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Echoes from the Past

Chapter Text

Harry Potter rubbed his head against his upper arm, trying desperately to alleviate the itch he had there, but to no avail. With a sigh, he got to his feet and moved to the bathroom sink to wash his hands. It never failed, the moment he either got his hands dirty or otherwise rendered unable to scratch, he got an itch that just couldn't be ignored.

With a liberal amount of lathering, Harry quickly scrubbed the toilet cleaner from his hands before he reached up and began furiously scratching the offending spot. As he did so, he regarded himself in the mirror and winced in remembered pain as he caught sight of the fading bruise that marred his cheek. It was the physical reminder of what happened if he dared to stand up for himself when being showered by verbal abuse from his uncle. Somehow the man had learned of what had happened at the end of the last school year and had started taunting him about it. How he had learned, Harry couldn't know for sure, but he strongly suspected that Dumbledore had sent them a letter as they hadn't forced him to leave the house all summer. And it had been the headmaster who had told him that it was imperative that he remain at number 4 Privet Drive so as to be protected by the wards. What he didn't understand was why Uncle Vernon would heed Professor Dumbledore's warning; he hadn't been particularly concerned with his safety in the past.

Unable to come up with an explanation, Harry gave his forehead a final rub before turning his attention back to the toilet. His aunt had insisted that he scrub the entire thing several times to get rid of the horrendous stench that had been lingering in the small room ever since she and Uncle Vernon had taken Dudley out for Chinese on his birthday and they had all returned with a terrible case of diarrhoea. But, naturally, they hadn't blamed it on the food they had eaten but on him, saying that he had used magic to curse them and that was why he hadn't caught it.

Harry gritted his teeth in frustration as he picked up the sponge he was using and resumed his task. The irony of the entire situation wasn't lost on him. Only several weeks ago he had faced off one of the most powerful Dark Wizards of all time and walked away from the duel while now he was down on his knees, acting like a servant to some of the most magic-blind Muggles in existence.

The instant the thought crossed his mind, he wished it hadn't as memories of Voldemort's rebirth swam to the surface of his mind. Memories of the resurrection... and of Cedric's death. Harry savagely bit his lower lip as he desperately tried to block out the image of the Hufflepuff lying motionless on the ground where he had fallen. His glazed and blank eyes staring unseeingly off into space. But it was useless. Just as they had on countless previous occasions, the memories refused to be suppressed. A tear found its way out of his emerald eyes which were now shimmering with unshed liquid.

It was his fault, all his fault that Cedric was dead. If it hadn't been for him, then the Tri-Wizard Cup would never have been turned into a portkey and Cedric wouldn't have been whisked away to be killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Furiously, Harry scrubbed the toilet bowl, trying his hardest to push the thoughts and guilt away. Wasn't it enough that he could hardly sleep at night due to the nightmares? Did he have to think about it during the day as well? At times he thought he did, that he deserved it. But at other times sense took control and reminded him how no one who knew the truth of what had transpired had blamed him. Not even Snape had uttered a nasty word and Harry knew that he could count on the Potions Master to speak his mind. Yet that didn't prevent the memories from returning. Especially when Dudley or his uncle taunted him about having murdered Cedric.

The Boy-Who-Lived growled in anger at the thought of his family. The first time Uncle Vernon had mentioned the Hufflepuff's name, he'd been too stunned to respond, but that hadn't been the case the second time. No, instead he'd given in to temptation and had defended himself. After all, he had faced Death and Darkness, why should he just stand there and take the abuse? At least that's what had gone through his head at the time. He'd been too tired from several sleepless nights and too angry at being worked harder than a house-elf to think straight. If he had, he would have known not to provoke his uncle. But it was very difficult to go from having defended himself against Voldemort to simply standing by and letting the abuse rain down upon him.

So he'd responded with some remark about magic and had been knocked to the floor before he even realized that his uncle had moved. Being hit was nothing new for Harry, but he'd never been hit that hard before. Indeed, he'd simply lain on the floor until Uncle Vernon had dragged him up because he was still too dazed by the force of the blow.

With a shake of his head, Harry gave the toilet a final swipe before getting to his feet and washing his hands once more. Putting away the cleaning supplies, he pulled the list of chores from his pocket and crossed off the one he'd just done. Next he had to clean Dudley's bike which had gotten dirty the previous day when it had fallen in the mud. Harry rolled his eyes as he went to the store room to get a bucket and several rags. What did it matter if the bike was clean or not? It wasn't like his cousin was ever going to ride it. And even if he did, it probably wouldn't support his weight for more than a few minutes anyway. For, despite Smeltings' best efforts, Dudley had hardly lost any weight over the course of the school year. He'd probably gotten food sent to him by his mother who didn't want her poor Duddleykins to starve and he'd more than gained back what he'd lost since the start of the summer as Aunt Petunia had given in to his incessant whining and stopped the diet altogether. At least for her son. Harry's rations hadn't changed any, that was when he was fed at all.

Harry had just put a squirt of liquid soap into the bucket and was about to add water when the doorbell sounded.

"That's strange," Harry muttered to himself.

At the start of the summer, the Dursleys had finally commenced leaving him alone in their 'precious' home. Not because they wanted to, but because Mrs. Figg had made some comment about it being weird that a boy of Harry's age still needed constant supervision. Not wanting anyone to think that there was anything 'abnormal' about their family, the Dursleys had decided that they could no longer get a babysitter for him. This had first resulted in him being locked in his room the whole time, but then Aunt Petunia had complained that it left so much work undone. They had considered making him do it all at night, but they didn't want people to see lights on and start questioning why someone didn't go to bed. And they hadn't wanted Harry to have free reign of the house while they were helplessly asleep.

Harry snorted at this, angry that they considered him so low as to attack someone while they didn't have a chance to defend themselves. Or that he would do anything like that to them at all. Not that he wasn't tempted or anything, but he knew better than to give into those flights of fancy. Besides, he wasn't allowed to do magic when away from Hogwarts and no matter how much he disliked the Dursleys, he was not going to get himself expelled on account of them. Indeed, that would only result in him having to spend more time with them!

"Coming!" Harry called out as the doorbell was rung for a second time.

Quickly, he unlocked the door and opened it, suddenly becoming self-conscious of the bruise on his face as the blue eyes of the man standing on the porch were instantly drawn to it. Harry was about to ask him what he wanted when the eyes drifted up to the scar on his forehead.

"H... Ha... Harry Po... Potter?" the man stuttered in awe.

"Yes," Harry responded, shocked as he looked the man over.

There was nothing about him to suggest that he was a danger, but he would never have guessed that he was a wizard either as he was clad in the green clothes of a Muggle delivery man. Yet he had to be considering his reaction. It seemed that some wizards at least had the ability to disguise themselves correctly.

"I have a delayed delivery for you," the man-wizard declared as he reached into the bag he carried and took out a bulky letter.

"Oh," the green-eyed boy stated, wondering who could possibly be sending it to him. All his friends would have sent it directly via owl.

"Eh... yes," the man confirmed, looking extremely nervous all of a sudden. "The instructions left with it when it was originally placed into storage state that it is to be delivered to Lily Evans or, in case of her passing, to you on the 20th of July of this year. So, naturally, here I am."

"Mother?" a stunned Harry whispered hoarsely after several seconds of uncomfortable silence.

"Yes. I'm sorry."

The young wizard simply nodded as he reached for the package, desperately hoping that whatever it contained would give him another link to his parents.

"I'm afraid that I must ask you to sign this form before I can give it to you," the delivery wizard stated, bringing a clipboard with a parchment and quill attached to it before Harry. "Confirmation of delivery and all... you know."

"Huh? Oh," Harry said, before he quickly scribbled his name down and then grabbed the package.

"Good day to you," the man said, tipping his hat before he turned around and left.

"Bye," Harry responded absently as he stared at the package he held.

Whatever it contained had been intended for his mother, and yet the sender had foreseen the possibility that she may not be alive anymore. So it must have been placed into storage before her death. But why would anyone have a package delivered fourteen years or more in the future? Why didn't the sender just give it to his mother?

As he closed the door, Harry turned over the package and froze. There, written in deep purple ink on a piece of parchment that was fastened to the bulky letter, were the delivery instructions. Only, in addition to what the wizard had told him, the instructions went on to explain to whom the package was to be sent in case he too had been either dead or unreachable:

Severus Snape.

"What the bloody hell?" Harry whispered in shock as he stared at the writing.

Why would a package originally intended for his mother have his Potions Master listed as one of the alternative recipients? Was there some connection between the two that he was unaware of? He knew his father and Snape hadn't gotten along at all, but no one had ever said anything about his mother. He had automatically assumed that she would be against him too in the same way Hermione was against Malfoy even though the Slytherin was primarily his enemy. But then, why hadn't anyone told him? Especially Dumbledore. The headmaster wanted him to trust and respect the greasy teacher, and telling him that his mother had been friends with him would definitely have helped to achieve that. And, if it was true, then why did Snape still hate him so? Was his hate for his father so much greater than his friendship with his mother that he'd completely overlook the fact that he was also Lily Evans' son?

Harry shook his head in confusion. None of it made any sense whatsoever. Perhaps there was an answer in the package though. He was just beginning to open it when the antique clock his aunt had recently bought chimed three times. Gasping in surprise, he froze once more as he thought of his chores. Uncle Vernon had only agreed to letting him out of his room when home alone if he had so much to do that he couldn't possibly get into any trouble. That meant that he was given an insane amount of work each day which he couldn't finish no matter how hard he tried. This then led to his uncle accusing him of having been lazy or of having gotten into mischief and therefore he was punished.

The past few days had been no exception and his empty stomach rumbled loudly to prove it. If he didn't do at least several more chores in the next two hours, then he wouldn't be getting any food again and risk being locked in his room whenever the family went out. Never mind the fact that none of them could ever find any evidence of the so-called trouble he supposedly got involved in whenever he didn't finish his work.

With a heavy sigh, he realized that he simply couldn't afford to open the letter now because, if he did, he'd be unable to put it down until he'd completely devoured the entire thing and inspected it for any new information on his mother. He really needed to eat something soon if he didn't want to suffer any serious side-effects. Especially since he had finally started growing taller over the summer which meant that he needed more food than usual, not less.

His decision reluctantly made, Harry quickly ascended the stairs and went to his room. There, he carefully placed the package under the loose floorboard to make sure that it wasn't seen. Heading back downstairs, he mentally reviewed the list of chores he had been given and groaned as he realized how much he still had to do. Although perhaps he'd be able to simply pretend that he'd dusted as he'd done so only two days ago and Aunt Petunia wouldn't be likely to tell the difference. But that still left him with the laundry, the dishes, and the hoovering after he finished cleaning up Dudley's bike.

Chapter Text

Harry popped the last piece of bread into his mouth and washed it down with some lukewarm tap water before he rushed upstairs.

He'd been lucky when cleaning Dudley's bike as the mud had easily come off, giving him enough time to finish a reasonable amount of his other chores before the Dursleys had returned home. The fact that they'd been a little late had helped too. Uncle Vernon had grumbled about the remaining work but since he had a customer over for dinner, he had quickly left him alone in favour of getting his documents in order. Aunt Petunia had absently given him two pieces of stale bread with some cheese which had accidentally been left out and gone hard as she began pulling the dishes she'd prepared earlier that day out of the fridge.

Harry hurriedly brushed his teeth before his uncle came up to lock him in his room for the night. At least his dinner had been better than Aunt Petunia had intended it to be. While the cheese was hard at the edges, the inside was still good and he had silently enjoyed it, making sure that Dudley didn't notice his pleasure. After quickly washing his face, he left the bathroom just as his uncle got to the top of the stairs.

"Into your room," Vernon roared as he reached out and grabbed his nephew's upper arm, dragging him into his bedroom. "And I don't want to hear a peep out of you this time. If my client so much as suspects that there is someone else in this house, than you won't leave this room or eat for a week! And you'll be able to forget a ride into London to catch your school train!"

"Yes, Sir," Harry replied meekly as he was thrown to the floor.

Inside he was seething, but he knew the other was serious and he didn't want to risk missing the Hogwarts Express a second time. He could just imagine what Snape would have to say about that! Not to mention that he'd simply be causing another inconvenience for Professor Dumbledore and he knew the aged wizard already had more than enough on his plate since Voldemort's return.

Satisfied, Vernon slammed the door shut and Harry could hear the bolt slide into place as it was locked. Waiting until his uncle's footsteps had faded, he got to his feet and scrambled over to the loose floorboard. There he retrieved the letter and climbed onto his bed, making himself comfortable before he carefully began opening the package. First he detached the instruction letter from the envelope and laid it aside, its message still confusing him. Then he turned his attention to the letter itself.

He had only just pried one side loose when something small slid out of the envelope and onto his lap. Picking it up, Harry instantly recognized it as a Gringotts key.

"What?" the young wizard muttered to himself.

Who would be sending his mother a vault key? And more importantly, why? Had his mother had some family who had left her a sum of money? No, that couldn't be it, she had been Muggleborn. A friend then? But why? And why have it sent to Snape otherwise?

Curiosity piqued, Harry placed the key on top of the instruction letter and unsealed the other side of the envelope. Carefully opening it, he found a folded piece of parchment. Picking it up, he checked to make sure that there was nothing else in the package before letting the envelope fall to the floor. Briefly he just looked at the parchment in his hands, apprehension creeping up on him. He suddenly felt like an intruder, like he was doing something he wasn't supposed to. This was his mother's mail he was going to read after all. But then, the sender had intended for him to receive it should she be unable to.

With a deep breath, Harry unfolded the letter, realizing that his hands were trembling slightly as he did so. He would have to talk to Professor Dumbledore when school started again and see what he could learn about his mother. That he could get so worked up about a piece of parchment intended for her was ridiculous. Or perhaps he could mail Sirius or Remus, they had known her on a more personal level.

All thoughts abruptly fled from his mind as he finally managed to unfold the letter and caught sight of the first two words written on the page in the same deep purple ink as the instructions:

Dear Harry,

Completely confused, he looked down to the bottom of the lengthy parchment and froze in shock as he read the words that ended the long letter.

Love,
your mother, Lily

"Mum," Harry whispered softly.

What was going on? This letter had been sent to his mother and yet it contained a letter from her for him. Attempting to read it, he found that his hands were shaking too much to do so. His mother had left him a letter! It was the closest he could ever come to communicating with his parents. Sure, he had memories of her, but it was of her death, when she was addressing Voldemort. Here, on this slightly discoloured parchment before him, was her writing. Writing that was meant for him! It was something that had been done with him in mind. Everything else he had of her or his father were things they'd possessed or photos of them. None of it was something which they'd gotten for him. None of it really provided him with a connection to them, not even the photos as he had no memory of the events recorded in them.

The sound of the doorbell rudely startled Harry out of his thoughts. Listening carefully, he could make out the sounds of his uncle opening the door and welcoming his client before introducing him to Petunia and Dudley. As the voices faded, he knew that they'd moved into the sitting room. Steeling himself, he turned his attention back to the letter and began reading it.

Dear Harry,

Before I say anything else, I want to tell you that I love you, I love you with all my heart. If you are reading this letter, then I am dead and most likely have been for some time so I want you to know that you mean everything to me and that the day you were born was one of the happiest days of my life. In fact, the only day that compares to it was my wedding day. So if I've never been able to tell you this in your memory, rest assured of the fact that I loved you with all my heart.

Harry quickly lay the letter aside as tears began to roll down his cheeks, not wanting the drops to fall on the parchment and smudge the ink. Sirius had told him of his parents joy the day of his birth, but to read his mother's admission of it made it so much more real. And it increased the pain of not having really known his parents. Damn Voldemort. Why did he have to kill them? Why couldn't he just have left them alone?

But Harry knew why. Because they had fought against him. Fought to prevent him from spreading his Darkness over the whole Wizarding and Muggle Worlds. Not for the first time, he wished that his parents hadn't gotten so involved in the war as to draw the Dark Lord's personal attention. Yet he knew that it would have been cowardly for them not to have done so when so much depended on the outcome. Besides, if they hadn't then who knew what may have transpired? They might have lived for a while, but it would have been in a world where the Dark Arts ruled supreme and his mother wouldn't have been safe for long considering that she was Muggleborn.

With his hand, Harry reached up and wiped the tears from his face as he stood up. He quickly got a tissue and blew his nose before setting himself back on the bed and retrieving the letter. Taking a deep breath, he turned his attention back to the writing.

My son, as I have said, if you are reading this then I am dead. If this is so, then there are a few things which you probably don't know that are vitally important. So important in fact, that my simply putting them down on parchment is extremely dangerous. James has repeatedly warned me against doing so, but I must just because I have one of those feelings that it will be needed. In case you're wondering what I'm talking about, it seems that I have a gift for premonitions. There are times that I get this feeling about something for no reason. I simply know and right now it is telling me to write this letter to you. It is an insurance if you will even if it could result in disaster should it fall into the wrong hands and I can only pray that it won't. But if you are reading this then my premonition was correct.

Harry, darling, before I go any further, I must warn you that if both James and I died before your memory, that this letter contains secrets that will change everything as James and I are the only ones who know the full truth and I fear we will take it to our graves. You see, this secret is so great that we couldn't reveal it to anyone. Only one other person knows of the deception, but even he does not know about all of it, and I am told that he is dead.

Worried, Harry put the letter down. What secret could be so great that his parents would tell no one else about it? Not even their closest friends or Professor Dumbledore? And why send the letter to Snape if it contained such vital information? It seemed like his mother trusted the Slytherin greatly as she was willing to let him in on such a secret. Strange that she could trust him so when his father absolutely hated him.

On the one hand, Harry really wanted to read on and see what was so important that it required such secrecy, but on the other hand, his mother's warning unnerved him. What did she mean by 'secrets that will change everything'? It was hard to imagine that there could be even more information about his life that he didn't know considering how much he'd already discovered had been hidden from him. And if there was something else, he wasn't so sure that he wanted to learn it. Yes, there were plenty of things about his life that he wished he could change, but he wasn't ready for yet another life altering revelation. He just wanted a normal life, dammit! A life that didn't completely change every so often when people decided to finally enlighten him about some critical aspect of himself.

The anger abruptly left him as Harry remembered his mother's statement of the danger of sending him the letter. She obviously thought it important enough to tell him this truth that it outweighed the dangers it posed. And it was lucky she had thought so seeing how her premonition had been on target. Why hadn't she acted on that impulse in some other way? Had it been impossible to do so or had she acted but that it simply hadn't aided her?

Deciding not to dwell on the past with questions he couldn't get answers to, he looked down at the letter in his lap. Part of him wanted nothing more than to put it aside and never read it again, but he knew he couldn't do that. He briefly considered holding off on reading it, surely a few more days of ignorance wouldn't hurt? But he knew that he didn't have the willpower to do that, especially considering that he was locked in his room with nothing to do. Besides, his mother had wanted him to receive the letter today so time could be critical for all he knew.

Decision made, Harry picked up the parchment once more.

I feel that it is important that I tell you something before I begin my tale. I am writing this letter from our home in Godric's Hollow which we purchased secretly when it was decided that James, you and I needed to go under the Fidelius Charm to hide from Voldemort. Despite the fact that James would be furious with me if he knew what I was writing, I want to state that although we told Albus Dumbledore and Remus Lupin that we would use Sirius Black as our Secret-Keeper in this endeavour, that James and Sirius finally decided to use Peter Pettigrew instead. Their reasons are many but I don't like it in the least. I've never liked Peter very much and I definitely don't trust him with our lives. The two of them also decided to keep the change a secret as it would be safer for us that way. But this means that if anything goes wrong that nobody will know the truth and I fear for Sirius which is why I want it on parchment that it is in fact Peter Pettigrew who is our Secret-Keeper. I know that if things did go wrong that this information will come to light long after the fact, but I think that it's better late than never.

Harry stared at the letter in shock. Here it was, the proof that could clear his godfather's name! He knew that there were spells to verify who had written a particular document and thus they would be sure that this letter was from his mother and that he hadn't betrayed them or was working for Voldemort! Once the Ministry knew that Sirius wasn't his parents' Secret-Keeper, they would have to listen to the rest of his story or at the least use Veritaserum on him and then the full truth would come to light! Wait till he told Sirius! He'd finally be able to walk around as a free man again and he'd be able to take him in so he'd get away from the Dursleys!

And maybe it would make the Ministry think twice about not accepting his account of the Dark Lord's return. After all, part of the reason why Fudge hadn't believed him was because of his previous story of how his godfather wasn't a Death Eater and how he'd been framed. And even if Fudge didn't believe him, others in the Ministry might or at the very least it would give more credit to his and Professor Dumbledore's claims to the public.

Now, on to the reason why I actually wrote this letter in the first place. What I am about to tell you is a long, complicated and possibly tragic story. As you have probably been told, I was in House Gryffindor when I attended Hogwarts. Seeing how I am Muggleborn, I didn't know anyone when I first arrived at school. On the train, I'd met a boy named Remus Lupin. We'd gotten acquainted with each other because he'd been sitting alone and thus I'd asked to join him. Luckily we ended up in the same house where we quickly met James and Sirius. The three of them hit it off instantly. Remus introduced me and I became very good friends with them, but since I'd already made friends with a group of girls, I split my time between the two groups. Out of the three boys, I became best friends with James. I still don't know why, as all three of them were very nice even though Sirius never seemed to take anything seriously. Anyway, James and I became close and as the years passed many people, both students and faculty alike, thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend.

This, Harry, is where the truth begins to deviate from what most people believed. You see, neither James nor I saw each other in that way. James was like a brother to me, the sibling I'd never really had as my sister, Petunia, and I had never gotten along, especially after it was discovered that I was a witch. James saw me the same way as he was an only child due to the fact that his mother had died shortly after his birth. We were both amused by everyone else's opinion but we did nothing to discourage it.

"What the hell?" Harry muttered as his brow furrowed in confusion.

He'd often been told that his parents had been together since they were attending Hogwarts and now that didn't seem to be so. At least not in the way he'd been told. And how did they go from being like brother and sister to husband and wife? That was like saying that he and Ginny would end up marrying each other and while he really liked her, the thought of wedding her was completely wrong to him. Or had his parents simply not recognized what they felt for each other? Ron certainly didn't seem to understand that he liked Hermione in that way while everyone else did.

The reasons why we allowed people to think we were involved are the following. For centuries the Potter family and the Farsic family have been bitter enemies. No one remembers how the blood feud started, but the various acts committed in its name have made it impossible for it to just be ignored or forgotten. Over time, various individuals from both families have attempted to end the feud but it has proven impossible. In the end, the feud led to the destruction of the Farsic family and I fear it will result in the end of the Potter line too though no one knows of this.

You see, James' grandfather found an old and very powerful curse that renders the victim completely infertile. Knowing that he was the last of a long and proud heritage, Charles Farsic thought long and hard before taking revenge. He imitated James' grandfather by going back to ancient tomes in search of forgotten curses. There he found one that was perfect for his needs. After checking to make sure that there was no counter-curse and no known cure, he cursed James, who was six at the time, with the Gatyal curse. This spell, which does no physical harm to the victim, assured that should the victim ever marry out of love that the spouse will die a very painful death. Charles knew the morals of the Potter family and thus knew that James wouldn't wed if it wasn't out of love.

James' father and grandfather tried long and hard to find a cure, but were unsuccessful. However, since Charles perished shortly after casting the curse, almost no one outside of the Potter family knows about it. James told me about it after Sirius first teased him about us. I was the only one at school who knew as he didn't want me to fall in love with him as he didn't want to end up in a sticky situation.

At the time, however, I wasn't even interested in guys that way so I told him we could let everyone assume that we were together as that way no one would go for him. He didn't want to do it as it would make guys think that I was unavailable, but I didn't care as I had no interest in having a boyfriend yet. So we allowed the illusion to continue while James and his father searched for a cure.

Harry stared at the parchment in shock. He had never heard of this feud or the curse before. Why hadn't anyone told him? Surely it would have been a big magical accomplishment to have found a cure to such a powerful and ancient curse. So why had it never come up before? Had his father kept it secret like the curse had been covered up? But that didn't make any sense, wouldn't he have wanted any future victims of the curse to know how to overcome it like he had and go on with their lives?

With a sigh, Harry looked at the clock. Seven thirty. He'd been reading for some time now and he only had more questions rather than the answers which he'd expected to find contained within the contents of the letter.

This illusion went on like this until our sixth year. During the summer before that year, I had finally started getting interested in guys and soon thereafter in one guy in particular. I'd caught him glancing at me in the past but had written it off as a hateful look as he was a Slytherin and I was involved in the inter-house feud. But just before Halloween, I began to wonder if it might not be something more because once I started observing him, I found that he seemed to be looking at me as much as possible without being obvious about it.

To this day, I still don't know what possessed me to do what I did next, but when we ended up alone together in an unused part of the castle, I confronted him about his behaviour. He tried to deny it until I told him that I liked him. The expression on his face was priceless, especially considering how in control he normally was. As expected, he asked me about my relationship with James and I told him that things weren't what they seemed. Naturally he wasn't really convinced, he'd always been extremely suspicious and it wasn't until later that I was to find out why. He assumed that Sirius or James had noticed the way he regarded me and decided to play with his feelings. He stormed away from that encounter. But I had what I'd come for, I knew that he really did like me and more than just as a potential friend.

I then went to James and explained the situation to him. He was horrified that I could possibly have fallen for a Slytherin, much less for the person in question. He tried to get me to change my mind, to make me see what he believed to be reason, but I was adamant. In the time it had taken me to build up the courage that allowed me to finally confront him, I had noticed more and more things about him. I had also come to the realization that I had never really disliked him to begin with. I'd simply allowed James, Remus and especially Sirius' opinion of him to cloud my vision. I'd always taken what they had said about him as fact without bothering to look deeper or to stop and think about how much of what they saw was reality and how much was the Slytherin-Gryffindor feud. It didn't take James long to come to the conclusion that I was serious at which point he dropped the matter as he didn't want to ruin our friendship over the situation when he saw that I really liked 'the slimy Slytherin' as he called him.

In order to help convince the person in question of what I'd said, James and I started to keep more distance between us when around others. Looking back at that time now, I can easily see how everyone thought that we'd had some argument. Sirius and Remus did their best to try to figure out what had occurred and they even forced Peter to talk to me to see if he could succeed where they had failed.

None of this, however, seemed to convince the person of my affection of my sincerity, even when I talked with him. I was really starting to lose hope as I didn't know anything about his personal history, so I didn't understand how he could want me and yet mistrust me so completely. Seeing my dejection, James decided to take the matter into his own hands. He really, really disliked him and saw him as a personal enemy, but he was able to put all that aside in order to help me and for that I am eternally grateful as his sacrifice was to change my life forever.

Harry sat frozen on his bed, too stunned to continue reading. From what the letter was saying, it sounded like his mother had had a serious crush during the time he'd always been told she and his father had been inseparable. Why hadn't he been told of this? Had they all just felt it was unimportant? If so, than why was his mother telling him about it in a letter she said contained major changes? Completely confused and knowing that it was pointless to simply dwell on the subject, he continued reading, hoping to get some answers soon.

With the use of his invisibility cloak, James was quickly able to corner my Slytherin and have a little 'chat' with him as he likes to say. I never learned exactly what transpired during that meeting, but I got the distinct impression from both of them that it wasn't pretty when I questioned them about it afterwards. Whatever happened, James seemed to be able to convince him that we weren't really involved which is quite an accomplishment considering that he didn't reveal the truth about the curse.

Anyway, it was only two days later that I was approached by the guy who had by that time truly captured my fancy. At first things were a little awkward, but we quickly hit it off and became very close. It didn't take long for problems to surface, though. The Slytherin-Gryffindor rivalry was more intense than it had been for centuries due to the rising tensions in the Wizarding World and Voldemort terrorizing everyone in his rapid climb to power. The majority of the Aurors came from Gryffindor while all the suspected Death Eaters were from Slytherin. So our friendship, as it was seen by those few who'd seen us together, was really looked down upon.

It was at this point when James came to the rescue a second time. He said that if he and I began acting as before, that no one would suspect the truth while he'd lend me his cloak to go meet my love. By this time, though, I had learned all about my boyfriend's past and I knew that he'd had a horrible childhood. He came from one of the oldest wizarding families and his father had forced him to live up to his heritage and had never thought twice about using physical punishment in order to enforce his way. He had never been very open about this, but I knew he'd been hit a lot and otherwise abused. The reason why he acted the way he did was the result of both his father's and society's expectations of him. His family wasn't known for being the nicest of people and they were generally seen as cold and cruel. It was this side of him that most people saw and by which they judged him, never bothering to look deeper at the real him underneath the act.

Knowing all of this, of how the people who should have loved and protected him had beaten him instead, I knew that we had to tell him the truth as he still had a hard time trusting anyone due to the way his trust had always been used in the past. James was reluctant because he still didn't trust him, but he finally agreed to do it for me. It took some convincing, but my boyfriend ultimately went along with the plan as he knew he couldn't afford for the other Slytherins to discover the truth lest it get back to his father who was very anti-Muggle and Muggleborns. This arrangement worked very well and for a time everything seemed to be going well. Everyone was convinced that James and I were back together again while those who had seen me and my boyfriend together assumed one of us had been attempting to get something from the other and had failed. Everything was going perfect with the two of us growing ever closer until he dropped a bombshell.

With the advantage of hindsight, I now know how much trust it took in me on his part to do what he did, but I didn't see it that way at the time. I didn't see it and nearly destroyed our relationship and his ability to ever trust again. Although we'd gotten extremely close over the months we'd spent together, I had always known that there was something that he was hiding. I'd never pressed him on the issue as I knew he'd tell me about it sooner or later when he was able to do so. But also because my sixth sense was on alert again. Every time that he would seem preoccupied with something, or that he'd get this pained expression, I just knew that it was bad. I almost didn't want to know what it was, but I had long since decided that I would listen if he wanted me to.

So it was on an evening in mid-April when we were together in the Astronomy Tower that he told me. The moment I'd walked into the room, I'd known that that would be the evening as he was tenser than I'd ever seen him and the entire room was saturated with a feeling of dread. Upon seeing me, he froze, indecision clearly visible on his face. Knowing that he was going to back out of something he'd thought important enough to tell me, I nudged him and he finally told me. Or rather showed me as he simply looked me right in the eye as he pulled up his left sleeve and revealed the Dark Mark etched into the flesh of his forearm. Needlessly to say, I was horrified. That mark represented all that was Evil and Dark. It stood for all the violence, destruction, terror and death that was engulfing the Wizarding World in its clutch. But most importantly to me, it represented the idea that witches and wizards like me and all Muggles were somehow less than those who had a magical heritage. That we were inferior. So I was horrified to see it branded into the skin of the person I loved.

My initial reaction was to pull back as everything Sirius had said about him being a Death Eater came flooding back to me. I think he tried to talk to me then, but I didn't hear any of it. My whole mind was focused on the mark that symbolized servitude to Voldemort and support of his ideals and methods. I remember looking up and asking him point blank if he was a Death Eater and he said he was.

I panicked.

I rushed to the door only to find it locked. At this I drew my wand and trained it on him, surprised to not only not find his wand in his hand, but that it was laying on the floor before him, just out of his reach. He begged me to listen to what he had to say before I did anything. At my hesitation he told me that he would never hurt me because he loved me and that I was the reason why he wanted out of Voldemort's circle.

Unable to believe that my love would use me, I relented and allowed him to tell me his story. What he told me horrified me even more. It seemed that his father had been attending Hogwarts at the same time as the Dark Lord and had been one of his original and most loyal followers. He had also pledged his children to him. Because of this and his exceptional talent in potions and the Dark Arts, which his father had taught him, Voldemort demanded that he join his ranks on his fourteenth birthday. With his father being a Death Eater and having no one whom he trusted to turn to, he did the only thing he could and pledged himself to the Dark Wizard.

He admitted to me that at first he enjoyed himself as he had access to all the information and knowledge that the Ministry forbid. He learned the Dark Arts rapidly and for the first time in his life he had some real power. Instead of constantly having to cower before his father, he was the one making others shake with fear. His skills didn't go unnoticed for long, however, and he quickly gained Voldemort's personal attention and was sent on missions. It was here that he started to doubt what he was doing as he saw what was being done to innocents. That combined with his growing interest and then relationship with me made him wonder and question what he was doing.

He told me that the longer he was with me the more he began to despise and hate what he was participating in before he finally concluded that he wanted out. Only he didn't know what to do as he couldn't just stop attending the meetings as he'd surely be killed when he returned home for the summer.

Upon hearing all of this, I was no longer as horrified or angry as I had been, but I didn't know what to do or say so I simply asked him to unlock the door and left. He later told me that he was sure that I was leaving him forever and that he seriously contemplated jumping from the tower before deciding that it was the cowards way out. It still hurts me to think that he ever considered the idea at all. It took me a few days to digest what I'd learned but after that I realized how big a decision it was for him to betray his family. For that was ultimately what he was doing. No matter how they'd treated him, they were still his blood and he was turning his back on them and risking his very life for what he now believed to be right. Once I'd come to this conclusion, I sought him out and told him that I still loved him for finding the courage to do what he was.

After several more meetings and a lot of discussion, I'd managed to convince him to go see Dumbledore as I knew he was leading an organization that fought Voldemort but did so on its own without the Ministry's interference. He was hesitant but finally agreed that the Headmaster was his only option. He went to see him on a Wednesday evening and seemed to simply vanish. When he didn't appear for classes the next day and I didn't see him around, I freaked. James, observant as ever, noticed both his absence and my behaviour and confronted me on it.

I was so worried that I told him everything. As it had with me, the information shocked him but since he wasn't emotionally attached to my Slytherin, he managed to work his way through it much faster than I had done and he said that Dumbledore would probably have used Veritaserum on him to be sure that he wasn't a spy, in which case he probably wouldn't be able to attend classes. As usual, James turned out to be right and I saw my love the next day. I was only just able to contain myself until we were alone before barraging him with questions.

It turned out that the truth serum had been used and that the Headmaster had offered him two options. He could contact the Ministry and get him a reduced punishment for willingly surrendering and sharing his knowledge or he could continue attending meetings and then report back to him. Knowing that the information he could provide would be invaluable as he was often with the Dark Lord's inner circle, he took the latter option. I was terrified for him when I heard this as I was sure that he'd be found out and killed. But he told me that he had to do it to make up for all he'd done during his time on the Dark Side.

Harry gaped at the letter as the meaning of what he was reading sunk in. Snape! His mother was talking about Snape! His mother had dated and loved his greasy and mean-spirited Potions Master!

No, it couldn't be. It was impossible. It just ... couldn't be true! It had to be a mistake. Perhaps there was another Slytherin who had been brilliant at potions, who was a spy for Dumbledore, and whom his father and Sirius had hated with a passion. Even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew it couldn't be true, there were simply too many similarities for it to be possible. So why hadn't he heard of this before? It explained a lot, though. Their relationship had probably ended badly and that would only add to the hate Snape would have felt for James Potter's son.

When I told him that I'd revealed the truth to James, he got really worried as he was afraid that he'd talk but I assured him he wouldn't. The next time we met, I brought James along just so that he too could tell him that he'd keep the secret just as he had kept James'. At this point my love informed us that he hadn't brought up our relationship so the Headmaster was as much in the dark as ever on the matter. The two of us continued meeting like before and James would occasionally join us. Over time the two of them were able to put their differences aside and even become friends. It became a game for them to see who could yell and insult each other the best when others were present and then be friends when alone.

Our seventh year passed like this with no one ever suspecting the truth. Remus and Sirius were aware of James' and my comings and goings but they assumed that we simply slipped away to have some privacy. The truth in this particular case was so far from what everyone expected that even if any of them had stopped to think about all that they knew that they would never have realized what was actually going on.

It was shortly after our graduation that my boyfriend proposed to me. He told me that we could have a secret marriage with James as our witness if I agreed because, due to his spy work, our relationship still had to remain a secret lest Voldemort learned of his involvement with a Muggleborn. He was so nervous when he asked. I didn't even hesitate and we were married two months later as there were hardly any preparations to be made seeing as we couldn't invite anyone. Due to the need for absolute secrecy, the two of us wore our rings around our necks with the strongest invisibility charms placed upon them so that there was no chance of anyone accidentally seeing them.

At this, Harry dropped the letter in shock. Married?! His mother and Snape had actually been wed? He flopped backwards onto his bed, dazed. Although there was no name attached to his mother's first love, he knew it had to be none other than his potions professor. And yet he just couldn't picture him as being anything other than cruel and nasty. Sure, he knew Snape was acting out the part expected of him by the remaining Death Eaters and now the resurrected Dark Lord, but he still couldn't imagine him being kind or gentle.

Or in love.

He knew that any kind behaviour on his part towards him, the Boy-Who-Lived, would be reported by Draco to Lucius, yet this didn't help him see Snape differently. Either he was a brilliant actor or something had happened between when his mother knew him and now that had completely changed him. Rolling over, Harry reached down and picked up the parchment.

By this point, the war had seriously escalated and my husband was called away more and more while I commenced to take an active role in fighting Voldemort even though he wanted me to not get involved so as not to draw attention to myself. But I couldn't just stand by and do nothing, especially when Dumbledore approached me to join his order. When the two of us did manage to get some time alone together, we discussed the future and what we would do once the Dark Lord was vanquished. It was never a matter of 'if,' but of 'when.' He wanted to settle down someplace quiet where he could work on his potions and we could have a family. Both of us wanted a child, but neither of us wanted to bring one into a world filled with pain, hate and suffering.

We took all the precautions necessary and that was why I was stunned when I discovered, several months later, that I was pregnant. I wasn't sure at first but I had my suspicions so I went to a Muggle doctor who wouldn't be able to tell anyone anything if my suspicions were correct. They were, I was two weeks along. I was simultaneously overjoyed and horrified. I was ecstatic that I was having a child, but terrified of what would happen if anyone found out. I knew from what my husband had told me, that Voldemort demanded that all the children of Death Eaters become his servants as well and I didn't want him learning of my child's existence.

Upon returning home, I didn't know what to do. On the one hand I really wanted to tell my love as I knew he'd be thrilled at the prospect of being a father, but on the other hand I knew that he would worry excessively about the child's future and safety. Not wanting to add to his already great burden, I decided to hold off on telling him until after he returned from his next mission as it involved a massive show down and I didn't want him distracted.

It was to be my fatal mistake.

You see, the battle was every bit as great of a clash as Dumbledore had expected it to be and more. An entire wizarding community was reduced to rubble, its inhabitants were for the most part slaughtered as they were caught in the crossfire between Aurors and Death Eaters. But worst of all for me was the fact that my husband never returned. I waited anxiously for days afterwards, wondering what had happened to him and if he was presently with the Dark Lord who often kept his followers with him for a few days after a major offensive, or if he was wounded and in some hospital somewhere, unable to contact me for fear of blowing our secret. It wasn't until James showed up on my doorstep with the news that several Aurors had seen him laying dead amongst the wreckage before the entire place had gone up in flames that I even let the possibility that he might never be coming back to me enter my consciousness.

At first I refused to believe it but when I heard Alaster Moody talk about having seen the body himself, I fell into despair. My husband was dead and I'd never told him about his child, that he'd be a father. Not knowing what to do, I did as I had so often in my life, I went to James for help. He was shocked and horrified but quickly came up with a plan. Since no one knew of my marriage, my pregnancy would raise unanswerable questions and if Voldemort heard that I was carrying the child of one of his Death Eaters, he'd come to claim the child. So James concluded that the only option available was for us to get married and for him to lay claim to my child until such time when it became safe for the truth to be unveiled at which point we could get divorced. Knowing that there was no alternative, I agreed.

"No!" Harry breathed out in a stunned whisper.

It couldn't be. This could not be leading to what he thought it was! He was not the child in question, he was not Snape's son! Besides, it couldn't be Snape after all; he wasn't dead.

But neither did it make sense for him to be the son of someone other than James Potter as that was whom he resembled. Everyone who'd known him had remarked on the startling similarities between the two of them! So what had transpired then? He was sure he'd had no sibling, even half ones as Sirius had gone on at great length in one of his letters about how proud his parents were when he was born and how they'd acted as typical parents who'd just had their first born, double checking everything and following the books to the letter. Besides, there simply wasn't enough time between his parent's graduation and his birth for there to have been another child.

So this meant he had to be the son of his mother's first husband. Of this Death Eater-turned-spy. Harry shook his head in denial at this revelation. Things just didn't add up! And how could his mother and James have managed to fool everyone into thinking that they were together all along? How could they deceive even their closest friends like Sirius and Remus? Could it really be that they had bought the act because they had wanted it to be true? That they had wanted them to be the 'golden couple' as he'd heard them referred to?

Needing confirmation, Harry returned his attention to the letter.

As you have no doubt figured out by now, Harry, that child is you. For your protection, James claimed you as his own and gave you his name, but your original birth certificate bears your father's name. If things have gone badly as I fear they may, then I know that this must come as a complete shock to you as you have probably been raised to believe that James is your biological father. I want you to know that while he isn't, James loves you dearly and would do anything for you. He always tells me that you're like a nephew to him and that he hopes that you will be able to honour your father one day by redeeming his name, memory and sacrifices.

If you have been raised as a Potter, then I know this may seem strange, but James never intended for you to bear his name any longer than necessary. This has absolutely nothing to do with him not wanting for you to have it, but he felt it only right that you have your father's name. It seems that your father had asked him to look after me should anything happen to him and James extended that to you as well. The two of them became very close and I often thought of your father being the serious friend James needed while Sirius allowed him to be more of a kid. To James you are what remains of him and he doesn't want to take that away as he feels it would be a betrayal of his friendship with your father.

Now, if you have been raised as a Potter, I know all of what I've said will probably come as a complete shock to you and I can only imagine what it must be like to learn that the man you've been told is your father really isn't. As for your name, while it was my intention to alter it as soon as it was safe to do so, I know that if you've grown up with the name Potter that you may not wish to change it now and I can completely understand that. Just know that if you do wish to claim your birth name, that you shouldn't hesitate on account of James. He wouldn't want you to not do so because of him.

I'm sure you're probably really anxious to know who exactly your father was. The reason I've avoided mentioning his name so far is because of his death. Despite the fact that I've heard first hand accounts from people who saw his body and the fact that its been well over a year and a half since his disappearance, there is still some part of me that won't believe that he's dead. Part of it is probably because I never saw his body which is supposed to have been destroyed by the fire. Whatever it is, I still hope that he may be alive out there somewhere, unable to return home for some unknown reason. I know this sounds insane but I can't ignore my feelings on this issue no matter how hard I try.

If I happen to be correct, then there is a chance that you either know or have heard of your father in which case it is vital that you remember that he has no knowledge of you! I made the fatal mistake of waiting too long to tell him, so if he somehow managed to survive and happened to return after my and James' deaths, then he will probably think that I left him for James and that you are the product of that union. This may seem really strange to you, that he would believe that, but you must take into account your father's past. Every time he trusted someone before, he was betrayed. I was the first person who hadn't done so with James soon earning his trust too, but it wouldn't be inconceivable for him to think we betrayed him. Especially with the evidence he would have to support those conclusions. James and I were legally married, we moved in together and you were born a full month late, something which is almost unheard of. So it would be logical for him to simply count back nine months and believe you were conceived after he left on his mission.

It pains me tremendously to think of what he'd go through if these are indeed the conclusions he came to. It tears me apart to think that I could cause him such pain but there is nothing I can do. I'd send him a separate letter, but if he is indeed dead then it would end up being sent to Snape Manor and I can't risk his mother learning the truth of your heritage for fear that she might take that knowledge to Voldemort. For you see, your grandfather perished at the same battle that supposedly has claimed your father's life. And your grandmother is also a supporter of the Dark Lord.

Pretending for a moment that my greatest fears do indeed come to pass, then your father would probably dislike or even hate you as he'd view you as the child he had always wanted but never had. And you'd be the proof that I cheated on him or quickly moved on to another before he was even cold in his grave. So you must disregard anything he may have said or done to you if you do know him and have been in contact with him for if it was anything less than friendly that is probably why. Harry, son, I beg of you to give him a chance if this is so. Please do it for me if for nothing else. Deliver him of all the pain he must be feeling and tell him the truth if he is alive.

It is entirely plausible, though, that he is actually dead, in which case you will need to go speak with Albus Dumbledore, if he is still alive, to get more information on him as he got to know your father quite well during the years they worked together. He won't know anything about our marriage, but he will be able to talk to you about him. From what I have told you here in this now extremely long letter, you know that he was once a Death Eater, but I hope you don't judge him by that as his heart was never really into it no matter what he believed. Yes, he used it as a way to gain power for a while but had the courage and goodness to turn his back on Voldemort and risk his life to provide the Light with priceless information which has saved countless lives. Your father was a good man even if he could hold grudges longer than anyone else I know with the exception of Sirius.

Without further ado, I give you the name of your father:

Severus Snape.

Harry stared at the name, so elegantly written in deep purple ink, unable to do anything else. Just as he'd originally thought, the man his mother had fallen in love with and married was none other than the Potions Master who strove to get him expelled from Hogwarts. For several endless minutes that was all his overloaded mind could deal with. But after that it was as if a floodgate had been opened and thoughts came rushing in.

First and foremost, he couldn't help but wonder how the man had survived the battle if he'd been seen dead. Considering that he knew him to be very much alive, the Aurors had obviously been mistaken. But why had he been gone for so long? Why hadn't he returned? Since he clearly hadn't returned by the time his mother had written the letter, it must have been something very time consuming. He'd have to ask him about it, or better yet he could see if Sirius or Remus knew anything on the subject.

The next thought to force its way to the forefront of his mind was the fact that he wasn't an orphan. His father was alive! The thought was swiftly followed by memories of just who his father was and what he had done and said in the past. How could the bitter and bitingly sarcastic man be the same person whom his mother described? How could someone so frozen have loved so much? Could it really be due to the reasons his mother had offered? Attempting to imagine how he'd feel if he'd disappeared for some reason only to return to not only find his wife remarried but to have another man's child, he cringed. The thought hurt like hell and yet he didn't even know what it felt like to love someone so much that you'd do anything for them. If that was really what Snape had gone through, then he could begin to understand why he wouldn't want to get close to anyone again. But to get so cold? That didn't really make any sense to him but he figured it could be due to his upbringing.

Harry blinked as he suddenly realized that he was justifying Snape's behaviour. Why was he doing that? Was it because he was unable to believe that his mother could have loved someone like the man Snape was now? Or was it just that he couldn't bear to be related to someone so cold that he had to have been a better person once?

His father.

The proof was before him and he somehow knew it to be true, after all it did explain a lot about his potions professor's behaviour and other things, like why the Sorting Hat had wanted to place him in Slytherin, yet he couldn't accept it at the same time. It was as if his brain had divided into many little subunits each of which believed something else.

If all of what his mother had said was true, then Snape really couldn't be all that bad and was simply taking his Death Eater charade to a higher level and was using it as an excuse to get revenge on him for the betrayal he believed his wife and friend had committed. It couldn't be easy for him to see him everyday for the better part of a year and to be constantly reminded of Lily which he knew must be the case as he'd often been told that he possessed his mother's eyes. And on top of that, everybody talked about her and James as if they were destined to be together and had been together ever since their school days. It had to have a terrible effect on him, it must feel like the love he'd had was nothing important as no one even knew about it. As if it was simply insignificant.

Harry couldn't help but see the man who had sired him in a different light than he had before. Sure, ever since he'd learned that he had risked his life to spy on Voldemort for years, he'd come to respect him. Especially after he'd seen him agreeing to go do it again when he could just have remained within the safety of Hogwart's barriers. But he had never understood him, never grasped why he acted so mean even when they were alone. He'd been hurt and badly so and his mere presence was like salt in that wound.

So he could at least partially understand Snape's behaviour... but his father?! That he still couldn't quite grasp. It was just too unreal. And that his mother clearly wanted him to alter his name to Snape was just too much. He'd always wanted for his parents to be alive and now that he actually had one of them, he didn't know what to do or how he felt about it. Snape wasn't the type of person he'd imagined his father to be, even if he had been different before. Did that part of him still exist at all or had it been crushed by years of pain? Even if he had changed as a result of what had occurred, had he ever been as his mother described or was it her biased opinion of him? He'd been told that someone in love couldn't see the faults of the one they cherished. But James had become good friends with him and had done so despite there being a lot of bad blood between them so there had to have been something there.

With a sigh of frustration, Harry turned his attention back to the letter even as he wondered once more how he could possible look so much like James if he was Snape's son.

Due to the secrecy of our relationship, Severus and I couldn't collect too many mementoes, but we did get some, mostly photos. Since Severus' mother and father resided with him at the Manor, he couldn't take but a few of them home with him. I kept them hidden in my house and moved everything to Gringotts vault number 968 just before the Fidelius Charm was cast. I have enclosed the key in the envelope so that you can go look at them when you want to. You will find items from before the marriage, ones from during it and ones from after your birth.

Harry only just managed to contain his cry of joy as he read this. His mother had left him a collection of her things! As well as the means by which he could view just how Snape had been then as the photos would give him a glimpse of how he'd been at the time.

And finally to another critical matter. You've no doubt been told that you resemble James, this is the result of a series of charms and a potion that James and I cast upon you. Even before your birth we were aware of the fact that it might be necessary to disguise you in order to make the deception work. We researched appearance altering charms but none of them seemed good enough. The ones that changed your appearance enough didn't last for very long and those that lasted long could only be used for minor things. The only charm we found that did work could easily be undone and we didn't want to take that risk. It was only after months of fruitless labour that I stumbled across a combination of two charms and a potion that seemed to fit the bill. It alters one's appearance greatly and if the hair of someone else was added to the potion than the illusion would resemble that person.

This disguise will last for fifteen years and then it will begin to crumble. It will happen slowly, but about six months after your fifteenth birthday, your real appearance will have returned and there is no way to recreate the illusion. I hope that this isn't too great of a horror to you as you were so cute before we had to disguise you and I have no doubt that you will grow into a handsome young man.

Harry groaned as he read this. He didn't even know what he thought about his father and now he learned that he would end up looking like him whether things worked out or not! What if Snape didn't want him? Then what? The thought pained him more than he cared to think about. He had longed far too long for a parent to be able to take rejection from him even if they'd never liked each other to begin with.

A glance down revealed that there were just a few more lines to the letter.

Harry, honey, please get to know your father if he is still alive as it will do both of you a lot of good. And give him the other letter contained in the envelope which you may read should you wish.

Love,
your mother, Lily

Chapter Text

Harry furrowed his brow as he reread the last few lines of his mother's letter to him. What other letter was she talking about? Picking up the envelope, he double-checked it to make sure he hadn't missed anything. Finding nothing, he examined his letter once more. Now that he thought about it, the parchment was exceptionally thick. Bringing one of the corners to him, he rubbed his fingers along it, looking to see if it was indeed two separate sheets stuck together.

After several attempts, the corner finally split into two sheets and Harry took each in one hand and carefully pulled them apart. At first the parchment resisted, as if glued together, but then it suddenly gave way. Completely pulling them apart, he saw that this letter was written in green ink, Slytherin green actually, and that it was the ink which had caused the two pieces of parchment to stick to each other.

For the second time that evening, Harry hesitated, feeling like an intruder for thinking of reading the letter. But his mother had given him permission to do so and it would give him a better sense of his parents' relationship. Yet he wasn't sure he wanted to know about it. Sure, there couldn't be anything else contained within its contents that could completely alter his life again as the other letter had done, but it would probably drive home the point that his mother and Snape had been together. Had married, loved each other... slept together.

Harry instantly pushed the thought from his mind. It had to be true if he was actually the Potions Master's son, but he really didn't want to think about that. He didn't want to think at all right now. What he did want to do was forget about everything that he'd learned this evening and simply continue his life like before. But that was impossible now. For all that Snape seemed to think that he led the perfect life, he knew his was one of the worst in the school. Sure, he was famous and looked up to by the majority of the students and the Wizarding World, but he didn't want that fame and recognition. And he sure as hell didn't want the home life he had. How many times had he ever wished to simply be able to pretend that something wasn't real or that it hadn't occurred? He'd long since lost count.

