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Certain Dark Things

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1 - THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE

hell is empty and all the devils are here.

 


 

 

prologue. deathly reverence

 

The girl had barely begun to live before her life ended in a flash of green.

Caught in the space between here and there, she might have drifted until the end of time, when the world would shudder and smoke and snuff itself out with a final, seething hiss—if not for a peculiar twist of fate that brought the looming specter of Death to Godric’s Hollow on a desperate October night in 1981.

You see, Death never needed to waver far from the side of the man who called himself Lord Voldemort. For all that the Dark Lord despaired and spat upon his inevitable end, he danced willingly enough with his invisible nemesis and delighted in sending soul after soul into Death’s waiting hands. Death took what was given to him, he wouldn’t turn away those who crossed the Veil, but with every life lost and every flicker of green light, Death came to loathe the spiteful monster just a little bit more. He watched the soul break piece by piece by piece. Voldemort didn’t have sovereignty over the end; he had no right to feed Death like a corpulent cat nipping at his master’s heels.

For his lack of reverence even in the face of utter terror, Death hated the man who was born Tom Riddle all the more.

It was on the night of Samhain, when the Veil drew taut between the two worlds and the looming specter could almost step out into the realm of the living, that Death followed Voldemort to Godric’s Hollow. He took the soul of the father, watched him crumple upon the carpeted stairs as Tom stepped over the man’s limp corpse. He took the soul of the mother, heard her beg for the life of a terrified, black-haired child clinging to the rails of a crib.

He heard the mother’s soul whisper, “Spare her.”

Then Voldemort raised his wand for the third time, his silhouette a gruesome sight in the watery glow of a nightlight, the sweeping motion of his arm practiced like a reaper hewing through the stalks of a summer harvest. Green light struck the crying infant and splayed across the crook of her neck in a sizzling mimicry of lightning—only for something to go wrong, some resplendent hitch of gold ambiance that blinded even Death himself stealing through the small nursery. The wall exploded outward. Another piece of Tom Riddle went flying away from the rest of his wretched being.

Death watched Voldemort flee, the man’s pale visage shaken, his soul hemorrhaging—but ignorant Tom felt no remorse for what he had done, only a sick remnant of fear from witnessing the curse sling itself back in his direction, and so his soul found no respite as the Dark Lord fled into the night. Death didn’t follow. Instead, he remained and looked down upon the still form of the infant with red seeping from her neck, her green eyes frozen, her being tangled in the net between this realm and the next.

Shadowy fingers slipped across the child’s brow. Strange, Death mused as he plucked the girl’s soul from the Veil. He knew this soul; had come across it in another time, another place, another world, and had called it Master. The bit of Tom that had splintered from the already ravaged whole had twisted itself about the girl, strangling her soul like a determined snake, but something of the mother remained in a vein of gold suppressing the parasitic fragment.

Try as he might, Death could not steal that piece of Tom’s wretched soul. It clung with unrivaled ferocity to the girl’s in an attempt to consume and subvert it—but the innocent soul did not give in. It persisted, burnished and brilliant despite the taint trying to tear it apart.

An idea occurred to him.

He returned the soul to the girl. A shuddering breath escaped fragile lungs, and then weeping split the air, the great, gasping sobs of a wounded child shattering the solemnity of Death settling upon the broken home. The had girl lost everything in but a handful of minutes.

Death sunk into the shadows spilled about the crib’s base. Perhaps not everything.

 


 


i. the shadow of the serpent charmer

 

The Dursleys of Number Four, Privet Drive, liked to think they were as normal as normal could be.

Really, they turned normalcy into an art form; Mrs Dursley fancied herself a model housewife, Mr Dursley the consummate businessman, and their son a rosy-cheeked, boisterous lad. Petunia Dursley—tall, blond, thin and rather horsey in appearance—cleaned house, gossiped with their equally nosy neighbors, and always had supper on the table by five in the evening. Vernon Dursley was a heavyset man with a black mustache and little hair on the crown of his head. He work as a director at Grunnings, a firm that produced drills, a career so thoroughly mundane even his office was painted a boring beige. Their son, Dudley, often returned from school with a note or two of reprimand from his teachers, but they put off his antics as examples of youthful enthusiasm.

Yes, the Dursleys were perfectly bland. By all expectations, a soul would be hard-pressed to ever find a family more ordinary, more average, more dull than the Dursleys of Privet Drive.

They did, however, have a secret—a secret who lived in the cupboard under the stairs, a secret the Dursleys hated to acknowledge, a secret they denied and ridiculed and feared in equal measures.

Her name was Harriet Potter, and she was not a normal girl.

_____

 

The sudden rapping of knuckles on the cupboard door jerked Harriet out of unsound dreams. Groggy, she rose from her nest of well-worn blankets—and whacked her head on the underside of a stair riser.

Bloody hell….”

“What was that?” demanded the shrill voice on the other side of the door.

“Nothing, Aunt Petunia,” Harriet slurred in response as she fumbled in the dark, her thin fingers curling around the cool metal of her wire-framed glasses. Her dream stayed with her like a filmy shroud of mist. She tried to wipe it from her skin, but the malignant sense of oozing dread remained, and when Aunt Petunia slid back the latch on the cupboard door, Harriet remembered that something had been there in her dream, something scrabbling at the handle trying to get inside. She shivered.

The door came open, and Harriet’s eyes watered in the harsh brunt of morning sunshine. Aunt Petunia crouched at the entrance, wearing an apron already spotted with flour, glowering at the scrawny girl sitting in a dizzy heap atop her cot.

“Get up and get breakfast ready,” she snapped. “And you’d best not burn the bacon.”

“Of course, Aunt Petunia,” Harriet said, because there was nothing else really she could say. Harriet watched as her aunt sniffed and rose, turning on the heels of her white shoes before pacing back toward the kitchen. Harriet swayed for a moment and weighed the repercussions of falling back into her pillow against Aunt Petunia’s eventual wrath. The black shadows in the cupboard created by the narrowly focused sunshine curled and twisted in such a way that was not at all typical for shadows to behave. The tendrils solidified into a rather comical approximation of an arrow and jabbed toward the waiting hall.

Harriet snorted. “Yeah, alright, I’m up and going, Set.”

In her own opinion, the strangest thing about Harriet Potter had to be her shadow—or, to be more precise, the creature who lived within it. He had been there for as long as she could remember, and she knew he was a he because of the vaguely looming, masculine shape he took when he stopped hiding underfoot. One of her earliest memories was of him making shadow puppets on the ceiling of her cupboard just to make her laugh. She knew nothing about him, really, and had only ever gotten three words out of the entity in the all the years she’d been testing him: “yes,” “no,” and “Set,” which she later came to understand was his name.

Harriet was not like the Dursleys. She was thin-boned, green-eyed, and messy haired—an ugly crow chick kicked too soon from the nest, short and skinny and pale from living in the dark for the better part of ten years like Gollum in her favorite story books. Her thick glasses had been picked from a bin at a local charity shop, and her hand-me-down clothes were stained and carelessly hemmed by her Aunt within an inch of their life. Whereas the Dursleys were fleshy and loud and red in color, Harriet was dry, quiet as the wind through winter trees and just as lackluster in hue. Her mum had been Aunt Petunia’s sister, but Harriet just couldn’t imagine coming from a woman related to anything Dursley.

She also had scar upon her neck she had supposedly received in the accident that had killed her mum and dad ten years ago. A curious thing, it stretched from her right collarbone up around her throat and down part of her chest in fractal patterns, like branches of lightning spiraling through her flesh. The white color of the scarring stood out stark against even Harriet’s pale skin, and her aunt often sneered whenever she caught sight of the strange marking. She wondered if the scar reminded Aunt Petunia of her sister Lily.

Sighing, Harriet shuffled out into the hall, feeling grubby and disheveled from sleeping in the stuffy dark of the cupboard. She ran her fingers through her short hair in a vain attempt to flatten the wilder spots, but nothing Harriet ever did tamed the mop on her head. Several times she’d pleaded with her aunt to let her grow it out, but Aunt Petunia had no time from her “scruffiness,” and so every other month or so the woman took a pair of kitchen shears and hacked off Harriet’s hair until it was only vaguely longer than a boy’s. Her classmates often mocked her and called her “Hairy Harry.” Harriet hated that.

The smell of vanilla and cinnamon invaded Harriet’s nose when she walked into the kitchen and she sniffed in appreciation, glancing toward the oven to see Aunt Petunia moving a baked cake from its pan onto a cooling rack. Bowls of mixed frosting and little tacky decorations littered the counter. Harriet stifled a groan when she remembered it was Dudley’s eleventh birthday.

Should have stayed in bed.

The boy himself came barging in not a minute after Harriet finished frying up three plates of bangers and mash and more bacon than a reasonably sized pig could provide. Dudley was blond like his mother and rotund like his father—more so, in fact. He had all the presence of a garishly colored beach ball, especially in his striped t-shirt already stained with what looked like chocolate on the collar. Harriet wouldn’t have held his weight against him if Dudley hadn’t of been such a terrible little monster. He and his gang of friends loved to chase her down, and though Harriet was often quick enough to evade him, Dudley had caught and sat on her once. Harriet broke two ribs and spent two days whinging about the pain before Uncle Vernon took her to the emergency room.

Dudley toddled over to the table groaning under the weight of wrapped presents with a gleeful expression on his face. “How many are there?” he demanded of his mother, ignoring Harriet’s presence entirely as she slid plates of food onto whatever clear space she could.

“Thirty-seven, Diddykins,” Aunt Petunia crooned as she came up behind her son and smoothed his combed hair. He looked a bit like a pig in a wig to Harriet, but she wisely kept her opinion to herself.

If Aunt Petunia expected Dudley to be grateful, she had another thing coming. “I only count thirty-six,” he said, sullen color rising in his already pink cheeks. “Thirty-six. That’s two less than last year!”

Aunt Petunia went about trying to mitigate the boy’s oncoming temper tantrum and Harriet turned a deaf ear to the conversation, going back to the kitchen proper so she could pop a piece of bread into the toaster and slather on some peanut butter. She thought of her own eleventh birthday looming on the horizon, just a month away, and knew there’d be no celebration, no happy affection or hugs or warm kisses on the cheek. There’d be no presents for her, of course. There never were. The Dursleys abhorred spending any amount of money of selfish little freaks like Harriet.

She couldn’t help being a freak, if that was indeed what she was. Sometimes odd things occurred around her, odd things that infuriated her aunt and uncle and terrified the daylights out of Dudley. Harriet didn’t think it fair for them to blame her, especially since she couldn’t explain why these things happened in the first place. Sometimes objects fell off the counter, and she had a sneaking suspicion Set was to blame, though she never caught him in the act. Once, Uncle Vernon’s pant leg burst into flame when he stood over Harriet threatening to smack her upside the head for her cheek. Another time the television exploded while Harriet wasn’t even in the room, though she had been fervently hoping someone would turn the roaring volume down.

They could hardly blame her for such oddities. It wasn’t like someone could set people on fire with their mind.

Though, to be honest, Harriet rather liked the idea; she thought the Dursleys could benefit from having the seat of their pants set alight every now and then.

The phone rang and Aunt Petunia tutted about solicitors interrupting breakfast as she got up and went to answer the handheld. At the counter, Harriet polished off the last bit of her toast and looked glumly down at the crumbs on the plate. She’s go for a second piece if she didn’t think her relatives would snatch it right out of her hands for being greedy.

“Bad news, Vernon,” Aunt Petunia said as she returned, her face scrunched in a look of displeasure. “The old woman just called. She can’t take the girl; something about a broken leg.”

Harriet perked up. The “old woman” in question was Mrs Figg, an elderly widow who lived the next block over on Wisteria Walk and had a mildly obscene obsession with cats. The Dursleys left Harriet with the woman whenever they went on vacation or somewhere exciting, not that Harriet minded much. She imagined even the best places would be atrocious in the company of her relatives, and Mrs Figg was nice enough. She was odd, but Harrriet liked off things and odd people. Sometimes she gave Harriet left over cake.

As Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon argued, Dudley threw a right fit about “not wanting her to come,” his voice ringing in the confines of the house. Apparently they had an outing at the zoo planned for today. Harriet loved animals and, for a moment, the thought of going to the zoo sounded fascinating—until she saw the look in Dudley’s piggy eyes as he glared at her over Aunt Petunia’s shoulder.

No, going to the zoo would be a bloody nightmare in the making.

“I’m supposed to do the garden today,” she said aloud, raising her voice high enough to be heard above their yelling. The Dursleys stared, Uncle Vernon quickly approaching a shade near violet. “So I could, err, just do that while you’re gone?”

Her aunt and uncle exchanged pointed looks, Uncle Vernon seemingly pleased with the idea, Aunt Petunia more suspicious of Harriet’s motives. “We can lock her out in the garden,” Vernon said softly, hand on Petunia’s arm. “It’s a pleasant enough day out, plenty of water—a day of chores will do the lazy runt some good.”

Harriet almost—almost—rolled her eyes. Rolling one’s eyes was quite high on the list of things one shouldn’t do if they didn’t want to get swatted.

Aunt Petunia fretted a bit more, Dudley’s great, heaving sobs cutting off with haste when the doorbell rang and Petunia went to greet Piers Polkiss, Dudley’s best mate. Uncle Vernon quickly ushered Harriet out the back door while Aunt Petunia was distracted. The lock engaged behind Harriet with a decisive snap.

A different little girl may have been terrified of being shut out in the yard for much of the day, but Harriet was quite enthused. She sat on the porch steps with the morning sun hot on her head, listening to the voices inside dwindle, then shift out into the front. She could hear Uncle Vernon’s booming laugh, then the clap of car doors coming closed. A minute later, the engine to Uncle Vernon’s brand new company car turned over, and the wheels rumbled on the asphalt as the Dursleys drove away.

Harriet’s shoulders slumped. From the bushes came a rustle of broken twigs.

Ssspeaker.”

A voice rose from the bed of Aunt Petunia’s prized violets. Harriet hopped off the porch steps and crouched in the grass, her arms around her knees as she peeked through the bright leaves and saw a slender body slide through the mulch. “Ssspeaker,” the little grass snake said again as it raised its narrow head.

Ever since she was young, Harriet had been able to understand snakes. They sought her out for conversation and addressed her by the assumed title “Speaker.” Harriet didn’t know what a Speaker was—well, aside from the obvious. She didn’t know why she was different in that regard and simply decided it was yet another odd factoid on the ever increasing list of reasons why Harriet Potter was not normal. Next to having a sentient shadow and occasionally sparking accidental fires, Harriet considered chatting with snakes a rather tame quirk.

Hello,” Harriet said. “You have pretty scales.” She had learned early on that the smallest snakes usually weren’t overly bright and were only good for short bursts of conversation.

Thank you, Ssspeaker,” the snake replied, swaying as if mesmerized. Another snake moved in the bushes and addressed Harriet, their sibilant voices twining together as they hissed out that title again and again. Harriet wondered what it was like to be a snake. Would it be better than living here, at Privet Drive? Maybe. Maybe not. Harriet didn’t think she’d much like the taste of mice or bugs, so she had better stay a little girl.

There’s some crickets in the hedge, you know,” Harriet told the little snakes, pointing out the boxwood off by the locked garden gate. “Should be enough for both of you.”

Both little snakes thanked her before zooming away like flickers of light in the parched grass. She was feeling rather maudlin about the day, as she always did around holidays and special occasions, but Harriet decided everything really wasn’t all that bleak. In fact, she was looking forward to the start of the new school year; she’d be attending Stonewall High, a local state secondary school, and for the first time in her life wouldn’t be in class with her bullying cousin. Dudley had gotten in to Uncle Vernon’s old public school, Smeltings. Harriet wouldn’t have to see Dudley for almost ten months while he was away.

Smiling, Harriet stretched herself out on the lawn, feeling the warmth of the earth press into her back as her shadow stretched long at her side and one of the grass snakes returned, its hissing muffled by a mouthful of cricket. It wound about her ankles, and though the pressure of the thin body felt odd and ticklish, Harriet thought it comforting.

“Things are going to get better. I’m going to make friends and do my best and Dudley won’t be about to stop me!” she said to no one in particular, though Set did spool around her in a great black circle. He spiraled in feathery coils not unlike those of a giant snake. “Everything is going to be alright.”

Set pooled through the upturned blades of grass and seemed to go on forever.

 

 

Chapter Text

ii. under the stairs

 

Everything, Harriet understood, was not alright. Truly Harriet knew the way she lived was not proper; no other girl at her primary lived in a boot cupboard or wore hand-me-downs of such ridiculous proportions. No one else went hungry at lunch time because they didn’t have pocket change and no one else seemed baffled by simple affection like Harriet was. The only time she ever remembered being hugged was in her third year, when she told Mrs Richards the Dursleys didn’t give her dinner and wouldn’t let her have a better blanket and Dudley kept pinching her arms until they were black and blue. The Dursleys told Mrs Richards that Harriet was a horrid liar and the teacher never hugged her again.

Harriet didn’t realize she wasn’t being properly treated until she started first form. Then she learned that “nasty little burdens” aren’t actually something you should call children, let alone a blood relative, and for all their vaunted respect of normalcy, the Dursleys were perfectly abnormal in their care for poor Harriet. Still, she liked to tell herself “Everything will be alright” from time to time, liked to dream her parents would pop up out of the blue and say there had been a mistake, they’d survived the car accident that had supposedly killed them, or a long-lost relation would arrive on the doorstep of Number Four to whisk Harriet away. “Everything will be alright” she told herself, and soon Harriet hoped that wish would come true.

Her life changed on a balmy summer day midway through July. It was an innocuous day like any number before it; Aunt Petunia banged on the cupboard door, Harriet stirred herself from unpleasant dreams and set about making breakfast. She fried up the eggs and potatoes, serving the family before she took her own seat at the table and picked over a bowl of stale granola. Dudley sat across from her in his new Smeltings uniform. He looked so ridiculous, Harriet had to hide her laughter in well-timed coughs.

She didn’t find the knobbly Smeltings stick very funny, however. Why a school thought it necessary to give young boys sticks for whacking each other was beyond Harriet’s comprehension.

A clatter in the hall signaled the post’s arrival.

“Get the mail, Dudley.”

“Make her get it.”

“Go on then, girl.”

Harriet set aside her granola and rose from the table. Dudley aimed a whack toward her leg with his stick and she dodged, scrunching her nose up in derision as she passed him by. Her cousin scowled. Really, Harriet couldn’t even begin to guess what life at Privet Drive would be like without Dudley constantly hounding her. Maybe Aunt Petunia wouldn’t be so cold if Dudley wasn’t near by for her to smother with her unfettered love. Not that Harriet thought she should be smothered instead. She knew her aunt was capable of being nice if she wished to be; she simply never seemed to have the inclination.

She dragged her feet over to where the letters lay on the mat and picked them up. There were several bills, a postcard from Vernon’s sister “Aunt” Marge, who was staying on the Isle of Wight—and a letter for Harriet.

Frozen, Harriet almost dropped the thick envelope as she turned it about in her hands and reread the addressee.

 

Miss H. D. Potter

The Cupboard Under the Stairs

4 Privet Drive

Little Whinging

Surrey

 

A sound of disbelief left Harriet. There was her name, plain as you please, written in a lovely green ink on a pricey piece of parchment with a purple wax seal on the back. She examined the seal and saw some kind of crest embedded in the wax, though the details were a bit difficult to decipher. There was a large ‘H’ in the middle. Who in the world would write to her? Was this some type of new viral marketing? If so, how did they know where she slept?

“What are you doing, girl? Checking for letter bombs?” Uncle Vernon chuckled at his own joke.

“Oh, har har,” Harriet muttered. “Ripping good joke, ol’ chap.” Hesitating, she stuck the letter into the voluminous pocket of her cousin’s oversized shorts and went to take the rest of the mail in. Uncle Vernon grunted as she set the stack of post by his elbow on the table. She retreated to her chair, feeling the sharp corners of her letter poke at her thigh as she sat and finished her granola. Dudley eyed her like Harriet was an ugly bug he wanted to squish.

“Marge is ill,” Uncle Vernon said, flipping over the postcard. “Ate a funny whelk.”

“Oh, dear.”

Breakfast was finished in short order and Harriet cleared the table. She continued to touch the outside of her shorts even while she washed the dishes, leaving the occasional smudge of soap on the fabric, her head full of questions. What if it was someone who knew of Harriet? What if they were writing to tell her they wanted to take her away? She didn’t know if that was possible, but she surely wished it so.

Once the last bowl had been dried and neatly stacked on its shelf, Harriet scampered off. She didn’t want Aunt Petunia to call her back with another list of chores and she had long since learned that out of sight was out of mind when it came to her relatives. She paused in the hall by her cupboard door, listening to Dudley jabber on to his parents about wanting to go visit his mates, then slipped the envelope out of her pocket once more.

A second inspection proved to be just as mystifying as the first. Harriet ran her thumb across the wax again, frowning, then gently pried it open. From inside she pulled free two sheets of soft, yellow parchment, gleaming with the same green ink as the envelope.

 

 

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

 

Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore

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

 

Dear Miss Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

 

Minerva McGonagall

Deputy Headmistress

 

“What in the world?” Harriet murmured as her brow furrowed. She gave the second sheet a quick inspection and did, in fact, find a list of books by people she had never heard of and a motley collection of the oddest sounding things. Potions kits and cauldrons? Telescopes and scales? Was this real? Was there really a school for witchcraft? Harriet had never applied to such a place. Her aunt and uncle would have screamed themselves hoarse if she’d asked.

Harriet reached for the cupboard door. She would’ve opened her letter inside, but the cupboard lacked any kind of light and became decidedly dark once the door was slammed shut. Her fingers skirted the latch when—SMACK!

“Ouch!” Harriet cried as she jerked her hand back, no longer alone. She looked around to see that Dudley—holding his Smeltings stick—had left the kitchen and to come sneaking into the hall, no doubt looking for some retribution after his earlier nagging attempts had failed. His narrowed eyes landed on the folded parchment Harriet clutched to her chest, and before she could think of what to do, her cousin sucked in a gust of air and shouted. “Mum, Dad! She’s got a something! The freak’s got something!”

Uncle Vernon came stomping through the doorway, mustache twitching. He glared at Harriet as she hid the letter behind her back, her throat gone dry and her head fuzzy as her uncle loomed overhead and her heart kicked her ribs.

“Well?” he said with his meaty hand out held. “Give it here.”

Harriet took a step back. Dudley, having shuffled to the side to give his father room, made a grab for the letter and Harriet dodged—right into Uncle Vernon’s hands. He gripped her wrist with considerable force as he brought her arm forward. One of the pages tore when he jerked it from her grasp.

“What’s this then? Some garbage you nicked from school—?”

Uncle Vernon suddenly went very pale and still. His beady eyes flickered back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster. Harriet reached for the letter and he jerked his arm higher out of her reach. “Petunia! Petunia, get in here!”

A pause, then came the sharp clack, clack of Aunt Petunia’s heels as the door swung open to admit the horse-faced woman. “Yes, Vernon, what is it?”

He shook the rumpled parchment in his fist. Aunt Petunia didn’t even read the letter; she looked at what he was holding, at the fine paper and the wax seal hanging off the envelope’s flap, and choked. She wheeled on Harriet.

Where did you get that?!” she demanded, hissing like one of the garden snakes. “How dare you! Have you been in contact with those freaks? Have you been out sending owls where the neighbors can see you like the nasty little sneak you are?!”

“Owls?” Harriet weakly asked, feeling quite out of her depth. Aunt Petunia seemed to know a lot more about all this than poor Harriet did. It was almost as if—. “Hang on. What do you know about all this? Have you gotten one of these letters before?”

Aunt Petunia paled like Uncle Vernon. “Don’t—don’t ask questions,” she gasped. Of course, that was one of the first rules Harriet had learned at Privet Drive; don’t ask questions. Especially stupid ones.

At the moment, Harriet was not inclined to follow that particular rule. Her relatives’ reactions led her to believe they knew exactly what that letter was on about and where it had come from. Harriet thought it might have all been a big joke, but Dursleys didn’t like jokes, not unless they were told by Uncle Vernon and had vaguely racist undertones to them. The Dursleys knew.

“Do you know that lady who sent it? Or about this Hog—Hogwarts place?”

“Don’t—,” Uncle Vernon sputtered as a red flush began to overcome his pallor.

Harriet thought about all the odd things that occurred in the house, her strange shadow and the chats she had with the snakes who came searching for her at Number Four. “Am I a—a witch? Do I have ma—?”

“DON’T!” Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia thundered in unison. Both Harriet and Dudley slapped their hands over their ears, frightened by the sudden explosion of sound. “Don’t you dare say that word!”

“Is it true, then—?”

Aunt Petunia jerked the cupboard door open with such force the hinges groaned. “Get into you cupboard. No more questions—.”

“But what about—?”

No!

With his hand still on Harriet’s arm, Uncle Vernon jerked her forward and stuffed her inside the cupboard. Harriet struggled, reaching for her letter, not wanting him to take it away—.

Then the door slammed shut, and Harriet heard the latch slide home.

Chapter Text

iii. touch of the unholy

 

Not terribly far from the dark cupboard beneath the stairs of Number Four, Privet Drive, lived another little girl quite like Harriet Potter. That is to say, she was a girl who the Dursleys, convinced of their own exemplary ordinariness, would not think normal in the slightest.

Elara Black couldn’t help being odd. There simply hadn’t been a chance for normality in her upbringing; living in a place like St. Giles’ Institute of Wiltshire often precluded such pleasantries. Matron Fitzgerald—hunched and scowling, limping with a cane that thumped loud on the hollow floorboards—woke the children at six o’clock, led them through their morning prayers, and set them to their lessons with one of the younger sisters. Lessons were interspersed with chores, and sometimes a light game of football in the courtyard. After vespers they sat down in the dining hall and Father Phillips led the children in saying grace.

If one was very, very lucky, they never had to see Father Phillips outside of dinner or Sunday mass. They never got called into his office.

Elara was never lucky.

Terrible things just happened to Elara and to those around her. She had a predilection for causing mayhem without meaning to, without raising a single hand or uttering a single word. The roses in the courtyard withered to blackened stubs after Elara helped Sister Abigail trim the buds, and she once wished Mandy Tibbs would fall off a ladder and she did. Kaleb Sanders got sick after pushing her down the stairs and he spent time in hospital, attached to all manner of strange tubes and a ventilator. Elara almost cried when she saw him. She knew it was somehow her fault.

She’s cursed,” the other children whispered behind their hands. “Elara’s got the devil in her. Black as her name.”

Elara didn’t think she believed in the devil, or demons, or any of that nonsense. As far as she was concerned, the “devil” existed all around them; he resided in Sister Mattie’s too-strong grip, in the side of Matron Fitzgerald’s cane, in Father Phillips sharp tongue, and maybe even in Elara, too, though whatever resentment festered in her heart had been born and bred by others, not by herself. She never meant to hurt anyone—not the garden, not the other children, not the sisters who were too loud and too fast with the backs of theirs hands. She mights be cursed, but it wasn’t her doing.

The summer heat sank into Elara’s back as she leaned against the brick wall and lifted gray eyes to the empty sky overhead. Voices echoed in the confines of the garden walls, younger children playing in the sand pit or among the overgrown weeds hemming the parched lawn. Elara sat behind the hedge, on the little strip of rough concrete separating the dirt from the property’s dividing wall, the air always smelling faintly of cigarettes from the eldest kids smoking where the sisters couldn’t see. They didn’t mind if Elara sat there; the children on the cusp of adulthood really stopped believing in curses and devils and God a long time ago, after all.

Elara was a thin girl, considerably tall for her age and “passably pretty,” as Matron Fitzgerald always said, though the Matron believed Elara had best join the convent and not fuss with finding a husband when she was older, lest her demons get the better of her. She was too pale and always outgrew her dresses too fast, much to the consternation of the sisters, and she was prone to terrible bouts of motion sickness. She kept her black hair consigned to a tight bun on the back of her head and liked to wash her hands far more than the other children her age. Elara thought herself quite plain, really. If not for the occasional accident happening in her vicinity, she fancied that no one would ever notice her at all.

Letting out a huff of air, Elara returned her attention to the book bent open on her knee. It was an old bible, battered and torn and water-damaged, resigned to a regretful fate in the bin before Elara salvaged it. She had no love for the scripture—rather the opposite, in fact. Lips pursed in concentration, she used her ink pen to gently black out certain passages and lines, creating mini stories with the words and letters that were left. If one of the sisters found this, Elara’s backside would have yet another unfortunate meeting with Matron Fitzgerald’s cane.

She pulled at her wool gloves, her hands hot and itchy, but didn’t remove the coverings. Sweat prickled on her brow and the back of her dress had a decidedly sticky feel to it. I should probably go inside, she thought, morose at the idea of having to face the others. I’d rather cook than listen to Sister Mattie snarl psalms in lessons. She could probably fly to Bath with the amount of hot air in her head.

A sudden screech jerked Elara upright. The bible snapped shut on the concrete.

An owl—an honest to goodness owl with rumpled feathers, sharp talons, and a rather cross look in his or her gold eyes—had landed on the wall above Elara’s head. Surprised, she stared at the creature and the owl stared right back. Had Elara not been used to “devilish” things happening to her, she would have been a touch nervous to have such a sharp-beaked bird inspecting her like a piece of tasty roadkill.

“Ah,” she said, reaching for the bible in case she needed to chuck something at it. “Hello, there.”

The bird clacked its beak twice, then jumped down off the wall into the narrow space allocated between the hedges and the bricks. Elara scuffed her shoes scrambling out of the way, and the owl followed her, hopping about on one leg with a displeased hoot. Confused, she realized the poor thing had an envelope tied to its upheld foot, and it insisted on her taking it off. Elara hesitated, then reached out to pull the loop of twine.

The heavy envelope fell and the owl moved away. Under the direct brunt of sunlight, the letters inked in green shone like emeralds.

 

Miss E. A. Black

Bedroom 3, St. Giles’ Institute

45 Riversrun Lane

Wilton

Wiltshire

 

A letter for me? Elara pondered as she took the envelope in hand. The thick paper reminded her of the pages in Father Phillips’ oldest bible, the one he used for special sermons during the holidays. Nobody had ever written a letter to Elara before. She had no living relations, no friends, not even any cordial acquaintances. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d ever left the orphanage since she’d been left there at almost two years old. Someone delivered me a letter by…owl? I’ve heard of carrier pigeons, but not carrier owls, for goodness’ sake.

She cracked the purple seal and proceeded to read.

 

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

 

Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore

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

 

Dear Miss Black,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

 

Minerva McGonagall

Deputy Headmistress

 

Elara held her breath. A light breeze rippled through the hedge leaves. “It’s a test,” she managed to choke out past the lump in her throat. “They’re trying to test—.” Because how could it not be a test? The Matron and Father did so love to try the zeal of their charges, none so much as Elara and her perceived wickedness. “A fanciful child,” they called her when they were being generous, “a damned heathen” when they were not. Hogwarts? Witchcraft? A confederation of Wizards? What nonsense—?!

She went to crumple the letter in her fist, frustrated, when the owl gave another haughty hoot.

Where did the owl come from?

Frozen, she forced a breath into her lungs and blinked away the sting of tears. Elara had seen many bizarre things in her short life. She had seen books float on their own accord, flowers shrivel between her fingertips, silverware start to dance, had dreamed about a black haired man who could turn into a great, shaggy dog, and had felt the rekindling of a tiny rapid heartbeat cupped in her hands—but Elara had never seen an owl so uncanny in its intelligence, and had never seen anyone at St. Giles’ exhibit even an ounce of the creativity it would take to construct such an elaborate little game.

Where would Matron Fitzgerald even get an owl? She swallowed, turning the letter and the accompanying list over in her hands. It seemed such a fanciful thing. An ill-tempered bird comes soaring out of the sky to deliver a letter from an academy of magic to a poor orphan girl. For her entire life, the Institute and the church had all but beaten into Elara’s head the evils of witchcraft and blasphemy—but by instilling those teachings, were they not confirming their existence? Elara didn’t think much of devilry, but what if magic, real magic, existed? Did this letter mean Elara did magic? Was she really and truly cursed?

She wasn’t sure, couldn’t be sure, and the skeptic in Elara warned her against such silliness. Would it hurt to reply? she asked herself, running a finger along the signature of Minerva McGonagall. The pen had cut deeply into the paper—parchment—leaving indents.

“Miss Black!”

The voice of a sister carried through the garden from the back door, and Elara tucked the letter and envelope into her bible without hesitation. The owl continued to watch her as Elara rose to her feet and brushed dust from the backside of her skirt. Her socks and Mary Jane shoes were hopelessly dirty. Stealing herself, she looked at the owl, and said, “Just…just wait—or not. Whichever,” then hurried off after the call of her name. Her face felt hot with her own embarrassment.

Talking to birds now. Maybe I am touched in the head.

Sister Abigail waited for her, holding open the door and the screen against the casual tugging of the wind. She smiled when she saw Elara and her young face creased. “There you are, Miss Black. Father Phillips has been askin’ for you.”

Elara’s heart lurched. “Did—did he say what he wanted?”

“No, not as such.” Distracted, Sister Abigail craned her neck to peer by Elara toward the younger kids chasing each other in a game of tag. One of the girls tripped and let out a piercing cry. “Here, you go on, Miss Black, Miss Richardson needs some help over there….”

Elara continued inside on her own, clutching the tattered bible against her chest, the letter and alterations inside like brilliant hot stones she wanted to let go of and hold all the tighter at the same time. Her footsteps echoed in the narrow, crooked halls, a fan droning somewhere behind a shut door, the children either outside or cloistered in the chapel or in the musty classroom listening to Sister Mattie snarl. Elara pushed her panic away, took the trepidation she felt tapping at the inside of her ribcage and shoved it to the back of her mind until she felt reasonably calm. It didn’t stop her gloves from sticking to the palms of her hands.

Father Phillips’ door lay at the end of the long, twisting corridor. Elara stood before it, and knocked.

“Come in, please.”

The door swung in on silent hinges, her steps muffled by the thick rug residing just past the threshold. Silence typified the the priest’s office, no radio sitting on the empty bookshelves, no fire in the grate even in the dead of winter, no ticking of a clock on the paneled walls. The rest of the world seemed to get just that much farther away whenever Elara was called into his presence, as if everything beyond St. Giles’ just ceased to exist.

“There you are, Elara,” Father Phillips said with slight simper from behind his desk, the corners of his mouth pulling at the aged skin of his heavy cheeks. Bushy brows capped his eyes like the white peaks of mountains, though the man himself was a whole and hale fifty in age, his Irish brogue deep and rolling. “And how does God find you today?”

“Very well, Father Phillips.”

He gestured at the wooden chair by the covered window and Elara went without protest, her fingers cramping around the bible from their unforgiving grip. He must have sensed her anxiety despite her best efforts, because he laughed. “Oh, you needn’t be so anxious, child. I just wanted to check up on you.”

“Of course, sir.”

“How have you been feeling?”

“Very well, sir.”

His gaze trailed over her, hard and disinterested, then lingered on the bible with the slightest bit of warmth. “Have you been doing your readings outside? It’s a nice day out. Best to be thankful for the weather before the rains blow back in.”

Elara gave her head a quick nod as she stared resolutely at a certificate handing above the wood mantel. She couldn’t read it from her angle, and the frame was so thick with dust the letters would have been lost anyway. She didn’t want to look at the priest.

Father Phillips stood and came around his desk, his hands folded behind his back, his pace measured and loud in the pressing silence of the office. “Sister Mattie tells me you’ve been quiet in lessons, and you haven’t been eating all your food at supper.”

Something tightened in Elara’s chest as the priest came to stand before her. Memories weighed on the edges of her thoughts like feet stepping on the hem of a dress, jerking it back, causing her to stumble.

“Now, child, I know you’ve been through an ordeal, but it’s important to keep your strength up. Heaven knows we don’t want to be hearing more tales about any resurrected birds, aye?”

The window was covered, but Elara knew that if she were to twitch the curtains aside, she would be able to see the great old willow tree that Elara had avoided looking at ever since that day. Flickers of images returned to her: Gunther Lyle with a sparrow in his hand, the other orphans shouting, jeering, crying, a stone coming down, a tiny body broken and thrown into the leaf-strewn roots, bloody feathers sticking to Elara’s trembling fingers as she gathered the bird in her hands, feeling the warmth spill through her skin—and she suddenly watched as the dead sparrow took a breath and flew away.

The tightening sensation in Elara’s chest constricted, and she wanted to tear it free, tear through the cloth and bandages and flesh until she could put her hands on her bones and shake the feeling out. She didn’t do that, though. She just laid her bible in her lap and discreetly wrung her hands.

Father Phillips settled his own hand on the top of her head, stroking her hair. “Recovery is a hard road, but I know you have a good soul in you, Elara, and God does not abandon his faithful servants to the treachery of the Devil.”

Elara nodded once, numb. She didn’t trust herself to speak. From the corner of her eye she saw a glass begin to spin and shudder, coming ever closer to the edge of the priest’s desk, and she willed it with everything in her to stop, to stay still. Please—please, not again, I can’t go through THAT again—.

Too many hands in the dark. The sharp bite of steel in her young flesh, encircling her wrists, the cross glowing red like a shooting star, Father Phillips clutching that special bible of his while he loomed overhead, the silk of his purple stole cool against her skin as it trailed across her tear streaked cheek.

Most cunning serpent, you shall no more dare to deceive the human race. We drive you from us, we drive you from us….”

Shivering, Elara stood and banished the images and voices from her head. She hated that office more than any other place in the orphanage. “Father Phillips, I need to go get ready for my lessons later this afternoon.”

“Of course.” He straightened, stepping back, and Elara exhaled. “Make sure to study well. We’ll have tea in a few days to check up on how you’re doing. How does that sound?”

Awful. “Wonderful, sir.”

“Excellent. Off you go then.”

Elara turned on her heels and hurried from the room, trembling. The sound of glass shattering filled her ears and she broke into a run, the bulbs in the light fixtures bursting as she crossed the hall, dashing up the stairs and into another passage. Elara didn’t stop until she was safely ensconced in her bedroom and the door slammed shut behind her on its own.

That won’t go unpunished. She stripped off her gloves, then threw them at the wall in a fit of self-indulgent frustration. The room was not very large but it was modestly comfortable, the iron frame of the slim bed cleaned of rust, her sheets firmly tucked, her desk empty of everything aside from a notebook and pen she’d been using earlier that morning to write lines for Sister Mattie. Sunlight streamed through the window, and the silhouette of the wrought-iron bars laid a crooked latticework on her polished floor.

Elara sat on the edge of the mattress and covered her face with her sweaty hands. She was tired of this. She felt as though she lived her life on a tightrope strung between punishments, and no matter how skillfully she managed to cross the gap, her reward was yet another sharp reprimand, another smack with a ruler, another scathing monologue promising Elara Hell waited for her and she would burn for all eternity. She was already burning. Elara Black was eleven years old and yet she felt so, so much older. She could not go on like this.

Thwack! Thwack!

Sitting up, she glanced toward the window where the tapping sound originated. She blinked. The owl that had accosted Elara in the garden now perched on a rung of the bars, sticking its head through the barrier to rap its beak against the glass. She hurried to open it, and the owl gave a rueful hoot as it studied her.

Right. Hogwarts. Elara found the bible laying on her mussed blankets, and she whipped out the letter again, flattening it on the top of her desk.

Magic. That invisible force that welled up inside her and broke light bulbs and cups and returned smashed little birdies to life. She had been told it was evil, that she was evil, for her entire life, but this—.

You have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Elara traced the words with her fingers.

You have been accepted.

Hardly daring to breathe, Elara sat at her desk. She pulled her notebook closer and tore out the page of lines, crumpling them until the sentence ‘I will not blaspheme’ disappeared into the crinkled paper. Elara picked up her pen, and on the new, fresh page, she began to write: Dear Deputy Headmistress McGonagall….

Chapter Text

iv. but blood is thicker

 

Harriet’s every thought, either waking or dreaming, was consumed by that letter.

Who had sent it? Were all the odd things that happened around her really magic? The Dursleys had always hated that word, maybe even more than they hated Harriet herself. They didn’t talk about magic and most certainly didn’t allow anything fantastical into the house; even Dudley was denied new fantasy computer games, much to his consternation, and Uncle Vernon had burned Harriet’s Tolkien books when Aunt Petunia discovered them hidden in the garden shed.

Had the letter met a similar fate? Harriet hoped not.

Shut in her cupboard, she whispered all her questions to Set, and he either didn’t answer because he didn’t want to, or because she couldn’t read shadows in the miserable darkness. Harriet would shut her eyes and listen to the house: the groaning pipes, Dudley playing the telly both upstairs and downstairs, Aunt Petunia nattering on the phone about Mr Lobelia’s ugly new hedges. She thought about the dreaded “m” word and her stomach fluttered when she dared to hope she wasn’t really a freak at all; rather, she was magical. A witch.

The Dursleys, for their part, refused to acknowledge that the letter had ever existed in the first place. Harriet was relegated to the cupboard full time, let out only in the morning and the evening for a spot of food and quick dash to the loo. Perhaps her punishment wouldn’t be so severe if she stopped bombarding her aunt and uncle with demands for answers every time they dared cross the hall—but she felt as if she stood upon the cusp of some great change, and hovering there without really knowing anything for certain was like hanging from a noose. The bottom of her toes could scrape the ground, but Harriet was still suffocating all the same. She needed to know there was more to life than this.

Some mornings Harriet woke and it all seemed like another product of her nightmares; a mysterious missive boasting of her acceptance into an academy of magic arrives only to be taken away minutes later. Ridiculous. I didn’t hallucinate, she told herself fiercely. She could remember the touch of purple wax giving under her fingertips, the way the green ink shone in the sunshine. She could recite many of the strange names she’d seen listed beneath their strange books, orders to get black uniforms and a pewter cauldron, the ban on first year broomsticks. Though Harriet considered herself quite imaginative, she couldn’t have imagined that.

One line caused Harriet to worry: “we await your owl by no later than 31 July.” She hadn’t a clue how one went about catching an owl to send a missive—but the rapidly approaching deadline had Harriet anxious. July thirty-first, her birthday. If she failed to send a reply by then, would this Hogwarts place revoke admission? Would they send another letter? Or would Harriet be stuck with the bloody Dursleys until she was eighteen? She was content with her prospects of going to Stonewall High right up until she discovered there could possibly be a school out there that taught magic of all things and it wanted oddball little Harriet to attend. How could she let such a thing go?

Harriet squashed her nose against the cupboard’s vent and drew in a long, muffled breath. The air whistled through her nostrils as she breathed, shaking the door, not that she cared about that. A week had passed since the letter’s delivery. Harriet had seen very little outside her cupboard since then.

Someone entered the hall—Uncle Vernon, judging by the heavy, plodding tread. The latch on the cupboard rattled as he stooped before it and Harriet leaned back, expectant, preparing for the sudden burst of light that came whenever the door opened. The hinges creaked, and Uncle Vernon—still dressed for work, though his tie had been loosened—glowered at Harriet. She frowned. Harriet had been sure it was still early in the afternoon; she lost time sitting in the cupboard for so long.

“Come eat the dinner your aunt made for you, girl.”

Harriet stepped out of the cupboard and stood. She didn’t feel very brave with her uncle looming overhead like a great, bulbous blimp of pent-up anger, but she held her ground and squared her bony shoulders. “I want my letter back.”

Uncle Vernon didn’t reply as he rounded on his heels and stormed into the kitchen. Harriet followed. A plate of cooling scraps from the roast Aunt Petunia had cooked earlier lay at the end of the counter, and the three Dursleys sat around the table picking over their dessert, ignoring her presence entirely. Harriet wanted to set in on them about the letter right away, but her stomach rumbled in protest, and so she slumped over to the spotless counter where her dinner waited and shoved forkfuls of gristle in her mouth. Chewing, she glared out the window facing the garden and studied the burnished color of the sky, the fluffy clouds scudding along the horizon behind the neighbors’ houses.

What does it even matter? They’ll never agree to let me go, came Harriet’s sullen thought, but she tamped down that pessimistic voice with a determined shake of the head. No. They have to. I can’t stay here and go to Stonewall. I just can’t.

Harriet swallowed and went to rinse her plate in the sink. With that finished, she forced herself to stand as tall as she could—which, really, wasn’t that tall at all—and turned to face her relatives.

Uncle Vernon saw her coming and stiffened. Aunt Petunia, seeing Uncle Vernon’s foul expression, craned her long neck about to level a sour grimace at Harriet. Dudley just kept eating.

“I want my letter,” she said, speaking as calmly as she could. “It’s my letter, and I think I have a right to know about magic and—.”

“The right?” Uncle Vernon thundered, jumping to his feet. Harriet took a step back before realizing it. He came nearer, throwing his napkin on the floor as he went. “You don’t have the right to anything, you utterly ungrateful freak! We take you in out of the goodness of our hearts, take the clothes off our son’s back for you, keep you fed, give you a place to sleep, and this is how you repay us?!”

Aunt Petunia swiftly ushered Dudley out of the room, though the fat boy didn’t seem inclined to go, shoving at his mother as he complained. She finally snapped the door shut in his pudgy face and locked it. Fear frazzled the edges of Harriet’s temper, and her voice grew louder in response to her uncle’s darkening face. “It’s not on, keeping this stuff from me! It’s my bloody life! It’s not fair!”

“It wasn’t fair when my stupid sister went and got herself blown up and we go landed with you!” Aunt Petunia burst out, surprising both Harriet and Uncle Vernon. Color burned in her cheeks and her eyes were half wild, glittering like coins at the bottom of a fountain, grubby and dark but catching the light when you least expect them to. “Don’t you understand anything? That’s what magic does to people! It ruins their lives!”

“B—.” Harriet sputtered. “Blown up? W-what do you mean ‘blow up’? You told me my parents died in a car crash!” Bile crawled into her throat and it was all she could do to stop herself from being sick on their shoes. “How could you lie to me about that?! They’re my parents! I’ve never even seen a picture of them!”

“I’ve heard enough of this—,” Uncle Vernon warned, but Harriet kept going.

“What in the hell is wrong with you people?!” she demanded. The windows shook in their casements and though Harriet knew shouting never got her anywhere, she couldn’t seem to calm down. She couldn’t stop. A headache pulsed behind her temples. “I’m your niece and you treat me worse than Aunt Marge treats her dogs!”

“How dare—!”

“I want my letter! It’s mine, and you have no right keeping it from me! I want to go to Hogwarts! I want to learn magic!”

A sudden pain flared through Harriet’s face and, before she knew it, she was on the floor, slumped against the kitchen cabinets with one of the knobs digging painfully in her shoulder. With a dazed blink, she looked up at Uncle Vernon—just as the man lunged, wrapping his meaty fingers around Harriet’s skinny neck to haul her upright. He squeezed until Harriet couldn’t breathe, terror ripping through her like water through a broken dam and Uncle Vernon shook his arms. Yells punctuated each shake.

You—don’t—talk—to—me—like—that!”

“Vernon—Vernon! You can’t do that!” Aunt Petunia shrieked. He dropped Harriet as swiftly as he had grabbed her, both breathing hard, Harriet swaying on her feet. With a trembling hand, she touched her throbbing lip and held bloody fingers out toward the light. The red looked ghastly on her skin. Harriet was stunned. Getting punched by Dudley or receiving a few slaps about the head for her cheek wasn’t a rare occurrence at Privet Drive—but the Dursleys had never struck her before. Not like this.

Uncle Vernon quivered with rage, and Harriet knew in that instant he wished he’d killed her, that if Aunt Petunia hadn’t of been here, he would have kept squeezing and squeezing until every last breath left Harriet’s scrawny little body. She had never been so afraid of the man before.

He grabbed her by the front of her overlarge shirt like he was afraid to touch her skin now and dragged Harriet toward the hall. “I will hear no more of this!” he roared, throwing open the door, Dudley almost falling in face first from having his ear pressed to the keyhole. A moment later and Uncle Vernon had the cupboard door open, too, the dark inside waiting as it always was to swallow Harriet whole. Her head struck one of the shelves with enough force to bruise when he threw her in. Uncle Vernon slammed the door closed again. “Get in there, and see if we let you out before Christmas!

_____

 

Harriet sobbed. She sobbed long after Uncle Vernon had stormed away, long after Dudley’s laughter had subsided, and long after the Dursleys had tromped up the stairs to their beds. Aunt Petunia hesitated once outside Harriet’s cupboard and had enough compassion in her to open the vent, but she moved on quick enough at Uncle Vernon’s insistence. Weak afternoon sunlight gave way to the gloaming hour. Harriet watched the light die through watery eyes. She had never been so miserable before in all her life.

Some time after night fell, Harriet dropped into a fitful doze, curled up tight in ball upon her cot, dreaming of green light and cold laughter and shifting shadows. She didn’t think about Hogwarts, about magic, her letter, or her parents. It hurt too much, worse than the pain in her lip or in her bruised neck or her bumped head. What else had the Dursleys lied to her about all these years?

A hard poke pulled Harriet from her lousy dreams. She lay on her cot and tried to breathe through her stuffy nose, wondering if she had imagined the feeling—until it came again. For one horrible second Harriet thought someone else was in the bloody cupboard with her, but no, she was quite alone. Set was the one trying to rouse her.

Harriet sat up—avoided bashing her skull on the riser—and stuffed her glasses onto her blotchy face. She couldn’t see very well, but she could hear, and what she heard was the distinct sound of the cupboard’s latch sliding along its groove. Harriet watched, frozen, as the door popped itself open and slowly swung aside. In the soft moonlight suffusing the hall, the shadows wheeled and pulsed until Harriet saw Set’s hand take form, beckoning her forward from the cupboard’s belly. She went.

No one was in the silent hallway. Set moved, illuminated by the light coming through the windows that flanked the front door, his black form stretching and distorting as he edged his way up the stairs. What is he on about? Harried marveled, still crouched down. A door creaked open. Set returned before she could consider following, not that Harriet was keen on following him upstairs to where her relatives slept. His shadow rippled on each step as it came down, Aunt Petunia’s handbag floating silently along with him.

“What are you…?”

Set brought the bag to Harriet, then flipped it over. Aunt Petunia’s things clattered on the floor, a tube of lipstick rolling away, loose change bouncing and spinning as Set tossed crumpled tissues and sweet wrappers aside. There, among the detritus, was Harriet’s letter. She took hold of it, gaping, and saw that someone had obviously tried to set the pages alight, but had ultimately failed. The edges were crispy and left ash on her questing fingertips.

Set broke open Aunt Petunia’s purse and extricated the folded notes, flinging them in Harriet’s face. She caught the money on instinct more than anything else and gawked, having never held more than a few quid in her hands before. Set moved again, and the front door slammed open. The evening breeze whispered through the space, cool with the first distant murmurs of autumn held in its grasp, inviting Harriet to take one breath, and then another. Her cheeks felt chilled where the tears dried themselves.

Harriet glanced at the money in one hand, at the letter in the other, and then the open door.

Set pointed toward the exit.

Her heart was beating very quickly at this point, because Harriet understood perfectly what Set meant for her to do, but she wasn’t sure she could. Harriet wasn’t even yet eleven years old, and though she despised this place, Privet Drive was the only refuge she had ever known. Bitter and hateful, but a refuge all the same. The unknown was a terrifying thing, and it waited for young Harriet now, yawning like a great maw beyond the threshold of the open door where the night lay thick like dew on the lawn. The world was very quiet then. Harriet could hear her heartbeat.

Her legs wobbled when she stood. Set twisted about her feet as Harriet walked toward the open door, her hands coming to rest on the frame, shoes scuffing the threshold though they did not cross it.

In her head, she could hear the Dursleys shouting again. “You don’t have the right to anything.”

“That’s what magic does to people!”

“Ungrateful freak.”

“It ruins their lives!

Harriet stepped forward. They won’t hold me down anymore, she told herself. Not again. I’m not afraid.

Hissing voices rose from the grass. “Misstresss,” the snakes called as she walked them by. “Misstresss.”

The yard teemed with dozens of slender, glistening bodies writhing in a chaotic mass of scales and sharp teeth and wavering tongues. As she leapt over the low garden wall, the snakes began to pour into the open door of Number Four, Privet Drive. Harriet Potter followed the pointing arm of her shadow gesturing into the night and she smiled as she walked away.

Chapter Text

v. bind thy hands

 

The vial shattered when it hit the floor.

Albus Dumbledore stared at it, at the jagged triangles of glass peppering his rug and the blue swirls of Pain Relief seeping into the fibers—but Severus stared instead at his hand held aloft like it was some ghastly appendage he’d never seen before.

It happened again. Fuck.

The Headmaster wore an uncharacteristically stern expression behind his silvered beard as he surveyed his Potions Master. “Are you alright, Severus?”

“Fine,” Severus replied automatically, which was true enough. The initial flare of pain had faded after his fingers spasmed and had dulled to something less incandescent than an outright inferno. Now the ache settled deeper in the muscles and bones, leaving behind nothing to indicate his hand and wrist had been in searing agony only moments before.

What the bloody hell is that?

Dumbledore flicked his wand toward the broken vial and it repaired itself, though the potion it’d contained couldn’t be salvaged. Another spell Vanished the remainder of the mess. “Are you certain, my boy?”

Severus tore his eyes away from his hand, lip curling as he addressed the Headmaster. “I assure you, I am perfectly fine. Your concern is unnecessary.”

Lips pursed, Albus settled once more in his armchair, tucking his wand away in the inner fold of his gaudy robes. His left hand came to rest on his lap while the sleeve of his right rippled, empty.

“Ah, Severus,” he sighed, a weary chuckle hidden beneath the breath. “I guess even you are entitled to a moment of clumsiness.”

The Potions Master said nothing. It wasn’t clumsiness. He didn’t admit as much to Albus, because though he may detest the simpering fool’s well-wishing and soft-hearted nagging, he was loathe to give the old man anything more to worry about. If it was anything to worry about at all. Severus sank farther into the crimson cushions of his own chair, glaring at the small fire built in the gaping hearth.

“Are you prepared for classes to commence in September?” Dumbledore asked. He reached for the bowl of tart sweets resting on a short, spindly table by his elbow and the bowl obliged him by sliding nearer.

“Nearly,” Severus said.

“And are you ready for…certain students to make their appearance?” The knowing look Dumbledore leveled over his half-moon spectacles was not appreciated and Severus told him as much, his irritation mounting as he forced his hand to lay flat on his thigh. The fingers continued to twitch. He had seen similar damage done to nerves with the Cruciatus Curse, and yet Severus knew this was not a result of that spell.

“Of course,” he sneered, eyes still on the fire. “The wretched year has come at last. We’re to be blessed with the presence of the Boy Who Lived. Tell me, where did he spend his summer studying again?”

“France, I believe, but I’m not certain. I would have to write Augusta and ask.” Dumbledore sucked on a lemon drop and, for an instant, appeared deep in thought. A somber expression arrested the usual twinkle of his eyes. “Neville is not the only child of whom I speak, though.”

Severus said nothing. In fact, he pretended he hadn’t heard.

Dumbledore persisted. “Are you excited to see Harriet again?”

He ground his teeth. Bloody meddlesome fucking fool. “Has her letter been sent?”

“Yes, it went with the rest of them, or so Minerva tells me.”

“And there hasn’t been any…issues?”

Stroking his beard, Dumbledore contemplated his reply before saying, “The charm on the paper tells Minerva that young Harriet opened and read her letter. She’s simply waiting for a reply now.”

Severus eyed the darkening sky outside the window and his hand gave a painful throb. “If Petunia doesn’t have the girl respond by the thirty-first, I’ll go visit the Muggles myself.”

Dumbledore’s beard twitched in what either could have been a smile or a frown. It was impossible to tell. Around them the silver mechanisms and multi-colored dials continued to swivel and chime, providing ambiance to the stilted conversation unraveling between the pair of wizards. “Now, Severus…you know you would attract the wrong kind of attention should you go to investigate yourself. I’m sure they’re merely waiting for the opportunity to go to Diagon and use the owl service in the alley. Young Harriet will be coming to Hogwarts; I told Petunia and her husband as such when I left Harriet in their charge.”

“You shouldn’t have left her there,” he retorted, knowing exactly type of “wrong attention” the Headmaster spoke of, not caring what that particular sadistic arsehole thought for once.

“There was no one else.”

Anyone would have been better, Headmaster.” He knew that. He knew that with every fiber of his being, no matter that Albus always said “People are capable of change.” The Headmaster could be blinded by the vaunted light gleaming off his own pretty pure morals. Severus had been born in spite, and he’d recognized its mirror in Tuney when they were just children. Petunia had loved Lily once, and so Severus could only hope to God or to Merlin or to fucking Morgana that she’d done right by her sister, but the Potions Master was a cynical man by nature. People didn’t change. The girl’s life had probably been uncomfortable in Petunia’s ugly hands.

He prayed she had something of Lily in her. He couldn’t stand suffering another seven years with a miniature James Potter.

“Anyone, my boy? So you would have taken Harriet in?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Severus scoffed. Snape could have barely taken care of himself let alone a child, especially a child whose mother had been so recently murdered. He didn’t like to admit how many nights he’d spent pathetically drunk in his quarters, seated with his back to the wall, because that’s where freaks sit, boy, the fire banked low and the cold seeping through his night clothes. To this day, he still thought of Lily—sans the drinking now—and of their last meeting.

She’d been holding a swaddled bundle to her chest and had asked if he’d wanted to hold her, but Severus had declined, because what in the hell did he know about holding babies? She told him she forgave him, that she understood all that Severus did for them—for Lily and her bastard of a husband and that tiny lump of a newborn she clutched so protectively, but Severus retorted, “It’s not enough. It’ll never be enough.” Lily was all that was good in the world, and sometimes Severus thought she would’ve forgiven the Dark Lord if the maniac bent his knee and bowed his head in repentance.

Smiling, Lily said there was only one thing in the world she cared about, and he would care about it too, if he meant to keep Lily in his life.

He remembered kneeling on the parlor floor, clasping Lily’s wrist, her hand on his own, James Potter’s wand hovering over them.

Will you, Severus, always do your best by her?”

I will.

“Severus?”

If the worst should come to pass, will you keep her from danger?

I will.”

“Severus, my boy, are you listening?”

The Potions Master lifted his gaze from the grate and dismissed the nagging sensation tickling the back of his mind. The remainder of the Vow seemed to echo in the air between the pops and snaps of the fire and the whir of delicate instruments. “Will you protect my daughter, the person I love most in this world, if I cannot, Severus Snape?

I will.”

He never saw her again after that day—neither her, nor Potter, nor her daughter. September would be the first time he’d seen Harriet Potter since her infancy, since he’d reluctantly stepped over her mother’s cooling corpse to approach the bloody cradle and pour Essence of Dittany over her weeping wounds. The mewling brat had been the only thing that stopped him from turning heel and chasing down his Lord that very night. He’d sat in the ruins cradling a wounded babe, sobbing his blasted eyes out, until Sirius Black—that fucking traitor—arrived on his flying motorcycle.

He and Severus probably would have cursed each other to bits if Hagrid hadn’t shown up and almost killed him by smacking Snape in the back of the head. The Potions Master woke several days later in the hospital wing, only to learn that Black had escaped, had murdered Pettigrew and a shite ton of Muggles, and that Neville bloody Longbottom was being heralded as “the Boy Who Lived” after the Dark Lord supposedly vanished into thin air right in the middle of casting the curse that would have destroyed the sniveling boy.

Lily—his Lily—her husband, and their scarred little girl had been relegated as little more than footnotes in a madman’s murderous rampage. Harriet’s survival had been attributed to a simple mistake on the Dark Lord’s part, a stroke of luck that hid her in the ruins of her home from his attentions. Severus knew better. So did Dumbledore.

He rummaged in his robes, searching for another Pain Relief, but came up empty handed. “Apologies, Headmaster,” he drawled. “I need to return to my stores to find you another analgesic potion.”

Dumbledore waved aside the subject change. “That’s not necessary, Severus. I will get one from Poppy if I need to.”

“Her stores are out of date. I haven’t yet restocked the infirmary. In fact, I should see to that now.” Severus rose, straightening the fall of his robes as he did so, refusing to meet the Headmaster’s persistent stare.

“I get the distinct impression you’re trying to avoid this conversation.”

Severus lifted a brow in mock surprise. “Who, me?” He then made good on his escaped and pretended he didn’t hear Dumbledore’s chuckling at his back.

_____

 

Severus couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed.

It was a rather stupid thought in his opinion, though he’d been having more and more of these stupid thoughts the closer September crept and the more he remembered Lily Evans and the misspent years of his youth. He’d laughed without mirth before, to be certain, cold and snide and sarcastic, a quick burst of reviled derision passing through him like the snarl of a wounded animal. He must have been very young—that is, if he’d ever laughed at all. He couldn’t be certain.

Hearing Dumbledore’s amusement, how easily it came to the ancient wizard, rankled Severus’s already pained and agitated mood, because he stood before the sink in his quarters downing the strongest Pain Relief he had and still his hand ached, thinking about fucking Dumbledore and his bloody twinkling eyes. Sometimes Severus really hated him. The Headmaster reminded Snape of how little humanity the Potions Master still retained.

Water splashed over his hand. In the low, greenish light of the dungeons, it looked as if it belonged to a dead man. Severus snorted. The pain had been reoccurring for several years now, sometimes only as a slight ache he’d attributed to the cold, or—on rare occasions—as a sudden spear of unadulterated agony ripping through his flesh and bones. It never lasted long, yet the echo of it remained, mystifying and terrible, a fucking promise and threat Severus had never found the cause of.

He lifted his gaze to the mirror above the sink. The visage held there was just as it ever was: stark and severe, two eyes like unlit wells boring deep into the earth, black and glinting, nose sharp and cheeks gaunt, lips a displeased slash above a hard jaw. His skin was remarkably, well, unmarked considering his prior profession and the time he spent around idiot children wielding knives and bad tempers. There were, however, several scars clustered about the orbital ridge and cheekbone of his left eye, interrupting the dark hair of his brow and the fringe of black lashes. Sneering, Severus lifted his hand to gently prod at the eye.

The glass was cool beneath his fingertip.

The pain’s not from that, he told himself as he inspected the lid and blinked, looking for any abnormalities in the Charmed orb. He knew the curse that had taken his eye would eventually blind the other eye as well, but Severus also knew he’d most likely be dead by then, so he didn’t bloody care about that. Whatever malignancy persisted there wouldn’t manifest in his hand or wrist.

Frustrated, he used his wand to douse the lights and returned to the main living area. He had a great many things to see to—potions to brew for the infirmary, for his own stores, responsibilities to shirk and other professors to avoid, journals he wanted to read and correspondences in desperate need of being returned—but Severus ignored those tasks and settled in the armchair by the hearth. He glared into the depths of the twisting flames and, layer by meticulous layer, submerged his worthless thoughts and furious emotions into the hungering abyss of his Occluded mind.

Severus lifted his hand and stared at it. He stared at the way the firelight played across the sallow skin and caught upon the barely there etching left by Lily Potter’s Unbreakable Vow.

“It’s not the Vow,” he whispered, not for the first time. “That’s not…that’s not how it works.”

But what did he really know?

Sometime after dark, long after irritable Potions Masters should have retired to their beds, the pain suddenly stopped.

Chapter Text

vi. the mind of the clever

 

Hermione Granger was a girl who, since her earliest days, had been told she was “too” much.

Naturally Hermione knew it was possible to have too much of something, and it could be just as detrimental as having too little—but the things of which Hermione was accused of being too much of never made much sense at all to the bushy-haired, bright-eyed girl. The other children in her primary told her she was too bossy, and the teachers often grumbled that she was too clever, too well-prepared, too attentive. “Hermione, why don’t we give someone else a chance?” they’d say, and while Hermione fully believed in being fair, nobody else ever wanted to try.

Even her parents, through tight smiles and gentle touches, would say “Dear, you can be a bit too much sometimes.”

Too, too, too.

Hermione never had any patience for that silly little adverb. Why on earth would people say “be the best you can be” and then tell her that her best was “too much”?

It was an absolutely ridiculous double-standard. Hermione was clever, though, clever enough to know that sometimes it was best not to be too much, no matter how it stung her pride and wounded something deep inside her. Jean and Robert Granger were always so pleased when their daughter pretended to be intrigued by the simple revisions offered by her teachers, when all Hermione wanted was to study something more challenging, read something more engaging, and move at a pace that wasn’t so infuriatingly slow.

Sometimes, Hermione had to pretend to be an idiot and she resented the world when that happened.

So when a stern older woman dressed in a tartan suit and a pair of square spectacles arrived at the Granger household in July and told Hermione “You’re a witch,” Hermione didn’t dismiss her out of hand. She sat, and she listened.

Professor Minerva McGonagall, as the woman addressed herself, was the Deputy Headmistress and Transfiguration instructor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the most prestigious academy of magical learning in all of Great Britain. She explained—quite patiently—that yes, magic was real, no, she wasn’t in fact a madwoman, and yes, she’d love to preform an example for the Grangers. As they sat in the lounge, Professor McGonagall Charmed the tea to pour itself, had the Hummel figurines on the mantel break out into dance, and changed a vase into a chicken all with a flick of the thin stick she called a wand.

Hermione couldn’t believe her eyes.

The professor asked, “Miss Granger, has anything odd ever happened to you? Have you ever done something or seen something you couldn’t explain?”

Hermione wanted to say, “Of course not, everything that occurs has a perfectly rational explanation—,” but she didn’t. Instead, she sat picking at the crumpet her mother had given her and thought on the question, returning to those curious incidents in her past her logical mind had assumed explanations for. Sometimes she would reach for a second book while reading and find it in her hands when it should have been across the room. She very desperately didn’t want to get her homework wet while dashing from the car to the classroom once, and she alone out of all the students arrived dry.

“Yes,” she told Professor McGonagall, eyes darting between her parents and the witch. “A few times, ma’am.”

“Sometimes,” McGonagall explained. “Witches and wizards are born to parents who aren’t magical. It’s never been explained why exactly this happens, but magic is not always wholly understood. That is why we study it. Some devote their entire lives to the pursuit of answers and only come out with more questions—but Hogwarts is there to help anyone who has need of it.”

The professor handed Hermione a letter and she held it close, H. J. Granger gleaming in navy on the thick parchment envelope, a noble crest pressed securely into the purple wax on the back. Hermione tore open the letter. She began to read—and at the end of the list, she looked up at Professor McGonagall with something like wonder in her eyes. Magic. Real magic, and she had it.

There had to be a catch. There was always a catch to something that sounded so wondrous, and when Hermione said as much, Professor McGonagall’s expression creased as she reached into her purse to retrieve a special form.

The Muggle-born Protection Act of 1982.

“It is a law implemented by our current Minister for Magic when he came into office,” Professor McGonagall informed them, her lips thinning, her voice somber. “In essence, it is a law meant to protect magical children born to non-magical families who can often find themselves in undesirable situations. The gifts of the magical children can sometimes alarm the unprepared.” Her nostrils flared. “The Ministry finds that the MPA protects these children against violence and misunderstandings.”

The Grangers continued to ask questions and Hermione watched the little furrow between the woman’s black brows dig itself deeper and deeper. What Hermione gathered was that Professor McGonagall did not approve of the MPA, which dictated that any Muggle-born who accepted their place at Hogwarts would have to be fostered by an approved Wizarding family, and would only be allowed to visit the non-magical world for the Yule holidays, which amounted to roughly two weeks in the year. If Hermione went to Hogwarts, she would have to leave home. If she went to Hogwarts, she would only see her parents for Christmas until she reached her magical majority at seventeen.

Ten weeks. For the next five years, she would only see her parents—her family—for a grand total of seventy days.

The Grangers didn’t often feel out of their respective depths, but listening to Professor McGonagall proved more than they were capable of understanding. Jean and Robert knew their daughter was different—gifted—and that she struggled to fit in as she never struggled to do much else. She’d secured a place at a very fine public school for the upcoming year, but would she only experience more of the same? More misunderstandings? More bullying and grief?

Hermione only had to read the letter once to memorize the words, but she read it again, and again, fingers folding down the worn edges of the paper, lips pursed.

She thought about her mum and dad, about Dr. and Dr. Granger, and about the clean-cut lives they led. Being dentists was perfectly acceptable of course, yet remained…tame in the vaster vision of their youthful ambitions. Mum had wanted to be a barrister and perhaps a judge one day. Dad had wanted to go into neurosurgery and the study of the mind.

Be the best you can be.”

“Dear, you can be a bit too much sometimes.

Too, too, too.

She loved her parents dearly, just as dearly as they loved her, but their stale ambitions left Hermione discomfited.

“Professor McGonagall,” she asked as her parents looked to her and waited for what she would say. “Is there such a thing as being too much of a witch?”

The older witch blinked, lips pursed. “No, I don’t believe so, Miss Granger.”

Hermione closed her eyes. She took a breath—and chose.

 

_____

 

Two days later, she stared up at the great black gates and really, really hoped she hadn’t chosen wrong.

A hedge of yew curved along the long gravel drive and the summer air smelled of jasmine, acres and acres of land spilling in every direction without a single indication of civilization. Hermione and the professor had walked along the gravel road—which bore no trace of tire marks, no scuffs, perfect as a ribbon of stone scarring the earth—for quite some time before turning right and coming upon the gates. Beyond the gates loomed the dark stone edifice of a manor illuminated in the afternoon sun.

“The Malfoys fashion themselves to be the pinnacle of Wizarding society,” the professor said, her moue of displeasure making a return appearance. “You will be very well taken care of, Miss Granger, as I assured your parents. You will certainly learn quite a bit about what it means to be a witch in the hands of Lucius and Narcissa.”

In the interim of the two days Hermione had been given to wrap her mind around everything that had happened and to read the basic information pamphlets, she had learned exactly two things about her new foster family; they were called the Malfoys, and they had been a Wizarding family for as long as history had been recorded.

Professor McGonagall turned to face Hermione and seemed to be thinking very hard on something, her spectacles flashing in the sunlight, which made Hermione feel a bit queasy with apprehension. “If you require anything, you are free to write to me at Hogwarts. And if….” She lowered her voice and paused as if contemplating her words. “And if you feel a situation is urgent enough, I will do my utmost to deliver any messages to your family.”

Hermione’s brow rose. That was against the law—their law, the Muggle-Protection Act. It prohibited contact with the “Muggle” world outside specified windows of time to mitigate possible exposure.

“Thank you, professor.”

“Well, then.” Professor McGonagall nodded once, then returned her attention to the gates. She withdrew her wand once again and gave it a flick over herself, reverting her tartan suit into a pair of dark emerald robes, the shoulders quite stiff—not unlike the witch herself. Hermione watched with rapt attention and found herself still unable to fully accept that this all was really happening to her. She had always been a rational girl, convinced of logic and science and medicine—until magic came in and readily tipped her world onto its head.

“On we go, Miss Granger.”

Doubling her grip upon her small piece of luggage, Hermione followed Professor McGonagall as the older witch strode forward—and stepped right through the imposing gates as if they weren’t there, or simply comprised of something vaporous like smoke or mist. A ticklish sensation overcame Hermione when she did the same and she gawked.

McGonagall hid her smile. “Come along.”

The Malfoy Manor was a grand place indeed. Hermione had visited many of the historical houses in non-magical—Muggle, now—England and parts of France with her parents, and the Manor rivaled any of those sites in quality and sheer elegance. What magic was in evidence wasn’t gaudy or, well, cliche; no rabbits came popping out of hats, no man was standing by to retrieve an ever-extending line of handkerchiefs from his sleeves. White peacocks strolled through the green lawn, their cries sharp and clear, and stone snakes wound around the cornices.

Hermione wiped nervous sweat from her palms as they walked inside and kept her bushy-head raised held high.

A short creature with green eyes the size of tennis balls, dressed in a ratty pillowcase, greeted them in the foyer, bowing so low its—his?—long nose brushed the marble floor. A chandelier dripping crystals burned with a load of yellow candles overhead, the walls braced with rather terrifying rocaille and moving portraits. Pale, white-haired men and women watched from their gaudy frames.

“Dobby will be taking Miss to his Master’s family now,” the creature—Dobby—squeaked as those odd eyes landed on McGonagall. He wrung his long-fingered hands. “The Master says to thank the Professor McGonnagolly!”

Professor McGonagall took the hint and gave Dobby a prim nod. Hermione, on the other hand, was still puzzling over the word ‘Master.’ Was Dobby some kind of—servant? Her stomach lurched.

“This is where I leave you, Miss Granger. Remember, if you have need of anything, please write to me at Hogwarts,” Professor McGonagall said. She and Hermione shook hands and the latter swallowed her building nerves, telling herself there was no reason to be so nervous, she was a witch and she would learn magic and be the very best she could be at it. The front door opened again without assistance, and Professor McGonagall disappeared in the sunlight.

Dobby spoke and Hermione jumped. “This way, Miss!”

“Yes, I’m coming,” she said with a breathless nod. Hermione quickened her pace and followed the bobbing form of Dobby out of the foyer and down an adjoining hall. She continued to try to guess what he was exactly—some kind of hobgoblin? A fairy? A gnome? Something else entirely? And why did he refer to Mr Malfoy as “Master?” It seemed terribly formal to her.

They stopped before a door painted black and framed in the thinnest gilding of gold. Dobby knocked, then proceeded inside.

“The Miss Herme-ninny is here, Master!”

Hermione winced at Dobby’s horrible pronunciation of her name and stepped over the threshold. Four people sat in the well-appointed drawing room: a man with the same silvery-blond hair visible in the portraits, a woman of similar cold beauty, a boy Hermione’s age identical to the man, and a boy older than her with mousy brown hair and a tired expression. The man, with his pointed profile and silver-tooled robes sitting in the scrolled wing chair by the hearth, looked up at the intrusion and snapped the book he’d been reading closed.

“Ah, yes,” he said as he stood. “I thought I heard Minerva’s voice. Take her luggage to her room, Dobby.” His voice came out hard and sharp as a whip.

The strange creature bobbed in his bow and snatched hold of Hermione suitcase before scuttling out of the room. The door swung shut and Hermione had to lean away lest she be clipped by it.

“Miss Granger. A pleasure to meet you. I am Lucius Malfoy, this is my wife Narcissa Malfoy—.” The woman nodded her head in acknowledgment but otherwise remained seated, flipping through what looked to be a moving furniture catalog with disinterest. “My son, Draco—.” The pale haired boy sneered. A silent look from Mr Malfoy sent him strolling out of the room without a single word spoken. “And our other Muggle-born ward Jamie Ingham.” The tired boy only stared before going back to his own reading.

“Hello. How do you do?” Hermione said, feeling the horrid urge to curtsy. Ridiculous.

“Very well. Please, have a seat.”

He gestured to an empty chair with a lazy flourish; the Malfoys seemed to be quite practiced in expressing that kind of indolent, well-mannered grace, as if nothing at all mattered, their eyes remarkably distant when they looked at her. Hermione told herself she was being ridiculous again. The Malfoys had been nothing but cordial so far, and it was kind of them to open their home to her and other Muggle-borns like Jaime.

Hermione sat. The Malfoys watched her like fat, glistening spiders wondering if a fluttering moth would land in their web or not. Mr Malfoy smirked as he returned to his own chair and Hermione glanced at the cane leaning against its padded arm. The head was in the shape of a silver snake.

“You must have done exceptionally well at your at Muggle school for the Ministry to place you in our home.” The word “Muggle” came out oddly among the other posh syllables, spat with his tongue lingering on the alveolar ending. Hermione shifted under his attention.

“Yes, I—I was the best in my class. I even won a scholarship to Cheltenham.”

“And now you’ve discovered you’re a witch. How exciting.” His tone suggested it wasn’t very exciting at all. Mr Malfoy rested his pale hand atop his cane, withdrawing a wand from the top of it when the hand lifted again. He flicked the dark wand toward one of the towering bookshelves flanking the enormous hearth and several volumes jerked themselves free. “You will come to find, Miss Granger, that while the House of Malfoy may not be the oldest pure-blood family in Britain, it is surely one of the most distinguished. You are very fortunate to have been placed with us. You will receive the best money can buy while you remain here—but I must insist your studies remain exemplary. Your marks and your manners reflect directly upon my family name and I will not see it sullied.”

“Of—of course, Mr Malfoy,” Hermione stuttered, surprised at the forcefulness of his statement. She had about a million questions buzzing inside her skull—but something of this dark and ancient place, of the man before her, forbid such flippancy. If she wished ask something, she had best make sure it was a very good question. “What would happen if my marks fell?”

His lip curled. “You would be placed with another family.”

“I see.” Hermione’s eyes flickered toward Jamie and lingered on the fatigue written in his countenance. “I will do my very best, Mr Malfoy.”

The books he’d summoned came soaring toward her. Hermione caught one on instinct and the others stacked themselves on top of it until she held several tomes on her lap, feeling more assured now under the weight of so much knowledge. Some of the titles read Wizarding Traditions of the Twentieth Century, Noble Houses of the Current Era, A Beginner’s Compendium on the Magical Arts, A History of Magic, and Manners for the Modern Witch. A few didn’t sound even remotely interesting to Hermione, yet she knew she would read them anyway.

“I am lending you these volumes from the Malfoy library. I expect them to be returned in the same condition.”

“Of course,” Hermione replied. It seemed to be the only thing the Malfoy patriarch wanted to hear and Hermione would oblige him if it meant having access to such a trove of written word. She tentatively touched the binding on one text, fingertips skirting along the well-worn paper as something like electricity sparked under her skin. If they continued to be so generous with their books, Hermione didn’t much care that the Mafloys didn’t appear to be a warm family. She had her own family at home and didn’t need a second.

I’ll make my parents proud, she thought. And I’ll become the best witch there is.

Mr Malfoy inclined his blond head. His silver eyes gleamed. “Very good, Miss Granger. If you’re ready, your education on the Wizarding world begins now.”

Chapter Text

vii. find more than treasure here

 

Harriet was beginning to think she might just be losing her mind. She was, after all, chasing her own shadow through downtown London.

She had followed Set to a bus station in Little Whinging, and from there she had taken a bus all the way to the city, earning many speculative glances from the driver and those passengers who climbed aboard. They looked at the scruffy girl in her over-sized clothes with her unbrushed hair covering her bruised neck and wondered where she was going and if they should perhaps call the authorities. Fortunately for Harriet she reached her stop before anyone could think to detain her.

The sun had well risen and the weather grew warm, muggy, Harriet’s mouth dry and her bladder full and her stomach empty. She trailed Set down one street and then another, moving along as fast as she dared, careful to avoid any more attention and the occasional police officer she spotted on the prowl. Harriet found herself eventually toddling down Charing Cross Road, which seemed quite the busy thoroughfare with numerous shops and venues dotted along the avenue. She collided with several pairs of legs as she chased Set.

Suddenly he veered to the left—right across the threshold of a pub Harriet hadn’t seen at first. Blinking, she swiped her sweaty fringe out of her eyes as she peered up at the swinging sign that depicted a great pot with a crack in its basin. The letters read “The Leaky Cauldron.”

“Oh, excellent,” Harriet whispered, tired from a poor night of rest and really in desperate need of the loo. She stepped inside and almost swooned at the pleasant rush of cold air coming over her before immediately darting toward a little corridor off to the side, ignoring Set and any of the inner patrons. She found the water-closet and darted through the door.

Once her business was finished and her hands washed, Harriet stepped out of the loo and spared the pub a better look over. Shadows clung about the corners and in the rickety rafters, a mixture of voices and clinking cutlery reaching her ears from the main room, where she’d glimpsed a long bar and a cluttered motley of mismatched tables. On the wall right across from the loo hung a painting of a cauldron, and as Harriet watched, ingredients hopped off shelves and poured themselves into the bubbling stew, changing the liquid in a never-ending rainbow of color.

Her jaw about hit the floor as she lifted a finger to prod the canvas. The ladle took an idle swat at her hand, not that she could feel it. “Utterly mental,” she whispered. “I’ve gone round the bend.”

It was magic—bloody magic, plain as you please, right smack in Harriet’s face, hanging in an empty hall and all she had to do was stroll in off the street to see it. Like it was nothing. Like this rather ugly painting hadn’t just rocked Harriet’s small, uncomfortable world.

It’s real, isn’t it? Really, really, real.

A sudden poke in her ribs turned Harriet’s head, and she saw Set flit against the wall behind her, rippling in the weak light thrown by the gas lamps as he pointed toward the bar.

She did as Set directed, having no reason to distrust her shadow, not after he’d taken her this far already.

Behind the counter, the wizened barman with his bushy brows and lined face chatted with a wispy, gray-haired woman dressed in purple robes and a pinstriped skirt. Most everyone in the establishment wore similar robes, some subtle, some outlandish, one man with blond hair and big, pearly teeth dressed all in gold with a group of woman hovering about his table, causing quite a fuss. Some wore clothes that looked normal under their longer robes, if a bit old-fashioned—until closer inspection revealed differences in cut and style than Harriet was used to. One woman’s blouse had blooming flowers on it that shed and regrew their peachy petals over and over again.

“Hullo there, lass. How can I help ya?”

Startled, Harriet tore her eyes away the many strange sights around her and instead looked up at the barman. “Oh, er.” Harriet had no idea what to say or why Set had led her here, besides the fact that the establishment oozed magic and mystique. “Um, could I get something to drink…?” She took the crumpled bills from her pocket and wrinkled her nose at the damp texture. Sweat. Gross.

“No Muggle money here, lass,” the barman said as he spied the notes in Harriet’s hands. Muggle? “You’ll need to go on to Gringotts first. You Muggle-born? Where’s yer guardian?”

Harriet wondered why he skipped straight to guardian rather than parent. Did she have some sort of cosmic sign over her head that said ‘orphan’? “Er—they sent me on my own.”

The barman’s brow furrowed and he seemed on the brink of saying something, perhaps something against her supposed guardians or perhaps in recrimination of Harriet herself, but he thought better of it. The gray-haired witch who’d been listening to their exchange finished her drink—some kind of juice if Harriet wasn’t mistaken, the remnants of an English breakfast on the plate before her—and stood. “I can show the girl on up to Gringotts, Tom,” she offered, giving Harriet a small smile. “My name is Mafalda Hopkirk, Miss…?”

“Harriet,” she said, pausing. “Well, Potter. Harriet Potter.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Miss Potter. Let’s be off then, shall we?”

Harriet nodded, not knowing what else to say, though she was leery of going somewhere with a stranger. That leery feeling only grew when she followed the woman—the witch—into a grubby back alley adjoined to the rear of the pub, and Harriet almost darted back inside and away from Mafalda. She didn’t consider herself a coward, but Harriet had very little luck with adults in the past and had even less trust for strangers. The witch took out a stick from the inner folds of her long, rippling cloak and gave the bricks on the wall a good sharp tap.

A crack resounded through the air. Harriet watched, dumbfounded, as the bricks began to shift on their own accord, peeling like the skin of an orange, curling at the edges until a new pathway was plainly visible. The roof of the warehouse above the wall remained—and yet there was an alley in front of Harriet, not the rear of a warehouse; an alley full of people dressed in funny clothes carrying funny things and saying funny words.

There, a name was written on an arch: Diagon Alley.

“Come along, then, Miss Potter. I need to get to the Ministry yet this morning.”

Harriet urged her wobbly legs forward despite the sudden tingling in her limbs and hands. Mafalda tucked her stick into her cloak with a curious look in Harriet’s direction, then led the way up the street away from the grubby alley opening. Harriet, for her part, did her best not to gawk and shriek and generally make a nuisance of herself, staring at every little thing she could. There was a man selling bits of dragon liver, and that vendor there had little cooling charms you clipped to the front of your robes, guaranteed to keep you cool and fresh the rest of the day! Harriet brushed the side of a lumpy witch and her cloak left out a chorus of bird calls.

“Is this your first time to the Alley?”

Harriet started when Mafalda addressed her. The witch had already moved off several paces and Harriet blushed in her rush to catch up. Set had returned to her shadow for now, leaving Harriet to her own devices. “Er, yeah.” She scratched her head and tried to think of a plausible reason for her being there by herself. While the temptation to ask questions—or to simply beg for help—was great, Harriet knew she’d most likely end up in a police station, or right back with the Dursleys if she wasn’t careful. She refused to return there. “My folks had to work and, uh, sent me on my own.”

Malfalda’s brow furrowed. Harriet knew there must be some glaring inconsistencies in her story, so she shrugged off any of the witch’s follow up questions and hurried her on to their destination. Gringotts, the barman Tom had said. Harriet guessed it was a bank of some kind, and that she’d have to exchange her stolen pounds there for whatever money the magical people used. Hopefully she had enough to buy all the odds and ends listed on her charred letter.

“That’s Gringotts there, Miss Potter,” Malfalda said when they reached the alley’s end. A towering building of white stone sat at a fork in the path, Diagon Alley continuing to the left, a sign stating the right to be Empiric Alley. The name “Gringotts” scrolled across the bank’s stone face, a set of sweeping steps leading up into a marble antechamber. It looked like the kind of place someone would want to store their money—or spend it, whatever their preference. It also looked like the kind of place that would throw a scruffy urchin like Harriet right out on her ear.

“Ah—thanks,” Harriet said, staring up at the waiting doors and the thick columns like the arching teeth of a wolf.

“There’s access to the Ministry for Magic down Empiric Alley, if you didn’t know,” Malfalda said with a telling nod in that direction. “The Department of Welfare and Muggle-born Placement could provide…help, if one were to ask. Discreetly, of course.”

Harriet didn’t know exactly what the witch spoke of, but she was bright enough to recognize the words Ministry and Department of Welfare. No, if Harriet went toddling about a government building, she’d end up with the Dursleys again, in her cupboard, before she could blink. What if they took her letter away? What if they told her it had all been a mistake, that Harriet was just weird, that she didn’t belong anywhere at all?

“That’s okay, Ms Hopkirk. Thank you for showing me the way.”

Resigned, Malfalda nodded. “I’ll be off, then. Good day.”

“Bye.”

Harriet started up the steps and the gray-haired witch went her own way, hurrying along the right fork in the road. Many people came and went from the bank, some dressed as flashy as that smiling wizard in the pub, some more demure in shades of black and brown and gray. One wizard in a purple turban came dashing down the steps in a terrible rush, his face stricken. A man with long silvery hair and a black cane brushed by Harriet and sneered as if he’d touched something disgusting.

Well I could do with a shower.

Harriet managed to climb halfway up the steps before she caught sight of who—or what—guarded the doors and froze.

What the bloody hell is that?

“That” being a creature with very long fingers and feet, though the rest of it—him—was comparatively small. A bald pate gleamed on the top of his domed head and pointed teeth showed through his thin, parted lips, a crest of some kind positioned on the center of his black vest. A passing witch counting gold coins in the palm of her hand muttered, “Bleedin’ goblins and rubbish exchange rates—.”

Goblins? Harriet marveled, watching the creature watch the customers come and go. Goblins were real now too?

A sudden jab in the ribs brought her attention down. Seth, distorted by the angle of the steps, jabbed a finger toward the waiting doors.

“Yes, alright,” Harriet whispered, ascending the rest of the way into the foyer’s cool shadow. Harriet edged around the goblin, half expecting him to bar her entree and shoo her away, but the goblin only leered, motioning for Harriet to stop blocking the entrance with her horrid spy theatrics. She quickly apologized to the wizard she’d bumped into and rushed inside.

Two high counters dominated the inner chamber, stretching from one end to the other, behind which clustered more of the pale, long-fingered goblins dressed in black suits with gold fobs and brooches and pins. One was laying rubies the size of Harriet’s head on the side of a scale, another arguing with a well-dressed witch over a set of fine dishes, a third stacking gold bars on a hovering cart that left on its own once filled. Some humans in uniforms similar to the one the goblin outside wore marched the chamber and exchanged brief words with one another.

Harriet puffed out her cheeks, overwhelmed, then exhaled. Here goes nothing.

She approached a goblin who appeared to be both unoccupied and a teller. He made idle scribbles in the ledger before him with a feathered quill tucked into his strange hand. “E-excuse me? Err—Sir?”

The goblin continued to write until he reached a stopping point, when he lowered the quill and leaned forward to leer over the edge of the counter with an unfriendly sneer. “Name?”

“Uh,” came Harriet’s initial—and rather intelligent—response. “I mean, Harriet Potter. My name, that is. Harriet Potter,” she rambled.

He scribbled something on the ledger again and flipped a page. He sniffed. “And does Miss Potter want to make a withdrawal from her vaults today?”

“My what now?”

Harriet swallowed as the goblin leaned forward again, a decidedly displeased gleam in his beady eyes. “Do you wish to access your vaults or not?”

“I don’t have any vaults.”

“Our records show different.”

Then the goblin snapped his fingers, and Harriet jumped when the ledger he’d been writing in jerked itself about and dropped roughly two feet off the edge of the counter to come to her eye-level. Harriet gawked as letters unfurled themselves across the opened page, stark and black against the yellow sheen of bound parchment.

  1. House Potter Estate, entailed, nontransferable.

Beneficiary: Harriet Dorea Potter, 31 Oct 1981.

The letters continued in a looping script of puzzling legal nonsense and Harriet struggled to recognize even half of the jargon. A few columns of numbers and names spilled themselves over the ledger when the page flipped itself, and though Harriet still couldn’t make heads or tails of the figures, she did see that the names had “Potter” for a surname. She recognized the one listed above her own moniker, James Fleamont Potter, as her father—though she hadn’t know his middle name was Fleamont. How unfortunate.

Her dad must have been a wizard, then. Was her mum a witch? Aunt Petunia had shouted “That’s what magic does to people!” when she’d rowed with Harriet about her parents leaving her with the Dursleys. Was that how the Potters had actually died? Harriet didn’t see any bloody cars out and about on Diagon Alley. Did wizards and witches even use cars? Had magic killed her parents?

I’m going to find out, Harriet told herself as the ledger snapped shut an inch from her nose and rose into the goblin’s possession. Right after I find out about this vault business. How did he even know who I am? It’s not like Potter’s an uncommon name.

“Does Miss Potter wish to inspect her vaults?” the goblin asked again in a noticeably more tetchy tone.

Harriet fussed with the hem of her ugly secondhand shirt and nodded.

“Does Miss Potter have her key?”

“No,” Harriet replied, heart sinking. “I was never given a key.” He should know that, of course, considering she obviously didn’t know about the blasted vaults in the first place. Maybe there had been a mistake. She didn’t think the Dursleys had ever been given a key, either, since they would’ve cleared out any money her parents left Harriet—and maybe they already had. Maybe these vaults or boxes or whatever had already been sucked dry by Harriet’s relatives.

The goblin let out a put upon sigh. “You will need to give a sample of blood before a key can be reissued and then you will be escorted to your vault by a goblin associate. Is this agreeable?”

“Yes?”

In short order, one of the human employees came over and dropped a stool down on the floor with a kindly smile toward Harriet as he helped her up. Harriet burned under the curious attention of the other bank goers turning to look at the raggedy little girl, and being closer to the goblin did not make her less nervous. He leered as if he’d love to do nothing more than shove Harriet backwards off that stool, but he went on with his task. Her finger was pricked, a droplet sampled, and suddenly Harriet was being hustled off down a side corridor with a gleaming golden key pressed into her grubby palm.

A door opened onto what looked like a dusty mineshaft. The goblin assisting Harriet now—Griphook—led Harriet toward a waiting cart that sat upon a pair of thick iron rails. The rails plunged off into the dark. Griphook held the only light, a battered old lantern with a wavering flame.

Harriet gulped as she took a seat and the goblin jumped into the front. Are these vaults underground?

“Potter trust vault. Six hundred eighty-seven.”

“Six hundred eighty—?”

The remainder of Harriet’s question was cut off with a yelp when Griphook thrust the lever holding the cart in place forward and they went rocketing into motion. She clutched the cart’s metal sides with white-knuckled fists as they plummeted down one slope and then careened through another, the cold air whipping past, turning Harriet’s already frightful hair into a right mess, her small backside lifting off the padded seat when the rails abruptly swerved again. Griphook grinned nastily.

Several minutes later, the cart came to a lurching stop and Harriet—dizzy but a bit enthralled by the journey—stumbled out after Griphook. “Six hundred eighty-seven,” the goblin said, jabbing a long finger at the vault in question. Harriet had been expecting something more along the lines of a safety deposit box, not an actual, honest to goodness vault. “Six hundred eighty-eight—.” He pointed instead at the larger metal door across the way. It was partially obscured by a glittering stalagmite—or was that a stalactite? “Will be accessible at your majority.”

“Okay,” Harriet said, not knowing what one should say to a goblin. Instead, she passed the key over to him and allowed Griphook to get on with opening the vault up.

Green smoke hissed out through the crack, torches burst into life, and Harriet almost had a heart attack.

Gold.

It glimmered in every corner, climbed the walls and spilled across the polished floor—gold. She had never seen so much of it before in her life, not in books or pictures or even on the telly when the Dursleys let her watch commercials after the dishes were washed and her chores completed. The vault itself seemed to emit a brilliant yellow light from how the torches reflected on the accrued wealth, on the tidy mountains of solid gold bars, on the buckets of coins, the roped coils of white pearls and silver chains and the gilt frames with moving people on the canvases. There were trunks stacked to the ceiling and long curtains of silk fabric and stacks upon stacks of great fat books. Trembling, she bent down to pick up a coin that had fallen near the vault door.

Poor orphan Harriet, who had a pocketful of sweaty, stolen notes, who had never eaten a full meal before, who had lived under the stairs and now lived nowhere at all, burst into tears.

Griphook despaired.

Chapter Text

viii. wand of elder

 

When the hysterical tears ran dry, Harriet wiped her eyes—and her nose—and took a breath.

She knew she wasn’t terribly clever; rather, she was intelligent but lacked that spark inherent to those of true cleverness, that intuitive sixth sense that allowed those more brilliant than her to assimilate their environment and find information with ease. Sometimes Harriet had to be told things twice, and sometimes she didn’t have to be told at all. What a life with the Dursleys had taught young Harriet was that one got by on a lack of cleverness by using cunning, and by taking stock of their situation while they could.

The goblins, she guessed from their behavior, didn’t much like witches and wizards, so she asked them questions, confident they wouldn’t send her off to that welfare office Mafalda had mentioned because they simply didn’t want to deal with the hassle. Griphook grumbled and grunted and sneered while he spoke, but a coin or two placed in his hand loosened the goblin’s tongue well enough.

He told Harriet that the gold coins were Galleons and the silver were Sickles and the bronze were Knuts. He wasn’t sure how the Potters had died but knew that James Potter, despite his vast fortune, had been an Auror—which was a bit like a Muggle policeman—so Griphook assumed he and his wife Lily must have been offed during the war. When Harriet asked about the war, he told her she’d best go to Flourish and Blotts and buy a bloody history book because he didn’t have all day to tell stories to nasty little wizarding brats.

Harriet was apparently the head of the “Noble House of Potter,” which wasn’t as great as being in a “Most Noble House” or in a “Noble and Ancient House” or even a “Noble and Most Ancient House.” When Harriet asked if there was such thing as a “Most Noble and Most Ancient House,” Griphook told her not to be ridiculous. What the designation boiled down to, she understood, was that she had a seat on the Wizengamot, which was a bit like a magic conclave that Wizarding families applied to so they could sit in on very boring political meetings about laws and whatnot and have their voices heard. It cost two hundred Galleons per annum to retain a House’s seat, and one of Harriet’s ancestors had apparently paid the fine up through the next one hundred and fourteen years.

Sounded barmy to Harriet, but there it was.

The Potters had an estate—the Stinchcombe House—which was a modest manor out in the Gloucestershire countryside. It was “entailed,” which meant the house belong to Harriet’s family and not really to Harriet herself, and she had absolutely no access to it because it was part of the fortune secured and locked away in Vault Six Hundred and Eighty-Eight. Vault Six Hundred and Eight-Seven was a trust fund set aside for the Potter heirs for their personal use, kept separate from the main estate in case something catastrophic were to happen to the family’s fortune. Griphook had a nasty grin on again when he told Harriet about all the Wizarding families who had bankrupted themselves in the past.

While goblins didn’t seem very nice at all, they did prove informative, and when plied with gold, Griphook was quick enough to mention useful things to Harriet. He pointed out a spelled trunk with an extension Charm that was most likely illegal now and would be excellent for Harriet’s use at Hogwarts. The goblin noted her keen interest in the Stinchcombe House and commented that the Leaky Cauldron could take on longterm boarders if necessary. He told her that if she wished to be smarter than the average stupid witch or wizard she needed to buy more books than were on her school list, and if she wanted anyone to take her seriously, it didn’t matter if she had a bag filled with Galleons, she needed to go to Twilfitt and Tattings and get some bloody better clothes.

So, once Harriet loaded a purse with coin and took hold of her family trunk, she finally trundled out of Gringotts into the hot afternoon sun and took a left upon the alley to venture down the Southside. She ambled along with the strange crowd, feeling loads more confident now that she had real Wizarding money and knew, without a doubt, that she was a witch, her eyes taking in all the peculiar sights with hungry attention. Newspapers at a stand outside a building called the Daily Prophet read themselves aloud to passersby. A pair of twin red-heads came out of Gambol and Japes with wide grins. Shady characters lurked near an arch proclaimed the entrance to “Knockturn Alley” and Harriet kept well away from there.

Harriet paused at the post office to send off her acceptance notice to Hogwarts, then entered Twilfitt and Tattings and was almost immediately set upon by a snooty witch who didn’t seem to believe Harriet was, in fact, a paying customer. Logically Harriet knew Griphook had been correct in his assumption that no one would take her seriously when she dressed like a beaten rag doll, but it was still annoying to be judged solely based off her appearance. The witch eventually changed her tune—after much cajoling and purse rattling—and Harriet walked out of the shop an hour later with a new wardrobe. She wore an emerald sun dress that had a neckline high enough to hide most of her scar, and a Charm in the hem meant to prevent it from tearing or becoming dirty.

