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Hidden Truths (prequel to Snow White Queen)

Chapter Text

 


Why can't you ever back down
Why can't you just shut your face
Oh god, the feelings I feel
Would get me thrown in a cage
You're the one who's always screaming at me
I'm the one that keeps your lives so carefree
What the fuck more do you want me to be
Why must you do this to me

—KoRn ~ “Counting on Me”

 

“Alex, I made your bed!” my mother called out from behind the bathroom door. “You need to remember to do this yourself. You’re ten years old now; I shouldn’t have to remind you.” 

I sighed as I dropped my toothbrush in its mug and wrestled down the familiar rage bubbling in my stomach.

“Seriously?!” I shot back, throwing the door open. “I can’t even be awake for five minutes without doing something wrong?!” My day is already ruined and it only just started.  

“Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady! You don’t even need a mother; you need a maid!”

“Mum! I was going to do it after I brushed my teeth—which I just finished five seconds ago! Gimme a chance!” 

“That’s baloney, Alex. Go get dressed and stop insulting my intelligence! You need to be reminded!”

“No, I don’t! Just because I don’t make my bed the split-second I wake up doesn’t mean I won’t do it at all! Why can’t I just...be awake for a bit, first?”

“Because I know you’ll forget! You need to do it while it’s still fresh in your mind. This is how you develop personal responsibility. You can’t keep waiting for me to remind you of your chores before you finally do them. Trust me, you’ll thank me when you’re older.” 

“Oh my god, I don’t wait for you to remind me! I need you to STOP reminding me! You act like I can’t do anything right without you following me around!”

“Alex, I care about you! I want you to develop discipline. If I ignored you and let you do whatever you wanted, just to avoid an argument, that would make me terribly irresponsible.”

Actually, I would kill for you to ignore me most days. I want that more than anything in the world.

I snarled at the floor and stomped down the hall. 

“Wipe that puss off your face and stop storming around like a three-year-old! I’ve never known any child who is so sensitive, they fly into a rage when told to just make their bloody bed! None of my friends’ kids do that; they all do their chores without complaint. They don’t throw tantrums the way you do! Grow up!”

I whirled around and growled. “Okay, first of all, I’m not sensitive! Stop calling me that every time I get angry! And you really think I’d even want to make my bed now?! I’m thinking about throwing the blankets on the floor, just to tick you off, and then calling you sensitive for getting mad!”

“That is SO petty! You really wonder why I don’t trust your excuses? I can’t believe you would even say something so—”

“I’ll scold you like a child and say, Ohh, it’s just a blanket! It’s so easy to put right again! You’re not allowed to be angry; be disciplined! Control yourself, you fragile little crybaby! Learn to control your feelings! They’re too intense and you make everyone sooo uncomfortable!!”

“Alex—!”

“Stop telling me to do something I was just about to do! You do it all the time! God, you can’t even let me get my own breakfast on school days—I can’t remember coming downstairs and NOT seeing a bowl and spoon and cereal box on the table waiting for me. Just back off already! Leave me alone and let me do this stuff myself!!”

“Merlin’s beard, Alex! Stop being so melodramatic!” she admonished as I resumed walking toward my bedroom.

“I’m sorry!” I spat the words like a curse, forcing myself to slow my footsteps and move more gracefully. A task I accomplished easily, as long as someone wasn’t breathing down my neck. 

“Wow, nice apology! You sound truly remorseful. Now, come down for breakfast when you’ve gotten dressed and calmed down; I’m sick of you spoiling meals with your childish outbursts.” 

I took a deep breath and willed the rage to dissipate. “Yes, Mum,” I grumbled. 

“Finally, a polite word from you,” she sighed as she descended the stairs. I ignored her.

“Now what’s wrong with her?” my father muttered from the kitchen. I hit my pillow and bit my lip to keep from shrieking—I knew I had to get everything out of my system before joining my family. We’d be arguing for hours unless I plodded downstairs appearing guilty and compliant.

A common occurrence.

I learned early in life that I could best eliminate friction by parroting back what people wanted to hear. And what people usually want to hear is the opposite of what I think. 

My parents rarely wish harm on anyone; and yet, like so many others, they fear that which they don’t understand. They crave order and predictability, and therefore need to control me to avoid confronting their biases. What a dreadful task: considering their impact on others! They likely believe, through a thick layer of double-standards, that they are showing me tough love by monitoring my every move, policing my anger, and always assuming the worst. 

I spent my formative years in a vicious cycle: doing the opposite of anything that felt natural, hoping I could actually change my personality if I tried hard enough, until I couldn’t handle the pressure anymore and the dam burst. My parents wondered why I threw raging temper tantrums over the smallest disappointments, not realizing that the slight had merely tipped me over the edge of a barely-constrained tidal wave.

When a child grows up believing their only power is in how successfully they can hide in plain sight, it’s only natural that the tiniest upset will throw them into a tizzy. Such an environment makes relaxation impossible...and the subsequent pent-up frustration will morph into fury.

I wanted to kill from a very young age, desperate to take out my anger on those who wounded me. As I never had a chance to safely seek retribution, my anger festered inside my stomach. I tried befriending the neighborhood children, hoping for a place to escape my family when I needed a breather, but it never took long for them to begin to fear me. They knew what I could do to them if given the chance. I remained trapped at home.

Realizing that I was terrible at blending in, and I had no refuge, I retreated into myself. Ignoring the world whenever possible saved energy—precious energy I had to expend projecting politeness and innocence, as is expected of a small child. Sometimes this presentation worked, but it was like trying to attach a mask to my face without magic; the material may stick for a few seconds, but it will inevitably fall. It fools no one. I’ve had to hold up my mask constantly, and the process drains me. 

I learned to carry that proverbial mask over my pale skin as if it were my life force. It may not have fooled my family completely, but it erected some type of barrier that allowed us to avoid constant conflict. I cherished these moments of calm—quiet dinners, games of Wizard’s chess in the living room, and being tucked into bed with a kiss instead of a rundown of everything I had done wrong that day. My father has often been guilty of the latter, thinking I’ll be more receptive to “constructive criticism” while tired and therefore calm. But that calm never lasts—it switches to bloodthirsty rage the second he says, “We need to talk about something you did today,” in a gentle voice. He hasn’t learned that bedtime is not the time to tell a child how badly they messed up. As if I didn’t have a hard enough time falling asleep at night.

My father is quite a versatile man and has held various jobs throughout his life, often moving between different disciplines when he’s spent too much time in one area. My mother, on the other hand, is a paranoid woman who stopped working after giving birth to me. I nearly died after being born two months early, and my gross motor skills were slow to develop. Though I don’t blame my mother for having taken time off of work to care for me as a baby, I never understood why she insisted on staying home long after my body had caught up—especially since her former boss at American Witch Weekly begged her to return for years. Though a talented writer, she refused her former position, claiming that being a mother was her life’s work. She needed to be around to make sure I didn’t get hurt! I was so fragile and stubborn, with no concept of how helpless I really was! 

She didn’t even notice that no one else shared her view of me—by the time I was five, there were no signs that I had ever been delayed. 

No outward signs, anyway. Perhaps my traumatic early years damaged my psychological makeup. Or maybe the experience shifted my perspective away from the herd mentality and instilled an abnormally fervent drive to succeed, to overcompensate for years spent as a prisoner in my own body. My father has also felt pressed to accomplish all his goals—other than his black hair, ambition is the only trait I inherited from him. (And, well, maybe his temper, too.) Either way, my mother never got over seeing me as a delicate premature baby, and her maternal instincts have yet to settle down from overdrive. Sometimes I say that I don’t have a mother; I have a smother. My fighting back against her suffocation is not an act of misbehavior; it’s fighting for space to breathe. Unfortunately, my mother has never seen our dynamic that way. And she has often neglected my sister in the process.

My little sister Morgan is the perfect child. She takes after my mother in appearance and demeanor—the ample freckles, broad smile, red hair, and happy-go-lucky perky attitude when life is easy. When things go wrong, she clams up until the storm blows over. She hates talking about her feelings, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her get angry. She’s too scared to make waves. I tried to copy her for years, hoping my parents would treat me better, but no one ever knew. Because it never ever worked. I abandoned this venture when I was about nine, and behaved as genuinely as I could without risking harm to myself—at home, at least. School was another story.

I always envied Morgan’s social success at school. She fell in with a group of peers within days of beginning kindergarten, as evidenced by their galivanting about the playground while I sat on a hill by myself, tracing patterns in the dirt until recess ended. No one wanted to play with me. Morgan occasionally slipped me an apologetic glance, but I knew she was secretly relieved to be rid of me during the school day.

I’d had a difficult time acclimating when I’d started kindergarten three years prior, lashing out at kids left and right just because I could—my parents had made the mistake of telling me that they’d asked my teacher to be lenient, due to my behavioral problems. With the knowledge that someone would actually be on my side, I pushed my limits as far as possible, and received only minimal punishment. I’d never had special treatment before, and the power I could wield by playing the violent wounded animal was invigorating.

Hurting other kids was a wonderful release for my anger, and I relished it while feigning guilt over my poor self-control after the fact. “I’m the only one who’s mean!” I’d once whined to my parents, pouting like a tortured soul and pretending I actually gave a shit about the brats I’d sent home in tears. I only halted my antics when first grade began, knowing that tolerance would not follow me there. I’d already been in the classroom environment for a year, received satisfactory grades, and had definitely seen the error in my ways!

My parents were actually naïve enough to think I’d outgrown this bully phase in a matter of months. I hadn’t outgrown anything; I was simply adept at locating my limits. And being reminded that my parents were done asking teachers for lenience was warning enough. I smirked privately as my instructors praised my hard work over the years—in between scolding me for snapping at other children when I simply couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, the pull to cause harm was simply too strong. I had to let loose once in a while. 

As satisfying as this venture was, it was dreadfully tiring. Especially since my parents had access to my teachers’ daily observations, being only a few miles away. Going to boarding school would change that.

When I turned ten in 1998, my parents told me that I would soon receive a welcome letter from Ilvermorny, the American Wizardry school, but an invitation came from Hogwarts instead. My mother was proud—she was probably the reason why. She was born in England, and moved to America to marry my father. (I’d sensed there had been more to that story, but she refused to elaborate when I was that young.) Morgan was too little to understand what was happening, so she just sat on the floor and watched the spectacle that began with the foreign owl flying in through the kitchen window. She was only seven, and didn’t know what Hogwarts was. Boarding school was boarding school—the place where big kids went away to learn magic. She was still afraid of the dark and didn’t want to think about education beyond our Muggle primary school.

I couldn’t wait to attend Hogwarts in the fall—a year earlier than expected. Apparently, a magical child needed to have turned eleven to begin their education until a few years ago, but the rule had changed to include children who would be eleven by the end of term. I considered that amendment a blessing, as it meant that I’d be able to get out of my parents’ house a year earlier.  

And I finally had something to look forward to.

My excitement over receiving my Hogwarts letter was, of course, ruined within seconds of reading it. My parents immediately launched into a lecture about how I’d be away from home without my family’s protection, so I had to make sure I didn’t misbehave! The authority figures at Hogwarts would be much less forgiving than those at the Muggle school, and they could expel me if I ruffled the wrong person’s feathers! Compared to what I would experience if I acted out at Hogwarts, my parents and teachers didn’t mete out real punishment. My life wasn’t that bad. My parents reminded me that they pitied me because of how badly I was struggling socially, but the Hogwarts professors would never go easy on me if I antagonized the other students.

I never expected the Hogwarts professors to pity me, nor did I think my parents ever went easy on me, but they needed to tell themselves otherwise to feel better about their parenting skills. Merlin, did they really think I was so thick as to not understand that boarding school was serious? 

My parents continued this conversation several times throughout the summer. Time slowed to the point that a day felt like a week, and only sped back up when my family boarded a plane to England in the last week of August. It was nearly impossible to contain my excitement. My parents reminded me that it was doubly important to act normally, now that we were in public—less because I was about to begin boarding school, and more because we were surrounded by Muggles and had to blend in. They kept scolding me for bouncing around in my seat before takeoff, and further scolding Morgan for copying me. My sister was highly entertained by my shenanigans.

I wasn’t too excited about seeing my grandmother, as her strained relationship with my mother affected everyone around them, but she was family.

Grandma Rosie spent most of her time reading books and knitting. She was a reclusive woman—she hated most people and only ever went outside to buy groceries; and even then, she bought as much as she could at once, in order to extend the number of days between trips. She probably would have bought a house elf to do all her chores if she could have afforded it. Because of this, no one was surprised that she refused to accompany us to Diagon Alley to purchase my school supplies. She was too tired, Diagon Alley was too crowded, and she had a scarf to finish. (She put all of this in a letter before we’d even boarded the plane, to avoid having the conversation in person. None of us were surprised.) 

We took a taxi to the end of her block, since the neighborhood was invisible to Muggles, and silently walked down the street toward her house. She opened the door with a restrained smile—no hugs or welcoming words. She was too proud and grouchy for that.

“How was your flight?” she asked us as we traipsed in through the front door, our suitcases trailing behind.

“Uneventful,” my father replied. He forced a smile, pretending not to notice the tension in the air. It was impossible not to feel uncomfortable around Grandma Rosie, but we still tried.

“I’m amazed none of those blasted Muggles gave you grief,” she drawled. “Meddlesome imbeciles they are, always poking their noses where they don’t belong, and making us scurry around like rats in the gutter. Their money is so confusing, and their clothing is just silly. It’s not practical. I don’t envy your having to wear these boring, restrictive clothes just to travel with them.” She ran a critical eye over our attire and scoffed.

“Well, we didn’t run into any problems,” my mother interjected, attempting to hide the quiver in her voice. “I don’t see any reason to complain about th—”

“They really should build some airports that Muggles can’t see!” she continued, as if her daughter hadn’t even spoken. “If Muggles are so delicate that they can’t handle people who are more gifted than they, they should at least allow our kind to travel openly. Traveling is stressful enough without having to make sure we’re concealing ourselves adequately!”

“Rosie, we’re not advocating magical supremacy. Could you please not talk like that?” my father asked. “We don’t want the girls to think that we’re better than anyone just because we’re magical. Muggles can’t help being Muggles. If we separate our communities completely, we’ll be in danger of reinstating the ban on Wizard/Muggle friendships and marriages and—” 

“Oh, come off it, Shawn! We shield our schools from the Muggle world! I’m merely suggesting we do that with airports as well! I’m not saying we should kill them or anything; I just don’t like the way we have to hide around them! It’s not fair. Your flight would probably have been so much less stressful if no Muggles had been on the plane, and you could have actually dressed the way we normally do. Either we fly separately, or we could just bloody Obliviate them, like we do if they see magic at King’s Cross. They won’t get hurt. They wouldn’t even know what hit them.”

Morgan and I stared at each other in disbelief as our grandmother ranted. We’d already been taught that Muggles were merely different, but not inferior. Grandma Rosie had spouted off about Muggles a handful of times throughout our lives—but then again, she had something nasty to say about anyone and everyone. We weren’t sure if she actually hated Muggles, or simply used their lack of magic as an excuse to complain about them, since she felt better about herself when she insulted others. 

My parents finally managed to subdue Grandma Rosie enough that she stopped insulting Muggles, and swerved the subject matter to our upcoming shopping trip. We assured her that we had enough money, we wouldn’t buy too many things we didn’t need, and we wouldn’t buy a misbehaving owl. Yes, we would ask for help if we couldn’t find a particular item; no, we wouldn’t start a fight with a shopkeeper if a textbook was too expensive. 

Dinner was a tense event, as it always was in that house, but I would never tell my parents that I got a sick thrill from watching them interact with Grandma Rosie—when we were in her home, all of my transgressions fell by the wayside. I could actually pretend I was a normal child. Morgan was suddenly no better than I. We were just two wide-eyed little girls, watching our parents attempt to maintain calm around our unstable grandmother. I basked in my secret relief and hid my stubborn smirk until we all went to bed. 

*   *   * 

Sleep didn’t come easily that night, but excitement overrode exhaustion the next morning. Morgan looked at me uncertainly as I danced around the bedroom while dressing, not knowing how to react to my unusually chipper mood, and I all but dove into the fireplace after my parents explained how to use Floo powder. 

I was in awe of Diagon Alley. The shops were beautiful, the narrow streets wound around the buildings like cobblestone snakes, and the excitement was infectious. The hot summer air didn’t even feel oppressive anymore, drowned out by my fiery anticipation. 

Everyone around me appeared cheerful. No one was appraising me with a judgmental scowl and telling me to bugger off. I was a nobody—a new student with her parents, just like everyone else. My tumultuous history was invisible here. I hoped it would remain so at Hogwarts. 

At the thought of Hogwarts, my face split into an enormous grin. All of my problems suddenly dimmed in importance. Once September began, none of my domestic concerns would matter anymore. I would no longer trudge home from a Muggle school every afternoon, and immediately be rushed by my overprotective mother asking how my day went and grabbing my jacket from my shoulders before I even had a chance to hang it up myself. 

It was here in Diagon Alley where I would prepare to begin a fresh start. Hogwarts was real now. Spending the bulk of my time away from home wasn’t some far-off dream anymore; it was mere days away. Finally. 

I realized that if I were this excited to simply exist in such an enchanting place like Diagon Alley, I would surely feel even better at Hogwarts. The hope for my future that suddenly welled inside me, a stark contrast to my usual exhaustion and misery, almost brought me to tears. I felt lighter on my feet and full of energy. I could barely contain myself. I couldn’t wait to stride through the halls of my new school, strutting around in my robes and carrying my textbooks.

But before doing that, I needed to collect my school supplies. And the list was quite long.

I was initially excited at the prospect of buying a wand, but this turned out to be an annoyingly lengthy process. Nothing fit me right. My parents started showing signs of impatience after a while—my mother even turned away as she pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head—but it actually was quite fun watching stacks of thin boxes topple to the ground as I was passed wand after wand after wand. Just when I thought Mr. Ollivander couldn’t possibly get any more impatient with me, I waved a 12¾-inch maple wand with a dragon heartstring core that glowed silver as soon as I picked it up. Warmth breezed through me as I held the instrument, which quickly became an extension of my right arm. My father rushed forward and slammed the requisite Galleons into Ollivander’s hand. Ignoring my parents’ stir-craziness, I beamed as I carefully slipped my new treasure into an inside pocket of my robe.

“Are we getting my books now?” I asked my father.

“We are. You see the sign that says Flourish and Blotts?” 

I followed his finger and located the sign. “Is that the book store?”

“Yes, it is. It will likely be very crowded, so make sure you watch where you’re going.”

“Dad, I’m not going to go barging in like an angry Hippogriff! I know I need to look where I’m going. I’m not stupid. Can’t you trust my judgment just once?

“Alex! Stop yelling!” my mother scolded. “We’re in public. Lower your voice! Do you want to make a scene?” 

I cringed and stared at my mother in disbelief. I had maybe raised my voice one decibel, but the sound certainly hadn’t qualified as yelling. What did she expect me to do, whisper unless given permission to speak any louder? It wasn’t my fault she had such über-sensitive ears!

“Your new classmates are all around us,” she continued in a hoity-toity tone. “They can probably hear you, since you started shouting. Do you want them to remember you as the rude little girl who kept talking back to her father in Diagon Alley? You think that will make it easier to integrate with your classmates?”

I burst into tears. 

“Oh, knock it off!” my father scolded. “Stop being such a baby! ‘Watch where you’re going’ is just a normal thing for a parent to say to a kid!”

I had a fairly thick skin for a ten-year-old, but my parents were right this one time: I was feeling fragile. And I had every right to be. Their accosting me with more criticism than normal over the summer had torn down my scant emotional defenses, and this public verbal beating was the last straw. I couldn’t hold it together anymore. My nerves were frayed. 

The mask crashed to the ground and shattered.

I was suddenly doubled over, sobbing like an infant in the middle of crowded Diagon Alley. My chest heaved and shook as I attempted to muffle the sound, since I knew we were in public and did not want to make a scene. I was not the oblivious brat my parents needed to believe I was, and I was terrified that they would never let me prove that to them. 

“Oh, for the love of Merlin...” my mother groaned, while she grabbed my arm and violently pulled me out of the crowd and into a quieter area. Morgan and my father followed at a short distance. 

“You have got to stop this,” she warned, pointing her finger in my face, “or we will bring you back to Grandma Rosie’s house and do the rest of your shopping for you. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the only Hogwarts student who is so badly behaved, she can’t even be trusted to accompany her family to buy her school supplies?” 

I looked down at the ground so my mother couldn’t see my icy glare. Do you want to be the only mother who can’t treat her daughter properly, so you have to resort to threats and insults to shut her up?

“This is nothing to cry about,” my father reproached as he and Morgan came closer.

I looked up to see that my family had formed a semi-circle around me—as if being backed up against a wall while my mother pointed her finger in my face wasn’t insulting enough. I imagined hexing the lot of them just for some breathing room, but I’d already learned years ago that personal space was not something I could be granted without permission. Especially when angry. As always, I had to diffuse the fight myself.

“WHY DIDN’T—” I took a deep breath and lowered my voice. “Why didn’t you tell Morgan to watch where she was going?” I growled softly. “If you trust a seven-year-old to understand something so obvious, why not a ten-year-old?”

“Alex, you don’t always pay attention—”

“You don’t give me a chance to show you that I can pay attention! You just assume I can’t do anything right! You never let me breathe! Look at all of you,” I gestured to their positions, “hovering around me like this! I can’t BREATHE! STEP BACK!”

“We’re not that close,” Morgan remarked softly. “You are being dramatic. Could you stop? You’re scaring me.”

“UGH!!” I shouted, and pushed through the space between my parents. My father grabbed my hand as I was walking away, so forcefully that I shrieked. If I hadn’t stopped walking, I likely would have sprained something.

“OW! What are you DOING?! Get OFF me!!”

“Don’t you dare run away. Do you want to get kidnapped?”

“Dad, I’m not running away! I’m just trying to breathe! Please!!” I was suddenly lightheaded, my breath coming in short, heavy gasps. 

“All right, that’s it. We’re taking you back to Grandma Rosie’s.”

“NO! NO! I need to be here! I need to do this! Please! Gimme a chance!!” 

“Alex, we’ve already given you—”

“Shawn, let go of her.” My mother’s voice was so quiet, it startled me. 

“What?” He dropped my hand and turned around to face his wife. I rubbed my wrist and shrank back against a nearby wall. 

“Let’s—she should stay here. She should experience this. This is a milestone.” 

“Renee, you were the one who just threatened to take her home because she was throwing a tantrum in public, yet again! Do you want her to think she can act however she wants with impunity? If we’re not consistent with her, she’ll never learn! She’ll think that crying like a baby will get her out of anything! She needs to learn to behave!”

“Shawn—”

“I’m fed up with her, Renee! Everything we say offends her! She cannot act this way! She’s not a toddler anymore; she’s TEN! She’s about to leave home for almost a year! Can she even handle it? Should we hold her back for a year and hope she can finally mature enough that we can actually trust her to be away from our care?” 

“NOOO!!!!” The tears had come back in full force and I resumed hyperventilating. I couldn’t be deprived of this experience, and I certainly couldn’t be stuck at home for another year. I had been held back enough.

My father wasn’t done. 

“Will she get thrown out of Hogwarts? Will Dumbledore expel her because she’s too disruptive in the classroom? She can’t even handle one shopping trip to Diagon Alley without mouthing off like a little bitch!” 

“Look at her,” my mother said softly, gesturing to my trembling form. “She gets the message.” She turned to me and bent down until she was eye-level with me. “You’re going to behave now, right?” she encouraged. She was almost begging.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t sorry for anything I’d done; only for the consequence. As always. 

My father nodded curtly, grimacing at the abject terror in my eyes. My mother slipped her hand into mine as we walked to Flourish and Blotts, but refused to look at me. Morgan padded along next to us, also averting her eyes. I wondered what she was thinking, gingerly tiptoeing down the street and caving into herself. I knew she feared me when I flew into one of my rages, but sometimes she seemed to feel bad for me after I’d calmed down. She’d never admit it out loud, though. She was the passive child. The good child. The child all the parents praised for her manners and adorable smile. The child all the parents cooed over as her long, red hair swayed when she skipped around the house in a new set of robes.

No one ever called me sweet. No one ever praised my parents for anything I had done, outside of academics. I was the outlier—the oddball around whom no one knew how to act. My parents and their friends always eyed me suspiciously, like a caged animal who would bite and claw viciously after one false move, simply because I was different. A friendly, sociable, well-to-do family like mine, who could blend in anywhere, was not equipped to handle a fiercely independent introvert such as myself. My parents used up so much of their daily energy hawkishly scrutinizing me that they viewed any of Morgan’s minor transgressions with indifference. 

My sister was virtually untouchable. Nothing she did was a big deal. None of her mistakes were jarringly memorable, like mine. Though occasionally running into a scuffle with other kids, she was basically perfect. Our parents’ claim to despise playing favorites was utter bullshit. By the time I hit eight or nine, I’d begun to wonder if I was even a lovable person to begin with.

I should say that my parents never actively set out to cause me harm. They wouldn’t hurt a fly. In their relentless discipline, I think my parents were simply doing what they thought they were supposed to do, because they never thought to take me seriously. Since my personality baffled my parents, they assumed I was just troubled. Aloof. Maybe even mentally ill. As good as their intentions may have been, they were biased enough that they would rather abuse me than perform an ounce of the self-analysis they expected of me every day.

I tried to make sense of this as we walked to Flourish and Blotts. I couldn’t articulate the intricacies of our family dynamic at such a young age, but I subconsciously understood it in dribs and drabs. These fragments of knowledge floated through my mind as I gripped my mother’s hand.

Though my mother’s words often cut me to the core, there were moments when I practically worshipped her. She was the only person on Earth who could rein in my father’s temper. Whenever he crossed a line, she was there to silently guide him back. She was his rock. 

I had no rock. 

I had no one to lean on when I needed to break down; and as a result, I clung desperately to books and creativity as an escape. That was part of the reason why I nearly panicked at the threat of being deprived of that Diagon Alley shopping trip—I needed to bask in my first glimpse of freedom from my family’s clutches. I needed to see the stores, the robes, the books, the wands, all the other first-year students out and about...it all made Hogwarts more real to me.

And I couldn’t afford to stand out from my classmates by not having seen Diagon Alley. I could almost hear the barrage of questions—Why didn’t you go? Were you sick? Why didn’t your parents think you could handle it? Is something wrong with you? Do you have a bad temper? Will you hurt me?

I would have to think of lie upon lie to cover for myself if I were forced to leave this wonderful place that all the other kids got to experience. Because of this, I was suddenly less excited for my schooling and more focused on policing myself in response to my parents' hawkishness. What fun.

Walking into Flourish and Blotts offered a brief respite. Despite the colossal amount of reading material, the bookstore was surprisingly cozy—it felt smaller than it really was. I entertained a fantasy of buying the space and living there by myself, surrounded by endless knowledge with no one to bother me.

“What are you smiling about?” my mother asked, happy to see me in a good mood. 

“I was just thinking that I want this place as my bedroom.”

“Of course you do!” she chuckled. “I’ll tell you what: when we’re done collecting your textbooks, you can pick one other book you want and I’ll buy it for you.” She clearly still felt bad about the altercation a few minutes earlier, but didn’t want to flat-out apologize for making me cry. Typical.

My grin widened at the prospect of a book of my choosing, and I was practically salivating as we maneuvered around the crowds to gather my textbooks. Don’t mess this up, Alex. Don’t mess this up.

“All right, do you see anything else you like?” my mother asked before we walked up to the counter. 

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a sign that read The Dark Arts.

My mother’s smile vanished. “We don’t associate with the Dark Arts. Those are books that evil people like to read.”

“But it looks interesting.”

“Alex, that’s what bad wizards practice! Thieves! Murderers! Why on Earth would you want to read about that?!”

“I—I was just curious. And you said any book—” 

“I didn’t expect you to look there—”

“But why would they sell Dark Arts books if we’re not supposed to read them?”

My mother sighed in exasperation. “Just—just pick a book somewhere else, please. Anything that’s not the Dark Arts.” 

“But if it’s bad and we’re not supposed to—”

“This is a bookstore. They sell books that they know people will buy. Obviously, there are enough...supporters of the Dark Arts that Flourish and Blotts can make money selling those books. I don’t control what is sold here.” 

I sighed, deflated once more. After wandering around the shelves for a few minutes while my family waited in line to pay, I picked up a copy of the second-year spellbook and began leafing through it. I had a funny feeling that I might need it later. 

“This one!” I announced. 

My mother’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a textbook—”

“A textbook for second-years,” my father cut in. “Why would you want that? You’ll get it next summer.”

“But I’m really curious. You said any book, and—”

“Alex, you have seven textbooks for classes you are taking!” my mother reminded me. “Don’t you think you’re biting off more than you can chew?”

My father looked thoughtful before responding, “What’s the worst that could happen?” 

“I don’t want her getting ahead of herself. She’s just starting at Hogwarts! I don’t want her to be overwhelmed—” 

“I—I just wanted to read it—” 

“Renee, you know she’s brilliant. Maybe she’ll surprise us. The worst that will happen is she finds the spells too difficult and saves the book for next year.” He turned to me. “You can get this. Just promise us that you won’t attempt the spells without guidance, if you do happen to reach that point.” 

I beamed.

“She’s a Ravenclaw, like you,” my father muttered with a smirk, nudging my mother.

“Probably,” she chuckled.

I smiled as I pictured myself in Ravenclaw robes. That would definitely make my mother proud. Perhaps my getting into her House would encourage her to treat me better, since we’d actually have something to bond over. I suddenly couldn’t wait for my Sorting.

I was barely aware of my movements as we gathered the rest of my school supplies. I still wanted to lash out at my family for destroying my first good mood in weeks—and in public, no less—but successfully completing this shopping trip was more important. With a deep, shaking breath, I shut down all emotion and went on autopilot. I had to remain calm until we left Diagon Alley. I also reminded myself that burying my negative emotions would be good practice for any altercations I may encounter at Hogwarts. More than just studying magic, I knew that I needed to prove to my parents (and myself) that I was capable of functioning in society without their overbearing presence. 

Buying me a pet was the last item on the list. I was more inclined to buy a small snake than an owl, but figured that wouldn’t put me in a terribly positive light; I also knew that I would need to send mail. I settled with a friendly dark brown and white owl who cooed happily when I reached through her cage to pet her. I named her Sonia, after my old imaginary friend, and carried her cage carefully as we made our way back to my grandmother’s house. 

I immediately grabbed my new schoolbooks and retreated to the room I was sharing with Morgan. My heart raced in anticipation as I flopped onto my bed and opened the one on top of the pile: The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 1The smell of new parchment swirled inside my nose and my shoulders slumped in relaxation for the first time that day. My grin returned as I carefully opened the book and began reading excitedly. I felt better and better as I began devouring the information and practicing the wand movements with my right hand. 

I was two chapters in when Morgan burst through the door, jolting me back to reality. I jumped.

“Dinner’s ready!” she called out cheerfully, but her smile quickly dimmed when she saw the look on my face.

I was furious. I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t had nearly enough alone time to emotionally prepare myself to rejoin my relatives. I wanted to hit something. 

“Couldn’t you knock?” I retorted. Since I couldn’t actually get up and hit something, a snide comment was the safest release of my anger. 

“We’re sharing this room, Alex; it doesn’t belong to you! That’s not fair.” 

“You startled me. A knock won’t kill you. You know, that whole po-lite-ness thing Mum and Dad are always shoving down our throats like cough potions....!”

“Why is it so hard for you to be nice?!” Morgan whined. She looked dumbfounded that I would compare politeness to foul-tasting medicine, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help that parroting back please and thank you like a mindless drone filled me with rage. Why should I have to be nice, anyway, when the world wasn’t nice to me? Where was my reward? What was in it for me? Nothing, as far as I could tell.

“Why can’t you just knock?” I shot back with an eerily quiet tone that didn’t match the fire in my eyes. 

Our mother suddenly appeared behind Morgan. 

“Alex, what are you doing this time?” she groaned.

“Oh, that’s really nice, Mum. You just walk into a conversation and automatically assume that I did something wrong?!”

“Stop being so melodramatic! I just heard your sister asking you to be nice! What do you expect me to think?!”

“Oh, I dunno...maybe that she did something that made me mad and I just...got mad? And I actually had a good reason?”

“What did she do that was so horrible?”

“I was in the middle of reading one of my new textbooks and she just barged in. Really loudly. She startled me. I only asked her to knock! You know...being polite?” I dragged out that last word for emphasis. 

“Oh, that’s funny, Alex. YOU getting angry with someone else for not being polite? You are the rudest child I have ever encountered. None of us can understand why you’re so delicate and obnoxious. The most innocuous things set you off! Might we be a bit hypocritical?”

She sounded amused. I swear to Merlin she was antagonizing me on purpose, just to see what I would do. 

I’ll show you what I can do.

I stood up, marched over to the doorway, and punched my mother in the stomach. She yelped—probably more in horror than in physical pain. I was, sadly, not yet strong enough to inflict any damage on an adult.

“YOU’RE DOING THAT ON PURPOSE! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” I bellowed. “WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SHOVING THIS STUPID ‘BE NICE! BE NICE!’ NONSENSE DOWN MY THROAT, BUT YOU ENJOY PROVOKING ME? LIKE I’M NOT MISERABLE ENOUGH AS IT IS!!” 

“You will NOT take that tone with me again, young lady!” she yelled back, and slapped me across the face.

My father had appeared by this time, ready to defend his precious wife and younger daughter from his belligerent older one.

