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The Left Words

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Little Harry Potter is four years old.

He recently noticed that the squiggles around his left wrist actually are letters! He even recognises one or two. There’s a lot of “a”s in those two words.

But now that he knows that they are letters, he can ask someone to read it to him! Maybe then, he’ll find out why he has things written on his arm.

He decides to ask Aunt Petunia.

She looks at him as if he’s dirt, hits his cheek, sends him to his cupboard and screams at him, “Keep your freakish things away from us good, normal people!”

 

Little Harry Potter is not so little anymore. He’s already six and in school! That’s practically adult!

He learns to read all by himself and studies the letters on his wrist. Avada Kedavra, they say. He doesn’t know what those words mean. But he also doesn’t dare ask anyone. It would surely end up the same way it did when he got better grades than Dudley.

He always gets punished when he shows freakishness.

 

Harry Potter is eight and world-weary.

That’s a cool word he read about in a dictionary. He tried to find this Avada or a Kedavra, but those words weren’t in the book.

He spends a lot of time in the library, searching for clues on what those words mean or why he even has them. The library is awesome. Dudley doesn’t come in here, the librarian is a nice lady who sometimes gives him an orange or an apple, and there’s so many books that he can hide there the whole afternoon without getting bored. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found the solution to the mystery behind his letters yet.

He traces over where they’re hidden. He’s done this so often these past few years, is for some strange reason fascinated by them. It basically started when he found out that the squiggles are letters, form actual words. They kind of are his, and his alone. He takes comfort in something that belongs only to him.

With a sigh, he closes the latest book. He really must get home.

It wouldn’t do to get punished because dinner is late.

 

Harry Potter is ten.

He still hasn’t found out why he has words, or what they mean.

The bandage he keeps around his wrist is dirty and smelly. Maybe Aunt Petunia will give him a new one. He daren’t ask; last time, he spent a week in his cupboard.

But that’s okay! The cupboard is comfortingly small, and familiar, and safe.

There’s no chores and fists and belts and screams in the cupboard.

He loves it.

 

At age eleven, Harry Potter receives a letter addressed to him. To him! He can’t believe it! Who would write to a freak?

He figures that it must have been some sort of mistake. He takes the letter to Uncle Vernon along with the others and explains his thoughts.

But Uncle Vernon is not pleased. He shouts at Harry to keep his freakish things to himself. Then, he takes Dudley’s Smelting stick.

As Harry returns to the cupboard, he aches all over. But he has a letter. Apparently, it really is for him!

This fact is almost as unbelievable as the content.

Chapter Text

After Harry writes a letter to Professor McGonagall, he receives instructions on how to reach the Leaky Cauldron and is informed that someone will come pick him up on Saturday.

Now, Harry is waiting outside. He sneaked out before his relatives woke up because, luckily, his cupboard and the front door were open! Aunt Petunia must have forgotten to lock up. This will probably get him punished, but he doesn’t care. Magic! Witchcraft! Wizardry!

Maybe he won’t be a freak anymore.

 

A tall man picks him up. Really tall! He’s at least two metres high and one metre broad!

When he saw him, he started crying and sobbing about how much Harry’s grown, how long he hasn’t seen him, how much he sees his parents in him – his father’s looks and his mother’s eyes.

Harry doesn’t quite listen. He’s too busy panicking about such a huge man towering over him, thinking about how a hit from him would hurt more than a kick from Uncle Vernon, and how he’s so loud that he’ll wake up Aunt Petunia who is a very light sleeper and she’ll be utterly displeased.

Are the neighbours staring?

 

Finally, the big man – call me Hagrid – calms down and they leave in a motorbike so unsafe that Harry has to fight back nausea just from looking at it. The drive itself is not much better.

When they arrive at a little pub named Leaky Cauldron, Hagrid stops the bike. Harry gets off as quickly as possible, gasping for air as if he’s run away from Dudley and his gang the whole afternoon.

He doesn’t even like cars, the few times he’s been in one, but a motorbike is a thousand times worse. He hopes the trip home will be better.

They enter the pub. The sight of so many people causes Harry to want to leave again. He makes himself as small as possible and hopes they don’t notice him.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. One says his name, they all swarm him, his mind is overwhelmed with so-close-so-many-terror-panic-fear-which-one-will-hurt-me-first-get-away!

When he leaves the comforting darkness of unconsciousness, they are all gone, luckily. But they still stare at him like vultures, he can feel their eyes, he can feel them watch his every breath, he can-

Luckily, Hagrid pulls him outside where he proudly boasts that Hagrid himself isn’t allowed to do magic. Then, he proceeds to tell him that in this world, it’s not the writing on his left wrist that makes him a freak, but the inconspicuous scar on his forehead.

 

The goblins are an unpleasant people. They look at Harry with as much disdain as Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon do. Seeing them, Harry curls into himself, makes himself unnoticeable, hides behind Hagrid. But then he thinks of how he doesn’t know Hagrid, how he can’t even do magic, if he even would protect him from that vicious little people, and shrinks even more into himself.

He still feels eyes on his back, but he can’t turn around to look for them, because he’s in the middle of a room, and he can’t get to the wall, and how will his back be protected if he can’t get to a wall, and-

A goblin leads them to a little wagon. The following trip is like the world’s most dangerous rollercoaster. Harry feels sick at the end of it, but Hagrid looks even worse.

He doesn’t get why Dudley would actually like rollercoasters.

 

Hagrid leaves Harry stranded right after their trip to the bank. Harry isn’t quite sure if he likes this fact or not. On one hand, Hagrid knows where to get what he needs. On the other hand, Hagrid is a stranger and Harry would much rather be alone. He decides that Hagrid gathers too much attention – he is, after all, much bigger than everyone else he has encountered so far, so it’s a good thing that he has left.

Cautiously, keeping to the walls and corners as much as possible, Harry slinks down the alley. He keeps a watchful eye on all the witches and wizards around him so that maybe he can flee before they hurt him.

The shop that sells robes is a horror. The seamstress manhandles him. Another client, a little boy, treats him with scorn. His parents look down their noses at him.

He’s glad when he can leave.

After that, he gets a trunk. He silently walks around the different models and finds one that can be shrunk without having to say a spell. One touch with your wand and this trunk will be the size of a match box! He picks an unassuming brown, only wood without leather or silk or whatever fancy decorations the others have. It costs less and looks better. The shopkeeper notices his scar and looks at him with greedy eyes.

Harry is glad to leave.

His next stop is the book store. He picks up the school books he needs, then overhears a girl his age asking the clerk what he recommends for a “Muggleborn”, whatever that is. The titles he sprouts sound like books Harry might also need. There’s Introduction into the Wizarding World and What Young Witches and Wizards Ought to Know and many others. He discreetly follows the bushy haired girl and buys the same books as her. This shopkeeper doesn’t notice his scar.

Harry breathes a sigh of relief.

Next, he finds the wand store. A mad-looking old man introduces himself and knows exactly who Harry is. Harry is on edge the whole visit. With every tried wand, the old man gets more and more excited while Harry is more and more panicked. What if he is no wizard, after all? What if it’s all been a mistake? What if he’ll get punished tonight without even having gained something?

Finally, he finds his wand. The warm feeling of welcome and home almost immediately gets drowned again.

Terrible, but great.

Now, the only things missing are his potion supplies. Harry wanders the streets. Suddenly, there are less people, less noise, less stares. He hurries along this alley, relieved to have escaped.

He tries out an apothecary here. The shopkeeper, a round woman with a wart the size of a pea on her nose, studies him dubiously. Harry can deal with dubious and suspicious and wary and confused. He can’t deal with greed and disdain and hatred and disgust. Gathering all his courage, he asks for a Hogwarts first year potions set.

The witch guffaws. “An ye come here for ‘a’?”

“Should- should I not?”, Harry asks with big eyes.

“Ey, a mudblood in Knockturn!” She cackles, but starts preparing a potions kit.

Encouraged by her dismissive manner – no staring, no poking, no touching, turning her back on him – Harry asks, “What’s a mudblood?”

“Know nothin’ a’ all, d’ye?” The witch turns around again. She looks amused, but not in a way that makes Harry feel like an idiot or a worthless freak. “Mudbloods don’ have no magic parents.”

“I did,” Harry remembers. “But I don’t know them.”

“Oh?” Now, the witch is interested. She quickly ties up the kit and gives her whole attention to Harry. “Who’s ‘em?”

“I don’t know.” Harry bites his lip. “I never knew them.”

“No e’en ‘heir names?” She seems confused. “Go ye to Gringotts, a bank, ye hear? Ask for an inheritance test.”

Just as Harry wants to question that, another costumer enters. He draws his shoulder into himself, turns so he can see both shopkeeper and the man who came in, and reaches for the money bag, but the woman winks him off. “Don ye worry, lad, ye amuse me. Me name’s Silvia. Come visit af’er ye school year an amuse me mo’!”

Hesitantly, Harry grabs the potions kit and leaves, the witch’s entertained laughter following him.

Planning on following her advice, Harry steels himself and returns to the loud, bustling street. He nears the bank, but before he can go there, he is sighted by Hagrid who shouts his name across the entire alley in relief.

People swarm him again.

Harry feels like he’s dying. He wishes with all his being that he was somewhere safe, all alone.

One moment, he’s in Diagon Alley. The next, he’s in his cupboard.

Alone. Safe. Familiar.

He smiles contentedly.

 

He’s lucky, it appears. Today, Aunt Petunia forgot to unlock the cupboard and order him out, so she made breakfast herself and no-one noticed that he was gone. He quickly hides his wand, caressing it. After doing his chores and eating his piece of bread, he takes it out again and enlarges his trunk. He takes out a random book – Weird Things for Muggles that are Completely Normal for Witches and Wizards, Volume I-III, and starts reading.

Over the following month, he learns that a Bezoar comes from a goat’s stomach. Latin is pronounced completely different from English. A proper wizard dresses in robes and writes with a quill. A Muggle doesn’t have magic, as does a Squib. Potion making and cooking are similar, but only in the way that cooking and baking are alike. Defence against the Dark Arts used to be called Defence. There’s a whole array of magical animals. Purebloods hate Muggleborn people. The Dark Lord he apparently defeated was called Dark Lord You-Know-Who or, a real mouthful, Dark Lord He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The writing on his left wrist shows that he has a soulmate. The fact that it’s on his left wrist shows him that only he has this soul mark and that his soulmate hasn’t had another soulmate who died before they could forge the bond. The black lettering lets him know that his soulmate already said those fateful words to him, Avada Kedavra, that activate one side of the soul bond. Now, Harry only needs to find out who said those words and show the writing to that person to complete the bond. There exist other schools than Hogwarts, as well, but not in Britain. The goblins are so mean and grumpy because their way of life was basically forbidden by magical people. His parents were called James and Lily Potter. The Hogwarts Express leaves from King’s Cross Station. Hogwarts has four houses.

He learns and studies and is fascinated. Magical people can do so many things! And he’ll learn to do them, too! He can’t wait!

 

On the first of September, Harry sneaks out again. The cupboard door was locked, but something called accidental magic unlocks it for him. Or was it wandless magic? Harry doesn’t quite get the difference.

First, he steals a bit of paper, an envelope and a stamp. He writes a farewell letter and plans to send it from the nearest post box. Then, he grabs a twenty-pound-note from Dudley’s piggy bank. It’s so full that one note surely won’t be missed. He checks if his trunk and wand still are there, then leaves the Dursley home.

Two hours later, Harry wanders around King’s Cross Station. It’s good he left so early because he just can’t find the gate he needs! Nine and three quarters. It seems quite hopeless that he’ll find it without help, and a Muggle employee won’t know, even if he could get himself to ask. Purebloods and all other people living in a magical house simply floo or apparate.

Except for a family of redheads. The mother is screaming almost desperately about “Muggles” and “Hogwarts” and “train” and “nine-three-quarters” as if she wants to make the whole world aware that here is an entranceway that leads to the magical world.

Harry wonders how it comes that witches and wizards haven’t been detected yet.

As the redheads gather around a seemingly ordinary column, Harry sneaks closer. He watches as a pair of twins exchanges an exasperated look and grabs a trolley with trunks. They run straight at the column, but instead of hitting the stones painfully, they walk right through as if there was nothing at all.

The woman turns around to scold a whining boy Harry’s age while an irritated teen grabs his little sister’s hand. While they are distracted, Harry walks closer to the column. He experimentally pokes at it. His fingers go right through the bricks. Taking a quick look around – the woman still is occupied with her son and the teen answers his sister’s curious questions, the Muggles don’t even look in this direction –, Harry steps through the column.

He immediately is hit with noise and smells. Children screaming. Adults talking. Animals screaking. Smells of foreign food, foreign animals, foreign perfumes, the smoke from the train. And hundreds of people talking, staring, staring, looking for- Before he has time to panic, Harry rushes into the train. Thankfully, it still is early enough that all children are outside, greeting their friends and saying goodbye to their parents. Almost no compartment is filled. Harry picks one in the very back. It seems a bit weird, almost smaller and darker than all others, which suits Harry just fine. He notices a peculiar smell and discovers that it’s right next to the toilets, which is why this compartment is smaller. That also is fine; no-one would voluntarily sit in a small compartment that stinks, so he’ll probably be left alone.

He’s right. The train ride is spent in a compartment he only shares with his trunk, a bad smell and his books.

 

The first thing he hears stepping from the train is Hagrid’s voice. He hides behind taller students as he walks closer to the other first years and hopes that Hagrid won’t see him, lest he shout his name again and attract everyone’s attention.

This plan works well because Hagrid doesn’t see him, and badly because the other students look at him weirdly. It doesn’t matter. Harry can deal with weird. He hopes that if he doesn’t do anything to stick out, everyone will just ignore him. Attention never is good.

The boat trip is uneventful, except for the view on Hogwarts castle. It’s beautiful and so very large. Harry gets all excited just thinking about exploring it all and finding some hidden corners where he can be all alone. Maybe he’ll even discover some small and dark spot, maybe a cupboard, maybe a whole room, that he can have all for himself. Maybe there even is a library?

When they all arrive at the castle, Harry is blown away again. Up close, it looks even larger and more magical. A stern-looking woman greets them. She holds a small speech, then leads them into a hall. For just a moment, Harry, who trails after the other children, is amazed. There are floating candles! The ceiling is see-through! Then, he panics. So many eyes, all staring at them, whispering, laughing, mocking, so many people, so much-

He takes a deep breath. Only for a few minutes, he tells himself, then he will be out of the spotlight and no-one will stare at him. Barely, he manages to keep the anxiety at bay.

There’s another speech. Afterwards, a hat is placed in front of them. The others don’t seem very impressed, even though some look relieved, especially the red-haired boy who thought that he would have to fight a troll. Harry, on the other hand, is fascinated. Even common candles can float, who knows what an old hat can do? So when it starts to sing, Harry is not shocked at all.

One after another, the other children are called up to the chair and the hat. Professor McGonagall places the self-proclaimed thinking cap onto each eleven-year-old’s head. After a longer or shorter period it shouts out the name of a house. Harry is curious as to how it does that.

Finally, his name is called. Harry is proud that he doesn’t flinch when he hears it. Then, he notices the absolute silence, the following whispers, the now very much interested stares. Warily, he walks up to the chair and sits down, eyes shut so that he doesn’t have to look at all the faces and the eyes looking at him, observing him, finding him lacking.

“Well, hello there,” a voice says.

Harry opens his eyes in wonder. It doesn’t sound as if the voice comes from outside the hat. Can it speak in another way that does not involve the mouth it has?

“Not quite.” The voice now sounds amused. “I speak into your mind.”

That must be how the hat can determine who belongs into which house.

The hat chuckles. “Indeed. Aren’t you a bright little lad?”

First, Harry wants to preen. Then, he remembers that he’s a stupid, worthless freak.

“Who said such nonsense to you?”, the hat asks. It sounds angry. Why would it be angry about a truth? His aunt and uncle told him since he was young; he knows it’s the truth.

“That is not true at all,” the hat comments.

Harry argues against it. If he’s been told all his life that he’s a freak because he can do magic, and in the magic world, he’s a freak because of a scar he has, that must mean he’s a freak.

“That is not true at all, you stubborn child,” the hat say, sounding sad. “But I can see that I will not convince you otherwise. Yes, nurture is powerful and terrible.”

Suddenly, Harry thinks about what will happen if someone ever found out that he’s a freak and has been taught that he is one. He remembers threats and fists and belts. He starts to hyperventilate.

“Don’t worry now, everything’s alright. I won’t tell anyone. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. What happens at the Sorting, stays at the Sorting. The only way I could ever tell anyone is if you allowed me to.”

Harry begins to look for loopholes. What if someone said that he’d permitted it? What if someone pretended to be him?

“You don’t have to be afraid of that. For you to give permission, you have to put me on your head again and talk to me. I cannot be fooled. But this suspicious nature of yours… I won’t tell you that it’s not good to ask twice, nor will I belittle how much this characteristic helped you, but it does qualify you for a certain house. Looking at your courage, however – and yes, you are brave, do not doubt that, see how courageous you need to be to conquer your fears every day –, tells me you’d also do well with another Founder. Still, you also carry another legacy in you – as soon as you saw me, heard me, discovered the wizarding world, you wanted to know more. You don’t have much loyalty in you, yet I believe that only is because you never found someone worthy of your allegiance. Besides, you are very hardworking. Tell me, which house would you prefer?”

Harry thinks about it for a moment. He heard that all Slytherins are fundamentally bad people, but that can’t be true. Everyone thinks that the Dursleys are outstanding and kind, but to him, they are not. On the other hand, maybe it is different in the magical world and Hagrid’s warnings about Dark Magic and Slytherins are true. Gryffindor, he heard, is the house that his parents were in. He’d very much like to follow into their footsteps, but those led to them dying and leaving him behind. If they hadn’t been so brave, they probably wouldn’t have participated in the war. If they hadn’t fought, they wouldn’t have died. Hufflepuff sounds nice, but such tight loyalty also means that they all are the same, doesn’t it? To be friends with each other, you have to be similar. That also means that if you are different, the whole house turns against you. Ravenclaw is the house of the intelligent and wise. Harry doesn’t think he is either. He likes to read and learn, but he certainly isn’t particularly smart. Besides, they probably would treat him, who has apparently survived the Dark Lord You-Know-Who, like a test subject, poking and prodding him to find out how and why. He concludes that he doesn’t know at all where he wants to end up.

“I see. What are your goals, then, Harry Potter? What do you want?”

Harry also ponders this question for a while. He imagines that other students would say something like, “I want to be a dragon tamer!”, but Harry has just one dream.

He answers, “I want to live, and I want to live happily.”

The hat chuckles again. “I can’t say anything about your happiness, but if you want to learn how to survive everything this world can throw at you, I’d recommend one house. There, all sorts of questions are answered, no matter how questionable or illegal, you’ll learn to play the political game and you’ll be confronted with many different views. You’ll be taught how to hide your feelings, how to appear indestructible. That is, if you adapt well and work hard. Would you like that?”

Harry repeats himself again. “I want to live happily.”

“Alright, lad, so shall it be. I cannot guarantee acceptance, but you will be hardened there, sharpened into a blade.”

Harry doesn’t quite get it, he’s not smart, but he believes that the hat who sorted so many people thinks it’s best, it probably will be.

“I surely hope so,” the hat whispers. “One last thing before we separate: The Dark Lord wasn’t called You-Know-Who. People just are too afraid to say his name. He called himself Voldemort. Before he gave himself this moniker, he was Tom Marvolo Riddle. Stay strong, little snake.”

A moment later, the hat shouts out a house name, Professor McGonagall rips it form his head and an uncomfortable silence envelopes the whole hall. Harry quickly hurries to the right table and sits down. Everyone stares at him. He looks at his lap and hopes that they just stop.

After a long pause, Professor McGonagall reads the next name on the list.

The stares and whispers don’t stop.

Harry wishes for his cupboard.

 

There’s singing, afterwards. The school anthem seems to be very popular in the other houses, Harry observes, but the Slytherins just mouth along, if even that. Only one or two really sing. Near Harry, another first year asks why. A second year giggles.

“I also asked this question,” she explains. “It’s because the anthem only was introduced when Dumbledore became headmaster. By not singing, they protest against him.”

Harry wants to know why his house is so against the headmaster. He seems kind enough, with his twinkling eyes and friendly smile, but who knows? Maybe he was one of those Death Eaters that apparently supported the Dark Lord You-, no, he was called Voldemort, and that seem to be hated by everyone. But isn’t house Slytherin pro-Dark Lord? Maybe it’s the exact opposite, and the headmaster is an enemy of the Dark Lord Voldemort. That seems more likely, yes. Or the whole thing about Slytherins being pro-Dark Lord is wrong?

Harry wishes he had the courage to ask. But he never did dare to pose a question. What he knows, he found out through books and observation. This won’t be any different. He hopes.

Then, the headmaster holds a truly nonsensical speech. Harry is relieved to see that, unlike most other pupils, the students of his house aren’t amused or applauding. He himself thinks that such a speech, and he hesitates to use that word, is unworthy of even the breath used to utter it. If the headmaster only wanted to start dinner, why didn’t he just say so?

The same second-year girl from earlier snorts. “Typical Dumbledore,” she mumbles.

So the headmaster does things like that often? How did he reach his position, again?

But then, Harry is ripped out of his thoughts as food appears at the tables. Numerous dishes, more than he’s ever seen. They all look so delicious! He grabs the plate closest to him, but takes only a small amount. He knows what his stomach can handle. Anything more than an apple and two slices of bread or burnt toast seems luxurious. As predicted, after about half a normal serving, his stomach cramps and he regretfully has to stop eating. He uses the time everyone else needs to look around. He becomes painfully aware that all his housemates take only small, graceful bites, one at a time, instead of his uncouth shovelling. Luckily, he finished so quickly that the others don’t seem to have realised how different he is. He continues to watch how they use their utensils, swearing to copy it. Fading into the background is easier that way.

He subtly takes his fork and grabs it the same way the second year girl does. Confident that he has a handle on that, he tries the same with the knife. Then, he observes the way the students surrounding him sit, how they use their hands while talking, how their faces change. He adapts to them, as the hat suggested.

When he’s convinced he’s got as good a grip on it as he’ll get without practice and practice, he looks up at the teachers’ table. He meets the eyes of one teacher with a turban. His scar hurts. He’s so surprised he almost flinches. It never did that before. Maybe it’s the magic? After all, the scar came from it. Hopefully, he won’t get a migraine if he spends a long time surrounded by magic. Next to the turban-wearing man is a teacher right out of Dudley’s comics. He’s dark haired, dark dressed, dark eyed, and also dark humoured, judging by the glare he shoots at the students. Harry would be impressed by the graceful way he manages to eat without even once averting his eyes from the pupils, but he’s too busy calming himself down from the comparison of his glare and Uncle Vernon’s to really notice. Next is a man who looks almost like a child, even smaller than Harry, but the wrinkles indicate that he’s quite a bit older. He cheerfully chats with Professor McGonagall. Next to her sits the headmaster. He looks kind and friendly, but as Harry observes, he shoots distrustful glances at the Slytherin table and disappointed looks at Harry in particular. But when he turns back, especially towards the table at the far end – are those ties red? If so, it must be Gryffindor –, he is back to the pleasant smile. Harry knows men like this. One of his teachers was exactly the same. He looked at all students benevolently, but his eyes were full of contempt when he looked at the black girl in the back or the Chinese boy in the middle. He always gave them worse grades than the other children. Harry thinks it’s good that the headmaster teaches no classes, himself, and resolves never to get into trouble. He remembers the way his teacher yelled at the black girl for a slight mistake until she cried and how he gave the Chinese boy a detention for laughing too loudly even though it was the girl next to him who chortled.

Next to the headmaster is a well-built lady. She’s joking with her neighbour, a dour-looking old woman with a scar across her face who has a cage with a small animal with her. Next to her sits a man in the most peculiar clothing combination Harry has ever seen. He wears a bathing robe over what appears to be a short ball gown. On top of it rests a bra, not worn, but dangling around his neck like a necklace. On his other side sit a pair of twins who look like they’re in a very serious discussion. Next to them sits a middle-aged woman who seems very much done with whatever they’re talking about. She looks very sportive, with eyes as sharp as a hawk’s.

Harry listens to the second year girl as she explains who everyone is. It seems like the twins, who teach Arithmancy and Ancient Runes and like to argue about which subject is best and, seeing that both can be used to solve the same problems, over the best solution, the teacher with the bra-necklace, who apparently educates his pupils in Muggle Studies, as well as the scarred woman, who handles Care for Magical Creatures, each teaches a subject that can and will be chosen after second year. The other teachers – Quirrel, Snape, McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout – are some of those who even the first years have. Some teachers are missing – Sinistra for Astronomy and Binns for History. The very nature of Astronomy requires Professor Sinistra to be up late and start early during winter and late autumn, so she regularly misses meals. Professor Binns actually is a ghost and has no need for nutrition. Professor Trelawney who teaches Divination is so superstitious and afraid of the world that she rarely leaves her tower.

Harry sympathises with her. If he could, he’d also just stay someplace safe and never leave, and that is without whatever her visions have shown that poor woman.

What he only now notices, as he looks around for all exits, is that very many students glare at him, or look at him in disbelief. The pupils of his own house either ignore him or seem to be suspicious. He doesn’t mind that. Better be ignored than in the limelight. Attention never is good.

 

Finally, all students have eaten. The headmaster holds another speech, this time one of actual value. Harry wonders why he didn’t hold it before dinner. Surely, many students are too tired after filling their stomachs to really pay attention. And why would anyone give something dangerous, life-threatening into a school?

The students all leave. Harry sticks to the back, almost forgotten. He follows the prefects into the dungeons, then into a cosy room full of couches and comfy chairs. They introduce themselves and also hold a speech. What is it with all the speeches? Are they so popular in the wizarding world? Anyway, they tell them the unwritten rules of Slytherin house – all conflict is to be sorted inside these very walls, no male may enter a female dorm nor may a female enter a male dorm, no rule-breaking should ever be caught – and they briefly explain the House hierarchy. Then, Professor Snape swoops in and also speaks to them. He basically repeats what the prefects already told them, looks at each new Slytherin critically and stares straight into Harry’s eyes as he says, “Behave, or you shall wish you had.” Then, he proceeds to threaten them with “dire punishment”. He remains vague about what exactly this penalty will include, but manages to make each of them think of the very worst they can imagine. While he won’t deduct house points, he announces, because House Slytherin already is handicapped enough, he also won’t tolerate stepping over the line in any way, even if only with the barest tip of a toe.

Harry’s mind immediately jumps to fists and belts and cruel words. This is the wizarding world. Who knows what kinds of horrors exist here that are unknown in the non-magical sphere? He becomes even more resolved to never ever even attempt to break a rule.

A few minutes later, the prefects show the youngest students to their dorms.

 

Harry is convinced he landed in heaven. This room is enormous! He may have to share it with Malfoy – Zabini – Nott – Crabbe – Goyle, but it still is larger than any room he ever was allowed into. Just the bed alone is larger than his cupboard! The other boys are fast to choose their beds. Harry is content with the leftover. It’s in the corner, the furthest away from the exit, but also adjacent to walls on two sides. The door to the bathroom is only a few steps away. He even has his own window with a large enough sill that he can sit on it to peer outside into the murky waters of the lake.

“What’s the problem, Potter?”, taunts the blond boy who Harry met when he was measured for his robes. Malfoy, if his memory is correct. “So sad you ended up in Slytherin?”

“Why would I?”, Harry asks, honestly confused. The hat entered him into the perfect house for him, it said. He trusts it more than a human mind. The hat must have sorted thousands of students for hundreds of years. It should know best.

But Malfoy takes his question as mocking. He sneers, “Must be too small for you, hah, Potter, and not luxurious enough!”

“Why would you think that?” Honestly, this room is better than he even dreamed. It’s so large! And the bed seems to be so soft!

With a huff, Malfoy turns around. He whispers to two of his friends, big and bulky children who remind Harry of Dudley’s friends, at a volume that Harry thinks must be purposely so loud that he can hear every word. “Look at him, all confused, like a real idiot. There’s not even a trunk here for him. Seems like everyone thought he’d be in Gryffindor and now they won’t even give him his trunk!”

Harry ignores him. He runs a disbelieving hand over the covers. So soft! They will be so warm! He only knows his dingy blanket with holes as large as his fist in it. He quickly goes into the bathroom to change and brush his teeth. Once outside, he takes out his trunk. He’ll stay in this dorm for the whole year, he probably should unpack, but seeing as the other boys don’t – except for Malfoy, who takes out a huge stuffed dragon, glancing around anxiously as if anyone will say anything about it and immediately closing the curtains surrounding his bed as if they would make the dragon disappear –, he’ll leave everything inside the trunk, as well. When Malfoy sees that he carried the trunk the whole time in its miniature form, he gaps. Then, he makes some comment about how Harry was too good to even buy a normal trunk and that he’s surprised it’s not some sort of golden chest.

Harry draws the curtains around his bed closed and falls asleep.

 

The next morning is a Saturday. Harry is glad about it since it’ll give him time to familiarise himself with the castle. He’s up shortly after dawn, as that’s when Aunt Petunia usually wakes him. As soon as possible, he goes to eat so that he has as much time as possible to explore. The older students moan about the date at breakfast since apparently, the first day after arrival always is free so that the first years can find out where their classrooms are, and they bemoan the fact that today is not Friday, which would leave them with three free days.

When Harry sits down, a glaring Professor Snape makes a piece of paper fly to him – no, it’s the wizarding world, it’s parchment, not paper. It’s his timetable for the following school year. He takes note that Monday morning, he’ll have Transfiguration and Charms. After eating – this time slowly and while subtly observing the way the others eat even though he wants to shove all the food his stomach can handle into his mouth before anyone can take his plate away –, Harry goes on a discovery trip. He finds the classrooms fairly easily, only Herbology gives him trouble until he reads through his timetable again and notices that the class is held in greenhouses. Seeing as he only theoretically knows what Quidditch means, he aimlessly wanders until he finds something he believes to be the pitch. He explores the grounds outside, from the Black Lake to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. He only returns inside when he believes that it’s time for lunch. His stomach may still be full, but he wants to observe the others again to see what else about his behaviour he should change. Before that, however, he returns to the dorm in order to put the timetable somewhere it can’t get damaged or dirty.

As soon as he steps inside the common room, he knows that he’ll have to hurry up. Almost no-one is still there. He quickly walks into the dorm. A step in, he stops.

His trunk is upended. Clothes and robes are spread throughout the room. His books are partly ripped. Thankfully, the bundle of parchment and the box with ink and quills are unharmed. Blinking back tears – the dorm should have been safe! –, Harry starts cleaning. He picks up his clothing, folds it and neatly puts it away. He gathers the books and tries to unsuccessfully mend them. He hopes there’s a spell for something like that. For now, he stacks them into the trunk. With a swish of his wand, it’s the size of a match box again. This, he can easily fit into a pocket and carry around.

He leaves the room.

 

Instead of going to lunch as he’d planned, Harry wanders through the castle. For an untrained eye, it may all look the same, but Harry is observant. He notices slight differences in the stone walls, studies the portraits and is shocked when they move, and observes the stairs. He peers into open doors. He comes across some ghosts who gleefully talk to him for a while, but they aren’t overly familiar with quick routes since they just float through walls instead of following the hallways. They advise him to talk to the portraits. Sceptically, he does. He’s pleasantly surprised when they happily chat with him. Even more shocked is he, though, when he finds that asking even the most menacing-looking painting for directions, he doesn’t even feel the slightest wisp of panic. He thinks it’s because portraits may be able to shout at him, but they won’t be able to hurt him. They cannot touch him.

Painted women coo at him for being so cute. Painted men praise his cleverness in asking the portraits for directions. With just a little kindness, they tell him secrets about Hogwarts that many never find out in decades. In exchange, Harry promises to return more often to chat. While the portraits can leave their frames, they apparently have a limited range and can’t go farther than a corridor at most, so they always look forward to new gossip. Some in the more deserted areas of the castle only hear new things from other portraits who come to visit their area and who probably also just know it second-hand.

With their help, Harry finds the library. A strict-looking woman, a Miss Pince, scares him with her scathing look. He timidly enters the room, but only has to walk past two of the gigantic bookshelves to get her out of sight. Only then does he dare to look around.

How amazing this library is! There’s so many books! He could read until his last day on Earth, he bets, and still have not got through all the tomes. There’s already the next problem, though. How could he ever find anything? He doubts even the librarian knows what all these books contain. Helplessly, he looks around until he spots a portrait. He quickly walks over and introduces himself. The painted man – sharp features, brown hair, brown eyes that sometimes seem to be red when he shifts – is polite and pleasant. He remarks that it’s rare to find one so young and so well-mannered. Harry stutters at the compliment.

“Are you familiar with the library?”, he asks. Immediately, he blushes and adds, “That was a stupid question, wasn’t it?”

The man laughs. “The younger one is, the more asinine queries he is permitted.”

“That doesn’t mean that one has to ask idiotic questions,” Harry protests.

“Oh, a philosopher!” The man sounds teasing, but not malevolent. His tone reminds Harry of the apothecary owner in Knockturn Alley. “No matter, knave, pose your inquiries, no matter how dim they may seem.”

Harry proceeds to do just that. “I was just wondering if there was a way to search for a book that contains a certain topic? If you need to look up a specific potion and had to go through all of those shelves, it’d be quite troublesome.”

“Indeed, knave, indeed. This, I must confess, is a sensible and intelligent query.” He smiles approvingly. Harry blushes again and averts his eyes to the floor. “No need to be embarrassed. A young pureblood should always accept a compliment with a confident smile.”

“I’m not,” Harry objects. At the man’s raised eyebrow, he expands, “I’m not a pureblood.”

“No? In my time, a Potter was a pureblood.”

“Really? I know almost nothing about my parents, except that I look like my father and have my mother’s eyes and that their names were James Potter and Lily Evans. Before my mother married.”

“I know not of the House of Evans, but your father indeed appears to be a pureblood.”

“My mother’s sister doesn’t have magic,” Harry adds.

The man hums. “If you know not of your grandparents-“, Harry shakes his head, “your aunt either is a Squib or, otherwise, your mother was a born to magicless parents.”

“I think it’s rather the latter. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon hate magic. Saying that word was forbidden.”

The man nods wisely as if he knows what that is like. Then, he turns the topic back to Harry’s question. He teaches him a smart spell that summons all the books that are about a topic Harry needs to keep at the forefront of his mind while casting. Harry tries the movements and says the incantation until the man is happy with his pronunciation. The first few times, the spell fails because Harry is so focused on doing everything right that he doesn’t think of what books he wants. When he finally gets it right, ten books float over to him.

With a bright smile, Harry turns to the portrait. “Thank you so much! That was amazing!”

The man clearly is bemused with the strong reaction and asks, “Have you long searched for this specific topic?”