Harry knew, though, that just like all those previous times, he couldn't simply forget what he'd learned. He supposed that he could ignore it and pretend that nothing had changed, but people were bound to wonder when his appearance started morphing right before their eyes. Even if no one else put the pieces together because they'd add up to something they didn't want to acknowledge, he doubted that Snape would be so blinded. Especially if he ended up resembling him. Then what? He knew the man wouldn't be happy about having been kept in the dark and that would only serve to make things even worse.

Worse than what?

Harry stiffened at the thought. It was hard to imagine things getting any worse than they already were. The potions professor had done his utmost best to ridicule him and make his life as miserable as possible since day one. So what if he was angry at being left in the dark? What could he do that he wasn't already doing? Nothing!

His smug mood abruptly left him as his mother's plea came back to him. She had desperately wanted for them to get together as they would have been if there hadn't been any Voldemort. But the fact was that the Dark Wizard had existed, and still did for that matter. He existed and had torn their family apart, scattering them.

Harry frowned at the thought. Family. He'd never thought he'd ever use the word in connection with Snape, much less as a part of his family! Yet he apparently was despite all the bad blood between them. He also couldn't overlook the underlying pain and betrayal that fuelled that clash on Snape's side. His optimistic side also insisted on pointing out the fact that if things couldn't get any worse and if Snape was acting the way he was for the reasons his mother had stated, that things could only get better. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. But what would he be gaining exactly? A father that he didn't even know wanted him. If he did want him, then he wouldn't have to come back to the Dursleys. Yet his mother's letter also ensured that he wouldn't have to do so anyway as Sirius would be free as soon as the Ministry was shown the proof they needed to know that he was not his parents' Secret-Keeper.

His parents. It was amazing how easily the word meant his mother and James even though he now knew it wasn't true. Snape, his father. Strange how detached he was when thinking that. Logically he knew it was reality and what it meant, but emotionally he didn't. Not at all. And it was his emotions that were in control now. He knew it must be easier for him to deal with this revelation considering his life than if he'd grown up with James and had always believed him to be his father. But it still didn't sit well with him. He'd always believed the man to be his father, he'd looked up to and admired him and clung to everything people had told him about the Gryffindor wizard. He'd always wanted to become the man James would have wanted him to be. And now he learned that none of it was true. The man wasn't his father, wasn't even a blood relative of his.

Even as the thoughts crossed his mind, Harry knew that it didn't really matter whether or not they were related by blood. James had always been there for his mother and later on for him too that it scarcely mattered. If anything, this new information on him should only increase his current feelings for the man as his selfless acts were worthy of nothing but admiration. But he couldn't help but try to deny what he'd just learned. He had spent his life thinking of the man as his father. To have him replaced by Snape wasn't an option. Not that he had a choice in the matter. One didn't chose who their parents were.

Frustrated, Harry shook his head. No matter what, James would be special to him. Besides, if the present situation was anything to go by, then Snape wouldn't exactly be butting his old friend out of that place in his heart. Indeed, it was entirely possible that it would be easier to simply keep on thinking of James as his father than to accept the reality of Snape being it as he wasn't sure if the man would reject him or not. The thought pained him more then he cared to think about. Hoping to distract himself from the implications of the emotion, he turned his attention to the aged parchment in his hands.

Dear Severus,

I can only hope that you will one day be reading this letter for it will mean that you are alive and didn't perish at Rowena's Glade as I have been told you did. Unfortunately it also means that I am dead. I know that sending this package is extremely dangerous, especially with all the secrets contained within the letters. But if it had been impossible for the package to be delivered to either myself, Harry or you, then it matters little if someone else discovers the truth as it will no longer be able to endanger us.

Now, I've no doubt that you're wondering why I sent this letter to Harry. The reasons are the following: first and foremost is the fact that you've been officially proclaimed deceased and it is only my feelings that tell me this may not be so as the battle took place over a year and a half ago. Secondly is the fact that it will affect him even more than it will you. For you know half the truth and he doesn't know any of it if things go as I fear they might. What I mean with that is that I believe James and I may die before this war is over and that we will take important knowledge with us.

Harry shook his head as he read this. His mother obviously hadn't thought that the letters would stick together otherwise she wouldn't be repeating herself. Although now that he thought about it, he realized that she hadn't really intended for Snape to read his letter as he doubted the man would appreciate him knowing her suspicions about his childhood home life.

I know that you are confused about my statement of you knowing only half the truth. This is because after the Battle of Rowena's Glade, James and I were forced by necessity to layer even more deception upon the truth. You see, something went very wrong. It led to a fantastic event that I wouldn't change for anything, but it sprung from one of our precautions gone awry. If you're alive then you no doubt know about Harry. Now, before you let your anger take control and throw this letter down, I beg that you read what I have to say! Please Sev, Nista, do this for me as things are not what they appear to be!

Nista? What was that, Harry wondered. A nickname his mother had come up with for Snape? Or did it have some other meaning? A middle name, perhaps? But why call him by his second name, that didn't make any sense so it probably was a lover's endearment for him. But Nista? He just couldn't picture anyone calling Snape that, much less his allowing himself to be addressed as such. Just imagining it was enough to make him giggle before he fell back onto the bed as laughter overcame him. He could just see Snape's sneer at being addressed anything other than his name or title. If he wouldn't lose house points for doing so, he would probably attempt it just to see his reaction. But he didn't think the amusement worth the points, not to mention the fact that he didn't even know what the nickname meant. He supposed it had to mean something as most pet names did, but it wasn't English, nor Latin as far as he knew. Though, granted, his Latin was limited to the spells he knew. He could probably ask Hermione for if it did have some significance then she was sure to discover it. But what if it was something like 'honey' or 'darling' or some other traditional lover's name? How would he explain having gotten hold of it then? He had no intention of telling her the truth yet, not until he had figured out how he felt about it and what he'd do as a result. And even then he might decide not to tell his friends.

Although Harry's last name is probably Potter, he is not James' son! He is your son, Severus, yours! I don't know how it happened as we took all the necessary precautions, but it did. I learned of it right before the Battle of Rowena's Glade, but I decided not to tell you of it as you already had too much on your mind and I didn't want to add to that burden as I knew you'd fret over the safety of the child and of how it would complicate things once it became visible that I was pregnant. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but how I wish now that I could go back and alter things!

I know how much you wanted a family, how much you wanted a child, and it pains me to no end to think that you may never know that you have one.

Harry squinted, trying to make out the next few words which were completely smudged. Unlike the other letter which was written in neat and elegant cursive, this one started out neat, but progressively got messier. It was almost as if his mother's hand had gotten unsteady and had begun shaking as she wrote. Not that he could blame her. It was clear that she had loved Snape and to write a letter to a loved one who was either dead or whom she'd probably never see again had to be horrendous. He felt tears start to form in his eyes as he tried to imagine how she must have felt. As the tears spilt down his cheeks, he suddenly realized that his mother must have been crying as she wrote the letter and that that was what had smudged the next few words as well as various other segments of the letter.

Wiping his tears away and blowing his nose, Harry brought the letter closer to his face and struggled to make out the words. He was determined to read each and every word his mother had put on parchment.

I know that you're probably wondering how Harry can possibly be yours as he was born nine and a half months after we last were together and the reason is very simple. I carried him for ten months, something which is rare but not completely unheard of. At the time this was literally a lifesaver but I can see how it has probably led to disaster. You see, after the battle and your alleged death, I was caught in a bad situation. As far as anyone knew, I was single which would cause uncomfortable questions when my pregnancy started showing and the last thing I needed was for the truth to be uncovered while Voldemort still lived as I knew he'd come after Harry if he knew.

This is where James came to the rescue. As soon as he heard of my predicament, he took steps to fulfil a promise he'd made to you. In order to protect both Harry and me, the two of us got married and James claimed our child as his own so that no one would become suspicious. It is here that my ten month pregnancy was so good as it made it appear as if he was only conceived after the marriage.

Severus, you must believe me when I say that this is all that there was behind James' and my wedding. There was no romantic love involved. Indeed, even today, over a year and a half later, James has yet to find a way to break the curse Farsic cast upon him, and I fear he never will. We had every intention of getting divorced as soon as it was safe to do so. As for Harry, James was so dead set against taking your son away from you that he forged a birth certificate and put the fake one into Harry's medical files so that the original one bore your name. Naturally the fake certificate won't stand up to any of the validity tests, but there is no reason for anyone to doubt it so he considered it worth the risk as we planned to alter Harry's name upon our divorce.

However, if you're reading this, then that probably never transpired as things went wrong. If so and you returned after my death, then you probably assumed that Harry was James' son. It breaks my heart to think of the pain this must have caused you!

Harry stopped reading once more as he reached a particularly messy part of the letter. The fact that his own eyes were starting to water again didn't help much either. He was vaguely surprised at this as he had never been one to cry, his uncle having always punished him when he'd done so as a child. Yet his mother's pain cut him deeply even if he still didn't know what to think of the man who had apparently sired him. That his mother had suffered so hurt more than any physical pain. Especially since he knew she hadn't been able to gain any happiness before her death.

With sudden inspiration, Harry stood up and held the aged parchment to the light. As he'd hoped, the original wording became clearer through the green smudge.

When I think of the way you will no doubt feel should this come to pass, I become sick with pain and guilt. I can only think of how I should have told you about your son! But I didn't and it's tearing me apart. Please forgive me, Nista! I love you so much and did what I believed to be best. I can't take away all that you suffered due to my mistake, but I hope that this letter may deliver you of any further pain. I have always been faithful to you and you are the only one I ever loved. It is my greatest hope that you and Harry can get together and be the family that you once dreamed to have. I know things can never be as they should have been, but I hope you can be the family that I'm sure you both need.

Harry paused as his mother repeated her plea. It had obviously been her greatest desire to have the two of them united if at all possible. Not that he couldn't understand this hope. He'd want his family together too if he were in her predicament. But she didn't know what was to transpire between her writing the letters and his receiving them. People changed over time and she seemed to have forgotten to take that into account.

Yes, he was willing to admit that he didn't truly know Snape, but the man definitely didn't seem to be someone who'd desperately wanted a child. He would have said the Potions Master disliked children based on his attitude, especially towards the first years. The only people he ever showed any kindness to were the Slytherins and even that was probably nothing more than part of his Death Eater act. Someone like Lucius Malfoy would not take kindly to one of his colleagues verbally abusing his son.

Yet Snape was a teacher, a profession which involved constant interaction with children. True, he'd been told that the Wizarding World didn't take kindly to those it regarded as having escaped justice, but that didn't mean he had to teach. Surely Snape could have resided at Hogwarts and simply done research or something else with potions. So he must have some interest in dealing with kids and teenagers despite appearances. But why be so despicable? It only served to make him hated. Perhaps... perhaps it was a self-defence tactic as it would cause people to stay away from him and thus there'd be less chance of him being hurt again.

Now that he thought about it, Harry realized that it wasn't just the students who avoided the greasy Potions Master whenever possible. The other professors did it too, not talking with him unless absolutely necessary. The only exceptions to this seemed to be Professors McGonagall and Lupin and, of course, Headmaster Dumbledore. Which made a lot of sense considering that the Head of House Gryffindor had had Snape as her student while Remus had been classmates with him so they knew other aspects of the man than simply the mask he wore. As for Professor Dumbledore, well he was Dumbledore, the man who could see through any act or disguise. Not to mention the fact that he too had known the man throughout his Hogwarts years.

Harry paused as it occurred to him what he'd thought of the elderly wizard. Albus Dumbledore's uncanny ability to know exactly what was going on combined with the ease with which he read people had given him the impression that it was impossible to keep secrets from the wizard. And yet the two letters before him proved this wrong. Somehow his parents and Sn... and James had managed to not only lie to him, but to completely blind him to the truth. He had been just as deceived as everyone else.

Unless...

No, he couldn't know! If he'd known the truth he would have told him long ago as he'd always tried to create peace between himself and Snape and what better way to attempt to achieve that than informing them of their relationship? Besides, it would be just plain cruel to not tell the potions professor the truth if he knew. That would be worse than casting multiple Cruciatuses upon him as nothing hurt more than a broken heart and the betrayal of a loved one. Yes, Professor Dumbledore could be manipulative at times, he admitted to himself as he thought of all the occasions he had refused to answer or avoided answering his questions until he deemed the timing appropriate, but he wasn't cruel. No, he definitely didn't know the truth of what had transpired right under his nose.

Harry wondered just how they'd managed to accomplish that. Sure, Snape was undoubtedly a brilliant actor or else he would have been killed long ago by Voldemort for betraying him, but what about his mother and fa- James? How had they done it? Had they been good actors too or had it been a combination of luck and the headmaster's wish to see them together? Perhaps wish wasn't the right word, but rather expectation? If Slytherins and Gryffindors always fought each other, he found it unlikely that anyone would expect members from the two houses to become romantically involved. Much less a pureblood from a family of known Muggle haters with a Muggleborn. Still, it was hard to imagine that a love could have blossomed without anyone noticing.

With a sigh, Harry pushed the thought from his mind. No matter how unlikely it seemed, it had apparently transpired which was all that mattered at the moment. Looking down at the letter in his hand with the smudged green ink, he frowned, unsure about whether or not to continue. He really wanted more insight into his mother's thoughts but it was all so depressing and it hurt to read the pain laden narrative. Her pleas caused his heart to clench painfully, especially when he thought of his hesitation about completing her greatest desire.

Sev, knowing you as I do, I am certain that you will now be angry with yourself for your assumptions. For doubting James and I. Please don't! As you can see, I am entirely aware of what you thought and that is due to the fact that I can see it too, that it is the logical conclusion to draw from the facts. Remember, James and I did our utmost best to make it appear as if we were really together and in love as so much depended upon it. It is only natural that you thought that the deception had become reality with the information you had available to you.

Please don't be too harsh on yourself. You've already suffered far more than anyone should no matter what you may think. I don't blame you so please don't blame yourself. Not for something completely beyond your control. If I knew of any way to sooth the pain you've undergone, I'd do it in an instant, but I can't and it tears me up inside. I hope that our son may be able to give you some of the family we should have had.

I collected all of the pictures and mementos we had and placed them in a Gringotts vault. Harry should have the key as I wanted him to be able to see what we were like together as the truth is no doubt unbelievable to him right now. I can only imagine what it must be like to learn that your whole life is based on false information and it's not pretty. Please help him, Nista. Help him see who we were and give him a home and family. I know you both need it. You need each other.

Harry blinked back new tears as he read this. He wondered just how his mother knew that he'd always wanted, needed, a family. He wasn't really sure he cared to know. Her premonitions gift could just as easily be a curse if it allowed her to see the misery and pain the future held for her family. The tears began to roll down his face as he thought of his mother and how horrendous she must have felt sitting before a table at Godric's Hollow, writing these letters and knowing that she probably wasn't going to see her husband again while fearing for both her son's and her own life as Voldemort attempted to track them and James down. If she had even been able to get a glimpse of what was to come, then she must have been in agony. It was the worst form of torture he could imagine. He knew he'd go insane if his family was threatened and he could do nothing about it except sit back and hope for the best.

Harry began to cry harder as he thought about it. He wished he could just go back in time and arrange things so that she wouldn't have to undergo all that. But he knew he couldn't, it just wasn't possible. The most he could do was carry out her last hopes. But he couldn't even wrap his mind around the very idea!

Nista, honey, there is one more thing I must tell you. In order to ensure that no one got suspicious, James and I altered Harry's appearance. Even at birth there was no mistaking the fact that he was your son. With the exception of his eyes and nose, his face was exactly like yours. And while his hair has a auburn gleam to it in the sunlight, it is black and silky like yours.

Horrified, Harry dropped the parchment and stumbled backwards until he landed on his bed once more. Exactly?! He was going to go from being a practical duplicate of James to one of Snape? And what the hell did his mother mean when she called the Potions Master's hair 'silky?' It was greasy and revolting! The man had practically no sense of personal hygiene. Unless... unless, that too was a result of wanting to keep people away from him? It was possible.

Harry snorted as he realized that he was once again subconsciously justifying his new found father's actions. It was unnerving how quickly he felt the need to do so. It showed just how desperate he was to have a normal family, not that anything would ever be normal for him. Even as it was, his mother was still dead by Voldemort's hand. Quickly he retrieved the letter to finish it.

He was so perfect that it broke my heart to have to alter his appearance, but it was absolutely necessary. What James and I used to achieve this is a spell called Aspectus Commutatus•. It's a combination of two charms and a potion. I left a copy of the explanation and instructions in the vault as it's a very ancient and little known spell. It should commence to crumble on Harry's fifteenth birthday and can take up to six months to fully wear off. Help him through the transition, Sev, as he'll need all the support he can get. He'll be seeing his true form for the first time and it will be difficult for him to glance at the mirror and see a stranger looking back at him.

Severus, Nista, please forgive me for my mistake and all of the consequences. I know it has resulted in suffering on your part and I desperately wish to be able to alleviate it. Forgive me, darling, please. And don't be too harsh on yourself. Know that I love you, always have and always will. Find our son and give him a true home, please.

Yours forever,
love, Lily

Chapter Text

Harry watched the illuminated red numbers of his alarm clock flick from 12:59 to 1:00 before he sighed and rolled onto his back. His uncle's guest had left an hour ago after which the Dursleys had quickly gone to bed, no doubt leaving everything as it was downstairs for him to clean up in the morning. He knew he should sleep as he hadn't slept a lot the past few nights and he'd need energy for his chores tomorrow, but every time he started to drift off, what he had learned only hours ago popped back into his head, demanding his attention.

After some thought, Harry had come to the conclusion that his earlier assumption had been wrong. Things could get worse between himself and Snape: the Potions Master could reject him. Even though he didn't know what he wanted with regards to his newly found father, he did know that rejection would hurt him tremendously. He had wished too long for his parents to be alive and to be with him for the rejection of one of them to do anything else. Even if the person in question was someone he'd disliked immensely for four years.

This realization had only served to make the Boy-Who-Lived even more nervous than he already was. What if Snape did reject him? What would he do then? Not wanting to ponder the painful possibility of being constantly ignored and treated as before despite both of them knowing the truth, he turned his thoughts to what would happen if the potions professor didn't reject him. What did he want then? Never having had a father figure in his life, he didn't quite know what to expect. And the things that he did associate with fathers didn't fit the Head of House Slytherin's personality, so he was left at an impasse.

This train of thought had rapidly led to a new problem. Before Professor Snape could either accept or reject him, he would have to be told the truth. Yet Harry couldn't picture himself getting the older man to listen to him outside of class. He supposed he could just give the wizard the letter and let him discover it all on his own, but that didn't sit right with him. He wanted to be there when Snape learned the truth as he wanted to see his reaction. The man was a brilliant actor and he didn't want to give him time to pull himself together enough to put on a mask. He needed to know the reality of what Snape felt, even if it would hurt him. He'd had more than enough lies and half-truths in his life for ten people and he was sick and tired of it all. So he had to tell him personally and then give him the letter as proof as he didn't doubt that the obsidian eyed wizard would think that he was pulling some sort elaborate and very sick joke.

But how to do so? He could just see the scenario now:

"Excuse me, Professor."

"What do you want, Potter?" Snape would growl, placing the usual emphasize on his surname.

"I was hoping to talk with you, Sir."

"Unlike you, Potter, I have better things to do with my time than waste it on idle and pointless chatter," his father would say. "And if you'd only learn that and pay attention in class instead of constantly talking with Weasley, than perhaps you'd both be doing better."

"But this is important, Professor!"

"Everything is always important when it comes to you, isn't it? Well I have news for you, Potter, the world doesn't revolve around you!"

"It's got to do with you and my mother."

The mental portrayal abruptly ended there, Harry's mind unable to conjure up an image of a speechless Snape. But it was enough, more than enough actually. Simply thinking of the man's treatment of him hurt, even though he now knew why. Starting off this particular conversation that way was not a good idea. He needed to figure out a way to do it differently, to get Snape to listen to him without scorn or impatience. But how? The only way he could think of was to start off by mentioning or doing something that would get the wizard's attention and interest him in what he had to say. Perhaps he could bring along one of the mementoes his mother mentioned having placed in the vault she'd gotten at Gringotts. That would probably do the trick.

Only that presented yet another new dilemma. When was he to go to the vault? Due to the Dursleys' disgust and fear of all things wizard related, he only got one opportunity each summer to go to Diagon Alley and consequently Gringotts. And that was the day he saw Ron and Hermione. How was he to go explore the vault then? Worst case scenario was if they'd all use the same cart, then he wouldn't even be able to go to his mother's vault without raising unanswerable questions about why he was going there and then about it's unusual contents. Best case scenario was that they didn't join him, which would allow him to explore the vault, but not for very long as they'd be waiting for him and would want to know why he'd taken so long. Considering the contents of the vault, Harry really wanted to spend a significant amount of time at Gringotts to look over everything his mother had seen fit to leave in there. But how was he to do that? If he asked his uncle to take him, the man would only yell at him and then congratulate himself for having denied him something else.

Harry punched his pillow in frustration as he attempted to find a comfortable sleeping position. He just had to get to that vault. Not only did it contain possessions of his parents, but it also held evidence about his father's character. It would show him what Snape had been like with his mother; whether or not he was anything like he was today. Something which could drastically alter the way he viewed the man.

With a growl, Harry tossed once more. He really needed to get into that vault, but he also needed his sleep. He was dead tired as it was during the day, what with nightmares and visions waking him up most nights. He didn't know which he hated more, the nightmares or the visions. To him the nightmares struck a far more personal chord as they consisted of the Third Task, Cedric's death and his confrontation with Voldemort and his Death Eaters. But at least they weren't real. They only incorporated bits and pieces of his memories along with a huge helping of guilt and imagination. The visions, however, were very real.

Too real.

With them he would see the Dark Lord himself, mostly on raids where Muggles or Muggleborns were tortured and killed. He could do absolutely nothing but helplessly watch as this occurred. He hated being so powerless. The positive aspect, if it could be called that, of the nightmares was that when he woke, it was over. With the visions he still had to deal with the residual pain in his scar and the knowledge that it had really happened to some poor soul. Both, though, disrupted his much needed sleep, leaving him constantly tired from all the work he was required to do each day. And that was not to mention the energy required for his sudden growth spurt.

Harry blinked as a new thought came to him. What if this sudden change in height wasn't due to natural causes? What if it was the result of the Aspectus Commutatus• spell breaking down? His mother had said it would wear off on his fifteenth birthday, and he knew enough about charms to know that they weren't entirely accurate as far as the length of time they lasted was concerned. So this could be the first of many changes yet to come. After all, Snape was tall and his mother hadn't been short, so there was a good chance that he wouldn't remain small for much longer.

The thought made Harry smile. He'd always hated being short as it had given other people an advantage over him. Dudley and his friends had used it to try to intimidate him as had Malfoy and Snape, the latter most successfully of the lot. It was also annoying as he could never look over people when somewhere crowded, like Diagon Alley. It was comforting to know that he wouldn't remain small for the rest of his life. And since neither Snape nor his mother had curls, his hair should straighten out and become manageable too. He'd finally be able to comb it and see a difference!

His joy abruptly left him as he thought of the other changes he'd undergo too. Based on his mother's assessment, the only things that wouldn't change about his face were his eyes and nose. The rest would morph to look like his apparent father. Harry attempted to picture his potions professor's face with his nose and eyes, but hastily shook his head to try to dislodge the resulting mental image. Once he'd succeeded in doing so, he found his breathing and pulse had accelerated. He really didn't want to look like that! To have his appearance completely altered was bad enough, but to have it morph into Snape's was simply too much to bear! Perhaps Professor Dumbledore would be able to recast the spell after he'd had a look at the instruction sheet his mother had left in the vault.

Satisfied, Harry relaxed once more before a new thought came to him. What about his scar? Was that really a part of him? It was strange, because he would have assumed that if it was a part of the real him that the spell would have covered it up. Yet it had to be real instead of an illusion since it had the ability to both hurt him and make him have visions. So why did it show now? Were curse scars special? Could they not be hidden? He'd have to ask the Headmaster about it, if he could do so without arousing suspicion.

He was just starting to drift off when his mother's nickname for Snape floated to the top of his mind.

"Nista," he whispered softly, trying out the foreign word.

It felt weird saying it, knowing his mother must have used it often. Yet it rolled off his tongue so easily. Harry had a sudden urge to know what the pet name meant. After all, it would give him some more insight into how his mother viewed Snape. It could tell him something about the ebony haired wizard that he didn't already know. But how could he uncover the meaning? He didn't have any books on Latin and the Dursleys wouldn't let him go to the town library even if he hadn't promised Professor Dumbledore that he wouldn't leave the house. His only option was to ask Hermione if he didn't want to wait until he returned to Hogwarts. Needing to know, Harry determined to call his friend as soon as he could do so.

Content, the emerald eyed boy finally allowed sleep to claim him.


"Wake up, boy!" Vernon growled as he banged his fist on the door once after unlocking it. "Make me my breakfast."

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry replied automatically as he instantly snapped awake.

He had long ago learned to wake up quickly or face punishment for being lazy. Harry hurriedly rolled out of bed and changed before heading to the bathroom to pee and wash his face. That done, he made his way downstairs and commenced to get his uncle's breakfast ready, sighing once as he saw that his suspicions from the previous evening were correct. Stacked on the counter next to the sink were the dirty dishes from dinner along with a pile of white cloth which was no doubt the napkins and table covering. Even though he wasted no time, he only just managed to finish his first task of the day when his mother's brother-in-law came downstairs and seated himself at the table, a piece of paper in his hand.

"These are your chores for today," Vernon stated as he placed the list on the table. "See that they're done before dinner."

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry responded as he placed the prepared plate of eggs, toast and bacon before the man.

"Take a slice of bread and then get on with your work."

"Yes, Sir," Harry said before he devoured his meagre meal.

If he was lucky, Aunt Petunia would later assume that he hadn't yet eaten and give him some more to eat when she and Dudley got up and had breakfast. As soon as he was finished with his food, he picked up the list and read it. As expected, he was required to clean up yesterday's mess as well as changing the sheets on all the beds (except his of course), wash the windows, clean Petunia's car, mow the lawn, water the flowers, iron the clothes he'd cleaned the other day and then, since it was Tuesday, he'd have to unload and put away the groceries his aunt would go out and buy. Not to mention the fact that it was now routine for him to prepare all the meals when no one came over.

Harry quickly decided to leave the dishes until after his aunt and cousin had eaten breakfast as there was no point in wasting time repeating chores. Folding the paper and putting it in his pocket, he headed to the storage closet to get the iron and plank, hopefully he'd be able to get at least half of the ironing done before his aunt and cousin got up.

As soon as he was busy ironing a pair of his uncle's trousers, his thoughts drifted back to the decision he'd made just before falling asleep. He needed to know whether or not Nista meant anything. If it did, it might shed some more light on his newly found father's personality. After all, pet names were often based on some aspect of a person's character. Luckily for him, Hermione had given him her phone number on the train ride home, just in case he needed anything seeing how he'd be unable to leave the house this summer. He'd seen fit to memorize it as he knew that if he did need help, that he probably wouldn't be in possession of his trunk, which happened to be the case.

Now all he needed was the opportunity to use the phone. The Dursleys didn't trust him enough to allow him to call anyone, especially after the disastrous incident when Ron had attempted contacting him via phone the summer before third year. They said he'd only utilize it to call other 'freaks' or to get into trouble. No, the only way he'd be able to call Hermione was if there was no one at home. With his uncle off to work and his aunt out grocery shopping for at least part of the day, there was a possibility of him having a chance today if Dudley went off somewhere.

Now that he thought about it, he remembered that Piers Polkiss had asked Dudley to join him when he went to see some new movie that was playing at the local cinema. If his memory served him right, that was today at half past three. He'd just have to wait and see.


"I'm going shopping," Aunt Petunia announced at one thirty as she walked into the living room where Dudley sat before the TV, watching The Great Humberto and munching on his seventh snack of the day, while Harry was busy cleaning the windows.

"Okay," Dudley mumbled, spraying the couch with crumbs from his overstuffed mouth.

"I should be back in two hours, don't forget that you need to leave for Piers' house by three if you don't want to be late," Petunia said before she turned to her nephew. "Watch what you're doing!" she shouted. "You're leaving streaks. Can't you do anything right?"

"Sorry, Aunt Petunia," Harry replied through clenched teeth as he redid the spotless window.

"You'd better be. Don't think that you can get away with doing a second rate job, cause you can't! You're as lazy as your mother was. The moment she could use her devilry to do anything and everything she did, not even bothering to do the simplest things the normal way. Lazy, worthless woman!"

It took all of Harry's willpower to refrain from defending his mother. Much as he wanted to, he knew it wasn't worth it. If he did anything now, then his uncle would severely punish him for it as soon as he returned home from work and Petunia told him of it. Besides, he knew his aunt did it to get him angry and he wasn't going to take the bait. Not when he couldn't afford the consequences of his actions. This last thought was confirmed when his stomach growled loudly.

With a last stern look at the raven haired boy, Petunia left.

Harry observed his cousin for a few moments before allowing himself to relax. Often Dudley would pounce on him the instant they were left alone in the house, but for now his interest was captured completely by the show he was watching. Hoping it would last until he needed to go to his friend's house, Harry turned back to his work. He managed to make his way to the last window that needed cleaning before he found himself at the centre of his cousin's attention.

"It's just you and me right now, freak," Dudley stated with glee, his beady eyes full of malice.

"What do you want?" Harry questioned, trying to judge what his cousin had in store for him.

"Just a spot of fun," Dudley replied, eyeing him before he swung his huge leg back and kicked over the bucket of soapy water Harry was using.

"No!" Harry yelped as he leapt over the spreading puddle of dirty water and managed to pull his aunt's prized rug out of the way just in time. If it had gotten wet, or damaged in any way, he'd have been in major trouble as it had been a wedding gift from his uncle's parents.

"You're in trouble now!"

Harry simply glared at the enormous boy as he debated on whether or not he should run for a mop. If he didn't, than the water could soak into the wooden flooring and cause stains as well as spread and possibly damage the furniture and walls, but if he did then there was no telling what Dudley would do while he was absent.

"Wait till Daddy hears that you spilt the dirty water all over the floor!" Dudley said, his pudgy face lighting up with sadistic joy. "You'll be properly punished for being the clumsy freak that you are."

A snarl escaped Harry's mouth before he could help himself. He wanted nothing more than to go upstairs, get his wand and curse his cousin, but he knew he couldn't. He was just pondering the possibility of threatening to curse the older boy when he heard the clock chime. Realizing what time it was, he smiled.

"What?" Dudley demanded, unnerved at his cousin's sudden change of mood.

"Oh, nothing," Harry replied nonchalantly. "It's just that it's three and if you don't hurry, Piers will leave for the movie without you."

"No!" Dudley squeaked in horror as his small eyes opened as wide as they could before he wobbled out of the room as fast as his tremendous weight would allow to get ready.

Not wasting a moment, Harry himself rushed to the utility cupboard to get the mop before hurrying back. He cleaned up the mess as fast as he could and was immensely thankful to find that the water hadn't stained the wood, nor had it been able to damage any of the furniture. Picking up the sponge he'd been using, he gave the window he'd been working on a final swipe before putting all of the equipment into the bucket. As he drained the remaining water and put everything away, he heard his cousin's laboured breathing as he heaved himself up the stairs. Shaking his head, he headed to the kitchen and turned his attention to the dishes waiting for him there.

Several minutes later, the house shook slightly as Dudley thundered down the stairs and left, slamming the door shut behind him. Harry waited for two minutes before rushing to the living room and looking out of the window. Seeing his cousin waddle around the corner at the end of the street, he smiled and quickly headed back to the kitchen and picked up the phone. Dialling the number, he desperately hoped that his friend would be home.

"Hello, Granger residence," a male voice stated several seconds later.

"Hello, Mr. Granger?"

"Yes, that's me," the man replied. "Who is this, please?"

"My name is Harry, I'm a friend of Hermione's from school. I was wondering if I could talk with her, please."

"Yes, just a moment," Mr. Granger said before Harry heard a distant. "Hermione! Phone call for you."

"Who is it, Honey?" a female voice questioned on the other end of the line.

"One of her Hogwarts friends. Funny, though, I thought wizards didn't use phones."

"They don't, but not all of Hermione's friends come from wizarding families."

Harry smiled as he shook his head. Absently he wondered if people calling his family could so clearly hear everything said in the room when they called. He definitely hoped not as he didn't want the neighbours knowing how he was treated by the Dursleys.

"Hello," Hermione's voice said across the phone. "Harry?"

"Yep, it's me," Harry confirmed.

"Is everything all right? Your aunt and uncle aren't giving you too much trouble, are they?"

"No, no, everything's fine here," Harry lied smoothly. "They've finally decided to leave me home alone when they go out, which is why I'm actually able to use the phone. I'm not sure when Aunt Petunia is supposed to come back, though, so if I hang up abruptly, it's because she's home."

"You sure you're all right?" Hermione repeated, clearly not convinced.

"Yes, fine."

"If you say so."

"I called to ask you something," Harry stated, clearly picking up the disbelief in his friend's tone.

"Oh, what?"

"I was wondering if you have any clue what Nista means."

"Nista?"

"Yes, N - I - S - T - A," Harry spelt out, wanting to make sure that she got it right. "I think it may be Latin, but I'm not certain. I'm pretty sure that it means something, but I'm not sure what and I don't have the resources to find out. Nor the skills for that matter."

"That's because you never took the time to acquire them," Hermione scolded. "If you would only spend more time in the library with me instead of fooling around with Ron and the other boys then you would know exactly how to do things like these."

"I don't spend all my time fooling around," Harry replied defensively.

"But you spend far too much time discussing Quidditch and not enough time with your school work."

"Something which has allowed us to win the Quidditch cup for three years straight," Harry pointed out. "Before we came to Hogwarts, Slytherin had had it for the previous seven years!"

"I'm not saying that you shouldn't spend any time practicing, just not as much," Hermione clarified. "But I'll see what I can come up with. Do you have any idea, even a vague one, of what it could mean? That might help."

"Eh... no," Harry lied uncomfortably.

"In what context was the word?" Hermione pressed. "Did you find it in a document, a text, what?"

"Um, a letter."

"A letter? What kind of letter? A business one?"

"No, a personal one," Harry said as he sought to change the topic. "Hey, are you going to go to Bulgaria this summer? You never did tell Ron and me whether or not you'd accepted Krum's offer."

"Em, yes, I am," came the flustered reply. "I'm leaving in two days actually and won't be back until the week before vacation ends. Don't tell Ron, he doesn't know yet."

"Don't worry, your secret is safe with me," Harry promised before he stiffened as he heard a car outside. "Listen, Hermione, I think my aunt is back so I've got to go. I'll see you in school and have a great time in Bulgaria."

"Thanks, I'll owl you as soon as I find anything on Nista."

"Great, bye."

Quickly, Harry hung up the phone and rushed back to the sink. He had just fished a plate out of the soapy water and was beginning to scrub it when the front door opened and his aunt entered.

"Boy!" Petunia called out as she took off her shoes and put them it in the closet.

"Yes, Aunt Petunia?"

"What are you doing?"

"Washing the dishes."

"Leave that for now and go empty the car," Petunia ordered. "I went grocery shopping and some of what I bought will go bad if it's left out in the heat too long."

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry replied as he put the plate back into the water and dried his hands.

The Boy-Who-Lived quickly put his shoes on and rushed outside to the car, knowing there'd be hell to pay if anything went bad. Opening the booth, he groaned as he saw that it was stuffed full of bags. He knew from past experience that there were probably more bags on the back seat too. And yet even this enormous amount of food wouldn't last more than a week with the copious quantities Vernon and Dudley consumed at each meal. His stomach growled as he peeked into the different bags and caught sight of some of his favourite things.

With a sigh, Harry grabbed two bags and lifted them before heading back into the house. There he deposited them on the kitchen table before heading back out for the next load. Ten minutes later, he had finally emptied the booth and was just lifting two of the big bags from the back bench when he stiffened as he heard the hooting of an owl.

Startled, Harry glanced up at the sky and saw a grey owl circling above him, a letter attached to one of it's legs. A quick look around told him that there was no one out to observe what was going on, nor was his aunt looking out of any of the windows. Relaxing, he put the bags down and held out his hand for the owl. It swooped down and held out it's leg. Harry loosened the letter as fast as he could before stroking the owl's feathers.

"Thanks for bringing the letter. I'd give you a treat if I could, but I can't."

The owl regarded him with it's brown eyes for a moment before letting out an angry hoot.

"Shh!" Harry said urgently as he glanced at the house once more. "You'll attract my aunt's attention and then I'll be in big trouble! I really wish I could give you something but I can't."

At this the owl spread its wings and took off. Watching it go, Harry thought longingly of Hedwig. Knowing that the Dursleys would not have forgotten the incident with Dudley and the Ton-Tongue Toffee at the end of last summer's vacation, he had wisely decided to leave Hedwig with Ron for the summer as he was sure that she wouldn't be welcomed here. He'd known it was the right thing to do when his uncle had taken away his trunk the instant he'd entered the house despite comments of how his godfather would disapprove. If he hadn't had the foresight to hide his wand, some parchment, a quill and an ink well in his clothing, he'd have lost easy access to everything.

The knowledge that his aunt would soon start wondering what was taking him so long made Harry stuff the letter into his oversized shirt before picking up two bags and hauling them inside. It took only four more trips before he'd brought all the groceries inside where he then began putting them away before turning his energy back to the dishes and his other chores.


It was evening by the time Harry was finally allowed to head up to his room where it would be safe to read his letter. Pulling it out of his shirt, a cursory glance revealed the Hogwarts' emblem on the wax seal.

"Strange," Harry muttered to himself as he opened the letter. It should be at least another few days before the textbook and supply list came for the upcoming school year.

HOGWARTS SCHOOL
of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

--------------

Dear Mr. Potter,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have recently received an owl from Mrs. Weasley asking me whether or not it would be possible for you to spend some part of the summer vacation with her family at the Burrow. As this matter concerns yourself, I thought it best to inform you of my decision. In light of the Ministry's continued refusal to acknowledge Voldemort's return despite an increase in attacks on both Muggles and Muggleborns, and therefore their refusal to take any steps to counter him, I must forbid you from leaving number 4 Privet Drive.

The risk is simply too great.

The wards placed around your home will protect you from the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters but they can only do so if you are inside the house. If you leave, even to go to a wizard home, you would be opening yourself to an attack. Voldemort has clearly shown in the past that he has no mercy and will kill all who stand in his way to get what he wants. It would simply be unsafe for both yourself and the Weasleys for you to go visit them.

The danger is such that I must also forbid you from going to Diagon Alley this year. Your school books and other supplies shall be purchased for you and be delivered along with the bill to Gryffindor Tower at the start of school. A Ministry car will also pick you up at your home on the 1st of September to bring you to King's Cross station to catch the Hogwarts Express as the predictability of your leaving the wards on that day provides the perfect time for an attack.

I know that this will all come as a disappointment to you, but it necessary to ensure your continued safety.

 

Albus Dumbledore,
Headmaster of Hogwarts

(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)

Harry stared at the letter in dismay, rereading it several times just to be sure that he'd read it right the first time round. He was now stuck with the Dursleys until the very end of summer! Despite Professor Dumbledore's earlier warnings, he'd still hoped to be able to visit Ron and his family during the last two weeks of vacation as Mrs. Weasley had told him that she believed it would be allowed when he'd seen her at the end of the last school year. Now those hopes were shattered.

Although he didn't want to endanger his friends, he really wanted to get away from the Dursleys as soon as possible. Why couldn't school be a year round event? He knew that his friends would hate that and he'd do too if he had a decent family to go home to, but he didn't. He smiled despite himself as he pictured the look of abject horror on Ron's face should he bring up the idea of doing away with summer vacation.

Harry's humour vanished as he reread part of the letter once more. How was the Headmaster able to convince the Ministry to have him picked up when they didn't even recognize Voldemort's return? Maybe Arthur Weasley or some contact Dumbledore had within the Department of Magical Transportation had been able to arrange it. The old wizard did seem to have connections in many places, probably due to his position at Hogwarts. As headmaster, he knew all the students who had gone through the school in the last few decades and, since he didn't teach anymore, he was on good terms with most students except those who'd done something so bad as to warrant being sent to him for punishment and the Slytherins who disliked him because their parents did.

Not only did the letter ruin his hopes for the rest of the summer, but they disrupted his plans to visit vault 968. How was he to get there now? It wasn't simply a matter of lying to Ron and Hermione about it anymore, but of getting there at all! Since he was unable to go to the Weasleys, there was no way for him to get to Diagon Alley unless his uncle took him and he didn't see that occurring anytime soon.

Unless...

Harry smiled to himself as an idea started to form. Vernon hadn't gotten a copy of this particular letter so he didn't know about the fact that he didn't need to purchase books and other supplies this year. He could simply say that that was the reason why he needed to go into London. And if he went soon then he wasn't likely to run into anyone he knew as the school supplies didn't go on sale until mid-August this year. He would just have to disguise his appearance enough so that no one would recognize him and he'd be all set. That way no one would know it was him and thus there'd be no questions about the vault and its contents.

The elation abruptly left Harry as his promise to Dumbledore came back to him. He had given his word that he wouldn't leave number 4 Privet Drive alone without another, older, wizard accompanying him. As if that wasn't enough, the ancient professor had reiterated the dangers once more in his letter. Dangers which lay at the heart of the reason why he'd have to remain with his relatives rather than go to the Burrow and to Diagon Alley. He didn't want to break his promise, but he also really wanted, no needed, to see what was in vault 968. It held the keys to his past as it could tell him what kind of man Snape had been. It could show him whom his mother had fallen in love with. Not only that, but it contained information about the spell on him as well as objects his mother had possessed.

How was he to get all of that if he kept his promise? He could probably ask Professor Dumbledore to have someone take him to Gringotts on a weekend after school started, but it wasn't a sure thing that he would be allowed to do so. And even if he was granted permission, his chaperone would definitely insist on joining him in the cart and possibly even further and he didn't want that. He just had to do this on his own and with a lot of free time, something which he wouldn't have if someone accompanied him as they wouldn't want to spend hours waiting outside the vault.

Besides, with his luck Snape would be the only adult available to go with him and then things would, without a doubt, go wrong. The ebony clad wizard would probably follow him right into the vault before freezing in his tracks whereupon he'd be forced to explain everything instead of shifting through the contents of the vault and coming to a conclusion about his biological father's personality in the past.

So that left him with no choice but to break his promise if he wanted to have some undisturbed time alone in Gringotts. Sighing, Harry sat down on the wobbly chair before Dudley's old desk. Despite his misgivings he would do it; he would go to Diagon Alley if he could. There was simply no other option. If he had the luxury of time, he would hold off for a while, possibly until the following summer as he also feared what he'd uncover, but time, unfortunately, was not on his side. Not only would it be downright cruel to Snape to keep the truth hidden any longer than absolutely necessary, but the Aspectus Commutatus• spell was also breaking down.

Besides, the headmaster's letter implied that predictability played a part in the danger he was in if he left the safety of the wards and his going to Gringotts wasn't a foreseeable event. No one knew that he was going to go so early except for himself, so it wasn't possible for Voldemort or a Death Eater to plan an ambush or a kidnapping. And if he disguised himself properly, they wouldn't even know it was him if he ran into any of them.

Harry nodded his head, that was decided then. Now all he needed was the means for actually getting to London. There was no way his uncle would simply take him out of the blue. No, Vernon would need to have a reason for going himself. He'd need to listen and be ready for when an opportunity presented itself. Which meant that he should put together a disguise right now. His clothes wouldn't be a problem, he'd simply wear some of his more baggy items seeing how he normally wore his least baggy ones when in the Wizarding World. A little bit of make-up from his aunt would take care of the scar and he was sure he could take some without her noticing. But what about his hair? While most people wouldn't necessarily recognize him without the scar, he knew Tom probably would. The owner of the Leaky Cauldron had seen him often enough not to need the lightning bolt as a means of identification.

Unless the Aspectus Commutatus• spell decided to wear off of his hair next there wasn't much he could do about it. No matter how hard he tried to tame it, it always was a hopeless mess of curls. Harry paused as he thought of this. Was it possible that this was the result of the spell? That both his and Aunt Petunia's efforts to alter it had failed because the spell was modelled after his fa... James Potter's appearance and he had that type of hair? It could well be a short coming of the spell, that it couldn't be altered and always remained the same.

Harry sighed in frustration. It was a pity that Dudley didn't share Draco Malfoy's love of hair gel, otherwise he would have been able to use that to flatten out the curls at least temporarily.

He suddenly brightened as a new thought occurred to him. Several years ago his cousin had dressed up as Han Solo for a party and had gotten a brown wig as Aunt Petunia had flat out refused to allow her 'Sweetums' to 'ruin' his beautiful blond hair by dying it. Personally, Harry had believed Dudley would have made a far better Jabba the Hutt than a Han Solo, but he'd wisely remained silent. He was sure that he'd seen the wig lying in the attic when he'd gone up there at the beginning of the holiday to put away yet another box full of old toys Dudley didn't use anymore. No one would notice if he used it once and then put it back. Actually, they'd probably never notice if he took it and kept it as there was no way his cousin would fit into that particular outfit ever again.

Costume decided, Harry determined to get it together as soon as possible. That way he'd be ready to go at a mere moment's notice.

Chapter Text

"Well, well, look what we have here," Voldemort stated with a malicious sneer. "If it isn't a Mudblood and his filthy Muggle relatives."

"V... Vol... Voldemort," Winston Firth said as he stepped forward so that he stood between his family and the Dark Lord.

"Winston, what's going on?" Mrs. Firth asked fearfully as she pulled her young daughter to her so she could shield her with her body if necessary. "Who are they?"

"These are those people you mentioned, aren't they?" Mr. Firth enquired as he eyed the robed and masked figures blocking all exits from the room. "Those Dark wizards."

A ripple of laughter erupted from the Death Eaters when Mrs. Firth shrieked as horrified realization suddenly burst across her face.

"I see our reputation precedes us," Voldemort said with a smile which only served to twist his serpentine features into a terrifying mockery of the human face.

"What do you want?" Winston demanded bravely, but the slight tremor in his voice gave away his fear.

"Why, to purge the Wizarding World of your kind and to put the Muggles in their rightful place beneath the purebloods, of course."

"You'll never succeed," Mr. Firth declared confidently.

"Oh, no?" Voldemort asked softly, the hardness in his tone belying his casual response. "And what would you, a mere Muggle, know of my methods and abilities to be able to make such a prediction?"

"Winston has told me enough. Besides, history in both our worlds has proven this time and again. Just look at Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II. He tried to purge a whole group of people simply because they had a different religious belief and that made them a convenient target. Or in your own world just look at that Dark Wizard a while back... what was his name again?"

"Grindelwald," Winston supplied nervously as he eyed the Death Eaters.

"Yes, Grindelwald! They were all so confident and yet they failed. What makes you think that your fate will be any different than theirs?"

"How dare you compare me to a Muggle?" Voldemort hissed angrily, his eyes narrowing to thin slivers of blood red. "Simply the fact that I'm a wizard and not a disgusting magic-blind being vastly improves my chances. As for Grindelwald, he was an overconfident fool! If he'd only taken the time to plan things out more carefully, he would not have fallen to that Mudblood loving Gryffindor."

"Not so fast," a Death Eater said as he stepped forward to block the slow but steady retreat Mrs. Firth had been making with her daughter. "The fun hasn't even started yet."

"Indeed not," the Dark Lord agreed, sensing the unrest and anticipation among his followers. "I must admit some surprise at your knowledge of our history, although I suppose I shouldn't be seeing how your son is a Ravenclaw."

"Unlike you, some of us approach different and newly discovered ways of life with an open mind instead of simply labelling them as inferior and bad," Mr. Firth snapped forcefully, his voice taking on a frantic edge with the discovery of his diversion tactic and with it the hope that his wife and daughter might escape.

"That's where you're wrong," Voldemort responded. "I have had the great misfortune of having had first hand experience in your pathetic excuse for a world."

"W... what?" Winston enquired, shock written clearly across his features.

"Yes, I suppose Dumbledore would keep that knowledge to himself, wouldn't he? It simply would not do to allow people to know that I have a perfectly valid reason for despising Muggles, now would it? No, that would just detract from the image he's created of me to show his naive students and convince them that what I'm doing is wrong and needs to be stopped, even if it means their deaths," Voldemort said. "He always was a manipulative old coot."

"No, he's not!" Winston countered fiercely. "He's a brilliant and powerful wizard who's earned the respect of most of the Wizarding World."

"Your loyalty to him only makes your death that much more valuable. Another potentially annoying and disrupting Auror eliminated."

"No! Please," Mrs. Firth screamed. "Please don't kill him! Please, I beg of you, show us some mercy!"

"Mercy?" the Dark Lord repeated before turning his attention to his Death Eaters. "Do you know the meaning of this strange word?"

A chorus of delighted 'nos' followed, causing the heir of Slytherin to smile before facing his victims once more. Sensing what was coming, Winston moved to pull his wand out from its hiding place as the snake-like wizard mirrored his move.

"Expelliarmus!" Voldemort cried out just as the young Ravenclaw shouted "Avada Ke-" before his wand was ripped from his fingers and he was flung backwards into the wall.

"Winston!" Mrs. Firth shrieked as she ran to his side. "Are you alright? What did he do to you?"

"Nothing, it was a simple disarming spell," Voldemort explained patiently, amused. "What he was going to do to me, however... I'm sure Dumbledore would be greatly disappointed in you, Winston. Using an Unforgivable, and the Killing Curse at that! Why, you'd have been sent straight to Azkaban if you'd succeeded."

"No, I wouldn't have. I'd have been congratulated to no end."

"Ah yes, if I use it, it's inexcusable, but if you use it, it's praised. Why how perfectly logical and fair!"

"Like he could plausibly have used anything else," Mr. Firth interjected. "There are nine of you and one of him. Besides, it was self-defence."

"Self-defence? I hardly see how that makes a difference. And there are countless other curses he could have employed to incapacitate me. But you wouldn't know them, now would you? However, I digress, it's time for the fun to begin. Nott, if you would."

As he said this, Voldemort took a step back as one of the eight identically robed figures stepped forward with his wand raised.

"Please, no!" Mrs. Firth begged as her daughter began to cry. "Don't hurt us."

"I won't," Nott reassured her as his brown eyes flashed behind the holes of his white mask. "Your husband will take care of that."

"What the bloody hell?" Mr. Firth demanded, only a slight undercurrent of fear emerging through his voice as he moved to stand protectively before his family.

"No!" Winston cried out, his eyes widening in horrified realization of what was to come as he struggled to get to his feet.

"Imperio!" Nott said firmly, aiming his wand at Mr. Firth.

Instantly, the man went rigid before he turned towards his family, his face completely devoid of any emotion and his eyes strangely empty, like those of a doll.

"What did he do?" Mrs. Firth squeaked, her eyes locked onto the blank gaze of her husband.

"Taken control of him," the Ravenclaw replied as he imitated his father's previous protective stance before his mother and sister.

"Kill them!" Nott ordered forcefully.

Mr. Firth moved forwards without hesitation and tried to grab hold of his son.

"Patrick, no!" Mrs. Firth shrieked as she watched the two of them struggle while she covered her daughter's face with her skirt so she wouldn't have to witness the horror. "Stop it! That's Winston, your child, you're hurting! Stop it!"

The fight abruptly ended when Mr. Firth got one hand on his son's face and the other on his shoulder and jerked each in opposite directions, snapping the neck. The now lifeless body dropped to the floor amidst the laughter of the Death Eaters and the gut wrenching screams of Mrs. Firth who began frantically pounding her fists on her spouse's chest when he attempted to wrench their sobbing daughter away from her. Knocking her aside with one arm, Mr. Firth quickly wrapped his hands around the young girl's slender throat and squeezed tightly. The girl opened her mouth in a silent cry as she clawed at the hands cutting off her vital oxygen.

"No!" Mrs. Firth screeched as she rushed forward and attempted to pry free the iron clamps crushing her daughter's windpipe.