“No dinner!” he scolded.

“THAT’S NOT FAIR!” I screamed. “You’re all ganging up on me! AGAIN!”

“Telling you to stop misbehaving is not the same as ganging up on you! Stop playing the victim! No dinner tonight.” 

He led Morgan and my mother away from the room, and slammed the door on me. I sank to the floor and burst into tears for the second time that day. And since we were no longer in public, I didn’t have to hold back. A shrill shriek emitted from the back of my throat, that didn’t even sound like me—it sounded like an animal being brutally stabbed to death.

Seconds later, my father violently threw the door open and scoffed loudly in disgust. “Why must you always be so overly emotional? You scared us all half to death! I thought you were hurt!”

“SINCE WHEN DO YOU ACTUALLY GIVE A DAMN ABOUT ME!” I sobbed. He would probably punish me again for swearing, but I didn’t care. “I COULD THROW MYSELF OUT THE WINDOW RIGHT NOW AND YOU’D ALL BE GLAD I WAS DEAD!”

“You KNOW that’s not true, Alex!! Stop this victim talk! Stop wallowing in self-pity! You think we want to discipline you?! You think we enjoy this?!”

“I KNOW YOU DO! I CAN SEE IT IN YOUR EYES! ESPECIALLY MUM!”

My father winced and took a step back. His jaw set. “You can’t scream like that, in public or otherwise. It’s not acceptable,” he scolded quietly. 

“WHEN IS ANYTHING I DO ACCEPTABLE?? WHY CAN’T I JUST LET IT OUT? WHY CAN’T I JUST GET IT OUT OF MY SYSTEM? I CAN’T KEEP IT IN ANYMORE!!!!” 

“You can’t keep scaring us half to death, Alexandra!! Just...can’t you just count to ten and take some deep breaths?!”

I folded over onto myself and emitted a gutteral cry even worse than the first one. My father slammed the door on me mid-shriek and stomped down the stairs, leaving me alone in the bedroom once more. 

I screamed and screamed and screamed until I had no voice left.

When I finally lifted my head up, the carpet’s texture was etched into my suddenly-lined forehead. I shuddered at my appearance in the mirror—red face, puffy eyes, tear-stained cheeks—before collapsing onto my bed. I idly traced the front cover of the textbook I had been studying moments earlier as I considered trying to read some more, but my brain was too fuzzy. And it seemed appropriate that my parents were withholding dinner this night—I had no appetite to speak of. 

*   *   * 

I awoke the next morning with zero energy. I lay perfectly still, staring blankly at the ceiling for around half an hour before I groggily pulled myself into a sitting position. My throat was raw, and I winced when I swallowed. My eyes were still so puffy, I couldn’t open them all the way. I didn’t even want to see my reflection.

I pondered how I should begin my day. Should I wait here until someone comes in to fetch me? Should I go downstairs for breakfast? Like the night before, I wasn’t that hungry. I had a habit of forgoing food when I was stressed. 

I reminded myself that I would be leaving for Hogwarts in four days. Compared to ten and a half years with my family, it was nothing. I could surely handle it. I had no other choice.

Morgan wasn’t in the room. Her bed appeared slept in, and then made up awkwardly by a seven-year-old. 

I decided to wait for my family to show interest in interacting with me. Having no clue when that would be, I reached down and picked up a different textbook from the one I’d read the day before—I didn’t want to touch The Standard Book of Spells right now, given what had happened after I’d begun reading it. I decided to leave that book for last until my anger from the previous day had dulled some more. 

Knock knock.

“Who is it?” I croaked from my sore throat as my stomach clenched in anticipation. 

“It’s Mum. Are you hungry?” 

“Um...”

The door opened.

“How’d you sleep?” my mother asked tentatively. 

“Fine.” 

“Are you hungry?”

“No, I just...I just feel like reading right now.”

“Honey, it’s ten o’clock. You haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. Aren’t you lightheaded at all?” 

“I was more lightheaded last night, honestly. From all the screaming and crying.”

My mother sighed and gingerly sat down at the foot of the bed. “I don’t enjoy scolding you, Alex. Neither does Dad.” 

Silence. 

“We’re concerned about you, sweetie. We want you to do well at Hogwarts. Since you’ve never been away from us for so long—”

“I’ll be fine, Mum. I’m not a fragile baby. I swear I can handle it. Just give me a chance.”

“I’m just worried that—”

“Mum, you guys have been scolding me all summer! I get the point!”

“Alex, stop interrupting me.” 

I bit my tongue so hard, I tasted blood. My mother cringed as she saw my face twitch from the pain, but I did not respond.

Get this damn lecture over with. You’re lucky I don’t have the energy to explode again or I might get violent. That one punch was nothing.

She took a deep breath and slightly raised her hands off her lap as if preparing to fend off an attack. “I don’t want to argue with you,” she continued. “I don’t want to make you angry. I—we just worry. We’re concerned that if you act out at Hogwarts, you’ll get a bad reputation; and bad reputations are much easier to get than good ones.” 

I snarled. Noooo, you think?! 

“We love how smart you are—and that you’ll almost certainly be a Ravenclaw—but some teachers may be unfair; and regardless of how dilligently you study, they could give you poor marks simply because they dislike you.” 

Right. Like I’ve NEVER been punished for other people’s prejudices before. ESPECIALLY not yours. Sorry, I forgot: you’re a bloody saint and everything is my fault. Please carry on. I couldn’t POSSIBLY do this without you.

I zoned out as she finished saying the same things she’d been saying all summer, but staring pointedly at her to make her think I was still paying attention. 

“Are you okay?” she asked once she finally finished rambling. 

I nodded. 

“Grandma Rosie made scrambled eggs and bacon a few hours ago. They’re probably cold by now, but we can cast a warming spell—she made enough for you. I hope you’ll be hungry soon.” 

“I probably will. I just need some time alone first.”

“All right. Please try to relax. This is a very special time for you. I don’t want any more arguments.” 

I fought the urge to punch her again as she stroked my hair before creeping out of the bedroom. 

*   *   * 

I spent the remainder of the week studying. I wanted—no, needed to get a head start. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I was insatiable. I wasn’t even thinking about getting good marks; I just wanted to learn. Somehow, even at such a young age, I knew that knowledge would be my way out. I knew that learning would empower me and grow my confidence faster, so I would be able to gain independence faster.

By the end of the week, I had read through a third of all of my textbooks. The task was overwhelming at first, and I had a brief moment of terror when I worried that my mother had been right and I really was biting off more than I could chew, but I reminded myself that I wouldn’t be tested as soon as I got to Hogwarts; I’d be going over all the material at a much slower pace, and with supervised instruction. I retrieved an inkbottle and feather quill from my cauldron and notated all the areas of study that confused me, along with questions I planned to ask the professors during those lessons. I also wondered if any other students began studying before the start of term—more likely the Ravenclaws, whom I would surely join on September 1. 

I couldn’t wait.

Chapter Text

I won't suffer, be broken, get tired, or wasted
Surrender to nothing
Or give up what I started and stopped it
From end to beginning
A new day is coming, and I am finally free

—Thirty Seconds to Mars ~ “Attack”

 

My patience was about to be rewarded. After residing in my diary for fifty years as a splintered soul, I was about to be fully restored to human form. Ginny Weasley was lying on the floor of the Chamber of Secrets, slipping closer to death and bringing me closer to life with each passing second. I smirked at her clutching the diary as if her life depended on it. How ironic.

A few loud crashes sounded near the Chamber entrance. A pregnant pause followed, broken by a man shouting, “OBLIVIATE!” A low rumble preceded the slew of rocks toppling to the ground. There was only one explanation: Harry Potter had come to rescue his little princess. 

I stood in the shadows and watched the scrawny git climb down the ladder into the cavern where I waited. Frozen in horror, his green eyes fixed on the pathetic Weasley girl. I willed myself not to laugh as he sprinted over to her and begged her to wake up.

When I grew tired of this, I decided it was time to reveal myself. I stepped out of the shadows and announced, “She won’t wake.” 

The boy looked up and gasped. 

“Tom!” he exclaimed, fear and confusion written all over his soot-covered face. “Tom Riddle! What do you mean, she won’t wake? She’s not—”

“She’s still alive, but only just.”

He clearly didn’t comprehend the situation. How he’d managed to survive this long was beyond me. Was he really that dense?

“Are you a ghost?” the dense boy asked me.

“A memory,” I replied flatly. “Preserved in a diary for fifty years.” I gestured to the little black book that had gotten all of us here.

“You’ve got to help me, Tom. We’ve got to get out of here. There’s a basilisk...I don’t know where it is, but it could be along any moment....please, help me!” 

He returned his attention to the dying Weasley girl and resumed begging her to awaken. I reached down and picked up his wand.

He stood up and narrowed his eyes upon realizing that I was not handing him the instrument. “Give me my wand, Tom,” he said with a slight hint of apprehension.

Do you get it now, you stupid brat? Let’s see how long it takes you to realize that you’re in mortal peril. It’s all right, I’ve got plenty of time. More than you ever will.

“Listen, we’ve got to go! If the basilisk comes—” 

“It won’t come until it’s called.”

“What do you mean? Look, give me my wand, I might need it—”

“You won’t be needing it.” I replied with a smirk.

The little pipsqueak looked even more confused than before, but pressed on. “What do you mean, I won’t be—” 

“I’ve waited a long time for this, Harry Potter,” I drawled. “For the chance to see you. To speak to you.”

“Look, I don’t think you get it. We’re in the Chamber of Secrets. We can talk later—”

“We’re going to talk now.” I pocketed Harry’s wand, savoring my long-awaited power over this worthless little boy.

And so he finally began to understand what was happening. Since he would never be able to share the events that had transpired over the past year, I revealed everything. He was utterly dumbfounded at how easily I had manipulated Ginny, and enraged that he could not reverse the damage. 

To add insult to injury, I wrote my full name in the air with Harry’s wand, gloating over the boy’s horror as the letters rearranged themselves from TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE to I AM LORD VOLDEMORT. 

He thought he had me cornered as he sang his praises of the fool Dumbledore, especially in the old codger’s defense of the bumbling Hagrid, but I quickly turned the tables: I strode over to the statue of Salazar Slytherin and summoned the basilisk. As the mouth of the statue lowered slowly, I sneered at Harry.

“Now, Harry, I’m going to teach you a little lesson,” I taunted. “Let’s match the powers of Lord Voldemort, heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter!”

The boy turned around and began to sprint toward the ladder as he heard the basilisk slithering out from behind the statue.

“Kill him!” I ordered in Parseltongue.

Potter flinched, having understood the command. 

“Parseltongue won’t save you now, Potter; it only evades me!” I called out.

Harry ran even faster upon hearing my words—until he tripped over his own feet. His glasses flew off and fell to the Chamber floor a few feet away. As he scrambled to pick them up, the basilisk lunged forward, mouth agape. It devoured the boy within seconds, silencing his screams as its fangs tore open his flesh and ripped his organs apart. I relished the sound of his bones being ground into nothingness. 

And just like that, my enemy was gone.

The basilisk turned around and slithered back to me.

“Well done,” I hissed.

“Thank you, massster. I enjoyed myself immensssssely,” the basilisk replied, munching on the last bits of flesh and bone. I chuckled and sent the beast back inside its lair behind the statue of Salazar Slytherin. 

A few minutes later, Ginny Weasley took her last breath. I inhaled deeply and stretched my arms with a triumphant grin. My sixteen-year-old body had been fully restored, never to change in the slightest, and I could finally finish what my great ancestor had started. 

I twirled Potter’s wand in my fingers a few times before pocketing it once more. I then strolled around the Chamber for a few minutes, thinking that I might just sit here for a little while and reflect on this momentous hour. Unfortunately, another loud crash changed my plans. I walked toward the sound and discovered a hole in the rock formation by the chamber entrance about a hundred feet back. The redheaded boy was throwing rocks onto the chamber floor to make an opening large enough to crawl through. 

“HARRY! GINNY!” he shouted desperately. “CAN YOU HEAR ME! I SHIFTED ENOUGH OF THE ROCK AND YOU CAN CLIMB BACK THROUGH! WE CAN GET OUT OF HERE!”

He paused. 

“Harry?” he asked again, with considerably less volume. 

“Harry! Harry!” I responded in a mocking tone. “Help me, Harry!” 

“WHO IS THAT?! DO YOU HAVE HARRY!! WHERE’S MY SISTER!!” 

Ahh, so the ginger is Ginny’s brother. It looks like Mummy and Daddy are losing two children tonight. What a tragedy. 

“You obviously didn’t hear our little discussion, silly boy; your dear friend and sister are dead.”

“NO! NO! WHY?” he choked. “Har-ryyyy!” He began climbing through the hole he had created in the pile of rocks.

“Harry? Who is this Harry?” piped up a groggy yet cheerful male voice from behind the ginger. “My head hurts. Is there a Healer anywhere? I feel off.” 

What on Earth was that about?

“WHO ARE YOU AND WHY DID YOU KILL MY BEST FRIEND!!” the ginger bellowed.

I pointed Harry’s wand at his friend and said, “Nothing that need concern you, young lad. Avada Kedavra!”

Killed by his best friend’s wand. I’ll bet Harry never saw that coming.

The Weasley boy toppled over and hit the floor of the Chamber with a loud thud. His confused companion attempted to get up, but I was too quick. I silenced him with another flash of green light from Potter’s wand. And finally, all was quiet.

Now I could think. 

I removed my diary from the Weasley girl’s cold hands and stashed it in my robes. After smiling at the image of my revered ancestor, I folded my arms and leaned against one of the snake statues. What to do? I asked myself. Where do I begin? How do I pick up where I left off? I smirked at my reflection in a puddle of water on the floor—I looked just as devilishly handsome as I had in my Hogwarts days, and I was still wearing the school robes I loved so much. Oh, how I had missed this. My young body, my school, my robes...all of it.

Tracing the fabric of my sleeves, I reflected on everything that had led up to this point. After splitting my soul into seven pieces and being preserved inside a diary for fifty years, even that small gesture was thrilling—being able to touch something. Being able to stand, breathe, smell the air, and feel my robes on my skin was rejuvenating. What an eventful evening. 

I couldn’t linger, though. I had too much to do.

As much as I would have loved to remain at my beloved school, I knew that step one was to get out of Hogwarts and find a place to stay. Malfoy Manor seemed the ideal location. Not that Lucius would actually be able to refuse me, of course. Since I’d entrusted him with my diary, surely I could count on him to provide lodging until I could get my affairs in order and find somewhere to live by myself. He wouldn’t actually want me living under his roof, so the tension about to bloom in his mansion would be mutual—though, more than likely, amusing for me as I could toy with his mind while there. He would no longer be the king of his castle.

But first, I had to send him a message and alert him to my impending arrival. That was the most important task today.

Time to get started.

I took one last look around, and then climbed up the ladder out of the main Chamber room and into the tunnel. Once I found the bone-littered entryway at the bottom of the slide, I cast Disillusionment and Levitating charms, and flew up the passageway into the girls’ bathroom. 

“Who’s there?” squeaked a young girl’s voice as I walked around the sinks and closed the entrance to the Chamber. “Harry? Have you returned? Where are you?”

Ah, Myrtle, you still haven’t moved on. Predictable as ever, you are.

I ignored the simpering ghost of my victim from fifty years past and strolled out of the bathroom, smirking at the knowledge that Harry and his friends would never be discovered. At least I had been considerate enough to have Ginny write her own fairwell on the castle wall before bringing her down into the Chamber, alerting everyone to her final resting place. Someone at Hogwarts would surely possess enough common sense to infer that she had taken the three missing wizards with her.

There was a lull about the school which, though uncommon, reminded me of the atmosphere when I had been a fifth-year student. Myrtle had perished after locking eyes with the basilisk, no one knew where the chamber was or if if could be reopened, and most of the students had feared being the next victim. Funny how my fondness for Hogwarts was the only thing that had stopped me from releasing the basilisk again and attacking more Muggleborn students. Lucky little blighters, they were. They didn’t deserve it. 

I wandered the corridors for several minutes, basking in the flood of memories returning to me. Once I’d gotten my bearings, I went to the library and slinked around to find supplies. I was able to steal a quill, an inkbottle, and a piece of parchment off a table where students weren’t paying attention to their surroundings, and quickly penned a letter to Lucius Malfoy. Once out of the library, I strolled toward to the owlery. I plucked an envelope from the stack against the wall, sealed my letter, and attempted to hand it to one of the owls for delivery.

Apparently, the owls were not accustomed to receiving letters from invisible persons. A cacophony of squawks and frantically fluttering wings filled the room, and I had to retreat.

Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. Just what I needed. 

I scoffed and reluctantly removed my Disillusionment charm after making sure that no one was approaching. I slipped into the shadows and waited, resisting the urge to tap my foot impatiently, while the owls calmed down. Once the room had returned to normal, I slowly approached a different owl with the letter. The bird regarded me thoughtfully.

“Take this to Lucius Malfoy,” I instructed, trying my best to sound quiet and friendly. The owl snatched the letter in its beak and flew off. I walked to the window and watched the bird disappear, just to make sure it really was following instructions. Once it was out of sight, I cast another Disillusionment charm and exited the owlery.

A creeping sadness and anger filled me as I walked through the familiar halls. Why should I have to leave? Hogwarts was my home. I wanted to stay here. As happy as I was with Lucius having helped orchestrate my resurrection, I didn’t actually want to stay with him. He may have been a trustworthy Death Eater, but he was also a spineless coward and I didn’t want to interact with him unless I absolutely had to. I wanted to be alone. 

Well, this will just be another test of Malfoy’s competence and trustworthiness as a Death Eater. Let’s get going.

After thinking for a moment, I recalled the location of the castle’s secret passageway that led to Honeydukes’ cellar. I felt quite undignified, creeping through the castle like a disobedient student trying to avoid punishment, but I had no other way out. At least no one could see me in such an unflattering position.

I Apparated to the entrance of Malfoy Manor as soon as I entered Honeydukes, and began slowly pacing around the walkway to await entry.

About fifteen minutes passed before the familiar ice-blonde locks finally emerged from the front door. Lucius looked around and cautiously padded toward the gate. He stopped short when he saw me—he obviously wasn’t expecting to see someone who appeared to be a student in Hogwarts robes, but there we were.

“Evening, Lucius,” I said quietly. “I assume you received my owl.” 

“Y-yes, my Lord. I just—Dobby just finished preparing the guest room on the third floor,” he replied, trying desperately to appear calm and in control. The exact opposite of what he felt. I didn’t need to be the world’s most powerful Legilimens to see that Malfoy was scared out of his mind. Too bad for him. He reluctantly granted me access to his fortress and led me inside. 

Step One was complete.

*   *   *

Settling into Malfoy Manor was exactly as awkward as I’d expected it to be. I liked the room Lucius and Narcissa had cleared out for me, but it still wasn’t mine. However, considering the circumstances from whence I came, it was acceptable. I had just spent the past fifty years in a bloody diary—anything was better than that. 

The Malfoys were baffled by my appearance. A few weeks after my arrival, Lucius had the brazenness to ask me why I looked so young. I told him that I was now immortal and I could therefore choose the age I appeared; and as I’d matured slightly faster than average and looked more twenty than sixteen, I settled with that. The latter part of that statement was false—I was, of course, immortal, but I looked as I did at sixteen because that was my age when I’d turned the diary into a Horcrux.

Lucius had no business knowing about my Horcruxes. No one did. Though he was thoroughly disturbed and awe-struck at my achievement, there was nothing he could do about it.

One thing he had been able to do was protect Nagini in my absence. Before the fractured part of me disappeared into Albania, I had sent Nagini to live at Malfoy Manor, in case anything happened to me when I killed the Potters. Caring for her had been a daunting task for Lucius, as she did not appreciate his attempts to cage her inside a room—as a Maledictus, being caged inside an animal’s body was difficult enough. She had apparently destroyed many doors and windows before Lucius got the message; however, she was in perfect health when I arrived at Malfoy Manor, so I couldn’t complain. Lucius bowed and mumbled his thanks as I praised his snake-rearing abilities. 

Nagini was the only companion I was happy to have at Malfoy Manor. Not only did she harbor a piece of my soul, but she was also a unique creature I simply liked having around. I especially enjoyed being able to speak with her and not have anyone understand the subject matter. Being a Parselmouth was a wonderful gift.

As just one more way for me to remind Lucius who had the upper hand in his house, I made a point to carry out loud and lengthy Parseltongue conversations with Nagini. And oh, was he dying to ask me what the snake and I were discussing.

“What does Lucius think we’re talking about?” Nagini hissed at me one evening as we strolled about the house, discussing Narcissa’s choice in décor. This was the first time she and I had communicated outside the confines of my bedroom, and it was hard not to laugh at the Malfoys’ reactions. 

“He thinks I’m plotting to kill him, or set you on one of his peacocks if he displeases me,” I replied. 

“The birds are too big—unless you plan to cut them into pieces and give them to me as separate meals before they rot. If you’re going to feed me a Malfoy, I’d prefer Draco. He’s smaller and easier to digest. And he’s so annoying. I can’t stand him.”

“Neither can I, dear. Oh, look! Here’s his mother. What do you reckon she thinks we’re discussing?”  

“Probably the truth, at this point. Ohh, wow. Look at the expression on her face! You probably have a better view from up there—”

“Yes, I can see her abject terror from here. She doesn’t look nearly as dignified as she thinks she is when she’s scared, now does she.”  

“Not at all. Given the scent coming off of her, I think she just wet herself.”

“It’s moments like these when I’m glad I don’t have your superior sense of smell.”

“I thought about chewing holes in her robes the other day because she kept staring at me and it was aggravating. I wasn’t actually going to eat her; I just wanted to scare her enough that she’d stop bothering me.”

“You have my full permission to do that if she doesn’t respect you. As long as we’re here, you are the lady of the house. Scales and fangs notwithstanding. You’re infinitely more formidable than she’ll ever be.”

And on and on it went. The Malfoys never got used to the Parseltongue, as I limited its frequency so that it always caught everyone off-guard. I made a point to bring Nagini around for a walk and chit-chat when I was particularly displeased with one of my blonde servants—sometimes we discussed the offender’s behavior, and sometimes we discussed topics as innocuous as the weather and Lucius’s obsession with his snake cane. I simply needed to keep psychological control over my hosts. 

Lucius was terrified of Nagini, but liked to pretend he wasn’t. Of course. However, during my absence, he had apparently spent a lot of time observing her, attempting to level with her and assuage his fear. Nagini told me that they’d spent several terse hours just watching each other, each silently daring the other to do something dramatic. It never happened. The only dramatic thing she’d done was to put up a fight about not having the run of the house. 

Nagini was much more observant and coherent than the Malfoys realized. In my absence, they gave her clues to their personalities that they would have otherwise kept hidden—but they were, of course, on their best behavior now. I began taking Nagini for walks around the grounds when I needed to get out of the house, during which she would regale me with stories of fights between father and son, Narcissa’s insecurities, and Draco’s fear of being upstaged at Hogwarts. I could definitely use such information to my advantage if necessary. I could only imagine Lucius’s face if he disobeyed me and I retaliated by mentioning a private conversation of his:

“Lucius, why did you have Dobby give me the earl grey tea when I specifically requested English breakfast? You thought I wouldn’t notice?”  

“Oh, no, my Lord—I—I suppose I may have overlooked—”

“Might you have also overlooked the fact that Narcissa wasn’t in the mood for you last night, but you kept pestering her for half an hour? Should I be concerned about your sudden inability to follow instructions? Nagini hears everything, you know.”  

—cue deathly silence—  

I figured that several such exchanges would occur before Lucius got his act together. In the meantime, I had work to do.

*   *   *

Harry Potter’s wand functioned well enough, but it hindered my work because the instrument hadn’t chosen me. It resisted my power. The wand technically wasmine—I had murdered its owner and had therefore won it from him—but it didn’t feel the same as my own wand. 

I had no idea where my wand was.

This was a subject I had been avoiding since departing the Chamber of Secrets. Could I travel by Apparition for a few days, arriving in Albania to communicate directly with the non-corporeal part of myself? More than likely, but that piece of me was not able to hold a wand, so it couldn’t help me. Where was my wand? What had happened to it after I’d killed the Potters? Maybe one of my followers had retrieved it from the scene. 

Many Death Eaters were surely shaking in their boots, having seen their Dark Marks blacken upon my ascension from the diary, but others were likely waiting for me to make contact at this very moment. They could hold onto their anticipation for a bit longer; I wasn’t ready for them yet. I needed to first acclimate myself to this new time period and locate my own wand. As hilariously ironic as it would be, I refused to use my dead enemy’s wand for eternity.

As it so happened, I didn’t have to wait too long. One morning during breakfast, an owl zoomed into the dining room with a parcel for me. Baffled, I accepted the package and began to unwrap it.

My wand was inside. 

I grinned broadly as I read the attached note:


My Lord,

I discovered this upon your disappearance and have kept it hidden in a loose floorboard of my residence since then.
I knew you had returned when my Dark Mark turned black a few weeks ago. I await your summons.

W.

 

“Is—is that your wand, my Lord?” Narcissa asked quietly.

“Yes. One of your comrades kept it while I was gone, and was smart enough to return it to me.”

“Who was it, my Lord?” 

“None of your concern.” 

The Malfoys flinched and then returned to their food.

I wouln’t tell them that W stood for Wormtail, the nickname of Peter Pettigrew. I had no idea where the errant Death Eater was living or how he’d hidden my wand, but he’d done it all the same. I’d certainly have to ask him about it when I was ready to call everyone back to my table.

I’d never trusted Wormtail. He was only out for himself. He joined me out of fear and desire for power and glory, not from a belief in my mission. Nevertheless, the little lump of a man deserved some reward for protecting my wand for so many years. What would he receive? I’d have to think on that.

What should I do with Potter’s wand? I thought, twirling my own wand in my fingers before pocketing it in my robes next to Harry’s. I’d been able to work magic with it well enough, but I suspected that one of the wands might malfunction or cause me harm if it sensed that I was using its brother. Keeping it wasn’t worth the risk.

I resolved to destroy Harry’s wand immediately after breakfast. I took it out into the backyard and broke it in half, and then set the pieces on the ground. After retrieving my own wand, I stepped back and shouted, “REDUCTO MAXIMA!” The remains of Harry’s wand exploded into useless splinters, scattering dirt and grass everywhere. I was so enthusiastic when casting this spell, I even made the ground tremble and the Malfoys’ peackocks scatter in fear. I sneered in satisfaction.

Until  Narcissa screamed. She must have heard—and felt—the commotion.

“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON?!” she shrieked, running out into the backyard with her wand extended. “IS THERE AN INTRUDER?! WHAT IS—oh.” She stiffened and quickly lowered her wand.

“Hello, Narcissa!” I called out with mock cheerfulness. “Fine day to destroy Harry Potter’s wand, I reckon. Absolutely perfect.”

“I—I see. Ah—I’m glad you succeeded, my Lord. I was just—” 

“Startled, yes. I can see that. Don’t worry, I didn’t cause an earthquake.”

Narcissa’s face was priceless as she backed away and quietly closed the patio door. Ignoring the mortified woman, I strode around the backyard, basking in the adrenaline rush of once again holding my own wand.

The backyard was unbelievably spacious. And it had to be, considering that it housed a family of gigantic white peacocks. The birds were ambivalent to my presence when I arrived, but scattered in fear each time they saw me after I’d blown up Harry’s wand. That was fine by me—it gave me more space to move around. I couldn’t be stuck inside the house all day, as large as it was. I found myself thinking more clearly in the fresh air and greenery, and I decided that I would resume my magical experimentation there. 

I needed to learn as much as I could. Just because I was now immortal didn’t mean that I wanted to slack on perfecting my skills; there would never be enough information to satisfy my thirst for knowledge.

Inventing spells and fine-tuning my technique often resulted in booms and bangs and brief tremors of the ground. Lucius and Narcissa quickly learned not to bother me during these moments, but their son missed the memo. One afternoon, I was pacing the backyard, deep in thought after one spell had gone badly wrong. I was ruminating on what had happened and how I could fix it—mere seconds away from a solution when a high-pitched voice called out, “LOOK WHAT I JUST MADE THIS PEACOCK DO!!”

I jerked my head around to see Draco leading one of the peacocks around in circles. No one would ever consider this a brilliant feat, but the pompous young Malfoy must have fancied himself the Peacock Whisperer. I was not amused.

I pointed my wand at the boy and growled, “Stupefy!” He flew backward about ten feet and landed on his rear. The peacock he’d been “training” squawked and ran off. After stomping over to the scene and reviving Draco, I grabbed the boy’s robes and pulled him to his feet.

“Didn’t your parents tell you not to disturb me?!” I scolded. “Do you not realize who I am?!”

“Yes, my Lord, I...I know who you are. I’m sor—”

“I was just solving a complex problem, and you distracted me moments before the solution came to me. Do you understand what you’ve done, Draco? Do you realize how angry I am? You do not make Lord Voldemort angry!”

The boy trembled and looked away from me. I pretended not to see his terrified parents standing on the patio and watching me berate their son—they needed this lesson as much as Draco did, having neglected to teach him manners. I grabbed the boy’s chin and forced him to look up at me.

“When you are around me, you do not speak unless spoken to, and you address me respectfully. You do not scream at me and order me to pay attention to your silly little games. You do not interrupt me when I am working, unless it’s an emergency. I don’t give a damn about your peacock nonsense! I will not pretend to be excited about your accomplishments to make you feel good about yourself, just because your parents do! Do you understand?” 

“Yes, m-my Lord,” Draco stammered, blushing furiously and fighting back tears. He pressed his quivering lips together and averted his eyes once more. 

“I did not tell you to look away from me, boy! You will look at me when I speak to you! This will teach you to stop disrespecting me: Crucio!”

Draco screamed and collapsed on the ground. I lifted the curse and pointed my wand at the distressed Lucius and Narcissa, who had just begun running toward us. They gasped and stopped dead in their tracks when they saw the look on my face.

I resumed torturing the boy for another minute or so before striding toward the house. 

“Don’t even think about protesting, Lucius!” I snapped as I saw the man’s mouth open. “Your boy deserved that. This is not a negotiation. I will not speak of the issue again, and neither will you. Get back inside. All of you.” 

“Y-yes, my Lord,” he muttered. Narcissa’s eyes were brimming. 

The family slowly filed back into the house, heads bowed. Though relieved to be alone once more, I was still furious with Draco for having distracted me. I resumed pacing until I regained my original train of thought and solved my problem. I did not speak to any of the Malfoys for the rest of the day, and had Dobby bring my meals to my bedroom. I wanted everyone on tenterhooks.

*   *   * 

Like his parents, little Draco tiptoed around me from then on. This didn’t shock me; however, I was surprised to discover an even younger occupant at the Manor: Lucius’s young cousin, Margo. The eight-year-old had recently come to live with Lucius and Narcissa upon the death of her father, Lucius’s uncle Hyperion. Like his brother, Abraxas, Hyperion had succumbed to Dragon Pox and left Margo an orphan. Her mother had died in childbirth. This little girl was quite peculiar in that, despite her young age, she acted about five years older than twelve-year-old Draco. I supposed that being orphaned had forced her to mature faster—something I could certainly understand. I found myself respecting her more than her older relatives. She was a very serious, withdrawn, no-nonsense child. 

Margo and Draco fought like siblings. Though they were both born into privilege and luxury, Draco was spoiled and Margo was not. Oblivious to her wealth, Margo wanted nothing but her dead parents. She often yelled at Draco when she heard him whining about yet another disappointment he’d blown out of proportion.

I made sure to be out of sight during these altercations. I didn’t wish to be involved, and I had better things to do than waste my energy participating in such folly. I had goals to accomplish. I needed to strategize and reformulate my original plans. I had to acclimate myself to this new time period. A lot could happen in fifty years, and listening to petty rich people squabble would not hasten my adjustment.

Malfoy Manor felt the same as it always did. I’d stayed here briefly after finishing at Hogwarts, having nowhere else to go; the orphanage where I grew up had been demolished, anyway. I stayed at the Manor until I began working at Borgin and Burkes and could rent a flat of my own. By this time, I had developed enough of a rapport with Lucius’s father, Abraxas, that he felt honored to host me. His brother Hyperion had been indifferent—he’d seen Abraxas with me so often at Hogwarts, that having me at the Manor had almost felt like an extension of our school days. I didn’t think much of Hyperion, as he was rather dull and aloof, but never breathed a word of this to Abraxas. He would have been flabbergasted had his godlike best friend insulted his little brother.

Abraxas and I met in our first year at Hogwarts, as quiet and ambitious Slytherins, and he was drawn to me immediately. He even began adopting some of my mannerisms after a while—I’d clearly made quite an impression on the young Malfoy. I enjoyed his company sometimes; but there were other moments when I wanted to tell him to scram. Especially as little Hyperion kept tagging along after us. Abraxas was trying to cement himself as my closest confidante, and Hyperion kept embarrassing him. Their dynamic was interesting to witness, and allowed me to size up Abraxas more accurately—observing the way he conducted himself in the face of filial obstacles gave me a better idea of how he would perform when given more stressful tasks. Like becoming my first Death Eater. 

I’m not sure I’ve ever truly considered anyone a friend; but if I had, it would have been Abraxas. We did have some shared interests and could carry on a conversation well enough. I found him a fascinating study: he possessed the standard Malfoy pride and pompousness at being a wealthy Pureblood, along with a primal fear of being unworthy. He lived in constant fear of disappointing his parents, professors, and friends. Especially me.