Harry shakes his head. “That was the first spell I ever did!” He thoughtfully bites his lip and murmurs, as if he only just realised, “I really can do magic.”

“Then, you may view this feat as extraordinary,” the man announces. “’Tis no easy spell. Of accomplishing it thus quickly, you may be proud.”

If possible, Harry beams even more. He once more thanks the portrait and looks over the books.

“What need have you, knave, to this desperately search for a book thus early in your education?”

A bit embarrassed, Harry explains the dilemma with his books. The man seems enraged. For a while, he mutters about “the downfall of a once so proud House” and “despicable youths” before he offers to help Harry, should he have problems casting the spells needed to repair the books. Gratefully, Harry sits down on the floor and engrosses himself in the old tomes he summoned. He finds the spell and attempts a reparo. With the pointers the man gives him, the damage is quickly undone.

“I have another question,” Harry hedges after being taught how to send the library books back to their places. The man nods indulgently, so Harry continues, “Could you maybe recommend some books? It’s just that I’ve only just entered the wizarding world, and so many things are new, and-“

The man raises a hand. “Let me contemplate on this query for a bit.” Harry patiently and silently waits until the portrait names a few titles that he jots down. After saying thank-you again, he tries the spell for summoning the books again and settles in to read.

Only when it’s time for dinner does he leave the library.

 

In the Great Hall, Harry finds a place at the very end of the table. It’s near both the wall and the door, so he’s quite happy with it. He’s quite pleased with himself when he manages to eat a whole sandwich even though he already ate something at breakfast. Then, he continues his habit of observing everyone else. Professor Snape seems glare at him in a mixture of relief and disdain. Harry shudders. His scar once again twitches, but it’s not so bad anymore. The headmaster once again looks very disappointed. Harry quickly averts his eyes. Shortly after, he retires to his room.

Malfoy enters the dorm with a flourish few can achieve. He makes various snide comments about Harry, but compared to what he already heard from Uncle Vernon, they don’t sting. Malfoy doesn’t even shout or tell him that he’s worthless. That changes when the blond sees how unruffled Harry is. He threateningly steps closer.

“Where were you even? Did you bawl your eyes out because someone dared to be mean to the Boy Wonder?”

At the word “boy”, Harry flinches. That’s what Uncle Vernon always calls him. For Aunt Petunia, he’s “freak”, but Uncle Vernon doesn’t even deem him worthy of such a special title.

Malfoy pounces on his perceived weakness like Aunt Marge’s Pitbull on Harry’s scrawny legs. He taunts and teases and gets progressively more and more insulting until Harry is shaking and someone – the dark-skinned boy – interrupts. Malfoy ends his tirade, “What’s he going to do about it? Write to his father? Oh, sorry, he doesn’t have one!”

Harry storms into the bathroom and curls up in a corner of a shower stall. Those hateful words repeat over and over in his head, mixing with Aunt Petunia’s snide comments about how his parents preferred to die rather than raise their freak of a son themselves, dumping him on good, normal, upstanding citizens.

When he has calmed down enough to leave, the other boys all are asleep. With magic, they have no need to brush their teeth. Harry shuffles over to his bed. He runs a hand over it and feels that it’s wet and cold. He touches the cushion and finds it dry. He strips it off its cover and puts both of them on the floor, closing the curtains and lying down on the floor.

It’s almost warmer than in his cupboard, and the ground about as hard.

 

At dawn, Harry gets up, changes his clothes and has a few bites for breakfast before he goes up to the library, greeting and chatting with portraits left and right. Madam Pince’s glare still makes him shrink into himself, so he hurriedly slips past her and returns to yesterday’s portrait. He hopes that the man will continue to be helpful.

And he is. He looks at Harry, notices his untidy appearance and asks about his night with a heavy gaze that warns Harry from lying, so he doesn’t even try. Except for the flashback to Uncle Vernon, he faithfully recounts the happenings. The man curses Malfoy for a bit since he “definitely lives up to his name” before rattling off some book titles. “These tomes may offer you protection.”

Harry is delighted. He repeatedly thanks the man who accepts his gratitude with the very same smile, Harry supposes, he advised Harry to put on when receiving a compliment he’s uncomfortable with. After long hours of trying out different spells, receiving instructions and orders on which to not even attempt, what to cast and in which orders, Harry gets sent off to dinner. He’s half an hour early, so he wanders around a bit more, introducing himself to new portraits and two more ghosts. They all gush about how charming he is. His first instinct is to blush and look away, but then remembers the library portrait’s instructions and instead smiles. This causes his opposites to coo some more. Thoroughly embarrassed, he makes his way to the Great Hall. He once again eats a small portion and observes.

Before going to bed this night, he casts all the protective charms and spells the portrait helped him learn by heart and goes to sleep feeling safe again.

 

The next morning, classes finally start. Full of enthusiasm, Harry walks to the Transfiguration classroom. This lesson is held by Professor McGonagall. She looks nice, if strict. As the first one to arrive, Harry has free choice over his seat. He picks the one in the corner near the windows. He’d prefer the one near the door, but that’s at the very front and he feels clammy just thinking about all those pupils behind his back, doing god-knows-what. No, he’d rather have this seat. The only other being in the room is a tabby cat. Harry takes notice of it and admires it from afar. Mrs. Figg from across the street also has cats, angry creatures who like to scratch him. He likes them well enough, but from a distance.

Bit by bit, the other students arrive. The Slytherins come as a cluster led by Malfoy. He takes one look at Harry, snorts and picks a seat in the same half of the room as him, but as far away as possible. The others follow his silent command and fill the benches around him. Belatedly, Harry realises that this is to show house unity while still ignoring him. A sharp pang goes through his heart even as he berates himself for it. What have they done to make him hope for acceptance? Especially with Malfoy cussing him since the very beginning.

Harry resolutely focuses on the front of the class. Shortly afterwards, the Gryffindors arrive. They don’t all come at the same time, but in groups of two or three. The bushy haired girl who Harry believes he saw in the bookstore in Diagon Alley comes in alone and walks right up to him confidently.

“You’re Harry Potter, right?”, she demands. Harry sinks into himself a bit and tries to muster up the courage to respond, but it isn’t necessary. She talks on without waiting for his reply. “I read all about you in-“ She proceeds to list at least five book titles, then she stops and musters him. Harry thinks he must look quite overwhelmed. “But as I look at you, I think the books have got something wrong. Don’t you agree?”

Malfoy bursts out into barely suppressed laughter, a pug-faced girl giggling along. Harry goes red and looks at the desk.

The girl looks at him in disdain and says, “That’s what I thought.”

Then, without another word, she turns around and takes a seat in the front.

A bell rings.

Harry is glad that now, no-one will attempt to talk to him anymore. Lesson means quiet.

Ten seconds later, a red-haired boy rushed inside.

“Thank Merlin she’s not here yet!”, he gasps.

Just then, the tabby cat turns into a familiar form. Professor McGonagall berates the boy who she calls “Weasley”. The poor boy blushes so hard his hair would be proud of the colour of his cheeks before mumbling an apology and looking around for an empty seat. When he spots the one next to Harry, he brightens and ignores the four that would be closer to him and the other Gryffindors.

“Hey!”, he says before he sits down uninvited. “I’m Ron, Ron Weasley. Well, actually, I’m called Ronald, but I hate that name.” Harry looks like a deer in headlights. Thankfully, this Ron seems to need an answer as much as the rude girl does. “So, do you actually have the scar?” He moves around a bit and peers at Harry until he spots it. “Wicked!”

“Mister Weasley!”, Professor McGonagall speaks up sternly. “Hold your chit-chat sessions after your lessons.”

Ron blushes and apologises again. The professor turns the desk into a pig and back before giving an introductory speech into her subject. As soon as she tells the class to pull out their books, Ron groans. “I hate reading. Don’t you agree, mate?”

Harry diligently tries to ignore him and opens the correct page.

Unfortunately, Ron doesn’t take the hint. He starts to prattle on about his family, naming each of his five annoying brothers and his even more annoying little sister. Then, he goes on about how Slytherin produces so many Dark wizards and how it must have been a mistake that Harry was sorted into that house, and did Harry know that all Potters go to Gryffindor?

Harry really does his best to listen to Professor McGonagall, but he can barely hear her over Ron’s voice. He holds back a relieved sigh when she notices that Ron hasn’t followed her instruction in the slightest. “Mister Weasley. It is fortunate that you still have not managed to remove anything from your bag as you won’t have to pack it all in when you move to another seat.”

Ron starts to protest, but one look from the professor is all it takes to quell his complaints. He glares as he stomps to the seat a row in front of Harry. As soon as he sits down, he turns around and starts his monologue again.

Professor McGonagall watches this with raised eyebrows. “Mister Weasley. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. Remove yourself from Mister Potter so that he may study in peace without your constant disruptions. Ten points from Gryffindor.”

Begrudgingly, Ron moves to the only free seat not close to Harry. It’s in the very front, next to the rude girl who Harry learns is called Miss Granger. As soon as Professor McGonagall asks a question, she raises her hand. Harry is glad that she takes all the attention that might otherwise lie on him. He’s a bit surprised she’s so quick to transfigure her match into a needle. Harry himself has little problems as it’s very similar to the spell he tried in the library. It’s difficult to keep the goal in mind while remembering both the wand motions and the right pronunciation for the foreign words, but once he manages to do both, it’s easy. So easy, in fact, that he changes his whole desk into a gigantic needle. He can’t explain how he did it, but Professor McGonagall transfigures it back into a match and a desk and kindly explains to him that he put too much magic into the spell. The excess couldn’t go anywhere as the match already turned into a needle, so it was relocated into the closest similar object. Both match and desk are made from wood. Harry is confused by this because for the library spell, he needed all his magic, but then he remembers that the portrait called that spell especially hard. The rest of the lesson he tries to tone down the amount of magic he pours into the spell. It takes a while to find the right doses. He earns ten points before the bell rings. As he already has everything packed, he’s the first one out.

In Charms, Professor Flitwick falls down the stack of books he uses to be able to see over his desk when he comes to Harry’s name while reading the attendance list. The Slytherins snigger. Harry is mortified. The class goes very similar to Professor McGonagall’s with one theoretic and one practical part, also in that Ron insists on annoying Harry until Professor Flitwick sends him to another seat. Miss Granger manages to get the spell right on the first try and instructs Ron in the most patronising way possible in how to improve his own wand work. Harry is conscious of how much magic he uses. Apparently, it takes more to transfigure a match than to lift a feather. He resolves to ask if the library portrait has any recommendations on that topic as soon as he’s finished with the stack of books on the wizarding world basics.

Instead of eating lunch as he’s still not hungry, Harry continues his exploration of the school. The portraits tell him of the kitchen, so he goes there. In it, tiny little things with huge ears and even bigger eyes work. They are delighted that someone has come to visit them. Harry asks them some questions, fascinated by the strange creatures, and somehow earns their loyalty and friendship by being friendly and polite. They send him off with enough food to last him two weeks, even with his current diet which includes a lot more than he’s used to. He tries to resist, but they are more stubborn than him. When he insists that the food will spoil before he can finish it all, one of the house elves puts a spell on it that makes it last for a year. Intrigued, Harry thanks the creatures and leaves. He calculates the duration and is delighted when he works out that it’ll last the whole summer. Content, he stores the food in his trunk which he still carries around, not willing to risk the safety charm around his bed failing and returning to the destroyed contents of his trunk for a second time.

 

Next up is Defence against the Dark Arts. Harry arrives first, again, and once more picks the seat in the corner. Professor Quirrel comes in nearly as soon as Harry puts down his bag. He seems a bit startled at already seeing someone in the classroom, understandably, as the bell won’t ring for another twenty minutes.

“M-m-m-mister P-p-p-p-potter,” he stutters.

“Professor Quirrel,” Harry returns shyly. For some reason, he’s not as afraid and wary of this professor as he is of literally any other human except for Silvia, the potion storekeeper.

Professor and student remain in peaceful silence for the duration of their time alone. Sometimes, Harry’s scar itches a little bit, but the pain lessens with each time. The other students enter. When he notices the careful inclusion, but still exclusion of the Slytherin, the professor’s lip twitches in derision. Strangely, Harry doesn’t react with the automatic wariness and caution as he usually does as soon as someone looks angry or disgusted or starts shouting or touches him. His feelings stay delightedly neutral.

The lesson follows the structure the one the other subjects also had. It’s difficult to follow what Professor Quirrel speaks because of his stutter, but what he says is insightful and helps a lot. Harry is careful to write along.

As Defence was the last lesson that day, Harry goes to the library to do his homework and to read the recommended books.

 

The potion class the next day makes Harry nervous. He doesn’t like the way Professor Snape sometimes stares at him, full of disdain. It reminds him of Uncle Vernon.

Thankfully, he studied Potions in depth before Hogwarts began as the professor, full of ill-will, asks him difficult questions from the get-go. Harry manages to answer them. Strangely, Professor Snape seems to be disappointed about that. The brewing itself goes relatively well. That is, until Malfoy throws something into his cauldron and the potion goes off-colour. No matter what he does, it doesn’t turn back into the light blue it should have and stays a dark tone on the verge of being black. Harry comforts himself with the knowledge that he wasn’t the worst as that questionable honour goes to a Gryffindor boy named “Longbottom! Read what is written in the third line, you dunderhead!” whose cauldron blows up.

The following lesson is Flying which Harry looks forward to very much. The teacher barely explains anything, apparently trusting that everyone knows the basics even if they’ve never been on a broom, so it’s no wonder that a boy can’t control his broom. It’s the unfortunate Longbottom again. He only just left the hospital wing after being healed from his potions mishap to attend this lesson, and now he has to go back. Harry thinks it’s pretty irresponsible of the teacher to leave her class all alone and is proven right when Malfoy picks up something that Longbottom dropped. He threatens to destroy the small glass ball, but Ron rises up to the challenge. Malfoy then ridicules him and throws the glass ball as far away as his thin arms can handle. Ron desperately tries to catch it before it smashes against the ground. Sadly, he doesn’t and crashes into castle wall himself. Malfoy laughs so hard he falls off his broom. As soon as the professor returns, she has to bring those two to the hospital wing, lecturing them all the way and taking fifty points each.

The next lesson is Herbology. Harry, who has spent many an hour outside to tend to Aunt Petunia’s garden, happily walks to the greenhouse when Granger walks up to him. She calls him a coward and other names because he didn’t step in when Malfoy took Longbottom’s belonging. She thinks it’s his fault that Ron, a proud Gryffindor, got hurt. Harry is pale and shaking by the time she’s done, his mind adding her voice to Malfoy, his uncle and his aunt’s in an endless loop of cusses, curses and accusations. Still, he shoulders through, remembering the hat’s words. See how brave you need to be to conquer your fears every day.

Longbottom arrives twenty minutes late, bringing a written excuse from the doctor – do they call them doctors here? Seeing as everyone else has already formed groups and only Harry was left over, they team up. Harry almost groans when he realises what that means – the other boys missing this lesson will automatically also become his teammates. He almost hopes that Malfoy and Ron kill each other before that lesson. Longbottom offers Harry his first name and becomes Neville. He seems like a nice, if somewhat shy boy, but Harry remains cautious. He never had friends, only bullies and children who got close to him in order to play a trick on him. Understandably, he is wary of Neville’s intentions. It seems like the boy is content with a little small talk while they concentrate on their work, in contrast to Granger who practically tries to force her group members to become her friends and acknowledge her superior knowledge. The practical part is easy when Harry combines his experience with gardening with Neville’s knowledge and love of magical plants. They easily finish first even though they miss half their team members. Or because of it? When looking at the clumsy way most others handle their plants, Harry is almost convinced it’s the latter. Neville’s and his work gets praised and each are awarded ten points before Professor Sprout releases the class.

Harry is quite content with how the day turned out.

Of course, this feeling doesn’t last.

That day, someone sets fire to his bed.

 

Seeing the burned remains of what once was his safe space, Harry almost breaks out in tears. Instead, he swirls around and nearly runs outside. He finds his way to a corner he found this lunchbreak. It’s in a deserted part of the castle where not even portraits are. He’s all alone as he curls up and shakes through the panic of I-could-have-been-in-there-my-bed-was-burned-to-crisps-I-could-have-died-someone-wants-to-harm-me-hates-me-safe-space-destroyed. When he’s thinking more clearly again, he wanders around a bit more and finds a room covered in at least five centimetres of dust, so it clearly hasn’t been found for a long time. Its interior is shrouded in darkness. It’s about as big as his bed was before-it-burned-no-don’t-think-about-it and utterly perfect. Harry goes to the kitchen where he asks for cleaning supplies and an old blanket. The elves ask what he wants them for, so he confesses his plans of cleaning the room and sleeping in there. They are shaken that someone hates their kind Master Harry so much and happily supply him with a thick blanket. While a few keep him occupied by giving him more food than he could eat in a month, already put under a preservation charm, some others secretly pop away to clean the room. They already know Harry well enough to know that he would protest that they do this work for him. As they predicted, when Harry finally is able to return and sees the room cleaned, the old furniture taken out and replaced with a simple bed and a desk-chair combo, he promptly turns around to scold the house elves on doing it while apologising for causing them extra trouble and thanking them. It’s quite an amazing feat of multitasking, if he thinks about it.

So, Harry moves into the “new” room, leaving the Slytherin dorm completely. Judging by the lack of comments from his housemates, the change is appreciated.

 

The following weeks are uneventful. Harry eats breakfast, attends his classes, explores the castle during lunchbreak, goes to his afternoon lessons, does his homework, talks to the library portrait, reads the books that have been recommended, eats dinner – a bit more every day, he’s glad to say –, chats a bit with ghosts and portraits, returns to his room, practices all the spells he’s learned, revises Potions and falls asleep. In late October, he’s progressed so far that he even manages to eat half an apple for lunch without cutting down on his portions of either breakfast or dinner, so he visits the kitchens. It also matches up with the time that he decides that he knows the castle well enough now, has discovered all that is to easily discover – there’s whispers of secret rooms and special gateways you need to guess passwords for or walk across at the right time – and stops with his wanderings. So instead, he spends lunchbreak with the house elves. Sometimes, he even gets to help them and, if he doesn’t arrive at a busy time, they teach him how to cook magically or the differences between house elf and human magic.

Ron continues to talk at Harry. He doesn’t seem to be frightened off by the fact that Harry rarely, if ever, replies, and always keeps a distance of at least one metre between them. Granger – my first name actually is Hermione – keeps alternately trying to help him in class, even when he doesn’t need the aid and especially when he struggles with another problem than the one she’s explaining, or condemning him for- Harry doesn’t even know. Not living up to the image she’s built up in her head of him? Not being Gryffindor enough? Not being as intelligent as her?

On Halloween, or, as the man in the library portrait – who, Harry guesses, takes a perverse pleasure out of never revealing even the slightest hint towards his identity – calls it, Samhain, Professor Quirrel interrupts dinner to shout something about a troll and faints.

Panic breaks out.

Everyone screams and runs around and shouts and is afraid.

Harry’s heart starts beating overtime, his breathing picks up and he instinctively searches for a safe space. He ends up in the corner of the room, curled up tight, rocking slightly, his eyesight blurry, hoping everything’s over, everyone calmed down, why-is-everyone-panicking-I-

Finally, the headmaster casts a spell that turns his voice to the volume of a starting plane. Everyone grows quiet. Harry almost has a heart attack.

The headmaster explains that the professors will handle the problem, would all the students please retire to their dorms, food will be provided there. With that, he leaves. The professors follow him with a determined glint in their eyes. The Gryffindor table returns to their previous level of noise, a few prefects unsuccessfully trying to get them to tone it down. The Hufflepuffs quietly count their numbers and breathe a sigh of relief when they notice that everyone’s there. They hold hands on the way out. The Ravenclaws go at it more analytically. Apparently, in the dorm of each year and each gender, there is a Dorm Girl or Dorm Boy who acts basically the same way a prefect does, but without any authority to their title. While the Dorm Girls and Boys are busy hunting down the students under their responsibility, the others sort themselves by year, seemingly, to think on how a troll could have entered the school, and gathering all the facts they remember about such creatures. The Slytherins choose a different system, again. In House Slytherin, each member has a certain worth that depends on their parents, their wealth, their personal achievements, their magical prowess and the control they have over other members of the house. It’s a tedious and complicated system that changes every other week. Each year has one who is seen as the best. In the first year, it’s unquestionably Malfoy. Not only are his parents both from influential and very obviously rich families, his father also is a prominent figure in the Ministry of Magic. No-one seems to quite know what exactly he does, but that apparently works in Malfoy’s favour. He’s a proud pureblood, raised with pureblood traditions and beliefs. He also is decently powerful. He’s already amassed a following before school – his goons Crabbe and Goyle put him at an advantage there. With their help, he keeps potentially stronger competitors at bay because a challenge to Malfoy actually means a fight with Malfoy hiding behind Crabbe and Goyle, who might not be the most advanced wizards – whether that be in magic quantity or quality, spell knowledge or duelling ability –, but still count, if only as shields. Their parents cowed into submission by Malfoy’s, both Greengrass and Bulstrode follow Malfoy’s lead. Parkinson is crazy for him, which is another one in his favour. It would be social suicide for everyone else in their year to do anything other than get together with Malfoy. With all of their year under his control, second and third years wouldn’t dare to go against Malfoy as their years are magically more advanced, but also lacking a player as great as Malfoy. None of their parents are as prominent as Malfoy’s nor are they as affluent. They also don’t have the faithful underlings Crabbe and Goyle are, so the leaders of those years need to watch out for dissent in their own support because half of them are eying them up for any weakness they can grab to overthrow their leader and climb on top instead. Therefore, they simply don’t have the means to go against Malfoy. The older years, while possessing the ability, either don’t bother with Malfoy because they are seventh and sixth year students and by the time Malfoy will be a threat to their position, they’ll long have left Hogwarts, or because it will be seen as bullying the young and cowardly and thus weaken their own status. So, in Slytherin, each Year King or Queen commands his or her subjects with a glance to stay where they can see them, report anyone missing, and to be ready to receive orders, especially as this is an emergency situation and it’s likely that the Slytherin King will take command. That position falls to the seventh or sixth year with the most influence. They have another person claiming the title of Year Ruler as they’re busy with overseeing the inner workings of the whole house. So, in Slytherin politics, everyone should try to remain on good terms with the Slytherin Ruler as this person may at least partially decide on another’s rank. The Slytherin Ruler, in contrast, must give a slight recognition to each Year Ruler, no matter how the personal opinion may be. This means that the Slytherin Ruler has to stay on top of all the constant rank-changing and challenging and, additionally, always keep a cool head and decide in all manners brought before him or her in a calm and wise way, no matter if that matter is missing pads for a period or the attempted murder of a Gryffindor that went wrong, while still maintaining the own status so that no-one may challenge him or her. How this complicated system remains working is an everlasting mystery to Harry.

The Slytherin King is a scrawny boy with glasses so big they make out his entire personality, or so it seems. But appearances deceive, greatly in this case. He is nephew to a former Minister of Magic who still has a lot of influence. Additionally, his father is from an old pureblood family who always produced great politicians who occupied important positions within the ministry. His mother comes from a relatively unknown, but rich pureblood family. His plain looks hide a vicious mind, sharp enough to stay ahead of everyone even though his magical talent is comparatively lacking. For four years, he gathered blackmail material rather than enter the battle for Year King, but returned with a vengeance in fifth year, forcing almost everyone in his year to do his bidding or risk having their secrets exposed. His grades rose practically overnight. This player from the left-field even had dirt on the Slytherin Queen. When she left after her seventh year, he immediately replaced her and stayed in power for a second year, as well. Harry doesn’t even know his name; the others hold him in such high esteem that they only speak of him as the Slytherin King or the Supreme King. His brilliant mind now works hard to find a solution.

First, he asks the Year Rulers, “Is everyone here?”

As they nod, he digs deeper, “Is Potter here?”

Harry, who thought this question might come up and has calmed down enough to thereby pretend to casually lean against the wall instead of pathetically curling up on the floor like a small child – he learned quickly that in Slytherin, you can’t be weak, weakness is pounced at, always-keep-a-cool-face-untouchable-facade – isn’t even surprised. The Slytherin King definitely knows that he was driven out of the dorm and took residency somewhere else, even if he doesn’t know where exactly, and that he thereby doesn’t belong to any year anymore, speaking in Slytherin politics. His heart beats almost out of his chest when everyone looks around in order to find him. They finally do, give him a dismissive look or sneer and turn back to their Supreme King.

“Alright,” he murmurs. He takes another few moments to think, then decides, “The troll is in the dungeons. The Slytherin dorms are, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out we’re not going there. Potter’s hideout-“ Now, Harry tenses all over. What if he makes him tell- “-is surely not large enough, and who knows where it is. We may come across the troll, anyway. Another dorm is out of the question. This means the only available option is to stay here. Or does anyone have a better idea?”

Harry for a moment thinks of proposing the kitchen. But then, he thinks that he’d rather keep it a secret and it is near the dungeons, anyway. Besides, if he says anything now, the Slytherin King will rethink his worth. If he’s found lacking, the other years might start hounding him in addition to Malfoy and his loyal goons. If his idea’s good, it would mean he has to enter the battlefield that is Slytherin politics. It would only take a few words – especially “boy” or “freak” – to return his reputation and status back to the status-quo, but some people would definitely keep a closer eye on him, afterwards, wondering if he’ll ever try to rise ranks again, and probably take care that it doesn’t happen again.

The Slytherin King waits for approximately one minute before nodding decisively. “Misky!”, he calls out. A house elf pops in next to him. He doesn’t even look at the poor creature when he orders, “We need sleeping bags or blankets for everyone.”

The house elf looks around, possibly counting all the people, before nodding and disappearing into thin air. A moment later, a whole company of them appears, holding piles of blankets higher than their bodies. First, the Supreme King chooses a sleeping bag. After him, the convoluted mess that is the highest ranked – upper Year Kings and Queens along with their right and left hands if they stand above the lower Year Rulers –, followed by the even more intricate authority net of the lower ranking individuals. Then, after all the ranked persons and their rank-equals have decided, comes the common mass which is sorted by year and rank in said year.

Harry simply waits until everyone else has taken what they want. One blanket is left. A house elf pops over and hands it to him. As he thanks the creature as usual, others appear carrying food. Harry declines eating anything more, curls up under his blanket in the corner, puts his usual safety charms and spells around him – still not as many or as safe as he’d like, but his magic core just can’t handle maintaining any more throughout the whole night –, and falls asleep.

He misses the hour-long complaining and grumbling about having to sleep on the floor many of his housemates indulge in.

 

The next day, the Slytherins are awoken at dawn – the usual time Harry gets up – and ushered into their dorm by an exasperated, but not exactly surprised, team of professors. Harry stands by the side and watches. He stays in his corner until the house elves pop in to serve the tables and take away the sleeping bags and blankets. Only then does he sit down, thanks the creatures again for their help, and waits for the dishes to appear.

As he leaves the Great Hall after breakfast, he gets pounced at by the unholy duo of Ron and Hermione. The former mostly grins stupidly while the latter goes into a tirade. “No-one ever told me what these words mean! I mean, yes, obviously, I knew that they were magical in nature, and that they are completely normal, but still! It took me until now to find out that they actually represent a soul bond! Did you know, Harry, that soulmates really exist in the magical world? I bet you’re surprised! I know I was; I didn’t think of the possibility at all. Anyway-“ Then, she launched into a retelling of the events of yesterday. Apparently, Ron said some mean things about her, so she cried about it in the toilets. Therefore, she missed the feast and the announcement that a troll was wandering around. Of course, it found her in the toilet – Harry briefly wonders what she did in the dungeons – and almost killed her before Ron, feeling brave and guilty, probably in that order, swooped in to save her. Naturally, two first years do the same to a fully-grown troll as one, namely absolutely nothing, so they both were saved by the professors. Professor McGonagall then proceeded to interrogate them on why they were here, and Ron was forced to confess the unsavoury truth. He was scolded quite heavily for running off on his own instead of informing a teacher – pleasantly ignoring that all the teachers left the Great Hall in a matter of seconds and Ron probably didn’t realise Hermione wasn’t amongst his year mates until they nearly reached Gryffindor Tower, so he would have had to traipse all over the castle and into the dungeon where he knew the troll was in order to notify them. After a long-winded explanation about all of that, Hermione ends her tale with, “And then, when we were walking up to Gryffindor Tower, my sleeve fell down and showed my left wrist. Ron accidentally looked at it and it started glowing! Then, he told me all about the soul bonds and soul mates and-“

What Ron told Hermione, Harry read before and since the beginning of school. He begins to muse about his own words. Only now does he regain hope of finding out what exactly they mean. He looked so long in all libraries he could get to, searched through dictionaries and stacks of scientific journals, but never found why those words exist or what they mean. But now, he has new opportunities. Maybe they are a spell, or in a magical language? He could ask the library portrait, but stops short at this thought. As selfish as it is, he wants to hide his words, keep them to himself and never show them so anyone. He never could do the same as Hermione, who now reveals her wrist for the entire world to see and invites Harry to trace the words. No, Harry thinks viciously, the only person he’ll ever show his words to is the one who said them, and if he finds them lacking, even they won’t see, simple as that.

This, he also doesn’t get. Only yesterday, Ron said such hurtful things to Hermione that she, who sticks to rules and guidelines as if they are the only source of water in the desert, went against their professors’ orders to be in the Great Hall during the feast and instead bawled her eyes out in a toilet. Now, Ron has seen her words, and they magically get along and actually like each other?

As Harry contemplates this, the situation takes a turn for the worse. Hermione begins wondering out loud if Harry also has a soul mark. Cautiously, Harry takes a few more steps away from them. Ron says, “He should just show us his left wrist. If he has one, we can look at it and be even since you looked at our soul mark, and if he doesn’t have one, we’ll also know.”

Harry shakes his head, walks faster. But they don’t take no for an answer. They beg and plead and threaten and almost cry. When Harry still refuses, they jump at him, wrestle him to the ground – flashback to sorry-Uncle-Vernon-please-no-sorry-sorry-sorry – and rip at his sleeve. It gives after a while, revealing the bandage he uses to cover his words.

This is where it gets weird.

Harry goes through a shock of sorts – they-are-looking-at-my-words-even-though-I-said-no-they-are-MINE – and Hermione chooses that moment to say, “Ah, so you do have one! That’s an ‘a’, right?” and suddenly magic – wandless? accidental? – rips the two of them off him, throws them against the wall and knocks them unconscious. Meanwhile, Harry enters a panic attack of such epic proportions he thinks he’s dying, his magic thinks he’s dying, and erects a shield to keep all and everything away and keep him safe.

This is how Professor Snape, who went looking for them after they never appeared in Potions and weren’t in the hospital wing, encounters them.

 

Later, when Harry’s mind is not so busy fighting off the panic-I’m-going-to-die-help-can’t-breathe, he’ll remember the following:

The first thing Professor Snape does after he arrives at the scene is swear colourfully. Then, he checks on Hermione and Ron who still are unconscious. Next, he casts some sort of spell that makes a silver doe appear. He talks to the animal and sends it away. Only then does he pay attention to Harry. He moans a bit about “I’m not paid enough for that shit. Bloody dunderheads all around!” before he tries to approach. Obviously, the shield powered by all of Harry’s magic and the intention of keeping everyone away is strong enough to actually keep him away. He casts some spells on Harry, but the shield doesn’t allow them through. Sighing, he stops trying and waits for Madame Pomphrey, the nurse-doctor-Healer-Medi-Witch. She exclaims about the situation, much to Professor Snape’s exasperation, and casts spells at all three students. She diagnoses Hermione and Ron with concussions and bruises along their backs. Harry’s shield doesn’t let her spells touch him. She orders the professor to bring the Gryffindors into the hospital wing before she starts whispering sweet words to Harry. They don’t calm him down at all. They both remain there, Madame Pomphrey increasingly worried and Harry more and more exhausted and peaceful, until the panic attack is over and Harry doesn’t feel like he’s dying anymore. Sensing this, his magic doesn’t think he’s dying anymore, either, and stops the shield. Madame Pomphrey sweeps Harry off his feet before he’s even properly on them again and brings him to the hospital wing before he can complain that he doesn’t need it.

Madame Pomphrey announces that Harry is tired, he really should eat more and he has to stay the night. Then, she starts asking him about what happened. Harry gets as far away from her as the hospital bed will allow and tries to hide the tremors that come with an adult looming-over-him-staring-at-him-questioning-him-observing-him-searching-for-errors-faults-problems-finding-out-freak-freak-you-freak! He quietly recounts that Hermione and Ron bothered him, again, and showed him Hermione’s words, then tried to force him to show them his even though he refused. Madame Pomphrey is properly horrified that someone would do something like that and swears to give them detention as soon as they are healed. Then, she wants to know what his words say.

Harry cradles his wrist protectively to his chest, presses his words – still under the bandage, thank God – against his body and watches her with suspicious eyes.

She seems a bit shocked about that reaction, but reassures him that she won’t force him. She smiles, takes a few steps back and calls for a house elf. The tiny creature pops in, ready to receive his orders, sees Harry on the bed and abandons her to start crying loudly about Master Harry’s misfortune. He doesn’t stop asking and digging deeper until he has the whole story. He swears vengeance, “For Master Harry, wes, the house elves, gets up and bes paying back Enemy Grange and Enemy Weasel!”

For a while, Harry fruitlessly tries to talk him out of it, but as Harry is well aware, house elves are the most stubborn creatures on Earth, so he’s doomed to fail from the very beginning. The house elf pops away to make the other elves aware of the situation. A bit later, he returns with a plate of Harry’s favourite dishes and earnestly promises to include both ghosts and portraits in the revenge, as well.

Madame Pomphrey observes this bemusedly, but doesn’t say anything. From what she’s noticed, it’s good that Harry has some friends who watch out for him, even if they are not human.

 

After Hermione and Ron wake up – at which time Harry has long since left the hospital wing and returned to his secret room – and both Harry and Professor Snape have been called, the headmaster questions them about the happenings. Bitterly, Harry notices that everything he says is immediately met with suspicion. At the end, the headmaster even has the gull to scold Harry for not showing his wrist in exchange! Professor Snape glares next to him with such hatred that Harry is glad that he isn’t looking at him. He’s pretty sure his heart would have given out. When the headmaster steps closer and appears to want to grab his wrist, pull down the bandages and expose his words, his-his-his-his-alone, Harry feels how his magic gathers in his chest, ready to ward him off. It apparently noticed how Harry thought he was dying when Hermione and Ron tried it, so it does its best to prevent the situation from getting that bad. Speaking of the Gryffindors: They stand behind the headmaster, ready to peer over his shoulders, their eyes a mixture of curiosity and satisfaction.

Madame Pomphrey protests heavily, but the headmaster just waves her off. Harry’s breathing picks up. Then, Professor Snape steps in front of Harry.

“Not everyone wants to show off his soul mark,” he remarks threateningly.