Harriet had never owned anything new before, let alone something so pretty.

Magic oozed through the alley and Harriet found herself quickly becoming enamored with it. It was such a marvel; every little thing could be accomplished with a spell or a Charm or a Hex, witches and wizards whipping out sticks—or wands, as she learned they were called—to shrink their bags or levitate them, changing their cloaks from blue to green to red, popping in and out of existence with a quick turn of their heels, or jabbering on as they carried cauldrons and books and owls and moving papers. Harriet felt like she was in a dream and she never wished to wake from it.

After Twilfitt and Tattings she returned to the Northside of Diagon to find Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, where she would have to buy her uniforms for school, according to the snooty witch at Twilfitt. Harriet found the shop and poked her head inside. A small bell chimed.

“Hogwarts, dear?” asked an older witch with red cheeks and curly hair. She was much nicer than the other witch Harriet had met, and she smiled when Harriet quickly nodded, then led her farther into the shop where two other students were already being fitted for their own robes. Harriet was ushered onto a stool next to a bushy-haired girl about Harriet’s age while a pale, drawling boy on the girl’s other side continued to drone.

“—honestly, Granger, how you expect to manage at all when you can’t even recognize which of the houses is greatest—.”

The girl, Granger, flushed an irritated color and, when she spoke, did so in a rush of very precisely enunciated words. “None of the houses are greater than any of the others,” she insisted. “The book states clearly that each has it failings and its accomplishments. Slytherin is not the best, nor is Gryffindor, or Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff.”

“Don’t let father hear you saying that. He might chuck you back to the Muggles,” the boy snorted. He seemed to realize someone else had appeared, because he looked past Granger to Harriet and said, “Well? What do you think?”

Harriet blinked as a shop assistant jerked a standard black robe over her head and started in on the magic pins. “What?”

“Which house do you think is best?” he demanded.

Harriet hadn’t the faintest clue what he was asking, so she looked to the other girl for help. “Err, I think you’re right,” she said. The boy was being rather rude, and Harriet decided it was best to give the other girl some support. What houses is he going on about? Slithered in? Huffle buff?

The boy scoffed. “You haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, do you?” When Harriet didn’t respond, he straightened himself and stared into the mirror before him with an unpleasant scowl. “Bloody Mudbloods everywhere nowadays….”

“Draco!”

“Do shut up, Granger. Try to show some dignity.”

Granger turned her shoulder to the boy—Draco—and ignored him. “I’m Hermione Granger,” she said to Harriet, sticking out her hand. “I’m a Muggle-born, too. You are going to Hogwarts, right?”

“Right,” Harriet replied as she shook Hermione’s hand, her brow furrowed. She didn’t think she was a—what did she call it? Muggle-born? Griphook had said “Muggles” were the non-magical people out in regular London, and Harriet’s dad had been a wizard, and she was fairly certain her mother had been a witch—or maybe not, considering Aunt Petunia was about as mundane as a person could be. Mundane as cheese. Maybe Harriet was Muggle-born. There was so much she didn’t know. “I’m Harriet.”

“Are you excited to go to Hogwarts?” Hermione asked, going on before Harriet could open her mouth. “I personally can’t wait. Magic is so very fascinating. You really should think about getting Hogwarts: A History before you go. It has all kinds of information about the Houses and all the classes that have been taught at the castle over the centuries and the separate modifications it’s gone through. Draco insists that Slytherin is the greatest, but I think it has more to do with your personal values and qualities. You can’t truly think to rate a House based on the virtues of ambition or loyalty or wisdom—.”

Take a breath, Granger. For Merlin’s sake.”

Unfortunately at that moment Harriet was brought down off the stool, her robes finished, and so she waved a quick goodbye to Hermione and Draco, feeling a bit irked she hadn’t been able to have a decent conversation with either. She loaded her purchases into the top drawer of her trunk, careful not to drop anything into the cavernous lower drawer, then moved on to her next stop.

Harriet purchased a pewter cauldron at Potage’s Cauldron Shop, picked up a standard potions kit at the rather smelly Apothecary, ogled the fancy flying brooms at Quality Quidditch Supplies, then stepped into Flourish and Blotts. She remembered Griphook’s advice and selected several other books aside from the ones on her school letter, including one on goblin wars, one about magical creatures, another containing a multitude of ways to curse your enemies and hex your friends, and Hogwarts: A History. In the end she was glad she had taken the trunk along, as it seemed to be Charmed almost weightless as well as big and roomy.

She was on her way back to the other end of the alley when Set jabbed her in the ribs again, this time gesturing at a brightly lit sweet shop stationed near Gringotts. Only then did Harriet realize how very hungry and thirsty she was, her head dizzy and her feet aching from walking on the hard cobblestones, so she stopped at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour for a blueberry and mint flavored treat, as well as a tall glass of something called “pumpkin juice.” Harriet wasn’t sure if she liked the drink, but she assumed it would grow on her.

She came at last to the shop she’d been most looking forward to: Ollivanders. It didn’t look like much on the outside. The sign proclaiming that they’d been in business since 382 BC was faded and peeling, the gold letters of the name crinkled at the edges, and the display window held only a single stick—wand—on a faded purple cushion. From all the conversations she’d overheard snippets of, Harriet knew it was the very best place in all of Britain to buy one’s magic wand—and Harriet was ecstatic to purchase her own.

She’d never been to a church before, but she rather imagined it was a lot like stepping into Ollivanders; a hush pervaded the tiny shop, a palpable sanctity that clung to the place as surely as the thick layer of dust. Long, slender boxes filled the shelves from floor to ceiling with very little room to spare. There was a counter with an ancient register sat atop it and one spindly chair with the stuffing poking out the sides of the cushioned seat. No one was in sight.

Set flickered and curled about Harriet’s feet, waiting.

“Hello?” Harriet called, setting her trunk down by the chair. “Is anyone here? I need to buy a, er, magic wand?”

“Hello,” echoed a man’s voice. Harriet let out a startled swear when the old man slipped quietly from the shadows, his wide, pale eyes watching her with all the eerie uncanniness of two uncovered moons. His gray hair was wispy and wild about his head. “Ah…Harriet Potter.”

Harriet stared as the elderly wizard came slowly forward, gradual as creeping mist, tingles prickling along her spine. “H-how do y’know my name?”

The wizard smiled. “You’ve your mother’s eyes,” he said. “And your father’s poor hair, I’m afraid. Ten and a quarter, Lily was. Willow, excellent for Charms. And James…eleven inches, Mahogany. Pliable. Perfect for Transfiguration. I remember every wand I’ve ever sold, Miss Potter, though I don’t always know where they end up.”

Harriet failed to find her voice, overwhelmed as she was by the sudden jolt to her system. Really, she liked to think she didn’t normally lack control over her emotions, but the day had been quite long. Harriet had seen many marvelous things, and she’d also learned a high volume of stressful information. She’d never seen a picture of her parents. She had no idea that she mirrored Lily’s eyes or James’ hair.

“I sold the wand that did that as well,” the wizard murmured as his fingertips grazed the side of Harriet’s neck over the thin veins of scarring that curled about her throat. Harriet jolted out of her stupor. “Thirteen and half inches, yew. A powerful combination. Very powerful indeed.” The briefest flicker of contrition passed through those pale eyes. “Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have known better. Making a wand like that. Power does so often call to the Dark—or perhaps the Dark calls to power? Who can say?”

“You—you said a wand made my scar?” Harriet asked, fidgeting with her glasses.

“Of course. Very distinct, curse scars. I am, of course, in the minority that believes He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named cursed you directly, but fools will believe what they want to believe.”

He who what—?

Harriet’s mouth was dry. Her head was spinning again. “I was told I got it in the car accident that killed my parents.”

“Car?” the wizard frowned. “For certain you received the scar when Mrs and Mr Potter died; He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named could have hardly cursed you without going through your parents first.” He seemed to realize he’d said something insensitive, because the wizard covered his mouth and urged a swaying Harriet to have a seat on the spindly chair. He rushed on before Harriet could ask questions. “Ah, well—where are my manners? I’m Garrick Ollivander, Miss Potter, and it is very nice to meet you. Now, let’s see about getting you a wand, shall we?”

Harriet let him get on with it while she tried to gather her wits. Blown up, Aunt Petunia had said. That’s what magic does to people!

The Department of Magical Law Enforcement still deposits payments out of Potter’s pension benefit. He was probably an Auror met a sticky end in the war.

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named could have hardly cursed you without going through your parents first.

Someone…someone had killed Harriet’s family. James and Lily must have been mur—.

“Oh dear, not that one.”

Harriet looked about and had a chance to glimpse the wand that had been shoved into her hand before Ollivander jerked it away. Another replaced it, then another, and another. On and on Ollivander went to the teetering shelves only to return with more wands that he summarily rejected. Harriet tried to reclaim the joy of the moment, and yet her excitement remained tame in the light of this newest revelation. Perhaps it should’ve been obvious after all the small hints and outright claims she’d heard so far, and perhaps Harriet had ignored the hints, had buried her head in the proverbial sand to escape the terrible, terrible news. Perhaps she hadn’t wanted to know.

“Yes, this one,” Ollivander said as he returned once more, this time only holding a single battered box in his pale hands. “I have a very good feeling about this one. A very good feeling. Holly, eleven inches, nice and supple. Go on, Miss Potter. Give it a flick.”

Harriet lifted the wand—and immediately felt a ticklish kind of warmth spread beneath her skin, pushing aside the wounded feel of her saddened heart. Smiling, she did as Ollivander suggested and gave the wand a swish, gasping when a burst of silver sparks poured from the wand’s tip. Magic. Harriet had done magic, easy as you please.

“Excellent!” Ollivander cheered, clapping. “A wonderful bond, Miss Potter. Curious, though, very curious.”

“How so?” she asked as she tucked the wand back into the box and Ollivander took it toward the register. He opened his mouth to answer, then came to an abrupt halt, looking down upon short Harriet with her bruised neck and thin face and tired eyes. He turned the box, thumbs hooked along the lid’s edge, and simpered.

“Nothing at all, Miss Potter. Nothing at all. That will be seven Galleons, and…here.”

He reached below the register to a shelf that held a collection of weathered tomes coated in the same saintly dust as the rest of the shop. Ollivander withdrew one of the books and handed it to Harriet along with her wand when she extracted the seven coins from her purse.

The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts,” she read aloud, puzzled. “What’s this for?”

“A small gift. You will find it…informative.” Ollivander smiled again, just the slightest twitch of the mouth. “I will expect great things from you. Great things indeed. Good luck, Miss Potter.”

Harriet was shooed from the shop then, her trunk laden with magical purchases trailing at her heels, a fat book under one skinny arm and a wand box in the hand of the other. Few witches or wizards wandered this far end of the alley, and Harriet wagered it was because buying a wand wasn’t an everyday occurrence for most. The sun was dipping low along the crooked roofs belonging to Diagon Alley’s many shops, and Harriet decided she had best return to the Leaky Cauldron and see about that extended boarding Griphook mentioned. Harriet wasn’t sure how she’d manage without an adult.

She made to stop and tuck her new things away—when her wand was jerked from her hand.

“Hey—!”

Harriet’s breath left her in a gasp when she saw Set—more corporeal than she had ever seen him before—crack the box between his spidery hands and retrieve her wand from the plush velvet. The stick of holly spun between fingers comprised of shadow and air as the box fell to the cobblestones, forgotten, and the wand turned in ever quickening circles.

“What are you doing?!”

The wood lightened until it was as pale as ash, the shape changing, new grooves forming where Set’s tapered fingers traced funny designs. The tip lengthened beyond the original eleven inches. Set flicked the wand into the air and, on instinct, Harriet reached out to catch it. The wand slapped into her palm as if summoned.

The warmth that answered her touch was not the same; no indeed, the tepid satisfaction became a soaring inferno, and the sadness imparted by learning her parents’ fates was incinerated beneath a wave of confidence that thrummed like a heartbeat in Harriet’s small hand. It sung. For a girl who had never owned anything of her own before that day, Harriet felt uncommonly attached to that wand now. Like it was a part of her arm and she’d sooner lose a hand than let it go.

As Set returned to her shadow, the young Potter girl marveled at how much she loved magic.

Chapter Text

ix. where stars dwell

 

When the final letter came, Elara was ready to go.

The benefit of practically being raised in the shadow of a pulpit was the exhausting linguistics preparation that went into teaching jaded orphans how to read and interpret the puzzling language of the bible. The inhabitants of St. Giles’ spent an abundance of time with their necks bent over stuffy passages, fighting the urge to yawn, lest they wanted to feel the back of a ruler slap their hands. Elara excelled at her coursework—if only because she loathed being struck or touched. She could recite whole pages of Matthew or Mark or the Epistles without much thought, and when she sat down to write Minerva McGonagall, she had the literary prowess necessary to ask the right questions without receiving the wrong reactions.

She thought her handwriting would have been neater had her wrists not still been aching from Father Phillips’ treatment.

Elara Black knew how to read Latin and how to sing psalms and how to forge acceptance letters to religious boarding schools on the other side of the country. She knew the right words to say and knew when to be quiet, knew when to keep her eyes down and when to bluff. She wrote questions to Professor McGonagall in the dead of night and let Matron Fitzgerald send an acceptance note to St. Katherine’s School for Girls, a note that would go absolutely nowhere at all. Elara walked a thin line between outright deception and truth, letting neither woman know all the answers to the questions they asked, never letting them know just how desperately she wanted to leave that place.

Because Elara had decided to leave. Hogwarts or no, she would not stay at St. Giles’ another day.

By stating that her guardians weren’t familiar with the area, she managed to convince Professor McGonagall to send a brief series of instructions for where to purchase school supplies and how to access the “Wizarding” world, as it was called. The instructions included many words that were outside Elara’s vocabulary—including “flooing” or “Apparating” or “Muggle”—but she understood the basic necessities.

When she asked about tuition, the tone of McGonagall’s letters became more suspicious, pondering if something had happened to the Black fortune, if Elara or her guardians were being denied access to the Gringotts vaults, and so Elara quickly demurred until the subject was changed—but the words stayed with her. Fortune. Gringotts. Vaults.

Had Elara’s parents left money for her? Perhaps McGonagall had the wrong Black. It wasn’t a terribly uncommon surname, after all.

Or so Elara thought.

She left a week from the end of July. A final letter from McGonagall included possible temporary accommodations she could find in London, and a ticket for the train to school that would depart at exactly eleven o’clock on September first from Platform Nine and Three Quarters, Kings Cross Station. Elara gathered her satchel and her fare for the non-magical train trip into the city. Sister Abigail cooed about how proud she was of Elara, Matron Fitzgerald warned her there’d best be no problems from her at St. Katherine’s, and Father Phillips pressed an iron cross on a chain into her palm, saying they would see her when the holidays came.

In a fit of vindicative pique, Elara threw the cross into the bushes once she was left at the station alone.

They would never see her again.

_____

 

The name Black, she came to know, was not as common as she theorized.

No, Black was the name of traitors, of murderers, and of madmen—and Elara was the daughter of all three.

Her revelation began at the bank Professor McGonagall mentioned in her letters, Gringotts. Elara followed the instructions on how to reach “Diagon Alley” from the “Muggle-side” of London, and though she was suitably flabbergasted by her first real experience with magic, she managed to stagger along the alley’s length until she found the goblin-ran bank. She almost collided with a bespectacled girl in rumpled clothes coming out of the foyer dragging a trunk, but once there, the goblins swiped some of Elara’s blood—and her life started to unravel at the seams.

She was not the only Black alive. In fact, not only was Elara not the last of her name, she also wasn’t in control of the family fortune the professor had told her about. That honor fell to the current head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, her father Sirius Orion Black—and his proxy, Cygnus Pollux Black the Third.

Well, she thought, sitting in one of the well-appointed meeting rooms off the main Gringotts’ chamber. The celestial monikers would explain my name, at least. “Sirius,” she asked in a breathless whisper, staring at the goblin—Sledgetongue—across from her. “My father, Sirius, is alive?”

The scrawny goblin bared yellow teeth. “If you can call being incarcerated in the Wizarding prison alive.”

More letters were written. More owls sent winging off into the summer sky. Elara left to check into a quaint inn on neighboring Horizont Alley called “The Niffler’s Nest,” which she was assured often boarded Hogwarts students who lived far from London and needed to be closer to the station—though not usually quite so early in the summer. They charged a fee to Hogwarts itself, so she needn’t worry about paying for that yet. Elara perched silently on the edge of her mattress, dazed, her satchel resting on the duvet at her side. She stared at the pinstriped wallpaper and told herself again and again that it didn’t matter, that it didn’t matter if her father was alive because he was in prison, for goodness’ sake—.

Elara returned to Gringotts at precisely eleven o’clock. She expected to greet Mr Cygnus Black, her great uncle and proxy head of the family, whom the goblins had written earlier that very morning to arrange a meeting with—only for Elara to confront one of the ugliest creatures she had ever seen when she stepped into the second chamber again.

It was shorter than the goblins, hunched with gangling limbs, a bulbous nose, bloodshot eyes, and great sagging folds of flesh. If Elara were to be honest, it looked as if someone had held the scowling imp over a fire for too long and he’d started to melt like overheated wax. The creature dipped his head in the approximation of a bow after he looked Elara over from head to foot. The white hair sprouting out of his floppy ears shifted with the motion.

“The master sends his regrets for not being able to attend, but poor master is not well. Kreacher is here to take the blood-traitor’s daughter to Master Cygnus.”

Blood-traitor?

Elara wasn’t sure she wanted to go anywhere with such a cantankerous little thing, but she wasn’t given much of a choice. Kreacher, as he called himself, reached out a bony arm and took hold of Elara’s wrist. She gasped at the resulting sting, and the breath disappeared into the sudden crushing pressure that consumed her. It was like being sucked through a narrow straw at high velocity without access to air, her insides churning, heart pounding—.

As abruptly as it had begun, the pressure abated and Elara landed on her knees, retching.

Kreacher twisted his lined lips, biting back a retort, and gave his fingers a snap. The sick splattered across the floor vanished.

“The blood-traitor’s daughter will follow Kreacher.”

Elara lifted her head and saw a narrow foyer, a black door with no knob at her back, a dusty corridor before her that led to a stairwell and another shut door. Flocked wallpaper peeled from the walls in curling strips, and Kreacher’s little feet left smudged prints on the floorboards and carpet runner. Gas lamps flickered to life, putrescent yellow in color behind emerald glass globes, cobwebs thick as hair caught in the fixtures’ curlicues. Kreacher turned to glare. Elara stumbled upright, dazed, and trailed after him.

Another girl might not have followed the pale little thing deeper into the house. Another girl would have been frightened out of her wits by Kreacher, by the decor, by the sudden relocation from one place to another—but Elara had lived for several years frightened of herself, of the Matron, of the Father, and compared to the orphanage, this place wasn’t remotely scary. It certainly set her ill at ease, yet the grandeur beneath the grunge remained prevalent, and Elara was sad when she thought of what the house must have looked like in years past.

As they climbed the stairs, Elara could’ve sworn whispers bloomed at her back, yet a glance over her shoulder showed the landing as bare as it had been when she passed it by. She kept her eyes forward after that.

Kreacher knocked upon a door and opened it with a wave of his gnarled hand. He gestured Elara inside.

Breathing was the first thing she noted; heavy and wet, the pants came at a stilted intervals in the darkened room, little sunlight managing to crawl about the edges of the thick damask curtains on the windows, a fire all but dead in the filthy hearth. The man lay in his nightgown beneath several comforters and blankets with his torso propped up by fine, tasseled pillows, the silver and emerald hangings tied off to the thick posters of the bed. The room smelled of sweat and sick.

“Come closer, then, I’m not contagious.”

Embarrassed to realize she’d just been standing on the rug staring, Elara stepped nearer, her hands folded before herself.

“Kreacher,” the man called. His voice cracked at the end and devolved into a hacking cough. “More light, Kreacher. And a chair.”

The little scowling imp hadn’t followed Elara into the room, and yet a stuffed armchair appeared behind Elara—almost taking her legs out from under her—and the silver candelabrum on the nightstand burst into flames. Elara sat before she could be asked, mostly because she was beginning to feel a mite weak in the knees. Magic could be overwhelming when it happened so suddenly.

The man on the bed surprised Elara. She’d been expecting someone a great deal older, someone in their seventies or eighties—but the man looked barely fifty, aside from the wasting kiss of illness drawing his waxen skin taut and painting perspiration on his brow. In him she saw several of her own features: the black hair with the slight wave to it, the gray eyes, the sharp, symmetrical bones of his cheeks and jaw. He gave her a hard look as his thin chest continued to rise and fall. Elara noticed several letters laying on the duvet at his side, including the one sent off by the goblins.

At length, he said, “You look like him,” and fell into a coughing fit once more.

Elara wondered if there was anything she could do and voiced the concern, but he waved it off with a slight flick of the hand.

“There’s nothing to do. I’m dying. It’s as simple as that. Whatever comfort can be brought to my body does nothing to stop the inevitable.” He breathed in and out as he looked at Elara with his brow furrowed. “So you must forgive me for my lack of manners. I am Cygnus of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, the proxy-Head of the family. It is a…relief to meet you.”

Relief? An odd way to greet someone. Not that my entire life hasn’t become decidedly odd. “I’m…Elara. It’s very nice to meet you, Mr Black.”

He tutted. “No. That’s not how you introduce yourself to the Head of a pure-blood family. It’s ‘Elara of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.’” He coughed again, briefly. “Heir to the Black family. And here I didn’t think anything could surprise me at this point in time. Tell me, girl. How did you come to be here? Who has been raising you since Sirius got himself incarcerated?”

Elara bit back the urge to pounce on the first question that jumped into her head, wanting to know about Sirius, about who he was and what he’d done, and if that was why she’d been left at St. Giles’ as a child. But why the non-magical world? Why? Elara had been taught not to interrupt adults, however. “I was raised at an orphanage in Wiltshire. I…I received my Hogwarts letter, and found out I’m a witch. I left. I’m not going back.”

The lines on Cygnus’ face deepened and Elara noticed there were threads of silver in the black hair of his brows, a tinge of gray marring the first shadow of a growing beard. “Muggles?” he demanded, voice rising. “They left you with Muggles?!”

“Yes.”

He said something then beneath his breath, something about Merlin’s pants that Elara guessed might be a magical euphemism, and looked more ill than ever. “The world’s going to the dogs.” By ‘dogs,” she assumed he meant ‘Muggles.’ His tone told her as much. “The Ministry can’t even keep track of pure-blood magical children, let alone the rest of the rabble. They assured Sirius and Walburga that the premises was checked, but what can you expect from a fool like Millicent Bagnold? Of course, she barely lasted long enough to warm the seat for her successor.” He paused then to breathe—or wheeze, more like. “But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Elara stiffened. “No, sir.”

“It’s not your fault,” he replied, voice gruffer than it had been before. “You will be taught. I have enough strength left in this body to see the state of the family better off than it was left to me. You mentioned not returning to that—to that orphanage. That’s quite out of the picture.” Cygnus stopped speaking and cleared his throat, his eyes closing for a long minute of silence interrupted only by the faint crackle in the hearth. “Where are you staying?” he finally asked.

“The Niffler’s Nest. It’s an inn in Horizont Alley that boards Hogwarts students before the term begins.”

“I know of it. You can stay there or you can reside here, if you wish. Merlin knows I could use better company than the house-elf.” He wrinkled his nose in that dignified way rich parishioners always screwed up their faces when confronted with a particularly scruffy orphan. Cygnus eyed Elara again, taking in her proper—if worn—attire, her clean shoes, her washed face and cut fingernails. “As I told you, Miss Black, I am dying and it is inevitable, but I won’t see this house crumble or fall into the hands of fools like my own children, pledging themselves to madmen or Muggles. Toujours pur, do you know what that means?”

“No. I was taught Latin, not French.”

“At least you recognize the language. It means ‘always pure.’ Remember those words. It’s the motto of this family, and while some will tout it as a slogan galvanizing hate and the agendas of lesser wizards, that is not what it is. Not originally. Toujours pur means to always be loyal to blood, to family—to magic. You are, or will be, the last free member of the House of Black, a family that has existed in Britain since before the Ministry came into being—before the Conqueror even set sail for the Isles—and it will be your responsibility to carry on our noble name.”

Elara felt wide-eyed and silly listening to her great uncle speak. Why, just that morning she dressed in her modest bedroom at St. Giles’ hearing the morning sermons echo from the adjacent church, and while she’d been exchanging letters with Professor McGonagall for a week now, it hadn’t been real until now, until she sat down at the bedside of a dying relative and he regaled her about lineages and house mottos and magic.

“Please, Mr Black,” she asked softly. “Can you…can you tell me about my parents?”

“I don’t know much,” he replied, sighing. He began to cough again and struggled to control it, one hand plastered over his mouth as his reddened eyes watered. “Th—that potion there—.”

Elara lurched to her feet and followed his pointing finger toward the dusty sideboard. There were several “potions” sitting there in a line of various crystal vials, their contents luminescent and churning at Elara’s inspection.

“Th—the pink one.”

She grabbed it and brought it back to him. Cygnus drank the infusion, sputtering, and instantly his fit subsided into a grateful gasp of air. Elara took the empty vial from his hand as he slumped against the pillows, clearly exhausted. “I don’t know much,” he repeated. “Your grandmother, my sister Walburga, was some thirteen years my senior, and so we were never really close. You can find her portrait on one of the landings, howling about blood purity like a Gryffindor who can’t string more than two words together.” He sniffed. “She married our second cousin Orion—don’t make that face at me, girl—and had two sons, Sirius being the eldest. No one’s quite sure where his brother, Regulus, got off to.”

Elara nodded along, and though she forced her face to remain composed, she still didn’t like the idea of her paternal grandparents being related, for goodness’ sake. It was technically legal, being second cousins and not first, but still.

“As far as I know, Sirius rowed with Walburga and Orion sometime during his Hogwarts years and she had him disowned, but when Regulus disappeared in 79’ and Sirius returned with the promise to marry a pure-blood heiress, Walburga had little choice but to accept him back into the family. I actually don’t know who he married, though I heard she died early on in 81’. Walburga and I were hardly speaking at the time, differences in political opinions being what they were—but I digress.”

“And what happened to Sir—my father? I know he’s…incarcerated. For how long?”

“The goblins tell you, then? Oh, he’s there for life.” Cygnus’ eyes gleamed hard like cooling quicksilver. “He killed twelve Muggles and an old school-mate of his with a Blasting Curse. The Hit Wizards found him in the ruins, laughing like a madman. Took him straight to Azkaban with the rest of the Death Eaters they rounded up that day. He besmirched the whole of our house with his idiocy, and you’ll bear the brunt of his treachery for years to come. Trust me when I say this, Miss Black; the only part of Sirius that will ever see the outside of an Azkaban cell is his rotting corpse, and even then I have my doubts.”

Elara shuddered and shut her eyes. She wished she hadn’t asked. She really wished she hadn’t.

“I think his punishment fitting,” Cygnus said as he sank farther into the pillows and his tired gaze roved from Elara to the far wall, focusing on the empty portrait frame there. “He doesn’t know about you, after all. He gets to sit in that prison every day, gets to wake up every morning on that dismal island, and gets to remember again that his only child is dead.”

Chapter Text

x. the boy who lived

 

Harriet spent three days reading The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts from cover to cover and didn’t feel better when she finished it.

The Dark Arts, she learned, were a kind of particularly punishing magic that was, for the most part, used for the express purpose of evil. Spells themselves didn’t have morality—but sometimes gathering the things that went into the preparations of the spells required evil, like fresh baby hearts or the eyes of your murder victim, or they needed you to feel evil things like hatred and rage or bloodlust before they could be cast.

The book talked about a witch named Morgana who was said to have brought the Dark Arts to Britain, and who hated Merlin—who actually existed, much to Harriet’s shock. Page after page of Dark wizards and witches flipped by under Harriet’s hands: Ekrizdis, Herpo the Foul, Godelot, Gormlaith Gaunt, Ethelred the Ever-Ready, and Emeric the Evil—on and on it went. Harriet felt queasy reading about the deeds they’d committed, the books they’d written, the places they’d built. So far, all she’d seen was the wonder of magic, but she soon came to understand magic was also capable of great terror.

When events encroached on the modern era, a curl of dread settled in Harriet’s stomach. She learned of Gellert Grindelwald, who sought to dominate the Muggle world with magical might, who met his fate at the hands of a great wizard named Albus Dumbledore—and then he faded, replaced by a new section in the book attributed entirely to the “Wizarding War” and “The Dark Lord V—.

No history of the wizard’s past could be found, and not a bloody hint of his name, either. The author referred to him only as “The Dark Lord” or “V—” or “You Know Who,” which Harriet thought incredibly frustrating because no, no she did not know who. “V” rallied followers dubbed “Death Eaters” to his cause of pure-blood supremacy, wanting nothing more than the utter subjugation of the non-magical world.

He killed many people. Their names blurred together for Harriet, but she knew she’d see their children at Hogwarts, and that all this was more than some dry history in a book, or a fantastic fairytale about magic battles. This was real, and it was the world she’d been born into with so many others. Fear and uncertainty bled through the yellowing pages like wet ink.

She found her parents listed near the back. The passage read; “James and Lily Potter were both subjected to the Killing Curse by V— on the evening of October the 31st. V— ruined their residence with a Blasting Curse, overlooking the Potters’ daughter, who survived in the wreckage.”

That was it. Nothing about why they’d died, if they’d opposed “V” or if they’d been neutral or just people caught in the crossfire. The author hadn’t even included Harriet’s name, and though she really didn’t want her name written in such a horrid book, it bothered her that she was separated from her parents even in print. James and Lily Potter. The Potters’ daughter. Overlooked, it said. Wallowing, Harriet bitterly muttered that the word basically summed up the whole of her existence until now. Overlooked.

The worst part was learning “V” met his fate barely two hours later. His followers, his Death Eaters, raided a home in Dorset and killed a pure-blood witch named Alice Longbottom. The Death Eaters occupied her husband, Frank Longbottom, as “V” entered the home and aimed a Killing Curse at their son, Neville, only for the Dark Lord to vanish with an “agonized scream” before he could finish casting. No one was precisely sure what happened and the author included several interviews from various magical experts who postulated on the phenomenon, but one thing was certain; Neville Longbottom had survived the Dark Lord and was hailed “the Boy Who Lived.” He was a hero. The war ended.

Anger and resentment festered in the deepest pits of Harriet’s heart. Two hours. A decade of war, and her family was torn apart a measly two hours before it ended. Two bloody hours. If “V” had gone to the Longbottom’s first, or if he’d stopped for supper or hit buggering magical traffic—Harriet would’ve spent the last ten years with her mum and dad at home, not living in a cupboard with spiders, not toiling in the garden and hoping she’d get dinner later. She couldn’t even figure out the bastard’s name.

Harriet hated that petty emotion. It was something the Dursleys would feel; slighted by fate, entitled, fussy and argumentative, like Dudley when he counted his presents and came up short. She wasn’t the only one to lose people, not at all. Two hours, two days, two years—what did it matter? James and Lily were dead, and though Harriet was alone now, she had Hogwarts to look forward to, and perhaps friends.

At the bottom of the page, in the footer, her finger traced over the handwritten words “The best coups are silent.” In light of everything she’d learned, Harriet could make little sense of the words, so she shoved them from her mind. She snapped the book closed, took a deep breath, and moved on.

 

_____

 

On the thirty-first of July, Harriet Potter sprang out of bed more excited than she had ever been on her birthday before.

Her exploration of Diagon Alley and the adjoining lanes had taken her all over in the week Harriet had been boarding at the Leaky Cauldron. She ate ice cream at Florean’s almost every day and wandered from there, through Diagon and Horizont, along Empiric Alley and Toad Road all the way to Carkitt Market, where she liked to watch the wizards work at the Bowman E. Wright Blacksmith and listen to explosions coming from Dr Filibuster’s Fireworks. A teenage witch intern at Globus Mundi Travel Agency liked to chat with Harriet about all the magical societies scattered around the world, and the clock outside Cogg and Bell Clockmakers always chimed the hour with a series of strange, screaming bird calls. Harriet’s favorite stop, though, was The Junk Shop, where she’d poke through all manner of delightful bits and bobs, most of it broken, but some of the stuff quite interesting all the same.

Today, Harriet had a special destination in mind: the Magical Menagerie.

She had seen the owls at Eeylops and cats ran rampant throughout the whole of the Wizarding quarter, but there was only one kind of animal for Harriet and it wasn’t allowed at Hogwarts. Resigned, she promised herself she wouldn’t stop by the store until her birthday, when she’d go to fawn over the great scaly beasts none of the other witches or wizards seemed inclined pay attention to. It promised to be the best birthday ever.

No bell chimed when Harriet edged open the door to the Magical Menagerie early that afternoon; instead, she was greeted by collective squawking from an—she squinted—unkindness of black-feathered ravens. There were no shelves in the Menagerie; rather, the aisles themselves were comprised of dozens and dozens of cages stacked atop each other, the interior a constant riot of squeals and barks and cries. Several haughty owls lined the top of a rail protruding from the brick wall and they glared at Harriet as she passed them by. A small dog with a forked tail dashed around the store chased by a younger witch spouting muttered obscenities.

The snakes and other less popular pets were kept farther in the store’s depths, nearer the smudged windows that looked out over Horizont Alley and the corner of Gringotts. There weren’t many there; a few skinny garter snakes, some darkly colored adders, two sleepy cobras with glittering scales of gold, and a very ornery boomslang tearing up his bed of green leaves.

Hello,” Harriet, crouching down before the glass tanks, whispered. The snakes paused as all snakes did when they suddenly heard Harriet talking to them. “You’re all very pretty.”

The cobras preened like peacocks, if such a thing were possible. “Misstresss,” the garter snakes jabbered. The boomslang’s tongue flickered in and out at a rapid pace before it slunk beneath its torn bed and disappeared. Harriet guessed he or she wasn’t up for conversation.

A Sspeaker?

Startled, Harriet glanced at the larger tank that sat above the others, partially covered by a velvet drape and dark on the inside. Scales glittered in the sparse illumination of the sun, and she reached up to give the drape a gentle nudge or two. Two blue eyes appeared to float in the tank’s inky shadows—but, no, there was serpent hidden inside. It was mostly black, body larger than the littler snakes below with silvery scales on its belly and a crown of stubby white horns. A small gemstone that looked like a sapphire rested on the crest of its angular head.

Ssspeak,” the serpent ordered as its violet tongue flicked out of its mouth. Harriet guessed it to be five feet or so in length, thicker than her arm.

I’ve never seen a snake like you,” she blurted, almost nose to nose with the creature on the other side of the glass. Those eyes burned blue and white, fierce and unnaturally intelligent. “What are you?”

You tell me,” the serpent returned. “If you are ssso sssmart. I call mysself Liviusss.”

Harriet didn’t know snakes could have names—or that they could be so snooty. She’d asked the little grass snakes and adders who visited Number Four before, but to the last they seemed confused by the concept. Truly, most snakes Harriet encountered hadn’t been terribly bright. They chatted about crickets and mice and had little patience for any other kind of conversation.

That’s a nice name,” Harriet told the serpent. “You are very pretty.

The snake—Livius—scoffed at Harriet. Scoffed! “You sssaid that to the…othersss.” Given its tone, Livius didn’t appear to enjoy the company of his monosyllabic friends in the tanks below.

Harriet blinked. “Well, you are very pretty. You have a gem on your—err—forehead. I imagine it glitters in the sun.”

Livius lifted its head an increment higher and swayed as it continued to study Harriet. “I wouldn’t know. I wasss hatched in thiss placcce. The ssun iss beyond me.

How terrible.”

Livius swayed again, the motion hypnotic. “Yesss. Terrible…Misstresss.

“Are you talking to that snake?”

Harriet jumped and blushed when she realized how close her nose had gotten to the glass. “Um.” Turning, she found a girl about her age standing nearby, though she rose a full head taller than poor Harriet in height. She wore black wizarding robes with silver thread tooled about the wide sleeves and the high collar, a little pin with a crest attached to the lapel. The girl was much prettier than Harriet, she noted with chagrin, her black hair neatly brushed and gathered in a bun at the nape of her neck, her gray eyes able to look about without the obnoxious cover of thick glasses or a wild fringe. She had a bent notebook in her slender hands.

“Yeah,” Harriet finally admitted. The girl leaned nearer the tank to peek at the serpent inside, her lips tipping into a slight frown.

“I didn’t know witches or wizards could do that,” the girl said.

“I didn’t know either.” Harriet wondered how many others spoke to snakes. Perhaps it was one of those things in the long list of things that made Harriet odd, even among magical folk. “This one’s kind of bossy.”

“Bossy?”

“Yeah. All the snakes I’ve found in the garden before just want to chat about bugs or where the sunniest spot is to nap. Two grass snakes once argued over which rock in the flowerbed was best, so they both napped on the rocks for about an hour while I weeded to test the theory.”

The corner of the girl’s lips twitched into a lopsided smirk, which looked a bit odd on her otherwise prim face. “How strange.”

Harriet shrugged, self-conscious.

“Do you know what kind of snake it is—?”

A shadow fell across the pair, and together they glanced up into the face of an older wizard with a tremendous mustache. “A Horned Serpent,” he said as he brusquely shoved by them and went to properly cover the tank again. Livius hissed with displeasure as it disappeared from view. “An exceedingly rare and exceedingly expensive male specimen from North America. It’s also quite venomous and not for sale to children. Move along.”

The clerk chivvied them back toward the shop’s front, which was crowded with kittens and a litter of those playful fork-tailed puppies. “Well, that’s rude,” the other girl murmured, watching the wizard walk away from the corner of her eye. “Seems an odd choice to keep the creature in the shop then scare off potential customers.”

Harriet shrugged again. “I can’t buy it anyway. Hogwarts doesn’t allow snakes, and where would I keep a thing like that? With my socks?” Chuckling, she poked a finger through the bars of a box containing oddly purring puffballs puddled together. A long pink tongue slipped out to lick Harriet’s skin. “Oh, gross.”

The girl didn’t reply. Harriet glanced about and saw that she had her pale gaze fixated on something occurring out on the street. Harriet craned her neck to see over the top of a crate and through the window, but all she could really see was the backside of a plump wizard talking with the witch next to him. A number of people were clustered in the alley now, all facing something obscured from view.

“Wonder what that’s all about,” Harriet commented. The girl shook her head in silent answer, then moved toward the rail of owls Harriet had spotted at her entree. Harriet followed along, unsure of what else to do, and the girl didn’t appear to mind.

“I need an owl,” she said. Harriet decided the statement was directed at her and took the chance at conversation.

“An owl? They have a ton at Eeylops Owl Emporium. It’s on the other side of Gringotts. They’re a lot more—.” Harriet glanced at one of the glowering screech owls. “Friendly.”

“I didn’t like any of those.” The girl pursed her lips as she studied her choices. She had a calm mien, quiet and considerate, relaxed. Harriet, who didn’t know how to act in situations like this, felt antsy and wagered that the other girl probably had plenty of Wizarding friends, so it was just Harriet who was awkward and anxious like Aunt Petunia just before Dudley started in on one of his really nasty tantrums.

The door to the shop jerked open and Harriet jumped at the sudden clamor of voices. A boy slipped inside. The door was promptly closed by a wizard wearing maroon robes with fitted attire underneath, who then leaned against the door to prevent it from being opened again. Harriet—who had spent far too many years locked in the cupboard—didn’t much like being trapped in a shop, but she swallowed her protests and turned her attention back to the owls.

The girl held up her arm, bent at the elbow, and one of the largest creatures hopped down. Harriet thought it was the meanest looking one of the bunch, with furious golden eyes and a face set in a permanent scowl, but he hooted softly at the girl and gave her fingers a gentle nip. She stroked the glossy black feathers, revealing spots of brown and gray around the back of the bird’s head.

“It’d be really useful to have an owl,” Harriet babbled. She fussed with the sleeves of her new casual robes. “And he’s really big. He could probably carry mail far without getting tired. I read that Hogwarts is in Scotland, so he looks like he could make it back to London without a problem. That’s, err, if you are going to Hogwarts and do need to write letters to London….” Harriet subsided into silence.

“…I think I’ll get him,” the girl replied, voice distant as if lost in thought. She blinked then and gave Harriet a small smile. “I’m sorry for being rude. I’m Elara, and I am starting Hogwarts this year.”

Harriet grinned in return. “I’m Harriet.”

A loud gasp from the store’s manager had Harriet jumping yet again, and the owl on Elara’s arm gave his wings an indignant flap. The mustachioed wizard and the younger witch Harriet had seen chasing the dog were both standing by the blond boy who had come inside, the wizard seemingly in raptures and the witch gushing on.

“—and I wasn’t even supposed to come in today, it was supposed to be Maggie, it was—.”

“—the wife won’t even believe me when I tell her—.”

“—Morgana’s knickers, if I can’t even believe it, Belinda’s going to be over the moon. Wait until I tell Maggie—.”

“—the Boy Who Lived, in my shop!”

Oh, Harriet thought as she stared at the boy who was no older than herself. Youth still clung to the round cheeks of his face and the wide grin he plastered on didn’t quite reach his eyes, but his posture oozed easy confidence and he had a cocky set to his jaw, chin tipped up and one hand propped on his hip like he practiced the pose in the mirror.

“Can we have your autograph, Mr. Longbottom? Oh, it would just be such a treat for Belinda—.”

The boy gave a slight nod, still smiling, and said, “Of course, sir.”

That ugly seed of resentment still rattled about in Harriet’s middle as she looked at Neville Longbottom and she squashed the emotion, feeling small and ugly herself for that bitter voice in the back of her head. He took the quill and parchment proffered to him by the wizard and signed his name with a flourish.

Elara watched the scene, the frown once more set on her face. The witch and wizard continued to prattle on and on.

“We should get him some owl treats,” Harriet said, wanting to do something besides stand there like a numpty with her stomach full of spiderwebs. “And a cage. I saw some over here….”

Harriet and Elara ventured deeper into the store again and Elara lifted the owl to her shoulder so she could lower her arm. She grabbed a cage off a rack and Harriet sussed out a package of owl treats from behind a bag of lime green fish food.

“Do you reckon he’ll like these?” Harriet asked as they started toward the front of the store with the purchases in hand. Elara was rather quiet and Harriet hoped she wasn’t bugging the other girl. She tended to be a chatty when nervous. “I mean, I don’t know if they come in different flavors or anything. Mrs Figg used to babysit me, and she had all these cats and said they each liked a different kind of canned food—.”

They almost bumped into Neville Longbottom coming out of the aisle. Both girls took a step back and Harriet suppressed a grimace.

“Sorry about that,” he said with another quick grin. He looked between Elara and Harriet, then asked, “You don’t want autographs, do you?”

It was the awkward sort of question Harriet could’ve never asked with that level of aplomb, but Neville pulled it off as if he did so regularly—which he probably did, considering his level of celebrity. “Er,” Harriet said, fiddling with corner of the owl treats bag until it frazzled. Shoot. “No thanks…?”

He blinked, taken aback, like no one had ever turned down an autograph from the Boy Who Lived before. The more Harriet thought on it, the sillier the name sounded. He was the Boy Who Lived and everyone else was the People Who Died or the People Who Are Just Grateful A Murderer Isn’t Hanging About Anymore.

Neville didn’t look as surefooted as he had a few minutes ago. He acted as if Harriet had gone wildly off script and now he had to improvise.

“If you’ll excuse us,” Elara said, breaking the awkward silence. “We have somewhere to be.”

“Sure, uh—.”

Elara stepped around the boy, keeping a polite distance despite the abruptness of her exit, and Harriet scuttled after her. She was grateful for the excuse to leave Neville behind and would have thanked the other girl, had Elara seemed remotely interested in being thanked. The wizard behind the register was still exchanging excited whispers with his assistant, so Elara had to clear her throat to get his attention as she set the ungainly cage on the counter and urged the great horned owl inside of it.

Miffed, the wizard gave Elara her total, and instead of reaching for her purse, the girl asked to borrow the wizard’s quill and used it to write something down inside that notebook she’d been carrying since Harriet first saw her. Harriet watched as Elara carefully detached a slip of parchment from the binding, and the inked numbers on the slip glowed for a second before the parchment vanished, only to be replaced by a small pile of gleaming Galleons.

“Wicked!” Harriet said. “And here I’ve been lugging about all those bloody coins. It’s like checks!”

“A bit,” Elara admitted as she accepted the cage with her owl and the wizard shrunk the treats down so they could fit inside her pocket. “My guardian showed them to me.”

The wizard dressed in maroon robes opened the door and helped them through the crowd standing just outside. The throng had multiplied in the past several minutes. They called Longbottom’s name and were disappointed when two girls came out instead. Harriet wondered how Neville dealt with popularity like that. She had difficulty with simple conversation, let alone being some kind of international idol.

“It was really nice to meet you,” Harriet said to Elara once they broke out of the milling bodies and began to part ways. The other girl seemed to be headed back toward the Leaky Cauldron while Harriet wanted to return to Gringotts and see about getting one of those nifty checkbooks. Maybe she could bribe Griphook into saying ‘happy birthday.’

“You as well.” Elara turned to leave—then paused, facing Harriet once more with a determined expression. She jostled the owl about and extended a hand.

Smiling, Harriet offered her own hand and they shook. Is this what it’s like to have a friend? Harriet didn’t know, but excitement unfurled in her belly at the prospect of finding out. Elara departed then, and Harriet called after her with a happy wave.

“See you at Hogwarts!”

Chapter Text

xi. snake thief

 

All in all, the life and future of Harriet Potter looked brighter than they ever had before.

Others may have thought her birthday a miserable event. Other little girls received presents or had parties to which their friends were all invited, cards were sent by relatives who lived too far away, and they would blow out the candles atop their cake before the wax could melt. While Harriet had none of that, she did have cake flavored ice-cream at Florean Fortescue’s, chatted with a magical snake, and even met another girl who was about her age. She wasn’t smacked for burning breakfast, wasn’t given an extra long list of chores, and wasn’t shoved in a spidery cupboard under a set of stairs.

It was, in Harriet’s opinion, the best birthday ever.

She returned to her room after having a hearty dinner down in the pub—and was almost instantly assaulted by a shrieking ball of feathers. “Ouch! Alright—ouch!” Harriet snapped as she caught the owl. It beat its gray wings against her head as she tried to untangle the crinkled letter from about its leg and, when the string finally came loose, the barmy bird rocketed away with a final shriek, clipping the sill as it sailed out the open window and into the encroaching night.

“What was that for?!” Harriet demanded of the retreating owl, rubbing her cuffed ear as she scowled at the feathers scattered on the floor. Shutting the door and adjusting her glasses, Harriet examined the letter—then let out a soft sound of exclamation when she recognized the swirling green script. It was a letter from Hogwarts, not that she expected anyone else to write to her. She tore through the seal and pulled out the missive, something heavier than parchment slipping through her fingers to fall like the owl’s lost feathers on the floor.

“’Dear Miss Potter,’” she read aloud. “’Thank you for your reply. We look forward to having you join us here at Hogwarts. Enclosed is your ticket for the train that departs from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, King’s Cross Station, at precisely eleven on September first.’ Three-quarters?” Harriet muttered under her breath, brow furrowed. What did she mean by that? “’Wishing you many happy returns on your birthday, Deputy Headmistress McGonagall.’” Harriet blinked. “Hey, she knows it’s my birthday!”

Of course, no one answered her, but Harriet was pleased nonetheless. Harriet couldn’t remember ever being wished a happy birthday sincerely. Dudley would sometimes shout “Happy birthday!” before punching her in the arm or pulling her hair, but Harriet didn’t count that. She tucked the letter back into its envelope and knelt to pick up the ticket, testing the thick edges of the cardstock as she saw for certain that she was expected to board the Hogwarts Express from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters on the first.

“Well that’s helpful.” Rolling her eyes, she tucked the ticket into the new Galleon register she’d gotten from Gringotts earlier that day, setting it aside on the wobbly table. Harriet heaved a sigh and peered out the window toward the lights of London—Muggle London, that is. She saw how the air appeared to ripple and warp with color, like sunshine on an opal, and how it seemed to redirect and turn the train tracks away from the magic alley behind the crooked pub. Everything in her view was spotty because of magic and how it came into contact with the mundane. Harriet couldn’t help but stare at those odd anomalies. She thought they were pretty.

Sss…Missstressss….”

Startled, Harriet spun in place, expecting to find someone behind her, but there was no one. The room remained empty aside from herself and her shadow, though she didn’t know if Set was still there. Movement from the hearth caught Harriet’s eye and, breath held, she watched as a familiar head poked up from the side of the armchair.

Missstresss.”

W-what are you doing here?!” Harriet sputtered as the Horned Serpent uncoiled himself and came nearer. His black scales flashed and sparkled in the gas lamps when he moved.

You are my Missstresss, little Ssspeaker.”

Yes, I bloody well heard you,” Harriet swore as the snake rose and swayed at her eye level. At least she knew why the owl had been panicking. “How did you get out of your cage?!

They cannot keep me from you.” If snakes could shrug, Harriet bet her very last quid—or, well, Knut—that the snake in front of her would have done so. “Humansss are easssily fooled.”

They’re also going to think I stole you!” Harriet threw her hands into the air, irked and more than a little unsettled. Did the store owner know the ‘highly venomous’ snake in his collection could slip his containment whenever he fancied? “We have to go back!

Livius let out a long stream of nonsensical hisses and Harriet yelped when she felt cool, dry scales flowing over her legs. She jumped, aiming to free herself, but the serpent wound his tail around her ankles and Harriet toppled onto her backside with a loud “Oof!” Her head narrowly missed the edge of the table.

We will not go back,” Livius said as he came face to face with Harriet again and his violet tongue flicked in and out. “Foolisssh Ssspeaker.”

Oh, that’s nice,” Harriet said, voice testy. She gave his coils a shove but they only tightened. “Calling me foolish when all I want to do is get to school without being bloody arrested first!

What isss arresssted?” Livius asked. Harriet paused in her mounting tirade to study the serpent. Can snakes lie? Harriet didn’t think so—at least, not before she met Livius, who was much smarter than the little mundane snakes who hung around Privet Drive. Really, it would figure even the snakes were dumb in Little Whinging.

It’s where they put you in a cage and don’t let you out,” Harriet explained. Livius hissed.

No cagesss. No cagesss for you, no cagesss for me.”

Suddenly, the sapphire on Livius’ brow sparked—and the serpent vanished. Harriet yelped and Livius gave his coils another squeeze so she could feel them still looped about her ankles and calves. He hadn’t vanished; was invisible!

The serpent returned, blinking into view without a sound, gone and then not, quick as could be. Like magic. “Bloody hell,” Harriet whispered as she raised a tentative hand and brought it out to touch his head. Livius butted his nose against her fingertips in approval. Honestly, she had no clue how to go about returning a rather large snake to the Menagerie, especially if he didn’t want to go. The mustachioed wizard at the counter hadn’t been very nice, and Harriet had no doubt she’d be blamed for the Horner Serpent’s escape if she came skipping in with him slung about her neck. Did wizards have the equivalent of a lost and found?

Something Livius had said earlier in the day stuck with Harriet; “I wouldn’t know. I was hatched in this place. The sun is beyond me.”

Sometimes, Harriet felt like she had been born in that stupid boot cupboard, hatched just like Livius and stuffed into the dark like a scaly, terrifying Thing the Dursleys didn’t understand and didn’t want ruining their furniture—but at least she knew what the sun was like, knew enough to love and miss it.

She touched his nose, then the gem atop his head, marveling at the heat of it beneath her touch. “I’m going to call you Livi,” Harriet decided with a nod. She had no clue what he ate, but she surmised Livi would make sure she knew.

His tongue flicked at faster speeds. “Do not likesss,” he hissed, displeasure plain in the harsh rasp of his tone.

Livius is too snooty.

What isss sssnooty?

You. You’re snooty.”

The serpent unwound his tail with a huff of air and slithered over to the bed, which he promptly hid beneath for a good sulking. Harriet saw Set swirl beneath her feet, amused.

Sitting on the floor with a sore backside, watching a serpent pout while her shadow laughed, Harriet decided that though she may never be normal, she was more than okay with being odd. She couldn’t wait for September to begin.

Chapter Text

xii. not slytherin

 

King’s Cross buzzed with noise like an active beehive, people hustling in every direction, calling out to loved ones and checking watches or timetables, mothers holding the hands of fussy children while harried travelers ran by. The noise pressed upon Harriet as she stood halfway between Platform Nine and Platform Ten, glaring at a bit of wall.

There was some kind of invisible bubble surrounding the area because the Muggles going about their business avoided the space, turning their heads and bodies away without noticing—which was all well and good, as wizards were not the most subtle of people. Harriet had seen a whole gaggle of red-headed witches and wizards go by pushing trolleys loaded with magical things, and though she had wanted to ask the mother for help, Harriet had hung back, anxious and perspiring, until it was too late.

She’d observed several people slip through the bloody wall now and she guessed it was where the Platform was—but what if it was more difficult than it appeared? What if there was a password or some kind of secret phrase or look or spell? Harriet thought she might literally sink into a puddle of her own embarrassment if she cracked her head on the bricks by running full on at a wall.

Well, she thought as she gave Livi’s head a gentle rub through the fabric of her shirt. The serpent had wrapped himself about her torso, comfortable as could be, and was disinclined to leave. Harriet’s blouse was loose enough to accommodate him and he stayed invisible while in public at her request. She simply appeared a tad lumpier. I haven’t come this far to fail now. Here goes nothing.

Tightening her grip on the handle of her trunk, Harriet set a brisk pace and aimed for the wall. She came closer, ten steps away, eight, five—she shut her eyes and threw out a hand, almost certain it’d collide with bricks—but Harriet felt nothing. She just kept walking, and walking, until she did collide with something, though it was much softer than a wall.

“Watch yourself!” the wizard said in gentle reprimand as he gripped Harriet’s shoulder to steady her. Harriet blinked at him—then whipped about to face the barrier behind her. It stood brazen and solid as ever, which meant not very solid at all, apparently. I did it! There was nothing to worry about!

A scarlet steam engine puffed plumes of white as it idled on the tracks. Families crowded the platform, parents with their arms wrapped around their children, children desperately trying to escape their cooing ministrations. Owls shrieked in their cages, cats tried to evade their owners, and one boy with dreadlocks had a box with a tarantula hidden inside, and spectators gathered to stare and squeal. Not being overfond of spiders after a childhood stuck in the dark with them, Harriet gave the boy and his pet a wide berth.

Some students struggled to boost their heavy trunks that final step from the platform to the train itself, so Harriet paused to help one of those red-heads she’d seen earlier heft his luggage up onto the steps, then went off to find a seat. Harriet’s dithering in the station meant most of the compartments had already filled and many students had thrown their Hogwarts robes on over their Muggle attire. She felt a mite too shy to intrude where the older kids were already happily chatting away, so Harriet continued along the train in hopes of finding an empty compartment, or one with other first years like herself.

Luckily, she stumbled upon the person she’d been looking forward to seeing again.

“Elara!” Harriet chirped, surprising the taller girl out of her reading. She was looking over a journal, and not one very well-written if her squinting was anything to go by. Next to her on the seat rested a covered owl cage, but the compartment was otherwise empty. “Is—is that bench taken?”

“Hello, Harriet,” Elara said with half a smile. “No, it’s free. Go on.”

“Thanks.” She pulled her trunk over the threshold and let the door slide shut on its own. Elara set the journal aside to help Harriet heft her trunk into the rack overhead, not because it was heavy, but because the bloody thing was almost the same size as Harriet herself and levering it over her head could be tricky. “Thanks,” she muttered again. They settled in their seats.

The crowd began to thin on the station as students got on the train and some parents went on their way. Harriet saw that red-headed family again, or at least the mother and the daughter, the latter clinging tearfully to her mother’s skirts as she waved at her brothers. Harriet thought that was nice—well, not the crying, but that the girl would miss her siblings, that she hated to see them go. The closest Harriet had to a sibling was Dudley, and he’d sooner throw Harriet onto the tracks than wish her well.

By unlucky chance, Harriet glanced toward the far end of the platform and saw a group revolving around a trio crossing toward the train. She recognized Neville Longbottom and fought against a grimace. He followed his dad—a taller wizard with prominent ears and an argyle sweater under his maroon robes—and a blond witch who had her arm linked through Mr Longbottom’s. Harriet remembered reading that Neville’s mum had been killed, so she guessed Mr Longbottom eventually remarried.

That ugly feeling in Harriet’s middle twisted itself into painful knots as the blond witch smoothed Neville’s already tidy hair and he shooed her away, grinning. The crowd cheered when he stepped off the platform.

Harriet ground her teeth.

Elara kept reading and didn’t appear up for conversation. Where were her parents? She’d mentioned a “guardian,” Harriet recalled, at the Menagerie. Maybe her family had died in the war, too. The Wizarding world had an awful lot of orphans.

The train set on its journey, releasing a final mournful whistle that echoed into the distance as the wheels turned and the station faded. Those opalescent distortions Harriet had first noted at the Leaky Cauldron happened here, too, where the mundane and magical collided, pushing back the Muggle world to let just a thin sliver of the magical one exist, hiding the tracks and the steam engine from Muggle eyes. Staring out the window, Harriet felt like they were traveling through a great soap bubble, one that didn’t burst until they were well away from the city proper.

Harriet fiddled with her sleeves and with her glasses and with the snake napping under her clothes, then pulled out her own book from the satchel looped about her neck. She didn’t really want to read, so she just pretended to thumb through the pages of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, pausing whenever one of the sketched images caught her attention.

London disappeared soon enough, dwindling as if it’d never been, and Harriet couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from the shifting scenery as her heart flip-flopped in her chest. The Dursleys never took her anywhere, not even to London, so Harriet couldn’t recall a time when she’d ever been this far away from home. Of course, Harriet also didn’t have a home now. She was on her way to school, and when summer rolled about again in ten months, she would have to figure out where to go from there.

The compartment door slid open and a bushy-haired girl slipped inside. She slammed the door closed again as she ducked down on the floor, alarming Harriet and earning a raised brow from her silent companion. Harriet met the girl’s brown eyes and a jolt of recognition went through her; this was Hermione Granger, who she met briefly in Madam Malkin’s.

Hermione lifted a finger to her lips in a universal plea for silence.

A minute later, a familiar blond boy went sauntering by with two larger counterparts far too reminiscent of Dudley. Draco, as she remembered his name, glanced inside their compartment and missed Hermione sitting crouched below the window, so he simply sneered at Harriet before moving on.

“Thank goodness,” Hermione breathed, standing. She straightened the hem of her skirt and pulled on the shade’s cord, bringing it down to hide the outer corridor from view. She’d already changed into her school robes. “I’m terribly sorry for barging in like that—oh but you’re Harriet! We met at Diagon Alley!” Hermione’s relief became more genuine as she sat on the seat next to Harriet and extended her hand. “I’m Hermione Granger, if you don’t recall.”

“Hi, Hermione. It’s nice to see you.” They shook hands. Harriet was pleased to meet her again, as Hermione seemed far more enthusiastic about her presence than Elara did. “Was that your, er, brother?”

Hermione glanced at the door over her shoulder before shaking her head. “No, definitely not. I’m just being fostered by his family.”

“Doesn’t—doesn’t that make him your foster brother, then?” Harriet asked, confused. She’d known a few foster children in primary and they’d been almost as bullied as Harriet had been.

“Don’t be silly. I’m Muggle-born.” Hermione gave Harriet a funny look. “I thought you were Muggle-born too?”

Harriet didn’t know what being Muggle-born had to do with fostering, though after a month of listening to conversations in the Wizarding quarter, she knew she wasn’t Muggle-born herself, even if Lily had been a Muggle like her Aunt Petunia. “Uh,” Harriet said, trying to change the conversation. “This—this is Elara! Elara, this is Hermione.”

Thankfully, Elara lowered the journal to grant Hermione a small smile and a nod. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

Hermione turned her gaze back to Harriet, obviously expecting an answer to her question. Harriet cursed in her head. “Well, my dad was a wizard,” she said slowly. “But I was raised with relatives who didn’t like him all that much, so I never learned a lot about him or my mum. What about you? Did…did something happen to your parents? You don’t have to talk about it if it did. I’m just being nosy.”

“No, my parents are perfectly fine.” A furrow appeared between Hermione’s brow as she bit her lower lip. “There’s a law, you see. The Muggle-born Protection Act of 1982, or the ‘MPA’. I didn’t realize there were witches or wizards who didn’t know about it.”

“What’s the law do?”

“It—well, in simple terms, it says Muggle-borns who accept a place at Hogwarts must leave the Muggle world and be fostered by a proper Wizarding family.”

Harriet blinked, then gawked when the full implication of Hermione’s words bowled her over. “D’you mean they took you away from your parents?!”

“No! No, of course not,” Hermione said with a harried huff. “I chose to leave—and I get to spend time with them over the winter holidays, so that’s…something. Really, the MPA is a good thing. It was contested when it first came out, the war having just ended, but tensions with the Muggle-world were high in the wake of You-Know-Who’s atrocities, and the Ministry decided that children who presented with magical abilities would be safer among their own—own kind, and statistically speaking there’s been a fifty-three percent reduction in Muggle-on-wizard violence since the last report in the seventies—.”

Hermione went on in this vein for a time, and though she had all kinds of information to back up the ‘efficacy’—a word Harriet knew she’d have to look up later—of the MPA law, she sounded as if she were trying to convince herself as well as Harriet. Harriet was uncertain. It seemed horrifying, being taken away from one’s parents, but what the bloody hell did she know about parents? What if there were mums and dads out there who treated their magical kids like Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon treated Harriet? Didn’t they deserve a chance to escape that?

It didn’t sit right with her. Harriet thought of her own mum and dad and longed to know what they would have said, what they were like.

Hermione and Harriet chatted together until a witch pushing a trolley of food stopped by and they bought lunch, the conversation lulling. Hermione took one look at the display of sweets and stuck up her nose, muttering about her parents being dentists, while Harriet got some of everything and Elara took two Cauldron Cakes after giving the treats a dubious stare.

Truly, Harriet was again reminded of how splendid magic was when she ripped open a Chocolate Frog package only for the frog to leap free. Elara caught the escapee with little effort, proving she wasn’t quite as distant as she appeared. They both sampled a few beans from the box of Bertie Bott’s —until they bit into something foul and promptly shoved the box aside. Harriet entertained herself with the sugary trove while Hermione unfurled a copy of the Daily Prophet and read. The occasional rustle of a turning page broke the silence.

“Hmm…they still haven’t found that rare Horned Serpent that went missing from the Magical Menagerie.”

Harriet choked on a frog’s leg and started coughing. On the other bench, Elara glanced up from the journal and gave Harriet a curious look.

“That’s, ah, interesting.” Beneath her shirt, the snake in question shifted in his sleep. “Hermione—speaking of Diagon, what were you talking about with Draco at Madam Malkin’s? If you don’t mind me asking?”

Hermione wrinkled her nose at the mention of the pale blond. “The Hogwarts Houses,” she replied, tone crisp. “Did you ever learn more about them?”

“I did! I read ‘Hogwarts: A History’ like you said—or, at least some of it.” The book contained an equal measure of fascinating information and tedious facts. Really, there was only so much Harriet wanted to know about sediment analyses or plumbing updates throughout the centuries.

A bright smile broke over Hermione’s face. “Isn’t it just so interesting? I’ve read it cover to cover twice now—but never mind that. You said you read about the Houses. Which do you think you’ll be in?”

“I’m not sure,” Harriet admitted. “The book talked a lot about being ambitious or witty or courageous or hardworking, and I don’t think I’m any of those, really.”

Hermione nodded along in thought. “Well, no one knows for certain where they’ll be until they arrive. There’s a ceremony that Sorts incoming students, but I couldn’t find any information on how the Sorting occurs exactly. I’ve been told it’s ‘meant to be a surprise.’”

Nervous, Harriet prayed there wasn’t a test waiting for her the moment she stepped foot into the school. She’d tried to read her textbooks, but the sheer flood of information Harriet had been forced to assimilate was mind-numbing. What if they asked her to do magic? Would she be able to?

“I think Ravenclaw would be excellent,” Hermione said. “Or Gryffindor. Both are my top choices—but as I was telling Draco, none of the Houses are truly superior to any other. Ravenclaws are known for being bookish, and I know I’m a bit bookish myself—.” Hermione’s cheek colored. “—so that’s where I’ll most likely end up, even though I’d love to be a Gryffindor. Being a Hufflepuff would be nice, too.” She paused. “But not Slytherin. No, not Slytherin.”

Harriet frowned as she tried to remember all that she’d read about the Houses. “What’s wrong with Slytherin?”

“Nothing,” Hermione said in a voice that meant everything. “Nothing at all. It’s a perfectly respectable House. I just…the Malfoys have all been Slytherins since they first started attending the school, and Draco will most certainly follow his family’s legacy. I don’t think I could stand having to stay in the same dormitories as him.”

“That’s a bit silly,” Elara commented. Having been quiet for most of the journey, her sudden input startled Hermione. “Allowing one person to sully an entire House for you.”

“It’s not that alone,” Hermione replied, red darkening her face again. “It’s—I don’t believe I would be a good fit for Slytherin, that’s all!”

Unimpressed, Elara replied with a simple “Hmm,” and lowered her attention to the journal again. Hermione opened her mouth to argue—when a voice echoed through the train compartments.

We will be arriving at the Hogsmeade Station within a half hour. Students are reminded to leave their pets and luggage on board, and to change into their uniforms before disembarking.”

Harriet let out a relieved breath and stood, shuffling through her satchel to find the robes she’d stashed in there. She and Elara both changed while Hermione disappeared behind the newspaper again, grumbling. Nervous excitement bubbled in Harriet’s chest once she sat and looked out the window at the darkening horizon. How many hours had passed? A half dozen, at least. Across from her, Elara finally tucked her reading away. She pulled on her sleeves until they mostly covered her hands.

The train slowed until it stopped, brakes squealing, white plumes drifting by the window, and sound in the outer corridor doubled. Harriet gave her middle a pat to make certain Livi remained in place as she rose and tucked her satchel with her trunk. Hermione lifted the window’s shade, peeking into the corridor. A group of older students with robes trimmed in blue passed, and Hermione shoved the door open. “Let’s hurry, shall we?”

Hermione obviously wished to avoid Draco, so Harriet went along with her. She glanced behind her to see Elara following with the same impassive expression she’d worn all afternoon, though she didn’t let a boisterous boy trimmed in red cut between her and Harriet when he came charging out of his own compartment. Harriet heard the whispers again, Longbottom’s name caught on every tongue, people standing on tip top and craning their necks to look about.

No one gave three random girls a second glance.

Outside, the dark closed about them, thick as lamb’s wool, and Harriet gazed at the sky bursting with stars overhead. The vastness of the revealed universe reminded Harriet how very small she was, how truly insignificant. While some despaired at being so negligible, Harriet thought it freeing. She was but one leaf on a towering tree where a thousand leaves had grown before, and no matter how alone she felt, others had been in her shoes before, staring at that sky, and someone always would be.

Hermione jostled Harriet’s arm to hurry her along.

“Firs’ years! Firs’ years! This way, Firs’ years!”

A giant of a man loomed above the milling students with a lit lantern in his massive hand. At his side stood another adult, a sour-faced, bespectacled wizard with broad shoulders and hair so light it appeared transparent. “Be swift, now. Allow the incoming first years passage—yes that means you, Mr Leovitch. Out of the way—.”

Harriet started to fidget again, patting Livi or her wand tucked into the new leather brace on her wrist. The breeze sighed through the eerie wood surrounding the station, and Harriet swore she saw the gleam of eyes watching them. The older students hurried to the platform’s end where a line of carriages drawn by skeletal horses waited.

“That all o’ you lot?” the giant boomed as he swung his lantern about and almost clipped his companion in the head. “Alright then. This way!”

They started along a steep path into the woods, stumbling in the dark on the narrow slip of gravel and stone, their tremulous voices vibrating with excitement and trepidation. At the path’s end rested the shore of a great, still lake—and on the cliff’s edge across the water waited an ancient castle comprised of Saxon turrets and Gothic spires, a sleeping dragon with stone spines sprawled upon the hill, waiting for them to come nearer. Harriet wasn’t the only one to gasp.

Hogwarts. I’m really here. It’s real.

“Only four to a boat, lest you want to capsize before you even get to the school!” the older wizard called. Harriet hadn’t noticed the small fleet of boats resting on the shore at first. Harriet clamored in after Hermione and Elara—and they were swiftly joined by Draco, who almost shoved Harriet headfirst into the lake when he jumped into the boat as well.

“Granger,” he said, snide. “Have a nice train ride with your Mudblood pals?”

Hermione glowered at the boy and didn’t answer.

The boats jerked into motion. Harriet held on with both hands and Livi tightened his coils, stirring beneath the rippling cover her robes, his voice rising in a hiss barely audible above the smooth lapping of the lake’s water against the bow.

We are almossst there?

Soon,” Harriet replied into her collar, earning a bewildered look from Elara. It always sounded like English to Harriet, but she knew from experiences with Dudley creeping up on her that her conversations with snakes came out in odd, rasping hisses.

They docked at a small harbor carved through the solid rock of the cliff’s face, where the shifting water echoed and the smell of algae thickened in their noses. The shorter wizard urged them out of the boats and up a flight of stone steps illuminated by torchlight. The stairs led their whispering group up to the hill’s crest, then across a lawn speckled in evening dew, the castle glittering overhead as it watched the first years approach.

This is home now, Harriet thought. She was caught in the wonder and mystique, gliding with the others by touch alone, unable to look away. This is going to be my home for the next seven years.

Ahead waited the great black doors leading into the castle proper. The bespectacled wizard lifted a hand and knocked.

Chapter Text

xiii. in your head

 

Minerva led them inside, a tail of slack-jawed miscreants who walked before the inquisitive attention of the student body and stared at the ceiling, the candles, and the High Table with its stern array of waiting professors. They watched with their eyes wide open and unblinking.

Severus watched them too, his fingers tapping a soundless rhythm against his thigh.

He found the faces he knew first. Picking out the spawn of his associates proved a simple feat, even when Severus hadn’t seen some of their number in years. Parkinson and Goyle, Crabbe and Nott, and of course Lucius’ boy. There were others. He knew they slunk among their number even now, innocent faces and innocent soul who would be lulled by the Dark no matter how hard Severus or Albus or any of their professors tried to push them away. The latest passel of Death Eaters had arrived, but the question remained; who would they serve?

Severus lowered his gaze to the table and exhaled.

Merlin, he was tired.

Minerva set the Sorting Hat upon the stool, and it began to sing.

 

_____

 

The last of the song died away amid generous applause.

Elara wrung her hands as the stern witch in square glasses started to call out names. It was happening too quickly—far, far too quickly. Her name was high in the alphabet, it was only a matter of time—.

She had learned much about her family in the past month. Too much.

“Black, Elara!”

The call stirred whispers in the hall like small bodies thrashing in the underbrush, animal eyes gleaming through the dark.

Black?” they hissed.

I thought they were all dead.

Do you think she’s related to—?

She has to be—.”

He was the last one alive—.”

Madman’s daughter—.”

Elara forced herself to walk because she couldn’t just stand there. The stool was hard beneath her when she sat and she averted her eyes from the students, allowing McGonagall to drop the Hat over her head, plunging her into darkness.

It was only a matter of time before it was discovered, Elara thought, miserable. I wonder if they’ll kick me out before the end of the week.

I wouldn’t be so sure. We’re not accustomed to judging children by the sins of their fathers here at Hogwarts.”

The sly voice speaking in Elara’s ear spooked her, but she remained still, terrified.

You’re not mad. I’m just the Sorting Hat!

Oh, Elara thought. Oh, how stupid of me—.

You’ve a sharp mind,” the Sorting Hat said, cutting off her self-effacing comments. “But the joy of learning for learning’s sake has been stripped from you, hasn’t it? My, what wretched things some people are capable of. You haven’t the heart for Hufflepuff, too brittle now for kindness, a breath away from shattering—.”

Elara flamed at the idea of being brittle. Nearby, a goblet shattered and a professor complained. The Hat chuckled.

Yes, yes, I can see all that in your head, you know. It doesn’t sit well with you, weakness. Your pride, your desire to reclaim identity from the travesties your family has committed—oh yes. I’ll send you on to achieve your goals. Better be, SLYTHERIN!”

 

_____

 

Hermione forced her foot to stop tapping and told herself to calm down, only for her foot to disobey and start tapping again.

A dreadful habit, her mother called it. It’s very pushy, dear.

Hermione hated being called pushy.

“Granger, Hermione!”

She saw Malfoy sneer from the corner of her eye where he stood with his mountainous friends. Behind her, Harriet whispered “Good luck!” and Hermione felt lighter, fighting not to smile like a loon as she came forward to take her place. A friend. Harriet was a friend, wasn’t she? Hermione had never had one before.

The Hat came down over eyes and blacked out the world.

Hmm...” muttered a small voice. “I sense you’ll be a challenge, girl. You don’t live life in half-measures, do you? Nerve and cunning, loyalty and wit—but what shines above the rest?

A rush of thoughts went through Hermione’s head, a whirlwind of questions and ideas, things she wanted to ask the Hat and things she wanted to research later. What kind of magic could be put in a bit of cloth to make it read someone’s mind? That sounded like the rare, inexplicable things Hermione wanted to understand and master.

“I’m not just any bit of cloth,” the Hat countered. “There’s ambition in you—great, great ambition. You want to be the greatest witch of your age? Well I know just where to put you—.”

No, Hermione suddenly thought, swallowing. No, not Slytherin.

Not Slytherin? Why ever not?

Images of Draco filled her head, of Mr and Mrs Malfoy, of their scornful faces and passive aggressive moods. Mudbloods don’t go to Slytherin, Draco had said. You’d best stay with the rest of the duffers!

Then she remembered that girl, Elara, and what she said on the train. “That’s a bit silly, allowing one person to sully an entire House for you.”

She’s right, you know,” the Hat commented. “I see it all here, in your head. You want to be more than witty or brave or hardworking. Slytherin will lead you to greatness—but not if you let the actions of someone else hold you back. A boy’s words can be cruel, a man’s actions crueler, yet they only have power if you allow yourself to be swayed by it.

Hermione didn’t want to be held back, didn’t want to be swayed. No, she’d left behind too much, had sworn she’d do too much, to be hampered by the likes of Draco Malfoy. If Slytherin would help her be great and take her to the top of her ability, then Hermione wasn’t going to let him take that from her.

Better be—SLYTHERIN!”

 

_____

 

“Longbottom, Neville!”

He was used to the muttering, of course. Used to the crying and the whispering and the incessant handshaking, had kissed his fair share of babies and had signed his name so many times his signature looked like it belonged to someone twice his age. He’d gotten used to it all a long time ago. He couldn’t remember a time when that cocky grin and quick wink hadn’t been an instant reaction for him.

Sometimes Neville really hated himself.

The Boy Who Lived. Really, Neville wasn’t one to complain; he got to travel all over the world, train with some of the best wizards in their fields, meet interesting people. He didn’t know how he’d done it, but something in him had killed Voldemort, hadn’t it? He wanted to find that, make it the best it could be. The crowds could get frustrating, though. The touching, the role modeling.

Neville wondered what his life would be like if Voldemort hadn’t hunted his family down. He wondered what would have happened had both his parents died; Grandma Augusta and Great Uncle Algie could be real ball-busters, and Neville didn’t want to imagine what life would be like with them full-time.

The Hat came down on his head and he thought, Gryffindor.

The Hat said, “You’d do well in Hufflepuff. Your life is built on falsity. The House of Badgers would help you heal.

But Neville wasn’t listening. He rarely listened to anything he didn’t want to hear. Gryffindor, he thought again.

And so the Hat sighed. “Better be—GRYFFINDOR!”

The table of crimson and gold exploded.

 

_____

 

“Malfoy, Draco!”

He could barely hear his own name over the wretched sound of the Gryffindors cheering. Bloody Longbottom, Draco seethed as he marched to the dais and the waiting stool. Longbottom the Loser.

Draco knew exactly what he wanted. There had never been a question in his mind or in his heart; he would make his mother and father proud. He wouldn’t be outdone by stupid Mudbloods or blood-traitors or gits like Longbottom. He was a Malfoy! He was a Slytherin. He had always been a Slytherin.

The Hat knew it, too, because the mangy things barely brushed Draco’s hair before screaming—

“SLYTHERIN!”

 

_____

 

There weren’t many people left and Harriet swallowed her nerves, thinking of all the dreadful hypothetical things that could occur once she took her place on the stool. Had anyone ever been denied entrance? Harriet was sure if it was at all possible it would happen to her.

“Potter, Harriet!”

The Great Hall still rang with excitement over Neville Longbottom’s Sorting, so hardly anyone heard Harriet’s name being called, and fewer cared. A pale, dark-haired professor at the far end of the staff table stiffened, and the Headmaster in all his aged splendor gave an encouraging smile as Harriet slipped to the front of the scant group. Taking a deep breath, she adjusted her glasses and mounted the dais.

Professor McGonagall smiled slightly as Harriet sat—and the girl prayed to whatever deity listened to ragamuffin witchy runaways that Livi didn’t suddenly decide to come slithering out of her clothes. That would be embarrassing, and hard to explain.

The Hat almost swallowed Harriet’s head when it came down, and she held her breath.

Well, well…isn’t that curious.”

What’s curious? Harriet asked, because of all the odd things that had occurred in her life, a hat that could talk in her head wasn’t too terribly surprising.

You’re curious, Miss Potter. Everything in your head.”

I’m weird, aren’t I? she thought with a dejected sigh. I’m a fr—. No, she wouldn’t say that word, wouldn’t even think it, because the Dursleys were hundreds of miles away and Harriet would never have anything to with them again. She didn’t need them. She could survive on her own.

The Hat chuckled. “You DO sound a great deal like a Gryffindor. I wonder, though….

Gryffindor? She shifted the Hat’s brim to peek over at the House in question, at the students still clamoring to get a good look at the Boy Who Lived now trimmed in red and gold. She looked at Neville and resentment smoldered in her gut, just waiting for a fresh blast of air to leap into an inferno. The boy who got to keep his family. The boy who got fame and probably a legion of friends. Harriet doubted he had to live in a cupboard after his mum died. The bold and brave found homes in Gryffindor—but Harriet felt neither bold, nor brave. She felt petty and foolish. She wasn’t worthy of Gryffindor, not really. She wanted to prove herself better than she was, better than that sharp sting in the back of her eyes. Harriet wanted to go where she could make her parents proud of the witch she would become.

Not Gryffindor, eh? Better be—SLYTHERIN!”

Harriet rose, heart pounding, and all but yanked the Hat off of her head. She handed it to Professor McGonagall with a quiet word of thanks and rushed off the dais. She plopped onto the first seat she could find, which just so happened to be between Elara and a fifth year Slytherin who would later introduced herself as Gemma Farley. Sitting across the table, Hermione grinned at Harriet.

Elara had gone quite pale and only nodded meekly at Harriet’s greeting.

The Sorting came to an end after Weasley—who Malfoy had sneered at in the entrance hall—went to Gryffindor and Blaise Zabini came to Slytherin. Professor McGonagall rolled up her list, picked up the stool and the Hat, and proceeded out of the Great Hall. The Headmaster—Dumbledore, Harriet reminded herself, thinking back to the header on her Hogwarts letter—stood, the voluminous material of his crimson robes rippling like fire when he raised his left hand for silence. Something strange occurred to Harriet as Dumbledore smiled.

“Gemma,” she asked in a soft voice. “Does the Headmaster—is he missing an arm?”

The older girl glanced in Dumbledore’s direction but no shock showed in her expression. “Yes. Happened before I came to Hogwarts, so he’s been like that for awhile.”

The wizard’s warm voice rose above the chatter. “Excellent! It is wonderful to see you all again—or to see you for the first time.” The Headmaster winked behind his half-moon spectacles. “Welcome to Hogwarts! Before we feast, please allow me these few words….Nitwit! Oddment! Blubber! Tweak! Thank you!”

“And yes,” Gemma gamely said when Harriet’s mouth popped open. Dumbledore sat down. “He is a bit mad.”

Harriet giggled and food appeared on the table—great platters and tureens of it, acres of edibles Harriet had only ever sniffed from afar while living with the Dursleys. Her month in the Wizarding quarter, however, had taught Harriet a love for potatoes and gravy, which she ladled onto her plate with unfettered relish. Elara eyed her as Harriet started building a volcano-esque mound and substituting lava with hot, delicious gravy, then snorted.

“Harriet, you really shouldn’t play with your food,” Hermione said, her tone uncertain.

“I’m not playing with it,” Harriet assured her. “I’m going to eat it. Watch.” She did just that.

Ssss….” Dry scales rubbed against Harriet’s skin as Livi, roused by the smell of food, poked his head out through the collar of her robes and almost caused Harriet to dump pumpkin juice in Elara’s lamp. She had forgotten, of course, that the snake was invisible. “I want sssome of that, Misstresss.

Which?” she asked under her breath, covering her mouth with her napkin.

The dead thing before you. It sssmellss delicciousss.

‘The death thing’ was apparently a whole roast beef, which Harriet discreetly sliced the proper sized piece off of to secret away into her napkin, which she laid open on her lap beneath the table so Livi could eat. Normal snakes had particular dietary needs, but she’d learned from her textbooks that Horned Serpents and other magical snakes were freer in their restrictions, as long as they got the proper nutrients. Livi scarfed down his selection and Harriet disguised his pleased hissing with a cough.

She let her attention wander around the Hall, traversing the walls, the columns, up toward the ceiling enchanted to look like the sky, then down along the High Table. The professors ate their food and chatted with one another, each of them more different than the last; the giant sat at one end next to a tiny wizard who could only be as tall as Harriet’s waist, and a woman reminiscent of great glittering dragonfly rambled on to stern and oblivious Professor McGonagall. Headmaster Dumbledore said something to Professor McGonagall with a slight wave of his hand and her lips went so thin they almost disappeared. A younger man in a purple turban flinched so hard when addressed he spilled chutney into his lap.

At the other end of the table, the wizards sat without conversation, quiet and dour as they ate or picked at their plates—and they were all wizards. The man Professor McGonagall had addressed as “Otho” at the castle’s doors occupied the last seat, having slipped in through a side door with the giant earlier. His mouth moved with silent mutterings as he viciously stabbed his pork cutlet and hacked off a piece.

Next to him was a taller, gaunt wizard with pale skin and a prominent nose. Harriet was forcibly reminded of the dated scary movies Dudley would watch on the telly when Aunt Petunia wasn’t home; he seemed shaded in monochrome, with his stark skin, the curtain of black hair coming down to his shoulders, and eyes as black as the deepest, hungriest pits in the earth. Harriet knew that because she sat near enough for their gazes to briefly meet. His face hardened before he looked away.

They last professor didn’t look old enough to be a professor. He appeared barely any older than the eldest students chattering in the halls and was quite handsome, the symmetry of his features really quite striking in Harriet’s opinion—but something of the young wizard didn’t sit right with her, like a voice murmuring in her ear that she couldn’t quite understand, no matter how she tried to listen. His tidy hair gleamed in the candlelight and so did his white teeth when he smiled at the Slytherin table.

Harriet suddenly thought about sharks swimming in the darkest parts of the ocean.

“Gemma,” she asked again, the older girl glancing down. “Who are those professors sitting closest to us?”

Gemma didn’t need to check who Harriet meant. “Those would be the Slytherin professors. At the end there with the light hair, that’s Professor Selwyn. He teaches History of Magic. On his left is Professor Snape, the Potions Master, and on his left is our Head of House, Professor Slytherin.”

“Slytherin?” Harriet parroted. “Did they name the House after him?” But no, that couldn’t be right. Harriet knew that from Hogwarts: A History—and from the glare Hermione threw across the table. Gemma rolled her eyes.

“No. He’s descended from Salazar Slytherin, the House founder.”

“Oh. That’s, er, interesting.”

Dessert was served and though Harriet thought she was stuffed from dinner, she promptly ate far too much ice cream and decided that if they weren’t dismissed soon, she might just fall asleep and spend the night right there at the table. She could use a treacle tart as a pillow. Her plans came to naught when the Headmaster stood again and the platters of sweets vanished without a trace.

“Another wonderful feast! Before you’re seen off to your dormitories and comfortable beds, I must reiterate a few start-of-term policies. The Forbidden Forest on the grounds is, as its name would suggest, forbidden.” Dumbledore chuckled. “As is magic in the corridors between classes, and all joke products purchased from the fine establishments of Gambols and Japes, and Zonko’s. The first Hogsmeade trip for third years and above is scheduled to be in December, and Quidditch trials will be held next week for the respective House teams. Please contact Madam Hooch with any questions. At last, I would inform you that the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds and trespassing will result in a very painful death.”

Sleepy Harriet blinked. Did I just hear him right?

“Bloody hell,” someone farther down the table whispered.

Professor Slytherin continued to smile. Dumbledore seemed to look everywhere but at him.

“Now! Off to bed! Here’s to wishing us all a fun and fulfilling term. You’ve much learning ahead of you all!”

Older kids titled “Prefects” gathered the first years and the student body departed en masse, the resulting babble of noise and jostling bodies doing little to wake Harriet. She felt a hand on her elbow and looked about to see Elara guiding her from the paths of bigger students who probably didn’t even notice they were about to trod on poor short Harriet. Half the school departed in the entrance hall, climbing the sweeping marble steps to the floors above, and the other half took the stairs leading down. The group split again, and the Slytherins delved deeper and deeper, the light disappearing at their backs, torches wavering in shades of yellow and green and blue, the air crisp and heavy in their lungs.

Harriet couldn’t remember the common room. In fact, had anyone asked how she got there in the first place, she couldn’t have told them. All she recalled were floating orbs of emerald light and towering windows that looked out upon the black tide. Harriet laid down, felt blankets shift higher until they covered her and Livi, and heard the water sigh. She dreamt she was a Galleon tucked in a chest that had sunk to the very bottom of the ocean. She listened to the sea and when the hand came to scratch at the chest’s lid, demanding to be let in, she rolled over in her bed of treasure and ignored it.

Chapter Text

xiv. house of serpents

 

Hermione woke to the sound of groggy cursing.

For the briefest of moments, she thought she was at home—home, as in not with the Malfoys but snuggly tucked into her bed in her Muggle house surrounded by her books with the smell of pancakes drifting down the hall from the kitchen. Then Hermione remembered the train ride, the lake, the Sorting and the feast. She sat up and reached out to jerk the jade hangings aside.

Dark still encumbered the first-year girls’ dormitory, though morning light filtering through the lake outside the windows illuminated the ticking clock set above the student carrells. Hermione squinted at the clock and saw that while early, it was almost time to get up. Harriet knelt on the stone floor by the bed next to Hermione’s, hissing underneath of it for some unfathomable reason.

“Harriet!” Hermione said, and the other girl jumped, banging her head on the bed’s rail.

Bloody hell—.”

“Harriet!” Hermione said again, chiding. “Really. What are you doing?”

“Oh, er, nothing.” Rubbing her head, the girl straightened the bed’s skirt until it lay flat once more. Hermione narrowed her eyes when she thought she saw the cover move, wondering if she should say anything. Was Harriet hiding something? What if it got the rest of her dorm mates in trouble? Hermione had been at Hogwarts for less than a day and she did not want to be in trouble!

Then she looked into Harriet’s smiling face and she bit her tongue, swallowing the building lecture. Right. Don’t be bossy. Don’t be too much. I’m sure it’s nothing.

“Morning, Hermione!” Harriet chirped. She still wore her clothes from the day before, robes wrinkled beyond salvaging, her thin face marked where her glasses must have pressed into the skin. Elara had deposited the exhausted girl in her bed last night, stopping only to remove her shoes and jerk the covers over Harriet. With the collar of Harriet’s shirt stretched and displaced, Hermione could plainly see the rather ghastly scar that originated from her right shoulder. Of course, Hermione didn’t mention the scar to Harriet, thinking the other wouldn’t like having the old injury pointed out in casual conversation. Hermione did wonder how she’d gotten it, though.

“Good morning. You’re up early. Are you excited for classes?”

“Yeah,” Harriet agreed with a nod. “You?”

“Definitely. Gemma said we get out timetables at breakfast, didn’t she—?”

A groan emanated from behind the curtains two beds over. “Will you two be quiet?”

That’s Daphne Greengrass, Hermione told herself, summoning in her mind the sheet of pure-blood families she’d had to study. From the Noble House of Greengrass. The eight beds were arranged in a line against one wall, the carrells on the opposing one, and Hermione had been the bed second closest to the door, with Tracey Davis first. Davis. That wasn’t one of the families Mr Malfoy had me study, but I don’t think she’s Muggle-born like me.

Harriet—from the Noble House of Potter, why does she seem so much like a Muggle-born?—had the third bed, and Elara Black the fourth. Black. Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. Mr Malfoy said it was only extant in the female line, but he also said Mrs Malfoy was the last free member of the family? Odd. Hermione would ask if Elara really was from the House of Black and not, say, a Muggle-born with a fortuitous surname, but she doubted the quiet girl would answer.

She gathered her things for the shared bath and Harriet joined her, wrangling a clean uniform out from her ancient trunk. When Hermione asked her about it, Harriet said, “It belongs to my family.” Her green eyes were bright behind her glasses. “It’s really nifty, too.”

Hermione made quick use of the showers and dressed behind the divider before returning to the dormitory. She was at the room’s threshold, mind full of her perspective classes and which text books she might need—when she almost collided with someone. Hermione started to apologize, then they knocked her folded pajamas out of her hands. Hermione ground her teeth as she met the gaze of Pansy Parkinson, of the Most Noble House of Parkinson.

“Watch where you’re going, Granger,” Pansy sneered, wrinkling her short nose. Pansy had a hard-face framed by short brown hair and pricey stud earrings pierced her ears, diamonds glittering on her lobes. Millicent Bulstrode standing behind her was a solidly built girl with dark hair and an unfriendly expression—from the Ex-House of Bulstrode, Hermione’s brain supplied without prompting. She remembered the genteel snickering of the Malfoys as they discussed the fallen fortune of the once Noble House.

“I already said sorry,” Hermione snapped, picking her things up. She’d met Pansy briefly over the summer when the other girl had come to visit Draco, and she’d sneered at Hermione then, too.

“So tell me—,” Pansy continued. “How did you make it into Slytherin? I was under the impression Mudbloods weren’t allowed in. How does one go about bribing a hat?”

Hermione straightened her spine as she met Pansy’s gaze again. She was used to bullies. There had been boys in primary who’d loved knocked her things off her desk and they once threw her bag in a pond because she was too ‘bossy.’ “Your impression is wrong. Plenty of Muggle-borns have come through Slytherin before. I didn’t have to bribe the Hat. Did you?”

Pansy went to rebuke Hermione, when somebody else coming out of the dormitory spoke. “You’re blocking the door.”

Elara was an inch or so taller than Millicent, which made her several inches taller than Hermione or Pansy and a whole head higher than Harriet, who had come up behind Hermione with her wild hair tamped down with water. Elara’s face was elegant but tired, black smudges under her colorless eyes, her temper visibly thin, and Hermione guessed she was not a morning person. Pansy gave Elara a look that clearly conveyed her displeasure but kept her mouth shut, because she couldn’t say anything rude to her. The House of Black was above the House of Parkinson—was above most everyone, really. Their pseudo-feudal system is both terribly archaic and utterly fascinating.

Pansy stepped back. Elara scoffed as she entered the bathroom, and Hermione made good on her escape.

 

_____

 

The first day of classes proved as exciting as promised.

The Slytherins spent the morning outside the castle, in one of the many greenhouses dotting the grounds, joined by the Ravenclaws and a plump, earthy witch who introduced herself as Professor Sprout. Hermione and a few Ravenclaws took feverish notes, journal popped on their arms, as they stood between muddy planters and the Head of Hufflepuff introduced to all manner of mystical flora and fungi, most of which moved or bit, could poison, stun, or kill the unwary. Most wore wary expressions when Professor Sprout asked for volunteers, so Harriet was the first to raise her hand, jumping in with both sleeves rolled up. Elara Black later managed to kill her own plant seemingly by touching it and lost Slytherin five points.

Expectations ran thick as they made their way to Charms after that, holding their wands in their hands, itching for a chance to use them. Hermione’s was yellowish in color, made from vine wood, excellent for those who sought a great purpose—according to Ollivander, at least. Pansy and Katherine Runcorn—the final first year Slytherin girl—both had elm wands and said they made for the best pure-blood wands. Draco didn’t like that and he sniffed a he informed them that hawthorn wands were obviously the greater choice.

Harriet got quite vague when Hermione asked about the pale wood of her wand. It was only later that Hermione realized she never got an answer out of her.

After Charms with Professor Flitwick—which only had theoretical studies on the first day—came lunch, then History of Magic with the Hufflepuffs, taught by Professor Otho Selwyn. Hermione knew of him, of course, because he was one of the final living members of the Noble and Ancient House of Selwyn, a family that hotly contested they’d been in Great Britain longer than the Blacks. Professor Selwyn didn’t appear to very much want to be a professor, as he spent the first half hour of class muttering about children who didn’t know anything about history or magic or the world in general. He scowled with ferocity at the Hufflepuffs—and Hermione.

Their last class of the day was Transfiguration, taught by the stern Head of Gryffindor, Professor McGonagall. Hermione had read all about Transfiguration, of course, and loved how very complex this particular branch of magic was. She had to suppress the urge to laugh when the others babbled in the corridor on the way there, excited to jump right in, when Hermione knew they wouldn’t touch anything even remotely difficult until they had practiced and studied Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. She had dozens of questions written in a notebook already and hoped the older witch had open office hours.

Professor McGonagall passed out a match each with instructions to turn the matches into silver needles. Hermione felt quite smug indeed when she alone fully managed the feat, earning ten points for Slytherin and a warming smile from the strict professor.

Then Harriet somehow managed to turn her match into a short wooden javelin.

“Miss Potter, what are you doing over here?”

“Er….”

Many of the other Slytherins were torn between being elated about the points or glaring at Hermione. She really hoped their antagonism would pass. Logically, the antipathy pure-bloods showed toward Muggle-borns didn’t make sense. They had emotional bonds to their family heritage Hermione understood, but wasn’t magic magic? She’d read some absolute tosh about how Muggle-borns stole pure-blood magic—but Hermione had found nothing credible that said the ability of Muggle-borns or half-bloods was any less than a pure-blood’s!

But what do you know, really? A sharp, cold voice in the back of her mind demanded. It had always been there, but lately it had begun to sound more and more like Lucius Malfoy. An entire world of magic existed without you having a clue. You know so little.

Hermione wondered if she’d made a mistake in letting the Hat place her in Slytherin. She fretted over the decision. Oh, she had ambition in spades, but she wasn’t—wasn’t cunning, wasn’t sneaky or subtle or traditional. She passed the perfect needle from hand to hand and sighed. The House of Serpents was home to people like Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson. Could it be home to someone like Hermione, too?

“Father says Mudbloods are always thirsty for attention,” Draco said to Goyle once Professor McGonagall moved away. “He says you have to watch how much you feed them or they’ll forget their place—ow!”

Harriet’s javelin slid off her desk and landed on Draco’s foot. Given the thunk it made, Hermione guessed it was solid wood.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Malfoy,” Harriet said in a flat voice, twiddling with her wand. The pointy faced boy turned an unattractive red. “I’m just so clumsy.”

Then Harriet winked.

Hermione covered her mouth to hide her smile.

Chapter Text

xv. professor tom

 

Harriet was not looking forward to Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Her first day of classes had been amazing—up until Transfiguration, when Harriet had taken her wand out for the first time with the intent of using it and had transformed her match into a bloody javelin. Professor McGonagall told her to stay after class, then demanded to know which spell Harriet had been using. Harriet tried the spell again on another match at the professor’s insistence—and, in her panicked rush, managed to make an even bigger javelin that almost toppled McGonagall’s desk.

The professor gave her a very strange look as she told Harriet to practice her control.

“Control,” Hermione told Harriet later while they were sitting in the common room by one of the windows, their homework spread out on the table between them. A strange fish kept making rude faces at them through the glass. “Refers to the amount of magic you funnel into a spell and how you mitigate it.”

Harriet had no idea what that meant, but decided she’d best practice before she turned a house cat into a tiger and got one of her classmates mauled.

“Still working on that match?” Elara asked at breakfast the next day. The other girl watched Harriet drown her toast in syrup and seemed to find Harriet’s almost overt enjoyment of the food at Hogwarts amusing.

“Yeah,” Harriet glumly admitted, poking her sticky toast. “If you find a bunch of stakes in the common room’s broom closet—they’re not mine.”

Elara smiled—well, the corner of her mouth twitched. Across the table, Hermione had her nose buried in the Herbology textbook, and three seats down Pansy was waxing on and on to a bored Daphne about her new necklace and how exceedingly expensive it was. She reminded Harriet of Aunt Petunia, always chatting up the neighbors, making sure they knew just how much the Dursleys spent on their car or their house or their clothes. Harriet imagined what Pansy would say if she told her she sounded like a Muggle, then snorted.

The owl post arrived with a flurry of feathered wings, the birds slipping in through the open slots in the Great Hall’s eaves, seeming to plunge right out of the sky itself. Two owls dropped a crate of home goods in front of Malfoy and he crowed with delight. Elara’s terrifying horned owl came swooping in and scattered the smaller post deliverers, startling some of the students with his baleful glare. Unperturbed, Elara stroked his head, tied a letter to his leg, and sent the creature on his way.