He likely found me fascinating, too, though in a different way. I wasn’t interested in understanding the full extent of that.

Abraxas and I being “best friends”—his words, not mine—became common knowledge at Hogwarts by the time we’d entered our third year. Abraxas felt very smug about this, but I was ambivalent. So we worked together in class. So we sat together during meals. Why did we need a special title? Why did Abraxas tie so much of his self-worth to his association with me? It irritated me, as I was less interested in making friends and more interested in acquiring followers. I wanted people who would cater to my every whim. And someone clamoring to sit next to me at dinner was useless unless they could actually follow orders properly. 

I observed a flicker of fear in his normally haughty demeanor once I revealed some of my goals to him in our fifth year, but the thought of wielding power through loyalty to me was too tempting for him to turn his back. He eventually invited me home after our sixth year, once he’d established himself as my right hand.

His parents absolutely adored me. He had already informed them of my imminent ascension from brilliant Hogwarts student to powerful overlord of Dark magic, and they were enthralled. Since the Malfoys wanted to be on the right side of history, fully entrenched in privilege and glory, they jumped at the chance to prove their worth to me. I basked in their performance. By the time Abraxas and I graduated from Hogwarts, his entire family was addressing me as “my Lord” and they promised that I’d always be welcome in their home. I stayed there all summer, saving money from my job at Borgin and Burkes before setting out on my own.

I continued to visit the Malfoys, though less frequently as the years passed. I was busy making money and searching for magical artifacts to turn into Horcruxes. But I still dutifully responded to all their letters—even though they were serving me as Death Eaters, they still considered me a third son. I never told them that a small part of me enjoyed that fondness. A very, very small part.

I was the first to hear about all the news in the Malfoy family. A lot of their letters were filled with Abraxas’s parents’ worries that Hyperion would never find a wife—his personality was a tad off-putting. (He must have eventually married after I’d disappeared into Albania, because I never met his wife or learned of Margo’s birth until now.) I disregarded this fluff, as I cared not for Hyperion’s status in life.

The most dramatic events I heard from the Malfoys were the death of Abraxas’s parents, followed by his marriage and the birth of Lucius. I observed the child closely and watched him grow up to be much like his father. Before I began my travels in researching Dark magic, I told Abraxas that Lucius would need to become a Death Eater when he was of age. Abraxas beamed with pride.

Lucius followed in his father’s footsteps, as the saying goes, and I trusted him enough to safeguard my diary before I departed to throw myself into the Dark Arts. Though I knew he could properly protect the Horcrux, I did not tell him that my trip had been prompted by a failed attempt at becoming the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. I wanted to be back at Hogwarts, learning whatever magical processes I could at the school and passing on my vast knowledge to future generations. Unfortunately, the venerated Dumbledore did not trust me with his students, and even went so far as to tell me I didn’t want to teach—though he didn’t know exactly what I was up to, he did realize that my motives were not entirely pedagogical.

I was incensed. No one said no to Lord Voldemort. No one denied me that which I desired. But there was Albus Dumbledore, thwarting my plans, and seeming to gloat in doing so. 

I disappeared shortly thereafter, only resurfacing to begin my first reign of terror after I had created and hidden all of my Horcruxes. Abraxas was the first of my followers to join me, accompanied by a teenage Lucius, his girlfriend Narcissa, and Narcissa’s older sister Bellatrix. Though Bellatrix was engaged to Rodolphus Lestrange, she suddenly became more interested in me. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. I’d never had a girlfriend, nor expressed interest in one, though I had bedded a fair amount of willing witches at Hogwarts. I enjoyed the act, but I’d never cared for any of my partners; the weakness of love was a distraction from productivity and success. And I would never let a girl convince me otherwise.

Bellatrix and Rodolphus soon married and became valuable Death Eaters, so the loyalties of the girl’s heart didn’t matter to me. She was pretty, though. I may have been the most powerful Dark wizard in the world, but I was also a man. And I did have certain needs that had not been met in quite some time. At her insistence, I began bedding her every so often when Rodolphus was not paying attention. Which was quite often. The boy was clueless. And even if he hadn’t been clueless, Bellatrix insisted that her husband was carrying on with a female werewolf. He was rumored to have fathered a child with the lycan, which gave Bellatrix every right to shag other wizards if she chose. I didn’t need to know her motivations for jumping into bed with me; she knew it was a purely physical venture and nothing more. We’d only run into problems if she tried to make the arrangement something more.

Though an enjoyable activity, frolicking in between the sheets with Bellatrix was not my biggest focus—I needed control. Authority. My forces grew over the next couple of years, replete with werewolves, trolls, giants, and the like. I was drunk on power and determined to amass as much of it as possible.

And then I received a letter from Lucius and his now-wife Narcissa, telling me that Abraxas was dead. I was aggravated that I had lost my first and best Death Eater. His son seemed relatively useful, but he hadn’t lived long enough to serve me for as many years as his father had done. I certainly couldn’t share in Lucius’s grief; my mother had died giving birth to me and I had murdered my father and grandparents for abandoning me. I couldn’t exactly offer sympathy to the grieving Lucius. I traveled to Malfoy Manor for an afternoon to offer Lucius “support”—really, to see if any of the mourners could one day join my ranks. I wasn’t drenched in despair like the rest of them. It was a boring, awkward experience.

I had never felt a deep attachment to Abraxas, but I had appreciated his admiration. His devotion to me had always been two-pronged, however: he enjoyed my company while also viewing me as a status symbol. A frightfully insecure boy underneath all the bravado, he’d latched onto anything and anyone that would elevate his social status...and I had been the ultimate prize. He, like many of my followers, carried this mentality throughout his life.

The apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. 

I didn’t respect Lucius as much as I’d respected his father, but he had his uses. He was a revered, wealthy Pureblood wizard like his father had been, he could follow orders well enough, and he was a decent host. I knew I could stay with him until I’d figured out how to regain my independence.

Though some less-than-human piece of me was floating around in Albania, more than likely possessing the bodies of snakes to stay mobile, I wasn’t up-to-date on the events of this new time period. I needed to remedy this. 

Reading the Malfoys’ copy of The Daily Prophet after breakfast became a morning ritual. I typically took my meals with the Malfoys—less from a desire to socialize and more from an interest in observing their dynamic—and then I brought the paper to my room. 

This venture turned out to be the best way to learn of current events. I kept each newspaper Lucius passed to me and read through them all several times before disposing of them, in order to become knowledgeable about the happenings of 1993.

In some ways, magic hadn’t changed much—unlike what I’d seen as a child in the Muggle world, magical folk were not obsessed with advancing technological processes as quickly as possible to appear flashy and inventive. Everyone still wrote with feather quills and possessed ample rolls of parchment. What was the purpose of changing that? Magic was, in some ways, infinitely more sophisticated than Muggle technology. We could Apparate, send mail by owl without knowing the recipient’s location, and use wands to complete most household tasks with ease. 

Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, seemed reasonably competent if not a bit skittish. He had begun sensing danger over the past year, but refused to accept the possibility of defeat against me—especially considering that no one knew who had killed Harry Potter and where the boy’s body lay. Many people were speculating that I may have been involved, but no one had a scrap of evidence. As usual, I had set a trap and left everyone wringing their hands. The Prophet featured sporadic editorials speculating my whereabouts and possible culpability in Potter’s death, but no one’s ideas were anywhere near the truth—these people just wanted to feel important and make their voices heard. Some even blamed Fudge for not being proactive enough in searching for the Chamber of Secrets.

I found one particular editorial highly amusing. It was from a woman who believed that she alone possessed the sleuthing skills required to solve the all the biggest mysteries of the day. She rambled on about her friendship with Fudge, her certainty that Slytherin’s heir was a current Hogwarts student, and her fear that my followers would one day infiltrate the Ministry because Fudge wouldn’t face the truth.

All in good time, dear lady. All in good time. 

From the more serious sections of the paper, I also learned that Albus Dumbledore was still Headmaster of Hogwarts. Though this angered me, I wasn’t surprised; Dumbledore was a brilliant wizard and had always been able to wield immense influence over the school. I would have to keep a close watch on the events at the institution in order to infiltrate it one day.

Dumbledore would, of course, have to be eliminated. Though I would love to be the one to kill him, I didn’t want to attempt this at Hogwarts. His territory. He would likely have all manner of protections in place to shield himself from an attack, making it impractical for me to provoke him. I couldn’t chance running into one of his traps...getting injured in one of the many tricks up the old man’s sleeve...it wasn’t worth the risk. Someone else would probably have to do it for me—someone already inside the school. I stowed that fact in the back of my mind while I read the paper each morning.

I chuckled as I read article after article speculating on the whereabouts of the Chamber of Secrets and its dead occupants. Dumbledore had considered closing Hogwarts after my four victims had disappeared into its depths—especially since his precious Harry had been among them—but too many people had begged for the institution to remain open, especially given that there had been no further attacks. They wondered if perhaps Potter’s death had been the end goal, which was why the Chamber was now dormant!

Aurors and other Ministry workers pledged to double their efforts to locate the Chamber anyway, and some even volunteered to escort students to class to shield them from danger. Danger that had passed and would likely never surface again. I had already achieved what I’d set out to do inside the Chamber; I didn’t actually wantto kill magical children, apart from Harry. Ginny and Company had simply been collateral damage.

Despite the somber tone of the Prophet upon the death of Harry and his friends, a gossip-column writer named Rita Skeeter was apparently running her mouth all over the newspaper. This couple got married, that one got divorced, this crotchety old codger finally died, this witch had an affair with that wizard and her son was traumatized. Why was Rita so interested in such trivialities? One would think that, as a middle-aged woman (though she appeared to be attempting to look much younger in her photos), she would have matured past teenage-level nattering to make herself feel important, but she had not. And people ate up this drivel with their breakfast every morning.

And then my Death Eaters wonder why I find most people boring. Asinine, the lot of them. Always trying to impress each other to maintain their imaginary status in life. 

Speaking of which...I found it humorous that Lucius always strutted about as if he owned every piece of land he set foot on, but suddenly had no idea how to act in his own home simply because I was under his roof. And immortal. I don’t think he was jealous of my newfound powers; he simply couldn’t stand not being in control. He was perched atop a house of cards manifested in his financial standing and Pureblood status which, though revered, could easily crumble if he made a large enough mistake. As proud as he was, his greatest fear was falling from grace and losing the iron-grip of control he desperately needed over his privilege and reputation. And it was suddenly much easier for him to slip with Lord Voldemort watching his every move.

Narcissa, on the other hand, was walking a tightrope no matter who was in her home. She didn’t work, so she depended on Lucius to maintain her family’s wealth. She took comfort in the widespread knowledge that her husband had the Minister of Magic wrapped around his little finger. And, like her husband, she was terrified that her life of luxury would one day end. She needed the safety of her privilege to feel secure about herself.

Lucius and Narcissa fed off of each other’s insecurities and enabled each other; so, naturally, their son Draco was an arrogant little prat. He once pretended not to know I was in the room while he loudly bragged to Lucius about having (almost) the highest in marks for his class—second only to one Hermione Granger, otherwise known as That Filthy Little Mudblood who refused to respect him. He wanted me to hear his words and praise him, but of course I didn’t. He didn’t deserve the satisfaction. If he wanted my praise, he would have to work for it. And he would have to do much more than study hard at Hogwarts for two years.

I suspected that Draco secretly fancied Hermione, given that he complained about her all summer, but he would rather die than admit it. Lucius told me that during the previous summer, when Draco hadn’t been moaning and groaning about Saint Potter, Granger was always the target of his insults. Lucius and Narcissa listened patiently while their bratty son went on and on about the gross injustices he faced at Hogwarts, having to stand in the unfairly-long shadows of Harry and his friends. After all this time, they were sick of hearing the same words over and over again. (And, quite frankly, so was I.) Potter was dead now, anyway. Why was Draco still prattling on about the boy? 

Margo was never present during Draco’s whining sessions—she knew him well enough to spot the exact moment his facial expression changed to Complaining Mode, and immediately skirted off to her room. Where she spent a great deal of time.

When she wasn’t perusing children’s books, she was relaxing by herself or going for walks with Narcissa. She was a peculiar girl, uninterested in toys made for children her age. I had not been, either; I’d been more focused on surviving and, once a Hogwarts student, devouring every book and magical process I could get my hands on. On some unspoken level, Margo and I understood each other.

The household dynamic shifted as Draco returned to Hogwarts for his third year. The Manor was quieter, and I often had the property to myself when Lucius worked and Narcissa took Margo for a trip out to the country. Draco wrote home often, complaining in his letters as much as he did at home. It became a habit for Lucius to read his son’s letters aloud to me over lunch, so I could get a better idea of what was going on at the school. I had to hold back a surge of laughter when I learned that my 1943 fall boy Rubeus Hagrid was now teaching Care of Magical Creatures...and one of his beasts had landed young Draco in the hospital wing with a broken arm. Lucius was furious, assuming that the villainous Hippogriff had attacked his poor, innocent son for no reason. I found his theory hard to believe, given Draco’s penchant for antagonizing humans and animals alike, but I allowed Lucius to go on a tirade over his precious child’s (easily healed) injury, thinking I actually cared. It was free entertainment. 

In other news, Draco’s imaginary girlfriend was on a rampage to avenge her best friends’ deaths. While listening to this content in Draco’s letters, I readied myself for a missive about another of Harry’s dopey friends...only to be met, instead, with the knowledge that this Granger girl had discovered more about the Chamber of Secrets than anyone before her. I was taken aback. My blood ran cold as Lucius told me of Hermione’s discovery, that the basilisk had been Petrifying students after traveling through the school’s plumbing.

I hadn’t the faintest idea how she’d figured that out. Draco’s words presented Hermione’s discovery as a ridiculous conspiracy theory, but I knew better.

This girl was clearly no Parselmouth, or she would have already attempted to locate and kill the basilisk, but I feared that she’d be able to learn more of my secrets if she kept investigating. Despite the fact that no one believed her, I still worried. I would definitely have to kill the girl if she discovered too much. If I returned to Hogwarts in the next four years, maybe I could set the basilisk on her! That would be a delicious roast of poetic justice. 

But maybe I didn’t need to worry. The girl was thirteen and likely incapable of wielding any measurable influence over Hogwarts. And even if someone in power did believe her, what could they do about it? The basilisk was back in hibernation inside its enclosure in the Chamber. No one, not even Hermione, knew where the Chamber was or how to open it. Lucius also remained ignorant on the particulars of the past year’s destruction, and therefore had no idea that Hermione’s conjecture was correct. I resolved to keep my thoughts to myself unless given a reason to do otherwise.

I couldn’t afford to ruminate on the girl’s suspicions, anyway; I needed to begin the process of rebuilding my ranks. 

Some were surely in hiding. Maybe others had been jolted out of a fool’s paradise upon seeing their Dark Marks blacken after several years. Others were likely frothing at the mouth, awaiting some imaginary reward for their undying loyalty. Learning everyone’s true colors would certainly be an adventure. 

I informed Lucius that he was to assist me in breaking the Lestranges out of Azkaban one weekend. They were my most trusted followers, and it would not do to have them rot in prison. Though Lucius was mildly fond of his sister-in-law, if not a bit scared of her, he was flabbergasted upon hearing my plan.

“How are we to achieve this, my Lord?” he asked with immense trepidation.

“We fly, of course,” I replied cheerfully. “Surely, you possess a broomstick or two?” 

“I—yes, my Lord. I have a couple left over from—”

“Splendid. We will fly to Azkaban together and break open their cells. I don’t want Bellatrix to see me at first, as she may grow distracted and stall us for long enough that she is re-captured, so I will stay out of her line of sight once we’ve located her cell. You will blast it open, have her get on your broom while I break open Rodolphus’s cell, and follow me back here. We’re going together in case we run into trouble and need to duel. You will retrieve their wands from the Ministry when you return to work on Monday.” 

“My Lord, it is the middle of December—”

“Haven’t you heard of a warming spell? Come off it, Lucius. Don’t be a coward. Are you a Death Eater or not?”

“Yes, yes, of course I am. As you wish, my Lord. When do we leave?” 

“Right now.” 

Lucius had to bite down another shudder of alarm, after which he nodded curtly and Summoned two broomsticks.

It was a typical blustery December day. The journey to Azkaban was rough, but we arrived unscathed.

We had to circle the prison several times before locating Bellatrix’s cell. When Lucius finally spotted her, he dove down toward it and shouted, “BOMBARDA MAXIMA!” The cell’s outer wall and window shattered and fell into the ocean below. Bellatrix screamed in shock and bewilderment at seeing her brother-in-law. She did not notice me hovering about ten feet away.

“LUCIUS!” she screamed over the howling wind. “HOW DID YOU—”

“I’LL EXPLAIN LATER! THERE’S NO TIME! GET ON!” 

Bellatrix staggered out of her cell and, quite clumsily, positioned herself behind Lucius on his broomstick.

“WHERE’S RODOLPHUS?” Lucius demanded. 

“I DON’T KNOW! ARE YOU GOING TO BREAK HIM OUT, TOO?” 

At that moment, several Dementors began circling Bellatrix’s ruined cell. We couldn’t stay.

“WE’LL HAVE TO COME BACK FOR HIM ANOTHER TIME!” I called out to Lucius. 

“BUT CAN’T YOU—”

“I’M SORRY, BELLATRIX, BUT THERE’S NO TIME! WE NEED TO LEAVE! NOW!” Lucius yelled.

And then there was no sound, other than the wind. 

“WHO’S THAT?” I heard her shout as we made our getaway.

“A FRIEND OF MINE!” Lucius replied, as I’d instructed him—if he’d revealed my identity at this point, she could make a scene and ruin our plans. She might even fall off the broom in shock. As well-behaved as she normally was, there was no telling what years in Azkaban had done to her mind. She would need ample time to recover. 

We had the wind at our backs as we returned to Malfoy Manor, so the flight took considerably less time. 

“Who’s your friend?!” she hissed as we walked to the front gate. I’d deliberately stayed in front of them the entire time, not saying a word. 

“Just wait,” he whispered.

“I’ve been waiting! Why can’t you just—”

“Shhhhh. Calm yourself.”

I smirked at her anticipation, but refused to turn around and reveal myself. I needed to wait until everyone was indoors.

Once secured inside the Malfoy fortress, Lucius cast warming and cleansing spells on Bellatrix to make her appear (and smell) slightly more presentable. No one could look completely normal in an Azkaban uniform, especially after having spent a decade in the prison’s halls of misery; but as long as she was here, she was safe. I slowly removed my winter gear as Lucius cast his spells.

“Who are you?” she called out. “Why did you help Lucius break me out? Why won’t you reveal yourself? I need to know who—”

I slowly turned to face her.

She gasped so loudly, I thought she might have a heart attack. It was hard not to laugh as one hand flew to her gaping mouth and the other to her heart. And my, how her thoughts were racing. 

Is that HIM? How does he look so young?! How was he able to rescue me? I KNEW he’d come for me one day! I can’t EVER let him down! I will prove my loyalty to him again, in any way I can, for the rest of my life! And oh, Merlin, is he gorgeous...I’d still love to—  

And then she fainted. 

Lucius grabbed her just before she hit the ground, and helped her into a nearby chair. I regarded her thoughtfully as she regained her composure—what was left of it, anyway. Azkaban had certainly left its mark on my once-valiant warrior.

We stared at each other in crackling silence until she spoke.

“My Lord, I—I knew you had resurfaced! My Dark Mark had been growing more visible over the past several months! I knew it wouldn’t be long before you’d come for me! I—”

“Bella, dear, relax,” I replied softly. “You’ve been through quite an ordeal. My first order for you is to rest and regain your strength. That could take weeks. Months, even.” 

“But I want to help you—” 

“Bella, that is an order.” I smiled faintly. “If you truly want to help me, help yourself grow strong again. Your brother-in-law is hosting me for as long as I need, so I will know if you're resting properly or not.”

She gasped—probably less at my instructions and more at the prospect of us living under the same roof—and quickly bowed her head. “Yes, my Lord,” she breathed. Lucius led her away to another guest room.

Bellatrix was probably mortified when she looked in the mirror—she mightn’t have wanted me to see her just yet, had she known exactly how disheveled she was.

Despite her appearance, I could tell that she was still beautiful under the wear and tear of Azkaban imprisonment. So she was sporting more gray hair and had lost a fair amount of weight since I’d last seen her, and she looked positively ragged. So she looked older than her forty-seven years. That wasn’t a problem; she would surely regain some of her former vitality once she'd settled in. The Malfoys would feed her well, buy her some new robes, and offer emotional support during her recovery. 

I distanced myself from Bellatrix for the first few weeks she spent at the Manor; I didn’t want her hanging off my arm and thinking more about my approval than her health. I had Narcissa tell her that I didn’t want to be disturbed (which was true, regardless) and that she needed to take time to recuperate. She reluctantly agreed after putting up a fight—which, in her weakened state, meant raising her voice and waving her arms around like a lunatic for about five minutes before she suddenly grew tired and needed to sit down. I only heard about this behavior through the Malfoys; they knew I had no interest in witnessing such a spectacle. 

I smiled as I thought back on the past several months. I had used my brilliance, patience, and persuasiveness to take the necessary steps to rise from one of my Horcruxes. I had rendered myself immortal. I had finally fulfilled the prophecy from all those years ago and killed my mortal enemy through my control over the basilisk. I had a place to stay, with no fear of being discovered. And I had my most trusted followers all under one roof.

In addition, I had more knowledge at my fingertips than most wizards would ever have. As the only immortal soul alive, forever young and strong, I was the greatest sorcerer in the world. I was finally on my way to realizing my lifelong goals of infinite knowledge, superhuman capability, and profound influence over magical folk. Protected through my Horcruxes, I was interminably more powerful than any wizard, past or present. And that would never change. I really was quite extraordinary. 

Nothing would stop me now.

Chapter Text

Better stand tall when they’re calling you out
Don’t bend, don’t break
Baby, don’t back down 

—Bon Jovi ~ “It’s My Life”

 

I bounced out of bed at seven in the morning on September 1. I’d barely slept, but my adrenaline was pumping too hard for me to be tired. Once I’d stretched and taken a few deep breaths to try and center myself, I silently crept around the room and began to gather my things. I was all packed by the time Morgan woke up. My parents were pleasantly surprised. 

We had a strained, quiet breakfast before hugging Grandma Rosie goodbye and leaving for King’s Cross station. 

I grew nervous as we approached Platform 9¾—one, because running headfirst at a brick wall was terrifying, even with my family doing it with me; and two, I had a feeling that I’d be the only American going to the British magic school. My parents assured me that as long as I behaved, I would settle in just fine. They promised that we would write often. I nodded and made my way onto the train.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I sat in an empty compartment. My hopes of being left alone vanished when a small brown-haired girl poked her head in the doorway.

“Is this seat taken?” she asked timidly.

I shook my head. I didn’t want to speak unless absolutely necessary, to delay the inevitable shock over my accent.

She cautiously sat down opposite me, and we sat in awkward silence for a moment. 

“I’m Melinda Roberts,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Alex Halaway.” 

“Are you a first year?”

“Mhm. You?”

“Yes. I’m a little nervous. Are you?” 

“Yeah. I think my parents expect a lot, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Her eyes widened. “Are you American?” 

Here we go. “Yeah. I know it’s weird that I’m not going to Ilvermorny; but my mother is from England, so I got a letter from Hogwarts. I guess it’s ‘cause I’m half English.”

“That makes sense. Do you know anyone from England?” 

“No. All the kids I know are going to Ilvermorny.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll make some friends.” She smiled.

Seems like a nice girl. At least ONE person doesn’t care about my nationality.

“Do you know what house you want to be in?” I asked.

“I hope I’ll be in Gryffindor. Everyone in my family has been. I don’t know what I’ll do if I get sorted anywhere else!” 

Oh, make me vomit. “A lot of my mom’s family was, too. And Ravenclaw. We all think I’ll be a Ravenclaw.”

Though I desperately wanted to be alone with my thoughts, I forced myself to engage in small talk with Melinda until we arrived at school. It was good practice for all the socializing I would soon have to do.

*   *   * 

My eyes widened as the boats took all the first years across the lake to Hogwarts.

“Wow, it’s so pretty!” Melinda breathed.

“It’s...so big,” I replied, unable to tear my eyes away from the large and looming castle. My heart pounded. My palms were sweaty. If I could have, I would have forgotten to blink.

All the other first years seemed to share my feelings as we assembled in the Great Hall, right before the Sorting Hat began to sing. Professor McGonagall, the Deputy Headmistress, then called all the first years to the front of the hall to be sorted. The process seemed to take forever, and I began zoning out until I heard McGonagall call out, “HALAWAY, ALEXANDRA!” 

I cautiously approached the Sorting Hat and sat down to await my placement. My nerves had calmed considerably as I realized that no one could hear what the Sorting Hat said to each student before Sorting them—I’d initially been terrified of a character assassination and was already planning my exit strategy by the time the first child in my class walked up to the Hat. Thankfully, my panic had been for nothing.

The Hat talked about how different I was from my mother, whom the Hat had remembered as a cautious but studious Ravenclaw. It then remarked that I seemed ambitious to the exclusion of a desire for a social life and unconcerned with the welfare of others, more so than almost any student to ever study at Hogwarts. This was apparently an interesting combination of traits.

Gee, what a surprise. I’m always more like this or less like that than everyone else, and my standing out is so memorable that we have to make a huge fuss over it. Even with an ancient hat. Gag me. Just say Ravenclaw and get me out of here. I really hate all these people staring at me. 

“Are you sure, Little Miss Grouchy?” the Hat replied inside my head, in a teasing tone. “You certainly have the intelligence of a Ravenclaw, but might you be trying to do what’s expected of you to avoid more disapproval?”

I’m not trying to do anything; Ravenclaw just seems ideal, I thought to the Hat. I’m smart and I like books.

“That which seems ideal is not necessarily the best choice, you know.”

I opened my mouth to sigh in exasperation, but the Hat’s booming voice startled me into silence. 

“Better be...SLYTHERIN!” 

Wait—what? 

The Slytherins clapped as I approached their table. I appreciated their warm welcome, but silently grew worried. As far as I knew, there had never been a Slytherin, or the American equivalent, in my family. This did not bode well. 

I sat down in the first empty chair I spotted. Like my new Housemates, I clapped every time a new student joined us. It felt nice, compared to the past three nerve-wracking hours. This ritual also allowed me to easily copy what everyone else was doing and therefore blend in. Even as a temporary arrangement, it was a relief.

The peaceful feeling didn’t last long, though. Everyone was chatty, so I couldn’t remain silent forever; especially when course schedules were passed around. I tried to bury my face in the parchment to signal that I was more interested in academics than people, but I eventually had to introduce myself and make conversation. And thus followed everyone’s shock at my being American, and their subsequent suspicions about why I wasn’t at Ilvermorny. The dynamic of these interactions followed the my lifelong pattern: a person questioning the validity of something I couldn’t control, and then growing offended when I became angry with their offensive behavior. Behavior that they had the privilege of seeing as harmless. I couldn’t even have one day at school without such a dynamic. I was seething all through Professor Dumbledore’s announcements, and it took an enormous amount of energy to pay attention.

As a result, I was feeling even less friendly than usual by the time the Headmaster dismissed us to our dormitories for the night. I didn’t want people to stare at me or ask me why I was at Hogwarts. It wasn’t as if I’d pushed my way in; I’d received a letter, just like everyone else! Somehow, my Housemates didn’t believe me and treated me as if I didn’t deserve to be there. I was floored. How could I, at ten years old, possibly have rigged a magical school system to change where I was meant to study? I was angry that I didn’t know any complex spells. If I did, I undoubtedly would have started cursing every person who made fun of my accent or asked me why I wasn’t back in America where I belonged. 

Blending in would take a lot more effort than I’d initially thought. Not only did I have to put on a face, but I also had to deflect an ungodly amount of scrutiny that no other children were facing. And I didn’t want to be a little goody-two-shoes, tattling to teachers every five seconds to complain about yet another student who was harassing me for my nationality—that would make me stand out even more. I needed to figure out a way to fight this battle myself. 

Not knowing how to fix this problem, I found myself feeling frighteningly insecure. This enraged me. I was supposed to have left that behind when I got away from my family! How could I settle in at Hogwarts and make friends when everyone around me assumed that I didn’t belong as soon as I opened my mouth? How could I assert myself and convince my classmates that insulting me was not worth their while?

These were the thoughts I pondered as I drew my curtains and climbed into bed that night, deadly quiet while all my new Housemates chattered excitedly, getting to know each other. None of them were interested in including me. Angry tears slid down my cheeks for a while before I finally fell asleep.

*   *   *

I woke up feeling raw inside. My emotions were catapulting this way and that like an acrobat inside my body. Though I was excited to finally begin my classes, I kept hearing my parents’ voices, warning me how easily I could make a bad impression and how hard it was to repair a shattered reputation. As if I weren’t already painfully aware. Could I pull this off? Would I be able to find all my classes without getting lost and looking stupid? Would my teachers like me? Would I be expelled or held back a year if I angered the wrong person? 

I realized I could only mentally prepare myself so much. As much as I was a bundle of frayed nerves, I needed to just take a deep breath and roll with it.

My first class of the morning was Transfiguration. I wasn’t sure what to make of Professor McGonagall, whom I recognized from the Sorting ceremony—she was clearly strict, but she also seemed to genuinely care about all of her students. And given my performance in the first lesson that day, she definitely could tell that I had begun studying over the summer. My hard work earned me five points for Slytherin. I was beaming as I hurried to the Potions classroom. 

I liked that Potions was close to the Slytherin dungeons, and Professor Snape’s classroom felt like a small dungeon all by itself. It was cozy. (But I knew better than to tell my Housemates I considered a dungeon cozy.) 

Snape seemed like a loveless McGonagall, but I didn’t mind. He favored the Slytherins anyway, as Head of House, so I had a bit of privilege there regardless of my talent in the subject. Unfortunately, this also meant that I felt a lot of pressure to uphold the Slytherin reputation in his classroom. I made a few mistakes out of nervousness before mentally berating myself to concentrate. A Gryffindor boy’s completed boil-cure potion was slightly better than mine, but Snape still acknowledged my finished product with a quiet “Well done, Miss Halaway,” and a brief upward twich of his mouth. I smiled politely in response. 

The rest of my classes passed in the same manner. During moments of quiet, I snuck glances at the other students and realized that everyone appeared just as nervous as I was. I hadn’t even considered that possibility. It made me feel a bit silly, thinking that I would be more nervous than everyone else, but I was also the only foreigner. I had every right to think the stakes would be higher for me—as they often were back home. 

As persistent as my predicament was, my insecurity didn’t last nearly as long as I’d thought it would. Within a few weeks, I’d gotten into the swing of things, and actually started to feel comfortable...with myself, at least. Some of my teachers were uneasy around me, while others adored me and sung my praises at every opportunity because of my studiousness and wonderful marks. Having a leg up on the other students gradually dulled my fears over my social status to a manageable level. I was still quite melancholy, but I wasn’t terrified to the point that it threatened to interfere with my studying. Using my classwork as an escape from my social problems worked beautifully—until the occasional moments I actually wanted someone to talk to. Then the absence of comrades grew too large to ignore. 

Making friends still eluded me. I stood out too much from the other students, both for my accent and my demeanor. No matter how hard I tried to copy what others were doing, blending in never worked. Part of the reason behind my social awkwardness was that deep down, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be social, outside of sporadic moments. Interacting with people drained me. It took me a month just to learn all of my fellow first-year Slytherins’ names, and getting to know them took even longer. (I didn’t even bother with the older kids.)

Ashlee Randall and Monica Hollingsworth were neighbors who had been best friends since they were seven. They were both loud and outgoing, and laughed often. Jon Picquery was the classic cool kid strutting about the castle like he was invincible, Josh Thundercloud and Levi Gordon were his sidekicks, and Mark Smither was the resident goofball. Amy Martin, the mischievous girly girl, was quickly developing a crush on said goofball. Sarah Ernestine, Justin Bender, Leah Montgomery, Jessica West, and Felix Jackson were all fairly quiet and spent most of their free time huddled together by the windows of the common room, murmuring to each other as they watched the mermaids swim by. I flitted among them all here and there, trying to see where I’d fit best: the answer was nowhere. I just kept trying, hoping that my efforts at integrating would eventually pay off. Maybe one day, someone would remark, “You know, that girl Alex really isn’t so bad. I want to get to know her better.”

The thrill of my accent had worn down a bit by the time Halloween approached; but I had, unfortunately, already made my mark on the student body. Just because my voice was no longer a big deal didn’t mean that my classmates found my nationality acceptable. I thought it ridiculous. For one, we don’t choose where we’re born; and two, Felix’s family had moved to England from Uganda when he was nine and his father relocated for work—but no one was making fun of his accent. No one asked him why he wasn’t studying at Uagadou instead of Hogwarts. Did my classmates have a problem with foreigners, or did they only have a problem with me?

I heard everything from “Why do you pronounce that word that way? That sounds so stupid!” to “Go back to your country! You shouldn’t be here, American! Your people don’t even speak English properly!” I felt cursed somehow; as if no matter what I did, how well I behaved, or how accurately I mimicked normal behavior, it would never matter because it was still me—I had already been branded an outcast. My classmates made it abundantly clear that I could never redeem myself and become part of the group.