The headmaster smiles disarmingly. “Where lies the harm in just showing it to us, my dear boy?”

Professor Snape snorts and gives the headmaster a scathing look. “So if anyone holds their soul mark under your nose, you are obliged to show your own in response? I have never heard of a rule this idiotic.”

“Now, now, my boy, I would not say that this is a rule-“

“Why are you trying to enforce it, then?”

“It’s a matter of fairness and-“

“Some people do not like others to know what their soul mark says. Why, headmaster, I think I am one of them, and so are you. Do you honestly want to say that if Granger over there shoves her wrist under your nose, you’ll show her your soul mark?”

The twinkles in the headmaster’s eyes die. He swallows heavily, then sighs. “Why, you are correct, my dear boy. I was just trying to forge a better connection between three young students.”

“I see.”

It is not even necessary to see Professor Snape’s raised eyebrow and dubious expression. His disbelief can be read perfectly from those to words alone.

Harry is so relieved – not being called “boy” himself (even hearing it said to another made his heart raze) and not being the focus of attention and not having everyone stare at him – that he doesn’t even care that the headmaster only takes points off Hermione and Ron while putting him in detention – twinkling-eyes-deceptive-eyes-be-careful-he-hates-all-Snakes warned him of that. The punishment he gives out causes both Madame Pomphrey and Professor Snape frown in disapproval, but the headmaster pretends he doesn’t notice. He cheerfully says good-bye and sweeps out, the twinkle already returned to his eyes.

Professor Snape snaps at the Gryffindors who are immensely pleased, “The headmaster may be lenient, but I will not be. Assault is a crime that can land you in Azkaban in the real world, so I do not see why it should not land you in detention in school. Unfortunately, the headmaster forbids me from punishing you for this crime, but he cannot and will not hold a helping hand over you every time. Take care to not even breathe in the wrong direction while I am around for the rest of your career at this noble school.”

Ron and Hermione pale and exchange frightened looks. The professor, having sufficiently threatened them, glides out of the room. With a nod of her head, Madame Pomphrey allows Harry to follow. He only just hears the beginnings of the tirade and scolding she gives to the other two pupils.

 

The next Herbology class, Malfoy and Ron are at their best.

Their faces when they realised they’d be in the same group were almost identical, distorted with discomfort and disgust. They weren’t better pleased when they noticed who else was in their group. Since then, Malfoy takes every opportunity to ridicule Harry for something or another, to laugh about Ron’s family or their relative poverty and to dismiss every helpful tip Neville tries to give him. Ron, on the other hand, never misses a chance to insult House Slytherin, to tell Harry and Neville to be better Gryffindors and to ignore Neville’s advice.

Their group is the worst, needless to say, barely scraping through with Harry and Neville working as hard and quickly as they can.

This lesson, they have to plant little balls of Dragon Breathes Life Air, a Chinese plant that, according to legends, came into existence when a dragon wanted to let loose one of its dangerous fire bursts, but because it had already done so too often, it didn’t have the hotness. Instead, it breathed out nothing but scorching air. This air hit a stone, melted it into a perfect ball and gave it life. The Dragon Breathes Life Air is extremely resistant to heat, needs almost no water and is only dangerous if treated roughly as then, its defence mechanism activates and it heats up to temperatures rivalling the feared dragon fire. Neville claims that it can grow up to three metres in diameter and two metres high. Ancient Chinese wizards in mountainous areas grew the plant and lightly irritated it so that it heated up their houses in winter. Now, its juices are used in potions combating fire, heat or wounds connected to either. The leaves can be woven into fire-resistant clothing. The wood is often used for building houses since it can’t burn.

So, of course, Malfoy and Ron decide that this lesson is the best to start roughhousing. They push each other’s shoulders, knock their hips into the other and look ready to let the first fist flow.

Which is when they knock over the work table. Harry and Neville, both working diligently and carefully to gently take one Dragon Breathes Life Air pod at a time and softly plant it into a large pot before moving onto the next. They take care not to even breathe too heavily in their direction.

Naturally, Malfoy and Ron knock over the container Harry and Neville only managed to empty by half, and the greenish grey balls drop to the ground. Harry and Neville, having seen it happen, helpless to stop it, dive behind the nearest pot and hope for the best.

The balls roll for a bit before stopping. They slowly turn brighter and brighter until they shine in a burning red. Water nearby evaporates into a hot mist, the air in the greenhouse becomes uncomfortably hot and Professor Sprout starts casting Cooling Charms, trying to combat the heat.

Malfoy and Ron, unaware of anything but their rival, push each other right into the steam. They start screaming terribly, their skin blistering all over. Professor Sprout does her best to get them out as quickly as possible and sends a student to get Madame Pomphrey.

Hermione is in tears because Ron was hurt and tries to hurry to him. Professor Sprout stops her just in time before she also storms into the vapour.

Later, when the two injured have been brought safely to the hospital wing and Hermione has stopped being hysterical, Professor Sprout asks what happens. Upon hearing the students recount Ron and Malfoy’s rowdiness and irresponsibility, she turns a violent shade of red and almost pops a vein in anger, swearing that either they’ll never step foot in her greenhouses again or their every movement will be severely observed.

In the end, neither happens. On one side, there’s the headmaster who twinkles something about “youthful mistakes” and “not recognising the severity of the situation” and “goaded” in Ron’s defence. On the other side, there’s “I will tell my father about this!” Malfoy. Malfoy Senior indeed manages to convince or threaten the Educational Board of Hogwarts into forgetting about the whole incident.

Herbology classes end up with Malfoy and Ron sulking and throwing each other dark glances, but under Professor Sprout’s watchful eye and her instant punishment of any mistake or slacking off she sees, they no longer almost come to blows.

Harry cautiously relaxes.

 

The following week, the Slytherin King calls out to Harry while he’s on his way between classes. He nervously shuffles over, keeping an eye out for threats and his back to the wall.

“Potter, I heard of what happened,” the King opens. Harry is not surprised; Slytherin knows everything sooner or later. They have connections – to the teachers, the school board, the responsible people in the Ministry. He only wonders what exactly the King heard of. “I may not understand why exactly you refuse to let anyone know what your soul mark says, but I can think of many reasons. A girl I know of has a string of cusses around her wrist. She already met her soulmate and finds her unbearable, so she charmed a bracelet atop her words that can only come off when she wants it to or she dies.”

Harry is wide-eyed – he also wants something like that! Only imagine it – never having anyone seeing his words, never on edge because accidents do happen…

The King smiles slightly. “I thought her solution would suit you well, too, so I asked how she accomplished this feat.” He produces a book. “She used this to make her bracelet. I will give it to you as a gift to show you that while your year mates and mostly everyone else in Slytherin may not hold you in any esteem, you still are a Snake. I acknowledge this fact, even if the others still seem in denial. You also have it harder than any of us, I dare say. Not only must you learn everything you can to even get to the level we started school in” – so he did notice that Harry grew up with Muggles – ”you also suffer more from expectations and the other houses. May this ease your troubles at least a bit.”

So this book is an official stamp of approval from the Slytherin King himself! It probably won’t help his situation, if anything, it will make the others envious and more vicious, but Harry doesn’t care. Even if it is only given out of pity because everyone hates him, this book is the most helpful thing he has ever received, even if one ignores that it is the first gift he’s ever been given.

Harry stumblingly thanks the King, gets waved off and scurries away.

He has a class to get to and, more importantly, a book to read.

 

After classes, he returns to the library for the first time since the “incident”. The library portrait is visibly relieved to see him. He interrogates him thoroughly and concludes that Harry is a magical mystery as he should not be so powerful. He muses out loud that his soulmate must be very strong and, even with only half a soul bond, boosts Harry this much.

“The other possibility,” he adds, “naturally consists of your own prowess reaching unprecedented heights at such a miniscule age.”

Harry spends the whole discussion blushing ferociously as every sentence is an indirect compliment to either his soulmate or him, but he participates as best as he can with his limited knowledge.

The man is very surprised by not only the headmaster’s, but also his classmates’ actions. “In my time,” he remembers, “a soul mark was most closely guarded. Only ones worthy of seeing it were shown. That most times only included blood family and soulmate. Many a poisonous wrench attempted to cheat a way to the marital bed of a highborn by glimpsing the other’s words and uttering them at first sight. These despicable beings were indeed discovered and oftentimes beheaded for such treachery, but beforehand, they sometimes caused considerable damage to both the reputation of the highborn as well as to the soul bond to the real soulmate, not to speak of the misfortune they brought to simple folk.”

They spend a while talking about the life back then before Harry brings out his book. He’s already read the first chapter in-between classes and it’s really interesting. There are charms to lock things up, spells that only allow certain people to come close and wards to protect items. He’s not quite sure what he’ll be able to cast and power and which are not useful for his intention.

The man in the portrait takes a close look at the cover, then asks for the book’s origin. Harry answers him and is told that it’s a Dark Magic book.

“Fear not, knave, for it is not Dark Magic which you are to be afraid of; it is simple-minded Light wizards and witches discovering such writings.”

He goes on to explain that while he was alive, Dark and Light Magic were both celebrated and taught. Some people are able to cast one type better than the other and study that. Dark Magic is more dangerous because you need to put more feeling into your spells and trying too hard spells too soon can lead to an addiction to the Dark Arts. All kinds of addiction, he lectures, lead to a loss of control and can cause people to be dangerous, whether that be Muggle drugs or Dark Arts. He explains that in little doses, there’s absolutely not harm, and if taught correctly, a Dark wizard or witch knows what to avoid and develops a resistance. Light Magic, on the other hand, puts a lot of focus on correct pronunciation and wand movements. While in the Dark Arts, there are very few spells – exactly those high-level ones that can lead to addiction – that have both a specific incantation and a certain wand movement, you cannot easily perform a Light spell without speaking or a wand. In Dark Magic, depending on the spell, you can effortlessly switch the language of the spell or move your wand differently, or, if practiced enough, ignore the one that is interchangeable. Because of that, it’s easier to perform wordless and wandless magic. On the other hand, there’s no way to get addicted to Light Magic. When the portrait was alive, Dark Magic was not Evil and Light Magic was not Good. The names came from the seasons rituals work best. For Dark Magic, the rites fall on Samhain, Yule and the first day of the New Year. For Light Magic, it’s Imbolc, Beltane and the Summer Solstice. Both celebrate Lughnasa, the favourite day to hold a wedding or propose. The rites for the Light are held during the daytime while the ones for the Dark begin at sundown or even midnight. As Day and Night Magic was deemed too misgiving, as if you could only use one kind during daylight and the other during night-time, people used Light and Dark to differentiate the two.

Harry finds this topic very interesting, so they spend almost an hour on it before Harry asks how one can know what kind of magic works best for that person. The man talks of a ritual and a spell. The spell is less accurate, and needs less preparation, but more magic. The ritual is time-consuming, but also shows how successful someone can be if they try their best at the opposite magic of their core. With no need to deliberate, they decide on the spell.

The results are “highly unusual”, the man insists, as they show yes, Harry’s core is Dark, and yes, Harry’s core is Light. The man can only guess why, but believes that Harry will have as much trouble with one kind of magic as with the other.

“Knave,” he calls to Harry, “now that this spell has been cast and the knowledge of your core’s strength has penetrated your mind, you cannot alter the results in any way.”

Apparently, by doing certain rituals and having certain habits, someone can change the colour of their core. Once the brain, and thereby the magic, knows what it is supposed to be, the result become the truth. The man compares it to the way you learn that the cloud-less morning sky is blue – once you know that, you cannot think of it as violet or salmon or green as you know that colour is called blue. For Harry, it is very beneficial that he did the spell now with this result as he always will have a dual core.

“Later on in your schooling, you would have learned that such a twofold core is impossible to achieve, or were convinced that you had a Light core, as suggests itself by the way this school is unfortunately run. Tales of your parents, a Light witch and a Light wizard, some nowadays very present nonsense about Dark Magic meaning evil, and you would have convinced yourself that the only possibility for your core is to be Light, rejecting the Dark Magic your core is capable of.”

Harry thanks the portrait and goes through the book with him. They find out which spells to put on a bracelet to keep it from being taken off, destroyed or seen-through. Only then does Harry remember that he doesn’t even have a bracelet!

On the man’s advice, Harry calls a house elf. First, he assures her that he’s not been hurt again and that if he even thinks he will be, he’ll call for house elf help. After that, he asks if the house elves gather forgotten belongings and if some bracelets are among them. The house elf pops away to search for all of them and returns shortly with an assortment. She assures Harry that these accessories have been lying around collecting dust for at least ten years, so if any student has lost them, they probably already have forgotten about it.

There’s a surprisingly large number, but Harry can go through them quickly. Many of them are delicate jewellery that would still show his words while others are made of fine threads, some of which already have been partly eaten by moths. Another kind of bracelet is adorned by precious stones, rubies and emeralds and diamonds, the type of jewellery that boasts of a worth equal to the Dursley house. If Harry were to take one of them – not that he dares, they are way too beautiful for a freak like him –, Uncle Vernon wouldn’t rest until he got it off him and sold it. All charms stop working with the caster’s death and Harry is not confident that a human life would be worth more than a simple bracelet to his greedy uncle. That leaves only a few leather bands. Of those, some are decorated with pearls or have fancy gold embroidery. Others are frayed by time and heavy usage.

In the end, Harry decides on a modest leather piece in black. It’s broad enough to cover his words, masculine enough so that he can wear it without ridicule and looks cheap enough that no-one will attempt to steal it or be tempted to ask questions. It does have a few embroidered squiggles on it, but they are in a grey so dark they almost can’t be seen. When he shows it to the house elf and the portrait, they both agree. She sings praises about how well it fits him while he murmurs something about protective runes while nodding in approval.

Beaming, Harry fixes it around his wrist. The house elf pops away with a reminder to always call if he needs anything – “anything at alls, Master Harry, wes bes happy to help yous!” – and the portrait politely averts his eyes as Harry takes off the bandage. He can’t help but trace each letter once before hiding his words again.

Under the guidance of the portrait man, Harry casts several spells over it. One makes it shrink so it fits perfectly while another lets it grow and change with Harry. Multiple keep people other than Harry from moving it. A charm keeps the skin under the bracelet healthy and clean. The most go into protecting it from any kind of harm, whether that be a fire spell or water damage from showering. A few are woven in alongside the others to stop people from noticing the bracelet or paying any attention to it. The portrait warns that those spells, if plentiful and powered too much, may cause people to ignore Harry at all, but in Harry’s book, that’s an advantage, so he gleefully adds another layer of Notice-Me-Not Charms. A chosen few are put on to keep people from changing the attributes of the bracelet to something else, like glass or air, as they could use that to change it to be see-through, to turn the bracelet invisible or to make use of any magical or Muggle means both Harry and portrait can think of to look through the leather.

Of course, Harry would have to be the most powerful eleven-year-old wizard to have ever lived to put all those mostly unknown, high-powered spells on, and even then he would probably die of magical exhaustion, so Harry only puts on the most essential that first afternoon – one spell to shrink the bracelet to the right size and one to keep it from being taken off forcibly. After those, he’s drained. The portrait sends him off with kind words to go to bed immediately. Exhausted as he is, Harry complies.

 

The next few weeks pass by uneventful, but are packed with hard work. Harry eats breakfast as quickly as possible – and as elegantly as his house mates do. Then, he runs through his homework again before re-reading the necessary passages in his books. Afterwards, he goes to class where he does his best to use as little magic as possible while still completing the assignments. After a quick lunch in the kitchen – he can now eat up to a whole plate of soup and a fruit without feeling nauseous –, he starts on his homework which he completes after his afternoon classes. Then, he goes to the library where the portrait helps him charm the bracelet. When Harry’s exhausted most of his magic, they put up a list of spells, both Light and Dark, they could add. The man comes up with the brilliant idea to tie hexes to the bracelet, as well, so that every attempt at taking it off is met with brutal punishment. They have to shelf this plan for the time being as not only are they not even finished with all the charms they want to add, hexes also take more power to cast, which Harry really doesn’t have to spare as after a day full of classes; he manages to apply two charms to the bracelet in the best case before he is exhausted. After the casting and planning, they study the charms for the next day the best they can. The portrait teaches Harry, in case of Light Magic, the correct wand movement and right pronunciation and, in case of Dark Magic, the one element of those the charm requires. When they both are pleased with the way Harry performs the elements of the charm, the young Snake goes to dinner where he also eats a bite more with every day that passes. In his secret room, he goes through all the charms, spells, hexes and transfigurations he has learned so far, repeating first the wand movements, then the incantation. Before he goes to bed, he reiterates all the potions they’ve done so far. He’s got so good at the first week’s coursework that he thinks about repeating it only every other night. After that, he falls into an exhausted sleep that lasts until dawn – a nasty souvenir from the Dursleys he just can’t seem to shake.

The few incidents can be ignored. Yes, Malfoy still sabotages his potions by throwing different ingredients into them. Yes, Malfoy and Ron fight each other in Herbology the best they can, endangering not only the plants and themselves, but also their teammates whenever Professor Sprout turns her back to them. Yes, Neville still makes him fear for his very life when he blows up a cauldron. Yes, Snape still asks him snide questions and seems disappointed whenever he can answer. Yes, his scar still twitches sometimes. Yes, various teachers smile at him before their eyes fall onto his tie and they frown instead. Yes, students from all years and houses still throw him weird, suspicious, hateful looks. Yes, Hermione and Ron still sometimes sidle up to him and harass him. But he can handle all that. He’s way too busy and exhausted to pay them much attention, especially considering how little time he spends around them.

At least, Hermione and Ron don’t agonise him so much, anymore, since the house elves and portraits apparently take their mission dead seriously. The portraits follow the two of them and sneer at them. The house elves prank them – they put their favourite dishes on the other end of the table, no matter where they sit, take away their plates or utensils, wash their clothes with wrong colours so that they all soon are of the same disgusting brown, vanish their quills, hide their homework. And that’s only what Harry noticed. Who knows what else they do.

Also, he observes, Ron’s older twin brothers found out about what he did and add their own idea of punishment. The pranksters have it out for Ron and Hermione for about a week – the colour in their shampoo turns their hair green, the pastries the twins gift them make them talk backwards, whatever they say gets written all over their skin. Harry guesses it’s a three-fold punishment for being so prejudiced against Slytherins, talking nonsense and trying to force Harry into showing them his words. When the twins catch him looking at them with a thankful smile, they bow exaggeratedly and wink. Harry giggles – he didn’t even know he could make such a sound! – and continues to watch as they let loose an army of origami birds.

Professor Snape, as promised, keeps a watchful eye out for them. In the first Potions lesson after the incident, Ron loses forty points for all those slight mistakes almost all of them, as Potions beginners, do all the time. Hermione catches on more quickly and corrects herself the best she can, being deducted only twenty points. Even though Hermione heavily criticises him for it, Ron chooses to complain as soon as he steps outside the classroom, even going so far as to call Professor Snape names. Harry – he leaves shortly after the rest of the Slytherins who always walk out last in order to do the same as Harry, which is avoiding Hermione and Ron as long as possible (the first time he flew outside as soon as the bell rang, Professor Snape scolded him for it, and waiting any longer gets him caught up in the clutches of those two Gryffindors, so in this one class, he leaves last instead of first) – listens to it, horrified, while the other Slytherins laugh about the childish insults. When Harry cautiously glances at Professor Snape, he sees a satisfied smile and notices how with every name Ron calls him, he relishes in deducting five points. For every fifth, he gives a detention with the caretaker, Mister Filch, who gives the students the most menial tasks he can find. In the end, Ron has a week of detention and lost 180 house points. By the time it’s over, the other Slytherins also noticed the sneaky way their Head of House gets revenge and naturally find it hilarious. During dinner, Malfoy, who can never resist an opportunity to boast or make fun of a Weasley, re-enacts the scene for the other Slytherins who also get a laugh out of it. Ron sits at the Gryffindor table, shunted by the others for his enormous point loss and humiliated by the occasional comments the Slytherins shout at him.

Only last week, all fractions seemingly launched a combined attack. The house elves put their trunks into the dungeon so they had to walk around school to look for them in their nightwear and almost were late to class. Professor Snape took away twenty points each and gave detention. Malfoy made especially malicious fun of them. The twins let loose another prank – not aimed at Ron and Hermione, but still catching them – that turned everyone into an animal depending on their house – a kitten, dove, snail or racoon – that they were even praised for because it involved some difficult spells and potions. In flying class, Hermione fell off her broom and injured her knee while Ron was punished by Mister Filch by tracking mud all over the floor. When they reunited, they apparently had some heartfelt conversation about not losing hope and having each other and being the rock for the other or some such rot that the portraits listened to, overdramatised and gossiped about with each other so loudly that the students almost had to eavesdrop on it. Dinner was then spent by the Slytherins with acting out the scene as the portraits had told them, each line more cliché and embarrassing than the last. After the meal, the headmaster held a cordial speech about being friends with everyone, seeing only the best and ignoring the worst and getting along. Everyone knew that it actually was about Hermione and Ron who both turned a brighter red than Ron’s hair from mortification. While the Gryffindors appeared deeply ashamed and guilty, the Slytherins only became more vicious. When Hermione and Ron tried to talk to Harry, a house elf “dropped” a full goblet of juice that caused them to lose their footing and fall down, crashing into some nearby people. Professor Snape smugly deduced points for causing a ruckus.

Since then, Hermione and Ron have been mostly quiet, even if they almost constantly stare at Harry. Still, he’s got good at ignoring them, so he doesn’t really care.

 

The next memorable event happens at Christmas. First of all, Harry gets presents!

The first is a cloak with which Harry can turn invisible, gifted by an anonymous person. Judging by the handwriting, it’s someone old and male.

The second is not so much of a surprise as house elves are not the most subtle of creatures. They put together enough of his favourite foods to last him well into the next year, along with some things students forgot or left behind. It’s mainly books since they know how much he values them, along with one or two plain robes. They also spent some of their time knitting pullovers, mittens, scarves and hats for him.

The third one comes from a certain Mrs. Weasley, who Harry assumes is the mother of the twins, Ron and their older Prefect brother. Why she would send him anything, he doesn’t understand, but he’s as grateful for the bag of chocolates as he is weirded out by her invitation to come visit them, total strangers except for Ron with whom he’d like to spend as little time as possible. He thinks about it and remembers what his Muggle teachers told him about accepting sweets from total strangers or getting into unknown cars, and resolves to leave the chocolate be.

The fourth one, he gets after breakfast. Now, during the winter holidays, there’s only one table for students. The others either keep their distance from him or aren’t there yet. Even the teacher table still is remarkably empty. Only two teachers are already there: Professor Snape, who is downing his own weight in coffee, and Professor Sinistra, for whom it is dinner rather than breakfast and who is looking increasingly like her plate would be a good substitute for a bed. As Harry leaves the Great Hall, he encounters Hagrid who greets him cordially and gives him a pearly white owl.

“I bought ‘er as a present, yeh know, that day in Diagon,” he says, rubbing his neck in obvious embarrassment, “an’ then, yeh disappeared, so I couldn’ give ‘er to yeh. At the beginning a school, I ne’er really cot yeh, an’ then me thought it was too late. So me figured I’d give ‘er to yeh as a Christmas present!”

Harry thanks him profoundly, eyes still on the proud bird, and apologises for not getting anything for Hagrid who waves him off. “I didn’ give ‘er to yeh to git anythin’ in return, an’ I’m so late with ‘er anyway that I don’ deserve a thanks.”

He then invites Harry down to his hut one day to drink tea together. Harry warily accepts, but with all he’s heard about Hagrid, he’s willing to trust him at least a bit. The house elves praise him, the Slytherins curse him – in words which make him out to be a great person, but also as not-Slytherin as can be –, the portraits, depending on their age, personal views and gender, generally tolerate him. He’ll talk to the house elves about it, later on, and if he really feels unsafe, he’ll call for one of them to help him, if they agree.

Even though Harry planned to spend the rest of the day in the library, he only gets there after lunch in the kitchen and thanking all the house elves. Before that, he admires his new owl, naming her Hedwig, and pets her. She seems to approve of him as she allows him to do so. He talks to her and introduces her to the house elves who also praise her regal appearance. Under all the compliments, Hedwig seems to preen and fluff her feathers. Harry appreciates her intelligence; it’s almost as if she can understand what he says. So he asks her if she would like to accompany him to the library or if she’d prefer to be shown to the owlery. She seems more interested in the latter, therefore he carries her there. Then, he remembers that he doesn’t have anything needed to care for an owl, so he asks if she is very exhausted or if she’d like to go on a quick flight to the nearest pet show, carrying a letter to inquire about what an owl as beautiful as her needs and what the cost would be. Otherwise, Harry would send one of the school owls who, for a great part, seem like they’d need some exercise. While she weighs her options, he brings out the trunk – which he still carries with him wherever he goes – and pens the letter. Hedwig apparently decides that she’s well enough to make the trip and genially offers him her leg. A bit later, she’s off. Harry follows her figure with his eyes until she’s disappeared before he, too, leaves the owlery.

Hedwig later brings a letter to him while Harry is in the library, charming his bracelet with the help of the portrait who also praises her highly, comparing her to the fabled beauty of Morgana, which causes her to smugly preen. She’s even happier when Harry, who has in the meantime read the letter, penned an answer with the order and counted the required amount of money, sends her off on another errand, promising her that she’ll return with shrunken treats he’ll enlarge and feed her.

 

During the holidays, Harry is overjoyed. Presents, no other students, full magic power to cast at his bracelet every day and many free hours to relax and chat with various portraits and house elves.

The only downside is that, as so few students are left, the teachers concentrate on them and Harry gets the full brunt of the headmaster’s disappointed, disdain-filled, suspicious, wary and kind glances. They depend on what mood the headmaster is in and what Harry is doing at the moment. Apparently, reading is frowned upon while sitting alone is disliked and eating is questioned. Talking to the others – the few times he absolutely has to, as he usually tries to avoid making contact with anyone – is either looked at favourably – when his conversation partner is a Gryffindor –, regarded with slight suspicion – if it’s a Ravenclaw or a Hufflepuff – or downright distaste – in the case of Slytherins. Talking to any teacher other than Professor McGonagall is not well-received, either.

Harry doesn’t know what his problem is, but the headmaster’s behaviour convinces him, again, that he’s one to be cautious about.

One memorable occurrence happens, as well. Harry runs into a strange mirror that show him his “heart’s greatest desire”. It’s a shadowed figure, apparently, holding him close and peering possessively at the left wrist Mirror-Harry proudly lays bare for him? her? to see. Around them stand two people: a man who greatly resembles Harry and a red-haired woman with Harry’s green eyes. His parents – for they must be – both smile warmly at Mirror-Harry and his soulmate.

He spends a long time before that mirror that night, looking longingly at the three unfamiliar people. He almost doesn’t take note of Mirror-Harry and that he looks both healthier and happier than the real Harry ever did. It’s unimportant compared to finally seeing what his parents look like and gazing into where shadows hide his soulmate’s eyes.

The next day, he spends with the man in the library portrait. Ever attentive, he notices almost immediately that Harry’s unusually calm. When questioned, Harry quietly talks about the mirror and what it showed him. The man then curses quite creatively without ever becoming crass, saying things like, “By the highest of God! This travesty must be punished with the seventh layer of Hell! Hekate Herself shall crucify him who committed this devilish deed!” When he’s calmed down, he orders Harry sharply to further avoid the mirror at all costs.

“For many, having caught a glance of their heart’s truest and deepest desires, thus delve into an addiction to these often-times impossible images, so lost in their fantasies they never resurface to reality ever again,” he explains with a serious face. “’Tis a great offence to have such grave danger freely standing in a school, my beloved Hogwarts no less! If I were still alive, knave, I swear to you and to God above, I would raise an army to raze this evil-doer to the ground for such misdemeanour!”

Shocked by this revelation and now harbouring a deep fear and respect for the mirror, Harry vows to never again look at it. To ground himself, he feels for the leather band around his wrist while laying a finger on the veins to measure and count his pulse. He’s turned this quirk into a habit lately. It now never fails to calm him down.

As does casting new protective spells at his bracelet, which he turns all his attention to now.

 

Shortly after, Harry has a discussion with the man in the library portrait about his dual core and the ritual holidays.

“What does it mean for me? Should I do all rituals? Or only one circle? One year doing one, the next year the other? Never doing any?”

Only after the following explanation does he understand that no rituals are done at those dates. They only are the strongest then. But, on the other hand, certain ceremonies are held.

On Samhain, one should take a whole apple outside and quarter it as the sun sets. Then, at midnight, one should bury the four parts in a rectangle or according to the Poles, if one is able to. The ghosts and spirits of All Things Dead and Gone then eat each quarter and calm you and your magic in exchange.

On Yule, one should pick up an old branch that either fell down or one cuts, and burn it before spreading the ashes. This is best done shortly after nightfall. This rite, apparently, symbolises that from old and even dead things, fresh and young things spring, as the ash from a dead branch helps the growth of seedlings. It’s said that after this rite, the wizard or witch’s magic will rejuvenate and become stronger.

On New Year’s Day, one should light a candle at midnight. When it’s burned down, all family members should sit around it in a circle, holding hands, and thinking of events that have gone wrong this past year and then think of things that have gone right. Then, they embrace each other and say, “You are loved.” This is done to show that no-one is without faults and no-one is without rights and that everyone has someone that holds them close to their heart and that no-one should ever forget that. This gives hope and makes the user more aware of his or her magic.

On Imbolc, one should bake or cook something and be thankful for all one has while doing so. Then, the food either is given to someone less fortunate or, if no-one matching this description is nearby, put outside the house on a window sill. If possible, that should be done at noon. This rite shows that everyone has something to be thankful of, but also ways to help, or, if on the receiving side, that there still is kindness in this world. It strengthens a witch or wizard’s resolve and heart while warming their magic.

On Beltane, one should go outside in the morning and either plant a flower or water one to show their appreciation for Mother Nature and all Her wonders. It’s said that as water helps a plant grow, this rite nurtures one’s magic.

On the Summer Solstice, the whole family gathers in the afternoon to dance around a fire and be merry. If one is alone, one still should happily sing and dance. This rite shows that there is happiness even in the darkest of situations. As this belief holds out eternally, so will one’s magic.

If one doesn’t really believe in any of the rites, one doesn’t have to hold them, but many think that doing so strengthens one’s magic and helps to focus. If one doesn’t have a lot of time or doesn’t really believe, they only follow the rites in the season of their core while those who have faith in the ceremonies celebrate each holiday, no matter the season.

Harry resolves to do so starting with the next one, Imbolc. Even if doing so doesn’t help him at all, they still sound like nice rituals. It certainly would help him if he contemplates both sides of life more, not only the negative one he’s more often confronted by.

After the Christmas break, everything goes back to normal. Harry goes to class, visits the house elves, portraits, ghosts and Hedwig, does his coursework, puts more charms on his bracelet, is made fun of by Malfoy, is disliked by the other houses, gets talked at by Hermione and Ron, practices, studies and celebrates the holidays the proper way.

He even visits Hagrid once, but it’s an uncomfortable affair. Hagrid shows him a few pictures of his parents and tells some stories of them, but he didn’t know them well. They both can’t think of anything else to say, Harry naturally quiet and Hagrid discomforted because Harry is so different from his expectations. It also doesn’t help that Harry freezes up completely when he notices the dog – “Don’ min’ Fang, he’s a sweetheart!” – and can’t look away from it. Besides, Hagrid is so tall and so wide and his voice is so booming and-

He’s relieved when the afternoon is over and even more so when he’s not invited back.

 

Then, the end of the year comes around.

Finally having finished his exams, Harry looks forward to the week he has during which the students are supposed to pack and say good-bye to both friends and castle, in the cases of the seventh-years, for forever. Harry, having no friends except for the house elves, ghosts and portraits who all three don’t see time the same way humans do and think that two months is no time at all, is left to wander the castle, ponder what sort of horror and punishments will await him at the Dursleys, and set some final charms on his bracelet.

At least that was the plan.

Apparently, some dangerous man who forces him at wand point to walk into the forbidden third-floor corridor didn’t get the memo. He sounds remarkably like Professor Quirrel, Harry thinks, if it wasn’t for the fact that his kidnapper doesn’t stutter. The stranger casts an unknown spell without moving his wand – Harry’s mind immediately jumps to Dark Magic where such a feat is possible because with Light Magic, you wouldn’t pronounce a spell at all if you were advanced enough not to need the wand movements – and the door bursts open. Harry is greeted by a three-headed dog – Cerberus-very-dangerous-Aunt-Marge’s-dog-help-pain-my-leg!-so-dangerous-why-in-school-why-unprotected-sharp-fangs-coming-closer – that the kidnapper puts to sleep with a self-playing harp. Another few whispered words, and the dog moves a few metres, revealing a trap door. It opens threateningly slowly. Harry tries to resist, but the kidnapper drags him closer and pushes him through the hole.

Thankfully, Harry lands in a soft pile of – are those lianas? Harry casts a lumos, one of those few Light charms he can do wordlessly, and looks around. Only he’s not on a heap of lianas, of course. That wouldn’t be dangerous enough. Instead, he’s landed right on moving, encircling tendrils of what he remembers to be a Devil’s Snare. He wrecks his brain for a while, but then remembers that this plant is deadly afraid of fire. Rightly so, Harry thinks, for it’s so dry it would burn easily. He’s careful not to actually hurt the plant, seeing as it’s done nothing wrong. At the mere notion of fire, it quickly releases him and he falls down.

Seeing as Harry has no way up and not even sure if he wants to – who knows if the Cerberus won’t harm him or if the kidnapper is already gone –, he reluctantly goes on.

Next is a room filled with keys. They’re all flying around on tiny little wings. There’s two old brooms nearby. Harry looks around in disbelief. What here is hidden by such childish obstacles? From what Malfoy boasts about, every reasonably talented four-year-old on a broom could catch a silly key. Shaking his head – and rejoicing that it won’t be so hard –, he checks the door to be safe, does find it locked, and mounts a broom. The many keys are not very different, all new and shiny. Except for the one Harry is looking for, which is copper, old and heavy. It sticks out quite a lot. He waits until it comes near, then shoots forward and grabs it. He flies as quickly as possible to the door, unlocks it and doesn’t turn around. He only hears the impact of the other keys. While relieved, Harry wonders again. That old broom doesn’t fly very quickly, and those keys are capable of a much higher speed, he discovered. So why did they not catch up with him?

He observes the room ahead of him. It’s a chess set. He tries to walk past it. A black pawn steps into his way and shoves him towards the white pieces, all lined up in the correct places. Apparently, he is supposed to play his way across the board. The only problem is that he has never before played chess. Despairingly, he thinks it through. He decides to take the place of the king. As soon as he stands there, all white pieces seem to turn to him.

“Listen, I’m really sorry, but I’ve never before even seen a real chess board, not to speak of one as magnificent as yours.” That’s not even a lie. The pieces are all intimidatingly tall and beautifully crafted. “And I’m sure you’d play a much better game than me. Could you decide what you’ll do?”