It was a minute later that the girl's arms dropped to her sides and her head lolled backwards like that of a rag doll. Mrs. Firth's efforts only increased until her husband dropped the body and turned his flayed hands on her. When she too lay dead on the ground, Mr. Firth's arms dropped to his side and he stood motionlessly amidst the wreckage of his family, waiting patiently for his next instructions.

"Now kill yourse-"

"No," Voldemort ordered, cutting Nott off. "Leave him alive, but erase his memory. He shall suffer beautifully with the evidence that he murdered his family."

Cold laughter filled the room once more as Nott obliviated the Muggle. Making sure they'd left no indication of their presence, the Death Eaters and the Dark Lord apparated, leaving a dazed man to discover the lifeless bodies of his family and to realize his guilt.


Harry jerked awake, a soft cry escaping his lips before he curled up into a ball, his head just about ready to explode with pain. As usual, it took several eternal moments before the pain diminished enough for him to start processing what had transpired. The instant he did so, he shot up into a sitting position and stiffened, fearfully listening for any noise that would signal that his uncle had heard and been awakened by his distressed cry. The only sounds to rudely disrupt the night's peaceful bliss, though, were the annoyingly loud snores emanating from both his cousin's and his uncle's bedrooms. The noise was like some creature choking to death and it was a wonder to him that Petunia could sleep in such close proximity to it. It disturbed his slumber at times and he was in a different room! The serene bliss of silence was one of the severely limited number of advantages of having been forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs.

The soft throbbing of his scar was a harsh reminder of the horrific vision he'd just had the great misfortune of having viewed. Rubbing the offending spot on his forehead, Harry turned to look at his clock only to find that it was just eleven o'clock. Since the Dursleys were going to a show tomorrow, they needed to leave early and thus they'd gone to bed early, meaning that he'd been locked up sooner than usual. With nothing better to do, and knowing that he wouldn't get a lot of sleep as it was his birthday at midnight, he'd gone straight to bed after setting the alarm for eleven fifty.

With a sigh, Harry pushed back his sheet, turned off the alarm, and got up, fumbling for his glasses as he did so. When the visions had first started plaguing him at the beginning of the summer, he'd been uncertain about what to do. Professor Dumbledore and Sirius had both asked him to inform them about any such visions, but he didn't see the point in contacting them every time he had one as he had yet to learn something important and there were weeks when he'd have one every single night. The amount of owls that would be sent and returned would surely be noticed by his relatives and the neighbours and then he'd just get into serious trouble. He'd therefore decided to simply write down all of his visions and hand them to the headmaster when he got back to Hogwarts. Besides, he didn't have Hedwig to begin with, so he couldn't even send an owl if he wanted to!

Harry sat down at the desk and pulled what he'd come to consider his Visions Journal out of the top drawer. At first, he'd simply written the visions on scrap paper, but when they'd become too numerous he'd come to the conclusion that he needed something else. A quick scan of Dudley's abandoned books on the shelf had led to his discovery of a small, hard cover notebook which suited his needs perfectly. His cousin had probably gotten it from one of his friends as it had Guns N' written in an arch above a skull with two blood red roses on either side of it, and then the word Roses in an upside down arch beneath it so that the words formed a circle on the cover. He knew his aunt would never have purchased it for Dudley as she couldn't stand the music Guns N' Roses produced. He thought it was oddly fitting for his purpose, what with the skull being part of Voldemort's personal symbol. Flipping it open to the first blank page, which was well over half way, he picked up the pen he'd nicked from his cousin's room and poised it at the top of the page, quickly scribbling the date down.

The Boy-Who-Lived then stopped as images of what had transpired came flooding back to him. Unlike dreams, these visions he'd been getting were crystal clear even days after he first experienced them. It was so unfair, why couldn't they be more like dreams? Fleeting and mysterious, vanishing from his grasp seconds after waking up? Why did they have to cling and linger to haunt his waking moments and slither into his nightmares as well? It did, however, seem to help if he put them down on paper, it made them easier to shove aside somehow.

Winston Firth.

Harry shuddered as he saw the older boy's death over and over again, just as he had Cedric's. He vaguely remembered the Ravenclaw from school, he'd been in Oliver Wood's year if he recalled things correctly. A sudden raging anger flooded through him as he thought of it. Why? Why was all of this occurring? Why couldn't Voldemort simply leave people alone? A snort escaped him as he realized this must have been what had crossed the minds of countless wizards and witches before the Dark Lord's fall on that fateful Halloween evening his pare--, his mother and James, had perished and he'd become the hero of the Wizarding World. Or, he thought, through the minds of Muggles during the second World War, if he used the example Mr. Firth had brought up.

Mr. Firth.

Harry felt sick to his stomach at the mere thought of the sheer agony the man must be going through at this very instant as he came to the inevitable conclusion that he had murdered his wife and their two children. Momentarily thankful that he hadn't eaten his dinner and instead saved the bread for the owls that would undoubtedly come this evening, he shut his eyes and tried to calm down. If he'd had anything in his stomach, he was sure that he'd have ejected it by now already as he had on a few previous occasions. He just couldn't stand the way Voldemort tended to play with his victims, like some predators did with their prey, before killing them.

Finally regaining control, Harry forced himself to start writing, putting down as much detail as he could. The more he remembered now, the less it would bother him later. The simple process of putting the atrocity onto paper seemed to purge some of it from his system, leaving him better able to cope with it. It did make him less willing to allow Professor Dumbledore to read it, though, as the horrors were graphically described and he knew that the ancient wizard heard enough of it from Snape already as the spy no doubt gave reports to the headmaster upon his return from Death Eater meetings. He paused at the thought of his father. There had been several occasions when he had been able to identify his potions professor amidst the Death Eaters in his visions due to either his voice or his movements. It had disturbed him to see his teacher committing some of the crimes he'd witnessed, the knowledge that he was doing it against his will but nonetheless was required to carry out the Dark Lord's orders so that he could maintain his position as spy, had bothered him greatly. But now the thought that that person was his father...

The panic welled up in Harry's chest. His father; the Death Eater. True, he wasn't really one anymore and hadn't been for decades, since long before his birth even, but having seen first hand what he did in order to help the Light was extremely distressing. He briefly wondered if Snape had told his mother what he was required to do, before he discarded the thought, not wishing to know the answer. Yet he knew that while Snape was forced to take a few lives, he was saving many more by funnelling vital information back to Dumbledore to use against Voldemort and his Death Eaters. His mother had mentioned that much somewhere in her letter.

Pushing the thoughts aside, Harry continued his writing as quickly as he could without making his handwriting unreadable or sacrificing detail to speed. When he'd written down the entire tale, he scanned it once before hastily shoving the journal back into the desk drawer. Glancing at his clock, he was just in time to see the numbers flick from eleven fifty-nine to twelve.

Fifteen.

He was now fifteen years old! Harry smiled at the thought. And since the Dursleys were leaving early to go to that show of theirs, Dudley wouldn't be around to torment him as he often did on his birthday. That was the best present the Dursleys had ever given him! Thinking of the presents was enough to make his stomach growl loudly and he chuckled quietly to himself. Each year Mrs. Weasley sent him food on his birthday and he knew that this year wouldn't be an exception, which was why he had saved his own meagre meal for the owls instead of eating it. Tonight he could afford to forgo dinner as he'd be getting far better fare in a few minutes when the Weasleys' owl arrived. He wondered what Mrs. Weasley had prepared for him this time, not that it really mattered as he always loved everything she made.

The emerald eyed wizard suddenly stiffened as a new thought came to him. Something about his visions had been bothering him, something... but he hadn't been able to place his finger on it. Now he knew why. It wasn't something that occurred, but rather a thing which didn't transpire. Namely the Dark Mark. Mr. Weasley had told him that the Death Eaters used to leave the Dark Mark floating above the scenes of their crimes so that everyone came to fear the symbol as it generally meant that people had died. Harry shuddered at the mere thought of returning home and seeing the snake and skull illuminating the sky above his house, knowing that it signified the deaths of his family. So why had neither Voldemort nor his Death Eaters generated the Dark Mark in any of the visions he'd had? It didn't make any sense to him. He'd have to ask Professor Dumbledore about it when he got a chance to do so.

Harry was abruptly pulled from his thoughts by a soft tapping sound. Looking up, his face instantly brightened upon seeing an owl with a package outside his window. Hastily he got up and opened his window, letting the tired bird in whereupon it instantly landed on his desk.

"You look exhausted," Harry commented as he moved to get out the bowl and water he'd obtained. "Here, drink a little."

The animal drank the precious liquid greedily, causing the green-eyed boy to laugh softly.

"Where did you come from, huh? I don't recognize you."

When it had had its fill, the owl turned its attention to the Boy-Who-Lived and held out its leg so that he could be relieved of his heavy burden.

"Wait here, I will want to send back a reply," Harry informed the poor bird as he gave him some of the bread he'd smuggled upstairs.

As soon as he felt the package, he knew that it was a book. Which probably meant that it was from Hermione, and that would also explain the unfamiliar, not to mention dead tired, owl. It had probably flown all the way from Bulgaria! Harry quickly ripped open the parchment to find that he'd been correct in his guess. Lifting the big, black leather bound book to the light that filtered in through his window from the street lamps outside, he tilted it so as to read the title printed in large elegant silver letters across the cover.

Blood and Crumpets with the Undead:
Vampires; Myths versus Reality

By Alucard Sepet Dalv

"Wow," Harry said as he ran his hand over the cover of the book.

This would probably be a very intriguing book. Although the mere thought that vampires, like so many other Dark creatures he'd once thought nothing more than beings of peasant folklore, were real and prowled about was terrifying, they intrigued him to no end. Though he supposed that it was entirely possible that not all vampires were bloodsucking beasts that preyed on unsuspecting humans. After all, common knowledge would lead one to believe that all werewolves were blood crazed monsters without hearts that loved nothing more than to attack and rip apart humans. Yet his own experience with Remus clearly proved this wrong. If people could be so wrong about werewolves, who was to say that the same wasn't true about vampires?

Reverently, Harry opened the book and wasn't surprised to find a folded piece of parchment between the cover and the first page. Picking it up, he found his name written on it in Hermione's clear and precise handwriting. He quickly unfolded it and smiled as he started to read.

Dear Harry,

Harry Birthday!

How are you? Are the Dursleys treating you alright? I'm having a terrific time here in Bulgaria, it's such a wonderful place with so much to learn from! Viktor's being really nice and is taking me to all the best places. The hordes of fans that often show up are annoying, but he's really patient with them and does his best to make sure that we can avoid them.

I hope you like this book, the moment I saw it I knew that it was for you. Viktor and I were visiting the site of an old vampire colony when I saw it. I remember you once told me that vampires had always fascinated you, so I figured a book that discussed them and the myths about them would be ideal for you. (I might ask to borrow it later as I would like to read it myself. There are so many misconceptions about the undead and you never know when the knowledge about them could come in handy. Besides, I highly doubt what Lockhart taught us was either true or useful!)

Now, about what you asked me. I managed to look for nista and came up empty in Latin, I then tried Greek and several other languages but couldn't find anything. I even asked Viktor as he knows a few languages, but he didn't recognize it either, nor did any of the other people I asked about it. There are a few more things I'd like to attempt (there are some good translators online), but I thought you might want to know. Is there nothing else you can tell me about this word? Anything at all about the context it was found in? It might help narrow the search or give me a clue about which languages to check.

I wish I could write more, but I've got to run. Viktor is taking me to the theatre tonight and I still need to get ready. Anyway, enjoy the book and have a great day.

Love from
Hermione

P.S.: You needn't worry about not mentioning anything to Ron anymore about my trip. He asked me to go visit him at the Burrow and I had to tell him about going to Bulgaria when I said I couldn't go. I think he's very angry right now, but he has no right to be! I can decide what to do with my holidays.

Harry smiled as he read the post script, wondering how long it would take his two best friends to fully realize their feelings for each other. He hoped it wouldn't be too long as the underlying tension only led to pointless fights which resulted in their being angry at each other and that only increased the odds of another fight rather than a reconciliation.

With a shake of his head, Harry put the letter down and turned his attention back to his present. The title page was done in an elegant, cursive print, as were the chapter list and the acknowledgement pages. He was just about to read the first page when a soft hoot interrupted him.

"Shh!" Harry whispered fearfully as he looked up at the owl, hoping that no one had heard the sound.

When he didn't hear any footsteps, Harry relaxed. The bird was done feeding and drinking and was clearly waiting for further instructions.

"Wait a moment while I write a reply," he commanded the animal as he got up to get some parchment, ink and a quill from beneath the loose floorboards.

Harry needed only a moment's thought before he started writing.

Dear Hermione,

Thanks a lot for the book, I absolutely love it! It seems really interesting and I can't wait for an opportunity to start reading it. Once I'm done with it, you are more than welcome to read it yourself.

As for the Dursleys, it's much the same as usual. They're going to be gone for most of the day, so I'll be able to have some peace and quiet.

It's good to hear that you're enjoying yourself over there. And don't worry about Ron, he's just jealous, but he'll calm down eventually. It may take a while, but he always does so in the end.

As for Nista, no I can't tell you anything else except that it's spelt with a capital n. I really, really appreciate your taking the time to look this up, it means a lot to me.

See you in London on the first of September,

Harry

Quickly checking that he'd said all he needed to and blowing the ink dry, Harry rolled up the letter and attached it to the owl's leg.

"Take this back to Hermione, please," he instructed and then watched the bird fly off.

Harry smiled again as he ran his hand over the book's leather cover. It made him feel good to know that his friend recalled the remark he'd made about his interest in vampires. It proved that he had friends who really cared as he'd mentioned it once on the way to Defence Against the Dark Arts and only someone close would bother to remember such a tiny detail like that.

It was strange that she hadn't found anything on Nista, though. Harry had hoped it would mean something. But if it didn't it would save him the trouble of having to explain how he'd come across a potentially romantic term in a personal letter. Explaining the truth was out of the question at this point and he didn't want to say it was in a letter for him as then Hermione would assume he had a girlfriend, which he didn't. He hadn't even thought about girls like that since the end of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. But that left it sounding like he'd been reading someone else's mail, and their love letters at that, and he could only image Hermione's lecture on propriety and privacy should she think that! So there was a definite advantage to Nista not meaning anything, but the advantages of it actually having a translation were potentially priceless and could definitely outweigh the likely embarrassment.

The soft flapping of wings caused Harry to look eagerly out of his window once more. A dark shape was rapidly approaching and, even though he couldn't quite make it out in the dark, he knew it had to be from his godfather. Sirius was the only one who wouldn't use an owl and it had to be some other type of bird as owls were silent in flight. It wasn't until the animal passed under one of the streetlamps, though, that he managed to make out what kind of bird it was. A raven; his godfather had sent a raven! He laughed quietly as the bird entered his room and landed on the desk. Untying it's burden, he took out some more bread and gave it to the raven.

"Wait here," Harry told it as he gently stroked its feathers. "I'll want to send a reply."

Harry was just about to open the present when a white blur caught his eye. Looking up, he saw what had to be Hedwig in the company of three other owls heading his way. As they approached, he was slowly able to tell that the others were Pig, Errol and Hermes. Raising an eyebrow in surprise, he wondered what the Weasleys could possibly be sending him to require the use of four owls. A bit of guilt began to creep into his consciousness at the thought. He knew they didn't have a lot of money and he didn't want them to spend too much on him. They were already so kind to him as it was.

Pig was the first to enter the room and he instantly began flying in circles around the young wizard's head, hooting continuously as he did so. It was only Harry's well honed Seeker skills that allowed him to snatch the energetic creature from the air so he could gently but firmly close it's beak with his fingers. His heart thumped wildly in his chest as he listened for the sound of his uncle's steady snoring, only to discover that he could only hear his cousin's. Looking at the birds and presents on his desk, he frantically thought of a way to conceal them. He could put the gifts in his closet, but the owls and raven would be a different matter altogether. He was just contemplating sending them off for ten or fifteen minutes when Vernon's snores once again weighed down the air. Sighing with relief, he relaxed before turning his attention to the bird who's beak he still held.

"You need to be quiet," Harry ordered firmly. "Or you'll get no food."

Carefully, the emerald eyed boy released the small bird's beak, ready to shut it again should he make any noise, but he didn't. Relaxing, Harry untied the surprisingly light package from Pig's leg before setting him down on the desk where he instantly began to drink. Harry smiled as he caught the disapproving glares Hedwig and Hermes sent his way from their chosen perches on the desk. Quickly relieving Hedwig and the other two Weasley owls of their burdens, he divided the remaining bread into five even pieces and gave the four new arrivals their fair share before he refilled the empty water dish.

That done, Harry smiled at the packages before him. Unsure of where to start, he grabbed the one lying closest to him. It was the gift Pig had carried. Carefully, he pried loose the letter attached to it.

Hey Harry!

I hope you're doing okay, that those horrendous relatives of yours aren't causing you too much trouble! Mum says Dumbledore is refusing to let you come to the Burrow this year so I guess I won't be seeing you until September. Dad says its for the best as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has been extremely active even if the Ministry still refuses to acknowledge his return. The idiots! I'd come break you out if I could, but I don't see how at the moment and Fred and George aren't exactly being very helpful either. They've spent practically the entire summer in their room, something about keeping their investor happy or some such nonsense. I really wish I knew what those two are doing. Maybe I'll sneak up there later and find out.

You're not going to believe what Hermione's done now! She went and accepted Krum's invitation! You know to go spend time with him in Bulgaria. Can you believe it?! Why she'd want to go with that crocked nosed, Durmstrang fool is beyond me, but it's her mistake and I hope she comes to regret it! Girls; I'll never figure them out! Honestly.

Anyway, a happy birthday to you and I hope you like your present. I was at a Quidditch supplies shop when I saw it and I just knew it was for you, what with you being a Seeker and all.

Enjoy your summer as best you can and I'll see you on the first of September in London.

Your friend,
Ron

Silently laughing, Harry put the letter down. How could Ron be so clueless at times? He himself hadn't been. He'd known he liked Cho and had gone up and asked her out, after some delay, true, but he'd still realized his feelings. Ron obviously didn't. He quickly pushed aside the thoughts of Cho as they inevitably led to memories of Cedric and the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He doubted that he'd ever be able to look at Cho again and not be reminded of the Hufflepuff.

Instead Harry eyed the other gifts from the Weasleys warily. Obviously the twins had put the winnings he'd given them to use, but he wasn't sure they wouldn't try one of their new inventions on him. Although what Ron had mentioned they'd told him did comfort him somewhat. Though he suspected his friend wouldn't be so lucky, especially if he started snooping around. He'd have to warn him not to do that, even if he knew Ron would probably do so anyway. It would at least give him something to say if his best friend complained about the consequences afterwards.

Curiosity piqued by the mention of Quidditch and his position as Seeker, Harry picked up the package itself. He frowned in confusion as he felt it, trying to guess what it might be. It was light and soft, two adjectives he normally wouldn't associate with the popular wizarding sport. Unable to figure out what it might be, he ripped open the wrapping paper only to see a flash of gold and emerald green material. Blinking in surprise, he looked again but only saw what was probably a shirt, the colour of which matched his eyes. Looking around his room, he could see no trace of gold so what he had caught sight of probably wasn't a Snitch. He doubted Ron would send him a loose snitch anyway as, without magic or his broom, he was unlikely to ever find it again.

Harry shrugged before he lifted the long sleeved shirt out of the package, only to see a flash of gold again.

"What the hell?" Harry muttered, turning the shirt over before he snorted and began laughing.

Across the back, written in black letters, were the words 'Catch It If You Can' and beneath it was a little golden snitch whose wings actually moved. Fascinated, Harry reached out to touch it, only to have the small ball zoom across the shirt to one of the sleeves. Startled, he drew his hand back before attempting to touch it once more. When it moved away, he figured the shirt was most likely charmed so that no one would actually be able to touch the snitch. Shaking his head, he took off the top of his pyjamas and put the new shirt on instead.

"Perfect fit," he noted happily.

This was a shirt he'd definitely enjoy wearing. In fact, he'd put it on under one of Dudley's oversized hand-me-downs the day he returned to school. That way he'd simply be able to pull the rag off as soon as his uncle left him.

With that thought, Harry turned his attention to the parcel Errol had carried. That would most likely contain the food Mrs. Weasley always sent. Although it was pretty small this year, much more so than normal. Tearing away the paper wrapping, he found a small wooden box with a note attached to it.

Hello Harry Dear,

I hope you're enjoying your birthday and I'm sorry you can't come stay with us this summer, but that's what Albus decided and he knows what's best for you.

In this box you will find a selection of pies and quiches I prepared for you. However, in order to make the load easier for Errol and to allow me to send more, I've placed a shrinking charm on them. All you need to do to enlarge them is tap the bottom of each dish three times in rapid succession. That will also activate a heating charm I've placed upon them.

Enjoy,
Molly Weasley

A loud growl from his stomach was all the encouragement Harry needed to open the box and lift one of the top quiches out. Following the instruction, he soon had a mouth watering meal before him. Smiling as he noticed that Mrs. Weasley had cut it up already, he grabbed a piece and devoured it, savouring the taste. Five minutes later there was nothing left of the quiche but crumbs which Pig quickly took care of when he allowed him to do so.

Harry briefly enjoyed the feeling of a full stomach before getting up and placing the box in his closet underneath his clothes as it was too big to fit underneath the loose floorboards. Then he picked up the two parcels Hedwig and Hermes had carried. He doubted Percy would send him something and Ginny still seemed too shy to do so, therefore both were probably from the twins. Sitting back down, he started opening the first of the two gifts before he stopped. Ron had often said how Percy didn't allow his brothers to use his owl, so he doubted that Fred and George had gotten permission to use Hermes.

"Why don't you go home," Harry suggested to the owl in question. "I'm sure Percy will be in need of you come morning."

Instantly the owl took off, swooping out of the window without so much as a backwards glance. Hoping that his absence hadn't been noticed, Harry continued opening his present. Within were a series of small bags and boxes. Opening a few of them, he noticed that they were filled with what appeared to be candy. But he knew better than to taste them for if they came from the Weasley twins, then there were bound to be unpleasant side effects. In fact, one of the bags contained a bunch of sweets all in brightly coloured wrappers that looked suspiciously like the ton-tongue toffees which they'd used on Dudley the previous summer. Unfortunately, look as he might, he couldn't find any indication that Fred and George had labelled what the other items were. Much as he'd cherish discovering their effects by feeding them to his greedy cousin, he knew he couldn't lest the results were obviously magical. That would only lead to very grave consequences. The punishments his uncle dealt out for imaginary transgressions would undoubtedly be nothing compared to those he'd hand out if he had undeniable proof.

With a sigh, Harry put the items on his desk before pulling the parcel Hedwig had carried towards him. This one felt like a box, a suspicion he quickly confirmed by happily tearing away the red and gold wrapping. He smiled with uncontained joy as he opened the box and saw that the container was filled with glass vials of all shapes and sizes and was insulated to protect them. Also, tucked away on the side, was a piece of parchment. Taking it out, he unfolded it.

Hello dear investor,

On this very special day, the humble and eternally grateful benefactors of your supreme and boundless generosity would like to bestow upon you a token of our appreciation.

Harry was unable to prevent chuckling at the twins' antics. Those two pranksters could be so full of nonsense at times that it was unbelievable.

Contained within these two gifts are a sample of the fruits of our intensive labour. A taste of where your money has gone to. You will no doubt recognize some of our old favourites among our newly invented and never before seen creations. For instance, there is ton-tongue toffee, but also a new potion which, when ingested, will turn the victim's hair red and gold for a good three weeks and is immune to the regular antidotes for such charms.

The young wizard's eyes widened as he read this last. Yes, he knew that there were charms which allowed one to alter colours, but they were so easily undone that it was hardly worth the effort of using them.

But now...

He could just picture what he could do with this new potion. And if it was indeed a new invention, then Snape wouldn't be able to undo it without some research. He could have so much fun with this, but how to get someone to drink it? It wasn't like any of his rivals would simply ingest it if he either asked them to or handed it to them. Oh, he'd find a way. After all, having one of the Slytherins running around with Gryffindor hair for the majority of a month would definitely be worth the effort. Especially if it was Draco Malfoy.

Another one causes the subject to fall asleep every time their name is mentioned. The bright yellow liquid results in dog-like behaviour. Once they've been dosed with it, they will believe themselves a canine for forty-eight hours. The purple gum makes the consumer crave the weirdest things and they will do anything to get it once they've decided they want it.

Harry shook his head in disbelief as he scanned the rest of the letter, catching words like 'multiple tails,' 'transformation,' 'speaking backwards,' and 'deepest desires' among the list of pranks. He'd have to label his stock so he didn't accidentally confuse them with each other.

Pleased at the thought of all the mischief and havoc he could cause, Harry put the letter back in the box, wrote thank you notes, and turned his attention to his godfather's present. Surprisingly it felt like a book, the last thing he would ever have thought Sirius would give him. Although, perhaps, Remus had been able to influence him. It was possible, though highly unlikely. Unable to guess what it could potentially be, he ripped open the package instead.

"Bloody hell," Harry swore as he caught sight of the book's title, his eyes widening in shock.

Now he knew that it could well have been Sirius' idea to give him this book. It was right up his alley. He only wondered where his godfather had found the book as he was sure Fred and George would have snatched it up long before he'd even heard of the Wizarding World if it was commercially available. But it didn't look like a mass produced product. Instead it appeared old and worn, as if it had been read hundreds of times.

With a smile, the Boy-Who-Lived lightly traced his fingers over the words A Prankster's Guide to Hogwarts. Although the words seemed to be engraved into the cover, he couldn't feel them. The school name was also written in eight different colours, namely gold, bronze, silver, black, blue, green, yellow and red. It took him a moment to realize that they were the eight house colours. Shaking his head, he opened the book and found a letter tucked into the inside cover.

Harry quickly pulled the parchment free and unfolded it.

Dear Harry,

How's my favourite godson?

- He's your only godson!

Just ignore him, Harry. But seriously, are those relatives of yours treating you alright? If not, I'll come over there and take care of them for you!

- Don't worry, Harry, I'll make sure he doesn't earn himself a real reason to be sent back to Azkaban.

The two of us are doing fine. Still running errands for Albus, but fine. I'm keeping on the move so don't you worry about me. Have you done anything interesting lately?

- Have you started your homework yet?

Homework? Homework? It's his holiday, Moony! Grr... take my advice, Harry, don't become friends with someone who plans on becoming a teacher, it isn't worth it.

- Hey!

Did you hear (eh... see) anything? I thought I heard a noise just now.

- And I think someone is going to get a flea collar very soon. Say the next time we're out in public.

Blackmail. See what I have to put up with here? Your father was right when he said that it's from your friends that you get it.

- The present, Padfoot.

Ah, yes, your present. First off, a happy birthday to you, Harry! This book is something your father, Remus and I found back in our Hogwarts days and it aided us on many an occasion. What better gift to give than something to allow you to follow in your father's footsteps? Tell me about any pranks you pull and please use one of the nastier ones on that slimy Slytherin git for me, will you? Enjoy and make us Marauders proud!

- Ignore that part on Severus, Harry. I can assure you that the outcome will be most unpleasant should he find out that you were the one to do it. That said, have fun but be responsible. I imagine that you'll enjoy being about to outdo the Weasley twins, or will you let them in on it?

Figures. Anyway, happy fifteen Harry!

The greatest (- silliest),

Padfoot and Moony

Harry shook with suppressed laughter as he finished reading the letter. He could just picture the two of them sitting next to each other, hunched over the letter as they wrote it. Trust Sirius and Remus to argue even on parchment. It was good to know that they were safe and still able to laugh. He feared that with Voldemort's return that genuine laughter was something he'd see less and less of as time went on if what he'd heard of the Dark Lord's original rise was true. Rereading the letter, he noticed a post script he hadn't seen before.

How is your scar? Has it been bothering you anymore? Make sure to tell Albus if it does!

His smile instantly vanished as he thought of his visions. He knew his godfather meant well, but the reminder was unpleasant. Pulling another piece of parchment towards him, he began his reply.

Dear Padfoot and Moony,

Thanks for the present, I love it! I think we'll be in dire need of pranks once school starts again. Otherwise the mood is liable to become very dark. As for letting Fred and George in on it, I don't know yet. The thought of besting Hogwarts' resident pranksters at their own game is very tempting. I'll see how things go, they did give me the Marauder's Map after all.

I'm as well as can be expected. I'd leap at the chance of getting out of here, but I know I'm safe as long as I remain within the wards. I've done some homework at night, but not a lot as I have to pick the lock on the cupboard my aunt and uncle have sealed all my magic things in (handy trick that, Fred and George taught me how to do it last year!).

Take care, especially you Snuffles. When shall I be seeing you again? I hope it's not too long. And watch out for flea collars, you just never know where they'll show up!

As for visions, yes I have been having them and, before you ask again, I will inform Professor Dumbledore about them.

Harry paused as he thought about what he'd learned in the past week. The references to James in Sirius' lines had hurt, especially the way his godfather had spoken about his real father, but he couldn't blame him. He had originally meant to ask Sirius or Remus about why his mother believed Snape to be dead, but now he didn't know how to bring it up without revealing anything. He couldn't just outright ask them as they'd want to know how he'd ever learned that something had transpired with Snape at all.

Reluctantly, Harry decided that he'd have to either wait until an opportunity presented itself for him to question the two on it, or find the information elsewhere. He signed his letter and tied it to the waiting raven's leg.

"Take it back to those you came from," the young wizard instructed the bird.

Harry watched the raven leave until he vanished into the night before he turned his attention back to the book he'd just received. There, on the first page, was the title and, underneath it in bright blue ink, were three names.

Helena Herly, Leslie Drake & William Greenough.

What caught his attention, though, was the date beneath the names.

998 A.D.

It only took Harry a few seconds to realize that that was but six years after Hogwarts was built! The book dated back to some of the first group of students to pass through the school! Back when the founders had still taught. His eyes were wide in shock as he realized that this book was nearly a thousand years old and likely the most complete guide to Hogwarts there was. These students would have been able to talk with the founders themselves about the school and it's many abnormalities!

Gently, Harry turned the page, surprised at how good a condition the book was in. It had probably been charmed to last so that students of all ages could read and utilize it. On the following page, in normal black ink were a few instructions:

Pranksters hello!

This book was created to ensure that all future students will be able to keep our vital tradition of pranks alive. What would Hogwarts be without practical jokes, after all?

(Shudders at the very thought)

This guide will also serve as an aid by informing generations of students to come of quirks the castle possesses that are helpful to know, as well as informing them of other aids that exist in order to accomplish pranks and last, but by no means least, to write down good jokes so that they can be done again (just imagine the teachers' confusion when it happens time and time again even after the original students left and before their offspring arrive!).

In order to be certain that this book lasts to fulfil its duty, we have placed every single charm and spell on it that we know of to prevent its destruction. As time goes on, though, new means will be found to achieve this and we ask anyone who knows of a method to help accomplish this goal that hasn't already been utilized to add it. We have made a list on pages four and five of the spells and charms we used and ask that anyone who adds a spell, writes it down as well.

Harry turned the page and whistled softly at the list which went on for four pages in a mix of blue, green, red and yellow ink after the original block of blue writing. Looking at a few of the spells, he found all of the ones that came to mind and quite a few he had never even heard of before. He wondered if Tom Riddle had gotten hold of this book and whether it had given him the idea of similarly protecting his diary. It would be a shame if it had inspired him. Turning back, he was about to continue reading when he wondered about the extra two pages the added charms were noted on. Looking ahead, he saw that there were no blank pages between the list and the index. Briefly he frowned before shaking it off. It was a wizard book, new pages probably appeared automatically when the last one was full.

We have also made sure that the guide will be safe from professors by charming it so that if one of them picks it up, that it will appear to be a blank journal. Then you can simply say that you were just going to start it. They will also see a different title. Furthermore, the book will automatically return to the back of the library if it remains in the staff room or the headmaster's office for over a day.

Underneath this, written in dark green ink and clearly by someone else with more elegant handwriting was some more.

The book has now also been spelled to never run out of pages.

The Boy-Who-Lived smiled as his theory was confirmed. He then turned to the opposite page. In the same blue ink as before it said:

This book is intended for all pranksters, regardless of what house they come from as Ravenclaw, Slytherin, Gryffindor and Hufflepuff all value qualities which also happen to be useful in pulling off practical jokes.

Ravenclaws possess the intelligence to come up with clever new pranks and find equally good means of carrying them out.

Then the ink became green:

Slytherins possess the cunning to pull off practical jokes and not get caught in the process.

Then the ink became blood red:

Gryffindors possess the courage to pull off any prank no matter what the risk of getting caught.

Then the ink became dark yellow:

Hufflepuffs possess the patience to pull off practical jokes that require time to prepare and achieve.

Eyes lighting up with understanding, Harry quickly flipped through the book and found that the entries were all written in those four colours. It seemed he would need to get some red ink so that his contributions were recognized as Gryffindor ones. He'd have to ask Ron to buy him some when he went to Diagon Alley, or he could pick it up if he managed to go himself.

On a sudden impulse, Harry flipped back to the index and looked to the red entries at the end. Fourth from the bottom was what he was looking for: "The Marauder's Map." Going to the page on it, he instantly recognized his godfather's sloppy handwriting. And there was the password to view it. It made him wonder once more how the Weasley twins had managed to discover the password, he'd have to ask them some time. At least now he knew how the Marauders had intended for successive generations to use the map.

Harry was just about to look at the index when another bird swooped into his bedroom. Looking up, he saw a school owl perched on the desk in front of him. Attached to its legs were a piece of parchment and a medium sized, leather bag that moved. Hesitating briefly, he untied the parchment and instantly recognized Hagrid's untidy scrawl which only served to increase his unease about the wiggling bundle. Much as he loved and trusted Hagrid, he knew the half-giant's idea of what was safe was radically different from that of most people. He was just about to unroll the letter to see if it would reveal the contents of the present before he opened it, when he jumped upon hearing a voice.

*Ssstupid humansss,* it hissed.

Harry looked around quickly, dropping the letter in his hand as he dove for the loose floorboard, hoping to get to his wand as the voice certainly didn't belong to any of his relatives. He hadn't even managed to lift the loose board before it spoke again.

*That rutty bird could have dropped me! I wonder where I am now. With sssome other human no doubt.*

It only took a moment for Harry to process what had been said before his eyes opened wide in realization. There was only one thing which had just been carried by a bird and that was the bag. Could it be that the Keeper of the Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts had sent him a snake? He knew they weren't among the accepted pets, but when had that ever stopped Hagrid? And it was the only animal that he could think of which would fit into the bag and which he'd be able to understand.

Slowly, Harry got to his feet and approached the desk once more. Reaching out, he untied the leather bag from the owl's leg, making sure to keep it closed, before he put the last of the bread he'd been given for dinner out for the bird. Putting the bag down on the other side of the desk from the owl, he released it and quickly pulled his hand away lest it was a poisonous snake. It didn't seem to be in the best of moods and he really didn't want to take any chances. He could already see the headlines now "Boy-Who-Lived Killed by Snake Bite." No doubt there'd be a whole section commenting on how it was the Slytherin animal that killed the Gryffindor Golden Boy and all that nonsense.

Harry rolled his eyes before focusing them on the leather bag as it moved and a dark red serpentine head poked out of it. As he had guessed it was a snake and she seemed very angry. It's small golden eyes darting around as it's head moved from side to side, it's long, thin tongue darting out to taste the air. After a few seconds it turned in his direction.

*Hello,* Harry hissed in Parseltongue.

*Hello,* replied the snake after a few seconds of silence. *You are a talker.*

*Talker?*

*One who can ssspeak our language.*

*Yes,* Harry confirmed, smiling at the way the s was drawn out. He was surprised by this considering that Voldemort did it as well, but it sounded completely differently in Parseltongue than it did in English. It was softer and musical; a pleasing sound.

*Are you the one I wasss intended for?* the snake enquired as she slithered out of the bag.

*Yes. I must apologize if Hagrid unintentionally hurt you, but he isn't used to handling smaller animals. He normally occupies himself with large ones who possess a lot of physical strength.*

*Asss long asss he doesssn't hold me again,* the reptilian stated. *But I am glad to be with one sssuch asss you.*

*Thanks,* Harry responded, blushing slightly. *What's your name?*

*Zera, yoursss?*

*Harry, Harry Potter. I like your name. What type of snake are you?*

*A red milk sssnake,* Zera informed him.

*You're beautiful,* Harry declared as he leaned forward to get a better look at her.

Zera was slender and appeared to be about a hundred centimetres long and was mainly a deep red in colour, only slightly less dark than dried blood. All along her length at various intervals were thin bands of black followed by a slightly larger white band and then another thin band of black. Some of these black and white blotches seemed to go all the way around her body while some stopped at her sides. There was a circle shaped one at the area where the head and body blended together.

*Thanksss,* Zera hissed as she turned to look at the owl perched on the other side of the desk.

*Don't worry. He won't harm you. Can I pick you up?*

*Yesss.*

Harry gently ran his fingers over his new pet's bright shinning scales before lifting her up. Zera quickly coiled herself around his wrist and the young wizard smiled at the pleasant sensation of the smooth, cool scales gliding over his skin. Then her tongue darted out and touched him.

*You sssmell nice,* Zera declared.

Harry chuckled softly at this before he reached down to the floor and picked up the abandoned letter. He'd just unrolled it when another piece of paper fell out. He caught it and, skimming it, he noticed that it seemed to be written in textbook style and the left edge of the page was jagged as if it had been torn out of a book. He sincerely hoped that Hagrid hadn't ripped it out of one of the school books. Regardless of what book it had come from, though, Hermione would have a fit if she knew. The number of times she had told him and Ron to take care of their school texts were innumerable and they had never gone so far as to rip out a page! Although, now that he thought about it, while they had never done so, Hermione had when she discovered the information about the Basilisk back in second year.

Ironically enough, the topic of this book was apparently snakes as well as the page was all about red milk snakes, which were a type of kingsnakes. Glancing it over, he quickly noted that Zera ate a wide variety of things including bird and reptile eggs, small reptiles, birds, mice, amphibians and some rodents. She wouldn't have a problem finding something to consume when they got to Hogwarts, but until then he'd need to make sure he either got her outside or managed to sneak an egg up to her. As he looked further down the list, he crinkled his nose in disgust as he saw that milk snakes also ate various other snakes as well, including some of the venomous ones to whose poison they were partially immune. They also suffocated their prey as they were constrictors.

*You're nocturnal during the summer?* Harry questioned his new familiar as he read on.

*Usssually, but that can be changed,* Zera explained. *If you want, I can ssswitch.*

*No, that probably won't be necessary. My relatives probably wouldn't be too fond of you if they saw you. In fact, stay away from them, I wouldn't put it past my uncle or cousin to kill you. They already can't stand Hedwig and she's an owl. Muggles, like most wizards it seems, have the tendency to associate snakes with evil. Some religious thing, I believe. Besides, I'll be up most nights anyway doing homework or avoiding nightmares and I'll enjoy your company better then.*

*Thanksss for the advice,* Zera hissed, before continuing distastefully. *Your family mussst be foolsss. It'sss sssilly to make sssuch random prejudicesss.*

*I agree with you, but there's no use arguing with Uncle Vernon, I'd only get punished for it,* Harry informed her.

The young wizard could already see that Zera would be a big help to him, he'd be able to communicate with her in a way he never could with Hedwig or his friends. Ron and Hermione simply couldn't understand everything he'd been through no matter how hard they tried. Zera, however, was used to preconceived judgments and she would probably see what he went through as he planned to keep her with him at all times during school. Perhaps she'd have some advice regarding his current paternal situation.

*I will take you downstairs occasionally so that you can get outside to catch food. I'm afraid it's going to be chicken eggs otherwise,* Harry continued, glad that he hadn't attempted to steal food before, now Aunt Petunia wouldn't expect it. *I should be able to smuggle some up here.*

*Why would you need to sssneak it up?* Zera enquired.

*That's a long story which I'll explain later.*

*Okay.*

With a smile, Harry turned back to the paper held in his hand. The rest of the information was about the milk snake's background and evolutionary descent. Not interested in it at the moment, Harry put the paper aside and turned his attention to his letter.

Dear Harry,

Happy Birthday!

I hope you enjoy this gift. Thought you might like another familiar, specially one that you can talk to. Don't worry about the Headmaster, I've already asked him and he says that it's fine for you to bring her to school as she's non-venomous.

All the best,
Hagrid

Harry smiled once more as he put down the parchment. It was nice to know that he wouldn't have to hide Zera while at Hogwarts for, permission or not, there was no way he would not have taken her with him. He winced, though, as he thought of what Snape would say when he heard that Professor Dumbledore had made an exception for Zera and, therefore, for him. The man would be mad and see it as yet another example of his fame getting him what he wanted. If only his father knew the truth, knew how much he despised the attention and supposed glory that came with his scar. But he could see why the Potions Master was so relentless on the subject. He probably knew that it was his mother who had truly been the hero and she had died to protect what he thought was the son of the man who had stolen his wife away from him.

*What'sss wrong?* Zera asked, sensing his sudden mood shift.

*Something which also requires a lengthy explanation.*

*Ah, I sssee. You'll tell me later, then?*

*Yes,* Harry smiled. *I want your opinion on the matter as I'm not entirely sure how to proceed.*

*I ssshall attempt to do my bessst.*

*Thanks.*

With a sigh, Harry tried to push the subject aside as he couldn't deal with it at the present. Instead, he thought of how his best friend would react to his new pet. Ron wasn't exactly fond of snakes as he'd grown up with the typical associations of Salazar and Slytherins with the creatures, but he believed the red head wouldn't get too upset about it. Hermione, of course, would hardly even blink, simply congratulating him and probably being glad that he had another being to confide in when they weren't around.

Harry pulled another piece of blank parchment before him and began his reply.

Dear Hagrid,

Thanks for the snake, she's wonderful! Her name is Zera and we are getting along just fine. Please thank the Headmaster for me, I really appreciate him allowing me to bring her to school. It will be so nice to have another companion.

How have you been? Not getting into too much trouble with any new creatures, are you? What are we going to be studying this year in Care of Magical Creatures? Since I'm not allowed to go buy my books, I don't know the title or what it's about.

Enjoy your holiday,
Harry

Double checking to make sure that he hadn't made any mistakes, Harry rolled up the letter and motioned the school owl towards him. It eagerly came forward and allowed him to tie the parchment to its leg.

"Take this back to Hagrid."

With a soft hoot, the owl took off. Harry quickly shut the window and put his writing instruments away along with his godfather's book and the rest of his birthday presents so that there would be nothing for his uncle to see when he woke him up tomorrow morning.

*How do you normally sleep?* Harry asked his new pet.

*Underneath sssomething. But I'm not tired, can I explore the room?*

*Sure, just make sure that you're out of sight if anyone enters.*

*I ssshould be asssleep when they wake up,* Zera responded. *I'll make sure to find a nice, hidden ssspot.*

*Good,* Harry said before he swapped his new shirt for his pyjama top and climbed back into his bed, fervently hoping to get some much needed peaceful rest.

Chapter Text

The ringing of the phone woke Harry and, as usual during the summer, he woke completely. Squinting at his clock, he groaned when he saw that it was only six o'clock. Who in the bloody hell was calling the Dursleys at this godforsaken hour in the morning?! Even Uncle Vernon didn't get up until seven when he had to leave for work. Though, if what he'd heard on the tele when he was cleaning the living room the other day was correct, Americans got up far earlier than Europeans did. Something about the sun rising sooner there or so. Not that that little fact explained anything as Grunnings didn't have any overseas investors as far as he knew. Besides, weren't Americans behind by like five hours anyhow?

"Persistent bugger," Harry muttered as the phone kept ringing.

It was amazing how quickly his uncle reacted if he made any noise at night and yet it took him several minutes to reach over and pick up the phone on the stand next to his bed.

When silence finally settled over the house once more, Harry debated about going back to sleep or not but decided against it. By the time he'd get settled, his uncle would be bellowing at him to get up and commence his chores. Chances also were that, if the call brought bad news, Vernon would get up earlier than usual and he'd need to be alert so as not to give the man an excuse to vent his anger on him. Not that he generally needed one to do so, but it helped not to provoke the volatile man.

*Zera?* Harry hissed in Parseltongue as he reached over and picked his glasses up from their place next to the clock. *Are you still awake?*

*Due to that talking machine I am,* an annoyed voice responded from his closet.

*It's not a talking machine,* Harry corrected with a smile as he slipped out of bed and opened his closet, lifting the uppermost jumper to reveal his familiar.

*It sssoundsss like you and other humansss.*

*That's because it transmits a human's voice,* Harry explained, amused. *It allows people to talk to each other across long distances.*

*Like fire talk?*

*Yes, it's similar but without any magic.*

*How do the Mugglesss do it then?*

*They use something called electricity,* Harry stated. *The same energy that's used to charge their lights and a whole array of other appliances.*

*I sssee,* Zera replied as she lazily lifted her head and allowed the young wizard to stroke it.

*Are you hungry?* Harry enquired softly.

He'd managed to take quite a few eggs from the fridge before Aunt Petunia had started to get suspicious. The fact that he made breakfast and that he hadn't taken them consecutively but only on those days that he couldn't sneak Zera outside had helped. The weight he'd gained as a result of Mrs. Weasley's pies and quiches, had not. His aunt had taken to counting the eggs before and after each meal and then the number of egg shells used in preparation of said meal. The first time she'd done so, he'd been severely punished for having stolen food that 'precious little Ickle Diddykins' desperately needed as he was a growing boy. It had taken all his willpower to refrain from asking her if she had, by any chance, noticed the inches he'd been putting on over the past few weeks and whether or not that qualified him for said vital food. He'd wisely remained silent, not wanting to get even less food then he currently was.

*Yesss,* Zera answered. *But I don't want you getting into trouble again for me. Your own sssupply of food isss quickly running out.*

*I know,* Harry sighed.

Due to his punishment, he'd gotten no food for three days and had been forced to eat more pies than he'd intended to over the past week and was rapidly depleting his stash. It was as if his stomach decided that now that he ate regularly, that it wanted even more food than normal.

*I hate growing,* the young wizard muttered.

While he'd gained back some of the weight he'd lost upon returning from Hogwarts, the majority of what he consumed seemed to go straight into additional growth in the vertical direction rather than in girth. Not only was it the cause of his near constant hunger, but it was also a very vivid reminder of his newfound heritage. He was sure that he was close to Ron's height at the present and was showing no signs of stopping either!

Harry was pulled from his thoughts by a strange but pleasant hissing sound.

*What are you laughing at?*

*Mossst young onesss want nothing more than to grow up,* Zera explained. *Impatiently waiting for it to occur.*

*Well, I'm not a normal boy, now am I,* Harry replied bitterly before he calmed down. *Sorry, you didn't deserve that.*

*That'sss okay, you have a lot on your mind.*

*Thanks. What would I do without you?*

*Be hopelessssssssly lossst and confusssed,* quipped the red milk snake.

*Is sarcasm a snake trait or is it just my luck that I've run into those few that are?*

*What do you mean?*

*Well, there's you, Snape, the Malfoys...* Harry began but froze in place when he heard movement from his aunt and uncle's room. *Never mind. I'll try to get you outside later today so that you can hunt.*

*Okay,* Zera said as she curled herself up. *Until then.*

*Until later,* Harry replied before he placed the jumper over her.

He really hoped that he'd have the opportunity to let her out as she always managed to eat enough for several days when she was able to catch her own food. Quickly, Harry got dressed and was ready and waiting for when Vernon opened the door to his room.

"Awake, are you? Good. Go wash yourself and then get started on breakfast," the man ordered, his multiple chins quivering with each word. "I need to go to work after all it seems."

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry responded as he nimbly darted past the man and made for the bathroom.


"But I thought you had holiday!" Dudley whined as he plopped down into his chair which groaned loudly in protest.

"Yes, Vernon, why can't you have anyone else go in?" Petunia enquired. "We were going to go to that new restaurant for lunch."

"Hendrickson got ill and we need to have either him or the director of the company present at the meeting," Vernon explained. "Therefore, it is only natural that I have to go represent Grunnings in his absence. This could be an important day for, if we can make this deal, the company will profit greatly. Just imagine all the extra money we'll make if it succeeds!"

"More money?" Petunia questioned, her face lighting up instantly. "That had better be a good breakfast you've got there, boy! Your uncle will need all his energy today!"

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry stated, practically seeing the greedy gleam in her eyes.

He just knew that she was already thinking of everything she could buy with more money. Not to mention how she'd be able to flaunt it before the neighbours.

"Does this mean that I can have that new computer game Piers heard of?" Dudley demanded eagerly, wobbling on his chair.

As he brought the frying pan to the table to start serving his aunt, Harry winced, hoping that the chair wouldn't break when he was near his cousin as he'd surely be blamed for it then. Especially considering that it was already a specially strengthened one in order to hold Dudley's massive weight.

"Of course, Sweetums," Petunia promised instantly. "The moment your father comes home, we shall go buy it."

"Indeed we will," Vernon confirmed as he watched Harry put his eggs and bacon on his plate. "You didn't steal anymore eggs, did you, boy?"

"No, Uncle Vernon."

"I'll be checking as soon as I'm done," Petunia warned sternly. "Honestly, what were you thinking? After all that we've done for you, you repay our sacrifices by stealing!"

Harry grounded his teeth together in an effort to remain silent as he put the pan in the sink before taking his seat at the table before an empty plate.

"Take a slice of bread," Vernon ordered, though it came out considerably less clear than normal as his mouth was full and he sprayed himself with bits of egg in the process.

"Thank you, Uncle Vernon," Harry forced himself to say as he tried to hide his disgust.

"What time will you be back, Honey?" Petunia enquired.

"The conference should be over at three and then I have to drive back from London," Vernon replied.

"London?" Harry asked, instantly interested. "You're going into London today?"

"Yes. What's it to you?"

"I... well... I... I need to get my school books for next year."

"Eek!" Dudley squealed before he fell out of his chair in fright, causing the window panes to rattle as he hit the floor.

Petunia screamed and instantly ran to her son's aid; her face drained of all colour.

"What have I told you about mentioning your abnormality and freak school in this house!" Vernon thundered as his face turned a livid shade of blotchy purple.

"Not to do so," Harry replied meekly, fascinated at the way his uncle virtually shook with rage. It couldn't be healthy for him, doubly so considering the constant strain his body already underwent simply to support his enormous amounts of flesh.

"Then why did you do it?" Vernon demanded as he sluggishly lumbered to his feet.

"Ungrateful freak," Petunia muttered accusingly as she vainly attempted to help her son get up.

"It's just that if I don't have my books, the professors will ask why and they may even send someone over here," Harry lied quickly as he tensed in his seat, ready to bolt should the need arise. "You know, to check in that you were aware and all that. So, since you were going into London anyway, I figured now would be the best time. You can drop me off before you go to your meeting and then pick me up afterwards without any inconvenience to yourself."

"Dealing with you is always an inconvenience," Vernon snapped as he stopped to consider the situation. "I won't tolerate any of those freaky teachers of yours coming here. They'd alert the entire neighbourhood to your abnormality!"

"Vernon, give me a hand over here, Duddykins can't get up," Petunia interrupted as she finally gave up trying to hoist him to his feet.

"Give me your hand, Dudley," Vernon said as his attention wavered to the boy who was floundering around in a hopeless attempt to right himself.

Harry waited with batted breath as he watched his aunt and uncle pull his cousin upright. Devoting time and attention to his son was one of the best ways to get Vernon to calm down. Provided that Dudley didn't make up some complaint about him, of course. As he waited, his worry began to grow. What if his uncle said no? He doubted that another opportunity like this one would occur and, besides, Flourish & Blotts would start selling the school textbooks at the beginning of next week and then Diagon Alley would be flooded with students. Including his classmates and friends who were more liable to recognize him.

Ever since Zera had agreed with him that seeing the vault was probably the best way to learn more about Snape, his need to see it had increased even more as his thoughts had been validated. Everything hinged around his coming to know the man who had sired him and had loved his mother before he confronted the Potions Master. He wasn't sure what he'd do if he was denied transportation by his relatives, but had considered flagging down the Knight Bus. The only problem with that was that it amplified the chances of his discovery drastically as it would entail interacting with more people who'd seen him before and then there was the fact that there probably weren't very many wizards or witches in this part of Muggle England, at least that he knew of, and that increased the odds of the driver recognizing him due to the neighbourhood.