“Have you managed it, then?” Harriet asked. In response, Elara retrieved her journal from her school bag and cracked it open, revealing the horrid handwriting inside—as well as a few perfect silver needles tucked safely in the binding. Harriet pouted and scratched at Livi’s belly beneath her vest. The serpent disliked remaining behind in the dorm and she hadn’t been able to convince him to stay today.

“My…Uncle Cygnus taught me a little about control,” Elara said, her tone careful, her eyes on the journal rather than Harriet. “To help mitigate…accidents. He says you can feel your magic like shouting.”

“Like shouting?

“Yes. He said it’s similar to the feeling of pulling air into your lungs, how the muscles in your chest constrict and how your vocal cords vibrate to increase pitch. He told me that, if you concentrate, you can sense your magic doing something similar just before you cast a spell.”

That sounded complicated to Harriet, but she tucked the information away, nodding her head. “Thanks, Elara.”

“You’re welcome.”

They had Herbology again after breakfast which, ironically, Harriet found quite relaxing. She hated toiling Aunt Petunia’s garden where she had to clip, trim, bind, and battle the wildness of nature into something her relatives deemed respectable, but Herbology wasn’t like that. Caring for magical plants meant learning and understanding their oddities, letting them flourish any way they wanted, not in ways deemed “proper.” Harriet earned points for Slytherin—which proved a good thing, because Elara kept losing them, muttering “it’s the roses all over again” under her breath.

The bell rang and Harriet’s dread rose. It was time for Defense.

“You needn’t be so nervous,” Hermione told her as they reentered the castle and made for one of the many staircases. Harriet had a wretched sense of direction and Hermione had mapped out three different routes to every class, so Harriet stuck to her friend’s side like a limpet. “It’s not as if you’re going to set someone on fire or something.”

Harriet quickly buried the memory of setting Uncle Vernon’s trousers alight and prayed they wouldn’t have a repeat performance today.

Voices in the corridor outside the classroom alerted them to the presence of the Gryffindors, the only House the Slytherins hadn’t had a class with yet. Harriet only counted nine students wearing gold and crimson trimmed robes, which made their year considerably smaller than Slytherin at thirteen—most of which were girls. Longbottom more than made up for their lack of bodies however, as older students crossing the hall had to stop and stare at the boy, and voices around him swelled to almost intolerable levels.

“Must be difficult, Longbottom,” Malfoy drawled, facing the Gryffindors across corridor. The door to the class was shut tight. “Trying to fit your fat head in the castle.”

Goyle and Crabbe guffawed. Longbottom didn’t react; his eyes flickered in Malfoy’s direction, then tipped away as if Draco simply wasn’t worth his time. Harriet thought living as a celebrity had probably thickened his skin—but that wasn’t the case for Ron, who flushed red from his ears to his freckled cheeks.

“Shut up, Malfoy.”

“Or what, Weasel?”

Before they could find out “what” Ron had in mind, the door popped open in wordless invitation. Hermione—ignoring the unbecoming behavior of her fellows—was the first through the entrance, and Harriet hurried in after her.

The Defense classroom had to be the largest of all the classrooms, though Harriet hadn’t been to Potions or Astronomy yet. A wide aisle split the room’s middle, the desks scattered on either side, and a small platform with a lectern dominated the front instead of a desk. The guttering torchlight cast shadows through the bones of the preserved creatures crowding the various display cabinets. Each of the soaring windows was shuttered closed.

“Take your seats.” Slytherin’s Head of House stood shy of the halo thrown by the nearest torch and his outline seemed strangely blurred against the dim backdrop—but then he stepped forward, black robes rippling, and the illusion dissipated. He had his wand in hand, texts tucked under an arm. “Quickly.”

Hermione took one of the seats in the very front. Harriet wanted to sit next to her, but she felt increasingly uneasy, so she sat behind her next to Elara and Blaise Zabini. One side of the aisle had exactly thirteen seats and the other nine; a natural division was drawn between the Gryffindors and the Slytherins, the House of Lions drifting as far from Harriet’s dorm mates as they could.

“You do not need your textbooks in my classroom,” the professor said—and Harriet saw Hermione’s hands stop before they could fully open her bag. “I have no patience for watching children read.”

A few Slytherins chortled.

The professor’s robes swept the ground as he stepped onto the platform and came to the lectern, flashes of emerald-green embroidery shifting on the hem like scales under a roiling tide. He set his books atop the lectern, then looked over the room like a king viewing his less than exemplary kingdom and Harriet still couldn’t believe someone as young as him was a teacher. “Good morning, Slytherins…and Gryffindors.” He added the latter in afterthought. “I am Professor Slytherin—yes, direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin himself, Head of his House, and your Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor.” Professor Slytherin inclined his head and stepped off the platform, slowly pacing the aisle as he continued.

“Who here can define the Dark Arts for us?”

Hermione’s hand shot up into the air.

“Name?” Professor Slytherin asked in a lazy drawl.

“Hermione Granger, sir.”

“Tell us then, Granger, how you would define the Dark Arts.”

“The Dark Arts are a magic that intends harm to those it is cast upon.”

Slytherin shrugged a shoulder. “A prosaic answer,” he replied, and Harriet saw Hermione’s back stiffen. “But one that proves you reviewed the material before coming to my class. A point to Slytherin.” He gave a languorous turn and paced the room again, wand still braced between his hands, index finger balanced on the tip. “There are seven distinct branches of magic: Transfiguration, Charms, Jinxes, Hexes, Curses, Counter-spells, and Healing-spells, each school with its own variations, disciplines, and cross-sections. The Dark Arts comprise all branches of magic, and though our vaunted Headmaster may disagree in my definition, you will cast many Dark spells in all of your classes during your years at Hogwarts.”

“Hogwarts doesn’t teach Dark magic,” one of Gryffindors argued—Seamus, Harriet thought his name might be. “Me Mam told me Professor Dumbledore banned the lot of it when he took over.”

Professor Slytherin paused, head swiveling to fix Seamus with a pointed look. The position finally brought his face directly into the light, and Harriet realized the wizard’s eyes were red, as red as Uncle Vernon’s face when Harriet had really messed up, red as the lining on the Gryffindors’ robes, red as blood

A sudden prickling stole through Harriet’s neck and she scratched at it, lowering her head when the professor’s gaze swiveled over the Slytherins, his brow furrowed.

“Your name?” he asked when he turned to the Gryffindors again.

“Seamus Finnigan.”

Sir. You will address me as ‘sir’ or ‘professor’ or ‘my Lord’ if you’re feeling particularly proper; I am, after all, Lord to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Slytherin.” He smiled and it was not a nice expression. “Tell me, Finnigan; where did your ‘mam’ receive her mastery?”

“S-sir?”

Where did your mother receive her mastery in Defense Against the Dark Arts, Finnigan?” The sentence rolled off his tongue dripping disdain and he leaned nearer the paling Gryffindor boy. Harriet shivered and Seamus looked too terrified to answer. “I will take your silence to mean ‘Oh, Professor Slytherin, my mother never achieved mastery in Defense. Please do excuse my worthless interruption about the opinions of my ignorant family members. We should obviously take your opinions and advice far more seriously.’” Slytherin straightened and his face lost its mocking smile. Seamus trembled. “Five points from Gryffindor.”

The professor returned to the head of the aisle and when he faced the class again, his expression was once more relaxed, almost approachable. Almost. “I do believe that’s enough introduction. Let’s do something practical, shall we? I will teach you the most basic of protection spells: the Shield Charm. Wands out!”

Harriet’s nerves from earlier returned as she retrieved her wand from her brace, noticing many of the others had theirs simply stuffed into robe or pants pockets. Livi hissed something but Harriet didn’t catch what he said.

“Now, the spell is simple enough. Copy my pronunciation and movements.” Professor Slytherin lifted his wand, then brought his hand down in a slow, slicing motion, saying, “Protego.

The class mimicked him.

“Again.”

They repeated this three time before the professor seemed mollified. Harriet wouldn’t say Slytherin was satisfied; no, indeed, the young wizard wore the most bored expression possible while he led the first years through their paces. Satisfaction was far from his mind. “Enough. We’ll see if you’ve managed it….ah, yes, Mr Longbottom. How about a demonstration? I’m told you’ve trained with some of the very best in the field.” The way he said “best” conveyed Slytherin’s clear dismissal of others’ prowess in his subject.

Neville simply stood, shrugging. Professor Slytherin flicked his wand at the opposing end of the aisle with a wordless spell and a red lion glowed on the floor. “Your mark, Longbottom. In case you get lost.”

Several Slytherins snickered.

Holding his wand tight, Longbottom made his way to the lion and stood on it, his face set in a determined glare as he met Professor Slytherin’s gaze. This amused the wizard. “I won’t be instructing you in dueling until next year, but it would be beneficial for us to practice proper form, yes? Bow, Longbottom.”

Both Neville and the professor dipped their heads and again several Slytherins laughed. Malfoy seemed to be enjoying himself.

“Cast the Charm.”

Neville shifted his feet into a better stance as he faced his opponent, his wand steady when he slashed it downward and stated, “Protego!

The air before him shimmered, milky as a ghost but not as opaque, rumpled at the edges like a sheet left too long in the drier.

Professor Slytherin aimed a flippant jab in Neville’s direction. “Flipendo.”

Nothing happened at first, then—BANG! Blue light flared and Harriet jumped when a girl from Gryffindor shrieked, the force of Professor Slytherin’s spell rippling through the floor when it collided with Neville’s shield. It held, if only just, Neville’s feet sliding several inches along the stone floor until he came to a stop, panting hard. The Gryffindors broke into applause.

“Quiet,” Professor Slytherin said, waving Neville back to his seat. “Decent. Though I expected better from someone meant to already know the spell. Five points to Gryffindor. Someone from Slytherin now…you. Name?”

He pointed at Malfoy’s tallest friend, the boy with big feet and bristly hair. “Greg Goyle, sir.”

“All right, Mr. Goyle. To the mark.”

The red lion dissolved into a green snake and Goyle lumbered over to it. He and Slytherin bowed to each other, displaying a touch more respect than Neville had, and the duel repeated itself. This time, however, when Professor Slytherin’s spell struck the milky distortion before Goyle, the shield gave wave with an audible sigh and the younger wizard went toppling backward. The other side of the classroom broke into smothered laughter.

“Deplorable. Return to your seat, Goyle.” Slytherin rubbed his brow as Goyle stumped over to his chair more disheveled than he’d left it. “Do not mumble when you’re casting. Enunciate. Let’s have one of our witches redeem us, shall we?”

Hermione’s hand once more bobbed in the air, but the professor ignored her, surveying the other seven Slytherin girls. Harriet shrunk herself down and stared at the top of her desk, furiously chanting ‘Not me, not me, not me’ in her head.

“You.” Professor Slytherin tapped Harriet’s desk to get her attention and she almost groaned. Shite. “Name?”

“H-Harriet Potter, professor.”

Recognition whipped through those terrifying eyes, then disappeared. “To the mark, Miss Potter.”

Harriet stood and almost tripped over her own bag in her rush, but she staggered upright to the waiting snake with her head held high. Livi tightened himself beneath her clothes and hissed, “You sssmell of fear.”

Shut up,” she responded, quietly.

“What was that, Miss Potter?”

“Nothing, sir.”

Harriet turned in place and met the watching stares of her classmates. Her face burned. I can do this, she told herself. Slytherin stood at the opposing end of the aisle, waiting, not a hair out of place. I can do this. What’s the worse that could happen? Has anyone ever blown up a professor before? Can you get kicked out for that?

She mimicked the professor’s stance and adjusted her glasses before clenching the hand holding her wand. The strip of wood hummed with excitement beneath her skin. “Protego!”

The air swirled and hardened like a thin cloud suddenly freezing in front of Harriet. She braced herself and thought she might feel what Elara had spoken of at breakfast, the sudden warm tension in her chest, the heat whispering down through her arm and out her hand—.

Flipendo.”

The blue light cracked against Harriet’s shield and, for an instant, she thought she might go flying like Goyle—until the spell suddenly slung itself back at Professor Slytherin. Harriet gaped in horror—and the wizard quickly flicked his wand to divert the returning Jinx, sending it flying over his shoulder, riffling his tidy hair. The class gasped. Slytherin grinned.

Harriet had only a moment to act—. “Protego!

Flipendo.”

The second spell came faster and didn’t rebound. Harriet’s feet slid like Neville’s had, her arm shaking.

Flipendo!

Protego!

Slytherin’s third attempt came quicker still and Harriet’s hasty shield warbled until it collapsed in on itself. Harriet landed on her backside with an “Oof!” Livi hissed in displeasure.

“Excellent, Miss Potter,” Professor Slytherin said as the members of his House clapped. The Gryffindors didn’t applaud. “Take ten points for that demonstration and return to your seat.”

She did as instructed, weak-kneed and dazed with her glasses sitting crooked on her nose. The mini-duels continued, most students sent sprawling on the ground like Goyle by their bored professor, others summoning a weak shield that nullified most of the energy in Slytherin’s spell but still tripped them up. Hermione and Draco managed to stay standing like Neville—yet no one pulled off the Charm as well as Harriet had.

“How did you do that?” Hermione asked later, miffed, as they gathered their bags and headed to lunch. Harriet didn’t know how to answer her. The move had been instinctive, easy. Despite her misgivings and the eeriness of the professor, Harriet thought she might like Defense Against the Dark Arts.

She wished her neck would stop itching, though.

Chapter Text

xvi. fire burn and cauldron bubble

 

Severus was convinced he never got around to growing up.

Not really, at any rate. He often reflected on his immaturity, his suspended evolution, when his mind wandered in the dead hours of the morning—a time of day even the ghosts found themselves drifting through with half-closed eyes and weary yawns. Severus was trapped in a limbo of maturation, not unlike those prepubescent dunderheads he taught, the tangle of a half-lived existence that seemed to have no beginning nor end; just endless, spiraling knots. It was the result of spending his life among children, of never leaving Hogwarts—except for those three horrendous years he submitted himself to the thrall of a madman.

Those three years he would spend the rest of his life atoning for.

He was both too old and too young; too old to be a child and too young to be an adult, constantly under the scrutiny of those who taught him while he attended the school, and Severus often felt as if he’d simply exchanged his class schedule for a lesson plan and continued on without a thought. Dumbledore addressed him as “my dear boy,” Minerva chided him to be “kinder, more empathetic,” and Filius still called him “Mr. Snape” on occasion, much to the wizard’s chagrin.

Memories blurred and echoed in the castle’s unchanging halls. The sensation worsened whenever he crossed paths with the relatives or children of those he went to school with. He’d chastise Jacob Rowle and suddenly remember the boy’s father, Thorfinn Rowle, crowing about joining the Dark Lord, telling young Severus he’d “better take care of his Gryffindor bullies, before someone took care of him.” He’d grade an essay for a Rosier cousin and remember completing assignments for Evan Rosier, just to be paid Knuts from the pure-blood boy’s pocket change.

He’d hear girlish laughter and think of red hair in the sunlight, bright like fresh apples.

He’d see pale eyes and think of a haughty boy now rotting in a cell. Good riddance.

The cowardly fear of what nightmares awaited him, unborn until he entered the Potions classroom for his first year Slytherin class, sickened Severus. He didn’t want to open the classroom door. Hell no. He wanted to return to his quarters and swill enough Dreamless Sleep to sleep through the next seven years.

Seven years. Merlin, Severus knew he probably wouldn’t survive that long.

The door bounced off the stone wall with a clatter when he strolled into the dungeon, startling the first years out of their tentative conversations. Their faces shone ghoulish in the candlelight reflected by the specimen jars and Severus sneered, thrusting his robes aside as he sank onto the chair behind his desk. The first name on the role call lit a fire in his gut and he regretted getting up that fucking morning.

“Elara Black.”

He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen her with his own eyes, hadn’t heard the discreet whispers shared between the others in the staffroom. “His daughter,” they said as if afraid to use the actual name. “And Marlene’s. Poor dear.” Severus always thought Black had a thing for the werewolf—but there sat evidence to the contrary in the middle of his classroom, a mirror image to the malicious bastard who almost killed Severus in their youth. He met her eyes and heard Black’s voice, “All right there, Snivellus?”

“Present, sir.”

Of course she sat by Lily’s daughter. Of course.

He dreaded the echoes he would hear when he looked at the girl. Severus had caught a glimpse of that atrocious Potter hair at the Sorting and had looked away—had looked anywhere but at the child he’d sworn on his life to protect. What he hadn’t expected, however, was for there to be no echo; Severus glanced at Harriet Potter and realized she only vaguely resembled James or Lily, a palimpsest of two originals blurred to create something other.

She had none of Lily’s softness, none of James’ arrogance. The girl glanced about at the grim decor with the same tentative curiosity he’d seen Muggles use at crash sites, her expression openly fascinated, but her gaze dark, closed off. Even in the height of war, Lily’s eyes had sparked bright as if the witch contained an endless vault of joy in her head she could delve into whenever she wanted—and the girl’s eyes reflected none of that.

She was not James, and she was not Lily. She was a girl with hair like a Niffler, eyes like a jackal, and a tie of green and silver cinched about her throat. When the Hat had shouted Slytherin, parts of him rejoiced and parts of him despaired, because he wanted proof that even the good got sent to the snake pit sometimes, but he hadn’t wanted that for her. Nothing good could last in Slytherin’s hands.

They should check to see if Potter is still spinning in his grave, Severus thought with a snort. He returned his attention to the list before him, marginally relieved, marginally disappointed, and continued to call names.

“Ah, Neville Longbottom.” He flicked the parchment, voice thick with sarcasm. “Of course. The Boy Who Lived. It appears, class, our savior has taken leave of his busy traveling schedule to bestow us with his presence. How remarkable.”

Severus had a role to play. He knew this—and yet it came so easily, as if it wasn’t a role at all, Slytherins chortling like their fatuous fucking parents used to do whenever the Dark Lord tortured the “unworthy,” and Severus gloried in the vitriol bubbling in his veins like poison. The Boy Who Lived To Do Fuck All, his mind snarled, even as a very small voice murmured, It’s not his fault. No, no it wasn’t Longbottom’s fault the world was filled with idiots, but that didn’t make it simpler for Severus to swallow. The boy’s ignorance chaffed.

Longbottom played poster boy for the Ministry, said, “The Dark Lord’s dead,”and the public cheered, all while men like Severus and Dumbledore knew better. Oh, how they knew better. The Dark Lord was anything but dead.

“Tell me, Longbottom: what would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

An unfair question, but a plausible one for a brat like Longbottom, inundated with tutors since he’d first worn swaddling clothes. “I don’t know, sir,” the boy said with an unaffected shrug.

“No?” Severus replied in a voice barely above a whisper. He rose from his behind his desk, walking slowly between the tables, arms crossed. A deathly hush encumbered the dungeon. “Let’s try again, shall we? Where, Mr Longbottom, would you find a bezoar?”

“I don’t know.”

From the corner of his eye, Severus saw one of the bushy-haired Slytherin girls raise her hand, the motion determined. Who was she? Not a Death Eater’s kid, and there’d been only two names on the register that he didn’t recognize. Either Davis or Granger, Lucius’ ward. Severus tipped his dark gaze in her direction and gave his head a definite jerk to the side. Paling, she dropped her arm again.

“Do you even know what a bezoar is, Longbottom?”

“No.” Longbottom gave him a peeved look and most of the Gryffindors fumed as Severus belittled their golden scion.

“What is the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane?”

The tension shifted in the boy’s round face, his mouth quirking into a grin. “Nothing. They’re both the same plant, called aconite.”

“My, my,” Severus sneered. “One in three. Please forgive if I don’t hold my breath for those odds in your marks, Longbottom.”

Malfoy laughed loudest. At her table near the front, Severus spotted the Potter girl discreetly flipping through the back of the textbook, terrified of being called on next. He ignored her and Black’s spawn sitting at her side.

He didn’t know which one the bushy-haired girl at the front table was, so he said, “Granger,” aloud, and was rewarded for the lucky guess when she lifted her gaze from her notes. “What is the result of adding powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

“The Draught of Living Death, sir.”

“Where is a bezoar found?”

“In the stomach of a goat, sir.”

“What is it used for?”

“An antidote for most poisons, and several kinds of venom, including those man-made and those that occur naturally—.”

Severus cut her off. “Name one potion that uses aconite.”

Here she paused and gave his question thought, brow furrowed in concentration. “The—the Wideye Potion, sir?”

“Are you asking me, Miss Granger?”

“No, sir.”

“Then you would be correct.” He swept past the table toward his desk again. “That’ll be ten points to Slytherin…and ten points from Gryffindor.”

Minerva’s little lions gasped, outraged. Longbottom scoffed and curled his lip. “That’s hardly fair, sir.”

Severus only smiled. “Let me be the first to inform you, Longbottom; life isn’t fair.”

 

_____

 

His hand began to itch as he stood over Longbottom’s cauldron and sneered at the contents.

Severus scratched at his palm without thought as he berated the boy and his partner, Weasley, for the globular mess they’d concocted—and for nearly exploding a perfectly simple Cure for Boils by not taking the cauldron from the flames before adding the porcupine quills. He’d caught them in time, if only just, smacking the quills from Weasley’s fingers an instant before he’d dumped them into the stew.

Of course, not a moment later, acrid smoke billowed through the dungeon as a cauldron near the front of the room collapsed, and Severus almost swore aloud.

The Potter girl had quick reflexes, as she managed to shove herself and Black aside before the main deluge doused them, though part of her leg was already breaking out in furious boils. Black, wringing her hands, was apologizing profusely to Potter as Severus swept over them and Vanished the botched potion, his temper close to snapping.

“What are you idiots doing?” he hissed in an undertone. The Gryffindors were plainly enjoying their failure and Severus couldn’t have that kind of dissension in his dungeon. Gryffindors couldn’t leave his class looking pleased, for Merlin’s sake. “Did you not just hear me tell off Longbottom and Weasley for almost doing the same exact thing?!”

“We took the cauldron off the heat,” Black argued, her face red and flustered. Angry as he was, Severus did, in fact, see that the ruin of Potter’s cauldron had been lifted from flame and set upon the proper cooling rack so it wouldn’t scorch the tabletop. “I was—I was just stirring it, like the instruction said—sir.” Her tone corrected itself when she remembered to whom she spoke.

Severus glared at the mess. “You must have not paid attention to the temperature then. Idiots.” He wasn’t sure what’d gone wrong, but in a decade of teaching Potions, Severus had never seen a Cure for Boils combust when someone was “just stirring it.” They did something to it, foolish brats.

“Sir?” Potter asked, and Severus forced himself to look down—down all the way at girl he loomed above. Potter was thin; short and thin and fine-boned like a mottled fledgling, not at all like her tall, winsome mother, or James Potter, who had been athletic and statuesque—for all that he was a great ruddy fathead. “Can I go to the infirmary?”

“No,” Severus snapped. Ignoring her flabbergasted expression, he pointed his wand toward the storage cupboard and waited, hand extended, until the door banged open and jar of ointment smacked into his palm. “There’s no need to bother Madam Pomfrey with something so imbecilic.” Severus had no wish for details of this incident to find a home in the wrong ears.

He shoved the medicine at her, then glowered at Black. The contrite expression the girl wore when glancing toward Potter worried him more than any arrogance or malice he might have seen written in her face. With his luck, it would figure the bloody traitor’s heir would befriend Lily’s daughter. As if Black Senior hadn’t done enough to the Potters.

Another problem for another day.

Severus turned then and found every eye in the dungeon upon him. He bore his teeth. “Get back to work.”

The lesson ended soon afterward, potions divided into slender vials and neatly sorted into the rack waiting on his desk. Severus ordered them to clean their stations but inevitably found himself lingering after the students ran from the dungeon, using his wand to Scourgify the tables, chairs, and floor, repairing knife marks gouged into the wood, muttering darkly over the residual damage wrought by inconsiderate children wielding scalpels and fire and acidic concoctions. Lunch had started by the time he could finally leave.

Which was why Severus wasn’t prepared for the voice that came slithering out from the shadows when he opened the classroom door.

“Find any potential among the dregs, Severus?”

Tom Slytherin, he knew, was not actually a Slytherin—no more than Severus was a Prince, or their bigoted Minister a Gaunt, or the Dark Lord named Voldemort. He also knew that Slytherin was and was not Tom Riddle, not exactly, and the only person who fully understood how that phenomenon came to pass was Dumbledore himself. Severus had given up questioning the Headmaster on the matter years ago. All that mattered was that no Ministry law in existence, be it old or new, could draw a connection between the seemingly youthful wizard before him and the twisted wretch Severus had served in his youth.

All attempts to oust Slytherin from the school—both bodily and judicially—had been met with the kind of legal fluidity that came from years and years of blackmailing school governors and Ministry officials, whispering the right words into the ears of bylaw creators, watching and waiting with the kind of uncanny patience Severus had never thought possible for the Dark Lord. Albus had tried to duel him and lost his arm. Severus had tried to poison him and lost his eye.

“No,” he replied to the shorter wizard stepping into the wavering torchlight. Tom had a sense of melodrama just like the Dark Lord; he always dressed in robes tooled with his House colors, snakes on the hem and silver buttons on the waistcoat. His appearance gave him effortless charm, sharp cheekbones and symmetrical features, tidy hair and a guileless smile. Severus often pondered the number of witches—and wizards—who had been lured to their doom by that young face. “They are as insipid as ever and singularly dull. Though, Nott showed some instinct with the skill.”

Had he been speaking to the Minister, he would have put on airs about Lucius’ son or the Runcorn girl or Parkinson, but the running tally of which master the Death Eaters served was always shifting, and so he praised Nott Junior—well, as much as Severus ever praised anyone. There was a kind of sick irony in the illusions cast by these men who were and were not Voldemort; in the open, they presented themselves as pure-blood lords of particular talents, and behind closed doors they one and all claimed to be the Dark Lord and demanded submission, leaving the Death Eaters to play a game of confused musical chairs with their loyalty.

“Oh?” Slytherin said, head tipping. “A pity—though you are ruthless in your artistry, aren’t you? A few showed promise in Darks Arts.” When speaking to Severus or to that churlish bastard Selwyn he referred to the Defense class solely as “Dark Arts.” Tom’d been doing so for years, and if that wasn’t sign of ominous portents, Severus didn’t know what was. “The Potter girl, for instance.”

The sudden urge to ram Slytherin’s sodding head into the stones scoured through Severus and he would have done so, had he thought it’d do anything. He’d watched the wizard drink a glass of pumpkin juice laced with enough nightshade and aconite to take down an Erumpent without flinching. Slytherin would undoubtedly survive a good head bashing.

“Miss Potter,” he said with uncaring ice in his voice. “Is as perfectly average as the rest.”

Slytherin just smiled.

Chapter Text

xvii. what awaits the sin of greed

 

Before the students knew what was happening, their first week at Hogwarts had come to an end.

The walls of Number Four, Privet Drive, were once the whole of Harriet’s world; the horizon stopped where the drive met the street, the trimmed hedges were her jungle, the cupboard her prison and sanctuary, the kitchen a pseudo-minefield she navigated every single day. With the Dursleys, Harriet didn’t dream about a different life, as it was quite difficult to imagine that which you knew nothing about—but she would spend long hours trapped in the cupboard’s belly thinking about impossible things; about elves like the ones in her story books, about trees that craved conversation, about motorcycles that roared across the stars.

But, even in her most outlandish thinking, Harriet could have never created something as magical, ridiculous, and wonderful as Hogwarts. The stairs moved and the portraits snoozed, the ghosts seemed to flee Harriet’s presence, throwing themselves right through the walls whenever she entered a corridor, and the horizon stretched far, far away, far past the mountains and the lake and the forest filled with terrifying creatures of legend.

She loved her classes, some more than others. Astronomy happened on Wednesday nights, and though seeing all the constellations shine in a sky untouched by electric lights was breathtaking, there was a lot more maths involved than Harriet had been expecting. Transfiguration, too, proved difficult for her, with all its theoretical topics and abstract thinking. The Dursleys had raised Harriet with a rigid way of thinking, and while she liked to believe she’d bucked their influence, that wasn’t wholly true. Professor McGonagall would say “Imagine the beetle becoming a button,” and a hateful voice in the back of Harriet’s head would sneer “Beetles don’t become buttons.”

Harriet had far more fun in Herbology and Professor Sprout was amused by her willingness to tackle the tasks set out for the day, but her best class was—somehow—Defense Against the Dark Arts. Harriet couldn’t explain why, no matter how Hermione badgered her about it. She could only guess that, at their heart, defense spells responded to intuition, instinct—and despite the weight of the Dursleys’ grounding heel, Harriet had always been a wild thing who thrived on instinct.

It helped that whenever Professor Slytherin turned his wand on her, Harriet’s heart would lurch and she’d suddenly find her own in her hand. Sometimes she swore she spotted Set out of the corner of her eye stretching for the professor, but never quite reaching.

Professor Slytherin was scary—yet not as terrifying as the Potions Master. Professor Snape had the same look as those blokes Harriet sometimes saw heading toward Knockturn Alley; like he was capable of stealing your organs and preserving them in his jars if you weren’t paying attention. He towered over them, a black pillar of barely restrained fury, soft voice scantly audible over their bubbling potions. He mostly ignored Harriet—a relief, really—but he seemed to hate Elara and Neville Longbottom. The former he approached with subtle disdain, often snapping at her to leave Harriet’s table and sit by herself in the back so she’d stop dousing her fellows in fouled potions. To be fair, Elara did melt an awful lot of cauldrons.

Neville, on the other hand, bore the brunt of the professor’s scorn and melted almost as many cauldrons as Elara. Harriet found it hard to sympathize, especially when she’d hear Longbottom whisper how Snape was just a greasy Slytherin no one had or would ever love.

No one ever loved Harriet either, and some days she still blamed the Boy Who Lived for that.

“Harriet!”

She was jerked out of her maudlin thoughts by Hermione’s voice and the flat rock in her hand hit the water with a dissatisfying ‘plunk!’ “Err—what was that?”

“The First Principle, Harriet,” said her friend from her perch on the dry boulder at the shoreline. “What is the First Principle of Gamp’s Law?”

“Err,” Harriet said again as she nudged the stones underfoot, looking for another worth skipping. She stood ankle deep in the cool water of the lake, as did several other students dotted about the shore, all happy to have a short reprieve from classes. Had Harriet less studious friends, they might have joined her in skipping rocks instead of insisting on quizzing, but Harriet didn’t mind. She thought this must be the best way to study and was just glad Hermione wanted to be around her. Elara proved more complicated in comprehending, Harriet torn between calling her a friend or not because sometimes Elara was perfectly friendly and other days she said almost nothing to her. Harriet didn’t understand but, really, Harriet understood very little about people.

“It’s about food,” Hermione hinted, tapping the open text spread on her lap.

“Oh. Um, it says that…you can’t conjure food out of nothing, right?” Harriet pushed her glasses up her nose again and frowned. “But where does the food in the Great Hall come from then?”

“It must be transposed from the kitchens.”

“’Transposed’?”

“Swapped, basically. Transfered.”

“Wicked,” Harriet said with heart. She loved magic—though she questioned who made the food if it wasn’t magic. The professors? A sudden image of Professor Snape in Aunt Petunia’s pink apron flashed into her mind and Harriet choked.

“Are you alright?”

“I-I’m fine.”

Hermione sighed as she let her book close with a soft thump. “You could always tutor me in Defense if you don’t want to do Transfiguration.”

“I’m a wretched tutor, Hermione.”

“You’re the best in our class!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know how,” Harriet insisted as she returned to the shore. “It’s not like I have some fancy technique or something. I just…do it, y’know?”

Hermione looked more dejected than ever. “It would figure you’re a Defense prodigy.”

Harriet started to laugh.

“You are!”

She laughed harder.

After Harriet’s giggles subsided, she tugged on her socks and shoes again and they started along the path back toward the school, skirting the edge of the Forbidden Forest’s shadow. They strolled on—until Harriet paused, watching a pair of horses graze near the grassy boundary. She had seen them before, from a distance, pulling the carriages that the older students had taken from Hogsmeade’s station.

“What are you looking at?” Hermione asked.

“Those horses,” Harriet said. “They’re awful spooky, aren’t they?” With great black wings and skeletal bodies, Harriet couldn’t imagine an eerier creature—especially when she realized they weren’t grazing, but instead picking over a dead rabbit.

Hermione wore an odd expression as she studied Harriet. “What horses?”

“Those, right there.” she pointed.

“I…I don’t see any horses, Harriet.”

Was Hermione having a laugh? Harriet didn’t think so, not because Hermione had no sense of humor, but because Hermione was more inclined to laugh than to make others laugh. Why lie about this? Harriet rubbed at her eyes and hoped, not for the first time, that she wasn’t going barmy.

“Alright, you two?”

The girls turned, then lifted their eyes to the familiar face of the giant who had helped them on their boat ride to Hogwarts with Professor Selwyn. The groundskeeper, Harriet had heard one of the older Slytherin’s call him. He wore a friendly smile beneath the tangle of his black beard, a drooling boarhound standing by his knee. Harriet barely rose to his thigh in height—which was understandable, considering she was only a half a foot taller than Professor Flitwick, who was part-goblin, for goodness’ sake. Harriet hated being short.

The man peered down at her—then blinked. “Say, you wouldn’t be James and Lily’s girl, would ya?”

“Yes—?”

Harriet squeaked at his sudden movement, and then she was being smothered in a tight embrace, getting a face full of bristly beard and furry overcoat. Then she was on her feet again, staggering and more than a bit embarrassed. Had she ever been hugged before? Harriet couldn’t remember.

“Shoulda known! Of course, I took you off Professor Snape myself, right after he got you from the ruins. Didn’t mean him no harm, read the situation wrong, my mistake—.”

“P-Professor Snape?” Harriet stuttered, befuddled by this latest turn of events. What was all this about ruins and the Potions Master?

The giant stopped rambling and his cheeks reddened. “Shouldn’ta mentioned that. Sorry—but you’re Harriet! Got Lily’s eyes exactly, and James’ hair! Haven’t introduced myself though, have I? Name’s Rubeus Hagrid, and I’m the Keeper of Keys here at Hogwarts. Just callin’ me Hagrid’s fine, though, none of that ‘sir’ business.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Harriet responded in earnest. “You knew my parents?”

“’Course I did! Great people, Lily and James. Such a terrible thing to happen to them.” Hagrid turned his glittering eyes toward Hermione and Harriet jumped to introduce her.

“This is my friend Hermione Granger.” Friend. How odd it felt to say that.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Hagrid.”

“Just Hagrid, that’s fine. Great to meet you.” Hagrid and Hermione shook hands, though the giant was very careful in doing so. “Would you two care for a spot a’ tea? My hut’s just there….”

He pointed out the cottage near the forest’s edge with a patch of immature pumpkin vines by the door and a smudge of smoke trickling from the crooked chimney. Harriet and Hermione agreed, if only because Harriet really wanted to hear more about her parents and Hagrid seemed a decent sort. They sat at his homemade, over-sized table, and Hagrid served them great mugs of a tasty tea and rock cakes—which, they discovered, we far more like rocks and much less like cakes.

Hermione asked what duties as a groundskeeper entailed and Hagrid chattered on about the interesting creatures he tended to in the forest and his efforts to grow giant pumpkins for the feast in October. At one point he mentioned, “Quite a shock it was, you being Sorted into Slytherin, Harriet. Probably woulda upset James, but Lily woulda been fine with it.”

“My parents wouldn’t have liked me being in Slytherin?” Harriet asked, heart sinking.

“Both of them were Gryffindors, weren’t they?” It wasn’t a question. “And James was a Chaser for the Quidditch team on top of that. Terrific flyer, your dad. Had a lot of rivals in Slytherin—jealous, the lot of them. But Lily was different, didn’t mind Slytherins after all, being friend with—.” Hagrid cleared his throat. “They’d be awful proud of you. Houses don’t matter, after all. Not really.”

“That’s right,” Hermione said, sensing Harriet’s distress. “All that matters is learning magic and doing your best, Harriet.”

“Yeah,” Harriet responded, though she wasn’t so sure. Would her mum and dad be disappointed in her? She couldn’t live by the expectations of dead people, of course, but she wanted to be the kind of witch they could’ve taken pride in, had they been there with her. Hermione’s right, she decided. Houses are just Houses. I’ll just do my best for them—and for me.

Conversation continued and Harriet wanted to ask more about James and Lily, but she was nervous the conversation would turn to why she didn’t know more about them and who she was living with—or, supposed to be living with. Harriet had learned a bit more about the MPA and Ministry laws from Hermione and knew she’d most likely be removed from the Dursleys because they were Muggles and she was a witch—but the possibility of being sent back remained, or relocated to a family like the Malfoys. Draco was a prat and Harriet didn’t want to think what his parents were like. Hermione never talked about them.

What if she got sent to a family even worse than the Dursleys?

Lost in thought, Harriet scratched the boarhound’s—introduced as Fang—head, and he drooled on her lap. There was a copy of the Prophet laid on the table, and she glanced it over. An article near the back caught her attention.

“Someone broke into Gringotts,” she mentioned. Hagrid dropped a rock cake.

“Really?” Hermione asked. “The Malfoys told me the bank was impregnable, and I couldn’t imagine them putting their gold anywhere unsafe.”

“The person didn’t steal anything, apparently,” Harriet continued, reading more of the article. “Err—the goblins said the vault was emptied earlier that day. Hey, it happened on my birthday! That’s seren—seren—?”

“Serendipitous,” Hermione supplied as she sipped her tea.

Harriet returned the paper to its proper place on the table and changed the topic—much to Hagrid’s apparent relief. Certainly Harriet wondered what was so precious someone would risk breaking into Gringotts and aggravating the goblins for it, but a bank break-in was hardly the strangest thing she’d seen in the Wizarding world. She mostly thought about her parents, and about Hagrid telling her she had Lily’s eyes and James’ hair. What else did she have?

Harriet and Hermione drank their tea, hid rock cakes in their pockets, and headed back to school after a very pleasant afternoon.

Chapter Text

xviii. gryffindor

 

“Who, on earth, thought flying broomsticks were a good idea?”

Harriet asked herself the same thing when she saw the notice of their upcoming lessons posted on the common room board, though not with the same ire Elara injected into the words. The sentiment wasn’t one reflected in the other Slytherins; the older students regaled the first years with tales of Quidditch and their own adventures while the first years themselves boasted about their brooms left at family estates or sneaking off to fly in the summertime when their parents weren’t paying attention. Malfoy swore he almost collided with a helicopter.

“Like he even knows what a helicopter is,” Harriet muttered under breath. Hermione coughed.

Harriet, Elara, and Hermione seemed to be the only ones who had never been flying, and the others made sure they felt every bit as inferior as the pure-blood Slytherins from proper pure-blood homes deigned them to be. Pansy had taken to stating “She can’t really be a Black,” while in Elara’s hearing and Hermione snuck a copy of Quidditch Through the Age from the library when she thought Harriet wasn’t looking. Draco liked to lean over his desk in class and tell Harriet she was evidence of how far “blood-traitor” families fall.

All in all, Harriet’s second week at Hogwarts was not nearly as great as the first.

The Slytherins departed History of Magic on Thursday and, instead of enjoying a free period as they had the week prior, made their way to the main courtyard and the grassy quad beyond. Harriet, Elara, and Hermione hung behind the rest of their classmates—who all but raced forward in anticipation, the boys leading the way with the girls feigning indifference as they followed.

“I wandered through Quality Quidditch Supplies in Diagon Alley,” Harriet commented, uneasy. “And saw some pictures of people flying at Quidditch games and stuff. It looks like it could be fun.”

Hermione sniffed. Elara had been looking a bit green since lunch and only paled further once they saw the line of brooms waiting for them. “It seems an utterly illogical mode of transportation,” Hermione said. “When they have the Floo Network, and Apparition, the Knight Bus, and Portkeys available—.”

“I don’t have any idea what those are,” Harriet interrupted, bemused.

“Honestly, Harriet, how did you even get to Diagon Alley?”

“Walked.” She quickly backtracked when Hermione gave her a startled look. “Muggle bus. Took the Muggle bus.”

Elara said nothing, even when Hermione’s gaze rose to hers with an expectant brow quirked. Harriet didn’t like that her two friends—or her one friend and almost-friend—didn’t seem to like one another very much. They never argued or fought; in fact, Hermione and Elara barely ever exchanged a word. Elara was difficult to talk to, Harriet knew, and she thought this might be why Hermione—who appreciated forthrightness in all its forms—often got frustrated with her. Indeed, even now, Hermione huffed a breath and turned away when Elara didn’t answer her.

“Find yourself a broom. Stand next to it—no touching yet!” called Madam Hooch, their flying instructor. Harriet and the two with her meandered over to pick their own spots, and a minute later the Gryffindors ambled up, their approach heard long before they appeared by the raucous echo emanating from the courtyard.

“Great,” Malfoy sneered. “Longbottom and his leeches have arrived.”

Harriet and the rest of the class soon learned Madam Hooch had attended Hogwarts with Neville’s grandmother, and the other woman apparently enjoyed writing to all her old schoolmates to boast about her “talented grandson,” about how he excelled, how he’d had the very best tutors in everything—even flying. Neville chatted loudly with the instructor about being taught to fly by the Arnold Vogler of the Heidelberg Harriers and the Gryffindors were suitably impressed while the boys of Slytherin rolled their eyes. Harriet, not knowing what a Heidelberg Harrier or an Arnold Vogler was, just toyed the grass and waited for instructions.

“To your place now, Mr Longbottom, thank you. Hold your dominant arm out over your broom, and in a firm voice say, ‘up!’ Are we clear? Go ahead!”

Feeling silly, Harriet did as Madam Hooch instructed—and her rather raggedy broom leapt right off the ground and into her hand. She gave it a surprised glance, then looked about at the others, who had mixed levels of success. Malfoy and Longbottom, of course, had their brooms in hands and smug grins on their faces. Ron managed it after repeating himself. Some brooms rose about halfway off the grass before faltering, falling with dull thumps. Elara’s almost made it, and she swooped forward to snatch it before Madam Hooch could see. Hermione’s rolled on the ground as her face became increasingly red and Daphne Greengrass snickered.

Harriet scrutinized her broom. With twigs sticking out every which way, it didn’t look anything like those sleek products she’d seen in Diagon.

“Now,” Madam Hooch called once everyone had their brooms. Hermione, like several others, had finally given up and grabbed it off the ground. “Straddle your broom and take the handle in a firm grip—like so.” She displayed the proper technique for them on a broom of her own and Harriet mimicked her. It felt ridiculous to hold that position for so long while Hooch walked along the line, correcting as she went, but Harriet’s patience was rewarded when the instructor paused by Malfoy to fix his hands.

“I’ve been flying for years!” he argued.

“Well, you’ve been flying wrong for years,” she rebuffed. If the Gryffindors hadn’t laughed, Harriet was sure she would have.

At last, Madam Hooch reached the end of the arrangement and told them they could kick off. “No more than ten feet!” she ordered above the excited whispers. “Anyone who goes higher without my say so will be grounded! On my mark. One, two, three….”

She blew her whistle. Harriet pushed herself upward—and her apprehension faded to white noise in the back of her mind as the weightless sensation of flight seeped into her very bones. Her hands stopped strangling the broom’s handle and her posture loosened, relaxed, and though the urge to keep rising up and up an up roared in her ears, Harriet stopped just shy of ten feet, kicking her legs.

Elara, who had become greener and greener as the lesson progressed, only made it two feet before she pitched herself off her broom and vomited on the lawn.

“Ew!” Pansy shrieked, chorused by several of the girls in Gryffindor.

“Elara!” Harriet pointed her broom toward the ground and landed as swiftly as she could, going to the other girl’s side. Hermione and Tracey Davis did the same, along with Theodore Nott, though the others looked a bit more unsure about what they were doing. Elara retched again.

“Oh dear,” Madam Hooch said with a tired sigh, feet thumping on the dirt. “There’s always one.” She shooed Harriet back as she approached, took a firm grip on Elara’s elbow, and hefted the ill girl to her feet. “Motion sickness among the old families always seems more common than not. You there—Granger was it?”

“Yes, ma’am?” Hermione responded.

“Take Miss Black on to see Madam Pomfrey.”

Harriet wanted to protest, wanted to take her herself, but there was no reason to be fussy so long as Elara was all right in the end. She watched Hermione lead an unsteady Elara away and Harriet didn’t think she imagined the grateful look on Hermione’s face as they hurried from the quad and the collection of waiting brooms. Madam Hooch ushered Harriet farther down the line, away from the sick splattered in the grass, and she somehow managed to be slotted between Ronald Weasley and Draco Malfoy.

Great.

Malfoy didn’t hesitate to lampoon Elara. He was in rare form today, his jaw locked in that practiced grin just shy of a sneer, pale hair windblown like the fluff off a dandelion. “What kind of witch can’t fly?” he asked aloud, earning a snort from Goyle. One didn’t have to be clever to earn a laugh from Goyle or Crabbe; one simply had to look in their direction after speaking and wait. “It all comes down to blood, my father says, and her branch of the Black family has gone rotten. Did you know that, Potter? Whole lot of them went spare. Black’s father is a madman, after all.”

“Stop being a tit, Malfoy,” Harriet hissed through her teeth as she kept her eyes on Madam Hooch.

“He was a blood-traitor, too. But you would know all about that, wouldn’t you?”

No, Harriet wouldn’t. She couldn’t fathom why everything always came down to blood with Malfoy and people like him. To use Hermione’s word, it seemed quite inane. Magic was magic to Harriet. She’d rather be a Muggle-born than a plain Muggle—and if being a pure-blood meant having a bunch of blokes in her family like Draco, then maybe she was better off being just a half-blood. She’d put enough pieces together between her Aunt Petunia and Hagrid to realize her mum must have been a Muggle-born just like Hermione, and that was just fine with her.

“Weasley would know all about blood-traitors, too,” Malfoy said, speaking to the quiet red-head on Harriet’s other side. “He comes from a whole wretched brood of them.”

Ron’s ears almost disappeared against his hair as blood rushed into them.

“How do your parents manage to feed you lot, Weasel? Does your mum just sell your filthy blood in vials as fertilizer?”

“You shut up about my mum, Malfoy,” Ron spat as he trembled with rage.

“Does your family just share the one bed in that shack you call a house?”

“Stop it,” Harriet said to Draco—and suddenly Ron rounded on her.

“I don’t need your help, stupid Slytherin,” he snarled, eyes glassy, blotchy patches of purple color blooming in his scrunched face. “I know all about your family, Potter. All the Potters have been Gryffindors since anyone can remember, and your mum and dad were both Gryffindors—so what’s wrong with you? Why are you a slimy Slytherin? Bet your folks would be ashamed.”

All week Harriet had been annoyed by the Slytherins’ jeering her about flying; she was worried about Elara and mad Malfoy kept belittling Hermione, who was bloody brilliant and didn’t deserve the rubbish that came spilling out of him like his head was a bin with a crack in the bottom. Defense Against the Dark Arts made her terribly nervous, and somewhere very distant from herself she kept remembering she lacked a home, and terror seized her when Harriet imagined what would happen when Christmas came rolling in, or the summer hols. Ron’s words hit her anxieties like a stick whacking a beehive. Suddenly her arm jerked itself up, and her hand collided with Ron’s mouth.

Honestly, the punch surprised the boy more than anything, and it hurt Harriet’s hand rather than his face. Stunned, Ron took a step back, the class gasped, and Harriet had her fist still raised when Professor McGonagall shouted, “Harriet Potter!”

Harriet blinked, then stared at her own hand in baffled horror as the Transfiguration professor swept across the quad from her position near the courtyard’s entrance and towered over the scattered students. “Twenty points from Slytherin, Miss Potter! We do not strike others here at Hogwarts! You’ll have a detention—and your Head of House will be hearing about this!”

The horror thickened in her middle, folding tighter and tighter until it sat like one of those bezoars in a goat’s stomach. Detention. Barely two weeks had passed, and Harriet already had a detention! What if she got suspended? Where would she go? What would she do? Could Hogwarts write to the Dursleys? What would the Dursleys say?

Class commenced, but Harriet wasn’t allowed to fly again. Professor McGonagall dragged her to the shadow thrown by one of the school’s spires and, in a quieter tone, demanded to know what had gotten into her, why she felt the need to hit somebody else.

“It was an accident, Professor,” she said, and Harriet didn’t think that a lie. She hadn’t meant to punch Weasley, and certainly if a modicum of thought had passed through her brain, she would have restrained herself. Professor McGonagall didn’t believe her and spent the remainder of the class scolding Harriet. She felt small, wilted like one of Aunt Petunia’s violets on an extraordinarily hot summer day, and though she considered telling McGonagall one of her Gryffindors had been running his mouth—she refrained.

Harriet didn’t know why. Tattling didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time.

High above their heads, Neville Longbottom took a spherical glass ball from his robe pocket—a Remembrall, she would later learn—and passed it back and forth between himself and his friends. They laughed and McGonagall watched, lips pursed and her eyes bright with a curious, expectant glint.

Harriet followed the flying students with her eyes as they swooped through the air, and just for a moment, she really did hate the Gryffindors.

Chapter Text

xix. snake tongue

 

Harriet stabbed one of her eggs and yellow goo spread across her otherwise empty plate.

“You should really eat more,” Hermione chided as her friend spread the yolk about with the tines of her fork. Harriet scrunched her face and didn’t reply, intent on being glum. Every so often she would glance toward the High Table, where the professors sat enjoying their breakfasts and each other’s company. Professor Slytherin chattered quietly with Professor Selwyn, Professor Snape scowled at his porridge, and Professor McGonagall leaned closer to the Headmaster so she could mutter near his ear. Professor Dumbledore glanced toward the Slytherin table, and Harriet looked down so fast she almost planted her face in her eggs.

It was a miserable way to start a Friday.

Professor McGonagall hadn’t mentioned anything about her detention yet, but Harriet wasn’t optimistic. If she got sent to Professor Slytherin, what would he do? Was caning still a thing at Hogwarts? State Muggle schools in the UK didn’t allow that kind of treatment, but Hogwarts was an old-fashioned kind of place and Harriet plainly remembered that Smeltings had handed out those bloody sticks to their own students. She hadn’t hurt Weasley. Her punishment shouldn’t be so severe…right?

Livi moved his head where it lay upon her chest and Harriet hunched her shoulders so the shift wouldn’t be noticed by others. “There are many riversss,” he hissed. “And many bridgesss to crosss them.

Horned Serpents could occasionally say rather insightful things—though Harriet had discovered Livi was young enough yet to be confused by his own insights, and sometimes he said things that made no sense at all.

This was one of those times.

Harriet sighed and discreetly rubbed at his snout. The post arrived with its usual dusting of feathers and shrill hoots, and one owl swung away from the main group to hover before Harriet. It extended his leg for her to take the missive attached there, and she did so with trepidation.

 

Miss Potter—

I have decided to forego notifying your Head of House about your behavior during Thursday’s flying lesson. Instead, Professor Snape has volunteered to oversee your detention himself. Please report to his classroom this evening after dinner.

I do hope you will reflect upon your actions and make better choices in the future.

 

Prof. M. McGonagall.

 

“Oh, this is worse!” Harriet said aloud, garnering several curious glances.

“Who’s it from?” Hermione asked as she smeared marmalade on a piece of toast and laid it on Harriet’s plate.

“Professor McGonagall,” Harriet replied, hoping her voice held steady despite her misery. “She’s set my detention for tonight with Professor Snape.”

“So?” Malfoy snorted. Harriet hadn’t realized he’d been listening in. “What’s wrong with Professor Snape?”

“…nothing, I guess.” Harriet glanced at the wizard in question. He’d finished glaring at his porridge and now glared at Slytherin, then at Dumbledore. “He’s just….” Terrifying. Just looks like he might stuff me into a cauldron and boil me alive.

“Snape’s great. He looks out for Slytherins,” Malfoy said as he stuck his nose in the air. “Mind, I think it’s ridiculous you got detention in the first place. The Weasel deserved a good punch in the mouth for talking back to his betters.”

Harriet snorted. “I’m a ‘better’ now? Weren’t you banging on about me being a blood-traitor just like Ron?”

“It doesn’t matter; you’re still in Slytherin, and that makes you better than any of the Weasleys.”

Pansy sniffed and flipped a coiffed ringlet of hair out of her face. “A real witch would have used magic and cursed him.”

“A real witch would have been expelled,” Hermione sniped. She shoved her plate away and stood. “I’m going to the library before class.”

“Nobody cares, Granger.”

Harriet cared, so she stuffed the toast into her mouth—getting marmalade on her face—and departed from the Great Hall with her friend.

 

_____

 

With every step that drew her nearer the Potions Master’s lair, Harriet wished she had taken the detention with Professor Slytherin instead.

He’s wicked scary, too, Harriet thought as she stopped before the door to the Potions classroom and took a breath. But at least his class isn’t literally in the dungeons. I wonder if they actually held people here in the old days….

Harriet knocked and a cool voice responded. “Enter.”

She did so, pushing on the door so it inched inward on thick iron hinges. The boards of the door were battered, dented and scratched and a bit twisted from Professor Snape entering his classroom in a snit, kicking it open and letting it slam against the inner wall with its rusted rivets bolted to the stones. Pickled things floated in the jars on the walls and Harriet always stared at them whenever she had Potions, both fascinated and repulsed by the strange things the wizard had preserved in innocuous glass containers.

The professor himself sat at his desk in the permanent semi-darkness of the castle’s sub-levels with a quill in hand and a scowl on his face. His black eyes rose from the parchment before him when Harriet slipped inside. The scowl deepened. “Miss Potter.”

“H-hello, Professor Snape. I’m here for my detention.”

His eyes dropped to the parchment again in dismissal. “So you are.” His arm lifted and he pointed one pale hand toward the far wall, where a line of cauldrons waited on the counter near the stone sink and the faucet shaped like a gargoyle’s mouth. “Clean the cauldrons, Miss Potter. No magic.”

That’s it? Harriet thought as she scuttled across the room to the waiting mess. Harriet had plenty of practice in non-magical scrubbing, so this task hardly seemed a punishment at all. Well, what did you expect? she asked herself, peeved. You’re such an idiot. You didn’t actually think he was going to poison you or beat you or something, right?

Harriet didn’t answer that, not even in the privacy of her own brain. Instead, she fished out the soap and cleaning implements from the proper cabinet and turned the water on. Professor Snape gave no further instructions. He went back to work, quill scratching away at the parchments Harriet suspected were student essays, and the water gushed from the gargoyle in a frigid, gurgling stream.

She removed her hampering outer robes, folding them carefully before setting them on the nearest dry table. Livi stirred beneath her uniform and Harriet paused to make certain his outline wasn’t visible through her clothes. “Sss…cold,” the serpent complained as he placed his head in the crook of her shoulder and left it there. One of his nubby horns jabbed Harriet in the neck and she poked him over, wincing.

It’ll only get colder,” Harriet responded, her voice covered by the sound of the water. The dungeons would be frozen in the harshness of the highland winters and she didn’t look forward to that. How did the older Slytherins manage? “Will you be okay? You don’t—you don’t hibernate or something, do you?

No,” Livi said. “I am not like thossse othersss.” He referred to snakes who weren’t himself as “other,” as if they didn’t deserve to be in the same species as him. “I do not endure the ssslow ssseasson.

The slow season?

Misstresss keepsss me warm. My blood doesss not cool.”

Harriet snorted. Harriet Potter qualities: nice place for snakes to cuddle. Wonderful.

“Something amusing, Miss Potter?”

“No, Professor Snape.”

He went back to writing again and Harriet concentrated on her task, ignoring her professor and Livi’s complaining. The cauldrons proved harder to clean than expected, difficult to maneuver and coarse in texture, so the gunk and stains settled deep in the pitted metal and Harriet had to exert considerable effort to scrub the rubbish away. She didn’t like to think about what she was getting stuck under the nails of her frozen fingers. Brains? Eyes? Dung? A mix of all three?

An hour passed before Professor Snape set aside his markings and came to loom behind Harriet, inspecting the cauldrons she had already finished. “Professor McGonagall tells me you struck Weasley. Why?”

Unlike the Transfiguration professor, Snape didn’t sound accusatory; rather, he had a sharp, inquisitive air about him, reserving judgment until he better understood the situation. Harriet hesitated—but then decided Professor Snape probably didn’t care enough about stupid childish spats to get Ron in trouble. “I didn’t mean to,” she grumbled. “He said some…some stuff and—I don’t know. I got upset. I didn’t know I’d hit him until it had already happened.”

“What stuff did Weasley say, Potter?”

Harriet frowned at the brush in her hand, at the grimy bristles and raw spots on her knuckles. “He said my mum and dad would have been ashamed of me being in Slytherin because they were Gryffindors, but I don’t think that’s true.” At least I hope not.

She didn’t notice Snape stiffen. She didn’t notice the way his hand curled into a fist behind his back, or the dangerous flick of light touch his eyes, because in an instant the emotion was gone.

“You shouldn’t pay attention to the foolish prattling of Gryffindors,” he sneered. “They are arrogant and foolhardy to the last. Your year will be especially insufferable because of Longbottom; the boy king of ignorance and unquestioning virtue.”

Harriet didn’t agree with that—or, well, she didn’t think she did. A few Gryffindors were friendly enough, in that they didn’t scowl or mutter or walk away when a Slytherin passed them by, though she rarely witnessed Slytherins themselves behaving friendly in turn. Malfoy excelled at antagonizing the House of Lions, berating Neville because he was famous or Ron because he was poor or Dean because he was a Muggle-born. Pansy made fun of Lavender’s hair or Fay Dunbar’s freckled complexion.

She paused in her work to rub at her sore skin. The dynamic in Slytherin baffled Harriet; on one hand, the House was filled with people like Draco: sharp-tongued, affluent, hateful. On the other, students like herself dotted the population: indifferent, patient, empathetic. Harriet wouldn’t say she was kind, not when life with the Dursleys had honed her too much, like a knife sharpened until the metal became brittle, and her suspicions ran deep. She still didn’t feel the need to be cruel like Malfoy, though.

Then again, Harriet reminded herself. I did punch Ron in the mouth.

Snape criticized one of the cauldrons she’d already cleaned and Harriet hurried it back into the water. He retrieved his wand—black like Elara’s, the design simple, obscured by his hand—and muttered a spell that lifted the finished cauldrons from their places on the wet counter so he could march them into the storage cupboard. His voice rose from inside when he spoke again.

“That being said, you cannot go about striking cretins, no matter what nonsense comes dribbling out of their mouths. It is unbecoming, especially from a Slytherin. Our House is held to a higher standard, Miss Potter, and your behavior must conform to that standard or you will be having more detentions. Let me assure you, I have far less pleasant tasks I could assign.”

Shivering at the thought, Harriet raised her voice when she answered. “Yes, sir.” Livi poked his invisible head out of her collar and flicked a curious tongue against her earlobe. “Ew, gross.”

“What was that?” Snape returned to the doorway.

“Nothing, Professor.”

Pausing, he folded his arms against his chest, looking more sinister than ever with only his pale face visible in the gloom, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t appreciate backchat, Pot—.” Snape’s voice ended with a sudden breath when Harriet turned her head, reaching for a dirty ladle. “Miss Potter!”

Harriet jumped as he shouted and the ladle slipped through her fingers to clatter upon the stone floor. “P-Professor Snape?”

He had his wand out, pointed at her, and Harriet’s heart raced. “Miss Potter, are you aware there is a highly venomous snake tucked into your bloody shirt?!”

“Sn—?” Harriet froze, because while she of course knew Livi was there, she couldn’t fathom how Snape knew when the serpent in question was mostly out of sight and invisible to boot.

Professor Snape took a step forward, wand raised, and Harriet’s hand flew to Livi’s head. “Don’t!” she cried, unsure what the wizard’s intentions were. “H-he’s my familiar, Professor.”

His advanced stopped, as did the sharp movement of his black wand. “Familiar?”

“Yes. I know snakes weren’t on the letter about pets, but he wouldn’t hurt anyone, I swear! And I keep him out of sight—.”

“You cannot keep a large, deadly snake, Miss Potter! Remove it!”

“Well, I tried to tell him that before and he said—.”

If Harriet thought Professor Snape was pale before, she was abruptly treated to another level of sallowness when the professor sat down—hard—on the edge of the nearest table, as if his knees had given out on him. “He said?”

“Yeah,” Harriet replied as she maneuvered Livi’s head back under her collar and into perceived safety. “I mean—yes, sir.”

Snape seemed to struggle with words for a minute, mouth opening twice without sound coming out before he ground his teeth. “You can…speak with snakes, Miss Potter?”

“Yes, sir. Most of them are real nutters. Mad about bugs.” Harriet shifted under the uncomfortable scrutiny of Professor Snape’s expressionless stare. “That’s not…not normal, is it? Not even for witches?”

“No,” he responded slowly. “It is not a common trait.”

Aunt Petunia’s voice rattled in Harriet’s head like the last mint in a tin. Freak. Freak. Freak.

“Your ability is called Parseltongue, and you would be referred to as a Parselmouth, Miss Potter. Salazar Slytherin, our House Founder, was famous for having the same skill.” He heaved a weary sigh. “Who else knows?”

“No one,” Harriet said, then reconsidered. “Well, Elara I think. She saw me chatting with him at the store, but I don’t think she knows I have him here.”

Snape squeezed his eyes shut, muttered something under his breath, then snapped, “You will not tell anyone else—especially your Head of House. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Harriet didn’t really understand. She hadn’t disclosed her ability to anyone because it would mean exposing Livi and she had become rather attached to the snooty snake. She didn’t want him to be sent away. The Potions Master was quite earnest, however. “Professor Snape? Is it—is being a Par—Parselmouth? Is it bad or something?”

He didn’t answer at first. Rather, Professor Snape rose to his full height and tucked his wand back into his sleeve. “It is not bad or good, Miss Potter, it is simply a skill almost wholly unique to yourself, and one often misunderstood. Should you have brains in your head, you will realize the advantage in keeping knowledge of your true abilities close so they cannot be used against you—and yes, they would use this against you in a heartbeat.”

Harriet didn’t ask him to explain his vague usage of they. “That’s very…Slytherin, Professor.”

Snape smirked—or at least Harriet thought he did. The expression dissolved into disdain quicker than milk dispersing into tea. His eyes glinted and Harriet gulped. “Leave the rest of this and return directly to the dormitories. I had best not see you in detention again, Potter, or there will be consequences.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go.”

She snatched up her robes and pulled her arms through the sleeves as she rushed from the dungeon. Harriet was almost back to the common room when she realized she never did find out how Snape had seen Livi in the first place.

Chapter Text

xx. samhain

 

Life at Hogwarts continued on.

On the Tuesday that followed Harriet’s strange detention, she finally plucked up the courage to approach Weasley after they’d been dismissed from Defense Against the Dark Arts. He scowled when she asked him to hang back a moment and so did the other Gryffindors, but they moved along and Ron remained, knuckles white from his tight grip on his bag’s strap.

“What do you want, Potter?”

“I, err, just wanted to apologize. About Thursday. About, you know….” Harriet scratched at the back of her neck. She’d given her actions considerable thought over the weekend and didn’t like that violent impulse hidden in her heart. It reminded her too much of Uncle Vernon’s bellowing and Aunt Petunia’s quick, sharp slaps. Elara had pointed out how a childish disagreement could—as Hermione said—fulminate into a full-blown rivalry, and Harriet didn’t want enemies at school. She could swallow her pride, especially when she was in the wrong. “It wasn’t right of me. I still think what you said was foul, but that’s not an excuse for me to go hitting you. If I hit Malfoy every time he said something nasty about me or my family, I’d be in detention until seventh year. So, I’m sorry.”

Ron was stunned. He gaped, wide-eyed, until he snapped his mouth shut and flushed. “That’s fine,” he muttered. “I was…the stuff I said about your parents wasn’t on. Malfoy just….”

“Got under your skin?” Harriet supplied, and Ron nodded. “Yeah, I think he does that to everyone, even in his own House.”

“He’s a prat.” Weasley snorted as the tension in his lanky body lessened, shoulders slouching and his face returning to its normal color. “You’re alright, Potter—for a sneaky Slytherin.”

Harriet grinned.

“Oi, Ron!” came a voice from the corridor’s head. Neville Longbottom stood there with Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan. “Stop playing with the snakes and come on, mate!”

“I’m coming!” Ron called back. To Harriet, he added, “See you around, Potter.”

“Bye, Ron.”

Ron and Harriet didn’t become friends, but sometimes they struck up amicable conversations and he didn’t pitch a fit if they somehow wound up as partners in one of their shared classes. Harriet thought him far more pleasant than Malfoy or Crabbe or Goyle—and Neville Longbottom, who had it out for her even after Ron told him he’d forgiven her for their stupid scuffle. Resentment still curled in her chest whenever she looked at Neville, so being churlish and short with the Boy Who Lived was far too easy for Harriet.

September dribbled into October and the fantastic wilds of the rural highlands began to chill in earnest around the castle. Hermione and Elara still didn’t speak much and didn’t seem to have any friends at all aside from Harriet—not that Harriet was any better. She bickered with her dorm mates, arguing with Pansy about her hogging the counters in the washroom with her stupid make-up, or with Millicent about her cat purposefully clawing up Harriet’s bedding. Their disagreement peaked when Set threw one of Pansy’s powder poof things at Millicent’s head when the burly girl wasn’t looking, covering the dorm in white powder while Pansy shrieked and Millicent fumed.

Both girls ended up in the infirmary, Harriet with a black eye and Millicent with a split lip and neither inclined to tell displeased Madam Pomfrey what happened.

Hallowe’en, or Samhain as the pure-bloods in Slytherin called it, fell on a Thursday and their final classes for the day were canceled in favor of a holiday feast awaiting them instead of dinner. The older students waxed poetic about the marvelous treats served at past feasts and the first years were so excited to attend teaching became difficult. Luckily, Slytherin didn’t have Potions that day, but Defense Against the Dark Arts proved a trial with a prickly Professor Slytherin supervising.

Harriet was uncommonly quiet for much of the day. Around her students laughed and whispered and kicked their feet in eager anticipation, and she couldn’t help but remember that, exactly one decade ago, a madman no one would say the name of broke into her home, murdered her parents, and left Harriet for dead. Not at all a cheery thought to have, but it remained with Harriet, dampening her mood and the buzzing thrill enticing the others.

Sitting next to Harriet in History of Magic, Elara nudged her elbow and lifted a brow in silent question. Harriet just shrugged and went back to her notes, trying to concentrate on what Professor Selwyn was saying.

“—and 1689 saw the first proposal for the original International Statue for Wizarding Secrecy being signed into law by an early iteration of the I.C.W. The law would not be enforced until 1692—and would, subsequently, lead to the creation of the Ministry of Magic around the Wizengamot in 1707. As the Wizarding world shut itself off from the Muggle populace, we found it necessary to create more complicated councils and bureaus responsible for regulating magic and hiding its traces from the ignorant masses. Which of you can tell me a reason for the introduction of the ISWS?”

As usual, Hermione’s hand rose and, as usual, Professor Selwyn looked past her to the other Slytherins. Malfoy lifted his own hand and Selwyn called on him.

“Yes, Mr Malfoy?”

Malfoy thrust out his chin as he said, “Well, Professor Selwyn, Muggles started killing witches and wizards, didn’t they? Because they were jealous of our magic.” He spoke in the affirmative and slanted a scathing look in Hermione’s direction. “My father says the Muggles started burning themselves and magical kind alike, unable to tell the difference.”

“Correct,” Selwyn said, simpering. He came to stand before Hermione’s desk. “Yet another example of Muggle stupidity. The ISWS would, actually, be the basis upon which our current Minister built his campaign for the MPA. He sited the irrational behavior of Muggles and the pathetic emotional pathos of Muggle-borns as reasons they had to be protected from themselves.” The set of his face was unmistakably mocking as he watched Hermione, who had hunched down in her chair, embarrassed and trembling. A few Hufflepuffs had the same look about them.

Harriet drew air to speak and Elara nudged her again, harder, her blank gaze still pointed straight ahead. Right, Harriet told herself, slumping. Right. I’ll get detention if I backchat Professor Selwyn and Snape’ll skin me alive, probably. He was suspicious of her, especially after the “I-did-not-head-butt-Bulstrode-in-the-face” incident, which Harriet stood by, because she didn’t hit the other girl first. Besides, I would just embarrass Hermione.

Throughout the rest of the lesson, Harriet kept glancing at the back of her friend’s head, trying to think of what to say, and when the bell rang, she was no closer to knowing. She rushed out into the hall after Hermione, who dashed ahead of the others, and grabbed her arm. “Hermione—.”

“Just—just—I want to be alone, Harriet,” Hermione said in a high voice, refusing to lift her head as she kept her books close to her chest in a constricting hold. “Please.”

She jerked herself free and left Harriet standing there, hand still raised, feeling unhappy and inept. Hermione raced from the corridor and out of sight. Elara eased to Harriet’s side with silent grace and remained with her even as the others pushed around them, voices raised, excitement once again thrumming in the halls like lifeblood pumping through veins.

“The feast is soon,” Elara commented.

“What about Hermione?” Harriet replied, glum. “She’s going to miss it!”

“I’m sure she’ll show up—and if not, that’s her choice.” Elara shrugged. “It’s not as if she’ll forget.”

That didn’t sit well with Harriet, yet she saw little other recourse. She nodded her head and shoved her glassed back up her nose. “I’m going to go check the dorms anyway, then meet you in the library before dinner?”

“Yes,” Elara said. If she disagreed with Harriet’s plan, she gave no indication, as carefully blank as ever. Harriet waved goodbye and set out. She didn’t find Hermione in the empty common room or the first year dorms, much to Harriet’s disappointment, so she settled for taking Livi from his hiding place beneath her bed so she could sneak him food at the feast later on. She worried about Hermione but wanted to give her friend the privacy she wanted. It was the only thing Harriet could do.

She hated how Muggle-borns were treated, how they were ridiculed and thought of as lesser. What did it matter? Harriet had grown up with Muggles too, just like Hermione, so what did it matter that she was a half-blood? What did it matter that her mum and dad were a witch and wizard and Hermione’s folks weren’t? Hermione was a witch just like Harriet, just like stupid Pansy and stupid Millicent, who punched even harder than stupid Dudley did.

Thinking about her parents only soured Harriet’s mood further. With concerted effort, she forced a neutral expression onto her face and journeyed to the library, where she met Elara and buried her head in some half-hearted studying of seventeenth century Wizarding laws. They went to the feast an hour later.

Live bats swooped from the twilit ceiling of the Great Hall, swathes of glittering spiderwebs spun between the rafters, Hagrid’s pumpkins carved in spooky grimaces and Charmed to cackle or spit little candle flames between jagged teeth. Sweets of every possible flavor or combination burdened the tables: pies bulging with candied fruits, tarts smeared in glaze, dripping confectionery goodness, clouds of spun sugar and chocolates stuffed with a dozen different kinds of cream. Small paper ghosts flapped and moaned as they drifted between the subdued candles as the real ghosts eyed them with derision.

As usual, the resident specters drifted away as soon as they spotted Harriet. The Bloody Baron stared at her the longest before he too lost his nerve and floated to a different table.

Harriet forgot her troubles for a time, sucked into the festive spirit with the rest of the first years. Distantly she remembered past Hallowe’ens, where Dudley would sit outside her cupboard with his back to the door and gorge on sweets until he made himself sick, and Harriet would be blamed for his lack of self-control. To think that she would be in a place like this, a place thrumming with magic, serving such food, while Dudley remained miles and miles away at Smeltings probably getting whacked by other students with their Smeltings sticks made Harriet’s night.

Then the Muggle Studies professor slammed open the doors and came sprinting along the main aisle. “Troll!” he shrieked, face pale and gleaming with perspiration. “Troll! Troll in the dungeons!”

He fell in a dead faint, the sound of his body hitting the floor resounding in the silence that followed his proclamation. Then, the hall erupted.

Harriet slapped her hands over her ears in the resulting chaos, taken aback by the level noise. Students screamed, terrified, and Headmaster Dumbledore had to use his wand to bellow for silence before he could be heard. “Remain calm. Prefects, lead your Houses to your dormitories while the professors search the castle. Professor Slytherin, if you would see to your students—?”

Professor Slytherin didn’t look all that pleased at being told to babysit, but he nodded in acquiescence. Harriet wondered why Dumbledore told him to stay behind—he’s the Defense teacher!—until she remembered the Slytherin dorms were in the dungeons and quickly paled. Benches toppled when people stood in a surge of movement. Dumbledore banished the feast with a swish of his wand, and Professor Slytherin strode right down the middle of the table to reach the front of his House—not that anyone would have dared stand in the man’s way.

Looking about, Harriet realized something she should have realized right away; Hermione was not there.

Chapter Text

xxi. the harder they fall

 

“Hermione?” Harriet said aloud, voice going unheard in the general calamity. “Hermione! Has anyone seen Hermione?”

“Granger?” The girl next to her spoke, a third year she didn’t know the name of. Harriet bobbed her head in affirmation. “I saw her in the first floor bathroom crying earlier.”

Harriet’s heart sunk. Oh, she thought in despair. I’m a shite friend. Perfectly worthless, but she doesn’t know about the troll! What if she wanders into the dungeons before it’s caught?! I have to tell someone—.

She tried. Kicking and swearing, Harriet elbowed her way to the front of the mass and attempted to get Professor Slytherin’s attention, but his focus was on leading the Slytherins as a whole out of the Great Hall, shunting aside a line of terrified Hufflepuffs so the House of Serpents could go ahead of them. Harriet doubled-back toward the High Table and struggled through until she caught a flash of billowing black robes.

“Professor Snape—!”

It was no use. He darted out the side passage the staff used to enter the hall and the other professors were quick to follow, Dumbledore looking particularly menacing before them despite his resplendent purple robes. Harriet spotted Draco between Crabbe and Goyle and grabbed his wrist. His shriek went unremarked.

“Unhand me, Potter! How dare—?!”

“Draco! Draco, Hermione’s not here—!”

He slapped her hand and Harriet let go. “I don’t care where the Mudblood is,” he spat. “I hope she gets flattened by the troll, wretched know-it-all that she is!”

Fury exploded in Harriet’s heart like a living thing, surreal in its intensity, and she wanted nothing more than to strike Malfoy—detentions be damned. He must have seen it in her face because he backed away. “What’s wrong with you?” she snarled. “Isn’t Hermione like your foster sister? How can you be so bloody terrible?!”

Draco said nothing and swiftly disappeared into the crowd.

“Harriet—.”

Harriet whipped around to find Elara standing next to her. The taller girl proved a sturdier barrier against the shoving students at their backs, more grounded than Harriet who kept getting shoved about like a trout in a whirlpool. Elara extended her hand. “Let’s go get Hermione.”

She didn’t question it. Their hands came together in a bruising grip and Elara pulled Harriet through the frightened throng, chasing the Slytherins into the entrance hall—then slipping from the group along a side passage that would lead them to the girls’ loo on the first floor. Harriet guessed no one had seen them because there wasn’t an irate Defense professor breathing down their necks.

“Let’s hurry,” Harriet babbled, trying to sort through her panic without any luck. “We’ll get Hermione and then—what? Should we go back to the dungeons alone? There’s a bloody troll! Should we head higher, away from it?”

“We need to get back to the dorms before a head count is taken. We may be too late already.” The grimness in Elara’s voice caused Harriet’s pulse to spike higher.

“What if we went to the library? Pretended we weren’t even at the feast?”

“We were seen, Harriet. Besides, the library closed after we left it.”

“Shite,” Harriet cursed. She was unable to think of any other plans because they had come upon the loo and were barging through the door. No ready sign of Hermione presented itself—but, over the harried rhythm of their breathing, Harriet heard a despondent sniffle, and she dashed to the only locked cubicle. “Hermione! Hermione!” Harriet slapped her palm upon the shut stall door. “Hermione, we need to leave!

“I told you I wanted to be alone!” came Hermione’s tearful reply.

“Yes, but there’s a troll on the loose now and we very much need to get to the dormitories!”

A moment passed and Hermione unlocked the cubicle. In Harriet’s original rush, she hadn’t realized how terrible this loo smelled. Yes, it was a loo, but the stench burned in Harriet’s nose, in her throat, cloying as raw sewage and an unwashed body. Harriet, having been barred use of the shower by the Dursleys before, sadly had intimate knowledge of what the latter smelled like.

“A troll?” Hermione said in disbelief—then she, too, pressed a hand to her nose. “What is that smell?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how you can stand it—.”

“That wasn’t here before—.”

A sudden lyrical chime emanated from Harriet’s shirt and they both jumped. “Misstresss!

“What in the world was that?!”

The chime came again.

“I don’t—.”

Suddenly, Elara gasped. With a hand against her own chest, Harriet turned.

The smell, she discovered, oozed from the menacing creature now shouldering its way through the open doorway. It was tall, taller than Hagrid even, its body almost too massive to fit through the entrance, but Harriet’s luck proved just as terrible as ever, because the troll—what else could it be?—managed to squeeze in. The lower portion of one leg was bigger than Harriet both in height and in width, one horny foot larger than her entire torso. Its bald head appeared comically small atop its towering, boulder-like frame, flanked in humongous ears that flapped when it faced them.

Harriet would’ve found it funny had the troll not been dragging a wooden club stained with old blood.

“Mary mother of God,” Elara whispered, trembling. Harriet whipped out her wand—and Hermione screamed.

The troll shook its head, grunting when the sound echoed. It flailed and the club came crashing into the first cubicle, collapsing them together like flimsy paper cards. Harriet, Elara, and Hermione dove toward the line of sinks and barely avoided being smashed by the falling stalls. Splinters of wood bounced of Harriet’s glasses.

Elara had her wand in hand too. “Flipendo!

A jet of blue light hit the troll in the chest—and did nothing.

“Trolls have thick hides exceptionally resistant to magic!” Hermione shrieked, the words barely intelligible in her hurry to speak. The troll must have felt something from the spell, however, because it scratched its gray chest and roared. The floor beneath the trio shook. They would never reach the door in time.

“Then what—?!”

The troll lifted its bloody club with surprising speed and brought it down towards them. Elara shouted. Harriet thrust her wand out and yelled, “Protego!

The club barreled toward their heads and bashed into Harriet’s rippling ward—rebounding with incredible force, slamming into the wall, shattering the line of mirrors as the troll stumbled. Bits of glass rained upon them and the troll kicked one of the sinks in frustration. The pipes burst and doused the trio in frigid water.

Something shifted against Harriet’s stomach, warmth slicing through the chill of the liquid, then—.

Livi!”

Six feet of enraged snake flew across the bathroom floor as Livi threw himself toward the troll’s wrinkled ankles. With a furious hiss, he sank his teeth into the creature’s thick skin and the troll roared again, louder, its agony plain. It tried to smash Livi with the club and again Harriet threw her wand arm out, but she wasn’t the only voice to shout this time.

Protego!

The club struck the shield powered by all three witches and bounced to the ceiling. It hit the stones with enough momentum to crumble them, cracks spreading through the club and the mortar both, debris raining down on their bowed heads. “Livi!” Harriet cried, arms held out, and serpent surged into her embrace, coils whipping about her sopping body. The troll tipped to one side, dazed, and all three witches ran for the lives.

Out in the corridor, they heard the rapid slap, slap, slap of approaching feet.

“Someone’s coming!” Harriet hissed, hoping she spoke in English.

“Here!”

Elara’s hand grabbed onto the back of her collar—yanking out no small amount of hair—and jerked Harriet toward a broom cupboard located just across the corridor from the loo. Hermione threw herself in and next came Harriet, squashed quickly between the two others as Elara pressed herself in and shut the rickety doors. The broom cupboard was not big enough for the three of them.

“Ouch! Hermione, you just elbowed me right in the boob—!”

“Where did that snake come from?!” Hermione demanded, not arsed about giving Harriet bruises. “You—you what?! Just walk around with that—that—!”

“He’s my familiar!”

“That’s not an excuse! You don’t see Elara with that owl of hers stuck under her blouse! That owl she hasn’t even named yet!”

“Don’t blame me for Elara’s weird owl. I think Livi’s got separation anxiety.”

“Snakes do not get separation anxiety!”

“Will you two shut up?” Elara grunted. She had her hands braced on either wall to keep herself from being forcibly ejected out of the cupboard. The troll was trying to follow them now. They could hear it, shuffling about, groaning, every footfall thumping on the floor like a boulder crashing down from a mountaintop. Harriet wriggled until she could press one eye to a crack in-between the wall and the hinges. She could barely see through the scratched, filthy lens of her glasses, but part of the corridor—and the lumbering troll—was visible.

Her leg stung something fierce but Harriet ignored it.

“There it is!” said a voice—a familiar voice.

“Is that Neville?” Hermione whispered. Elara shushed her.

It was indeed Neville; Longbottom and Weasley and Finnigan and Thomas. All four of the Gryffindor boys in their year stood in the corridor just within Harriet’s sight, staring at the troll stuck halfway in and halfway out of the bloody loo. Sick burned the back of Harriet’s throat when she realized Livi’s bite was killing the creature, because its limited faculties were shutting down, beady eyes listless and bloody, lolling tongue fat in its gaping mouth.

“What’s wrong with it?” Ron asked aloud. Hermione’s arm—had it always been wrapped around Harriet’s waist? When did it get there?—tightened.

“Dunno,” Longbottom replied, wand held at the ready, his stance firm. “I think it’s…sick. None of the trolls I’ve seen looked like this.”

“Was this all for nothing then?” Finnigan asked.

Neville shrugged. “Not totally. At least we found it, even if we didn’t need to defeat it.”

Snorting, Harriet muttered “Are they serious?” and earned another elbow to the torso.

If we could defeat it,” Dean mumbled.

The troll groaned and thumped a useless arm on the floor.

“I told you, I’ve learned to deal with them. Merlin, must have spent a whole summer in those stupid, smelly mountains—.”

“Look at it, it’s huge!” Seamus sputtered.

A new voice spoke. “Yes, fully grown mountain trolls are quite alarming in size, aren’t they?”

The three witches stuffed into the cupboard heard the familiar—dangerous—crooning of Professor Slytherin and stiffened.

If he’s here, he couldn’t have done a head count in the dorms, Harriet’s furiously working mind supplied. Really, it hasn’t been that long. He only had enough time to drop us off at the common room—we have to get back before he does, before someone realizes we’re gone!

Harriet could see that the professors had arrived, their approach covered by the Gryffindors arguing and the haggard breathing of the dying troll. Slytherin’s face was as amicable as ever; that is to say, he wore a chilling smile that could strip flesh from bone and terrify men three times his age. Snape stood partly behind him, discreetly kneading his right hand, and behind him came McGonagall. The Transfiguration professor sputtered in disbelief.

“In all my years—I’ve never—Mr Longbottom!” she thundered. Her brogue thickened. “What on earth were you thinking?!”

“We defeated the troll,” he said, throwing his shoulders back. The three shivering, dripping witches in the cupboard sucked in breaths and it was all Harriet could do to keep Hermione from bursting out of there shouting “Like hell!” The bushy-haired girl did not take kindly to others stealing credit for her work.

“Did you now?” Professor Slytherin said as he stepped around the troll to have a better look. The indolent creature grunted, flailed, and did nothing more. “Unless you’re carrying around a deadly poison, Mr Longbottom, I highly doubt that.”

Neville teetered, wand lowering, and though Harriet couldn’t see his face she could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “Poison?”

“Oh, yes. This troll’s been poisoned. The water closet’s a ruin, and yet…all four of your haven’t a spot of dirt on you, aside from the usual first year filth.”

“Really, Professor Slytherin,” McGonagall said, tone as stiff as her back. “There’s no need for that.”

Slytherin waved a hand. “It appears, Minerva, your lions are not only reckless but also liars.”

Water began to overcome the loo threshold and flood the hall, seeping nearer the trailing edge of Slytherin’s robes before he stepped aside. The water wasn’t quick enough, however, to wash away the dark splotches of blood smeared across the stones, a speckled trail that led straight to the cupboard.

Snape’s head turned as he followed the dots of red—until his gaze rose to stare at the rickety doors.

Harriet held her breath and was fairly certain the others did too.

“I think that’ll be twenty points from Gryffindor,” Professor Slytherin said. “Each.”

The four Gryffindors gawked, pale and furious, McGonagall told Slytherin he was being too harsh—and Snape just stared at the cupboard. Harriet hoped with everything in her that he would look away, that someone would call his attention or the bloody troll would take a swing at him. Anything.

“Ah, it appears you’ve found our troll.”

Dumbledore swept into view, trailed by Professors Sprout and Flitwick, who wrinkled their noses as they looked down at the half-dead mountain troll sprawled in the loo’s doorway.

“Yes,” Slytherin replied. “Your noble Gryffindors here felt they had the wherewithal to challenge a mountain troll…but it appears someone beat them to it, as it were.”

The Headmaster came nearer, water soaking the hem of his purple cloak as he bent over the troll’s small head and inspected its bulging eyes. Livi’s venom had worked quickly—and painfully. Harriet didn’t much care that the creature that had tried to turn them into jelly was dying, but she did regret the suffering it had to endure. “You’re right of course, Tom. Most peculiar. What do you make of this, Severus?”

Harriet didn’t know whose name that was, but Dumbledore stared at Snape—and Snape stared at the cupboard with a wealth of emotions passing through his eyes like trains roaring in the underground: disbelief and rage, terror and relief.

“Severus?”

“I think we should do a bed check, Headmaster,” Snape answered, voice hushed. “Just in case.”

Hermione whimpered against Harriet’s shoulder.

“An excellent idea!” Dumbledore straightened and turned his back to the cupboard, blocking Snape’s sight of it, as well as Professor Slytherin’s. “But, first, I believe our young adventurers here need to be returned to their fellows. Courage is an admirable trait, my dear boys, but it must be tempered with wisdom. Your grandmother writes to me quite often about your training abroad, Neville, and while I am most pleased to see you exercising and willing to share the knowledge you’ve acquired, you must remember that your classmates have not been exposed to the same trials and could have been severely injured. You could have all been severely injured.” His voice resonated with intensity and, for a moment, nobody spoke. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Professor,” the four boys mumbled. Harriet felt Elara’s arms trembling from exertion. She wouldn’t be able to hold herself up much longer.

“Good! I imagine Professor Slytherin has already given a fitting punishment…?”

“Eighty points taken,” McGonagall said through clenched teeth. Harriet didn’t know who she was more upset with: her Gryffindors or the Defense teacher.

“Well, then. How about we award twenty for good use of deduction? After all, they did find the troll before us!” Dumbledore chuckled and straightened his spangled hat.

Slytherin scoffed. “Ridiculous.”

“Minerva, if you would see your charges off…?”

Professor McGonagall departed, ushering the boys before her. They hadn’t quite vanished before Harriet heard the professor’s sharp, furious brogue chastising her students further.

“Pomona, Filius, I believe you should go on and check your own students.” Sprout and Flitwick nodded and left. “Severus, Tom, I do believe we have a certain corridor that needs our attention. I will meet you there, after I secure our mountainous friend here.”

“It’s dead,” Slytherin snapped. His voice became colder, harder, in the absence of other teachers or students. Harriet wasn’t the only one to shrink herself in fear. “What’s there to secure, Dumbledore?”

“Be that as it may, if you would honor an old man’s request, Tom.” Like Slytherin, the Headmaster’s voice changed too, cool and uncompromising, a barest whisper of power threaded through his words like the silver stitching on his robes. Harriet couldn’t believe Professor Slytherin’s first name was Tom. It seemed so…so tame.

The Defense instructor seethed but did depart, swinging the hem of his robes out behind him as he stormed away. Not a second had passed after Slytherin’s footsteps vanished when Snape darted toward the cupboard and Harriet jumped, terrified, only for Dumbledore to abort the Potions Master’s movement with a steady hand and a quick word.

“Severus.”

Snape sneered and shook the Headmaster off. He gave the cupboard one final burning glance before saying, “As you wish, Albus.” He went after Slytherin, leaving Dumbledore alone with the dead troll and the steady stream of water gushing into the corridor. If only he’d leave too, Harriet desperately thought. If only this stupid night would end.

The Headmaster hummed to himself and stroked his beard, fingers pulling gently at the small tangles caught in the silver hair. The troll no longer drew breath. “Oh dear,” Professor Dumbledore said aloud as he tipped his face toward the flat ceiling. “I do believe I am about to suffer from a spontaneous episode of sudden blindness and deafness. Dear me, I do think it will only last for a minute or so, however.”

Harriet blinked. He’s not—he’s not serious, is he? He couldn’t be—!

Apparently Elara thought he was, either that or her strength had finally given out, because her arms folded and the doors burst open, spilling three sodden witches and a hissing serpent onto the stone floor. Harriet gasped as her glasses skittered away through the water—then groaned when Hermione kneed her in the kidney in her rush to get up.

“Professor,” Hermione said, breathless, seeming very near tears if the blotchy color of her face was any indication of her mood. “Professor, it’s all my fault. I wasn’t at the feast, and they were just trying to warn me—.”

Elara picked bits of porcelain out her hair and glanced at Hermione. “Honestly, he wasn’t even being subtle about ignoring us—.”

“But it’s all my fault!” she wailed.

“The troll was meant to be in the dungeons!” Elara retorted. “Not here! That’s what Professor Squirrel said!”

“Where are my glasses?” Harriet patted the flagstones but couldn’t discern much beyond the toppled forms of brooms and upturned buckets.

“But you two could have been killed—or expelled! Just because I was upset with Professor Selwyn—.”

“I don’t think this escape attempt is going well,” Dumbledore mused. He bent down to pluck Harriet’s glasses off the floor and gently dried them on his sleeve. “Here you are, Harriet.” She fumbled to take the spectacles from his hand. “And his name is Professor Quirrell, Miss Black, no matter what the older Slytherins might have told you.”

Elara flushed.

Harriet stuffed the glasses onto her face. “Err, Professor?” She smeared wet hair and bits of stone out of her face as she chanced a look toward the Headmaster. Dumbledore wore a kindly expression as he surveyed her, blue eyes bright. Livi coiled himself about her neck like a living scarf, hissing obscenities Harriet had never heard before. Trolls didn’t apparently taste very nice. “Can we have another go at that escape attempt?”

“Yes, I believe one more attempt should suffice, don’t you?”

The three Slytherin witches didn’t need to be told again; Hermione grabbed Harriet’s hand, towed her to her feet, twisted her fingers into Elara’s sleeve, and they set out at a run while their Headmaster pretended to stare at the ceiling again.

None of them heard Dumbledore’s gentle chuckling at their backs.

Chapter Text

xxii. the third floor corridor

 

Severus barely noticed the roaring over the sudden agony devouring his hand.

Not now, he snarled in the confines of his own mind as his fingers curled in upon themselves, nails digging into the fleshy mound of his palm, and Severus slammed his arm against one of the slick dungeon walls to reassert a measure of control over the limb. Weeks had passed without so much as a single twinge of pain—now this.

The roaring, he realized, was not the enraged shouting in his skull. No, it echoed in the narrow passages delving beneath the school, down deep into the perilous, untraveled oubliettes and locked chambers where the manacles still hung on the walls, the stones branded with runes long since consumed by time’s avarice. The sound grew fainter, and as Severus straightened, a figure appeared in the green torchlight.

He sucked in a breath as another figure from another time overlaid itself on that youthful face, and he was torn between reaching for his wand and dropping to his knees. Welcome, Severus….

“Snape!” Slytherin snapped once his first attempts to get Severus’ attention failed. “Snape, the beast’s above us now.”

Severus straightened again, then nodded. The image in his mind faded. They whirled about and ran for the stairs, Slytherin quick to overtake him, but Severus let him go, not wanting to give the other man his back. After all, who would have the skills and wherewithal to let a bloody troll into Hogwarts if not Slytherin? Snape didn’t trust him—at all. Was this some kind of ploy? What was he up to now?

Minerva joined them in the entrance hall, appearing from the shallower dungeons where the kitchens and Hufflepuff dolts dwelt. The older witch was spry for her age and managed to keep up with Slytherin’s demanding pace, the portraits following their progress through the empty corridors. The roaring had silenced itself.

Ahead, Severus heard a familiar and totally unwelcome voice.

Is that fucking Longbottom? he asked himself—and indeed, the three professors found Longbottom and his duped fellowship standing about like thrice-Stunned garden gnomes with their wands all but stuffed up their noses, as if they knew how to do anything with them besides cast Tickling Charms or bloody Levitate. He didn’t have to look at Minerva to feel the impetus of her fear and rage.

What caught Severus’ eye was the troll itself, laying spread eagle on the floor caught halfway out the doorway to what looked like a girls’ lavatory. For one nausea-inducing minute, Severus thought Longbottom and his idiot groupies had downed the savage creature. How was that possible? He ignored Slytherin’s sniping and Minerva’s sputtering, ignored the four Gryffindors and studied the hulking mound of gray flesh, nostrils flaring against the foul odor.

Its skin lacked color naturally, but a new pallor had overtaken the thick folds of dry, mottled epidermis. Its movements were listless and automatic—twitches, really, the final impulses of a body giving way to a mind that could no longer control the heavy arms and stumpy legs.

“We defeated the troll,” Longbottom proclaimed. Arrogant little shite.

“Did you now? Unless you’re carrying around a deadly poison, Mr Longbottom, I highly doubt that.”

Severus flattered himself in thinking he knew quite a bit about poisons. It was for this knowledge he’d been originally brought to the Dark Lord’s attention, after all, and while Severus would always regret that decision, he wouldn’t regret what he learned while suffering Voldemort’s unique brand of tutelage. He’d heard it said in the Muggle world that poison was the weapon of women—but in the Wizarding world, everyone knew poison was the tool of Slytherins.

This didn’t manifest like a poison. A troll would have to ingest massive quantities of any toxic plant—and trolls were carnivorous by nature. They didn’t eat plants, and most common poisons wouldn’t present themselves in this manner. Aconite, for example, would induce sickness first, shut down the respiratory system, then attack the heart. Breathing difficulties were a common symptom among most harmful ingredients. The troll’s tongue was swollen, the inside of its disgusting mouth blackening, the eyes swelling with blood. If Severus had to guess, he wouldn’t guess poison. He’d say this was caused by—

Venom.

Blood not belonging to the troll speckled the floor. Slytherin didn’t notice it, not with his head stuffed so far up his own arse. None of the Gryffindors were hurt. They’d clearly arrived at the scene to find the troll half-dead and Longbottom decided to take credit—a reminder that had Severus grinding his teeth. The blood led away from them, across the passage to a…broom cupboard.

Venom. What kind of venom—?

A sudden recollection struck Severus dumb. “Miss Potter, are you aware there is a highly venomous snake tucked into your bloody shirt?!”

“He’s my familiar, Professor.”

His lungs burned for air but Severus couldn’t bring himself to breathe past the knot in his throat. He thought he might literally spit fire, because if he didn’t, he’d have to swallow it down and combust from the inside.

She wouldn’t. She FUCKING WOULDN’T—!

Albus was there and speaking to Severus. When the hell had the Headmaster arrived?

“Severus?”

“I think we should do a bed check, Headmaster,” he whispered, too furious to speak. “Just in case.”

He’d check Slytherin House himself. Severus didn’t give a fuck if he wasn’t Head anymore, that he hadn’t been for years. He’d check the dorms and if Potter’s spawn wasn’t there, he’d wring her bloody neck himself for risking her fucking life! He’d make death by troll seem like a fluffy alternative to his rage. How dare she!

Albus dismissed the others and, taking the sudden opportunity, Severus went for the cupboard only to have the Headmaster grab his arm. Albus squeezed with enough strength to break through the Potions Master’s seething mood. Severus remembered that he had more to do here, a role to play, especially at this critical junction, and he couldn’t lose his head.

Yet.

“As you wish, Albus.”

Severus turned his back on the Headmaster and the dead troll and the broom cupboard. He sank his worries and speculations on the matter into the frigid stillness of his Occlumency shields, allowing the cold waters to overcome him inch by inch, quenching the spark of his fury, his terror, his uncertainty. He sent it all down into the abyss so that by the time he rejoined Slytherin in the entrance hall, his face was perfectly placid and his mind empty as a Gryffindor’s skull.

“Well, this is a promising development,” Slytherin said as he fell in step with Severus and the two wizards walked to the marble staircase.

“The prospect of students being crushed by a mountain troll is promising, is it?” Severus drawled in response.

The Defense teacher’s lips curled in the mockery of a smile. “As if you’d mourn the loss of Longbottom.”

Severus said nothing. No, he wouldn’t miss Longbottom if the boy dropped dead, especially if he met a sticky end as a result of his own foolhardy stupidity, but only a sociopath like Slytherin—like Gaunt, like Voldemort, like Riddle—would see children being crushed by a troll as just another hurdle to overcome. Only a sociopath like Slytherin would let a bloody troll into a school as a distraction.

They mounted the moving steps and Severus tapped the railing with his wand, sending the stairs upward toward the third floor. “You believe he’s taken the bait then…my Lord?”

“Naturally, Severus. He wouldn’t be able to resist. After all, if anyone could understand Voldemort’s mind, it would be me.” Slytherin then shifted and removed his own wand from his sleeve. Not his wand, of course, not in truth. His fingers traced the wand’s the length and Severus heard the other wizard sigh.

He wisely chose not to comment.

The brazier kindled itself when he and Slytherin stepped from the stairs to the waiting corridor and paced to the final door. A simple lock of crude Muggle designed blocked the path and a thoughtless motion of Slytherin’s hand opened the way. They entered the third floor antechamber. The silence resounded through the empty space.

There was nothing—no one—there.

Slytherin sucked air through his teeth, displeased. “What a pity.”

Severus stood to the side as the other professor strode to the trap door situated in the room’s middle. Slytherin flicked his wand in wordless incantation and the invisible wards came into relief, gold and crimson and blue, spiraling in meticulous nets of runes and old magic even Severus hadn’t heard of before. This was Albus’ work; the wards gleamed with purity, the same fragile purity the bled from a Patronus and filled up a person’s heart with joy and relief and love.