They seem to think on his plea for a bit before determinedly turning their attention to their opponents. What follows next is utter carnage. White annihilates Black totally. On Harry’s side, not even a single pawn is sacrificed, while not one enemy is left whole. Harry praises them truthfully for the quick and clean win even though he’s pretty sure he saw things even he knows are against the rules – in one turn, two pawns moved, and during an enemy turn, the targeted White Tower moved backwards even as the Black Knight moved forwards. And that’s only what Harry noticed.

But he doesn’t really care. Making him play this game would have ended in disaster, he knows, and the one who forced him into a chess battle should pay for it. If that’s done with winning by cheating, Harry is not bothered.

He hurries on to the next chamber, but stops before opening the door as an infernal stench warns him that he’ll have to deal with a creature. He cautiously pulls the door ajar and peers inside.

It’s a troll, probably the same one from Halloween. It looks grumpy and bored as it smashes its club against the wall again and again.

Gathering all his courage – and knowing that he really can’t stay here in case his kidnapper catches up, or whatever his plan is –, he tries to sneak past the troll while it’s distracted. But even his feather light footsteps are too loud. The troll turns, weapon raised, bloodthirsty glint in its eyes. Trolls, Harry remembers, are territorial. They find a place they consider theirs and slaughter everything that comes close. Harry steps out of the door again, then out of the range of the club. Then, he plans out what to do. He’ll try it with a Levitation Charm, he thinks. It’s not that he’s not good with offensive spells, but he doesn’t know many and not a single one of those is useful against the thick skin of a troll. All he knows is what he’s learned in class so far, and a tonne of protective charms, most of which cannot be applied to a person, the majority of the rest not to oneself, and all too exhausting to casually cast. But the library portrait taught him the Dark equivalent of every spell he’s learned so far. He says that it’s good practice. Apparently, while Dark and Light Magic both have spells that do the same thing – with a few exceptions, of course –, there’s still a difference between them. For example, the Dark Levitation Charm is stronger while the Light Unlocking Charm triumphs over its Dark counterpart.

Harry concentrates on the image of the heavy club following his wand movements until the end of the charm and draws three circles encompassing the weapon in the air with his wand. For further ease – because while he can cast the spell like that, it’s not completely sure if it’ll be as strong –, he chants the simplified English translation of the spell, “Let it fly!” When he raises his wand, so does the club. He quickly brings it around to knock the troll out. It only takes three hits until it falls unconscious.

Prudently keeping the club in the air, threateningly posed over the troll should it awaken, he hurries on.

He comes to the conclusion that every teacher was responsible for a room. First, it was Care for Magical Creatures followed by Herbology. The keys could be Professor Flitwick’s work. Harry heard how much Professor McGonagall likes chess, so that was probably her idea. The troll can only stand for Defence.

Now that he thinks about it: If it really is that case, and this troll and Halloween’s troll were the same, then it probably was set free by the same person who could convince it to move here – Professor Quirrel. And his kidnapper’s voice sounded a lot like his, if he spoke without a stutter. Maybe he’s faked it? But why? What do these obstacles protect? Does Professor Quirrel want to steal that treasure?

The next room is obviously dedicated to Potions. From a row of potions of different colours and in different flasks, Harry has to choose one with the help of a riddle in order to find the one that makes him fire-resistant so that he can pass the doors. The riddle, along with the tell-tale smell of wine, helps him a lot. He hesitates a bit before he picks up the vial. Should he rather go back? But by now, the troll might be awake again. Even if it’s not, what should he do back there? He continued onwards because there was no way out. On the other hand, if he walks forward, he’s definitely going to be stuck. Professor Binns, so his belief, surely would not have the magical prowess needed to charm a room, seeing as he’s a ghost. Professor Sinistra probably charmed a door to only open if star signs are named or drawn correctly, or something like that. This, he might be able to guess, even if the first years by far are not done with that work, yet. What troubles him are the twin professors. What if in another room, he has to solve an arithmantic equation? Or complete a rune sequence? He doesn’t have the slightest bit of knowledge on either of those topics, if he disregards the runes stitched onto his bracelet. Even of them, he only vaguely knows that they provide protection. As for Divination – he doesn’t even have a clue what that obstacle could look like, having never even seen the teacher. Maybe the keys weren’t Professor Flitwick’s idea, but the flying instructor’s?

In the end, he decides to carry on. He takes the tiny bottle he thinks contains the potion that will allow him to go forward and heaves a relieved sigh when it doesn’t immediately kill him. He warily enters the next room, flames licking at him harmlessly.

In it stand the Dream Mirror, as Harry calls it. The Mirror of Desire, driving people insane by showing them what they cannot have.

Harry is careful not to look at it, mindful that maybe, he’ll become enchanted again and just stare at his parents’ faces and his soulmate’s hidden features for hours on end, maybe even forever.

He edges around it and runs into a problem.

There’s no exit.

Does it only reveal itself when one solves whatever obstacle the mirror presents?

Clueless, Harry stands aside. He doesn’t have to wait long until the entrance opens again, revealing Professor Quirrel. His posture is entirely different from usual. Normally, he looks about the same as Harry: shoulders drawn in and up, eyes averted from faces and always looking around, steps slow and cautious, fearful expression on his face.

Not so now: He stands tall, prideful and confident expression on his face, strides long and purposeful, eyes locked straight onto Harry.

“Hello, Mister Potter,” he says, a devilish glint in his eyes.

Harry doesn’t reply.

“A bit quiet today, aren’t you?” He hums and steps closer to the mirror. “This obstacle course was easy, was it not? As if made for a group of first year students.” He turns around to face Harry. “You probably are wondering why I had to convince you to come here. To simulate the real experience, I even set back all the rooms. Wasn’t that kind of me?” He turns back to the mirror again, studying the image thoughtfully. “Coming here was not the problem, not at all. But this here, the Mirror of Erised, holds me back. You see, the old man enchanted it so that no-one who desires to use the stone can receive it. I, naturally, do not qualify. I asked my master for help, and he,” Professor Quirrel turns back to Harry, “advised me to bring you here.”

With those words, he casts a spell that envelopes Harry in strong ropes. They itch almost as soon as they touch Harry’s skin and give him a flashback to no-please-don’t-I’ll-be-good-please when he can’t move when and how he wants to.

Professor Quirrel casts another spell and Harry is calm again.

Catching Harry’s bewildered look, he explains, sounding exactly like the teacher he was for a whole year, “This spell is used to stop anxiety. It only lasts a certain time, can’t be cast on oneself and must not be used too often, lest the recipient starts experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety attack whenever he wants to feel calm. Additionally, it’s a Dark spell. But you don’t seem to have problems with them, do you?” He grins as if something amuses him immensely and levitates Harry in front of the mirror. “What do you see, boy?”

Harry really is glad that he’s under that spell right now, or else he’s certain he would pass out. Being bound, someone at his back, being called “boy” – he really is glad for that spell.

Seeing as he has no other choice, Harry turns to face the mirror.

He blinks in surprise.

“The same image as the last time I came across the mirror. It’s my parents and my soulmate,” he confesses. He doesn’t see a reason to lie. As soon as he’s said this, he averts his face, not willing to get sucked into the picture.

“Don’t you lie to me, boy!”

Add shouting and anger to the list, as well.

“He does not lie,” a high voice from no-where contradicts. “Does the boy know what is hidden in there?”

“He must, Master, he must!”, the professor desperately replies.

“Foolish man!” Professor Quirrel screams as if badly hurt. “Let me talk to him!”

The teacher tries to protest, “You are not strong enough, Master!”, but both looks to be in pain, from what Harry can see of him from the corner of his eye, and starts to unwrap his turban.

He turns Harry around completely and turns his back on him, revealing the horrific sight of a sunken and deformed face on his skull.

Harry really is glad for that spell.

 

The deformed face introduces himself as “Lord Voldemort”, as in the Dark Lord that killed Harry’s parents, apparently gave him his forehead scar and led a war against Wizarding Britain and Light wizards and witches.

He even gives Harry a nice speech about how not helping him will result in his very painful death.

Needless to say, Harry is sufficiently cowered, shaking in terror and thankful for that calming spell. If he feels like this under its full effect, how bad would he be without it?

Then, after the Dark Lord Voldemort has laughed for a certain time about how stupid the headmaster is, how easy it was to fool everyone and how no-one suspected him, he describes the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry in all the details he can. It’s red, almost glass-like, but as hard and rough as a real stone, and about the size of both of Harry’s fists. With it, you can apparently remain young forever – or maybe alive is the right term, the Dark Lord Voldemort grumbles, seeing as Nicolas Flamel first drank the Water of Life when he was well into his hundred seventies and has since remained that age – and change normal stones into gold. To Harry, it sounds too good to be true, but he also doesn’t know a lot about magic, so what does he know?

When the Dark Lord Voldemort has finished, he turns Harry back to the mirror expectantly. Reluctantly, he looks into it again, envisaging the image of parents and soulmate, and is surprised by Mirror-Harry who now is not the healthy, happy reflection of what Real-Harry never looked like, but instead exactly like Real-Harry. Mirror-Harry grins at Real-Harry deviously, shrugs off the bindings and pulls the Stone described to him out of his pocket.

Then, Harry feels a new weight in his own pocket.

“So?”, the Dark Lord Voldemort barks impatiently.

“Pocket,” Harry croaks. “In my left pocket-“

The Dark Lord Voldemort has Professor Quirrel wave his wand and free Harry who first gasps for air, then quickly takes out the stone. He’s contemplating if he can trust a murderous Dark Lord to keep his word. Or should he throw the stone at his face and try if he can run out of the room before Professor Quirrel has turned around, picked up the stone and fired the first spell? The Dark Lord Voldemort interrupts him by laughing bitterly.

“Well played, you bastard, well played,” he murmurs. When he looks at Harry, it’s almost with some sort of kindness. “Keep the stone and leave.”

Not daring to protest or question, Harry hurries away.

Before he’s come far, Professor Quirrel calls him back, “Potter!”

He reaches out to grab his wrist, but the moment he touches bare skin – he burns.

Frightened, Harry flees.

Only much later, when he’s save in his room, curled up in his bed and done shaking and panicking, does he wonder about why the Dark Lord Voldemort would go through all that trouble and then not take his treasure, and why his touch burned him.

He thinks about it hard for a long time and arrives at the conclusion that the stone must be a fake. For the second question, he can’t find an answer.

The next day, he leaves Hogwarts and returns to the Muggle world – to the Dursleys.

Chapter Text

After a hellish summer – oh, how very much not happy Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were with his vanishing act and how very glad they were at his return – which is filled with work, punishment and his cupboard – safe-safe-small-dark-no-hitting-no-working-safe –, Harry returns to Hogwarts several kilograms lighter. There were only two really memorable moments: when he tried to bluff that he could do magic outside of Hogwarts and when a house elf appeared. The former was met with fear before Aunt Petunia remembered that her sister never was allowed to use her wand, after which Harry was punished so badly he wished he never was born.

The latter was more interesting. The house elf – Dobby, apparently – works for a family he wasn’t allowed to name who treat him badly. Through them, he somehow found out about some evil plan to bring danger to Hogwarts. For his own safety, Dobby tried to convince Harry to refrain from escaping the hell that is the Dursley home and keep away from the very suspicion-laden haven that is Hogwarts. Harry managed to convince the elf that he will be safer at the school if a hundred Dementors were floating around and that he would love to switch positions with Dobby and serve the family in his stead, seeing that Dobby still has the time, wit and energy to spy on his master, find a way around his orders and escape to warn Harry.

The house elf cried bitter tears, but said he understands Harry. If Dobby himself could choose between his master and Hogwarts, even with all the dangers that hide there, he’d go to the school, as well. With the most heartfelt sympathies and good-wishes, the elf popped away again.

 

At the end of summer, Harry thought he’d have to escape the Dursley house again like last year. He was worried all of August if he’d manage the same accidental – or wandless? He still doesn’t get the difference – magic he did that unlocked the doors and sent the Dursleys into a deeper sleep. Night after night, he listened with trepidation, trembling, as Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon discussed this very issue. Mostly, the conversation was about how to prevent Harry from returning. They concocted all sorts of nefarious plots and plans. Killing Harry definitely was on that list, even if they didn’t explicitly state it. Imagining all those things happening had Harry even more terrified. Dudley gleefully asked every morning if he could take the trash out – meaning if he could take Harry out to meet his friends to play Harry Hunting, and the rest of the day, Harry had chores to do aplenty, but he often heard from Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon’s evening discussions that they’d moved topics and therefore also talked while he wasn’t able to listen. The thoughts of what they’d discussed, if they’d decided something while he couldn’t listen, drove him to paranoia.

Then, one evening two weeks away from school start, the discussions changed to arguments. Uncle Vernon would fiercely claim that nobody would notice if Harry disappeared from school since “there are so many damned freaks”. Aunt Petunia, weirdly, disagreed that Harry was some sort of celebrity and everyone knew him. She kept alluding to a “him” that would come pick him up, if necessary.

While relieved that he no longer had to fear if he would be killed or otherwise prevented from returning to Hogwarts, Harry also was petrified at the thought of that “him” who held control over even the Dursleys, so much so that he barely could find it in him to be happy that he would be able to take the Hogwarts Express this year.

 

It would be nice to say that nothing has changed at Hogwarts, that Harry may be openly disdained by three fourths of the castle and secretly by the rest, frowned at with sad eyes by a majority of the teachers, observed suspiciously by the headmaster, glowered at by his Head of House, but that he has found his friends in house elves, portraits and ghosts and his secret room and therefore his content.

That would be a lie.

As the Slytherin King has left school, a new one takes his place. This boy is not as kind, wise or even able as the last one, so in order to show that he’s boss, he reinforces some clear orders.

One of them is that no-one – cue look at Harry – is to spend the night outside the dorms.

That indeed is one of the rules the whole school follows, and that is generally obeyed, but sometimes, especially older pupils sneaked out and into a bed in another house. Under the new King, that won’t happen anymore.

There is some grumbling and complaining, but the students comply.

Harry is pretty sure the decision to reinforce that rule is because of him, but he doesn’t dare protest. With a heavy heart, he walks into the dorm with everyone else. Ignoring a pouting Malfoy – who still has his dragon plushie and is still as shifty about it as he was last year, if not more so –, he goes to the bed he slept in last year for a few weeks. He doesn’t know or care if it really is the same one, repaired, or if it’s been replaced – the memory remains either way.

He draws the curtain closed, almost unnaturally glad to once again be able to use his wand, and seals the curtains shut. He casts a Silencing Charm and puts up an alarm that will ring if anyone attempts to break one of the spells, loud enough to wake the whole house.

If anyone does try to get to him, and rips everyone out of their sleep, that person will get the blame, sink in social standing – because only an idiot would let himself be caught while doing something less-than-savoury – and deal with ridicule – because what would anyone want with Potter in his sleep? – or even suspicion – who knows what else she did, maybe he’s a paedophile, maybe they like to stare at sleeping children, maybe, maybe, maybe. If the charm is broken without the alarm going off, it’ll hopefully wake Harry up and he’ll have at least a chance of defending himself. If, in that case, he managed to cast something to awaken the others, the assailant would also be blamed since they should have the foresight to avoid that from happening. If he could cause his attacker harm, he would also get off without blame since he only defended himself.

In any way, no fault lies on Harry for he himself did nothing at all. It is his good right to ward off his bed, especially after what happened last year.

Harry does know how to play the game.

He just doesn’t want to.

 

So, aside from the loss of his safe space – again-why-bed-burned-Hogwarts-scorn-cupboard-opened-no-why –, nothing changes. If one disregards the shift of teachers, that is.

Professor Quirrel – or should it rather be Riddle? Dark Lord Voldemort? – has quit, or possibly died, or just left. What does one do after one has been possessed by a disappointed Dark Lord? Just standing up, brushing the dirt off your clothes, hiding the pain-filled tears and walking away doesn’t seem like a viable option.

Or maybe the burning didn’t stop when Harry let go? Maybe a burned husk lies down there, next to the Dream Mirror, face forever twisted in agony.

The thought makes something in Harry’s heart go cold. In summer, he woke up many times with a scream on his lips, imagining just that scene. He couldn’t get that picture out of his head – a burned shadow of a person just lying there, forgotten, as if he never existed at all. At first chance, he snuck away from the others, a few minutes before the Opening Feast, and was back before anyone noticed his absence.

There’s no body in that little room. All other obstacles are gone, as well, even the Dream Mirror.

Does that mean that Professor Quirrel lived, or does that mean that someone found his body and took him away? Was there a burial? What does a wizarding funeral look like? Why does nobody mention Professor Quirrel’s disappearance? The headmaster doesn’t even acknowledge it in his annual speech.

The whole summer – when he wasn’t too busy sneakily doing his homework, cleaning, working, being yelled at, being beaten, starving, secretly eating the food the house elves gifted him, or panicking –, Harry thought a lot about Headmaster Dumbledore, with his false smiles and false kindness and false wisdom, and the forged Philosopher’s Stone. He ponders the obstacle course which protected it. He thinks of Hagrid, who just had to take something from that vault on the headmaster’s orders on the very same day he took Harry to Diagon Alley, and who said something strange during his visit at his hut, something about “Fluffy” and “dog” and “music makes ‘im sleep like a babe” that Harry only half-heard as he was busy being terrified of Fang. He thinks of Hermione, who is the book-smartest witch in his year. He thinks of Ron, who apparently is the best chess player Gryffindor has to offer. He thinks of himself, who seems to have inherited his father’s talent on a broom, and who coincidently came across the Dream Mirror well before he knew of the obstacle course.

It all leads to one conclusion.

The headmaster wanted Harry to go through the obstacle course, along with his two friends Hermione and Ron, probably expecting Harry to be the same kind of stubborn, reckless Gryffindor his parents seemingly were.

Instead, he got a scared, scarred Harry, sacred to whom is only his own survival and well-being. If someone tells him a corridor is forbidden for all “that do not want to die a most horrible death”, he does not think, “Oh my, what a great idea to spend my Tuesday night exploring under that wonderful Cloak of Invisibility I mysteriously received!”, no, he thinks, “What kind of idiot would want to go there? Please, whatever it is, please don’t let it escape! And what is it even doing in a school full of children?” Instead of Gryffindor, Harry landed himself in Slytherin.

But by then, it apparently was too late for Headmaster Dumbledore to change the plan. The bait was cast, the hungry fish circling it – for how could a wizard as accomplished as the headmaster is whispered to be not notice that his Defence professor was possessed, not to speak of it being the infamous Dark Lord Voldemort to whom, rumour has it, the headmaster is the greatest enemy? – and all that’s missing was the fisher to pull blood-thirsty shark out after the prey has bitten.

And the headmaster did not get that fisher.

He probably expected some sort of fight to the death between Harry and the Dark Lord Voldemort, a scared and inexperienced eleven-years-old and an insanely powerful Dark Lord with the stubbornness and skill to cling to life even when banished from his own body. Instead, he got a, if slightly coerced, peaceful conversation, mixed with a few threats, and mutual, somewhat peaceful separation of the foes. He probably doesn’t know of the event happening, having planned to come swooning in dramatically as soon as Harry was either on the verge of being overwhelmed or had defeated his enemy, and when none of the wards rang or whatever he put up, he probably thought nothing had happened. It would be a good reason for the headmaster’s absence to be announced so publicly and two weeks in advance, and it would also explain the even more than usually disappointed looks during the Leaving Feast and the sudden point loss that cost Slytherin the house trophy last minute, leaving the first place to Ravenclaw.

In hindsight, everything makes sense.

 

As Harry goes to sleep that night, in that dorm in which he was first cruelly treated by what is supposed to be his family away from home – family-means-pain-fear-panic-hatred-trembling-shaking-never-trust-family –, his belongings were scattered and destroyed and his bed was burned and where he shakes-fears-wants-to-forget-feel-safe-protect-yourself, he tries to relax by thinking back on his visit to Diagon Alley. An owl from Hogwarts brought the book list for his second year, thankfully while Harry was outside gardening and could take the letter and send the bird away without Uncle Vernon being any wiser. Not a day later, he was not as lucky as an unknown bird knocked on the window during dinner. Harry was cooking, the Dursley family gathered around the table, waiting for food, as it arrived. Uncle Vernon looked at it in disbelief, then grew more and more angry as his face grew more and more red. The owl, unaware of the danger it was in, even looked excited at being noticed. With heavy steps, Uncle Vernon walked towards it. He opened the window. The bird cooed thankfully and began circling a frozen Harry who was standing there, pale and shaking. He reached out to take the letter, inexperienced and trembling fingers fumbling with the garn tying it to the owl’s leg. The owl settled down on the back of Aunt Petunia’s chair to wait, probably for his reply. Harry watched with fearful eyes as Uncle Vernon walked closer. He reached for the bird – it finally sensed the danger it was in. It’s definitely only its quick flight which saved its neck from being wrung.

Uncle Vernon snagged Harry by the neck and threw him into his cupboard without saying a word. He stayed there for the next week and a half, not even getting food. He ate the last of the house elves’ present and hoped he’d survive the summer.

And all of this because of a certain Mrs. Weasley – a complete stranger – who decided it would be just “lovely” to get to know such a “strapping young gentleman” such as Harry as well as acquaint him with her “lovely” daughter Ginny and her “really very nice, if you would give him a choice, Harry!” son Ron, so she chose to invite Harry out to Diagon Alley to buy his school books together.

When Harry did manage to sneak out, he made sure to go shopping on another day than the one Mrs. Weasley had said her and her children would be there. Why would they only go so late in August, anyway? How can the children go through the books before school starts? But that does explain Ron’s general incompetence.

First, he went to the bank, Gringotts. A teller goblin asked for his key. He’s never had one, never even seen one. This answer was met with raised eyebrows, then a shrug. Harry was directed to take a potion which will “most painfully sever your body into its smallest parts if you are not who you claim to be.” The goblin watched with keen eyes and was disappointed when Harry didn’t dissolve. Harry, breathing out a sigh of relief, summarily was handed a key with strict instructions to “never lose it, never give it to someone else, never even let it out of your sight.” Harry resolved to do just that.

A roller-coaster trip into his vault later, possibly even worse than last year, though shorter since there was no extra stop for Hagrid, Harry obtained a sack of coins – also with dire warnings to “never even think to forget it, or have it stolen, or whatever other excuses you wizards might come up with because you do not have the brains to prevent the loss of it” – which will apparently refill whenever it is too empty and the vault still contains coins. He wondered why he hadn’t received it last year.

The shopping was easier done than last year. No-one knew that the Harry Potter was out that day, so no-one was keeping an eye out for him. He didn’t have to buy a trunk, so he didn’t have to deal with the greedy-eyed clerk from last year. He tried out another seamstress this year, one in the feared Knockturn Alley. She was delighted because she apparently doesn’t get new customers often, and having to deal with the same old cranky people drives her crazy. Harry thinks she’s nice – she didn’t poke him with needles like the seamstress in Diagon Alley did, nor did she force him to make conversation. She seemed utterly satisfied with measuring him while chatting at him at a rapid pace. Harry listened as she complained about Lady Longbottom’s “outrageous” taste in clothes and bemoaned that she is forced to sew them. She dropped quite a few names of Light families who, from what Harry overheard at Hogwarts, would never want to be caught dead here. It’s interesting how their morals and their wants don’t match, but they still pretend they do. Harry wonders what it means for the Wizarding World that exactly those people sit in high posts, those who publicly rage against what they privately enjoy.

After that calming trip into Knockturn Alley, it was back to Diagon Alley to get his books. As he neared the shop, he grew even more thankful that he consciously chose another day from the one Mrs. Weasley invited him on. That day, a well-known author would be holding an autograph session. Harry could imagine how awfully crowded the whole place would be, then. It was bad now. He didn’t even want to imagine how many people would be there for that apparently famous guy he’d never heard of before. The achievement that was printed the biggest on the advertisement was Two-Times Winner of Witches’ Weekly Most Beautiful Smile Contest. Harry quietly thought that it sounds less like an accomplishment and more like a lot of money invested into plastic surgery, or the magical equivalent, but what does a Muggle-raised boy know?

In the bookshop, Harry spent a lot more time than necessary since he took a look at every book that was sold. Many of them sounded interesting, even if the largest part was dry law books, fantasy or children’s stories and treatises about why the Ministry’s regulations were for the best – indoctrination and propaganda at its finest. Harry was tempted to buy more than the books he actually needs for this school year, but he had to consider the Hogwarts library. Probably, most of the books here stand there, as well, to read free of charge. In the end, he resisted the temptation and left only with what he needs. He did note down some titles to look up at Hogwarts, but even if these exact books aren’t within the impressive halls of the library, similar ones will surely be available. And if not – there are so many shelves that he can delve into for some other, maybe even more interesting books.

Then, he went back to Knockturn Alley. Harry breathed out heavily in relief when he was a few steps down and all the noise and bustle from Diagon Alley seemed to die down, leaving behind an eerie silence that only someone who loves the dark can enjoy. Or loves the Dark, probably.

Anyway, Harry was now onto his favourite part of this shopping trip: Silvia.

Harry opened the door to the apothecary carefully, peering inside if someone was there. The plump figure behind the counter reassured him that Silvia was working that day. Otherwise, he spotted no-one and nothing. Ever since Professor McGonagall’s transformation from a cat, he keeps wondering if the animals he comes across are animals or if they actually are wizards in disguise. How does one protect himself from, say, a beetle spying on you? But nothing was crawling around in the shop, either, so he relaxed.

“Lad!”, Silvia exclaimed when she identified him. “Ye acshally came back! Good lad!” While speaking, she already began to pack a second year potions set. “Tell me s’ories an’ amuse me!”

So Harry did. He spoke of his sorting into Slytherin, how everyone seems horrified by that because his parents both were Gryffindors, the mistrustful way his House mates eye him, the suspicious way the other Houses eye him, the sad and distrustful way the teachers eye him, the disappointed and kindly twinkling eyes of the headmaster, like an upset grandfather scolding a chess piece for disobeying. Silvia laughed herself silly at that description.

“I’mma ‘ell ev’ryone ‘out i’!”, she crooned. “Merlin an’ a seven crones, how ‘mazin’!”

He went on to tell her about making friends with the ghosts, the portraits and the house elves, the many secrets they told him and the way they’d defended him and demanded retaliation for him. This tale earned him the honourable title of “Ye Sleazy, Sneaky Bas’ard”. He continued detailing his adventures – the Dream Mirror and the visage it showed him, the obstacle course. The former was commented with “I’s ‘mazin’ wha’ li’le ye wish fo’.” The latter earned him a “So ye’re Harry Po’er, ye poor sod!” and some colourful swears, but Silvia seemed to be as mad with the headmaster and the Dark Lord Voldemort as the library portrait is, so it was okay. She was not swearing at him. Feeling unprecedented trust for a living person, Harry warily glanced around, leaned closer and whispered his theories to her. She agreed with them, adding some context for him. The headmaster never did believe that the Dark Lord Voldemort had died, so he tried out all sorts of hare-brained schemes, like offering the Defence against the Dark Arts post to everyone who could cast a simple Shield Charm, seeing as Tom Marvolo Riddle, before he became the Dark Lord Voldemort, tried to apply for the job, but was rejected by the headmaster. Of course, Silvia didn’t give out the Dark Lord Voldemort’s real name. Instead, she simply said “a man a become a Dark Lord”. Harry’s not sure if she doesn’t know his real name – it seems to be a secret, as far as Harry knows – or if she didn’t want to tell him. Either way, he didn’t and doesn’t care, more interested in what she told him. The year after, when only “normal” people applied, the headmaster went on a year-long vacation, but still randomly kept checking in on the school until he noticed that the absence of the “Dark Lord’s grea’es’ enemy” – said with so much suppressed laughter that Harry is surprised Silvia had any air left to talk – did nothing to draw out said Dark Lord. He returned with the New Year, not September as planned. The next year, he opened the Hogwarts gates during the summer to invite all graduates back for a day, something never before done. Then, after a year where nothing special happened, it was Harry’s first year.

They remained in contemplative silence for a moment.

Silvia asked with a nod to his bracelet, “Bu’ ‘ell me, lad, ye’ve go’ enough wards on ye arm to make a minis’ry look bad in comparison. Wha’ are ye hidin’?”

Blushing from the compliment, relieved by the reassurance of the strength, and a little bashful, Harry told her about the assault – though he hesitates to call it that – and the explosion of his magic. Silvia swore quite a lot about that, too, before Harry continued talking and described the Slytherin King’s present – when she didn’t ask him to elaborate on Slytherin politics, it was confirmed she was either a Slytherin, very close to a Slytherin, or one of the most observant people in the castle –, the library portrait’s help and the endless hours spent researching, warding, practicing and charming. He even told her of his plans to tie hexes to the protection, an idea which she definitely approved of. She suggested pouring potions over the bracelet to protect it, as well, after peering at it admiringly for a long time.

“I’m no’ gonna ask ye a show me or ‘ell me”, she said. “I know how ‘errible ‘a’ is. Ev’ryone pi’ies me fo’ mine, ye know? I’ says,” she straightened, took on a militaristic posture and said in a deep voice, “Madame, you have to evacuate the area immediately because a bomb could land and explode any minute no-.” Harry was shocked – not only by correct, posh pronunciation or the terrible words, but the implication that either Silvia lived in a war-area in a foreign land or is old enough to have lived through the last one to rage on British ground. She doesn’t look a day over forty, and to have been called a madam even fifty years ago, she must have looked about the same age back then. Wizards and witches, Harry has learned, naturally live up to two-hundred years, nearly twice as long as Muggles do. They age normally until they reach their majority at seventeen, the age at which their magic and bodies have finished growing. There’s one last growth spurt, after which wizards and witches are considered more or less mature adults. After that, the aging slows down. For every two years a Muggle ages, a wizard only grows one year older. So, to look like forty, Silvia would actually have to be ninety-seven, maybe a bit older. But to not have changed in appearance at all since the war, when she should at least look twenty years older… But maybe it really was a war in another country? She continued as if she didn’t notice Harry’s shock. “Ne’er e’en go’ a know her, ye know? Nice young lady, I’m sure. Pity ‘a’ bomb ripped her righ’ apar’.” She sighs. Then, she studied Harry closely. “Good lad! Knew i’ was a righ’ choice a ‘ell ye. No pi’y, righ’ here in ye eyes!”

Harry doesn’t know how she can smile and be merry after telling such a sad story, but she probably had fifty years to get over the loss of a person she didn’t even know. He knows that she cannot miss her soulmate, as she never knew – her, apparently? Harry didn’t know that there were female soldiers during World War Two – as he experiences the exact same thing with his parents. He didn’t know them, so he can’t mourn them. Still, he feels saddened by their deaths. The only thing Silvia could miss was the image built in her head, and that probably was not a happy one, considering the ominous way the sentence cuts off.

“So yeah, me knows wha’ i’s like, no’ showin’ nobody ye soul mark. Now go, good lad, an’ visi’ me again nex’ year a ‘ell me mo’!”

When Harry reached for his money bag, she instead shoved the packed kit into his arms and waved him of. “Ye amuse me so much, an’ ye even ‘old me so many new an’ in’eres’in’ thin’s, I’mma be a gossip queen a Knockturn Alley! Ye don’ pay here, lad.”

Still, Harry felt bad, so he sneakily put a few Galleons on a nearby table. He hopes it was enough for a kit; he doesn’t have any idea what one normally costs. He doesn’t really consider if it was too much – for the support and acceptance he’s found here, not to speak of the unexplainable calm and absence of fear he feels towards Silvia, he can never pay too much.

 

The first day back, Harry makes a trip to the owlery and greets Hedwig who he left at school over the summer for – justified – fear of what Uncle Vernon would do to her. She coos at him happily. Feeling his lips stretch into an unfamiliar shape – a smile, he realises after a few moments –, Harry pets her soft feathers and strokes her head. He apologises for leaving, expresses his joy of being back and seeing Hedwig again, praises her for becoming even more beautiful, if such a thing is even possible, and voices his regret at not being able to give her more to do. She nuzzles his neck at this admission as if she forgives him. Still smiling, Harry informs her that he has an errand for her now, if she’d like to carry a letter to the pet store again. She almost rips it out of his hand in her eagerness and departs swiftly after cooing into his ear once more. Harry watches her fly, thinking of a broom and freedom-wind-no-troubles-dragging-me-down-alone-safe-free.

When he drags himself out of his melancholic thoughts, he wanders through the castle, familiarising himself again. He studies his timetable and learns it by heart. He says hello to the various paintings. He visits the house elves. He drops by the library portrait. He seeks out the ghosts. He explores the third floor corridor to which entry was forbidden last year – at least the parts he didn’t already get to know that horrible-painful-deceitful-surprising-red day. He spends more time with Hedwig when she returns.

All in all, it’s the best day in a long, long time.

 

After listening to Dobby, Harry expected to immediately run into danger, but nothing happens, no portrait, ghost or house elf knows of anything, though they all swear to keep an eye out, and so he cautiously relaxes. That’s not to say that there is no danger at all – Ron apparently took it to heart that Harry rejected his mother’s advances and tries to hex Harry whenever his back is turned, Hermione stuck to his side and admonishing him for throwing jinxes at another student – but never stopping him – and obnoxiously correcting his mistakes. Malfoy agonises Ron worse than ever – apparently, their fathers had a nasty run-in when they met while shopping. When Harry hears this, he thanks his lucky star that he did not go that day. On the other hand, Malfoy also torments Harry more. Or it may just appear that way since Harry now spends a lot more time around him, having to sleep in the same room, an opportunity which Malfoy uses to its fullest extent. Professor Snape is his normal antagonistic self, asking Harry hard questions and averting his gaze when one of the Slytherins messes with his potion.

Other than that, Harry has only one thing to complain about: Professor Lockhart, and Harry really hesitates to use this title. So far, he’s taught them how to be the most self-absorbed vapid airhead in the entire world. He’s singled Harry out immediately and always says condescending remarks on the side. When talking about his adventures with the Trolls of Turkey, or whatever his book was called, he throws in a snide comment about “hard work, not everyone can be so lucky as to vanquish a Dark Lord without putting in some effort!” He goes on some lengthy tirade about how easy it would have been for him to stand up against “You-Know-Who” and defeat him, but he was too busy freeing a village as described in Waltzing with Werewolves. Harry sincerely doubts that, seeing as the “professor” doesn’t even have the guts to actually say the Dark Lord Voldemort’s full name.

In the first lesson – the one that convinced Harry of the teacher’s incompetence –, he had the students take a meaningless test, made some pointed remarks about Harry and let loose a cage full of pixies, after which he stumbled over some spell that sounded more like a tongue twister, and fled, leaving his class alone.