The chance was small, but it wasn't worth the risk if it could be helped. If the headmaster learned of his little excursion then he wouldn't even be able to explain why he'd broken his promise in the first place. After all the elderly wizard had done for him, he didn't want to repay him like that.

"You can come along," Vernon finally declared when he had gotten his spawn up off the floor. "But I won't wait for you. If you're not there on my way back, I'm leaving you, got that, freak?"

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry replied, concealing his immense relief and making a mental note to convert some of his wizard money to pounds so that he'd be able to get a cab back if necessary.

Vernon simply grunted as he returned to his seat and commenced shovelling food into his maw of a mouth once more.

"You'd better be ready for when your uncle leaves," Petunia stated as she waited until her precious son had reclaimed his seat before doing so herself.

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry responded before he hastily finished off his meagre meal.

He then ran upstairs and carefully closed his bedroom door before opening his closet and pulling the uppermost jumper off of his pet.

*Zera, wake up!*

*What?* the snake hissed grumpily as she lazily opened an eye to regard him. *Isss it time to go outssside already?*

*No,* Harry answered excitedly. *But we're going into London, to Diagon Alley!*

*To the vault?*

*Yes!!*

*Will you be able to buy food there?* Zera enquired as she uncoiled herself.

*I'll be able to get anything you want,* Harry stated as he pulled the bag he'd prepared out of the closet.

Harry opened it and made sure that he had everything he needed for his disguise. Satisfied that it was all in there, he put the bag aside and got out some of his baggiest and ugliest clothes. They were pieces that he had never worn outside of the Dursleys' home, so they wouldn't be familiar to anyone. He also pulled out a belt to ensure that the trousers stayed put.

*Get on,* Harry instructed his familiar as he rolled up his sleeve and lowered his right arm to where she was. *You'll need to remain hidden and silent for most of the time.*

*That'sss okay,* Zera hissed as she wound her long, slender body around his lower arm. *I'll probably sssleep until we're there anyway.*

*You do that,* Harry said as he lowered his sleeve and made sure that there was no sign of her presence.

With a satisfied nod, the young wizard walked over to the loose floorboard and got his wand out from its hiding place. Although he wasn't legally allowed to use it, he wanted it with him just in case he did run into any trouble. Harry smiled to himself as he tucked the wooden item away in his pocket. Snape couldn't say he was blindly rushing into danger this time, he was fully prepared for what could come. Though his father was liable to bite his head off simply for leaving the house in the first place. He sighed at the thought. If only such a reaction was provoked by love and a genuine concern for his well being instead of as a means to ridicule him... Forcing the thought and pain aside, he got his mother's Gringotts key out along with his own and put them into the bag which he then picked up and slung over his left shoulder.

"Going to get your freak things, are you?" Dudley demanded the instant he left his room.

"Yep," Harry confirmed happily. "Some potions books, one for charms, one for history, and last but by no means least, one on transfiguration. You know, turning people into pigs and all."

Dudley's eyes went wide as the blood rushed from his face, leaving him pale as a sheet. He quickly backed up, connecting with the wall with a loud 'thud,' causing it to shake and the pictures to rattle.

"N... no... you're ly... lying," the fat boy finally stammered.

"I'm not," Harry responded confidently. "In fact, that was what Hagrid was trying to do to you on that rock of an island four summers ago."

With a terrified squeak, Dudley fled to his room as Harry stood between him and the stairs. Smiling at the reaction he'd provoked, Harry turned around and headed downstairs. He'd probably end up paying for it later, but he was in high spirits and couldn't bring himself to care. Besides, it was better to get punished for something he'd actually done, than simply because his uncle felt like it. It made the punishments more bearable.

"Your uncle has gone upstairs to get ready," Petunia informed her nephew when he entered the kitchen once more. "Clear the table while you wait."

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry answered as he put down his bag and commenced his chore.


"Get out," Vernon ordered as he pulled the car up to the kerb.

"But where are we?" Harry enquired as he looked at the unfamiliar neighbourhood.

"London, now get out of the car. I have a meeting to attend."

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry replied as he opened the door and got out, knowing that this was the best he'd get from the man.

"I'll come by here when I'm done, if you're not here, then you're on your own," Vernon declared and sped away as soon as the car door was closed.

Left standing alone with his bag at his feet in Merlin knew what part of London, Harry felt the anger against his relatives grow. They were his family and thus supposed to treat him as such, not as some House Elf to be ordered around at will! He was meant to be loved, not hated or looked upon with disgust.

"Seems to be a family trait," the young wizard mumbled bitterly as he thought of his father's treatment.

The instant he'd said it, Harry regretted the harsh words. They weren't true. Snape, while treating him poorly, had never gone as far as the Dursleys. He'd never resorted to starving him and he got the impression that the man didn't truly want to see any of his students hurt. And he had saved his life back in his first year when Quirrell had tried to kill him. Plus Snape focused in on his status and fame when degrading him, not his actual self. True, he would make derogatory comments about his intelligence and abilities, but that all stemmed from his hate of his father. A hate he now understood much better then before. The Dursleys, however, enjoyed tormenting him because of who and what he was. It was personal with them in a way it never was with his potions professor. They also had no excuse for their behaviour, the Potions Master did. At least now that he knew the truth.

With a sigh, Harry looked around for a secluded spot where he could put the rest of his disguise on. Not finding anything appropriate and starting to attract strange looks from pedestrians on account of his clothes and, no doubt, his wild hair, he picked up his bag and began walking. The feel of the cool scales on his lower arm comforted him slightly and reassured him that he wasn't alone.

Five minutes later, the Boy-Who-Lived found a shaded alley. It wasn't the best place, but it would do. Entering it, he moved back and opened his bag, feeling around for the wig and pins to keep it in place. As he pulled it out, he couldn't help but shake it again. The thing had been absolutely filthy when he'd found it in the attic, covered in grim, dust, cobwebs and Merlin only knew what else. Just like everything else up there. He sincerely hoped that his aunt didn't go up there anytime soon as he really didn't fancy the thought of having to clean up the place. Which he'd no doubt get assigned to do on the hottest day of August if Aunt Petunia saw it. Although it would be interesting to see what was up there. Aside from the heaps of broken or discarded toys, there were boxes and chests that had been there since before he could remember. Two light blue coloured chests with brass corners and large locks intrigued him greatly. Especially since they were locked tight with chains. Not that he considered doing hours of physical labour in a stifling room a reasonable price to pay in exchange for that knowledge.

Finally satisfied that the wig wasn't going to get any cleaner, Harry placed it on his head and proceeded to tuck his hair into it. Sliding in the pins as best he could, the young wizard secured the false hair into place. He then pulled out a small makeup kit and opened it, using the mirror to inspect his work. After tucking in a few errant strands of his mop of black hair, he was convinced that it was as good as he was going to get it.

"Merlin, I hope that this doesn't react with my skin," Harry uttered as he picked up the small sponge and dabbed it into the skin tone powder.

The makeup compact had been a free sample his aunt had received in the mail. Unfortunately for her, and to Harry's great amusement, it had had an adverse reaction to her skin, leaving her face red with a nasty rash for days afterwards. Funny as it had been, it had left Petunia in a foul mood which she'd vented mainly on him as she'd absolutely refused to show her face in public until the rash was gone. She'd thrown the kit out, but luckily he'd been able to salvage it and smuggle it up to his room.

A few dabs later and Harry was left gaping at how easily and effectively the makeup concealed his scar. Other than a slight colour difference as his skin tone didn't quite match the makeup, there was no hint of the trademark scar that the majority of the wizarding world worshipped. Harry shuddered at how weird it felt to look at a mirror and not see his own reflection looking back at him. That was going to take place on a permanent basis in the not-so-distant future. Or would he rather be seeing himself for the first time? It all, ironically enough, depended on how you looked at it.

Harry snapped the compact shut and dropped it back into the bag. He then pulled out an old brown hat he knew his uncle wouldn't miss and put it on, pulling it forward so that it would cast his eyes into shadow and hopefully make it less clear that they were green. Double checking that there was no one around, he rolled up his right sleeve.

*Zera?*

*Yesss?* Zera replied as she glanced up at him. *You look different.*

*Different enough, do you think?*

*Asss long asss you don't run into sssomeone you know really well. Even then they'd have to look twice before they'd recognize you.*

*Good,* Harry stated, pleased. *Now all I have to do is find a way to get to Diagon Alley and we're all set.*

*Can't you get a ride?* Zera enquired.

*No, I don't have any money, at least not any Muggle money, on me at the moment.*

*You could ssslither your way over there.*

*You mean walk?* Harry asked as he smiled. *But I don't know where it is in relation to wherever the bloody hell we currently are.*

*Ssslither, walk, sssame thing. Asssk sssomeone, you do have a mouth, don't you? Ussse it like you do at night.*

*Hey! I never heard you complaining. If I'm not mistaken, you're the one always asking me complex questions!*

*You ussse too many wordsss, sssaying thingsss the long way when a ssshorter one will do.*

*Hrmph!* Harry retorted as he walked back the way he'd come, stopping at the edge of the shadows to look at his red snake. *Fine, I'll remember that the next time I do homework or am awake.*

*We'll sssee,* Zera hissed just as Harry tugged the sleeve over her once more.

With a shake of his head and a big grin on his face, Harry stepped out of the darkened alley and looked both ways. Spotting a cafe with tables outside to the left, he headed towards it and waited for a server to finish taking a client's order before he approached the brunette.

"Excuse me."

"Yes?" the woman enquired as she turned to face him, her eyes widening slightly in surprise as she took in his appearance. "Can I help you?"

"I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to Charing Cross Road? Please."

"Charing Cross Road? Charing Cross Road? Ah, yes, I know where that is. It isn't exactly close by," she responded apologetically.

"That's okay, I'm in no hurry."

"Yeah, well, it's a good forty-five minute walk away. Anyway, just continue down this street until you get to the big intersection with Kennington Road. Take a right onto Kennington and follow it for several blocks until you get to a church at which you need to take a left onto Westminster Bridge Road. Follow that road until you get to the river Thames and Westminster Bridge. Cross the river and take the first right onto... umm... can't remember the name of the street right now, but it runs parallel to the Thames. Just stick to it until you reach Northumberland Avenue on your left. Follow the avenue to the end and you will come to a big intersection of six roads. The second one on your right will be Charing Cross Road."

"Thank you," Harry said as he tried to keep it all straight.

Oh, well, if he forgot it, he'd always be able to ask someone else.

"Sure, no problem."

The green eyed wizard set off at a brisk pace and soon made it to the intersection. As he waited for an opportunity to cross, he smiled as he read the words 'Look Right' painted in big white letters on the street just in front of the sidewalk. London was obviously prepared for American and continental European tourists who weren't used to having cars drive on the opposite side of the road. His amusement vanished as he wondered how many accidents and deaths it had taken before the government had realized the need to remind foreigners that the English drove on the left side of the road instead of the right side. Hopefully not many.

A minute later, he was able to cross and continued on his way. Harry reached the church and then the river Thames faster then he'd expected and stood in awe of the sight before him. Having only been in London a limited number of times before, he'd never had the chance to see any of the sights and the houses of parliament were a wonder to behold. Its intricate stone carvings and embellishments were breathtakingly gorgeous. And, standing proudly next to it, reaching into the, for once, cloudless sky, was Big Ben.

Upon seeing that it was already half nine, Harry reluctantly pulled his gaze away from the magnificent structures and started walking across the bridge. He stopped occasionally to look down at the dark water rushing past beneath him and the various boats which floated past. The other side of the Thames was busier, full of tourists walking about and looking at the buildings and statues of Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell. His senses were instantly assaulted by the sights, sounds and, most importantly, smells of vendors standing about with their stands. The aroma of the food some of them sold wafted about, causing his deprived stomach to growl. What would otherwise be less than appealing fare was heavenly compared to his meagre breakfast. If only he'd thought to grab a quiche before he'd left!

Harry forced himself on, but couldn't help but pause to look at some of the trinkets and souvenirs the other vendors were selling. Everything from t-shirts to spoons to key chains, all bearing some symbol of any one of London's famed sites, were displayed. He had to convince more then one vendor that he was absolutely sure that he didn't want any of the items no matter how well they were priced before he finally managed to cross the street. The first road on the right was the Victoria Embankment.

"Damn it!" Harry swore as he stopped a little ways down the street, ignoring the looks he received.

For the life of him he couldn't remember where the waitress had told him to go next. Since he couldn't go right, he went left onto Richmond Terrace. It was a short street that intersected with Whitehall. Across Whitehall, he could see Downing Street and knew that he was in the wrong place as he was sure he'd have remembered it if the waitress had mentioned that particular road.

"Need help?" an impeccably dressed and elderly man questioned as he slowly approached. "You look a little lost."

"Yes, I am. Can you tell me how to get to Charing Cross Road?"

"Charing Cross Road, or the Leaky Cauldron?"

"How'd you know?" Harry demanded in surprise before he looked down frantically, thinking either his wand or Zera had become uncovered. Or perhaps the makeup had come off leaving his scar visible.

"You have a magical aura about you," the wizard explained hastily upon noticing his panicked expression. "I've always been good at detecting them. It was very useful back in my Hogwarts days to avoid the professors at night."

"I can imagine," Harry replied as he relaxed.

"Hmm. But for your directions, you're very close. You simply need to go right and follow Whitehall to its end at a big intersection. There you will need the third street leading away from the intersection, doesn't matter whether you go right or left around as it is the third street from either direction. That's Charing Cross Road, and the Leaky Cauldron is not much further down."

"Thank you very much."

"Going to get your school supplies?"

"Yes," Harry lied smoothly.

"How are you going to carry them back without any Muggles noticing? They haven't removed that restriction against underage magic use, now have they?"

"No, they haven't. But I can ask the shopkeepers to shrink my stuff and my parents will undo it at home."

"Good, good," the elderly man nodded his head in approval. "Well, you'd best be getting on your way now. Before you go, though, let me give you a piece of advice. You should have those clothes you're wearing shrunk. I don't know who advised you on proper Muggle attire, but they were wrong, very wrong. Just thought I'd mention it in case you hadn't noticed it by now."

"Oh, yes... thanks," Harry said uncomfortably as he looked down at his outfit while pushing the sleeve of his left arm up. "Goodbye, Sir."

"Goodbye, lad."

'Lad?' Harry thought and shrugged inwardly as he turned right, continuing on his way.

As he got closer and closer to the wizarding district, butterflies appeared and took up residence in his stomach. Harry's heart sped up at the thought of what he might discover in the vault even while he tried to rein in his expectations so as not to be disappointed should there not be what he anticipated or as much as he yearned for. The latter in particular was a great danger as he knew that, deep down, he'd never be completely satisfied with any finite quantity of tokens or reminders of his parents. He simply wanted them. Both of them.

It was those feelings which leapt for joy at the revelation that he had a parent, no matter who that someone happened to be, alive. It wouldn't have mattered if it were Voldemort himself, as long as he was alive it would have been enough. The rest of Harry shuddered at the mere thought of the Dark Lord being his father, but filed the reaction away in his mind should things ever get to the point where he needed a reminder that it could be worse, far worse.

For all his attempts, his imagination ran wild, bucking and rearing. It conjured up all types of treasure the vault could contain, many far too grand and numerous for a normal Gringotts account to possess. Such physical dilemmas and impossibilities were ignored by a mind and heart starved for information and access to knowledge about those who had created him. About the one who had sired him.

The Leaky Cauldron seemed to take forever to reach and yet he was there far to soon, Harry only vaguely able to remember the large intersection along the way. All it would take was one look, a single glance, at the contents of the vault to shatter his dreams to dust. To dash his expectations. In some ways not knowing was heaven, in others it was hell. It was like waiting for the second proverbial shoe to drop.

Worry about his appearance and the possibility of being recognized pulled Harry from his spiralling thoughts. He quickly reached into his bag and took a discrete look at himself in the makeup compact's mirror to check that his scar was still out of sight. Satisfied that it was, he then carefully removed his glasses and placed them in one of the many pockets of his outfit. The world instantly became fuzzy except for those items close to him. Past experience had taught him that he could function without his glasses even if it made things far more difficult. Wiping the sweat from his palms, he approached the Leaky Cauldron. At the door, he hesitated briefly, drawing on his Gryffindor courage, before he entered. His first reaction was to nervously look around as soon as his eyes adjusted themselves to the darkened interior of the building. No one seemed to be paying any undue attention to him, not that many witches or wizards had glanced in his direction at all. Realizing that standing there, gapping about like an idiot was only going to make him stand out, he forced himself to start walking. It felt nice to be able to walk around the Wizarding world without having people staring at his forehead. Pity he was too strung out to fully enjoy it.

Harry was about half way across the room, having just dodged a chair as a witch got up, when he inadvertently looked up right into the innkeeper's eyes. Freezing in place, the young wizard felt his blood go cold and his eyes widen as he saw a flicker of recognition in Tom's brown orbs.

No, no, no! Harry thought desperately to himself. This could not be happening to him now! He had purposefully forced himself not to look towards the bar in fear of Tom's potential ability to see past his disguise. Yet the more he reminded himself not to do so, the harder it had become. Any second now, the toothless wizard would open his mouth and call out a greeting or exclamation of wonder like he'd done the first time he'd come here with Hagrid. He could already predict the reaction of the Cauldron's patrons and, with his track record, there'd be a reporter or photographer present to spread the news of how he'd tried to sneak into Diagon Alley undercover. How was he ever going to live this one down? How was he to explain his motivations? For he knew that if he didn't have a good reason for doing so, people would assume the worst and conjure up some ridiculous idea of him trying to get his hands onto something illegal. Especially after all those articles in the Daily Prophet last year.

He seriously doubted that Hagrid would conveniently show up in time to save him like he'd done three years ago in Knockturn Alley. Professor Dumbledore was already swimming into view before his eyes, his face devoid of any of its usual levity and the trademark twinkle absent from his clear blue eyes. The headmaster's reaction would be nothing like that of the general public's. His disappointment and silence would be in sharp contrast to the curiosity and scandal everyone else would no doubt overflow with like one of Neville's out of control cauldrons. From the noisy demands...

Tom's eyes continued on as he scanned the room. Harry felt his mouth drop open as he realized that he'd just panicked for absolutely nothing. Nothing but a figment of his hyperactive imagination. There had been no recognition in the bald man's eyes. No sign that the owner of the establishment knew him at all. In his anxiety, he'd created things that weren't there and nearly given himself a heart attack in the process.

"Brilliant! Bloody fantastic," Harry muttered sarcastically under his breath. "Get a grip, Potter."

The green-eyed wizard forced his breathing to return to normal as he hurriedly made for the door so that he could get out of the suddenly too small room. Reaching the dirty courtyard that concealed the entrance to the wizarding shopping area, he leaned against the wall and waited for his heart to stop running the marathon.

*Harry?* a soft voice whispered tentatively.

*Yes, Zera, what is it?* Harry enquired after a quick glance about confirmed that they were indeed alone.

*Are you alright?*

*Yes, why?*

*Your heart isss beating very fassst,* Zera explained as she shifted, her cool scales rubbing the skin of his forearm and wrist in the process.

*I managed to scare the living daylights out of myself, that's all. Nothing to worry about.*

*Oh. Are we almossst there?*

*Nearly.*

Once he was as relaxed as he was liable to get, Harry pulled out his wand and tapped the necessary brick three times in rapid succession. As the arched entry to Diagon Alley formed, he couldn't help but marvel at it once more. No matter what anyone said, the magical world was his home. He belonged there and not in the Muggle world. He simply didn't know how to truly function in it due to his upbringing. He briefly wondered what happened to Muggleborns who were expelled from Hogwarts, or any other magical school for that matter. After all, they had stopped their Muggle education at eleven, it wasn't like they could get any real job with that level of knowledge.

Harry was distracted from his thoughts by the bustle of activity from the alley. While there weren't nearly as many people as there had been the previous times he'd been there, the cobbled shopping lane was by no means empty. Witches and wizards drabbed in every colour robe imaginable wandered about, entering and exiting stores. The sounds of their conversations filled the air and blended with the racket from the Emporium's owls.

Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Harry entered the mix of magical folk. He kept his head down, only looking up occasionally to make sure he wasn't going to run into someone or something. It was during one of those instances that he caught sight of the broom on display in the window of Quality Quidditch Supplies.

"Wow," Harry breathed in awe.

The broom was made of a dark, ebony coloured wood and was as sleek as the Nimbus 2001, yet elegant like the Firebolt. Unable to resist, Harry moved closer to the shop and peered into the window at the sign beneath the hovering broom. Squinting at it and mentally cursing his nearsightedness, he was finally able to make out the words.

** THE LIGHTENINGBOLT **

THE ALL NEW, STATE-OF-THE-ART QUIDDITCH BROOM FROM THE MAKERS OF THE FAMED FIREBOLT! THE FINE HANDLE OF BIRCH IS COMPLETELY STREAMLINED, TREATED WITH DIAMOND-HARD POLISH, AND COATED WITH AN ALL NEW POTION TO STRENGTHEN AND PROTECT IT. ITS HAND SELECTED OAK TWIGS ARE BOTH AERODYNAMIC AND CURSE RESISTANT, GIVING THE LIGHTENINGBOLT THE UNSURPASSABLE BALANCE AND PINPOINT PRECISION OF ITS PREDECESSOR AS WELL AS PROVIDING BETTER PROTECTION FOR THE FLYER. THE ACCELERATION RATE IS A WHOPPING 200 MILES AN HOUR IN TEN SECONDS AND THE LIGHTENINGBOLT ALSO HAS AN IMPROVED VERSION OF THE UNBREAKABLE BRAKING CHARM SO POPULAR WITH THE OWNERS OF THE FIREBOLT.

Harry's eyes were wide in awe and he ached with the desire to touch and test the new model. If such a broom found its way into the hands of almost any of the good players on the other three house teams, they'd be hard to beat. Ravenclaw in particular if the skills of their new chaser were anything to go by. He'd accidentally seen one of their practice sessions last year and the girl was simply amazing! Apparently their captain was similar to Wood if he made them train even during a year in which there was no Quidditch.

A glance at the price tag was enough to make Harry wince. If he'd thought the Firebolt was expensive, it was nothing compared to the Lighteningbolt. Chances were not very many parents would be buying it for their children. At least that was a good thing. Yet it would be fantastic to play Quidditch again regardless of what broom anyone else had. Winning was fun, especially if he could defeat Slytherin, but it was only part of the game and, for him, the greatest thrill came from chasing the snitch itself. Regardless of whether or not he actually caught it.

With a sigh, Harry stepped away from the window and headed for Gringotts once more. He cast a last, longing, look at the broom and ran smack into someone. The force of the impact along with the suddenness of it, caused him to fall down on his arse. Blinking in surprise, he regarded the pair of highly polished, black dragon-hide shoes before him. He could see himself looking back from their glossy surface. Just above them was the hem of a very expensive, silver edged black robe. Looking up, he saw a menacing figure clad almost entirely in black with hints of maroon and silver towering over him. A pale face sneered down at him.

'Bloody hell!' Harry thought to himself.

Although he couldn't make out the person's facial features, only one wizard he knew possessed the long, silvery blond hair which framed the face of the man he'd run into. He was in deep trouble!

"How dare you run into me?!" Lucius Malfoy demanded as he glared down at the boy laying sprawled on the street at his feet.

Mentally cursing himself and his inattentiveness that had caused him to collide with the Death Eater, Harry tried to quell the rising panic in his chest. So far the pureblood had shown no signs of having recognized him. Not that he'd be able to see it in Malfoy Senior's light grey eyes if it were there. But if he did... Why hadn't he listened to Professor Dumbledore and stayed within the protective wards of the Dursleys' house?

"I asked you a question and I expect to be answered," Lucius hissed, bringing the tip of his snake head cane down into the boy's stomach.

"Ouch!" Harry exclaimed, rolling over and scrambling to his feet as soon as the offending object was removed from his being.

"Well?" came the dangerous enquiry.

"I... I'm sorry... Sir," Harry mumbled, attempting to alter his voice slightly so it came out weak and sickly even as he swallowed his pride in order to get away from the Dark wizard as fast as humanly possible. He also kept his head lowered so that the brim of his hat covered his eyes.

If worst came to worst, he could always call out for help as there were enough witches and wizards nearby who would, no doubt, step in to aid the Boy-Who-Lived and he did have his own wand on him. But that would mean having to tell someone about why he was in this situation in the first place. If Malfoy didn't manage to apparate away with him first, that was. The man was a powerful wizard and could quite possibly capture him despite the odds if he was willing to blow his cover.

"I wasn't watching where I was going."

"Obviously," Lucius drawled, pulling back slightly with a disgusted expression as if afraid to catch something. "You pathetic Mudbloods can never do things right, not even the simplest of tasks."

Harry felt his face flush with anger at the words. It was clear now where Draco learned his language, not that there'd ever been any doubt in his mind in the first place. What was interesting was the whisper the blond wizard had utilized. It made the insult harsher, but he couldn't help but wonder if, perhaps, it wouldn't do for someone of Lucius Malfoy's status and position to publicly use such vulgar language.

"Then how come one so pathetic scored higher than your son in the majority of their classes?" Harry retorted instinctively and then bit his tongue.

He really needed to learn to think before he spoke or acted. And soon. If he survived that is. Insulting Draco Malfoy to his father's face was nothing short of stupidity.

"What did you say?" Lucius demanded softly, letting the steel in his voice convey the danger the boy was in.

"Nothing," Harry replied quickly, automatically taking a step back as the Death Eater advanced a pace, seemingly forgetting about the possibility that the boy could be sick.

"Oh?" Lucius queried in a dangerous whisper, his left hand shooting out to hook the head of his cane behind the boy's upper arm. "I distinctly heard you insult my son!"

"I... no I..." Harry stuttered, wincing as the snake's fangs dug into his flesh as he was pulled forward.

Around his forearm, Harry felt Zera tense and move. Hoping she'd remain hidden and not give her presence away, he was thankful that he'd decided to place her there instead of on his upper arm. He lowered his head even more and looked at the cobbled stones as Malfoy pulled him right before him. His heart began to beat furiously and every muscle in his body tensed. The Dark wizard was only inches from him and he could feel his breath on his face. If he looked up now, there was no way Malfoy would be unable to recognize him. Not after having been this close to him in Flourish & Blotts two years ago. As it was, only Draco's absence and Lucius' unfamiliarity with him were what prevented his cover from being blown. If Malfoy forced his head up, he'd be caught and there was no way he'd be able to get away with the Death Eater being this close to him.

"Lucius!" a voice called out from down the street.

"What is it, Walden?" Lucius demanded as he turned his head to glance at his fellow Death Eater.

"It's five to ten," Macnair stated as he got around the last people between them. "We need to go. Unless you want to keep Him waiting?"

Lucius growled before he looked back at the slightly trembling urchin before him. "If I ever see you again, you will pay for what you said," he threatened, shoving the boy aside with his cane and striding away with Macnair.

Harry let out the breath he hadn't been aware of holding in as he watched the two go, the crowd parting to let them through. Or, rather, to let Malfoy through as they hadn't parted for Macnair when he was alone. The young wizard felt anger flash through him at the thought. No matter what those about him may think of Muggleborns and the Dark Arts, they were indirectly condoning Malfoy's views by treating him the way they did. His attitude and personal attacks wouldn't be possible if enough people would only just have the courage to step in and stop him when he attempted to do so. Yet no one did and thus Lucius was allowed to continue.

As the two disappeared from view, Harry hoped they'd be late and that Voldemort would punish them. With a smile, he dusted himself off, relaxing in the process. That had been far too close for comfort! He'd literally been a breath away from discovery and didn't even want to think about what could have transpired if the Death Eater had realized just who had run into him. When he'd calmed down, he hastily made his way to Gringotts, ignoring all the shop windows lest he get distracted and run into someone else.

Soon, Harry stood before the enormous, snowy white wizarding bank with its burnished bronze doors. As usual, a scarlet and gold uniform clad goblin stood beside the door with two more of them just inside before the second set of doors; the silver ones with their engraved warning towards potential thieves. As they were opened to allow him admittance, he wondered just how Voldemort had managed to break into Gringotts four years ago as it was rumoured that the goblins used dragons and all manner of curses and enchantments to defend their vaults. Especially the high security ones.

Harry entered the huge marble hall that stretched out before him and approached the counter where about a hundred goblins carried out Gringotts business. He looked around and quickly found one that wasn't currently occupied.

"Excuse me," Harry began, drawing the creature's attention and noting his sceptical look upon seeing his clothes. "I'd like to access one of the vaults."

"Which one?" the goblin demanded as he pressed his long fingers together.

"Nine hundred and sixty-eight."

Instantly, a small spherical device that lay on the counter and was emitting a soft blue glow turned a violent red.

"Nine hundred and sixty-eight, hmm?" the goblin commented, eyeing the sphere critically before pulling a large ledger towards himself and opening it. He flipped through the pages before running his finger down a certain page, looking for something. "Ah, yes, one of our special cases."

"Special cases?" Harry enquired worriedly.

"The witch who opened this vault didn't restrict access to it as long as the person seeking admittance had the key. Do you have it, Sir?"

"Yes," Harry replied as he brought his bag up and felt around in it until his hand found the two cold metal objects, pulling them out and handing one to the clerk. "Right here."

"Let's see, now," the goblin stated as he took the tiny golden key and inspected it carefully. "Well, that seems to be in order. Is there anything else you will require?"

"Yes, I also wish to make a withdrawal from my other safe."

"And which one would that be?"

"Harry Potter's," the young wizard whispered, knowing that the goblins kept their business dealings private but not wishing to risk any of the other customers overhearing what he said.

"And you are?" the goblin demanded as he scanned the forehead of the wizard before him, failing to find the trademark lightening scar.

"I am the owner," Harry responded as he reached up to rub the makeup off his forehead. "I simply wish to avoid the media right now."

"I understand. Your key?"

As soon as the second key was confirmed, the goblin called over a colleague who was waiting beside one of the many doors around the hall. This goblin led Harry through one of the numerous doors into a narrow stone passageway that ended at the tracks which guided the carts down the underground labyrinth to the many vaults. As usual, he enjoyed the breakneck journey with its many twists and turns. They soon passed the underground lake with its stalactites and stalagmites, and then they reached an enormous cavern Harry had never seen before on his trips to the different vaults. The walls of the cave glowed softly with a luminescent yellow glow, dimly illuminating the area. Looking around, he could see tracks coming from all directions and, at various points, crossing each other causing him to wonder if two carts ever collided or if they were charmed not to. Just as suddenly as they'd entered the cavern, they left it and continued on downwards.

Harry was beginning to wonder how far down they were as the air kept getting colder and colder. Then, just as he was about to question his goblin guide, the cart slowed and stopped beside a door in the passage wall. It was bigger than the one on his vault and those on the Weasley vault as well as vault seven hundred and thirteen, the one where the philosopher's stone had been kept before Hagrid had taken it to Hogwarts.

"Key," the goblin demanded as he held out his long fingered hand.

"Um, actually, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to leave me here? I would like to have some time to examine the contents of the vault."

"Hmm, yes, since its not a high security vault, that's possible. Whistle when you are done and a cart will be brought."

"Thank you," Harry replied as he got out, relieved.

He'd been a bit worried that his request would be denied as it could pose a security threat to leave customers unattended, but then, there was no way for him to easily get from one vault to another without a cart. Especially since he wasn't allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts yet.

"Later," the goblin said and the cart sped away in the direction they'd come from.

The moment the cart was out of sight, Harry rolled up his sleeve, exposing Zera to view. She instantly lifted her head and tasted the air with her tongue as she looked about.

*Isss thisss Gringottsss?*

*Yes,* Harry confirmed as he fished his glasses out and put them on.

*It'sss nice.*

*I guess, if you like dark, damp and smelly.*

*I do, it remindsss me of the earth.*

*Then you'll love the dungeonsss at Hogwartsss.*

*Good,* Zera hissed. *But what happened earlier? Your heartbeat sssped up again and you fell down.*

*I ran into Lucius Malfoy.*

*One of thossse Death Eatersss? The father of your rival?*

*Yes, that's correct,* Harry smiled.

*How did you get away?*

*He had to leave for a meeting with Voldemort.*

*Ironic,* Zera laughed.

*Indeed it is,* Harry agreed as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the two vault keys, returning the one he didn't need. *Well this is it, the moment of truth where we find out just what my mother left me.*

*Yesss,* Zera hissed, her coils tightening ever so slightly around his wrist. *Relax, you're getting worked up again.*

*I can't help it. So much hinges on this moment, on what's on the other side of this door.*

Harry was about to say more when pain exploded behind his scar so suddenly that it knocked him to the ground. Gritting his teeth to prevent from crying out, as some part of his mind knew that if he inadvertently summoned a cart that there'd be a lot of explaining to do, he brought his hands up to his head.

*Harry? Harry, isss it a visssion?* Zera asked as soon as the pain receded a little and he lowered his arms.

*No, just pain. Voldemort was very angry with someone.*

*That'sss not good.*

*Actually, it might not be all that bad,* Harry replied as he got to his feet and dusted his clothes off. *Malfoy was heading for a Death Eater meeting and I got the impression that he was running a little late. It might well have been him who got punished for being tardy.*

*In that cassse it isssn't ssso bad after all,* Zera agreed.

*Hmm,* Harry said as he frowned.

More than once he had pondered why a wizard as powerful, both through his own abilities and his social and political position, as Lucius Malfoy who also firmly believed in the superiority of purebloods would follow Voldemort. Yes, the Dark Lord sought the eradication of Muggleborns and looked down upon Muggles as inferior, and he was a master of the Dark Arts, but he himself was a half-blood and forced his Death Eaters to kneel before him and bear a mark that signified servitude. It just didn't make sense to Harry that Lucius Malfoy would willingly bow before someone with a Muggle father, much less be their servant. He didn't see the Malfoy pride as allowing for such a submission. Unless, of course, there was something else going on that he didn't know about?

Harry shook his head and pushed the thoughts aside. Lucius was a complex puzzle, an enigma cloaked in contradictions. There was no way that he'd figure the man out at the present. No, now was the time to see if he couldn't figure out Severus Snape. If he couldn't figure out his father.

*Can I be around your neck now?* Zera enquired. *It would give me a better view.*

*Sure,* Harry responded and brought his right arm up and allowed her to wrap herself around his neck.

*Isss thisss fine or isss it too tight?*

*That's fine,* Harry said as he stepped up to the vault door and stopped.

This was it, the moment he had both longed for and dreaded since he had received his mother's letter with its shocking revelations. What lay behind the locked steel door before him would allow him to see just what kind of man his potions professor had been in the past. It would reveal to him the man his mother had fallen in love with and married. It would expose the wizard who had sired him. He desperately wished that it would be someone who was very different from the snarky Potions Master he had come to know over the course of his four years at Hogwarts as he didn't know what he'd do if he wasn't. He needed the man to be radically different from the current Snape; to be likable.

The mere thought of what it would be like if he wasn't...

It was too awful to bear.

*It'll be fine,* Zera reassured him soothingly.

*How can you be sure of that?* Harry demanded nervously.

*I jussst do. Inssstinct I believe you call it.*

*But--*

*Ssstanding here worrying about it ssshan't help and it certainly ssshan't alter anything,* Zera interrupted.

*Why do you always have to be so logical?*

*Becaussse you aren't.*

*Hey!* Harry exclaimed even as he smiled faintly. Trust the snake to calm him down. It was amazing how well she knew him after so short a time.

*It'sss true.*

*Hrmph,* Harry replied but silently steeled himself and brought his key up. *Well, here goes.*

The emerald eyed wizard inserted the key into the lock and turned it. As had happened the first time Griphook opened his vault when Hagrid had brought him to Gringotts, a puff of green smoke billowed out as the door opened. When he finally managed to see past the mist to the vault beyond, Harry gasped.

Chapter Text

The vault was huge, bigger than any of the others he'd seen. But the size of the vault, impressive as it was, wasn't what had captured Harry's attention. No, for there, hanging on the wall directly across from the entrance, making him extremely thankful that no one was with him, was an enlarged Wizarding photo of his mother and Snape. His potions professor was dressed in emerald green robes that matched his mother's eyes. Silver and gold trimmings gave the outfit an elegant look and highlighted the matching coloured lace woven into his mother's deep purple gown. She was holding a bouquet of white roses and was smiling dazzlingly, silver jewellery adorned her arms, neck and ears, sparkling in the light of a fancy crystal chandelier, while her red hair was curled and pulled into a delicate and elaborate knot on top of her head. His father had one arm around her waist while his other hand was resting on her arm.

Harry simply stared at the picture for several moments in shock. Snape looked nothing like Snape! He looked nothing like what he did now. If he hadn't expected to be seeing a younger and different version of the Potions Master, he would never have recognized him. His skin, though still pale, was a healthy colour instead of the yellowish tinge it had now, his fingers were stainless, his nose not as hooked, his teeth a bright white and, most importantly, his hair was tidy and clean, gleaming in the soft candlelight of the chandelier.

And he was smiling.

Harry didn't think he'd ever seen the Head of House Slytherin come even remotely close to a genuine smile (unless one counted his malicious ones). Actually it wasn't so much of a smile as a projection of pure bliss. He could practically feel just how happy the Slytherin was just from watching him.

The second fact to penetrate Harry's already overwhelmed mind was the fact that what he was looking at was his parent's wedding photo. He knew that Wizard weddings didn't include the traditional white gown for the bride that Muggle weddings had and Lavender had described wedding halls to him and every Gryffindor who'd listen after she'd attended her elder sister's wedding the summer between their second and third year. The intricately carved wooden wall panels in the background definitely looked like the ones Brown had described. But the greatest clues were the rings on their fingers. His mother had a diamond engagement ring and a gold wedding band with an emerald laid into it while his... father had a matching band only it had what appeared to be a topaz fire gem inlaid into it that sparkled and seemingly altered colours in the light.

Harry's eyes widened in surprise as he recognized the engagement ring as the one his mother wore in the pictures Hagrid had given him. Instead of getting another ring, she and James had used the same one Severus had given her in their illusion. It was yet another piece of evidence that their wedding had been nothing more than an elaborate scam. The wedding band for Lily was different in the hoax, though, but that made sense as Sirius had told him that the Potter family had three sets of wedding rings which were passed down the family line to be used over and over again. If they hadn't used those then people would have gotten suspicious.

Just as Harry started to get over the shock of seeing the photo, its occupants decided to remind him of the fact that it was a Wizarding picture by moving. Snape looked away from the camera and down at his new bride, who looked up at him and leaned close for a kiss. Harry's eyes widened and his breath hitched as he observed the image of his parents. Although he'd had some time to come to terms with the fact that his mother had loved and married his Potions Master, it wasn't nearly enough time to prepare him to see them snog. He was just about to look away when they separated and Lily looked forwards once more. Catching sight of him, her smile grew impossibly wider and she waved at him. Seeing her sudden enthusiasm, Snape looked up as well. His brow furrowed as he regarded Harry and he cocked his head slightly to one side, puzzled.

Harry subconsciously held his breath in anticipation, wondering if his father would snub him even in a picture. His heart was just starting to really pound painfully in his chest when the captured image of his father's former self smiled brightly at him, lifting a hand in greeting.

*Are thossse your parentsss?* Zera hissed from her spot around his neck just as Harry's eyes began to water.

*Yes.*

*He doesssn't look at all like you dessscribed him.*

*I've never seen him like this before,* the young wizard explained as she lifted her head to get a better look at the photo, startling the occupants of the picture.

*I sssee.*

*Hmm,* Harry mumbled as he saw the look of awed shock cross the Slytherin's face as he realized what was transpiring.

Strangely enough, the fact that the man approved of his ability warmed him. He had never known what Snape thought of the fact that he could speak Parseltongue, the older wizard's face had been shrewd and calculating when he'd inadvertently revealed his ability second year and the topic had never come up again. To think that the man who now appeared to be his biological father might approve of something he could do, inexplicably pleased him.

"Um, hello?" he said to distract himself.

Snape's brow furrowed again and he looked at his new wife in confusion. Lily simply shrugged her shoulders and looked at Harry, gesturing.

"Huh?" Harry said, trying to interpret what was being done. "Why don't you just tell me?"

*Can they hear you?* Zera questioned, unable to follow the conversation but seeing that it was clearly one-sided.

*Yes, Wizarding portraits can hear and speak, I don't know why they can't.*

*Picturesss or paintingsss?*

*Eh...* Harry replied, thinking and suddenly realizing that he'd only ever seen paintings talk, never pictures. *You may have a point there.*

The fact that he couldn't converse with his mother and Snape saddened him. Now he'd have to look around for other clues instead of asking questions as he'd hoped to do when he'd caught sight of the photo.

*I'm sssure we'll get anssswersss sssome other way,* Zera reassured him, sensing his change in mood. *There'sss a lot of ssstuff in here.*

*What?* Harry replied as he tore his gaze away from the photo to look down at his familiar.

*Look about you.*

It took the green-eyed boy a second to remember that the vault contained many items besides the wedding picture mounted on the wall. But when he did, his head snapped up and he tried to look everywhere at once.

There were various pieces of furniture strewn about, everything from ornate old-fashioned pieces which he knew had to be family heirlooms from his potions professor's side of the family, to a few cheap pieces that seemed to have been bought last minute just to display what his mother had chosen to place here. At least the smaller items as some didn't require support of any sort.

A lot of the pieces, though, were trinkets of various sorts which made a lot of sense considering the secrecy of his parent's relationship. The soft sparkling of a crystal paperweight in the dim light emanating from the vault's ceiling caught his attention. Dropping the bag he carried and placing his hat on top of it, Harry walked over to the object and smiled as he saw that it was shaped like a water lily. Pinned partially underneath the crystal was a piece of parchment with the now familiar purple script of his mother on it. Pulling it out, he read the short note.

This particular piece was a gag gift from your father for my nineteenth birthday. He said he couldn't resist once he saw it because I'd recently complained to him that people were always giving me lilies if they didn't know me very well but the occasion merited a gift. This was one of the few such namesake presents that I didn't mind in the least, though only a rich pureblood could or would spend so much on a joke!

Harry smiled as he read the note. He knew from having watched the kinds of gifts his aunt received from Uncle Vernon's business guests when they came over for dinner what his mother meant. He'd long since lost track of the number of times she had gotten petunias of one type or another; everything from the real flowers to pictures or small statues of petunias... anything at all. She'd gotten fed up with it early on as most of the presents were kitsch and clashed with her other decorations and she didn't want to waste any unnecessary space when it could be used to house pictures of her Duddykins instead.

The green-eyed boy picked up the paperweight and examined it, noting the fine cut as he did so. He didn't know much about crystal, but this piece looked to be very nice indeed, with some stunning detail. He could make out the veins on the leaves and even a few carefully placed water droplets that reflected the light.

*That'sss nice and ssshiny,* Zera commented.

*It sure is,* Harry agreed as he put it down on the note once more so that he didn't accidentally blow it away when he walked past the table.

He was at a loss over what to look at next. He wanted to look at all of the pieces at once, as well as find his birth certificate, his parents' marriage certificate and the details of the spell placed upon him his mother had said would be here. The details of the spell were of particular interest to him. As he glanced around, he caught sight of something he hadn't noticed before. At the far corner of the vault, sitting on a nice oaken desk, stood a shallow stone basin, the sides of which were carved with a type of runes and symbols he'd only seen once before. In the headmaster's office.

Harry's breath caught in his throat and his heart started racing as he stared at the item in shock. A pensieve! It was a pensieve! His mother had left him some of her memories!

*What isss it?* Zera demanded, feeling his increased heartbeat and the sudden tightening of his shoulder muscles. *What have you found?*

Zera's voice was enough to bring the young wizard out of his shock and he rushed over to the desk, ignoring all else. This was better than he'd dared hope for! Sure, it had crossed his mind that his mother might have owned a pensieve, but he didn't know how common they were in the Wizarding world and he hadn't allowed himself to hope for one in case they were rare. But now he'd be able to see what his mum had seen and perhaps even be able to observe Snape and the way he'd acted back then, around her and his fath... James.

*What isss that?* Zera hissed again, annoyed at being ignored, as she looked down into the watery-gassy surface of the basin and saw the brief images that flitted across it.

*A pensieve,* Harry explained as he gazed at it in wonder. *Witches and wizards can store some of their memories in here for others to see or simply to look at them from a different angle.*

*I sssee. How do you view them?*

*By touching the surface,* Harry said as he watched the changing images, gasping as he caught sight of what had to be his newly discovered father.

Snape looked like he did in the wedding portrait, only younger. He looked nothing like he did now. It was hard to believe that they were the same person, separated by nearly two decades of time. Then the image was gone only to be replaced seconds later by one of his mother. She was wearing Muggle clothing and was sitting outside, leaning against something he couldn't make out. She was obviously talking to someone, but whoever it was couldn't be seen. Then she suddenly threw her head back and laughed.

Harry stared, transfixed, at the pensieve as image after image, memory after memory, formed and dissolved on the pearly silvery-white substance, occasionally interrupted by brief periods of nothingness as the whitish silver liquid-gas displayed its own colours. Some of the images were unidentifiable, others strange, but some the stuff he had been waiting, no longing, for since he'd first read his mother's letter.

*What are you waiting for?* Zera asked.

*I... I don't know,* Harry replied, suddenly apprehensive.

Why did he hesitate? He'd been dying to get here for days, agonized over breaking his promise to Professor Dumbledore, and now he couldn't do it?! What the bloody hell was wrong with him?

It took Harry a few seconds to realize that once he looked into the pensieve, there would be no going back. It was one thing to read of his mother and Snape together, but now he would see them interacting in a way he'd never have thought possible before the letters. He'd get even more visual proof than what the wedding photo had shown. It could conclusively show that his mum hadn't simply interpreted his Potions Master's behaviour to be better than it actually was. It could, in a matter of minutes, undo all that he thought he knew about the man he'd hated since his very first potions class.

But he had to do it. Somehow.

Just as Harry steeled himself and gathered all of the courage that marked him as a Gryffindor, he noticed the parchment lying next to the pensieve. This time it was in the same green ink as the letter to Snape.

Harry dear,

I put some of my memories into this pensieve for you so that you can see your father if he is indeed dead. It took me a very long time to decide on which ones to include because, even though we were together for only such a short time, we had a lot of good times. But not all of the memories contained within are happy ones as some of our struggles conveyed who your father was and what he had to deal with better than any bright moment could. On top of this, I've also included a memory of one of the big milestones of your early childhood for your father to witness if he's still alive. Please share it with him if he is alive.

And here, yet again, his mother renewed her request for him to inform his father of the truth. It really had been her greatest wish for them to be reunited if she died and both of them lived.

*Will I be able to sssee the memoriesss asss well?* his familiar enquired.

*I have no idea,* Harry replied. *Since you're around my neck, I would assume so if you're willing to try.*

*Yesss, I would.*

*Well, then, here we go,* with that, the teenage wizard pulled out his wand and reached forward to touch the liquid memories for only the second time in his life.

As had happened before, the surface of the basin's contents began to swirl quickly, creating a beautiful whitish-silver whorl, like some exotic flower.

Then it became as transparent as glass and, when Harry and Zera leaned forward to look, displayed what appeared to be a Muggle backyard below its glossy surface. And there, sitting on a red and white chequered cloth next to a tree were Severus Snape and James Potter. Laying on the ground between them was a Wizarding chess board, a black knight obliterating a white pawn as human and snake watched.

*Thisss isss amassssssing,* Zera hissed quietly.

*I know,* Harry agreed, still as much in awe as the first time. *Now for the unpleasant part.*

*Unpleasssant part?* Zera demanded sharply.

*Well, yes. There's more to a pensieve that just this. As soon as I actually touch the stuff in the basin, with my hand we will be sucked right into the memory itself.*

*Will it hurt?*

*No, but it isn't fun either. Do you still want to try it?*

*Yesss. But won't we alter the memory by being in it?*

*No, we will be there and see everything, including the person whose memory it is, but we can't actually change anything. We can't touch stuff and no one will be able to either see or hear us.*

*Interesssting,* Zera commented. *But it sssoundsss a bit disssturbing.*

*It is at first,* Harry acknowledged. *Well, here we go.*

With that proclamation, the wizard-in-training reached forward and touched the silvery substance with his left hand. The vault gave a sudden lurch and he and Zera were thrown headlong into the pensieve's shallow depths. Zera shivered and tightened around his neck as they were plunged through inky darkness; an irresistible whirlpool pulling them forward relentlessly until it unceremoniously dumped them onto the slightly damp green lawn they'd viewed only seconds before.

*Unpleasssant doesssn't even begin to dessscribe whatever the bloody hell that wasss,* Zera grumbled as Harry pulled himself into a sitting position and then got to his feet as soon as he was sure the world had stopped spinning.

Harry smiled at his familiar's language, about to call her on it as she often scolded him when he used it, but froze when he saw the two teenage boys before him.

"No!" James groaned as Snape's knight moved forward and demolished his second to last pawn.

"That was a stupid move," Severus simply stated, smirking.

"Just you wait, I'll beat you yet!"

"I sincerely doubt it--"

"We'll see."

"--unless, of course, you figure out how to play properly in the next few seconds."

"I know how to play!" James retorted indignantly as he glared at the Slytherin across from him.

"So why do you always lose then?" Severus enquired calmly as he smiled.

"I don't. I only lose consistently when I play against you. In Gryffindor Tower I normally win, especially as of late," James explained and then cut his friend off as he noticed the rising eyebrow. "Don't even think about saying it!"

"Saying what?" Severus demanded innocently.

"That comment about the abilities of Gryffindors that was on the tip of your tongue!"

"But it's true," Severus pouted.

"I highly doubt that," James responded as he turned his attention to the chess board and the dire situation his few remaining pieces were in.

"Well then why have you been improving as of late?"

"Huh? Because I've been playing more."

"Or perhaps because you've been watching me play? And have thus learned something about strategy?" Severus suggested and then frowned as the Gryffindor ordered his bishop forward. "Or not. Queen to E4."

Harry stared in shock as James made a strangled sound at the back of his throat as he lost yet another piece, leaving him with only three others; the king, a pawn and a knight.

This couldn't be real! There was no way his fath... James and his potions professor could just be sitting there, bantering back and forth over a game of Wizarding chess. It was simply impossible. That was what he and Ron did. It was what really close, if not best, friends did together. Not people who'd once been hated enemies. That was like... was like saying Malfoy and himself would end up teasing each other over chess! It just wouldn't happen, couldn't happen, not in a million years. It was an impossibility.

And yet, here he stood, watching it happen with his very own eyes. Or rather as it had happened almost two decades ago. But... wait a minute, something wasn't right here!

*Where'sss your mother?* Zera enquired, asking the very question that had just popped into Harry's mind.

*I don't know,* the raven-haired boy replied as he looked about. *She has to be here someplace as it's her memory we're experiencing.*

Harry was just starting to doubt that he really was looking at actual events that had transpired-they were unbelievable after all-when he heard a giggle behind him. He whirled around even as his mind told him that it had to be true as his mother's note had said she'd placed her memories into the pensieve. And there, standing behind and slightly to the left of him, was Lily Po... Evans.

She was wearing loafers, white trousers and an emerald jumper that matched her eyes while her hair was pulled into a high ponytail. Her eyes were sparkling with laughter and her right hand was covering her mouth in an attempt to muffle any noise that slipped past her lips as she observed her friend and boyfriend who were bantering once more and completely oblivious to her presence.

Harry's eyes moistened as he watched her, memorizing every detail of her face and the way it moved. Now he'd finally have a good memory of her in life instead of her death and the limited motions of the photos Hagrid had collected for him. This was the greatest gift of all, short of her being alive once more.

*Where are we?* Zera questioned as she looked around.

*Huh?* Harry replied before he reluctantly pulled his eyes from his mother to survey the area. Before him was a brick house somewhat bigger than the Dursleys' with white shutters and, unlike Privet Drive, a decent amount of space between it and the neighbours on either side. Instead of a fence, a neatly trimmed hedge marked the boundaries of the property. *I have absolutely no idea. Somewhere in Muggle England I should imagine.*

The words had hardly left his mouth before he gasped and turned around quickly. Harry couldn't believe that he'd missed it earlier, but neither James nor Snape were wearing robes, both were dressed as ordinary Muggles. James was clad in dark blue jeans with a long-sleeved, Gryffindor red, shirt while Snape's slacks were dark brown and his shirt was a deep purple.