An irked scoff left Slytherin as he stepped back from the ward, and Severus squeezed his eyes shut, holding tight to his Occlumency skills.

“No luck, then?” Dumbledore asked from the doorway. Severus spared a thought for how swiftly the Headmaster seemed to move through the school, but then again he was Headmaster, and had been working at Hogwarts for far longer than Severus or Slytherin—in any iteration of self—had been alive.

The House of Serpents alumni didn’t respond to Albus as he entered the chamber and quickly shut the door behind himself, the lock clicking home with a heavy thunk. Slytherin drifted from the trapdoor to a darker edge of the interior, the motion silent as ever, his wand still held in loose fingers. Severus watched him, and he watched the Headmaster as the elder wizard began to check his own wards.

“Ah!” Dumbledore said and Severus started. “Perhaps we had more luck than we thought.”

Slytherin slid forward without another word. Albus smiled at him—smiled at him like how he used to smile at Severus in the early days, a cruel curve of pity and reservation begging stupid sinners to repent, to recede again into the Dark or burn themselves in his light. “Though, I take it you didn’t catch that, did you, Tom? No, not when you close yourself to magic like this—the magic and the possibilities it holds.”

“Enough of your pedantic prattling, old man,” Slytherin spat. “Did someone attempt to breach the corridor or not?”

“Yes,” Dumbledore replied without missing a beat. “It wasn’t you, was it, Tom?”

Cracks began to appear in Slytherin’s calm facade, hairline thin and not always visible, but Severus was adept in studying people and he could sense the angry snap of energy surrounding the Defense professor. Albus referred to him as “Tom” constantly and consistently much to Slytherin’s consternation, widening the cracks in his persona in an attempt to pour light on the nasty little creature hiding behind that handsome face.

Then Slytherin stilled himself and smiled.

“No. As you are well-aware, Dumbledore, I have no need for the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Severus fought the urge to roll his eyes. No one needed the bloody Stone; they simply wanted it, wanted what it could offer, and Dumbledore knew Voldemort, that half-alive thing that mostly died exactly ten years ago that very evening, would want the Stone more than any other person in existence. It wasn’t as difficult to understand the Dark Lord’s mind as Slytherin supposed it to be. Truly, the desires of the power hungry were disgustingly myopic.

Who the fuck actually wants to live forever?

No, the real question was why Slytherin wanted Voldemort apprehended in the first place. Severus assumed it was because recruiting snotty little cretins to the Dark Arts became unquestionably more difficult when there was a mad Dark Wizard on the loose spreading anarchy, slaughtering Muggles and pure-bloods with little discrimination. The farther removed he was from all speculations on Voldemort, the more Slytherin legitimized himself, the more trustworthy he became. The deadliest of fruits and lies tasted the sweetest, and the very worst poisons Severus had hidden in his stores were subtle things that did the worst damage long before the toll became detectable.

“Then we will suppose his agent has come to inspect the situation, at the very least. A troll. How very imaginative.” Dumbledore stroked his beard. “Should he—or she—attempt to break my wards, they’ll be sent into a nice cozy sleep. Unbreakable, of course, unless given the proper antidote.” Here, he nodded at Severus with a look akin to pride. Severus wanted to sink into a hole and never be found.

Slytherin frowned. “He’s not stupid, Dumbledore,” he said as he gestured at the trapdoor. “Mad; yes, stupid; no. He might see through this…ruse. He might realize the Stone isn’t being kept here. You are almost too flagrant in flaunting the knowledge of its location. At the very least, he will be reticent to break wards he doesn’t understand.”

“I know. He won’t try again until he feels more confident, but confidence is the armor of the wise man and the folly of the ignorant. Voldemort will lose patience and he will try again. I know this. I know him.” Half-moon spectacles gleamed in the low light. The look their venerable Headmaster bestowed upon Professor Slytherin could have made Hit Wizards weep. “I know you, Tom.”

“And you’re just as predictable, Albus.” Slytherin started for the door and unlocked it with a twitch of his hand. “We shall see how this unfolds and how far my assistance will extend. Come, Severus, we have a House to count heads in.”

Severus—the well-heeled, if ill-mannered, dog that he was—followed him out of the chamber, though not without sharing a final glance with the Headmaster.

Watch him, said that searching look. Watch him closely.

As if there was another choice.

Chapter Text

xxiii. come back for me

 

Pure luck saved the trio of Slytherin witches from being stopped and apprehended inside their own common room.

Harriet later learned that a Dungbomb spontaneously ignited in someone’s bag and the foul smelling cloud of brown dust that burst from the satchel drew the crowded room’s attention like moths to a particularly stinky flame. Harriet, Hermione, and Elara didn’t notice the smell, not after tangling with a mountain troll, so they barely acknowledged the cloud or the shrieks or the general rabble as they passed through the entrance in the stone wall and all but dashed to their dorm room.

No one else was inside. With all the excitement of feast and troll incursion, the five other first year girls were mostly likely in the common room with everyone else, chatting and theorizing, waiting for more information. Elara was the first to sink into a boneless heap, wheezing in a way that worried Harriet, and Hermione followed suit, crumpling on her bed as she massaged a stitch in her side.

Rock dust and porcelain debris covered them from head to foot, shavings from the mirror gleaming like stars in Elara’s disheveled hair and grime patterned in nervous fingerprints across Hermione’s face. Livi slid from Harriet’s shoulders with a sullen, tired complaint. She sat on the edge of her bed and hissed in pain.

“Harriet—,” Hermione panted. “You’re—you’re bleeding!”

She was. Something in the loo had cut her calf from ankle to knee, the slice shallow but long, ruining both her sock and the hem of her uniform’s skirt. “Bloody hell,” Harriet groused as she thumbed the shredded threads. She hadn’t bought many uniforms, anticipating—hoping, hoping—she’d grow taller and have to get more before the start of next year.

“Really, Harriet!” Hermione said, her voice several octaves too high. “Your language is terrible—.” Then the bushy-haired girl dove into her trunk and threw aside sweaters and cloaks and more books than Harriet could count, emerging at last with a little zippered Muggle satchel she opened to reveal a handful of plasters, a wrinkled roll of gauze, and a tube of ointment. She disappeared into the washroom and returned with a dampened towel.

“I’m fine, really, you don’t need to—,” Harriet stuttered through chattering teeth, but Hermione wouldn’t hear of it. She made quick work of cleaning the blood and grit off the affected skin, applying plasters to keep the cut closed before they both wound the gauze around Harriet’s twig-like leg.

“You two could have been killed!” Hermione lectured under her breath. Silence had been thick in the room ever since their heavy breathing had subsided. “Such an utterly insensible thing to do!”

“I tried telling a teacher!” Harriet huffed. “But they ran off after the troll! And Slytherin wouldn’t listen!”

“And so you just gave up?!”

“Well, someone had to come get you!” Harriet’s voice rose to match Hermione’s in pitch. “I wasn’t going to let my best friend go wandering with that big buggering thing stomping about! It could have killed you!”

“You—.” Hermione was suddenly reduced to tears. Harriet felt ill, unsure of what to do when clear, glistening streaks cut through the dirt on the other girl’s cheeks. “Y-y-you came back for me.” She whirled on Elara, who flattened herself against the door again, wide-eyed and startled, like one of Mrs Figg’s cats when she’d corner it for a brushing. “And you. I never—. You—. You came for me, too! And I thought you didn’t even like me.”

Elara’s pale face turned brilliant red in color and she fidgeted with her sleeves. It was a nervous tick Harriet had noticed before; Elara tugged her cuffs down toward her hands or straightened her collar, making sure the top button remained closed, and Harriet knew she’d wear gloves if the professor would let her get away with it. “I…of course I like you. I know it doesn’t seem that way. I just—. I’m not…not good with…people.” She kept her gaze on her hands as she wrung them together. “The…the people who…the place that raised me, they didn’t—.” A shuddering sigh escaped and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Of course I like you. You and Harriet are my friends. My only friends.”

Hermione stood and hesitated for the briefest of instances before she went to Elara and gave the other girl a hug. Elara became rigid as a board, clearly unaccustomed or uncomfortable with the touch, and yet she pushed aside her own misgivings to lay a tentative hand on Hermione’s shoulder.

Harriet smiled. Her cheeks ached from the strength of it and her eyes felt wet behind her scratched glasses. She didn’t look away.

“I’m being silly,” Hermione said with a broken chuckle as she used her sleeve to wipe her face. “I didn’t mean to cry, how ridiculous—.” She hunted through her pockets for a sodden tissue when she stepped back from Elara—who visibly deflated in relief—and happened to clap eyes on Livi again. “Harriet…is that the Horned Serpent from the Magical Menagerie? The one they reported stolen?”

Elara only quirked a brow.

“I didn’t steal him,” Harriet replied, hoping the two other witches believed her. Neither appeared wholly convinced and Harriet ground her teeth. “I didn’t! I went into the shop and we had a little chat—apparently I’m a Parseltongue or, err, a Parselmouth, like Professor Snape said—and I got shooed out by the shop owner. Livi showed up in my room later and told me he didn’t want to go back and I told him he had to go back, and then he kind of pinned me down and I couldn’t think of how I’d go about getting a big snake back into the store—.”

Harriet knew she was rambling but couldn’t stop. Elara, who’d be there in the Menagerie and had heard Harriet talking, wasn’t surprised by her snake chatting ability; Hermione reacted much like Snape, her expression cycling through various degrees of disbelief and shock. “Holy cricket. You can speak to snakes?”

“Yes—? But you can’t say anything! I told Snape I wouldn’t mention it to anyone else and he—.” Might give me detention until the next century? Seems that kind of bloke.

“That’s incredibly rare,” Hermione said. “According to Hogwarts: A History, Salazar Slytherin himself was a Parselmouth—it’s the reason our House symbol is a snake! And it’s a hereditary talent, which is why Professor Slytherin is a Parselmouth too—.”

“Professor Slytherin’s a Parselmouth?”

“He would have to be. Some of the, um, books speculate on the legitimacy of his claim to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Slytherin because he simply couldn’t have been born a Slytherin, as the family went extinct in the male line centuries ago—.”

“Hermione—.”

“—and the Gaunts became the last direct family, with the Minister claiming to be the final living member of the House—.”

“Really, Hermione—.”

“—so Slytherin would have to display a magical hereditary trait such as that for his claim to be rectified by the Wizengamot, not that any of the records make note of that. Shortsighted of them, really. Harriet, you’re most likely related to him!”

Harriet wrinkled her nose. Maybe that’s why Professor Snape warned me not to say anything. Something about Professor Slytherin seemed off to Harriet, something she couldn’t name or really put a finger on, especially since he was always cordial with her, praised her Defense abilities, and was Head of Slytherin House. His presence…aggravated Set, riled her shadow when no one was looking, and Harriet didn’t like how he grimaced at the Gryffindors and ignored Hermione. She already had enough terrible relatives, thank you very much.

A sudden bang hit the door and all three witches jumped.

“Professor Slytherin’s doing a head count in the common room in five minutes! Be ready!” Prefect Farley called. Harriet, Hermione, and Elara looked at one another—then at their filthy, rumpled uniforms and dripping robes.

“Oh, no—!”

Shite!

“Oh, we’re going to be—!”

“Don’t say it—!

Expelled!

“Will you two move—!”

Trunk lids clattered against the ends of their beds as the three girls grappled for any clothes they could, Elara disappearing into the bath where she typically changed while Hermione and Harriet tore off their robes and vests to jam jumpers on over their heads. Harriet used her dirty shirt to hastily clean her face and hands, then found a pair of new socks that mostly covered the gauze on her sore leg. She shoved her shoes onto the wrong feet in her haste and almost collided with Hermione when they both bolted for the door. Elara joined them then, her hair once more collected in a bun, her appearance much fresher than Harriet’s.

The Slytherin common room was a long, sunken space built beneath the lake, windows set to look out into the black tide, the hearths gone dark and cold despite the number of people congregating on the plush couches and winged armchairs. The House of Serpents was the smallest House at Hogwarts despite the contrary size of Harriet’s own year; sixth and seventh year girls often left Hogwarts early, content to marry with their O.W.L.s alone and lead their lives, pure-bloods marrying other pure-bloods to make pure-blood mums and dads and relatives happy. Some of the older girls, like Gemma Farley, sneered when someone asked if she was going to follow the same tradition, and disparaged those “unambitious twits” who did.

That left sixty or so students to mill about the room, their anticipation politely subdued but still palpable, like static clinging to the surface of a well-kept cashmere scarf. The eldest Slytherins intimidated Harriet so she didn’t know much about them; they took the best seats by the best hearths, gleaming in the lowlight like cut gems, and those that crowded their sides reminded Harriet an awful lot of Dudley’s snotty friends—if better bred. They looked and spoke like adults, not like children, with posh “r”s and “h”s, House rings on their fingers and practiced smirks at their lips.

“This way—,” Hermione whispered once they exited the dorm corridor and came into the throng. “We’ll just stand back here—.”

Hermione quickly dragged Harriet and Elara to the farthest edge of the common room, where the light was the weakest and the temperature plummeted several degrees. Harriet’s teeth started chattering again—though whether from cold or apprehension, she didn’t know. Elara gripped her hand and Hermione gripped the other as they hunched their shoulders and waited for what would happen.

Professor Slytherin appeared less than a minute later. He strode from the dim passage that held the hidden wall entrance, silent as one of the ghosts when he walked, Professor Snape like a sure-footed cat at his side—a large, predatory and undeniably furious cat towering over Slytherin and the students. Harriet stared at the floor and gulped.

“Well, we’ve certainly had an interesting evening, haven’t we?” Slytherin said, earning several genteel snickers out of the oldest students. They looked at Slytherin with something like adoration in their eyes and it made Harriet a bit queasy for reasons she wasn’t sure of. “Yes, yes—funny, isn’t it?” Something in Slytherin’s tone shifted, indicating that no, nothing was funny about his words. “Funny to waste my time with a troll hunt through the castle. Funny to endanger the lives of Slytherins—funny to spoil a perfectly good Samhain those of you with half a brain would have used to prepare your best ingredients and rituals, or have you not be paying attention while attending this school?”

Hardly a breath could be heard. Slytherin always spoke louder than Snape did but he needn’t have bothered; he could’ve muttered and it would have resounded among the students gathered there. “Professor Snape will call names by year. If you are not prompt in answering, you will be very sorry indeed.”

Snape didn’t need a list; he said the names from memory, and with each “present, sir!” Harriet watched his thumb tap against a fingertip as the professor counted in his head. He spat “Potter” like poison and, when he glowered at her, Harriet knew they hadn’t fooled the Potions Master for an instant. The man was too clever for his own good.

“He knows,” Elara whispered to the floor, her lips barely moving as Snape finished off the role call.

“He can’t—not for sure,” Hermione responded. “There’s nothing that could prove we were there—.”

“Except her knows about Livi, and he knows Longbottom didn’t poison the bloody troll, and he knows someone was in the broom cupboard, even if he can’t prove it—.”

“Sh—!”

Slytherin dismissed the crowd. They made for the dorms, moving as swiftly as they could, but three first years didn’t have the same presence as their older counterparts, so Harriet, Elara, and Hermione were shoved to the back of the dwindling line. Snape was on them the instant Slytherin turned to the common room entrance and disappeared.

“Potter,” he said, voice low, eyes flashing as he leaned forward and the three girls froze. “Black, Granger. Don’t think for an instant I’m fooled—.”

“We weren’t there. There’s no proof—sir,” Harriet told him. The statement came out much braver than Harriet felt, which was good, because Snape only paled further in his fury.

“Oh no? No proof? Perhaps I should bring a certain reptile to the Headmaster’s attention then, hm?” Snape snarled.

Harriet blinked, because that was an empty threat and she hadn’t realized Snape gave empty threats. Dumbledore had plainly seen Livi in the corridor and hadn’t breathed a word of protest, so either the Headmaster knew about the snake already or the professor’d told him.

“If any of you do something half as brain dead ever again, I’ll personally see to it that you’ll be dissecting toads and scrubbing cauldrons for the duration of your stay at this school. I don’t need proof, Potter, and you’re a fool to suggest otherwise. Am I understood?”

Eyes on the floor, they nodded.

“Get out of my sight.”

The congestion in the corridor had cleared during Snape’s brief tirade, so the trio managed to slip by him and disappear with minimal fuss. Harriet’s chest ached like she hadn’t taken a breath in several minutes and now that she had, the air burned in her throat, in her lungs, and rendered her limbs as listless as cooked noodles. Dread and relief mixed in her head, and a single thought burst through the morass with startling clarity.

He didn’t threaten to expel us.

“You know,” Harriet murmured as they approached the door to their dormitory. Pansy’s grating voice was audible just inside. “Tonight wasn’t so bad. I’ve had worse Hallowe’ens!”

Hermione buried her face in her hands. Elara shook her head and looked toward the ceiling.

“Honestly, Harriet….”

Chapter Text

xxiv. curse thy enemies

 

November landed with all the subtlety of a firecracker being lobbed into the middle of a silent church.

Those born and bred in the Wizarding world had been ticking off the weeks and days in rampant anticipation of the Quidditch season’s beginning, and they couldn’t wait for the first match between Slytherin and Gryffindor slated for later that very month. The blood fanaticism and constant sneering about Muggle-borns abated in the common rooms and classes in favor of talk about favorite teams and prospective winners. Slytherin hoped to take the Quidditch Cup for the sixth year in the row.

Of course, Harriet knew very little about Quidditch, only what she’d learned in Diagon Alley and from listening to some of the more talkative boys wax poetic about player statistics and famous maneuvers—but she found the enthusiasm infectious. Hermione thought it was silly; she told Harriet a whole list of grievances against sports in general as Harriet helped her carry books out of the library, and every time Elara so much as glimpsed a broomstick, she turned a bit green.

Nevertheless, both girls followed Harriet out into the bracing November chill as the school made their way to the Quidditch pitch.

“I just don’t see the point,” Hermione grumbled as a Gryffindor running by almost clipped her in the head with a flapping pennant. “I don’t see why people are so mad over such a silly thing.”

“Because it’s magic!” Harriet replied. “I still can’t believe you two hate brooms. They’re a lot of fun!” She thought so, at least. She’d only been on a broom twice: at the very first flying lesson and at the very last. Madam Hooch had been reticent to let her into the air at all after she punched Ron.

Speaking of whom—

Harriet caught a flash of red hair as they climbed the steps into the stands with the rest of the students and paused. “Err, we’re not on the Gryffindor side are we?” she asked as she glanced behind her at Elara and Hermione. They both shared puzzled shrugs.

“How should we know?”

“Well, I guess we’re going to find out….”

The stands, of course, didn’t have any official form of categorization, but the trio of Slytherin witches did end up seated in a mass of Gryffindors with a scattering of yellow scarf wearing Hufflepuffs and a few older Ravenclaws who didn’t look all that excited to be there. Harriet plunked herself down on a bench without care and dragged in a lungful of cold air as Hermione and Elara sat down as well.

“What are you doing here?” one of the Gryffindors in their year—Seamus—asked as he twisted in his seat to glare at them. “Why aren’t you sitting with the rest of the Slytherins!”

Besides the fact that Harriet hadn’t seen where the majority of her House had migrated, she had little interest in hanging around those of her own year. Some were all right. Theo Nott was a bit like Hermione in regards to studying and could be courteous, though he could also jump onto Draco’s Muggle-hating bandwagon quick enough when it suited him. Daphne Greengrass also adopted “pure-blood politeness,” as Harriet thought of it. They were nice enough not to make themselves look like total arses, though Malfoy never had the same compunction.

An entirely different dynamic ruled the Gryffindors. Thanks to her magical foster family, Hermione was a walking encyclopedia on Wizarding families, and so Harriet knew Seamus was a half-blood and Dean Thomas was a Muggle-born and three of the Gryffindor girls—Parvati Patil, Lavender Brown, and Fay Dunbar—were all pure-bloods of varying “purity,” while Fay’s friend Gretta Meadowes was a Muggle-born and Sophie Roper was a half-blood. Ron and Neville were both considered “blood traitors.” None of those in the House of Lions ever seemed to care about that, though.

That’s because it doesn’t matter, Harriet reminded herself as she glanced between Elara and Hermione. Elara was a pure-blood—supposedly, because all Blacks were supposedly pure-blood, though Elara fiercely ignored all questions regarding her family no matter who they came from. Harriet didn’t begrudge her that silence since she herself was just as tight-lipped about her home life. Hermione was a Muggle-born and had to be the top in their year, she was just so dead clever. It doesn’t matter.

“I’m here to watch Quidditch,” Harriet said stiffly, meeting Seamus’ glare. “There’s no assigned seating.”

Seamus opened his mouth and Ron—with clumsy red and gold stripes painted on his cheeks—elbowed him in the ribs. “Leave off, Seamus! You’re going to miss it!”

Harriet wondered what he meant by that because it wasn’t likely he’d miss an entire Quidditch match before it even began—or maybe it was, what did she know? She sat straight and stared out across the grassy expanse of the pitch. The voice of the commentator, a Gryffindor boy Harriet didn’t know, boomed from the staffing stands visible in the periphery of Harriet’s vision.

“And here comes this year’s Slytherin team: Chasers Flint, Pucey, Montague, Keeper Bletchley, Seeker Higgs, Beaters Derrick and Bole! Flint back again as captain as well, even after some blatant examples of cheating last season—.”

Jordan!” came McGonagall’s voice, distant but still sharp. The Slytherin team walked from their locker room with their brooms balanced on their shoulders, and the greener part of the stands—so that’s where the other Slytherins went—burst into applause.

“Now the Gryffindor team—! Keeper Wood, extraordinary captain there—Beaters George and Fred Weasley, couple of Bludgers themselves those two, Seeker Alicia Spinnet, Chasers Angelina Johnson, Katie Bell, and—new to the team this year—Neville Longbottom!”

Harriet froze.

The stands erupted in cheers and shouts and bouts of chanting, though it couldn’t quite drown the tremendous, echoing “boo” that roared out of the Slytherins. Ron and the other Gryffindors must’ve already known about Neville’s placement on the team because they showed no surprise, only blatant enthusiasm as they jumped to their feet whistling and yelling Neville’s name.

“But first years aren’t allowed brooms or to try out for the House teams,” Hermione said as a furrow dug its way between her brows. “That’s against the rules. It’s hardly fair.”

“Like Professor Snape said,” Harriet told her, her own enthusiasm dulled. “‘Life’s hardly fair.’”

“Lighten up, Potter.” Ron dropped onto his seat again. He was breathless from cheering, though that didn’t stop the rest of Gryffindor from continuing as the teams met Madam Hooch on the field. “We’re all a bit jealous of Neville, but that’s no reason to get yourself in a snit about it.”

Harriet bit her own tongue. Jealous of Neville? Yes, Harriet decided she was mostly likely jealous of Longbottom—though not over something as silly as Quidditch. Truth be told, she wished she’d gotten more of a chance to fly during their lessons, but she had only herself to blame for being grounded. Her jealousy toward Longbottom stemmed from the fact that, though war had touched his life just as it had touched Harriet’s, he came out of it almost wholly unscathed. Harriet longed for the family she’d lost so long ago and would never know.

“Quiet, Weasley,” Elara snapped, causing the red-head to jump.

“No one’s talking to you, Black!” Finnigan put in.

“No one’s talking to you, either, Finnigan.”

Out on the field, the two teams were mounting their brooms and rising into the air. They ascended much faster and far higher than Harriet’s year had with Madam Hooch, and Harriet shoved aside her immature distaste for Longbottom to watch. The older students handled their brooms with obvious skill, flying like they’d been born on a broomstick, steering with their knees and hips, relying very little on their hands. After all, they needed their hands free once the Quaffle and the Bludgers and the Snitch were set loose.

“That’s called Checking,” Harriet said when one of the Slytherin Chasers—Pucey—darted between Johnson and Longbottom just as they passed the Quaffle between them, snatching it from Longbottom’s fingers before darting in the other direction. “And that, well—.” Flint threw an elbow into Bell’s face. “Well that’s called Cobbing.”

“Where do you learn this, Harriet?” Hermione asked, confused.

“I have to read something while you’re in the library studying.”

“You’re supposed to be studying, too.”

“I am!” Harriet shrugged. “Just not what you thought I was.”

Hermione scoffed, scandalized, and Elara snorted into her scarf.

The game continued at high speeds. Harriet had to admit Neville seemed to have some skill at the game. He flew with aggressive confidence despite his relatively small size and fronted several Hawkshead Attacking Formations—which involved the three team Chasers coming together like an arrowhead and flying with speed to force other Chasers aside.

That said, Longbottom didn’t appear to cooperate well with Johnson and Bell. A few times they waited at his flanks, open for a pass, and Neville would just barrel forward through the Slytherin offense like no one else was even playing. The louder the crowd yelled his name, the more reckless he became. Watching him, Harriet didn’t feel quite so jealous. She’d rather be set on fire than let her head get that swollen.

Her attention wavered until Ron yelled, “There’s something wrong with Neville!” sounding terrified.

“Yeah, it’s called being a prat—.” Harriet turned her gaze from watching Flint lob the Quaffle toward a goal and found Longbottom higher in the air than he’d been before. Bell and Johnson circled below him with apparent apprehension, and when one of the Weasley Beaters tried to get closer, Longbottom rose even higher. He had both his arms wrapped tight about the broom, his hands white on the haft as it quivered and rolled.

“There’s something wrong with his broom,” Elara corrected Ron, her pale eyes following Longbottom’s twitchy ascent. The broom rolled again and jerked forward, the motion not unlike the hard flick a person might give their hand after they burn it or jam a finger, like they’re trying to throw the pain from themselves. Neville clutched to handle harder and shouted wordless alarm to the Chasers below him. The Slytherins were taking full advantage of the distraction to freely score points.

Seamus took note of this too. “Why haven’t they called the match?!” he shouted with anger. “What are they doing—?!”

A whistle blew and barely cut through the rising din of watching spectators. The broom bucked harder and rose sharply, bringing Neville a good fifty or sixty feet above the pitch. The Slytherin team were forced to the ground, none looking pleased, as Madam Hooch retrieved her wand and flicked it toward Longbottom. Nothing happened.

“Harriet—,” Hermione said in a voice loud enough to be heard by her alone. Harriet tore her eyes from Longbottom’s peril when her friend jerked on her arm, and Hermione pointed toward the higher staffing section of the stands. “I think—I think it’s Professor Snape!

Snape? The professor was difficult to pick out of a crowd; he was distinct one on one, but in a group of other professors and guests and shopkeepers from Hogsmeade all dressed in drab winter cloaks, he blended in. Harriet could only see the profile of him and he looked to be speaking very quickly, thin lips in constant motion. “What about him?”

“I think he’s….” Hermione’s voice dropped lower still and Harriet had to bend her neck so she could hear the other girl. “I think he’s cursing the broom!

“What?!” Harriet squawked.

Hermione gripped her wrist and rushed on. “He hasn’t broken eye contact once, not once, and he must have his wand out, and—.”

“I know he’s not the nicest bloke, but he wouldn’t!” Harriet glanced at Professor Snape again and he still hadn’t broken eye contact. Her stomach twisted. “I mean, he’s right out in the open there, sitting with a bunch of teachers, and if we’ve noticed him staring, I think better witches and wizard would have too, right?”

Hermione pressed her mouth into a thin line. “But—.”

The bucking broom became too much for Neville; it heaved, then threw itself forward, and the Boy Who Lived came sliding right off the end. The crowd screamed and Harriet gasped, horrified, as Longbottom plummeted toward the earth, going too fast, flipping end over end like a limp ragdoll—.

Levicorpus!

Much too close to the ground, Professor Slytherin—standing at the head of the teacher’s box, wand extended—shouted a spell that broke through the din and caught Neville by the ankle. The boy’s descent slowed all at once, as if he had a noose wrapped tight about his leg, and the bones gave with a loud crack! Harriet winced. Otherwise, Longbottom hung suspended, unharmed, a few feet above the pitch. His teammates jumped off their brooms and raced toward him. The Gryffindors in the stands did the same, and Harriet caught an elbow to the ear when she didn’t move quick enough for Finnigan.

“That was…eventful,” Harriet muttered as she rubbed her head. Hermione still had her lips pursed as she stared off toward the higher staffing seats. Snape stood as well, though he didn’t make for the field. He seemed to be thinking very hard, wand in hand, brow low.

“It was Snape,” Hermione said for Elara’s benefit. She kept herself mindful of the trailing Gryffindors around them, but no one was paying attention to the three first year witches. Elara blinked. “He was cursing Longbottom’s broom.”

“We don’t know that,” Harriet told her. The last thing Harriet wanted was for a rumor about Snape trying to off Neville to get out and trace its way back to them. Snape might really try to kill a student then. “He’s a teacher, Hermione! You love teachers!”

Hermione flushed. “I know! But what else could he have been doing? I’ve studied curses, Harriet, and you have to maintain eye contact, and Snape—.”

“It could have been a counter-curse,” Elara said, cutting Hermione off. The bushy-haired witch jerked as if shocked. “Both need constant eye contact. But I wouldn’t put it past Snape. He can be quite foul.”

He could. The acerbic attitude of the Potions Master rarely extended toward the Slytherins, and yet they still felt the backlash of it, and Elara’s explosive ineptitude at the subject earned her just as many biting comments as any Gryffindor. Harriet he mostly ignored and Hermione sometimes even won points for her perfect brews.

“He wouldn’t,” Harriet said again, though her heart wasn’t in the statement. “It’s…not very Slytherin—and Professor Slytherin himself saved Neville!”

“He has that nasty grin of his on though,” Elara muttered. “Maybe he and Snape are playing a game of terrify the Gryffindor?”

They couldn’t be certain. As Oliver Wood began shouting about sabotage and the Slytherin Quidditch players denied all allegations of foul play, Harriet, Hermione, and Elara remained sitting on the cold benches and wondered who had tried to kill the Boy Who Lived.

Chapter Text

xxv. eye of newt

 

Sooner than anyone expected, the holidays arrived at Hogwarts.

Severus both loved and loathed the Yule time; the miscreants returned home to their doting families, leaving the castle blissfully silent, but he rarely had the opportunity to enjoy that silence between resupplying Pomfrey’s infirmary and dealing with the Headmaster’s well-meaning—and unwanted—Christmas cheer. Severus would languish in the lab, frozen through by the highland winter, and his hand would inevitably ache to the point of distraction. Dumbledore would ask “How are you, my dear boy?” and Snape would snarl, bitch, and most likely drink too much at the yearly feast just to sleep through the night.

He didn’t expect this year to be different—not until Prefect Farley flounced into his office the afternoon before the train was set to head to London and handed him the list of students staying behind.

Slytherins rarely lingered for the break. The occasional N.E.W.T student would remain, intent on escaping irascible relatives and utilizing the school’s quiet to study, and both Slytherin and Snape would have difficulty prying them away from their books long enough to stuff food into their mouths. One name was hastily jotted on the list this year, as if the writer had done so unwillingly, looking over their shoulder to see if the other students were watching. Severus recognized Harriet Potter’s untidy scrawl.

The parchment bent and twisted under his fingertips. He pushed the roiling mass of dread into the back of his mind and refused to acknowledge it.

Severus saw her the next day. He stood by a drooping Sinistra in the entrance hall as the little monsters flocked through the castle’s doors dressed in Muggle-garb and dragging their luggage. The sun managed to break free of the winter clouds and spilled upon the stone floor, glittering in the bits of snow drifting on the morning breeze, the smell of fresh rain and pine disgustingly refreshing. The brightness burned Severus’ eyes and he rubbed at them, aggravated.

Potter was one of the only students wearing school attire. She came out of the dungeon corridor with Granger and Black, the latter pair dragging their trunks, the Granger chit talking much too fast if the speed of her moving mouth was anything to go by. It was the only time of year Muggle-borns could return to the Muggle world thanks to that ridiculous law passed by Gaunt, so Severus knew where Granger was headed, but he didn’t know where Black was going, why she was opting to leave her supposed friend alone for the holidays.

Why the hell is the girl not going back to Petunia for the break? He’d asked himself the same question in his office. It kept bobbing up in his head like flotsam after a storm, the “why” like the incessant dripping of a leaking faucet over a sink that wouldn’t drain. Why, why, why—drip, drip, drip. Severus had an answer—one of many, he told himself, one of many—and it threatened to come into focus at every turn, but he ignored it, buried himself in his own Occlusion, because the general consensus among the staff was students who remained during the holidays weren’t typically happy at home. Severus didn’t want to think about why Potter might not be happy at her own.

You’re a freak, Lily! A freak!

“Long night, Severus?” Albus asked as he came to stand by the Potions Master. The light blue of his robes reflected the soft color of the sky visible through the shredded clouds and snowflakes made of threads coalesced along the wide sleeves, dripping and dissipating only to repeat the action again and again.

“Your robes are ridiculous,” Severus grumbled in lieu of answering. By the doors, Granger jerked Potter into an strangling embrace and Black followed suit before they made for the exit with the rest of the departing mass. Potter waved goodbye, glum. Severus’ gaze drifted through the hall and came to rest on another remnant who would be plaguing the corridors this holiday.

Tell me Longbottom isn’t staying,” he said, glaring at the idiot boy as if his stare alone could burn through him. Longbottom stood with his Weasley cohort at the bottom of the marble staircase, leaning on the newel post, and neither were dressed to leave. When Dumbledore didn’t reply, Severus had to bite back a groan. “For Salazar’s sake—.”

“Molly and Arthur Weasley are out of country visiting Charlie and so their other boys are remaining with us for the holidays. Neville expressed worry to Frank over his friend and asked to stay behind,” the Headmaster explained with an idle shrug that only further pissed Severus off. “It’s a noble sentiment, Severus.”

Snape didn’t unleash the verbal tide of swear words churning in his gut, but it was a near thing. “He’s a wretched, arrogant brat, Albus. He has a team of Aurors watching his home and enough wards to satisfy Gringotts; why remain, especially after that debacle on the Quidditch pitch? For Weasley? It’s not as if he’s in danger.”

“It can be difficult to leave behind those we care about. Impossible in moments of crisis, and sometimes wholly irrational, but who are we argue against the sentiment? All we can do is watch over them and ensure their safety.”

Severus’ attention flickered back to the girl. She still stood watching the backs of her friends dwindle into the distance and he felt a fresh stab of anger toward Black, because if Neville fuckwit Longbottom could stay behind for bloody Weasley, why couldn’t Black remain for the girl? She was alone in the dungeons and if Voldemort had an agent in the school, someone intent on the Stone, someone intent on Longbottom, was it possible some fragment of the Dark Lord’s twisted mind would recognize her? Realize the truth—?

Slytherin came sauntering out of the underground passage and Severus sneered, ducking his head so his hair swung forward and obscured the direction of his sight. The Defense professor paused by the Potter girl and Snape felt more than saw Albus stiffen, a sudden rigidity falling over the older wizard when Slytherin scrutinized the short, strange girl with her wild hair and haunted eyes, and brought his fingers together in thought. He said something to her, something lost in the distance and din of running feet, and the girl stirred, blinking as she looked up at her Head of House. Slytherin spoke again and Potter made her excuses, dashing off into the dungeons once more.

It was difficult to tell from the angle, but Severus thought Slytherin looked…curious.

“Forgive me if my worry doesn’t extend to Longbottom at the moment,” he drawled, leaving his place by the wall. Albus said nothing.

 

_____

 

Ten students in total had been left in their charge during the Yule holiday. It was a simple task to count them during lunch, scattered at their respective tables as they were, the House of Lions making up half that number. Three Weasleys sat clumped with the Longbottom boy and made a disproportionate amount of noise, earning several pointed looks from Minerva and one scolding rebuff from the remaining Weasley, Percy.

At the Hufflepuff table, first year Susan Bones sat affably chatting with third year Randy Twilfitt. Severus guessed Bones’ aunt was too busy with the Ministry and Twilfitt’s father was probably inundated by end of the year orders. The friendliness exhibited by the Hufflepuffs didn’t extend to the neighboring table; the two seventh year Ravenclaws, Wendell Henge and Felipe Sanders, sat at opposing ends of the hall and shot one another bitter, harried looks, both slumped over open texts, hands grubby with dust and ink. The pair exhibited the stereotypical competitiveness that plagued Filius’ house and Severus imagined they’d come to blows like a pair of tired Muggle thugs before long.

Finally, there was Potter, of course, sitting on her own and picking at her sandwich, gazing morosely at the delicate decorations that had sprung up in the castle only that morning. Pitiful sight that she was, Potter attracted the notice of other professors aside from Severus. Pomona leaned nearer Minerva and he heard her mutter. “Poor dear. Black and the Granger girl didn’t stay? Why didn’t her family have her come home?”

Minerva pressed her lips into a firm line and she surveyed Harriet—who not so subtly dropped part of her sandwich into her lap for that invisible snake of hers to eat. “They must have been busy.”

The Herbology professor hummed around a bite of potatoes. “I still remember her parents well. Tragic thing, what happened. Who did their girl get left with after 81’?”

“Relatives of hers.”

Pomona frowned, the look unnatural on her well-mannered face. “I didn’t know James had folk about still.”

Then Minerva quickly tucked into her soup and changed the conversation. Pomona would know any relatives of Lily’s to be Muggles and that was not something Dumbledore or those who had even the slightest inkling of what really happened that Hallowe’en so long ago wanted others privy to. The girl had been left with Petunia—with Muggles—despite the law prohibiting such arrangements for her own protection. The Dark Lord’s influence ran deep in the very bones of Wizarding society; Lily’s daughter wouldn’t have lived through infancy had she remained in the magical world.

Slytherin watched the girl, too. Selwyn nattered on in his ear about some petty grievance and Slytherin didn’t even bother to nod; he ran the tip of his thumb against the tips of his fingers over and over again, then touched one of the ubiquitous books he seemed to always carry, the formation of dastardly thoughts churning like thunderheads amassing on a horizon, threatening an oncoming storm. Severus had watched one too many Slytherin students succumb to the man who wore the name of their House like a smiling mask; he wasn’t about to watch Potter run headlong into the hurricane.

He shoved away his cold plate and stood.

“Finished, Severus?” Minerva asked, eying the wasted food.

“Yes.” Severus paused “Potter has a detention to serve.”

“A detention?!”

Severus didn’t give an explanation. He gathered himself and strode from the dais, walking into the midst of the Great Hall instead of leaving through the side chamber. Potter didn’t notice him until he snapped her name and the snake darted for cover under her robes once more. He felt stupid for not noticing the creature sooner; it looped itself about her shoulder and gave the scrawny girl an odd, moving hunch.

“P-Professor?”

“Come with me, Potter.”

She did as told, scrambling up from the empty table, leaving behind a plate of food just as full as Severus’ had been. She trailed after the Potions Master as he strode out of the hall and made for the dungeon corridor, his left eyes aching in the sudden—and severe—shift in temperature. He rubbed at the scars, irritated, and tried to think of what to do with the brat now. Minerva would verbally flay him later. His immediate plan had been to remove Potter from Slytherin’s sight; like the symbol of his Noble House, the man had an indolent disposition, a propensity for snatching things dangled in front of his nose before hunting for bigger, juicier prey. Slytherin wouldn’t put the effort into searching for Potter if she wasn’t in his immediate vicinity.

Severus wondered if Albus would protest him giving the girl detention for the rest of break.

“Professor Snape? Am I…in trouble?” she asked, the words coming out small and nervous, like Severus might turn around and start screaming. He rolled his eyes—and immediately regretted the motion when his left began to throb again.

“No,” he retorted as they entered the Potions classroom. He pointed at one of the tables near his desk, told the girl “Sit,” and she did so. “The infirmary requires new potions to be brewed and I would rather not waste my time with menial prep work. Since you have nothing better to do….”

Defiance sparked in her, a brief flicker of irritation behind tired eyes, and Severus waited for her to take exception to his tone— but then Potter looked down and nodded without protest. Odd.

Severus flicked his wand toward the storage cupboard and waited for the needed ingredients to come zooming out, settling a cutting board, a knife, and a sizable clutch of different roots on the table before her. “These must be cut to specification. Watch carefully.” He diced one daisy root and one stick of yew, then sliced a Gurdyroot, showing the girl how each needed to be prepared. “Do you think you can manage that, Miss Potter?”

“Yeah—yes, Professor.”

“Good.”

Severus retreated to his desk and retrieved the proper cauldrons needed to brew Pomfrey’s potions. Silence descended over the dungeon, broken only by the small noises arising from their separate motions: the quiet scuff of Severus’ shoes on the floor, the screech of metal cauldron legs sliding on wood, the slow but steady thud of the knife cutting through plant matter. Potter concentrated on her task, nose wrinkled against the smell of split Gurdyroot. Her potion making abilities weren’t as clear as her Muggle-born friend’s, but she had a spot of talent in handling ingredients and properly measuring materials—not like Black. Every cauldron Black touched seemed to collapse in on itself.

They worked without exchanging words for an hour—well, Severus worked without exchanging words while the girl hissed from the corner of her mouth and made a mockery of subtlety. He could hear the serpent whisper in return as they carried on a conversation. Every sibilant word hit his ear like a sledgehammer, images of the Dark Lord flashing through his recollection, memories of deadly vipers spilling through the man’s white, white hands and stirring around their ankles, Death Eaters trembling in fear as pythons thicker round than grown wizards slithered through the room.

Severus sat down with a heavy sigh and rubbed at his sore eye as his iron cauldron continued to simmer. Why can’t anything ever be simple?

“Professor Snape? Is your eye okay?”

He froze, then jerked his hand away from his face. Shit. “It’s fine,” he snapped, leveling a fierce glower in the nosy chit’s direction, daring her to question it again. Not many students knew about his eye, not anymore. Those who’d been in school when the incident occurred had graduated, leaving their younger siblings and friends with nothing more than rumors and speculations—rumors and speculations that proved to Severus the uncreative idiocy of his students over and over again.

“Sorry, sir.” She didn’t sound sorry. She sounded irked, and Severus guessed he deserved that for dragging her to the bloody frozen dungeons and telling her to chop roots. What other excuse could he give? Stay away from your Defense professor, he’s an ill-defined, maliciously clever, nefarious duplicate of the same Dark Lord who killed your parents? He regularly bends the minds of children to accept his potentially deadly ideology? Slytherin would read that in Potter’s head like he was perusing the Daily Prophet and Severus would probably be dead in a week.

“Potter….” Severus paused, then stood to inspect his cauldron again. “Why did you choose to stay for the holidays?”

The knife’s steady thud stuttered. “Err—what?”

“Are you deaf, girl?”

“No, it’s just—why do you want to know? Sir?”

Severus quirked a brow as he stirred, counting the ladle’s revolutions through the thick concoction. No, Potter had no subtlety whatsoever, but for a moment, he saw a glint of Slytherin evasiveness in the girl. Being eleven, it was unrefined, the childish misdirection of a girl used to lying to idiot Muggles, not practiced deceivers like Severus—but is was there, and likely part of the reason she ended up in the House of Serpents. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I’m not deaf.” She poked at the daisy roots, shredding the messy ends, staining her fingertips green. “My, err, relatives work.”

“Yes, everyone works, Potter. Does that work actually interfere with you returning to your home?”

She thought about it. Severus saw her trying to come up with some answer beyond ‘my aunt’s a bitch,’ like little cogs clicking behind the face of a clock. “Yes.”

“In what way?”

“I dunno. Just does.” Potter furiously chopped at the roots again and created a mess of useless pulp. “I ruined these, I think. Sorry, professor.”

Severus scoffed at her purposeful destruction, but allowed the subject to drop for now. “Never mind. Move on to the yew.” She did so, and he removed the ladle from his cauldron, careful to not unduly disturb the base mixture. “And what of Black? Surely her caregivers could spare her for the holidays. Why did she not stay?”

The stiffness leached from the girl’s shoulders and she stopped massacring the roots. “Oh, um—.” Severus winced when she brought the knife too close to her face, using the hand to adjust her glasses. “Elara’s uncle’s been sick and she’s a bit worried about him, so she decided it’d be best to go home.”

Uncle? Severus took a moment to pore through his knowledge of Black’s family lineage; her wretch of a father only had one brother, Regulus, and he’d been presumed dead since before Potter or Elara Black’s birth. Marlene McKinnon had no brothers and only one older sister who died with the rest of the McKinnons in the fire. Black had no uncle—unless she meant great uncle. Severus knew through Narcissa’s scathing comments that Cygnus was still alive and still not speaking to the Malfoy family after they quarreled years ago. Perhaps he was the one who took Black in.

Potter kept talking. “She’s also hoping to find out more about her parents, since her uncle didn’t really know them, I guess. He doesn’t even know her mum’s name and it’s been hard getting information while at Hogwarts.”

Severus stilled. “…does Black know who her father is?”

“Yeah—I mean, yes. But she doesn’t really like to talk about him.”

Ah, he thought. So she does know about him. The students are quick enough to call her the ‘Madman’s Daughter,’ so I shouldn’t be surprised. “Her mother was Marlene McKinnon.”

The sound of the knife hitting the cutting board came to a stop yet again and Severus lifted his gaze from the cauldron. Potter stared at him in astonishment. He scowled.

“You will keep the source of that information to yourself, Potter!”

“Y-yes, sir!”

Severus glared and the girl returned to her task. She prodded a Gurdyroot with the tip of the knife and lunged forward to grab it before the spherical root could roll off the table. Potter’s friendship with the Black heir still grated on Severus, so he found himself speaking before he could think better of it. “It doesn’t surprise me Black dislikes speaking of her father. He was an abominable human being and a very dangerous wizard. Most Blacks are.”

Potter glanced up and caught his eye. She’d heard the implicit hint in his tone. They stared at one another as Potter passed the Gurdyroot between her small hands and her thoughts churned inside her head. Severus wasn’t fool enough to think she’d toss Black’s friendship aside on his accusations, but he hoped the sentiment sank in somewhere in thick skull. Even he hadn’t suspected Sirius Black of being a traitor; he wouldn’t see Potter’s spawn fall into the same trap.

“It doesn’t really matter though, does it, sir?” she said slowly. “I mean, whoever her dad is or was, it doesn’t matter. Most kids don’t grow up to be like their parents. Not really, anyway.”

Severus looked at Potter for several seconds, expression inscrutable, then spoke. “No,” he said. The cauldron hissed and bubbled, and the flame cast an eerie light through the cold room. “They don’t.”

Chapter Text

xxvi. reflections of desire

 

Harriet peeked into the deserted corridor, let the tapestry fall behind her, and released a relieved breath.

Professor Snape hated her. It was the only reason she could imagine responsible for his sudden, burning need to give Harriet detention every time they crossed paths; four days had passed since the rest of the student body went home and already Harriet had been given four detentions. One she spent chopping more potion ingredients, one cleaning cauldrons, one polishing trophies with Filch, and one lingering in the Transfiguration classroom. Professor McGonagall didn’t seem all that pleased with Professor Snape and probably would have let Harriet go had Harriet not been convinced she’d only get another detention for leaving detention early.

He punished her for the stupidest things—for having messy hair or for dropping a book or for sneezing too loud. When Harriet protested, Snape gave her yet another detention, all while wearing a smug expression that dared Harriet to argue further so he could extend what rubbish penance he’d already assigned. Naturally, she wouldn’t accuse a git like Snape of ever liking anyone, but Harriet’d thought he didn’t hate her as much as he seemed to hate the Gryffindors—or Elara, who melted all his cauldrons and once caught her table on fire. She’d obviously been mistaken.

The corridor was Snape-free—or it looked Snape-free, at least. Harriet felt cautiously optimistic. She walked carefully as she headed for the library, which she hoped was close enough to Professor McGonagall’s office to stave off anymore run-ins with the Potions Master. She tried coaxing Set into being her lookout, but her shadow remained obstinate and quiet, much to Harriet’s frustration. She would’ve kicked him had she known where his shins were and if it wouldn’t have bruised her toes on the stone floor.

One stairwell separated Harriet from her destination. She wanted to run, if only to get there quicker and find a quiet table out of sight where she could think about reading the books Hermione always pestered her about and probably settle on something more recreational. Harriet wished one of her friends could’ve stayed, but she understood better than most the importance of a loving family, and she wouldn’t begrudge Elara or Hermione for wanting to go home and see theirs.

Maybe she could reach the Owlery. Elara had left her bird behind so Harriet could write if she wanted. Harriet would’ve used a school owl, but Elara said a school owl probably couldn’t reach her because of the old enchantments covering her house. The owl still didn’t have a name and Harriet kept trying to give him one whenever he stopped by in the morning for part of Elara’s breakfast, yet the owl disliked every choice she gave him, leaving Harriet with nothing but nipped fingers for her efforts.

Raised voices in the stairwell reached Harriet’s ears and she froze.

“—don’t know how you’re managing it, but I’ll go straight to Flitwick, I swear—,” one Ravenclaw snarled at another, his bespectacled face mottled with flushed red color.

“I’m not cheating, you’re just a bloody moron.” The taller Ravenclaw shoved the boy in glasses and took a step back. “You’ve never been top of the class so I don’t get what your problem is—.”

“I was top of the year last term—!”

“Yeah, that was sixth year,” the Ravenclaw sneered. “No one cares about sixth year, dunce.” He turned and climbed the steps toward Harriet, slamming his feet down as he went. The sound of his stride echoed in the enclosed space. “Get out of the way, Slytherin.”

Harriet shuffled to the side, though the larger Ravenclaw still knocked his arm against hers. On the landing below, the bespectacled boy glowered at the taller student, his eyes hard—until suddenly he had his wand clenched in his fist and his voice rang in the stairwell when he shouted, “Slugulus Eructo!

Really, Harriet had no desire to be in the middle of whatever issues the two older students were arguing about. She much rather be in the library, reading a nice story book, or in the Owlery sending a letter, or outside in the snow building snowmen and generally avoiding any of the school’s professors, especially Snape. However, long hours in the Defense classroom or studying practical lessons with Hermione had drilled habit into Harriet’s head; when the curse came flying toward the other Ravenclaw, Harriet had her wand in hand, incanting, “Protego!”

The spell struck her transparent shield and ricocheted into the wall, where it left a long smear of a green, slimy substance. It looked like bogeys to Harriet’s eyes. “Oh, ew, gross—!”

The taller Ravenclaw whipped around on his heels and jabbed his own wand toward his fellow. “Calvario!

Red light smacked the bespectacled boy in the face—and suddenly the brown curls atop his head fell from his scalp like dead leaves off a tree. His eyebrows did the same. The taller student barked with laughter, and the furious boy below took the chance to yell, “Locomotor Mortis!

The second boy’s legs snapped together and Harriet yelped when he toppled into her, almost sending them both down the steps. She grabbed the Ravenclaw by the arm in an attempt to keep him upright, but he was a great deal larger and heavier than Harriet, his weight dragging her down with him as he fell and smacked his face on the top step. The bespectacled—and bald, very bald—Ravenclaw started to climb, his wand raised, and because Harriet had crumpled atop the other boy, she knew any spell sent his way would hit her instead, so she grappled to right her grip on her own wand, eyes wide, mouth dry—.

“Enough!”

The sudden voice froze the three students in place and dread spilled along Harriet’s spine like ice water. Professor Slytherin appeared at the bottom of the stairs, books tucked under an arm, his red eyes roving from the pile of hair strewn on the stones to the Ravenclaws and finally to Harriet herself, who shrank under his scrutiny and adjusted her glasses. “Are you injured, Miss Potter?”

“N-no, Professor Slytherin.”

“Good.” He flicked his wand and the mess on the floor burst into flames, the hair incinerating itself to nothing in a matter of seconds as Slytherin strode up the steps. “Forty points from Ravenclaw,” he snarled. “Get up, Henge.”

The boy on the floor—Henge—tried, but his legs were immobile from the waist down still so he could only manage an ungainly push-up. A small pool of blood had formed where he’d smashed his nose.

“Pathetic, the pair of you. Finite Incantatem.” The cursed ended and Henge righted himself, wincing at the bruise forming on his face. He fired a furious look in the other boy’s direction, then wilted when he caught Professor Slytherin’s eye. “Henge, Sanders—you will both go to the Hospital Wing and wait there for the Headmaster and your Head of House. If I catch wind of even so much as a whisper of more fighting….” Slytherin allowed his hissed threat to trail off into nothing and the two boys ran for it, their quarrel forgotten in lieu of escaping Slytherin’s wrath. Harriet tried to sidestep by him and make her own escape. His hand came down on her shoulder and squeezed.

“A moment of your time, Miss Potter,” he said with a smile—one of those smiles that wasn’t a smile at all, simply a tight curl of his lips like a snake preparing to open its jaws and devour a cricket whole. “I’m sure the Headmaster will appreciate an unbiased report of this embarrassing behavior.”

He then proceeded to march her straight back the way she’d come, up to the top floor of the high tower, where Harriet had hid herself early in the day to escape Snape-the-dungeon-dweller. Slytherin brought them to a halt before a winged gargoyle crouching low with bared teeth, and the man said the words, “Pumpkin Pasty.”

Harriet glanced at him, wondering if the wizard had gone mad, and the gargoyle shifted aside, revealing a set of spiral steps that began to revolve upward the moment Slytherin pushed them past the entrance. At the top of the stairs waited a door carved with intricate designs bearing an aged patina, though Harriet didn’t have time to appreciate the picture because Slytherin shoved the door open without knocking. He ushered Harriet into the space beyond.

Harriet hadn’t been called into the Headmaster’s office before; she liked to believe she was rather well-behaved, punching-Ron-in-the-mouth incidents aside. The Headmistress in primary had punished her on occasion, so Harriet expected Dumbledore’s office to be something like hers; wood finishes, a large desk, lots and lots of little folders for organizing. She did see a large desk ahead of her—but everything else in Professor Dumbledore’s office was nothing like Harriet would have guessed. Shelves lining the lower walls were crowded with all manner of texts and above waited line after line of gilded portraits, most of the residents fast asleep, or at least pretending to sleep. Low tables held collections of odd, whirring instruments cast in silver, emitting thin puffs of steam or chiming with gentle song. By the desk stood a golden perch, and on the perch rested the most regal bird Harriet had ever seen.

She glanced about but found no sign of Professor Dumbledore.

Professor Slytherin sighed, rolling his eyes at the crimson bird as it warbled a bright melody that eased the tension in Harriet’s shoulders and warmed her heart. “It appears we will have to wait for Dumbledore’s return,” he said as he settled in one of the armchairs facing the desk. “Wonderful.”

He gestured toward the accompanying chair and Harriet eased into it, nibbling on her lower lip, watching the man from the corner of her eye. The bird chose that moment to hop off its perch and come rest upon Harriet’s knees, leveling her a searching look as it cocked its head to the side and clacked its beak. Nervous, Harriet lifted a hand to stroke the bird’s striking plumage and it allowed her to do so, crooning once, twice, and then taking flight again, alighting through an open window into the gentle flutter of snow beyond. Harriet watched it leave and, for some reason, felt incorrigibly sad.

Whispering jerked her head around just as Professor Slytherin tucked one of his books into the front of his robes. Harriet caught only a glimpse of it; bound in black leather with brass tabs on the corners, it appeared to be a journal, and the second it slipped out of sight, the whispering stopped. Professor Slytherin met Harriet’s inquisitive gaze and smiled. Again, the expression showed nothing but sharp teeth and something distinctly vicious that made Harriet swallow and look away.

“Something the matter, Miss Potter?”

“N-no, professor.”

“Hmm.”

The wizard studied Harriet, his thoughts unknowable, his index finger tapping his lower lip until Slytherin put aside his woolgathering and summoned a book off one of Dumbledore’s shelves with a wandless wave of his hand. The cabinet door sprung open and the book made an audible slap of sound when it landed in Slytherin’s upheld palm. Stare still lingering on Harriet, he popped the book open, then began to read.

If Harriet thought conversations with the Defense professor were nerve-racking, his silence was even more so. She kept shooting furtive looks toward his chest without meaning to, thinking about that journal with its weird whispering and the strange, gelatinous feeling of dread she’d gotten from just seeing it. Like tar, the feeling stuck with her despite the book’s absence and left behind a smudged residue, something tacky beneath her fingers that Harriet couldn’t help but poke and prod and scratch at.

She stood and meandered toward the Headmaster’s tables of silver instruments, putting much needed space between her and Slytherin while also sating her curiosity. Harriet didn’t know anything of what those contraptions did and could only guess and wonder to their function. She bit back the urge to touch things, a voice suspiciously like Aunt Petunia’s snapping at her to keep her grubby hands to herself, though Harriet still craned her neck, twisting this way and that, to get a better look. She swore she heard one of the portraits snort, but they all resumed their naps when she glanced up in suspicion.

The was a room adjoined to the main office. Of course, there were several other rooms and a set of stairs Harriet suspected led to Professor Dumbledore’s private quarters, but the door to this room stood partly open—or partly closed, the chamber beyond roughly the size of a large cupboard or a small study, illuminated by a single golden candle. Harriet poked her head inside for a look and saw nothing but a couple of closed trunks, a few shelves holding some broken oddments—and a mirror.

The door’s hinges creaked as Harriet stepped inside. She stared at the gilded mirror that reached from floor to ceiling, spots of wear speckled on the silver glass, words carefully chiseled into the thick gold frame arching over the mirror’s top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. Harriet wrinkled her nose and decided if that wasn’t a bunch of gibberish, she didn’t know what was.

Maybe it’s some kind of spell, she thought as she edged nearer and peeked at her reflection. Maybe something to activate it—.

There were people standing right behind her.

Frick—!” Harriet jumped and wheeled about, heart pounding. No one was there.

She glanced at the mirror and found that the image hadn’t changed.

Is this room haunted or something? Does Dumbledore have a closet full of ruddy ghosts? Or is this some kind of joke mirror—?

A woman stood closest to her, and she passed her fingers through mirror-Harriet’s hair, through real-Harriet couldn’t feel it. She looked into the woman’s eyes—and they were familiar, so familiar, and the man at her side grinned from ear to ear, black hair untidy, glasses sliding down his skinny nose, and behind them lingered more faces, all of them so achingly memorable—.

Harriet blinked. A hollow ringing built in her ears and beneath her feet Set curled, shadows clinging to her heels, slowing her laborious trudge toward the mirror as Harriet lifted a hand and felt the cold glass beneath her fingertips. “…Mum?”

The woman nodded.

As if she’d taken a punch to the gut, the air whooshed from Harriet’s lungs and she gaped, wordless, hands trembling. The image blurred and shifted, the crowd in the background dissolving so two additional figures could appear with Harriet and her parents. A younger girl with hazel eyes gripped the wizard’s hand and the witch had a third girl, a toddler with dark red hair, balanced on her hip. Siblings, Harriet’s beleaguered brain supplied, and the thought plinked through her like a breeze in wind chimes, hollow bones resounding with a soundless, vibrating need she had never encountered before.

Harriet didn’t know what her parents looked like. Here and there she’d heard a comment about her hair being like James’ or her eyes like Lily’s, but Harriet had never seen this for herself and now she could. She wanted desperately to know the name of her siblings, to know if they liked Harriet, if they spent time together as a family, if her mum baked cookies and how warm her dad’s hugs were. What was growing up in a wizarding household like? She pressed her hand flat to the glass in effort to slip through it and join those on the other side.

“Ah, the Mirror of Erised. What a droll trinket.”

Harriet jerked back. Professor Slytherin sauntered through the open door with his arms crossed and he smirked at her, and the mirror. Not wanting him to see her family, Harriet stepped to the side, out of frame, and her parents vanished.

“Figured out how it works then, Potter?”

She hadn’t, no. Why did the mirror show her family? Her mum and dad had been real enough—but those two girls hadn’t ever existed. Did it show some type of alternate future? A world that would never be? Harriet’s heart ached in her chest and she laid a hand against it, fingers brushing the edge of her lopsided tie as she recalled the sudden burst of emotion that had erupted there, the sheer need—.

“It—it shows you what you want,” she stuttered. “Whatever you want, even if it’s not possible.”

“Partially. Five points to Slytherin.” The professor shrugged as he leaned his weight against one of the shelves. The shelf didn’t appear very sturdy, and yet it didn’t wobble in the slightest. “The Mirror of Erised is enchanted to show your most ardent desire, not the petty wants of everyday life. Many a wizard and witch have been fool enough to let the images depicted therein drive them to madness.”

“So it’s not real,” she whispered, more to herself than to Slytherin, her eye still drawn to the mirror despite the absence of her family. She wanted to see them, just once more, just long enough to commit the image to memory, just so she could have the picture of them in her head—.

Harriet hated the mirror when she realized Slytherin was right, that someone could go quite mad wanting to look at that lying hunk of antique junk, even if just for a few seconds more. Her weight leaned precariously forward and Harriet had to smother the voice in the back of her head telling her to take that step, to bring herself into the mirror’s line of sight, to look one more time. It’s not true. It’s pretend, like dreams in my head projected onto the surface. It’s not real.

“What do you see, Miss Potter?” Slytherin asked. Her breaths still came in shallow increments when she turned to him, then lowered her chin, not wanting to meet his terrifying eyes.

“Err—I’m with my relatives. It’s Christmas time,” she lied, deciding it best to splice in a measure of truth.

Slytherin tipped his head and a curl of brown hair fell across his brow. “Yule,” the wizard corrected her in a sharp voice. “Christmas is a Muggle holiday. Yule is celebrated by magical kind. Why, Miss Potter, it sounds as if you were raised by Muggles.”

Then he grinned and Harriet wanted to sink through the floor and disappear. Her neck itched something fierce.

Movement at the door caught her attention. Dumbledore stood there in crimson robes striped with thin lines of gold, his sleeves lined with fur that looked particularly warm. “Hello, Harriet,” he greeted with a gentle smile—then his blue eyes cut to Professor Slytherin and the soft creases on his brow became hard and deep. “Is there a reason you’ve brought Miss Potter here, Tom?”

Slytherin sucked air through his teeth and Harriet thought of how Uncle Vernon would’ve cuffed him in the back of the head for showing that kind of disrespect. “Miss Potter witnessed a fight between Henge and Sanders. I thought it best she give her account of the story, lest you question my bias.”

“Oh, I’d never doubt your professionalism, Tom. Simply your methods.” Something cold slithered in Dumbledore’s normally jovial voice and Harriet shifted. The Headmaster extend his arm out toward her. “Come along, Harriet. It’s best to leave the mirror alone and not dwell upon what is seen within. Dreams, while lovely, should not be pursued at the expense of living.”

She placed her hand in the Headmaster’s and, when his warm fingers closed over hers, a feeling of safety enfolded Harriet like a new cloak. That prickly misery that had reared its ugly head after encountering the cursed mirror deflated, and though Harriet could see Slytherin sneer in disapproval, Harriet smiled at Professor Dumbledore and followed after him.

Chapter Text

xxvii. the house of black

 

Elara yanked on her trunk to get it over the crack in the sidewalk and scowled.

It was a long walk to Grimmauld Place from King’s Cross, made all the more difficult by the thin layer of half-frozen snow that stuck to Elara’s shoes and the trunk’s wheels. She could have gotten a taxi, of course, but Elara hadn’t thought of that before and didn’t have any Muggle money on her person. Besides, she wanted to avoid the Muggle world, just in case the orphanage had reported her as a missing person.

Father Phillips would probably tell the cops I’m an escaped nutter.

Elara crossed the quiet square with the looming faces of townhouses watching her progress. Number Twelve Grimmauld Place appeared right between Number Eleven and Number Thirteen, rather woebegone and weathered compared to its neighbors, the whispered, tinny sound of a television fluttering out someone’s cracked window. The neighbors flitted by their windows, ignorant to Elara’s presence, and the many shuttered eyes of Number Twelve remained dark, haunting. She mounted the steps, huffing all the way, and ignored the serpent-shaped knob in favor of rapping on the door itself.

“Kreacher,” she said aloud with a glance up and down the street, seeing no one. “Kreacher, open the door. Please.” When nothing happened, Elara smacked the door with more strength. “Kreacher.”

The knob creaked, twisted, and the door popped open an inch or so, allowing a sudden gasp of moldy air to escape, like breaching the vault of a forgotten tomb. Elara wrinkled her nose and quickly stepped inside. The house-elf’s milky eyes gleamed in the low, sputtering light of the gas lamps once the door came closed again.

“The blood-traitor’s daughter is back.”

“Yes,” she said, sighing. Kreacher had warmed to her—somewhat—over the summer hols, but it seemed he was back to referring to her as the blood-traitor’s brat. “It’s nice to see you too, Kreacher.”

The elf grumbled and sneered but otherwise refrained from making a comment. “Master Cygnus is not well.”

The handle of Elara’s trunk slipped from her sweaty hand and thumped on the dusty carpet. A knot had begun to twist itself into her middle not long after leaving Grimmauld for Hogwarts and it doubled itself now, tightening until Elara felt like she might be ill. “Can I—can I see him?”

“Kreacher will ask.”

“Thank you.”

He frowned and turned away, his pale body hunched and off-kilter as he tottered down the hall and up the stairs. Elara picked up her luggage again and went to find her room. She ignored the glassy-eyed stare of dead house-elves on the wall, a spider hanging from one’s bulbous nose. Elara would have to do something about those heads, something that wouldn’t set Kreacher off into a full-blown fit and yet still removed them from her sight.

The room Elara had inhabited since that summer was, ironically, bedecked in faded banners of crimson and gold, a Gryffindor lion embossed on the wall—right between a few posters with scantily dressed models that pouted when Elara pinned sheets of parchment over them. She would tear them down if they hadn’t been stuck to the wallpaper with a spell.

It was in this room that she had found the journal, the one she took to reading between assignments at school or on the long train ride into the city. The writer had been particularly fond of code names and she had no idea who used to inhabit the space she now utilized. Cygnus himself had only come to live at Grimmauld some years after Walburga’s passing, when his illness had worsened beyond its initial stages, and thus didn’t know much of the house’s more detailed information. Kreacher could tell her, were he not the most intractable of people Elara had ever had the misfortune of meeting.

She settled down and took out the journal in question, a tattered thing with a magical shop’s logo branded into the inside cover along with a series of nonsensical doodles. It was not a diary—not the sort Elara had ever seen—but rather a book of thoughts, funny anecdotes, ideas, and bits of copied lectures. What she found particularly compelling were the parts detailing Animagi and their transformations. Whoever had owned the journal had a penchant for rude humor and was an absolutely brilliant wizard.

Elara thumbed the weathered pages, considering the scribbled handwriting and the careless blotches of ink. She’d considered the possibility of the book belonging to her father—he’d lived in this house too, as far as she knew—but Elara couldn’t reconcile the image in her head, and dozens of Black sons had lived in the house over the years. “Padfoot” wrote with vivacity, wrote about pranks and a boy he fancied named “Mooney” and how much he loved Quidditch; Sirius Black was a madman who killed thirteen people with one curse and supposedly laughed. The journal couldn’t belong to him.

Feeling sick at heart, Elara set the journal aside and exhaled. She rubbed at her wrists and wished the cold didn’t make them ache so.

Kreacher arrived with a sudden pop! and she jumped, startled, giving the house-elf a reproving look as he grinned nastily. “Master Cygnus is awake.”

“Thank you, Kreacher.”

The elf disappeared as Elara stood, straightened her clothes, and headed up to the proper bedroom. She knocked on the door and the occupant called out entry, voice as weak as a summer breeze, and Elara eased into the room. The dark remained omniscient with shadows as thick as shrouds, the smell of sick and ash heavy as a morning fog. Elara strode forward without waiting for invitation and brushed her fingers against the base of the candlestick sitting on the nightstand. A grunt rose from the bed when the candle came to life.

“Brat,” Cygnus rasped as he turned his head on the pillow and his black hair clung in limp coils to his pale skin. Elara pulled the shade low around the candle to dilute the light and her great uncle sighed in response. “Thank you.”

“How are you, Uncle?”

Cygnus didn’t respond. His eyes gleamed in the flickering light, two bright spots in and otherwise blurred countenance. Elara felt the sudden urge to tear away the shade and cast the light fully upon him, just so she could see him, so she could see how much worse he must have gotten in her absence, but she’d been raised with better respect, even if she resented that place with every bone in her body. Cygnus wouldn’t tell her and it was better if she didn’t ask. “How was your trip?”

“Fine. Uneventful.”

He harrumphed. “How is Slytherin House treating you?”

“Fine.” Elara fidgeted, bringing her fingers together, studying her nails. “I have some friends and my studies have been going well.”

“Ah, yes. The Potter girl and the Mud—Muggle-born.” He narrowed his eyes. “I do hope you haven’t alienated the students from the old families?”

“No, but they are a bit….” Elara trailed off and Cygnus chuckled. The sound was heavy, wet, and painful.

“They will grow out of their idiocy with age,” he said. “They confuse bigotry with House pride and forget a man’s fortunes can dwindle in a single afternoon.” Cygnus coughed and turned from Elara, facing the dark. “The blue potion, if you’d be so kind….”

Elara jumped up to retrieve the asked for mixture, then returned to her seat. At Cygnus’ prompting, she continued to share stories of her time attending Hogwarts and he coached her to speak up or to speak more, because telling a good tale was part of knowing how present oneself. He scoffed over recollections of Draco’s behavior and stated that “Allowing Narcissa to marry Lucius Malfoy” had been one of his stupider decisions in life. “He may be pure of blood, but he and his father Abraxas are the greatest of cross-eyed dolts.”

She pressed her lips into a firm line to swallow her laugh and if Cygnus noticed, he chose not to comment.

“To that end, I actually have a gift for you….” Elara’s great uncle shifted and she heard the fine scratch of paper moving on paper before he found the missive he wanted and extended it to her, bringing his trembling hand into the light. Elara stared at the pale, wasted thing and felt something twist in her middle again. His skin was paler than the parchment and just as thin and dry. “The letter, brat.”

“My apologies.” Elara took it from him. She opened the page and held it closer to the single candle, squinting against the dark to decipher the words scrawled there in a very official manner. It was some kind of legal document and the jargon therein confused Elara, since her vocabulary leaned more toward the romantic, poetic styling of religious dogma. “This says I’ve been—.”

“Emancipated,” Cygnus said with a sigh, as if he’d grown tired of watching Elara try to read. “It took a great deal of gold and persuasion to manage it for a girl your age. What it means is that upon my death you will become the proxy-Head of our family, and you will not be forced into some lesser household—or, Merlin forbid, taken in by one of my daughters. You will be recognized as an adult in the eyes of magical law.”

Elara stared at the paper in her grip until her eyes blurred. “I don’t have to go back to the orphanage.” She had no plans of ever returning there, but it had always been a possibility, a threat looming in the back of her mind like the ominous rattle of handcuffs and the slow intonation of priestly chanting. She didn’t have to fear ending up somewhere just as despicable in the Wizarding world.

“No, you don’t.”

Careful, as if handling a priceless heirloom, Elara folded the letter and held it to her chest, repressing the prickling sensation in her eyes that threatened tears. Cygnus wouldn’t appreciate that. “Thank you.”

He didn’t smile, but he did watch Elara, his gaze glassy with pain and his sunken skin wet with fresh perspiration. “You will do the House of Black proud,” he said. His words rang with certainty, the kind of certainty only men like her great uncle—men who’d walked in the upper echelon of society and had sampled the fruits of indulgence—could achieve. “The least I could do was assure you were not taken away from it.”

 

_____

 

Cygnus Black died three days after Elara arrived at Grimmauld Place.

She woke early in the morning to the sound of house-elf sobs echoing in the narrow corridors and entered her great uncle’s bedroom to find that he had, presumably, expired in his sleep sometime the night prior. At a loss, she sank into the armchair by the bedside and stared as Kreacher howled and Elara patted the elf’s heaving shoulders. Cygnus’ death was sudden, though not unexpected. Had he not introduced himself to her by stating his condition was fatal? Elara knew that, had seen how shaky his handwriting had grown, how tired he sounded, and yet she’d hoped for more time. Just a little more time.

Having been a man of thought and foresight in life, Elara’s great uncle had made arrangements for his inevitable end and had left detailed instructions for Elara—or Kreacher, had she not been home when he passed on. Elara liked to think herself passably clever and well-read, but she was still only eleven, and she had never dealt with a death in the family before. She appreciated the tidy, bulleted instruction scrolls as she’d appreciated everything given and taught to her by Cygnus in the short time of their acquaintance.

Letters were written and sent out to Cygnus’ specifications, Elara managing to coax her great uncle’s ancient owl—Percival—out into the frigid weather. St. Mungo’s was contacted, a death certificate issued, and the mortuary received a new occupant. Elara spent much of that first afternoon sitting small and uncertain in the overlarge leather chair of Cygnus’ solicitor, Mr Piers, who became Elara’s solicitor and managed the arrangements and the obituary for the Daily Prophet. Elara returned to Grimmauld Place and spent time in the library, trying to muddle through the legal diction with a dictionary. She wished Hermione was there to help. She wished Harriet was there to make her laugh.

Two days later, Elara found herself walking up a flight of iced steps as the air escaped her lungs in puffs of white and she struggled to hold onto both her umbrella and the handrail. Around her rose the dark, snow covered tombs and markers belonging to wizards and witches long dead, the sky cloudy but bright with the sun hidden in the silver whorls, the silence broken only by Elara’s slow tread.

The cemetery in the borough of Hertsmere had belonged to the magical folk of Britain for generations, before Merlin was born or Hogwarts was built, before Hadrian’s Wall rose—before the Romans even thought about crossing the water. Most of the old Wizarding families aside from the Lestranges had mausoleums or plots there, and the Blacks were no exception. Cygnus had chosen one of the spots that lay in the shadow of the Black tomb itself, by his wife Druella and his brother Alphard, and the gravedigger had already prepared the site by removing the ice and spelling a barrier over the plot that stop more snow from falling. Elara paused when she came in view of her destination.

A priest stood at the head of the waiting grave, a bible in his hands, his pointed hat stuck to his stooped head with a spell. The church and magical kind had a long and often vicious history together. The Catholic miracle workers had more often than not been wizards who—in ages past—would use their abilities to heal the sick or inspire the wayward, and the clergy had been known to harbor witches attempting to escape persecution. Elara knew Hogwarts had a small chapel not far from the dungeons, a place where the Fat Friar lingered—not that she’d ever been there.

Elara swallowed and kept walking.

Aside from the priest and the gravedigger, four other people stood on the patch of grass cleared of snow, waiting for the service to commence. A blond wizard bent to mutter into the ear of his wife, both dressed in black robes tooled in silver, the latter wearing a gilded cameo at her throat that bore the Black crest. The two witches who stood on the opposing side of the grave were less polished than the first pair, the older witch obviously a Black, with her patrician beauty and practiced posture, her hair lighter than Elara’s and her expression soft. A witch several years older than Elara waited with the woman, streaks of vermilion coloring her brown hair.

Closing her umbrella, Elara stepped past the ward and found several pairs of eyes swiveling in her direction.

“Ah, Miss Black,” the priest said with a kindly smile, though Elara couldn’t quite meet his gaze. “Are we ready to begin, then?”

“Yes, sorry,” she replied. She would have told them it was a long walk from the road and even longer walk from the train station but refrained, a lump growing in her throat.

A magical funeral service proved similar to its mundane counterpart. Elara had never attended a funeral before, of course, but she’d seen them happening in the cemetery that adjoined the church’s lot next to the orphanage and had listened to the voices on the wind, ashes to ashes, tearful widows, people shaking their heads and whispering “such a shame.” Cygnus’ funeral was quieter than that, no one aside from the priest speaking, the snow still falling silent below the mausoleum’s eaves, the gravedigger smoking at a respectful distance, waiting.

Elara wrung her hands until creases appeared in her leather gloves.

The priest stopped speaking and drew his wand. He enacted several spells without uttering a word, a soft yellow light phasing over the coffin before the gravedigger left his post and lowered Cygnus into the earth. The waiting witches and wizard conjured flowers to toss down, which Elara couldn’t do, being underaged and scarcely trained, so the young witch with red in her hair passed a carnation to her with a smile. Elara flushed before adding her flower to the others. Magic returned the dirt to its proper place, resowed the sod, and Transfigured a blank sheet of marble into a stately headstone embossed with the family’s motif and Cygnus’ name. The ward fell with a soft pop! of displaced air. Snow speckled the grass.

It was over. Cygnus was gone.

“Miss Black.”

The blond wizard spoke as he and his wife turned from the fresh grave without a glance in its direction. Looking at him, with his haughty sneer and cold eyes, Elara was struck with a sudden rush of déjà vu, though she couldn’t quite place where she’d seen the man before.

“My name is Lucius, of the Most Noble House of Malfoy, and this is my wife, Narcissa, Cygnus’ youngest daughter.”

Elara’s eye twitched at the excessively formal greeting—though she realized where she’d seen him now; Draco was a foul little carbon copy of the wizard before her. Hermione never said a word against the Malfoys, but life in St. Giles had drilled the importance of subtext into Elara’s head; Hermione said nothing against the Malfoys and nothing for them, her eyes always blank whenever Draco opened his trap to wax poetic about his vaunted father. Cygnus claimed the Malfoys were weak-willed, wealthy and impeccably bred but unable to do anything more than ride the coattails of others. Really, Elara hadn’t met anyone who had something nice to say about the couple now looking down their noses at her.

“Hello,” she responded, fidgeting with her sleeves. When Elara declined to say more, Lucius cleared his throat. She doubted they knew her name.

“Yes, well. I have been led to believe you resided with Cygnus at—.” He hesitated, like he had the name on the tip of his tongue and couldn’t quite spit it out. “At—?”

“Grimmauld Place,” the wife—Narcissa—put in. “Aunt Walburga’s, Lucius. Uncle Orion cursed the place so thoroughly the name escapes those who aren’t current residents or Blacks.”

“Of course,” he drawled. “How remiss of me. Nevertheless, with Cygnus passed and your father’s continued incarceration, we will be able to make arrangements and take you into our home—.”

“She doesn’t have to go with you.” The witch with brown hair and kind eyes wasn’t looking particularly kind as she left the grave’s side; her stare hardened as she studied Lucius and found him wanting. She addressed Elara next. “Hello. I’m Andromeda Tonks, Cygnus’ daughter, and this is my daughter, Nymphadora—.”

The younger witch flinched and the red in her hair suddenly turned a poisonous green. Elara blinked, shocked and more than a bit alarmed.

“She’s a Metamorphmagus,” Andromeda said by way of apology. “Dora, you know better than to—.”

“Well, don’t call me Nymphadora in front of people—.”

Lucius released a low, genteel scoff and raised his chin as Narcissa looked anywhere but directly at her sister. “You clearly have your hands full, Andromeda. It would be best if we—.”

“I’m not leaving Grimmauld,” Elara said, freezing the others in place. Malfoy’s brow furrowed.

“You don’t expect your new guardian to move in, do you?”

“I don’t require a guardian.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I have no intention of being ridiculous, Mr Malfoy. I don’t need a guardian because I’ve been eman—.” Elara had to form her tongue around the unfamiliar word and felt heat rise in her cheeks, feeling young and naive and about two centimeters tall in Mr Malfoy’s eyes. “Emancipated.”

“The Ministry does not emancipate eleven year old pure-blood girls!”

Elara already had a hand in her robes, retrieving the folded copies of the legal notice Cygnus had left for her. She all but threw the first at Lucius and, for good measure, handed another to Andromeda, who accepted the note with something like sadness in her careworn expression. Lucius, meanwhile, was looking more and more thunderous with every line he read. Finally he snatched the letter from his own face and shoved it toward Narcissa’s.

“This is the kind of unbecoming behavior we’ve come to expect from Cygnus. He was old and half mad with fever toward the end—.”

“I think I would know better, Mr Malfoy, seeing as I was there,” Elara replied. Her voice reflected more bravery than she actually felt, considering Lucius Malfoy had been—was—a Death Eater, and Cygnus had no reservations about telling her those who pledged themselves to any wizard in such a manner were unpredictable and most certainly dangerous. She knew her great uncle had been more than a bit racist, but Cygnus had recognized his own failings and had made an effort to teach Elara what it meant to be a pure-blood without falling victim to one’s own pride like the Malfoys.

Her gaze flicked toward the silent grave and a fresh stab of misery jolted her heart, Elara’s eyes dampening of their own accord. She spent ten years in the orphanage and these people never spared a thought for her, having thought she was dead from infancy—and now they cared. Now they wanted a say in where she lived and whom got control over her life, but Elara wasn’t having any of it.

“If you don’t mind,” she said, breath hitching. “I’m going to go home now.”

“Listen here, girl, we don’t accept this kind of insolence—.”

“Narcissa, tell your wretched husband to let the poor girl be—.”

New waves of civilized and grossly well-mannered invectives came hissing from Lucius’ mouth while Elara took the opportunity to turn and walk away. She could feel the gaze of the witch who didn’t like to be called Nymphadora lingering on her back.

The snow crunched under Elara’s boots. The priest and the gravedigger had Disapparated the moment they sensed a family feud on the rise. Elara had left Grimmauld the Muggle way that morning after discovering Kreacher still weepy and inconsolable, balling into a pair of trousers for some inexplicable reason, but when Lucius snapped “Get back here! You haven’t been dismissed!”, Elara shouted “Kreacher!” and the house-elf appeared. She stuck out her hand and, without another word, the glowering imp took hold of her and Apparated them home.

 

_____

 

It was much later, after night had fallen and silence had settled good and thick about Grimmauld Place, that Elara cried.

She sat at the table in the kitchen, folded as small as she could be in one of the stiff chairs with her arms wrapped about her legs and her nose buried in the crook of her knees. Tears painted damp patches on the hem of her skirt and Elara sniffled. Elara hadn’t known Cygnus very long, and yet he’d shown her great patience, had given her all the tools she needed to succeed, and Elara appreciated that more than any pity she’d ever gotten, any half glances from the nicer sisters who said “Poor dear” and tried to ply her with extra desserts while never doing anything. After all, they knew what would happen, had agreed with Father Phillips, had turned a blind eye when they dragged her from her bed in the dead of night and—.

A part of Elara wanted to yell, throw a tantrum or be overtly hysterical like Kreacher had been that morning. The sisters had taught her tears were a sign of weakness, and weakness was a sin—much like everything else, if she were being honest. So Elara sucked in a ragged breath and let out a sharp, short scream, just because she could. The sound echoed and one of the portraits out in the hall squawked. The tension in her chest ebbed, and Elara laughed, tired and lonely and yet inordinately pleased with herself for shattering the silence, if only for a second.

Somewhere farther in the house a clatter came and Elara paused, listening, hearing the approaching mutter and thump of familiar feet. The kitchen door swung open seemingly of its own accord—then Kreacher came into view, foul tempered as ever, carrying her owl in his arms. The owl, for his part, looked most displeased with this arrangement and shot filthy, accusing glares in the elf’s direction.

“The Mistress has mail.”

“Thank you, Kreacher,” Elara returned. The elf sniffed and let the owl go. The bird landed on the table with a screech, beating his wings, and Elara reached out to soothe his rumpled feathers. Harriet’s voice played in the back of her mind, the bespectacled girl trying to give the scowling avian a name—monikers like ‘Zeus’ and ‘Bacon’ and ‘Berk’ after he smacked Harriet in the face—because “All familiars need names, Elara!

Bits of broken snowflakes melted until Elara’s fingertips as she stroked his feathers and the owl stuck out his leg. Attached to it with a clumsy bit of twine was a letter from the aforementioned girl and Elara smiled when she took the letter in hand. She remembered to write.

The owl fluffed his plumage. Elara studied him and, unbidden, a name fell from her lips. “Cygnus.”

He nipped her cool fingers in approval.

Chapter Text

xxviii. bequeathed

 

Harriet Potter woke to a strange and puzzling sight.

She sat up from her mangled sheets bleary-eyed and mussy-headed—Livi complaining at the sudden draft created by the shifting covers—and stared at the odd blurs cluttering the foot of her bed. Harriet didn’t remember dropping anything on the bed before going to bed, so someone must have put it there after she went to sleep.

“Wazzit?”

Several moments and mumbled curses left the sleepy girl before she could find her glasses and stir the lanterns into something brighter than a dim blush. Crowded on top of her trunk and the end of her bed were several boxes wrapped in silver and green paper. One had a bow.

Bloody hell, she had Christmas presents!

Harriet had gotten gifts before from the Dursleys—if you could call them that. Sometimes she got old socks or secondhand clothes from the charity shop, and one year she got the wrapping paper that came off of Dudley’s gifts, which she actually tacked up in the cupboard to make it pretty until Aunt Petunia snapped at her to take it down. The year she got absolutely nothing was the year the oven somehow turned itself up to “broil” and reduced Petunia’s Christmas roast to cinders.

Harriet picked up the first present and recognized Elara’s stilted handwriting on the tag. Inside the wrapping she found an old book that was considerably heavier than she expected, the cover most likely made of something more substantial than cardboard. Harriet couldn’t see a title on the dusty binding, only some kind of crest with a tiny skull, three birds, and what looked like a blurb of French, though she wasn’t certain. On the first page scrolled the words “A Compendivm of Defense Against Magic Moste Dark: First Edition.” Below that Elara had written, “For Harriet — to learn something that might surprise even Prof. Slytherin himself. Sincerely, Elara.

Harriet snorted.

There was another book in the next package from Hermione, this one brand new and glossy, the pages crisp and smelling of new ink: 101 Legendary Artefacts of the Wizarding World. A cursory flip through the contents revealed a wealth of bright, moving pictures and the letter from Hermione was considerably longer and more verbose than Elara’s had been. Harriet huffed with amusement when she thought of how her best friends seemed determined to make her just as brainy as they were, though Harriet knew she’d never have Hermione’s knack for Charms or Elara’s precision in Transfiguration. At least she didn’t kill everything in Herbology.

The next package contained blank stationary that, to Harriet’s surprise and unease, had the Potter family crest stamped across the top in green ink. This, too, came from Elara—but the letter was different, written in the smooth script of a Dicta-Quill rather than personal handwriting, signed with “From the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.” A note stuck to the bottom told Harriet that it was, according to Elara’s uncle, a pure-blood tradition for Wizarding families to pass on gifts for the Yule to invite good fortune in the new year.

Indeed, the remainder of the gifts were from the families of her housemates—Malfoy and Greengrass, Nott and Runcorn, Goyle and Crabbe. Nothing extravagant was inside the Transfigured boxes, just simple things like new quills or Chocolate Frogs or fresh parchment, but Harriet thought it was an oddly generous tradition for the pure-bloods. Then again, wizards and witches were some of the most superstitious people she’d ever met and not all of the pure-bloods were snobs; some of the upper year Slytherins were quite nice, as were a few pure-blood kids in the other Houses Harriet shared classes with.

A final gift lingered, half caught in the crevice between the mattress and the footboard, soft and squishy as if whatever inside were made of cloth. Set hovered around the package more than he had the others and Harriet thought he might be excited, if spooky shadow dwellers with a penchant for throwing things could be excited. She shoved the rest of a Chocolate Frog in her mouth, then tore away the paper.

Cool, light fabric spilled from the open wrappings into Harriet’s hands and she marveled at the feel of it, like water through her fingers—yet so alive, sparking with the sharp, crisp prickle of active magic. For half a second Harriet wondered if the cloth was cursed, then decided it didn’t matter now since she’d already grabbed hold of it, and who would want to curse an eleven year-old?

She very pointedly ignored the memory of Neville Longbottom falling from his broom in November.

Further investigation proved the cloth to be a cloak of some time, adult in proportions with a deep hood and a slightly crooked hem, as if whoever had cut the fabric before stitching it had done so with something rough and uneven. Harriet nudged Livi’s tail off of her lap and hopped to her feet, letting the cloak pool about her like a ridiculous cape. She found it rather old fashioned, the pattern on it distorted and difficult to decipher, the threads glinting like silver in the green glow of the lanterns.

Then Harriet folded the cloak around herself and disappeared.

“Bloody hell!” Harriet swore, tripping on the hem she couldn’t see, catching herself on the bedpost with a hand that was there but wholly invisible to her eyes.

Misstresss?” Livi hissed from the tangled nest of sheets when Harriet rushed by to the full-length mirror hanging between the empty carrells. Her head appeared in the speckled glass—and that was it.

I’m invisible!” Harriet yelled at the snake as she threw the hood over her head so it vanished as well. Once fully immersed in the cloak she could see herself again under the cloth, Set pooling in a narrow puddle at her feet, lapping the cloak’s hem, the lantern light strangely ethereal where it managed to peek through the cloak’s impermeable weave.

Livi lifted his head from the blankets and lazily turned in Harriet’s direction—only to pause. His tongue flickered in question. “…Misstresss?”

I’m here!” she told him, not quite able to hold back the laugh burbling in her chest. “This cloak is amazing!

Livi didn’t seem to agree if his annoyed hissing was anything to go by. The Horned Serpent levered himself off the bed, silver belly touching the floor with an audible thump of dry scales upon stones, and made his way nearer Harriet, following the quick darting of his violet tongue. Once he found Harriet, he slithered under the cloak’s rumpled edge and wound about her legs, using the witch’s offered arm as a way to lever himself higher. “Sss…thisss is ssstrange magic,” the snake said.

It’s not cursed, is it?” Harriet asked, suddenly apprehensive.

I do not know. It sssmellss like you.”

Well that’s helpful,” Harriet grumbled as she pulled off the cloak and carefully refolded it. She returned to the wrapping and poked about, looking for a card, and the search took several minutes before she managed to find it stuck in the crevice between the mattress and the bedrail. Huffing, Harriet pulled it out and read what was written there.

 

Your father left this cloak in my possession before he died. It is time I returned it to its proper owner. Use it well.

 

There was no name listed. Harriet traced the looping cursive letters and marveled at the cloak now settled on her lap. It belonged to my dad? She had an entire vault in Gringotts of things that had belonged to her parents, and yet Harriet felt oddly attached to this strange bit of fabric. “Use it well,” the note said. How did one go about being invisible well? To Harriet’s knowledge, people typically wanted to be invisible to do nefarious things, like steal or sneak about. Harriet didn’t want to steal anything and didn’t much fancy sneaking about. What should I use it for?

Harriet tucked her new possessions away and nicked another Chocolate Frog from her stash of candy before heading out to the common room with Hermione’s gift. Once in the hallway, however, she heard hushed, raspy whispering and—terrified of running into Snape again—Harriet tiptoed to the corridor’s end and carefully peeked into the room proper.

“—Vaisssey hass promissse,” said the portrait of a snake that hung above the empty hearth.

Does he?” replied Professor Slytherin, one elbow propped on the mantel, hand carelessly running through his hair. “He’s never shown much initiative in class.”

He readsss booksss on the magic forbidden by the old man by the fire late in the eveningsss.”

Hmm,” Slytherin responded. “He shows interest, then.”

Yesss….” The snake bobbed in affirmation, its painted coils writhing beneath the roots of a great rowan tree.

And the first years?” the professor inquired. “What have you noted of them?”

Harriet held herself very still as she listened to the wizard speak in Parseltongue to the inanimate serpent. He has the snake spy on us! She quickly tried to think of any snake she’d ever see in the castle portraits, then had to relent, because it wasn’t like Professor Slytherin could only speak to snakes. He could talk to painted people just fine as well.

The blond hatchling ssspeakss often of his sssire.”

That would be Malfoy’s get,” Slytherin scoffed. “Lucius acknowledges Gaunt’s authority over my own. A fool, but a fool who has always sought influence over true power. He will most likely be a loss. Pity. Tell me of Nott.”

He ssstudiess his booksss with great fervor.”

Excellent.” Professor Slytherin paused then, one long finger tapping his bottom lip. “And what of Potter?

Harriet pressed herself into the wall with all her strength and thought it a marvel she didn’t just sink into it.

I do not know thisss name.”

Black hair. Bespectacled. The smallest of the first years—the runt of the litter, if you will.”

Harriet bristled.

The snake lisped in irritation. “Ssshe is a ssstrange hatchling.”

How so?”

Alwaysss…whissspering….

Odd.”

At this point Harriet thought it prudent to retreat before she could be discovered and quickly eased back to her dorm. She could’ve kicked herself for being so careless; sometimes she spoke to Set when she passed through the common room on her own. Being Muggle-raised, Harriet often forgot the bloody portraits not only moved but also saw and heard and spoke—and apparently Professor Slytherin used them to spy on his students, finding out if they had promise or not.

Promise for what was the real question, and Harriet wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.

She went back to her dorm, locking the door for good measure.

 

_____

 

Harriet didn’t leave the dungeons until supper time, when she scuttled out through the empty common room and all but ran to the lighter, warmer parts of the castle. She could hear voices coming from the Great Hall, mostly adult, but with a few younger laughs interspersed between the deeper droning, and the smell of cooked meat, potatoes, and baked bread had drool pooling in Harriet’s mouth. She sighed with relief—until she looked into the hall and found only one table waiting for her. Comfy purple armchairs surrounded it, with one seat open by Professor Selwyn, and another by bloody Longbottom.

Scrunching her nose, Harriet took the place by Longbottom and the Weasleys. “Happy Christmas—err, Yule!”

The Gryffindors blinked in surprise at her presence.

“Oi,” Neville muttered as he glowered, his voice low enough to escape the ears of the arrayed professors. “Why don’t you go sit with the other slimy Slytherins?”

As one, the Gryffindors and Harriet glanced toward the opposing end of the table where Professor Slytherin sat with Snape and Selwyn on either side of him, their faces all set in a unique kind of grimace achieved by the truly cantankerous during times of excessive joy. In fact, it appeared they’d largely Vanished any of the decorations that had dared spilled in their direction, though none of the other professors had the same problem.

“Is that—is that a serious question?” Harriet asked as she piled potatoes onto her plate. “Because I could give you about half a dozen reason why I’d rather drink Bubotuber pus.” Harriet would bet a sack full of Galleons she’d get half a dozen detentions from Snape for breathing the same air as him.

The Weasley twins snorted into their pumpkin juice. Neville might have protested, but Ron nudged him in the ribs and said, “Leave off, Nev, the food’s gonna get cold!” so Longbottom harrumphed, sticking a bite of chicken into his mouth. Harriet looked over the Gryffindors and noted that Ron and his brothers—including Percy, who sat by the Arithmancy teacher chatting with fervor—all had on thick, woolly sweaters. Given how frigid the dungeons were, Harriet gazed rather wistfully at their attire.

“I like your sweater,” she told Ron, who flushed. “Was it a gift for Ch—Yule?”

“Yeah,” Fred—his sweater had a large ‘F’ stitched into the threads, so Harriet guessed he was Fred—said as he chewed. She knew the twins by the rather terrible reputation they had in Slytherin. “Mum sends one every year.”

“We’ll have to tell her an itty-bitty snakey admired her handiwork,” George put in. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Harriet Potter.”

“Potter, Potter…say, aren’t you the girl who punched Ickle Ronnikins?”

Harriet blushed and mumbled into her food. “I said I was sorry.”

Fred and George burst into laughter, earning several curious glances from the professors. “Brilliant, that,” George said with a wide grin. “Poor Ronni gettin’ nipped by baby Slytherins.”

Harriet huffed and cast a sympathetic look in Ron’s direction, who continued to stuff his face and ignored his brothers’ pestering, asking Neville to pass the butter dish. The meal progressed easily enough, the bubbly professor on Harriet’s other side striking up a lively conversation about her subject—Ghoul Studies, of all things, which she taught part-time to the sixth and seventh years who wished to take the class. Crackers made an appearance and Harriet pulled one with a reluctant Longbottom, getting showered in red confetti, tiny lion figurines that moved about on their own, and a small green snake—which Harriet quickly secreted into a robe pocket, lest it terrify the Gryffindors.

“Say,” she asked once dessert was well underway and a few professors had departed. Selwyn made a quick escape, but Snape lingered and had his head tilted toward Dumbledore’s ear, speaking in a low whisper that had the Headmaster nodding his head every so often. Slytherin surveyed the table, lost in thought. “If you were invisible, what would you do?”

“Is this one of those morality tests?” George asked, licking a bit of icing from his thumb. “Like if you have two kids on either side of a Nundu who do you save?”

“The answer’s always the handsomest twin,” Fred stage whispered.

“Wh—no,” Harriet said. What in the world is a Nundu? “No, I mean like if you could go about Hogwarts invisible, what would you do?”

They considered that for a time, bouncing ideas off each other, which included and were not limited to sneaking into the Slytherin common room, Snape’s store room, and the girl’s locker room—the latter earning a harsh look from Harriet and placating hand waves from the redheaded twins. Ron perked up and, after swallowing, said, “I know! The Restricted Section! We could find out more about N—.”

Neville kicked Ron under the table hard enough to jostle the flatware and Ron choked on his treacle tart.

Harriet frowned at their not so subtle behavior but otherwise pushed it aside, thinking about the suggestion. She was rather curious about the Restricted Section, about what kind of books and magic were considered too dangerous for casual viewing—and she wondered what Neville Longbottom could possibly want or need from the Restricted Section of all places. The boy loved to boast about all the tutors and fantastic places he’d been to over the years, and all Harriet could think about was how she’d been stuffed in a cupboard or scrubbing toilets while Longbottom had been scaling mountaintops or saving a village or something equally exciting and distinctly un-Dursley.

She sighed and popped a spoon of blueberry ice cream into her mouth.

Slytherin rose from his seat, dismissing his napkin with a negligible wave of his hand, the volume of conversation dipping around him as he strolled out of the Great Hall without a backward glance. Harriet shivered. He gives me the creeps. Was that how other Houses saw Slytherins? Ill at the thought, she set down her spoon and considered the Gryffindors she sat with. They chatted as they ate, the twins still bent on figuring out the very best mischief one could get into while invisible, Ron rolling his eyes while Neville ate his pudding. No, they didn’t see her as they did her Head of House. Whatever Professor Slytherin was, Harriet wasn’t anything like him.

She was glad for that.

 

_____

 

Harriet was having second thoughts.