Seriously, what is it with Hogwarts and teachers leaving students alone? The first year, it was the flying instructor, which resulted in two serious injuries. This year, it’s the Defence teacher, which results in a demolished classroom, pixies all over the school, unfortunate Neville being thrown outside the window and almost breaking his neck, several others being harmed and – this must be the most memorable since it was the one the most discussed, complained and re-enacted one – Mister Draco Malfoy’s expensive quill set being broken.

Harry is very unimpressed with the amount of moaning and tears and complaints and swear words that have been wasted on those basically worthless objects, considering Malfoy’s wealth, while Neville’s life threatening injury was largely ignored by all of Hogwarts.

The only good thing that could possibly come out of it would be if Malfoy senior, as a member of the school board, were to take action, seeing as Malfoy’s go-to reaction if something goes wrong is to tell his father about it. But seeing as the headmaster is so convinced of Professor Lockhart’s talents, that seems unlikely to happen.

Meanwhile, the library portrait agrees with Harry that there’s not many charms left he can put on the bracelet with his current magic power, even if it is large for his age and grows along with him. Instead, they turn their attention to hexes. In order to bind them to the bracelet, they either need to be put on it generally, so that one, for example, turns everyone who touches it into a bright colour tied to a charm that prevents Harry from the same fate, or connected to a specific ward, so that everyone who attempts to turn the bracelet into air, for instance, is hit with intense pain in the eyes. These hexes must be carefully considered so that they don’t interact badly with the spell they’re tied to or the charms on the bracelet, as was the case with the previous spells Harry’s put on it, only more complicated as not only must more spells be considered, but also hexes have more characteristics and idiosyncrasies that can hinder or facilitate another spell. That’s when they run into a problem: In order to find a solution, it’d be easiest and fastest to formulate an arithmantic equation. The only drawback is that Harry has no knowledge of Arithmancy. The portrait man also isn’t confident in his ability to draw up an equation that elaborate, so they’re stuck. When Harry mentions Silvia’s idea of potions, they draw their attention to that, instead, and shelf the plan for the hexes for the time being. They find about ten potions Harry can apply – which will probably take up at least one week per potion, anyway, and one potion needs to simmer for almost two months –, so it’s not as if they have nothing to do at all. The potions must be properly researched, as well. The library man admits that while not many new spells were invented since his death – he thinks at least, as he knows that in the two hundred years he was alive, only five spells were created, and that was considered a lot –, potions are easier to concoct. There’s also a greater need as potions counter illnesses, and with time, illnesses evolve, and so must potions. A spell doesn’t lose its efficiency. A potion, on the other hand, can be made ineffective. For every poison created, an antidote is found. For many offensive spells, there’s a potion to repair the damage. Every illness and long-time curse, such as the Curse of the Moon, has its counter in potions. So, Harry and the library portrait delve into the art of potions. Harry reads the title of the book out loud and the man summons the book from the library in the background of his portrait. Then, they both read through the tomes, Harry sometimes asking for clarifications, the man explaining. Harry learns a lot about potion brewing, seeing as the library portrait apparently was a talented potioneer when he was alive. It goes so far that during Potions class, Harry sometimes even figures out what Malfoy threw into his cauldron and can fix the damage, to the pure amazement of Professor Snape and great irritation of Malfoy. Not that it helps his grades, but Harry gains some of the self-confidence his peers all seem to possess in abundance – with the exception of poor Neville, of course.

 

In Herbology, Professor Sprout tells everyone that while normally, she would keep the groups the same as they were last year, she’s decided otherwise this year. Typically, the group members would get to know each other and build a rapport, but from the behaviour she observed last year, it would be for the best to separate the groups. She throws a hard look at Ron and Malfoy as she says that. Ron blushes a furious red and stares at his shoes while Malfoy grins, smug at being separated from both Ron and Harry. From what Harry got from Malfoy’s enraged complaints last year, Professor Sprout graded Malfoy and Ron worse than Harry and Neville – a lot worse. This grade cost Malfoy his place in the top three of their year. Of course, instead of recognising his antagonistic and childish arguing with Ron and the danger he put himself and all other students into at times, he pushes the blame onto Ron, who conveniently returns the favour and lays the blame at Malfoy’s feet to remain guiltless. This, of course, leads to even more hateful feelings between the two of them. Thankfully, Professor Sprout spotted this, as well, or it would be another year of hellish classes for Neville and Harry, caught between the lines of fire and having to work thrice as hard and quickly as all other students while achieving less than even the worst of them.

The professor puts Malfoy with Crabbe and Goyle who are working with Nott and Zabini. Malfoy pouts when he notices that fact, intimately familiar with the clumsy and slow way in which his two goons work and think. Ron is put in a group of Gryffindor girls. Most of them are too concerned about the state of their nails to care much about the work, so he doesn’t look too enthusiastic, either. Hermione, in another group, sends him a commiserating look that seems to enrage him even more.

Neville and Harry are pleasantly surprised when the professor informs them that due to their good work and teamwork, their group will not receive an addition unless they wish for it. They both need to only exchange a look, filled with the horror of enduring Malfoy and Ron and the memory of that first glorious lesson when their teammates were missing, to know that they’ll work alone, even if each assignment is a bit harder and more challenging to work at with only two people.

It works out for the best; Neville knows that his advice will be headed and his tips will be appreciated while Harry can concentrate on finishing the assignment and not be forced to constantly pay attention to some bumbling idiots right next to him. They get to know each other better, even going as far as to sometimes nod to each other in greeting when they meet each other in the hallways during break. It’s the most and friendliest contact Harry has had with a person other than Silvia. He kind of starts looking forward to nodding to Neville.

 

After a few weeks of the usual insults and overloaded timetables, it’s Samhain. Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor mascot ghost, asks Harry if he would like to celebrate his Deathday Party with him. Harry is torn, but tells Nick that he’s required to be in the Great Hall for the feast, and it feels wrong for a living boy to go to a Deathday Party, especially after Nick admits that some of the foreign ghosts that come to Hogwarts solely for the celebration might be a bit put out. So, on Samhain Eve, Harry walks into the Great Hall, intent on eating a snack and grabbing an apple for the ritual. He did the rituals last year – or as many as he was able to – and found that he was less anxious and fearful the first one or two days afterwards, so he, encouraged by the library portrait, plans to make a habit out of upholding each traditional celebration. Shortly before he slips outside, he hears a loud, blood-curling scream. He sighs, stands to the side and lets the teachers run by him before he, along with most of the school, follows.

Apparently, Ron found a petrified cat hanging by its tail under a bloody message speaking of the Chamber of Secrets, the mysterious place Salazar Slytherin supposedly built before he left Hogwarts. The story goes like this: Caretaker Filch followed a terrified squeak he heard, discovered his beloved cat, let loose a sorrow-filled shout and found a culprit in Ron who was just standing there, right next to the seemingly dead feline.

The headmaster sends everyone away but Ron – and Harry. He doesn’t get why he has to stay as well; he did nothing at all, wasn’t even nearby. But why would anyone listen to a Slytherin?

The headmaster interrogates Ron. He stutters out that he overheard Harry talking with Nearly Headless Nick and declining his invitation. Deciding to be a nuisance and thinking that Harry was “an arrogant bastard” to reject, Ron opted to just show up at Nick’s Deathday Party. Only when he appeared did he find out what was celebrated and left when he was met with scorn and ridicule – showing up uninvited at a party held by a ghost for ghosts as a person who was not dead yet – and gruesome re-enactments of the deaths of various guests. So, brave Gryffindor that Ron is, he hightailed it out of there. On his way to the Great Hall, he stumbled upon the cat and let out a terrified, high-pitched squeak which brought Caretaker Filch who, after Ron’s explanation, starts crying loudly, and demands that Ron be punished, preferably with death.

Humming a bit, the headmaster observes the cat a bit closer and announces that she’s not dead, but petrified. Harry could have told them that – dead means that the muscles relax and if you bind a cord tightly around a cat’s tail, the hairs get squished under the rope, they don’t remain stubbornly standing, and the drop of spit about to drip out of the cat’s mouth would have fallen a long time ago.

Instead of interrogating Ron more closely – because that story is fishy –, the headmaster questions Harry about his whereabouts. Harry is incredulous for a moment before he remembers that he is a Slytherin and thereby suspect by definition. Though why the headmaster singled out him from all his house mates, he doesn’t know. “I-I,” Harry stutters, keenly aware of all the many eyes on him and that any time, someone could come up from behind him, “I was in the Great Hall.”

The headmaster doesn’t seem to believe him. He asks Professor McGonagall if that’s true. Looking utterly displeased, Professor Snape confirms his alibi. Headmaster Dumbledore asks Professor McGonagall again, as if he had not received an answer a mere second ago. The stern woman glares at the headmaster at the clear dismissal of her colleague – but not nearly as much as the ignored teacher himself does – and, in an icy voice, repeats exactly, word for word, what Professor Snape said.

The headmaster backtracks with an odd joke about how “you can never be too sure” and leaves quickly. It’s probably the wisest thing he could have done. Who knows what else he would have said otherwise and displeased both professors with.

“I swear,” Professor McGonagall sighs, “that Albus is getting more and more puzzling with each passing year.”

Professor Snape almost smiles at that, then seems to remember his company and sharply sends the students away. Harry goes without protest, relieved to away from scrutiny and the limelight, but Ron stays behind and tries to argue that since he found Mrs. Norris – is that the cat’s name? –, he should be involved. Harry doesn’t stick around to hear Professor Snape’s no doubt scathing reply.

 

A few days pass before Malfoy has grown too annoyed of Harry to continue hardly tolerating him. For some reason, he decides that enough is enough right then and there, with no obvious trigger and no warning. He sends a simple Tripping Hex at Harry while he’s walking down the stairs, sending him flying.

Harry, in instinctual panic, flails to stop the fall, but can’t regain his balance and ends up six steps further down, landing awkwardly on his arm. Some students start shouting. Confused, Harry looks up to them and follows a pointing finger down on his arm. He is greeted by the sight of a clearly visible distension, the bone pushing against the skin in an obvious break. He blinks at it confusedly. It doesn’t hurt that much. Later, he’ll remember the dictionary entry for “Adrenaline” and think of shock, but for now, he’s having a flashback to Uncle Vernon and deciding that yes, he saw this sight before. Then, it also didn’t hurt for about an hour, after which it hurt terribly before it magically healed itself. Since then, Harry has lived through a lot of pain, and a lot of breaks, and isn’t particularly bothered by this little hurt.

He stands.

The students gasp at him as he calmly reaches down with his left arm to pick up his bag and the books that spilt out. He’ll have to use a quill he charmed to take notes instead of writing himself, he muses, and keep his broken arm as still as possible. He also should avoid using magic so that more is available for the wandless – accidental? – magic to heal him.

“Harry! You fell! Oh dearie!”, a dramatic voice interrupts him.

Reluctantly, Harry turns to face Professor Lockhart. There he stands, in all his self-important glory, with his hair perfectly styled, clad in fashionable robes in outrageous colours that still are more acceptable than the headmaster’s.

“Do not worry, young Harry!”, he announces. “For I – I! – will heal you!”

“No, thank-,“ Harry starts, but is interrupted by a chant he has never heard before. For Dark Magic, this would not be weird. For spells without wand movements, everyone can make up their own words as long as they connect to the theme of the spell, but the theatrical circles the wand is drawing in the air imply that it’s a Light spell that is being cast.

One moment, Harry stands there, taking a cautious step back and hoping to escape. The next, his right arm feels weirdly like… nothing. Something clatters to the ground beneath his forearm.

Harry looks down… right at his ulna und radius, both curiously unbroken.

 Many nearby students scream. Some retch while some faint.

Harry stares at his bones bemusedly. He still feels no pain, is strangely detached from the happenings.

“If you would excuse me from class, professor,” he says, interrupting the stuttering Professor Lockhart is letting out, some sort of excuse or justification and an attempt to still maintain the image of perfection he imagines he incorporates and projects.

Harry shoulders his bag, reaches down and grabs his bones. The sentence sounds weird even in his head. He studies them, fascinated. Something like this is in his body? He almost can’t believe it.

Then, the pain hits.

It’s not like a tidal wave, gradually becoming more and more. No, this pain is like a bolt of lightning. Agony runs through Harry. His eyes blur with tears. He blinks to keep them away, but a few escape. He tries to raise his hand to rub them away, but instead of lifting, his arm kind of… flops. There’s no other word to describe it. If at all possible, the pain intensifies even more. Harry has to bite his tongue to keep from screaming. A bit of blood tickles out of the corner of his mouth.

He flashes back to the last time he was in such pain, please-please-please-no-please-stop-please, and bites harder to keep to the present. He knows that he needs a safe place now, somewhere he can be alone and try to push his magic into the wound to heal it faster.

Suddenly, a soft hand is placed on his shoulder. Harry flinches and turns to face the person who touched him.

Madame Pomphrey stands there, watching him in concern.

“I’m here now”, she says. “Come on, let’s get you to the hospital wing. We’ll have you back up by tomorrow!”

Harry numbly follows her gentle lead until he is safely sheltered in a bed in the hospital wing. Madame Pomphrey flurries all around him, asking him questions about what happened and how much pain he’s in. He has to rate it from one to ten, ten being unbearable, one being a mild ache. Harry thinks for a while – so long Madame Pomphrey grows more and more worried –, contemplating the question and waging the pain against past experiences. It doesn’t reassure Madame Pomphrey that he only gives it a four, maybe a weak five. She tells him she’ll have to check him more, that most patients would roll around on the floor, screaming in pain. Unwilling to admit that he’s built up a resistance to pain, and more disinclined to give the reason for it, Harry mumbles something about shock that has Madame Pomphrey nod empathetically and let the topic rest. Instead, she has Harry drink one potion after another. He checks each before drinking it. Three pain relievers, easily recognised by the colour and distinct smell. Two mild Healing Draughts for superficial wounds, probably for his tongue. With some deft curses about incompetence and Professor Lockhart muttered under her breath, Madame Pomphrey takes a closer look at Harry’s arm and regretfully informs him that the cavity left by the bones was immediately filled by muscles, blood and sinews and that there is no space to put them back magically. Instead, they have to be grown anew. She warns that this will take the whole night, probably, and that it will be excruciatingly painful. Harry is well aware that sometimes, the healing is more painful than the injury, and is glad when he is informed that no such thing as “rehab, whatever that is, is that a Muggle thing?” will be necessary.

He downs the Skele-Gro, refuses the Sleeping Draught and settles into bed. Madame Pomphrey still looks very worried, but when Harry ignores her, she wishes him a good night, assures him that he can call for her any time, and leaves.

Harry spends the night in pain, weirdly fascinated by his arm as the bones regrow and push all the skin that’s sunk inside out again until his arm looks like an arm again, not like a skin-coloured bag. Then, he closes his eyes and dreams of please-stop-Uncle-Vernon-burning-bed-falling-falling-crashing-pain.

 

For some reason, the headmaster decides not to fire Professor Lockhart, or to harshly punish Malfoy for endangering a fellow student’s live, and no amount of protests can make him change his mind.

Harry almost expected something like that. After all, no-one who hurts him – Uncle-Vernon-Aunt-Petunia-Dudley-Ron-Hermione-Malfoy-so-many-others – ever gets punished. Why should this be different?

 

The next morning, Harry is visited by a familiar house elf. Dobby cries and cries tears the size of tennis balls and bemoans “Mister Harry Potter, Sir,’s fate.” He bitterly moans and dramatically wipes his tears off.

Harry is glad he’s met house elves before and therefore knows that they are not all like that. He tries to calm Dobby down and tells him that the injury is not so bad which only earns him a serenade about his bravery. Dobby remains inconsolable. When Harry says that if that’s the worst Dobby’s master can do, he can’t be so dangerous – ignoring that there is no way that any Malfoy and especially not Draco Mafoy would do anyone’s dirty work –, Dobby starts sobbing even more loudly.

“Brave Mister Harry Potter, Sir, Dobby’s master didn’t does anythings now! Nothings happeneds yet, Dobby knows! It’s still coming!”

Clearly at a loss, Harry calls for another house elf to calm Dobby down, reasoning that they probably know better what to do. This only turns out to be a bad thing as he now has to entertain a whole kitchen of hysterical house elves.

 

By afternoon, he’s been cleared by both Madame Pomphrey and house elves. He stands for the first time that day, relieved to be back on his feet and spared the torment of either looking at the same white walls again and still and again or consoling a heartbroken house elf again and still and again.

Next to his bed rest his bones. The fingers of his left hand caress his right lower arm. He imagines the new bones that now rest in it. Do they look the same? Are they identical? Are they different? He’ll never find out, he hopes. Neither the removal nor the regrowth were fun.

Considering the white bones, he decides to pick them up and put them in his trunk. When he’s feeling morbid again, maybe he’ll take them out and look at them, like that one time he kept staring at the bone visible through that flesh wound, or the year Aunt Petunia was in love with a hospital melodrama, a series showing the way an arm snapped and a head was bashed in and a myriad of other injuries while following the twists and turns of a romantic relationship between doctor and nurse, which he could watch through a crack in his cupboard door before Uncle Vernon nailed it shut, and the nights he spent comparing what he remembers of his wounds to those on the medical show. And it’s not like Madame Pomphrey needs his bones for anything, is it?

When he steps outside, he’s surrounded by whispers. The portraits all feared for him, but without a painting in the hospital wing, they couldn’t get to him. The house elves already started spreading the news, leading to a wild game of telephone. Harry sighs and sets to correct them. Finally, he stops in the library. The portrait fusses over him terribly and admonishes him about his careless behaviour before cursing the whole school to the moon and back. He wants him to stay off his feet for at least another three days, but Harry has had enough of lying around, doing nothing, and wordlessly grabs the first Potions book he comes across. A house elf must have told the portrait, he muses, a traitorous creature who knew that Harry would never tell the portrait about the fall and following disappearance – or appearance? – of his bones. He half-heartedly swears revenge, already knowing that he’s too fond of the cheerful creatures to fulfil his plans.

 

The following week, spent burrowed in Potion books, the library portrait and Harry have reached an agreement and Harry sends Hedwig off to order the ingredients for some of the potions he’ll make. There are, as expected, only a few he can brew on his own, but a few are better than none. Silvia sends along a short message about him better not blowing up anything and a receipt totalling zero point naught. Harry sends back a handful of Galleons, hoping it’s enough to cover the cost. She sends back praises about Hedwig that Harry dutifully conveys and all of the money. Harry resolves to leave the money in her shop again in summer when he picks up the potions kit for next year.

A day later, an unfamiliar owl delivers Silvia’s reply to his surrender.

The library portrait can’t stop laughing after Harry explains to him what the victory sign means.

Now that Harry has all the necessary ingredients, he only needs a place where he can brew in peace. This means a place where no-one else is, no-one else would go to, and that still is frequented enough so that it’s aired and sterile, as well as easy to clean.

Weirdly enough, the portraits he asks for help advise him to use a bathroom. When he thinks about it, it makes sense: quite sanitary, the tiles easily scrubbed, no-one is in there for a long time.

But people still come and go. He asks the ghosts if they can help. Maybe there’s an out-of-the-way toilet that no-one goes to? Maybe it’s a girls’ washroom as Harry doesn’t know anything about them, one of the few rooms he didn’t enter in first year when exploring the castle.

They tell him to talk to a ghost called Moaning Myrtle.

Harry has never met her, but that’s no surprise, seeing as she dwells almost exclusively in a girls’ bathroom.

When he nears the door, he hears loud sobs and shrill cries. He cautiously knocks on the door. “Hello?”, he calls. “Is everything alright?”

The wailing stops for a second. “Who wants to know?”, says a petulant voice. “Do you also want to make fun of old Moaning Myrtle?”

“No, no, not at all!”, Harry protests. “I was walking past when I heard someone crying and got concerned. Are you alright?”

Harry doesn’t know it, not having reached a good enough understanding about ghost culture and Moaning Myrtle, but with this question he has earned Myrtle’s undying loyalty and friendship, as evidenced by the fact that she even goes so far as to offer to share her washroom with him when he dies.

A human girl probably would have proposed.

When Harry has calmed Myrtle down and talked and – more importantly – listened to her, it’s already late. He returns during the next week, chatting for a bit. When he asks if she would mind if he brewed some potions in a cubicle – not hers, of course! –, she learns of the Incident, as Harry has named the time Hermione and Ron tried to peak at his soul mark. She understands.

“My soulmate was Olive, a terribly rude girl, you know, always teasing me for my glasses until I cried,” she tells Harry after offering him comfort should he need it, as he offered her, knowing enough of being bullied to not make a big deal out of it. “And then, I died, and I decided to get revenge and I haunted her. But when she first saw my ghost, she broke down and cried and cried. She was my soulmate, but she was so scared of what her friends would say if she started talking to me that she ignored me. And when she ignored me, I started talking to other people and even had a crush on someone! But he was really elegant and so, so smart! You can’t blame me!” She turns on Harry with big watery eyes. He assures her that he can understand, that he finds Olive’s behaviour immature and that Myrtle’s reaction was understandable. Myrtle floats over to Harry and hugs him as well as an incorporeal entity can hug a living body, and starts sobbing and thanking him. When the ghost calms down, she takes a few floats back as if embarrassed by her behaviour and clears her throat. Only then does she continue, “Where was I? Oh, yes! That weird thing! When I had other friends, you know, she got so jealous and started teasing me. I never understood it, but then I saw that the little boys also tease their girl soulmates and female friends if they like them. I don’t understand that at all. They want their friends and soulmates to like them, don’t they?”

“Yeah, people are weird,” Harry agrees readily.

Myrtle nods empathically. A short silence follows as they both contemplate just how strange people are.

“I don’t know what I would have done if she showed me while I was still alive”, Myrtle finally thinks out loud. “I never liked Olive, but soulmates always like each other. Maybe we could have grown to be fond of each other if we talked about it then. But with me dead, her parents pulled her out of school. Many parents did that year. I never saw her again.”

So Myrtle supports his plan to hide his words until he’s ready to reveal them. She asks nosy questions, but Harry only has to say that he doesn’t feel comfortable answering them to get her to stop. She’s the one who slowly gives him the confidence to talk to other people and to stand up for himself, to say no and to accept that this answer is okay and will not normally be met with punishment.

But only at a snail’s pace.

It takes Harry quite a few years more until he reaches what he’s meant to be like.

 

The portrait in the library couldn’t offer any clues as to what petrified the caretaker’s pet, nor can house elves or ghosts, so Harry tries to keep his nose out of that whole mess. About two weeks before Yule, another petrification happens. This time, it’s a student, a Muggleborn. Malfoy can’t talk about anything else for a whole week. He only stops when grieving friends of that Muggleborn hit him with a curse and his father won’t or can’t do anything about it, and instead spends his time pouting and ranting about the unfairness that happened to him. Most of House Slytherin learns to tune him out. The only ones stuck with him are the second years whose standings would suffer if they so blatantly ignored their Year Ruler, but they exchange long-suffering looks whenever Malfoy isn’t looking.

But that petrification opens the eyes of some staff members. They no longer are convinced that the cat’s petrification was just a prank, and start to pester the headmaster. Finally, after two more weeks, the headmaster seems to notice that he should do something to guarantee the safety of his students, so he opens up a Duelling Club – led by Professor Lockhart.

Harry considers not going because he surely will not learn anything from him, but the Slytherins learn through the grapevine that Professor Snape will be there as well. From what Harry has heard, Professor Snape is an accomplished duellist, so at least one professor will know what he’s talking about. Harry decides to go.

It appears that that decision was wrong.

Fundamentally.

 

Professor Lockhart proves his incompetency and utter delusions once more by asking Professor Snape to duel with him. He loses within three seconds and then boasts as if he won a duel of life and death with an entire Auror squad.

Needless to say, Harry is not impressed.

Then, it gets worse.

Of course, there must be a student presentation. Of course, out of all the years, it must be Harry’s which is picked. Of course, out of all the students, Harry is chosen. Professor Snape seems only too happy when he announces that Malfoy will be his opponent.

So, Harry swallows nervously and seriously considers running away or pretending he’s not here. Of course, as soon as he thinks that, Professor Snape’s beady eyes lock onto him, freezing him in place. Malfoy already stands on the platform, bouncing on his toes, excited at the thought of embarrassing the Boy-Who-Lived. Even thinking about his “title” makes a shiver run down Harry’s back.

Reluctantly, he makes his way to the front. Only then does he think of all the eyes that will be staring-wondering-staring-staring-observing-staring-judging-staring-help-attention-help-stares, but he’s already been noticed by the majority of students who step out of his way as if he has some sort of contagious illness, and backing out now is impossible.

With a heavy heart, he climbs the ladder. He knows that Malfoy will eviscerate him. Not only has he not had any training – contrary to Malfoy – and he does not have any idea what duelling really is about, Malfoy also hates Harry. If he has a chance to humiliate Harry, he will take it. Harry notices how Professor Snape whispers something in his ear and how Malfoy’s nodding and grinning with malicious glee. Harry desperately tries to think of a Shield Charm. The only one he can think of at the top of his head is Dark. He did read about a similar Light spell called Protego, but he can’t remember the wand movement. Does he dare?

Professor Lockhart counts to three.

At two-and-a-half, Malfoy has cast something. Harry files away the incantation – “Serpensortia!” – and puts up a shield at two-and-three-quarters. For that, he shouts out, “Protego!” while actually moving his wand in the pattern for the Dark Shield Charm. He keeps the movements small and unnoticeable, he hopes. He doesn’t know what will happen – Will the shield spring up? Which one? Will it be powerful enough to stop Malfoy’s spell?

But no spell hits. No spell light flies towards him. Did his shield-?

Apparently not. Malfoy has conjured up a snake.

An angry, venomous snake.

Who is swearing in English?

Confused, Harry looks around, but no-one else seems to react to the hissed curses. Quite vulgar ones, at that, so Harry knows the first year Hufflepuff girl right in front of the platform would blush the aggressive red of House Gryffindor if she understood it.

So Harry is the only one.

Great.

Professor Lockhart tries to save the situation the best he can, which means: He makes it worse. He cries out dramatically, “I said Disarming Charms only! But do not quiver in fear, dear students, because I have fought more dangerous creatures and have always come up on top!” He then shouts a spell at the snake that does not banish it, but rather throws it through the air. Even angrier, it lands in front of a dumbly-blinking Gryffindor who does not react at all.

It rears up to bite, exposing its sharp teeth dripping with clear venom, hissing threateningly.

Harry thinks about stepping in, but doesn’t know if the snake would understand English. Or, for that matter, if he would even talk in English to it and not in hisses. He settles for kneeling down, thankful to be out of the spotlight again, and trying to appear calm. He read that if the surrounding people are calm, animals calm down as well as long as they are not threatened.

The snake hisses, confused, slowly lowering itself to the floor. It moves around for a bit. The students hastily pull back, most of them screaming and creating a great and loud chaos. Harry’s heart is pounding in his chest.

The snake slithers over to him. §Are you a Speaker?§, it says. §The aura around you is like a Speaker’s, but you do not speak.§

Harry opts for simply shrugging – a gesture that can hopefully be read as nervousness, especially since his facial expression and actual feelings match this emotion perfectly – and hopes it understands human gesticulation well enough to know what it means.

It apparently does as it starts susurrating about its life in the jungle and its hopes of being sent back there and its belief that it will be safe as long as it is around a Speaker. It slowly crawls up Harry’s still form, settling around his shoulders. Harry is tense, hoping that it doesn’t bite him, and very much aware of all the eyes drilling into him as the students calm down again. He doesn’t speak, not only for lack of anything to say, but also in fear that what he would utter would come out as hisses.

Professor Snape nears slowly. He speaks calmly, “I’m going to banish the snake now.” At Harry’s small nod, he casts a charm – wordless, but Harry believes he’s good enough at magic that this does not automatically mean it’s Dark Magic – and the snake disappears with a few whispers of thanks.

Professor Lockhart takes this moment of banished danger and begins boasting and preening as if he himself could do and had done better. Professor Snape shuts him up with a single look. “I dare say”, he drawls, “that a duelling club is only as useful as the instructor. Rest assured that no Slytherin will come back.”

With that implied insult, he dramatically sweeps outside, his robes flaring out behind him, his footsteps echoing loudly in the silence, his House following with their heads held up proudly and their backs straight.

Harry rushes after them, last, his posture a lot less confident and prideful, his head turning over and over that first moment when the snake talked to him and he understood.

 

As always when he runs into a problem, Harry goes to the library. It cannot give him all the answers – as shown by his soul mark, the words of which have revealed themselves as very rare indeed, because he did not find any books on any one word of it –, but it may just contain the solution he is looking for. Of course, there also is the wise portrait who may be able to provide help.

And it does in the words, “Knave, you have relations to the great Salazar Slytherin?”

Now, the portrait’s slipped up. He’s just expressed favourable feelings for the generally disliked Founder which either means he agrees with the supposed views of Slytherin – and that’s not possible, having listened to him – or he lived at the same time and knew the great wizard personally. It’s more than Harry knew of the portrait before as he’s normally very careful about providing any closer details about the actual time he was alive or his identity, but for the moment, Harry doesn’t care. His mind is screaming about possible relations with Salazar Slytherin, a Hogwarts founder.

Regretful, he has to disagree. “I don’t think that’s possible. From what I know, the Potters always were a family as Light as can be.”

The man laughs at that. “Before simple-minded Light wizards climbed the throne and Dark Magic was as celebrated as its counterpart, a Dark Lord was not a terrorist, as you call this century’s, but the most revered Dark wizard, charismatic and powerful, intelligent and wise. In his time, everyone looked up to the Dark Lord Hadrian Potter. You may even be named after him.”

Harry blinks in surprise, but he’s pretty sure that’s not the case. “I didn’t know that… But I don’t think my parents knew that, either, for they were as Light and anti-Dark as all ‘good’ people are nowadays. They would not have named me after a Dark Lord if their lives depended on it.”

The man nods thoughtfully. “Be that as it may, even so, it is not as if no Dark and Light families ever united in matrimony. With so few wizarding families, everyone has the blood from every family in their veins. Except for, of course, the Mutbloods.”

The first time the man said something like that, Harry was furious, but the man calmly told him the etymology of the words: (Disclaimer: The following etymology is completely made up. Do not believe a single word of it. No way do “Mut” and “mud” have anything in common except for two letters, nor was “Mut” or a word similar to it used in English in the Middle Ages, as far as I know.) “Mut”, he says, is the German word for “courage”. Back then, the German and English language were a lot more alike, so the English also used it. With “Mutblut”, people meant “witches and wizards with new magical blood and the courage to leave their Muggle families behind to join the Wizarding World”. Over time, this expression got shortened, of course. “Wizard from Muggle background who gathered his courage to come to the Wizarding World” is a terrible mouthful. The result was “Mutblut”. “Blut” was easily translated to “blood”, the words not being so different. “Courageblood” does not have the same ring, so it stayed “Mutblood”. But then came language changes and witch hunts. Some blamed the Muggleborns for them because they were the most likely to use magic around Muggles, so they said, “Instead of ‘Mutblood’, they are much rather ‘Mudblood’!” The word was easier to say for British tongues, so it spread like wildfire. After the witch hunts were over and the situation had calmed down a bit, the word was utilised as an anglicised version of the former word. But with time, the negative associations became more prevalent as people forgot the origin of the word.

As the name suggests, Mutbloods were adored. Not only did they have the strength and courage to embrace their new identity as wizards and witches, they also brought new blood into the Wizarding World. Of course, people back then didn’t know that intermarrying and incest were bad, they just noticed that a couple of siblings did not bear as many and as healthy children as a couple of Pureblood wizard and Mutblood witch, therefore, everyone hoped for a Mutblood to marry. It also was almost expected for a wizard or a witch to marry their soulmate, unlike nowadays, where an unfortunate match may be quietly disposed of.

Harry is quite amused by the intelligence the Wizarding World showed back then – he read about genetics while hiding from Dudley in the primary school library – and that their new disdain and hatred for Muggleborns now comes back to bite them in the arse. He already heard that most of his Pureblood schoolmates have no siblings at all, and if they do, it’s only one, and for all that Malfoy makes fun of the Weasley family for their many children, numerous Purebloods envy them because they can’t have any more children. For their diatribe about their superiority in the world, they should try to breed like rabbits, “be fruitful and multiply”, and want to, but cannot because they need new blood. Mrs. Weasley, apparently, is much disdained because her grandfather had a Muggle mother, but the new blood is shown in the way she can have more than two children.

“It may have been possible that a Dark family married into the Potter Family some generations ago”, Harry protests, “but it surely is not nowadays. But why would you ask that? Wait…” He thinks through it himself. The only way it would matter if the Slytherin line married into the Potter line is if some familial magic was passed down the former. If that is the case, and the portrait thinks of it after hearing that Harry can understand snakes, it must be that ability.

The man nods, satisfied that Harry figured it out himself. “Indeed. The noble Slytherin had the gift of Parseltongue which he then passed on to his children.”

The portrait wants Harry to summon a certain tome which lists all Wizarding Families and their family trees. He is surprised when nothing shows up and summons the version in his painted library where books are added as they are in the real one, but cannot be taken away again. He smiles and says that this solution is easier anyway. Harry gets why when the portrait waves his wand over the tome and lets loose a truly frightening number of foreign words. When he’s done, he’s frowning. “No drop of Master Slytherin’s blood in your veins. Unbelievable. Remaining is only one heir! Oh, in what despair Slytherin must fall!”

“What’s the name of Slytherin’s heir? Maybe I can ask him.”

The man is doubtful, but agrees that trying won’t hurt.

At least, Harry thinks that until he hears “Tom Marvolo Riddle”.

“Then, it won’t be possible. What a pity!”

The portrait curiously asks for a reason, so Harry explains what the Sorting Hat told him of the Dark Lord Voldemort. Last year, when talking about what happened in the chamber, Harry didn’t go into much detail about this side of the story. He called the Dark Lord Voldemort “the man who killed my parents and now is a wrath possessing whatever he can get his hands on”. Now, he tells the portrait all he knows about the Dark Lord Voldemort. He relays the whispers and rumours he heard – both from the Light side and the Dark, as much as the Slytherins dare say around him. He confesses that he tried to find out more, but that the teachers rebuff him because he should not “worry about it and be a child”, even while telling him that the Dark Lord Voldemort is after him. He admits that he tried to find anything about the Wizarding War in the library, but couldn’t. The only books in the Diagon Alley bookstore are biographies about him – how anyone can believe they are correct when he never spoke with a wizard even once before he turned eleven and some imaginative author stretches the fifteen months he lived in the Wizarding World into a four-hundred-pages book, remains an eternal mystery. He flipped through a few of them. They all start with description of his parents that are very verbose versions of “They were good at Charms and Transfiguration. They had a group of friends, of which a member named Sirius Black later betrayed them. James was a Pureblood from the Potter family. Lily was a Muggleborn. James looked like this. Lily looked like this. They married right out of school and participated in the war. They had one son. They named him Harry.” Then comes some fantastic portrayal of how the Dark Lord Voldemort entered the house, followed by an epic duel between him and James Potter, followed by James’ death, followed by the Dark Lord Voldemort’s slow and dramatic walk up the stairs – down the hall – into the first room – into the second room (depending on the author, this repeats up to sixty times) – and finally, into the nursery. There’s more duelling, this time with Lily Potter, who apparently almost won and still had the breath for witty remarks the Dark Lord Voldemort could not defend himself against in the middle of the fast-paced duel, before Lily’s death is stretched over twenty pages, including some dramatic last words to her son, curses at the Dark Lord Voldemort and encouragements to all the other fighters to not give up. Finally comes Harry Potter, the Killing Curse to his forehead, the Dark Lord Voldemort’s perish.