Harry stared in shock at the image. He'd never seen the Potions Master in anything but robes, and then only a handful of times in ones that weren't black! But here he was, seemingly comfortable in the more constricting Muggle attire. His mother must have bought them for him, or perhaps James had, as his Death Eater parents would never have allowed them. He could still hear Draco's derogatory comments on his and Hermione's clothes when they'd gotten off the Hogwarts Express after their second year. That combined with the inability of the wizards at the Quidditch World Cup to dress as Muggles made it painfully obvious that such clothing wasn't common in the Wizarding world and thus purebloods would be sure to steer well clear of it.

"Checkmate," Severus declared as his tower blocked the only escape route of James' king.

"But...," James started, then stopped and sighed. "I guess you win."

"What was that? I didn't hear you."

"Very funny, git."

"Hey!"

"James!" Lily objected simultaneously, drawing the boys' attention to her presence.

"Lily, you're back," James said sweetly, flashing her a brilliant smile.

"That won't work on me, James Potter," Lily stated as she approached them.

"What?" James questioned, attempting to appear innocent but failing miserably.

"You know perfectly well how I despise that name calling."

"Ah, come on! It was a joke, Severus knows that. Besides, I have to make sure I don't get into a habit of not calling him names, or Sirius will get suspicious."

Lily, in a gesture that strongly reminded Harry of Snape, simply raised an eyebrow. James looked to Snape for help, but the Slytherin just smirked, clearly enjoying his friend's predicament.

"What is this? Gang up on James day?"

"Yes, didn't you get the missive?" Severus replied as he reached up and snaked an arm around his girlfriend's waist, pulling her into his lap. "Hey Lily, did you have fun?"

"Since when is anything with Petunia fun?" Lily responded as she rested her head on his shoulder.

"Point taken."

"So where is she now?" James asked as he cleaned up the chess set.

"Out with Vernon."

"I don't think I've ever seen a more obese human being," Severus declared.

"Nista!" Lily exclaimed, poking him in the ribs.

"What?" Severus said, knocking her hand away as he looked down at her. "It's true."

"You could have said it a little nicer," James stated, an amused smile tugging at his lips.

"And why, pray tell, should I sugar coat the truth?" Severus demanded, scowling. "You know perfectly well how I feel about coddling people."

And there, finally, was the Snape he knew so well. The snarky and sarcastic Head of House Slytherin who never hesitated to say exactly what he thought of people, regardless of how hurtful his words might be.

Yet it wasn't the same, Harry knew. His words weren't quite as spiteful as they were now. And how often had he said less than flattering things about people behind their backs while with Ron and Hermione? Dozens of incidents instantly came to mind, and not only about Snape, but about others as well. Draco, Lockhart, the elder Malfoy, Trelawney, even some of his friends when they were having an argument.

"Boy, do we ever," James replied, letting out an exaggerated sigh which caused Lily to laugh.

"Humph!" Severus muttered, scowling down at his girlfriend.

"Oh, poor Sevvie," Lily teased as she lifted her head to look up at him, her eyes sparkling as his scowl deepened at the nickname. Then, before he could complain, she reached up and kissed him.

"Oh! Ew!" James exclaimed, voicing the feelings Harry couldn't at the moment. "Not in front of me, please!"

Harry watched, unable to look away, as his parents ignored James and only deepened the kiss. It wasn't until it became obvious that there were tongues involved that he managed to turn away.

*Harry?* Zera enquired gently. *Are you alright?*

*I... I don't know,* Harry replied as he tried to process what he'd just witnessed.

On the one hand he was extremely happy that his mother hadn't been completely blinded by love as Snape did seem to be radically different. The interaction between him and James was beyond anything he'd been able to imagine. They seemed to have become far closer than he'd expected or even dreamed possible. It was mind boggling as it seemed so much like his own friendship with Ron, right down to the occasional name-calling. Though their word of preference was 'prat' instead of the stronger 'git'. That they had gotten so far despite all the bad blood between them due to his godfather's 'prank' and anything else that had occurred. That was an even greater feat than him and Malfoy becoming as close as he and Ron were now. It showed an extraordinary effort on both their parts, a willingness to try. And all for his mother's sake.

No matter how much he wanted to, Harry couldn't ignore what that meant on Snape's part. How much he must have loved his mother as he knew first hand from third year how long the man could hold grudges. Like his mother had said in her letter, it was longer than anyone else he knew save for Sirius.

It also explained the Slytherin's behaviour since he'd known him. If he had loved Lily so much and risked so much to befriend James, their apparent betrayal must have cut extremely deep. Much more so than he'd been willing to admit before now. Yes, he'd known it had, but he'd been minimizing how much the greasy haired man had actually felt towards his mum as he simply couldn't associate him with love. They'd been two completely separate concepts in his mind that simply couldn't mix. And yet they had, as he'd just witnessed.

He was... he was... Harry stopped short as a sudden realization came to him.

This was Severus.

The man he knew and saw in school everyday for the better part of the past four years was Snape, Professor Snape. He was the man people expected him to be due to his heritage, his supposed Death Eater status, and the pain he'd experienced upon his return. The boy he'd just seen was Severus, the individual he himself was. Just like his nemesis at school was both Malfoy and Draco at different times. The images he was currently seeing were of the person behind the stereotypes society cast on the Snape family and upon Death Eaters combined with the belief that his wife and best friend had betrayed him. Here was who his father had been when there hadn't been any need for illusions or appearances and before the tragic misunderstanding. He was himself; he was Severus.

At least the Severus that had existed at the time. Did that Severus still exist or had he been permanently replaced by Snape? Had he been ousted by the pain of losing his wife to another and the pressure dumped upon him by the Wizarding world after his supposed 'escape' from justice after the Death Eater trials?

Had the mask become reality?

Harry fervently hoped not, because he didn't want his father to be like Snape. All else aside, he'd rather have James as his father, but... but if that wasn't possible, than he'd rather be stuck with Severus than with Snape. If for nothing other than the simple fact that rejection would cripple him emotionally. He'd waited far too long, and longed too much, for his parents to be alive for the rejection of one of them, whether he was James or not, to do anything else.

He hadn't wanted to see that at first, lying to himself instead, but it was the cold, hard truth. And he couldn't see Snape accepting him. Severus, who had always wanted a child, however...

*Harry! It'sss changing!* Zera hissed frantically, her coils tightening around his neck to ensure that she got his attention.

Harry opened eyes he hadn't even been aware of closing and looked about. The Muggle house and yard were rapidly fading into darkness. He whirled around to look at his parents and Sn... James, but they were nothing more than dissolving wisps of smoke.

*Don't worry,* Harry reassured his familiar, recalling from Dumbledore's pensieve what was transpiring. *That was just the end of the memory. We should see another one soon.*

*They ssseemed to get along.*

*Yes, they did,* Harry agreed, suddenly realizing that the little snake couldn't understand what had been said. *Very well, actually.*

*He isss different from how he isss now, isssn't he?* Zera asked.

*You have no idea. Just wait until you meet him.*

*I can't wait.*

*You won't be so excited after your first meeting.*

*He sssired you, didn't he.*

Harry paused at the statement, not knowing what to say. He was saved from responding, however, when the darkness began to fade and a new memory simmered into being around them.

It was Hogwarts, he'd recognize those halls anywhere. It only took him a few seconds to realize that they were in the hallway near Gryffindor Tower that led to the stairs as he had travelled it several times a day for the better part of four years. The next thing he realized was that everything was fuzzy and slightly distorted, but in a very familiar way.

*We're in Hogwarts under an invisibility cloak,* Harry explained before Zera could ask. *Probably James' as Mum said he lent it to her to go meet Sn... Severus.*

*Ssseverusss?*

*Yes,* Harry responded, preferring to separate the two aspects of his father lest he forgot that Severus was not Snape.

At least not anymore. And it would be very tempting to forget that little titbit if he wasn't careful. The last thing he wanted to do was blend the old Severus with the current Snape in his mind only to get a nasty shock when he returned to school to discover that there was nothing left of the boy he'd just seen but an empty shell.

Not wanting to ponder that possibility any more than necessary, Harry turned his head and found his mother next to him under the cloak. Unable to resist, he reached out towards her, but his hand passed right through her and she simply continued sneaking down the stairs, heading towards the dungeons. He suppressed the sorrow that welled up inside of him. He'd known from the moment he'd laid eyes on the pensieve that it wouldn't allow him to interact with his mother or James, simply observe them, but it hurt nonetheless. He tried to distract himself by keeping track of where they were as he followed his mother deeper and deeper into the castle's dungeons but he soon lost track as they entered corridors he'd never seen before.

Finally they stopped before a thick oaken door with an old iron handle. Lily reached a hand through the front of the cloak, opened the door, and stepped inside, letting the door swing shut behind her. The room they'd entered had an old, musty smell to it and was filled with desks whose surfaces showed clear signs of wear. There was a discoloured patch of stonework in the middle of the left wall where a chalkboard had once hung but which had long since been removed. A large stone hearth stood across the room from it while the far side of the room was cast in shadow as only the torch next to the door was lit and its meagre light wasn't nearly sufficient to ward off the darkness that filled the room.

"Nista?" Lily queried softly.

"Mieta," Severus replied as he emerged from the shadows at which Lily quickly discarded the invisibility cloak and ran into his arms.

*Mieta?* Harry hissed in Parseltongue, more out of habit than an intention to communicate with his familiar.

*What?* Zera questioned.

*He called her Mieta after she said Nista.*

*Perhapsss it isss hisss nickname for her?*

*Probably,* Harry agreed, wishing he knew the origin of the names. If Hermione was able to translate Nista, then Mieta would probably be in the same language.

"Sorry that I'm late, but it took me a while to get away from my friends," Lily apologized.

"That's okay, I brought a book with me," Severus replied before he took out his wand and lit the rest of the torches and warded the door with both locking and silencing spells.

Now that there was better illumination, Harry could see that the far wall of the room was bare except for a ratty old blanket that hung as a makeshift curtain across part of the wall. He could faintly make out movement through the holes in the material, but he couldn't see enough to identify what it was. Standing before the curtain, angled so that it faced both it and the hearth, stood a blue couch.

"You're too paranoid," Lily stated as she moved toward the hearth and spelled a fire into existence to ward off the dungeon chill.

"You can never be too careful," Severus simply replied as he pulled back the curtain to reveal a large window overlooking the grounds of Hogwarts and the lake, all of which were covered in a thick blanket of snow and more was falling in large flakes.

*I thought we were underground,* Zera commented as she looked at the night time scene. *It's smells nice and damp.*

*We are underground, quite deep too I would think,* Harry replied, puzzled as he walked over to the wall to inspect the window. As he reached out and touched it, he felt rough stonework instead of glass and his hand seemed to go straight through the moonlit lake and disappear. *It's an illusion. One of them must have charmed the wall to display the outside, just like the ceiling in the Great Hall. It was probably Mum as I was told that she was very good at charms.*

Not that everything he'd been told was turning out to be true. But with that he wasn't being fair to the people who'd told him lies as they hadn't known they were lies.

"That's my Severus," Lily said with a smile as she sat down on the couch and curled up against the Slytherin when he joined her.

"I take it James isn't coming tonight?"

"No, he's serving detention with Filch, remember?"

"Ah, yes, I'd forgotten about that," Severus smirked, intercepting Lily's hand before she could poke him.

"Forgotten about it? You're the one who got it for him!"

"I have other things on my mind, and I only did it to keep up appearances."

"Are you saying that you didn't enjoy it just a little?" Lily enquired, giving him a searching look.

"Who, me?" Severus questioned, his face a mask of innocence before it melted at his girlfriend's raised eyebrow. "Alright, I did enjoy it."

"Well, beware, James has sworn revenge on you, and Sirius has decided to help him."

"Let the mutt try," Severus declared, his entire face darkening as he scowled.

Harry winced at the harsh tone and saw his mother do so as well. It was amazing how quick Severus' mood could change, almost as amazing as his acting skills. It was no wonder to him how the man managed to last so long as a spy with the way he could portray whatever emotion he wanted too. If his mother hadn't been insinuating that Severus had been involved in getting James his detention, then he wouldn't have been able to tell from his facial expression. In fact, if he didn't know the history between the two, he'd have assumed Severus innocent.

"How did your day go?" Lily asked, changing the topic.

"Oh, you know, classes and homework, nothing really special."

"You seemed to be bored in potions."

"You know me and potions, I taught myself how to make this one last Christmas."

"Could you walk me through it sometime? I know how to do it, but I'm not sure why everything is done the way it is and knowing the Ministry, that is what they'd ask for on the theory part of the N.E.W.T.."

"Sure, I'll bring my textbook next time and we can go over it," Severus replied. "Unless you remember what it was specifically?"

"Not everything, but I do remember being confused as to why we needed to add unicorn hair to the potion when we later added crushed snake fangs. Don't the crushed snake fangs cancel out the medicinal effect of the unicorn hair?"

"No."

"But Professor Higgleton said it did last year!"

"It often does, but it is by no means a rule. In fact there are a lot more potions that require the inclusion of both unicorn tears or hair and snake parts than most people realize," Severus explained calmly before he sneered. "The only reason Higgleton even said what he did is because of a mistaken notion that snakes are closely linked to the Dark Arts, and that inclination has flourished ever since Salazar Slytherin chose a snake as his familiar and possessed the ability to speak Parseltongue."

"I'm sure He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's affinity with them doesn't help matters much either."

"No, it doesn't. But, as I was saying, there are plenty of potions that require ingredients from the two animals, both Light and Dark ones."

"How can Dark potions be created with unicorn ingredients?" Lily enquired, puzzled.

"There are a number of ways, but the most common one is when a unicorn's blood is necessary as those potions were invented by Dark Lords in their seemingly eternal quest for immortality and generally require such a great amount of blood that the unicorn is killed in the acquisition of it. You'd be surprised how many ways the previous Dark Lords have found to extend their lives with the use of this ingredient. And the current Dark Lord has used each and every one of them."

"I take it he's seeking the path to immortality as well?"

"Yes, and I'm sure he'll have me look into the matter once I've attained my mastery."

"Let's just hope he isn't around anymore at that time," Lily stated as she shivered.

"We'll see," was all Severus said, a distant look in his eyes.

"So how do the crushed snake fangs and unicorn hair interact with each other and the rest of the ingredients?"

"The main effect, as you know, of crushed snake fangs is to act as an enhancer in the presence of asphodel, which is why the two are often used together and why they are often used in Dark potions. In this case, though, it simply increases the effect of the unicorn hair so that we only need to add one hair instead of five. Which is a very good thing considering how much unicorn hair costs."

"Yes, I remember seeing it in the apothecary when I went to buy my supplies for this year. I'm glad Hogwarts provides it as it's expensive. I'm surprised you had any to make this potion."

"When it comes to improving my potion skills, my father provides all that I need," Severus explained with a pained expression before it was wiped away to be replaced by an emotionless mask. "At least ever since the Dark Lord's former potions maker was killed on a raid."

"Oh, Severus," Lily said as she straightened to look at him.

"No, it's probably a good thing," Severus stated, shifting uncomfortably. "It can provide me with more standing, keep me out of the more dangerous raids as he wouldn't want to lose me like he did Stuart, and potentially even get me into the inner circle as I'll be the most naturally talented Death Eater he has for making potions."

"Don't call yourself that!"

"Why not?" Severus demanded as he got up and started pacing, startling Harry who'd never seen his professor so visibly show his anxiety and frustration. "I've got the Mark, Lily! I am a Death Eater. I do all those horrible things you hear of them doing. In fact, that's not even the worst of it. The Ministry must be trying to cover it up."

"Severus!" Lily exclaimed, jumping to her feet and moving towards him. "You're a spy, you have to do it, all of it, in order to survive. There's no other way. You've saved dozens of people by passing information on to Dumbledore and the Order. Not to mention those you've helped by sabotaging some of Stuart's potions."

"By killing them!"

"What?"

"More often than not, the only way to alter the potions without making it obvious that they've been tampered with is to turn them into poisons."

"What would they have done otherwise?" Lily asked, a little pale.

"Melted their internal organs, stimulated every single pain cell in their body, kept them awake when they would have passed out... I've altered all kinds of potions."

"Well, then, see," Lily said, even paler than before, but grasping her boyfriend's chin and forcing him to meet her gaze. "You saved them from a lot of pain and suffering."

"But--"

"Would they have been killed if you'd done nothing?"

"Yes," a whisper. "Eventually."

"There, you see. I'm sure they were grateful to be saved from that. I know I'd be. You didn't kill them, Severus, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did when he captured them. You simply made it easier for them the only way you could without blowing your cover."

"I..." Severus began but then seemed to sag in on himself, letting the redhead lead him back to the couch and pull his head down onto her lap, to stroke his hair soothingly. "There's going to be a meeting the evening school lets out for the holidays. A Christmas 'party'," he spat the word. "I think it's going to be bad, Lily, really bad. Father seems very excited about it but won't tell me anything so Dumbledore can't do anything to prevent it other than warn the Order to be alert."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," Severus shuddered, looking at the fire before squeezing his eyes shut.

"Okay, but if you ever do, about any of it, I'll be here."

Harry stood still, his eyes wide as he watched the scene unfold before him. Never had he seen the Head of House Slytherin so vulnerable before. Never. He always seemed strong and normally in control of the situation even when he got angry. And when he wasn't in full control, he fought tooth and nail to resist, letting only the headmaster tell him what to do. Well, Voldemort too in the visions he'd had but he was never vulnerable there. Submissive, yes, but not vulnerable. Even after he'd been put under the Cruciatus he somehow managed to maintain his dignity and elegance, often refusing to cry out at the start of it. But here he was vulnerable.

A scared boy caught up in a dangerous game of lies and deceit where weaknesses were deadly and there was no room for failure or hesitation. He knew. He'd seen the way Voldemort operated, the way he treated his followers. To know the fine line Snape waltzed upon at such a young age was staggering. Yes, he had faced off Voldemort himself, several times in fact, but that was entirely different from what Snape did. It required completely different talents and abilities. He wasn't sure if he could keep his cool enough around the Dark wizard to lie through his teeth and never give away that he was doing so or to mask his reactions at what he would be required to observe and participate in. It took a whole different kind of courage and strength to willingly go through that on a regular basis.

To see the effects of this stress, to see Snape like this, was strange. It made him far more human. Did his professor still suffer these same insecurities now that he'd returned to spying once more? And, if so, who did he go to for comfort? Dumbledore? Somehow Harry just couldn't picture the man doing that, or going to anyone else for that matter. Did that mean that he just kept it all to himself, bottling it up inside? He'd hoped not because he didn't need to be a psychologist to know that wasn't healthy.

*Isss he alright?* Zera asked as silence blanketed the room.

*I don't know. He's just got a lot on his shoulders.*

*Like hisss ssson.*

*Yes, like me,* Harry agreed as he sat down on the arm of the couch to wait.

Since the room hadn't faded out yet, there had to be more to this memory that his mother had wanted him to see. He now knew what she had meant when she said that not all of the memories would be happy ones but that they'd all provide insight into his father's personality.

"So where do you want to live, later on?" Lily finally questioned, breaking the uneasy silence.

"I don't have much of a choice, I have to go back to the manor."

"No, I mean afterwards, once this war is over."

"We don't even know if we'll win."

"Humour me, Nista," Lily pressed.

"Fine," Severus sighed as he sat up, pulling her back into his arms. "If we win, I'm definitely never going back to the manor again if I can help it. I may go to one of the other family estates, though. There is one on the cliffs of Dover that I've heard is very nice but we never went as my great-aunt lived there after her husband died and she and my father couldn't stand each other. I think I'd like it out there, it's supposed to be isolated and the nature is gorgeous. Or I may build a new place somewhere out in the country where it's nice and quiet."

"That sounds nice, I've always liked the sea, though I've never been up that way before."

"I'll take you then, after the war, and we can explore the place together."

"That would be great."

"My turn for a question," Severus stated. "Do you want children?"

"Yes," Lily's instant reply made Harry smile even as tears came to his eyes, wondering if they'd ever gotten to Dover after their marriage or if they'd put it off.

"How many?"

"I don't know, two or three maybe. What about you?"

"I definitely want children, but not until after the war," Severus declared. "I don't want any of them to have to suffer through this Darkness. And I am not letting my parents or any of their 'friends' near any child of mine. I shan't have them grow-up like I did."

Harry's eyes widened at the rage and determination behind his... father's words. He obviously felt very strongly about this. For the first time, he felt a pang of regret about not having grown up with the man. Sure, he'd considered what it would have been like in the time since he'd received the letters, but it wasn't until now that he truly regretted not having been raised by Snape. His imagination had dredged up a dark, dreary place, not unlike the Slytherin dungeons, and he'd supposed Snape to be as hard and mean a father as he was a professor. But now... now he wasn't so sure anymore. He now saw a house perched on the cliffs of Dover and a reasonable man who felt strongly about ensuring that he wasn't cruel and abusive. Even if he wasn't like Ron or Hermione's fathers it would definitely have been better than the Dursleys.

It just wasn't fair. Fate, life, destiny, whatever you wanted to call it was downright sadistic. Having him born in the middle of a war despite his parents' attempts to prevent that, having him prophesized to be the one to defeat a Dark Lord over fifty years older than himself, losing his mother while everyone believed his father dead (including his true father), being raised by wizard-hating Muggles, meeting his father only to be ignorant of it and to establish a hate-hate relationship with the man, and only then to discover the truth. Oh, and he was the one who had to break the news to his father.

Harry winced as he thought of this last. He still hadn't come up with any better way of approaching his professor in order to talk with him. The best he could come up with was to find a trinket that was unique and that Snape would recognize instantly so that he would listen to what he had to say.

"How many children do you want?" Lily asked.

"I don't know, I'd like to have one of each at least, a boy and a girl."

"What about twins? Do you want that?"

"I don't know," Severus replied thoughtfully. "Not for the first one, though, as I think it'll be enough of a challenge without there being two of them."

"I hadn't thought of that."

"Speaking of two, thanks for the help with the duplication charm, I got it right in class today."

"It was a pleasure," Lily replied with an amused smile. "Good to know you didn't entertain everyone like you did me."

"Charms doesn't come as easily to everyone as it does to you," Severus scowled. "You should have seen Rosier's results."

"You should remember that the next time someone makes a mistake in potions class."

"Some people are just hopeless dunderheads. There's a difference between having trouble and being incompetent."

"I think you should teach."

"Me? Teach?" Severus demanded incredulously.

"Yes, you'd make a very good professor. Definitely better than Higgleton. You explain things very clearly."

"I don't have the patience for it."

"Sure you do," Lily insisted. "Remember how long you spent with James at the end of last year, helping him study for the final?"

"Malfoy didn't find my aid all that great several years ago."

"Yes, well, he was studying for his N.E.W.T.s and you weren't even at your O.W.L.s yet. Besides, knowing him, he probably demanded you help him and we all know how well you respond to demands."

Harry watched Severus smirk before the scene began to fade out in wisps of smoke and darkness. The last part of their conversation had been strange, and enlightening. From how Severus had explained the combined use of unicorn hair and crushed snake fangs earlier, it was obvious that he could explain potions clearly and in a way that was easy to understand. So why didn't he do so in class? Why did he simply put the instructions on the board and expect them to be able to make it with minimal explanation? Was it to keep up appearances for his role as a spy? What was expected of him as a Snape and a supposed follower of the Dark Arts?

As the darkness faded, it was replaced with a blinding whiteness and both Harry and Zera were forced to close their eyes against it. Only by slowly opening them again to slits were they able to adjust to the abrupt difference. When he did so, the young wizard saw that the white was actually a snow covered landscape. Large, fluffy flakes were falling steadily from an overcast sky and gently floating their way towards Earth. He stood on what would normally be a large, sweeping lawn but was now a field of snow marked off by frosted trees.

Behind Harry was a sprawling mansion whose light grey stones almost allowed it to blend into the scenery. Standing before him and hiding behind what seemed to be a large statue covered in a blanket of snow was his mother, her red hair making her stand out. She was wearing a thick grey and green jumper, brown trousers, black gloves and boots, and a green hat. Next to her lay a small pile of carefully constructed snow balls and even as he watched, she launched the one she was holding to the left. Following its path, he turned to find James laying a short distance away behind what may be a hedge but now simply looked like a large pile of snow. A little more to the right and closer to himself, Severus was crutched behind what appeared to be a bench.

Unlike his mother, both boys were clad in thick winter robes and their school scarves. Severus' robes, predictably enough, were black while James' were a dark blue. Laughter rang through the air as the three continued to throw snowballs and taunt each other, occasionally catching someone off guard. Harry noticed that his mother seemed to be able to escape being pelted as her hiding place was tall enough to provide better cover than that of the boys.

They also seemed to notice this as Severus began to motion towards James, indicating that they should team up and approach her from different angles. Peaking over his cover to look at his fellow Gryffindor, James hesitated for a second before giving Severus a thumbs up. When Lily ducked to collect another snowball, the two leapt from behind their hiding places and rushed forward. Lily cried out a protest when she looked up and saw them coming. Looking back and forth between them, she threw her snowball at James, forcing him to duck before she grabbed another one and took off, knowing she couldn't stay where she was.

James and Severus immediately took off in pursuit of her, ducking when she threw her last snowball at them. Despite this they both gained on her and when he was close enough, Severus tackled her, causing both of them to fall into the snow. Shrieking with laughter, Lily twisted about, trying to get out of his arms, but Severus held on tight, determined not to release her. Catching up, James took advantage of the situation to poke her in her ribs.

"No! James stop it," Lily exclaimed as she tried to slap away his arms. "No. No fair!"

"Ah, now you know how I feel when you two gang up on me," James replied, not relenting in the slightest as he grinned at Severus.

"James!" Lily yelped as her turning pressed her face into the cold snow. "Severus, please!"

"You're the one who started it," Snape simply said. "You shouldn't have thrown that snow in my face if you didn't want to end up covered in it."

"Nista, please," Lily begged as she looked at him pleadingly.

"Oh no, you don't," James stated, seeing the Slytherin begin to cave in. "Take that!" he added as he used the opportunity to shove some snow down the neck of his robes.

"Hey!" Severus cried out as he instantly released his girlfriend and reached out towards his friend, managing to catch one of his boots as he turned to run.

By holding on tight, he tripped James when he tried to pull free, causing him to fall down face first into the snow. Sputtering, James pushed himself to his elbows, sending a glare at his laughing friend. Lily, meanwhile had pulled enough snow together to form another ball which she launched at James from where she lay. Harry could only watch in amusement as the scene dissolved into another snowball fight though none of them got up from the ground and their aim was off due to the fact that they were laughing the entire time.

"Let's head in," James suggested as he got to his feet when they finally stopped laughing. "Grandmother said she'd have some hot chocolate waiting for us."

"That sounds like a brilliant idea," Severus replied, helping Lily up.

As the three headed towards the mansion, Harry moved to follow but stopped when the scene rapidly darkened and faded away into wisps of white.

*They ssseemed to be having fun,* Zera declared.

*Indeed they did,* Harry agreed, still smiling at seeing the three of them act so carefree. It was good to know they'd managed to just have fun despite the war.

When the darkness finally faded away it was replaced with a tastefully decorated living room. A quick glance around was enough for Harry to confirm that it was a Wizarding home because, despite the presence of a tele and a VCR, there were a few scattered paintings and photos that moved. Also, standing on the coffee table in front of a floral print sofa, was a Wizarding chess set. It looked to be the same one from the first memory.

"Lily, you look gorgeous," James stated, drawing Harry's attention towards him.

The brown eyed man stood next to a high backed seat with a similar pattern as the sofa. He was wearing a loose fitting blue robe and his hair was in more of a disarray than Harry's normally was. His mother, in comparison, looked stunning. She was wearing a pastel yellow dress-like robe that was highlighted with pale, sea-green, lace. Her flaming red hair was pulled into what Ginny called a French braid and was decorated with baby's breath. Silver jewellery adorned her ears, neck and wrist.

"Thank you," Lily replied, twirling. "Do you think it will be good enough?"

"I dare say that Narcissa Malfoy herself will be hard pressed to draw attention away from you," Severus declared from the doorway, startling Harry along with James and Lily.

"Severus!" Lily exclaimed, rushing towards him. "I've missed you, Nista."

"Me too," Severus stated before he kissed her.

Harry didn't even have time to turn away before they had already separated. He laughed with James when he caught sight of his father's lips once more.

"Oops," Lily said, smiling herself.

"What?" Severus demanded as he glanced back and forth between her and James.

"You've got lipstick on you now," James informed him, causing Severus' hand to fly up to his mouth.

"Here, let me," Lily said, taking out her wand and spelling him clean.

"Good," Severus stated before he looked back at James. "Did you bring the robes?"

"Yes, Lily put them in the bedroom so that you can change in private. What do you need from me? A hair as usual?"

"Any body part would make the Polyjuice Potion work, but a hair would be preferable," Severus replied as he approached the coffee table and took a few small items from his pocket. "Finite Incantatem," and with a swish of his wand the items returned to their normal size.

Harry quickly approached the table and saw that Severus had brought along stacks of books. Most of them looked old and worn, as if they'd been read and referred to often, but others looked almost brand new. Peering at the titles, he found that most of them seemed to be written in Latin. But the titles he could read sent shivers up his spine.

"A Thousand Untraceable Curses"
"The Perfect Revenge: Incurable Curses and Potions"
"Essential Hexes and Curses for the Dark Wizard"
"A Guide to Illegal Magicks"
"Little Known Dark Spells and Potions"

*What are thossse booksss?* Zera enquired.

*Dark Arts,* Harry replied, shivering. Why was his father bringing those books with him here?

"Those are the books?" James asked as he approached, holding out a few strands of his hair to Severus.

"Yes. I highly doubt that some of these will even contain any information on the curse, but I decided to bring them just in case. Besides, it will make it harder for my parents to uncover what I'm doing should they notice the books are missing."

"I'll try to get through them as soon as possible," James promised as he reached out to pick one up, only to have his wrist caught by his Slytherin companion.

"You have to remember that these are Dark Arts books," Severus stated warningly. "Many of them have curses and spells on them so treat them carefully and don't do any magic while touching them. If you can't read it, put a translation spell on it when you aren't in contact with it and then wait a few seconds before handling it to ensure that the spell has been accepted. Also, put an untraceable charm on yourself before you begin so that no one will be able to see that you've used them if they check later on."

"Merlin, how on Earth do you live like this, Sev?" Lily asked.

"Habit, though it has gotten worse since I started spying."

"No wonder you acted so paranoid in school," James stated, a little pale. "I'll do my best to ensure that you get them back soon so your parents don't start asking questions."

"You may want to go through the ones that don't specify in rare curses first as I doubt they'll have anything on the Gatyal, but it's always better to check."

"I'll do that."

"Do you need these back after tonight?" Lily enquired as she skimmed the titles and shivered. "Or can James keep them until he's done?"

"It would be best if I took them home again and we arranged another meeting later," Severus said. "Just in case my parents do notice their absence as they wouldn't like the idea of my loaning them out to anyone."

"What, no sharing among Dark Wizards?" James quipped, surprised.

"No, better to have potential rivals know as little as possible. Besides, some of these are quite valuable books, and great evidence should my family ever be put on trial. They'd be hard pressed to explain away some of these."

"Ah, I see," James said, startled. "You Slytherins really do have to make things more complicated, don't you? Can't even loan a few books to a friend without seeing danger and doom in it."

"Fiducia nemo•," Severus stated. "Trust no one. Family motto."

"Your family is really morbid at times," Lily commented as she hugged him.

"Uh... welcome?" Severus replied, pulling at something around her neck that Harry couldn't see.

"No regrets," Lily declared fiercely as she caught his face and looked directly into his eyes.

Harry blinked in confusion for a second before he remembered what his mother had said about how they'd hidden their wedding rings and her engagement ring. So they were already out of school and married by this point. Which meant that this was probably his mother's apartment. So there probably weren't many more memories for him to see. Sadness welled up in him, but his mother had most likely been pressed for time. Besides, most kids didn't get to relive moments from their parents' past, so he should be glad.

But to see them so happy, at least at times, was addicting. He wanted more. Harry suddenly realized that no matter how many memories his mother could have put into the pensieve, it wouldn't have been enough. How many could a pensieve hold anyway? Perhaps his mother had stuffed it as full as possible. The silvery liquid had been close to the bowl's edge and his mother's note had talked about needing to chose the memories carefully.

"I'm going to go change and take the potion," Severus said.

"Okay," Lily replied before she moved to look over James' shoulder at the book he was busy with. "Oh, dear Merlin!"

"Frightening, isn't it?" James agreed as he inspected the index page, trying to ignore the wizard on the opposite page demonstrating various curses on a hapless child. "No wonder Severus knew so many Dark curses as a first year. If his parents have books like these laying around I'm surprised he didn't know more."

"They probably wouldn't have let him look at all of the books," Lily reasoned as she looked away, unable to look at the animated illustration any longer. "A child is too likely to let it slip that he knows highly illegal Dark Arts spells and curses."

"And yet he still knew enough for it to be highly suspicious if an adult had bothered to look closely."

"Maybe on some level he was hoping someone would take note of it."

"You're talking Muggle psychology here, aren't you?" James enquired.

"Yes. You know Severus, how careful he can be and how well he can keep secrets, and yet he used some questionable curses on other students," Lily replied as she smoothened her gown.

"You've got a point there," James acknowledged before he blinked as the door to the bedroom opened and Snape walked back in. "Wow. No matter how many times we do this, I'll never get used to seeing you like that."

"And I'll never be comfortable being you," Severus replied in James' voice, tugging at the red dress robes. "You're too short."

"Hey!" James exclaimed. "It's not my fault you're taller than me."

"Still, you could be taller. Do your children a favour and marry a tall woman when you break the curse."

"This is just unreal," Lily said, voicing Harry's thoughts as she looked back and forth between the two identical men bickering with each other.

At least when he, Ron and Hermione had taken the Polyjuice Potion, the people they'd been imitating hadn't been in the same room as them. This was just weird. It was like... watching James arguing with an enchanted mirror version of himself, only one that was wearing different clothes.

"Yes it is," James agreed wholeheartedly. "But you two better get going or you'll be late."

"Yes," Lily said as she picked up a matching yellow purse. "Do you have enough potion with you?"

"More than enough," Severus replied. "Invitations?"

"Got them. Bye, James, and thank you."

"No problem," the Gryffindor replied. "Besides, it's not like I don't get something out of this deal."

"Don't expect us back before midnight," Severus declared. "And good luck."

"Thanks, have fun."

Harry cast a quick look at the man he'd thought his father for so long before he followed his parents out the door into the hall of the apartment complex. The couple made their way to the stairwell where the Slytherin-in-disguise quickly checked the area before he pulled the redhead close and with a 'pop' they disappeared. Briefly the world swirled around the young wizard and his familiar before it set itself once more.

Confused, Harry looked around and, upon spotting his mother and what appeared to be James, he realized that they were still in the same memory.

*How did they vanisssh like that?* Zera asked.

*It's called apparation,* Harry explained. *Qualified witches and wizards can disappear from one location and reappear in another.*

*How?*

*I'm not entirely sure. I've yet to learn how to do it.*

*I sssee.*

"Well, here we go again," Lily whispered as she pulled away from her husband.

"At least it's me this time."

"True. Kissing you with the Polyjuice is weird enough, but when it really is James... it just feels so wrong."

"That's exactly what he said," Severus replied as he took Lily's arm and led her out of the apparation foyer of St. Mungo's and they followed the other arriving guests.

"He did?" Lily asked as she smiled at acquaintances.

"Yes."

As he followed them, Harry glanced at the other people who were all as dressed up as his parents were. Floating signs indicated the way to the room where the charity auction and dance was being held. Apparently it was for the benefit of children injured in the war. Now that he thought about it, the little time between his mother's graduation and her death with his... James were the months where the fighting and fear had been at its peak. With this knowledge, he looked around once more and quickly spotted a few Aurors. Most looked bored or uncomfortable in their official robes, but he thought that they were probably glad to have been assigned guard duty here instead of being out facing Death Eaters.

*What'sss going on?* Zera hissed.

*A party to raise money for the hospital.*

*Ah!*

"Lily, James," Harry quickly looked up in the direction of the voice and saw a vaguely familiar looking couple approaching, though he couldn't quite place where he'd seen them or why. "You look fabulous."

"Alice, Frank," Lily said as she turned towards them and smiled. "Thanks, so do you. How are you?"

"As well as can be expected in these times," Alice replied as she hugged Lily while the two men shook hands.

"I know, the attacks are horrible and just keep coming."

"Yes they do," Frank sighed as he greeted her. "So, James, you managed to get the night off after all."

"Herberts decided I could do more good donating money here tonight than guarding the event," Severus explained pleasantly. "Even by giving me the night off he knows that I'll be here if needed."

"True indeed," Frank stated as they began to walk towards the double doors the signs led to. "I heard Sirius got lucky and had the night off by chance just like me and Alice."

"Yes, though he doesn't think it was lucky," Severus said. "He calls it bad luck as it is something he feels compelled to attend on his night off."

"He'd see it that way, wouldn't he," Alice commented, shaking her head. "So, do you know who he's going to bring with him this time?"

"He said it'd be a surprise," Lily replied.

"That probably means it'll be someone new again," Frank declared. "Why can't he keep a girlfriend for more than a few weeks?"

As he observed the two couples interact, Harry wondered how Snape knew the relevant information about his godfather. He doubted the two saw each other except perhaps at meetings of Dumbledore's Order his mother had mentioned. Whatever that was. He assumed that it had something to do with the 'old crowd' that the Headmaster had asked Sirius to contact. He'd have to see if he could learn more about it. For all he knew they didn't have traditional meetings. Either way, he knew Snape and Sirius wouldn't talk about what they were planning to do if they did encounter each other. Which meant that Snape and James had to spend time together before each swap so that the spy would be up-to-date on everything.

Harry wondered what Sirius would say if he knew that his nemesis had been getting routine updates on his activities. He wouldn't be pleased, that was for sure. He'd always been told that his godfather had been very popular and handsome, so he'd wondered why the man hadn't gotten married or been steady with anyone when he'd gone to Azkaban. Or at least he'd assumed so as neither Sirius nor Remus had ever mentioned anything about it. The fact that he'd been fooling around explained it all.

The Boy-Who-Lived was pulled from his thoughts as he passed through the double doors as his father and Frank handed their invitations to a guard and they entered a large room filled with people. Close to the door, witches and wizards milled about, dressed in a plethora of colours, styles and fabrics. They talked to each other or were helping themselves to drinks and snacks from tables along either wall. On the other end of the room an orchestra was playing for the couples that were dancing in the middle of the room. Various doors led to other rooms, presumably where the auction would take place. Aurors were interspersed along the walls.

"Longbottom, there you are," a new voice called out and Frank smiled at the man.

Startled, Harry took a second look at Frank and Alice, suddenly remembering that those were indeed the names of Neville's parents. Could it be that this was them? Mr. Crouch had said in Dumbledore's pensieve that Frank had been an Auror and this man was one. And they did kind of look like his housemate. It had to be them. If he ever managed to tell Snape the truth and he still had the pensieve, he'd have to see if he could show his friend just the part of this memory with them in it so that he too could see his parents as they once were. If his grandmother hadn't already done so, that is. Yet even if she had, this should be a new memory as the grandmother didn't seem to be present.

"Come, you wanted to dance, didn't you?" Severus said to Lily as the Longbottoms' attention was drawn away from them.

"Yes," Lily agreed and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor just as the orchestra started up a slow waltz.

Harry bit his lower lip as he watched them dance while trying to avoid being walked through by the other guests. Both were very disconcerting. From the smiles on his parents' faces he could clearly see why everyone had thought that his mother and James to be so happy together. They really appeared to be a perfect couple, and very much in love. Having it be James' face he was looking at only made it slightly easier to see as he knew it was his potions professor underneath. His joy for his mother only increased with each new proof of Severus' love for her as he really did want for her to have been happy, but that didn't make it any easier for him to accept that he'd believed a lie for so long. Or how he'd been treated by his true father. If only his mother had sent the package a few years earlier, before he'd attended Hogwarts! Then he could have revealed the truth to his father before their first class together. It would have made so many things a lot easier.

With a shake of his head, Harry dismissed the thought. It would have been better but it didn't happen. He couldn't afford to start down that road as it would only lead him to despair. Especially with everything he wished could have gone differently. Instead he was better off enjoying his parents happiness while they had it. When the waltz ended, they smoothly followed the rest of the couples into the next dance. When that one ended, Severus must have stiffened slightly as his mother frowned at him.

"What is it?" Lily whispered.

"Look who just entered," Severus replied as he brought James' mouth into a distrustful frown. "Fashionably late, of course."

Like his mother, Harry looked towards the entrance and caught sight of a couple with very pale blond hair. Although the man looked younger than he had just hours ago in Diagon Alley, there was no mistaking Lucius Malfoy. And standing next to him in a stunning pale blue robe with silver accents was who had to be his wife, Narcissa. He could definitely see some of his school nemesis in her. Or rather what Draco had inherited from her.

"How dare he show his face here?" Lily demanded, infuriated.

"Keeping up his cover," Severus stated, taking her arm and leading her towards the refreshment tables. "Remember, no one can pin anything on him yet and the majority of the Ministry either worship him or fear him too much to dare speak out against the Malfoy name."

"Well someone should."

"No, Lily, promise me that you won't do something stupid," Severus demanded urgently, but quietly. "They're too powerful."

"Se... James."

"No, promise me. You're already more involved in this war than I'd like."

"And you're not? You know I can't just sit by and do nothing when I can help."

"I know," Severus sighed. "But could you do so without attracting so much attention?"

"I'll try."

"Good. Now, I need a drink, what about you?"

It was with a start that Harry realized that his... father meant he had to take his potion. Had it already been an hour?

*Here we go again,* Zera complained as the world dissolved into coloured wisps around them.

*Don't you like it?* Harry asked, hurt.

*The memoriesss themssselvesss, yesss, the in-between bitsss, definitely not.*

*Yeah, well, there's nothing I can do about that.*

*I know.*

*What's this?* Harry wondered aloud when a baby's cry broke through the fading darkness.

"Didn't you just feed him fifteen minutes ago?" James' voice asked as the world slowly materialized around Harry and Zera.

"Yes, he can't be hungry," Lily agreed as she put down the scarf she was knitting and got to her feet.

This time they were again in a living room and while some of the furnishings were the same, the room was different, larger. James was sitting in another chair next to the fire, reading a book. It took Harry a second to realize that the infant cries he was hearing were his own. Meaning that Snape was supposed to have died already and James and his mother's sham wedding had taken place. This was one of the memories included specifically for Snape.

As he followed his mother out of the room and up a set of stairs, Harry took a good look at her and was shocked by what he saw. She looked years older, years and yet he knew it couldn't be more than a year, maybe two, at most, since the last memory. And she was sad. He wasn't sure if he saw it or just felt it coming from her, but she was very sad.

Why hadn't anyone seen this? It wasn't like it was a gradual transition. And right at a time when she shouldn't have been able to be much happier, what with getting married and having a child. But no, he was thinking like a Muggle again. If she and James could fool everyone about his parentage, it should be nothing to make her look better. Especially since she was so good at charms.

"Harry, Harry, Harry," Lily said as she approached a closed door along the hallway at the top of the stairs, startling the teenage version of her son by her side.

As his mother entered the room, Harry took a second to compose himself before he followed her. A vague sense of déjà-vu instantly hit him and was followed by the sound of his mother screaming and a flash of green light.

With a startled cry, Harry stumbled backwards, tripped and fell to the floor. Breathing heavily, it took him a few seconds to realize that what he'd seen and heard was from is own memory and not that of his mother.

*Harry, Harry, are you alright?* Zera demanded worriedly.

*Yes, I just had a flashback. It is in that room that my mother died and I got my scar. I have some vague recollections of that and it hit me all of a sudden.*

*I sssee, I'm sssorry.*

*Me too,* Harry stated, getting to his feet before he looked towards his mother who was now leaning over his crib.

"What's wrong, Harry? Huh?" Lily questioned, drawing out the words unconsciously as she picked up the crying infant. "Not a wet nappy? No, that doesn't seem to be it."

*That'sss you,* Zera declared, flicking her tongue in and out rapidly.

*How do you know?*

*It sssmellsss like you.*

*There are scents here?* Harry questioned incredulously as he watched himself calm and become quiet in his mother's arms.

His mother also lost some of the sadness he'd sensed before as she held him. Stepping closer to get a better look, he decided that he hadn't been a pretty baby. Though if Fred and George were to be believed, Ginny had been an ugly baby too and yet their parents had kept going on about how pretty she was. Maybe it was a parent thing.

*Yesss, mossst definitely.*

*That's interesting. But I guess that's why a pensieve is so useful, it allows you to relive not only what you consciously remember but also what you subconsciously took in.*

*It ssseemsss to do more than that asss we can sssee the perssson whossse memory it isss,* Zera replied.

*I hadn't thought of that.*

"Do you want to come downstairs with Mummy, is that it?" Lily cooed as she rocked her son back and forth. "Come, lets go sit with James."

As she walked down the stairs, baby Harry reached up and grabbed a lock of her hair in his small hand.

"Yes, that's Mummy's hair, it's red," Lily stated, entering the living room once more. "And look, there's James."

"Lily," James said with a sigh, putting down his book in favour of giving her a significant look. "Much as I hate to say it, you can't keep calling me James in front of Harry."

"Just for a little while longer," Lily protested, though Harry could see it was done without any real force behind it. Like it was a battle she knew was already lost but didn't want to admit to just yet. "He won't be talking for a while yet."

"It'll go faster than you think," James replied as she sank back into her chair. "And won't we have a hard time explaining why he won't call me papa or dad? He may not be speaking just yet, but he's probably learning to associate sounds with us already."

"I... I know," Lily whispered as she seemed to deflate. "It's just that... I..."

"Shh," James said as he got up and moved to hug her as best he could as she started to cry. "You don't need to say it, I don't want him to call me papa either, but for now he must."

Harry felt tears run down his own cheeks as he watched his mother grieve while the younger version of himself, oblivious, continued to gurgle happily.

As the world faded out, he wondered why his mother had chosen to include that particular memory in the pensieve. With the limited room he'd have thought she'd chose a better one, a happier one. Or was that the point? Was it meant to reinforce the fact that she hadn't moved on without Severus? From the way she had begged him to believe her in the letter to him that could just be it.

When the next memory formed around him, Harry quickly noted that he was once again in the living room of what had to be Godric's Hollow, though that fact confused him. He'd been under the impression that his parents... that his mother and James had only moved there when they went into hiding under the Fidelius Charm. Or could the charm be applied to an already known location? It had to be either that or people could come and go as they pleased without disturbing it after it was cast as his mother had placed memories of Godric's Hollow into the pensieve.

"Come on, Harry, come on," James said as he kneeled on the floor and reached out towards the young boy that stood supported by his mother's arms a few steps away. "Come here."

*Not too good on your feet yet, are you?* Zera laughed as she watched the little Harry wobble in place.

*Very funny,* Harry replied as he observed the scene closely.

He could already guess that he was about to see his first steps and why his mother had chosen to include this particular event.

"Papa," little Harry said as he reached out with one hand to the man he was now starting to resemble while his other hand remained firmly clamped to his mother's. "Papa!"

"No, you need to walk to Papa," Lily said gently, voice trembling slightly at the last word. "Come on, you can do it," she urged as she tried to loosen his fingers from her hand.

"Papa," the child insisted, clamping his free hand to his mother's other hand when she managed to loosen the fingers of his first hand.

"Yes, Papa," James stated as he got a little closer. "Come to Papa, come on Harry."

"Go on," Lily urged as she got her other hand free and quickly moved both of them to his armpits so that she could continue to hold him until he was ready.

"Papa," little Harry said once more, glancing between both parents before he took a small step forwards so that Lily still had her hands on his back. A brief moment of hesitation before he took two more steps, holding his arms out to the man before him. "Papa."

"There you go!" James exclaimed as he quickly reached forward and picked up the toddler as he wobbled. "There's a big boy. You're walking now! Pretty soon you'll be running about."

"We're going to have to keep an even closer eye on him now," Lily said as she smiled.

"Yep," James agreed, making faces at the gleeful child in his arms. "Because this little squirt is always up to no good."

"And I wonder where he learned that."

Harry laughed as James tried to look innocent and failed miserably.

"It's from his father's side," James finally declared. "You know how he could never behave himself."

Imitating the absent man, Lily merely raised an eyebrow. "You'll spoil him rotten if you keep it up."

"But of course, that's my job as godfather. I'll make a Marauder out of him yet."

Godfather?! Harry froze at James' words. What was this? Wasn't Sirius his true godfather? Had his mother and James altered that piece of information on the fake birth certificate as well? Though it made sense if he thought about it. If his mother wanted James to be his godfather, they couldn't very well list that on his fake birth certificate as he was listed as his father. And he couldn't really see his mother naming Sirius his godfather considering the hatred between him and Snape. So why had they chosen him as his godfather on the fake certificate?

Because he and James were so close. It didn't make any logical sense for her to pick anyone other than a Marauder given the fact that James Potter was supposed to be his birthfather, and of the four Marauders, James had been closest to Sirius, so it would have looked suspicious if they'd chosen anyone other than Sirius Black as his fake godfather given the illusion they were trying to create. But that didn't make it any easier to accept. Now, instead of having a live godfather, he had a dead one whom he didn't possess any memories of other than what his mother was currently showing him.

What would Sirius say when he heard? Would he care, or would he just continue to treat him as before? And what would he say when he discovered that he wasn't truly James' son but that of Severus Snape, his hated enemy? Would he be able to look past that? Harry really hoped that it wouldn't alter the relationship they had as he really didn't want to lose Sirius over something he had absolutely no control over. The man had to be able to see that, shouldn't he? Not wanting to even consider the situation any more, he turned his attention back to the scene playing out before him.

"James!"

"All right, all right. A good little Slytherin Marauder, is that better?"

"I believe that's a contradiction in terms."

"Yeah, you're probably right," James agreed before he turned his attention back to his best friend's son as the child began to pull at his unruly hair. "Hey!"

Harry saw his mother laugh at the brilliant smile that crossed his face at James' protests and attempts to flatten his hair. He could see how the untameable hair would provide amusement for a small child.

*Sssomethingsss bothering you,* Zera declared as her tongue grazed the skin at his neck, making him shiver.

*Yes,* Harry replied, amazed that she'd picked up on it. *James just made a comment about how I would probably be in Slytherin because of my father.*

*Weren't you almossst placed there?*

*Yes, but I convinced the Sorting Hat not to do it. Now I wonder if things would have been different if I'd been placed there. Or why James thought I'd end up there, or could have. Most Slytherins aren't very nice at all.*

*And yet your birthfather came from that house and he was a friend of James.*

*True.*

When the family scene faded out, Harry expected another memory to take its place, but none came. Instead, only darkness remained.

*What'sss happening?* Zera questioned.

*I think we've seen all the memories my mother could put in here.*

*Ssso how do we get out?*

*I don't know,* Harry admitted, suddenly realizing the foolishness of his actions. To use a magical device he didn't fully understand could be quite dangerous as Ginny's encounter with Riddle's diary had proved.

*What do you mean?*

*The last time I got pulled out.*

*How?*

*The Headmaster came in, took hold of my arm, and said we had to go.*

*Did he have hisss magic ssstick out?*

*His wand? No, he didn't,* Harry said as he thought back to just what Dumbledore had done.

Unable to come up with anything, he thought of the pensieve itself to see if he'd overlooked anything. The moment he did so, Harry felt himself begin to rise in the air as if he'd become weightless and then he began to rotate out of control before his feet suddenly hit something with a jarring impact and he fell onto a hard stone floor.

