yeah, just a time-consuming letter to answer," Terry said with a sigh, and reached for the pudding. Now anyone listening would have their explanation.

"I have a great-aunt like that. She always wants to know about the Kneazle kitten she gave me when I was six. I keep telling her it ran off years ago, but she never remembers that from one letter to the next..."

Terry found himself relaxing as Roger rambled on, and he only had to nod and grunt and give a little chuckle in the right places. He was more intrigued by something he could see over Roger's head: Cho Chang and her friend Marietta Edgecombe whispering to each other. Now and then they darted glances at the High Table.

By itself, that wouldn't have caught Terry's attention, because all sorts of students looked at Umbridge to figure out what kind of mood she was in today and which way they'd have to jump. But what really mattered was that at one point Marietta gave a little nod, and Umbridge nodded back.

Terry stood up and left breakfast, intent on reaching Longbottom before his next class started. While he wouldn't say they were close friends, and he didn't know for certain that this affected the DA, there was too high a chance that it did for him to feel comfortable. Umbridge went after no one the way she went after Longbottom.

And Terry owed him, a bit, for explaining how to reach Harry.

The letter rustled in his satchel, maddening, but Terry had learned patience since the pink frog invaded the school. He heard what was probably the noise of Gryffindors ahead, and lengthened his stride.

*

Dear Terry,

I know this is probably going to shock you, but I honestly never thought you would want to write to me. I know I haven't been a very good friend. I ignored you and lied to you and took off without a word. I've dropped people as friends for less than that.

But now that you did decide to write to me and ask questions, I'll give you the explanation you wanted.

I didn't know that magic existed or that my parents were alive until Professor McGonagall came to bring me my letter. I grew up with Muggle relatives I hate. They told me my parents were killed. And suddenly they were alive, and I saw them in St. Mungo' s, and I wanted to cure them. Professor McGonagall told me that was impossible, but I thought maybe it was just that no one had tried hard enough to find the cure before that.

I wanted to try Transfiguration. It's the best kind of magic. I thought that ever since Professor McGonagall told me what it was. The first thing I did was start studying Transfiguration harder than anything else.

That's why I can make animals the way I can. Animals that last. They're permanent. It takes me longer, but it means that my Transfigurations never run out or come undone. I chose animals because I thought that would help me, practicing with living things to get ready to practice on my parents, and because I knew I could