Then, the books all stop.

No explanation. If the author did the research especially well, there’s usually an epilogue of how one brave Auror alone confronted the mad Sirius Black and was almost killed before subduing his adversary.

Happy End, apparently.

Needless to say, Harry is not very convinced of the truthful portrayal of those books.

The library man clearly is lost for words at the end of Harry’s tale. He changes the topic and tells Harry everything about Parseltongue that he knows, but it’s not a lot. He only knows that Harry can both understand and talk to snakes and similar animals – there’s a legend saying that Slytherin himself held long conversations with dragons – and that there are certain spells that only a Speaker can cast.

Seeing as they have nothing else to do and no way of solving their problems, Harry and portrait turn their attention back to potions they could use for the bracelet.

 

Before the students have to decide whether they’ll stay in the castle or if they’ll leave for the holidays, news breaks out: Apparently, a Ravenclaw and a Hufflepuff student were petrified, as well, during the last weeks, a fact which was kept secret. The Slytherins scorn the other students for being more cautious and fearful outwardly, but on the inside, they also are concerned and confused. Malfoy takes to dragging his stuffed dragon around inside their room, hilariously shrinking it a bit as if that would make it less obvious. Only very few pupils remain in Hogwarts. Harry idly wonders what sort of homes they come from they would risk petrification before returning.

Harry notices some strange voice in the walls – it sounds like a snake. Armed with this new information – for it must be Slytherin’s Monster –, he and the library portrait bury themselves in research. The man has never heard of a snake who can petrify, but isn’t sure if such a species was discovered or bred after he died. They don’t find anything scaly with that ability. Harry resolves to ask the ghosts.

He’s lucky. Moaning Myrtle knows exactly what he’s talking about.

It appears that the snake doesn’t petrify. A direct look at it kills.

How did no-one ever notice that a Basilisk sleeps under the school, especially when it appeared fifty years ago and even killed a student, leaving her ghost behind as a witness? Is Harry seriously the first one to ask her how she died?

Before Harry can agonise for a long time over what to do about the Basilisk and finding out how it got free at all, the problem solves itself.

 

Shortly after break, Myrtle makes a rare exception to leave her toilet and comes to find Harry, crying. It’s very uncomfortable. Not only does he not have any idea what to say to her, she also appears in the dorm room, in full view of Malfoy who only adds to the situation by laughing hysterically and insulting both Harry and Myrtle. Now very well-versed in the act of ignoring Malfoy, Harry convinces Myrtle to walk to her washroom with him. There, he fishes a little black book out of one toilet and leaves with Myrtle thankful and embarrassingly shouting after him.

Curious about the book, seeing as it’s not wet at all, he opens it, only to stop short at the entry of the owner’s name: T. M. Riddle.

Automatically, Harry’s mind jumps to the only person he knows – of? – that has these initials. But is it possible?

He takes his trunk out of his pocket, enlarges it, takes out the bag he keeps his daily school necessities in, grabs a quill that looks a bit worse for wear and an inkwell that only holds a bit of ink, unscrews the inkwell, puts the tip of the quill into the ink, carefully lifts the quill, strokes it along the glass of the inkwell to discard all excess ink, lifts the quill – hesitates, pauses.

Does he really dare? Who knows what sort of magical artefact it is. Maybe he shouldn’t – maybe he should first talk to the library portrait? Or a teacher?

A small droplet of ink hits the blank page in front of him.

It disappears.

In its stead appears a single quotation mark.

Harry holds his breath, swallows thickly and upends the inkwell over the paper.

Hello some mysterious force writes. My name is Tom Riddle. What is your name?

Harry’s heart stops beating.

Don’t be afraid.

Tom Riddle.

Harry throws the book shut and breathes deeply to get rid of the panic, the flashback to two-faced-man-helpless-bound-afraid-terrified-please-stop. Then, trying to hide the shaking in his hands, he calmly picks up the empty inkwell and washes it by hand. He takes the quill and cleans it, as well. He breathes in and out. It’s easier now. He dries off inkwell and quill. He packs them back into the bag for school necessities. He puts it into the trunk. He shrinks the trunk to its matchbox size. He returns it to his pocket. He breathes in and out.

His breathing almost sounds normal again.

Tom Riddle. T. M. Riddle.

That cannot be anyone else than the Dark Lord Voldemort. Harry hypothesises that the book can somehow speak to someone, maybe through that person or magic or creature or something writing. Maybe it can even possess someone? And it wants to let loose the Basilisk, somehow can control it to kill – but then, why were all the attacks so clumsy and not a single one ended in death? Were they accidents? But so many? And with the message on the wall? And the dead roosters that Hagrid bemoans every time he talks to a teacher? But why planned in such an unsuccessful way? Why not lead the beast right into the Great Hall during dinner? Why attack only Muggleborns?

Why set it on the students, anyway? To create terror in the hearts of the whole school? To remind the Wizarding World of the Dark Lord Voldemort? Because he really is as fanatic about blood purity as everyone seems to think? Because someone got their hands on the diary and twisted it somehow?

Does it really matter?

It’s important now to stop the Basilisk.

Harry sets out to investigate the bathroom. Is there something special to it that explains why the diary ended up there?

Thanks to a few questions to Myrtle, he knows where the entry to the Chamber of Secrets is. Resolved to end its reign of terror, he decides to go down and tell it about the notebook and that it won’t order the snake around anymore. That will stop the school from being closed, which will stop the house elves from worrying quite so much and have the added benefit of Harry not being forced to return to the Dursley house early. It will stop the entire school from having to fear for their lives. And it will stop the Basilisk from being controlled and forced to attack. Only benefits. No drawbacks. No downsides. No thinking about dead-with-one-look-no-one-knows-where-no-one-would-believe-you-anyway-fangs-poison-deadly-gaze-into-the-unknown.

First, Harry takes out his trunk from his pocket and hides the Dark Lord Voldemort’s book in it, at the very bottom. He’ll have to put more protective charms around it. He has the time; the potions are all decided on, but can’t be brewed until he gets better at it. One of the ones the library portrait thought Harry would be able to make was a disaster and had to be put on hold, and the others are several levels more difficult.

Then, he invites Myrtle along. She declines, the mere mention of the Basilisk frightening her, but she thanks him for offering to take her along on an “adventure”. Harry thought he’d rather have someone come along who the Basilisk’s eyes can’t kill, and that Myrtle would love to definitely know what killed her and boast for the next century that she knows what a Basilisk looks like, but apparently not. He explains his reasoning to Myrtle who looks on the verge of pouting. When he’s done, he quickly reassures her that of course, if she changes her mind at any time, he’ll lead her to the Chamber of Secrets whenever she wants!

At the end of it, she apparently contemplates whether a living being can marry a ghost and offers to even share the same cubicle if Harry becomes a ghost.

 

After a long and stinky slide and an even longer march on foot, Harry enters the Chamber of Secrets. The Basilisk is already waiting, hissing, §Master, master, what shall we hunt today?§

Harry closes his eyes after catching sight of its long, broad tail end. §Your master has been gone for a long time. A magical artefact led you to attack innocent children.§

  • Attack… children§, it repeats. §Yes, I’ll attack children!§
  • No! Don’t!§, Harry shouts. §Don’t attack children!§

The snake rears back, raises its gigantic head and shakes it as if confused. It completely ignores Harry, instead hissing to itself. §Why has master left me? He said he’ll come back, he’ll come back. No return, no return. Wait-wait-waiting. Heir master was his heir. Attack, attack!§

  • No, please don’t!§

Harry tries talking to the Basilisk for a long time, but he slowly realises that its mind has been destroyed by the long absence of its master and the fact that he never actually released it from their bond.

With a dry mouth, Harry asks, §Do you want me to kill you?§

  • Kill – kill – kill them all!§, the snake hisses before the meaning of the sentence penetrates its mind. §Kill me? You?§ It falls into hissy laughter, then stops abruptly. §When did master leave?§
  • Salazar Slytherin died almost a thousand years ago§, Harry explains carefully.
  • So long? Master dead for so long?§ It seems to freeze. §Deal, hatchling, let’s make a deal. We fight, you and I. I kill you, I kill the whole school, I kill the whole world. Nothing should be alive if master isn’t. Nothing. But you, hatchling, if you slay me, I’m reunited with master. I want to be with master. But I want revenge! Revenge for master!§

It rises up, its head ten metres above Harry who swallows heavily. He knows exactly that the Basilisk has no intention of letting him refuse. §If that is your wish, great snake.§

In that moment, a phoenix flies down some hidden entrance. It can’t be the one Harry used because he closed that to prevent anyone from accidentally falling down. With it, it brings a large cloth – is that – yes, it is – the Sorting Hat. Harry gaps at it.

The phoenix issues a war cry, drops the hat near Harry and flies to battle.

It both wins and loses.

It succeeds in scratching out the Basilisk’s eyes, giving Harry a chance at fighting. On the other hand, it somehow must have caught a reflexion of the deadly gaze because it falls down, petrified.

Harry grabs onto the Hat, hoping something will help him. The phoenix brought it to him, after all. Maybe it can somehow talk him through an escape, or even a fight? The thin fabric contains nothing one minute, a sword the next. As if a sword would help him! He’s never even seen a sword before today! Not even mentioning one as noble as – is that the Gryffindor banner?

A loud hiss rips him out of his thoughts.

Now, the Basilisk is not only mad from grief, loneliness and its master’s abandonment, but also from pain.

This all adds to one very furious, very crazy twenty-metre long snake out for blood.

Harry does what any sensible twelve-year-old would do.

He runs.

The only problem is that the Basilisk is, in addition to deadly, huge and angry, also very fast and smart. It realises what Harry wants to do and gets between him and the door. A snake doesn’t need eyes to see, relying on vibrations instead. The Basilisk is no different from an ordinary snake, only infinitely more dangerous.

  • Nowhere to run now, hatchling. I kill you, rip you, shred you! After, I kill and rip and shred the world!§ It doesn’t sound happy at the prospect, but seems determined to win.

Harry manages to evade several of its attacks while looking around for a small hiding place.

Nothing.

Of course, that would have been too easy.

Finally, he somehow manages to push the blade of the sword through the soft palate of the snake into its brain just as it wants to swallow him whole.

Which was a stupid idea, he thinks as the muscles relax in death and the mouth slowly closes – with Harry still inside. He barely manages to get out before the jaws snap closed. Unfortunately, he’s not fast enough, and a fang pierces his arm.

At first, he believes that it’s not so bad. He’s been hurt worse – a lot worse – and there’s not a lot of pain.

Then, it starts to burn.

Venom, he realises. There’s a reason why Basilisk Venom is declared Dark and, therefore, illegal. It’s almost impossible to heal and with every attempt to try out a useless antivenin, it attacks twice as furiously as before.

Judging by the way his hand goes numb, Harry only has a few minutes.

He remembers the phoenix. Phoenix tears are said to be the best healing agent in the world. Perhaps, he could convince it to shed one for him?

Except that, when Harry has finally crawled over to where the phoenix fell, it’s still petrified.

And broken in half.

Already losing hope, he looks it over and sees two tears just underneath the stone eyes. Maybe it tried to heal itself and was too late or broke apart before the tears could do their job. Anyway, he carefully brings his wound closer to the dead bird. As if attracted to the injury, one tear rises up. When it connects with the blood of the tear, there’s a bright light and both wound and tear are gone.

Which leaves one droplet of healing.

Harry carefully takes his wand and levitates it into one of the vials he carries around in his trunk for Potions class. He’ll take good care of it.

Then, he strokes the phoenix’ stone head and thanks it for its kindness and apologises for the price it had to pay. When he’s done, he walks over to the Basilisk corpse. To it, he also says sorry, but secretly wonders why it wanted to swallow him, thus presenting him with its vulnerable palate, instead of crushing him, and if it only wanted to put up a fight before death.

Harry takes the venom of all the Basilisk’s fangs, also the teeth themselves when they loosen and fall out after the loss of their content, and stores them safely in his trunk, deciding that the rest of the year will be spent exclusively on warding it. The bracelet is protected enough for now while his trunk really needs some sort of safety feature.

With a last sad look around this Chamber of Death, he leaves, running into some difficulty at the slide, but having a neat Dark spell handy which makes two things stick together – his hands and feet to the wall as he slowly climbs up.

Myrtle, wringing her hands and waiting for him anxiously, throws one look at his face and lets him go without trying to stop him or talk to him.

 

The next day at breakfast, the headmaster watches him as closely as he can. Only after lunch does Harry find a minute alone that he uses to return to the chamber to grab the Sorting Hat. He thanks it – swearing that one corner of its mouth twitches upward – and puts it in some out-of-the-way place easy to find.

It’s only discovered after the headmaster – four weeks later – holds a grave speech about the thief of the Sorting Hat please putting it back. No mention is made of the phoenix.

Harry breathes a sigh of relief.

 

The next day while visiting Myrtle, a little red-haired girl happens upon him. Thankfully, he’s only chatting with the ghost instead of brewing, but it still is weird for him to be in a girl’s bathroom.

The girl blushes a bright red when she sees him, then blanches. Myrtle hurries to reassure her that Harry is not here to peak, or make fun of her, that they are only talking and that they’ll leave her alone.

The girl shakes her head, tears in her eyes, and storms to a cubicle, throwing open the door so that it hits the wall with a loud bang before moving onto the next. Harry and Myrtle exchange confused looks and observe as she does so with every cubicle before sinking down on her knees, tears streaming down her face.

“What happened?”, Myrtle asks. She’s trying to hide her glee at her bathroom being so popular, but doesn’t really manage. The girl doesn’t seem to hear it.

With a voice that comes from far away, she explains, “I lost my diary.”

“Oh, oh!”, Myrtle exclaims. “Is it black? Say, say, is it black, and this big?”

The girl nods with vigour. “Did you see it?!”

“Did I see it?” Myrtle preens, puffing out her chest and making herself as tall as she can be, floating a bit higher above the floor to maximise the effect. “Of course I saw it!” Then, she does a complete 180 as she comes to a realisation. “Did you throw it into my toilet?”

The girl shakes her head in a panic, but the truth is written all over her features. Myrtle lets out a frightening wail and shouts about “my toilet” and “blocked up” and starts crying. “Why is everyone always bullying me?”, she asks before diving into her toilet and disappearing.

Harry, familiar with her temper, isn’t fazed, knowing that she will calm down after a few minutes alone. The girl looks shaken, although she gathers herself up after a few seconds.

“What- what happened? What happened to my diary? Where is my diary?!”

Awkwardly, Harry starts to explain, “Myrtle got me to take it out, and I didn’t know what it was, so I opened it.” But does he really want to explain to her that the diary somehow controlled her, or that it belonged to or was made by the Dark Lord Voldemort, or that it’s in his trunk? He can’t return it, that much is clear. So, he lies. “But don’t worry! Nothing was written in it. It was all soggy and wet, and wouldn’t dry, so I burned it. But I didn’t read what you wrote in it, I promise!”

The girl looks up at him with shiny grateful eyes.

He pretends not to notice, leaving as soon as possible.

 

After a few peaceful days – as peaceful as days in Hogwarts can get when you are Harry Potter and a Slytherin –, Harry is called to the headmaster’s office. There, he’s questioned in great detail about everything about the diary he found and – supposedly – burned. Under half-moon glasses, blue eyes twinkle as they follow every of his movements. Harry keeps his eyes on his hands, folded in his lap. The office itself makes his head ache, filled with various objects that flash or twitch or beep or steam or jump, forming a cacophony of noise and movement. He doesn’t want to look at the headmaster for fear of what might reveal him as the liar he is. Uncle Vernon could always tell when he was lying – not that he cared much if he truly did something bad or freakish before punishing him – and the headmaster probably shares that skill.

Harry denies any and all knowledge that the diary was in any way extraordinary. Yes, it was filled with writing. Blue ink, probably, but the script was so distorted by the water that he couldn’t tell. The handwriting looked very soft and curvy, so it probably was written by a girl. No idea if it was Ginny’s writing, never having seen it before. Yes, it may have looked similar to this, but with the water… It was soaked through; not a single page was anything nearing dry. What is the purpose of keeping a waterlogged book? The flames dimmed when the book was thrown in, of course – that’s what fire dos when something wet enters it. There was a bit of steam, but as previously stated, the book was sodden. It took a while before the pages caught fire, of course – because it was wet through and through. The cover burned last. It landed on its pages, with the spine pointing to the chimney. No, as far as Harry knows, no Slytherins have started hallucinating or behaving differently, but he’s not close to any of them, and why is the headmaster asking about that?

“Oh, no reason, my boy,” is the answer. The headmaster leans back with a bright smile on his face, twirling the tip of his beard between his fingers. “I was just trying to make sure that everything is alright. In fact, my dear boy, Ginny Weasley – that is the name of the owner, in case you didn’t know – found the diary in her cauldron after the family shopping trip. It was, if my belief holds true, cursed long ago by its previous owner who was a fearsome Dark wizard. I only wanted to check that there were no adverse reactions to its destruction. My boy, do not carelessly handle unknown magical artefacts since you can never know what spells have been put on them.”

Shouldn’t the headmaster tell this to Ginny? With that last name, she’s probably Ron’s little sister, and therefore a Pureblood witch. Finding a weird book in her cauldron, instead of asking her parents about it or reporting it, she just… decides to use it? On the other hand, Harry only took it from its place in a school where no harmful artefacts should have even the slightest possibility of entering, and immediately put it on fire – supposedly. Even in reality, he was not stupid enough to write in it, or do anything else but seal it. If he had any faith in the adults, he might have even brought it to Professor McGonagall. So how come he’s the one berated for irresponsible behaviour?

It goes on for a while, the headmaster dishing out such well-meaning and condescending advice that Harry struggles not to jump up and just leave.

Before he can, though, the door blows open. A man enters, self-assuredness in every line of his body. Harry only has to throw a single glance at him to know that he’s Malfoy’s infamous father. They have the same sharp features, the same hair, the same haughty expression. But while Malfoy looks pointy like a ferret, the father has an age-old beauty that can be found in Renaissance paintings. While Malfoy keeps his hair short and heavily subdued by a hair gel that strongly smells of herbs, the father’s fair hair trails over his shoulders freely. While Malfoy is haughty, Harry can feel that he still is way off from his father who musters the office and the people in it down his nose in barely-hidden disgust.

“Dumbledore”, he says. Only after a few moments does he pretend that he notices Harry. “And who might you be?” Without giving anyone a chance to reply, he turns back to the headmaster. “What is being done about the monster attacking your students? The parents are concerned and want answers.”

He raises a blond eyebrow and twirls his walking stick in his left hand, the beak of the handle showing to Harry and then to its owner. Harry slowly rises from his chair and walks to the door, trying to leave. It is obvious that this is not a discussion he should be part of.

Only… When he stands in front of Mister Malfoy, he refuses to step aside. Harry thinks it another of those stupid dominance games the Slytherins are so fond of, but Mister Malfoy musters him too closely for that to be the case.

“And where do you think you’re going, young man?”, he asks sternly.

Harry blinks in confusion. Isn’t it obvious? “It seems like you and the headmaster have something to discuss, and I don’t think he had much more to say to me, so I will leave you alone.”

Mister Malfoy gives a noise that could either be a hiccup, a suppressed laughter or a rich-people snort. Him being who he is and who his son is, Harry bets on the last.

“I don’t think so, Mister Potter,” he drawls, dragging his name out for as long as it can last.

Now, Harry is tired. He spent overly long yesterday in the library and returned to see that the homework he’d foolishly left behind in his room had mysteriously disappeared, so he spent half the night re-writing it. In the morning, Malfoy woke up early which means that the rest of the room didn’t get any rest, either. For Harry, who normally wakes up with the sun, it meant only a few less minutes of sleep, but the moaning and groaning of the others hurt his sleep-deprived head, a pain which would not lessen during the day filled with noisy children and yelling teachers. When he finally thought it was time for a short nap in the afternoon, a house elf decided to visit, which was nice, indeed, but also high-pitched and exhausting. Immediately afterwards, he was called to the headmaster’s office to have this interrogation during which he needed to keep his wits and recall what detail he’d changed in which way and what lies he had already told. And now this.

So Harry’s patience snaps. He has no time for whatever this is, and no desire whatsoever to talk to either of the two men in this office. He puts on a bland smile and says, “I’m sorry, Mister Malfoy. I didn’t know that in the Wizarding World, such important conversations are held in front of children. That does explain, however, how your son knows-“

“Enough!”, Mister Malfoy barks. “Leave, boy.”

Harry does so without further comment. As soon as his back is turned, Mister Malfoy grabs his uniform. He hisses, “And keep control of your tongue, lest you someday lose it.”

Harry stumbles forward as the uniform – which has undergone a lot already, and survived close physical contact to a Basilisk – rips. Mister Malfoy looks at the piece of cloth he has in his hands in disgust and does that rich-people snort again.

“As expected,” he says disdainfully as he flips the fabric to the side – right in the arms of a waiting Dobby.

Dobby looks at the piece of black in his hands, then at Mister Malfoy, then at Harry. His face lights up as if hit with a Lumos and he starts to smile from ear to ear and probably beyond. “Oh, oh, thanks yous, Ex-Master Malfies! Thanks yous! Dobby bes a free house elfs now!”

He starts dancing around, skipping and laughing. Mister Malfoy throws a look so poisonous at Harry that he freezes instinctually. Mister Malfoy whips out his wand, the tip already lighting up- when the headmaster intervenes.

“Now, now, dear Lucius,” he says, his eyes twinkling like mad and a smile almost as broad as Dobby’s on his lips.

Reminded of the headmaster, Lucius Malfoy stops himself and turns back to him. Harry uses the chance while he has it and flees.

 

Only a bit later, a vicious rumour breaks out.

Everyone saw how Malfoy’s conjured snake slithered up to Harry and harmlessly climbed up to his neck. So, obviously, he must have some affinity for snakes, or command them, or be commanded by them, who knows. The rumours don’t exactly make a lot of sense.

Either way, the whole school decides that Harry is to blame for the cases of petrification. It doesn’t matter that he never had anything to do with any of the victims, or that he himself is Muggle-raised, or that he doesn’t have any thoughts on blood purity except for finding it very stupid, or that he’s never been anywhere near the victims when they were found, or that he was in class or in the Great Hall when they were petrified.

The school has decided.

Now, it may accidentally happen – very often – that a student may accidentally move their wand in a way that may accidentally let loose a hex or jinx which may accidentally either hit Harry or miss him just-so.

The Slytherins throw house unity into the wind and join in. They think they know that only a Parselmouth could open the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry is no Parselmouth, so they have to punish him for “claiming untruths” or some such rot.

Harry is too busy avoiding spells to pay much attention to the reason why they’re shot at him.

He’s more thankful than ever for Dudley chasing him and teaching him to evade, but he often is not fast enough.

In the last months of school, Harry learns a lot of counter-curses, one or two healing spells and a low-level glamour. He learns to evade, hide, sink into the background – not like he couldn’t do those things beforehand, but now, with a whole school instead of two adults and a child with his group of friends out for him, he raises it to an art form.

On the other hand, his paranoia reaches an all-time high and stays that way. One ear to the back, one to the side. One eye to the other side, one to the front. Never let yourself get caught unaware. His confidence in adults completely shatters after he hesitatingly talks to both Professor Snape – “Do not bother me with your childish troubles after spreading such attention-seeking lies” – and Professor McGonagall – “Potter, in this school, exaggeration is not well-received” – and is harshly rebuffed. He thought about maybe telling one teacher about the situation at the Dursleys – yes, he does know such treatment is not okay or actually legal, but he can’t exactly do anything about it – and seeking help, but seeing the reaction to a comparatively miniscule problem with much more obvious evidence, he decides against it. He doesn’t want to hear that he “misunderstood something” or that his uncle “didn’t mean it” when he beat Harry bloody.

 

After a year spent studying, putting all protections he can manage on his trunk and the various dangerous objects in it, and positive and negative social interactions – talking to portraits, ghosts, house elves and, on the other hand, the insults of literally everyone –, Harry is to return to the Dursleys.

He’d prefer Hogwarts, even with all the Houses convinced he opened the Chamber of Secrets, but no can do.

Chapter Text

Third year brings an escaped murder convict, apparently hell-bent on killing Harry.

It also brings a new defence teacher as – surprise, surprise! – Lockhart was discovered to be a fraud. It was revealed that he was travelling the world and finding people who did the heroic deeds he wrote about, asking them for all the details and then casting a Memory Charm on them so that they no longer remember what Lockhart deemed gallant enough to make a book out of. This summer, however, after producing a new book – supposedly, Lockhart found the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets and battled with Slytherin’s Monster, thus saving the whole school, which can’t be true if only because Lockhart is (similar to Malfoy) incapable of doing anything without boasting about it afterwards, though Harry certainly respects the skill that enabled Lockhart to evade any and all mentions of what exactly the monster was and how it was defeated (the Chamber of Secrets apparently is a deep, dark black that cannot be lightened even with the most powerful Lumos and so Lockhart had to fight blind against the fierce “monster”) –, Lockhart began travelling the world again for summer vacation and came across the man who actually drove the hags from Haggling with Hags away, in the same rural village that man saved. Of course, the inhabitants remembered him, to his great surprise, and thanked him repeatedly. A flabbergasted Lockhart – outing himself as the one to charm him and enraging the whole village to the point that he probably would have found himself murdered if not for his next mishap – tried to use the Memory Charm on him again, but instead managed a hitherto unmanaged three-fold spell: It took down the Memory Charm that he’d cast on the man, deleted Lockhart’s own memories, and, the most undramatic but unexpected part, grew a bush of decidedly non-native white roses. Lockhart certainly would not be pleased to know that while now he will go down in history, like he always wanted, it will not be as the most heroic hero to ever hero, but as the fraud who cast an impossible spell. He will not displeased, though, because he’s deleted his own memories so thoughtfully and thoroughly that he’s reduced to something akin to an eternal three-months-old infant, not being able to eat, drink, use the toilet, or even sit on his own.

When Harry hears this, he thinks a thrilled “Karma is a bitch” and resolves to never ever waste a thought on Lockhart ever again.

It also brings a new confrontation with Malfoy and his goons and, influenced by the Third Year King, the second year Slytherins.

It also brings renewed stalking of Hermione and Ron, who now apologise and tearfully admit that they were wrong, won’t Harry please take up their friendship again? Harry wonders how his constant dismissal of them could be in any way considered friendly.

In addition to all that, it also brings Dementors.

His first encounter with these creatures, Harry only survives because he shares his compartment with a man. This fact is weird and has had him on edge from the very beginning because no adults ever are aboard the Hogwarts express. The only one who is contractually allowed is the lady who takes care of it – she sells refreshments, cleans the train and keeps it in good condition during the school year. Other adults are not allowed except for in extenuating circumstances. Apparently, there was an issue of a criminal trying to escape arrest by boarding the Hogwarts Express and holding the children hostage. Since then, a spell has been put over the train to ward off adults without explicit permission form – the headmaster.

That would explain it.

After last year – Harry arrived at the conclusion that the headmaster must have convinced the phoenix to go down and fight the Basilisk as soon as Harry was close to it as nothing else makes sense, and if the phoenix knew where to enter the Chamber of Secrets and what to fight against, there’s no chance that the headmaster didn’t –, Harry is not surprised to learn of new machinations. Dementors, the kind of creatures that cause mental damage just by being around and that are capable of killing with only a simple Kiss, the guardians of the “best wizarding prison in the entire world”, or, as others formulate it, the cruellest, the breed of beast who, to instil trust and mutual understanding and respect, enter a train full of children – against their orders – and almost kill one – against their orders – and cause trauma for several more, are left to merrily wander amongst children. Harry learns of Sirius Black’s existence by talking to the man who, perchance, is the new Defence professor, Lupin. He is unimpressed, but unsurprised to find that he has not been beforehand informed that maybe, possibly, a murderer is after him this school year.

This has Headmaster Dumbledore’s handwriting all over it.

Munching on chocolate, Harry muses why that man is so obsessed with him.

 

This year, as well, Harry met up with Silvia. She congratulated him for beating a Basilisk, the King of Serpents, and told him that “a blood a phoenixes an’ a venom a Basilisks – ye gonna be a s’rong wizard one day, lad” and that “unexpected shadows ‘round ye, lad, all year ‘round. No’ ev’rythin’s wha’ i’ seems”.

Harry wonders if Silvia is a Seer. But he is respectful of her secrets, as she is with his, and doesn’t ask. Instead, he argued that he should receive a bill of how much he now owes Silvia, one that has a number standing on it and not just a cheeky “Good luck, you’ll need it with this potion!”

She looked at him with approval in her eyes and smiled before declaring that Harry doesn’t pay in her shop, period.

So he didn’t. Instead, he donated a stack of coins, getting out before Silvia could return it. He’s not looking forward to her next letter, though.

 

Third year, except for all the negative things connected to it, also brings two positives: Harry now has more magic, being older, and can cast more charms on the bracelet and his trunk. In Potions, he steadily learns how to brew better and more difficult potions, so he soon manages to produce another few for his bracelet.

The second positive is his new classes.

Last year, he researched endlessly for about two months before deciding. Muggle Studies would not be useful to him at all, especially seeing how the teacher seems to think that bras are a popular kind of jewellery. He thought a bit about Divination, but found out that it’s a difficult subject where you can only learn something if you have the Gift, which Harry does not have. That left him with three classes: Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, which Harry didn’t even have to consider, and Care for Magical Creatures, which he broods over for a while, weighing the benefits – seeing magical creatures! – against the disadvantages – maybe there’ll be dogs or other creatures that will bark-bite-hurt-help!-hurts. In the end, he decides to take the class.

 

The first new class he has is Arithmancy with Professor Brand.

“Call me Brand First,” he jokes as he introduces himself, “and my brother Brand Second. It’ll make him furious.”

Harry has been very interested in the subject even before he opened the textbook. The professor holds a long speech covering what Harry already knows: Ancient Runes and Arithmancy can be used to describe the same things.

“Take this box for example,” the professor explains, holding up a wooden box of a length of about ten centimetres. “If I asked you to describe one attribute of it, most of you would say it’s out of wood, or it’s brown, or whatever. That answer is right, but has nothing to do here. If you’d rather find words to describe things, go to my brother and learn about Runes. In Arithmancy, I’d say that it’s this long, this high, this wide, has this circumference – you get the idea. Of course, both answers are valid and correct: This box is both five centimetres high as well as made out of oak. Arithmancy sometimes is called a ‘supplementary art’.” He snorts. “Those people don’t know anything. It is true that Arithmancy itself can’t solve any problems, contrary to Runes. With them, you just write the properties of the solution you want to have. Arithmancy ‘only’ gives you the features for the spells you need to cast to accomplish the same.”

He demonstrates this by putting an apple on his desk and writing out an equation, solving it and then casting two spells on the fruit. Harry recognises them as the Preservation Charms the house elves cast over the food they gift to him. On the other side of the desk, the professor puts another apple. This time, he produces a Rune dictionary and finds some Runes that he then scratches into the soft skin.

“Those two things have the exact same effects”, he explains. “But as you noticed, I had to put the Runes somewhere – there were multiple options, to be fair, like writing them with a pen or etching them into the desk, but that’s really stuff you’d learn in Runes. In magic, no two spells or solutions do the exact same thing, even if they may appear similar. I could, for example, not cast those spells onto the desk and preserve every apple I put on it because the spells only work on the object they’re cast at, so the desk would be preserved. But I could scratch the Runes into it and everything within that circle of runes would be conserved.”

He lets the pupils have some minutes to think it over. When they all appear to get it, he carries on with the lesson, “Now, onto the boring stuff! Open your books on page-“

 

After class, Harry hesitantly stays back. The professor turns to him and smiles.

“Ah, Mister Potter! What can I do for you?”

“I was just wondering”, he begins slowly, “but can you combine Runes and Arithmancy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Say that you want to make everything above a certain surface float, for example. Then, you’d have to use Runes, right?” At the professor’s nod, he continues, “But if you then want to have one certain object be exempt from that, you cannot write Runes to allow that, correct?”

The professor considers this for a bit, then answers, “You could do it, but it would be excruciatingly complicated. I’m talking of fifty Rune sequences and up, and that’s if it’s one fixed object that cannot change its features the way a living being can.”

“So you would have to spell that object. Then, it wouldn’t matter if it changed because spells are not as specific, right?” Harry peers up at him from under his fringe, crossing his arms nervously. “I’ve read our course book over the summer, but there was no note if it is possible to include the Runes involved in the circle into the arithmantic equation. If the equation was done without the Runes, the solution might not work if only one Rune were to counter the spell, even if only partially.”

The professor muses for a bit, but stops short quickly to speak. “That’s correct. Ten points to Slytherin for all the hard thinking you put into that. I must say I never really thought about it. I’ll talk to my brother about it; maybe he knows something. Combining Arithmancy with Runes… But how did you think of that?”

Slightly bashful, Harry fights the urge to bite his lip or stare at his nails or scratch his neck, but he can’t keep his eyes from wandering from the professor’s, neither can he keep himself from speeding up while talking. “I was reading through my Runes book when I noticed that the sequence for a similar two-part magic like the one I gave as an example looked really complicated and I figured that the arithmantic solution would be simpler. But when I compared it to my Arithmancy books, the solution was even more complicated. There were about twenty spells to be cast. Then, I looked closer. The complicated part for the Runic answer was only the second part, which was the easy part of the arithmantic result. I looked up if such a combination was possible. I mean, it is possible to put Runes on an object and then cast a spell on it, I know that, but I wondered if there existed some solution which tied the two together. So far as I know, people usually make a decision for Runes or Arithmancy, so they wouldn’t be able to think up solutions in both ways and then compare them the way I did. It took quite long, as well, but that’s probably because I’m new to these subjects.”

In the end, his tone tilts so high it’s almost a question. Harry winces.

“So, you’re asking me if there’s an arithmantic equation of which the solution is a Runic sequence combined with a spell, and if there’s an arithmantic equation in which you not only put in the goal and current situation, but also the Runes involved”, the teacher recaps. “Excuse me, I need to talk to my brother immediately. We need to look into that, and if it doesn’t exist yet, invent it! That would be genius!”

With that, he is off, leaving a bewildered Harry behind.

Wasn’t this obvious? Is it really possible that no-one has thought of it before?