I eventually got into a routine of talking to my Housemates at mealtimes and in the common room, but I always had to try so much harder than they did to keep up with the flow of conversation. No one actively chose to include me; I was the last person anyone wanted to talk to, so I had to fight my way in if I wanted to join a discussion. I often sat back and observed everyone else to see what I was doing wrong, and I saw many other kids jumping into conversations and being welcomed. Why not me? Why could other kids flounce in out of nowhere and ask, “What are you talking about?” and be included without hesitation; but if did that, I received only dirty looks, as if I’d been eavesdropping? 

I figured that if I kept doing what everybody else was doing, my classmates would eventually ease up around me. I resolved to continue my efforts at socializing, regardless of how much energy it took from me, and my efforts finally paid off to some extent. By the end of October, my Housemates began to at least tolerate me without looking aggravated every time I approached them. 

Though frequent, these interactions never materialized into friendships. Since I wasn’t a naturally social person, my attempts at making conversation were almost always forced and awkward. Even the other introverts didn’t know how to react to me. I think everyone could tell on some level that I was faking everything, since I so clearly preferred to keep to myself, but I also grew angry and resentful as I watched my other classmates make friends. They all settled in and found their own cliques easily—why wasn’t this happening to me? Was I really thatbad at blending in? Were they resentful of my good grades? Were they jealous of my intelligence? I briefly considered slacking on my schoolwork to see if that would garner me some respect among my classmates, but the thought terrified me. I needed to prove myself and be the best I could, at whatever I could. I was tired of being at the bottom of the barrel. 

Paralyzing insecurity was soon replaced by boiling rage. I could barely hold myself together most days, and I got to a point where I thought I would explode from holding everything inside.

And then the bullying started.

The more subtle rejection came from my Housemates. Though they didn’t mind speaking to me, they would exclude me when planning to spend time together. Their attitude was You convinced us to tolerate you, and now you also want to hang outwith us? You ungrateful little brat. Take what you can get and be thankful it’s not worse. They clearly didn’t want that creepy American—according to Felix and Sarah’s hushed voices one day when I passed them in the library—making everyone uncomfortable with her weird accent and bookish tendencies.

I confronted my Housemates in early November, but they denied any wrongdoing. They weren’t ostracizing me; I was just being overly suspicious and finding meanings where there weren’t any! They definitely would have invited me to study with them if they’d thought I’d actually wanted to join! (Not like they’d given me the option.) My inexperience with advanced magic was the only thing that stopped me from hexing them all. I did, however, fantasize about hurting them on countless occasions. This made me feel better, especially since I knew that they couldn’t read my thoughts.

The more overt harassment came from a group of older Gryffindor girls who wanted to put the lonely little Slytherin in her place so they could feel superior. (Remind me again why the House of Godric Gryffindor is so greatly revered?) It started off with small things—one of them deliberately bumping into me in the hallway and apologizing in such an overly-friendly manner that only I could tell it was fake, but the teachers couldn’t. Then it progressed to running into me and knocking books out of my hands, which of course was an accident because they were panicked about being late for class, which is why they’d been running! They were so sorry they’d slammed into me! And, oh, if only they weren’t running late, they would stay and help me pick my scattered books off the floor! Best of luck, Alex!

This insidiousness continued to escalate for the next month, until I finally snapped. I was exiting the library one Friday evening when a foot appeared out of nowhere and sent me sprawling. My cauldron went sailing from my grasp as my hands and knees made contact with the stone floor, and I screamed in pain. When I looked up, I saw Nicole DeLuca, the leader of the girls who had been bothering me. Her smirk was disappearing into an expression of false concern the instant I turned around. 

“Oh, Merlin, I’m SO sorry!” she gushed, sounding more giddy than guilty. Her exaggerated tone was so over the top, she made me feel like a professional actress. “Do you want help picking up your books?”

“No,” I replied curtly. Yeah, like I’d trust you NOT to rip my homework to pieces. 

“Are you sure?” she asked with feathery softness. She knelt down and reached for my History of Magic textbook.

BANG.

I swung my cauldron as hard as I could and hit her in the head. She grunted and collapsed. 

The subsequent adrenaline rush that flooded my veins halted my breath. I was shaking. My heart raced as the realization hit me: I wanted Nicole in pain. I wanted her incapacitated. I wanted her dead.I was ten years old and I wanted to commit murder with every fiber of my being. 

Should I whack her in the head a few more times? Is there a killing spell? If I knew it, could I get away with it? No one’s here.... 

I shook my head and scoffed at my ridiculous thoughts. Killing another student and getting away with it? Please. THAT’S a surefire way to get expelled. And arrested. I resolved to make a run for it and hope no one could connect me to Nicole’s head injury. As I began hastily packing up my books, a voice startled me. I dropped my cauldron like it was boiling hot. 

“MISS HALAWAY! What have you—ex—EXPLAIN YOURSELF!!” Professor McGonagall shouted. 

“She hurt me!” I held up my reddened hands. “She tripped me and I fell! I—I grabbed onto her and took her with me because I just needed to hold something! I was trying to stay upright!”

“So why did you abandon your cauldron as if it contained poison as soon as I spoke? What were you doing with it that you didn’t want me to see?” Her gaze traveled to the growing bump on Nicole’s temple. “Merlin’s beard! You hit her on the head, didn’t you!” 

“I—it was self-defense, Professor—” 

“You tripped over her foot—”

“She tripped me on purpose!” What is this, Dump On Slytherins Day?! 

“—and after you took her down with you, you also felt the need to assault her with your cauldron?! You expect me to believe a story like that?!”

“Professor, she’s been bothering me for—” 

“Miss DeLuca is an exemplary student who has never even required ONE detention in the three and a half years she’s been at Hogwarts! I don’t know what made you think she deserved to be punished for your clumsiness—”

“I AM NOT CLUMSY!!” 

“Shouting at a Professor and assaulting a fellow student? That is utterly unacceptable! Detention, Miss Halaway! For a week! And you will accompany me in escorting Miss DeLuca to the hospital wing!” 

My heart dropped. 

“I will be contacting your parents in the morning as well,” she continued as she levitated the fallen girl and directed her body to the infirmary. You have committed a serious offense. We do not tolerate such behavior at Hogwarts. You must learn.”

Hot tears welled up and began rolling down my cheeks. This was beyond unfair. My parents had wasted so much time lecturing me about my bad behavior toward others, but there had not been one discussion about what I should do if someone else mistreated me.They only considered the possibility that I would be the aggressor.

Even though I knew my actions toward Nicole had been justified, I had a sinking feeling that my parents would react just like McGonagall: they wouldn’t believe me, either. In any scuffle of mine, I was never a victim and always a perpetrator. And this concept was not up for debate.

“What on Earth are you crying about?!” McGonagall clipped, snapping me back to the present. “You attacked a classmate! She’s the one who should be crying—when she comes to, of course! And there’s no telling when that might be, depending on how hard you hit her!”

“P-professor, I’m telling the truth. She attacked me. I just fought back.”

“I don’t believe you, Miss Halaway. You acted guilty when you realized you’d been caught. You will serve detention with me every night after dinner for the next seven days. I am also deducting twenty points from Slytherin.”

“But—”

“And you will not speak to me again until class tomorrow morning, or I will add more days to your punishment.”

I bit my lip hard as more tears fell.

“Stop crying, child. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s only detention!”

McGonagall looked visibly rattled. How could she be more disturbed by my behavior than Nicole’s? Wouldn’t she want to whack someone over the head if they harassed her for weeks with impunity? 

“Oh my goodness, Minerva! What happened?” exclaimed Madam Pomfrey as we stepped into the infirmary with Nicole’s floating body.

“Miss Halaway,” McGonagall replied, spitting my name like a curse, “hit Miss DeLuca on the head with her cauldron after tripping over her, rendering the poor girl unconscious. She insists it was self-defense, but her behavior indicates otherwise.”

“What—you—what a dreadful thing!” Madam Pomfrey’s face contorted into a visage of sheer disgust as she regarded me. I glared back at her, refusing to be intimidated further. The nurse flinched. “Yes, yes, bring her here,” she stammered, suddenly afraid of meeting my gaze as she gestured for McGonagall to set my victim onto one of the beds.

“You are excused, Miss Halaway,” McGonagall said curtly. “Return to your dormitory immediately. And do not forget detention tomorrow night.”

I bowed my head and scurried out of the infirmary, shaking with rage. 

Peeves the Poltergeist was throwing things in a nearby classroom and making quite a racket. He was the last person I wanted to see; but attempting to muffle the sound of my footsteps didn’t conceal me, unfortunately. 

“ICKLE FIRST-YEAR BEING A BAD GIRLIE?!” the poltergiest shrieked as he suddenly appeared in front of me.

I sighed loudly. “Peeves, go away. I’m not in the mood.”

“NOT IN THE MOOOOOOD?” he parroted back in a singsong voice. “SOOOO, I SHOULD MAAAAAAKE YOU BE IN THE MOOOOD! HOW ABOUT A LITTLE JOKEY-JOKE, ALEXIE?”

“Shut. Up.” 

“BUT PEEVSIE WANTS TO MAKE YOU FEEL—”

“Peevsie? Who on Earth calls you Peevsie?!” 

“Your friend Leah started it! She ADORES me! She loves my solutions to all the problems at Hogwarts! She thinks people should listen to me more! She—” 

“I don’t care what Leah does. I don’t care what any of them do. They’re not my damn friends!” 

“LANGUAGE! LANGUAGE! BAD LITTLE GIRLY IS USING FOUL LANGUAGE! LANGUAGE! LITTLE ALEXIE IS SAYING BAD WORDS! PROFESSOR DUMBLEDOOORRREEE.....”

I sprinted all the way back to my dorm, having had enough of the cackling poltergeist.

*   *   * 

Nicole was, unfortunately, alive and present in the Great Hall for breakfast the next morning. She looked more pale than usual and had a bandage wrapped around her head. I didn’t want to think about what she was muttering to her friends, so I returned to my food and focused on remaining calm. 

Someone tapped me on the shoulder as I walked to Transfiguration. I turned around and saw the battered Nicole frowning down at me. 

“You’ll pay for this, Alex,” she warned. “You could have killed me.”

I wish I had. I sneered and replied, “Nice hairstyle, bitch. I bet you don’t feel so pretty now, do you. Good luck getting into Witch Weekly with an ugly mug like that.” 

Nicole, and her friends I hadn’t noticed behind her, stared at me in shock. They clearly hadn’t expected such a retort, or the sudden twitch of my facial muscles as I fought down another murderous surge of adrenaline. I didn’t want to wait around for a response, so I turned on my heel and disappeared into the crowd. I had no patience for the fourth-years’ bullshit. I was too angry about having to serve detention anyway.

*   *   * 

The detention wasn’t too bad—it was more tedious than anything. McGonagall had me clean various classrooms without magic; and I realized that the more quickly and efficiently I worked, the sooner I could return to my dorm. She was pleased with my cleaning skills.

I felt silly on the morning after my first detention—McGonagall’s punishment should’ve been the least of my concerns. The chastising that should have had me on edge was the one from my parents. 

My family owl carried the bright red envelope into the Great Hall like a harbinger of doom. When the Howler dropped into my lap, so did my stomach. I forced down the bile threatening to rise up in my throat, and steeled myself for the tongue-lashing of the century. 

“ALEXANDRA SELINA HALAWAY!” my mother’s voice boomed, echoing off the walls of the deathly silent Great Hall. “I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT YOU STRUCK A CLASSMATE! YOU HAVE THE NERVE TO TELL US THAT YOU KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC, AND THEN YOU KNOCK SOMEONE UNCONSCIOUS WITH YOUR CAULDRON WHEN WE CAN’T SUPERVISE YOU?! YOU DISMISS OUR CONCERN FOR YOUR WELLBEING AS AN INSULT TO YOUR INTELLIGENCE! YOU SCREAM, YOU ROLL YOUR EYES, YOU THROW A TANTRUM LIKE A FIVE-YEAR-OLD, AND THEN YOU EXPECT US TO BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY HANDLE BEING AWAY FROM HOME? ONE MORE TRANSGRESSION, AND WE WILL PULL YOU OUT OF HOGWARTS AND HOLD YOU BACK A YEAR! POSSIBLY LONGER!” 

And then her voice lowered to that sickening softness she always used when she was angrier than normal and wanted to make me pay for it. In that tone, her voice delivered the grossest humiliation I’d ever experienced. 

“Or, maybe, we should keep you home and hire a private tutor, if you cannot mature at an acceptable pace like all the other children. We will keep you out of Hogwarts permanently if you continue to be such a rude little girl who cannot be trusted to conduct herself appropriately. You should be ashamed of yourself.” 

My heart ripped to pieces along with the Howler. I wanted to scream, but my mouth was bone dry.

This wasn’t an angry threat in a private nook inside Diagon Alley. This wasn’t an argument in the confines of my home. This was a public degradation in front of every occupant of Hogwarts, including all the bullies, who now had loads of extra ammunition against me. I was terrified of what they would do—“Wahh wahh, poor widdle baby can’t play with the big kids yet!” would probably be the least of it. Suddenly, detention with McGonagall seemed more a respite than a punishment. I stared at my breakfast, not daring to lift my brimming eyes and see the reactions of everyone around me. My face burned and my heart pounded wildly as I nervously twisted my fingers around each other in my lap. My breakfast remained uneaten. I was one of the last students to leave the Great Hall that morning.

I worried about further harassment as I made my way to Transfiguration, but was instead met with packs of students anxiously stepping back and letting me pass them as soon as they saw me. In my fear of being teased for, what was it—not maturing fast enough, I’d forgotten to take another factor into account: before my mother had sent the Howler, only a handful of people had known that I’d accosted Nicole with my cauldron. A girl as popular as she would obviously lie about what had happened—and why wouldn’t she? Why would she want everyone to know that she’d been bludgeoned by someone she’d been bullying, who was three years younger and not afraid to fight back? I certainly had a reputation among the first-year Slytherins, but the cauldron incident had been kept hush-hush. 

This meant that when my mother’s Howler had alerted the entire school to the confrontation, every Hogwarts student suddenly knew my name. 

Everyone knew that I had a fiery temper. They knew I had no problem resorting to violence and landing someone in the hospital if provoked badly enough. And I was only ten years old. Instead of getting in my face, people wanted to get as far away from me as possible.

The Howler had been a blessing in disguise.

I thanked my mother inside my head—though I would never give her the satisfaction out loud—as the bullying suddenly stopped after my altercation with Nicole. Maybe she and her cronies really were planning something worse than tripping me up; or maybe they were secretly afraid of me now, and just trying to make me afraid as well while they nursed their bruised egos. Regardless of their plans, I was always on high-alert anyway, so Nicole’s threat didn’t disrupt my daily routine. Life became relatively quiet until the middle of December—one evening at dinner, Professor Dumbledore announced that he would be passing around a piece of parchment to each House table to compile a list of students who opted to remain at Hogwarts for winter break. 

I DON’T HAVE TO GO HOME!! I screamed inside my head.My heart leapt. I couldn’t stop smiling as I gleefully signed my name when the parchment reached the Slytherin table. 

I was the only first-year Slytherin staying behind, and my Housemates kept gawking at my happiness over this. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep the grin off my face—it was one of those smiles that seemed to force itself onto my face with a life of its own, and would not be moved until it grew tired. I struggled not to laugh hysterically.

There was another reason for my smile, which my classmates didn’t know about yet: Professor Dumbledore had sent me a note a few days before, telling me that my academic performance had put me at the top of the class. He cautioned me not to let this achievement get to my head, and also to mind my behavior, lest I ruin my chances of becoming a Prefect in my fifth year. 

I’d never considered becoming a Prefect. It appeared the Headmaster saw my potential, as well as my struggle—perhaps he thought that giving me a concrete goal would steer me onto a path of good behavior and thus keep me out of further trouble. 

Maybe the Headmaster was right. I could only imagine my parents’ shock if I not only remained at the top of the class, but also became a Prefect in four years! That would show ‘em. I all but skipped to my classes for the remainder of 1998. I resolved to behave as well as possible—not like I hadn’t been trying to do that before striking Nicole, but the stakes seemed higher now. I buckled under and spent my winter break studying even harder, determined not to break my academic winning streak. My parents were sad that I wasn’t returning home for the holiday, but they also weren’t surprised. They were disturbed enough when I landed in Slytherin House. Maybe they were even a bit relieved to have me out of the house for two extra weeks.

The happiest two weeks of my entire life. 

For the first time ever, I could be alone without any possibility of being interrupted. I had silence, solitude, and my books. I was nearly done reading through all my textbooks by this time, so I would definitely be ready for that second-year spellbook soon. I could hardly contain my excitement.

*   *   * 

I had mixed feelings at the beginning of 1999. I was happy to be back in class, but annoyed by the hustle and bustle of everyone returning to Hogwarts. I sorely missed my peace and quiet. My Housemates asked me how my holiday was, and I returned the gesture. Just for social practice. I didn’t actually care. 

My eleventh birthday was now a few weeks away. Everyone knew, as Dumbledore posted a list of all the students’ birthdays in the Great Hall at the beginning of each month, but it wasn’t a spectacle. The students simply received a piece of cake after dinner, and well wishes from the professors. That was fine by me, as I didn’t even want presents; I just wanted to be left the hell alone. And people were more than happy to oblige. 

There were a few mumbled happy birthdays from my Housemates, but nothing else. I smiled as a piece of chocolate cake materialized in front of me after I’d finished my dinner. Just as I was about to take a bite, I heard three familiar voices behind me: Callie Heller, Meryl Mandelbaum, and Arielle Nathan. Nicole’s three lackeys. Gryffindors. They had no good reason to be near the Slytherin table.

My stomach flipped and my heart thumped as their voices grew louder. What are they doing over here? What should I—

As I cautiously began turning my head to see what was happening, Callie accidentally crashed into Arielle, who accidentally crashed into my back and obstructed everyone’s view of Meryl grabbing my hair and slamming my face into my birthday cake. 

My Housemates fell silent. I froze for maybe two seconds, until Meryl put her hand on my shoulder to begin a performance of fake mortification. I didn’t allow it. As soon as her fingers touched me, I reached up and snapped her hand back in a lightning-quick motion, while a gutteral growl flew from my throat. She shrieked as her wrist broke upon impact. Callie and Arielle gasped. Gritting my teeth as I once more felt adrenaline shoot through me, I stood up, grabbed the plate, and slammed it into Meryl’s face so hard that it shattered. She screamed again as I threw her to the floor and grabbed a shard of the broken plate. Though she was slightly overweight, I didn’t realize how weak the girl was—I easily straddled her flabby waist and began slashing her skin and robes open with the jagged plate shard.

I wanted revenge. I wanted blood. I wanted destruction. I’d had enough.

“I AM DONE WITH YOUR BULLSHIT!!” I bellowed, with spit flying from my twitching, contorting mouth. “DON’T YOU DARE COME NEAR ME AGAIN, BITCH! KEEP YOUR SNOTTY FRIENDS AWAY FROM ME, OR I’LL KILL EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU!!! I SWEAR TO MERLIN, I WILL END YOU ALL!!! I AM DONE WITH THE PUSHING—”

Punch to the gut. 

“—AND THE SHOVING—” 

Punch to the shoulder.

“AND THE TRIPPING ME UP—”

Punch to the face. 

“AND THE PRETENDING TO CARE ABOUT MY—”

“ENOUGH, MISS HALAWAY!! ENOUGH!!!” Professor McGonagall shouted as I raised my fist to punch Meryl in the eye. “PETRIFICUS TOTALUS!”

I went rigid with my right arm still cocked back, and rolled off of Meryl’s bleeding body.

Everyone in the Great Hall was now on their feet, pointing and hooting and screaming and gasping. 

Professor Dumbledore silenced everyone and strode over to the scene. He regarded me gravely for a moment, and then the most astonishing thing happened: I could have sworn I saw his face soften for a moment, and then wrinkle in deep concern. I was flashing back to everything the Gryffindor girls had done, and it almost looked like he was mirroring what my face would have done as each memory surfaced, had I not been under the Body-Bind Curse. 

Was he—was he reading my mind??

“Miss Halaway, please come with me,” the Headmaster ordered softly after lifting the curse. He waved his wand to remove the cake and blood from my skin as I staggered to my feet, ignoring the crying Meryl lying next to me. I fought the urge to viciously kick her in the side of the head as I stood.

“Poppy, please escort Miss Mandelbaum to the infirmary and tend to her wounds,” he told Madam Pomfrey, who had appeared behind us. The shaken nurse skirted around me like I was a contagious disease, refusing to make eye contact with me. She gingerly laced her arm around Meryl’s shoulders and helped the battered girl to her feet before leading her to the hospital wing. I glared at her back as I followed Dumbledore out of the Great Hall.

Once in his office, the Headmaster gestured to a plush chair which he Magicked over to land in front of his desk.

This is it. This is my last night at Hogwarts. What do I do? Can I really handle being at my family home every day until I’m seventeen without going crazy? Am I already crazy? Is that why all of this is happening? 

“Have a seat, Miss Halaway.” Dumbledore’s voice was uncommonly warm, which caught me offguard and heightened my nervousness. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Are you going to expel me, sir?” I asked tentatively as I sat opposite his desk.

“No. I believe you’ve been punished enough.”

“Wh-what?”

“Miss Halaway, I understand that some Gryffindor girls have been harassing you for some time. While I do not condone your actions toward them, I do recognize that you have been punished unfairly. Measures must be taken to ensure that others’ mischief does not further interfere with your education. You have as much a right to respect as your fellow students.” 

“Are you—I’m sorry, Headmaster, I’m not trying to give you an attitude, I just—are you serious? No one believes me! Everyone thinks I’m some kind of monster or something, lashing out at innocent kids for no reason! Why do you believe me? Is this a trap? Are you going to tell my parents that I—”

Dumbledore held up his hand to silence me, but his face remained calm. “I have my sources. I have been—”

“Did you read my mind?!” I blurted out. I had to know.

He looked shocked at my assertion for a brief moment, and then his face returned to its former stoicism. “There are Magical arts that allow one to seek truths that are not always obvious,” he answered.

Way to be evasive, Headmaster. Thanks.

“You can read minds, can’t you!” I said excitedly. As terrified as I was at the prospect of someone reading my thoughts, Dumbledore had effectively saved my Hogwarts education by doing so. He’d seen in my mind what the girls had done to me. There was no other explanation. I refused to accept any other ambiguous non-answer or half-truth.

The Headmaster simply stared.

“You can! Oh, Merlin! Why don’t you wanna tell me?” I probably shouldn’t have addressed the great Albus Dumbledore that way, but I couldn’t help myself. I was even chuckling a bit.

“This is not a laughing matter, Miss Halaway. Not in the least. Please calm yourself.” 

“I’m sorry, sir.” I looked down at my lap and bit my lip to stifle another flood of giggles. This whole conversation was unreal.

“Tell me what has transpired since you arrived at Hogwarts.”

“What do you mean?” 

“All the altercations with other students—even the ones you haven’t told others about. I need to understand the full extent of the problem. And I will know if you are telling the truth.” 

I gaped for a moment, not believing my ears, but I quickly realized he was serious. 

I told him everything. The name-calling, the gaslighting, and the violence. I didn’t lie or exaggerate the events, but I left out wanting to kill my aggressors. Dumbledore raised his eyebrows when I hesitated before skipping over that part, and then his expression hardened. He knew that which I hadn’t wanted to reveal. 

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.

I stopped talking and bowed my head until Dumbledore spoke again. 

“It is called Legilimency,” he said softly.

“What?”

“The art of looking into a person’s mind. It is a very advanced skill that most magical folk never even attempt to learn. It is called Legilimency.” 

“Oh—oh, wow. That’s...well, that’s intense.” I knew it!!

We were both silent for another long moment.

“I normally don’t mete out punishment like this, but I believe I must make an exception here: I’m going to offer you a deal.”

My eyes widened.

“You are not to tell a soul, student or staff, that you discovered me to be a Legilimens. In exchange, I will only give you detention for one night.”

“What do I have to do?”

“You will sit in this chair and write me an essay detailing all the ways you have been harassed at Hogwarts this year. You will also tell me how you retaliated, and how you wanted to further strike back had you not been stopped. Then—and this is the most important part—you must write about why you enjoy hurting people who cross you. I will be perfectly clear with you, Miss Halaway: there is something inside your mind that troubles me greatly. I have seen such traits in very few students in my many years, and I fear I didn’t do enough to help steer them onto a healthier path. I cannot make that mistake again. And if you do not accept this offer, then yes, I will be forced to expel you. If you ever break this agreement, I will know. The deal will be null and void and you will be banned from Hogwarts immediately. As you are only eleven and academically gifted, I don’t want to have to tarnish your potential for success so early in your schooling. That is why you are here. Now, do we have a deal?”

“Y-yes...I just—”

“It’s a yes or a no, Miss Halaway. No buts. No concessions. No loopholes. Do we have a deal?”

“Yes, sir.” 

“Good.”

“When do I write my essay?”

“Right now.”

“Oh! I—okay.”

“You will stay right here until you finish it. That is your detention.” 

Well, shit. If he can see everything inside my mind and he still wants to vouch for me, I guess I don’t have to hold anything back. I’d clearly face more severe consequences for watering myself down this time. How ironic.

So I wrote my essay. I documented every incident, no matter how small—everything other students had done to me since I arrived at Hogwarts, and how I had fought back. It was surprisingly cathartic. That is, it was cathartic until I got to the third part of the assignment. My propensity for violence was something I had never even spoken about aloud, much less written down. The prospect was terrifying. I sat there, quill hovering over the parchment in my trembling hand, until I reminded myself that not finishing this essay meant expulsion. That was infinitely more terrifying than having my demented thoughts exposed.

My right hand was cramping by the time I finally finished the essay. I had, apparently, been writing for two hours and used up three rolls of parchment. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to get all of that off my chest! Maybe this was why some people kept journals. I made a mental note to look into that activity at a later date.

I was barely aware of Dumbledore thanking me for being honest with him and dismissing me to my dorm. It was after hours by this time; but the Headmaster assured me that if anyone gave me trouble, I could send them to him.

Apart from the subtle rejection from my Housemates, which was old news, not much changed for the rest of the week. I began feeling a lot more confident, in that I had essentially sent the whole school a message not to mess with me. Being rejected and ignored hurt a lot less than being tripped up or having my birthday ruined in front of hundreds of people.

But it didn’t hurt nearly as much as my parents’ owl expressing fear and outrage over my essay.

Which Dumbledore had sent to them the day after my detention.

My hands shook and my stomach churned as I read the letter my father had penned.

 

Alexandra,

After reading Professor Dumbledore’s letter about your birthday, we have been in a state of shock. I can barely put my thoughts into words, but I will try.

Your mother spent half the night crying after reading your detention essay. Obviously, we are both sorry for what those girls have done to you—assuming you weren’t exaggerating their transgressions to gain sympathy—but your reactions are beyond overblown. How is it that you are eleven years old and fighting urges to kill people? You are talking about murdering someone’s child! Sibling! Cousin! Friend! You want to destroy families and irrevocably break people’s hearts just because some insecure teenagers were rude to you? Think about that. Really sit with yourself and think about that, Alexandra. Ask yourself if you truly find joy in thinking about orchestrating such horrific events.

We have requested a conference with Professor Dumbledore. We intend to come to Hogwarts and discuss the issues you are facing so that we can get to the bottom of this. Depending on what the Headmaster says, you will likely see us within the next week. Please try your hardest to stay out of trouble until then. We are very proud that you are at the top of your class, but school is about so much more than academics. To be perfectly frank, we would rather you receive lower grades for a while as you work on learning to conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t attract negative attention and make other children want to target you.

Remember, we discipline you because we love you and we only want what’s best for you. We are trying to teach you right from wrong so that you can learn to function on your own and live a happy life without our constant guidance. Sometimes we have to implement tough love. If we didn’t care about you, we’d stay out of your life at Hogwarts and ignore you.

This is just what loving parents do. You are not alone in the world.

Love,
Mum and Dad

 

It was only after I lifted my head from the parchment that I realized my Housemates were staring. I had been shaking so much that my breath had grown ragged and I’d caused the parchment to rattle. My face felt hot and I was once again holding back a heavy flood of hot, angry tears. Would this ever end?! 

Not caring that my eyes were visibly moist, I jerked my head up and eyed Dumbledore at the staff table. I looked daggers at him, daring him to read my mind and realize what dreadfulness he had just orchestrated. 

Look what you’ve done, Professor! Do you feel good now? I challenged him inside my head. Is this how you would have handled your other “troubled” students if you could go back in time?! You think humiliating an eleven-year-old who’s been degraded her entire life makes you some kind of savior?!

He stared back at me solemnly, clearly having read my thoughts. Though unable to read his thoughts, I could venture a guess. His blue eyes bore the shadows of a deep, dark regret that he would likely never share with me. Or anyone.

I knew that I had to stop my parents from coming to Hogwarts at all costs. An event like that would spread throughout the school, and likely open me up to even more bullying—maybe not to the point that I’d land yet another tormentor in the hospital wing, but I wasn’t willing to risk it. My highest priority was staying out of the spotlight as often as possible in order to protect myself.

I paid attention in all my courses, while formulating a plan in between class periods. By the end of the day, I knew what I had to do. And I was sure it would work.

After dinner that night, I snuck off to the entrance to Professor Dumbledore’s office. I knew the password, having heard him say it when he brought me to his office on my birthday. Nevertheless, he was surprised to see me. He was tending to his pet phoenix when I stepped off the elevator.

“Miss Halaway!” he exclaimed. “What are you—”

“I need to talk to you, sir. I think you know why.” 

His shoulders slumped. “Yes, I knew you would object to me sending your essay to your parents. You must understand that I would have been extremely careless to keep something so monumental from them.”

In response, I thrust my father’s letter into the Headmaster’s hand and looked up at him with as much pain as I could muster.

Dumbledore nodded slowly a few times as he read the disparaging words. I watched him quietly process my father’s emotions until I couldn’t take the silence anymore.

“Headmaster, I appreciate that you took me seriously and saved me from expulsion on my birthday; but I can’t have my parents come here. That...that doesn’t happen. No child is so out of control that their parents have to intervene! This isn’t my fault! The more negative attention I get, the harder it is for me to keep it together. I can’t handle this much scrutiny! Please—you can’t let them come here.” My eyes were slightly moist, but I amped up my display of anguish until a few tears leaked out. 

He watched me gravely. Could he tell I was laying it on thick? I hoped not. I wasin pain, anyway. And feeling desperate. How could he fault me for using whatever methods necessary to eliminate further suffering? I clearly wasn’t a Slytherin for nothing—what was that saying? Using any means to achieve their ends? Yeah, that was me, all right. The Sorting Hat knew what it was talking about, after all.

“Sir, has that ever happened before?” I asked softly.

“No. You are correct that such a procedure is unheard of.”

“So...do you think you could owl my parents and tell them not to come? I promise you, that would only make things worse. I’ve been bullied enough to see that some of these kids are just...biding their time, waiting for anything else to use against me. I swear I would never be able to live that down. I don’t go around antagonizing people. I just want to be left alone to study in peace. I really don’t want to make trouble; trouble just keeps finding me. My parents coming here would give the bullies one more barb to throw at me, pointing out how different—and therefore inferior—I am. I can’t have that. I can’t handle any more of this! Please, sir, you have to stop them from coming. Please.” 

The Headmaster pressed his lips together as he regarded me with a mixture of sadness and trepidation. I refused to break eye contact. I needed to win.

"I will consider your position, Miss Halaway. In the meantime, please return to your dormitory. And do not make a habit of coming here—it is not appropriate for a student to enter my office without an appointment.” 

“Of course, Professor. I understand. And thank you for listening.” I smiled slightly before turning on my heel and taking my leave. 

A hush fell over the Slytherin common room as the resident human tornado entered the area. I didn’t care. As long as no one was harassing me, I was perfectly fine with my Housemates’ distaste—and, unbeknownst to them, I was quickly developing a sick thrill at their fear of me. I was eleven years old and I already had a reputation as someone not to be crossed. If we kept it that way for the remainder of my Hogwarts education, I’d be golden. I could get through my studies in peace.

To my immense relief, Nicole and Company finally ceased harassing me. My Housemates were still snubbing me—presumably more from fear than disdain—but it didn’t even feel like bullying anymore because I’d endured so much worse. Dumbledore thankfully honored my request and convinced my parents to stay home; so they instead chose to bombard me with letters asking for in-depth updates on my social situation. (Apparently, they were bombarding the Headmaster as well, untill he sent them a polite yet stern note, telling them that they needed to back off. I’d only wished he’d asked them to back off of me as well.) I told them the truth: that my classmates were avoiding me, but the overt harassment had stopped. I insisted that I was thriving and they had nothing to be concerned about; and also that I was now terrified of being punished more severely than everyone else, because it seemed that my teachers were watching me more closely than other kids. I just wanted people to let me breathe. I would be so much more relaxed, and therefore much better behaved, if I had space.

My parents insisted that I needed to be social to some extent, just to learn how to act properly, but they did give a bit around the end of March—the frequency of their owls finally slowed from around three a week to one every other week.

Not having to expend the energy necessary to write my parents often allowed me more room to reflect on my life. I was certainly thriving academically, and had come to something of a truce with my classmates: they didn’t bother me, and I don’t bother them. The arrangement, though rife with tension on all sides, held out for the remainder of the school year. I didn’t give my classmates much thought after we all silently came to this conclusion together.

One area of my life at Hogwarts was still troublesome: I didn’t know what to make of Dumbledore. I felt forever indebted to him because he had defended me when no one else had. Anyone else in his position would surely have expelled me on my birthday; but he had chosen to look inside my mind and stand by me, even after I’d sent two students to the hospital. His version of detention—unlike my parents’ words—had actually felt like tough love. His choice of punishment had clearly come from a place of genuine care and concern, like a grandfather trying to help put a damaged grandchild back together. I thought that an honorable goal. 