*You did it,* Zera declared. *How?*

*Huh?* Harry said, taking a minute to get his bearings before he looked around. And, indeed, they were back in the vault again, next to the table with the pensieve. *I just thought of the pensieve.*

*That'sss sssimple.*

*Yes, it is,* Harry agreed as he got to his feet with the support of the desk.

As soon as he was steady, the young wizard let go of the desk and walked around to the other side where a stack of photos lay. Like the wedding photo, the people in most of them moved about, waving happily at him, though some seemed to be Muggle photos. Most were of his mother and Sn... Severus, but a few also had James, the rest of the Marauders, and people he assumed to be his mother's girlfriends. Flipping through the stack, he carefully looked at each picture before moving on. The ones he really liked, he put aside to take with him. He paused as he reached a Muggle photo of his father in school uniform. The boy had a thoughtful expression on his face and wasn't looking directly at the camera, making him wonder if Severus even knew that the photo was being taken.

Towards the end of the pile were a series of Muggle pictures of his mother from when she was young. In a few of them he was shocked to see his aunt, she looked better than she did now, though not by much. What made him pause, however, were the pictures of what had to be his grandparents. His grandmother had blond hair like his aunt, but the startling green eyes he recognized from the reflection he saw every morning in the mirror. His grandfather had hazel brown eyes and deep auburn hair. They looked to be a happy couple who loved their children.

Sadness welled up in Harry as he studied the pictures, wondering what had happened to them. He knew for a fact that both had died before he was born, but he didn't know how or when. His aunt didn't like to talk about them in general and he suspected that it had something to do with the fact that they were proud to have a witch in the family. Or so he'd been told. If only they hadn't died, then he might have grown up with them instead of his aunt! Putting the pictures in the pile to take with him, he went on and when he was done, he carefully stacked the two piles neatly before turning his attention to the last set of items on the desk.

It consisted of a stack of parchments held down by a stone paperweight engraved with a crest. The crest was outlined by a snake biting its own tail, a symbol of eternity. Just inside it was the family motto, Fiducia nemo•, in an arch along the top. In the background was a crossed wand and dagger, while a peculiarly shaped stone was towards the left in the foreground, with a strangely curved object next to it. Beneath the paperweight was a parchment with familiar purple ink. As he reached for it, though, he frowned as he felt a slight tingling on his hand. It was a sensation he sometimes got when he handled magical objects, but why would a stack of parchment contain magic?

Dear Harry,

Below you will find a series of legal papers. Included are your authentic birth certificate, Severus' and my marriage certificate, the true copies of James', Severus' and my own wills (the ones we left in public records naturally left off data due to the required secrecy of the entire situation).

Harry stopped reading, startled and horrified. Wills were something his mother hadn't mentioned in her letters and he hadn't expected to find something like that here. The very thought of reading his parents' wills sent chills down his spine.

*She left their death wishes here,* he explained before the little snake could ask.

*You don't want to read them?*

*No.*

*Then leave them for later.*

*That would probably be best,* Harry agreed.

He couldn't do anything with what they said now anyway as he had to inform his father of the situation first. And the wills could only be publicly cleared if the man wasn't spying anymore as otherwise it would blow his cover. But at least this explained the magic he sensed. Legal documents in the Wizarding World were probably laced with magic to test their authenticity and all of that.

In addition to these legal documents, you will also find the information I have collected about the Aspectus Commutatus• spell. And I have included all James and his family learned of the Gatyal curse, hopefully it can help someone else find a way to break it someday.

So James hadn't broken the curse. In a way, Harry found that better than if he had. Because then he would have died soon after finally being free to do what he wished. And then the whole scam marriage would have hindered him from moving on with his life.

With a sigh, Harry put the letter face down next to the stack of parchment. He froze when he saw what was underneath it. It was his birth certificate. He'd known from his mother's letter that it would list him as a Snape, but it felt strange to see it actually written out. And his first name! It wasn't Harry, but Harold. Sure, Harry was a very common nickname for Harold, but his aunt had always mentioned how his name was such a common and improper one (not that he thought 'Dudley' to be very proper even if it was uncommon) and he'd never been called anything but Harry so he figured his fake birth certificate said Harry instead of Harold. He was glad to see that at least part of his middle name remained the same. James. It made a lot of sense, though, after all the man had done for his parents, it was a small token to name their child after him. But he also had a second middle name as well that he'd never heard of before.

*Harold James Lucien Snape,* Harry hissed in Parseltongue. *That's my real name.*

*It sssoundsss very dissstinguissshed,* Zera commented.

*Yes, it does,* Harry agreed, scanning the rest of the document, stopping as he came to the section naming godparents.

Just as James' proclamation had said in the pensieve, the document listed James Potter and not Sirius Black as his godfather. So it was true. Not that he truly doubted what James had said, but it was one thing to hear it and another to see it definitively written down. Swallowing, he still refused to consider the ramifications of those two words, and instead he skimmed the rest of the document, glad that he didn't see any other surprises.

Done with the document, Harry placed it on top of the letter and turned his attention to his parents' wedding certificate. Like his birth certificate, the parchment was a creamy colour and very fine, yet firm. Both also seemed to hum with magic, making him wonder how his mother and James had falsified the birth certificate currently on public record. They must have done some complicated magic to have it pass as authentic. Or they'd gotten it from a black market source. If so they'd probably used some contact or trick Severus had shown them as he couldn't see the two of them knowing how to do that otherwise. Although James might have known a thing or two of it from his Marauder days if the group had been anything like the Weasley twins. But then he remembered that his mother had said that the fake certificate wouldn't stand up to any tests, so it probably wasn't a black market copy.

The actual writing on the document was pretty much what Harry expected it to say with only a few exceptions. The first was the fact that, upon marriage to the Snape heir, his mother had received the title of 'Lady' and all the official privileges and honours that went with it.

Harry stopped reading to frown. Did this mean that his father was a lord? Lord Snape? Lord Severus? He crinkled his nose at the thought. That just didn't sound right. But if it was true, then he'd become Lord Harry or Lord Harold. He snorted at the idea. Malfoy, he could see with that title, junior and senior, but him and Snape? His humour vanished as another thought struck him. What would Ron say if it was true? That wasn't exactly something he wanted to think about. Not with Ron's track record.

The wedding certificate then went on to say that the marriage was a magical union as well as a physical and spiritual one. That wasn't so surprising to him as it was a Wizarding wedding, but the wording of the sentence seemed to indicate that this wasn't necessarily a given in all Wizarding marriages. He'd have to ask someone if the opportunity ever arose.

The last thing that caught his attention on the document were his parents names. They were written out in full, including their middle names. For his mother it was very simple as she only had one, Rose, but his father! He had three, making his full name Severus Sceptimus Salazar Seralus Snape! What in the bloody hell was up with that? Was it some pureblood tradition to give one's children so many formal sounding names? Perhaps based on ancestry? Or was it a Wizarding tradition in general? He officially had two middle names as well.

Unable to decide, Harry skimmed the rest of the certificate before moving on to the next item. Unfortunately it turned out to be his mother's will. Nervously he picked it up, feeling the magic crackle along his fingers as he did so. Inspecting it, he found it to be a sealed parchment bundle not unlike his mother's original letter. Yet, try as he might, he couldn't find a way to open it. Figuring that it had probably been magically sealed for safety, he set it aside with a sigh of relief. Below it was James' will which looked exactly the same except for what looked like the Potter family seal underneath his name. It consisted of crossed swords and a vertical wand in the background with a griffin in the foreground. Above the griffin were the words Honor, Amor• and below it was Familia•. Below that was Snape's will with the same crest as on the stone paperweight.

Underneath that lay a stack of parchments that had been clipped together with a paperclip. Smiling at the use of a Muggle device, Harry skimmed it and saw that it appeared to be the information of the Gatyal curse. Some of it were personal observations from James, his father and grandfather, while some of it was the information they had managed to collect but none of it looked like it could have been used for a cure.

As Harry put that aside, he found the information his mother had collected on the Aspectus Commutatus• spell. He skimmed the first part as it listed the wand motions and incantations necessary for the two charms as well as the ingredients and directions for the potion. His heart sank as he read the information his mother had found on it. Not only did the hair of the donor whom the subject would look like need to be fresh, but the spell could not be recast on someone. The rest was a textbook style explanation of the theory behind the spell that he couldn't understand as it was way beyond anything he'd learned at school.

Not that it mattered. It couldn't be redone as he'd hoped despite his mother's comments. Unless one of his professors could modify it. Professor Flitwick could, potentially, do so in ways his mother might not have thought of. Or perhaps the key lay in the potion. Though he doubted Snape would be willing to research that possibility. Disheartened, he glanced at the last few paragraphs and saw that they were on how the spell would or could break down. It seemed like there was a lot of variation in how it did so depending on the subject. But they all seemed to have completely worn off fifteen and a half years after the casting of the spell.

*Anything new?* Zera hissed.

*Not really,* Harry replied as he restacked all the parchments as they'd been, except for the Aspectus Commutatus* one, and placed the stone back on top. It was best not to take any of the documents other than the explanation one out of the vault lest they ended up in the wrong hands. *Now what?*

*That table,* Zera decided, using her tail to indicate a small decorative living room piece upon which stood small trinkets.

*Okay,* Harry said and approached it.

Closest to him was a small wooden lion standing proud and tall with a large snake wrapped around its body from the left hind leg to its neck where the serpent held its head above the feline's mane. It appeared to be hand carved from a single block of wood and Harry couldn't help but marvel at the craftsmanship. The eyes were delicate, not to mention the serpent's forked tongue and fangs. He reached out and picked it up to get a closer look but dropped it in surprise when the statue moved and the lion roared.

"What in Merlin's name!" Harry exclaimed as he stepped back a pace, watching the lion that now lay on its side twist until it managed to right itself while the snake hissed and moved.

*What isss that?* Zera demanded, trying and failing to understand what the wooden snake was saying. Although it sounded similar to her language it merely mimicked the sound with none of the meaning.

*A statue that's been spelled to be animated,* Harry explained as he watched the lion pace back and forth while the snake continued to slither back and forth across its back. *I think the snake was made to sound like a snake by someone who can't speak Parseltongue.*

*Ah, ssso that'sss why it makesss no sssenssse?*

*Yes,* Harry agreed as he watched the snake briefly put its head on its companion's head before he raised it once more and both of them froze. *That's strange, it must be made to only move for a certain amount of time after being touched.*

Carefully, Harry reached out and picked up the statue once more, placing it on his left palm. The lion began to pace once more, taking two steps before turning and taking two steps in the opposite direction. It also began to purr loudly.

*It hasss been spelled not to walk off an edge,* Zera noted as she uncoiled herself enough from his neck to slither down his arm to get a better look.

*So it would seem,* Harry said as he watched the two wooden beings. *The choice of animals is interesting.*

*Gryffindor's lion and Slytherin's snake,* Zera stated. *Like your parents.*

*Exactly,* Harry said, placing the statue on the table and holding his arm still as his familiar completely uncoiled herself from is neck and glided onto the table. *Careful, some of the other items may be animated as well.*

*Okay.*

As Harry tried to decide what to look at next, a gleam of silver caught his eye. Figuring it was as good a place as any, he moved towards where it lay and saw that it was a necklace with a pendant. His first thought was that it was one of his mother's, but then he saw that the pendant was in the shape of coiled serpent. It had small green stones as eyes and its mouth was open, displaying tiny fangs. The necklace itself was also a thick chain, a bit more masculine than the necklaces his aunt always wore.

Could it have belonged to his father or James? He couldn't quite picture either of them wearing jewellery, but he had noticed a few of the male students wearing rings or necklaces. Perhaps in the Wizarding World it was more acceptable for males to wear jewellery than it was in the Muggle world? And if he had to pick a pendent for Snape, this would definitely be it.

*There'sss another piece of parchment here that sssmellsss like your mother,* Zera hissed from the other side of the table.

*Huh?* Harry replied before picking up the necklace and walking towards her. *Let's see.*

Upon reaching the little red snake, Harry saw that there were another note on the table. Putting the necklace down for Zera to see, Harry skimmed the parchment. As before, it listed a description of the various objects on the table, where they'd come from and their significance.

*Wow, Zera, that statue we saw, apparently Father made it himself.*

*Impressssssive. Did he animate it?*

*Yes. It says here that he made it as a graduation gift for mother.*

*What about thisss necklace?*

*Uh... just a second,* Harry said, looking for the information. *Ah, here. It was a gift Mother bought for Father's seventeenth birthday. She got it as she knew he was proud of his house and because it was something that he could wear without being questioned as it is the type of jewellery a Slytherin would wear. She says that he loved it and hardly ever took it off.*

*Then why isss it here?*

*I don't know. He must have taken it off before going to Rowena's Glade or else it wouldn't be here,* Harry reasoned as he picked up the necklace once more. It was a beautiful piece. On impulse he put it on.

*It looksss nice on you.*

*Thanks. Just help remind me to hide it before we get back to Privet Drive or Aunt Petunia will have a fit.*

*Why?*

*She considers it abnormal for men to wear jewellery.*

*I ssshall remind you then,* Zera declared, her tone indicating her disapproval of his relatives. *Doesss the parchment sssay what the panther ssstatue is for?*

*Panther statue?*

*There'sss one on the table.*

*Ah, um, it says that it was a present to Mum from Severus for her birthday as it is her favourite animal.*

Harry continued to read the list, stopping occasionally to locate the objects mentioned. When he was done, he decided to put the lion-snake statue along with two other mementos with the stuff he was going to take home, even though he was sorely tempted to include all of the other items as well. However, the size of the bag aside, he'd have a hard time keeping too much stuff hidden or explaining it away if someone else accidentally found it.

That done, Harry picked up Zera before approaching a chair that had two large stacks of parchment on it. When he got close to it, he saw that while some of the parchment seemed to be loose, two of the large stacks were actually bound together with thick string. Collecting the various loose pages together to see what the larger volumes were, he noticed that one of the parchments contained the information on the concealing charms his parents had used to hide their wedding rings.

Harry put the parchments aside and looked at the two stacks in surprise. They were books, or at least early versions of them, not yet a finished product as they had neither a hard cover nor nice binding. But what stunned the young wizard the most was the fact that his father, Severus Snape, was listed as the author of both books!

*Father wrote books,* Harry whispered in shock.

*Like the onesss you ussse to do your night work?* Zera asked.

*My homework?* Harry questioned as he looked at the titles.

The first was titled "Brewing Potions: A Student's Guide" and was clearly intended to be a textbook to be used at Hogwarts and other magical schools. The second was different, it was titled "A Thesis on the Unexpected and Inexplicable Boilings and Flashpoints of Iruen Potions" and seemed to be aimed at a different audience altogether. Whereas the first book had a cauldron, a knife, potions ingredients and flasks with coloured potions on it, the second one had an archaic drawing of a cauldron and a bundle of monkshood, silverwillow and lavender in the foreground with a wand trailing sparks over it in the background all encircled by a wreath made up of hemlock and nightshade intertwined. He didn't need to be a great potions student to know that those ingredients were common ones in the more deadly potions and poisons. He shivered and wondered why his father had chosen that to be the cover of this book.

*Yesss.*

*One of them is, the other one looks to be some other type of book,* Harry said as he picked up the second homebound book and flipped through it.

The table of contents immediately confirmed his suspicions of the book being intended for an older audience than students. Most of the words he didn't even recognize, much less understand or even be able to pronounce. It looked highly specialized and theoretical. At the bottom of the page, written in ballpoint pen on a yellow sticky paper was a note in his mother's handwriting.

Sev,

As I told you, I don't think I was truly able to do more than catch spelling mistakes or grammatical errors for this book. I did make notes where I felt that something was a little confusing, but it may simply be my lack of knowledge in the subject. What I was able to follow sounded very intriguing.

Mieta

"Huh," Harry said as he paged through the volume.

As stated in the note, various sticky notes were stuck throughout the book. Putting down the book and picking up the textbook, he found that his mother had gone through it and made comments there too. Only here they seemed to be about the material as well as spelling and grammatical corrections. As he stopped to read a section, Harry was surprised to find that not only did he understand what it said, but it was well written so that he only had to read it once to know the material instead of the forty-five minutes he sometimes needed to comprehend what his current potions book said. Looking further, he noticed that while the material at the start of the book covered first year information, there was also stuff from the other years in the book. It looked to be a reference book that could be used up through the Potions O.W.L.s.

If everything was like what he'd read, he really could have used this book the past four years! So why hadn't this book been on their required or suggested textbook lists? Hadn't his father published it? Harry put the book down and looked at the parchments he'd put aside and found another note from his mother.

Harry, dear,

These are two books your father wrote. He gave them to me to go over before he approached an editor. As you can see, I never got them back to him before he died. Due to the secrecy of my position, I was unable to get them published for him with the necessary corrections, though I would have loved to do so. If your father is dead, could you see if someone, perhaps your potions professor, is willing to go through them and update the books so that they can be published? It would have meant a lot to your father and I would like to give them a chance. I think they could make an impact, especially the textbook as I always found our potions books to be lacking.

Your mother,
Lily

*What isss it?* Zera asked as Harry snorted.

*Mother wants me to see if my potions professor is willing to go through these books and get them ready for publishing!*

*Well, perhapsss he'll be interesssted.*

*If he hasn't already published them.*

*True,* Zera agreed as he picked up the books and parchments and placed them next to his bag and hat.

Harry stopped to look at some of the other mementos as he collected everything he'd decided to take and put it on the floor next to his bag. As he did so, he couldn't resist adding a few more items to his collection, much to the curiosity of his parents who watched from their wedding photo. Carefully he packed the bag after taking out the makeup kit first. He was just finishing up when his stomach growled, loudly.

*What time isss it?* Zera enquired.

*I have no idea,* Harry replied, suddenly ravenous now that he was reminded of his earlier hunger. *Several hours must have passed at least. Let me look around a little longer and then we shall go.*

*Can we eat then?*

*Yes, and I'll buy some stuff for you so that you can eat whenever you want to.*

*Thanksss,* Zera replied as she shifted into a more comfortable position around his neck.

Harry quickly walked around the vault again, looking at some of the items he hadn't seen yet, but now that he was aware of his hunger, it gnawed at him. In a corner he spotted the chess set he'd seen in the pensieve and discovered that it was one that James had given to Snape. He longed to take it but knew that he couldn't. When he was finished looking around, he returned to the bag and rolled up his right sleeve.

*It's probably best that you stay out of sight for a while. I'm not sure what the goblins would think of you or if I'm even allowed to bring you in here.*

*Very well. Wake me when I can come out once more.*

*I'll do that,* Harry promised and waited until she was securely around his arm before pulling the sleeve back into place.

He then put on his hat and picked up the bag. At the vault entrance he stopped and turned, looking back at the room and to smile at the waving photo of his parents before he stepped over the threshold. Carefully closing and locking the vault behind him, Harry walked towards the tracks and whistled.

Chapter Text

As he waited for a goblin to come with a cart, Harry opened the make-up kit and reapplied the toner so that his scar was once more hidden from sight. He was just adjusting his hat when the screeching of metal on metal could be heard and a cart appeared around a bend in the track, coming to a stop in front of him in a shower of sparks. Jumping back a little in surprise, Harry scowled.

"Mr. Potter?" the goblin questioned, ignoring his mood.

"Yes."

"You still wish to visit your personal vault, yes?"

"That's right," Harry said as he climbed into the cart and grabbed hold of the seat as it sped off before he was fully seated.

They took off in the same direction they had arrived from earlier, confirming Harry's suspicions that his mother's vault was deeper than he'd ever been despite being lower in number than the one Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel had used to temporarily store the philosopher's stone just before his first year. As they zipped along, a distant but very familiar roar echoed through the tunnels. Whipping his head around, Harry caught a glimpse of a large, scaly, jet-black tail with prominent ridges. It reminded him of the fact that Gringotts was fabled to use dragons to help protect their vaults. The one he'd just heard had sounded a little like Norbert had, and the tail had been like an enlarged version of the baby's, which made him wonder if it had been a Norwegian Ridgeback.

The thought left Harry's mind as they whipped around several more bends, rising all the while, before the cart started to slow down. When they reached his vault, he allowed the goblin to open the door as he pulled out his pouch. He'd decided ahead of time to get as much money as reasonably possible because if the way things were going was any indication, he wouldn't be allowed to return anytime soon. Quickly he scooped up the Galleons, Sickles and Knuts until his pouch could hold no more. Satisfied, he closed the vault and returned to the cart as the goblin locked it.

The ride back was uneventful and Harry soon found himself back where he'd started an unknown number of hours earlier.

"Thank you," Harry said as he got out of the cart.

"You're welcome," the goblin replied, seemingly startled at being acknowledged.

Harry walked back up the sloping and narrow stone passageway to the marble entrance hall of the bank. Quickly he looked around to see if there were any signs indicating where he needed to go to convert some of his money to pounds, but failed to find any. With a sigh, he approached a goblin at the counter who didn't seem to be doing anything.

"What can I help you with, Sir?" the goblin enquired as he peered down at him.

"I'd like to convert some money to pounds," Harry replied.

"How much?"

"Uh, what's the exchange rate?"

"Five pounds and twelve pence for every Galleon•."

"Wow," Harry said, he hadn't realized that Wizard money was worth so much. "I'd like to convert twenty-five Galleons, please."

This way he'd be able to pay for a cab if necessary and have money left over should he ever need it. Quickly, he opened his pouch and pulled out the golden coins as the goblin went to get the Muggle money. When the goblin returned, he quickly checked the money Harry had given him before handing over the notes and coins he'd fetched.

"Is there anything else you require?"

"No, thanks," Harry responded as he put away the money and put the pouch in his bag.

As he slung the bag over his shoulder, Harry turned around and walked towards the exit of the bank, looking up at the large clock that hung above the double doors. He stopped in shock as he saw that it was already quarter of five. No wonder he was hungry, it was nearly supper time! Knowing that the shops he wanted to visit wouldn't be open for much longer, he rushed outside and then paused. He wanted to go to Flourish & Blotts to buy some red ink to use in "A Prankster's Guide to Hogwarts," but he also needed to buy a supply of food for both himself and Zera so that they wouldn't be hungry all the time. He could get his supper at the Leaky Cauldron, although after his earlier scare he didn't really want to go back there. But he didn't really fancy going to a Muggle restaurant either, not the way he was dressed.

Besides, though he had converted a decent sum of money into pounds, he knew the ride home was going to cost him. Cabbies were known to be expensive and the trip was by no means short, so that left him in need of another magical place to eat and a pet shop that would sell snake food. He didn't know of any place in Diagon Alley that met either requirement and he wasn't even going to consider trying Knockturn Alley, his earlier encounter with Lucius Malfoy having shown him how dangerous this trip was. So he had to try one of the other alleys. Quickly Harry racked his brain for anything he had heard about them. Hermione had once mentioned that there was a really good bookstore in Edgucayshun• Alley. But that didn't really help at the present. Yet he didn't think that anyone else...

Fred and George! Harry suddenly straightened, unaware that his shoulders had sagged in defeat. The twins had once mentioned stumbling across a hidden alley while trying to blend into the shadows when playing a prank on a classmate they'd happened to encounter during their shopping one year. Apparently the entrance was concealed by an illusion of a wall. Mystic Alley they'd said it was called. It was a cobblestone alley with mostly shops and stores that carried unusual items, even by wizarding standards. Why the owners would want to have a shop in a hidden, out-of-the-way location, though, was beyond him.

The identical Weasleys had found a number of good stores there, including a good bookstore and an Apothecary that provided them with invaluable material for their pranks. But, more importantly, they'd also told him that it had a terrific restaurant that served 'the best bloody rabbit' they'd ever had. And an alley that sold unconventional wares was more likely to have snake supplies than the regular menageries considering the intense bias against the reptiles that existed in the Wizarding World.

Now, where did the twins say the entrance to Mystic Alley was located again? Harry bit his lip as he thought. The two had been a little rushed in telling their story as they didn't want Ron to overhear them as it was their secret. But since he was their silent investor, they'd told him anyway. They'd mentioned spotting Angelina Johnson as she left Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour and they'd followed her down the alley away from the Leaky Cauldron towards Knockturn Alley, but had they gone beyond it?

Unable to recall, Harry glanced at the alley across from where he was standing before looking towards the Leaky Cauldron. He couldn't remember passing a wall on the way, the stores were packed closest together just next to the pub as it was the main entrance to London's magical district. He decided to try his luck in the other direction first, paying special attention to both sides of the alley as he went. He'd just passed Ollivander's when he spotted it. There, between Just In Time, the strangest clock store Harry had ever seen, and Blin-Bling's Jewels was a dilapidated looking stone wall overgrown with a sickly looking ivy that was set a little bit back from the two buildings on either side. The placement caused the wall to be cast in shadow except when the sun was able to shine on it from in between the elaborately decorated roofs of the stores across from it - which probably wasn't for more than an hour or two every evening. He really did get lucky sometimes.

As he stepped up to the wall, Harry discretely looked around to ensure that no one was watching before he took a deep breath and stepped forwards. Despite having walked through the barrier at King's Cross multiple times, he couldn't help but close his eyes. It wasn't that he didn't trust the twins (after all what amusement could they get from him smashing into a wall, especially when they weren't there to see it?), but what had happened to him due to Dobby's bungled attempts to prevent his return to Hogwarts at the start of his second year was still all too fresh in his memory.

The thought instantly left Harry's mind as he suddenly encountered a seemingly sticky liquid-like substance that at once sucked him in further and seemed to want to push him back out. Suppressing the urge to cry out in surprise lest he inhale the stuff, he started to struggle instead, but the substance only seemed to cling to him more the harder he fought. Then, an eternal second later, it disappeared from in front of him and he stumbled forwards, falling to his hands and knees as he sucked in a huge lungful of fresh air.

Finally opening his eyes, Harry caught sight of the cobblestones before him even as the world suddenly came rushing back to him and he became aware of Zera shifting restlessly on his arm and the sound of laughter from his left.

"First time through the wall, eh?" a chuckling, feminine voice with a lilting accent demanded.

Slowly, Harry turned his head and looked up at the witch who'd addressed him. She was a tall, ageless woman with long orange-brown hair that flowed around her in soft curls. Her eyes were a golden brown and seemed to be able to look right through him with only a glance, making him unable to hold her gaze.

"What the bloody hell was that?" Harry finally demanded, bringing his hand up to his right arm, trying to reassure his familiar.

"The wall?" the witch asked innocently as she leaned back in her chair and returned her ethereal gaze to the plants she was weaving into a wreath. "It's some of the eldest of remembered magicks. An ancient protection spell no one knows anymore," she paused deliberately, glancing up directly into Harry's eyes. "At least not that they'll admit to the Ministry."

Uncomfortable under the penetrating gaze (could she read his mind like some of the Muggle science-fiction stories he'd read at his elementary school library?), Harry looked down instead and brushed the dirt from his trousers as he stood up. He didn't doubt from the way she'd answered him that she knew of the magic used to create the wall, though she hadn't admitted it in any kind of way that could get her into trouble.

"Why not?" he asked as he looked past her to the store window before which she sat.

Corinne Morgana's Quality Apothecary, the gold lettering read. So this must be the shop Fred and George had mentioned. He could already see that it was different from the other apothecaries he'd seen. Various plants and flowers hung upside down to dry along the upper edge of the window and there were large baskets of what looked like fresh and dried ingredients standing about in addition to the usual shelves with all manner of clear and coloured jars and vials filled with the potions ingredients he was familiar with and a stunning array of ones he wasn't. Unlike the other apothecaries, it was well lit, though parts of the back were shrouded in darkness, probably for the light sensitive items. All together, it gave the shop a more appealing atmosphere and was the first apothecary that he wouldn't mind entering.

"Because they don't know it," the witch, whom Harry assumed was Corinne Morgana, replied, drawing his attention back to her - though he was careful to avoid her face, lest she look up again.

She was wearing a white, off-the-shoulder dress with sleeves that came to her elbows. On top of it she wore a velvet corseted vest and skirt, the top part of which was brown and laced up from under her bosom to her waist, while the lower part of it was purple and hung to what seemed to be her knees, though it wasn't uniform in length. Around her neck hung a silver chain with a mother-of-pearl crescent moon pendent. Altogether, she looked to be straight from the set of an old movie, where she'd been cast as a tavern wench.

She didn't sound like them, though. Harry frowned briefly as he tried to place the accent. It wasn't like anything he'd ever heard and between the different accents spoken at school and those of the visiting students last year, he'd heard a lot of different ones.

"And what they don't know they consider Dark and Evil."

"Is it?" Harry asked before he could stop himself.

Inwardly he cursed as Corinne looked up at him again, seemingly assessing something. Her fingers, however, continued weaving the plants she held as if nothing had happened. It was with a start that Harry realized that the plants were hemlock and nightshade, the same two potions ingredients that the wreath on the cover of one of Severus' books had contained.

"Ah, you recognize the Potions Guild's wreath, do you?" Corinne commented, noticing where his attention had gone.

"Potions Guild?" Harry demanded, wondering if she'd deliberately changed the subject.

"The organization responsible for certifying Potions Masters and ensuring quality potions. It's an old tradition that goes back well over a millennia. It was the way the different forms of magic were passed on before there were schools devoted to teaching youngsters magic. A master would take on an apprentice and teach him, or her, everything they knew."

"Oh," Harry said, he'd never really thought about the topic.

"Haven't you ever wondered why one of your professors is given the title of 'Master' while none of the others are?" Corinne demanded, selecting another sprig of nightshade from a basket beside her.

"Eh... no?"

"Not even once?" Corinne replied in disbelief as she looked up before rolling her eyes and shaking her head. "Arianhrod save me from ignorant whelps!"

"Hey!" Harry protested.

"It's true. The fact that you never once stopped to consider why Severus would have the title Potions Master while Headmaster Dumbledore, widely believed to be the foremost expert on Transfiguration, doesn't have the title of Transfiguration Master proves it."

"It's not my fault that I was raised in the Muggle world," Harry retorted.

"Muggleborn, are ye?" Corinne questioned, surprised, her accent thickening slightly as she looked up.

"No," Harry replied defensively, eyes narrowing. "I was simply raised by Muggle relatives."

"Oh don't give me that look," Corinne stated. "I was simply surprised. Mystic Alley isn't well known and people don't normally stumble upon it. Ye need to be told."

"Oh," Harry said, knowing it sounded lame.

He was so used to comments on Muggle heritage being derogatory that he hadn't even considered that there might be another reason for her question.

"I'm going to assume that you were told."

"Yes, but my friends stumbled through the wall by accident. They were pressing themselves against it and fell through."

"It happens occasionally, though not often. The ancient magicks are a bit temperamental, they can have a mind of their own, though they can't go against the reason they were cast. And they tend to favour their caster."

"But I thought magic was just a... an inanimate... thing that witches and wizards could manipulate."

"Goodness, no!" Corinne exclaimed, looking up again. "Although that does seem to be what is commonly believed and taught these days. I find that ironic considering that Hogwarts is so full of magical quirks that are difficult to explain with that belief.

"Magic is so much more than a mere tool that witches and wizards can utilise. It is a force far older and far more powerful than most realize as so much has been lost over the centuries and even millennia. Regardless of what they make you believe in school, knowledge of magic has been decreasing over the years and not the opposite. So much has been lost. And, instead of acknowledging this and attempting to recover what little they can, the Ministry classifies it as Dark and makes it illegal because they don't understand it and fear its power, especially at the hands of someone who does understand it and can wield it."

"But why?" Harry demanded, fascinated.

"Because they fear it," Corinne paused. "And because those most known for using it have had their reputations tarnished like Lord Salazar Slytherin."

"But he was against Muggleborns!"

"Yes, but he had a good reason for it, one that has been conveniently forgotten. You see, Salazar's parents and younger sister were burned at the stake for being what they were by Muggles, while his wife was betrayed to his enemies by a Muggleborn."

"Oh," Harry said, absently aware that he was starting to sound like a broken record.

Betrayal he could understand. It was what had ripped his family apart, one way or another. Revenge was also something he could empathize with; he wanted nothing more than to get his hands on Peter Pettigrew. But to generalize that hatred to a whole group of people, just because of the actions of a few?

"That doesn't make it right to have it in for all Muggleborns though."

"No, but what you must understand is that those were different times. Muggles were zealous in their pursuit of witches and wizards. While it is true that in the majority of cases they only ended up killing other Muggles, they did get your kind too."

"But that's not a reason to kill them!" Harry declared. "That would only serve to make him no better than those he despises."

"Ah, but Lord Salazar didn't advocate killing Muggles and Muggleborns. He just wanted to refuse them admittance to Hogwarts and the Wizarding World. It was his belief that if we cut off all interaction between our two worlds that the bloodshed could be avoided."

"That's not what I've been told."

"Ah, and who told you that? What is the source of their information? Do they have an authentic old document or book dating back to Lord Salazar's time or shortly thereafter? Or is their source some Ministry sanctioned document that has been so thoroughly cleaned and edited that its original form and wording has been hopelessly lost even to the Department of Documents & Records?"

"I... I don't know," Harry admitted, cocking his head. "What's your source?"

"Touché," Corinne laughed, her accent making the word sound musical. "Very good. My source is an ancient tome, a biography of Lord Slytherin's life by one of his contemporaries. One whom was neutral in the strife and discord of the time. He is in parts critical and in parts praising of his subject's life, experiences and accomplishments."

"I see," was all Harry could reply.

"Just remember to be critical of what you read and learn. Don't simply accept it at face value."

"I'll consider it," Harry stated, wondering if he should apply the same advice to what he'd learned from this conversation.

"That's the best place to start," Corinne declared, a mysterious smile on her face as she looked at him.

Harry had the strangest feeling that she knew exactly what he'd been thinking, but that was ridiculous, wasn't it? Surely he'd have heard if wizards possessed the ability to read people's minds. Though he could see why the professors and the Ministry wouldn't want students to know about that talent if it existed.

Hmm. Maybe this encounter had affected him more than he currently realized.

The young wizard was startled from his thoughts when the torch next to the entrance of the apothecary blazed to life without any warning. Stepping back automatically, he whirled around as the crackling of a fire behind him caught his attention. On the other side of the alley, next to the entrance of a closed shop that appeared to sell antiques, was another torch burning away merrily.

The dancing shadows to his left drew his attention to another torch further down on the alley side, and beyond it another and another, each interspersed equally on both sides along the way. Now that his attention was finally on the alley itself, Harry could hardly draw his eyes away from it. Signs hung above doors of shops, alerting customers to their names and providing clues as to what could be found within. Creeping up the sides of the stores and around the torches were several vines with dark purple, yellow and red flowers. The glow of the fires, the gentle aroma of the flowers, and the darkening sky gave the scene a surreal feel to it.

Harry stared at the alley in amazement. It was unlike anything he'd ever seen in England before. In fact it looked more like the photos one of his geography teachers in elementary school had shown of the south of France, though the façades of the buildings looked similar to those of Diagon Alley, with their stepped roofs and decorated window ledges.

"The alley is protected with weather charms to both block out the rain and keep in the heat, hence allowing the growth of more tropical vines," Corinne explained as she got to her feet.

"I was told that there was a good restaurant, a pet shop for rare animals and a food store here somewhere."

"Yes. Chez Louis, where you can eat and buy food, is just a little ways down along the right side of the plaza you will come to, while Berkhal's store is about three shops past the plaza. I'd suggest you go to Berkhal's first seeing as he closes in just over forty-five minutes."

"Thank you," Harry said, noting how different the French word sounded coming off her tongue.

"You're welcome. And remember what I told you. Now run along, and stop by the next time you're here."

"I will," Harry promised, knowing that he definitely wanted to learn more about the intriguing witch, when another thought crossed his mind. "Though it might be a while before I can make it back here."

"That wouldn't have anything to do with yer disguise, now would it?" Corinne asked innocently before she laughed at the boy's panicked expression. "Oh don't worry, I won't tell anyone. I wouldn't know who to tell anyway seeing as I don't know who you are, just that you're wearing a wig and have made an effort to hide the contours of your face as well."

"Uh, thanks, I think," Harry said.

Corinne laughed as she made shooing gestures with her hands. "Away with ye."

Not knowing what else to say, Harry simply nodded and smiled before walking away down the alley. Soon enough he could make out an intricately carved white fountain bubbling water ahead of him in the middle of the alley. As he got closer he saw that he'd reached the plaza Corinne had mentioned as the buildings were suddenly much further back, creating a large square with benches around the fountain and potted plants. To the right there were tables of various sizes outside of a restaurant. The flower perfume in the air was quickly overpowered by the rich aromas emanating from the establishment.

Zera began to shift along his arm as his own mouth began to water and his stomach growl. Merlin, he was starving! So much for his former ability to survive on small amounts of food, though then he wasn't growing as much as he was now. Or, at least, not as fast.

First things first, he needed to get Zera her food so that she'd have enough for the rest of the summer at the very least. After that he was sure she could hunt on her own or he could get Dobby to bring her whatever she needed. Forcing his head to turn back to where he needed to go, Harry approached the fountain. The carvings he'd noticed earlier turned out to be of several different magical creatures, including a unicorn from whose horn water sprouted and a kappa peeking out from the waterline with drips of water running down its head, making it look as if the monkey-like creature had only just popped its head up. As he walked around it, he noticed that there was also a phoenix on the verge of taking flight, water trickling from its eyes and shooting from its beak. Twined around the centre of the fountain with its head poised to strike was a basilisk whose fangs slowly, lazily, dripped water while more liquid languidly gurgled from its mouth. Interspersed among them were tiny fairies, some of which had small arches of water emitting from their fingers.

Finally, as he reached the far side of the fountain, a baby dragon came into view. His first thought was of Norbert again, but it didn't seem to him to be a Norwegian Ridgeback. It had small ridges along its back, rough and pointed scales with a spiky tail and small tufts of hair at each of its four clawed feet. Its two wings were folded back and looked very small, though that could easily have been due to its age. What caught Harry's attention most of all, however, was the fact that all of the creatures occasionally moved. Not so much as to make it kitsch, but just enough to make it exotic, at least for someone with his upbringing.

Harry walked backwards so he could admire the fountain for a little longer before he turned around as he reached the opposite end of the plaza. Instead of going straight as before, the alley from here started to wind along. Wondering if he'd just forgotten which side the pet store was supposed to be on or whether Corinne had simply forgotten to tell him, he glanced at both sides and stopped when he saw a window with tanks just inside of it, each of them was filled with a small reptile or insect. Well, at least he knew this shop specialized in unusual animals, as he hadn't seen tarantulas in the Diagon Alley menageries.

As he approached the entrance, his eyes slid along the alley's side to the next few stores. Two shops further on was one called Parchments, Pearl Inks & Crest Waxes. It was with a start that Harry remembered that he needed to buy red ink for his contributions to the prank book. Though he wasn't sure what pearl ink was, it was probably a good bet that they'd have regular ink as well.

"Hello, looking for something in particular or just browsing?" an elderly man enquired as Harry entered the pet store.

"Yes, uh, I mean, I'm looking for snake supplies," Harry replied nervously. "If you carry any."

"That depends on what type of snake you have," the man responded without even a moment's hesitation.

"Milk snake," Harry said, blinking at how unfazed the wizard was. Somehow he'd expected a more... prejudiced answer.

"Milk snake, that would be a Lampropeltis as well as a type of kingsnake. Right this way, Sir. I have a number of items your little friend might like."

The man led Harry down the second aisle from the entrance. He stopped in front of a section a quarter of the way from the end. The shelves there contained a number of boxes with moving snake pictures on them which hissed nonsense words. Zera obviously heard it from her position on his arm and he brought his other arm to rest on top of her as she started to shift, managing to make it look like he was simply scratching an itch.

"These jars contain shrunken prey animals, such as mice, frogs, birds and lizards. This way you can select your snake's favourite prey."

"Prey animals?" Harry repeated weakly.

It was one thing to let Zera outside to hunt or to provide her with eggs, but it was something altogether different to place a helpless animal in front of her so that she could kill it.

"Don't worry," the wizard chuckled. "The manufacturers anticipated that some people wouldn't want to feed their pets live animals, so these prey animals aren't alive. They're snake food made into different forms and animated to act like real animals so the snakes can still hunt their prey. Much in the same way chocolate frogs leap about like real frogs."

"That's clever," Harry commented, remembering how Zera had mentioned preferring to capture her own food instead of being given it.

"It keeps both pet and owner happy. Not to mention that each is a well balanced meal, ensuring that the snake gets all that it needs in each meal to keep it healthy and shiny. All you need to provide in addition is water. Well, for grown animals anyway. Is your snake fully grown?"

"No, she's yet to reach her full-length."

"In that case you'll need to supplement her diet with this," the man said as he pulled a jar filled with an amber liquid from another shelf. "You can either add some of it to her water or dip the prey animals into it before releasing them."

"Okay," Harry said, taking the jar. "How long will this last?"

"There's enough in there to last you for two to three months depending on how often you feed her."

"Does it keep?"

"Yes, the jar's been charmed to preserve its contents until it's opened. After that it should last for six months before you have to throw it out. But trust me, you'll know when it goes bad as it will start to reek. Not that it smells pleasant to begin with, for humans anyway. Apparently snakes like its scent."

"And how do I enlarge the prey animals?" Harry asked as he tried to remember everything he was being told.

"They'll do so automatically when removed from the jar, so don't spill it as they'll all enlarge and become animated. There's one other thing that you might be interested in," the man continued as he grabbed a clear plastic bag of what looked like owl treats, only smaller. "These are snake treats, think of it like snake candy."

"Will she eat it? It doesn't look like prey."

"Oh, trust me, these things don't need to. They are attractive enough without needing further enticement. Though, remember, it's like candy so your milk snake shouldn't get too many of them at once. I'd keep it to two, three at most, in one day."

"Thank you, Sir."

"No problem. I'll be up front when you've made your selections."

The moment the man had walked away, Harry brought his arm up and uncovered Zera's head.

*What happened before you fell earlier? It wasss mossst unpleasssant.*

*That's a long story, I'll tell you about it later, okay? Though we'll have to do it again before we get home.*

*Okay. What'sss that hissssssing?* Zera questioned.

*The boxes of the snake food,* Harry replied, pointing to them.

*I sssee.*

*The food is charmed to act like real animals. What would you rather have mice, frogs, lizards, salamanders, small birds, bird eggs, fish or, ew, baby snakes?* Harry asked, wrinkling his nose at the thought of her eating other snakes.

*How many can I choossse?*

*Let's see, there are fourteen per jar and it says to eat one a day and we have about three weeks until school starts, so we need two of them.*

*Mice and sssalamandersss pleassse.*

*Okay,* Harry replied, covering her up before he grabbed the boxes along with a jar of supplements and three bags of treats.

He brought them to the counter and paid, gladly accepting a bag so that the jar couldn't break and spill all over his mother's mementoes.

"If you want any additional supplies during the school year, just send your order and a Gringotts draft via owl. Here's a list of snake related items with their prices and instructions," the owner said as he slipped a role of parchment into the bag.

"Thank you," Harry said before he left the store and hurried over to the ink store, relieved to see that it was still open.

Not seeing anyone as he entered, Harry wandered over to a rack that contained ink wells. Looking them over, he noticed that all the colours had a peculiar sheen to them. Frowning, he peered closer at them.

"Pearl ink," a voice behind him stated curtly, causing him to jump in surprise. "Far beyond your price range, I'm sure."

Harry turned around and found himself confronted with a witch who seemed to be some weird cross between Professor McGonagall and Rita Skeeter. It was something he would gladly have gone without seeing. She had her dyed blond hair pulled back into a severe bun and wore robes with strict lines and no unnecessary ruffles or ornaments. The colour, however, was a ghastly orange that clashed horrendously with the bright blue shoes and earrings she wore. At the moment she stood completely straight so that she could peer down at him from the two inches height she had over him. Her nose was scrunched up as if smelling something foul.

For a moment Harry was affronted until he remembered the clothing he was currently sporting. It was actually only good fortune that he hadn't come across more of such attitude.

"Do you have any red ink?"

"What brand are you looking for?" the woman questioned haughtily.

"Uh, nothing in particular, just so long as it writes on parchment. It's for school."

"Oh. The cheap brands are in the back over there," she pointed at a dark corner.

Purposefully forgetting to thank her, Harry hurried over and glanced at the selection. Finding some wells that sported a familiar looking logo, he glanced about, finding green and blue ink right away, before he found the red tucked in behind the brown ink. There weren't very many red wells, but he figured that it probably wasn't commonly used - except by professors. Especially ones like Snape who loved to write nasty and derogatory comments all over students' work.

Harry froze at the thought before shaking it off. Regardless of what else Snape might be, he was an utter bastard to non-Slytherin students. Quickly, he grabbed a second well and brought them to the counter where the witch was watching him like a hawk. She sneered as he paid her and left.

Outside, he put the ink wells into the same bag as Zera's food, carefully tying it before placing it into the bag he'd brought with him. He then walked back towards the plaza. As he passed the fountain on the opposite side he saw that there was also a chimaera sculpture in it which spouted a large stream of water from its roaring mouth.

Just as he reached the restaurant's tables, a young waiter seemed to appear out of thin air beside him.

"Bonjour Monsieur, can I 'elp you?" the boy enquired in a heavily accented voice.

"I'd like to eat here," Harry said, recognizing the accent as the same one the Beauxbatons students had possessed and wondered if he was still a student there.

"Just for you or are you expeczing company?"

"Just for me."

"Right zis way, monsieur," the waiter said as he walked past several empty tables that were set for four or five.

Harry ignored the looks he received from some of the other diners as the waiter led him to a slightly more secluded table set for two. At first he thought the man was trying to hide him from the other customers before he realized that all the tables set for two were set off a little from the rest. Probably to give couples some privacy. It was just as well as this meant that he'd be able to feed Zera.

"Here is ze menu," the waiter said as he handed him a thin brown leather booklet as soon as he'd seated himself. "I shall be back shortly to zake your order."

As soon as he opened the menu, Harry frowned as everything was written in a foreign language, probably French. Then the letters seemed to swim before his eyes briefly before they came into focus once more, only now everything was written in English. Smiling at the handiness of magic, he quickly scanned the options. Knowing that Zera wouldn't want to eat anything cooked, he looked for an appetizer that might contain raw meat. The best he could find was a dish with smoked ham and melon. It would have to do for now until they got home as he didn't want to test just how life-like the mice and salamanders turned out to be here.

It only took Harry a moment to find the rabbit the twins had mentioned among the main course meat dishes and he decided to take that, even though it was a bit pricy. Today he could afford to pamper himself a little. He was just looking over the drinks when the waiter returned.

"Are you finding everyzing?" the boy asked.

"Yes. I'd like to have the parma ham and melon first followed by the rabbit."

"And to drink?"

"The white grape and peach juice mix," Harry replied, deciding to be daring. "And a glass of sparkling water, please."

"I'll be right back with ze drinks," the waiter stated as he took the menu and left.

As he waited for the drinks and food to arrive, Harry leaned back in his chair and relaxed. He glanced around the plaza lazily and, upon catching sight of a clock on one of the bigger buildings, he was surprised to find that it was only half six. He'd spent less time talking to Corinne than he'd thought.

When the food came, he coaxed Zera into eating a portion of the ham before he rapidly devoured the rest himself. The rabbit was as good as the twins had claimed, though at the end of it he found that he still had enough room for a dessert and quickly ordered a dame blanche as it sounded good. It was with a contented stomach that Harry asked for the bill. As he waited he glanced around the plaza again and his gaze fell on the clock. Blinking in surprise, he stared at it for a moment. Instead of giving him the time as it had earlier, the hands now simply pointed to 'Time to buy food.'

How did it know that he needed to get himself food to make it through the rest of the summer? It couldn't be that everyone present needed to buy food now. Harry was distracted from his thoughts as the waiter returned with his bill.

"'ere you go," the young man said.

"Thanks," Harry replied, glancing over it quickly before pulling the necessary coins from his pouch. "Do you know where I can buy some food?"

"Yez, you can do so 'ere. Just go inside and up ze stairs."

"Thank you," Harry said as he gathered his bags.

Once above the restaurant, Harry was confronted with several large buffet style tables covered with packages of prepared food. Unlike their Muggle counterparts, however, the meals seemed to be fully prepared and smaller than they should be. Figuring that they were probably shrunk like Zera's food, Harry wandered along the tables, selecting the dishes he wanted. All together he found ten that he wanted to try. Carrying them to where a girl dressed like the waiter stood waiting, he placed them on the counter.

"How do I prepare them?"

"All you need to do is open the packaging to end the stasis spell cast upon them," the girl informed him. "It'll also activate the expanding and heating charms so it's best to place the dish on a table first. Would you like a bag?"

"Yes, please," Harry replied even as he wondered how in Merlin's name he was going to get the food into his bag as it was bulging already.

As it turned out, he needn't have bothered worrying as the girl pulled out a really small bag, hardly big enough to hold one of the containers, let alone ten. Yet, somehow, she managed to get them all in there without any trouble at all. Oh how he loved magic!

"That's twenty-four Galleons and seven Sickles."

Harry counted out the money before placing the small bag into his pocket and heading on his way. As he exited the restaurant, he refused to look up at the clock again and simply made his way back down the alley. When he made it to the wall hiding the entrance to Mystic Alley the apothecary was closed, though the light peeking between the curtains of one of the windows above the shop indicated where its mysterious owner might be.

With a deep breath and a hissed warning to his familiar, the Boy-Who-Lived stepped through the wall. He stumbled out the other side but managed to remain on his feet this time around. Drawing himself up straight, he hurriedly made his way back towards the Leaky Cauldron, being careful to avoid looking into the eyes of the people who rushed by him. He was especially careful as he passed the entrance to Knockturn Alley as he didn't want to run into any of its denizens who might feel safe enough to wander out under the cover of night.

It was weird to pass the darkened shops he'd only ever seen during the day when they bustled with activity. It was a relief when he made it through the archway and into the Leaky Cauldron which appeared, if anything, to be even busier than normal. He managed to bump into only two people as he crossed the room before he was out the door and standing in Muggle London once more.

"Now, to find a cabbie," Harry muttered to himself as he looked around.

When he didn't immediately see one, he headed down the street the way he'd come earlier. Soon, however, he was hopelessly lost, the dark successfully shrouding anything he might have recognized despite the pools of light created by the street lamps. Wandering around until he came to a more crowded area, Harry shifted the strap of his bag before walking towards where there seemed to be the greatest number of people.

As he walked, Harry glanced into the windows of the shops he passed, spotting the video game Dudley wanted along with several chemistry and biology books that would have Hermione in seventh heaven. As he reached a series of clothing boutiques, he amused himself by imaging people he knew in some of the outfits he saw. As he reached an intimate apparel store, he sped up a little not wanting to continue his game with the bizarre items he saw there. Who would want to wear something with that much lace anyway? What was the point of wearing something so transparent? As if that wasn't enough, even the regular pieces they carried were distorted. Like the brightly coloured socks that had a separate place for each toe.

It turned out to be a good idea to follow other people as he ended up on a busier road along which a few cabbies were parked. Making his way to the closest one, Harry opened the rear door and got in.

"Magnolia Crescent, Surrey, please," Harry said, knowing that if his aunt spotted him getting out of a cab there'd be hell to pay. It was a blessing in and of itself that the Dursleys had never questioned how he got his school supplies and he really didn't want to push his luck.

"That's going to cost you," the driver said as he turned in his seat.

"I can pay," Harry reassured the man as he pulled out the pounds he'd converted earlier and hoped he'd have enough.

With a grunt the driver took the money and peeled off the bills he needed before handing the rest back and starting the car. Settling into one of the seats facing the rear of the car, Harry watched the city pass by until the buildings began to get bigger as they neared the outskirts of the city. He must have fallen asleep as the next thing he knew, the driver was telling him to wake up as they'd just entered Surrey.

A yawn escaped his mouth as Harry did his best to stretch and flatten his hair.

"What number did you say it was?" the cabbie asked as he pulled onto Magnolia Crescent.

"Um, number two," Harry replied quickly, lips twitching at the irony. "Thank you," he continued as he got out when the car pulled to a stop.

Harry instinctively looked towards the pebbly wall next to the garage where he'd first seen the man he believed to be his godfather two years ago. Though at the time he hadn't known the Grim-like dog was James' best friend. Smiling, he turned around and headed towards Privet Drive, being careful to stay in the shadows as he passed by Wisteria Walk. It wouldn't do to get spotted by Mrs. Figg so close to the end of his forbidden journey.