 

In Ancient Runes the next day, the professor introduces himself as “Professor Brand the First, please. Call my brother the second, he’s the younger one. And no, it does not matter that he had the first lesson. Tell him that!”

His lecture is similar to his brother’s, only praising the virtue of Runes more. For those few taking both Arithmancy and Ancient Runes – which is three, to be exact; one Ravenclaw girl Harry doesn’t know, Hermione and Harry himself –, it’s a very boring lesson, but the professor promises more diversity in later lessons.

After class, he holds Harry back and questions him about his “ground-breaking research question”. Harry can only give the same answers and explanations he gave yesterday. The professor is contemplative for a while before offering Harry a part in the experiments necessary for discovering this new connection. Harry, speechless, can only nod happily.

The library portrait later scolds him for being so disbelieving of good fortune falling into his lap, but is pleased with this development.

 

Of course, Harry cannot contribute much when the Professors Brand and him start meeting up to get started on their project. He’s a beginner at both Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, and most of the discussions go way over his head. But because he’s a beginner, he can interrupt and asks the sort of questions only someone not familiar with the topic can ask. Some of his questions are easily answered, as they seemingly come up every year in class, while others dissolve into an hours-long discussion. Some seem to throw the professors off – “What makes it so that arithmantic equations only give the features of a spell? Couldn’t it just as easily be features of a Rune?” They have to think hard about those questions, write them down and swear to discover the answer.

All in all, Harry is happy with this situation. While the professors experimentally write and solve equations and try out the results, Harry sits there with his books, doing homework or studying. When they discuss the results of their experiments or plan what to do next, Harry listens and tries to understand what they are talking about. In his free time, he now concentrates on books about Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, easily reaching an understanding most fourth years don’t have yet. With that knowledge, he calculates which hexes he can tie to which charm and puts them on his bracelet, feeling more secure with each added bit of protection.

 

Between classes, Harry spies a little figure scurrying after him.

He wonders what this is all about, but ignores her.

 

Apparently, the professor for Care for Magical Creatures retired last year. Now, Mister Hagrid teaches.

Harry wonders how he can show them anything, protect them or the animals, when he can’t even cast the simplest spell and, more importantly, isn’t allowed to do so.

The first lesson ends as well as expected. Professor Hagrid wants the students to bow to Hippogriffs. Ron does such a lopsided bow that the animal looks at him, huffs, and turns away. Malfoy laughs so hard he falls out of his bow, landing in the grass that is still slightly wet from the rain last night, staining his robes with mud. Now, Ron is the one laughing until Malfoy grabs his ankle and jerks him into the dirt as well. All Hippogriffs turn away from the two of them, which affronts both of them. They start arguing and blaming each other, almost pushing the other into a Hippogriff that threateningly rises to its hind legs.

The boys are equally frightened and let out equally high squeaks. For the rest of the lesson, they hide behind the other students, far away from the Hippogriffs. The animals shy away from them, as well.

They flock to Harry who’s rising out of his own bow, having got the approval of the beast opposite him. He chose this Hippogriff because it’s scrawny and stands a bit away from the others. He thought it was an outsider, just like Harry. Instead, Professor Hagrid later reveals, the Hippogriff to stand on the side and watch is the leader, away from the others to keep an eye on them and possible dangers. For Hippogriffs, muscles and intimidating height are not as important as intelligence and observant eyes. He is thrilled that Harry gained this Hippogriff’s respect as it is tricky to even get close to him, the other Hippogriffs intervening immediately if the being walking closer could be even the slightest bit dangerous.

Harry is pleased with the Hippogriffs’ approval, but less delighted with the venomous looks thrown at him by his classmates. Some of them think that a mere half-blood should not be above average in anything. Others believe that Harry, as the Heir of Slytherin who petrified students last year – however he did that –, should be locked up. Another group is jealous of his success where they failed. Others, on the other hand, think that Harry Potter already has had enough fame and attention for his whole life and should therefore stay somewhere in dark obscurity, not excelling even at the easiest of tasks at school. Harry shrinks into himself and stares at the ground, breaking the eye contact to the grass only for a short time to glance around, reassuring himself that no-one has come closer to him since the last glance.

They all look at Harry.

He exhales shakily. As he’s already noticed last year, he’s even more skittish after the summer. But this year, he tried to counter that. During the holidays, he sneaked away as often as possible and into the library. Now that he’s older, his understanding and knowledge has expanded and he can read books that were too difficult the last time he was able to escape to the library. From those books, Harry learned that behaviour such as his is normal for abused children. Apparently, he sees Hogwarts and the magical world on the whole as an escape. Harry is unimpressed with the conclusion the books led him to. He got that on his own, thank you very much.

But this safe haven is not without danger – the Dark Lord Voldemort, on one hand, and the headmaster on the other side. In the middle stand the other school children. The allies Harry has cannot help him much – the house elves are bound to Hogwarts and cannot harm anyone affiliated with the school. The ghosts can’t perform magic, only lift objects, but even that takes a lot of power. The portraits can only shout insults.

The encounter with the Dementor showed Harry something he already knew, deep inside: He needs to get more powerful, more quickly, to protect not only his words, but also himself.

He needs to overcome his weaknesses in order to do that. All the magic in the world can only help him so much if all that’s needed is a man with a moustache shouting “BOY!” in order to down him.

Only that’s easier said than done. The best thing would be to get away from all danger and slowly heal. Obviously, that’s not possible. Authorities never believe him. Even when he’s showed his primary school teacher the scars on his back, she laughed at him and told him to keep his stories to himself. The policewoman didn’t even listen to him even though it was hard to find one in the first place. He did not dare approach a man, suffering flashbacks at the mere thought. As Professors McGonagall and Snape showed him, the situation is no different in the magical world.

Harry decided to get used to being around other people and stop being so afraid. The first step was to talk to the Professors Brand about his questions. Then, he’s resolved to find a human friend. Looking around, he’s convinced he’ll not find one in his classes. Or his House. Or the school. Except maybe for Neville? But he looks like he already has enough problems without Harry adding himself into the mix.

Instead, he puts more energy into studying more and more and more. Hexes, jinxes, counter-curses, charms, potions, transfigurations, spells, curses, rituals and whatever else he can get his hands on.

Knowledge is power, after all. Who really needs other people?

 

Harry is stopped after classes by an older Slytherin student. She is tall, with long straight hair, cascading down her back. Her eyes are dark and beautiful the way the Muggle imagines a mermaid or siren to be: enchanting, but oh so dangerous. She holds herself with a poise and confidence that show that she is gorgeous and she knows it, but without the haughty and arrogant demeanour many of the rich children in Slytherin have. Her whole body whispers of soft beauty, but the air around her screams predator.

So it is with great wariness that Harry follows her when she beckons him.

He recognises her; of course he does. She was the previous Slytherin King’s number one, the queen in the shadows, the spy in the night, the assassin in the dark, but only a few people noticed. Harry did, having caught them discussing how to handle one problem or the other, the King heeding her advice and trusting her. Harry is more observant than the other Slytherins, or not feeling as secure in the Common Room and the rest of Hogwarts and therefore more attentive, so he saw her flit around a lot. He never gave away that he did, but he guessed he was caught. He would be rather surprised if he was not. Still, she never said anything, and the King never said anything, and Harry never said anything, and they mainly ignored each other.

They walk for a while, up and down corridors, left and right across hallways, in and out of doorways. Finally, they arrive at an out-of-the-way classroom. It is abandoned, but not as much as numerous other rooms Harry has come across. The room is dusted, at least, even if Harry doesn’t want to think about the mysterious stains on some walls and desks. Still silent, she waves him inside, unconcerned with turning her back on him. Cautiously, he seats himself.

Without preamble, she turns to face him and starts to speak. “My Godmother is Narcissa Black, married to Lucius Malfoy. It has come to my attention that Sirius Black is your Godfather. That would make us as good as Godsiblings. I don’t know about the Muggle world, but here, such bonds are important.” Her cool gaze settles on Harry warmly. “I don’t have a lot of time and, frankly, not a lot of interest in coddling you. Instead, I will teach you some lessons you direly need to learn, being a Potter in Slytherin and a Black Godson. But don’t interpret my harshness as unkindness. Both Nero and I quite like you and respect your fortitude in both magic and mind. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is my NEWT year and that I have to watch over that idiotic Smeltings.” She sighs heavily. “Seriously, what were they thinking? What dirt does he have on them all?”

Harry’s brain has not caught up yet.

He has a Godfather. It is the mass murderer who betrayed his parents and wants to kill him. Alright, he gets that.

The woman he has secretly titled Hidden Queen has Narcissa Black for a Godmother who, based on her last name, must in some way be related to Sirius Black. A funny coincident.

As his quasi-Godsibling, the Hidden Queen wants to support Harry. Here, his understanding of the situation starts to go downhill.

She doesn’t want to do so openly, which, considering her standing and Harry’s in Slytherin, is understandable. Why she wants to help him at all is less so. An obligation Harry doesn’t know about? A personal favour?

And who is Nero?

Suddenly, she giggles. “Oh Merlin, I’m sorry. You look so cute when you’re thinking so hard!”

Now, Harry is completely confused.

Cute? He? Cute is Dudley with his round cheeks and soft skin and blue eyes and blond hair. Cute are kittens and puppies and baby ducks. Cute are little girls and their drawings, pink bows and the women in those magazines Aunt Petunia pretends Uncle Vernon doesn’t hide under his bed.

Harry is too much of a freak to be cute, surely. Does he even want to be cute? And why is he even thinking about this now when he should be considering what the Hidden Queen said?

“Oh dear!”, she exclaims softly, out of the blue. “I didn’t even introduce myself, did I? I’m Diana Goodwill, from the Family that is rumoured to have inspired Shakespeare’s Puck. I’m looking forward to working with you and, even more so, what you will achieve with my teachings.”

A mischievous glint flickers in her eyes and a cheeky smile flits over her mouth before she bites her lower lip as if to hide it.

She offers her hand to Harry.

He considers it, considers her. She withstands his scrutiny without blinking. If anything, her grin gets broader.

He takes her hand.

 

After the first introductory lessons, Professor Lupin has his pupils line up in front of a closed trunk. Apparently, a Boggart lives in it. The first few people aren’t a great surprise – Ron fears spiders, Malfoy is afraid of disappointing his parents, a Gryffindor girl screams herself hoarse at the sight of a rotting corpse even though it’s not her fear.

Harry’s not quite sure what will appear before him. Uncle Vernon? The collective Dursley family? His grave? The Dark Lord Voldemort? The images of his parents and soulmate the Dream Mirror showed him, turning away from him, scorning him, hating him, hurting him? His words, revealed for everyone to see?

He’s almost worked himself into a panic attack just considering the possibilities when he’s called to the front.

Out of the trunk steps – a Dementor.

With a Dementor’s abilities.

Within seconds, it attempts to suck Harry’s soul out of his body, showing him green-lights-please-not-Harry-step-aside-take-me-foolish-girl.

The next thing he knows is the sheepish professor giving him chocolate and apologising. He explains to the class that a Boggart can take on the fear’s powers, as if Harry hadn’t almost died not even a minute ago because of exactly that phenomenon. Apparently, a Boggart only has the numbed-down abilities, so it could not have actually taken Harry’s soul. It didn’t even move it because a Boggart is not strong enough. It sure felt like it, though.

After the class, Professor Lupin keeps Harry back to apologise some more and assure himself that Harry’s just fine. Apparently, pale and on the verge of consciousness is good enough as he sends Harry off to his next class.

His words swirl inside Harry’s mind for a long time.

“Afraid of fear itself. It’s a sensible fear.”

Every time he remembers them, Harry has to snort.

He’s afraid of fear, yes, but he’s even more terrified of what the Dementor symbolises to him. It’s not only fear and death. It’s also the realisation that he’s weak, that there are stronger beings out there that have it out for him, that he’s more or less on his own.

Now, after the lesson, there’s also that impression that adults won’t help him even if his life’s in danger – why did the professor for Defence against the Dark Arts only intervene when Harry already was on the ground, believing that he’d die right then and there? How could he react faster in the train when he was asleep than in a classroom when he should be on high alert? – and the last moments of his mother. Take me.

At least Harry now knows that his mother loved him.

It’s a bitter knowledge even with the comfort it brings him.

 

After class, Ron and Hermione catch up to him. They are smiling happily, perfectly content with going back to pretending that they and Harry are friends. Ron tells a joke that Hermione laughs at, but Harry doesn’t get. Then, Hermione tells a story about the professors Brand and their introductions, to Ron’s great amusement. Even a minute later, he still guffaws, “Both wanting to be called Brand the First! Oh Merlin, how did they ever get out of school? Wait till Fred and George hear about this! They’ll start demanding to be called Weasley One and Two! Professor Brand the First!”

Harry also doesn’t see the humour in this, but lets him have his fun. Not that he could keep it from him, anyway.

When Ron has calmed down, they both turn to Harry expectantly.

He ignores them and their silent command for his contribution in their conversation, instead trying to guess when Ron will notice that Harry and Hermione now have Ancient Runes and Ron does not. For a moment, he considers asking him what class he has now to make him aware of that little fact, but petty revenge is still sweet, so he remains silent.

“But hey, mate,” Ron starts in what almost sounds like a cautious tone, “back in first year, that time, y’know, with the soul mark? What got you so angry back then?”

Hermione looks at him attentively, the same look she gives her teachers, as if she will write down every word Harry says.

For a moment, Harry hesitates. Should he answer, or should he ignore them again? Will they even understand? It’s clear that they don’t particularly care for keeping a soul mark hidden, both baring the red script of a fulfilled soul bond openly. The Incident also shows that. Still, he decides, maybe he’s wrong, maybe he is too pessimistic.

“It’s just…,” he explains haltingly, unused to putting his emotions into words and talking about his motives and feelings, or, better said, talking period. “For me, my wo- the soul mark is very private. I don’t want to show it to anyone.”

Not even his soulmate if Harry doesn’t like him, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t think the two of them would be so open-minded.

Hermione makes a sound of recognition. She says, “Kind of a like the brides back in the fifties who tried to keep pure for their future husbands!” Her nose scrunches up. “It’s kind of cute that you think that way, Harry, but also extremely outdated, don’t you think?”

Ron doesn’t look like he follows along with what she’s saying, but nods to back her.

“Yeah, mate! And you should be, like, more modern, right?”

He throws a look at Hermione. Harry can’t tell if it’s a call for help or support. Either way, she goes on a tirade about how traditions should make room for new trends. Harry listens to her with half an ear. It’s kind of strange, he muses, how she argues that everything old should be replaced when she is the one quoting ancient books all the time. Does she realise that abandoning traditions would mean leaving practically everything about Hogwarts behind, from the uniforms to the House system to the curriculum? For surely, a more modern and unified school would be preferable to the low-key separation and stereotyping of Houses going on now.

She prattles on for a long while. The fifteen-minute break between classes is almost over when she finally gasps for breath and concludes, “And that’s why you should show us your soul mark!”

Harry tries to ignore them again, but their fingers come worryingly close to his left wrist, threatening him with flashbacks. He knows that his words are protected by the bracelet, but he doesn’t want to chance it. The protection is still far from what he wishes it would be, and Hermione does know quite a lot of ancient and almost forgotten spells and is adept at research. Who knows how she would tackle this problem. Best to avoid it.

“Maybe I didn’t say it right,” Harry tries again, inconspicuously hiding his wrist behind his back and leaning against the wall, limiting any chance for a repeat of the Incident. “For me, that Incident felt like, like I had taken off my shirt and demanded that Hermione show me her breasts because I showed her my chest.”

Ron gasps in outrage and Hermione blushes fiercely.

“How can you say something like that!”, Ron shrieks. “Who does something like that?!”

Hermione adds her shrill voice to the mix, “You pervert!”

“Just you wait, you, you, you… weirdo! I’ll tell McGonagall about it, and Dumbledore, and they’ll punish you! How can you talk this way about Hermione?!”

“That was extremely sexist, Harry, and I expect better from you! How can you say something like that? Why would you think that I would do that, just because you asked that of me?”

“I know that you’re Harry Potter, but that’s going too far! Seriously, mate, you can’t just say something like that!”

They go on for a bit, but Harry ignores them. What they say is of no consequence to him. It’s clear that they don’t understand him, and don’t want to. He’d rather show his chest or even his whole naked body to a random stranger, rather than reveal his words for a second to trusted friends.

Ron and Hermione don’t get that.

Finally, other students come to wait for the professor to unlock the room, so Hermione and Ron tone it down a bit. But their furious whispers attract attention, and soon, the whole hallway is gossiping. Harry ignores them, as well. He turns his attention to more important issues. What did they learn the last lesson? Something about Gaelic Runes, and the magical chronicles describing the purpose and building of Stonehenge. Oh, right, they were supposed to take a look at the alphabet and try to memorise it. It’s the easiest, the pronunciation similar to the modern English one, even if the Runes themselves are a bit more complicated. Other alphabets, the professor had explained, had letters and sounds that the English language doesn’t have, so they are looked at later on. The first years are used to teach the students how to read their history, written on ancient stone tablets and gold plates. Only in the last years, for those who decide to keep Ancient Runes after their OWLs, do the students actively write anything other than the various alphabets for practice, for the first time putting together words and sentences. The NEWT year will revolve around describing sequences and events and trying to use runes to lay down lasting magic and ritual circles.

“Professor Brand!”, Hermione shouts.

Harry turns around to see him spying out of the classroom, a quill behind his ear and ink stains on his fingers.

“Sorry, sorry,” he laughs. “I got caught up in my latest research. Won’t happen again, promise!”

He winks at Harry as if conveying a great secret. Harry finds himself mirroring the smile, although smaller and less bright.

The professor waves his hand and steps back to let the students in. Hermione steps up to him, cheeks red in righteous fury. “Professor, Harry said something completely unacceptable and inappropriate!”

The professor raises a brow. “And what would that be, Miss Granger?”

She starts sputtering, not daring to repeat the grave offence of saying vile words such as “chest” and “breasts”. Beside her, Ron has turned an ugly red, equally unable to cough up those words.

Harry wants to roll his eyes at their immaturity.

Professor Brand raises a second brow. “Well, Miss Granger? I am waiting. And behind me, the whole class is waiting. So if we could speed this up a bit?”

A few seconds of stutters later, the professor smiles. “Well, I am glad that it’s nothing. Come in, come in, let us start class!”

He waves the students closer. Harry happily scurries to the back of the class and takes his seat. At the reminder that she – she – is holding up the class, Hermione hurries to her desk so quickly she almost trips.

The professor looks at Ron again. “Well, I won’t say it again, Mister… Wait, wait, let me guess. You look a lot like those Weasley twins. Are you their little brother? Quite ingenious at Runes, they are, though quite bad at keeping to the tasks I give them. If I tell them to translate the Scandinavian fairy-tale about the gnome and the goblin, I surely do not expect to get the worked-out Rune sequence to create a stink bomb. I mean, it worked, so I still gave them points, but it’s the- That’s not interesting at all, is it? But you don’t have this class, do you?”

Ron’s face has gone green with envy. He glares angrily at the floor. Defensively, he barks, “No, I took Divination instead of Runes!”

The professor furrows his brows. “Then, you’d better run along. Professor Trelawny lives in that tower, so she’s never late. You’d better hurry before she sends someone after you because she’s worried.”

Ron pales so quickly it looks like he’s bleeding out. He stammers something about “thanks” and “see you later” and “sorry” and storms out.

The lesson begins and goes by normally, but at the end, the professor holds Hermione back. The girl has tears in her eyes, thinking she’ll get into trouble. But Professor Brand only has some kind words for her, “Remember that not everyone’s boundaries are the same as yours, Miss Granger. Just because for you, it is no problem to do something, such as exposing your soul mark, does not mean that the next person is alright with that.”

Ah, Harry thinks. So he did hear what they were talking about.

He hopes that the professor will get through to Hermione where he failed.

 

The next time he crosses paths with Hermione and Ron, she glowers at him and he glares at him.

Too bad even the professor didn’t have any luck.

 

Harry meets up with Diana Goodwill frequently now, two hours each Saturday. She doesn’t teach him about magic, as he had hoped, or about manners and etiquette, as he had thought.

Instead, she teaches him how to “Slytherin”, as she calls it.

She instructs him in spotting lies – which he already is good at, thanks to twinkly-eyes-false-compassion-condescension – and how to read body language – which he has only got in parts, Uncle-Vernon-angry-Uncle-Petunia-vicious-Dudley-playful-flight-instinct-hide-and-never-be-sought. She teaches him how to speak slyly, confusing and with underlying meaning, how to entrap someone with honey-sweet words, how to listen carefully to hidden meanings. She lectures him on how to think in cunning ways, how to predict how others will react, how to influence those decisions. She imparts on him the best ways to get to know someone’s secrets and how to use them against them, when to stay silent and when to reveal. She informs him of different masks and when to bare them and when to guard up twice as hard as usual.

She also teaches him to ask questions and that not everyone who laughs at him is maliciously laughing at him.

“Oh Merlin, you really had no idea what he’s called, so you just called him King? And Hidden Queen?”, she gasps out between bursts of laughter.

Turns out the former King is called Nero.

“Even though you would never think of that name with his looks,” she giggles.

It’s true; the first image of the mad emperor who allegedly burned down Rome is not the scrawny, skinny figure of the last Slytherin King.

Harry also learns that Nero and Diana are engaged and soulmates, both of which surprises him. He knew that they were close, but he didn’t think that they were already ready to get married as soon as Diana is out of school and planning to have their first child within five years.

But, as Diana words it, “it’s my own damn business when I marry and when and how many kids I have, and if someone complains, they can go fuck themselves.”

Harry also learns that even proper ladies such as Diana can have a foul mouth that resembles a sailor’s, and that the common path is not the right path for everyone.

The most important lesson, however, he will muse years later, is that she teaches him how to respect someone and how it feels to have a role model.

 

The figure follows him again.

He ignores her and hopes she will go away.

 

The next Defence lesson is held by Professor Snape, sneering at them and talking about a completely different topic. Werewolves. Harry is familiar with the Slytherin trait of giving the most subtle of hints as to not incriminate themselves.

He checks the lunar calendar, later on. It’s the day before the full moon.

Professor Lupin returns two days later, looking worse for wear and like he should be in a bed in the hospital wing instead of in a classroom.

Harry resolves to never be outside on a full moon night and returns his attention to more important matter like better Shield Charms, Healing Spells and protecting his bracelet and other belongings.

Interestingly, though, no-one else seems to catch on, even though Professor Snape basically served it up to them on a silver platter. There are no panicked or haughty “My father will hear about this!” and no refusals to even step into the classroom. But maybe Harry misunderstood something, as often can be the case. The most information he gets from either books or a portrait that hasn’t been alive for hundreds of years. Both sources are often antiquated. Maybe werewolves are not as feared and hated now? The curse has been better investigated, and even has a partial cure. Those sound like good reasons for werewolves to be better integrated into society than they were in times long gone.

Remembering Professor Snape’s lecture and the crude words of warning he issued, Harry concludes that’s not the case at all. Rather than only sending the werewolf away as far as possible during the days before the full moon, as was the case when the library portrait was still alive, or locking them up in the basement or prison that night, it seems like the “modern” werewolf is dangerous all around, and should best be kept away from anywhere with even the possibility of a person being there.

How that enables werewolves to live, Professor Snape didn’t say.

Which leaves the question: If werewolves are so separated and segregated from the way wizards and witches live, and appear to be so feared and resented, why does one teach at Hogwarts?

 

After this Defence lesson, Harry runs into Neville. The two of them still work together in Herbology and have a fairly good relationship, Harry would say. They don’t talk a lot, only the necessities to get by in class, both too focused on their tasks to have time for idle chit-chat. Outside of class, they almost never see each other. Harry is too busy evading Hermione and Ron, rumours and gossip, disapproving teachers and angry bullies, while Neville keeps to the glasshouses even in his free time.

But as Harry stumbles across him now, he doesn’t nod and continue walking as he usually would.

Neville is in tears.

Decisively, Harry grabs the boy by his shoulders and drags him through the hallway, down another and behind a dusty portrait frame, long since abandoned by its original inhabitant, the Angry Preacher, or, as he introduced himself, Bob. Hidden there is an old storage room, covered in at least an inch of filth and dirt. When he was looking for a room back in first year, Harry had not been close enough with the portraits to know this secret. Otherwise, he surely would have chosen this hidden room over the obscure, but still clearly visible room he holed up in.

To show this to possible safe space and hiding place to Neville makes his anxiety spike, but his Herbology-partner-acquaintance-almost-friend-possible-ally looks like he really needs to be alone right now.

Harry lets go of Neville’s wrist to pull the entrance closed. Immediately, they are shrouded in darkness. Hesitating slightly, Harry casts a weak Lumos, not sure if Neville wouldn’t prefer being unable to be seen over being able to see.

Neville is just standing there, staring into nothing with dazed eyes, breathing as if he’d just run a marathon.

Recognising the signs of a panic attack, Harry backs off. He’s not sure how he can help Neville, only knowing that when this happens to him, he wants to be alone and left alone. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long before Neville has calmed down.

“Thanks,” he says faintly. His eyes, while more focused, still look vacant.

“Don’t mention it,” Harry replies. “Are you feeling better?”

Neville nods jerkily, looking more in the present. Caution and fearful anticipation steals into his body language. He looks like he’s bracing himself, probably waiting for a barrage of questions.

Harry backs off completely.

“When you feel ready, just press down on the left side right here, and push to the right and forward like this.”

Demonstrating, Harry moves the portrait and steps outside.

“See you later.”

He closes the entrance and walks away, leaving a confused and grateful Neville behind.

 

A few weeks later, Harry goes to visit Myrtle and to brew another potion in her bathroom. She greets him a bit melancholic. Of course, Harry asks what’s wrong, but Myrtle refuses to tell him, so he makes sure she knows she can talk to him anytime and he’ll listen. Myrtle breaks out in thankful tears and hugs Harry as well as a ghost can touch a living being.

It’s only much later, when Harry has brewed the potion he wanted and started on the next one, that Myrtle begins to talk.

“It’s been fifty years since I last saw Olive, you know? Sometimes, I just think of her randomly. I’d love to know how she is, if she aged well. She’s my soulmate, after all, even if we never completed the bond. But then, I never liked her when I was alive. But maybe I’ll like her now? But I’ll never know!”

She breaks out in wails. Harry fights the urge to cover his ears. Loud enough to be heard over her cries, he tries to reassure her the best he can, mostly concentrated on the potion which has reached a crucial stage and could explode if not handled carefully. Still, he takes a moment to give Myrtle the approximation of a pat on the back, stopping before his hand can go through her.

The smile Myrtle gives him is worth that he then really must hurry if he doesn’t want the potion to blast him to smithereens.

 

The next day, Myrtle is as she always is, cheerful, overly enthusiastic and way too emotional.

But the memory doesn’t let him go. Myrtle’s teary eyes, the real sorrow in her every sob, the devastation in her figure.

So he decides to help her.

 

Harry gets cornered by his little stalker. Up close he can confirm that it really is that girl who used the journal of the Dark Lord Voldemort as her diary. Usually, she stares at him from afar and moves after him like a distorted mirror image, ten metres away and eyes raptured by his every movement.

He is weirded out by this, but he doesn’t care enough to reason out why she would stalk him. Busy as he is with schoolwork, enhancing his bracelet, talking to his “inhuman” friends and evading those accidental curses that are accidently fired at him by accidental movements by accidental hands, he doesn’t really have the time and motivation. And honestly? He’s not that interested as long as she doesn’t come to a distance where he can’t ignore her anymore.

It seems like that moment has come.

“Hi, Harry,” she breathes.

Harry gives a quick wave and tries to step around her.

She gets in his way, blinking up at him as if she was trying to get a corn of sand out of her eye.

“Hi, Harry,” she repeats.

Warily, Harry greets back.

A huge smile blossoms on her lips, and she’s gone before he even understands what happened.

 

From then on, it becomes sort of a habit for her, or something like that. She stands in front of him, and won’t step aside until he returns her greetings.

Harry doesn’t really mind; the first time Ron saw them, his face turned a really interesting colour, and it doesn’t bother him that much.

Idly, he tries to remember what her name is. Weasley, that much is certain, but her first name? Something with a J?

 

Professor Lupin calls Harry to his office.

Warily, he knocks and follows the call to come inside.

Professor Lupin, sickly-looking and pale from the full moon only yesterday, invites Harry to tea and chocolate and to take a seat. Cautious, he follows the directions.

He knows that right now is the weakest phase of a werewolf. They have almost none of their fabled superhuman strength right after their transformation, and their senses are only slightly better than the average human’s. So he should be safe.

Well, he amends, thoughts on Professor-Quirrel-or-Riddle-or-Voldemort-trials-mirrors-wand-digging-into-his-spine-incompetence-hubris-boasting-memory-charmer-Lockhart-twinkling-eyes-disappointed-miens-don’t-lie-about-the-bullying-that-nearly-kills-you-sometimes-and-bothers-you-daily, not in more danger than he usually is when with a teacher.

Professor Lupin wants to talk about his parents. Apparently, he was close friends with James Potter, and in a group consisting of them, Peter Pettigrew and a person whose name is hidden by grave silence. Harry bets it’s Sirius Black. The professor also professes onto him that he looks “just like James, except for your eyes. You have Lily’s eyes.” That seems to be the only thing anyone is capable of saying. He does get a few more bits of information on his parents. It almost sounds like they hated each other before inevitably ending up together.

Harry idly wonders if there’s ever been a soulmate couple that wasn’t torn apart by death that still didn’t get together because they simply didn’t like each other and didn’t somehow end up in love, even though they are soulmates. Nothing is impossible, so something like that probably happened, even if he hasn’t heard about such a case. It would probably be a scandal and hidden, anyway, so Harry would have no chance to find out even if he wanted to.

Harry’s fingers stray to the bracelet that hides his words, caressing it. Hopefully, something like that won’t happen to him – he doesn’t know if he could bear it. Since he was a child, he clung to those words. To have the one who said them reject him would utterly break him. To see those eyes that should only hold admiration and tender feelings look at him with hatred, or disgust, or fear, or disappointment… But who could love a freak?

Or maybe he will be the one to walk away from them?

But no, if it comes to that, if he hates his soulmate, Harry simply won’t show them his words. They are his, not his soulmate’s. His and his alone. He’ll simply be known as that weird guy who doesn’t have a soulmate if he doesn’t like them, and his words will stay his alone.

Not aware that he is interrupting Harry’s musings, Professor Lupin expresses interest in getting to know Harry personally. Harry politely sidesteps by saying how it might send a wrong impression to the other students if he were to come see a professor in private, wondering why the professor didn’t just come visit him years earlier. After all, he is a good friend of the headmaster, the only one to know where Harry ended up.

The professor laughs a bit, not addressing the second part of Harry’s reply. “Yes, children are cruel, aren’t they?”

In his head, Harry disagrees. Children are innocent in all their meanness, not truly as capable in their cruelty as they could be, often ignorant of the true pain they cause. Adults, though, are vicious in a way children just can’t be, having a longer reach and better knowledge and, most importantly, fall into three categories: They are unable to see the pain they’re putting innocent bystanders in while playing chess against each other, or enticed by the exact knowledge of how much agony they are causing, or wilfully blind. They don’t see the tiny pieces falling and being destroyed by the great big cogs of the machine that is society and their expectations, seeing only what they want to see, or delighting in the fall. If it weren’t so, Harry would have been taken away from the Dursley household when he answered in school that his parents were no-good alcoholics and his mother whored herself out so that his father could get his next fix and that their names were Freak and Bitch, instead of a chastising for saying such bad words and a stern talking-to and a phone call and a beating when he came home.

Outside of his head, Harry fixes a polite smile on his face and doesn’t say a word.

 

It’s the last time the professor calls him to his office.

 

It takes almost a month. Shortly before Samhain, however, Harry is able to do it.

“Myrtle!”, he greets from the door. “I’ve brought you some visitors!”

“Visitors? For me?”

Myrtle’s eyes, enormous under the glasses anyway, get even bigger. Curious as she is, she rushes outside and sees – Olive.

“What? How? Are you really…?”, she stutters, slowly floating closer to Olive.

The woman has tears in her dark eyes. Thanks to a wizard’s slow aging, she looks like thirty, not fifty, so her skin is without wrinkles, but it is browned by the sun. Her hair is hidden under a headscarf.

“It’s really me, Myrtle.”

While the woman and the girl hug as best as a ghost and a living human can, Harry smiles at the woman behind Olive, about sixteen years younger than her and with gorgeous brown eyes and a huge smile that shows white, if a bit crooked teeth. Zoya is Olive’s second soulmate. Harry only learned of them after he wrote to Olive, instructing Hedwig to wait for a reply and to stay out longer if she’s bored in Hogwarts, an order which she gladly fulfilled after demanding overly enthusiastic and thankful cuddles. She discovered Olive in Arabia where she lives with her second soulmate. If two soulmates don’t complete their bond and one dies before they can, another soulmate takes their place. These words, both soulmates have written on their right wrist to lower the possibility of them not completing this second chance at a bond. How this second soul mark influences the soul bond is highly controversial. Some believe that it’s a secondary, weaker bond. Others argue that the bond is stronger, calling out more forcibly and holding tighter in fear of being ripped apart again. Another group claims that there is no difference at all. But it holds true that everyone whose soulmate dies before completing the bond gains another soul mark in its stead, so it really shouldn’t have surprised Harry to find out that Olive is not alone.

“Myrtle, I want you to meet… Oh God.” Olive breathes deeply. “I wanted to come alone, I really did, but Harry here insisted that you’d like to meet her.” She holds her hand out to Zoya and pulls her to her side. “This is my soulmate, Zoya.”

Now, this can go two ways, Harry knows. Either, Myrtle breaks down in tears and bemoans her fate, or she has got over Olive enough to be happy for her.

It’s the latter. Myrtle smiles and laughs and compliments Zoya and wants to know everything about how the two of them met, how they live now and if they plan on having children.

As Olive and Zoya describe Olive’s travels through Africa and Asia, show the elegant Arabic writing on their right wrists and start talking about the little Muggleborn girl they adopted, Myrtle nodding along enthusiastically and asking a thousand questions, Harry smiles and leaves them to privacy.

 

A few hours later, Myrtle breaks her rule to never leave her bathroom again and goes to Harry, thanking him over and over and crying pearly, see-through tears.