Originally, the idea of venturing through Hogwarts’ corridors in the dead of night had been exciting, tinged with a bit of forbidden thrill and open curiosity. Now Harriet was faced with the very real prospect of venturing through the frigid, echoing dark of a castle literally haunted by ghosts and patrolling professors like Snape and Slytherin.

Hogwarts became sinister at night once the students were tucked into bed and the torches doused. Harriet shivered beneath the cloak as she inched out of the common room and found herself in a hall too black to see anything at all. She fumbled for the cloak’s edge until she could poke out a single hand and press it against the stone wall as a guide. The cold burned against Harriet’s skin and she hissed in a breath, bundling her fingers in her sleeve before touching the stones again. She hurried forward.

I’m glad I don’t have Prefect duty; this place is too spooky, the young Slytherin thought as her soft footsteps echoed in the entrance hall, moonlight splayed on the floor, wavering through the thundering clouds. She could barely tell where she was in the dark.

Harriet had almost reached the floor where the library could be found when she heard sobbing. Muffled sniffling drifted from the open door of an empty classroom, and when Harriet inched nearer to see who it was, she saw a professor standing hunched in-between the sparse whorls of moonlight coming through the frosted windows. He wore a purple turban, a dark olive cloak—and sobbed into his cupped hands.

“I’m trying, Master—. I can’t—. I can’t—.”

He sobbed again, harder, then abruptly stopped, sucking in a breath and no small amount of snot. He whipped around and Harriet scuttled backward as if she were visible, which she was wasn’t, of course. Seeing him clearer, Harriet realized the wizard was the Muggle Studies professor. Terrence Higgs pointed him out when she asked about the subject at lunch one time—pointed him out with the kind of sneering snark most Slytherin reserved for anything even remotely Muggle in distinction. She couldn’t remember the wizard’s name.

He passed her by and heat struck Harriet’s neck like a thousand stinging needles abruptly diving into the flesh of her shoulder and throat. A gasp left Harriet but the wizard kept sniffling as he shuffled off, covering the sound. The pain lasted only a moment, then vanished as it’d never been; Harriet, however, kept her hand clasped her neck as if to ward off a second bout. She watched the teacher until he wandered out of sight.

Slytherin’s not the only one who gives me the creeps.

Harriet waited several minutes and took several steadying breaths before she turned—and saw Professor Snape standing at the corridor’s end.

Standing there, staring at Harriet.

But that’s impossible, she told herself as she stood perfectly still. Snape did the same. He couldn’t possibly—.

Snape took three furious steps forward and lunged before Harriet could do more than jump, the Potions Master snatching the cloak right off her head. “Potter!

“How do you do that?!” Harriet blurted out before she could think better of it. “Can you see through all invisible stuff or—?”

Professor Snape loomed overhead and Harriet’s blathering dwindled. The girl gulped.

“Thirty points from Slytherin!” he snarled. “What kind of absolute idiocy would lead you to believe wandering the school in the middle of the night was permissible? I had hoped you were beyond such puerile arrogance. What do you have to say for yourself, hmm?”

“Err—.” Harriet blinked at the man as he continued to silently fume. “What’s—what’s puerile, sir?”

“Childish, Miss Potter! Childish!” Snape hissed. “Return to your dorm! Immediately!”

“But what about—?” She reached for the cloak still hanging from his pale fist and Snape pulled it out of reach, the hem fluttering against Harriet’s fingertips.

“Oh no,” he said, voice returning to the cold, soft intonation she was used to. Harriet thought of it as like getting jabbed by a metal knife instead of being bludgeoned with a club. “I believe I’ll be confiscating this.”

Harriet opened her mouth to argue and Snape gave her a glare so ferocious she thought she might just be immolated on the spot if she so much as breathed funny. “Go, Miss Potter. Or do we need to wake Professor Slytherin and have this discussion with your Head of House?”

Harriet went. Snape followed her all the way down to the dungeons again, though not into the common room itself. He stood beyond the open passage door with her cloak stuffed into a robe pocket, and as the stones grated against stone, preparing to close, the professor said, “One last thing, Potter.”

“…yes, sir?”

Snape grinned and it was not a nice look at all. “That’ll be another week of detentions.”

The passage closed, leaving nothing but a blank stretch of wall behind.

“Well, shit.”

Chapter Text

xxix. pure-blood

 

The scarlet steam engine idled by the platform and perfumed the air with the heavy smell of carbon and ash. Hermione, bundled in her coat and scarf, paused just beyond the empty barrier onto the station and sighed, puffs of white still slipping through the loose weave of her emerald scarf.

Hermione Granger loved her parents. Truly. Her childhood had been filled with love and trips to educational locales and warm Sunday afternoons spent in the den reading together or watching telly. She would read the paper over her father’s shoulder. She would play checkers with her mum, knees tucked under the coffee table, a furrow of thought digging between her mum’s brows as she considered the board. Dr and Dr Granger were genuine and affectionate parents.

However, Hermione knew they weren’t very understanding.

The Grangers never much enjoyed Hermione’s insatiable quest for knowledge. To be certain, having a bright child was a joy, but when curiosity turned into near-obsession, a need to question everything right down into the atoms of its creation, that brightness becomes a curse. Her parents would feed Hermione’s inquisitive nature to a point, then say “Enough, Hermione,” with exasperated sighs and brow rubbing.

They had no comprehension of magic. To them, magic was the trade of backroom peddlers and shabbily dressed charlatans on stage; it was all theatrical, pulling rabbits from hats and yanking loads of handkerchiefs from one’s sleeve—smoke, mirrors, and a bit of glamour. The Grangers let their daughter go with Minerva McGonagall in hopes of Hermione learning better control over herself and her rabid curiosity, and after a few months missing her presence, they’d come to fully understand they’d sent their only child into a realm beyond their own. There’d be no Oxford for Hermione, no future as a lawyer or a doctor or a dentist like her parents. By sending her into the world of magic, they’d effectively cut off feasibility of her ever functioning in their own.

The Granger spent much of their two weeks together attempting to convince her staying home and not returning would be best. Hermione knew that wasn’t an option—not that she wished to leave Hogwarts behind anyway. From the moment Hermione stepped foot across her threshold and took Professor McGonagall’s hand, her parents ceded all guardianship rights over to the hands of the Ministry, and in the eyes of judicial circumstance, she was Hermione Malfoy, ward of the Most Noble House of Malfoy and subsequently held to a contract that wouldn’t be completed until September nineteenth, 1996. To the Ministry, Hermione Granger no longer existed.

She loved her parents. She’d greatly looked forward to spending the holiday with them, and yet the more the Grangers persisted in disparaging magic, the more Hermione felt as if they were again telling her she was too much, that magic was just one element too much in their otherwise practical daughter they wished she could be rid of. Hermione could no more quit being magical than a cat could quit being feline. She spent the final days of break in her room, longing for Hogwarts, for Harriet and Elara and a comfortable four poster beneath a murky lake.

Hermione’s stomach flipped with guilt when she glanced one last time at the barrier before walking away.

The majority of students returned home for the Christmas—Yule—holidays and yet few filled the compartments, most lingering still on the platform, procrastinating to the very last minute to wring out the last drop of vacation they could. Hermione boarded the train and thought of finding an empty compartment—until she saw a familiar face and burst into a wide grin.

“Elara!” she said as she eased the door open and dragged her trunk behind her. “Can I sit here?”

The pure-blood girl lifted her eyes from the book in her hands and smiled in turn, a hesitant look Hermione might have taken offense at before she came to learn more about the youngest Black daughter. “Of course,” she said. Hermione jerked her trunk over the threshold and let the door clatter shut. Using her wand, she cast a quick Wingardium Leviosa, and the trunk settled neatly on the rack. Hermione sighed when she sat because using magic again after abstaining for two weeks was a joy.

And to think I haven’t even been a witch for a full year. She paused. Well, technically, I’ve always been a witch, haven’t I?

“Did you have a pleasant holiday?” Hermione asked. Elara closed her book on her hand, using a thumb to hold her place, and gave Hermione her attention.

“Not…entirely. My uncle passed on.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. You mentioned he was ill, but I didn’t know….” Of course she hadn’t known. Elara was particularly quiet and answered most personal questions with blank stares or utter passivity.

“I had hoped for more time. I was quite busy with the arrangements afterward.”

What does she mean by that? Why would she be busy with such things when she’s only eleven?

“How was your vacation, Hermione?”

She pushed such thoughts away and smiled. “It was—nice.” Hermione left out the strange anxiety that had prevailed in her warm but nonetheless mundane home. “Mum and dad wanted to get out of country for a bit, but opted to stay home in the end.”

“Read anything interesting?”

Now that was a question Hermione could answer at length, and she did so with pleasure, rambling off about the very book Elara had sent her for Christmas from the House of Black library, an tome about old and more dubious Charms. Hermione knew if a prig like Draco or, God forbid, Mr or Mrs Malfoy knew Elara was distributing books out of the family library to a Mudblood like her, they’d go ballistic. She expressed interest in seeing the Black library in its entirety, then winced at how heavy-handed she sounded. Elara simply smiled again.

“I would invite you and Harriet over during the summer, but the house is…not in the best repair.”

“Oh, that’s okay, I didn’t mean to invite myself over.” Hermione nibbled on her lower lip and wondered why she suddenly felt so anxious. Then, she realized this was the first time she’d been alone with Elara and her presence was…singular. Normally Harriet would be there, ignorant to any awkward tension—well, not ignorant so much as uncaring. The bespectacled girl could be quite persistent and read Elara’s silences and minute shifts in expression better than Hermione did. “I hope Harriet had fun staying at Hogwarts.”

Elara grimaced. “She sent Cygnus home with a letter. Apparently Snape’s been giving her detention.”

“No! Why would he do that?”

“Because he’s a miserable bat.” Elara scowled at the air before her. Professor Snape always snarled over Elara’s terribly botched Potions, so Hermione assumed the dislike was mutual. “He’s the sort. After all, aren’t you of the opinion he cursed Longbottom in November?”

She had been, but a trip to the library after the match had proved Elara correct in her guess that Professor Snape could have just as easily been reciting the counter-curse. “I’m not sure.” It wasn’t very Slytherin to curse people out in the open; oh, they’d do it in a dark alley without witnesses, but in the middle of a stadium? No, that showed no finesse, no skill. Sloppy.

“He acts oddly around her,” Elara said, her eyes hard.

“How so?”

“He…hesitates.”

Hermione didn’t understand what she meant by that and, frustrated, went to ask the other girl to clarify—when the door clattered open again.

“Granger,” drawled Draco Malfoy in a chilling, if childish, mimicry of Mr Malfoy. “Back from the Muggles, are you?”

“Hello, Draco, pleasant holiday?” Hermione asked through her teeth, wanting more than anything to set the pointy little toady on fire. She checked that urge, however, before her wishes became reality.

Draco sniffed and lifted his sharp nose into the air as Goyle and Crabbe stood silent and bored behind him, blocking part of the corridor. The train had set out some minutes ago, though parts of outer London still flashed by the windows. “You didn’t come to our Yule ball.”

Hermione’s mind flashed back to the gilded invitation she’d received via owl post, the one she’d thrown into the fire after penning a succinct reply. “I was with my parents,” she said by way of explanation. Really, she thought it should be obvious.

Malfoy sneered. “You’re a witch, Granger, and it’s tradition! You don’t celebrate Christmas anymore.”

“There’s a difference between being proud of heritage and being a bigot, Malfoy,” Elara interrupted. She opened her book again and prepared herself to settle in with such carefree indifference, Hermione was beginning to believe the pure-bloods might really have that cold, haughty look encoded in their DNA. “Learn it.”

“Watch your mouth, Black,” Malfoy spat. “Or people will start thinking you’re a Mudblood loving fool, too.”

“I have no love for Muggles,” Elara responded with a shrug, causing Hermione to flinch with surprise and considerable hurt. “Nor whatever diatribe you mean to spew.”

“Father’s quite upset with you, you know. He’s been to the Ministry and they’re going to overturn the emancipation. You should watch yourself, blood-traitor.”

“The list of things I don’t care about is quite long; even so, the concerns of Lucius Malfoy and his feeble-mouthed son might just top it.”

Hermione thought it unfair that, even when flushing with rage, Malfoy was still pretty in that prim, affluent mien of his. She had always been an ugly crier. Goyle and Crabbe shuffled in the background and looked eager to be off, seeing as they didn’t have the skills to counter Elara’s savage repertoire.

“Good day, cousin,” the pure-blood girl said with finality, disappearing behind her book. Malfoy stood and gawked for a moment longer, then allowed himself to be encouraged into the corridor and out of sight by his bored friends. Once the door rolled shut, Elara lowered the book again, looking cross, and yanked the shades down on the windows.

“What’s this about an emancipation?” Hermione asked for lack of knowing what else to say. Oh, she had plenty she wanted to say, but the words vied for dominance and created a traffic jam in her head.

“My uncle,” Elara began as she closed the book again and, with a sigh, dropped it on the seat at her side. “He assured my emancipation before he passed on so I—and, by extension, the House of Black—wouldn’t be slipped into Malfoy’s pocket. Malfoy’s been to the Ministry to throw a tantrum, of course, but there’s nothing he can do about it.”

“Do you really not like Muggles?” Hermione asked, unable to keep the hurt out of her voice. Yes, she was a witch—but Hermione had been raised a Muggle, was a Muggle-born, and to hear that someone she considered one of her best friends might hold that heritage against her was almost more than Hermione could take.

Elara must have seen the pain in Hermione’s eyes because her irritated expression eased to something softer. “I think it’s more appropriate to say I don’t like people in general,” she replied with a crooked smile. Pausing, she then began to unbutton her cuffs, rolling them back to reveal pale, skinny wrists. Given that Hermione had never seen the other girl dressed less than perfectly and completely covered, even when she woke up late and surly in the mornings, she couldn’t help but glance at the skin bared to the afternoon sunlight.

Scars marred Elara’s arms, puckered and pink, not quite new but definitely not old either. Horrified, Hermione initially thought they were evidence of Elara hurting herself. The thought turned Hermione’s stomach with worry, until she noted how thick the scars were, the flesh torn rather than sliced, amassed mostly about the mound of her palms and the lower portions of her thumb joints. If she had to be objective, Hermione would say it looked as if…as if her wrists had been bound by something restrictive, unyielding, something like handcuffs, and she’d tried very hard to rip them off.

“The place I lived before, the people there, were much like the Malfoys. The kind of people who justify what the Dark Lord did, just as the Dark Lord justifies what they do. They prescribed to a particular dogma and felt themselves justified in harming those who were different from themselves.”

“That is foul,” Hermione said, shaken, staring. “Foul. Why haven’t you gone to Madam Pomfrey? Or Dumbledore? Or—or—!” She didn’t want to say Professor Slytherin. Their Head of House was terrifying.

“Because it’s done. I’m not going back there. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But—.”

No, Hermione.” With that, Elara quickly pushed her sleeves back into place and redid the buttons. She kept her eyes averted.

Hermione didn’t know what to say. Elara had only spoke of her prior home once or twice and had referred to it as ‘that place’ or ‘those people.’ Still, Hermione couldn’t have guessed this kind of trauma lay beneath Elara’s steely exterior, her inflexible need to remain unnoticed and in control of herself. The part of Hermione that was ‘too much’ wanted to urge the other girl to tell someone who could do something, someone who could fix that horrendous scarring or take away the flinty, hateful gleam in Elara’s pale eyes. Someone had to be able to help.

Hermione closed her mouth. She stood from her seat, then sat next to Elara. The other girl stiffened, but as the minutes passed and the train continued to rattle around them, laughter echoing in the corridor, she finally relaxed. “Don’t tell Harriet,” Elara whispered.

“Why ever not?”

“She has her own problems to deal with.”

That brought an end to the conversation. The two witches sat in silence as the world continued to change beyond the gentle rocking of the train’s carriage. Hermione watched the countryside and considered just how little she truly knew about her best friends’ lives.

Chapter Text

xxx. a breath before the storm

 

On the evening students were set to return to Hogwarts, Harriet came barreling out of the dungeons and collided with something solid.

“For Merlin’s sake, Potter,” Professor Slytherin grunted, one hand pressed to the place on his chest Harriet had smacked with her head. “Do watch where you’re going!”

Harriet backpedaled and would have tumbled down the steps behind her had Slytherin not grabbed hold of her arm. His grip chafed and Harriet winced, then gave a swift apology before hurrying on. Slytherin hissed “Rude child,” behind her. Harriet almost froze, shocked by his open usage of Parseltongue, but she wasn’t meant to understand that, so Harriet kept running. Odd, she mused. I thought I’d imagined it, but his accent really is different from mine, even in a snake language.

Scratching her neck, Harriet entered the entrance hall and dodged around the few older students who’d already arrived, sliding on the ice that encased the outer steps, though she kept her balance and hopped into the snow. Others weren’t as lucky; they laid scattered and rumpled, complaining as McGonagall used her wand to warm the stones and scolded those who swore within her hearing. Harriet shivered in the wind and gave a thought for her cloak down in the dormitories.

“Harriet!”

Coming up the path from the line of creepy horse-pulled carriages strode Hermione and Elara, both panting heavily as they trekked through the sludge. A wide grin spread across Harriet’s face as she set off again, weaving through the crowd, her feet small and light enough to skate over the snow where others sunk deep. She felt like one of the elves from the Tolkien books Aunt Petunia had burned. Hermione let out a small shriek when Harriet threw her arms around her and they toppled into a drift, Elara evading a similar fate by jumping aside.

“Miss Potter—!” McGonagall admonished, only for her attention to be diverted by a sixth year Ravenclaw toppling into a third year.

Giggling, Harriet rolled onto her back and sunk into the snow while Elara pulled Hermione to her feet.

“Harriet, you’re going to freeze to death, you’re not even wearing your cloak!”

“Don’t care,” she said with a sigh as the air escaped her in a white plume. “I haven’t been outside in days thanks to Professor bloody Snape.”

“Did he really give you all those detentions?”

Yes! He even gave me two in one day. For lookin’ at him funny.”

Hermione managed to pry her out of the ice. “You aren’t serious. You can’t be, that’d be monstrous.”

“I think his exact words were ‘If you can sit there glaring at me, Miss Potter, you can spend an hour in the dungeons glaring at the wall’.”

Snorting, Elara wrapped an arm about the shorter girl’s shoulders to bring her into the shelter of her own cloak. Hermione started plucking dead leaves out of the unholy tangle of her hair. “That does sound like Snape, Hermione.”

The older Slytherin huffed with disapproval.

“I’ve missed you two lots,” Harriet said. “Hogwarts isn’t the same without you.”

“We missed you too, Harriet.”

 

_____

 

The oddest thing about classes resuming was Snape’s sudden switch in attitude.

He went right back to ignoring Harriet, like a cobweb too far up on the ceiling to be bothered with, or an ugly painting you pass by without giving it any real thought. Her detentions came to an abrupt halt the afternoon the rest of the student body arrived, and so baffling was the change, Harriet knocked a beaker off her desk on purpose in Potions to see what he’d do. Snape just sneered and continued pacing the class.

He’s a confusing bloke.

“I bet he was trying to keep you out of trouble,” Hermione said one afternoon as they ascended from the dungeons and headed toward the Great Hall for lunch. “Being the only Slytherin here over break. Honestly, Professor Snape seems to take over most of the Head duties. Professor Slytherin just—.” Hermione waved a hand in a vague gesture.

“Slithers about?” Harriet put in.

“Creeps?” Elara muttered, earning a titter from the bespectacled girl.

“Stalks?”

Will you two be quiet before someone hears you?” Hermione hissed as they came into the Great Hall proper. They edged nearer the Slytherin table, pausing only to let a group of sneering fourth year Gryffindor boys pass before reaching their seats.

“I don’t get into trouble,” Harriet insisted as platters and full cups of pumpkin juice appeared before them.

“You did drop a beaker on Professor Snape’s foot,” Hermione told her.

Elara spooned green beans onto her plate. “And then headbutted him in the thigh when you bent down to retrieve it.”

“It’s his own bloody fault for standing so close,” Harriet grumbled, cheeks red. “Don’t take his side; he stole my new cloak! Says I won’t get it back until I ‘learn some responsibility.’ What does that even mean? How does one learn responsibility? I’m plenty responsible!”

“Well, what did you expect to happen when you went out after curfew with it?”

“I expected to be invisible, that what.” Harriet popped a biscuit into her mouth and chewed. She thought there might be something funny about Snape’s eye; during the detentions he’d assigned later in the evenings, she’d seen how he’d always rub at his scarred left eye after brewing something particularly smelly or reading a clutch of essays. How else could he see through the cloak? How else could he see Livi? The ruddy snake could cross the dorm and steal all the food in the bowl laid out for Bulstrode’s cat without anyone any the wiser but Snape always stared whenever Livi poked his snout outside her collar.

Harriet stuck another biscuit into her mouth and Parkinson, seated across the table, grimaced. “You eat like an animal, Potter,” she complained. “Were you raised in a barn?”

“Close ‘nough,” Harriet replied, memories of the cupboard and sitting alone in the dark, listening to the Dursleys eat, flashing through her mind. She smacked her lips just to irritate Pansy. Parkinson voiced her revulsion and turned away.

Hermione and Elara took it upon themselves to slip servings of foods healthier than sugary biscuits onto Harriet’s plate as conversation turned away from their prickly Potions professor. “I must have read a dozen theory books on the Shield Charm during the holiday and still can’t cast it as well as you can, Harriet. I just don’t understand. Of course, I’m doing better than most in our class, but the practical spells just aren’t as fluid as yours, no matter how often I practice.”

Shrugging, Harriet pointed out that she still managed to turn her matches into javelins half of the time in Transfiguration. Recently they’d moved on to changing plants into various inanimate things and Harriet’s almost always turned out over-sized or oddly disproportionate, though she was getting better.

“I was actually reading the book you got me for Christm—Yule, Elara, and it talked all about Shield Charms.”

“Really?” Hermione asked, interest piqued. “I’ve read about Protego Duo and Protego Totalum, though the latter is considered far beyond our current ability.”

Harriet gave her head a quick, sharp nod. “There’s loads more—all of them made to counter specific elements or objects, making them stronger or weaker than plain Shield Charms, depending on when you use them. There’s Protego Impervius, against water based spells, and Protego Flammae against fire—and harder stuff like Protego Mente Malitiae, which is supposed to ward away spells of ‘ill intent,’ and Protego Visus, which I gather is a bit like a Notice-Me-Not? I didn’t really understand that part. It’s supposed to make you harder to concentrate on and takes a barmy amount of wand-work if the diagrams were anything to go by.”

“Can I borrow this book?”

“‘Course,” Harriet said. “Look, I’ve been practicing the one that conjures water shields—.” Making sure no one else was paying attention, she drew her wand from its brace on her wrist and held it under the table, out of view. Like a typical Protego, the charm required a sharp downward slash, but before that she needed to perform a gesture similar to the alchemical symbol for ‘water,’ an inverted triangle created with three rapid, tight twitches with the wand made from the wrist rather than her fingers. Harriet performed the proper motions, then whispered “Protego Flammae.”

Properly done, the spell was meant to conjure water in a wispy shield reminiscent of the thin, milky sheen of a plain Protego, but Harriet must have done something wrong, because the moment the words crossed her lips, every goblet in the Great Hall burst, sending their contents flying ten feet into the air before raining back down. Students shrieked as they were doused in pumpkin juice and tea. Most of the professors managed to throw Impervius Charms over themselves, though Selwyn bellowed when he caught a face full of hot cider on its way up, and Dumbledore actually laughed at the madness unfolding before him. Snape and Slytherin looked murderous.

Harriet just gawked in horror.

She didn’t resist when Elara cinched an arm about her own and all but yanked her from the bench. Others had jumped to their feet as well, and it looked like a full food fight had broken out at the Gryffindor table much to McGonagall’s despair. Elara swiftly led Harriet right out of the Great Hall’s doors with Hermione scrambling after them, pale and speckled with juice.

“And here I thought you were saying you don’t get into trouble,” Elara said once they’d made it into the entrance hall with a few miffed Ravenclaws clutching damp books to their chests. “That certainly looked like trouble.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Harriet complained. “I did it all right in the dorm over break. Here lemme—.” She whipped out her wand, fully intending to try the Charm once more—when Hermione lunged for her arm, pushing it down. “What are you—?”

“Hey, Potter!”

Two of the Ravenclaws had stowed away their texts in their school bags and approached. Harriet recognized them as Terry Boot and Anthony Goldstein, the former lanky and brown-haired, the latter boasting a shock of blond locks atop his head. “W-what?”

“You were the one who cast that spell, right?”

Harriet sputtered. “Wh—? No, of course not. Why would I do something like that?”

Terry’s eyes dropped to her wand with a bemused expression and Harriet quickly stuffed it into her sleeve, her cheeks bright pink.

“Can you teach us how to do it?” he asked, genuine curiosity in his bright eyes. “I haven’t seen anything like it. It would have amazing uses.”

“Er—,” Harriet hedged, fiddling with the edge of her sleeve, her face still warm. “That, uh, wasn’t really what it was meant to do—not that I’m admitting it was me who cast it.”

Terry grinned. “Do you think you could show us how it went wrong?”

“It only works with liquid that is already present,” Hermione interrupted. “The original is meant to coalesce it from the air, like an Aguamenti Charm. What practical use would you have for a spell that throws all open liquids within a hundred yards into the air?”

“Well, it could be really useful, couldn’t it?” Anthony replied, earnest. “Like you said, water conjuring Charms can only make use of what is already there, typically what is atmospheric and gaseous. What if your spell could be used to move an underground spring closer to the surface? Imagine the impact that could have on Herbologists and Wizarding farmers!”

Hermione’s mouth popped open and she got that glassy-eyed look Harriet recognized as one of her overly thoughtful expressions. “But that’s brilliant. I thought you wanted the spell for a prank or something ridiculous like that….”

Harriet didn’t think that. Ravenclaws, from what she’d seen, found witty jokes like riddles far funnier than anything physical like a food fight. She followed along with the conversation, though she thought it a bit too dry and theoretical for her tastes when Hermione, Terry, and Anthony devolved into a conversation about magical agriculture and the limitations of duplicating matter for consumption.

“Honestly,” Harriet grumbled to Elara. “They’re eleven. Where do they find time to think about all this stuff?”

Elara shrugged.

In the end, the Ravenclaws convinced Harriet to teach them the Protego Flammae Charm, and after dinner they all gathered in an empty classroom on the first floor and tried to recreate the spell. They didn’t manage to explode any more goblets, but before Filch came to chase them back to their dormitories at curfew, all five of first years could create a passable water shield. They returned to their beds sopping wet and tired, but also rather pleased with their progress.

Overall, Harriet was glad everything was back to normal at Hogwarts.

Chapter Text

xxxi. like an untimely frost

 

Yawning, Harriet leaned an elbow on the planter’s edge and watched the Plufferupherius sob.

“I really don’t know what happened,” Elara said as she wrung her gloved hands and the plant’s weeping increased. Professor Sprout gave her a stern look worthy of Professor McGonagall and Elara winced. “Really, Professor, I don’t understand why this always happens. I’m not doing it on purpose, and I—.”

The Plufferupherius’ yellow petals drooped as it wailed and leaned away from Elara. Professor Sprout rolled her eyes and used a pair of pruners to nip off the blackened stem Elara had inadvertently touched while they’d been collecting the orange pollen. Their station was covered in the stuff now, their gloves stained from trying to sweep it up when the plant wheezed and threw a tantrum. Needless to say, Professor Sprout was less than impressed, which meant Harriet and Elara had to stay behind the rest of the class and try to explain themselves.

“I’ve never met a jinx quite so cursed as you, lass,” Sprout said as she set the dead branch on the counter and stroked one calloused finger down the Plufferupherius’ prickly stem. The strange plant shivered and fell quiet, swaying slightly under her practiced ministrations. “We may need to ‘ave a word with your Head of H—.” She stopped, an odd expression crossing her face. “With Professor Dumbledore about that. Going forward next year we’re going to be handling more of my rarer specimens and I can’t ‘ave you killing them.” Sprout tutted, lost in thought. “Finish up your cleaning, then hurry to dinner, girls.”

She shuffled off to check a few of her other plants in the greenhouse as Harriet and Elara hurried to brush the rest of the pollen into the folded parchment they’d been using to funnel the sticky granules into their vial. The Plufferupherius ignored Harriet but kept its eyes—well, the twiggy part Harriet thought it must see with—suspiciously trained on the Elara the whole time. Elara frowned at the dowdy little shrub and it sniffled, shedding more pollen. Harriet grimaced.

“I’m sorry for keeping you,” Elara said. “You should probably partner with someone else in this class.”

Harriet waved a hand. “I don’t mind. Gardening’s not all that bad; I used to do all the yard work for my aunt, you know.” She managed to sweep up the last of the dust with the parchment’s edge. “This stuff reminds me of the pollen that comes off lilies—meaning it gets bloody everywhere.” The Plufferupherius gave her a scandalized look and sobbed. “Oh, budge up, you cry baby.”

Glancing toward Elara, Harriet saw that the other girl had plucked the dead branch from the counter’s edge. She held it between thumb and forefinger, twirling it slightly, the branch black and shriveled to half its typical size as if every drop of moisture had been sucked out of it. As Harriet watched, the branched changed. Veins of green returned between the bark’s cracked husk, like blood seeping beneath new skin, and tender little vines sprouted from the end. A white flower blossomed.

“Wh—how’d you do that?” Harriet asked, gob-smacked. Elara jumped as if she’d forgotten Harriet was there and chucked the branch into the rubbish bin.

“It’s nothing,” she said, stripping off her gloves.

“It didn’t look like nothing. It looked like—.”

Don’t.”

Harriet had never heard Elara speak like that before; sharp, but quiet, like the sudden jab of a spear aimed toward a shark circling her sinking boat. Aunt Petunia used that voice when Harriet dared mention the dreaded ‘m’ word. Harriet was dreadfully curious; she knew what she’d seen and wouldn’t be convinced otherwise, but she shrugged and went about tidying up. Elara shot her a gratified look.

She brought that branch back to life, Harriet thought. But she didn’t want me to know that. Why not say anything? Is it a Slytherin thing? Like Professor Snape telling me to keep my Parseltongue to myself?

The two girls delivered the last of the pollen to Professor Sprout, who then shooed them out of the greenhouse and off toward the castle. They hurried along, the evening air brisk where the breeze chased itself up from the forest and through the open courtyard, though the sun hadn’t quite yet receded fully. Dinner would be commencing by now, and Harriet longed for something hearty to eat, something that would tie her over through the evening. They had Astronomy that night as they did every Friday and Wednesday night, and reading through constellation charts was excruciating on an empty stomach.

There you two are!” Hermione said once Harriet and Elara slid into their places on the bench at Slytherin table. The merry raucous of dishes being shifted and laughter rising—especially from the Gryffindors—made it difficult to be heard in the Great Hall, but Hermione managed. “I was beginning to think you’d gone off to the dorms without dinner, and you know we have Astronomy tonight.”

“Elara would’ve been fine,” Harriet put in as she nudged a tureen of gravy closer. “She’s better at it than both us.” She was, too; Astronomy and Transfiguration proved to be Elara’s best subjects, better than Hermione even, if only slightly. Being an absolute wreck and Potions and Herbology balanced her out. “Besides, we saw you getting along quite well with Mr Boot, didn’t we, Elara?”

Elara smirked.

Hermione gave Harriet a look that said in no uncertain terms she did not care for what the bespectacled girl was insinuating. “Terry and I were discussing our last Charms class.”

“Really? How…charming.”

Hermione whacked her arm with the back of a serving spoon.

“Ow.”

“He was telling me about how their Head of House, Professor Flitwick, tutors the Ravenclaws on the weekends in their common room.” She poured herself a glass of chilled milk and let out a huffy sigh. “It’s unfair, don’t you think? Our Head of House hardly seems to realize he is a Head of House and I doubt he’d ever lower himself to tutoring first years on the weekend—let alone a Muggle-born.” She scoffed and took a sip of her milk. “He’s far more concerned with the upper years. I’ve only seen him in the common room twice if I remember correctly.”

Harriet had a sudden recollection of tiptoeing from the dorm, disturbed by sibilant hisses rising in the otherwise empty common room. “I’ve seen him there,” she told them in her gravest tone. Hermione’s brow rose and Harriet glanced about at the other students. She would tell her friends more later, but too many ears were present to do so now. “But that portrait above the hearth? You probably shouldn’t go telling it all your secrets, if you catch my meaning.”

Both Elara and Hermione were clever—cleverer than Harriet, she thought—so they took her meaning immediately. There were several hearths in the Slytherin common room, and yet only one had a picture hung above its mantel, and that picture held only one occupant—an occupant of the serpentine variation.

Elara did as Harriet had and checked around them for eavesdroppers. Across the table, Malfoy was busy puffing out his chest and drawling to Parkinson, who reveled in his attention while Crabbe and Goyle ate their dinners and grunted about a Quidditch game posted in the Prophet. No one ever took much note of three random Slytherin girls. “When did this occur?”

“Yule holiday,” Harriet replied. She reached for the carafe of pumpkin juice—and a cup of steaming tea appeared just under her hand. Harriet didn’t much fancy herself a tea drinker, having only ever got the cold, bitter slop in the bottom of the pot at the Dursleys, but a cuppa before heading off to the library for homework sounded lovely.

“And he was just—just in the common room? While you were alone?”

“Well, I was in the dorm at first. He didn’t actually see me.” She blew on the tea and took a sip. It still burned on the way down. “I’m not mad enough to go out there with him mucking about.”

“It’s still very strange.”

“We’ve spoken before on Professor Slytherin’s oddity, Hermione. He—.” Elara stopped and frowned. “Harriet, are you all right?”

Harriet’s first reaction was to say “Fine,” but she couldn’t force the word past her lips. The burning she’d mistook as heat from the tea didn’t abate and, instead, continued from her mouth into her throat and stomach, then her lungs. She choked as the burn intensified, then sputtered, coughing, a burst of red exploding out her mouth. Some splattered on Parkinson and she recoiled, glancing down at the sudden damp spots on her arm.

“Merlin, Potter, you’re disgust—.” Her voice cut off as her eyes widened. Pansy shrieked.

Harriet’s fingers scrabbled at her throat in a bid to remove the obstruction. Nothing was there.

Harriet!

On instinct, she went to rise and only managed to throw herself backward, not registering the hard thwap of her skull smacking the floor in her desperation to breathe. Black spots bubbled to life. I can’t breathe! I can’t—! Someone had hold of her arm. Hermione screamed, “Professor Dumbledore!” and Harriet’s vision tunneled until everything seemed to simply drift away.

Then, she knew no more.

Chapter Text

xxxii. hand to the heart

 

Severus was having a wretched evening.

The day itself had been wretched from the outset, the first class a double period with the first year Slytherin and Gryffindor sods, two full hours spent attempting to squeeze information into their vacuous little skulls while he toadied to Death Eater brats and sneered at Minerva’s charges. Longbottom spent much of the lecture silently scoffing at everything Severus said before he and Finnigan proceeded with their abysmal work in the practical. Malfoy’s sprog almost laughed himself sick when the Boy Who Lived melted yet another bloody cauldron.

Potter and her cohorts required little attention; indeed, the three girls sat clumped in the back and only Granger dared ask questions during the lecture. As long as he allowed Black to partner with the other two, her catastrophes were limited. They formed a veritable paragon of social awkwardness and floated about the edges of Slytherin House, escaping pure-blood posturing and dissenting politics with an ease only children were capable of. It kept interested eyes away from Potter, kept her safe. Being able to somewhat ignore the girl as a result proved relieving for Severus.

He picked at his cold dinner, ignoring Minerva’s little irritated sniffs of disapproval. Gryffindor lost a grand total of forty-five points in Longbottom’s class alone and he knew the miffed Scotswoman would be banging on his office door later that evening, demanding an explanation. Slytherin would probably come slinking by for the show, foul creep. He felt the impending headache already lurching in his skull like a dark and foreboding promise.

Severus reached for his goblet—and swallowed a scream when agony tore through his hand.

Lucky for him, no one noticed; at that moment, a shriek filled the hall and several bodies at the Slytherin table leapt to their feet. As pain savaged Severus’ arm, Harriet Potter toppled from her seat between Granger and Black, spewing blood.

Severus couldn’t breathe. It’s the Vow, he realized. In that instance of time, seemingly suspended for an eternity, the world moved in slow, languorous increments around him as he cradled his burning wrist. It’s the FUCKING VOW!

“Professor Dumbledore!” Granger cried. The Headmaster was already descending the dais with Minerva in tow, students scattering before them like sparrows watching a cat approach. Minerva may coddle her Gryffindors, but not even the Potions Master could construe that fondness as neglect for any child of the other houses.

“Severus! Quickly!”

Albus’ voice shattered time’s suspension and Severus moved with ungainly speed, throwing himself over the table and down the dais steps with little more than a lunge. His vision wavered. With every passing second, the agony spread like a curse, pulsing with his heartbeat past his elbow, his shoulder, reaching for his chest and the vulnerable muscle racing inside its cage of bones. It almost appeared as if the shadows themselves rose from the floor to thrust the puling onlookers aside as Severus slid to his knees at the girl’s side, but he couldn’t be certain; his left eye strained and the right could see little more than blurs.

The Vow, the Vow, the Vow—.

He had a bezoar in his breast pocket, a habit he had picked up years ago in the wake of Slytherin’s nasty little curse as he didn’t trust the wretch or bloody Selwyn not to poison him for amusement. Severus wrenched the lumpy little stone out and had to almost break the girl’s jaw in his effort to pry it open. She convulsed even as he shoved the bezoar down her throat, her teeth cutting his fingers, not that he could feel the biting beyond the Vow’s unmitigated fury.

If she dies, I’ll die as well. A hysterical part of his beleaguered mind put in, What an embarrassing way to pop off, keeling over at the side of a student like a geriatric having a heart attack.

Granger, kneeling next to the girl, held Potter’s arm down and sobbed. Black stood behind her, fists clenched tight and her face pale as a unicorn’s hide. The tightness in Severus’ chest began to subside as the girl’s convulsions eased, though her breathing remained thin and several blood vessels in her eyes had burst. The Potions Master drew his fingers from her mouth and hissed at the sting. “She must be taken to the infirmary.”

Pomfrey shoved her way through the gawking brats and conjured a stretched, which Severus and Minerva helped load the girl onto. “I will go with her,” McGonagall said as Albus ordered the Head Boy and Girl to help the prefects disperse the crowd back to their dormitories. Naturally, Granger and Black resisted Farley’s efforts to escort them away and remained behind. The other professors trailed their charges.

I’m her Head of House,” Slytherin sneered. “You needn’t bother, Minerva.”

Minerva narrowed her eyes but didn’t argue. She also followed Pomfrey and Slytherin out of the Hall as the former levitated the stretcher and the latter curled his lip. Severus didn’t know why Slytherin bothered; the wizard professed no interest in his students beyond those malleable to the Dark Arts and had no patience for sick children. What is his game now?

His hand and wrist continued to throb as if both had suffered a sudden collision with something hard and unyielding. Severus sat back on his haunches and stared at his bitten fingers, blood oozing from the torn incisions, the flesh marbled with ripening bruises. Below that, he could barely see the pearlescent scarring of the old Vow.

I knew the truth all along, didn’t I, Lily? I knew it was the Vow but didn’t want to admit what it would mean.

He thought of all the times his hand had ached and pained him, of the weeks it would echo with distant prickling, of the nights he would wake in a cold sweat, searching for the blade piercing his skin only to find none. The pain had abated upon the girl’s admittance in Hogwarts; the worst incidents had been in the Headmaster’s office over the summer, and when the troll went on its rampage. The letter, he realized. We were discussing Potter’s reply to the letter when I was in the office. What happened to her then?

Despite its rather transparent name, the “Unbreakable Vow” was a gray and vacuous area of magic; those who studied it often died, infringing upon invisible terms and stray addenda, taken by a deadly curse masquerading as a promise because one cannot qualify what an oath means from one person to the next. Those dunderheads who had any real understanding of the Vow would never undertake it, and in the extreme hypothetical that they did, they knew only to agree to three stringent promises, three concise goals ingrained with expirations or loopholes that allowed for their survival. One did not promise something as wretchedly vague as “protecting” someone else.

Will you protect my daughter, the person I love most in this world, if I cannot, Severus Snape?

The Vow surged with agony, with warning, whenever he came close to failing her, like a tightrope frazzling under his feet. Swearing to protect a girl marked by the bloody Dark Lord may’ve been a stupid choice, and it may’ve been cruel of Lily to ask it of him—but Severus would’ve rather, quite literally, died than be shut out of his best friend’s life for a second time. Against the cold reality of lost absolution, pledging himself to the girl that had become Lily’s whole world was a little thing.

Movement jerked Severus’ attention to the handkerchief Dumbledore proffered, the older wizard’s eyes trained on his. Severus took the cloth and wrapped it around his injured digits.

I’m going to fucking kill Petunia.

“Miss Granger,” the Headmaster said in a soft voice to the girl still kneeling on the floor by the blood-splotched stones. He offered his hand and, once she took it, he helped Granger take a seat on the crooked bench behind her. The girl’s face was mottled and her hair a mess of frazzled curls. “Can you tell us what happened?”

“I—I don’t know, sir,” she replied, stealing a fortifying breath to still her tears. “We were talking about—.” Her eyes flicked toward the open doors, then away. “About things, and Elara noticed Harriet’s face had gone a bit funny. She started coughing, and there—there was blood, and she knocked over—.” Granger stopped and her eyes opened wide. The girl whipped herself around and stared at the blood splattered table littered with dinner’s remnants. “The tea!”

“Tea, Miss Granger?”

She pointed out the offending cup, tipped over in its saucer, most of the brown liquid splashed onto the floor or Potter’s abandoned plate. “The cup there! It wasn’t here when we sat down. I’m sure of it! Harriet drank from it and right after—!”

“Thank you, my dear….”

Severus swiped the cup from the table and gave the rim a delicate sniff. He heard Albus gently encouraging the two first years to return to their dorm, though Severus himself paid them little mind. He inspected the liquid, then dipped his little finger into the dregs and tapped the tip against his tongue. The burning, acrid taste confirmed his suspicions.

Soon only Dumbledore and Severus remained in the Great Hall, the solitude punctuated by the heavy thud of the hall doors coming closed. “Our poisoner has a sense of irony,” he spat, taking up a stray water goblet to clean his mouth. “They used an extract of Salazar’s Tongue.” A plant found common enough in the Forbidden Forest, though the average student wouldn’t know how to take the snake-like petals and brew them properly for a working poison.

“Hmm. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a poison.” The Headmaster stroked his beard in thought, then said, “Loppy.”

A loud crack heralded the arrival of a miserable, floppy-eared house-elf wringing the edge of his tea towel. “The Headmaster Dumblydore is needing Loppy?”

“Yes, thank you, Loppy. Could you bring us the elf responsible for supplying this cup of tea?” Dumbledore pointed out the cup in question and the elf’s blue eyes followed.

“Yes, Headmaster, sir. Right away!”

The house-elf disappeared. Severus sneered at the spot where it had stood, more out of frustration for himself than anything else. Poison. She was poisoned no more than a few meters away from you. Albus sat on the edge of the Ravenclaw table’s bench and held his single hand in a fist, the knuckles white. He was angry, Severus knew, but also worried; the skin about his eyes tightened, his white brow low and furrowed as the Headmaster’s brilliant mind set to work.

“You know,” the Potions Master said into the quiet, his voice cold. “I find your concern for Potter…surprising.”

“Why is that, Severus?”

“Because of her House.” Pacing the aisle between tables, Severus hid his trembling hand in the folds of his robes and rounded on Dumbledore. “I assumed you would be disappointed in her—suspicious, even. You’ve shown your precious Gryffindors considerable favoritism in the past, Headmaster. I am simply curious as to why you haven’t written Potter off as a lost cause.”

“Ah, my boy.” Albus heaved a weary sigh and his beard twitched in what could have been an indulgent smile. “You of all people know I’ve made many mistakes, especially in regards to your own person while you attended this very school. I allowed a schoolboy rivalry to progress into hostility on both sides.”

Severus looked away. “This is not about me.”

“No, of course not, my apologies. I simply mean to tell you that even men of my age are capable of changing and learning from their missteps. I have learned to not allow Tom Riddle’s corruption of Slytherin color my perception of its children; I have, after all, been shown that some of the purest hearts come from the House of Serpents.”

The Headmaster’s knowing gaze caused Severus to scoff. Pure-hearted indeed.

“There is good in Slytherin still. I will not give up on it. Harriet is kind—withdrawn yes, but kind and well-meaning, as are her friends Miss Granger and Miss Black. Miss Granger’s time with the Malfoys seems to have tempered her resolve and ambition, while Miss Black appears determined not to repeat her father’s mistakes,” Albus continued. “Aside from that, I find a poisoning always warrants the Headmaster’s concern. Don’t you, Severus?”

The Potions Master said nothing.

Loppy reappeared a moment later with a second house-elf in tow. The latter creature swayed where it stood, eyes hooded as if dazed, and when Loppy let go of its arm, the elf fell to the floor.

Severus shared a look with the Headmaster. It’s been Imperiused. Not well, either. The caster had left the spell to recede on its own without contingency, rendering the elf more of an insentient fool than usual as its personal will fought the expiring will of its attacker.

“This is Rikkety, Headmaster, sir,” Loppy said, dragging the other elf back to its feet.

“Thank you, Loppy, that will be all.”

The elf vanished again with a final worried glance about the Hall, and Dumbledore reached out to hold Rikkety steady as the cursed elf teetered. “Severus, if you would—?”

Nodding, he retrieved his wand and flicked it between the creature’s dazed eyes. “Finite Incantatem.”

The elf stumbled as the Imperious broke. A quiver ran through its spindly limb—then it burst into tears.

Wonderful, Severus griped as the green-skinned creature wailed. Dumbledore gave it several reassuring pats to the head and back before it calmed, snot dripping from its skinny nose, its tea towel wet with miserable tears.

“Oh, Headmaster Dumblydore, sir,” it said in a high-pitched voice. Female, then. “Rikkety is being a bad elf, sir!”’

“Can you tell us what happened, Rikkety?”

The elf nodded, head bouncing as she sniffled and fresh tears threatened. “Rikkety was told to serve the bad tea to Harriet Potter, sir. Rikkety didn’t want to, Headmaster Dumblydore, but Rikkety couldn’t stop herself!”

Albus conjured a handkerchief. He handed it to the elf, and she used to blow her nose. Tears peppered the ground underneath her.

“All is well, Rikkety. You were placed under a particularly powerful curse. Did you see who cast it upon you?”

As Severus expected, the elf shook her head. “No, Headmaster Dumblydore. Rikkety was cleaning up after Peevesy in the sixth floor corridor when someone came up the stairs and told Rikkety to go to the kitchens and make the bad tea.”

Severus and Albus shared another look. The Imperius Curse necessitated a certain level of power and knowledge to perform with any proficiency, but any student sixth year and above had knowledge of the spell as per the curriculum, and a particularly studious fifth or fourth year could figure it out. Their suspect had thinned, but not by much.

Albus sighed. “Thank you, Rikkety. I would ask you to warn the elves to be cautious over the coming weeks and to alert me if they witness anything suspicious.”

“Yes, sir, Headmaster Dumblydore,” the elf said. She paused and wrung the damp cloth tea towel between her knobbly hands. “Is—is Miss Harriet Potter going to be all right? Oh, Rikkety is a bad elf, very bad….”

“She will be fine with a bit of rest, never you worry. Off you go now.”

Rikkety sniffled again before disappearing. Severus stared at the far wall and fought his revulsion, his frustration. “Why,” he said to Dumbledore. “Would the agent go after Potter and not Longbottom? The stupid boy ate and drank plenty tonight, to no ill-effect. Why not curse the elf to taint both of their beverages? We would have only had time to save one.” And I would have gone for the girl, if only to save my own hide.

“The limits of the curse, I suppose,” the Headmaster replied, voice weary. He lifted his wand and banished the evening meal’s remnants.

“That still begs the question of why Potter and not the Boy Who Lived.”

Albus said nothing. They both knew the answer already.

“The agent is closer to the Dark Lord than we suspected,” Severus said, dread pulsing in his chest like a living thing, coupling with the fading agony in his arm. “If they know Potter is not all she seems—if he remembers something about that night—. Using Longbottom as a red herring will be pointless.”

“Not pointless, Severus. Tom does not know the truth. I am assured of this.”

How?” the Potions Master snarled. “How can you be so sure of this when the girl almost choked to death on her own blood not ten meters from us?!”

The Headmaster raised his hand and Severus calmed himself, forcing one breath, and then another, into his chest. “I believe Voldemort—.” Snape flinched. “—ordered his agent to test the waters, as it were. Had he known who Harriet is, he wouldn’t have bothered with Neville.”

“Unless attacking Longbottom was a rouse.”

“I don’t believe he has the patience for that, not in his current situation. Had he knowledge of Harriet and not just suspicions, or an old grudge, he would have gone for her directly.”

“You underestimate him.”

“No.” Albus shook his head. “I know what Voldemort is capable of—what he, Slytherin, and Gaunt are capable of. In any iteration, Tom is not a man to suffer fools lightly, but what is left of his true self will be desperate, Severus. We must be cautious.”

The Potions Master stared at the Dumbledore’s empty sleeve and the dread in his heart refused to abate, curling and snapping, tearing at his flesh until he felt he might bleed inwardly. Cautious. Severus no longer knew how to live any other way. “As you say, Headmaster.”

“Excellent. You should go to the infirmary and check if Poppy needs anything. I will check the third floor corridor.”

They departed, and as Severus walked the empty corridors, night clinging to the stone casements, his cloak trailing on the floor like a personal shadow nipping at his heels, he prayed the Headmaster was right.

Chapter Text

xxxiii. dark lord’s mistake

 

Harriet didn’t wake all at once. Rather, she became aware of an annoying ache in her back, and even as she tried to ignore it, the ache grew and grew until it persisted from the bottom of her ankles to the top of her head. Groggy and uncooperative, Harriet pushed the feeling aside and attempted to let sleep take her again, but the longer she lay in the half-doze between dreams and reality, the more Harriet began to realize something was not quite right.

She was used to things being “not quite right”; the whole of her existence up until she stepped onto the Hogwarts Express could be considered just that—and yet this was a kind of not quite right Harriet hadn’t experienced before, or at least not for a while. The only time she could recall something similar happening was when she woke in her cupboard, Set prodding her in the side, a large bump on her head after Uncle Vernon threw her inside.

What…what happened? What am I doing?

Harriet opened her eyes and expected to see the top of her dormitory ceiling, fingers of moonlight rippling through the lake’s clear waters—but that was not what she saw.

Where am I?!

She sat up and the white sheet pulled up to her chin fell into her lap, pain throbbing anew in her back and about her stomach. Harriet plucked at the front of the unfamiliar nightdress, then pushed a hand against her middle. The pressure increased the ache and she groaned.

“Good evening, Harriet.”

Harriet almost toppled right out of the narrow little bed she inhabited when a voice spoke at her side. She peered through the fuzzy darkness, trying to make sense of the misshapen blobs, and started again when someone slid her glasses into her hands. Muttering her thanks, she put them on and blinked.

The room she lay in was very large—a ward Hermione would call it—with more than a dozen empty beds lined up along both walls, the sconces all doused for the evening, rendering thick shadows where the moonlight couldn’t touch. Harriet’s bed sat near the far wall inlaid with diamond-paned windows, a screen blocking off much of her view of the ward, and perched in a chintz armchair at her side was Headmaster Dumbledore. He smiled at her.

She blinked again. “Er—?” Harriet blurted, nose scrunched in confusion. “Wh—? Where—?”

“Eloquent, Potter.”

The bespectacled girl was in for another shock when what she’d assumed to be a shadow by the windows bloody moved, and the starlight glowed on Professor Snape’s pale face when he turned in her direction.

Harriet stared at the gaunt wizard as she swayed ever so slightly, still mussy with sleep and cranky from pain. He stared in return. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. “But you can’t give me detention for it.”

His answering smirk said, I can try.

“I think we can do without any detentions tonight,” the Headmaster said, raising his brow for Snape’s benefit. The Potions Master huffed and crossed his arms, moving his attention to the view outside once more, which meant he missed the sudden humor in Dumbledore’s bright eyes. “Can you remember anything that happened, my dear?”

Harriet mulled over her jumbled thoughts and flashes returned to her, voices and screams, hot pain in her mouth and throat, Hermione’s clammy hand on her arm. “I…I drank something. Some tea I think, sir. It hurt.”

Dumbledore nodded, his expression once more grave as he ran his thumb along his knuckles in what Harriet thought might be an anxious gesture. “Yes. You were poisoned, Harriet.”

Poisoned?”

She remembered blood on Parkinson, red drops peppering her own hands and her plate, the strange burning not abating even as liquid poured out of her mouth.

“Is—did anyone else get poisoned?” She had sat between Elara and Hermione like she always did in the Great Hall; were they hurt too?!

“Everyone else is fine, my girl—as are you, thanks to Professor Snape’s swift actions and Madam Pomfrey’s care.”

Like a punctured balloon, Harriet deflated with relief, a heavy sigh leaving her as she slumped. Snape saved me? “But how did it get into my tea, sir?” Harriet asked. She looked into Dumbledore’s patient, knowing face, and when the silence stretched between them, she got her answer. “Someone put it in there? Someone meant to—?”

Someone meant to kill me.

Harriet couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to kill her; not even Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia could muster the kind of hate necessary for murdering their niece, though her uncle came close the last time she saw him. Harriet was a nobody; an eleven-year-old orphan, an average student, and a girl who mostly minded her own business. “Why? I haven’t done anything!”

Dumbledore considered her for a long moment. Snape, still at the window, said nothing and didn’t appear to even breathe, holding himself like a gargoyle looking out over the battlements. Harriet could see his arms folded behind his back and his clenched fists were plain against the black fabric of his robes.

“Tell me, Harriet; what do you know of Lord Voldemort?”

“That’s You-Know-Who, right?” It had taken months for Harriet to discover his stupid name. The Wizarding world refused to say it and Slytherins gasped when she asked. Even Hermione hadn’t known; it was only through Elara, who read the name written in a journal, that they discovered the truth. “Why won’t anyone say his name?”

“He put a Taboo upon it during the war. That is a kind of curse placed upon words—very old and very powerful magic, my dear. Voldemort felt it increased his mystique when others feared uttering his very name, but I feel fear of a name is a very silly notion. By naming a thing, we take away its anonymity and dispel the fear of uncertainty.”

Don’t tell her that.”

Snape whipped around, his face livid. “With all due respect, Headmaster, the girl is a Slytherin. You, in contrast, are eminently powerful—and independent—wizard who doesn’t have to worry about others taking offense to what he says. She cannot go about naming the bloody Dark Lord. Discretion is a virtue of the highest importance in our House.”

“Perhaps you are right, Severus. However, it is up to Harriet to make that decision for herself.”

Given the look Snape leveled in her direction, Harriet was fairly certain she’d land herself about a dozen detentions if she said “Voldemort” anywhere in his hearing.

“Nevertheless, his name and its usage are not what I wished to discuss; Harriet, what do you know of your history with Voldemort?”

History? “He killed my mum and dad, right?” Harriet lowered her eyes, and instead of looking toward the Headmaster, she stared at the hem of Snape’s black cloak. It trembled ever so slightly. “Before he tried to kill Neville Longbottom.”

“Yes. He killed many, many people, your mother Lily being the last.”

The same anger Harriet had experienced in Diagon Alley when reading The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts came upon her again, and it curled in her belly like a living thing, wanting to lash out at someone, anyone, as she hated Longbottom for surviving, her own parents for dying, and Voldemort for being a monster. It wasn’t fair—but Harriet couldn’t change any of it. She forced the feeling away and shut her eyes.

“Voldemort is many things, Harriet; powerful, dangerous—and also cowardly, petty. He is a wizard who has committed as many mistakes as he has misdeeds, though he refers to the latter as his successes and would never acknowledge the former. If given the chance, he tries to rectify those mistakes—erase them, I should say, so they cannot remind him of his failures.”

Harriet listened to the Headmaster and flinched each time he referred to the Dark Lord in the present tense. You-Know-Who was gone. He died at the Longbottoms’…hadn’t he?

“Sir,” she said, speaking softly, hesitating before meeting his eyes. “Sir, is—he’s dead, right? You-Know-Who died that night. Neville defeated him.”

Snape scoffed. Dumbledore’s gaze flicked in his direction, a warning in his slanted brow, and the Headmaster shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not, my dear.”

The blood roared in Harriet’s ears as she gaped without a word at the Headmaster’s statement, so simply given, his face open and calm even as Harriet’s heart bludgeoned itself against her ribs. I’m afraid not, my dear. How could he not be dead? How could—? He killed so many, ruined so many families and reduced whole Muggle villages to ashes, had murdered her mum and dad and—. How could Dumbledore say he wasn’t dead?

Harriet trembled. The Headmaster took her hand in his, squeezing, and only then did she realize how very clammy it’d become.

“You are one of his mistakes, Harriet,” the elderly wizard said. “Greater than you know.”

“Why? Because he missed me in the house that night?!” Her voice went high and tremulous. “He’s going to try to kill me?”

“Headmaster…” Snape cautioned.

Dumbledore ignored him and answered her. “Yes.”

Harriet felt very much like she might lean over the bed’s edge and vomit on the wizard’s shoes. Sweat peppered her brow and her mouth dried, her tongue heavy and awkward behind her teeth, Harriet’s fingers buzzing with numbness and fatigue. Someone had tried to poison her. Someone had tried to kill her for the Dark Lord.

“He’s not…he’s not here, is he?” Harriet asked, though surely that couldn’t be right. Someone would have recognized one of the most dangerous wizards in history trotting about the corridors, wouldn’t they?

“We believe he’s had an agent infiltrate the school—either willingly or unwillingly, as there are curses that exist to bend a person’s will against their own. You see, Harriet, Voldemort is not alive in the sense that you think he is; he’s a shadow of his former self, unable to live but unable to die, and he will use any means he can to return himself to our plane and wreak havoc again on society.”

Dumbledore,” the Potions Master snapped, stepping forward. “I really must protest—.”

“Harriet has a right to know,” the Headmaster responded with a shrug, his eyeglasses flashing in the moonlight. “Voldemort ensured her involvement when he ordered an attempt against her life.”

“But why send someone to Hogwarts?” Harriet asked, gulping. “Surely not because of me. Is it because Longbottom’s here?”

“No. He’s searching for something, something he knows was moved from Gringotts and placed here within my safekeeping. I do flatter myself in thinking I’m rather clever sometimes, and this artifact—.”

Headmaster!

Before Snape could be reprimanded for interrupting again, the sound of the infirmary door popping open and muffled voices moving closer silenced the Headmaster and the dour Potions Master. They both turned their alert gazes toward the screen blocking view of the ward—and Harriet froze in her bed, jerking her hand from Professor Dumbledore’s so she could twist it into the sheets. What if it was the poisoner coming to try again? Surely she’d be fine with two professors sitting right there—but what if she wasn’t?

Harriet almost wept with relief when Hermione and Elara stepped by the screen and both yelped when they caught sight of Snape swooping over them.

“Thirty points from Slytherin,” he said without preamble. “Out after curfew, the nerve—.”

“Sir, we were coming back from Astronomy and wanted to see if Harriet was well!” Hermione quipped before realizing to whom she spoke, slapping a hand over her mouth in afterthought. Elara just eased herself from foot to foot, looking queasy, if determined.

“I think, Severus,” the Headmaster said as he rose from his armchair. It vanished with a quick flick of his hand. “We shouldn’t fault Miss Granger and Miss Black for getting lost after their lesson. The castle can be a confusing place after nightfall, can’t it?”

Both Slytherins nodded.

“Let’s see…I believe thirty-five points should go to Slytherin for checking on the welfare of a classmate,” Dumbledore pronounced, smiling, though Snape curled a lip and his hands clenched the footboard on Harriet’s bed. Hermione beamed and Elara’s cheeks flushed. “Though Professor Snape is correct, and it is quite late. If you’ll excuse me, I have much to see to before I can seek my own bed. I will have to write to your relatives, Harriet, about this—.”

What?! “No!” Harriet shouted, shocking those gathered around her, the Headmaster’s brow rising and Hermione choking like she’d just cursed at the Queen of England. “I mean—you don’t have to, I—err—I’ll write to the Dursleys, I mean my aunt. I want to write to my aunt and uncle and tell them myself. Sir.”

For one long, dreadful moment, Dumbledore seemed on the verge of denying Harriet’s wish, then reconsidered, tugging at the end of his beard as he hummed. “Well, I’m sure it will comfort them to hear from you personally. I’ll ask Madam Pomfrey to give you what you need for a letter in the morning.”

“Thank you, Professor Dumbledore.”

The Headmaster nodded, then left the ward. Harriet thought—hoped—Snape might go as well, but the thoroughly irritable wizard lingered at her bedside, plucking a vial from the nightstand and all but shoving it into her face. “Take this.”

“What is it?”

Snape didn’t say anything at first, but when it became clear Harriet wasn’t about to take anything someone just handed her at random, he rolled his eyes and pinched the bridge of his considerable nose. “Incomprehensible little twit. Take it. The poison used, Salazar’s Tongue, Lingua Salazarius, has lasting effects the Amino Accelerator counteracts by rebuilding liquefied tissue.”

Harriet sighed. He could rattle off a line of absolute nonsense and I’d have no clue what any of it meant or if it was true. She took the potion and drank, wincing at the coarse, slimy texture. Snape snatched the empty vial back.

“It was laced with an analgesic melatonin infusion. You two—.” He glared at Hermione and Elara. “—have five minutes before she’s asleep. If you are not out in the corridor, where I will be waiting to escort you back to the Slytherin common room, after those five minutes, I will begin handing out detentions. Don’t try my patience.”

With that said, Snape followed Dumbledore’s path out of the infirmary, his cloak flaring like a particularly ominous thundercloud in his passage. He disappeared—and both of Harriet’s worried friends threw themselves at her bed, wrapping their arms tight around the scrawny bespectacled girl.

“You’re crushing me, really—.”

“Don’t you ever do that again!” Hermione whispered in a furious undertone. She and Elara released Harriet, the latter coming around the other side of the bed to avoid Hermione’s agitated hair flipping. “You could have died! Haven’t you been told not to accept food or drinks if you don’t know where they come from?!”

“To be honest, Hermione, I don’t know where any of the food or drink on the House tables comes from.”

“You know what I mean!” She sniffled and wiped at her misty eyes. Harriet stared, dumbfounded and not quite sure how to react; no one had ever been so worried over her wellbeing before. Had she walked out into the kitchen of Number Four one morning missing a limb, the Dursleys would have snapped at her to make certain she hadn’t left any blood or bits of flesh on their clean floors. No one had ever cared about Harriet Potter.

Elara reminded Harriet of Snape when she looked to the other girl for help; the moonlight falling through the window blazed across her pale complexion, dark tendrils escaping the bun at the nape of her neck, gloves covering her anxious hands. She remained quiet as Hermione regained composure, then finally spoke. “…You’re not going to write to your relatives, are you?”

Stricken, Harriet looked down at the blanket covering her knees. She shook her head.

The silence continued for much of their alloted five minutes, which surprised Harriet because she thought Elara would disapprove, or Hermione would argue. Instead, they stood quietly at her sides and each took one of Harriet’s hands in their own. Harriet held onto them even after Snape’s potion kicked in and she fell into her pillow once more, lost to her muddled dreams.

She was in the Great Hall, alone, seated at her familiar spot at the Slytherin table with nothing but a cup of tea before her. The cup of tea said, “Drink me, Harriet,” and when Harriet refused, the cup repeated, “Drink me, drink me, let me in!” Harriet ignored the tea and stared instead at the ceiling above, watching the night sky bleed starlight until, one by one, the torches went out, and she drifted away.

 

Chapter Text

xxxiv. clever witches

 

Harriet grimaced when she heard the familiar patter of Madam Pomfrey’s approaching footsteps.

“Miss Potter,” the mediwitch snapped when she stepped out of her office and found the girl attempting to escape the wing, one hand still on the knob, moments away from slipping through the opening. “I told you—.”

“But I’m perfectly well now!” Harriet argued, and the witch scowled, flicking her wand so the infirmary doors slipped right out of Harriet’s hands and closed. “C’mon, Madam Pomfrey—!”

“As I said, Miss Potter, you may return to class tomorrow, but for the weekend you are to remain here.” She pointed one imperious finger back into the ward’s depths. “Bed.”

Harriet returned the way she’d come, Madam Pomfrey quick on her heels, tucking Harriet in until the bespectacled girl felt all but strangled by the tight sheets. “Now rest. The more you rest, the quicker you can leave.”

Harriet scrunched her nose at the witch’s back when Madam Pomfrey finally returned to her office and quickly disentangled herself from the sheets, though Harriet did remain put. She was mostly sure the threats about Sticking Charms weren’t real—but only mostly, and Harriet didn’t much fancy being stuck anywhere while some nutter agent of the Dark Lord ran about the school wanting her dead.

An hour passed before Hermione and Elara arrived, both slinking by the ajar office door so Madam Pomfrey wouldn’t shoo them away before they had a chance to visit. Harriet perked up at their entrance and grinned as her friends hurried over and slid the screen into place behind them, blocking view of the ward once more.

“Did you bring it?” Harriet asked, positively bouncing with eagerness as Hermione adjusted the satchel slung across her shoulder and searched the interior.

“Yes, of course I brought it, though I don’t see why you want it so much….”

The bushy-haired girl unearthed Harriet’s copy of 101 Legendary Artefacts of the Wizarding World.

Excellent!” Harriet crowed before checking the volume of her voice, glancing toward the screen. “Really, thank you, Hermione.”

“It’s fine,” Hermione said, though a pleased blushed spread across her cheeks. “Oh! And Elara brought—.”

The taller girl stuck a hand into the pocket of her robes and withdrew a coiled bit of green.

“Kevin!” Harriet said as Elara deposited the little snake into her waiting hands. Kevin was the Christmas cracker snake she’d stuffed into her pocket at the feast and had promptly forgotten, until she returned to the dorms and heard Livi hiss about an intruder. “Thanks, but why’d you bring him?”

“Livi’s been going a bit…a bit mental,” Hermione confessed, eying the snake with a healthy dose of caution. “We can’t see him, of course, but he did tear Parkinson’s bed to shreds and broke a mirror. I tried telling him you were fine—but, well, I don’t speak snake, do I?”

“No,” Harriet affirmed. “Though Livi understands some English when he feels like it.”

“Elara came up with the idea of bringing you Kevin—such a ridiculous name, Harriet, really—so you could tell him what happened, and he could tell Livi.”

Harriet lifted Kevin to her face. “I dunno if that’ll work,” she said, dubious. “Kevin’s a bit of an idiot.”

The snake blinked one eye, then the other, as his black tongue flickered.

“Really?” Hermione asked as she sank into the visitor’s chair. Elara elected to perch on the end of the bed, and Harriet folded her legs to give her room. “That’s fascinating. You know he’s not a real snake; he’s a low-level Transfiguration golem created by the magic in the cracker you pulled. He’s like the insects and animals we work with in Professor McGonagall’s class.”

Harriet blinked. “So—wait? Those animals aren’t real?”

“They’re real in the sense that they have flesh and synapses and comprehend basic stimuli. According to Professor McGonagall, however, they lack a certain indefinable spark of life. Did you know that’s where the stories of Frankenstein came from? He was a wizard who attempted to bring a human golem to life. The creation of human golems is Dark magic, of course, though they are permitted in the training of Healers and mediwizards—and, anyway, Frankenstein thought to use dead bodies as his base because he felt it was the closest he could get to true living flesh, and that broaches into Necromancy, which is a forbidden branch of Transfiguration—.”

Harriet and Elara nodded their heads at proper intervals while Hermione rattled off more magical history, until she paused for breath and realized she’d been rambling at some length. “Oh, I’m sorry, the thought got away from me. Anyway, Kevin’s a golem. It’s quite interesting that he’s able to understand and perform commands.”

“Yeah,” Harriet replied. “I wonder if that’s why Livi hates him, though. I had to ask him nicely not to eat Kevin and now Livi treats him like his own personal slave.”

“Oh, Harriet, that’s awful.”

“Well, what would you have me do?” the bespectacled girl huffed. “Livius is almost as heavy as I am and I don’t much fancy getting into an argument with a miffed Horned Serpent.”

Hermione subsided with a cross expression and Elara smirked, turning before the older Slytherin could see. Harriet stroked a finger against Kevin’s skull to get his attention.

Misstresss,” the little snake hissed, wriggling in her palm, looping skinny coils about her wrist.

Hullo, Kevin,” Harriet said. “Can you bring a message to Livi?

The snake swayed.

Tell Livi I am okay. Can you do that?

The swaying paused, then Kevin responded, “Kevin will.”

Harriet gave the snake a minute to process the information before testing him. “Kevin will what?

Kevin’s beady little eyes widened as he stared at Harriet and whipped his forked tongue out. “Kevin will…?” His coils tightened, voice puzzled. “Kevin will…Kevin will bitesss.

Satisfied with his decision, he reared back and bit the finger that’d been stroking his head—the finger that was bigger around than the whole of the little snake’s body.

Harriet pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.

It took several more rounds of repetition and finger chomping before Harriet felt they had a semi-decent chance of Kevin relaying a proper message to Livi, and she handed the snake back to Elara, who slipped him into a pocket without so much as a flinch. They chatted quietly for a few minutes about the rumors swirling through the school and the general unease in Slytherin House after one of their own was poisoned. Harriet propped open 101 Legendary Artefacts in her lap and began flipping through pages.

“So why did you want the book?” Hermione asked as Harriet frowned at the picture of a green suit of armor. “I know you must be bored up here, but you were rather…insistent, and specific.”

Harriet stopped her perusal and considered her two friends, Hermione and Elara considering her in return. Should she tell them what the Headmaster had said? What would they do? Harriet didn’t want them to worry—or, worse, decide being around Harriet was too hazardous for their own health, which might very well be true if Harriet’s would-be murderer felt less stingy with his poisons. She fiddled with the corner of a page.

“Professor Dumbledore…when he came Friday night, he told me that I was poisoned by an agent of the Dark Lord.”

What?!” Hermione gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth when the exclamation echoed. Both she and Elara paled considerably, torn between outright horror and incredulity. Harriet rushed to explain.

“I know, I know, I didn’t really believe him at first, either. Professor Dumbledore said I was a mistake to—to him. That he meant to kill me when I was a baby with my parents, and that he’s not really dead like we think he is.” Harriet picked at the book until the page’s corner and she pressed her thumb against it, flustered. She didn’t meet their eyes. “They don’t know who the agent is, ‘course, and I’m not the reason they’re here. According to the Headmaster, the Dark Lord wants something that Dumbledore has—an artifact, he said, that was in Gringotts before and then came here.” And I want to bloody well know what it is if I’m going to be murdered over it.

“And did—did Professor Dumbledore say what this artifact was?”

“No. I think he was going to, but Snape looked like his head might explode if the Headmaster did.” Harriet patted the book. “So I thought I might find something in here.”

“But, Harriet, it could be anything.”

“I know, but if it’s something important enough that the bloody Dark Lord wants it so much, and it had to be moved from Gringotts of all places, then maybe it’s in here.”

Elara lifted and folded one leg at the knee so she could sit more on the bed and crane her neck to look at the book. Harriet was relieved neither she nor Hermione had gotten to their feet and ran from the room. “Rule out anything overly large,” Elara muttered, pointing out a picture of Hebo’s dragon-drawn chariot. “Anything ancient with old magic in it can’t be shrunk, and usually can’t be levitated. The goblins have week-long waiting periods to get over-sized objects in and out of Gringotts because of the mine shafts; it would not have been removed as quietly as it has been.”

Harriet flipped ahead, nodding. “How ‘bout any of these?” she asked as she pointed out a fancy array of different swords. “Excalibur. Galatine. Cla—cla—? The Clam Sola.”

Hermione bounced out of her chair and came to Harriet’s side. “Claiomh Solais, Harriet. Not Clam.”

“Well, however it’s pronounced—what do you think? This says it glowed with the light of the sun and could cut enemies in half. Oh, bloody hell.”

Hermione gave her swearing a half-hearted reprimand as she nibbled at her lower lip, deep in thought. “That…that wouldn’t make sense. Oh, none of it makes sense at all! You-Know-Who is supposed to be dead! How could Headmaster Dumbledore—?” Hermione took a shuddering breath as she saw Elara’s stern expression and Harriet’s nervous flinching. “I’m sorry. No, not a sword. Most listed here are accounted for and are simply legendary for their ownership. Not very useful.”

The next few pages held three items collectively entitled the Deathly Hallows. “I’d want these if I was a murderous Dark Lord,” Harriet said as she stared at an illustration of a black rock, wand, and cape. “Listen to this; ‘it is said that he who brings Death’s three Hallows together shall be his master, and confront that which terrifies mortal man.’”

Hermione shook her head. “No. The Deathly Hallows are purely a legend. Witches and wizards have claimed to own the Elder Wand or the Cloak of Invisibility dozens of times over the centuries and are always proved wrong. Whatever You-Know-Who is after has to be real, because the Headmaster says it was in Gringotts before.” Suddenly, she blinked, her mouth popping open in silent shock. “The third-floor corridor on the right-hand side!”

Harriet knew about the corridor, of course; Professor Dumbledore had told them all at the start of school to avoid the place unless they wanted to die. It wasn’t the kind of thing one forgets in a hurry. The Slytherins, being Slytherins, avoided the place and generally only spoke about the corridor in theory if they spoke of it at all—while the Gryffindors gamely admitted they’d tried the door at least once, just wanting a peek, but couldn’t get past the lock.

“That must be where he’s put it,” Hermione said, grinning from ear to ear. “Why else keep something potentially dangerous in a school?”

Elara, reading an line about Goswhit, Arthur’s helmet, frowned and said, “He was overtly theatrical about that, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“His speech regarding the corridor was blatant, given before the whole school. He didn’t need to say anything, did he? He could’ve just kept the door locked and anyone who came across it would’ve been quietly turned away, as we’ve seen. Instead, he told everyone about it. I would presume he also told this agent.”

Hermione’s eyes widened. “You don’t think it’s in there.”

“If the Headmaster was a Slytherin, I would guarantee it wasn’t.”

They continued to theorize on the Headmaster’s motivations while Harriet flipped further ahead in the book, moving past the Shield of El Cid, the Brisingamen, the Gem of Kukulkan, and settling on the image of a black cauldron oozing veins of green. “’Pair Dadeni: Cauldron of Rebirth,’” she read aloud, interrupting Hermione. “’Those who possess the Cauldron are said to be able to pour life into the dead and revive them from their eternal rest’.” Harriet glanced up. “Professor Dumbledore said he’d use any mean he could to ‘return to our plane.’ D’you think this is it?”

They debated the idea, then Hermione shook her head, decisive, hair bristling about her frustrated face. “No. The Pair Dadeni is real, unlike the Hallows, but it’s been lost. See, right here it says; ‘The last owner Cadfan Blevins reported the Pair Dadeni missing from his Vaults in 1982.’”

Elara scoffed. “Reported missing, Hermione. The Blevins are a dodgy Welsh pure-blood family on the verge of selling their House rights. Cadfan was trying to pull what the Muggles call an insurance scam. Doesn’t work well against the goblins, I’d gather.”

“Why haven’t I heard about the Blevins family?”

“Because the Malfoys are narrow-minded. I doubt they want to teach you much about pure-bloods outside England or Scotland.”

Harriet kept reading, pressing a knuckle between her teeth and biting down as she concentrated. No, she thought. Not the Cauldron. Looking at the pictures, it’s much too big and probably weighs five or six stones. Professor Dumbledore said Voldemort is unable to live and unable to die; I don’t think the Cauldron would help him.

A flash of red on a new page caught Harriet’s eye and she paused. “’The Philosopher’s Stone—.’” She had barely begun to read before Hermione snatched the book from her hands. “Steady on!”

Hermione’s brown eyes flicked back and forth at dizzying speeds. “This!” she cried, Harriet and Elara hurrying to shush her. She continued at the same volume. “It has to be this. It fits!”

“Shh! Lower your voice!”

Hermione scoffed. “If she hasn’t come to shoo us off by now, she’s not going to. You do know she has wards around the beds, right?”

Harriet opened her mouth to say that, no, she hadn’t known that, when Elara asked, “What is the Philosopher’s Stone?” and tried to read the book’s print upside down. Hermione flipped the text around.

“’The Philosopher’s Stone exists as the pinnacle achievement in the field of alchemy, with only alchemist Nicholas Flamel noted as a successful creator of the legendary substance. The Stone can transform any metal into gold and is capable of creating the Elixir of Life, which grants its drinker health, immortality, and preserves them from infirmity.’

The three girls shared a look over the book’s colorful pages. “But why does it have to be this?” Harriet asked. “Why are you so certain?” Sure, the immorality and wealth seemed perfect, but Harriet thought the Cauldron would fit the needs of a man not wholly alive too if he really wanted it—or maybe one of those fancy swords that could cut enemies in half just by nicking them. Ick.

“Because,” Hermione replied, smug as could be, a smile curling her lips. “The Ministry offers public records of Hogwarts’ merits and standards, which includes the qualifications and references of the school’s professors. I reviewed them over the summer because I wanted to know why Hogwarts was considered one of the best schools in the world. Did you know Professor Snape became Europe’s youngest Potions Master and got references from both Ebus Pippet and the Libatius Borage? And Professor Flitwick used to be an international dueling champion—? But, anyway, I looked up the professors’ qualifications, and then the Headmaster’s.”

“And?”

And Professor Dumbledore is eminently qualified for his positions as Headmaster and Supreme Mugwump of the ICW. He’s widely recognized as an authority and genius in his fields of mastery, Transfiguration and alchemy—the latter of which he apprenticed for under—.”

“Nicholas Flamel,” Elara said as she caught the train of Hermione’s thought. “He received his mastery from Nicholas Flamel, so it would be safe to assume they remained friends.”

“And who would you ask to guard your precious and valuable stone if not your good friend and master sorcerer, Albus Dumbledore?”

Suddenly, from behind the screen came the sound of slow, methodical clapping.

“Well, well,” said a familiar voice, and Harriet’s heart almost escaped her chest when Professor Slytherin stepped into view, sliding out from behind the screen with effortless grace and a haughty smirk in place. “Aren’t you a trio of clever, clever witches.”

Both Elara and Hermione stood, only to sit once more when getting off the bed only brought them closer to the Defense professor. Slytherin’s unnerving red eyes flicked between them, contemplating, until he settled on Harriet. “Dumbledore is a meddler,” he said at length, flicking imaginary lint from his robe sleeve. “He is a meddler of the highest order, a wizard of passable talent who uses the skills of others to elevate his status and quite enjoys having Slytherins clean up the mess. I couldn’t begin to fathom his reasons for wanting you to know of the Philosopher’s Stone, but I will give you three some sound advice; clever little first years who stick their noses into the business of Dark Lords don’t become clever little second years.”

Harriet swallowed. She didn’t know if he was threatening them with expulsion or—or something worse.

“Leave it be. Don’t ask questions.”

Hermione and Elara nodded, mumbling “Yes, Professor,” but Harriet—perhaps emboldened by boredom or her very recent escape from death, briefly met the wizard’s gaze. Prickling alighted from her shoulder and trailed across her collarbone, scraping at her chest and her throat. “We’re Slytherins, sir,” she said, swallowing again. “Not mad.”

He seemed to find that funny because he laughed—and the sound hit Harriet like a bucket of ice water. I’ve heard that laugh before. High, cold, and utterly humorless, Professor Slytherin’s cackling caused all three witches to shiver with unknowable dread.

“Quite right, Miss Potter. Thirty points to Slytherin.”

Chapter Text

xxxv. cross my heart

 

Elara Black knew more about helplessness than most twelve-year-old girls.

She’d spent the majority of her life helpless, entrusted into the hands of men and women who followed their dogma with fanatical, closed-minded fervor and practiced their absolutions on the children they tended. She knew what it meant to be pinned, held down, by words and by steel, belittled by scripture and drunken slurring and childish fear. She could remember the smell of burning flesh in her nose when Father Phillips pressed the glowing brand into her chest yelling “By Christ be purged!”—and still, Elara had never felt quite so helpless as she did when watching her best friend choke to death.

The feeling remained with her days after Madam Pomfrey discharged Harriet from the infirmary and they went about their classes, the short Slytherin more subdued than usual. From everything Elara had seen, Harriet wasn’t a boisterous girl; she came across as rather brash sometimes, but Elara felt her attitude came from a lack of self-awareness rather than malice or rudeness. She’d seen similar behavior in the younger orphans at St. Giles’ who used to live with neglectful families, families who left them on their own for long stretches of time. They jumped at raised voices and generally avoided eye contact, just like Harriet. Sometimes they had imaginary friends.

Elara wondered if that was why Harriet often whispered to herself. She was, without a doubt, an odd girl—but also one of the loveliest people Elara had ever met, and the idea that an agent of the half-dead Dark Lord—the Dark Lord her father supposedly served—had tried to kill Harriet sat heavy upon Elara’s heart.

Harriet was quieter than usual, tired after her stint in the hospital wing. Elara had learned from Hermione that the poison used, Salazar’s Tongue, melted the imbiber’s insides, not quite like an acid would but with comparable results, and Harriet would need time to regain strength in her repaired muscles, bones, and organs. Her already sketchy control suffered, and Harriet managed to turn her mouse into a baby elephant during Transfiguration, breaking the desk and earning a flabbergasted tongue lashing from Professor McGonagall. Normally she took everything in stride and brushed off Parkinson’s teasing, the sneering Slytherin always mocking Harriet’s hair or her scar or her glasses, but for the last few days Harriet had only slumped beneath the relentless mocking. Parkinson kept pantomiming choking in the Great Hall and Harriet refused to touch any of the drinks.

So if Elara paid an upper year Slytherin to Charm Parkinson’s pumpkin juice to shoot straight up her nose, she felt justified in that bit of petty bullying. Parkinson vomited all over a screaming Malfoy and although the sight almost made Elara sick herself, Hermione and Harriet—and most of Slytherin House—laughed so hard they nearly wet themselves.

Snape proved particularly unforgiving on Friday during double Potions. He skulked the dungeon’s length, a terrifying specter right out of Father Phillip’s biblical stories about pale, furious ghosts and devils, his footsteps silent but no less haunting in their intensity. “Black,” he snapped as soon as they filed into the classroom. “Back row.”

Elara sighed and moved her cauldron from Harriet and Hermione’s table to the single one in the back. She fought the urge to mutter darkly under her breath, guessing it was going to be one of those days, the ones in which Snape didn’t allow Elara to skate by on Hermione and Harriet’s efforts and instead made an absolute hash of things on her own. She let the legs of her cauldron touch down with a loud bang and the Potions Master shot a glare in her direction before beginning the lecture.

She brooded through much of the lesson, ignoring Slytherins and the Gryffindors who still seemed to find it awfully amusing that a member of the House of Serpents got themselves poisoned and almost died. Elara had heard Longbottom mutter that Harriet “got what she deserved” on more than one occasion, though the sentiment lacked heat, laced with the same tepid energy the orphans used after witnessing one of the sisters’ punishments, simply relieved it hadn’t been them under the switch.

The first portion of class ended without event and they began their practicals. Snape prowled about, swooping over the Gryffindor side of the room to chastise Weasley on some contrived grievance. Malfoy took the opportunity to lean back in his seat and, within Harriet’s hearing, said, “Oh, I do hope my dinner doesn’t end up poisoned. Just imagine; I actually have parents who’d mourn me.”

Harriet shot Malfoy a two-fingered salute and Hermione smacked her arm down before Snape whipped around and paced back in their direction.

To Elara’s surprise, she almost managed to finish her potion before the situation went pear-shaped. Her concentration wavered during the final maturation as she looked about the class and watched Snape’s back when he passed Harriet’s table and, for the briefest of moments, hesitated. What if it was Snape? an insidious voice in Elara’s head whispered. Hermione still suspects he might have cursed Longbottom in November. What if all of this is a twisted scheme between him and Slytherin meant to endear or test our loyalties? What better way to divert attention than to place himself in situations where he appears the hero or savior?

Her control slipped, and some organic ingredient within the brew began to decay or blossom, spoiling the whole potion. The liquid curdled and began to swiftly rise like dough, cresting the cauldron’s top before Elara felt a sudden shove of magic hit her in the chest, throwing her into the counter at her back as the frothing meniscus collapsed and a wave of foul goo sloshed over the table and floor.

“How shocking,” the Potions Master drawled from across the aisle, wand extended. He had been the one to push Elara back. For once Snape sounded bored and impatient rather than gleefully mocking. Apparently, there was more on his mind than lambasting Elara’s substandard brewing skills. “Clean your mess, Black. No magic.”

The ‘mess,’ as he’d stated, had begun to cool and congeal on the table and stones underfoot, sticking the abandoned stool fast to the floor. Elara retrieved the cleaning supplies typically reserved for detentions from the cupboard by the stone sink and dragged her feet back to her seat. He could clean it up in an instant if he wanted. Git.

Class came to an end soon enough and the other students hurried to tidy their stations and tuck away their kits. Longbottom escaped a similar meltdown by a slim margin and scampered with Weasley and Finnigan quick on his heels, the trio shedding Billywig wings and nettles in their wake that had Snape cursing softly. Harriet and Hermione lingered, but Elara shook her head, hands covered in inert green goo, so the pair hefted their bags onto their shoulders and departed.

Snape’s eyes followed Harriet from the dungeon. Even after she’d passed through the door, the man’s gaze bore into the weathered wood as if trying to see through it, not yet ready for the girl to pass beyond his sight.

Elara didn’t like the way Snape looked at Harriet. It wasn’t predatory; Elara would’ve gone straight to Dumbledore if she’d thought so, consequences be damned. Rather, it was the way a person might look at a teacup sitting too close to the edge of the coffee table—or at a priceless Faberge egg in the hands of a drunk. Raw panic glinted behind Snape’s black irises and it made Elara nervous, nervous because she hadn’t a single idea why the wizard looked at her best friend like that. What was there to be nervous about? What did he know that Elara didn’t?

The last student left, the door swinging shut, and Elara dropped the dirty rag onto the table with a thwap. Snape glanced toward her—and found the girl regarding him with a narrow-eyed stared.

“Why do you look at her like that?” she asked, her tone questioning rather than impertinent. Elara hardly cared if she offended Snape of all people—the great bat—but she did want an answer.

“Excuse me?” he replied in a voice that conveyed an easy, chilling distaste.

“Why do you look at Harriet like that?” Elara repeated. Snape’s eyes widened as if he hadn’t actually expected her to say the words again. “I don’t like it.”

The Potions Master blinked, then gathered himself like a growing storm, anger blotching his pale face, hate glittering in his eyes like the hard shell backs of dead beetles. Time in the orphanage made Elara sensitive to an adult’s shifting moods, and just as she knew Harriet made Snape nervous, Elara knew her presence sparked fury in the wizard. “I’d be very careful about what you’re insinuating, Black,” Snape said in that soft, whispering voice of his. “Very, very careful.”

“I’m not insinuating anything,” Elara replied. She refused to match his whispering and spoke clearly, loudly. “I’m asking a question I hope to have answered. Sir.”

Snape stepped away from his desk and, when he approached, Elara tried very hard not to shudder. The man loomed like a silent, seething terror, and with his black robes relieved only by the slightest touch of white at the collar and his cuffs, the wizard looked close enough to a priest for her heart to race with panic.

Elara swallowed as the Potions Master stared her down.

“You’re awfully bold, aren’t you, Black? Perhaps you would have done better in Gryffindor…like your good-for-nothing father.”

She flinched, face burning. So that’s it, Elara realized. He knew Sirius. Or, at least he knows of him. I wonder…. “I’m not my father.”

“For your sake, you’d better hope not.”

Snape went to leave, dismissing her, and Elara spoke before she could stop herself. “If you hurt her, I’ll see you sorry for it.”

He froze. Elara fancied she could hear her heartbeat echoing against the dungeon’s cold, grimy walls as the wizard slowly, slowly turned to face her. “Are you hoping to be expelled, Black? I can accommodate that wish, but do make sure you’re very certain you want to be on the train back to London after supper before threatening me.”

“It’s not a threat,” she said, feeling more than a touch queasy. “Only Gryffindors make threats, sir; Slytherins make promises.”

“A promise, girl?” Snape took another step forward and Elara couldn’t help herself; she retreated and her back met the edge of the counter behind her. The professor sneered. “Pathetic. I don’t know what game you’re playing, child, but—.”

“I’m not strong,” she blurted out. Elara didn’t know why she kept talking despite every manner she’d had drilled into her head screaming at her to be quiet. In her mind’s eye, Harriet lay prone on the Great Hall’s floor, suffocating, poisoned by an innocuous cup of evening tea, and who best to poison a girl than a wizard who worked with poisons every day? Elara never wanted to be helpless again. “I’m only twelve and I don’t know much magic—but I do know the name of Black has clout, and I would use whatever clout I could against anyone who hurt Harriet or Hermione.”

Snape leaned forward and Elara reciprocated by leaning back. She wrung her hands together and wondered what it’d be like to be back at Grimmauld Place full-time, if she’d be able to teach herself magic after being expelled, if that was allowed, or if they snapped your wand and—.

Only Miss Potter and Miss Granger, Black? Am I free to poison whoever else I wish outside your purview?”

The question threw Elara, who’d been preparing for another verbal onslaught maligning her character. “Ah,” she said, biting her tongue. She remembered then something that Matron Fitzgerald once told her when Elara asked why she was being punished after Wendy Pamilo, a daughter from one of the church parishioners, broke the fence in Elara’s sight. “We take care of our own,” Elara repeated in monotone. “And God manages all the rest.”

The Potions Master scoffed, but he did lean away once more and Elara breathed easier. “Insufferable fool,” he sneered. His glare softened, or so Elara imagined. The low, murky light of the dungeons made such things difficult to decipher. “Make no mistake, Black, you are remarkably like your father; arrogant and presumptuous. He too made hollow promises to protect his friends, promises that meant nothing to him or to them in the end. Save your sanctimonious posturing for someone who actually means Potter harm.”

Quick as a whip, he drew his wand and Elara flinched—only for him to brandish it at the mess on the table, vanishing the mucky cauldron and spilled glop with a single gesture. Snape smirked as he tucked his wand away again. “Get out of my sight.”

Elara was all too pleased to oblige the man; she snatched hold of her bag and bolted from the classroom, earning a sharp rebuke for running and slamming the door. Even so, Snape didn’t give her a detention, didn’t take points, and though Elara wound up sick from nerves in the first-floor loo, she counted her confrontation as a win.

She wouldn’t allow anyone to hurt her friends.

Chapter Text

xxxvi. silvered want

 

If there was one thing Harriet couldn’t stand, it was all the staring.

She didn’t know how Longbottom could tolerate it, how he didn’t start yelling at people to look the other bloody way when he walked down corridors, because Harriet felt sick to her stomach with the strange level of infamy she seemed to be experiencing. The whole of the school or at least the vast majority of it had been present for her poisoning, and they wanted to know why one small, twitchy little first year Slytherin kid almost kicked the bucket in the Great Hall. Hence the staring.

As May moved on, some of the staring tapered off, but Harriet still heard the whispering and it made her increasingly uncomfortable, so much so that she accidentally magicked one of the tapestries to tear itself off the wall and chase a particularly loud sixth year Hufflepuff through most of the school. Nobody could prove she’d done it, of course, but Harriet took that as a sign to keep to herself for a while.

The afternoon was warm—one of the warmest they’d had in quite some time, and Harriet couldn’t bear the idea of grinding her nose in revisions for another minute, even if Hermione and Elara seemed perfectly content with studying until their eyeballs fell out. Harriet wasn’t having it.

So, after promising she wouldn’t wander off alone, Livi fast asleep and coiled about her torso, Harriet headed outside where other students congregated in the sunshine and borrowed one of the training brooms from Madam Hooch. The brooms didn’t go very fast and only rose three feet off the grass, but Harriet enjoyed the weightless sensation, the pull of wind through her hair, and the quietness found while toddling about the grounds on a broom that could be outstripped by passing butterflies.

Harriet caught sight of a familiar form heading toward the Forest’s edge and zoomed nearer.

“Hagrid!” she called out, hopping off the broom at the half-giant’s side, setting off a small cloud of dust and dirt from the path.

“Hullo, Harriet!” he boomed, grinning, reaching out with his free hand to pat her shoulder—almost driving Harriet into the ground. In his other hand he held a suspiciously stained sack, and upon seeing where Harriet’s attention had wandered, he shrugged. “Goin’ to feed the Thestrals. Got a new foal who needs lots o’ protein.”

“Can I come?”

“’Course,” Hagrid responded—then paused. “Err, well if you don’t mind a bit o’ blood, I should say. Thestrals love raw meat—can’t get enough of the stuff. They’re scavengers by nature and harmless.”

“I don’t mind.”

Harriet followed Hagrid on her broom since his stride was exponentially longer than her own. Thin saplings surrounded the path, and though they’d entered the treeline, Hagrid mentioned they wouldn’t be going into the forest proper.

“Nothing would hurt you in there, though, not with me around,” Hagrid boasted, swelling with pride. “Lots o’ misunderstood creatures, you see, but they demand respect and space, which is what I keep havin’ to tell those Weasley twins—but those two never listen, and I have to keep chasin’ them off for their own good….”

Hagrid went on at some length about Ron’s rascally brothers, though he sounded fond rather than scornful, and soon they came upon a partial paddock in a clearing where Hagrid set the sack down.

“You like flyin’?” Hagrid asked as Harriet hopped off her broom again and found a seat on the rickety paddock fence. An older student might’ve landed flat on their face, but Harriet was light enough for the barrier to hold. Livi hissed in his sleep and tightened fractionally, causing Harriet to wiggle to loosen his hold around her middle.

“Yes!” she replied with a wide grin. “I wanna try out for the team next year, if my marks are good enough.”

“Marks?”

“Yeah. Professor Snape said you have to have all E’s to play on the House team!”

Hagrid gave her a funny look and mumbled something into his beard that sounded like “sneaky sod,” then picked up the sack and entered the paddock. “Your dad used to play Quidditch back in his day.”

“You mentioned that when we first met.”

“Did I? Guess I’m fergettin’ things in my old age.” Hagrid chuckled. “Damn fine Chaser he was. James flew like he’d been born on a broomstick. I think he won every game he played for Gryffindor. Gave me a shock seein’ you flying about. You look just like James at a distance.”

Hagrid opened the sack and drew out the bloodied haunch of what looked like a deer, or maybe a small cow. He strode a few paces from Harriet toward the trees, twigs and fallen branches snapping under his great boots, and seemed content to wait for whatever it was he was feeding to come to him.

Harriet tried—and failed—to picture her own father on a broom, playing Quidditch, wearing gold and red instead of silver and green. She wished she could’ve seen it for herself. Would James have taught her how to fly? Would he have gotten her a broom when she was little? Or would her mum have protested? What was Lily like? Did she play Quidditch too? Or did she watch Harriet’s dad and cheer for him?

A sound shuffling nearer the clearing drew Harriet’s attention to the paddock again. She blinked as she saw a black, skeletal horse coming over to the half-giant, fluttering its leathery wings and kicking its hooves in anticipation.

“Hey,” Harriet said. “It’s those spooky horses!”

Hagrid stumbled as if she’d assaulted him and the bloody leg in his large hand hit the dirt. The horse squawked in indignation but lowered its head to eat all the same, stripping bits of meat from the whole with its tapered beak.

“You c—? You can see ‘em?” Hagrid choked as the face behind the beard paled drastically. Another horse came to investigate the commotion, seeming to slip right out of the sparse shadows accrued about the base of the wispier trees.

“Of course I can,” Harriet said—then she recalled the time she’d tried to point them out to Hermione, and the other girl had given her a puzzled look, saying there was nothing there. “Is that, err, odd?”

Hagrid fumbled with the sack and drew out another leg—chicken, maybe—and proffered it to the new horse, who trotted over and happily accepted the food. “No, it’s just—. They’re terribly misunderstood creatures, Thestrals. People get scared of ‘em, because you can—. Blimey, Harry. I’m probably not the best—. Well, you can only see ‘em if you’ve…if you’ve seen someone pass on.”

Harriet winced at the nickname before the meaning of Hagrid’s words sank in. If you’ve seen someone pass on. “Oh,” she replied, swallowing. She only knew two people who’d died, and while she knew she’d been in the house that night, she hadn’t realized she’d been close enough to actually see what’d happened. Merlin, Harriet thought, morose. No wonder I’m so weird.

“Would’cha like to feed ‘em?”

He extended one of the plucked drumsticks to Harriet and, nodding slightly, she clamored off the fence and came nearer. The horses—Thestrals—watched her with curious attention, cocking their heads like birds, turning ever so slightly to keep her in sight. Harriet wrinkled her nose at the feel of lukewarm meat in her hand and Hagrid grinned, though his watery sniffle ruined the effect.

“Go on. Mind your fingers—they’re harmless as lambs but can get a bit too excited. And remember to wash your hands real good after we’re done….”

Two more Thestrals wandered out of the forest, plus the foal Hagrid had mentioned; long-limbed and clumsy, it would’ve knocked Harriet over in its rush if Hagrid hadn’t caught her by the scruff of her neck. They were undoubtedly strange creatures, imposing and cool to the touch, and Harriet could see how carnivorous horses only visible to those who’d seen death might be scary to others—but the Thestrals proved as friendly as Hagrid said, and running her hands over their bony snouts reminded Harriet of petting Livi or other snakes.