It hadn't taken him long to figure out that her living but two streets from him and being part of Dumbledore's "old crowd" was too convenient to be a coincidence. No, she'd purposefully moved there, probably at the Headmaster's request. It was funny that he hadn't thought of it before the old wizard had asked his godfather to alert them. After all, if he hadn't believed that Voldemort wasn't completely gone, then he'd know that there was still danger and act accordingly.

Harry just wasn't sure if he should be peeved that he'd been watched over all of those years or not. How many times had he been at Mrs. Figg's house over the years while the Dursleys went off to do their own thing? He really thought that she could have at least prepared him for the Wizarding World. Perhaps not have shown him magic, but at least introduced him to some Wizarding customs. Nor did he get why she hadn't revealed herself after he'd attended his first year at Hogwarts. All those times he'd been over at her place then and all she'd done was talk about her cats while they could have talked about something interesting!

Once safely past Wisteria Walk, Harry stopped in the shadow of a tall tree and took off his hat so that he could remove his wig and the pins holding it in place. He scrunched it all up as small as possible before stuffing it in his remaining free pocket. Luckily, the trousers and shirt were so baggy that the slight bulge was practically unnoticeable. He then rubbed his forehead vigorously until he was sure his scar was visible once more before he looked himself over as best he could without digging out the mirror. He was just about to continue on his way when a glint of silver reminded him of his... father's necklace. He carefully concealed it under his shirt before he continued on his way and quickly reached Privet Drive. Standing just out of sight of the Dursley's home, he lifted his arm and made it look like he was scratching the back of his neck for the benefit of anyone who might be watching.

*Zera, you awake?*

*Yesss. Are we back?*

*I'm just about to enter. I wanted to warn you though as I doubt that they'll be very happy with me at the moment. Just stay where you are and please don't give yourself away.*

*They ssshouldn't be allowed to treat you like thisss,* Zera hissed angrily.

*I know, but I've got no choice, what with the wards and all.*

*You wanted me to remind you to hide your necklace.*

*Yes, I've done it, but thanks for remembering. Okay, here we go,* Harry declared, steeling himself before he walked up to the front of the house and up to the front door.

A failed attempt to open the door quickly confirmed Harry's suspicion that Aunt Petunia had already locked it for the night. Not that he could blame her as it was quite late. Sighing, he rang the doorbell and hoped that someone would actually come open it instead of leaving him outside for a few hours. It had happened before but he doubted that they'd do it so late at night as it would seem odd should he be spotted waiting on the doorstep when there were obviously people home. The sound of approaching footsteps confirmed his theory before the door was pulled open by an angry looking Uncle Vernon.

"There you are, pity you didn't manage to get yourself killed by some lowlife in London."

Harry ignored the remark as he slipped inside just before the door was slammed shut.

Vernon's eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the bulging bag his nephew carried. "Hand it over," he demanded, his face quickly turning an unnatural and spotted puce like that artificial ice cream flavour Dudley favoured. "I won't have you using any of your freakish spells while under my roof!"

"But I'm not allowed to anyway," Harry replied, tightening his grip on the bag.

If his uncle saw that he hadn't actually gone to Diagon Alley to buy textbooks, he'd be locked up without food for at least a week! Besides, he didn't want to part with all of his mother's things that he'd just gained.

"I'm not going to trust other freaks to keep you in line," Vernon declared, reaching out and grabbing hold of the bag with one big beefy hand, while his other one grabbed the young wizard by the shoulder. "What you need is discipline. I'd have had you at St. Brutus' long ago if it weren't for that overgrown disgrace of a creature."

"Ow!" Harry cried out as his uncle's fingers dug into his shoulders and the bag was ripped from his hands. "Hagrid's not a creature! He's just a blend between a human and a giant."

"What have I said about mentioning anything abnormal under this roof!" Vernon roared, shaking Harry violently as his face darkened to a deep purple and a vein in his forehead started to throb like it was keeping time with the end of Beethoven's fifth symphony.

Harry fell to the floor as he was abruptly released and slapped. Shaking his head, he absently noted that he now knew what a rag doll felt like. He really did need to learn to watch what he said around his uncle. The problem was that he just seemed unable to stand by while his friends were being insulted. He glanced up as soon as he felt more in control, just in time to watch his uncle make to toss the bag into his old cupboard.

"Careful!" Harry cried out as an image of his ink wells or Zera's nutrient jar breaking and spilling all over the papers and photos in the bag swam before his eyes. "There... there's... potions ingredients in there that... that could explode!" he hurriedly explained.

Vernon's arm froze in place as it'd been stupefied before it began to shake with rage. It was almost comical to watch the large man treat the bag as if it were a blast-ended skrewt as he held it as far from himself as possible and gently put it down on the old cot in the cupboard before he slammed the door shut and replaced the padlock, pocketing the key.

"What is the meaning of this?" Vernon roared as soon as he was sure the door was securely locked. "Books you said! Books!"

"It... I mean," Harry stammered as he scrambled to his feet. "I was short on some supplies and the potions professor would have noticed if I didn't get any more."

Vernon had just taken a step forward when the door to the kitchen opened and Aunt Petunia poked her head in, sneering at him even though she could no longer accomplish it as well as she used to considering that they were now almost the same height.

"How did you get back here from London?"

The look on his uncle's face was priceless as the man suddenly seemed to realize this conundrum and Harry had to suppress a laugh.

"I hitchhiked back."

"And who would want to take along something as disgusting as you?" Vernon demanded.

"Almost no one," Harry replied, seeing that the vein was still throbbing away merrily. "That's why I'm so late."

"Hm," Aunt Petunia said, seeming like she thought it was done daintily. "Well, dinner's long since been eaten and there were no leftovers so you'll just have to wait until tomorrow."

"If you're lucky," Uncle Vernon added, grabbing Harry by the arm and dragging him up the stairs. "Bringing more filth into this house."

"I had to get my supplies."

"Those abnormal teachers of yours had better not show up here, further tainting this house, do you hear, boy?"

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry responded as he was shoved into his room and the door slammed behind him.

As expected, he heard the lock being turned before there was the sound of his uncle walking away from the door.

"Damnit!" Harry swore softly as he carefully dropped himself into his wobbly desk chair.

Now he'd have to wait until they left his room unlocked at night, which practically never happened, or until he was left with chores while they were out before he could get his stuff back. Luckily he had placed the new food he'd bought in his pocket and he still had some of Mrs. Weasley's quiches and pies to hold him over. Knowing that his uncle wouldn't come back until later tonight to let him use the bathroom, Harry removed his jumper and smiled at Zera.

*He'sss mad again,* she hissed softly as she slithered higher up his arm and onto his shoulder.

*Yes, not that I'm surprised. I did kinda threaten Dudley before I left.*

*Why?* Zera asked as she coiled around his neck like some type of exotic jewellery.

*I don't know,* Harry shrugged. *It just happened. Besides, I prefer getting into trouble for something I actually did than for whatever Uncle Vernon comes up with.*

*Hmm.*

*He took my bag away and your food is in it so it may be a few days before I can get it back.*

*I sssee. Why not ussse your gift on them?*

*What do you mean? I'd get expelled if I use any magic.*

*Not magic, your gift you got from the double people.*

*Fred and George?* Harry enquired as he had to smile at the memory of how long it had taken him to explain the concept of twins to her. Since snakes had multiple eggs in each nest, the concept of having identical offspring due to an egg splitting in the womb was entirely foreign to her and his lack of knowledge on the subject definitely hadn't helped matters any. Nor did the fact that he couldn't say the word in Parseltongue, every time he tried 'twins' came out as 'double people.'

Harry wasn't sure why this happened or if it was even normal as he knew so little about the language and had hardly used it before this summer. The stigma of what had happened in his second year was all too fresh in his memory and he hadn't really seen any use in practicing the language. Now, however, he knew that he would have to come to terms with what his classmates might think as he was determined to take Zera with him to school. He would probably try to hide her from the other Houses, but the Gryffindors would discover her presence eventually and he figured it was better to introduce her to them right away.

*Yesss, them,* Zera confirmed, her tongue flicking against his neck in a way that had become soothing. *Asss you sssay, they'll punisssh you regardlessssss. You might asss well have sssome fun for it.*

*I don't know, anything blatantly magical would just provoke my uncle even further.*

*And he'll what? Lock you up sssome more? You have food and ssstuff to do, well once you collect your thingsss you will. What harm isss there then?*

*Hmm, you've got a point there. And some of the double people's tricks may even come off as natural to people not used to their antics. I'll think about it.*

*They dessserve it,* Zera declared, causing Harry to wonder if all snakes were so vengeful and if that was part of the reason why Salazar had chosen them as his symbol.


2:48

Harry sighed as he glanced at the clock again for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening. Having nothing better to do, he'd gotten into bed as soon as he'd been allowed to use the bathroom and yet he still hadn't managed to fall asleep yet. The day's events kept running round and round in his mind. Everything from his encounter with Lucius Malfoy, to the contents of the vault, to discovering Mystic Alley and its mysterious inhabitants.

Somewhere around half-past eleven he'd realized that not once during their encounter had Malfoy actually touched him after he'd run into the man. Instead he'd only used his cane as if afraid even touching him would contaminate him with some life-threatening disease.

At midnight, Harry's mind had wandered to Severus and his mother. What he'd seen in the vault was still somewhat surreal on some levels, even though he knew it to be the truth. He just had a lot of trouble wrapping his mind around the idea that Snape was Severus, that the greasy and mean spirited Potions Master he'd known for four years was the same as the well kept and kind, if snarky and sarcastic, boy he'd watched playing chess with the man he'd thought his father and playing in the snow like... like Ron, Hermione and he might.

When twelve thirty had rolled around, he'd been thinking about how Snape was Severus, who was his father. Not James Potter, the charming Gryffindor he'd heard so much about, but the secretive Slytherin only Sirius had mentioned and then only in hatred and spite.

At a quarter of one, Harry's thoughts had turned to Sirius and what he would have to say about the entire situation when he heard. On some levels, he almost wished he could avoid telling the man, just tell Severus the truth and not Sirius. Even as the thought had occurred to him he'd known how impossible it was, but that didn't prevent his mind from wishing it could be so. In the dark of his room, all his doubts came rushing back to him and he was terrified that Sirius wouldn't want him anymore, that his godfather would take one look at him after learning the truth and tell him that he wasn't his godson.

At one, he had remembered the fact that Sirius actually wasn't his true godfather and hence he wasn't his true godson. He'd latched onto the thought, taking the chance to distract himself from his worries with thoughts of his newly discovered godfather. His newly discovered and dead godfather. James Potter. No matter that he wasn't his father and that he wasn't alive today, the man was completely entangled in his life. From everything he'd done for his mother before her pregnancy, to all that he'd done for both her and himself afterwards, the man had definitely played a very important part in his life, even if he couldn't remember him. Without James, he'd probably be dead or worse...

His mother had said that Voldemort might have come for him if he'd known that he was the son of one of his, supposedly, loyal Death Eaters. Harry just couldn't shake the feeling that the reasons for that weren't to kill him and ensure the purity of Death Eater lineages. And he feared that it was more than just the darkness of the room and his thoughts giving him that impression. Who knew where or how he'd have ended up if James and his mother hadn't put on the act that they had?

By the time one thirty had rolled around, he'd gone over every detail of his meeting with Corinne and the delights of Mystic Alley and he still wasn't any closer to falling asleep than when he'd first climbed in bed. He'd decided that Corinne Morgana was a complete enigma from her ethereal eyes down to her unidentifiable accent. He also wasn't sure what to make of what she'd said. He had little love for the Ministry of Magic, not after what had happened at the end of the school year and he'd seen just what an idiot Fudge was. But did they really outlaw a whole branch of magic just because they neither understood it nor knew how to practice it? After thinking on it, he decided that he wouldn't put it past them.

At two, Harry had hoped to bore himself to sleep by creating mental lists of what he had to do when he got out of his room. He'd have to return the different parts of his disguise before they were discovered missing, he had to get his bag back as well as the textbooks he needed to finish any remaining homework he might still have left, he wanted to redo his potions essay now that he had additional resources as he wanted Severus to be in as good of a mood as possible when he talked with him. Not to mention the fact that he'd rather not be insulted by his newly discovered father. Just thinking about how he'd been treated in the past cut deeply.

Much more deeply than it had at the time. Now it wasn't just his most hated professor cutting him down, it was his father. A father who'd wanted children, if what he had said could be believed. What would he think when he learned that he'd already sired a child? Would he be happy, or disappointed? Or... could it be that... he'd be revolted?

Harry's thoughts raced around in his mind, spiralling downwards as time went on. It wasn't until half past three that he finally slipped into a fitful sleep and even then he couldn't escape his worries as he found himself running into an older version of the boy he'd seen in the pensieve, drabbed in his Potions Master's dark robes.

"Watch where you're going you pathetic boy. Can't you do anything right?" the man sneered, disgust clear on his face. "Or is it that you expect everyone to make way for you? For the famous Harry Potter? But you're not a Potter now are you? Would that you had been his as I definitely don't want you."

"I... I--" Harry stammered as he scampered backwards, not bothering to get up.

"What's wrong, boy? Lost the ability to speak? Not that you were ever very articulate to begin with, it's probably better if you just kept your mouth shut," Severus continued as he walked on past the fallen form. "Keep the Potter name as you can't have mine, or better yet, drop it so that you don't ruin James' image. Just be Harry, Harry Nobody."

Cruel laughter, much like Voldemort's rent the air as Severus was swallowed up by the encroaching darkness, and Harry shivered where he lay. The laughter grew louder and louder until it was all encompassing and Harry curled into a tight ball, hands over his ears trying to drown out the sound and his own misery.

Chapter Text

*Zera, wake up,* Harry hissed as he lifted the jumper off his familiar.

*Are we going out?* Zera enquired sleepily.

*No,* Harry replied. *But my aunt left the house today with Dudley so I was able to retrieve my bag.*

*Ssso you have the food for me?*

*Yes,* Harry confirmed as he got the bag out of the closet, sending another silent thanks to Fred and George.

The day after his forbidden trip, Harry had managed to smuggle the little snake outside so that she could hunt. Since then, though, he'd been stuck more or less inside as his aunt wanted the whole house cleaned so that they could invite friends over to celebrate the new deal Grunnings had brokered. Personally he thought it was more to show off Vernon's new salary, but he'd kept his mouth shut. Regardless of the motive, it meant that he'd had to scrub every tile and window despite the fact that they'd already been cleaned once in the past month. He sometimes had to wonder if the neighbours or guests ever found it abnormal that the Dursleys' house was so clean. Most people didn't have their own private House Elf to keep it this way. Pity Mrs. Figg hadn't commented on that while she'd been at it at the start of the summer.

*What do you want to start with? The salamanders or the mice?*

*Mice, pleassse,* Zera hissed as she slithered over to where Harry sat and looked at what he'd gotten out of the bag.

*Very well,* Harry said as he carefully put the other boxes away. *Let's see now, what did he say to do again?*

*What?*

*The store owner, he said something about this nutrient supplement. Ah, yes, I need to dip the mouse into it.*

*Why?* Zera enquired as she tasted the air when Harry had opened the jar. *Sssmellsss good.*

*You think so?* Harry's nose wrinkled in distaste. *It's to give you all you need to grow.* He opened the box containing the mice and pulled out the jar within. *I'll pull one out, dip it and then let it loose, all right?*

*Yesss,* Zera stated, her tongue darting in and out in anticipation. *They're sssmall.*

*Just watch,* Harry said as he grabbed a tail and pulled the mouse out.

The moment the head of the mouse was out of the jar, the animal enlarged and came alive as if released from a Petrificus Totalus. Harry brought it up to eye level so that he could observe it for a moment. It was slightly larger than the mice they'd used in Transfiguration and was a spotted brown mass instead of fur covered, but otherwise it looked real enough. The way his familiar was regarding it also told him that the animation spell making it squirm and twist was also accurate.

Not wanting to tease Zera, Harry quickly dipped the mouse into the supplement before putting it on the ground. As it scampered off, he was thankful to note that the honey-like substance stuck to the animal and didn't drip to the floor or leave tiny prints behind.

As he closed the jar, Harry watched Zera approach her prey, curious despite himself. It wasn't as if he was going to watch her kill a live animal, it was just food animated to mimic the behaviour of a real mouse. It really was a brilliant idea on somebody's part to have created these prey animals. He was glad though that they didn't seem to make any noise as he didn't want to draw his uncle's attention back to his room.

As Harry leaned back against the bed, Zera stopped a short distance from the mouse, which had stopped running. The mouse seemed to be calmly examining its surroundings, completely unaware of the red, white and black snake hunting it. Zera observed it for a few seconds before she darted forwards, lightening-quick. The mouse must have been moving just as she struck, though, as she missed and it darted off across the room.

*A little slow?* Harry teased as he watched the little snake shake her head before slowly moving after her prey.

*I'd like to sssee you try,* Zera retorted as she lazily moved along.

*Oh, I'm fine where I am.*

When she was a short distance from the mouse, Zera slowed even more and stopped, letting the agitated creature calm. Harry watched carefully as the mouse started to explore once more and was surprised when it actually approached Zera. Then his eyebrows shot up as his familiar stayed still as stone while the prey animal actually put its front paws on her. She remained motionless as the animal explored around her before moving off again. It wasn't until the mouse was a little bit away from her that she struck again, this time with perfect precision.

Before Harry could blink, Zera's body was tightly wrapped around the struggling animal so that she could release her hold on it with her mouth. She then twisted her body so that her head was near the mouse's head. He could only watch in rapt fascination as his familiar's mouth opened wider than he'd thought possible and started to swallow the animal whole as soon as it had stopped struggling. He could only assume that she'd 'strangled' it as the information Hagrid had sent said she was a constrictor. He watched for a little longer as a mouse shaped lump formed along the length of Zera's body before he turned his attention back to his bag.

Although Harry wanted nothing more than to place the items he'd gotten around his room, that just wasn't possible. Neither could he keep too many of them hidden or it would look suspicious when his uncle finally took the padlock off the cupboard to let him pack. Therefore the bag needed to be returned downstairs looking as full as it did now. Though, now that he thought about it, he could probably just replace the missing bulk with textbooks from his trunk and Uncle Vernon would never be the wiser.

With a content smile, Harry began to unpack all that he'd gotten in the vault and Mystic Alley. Some of the items he'd be able to hide under the loose floorboard while the rest could be placed into the box Mrs. Weasley had send his food in while the two remaining quiches and the last pie could go into the wonderful bag he'd gotten at Chez Louis along with the rest of his food. That way no one would see anything abnormal if they decided to come in. Not that his family ever really ventured into the room while he was here.

Harry had just gotten everything out of the bag when he was interrupted by a tapping on the window. Looking up, he saw a large brown owl outside with a roll of parchment attached to its leg. Quickly he got to his feet and opened the window knowing there'd be hell to pay if any of the neighbours saw. The owl swooped in and stood on the desk, its leg held out.

*Harry,* Zera hissed from inside the closet she'd gone to hide in. *Keep it away from me.*

*Don't worry, the mail owls know not to eat wizard pets,* Harry reassured her as he removed the parchment. "Please stay while I see if I need to send a reply," he continued in English to the owl.

The moment he unrolled the scroll and saw the handwriting, he knew it was from Dumbledore. He had a brief flash of panic; did the headmaster know he'd left the protection of the wards? Was there some spell around the house that alerted him if he left? But that couldn't be, why would the old professor have waited so long to contact him if that were the case? Taking a deep breath, Harry forced his panic aside and started to read.

HOGWARTS SCHOOL
of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

---------------

Dear Mr. Potter,

As I mentioned in my previous letter, a Ministry car shall pick you up at your home on the first of September. The car shall arrive at eight, so please be ready to leave at that hour. Mr. Weasley shall then escort you to King's Cross and ensure that you reach the train safely.

Your textbooks and other supplies have already been obtained and have been placed in your room in the Tower for when you arrive. Enjoy the last week of holiday and I shall see you on the first.

 

Albus Dumbledore,
Headmaster of Hogwarts

(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)

Harry sighed in relief that there was nothing in the letter about his little excursion. Pulling a piece of parchment, an ink well and a quill from their hiding places, he sat down to write his reply.

Professor Dumbledore,

Thank you for arranging my ride and getting what I'll need for the school year.

I was wondering if I could talk with you when I return to school? I have something you should see, but don't worry it isn't urgent.

There is also one other thing, I have been growing lately and my school robes are now too short. Is it possible for me to get new ones somehow?

Thanks.

Harry looked at the letter, frowning. It wasn't exactly of a normal length but he didn't really have anything else to say at the present. Unable to think of anything to add, he signed it and rolled up the parchment as soon as the ink was dry.

"Please get this to Professor Dumbledore," Harry told the owl as he tied it to her leg.

With a soft hoot, the owl took off and Harry closed his window.

*Isss it gone?* Zera enquired.

*Yes. You do remember me telling you that I have an owl too, right? And Hedwig will be around at school.*

*Yesss, but ssshe'sss yoursss and will thusss be lessssss inclined to eat me.*

*I didn't even know owls ate snakes,* Harry admitted.

*If they can catch one, mossst will, though it isss more dangerousss than their usssual prey.*

*I see,* Harry said as he got out the textbook he'd gotten out of the cupboard.

In order to do his homework, Harry systematically had to pick the lock to get the books he'd need for each assignment. He'd actually managed to do all of his homework already due to the visions and nightmares he'd had since the Third Task as he was unable to sleep easily afterwards, which left him with hours of free time. His potions essay had been done early in the summer for once after he'd had a vision in which he'd recognized Snape among the Death Eaters. He knew it wasn't his best work and he wanted to change that. He wanted Severus to be in as amicable a mood as possible when he approached him and he figured that showing that he wasn't a total loss at Potions was a step in the right direction.

Besides, some part of him also wanted to do it just because it was his... father's chosen field. He was no fool and had noticed the way the man had spoken about potions at the start of his first year, nor had it gone unnoticed the way he attended to the potions he occasionally made during the detentions he'd served.

Harry grabbed the scroll he'd written earlier in the holiday and unrolled it.

Essence of hemlock is found in several extremely potent, though highly unpleasant, healing drafts. Explain how this poisonous extract can be used to heal and why it is used instead of a different ingredient. Detail the use of one healing draft with essence of hemlock and when it should be used including all warnings and precautions.

No wonder he'd hardly felt like putting any effort into this the first time around with a question like that! Taking a deep breath, Harry pulled out a new piece of parchment and dipped his quill into the ink well. Quickly he copied the question over and then paused, that was the easy part. Opening his textbook, he flipped to the section on essence of hemlock and reread it. As had happened the last time, he was utterly confused by the passage. He got that the hemlock had to be boiled for a half hour in a cauldron with water and toad's blood to extract its juices into solution. What he didn't understand was why it had to be toad's blood. The author vaguely mentioned something about magical properties aligning in such a way so as to extract the juices but he didn't give a reason why.

With a groan, Harry let his head fall back against the frame of his bed. He wanted to do this well but how could he without a book that explained the material so that he could understand it?

Harry's eyes flew open as a new thought came to him. Severus' book! The textbook he wrote explained things well. Sitting up, he grabbed the book from where he'd placed it and opened it to its index. Would it have any information on the topic? Since Severus wrote the book and deemed the topic important enough to cover in class, he assumed so. Scanning the index, he saw that the book was divided into several different parts. The first was on proper technique and an explanation on how to perform each of the different preparation methods. As he glanced over the list, Harry saw that blood extraction was listed, he could look at that at least if there was nothing else. There was also a chapter on distillation which his other textbook also mentioned in the process.

The second part of the book was devoted to potions ingredients. Harry smiled in relief as he saw that there was a whole chapter on hemlock and it had a section on 'essence of.' As soon as he got to the section he pulled his old essay to him and turned it over to take notes on.

Essence of hemlock is a very powerful and concentrated form of hemlock that can be used in several different classes of potions. It is also one of the more difficult essences to extract. Since hemlock is a poisonous substance, its essence cannot be extracted with the use of any ingredients that are inherently Light as they would contaminate its magical properties and render it useless. This makes the process of extraction a highly debated topic as many of the ingredients that can extract it without irrevocably altering its magical properties are forbidden or controlled ingredients or leave contamination traces behind that make the essence useless for healing drafts, its main legal use. It wasn't until Lady Seraphina Snape's groundbreaking research in 1698 that the safe and non-contaminating toad's blood was discovered to be the perfect extractor.

Harry blinked as he reread the line. Lady Seraphina Snape? Was she an ancestor of his? If so, did potions mastery ran through the Snape line or was it just her and Severus? He filed away the question for later.

*What are you doing?* Zera enquired as she slithered towards him and climbed along his arm to his neck.

*Redoing my potions essay.*

*Isss the book any good?*

*This one is, its a big help,* Harry replied as she wrapped herself in loose coils around his neck, hissing in contentment at his body heat. *I'll be able to do a much better essay now.*

*That'sss good,* was the soft reply as Zera began drifting off.

With a snort of amusement, Harry turned his attention back to the book.

Lady Snape recognized that, while not normally a Dark Creature, the toad's ability to hatch a basilisk from a chicken's egg hinted at an ability to support the Darker magics without being adversely affected by them in the process. It was then discovered that the toad's blood also doesn't contaminate the essence of hemlock while the two are mixed. A simple distillation is all that is needed to separate the essence from the blood and water. If done properly, pure essence is attained which can then be used as a poison, in certain potent healing drafts and in various Dark potions.

Why couldn't the author of his assigned textbook have said it like that? It made sense this way, though Harry had chills at the reminder of his second year and the events from the Chamber of Secrets. He had part of his answer now, though, and it was a part that he hadn't had before.

When he'd taken all the notes he needed to, Harry went back to the index and looked at the third part of the book, which was devoted to potions, drafts, brews and elixirs. The part was divided into different categories and under the category on healing were some of the drafts he recognized from the other book as ones containing essence of hemlock. Flipping to the section, he checked the ingredients of each healing draft. If at all possible, he wanted to use one that wasn't mentioned in his regular book. It would make his essay different from everyone else's and prove to Severus that he'd put extra effort into his homework.

About seven potions into the healing category, he came across a draft made with essence of hemlock that he didn't recognize. Pulling his regular text close to double check, he didn't find it listed in the index. With a smile, Harry started reading.


"Are you sure?" Voldemort demanded, his red eyes boring into a bowed Death Eater before him.

"Yes, my Master," the cloaked and masked man assured. "They are writing it off as separate attacks or random violence by individuals unaffiliated with you or leaderless remnants of your former followers."

"Excellent," the Dark Lord proclaimed with a dismissive hand, sending the servant scampering backwards into the circle of his companions surrounding the seated wizard. "Severus," came the hissed command.

"My Lord," a smooth voice stated as a tall masked man stepped forward before falling to his knees.

"What news from Hogwarts?"

"Nothing new, my Lord. Dumbledore continues to try to convince Fudge of your return with no success."

"And what of his Order?" Voldemort demanded, frowning.

"Dumbledore is extremely secretive, my Lord," the kneeling figure declared cautiously. "He doesn't wish the Ministry to know that he is taking any action considering their position on the matter."

"You are his potions professor, not some Ministry stooge," the Dark Lord hissed angrily, his voice dropping dangerously.

"He is exceedingly careful this time," Snape hastened to add. "After Pettigrew's betrayal last time around he is loath to trust anyone as readily as he did in the past."

"Then you shall have to convince him to trust you," Voldemort declared. "Next time I expect better. Crucio!"

 

Harry woke with a cry of pain begging to burst from his lips. He managed to hold it until he had shoved his head into his pillow to sufficiently muffle the sound. His heart was pounding a mile a minute and ached to boot. That was his father being tortured! Being punished for protecting the resistance until Voldemort could be defeated. And, if the general populace of the Wizarding World could be believed, that meant until he, the bloody Boy-Who-Lived, could defeat Voldemort!

Pain rippled through his forehead from his scar even as he tried to process that thought. Although it was true that he had faced the Dark Lord three times since their original confrontation and he had defeated him twice, he'd never actually faced him at full power and won. His first victory was against a spirit occupying a stolen body and his second against a memory of a teenage version of the man. The only time he'd faced the real thing he'd had to rely on the aid of shades of Voldemort's old victims. He also doubted that the reptilian-like man had even had control of his full powers so shortly after his rebirth.

How was he to do anything against a wizard so much older and more experienced than him?

How was he to defeat him?

Harry couldn't come up with an answer as he lay there, gritting his teeth against the pain. Visions of his father twitching and falling to the ground as the Unforgivable hit him swam before his mind's eye. How long would he be tortured for his failing? How long could Severus hope to keep his cover while not passing on any critical information? How long did Dumbledore think he could get away with it? He sincerely hoped that the Headmaster would suddenly 'pretend' to trust Severus so that his father could begin to pass on some information or else he doubted that Voldemort would restrict his punishment to just the Cruciatus.

Just the Cruciatus.

Harry choked on his own wording. It was the worst pain curse in existence, so bad it was punishable by a lifetime sentence in Azkaban and yet he thought so little of it! It took a few seconds before he realized why he'd phrased it that way. As long as Voldemort saw it as a temporary failure with chance of success later on, he'd use the Cruciatus on Severus but not long enough to cause any permanent damage. And he wouldn't kill him.

The thought of losing his father after only just finding him, tore at Harry and completely overpowered the physical pain that lingered at his scar. Instantly a vision of what had happened after the Triwizard Tournament rose to the top of his mind, only instead of seeing Cedric's body staring unseeingly into the distance, it was his father's lifeless body he saw.

*Harry?* Zera enquired as she slithered towards his bed and up onto it. *What'sss wrong? Did you have another nightmare?*

*No, a vision.*

*Did sssomeone die?* the little snake enquired as she made her way up his side and onto his stomach so she could look at his face as he pushed the pillow away.

*No, it just made me think of something I'd rather not discuss just now.*

*Perhapsss your writing will help.*

*Maybe,* Harry agreed as he picked up his newest familiar and walked over to the desk.

Yesterday he'd smuggled almost all of his belongings back down to the cupboard and arranged them in his trunk while his aunt had taken Dudley shopping. The only things he'd left in his room were the Vision Journal, Severus' potions book and the vampire book he'd gotten from Hermione. He'd easily be able to get them into the shopping bag he'd gotten at Chez Louis so there wouldn't be any trouble getting them downstairs unseen.

The newest entry to the journal was quickly added as the vision itself had been incredibly short. Harry also managed to keep it clinical so that Dumbledore wouldn't be able to sense that anything was going on and he knew undue concern for Professor Snape would cause the old man to wonder at his sudden change of opinion. He did take special care, however, to make mention of Voldemort's rage and intolerance at Severus' lack of information. That way Dumbledore would know just how precarious his spy's position was. If Severus hadn't done so already.

Since he knew he'd be seeing the image of his father's corpse again if he went to sleep now, Harry put the Vision Journal into the bag before settling himself back on his bed with Hermione's birthday present. As expected, he found the material fascinating and he was quite pleased to discover that, as was the case with werewolves, vampires had a worse reputation within the Wizarding World (not to mention the Muggle one!) than they truly deserved. Many of them actually had what the author termed as sanguis dators•, people who voluntarily allowed the vampire to feed from them.

As he reached the end of the chapter, Harry folded the corner of the page and closed the book. He absently stroked Zera's head as he thought about this. Why would someone let a vampire drink their blood? Well, he supposed that if a spouse or child had been turned that the other spouse or a parent would willingly let them drink their blood if it prevented them from killing, but the thought gave him chills. Still, if it allowed the vampire to live without attacking anyone he figured it was a good solution.

*Done?* Zera enquired.

*No, I just wanted to change books,* Harry explained as he picked up Severus' text. *I saw a potion in here the last time that could cure certain types of blindness and I was curious as to how that was possible. Muggle medicine definitely can't do it.*

*You wonder if it could help you, perhapsss?*

*Exactly.*

*Good luck.*

*Thanks,* Harry stated as he flipped open the book to the page he wanted.

By the time Uncle Vernon's alarm went off, Harry's hopes for the Oculus Sanaro• had completely been dashed. Apparently the elixir, which was able to grow back the optic nerve in humans if administered shortly after the damage had occurred, was not able to fix other eyesight problems. Apparently the eyes were such a delicate balance of so many factors that even wizarding knowledge wasn't able to conquer it all just yet. They only had the Oculus Sanaro• because of a lucky discovery that led Serge Felicital to realize that it was possible to create a potion to mimic a newt's ability to grow back their optic nerves if newt eyes were used.

Harry sighed in disappointment as he closed the book, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to get rid of the slight headache he had. He hadn't really given his glasses much thought since Hermione had taught him how to repair them, but they were still cumbersome at times. Especially when playing Quidditch in the rain or cold. But, he reckoned, that if the Wizarding World did know how to correct vision then Dumbledore and McGonagall wouldn't be wearing spectacles.

As he heard his uncle rise, Harry quickly put the potions and vampire books into the plastic bag. While he knew that the Dursleys wouldn't prevent him from getting ready as that would only bring Mr. Weasley into the house (something they never wanted to happen again!), they would happily do all they could to force him to rush. Therefore he had to be completely ready to leave his room as soon as it was opened.

He was returning to Hogwarts today!

The realization hit him suddenly in a way it hadn't when he'd woken up at half past three. Rolling out of bed, he pulled on one of Dudley's old trousers along with his new shirt from Ron before he took out a baggy jumper. Although he'd be way too hot, it served the duel purpose of hiding both his shirt and Zera from prying Muggle eyes in general and the Dursleys' in particular. For one of the first times in years, the trousers and jumper didn't need to be rolled up in order to fit him. Indeed, if anything, the trousers were a little on the short side.

Harry grinned at the thought of what his friends would say when they saw him. He was no longer the scrawny little boy he'd been. He was still too thin as he'd gone through his stash of food even faster than he'd expected, but he had attained a respectable height for a boy his age. Also, for the first time in his life, his hair was finally starting to cooperate. It was tamer than ever before, having settled into wavy curls instead of the hopeless mess it had been. It had also gotten longer, much to his aunt's horror and dismay. Although she desperately wanted to shorten it back to a 'respectable' length, she didn't dare cut it for fear that it would trigger a magically induced growth spurt again.

On some level, Harry found himself greatly disturbed by the changes, but only because he knew why they were occurring. The changes themselves were things he'd always hoped for, but he knew that it wouldn't end there. The thought of one day waking up and not recognizing himself in the mirror still horrified him and had frequent appearances in his nightmares. At the moment, however, there didn't seem to be any real changes to his face just yet. He thought his cheekbones might just be a little different than before, but he couldn't be sure as he'd never really paid them any attention before he received his mother's letters.

*Zera,* Harry hissed as he put on his father's snake pendant necklace and tucked it under his shirt. *Time to wake up.*

*Are we leaving already?* she enquired from her place around his neck, hissing in annoyance at the coldness of the necklace.

*Soon, but you need to be hidden before my uncle gets in here,* Harry stated as he tucked the small bag with the books between his trousers and his shirt. *Come on,* he continued as he rolled up the sleeve of his jumper and brought his arm to his neck.

*How can your ssskin ssstill fit after all of your growth?* Zera demanded as she slithered onto his arm.

*My skin?* Harry demanded in surprise. *I already told you that humans don't shed their skin.*

*I mean your sssecond ssskin. The one you change every day.*

*Oh, you mean my second skin,* Harry said before he blinked in surprise.

*That'sss what I sssaid,* Zera replied as she settled in on his upper arm.

*No, that's not what I meant to say,* Harry explained. *I meant to use another word but 'second skin' came out instead.*

*Like with the double people?*

*Exactly. This is weird, but you've got a point,* Harry conceded as he looked at the sleeve of his new shirt. It fit him perfectly, just as it had before he'd grown. *It must be charmed to fit the wearer.*

*Ah,* Zera replied absently as she eyed the little golden snitch that had zoomed into view.

With a snort, Harry rolled his jumper sleeve down. Apparently his familiar had already spent several nights in the closet determined to touch the thing; all to no avail. Quickly checking to make sure that he had not forgotten anything, he tucked his wand into his trousers and waited for his uncle to come let him out.

As he waited, he was suddenly hit with the realization that he was never coming back here again. One way or another, he'd have somewhere else to go by the end of the school year. He'd either be staying with his father or he'd be going to join Sirius wherever he was. His mother's letters would be his liberation from her horrid sister. The thought sent a thrill through him and he quickly checked the space beneath the loose floorboards again to make sure that he wasn't leaving anything behind.

He'd have a real home with someone who wanted him!

Harry forced the silly grin from his face the instant he heard the first bolt being eased open. It wouldn't do to let his uncle see his happiness. When the door finally opened, however, it was Aunt Petunia who stood on the other side instead of his Uncle Vernon.

"You're ready, good," she stated as she eyed him and the room. "Get breakfast ready."

"Yes, Aunt Petunia," Harry replied, hurrying into the bathroom as she moved to her son's room.

Harry was able to quickly use the loo and wash his face before his cousin lumbered into the room.

"Out of my way, freak," Dudley muttered sleepily as he knocked into Harry.

"Watch it," Harry shot back.

"Just you wait until next summer," the fat boy threatened. "Piers and I will really bring back witch burning then if you're not careful. We've already planned how a proper Harry Burning will go."

Though Harry was able to keep his face expressionless, he felt a chill run down his spine at those words. Yesterday Piers had come over while he was weeding the garden and Dudley had somehow managed to convince his friend that they should treat Harry the way 'undesirables' had been treated in the Middle Ages. He hadn't actually used the words 'witch' or 'wizard' but his meaning had been clear enough to Harry.

With a considerable effort and the sudden shifting of Zera as she sensed his anger, Harry bit back a response and turned around and headed downstairs to the kitchen. It was very probably the last day he'd have to see his cousin and he'd never have to put up with Piers again. The thought served to sooth him enough to not stomp down the stairs, though his anger remained.

As he stood waiting for the eggs and bacon to cook, Harry muttered angrily under his breath and absently figured the vial and small plastic bag he'd slipped into his trouser pocket the night before. Together they contained four of Fred and George's latest products and he'd been debating whether or not to use them on his cousin. Zera clearly thought he should and had been urging him to do so for some time now, though she'd prefer if he used one of the more drastic ones. He'd been hesitant though. While he'd love to feed them to Dudley and he'd rather be punished for something he actually did than some made up transgression, he was worried about the fallout. There was no telling what his uncle would do if he had such blatant evidence of purposeful magic use. He hadn't wanted to push the man too far, especially since he'd still reaped the fallout of the twins' prank last summer.

But now...

Now there could be no repercussions. Mr. Weasley was set to arrive in just over half an hour and he'd never be coming back here again. So he could do what he wanted. A wicked grin broke out on his face at the thought. Given the fact that his uncle had hit him earlier this summer, he still didn't want to do anything immediate, but something a little slower acting however...

It was a very Slytherin perspective, he knew, but he thought it was something Severus might approve of.

With a quick glance at the door to make sure no one else was down yet, Harry pulled out the vial and poured its contents into Dudley's cup. Although he'd originally intended to give it to his uncle, Dudley's words upstairs had made him change his mind. Harry then pulled out the plastic bag and spilled its contents onto the counter. The first item was a brightly wrapped piece of candy that looked similar to one of the candies his cousin liked. Picking it up, he walked to the storage cupboard and made a small hole in the packaging of the candy bag and shoved the prank one in. His aunt was used to her son sneaking sweets and wouldn't think twice about the tampering if she saw it. As for Dudley... he was always too busy stuffing himself to notice that one of the wrappers was somewhat different from the others.

The second item came in a duller wrapping but was about the right shape of his aunt's gum sticks. Not that she'd ever admit to anyone that she had such a vulgar habit, but he'd seen her chewing it inside on several occasions. During his cleaning of the kitchen he'd even found where she hid it from Dudley who'd no doubt go through the whole pack in a day. It was hidden in the flour pot, a fact that made it more likely that she wouldn't notice the prank gum as its wrapping would be made white anyway.

The last item in the bag was a bluish powder contained in a small bag. Like the others, the effects of this one weren't blatantly obvious as magical (he didn't want to get slapped with an exposing Muggles to magic charge!), but it was one that if the effects started while the Dursleys were at home, they wouldn't leave the house. And he wanted them to. Stepping back to the stove to turn the bacon and to make sure the egg white didn't get stuck to the sides of the pan, Harry thought. Where could he put it so that it would take effect when the Dursleys were out?

Dudley was the easy one as he occasionally took a lunch with him when he and his friends went out. Harry knew that there was at least one more such outing planned as the school year didn't start until late September at Smeltings. It was rare that Vernon took lunch with him as he preferred to eat at the restaurant across the street from Grunnings, but he did do so on occasion.

That was it!

Harry suddenly straightened as the answer came to him. Whenever Uncle Vernon took lunch with him, Aunt Petunia would make him sandwiches and give him coffee in a thermos. Dudley, too, always used a thermos when he packed his lunch even if the drink wasn't hot as none of the juice boxes were big enough to satisfy his thirst. The thermoses were always washed after use and he'd seen Aunt Petunia prepare them enough to know that she didn't look inside them when she filled them. If he put some of the powder in each one, he'd be sure to get Dudley and Uncle Vernon while they were out. Better yet, Vernon would probably be in the middle of a conference when it started to affect him!

Quickly, Harry turned to the cupboard with the two thermoses and took them out. He then opened the little bag and put some of the powder in each one. He frowned at what was left in the bag before a new thought occurred to him. Putting the two thermoses away, he opened the freezer and dusted the remaining powder onto the ice cubes, knowing that it would stick to them. His task complete, Harry disposed of the evidence and turned his attention back to his family's breakfast just as he heard movement on the stairs.

As Harry'd expected due to the lack of noise and tremors, Aunt Petunia soon stepped into the kitchen though Uncle Vernon and Dudley weren't far behind since the smell of breakfast had escaped the room and wafted upstairs.

"Take this and get your stuff together," Petunia stated as she put two slices of bread and a key on the counter as Harry put the eggs and bacon on the Dursleys' plates.

Harry's stomach rumbled as he snagged his breakfast and wolfed it down. Taking the key, he quickly left the room and opened the cupboard door, dragging his trunk out into the hallway so that he could open it. He hastily pulled the bag he'd kept in his shirt and placed it between some of his school robes before emptying the bag he'd taken to Mystic Alley and adding its contents to the trunk. He'd only just finished when the doorbell rang.

For once there was a complete lack of reaction to the sound on the part of the Dursleys. If this was how they wanted to play it then that was more than fine for Harry.

"Hello, Mr. Weasley," Harry said as he opened the door.

"Hello, Ha..." Mr. Weasley began before he trailed off as he caught sight of the boy, blinking in surprise. "Well now, you've definitely grown."

"Yes," was all Harry thought to say as he looked past his best friend's father and saw two black Mercedes cars parked on the curb of number 4 Privet Drive.

"Is that all of your stuff?" Mr. Weasley asked as he got over his shock and indicated the trunk.

"There's also my broom, but it's just in the closet," Harry replied. "I gave Ron all of Hedwig's things."

"Yes, of course," Mr. Weasley said as he stepped inside and drew his wand.

A quick incantation later and Harry's trunk had shrunk small enough so that he could pocket it. He did so and grabbed his Firebolt from the cupboard before closing it.

"Don't you need to say goodbye to your family?" Mr. Weasley enquired as Harry stepped back to the door.

"Uh, we already did so."

"Okay," Mr. Weasley frowned as he glanced around but then brightened as he stepped outside. "We'd best be going if we want to be on time."

Harry closed the front door and followed the older wizard without a backward glance. He was surprised when Mr. Weasley got into the backseat of the second car and slid in deeper, but then he saw that they had a driver as he got in himself.

"Here, let me," Mr. Weasley said as he drew his wand again and shrunk Harry's broom as well. "Now, did you have a good summer?"

"It was okay," Harry lied. "A little boring as I couldn't go beyond the gardens."

"An unfortunate necessity," Mr. Weasley said as he waved his wand again and a divider rose up to separate the back of the car from the front, ensuring that the driver couldn't hear them. "Harry, do you get the Daily Prophet?"

"No."

"Well, in that case, you may not be aware of this, but He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has been quite busy the past few months."

"I know," Harry said and then continued at the man's surprised look. "When I'm asleep I sometimes see what he does."

"You do?" Mr. Weasley exclaimed in horrified shock.

"It's the scar."

"Does Albus know of this?"

"Yes," Harry assured.

"Okay, well, then you know why it was so important that you remain where you are safe."

"What has the Ministry been doing?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?!" Harry exclaimed, outraged.

"Well, not quite nothing- the incidents have been investigated- but the Ministry insists that they are unrelated events," Mr. Weasley explained.

"What? How?" Harry sputtered.

"You-Know-Who has been very careful so far. You see, its quite strange, at none of the attacks has He or any of His Death Eaters cast the Dark Mark into the sky. Now, since that has always been His calling card, a lot of people think that its very absence is proof that the crimes weren't committed by Him or on His orders. The fact that there have been no survivors who remember seeing the Death Eaters hasn't helped either."

"Voldemort's biding his time."

"Yes," Mr. Weasley agreed, wincing at Harry's use of the Dark Lord's name. "Albus and Alastor think that he's rebuilding his support network and Severus' information agrees with this."

"So Dumbledore and I are still seen as spouting lies?"

"Unfortunately that is what the Prophet claims."

"Great," Harry muttered as he slumped back in his seat.

"Ignore them," Mr. Weasley suggested paternally. "Sooner or later You-Know-Who will start to have the Dark Mark raised again and then people will see the truth."

"But by then it'll already be too late for many people."

"It will catch many people by surprise," Mr. Weasley agreed. "But not everyone."

"Not Dumbledore's Order?" Harry asked.

"How do you know about that?"

"Uh... the Headmaster asked Sirius to start contacting everyone in my presence," Harry quickly answered, mentally scrambling to see if the man really had used the word 'Order' or if he'd heard that elsewhere.

"No, the members of the Order of the Phoenix are among those who won't be taken by surprise," Mr. Weasley confirmed. "Albus has had us all warned and doing what we can to thwart He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's efforts."

"That's good," Harry said as he filed away the complete name of the Order even as he realized that Dumbledore had not, in fact, used the word Order last June. He'd said 'old crowd' which meant that 'Order' had come from somewhere else, one of his mother's memories if he was right.

Inwardly Harry cursed himself for the slip. Luckily Mr. Weasley hadn't been present in the infirmary and he'd been able to cover his tracks but the same tactic wouldn't work on the Headmaster. Nor on Severus. He'd really have to watch his mouth around those two and everyone in general just to be safe. He didn't want to have to start lying to people as he hated doing that in general, but he was also too likely to get caught up in them and Hermione would realize if he had too many inconsistencies in his story.


"Well, we're almost there," Mr. Weasley announced as soon as he started to recognize the buildings they passed.

"Will Ron already be at the station?" Harry asked as he straightened from the position he'd slumped into.

"I hope so," Mr. Weasley replied uncertainly.

"Something wrong?"

"You've been at the Burrow on the first of September, you know how hectic it can get. Let's just say that the house was still in chaos when I left and that was with Fred and George still in bed."

"Ouch," Harry replied sympathetically.

Although he loved the Weasleys and loved staying with them, Harry didn't care to repeat that particular day again. After the order and quiet of the Dursley household those particular days had been quite a shock for him. It had always worked out well, though, and he hoped that it did again today.

"Now, Harry, we'll want to be careful when we get out," Mr. Weasley suddenly stated as the car pulled around the block to where it could temporarily stand to unload passengers. "Though it is unlikely that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will try anything in so public a place just yet, he knows that you'll be here today."

"I'll watch out," Harry promised, suddenly nervous.

He'd been so preoccupied with his newly revealed heritage that Voldemort's obsession with him had temporarily been pushed to the back of his mind.

"Good boy," Mr. Weasley stated as he opened the door and got out.

As Harry followed him, he couldn't help but quickly scan the area, half expecting Death Eaters to jump out into view, wands at the ready. He relaxed slightly when he didn't catch sight of any, though he did notice a large dark-skinned man striding straight towards them.

"Mr. Weasley," Harry said, tapping him and indicating the approaching stranger whose bearing clearly indicated the ability to jump into action at any moment.

"Ah, Kingsley, I was hoping you'd be able to meet us," Mr. Weasley declared as he followed Harry's finger.

"Arthur, good to see you," the tall man stated as they shook hands, his smile revealing a row of white teeth. "And you must be Harry Potter," he continued, offering his hand. "I'm Kingsley Shacklebolt, an Auror."

"Pleased to meet you, Sir," Harry replied, relieved the man was on his side.

As he shook hands, Harry took the opportunity to study him closer. Shacklebolt had a shaved head and a small gold hooped earring in his left ear. He was smartly dressed in blue Muggle jeans, a light grey shirt and a dark brown leather jacket. Now that he was no longer a potential threat, the wizard also seemed kinda cool. He reminded him a little of Bill Weasley, actually.

"Let's get you to the correct platform," Kingsley said, his voice slow and deep, just as the car they'd arrived in pulled away from the curb.

"Has everything been quiet here?" Mr. Weasley asked as they turned to enter King's Cross.

"Well, I wouldn't call those Muggle contraptions they have around here quiet," Kingsley started, winking at Harry. "But nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. I have observed a very wide variety in the interpretation of Muggle clothing, though."

Harry snickered as he followed the Auror's gaze and caught sight of a family dressed in heavily printed dresses, the husband included.

"I find it amazing how poorly wizards understand Muggle fashion, it's not that difficult."

"It's a matter of exposure," Mr. Weasley declared, clearly launching into a favourite topic. "Most wizards don't see enough Muggles, or don't pay enough attention to them, to realize that only the females wear robes or skirts."

"Most wizards also don't feel comfortable wearing trousers," Kingsley added. "I'll be the first to admit that it takes some adjusting after always having worn some type of robe."

Harry frowned at this. Although he'd spent four years in the Wizarding World already, he hadn't really noticed that the men didn't wear any trousers other than Muggle ones. Not that his exposure to Wizarding clothing was all that great. At Hogwarts everyone but the teachers wore the student robes except on weekends or special occasions. It had just never caught his attention that only Muggle trousers were worn.

"I suppose that would be weird," Harry commented as the protest of an old man at the Quidditch World Cup came back to him after he'd heard a Ministry wizard try to convince him to put on a pair of trousers: "I like a healthy breeze 'round my privates, thanks."

Harry suddenly wondered why so many wizards weren't properly educated about Muggle attire. Considering the need for secrecy he'd have thought the Ministry would require every witch and wizard to learn how to blend into the Muggle world. A crash course of Muggle Studies. Even as the thought occurred to him, he suddenly had his answer. Purebloods like the Malfoys, ones that were rich, powerful and anti-Muggle, probably managed to influence the Ministry on such matters to ensure that neither they nor anyone else who held their ideals were forced to take a Muggle education course.

"I'll go through first, okay Harry?" Mr. Weasley enquired, drawing the young wizard from his thoughts.

"What?" Harry asked, looking around to see that they stood between platforms nine and ten. "Oh, sure," he quickly added, embarrassed that he'd lost track of his surroundings after having been warned to be careful.

What would Moody say?

Or, even worse, Severus?

"Good," Mr. Weasley said as he rushed at the brick wall, disappearing through it.

"I'll be right behind you so don't stop suddenly once you're through," Kingsley stated as Harry looked at him.

With a nod of his head, Harry discretely tapped his right arm to alert Zera of what was going to happen before he ran forwards. Although this wall wasn't nearly as bad as the one separating Mystic Alley from Diagon Alley, he'd promised Zera he'd give her a few seconds to prepare for it.

"Looks like they managed to make it on time after all," Mr. Weasley said once Harry and Kingsley appeared on platform nine and three-quarters alongside him.

"More than on time," Kingsley said as he looked at the redheaded group that stood next to the Hogwarts Express. "They're actually a little early. It's a full fifteen minutes before the train leaves!"

Harry glanced sideways at the Auror, unsure if he was teasing Ron's father or not. From the large smile on the tall wizard's face and the irritated look Mr. Weasley was giving him, he figured that he was. Perhaps the two were friends from work?