However, the Headmaster had also betrayed my trust. He’d told me our deal was private, and immediately turned around and shared my most intimite thoughts with my parents. That was a betrayal. That was sneaky. He had taken advantage of my vulnerability, and I felt violated. I had no idea if he’d initially planned on sending my essay to my parents when he’d decided how to punish me, or if the content had simply disturbed him too much to keep the information to himself. There was no way I could ask; and anyway, doing so wouldn’t change what had happened. 

After ruminating on these events for a while, I realized that I could count on no one but myself. I retreated into myself more and more as term continued, turning to my studies as a distraction and a refuge. I seemed to be the only student excited about choosing my two electives for second year, which we all did shortly before Easter. I picked Arithmancy and Ancient Runes.  

The school year came to a close, and I remained at the top of the class. And I resolved to never let anyone surpass me. If I had to be the least liked, just as I was at home, then I needed to be the best at something else to feel balanced. Maybe, if I shut out my classmates and drowned myself in academics, they would simply leave me alone and let me do my own thing uninterrupted—no harassment, no pranks, no scuffles. Just a case of live and let live.

Packing up my clothes the night before returning home, I grinned at the thought of spending the next six years in this manner...flowing through the student body with ease, since everyone would quickly learn to stay out of my way. As I was already adept at shutting out the world when I needed to regroup, all I had to do was ignore my classmates at all costs, and they’d get the message. 

And then I frowned. I would have to interact with my classmates during group work, which would be torturous if I just sat alone all the time and scowled at anyone who dared to look my way. I would have to continue trying to integrate, as loathe as I was to do it, until I found the balance between authentic behavior and self-preservation. Outside of academics, perfecting this social balancing act would now be my highest priority.

I visualized myself as a competent adult witch—working, paying my own bills, and fooling everyone enough that I could pass as normal—so my parents would stop treating me like a helpless imbecile. That was my end goal. And I knew that, as I grew up, that image would comfort me and urge me not to give up when I was struggling.

This gave me a plan. This gave me an objective. An objective I would achieve no matter what. After everything I had endured thus far, I knew I could handle any other obstacles life threw my way.

Nothing would stop me now.

Chapter Text

Trust me
I’ll be there when you need me
You’ll be safe here
When you finally trust me
Finally believe in me
I will let you down 

—Three Days Grace ~ “Let You Down”

 

We broke Rodolphus out of Azkaban two weeks later. Since we already knew the lay of the land, we brought an extra broomstick to grab his brother Rabastan and comrade Barty Crouch Jr. We were in and out in under ten minutes.

And then Malfoy Manor suddenly felt very crowded. 

None of us were sure what to do for a while—yes, the Lestranges were extremely wealthy, but they were also escaped convicts. They needed time to recover from their captivity. And even with Lucius having retrieved the prisoners’ wands from the Ministry, they couldn’t just go out and purchase a home like ordinary citizens.

I stayed away from the unstable bunch while they regained their strength. 

Over the next several weeks, I began formulating plans for rebuilding my forces and surpassing my scope of power before Harry Potter had nearly killed me. The little brat. I was so happy he was finally dead. Dumbledore, on the other hand—no. That wasn’t a priority at the moment. I’d deal with my former professor later.

Having four escapees in a majestic fortress like Malfoy Manor was quite awkward, but I was glad that at least Draco was back at Hogwarts. He was quite a mess after coming home for Christmas and seeing the aunt and uncle he’d never met, along with two complete strangers...none of whom were mentally sound. Draco seemed torn between wanting to get to know his aunt and uncle, and wanting to run full-speed in the opposite direction because of how strangely they behaved. His parents were able to explain what had happened well enough—and obviously swore him to secrecy—but decided to keep their impressionable son away from the lively group until they were presentable. The knowledge that Draco wouldn’t return until the end of June took the pressure off of them to “shape up” faster.

It took a few months, but the charismatic quartet mostly came back to themselves. There would always be something missing from their spritely youth, but that was to be expected after a decade of incarceration. The most important thing was that they were still capable Death Eaters.

And we knew Barty Crouch Jr. was feeling better when he began playing pranks on everyone.

Lucius found what he believed to be a tap-dancing Dobby in his bedroom, only to find that Junior had transfigured his Azkaban prison suit to look like the elf. It resumed its original form and then disintegrated upon being blasted by Malfoy’s angry Cruciatus curse.

“CROUCH!!!” he bellowed. “You’re CLEARLY feeling better if you’re up to your old histrionics! I KNOW that was you!”

A spat of deranged, childlike laughter sounded from down the hall. I was just finishing my lunch when I heard the commotion, and went upstairs to investigate. 

“You helped me get rid of that ratty old thing,” Crouch called back happily. “I cannot thank you enough!”

Lucius rolled his eyes and pretended to be furious instead of mildly amused. (The real Dobby was nowhere to be seen during this altercation. The elf was smarter than Lucius gave him credit for.) Once we were far enough away from Barty, Lucius told me what had happened. 

“Well, at least we know he’s recovering,” I remarked. “The sooner the better.”

Lucius mumbled some form of agreement and stormed off down the hall to confront the trickster.

A week after the tap-dancing incident, Narcissa was putting on her coat to go outside when a dinnerplate-sized hairy spider flew out of nowhere and landed on her face. And it would not be moved. Her shrill shriek followed her back into the foyer as she tore at her cheeks, completely ruining her makeup. I smirked as I watched this spectacle, feeling no inclination to intervene. After a moment, the spider fell to the floor and turned back into one of Narcissa’s shawls, which she’d declared missing a few days prior. And then came the sound of Junior’s giggling from the parlor. 

“That childish little blighter!” she growled. After fixing her makeup with an unnecessarily violent twitch of her wand, Narcissa flew into the parlor to commence a screaming match with the offender.

Though psychotic enough to play tricks on high-ranking Death Eaters, Junior was smart enough to go easy on me—all he did was bewitch the pages of The Daily Prophet to turn backwards or forwards when I wasn’t done reading a particular article. I chuckled to myself when I heard his thoughts on the matter as he stood outside my room.

“Very funny, Crouch,” I drawled as I opened the door. “But it’s time to stop with the practical jokes.” I lowered my voice. “At least with me.” 

“Yes, my Lord,” he mumbled, tongue flickering like a snake’s, before he shuffled away. 

Several other such incidents transpired over the course of the next few weeks before Junior finally tired of toying with everyone’s heads. The only person he didn’t prank regularly was Margo—he once charmed a book to jerk out of her hands and twirl in the air, but the girl didn’t even crack a smile. Realizing that his antics would elicit no reaction, good or bad, from the subdued nine-year-old, he ignored her from then on.

Margo barely spoke. Withdrawn as ever, she seemed less concerned with being a child and more concerned with figuring out how to best navigate her turbulent surroundings. 

She had no interest in conversation with Crouch or the Lestranges. Though profoundly impacted by her parents’ deaths—which she suddenly refused to discuss any further—she was slowly growing into a practical, productive young lady. She had poise, restraint, and exceptional manners. In other words, she was the complete antithesis of Draco. Hence her lack of affection for the older boy. 

Though uncommonly well-behaved for her age, the child was a slow burner—if something bothered her, she would attempt to work through the problem on her own. If she failed, she’d let the issue build and build inside her until one tiny slight set her off. And then she’d explode. That was probably the other reason Crouch avoided her. Though the most common theme behind her rage was Draco and his father’s enabling, Crouch still didn’t want to get on the girl’s bad side. Given the way she shouted at Lucius for his fear of bruising his son’s fragile ego, I could only imagine what would happen if, one day, Margo had a child who behaved like Draco. That would be quite a spectacle. 

Margo was not afraid of standing up to her cousin. Having lost her parents so young, she lacked the typical fearfulness of authority and desire to please that most young children possessed. On the rare occasion that Margo blew up, her screaming matches with Lucius could be heard all over the house. The sound of two stubborn, headstrong people butting heads so dramatically was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. Narcissa usually had to split them up and send them to opposite sides of the house until they’d both calmed down. They would avoid each other for a day or two after the fact, and then never mention the row again. Until the next one.

I wondered what kind of a Death Eater Margo would be. The role was normally reserved for males, but this child seemed the most level-headed person in the house. And she was a Malfoy. I would certainly approach her about it when she was of age. The girl had the potential to be as ferocious as Bellatrix. 

I thought it fascinating that a child as young as Margo possessed more moxie than some adults. But then again, I also had never truly felt like a child, after everything I’d endured by the time I was Margo’s age. I found myself respecting her more than her older relatives; though I would never share this fact with them unless a situation called for such intense humiliation. 

Being as grounded as she was, I wondered what Margo would have done if she’d been in Ginny Weasley’s shoes, presented with a diary that wrote back to her and told her everything she wanted to hear. She would probably have thrown it in the fireplace out of sheer annoyance, thinking the object an insult to her intelligence. How unlike Ginny, who once wrote, “No one’s ever understood me like you, Tom....I’m so glad I’ve got this diary to confide in...It’s like having a friend I can carry around in my pocket....”

Really, you stupid girl? A friend in your pocket? You deserved to die, you gullible idiot. 

Oh, and then there had been my personal favorite: “There was another attack today and I don’t know where I was. Tom, what am I going to do? I think I’m going mad....I think I’m the one attacking everyone, Tom!” 

Clearly, deductive reasoning had not been Ginny’s strong suit. I suppose that’s what happens when you have wishy-washy parents who teach you to see the good in everyone, as if the world is actually a fair and wonderful place. 

Sorry, Weasley. It doesn’t work like that. Off you go into the Chamber to decompose with your worthless little friends.  

Ginny and her comrades weren’t the only ones who deserved to decompose. While the Lestranges and Crouch Jr. were recovering, I began the long and arduous process of locating all of my old followers, many of whom I expected to have renounced their loyalty to me. They would have to die as punishment. I would kill them in front of all the others to make sure I got my message across.

Lucius set up one of his large rooms next to the library to serve as a meeting place once I’d located everyone. It would be in this room where I would discover everyone’s true loyalties—by force, if necessary. Once the meeting room was prepared adequately, I summoned everyone and took stock of who had actually shown up.

My followers had numbered over thirty before I’d disappeared. I’d hoped to see the same number of masked, hooded figures standing before me after Lucius temporarily lifted his anti-Apparition wards and I summoned them all. Instead, there were exactly ten. I was furious. 

The Carrow twins were the first Death Eaters to arrive, followed by Snape, Rowle, and Greyback. Next came Yaxley, Crabbe, Goyle, and finally Mulciber Junior and Scabior. The Carrows took great pride in making themselves known among our clan, while most others chose to remain anonymous. Only I knew who all the Death Eaters were. I preferred that they not know the identities of their comrades, in case they were captured and tortured for information, but I didn’t see that happening right now; my first task was to rebuild. And to show my loyal followers what would happen if they stepped out of line.

For the loyal ones who had returned, their first assignment was to scout out new recruits and search for the traitors. Crouch and the Lestranges were able to join them on these daily searches as they regained their strength, helping us speed up the process of weeding out the weak links. Any traitors found were tortured and killed at Malfoy Manor during Death Eater meetings, and their bodies disposed of afterwards.

Mulciber’s father was the first example. An old schoolmate of mine, he’d been quick to join my organization when he realized how powerful I was. He’d accompanied me back to Hogwarts when I’d interviewed for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position; and his son, a friend of Snape’s, had been initiated several years later. Lucius told me he’d heard rumors that Mulciber Senior had renounced his old ways after a few years of believing me dead. No one made anything of it at the time. Now, however, I was very much alive. And very much incensed. 

Snape had been the person to locate the elder Mulciber. He’d found the old man by posing as a messenger for an Auror friend, locating Death Eaters to bring them to justice. Being a double agent and therefore the only Death Eater who could make such requests in public, Snape had tracked him down easily.

Mulciber lived in a small cottage out in the country. At seventy years old, he had slowed the pace of his life considerably and fancied himself free of his obligations to me. He was quite wrong.

Snape told us that when Mulciber had answered the door and saw him looking much angrier than he’d appeared last time, he’d known what was coming. He had backed away for a moment, pleading for mercy with his eyes, before Snape had wordlessly grabbed the man and brought him to Malfoy Manor. Lucius imprisoned him in his enchanted basement, from which escape was impossible, until the next Death Eater meeting a week later. I had Lucius fetch the prisoner after everyone was settled at the table. I hadn’t told any of them what they were about to witness—I wanted to study their reactions to the traitor in order to gauge the likelihood of their following his path.

“Ahh, Mulciber, my old friend,” I cooed mockingly as Snape dragged the feeble man into the meeting room. 

“Wha—you—you can’t be—” He rubbed his wrinkled eyes, which he clearly didn’t trust upon seeing me. I was so glad that I would never look or act like that. No one would ever be able to tell that he and I were, technically, very close in age. 

“Surely you recognize me, no?” I taunted.

His eyes widened and he shuddered. “No, that’s—that’s impossible! It can’t be...Tom—”

I strode over to him and slapped him hard across the face. “That is not how you address me!” I scolded. 

“M-my Lord? How do you—”

“I am immortal, my dear old fellow. I can choose how I look.” There I go again with that convenient half-truth. I think I’ll stick to it if anyone else has the nerve to ask. 

“How did you—” 

“I ask the questions, not you! Crucio!”

Mulciber screamed and fell to the floor in an unglamorous heap.

“Why have you renounced your loyalty to me?!” I demanded. “Did you think I had died thirteen years ago? Did you think that as long as I was out of sight, you could relinquish your responsibilities? You think I’d let you live a quiet, comfortable life after turning your back on me?”

Piercing screams were my only answer.

“You remember the price you must pay for betraying me, Mulciber!”

“My Lord, I’m sorry...I’m so sorry...you’re right...I was wrong...I’m sorry! I thought you were dead and I didn’t know what to dooo!”

“You should have searched for me! You should have attempted to locate other Death Eaters and carry on my work! You swore unfailing loyalty to me when you took the Mark! What made you think you could renounce that loyalty?”

“I...I...AHHHHH!” 

I added a second round of the Cruciatus curse and held it for a few minutes. The old man was panting and sobbing by the time I lowered my wand. Tears were slipping down his reddened, sagging cheeks as he squeezed his watery eyes shut. The image was pathetic. All the more reason to end his life. 

“Incarcerous!” I shouted, binding his body on the floor. Not that he’d have the strength to escape otherwise, but it never hurt to take extra precautions. His only protest was a yelp.

After sitting down next to him, I yanked his left arm free of the ropes and lightly ran my finger down his Dark Mark. He winced and tried to pull away—more so as Nagini had begun circling us and hissing loudly.

“Not now, dear pet,” I told her in Parseltongue.“This traitor is unique, as he is the first I’ve discovered. You can have the next one.”

“But it looks so enticing,” she protested.

“The next one. I promise.” 

She hissed angrily and slithered off into the corner to sulk. I noted that some of the Death Eaters were quite disturbed by this interaction—one, because they couldn’t understand what we were saying; and two, because the concept of a human conversing with a snake unnerved even the most hardened of men. I pretended not to notice their discomfort. 

“This does not belong on your skin anymore, old man,” I declared, pinching Mulciber’s Dark Mark before looking around at all of my followers. “Everyone, allow me to show you what happens when you betray me. You will know the wrath of Lord Voldemort!” 

“M-my Lord, p-p-please don’t—”

“Oh, shut up! You’ve lost your right to speak to me!”

I whispered an incantation to turn the tip of my wand into a sharpened point, and then proceded to dig it into the traitor’s skin. He began screaming once again as I cut a rectangle around his Dark Mark before pulling the skin off. After holding up the ruined tattoo, I stood up and circled my table, holding up the bloody skin in front of each person to see their reactions. Once everyone had gotten an eyeful, I bent down and shoved the flesh into Mulciber’s gaping maw. And then I stuffed it down into his throat for good measure. 

I cast a Cleansing spell on myself to remove the blood, and then kicked the choking Mulciber in the head.

“THIS is what happens if you betray me!” I shouted at my followers, pointing to the convulsing man as he choked on his own flesh. “Does anyone else want to defy me?! Will any of you shirk your responsibilities to me?”

They all shook their heads and tried to hide their alarm at my treatment of Mulciber.

“Throw him back in the dungeon and let him rot,” I ordered Lucius. “Take him back to his cozy little cottage next week. We’ll see if anyone can put the pieces of this puzzle together after they find his body.” 

“Yes, my Lord,” Lucius mumbled, and levitated the dying man to bring him down to his enchanted basement.

“This was a special case,” I informed everyone as I sat back down at the head of the table. “Mulciber was one of my first Death Eaters. He must have thought he’d put in enough time serving me to relax for the rest of his life—as you can see, he was quite mistaken. Serving me does not come with a retirement package. 

“Now, in the future, any traitors we discover will be brought back here. I will torture them for whatever information they have on our opposition, and then kill them. I call Mulciber a special case because I do not make a habit of ripping people’s skin off; I don’t enjoy getting blood and tears all over my robes. Torture of the mind is often more damaging to a person with something to hide. You’d do well to remember that fact when you encounter your own victims.” 

I informed the group that anyone discovering the bodies of traitors would see the Dark Mark on their arms; I aimed to start rumors that, instead of getting stronger, Death Eaters were being hunted and killed by an unknown vigilante. There was nothing quite like lulling the public into a false sense of security.

*   *   * 

As the year progressed, Lucius and Narcissa (and I) grew increasingly antsy with the excessive social presence at the Manor, pranks and fights notwithstanding. We devised a plan to restore their home to its standard: being rich, Lucius and Narcissa could afford to buy another house and pay it off immediately. They bought a “smaller summer home”—a three-bedroom house a few miles away from the Manor—for Bellatrix and the others to live in, and shuffled them off after working through all the arrangements and making sure no unwelcome guests would come knocking. The Lestranges promised to pay back the Malfoys once our forces were strong enough that they could afford to be back out in the open, and therefore access their own money at Gringotts. I don’t think the Lestranges were particularly thrilled to host Crouch Jr. and his practical jokes, but there were no other options. And anyway, Rabastan was a very stern, no-nonsense man who would likely put a damper on Crouch’s playful tendencies.

Malfoy Manor was back to normal by the end of February.

Though Lucius was happy to have the prankster out of his house, he was also furious about the incident with the hapless Care of Magical Creatures instructor. I wasn’t sure how much Hagrid was to blame for his hippogriff’s attack on Draco, but Lucius still wanted blood. He finally convinced Cornelius Fudge to hold a trial for the animal, and a hearing was set for mid-April.

In the meantime, Draco was writing home and complaining about everything under the sun. He disliked this year's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin, because he was too friendly to the Gryffindors and Draco found the lessons boring. He emphasized one of Lupin's lessons, in which the class learned the charm to repel a boggart: Ridikkulus. Draco had taken great pride in whispering to his friend Crabbe, “This class is ridiculous,” upon learning the name of the spell. Lucius and I both rolled our eyes as he read this sentence aloud over lunch.

“Did he really just say—”

“Yes, my Lord. He did say that.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Doesn’t he have anything more important to write home about?” 

Lucius sighed. “As long as he’s getting the most out of his education, I can tolerate this...this—” He awkwardly waved the letter around. 

Drivel. You can tolerate this drivel. That makes one of us. Your boy had better shape up and become an acceptable Death Eater in a few years, or you’re all dead.

Malfoy Junior certainly did have more important topics on his mind. Despite his snide comments about his teachers, the main target of his ire was The Mudblood. He was still behind her in marks. She still wasn’t respecting him. And after Hagrid’s trial, where his precious beast was sentenced to death, the girl threw a fit and screamed at Draco for gloating. She called him a “foul, loathsome, evil little cockroach.” (I couldn’t argue with her there—except for the “evil” part. I don’t think Draco Malfoy could be evil if he tried.) And then, oh horror of horrors, she received her first-ever detention after getting caught trying to free the hippogriff from his enclosure mere minutes before his execution. The gossip around Hogwarts was that Dumbledore had to lead the girl away in tears, because she refused to move until the Headmaster threatened to suspend her. Draco heard the news and couldn’t wait to share it with his parents. He needed them to know that he was infinitely more well-behaved than that stupid girl.

Well-mannered or not, the girl certainly wasn’t stupid. She was still going on her rampage trying to convince everyone that the basilisk existed and was responsible for the previous year’s murders. We were now in the middle of a new school year with no more basilisk attacks, no more threats, and no more clues as to the Chamber’s whereabouts. Bully for her. Draco told his parents that many people thought she was losing her mind—especially considering that the rest of the British Wizarding world had grown preoccupied with another threat: escaped Azkaban inmate Sirius Black. The man had been on the loose for months and, though no one had caught him, everyone at Hogwarts was on high alert. There were rumors that, while incarcerated, he’d been moaning in his sleep, “He’s at Hogwarts...he’s at Hogwarts....” But who was at Hogwarts, and why did Sirius care? Though full of speculations, no one had any answers. I did have my suspicions, though—perhaps a professor or student he deemed responsible for his incarceration? 

In an attempt to shield the school and capture Sirius, Dumbledore had placed some of the Dementors of Azkaban around the castle perimeter at the start of term. These cloaked, soul-sucking guards hadn’t managed to stop Sirius from escaping prison; so how they were suppose to catch him elsewhere was beyond me, but Dumbledore was adamant. He had given the students a long speech on the first night of the school year, explaining the grave danger outside the castle walls, and how best to avoid angering a Dementor. He told his students that Dementors were powerful, ruthless creatures who would not hesitate to ruin anyone in their way...but don’t worry, as long as you avoid them, you’ll be fine! They’re here to catch a mass murderer who would also hurt you if he came to Hogwarts—which he just might! But don’t worry! Really! I have everything under control! 

Typical Dumbledore. Always going from one extreme to another—either not doing enough to prevent problems, or trying too hard to stop them and causing more problems in the process. It had happened when I was a student, as he’d practically begged his fellow professors to see me as a monster and not a quiet, unassuming orphan; and he instead made himself look like a raving lunatic. 

It had happened again when I’d returned to Hogwarts to attain the position of Defense professor, and he’d denied me. Had he allowed me back into the school, I would not have had to place a curse on the Defense position, plaguing the school for decades.

And it was happening again now, with Dumbledore on thin ice as he brought bloody Dementors to his school to search for a fugitive that the creatures hadn’t been able to hold in prison. For all his achievements, there were moments when Dumbledore really was quite dense. No other Headmaster would have allowed Dementors onto Hogwarts grounds for any reason. 

Draco was a bit anxious over this development, like his classmates, but concealed it with obnoxious pranks in which he, Vincent Crabbe, and Gregory Goyle snuck up on people and scared them by pretending to be Dementors. He’d bought scary Halloween masks from Hogsmeade, which he and his goons donned after pulling up their hoods. They then made spooky sounds after grabbing an unsuspecting student—usually someone younger and lacking in popularity—and leaned in close enough to mimic sucking out their soul. They got away with this for several months before an enraged Professor Lupin caught them in the act one day. He confiscated their masks, gave them a month of detention, and docked each boy fifty points. In a very loud tone. No one knew why Lupin had reacted with such intense fury, as the soft-spoken man rarely raised his voice or doled out such extreme punishments, but something about Draco’s prank had obviously set him off. Maybe the man was simply on edge over Sirius Black’s escape and his emotions were heightened, or maybe he was grappling another struggle entirely. I wondered what it was.

And so Draco’s reputation with his Housemates finally took a hit, with all the points he and his friends had lost in such a short time. Slytherin definitely wouldn’t be winning the House Cup this term. I imagined this angering Draco as much as his detentions with Lupin. “This is servant stuff!” he complained in a letter to Lucius after a week of cleaning classrooms without magic.

If the boy didn’t tidy up his act, he’d have far worse things to complain about in a few years. He’d wish his worst punishments involved household chores. 

*   *   *

Just like the previous year, I refused to tell the Malfoys that I possessed important information on current events—I was forcing them to speculate as much as everyone else. They weren’t special, and had no need of the facts I was keeping to myself.

I had once more pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes without them realizing it: Sirius wasn’t the threat; he was the victim. He’d been framed. His friend-turned-Death Eater Peter Pettigrew was the one everyone should have been searching for. As the Potters’ best friend, James and Lily had entrusted Sirius with the secret of their hiding place when they learned that I was hunting them to kill their son. And then, realizing that I would likely torture their best friend for information, they suddenly changed their secret keeper to Peter, who came running to me. I never thanked the little rat properly—but niceties weren’t on my mind when my body was being destroyed in my first attempt at killing that pesky Potter boy. 

Speaking of which, I wondered what the Aurors would have done if they’d realized Pettigrew was the reason I still had my wand. The rat had scurried around the property upon finding his former best friends’ bodies, and stowed my wand for safekeeping. Had he thought I would return one day? Was he hoping to upstage me at some point? Who knew. All that mattered was that he had owled my wand to me at Malfoy Manor after hearing that Potter was dead—he’d known it was me. He may have been a sneak, but he knew better than to hide his master’s wand.

Black must have escaped to find Pettigrew and exact revenge for his friends’ murders. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Pettigrew was the person Black had been moaning about in his sleep. I hadn’t the faintest idea how he’d been able to escape from Azkaban, or why he thought Pettigrew was at Hogwarts, but I had to hand it to the man for his determination to brave an army of Dementors to settle the score. Were he not such a bleeding-heart, he might have made a spectacular Death Eater like some of his relatives before him. Pity. 

I really didn’t care what happened to Black, but I was glad that his escape was taking everyone’s attention off of the events I’d set in motion the previous year. His escape had made the front page of the Daily Prophet several months back, and the deaths of Potter and his friends were suddenly old news. And by “old news” I mean that instead of all the reporters scrambling for every possible scrap of information on the tragedy, Hermione Granger was now being regularly subjected to Rita Skeeter’s expert psychological evaluations in her editorials. This reporter’s childish gossiping was the only way to keep people’s interest in the subject and thus boost newspaper sales. Has the girl been drinking? Skeeter speculated. Has she lost the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality? Perhaps she is in such a state of denial that she is pulling images from her nightmares and insisting that they are messages about where her friends’ bodies lie! Maybe she should take a trip to St. Mungo’s....

“But why won’t anyone believe me?” I imagined her whining to Professor Dumbledore, crying and waving her arms about like a petulant child.

Oh, I don’t know, maybe because I killed the only Parselmouth at Hogwarts...and then I sent the basilisk back into its lair and it’s not doing anything.... 

Sill girl. I found myself holding in a laugh every time Lucius wondered aloud if Hermione’s theory had merit—I’d never even told him the truth. The only information I’d given him when passing him my diary was the knowledge that it could be used to open the Chamber of Secrets. I did not tell him what was inside the Chamber, who the Heir of Slytherin was, or the consequences of the Chamber having been opened. His only instructions had been to guard the diary with his life and find a way to pass it on to Harry Potter, or a gullible student close to him, in order to open the Chamber. He had succeeded, while remaining as ignorant as ever. I was pleased.

Given everyone’s reactions to Hermione’s ranting, I no longer saw her sleuthing as a threat. If anyone took her seriously, Draco would surely be the first to announce it—and he never did. We were all set. 

*   *   * 

After the hippogriff was executed, Lucius finally stopped complaining. I only wished I could have said the same for his son. Though Draco’s letters were full of insignificant non-issues, some of his points were valid, such as the fear gripping Hogwarts over Sirius Black’s escape and the Dementors at Hogwarts. (Gravity of the issue aside, Draco still had the nerve to complain about his confiscated Halloween mask.) 

Despite Dumbledore’s promise that everyone was safe from Sirius, the fugitive circumvented Dumbledore’s security measures and snuck into Hogwarts late one night. Head Boy Percy Weasley found the ragged man standing over his bed with a knife and a crazed facial expression, prompting a swift evacuation of all students to the Great Hall, where they slept while the professors searched for the offender. They never found him.

The Dementors clearly weren’t doing their job. Black’s disruption resulted in heightened security around the school from Aurors, restricted Hogsmeade visits for students, and earlier curfews, with harsher punishments for students out of bed after hours. Being as sheltered as he was—and also being the son of a prominent Death Eater—Draco likely didn’t understand everyone else’s fear because he didn’t feel the same trepidation at the thought of a serial killer on the loose. His father served one, for Merlin’s sake. Draco probably fancied himself invincible.

Draco wasn’t the only one complaining about Sirius—all the Daily Prophet writers were still obsessed with the Ministry’s search for the fugitive. Dangerous, deranged, notorious mass murderer! the newspaper proclaimed. Rabid supporter of He Who Must Not Be Named! Extremely dangerous! Ten thousand Galleons on his head! 

The headlines went on and on as the Ministry officials continued chasing their own tails looking for Sirius Black, while the real supporters of Me Who Must Not Be Named were crawling out of the woodwork. Right under their noses. If only they had known that none of their security measures against Sirius (and Peter) would accomplish a thing, because the two former friends would soon end up in a showdown for the ages.

Other than that one sighting at Hogwarts, The Daily Prophet gave us nothing but speculations on the whereabouts of Sirius Black until the beginning of June, as the Hogwarts academic year was drawing to a close. Then came a story that was so long that the paper decided to print a Special Edition that day. People wanted all the details. 

Apparently, the escaped convict had contacted his old friend Professor Lupin and told him who had really betrayed the Potters. The two of them teamed up one night, with Sirius under a Disillusionment charm, to hunt down Peter Pettigrew. They found him dozing in a sleazy pub in Hogsmeade. This made it easy for them to subdue him and take his wand, after which they brought him to Hogwarts to finally face the consequences of his actions. Lupin explained everything to Dumbledore and, upon the Headmaster’s promise not to harm Sirius, the latter removed his Disillusionment charm. Dumbledore then contacted Cornelius Fudge with the news. Once the Minister arrived at Hogwarts, Dumbledore summoned Snape to administer Veritaserum, forcing Pettigrew to tell all. 

Pettigrew’s confession included his status as an unregistered Animagus, and the rat who had positioned himself as the Weasley family pet for twelve years. He did this after cutting off his own finger and assuming his rat form to frame Black for his crimes. He was the rat sleeping next to Percy Weasley, whom Black had been trying to stab when he’d snuck into Hogwarts. Black was exonerated and granted a public pardon—though Lupin felt pressured to resign his teaching post because, mid-confession, Pettigrew let it slip that Lupin was a werewolf. The professor knew that such information would never stay private. According to this Special Edition article, Lupin and Black were seen exiting Hogwarts together the following morning with all of Lupin’s belongings; the werewolf had promised to take care of Black until his friend had recuperated enough to begin rebuilding his life.

What fun that must be, to have an escaped Azkaban prisoner in one’s home! I couldn’t possibly imagine what that must be like!

I didn’t give a damn what Sirius Black and his friends were up to, as long as they stayed out of my way. Pettigrew would certainly be staying out of my way now, with a lifetime Azkaban sentence ahead of him—unless he, too, escaped. I wasn’t sure I deemed him worthy enough to break out of prison. I’d have to think on that.

And I loved how, after all these years, no one knew about my curse on the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. I was already curious about who Dumbledore would hire for the upcoming school year. 

*   *   * 

At the end of July, Lucius received a letter from Cornelius Fudge, inviting the Malfoys to sit in the Minister’s Box during the Quidditch World Cup. Draco was ecstatic—though he seemed more excited at the prospect of boasting about his family’s view of the match more than the match itself. What a surprise.

Fudge’s invitation gave me an idea. Seeing as I was finally getting some results in rebuilding my army, an event like the Quidditch World Cup would be the perfect place to send a message to my enemies—and the entire Wizarding world.

During subsequent Death Eater meetings, we began making plans for my followers to invade the campgrounds after the match. The Death Eaters would have to attend the match as guests, like everyone else, but with their Death Eater robes and masks shrunk and hidden inside their normal attire. (It was around this time that we also decided to stop the anonymity during meetings—more often than not, my followers would now be hiding in plain sight during assignments, and they would thus need to know the identities of their comrades. Since the risk of being captured and tortured for information was always present, I began teaching them Occlumency to compensate.)

As for the Quidditch World Cup, we decided that the Death Eaters would link up after the match and don their uniforms, burn everything to the ground, and conjure the Dark Mark in the sky for all to see. The task sounded easy enough, but would take careful planning to execute properly. There was always a heavy security presence at the Cup, and we needed to know exactly what measures to take to avoid detection. Where would Aurors be stationed? Where were all the guests be pitching their tents? Would some of the Death Eaters need to bring their own tents in order to blend in? Where and how would they be able to signal their locations to each other and regroup in a timely fashion? They couldn’t just strut around as a flock of black cloaks and angry sneers in front of everyone.

Being an employee of the Ministry, Lucius was able to oversee some of these details and report back to me. We brainstormed and planned everything out for the next month, so that we’d be all prepared by August 25, when the Irish and Bulgarian Quidditch teams arrived in England to face off for the Cup. I would not be joining the Death Eaters—the idea was to make people wonder if I was really back, or if my most loyal followers were simply planning an uprising to keep my ideals alive. I wanted the civilians scared and on high alert, but not knowing exactly what kind of threat they were facing. Stressed, distractible people were easier to control than calm ones.

The World Cup had suddenly taken center stage at The Daily Prophet as well as my table. I found myself tossing the paper aside after only reading half of it, as the writers were dedicating so much of their word count to information about the competing teams and Quidditch history. Unlike the Malfoys, and most of the Wizarding world, I didn’t care about the match. Narcissa didn’t seem enthralled with it, either; she would have opted to stay home with Margo, had she not been tasked with watching the children and keeping them away from the Death Eaters’ activities. They were not yet old enough to witness my followers in action.