As the Thestrals crowded around her and nosed her hair and licked her fingers clean, Harriet thought about her mum and dad and wondered, grimly, which of them she saw die as a toddler. How had she survived? Headmaster Dumbledore said she was a mistake, that Voldemort—the Dark Lord—had meant to kill her as well, but how did she live while James and Lily died? They’d been a full-grown wizard and witch, and Harriet had just been a little baby. She didn’t understand.

Harriet watched the scrawny foal lean against its mother as the mare pestered Hagrid for more scraps and she wished, more than anything, that she knew what having a family was like. All she had for comparison were the Dursleys, and they were no more her family than some rocks or the Thestrals themselves. She remembered Aunt Petunia would coo over Dudley and fix his hair and sometimes Harriet would do the same to herself, pretending she had a mum who cared about her scruffy haircut and ugly clothes, though the imitation never lived up to the real thing.

“Hagrid?” she asked, brushing one of the Thestral’s scraggly manes. “If you could have anything at all, what would it be?”

“Eh?”

“What do you want more than anything else?”

“Hmm,” he pondered, scratching at his wiry beard as he did so, leaving behind bloody scraps. Harriet would’ve pointed that out had the tallest Thestral not wandered over and plucked the pieces out himself. “Watch it there, silly beast. What was the question? What would I want more than anythin’? Not quite sure, really. Always wanted me a dragon, though.” His tone turned wistful as he gathered the empty sack in one hand. “Fascinating creatures, dragons, but they don’t live wild no more. They get into too many scrapes with the Muggles and the Ministry can’t keep up.”

Harriet’s mouth quirked as Hagrid gushed about his favorite scaled creatures, and in the back of her mind a familiar sly, cold voice spoke.

The Mirror of Erised is enchanted to show your most ardent desire, not the petty wants of everyday life. Many a wizard and witch have been fool enough to let the images depicted therein drive them to madness.

He will use any means he can to return himself to our plane.”

She gathered the broom and Hagrid led the way back to his hut, where he let Harriet wash her hands and served a spot of afternoon tea before they found places on the porch to sit and enjoy the spring weather. The May sun felt like heaven upon Harriet’s upturned face, but a growing unease suffused her when she thought about that mirror in the Headmaster’s office, and no matter how warm the weather grew, Harriet felt cold.

 

Chapter Text

xxxvii. look and see

 

Harriet stared at the gargoyle, and the gargoyle stared at Harriet.

She didn’t know how long she’d been standing there, nor was she precisely sure of her reason for coming. To speak with the Headmaster, maybe? Whatever her motives, a sudden hankering for Muggle candy had Harriet drooling and so she told the gargoyle, “Fizzing Whizbees.”

“No, no,” said the gargoyle, its stone lips cracking and crumbling as it sneered. “No Fizzing Whizbees here. Only lemon sherbets!”

The gargoyle opened a taloned hand and, there, on its rigid palm, balanced a pile of sour yellow candies.

Harriet frowned. “But I don’t want lemon sherbets.”

The bright candies fell to the floor and disappeared in sooty puffs. “Then go through that door there.”

Harriet whirled about, and behind her found the mentioned door, one she’d never seen before and knew couldn’t possibly be across the corridor from the gargoyle. Still, she reached for the knob and stepped through.

A cool breeze whistled in the unyielding dark and Harriet’s feet tamped down damp leaves, the Forbidden Forest stretching tall and foreboding all around her. She couldn’t recall how she’d gotten here—hadn’t she been in the castle speaking to the Headmaster’s gargoyle a moment before? The night wood laid dark and unwelcoming in all directions, large shadows crawling in the bracken, sharp-toothed faces carved into the trees. Mirrors crowded the forest, mirrors of every shape and size, gilded or cracked, taller than houses, framed in the words ‘Nie mte l’. A single light flickered in the distance.

Harriet ran. The roots rose from the earth and coiled around her legs, but Harriet pushed through, kicking and writhing, until she reached a small cabin no bigger than a boot cupboard at the foot of a great oak. She threw open the door and slammed it shut behind herself. A torch lay on its side, flickering, batteries on the verge of going out.

Something heavy collided with the door at Harriet’s back. She pressed against it, quivering, as fists pummeled the flimsy wood—then they stopped.

Harrrriet,” rasped a voice on the other side. “Let me in, little Harriet. Just for a minute, let me in.

The torch flickered again, stronger than before, and Harriet silently begged for it not to go out. Nails scoured the door.

Let me IN!

The torch died and Harriet lunged for it. “Please, please, please—,” she chanted as she beat the plastic tube against her hand and the batteries rattled. Finally, the light came on—and Harriet looked up into a pair of watching red eyes.

“—Harriet!”

She woke with a gasp, almost colliding with Hermione in her rush to sit up. The dream crowded her thoughts, then like a sugar cube in a cup of tea, broke apart and dissolved until only the taste remained—sour and acrid with bile and fear. The sensation of pins and needles crawled through her shoulder and neck. Swallowing, Harriet breathed hard and adjusted her glasses as she blinked and met Hermione’s quizzical look.

“Are you okay?” the bushy-haired girl asked. “You napped right through lunch and I know you wanted a bit of a lie in, but I didn’t want you to sleep through dinner as well.”

Harriet yawned wide enough to crack her jaw and nodded, wiping gunk from her eyes. “I’m okay. Just had a bad dream.” Which wasn’t a rare occurrence, really. She studied the empty dormitory, brow furrowed, until she found Elara leaning against one of the carrells, a half-written letter abandoned on the desk alongside her quill. “Thanks for waking me.”

Humming, Hermione sat on the edge of her own bed and fiddled with the curtains.

Ssss.

Livi shifted in the rumpled sheets, a somnolent hiss rising from the vicinity of Harriet’s feet as she lifted the counterpane and peered at the snoozing serpent. An indolent blue eye opened and gleamed before Livi settled again. Harriet set about unraveling his coils and the snake dragged himself farther into the bed’s covers. She was thankful she’d left Kevin in his makeshift terrarium in her trunk’s nifty extension, since he had the unfortunate habit of sticking his snout in her nose while she slept.

“I’ll never get used to that,” Hermione said.

“Used to what?”

“Finding you in bed with a snake twice your size.”

“He’s not twice my size!” Harriet protested as she stroked a hand along Livi’s back. “Livi’s only—well, maybe a foot or so longer than I am tall.”

“Isn’t he going to keep growing?”

Harriet shrugged. “I read some of those books you showed me in the library and Magizoologists don’t know much about Horned Serpents, really. They live for a long time apparently, and can take years to shed their skin, depending on ‘magical maturation.’”

“Hmm.”

Just then the door banged open and Pansy strode in, gifting all three of them with her haughty, scrunch-nosed sneer as she paused beyond the threshold and Harriet scrambled to make sure Livi was covered. The other witch didn’t notice. “What are you three nerds doing in here?”

“We sleep in here, Parkinson,” Elara drawled before Hermione could say anything. Pansy glanced at Elara and, meeting the taller witch’s glare, decided to move on without comment, though she did scoff as she strutted over to the washroom.

“Reapplying her makeup. Again,” Harriet muttered. Hermione disguised her laugh as a slight cough, which didn’t do much to hide the sound. Apparently Pansy heard because she came back into the dorm and scowled.

“Don’t you have something to study for, Granger?” One eye had a glob of mascara smudged in the corner and it stuck her lashes together in messy clumps.

“No? We just finished the last of our exams yesterday, if you can’t recall.”

“As if you’d let that stop you.” Pansy stomped into the bathroom again.

Hermione glowered at the open doorway for a good minute before looking away, her cheeks stained a delicate shade of pink. “I don’t know how she manages to make being studious and smart sound like an insult.”

“Better yet,” Elara said. “I don’t know why she thinks that’s an insult.”

Hermione didn’t bother to cover her laugh this time, though if Pansy heard she chose to stay in the washroom. Harriet grinned—then pain lanced through her shoulder and neck, catching her unawares, and Harriet gasped, slapping a hand over the offending spot.

“Are you all right?”

“…Yeah.” Harriet rubbed the shirt covering the old wound and popped open a button, pulling the collar down to inspect the irritation, though she couldn’t quite manage. “My neck—my scar—hurts.”

“Your scar?”

“Mhm. I always guessed the cut hurt the muscles or the nerves or something, since sometimes it acts up. It’s been a bit worse lately, though.”

Hermione stood. She reached for Harriet’s collar and, after pausing to receive permission, plucked the fabric aside. “It looks—well, it looks bad,” she decided, lips pressed into a worried line. “The skin’s gone puffy and inflamed. Have you been scratching at it?”

“No. Nothing more than usual.”

“I don’t like the look of it.” Hermione’s frown intensified and Elara drifted over to inspect the scar as well, going so far as to run her fingertip over the thickest vein of gnarled tissue. Her hands were cold. “You should go to Madam Pomfrey. Or even Professor Dumbledore, since it’s an old injury.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“It’s part of the school’s public information, the same place I learned of the professors’ qualifications.” Noticing Harriet and Elara’s blank expressions, Hermione rolled her eyes. “Honestly. ‘Hogwarts’ attending healer cannot affect maladies, deformities, or injuries accrued outside of term without giving knowledge to and acquiring consent from the patient’s parent or guardian.’ There is a bylaw, though, that allows the Headmaster or the student’s Head of House to grant permission in special cases or emergencies, in loco parentis.”

Harriet blinked. “It terrifies me that you have all that memorized.”

Pansy came strutting out of the washroom and went to her trunk. “Dumbledore’s not here,” she commented in passing, digging through her possessions until she found the blue top she sought. “Saw him leave like ten minutes ago.”

Pain prickled in Harriet’s neck and straightened her back. “What do you mean he’s not here?”

“Do you need to clean out your ears, Potter? I’m not going to repeat myself.”

“Where has he gone?”

Pansy propped her hands on her hips and scoffed. “How in the world would I know? Or even care? I only know this because Daphne and Millicent and Tracey and me were sitting out by the lake with Draco and Greg and Vince—.” Pansy giggled and Elara grimaced, though Pansy didn’t see. “And we—well, anyway, we saw the old man leave through the front gates in a hurry and Disapparate.”

Harriet didn’t know what Disapparate meant and didn’t let that distract her. As far as she knew, the Headmaster never left the school while in classes were in session. Why leave now? Why had he been called away so suddenly? She hopped upright and, disregarding the robes thrown across the foot of her bed, snatched her wand from the nightstand and stashed it into the brace on her forearm. “I need to go talk to—someone.”

Confused, Hermione asked, “Who?” even as Harriet hurriedly stuffed her feet into her shoes.

“I don’t know,” she confessed. “I just—I have a really bad feeling about you know what.” She let her eyes drift toward the small shelf above her bed, where A Compendivm of Defense Against Magic Moste Dark and 101 Legendary Artefacts of the Wizarding World sat.

Hermione’s eyes widened with comprehension and Elara crossed her arms, the tension in the room increasing as Pansy looked between them. “What are you talking about?”

“I think I’m going to go see Snape,” Harriet said—even if the idea sounded barmy even in her own mind. She couldn’t decide if Snape hated her or not, given he either seemed intent on burdening her with as many detentions as possible or completely ignoring Harriet. Sometimes, though, in the quiet of the dungeons when he set her to task and sat behind his desk doing his markings or checking his inventories, she could ask him a question and the professor would answer, sometimes with his familiar sarcastic snark and sometimes with resigned weariness. He’d probably tell Harriet she was an idiot, but she would feel better for hearing it from someone who knew what he was talking about.

“Snape?” Elara echoed. “I’d be worried he’d poison me again if I were you.”

Pansy gave her a scandalized look and almost dropped the blouse in her hands. “Like Professor Snape would bother poisoning a weird half-blood nerd like her. She probably faked the whole thing.”

“Funny, Parkinson. You sounded convinced when you screamed bloody murder in the Great Hall.”

Elara and Pansy’s bickering gave Harriet the opening she needed to escape the dorm, and she flashed a grateful—if strained—smile in the older girl’s direction before hurrying into the corridor. Slytherins milled about the common room, basking in the freedom provided post-examinations, and they gave the bespectacled witch scurrying for the exit little thought. Harriet wished she’d taken Livi with her, but she wouldn’t have had the chance to pull him from the covers with Pansy there, and really, Snape should still be in his classroom, only a short jaunt down the hall, either proctoring a test or finishing one up.

Harriet was almost there, too, when she collided with a body around a blind corner where the dungeon corridors bisected one another. She caught herself against the stone wall and winced at the renewed pain in her neck, blinking through tears as she looked at the figure shadowed by doused torchlight.

“…Professor Quirrell?”

He said nothing, standing stiffly, crookedly, as if lame in one leg or in pain, until he whispered. “…yes, why not?”

Before he could say more or Harriet could react, the wizard moved and magic winnowed through the enclosed space. A sudden burst of red light was the last thing Harriet saw before the world went dark.

_____

 

“…can’t do it, Master. I can see it, can see myself giving it to you, but oh where is it? I don’t understand—.”

Quiet, you fool.”

Groggy, Harriet became aware again in tenuous increments; her senses reignited one by one, hearing the high, cold voice and the downtrodden muttering, pain in her oddly bent leg and numb hands, candlelight fluttering against her eyelids. She sucked in a breath and blinked until she could make sense of the scene before her.

She was in the Headmaster’s office—or, rather, she leaned against one of the battered trunks in the spare room off the Headmaster’s office, and in front of her a hunched Professor Quirrell whimpered as he looked in the gilded Mirror of Erised.

He hadn’t seen her yet, or at least Harriet thought he hadn’t. She doubted anyone else was about, given her hands were bound behind her back and the wizard in his purple turban was wholly absorbed with the mirror, but there were people in the office; painted people, dozens of them. If she could get the attention of the portraits….

No sooner had Harriet sucked in a breath to scream then Quirrell spun on his heels, wand raised, and snapped, “Colloportus!”

The door slammed shut with a tremendous bang. Quirrell turned his wand on Harriet and she choked, terrified, an eerie, not entirely lucid grin splitting the wizard’s wan face. The single candle that gave light to the room had gone out when the door slammed, and now the only illumination came through the boarded up window, sharp bars of late day sunlight slicing across Quirrell’s front and the Mirror behind him.

“Good afternoon, Miss Potter. If you scream, I will kill you.”

Harriet tried to gather her scrambled wits, terror drying her mouth and throat until she could hardly swallow. “Wh—wh—?”

Quirrell sniffed, annoyed, and turned to the Mirror again. He touched the glass with his left hand and let his fingers play over the frame’s intricate design as he mumbled and hummed. “Where is it? How did the old fool manage…?”

Oh, Harriet knew what the wizard wanted; since that sunny afternoon with Hagrid a month ago, she’d been harboring a heavy suspicion about the looking glass sequestered away in the Headmaster’s discreet keeping. As Elara’d noted, Professor Dumbledore’s blatant mention of the third-floor corridor at the Welcoming Feast had surely drawn attention and suspicion to the place, including the attention and suspicion of anyone looking for the Philosopher’s Stone, but the Mirror—in contrast—was safely tucked away. Harriet only knew of it by chance.

If Quirrell was after the Stone, that would make him—.

Harriet’s heart started to beat very fast indeed as she struggled against the bonds on her wrists. Set pooled beneath her and she felt the featherlight touch of shadows creeping across her skin, plucking at the ropes.

“Master, I do not know what to do!”

Quirrell sudden cry jerked Harriet’s attention back to the wizard.

Use the girl….”

The chilling voice spoke from thin air and Quirrell spun about, Harriet scuffing her shoes as she tried to scramble away from his reaching hand, but Quirrell managed to haul her upright. Having sat on her left leg too long, it gave beneath the sudden weight and Harriet slumped to her knees before the Mirror, dangling from Quirrell’s grasp.

“Tell me what you see, girl.”

Harriet didn’t see anything. The images within the Mirror flickered and morphed as different scenes battled for dominance. Her deepest desire changed every second or so as Harriet vacillated between fear and anger, horror and disbelief, stubbornness and desperation.

“I—I don’t know.”

The angle was awkward, but Quirrell managed to strike her across the face with his wand hand. Harriet tasted iron as her teeth cut her lower lip—and she remembered being struck by Uncle Vernon in a similar manner all those months ago and crying in the cupboard afterward, alone. Always alone.

In the Mirror, Lily Potter knelt to embrace the image of her daughter. Tears spilled from Harriet’s eyes.

“You’re not worth the time I wasted brewing that poison,” Quirrell said before tossing her aside. Harriet landed on her back, wincing as her arms twinged, but Set returned to fraying the bonds once out of the wizard’s sight.

Let me speak with her….”

Quirrell paused, head tilting as if listening to something Harriet couldn’t hear. “Are you certain, M-master?”

Do not question me, Quirrell….”

Without further prompting, the wizard tucked his wand into his belt and began to unwrap his turban. Withered garlic cloves fell from the loosening cloth with distinct plops, and the smell of rot mixing with the sulfurous garlic odor overwhelmed Harriet as bile burned in her throat. She retched.

The last of the turban fell like the cloves and Quirrell turned his back. Harriet wished he hadn’t.

She had no words for the abomination before her; it defied description, and the longer she looked, the more terrified Harriet became. A second face protruded from Quirrel’s skull, two slits approximating nostrils, a slash where the lipless mouth opened and sharp teeth shone, red eyes peering right at her. The skin was peeling in great chunks and bruises mottled Quirrell’s cranium like mold on cheese.

Harriet felt faint.

“Not a pretty sssight, is it, Miss Potter?” the second face mocked, the voice frigid and raspy, sibilating from the malformed jaw. “See what I have been reduccced to? Possessing snakes and lesser wizards, skulking in the dark, playing Dumbledore’s ridiculous gamesss. See what I, the greatessst wizard who ever lived, have become?”

Oh, no. She realized Quirrell wasn’t just an agent for the Dark Lord; he bloody was the Dark Lord, or least a carrier for the Dark wizard’s twisted remnant.

If she didn’t do something, she knew she wasn’t going to leave that room alive.

“He thought to trap me, Dumbledore, that wretched old fool. Sought to trick me, thought to outsssmart me, but I am far too clever for such pitiful attempts. You’re clever too, aren’t you, Harriet?” the voice crooned. “A Ssslytherin, like me. You know what I am after. Look into the Mirror. Give me what I want. You and your friendsss are smart, aren’t you, Harriet? You will be given everything if you assissst Lord Voldemort….”

“No!” Harriet yelled, trembling. “I would never help you! You killed my parents!”

Voldemort hissed his displeasure. “I can give them back to you, silly girl. What Voldemort takes away, he can return….”

For the briefest of moments, hope blossomed in Harriet’s heart—and once it decayed, Harriet hated the wizard more than she ever had before, because she knew he lied and she hated that, even for an instant, she’d considered betraying her parents, her friends, the whole of the Wizarding world, for a selfish dream that could never be.

“I will let you share in that eternal life, Harriet…. You and your family could live forever….”

Mustering strength, Harriet spat, “No one lives forever,” and Set tore the ropes free. Harriet did the only thing she could think to do, and lunged at Quirrell.

The wizard stumbled and Voldemort yelled, wordless and furious, Harriet’s sore hands fumbling to grasp Quirrell’s wand, pulling—.

An elbow collided with her collarbone. Fresh pain lit through her scar, blazing incandescent, and Harriet’s vision blurred before she fell, and the wand slipped through her fingertips. It bounced once, then rolled below a cabinet, out of sight.

He doesn’t have a wand now! I can do it! I can escape—!

Quirrell reached into his sleeve and Harriet stopped breathing when he retrieved her own wand. Of course. She’d forgotten in her terror, but Quirrell must have disarmed her after hexing her in the corridor, and now he towered over Harriet with her pale wand clasped in his hand, a wicked grin playing across his cruel features.

Kill her!” Voldemort shrieked.

Harriet drew in a breath to scream.

Quirrell raised the wand and, still smiling, said, “Avada Kedavra!

Chapter Text

xxxviii. shattered

 

The agony struck before Severus could call an end to his sixth year N.E.W.T class.

The students were intent over their cauldrons, Volubilis Potions bubbling away, careful measurements of hellebore syrup being diluted and stirred while the withered faces of chopped up mandrakes dissolved in the brews. Between one step and the next, Severus gasped and stumbled as he brought his arm to his chest and very nearly knocked Lauri Lyons’ cauldron to the floor. The freckled witch gawked at him and Severus sneered through the lank curtain of his hair.

“You have five minutes,” he announced to the room at large, a slight roughness in his quiet baritone the only indication of the pain wracking his right hand. “By now you should be decanting your potion, and if you have not provided me with your sample at the end of those five minutes, you will fail.”

Severus returned to his desk and dropped into his chair. In his lap, he attempted to unfurl his clenched fingers and failed as the muscles seized. What the fuck has she done now? he thought, loosening his wand from its brace so he could slip the stick into his left hand. Casting with a non-dominant hand could prove disastrous—and no matter how many contrary little dunderheads squawked “But I’m ambidextrous,” magic did not flow in symmetry through the body—though Albus proved proficient enough. Albus Dumbledore wasn’t a good marker for what the average wizard could achieve.

Concentrating, Severus whispered, “Fretum,” and cool, green mist spooled around his wrist and forearm. By no means powerful, the numbing Charm blunted the pain enough for Severus to clench his wand in his proper hand and suck air through his crooked teeth. Shit.

He retained the proper, passive facade until the very last student—twitchy Lauri Lyons—all but dropped her vial on the desk’s top. The bottle hadn’t settled before Severus Vanished the lot to the storage cupboard and got to his feet. “Class dismissed.”

The sixth years clamored to collect their possessions and didn’t notice Severus dart out the door, his footsteps quiet but urgent, the numbness fading with every fiery pulse caused by the Vow. His heart thumped against his sternum like a small, shriveled hummingbird trying to escape. Damn it, wretched girl, where is she?

Severus rounded the corner and the common room’s entrance came into sight—as did Elara Black and Hermione Granger, the pair deep in heated conversation, their expressions as taut as the body language suggested they were.

“Black, Granger—.”

Before he could demand the girl’s whereabouts, Black lifted her chin and demanded, “Where’s Harriet?”

What?

Granger pursed her lips and huffed. “What she means, sir, is that Harriet left the common room about twenty minutes ago and she—. Well, she said she had a bad feeling about you know what.”

“About—?”

“About the Philosopher’s Stone,” Black clarified, obviously in no mood for prevaricating. Severus’ eyes widened. Hell. How do they know about the Stone?! “Parkinson came into the dorm and said the Headmaster has left the castle and Harriet popped up and said she needed to go talk to you.”

Severus’ mind worked quickly as the pain tightened in his wrist again, echoes of agony spiraling through his elbow and to the tips of his fingers. Potter never arrived at his classroom, which meant she had lied to her friends, or—.

Or she was taken.

He flicked his wand and the silver doe warbled into relief, almost transparent from lack of concentration. “Recall the Headmaster!” Severus ordered the Patronus, and it bounded through the solid stone wall, the two witches gawking at the spell as the silver light faded from their faces.

“Return to the common room.”

“But—.”

Now!” Severus thundered. His voice echoed in the dungeons’ narrow confines, and both Granger and Black grudgingly retreated. The entrance closed behind them and Severus rapped his wand against the wall’s stone to activate the castle’s wards. Technically, the power should be beyond him as a simple teacher, but Severus had been given the ability when he’d been Head of Slytherin House as Albus now turned a convenient blind eye to the forgotten permissions. It made things easier, what with Slytherin himself being utterly unaccountable half the time.

He flicked his wand again and an even weaker Patronus emerged, but it would suit his purposes. “Minerva,” he said. “Lockdown the castle.”

As the doe disappeared, Severus set off at speed, robes flaring, wand clenched in a white-knuckled fist as he ran up the steps two at a time. His arm quivered.

I’ve waited too long. Five minutes was too long. Let them blow up the ruddy classroom for all I care, I waited too long now, and she’s—.

“Severus,” Slytherin acknowledged as he came swanning out of the Great Hall, prowling for what drama and mischief he could capitalize on. He spotted the Potions Master and stilled, registering the other wizard’s urgency, the rigidity of Severus’ expression and the speed of his gait. The mocking smirk dissipated into blank awareness, not unlike a snake coiling in upon itself, waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

“He’s called our bluff and taken a student,” Severus said without slowing. Slytherin swore and fell into step with him.

The staircases moved to ease their passage, and a moment later Minerva’s voice echoed through the halls and boomed across the grounds. “Students are to return to their dormitories immediately.

Time slogged on. His footsteps echoed, his breath grown ragged as he all but ran the bloody length of the castle, though he couldn’t hear Slytherin at all. Agony surged through his skin, but Severus embraced the sensation and willed it to continue, because so long as he remained in pain, the girl lived, and that certainty was worth the torment.

Dumbledore’s plan had been bound to fail from the beginning, Severus told himself. It was too complicated—and, in the same breath, too simple, and he should have known failure was imminent when Slytherin agreed with the idea. Naturally, he agreed; it fed his sense of the theatrical, and the rouse may have deterred him for a time, but the Dark Lord—in any iteration—was wily, capable, and only became more cunning as time progressed.

They were never going to win.

A small, self-defeating voice whispered, The greatest mercy you’ll receive is ceasing to exist when the girl does. Perhaps, even in this, Lily was looking out for you.

Severus shook his head, furious with himself, as they came onto the seventh-floor corridor. The gargoyle leapt aside without prompting and he almost fell when he hit the spiral stairs at full pace. He thought Slytherin said something along the lines of “Where the hell is Dumbledore—?” but the blood rushing in his ears made it difficult to hear anything aside from his screaming pulse, his wand wavering, blood in his mouth, teeth buried in his tongue to abate the swelling fire gorging on his bones.

Then, the pain stopped.

The storage room’s door was locked, as expected. Muffled sobbing broke the otherwise stilted, worried whispering of the portraits, who could hear the sound but had no vantage into the room itself. Severus tried the handle, then took a step back, bringing his wand down in a practiced slash. “Aperianuam!”

The magical seal on the door gave as it flung itself open, revealing the darkened room beyond. Potter sat on the bare floor, sobbing, blood on her lip, and before the shattered remnants of the Mirror of Erised lay the crumpled body of Quirinus Quirrell.

Minus the back of his head, of course.

Slytherin took in the scene with the dispassionate air of a casual observer, equally as irked by Potter’s tears as he was bemused by Quirrell’s shattered visage. Frayed ropes lay by Quirrell’s leg, and in his hand he clutched a wand—Potter’s wand, Severus recognized. “My, my,” Slytherin said. “It seems the Muggle Studies professor was our little agent all along. I wouldn’t have thought the stuttering fool capable of it.”

Potter sucked in a shuddering gasp and looked at her Head of House, then turned to Severus. Her green eyes were raw with tears.

“Miss Potter, are you all right?” Severus asked. Of course she’s not all right, you twit. A part of him wanted to scream at the girl out of sheer bloody relief. What happened?

The girl sniffled and wiped snot on her sleeve. Disgusted, Severus conjured a handkerchief and handed it to her, and Potter blew her nose like a trumpet before she answered. “’M okay, professor.”

A sudden blast of hot wind and searing light brought Severus and Slytherin around, their wands raised, and the Headmaster appeared from nothing with his phoenix perched on his shoulder and steel in his blue eyes. Severus lowered his wand in an instant, though Slytherin’s lingered, his lips pulled back in a displeased curl.

Dumbledore cast one cold look in the Defense professor’s direction before disregarding the man entirely and going to Potter’s side. “Harriet,” he said, extending his hand for her to take. “Harriet, my girl, can you stand?”

She tried to, and Severus intervened before the chit could yank the elderly wizard right off his feet. He took firm hold of her skinny arm and the girl leaned into his grip, content to hang limp and shiver.

“He—he—,” the girl choked between heaving breaths. “He cursed m-me, in the dungeons. W-with something red.”

Stunner, Severus’ mind supplied.

“A-and I woke up here. He wanted the Ph-Philosopher’s Stone, wanted me to get it f-for him, but I didn’t know how.” Potter swallowed and shook so hard Severus could feel it in his own bones. “He—it was Vol—the Dark Lord,” she whispered. “He had the Dark Lord with him, inside of h-him, on the back of his head—.”

Dumbledore’s brow furrowed and dread sung in Severus’ veins. The Dark Lord. He had always thought Quirrell to be an odd character and his sabbatical on the continent had only exacerbated his eccentricities, but the Potions Master hadn’t suspected this. He hadn’t suspected poor fumbling, feeble-mouthed, Muggle-loving Quirrell of anything at all.

“H-he used a spell when I—when I tried to grab his wand.” She pointed toward a cabinet, beneath which peeked the edge of a dropped wand. “He had mine and he said something, s-something I don’t know—.” The girl swallowed. “A spell. There was a green light, and then—.”

The three men in the room froze. The portraits in the office continued to squabble among themselves and Potter’s breathing remained ragged, but Severus, Slytherin, and Dumbledore said nothing at all. Slytherin traced the large cracks splintering what fragments remained in the Mirror’s frame. “Well,” he whispered. “Isn’t that interesting.”

Albus picked up the wand from Quirrell’s limp, dead hand, and stared at it. “It is indeed…Tom.”

Chapter Text

xxxix. never prosper

 

“Drink.”

Harriet looked at the vial tucked into her pale, trembling hand and did not drink. She stared at the opaque blue liquid and remembered, oddly enough, the sound of the Mirror of Erised breaking. It should have been on the low-end of memorable events this afternoon, and yet Harriet couldn’t forget the crash and the subsequent pinging of jagged glass bouncing on the stones as Quirrell slumped to his knees and fell forward.

Then the wraith had burst from his skull and screamed, “This isn’t over, Potter!” while the glass continued to rain.

Harriet jumped when Snape snatched the vial from her and uncorked it with one practiced hand, holding the rim to her mouth. “Drink it.”

“Severus, a modicum of care at this moment would go a long way—.”

Harriet didn’t hear the rest of Dumbledore’s statement because she swallowed the silty blue potion and everything ceased to matter. Harriet stopped thinking about the glass, about Quirrell’s dead eyes, Voldemort’s screams, or the vibrant green flash that poured from her own wand and flung itself back at the wizard who cast it. She barely noticed when the Heads of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff came streaming into the office and all began to talk at some volume. Harriet just sat in the wing chair by the fire with Snape watching her until the mediwitch came, at which point Madam Pomfrey began bickering with Dumbledore as she healed Harriet’s busted lip and smeared a nice, cool cream on her aching shoulder, neck, and chest.

A white sheet covered a Conjured cot, Quirrell’s body stretched out beneath it. Muggles did that too, Harriet knew from catching snippets of Dudley’s programs. They covered their dead in clean white sheets. The strange, unexpected commonality almost had her breaking out in a hysterical, giggling fit.

By the time the world came back into focus, Harriet felt much calmer and the body had gone, as had everyone but for Professor Dumbledore. The Headmaster sat in another wing chair across from her, his profile highlighted by the flickering fire in the hearth, the windows grown heavy and drab with sunset. He noticed Harriet’s rapid blinking as she straightened and sucked in a breath.

“I believe Professor Snape was a bit heavy-handed with the Calming Draught,” he said with a small smile. “He means well, of course. Lemon sherbet, Harriet?”

The end table balancing the colorful candy dish scuttled closer on spindly, delicate legs and leaned to offer up a sweet. Harriet stared at the candy dish for a moment before taking one.

“I had a bad dream with lemon sherbets in it,” she said, not quite sure why she was mentioning the weird nightmare. It seemed surreal after having watched a man with a ghost in his head accidentally kill himself.

“Oh?”

“Mhm. I wanted something sweet and the gargoyle told me all he had were lemon sherbets. He sent me out to the Forbidden Forest where there were lots of mirrors and a cupboard that I hid in to escape.”

“To escape what?”

“I’m not sure, sir.” Harriet popped the little yellow candy into her mouth and the sour taste helped further clear her mind. “I have that dream a lot, though.”

The Headmaster studied her over the top of his half-moon spectacles. “Curious,” he decided, taking one of the candies himself. “I’m sure Professor Trelawney would have much to say about your dreams. She’s the Divinations teacher, you see.” Professor Dumbledore said this with a wry note to his voice that puzzled Harriet, but the elderly wizard simply shook his head. “Never mind, my dear. You’ve been through a great deal and I’ve no doubt that listening to an old man’s prattling isn’t high on your priorities. I did want to ask you about…this.”

He held up Harriet’s wand, which she’d quite forgotten about in all the commotion. “That’s mine, sir.”

“Yes. Tell me, Harriet, where did you receive this wand?”

“From Ollivanders, Professor.”

The Headmaster lifted one brow in disapproval. “Now, I think we both know that’s not true, my girl.”

Not precisely, no, but the truth was infinitely odder than the lie, and though Harriet had come to learn many fantastical things in the magical world, she knew some things were still labeled as ‘weird,’ and possibly possessed shadows fit neatly into that category. “I’m not sure,” she said instead. “I know it’s not the same as it was, but I don’t actually know what happened to it. It is the wand I got at Ollivanders, Professor, I promise. It’s just—different now.”

Professor Dumbledore made a thoughtful sound as his fingertips moved over the surface of the wand and he relinquished it to Harriet. “It’s made of elder wood, I believe. A very rare kind of instrument indeed; according to Garrick Ollivander, it takes a rather special and talented kind of wizard—or witch—to master a wand of elder.”

Harriet blushed.

“I could guess at the core, but I believe such projections would be best left to others, because I couldn’t say for certain. It is a very loyal wand, one of a pair.”

“A pair?” Harriet asked. “Who owns the other one?”

The Headmaster shrugged, then extracted his own wand from a fold in his navy blue robes. “Me.”

It certainly looked like Harriet’s wand, the same pale wood and of similar length, but the professor’s had more design to it, a band with funny markings about the part where his knuckles rested and several pitted protuberances, kinda like the knobbly tops of bones Harriet had seen pictures of in her old Muggle texts. Her own was like a very thin, tightly wound tree branch with funny markings on it from Set’s fingers.

“As I said, they’re very loyal wands, Harriet. They can prove quite difficult, impossible in most cases, to turn against their chosen master, and if someone were to attempt casting a deadly curse against the will of the wand—well, I would think that someone might find themselves the recipient of their own misdeed.”

Harriet’s eye wandered over where the Conjured cot had stood and she gripped her wand tight. Dumbledore watched her, and for a moment looked nothing like the spry, gentle Headmaster she’d come to expect, but rather an aging wizard with a great weight upon his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, Headmaster,” she mumbled. “I shouldn’t have left the dorm on my own.”

Dumbledore let out a short breath of disbelief and smiled. “Oh, my girl, it’s not your fault.”

“No,” Harriet agreed, staring at her scraped knees. Madam Pomfrey must have missed those. “But I knew I should be careful. Hermione and Elara always tell me that. And I—I meant to take Livi—.” She cast a furtive glance in the Headmaster’s direction. “But I had to leave him behind. I should’ve known better.” In afterthought, she added, “He’s gonna come after me again, isn’t he, sir? Voldemort is?”

He didn’t respond immediately; instead, Professor Dumbledore returned his wand to his pocket and eyed the window, night coming to sit prim upon the sill, the final whisper of sunlight still caught in the dust that lingered there, speckled spots of brilliance on an otherwise dim surface. She felt anything but calm, and yet Harriet relaxed despite herself, holding onto her wand as if she’d never let it go and wishing she could thank Set for setting her free earlier. She would’ve died without him.

“Harriet, I once told you that you were what Voldemort considered a mistake, but not for the reasons that you believe, or even for the reasons he believes. Sometimes…sometimes it is not the blow that kills us, but the wound.”

“The wound, Professor?”

“Yes. You see, when he attacked your family that Hallowe’en, Voldemort very much intended to kill you, Harriet. He did not overlook you; much like Quirrell, he attempted to curse you—and failed.”

Harriet’s hand crept upward until it cupped the sore side of her neck, the cream Madam Pomfrey had spread still tacky beneath her rumpled shirt. “Why…why did he fail?”

“I believe it was because of your mother. I believe Voldemort meant to spare her, but Lily refused to step aside, and her sacrifice—her love—invoked an old and very powerful kind of magic that we may never really understand, a kind of inscrutable, uncontrollable, wonderful magic Voldemort fears above all else. It’s the same kind of magic you feel in your heart when you look at your friends or think of your parents, dear girl.”

Her eyes stung and Harriet stared again at her knees.

“He wounded himself when he attacked you. He broke himself truly, though he didn’t shatter. He fled your home, mortally wounded—though, in his arrogance, I doubt he saw it as such—and attempted to rejoin his followers in Dorset, where they had been sent on their own mission to raid another wizarding home.”

Slowly, Harriet lifted her head and found the Headmaster watching her closely as he continued speaking.

“I do not know how he managed to leave your home at all that night. Something of his being persisted, a thread of himself keeping the whole together, fraying from the moment he spoke the curse meant to end your life, and when he attempted the same spell again, before he could even manage to summon the words, Voldemort soul gave out, and he became what he is today—a wraith who cannot live, and who cannot die. And it is all because of you and your mother, Harriet.”

The bespectacled girl had to swallow twice before she could speak, and even then her voice escaped in a thin, terrified whisper. “But…but Neville, he’s the Boy Who—.”

Professor Dumbledore shook his head and dread tightened in Harriet’s middle.

“Neville is a brave boy who lost his mother and nearly his own life that night, but he is no more the cause of Voldemort’s downfall than myself or this candy dish.”

“But—but, bloody hell, Professor, he’s famous!” Harriet winced at her own cursing, but the Headmaster only shrugged.

“He attracts a great deal of attention, yes. A rather large detachment of Aurors from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is tasked with his safety, and both his father, Frank Longbottom, and his stepmother, Catherine Blishen, are aware of what truly transpired that night. Frank, and his late wife Alice, were quite devoted to seeing Voldemort defeated.”

Harriet felt nauseous as she struggled to keep her head from spinning out of control. She’d wondered on many occasions how it was possible for her to survive that night and had dozens of her own speculations on the dilemma. Those speculations, though, had turned themselves on their heads when she went with Hagrid to feed the Thestrals and realized she must have witnessed the death of one of her parents. How did I survive? Apparently, madmen will overlook you if they’ve already killed you. It made an awful, terrible kind of sense. “Neville’s like the third-floor corridor.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. A clever way to put it.”

“And I’m…I’m the Mirror of Erised.”

Again, Dumbledore nodded and Harriet turned her face to the fire. “That’s rather Slytherin thinking, isn’t it, Headmaster?”

“To quote Professor Snape; ‘if one wants anything at all to be done, then they’d best find a Slytherin with an ounce of sense in his head, because that’s an ounce more than anyone else has.’”

Harriet snorted, covering her mouth, and Professor Dumbledore chuckled. She laughed more fully at the sound and a measure of tension left her upset, nervous stomach, allowing Harriet to feel more herself than she had since stepping foot into that office. “Sir, why couldn’t Vol—Voldemort get the Stone out of the Mirror? I think that’s why he brought me along, in the end. He couldn’t figure out how to get it and thought I might be able to.”

“Ah, it’s one of my cleverer ideas, if I do say so myself. Anyone who wished to possess the Stone to use it could not possess it, but a person simply wishing to keep the Stone from harm could be given it quite easily. If I may ask; what did you see when you looked into the Mirror?”

“I didn’t see any of that, sir. I just…I just saw my mum.”

Dumbledore nodded as if he’d expected nothing else. “Yes, that’s evidence of your Slytherin character— no, my dear girl, I don’t mean that as an insult. Quite the opposite, in fact. You see, Slytherin House has a poor reputation, and even I myself have been swayed by that prejudice in the past—but over the years I have come to learn that those who find themselves Sorted into Slytherin are often of a singular character, possessors of quick-wit, ambition, and their own kind of bravery. Hufflepuffs are kind even when it’s difficult to be so, Gryffindors brave in the presence of fear, Ravenclaws inquisitive even when challenged, and Slytherins are unbelievably loyal to those who’ve earned their trust, even in the face of great temptation.”

“I…I don’t know if I’m any of those things, Professor.”

“But you are, Harriet. I’m certain he tried to tempt you; far better witches and wizards than you and I have fallen prey to Voldemort’s false promises, and many more will, before the end. However, you didn’t give in. You resisted.”

“I almost didn’t,” Harriet confessed, horrified at the quiet words coming out of her mouth. “For a second, I…he promised….”

When it became clear Harriet couldn’t continue, Dumbledore asked with plain curiosity, “So why did you deny him?”

“Because he’s a liar!” she snapped, tears stinging her eyes again. “Because he’s the one who took them from me. I just…I just wanted my family back.”

The Headmaster leaned forward to grasp Harriet’s hand in his own. “And therein lies your greatest strength and your greatest weakness, my dear; loyalty. An old proverb in our Wizarding community says ‘a Slytherin who cheats at cards and steals your wife says nothing when you take his gold and give him strife, but threaten his family and you’ll meet his knife.’ A bit melodramatic, but it makes a poignant point. You saw your mother, Harriet, because you didn’t care about Voldemort or the Philosopher’s Stone; you cared about her.”

Harriet gave the Headmaster’s hand a squeeze before letting go and mulling over his words. It was selfish of her, she decided, not caring about the Stone or Voldemort or any of that. She never felt like much of a Slytherin, having grown up downtrodden and decidedly Muggle, concepts of normality drummed into her head like a stick beating a snare drum—freak, freak, freak. Hermione was clever and quick-witted, Elara was cunning and proud, and Harriet—.

Well, Harriet didn’t know what she was.

“The Philosopher’s Stone is gone, isn’t it, sir?” she asked. “Because the Mirror’s broken?”

Dumbledore sighed and adjusted his spectacles. “Yes, unfortunately.”

“What’s going to happen to Nicholas Flamel? He’ll die without the Stone, won’t he?”

“Oh, you know about Nicholas, do you?” He smiled when Harriet nodded. “Nicholas knew there would be risks in lending me his stone—the worst of which was possibly having it stolen by Voldemort. He has enough Elixir for himself and Perenelle to set their affairs in order, and I imagine that, at the end of the day, they were prepared for this eventuality. To live forever is a great burden, Harriet. A quiet death can just as often be a gift as it can seem a curse.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault, dear girl.”

“I still think it should be said, Professor. He’s your friend.”

The Headmaster met her gaze and Harriet saw the briefest flash of profound sadness in the wizard’s blue eyes before he stood from his comfortable chair. “Come along now. I’ve kept you far too long and Madam Pomfrey will have my beard if you don’t get the rest you deserve.”

He walked her toward the waiting door, past the storage room where she saw Quirrell kill himself, Dumbledore’s hand coming to rest on her shoulder so Harriet wouldn’t stop and stare. “He’s…Voldemort’s going to return, isn’t he, Professor?”

“Not today, Harriet.”

“And when he does, sir?”

He considered her, then opened the door with a wave of his hand. “Then we’ll be prepared. But, as I said, that day is not today.”

Harriet left the office. She wiped her face when the cooler air on the stairs chilled the smudged tears on her cheeks, and she found none other than Professor Snape waiting in the hall outside the gargoyle. Clearly in a dark mood, he pointed in the direction that would lead them to the common room and they set out without a word, the Potions Master leaving once Harriet stumbled through Slytherin’s secret entrance.

She didn’t start crying until she entered the dark dormitory and changed into her nightgown. Harriet lay in bed and tried to smother her stupid sniffles, and suddenly Hermione and Elara were there, embracing her tight with whispered worry until Harriet buried her face in someone’s shoulder and quietly sobbed herself to sleep.

She didn’t dream.

Chapter Text

xl. on your way to greatness

 

Harriet felt as if she’d only just arrived at Hogwarts when summer descended upon them and it was time to depart.

Items were gathered and trunks were packed, final minute squabbles had, books Summoned through the air by forgetful students as familiars crawled about underfoot. Marks were distributed and no one was at all surprised to learn Hermione was top of their year overall. Elara had scored marginally better on their final Transfiguration exam, much to Hermione’s frustration, and Neville Longbottom had earned top marks in Herbology.

To Harriet’s absolute shock, she took first in Defense with what Hermione considered a wide margin between her and Longbottom in second. All subjects cumulated, Harriet ranked eleventh in her year, and she had never felt as proud of herself as she did when blinking dumbfounded at the listings posted in the common room. Attending primary with Dudley had meant having her homework stolen or handed in late, and as such Harriet had never taken much interest in learning—but here, at Hogwarts, with a world of magic at her fingertips, Harriet found she enjoyed studying, enjoyed classes and picking up new spells, listening to Hermione squeeze all sorts of information into her skull while Elara did her best to tutor her in Transfiguration.

She was grateful her friends were such bloody geniuses and hoped some of their intelligence rubbed off on her.

Professor Snape called Harriet into his office on the last day of term. She expected a detention or another punishment. Was summer detention a thing? Harriet had had enough of that at the Dursleys’, thank you very much. She slunk into the cramped space wearing a pinched expression. Snape saw it immediately and scoffed.

“Don’t look at me like that, Potter. Sit.”

She tried to control her face as she sat and ended up looking mildly ill.

Unamused, Snape strode behind his desk and unlocked one of the drawers with a tap of his wand, extracting a familiar bundle of silvery fabric. Harriet forgot her frustration and instead gaped. The professor held the cloak out and, when Harriet reached for it, he jerked his hand back, ensuring he had her attention.

“You will use it only in emergencies, girl,” he said, pronouncing every word like a pebble being pinged off Harriet’s forehead. “It is not a bloody toy. You will not abuse the privilege. You will not use it to gallivant about the school after hours or cause mischief with your cohorts. If I find that you have, I will take it back—and don’t think that I can’t or won’t.”

Despite the snarl in his voice, Harriet was as pleased as Punch. She’d been convinced Snape would never return the cloak, that he’d forgotten about it entirely or had simply thrown it out in a fit of pique or carelessness. He poured the cold cloth into Harriet’s open hands and when she grinned, he blinked as if startled, looking at Harriet as if he’d never really seen her before. She doubted Snape ever had students smile at him, and though Harriet thought the wizard spent far too much time being a miserable git, he had been the first one through the door after what happened in the Headmaster’s office. Harriet wouldn’t forget that.

“Thank you, Professor Snape!”

He grunted and returned to his chair behind the desk, straightening the cuffs of his sleeves and staring resolutely at the far wall. “Remember what I said. Get out, Potter.”

Harriet did as told, though she also hung back just long enough to yell “Have a good hols, Professor Snape!” as the door swung shut and she ran before he could change his mind about that detention.

At the Leaving Feast, Slytherin colors decked the Great Hall and Professor Dumbledore stood up, waiting for silence to fall across the chattering students so he could be heard. “Ah, another year gone! And I hope it has been an excellent year for all of you, and I hope you will indulge an old wizard’s need to maunder before we tuck into our excellent meal. We’ve a House Cup to award it seems. In fourth place, we have Gryffindor with three hundred and twelve points; in third, our friends in Hufflepuff, with three hundred and fifty-two points; Ravenclaw is in second with four hundred and twenty-six points, and Slytherin stands at first with four hundred and seventy-two points.”

The Slytherin table applauded themselves and a few of the other Houses gave perfunctory claps.

“Yes, well done again, Slytherin House. It would, however, be remiss of me not to take recent events into account.”

The applause faded and many of the Slytherins were looking at the Headmaster with wariness, Professor Slytherin’s red eyes narrowed at the older man, Snape’s hand wrapped tight about his goblet’s stem.

“No matter that you are in first already, I find it important to acknowledge every students’ trials and successes so they can be recognized for their cunning, their brilliance, bravery, and humility in the face of difficult challenges and harrowing danger. To Misters Neville Longbottom and Ronald Weasley, I would like to award ten points each for their efforts in researching and warning the school of a danger that had gone unknown to the professors. Thank you, gentleman.”

Gryffindor House cheered and Longbottom beamed, Ron shrugging off his brothers’ well-meaning hair ruffling. Now that Dumbledore mentioned it, Harriet recalled Longbottom and Weasley wanting to go into the Restricted Section during the Yule hols to research something that began with “N,” something Harriet suspected might be “Nicholas Flamel.”

“To Misses Hermione Granger and Elara Black, I award ten points each for their care and consideration in regards to a classmate’s protection and safety.”

Harriet grinned at her best friends as their House clapped and whistled, even Malfoy and Parkinson begrudgingly bringing their hands together a few times. Hermione let out an embarrassed squeak, burying her head in her arms, and though Elara bore the attention with better poise, her cheeks did turn a flustered pink color.

“To our Head Girl, Miss Amanda Robinson, and our Head Boy, Ryan Uzkosk, for keeping calm, protecting and gathering younger students during a declared emergency, I award ten points each and wish them the absolute best in their adventures beyond our hallowed halls. Remember, Hogwarts is always here to help those who ask for it.”

The Head Girl and Boy, a Hufflepuff and a Ravenclaw respectively, were applauded by their Houses and Harriet clapped too, because she could imagine how scary it must’ve been for other first years like herself, not knowing what was happening, why the school had been in lockdown, and she doubted they made things easy for Robinson and Uzkosk.

“And, finally, to Miss Harriet Potter, for remaining true to her friends, her family, her House, and herself in defiance of great evil and imminent threat, I award fifty points.”

Harriet blushed from her head down to her toes when her House cheered, acting less dignified than a bunch of stiff pure-bloods usually did, though not as riotous as the Gryffindors would’ve been in a reversed situation. At the High Table, Harriet thought she saw Snape pinch the bridge of his nose in exasperation. Professor Slytherin clapped like his students and looked…curious, just as he had every time he saw Harriet in recent days. She couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not.

“Yes, congratulations again, Slytherin House. I wish all of us a lovely summer and hope you’ll arrive in September ready to learn again; maybe we’ll get to see the Great Hall in different colors next year, hmm?”

The Feast commenced, and the Headmaster’s words stuck with Harriet throughout the meal, a grin at her lips that’d been more reticent of late. For remaining true to her friends, her family, her House, and herself. The older Slytherins smiled and shook Harriet’s hand, looking appreciative in a way her relatives never had, and Harriet herself felt proud—proud she’d done well in her classes, proud she’d made such wonderful friends, and proud that, in a moment of panic, she hadn’t betrayed who she was. She hoped her mum and dad would be proud, too.

The Sorting Hat chose right, she told herself as she lifted her chin and looked at the enchanted ceiling. I will do well in Slytherin.

_____

 

The train rattled on the rails as it chugged ever southward toward the distant horizon.

“I still don’t understand what Professor Dumbledore’s thinking,” Hermione said, fidgeting with her forest green robes, causing the bench to squeak. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“It makes a perfect kind of sense, if that kind of sense is Dumbledore’s,” Elara countered as she lifted her nose from her journal. She, too, wore robes; a dark gray pair with sage lining and a high collar. Harriet, in contrast, dressed like a Muggle—though not her cousins’ cast-offs, since those had met an unfortunate fate in the grate last summer. “He’s privy to something we’re not.”

“Exactly,” Hermione replied. “Why else would he keep this a secret? And for so long.”

“Longbottom could use a bit of a head shrinkage,” Harriet grumbled, giving her feet a moody kick. Livi grew restless inside her thin jumper and popped his head out the bottom, tongue flickering, lounging across Harriet’s lap. She rubbed his snout with little thought.

“To keep Harriet safe.” Elara crossed one leg over the other and leaned back. “The Boy Who Lived attracts a certain amount of enmity and we can assume the Girl Who Lived would be no different.”

Harriet shuddered. “Ugh.”

She’d told them all about Professor Quirrell, the Mirror of Erised, Quirrell’s unsavory passenger, and what the Headmaster had told her afterward, despite the niggling fear that Elara and Hermione might decide friendship with her was too complicated or dangerous. Both had taken the news in stride, much to Harriet’s relief, and they tried to puzzle out Dumbledore’s decisions and actions when privacy allowed.

“But that’s my point exactly, don’t you see? Longbottom is guarded. He is, arguably, more protected than Harriet, who’s anonymity and safety depends upon a serendipitous rouse, and what’s the point of that?”

“What do you mean?”

Why would Harriet need anonymity? Why was she denied the fame and attention given to Neville?”

Harriet huffed and unwrapped a Pumpkin Pasty. “Please. I’d rather eat my wand then put up with all that stupidity.” She shoved half of the Pasty into her mouth and presented the other to Livi, crumpling the wrapper to stow it in her pocket. “After talking with Professor Dumbledore, I think…well, I know he believes the Dark Lord’s going to return.”

“But what is the point of keeping you safe—? Oh, I didn’t mean it like that, honestly, Harriet. I mean theoretically. Neville is, for all intents and purposes, the Boy Who Lived. He has been brought up and touted as such for years; should he die, it would have the same impact upon the community as it would if Harriet died had she been rightfully identified. There must be a reason that, in a worse-case scenario, it is plausible for Neville to die, but not for Harriet.”

They sat in silence for a time, lost to their respective thoughts, and though it may have been macabre to consider the worth of a classmate’s life against her own, Harriet was terribly glad Hermione and Elara were pragmatic enough to not make such projections personal.

Elara ran her fingers over the bent, worn edges of her journal’s pages and said, “We’re missing too many pieces of this puzzle, Hermione.”

The bushy-haired girl exhaled and admitted defeat. “Yes, yes. You’re right….”

All too soon, they slipped through London’s peripheries and barreled on, the train rolling to a halt at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters where hundreds of parents stood about waiting for their children to disembark. Harriet pulled down her Charmed trunk, hoisted Livi higher, and followed her friends into the students streaming toward the doors. Her heart felt heavier with every step.

“I have to go,” Hermione murmured once they stepped outside. Already she’d caught sight of Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy standing to the side like a pair of perfectly matched salt pillars, Malfoy Senior leaning on a black cane while he surveyed the moving crowd with impassive eyes. Hermione hugged Harriet, then Elara. “I’ll write—if I can. I’m not sure—oh, I’ll miss you both terribly.”

“We’ll see you in September.”

Hermione smiled, and off she went to greet her foster guardians. Elara and Harriet parted ways at the busy Floo, though not before the former embraced the bespectacled witch tight and warned, “I will be writing. And I expect you to send a letter back with Cygnus.”

“‘Course.”

Elara held her skinny hand. “Tell me if you need anything while living with the Muggles.”

Harriet didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I will.”

Then, Elara Black disappeared, just like Hermione had, and Harriet walked through the barrier into King’s Cross Station alone aside from her serpentine companions and mischievous shadow. She strolled until she came to the avenue, where she tipped back her head and let the hot London sun warm her face, listening to the bustle of Muggle society around her, the honking horns, rolling tires, the screeching brakes of a lorry.

She took a breath, then let it out. She had nowhere to go and yet Harriet wasn’t afraid, because Harriet Potter was a witch. She could talk to snakes, cast spells, and just days ago survived a confrontation with one of the Darkest wizards to ever live. Harriet Potter was a proud Slytherin, best friends with Hermione Granger and Elara Black, and was going to learn all the magic she could so, one day, she’d become great—because Harriet Potter was not afraid.

Not anymore.

“All right then. First stop on our way to greatness is….” Harriet stared at the pavement and, after swirling lazily about her feet, Set extended an arm and pointed along the avenue. “That way, I guess. Lovely. I think greatness needs a compass.”

 

- e n d   y e a r   o n e -

 

A/N: That’s the end of year one! *confetti*

Thank you to all my reviewers and commenters! I love to read your thoughts on the story!

On a different note, I know my Dumbledore might be a bit OoC. I try to write him as I would expect a man supposedly as wise as Dumbledore, living in this altered world, would—and should—behave. I still expect he’ll have spots of Gryffindor bias (like allowing Neville onto the Quidditch team), but he’s going to be more straight-forward than canon Dumbledore, a bit more cunning, and more compassionate. This world has enough bloody Dark Lords, thank you very much.

Chapter Text

2. THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

but be the serpent under’t - w. shakespeare

 


 

  xli. bruises on the soul

 

The broom scraped along the floor and the sound echoed in Grimmauld Place’s oppressive silence.

In Elara’s limited memory, the house had never been as quiet and doom-laden as it was now; when Cygnus had been in residence, a breath of life wheedled through the place, and no matter how thin and sickly it’d been, Elara recalled a comforting weight to the occasional wet coughs or the raspy mutterings he shared with the portraits of his forefathers. Now, there was nothing. Aside from Kreacher, Elara Black was alone.

The bristles scratched the wood and she sighed as she lifted the dust pail and dumped its contents in the rubbish bin. The bin coughed, sputtering out half the dirt and earned a tight-lipped glare from Elara. A month had passed since her arrival at the London townhouse and most of her efforts had gone into fixing the damage accrued during her extended absence at Hogwarts. Kreacher, still moping over Cygnus’ death, was of no help at all, and Elara didn’t have the patience or the wherewithal to chastise him for it.

Giving up for the moment, Elara leaned the broom against the peeling wallpaper and dropped onto the divan below an open window. Outside, a transparent veil of magic created generations before Elara’s own birth hung between the house and the sidewalk, blocking the Muggles’ view of the property, glittering slightly in the afternoon sunshine. A paltry breeze crossed the sill and stirred the mottled curtains, and though she wished for it to stay, the breeze retreated and the air stilled again. Elara resigned herself to melting in the muggy heat.

Sprawled on the divan, she stared at the ceiling and its weathered paint, then raised one hand before her face. Elara peeled off the sweaty glove, then, with deliberate attention plucked at the buttons on her sleeve until she could yank it down to her elbow. The light played over her pale skin and the scars that started about halfway up her forearm gradually thickened to their worst around her wrists, looking like ugly, scarlet bangles embedded in the flesh.

Elara poked the scar sitting over the tendon that ran into her thumb and the digit trembled.

She sighed louder and dropped the arm onto her middle, then went about shedding her remaining glove and rolling back that sleeve as well. Unsightly as the scars were, the weather was inexcusably hot and she was alone. Matron Fitzgerald would’ve called it an “Indian Summer,” but Elara was fairly certain that was the incorrect term, which didn’t surprise her in the slightest. Bigoted and cruel, Matron Fitzgerald had also been a bit of an idiot.

A Doxy made a conspicuous show of tip-toeing back into the draperies Elara had de-infested the day before. She glowered at the tricky devil and, not for the first time, wished she knew and could perform the proper cleaning spells. Doing everything the Muggle way had quickly lost its charm.

Muffled flapping brought Elara’s head up and she watched her owl Cygnus come winging through the open window, making a brief circuit around the dilapidated office before landing on the divan’s arm. He pecked at her groomed head affectionately and Elara sent her fingers questing over his dark wing, feeling the sun’s heat still trapped in the feathers.

“Thank you,” she said once Cygnus proffered his leg for her to take the attached letter and package. He hooted, apparently finding her response acceptable, and took off through the open door to find his water dish. Elara pried the red seal open on the letter and proceeded to read. It was from Hermione.

 

Dear Elara,

I hope your holidays are going well. I know only a month has passed, but it seems inexorably longer, doesn’t it? I miss you and Harriet and Hogwarts terribly.

I’m sorry if I’ve been remiss in sending a letter earlier. Mr. Malfoy keeps us to a very strict studying schedule and I have not had the opportunity to use the owlery much.

 

Elara snorted. Between the lines, she read, “Lucius Malfoy is a prig and he’s not allowing me to use the owls.” Hate was not a feeling she often relished, but Elara thought she might hate Lucius a little more each time she received another notice of investigation involving her emancipation from the Ministry. He could do nothing, and yet he persisted because he had the money, the time, and the desire to simply pester Elara constantly.

 

Have you had the chance to review Prof. McGonagall’s summer assignment? It deals with the principles of Gamp’s Laws in the Vera Verto spell, and though I’ve looked up the spell and its usage on aves, rodents, et al., I question the efficacy of the third string in the Conjuration wheel, wherein the inverted symbol for truth seems out of place—.

 

Grinning, Elara quickly skimmed through what amassed to several rambling paragraphs concerning Vera Verto, a spell they’d be learning next year, and its applications. It seemed Hermione was determined to place better than Elara in the upcoming year, and Elara looked forward to a bit of friendly competition.

Farther down the parchment, Hermione changed topics.

 

I’ve attached Harriet’s birthday gift and would really appreciate it if you’d send it on for me. I’m—here a word had been delicately scratched out—concerned about her. I know we haven’t much discussed our home lives, but I also know you understand a bit more of her situation than I do, and I’ve come to think possibly her—again, another word was blackened by ink—situation might well be a product of that unfortunate Hallowe’en.

 

Elara hummed low, finger tapping the parchment. Harriet never spoke of her relatives, but she had the distinct misfortune of being friends with a pure-blood and a pure-blood’s overly curious ward. The Noble House of Potter was notorious for producing single sons for generations; James to Fleamont to Charlus—though Elara hadn’t traced the House farther than that, as the Blacks had married into the Potters at that point, which coincidently made Elara and Harriet third cousins.

Regardless of their relation, Harriet’s father was known to have married “outside” the other families, which basically meant he’d married a Muggle-born. Harriet had mentioned her “aunt and uncle,” and from then on Elara realized the bespectacled witch lived with Muggles on her mother’s side, and she hadn’t seemed particularly pleased when summer rolled about. None of them had.

Elara contemplated the little package in which Harriet’s present was contained and pursed her lips. She’d written to Harriet twice earlier in the month and both times Cygnus had returned rumpled and irritable, unable to deliver her messages, and if Elara hadn’t known better, she would’ve said Cygnus hadn’t been able to find Harriet because she was moving.

 

Whether or not that’s true, I still hope she’s well. Mr. Malfoy made a comment in passing about her the other day—Elara’s eyes narrowed—and I confess that I don’t actually know where he might have heard about Harriet, unless Draco mentioned her. That seems unlikely, as he’s far more prone to badmouthing you and me than Harriet.

 

Scoffing, Elara read Hermione’s salutation and folded the letter again. She tucked Harriet’s present into her skirt’s pocket and took her time getting up, content to remain languid and close to the window’s relief for a minute longer before returning to the main house’s sticky heat. When she rose, Elara abandoned the office as a bad job for today and returned instead to her own bedroom across the hall.

The scantily clad swimsuit models scowled over the top of the parchment sheets covering their permanently stuck posters with, though she ignored them and went to the desk, sitting on the crooked stool. Balled up parchment and bits of old quills lay on the surface between heavy, dry tomes concerning Ministry and Goblin laws that Elara found incredibly dry but endeavored to slog through nonetheless. She had a solicitor, Mr. Piers, but her late great-uncle had said it was stupid to place all of one’s faith concerning financial matters in another’s hands, and Elara agreed.

Even so, Elara was still twelve and had to look up every third word or so written in the legal texts, making her studies very slow going.

Shuffling through the desk’s top drawer, she retrieved a fresh sheet of parchment, then uncapped the inkwell and picked up a quill. The edge proved worn down and bent at the tip, but when she looked about for her Charmed trimming knife, she came up empty.

“Kreacher?” Elara called, waiting. When no response came, she huffed and tried again. “Kreacher!”

The old house-elf appeared with a crack of noise and a glower. “The blood-traitor’s daughter is calling Kreacher?”

Elara pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “Yes. Do you know where my trimming knife is, by chance?”

The elf snapped his knobby fingers and the little blade appeared in his hand.

“Oh. Thank you.”

She reached for it—and suddenly remembered her arms were bare, and Kreacher’s bloodshot eyes froze on the ugly blemishes before moving to her face. Elara felt as if he could see more than just the tarnishing marks on her flesh; Kreacher looked at her like he could see the very bruises on her soul and didn’t like what he saw.

Elara snatched the knife from him and quickly turned away, shoving her sleeves back into their proper place. “That’s all, Kreacher. Thank you.”

She heard the house-elf’s shuffling, uneven gait as he left the room, mumbling all the way to the hall and the stairs beyond. Elara gripped her wrist and shut her eyes, willing the creeping shame from her thoughts as the fixtures on the wall rattled and dust shook from the ceiling. She took one breath, then another, then opened her eyes and finished buttoning her cuffs.

Silly of me, she told herself. Kreacher was bound to see them eventually, and he already thinks I’m about as useful as pond scum. It’s not as if his opinion can get any lower.

Elara returned to her seat and trimmed the quill, tidying the desk before she wrote out another brief letter to Harriet and tucked it into an envelope. She had her own gift meant for Harriet’s birthday, of course, and she found it before putting the velvet pouch into her pocket with Hermione’s, then rather than setting out for the kitchen where Cygnus would be resting, she made for the stairs to go to the library on the second floor.

The Black library was no misnomer; dubious Charms expanded the space far beyond what the walls should have constrained, making it a maze of dark shelves towering in the dimly lit space, crowded with more books than one could ever possibly read in their lifetime, or so it felt like to Elara. Hermione would’ve squealed with delight upon seeing a room like it. Elara, though she liked books and reading, found it was a bit too…eerie.

She turned the lever for the gas lamps and waited for the wan light to brighten, sniffling on the untold decades worth of dust and dirt as the shelves came into view. There were no windows, as the sunlight could damage most of the older volumes, and several of the upper rows Cygnus had told Elara specifically not to touch. The books whispered to one another, exchanging secrets, quieting only when Elara walked down their rows.

Squinting at the bindings, she wished she could use her wand and took a volume off the shelf to hold it closer to the light.

“What are you doing, girl?”

Elara flinched and almost dropped the book. Above the empty hearth, the portrait of a clever wizard with thin brows and a pointed beard watched as she clutched one hand to her chest and tried to slow her racing heart.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t purposefully startle me.”

The portrait scoffed. “Perhaps you should pay better attention to your surroundings.”

Ignoring him, she popped open the book to a random page and squinted.

“Interested in animal husbandry, are you?”

Elara’s gaze jerked itself back to the portrait. “What?”

The wizard smirked. “Well, considering you’re perusing an eighteenth-century collection on Charms concerning the best ways to breed livestock, I thought you might have a passing interest in the subject.”

Elara turned a page and, upon seeing a rather detailed sketch, realized she did indeed have a book on animal husbandry in her hands and snapped it shut with an embarrassed grunt.

“Now, because I so dearly love listening to my own voice, I’ll ask again; what are you looking for, girl? I’ve had precious little to do in here but look at the bindings since my great-grandson thought to move me from the bedroom. I know where everything is.”

Elara desperately wanted to snap that hanging in a bedroom shouldn’t prove more exciting than hanging in a library but shut her mouth and swallowed the words. “I’m looking for a locater Charm, of sorts, for a letter. Something either I could cast or could ask to be cast at the postal office in Diagon Alley.”

“Why?”

“To locate someone, of course.”

The portrait gifted her an unamused look before jerking his chin in the direction of the southern wall. “Look there. Between the curio cabinet and the shelf bearing the Black crest. The collection of communication magic and indexes should still be there.”

“Thank you.”

Elara went to the bookcase in question and began scanning the heavy tomes. She had to pull most off the shelf and check one by one as few actually had titles printed on the binding, and most proved to be outdated editions on owl care. She did learn a great deal about how magical owls first came to be bred and used—apparently, the early wizards thought to breed eagles, and that ended with a few too many missing fingers—but Elara pushed on and searched more.

After dragging a particularly fat volume down, another, smaller book stuffed between its pages slipped out and hit the dusty floor. Elara frowned at it and picked the book up after setting the other one down, running her fingers over the leather cover stained a deep emerald, the silver snake gilt starting to flake about the edges.

“Golly, wonder if this belonged to a Slytherin,” Elara said with a soft snort as she thumbed through the yellowing pages. The diagrams inside were not about owls or their migration patterns; Elara caught glimpses of moving models demonstrating harsh, slashing hexes and something called “Fire of the Fiend,” strange, distorting animals bursting from the characters’ wands in rolling swirls.

Elara stuffed the book into her roomy pocket and returned to the shelf. She eventually found what she was looking for, a simple Charm placed upon a letter that made it easier for the owl to find recipients traveling or moving abroad, and Elara copied the spell down on a piece of parchment before returning the volume to its proper place. She headed down to the kitchen.

Once there, Elara shrugged on the outer robes she’d hung by the hearth and straightened her skirt, then beckoned Cygnus over to her. “Kreacher?” she called as the owl settled on the crook of her arm. “Kreacher, I’m stepping out for a few minutes, and I—.”

A small jar sat on the otherwise empty table and caught Elara’s attention. It was an innocuous thing, really, and yet it hadn’t been there when she’d come down for lunch earlier, so Elara paused in her preparation to depart and picked the jar up. Like much of the house, dust coated the glass and the label was so faded the letters were almost illegible, but Elara managed to read, “Derma-Bond. For scars.”

Elara stood, frozen, and stared at the jar without a word. The house-elf came sneaking into the kitchen through the slim door that led to the boiler room and sneered when Elara caught his eye.

“Thank you, Kreacher,” she said with a small, stiff smile.

“Kreacher doesn’t know what the blood-traitor’s daughter is talking about.”

“No, of course not.” She stowed the jar away in her robes, given that her skirt pockets were already stuffed with letters and presents, an extra pair of gloves and the book out of the library. “I’ll be back soon.”

Kreacher sniffed and dragged himself back into the hot boiler room. Elara turned with Cygnus to the hearth and scooped a pinch of Floo Powder out of the silver jar on the mantel. Tossing it into the dying fire, she said, “Diagon Alley!” and disappeared in a whirl of soot and green fire.

Chapter Text

xlii. home is nowhere

 

In the southern parts of Oxfordshire, in between here and there, at a crossroads that didn’t lead anywhere in particular, sat a bespectacled witch on an antique trunk and a large serpent lazing in a bed of bluebells.

Harriet Potter turned the crumpled map in her hands and squinted at the lettering, the paper made too bright by the cheery sunshine and the writing refusing to cooperate. She had little experience with mundane maps let alone magical ones, and this map did everything it could to confound the frustrated girl. She turned it again and huffed.

“Set?”

At her feet, the shadows peeled away from the thick patches splayed between the grass and bluebells to form a vague question mark shape.

“Could you—?”

The shadow lifted itself from the dirt like rain in reverse, coming together to form a nebulous umbrella of watery darkness hanging above the girl’s bent head.

“Excellent, cheers,” Harriet said as she went back to the map.

When term came to an end and Harriet arrived in London a month prior, she made no attempt to return to her relatives in Little Whinging. No, she had no desire to see Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, or her cousin Dudley ever again, and she guessed they were be pleased to be shut of her anyway. Rather, Harriet disembarked from the Hogwarts Express and—at Set’s prompting—returned to Diagon Alley.

At first, Harriet rather enjoyed her stay in the Alley. She ate lunch at Florean Fortescue’s or Pofferton’s Puddings on Toad Road, explored the many nooks and crannies of the varied shops, and fell asleep in her bed at the Leaky Cauldron. Diagon Alley and its adjoining streets comprised the biggest magical district in England—but the Wizarding community was really rather small, and it had a very long memory. While everyone didn’t actually know everyone else, they at least knew of each other, or their families, or had a mate who knew someone who knew them. Anonymity was not really a thing for wizards and witches.

Tom, the landlord for the Leaky Cauldron, remembered Harriet from last summer—as did housekeeping, Florean Fortescue and quite a few of the shop owners about the district. She ran into Professor Sinistra once in the pub and had to dive behind a cart to avoid being seen by Professor Snape as he came out of the Apothecary. The manager at Flourish and Blotts always frowned when Harriet passed by his shop. They started to ask…questions, questions about why a scruffy kid was always out and about on her own without her guardians, and she soon began to worry they might write to the magical equivalent of child services. Harriet never wanted to be trapped with people like the Dursleys again.

So, she stayed two nights at the Leaky Cauldron, a third at the Niffler’s Nest in Horizont Alley, a fourth at the Hopping Pot down Carkitt Market, and afterward Harriet visited Globus Mundi Travel Agents to buy a map of Britain’s Wizarding settlements and scrounged up an old, Charmed tent in The Junk Shop. Diagon Alley may have been the largest magical district in England—but it was not the only one.

From there, Harriet set out on an arduous journey of Floo hopping from Diagon Alley to the smaller district of The Cobbled Lane in Blackburn, then on to the Tarland Tavern in Edinburgh, where Harriet exhausted herself and had to spend the night. She’d thought traveling through the Floo Network would be a simple thing, but apparently a body as small as hers was subject to magical exhaustion, as the distance flickering between Floo to Floo to Floo took its toll. Harriet could barely keep her eyes open as she promised the witch behind the bar that her parents would be along later that evening, and she snuck out before dawn.

Afterward, Harriet spent one week on the Isle of Skye, camping in the fens and rolling hills and rocky tors, not far from the village of Giant’s Rest near The Storr. The area was populated by some of the barmiest wizards Harriet had ever met, including a batty potioneer named Ernestine Elderberry, who claimed to be three hundred and fourteen years old and brewed with spit from the fairies she’d met near the Bruach na Frithe. The woman shoved a glass cauldron full of curious, light blue crystals into Harriet’s arms one day—said it was a gift—then went off chasing a flying sheep toward the mountains. The crystals glowed softly whenever Harriet spoke in Parseltongue, and she had no clue what to make of that.

Harriet stayed another week at Elva Hill in Cumbria, where a night market popped into existence every evening after nightfall and one could buy all manner of strange local flora—though not with Galleons. The shopkeepers didn’t look, well, human to Harriet, what with their glowing eyes and sharp ears, and they bartered with puzzling things like a sigh captured in a bottle, or a name, or two hops, or a joke. The stalls would appear in the shadow of the hill itself as the sun dipped into the horizon, and Harriet saw vampires there, and goblins and green-skinned hags, wizards with teeth like wolves, Centaurs and beautiful, white-haired women who the wizards chased after like hungry dogs.

After midnight, she could sometimes see distant lights outside her tent’s walls, and sometimes she heard whispers asking her to come out and play and dance. Fortunately for Harriet, she was adept at ignoring cajoling little voices, and so she stayed cozy in her bed.

Now Harriet sat at the side of a road leading nowhere at all, in front of a sign with no directions, with hot sunshine pounding on the top of her head and Kevin, her snake-golem, coiled in her hair. A wizard at the Hopping Pot tavern with a beard longer than Dumbledore’s had—in a thick, rambling brogue—told her about the Wizarding hamlet of Bantiaumyrddin, which was supposed to be somewhere in Oxfordshire, but Harriet was beginning to think that the old wizard had been a nutter.

Chewing her lip, she pulled her wand out of its brace and rapped the map. “Bantiaumyrddin!”

The ink swirled, searching, and hazy patterns of the path she’d trod appeared, but the way forward remained foggy. Little question marks blossomed from Harriet’s stick figure like anxious sweat.

“Probably saying it wrong,” Harriet grumbled as she stashed her wand away again and folded the map. Hermione would’ve pronounced it correctly, and Harriet wished she was there with her. “Sounds bloody Welsh anyway. Barmy wizard….”

Sighing, Harriet slipped off her trunk and laid in the cooler grass, shifting until a wispy tree branch blocked the sun from hitting her eyes. Livi stirred from his nap to investigate.

Sss…do you know the way?” he asked as his tongue flicked and smelled the air, Kevin mirroring the move against Harriet’s damp temple.

No, I’m not sure,” she replied. Harriet took a Chocolate Frog out of her shorts’ pocket, and though it resembled a melted lump more than an actual frog, she popped it into her mouth and chewed, flipping the card over for her inspection. “Dumbledore again.”

When do we return to the ssstone placcce?

Hogwarts? Not for a while.

The Horned Serpent hissed as he slithered through the plants and over Harriet’s torso, raising himself so his snout hovered close to her face and Harriet blinked. His eyes burned a luminescent blue, black scales hot to the touch, the gem upon the ridge of his brow glittering in the sunshine. “Exxxplain.”

We don’t go back until it’s time for school.”

Why not now?

Because school doesn’t start until September. We’ve been over this, you know.

Livi hissed and twitched as he did whenever Harriet tried to explain something he wasn’t familiar with. Snakes didn’t have much comprehension of school—or time, for that matter, since Livi referred to winter as “the cold time” and summer as “the warm time” with little distinction in between. He ate, slept, and drank as he pleased, be it day or night. “Humansss are ssstupid,” he said, remorseless and uncaring of Harriet’s scandalized expression. “Wasssteful. We ssshould ssstay at the ssstone placcce. The air….” The serpent paused and sent his violet tongue flickering once more. “The air isss besst there.

Harriet took that to mean he liked the magic at Hogwarts, since Livi didn’t much approve of the Muggle places they passed through. They smelled “wrong” to him.

She didn’t reply. Harriet went to stroke his scales and Livi reared back to inspect her hand, licking the smudges of chocolate from her fingertips. Truth be told, Harriet very much wished they could stay at Hogwarts year round too—but, unlike her classmates, she lacked anywhere else to go, so she supposed everyone else would be a bit peeved if they were stuck at the castle all the time.

Lost in thought, Harriet didn’t spot the pair of owls descending on her until Livi hissed a warning, and she had barely enough time to sit up before Elara’s bird, Cygnus, landed on her head. Kevin let out a sound of fear and she quickly tucked him down the front of her blouse before surly Cygnus decided to eat him. The other post-carrier—a spotted barn owl Harriet didn’t recognize—landed a polite distance away, leg extended for her to accept the attached package.

“Ouch, Cygnus, geroff—.”

The black owl pecked at Harriet’s raised hand, then fluttered down to her knee, giving both Harriet and Livi an imperious look that dared them to object. The witch huffed as she rubbed her sore hand.

“And what’s your problem, you daft bird? That hurt.”

Cygnus hooted, louder than before, and held out his leg like the other owl did. Nervous of having her fingers nipped to ribbons, Harriet hesitated before loosening the twine binding the small package in place, but once it dropped, Cygnus took to the air without a backward glance, cuffing Harriet in the head for her efforts. The barn owl acted with better manners and stuck around for Harriet to give him a piece of a Licorice Wand from her pocket.

“What’s this?” Harriet wondered aloud as she opened the lumpy envelope from Elara. Two folded letters fell out, as did two parcels carefully wrapped in plain parchment and spare bits of ribbon. She unfolded the first letter, and grinned as she recognized Hermione’s tidy handwriting. The bushy-haired witch went on at some length about the summer Defense assignment and even included a list of book references Harriet might want to include in her Charms essay, having correctly surmised the bespectacled witch hadn’t finished all her assignments yet. The letter concluded with—

 

Happy birthday, Harriet. I do hope you like your present. I Transfigured it from a bit of silver I liberated from the Malfoys. Stolen silver is the only kind of metal that can hold the Honor Among Thieves Charm—which makes it so items in your possession cannot be Summoned from you. Your wand, for example. I do hope it’s not needed, but it never hurts to be prepared. Stay safe, and don’t go looking for trouble!

Love, Hermione.

 

“Oh,” Harriet said, blinking. It was her birthday? She’d forgotten all about it, which wasn’t surprising, given that Harriet had never had a birthday before she much looked forward to, last year’s being the best in her memory. She opened up the parcel and found a thin, gleaming bangle with the adjustable ends shaped like a snake eating its own tail. The design was rather crude, but Harriet loved it and quickly snapped the bracelet into place on her wrist. “Lovely.”

Grinning, she opened Elara’s gift—and out tumbled a small white teaspoon attached to a long strip of leather. The handle was riddled in tiny runes and inscriptions, and the top bore a familiar crest of a skull and three black birds. Harriet turned the spoon over in her hand, puzzled, then checked Elara’s letter.

 

Harriet—

I hope this letter finds you. I’ve had trouble sending the last few, and Cygnus has been put out that he hasn’t been able to deliver.

 

“That would explain the biting,” Harriet grumbled, reading on.

 

I’ve enclosed your birthday gift, along with Hermione’s, who wished for me to send hers on. Mine is a bit odd, but I think you’ll appreciate it. My ancestors proved to be a pack of highly paranoid individuals, most of them convinced the house-elves were out to get them. To that end, I think it was our great-great aunt Cassiopeia who paid the Bavarians to carve a set of cutlery from the bones of Erklings. However they came about, the set’s Charmed to be self-cleaning and turns black in the presence of most known poisons.

 

Harriet studied at the strange spoon with new consideration. The misadventure with the poisoned tea last term had greatly turned Harriet off the food in the Great Hall, so it would be nice to have a smidgen of reassurance if she was worried. Harriet guessed both Elara and Hermione were still concerned about her if this was what they’d decided to get her for her birthday.

Kevin hissed as she looped the leather about her neck and dropped the spoon down her shirt before she kept reading.

 

I would like it if you came to stay with me for the rest of summer. If you want. Livius is welcome, too. I live at 12 Grimmauld Place, London—the Borough of Islington, to be precise. It’s imperative to remember the address, or it’s quite tricky to find.

Hoping to see you soon,

Elara.

 

“Excellent,” Harriet said, grinning ear to ear. Livi began to nose the parchment, clearly wishing to know what had pleased her, so she told him, “Elara has invited us to come stay with her.

At the ssstone placcce?

No, not Hogwarts. At her home. I’ve not been there before.

Displeased, Livi moved away, receding into the bluebells with a final utterance of “Fine.” The Horned Serpent disliked when plans didn’t coincide with his whims and had no problem letting Harriet know that, so she ignored him and opened her final gift, this one from Hogwarts’ groundskeeper, Hagrid. Inside the torn paper she found a wood flute that appeared hand-carved, and when Harriet blew on the end, it emitted a loud hoot like an owl. She would have to send the half-giant a thank you note.

Harriet laid again in the flowers and folded her hands over her letters, holding them against her chest, as she gazed at the summer sky. A little over a year ago, Harriet knew nothing at all of magic; she had no friends, no prospects. She lived in a cupboard and served her relatives, always terrified the next time Uncle Vernon yelled, he’d start strangling her and wouldn’t let go. One year ago, she traveled into the magical world and met Elara, and Livius. Hogwarts sometimes seemed a very distant dream, but now, in her hands, she held proof of the friendships she’d made, letters signed with “love,” and “hoping to see you soon,” and a “dear Harry” from Hagrid. People cared about strange, orphan Harriet Potter, and she didn’t know if she’d ever get used to it.

“Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place,” she repeated aloud. Her shadow lay still at her side, and Harriet half-fancied Set had his arms crossed over his middle and was staring at the sky, too. If shadows could do such a thing. “We’ll camp out here tonight, then, and set off for London in the morning. I wonder if Elara has a telly?”

She shut her eyes and soaked in the sunshine.

 

A/N: I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my world-building for the UK magical community! As for magical traveling, I’ve considered what their limitations would be, and I believe that 1) a portkey is an object connecting one space to another via a wizard/witch’s magic. The object thus absorbs the impact from the distance and uses the magic it stores as the inertia for travel. I consider this to be one of the reasons why they’re illegal to create, because I’d say only powerful magical folks would be able to successfully create them. 2) In Floo traveling, the traveler is subjected to extreme velocity and pressure for a duration of time, that time being longer the farther you have to “flit” through the network. 3) Apparition is powered by an individual’s magic. The more powerful you are, the farther you can propel yourself through time and space without your being disintegrating—aka, splinching. Sorry for the long note!

 

Chapter Text

xliii. the house of malfoy

 

Dread filled Hermione’s veins when she heard the approaching tap, tap, tap of his walking stick striking the floor.

It was such a pretentious thing, Hermione thought, his need to strut about with a walking stick like he was the bloody king of England himself. Or one of those white-feathered peacocks on the grounds. She often daydreamed about taking the blasted thing in her hands and cracking it in two over her knee, though these daydreams never moved past the act itself—never included the consequences such a move would reap. There would be consequences, too. Hermione guessed she probably wouldn’t survive breaking Lucius Malfoy’s concealed wand into pieces.

Across from her, Jamie Ingham, the Malfoys’ older Muggle-born ward, heard the same tapping as Hermione and quickly straightened in his chair as he flipped through the text before him and lowered his head. Draco, at the head of the polished table, either didn’t hear his father coming or didn’t care, because he continued to slouch and play with the miniature broom in his hand, sending it sailing around paper obstacles, his school books forgotten on the side.

Mr. Malfoy entered the dining room through the far archway, dressed in his usual Wizarding garb, robes black and his vest royal purple with gleaming, golden buttons. He looked quite prim—puffed up and stuffy, Hermione’s mind provided in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Elara Black—and as she watched him through her lashes, she saw his mouth curl into a sneer.

“Draco,” he barked, startling the pointy-faced boy. “Sit up.”

The younger Malfoy did as told, his cheeks flushed pink, and Hermione fought down her satisfied smirk. She must have not been as discreet as she thought, because Mr. Malfoy rounded on her and extended one long-fingered hand, waiting for Hermione to glance up and meet his unimpressed glower. “Your work, Miss Granger.”

Hermione gave him her incomplete essay on Dr. Ubbly’s Oblivious Unction, and Malfoy skimmed the topic, tutting under his breath.

“Pedantic at best. A shallow analysis reflective of a shallow mind. My, my. I must write the school and ensure you really are the best student of your year. I find that highly suspicious.”

Color invaded Hermione’s cheeks, but she didn’t tear up. Draco snickered—and Mr. Malfoy rounded on him now, his cane striking the table with a heavy thump that caused all three students to jump. “If you’ve time to laugh, Draco, you’ve time to better your own assignment. I seem to recall you were sixth in your year, boy.”

Draco paled and shrank as he fidgeted with his books, not quite meeting Mr. Malfoy’s eye. “Yes, father. But it’s not my fault!” he grumbled. “Two of them were Ravenclaws! And Nott. He’s such a bookworm. And—.” He glared at Hermione. “Granger and Black cheated.”

Mr. Malfoy scoffed, a noise as pompous as his own appearance. Jaime sank farther into his chair like he wanted to disappear into it, and Hermione wondered what his rank had been. “Granger is a Muggle-born, and Black is a ridiculous, thoughtless girl who has little regard for the time and effort of others,” he spat, his tone as vicious as it ever was when Elara came up in conversation. That one of her best friends could hassle and aggrieve Malfoy so much when Hermione couldn’t brought her private joy. “That you could be so easily surpassed by either shows your lack of conviction. If you don’t prove yourself more capable, Draco, I will rethink my offer.”

Draco instantly pulled his books closer, both horrified and elated, a look Hermione couldn’t rightly understand. She looked to Jaime for assistance, but he hadn’t lifted his head from his work and pointedly refused to acknowledge all of her friendly overtures. They’d exchanged a handful of greetings over the summer, half-heard grunts or vague, distrustful looks on Jaime’s part that Hermione didn’t understand—just as she didn’t understand Draco’s suddenly smug mood.

Sometimes, she wished Elara hadn’t been emancipated, that she’d come to stay at the Malfoys as well so Hermione wouldn’t be stuck alone for weeks on end. Elara—pure-blooded and proxy to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black—could’ve stood up to Mr. Malfoy, unlike Hermione. Draco’s father never struck her or mistreated her of course, but…the revulsion became unbearable after a time.

Mr. Malfoy strutted—for it could not be called walking—out of the room again after verbally tearing Jaime’s work to shreds, leaving the trio to study in peace. Draco shoved off the task once more with a broad grin.

“What has you so pleased?” Hermione demanded. “You’ve done nothing all summer but smirk and gloat, Malfoy. It’s insufferable.”

The blond boy lifted a brow and gave a smug, faux laugh Hermione had heard him practicing in his room before. “Oh, father’s promised me a gift is all, Granger. You see, next year I’m going to be on the Quidditch team, and father’s promised to buy the whole team new brooms.” Malfoy studied his nails. “He’s quite generous.”

“You’re not on the team,” she replied, frowning. “Try-outs don’t take place until the new school year.” Really, Hermione had very little interest in Quidditch or any sport; she knew try-outs hadn’t occurred yet because Harriet was looking forward to them. Attending Quidditch practice would cut into Harriet’s study time, but Hermione thought the rambunctious witch would actually benefit from the exercise. She usually spent an hour of their free period pacing around the table in the library and would only sit when Hermione—or Madam Pince—snapped at her.

Malfoy scoffed and retrieved the toy broom from his pocket where he’d hid it from his father. “Don’t be stupid, Mudblood.”

Don’t call me that.”

He mouthed the word again, and it took everything in Hermione not to hurl a tome at his fat head. The book didn’t deserve that.

Mr. Malfoy returned soon enough with Mrs. Malfoy and the trio of students stowed their books and assignments in their bags to prepare for lunch. Draco relinquished the head of the table to his father and sneered as he sank into a seat by Hermione.

“Draco, don’t make rude faces,” his mother reprimanded.

“Yes, mother.”

Mr. Malfoy leaned his walking stick against the table’s edge as he took his seat and cleared his throat. “Dobby!”

A crack preceded the appearance of the stooped, green-skinned house-elf in his tattered pillowcase. “You called for Dobby, Master Malfoy sir?”

“Serve lunch.”

Dobby disappeared again, and a few moments later he came tottering out of the adjoining kitchen bearing several plates of fresh salad, scones, cream, and jam. Hermione resisted the urge to reach out and assist the short creature as he passed her chair, bowls balanced on his head, his motions quick as he slid dishes before Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy, their son, then Jaime and Hermione. She’d tried to help before and had been promptly chastised.

“How was the Minister today, father?” Draco asked as Dobby poured tea. Again Hermione had to stop herself from offering thanks or gratitude.

“Minister Gaunt is well,” Mr. Malfoy answered. “And busy, of course. He has little time for idle pleasantries, though he sends his greetings to you and Narcissa.” He speared a water chestnut and placed it in his mouth, chewing thoroughly before continuing. “He assures me you will have a…most interesting term at Hogwarts this year.”

What does he mean by that?

Hermione looked up and caught Jaime’s eye, and though the older boy quickly looked away, they did share a single moment of disquiet at the pleased tenor in Mr. Malfoy’s voice. Draco didn’t notice and happily went about eating his food and taking a deep swig of pumpkin juice. “Really? How so, father?”

“Now, now, Draco. You don’t want to ruin the surprise, do you?”

Just then, a saucer slipped through Dobby’s spindly fingers and cracked in two upon the floor. Mr. Malfoy reacted without a word; the cane found itself in the wizard’s hand once more and lashed out, striking Dobby’s head, earning a squeal out of the poor creature and a sharp gasp from Hermione. Dobby cowered, cupping the the bleeding cut above his drooping ear, and Mr. Malfoy glared as he dropped the walking stick back into place.

“Clean it up,” he spat.

Dobby snapped his trembling fingers and the saucer floated upward to the table after repairing itself. Hermione could feel her hands shaking, so she dropped them into her lap, balling them into fists as she stifled the need to shout and rail. She hated this. In any other circumstance, Hermione would have told Mr. Malfoy precisely what she thought of him and his heavy-handed ways—but Hermione couldn’t insult him, couldn’t give him a piece of her mind, because if Mr. Malfoy chose to do so, he could rescind his wardship and she would be forced back to the Muggle world. The Ministry would snap her wand. She would never see Hogwarts again.

It wasn’t right—but what could Hermione do? She was a not quite thirteen-year-old witch with no autonomy in this society, no voice. She had to be practical and cunning, not bold and brash like a Gryffindor. Intervening with no plan of action would only reap consequences for Dobby and herself, and the last thing Hermione wanted to do was make life harder for the house-elves living at the manor. Quite frankly, she feared the end of Mr. Malfoy’s cane as much as the servants—slaves—did.

Mrs. Malfoy noticed how pale the children had gone, including Draco, who hunched his shoulders and stared at his plate, not meeting his mother’s eye. “Lucius,” she reprimanded. “What have we said about punishing the servants at the table?”

Her husband’s pale eyes narrowed at the rebuff, but Mr. Malfoy simpered and nodded. “Of course, my dear. Quite unseemly of me.”

Lunch continued without conversation. Dobby shuffled back into the kitchen, muttering about being a “bad elf,” and Hermione ate little of the provided food, her stomach too twisted into knots for her to force anything more than a few mouthfuls down. Mr. Malfoy excused himself first, and after Dipthy—another Malfoy elf—scuttled through and cleared the meal’s remnants, Mrs. Malfoy set about lecturing them in manners and Wizarding history. Hermione kept her head down for the lesson’s duration.

She could do nothing. She wasn’t powerful or connected, didn’t have the right name like Elara, or six feet of venomous serpent stuffed beneath her shirt like Harriet—but inaction had never sat well with Hermione. She wanted to change how things were, both for house-elves and Muggle-borns, because she knew some Muggle-borns in different families were treated just as poorly as Dobby. Hermione may have been powerless, and yet she refused to give in; one day she’d be able to tell wizards like Mr. Malfoy off. One day she’d be able to stand up and say, “That’s enough!

Later, the house-elves would find a little packet of Muggle ointments and first-aid items outside their pantry door, and Hermione would say nothing at all when she saw Dobby running about with pink and blue plasters stuck to his bruised head. She’d say nothing, but the sight would only further solidify her resolve.

 

Chapter Text

xliv. an uninvited guest

 

Harriet looked down into the cauldron of foul smelling glop and wrinkled her nose.

“Er….” Sitting back on her haunches, she flipped through the open Potions book and fussed with her rolled sleeves. “I don’t…I don’t think I did this right.”

A low, disinterested hiss emanating from beneath the bed answered her.

Oh, wait, it’s supposed to smell like that?” Harriet traced a line in the text and squinted. “Urgh. It says it’s supposed to be ‘golden in hue,’ but mine’s more like spring grass…wait it’s darkening now…I guess it’s not done?” Harriet peaked over the cauldron’s rim again, frowning. Sure enough, the green steadily leached from the thick liquid and became mustard yellow. “Snape stupid summer assignments are just as hard as the rubbish he gives us in class.”

The Girding Potion released a noxious smelling puff and Harriet recoiled, reaching for her mittens to lift the little cauldron onto the cooling rack, hoping yellow was a close enough color for Snape’s discerning criticism. She sat in the middle of her tent’s floor surrounded by open potion ingredients and a few wayward snack wrappers, a roll of parchment and a quill set to the side where she’d been writing her homework while the potion heated in its various stages. Livi had long since grown bored of watching Harriet and had retreated to his favorite hiding spot, though Kevin remained in her old shirt’s breast pocket. Sometimes the golem-snake repeated what Harriet said, and she decided that made him a much better listener than Livi at the moment.

A cool breeze ruffled the magical tent’s wall, making the seemingly solid interior ripple. The lantern sputtered and, after discarding her mittens, Harriet groaned, got to her feet, and wandered over to it. She tapped the lantern’s brass base. “I think Muggles had the right thinking with electricity.”

What isss…electricccity?

It’s like…lightning in wires, in the walls, and it makes lights come on.

Livi poked his nose out from beneath the bed’s wobbly frame. “Thisss…sssoundss foolissh.

Well, Muggles understand it well enough. I can’t explain it like they could.” The lantern sputtered a final time and went out. Harriet stumbled about in the dark until she found the Self-Lighting candles that she needed only to touch for the wicks to flicker into life. “In Hogwarts: A History, it talks about how magic and electricity and—and certain radio waves don’t mix? I can’t remember what it said exactly…but magic’s like a second conduit or something, and it makes stuff inert or unstable. I can’t help but be jealous of my Aunt Petunia just being able to flick a bloody switch sometimes. For adults it’s not so bad I guess, because they can use spells. I hate being underage.”

Sss….” The serpent contemplated Harriet as she poked about her trunk in search of an oil globe she could insert into the bottom of the Charmed lantern. Dr. Filibuster’s Fireworks on Carkitt Market had an Ever-burning Oil variant that would have solved Harriet’s problem, but they wouldn’t sell it to her, because—as a minor—she couldn’t put the fire out if she spilled the oil by accident. Harriet knew they were simply being logical, though she still wished for light-bulbs sometimes.

Magic…isss not meant to be…easssy.”

Livi retreated beneath the bed again, and Harriet puzzled over what he’d said. Magic is not meant to be easy. It certainly wasn’t what Harriet would call easy, not now, at least. When she’d first discovered her heritage, she’d been under the mistaken impression that one could cast spells by flicking around their wand and mumbling funny words—and then she took one look at the diagrams inside her Transfiguration textbook and that theory imploded in her face.

Magic was difficult, and finicky, and wondrous and—at times—terrifying. Hermione once mentioned to Harriet that everything in nature had a balance, and perhaps the balance for witches and wizards who could turn desks into elephants or fly on broomsticks was forsaking things not made from magic or their own hands. Perhaps if you could flick a wand and create light from nothing, you didn’t deserve light-bulbs.

Harriet, lost in thought, watched the candles burn and didn’t hear when the crickets went quiet.

A sudden chime echoed from beneath the bed. Harriet started.

“Livi?”

The chime came again—and suddenly the Charmed flap over the tent’s entrance was carelessly torn aside, and Harriet found herself staring down the lit side of a brandished wand.

A wizard stood in her tent, dressed in navy robes that, given the relatively plain cut and the insignia stitched onto the front pocket, must’ve been a uniform of some kind. The wide brim of his hat hid his eyes from Harriet, but she could still see his grim, self-satisfied smile, the black hair on his upper lip, and the nostrils left bloodless as they flared in anger.

“Finally—there you are, you little shit,” he said in a biting Northern accent. “Been all over Hell’s half acre looking for your stupid arse.”

“Looking for—?” Harriet could do little more than gawk at the man—the intruder—who’d stomped into her tent in the middle of bloody nowhere and now held her at wand-point.

“Looking for you, bloody half-blood hiding in the fucking woods. No one said anything about that—.”

“I don’t know who you are!”

“I’m not here to answer your questions!” He took a breath and seemed to gather himself, the irritation festering behind a composed mask as he soothed his mussed hair. His wand never wavered. “Come along, Miss Potter, I’ve been sent to…collect you.”

The chime came again and though the man ignored it, Harriet realized the sound came from her snake. Livi had made the same sound in the loo at Hogwarts before the troll came stampeding through.

“I’m—I’m not going anywhere with you!” Harriet knew she could be a bit naive and foolish at times, but she absolutely refused to leave with a strange wizard who came barging into her sanctuary in the dead of night. That was just common sense.

What wasn’t common sense was forgetting to strap her wand to her wrist that morning. She’d grown careless gallivanting on her own, as the leather brace grew uncomfortable and sticky in the hot summer sun while Harriet wandered—and she couldn’t use the blasted thing while out of school, so she hadn’t seen the harm in leaving both the wand and the brace on the rumpled bed.