"Harry!" Ron suddenly shouted, having caught sight of them through the gathering crowd.

"Hey, Ron," Harry returned as he jogged over to them. "Fred, George, Ginny, Mrs. Weasley. How are you all?"

"Blimey, mate, you've grown!" Ron declared, his eyes growing wide in shock as he got a better look at his best friend.

"Yeah," George agreed. "You're taller than Ronnikins."

"Our little adopted baby brother, all grown up!" Fred exclaimed before he pretended to start crying and leaned against his twin for comfort.

"Will you two ever grow up?" Mrs. Weasley demanded as she brushed by them to reach Harry. "Merlin, dear, you have grown."

Before Harry could stop her, Mrs. Weasley had him in a tight hug. He heard Zera hiss in annoyance and alarm as she was partially trapped by the encircling arms. She instantly constricted her coils to give herself more room and avoid being crushed and Harry had to force down a wince. The moment Mrs. Weasley relaxed her grip, Zera shifted and moved higher up his arm to coil herself loosely around his neck. Luckily she had sought out his body heat and had moved under his shirt.

"Harry, how much do you weigh?" Mrs. Weasley suddenly demanded, frowning at him.

"Mum!" Ron protested as he appeared next to her, sending an apologetic look at his friend.

"He's far too thin," Mrs. Weasley replied, glaring at her youngest son before turning her critical eyes back to Harry. "And it can't be good that he needs to wear a jumper in this weather."

"I don't," Harry stated, having forgotten about the jumper. "I only wore it so the Muggles wouldn't see my shirt," he continued, pulling off the garment.

"You're wearing it!" Ron said, his face lighting up.

"Yes."

"Have you tried to touch it?" Fred enquired.

"We couldn't," George added.

"I couldn't get it either," Harry said. "I assumed that it was charmed to be untouchable."

"That's what I assumed too, but the shopkeeper refused to say if it was or if only someone with Seeker reflexes could get it," Ron explained.

"If Harry can't get it, then no one can," Ginny piped up, blushing as everyone turned to look at her.

"How are Bill and Charlie?" Harry asked, trying to steer the conversation away from his appearance lest anyone noticed the slight bulge Zera made at his neck.

He didn't quite fancy explaining that he now had a snake as a familiar to the majority of the Weasley family at once. Ron had quite an aversion to most things Slytherin and he still didn't quite know what he thought of the fact that he was a Parselmouth, let alone a live Slytherin mascot.

Besides, talk of Zera would bring up his birthday and, most probably, lead to questions about what he'd done all summer; something he'd like to avoid as much as possible. He didn't want to lie to his friends, or anyone else for that matter, but he didn't want to tell them the truth either.

Harry had a fairly good idea of what their reactions would be and he didn't want to see or hear their disgust and pity. They probably wouldn't be able to look past the Head of House Slytherin to see his father. They wouldn't want to and he doubted that he could convince them otherwise without mentioning his mother's memories. He could already picture the outrage on Hermione's face if he admitted that he'd left Privet Drive against Dumbledore's orders.

He honestly wasn't sure what would be worse, to see disgust or pity on their faces. Considering what his own initial reaction had been to the news, he wouldn't be able to fault them for their responses, but he didn't want to have to deal with it anyway. Besides, Harry didn't feel like it was right to tell anyone the truth before he told Severus. The man had been devastated by a lie created to protect his son; he owed it to his father to let him be the first person he told the truth to. He deserved to be the next person to know.

Not only was it Severus' right to be the next person to know, but he also deserved to learn the truth directly from his son. After his trip to the vault, Harry had pondered asking the Headmaster to relay the message but he knew it wasn't right to do so. On top of that, he really did want to discover how Severus really felt about it. In order to do so, he needed to see his initial reaction to the news and not give him enough time to think about it and put on another mask.

He didn't want to be a duty; an obligation Snape felt he had to fulfil due to his mother's memory. Harry didn't think he could take living somewhere else where he wasn't wanted. Especially if he was only to discover this after he'd been living with the man for a while due to Severus' acting skills. That would be hell. Even more so now that he had somewhere else to go if needed, somewhere he was wanted. At least where he hoped that he was still wanted...

Harry shoved the thought aside violently, not even wanting to consider the possibility that Sirius' hatred for Snape might be greater than his love for him. Tracking back to his original thought instead, he knew that while he didn't want to have to lie to his friends, he wouldn't admit the truth to them either. So he'd have to be very good at evasion then to avoid having to lie.

"They're fine," Mrs. Weasley replied absently, still frowning. "If I'd known you were growing so much, I would have sent you more food. You certainly could have used it."

"That's okay," Harry reassured her, forcing his thoughts back to the conversation. "The food you sent was terrific."

"We'd better get on the train before anyone steals the compartment I got for us," Ron interjected before he glanced over at where his father was standing. "Where's your trunk, mate?"

"Oh, right," Harry said, remembering, before he dug into his pockets and pulled it out along with his miniaturized Firebolt. "Your father shrunk them for me."

"Here, allow us to assist you, good Sir," Fred offered as he and George drew their wands, each aiming it at one of his hands.

"Are you allowed to use magic here?" Harry questioned uncertainly, wondering if he was about to end up with enlarged hands due to an 'accidental' misaim.

"Yeah, they're allowed," Ron muttered darkly, glaring at his elder brothers. "They passed enough O.W.L.s. two years ago."

"Ah," was all Harry managed before the twins cast their incantations, simultaneously, and he yelped as his trunk became full size in his hand.

"Wingardium Leviosa!" George exclaimed, catching the falling trunk before it hit the ground.

"Sorry about that," Fred apologized as Mrs. Weasley glared at them from the conversation she'd been drawn into with the parents of one of Ginny's friends.

"Here you go," George said as he cast a feather-light spell on the trunk.

"But now we must go," Fred declared, walking off.

"People to see, prank and annoy," George agreed before they vanished into the crowd that had gathered on the platform.

"I don't know why they're so kind to you all of a sudden," Ron grumbled. "They've been a right nuisance all summer!"

"Did you try to sneak up into their room after all?" Harry asked knowingly.

"I was just curious!" Ron defended.

"Muggles have a saying about that you know," Harry said as he followed his best friend to the entrance of one of the carriages.

"Oh?"

"Curiosity killed the cat."

"And what the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not entirely sure. It's an expression."

"Muggles can be right strange sometimes," Ron announced a second later.

"Sometimes," Harry agreed absently as he looked around the platform and frowned, catching sight of Mr. Weasley still standing off to the side, deep in conversation with Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt.

Chapter Text

"But surely they weren't that bad all summer?" Harry asked as he got on the train.

"Pretty much," Ron countered. "They said they'd gained an investor and had to keep him happy."

"Ah."

"Though I can't imagine who'd want to fund them. Mum wasn't pleased when she heard. Not that she believed them at first, but they have the money."

"Oh," Harry said wincing as Ron pulled open the door to the compartment and entered.

"There has been one good thing about it, though," Ron admitted as Harry shoved his trunk partially under the seat before placing his Firebolt on the rack above the seat. "They bought me a new set of dress robes."

"They did?" Harry questioned as he turned to face his friend, having completely forgotten that he'd asked the twins to do so.

"Yes," Ron declared proudly, opening his trunk and pulling out a medium blue set of dress robes with some gold trim.

"Nice," Harry said. "Do you think we'll need them this year?"

"I don't know, but I decided to bring them along, just in case."

"Where's Hermione?" Harry suddenly demanded as he realized her trunk wasn't in the compartment.

"I don't know," Ron replied scowling. "Perhaps she decided to stay with her boyfriend in Bulgaria."

"What do you mean, you don't know? I thought you'd already seen her and she was just talking to some other people," Harry stated as he got to his feet.

"Nope."

"I'm going to go look for her, let her know where we are."

"Fine. Oh, before I forget, Mum wanted us to send the owls on ahead to Hogwarts as they were making too much noise and we didn't have room in the car."

"Okay, thanks," Harry said as he stepped into the corridor once more.

As he moved to the carriage door, Harry noticed some of the other students giving him funny looks before turning to whisper to each other as he passed. Not again, he thought as he groaned inwardly. It looked like things were going to be like last year and his second year again. Between Rita Skeeter's lies and the Ministry's steadfast refusal to recognize and admit that Voldemort had returned, most of his fellow students probably thought he was crazy.

Well that was just bloody fantastic! As if he didn't have enough on his mind right now, he'd have to watch his behaviour as they were probably going to be looking at him constantly to see if he was going to crack. At least there wouldn't be any new articles in the Daily Prophet about him. Well, none by Rita Skeeter anyway and, seeing how the paper had relied on her so much last year, he hoped that meant they didn't have anyone else quite like her.

At the carriage door, Harry sidestepped what appeared to be a First Year and leaned out, scanning the platform. Since there were only a few more minutes before the train left, it was considerably less crowded than before but there were still quite a few parents standing about. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were easily identified though he couldn't find Hermione or her parents. Perhaps she'd already boarded the train and was searching for them?

"Harry!" the shout came from behind him and he turned to find the twins beaming at him.

"We were hoping to catch you alone," Fred stated as they stopped before him.

"Time to talk business," George added.

"Business?" Harry enquired.

"As our silent partner, you have a say in how we run things," Fred explained.

At least Harry thought it was Fred, he was wearing the jumper with a G on it. "I didn't ask to be a partner."

"We couldn't make you anything else considering it was your money that is getting us off the ground," Fred continued.

"You'd have found a way."

"Eventually, yes," George confirmed. "But it could have taken us a few years to get the funds together."

"Which means work, mate!" Fred declared in horror.

"So what do you have planned?"

"We've talked with one of the store owners who is closing towards the end of the year," George began.

"At which point we'll buy the shop and-" Fred continued.

"Buy?" Harry interrupted.

"We were hoping to," Fred stated.

"It's cheaper than renting in the long run."

"And it assures us a place in Diagon Alley."

"Those who rent can be ousted if a better offer comes along-"

"-which can happen."

"So, if it's so lucrative, how'd you get this deal?" Harry asked, his eyes ping-ponging between the two brothers as he tried to keep up.

"Two reasons," Fred stated.

"First, we heard about it early as the owner is a cousin of Angelina Johnson."

"Second, this cousin began his shop on a dream too."

"Why is he leaving Diagon Alley then?" Harry questioned.

"He married a French gal-"

"-and is moving for love!" George finished dramatically.

"So what do you think?"

"Sounds like a plan," Harry admitted. "But will you have money left over to actually fill the store?"

"That's what we're going to work on this year," Fred said.

"We start selling stuff in school and make sure people know that we'll be in Diagon Alley."

"What did you think of our new products?"

"Did you try any?"

"They all sound great, though, while I left some surprises behind for my family, I didn't get to actually see any of them in action."

"That's too bad, mate," Fred stated.

"But there's a whole year ahead of you to try them all!" George concluded. "Not to mention four houses full of victims!"

"Speaking of four houses," Harry said. "How are you going to let the others, especially the Slytherins, know about your shop?"

"Huh?" the twins said simultaneously.

"You're going to be selling to everyone, regardless of house," Harry explained, realizing that before this summer he never would have thought of this either.

Your house was your family while at Hogwarts. That was where your friends were and, most often, your girlfriend or boyfriend. There were exceptions, as had happened with his parents, but they were rare and mostly happened between Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs as they were less involved in inter-House feuds.

"Especially when they're going to be First Years and you don't yet know where they'll end up."

"We hadn't thought of that," George admitted.

"It would mean four times the profit," Harry pointed out. "Though you'd have to generate or modify some of the pranks for this to really work."

"The hair dying potion," Fred said, catching on.

"Harry!" a shout came from outside causing them to turn and see Hermione rushing towards the train with a trolley, her bushy hair flying everywhere.

"There you are!" Harry said as he jumped down just as the whistle sounded.

The moment Hermione stopped the trolley, he grabbed one end of her trunk while George took the other, hoisting it into the train.

"That was too close!" Hermione said as she hopped onto the train just before it started to move, forcing the group to brace themselves, though Harry fell onto Hermione's trunk anyway, not yet sufficiently used to his new height to properly compensate for the sudden shift in balance.

"What happened?" Harry enquired.

"Traffic," Hermione explained, trying to catch her breath.

"We gotta go," George stated, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"We'll consider what you said," Fred added as they walked off determinedly.

"When did the world end?" Hermione asked.

"Huh?"

"Fred and George Weasley are taking something seriously!"

"Oh, we were discussing their pranks."

"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed, frowning down at him. "Don't tell me you're encouraging them!"

"They don't need any encouragement," Harry replied, deciding that he might as well start practicing his avoidance techniques and skills.

"That doesn't mean that you-" Hermione began and then simply stared in shock as Harry got to his feet once more and she was forced to look up at him. "Wow, you grew."

"Surprise," Harry said before he grabbed one end of her trunk. "Come, Ron and I have a compartment."

"Oh, good," Hermione responded as she grabbed the other end of the trunk. "I'm so glad I didn't miss the train. I told my parents we should have left earlier."

"What happened? I didn't see any traffic. Well, nothing more than usual."

"It was an accident a few miles before the motorway exit. It blocked all the lanes for over an hour."

"Ah. How was Bulgaria?" Harry asked, steadfastly ignoring the looks he was getting. Though the surprise on some people's faces indicated that they might simply be staring due to his altered appearance.

"It was wonderful!" Hermione declared eagerly. "I wish I could have stayed longer. They have so much magical history there and its tinged with all kinds of foreign influences you just don't see here. The amount of Asian and Arabic touches is amazing, especially since they're not really that close to either place."

"Maybe their Ministry is more open to those things," Harry suggested as his conversation with Corinne flitted through his head.

"What do you mean?"

"Does Fudge strike you as the most open minded individual?"

"True," Hermione agreed as they reached the compartment and Harry opened the door. "They definitely seem more accepting of other magical beings there."

"You did make it," Ron observed as they put away Hermione's trunk.

"Hello, Ron," the witch said as she sat down across from him. "Did you have a good summer?"

"As well as can be had with Fred and George in full inventing mode. I swear, if I ever discover who their mysterious investor is, I'll curse them till Merlin himself can't help them!"

"Someone funded them?" Hermione demanded in disbelief. "Now they'll never outgrow this phase!"

"You can't honestly have expected that to happen," Harry stated as he looked at her from his seat next to Ron.

"I could hope."

"What did they do to you anyway?" Harry asked his best friend.

"There were several different incidents. Though the ones they pulled on Percy were bloody brilliant! There was this one where he thought he was a dog and followed Ginny around all day on his hands and knees, barking and begging to be pet."

"That's not funny," Hermione declared as Harry cracked up. "Poor Percy, that must have been horrible!"

"Poor Percy?" Ron sputtered, his face darkening. "Poor Percy! Do you even know why he came home at all this summer? He thought that, given the events of last term, we'd all have finally come to our senses regarding Harry and would be willing to apologize to him for our previous behaviour."

"What? He didn't!" Hermione gasped.

"Oh, sure he did. He was also willing to overlook our inappropriate behaviour if we would help him to discredit Harry so that those other 'poor deluded souls' who were still being misled by the Boy-Who-Lived mystique could be shown the truth."

"Well I never," Hermione muttered angrily.

"He really did that?" Harry questioned, hurt.

"You should have seen Father!" Ron continued, a slightly awed expression falling across his face. "I've never seen him so mad before in my life. They actually shouted at each other for a while, Father about family and loyalty while Percy went on about respectability and authority."

"What happened after that?" Hermione asked.

"That's when Fred and George got involved."

"I'm sure that didn't help matters any."

"I don't care," Ron proclaimed. "He deserved it! You should have seen what the whole thing did to Mother."

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered.

"It's not your fault," Hermione declared fiercely. "But what I meant was that such acts will make it harder for Percy to come back when he finally realizes his mistakes."

"If he realizes it," Ron countered darkly. "Besides, who says we want him back?"

"He's your brother!" Hermione exclaimed in shock.

"So?"

"Family is supposed to forgive and stand by one another."

"You don't see him standing by us, do you?" Ron argued. "Instead of choosing to believe us, who know Harry personally, he takes the word of some pompous, self-important political git!"

"Just because he chooses to ignore his family ties doesn't mean that you should," Hermione reasoned, before she turned to Harry who had gone pale. "You wouldn't want the Weasleys to cast Percy out if he ever comes to his senses, now would you?"

"No," Harry declared quietly, hurrying to continue at Ron's startled look. "Hermione's right, family is too important. We may not be able to chose who we're related to, but denying it won't help or change the fact that we are related to them."

"I guess," Ron said uncertainly. "Speaking of unwanted relations, how are yours?"

"Huh?" Harry replied, a brief flash of panic shooting through him. How could Ron know?

"The Dursleys, did they treat you all right?"

"Oh," relief flooded through him even as Zera's tongue flicked across his collarbone soothingly. "Like they always do. What about you? Did you do anything exciting?"

"No. Even the trip to Diagon Alley was right boring without you two."

"Without us two?" Hermione echoed. "Harry, didn't you go get your school supplies?"

"I wasn't allowed to," Harry explained, choosing his wording carefully. "Dumbledore was quite serious when he told me I wasn't to leave the protection of the wards. He had someone get my supplies for me."

"But how will you be able to go over our books before classes start?"

"He's still got two days," Ron stated. "It's a Friday today so classes don't start tomorrow like they normally do."

"That's hardly enough time to properly go over them," Hermione declared.

"I'm surprised you had the time to even look at yours, what with all that time you spent with your boyfriend in Bulgaria."

"Viktor is not my boyfriend!"

"He's not?" Ron blinked in surprise.

"No, he's not," Hermione confirmed. "We're just good friends."

"Oh."

"We're too dissimilar and Bulgaria is far," Hermione stated matter-of-factly. "Besides, long distance relationships often fail anyway when people are motivated."

"Oh," Ron repeated.

"Since you weren't allowed out of the house this summer, I take it the shirt is a birthday gift?" Hermione questioned as the little golden snitch came to flutter across Harry's chest and hovered over his heart.

"Yes, Ron gave it to me," Harry replied, pausing briefly before plunging on. "Speaking of birthday gifts, there's someone I need to introduce you guys to."

"You got another pet?" Ron asked, looking questioningly at Hermione.

"It wasn't from me," the witch stated.

"Hagrid gave Zera to me, actually," Harry said.

"Hagrid?" Ron repeated with a slight edge of disbelief. "And you want to keep said monster why?"

"Not every animal Hagrid likes is dangerous," Hermione interjected though her voice held a slight uncertain edge to it.

"Exactly, he got me Hedwig," Harry agreed.

"So where is Zera?" Hermione asked.

*Zera, can you come out now?* Harry hissed in Parseltongue, making his two friends jump slightly.

*Sssure,* Zera replied, poking her head out of his shirt, startling Ron and Hermione once more. *Are they your friendsss?*

*Yes,* Harry stated as he reached up and let her slither onto his arm.

"A snake!" Ron exclaimed, sliding sideways across the seat a little to put some room between them as Zera's thin body slowly slid into view.

"A red milk snake," Harry commented.

"She's beautiful," Hermione said as she leaned forward for a better view. "But, Harry, snakes aren't allowed at school."

"Hagrid already asked Dumbledore and he said it was okay."

"Is she venomous?" Ron demanded, eyeing Zera uncertainly.

"No, she's a constrictor."

"Oh that's a right comfort that," Ron retorted though he looked more relaxed.

"Don't worry, she won't hurt you, she's already promised me not to bite anyone at school."

"That's right, you can really communicate with her," Hermione said as she glanced at him. "She must have been a big comfort during the summer."

"It was wonderful to have someone to talk to at night," Harry confirmed. "Do you want to touch her?"

"Would she mind?"

"No, just hold your hand out and let her smell you first."

Hermione reached forwards as instructed and her fingers twitched as Zera's tongue flickered out and grazed them. "That tickles," she commented.

"Yes, but I kinda like it," Harry responded. "Now go ahead and run your fingers over her head and body, she really likes that."

"Wow, I'd have expected her scales to be rough and stiff."

"They're not?" Ron questioned as he slid closer once more.

"No, they're smooth."

"They're a little rougher along her underside," Harry told them. "Do you want to do it too?" he asked the redhead as Zera hissed in pleasure.

"She's going to be in our dorm room, isn't she?"

"Yes."

"Well, then I guess I'd better get used to her," Ron declared as he held out a hand to her.

*He'sss nervousss,* Zera stated as she smelled him.

*He's a little afraid of you,* Harry explained. *Give him some time to get used to you.*

"She's cool," Ron said as he ran his fingers over her.

"That's because she's a reptile and reptiles are cold-blooded," Hermione said in her lecture voice. "She probably likes it underneath your shirt."

"At times," Harry replied as she slithered back up his arm to coil loosely around his neck like exotic jewellery.

"Is that her full size or is she going to grow more?" Ron asked.

"She still needs to grow some, though she's already lengthened by several centimetres since I got her."

"Oh."

"I have some more Arithmancy reading to do," Hermione declared as a silence fell between them and she opened her trunk.

"We've got two days before classes start!" Ron stated. "And you don't even know whether you'll have it the first day or not."

"But I could," Hermione replied. "Besides, two days isn't really all that much time."

"Let her read," Harry interjected. "I've got a book you'll want to look at, Ron."

"Oh?" Ron questioned, an undertone of disbelief quite clear.

"It's what Sirius gave me for my birthday. Well, him and Remus."

"Professor Lupin," Hermione corrected, not moving to dig out her book as she watched Harry open his trunk and shift through it.

"He's told me to call him Remus," Harry replied smiling, knowing that she wanted to see the book that could possibly hold Ron's attention. "Here it is."

Purposefully, Harry made sure that neither of them could see the front cover as he got it out. Then he waited for a second before he turned it around for them to see.

"Wicked!" Ron declared, his eyes going wide as he read the title. "Where'd they find that, mate? Fred and George searched for something like that once."

"Oh, for Merlin's sake, will you forever find ways to distract yourselves from your studies?" Hermione demanded.

"Actually, this is one prank book you'll be looking at too," Harry returned.

"And why would I?"

"To see the list of protection charms and spells on it. Or because of all the information it contains on Hogwarts that isn't in "Hogwarts: A History"."

"That book has everything about the castle in it that's worth knowing."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Harry replied. "Who knows what the Ministry has altered or taken out of it completely."

"What?" Hermione exclaimed. "Why would they do something like that?"

"Because they don't want something known or because they don't approve of or don't want to admit something."

"Like with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?" Ron asked with sudden understanding.

"For instance," Harry agreed. "We can't just believe everything we hear or read."

"I suppose," Hermione admitted slowly and then continued when the two boys looked at her incredulously. "Well there are instances of governmental censoring of books in Muggle history."

"Ah," Harry said, surprised at how readily she conceded the point, though, after Lockhart's books, she was probably a little more wary.

"But that still doesn't say anything about why your prankster's guide might be more accurate or less censored."

"Because the Ministry's never had the chance to touch it," Harry said, handing the book to Ron who clearly wanted to see it. "It was never published and is the only copy in existence. It was also created by some of the first students to ever attend Hogwarts."

"What?" Hermione exclaimed just as Ron gasped, having found the corresponding page.

As he'd predicted, Hermione was instantly on her feet and twisting her head to get a look at the book herself. Harry smiled as he scooted towards the window so that Hermione could sit next to Ron. As they glanced through the book, he found his thoughts drifting.

The realization that he was returning to Hogwarts, and was actually on his way there, hit him once more. In addition to the usual jubilation and excitement he always felt on the first of September, he was now also very nervous. He would be seeing Severus again today. Just thinking of his father caused his pulse to increase and he felt Zera shift slightly.

*It's okay,* Harry hissed, dimly aware that his two friends stopped talking to look at him before they returned their attention to the book. *I'm just thinking of Father.*

*You'll sssee him today, yesss?* Zera asked sleepily.

*Yes,* Harry said. *He'll be there for the opening feast. But after that it could be a few days before I see him again unless I go to him.*

*Will you?*

*I don't know. I still can't figure out how best to tell him or even how to approach him. It might be best to wait a few days, though.*

*Let thingsss sssettle and impressssss him with the essssssay?*

*Yes.*

*You'll know when it isss the right time,* Zera reassured him as she rested her head on the tip of her tail.

*I hope so,* Harry replied. *I really hope so.*

His meagre breakfast turned to acid in his stomach as Harry tried to calm his nerves. How was he to tell Severus the truth if he couldn't even figure out how to get the man alone for the conversation? He'd considered going to his office, but the man could refuse to let him enter without a valid reason for being there or, even worse, there could be other students present when he went. He could only imagine the scenario if Malfoy or some other Slytherin was with Severus when he entered. What would he say then?

Harry let his head drop to rest against the window, causing all the movements of the train to rattle him as the Hogwarts Express sped along. He dearly wished that he could just skip straight to Severus' reaction, fast forward time to that point so that he remembered how he'd gotten there but he didn't actually have to do it. That would be nice. Perhaps there was such a spell? It'd probably be highly restricted or illegal if it existed and he doubted he'd have any luck finding it on his own and he couldn't think of a way he'd manage to get Hermione to help him without her getting suspicious and demanding to know why on Earth he would want such a spell.

He was so caught up in his thoughts and worries that it took Harry a few moments to notice the sudden tense silence that had fallen across the compartment. Glancing at his friends he saw that they were eyeing him uncertainly, their postures full of worry and tension. Frowning, he was about to ask them what was wrong when he caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning towards it, he felt his heart leap into his throat as he saw Cho Chang standing in the entrance of the compartment.

"C... Cho," Harry finally managed to say after several eternal seconds.

What did she want? The mere thought of her had been enough to dredge up images of the horrifying end of the Tri-Wizard Tournament during the summer, her actual presence... The memories threatened to overwhelm him along with all the nightmares he had experienced about the event. Gone were any feelings he'd had for her last year, replaced with sorrow, grief and a deep seated worry that she would accuse him of killing Cedric as so many people apparently seemed to believe.

"Harry," Cho stated as she glanced at him before her eyes flickered to Ron and Hermione. "I... I was hoping to... to talk with you. Please?"

"I... uh," Harry began.

He really didn't want to deal with this now! He was already nervous as hell and didn't want to complicate the situation even further. Nor did he want the reminder of last year's events. But could he simply turn Cho down? She was one of the few people who deserved an explanation. At least he sincerely hoped that she wanted an explanation. It didn't look like she was angry at him. She looked heartbroken.

"Yes," Harry finally answered, looking to Hermione for help.

"I should get changed," Hermione finally said, clearly misinterpreting her friend's glance.

'No!' Harry's mind screamed silently. 'Don't leave me!'

Hermione didn't hear his plea as she picked up her black school robe and turned to Ron. "Come, you should get changed too."

"Sure," Ron replied, his eyes flickering between Harry and the Ravenclaw as he fumbled to open his trunk and pull his robe free, proving that he was every bit as untelepathetic as Hermione.

"Thank you," Cho said softly as she stepped further into the compartment so that Ron and Hermione could get by her.

"You're welcome," Hermione said with a forced smile as she slid the door shut.

Harry shifted in his seat as Cho sat down across from him. He glanced up at her quickly before looking down once more. To think he'd found it difficult to approach her last year when all he wanted was to ask her out! How did one start a conversation like this? How did one talk to a girl they'd liked after one had brought back the body of her dead boyfriend under mysterious circumstances? A brief flash of panic and horror coursed through him at the thought. She didn't think that he'd done it on purpose, did she? There had been those at the end of last year who thought that he'd killed Cedric...

"Harry," Cho began with as much nervousness in her voice as he felt. "Harry... I..."

"Yes?" he managed to ask as he glanced at her again, wincing at the pain and anguish he saw there.

Cho seemed to be as unsure about the whole conversation as he was; as unable to start it. Yet she'd come to him nonetheless. Could it be that this had been bothering her as much as his upcoming conversation with Severus had been haunting him? He hoped not but it was a distinct possibility.

"About... how did..." Cho tried again, her hands twisting the hem of her shirt. "Cedric," she finally forced out, looking up at him just in time to see his involuntary flinch. "Can you tell me what happened to Cedric. Please? I... really need to know. How did he die? Was he in pain? Who killed him?"

Harry was a bit taken aback by the sudden flood of questions once she got over the stumbling block. The last one, though, was able to sooth some of his nerves, but not nearly enough of them.

"I... yes, I can tell you," Harry replied, steeling himself as an image of the churchyard scene flashed before his eyes once more.

A glance up at Cho revealed a small, forced, smile on her lips. "Thank you," she whispered. "I really need to know."

That was a sentiment Harry could relate to. Not knowing could be torturous even if knowing could cause pain too. At least then there was no possibilities and the mind could conjure up all manner of horrendous alternatives if left unchecked.

"It... it started in the heart of the maze," Harry began, looking down at his hands once more as he decided that she didn't need to know that Cedric had experienced the Cruciatus. "I had just gotten past a sphinx and caught sight of the Cup when Cedric appeared on the path in front of me, running towards it. He would have gotten there first but there was a huge spider coming up on his left. I called out a warning and he managed to avoid it but he tripped in the process and lost his wand."

"That's what Cedric admired about you," Cho whispered. "You never let the competition get in the way of what's right."

"Huh?" Harry questioned, startled at being pulled out of his memories.

"Most people would have let him get caught by the spider so that they could get the Cup."

"Pity I didn't," Harry replied bitterly, catching the surprised expression on her face. "He'd still be alive if I had."

Momentary silence fell between them as Harry's words hung in the air. Swallowing hard, Harry forced himself to continue his tale before she could question him further.

"I tried to take down the spider but all I managed was to alert it to my presence and it decided to attack me instead. By working together, Cedric and I managed to stun it. I was injured in the process and could hardly walk, let alone run, so I told him to go get the Cup but he refused to. He said that since I'd saved him, I deserved the Cup. I refused. Cedric would have gotten to it first if he hadn't decided to be noble and that's how it was supposed to go.

"I suggested instead that we should both take the Cup as it would mean a Hogwarts victory either way. Cedric agreed and helped me towards the Cup which we then grasped at the same time. It wasn't until we landed in the middle of a graveyard that we realized that the Cup was a Portkey," Harry said, pausing briefly to look at her face.

Cho had gone pale and her hands were clenched into fists. Her eyes were brimming with tears which were, at the present, still unshed but it wouldn't be long now.

"At first we assumed that it was a part of the task, I mean what were we to think?" Harry demanded, pushing down the horror that was threatening to overwhelm him.

If only they had simply thought to grab hold of the Cup again, Cedric would still be alive today and Voldemort incorporeal... or would he? It was possible that the Dark Lord would have insisted to use his blood anyway and would simply have come up with a new plan, but it was also possible that he would have gone with that of another enemy. He wasn't sure if Voldemort would have persisted in wanting his if it meant delaying until another plan had been formed and put into action.

"We got our wands out and waited until we saw someone approaching us. It was carrying what seemed to be a baby, which caused us to hesitate," Harry continued, pausing briefly. He didn't know how much of Skeeter's articles Cho believed but he hoped not much. "I... my scar suddenly hurt and I dropped my wand. What happened next is still a little hazy but I heard someone say 'Kill the spare' and the next thing I heard was the killing curse."

"Oh Merlin!" Cho exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth in horror as the tears streamed from her large dark eyes. "Spare? Kill the spare?"

"Yes," Harry replied timidly, shifting uncertainly at the hysteria in her voice.

"They called him a spare?"

"It was a trap meant for me."

"What?"

"Vol... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named needed a specific spell done to be resurrected and he required my blood as an ingredient. That was why the Triwizard Cup was converted into a Portkey in the first place. He and the Death Eater that carried him were expecting me, as that was how they had arranged it with Crouch. Cedric was not supposed to be there."

"Crouch?" Cho repeated after a few seconds of silence.

"Bartemius Crouch Junior. He was a Death Eater who was captured and sent to Azkaban during the first war but he got out. He then managed to find You-Know-Who and they came up with this whole plan. In order to get my name into the Goblet of Fire and to assure that I made it through the Triwizard Tournament and managed to get hold of the Cup, Crouch attacked and captured Moody and then impersonated him for the whole year."

"Professor Moody was a Death Eater?"

"One using polyjuice," Harry confirmed, surprised that she was able to take it all in so fast. But then, it wasn't like Cedric had just died, and she was a Ravenclaw.

"Cedric was just an inconvenience to them," Cho whispered, horrified.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Silence enveloped the compartment once more in its uncomfortable embrace as Cho cried and tried to come to terms with the terrible truth. Harry watched her briefly, wondering what to do. He wished to comfort her but didn't know how. If it had been Hermione, he would have hugged her but he wasn't sure that Cho would welcome such an action from him and he didn't want to make the situation any worse than it already was. It was obvious she had loved Cedric and while any feelings he had once harboured for her had long since withered away in light of all that had transpired, she didn't know this.

"I... I-" Cho finally started to say as her tears slowed. "Thank you... thanks for telling me."

"Sure," Harry replied awkwardly.

"I need... I need to go," Cho declared as she got to her feet and fled the compartment.

Harry looked at the open doorway, unsure of what to do. The memories of last June ran rampant through his mind and the image of Cedric's lifeless body floated before his eyes. He tried to force them aside as he got to his feet to close the door. He had hardly taken a step when it was opened wider and Hermione appeared.

"Is she okay?" Hermione asked worriedly as she entered, her clothes under one arm as she motioning in the direction Cho had gone.

"I don't know," Harry responded as he sat down once more. "But I wouldn't know what to do if I went after her."

"Neither would I, mate," Ron stated as he entered the compartment, dropping his clothes carelessly into his trunk.

"Hopefully she's gone to her friends," Hermione said as she too put her clothes away.

"Yeah," Ron said, an uncomfortable silence falling over them.

"What is that?" Hermione questioned as her eyes fell on some of the papers in Harry's open trunk.

"What? Oh, those, I'm not sure what they are," Harry admitted as he followed her gaze. She was looking at a handful of parchment sheets from the vault that were covered in strangely elegant and curly symbols he had never seen before but which reminded him of Chinese characters in a way, though they definitely weren't Chinese. "They're written in some weird language I've never seen before."

"That's odd," Hermione commented as she picked up a sheet and examined the writing. "It looks gorgeous."

"True," Harry said, having admired the symbols already.

It hadn't taken him long to realize that it didn't seem to be done in his mother's handwriting. Despite this fact it had still seemed hauntingly familiar and a quick comparison with the scathing comments Snape had often covered his potions essays with had revealed a definite similarity. Not that he expected Hermione to realize that as she didn't have the contextual information he'd had to make that connection.

"Is this where you got Nista from?" Hermione questioned, not looking up.

"Eh," Harry began hesitantly, not wanting to lie.

"Nista?" Ron enquired as he looked up from the pranksters' guide.

"It's a word Harry asked me to look up this summer," Hermione explained. "He had come across it and didn't know what it meant."

"Did you manage to find out?" Harry asked, hoping to distract her from her original question.

He wouldn't be lying if he didn't deny it and let her assume that he'd found it on one of those sheets. That wasn't lying, it was just not answering her. That she drew the wrong conclusions from it wasn't his fault. Was it? Harry pushed the thought aside. He had known that it would be hard to conceal the truth from his friends and that he might have to lie to them at some point, so he should be happy that he could get out of this instance by simply letting Hermione assume. Things would get harder later and he'd have to actively misdirect his friends if he didn't want to lie to them so he'd better get used to it.

"It took a really long time, but I finally did manage to find one translation," Hermione said as she looked up from the sheet with a small frown. "Though I don't think it's correct."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you said that Nista was written with a capital N and the translation I found doesn't really have that. It can be written with a capital letter, but only when it's at the start of a sentence, so I think it's more of a coincidence that it means something in Croatian."

"Croatian!" Harry exclaimed, had his parents spoken that?

"Yes," Hermione replied. "Nista means nothing in Croatian."

"Nothing? But you said it meant something," Ron said confused.

"Yes, it does mean something. It's the Croatian word for nothing," Hermione explained.

"Oh."

"Nothing?" Harry repeated. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"That's strange," Harry muttered, frowning.

Why in Merlin's name would his mother have called Severus 'nothing' as a pet name? That didn't make any sense whatsoever! Considering what she had said in her letter to him, his father's sense of self worth hadn't been the best when they started dating so there was no way that she would have given him that as a nickname no matter what the need for secrecy was. It had to mean something else.

"So was it at the beginning of a sentence?" Hermione asked.

"Huh? Oh, no, it wasn't," Harry replied. "It was in the middle and it was always written with a capital."

"So it is coincidental. Besides, Croatian doesn't look anything like this writing," Hermione said as she tapped the parchment before handing it back to him. "Where did you get this parchment anyway?"

"It was among some of my parents' things," Harry answered truthfully as he put the parchment back, silently cursing his stupidity at not making sure that the sheets had been out of sight. At least he was telling the truth even if they would assume that he was referring to his mother and James.

"Your parents' stuff?" Ron demanded as he looked at him. "Your aunt and uncle had some of their things all this time and never told you? How dare they!"

"No, the Dursleys didn't have it," Harry corrected, his mind desperately seeking for a way out of this situation without lying. "It was among some stuff my mother put together in case she didn't survive the war."

"Ah, so she left it with Sirius then?" Ron asked. "Why didn't he give it to you last year?"

"He's hardly been able to go where he pleases," Hermione said. "He probably couldn't get to it any earlier."

"Actually, my mum wanted me to get it this summer," Harry stated. "Here, look at this," he continued as he dug into his trunk until he found his father's carving.

In order to protect it, Harry had wrapped the statue in one of Mrs. Weasley's jumpers. Unwrapping it, he held out his hands to Hermione so that she could see it.

"Wow, it's gorgeous," Hermione said as she picked it up.

"It was a gift..." Harry trailed off with a frown as he watched her examine the carving. Neither the lion nor the snake were moving.

"A gift?" Hermione asked looking up.

"For my mum from Father," Harry finished. "But it's supposed to move."

"Move?"

"Yes. Let me see."

The moment Hermione put the statue in his outstretched hand, the lion roared and the snake hissed, moving along its companion's back.

"That's odd," Harry said, his frown deepening though he was relieved that he hadn't managed to break it somehow.

"Maybe not," Ron countered as he looked at the carving. "Let me see it."

Harry complied, watching the lion pace on his friend's hand for a moment before becoming immobile once more.

"Just what I thought," Ron declared. "A familial spell."

"A what?" Hermione asked, eagerly leaning forwards.

"A familial spell. Harry's father must have charmed it to react only to members of his own family."

"But he gave it to Mum before their marriage."

"I reckon he spelled it for her family too then."

"I've never heard of such spells before," Hermione said.

"They're not very common, but we have a music box at home that'll only play for a Weasley."

"A music box?" Harry asked, his eyebrows rising.

"It's a special music box," Ron defended. "A family heirloom."

Through the door came the distinct sound of a snort and muffled laughter.

"What in Merlin?" Harry questioned before he got to his feet and opened the compartment door. "Malfoy," he growled as he realized just who was standing in the corridor.

"Potter," Draco shot back, though the effect was ruined by the half-laugh that slipped out. "A music box, Weasley? That's your family heirloom?"

Crabbe and Goyle, standing behind Malfoy, started snickering once more, though it sounded more like someone suffocating to Harry. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ron's face grow as red as his hair before it darkened several shades in anger as he rose. A soft creaking from behind him alerted him to the fact that Hermione had gotten to her feet as well.

"Why you," Ron sputtered, indignant.

"That's downright pathetic!"

"No one asked for your opinion, Malfoy," Harry declared as Ron went for his wand.

"Ah, ah, ah, ah," Draco scolded as he flashed a small gold badge at Ron, though Harry could see he held his wand ready with his other hand. "Do you really want to lose House points before the year has even started?"

"What?" Harry demanded as Ron paled, looking at the badge.

"Prefect," Draco stated smugly as he let Harry see.

"Impossible," Ron uttered. "You're just pretending."

"Are you calling me a liar?" Draco demanded, stepping closer with Crabbe and Goyle following. "Five points from Gryffindor for disrespecting a Prefect."

"No," Hermione said calmly.

"No?" Draco questioned, turning to her with a sneer.

"You're not allowed to take points until the school year has officially started," Hermione replied. "Which you'd know if you'd bothered to read the Prefect rules."

"What would you know about it, Mudblood?"

"More than you, obviously," Hermione retorted, colouring at the insult even as her hand emerged from her pocket holding an identical badge.

"All right, Hermione!" Ron exclaimed, beaming at Malfoy's disgruntled expression.

"So much for only the worthy becoming Prefects," Draco stated before he turned his attention to Harry and Ron. "What about you two, either of you make Prefect?"

Harry clenched his jaw as he knew what was coming next. Truthfully he'd never had any desire to become a Prefect and he'd even completely forgotten about the fact that two of his Yearmates would become Prefects. Malfoy, however, was sure to make a big deal of it and Ron would take it hard if he wasn't a Prefect. Not only would he hate for Malfoy to have made it and not him, but also because it would have been expected of him at home due to his brothers' achievements. Judging by the rapidly colouring face, his friend hadn't become a Prefect.

"Excellent," Draco declared, smug once more.

"I'd rather not be a Prefect than to be one only because I'm a teacher's pet," Harry snapped, stepping forwards slightly to block Ron's line of sight before he lost it and cursed Malfoy. His own hand, however, did slip to his wand, just in case he needed it.

"You're just jealous," Draco sneered before his eyes dropped to Zera. "Nice necklace, by the way. Very Slytherin."

"You have no idea."

"Careful, Potter," Draco warned, leaning in close. "You wouldn't want people to start thinking you're the next Dark Lord, now would you?"

Harry knew his own face was reddening at the remark but before he could formulate a coherent reply, Zera let out a threatening hiss and lounged forward, snapping at Draco. The Malfoy heir let out a startled cry as he back pedalled, colliding with Crabbe and Goyle and causing all three of them to tumble to the floor. Harry heard Ron snort with laughter even as he suppressed his own.

"I don't think Zera likes you very much," Harry commented nonchalantly as he reached up to stroke the bottom of her jaw and body as she'd repositioned herself so that the end of her body was wrapped securely around his neck while the front end was suspended in the air so she could hiss at Malfoy. "Oh, before you say she isn't allowed, let me assure you that she is."

*Draco Malfoy,* Zera hissed angrily. *Isssn't he?*

*Yes, he is,* Harry confirmed with surprise as he watched Malfoy's eyes widen as he paused in trying to get up. *How did you know?*

*He sssmellsss like hisss father.*

*Ah,* Harry said as he closed the door before Malfoy could recover.

"That was awesome," Ron concluded as Harry turned around. "Tell Zera she was great."

"That wasn't great, it was dangerous," Hermione countered. "I thought you said she wouldn't attack anyone."

"She didn't," Harry replied as he sat down. "She merely scared him. Trust me, if she'd really wanted to bite him, she would have."

"You sure?"

"Yes."

"You didn't tell us you'd become a Prefect," Ron said as he looked at Hermione. "This ruins everything!"

"Ruins?" Hermione asked. "You just found it good."

"Yes, but now you can't help Harry and me do some of these pranks," Ron replied as he indicated the Pranksters' Guide.

"Or wander about at night," Harry added.

"How about a 'Congratulations, Hermione' or a 'You deserve it, Hermione'?" Hermione demanded as she grabbed some supplies from her trunk. "I've worked quite hard for this position, thank you very much. Now, I have to go. I've got a Prefects' meeting to attend."

"What's wrong with her?" Ron questioned as she stormed out of the compartment. "It's true."

"I reckon we should have congratulated her," Harry said. "I wonder who the second Gryffindor Prefect is."

"Someone willing to take on Malfoy, I hope. Otherwise we're in for a rough year."

"Yeah," Harry agreed gloomily. And he'd thought things couldn't get more complicated! If Malfoy decided to follow him to catch him when he did something wrong, he'd never be able to talk to his father! "What the," he muttered as his eyes fell on a thin book in Hermione's trunk.

"Huh?" Ron queried as Harry leaned forwards and picked it up.

"It's a driver's manual," Harry said as he flipped through the book.

"A what?"

"A book with the rules of the road and an explanation of the signs and fines for breaking the rules," Harry explained as he stopped on a random page.

"Black ice," Ron read one of the section headers. "What does that mean?"

"Black ice is a type of ice that forms under certain conditions and is hard to see due to its colour. If people are driving too fast they can lose control when they hit a patch of it."

"Why does Hermione need the book?"

"Muggle law requires people to take a theory test before they can get a Provisional Licence. She must be preparing for it, though why I don't know... oh, right, she's a year older than us."

"Age requirement?"

"Yes, but I think Hermione is still too young."

"I can't wait until next year," Ron declared. "We learn to Apparate then."

"Now that will be useful," Harry stated as he dropped the book back into Hermione's trunk.

Absently he turned around and pulled a school robe out of his own trunk and quickly changed, hastily folding his clothes before stuffing them into his trunk. Briefly Harry frowned as he saw that the robe was obviously too short for him but there was nothing he could do about it. He sincerely hoped that Dumbledore had been able to get him some new robes as he didn't want to parade around the school like this.

Since Ron had taken to looking through the book once more, Harry sat back down and stroked Zera as his thoughts turned to the upcoming meeting with his father. Despite his anxiety, the lack of sleep he had been getting lately must have caught up with him because the next thing he knew it was completely dark outside and Hermione was back, her Prefect's badge displayed prominently on her robes next to the Gryffindor shield.

"You're awake," Hermione said as she looked up from her book. "Haven't you been sleeping well lately?"

"Visions," Harry explained as he stretched. "And nightmares."

"Sorry to hear that," Ron said, holding out a chocolate frog. "We got you one from the trolley."

"Thanks," Harry said before he laughed as Zera, who'd leaned forwards to inspect what he had, pulled back in surprise as the frog jumped.

*You sssaid you didn't eat live prey,* Zera hissed in annoyance.

*Humans don't. This frog shaped chocolate has just been spelled to act like a real one. Like your food.*

"We did expect you to wake sooner," Hermione admitted as Harry looked up in shock as a voice stated they would arrive in ten minutes.

"That's okay," Harry said as he popped the last of the chocolate into his mouth. "I needed it."

Quickly Harry rummaged through his trunk until he found his Vision Journal. Pulling it out, he shrunk it and put it in a pocket. Perhaps he'd be able to give it to Dumbledore after dinner. He then grabbed the bag of snake treats and, before he could open it, Zera had already slithered down his arm to it.

*Hungry?* Harry enquired as he laughed.

*A little.*

"Are those mini-owl treats?" Ron asked.

"They're snake treats," Harry corrected, pulling one out and offering it to Zera. "She loves them."

"I can see," Hermione stated as she watched Zera snatch it up before flicking her tongue at the bag again.

*Just one more,* Harry hissed at his familiar as he handed it to her. *You should probably hide yourself again. We're going to be leaving the train soon and it'll be best if people don't see you during the opening feast.*

*Okay,* Zera hissed as she slipped under his sleeve and made her way to his upper arm.

Unable to think of anything else that he needed now, Harry picked up the Prankster's Guide that Ron had put beside him into his trunk and closed it.

"Hermione, aren't you still too young to get a Provisional Licence?" Harry asked as he leaned back in his seat.

"What?" Hermione said as she looked up from her book. "Oh, I figured that I might have some time to start preparing for it this year. You can never be too prepared."

"Speak for yourself," Ron stated. "When can you take that test anyway?"

"When I'm seventeen."

"I'm surprised you're worrying about that at all," Harry said. "What with our O.W.L.s at the end of the year."

"Don't remind me!" Ron groaned.

"I only brought it along in case," Hermione replied as she put the book she was reading into her trunk and closed it. "You never know."

The train, which had been gradually slowing, stopped with the usual jerk just as the voice told the First Years to leave their belongings on the train.

"Don't," Ron warned as he saw the frown cross Hermione's face. "Let's go get a carriage before they fill up."

Harry released a soft sigh as Hermione simply got up and left the compartment instead of launching into another House Elf rights lecture. He really hoped that she wouldn't be as insistent about the whole issue as she had been last year.

As he followed Hermione out of the compartment, Harry decided he really liked being able to see over the heads of most people. Only the Sixth and Seventh Years were taller, but not all of them. As he stepped onto the platform, he waved at where Hagrid stood surrounded by a sea of First Years. The half-giant gave a start before smiling and waving back at him.

Harry's smile faded a little as he noticed the looks he was receiving from most of the people around him. He lost the smile entirely and his mouth dropped open in shock as he caught sight of the carriages.

"Ouf!" Ron said as he walked into Harry who'd frozen on the spot. "What's up, mate?"

Instead of replying, Harry simply pointed.

"Yes, the horseless carriages," Ron said as Hermione, who'd been in the lead, noticed they were no longer following and returned to them.

"But they're not, horseless I mean," Harry said as he stared at the skeletal horse-like creatures standing before the carriages, their wings flapping restlessly as they stamped at the ground and shook their heads, white glowing eyes looking around. "Well, I guess they are horseless, but... what are those things?"

"What things?"

"Those animals before the carriages!"

"Harry, there's nothing there," Hermione said softly, looking between him and the carriages.

"Yes, there is!" Harry insisted, not liking her tone. It sounded too much like it had when he'd first told them he heard a voice from the walls back in Second Year. "They're just fading in and out of view a little."

"I don't see anything either," Ron stated after squinting at the area for a moment.

"I do," a soft voice declared from behind them.

"Neville!" Harry exclaimed as he turned. "You do?"

"Yes, they're thestrals."

"What?" Harry asked as Ron sucked in a sharp breath. "What are thestrals?"

"They're Dark Creatures," Ron explained. "Meat eaters who aren't too picky about whether their food is dead or alive."

"Why can't you or Hermione see them?"

"Because we haven't seen someone die," Hermione explained.

"What?" Harry demanded, stunned.

"Only someone who's seen death can see a thestral," Neville stated. "I saw my grandad die."

"And I saw Cedric," Harry added before he frowned. "Wait a minute, I saw my mum die too, why couldn't I see them before?"

"Did... did you actually see her die?" Hermione asked tentatively. "Or did you just hear it all?"

"I... I'm not sure," Harry admitted.

"That could be it," Neville said.

"We need to get a carriage," Hermione stated as the crowd around them lessened.

Since they knew all of the close carriages would already be occupied, they headed for the ones standing further away. Both Harry and Neville gave the thestrals a wide berth with Ron following their example as he muttered about mad headmasters and insane half-giants.

"It can't be that bad," Hermione said as they found an empty carriage and climbed in.

"Not that bad?" Ron questioned in disbelief. "This is Hagrid we're talking about!"

"But Professor Dumbledore approved it, if it was even Hagrid who started using thestrals."

"I still say they're both barking mad," Ron declared.

Harry snorted at the description as the carriages started to move, Dumbledore's sanity was highly questionable at times.

"Did you have a good summer, Ron and Harry?" Neville asked.

"Nope," Harry replied, startling the other boy. "I wasn't allowed to leave the house."

"For your own protection," Hermione stated.

"Your own protection?" Neville repeated, confused before his eyes opened wide. "Oh, yes, I see."

"You believe me and Dumbledore?" Harry questioned, hopeful.

"Of course," Neville replied. "My... my parents stood with the Headmaster when he was around before."

"Yes, I heard about them," Harry said.

"Y... you did?" Neville questioned, seeming to shrink a little in his seat.

"Yes. They were very brave," Harry replied, seeing him straighten a little. "I'm sorry."

"Thanks," Neville whispered.

"You're a Prefect!" Ron suddenly exclaimed as he noticed the golden badge on the chubby boy's robe.

"Yes," Neville said proudly. "My grandmother was so excited. Apparently my father was a Prefect too."

"Congratulations," Harry said, remembering Hermione's reaction from earlier.

"You're going to have to help us with Malfoy," Ron declared.

"Ron! Just because Malfoy may be willing to abuse his Prefect power doesn't mean that Neville and I shall do so!" Hermione scolded.

"But if you don't counter him, we'll lose heaps of points!"

"I'm sure the professors won't allow him to do that."

"Yeah, right, Snape will probably reward him for it," Ron retorted, not seeing Harry's slight wince.

"There are more professors than just Professor Snape," Hermione stated.

"And if Malfoy does it anyway?"

"We'll see what happens first."

"She'll help us if we really need it," Harry told Ron as he smiled at Hermione who scowled at him but made no attempt to deny it.