I obviously ordered Lucius to share everything with me once the job was done—everything from our destructive little afterparty; not the match itself. I didn’t care about a bunch of pansies flying around on broomsticks for fun. 

Lucius came home with quite an eventful tale. 

After everyone had arrived on the campgrounds, Fudge had greeted the Malfoys like old friends and led them to the Minister’s box. They’d had to endure lots of meaningless small talk—Fudge babbling on about his excitement over the tournament being in England this year; and Fudge’s wife chewing Narcissa’s ear off talking about their nephew, Rufus, who worked in the Improper Use of Magic Office. Draco obviously hadn’t cared about any of that; all he’d wanted was the status symbol of being in the Minister’s Box. The boy did enjoy Quidditch, and was the Slytherin team’s adept seeker, but I knew he was after glory more than enjoyment of the sport. Margo remained mostly silent, only speaking when spoken to. 

Lucius mentioned that the Weasleys had been present—well, what was left of them. They were still an unnaturally large clan, even with their two youngest spawn dead. Malfoy described the family as too much ginger in one place. I agreed. (“If it rains, you’ll be the first to know!” Lucius had jeered at the twins Fred and George, who’d been screaming with excitement over snagging seats on the highest level of the stadium.)

To begin their assignment, the Death Eaters had gathered on the outskirts of the campgrounds, forming a line. No one looking at them would have been able to tell that they were in a formation, as they were spread far enough apart, and were able to signal to each other once everyone was in their assigned position.

They had planned and timed it perfectly: they cast Disillusionment charms on themselves before donning their Death Eater attire, and then removed the charms, in exactly the same amount of time, so as to begin their acts of destruction all together. They had burned the entire campground to rubble within half an hour, torturing those who tried to fight against them. Barty Crouch Jr. had cast the Dark Mark once the campground was vacated and only the Death Eaters remained. 

I was impressed. 

The Daily Prophet came in the next morning with the headline Terror at the World Cup! I chuckled at the writer’s lame attempt to make it sound like the security at the campgrounds had been the best on Earth, so how could this possibly have happened? Then came the usual postulations on my whereabouts, the meaning of the attack, and what the Wizarding world should do if such an event ever happened again. I figured I’d let them ruminate on that for a while as I continued amassing more followers.

*   *   *

Draco began his fourth year at Hogwarts a week after the World Cup. His first letter home spoke of his arrogance finally landing him in trouble with the wrong person: the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. Apparently, Draco had been “arguing” with Hermione Granger—which more than likely meant antagonizing her, but what did I know—and Moody had caught him. Well, caught was an understatement. The professor drew his wand while screaming at Draco for being a bully, and Transfigured him into a ferret. A ferret who bounced up and down for a solid minute at the whim of Moody’s wand, to the delight of the surrounding students...until an irate Professor McGonagall rushed over and berated Moody for using Transfiguration as a punishment.

Moody sent the Malfoys a follow-up letter, apologizing for Transfiguring their son (probably at McGonagall’s request, not because he regretted doing it), but also clarifying that Draco had instigated the argument; he had insulted Hermione’s parentage and raised his wand to curse her as she walked away from him. Moody told Lucius that his son needed to learn to respect others, and certainly not be so cowardly as to curse someone when their back was turned. Lucius relayed this information to his embarrassed son a few days later. What he didn’t mention was that Moody had also written, Remember, Malfoy, I used to be an Auror. It was once my job to think as men like you do. I have not forgotten my training. Lucius felt no inclination to pass that warning on to Draco.

Draco obviously had learned the insult Mudblood from his father, so Lucius wasn’t going to scold him for using the term, but he did warn Draco not to get on Moody’s bad side. And after a Defense lesson that involved Moody demonstrating the Unforgivable Curses, and hurling a gigantic Imperiused spider onto Draco’s face, the young Malfoy finally got the message. (But, of course, after complaining about the spider on his face, he had to make fun of Neville Longbottom for being rattled by Moody’s demonstration of the Cruciatus curse. The boy really was too predictable—always having to belittle someone else even while being humiliated in front of his classmates. Nothing was ever his fault.)

A few weeks later, a surprising thing happened: instead of a slew of complaints and shallow bragging, Lucius began receiving a gushing fanboy’s adoration over one Viktor Krum: the Bulgarian Quidditch team’s Seeker, the youngest in the world, who had taken up residence at Hogwarts with some of his fellow students from the Durmstrang Academy of Magic. It just so happened that this academic year, Hogwarts would be hosting the legendary Triwizard Tournament, and thereby housing students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons. Draco didn’t care for his school’s new French occupants, but he was utterly fixated on Durmstrang and Krum.

I was not interested in the Triwizard Tournament, but I was interested in Draco’s impression of the Durmstrang students and their Headmaster, Igor Karkaroff.

Karkaroff was one of my former Death Eaters. A traitor. A dead man walking. He had been imprisoned in Azkaban, only being freed after he’d given up Bellatrix and the others for their torture of the Aurors Frank and Alice Longbottom. He publicly renounced his status as a Death Eater once released, with the threat of being carted back off to Azkaban if he ever voiced his support for me again. No one had heard a word from him until he’d resurfaced as the Headmaster of Durmstrang. And he certainly hadn’t come to Malfoy Manor a few months earlier, when he’d felt the Dark Mark burn on his arm.

I would have to watch the events at Hogwarts more closely. At the start of term, Draco wrote home that Dumbledore and Karkaroff had embraced like old friends—the latter was clearly finished being a Death Eater. Which also meant that he would soon be finished with breathing. I found it funny that the then-Auror Alastor Moody had been the one to capture Karkaroff; and now, the two of them were living under one roof, proclaiming to be on the same side. Not only that, but Barty Crouch Sr. was officiating the Triwizard Tournament and living at Hogwarts until June. Not many knew that he had sent his own son to Azkaban after hearing testimony from Karkaroff all those years ago. I instructed Lucius to write back to Draco, expressing enthusiastic interest in the subject, thereby encouraging Draco to report any updates in his letters. 

Of course Dumbledore would willingly house a former Death Eater. I wasn’t the least bit shocked by this news. I was, however, a bit surprised at his decision to hire Mad-Eye to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts; especially given the now ex-Auror’s hatred for Karkaroff. Dumbledore certainly had a penchant for kindling bonds with former enemies and trying to unite everyone in a big, fluffy bundle of love. It really was ridiculous. What was he doing, living in a children’s book? The real world didn’t work like that. I couldn’t even begin to understand his thought process in making such absurd decisions.

The Headmaster’s tolerance of Karkaroff oddly reminded me of his duel with Gellert Grindelwald, which had happened during my last year as a Hogwarts student. I had been fascinated by the Dark wizard and his hunger for power and Wizarding supremacy over Muggles, which mirrored my views in some ways; though, unlike me, Grindelwald had wanted to take over the entire world. I wanted power, sure, but my biggest goals had always been immortality and influence at Hogwarts. I wanted to be invincible and respected and have endless knowledge at my fingertips for all eternity. I wasn’t interested in world domination; that would require too much effort into activities I had no interest in pursuing. I couldn’t be bothered.

Had I been in Dumbledore’s position, I would have killed Grindelwald in the duel. Why imprison him? He had evaded capture for so long, and could surely break free again.

I’d heard rumors that Dumbledore had once been intimite with Grindelwald, but had cut ties with him when he realized what the man was planning. Whether they had merely been shagging or actually engaging as partners, such stark differences in political views would surely have ended the relationship and fostered enormous resentment on both sides. Had I ever had a partner and discovered that her allegiances were with my enemies, I would have killed her on the spot.

Why would he keep an enormously powerful wizard like Grindelwand alive, while in a position to strip him of his power? If I were Dumbledore and had felt so profoundly betrayed by my former partner, I would have assassinated Grindelwald the second I had my chance. I killed followers who betrayed me. All the Death Eaters knew that they woud either serve me or die. There was no in-between. Dumbledore’s weakness toward Grindelwald had proven quite impractical. Perhaps this softness fueled his overcompensation in trying to fix problems at Hogwarts—either those that fell into his lap, or those of his own making.

Also impractical was Draco Malfoy’s blatant adoration of Viktor Krum. The boy obviously wanted to be a Quidditch player like Krum when he grew up—not like his father would let him—and even went so far as to root for Durmstrang over Hogwarts in the Triwizard Tournament. He wanted to see Krum take home the Triwizard Cup...and a friendship with Draco in the process. One more famous person for young Malfoy to brag about being chummy with. His admiration for Krum reminded me a bit of the way his grandfather had viewed me. 

Lucius rolled his eyes—a common theme when reading his son’s letters—as he shared with me Draco’s disappointment after the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. The Hogwarts champion, Cedric Diggory, had finished first and Krum had finished second. Malfoy Junior went on and on about how Krum was so much stronger and should have come out on top. As a professional Quidditch player, shouldn’t he have easily wiped the floor with his two competitors? Neither Lucius nor I spent any time discussing the matter after we’d read Draco’s letters.

Unlike Draco, I actually had something valid to be angry about. My followers’ actions at the Quidditch World Cup brought on an unintended consequence: the resurfacing of The Order of the Phoenix, a no-longer-secret society whose goal was conquering the Death Eaters once and for all. The society had disbanded after my defeat in 1981, but its members felt the need to come back together after seeing the Dark Mark at the World Cup.

The organization had remained a secret until a week after the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. No one knew how the information had leaked, but someone had fed the name and purpose of the organization to The Daily Prophet. A few reporters did some investigating and eventually convinced the group to come forward.

Lucius told me that newspaper sales exploded that week, since The Daily Prophet  featured a detailed article about the Order. It included photographs of members past and present, and a list of those I had killed. Prominent current members included Arthur and Molly Weasley, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Mad-Eye Moody. Remus and Sirius were the new leaders, and spoke for the group when reporters came knocking. In an interview for the Order’s first newspaper article, the men vowed to do everything in their power to destroy me. They were practicing and inventing complex defensive spells, recruiting new members whenever possible, and subjecting those individuals to extreme tests to measure their character and trustworthiness. They were also encouraging Hogwarts students to contact them—whether for the purpose of joining the organization or lending support on the sidelines. Remus proudly told the Prophet that several older Hogwarts students had pledged their support of the organization and vowed to join once they’d graduated. Their numbers were increasing steadily.

Clearly, my forces weren’t the only ones growing stronger. I was in for quite a fight.

Chapter Text

All your insults and your curses
Make me feel like I'm not a person
And I feel like I am nothing
But you made me, so do something
'Cause I'm fucked up
Because you all need attention
Attention you couldn't give
I sit here locked inside my head
Remembering everything you said
The silence get us nowhere
Gets us nowhere way to fast 

—Staind ~ “For You”

 

Being back home for the summer felt like an immense disruption. Though I’d never truly felt at home with my relatives, I now felt even less so, having experienced the joy of being away from them for months at a time.

Given my family’s scrutiny, I had developed a severe hatred and fear of being watched before I was even old enough to articulate such words. This resulted in a fierce need for secrecy, to the point that almost any question felt like a violent invasion of privacy. I wanted no special attention, good or bad. I didn’t want any of my movements, even achievements, to be in the spotlight. I wanted no reactions. I almost wanted to be invisible.

I knew that most of my parents’ queries were normal—such as “How did you sleep?” and “What are you thinking about?”—but I didn’t know how to explain that I wasn’t normal. I wanted to be able to exist on my own terms without being seen as a broken chainlink, and I had no way of achieving that; I was only eleven and could not communicate my wishes eloquently. Since I had no idea how to assert my boundaries respectfully, I did what came easiest to me: I raged. 

These explosions were made infinitely worse by my parents’ assumptions that it wasn’t the questions themselves that bothered me; I clearly just lacked the emotional intelligence to understand when someone meant no harm, so I assumed that everyone was out to get me! And if only I would learn the difference between good and bad intentions, of course I would stop being uncomfortable! Merlin, my social skills really were lagging! My poor family! 

Yes, I knew the questions were perfectly normal. Yes, I knew my parents meant no harm, and I was probably the only person on the planet bothered by inquiries so innocuous, but why was I expected to be like everyone else? Why didn’t I deserve to have my needs met, while everyone else did? And why was I unfair for wanting the same respect that I was required to unfailingly give? Was I just...inherently less deserving than everyone else?

I tried so hard to explain my position—usually in floods of tears—but I could tell that deep down, my parents didn’t want to believe that my argument had merit. They didn’t want to even entertain the possibility, as that would take them farther outside their comfort zones than they had ever traveled. They were not emotionally equipped to handle such a venture. So, as usual, they punished me for their failures and made me feel responsible for their behavior.

Since they refused to give me as much alone time as I needed, I found ways to sneak it in. For example, I usually woke up before Morgan, but I began staying in bed until she woke up, pretending to be asleep until she left the room. That gave me an hour or two to myself, once she’d gotten dressed and crept out of the bedroom. My family thought I was suddenly becoming a late riser; but I really just needed some time to emotionally prepare myself for the day. 

I eventually realized that, despite knowing my parents’ good intentions, I didn’t actually care if I hurt them when I grew angry. And I should have. I was supposed to care about other people’s feelings. I was supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy when I made another person happy; but the mere thought of putting on a face and being polite for no reason filled me with rage. I couldn’t help it. There were moments when I could eke out a please or a thank you while in an exceptionally good mood, but it was so hard for me to be cheerful around my family—especially since these brief moments became such a bloody spectacle, replete with my mother’s over-the-top praise and my father’s exaggerated body language, meant to portray pleasant shock over my rare good behavior.

These actions made me feel even worse, and made me hate being friendly even more. I viewed my parents’ positive reactions as more damning a punishment than reprimands. Being scolded was normal for a child; but shock over actually doing what everyone else was doing, and doing it properly!!! was not. I found it insulting. I tried explaining this to my parents—sometimes by telling them to calm down, but more often by screaming, “STOP MAKING SUCH A BIG DEAL OUT OF IT!!!” They never listened. They felt deflated. And then, predictably, they would scold me for ruining a wonderful moment. 

I couldn’t breathe around my parents. I desperately wished for somewhere to go just to get out of the house, but I had no friends. No escape. My parents wouldn’t even let me go out and run around the block to blow off steam, because they didn’t trust me to behave well if I encountered someone on the street. (My father also mumbled something about kidnappers, but he seemed more worried about my misbehaving than being abducted.) Therefore, I had nowhere to go but inside my head. Being present was too painful. 

About halfway through the summer, I began fantasizing about running away. Where would I go? I wondered. What would I pack? How would I survive? I knew I had no answers, but it was a fun place to go inside my head. I dreamed up vividly-detailed fantasy worlds where I had infinite time to pursue my interests, a few friends, and maybe even a cute boy to hold hands with sometimes. There were no names or faces; just fuzzy images. 

Outside of drawing and reading and wondering what I’d be learning in my second year at Hogwarts, daydreaming took up most of my time. It was not only painful to live in the moment; it was nearly impossible. I found myself drifting off and staring at nothing many times when my relatives spoke to me, and then they’d scold me for ignoring them—when really, I just couldn’t stand to be there. I kept to myself as much as possible until the time came for our annual trip to London.

As we’d already gone through the motions the previous summer, the event wasn’t as big a deal to me. I wasn’t bouncing around with excitement. And Morgan was full of apprehension over the thought of my having another meltdown in Diagon Alley—she didn’t explicitly state this, but she had no other reason to be scared.

Everyone in my family was on eggshells, waiting for me to explode over an “insignificant” slight in Diagon Alley, but it never happened. I almost lost my cool once, in the bookstore, but I realized I needed to prove my relatives wrong as much as I needed to complete the trip without problems, for the sake of my sanity. Whatever was left of my sanity, anyway. 

It happened in Flourish and Blotts, where I couldn’t help but look at the section labeled The Dark Arts. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be interested in those books, but how could I not be curious about something forbidden? Being off-limits made the mysterious tomes all the more enticing. What was the harm in just looking? I wondered as my family moved past that section on the way to the textbook area. My parents should be happy that I love learning so much. Why would they want to restrict my knowledge? Why don’t they trust me to just...look? I’m not actually going to do anything about it.

I knew better than to voice my thoughts. And I was certainly glad that Dumbledore wasn’t around to hear them.

After we’d finished collecting my new textbooks and got in line to pay, a shelf near the counter caught my eye: it contained a few stacks of sketchbooks and leatherbound journals. I flashed back to the essay I’d written for Dumbledore a few months earlier, and how the content would have served me better as a private rant instead of a character-damning essay. 

I tugged on my father’s sleeve. “Can I get those?” I asked, pointing to the diaries and sketchbooks.

“You want all of those? Don’t be greedy!” 

“What?! I just meant one of each! A sketchbook and a journal.” 

“Oh! Um—sure, I don’t see why not. Go pick them out and then come right back.”

“Where is she going?” my mother snapped as I skipped up to the counter. “What is her pr—” 

“Renee, she’s getting a journal. I told her she could.” 

“Oh! Okay!” my mother replied in a tone of pleasant surprise.

I had to stop walking to collect myself when I heard this exchange—why was my mother’s kneejerk reaction always to assume that I was doing something wrong? I contemplated running out of the bookstore and just going off by myself for a while, but I knew that would only start a fight. And I had no energy for a row; being out in public with my family was stressful enough. I bit the inside of my cheeks to hold in my rage as I picked up the blank books and rejoined my family in line.

“What’s that face for?” my mother asked, narrowing his eyes as she regarded me suspiciously. 

“What? What face?” 

“You’re scowling. What’s the problem?” 

My eyes widened and a took a step back. “What—I’m not scowling. What are you talking about?” 

Oh god. Here we go.

“Alex, you’re sucking in your cheeks and glaring. What’s going on?”

Wow. Even when I contain my anger so as not to explode in public, I still have to look happy, or I’m screwing up even more. It’s never enough, is it.

“You don’t see yourself. You don’t hear yourself. You’ve got a really ugly look on your face and it’s unacceptable. Relax.” 

I blink and shook back the rage pounding through my veins. Don’t. Lose it. Don’t. Lose it.

After the tension crackled in the air for about ten seconds, I looked down at my feet and nodded while clutching my books. I knew that the sooner I did what my parents expected of me, the sooner I could deescalate the situation and prevent a fullblown fight. 

It worked. I wasn’t sure how, but it worked.

We waited in line for about five terse minutes, all uncommonly silent, until it was our turn to pay.

“Thank you,” I murmured smoothly as my father handed me my new acquisitions. He nodded curtly without looking at me.

We completed the rest of our errands in relative quiet, with me making a few cheesy jokes to try and diffuse the tension—“Oh, Mum! I’m glad these new robes are loose enough that no one can tell that I’m almost ready for a bra! Yup, Morgan, this’ll be you in a few years! Get ready!” No one was laughing heartily, but I had significantly lowered my family’s stress levels by the time we got back to my grandmother’s house. I felt relieved at the discovery that I could soften my family dynamic if I tried hard enough.

I continued with my good-girl charade for the rest of the day. Morgan had insisted on buying a new Wizard’s Chess set in Diagon Alley, which we all played for a few hours. My mother unfortunately noticed the frenzied glee that briefly flashed through my eyes every time one of the pieces barbarically destroyed another, but she couldn’t think of anything to say—everyone knew how the chess pieces behaved and they still played the game, so what would be the point in scolding me for enjoying it? Despite this knowledge, my stomach was still in knots until we put the chess set away and went to bed.

The next morning, I continued my performance of pretending to be asleep so everyone would leave me alone. When I heard Morgan talking to everyone downstairs, I grabbed one of my new textbooks and began to read. I hoped to make the week a quiet one, keeping to myself with my new books to avoid any more confrontations before I returned to Hogwarts. If I could just stay out of everyone’s way and only speak when spoken to, maybe I’d actually have a shot at a happy last week of summer. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

In some ways, it was a slow burn. I spent the next few days trying not to overhear my parents and grandmother arguing over what to do about me—I kept hearing questions like “Why won’t she join us for lunch?” and “You only come here once a year! I’d like to interact with both of my granddaughters! Can’t you just make her come out of her room? She’s your child! Lay down the law for her!” and “Why is it that all she wants to do is study? She’ll do enough of that at Hogwarts! She can’t keep making everyone uncomfortable like this!”

Little did they know that I had been trying desperately to integrate for as far back as I could remember, only to be shunned every time I veered off the acceptable path. Which seemed like every fifteen minutes. I popped into the living room for a game of Wizard’s chess or a meal with the family every so often, but it didn’t become routine. My relatives were always surprised when I emerged from the bedroom. 

While sequestering myself upstairs, I made a habit of putting my fingers in my ears as soon as I heard anyone talking. I didn’t want to hear any more nasty comments about my character. All I wanted to do was lose myself in my textbooks and sketchbooks and daydreams until I could finally get away from my family once more. This led to a few small spats, where I didn’t hear a knock on the door because my ears had been covered, so the person had to knock loudly before I jumped out of my textbook trance and scrambled out of bed to open the door as soon as possible. My relatives thought I was ignoring them, and I had to apologize profusely for having been lost in my thoughts and not hearing the initial knock. I couldn’t possibly tell them that I was sticking my fingers in my ears like a four-year-old; I’d never hear the end of it.

That was the slow burn. Then came the explosion. Literally.

Grandma Rosie ran into a woman named Vivian, one of my mother’s Hogwarts friends, at the market a few days after we’d completed my school shopping. They hadn’t seen each other since my mother had moved to America to marry my father. Vivian was happy to see my grandmother who, in an uncharacteristically friendly gesture, invited her and her nine-year-old daughter to come over for lunch. Morgan and I were playing Wizard’s Chess in the living room when the door opened and Grandma Rosie walked in with two complete strangers. 

“Oh, VIV!!” my mother shrieked upon seeing her former classmate. I stared blankly as they embraced, not knowing how else to react. I’d never been that excited to see anyone, and no one had ever been that excited to see me, so their behavior seemed strange. Even Morgan looked a bit apprensive. 

“Renee! It’s so good to see you! You look wonderful!” Vivian gushed. “This is my daughter Isabelle, but we call her Issy.”

“Oh, how adorable! Pleased to meet you, Issy!”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Halaway!” the girl parroted back.

Oh, great. Another perfect little politeness fairy.

“Alex, Morgan, this is my friend Vivian!” my mom announced as she brought the guests into the livingroom. “We went to Hogwarts together. Come say hello!”

Morgan and I greeted the newcomers with a quiet hello. We weren’t sure what else to do. 

“Viv and Issy are staying for lunch. Why don’t you girls go play outside, and we’ll call you when the food is ready.”

“Okay,” Morgan replied, and led Issy and me into the backyard. We—well, Issy and Morgan—decided that we would play tag. I objected, being a slow runner, but I was outnumbered. As always. Issy quickly took charge and made Morgan be It.

My sister wasn’t great at running, but she was better than I was. And I hated it.

I grew increasingly angry as the game progressed, realizing that I’d likely be a much more agile runner if my parents didn’t rule their household with such an iron grip. Maybe they thought that because I ate well and maintained a healthy weight, exercising wasn’t important just yet? I never knew. And it didn’t matter either way, as the outcome was still the same. 

I thought of all the times I had begged my parents to leave the house on my own, after which I’d felt so drained and deflated from our arguments that I’d had no motivation to move for days. Adding insult to injury, my parents would then call me lazy for not wanting to complete my chores in such a state. 

They didn’t realize that I was neither lazy nor unmotivated; I was exhausted from being held back. Slamming myself into a brick wall to try and catch up with my peers was a grueling task; and I wanted to take advantage of the precious happy moments I could grab, by going out running. I wanted to feel the rush of wind against my face as my body moved. I wanted to lose myself in the physical exertion as my feet pounded the pavement, muting all thoughts of my traumatic life for just a little while. I wanted to watch and feel my body grow stronger as my muscles developed, allowing me more power over the future assailants I would undoubtedly face. Being in shape would not only feel empowering; it would make me safer.

It infuriated me now, more than ever, that I wasn’t allowed that experience. It also infuriated me that I hadn’t thought to go running around the Hogwarts grounds—despite all the pressure and abuse I faced at school, I still thought I was an idiot for not having thought to plan ahead to avoid my current predicament. Even though I could never have seen it coming. I felt punished by being the slowest of the group, stupid for my human fallibility, and enraged by my body’s weakness.

That fury sped me up a bit, but I was still stuck being It more often than the other girls. I felt ridiculous after chasing the giggling Issy for a good five minutes, after which I needed to lean against a pine tree to nurse a stitch in my side. There was nothing fun about playing tag, I decided.

My lungs were on fire. My throat stung as I gasped for breath. My heart was pounding too quickly for me to keep up. My legs were burning and shaking and I wanted to curl up in a ball on the grass for a while. I took some deep breaths to calm myself, which began to work until I heard mocking laughter behind me.

“You’re sloowwww! You don’t run a lot, do you! If you did, you could catch meeee!” Issy giggled. 

And then I snapped. 

I whirled around and glared at Issy as wrath like I’d never experienced filled me up and burst forth. It wasn’t just the embarrassment of being a slow runner; it was a culmination of all the anger I’d suppressed for the past week—or maybe even my whole life—over having to suffer to keep everyone else comfortable. I simply couldn’t hold in those intense feelings anymore. 

I wasn’t sure how it happened, but the tree I’d been leaning on suddenly...didn’t exist. Before me was a pile of burned branches, billowing smoke, and a screaming Issy. Whose severed right arm was lying on top of the splintered branches.

The loose limb was jerking and twitching as its fluids seeped onto the grass. Blood was dripping from Issy's bleeding stump like ice melting on a frozen waterfall after a long winter. The girl's screams rent the air as she clutched her injury, her face contorted in horror while she leaned against a nearby tree to steady herself. She seemed equally terrified by her severed arm and by the amount of blood coming off on her hand. It was a curious sight.

Had Issy not been yowling enough to virtually split my eardrums, I might have opted to simply watch and observe her condition. Would she die from the blood loss? Would she pass out? Could magic reattach the limb, no matter how long it took to find a Healer? If not, would she be able to acclimate to a life with only one arm? I wanted to find out, especially since I resented her so fiercely for her running abilities. It served her right after she mocked me; I'd already been mocked enough for a lifetime. Physical injuries always healed faster than emotional ones.

Unfortunately, I could not sate my curiosity; this was not a morbid daydream. This was real life, and I had no way to undo my actions. The brief fascination I felt was quickly morphing into alarm.

Oh, Merlin. I’m in trouble. How on Earth do I talk my way out of this one? Are my parents going to beat me half to death over this? Should I just make a run for it? 

“Damn it,” I whispered as I looked behind me and saw Vivian running over to us. I couldn’t take cover. I turned back around, shaking and panting from sheer terror, and tried to appear remorseful.

“Issy! I—I’m—” 

“GET AWAY FROM HER!!” Vivian bellowed, grabbing my shoulders and shoving me to the ground. “WHAT DID YOU DO?!” 

“I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING! I WAS JUST STANDING THERE AND THEN—” 

“SHE BLEW OFF MY ARM!!” Issy shrieked. “SHE MADE IT HAPPEN! SHE WAS GLARING AT ME SO HAAAARRRD! RIGHT BEFORE IT HAPPENED!” 

Smack. “YOU BRUTE!” Vivian screamed. “HOW COULD YOU!” Smack.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!” I cried, swatting violently at Vivian’s arms to block the stream of blows to my stinging cheeks. “GET OFF ME, YOU BITCH!!”

Smack. “YOU BROKE OFF MY DAUGHTER’S ARM! AND DON’T YOU SWEAR AT ME! YOU DESERVE MORE THAN A SLAP, YOU DEMONIC LITTLE—”

My father suddenly appeared and pulled Vivian off of me. “Why are you slapping my daughter?!” he yelled as I staggered to my feet.

“SHE DESERVES IT!” Vivian shouted back, pointing at Issy as my mother sprinted outside and joined the scene. 

“What happened?” my mother cried.

“YOUR DAUGHTER IS A MONSTER!! I AM NEVER COMING HERE AGAIN, AND I WILL RAISE THE DEAD IF ALEX EVER GOES NEAR ISSY AT HOGWARTS! YOU’RE LUCKY SHE’S NOT OLD ENOUGH FOR SCHOOL YET, OR I’D PETITION TO HAVE ALEX EXPELLED JUST TO KEEP ISSY SAFE! HOW YOU CAN RAISE A DEVIL LIKE THAT IS BEYOND MY UNDERSTANDING! YOU’RE LUCKY I’M NOT SUEING YOU! THAT LITTLE BITCH SHOULD BE LOCKED UP IN AZKABAN FOR LIFE!”

“I’m sorry, Viv, I’m so sorry...” my mother sobbed as my father roughly grabbed my wrist and dragged me back inside. I tripped over myself on the way in, as he was pulling me too fast to give me time to walk. I yelped as the wood from the deck grazed my ankle.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SCREAM!” he yelled. “YOU AMPUTATED A LITTLE GIRL’S ARM!!”

“I DIDN'T MEAN TO! AND YOU’RE PULLING ME TOO HARD!”

He grabbed my waist and threw me over his shoulder, ignoring my kicking and screaming until we’d arrived in the bedroom. He threw me face-first onto my bed.

“DON’T MOVE! STAY THERE UNTIL WE COME BACK IN!” he commanded, and slammed the door with a deafening BANG. As the window was open, I could hear Issy and Morgan crying in the background while our mothers screamed at each other. 

I began to cry, too.

What on Earth had just happened? How had I made a tree explode and break off someone’s arm in the process?

My brain felt fuzzy. I was lightheaded and my heart thumped heavily as I trembled. I worried the organ would burst out of my chest from the pressure. I was trying not to throw up. 

What would happen to me? Surely, a Healer could reattach the stupid girl’s arm—that would be an overnight process at most. And even though I hadn’t severed her arm on purpose, I thought she deserved to be punished. She’d mocked me. She’d provoked me. I’d been provoked enough for a lifetime already, but all anyone ever seemed to care about was what I had done to deserve being mistreated. This was so unfair!

At the very least, I would likely endure a screaming lecture from my parents about my lack of self-control and how guilty I should feel. But why should I feel guilty? I didn’t go around trying to hurt people; I just seemed to attract bullies. I had nothing to feel guilty about.

And then a curious thought surfaced: Had I ever felt guilty before? About anything? 

I racked my brain for an answer, but found nothing. Whenever I’d hurt someone, the only thing I’d worried about was the consequence. And why should I be expected to do anything different? An abused pet doesn’t feel guilty for lashing out at its owners. As far as I could tell, I’d never had a reason to feel guilty in my life. Whenever I’d apologized for hurting someone, I’d only done so to deescalate the situation and avoid further harm to myself.

Morgan. My parents. Nicole. Meryl. And now Issy. I’d never felt guilty for hurting any of them; just scared of the potential repercussions. And I’d never met anyone else who felt that way.

How strange. Interesting, but strange. I’d have to think more about this later. 

As I pondered this concept to distract myself from the fear threatening to swallow me whole, I could hear Issy wailing and whimpering. Vivian was leading her and her detached arm off my grandmother’s property, and refusing help from my parents. My mother and Morgan were still sobbing over the incident, my mother calling out apology after apology, only to be met with a loud FUCK YOU!! 

Oooh, one of those words I’m not supposed to say. 

They obviously felt bad for Issy. But what about me? What would happen to me? I’d long since grown accustomed to being blamed for reacting to other people’s misbehavior, but this altercation was a new breed. I had no idea what to expect.

My tearful mother called to my father as soon as she and Morgan came back inside. I couldn’t decipher their words, but I could take an educated guess. I held my breath when I finally heard footseps outside the bedroom. A jolt of terror shot through me as my father opened the door. 

“Come downstairs,” he ordered gravely. 

“I didn’t mean it, Dad! I swear!” I cried. “I don’t know what happened! I just—” 

“Downstairs. NOW.”

I rose on wobbly legs and followed my father down the stairs, gripping the bannister tightly. I didn’t trust myself not to collapse. 

“Put your shoes on,” my mother said, so softly that it scared me further. I’d rather be yelled at than hear her speak this faintly. Something was very, very wrong.

“W-where are we going?” I stammered. “Where’s Morgan? Where’s Grandma Rosie?”

“Morgan and Grandma Rosie are upstairs. They’re staying here—there’s not telling how long we’ll be gone.” 

“What?? What do you mean? Where are we going?”

“St. Mungo’s. England’s Wizarding hospital—the same place Issy is now, getting her arm reattached.”

“But why do I have to go there?” 

“Because you need help. More help than we are able to give you.”

“Is this another one of those...those things you made me do when I was really little?!” 

“An assessment. Yes,” my father replied. “We would be awfully irresponsible to allow you to return to Hogwarts without one.”

So this was it. They were taking me to this St. Mungo’s place for a second psychological evaluation.

I’d had my first one when I was three and a half. I don’t remember the name of the facility—just that it was the American equivalent of St. Mungo’s. The mental health Healer, a bespectacled bald wizard named Frank, had attempted to level with me by talking to me through bewitched stuffed animals that were meant to represent various feelings, and changing his voice accordingly. All I had seen was an annoying old man who refused to take me seriously. I’d figured that the more sad and less angry I acted in front of Frank, the easier the consultation would be. The boring session ended after an hour. I never learned the results of that evaluation, and hadn’t cared to find out.

It was a bit different this time. I was older, more aware of the impact of my behavior, and my memory was more vivid. (My memory was more vivid than that of anyone I’d ever met—more a curse than a blessing—but that didn’t matter at the moment. What mattered was getting in and out of the bloody hospital as quickly as possible.)