She saw the harm now.

“You’ll be going where I tell you, Potter. My Lord’s not keen on waiting long—.”

Harriet’s eyes flicked toward her wand and she knew he saw the motion, because his mouth opened to incant a spell and his own wand rose.

“Now, now…don’t be difficult, kid….”

She dove to the side just as a burst of red light came zooming at her, and though Harriet managed to dodge, the spell grazed her arm and she landed on the floor, gasping. It felt as if she’d been slugged in the stomach and kicked in the head, simultaneously breathless and dazed and more than a little confused with her glasses askew and one arm limp against her side.

The man approached, a new hex ready—and Set lurched from beneath Harriet, a single column of black darting out to strike the candles and douse the tent in darkness.

“What the fuck—?!”

A single hiss was all the warning the wizard received before Livi bolted from beneath the bed and Harriet felt warm scales rippling against her cheek as the wizard shrieked. He only got out one terrified cry and a half-formed spell that splattered on the canvas wall before his body fell, a heavy thud sounding in the sticky dark.

Harriet’s strangled breaths broke the renewed silence.

“Li—Livius?” The spell’s fuzzy remnants finally dissipated and allowed Harriet to sit up, though she very much dreaded what she’d find. Her hand trembled as it slid along the serpent’s body until—.

Until she found a foot. An unmoving foot attached to an unmoving leg.

“Oh God—Merlin, sweet Salazar Slytherin’s saintly left bollock—!”

The serpent’s coils shifted, and Harriet smelled copper, Livi’s tongue flicking against her cheek. “Misstresss.”

Harriet staggered under his weight as she leapt upright and dashed to the candles, setting them alight one by one. The light only served to illuminate what she already knew; the wizard laid flat on his back like a dead beetle, black tongue lolling out of his open mouth, blood smudged about his upper thigh where The Horned Serpent had only needed to bite once.

Livi killed him like the troll.

Sick crawled up Harriet’s throat and she vomited on the floor.

Misstresss?

Wiping her mouth, Harriet reached out to touch Livi’s head, her fingers shaking so hard they skipped over his horns and along his scales. “I’m—I’m okay—.”

The wizard just stared at the ceiling.

Dead. Dead, he’s dead—.

Harriet’s familiar had killed a man, a man intent on kidnapping her, but a person nonetheless. He hadn’t said who he was or what he wanted, only that he was going to take Harriet with him whether she wanted him to or not. Livi had been protecting her—but would the Ministry see it like that? She knew their policemen were called Aurors because her dad had been one, so Harriet wondered if they’d send Aurors after her. They’d kick her out of Hogwarts. They’d take her to jail. They’d kill Livi.

Her heart raced in her chest.

Who was he? Why—where did he want to take me? She thought about Quirrell and the red spell he’d slung at her in the dungeons, the Mirror of Erised and the unrivaled horror of facing her own mortality as Voldemort shrieked for her death.

“I will let you share in that eternal life, Harriet…. You and your family could live forever….”

Shaking, Harriet straightened her glasses and tried to control her breathing. She couldn’t look away from the wizard.

What if he wasn’t alone? What if there’s more?

As soon as the terrible thought occurred to Harriet, she moved and dashed around her bed to snatch up her wand and brace.

I have to get away, I can’t stay here, I can’t—.

Harriet kicked open the top of her trunk and snatched the Invisibility Cloak off the top of the jumbled interior. She was fortunate the purse she kept her exchanged Muggle money in fell out too, or Harriet would’ve sprinted off into the dark without a pound or a Knut on her person. Her fear thundered in her head until it seemed to echo, drowning every other thought out, a repetitive beat of go, go, go thumping her thick skull.

“Livi, we need to leave—!”

She hefted one coil around her shoulders and the snake managed the rest, sensing the urgency in his witch’s tone. Kevin stirred in her pocket and Harriet poked him further down as she strapped her wand into place and threw the Invisibility Cloak over her head.

What if there’s more, what if—what if he meant to take me to Voldemort—!

Harriet allowed herself one last look at the dead man before clutching Livi to her chest and running into the waiting night.

 

 

A/N: Which magical place would you be most interested in seeing in a future installment? Giant’s Rest near The Storr? Or the Night Market near Elva Hill? I might include both at some point in the series, but I am curious!

Chapter Text

xlv. penance for petunia

 

When his arm started to burn, Severus wasn’t surprised.

No, Severus was a man of routine and absolutes; the sun rose in the east, set in the west, fire was hot, ice was cold, and Harriet Potter would somehow, some way, wind up in imminent danger.

Before he’d known about the Vow chaining his life to the brat’s, Severus had already come to expect the ever-present burning in the summertime. The searing and prickling always increased during the holidays, and for the longest time, Severus hadn’t had a single idea why that was. Now, however, he knew why even if he wished he didn’t, because Albus Dumbledore would never forgive him for killing Petunia Evans, even if the bitch was abusing her only niece.

Severus sat up from his slouched position in his armchair and the Potions journal he’d been reading when he dozed off slid to the rug. Air hissed through his clenched teeth as he tightened his hand around his wrist and lurched upright, sleep’s muddled haze already disappearing, his body and mind trained to wake swiftly—though his heart raced and his footing was less than steady. He grabbed his cloak from the hook by his mantel and hesitated by the Floo.

He knew where he must go. Severus had made sure of that before term even ended; finding Potter’s home address had been too easy for Severus’ taste. What if Slytherin had gone looking for it? He’d waited all summer for the opportunity to catch Tuney or her fucking husband putting the girl in danger—in flagrante, as it were. Perhaps it was wrong for Severus to have waited at all, for him to gamble with Potter’s safety, but he was a Slytherin, not a bleeding-heart Gryffindor; he needed to bring evidence before Albus. The Headmaster could be incredibly thick-headed in these matters.

Abuse, be it against a child or a partner, wasn’t common in the Wizarding world, not like it could be among Muggles. Oh, wizards had their own fair share of emotional neglect going on, but pure-bloods had trouble conceiving. When the whole weight of your family legacy rested on a hard-won child’s shoulders, you didn’t beat that child, and you didn’t beat your spouse when they were trained in curses and poisons and knew exactly where you kept your bloody tea. Without evidence, Severus doubted Dumbledore could even conceive of the idea that Petunia might hurt her niece.

Still, Severus hesitated. He hesitated because he feared he might not hold back if he witnessed Petunia hurting Lily’s daughter.

“Fuck,” he cursed when pain flared again. Severus took a pinch of Floo Powder and threw into the grate, snapping, “Number Eight, Wisteria Walk, Surrey!”

The fire blazed green and he braced himself for the dizzying, spiraling pressure of long-distance Floo travel. When he stepped out of the grate, he did so with a soft gasp, bringing in the smell cabbage and cats, the taste of soot heavy on his tongue and in his throat. A Kneazle perched on the back of a tatty couch growled at Severus, and he slipped his wand into his shaking hand.

The light flicked on, and he managed to not whirl about—though Severus did slowly raise his hands when confronted with an older woman wielding a Muggle handgun.

“Who’re you then?” the old Squib demanded, dressed in a fluffy bathrobe with two cats at her feet. She squinted. “…Snape?”

“Madam Figg,” he drawled, hoping the crazy bat didn’t shoot him on accident. He knew Arabella Figg more by chance than anything else, a distant memory from a decade ago of passing in the Order headquarters, and she probably recognized him by notoriety. He’d been told by Albus years ago that the Headmaster had an agent in play near Privet Drive to watch over the girl, but Severus would’ve never guessed it was Arabella Figg until he searched the records for the nearest Floo contact to Potter’s home. “I’ve received…intel that the Potter girl might be in danger and have come to verify her safety for myself.”

The gun lowered, which irked Severus. Any Death Eater with half an ounce of brain power could buy or cook up a Polyjuice Potion and pretend to be him, but the woman did ask any identifying questions or for any of the old Order passwords. Instead, she appeared momentarily confused and scratched her face, a heavy frown deepening her wrinkles. “Danger? Shouldn’t she be off in school?”

Severus lowered his hands and stiffened. “It is August, Figg.”

“August?” The woman had the temerity to look at him as if Severus were the one out of his mind. “Oh, it is, isn’t it? I remember now. I…I don’t believe I’ve seen Harriet since last Christmas.”

He stared. “What.”

“When the Dursleys went on holiday. They always leave the dear behind, sweet girl….”

Sweet fucking Morgana, Albus. Did it ever occur to you to check that your nanny wasn’t a few beans short of every flavor?

His wrist ached. Severus didn’t have time for coddling nattering Squibs in the middle of the night, and so he swept around, whacked himself on the head with his wand to cast a Disillusionment Charm, and strode out into the muggy heat. He stumbled when he got his first look at the street, though he would’ve cursed any witnesses to his dumbfounded expression blind before admitting how the sight staggered him. Severus came from the back-end of Cokeworth, where the houses lined up like soot-stained gravestones in the shadow of the old mill, and yet he couldn’t have prepared himself for the distinctly Muggle reality of Little Whinging.

Oh, yes, he could imagine Tuney living quite happily in one of these uniform homes with their uniform gardens and plain, ugly letterboxes. Tobias Snape used to watch reruns of The Twilight Zone on the telly when he wasn’t too drunk to sit up straight, and Severus had seen images of places like this, surreal middle-grounds extending forever in all directions, the kind of places that could trap a man in his own mind for want of escape. Severus wagered Petunia hadn’t realized it wasn’t the fifties anymore and women could actually leave their houses if they wanted.

He came through an alley along Magnolia Crescent and stopped at Privet Drive’s boundary, concerned the blood-wards Dumbledore swore up and down surrounded the house would push him back—but Severus’ concern was for naught. He reached out, found nothing, and with each incredulous step forward along the tepid street he continued to find nothing until he stood on Tuney’s walk staring at the brass number “4” on the door.

There are no blood-wards.

Swallowing, Severus dismissed the Disillusionment Charm and stomped up the rest of the path, bringing his fist down hard on the door. He had a difficult enough time keeping his right hand clenched around his wand, so he beat the knuckles of his left raw knocking until the neighbor’s curtains fluttered.

“Who in the blazes is that?!” cried a male voice inside the house, loud thumps descending a set of stairs. Lights wavered, and a moment later a corpulent man with a thick mustache, dressed in pinstriped pajamas yanked the door open. Severus was painfully reminded of Horace Slughorn—fat, mustachioed, red-faced—but he shoved that recollection aside as easily as he shoved the man back into his own house. Severus slammed the door behind him.

“What in GOD’S NAME—?!”

Severus flicked his wand in the direction of the man’s face, and the Muggle went quiet, eyes never leaving the thin strip of wood. Ah, the Potions Master thought. So Tuney’s been telling tales. I wonder what she learned from Lily about wizards like me….

The Headmaster would be furious when Severus told him he’d forced his way into a Muggle house, let alone Potter’s, but the insistent burn in his aching limb didn’t allow time for Slytherin subtlety. He’d expected the pain to cease once he arrived at Privet Drive, and yet it continued to build in intensity, a rising pressure biting hard into his seizing muscles and bones until he could barely stand it. “Where is the girl?” Severus demanded in a voice that could chill glaciers.

“What bloody girl?!”

Severus jabbed him with his wand and green sparks singed the Muggle’s shirt. Light, rapid steps came down the stairs adjoined to the miserable little foyer, and he sneered as Petunia Evans—still horse-faced, whip-thin, and sour—came into view. The woman took one look at the darkly clad wizard in her home and shrieked.

“YOU!”

“Nice to see you again, too, Tuney,” Severus said as the woman gawked, revulsion and terror competing for purchase on her narrow face. “But I am not here for pleasantries. The girl’s life has been threatened and I am here to check on her.”

When Petunia’s face adopted the color of curdled milk, Severus’ stomach tightened further in dread. Something in the house felt wrong, wrong beyond the lack of wards, something he couldn’t place as he took in the cabbage rose wallpaper and the stink of cleaning products. He could taste furniture polish in his mouth. The pictures on the walls didn’t move, and he felt as though he were surrounded by portraits of dead bodies. “She’s—she’s not here.”

Where is she?”

Petunia crossed her arms, her eyes flashing toward her husband, then behind her, toward the stairs. “She’s—she’s at a friend’s.”

Fuck this, Severus seethed as he sent a Stunner at the billowing Muggle in front of him and rounded on Petunia.

“Vernon!” she shrieked, moving forward, only to get caught my Severus, his hand curling into a fist on the collar of her nightgown, bringing her head up so he could meet her wide, frightened eyes.

Legilimens!

Muggle minds were not like the minds of witches or wizards, another marked separation between mundane and magical. Magical minds had a thin membrane of sorts that, in the head of an accomplished Occlumens, projected a multi-dimensional barrier of the wizard or witch’s choice, while Muggle’s had no such thing. Severus pulled through Petunia’s mind like a swimmer through water, and he detested the woman from the shallows of her being to the deepest abyss of her psyche.

Seeing him again stirred memories of her childhood, snatches of “Sev!” and “That awful Snape boy” flickering by, chased by a girl with apple-red hair and recollections marred by a green-eyed woman’s fading laughter.

His own words echoed in Petunia’s mind, “Where is she?”, and her thoughts winged through a gallery of Harriet Potter’s upbringing, a veritable haunted museum that set Severus’ teeth on edge.

Dumbledore stood in a pink sitting room with a swaddled infant in his arms. “You must take her, Petunia, for your sister—.”

“You’re a freak, Lily, a freak!”

Petunia held a black-haired toddler at arm’s length and couldn’t breathe when curious green eyes stared at her—.

“Listen to me, Tuney! You have to be careful, Voldemort is—.”

She couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand the judgmental staring. Out of sight, she needed the brat out of sight—and she saw the boot cupboard. She opened the door—.

“Get up, you worthless girl!”

A child in bedraggled cast-offs stepped out of the black cupboard and stared at the floor, unable to meet her Aunt’s gaze anymore—.

Petunia listened to Dudley taunt the girl, flesh striking flesh, a pained cry, and disgust for her own bullying son filled her, twisting to hate because it was the girl’s fault, it was always the girl’s fault—.

Severus Snape stood in her pristine foyer like a black demon released from Hell, freak, he was a freak—.

“It’s real for us, not for her—.”

“Where is she?”

Petunia stormed down the steps because her purse had disappeared in the night, and if the girl had stolen it, she swore she’d wouldn’t stop Vernon this time—.

Vernon’s hands closed around the girl’s neck. He’d kill Harriet, kill the green-eyed girl, kill Lily—.

“Should’ve left her at the orphanage, Pet.”

The girl winced when Vernon yelled—.

“Should’ve drowned her the first night, Pet.”

The girl cringed under a raised hand—.

“Should’ve beat the unnaturalness from her, Pet.”

Blood dripped along the girl’s chin—.

“Should’ve left her for the dogs, Pet.”

“I want my letter! It’s mine, and you have no right—!”

Familiar, swirling script marred a sheet of parchment in a young hand, “I must apologize, Miss Evans, but Hogwarts cannot be attended by non-magical persons—.” Goddamn Dumbledore, goddamn the freaks who took her—.

An elderly man in a pointed hat stood in her pink sitting room with condemnation in his blue eyes, stating, “You must take her—.”

Petunia stomped down the stairs. She screamed—.

Vernon held the girl off the floor and shook—.

Snakes filled her foyer—.

Severus Snape stood on her threshold like unholy vengeance and she knew this was penance because—.

She stepped into a snake-filled foyer and screamed because—.

The girl sobbed for hours behind the cupboard door and Vernon wouldn’t relent. Petunia wanted to open the door because—.

She stared at the milling snakes and the open cupboard door and knew true guilt because—.

Severus Snape stood in her foyer demanding “Where is she?”

Petunia didn’t know. She didn’t know because—.

Because the girl was gone.

Severus wrenched himself out of Petunia’s head and snarled, thrusting her away. Petunia collided with the wall at her back and a framed picture of her precious, porcine son fell to the floor, not that either of them or the obese bastard sprawled on the linoleum noticed. Severus and Petunia stared at one another and breathed heavily.

Of the dozens of photos and frames decorating the walls, ascending the stairwell, disappearing into the lounge, not one showed Potter’s face.

“She found a way to that freak school, didn’t she?” Petunia asked with a sniff as she broke the silence, one hand clutching the railing, the other on her chest. “You work for him, don’t you? You work for Dumbledore—?”

Severus took one step closer, and Petunia silenced herself. He trembled with the need to scream. “It’s been over a year. It’s been over a fucking year since Potter ran away, and you never said a fucking word! Where is she, Petunia?! You let an eleven-year-old girl run out there on her own and told nobody!

“That’s all you care about, isn’t it, Snape? Where your precious Potter is. Too bad she doesn’t look much like Lily, eh?” Petunia bared her teeth like a cornered dog. “You couldn’t have the mother, so you want the daughter now, is it?”

A muscle in his remaining eye twitched. “Are you trying to provoke me?” he asked, voice calm as arctic waters—though inside he howled, wordlessly furious, seeing again how the fat Muggle throttled Potter while Petunia did nothing, while Snape stood in a castle five hundred miles away staring at his own hand like a bloody fool—.

He’d never seen the girl look as small as she did when dangling from Vernon Dursley’s squeezing grip.

Severus’ wrist had stopped hurting, but the problem had become so much more complicated. He needed to get to Dumbledore. They needed to find Potter.

“That’s not going to work, Tuney. Out of the two of us—not counting that useless lump on the floor there, he’s only Stunned, you simpering moron—I think you’re the pervert. Tell me; did starving an orphan child help relieve your…frustrations?”

Color rose in Petunia’s cheeks and tears glazed her eyes. Wisely, she said nothing.

“Life must be so difficult for poor, average Tuney. An abusive simpleton for a husband rutting away at you, an even stupider son well on his way to incarceration, and here you sit in a mid-sized house smelling of mediocrity and aerosol spray. Is this—.” Severus flicked a hand toward the house proper. “Everything you dreamed it would be? Is your life so dull you had to abuse your niece for kicks?”

“I didn’t—.”

“Save your excuses. I’m sure Dumbledore would love to hear what you’ve to say for yourself after I tell him what you’ve put his yearly stipend toward.”

He hadn’t thought it possible, but Petunia paled further and Severus almost laughed, almost let the scathing, incredulous guffaws come bursting out of himself because Petunia Dursley showed more emotion about the money than she did for her missing niece. The absolute gall.

“How could you do this to Lily’s daughter?” he demanded, more to release the growing pressure in his chest than to ask for an answer. She didn’t have an answer that could possibly satisfy him. “Had you and Vernon died instead, Lily would’ve—.”

“She’s a freak,” Petunia spat as she straightened and pulled herself from the wall.

“I’m well aware of how you view my kind.”

“No, she’s a freak, Snape.” The woman stepped forward and the Potions Master stepped back, if only to keep desired distance between himself and loathsome woman. “You’ve met her, haven’t you? I can only imagine how that came about—.”

“I teach at her school, you sick degenerative—.”

“She’s a nasty little freak worse than you or—or Lily ever were! Always sneaking about, always whispering in the dark—.”

“An abused child locked in a cupboard whispering? My, how very sinister.” Severus raised his wand again and as Petunia whimpered and he glared, he flicked it toward the boot cupboard. The lock burst off and struck the wall, the door scraping the obnoxious wallpaper when it flung itself open. The interior looked much as it had in Petunia’s insufferable head: cleaning products, buckets, brushes, a hoover. In the back resided what Severus sought, and he kicked aside the bottles full of sterile chemicals as he ducked into the cramped space and yanked the dusty pillow off the cot.

He turned the ratty pillow, inspecting the fabric, and plucked off three black hairs between thumb and forefinger. He found an empty vial in his cloak pocket and stuck the hairs in there, then threw the pillow at Petunia. She caught it on instinct more than anything, and Petunia coughed when a cloud of white dust covered her.

Severus could see the flash of police lights through the covered window, and he grunted as he kicked the cupboard door closed, sealing it with a muttered, “Colloportus.” One of the twitch-curtains must’ve heard Petunia’s shrieking. He stared one last time at the bitter, spiteful woman in her nightdress and curlers, her corpulent husband asleep on the floor still. No matter how he tried, he could see nothing of her sister in Petunia—none of Lily’s spirit, joy, her mischievous smirk or charming guile. Petunia existed in antithesis to everything Lily Evans—Lily Potter—had ever been.

He had to find Potter. He had to speak with the Headmaster.

“Tell them he fell down the stairs,” he said, eyes flicking toward the front wall. “Dumbledore will be in touch. Pray we don’t meet again…Tuney.”

With that said, Severus turned and strode down the hallway, into the kitchen where Potter had served her family like a house-elf, and out into the private yard. He Disillusioned himself again, and—just as he began to Disapparate—a strange thought occurred to Severus.

If Petunia hadn’t been the one to tell Potter how to reach Diagon Alley, who did?

 

 

A/N: to everyone wondering why Harriet ran off and left a tent full of her possessions behind; she’s barely twelve, and terrified. Cut the poor little numpty some slack.

Yes, I gave Mrs. Figg onset dementia. The information she’s been feeding Dumbledore has suffered from that.

I tried to reflect the nebulous quality of Legilimency, since Snape himself says it’s not mind-reading. I think it should be rather confusing and scattered, which makes part of being a great Legilimens sorting the mess out into something intelligible.

Chapter Text

xlvi. in the morning

 

When Harriet finally stumbled upon Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, she was surprised.

She didn’t know much about pure-bloods. What she did know she’d gathered from snatches of Draco Malfoy’s incessant blathering, the typical behavior displayed by her dorm-mates, or Hermione descending into full-blown lecture mode. Harriet expected Elara—stiff-backed, well-mannered, and proper—to live in a house like the ones in Aunt Petunia’s programs, somewhere flanked with columns and hedges and reflective pools. Draco Malfoy lived in a manor, and so did Pansy. Daphne resided in a castle, and Katherine Runcorn’s family had a six-bedroom estate.

The townhouse in front of Harriet looked large but undeniably derelict, the kind of place one expected ghosts to come pouring out of like bats from a belfry. Light from Number Eleven and Number Thirteen on either side of the house illuminated defects in the walls, cracks marring the bricks, rust eating at the front rail, the stoop littered with years’ worth of decaying leaves. Gargoyles leered from the upper balcony, and Harriet half-thought they might spring to life and attack her if she dared go knock on the door.

Well, the bespectacled witch thought to herself. Elara did mention the place was a bit rundown, and it’s been in the family for generations. Looks like the kind of place a bunch of Slytherins would live—and it’s not like I’ve anywhere else to go.

Swallowing, Harriet walked up the steps and knocked on the door.

It took several minutes before an answer came, during which Harriet continued to look over her shoulder and her heart raced, Livi wrapped tight about her torso beneath the Cloak’s fluttering folds. The door creaked, the handle on the other side twisting, and Harriet let out a breath when Elara Black appeared at the threshold in her dressing gown, long hair falling past her shoulders, tired eyes squinting in the artificial light coming off Number Eleven’s stoop.

Harriet yanked the Cloak off her head. “Elara!”

Elara gave one startled shriek of alarm when Harriet’s head appeared out of nowhere and leapt backwards, tripping over her hem and landing in a heap on the rug.

“Oh, shite—!” Harriet divested herself of the Cloak and hurried to help the other witch to her feet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you—.”

She touched Elara’s wrist, fingers moving over stiff skin—and her friend wrenched her arm back, stumbling on her own two feet. “It’s fine,” Elara said as she fixed her sleeve and cleared her throat. “I’m all right, but what are you doing here, Harriet? You scared me! It’s barely past two in the morning!”

“Err, right….”

Harriet threw a harried glance out the open door before Elara shut it, plunging them both into the black, musty dark. She felt horribly claustrophobic suddenly, like the walls were inching nearer, or the high ceiling was coming down, ready to smash her into jelly. Sighing, Elara said, “Mind yourself. Come this way.” Her hand found Harriet’s, and she led the way through the dark, stopping at the corridor’s end, where a set of stairs plunged downward. Dim sconces flickered.

They descended, entering a large, dated kitchen with several attached doors and an archway leading into what looked like a dining room, though sheets had been thrown over the furniture, hiding most of it from view. Instead, there was a table in the kitchen, a clunky, ancient looking thing with knife marks on the surface and feet like an eagle’s. Elara turned a switch and gas lamps in thick, crystal fixtures woke, shining more light on the weathered space. A hearth dominated one wall, mantel blackened by a hundred years or more of fire and soot.

“It’s not much,” Elara said, a faint blush in her cheeks. “The house has been basically sitting empty for over a decade, really, what with my older relations getting on and their health failing—.”

“I like it,” Harriet said. It was the truth; Harriet never felt comfortable in places that were perfectly proper and orderly and clean like Aunt Petunia’s house. The cabinets at Privet Drive had been made of composites, painted a light, sickly yellow, the window festooned in lacy curtains, the air always tasting of lemon cleaner and bleach. The cabinets and cupboards here were made of real, solid wood, darkened by an aged patina earned from years of use. Being below ground, there was no window, only those black doors, one of them wreathed by scorch marks. It was spooky, dusty, and odd; Harriet would always be fond of odd things.

Elara gave a crooked smile, pleased, and gestured at the table. “Well, have a seat. I’ll make tea.”

Harriet sat. After pulling out a chair, she looked at her hands and saw them shaking, the motion strong enough for Elara to see from her place across the room by the ancient hob. Harriet tossed the Invisibility Cloak aside and, slouching, divested herself of Livi’s coils. “You can get off now.

The Horned Serpent hissed, tightening himself, then lowered his body to the floor, slowly circling the legs of Harriet’s chair. Kevin poked a curious nose from his pocket, and Harriet took him in her hand, letting the golem twine through her quivering fingers.

“…are you okay?” Elara asked, voice breaking the quiet whoosh of fire beneath the kettle. “I know I asked you to come, but I didn’t expect you to arrive in the middle of the night, hiding under your Cloak.”

Harriet swallowed. “I—.” What could she say? Livi had killed a man; Livi—her pet, her familiar, her responsibility. That wizard was dead, and he hadn’t hurt her, hadn’t cursed her or struck her. How could Harriet plead self-defense? Would the Aurors come for her? Men like her father? Maybe they’d take her to prison. Maybe she’d wind up in a cell next to Elara’s father.

She didn’t know if she should tell her best friend or not. What if—what if Elara threw her out? Harriet didn’t have anywhere else to go. Instinct had driven her to run to Grimmauld Place simply because she’d been thinking about it for much of the night, and because Elara was here, but maybe Elara didn’t want a murderer in her house. Was Harriet a murderer? She hadn’t wanted to hurt the wizard, honestly, but what had he been doing there? Would she be kicked out of Hogwarts? Would they snap her wand? Maybe they wouldn’t send her to prison. Maybe they’d just hand her back to the Dursleys and let them lock her up in the cupboard, all alone, in the dark, with no escape. What was she going to do? “I—!”

Harriet burst into tears.

Elara jumped and, unsure of what to do, she hurried to finish up the tea and fish out cups from the creaking cupboard overhead. By the time she settled the cups and pot on the table, Harriet’s sobs had subsided into hiccups and wet sniffles. The other witch poured the tea and sat, dragging her chair closer. Harriet stared at Elara’s flowing hair, her patrician features, and snorted—perhaps hysterically so—at how very pretty her friend was. Harriet was scrawny and more round-shouldered than she’d like, with unmanageable hair and crooked teeth and thick, ugly glasses. It almost seemed unfair.

“What’s happened?” Elara asked, voice soft, yet urgent.

Again, Harriet swallowed, and when she found how parched her throat was, she forced herself to take a sip of tea—scalding her tongue in the process. The sting of it centered Harriet’s mind as she forced herself to speak. “Livi…Livi killed someone.”

Elara’s eyes widened, and she glanced down at the snake in question, who was nosing her toes with interest. Harriet thought she might jump to her feet, might scream or demand Harriet leave, and though she braced herself for those possibilities, Elara did nothing. The Black heir drank tea and studied the saucer with a grim expression. “Was it…was it one of your relatives?” she whispered. “Did they hurt you? I can owl my solicitor, or I can find you a proper barrister, if you need.”

It floored Harriet that the other witch could be so composed and rational. Sometimes she thought both Elara and Hermione were adults trapped in the bodies of preteens—until they did something to remind her of their own immaturity, like Hermione bickering with Malfoy, or Elara muttering insults behind Professor Selwyn’s back. “I—no. No, it wasn’t one of my relatives.”

“Then who?”

“I don’t know,” Harriet confessed with a shrug. “I was—I didn’t go back. To the Muggles. I…I ran away, I guess, last summer. I just—.” She cleared her throat and fussed with her hands, irritating Kevin into sinking his small teeth into her thumb. “Ouch, pest, stop that.”

“If you didn’t go home, where have you been?”

“Well, I did a bit of traveling, stayed in some inns, maybe a night or two in a tent—.”

Elara’s hand came up, interrupting her rambling, and Harriet could see the mounting lecture behind her friend’s colorless eyes. “What do you mean a tent? Have you been staying in a tent?”

“Yes, okay? I’ve been staying in a tent!” Harriet snapped, cheeks flushed. “And this bloke I don’t know came waltzing in tonight, wand drawn, saying he’s been looking for me and he’s supposed to take me somewhere, and—and he tried to hex me with something, I don’t know, and then Livi—.”

He’s dead. He’s dead. He tried to kidnap me, and now he’s—.

“He was looking for you?”

“Yes.”

“What did he want?”

“I don’t know.” Harriet rubbed at her eyes and almost knocked her glasses off. “I was in the middle of the woods, miles from town, and he came in with his wand drawn. He—he was threatening, not that he threatened me precisely, but his whole manner and bearing, and—and he was swearing at me—.” She lowered her voice. “He said something about his lord.”

Elara paled. It could be nothing. It could be nothing more than the throwaway address of a pure-blooded wizard speaking of a Noble House’s head, and yet it could have been everything. Harriet only knew of one wizard who creepy men trying to kidnap children might call “my lord.”

Somewhere in the house, Harriet could hear a clock ticking—the low, deep ticking of a big grandfather clock—and portraits deeper in Grimmauld’s confines murmured among one another. It was quieter than Harriet had expected. She’d been inside magical inns and shops and taverns, but she’d never been inside a magical home before, unless one were to count the tent—.

The tent.

Harriet leapt to her feet and banged her knee beneath the table, toppling her tea. Elara flinched.

“My things,” the bespectacled witch gasped, horrified. “My things. I left all of there, with—. I didn’t even consider—! They’ll find the body, and they’ll find my stuff and think I murdered him—.” Maybe she did murder him. Maybe it was all her fault. “—and I’ll go to prison—!”

She took two steps toward the door before Elara caught her by the arm, and when Harriet tried to shrug her off, Elara grasped the shorter girl’s shoulders, holding her steady. “Harriet,” she said, fingers biting down until Harriet stopped trying to run. “Harriet, listen to me. You said this wizard was looking for you, yes?”

“Yes!”

“He tried to take you somewhere against your will? To someone he called ‘my lord?’”

“Yes, Elara, I need to—!”

Elara kept speaking, drowning out Harriet’s out panicked blabbering. “Then who’s to say there aren’t more wizards out looking for you? You can’t go for your things. It’s not safe.”

“But what do I do, then?! I’m such a bloody idiot—!”

“You stay here.” Elara tapped her bare foot on the floor in emphasis.

“What if there are more wizards? What if they follow me here?” What if they want more than a quick word? What if they hurt you?

The taller witch shook her head. “They can’t. The house is warded—I’ve mentioned this before. Just look how difficult it is for me to get owls, typically. No one can find you; you’re safe, okay? You can’t go for your things. We can—I can write my solicitor in the morning. Or the Headmaster. We’ll write someone, and we’ll figure this out. It was self-defense, and you’re not going to be punished for that, Harriet.”

“How can you be so sure?” she asked. Harriet felt tired—tired and miserable and scared. She would do anything for a measure of Elara’s composure and confidence, when all she could do was lean into her friend’s hands, swallowing the urge to sob again. I’m not a baby, she told herself, sucking in air, holding it in her chest until it burned. I’m not going to cry.

Hesitating, Elara pulled her into an awkward hug, and Harriet took advantage of the moment to squeeze the other girl tight. Elara wasn’t one for casual touching, usually, and Harriet had found that she very much liked hugs. “We’ll figure it out,” Elara said once she stepped back. “We’ll get some sleep, and in the morning we’ll know what to do. It’ll be better in the morning.” She nodded, and Harriet nodded in turn, though she didn’t think she agreed with Elara’s assessment. She did not think morning would make anything better. “Come on, you’ll have to sleep in my room. I haven’t tackled any of the others yet.”

Harriet followed her from the kitchen, back into the inky dark of Grimmauld Place, and as they tromped up the stairs beneath the leering gaze of strange, stuffed heads, she couldn’t help but think this year might be even more complicated than the last.

 

 


 

A/N: I take some creative license in Grimmauld’s design and layout.

Chapter Text

xlvii. bury your secrets

 

Severus was going to kill Harriet Potter.

Dawn sat heavy upon the horizon, thick and as yellow as Dumbledore’s perduring lemon sherbets, the heat already seeping into the earth and into Severus’ covered shoulders. The sleepless night and several rapid Apparitions across the isle left the Potions Master somewhat listless; he paused in his hike through the desolate wood to catch his breath, glaring at the sprig of evergreen tied together with Potter’s hair floating at eye-level. It continued on, and Severus jerked his cloak out of the leaves, stomping forward.

If he found Potter before the Headmaster, she was going to wish she’d never been born.

The Locater Effigy was, technically, Dark magic—albeit Dark magic Dumbledore turned a blind-eye to if it meant finding Potter before somebody less savory did, though Severus imagined he’d be receiving a rather harsh and tedious lecture later that evening. Breaking and entering, threatening Muggles, performing Dark spells—Severus felt sixteen again, terrified of what the Headmaster would do after he’d gone too far and hexed James Potter’s nose off the bastard’s fat face. Once the urgency passed, Albus would think upon his punishment, and Severus knew it’d be decidedly unpleasant.

Hugging a Weasley, he thought, dredging up the most ridiculous situations he could to keep his mind busy. Becoming chapter president of a Longbottom fan club. Tea with Trelawney—oh, hell, I’d pitch myself off the Astronomy Tower first.

Dumbledore had more concerning issues to attend to at the moment than Severus’ misdemeanors. When the Potions Master had barged into the older wizard’s office at an ungodly hour when any sane man would’ve been fast asleep, he found the Headmaster awake and reading—and surprised to see Severus. That surprise twisted into shock, then anger, then fear as Severus relayed his false tip about Potter possibly being targeted by his past associates and his subsequent trip to Privet Drive. Upon hearing the blood-wards had failed, Dumbledore soared to one of his shelves and pulled forward a silver instrument gone silent, dark, and dusty.

A branch caught the hem of his cloak and Severus slid on the leaves, grunting. What is the brat doing out here? Bantiaumyrddin was fourteen kilometers to the west, but had the girl been there, the Effigy would have brought Severus to the village, not here, not to the middle of the bloody forest with nothing around aside from a Muggle town roughly six kilometers behind him. The Vow let him know she’d escaped danger and yet lived, otherwise Severus would think someone had murdered the girl and dumped her body out here.

Severus was well and truly fuming by the time he crested the rise and stepped into a clearing, prepared to drag Potter back to Hogwarts by the ear if he had to. Slytherin would, hopefully, be preoccupied with some nefarious, long-winded project bent on corrupting impressionable youths, else Severus would have to bring her somewhere else, possibly the old Dumbledore cottage in Godric’s Hollow, or—Merlin forbid—Spinner’s End.

A tent resided in the clearing’s middle. The Locater Effigy lazily drifted closer and closer, until the Charm ceased and dropped onto the canvas with a slight plop. A tent, Severus thought. The girl who survived the Dark Lord’s Killing Curse not once, but twice, is living in a tent. Marvelous.

He brought his feet down hard on the ground, breaking leaves and twigs beneath his boots to announce his presence. The tent’s flap fluttered in the warm air.

“Potter!” Severus shouted, cursing himself for a fool when his voice echoed, and he glanced about the empty woods. “Miss Potter, present yourself, now.”

With no answer forthcoming, Severus kicked the flap aside, stepped into the expanded space beyond—and found himself staring at a dead man.

He would have known the wizard sprawled on the floor was dead by the smell alone and didn’t need to see the blood pooled beneath his leg and backside, nor the ghastly, mottled pallor of his swollen face. Wand in hand, Severus took two cautious steps forward and checked the area, finding no sign of a wayward Slytherin girl. Her possessions lay scattered about the tent: books and used clothes, an open package of Every Flavor Beans, a glass cauldron filled to the brim with rare Mermaid’s Tears—though he had no bloody idea where she’d gotten that. A Girding Potion sat off to the side, congealing in the open air, and Severus glanced down at the summer essay he’d assigned half-completed on the floor.

Frowning, he crouched and laid the backs of his fingers against the cauldron, gauging the iron’s temperature. “Cold,” he murmured, glancing at the dead man. She’d been gone for hours at the least, and Severus guessed the wizard was the cause of the Vow’s reaction last night. He must have threatened Potter, and the girl’s Horned Serpent took care of the rest. “And she walks around with it like it’s a scarf, insolent little fool.”

Severus straightened, crossed the space, and used his foot to angle the wizard’s face toward the morning light. He didn’t recognize the man, but the crest on the front pocket and the robes were clearly Ministry issue. The man’s wand rested in his rigid hand, which further proved he’d threatened the girl, and she’d been so terrified—or simply scared stupid—she left behind everything she owned and ran. Not that she would’ve been able to take the tent; legal Expansion Charms wouldn’t close upon human bodies, living or dead. In fact, they were specifically engineered not to so kidnappers and killers couldn’t go about lugging people about in bloody coin purses. He couldn’t quite picture Potter dragging a dead man outside without the use of her wand.

Severus pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

Footsteps moving through the underbrush without discretion jerked his eye’s toward the loose flap where. Severus quickly Disillusioned himself and stepped back into the shadows, confident the dead body on the floor would distract from any discerning shimmers left in the air. Moments later, the flap again open—ripped aside, hanging by a few loose filaments—and another wizard entered the tent.

He was initially dressed as a Muggle, but with a muttered incantation, his navy robes fell past his knees and the hat on his dark head disappeared. “Morgana’s knickers,” he cursed upon seeing the dead man, and with a suspicious glance over his shoulder, the man turned his profile toward the light. Severus froze. He froze because he recognized the wizard.

Cloyd Dogbane had never been much of a Death Eater—though, he had managed to impress the Dark Lord enough to be branded, which, contrary to popular belief, was not a simple feat to attain. Dogbane had flitted through the various Dark social spheres, too stupid to be a researcher like Severus, too impure to follow Lucius, and not fanatical enough for the likes of the Lestranges. In the wake of Voldemort’s downfall, schisms formed between the ranks, the old guard chasing Slytherin, those with a lust for influence falling into Gaunt’s camp, while the sycophantic stood by their defeated Dark Lord—and mostly went to Azkaban.

Severus didn’t think he’d ever spared a thought for Cloyd Dogbane, not even when he gave the man’s name to Dumbledore a dozen years ago. It figured he became a low-level Ministry grunt.

Lifting his wand, Severus summoned forth his will and hissed, “Imperio.”

Yellow mist seeped into Dogbane’s ears, freezing the wizard, who slowly turned to face a Disillusioned Severus.

“Why are you here?” he asked in an undertone, and though Dogbane opened his mouth to answer, the Potions Master disregarded whatever drivel he’d been about to spill and peered into his eyes. Dogbane’s mind proved just as scattered as Petunia’s, if not more so, scarred by Dark magic and the man’s own perverse ideologies, throwing Severus from image to image like one of those Muggle pinball machines. No concrete reason for being in the middle of Oxfordshire existed in his head, only brief flashes of a familiar, dreaded silhouette barking orders that Dogbane was not to question. Those orders had led him—and the lout on the floor—to the tent, but not because of the locale.

Severus sucked air through his teeth as he freed himself from Dogbane’s pitiful brain and stared at the wizard’s listless, blank eyes. The dread that’d been twisting his stomach for hours intensified. He resisted the urge to be sick and drew upon his Occlusion, shutting his unease behind water and ice, letting the edges blur in the murky undertow.

Obliviate,” he muttered, flicking his wand by Dogbane’s temple. The spell took, erasing the past several minutes from the wizard’s head, leaving his consciousness soft and malleable. “You discovered nothing in these woods. You could not find your compatriot and wonder if he’s decided to leave the country and abandon the Ministry. Having no success in finding Harriet Potter, you have the unquestionable urge to return home and drink yourself insouciant. When you awaken, you will make your report to your master.”

Severus took a step to the side and Dogbane swayed for an instant, then shook his head as the Imperius dissolved, leaving the man disoriented and compelled to do as ordered. Severus sneered as Dogbane turned and headed out of the tent. He remembered little of the man, but he did recall Dogbane’s proclivity for drink; the best compulsions centered upon objects, events, and scenarios the cursed person in question found pleasurable. Dogbane gave the dead man and the tent little thought, so focused on getting pissed, he Apparated from one step to the next.

Severus waited. A minute passed, then another, and he exhaled, letting the Disillusionment fall, appearing once more—dark, disheveled, and exhausted—in Potter’s tent. He considered what he’d seen in Dogbane’s thoughts as he lifted his wand, silver light flooding the space as a watery Patronus took form. “Headmaster. The girl’s been attacked and has fled, leaving…matters for me to attend. Gaunt sent out a pair of wizards to find her.” Severus paused. “Someone has informed him of what occurred in June. He is…intrigued.”

The Patronus bounded through the canvas wall, taking the colorless light with it. Again, Severus waited with his arms crossed and his back stiff, listening to the birds sing and the breeze whisper, until silver light again blossomed into being, and a radiant phoenix burst through the wall, the sight just as ostentatious and eye-searing as its caster. “I believe I know where she has gone,” the phoenix echoed. “Return to the castle so we may proceed.

Muttering about demanding old men, Severus dismissed the Headmaster’s summons and turned his attention instead to the wizard upon the floor. Pitiful. Defeated by a scared twelve-year-old and a snake. Wrinkling his nose against the smell, the Potions Master crouched and used his wand to slice the wizard’s left sleeve down to the elbow. Parting the fabric revealed the anticipated Dark Mark, glamored to be inconspicuous unless a person knew it was there.

How does Gaunt know about her? How does he know what happened last term? Who told him?

A silent mobilicorpus sent the body outside, Severus scouring the bloody stains left behind until the floor was somewhat clean, or would at least pass Ministry inspection. Spotting the trunk left at the foot of the bed, he opened it and performed a cursory search for the Invisibility Cloak, releasing a breath when he failed to turn anything up. Either the girl had hidden it well or she’d had enough sense to take it with her.

Another flick of the wand sent Potter’s possessions soaring into the trunk before he sealed it, lock clattering home, the Girding Potion vanishing and her essay—with her bloody name on it, left at the scene of a murder for Merlin’s sake—was tucked into Severus’ pocket. He followed the trunk out of the tent, and once standing in the open wood again, collapsed the structure and shrunk both it and the trunk so he could swipe them off the forest floor and stuff them into a cloak pocket.

Severus found it indicative of his life’s wretched state that he knew the proper spells for digging a grave and had practiced them enough over the years to be proficient. He exhumed six feet of earth and levered the Death Eater into the new hole, the body falling down with a heavy, dull thump, before Severus muttered an incantation and purple flames consumed the dead man.

The smokeless inferno writhed above the grave’s edges, the color reflected in Severus’ blank, tired stare as he watched, his mind roving far from that quiet clearing and the morning-clad forest. He’d buried, burned, dismembered, and destroyed more than one body at the behest of the Dark Lord—be it Voldemort or Slytherin—or Dumbledore. He’d killed as well, though not with the same frequency, and those faces still haunted his unsuspecting thoughts from time to time.

The Wizarding community as a whole mistakenly assumed Death Eaters came into the Dark Lord’s service under the assumption of being racists, kidnappers, rapists, and murderers. Had that been true, the Dark Lord would have had very few followers indeed, aside from maybe Bellatrix, the mad bint. The Dark Lord appealed to a man, or woman’s, desires, and like a compulsion, he found all that was malleable in a person’s mind, in their very soul, until he created something useful to him. He preyed upon pure-blooded fear of Muggle incursion, on a savage man’s need to dominate, on a scholar’s wish to learn. The Dark Lord could twist even those with the purest of hearts into his pawns.

Not that Severus considered himself pure of heart. He snorted at the very idea as the fire simmered and began to disperse. No, even as an angry, idiot teenager, he’d not been naive enough to mistake the Dark Lord for a man of good intentions. However, if Severus had known poison research and Potions mastery would turn into disposing of the bodies of families ruined by the Dark Lord’s more brutal servants, he liked to think he wouldn’t have been fucking stupid enough to kneel at the bastard’s feet. Reality rarely matched expectations, which Severus learned well when he found himself ankle-deep in human viscera, sicking up his own guts, a hair’s breadth away from being tortured mad if he didn’t stop “disappointing” his master. The Dark Lord had no patience for those who disappointed him.

Severus shook himself. Exhaustion plagued him, dredging up pointless memories, which he dismissed and drowned in Occlusion as he rubbed his dry eyes and poured dirt into the grave. The fire died beneath the earth and what dirt the body displaced swiftly dispersed, leaving an innocuous stretch of ground in the forest Severus covered with kicked leaves and twigs.

Appare Vestigium,” he said, and blotches of color came into view, highlighting the traces of magic and residual human presence—the very same residue the Locater Effigy had followed to the clearing in the first place, drawn to the most potent resonance of Potter’s being. Severus lifted his gaze and traced the footsteps leading from the site back toward the Muggle town. Potter had gone that way. At least he knew she wasn’t lost in the countryside somewhere.

The Potions Master went about obliterating the traces, hiding the grave and clearing from both magical detection and mundane sight. When finished, he tucked his wand away and exhaled. I’ve buried bodies for Death Eaters, for the Order, and now for Harriet Potter, Severus thought. Merlin save Lily’s daughter if it’s not the last.

With a final step, the darkly clad wizard Disapparated. Nothing remained but a lingering smell of burning flesh, and even that disappeared into the rising wind.

 


 

A/N: just to be safe, there were two chapters updated, both xlvi. and xlvii. Make sure you read both!

Chapter Text

xlviii. a most sullen house-elf

 

Harriet woke to the ugliest creature she had ever seen poking her in the face.

The strength of its miniature glower could’ve matched Professor Snape’s, had the creature been more than three feet tall, stooped, and covered in sallow, sagging folds of flesh. It wore a pillowcase of all things, the hem tatty and impatiently stitched, nose bulbous and red while white hair sprung from its large ears in thick bushels.

“It’s awake,” it croaked.

Harriet flung herself backward, away from the creature, and slammed her head into a solid wood headboard. Stars burst before her eyes. “Ow!”

The lumpy, hunched thing grinned nastily at Harriet. “The blood-traitor’s daughter is telling Kreacher to check on the half-blood.”

“Who—?”

He—or Harriet thought it was a he, a goblin of some kind, maybe? A very rude goblin—hopped off the bed and landed on the floor with a solid thump. Below, Livi stirred the bed skirt and hissed with menace, causing the creature to round his eyes and back away, glaring at the scaled tail poking out from the fabric. He disappeared out the door, leaving it ajar, and Harriet flopped back onto the mattress.

Right. I’m at Elara’s house, in her bedroom.

She stared at the ceiling for a long minute and didn’t move, didn’t do much of anything aside from breathe and let the memories from the night before float through her head like gross, mucky water. Harriet felt like she was drowning in that water, so she squeezed her eyes closed, then opened them wide, taking in such a sharp breath her chest ached. It’s okay. I’m okay. It’s okay.

Harriet studied the room, the funny posters mostly hidden behind tacked up parchment and the garish Gryffindor colors, Elara’s trunk open at the bed’s foot with its tidy contents open for inspection. Harriet thought of her own trunk and cursed herself for an idiot as she sat up, pushing the pads of her fingertips into her shut eyes until she saw stars. How could she leave the bloody trunk behind?

Livius slithered out the open door after the creature, his scales creating the softest rasping sound as his belly rubbed on the old floors, and Harriet hissed, “Don’t go scaring people.

Sss….”

Sighing, Harriet wriggled her way out from under the counterpane and fumbled for her glasses on the nightstand, knocking her wand off in the process. The stick clattered on the floor and Harriet, swearing under her breath, dropped to her knees to look beneath the bed, pushing aside the blanket Livi had made an impromptu nest from so she could snatch up her wand and strap it and her brace to her wrist. She wasn’t going to forget it again.

She glanced at the blurred edge of her shadow, softened by the weak light, and whispered, “Set?”

No response came, which didn’t surprise Harriet, really; Set chose when to make his presence known and not a moment beforehand—typically manifesting just long enough to save her life or throw said life into mayhem. She wished he’d stop throwing things at Parkinson, no matter how loathsome she could be at times.

Rising, Harriet shut the door and shuffled out of her borrowed nightgown, pulling on her clothes from the day prior even as she shuddered and grimaced when the weight of the old shirt settled on her scrawny shoulders. She’d almost forgotten about Kevin until he poked his head out from the pocket and hissed his irked defiance.

Harriet sidled out of the room and into the dark hall, peeking about the gloomy space with hesitation before following the thumps of movement to the next door down. Elara stood by the hearth inside, going through a crooked dresser with what looked like an old fireplace poker, dropping moth-eaten trousers and ancient shorts onto the floor while watching Livi from the corner of her eyes. She seemed vaguely wary—and Harriet guessed she should be, given that Livi killed a man last night.

Livi killed somebody. What will happen to him when they come for me? Will they kill Livi? Should I tell him to run away?

“Harriet? Are you all right?”

Harriet blinked and found Elara had turned from the dresser to study her, poker hanging uncertainly from a sooty hand. “Yeah,” Harriet said. “I—.” She cleared her throat, swallowed, and tried again. “Morning. What—what are you doing in here?”

“Oh.” Elara looked at the poker as if she hadn’t realized she was holding it. “Well, you’ll need a room to sleep in, yes? I thought you might like this one next to mine, though there are others, if you prefer. No offense; you kick like a horse in your sleep.”

Harriet couldn’t help but snort. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Elara went back to poking through the drawer. “The house is, um, old? I told you this before. My relatives were—well, frankly, most of my relatives were mad, or close enough to mad. There’s a fairly good chance someone’s either left a nasty hex laying about and it’s gone to seed, or they cursed their pants to chew off your fingers.”

Harriet stared at the dresser in horror. Not a moment later, Elara found something solid inside the drawer and flipped it out from under the musty clothes, an old shoes landing on the floor with a heavy thump. The leather split from the sole and shaped itself into little teeth before the shoe came flying and snarling at Harriet, who leapt back, banging her shoulder into the door. “Ow!”

With a grunt, Elara swung the poker and stabbed the shoe, pinning it to the floor. It struggled, so Elara hit it again, and the shoe gave one last gasp before quieting. Elara prodded it a few times to make sure it was well and truly defeated before shoving it off into her discarded pile. “Biting Hex.”

A thump and a squeal came from the window, and the two girls turned to see Livi partially ensconced in the writhing curtains, from which a cloud of miniature blue men with wings came screaming out of. Livi, unabashed, peeked from behind the fabric, tiny legs disappearing into his maw.

Livi!” Harriet hissed, worried her snake had just evicted some kind of pet, but Elara only smirked.

“Maybe the Doxies will stop tearing the curtains to shreds now. The repellent they sell in Diagon Alley does not work.”

Livi swallowed the Doxy whole and flicked his tongue in Harriet’s direction, clearly dismissing her concerns.

Elara finished clearing out one drawer and moved onto the next, seeming in no particular hurry, both girls lost in their own thoughts as they best tried to approach the events from last night. “Why don’t you use your wand?” Harriet blurted out.

“Pardon?”

“Your wand.” She waved at the mess. “Malfoy was bangin’ on about how stupid he thinks some families are to adhere to the ‘no magic’ thing in the summers because the Ministry can’t tell if magic’s cast in a magical home or something? This is a magical house, so can’t you use magic?”

Comprehension dawned in Elara’s expression, and she muttered a soft, “Ah,” as she kept on with the poker. “That’s a ward; Uncle Cygnus told me about it, and not every family has someone who can cast it or afford the wardsmith to make it. The Ministry’s Trace is always active on wands, but in places like Diagon or Hogwarts or other public areas, they don’t follow the spells. They can’t really tell whose wand did what. If you were to walk into the heart of London and start casting, the Ministry would be notified because it’s a Muggle area. Private dwellings can have the Untraceable Ward sealed on them, but the ward has to be keyed to an adult’s wand, and well—.” Here Elara shrugged. They were no adults at Grimmauld.

Harriet remained quiet for a time, stroking a finger over Kevin’s head as the golem continued to pout in her pocket. “Who was that earlier that woke me up?”

“Woke you up?”

“Yeah, he—it? He?—came in and poked me in the face until I got up!”

“Poked you in the—?” Elara’s confused questioning cut off with an abrupt scowl as she slammed the drawer shut. “Kreacher.”

A loud crack heralded the sudden return of the wrinkled creature, and Harriet hit the door again, swearing when her elbow collided with the solid wood. The creature leered at Harriet before turning his attention to Elara, who glared down her straight nose and met the sullen imp glower for glower. “I said to check on her, not wake her, didn’t I?”

The creature—Kreacher? If that wasn’t an apt name, Harriet didn’t know what was—tilted his head back and sneered, the folds on his wizened face quivering. “Kreacher was just checking. He had to check if it was still alive.”

“Don’t call her it.”

Kreacher sniffed. “Whatever the blood-traitor’s daughter wishes. Kreacher lives to serve the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.”

“I mean it, Kreacher!”

The imp sneered. “Of course, Mistress.”

Harriet had never heard Elara swear, but she looked very close to doing so as her face flushed an angry red. “Clean this up,” she said, pointing at the pile of discarded clothes.

“Of course, Mistress.” Kreacher snapped his fingers, and the pile disappeared. “Does the blood-traitor’s daughter or the half-breed need anything else?”

“No.”

He tottered off after that, Harriet carefully maneuvering around him until she came to stand by Elara. The door slammed on its own with a loud bang!

“He makes me so furious,” Elara muttered as she dropped the poker back onto the hearth’s rack. Her hand was left sooty, and upon spying the mess, Elara’s lip curled and she pulled out a handkerchief from her skirt pocket. “If I didn’t think he’d quite literally murder me in my sleep, I’d give him clothes and be done with it.”

“But didn’t you just give him clothes…?”

“No. It’s more an expression than anything, since you have to hand a house-elf clothes to free them. That’s why Kreacher wears that grubby pillowcase.”

That was a house-elf?” Harriet had heard of them before—they came up in conversation often enough in Slytherin House—but she’d never seen one before.

“Yes. Probably the oldest and most sullen house-elf in all of Great Britain, really.” She stopped wiping her hand and let out a frustrated sigh. “We should have breakfast. Come on….”

Elara led the way back into the hall and down the stairs, seeming to know the path well enough in the dimly lit passage, pausing only once to mutter about a covered portrait that Harriet didn’t quite hear before they moved on. The kitchen was much as it had been earlier that very morning, the sconces coming on with reluctance, Harriet’s Invisibility Cloak slung atop the shifted chairs. Elara fished out a box of tea from somewhere, and Harriet went about picking ingredients from the cupboard Charmed to stay cool.

They didn’t say anything to one another until they were seated at the table, a plate of breakfast before each girl, Harriet’s stomach still too tense to manage much else besides a bite or two toast. Finally, she plucked up the courage to break the silence. “What am I going to do, Elara?”

The older girl—usually so much more composed than Harriet—bit her lip and chased a bit of egg with her fork. “I’m not…not really sure. Like I said last night, I can write my solicitor. He can at least find out if the D.M.L.E has…issued a warrant? Though I wouldn’t think they’d do that. I think they’d be more worried about your safety. Most likely.”

The uncertainty in Elara’s voice did little to spare Harriet’s dwindling spirits. Her face paled considerably as she dropped bacon crumbles into her front pocket for Kevin’s benefit. “Do they send little girls to prison in the magical world?”

“Don’t be preposterous.” Elara didn’t quite meet her eyes as she went about making another cuppa. “What kind of society would put little girls in gaol?”

“The kind of societies that have blokes calling themselves Dark Lords who go about trying to kill babies?”

“You really shouldn’t be so flippant about that, please.” Elara stirred milk into her tea, and when she released the spoon, it continued to spiral in lazy circles. “What happened last night was self-defense.”

“But what about Livi?”

“Perhaps…perhaps you could say it was a wild snake?”

“Would anybody believe that?”

Elara shrugged as she stood up from the table and gathered their dishes, bringing the lot to the sink. “They have the burden of proof, just like in the Muggle justice system.”

“The what?”

“They have to prove your snake killed him. They have to prove you own a snake—and given that no one knows you’re a Parselmouth, they’re not about to believe you’ve kept a Horned Serpent around.”

“Remember what Snape said at Halloween, though? That if he ever heard me say anything as ‘brain dead’ as needing proof, he’d have me dissecting cauldrons or something for the next six years?”

“Yes, well, Snape’s a—.” Elara dropped a spoon and it clattered against the cast-iron sink. “Not a very nice man. However, we have to worry about the Ministry, not Snape at the moment, so I think it’d be best if I wrote to Mr. Piers. He can probably tell us what to do.”

Harriet hummed her assent, glumly kicking her feet back and forth as she gazed into her empty cup and tried to make sense of the lumpy tea bits left behind. Elara was a good friend—maybe even a better friend than Harriet deserved, as she hadn’t slammed the door in her face when Harriet showed up at an indecent hour trailing all sorts of nonsense. Harriet’s own flesh and blood would’ve never treated her half as well. They didn’t even give her a bedroom.

Crackling from the hearth drew Harriet’s attention. The cinders of old wood resting in its belly shifted and sparked, sending up a plume of green embers. She hadn’t seen Elara light it, though she guessed it could have been that—Kreacher fellow, sneaking about.

“Elara,” Harriet asked aloud, frowning.

From her spot by the sink, Elara answered with a preoccupied, “Hmm?”, her hands slick with soap.

“Why’s your fire green? I’ve only seen that in Diagon Alley.”

“What?” Elara turned off the water.

“I said, why’s your fire green—.”

Elara whirled around. “Harriet, get away from there—!”

The other witch’s shouted warning came too late, for she hadn’t finished speaking before the flames burst high and licked the mantel—issuing forth the black-clad figure of a familiar wizard stepping from the simmering coals. Harriet knocked her teacup off the table and it shattered on the floor.

Severus Snape straightened to his full height, and, with a dismissive look at the mess, sneered, “Potter.”

Harriet gulped.

 


 

A/N: Sorry for the late update! Real life is murderous.

 

Chapter Text

xlix. dumbledore’s decision

 

Harriet had no words. Her mouth moved, and yet she couldn’t make a sound come out.

The Potions Master stepped fully from the hearth and his robes settled about his lanky frame, the grim man fitting well with Grimmauld’s less than chipper decor. Harriet couldn’t begin to guess what Professor Snape did over his summers, but it certainly wasn’t sunbathing; he was paler than ever and exhausted, black smudges marring his eyelids, oily hair windblown and sporting a few bits of leaves. The expression he wore was caught somewhere between vindicated and furious—which did not bode well for Harriet.

In an instant, Elara came to her side, dripping suds and water from her wet sleeves, a spoon held in her hand instead of her wand. “How did you get through the Floo?” she demanded.

Snape didn’t answer. He sneered and took two steps to the side. Harriet wondered what he was doing—and then the fire sputtered again, flaring bright green, and a second wizard stepped past the grate as they swept into the kitchen.

Headmaster Dumbledore made for a far more impressive, if less terrifying, figure than Professor Snape.

“Ah, Harriet. There you are,” the older wizard said with gentle smile. “You gave us quite a fright, my dear.”

Harriet continued to gawk like a gormless fool. Elara came to her senses first.

“Excuse me, H-Headmaster? But how did you—?” Elara gestured at the fireplace with her spoon, then dropped the wet utensil on the table, cheeks turning pink.

“Of course. Pardon our intrusion, Miss Black, and rest assured, your home’s formidable wards are still perfectly intact. You see, we suspected Miss Potter might be here and, worried about her safety, I asked a favor of a dear friend and old pupil working in the Department of Magical Transportation at the Ministry.” Dumbledore gave a mild shrug after his explanation—which Harriet took to mean he asked a former student to help him and Snape do a little secret breaking and entering through Elara’s protected Floo. Harriet, shocked and still a touch hysterical from her eventful night, choked on a laugh.

Snape glared.

“Forgive me for saying, Headmaster,” Snape spoke in his most oily tone, the one he always used before verbally eviscerating Longbottom’s worst potions. “But I believe Misses Black and Potter can overlook our intrusion, considering a man is dead and Potter here might well be guilty of his murder.”

Both Harriet and Elara gaped. How does he know?! “I—I didn’t!” Harriet cried, all thoughts of claiming ignorance escaping her head like bubbles popping one by one. Standing in front of her headmaster and professor, Harriet felt very much like a criminal about to be charged with the most heinous of crimes.

“No, it was that snake you insist on strutting about with! Wrapped around your insolent little neck—!”

“Severus,” Professor Dumbledore said, lifting a hand. Professor Snape cut off abruptly and lowered his head, dark hair falling forward around his stiff face. “I believe our dear Potions Master is simply concerned for you, Harriet—.” Elara stifled a snort. “You see, when we learned of a threat made against your person, Professor Snape went to check on you at home. He was surprised to learn that, not only were you not there, but you hadn’t been seen by your relatives since last summer.”

All eyes fell upon Harriet and she felt her face heat, the disapproval clear in Dumbledore’s voice. “So?” she retorted. “That’s not—. It doesn’t—. You said someone threatened me?”

The quick misdirection didn’t fool either wizard, but the Headmaster was content to answer her. “Yes. Indirectly, really.”

“It didn’t feel indirectly when he tried to curse me!”

Dumbledore’s eyes sharpened. “And were you cursed, Harriet? Are you hurt anywhere?”

She flushed a bit more, eyes dancing between the two wizards. “He—I think he used the same spell Quirrell did in the dungeons. A red one. It—it grazed my arm a bit and I felt breathless and…dazed.”

The older wizard nodded his head as if he’d expected as much. “Your attacker used a Stunning Spell, if I am not mistaken. We don’t teach the incantation until your fourth year at Hogwarts.”

“What’s going to happen to me now, Professor? Am I…am I in trouble?”

Headmaster Dumbledore sighed and glanced about Elara’s drab kitchen. “I believe we should have a seat and share a nice cup of tea before we have our conversation. So long as Miss Black doesn’t mind our imposition?”

“Harriet’s not imposing,” Elara said with the faintest trace of ‘but you are’ lingering in her tone. Harriet didn’t have a sliver of the kind of nerve it must take to stare down her nose at Albus Dumbledore like Elara could. “She lives here.”

Does she now?” Snape cut in, watching her with a derisive eye. “As far as the school records are concerned, Potter lives at Number Four, Privet Drive, in Surrey—or was it a tent in the middle of the woods? Forgive me if I have things…confused.”

“Severus, would you see to making that tea?” Dumbledore said, and even Harriet heard the reprimand in that softly voiced order. Snape narrowed his eyes, but he jerked his head in a short nod and swept past the girls deeper into the kitchen. Elara looked somewhat alarmed by the Potions Master’s presence as he started rifling through her cabinets, yet she said nothing to stop him.

Dumbledore ushered Harriet over to one of the chairs and she sat, Dumbledore taking a spot across from her, Elara sliding into the seat at Harriet’s side. Snape was still making the tea—like a Muggle, which Harriet thought was the weirdest thing she’d seen today.

“You’re not in trouble, Harriet,” the Headmaster began. “The matter has been taken care of already, and you won’t be hearing an inquiry from the Ministry. I would, however, ask that you not speak of what happened with anyone outside of this room—though, I will amend that request to include Miss Granger as an allowable confidante.” He smiled as Snape set a cup before him, thanking the dour wizard. Snape gave Harriet a cup as well—dropped it, really, flecking the table with dark tea—and she ignored it. Ever since Quirrell dosed her cuppa, she hadn’t much liked tea not prepared by herself or someone she trusted implicitly, like Elara. “If someone were to bring up the topic with you, please feign ignorance and find either myself or Professor Snape. Is that understood?”

Harriet nodded. Elara was looking at her own tea as if Snape had spat in it, and the Potions Master had neglected to take a seat, opting to stand behind Dumbledore like a looming bailiff waiting for the order to drag Harriet off to the dungeons. “Yes, professor.”

“Good. I must also express some concern about your familiar.” Noting Harriet’s instant alarm and opened mouth, Dumbledore lifted his hand—much as he had with Snape some minutes prior—and she fell silent. “Your Horned Serpent isn’t in trouble either, but in light of these events, I worry your familiar may pose a danger to you or your classmates.”

“Livi would never,” Harriet argued, though a queasy feeling had started building in her middle. “He—he was only protecting me!”

“And what would happen should he feel you were threatened by a fellow student? If you, perhaps, became frightened by misplaced bullying? Your familiar, clever and loyal as I am sure he is, is still an animal, Harriet. Animals are a wonderful source of companionship, but they are wild at heart and we must remember for our protection and theirs that they are not human and not capable of discerning what we think is right and what is wrong. That is not their natural state of being. In a moment of stress, your Livi would act to protect you the only way he understands how, and we would be unable to help his victim. I doubt you’d want a classmate dead over what might be a schoolyard feud, and I wouldn’t wish such a burden upon you, my girl.”

She slouched, tired eyes coming to rest on the table and the full cup sitting there. “What am I supposed to do?” Harriet asked in a quiet, defeated voice. She could find no fault in the Headmaster’s logic; Livi often did what Livi wanted with little regard to Harriet’s wishes, though they usually could come to some kind of concession. Picturing a scenario wherein she might be in a fight with another student proved difficult, and yet Harriet knew Livi wouldn’t hesitate to bite someone attacking her, even if their assault ended up being benign.

“You will need to order him not to attack a student under any circumstance, and I will ask you to leave your familiar in your dormitory from now on. I’m certain we can arrange supervised time with Hagrid, our game keeper, so you and Livi may venture out onto the grounds for fresh air from time to time.”

Harriet didn’t like it, but Dumbledore could have given worse ultimatums. She simply nodded, still staring at her tea.

The Headmaster took a sip from his own cup before setting it down again with a soft clink. “Why did you not return to the Dursleys this summer?”

The bespectacled witch stiffened and jerked her head just high enough to look at Dumbledore’s beard, but she didn’t meet his eyes. Instead of answering, she said, “I won’t go back.” She wanted to sound strong and mature, like a young woman who knew her own mind and had a rational point to make—but Harriet just sounded like a frightened little girl. “I won’t!”

“Now, Harriet—.”

“I won’t!” She stood, knees wobbly as a newborn colt’s, face gone ghastly pale in the kitchen’s wan lighting. She kept thinking about the cupboard of all things, and Harriet wasn’t sure why; the Dursleys had been wretched for her entire life, giving her plenty of more unpleasant experiences to draw upon, and yet the cupboard haunted her.

“She doesn’t have to,” Elara said, sounding far more sure of herself than Harriet did, though Harriet noticed how pale her friend had gone, her eyes not quite meeting the Headmaster’s either. “She can stay here, if she wants. I’m technically Head of my family, so she can stay with me.”

“Technically you’re nothing, Black,” Snape said. “By law, your father—.” Here he gnashed his teeth and looked somewhat mutinous, though Harriet couldn’t say why. “remains Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, and you, merely the proxy.”

“My father’s going to rot in Azkaban for the rest of his life,” Elara retorted. “So the ‘proxy’ bit hardly matters at all, does it? Sir? And I’m emancipated.”

Dumbledore interrupted them. “While I applaud your initiative in securing your independence, Miss Black, your emancipation does not extend to Harriet.”

“Can I get emancipated?” Harriet asked, perking up.

A resounding ‘no’ came from all three corners, and Harriet looked at her best friend as if she’d grievously betrayed her. Elara shifted in her chair and explained in an undertone, “What Cygnus did wasn’t all strictly…legal. Or repeatable.”

“Oh.”

“Which brings us back to the main topic of conversation.” Dumbledore leveled a serious look in Harriet’s direction and she stiffened her spine, chin up. “Returning to the Dursleys.”

Before Harriet could say anything, Snape bent forward far enough to mutter, “Headmaster,” and Dumbledore turned to meet his Potions Master’s open stare. They continued to look silently at one another for a good minute or so while Elara and Harriet watched and waited, both befuddled. What are they doing?

Finally, Dumbledore broke away, face harder than before, his thoughts inscrutable in that mysterious way of his.

“Don’t make me go back,” Harriet softly pleaded. She wouldn’t stay if he did, and she didn’t want to deceive the Headmaster, not like that, but she wouldn’t stay with the Dursleys. “Please, Headmaster.”

Dumbledore didn’t respond. He gazed at the table instead and stroked fingers through his beard as he turned thoughts through his formidable brain. Snape fidgeted—actually fidgeted—behind the man, flicking leaves from his oily hair. “Miss Black,” the older wizard said at last, raising his eyes to Elara’s level. “How earnest you are in your hopes of housing Harriet here?”

“Very,” she responded, though the surreptitious tugging of her sleeves gave away her nervousness.

The Headmaster let out a sigh, then nodded. “Usually, if one of our esteemed professors discovers a guardian is incapable of caring for their charge, we reach out to the Ministry’s Department of Welfare, and they either seek a relative better suited for child care or find a family willing to accept a new ward. However, your case is not…usual, Harriet.”

Her mind flashed back to the last time she’d sat in the Headmaster’s office, Quirrell’s body covered in a white sheet, her scar still burning and itching despite Madam Pomfrey’s topical cream on her skin, Dumbledore sad and remorseful as he told her just what really happened that Hallowe’en almost eleven years ago.

“Because…because you think staying with Muggles, with the Dursleys, makes me safer.”

“Yes,” he replied, watching her. Harriet had yet to retake her seat. “Forgive me, my girl; I expressed my wishes to your aunt and uncle that night you lost your parents and asked them to raise you as their own, providing them a stipend and explaining you would, no matter their arguments, be coming to Hogwarts when you turned eleven. The fault for your treatment at Number Four lies with me; I should have checked on your situation myself, or sent someone in my confidence. For that, I apologize.”

Harriet stared at her shoes and awkwardly shuffled. She wanted to be angry at Professor Dumbledore, wanted to be furious that he’d sent her to live with the Dursleys, but she couldn’t muster the feeling. Maybe she’d be able to if he decided she had to go back there, especially if he knew what happened, but truly she reserved that kind of emotion for Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. It was their fault, not Dumbledore’s.

“Your mother’s sacrifice placed very powerful wards upon your blood, so long as you could call a place of your mother’s family home. It is very complicated and esoteric magic—and by that I mean it is really only ever understood by those who devote their lives to its study. We spoke of it before, briefly, but I digress; Voldemort and his compatriots may not be able to reach you so long as you remain with your aunt and uncle, but I cannot accept their treatment of you, and I cannot ask that you return to a place where you are not safe and cared for.”

Harriet was so relieved she started to tremble and probably would have ended up flat on the floor if Elara hadn’t tugged her back into her seat. No more Dursleys, she thought. No more cupboard.

Dumbledore suddenly smiled. “Besides, I don’t want you to lie to me, Harriet, and I understand ordering you to return and stay with your relatives would force you to do so. I have found in my long acquaintance with Slytherins, that the very best way to ensure a Slytherin tells the truth is to ask of them only things they do not the feel the need to lie about.”

Snape, who’d gone eerily silent while Dumbledore spoke, snorted.

“For your safety, Harriet, we cannot go to the Ministry and ask for them to find you a suitable home. It would be best if only a select few were aware of your situation and knew of your whereabouts. So, again, I turn my attention to you, Miss Black. You are very gracious in offering your home to Harriet and I am sure she is immensely grateful; however, Harriet—and you, my dear, regardless of your emancipation—are children, and I cannot in good conscience abandon you to your own devices.”

Harriet and Elara exchanged uneasy glances.

“Harriet may stay here for the summer if you accept a few of my conditions. If you cannot accept, we will have to come up with another solution.”

“Headmaster,” Snape drawled. “Do you think appropriate for her to stay in…this house?”

Harriet didn’t know what the man meant by that, though maybe Elara did, because her cheeks flushed with color and Dumbledore ignored Snape yet again. “I would ask that you allow for a guardian of my choosing to room here in order to protect and watch over you both. I would also ask that you allow for certain objects in your home to be rendered inert or removed; you may be surprised to learn I have visited Grimmauld Place in the past, and I’ve known some of your family to collect harmful Dark objects not suitable to a house with children in residence. I would promise that only trusted individuals would be allowed access to or given knowledge of your home.”

Uncomfortable, Harriet fought the sudden urge to bite her nails or fidget with the cold teacup. He was asking too much of Elara—way too much, considering she’d already said Harriet could stay here, that she’d opened the door when Harriet showed up in the dead of night, nattering on about wizards out to get her—.

“Okay, sir,” Elara said, cutting off Harriet’s wayward thoughts. She actually looked a bit relieved, then Harriet remembered the biting shoes and decided Elara would be pleased to have someone with a usable wand who could take care of nonsense like that. “That’ll be fine.”

“Excellent.” Dumbledore gently smacked the palm of his hand against the table instead of clapping in approval. “I do believe that is all we have to discuss at the present, unless you have any questions?”

Harriet and Elara shook their heads.

“Very well, then.” The Headmaster rose and straightened his robes. He turned with deliberate effort to the face the Potions Master, who froze when Dumbledore’s blue eyes fell upon him. “I do hope you enjoy your stay, Severus.”

“What?!” the three of them exclaimed at once—though not as loudly as Snape, who looked very near having some sort of fit. “Really now, Albus—.”

“I can think of no one better suited.”

Albus—.”

Elara’s expression made it seem as if she’d swallowed a whole lemon and Harriet wondered if they’d survive the month until the train came to take them back to school. Snape was going to murder them both.

“You deserve a holiday, my boy.” The words should’ve been pleasant enough, but something in the Headmaster’s tone and his gimlet eye brought the three of them up short, Snape pressing his mouth into a firm, furious line as Professor Dumbledore stared him down. Harriet didn’t know what Snape had done, but she didn’t fancy being in his shoes at the moment. “Enjoy it.”

He stepped up to the Floo, took a pinch of silvery powder from the dish on the mantel, and tossed it into the grate. Dumbledore said, “I’ll be in touch,” as the flames rose as green as writhing Slytherin curtains, and he called out, “Hogwarts, Headmaster’s office.”

In a flash, Professor Dumbledore was gone.

 

Chapter Text

l. dinner with a dungeon bat

 

The fire barely had an opportunity to settle before the two Slytherin girls realized Professor Dumbledore had abandoned them in the kitchen with a fuming Severus Snape.

Harriet glanced at Elara as the Potions Master continued to stare at the hearth, expression blank, though Harriet thought he’d gone paler than usual, the outrage seeming to billow outward from his body like a humid cloud. Elara didn’t look nervous like Harriet did; she looked more annoyed, which Harriet guessed the other girl was entitled to. The headmaster had foisted an unwilling house guest onto her.

Snape spun around and both girls jolted in their chairs as if he’d thrown a curse at them. He dipped a hand into one of his many pockets, and Harriet thought they were going to be hexed for sure this time—and yet, Snape didn’t pull out his wand. Rather, he held out a closed fist toward Harriet, and when she did little more than stare at him like a frightened bird ready to fly, Snape sighed.

“Don’t just sit there like a brain-dead fool—take this, Potter.”

Hesitating, Harriet extended her hand, palm up, and Snape opened his fist over it, letting something about the size of a matchbook drop into her grasp. “Oh, hey!” Harriet exclaimed. “It’s my trunk—.”

She had only a second to move out of the way when Snape flicked his fingers and the trunk returned to its proper size, slamming down on the table with an almighty bang. Harriet glowered as Snape smirked like he was proud of himself, though the look disappeared as swiftly as it’d come when he looked to Elara again.

Both Harriet and Elara gulped.

Snape pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and mustered some measure of patience—or most likely tolerance—before he dipped his hand back into his pockets, retrieving a battered pocket watch. He considered the watch with a baleful glare, then flicked his wand toward the mantel. The carriage clock there, covered in cobwebs and decidedly older than Harriet great grandparents, suddenly appeared from under its grubby coat and began to tick once more.

“I will return at seven this evening, at which point a bedroom had better have been set aside for my usage, Black.”

Elara just glared.

“You will stay in this house—not one toe outside of it—until I’ve returned. Rest assured, what patience I have has been utterly decimated by the Headmaster, and I’ve none to spare on you two dunderheads today.”

“Err,” Harriet asked, still somewhat dazed by the Headmaster’s proclamation and the sudden, overwhelming relief of not having to return to the Dursleys. “Where are you going?”

Snape gave her an incredulous look and didn’t bother to answer; rather, he walked straight to the hearth, scooped up a handful of Floo Powder, and said an address in such a quiet undertone, neither Elara nor Harriet heard what he’d said. The man disappeared as Dumbledore had—though with considerably more furious cloak snapping.

The soot hadn’t had a chance to settle before Elara whacked Harriet’s arm. “Ow, hey—!”

“What are you thinking, asking the great bat where he’s going? Who cares?” She let out an aggravated sigh and sank into her chair again. “Our Headmaster’s crazy. Or well on his way to senile; can wizards go senile?”

Harriet shuffled closer to her friend and, uncertain of herself, touched Elara’s shoulder. “I’m…sorry,” she muttered, eyes on the floor. The Headmaster asked too much of Elara; it wasn’t fair for the other girl to not only open her home to Harriet, but to bloody Snape as well—and whoever else Professor Dumbledore deemed necessary to come ferret through the Black family antiques. Harriet didn’t like feeling like this; still scared, anxious, unsure if she’d inadvertently destroyed or irrevocably strained the first friendship she’d ever made.

Elara blinked and seemed to drag herself from her darkening mood, meeting Harriet’s downcast eyes. “No,” she said slowly. “No—I want you to stay here far more than I care about Snape or whatever rubbish the Headmaster thinks needs to be gotten rid of. Honestly, my grandmother cursed everything right down to the nails in the floorboards.”

Harriet smiled and the tense mood in the stuffy kitchen lightened. The horrid night prior was catching up with her, all the running through the woods in the dead of the night, tossing and turning in an unfamiliar bed, causing the bespectacled witch to slump against the solid table and let her head drop onto the top of her trunk with a heavy thump.

My trunk.

“Bloody hell,” Harriet said aloud.

“If Hermione were here, she’d scold you for saying that.”

“Never mind that—my trunk, Elara! I left it in the tent with—you know!”

“And?”

And Snape just handed it to me! Which means he—he was the one who—!” Found the dead wizard. In the middle of the woods. Merlin.

Neither girl knew what to say to that sentiment, and so, by mutual assent, they ignored it. “Let’s take the trunk up before Kreacher tries to help. He’s not, um, very helpful, really, when he’s in a mood.”

The trunk wasn’t heavy, not when one took it properly by the handle and thus activated the Featherlight Charm on it. Harriet dragged it up to the third floor where her bedroom and dozing snake waited, first door on the right, with Elara’s just past it, the landing and hall also holding a linen closet Elara warned her away from, a study the older girl had been concentrating her efforts on recently, a bath and another bedroom. Harriet glanced at the empty bedroom, then at Elara, brow raised in question.

Elara shook her head. “There’s three more bedrooms upstairs and quarters in the attic. He can take one of those—or sleep with Kreacher in the boiler room. Whatever he’d prefer.”

Harriet snorted, though a strain of guilt plucked at her middle; Dumbledore said “the matter” had been “taken care of,” but what did the Headmaster mean by that? If Snape had her trunk, did that mean he had to…to take care of it? The sudden image of Professor Snape digging a grave with a shovel like in the movies filled Harriet’s head and struck her dumb for a moment—not because it was terribly difficult to imagine Snape of all people digging a grave, but because he was doing it to hide a body Harriet’s familiar had killed.

The headmaster never did say who had threatened her.

“Harriet?”

“Hmm?”

“Will you help me with…something?”

Harriet was already nodding before she asked what Elara needed her to do. In answer, Elara turned heel and they marched back out of Harriet’s dusty bedroom and down to the second floor, entering a dim, hushed library.

“Be careful,” Elara said as she turned the switch for the gas lamps. “Cygnus told me those volumes there, on the higher shelf, are dangerous.”

Considering everything from the furniture to the shoes seemed to be dangerous in the house, Harriet paid particular attention to the shelves Elara indicated and stayed well away. Whatever those books did, Harriet didn’t want to know. “What’re we doing in here?”

The taller witch stopped in front of the hearth and sharply rapped on the frame of a portrait depicting a distinguished, snoozing wizard with a pointy beard and sharp, slanted eyebrows. A thunderous snort escaped him as he woke.

“Er—?! What’s this—?! Brats! Don’t you know better than to leave a man to his rest?!”

“Where are the family grimoires?” Elara asked of the wizard, her voice level but brooking no argument.

The wizard narrowed his eyes. “Now why would you be looking for those?”

“Because Uncle Cygnus told me they were in here and that they’ve been in the family since before we were a family.” Elara sounded testy even to Harriet’s ears. Today was already proving trying to them both. “I need to move them.”

“And why’s that?”

While Elara bickered with the wizard—a Black ancestor apparently—Harriet studied the portrait and tried to puzzle out where she’d seen the man before. It must have been at Hogwarts, considering the castle contained hundreds upon hundreds of old portraits and moving paintings, and yet Harriet could’ve sworn….

“Are you—,” she interrupted, blushing. “Aren’t you a headmaster?”

The wizard’s distinct brow rose. “I was indeed,” he sniffed, nose in the air, doing a close impression of Malfoy. “Phineas Nigellus Black—the most hated Headmaster to ever grace Hogwarts.” He seemed particularly proud of that achievement.

Elara tutted. “I guess we’ve established how Professor Dumbledore knew you were here, Harriet.”

Professor Black huffed but didn’t deny the claim.

“The Headmaster wants to have someone sweep the house for Dark objects; I mean to move the grimoires somewhere safe,” Elara explained, a hint of color in her cheeks as she admitted the less than legal state of her family’s old magic. “The rest I don’t care about, considering it either tries to eat, bite, strangle, or stab anyone who touches it.”

“Strangle—?!”

“The curtains in the trophy room are strongly hexed.”

“You’ve a trophy room—?”

“As enlightening as this conversation is,” Professor Black drawled, doing a damnable impression of Professor Snape at his silkiest. “You’re boring me. The grimoires are kept on the next aisle over, in a black trunk. Or so they were the last I saw them. Do be careful, brat—and if you’re looking for a place to hide them, may I recommend the safe in the first floor lavatory? It is warded against…curious eyes.”

The pair of witches found the trunk in question, though it proved far too heavy for them to lift off the shelf, let alone carry down to the lower level. Elara summoned Kreacher and he helped them levitate the heavy, sealed trunk down the stairs—though twice he leered at Harriet and muttered something about dropping the box on her feet.

It took the better part of an hour pressing and pulling and tapping about the cramped, dingy loo for Elara to find the large panel safe hidden behind a glamored section of tiles. Inside, they discovered a cache of Galleons, several snoring portraits of dour Black ancestors, what looked like three petrified heads, and a glittering centipede preserved in a jar. The girls spent another twenty minutes devoted to hefting the trunk inside the vault, followed by much sweating on Harriet’s part and a bout of wheezing from Elara.

They tromped upstairs afterward and made a trifling attempt to clean Harriet’s new room, though both witches were tired after their eventful evening and thus spent much of their time chatting and poking about through various cupboards. They broke for lunch around midday, then spent the remainder of the afternoon on the fourth floor, in a filthy game room smelling of mold and dead things. They played chess on a board where the enchanted pieces screamed bloody murder as they died. Elara soundly beat Harriet twice before they couldn’t stomach the racket anymore.

At half-past six, Harriet and Elara headed back downstairs, walking side by side down the dim-lit hall to the creaking stairs.

“Where do you think Snape went today?” Harriet asked.

“I would guess he went to argue more with the headmaster,” Elara replied, mouth twisting in a repressed grimaced. “I doubt he was successful.”

Snape was not, in fact, successful with any further negotiations. At precisely seven in the evening, the carriage clock chimed and a heavy knock struck the front door loud enough to be heard in the kitchen basement. Both witches shared spooked looks, not quite forgetting Harriet’s escape from the woods and the wizards chasing her, and so Elara sent Kreacher to open the door and let Snape in—if it was indeed Snape standing out on the porch. The wizard came stalking into the room some minutes later, a decidedly unhappy look on his severe face.

“Potter, what are you doing?” he demanded once he spotted the short witch standing at the cooker, and Harriet—leaning over the pot with her sleeves rolled back past her skinny elbows—eyed him with a puzzled look.

“Err—making supper? Sir?”

“Black, is there a reason you’ve set Potter to work instead of using your house-elf?”

Elara, setting out bowls on the table, frowned at Snape. “You can eat Kreacher’s cooking if you want. I wouldn’t recommend it,” she said. When Snape narrowed his eyes, she swallowed and muttered, “Professor,” before hastily setting out the spoons.

“And where am I to stay in this mouldering ruin?”

“There’s, um, some bedrooms on the fourth level not in use. Sir.”

Snape dropped into the chair at the head of the table and Elara nudged one of the bowls closer to him. When the Potions Master didn’t react, she added a spoon and a cup to his setting and retreated into the kitchen.

“Unbearable grump,” she muttered as she dropped a cutting board onto the counter and set in on slicing apart a loaf of bread. Harriet snorted, and both girls ducked their heads when Snape directed a sour glare in their direction.

Supper was finished soon, and while Elara set out the bread, Harriet brought the pot to the table and dished herself some stew. Elara served herself next, and then Snape, the three settling in to eat in awkward silence. Harriet had seen Snape eat in the Great Hall, of course, but she found it rather disconcerting to witness the event at such proximity. It was hard to think that any of her professors did boring, normal things like eat, or sleep, or exist anywhere outside the confines of Hogwarts.

The silence broke when Livius—smelling food—nudged open the basement door and came slithering into the room, startling Snape and Elara so badly the latter knocked over her water glass. Snape flicked his wand and cleared the mess before she could react.

Sss...” the serpent hissed as he raised himself into Harriet’s lap and proceeded to sniff her food. “What isss thisss?

My dinner,” Harriet replied, dunking a heel of bread into the stew. Livi nosed the bowl hard enough to slop some onto the table and she cursed around a mouthful of food. “Hey!

Livi snapped up a piece of meat and swallowed it whole. “Sss…don’t likesss.”

Well, it wasn’t meant for you!” Harriet growled, tugging on his horn, earning a miffed hiss in reply.

“Potter!”

Snape’s exclamation brought Harriet’s attention back to her tablemates. Elara was paler than usual, and Snape sat stiffly in his chair, knuckles white around his spoon, and Harriet guessed watching her tussle with a large, venomous snake was a bit off-putting.

“What?” she asked. “He’s being a brat.”

“Tell your pet to leave while we are eating.”

Harriet sighed, wiping her mouth on her stretched out sleeve. “The professor wants you to go while we’re eating.

Livi seemed disinclined to do as told and said as much, prompting a quick, furtive argument between witch and snake that ended with said snake leaving in a huff, though not before trailing over Professor Snape’s boots. He stiffened and scowled at Harriet until Livi disappeared. Several minutes passed before the man moved.

“Regardless of the headmaster’s mandate, I haven’t the time—nor the desire—to babysit you two miscreants for the remainder of the summer. He’s arranged for various minders during the day, and I will be here in the evenings. If you wake me, you had best be dying or prepared to do so. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the two witches grumbled in reply, though the question was certainly a rhetorical one.

“You are not to leave this house without Dumbledore’s chosen babysitter.”

Elara scowled and opened her mouth, then thought better of what she meant to say when she caught Snape’s eye. Harriet slurped her stew and their combined wordless condemnation prompted her to set the bowl back on the table and blush, fidgeting with her spoon.

Seeming to not know what else to say, the Potions Master curled his lip and strode from the room, leaving his half-eaten meal behind. The door snapped closed at his heels and Elara let out a puff of air, slouching in her chair. Harriet resumed her own dining.

“I can’t believe we have to spend the rest of the summer with him,” Elara muttered, head in her hands. “God help us both.”

Harriet slurped her stew.

Chapter Text

li. slytherin games

 

Hermione stared at the grim rocaille on the ceiling and released a gusty sigh.

Despite the Charms inlaid into the parlor walls, August’s heat still seeped inside and filled most of the residents with a warm, sleepy lassitude. She said most and not all because Draco, like the majority of twelve-year-old boys, was an endless turbine of potential energy even on the hottest and stuffiest of days, and when Greg and Vincent couldn’t come over, the Malfoy scion had taken to following Hermione around and pestering the daylights out of her.

Hermione huffed. I don’t know why he can’t harass Jaime, she thought. If I could get away with hexing him, I would!

She lay with her back pressed against the unyielding metal balcony, her robes bundled up in an impromptu pillow behind her head, a thick volume on topical potions open and forgotten against her middle. Frankly, Hermione was bored of studying. She loved reading, but the Malfoy library leaned toward dubious, dry tomes, and spending almost every day ensconced in the Manor with her nose buried in a ponderous book got dull even for a girl like her. There were only so many pages on the viscosity of pureed webcaps and speculations on orellanin viability Hermione could read before her eyes started to glaze.

It was lovely outside, if hot. She would rather swallow her own tongue than admit to any Malfoy how beautiful she found their home, the lush grounds hemmed in yew hedges, the gardens bursting with wild, delicate flora from remote locales, the antique furnishings all crafted by hand or wand by Wizarding craftsmen or Malfoy ancestors. She stared at the railing quite near her face and marveled at how all the fine, intricate whorls had been formed and set by spells instead of by hammers and fire.

The balcony itself was part of the library, though it extended past the library confines and above the neighboring parlor—the Yellow Room, Hermione thought it was called, though most of the walls were paneled in old, oiled oak with only small stretches of visible bricks painted pale chartreuse here and there. The Malfoys only occasionally visited the library itself as far as Hermione knew, and she’d never seen anyone aside from herself utilize the upper balcony. It made for an excellent, if boring, place to hide.

Hermione wrapped her arms around the book and huffed again. She’d had no letters from Elara or Harriet, not that she was terribly surprised by this, not when she could barely write to them herself, or to her own parents. She missed her mum and dad a great deal, and yet Hermione wished to speak with her friends more than with her family, veritably bursting with magical curiosity as she was, a curiosity her parents wouldn’t—couldn’t—understand.

Voices drifted in the distance. Hermione dozed, thinking about mushrooms and home, a Slytherin green dorm room beneath a lake and the cool common room lit by silver lanterns—until the voices drew nearer and Hermione shook off the daze just as the door into the Yellow Room popped open.

“—Draco, of course, is looking forward to Potions next year. He was tutored by Lucius as a boy, you know—and he speaks highly of your management style in the classroom.”

“I imagine he’s more enthralled by the idea of joining the Quidditch team than he is by my curriculum, Narcissa,” a familiar baritone drawled. Stiffening, Hermione rolled onto her side and peeked into the parlor below, watching as Mrs. Malfoy—draped in summery, robin’s egg blue robes—came sauntering in, followed by the ominous presence of Professor Snape.

What is he doing here?

“Can I interest you in something to drink?” Mrs. Malfoy asked as she sank into one of the armchairs and Snape sat on the opposing sofa, not bothering to remove his outer robes. Must not be here for long, then. “Tea? Or perhaps something stronger?”

“Tea would be adequate.”

Mrs. Malfoy simpered and called for Dobby, ordering the nervous house-elf to deliver a tea service. He did so, and Draco’s mother used two delicate swishes of her wand to pour the Potions Master’s drink and levitate the cup into his long-fingered hands. Snape pressed the rim to his lips, but Hermione could tell from her vantage that he didn’t drink anything.

“It’s been too long since your last visit, Severus. I suppose the old fool keeps you busy throughout the holidays.”

“Exceedingly so,” the professor replied, setting his cup and saucer down upon the coffee table. “When other…individuals aren’t demanding my attention.”

The subtlest of ticks touched Mrs. Malfoy’s face and she upturned her nose. “Indeed.” She sipped tea with practiced grace. “One has to wonder whose business brought you to our door today.”

“Allow me to be plain and allay your fears; I am here to ask you for a personal favor, Narcissa.”

Hermione shifted, rustling slightly, and Snape’s vaguely avian profile twitched in her direction, the sunlight coming through the window playing over his face, deepening those strange scars surrounding his left eye and brow. He moved again, ducking from the light, and Hermione held her breath until the wizard resumed faux-drinking his tea.

“A favor?” Mrs. Malfoy asked, her mouth tipping into a very smug grin. “Well now I am intrigued.”

“A favor for your family, I should specify.”

“For the family?” The witch quirked a brow and drank her tea, little finger extended with perfect ease. “How charitable. Are you certain you’re not here for Lucius?”

“No, I’m certain Lucius’ attentions are best spent…elsewhere.”

Hermione frowned in thought as she peered down at the two Slytherin alumni, watching as they traded seemingly innocuous comments, all the while circling a point of conversation Hermione hadn’t yet grasped. If Snape meant to ask for a favor for the Malfoys—a concept that confused the young witch in its redundancy—wouldn’t he want to speak with Draco’s father? But what was it he had said? ‘A favor for your family.’ That could mean the Malfoys, certainly, and yet it could mean something else entirely; after all, Narcissa had not been born a Malfoy.

Mrs. Malfoy set down her own cup on the coffee table. “Oh?”

“How often do you brush off your copy of Etiquette and Artifice?” Professor Snape folded his hands together and leaned forward.

“Often enough, I should say. Darling boy, my Draco, but Lucius lets him run wild—.” She paused and considered the wizard. “Why do you ask?”

“I have been charged with two wards, so to speak. Scions of old families.” He smirked when Mrs. Malfoy’s interest visibly piqued. “As I’ve not the time nor the inclination to play nursemaid, other…minders have been arranged by invested parties. I simply mean to make certain at least one such individual is outside a certain purview and more amenable to a Slytherin mindset.”

Hermione’s brain whirred as quickly as Mrs. Malfoy’s, the two people in the parlor falling into a stilted silence as the Malfoy matriarch turned over the Potions Master’s words and Hermione did the same.

“And this would be a…favor for my family?”

“Indeed.”

Black! The name pinged off the inside of Hermione’s skull and she nearly gasped aloud. Of course! Draco’s mother is a Black by blood, making them her family! If Professor Snape is talking about a pure-blood scion in the Black family, he must mean Elara. But why ever would he be minding her? And who is the second person he mentioned?

Mrs. Malfoy crossed her legs with an elegant flutter of silk and leaned into her chair, seemingly at ease in her own parlor, playing Slytherin word games like the conversation was little more than an afternoon jaunt on the lawn. “How very interesting. Poor boy, this hardly seems a favor.”

“The favor would be asking you not to inform Lucius,” he scoffed. “And to bring that bloody book.”

Mrs. Malfoy laughed. “You must exaggerate, dear Severus. I’ve met the girl, you know, and she isn’t so wickedly terrible.”

“You’ve not met the other.”

Who is he talking about? Hermione growled in frustration. Who besides Elara? A pure-blood heir—but wait! You’re an idiot, Hermione Granger! He said old families, not pure-bloods! Is he talking about Harriet, then? Is Harriet with Elara? If they were speaking of that stuffy book on wizarding etiquette Mrs. Malfoy tutored her and Draco out of, then Professor Snape must mean Harriet. Hermione let out a silent sigh at the thought of the younger girl’s table manners—all elbows and unwieldy knife action. Her relatives are horrid people.

“Hmm. Perhaps I will consider the arrangement.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. Rubbish. It wasn’t really a favor at all; Professor Snape was asking Mrs. Malfoy to mind Elara and Harriet like she minded Hermione and Draco, which would give the Malfoy matriarch influence over the current Black proxy, even if only a smidgen, though Hermione had serious doubts if Elara would allow even that much. The Malfoys were not a family who overlooked what clout they were afforded in any magical affairs, and Mrs. Malfoy wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity, not when it could later reflect poorly on the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, and thus reflect poorly on Narcissa as well.

There were always layers upon layers to the interactions of Slytherins.

Her hands itched with the need to write a letter to her friends. What was happening out there in the wider world? Hermione hated feeling so stifled, kept isolated and ignorant, while events transpired beyond the manor walls. Something significant must have occurred if Professor Snape was minding Harriet; had the Headmaster removed her from her relatives? If he had, then why had she been placed in Snape’s care? Or, as she assumed, thrown into the man’s hands and promptly shuffled into someone else’s? Was Harriet staying with Elara? Were they in danger? Would she be foisted off into a pure-blood family for mentorship like Hermione?

No, the bushy-haired girl surmised. That’s why the professor doesn’t want Lucius to know. He doesn’t want word trickling down to the Ministry, and the Headmaster won’t want Harriet foisted into potentially dangerous hands.

“I’ll have to consult my schedule. I’m terribly busy, especially in the summers, with Draco home—and I do mean to keep him close during the holidays. I wish Hogwarts would allow students to come home during the weekends. Surely you could slip a word to that old fool—?”

Mrs. Malfoy paused mid-word and gazed into the middle distance, snapping back to herself just as swiftly as she had drifted off, hand pausing above her drink. “Lucius is home.” Hermione grimaced and guessed Draco’s mum must have felt the wards shifting from her back to the head of the household. “I’ll go and gather him. It really has been too long since your last visit, Severus. Lucius will be glad to see you.”

She rose and disappeared with the sharp click of heels, and Hermione laid still on the upper balcony, watching the Potions Master’s countenance slide from snide superiority to a tired grimace, then to nothing at all, his expression like opaque glass she could see nothing through. I should leave, Hermione decided as she nibbled on her lip. Before Mr. Malfoy shows up. Heaven help me if he catches me eavesdropping….

Another glance into the parlor showed that the dark wizard had vanished without a sound, which shouldn’t have surprised Hermione, given how Professor Snape glided through Hogwarts’ corridors like a sure-footed cat harrying his prey, yet did so all the same. Swallowing, she made up her mind and quickly rolled onto her knees, yanking her wrinkled robes on over her arms before plucking the heavy book up from the balcony floor. Hermione made her way through the open portal between the walls and hustled into the library proper, letting out a small breath of relief as she reached the iron ladder and started down.

I probably won’t get to hear what happened until September, Hermione groused as she held onto the railing with her free hand and clasped the book under her arm with the other. It’s not as if I could write and ask, even if I could send a letter. That’d be terribly irresponsible and, well, stupid of me if I went about probing into Elara’s business and brought it to Malfoy’s attention. I hope Harriet’s all right. What could have possibly happened to have her removed from her family? Why would Snape risk Mrs. Malfoy telling her husband just to have her watch them?

Hermione hopped off the last step. She turned—and let out a breathless shriek when she found herself standing before the looming Potions Master.

“Oh, you—you scared me, Professor!” she said, blood draining from her face. Why was he in the library? When had he gotten there?

He smirked, the same half-crooked simper he delivered right before verbally eviscerating a misbehaving student in his classroom and Hermione felt her blood run cold. “Did you hear anything…interesting, Miss Granger?”

“I-interesting, sir?”

“Yes, interesting, girl. Do you hear anything you might…think to repeat?”

Hermione clutched the thick tome to her chest like a shield and shook her head. “N-no, Professor. I—I was just studying. I fell asleep in the rows. Didn’t hear anything at all.”

The wizard wasn’t convinced of the lie, of course, but he did give a single, affirming jerk of his chin before he swept back under the mezzanine and to the parlor’s closed door. Hermione didn’t move until he disappeared from sight, and a moment later she could hear the faint drone of Lucius Malfoy’s unctuous voice greeting the man.

She made good on her escape while she could and all but ran from the room.

Chapter Text

lii. the tree that flourishes

 

It took Elara a long time to fall asleep the first night Snape stayed in Grimmauld Place.

Though the wizard taught at her school, he was—for all intents and purposes—a stranger, a silent, sharp-tongued intruder whom Elara had threatened only weeks before, a stranger who now had unfettered access to her home. She didn’t sleep well in proximity to strangers, those first few weeks at Hogwarts made less difficult by the presence of other similarly aged girls, but ever since the orphanage, ever since they came for her in the dead of night and dragged her from her bed, Elara had been a light sleeper. She stared at the ceiling every time the floorboards overhead creaked and didn’t nod off until well after midnight.

As such, her mood was less than pleasant at breakfast, where she and Harriet ate food prepared by a Hogwarts house-elf named Rikkety, who’d been deputized by Snape to bring their meals from the castle. They saw no sign of the Potions Master that morning, and once the dishes were cleared and their familiars fed, they found themselves waiting restlessly by the Floo for their first minder to step through.

Said minder didn’t so much as step through the Floo as come barreling out and collide with Harriet, collapsing into a heap of soot, swears, and bent elbows.

“Oh, shite! I’m so sorry!” the pink-haired witch cried as she leapt to her feet and dragged Harriet upright, nearly dropping the dazed girl again in the process of smacking ash from her robes. “I really did think I had it that time, but I must’ve turned at the last minute. Figures, I’m dead clumsy—but there you are! Good as new!”

Elara stared at the witch—Nymphadora, her second cousin, who hated being called Nymphadora—and right at her heels the fire blazed green again, admitting the familiar figure of Nymphadora’s pretty mum, Andromeda.

“Hello again,” the older woman greeted, entering the room with far more aplomb than her daughter. “It’s nice to see you well, Elara.”

Elara answered her with a tight-lipped nod, suspicious of Andromeda’s presence, and wondered if the Headmaster had an alternative motive for asking her here. She introduced Harriet, and was again introduced to Nymphadora— “Tonks!”—before they migrated to the living room on the second floor.

Tonks proved as clumsy as promised, and Elara was surprised to learn that, as unlikely as it seemed, she was a promising new recruit in the Aurory. “I spend most of my time shadowing a mad bugger named Alastor Moody,” she explained as they poked about through the ruined furniture. “Told him I had a family emergency today, so he let me off.”

“He’s going to be displeased if he finds out you lied to him, Dora,” Andromeda said from her spot on her conjured chair.

“You’d get tired of him too, mum, if he kept shouting ‘CONSTANT VIGILANCE!’ at you through the loo door.”

Harriet laughed outright and Elara smirked, settling farther into her spot on the dusty sofa by Andromeda. Tonks was invaluable in picking out what was and wasn’t cursed in the room while her mum set the furniture back to rights, the witch proficient in the kind of household magic neither Elara or Harriet had seen at Hogwarts yet. It probably isn’t taught there, she mused. It’s probably something passed on from mother to daughter through the generations.

She felt a small pang of loss at that thought.

Elara watched as Andromeda drew her wand over old wood and torn cushions, returning luster and tying together loose threads as dust lifted into the air and vanished out of sight. Bit by bit, the room emerged from its own ruin; the afternoon wore on and the strange witches who’d invaded her home returned Elara’s living space to something of its former glory. To be sure, the defunct wallpaper needed to be stripped, the floors refinished, and the antique chairs reupholstered, but she could see something livable in it now.

A tapestry of the Black family hung on the wall near the hearth, larger than any single tapestry really had the right to be, moth-eaten at the edges and riddled with charred holes, like someone had taken a cigarette to certain branches and burned them off. Andromeda came to stand before it, and when she shooed Tonks and Harriet from the room to see about lunch, Elara stood next to her, since the witch’s ploy to get the others out of the room wasn’t lost on her.

“Aunt Walburga was overly dramatic for most of her life,” Andromeda sniffed, dark eyes flickering over the ruined tree. “She was fanatical about family, right up until they disappointed her. She took it upon herself to ‘prune’ certain people and keep our House…pure.” Andromeda pointed her wand at one mark, whispered a spell and twisted her wrist, pulling back like a tailor threading a needle. Before their eyes, the burned edges spun new fibers, coming together until the name ‘Andromeda Gallatea Black-Tonks’ came into view. She spun her wand again, and two new branches crept from the scroll bearing her moniker, one for her husband and one for her Metamorphmagus daughter.

Andromeda turned to Elara, a soft, sad smile on her winsome face, and Elara blinked, unsure of what to make of her regard. “Muggles have an expression about being able to choose your friends, but not your relatives.”

“I know,” Elara replied. “I was raised with Muggles.”

“Were you?”

“Yes.” She said nothing more on the subject.

Andromeda nodded once, then corrected another flaw on the tapestry, revealing ‘Marius Cygnus Black’ between Pollux and Dorea Black. From Dorea spilled another cluster, expanding the tapestry, the tree growing and twisting like a living thing, making way for Charlus Potter, then Fleamont and Euphemia, James and Lily, and finally ‘Harriet Dorea Potter.’

Elara brushed her fingertips over the name and if Andromeda noticed, she said nothing. She regrew other sections and the tapestry flourished, the whole of it shifting until one burned hole came to the center, to the head of the tree, and Andromeda returned Sirius Black’s name, added Marlene McKinnon, and then Elara’s own.

I wonder if everyone in the Black family knows how to do this. Do they have their own tapestries at home?

“Did you move the grimoires?”

Elara started, eyes wide as she faced the woman. “Excuse me?”

“You moved the family grimoires, did you not?” When Elara didn’t reply, Andromeda nodded. “Good. I would recommend taking them to Gringotts. Dora or myself can accompany you, if you wish.”

“…why?” Elara asked, confused. Dumbledore had said he wanted to remove or neutralize anything dangerous in the house, which would definitely include the grimoires. Why would Andromeda offer to help hide them? “Didn’t Professor Dumbledore ask you get to rid of things like those?”

“Professor Dumbledore asked me to help watch over you and Harriet, with the warning that you were quite resentful of needing adult supervision because of your emancipation.” Andromeda chuckled when Elara glared. “The Headmaster himself is a half-blood, but he understands something of pure-blood eccentricity and the nature of our…histories. The family may have descended into bigotry and madness, but it needn’t stay there; you are the Head of the House of Black now, Elara, and under your direction it will either flourish and thrive in the new millennium, or it will die. That said, growing does not mean forgetting one’s roots or destroying your beginning, and Albus understands that.”

Andromeda reached out to tuck wayward strands of hair behind Elara’s ear and brush dust from her cheek. Elara bore the touch, though she knew Andromeda must sense her hesitancy.

“I may have been disowned when I married a Muggle-born, but Ted is…gone now, because of the Minister’s laws. The Blacks are my family, for all that I wished I could sometimes choose my relatives differently. I believe the Headmaster asked for me to watch over you and little Harriet because while he cannot condone our old magics, not in the presence of impressionable children, he doesn’t wish to strip your identity from you—or from Harriet, who doesn’t have any family left now, aside from you.”

Andromeda twirled her wand, whispering the proper incantation, and the tree moved once more to bring the Potter branch of the family nearer her own, both Elara and Harriet nearer the top, like the fresh, new growth of a real tree, full of potential to bring the branches higher still, or break and splinter with rot.

“I’m not an official member of Albus’…group, but I have been informed something of Harriet’s past and the hardships she faces. There’s a lot of weight on her shoulders, and there’s also a lot of weight on yours. The Blacks are the oldest magical family in the kingdom, and people will look to you to model how pure-blood families are meant to carry themselves in the coming years. It’s a burden I ran away from, because while I love my husband and my sisters, I was also eager to marry outside the family and distance myself from the politics. You don’t have that option. You will have to be strong, for your own good, for Harriet’s, and for the rest of us as well.”

Elara swallowed, lowered her eyes, and nodded. Strong. Elara didn’t know if she was strong so much as determined, and that determination had gotten her away from St. Giles’, had returned her to the House of Black, had seen her through Cygnus’ death and her first year at Hogwarts. It had steadied her through the revelation that her father was a madman who’d betrayed her best friend’s mum and dad, a man who’d made Harriet a target of the Darkest wizard alive.

She hoped it would see her through more trials yet.

Andromeda touched her again, a light pat on the shoulder, before she turned away. “I’ll just go check on those two and make sure Dora hasn’t broken what’s left of the china.”

Andromeda left, and Elara remained behind, lost deep in thought as she studied the restored Black tapestry and considered the witch’s words.

Chapter Text

liii. when opportunity knocks

 

The following days set a precedence for what Harriet and Elara expected for the rest of their summer. In the morning, they woke to a warm breakfast served by Rikkety, a house-elf whom Kreacher hated on principle and whom also doted on Harriet with a worried, frantic energy neither witch could properly guess the source of. After breakfast, they cleared their dishes, then waited to see who would be stepping through the Floo.

On the second day, they met Emmeline Vance, a stately looking Ravenclaw in her mid-fifties with an emerald shawl draped over her shoulders, and rather than staying in the house to clean, the witch snuck them out to watch a professional Quidditch game at the hidden arena in the Northumberland forests. Harriet didn’t think Elara had much interest in Quidditch at all, but Harriet was enthralled, watching the players soar like hawks overhead, cheering on the Warwick Warriors against the Appleby Arrows for the sport of it.

Professor McGonagall came through the Floo on the third day, which made Harriet and Elara both uneasy at first. While the Transfiguration professor wasn’t partisan like Professor Snape, she was more distantly polite with Slytherins than she was with other Houses, and the severe witch herself didn’t seem to know what to make of them when she entered Grimmauld Place. Harriet doubted she’d ever been asked to babysit Slytherins before.

She thawed over the day’s course, finding an easy camaraderie with Elara, who excelled in Transfiguration and had dozens upon dozens of questions about Animagi, while Harriet, with her general lack of off-putting Slytherin guile, earned softer affection from the stern professor. Harriet wondered if McGonagall had liked her parents, both Gryffindors, and if that residual fondness made it easier for her to like Harriet, too. Sometimes the bespectacled witch remembered the Hat had almost placed her in the House of Lions, and sometimes she wondered how her life would have turned out if it had.

They got Snape on the fourth day—or, rather, Snape was in the house on the fourth day, clearing out the potions lab in the basement, the one connected to the kitchen through the scorched, battered door, and he told them to leave him be unless they were poisoned, bleeding, on fire, or otherwise incapacitated. So, Harriet and Elara played chess and poked about the library, looking for tomes Elara might wish to hide away or anything Hermione would be interested in reading. Harriet found a book of jinxes she wished she could try on Pansy or Longbottom.

The fifth day saw them out in the magically enlarged yard with genial Professor Sprout, tackling the wild and—frankly—lethal foliage that had grown unchecked over the decades, the stone fountain choked with algae, the shed consumed by crawlers, the greenhouse bursting with the kinds of plants one needed a machete to tame. True to form, Elara killed half of what she touched, and Professor Sprout set her to pulling weeds, tutting all the while.

Headmaster Dumbledore came the next day and didn’t stay for the entirety of the afternoon, only through lunch. Elara muttered about him probably wanting to comb through the house himself, but the venerated wizard expressed little interest in exploring and instead returned the kitchen to its pristine state with a flourish of his wand, inviting both girls to sit down for tea. He inquired after their time at Grimmauld and questioned Harriet further about the Dursleys, which she answered begrudgingly, and about the woods, the memory of which still terrified her. He asked to meet Livi, and on the way upstairs to find the irascible serpent, the portrait of Elara’s grandmother started screaming filth at the Headmaster when they passed her landing. Elara flushed a brilliant shade of crimson, but Dumbledore simply shrugged and conjured a pair curtains over her frame.

On the seventh day, both witches woke and tromped down the stairs together, wondering who they might meet or see today.

“D’you think it’ll be another professor?” Harriet asked as they sat at the table and Rikkety came bobbing out of the kitchen, bowls of porridge and fresh fruit balanced on her head. They took their meals with quiet “thank you”s, which sent Rikkety into delighted squeals that didn’t taper off until she disappeared.

“I would assume they’re too busy to watch us,” Elara replied after swallowing the first bite. “Term will begin in just a few weeks, and they need to prepare just like we do.”

“Maybe Madam Vance will come back.” Harriet perked up, remembering the match and the general excitement of being among so many other witches and wizards. “She was nice.”

Elara smirked. “You just want to watch more Quidditch.”

Grumbling, Harriet spooned porridge into her mouth, though she didn’t deny the claim. She’d also be pleased if Andromeda and Tonks came back, since she thought stories from Tonks’ job at the Ministry were exciting. “As long as it’s not Snape again. It’s not our fault that old cauldron attacked him. He knows most everything’s bloody cursed in the house.” Said cauldron left a livid welt on the man’s jaw when the iron lid apparently flung itself at him like a discus. Snape had been absolutely foul throughout dinner.

“It might be Dumbledore again.”

“Really? I thought he’d be more busy than anyone else.”

“No one has touched the library yet. I know he wants to; where else would you find Dark magic if not in books about Dark magic?”

“You mean like that little green book with the snake on it that you hide in your journal? The one with the Ignis Monstrum spell in it?”

Elara glared. “Don’t tell anyone about that.”

“I’m not going to,” Harriet replied as she raised her hands in surrender. “But seriously, that spells looks like it could burn down the bloody house.”

“We’re not allowed to do magic. You know that.”

“Doesn’t stop it from being dangerous, though.”

Whatever comment Elara had in response to that would have to wait, because Kreacher came stumping into the kitchen with a bewildered raven tucked under his arm. He let go of the rumpled black bird and it soared over to Harriet, both witches staring mutely at the strange creature as it stuck out a leg and hopped closer.

Harriet Potter,” it croaked.

“It talked!” Harriet exclaimed, almost upending her breakfast when she jumped in her chair.

“Ravens are capable of mimicking speech,” Elara informed her. For a second, she reminded Harriet of Hermione. “You can speak to snakes, but you’re shocked by this?”

“Oh, ha ha,” Harriet told her. She noticed the scrap of parchment attached to the raven’s leg, and once she pulled it loose, the parchment resized itself into a proper letter and a thin, worn book. The raven vanished in a sudden puff of smoke. “…you’re not going to tell me ravens can disappear into thin air on a whim, are you?”

“No, I can’t say I am.” Elara frowned at the letter in Harriet’s hands. “I’ve never seen a raven deliver post.”

“Me neither.”

“Perhaps you should wait to open it—?”

Harriet pried the seal free, raising an eyebrow at Elara’s miffed expression. “You said there’s half a dozen wards on the house screening what gets sent here.”

“Yes. Screening owls. Not ravens that are obviously Charmed or cursed or hexed to vanish when they’ve finished their deliveries.”

Harriet hummed in acknowledgment as she peeled back the missive’s top flap and began to read.

 

Chère Mlle. Potter,

 

I found myself surprised, yet delighted, to receive your letter this summer. The incident that occurred in regards to a certain object of my possession was an unfortunate event, and I cannot accept your apologies for its loss. I have been made aware of the particulars concerning the attempted theft, and must instead extend my own earnest regrets for what harm you came to whilst my possession was kept at Poudlard. Your defense of its acquisition is admirable, and I am humbled by the concern you have extended on my behalf. You need not worry for myself, or my Perenelle. All will be well.

Albus tells me you are a witch with a particular talent for Defense. Please, accept my apologies and the book I have enclosed with this letter. It proved invaluable to me in my boyhood, so many years ago.

 

Respectueusement,

Nicholas Flamel

Gran. Sorc., Prix de Flamel; Première Classe, Alch. Ma., Def. Ma.

 

“It’s from Mr. Flamel,” Harriet said, turning the book over so she could study the wrinkled spine.

Nicholas Flamel?”

“Mhm.” Harriet extended her arm across the table and handed the letter over. “I asked Professor Dumbledore if I could write to him so I could apologize about the Stone, and though the headmaster said I didn’t need to, I still sent him a letter at the end of term.”

“And it took him this long to get back to you?”

Harriet shrugged. “I didn’t think he’d reply at all. When you’re six hundred something years old, I bet you move a bit slower, right?”

Shaking her head, Elara perused the missive from Flamel while Harriet opened the book and carefully pulled apart the papery vellum. “Un Guide…Sur la Connaissance des…Ténèbres. It’s in French!” Harriet despaired, flipping through a few more pages, finding them all written in the same flowery, foreign language.

Elara wrinkled her nose in thought. “It’s a ‘Guide on….’ Something. ‘Understanding the Dark?’ Maybe? I think.”

“I didn’t know you knew French.”

“I don’t. ‘Ténèbres’ is a common enough word in the old library books that I looked it up, and ‘Connaissance’ has a Latin root.”

“You know Latin?!”

“Yes. I had to learn it at—. At the place I was, before. Professor McGonagall told us learning the basic forms becomes mandatory this year in Transfiguration. Latin really is imperative to understanding spells.”

“God, you sound like Hermione,” Harriet groused, slumping her shoulders as she set aside the book so she could concentrate on her breakfast. She felt more than a little stupid; the Nicholas Flamel had sent her a nice letter and a book—but she couldn’t read it.

Elara considered the younger witch as she carefully refolded the letter and handed it back. “Hermione knows French,” she said slowly. “She’d be delighted to translate it with you.”

Glum, Harriet tucked the letter away and shoved a spoonful of porridge into her mouth. Elara was right, of course. Hermione would love to translate an old book that used to belong to Nicholas Flamel, but that didn’t stop Harriet from thinking herself helpless and a bit dimwitted. Both Elara and Hermione had helped her study last term to achieve her good marks, and Harriet wished she was more capable on her own.

The Floo flared green, putting an end to her pitying thoughts.

“Two Galleons says it’s someone new,” Harriet muttered as she pushed her chair back and stood.

“I’m not betting, Harriet.”

“Aw, you’re no fun.”

The fire rose, a sudden gasp of flames transposing from one Floo to the other, and suddenly a slender, unfamiliar witch in bespoke robes appeared before their hearth.

Elara jumped to her feet. “Absolutely not!” she said, brows furrowed. “I did not agree to—!”

“Do not be tiresome,” the witch tutted in a posh tone Harriet had come to expect from pure-bloods and their children. “I’ve been told you’re to accept any minder you’re assigned, and Severus has asked me here as a favor. My time is limited, and you will be on your best behavior.”

Elara stiffened, color flaring in her pale cheeks. “I won’t go back with you.”

“I have not asked you to, impertinent child,” the woman snapped. Confused, Harriet looked between the two and almost jumped when the witch rounded on her. The woman was tall and fair, her blond hair light as could be and perfectly coiffed, emeralds dangling on silver clasps from her lobes, gray eyes hard and calculating. Studying the elegant woman, Harriet thought she looked quite like—.

“Malfoy,” she sputtered, causing the woman’s eyes to narrow farther. “I, um, mean you’re Mrs. Malfoy, right? You look like your son.”

“Yes, quite.” She proffered one dainty hand and Harriet, utterly at a loss for what else to do, took it in her own and shook with the woman. “I am Narcissa Malfoy, and I have been asked to teach you and Miss Black—.” She cut a look to a still fuming Elara. “—etiquette. You are?”

“H-Harriet Potter, ma’am.”

Potter?” She lifted a perfectly groomed brow, though her face remained otherwise passive. “Oh, Severus is always so careful with his wording…very well. Miss Potter, is this how you dress to greet guests?”

Harriet glanced down at herself, taking in the rumpled school shirt and skirt, having dressed in them today after finding she had little else clean in her trunk. One sleeve was rolled to the elbow, the other left flat and unbuttoned, a bit of porridge on the sleeve, her hair its usual tangle of uncombed locks. “…yes?”

That was not the answer Narcissa Malfoy apparently wanted, and only two flicks of her wand later, Harriet’s shirt was tucked in, buttoned correctly, and her wild hair tightly bound in a single plait. “Ow, hey—!”

“Sit down, Miss Potter.”

Harriet didn’t wish to sit down but she did so anyway, because pissing off a woman who referred to Professor Snape by his first name would only bring the unholy terror of a furious Potions Master down upon their poor heads. Obeying didn’t mean Harriet didn’t sulk, however.

“I don’t need etiquette lessons,” Elara snapped, arms crossed over her middle. “I don’t want them.”

“Don’t want them? What a silly thing to say, Miss Black.” Mrs. Malfoy smiled and it almost looked genuine. “I’m assured you need the lessons, as your greeting shows a distinct lack of manners, and I had come to expect better of you, cousin. As for wanting, what is the alternative? You don’t want to know Wizarding etiquette? You would rather you—and Miss Potter, by default—both remained unsophisticated apes posing as the Heads of old families?” She lowered herself into one of the empty chair with considerable grace, crossing one leg over the other, soothing the skirt of her silk robes. “A good Slytherin knows to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Surely my father taught you that.”

The muscles in Elara’s jaw jumped, and Harriet thought she’d argue with Draco’s mum, tell her to bugger off and get them in heaps of trouble with Snape—but then Elara reluctantly nodded and directed her sullen stare at the table as she sank into her own seat.

Again, Mrs. Malfoy smiled, all her teeth perfectly white and straight, her eyes the same gray as Elara’s. “Wonderful. I do so love the chance to spend time with family. Now, for your first lesson….”

 


 

A/N: I haven’t seen the new FB film, which I’m told has Nicholas Flamel in it? I have my own characterization of him in my head that probably won’t mesh with the film. That’s more important later on. “Prix de Flamel; Première Classe” is my approximation of a French Order of Merlin, and then “Alch. Ma.,” for Alchemy Master, “Def. Ma.,” for Defense Master.

Chapter Text

liv. on the devil’s shoulder

 

Hogwarts’ empty halls echoed with a yearning, desperate silence that reflected Severus’ every breath and every step with exacting mimicry.

Severus himself yearned for the silence ten months out of every year, more than grateful for what simple measure of peace he could find in the time between the dunderheads’ departure and his looming responsibilities. Hogwarts, in contrast, was barren and empty, longing for the return of her children in the fall, and when he brushed his fingertips against the stone wall, he could feel the sentience of a thousand years of magic saturation rippling under his touch, rising, trickling into his palm and mind.

Because Severus, to his chagrin, was very much still a child to a castle older than Merlin himself.

He stood for a time in the shadows between the sunlit cloister windows and drew strength from the castle and the quiet, his dark eyes closed, his thoughts and emotions and memories shifting in the black, frozen depths of his Occluded mind. He sunk some memories deeper into the morass and lifted others, some limned in ice and hoarfrost, decoys to the quiet recesses where dangerous recollections buried themselves deep. Only when the ice extended to the shores of his consciousness did he open his eyes again.

Severus would pay a price for the Occlusion later; all or nothing, Albus had said when he first taught his budding spy how to Occlude and read minds. One cannot simply shift and displace their mental landscape without exacerbating cause and effect; suppressing natural emotion only served to deepen it later, like a Muggle pressure cooker, worsening his predisposition for being a bastard. When his shields thawed, he’d more surly and short-tempered than ever, and Potter and Black would most likely suffer the consequences of his mood at dinner. He could theoretically Occlude through the evening, but should his mind not find equilibrium before sleep, the nightmares would come again.

Severus wagered the brats would rather deal with his usual vitriol than his night terrors bringing down the house.

Rolling his shoulders back, the Potions Master departed the castle’s warmth and delved into the dungeons below.

Slytherin wasn’t hard to find; he mostly kept to the House from which he’d stolen his namesake, and when the students were gone, he frequented the subterranean common room and sprawled in the same winged armchair by the main hearth, a glass of elf wine in hand, his eyes fixed on the painting of a rowan tree hung above the mantel.

Though the man’s time as a student had been far before Severus’ own, the Potions Master needed little effort to imagine the wizard had been exactly as he was now; recumbent in that unofficial throne ceded to the most feared or respected Slytherin, the best seat in the house, as it were, near the warmest fire with the rest of the common room in sight, a position of power in the petty struggles of adolescence. Severus, of course, never sat there—nor did he care to.

“My lord,” Severus drawled as he entered the room and came to stand in the periphery of Slytherin’s vision. The other wizard waved him forward.

“Severus,” he acknowledged. “Take a seat, won’t you.”

The Potions Master did as ordered, pulling his robes to one side with a practiced motion as he lowered himself onto one of the accompanying sofas. He studied the other wizard, jaw tight against recriminating thoughts, thinking that Slytherin was not so far removed in looks from the Dark Lord Severus had knelt to all those years ago. Slytherin was, after all, the same man, a clone of some kind, a homunculus perhaps—undoubtedly a creature of Dark magic, but essentially still Tom Riddle and maybe more Tom Riddle than Voldemort had been at the end. If such a thing were possible.

Time and hard-won wisdom had stripped the veneer and glamour from Severus’ eyes; where he once saw pride, he saw only arrogance. Where he once saw power and prestige, he saw a well-dressed squatter, a malicious swindler, a liar, a thief. Neither Severus nor the Headmaster could roust the bastard from the castle, so he was an unequivocally powerful liar, but a liar all the same—a blight, a very slow poison taking root and rotting the magical world at its heart. The pernicious corruption of impressionable youths would be their destruction one day.

What a fucking moron he’d been to ever proffer his arm for Riddle’s mark.

Slytherin said nothing for several minutes, content to take his time and finish his idle perusal of the painting and make the Potions Master wait. “Pleasant summer, Severus?”

“Yes, my lord. Busy, as well. The old man ensures I have little idle time on my hands.”

“You know what they say about idle hands and the devil.” Slytherin grinned and swirled his wine. Severus didn’t tell him that expression was a Muggle euphemism. “He’s just trying to keep you honest and on the path of righteous virtue, ‘my dear boy.’” He laughed outright.

The corners of Severus’ mouth quirked and he folded his hands together between his knees, the picture of relaxed and negligent, all thoughts of sneering and snapping and spitting at Slytherin kept well-hidden from the man and from himself. “Indeed. He did, however, happen to send me on a very…interesting errand the other day.”

“Did he, now?”

“Yes, my lord.” Severus drew his thumb over his knuckles, a calculated, thoughtful motion. “Forgive my impertinence, but I must ask if I’ve trodden on one of your many plans and haven’t been informed.”

Slytherin’s expression sharpened. “Explain.”

“The Headmaster sent me along to…clean up after a conflict between Gaunt’s men and Harriet Potter’s guardian.” Not technically a lie, if one were to consider the chit’s Horned Serpent in such a capacity. Of course, Severus wasn’t about to tell Slytherin the girl was vulnerable, and it wasn’t like Dogbane had the opportunity to report back on her whereabouts, thus eliminating the chance Slytherin had learned of her circumstances through a Ministry mole.

Slytherin set the wine glass down and leaned forward ever so slightly, and though he said nothing, his attention honed in on Severus like a snake spotting a juicy rat.

“It seems the Minister was curious to learn what had transpired with the girl in June.”

The other wizard rose and stood over Severus, red eyes glinting. “And you believe I was foolish enough to impart this information to Gaunt?” He sneered the name with particular venom.

“It is not my place to believe anything as such, my lord. It is your information to do with as you will; I simply wish to know if I should be suppressing knowledge of the event, or if I have been remiss in knowing your wishes regarding the matter.” The Potions Master’s smooth, unctuous tone never wavered even as the skin about his eyes tightened in increments.

Slytherin bore his teeth and the wine glass sailed into the hearth without him touching it, shattering, the painted snake entwined in the rowan hissing in irritation. “Of course I want the information suppressed, you fool!” The wizard began to pace between the armchair and the glass-strewn hearth, making no sound but for his snarling and the swish of rippling cloth. “I did not want the girl brought to his attention anymore than it has been, let alone the Ministers. I seek to secure the girl’s potential for the Knights—sssomeone seeks to play us. Someone dares share my secrets with Gaunt!

It was as Severus expected, then. He knew Slytherin would “seek to secure” any of his House for the Knights of Walpurgis—his chosen name for his Death Eaters—so his specific attention on Harriet wasn’t shocking, especially not after the scene they discovered in Albus’ office. He hadn’t been certain, however, whether Slytherin had fed information to his Dark Lord counterpart for some heretofore unknown and undoubtedly dastardly plan, or if the man had a leak in his network of sympathizers and confidantes.

It seemed Slytherin had been betrayed.

“An unfortunate, but ultimately worthless event for a traitor to play his hand on, my lord,” Severus murmured, watching Slytherin round on him with murder in his red eyes, the Potions Master modulating his every word. “Quirrell’s own incompetence and weakened state led to his demise. I would not lay any claims of prodigal ability at Potter’s feet; she simply benefited from pure dumb luck.”

The bastard was listening to him now, focused instead of idly hearing Severus, and so the younger wizard pressed his advantage, taking care not to lay undue suspicion. “A useful tool, to be sure, but not more so than her year mates. The traitor has extended his reach for fool’s gold.”

Slytherin smiled then, all sharp teeth and no guile, and though Severus didn’t know if the wizard believed him about Potter’s supposed worthlessness, he had successfully redirected his attention—for now. Slytherin had intimated far too much interest in Potter after June; whatever happened in that office, whatever new secret Albus was trying to bury, whatever had made the Headmaster pale and morosely reflective, Severus did not want bloody Slytherin privy to.

Not for the first time, he wished the girl had gone to a different House. Severus didn’t know how to keep her from Slytherin’s clutches. He didn’t know if he could.

The Dark wizard sat in his chair again, a veritable king in his throne—one who didn’t need a crown to remind a man he could grind him into so much dust beneath his heel. “Leave me,” Slytherin ordered, and Severus didn’t hesitate, standing from the couch and bowing his head before he strode from the room.

He didn’t breathe again until he reached his own quarters.

 

X

 

The migraine pulsed white-hot behind his left eye, wreathing itself like Devil’s Snare about his brain, and Severus could only press the side of the cool vial to his temple and mutter invectives under his breath until the potion kicked in. The bitterness of willow extract on his tongue matched his mood, and he swallowed it, shoving away all thoughts of Slytherin and traitors, unwilling to brood more upon the potentially dangerous situation.

If one suspects their boat has sprung a leak, they will search for the breach. Upon finding and fixing that leak, the very first thing a wise person would do is check for another.

In this droll metaphor, Severus was the second leak—much finer, much harder to find, but he didn’t need some bloody idiot hemorrhaging information to bring Slytherin’s discerning eye down upon him as well. The harsh truth of having a double-agent was knowing that agent fed information, however selective, to your enemies, and then deciding at what point that agent crosses the line between obedience and dissension. Severus came perilously close to the line again and again over the years. Slytherin’s last warning to him had been losing his eye. There would be no second warning.

He tucked the vial into his robe pocket and crossed the room to the Floo, throwing in a pinch of silver powder. It was very nearly seven in the evening. Severus spoke the address and the pass phrase Albus had lifted from the poor blighter in the Department of Magical Transportation, then stepped through the whirling fire to the kitchen of Grimmauld Place.

The smell of Earl Grey overcame the choking soot, and Severus looked around to find Minerva seated at the table with a cuppa, staring into the milky liquid with a distant eyes.

“Are you their minder for the day?” he sneered, flicking the last bit of ash from his robes. The older witch lifted her head and arched a brow.

“Good evening, Severus,” she said, ignoring his jibe, gesturing to the chair across from her. A brush of magic jerked it away from the table. “Tea?”

He considered declining with his usual aspersive snark, but in the end simply grunted and dropped into the seat, accepting a conjured cup and pouring himself a serving from the kettle. The two professors drank in silence, the oppressive quiet of the house coming to rest on their shoulders until Severus could little stand the resulting stillness. “So…how did the old fool guilt you into watching brats during your holiday?”

Minerva snorted and sipped her tea. “They’re well behaved girls, quiet and studious—hardly brats,” she commented, smirking. “Neither came out very much like their fathers, did they?”

“You mean arrogant, destructive, or deranged? No, I can’t say they did. But there’s still time for those symptoms to present themselves.”

She tutted and lifted her gaze, letting it rove past Severus to the china hutch bearing ancestral plates, to the ancient kitchen and its aged cupboards. Someone had spelled the room clean and returned vigor to the furnishings, but it remained dimly lit, old-fashioned, and touched by the Dark. “I can see why Sirius turned out as he did, being raised in this place. Sometimes, no matter how we try, it’s impossible to escape our roots.”

Severus didn’t want to talk about Sirius fucking Black. He didn’t want to think about his own roots—about Tobias Snape and the back-end of Cokeworth, because if a privileged prat like rich, pretty boy Sirius couldn’t escape his fate, then Severus had no chance at all. He tightened his grip on the teacup.

“I told Albus it’s not right to keep the children here, even said I would house them at Elphinstone’s old cottage in Hogsmeade, but the protections are sound and Miss Black is intractable.”

You mean pig-headed and irritating. Severus wondered where Black had grown up, since it obviously hadn’t been here. Potter once commented on Black’s great-uncle, whom Severus knew for certain from Narcissa had enclosed himself in this wretched place after falling out with his remaining daughter, and so Black couldn’t have been with Cygnus. Not for long, at any rate.

“An orphanage.”

Blinking, Severus realized he’d spoken aloud—and Minerva had answered. “Pardon?”

“An Muggle orphanage in Wiltshire,” she explained, lips pursed with her signature displeasure. “I checked the Book after Albus….” Pausing, Minerva seemed to struggle for the right word, a flush of anger in her cheeks, the Scottish brogue curling the edges of her voice. “After Albus told me about the Dursleys and asked for my assistance. I’m sure you know, but the letters that go out to incoming and ongoing students in the summer are automated by the Book and the Quill through a regiment of Protean Charms mimicking the first letter I write and the year’s requirements set by the Board, and though I oversee that every letter goes out, I haven’t the time to check and verify all the addresses.”

“Perhaps you should make the time,” Severus retorted with a measure of censure and anger, Petunia’s memories rising like bile from the pit of his mind.

Minerva shot him a look, and yet didn’t defend herself. “Yes. Perhaps I should. Miss Potter’s address, as you’ve already learned, was listed for The Cupboard Under the Stairs. Miss Black’s was listed as St. Giles’ Institute in Wiltshire.”

“And this didn’t necessitate a visit from a representative?”

“No. She’s a pure-blood; both her parents are magical, and the Quill noted her down as such. The same with Miss Potter. Only Muggle-borns are indicated as needing a representative from the school to deliver their missive—and to inform them of Gaunt’s bleeding MPA law.”

“The letter system is flawed.” He made no mention of the MPA, as stating the obvious irritated him.

“Yes,” Minerva acceded. “And I will be watching it more carefully from now on, though you know as well as I do that abuse in Wizarding households isn’t at all common, and I can’t very well go and strip the Quill or the Book of their Charms because they’ve made mistakes, no matter how wrong. The Board would have my head.” She sipped her tea, frowning. “She wrote to me over the summer—Miss Black, that is. She was very careful with what she said, and while some of her questions struck me as odd coming from a pure-blood, her rhetoric…I assumed her guardian was coaching her to be more precocious and curious. I never suspected she’d been raised in a Muggle environment. She’s very clever, Severus.”

“Did Miss Potter write to you as well?”

“No. Why?”

The Potions Master glowered at his cup and tried to make sense of this mess. How in the hell did the girl reach Diagon Alley? Who told her? Who took her there? If Black was clever, then Potter was cunning, because for all that she seemed an affable, if odd, girl, Potter trusted little and played her secrets close to the chest. “Never mind.”

“Och, you sound like Albus when you do that.”

“That’s not a compliment.” Severus set aside his empty cup. “Next you’ll be expecting me to proffer a bowl of lemon candies. Maybe keep a tin of peppermints on my desk for the children?”

Minerva chuckled and poured herself another serving, doctoring the cup to her liking. “I don’t think the students would eat anything you handed them, Severus.”

He sneered. “Good.”

The cat just rolled her eyes and moved the conversation onto other topics. “Speaking of letters,” she said. “I’ve handed Miss Black and Miss Potter their school lists this morning. They’ll be in need of a trip to Diagon.”

“I assume, knowing Albus, I’ll have the dubious honor of ensuring they get there.”

“Most likely, yes. You are the closest thing we have to a real Head of Slytherin, and the girls are Slytherins, after all.”

“Joy.”

A prickling sensation began in his right wrist, creeping through the skin of his palm, and by the time Black came barging into the room, Severus had already regained his feet. “Professor—!” Black paused when she saw the Potions Master but she nonetheless continued, wringing her gloved hands. “Er—there’s a chair in the parlor trying to eat Harriet.”

Severus swept past the witch and climbed the stairs, hearing the thumps and muffled swearing echoing into the main corridor as he crossed below the leering elf heads and approached the front parlor. A chair had, indeed, made a go of devouring the bespectacled witch, seeming to have thrown her back into its cushions like a duck swallowing its meal whole, the seat raised to pin her in place. The girl’s reading material had dropped on the floor when she’d attempted to sit, and her small fists balled and struck the furled arms while the chair growled.

Severus stared at the scene before him.

“Bloody, stupid, fucking—!”

“Miss Potter!” Minerva had come up behind the Potions Master and now clutched at her chest. “Where on earth did you hear such language?!”

By now the girl was more than a little red in the face, straining to yank her weight out of the ravenous seat, and Severus thought she may well started cursing at Minerva if no one assisted her. ‘Well behaved’ indeed.

Severus slashed his wand and the chair fell to pieces. Potter hit the floor with a loud, indignant thump.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, the Potions Master turned and strode back into the hall. Summer could not end swiftly enough.

 


 

A/N: “The Knights of Walpurgis” was Rowling’s original name for the Death Eaters, based off of “Walpurgis Night,” a Christian holiday wherein bonfires are lit to ward away evil spirits and witches.

Chapter Text

lv. alley brawlers

 

Harriet took a bite of blueberry ice cream and sighed.

Summer seemed heavier in the Alley than in the rest of London, burning hot and implacable, laying sticky perspiration on the back of Harriet’s neck, melting her frozen confection almost faster than she could eat it. Diagon was crowded with witches and wizards getting school supplies for their kids or taking advantage of the summer’s end sales, milling from the North to South ends, spilling out of Gringotts with varying disgruntled faces. She saw Professor Selwyn walking with boxes under his arm and Professor Sinistra swanned by holding half of a telescope like it was her first-born child. She thought Longbottom made an appearance, but it was difficult to see in the crush of bodies.

Harriet could little believe that she’d only known she was a witch for a year. Livi shifted under her shirt and Harriet patted his side.

“We still need our books from Flourish and Blotts, and Harriet needs more clothes from Madam Malkin’s or Twilfitt’s,” Elara said aloud as she studiously checked her list, legs crossed at the ankles below her chair, a soft pink flush on her fair skin from the sun. She looked much too warm in Harriet’s opinion, but she wore the same long-sleeved dress and gloves she always did, the buttons on the collar done all the way to the top. “I need to visit Madam Malkin’s as well.”

“Alright,” Tonks replied, a dab of pistachio ice cream on her chin, her hair electric blue and eye-catching. “Malkin’s is up by Flourish and Blotts, so we should probably wander down to Twilfitt’s on the South end, then come back up.”

“Harriet needs to visit Weeoanwhisker’s on Horizont for a haircut.”

“Harriet is sitting right here,” the girl in question groused. “And I don’t need a haircut.”

“It’d be best to do it before term starts,” Elara argued. “Or you’ll have to have Madam Pomfrey do it and she’s not fussed with making it look nice.”

“As long as we’re back to meet Snape at the Apothecary on time,” Tonks said, leaning her chair on its back legs. “I don’t much fancy making the bat wait.”

Elara wrinkled her nose as she folded her list and placed it inside her robe pocket. Harriet wondered how she could stand all that black. “Is he honestly going to spend the whole day there?”

“He said something about doing the school account,” Harriet put in, finishing off her ice cream. Yeah, he said that in between all the mutterings about meddling old fools and babysitting. They’d left that morning with Tonks and Professor Snape, the latter peeling off the second they’d arrived to go to Slug and Jiggers, saying he’d be there if needed and they should meet him at the store when ready to leave—which, incidentally, was no later than three. He also told Harriet and Elara that if they wandered off, he’d make sure they spent all of next summer locked inside Grimmauld Place.

Harriet grimaced at the thought.

“Alright, you lot!” Tonks said as she jumped to her feet and nearly trod on a bloke trying to reach his own table. “Finished with your lunch, yeah? Got all your packages still?”

Both girls obediently patted their pockets to ensure their shrunken parcels were still stashed inside.

“Good! On to Twilfitt’s, then. And maybe we’ll pop into Gambol and Japes right quick, love their Wet-Start fireworks….”

The trio of witches left the patio outside Florean Fortescue’s and entered the fray, Tonks and Elara easily parting the way with their taller stature and Tonks’ loping gait. Harriet, in contrast, found herself getting trod on more often than not and had difficulty keeping up. Somebody dropped a crate with a fire-breathing chicken inside and caused a mild panic.

“Excuse me, I need to—.” She squeezed by a witch carrying a heavy cauldron and craned her neck in an attempt to see more than thighs and backsides. A flash of electric blue caught Harriet’s eye and she headed after it, trapped behind a broad wizard and his darkly clad witch, neither inclined to jostle about and let Harriet through. The bespectacled girl let out an aggravated breath and contented herself with following the crowd in the direction Tonks had gone. Behind her, a bloke in maroon robes came stomping out of the crowd to yell at the man who’d been carrying the chicken crate.

Sss….” Livi stirred beneath Harriet’s loose shirt and laid his angular head on her collarbone, creating an odd lump she hoped no one looked at too closely. “Hungry.

You have to wait,” she hissed in reply, lifting her collar over her mouth. “I told you it’d probably be better to stay at the house with Kevin. Kreacher would’ve fed you.

Muttering elf-creature isss annoying,” the serpent grumped. “And Misstresss isss warm.”

“So you’ve said before.” Harriet sighed and gently poked his nose until he lowered it into a less obvious position. “I’ll try to get you a snack before we go back.”

The pair in front of Harriet finally turned away. Harriet lifted her head to get her bearings and—.

Stopped. She blinked once, twice, opened her mouth, and shut it again. She didn’t know where she was.

Spinning in a tight circle, Harriet looked at the narrow, grubby brick walls and searched for a familiar landmark, something to orient herself, given that she’d spent a considerable amount of time in London’s Wizarding district exploring its many recesses and should recognize where she was. Few shops dotted the row she stood in, and those that did had grubby, hard to read signs, some boarded up with their windows covered by old Daily Prophets.

Witches and wizards still crowded the street—but they were different too, rougher, a perfidious smell choking the air that Harriet didn’t rightly have a name for, something thick and cloying, mixed with the odor of unwashed body and spoiled potion. Swallowing, Harriet ducked her head and turned on her heels, heading back the way she’d come.

The row opened into a warren of shorter passages through dimly lit and shadowed breaks in the high walls, men and women crowded in the mouths of seedy shops, leering at Harriet when they caught sight of her. The bespectacled witch had done her fair share of traveling to new locales over the summer, but that was always with a sense of direction and destination, map in hand and a set course in mind. This was different; Diagon Alley had vanished and Harriet hadn’t a clue where it’d gone, where she was, or how she’d gotten here.

She felt the weight of eyes burning into the back of her neck.

“Okay,” Harriet whispered to herself, heart beating heavy and wet in her throat, her hands sweaty. “Okay, don’t panic, numpty. I couldn’t have come that far. I must have taken a wrong turn—stay hidden,” she added to Livius, who had begun to stir beneath her clothes, sensing her agitation. The last thing she needed was him biting someone out in broad daylight.

Pausing in her harried wandering, Harriet looked down at her feet and muttered, “Set.” She waited, hoping he’d heard her, but when a repeated utterance of the name did nothing, Harriet cursed under her breath and stomped a foot. “Oh, you git. Where are you when I need you?”

She picked up the pace, and then Harriet bit her lip, stopping again, trying to recall what she could of the path here and wishing she hadn’t been so distracted by Livi’s peckishness and her own wool-gathering. Snape’s going to bloody murder me.

“Ooh, there’s a pretty lass,” crooned a witch leaning in the doorway of Dystyl Phaelanges. Dusty bones cluttered the display window.

“Scrawny little bint,” her wizard companion said, puffing on his pipe. He glared at Harriet while the witch smiled, sending shivers down Harriet’s spine.

“Lost, little lamb?” the witch asked. “Need a hand?”

“Err—no,” Harriet managed to say before scuttling off, the witch and wizard guffawing in her wake. She came to the next corner and took it, telling herself the sooner she found the end of this place, the sooner she’d be able to find the beginning. Gut sinking, Harriet became more and more certain with every step that she’d somehow managed to take that blighted archway into Knockturn Alley, the one place in the district she’d always stayed away from, as it was emphatically not for untended children. “Shite.”

She backed out of a little leeway that dead-ended with a place called McHavelock’s Wizarding Headgear, where a loitering wizard with a scraggly beard watched her too close for comfort, and continued instead up a set of short, broad stone steps. Harriet didn’t remember taking any steps before so she knew she must be going in the wrong direction, but heading back the way she’d come seemed a terrible idea, and she remembered Knockturn opened somewhere along Toad Road just as it did Diagon. So long as she got out of Knockturn, Harriet could find her way back to Tonks and Elara.

She tried not to run; the fastest way to make herself vulnerable was to run about scared and lost, so Harriet forced her spine stiff and blanked her face, pretending she knew her own business and wouldn’t be fussed with someone trying to interfere. She was a Slytherin, for Merlin’s sake, and one thing the older Slytherins loved to do late at night in the common room was brag about their adventures in Knockturn Alley. Harriet guessed most of their supposed exploits were a load of dragon dung, but most had one common thread; the Floo Network connected to Borgin and Burkes.

If she could find the shop, she’d have another place to escape—exit—from.

She turned onto another passage, darker than the last, and she thought the lane ahead looked brighter and more open than any of the rest she’d seen so far. Harriet rushed forward—and hurtled headlong into the cobblestones when the bite of a Tripping Jinx caught her unawares by the ankles. Harriet threw out her hands to catch her weight, scouring her palms on the rough stones, saving Livi from the brunt of the impact even as her knees and elbows throbbed. Her glasses skittered away, thrown by her momentum, and Harriet cursed her bloody eyesight as she rolled to her back and yanked her wand free of its brace.

It was the wizard she’d seen before, the one with the scraggly beard and low cap, moving purposely toward her with his wand extended. Harriet readied herself to hex the bollocks off the bastard, when she felt the soft brush of robes against her cheek, and the approaching wizard backed off as if spooked. He walked backward until he reached the alley mouth and disappeared.

Harriet glanced up to see her savior—and decided she might not be saved after all.

Standing stiff and poised, Professor Slytherin looked down his nose at Harriet crumpled on the ground, several emotions flickering over his face one by one, like a man switching masks, trying them on until he had the one that fit best. His red eyes narrowed. “Miss…Potter.”

“P-Professor Slytherin,” she managed, scrambling to her feet on her own. A small gash bled on her right hand, stinging where dirt had gotten into the wound, and her bones ached from colliding with the stones. She squinted, searching for her glasses, but the light was low and the walls too textured—.

Slytherin snapped his fingers, and Harriet’s spectacles came darting up from a groove in the lane, landing squarely in his palm. He curled his lip at the dirt and shoved them into Harriet’s hand, who quickly put them back into place, wincing at the long, spidery cracks marring one of the lenses. “Thank you, Professor.”

He made a noise of acknowledgment, half-hum and half-scoff, then said, “Far be it from me to discourage…extracurricular interests, but you’re not meant to be down here on your own. Where is your guardian?”

“We got separated,” Harriet rushed to explain. “I’m—I didn’t mean to come down here.”

“Hmm.” He considered her for a long, uncomfortable moment, then Slytherin extended his hand, and though Harriet didn’t much want to touch him, she reached out to take hold of it, Slytherin’s fingers snapping into place around hers. His skin was ice cold and Harriet’s neck hurt.

Without explanation, Professor Slytherin started off in a new direction and Harriet had to jog to keep up, lest the wizard drag her through the streets like an unhappy dog on a leash. Those people who’d sneered and watched Harriet from their shop stoops now quickly found other places to be or shrank into the shadows, eyes averted, all but jumping out of Slytherin’s way. For his part, the professor simply looked bored, face slack and eyes half-closed, like his mind was a million leagues away from that dingy alley and the girl he yanked along by the arm.

Through the twisting byways they went until, from one step to the next, they came out from under a thick stone arch and once more entered the wider, louder congregation floating along the middle of Diagon Alley. Harriet barely had time to take in a relieved breath before they were off again, Slytherin towing her through the throng faster than before, heading straight into a dense cluster comprised mostly of giggling, middle-aged witches.

Harriet!

Professor Slytherin came to a sudden halt and Elara darted out of the crowd, colliding with Harriet, ripping her hand out of Slytherin’s grasp. Harriet heard the older girl whisper, “Thank God,” as Elara squeezed her tight and Harriet coughed. Livi grunted a complaint.

“Can’t breathe, Elara—.”

A wizard bellowed aloud when Tonks came careening into their little group, having elbowed the unfortunate man in a sensitive area to get him out of her way. “Merlin’s balls!” the auror almost wailed, clapping both hands onto Harriet’s arms, narrowly missing Livi’s coils. The serpent in question drew himself tighter around his witch’s middle and hissed in warning, the sound going unheard in the louder hubbub. “Where did you go?! Are you trying to get me murdered? Because I swear, Harriet, there are kinder ways to go about it—.”

Tonks choked when she caught sight of Professor Slytherin favoring her with a contemptuous look. “Miss Tonks,” he said, his smile hard. “How very…surprising. Does the Aurory often order you to babysit?”

Pale and obviously spooked, Tonks quietly acknowledged him with a muttered, “Professor,” and gathered Harriet nearer, away from the wizard.

“Do try to keep better track of your charges, hmm? You never know where they might…wander.”

Tonks nodded, not meeting his eyes, and Slytherin bled back into the crowd the way they’d come, presumably to return to Knockturn Alley—though he did glance at Harriet once more before disappearing. Tonks exhaled and straightened once he was out of sight—then thumped the shorter witch on the top of her head.

“Ouch!” Harriet shouted, hands jumping to the sore spot. “What was that for?!”

“For giving me a heart attack!” Tonk replied. She still looked rather pale, Harriet noted. “Holy Helga, don’t tell Snape. Please don’t tell Snape; they won’t find enough of my body parts for the coffin.”

“That’d be a waste of perfectly good potion ingredients,” Elara said in an eerily accurate imitation of the aforementioned Potions Master, and Harriet—relieved to be away from Knockturn Alley and her Defense professor—started giggling.

“You’re not funny,” Tonks said, scowling. A witch fighting her way to the front of the crowd jostled her, and Tonks looked around with a wince. “Hell—we don’t have time for this lot. You still have that list of stuff you needed from Malkin’s and Twilfitt’s, cousin?”

Elara did, of course, still have the list, and she brought it out, handing it to Tonks. “Alright, then. I’m going to dash and get your clothes—don’t worry, they have Sizing Charms, so everything should fit right—and you two are going to get your books. You’re going to stay right here at Flourish and Blotts until I come back, right? Not a toe out line! And stick together! Buddy system!”

“We’re not babies,” Harriet complained, though she didn’t protest when Elara took one of her hands, giving it a squeeze. “We’ll stay right here.”

“No wandering off?”

“I didn’t wander off, I got lost in the stupid crowd.”

Tonks snorted. “Yeah, well…. In case there’s an emergency—.” She lifted a hand and pointed out Slug and Jiggers only three doors down from Flourish and Blotts. Snape was supposedly there still. “But, like I said, only an emergency—.”

After getting several more assurances they wouldn’t let each other out their sights and would stay in Flourish and Blotts, Tonks took off at high speed, meaning to get the rest of their stuff before they had to meet Snape at the apothecary and leave. Elara didn’t release Harriet’s hand and started to bodily shove witches and wizards out of the way, her glare sharp enough to head off any protests, and they came to a stop before the shop’s entrance.

“’Meet the author of Magical Me!’” Harriet read aloud from the glittering banner strung across the facia. “Who’s the author of Magical Me?

“Him.” Elara jerked her chin toward the front display window, in which a teetering stack of purple books had been set up, a blond, smiling wizard’s portrait blowing kisses at the witches pressed up to the glass.

“Er…?”

Harriet didn’t know what to say to that, and instead let Elara pull her inside the bookshop like putty through a very tight tube, the interior hot and muggy, the skinny manager who’d frowned when Harriet passed through too often in the beginning of the summer looking quite harassed at the moment. The tables in the front where they’d put out the different year bundles last summer had disappeared.

“Where’s the book?”

“They’ve moved them for the stupid signing, obviously. We can find them ourselves, come on….”

Elara and Harriet headed down an aisle, finding themselves among a few other Hogwarts students instead of a gaggling horde of twitter-pated, middle-aged witches. “D’you think we’re going to be like that when we’re older?” Harriet asked, earning a scandalized look from her friend. “I’m serious. Do our brains go wonky or something at a certain age? Turn to pudding—? Hey, Hermione!

Harriet had been set to complain more about the buzzing witches when she caught a glimpse of bushy, brunette hair from the corner of her eye, flouncing around the corner from Autumnal Charms to Applications of Dactyliomancy. The hair in question came whipping back into sight when Hermione—balancing an absolute mountain of books—ran into their row.

“Elara! Harriet!”

A bit of awkward shuffling followed, the books having to be set down on the floor before the trio of witches could embrace, grinning from ear to ear. “Enjoying your summer, Hermione?” Elara asked.

“Well enough,” she answered, pulling back to study her friends, tucking her frazzled hair behind her ears. “Oh, Harriet, what happened to your glasses? You’re covered in dirt and—your hand! What have you done?”

She fussed over the bespectacled witch, muttering, “Oculus Reparo,” as she tapped her wand against Harriet’s glasses, while Elara pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wrapped it around her bleeding palm.

“Long story,” Harriet said as her cheeks pinked. “I, um, well—I tripped.” Which technically wasn’t a lie.

Both Elara and Hermione gave her a look clearly indicating they didn’t believe her, but instead of pushing the issue, Hermione shook her head. “Never mind. I haven’t much time before the Malfoys come back for me. What have you been up to these past weeks? I might have, well, been eavesdropping a bit in the library, and I heard about you staying with Elara from Snape of all people….”

They shared an abbreviated and vague conversation on the events that had occurred over the last week or so, mindful of the potential ears listening in all around them. Hermione, for her part, summed up her vacation in just a few words. “I’ve been studying. That’s it, really. Mr. Malfoy quizzes us almost daily.”

“Are you…enjoying it?” Harriet asked, not sure if she should. Hermione loved testing her knowledge, but the look on her face didn’t look nearly half so pleased as Harriet would have thought.

“Not especially, no. You know I rather like learning, and I am learning so many things—did you know there’s fifteen different schools of magic in Transfiguration alone? Professor McGonagall’s mastery had an emphasis in eight of the fields, including Animation, Transmutation, and Golemnry, though obviously the professor’s main emphasis was in Transformation.”

“What the heck is Golemnry?”

“The production of golems—you know what a golem is, Harriet, you carry one in your shirt pocket half the time. Anyway; no, I can’t say I much enjoy the testing. It’s incredibly stressful.”

Someone let out a put-upon sigh behind them, and the three witches turned to see Neville Longbottom standing in the middle of the aisle with his arms crossed. He stood with Ron Weasley and Dean Thomas as well, the latter pair busy chortling over a garishly colored book of joke jinxes. “Get out of the way, Slytherins,” the Boy Who Lived grumbled.

“Bugger off, Longbottom.”

Harriet,” Hermione reprimanded. “Really!”

“You’re blocking the row,” Longbottom snapped—which was true, once the witches considered Hermione’s stack of books and their own bodies.

“Oh….” They shuffled over, moving the books with them, and Longbottom passed by. Ron and Dean barely spared them any attention at all.

Harriet hated the anger that swelled in her guts, that petty, envious feeling she got every time she had to look at Longbottom, especially after what Headmaster Dumbledore had said at the end of the year. He had parents, friends, fame—Harriet didn’t much want fame, but she despised how her own family had been reduced to some footnote in a textbook when Longbottom hadn’t actually done anything.

Gritting her teeth, Harriet shoved the feeling away and reminded herself she had much to be grateful for, and though her childhood hadn’t been ideal, she had a home now—and a git of a pseudo-guardian who was going to be furious if they didn’t get their textbooks together on time. At least he cared, in his own way. The Dursleys wouldn’t have bothered with getting mad; they’d have just left her there.

“C’mon, we need our books….”

Hermione, having already gathered her own texts, helped Harriet and Elara find what they needed, and afterward Harriet wandered into the fiction section while Elara and Hermione argued over the reliability of a Transfiguration author. Harriet idly flipped through a few wizarding novels, her thoughts drifting toward Knockturn, wondering what Professor Slytherin had been doing down there. In the end, she decided she really didn’t want to know and it would be wiser to keep her mouth shut.

Those people in the street were terrified of him….

By the time they found their way back toward the front of the shop to make their purchases, the crowd had become impossibly thick, and Elara had one hand fisted in the hem of Harriet’s shirt so they wouldn’t be separated. They paid for their school books, then allowed themselves to be swept aside like flotsam since none of the three young witches could leave the store without their guardian.

“Hermione, do you have anything to eat?”

“I think I have a Cauldron Cake in my robe pocket, why?”

“Can I have a piece?”

Puzzled, Hermione found the Cauldron Cake and peeled back the wrapper, handing over the allotted bite of sweet bread—which Harriet promptly stuck under the collar of her shirt. At first the older witch blinked, confused, and then her eyes narrowed. “Are you daft?she hissed. “Really, Harriet. Why would you bring him with you—?”

“Potter, did you just stick Cauldron Cake down your shirt?” The smarmy voice of Draco Malfoy startled the trio tucked in the corner, and he came slinking over, primly dressed in silver-tooled robes, haughty smirk firmly in place.

Harriet scowled. “No,” she lied, wiping her fingers clean on her collar, feeling Livi swallow the bit of cake whole with a satisfied huff.

Malfoy didn’t believe her, but he only shook his head. “Merlin, you’re a weird witch.”

The gathered spectators chose that moment to burst into applause, and Harriet strained to see a blond, resplendent wizard with gleaming white teeth come swanning out of the employee lounge. “Yes, hello! Lovely—how lovely it is to be here! Thank you!”

He waved at the gathered witches and winked, earning more than a few delighted gasps and bursts of excited giggling. “Who is that?” Harriet asked, wrinkling her nose.

“Gilderoy Lockhart,” Hermione said, breathless, and when Harriet glanced over, she found her friend’s face had turned a startling shade of pink. “He’s—quite brilliant, really. His books are fascinating—here, I’ll lend you one of mine….”

“Brilliantly stupid,” Malfoy quipped, frowning at Hermione as she slipped a shrunken copy of Gadding with Ghouls into Harriet’s hands. “What’s wrong with you Granger? You’ve gone all red.”

“N-nothing!”

“You don’t fancy that pompous git, do you?”

Hermione reddened further, and Elara intervened. “Deflecting a crush of your own, Malfoy?” she drawled. “How unexpected.”

“Shut up, Black.”

“Is your father here, Draco? Is it time to leave?” Hermione asked, shooting Elara a grateful look. “I assume that’s why you’re bothering with us.”

“Yes, he sent me to fetch you. He’s just over—father!

Their small group managed to look around in time to witness Mr. Malfoy get slugged by a slightly balding, red-haired bloke in patched robes, and they toppled over into one of the shelves, books raining on them and the crowd. Witches shrieked, a shorter, red-haired woman screaming “Arthur!” louder than the rest while the harassed store manager burst into tears. Two boys somewhere in the thick of things started yelling, “Get him, Dad!” and a photographer from the Daily Prophet clicked away on his camera like mad.

Torn between running to his father’s rescue and not getting punched for the effort, Draco stood frozen, mouth agape.

“Break it up, you two! Break it up!” boomed a familiar voice. Harriet smiled when she saw Hagrid squeeze his way through the entrance, nudging aside witches with little effort on his part to reach Mr. Malfoy and the red-haired wizard, yanking the pair apart by the scruffs of their necks. “That’s ‘nuff of that!”

Mr. Malfoy staggered on his own two feet and yanked his tailored robes back into place, his eye already purpling, pale hair splayed about his shoulders. It irked Harriet that, like his son, he still managed to look pretty even when mussed and angry—the git. “Unhand me, I’m on the Board of Governors and could have you dismissed in an instant—.” Mr. Malfoy sucked in a ragged breath. “Draco! Hermione! We are leaving; I won’t patronize an establishment that serves such…commoners.”

Draco shuffled forward, one hand latched on Hermione’s sleeve, and Hermione cast a final, despairing look at Harriet and Elara before she let herself be steered from the store. The witch who’d screamed was busy mopping the red-haired wizard’s—Arthur?—bloodied lip, all while furiously berating him for brawling in public. Harriet spotted Fred and George Weasley standing nearby, and guessed the couple had to be their mum and dad.

As the book signing continued, and Lockhart went into raptures when he spotted Longbottom among the onlookers, Harriet caught Elara’s eye and the other witch suddenly grinned, white teeth bright with plain humor. “Do you think it would be inappropriate for me to send Mr. Weasley a thank you gift?” she asked. “Because that was amazing.”

Harriet laughed.

  


 

A/N: Random note I’ll probably extrapolate more on later in the story, but I’m not going to magically fix Harriet’s eye-sight. It bothers me when fics change that aspect of Harry right off, like it’s some kind of horrid flaw. Magic has its limits, and I want to preserve that part that seems to quintessentially Harriet.

Poor Tonks. She was 99% prepared for Snape to murder her, no doubt.

Chapter Text

lvi. summer’s end

 

Bang. Bang. Bang.

The noise resounded in the house’s confines each time Elara’s trunk came down hard on a step. Harriet, twiddling her thumbs in the kitchen, listened to the sound and was torn between amusement and being horribly anxious as she watched Snape—seated on the other side of the table—grow progressively more irritated.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“Will you pick that up?!” the Potions Master suddenly bellowed, startling Harriet and, from the sound of squawking out in the hall, several of the Black portraits. Elara must have heard the man, but she did not, in fact, pick the trunk up, and continued her downward trek through the main corridor, the basement steps, and then into the kitchen itself. She dropped the trunk in question by Harriet’s next to the Floo, and though she didn’t quite meet Snape’s eyes, Elara smirked as she took her seat.

She’s going to land us both in detention as soon as school starts, Harriet thought, though she couldn’t quite hide her own smile. ‘Ten points for blinking, Miss Black. Is that air you’re breathing, Miss Potter? Ten points.’

“If you two are quite done,” Snape sneered, his arms crossed and expression stern. Harriet bit her tongue before she could protest that she had come down as soon as he told her to and hadn’t been the one slamming her trunk on every step. “Term starts tomorrow. I expect you to have all of your things together and be ready to depart at precisely ten tomorrow morning.”

“I don’t understand why we can’t Floo directly to Hogsmeade later in the evening,” Elara said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Do you assume you’re the first person to ever consider the thought?” Snape snapped. “You and every other pure-blood’s get wishes to Floo directly into the village—which any Dark wizard seeking to extort money from an old family would know, wouldn’t they? Do try to use your brain. Special dispensation is granted only to those living within a set distance of the village, otherwise all students are expected to ride the train for security purposes, whether they want to or not.”

Elara crossed her arms and said nothing else.

“Your petulant attitude is tiring, Black.”

The witch might have risen to the bait had Harriet not chosen that moment to cough, loudly, into her hand. Snape glowered at both of them.

“As I was saying…you will leave precisely at ten. Floo access opening onto the station is restricted as it is in Hogsmeade—again, for security purposes, not that I should have to explain myself to you. Access between Grimmauld and Kings Cross will be open for precisely five minutes. Should you miss that window, you are not to leave the house—and should your excuse for doing so be anything other than the spontaneous loss of a limb or an act of God, I will have you scrubbing cauldrons for the year. You will send your wretched bird to Hogwarts if you miss the train.”

Said wretched bird scowled at the Potions Master, if birds could scowl. Cygnus and ancient Percival both perched on the metal bar above the Charmed ice chest, seeming to listen in on the conversation. “Yes, professor.”

Elara muttered under her breath again, which Snape took exception to, and while they snarled at one another for their perceived insults, Harriet slipped out of her chair and meandered back upstairs. She had her pajamas and a change of clothes for the morning laid out on the foot of her bed, but otherwise her room at Grimmauld Place was empty once more, and it made Harriet a tad nervous. Would she be able to come back next summer? What about Yule?

Sitting on the mattress’ edge, Harriet toed off her tennis shoes and Livi slithered out from his nest beneath the bed to investigate.

We’re going to Hogwarts tomorrow,” she informed the serpent, watching as he inspected her shoes, then turned his attention to her, violet tongue flickering.

The ssstone placcce?”

Yes.” Harriet scratched her chin and sighed. “Remember we talked about you having to stay in the dorm from now on?”

The frustrated noise coming out of Livi proved that yes, he did in fact remember that particular conversation and had not warmed to the topic since they’d first discussed it. Harriet and Elara had dug out a few old books on owl training that had Charms to prevent biting, and they planned on showing Hermione to see if the brilliant witch could figure out how to adapt the Charms to a snake—not that Harriet was thrilled about virtually muzzling her familiar. It would let her take him out of the dorm, however.

Professor Dumbledore worried about the students and Harriet knew Livi wasn’t a pet, not really. He was a wild animal, magical enough to have ‘equivalent human sapience’ as Hermione would say, and the thought of cursing him—even with something meant to protect them both—sat heavy and uncomfortable in her middle. Livi lifted his head and Harriet reached out to rub the scales on his nose, small fingers skirting around the glittering gem set in his skull.

She wanted Livi with her. Harriet couldn’t forget what had almost happened mere months ago, when Professor Quirrell—out hunting for any likely candidate who could get him the Stone—had nabbed her from the dungeons and dragged her to Dumbledore’s office. She almost died. Livi could have protected her had she not left him behind. What she’d witnessed in the woods had been nightmare worthy, but she vastly preferred how things had turned out to being kidnapped or killed or—worse.

Staring at her shadow, wondering where Set had gone off to, Harriet mulled over the events of her summer and considered the approaching school year. Back to Hogwarts. She didn’t know if she was excited or nervous.

The thumping returned, much lighter than before, and Elara came stomping into the room, throwing herself onto the bed next to Harriet with her arms crossed and her face set in a scowl. “I hate him,” she declared.

Thinking of Uncle Vernon and the Dursleys, Harriet shrugged. “He’s not so bad.”

Elara turned her head to glare at Harriet, who smirked, and the older girl relented, returning her gaze to the ceiling. “No, I guess not. He is insufferable, though.”

“I bet you even people who like Snape probably hate him a bit. It’s a requirement.”

They giggled, then settled, Harriet helping Livi onto the bed so he could curl into a heap against her side. Touching his scales again, she hummed in thought. “What d’you think this year’s going to be like?”

“Normal, hopefully.”

“D’you….” Harriet hesitated. “Do you think that—that I’ll be in danger there? With all this stuff happening this summer? Is the Dark Lord behind it?”

“I don’t know, Harriet, truly. I do know we’ll need to be cautious and keep our eyes open. Nobody suspected Professor Quirrell, remember?”

“Yeah.” Unnerved, the bespectacled witch pulled Livi closer and cuddled his coils as one might cuddle a puppy. “I don’t like it. Wasn’t the whole point of them making a spectacle of Longbottom to make sure I wouldn’t get this kind of attention?”

“In theory. But like Snape said, you’re a trouble magnet.”

“Am not!” Harriet nudged Elara’s side. “Wait, when did he say that?”

“After you left the kitchen. He gave me a lecture on keeping our noses clean and our heads down.”

“That’s odd.”

“What? Him not wanting you to get into any mischief? He does that a lot if you’ve noticed.”

“Well, now that you mention it—but, no. Trouble magnet. That’s a Muggle euphemism, isn’t it? It’s odd that Snape would use it.”

Elara’s lips pressed into a line, her hand pushing Livi’s tail away without thought so she could sit up. “Not really. He’s at least a half-blood, so he might have a Muggle for a parent, or be Muggle-born for all we know.”

No,” Harriet gasped, shocked by the idea. She suddenly had an image of Snape lounging in Aunt Petunia’s house watching telly and found it absurd. “How do you know that?”

“There’s no ‘House of Snape,’ either active or defunct. He could be foreign, of course, but I know he attended Hogwarts, since he was Head of Slytherin for two years, and only Hogwarts alumni are allowed to be Heads of Houses. The Blacks keep reams of logs tracking the different Houses through the years, going back past the Norman Invasion, and in 1544, when then the old Circles formed the Wizengamot, there were three hundred and thirty-three recognized Houses. Uncle Cygnus had me review or at least skim most of it, and I never saw a House of Snape. Logic dictates he’s most likely a half-blood.”

“You and Hermione read way too much,” Harriet grumped, falling back into the bed, her legs hanging off the edge. It did make sense; she’d heard Snape say Muggle things before, little snippets she guessed he could have picked up over the years from his students. It was an interesting tidbit of information she tucked away to consider later.

“You read just as much as we do—just not the same content.”

“I like Muggle fantasy novels. Wizard fantasy novels are weird—they follow these jumps in logic I just don’t get and how they describe Muggle stuff is absurd.”

They chatted for a while on inconsequential things, until Elara yawned and Harriet’s eyes grew heavy, though she felt anxious and uneasy about their upcoming trip back to Hogwarts. The older witch returned to her room, leaving Harriet to settle Livi in the mess of blankets under the bed and change into pajamas. Once finished, she tapped the rune on the base of her dusty lamp, plunging the bedroom into darkness. Moonlight puddled around the curtain bottoms, and in the colorless glow she saw Set flick and curl.

Harriet glowered at the shadows as she flopped into her blankets, dropping her glasses onto the night table. “Fat lot of help you were yesterday,” she snapped. “I almost got kidnapped and—I don’t know—harvested for fingernails!”

Set continued to flicker and curl, remorseless, amorphous, and Harriet sighed. “Fine.”

Pulling the sheet up to her chin, Harriet let her blurry gaze rest on the ceiling, splashes of light from the Muggle street and threadbare moonlight coloring the dusty boards. Set made shadow puppets in the blotches, and though Harriet wanted to stay irked, she smiled at memories of funny cartoons dancing on the cupboard’s roof, her childish giggles earning Aunt Petunia’s suspicion—and her fear.

Harriet fell asleep and dreamed she was at Hogwarts. She dreamed of making a potion in Snape’s eerie classroom, her desk the only one there, the stirring rod clasped tight in her small hand as Harriet counted the turns. Someone banged on the door and snarled, “Let me in,” but Harriet concentrated on her work, leaving the door alone.

She wouldn’t remember the dream when she woke.

 


 

A/N: Finallllllly going back Hogwarts! The beginning of this year was not supposed to be that long, but it had a lot of very important exposition that sets up quite a few events for this year and the next few. Especially that little Wizengamot tidbit *cough, cough*

Chapter Text

lvii. welcome back

 

At precisely ten o’clock the next morning, Harriet and Elara stepped through the Floo at Grimmauld Place to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and were both quite pleased when nothing went amiss. Harriet had expected something to go terribly wrong somewhere and thus bring the Wrath of Snape down on their heads.

“All right, Elara?” she asked as the dark-haired witch swayed in place, looking green.

“’Ine,” she grunted—and Harriet wrinkled her nose when she spat out half a peeled ginger root. Elara tossed it in the bin to be Vanished and rolled her eyes. “It’s for nausea, Harriet.”

“Oh, right.”

Given the train had another hour before departure, few students had arrived and most that had still mingled on the platform with their parents, going through their trunks to check if they’d missed anything or trying to calm fussy, caged familiars. Elara and Harriet went in search of a compartment and found one they liked in the back of the train, settling in to wait for Hermione.

It didn’t take long for the final member of their trio to arrive; both girls saw Hermione walk onto the platform with the Malfoy family and Jamie Ingham, looking eager to be going back to school and also eager to escape her handlers. The bushy-haired witch nodded quickly to something said to her by Mrs. Malfoy, and then dashed off when the older witch turned her head.

Elara stood. “I’ll go find her.”

A few minutes later, Elara returned with Hermione in tow, the latter ranting in a low, furious undertone about how much she despised Draco Malfoy.

“—little toad uprooted half the Affable Azaleas in the greenhouse and has the gall to blame it on me! Me! Of course, Mrs. Malfoy didn’t believe him for an instant, but he still earned us all an hour-long lecture on respecting the gardens—and in the middle of Malfoy Senior’s tirade, he leans back and crushes the Highlander Ivy! I got told off for not stopping him—! Oh, hello, Harriet.”

“Hi, Hermione.”

“How are you then?”

Anxious. Nervous. A bit scared. “Err—good, I guess. Sounds like you’ve had better days, though.”

Hermione let out an aggrieved huff as she sank into an empty seat. “It’ll be a relief to get back to school. I’ve missed you both terribly. How was living at Elara’s house?”

“Er, pretty great.”

Elara scoffed as she sank onto the bench across from them. “Most everything is still cursed, broken, or otherwise out of order. Should it be visible to Muggles, I would fully expect to arrive home at Yule to find a condemned sign on the door.”

“Surely it isn’t that bad.”

They chatted about the grim—and often fascinating—secrets to be found inside of Grimmauld Place while the train and the platform slowly filled, the volume of voices increasing as departure time neared. Harriet kicked her feet while Elara and Hermione argued, thinking about their trip to Hogsmeade last year. A lot, and very little, had changed since then.

The conversation eventually turned to the letter Harriet had received from Nicholas Flamel, and she pulled down her trunk long enough to fish out the French book for Hermione to flip through. The other witch went into instant raptures, rattling off fluid French paragraphs that fairly boggled Harriet’s mind and earned a reproving tut from Elara. By then, the train had begun to move, and Hermione whipped out a Self-Inking Quill from her own satchel and a fresh roll of parchment to start translating the author foreword.

“It’s about recognizing Dark magic, defining it and understanding its origins. Oh, books like these aren’t really popular in England anymore—not after Grindelwald and, well, You-Know-Who. Fascinating. Do you mind if I keep this while I work on the translation? But you really should learn a few of these phrases—they come up in other branches of magic, and it’ll be beneficial in the long run. I’ll just be sure to make a note here….”

“Of course. Thanks for all your help, Hermione.”

They subsided into a comfortable quiet wherein Harriet watched London disappear outside their window, Elara brought out one of her family’s journals to read, and Hermione scribbled away on the parchment. The silence lasted for a handful of minutes before the compartment door clattered open and two girls stuck their heads in.

“Hey, do you mind if we sit here?” asked the first, her face heavily freckled and her ginger hair hastily tied back. “Everyone else is full.”

“Of course,” Hermione replied. She rose and quickly gathered her scattered things, making room on the bench next to her while Harriet stood to help the newcomers heave their trunks into the overhead rack. She proved a bit too short to manage on her own, and Elara had to stand and assist, trying her hardest not to smirk.

“Thanks,” the red-head said as she sat, heaving a relieved sigh. She wore what looked like Muggle clothes, but Harriet—who’d had a bit of a fascination for wizard fashion ever since she first walked into the Leaky Cauldron and saw how very odd the styles were—could tell the threading about the seams had been done by hand or by wand, not by machine, and an animated Quidditch player flew on the shirt’s front. Faded as he was, he still tipped them a wink and flew around a flaking, orange “CC” logo.

The second girl sat as well, blonde hair falling in haphazard waves past her thin shoulders. “Hello,” she said, her wide, silvery eyes passing over the trio of dark-haired witches. She dressed in tights and a plum-colored dress, a spot of mulch on one knee, almost as if she’d knelt quickly in the garden for something before leaving home. She balanced a little wooden box in her lap as well as a folded newspaper. “I’m Luna.”

“And I’m Ginny,” the other girl added.

“Hermione Granger,” Hermione said, extending a hand for the pair to shake. “How do you do? This is Harriet and Elara.”

Feeling a touch sheepish in the presence of strangers, Harriet smiled, and Elara only gave a nod.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you both first years?”

Luna and Ginny nodded.

“We’re second years. Are you excited about starting school? Do you know what Houses you think you’ll be in?”

“Gryffindor,” Ginny said without hesitation, shrugging her shoulder with affected ease. Harriet could tell by the way she nibbled her lip that Ginny wasn’t as certain as she seemed. “My whole family’s been Gryffindors for as long as anyone can remember, apparently.”

Before Luna could answer, the compartment door slid open again, and Harriet groaned when Draco Malfoy sauntered in. He didn’t get far, and there was little space as is, so Crabbe and Goyle loomed in the empty corridor, the latter sporting a smudge of chocolate on his cheek. “Granger, you ran off to find the House losers, I see.”

“My friends.” Hermione stuck her nose in the air. “If that’s what you mean, then yes.”

Malfoy scoffed and dropped onto the bench, forcing Elara over, which squished Harriet into the window. “Whatever, Granger.” He seemed to realize the two younger girls were there and scrutinized Ginny in specific, nose wrinkling. “Red hair and hand-me-down clothes? You must be a Weasley. I didn’t know that their brood had any girls in it.”

“Don’t be an arsehole, Malfoy.”

Harriet, really—.”

“I thought you didn’t like Weasleys, Potter?” Malfoy asked, interrupting Hermione. “Especially after what you did to Ron, the Gormless Gryffindor.”

Harriet went to object, when Ginny blinked and let out a soft sound of recognition. “Potter. Harriet Potter? Aren’t you the one who beat up Ron last year?”

Harriet blushed scarlet and sputtered. “I—! I didn’t beat him up!” Malfoy started to laugh, and even Hermione looked very near cracking a smile. “Hey! I didn’t! I just—punched him in the mouth a bit.”

Expecting anger, Harriet was surprised Ginny smirked, tucking a bit of loose hair behind her ear. “He probably deserved it. Ron can be thick at times.”

“Like the rest of you Weasleys,” Malfoy sneered. He crossed his arms and ignored their pointed glances with a haughty scoff.

“Draco,” Hermione said, her patience far outlasting Harriet’s own, though she stressed the syllables of the boy’s name like she wanted to hurl them physically at his head. “What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for Longbottom. I haven’t seen him.” When he mentioned Neville, Ginny’s face lit up like a ripe tomato, and Malfoy snickered cruelly. “That’s right, the Prat Who Lived was staying with your family for part of the summer at your hovel, wasn’t he?”

“How do you even know that?”

“Read the paper, Potter—or can’t you read with those ugly things you call glasses?”

Elara snapped her journal closed, the sound moving everyone’s attention to her as she, in turn, directed a cold look at Malfoy. “You’ve been sufficiently irritating and can leave now. Perhaps I should write to your mother and mention your deplorable lack of manners in the presence of ladies.”

The mention of Mrs. Malfoy had Draco rising and shuffling off, though not before his half-hearted utterance of “not seeing any ladies present” was heard. He stormed through the door, slamming it shut behind him and his goons, though the latch didn’t catch, and it rattled open again.

“Merlin, he’s annoying,” Harriet muttered. “Was he like that all summer, Hermione?”

“Yes. I’m sorry about him. But never mind—what were you saying before, Luna?”

“Nothing in particular. Dad and Mum were both Ravenclaws, so I think I’d like to go there—but you never know where you’ll end up until you get there, do you?” Her voice lilted in question as if she meant for someone to actually answer, and when no one did, Luna shrugged. Harriet wasn’t sure, but she thought the other girl might have a sprig of mugwort tucked behind her ear. “Oh, well.”

They chatted for a while—or Hermione mostly told the two what to expect from their first year and listed all the qualifications of the professors while Harriet tried to reel in her enthusiasm and Ginny just blinked, dazed by Hermione’s zeal. Elara returned to her journal, and Luna, humming under her breath, brought out the paper—The Quibbler—she had and disappeared behind its pages. Harriet scratched her neck while Livi dozed beneath her loose shirt.

“What do you think that Malfoy bloke meant by not being able to find N-Neville?” Ginny asked at one point, her cheeks faintly pink. “He went through the barrier with my brother, right after me and my dad, and Luna and her dad.”

“Maybe he’s just avoiding Malfoy,” Harriet said, shrugging. The trolley witch came around, and Harriet was quick to empty her purse, buying lunch for the compartment, and though Hermione frowned over the mound of sugary confections, she didn’t reject the proffered package of Toothflossing Stringmints. “Like Hermione did last year. She came diving through the door and hid under the window until he passed by.”

“I was tempted to the same this year, but I figured he would stop to harass you and Elara anyway.”

“He seems very confused,” Luna commented as she unwrapped a Cauldron Cake, licking her sticky fingertips. “His head must be full of Wrackspurts.”

“Full of—what now?” Hermione gave the blonde witch a puzzled look. “‘Wrackspurts?’”

“Wrackspurts. Tiny creatures that fly into your ears and make your brain go fuzzy.”

Ginny winced and rubbed the side of her nose, though Luna didn’t seem to notice. “Luna and her dad believe in some, um, different stuff than a lot of witches and wizards.”

“So, they’re imaginary.”

“No, they’re not.”

“But I’ve never read anything on wrackspurts before.”

“Just because you haven’t read about them doesn’t make them less real,” Luna insisted.

“Malfoy’s full of something, but I don’t think it’s Wrackspurts.”

Harriet, honestly.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

Noise in the corridor paused their conversation as two older boys passed by the compartment’s open door. “I swear I saw it!”

“Did you smuggle Butterbeer onto the train again, Cormac? McGonagall will find out and write your da if you can’t keep it together.”

“I’m not mucking about, I really did see it! There was a flying car, clear as day!”

“You’re delusional, mate.”

The pair drifted out of earshot, and Elara rose to slide the door shut. Harriet looked out the window—seeing nothing aside from the rolling green of the countryside and a fat plume of steam coming out the front engine—and then looked to the others. “Did he just say a flying car?”

 

x X x

 

Soon enough, the train rolled to a stop at Hogsmeade station, and a flock of black-robed students disembarked, their laughter and shouts echoing off the trees into the evening air and the neighboring village. Harriet pointed out Hagrid and Professor Selwyn to Ginny and Luna, who went to the half-giant and sour-faced History of Magic professor with the rest of the incoming first years so they could be shepherded across the lake. In contrast, Harriet and the rest continued along the platform to the line of waiting carriages and Professor Flitwick, who made sure everyone made it off the station and didn’t wander into Hogsmeade.

Harriet glanced at the ghoulish Thestral drawing their carriage. She didn’t mention it to Elara or Hermione.

The wheels clattered on the road as they out, passing through the gates flanked by large, winged boars on stone pillars, and through the trees Hogwarts came into view, just as brilliant and beautiful as Harriet remembered it, and her heart thrummed with anticipation. She loved living with Elara—but the castle felt like home, a home she’d never known before. After such an eventful summer spent traveling all over the magical settlements in Great Britain, it seemed to Harriet as if a knot in her middle loosened once she caught sight of the towers silhouetted against the spangled sky.

As second years, they followed the rest of the student body straight into the Great Hall and found seats at the four tables, the noise volume increasing as spots filled and professors filed in from the faculty door. Harriet spotted her Head of House as soon as he sauntered in and quickly looked away when his head snapped in her direction.

The Sorting took place, and Harriet clapped when Luna was placed in Ravenclaw and Ginny in Gryffindor, the latter hailed by raucous cheers from the Weasley twins and their prefect brother Percy. Harriet scanned their table, but she didn’t spot Ron anywhere—or Longbottom. Where’d they go?

The clapping dwindled as Headmaster Dumbledore rose from his seat at the Head Table and lifted his arm for quiet. “Ah, how wonderful it is to see you all again—or to see you for the first time! Welcome to another year at Hogwarts!”

More applause came from the assembled students seated at their respective House tables, and Harriet watched as Professor Dumbledore smiled and waited for quiet again.

“Before we dig in to our delectable meals, lend me your ears for a moment longer so I may list a few start-of-term announcements. Firstly, I am delighted to introduce our newest member of staff, Professor Burbage, who will be teaching Muggle Studies.” An older brunette witch with a tentative smile rose when acknowledged and bobbed her head. Clapping again ensued, as did a fair measure of muttering when students speculated on just what had happened to Professor Quirrell.

“At least this one doesn’t look keen on murdering me,” Harriet whispered to Elara at her side.

“Yes, but neither did Quirrell.”

“True.”

“—the first Hogsmeade trip for third years and above is scheduled to be in December,” Professor Dumbledore continued. “And Quidditch trials will be held next week for the respective House teams. Please contact Madam Hooch with any questions—.”

Across the table from Harriet and her friends, Draco straightened in his spot between Crabbe and Goyle, a smug expression Harriet didn’t like one bit tugging at his mouth. “Slytherin will be taking the Cup this year,” he asserted. “Father’s made a rather generous contribution; he bought the entire team Nimbus Two-Thousand-and-Ones—much better than the Nimbus Two-Thousand, that shoddy twig Longbottom rides. I’ll be the new Seeker, of course.”

On the other side of Crabbe, the muscle-bound sixth year Marcus Flint grunted. “Not until I see you sit a broom, Malfoy. If you can’t fly, doesn’t matter what model you got.”

“I can fly!”

A few upperclassmen shushed him when Malfoy’s indignant outburst drew the heavy gaze of Professor Slytherin. Headmaster Dumbledore cleared his throat.

“Ah, well—I’ll save the remainder of the announcements after the feast. For now, tuck in!”

The gleaming golden dishes and chargers filled with food at the wizard’s words and the students wasted no time piling their plates high with scrumptious delicacies. Harriet didn’t notice at first; she was too busy looking at Malfoy, a sinking feeling in her middle spoiling her appetite. She had wanted to try out as Seeker this year. It was no secret in Slytherin House that Terence Higgs, their current Seeker, was simply the best of a terrible situation, and Harriet had hoped that—though she’d never played Quidditch before—she would at least be able to try out. Apparently, there was no point.

Elara followed her attention across the table to the blond prat now listing broom specifications to Goyle, who honestly looked as if he’d heard all this a hundred times before. “Everything all right, Harriet?”

“Yeah,” the bespectacled witch muttered, snapping out of her own sullen thoughts to reach for the mashed potatoes. “I’m fine.”

They were halfway through the meal when Hermione pointed out that Snape wasn’t present, and indeed, his chair remained conspicuously empty between Professors Selwyn and Slytherin. Filch came slinking through the faculty door, dressed in his usual frayed housecoat with Mrs. Norris at his heels, and went straight to the Headmaster, muttering something in his ear. Professor Dumbledore nodded, wiping his mouth with his napkin, and leaned over to maybe repeat what Filch had said to Professor McGonagall—whose lips pursed in a thin, disapproving line before they both stood and followed Filch from the hall.

Harriet wondered what that was about.

The professor returned before dessert finished, and Headmaster Dumbledore issued his cursory warning against magic in the corridors and noted any products from Gambols and Japes or Zonko’s would be confiscated by Filch if found in their possession. He left off the warning against certain death if they wandered on the third-floor corridor, which was nice, and then dismissed them off to bed. Harriet gladly stumbled to her feet and trailed Prefect Farley down to the dungeons.

In the cold, subterranean shadows beneath the lake, the silver lanterns glowed like soft stars in the dark of space, shapes flickering in the murky tide beyond the common room windows, the air in their lungs smelling of earth and salt, wood smoke and green things. Harriet gave half-hearted greetings to her other dormmates—Parkinson, Bulstrode, Greengrass, Davis, and Runcorn all accounted for—and fell into her bed, Livi hissing in her ear as he tightened his slipping coils.

She listened to the water sigh, the other girls whispering among one another, and fell asleep in minutes.

It was nice to be home.

 


 

A/N: *Harriet arriving like a nice, normal student* “Golly, I hope this year’s nice and average.” *distant cackling ensues*

I also brought Luna into the story earlier (like I did with Tonks). In canon, the Lovegoods live near Ottery St Catchpole, and given how small the wizarding community is, I doubt the Lovegoods wouldn’t be friendly with their neighbors, the Weasleys. I find it likely two witches of the same age living in the same area would be friends, and that the Weasleys would be quick to offer their support for Xenophilius and Luna after her mother died only a year or so before she was set to go to Hogwarts. Anyway, that’s just my theory.

Chapter Text

lviii. strike a king

 

In Hogwarts, rumors circulated with the kind of practiced efficiency the professors direly wished the students would portray in their classwork, and so by the time Harriet sat down to eat breakfast the next morning, she had already learned the newest bit of scandal involving Neville Longbottom.

“A flying car? Really?” Harriet asked Hermione as she picked over her eggs.

“According to Pansy, who heard it from Parvarti,” she said with a delicate sniff that portrayed her regard for idle gossip. “But that’s all hearsay. I would imagine that if they had truly crashed a flying Ford Anglia into the Whomping Willow, they wouldn’t be here this morning.”

They both glanced toward the Gryffindor table, where they found Longbottom and Weasley seated with Finnigan and Thomas. None of the four second years looked up from their plates, even when their classmates jostled and pestered them for information.

“He is the Boy Who Lived,” Harriet said, old anger prickling along her nerves. “I doubt he could get expelled for anything, short of murder. The Prophet would never let the Headmaster live it down.”

Snape came down along the table and passed out schedules for the Slytherins. Harriet took hers and could barely hold back a groan. “Look at this!” she complained once the Potions Master moved off. “Defense and Potions right in the morning! And Astronomy tonight!”

A furrow appeared between Hermione’s brows. “And Charms and History of Magic after lunch.” Her eyes flickered toward the Head Table, where Professor Selwyn was doctoring his English breakfast tea to his liking. Harriet winced in sympathy.

Elara—eyes scrunched, mouth set in a hard grimace—arrived, and Harriet slid down the bench to give her room. Snape returned, her schedule in hand, and he glowered at the half-asleep witch in warning before he let her take it from him. Elara glanced at the listed classes, grunted, and lowered her head to the table, bumping a platter of sausages. None of the other second years looked pleased either; the Slytherin professors were notably more difficult to handle, even to their own House, and having all four on their first day was dreadful.

Sighing, Harriet managed a few more bites of breakfast, then pulled her school bag onto her shoulder. “I’m going to go now. I don’t want to be late.” Not after what happened this summer with Slytherin.

“All right. We’ll catch up with you in just a few minutes.”

Harriet departed the Great Hall and climbed the marble steps, finding her way to the corridor where the Defense classroom and Slytherin’s office were kept. The professor never opened the door early—never opened it until he was good and ready to do so—so she sank to the floor by the entrance and leaned on the wall, fishing through her bag until she found Hermione’s copy of Gadding With Ghouls. She flicked past the bulky author foreword.

Hermione appeared soon, as promised, walking with a marginally more alert Elara, who was listening to something Daphne Greengrass was saying. The rest of the Slytherins arrived before the Gryffindors—the latter of whom descended with their usual loud raucous centered around L0ngbottom. The Boy Who Lived grinned when Seamus mimicked driving a car and laughed.

“Longbottom,” Draco said, narrowing his eyes at the taller boy. “Did you and the Weasel really crash a car into the Whomping Willow?”

The Gryffindors snickered as if in on a good joke, and Longbottom shrugged, the corner of his lips quirked. “Even if I did, why would I tell you anything, Malfoy?”

Draco flushed and mouthed off while Crabbe and Goyle scowled. Harriet, still sitting on the floor with her book, was tempted to tell Malfoy he shouldn’t try to be clever since it never seemed to work out for him—but she opted for Slytherin solidarity and said nothing. Elara offered her hand, and Harriet used it to get to her feet.

The classroom door slammed open, putting an effective end to the squabbling in the corridor. Neither House was inclined to go inside; Hermione proved the bravest of the lot by crossing the threshold first, though she did take hold of Harriet’s sleeve and drag her in after her. The ill-lit room was as eerie as she recalled, the bones of skeletal creatures casting patterns on the walls, the professor standing still as stone at his lectern with his black robes gleaming in the torchlight like a snake’s skin.

Harriet gulped.

Professor Slytherin said nothing as they hurried toward their desks, though his red eyes followed their movements easily enough, a small, cold smile fixed over his mouth. Harriet stuffed Gadding With Ghouls away into her bag and took out her wand, laying it on the desk before her. She missed the weight of Livi’s coils and wished she was back in the dorm with him, still sleeping.

Slytherin stepped out from behind his lectern, and a hush fell over the room.

“Welcome to your second year of Defense Against the Dark Arts,” he said, lacing his hands together before himself. “You know who I am. Again, I will be your instructor, your guide, into the enticing and perilous realm of the Dark Arts—and ensuing protections, of course. You have been under my tutelage for a year; some of your number have learned well, others….” He sneered, eyes flicking toward the Gryffindor side of the room. “No matter. You have another chance to prove yourselves competent. Last year, we concentrated on the manifestation of shields. This term, we will venture into the use of offensive spells.”

“Like dueling?” Dean blurted out.

“Two points from Gryffindor, Thomas,” Slytherin said, barely tilting his head to acknowledge the question. “No, not ‘like dueling.’ I will not be instructing you in dueling. I do not waste my time with ineptitude.”

Harriet wrinkled her nose as she watched the wizard idly pace. Why wouldn’t he teach them dueling? That seemed strange to her.

“You have been taught the theory and basic use of the Knockback Jinx and have witnessed its use prior in this class. Today, you will learn its practical application. Longbottom!” Slytherin swished his wand toward the opposing end of the aisle, summoning the familiar crimson lion marker. He smirked. “To your mark.”

The Boy Who Lived scowled, but showed better restraint than Harriet thought someone else might have when he nodded, rising from his desk to go stand at the glowing lion.

“You have already had experience, Longbottom, and so I expect some semblance of competency from you. Demonstrate the Knockback Jinx upon me.”

A few students shared curious looks, and most of the Gryffindors leaned forward in their seats, eager to see their top student jinx the Head of Slytherin. Even Neville grinned, though he was quick to hide the expression when he lifted his wand and faced the professor. “Of course, sir. Flipendo!

The jinx came quick, like he meant to take the wizard off guard, but Professor Slytherin merely flicked his own wand, and a wordless shield appeared before him, absorbing the spell. “Again.”

Twice more Neville fired the Knockback Jinx, and twice more Slytherin deflected it with nothing more than a twitch of his arm. “A passable effort. Sit down, Longbottom.”

He did as said, and Professor Slytherin called on Zabini, who took his place at a green snake marker and proceeded to throw spells at their instructor. Harriet could tell the difference in Zabini and Longbottom’s casting as soon as he began; Neville’s jinxes, when they connected with the barrier, sent ripples through the opaque distortion, whereas Zabini’s seemed to strike a solid obstacle. She guessed their spells had differing strengths.

He called on Goyle next—who managed nothing at all—and then Dunbar, who made an acceptable effort, though her third jinx fizzled out before it could actually hit Slytherin’s shield. Elara did better, but she didn’t show the same competency as Longbottom, and Weasley’s wand seemed to be malfunctioning, since it backfired and turned the boy’s hair blue.

Harriet watched like the rest of her classmates, but as she watched, her mind drifted back to a chapter she’d read in the “Compendivm” Elara had given her at Yule. The book was thick, and much of it proved beyond either Harriet’s comprehension or attention span, but she did recall a section that spoke on magical control. She’d been interested at first because she hoped it might share a few tips to ensure her Transfiguration attempts went less awry, but instead Harriet had read about the importance of stance and movement, how the body acted to build a kind of momentum and applied additional force to outgoing spells.

Magic really was much more complicated than she would have guessed a year ago.

“Miss Potter. You’re next.”

Harriet blinked, then scrambled to her feet—nearly forgetting her wand on the desk. She snatched it up, then hurried over to the waiting mark on the far end of the aisle, her stomach flopping about in her middle when she faced the waiting wizard. Professor Slytherin arched a brow. “Anytime now, Miss Potter.”

Feeling the impatient eyes of her classmates upon her, Harriet shoved aside her thoughts on the Compendivm and did just as she’d seen the others do, flicking her wand at the wrist, calling out, “Flipendo!

The jinx flew down the aisle. In an instant, Professor Slytherin summoned yet another non-verbal shield, and Harriet’s spell dissipated against it without anything more than the slightest of ripples. Neville, on the Gryffindor side of the ro