The waiting room at St. Mungo’s was packed. There were many people ahead of me in line, and the earliest appointment was at 8pm. If the Healers were on time, of course. And that was eight hours away.

Damn it, why didn’t I bring a book?! 

We sat in silence for about half an hour, before my father left for the cafeteria. “We’ll need some food if we’re going to be here all fucking evening,” he spat as he got up.

There’s that bad word again. I guess this situation calls for it.  

I turned the curse over in my head.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. It’s a good word. I wonder when they’ll let me say it out loud. It sounds like a word that would make me feel better if I could scream it to the rooftops. The FUCKING rooftops.

I giggled at the thought. 

“What on Earth are you laughing about?!” my mother scolded. “What’s the matter with you?”

“I’m sorry, I just...thought the word was funny.”

“What word?”

“That bad word Dad just said—”

“You just severed someone’s arm and you’re giggling about a swear word?!”

“I’m sorry! It just came into my head! I can’t control what I think about!”

“Well, maybe you should try! You have no reason to laugh right now!”

“I’m sorry, okay?! Stop scolding me!” 

“Really, Alex? Really? Do you not understand the seriousness of the issue? You caused a life-threatening injury, and you’re angry because I’m scolding you over a curse word?!”

“Of course I get it! Just—just STOP!” 

“Lower your voice.”

“How about you STOP your voice. I’m sick of hearing it. I’m sick of you scolding me every five minutes. It feels like I can’t do anything right around you. I’m trying not to explode again. Stop making it worse!” I shot out of my chair and made to walk away, but my mother grabbed my wrist and yanked me back down.

“You are not wandering around by yourself, Miss Halaway! Stay put until they call you!” 

“Stop touching me. You’re pissing me off!” 

“Watch your language.”

“YOU watch your f—UUUGGHHHHHH!” I growled.

Heads turned.

My mother grabbed my chin and jerked my face to the left, to look into my eyes. “One more word out of you, and you will be alone in your room at Grandma Rosie’s for the rest of the week. Without any of your books. You will do nothing but sit in silence and think about what you’ve done. Do you understand?”

I nodded and pulled my chin out of her grasp.

The misery inside the waiting room was oppressive. I could barely stand it. My father returned with our food ten minutes later, and sat down on my right after passing us our meals. I loathed sitting in between them; but I couldn’t ask to switch seats, or god forbid get up and go for a walk. I couldn’t even speak, or I’d likely die of boredom as punishment before going back to Hogwarts. Spending a week locked in my room with nothing to do? I’d have a nervous breakdown. 

What could I do to pass the time? How could I calm myself down? The same way I always did when life became too overwhelming: I daydreamed.

I was an immensely powerful witch. I was back at Hogwarts, but I was much older—maybe sixteen or seventeen. People would take me seriously if I were older. I had a gang of friends who all but worshipped me. We sat together in every class, we ate meals together, and we threw parties in the Slytherin common room over the holidays because no one wanted to go home. I was the ringleader, respected more than anyone in Slytherin House. Maybe in all of Hogwarts. People still feared me like they did in reality, but most of the girls secretly wanted to be me and tried to copy my behavior to win my approval. If this ever happened in real life, I would pretend not to notice. Because I obviously would have more important things on my mind, and I wouldn’t have time for fangirls.

In this scenario, I spoke my mind with impunity. I read whatever books I wanted without worrying about being told that I wasn’t supposed to. There were no consequences. I likely had a stack of Dark Arts books next to my bed, just to feed my morbid curiosity and spite my parents. Would I actually practice Dark magic? Who the hell knew. For the time being, I was more interested in being able to do what I wanted without repercussions, and no longer being an outcast. Being admired for what made me ME. Actually having people I could count on because they respected me enough to take pleasure in doing whatever I asked.

At eight o’clock, a wizard came over to us with a roll of parchment and a quill. “This is a set of questions for you to answer about your daughter’s visit,” he explained to my parents. “When you have finished, please bring the form up to the front desk. We will call your daughter’s name when the mental health Healer is available.”

“Thank you,” my mother replied. “Do we know when that might be?”

“As soon as we can. She has three people ahead of your daughter.”

My parents sighed as the wizard walked away. I closed my eyes and returned to my daydream. 

“Alex Halaway,” came the voice of a witch near the entrance to the waiting room half an hour later. All three of us jerked our heads up toward the sound, relieved that our time in the hospital was finally nearing its end. We shot up out of our seats and briskly walked over to the woman.

“The Healer will see your daughter now,” the blonde witch told my parents.

“We need to go in with her,” my mother replied.

“No, I’m sorry—we actually don’t allow parents in the room for a child over ten. We need to know what the child is thinking without their parents’ influence so we can get a more accurate picture of their mental state.”

“Like the Healer won’t tell my parents everything I say as soon as I leave the room. Do you think I’m stupid?” I snapped.

“Alex!” my father scolded. 

“Actually, we only tell the parents that which could put the child or another person in danger. We are sworn to protect the privacy of our clients. As long as you’re not planning to injure anyone, including yourself, the explicit details of your session with the Healer remains private.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth? Can I see some proof?” 

“Alex, stop it!”

The witch held up her hands. “Mr. Halaway, you should know that if a child is thiswary of trusting adults, something is wrong, and we will need to explore this in the consultation. I know it’s tempting, and I completely understand your frustration, but this is not a reason to tell her off.” 

“But she has no reasonnot to trust adults!” my mother cut in. “We’ve been beyond patient with her. We’ve put up with her attitude—and now severing someone’s arm with her magic—for eleven and a half years! She is violent at Hogwarts, and she hasn’t been expelled! She’s been given special treatment beyond anything I’ve ever seen with any other child! Clearly, adults have her back, at home and at school. We support her; we don’t judge her! We love her! All we want is for her to be happy and healthy! We just—” 

“Mrs. Halaway, please. This is not an attack on your parenting skills or your love for your daughter. We are all on the same side, working together to figure out what’s best for Alex. Now, I need to bring her to the Healer’s office. Could you please sit in the waiting room? The Healer will call you in when she has finished evaluating your daughter. You won’t hear what they discuss, but the Healer will give you her results.”

My parents nodded. “We love you, Alex. Remember that,” my mother pleaded, squeezing my shoulder.

I didn’t react. I simply turned around and followed the blonde witch into a small room with a desk, some games, and two big couches facing each other. 

“The Healer will be with you shortly. Would you like some toys to play with in the meantime? We have books, markers you can draw with—” 

“No, I’m fine.” Because you’ll analyze anything I draw or read and show it to my parents. Just like Dumbledore did. 

“All right. Just relax. Everything will be fine.”

I thanked the woman and watched her glide down the hall, trying not to be scared.

How had it come to this? I thought as I inhaled the crisp scent of the too-clean leather couch. How do I need another evaluation after everyone else was being mean to me? Shouldn’t they be the ones here instead? I shifted in my seat, trying to find a comfortable position that would make me appear as helpless as possible—surely, no Healer could see me as a threat that way, right?

“Good evening, Alex,” came a rich alto voice, jolting me out of my ruminations. I looked up and saw a tall, svelte witch with close-cropped dark curly hair, and a reserved yet warm smile. She walked into her office and shut the door. “My name is Melissa. I’m a mental health Healer and I’m going to be asking you some questions. Do you know why you’re here?”

“Yes. I’ve had one of these evaluations before,” I replied in a monotone. I needed to appear calm and collected. I needed to prove my parents wrong. 

“Why did you have one before?” 

“Because my parents said I was acting out and I was too angry all the time. They couldn’t handle me. They still can’t.”

“What was the result of that evaluation?”

“I don’t think my parents were happy with it. The Healer just tried to talk to me through stuffed animals and it was really dumb.”

Melissa went through a series of questions about my overall mood, my self-esteem, and how I would describe myself. She asked me about my relationships with my relatives, my hobbies, how I interacted with others, how well I functioned at Hogwarts—top of the class, thank you very much—and how I felt about hurting people or using them to get ahead.

Uh oh. This could be something she tells my parents. How do I water down the truth and make her believe me? 

“I only want to hurt someone if they hurt me first,” I said quietly. “I don’t go around looking for ways to put people in the hospital. Everyone at school is mean to me. I want friends, but no one likes me.” I told her all about my squabbles at Hogwarts, and how I’d just snapped with Nicole and Meryl—my nerves had been frayed and I’d felt unsafe. I’d had no way to channel my feelings after being rejected and harassed so often.

Melissa looked thoughtful as she scratched her quill across the parchment on her lap. “Do you have problems with authority?” she asked after a moment.

“Of course I do! Almost every authority figure in my life has insulted me and made me feel like I did something wrong for fighting back when someone was mean! No one takes me seriously! Why would I not have a problem with that?” 

She took some more notes, asked a few more questions about my distaste for authority, and then switched gears. “When did you begin developing trust issues?”

“I can’t remember not having trust issues. It seems like every time I ask for something I need, I get yelled at. I don’t trust anyone.”

“Do you trust me?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“First of all, I don’t know you. You’re a stranger. I’d be stupid to tell all my secrets to someone I just met. Second, I think you’re looking for ways to diagnose me with some horrible disease and lock me up in Azkaban. Maybe my parents want that, too—they probably want to get rid of me. I don’t think anyone cares about anything I have to say. The only person who takes me seriously is Professor Dumbledore, but even hebetrayed my trust. He—” DAMN IT. I’m going to have to talk about that essay now. Did I just screw up my whole plan of getting out of this without punishment?

“What did he do?” 

I looked down at my lap, trying to hide the fact that I was screaming at myself inside my head. There was no way I could work around this—my parents had the essay. They could produce it on command. I had to tell the truth.

Melissa was silent for a while after I stopped talking, pressing her lips together and writing on her parchment some more. “How do you feel after you hurt someone? Are you scared? Angry? Happy? Guilty?”

“Why should I feel guilty when I haven’t done anything wrong?” I retorted. “If someone provokes me, that’s theirfault. You feel guilty when you do something bad, not when you react to someone elsedoing something bad!” See? I’m showing you that I know what guilt is. Please don’t ask me anything else about it. 

“Okay, so what does it feel like when you experience remorse?”

FUCK. I was hoping to ponder that question privately. “Um...it feels like I’m a bad person because I made a mistake that’s too big for people to forgive. I feel worthless. I want to be a good person. I want to be respected. I want to be capable. I don’t want people to look down on me like some kind of ugly, deformed, incompetent creature that will never be good enough and can’t do anything right.”

“I see. Did you feel remorse when you blew off Isabelle’s arm?” 

“That was an accident!! I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!”

“I understand that,” Melissa said sternly, “but that wasn’t my question. Did you feel bad for Isabelle when you realized that you were the reason her arm was no longer attached?”

“Yeah! I felt horrible! I wanted to take it back as soon as I saw her arm on the ground. I was really confused—I didn’t know how it happened. I got really scared. Especially when her mom threw me on the ground and started slapping me.” 

Scritch scratch went the quill.

“Would you ever want to hurt an animal?” 

“Only if it hurt me.”

“What happens when you get bored?” 

“I don’t get bored.” 

“Ever?” 

“No. I can’t handle boredom. I always have to be doing something productive, or I’ll go crazy.” 

“You’re always being productive? You don’t allow yourself to rest?”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t nitpick what I’m saying. Of course I rest! I just mean that when I have energy, I have to be doing something. I can’t sit around and do nothing. I have to occupy myself somehow or I’ll burst. The second I feel like I don’t have something to do, I can almost feel my skin caving in and I want to claw my way out of it and break free. It’s horrible. That’s why I don’t let it happen.”

“So what did you do in the waiting room?”

“I daydreamed.”

“What did you daydream about?”

“Can I keep NOTHING private?! I’m not telling you!!”

More firm lip-pressing and note-taking.

“All right. Now, you told me that you don’t have any friends and people look down on you. Let’s imagine that you had a friend: what would you do if that person came to you with a problem? Would you want to help them?” 

“Sure, yeah. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you care about someone.”

“Don’t worry about what you’re supposed to do; what would you want to do? Would you ever want to help someone if you didn’t think you had to?” 

“Maybe—it depends what was going on in my life. I just don’t have the energy for people most of the time. I have enough problems of my own and I’m not sure I could take on anyone else’s without exploding.” 

“Do you ever feel bad for people when you hear about their problems?” 

“Am I supposed to?”

Melissa laughed awkwardly. “It’s not a matter of what you’re supposed to do; just be honest. Nothing bad is going to happen unless you present a danger to yourself or others.” 

“What do you think would make me dangerous?”

“If you express concrete plans to harm others.”

“Oh, Merlin, I’d never do that! Do—did you think I was going to do that?” 

“I didn’t think so, no.”

“Sorry, I’m just super paranoid.” 

“I can see that. Now, you talk a lot about what you think you’re supposed to do because you’re scared that harm will come to you if you don’t perform a role properly. I want you to think very hard about this: are you more concerned with doing the right thing to make a good impression and thereby protect yourself, or doing the right thing because it feels good to do right by others?”

I kept silent for a moment and pretended to be deep in thought before I spoke again. “I think both of those things are important,” I declared, trying to sound sincere.

“Alex, have you lied to me at all during this conversation?” 

Yes. I just did. But I’m not telling you that. I glared at Melissa, a textbook image of exasperation and betrayal. “See, this is what I’m talking about! I tell the truth and everyone thinks I’m lying!! And I’m supposed to be all nice and polite about it?! And then people wonder why I’m in such a bad mood most of the time, I don’t even want to be nice because it takes too much—too much FUCKING energy!”

MERLIN, that felt good. I clenched my jaw and shook my head, balling my hands into fists as I stared at the floor. I could feel Melissa’s eyes on me like static on my hair. I mustered up all the pain and anger and hopelessness that I could, and forced out a couple of tears for emphasis. I didn’t even look up at Melissa to see her reaction—I knew that doing so would give me away.

Why couldn’t she just understand that as long as people left me alone, I would leave them alone? I would only cause problems if other people caused meproblems! Why was that such a difficult concept for everyone? 

After I finished my performance, Melissa called my (extremely tired) parents into her office. 

“How did it go?” my mother asked.

“We had an interesting chat. As you probably know already, Alex is an uncommonly high-functioning child. She’s obviously gifted academically, and her intelligence far surpasses that of most eleven-year-olds. These are very good signs for her future; however, she also exhibits symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder. That explains her distaste for rules, social norms, and other people’s feelings.”

“They told us that when she was three and a half. She began trashing her bedroom, throwing things everywhere, and pushed each of us down the stairs—on separate occasions—when she flew into one of her rages. She was six when that happened.” 

I really can’t live anything down, can I.

“I see. I should tell you that I hesitate to pin labels on a child as young as Alex, especially a high-functioning child, since such behaviors often result from a toxic home or school environment. This means that these traits are often reversible. Now, you mentioned in the form that she is bullied severely at Hogwarts and most professors don’t take her seriously. Something like that could definitely contribute to a child’s development of psychiatric issues. Though I believe that she can still have a fulfilling childhood, I would encourage you to watch her closely to make sure her symptoms don’t worsen. I think—” 

“NO!!” I shouted. “I’m SICK of being watched and scrutinized all the time! Nobody else gets punished like this for every little thing! It drives me crazy! Why can’t you just leave me alone! Didn’t you just hear her call me high-functioning? That means I can function without you people breathing down my neck every five seconds! This is what makes me so mad all the time! Why can’t you stop?” 

Now I was crying for real. I shook and screamed as I allowed all the fear and anger and frustration of the day to flood out of me.

Look what you’ve done, I thought as my body convulsed. You all did this to me! This is all your fault. I hope you feel like amazing people now!

The adults were silent until I calmed down. My mother tried to stroke my hair, but I swatted her hand away.

“Don’t touch me,” I croaked through my now-parched throat. “Just leave me alone! Let me BE! I can’t BREATHE like this! Stop picking apart everything I do!”

I apparently wasn’t done crying. 

When I’d finally gotten ahold of myself, I was vaguely aware of Melissa asking my parents if they knew what an introvert was. They didn’t. The Healer explained that introverts need much more alone time than most people, and will get angry and tired if forced into too much social activity. “She may have a valid point about wanting to be left alone,” Melissa told them. 

“So...are you saying that we should just...ignore our own child?! Are you nuts?!” my mother blurted. 

“That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that if Alex needs to be alone, then let her be alone, as long as she has no social obligations. Being an introvert definitely erects a barrier to her making friends at Hogwarts, but she is likely not the only introvert there. She may find herself making a few close friends over time, if allowed to do what feels right to her. If she is living authentically, she will attract the right people. I trust that she has the ability and observational skills to discern acceptable social behavior; she just doesn’t want to act appropriately right now because she’s too angry. So yes—” She gave me a mildly apologetic look. “Do continue to watch her, but also let her breathe. She may surprise you.” 

An eerie silence filled the room as I could feel my parents wrestling with themselves over Melissa’s words. Part of me wanted to smirk in relief, but I had no strength left.

Melissa told my parents to owl her if any further problems arose, even while I was at Hogwarts. After their promise to give me space, and my promise to respect my elders, we finally returned to Grandma Rosie’s house. 

We had to tiptoe because she and Morgan were already asleep. It was a small comfort, to be able to get into bed without having to talk to anyone. I fell into a deep sleep within minutes.

The tension in the house the next morning was profound, but it allowed me to eat in silence. Finally. I ignored my family and spent the remaining days of summer holed up in bed with my textbooks. The night before I returned to Hogwarts, my mother knocked on the door. When I told her she could come in, she sat down on the foot of the bed and said, “There’s a spell I’d like to teach you, which I think you’ll find useful at Hogwarts—especially given that you don’t trust anyone.”

“What is it?” 

“It’s a spell to lock a journal so that only you can open it. Would you like me to show you?”

My face lit up. “Yeah!”

I all but ran to my cauldron and plucked out my new journal. I studied my mother’s facial expression as she quietly withdrew her wand—she looked like she was teetering on the edge of excitement and despair. She was desperate to bond with me, but also worried that I would do something to upset her and ruin the moment. I tried really hard not to be annoyed; she always expected the worst from me, and then my motivation to do better would fly out the window. I’d think, Why should I bother trying to behave well if the slightest mistake will send her into a tailspin? At least if I’m rude, she won’t be surprised because she bloody expects nastiness from me. 

Which was why that moment felt equally hopeful and terrifying for both of us.

The spell was pretty easy to pronounce, but she had to show me the wand movement a few times. We both ended up laughing when she exaggerated my initial mistake in the arm gesture, and I suddenly felt a pang in my heart. This small moment of levity was an all-too-brief glimpse into what my relationship with my parents would be like if they could just relax around me and stop trying to turn me into somebody else. My mother noticed that I suddenly had wet eyes.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” she asked, stroking my tears away.

“I wish we could be like this all the time,” I answered in a small voice that barely sounded like mine.

“Oh, honey, so do I,” she breathed, and pulled me into a tight embrace. I began sobbing into her robes before I could stop myself. She let out a sniffle or two of her own, but otherwise just held me silently and let me cry. 

She probably thought I was only crying to release the stress of the past week, but that wasn’t it at all. 

I was mourning.

I realized that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never have the kind of relationship with my parents where these sweet moments would be commonplace. We were too different, and my parents were too scared to admit when they were wrong. I had to parent them parenting me in order to keep the peace. And they would never know. They weren’t receptive enough to handle such harsh criticism, even if learning from that criticism could help them grow and improve their relationship with me. 

Though my mother was holding me, I felt more alone than ever. And I knew I could never share that with her.

I couldn’t make this a regular thing—crying over the relationship I’d never have with my parents—because it served no purpose. Surely, at some point, I’d meet people who accepted me for my authentic self instead of loving a mask I wore for protection? Maybe Melissa had been right, and I would find the right people as long as I remained true to myself.

My tears gradually stopped as I felt the familiar resilience rise inside me, and I pulled out of my mother’s embrace. 

“It’ll get better, Alex. I know it will,” she soothed as she got up to leave the room. “Be strong.”

It might get better for me, but it will never get better for you. You’re trying to comfort yourself more than me.

I knew that realization would be the subject of my first journal entry as soon as I returned to Hogwarts. Merlin, I couldn’t wait to go back.

Chapter Text

Identity, fantasy, heresy, killing me
Lower and lower before, this thing to feed
Hypocrite, lunatic, fanatic, heretic
More and more you follow your divorced reality 

—Static-X ~ “The Only”

  

Despite the lack of excitement from November of 1994 to February of 1995, between the first and second tasks, the Triwizard Tournament was still the main focus of The Daily Prophet and Draco’s letters to his parents. The boy was obsessed with watching and analyzing the three champions and their schoolmates. Viktor Krum was a god among men, Cedric Diggory was a pansy who let people walk all over him, and the Beauxbatons champion Fleur Delacour was a weakling who had no business competing. 

I couldn’t have cared less.

One thing I did find humorous was Draco’s observation that, though the Tournament was supposed to be a time of excitement, there was a thick cloud of tension and anxiety blanketing Hogwarts. Given the events at the Quidditch World Cup, everyone was speculating over the possibility of my return. (Yes, dear citizens, I’m relaxing at Malfoy Manor. Thank you for your concern.) That was probably why Dumbledore had hired Mad-Eye to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts this year—he wanted someone who had fought on the front lines against Dark magic in case the school required such a battle. I didn’t see a war happening any time soon, but I found it agreeable to work my opponents into a frenzy over nothing. Tired warriors made shoddy warriors. I would build my defenses more slowly this time, so my adversaries would have less stamina when the time to fight actually arrived.

The Order of the Phoenix, however, was not interested in building slowly. The organization wanted to amass as much power as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to defeat me. Not like they ever would, but their efforts were cute.

Auror Nymphadora Tonks, Lupin’s Metamorphagus girlfriend, was quite loud in The Daily Prophet—she spoke to any reporter who asked for an update on the Order’s activities and the size of their forces. Arthur and Molly Weasley were also active in the organization, spurred by the deaths of their two youngest children in the Chamber of Secrets. Though they were anxious about sending their remaining school-age offspring to Hogwarts this term, they knew they couldn’t keep the boys from their education. And, for once, I approved of the family’s decision. (I would’ve loved to have seen one of their older children die competing in the Triwizard tournament, but they weren’t old enough. Oh well.) 

Though I knew they weren’t strong enough to defeat me, the Order certainly was competent. They were rapidly amassing and training a large swath of followers in their fight for justice. Be that as it may, I wondered if these warriers may grow fatigued over time—Remus and Sirius appeared to be acting like personal trainers, overcompensating for their past failures, but no one could be in tiptop shape constantly. Battle fatigue would likely set in at some point, even before true combat became necessary.

Maybe that was where I, too, had gone wrong in the 1970s: I had attempted to make too much happen, too quickly. People notice when their rights are being stripped away out of nowhere, but not when done slowly and with immense subtlety. I was immortal now; what was the rush? I knew what I wanted and I had a place to stay for as long as I needed. If I chose, I could take years to formulate a proper strategy for infiltrating Hogwarts and the Ministry, so that I could one day venture out in the open without fear of being captured and incarcerated. I had felt incarcerated long enough, anyway, after splitting my soul into seven pieces and then nearly dying in my first attempt at killing Harry Potter. Being trapped inside various objects, before Ginny’s life force revived me from my diary, had been maddening. Better than dying, but still maddening. 

Halloween of 1981 was the worst day of my life. Killing Harry’s parents had given me quite a thrill, but I had neglected to factor in the ancient magic Lily wielded by sacrificing herself for her only child: by throwing herself between Harry and me, her love had provided the boy with the ultimate protection. Not even a Killing Curse could destroy him. 

Lily certainly hadn’t wanted to end her life, but had chosen to die in place of her son. I’d initially thought it ridiculous, since I would have allowed her to live if she’d simply stepped aside and let me take what I’d come for—her old friend Severus had begged me to spare her life. And I would have done so had the silly girl simply done as she was told. 

When the Killing Curse I cast on Harry rebounded, it felt like being struck by lightning while the world’s longest, sharpest knife shot straight through my heart and impaled me on its blade before exploding inside my torso. I screamed, but the sound cut short as my body disintegrated. All that was left was an unstable magical force that allowed me to glide through the air and possess the bodies of animals to get around. I thought I would regain my body after acquiring the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1992, but that bloody Potter boy had thwarted me once more. His mother’s protection was still in place, and he instead destroyed the body of my host, Professor Quirrell. Though residing in a diary and all my other Horcruxes for many years was utterly incapacitating, living on the back of Quirrell’s head was worse by far. I had to hear this man’s every word, every move, and every thought for an entire year. He complained about never being alone, and yet he at least had had a body. He was mobile. I, the greatest sorcerer in the world, had been reduced to nothing but a mere parasite, drinking unicorn blood from the back of a man’s head to stay alive.

At least I had my body back now. And Merlin, did I look good. 

*   *   * 

One morning in mid-January, I had just gotten out of the shower when I heard a knock on my bedroom door.

“Who is it?” I called out, wrapping a towel around my waist. 

“It’s Bella, my Lord,” the witch replied softly. 

Ahh, I know that voice she’s using. It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard her talk like that—all soft and sultry. And she thinks I don’t know what she’s doing.

I opened the door and regarded her. She made no attempt to conceal the hunger in her eyes.

“Do you need something, dear?” I asked with a smirk. 

“Yes.” 

“Care to elaborate?” 

“May I come in?”

It’s certainly been a while. Why not. I ushered her inside, cast a Silencing spell around the room, and shoved her up against the door.

“You’ve wanted this from the moment you saw me here, haven’t you,” I purred in her ear. 

“Yes, my Lord, I—mmmm,” she sighed as I kissed her slowly. Guiding her away from the door, I pushed her onto the bed and tossed my towel onto the ground. She bit her lip as she looked me up and down once more, unfastening her robes as quickly as her trembling hands would allow.

And so commenced a half hour of bed-rocking action that left both of us sweating and smiling.

All while Rodolphus was relaxing in the parlor. Still as clueless as ever, he was. 

Well, that was delightful, I thought as Bellatrix dressed and slipped out of my room. Years in Azkaban had taken their toll, but she still looked decent. However, I found it a bit odd that, with her being in her late forties, I now appeared less than half her age and she still wanted to jump into bed with me. Didn’t she find it awkward? I wasn’t exactly opposed to the activity, but I had wondered if she might lose interest when she saw that I looked young enough to be her son. 

Bellatrix having a son. That’s a scary thought.

Was she still in love with me, or had our little romp come from a place of long-buried revenge? Having spent so much time incarcerated, I figured that a trivial issue like a straying husband would dull in importance to her over time. I hadn’t bothered using Legilimency while inside her, but I surely would next time. There would most certainly be a next time, considering the look on her face just before she exited my bedroom to rejoin her family in the parlor.

Even though the Lestranges were no longer living here, they still visited frequently. Which meant Bellatrix would likely be in my bedroom frequently. Yes, this would most assuredly be an interesting experiment. The woman hero-worshipped me and felt a sense of pride in having had intimate relations with me, even though the activity was nothing more to me than a physical release. 

Bellatrix certainly had found me attractive at the start of our affair many years ago, but I wasn’t sure if her affection alone had been enough of a motivation to cheat on Rodolphus. I didn’t care either way, as I still had a willing female in bed with me. She later told me that Rodolphus had betrayed her first and she’d simply wanted to get back at him.

It wasn’t my fault that she’d fallen in love with me in the process. I didn’t seduce her. I didn’t coerce her into our little clandestine arrangement; she’d just wanted to smite her husband. Falling for me had been an unintended consequence. 

Perhaps it was the fact that I, an immensely powerful wizard, patiently taught her all about Dark magic and then welcomed her into my bed. Perhaps it was the way I listened while she babbled on and on about the werewolf Rodolphus was seeing. I wasn’t sure. Either way, I would never object to a nice shag with a pretty lady now and again, married or not. She came on to me, anyway.

I didn’t think Rodolphus was still carrying on with the lady wolf, as he hadn’t been out of Azkaban very long and didn’t seem to be engaging with others outside of my assignments. Be that as it may, Bellatrix was still suspicious. Before their incarceration, there had never been any concrete proof that Rodolphus had conceived an illegitmate child with his lycan lover, but there had been whispers—the name Madeleine Lestrange had begun surfacing in high-society gossip in early 1981. Those rumors still persisted today, now growing louder than they’d been in years past, with the Lestranges broken out of Azkaban.

It turned out that Bellatrix’s suspicions were correct. She came back to my bed during a family visit a few weeks later, after which she told me that Rodolphus had finally confessed all: yes, Madeleine was his. The child, now fourteen, had been shunned by her mother’s werewolf clan for being a witch, and by the Lestranges for being born to a shapeshifter—and an illegitimate child as well. In the Lestranges’ eyes, Madeleine was not “pure” enough to deserve their protection.

The homeless girl had been following her mother’s clan the entire time the Lestranges were incarcerated, begging to be accepted, only to be bitten and turned into a werewolf by the very mother who should have protected her. In retaliation for turning her, Madeleine had murdered her mother with her bare hands—well, bare claws and fangs was more like it—at the tender age of ten. And how did Rodolphus know all this? Where was the child now? 

In the Lestranges’ abandoned house, of course! 

She had nowhere else to stay, and had written to Rodolphus to ask for lodging just two days prior, upon hearing that he’d broken out of prison.

He was in a conundrum. He’d initially considered hiding this news from his wife, but she had found the letter and demanded answers. After two days of stewing on her rage, Bellatrix had come here to vent to her sister and me. I told her I didn’t know enough about the child to have any concrete feelings about her, so she flounced over to Narcissa and began screaming. I didn’t need to be in the room to hear the entire conversation. 

“Rodolphus wants us to house this abomination!” she shouted. “Can you believe it, Cissy?! I slapped him. I should have done more! How dare he conceive a child with another woman—and a WEREWOLF! I don’t care that she’s a Pureblood! That’s disgusting! That’s like mating with a Muggle! I don’t understand...I can’t figure out why....”

“I don’t know, Bella,” Narcissa sighed. “And, if you haven’t noticed, the Dark Lord has always recruited werewolves. You have yet to object on that front. You’ve never had a problem with Greyback, have you? You’ve never complained about working with him.” 

“Oh, but that’s different!” Bellatrix whined. “Conversing with a lycan who shares my views isn’t the same as mating with one! For Merlin’s sake, Narcissa, how could you even—”

“Did Rodolphus ask your opinion, or tell you the child will be coming to stay?” 

“IF HE JUST INVITED HER OVER, I WOULD KILL THEM BOTH!” 

“Bellatrix, I was merely asking. Please lower your voice; it’s echoing off the walls and hurting my ears. Do you want the Dark Lord to hear you ranting and raving like this? And given the subject matter—”

“I ALREADY TOLD HIM! I DON’T CARE IF HE HEARS ME NOW! IT’S AN OUTRAGE, CISSY! AN OUTRAGE!”

Their argument continued for a solid thirty minutes.

The gist of it was that Narcissa frowned upon her brother-in-law’s philandering; but as a mother, she was concerned about the child’s predicament. And Bellatrix was absolutely irate over Narcissa’s feelings. Mrs. Malfoy wisely allowed her sister to finish ranting and then make her own decision about the child, which was that she’d be forbidden from entering the Lestrange household. I was not surprised. 

Bellatrix returned to Malfoy Manor a week later to tell us that, though she had watched Rodolphus write and owl his response to Madeleine, telling her not to contact him again, she had still done so. But it was with some surprising news. Given that she was now officially rejected from both sides of her family, she had opted to change her name to reflect her independence. She signed her letter not Madeleine Lestrange, but Mimevas Lemqi, a name of her own invention.

Rodolphus appeared conflicted—the girl was his own flesh and blood, and had been forced to live in an abandoned house just for shelter; but she was also a werewolf and therefore not fit to associate with the noble Lestrange family. Bellatrix told me that, after they’d read the letter, Rodolphus had crumpled up the parchment and thrown it into the fireplace. He promised her that he would never contact Madeleine, now Mimevas, ever again. 

I wasn’t opposed to the concept of a werewolf in the vicinity—as Narcissa had noted, I’d already recruited one Fenrir Greyback, after all—and I was intrigued by this girl Mimevas. At the age of ten, she’d already possessed the brutality to murder her own mother and feel not an ounce of remorse. Someone like that could definitely become a Death Eater one day. I decided to seek out this girl when she was of age and see if she’d mastered the restraint required to control her primal urges.

And if the Lestranges objected, that was their problem to discuss amongst themselves. I wanted no part of it.

*   *   * 

Unbeknownst to her, dear Bellatrix was helping me in and out of the bedroom. I began using Legilimency on her once I’d told all my Death Eaters that I planned to build my empire more slowly this time, because I was curious about her thoughts on the issue. Some of the ranks were frustrated, as they wanted any excuse to burn and pillage, but I told them that I would not repeat 1981. I had been careless with Harry Potter. I had been too eager to vanquish my enemy, and worked overtime from a one-track mind, instead of carefully examining my surroundings to plan for every possible outcome, like I should have done. Like I was doing now.

I thought long and hard about this issue. What would I do? How much could I infiltrate the British Wizarding government to achieve my goals? How much would I haveto infiltrate the power structure? It wasn’t governmental power I was after, anyway—having that power would simply allow me to move freely and do as I pleased. I had no interest in being the Minister of Magic; but I would need to plant my own high-ranking officials, if not a Minister, if I were to feel truly safe and comfortable being out in the open. 

After countless hours mulling the problem over in my mind, by myself and in meetings, I slowly began to piece my plans together. I realized that I would need to have my Ministry-employed Death Eaters groom existing officials for some time, so that they wouldn’t realize how deeply they were being manipulated to do my bidding. This control would gradually ripple outward through the altering of laws and media influence, extending to everyday citizens—these people would begin acting in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t, because they’d feel the need to guard themselves in the unstable environment I would create.

As I explained the psychological weapons I would be wielding over the masses, a debate ensued about employing a slow approach instead of a fast one. In response, I asked my followers how they would react to a sweeping new law restricting their freedom vs. a series of small, seemingly innocuous laws passed over the course of several years, made in the name of protecting citizens’ safety. 

They didn’t know that Bellatrix had been thinking along those lines for weeks. And I never told her that I knew this. I knew she saw my bedding her as a source of pride and status. I didn’t mind that terribly, but I didn’t want her to think too highly of herself. She was my servant, not my equal. I had no equals. And that would never change. 

Assuming Bellatrix secretly wanted to divorce Rodolphus and marry me, she wouldn’t just want my adoration; she’d probably want more power than she had now so that she could feel more on par with me. Not that I ever would marry her—or any witch, for that matter—but I would never share my power with anyone. The concept was preposterous.

Be that as it may, I did value Bellatrix’s opinion highly. She was smart, talented, and she enjoyed serving me more than any other Death Eater. She was constantly thinking up new ways for me to gain power and influence in the Wizarding world, some of which weren’t half bad. The slow-and-steady approach was one of them. 

We began implementing the gradual takeover with Lucius. As an esteemed Ministry worker with Cornelius Fudge in his back pocket, the elder Malfoy began dropping hints to Fudge about changes the Ministry could implement to protect the Magical world from Muggle infiltration. I didn’t expect this to work overnight: though Fudge certainly favored Purebloods, he wasn’t an outright supremecist like the Malfoys and the Lestranges. Lucius would need to groom the Minister for months, possibly years, before he could control the man as much as I desired. I would not be the center of attention with such matters—I was merely the puppetmaster pulling the strings. My Death Eaters were the loyal puppets, jumping when I told them to jump and acting the way I told them to act. Whether they wanted to or not was irrelevant; they knew they would die if they defied my orders.

I had certainly been hasty during my first reign of power. I had stormed ahead, destroying every obstacle in my path, not once considering that one of those roadblocks could fight back. Harry Potter had been that rude awakening. Being older and more experienced allowed me to slow down, and think about what I was doing and why.

Plus, being immortal meant that I had, quite literally, all the time in the world. I wasn’t in a race to beat time anymore. I had a place to stay and next to no chance of being discovered. What was the rush? I was already halfway to achieving everything I wanted in life. If gaining all the power I wanted took several years, so what? I knew I would one day earn everything I desired. However long it took, it would be worth the wait. 

And speaking of waiting, Wormtail was likely twiddling his thumbs and waiting for me to rescue him. I still hadn’t figured out if I would break him out of Azkaban yet. Seeing as he had only returned to me out of fear, he didn’t deserve to have me rushing to his aid, the way I had done with Bellatrix and the others. He could hold out a bit longer, surely.

*   *   *

The concept of the Triwizard Tournament’s second task amused me. The champions had to find a way to breathe underwater for an hour, for the purpose of retrieving their greatest treasures from the bottom of the Black Lake. It wasn’t merely the ways I imagined students drowning or being murdered by sea creatures that I found entertaining—it was their greatest treasures.

People. The people at Hogwarts whom they loved the most. 

I couldn’t understand how a human being could be so important to someone that they would be considered a treasure. Wasn’t the term a bit dramatic? People were replaceable. I had yet to meet anyone important enough that I would call them a treasure. Had I been a Triwizard champion, my treasure would have been one of my Horcruxes. What could I possibly value more than the pieces of my soul? I could never imagine being that attached to a human being. Strange creatures, they were—the normal ones. I was so glad I was better than that.

*   *   * 

An unexpected sliver of juicy gossip wafted into Malfoy Manor in mid-April: Severus Snape was a member of the Order of the Phoenix. I knew he had turned spy after I’d killed Harry’s parents, but I was never sure what side he was really on because he was a highly skilled Occlumens. Though an admirable servant whom I trusted with many difficult assignments, I would never have complete faith in him unless he gave me a reason. Hearing that he was this deeply entrenched with my opponents set my teeth on edge—more so because I didn’t know if it was true, or if he was merely positioning himself as such to gain inside information. I had to find out. Dumbledore may not have been certain of Snape’s loyalties, but I would not sit on my hands and wait for an answer.

I decided not to approach Snape about the issue directly at first. I would vaguely mention past turncoats in meetings, and then allude to the possibility of one in our midst. I would observe Snape’s mannerisms—Merlin, I’d observe everyone’s mannerisms and see if there were any other guilty parties.

“I have heard rumors of traitors amongst us,” I announced at the next Death Eater meeting. “If someone at this table displeases me, they will be dealt with appropriately. I don’t need to remind you all of what became of the elder Mulciber—should one of you betray me, my dear Nagini won’t have to worry about hunting for her next meal.”

While almost everyone else at the table looked like they were trying not to wet themselves, the Hogwarts potions master remained stony-faced. As usual. Though always respectful, the man often addressed me as if we were opponents in a game of cards. I never knew exactly what was in his hand—or his head. 

I put down a card: initiating him as a Death Eater and forcing him to swear unfailing loyalty to me until his death.

Snape put down a card: begging me to spare Lily Potter’s life when he knew I was targeting the family.

I agreed to spare the girl, but changed my mind when she wouldn’t back away from her son.

Snape made me suspicious of his loyalties after I killed his silly little crush, but he returned before almost anyone else after my long absence.

I instructed Snape to keep an eye on Karkaroff, as they were both at Hogwarts now.

Snape once again aroused my suspicions by joining the Order of the Phoenix.

And I threatened his life in front of everyone.

I would have the last laugh. I was sure of it. Nagini circled the table several times as I made my threats, hissing loudly for emphasis. I couldn’t spot any guilty faces—everyone at the table was simply trying their hardest not to look as terrified as they felt. Not like I’d never seen that before.

As little as I thought of some of my followers, given that their desire to join my ranks came from a need for approval instead of loyalty to my cause, I was rather impressed with Severus Snape. He was level-headed, ruthless, and positively brilliant; and he never let his emotions cloud his judgment—I’d overlooked his softness for Lily Potter because his strengths outweighed that one sore spot.

He’d come to me with news of the prophecy about the Potter boy immediately after having overheard it. Surely, he’d worked only for me back then, or he would not have been so forthcoming with such information. Now, however, I needed to keep a closer watch on the man. He was living and teaching at Hogwarts, and in close proximity to Dumbledore. He would need to prove that he was only in the Order to pass sensitive information to me. He would die otherwise. 

I let him ruminate on my warning until after the following meeting, when I pulled him aside as everyone was leaving.

“Severus, a moment please,” I drawled.

“Yes, my Lord?” 

“I heard some news of your activities outside these walls recently. News involving...conflicting loyalties. Do I have any reason to be concerned?”

Nagini began circling Snape, who pretended he couldn’t see.

“Of course not, my Lord. My loyalties are with you, and you alone.” 

“So I should assume that any news I hear of your activities—” 

Nagini hissed loudly and inclined her head toward Snape’s robes. He jumped ever so slightly.

“—within the Order of the Phoenix are strictly to gain information on our opponents?” 

“Yes, of course.” He didn’t even bat an eye.

We stared at each other for a long time. He was the perfect picture of calm sincerity, and I was suspicion personified. I wondered if I should simply relax and trust in his loyalty, given his prior actions.

“Then why didn’t you inform me of your decision, making me wait to hear of it through gossip?” I spat. “What are you concealing from me, Severus?”

“I conceal nothing, my Lord. I was planning to tell you—” 

“Tell me when? I had to ask you to stay behind after the meeting. What in Merlin’s name were you waiting for?!”

“The proper moment, when no one could overhear. It didn’t seem appropriate for this meeting, given the content of our discussion. I hadn’t even been sure if I should join the Order, or if would have looked too suspicious, but Dumbledore insisted. He still thinks I’m on his side. I feigned guilt and told him I didn’t think I had the right to join the Order, given my prior activities as a Death Eater.”

“And when did you expect this proper moment to arrive?”

“Within the week, more than likely. I wasn’t sure if the Order would even allow me to stay; I wanted to make sure I had solidified my membership. I figure that will happen before the end of this week.” Still as calm and cool as ever, his baritone voice quiet and smooth. No hesitation, no fear, no regret. Maybe he was telling the truth.

“And what have you learned of the Order’s activitie thus far?” 

“They are currently searching Hogwarts and the Ministry for anyone we may have planted there. They are mildly suspicious of Lucius Malfoy, but unable to prove anything. And, of course, they are doing everything they can to determine your whereabouts.” 

“Are they anywhere near a solution?”

“No, my Lord. They haven’t the slightest clue of where to start. They’re still not even sure you’re alive. I have offered false trails to send them on a wild goose chase; and, should they discover that you’re alive, I will do everything in my power to stop them from suspecting Malfoy Manor as your current residence.”

“I’d expect nothing less. You will report all Order activities to me with each new development, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. No more waiting until a proper moment. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my Lord. My loyalties are only with you.”

“As the should be. Need I remind you—” I paused as Nagini lunged and tore a shred of fabric from Snape’s robes. Now he jumped for real. “—of what will happen if I learn that you have been lying to me?” I stepped in close and sneered at him, making sure he could hear my breathing. His face never even twitched.

“Of course, my Lord. I understand. I am sorry if I have offended you or aroused your suspicions.”

“Good. I will be watching you, Severus. Know this. One foot out of line, and I will make you wish I had resurrected Lily and killed her a second time. In front of you. That gesture would be mild compared to what I have planned, should you ever betray me.” 

Snape nodded and swept out of the room. His shoulders slumped as he slowly descended the stairs. I wondered if that was from fear, despair, or relief. Or a mixture of all three. A complicated and unique man, he was. I would definitely need to keep an eye on him. 

*   *   *

The third and final task of the Triwizard Tournament was quickly approaching. A few weeks before the event, I gave Snape and Barty Crouch Jr. a unique assignment to further rile up the citizenry and make them wonder if I was regaining power: Snape was to sneak Junior onto Hogwarts grounds to kill his father. Like the Death Eaters’ actions at the Quidditch World Cup, the murder of Barty Crouch Sr. would send a compelling message. Everyone knew that Junior had broken out of prison, and his father had been the one to send him there. No one else would want dear old Bartemius dead but his errant son. 

Snape brewed two potions for the event: a batch of Polyjuice Potion for Barty so that he could assume the form of Mad-Eye Moody before escorting him onto Hogwarts grounds; and a delayed-action dreamless sleep potion for the real Moody, to be delivered at dinnertime. Junior would have to act at night, when the real Mad-Eye would be sleeping and therefore unable to blow our cover. 

Snape stole into Moody’s bedroom after dinner on the night in question and combed the area for some of his hair—and given that the man shed like a border collie, according to Snape’s observations, collecting a few strands wasn’t too difficult. He brought the hair back to his office, where the otherwise-completed Polyjuice sat, and finished brewing the potion. Slipping the drugged goblet to Moody during dinner proved surprisingly easy; after that, it was simply a matter of going through the motions for a few more hours. After returning to Moody’s room to find him fast asleep, Snape stole the man’s enchanted eye for Crouch to wear upon transforming. Snape then left for Hogsmeade to meet Junior. I gave Barty strict instructions to return and tell me everything that happened, as Snape would obviously have to stay at Hogwarts until the next Death Eater meeting. 

The night turned out to be quite eventful.

Snape met with “Moody” in Hogsmeade and they oh-so-casually dropped by the Hog’s Head for a pint. Since Moody didn’t drink alcohol, Crouch Jr. had to content himself with a tall glass of water. After making small talk for the public, having a conversation they’d rehearsed several times, the two men sauntered away to Hogwarts to play at retiring for the night. Snape was not allowed to accompany Junior on his assignment; he could be implicated in the murder otherwise. He needed to remain at Hogwarts and stay in his room until the morning. All he could do from this point on was tell Junior where his father’s room was located.

Barty had hoped to reach his father’s room without incident, but that was not to be. He had to first send a wandering Draco Malfoy back to his dorm, deducting ten points from Slytherin in the process. (He didn’t sneak into the Great Hall to see if the points had actually decreased, but that was a minor detail easily overlooked.) 

The sound of him shouting at young Malfoy caught the attention of the Prefect on patrol duty.

“Professor! Professor!” gushed the boy in a self-important tone. “I am so sorry I missed that! Where was the misbehaving student? If you’d like me to follow him, I would be more than happy to—”

“That’s quite enough, young man,” Crouch-Moody barked, trying to hide the fact that he didn’t know the boy’s name. “I get your point. I took care of Malfoy. Return to your duties.”

“Of course, Professor! So sorry to bother you. Would you—do you need anything? Would you like me to escort you back to your—” 

“I’m fine, boy. Run along now.” Crouch stomped away from the crestfallen Prefect, realizing that he would need to walk in the direction of Mad-Eye’s room in order to appear genuine—especially since the people-pleasing student followed Crouch at a distance for a while, hoping for his approval.

He had barely shaken off the boy when the real Mad-Eye woke from a nightmare and began shrieking, his terror compounded by the absence of his magic eye. The sound was loud enough to rouse Snape, whose room was very close to his. Though he had also been sleeping, he’d had the sense to rush into the distressed man’s room and Obliviate him. The Potions Master had been mortified upon discovering that Moody’s nightmare had surpassed the powers of the dreamless sleep potion, but he hadn’t had time to ponder the situation—thankfully, he’d brewed a second batch for backup, and poured it down the disoriented Moody’s throat before he could wake anyone else. By this point, Snape became too paranoid to leave Moody alone, so he stayed in a corner of the bedroom until Junior returned with Moody’s eye. Snape told me that he’d spent the next half hour feeling quite tense, but he took comfort in the knowledge that no one had seen him sneak into Moody’s room.

Junior, in the meantime, had slipped into the shadows upon hearing the screams. He didn’t dare move until the halls were quiet once again; he estimated having spent about fifteen minutes hiding from any potential witnesses before finally feeling safe going to his father’s bedchamber. The elder Crouch had slept through Moody’s screams, as his bedroom was on another floor of the castle, and so he was still asleep when his son finally entered the room and cast a Silencing spell. 

I didn’t care for the particulars of this last conversation between father and son, but Crouch Jr. insisted on giving me all the details. I suppose he’d wanted bragging rights. I allowed it. The exchange had gone as follows:

“CROUCH!” his son bellowed from his bedside.

The man jolted awake and gasped at the sight of his “colleague” towering over him, face contorted in fury.

“Time to wake up for the last time, Bartemius!” 

“Wh—Alastor, you’re barking! What on Earth are you doing in here?!”

“What were you doing sending your own son to Azkaban?” Junior’s signature tongue flicker gave him away, and his father bolted out of bed. 

“NO! It can’t be. It just can’t be!” he stammered, frantically untangling himself from his blanket and groping for his wand. He tripped over himself in the process, and his son grabbed it as he tumbled to the floor. “Alastor! Are you—? You’re not—no, you’re not Alastor!” 

“A brilliant man you are, Father. You sent me away to die, so it’s only fair that I return the favor. Tell me, how does it feel to see me?” He stepped back and began twirling his father’s wand in his hand. 

“How did you even get in here—and out of Azkaban?! And what have you done with Alastor?!”

“Have no fear; the batty old codger is safe in his bed and I will be returning his special eye once I’m done here. He has no idea what’s happening right now. I must say, Father, it takes some getting used to, but I can see behind me if I want. Imagine that!” 

“B-Barty?! You’re mad! What do you want?”

“Your life. You stole years of mine—” 

“I stole nothing from you, Barty! You committed a heinous crime! You needed to face the consequences of your actions, like anyone else! You want to talk about stealing from someone? You became a Death Eater! A criminal! You and your lawless friends robbed a baby boy of his parents and their sanity, and now he’s a miserable child being raised by his grandmother! How could I have let you walk free?! The evidence against you was overwhelming!”

“Being a Death Eater is an HONOR, you foolish old man! I am not a common criminal! Lord Voldemort has risen again, and anyone opposing him will die. Starting with you. You don’t get to destroy over a decade of my life and get away unscathed! Tonight, you die!” 

“Barty, let’s just talk for a moment! Please! You can’t—”

“I have dreamed of this moment for years! Incarceration gave me lots of free time!!”

The elder Crouch lunged forward to try and retrieve his wand, but his son was too quick.

“The time for talking is over, Daddy Dearest!” he proclaimed. “Avada Kedavra!”

After his father dropped to the floor, Junior blasted the man’s wand to smithereens before hurling some of the pieces on top of his body.

“That’s what happens when you anger the Death Eaters,” he growled before turning on his heel and leaving the room. He removed the Silencing spell and then quickly rejoined Snape in the real Moody’s bedroom. The professor was still fast asleep. After Junior reattached Moody’s enchanted eye, he and Snape parted ways. Junior then cast a Disillusionment charm on himself and returned to Malfoy Manor. 

I was impressed. I congratulated both men on a job well done, and we all gleefully read the ensuing Daily Prophet article about the mysterious death at Hogwarts a few days later. Crouch’s murder had the desired effect: speculation on the killer, motive, and whether or not my forces were rising once again, but with no concrete evidence in either direction. I had everyone exactly where I wanted them. Patience certainly was a virtue. 

I would have raised everyone’s stress levels even further, had I any control over the third task of the Triwizard Tournament. I wondered how Crouch Sr. and his cohorts had come up with the ideas for each task—not that I could ask him about it.

For the third task, a maze had been constructed on the outskirts of Hogwarts grounds, replete with strategically-placed obstacles to prevent the champions from reaching the Triwizard Cup easily. As I read the Prophet article detailing the events the following day, I amused myself with thoughts of the impossibly dangerous obstacles I would have snuck into the maze if I could have done so. Maybe Cedric Diggory would have had his foot cut off if he’d stepped on a nearly-invisible knife hovering a few inches above the ground! Perhaps Fleur Delacour would leave the maze so disoriented and mentally traumatized, she would never be the same. Or maybe Viktor Krum would have to promise to become a Death Eater before being permitted to leave the maze, much less touch the Cup, otherwise he would die.

It turns out that the Hogwarts champion, Cedric Diggory, did perish in the maze. According to The Daily Prophet, he got into a scuffle with Fleur Delacour and the two ended up crashing into a bewitched wall of vines. Cedric had gone down first, strangled by an angry vine before he’d had a chance to reach his wand, and another gnarly branch whacked Fleur in the head and knocked her unconscious. She would have also died, had Viktor Krum not found her just as the vines were pulling her underground. Ever the gentleman, he sent up an alarm with his wand to alert the professors.

Krum not only won the Triwizard Tournament, but he also earned a hearty congratulations for saving his opponent. Draco was practically drooling over Viktor by this time, and all the Durmstrang students were celebrating. Yes, yes, what a wonderful boy he was.

As the Tournament was now over, the Durmstrangs would soon be returning to Bulgaria. Well, not all of them—the traitor Karkaroff still needed to be dealt with. Word got out that he had fled Hogwarts without a word. No one knew why, except me: I had summoned him the day after the third task, just to see if he would come. He didn’t. I sent Bellatrix and Rodolphus to search for him, after which they alerted me to his hiding place in northern Scotland. I Apparated there and killed him, but not with a simple Killing Curse: I cast the Imperius curse and forced him to sever his own legs with a butcher knife. I made sure to stand back about twenty feet while he was doing this, so as not to be sprayed with blood. Mulciber had given me enough of a carmine shower and I was not interested in repeating the experience.

After Karkaroff’s twitching body bled out, I walked over to him and rolled up his left sleeve to expose his Dark Mark. Surely, whoever found his body would add to the speculations of the already-terrified citizenry over my whereabouts. I’d leave them to continue chasing their tails while I spent the next few months on more magic experimentation in the Malfoys’ backyard.

So far, 1995 had been a very productive year. I intended to keep that momentum going—after unwinding over the summer, of course. 

*   *   * 

Margo began her first year at Hogwarts in September. If she’d been born any earlier, she would have waited a year, but Dumbledore had recently changed the rule about the age of students admitted to Hogwarts: instead of waiting until a child turned eleven before they received their Hogwarts letter, they would receive it prior to the beginning of the school year in which they would turn eleven. And since Margo would turn eleven in January of 1996, she began her schooling in September 1995. She was, unsurprisingly, sorted into Slytherin like every Malfoy before her, but she didn’t sit with Draco at their House table. He was incensed by this, and nearly made a scene before she reminded him that he was now a fifth-year and a Prefect...meaning he had to exhibit exemplary behavior or face harsh consequences. That shut him up. 

I found it interesting to witness the difference in Margo’s behavior to Draco’s once she left. While Draco continued to write home often, Margo wrote to Lucius and Narcissa maybe once a month. She settled in admirably well and didn’t need the security of constant communication with her parental figures. Since she was so mature for her age, some of the friends she made were older—her new best friend Lulu Gilmore was a third-year Slytherin. Lulu and her friends quickly realized that Margo was ahead of the curve and welcomed her into their little group with open arms.

Margo did make friends with a few other first-year Slytherin girls named Sheena Cobblepot, Kaye Chicklepea—who went by Chicky for short, and Sofia Brightwell. They also became friendly with Lulu’s group. Margo told us that this large band of students did everything together outside of classes. (Narcissa also suspected that Margo was developing a crush on a sixth-year boy named Sinjin Montecore; but the girl vehemently denied it and immediately ceased discussing him in her letters, once Narcissa posed the question. Sinjin, one of Lulu’s best friends, was apparently dating a gorgeous brunette named Snappette Shadowstar, and Margo didn’t want to make herself look ridiculous in front of the pair.)

Unlike Draco’s prior ramblings, I became heavily invested in Margo’s letters. They were the closest I could get to actually being at Hogwarts since, unlike her bratty cousin once removed, she was level-headed and observant enough to report accurately on what happened at school. I instructed Lucius that he needed to make her write home more often. Since Margo was a more reliable source of information, I didn’t care so much for Draco’s letters anymore.

That is, until late September, when he began writing about the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. 

Moody had resigned at the end of the previous school year, having seen enough violence and death from the Triwizard Tournament—he’d wanted to escape such events after relinquishing his employment as an Auror, and found himself quite distressed that he had not enjoyed his teaching post as much as he’d hoped. His replacement was a peculiar choice: a former high-ranking Ministry official named Dolores Umbridge.

I found it surprising that Dumbledore had hired someone from the Ministry, seeing as he was constantly fielding Fudge’s suspicions of a (non-existent) secret plot to take over the Ministry, but Dumbledore didn’t have much choice. No one else wanted the job. Being close to Fudge, Lucius had heard the Minister’s paranoid ramblings for quite some time and long ago realized that the man’s rants had no traction; however, as a professional brown-noser, Malfoy patiently listened to everything his boss had to say. And relayed it all to me.

From the looks of it, the Minister had planted Umbridge at Hogwarts in response to rising suspicions that I had returned from the not-quite-dead. Dumbledore had urged Fudge to alert the Wizarding world to the possibility, just in case they needed to prepare for battle, but Fudge insisted that the Headmaster was lying and only trying to sieze his job. He claimed that there was no way I could have returned, and everything Dumbledore said on the subject came from his desire for Fudge’s power. This was, of course, a falsehood. And even though no one could prove anything one way or another, Fudge’s paranoia over the matter was crushing his ability to think clearly. Instead of trying to find out if I really was alive, he took the coward’s way out and planted Umbridge at Hogwarts to silence any voices who entertained the possibility of my return. This woman Umbridge didn’t seem to have any strong views on the subject; she was simply a chameleon who strove to be on the winning side of any battle. In this case, she believed that Fudge’s smear campaign would prevail, so she took the cursed teaching position at Hogwarts. Fudge named her both professor and Hogwarts High Inquisitor—whatever that was supposed to mean. 

Umbridge’s curriculum consisted of attempting to brainwash students into thinking that there was no need to defend oneself from the Dark Arts because they simply did not exist. Draco told us that all they really did in her class was copy Ministry-approved texts and write essays on the subject matter. That didn’t bother him, as he knew he was on the side of the Dark Arts. What did bother him was the rumor of a secret organization of students resisting Umbridge’s stifling lesson plans, and doing so in Dumbledore’s name. Students were whispering that Hermione Granger was trying to further avenge her best friends’ deaths by building an army of students who would one day be willing and able to fight the Ministry. And me. As the brightest witch in the fifth year, Hermione was undoubtedly more advanced than all the other students and was likely teaching her peers spells and enchantments used in battle. 

After reading that, I started paying attention. Draco finally had something valuable to say.

He began watching Hermione and her cronies closely, and noted that much was happening outside the fifth-year bubble as well. Some students, older and younger, were determined to join the Order of the Phoenix when they were of age; while others remained ambivalent to the tension in the air over my whereabouts. Some even went so far as to say that they’d be curious to see what would happen if I returned, but they wouldn’t oppose me if I did. Students fought over this, and many friendships were lost. Professors were breaking up duels in the hallway with a much greater frequency than normal. Margo detailed all of this in her letters as well, including the names of students who were especially vocal in their opposition to my cause. If they ever joined the fight against me, I would be sure to have them killed. 

It didn’t take long for Umbridge to get a whiff of the rumors. In retaliation, she formed an organization called The Inquisitorial Squad to essentially spy on other students for her. She promised extra credit and a shiny badge to all who joined. Draco and his goons were the first to sign up. Not surprisingly, almost all the students on the Squad were bitter Slytherins who wanted to get back at the goody-two-shoes students from other Houses who aimed to rise up and fight me. Draco began boasting even more dramatically after this, as if being on Umbridge’s Tattletale Team was the same as being a Death Eater. 

Yes, he was standing up against Dumbledore’s beliefs. Yes, he was ever so slightly closer to Ministry approval by kissing up to Umbridge. But that in no way mirrored the responsibilities my Death Eaters shouldered.

I decided that if this boy didn’t quit his unwarranted bragging, I would take him completely by surprise and initiate him while he was still a child. Then we’d see how long he’d last. Of course the poor boy had no clue that Lord Voldemort was reading his letters and judging him harshly for the content, but I deemed it important to know exactly what kind of person Draco was becoming. Even if he were to learn Occlumency, he wouldn’t be able to hide his true nature after years of my reading his letters. With the way he acted now, I could destroy his mind and have him begging for death within minutes.

Would he ever grow a spine and rise to the task? Only time would tell. In the meantime, I would continue to laugh privately as his character-damning missives piled up. And hope that Umbridge succeeded in usurping Dumbledore’s authority over Hogwarts. 

In the midst of the Umbridge upheaval, Margo told us that some older students were loudly bragging about their desire to become Aurors and join the Order of the Phoenix—and I, of course, requested their names—but not much else happened at Hogwarts for the next couple of months. A lull descended upon Malfoy Manor, which I hoped would remain and therefore make staying there permanently a much easier solution. But it was a deceptive tranquility that was doomed to explode on Christmas Day. 

The ensuing fracas would force me to reevaluate my priorities.

*   *   * 

Draco and Margo returned for the holidays without much fuss. They sat together on the Hogwarts Express, but barely talked—their relationship was still as strained as ever, and Margo was beginning to find her voice. Not that she enjoyed using it that much around Draco. This unnerved him. He was accustomed to impressing and intimidating every child around him, and he now faced a constant reminder that his performance was just that: a performance. And Margo had finally had enough.

About halfway through Christmas dinner, Draco began subtly bragging about how Malfoy family duties weren’t as difficult as his parents had insinuated, and he was sure he would perform wonderfully with minimal effort. We all knew what that meant: Draco was imagining becoming a Death Eater. But he was too afraid to just come out and say it because deep down, the prospect terrified him. He feared that I would be initiating him sooner rather than later. Despite this, he wanted us all to think that he was feeling smug instead. Now, I had not yet allowed him a seat at the meeting table, but he somehow fancied himself quite the important fellow when he imagined himself taking on my assignments.

A mortified Lucius and Narcissa tried to steer the conversation elsewhere, but Draco wouldn’t take a hint. Margo began muttering under her breath after each of Draco’s comments—phrases such as, “That’s likely” and “Yeah, right” were being peppered into the conversation at increasing levels. Miraculously, Draco didn’t even hear any of Margo’s snide remarks until the end of the meal, as Dobby was clearing the plates. The boy boasted about how proud he would be to valiantly carry out the most challenging of tasks that any Malfoy had ever completed before, and Margo mumbled, “Right. And I’m a rainbow-colored Hippogriff.”

“WHAT?!” Draco shouted, rounding on Margo as she made to leave the dining room. “WHAT did you just say?”

Margo stared blankly at him for a moment before her lips turned upward in a disapproving sneer. “I said, ‘If you can complete challenging tasks, then I’m a rainbow-colored Hippogriff.’ Happy now?” 

“What are you implying?!” Draco demanded as he shot to his feet. “You think I’m a chicken? Are you calling me a chicken?!” 

Margo stood up and proclaimed, “I’m calling you the biggest chicken that ever lived!!”

“You have some nerve, Margo! I happen to be the first Malfoy heir! I’ll be initiated before you are! You’re still a baby! What do you know?”

“MY PARENTS ARE DEAD!” Margo bellowed as she stalked over to the boy. I’VE BEEN THROUGH MORE PAIN THAN YOU EVER WILL, AND YOU’RECALLING MEA BABY?! YOU’RE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST BABY!”

Margo was now screaming in Draco’s face, and he flinched as a few drops of spit hit his cheeks.

“WAHH, WAHH, THE BIG BABY CAN’T HANDLE ANYTHING, SO HE HAS TO PRETEND HE’S A BIG HOTSHOT! HE HAS A BIG SHINY PREFECT BADGE AND A BIG SHINY INQUISITORIAL SQUAD BADGE AND HE JUST SITS THERE AND POUTS AT EVERYONE!”

I quietly left the scene and strode up to my bedroom. I wanted no part of this childish bickering. Unfortunately, sound carried in this house—even behind my closed bedroom door, I still heard every word. 

“You may have had pain, but you’re just a little girl. You know nothing of greatness, Margarita Samantha Malfoy! I’m a Prefect and I—”

“BEING A PREFECT IS THE BEST THING YOU’LL EVER DO, DRACO LUCIUS MALFOY! YOU ARE PATHETIC AND I HATE YOU!! I DON’T CARE THAT YOU TELL ON PEOPLE TO UMBRIDGE! THAT DOESN’T MAKE YOU SPECIAL! SHE’S SO STUPID AND PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE HATES HER! AND I HATE YOU MORE!!”

Lucius and Narcissa were mysteriously silent during this altercation...and so was I. I couldn’t believe this transformation in Margo’s behavior. Sure, she had occasionally shouted at Lucius about his son, but this was different—she was now confronting Draco directly instead of going through his father. She had never done that before. She was challenging the main source of her anger with a fury unlike anything we had ever witnessed from her. I imagined Lucius and Narcissa too stunned to even breathe.

Margo wasn’t done laying into Draco. While he sputtered and whined, she bulldozed on as if he were incapable of speech.

“Just come out and say it, you stupid chicken! You think being a Death Eater is the same as being a bloody Prefect?! You can’t even say the words Death Eater. Go on, say it now! Say I want to be a Death Eater right now! RIGHT NOW!”

“I—I want to b-be a D—”

“See what I mean? You can’t even say the stupid words! Do you want the Dark Lord to hear that? He’s righ th—well, he was right there, but I’m sure he can still hear me just fine! Do you want this to be his impression of you: a bragging chicken who can’t even say Death Eater?! See, I can do it! DEATH EATER DEATH EATER DEATH EATER DEATH EATER DEATH EATER!!! Now, it’s your turn! Do it!”

“Calm down! You’re scaring m—” 

“You want to be a Death Eater and you’re scared of a ten-year-old girl? Really, Draco?! You think what Death Eaters do is easier than seeing me get mad?!”

“Margo, stop it!!”

“Stop what? Pointing out how stupid you’re being? If you think you’re so cool, then tell me what you would do as a Death Eater! What if the Dark Lord came downstairs right now and told you that you were now a Death Eater? What would you do? Tell me right now what you would do! You’ve obviously been thinking about it for a while, so tell me what your plans are!”

“I—I dunno, I just thought I’d—”

“Be a chicken. That’s what you do best. I know your parents think so, too, they’re just too afraid to say so! CHICKEN! CHICKENNNN!” 

Smack. Smack. “BOTH OF YOU TO YOUR BEDROOMS. NOW! NO DESSERT! AND NO DINNER TOMORROW NIGHT, EITHER!” Lucius shouted. He slapped both children so loudly, the sound reverberated wildly.

Finally, the man of the house makes his move. I was beginning to wonder if he’d died of shock.

“Lucius, that’s not FAIR!” Margo whined. “Why are you punishing me for saying what everyone else is already thinking? Your precious baby is just that: a BABY. He’s fifteen and he’s acting like a BABY! And I’m SICK of it! And you wonder why I don’t want to sit with him in the Great Hall!” 

“I don’t NEED her to sit with me, Father!” Draco insisted. “I have friends who actually respect me!” 

“They only pay attention to you because you’re rich!” 

“OWW!” both children shouted as Lucius grabbed them and dragged them upstairs to their bedrooms before locking the doors. He cast Silencing spells on both rooms so Margo and Draco couldn’t continue their shouting match through the wall, and then stomped back downstairs to rejoin his shaken wife.

I’d heard the Malfoys fight before, but the novelty of observing their behavior had long since worn off. I couldn’t put up with it anymore. After the holidays, I was going to move.