 

At Imbolc, Harry goes to the house elves and occupies a little of their kitchen. He bakes and bakes, biscuits en mass. As he mixes the dough, his thoughts centre on all the things he is thankful for. One of them definitely is the house elves who so faithfully keep him company and who are his only friends who are alive. Another would be the portraits who always keep him entertained with stories about long-gone people and impart long-forgotten knowledge. The ghosts, he absolutely is grateful for, as well. They whisper to him the secrets of Hogwarts, stories of times far away and legends both fantastical and true. But, only friends alive – isn’t Silvia his friend, as well? But they’ve only seen each other a few times, can that really be called a friendship? Still, Harry feels closer to her than to anyone else alive except for the house elves. So is she a friend? Be that as it may, Harry is thankful for her. He’s also grateful for his words, even if he doesn’t know what they mean or who said them. He appreciates the Wizarding World, as well. Through all the panic-bullying-fear-danger, it still is better than cupboard-opened-please-no-cleaning-cooking-stop-it-please-running-fearing-danger-danger-pain-I’m-sorry-please that is the Dursley household. It gave him hope that maybe, some day far away, everything will be alright.

He takes each biscuit and carefully wraps it in colourful paper which he learned to conjure a few days ago in preparation for this day. With another spell, the little presents are decorated with ribbons and bows. Harry goes through the long process of writing down the names, vanishing the ink if the letters look wonky and trying again.

When he is finished, lunch has come and gone. But for Imbolc, it is not important when it happens, only that it does, and it still is midday, anyway.

Harry calls to the house elves who are busy doing the dishes. A few already get started on dinner, preparing the slow-roasting meats and marinating little chunks of chicken. When he calls, they try to come as quickly as they can.

He gives them each a little present with a biscuit in it.

“I know that you are not unfortunate,” Harry explains in a quiet voice, uncomfortable with being in the limelight with hundreds of bulging eyes staring at him and even more at unease with expressing his feelings. “But you are an enslaved people, and I feel that that is more heart-wrenching than many other things.”

The house elves try to protest, swearing that they are happy with their lot in life.

Harry only smiles at them and says, “That’s what makes it even sadder.”

 

Shortly thereafter, Harry comes across Neville again. He’s not crying, this time, but his eyes are so pained that he might as well have been.

“Have you found back to the room?”, Harry asks quietly. Neville still flinches as if hit, not expecting anyone to talk to him.

“What- what room?”, he stutters. Finally, he recognises Harry. “Oh,” he sighs, “oh, it’s you, thank Merlin.”

Harry throws a glance over his shoulder. While the hallway is relatively empty, there still are students around. Neville’s standing in Gryffindor, as Harry understands it, is shaky enough. Ron has declared publically and multiple times that Neville is no real Gryffindor since he is not brave enough. The rest of Gryffindor either falls in line with this opinion or is not interested enough in the drama of the younger years to pay attention to them. The last thing Neville needs is for someone to go running to Ron and denounce Neville as a traitor to the noble House of Gryffindor because he was found talking to a slimy Slytherin.

Harry nods at Neville to come along. “Let’s talk, but not here.” After a few steps, Neville not following him, he turns back around, hesitation showing in his voice. “Unless you don’t want to.”

He doesn’t know how to comfort or how to do this or even if he should do this. But Neville has always been kind to him, when he was just another kid in the crowd and Neville naturally made room for him instead of pushing through with force, when he was the Traitorous Slytherin, when he was Slytherin’s Monster Tamer, and all those other names the gossipers have deemed him worthy of. In Herbology, Neville’s attitude toward him never changed. Outside of class, he still waved to him even last year.

Harry wants to repay him. He may only be able to do so clumsily, but he at least wants to try.

Neville swallows heavily, but whatever expression is on Harry’s face convinces him enough that he starts following after Harry.

After a few merry turns, they end up in front of an old classroom. The house elves told Harry that no-one has entered it since an unspecified accident, so they will not be disturbed. The dust covering all surfaces shows that they were telling the truth. With a neat spell they learned last week, Harry summons a gentle breeze that blows all clutter into one corner, leaving the room relatively clean.

Harry sits on a shaky chair, the only choice other than a stool that stands in a way that would leave Harry’s back wide open, and turns his attention to Neville, patiently waiting for him if he wants to talk, or only stay here in silence.

Neville has his arms wrapped around his middle, his lip between his teeth, his eyes on the floor.

Harry waits him out.

After a good few minutes, Neville lets out a shaky breath. Some of the tension leaks out of his frame. With some hesitation, he sits on the stool, not as wobbly as Harry’s chair.

“I really admire you, Harry,” Neville confesses in a soft voice, his gaze now studying the lines on his hands intently. “You know the castle better than anyone, you are really good in all subjects, you never are fazed by anything, that’s… that’s really amazing.” Neville releases a dry sob, his hand flying up to his mouth as if to cover the noise. “I… I can’t do that. You even look like you don’t mind being in Slytherin!” Panicked, Neville looks up, straight into the calm eyes watching him, gesticulating frantically. ”Not that anything’s wrong with Slytherin! I mean, it’s a House as noble as the other three, and has its advantages, and-“

Since it looks like Neville would go on for a while, Harry interrupts dryly, “And it’s also got Malfoy. I get where you’re coming from.”

Neville sacks into himself, relieved. “Good, that’s… that’s good.”

A long silence sets in. Harry musters Neville, studies his exhausted, but still tense posture, the way he keeps looking away from Harry, that his mouth opens a few times without any sound escaping it.

He looks world-weary.

Harry knows that look well enough. For years, he’s seen it in the mirror.

Neville also looks hesitant.

That problem has an easy solution.

“What’s the problem, Neville? I promise I will listen and I will not judge.”

Neville’s timid gaze flickers up at the kind words and remains stuck on Harry’s calm, warm eyes.

“It’s just…,” he starts in a weak voice. “It’s all too much.” His voice breaks, but now that he’s started, he seemingly can’t stop talking. “Dad’s wand is working worse and worse for me, and Grandma is more and more disappointed in me, and my grades are getting more and more dismal, and the Gryffindors all hate me, and-,” he breaks off, voice even softer as he confesses in a rush, getting louder and faster as he starts to panic again, “and I’m not sure if the Hat was right when it said I’d do well in Gryffindor. Hufflepuff is also nice, and I would have fit way better there. Oh Merlin, I talked the Hat into Sorting me into Gryffindor. Oh Merlin, what did I do? Why did I do that? Why would I ever think that was a good idea? Nothing’s right, and it all feels so wrong, and Hogwarts is nothing like I imagined!”

His hands fly to his face again, this time to cover the tears that escape his eyes.

Harry takes the moment Neville uses to calm down to mentally go through what he said. There seems to be so much going wrong with this situation, and Harry doesn’t know how to make it right.

But he has to try. Neville obviously is not suited for pressures such as the ones Harry is put under, and he fears that it will break him. Neville has always been kind and friendly, and it would be a waste if such a wizard was lost while one such as Malfoy or Ron could live on.

When Neville’s sobs die, Harry hands him a conjured handkerchief, the material as silken as he can make it. It’s still a bit raspy, like wool, but he knows he won’t be able to do better. Neville receives it with a whispered word of thanks, drying his cheeks. His eyes go back to his lap, his hands joining shortly after, the fingers picking at the cloth restlessly.

Harry clears his throat. Neville’s eyes shoot up to him like a flock of frightened birds.

Harry tries to smile. Judging by the way Neville doesn’t immediately shrink back, it must not look like the grimace it feels like.

“Did you know that another person’s wand will never work for you the way your own wand will?”, Harry asks kindly. Neville nods somewhat dumbly, clearly having expected Harry to demean him or react in whatever distasteful way the other people who have seen him so vulnerable have done. Harry goes on, “Then you know that your father’s wand will never perfectly work for you. The more you grow into your magic and the more your magic grows, the less it will match you, like using a walking stick made for a child will as you grow taller and taller.”

Neville nods miserably, his head hanging again. He already knows all that, which begs the question why he still uses his father’s wand. Unless there is a reason he cannot get his own, unless it was not his idea to not get his wand, unless the harsh woman who sometimes sends him Howlers demands it of him.

“A wand,” Harry continues, “is also very fragile. As soon as it is snapped once, it will very rarely work again. It takes a masterful Wand Master and a wonder, not to mention a fortune, to rebuild it properly. As well as the original owner.”

He throws a meaningful glance at Neville who is looking up again, this time in shock.

“I can’t just-! This is my dad’s-! What would my grandma-!” He swallows down his outburst, tears in his eyes again. “How could I ever do it without making her blame me for that, as well?”

Harry thinks about it. It must be done in a way that makes it clear no fault lies in Neville while also not being ridiculous enough that Ron will mock him for it. So it would be best if someone were to blame that Ron already disliked so that he would be angry for Neville instead of ridiculing him, but also someone Mrs. Longbottom will be suspicious of, someone she would not expect to have done it out of goodwill, someone she would never think that Neville would work with or even voluntarily talk to.

And for no-one to suspect Neville, it will need Slytherin cunning and subtlety since no-one would believe the lamb of Gryffindor to be able to pull something like that off.

“In Potions, that would be the best bet,” Harry muses out loud. “We have to keep our wands in our bags, and our bags near our tables, and our cauldrons in front of the tables. You are… unfortunately not very talented in Potions-“

“You can just say I suck,” Neville mutters, but he listens attentively, eyes on Harry with a desperate hope.

Harry goes on as if he hadn’t heard the interruption. “-so one of your… less well-done tries will surely be acidic, or basic, and entirely capable of destroying a wand. If someone like Malfoy were to kick your cauldron into your bag, the liquid would go all over it and attack everything within it, also your wand. If Malfoy did that, Professor Snape wouldn’t really react. He’d probably say some scathing things and send you off to Professor McGonagall. She would contact your grandmother about this unfortunate mishap, and she would be so angry about Malfoy for doing it and Professor Snape for not stopping it that she would not blame you.”

Neville listens with an open mouth. “That’s, that’s deviant, but also… really smart. Merlin, Harry, do you think I would do better with a new wand?”

With all the certainty he has, Harry nods. “Your magic and your wand will connect better which will make it easier and quicker for you to cast spells. That would make your grades go up and your grandmother bother you less about them.”

For a moment, Neville smiles, lost in the fantasy. But then, his expression darkens. “How could that ever happen, though?”

Harry nonchalantly shrugs. “A small Tripping Hex from the back. Malfoy is too proud to admit that someone got the drop on him, so he would tell everyone that kicking your cauldron was his plan from the very beginning.”

He waits for Neville to connect the dots. Hesitantly, he says, “You sit in the back.” Harry nods encouragingly. “And you can cast the Tripping Hex very well; I saw you when we had to practice it in Defence.” Harry nods again. Tears fill Neville’s eyes once more. “You… you would do that for me?”

Discomforted by the gratitude, Harry fidgets, but nods.

Neville snuffles for a few moments before swallowing hard and nodding to himself. He probably noticed how uncomfortable Harry is with his reaction since he changes the topic.

“But that wouldn’t solve the problem,” he says, correctly. “I should have been in Hufflepuff! But I told the Hat that I want to be just like my parents, so it Sorted me into Gryffindor! And now,” a bitter, watery laugh, “see where I ended up now.”

Harry hums, noncommittally. “The Hat told me when I sat on that stool that I was fit for all Houses.” Neville gasps at him, but Harry goes on as if he didn’t notice. “And when I thought that there was no way that I was fit for House Gryffindor, that I was too cowardly, it said this to me: You are brave; see how courageous you need to be to conquer your fears every day.” He levels a look at Neville, loaded with emotion and understanding, compassion at its finest. “It should have said it to you, as well.”

Once more, Neville is overcome with tears. Instead of bitter sorrow, however, they are filled with gratitude and relief.

Harry conjures another handkerchief and smiles.

 

A week later, Malfoy has his first detention, Professor Snape is allowing them to keep their wands on their person in Potions class, provided they don’t use them to cause mischief, Neville has a new wand and Harry has a new friend.

 

From then on, Neville and Harry meet up more or less twice a week. They practice their spells, Neville improving quickly without ridicule or criticism and the attention of a teacher who does not have to watch fifteen other children up to mischief. From the beginning, it is clear that he will never reach the heights he does in Herbology, but as long as his grades rise from “barely scraping through” to “average – sometimes better, sometimes worse, but overall utterly average”, Neville is content.

Sometimes, Neville will tell Harry about his problems and they attempt to find solutions. When they can’t do anything – like about Neville’s forgetfulness –, they invent more and more ridiculous solutions until Neville is laughing and Harry is smiling (“You could get Professor Snape to trail your every step and to remind you.” – “Merlin, that sounds like a nightmare!” – “It could be worse. You could work together to find a potion to help out.” – “I bet that potion would be horrible.” – “What would anti-forgetfulness taste like, what do you think?” – “I bet it tastes like ink.” – “What?” – “I forgot to put the inkwell away yesterday and took a gulp of ink instead of juice…” – “Only you, Neville. But would it also look like ink?”).

Sometimes, Harry will talk about things that happened to him. He’ll tell an anecdote about the last kitchen visit, or a funny story Myrtle told him, or a peculiar expression a ghost casually threw into conversation that had Harry terribly confused.

Even rarer will Harry talk about things that trouble to him. He’ll hint at the bullying rather than address it and never admits how bad it really is, but Neville knows that Harry is not well-liked within House Slytherin and that it bothers him more than he tries to let on – not that that wasn’t clear since the very beginning. He’ll talk about parts of the homework he can hardly understand, or cultural differences between the Muggle and Wizarding World that baffle him. Like: ink and quill and parchment. Why?

It makes Neville laugh, and it makes that persistent craving for human contact inside Harry dissolve.

Their friendship is perfect.

 

Ginny – Harry finally asked Neville for her name, and received a disbelieving look in return – comes back from the Yule break with a vengeance. Every day, her face is… adorned… by first attempts of make-up. Needless to say, it looks more like the murdered tramp found in the gutter from a TV drama Harry’s seen last summer than the beauty pageant winner she thinks she looks like. After a week or two – and a lot of jokes from the Weasley twins so good that even the Slytherins, however regretful, had to admit their genius –, she changes to beauty spells, put on with as little experience as she had with the manual make-up. Now, instead of her lipstick being smeared, the shiny gloss is just the slightest bit to the right, and moves about a second after her actual mouth does. This makes for some pretty interesting pictures, but no pretty girl like she obviously thinks.

This time, it only takes half a week of her brothers’ jokes for her to turn back to a natural look.

She’s getting more zealous in talking to Harry, as well. He never engages her, even avoids greeting her since she meets every acknowledgment of her presence with such enthusiasm it makes Harry dizzy. When he sees them in not even close proximity, Ron’s face turns a violent purple, and he snatches his little sister away as quickly as he can. Harry can tell that Hermione’s spending each of those interactions biting her lip to avoid laughing out loud. Alternatively, she glares at Harry. Some days, Fred and George are nearby and take notice, almost immediately causing a commotion.

He ignores it all and goes to the library.

He has more important things to do than simply watch the Weasleys and Hermione fool around.

 

When later that week, he tells Diana about what happened, she laughs in the dainty way a Pureblood maiden does when she knows something no-one else does, and enjoys the total ignorance of those surrounding her.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it,” she giggles, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “You’re way too young, anyway!”

Harry’s confused face and the new hairstyle make her laugh even harder.

 

All in all, this year passes quickly and without as much trouble and danger for Harry as the last two did. The situation with the other students is, well, not optimal, but now, he’s got a human friend in Neville and anyway, it’s nothing a few shields and caution and stay-behind-be-careful-always-keep-an-eye-out-expect-the-worst-never-be-surprised-don’t-give-them-ammunition-by-reacting can’t solve. There’s some excitement when the portrait hiding the Gryffindor Common Room is slashed. Later on, Ron swears that Sirius Black broke into Gryffindor Tower and tried to kill him with a knife.

The first instance, Harry is convinced, is exaggeration. He’s talked to Gloria herself – “Do not, under any circumstances, call her ‘the Fat Lady’ or whatever other horrible thing the children have come up with, now. Honestly, when she was alive, she was the most beautiful woman ever seen!” – and she confesses that the shadow that got angry with her could just as well have been a student from another house, someone in disguise or her own imagination playing a trick on her. Harry is quick to reassure her that he believes in her, no matter what she settles her mind on. If she says it was Sirius Black, it was Sirius Black. If she says the figure looked similar to Sirius Black, it’s not Sirius Black. For Harry, it’s that simple. Gloria has to blink tears from her eyes. “No-one’s said that to me yet! The headmaster interrogated me on if it was Sirius Black, how did he look like, what did he wear! As if I’d care for that after my portrait got damaged!”

Harry learns that the frame of a portrait is quite like the legs for a living human. It’s possible to live without them, but it’s hard. Luckily, Gloria’s frame can be repaired, but it’ll take a long time.

The second instance, Harry is convinced, is a lie. What would Sirius Black do in Gryffindor Tower if he’s planning on killing Harry? A man with the skills to trick the headmaster and his best friends in order to spy on them, with the ability to escape from Azkaban, with the gift to resist the Dementors’ terrible power, with the capability to travel a country while being hunted down by every law-enforcer in both magical and Muggle worlds, with the talent of entering Hogwarts undetected, with the proficiency of breaking into Gryffindor Tower, with the competence to stay alive without any resources for multiple months, is apparently unable to do even the most basic of research on his victim.

Right.

Either he’s after something else – and it’s probably not Ron, no matter what the boy in question himself believes, and most certainly not because Sirius Black wants to kill Harry’s friends before murdering Harry himself as, contrary to Ron’s beliefs, Ron and Harry are not friends – or he’s not here. If someone else is pretending to be Sirius Black, they can commit all the crimes they want to without an investigation. Maybe it’s just a prank – Harry easily believes the Weasley twins capable of throwing on a glamour to appear similar to Sirius Black’s appearance to cause some mischief.

Either way, Harry believes something is not what it seems.

 

“You know,” Neville muses to Harry one day. Harry has just told Neville how weird it is to expect eleven-years-old Muggleborn and –raised to be able to write with a quill and ink without any problems only a few days into the school year when they’ve probably never seen either before their first visit to Diagon Alley, and how Muggles don’t have any soul marks or soulmates – a concept which blows Neville’s mind –, and now, Neville tells Harry about what he, as someone raised as a wizard, finds weird about Muggleborns (“How can they have so many questions about so many basic things?” – “Like you Purebloods are any better when left stranded in the Muggle world.” – “…Fair point.”) and what is weird about the Wizarding World.

Knowing Neville’s tone when he is about to get serious and deep about a topic, Harry turns his full attention to him, sitting up straight. “It’s kind of weird that about half of all wizards and witches out there don’t have a soul mark, and still, they get discriminated against or ridiculed for it. Hell, one half of each soulmate couple didn’t have a soul mark prior to meeting! So why is it so taboo to not have some dumb words written on your wrist?”

Harry hums as he tries to think of an answer. Finally, he says, “I didn’t really notice that it’s that bad, but now that you mention it, I’ve seen even school children our age bullied for not having a soul mark. I thought that would be some sort of trouble for older people, or infamous persons, like the Dark Lord Voldemort.”

Harry has to give it to Neville, he’s got better about not flinching. But that trained, now almost instinctual response to recoil when hearing the Dark Lord Voldemort’s name is not that easy to battle against. Harry tries not to roll his eyes too much or let his amusement show when Neville’s elbow hits the table behind him, but judging by the weak glare he’s sent in return, he doesn’t manage.

Trying to get back on topic, he continues, “That’s really weird. I also think it’s weird that people assume at all that it’s possible to not have a soulmate at all. Maybe there’s a reason for the one with the mark not to say anything. Maybe they just haven’t met yet. Maybe the one with the mark meets a lot of foreign people on one day and can’t read what the words say, or who said them. Maybe they have a large age difference, and the one with the words just hasn’t been born yet. Maybe one of them is mute – hey, does someone have words if they are mute? Do deaf people have soul marks? Do you not need to hear the words in order to have them written? Do they not need to be spoken in the traditional sense, but does sign language work?”

Neville shakes his head at Harry’s distraction. When he’s allowed to ask questions and to have them answered, he asks a lot. Sometimes, he’s generally curious. Sometimes, he hasn’t found the answer in one of his books, and needs Neville to tell him if it’s just extremely common knowledge that has been developed after the library portrait died, or if it’s a legitimately unanswered problem. Sometimes, he needs to distract Neville from whatever dark thoughts caught his subconscious’ fancy now. Sometimes, he tries to build Neville’s confidence and knowledge. Sometimes, he tries to initiate a debate.

And sometimes, he just likes Neville to laugh at the completely inane questions he comes up with.

 

A fruitless discussion with Neville and a joint trip to the library shows them that yes, all people, no matter their disabilities, receive a soul mark, but it may show itself in different ways. A blind person, for example, may touch the wrist where their words are and hears them. Most often, the mute person in the couple has the words, so there is no conflict. But for those who lose their voice due to an accident rather than due to a genetic defect or while unborn, other forms of contact such as writing or sign language work as well. A deaf person doesn’t have to hear what their soulmate says, but has to see them talking at them.

Harry also learns that Neville is a terrible researcher who gets lost in tangents too easily and is so excited about even the tiniest details about Herbology strewn into the texts that he’ll jump to get a notebook and write it down, even if he already knows it and has it written down. He includes the sources and date when he read it, then closes his notebook and sighs over it.

The first time he catches Harry watching him, he turns as red as the Gryffindor banner.

Harry thinks it’s adorable. Does Diana feel that way whenever Harry is confused enough that she giggles over his expression? If so, he totally gets why.

 

The next time, Neville idly questions, “D’you think that You-Know-Who had a soulmate?”

Harry blinks up from the Transfiguration book he was reading for the next essay. “I don’t know any You-Know-Who,” he gently teases, delighting in the eye roll he gets from the so shy and timid Neville. “But if you’re thinking of the Dark Lord Voldemort – why wouldn’t he?”

Neville stares blankly in front of himself, lost in thoughts. After a few minutes, he hesitantly says, “Everyone says he didn’t have one. His wrist was blank, but you believe that anyone and everyone has a soulmate, right?” Harry nods, but Neville talks on without waiting for confirmation. “He was a bad man – he killed so many people, and tortured so many more!” A note steals in his tone that Harry has never heard before, something hard and sad and unforgiving. “He doesn’t deserve a soulmate.”

Harry thinks for a while on how to respond to that. Neville returns from whatever dark place his thoughts sent him to and blushes when he realises what he said. He opens his mouth, probably to apologise, when Harry interrupts, “I still think he has one; he’s just not found them yet. Besides, it’s all a question of view point. You may think he’s bad, and I do so as well, but for a Dark blood supremacist and Muggle hater, being his soulmate could be the best thing they could ever dream of.”

“Still,” Neville says angrily. “No-one can deny that he did horrible things! And he made others do horrible things! How can someone normal turn into a monster like that? Something must have been wrong with him since his birth!”

Harry shakes off you-were-defect-from-birth-you-freak and thinks ruefully of a saying his Muggle teacher was fond of. Everything is Nurture vs. Nature, so everyone can be good if they try, and everyone can be bad if they try.

“He can’t have had it easy,” he replies. “You see how much the students pity and goad Professor Lupin for not having a soul mark, and he’s my parents’ age, so he can’t be much older than thirty. That’s not that long. From what I read, the Dark Lord Voldemort started operating sometime in the sixties. That’s at least twenty years without a soulmate only while he was active and in the limelight. And to be so powerful and skilled as he seemingly was even then, he must have trained for many years. He must have been at least fifty then, some books argue. That’s seventy years without a soulmate, or even a soul mark. What kind of pressure do you think he went through? I guess he just snapped one day.”

Put in this perspective, Neville can relate more. Unable to counter, he puffs out an angry steam of breath. “Doesn’t excuse what he did.”

Quietly, Harry agrees, mind on war and death and needless cruelty and pain and hurts-I’d-do-everything-anything-to-make-it-stop-please-sometimes-I-dream-about-you-dying-gruesomely, “Nothing could.”

 

A few days later, when Harry is with the library portrait, the man cannot hold his curiosity anymore.

“Knave,” he says, “I have noticed a change for the better in you. Do tell me what has brought it about. You radiate not as much sadness as you were wont to do mere weeks ago.”

Harry blushes and asks himself if he is so obvious. “I made a new friend,” he explains. “A human friend. His name is Neville Longbottom.”

“Ah, Longbottom! ‘Tis a Light Family of old, fair and just, of good character, with their talents resting not in magical ability, but Runes, plants, Arithmancy,” the portrait says approvingly. “Do tell, knave, does your Neville fall into this scheme?”

“He is brilliant at Herbology,” Harry agrees, “but abysmal at Potions.”

“Do tell me more, knave!”

“I’d rather not,” Harry admits. “I do not wish to betray his confidence, and I do not know what would count as such.”

“A wise decision,” the portrait acknowledges, “though I must confess to disappointment for not coming to know more about young Neville.”

Harry nods and thanks the portrait.

He knows he is a private person, not wanting to share his room with anyone, not being as open and friendly as others, always keeping what he can close to his chest and secret, but he didn’t know that he would so jealously guard everything he knows about his friends. It almost feels like betrayal to even think about telling the portrait more about Neville, the same way he never said more about his more inhuman friends to Neville than acknowledging their existence.

Is that a normal reaction?

Not that Harry really cares; he knows he is not normal. He is neither Light nor Dark, he is the Boy Who Lived in Slytherin, he is a wizard, he always is afraid, he was mistreated as a child and still is every summer, he is a freak of nature and has been so before he was born.

Nothing about him is normal.

Why should his relationships be?

Harry spends some more time with the portrait, alright with not being and never having been normal.

 

Harry’s proven right at the end of the year – nothing is what it seems. Ron’s rat scuttles past, chased by a huge black dog, looking similar to an Omen of Death, the Grim. After it races Ron, screaming at the top of his lungs for the dog to stop and leave his rat alone. Behind him runs Hermione, berating Ron for being so loud at the exact same volume.

Somehow, they grab onto Harry’s wrist and drag him along. Whenever he tries to break away, one of the two holds onto him again. “Help us, help us!”, they scream, as if Harry could even do something. Well, he could summon the rat, but the Light spell doesn’t work on living creatures and he most certainly will not use a Dark spell in front of two almost-strangers before he knows where they stand. In order to do that, he’d need to use his wand, anyway, which he cannot because Hermione and Ron grip Harry’s wrists so hard he can’t move his hand towards his pocket and the wand in it.

The chase goes through the whole castle, a good part of the grounds and ends under the Whomping Willow. As the dog activates a complicated mechanism, Harry’s certain: It must be an animagus. Why would an animagus chase a rat? For food? They would find easier prey in the kitchens, the Forbidden Forest, the grounds. Then, it must be another animagus. Now, there’s only a few possibilities for who exactly that animagus is.

One must be Sirius Black, obviously, or a person who pretends to be him, but that seems unlikely.

It can’t be the rat. Maybe someone wanted to hide a break-out and Sirius Black hid for multiple years already, but why reveal the truth now? And why would Sirius Black have waited for so long before doing something, anything?

So it must be the dog.

Which means the rat is someone else, someone unknown.

Someone Sirius Black broke out of Azkaban for.

Which possibly means someone who is one of the greatest enemies of the Dark Lord Voldemort, even greater than the headmaster as Sirius Black had more than enough opportunities to attempt to murder him.

Such a person does not exist, and if they did, it would be Harry who vanquished the Dark Lord Voldemort.

It could also be someone Sirius Black has a personal grudge against, which means it could be anyone.

It also could be some random person who figured out Sirius Black’s secret while he tried to do whatever he tried to do, but for an animagus to be coincidentally in Hogwarts and to accidentally discover Sirius Black is quite unlikely.

So, it’s either a personal enemy or the headmaster’s scheming.

Great.

 

As soon as the dog has chased the rat inside the Shrieking Shack, he changes back into the skinny figure of a prison escapee. Sirius Black produces a wand from his ratty robes, notices his pursuers and binds Harry, Ron and Hermione. Then, he turns his attention back to the rat. He manages to lock it into a conjured cage, large enough to hold a man, with bars dense enough to keep a rat. He starts a long chain of insults and condemnations which he addresses to a man called Peter Pettigrew. When he’s finished, he threateningly lifts his wand. “I’ll kill you, you miserable, traitorous rat!”

At that moment, the door bursts open. In comes Professor Lupin. There’s a lot of tear-filled, heart-felt back and forth until the evidence in the form of the rat is revealed. Then, there’s a slightly less amount of more tear-filled, more heart-felt apologies. Just as the men are about to make up, patch up their friendship and hug –

The door bursts open. In comes Professor Snape. Within a moment, he’s bound Professor Lupin and Sirius Black. He launches into a speech about how he’s never really trusted his fellow professor and how he knew he was in cahoots with Sirius Black.

When he’s finally calmed down, Professor Lupin casts a spell on the rat which reveals its real form – a snivelling, bald, little man apparently named Peter Pettigrew. The truth is revealed – not Sirius Black, but Peter Pettigrew is a Death Eater and sold out the Potters.

Professor Snape finally notices the students tied up in the corner and releases them, unfortunately also of the rope that kept them silent. Hermione and Ron belt the adults with questions. Professor Snape shuts them up with a glare. They all start to move towards the door.

Meanwhile, Harry is panicking.

Not the body-stopping, mind-numbing panic he expected, but the kind that makes his mind a bit fuzzy. He takes several deep breaths and manages to calm down again. As he follows the proceedings, he relaxes more as it’s revealed that there’s no danger to him here. He has the right charm to cut through the ropes in his head, a Dark spell that can be used verbally and without a wand, and should work even when he has to mumble it through the thick rope running across his lips, when Professor Lupin storms into the little hut.

His mind jumps to the lunar calendar, as it does every time he sees the professor.

Full moon.

As he calms down from images of sharp-fangs-claws-tearing-ripping-shredding-hurts-it-hurts-help-barks-worse-than-a-dog-growls, Professor Snape enters.

Professor Snape, Harry firmly believes, is utterly capable of “accidentally” freeing a raging werewolf if it will rid him of some nuisances – like one falsely convicted prison escapee by the name of Sirius Black, one annoying student by the name of Hermione Granger, one annoying and stupid student by the name of Ron Weasley and one boy who he hates without reason or abandon by the name of Harry Potter.

They are screwed.

 

By some miracle, Harry recovers enough from the now body-stopping, mind-numbing panic to plan his escape.

When Professor Lupin transforms, he’ll have to use the no doubt following confusion and fear as a distraction and flee. He sticks to the back of the group, silently following as Professor Snape rants about stupid students and idiotic teachers and Black, you arsehole and just you wait, Pettigrew. Hermione and Ron exchange looks that speak volumes, and ones so loud that even Harry can hear what they are communicating. Sirius Black and Professor Lupin have some weird back-and-forth that consists of apologies and forgiveness and stories of the distant past and stories since Sirius Black was arrested and stories since Sirius Black broke out of Azkaban and even more apologies until Professor Lupin gradually falls silent and the moon rises.

Everything goes to plan.

Professor Lupin transforms. Everyone is confused and afraid. Harry dashes away.

Then, Dementors arrive.

Hundreds.

Harry is downed by green-lights-please-not-Harry-step-aside-take-me-foolish-girl.

But he’s determined.

He read about the Patronus Charm in one of the numerous books about defending oneself. It’s one of the spells which is too high-powered to use for his age and power. The library portrait reckoned that one try a day is the limit of Harry’s magical prowess. In a pinch, maybe he could try twice, but then he’d have absolutely no magic left.

The first time Harry practiced the spell, he could try three times. The first time, nothing happened. The second time, nothing happened. The third time, his wand spat slight mist.

Then, even though he only cast it one time and did nothing more than say some words and wave his wand the first two times, Harry fell unconscious.

The library portrait was sympathetic when he told Harry that he probably doesn’t have happy enough memories. He advised Harry to think hard about the memory he used to fuel the spell. “Knave, ‘tis a memory that need not be of reality”, he said. “Dear in heart, not necessarily untainted by sad emotions. ‘Tis the memory you must make use of.”

Harry thought about it long and hard. The only time he was happy was when he found his own hidden room in first year and the house elves helped him, but that memory obviously is not strong enough. He arrived at the image he saw in the Dream Mirror. His father, his mother, his soulmate.

He tried again the next day after discussing it with the portrait. One try. If he did not succeed, he would turn his attention to other spells.

He managed a bit more mist than the last time.

Not good enough.

He spent the rest of the day going over the Light Shield Charm he tried to remember during last year’s duelling club debacle, firmly remembering the wand movements for Protego.

Surrounded by Dementors, haunted by green-lights-please-, he doesn’t think that it’ll work, but he tries. He thinks of his mother’s smile, his father’s laugh, his soulmate’s arms around him. He casts the spell. He succeeds.

His Patronus chases the Dementors away.

Harry runs with his Patronus.

He runs from the howls of anguish and rage.

He runs from the screams of surprise and fear.

He runs from the shouts of “WAIT!” and “DEMENTORS!”.

He runs from the Dementors.

He runs from the professors – one out to kill him in his beastly form, one warding off the other.

He runs from the innocent mass murder who apparently is his godfather.

He runs from the students who can’t take no for an answer and dragged him into this whole mess.

He runs.

He doesn’t see the animagus dog lead the crazed werewolf away. He doesn’t see the students fainting from fear and the Dementors’ influence. He doesn’t see the professor staring after him with disbelief and gratitude.

He just runs.

 

The next day, after a night spent shaking and crying, curled up on the broad window sill, back to the wall, gaze turned unseeing to the dark water outside, arms around knees, knees pressed to chest, silencing and shielding wards around him, Harry mechanically eats a few bites at breakfast. The headmaster holds a grand speech after the meal.

“Last night”, he starts. “Last night, a deed most courageous was done.” A moment of silence drowned out by whispers. “Two of your numbers left the castle a bit before curfew, most assured of their safety as you all should be. Unfortunately, they were wrong in their belief.” Another grave silence.

Harry almost snorts. After having the Dark Lord Voldemort as a teacher for a year and last year’s series of one petrification after the other, not to speak of the Cerberus or Basilisk, the headmaster seriously wants people to believe that Hogwarts is safe? But then, he was behind most of these incidents, or so Harry believes, so maybe he does think of Hogwarts as safe.

Unfortunately, the rest of the castle can’t hold the same belief, even if the students all nod along and obviously think so.

The headmaster continues his speech as the whispers die down again and the students turn their attention back to him. “These two brave students were attacked by a horde of Dementors.” Shocked gasps are taken almost simultaneously. Harry hears a characteristic whisper from further up the table, “Wait until my father hears of this!”

Now, all students focus on the headmaster completely. He faces them with a serious face that is completely contradicted by his friendlily twinkling blue robes with the bright orange lights, like a sun going supernova. “Luckily, Professor Snape”, he inclines his head towards the dour-looking professor, “happened to look outside the window. He fortunately was able to cast the notoriously tricky Patronus Charm and managed to ward off the hundreds of beasts descending onto the unlucky students. At great cost, he saved them from certain death. For this, I – and I am sure you will all agree – am deeply thankful.” He turns to Professor Snape again and says, “My dear friend, who knows what would have happened without you. We all are grateful for your quick actions.”

Harry notices how Professor Snape’s face twitches at the address. His already deep frown becomes even more pronounced as the headmaster leads the whole Great Hall into a resounding applause.

Finally, the clapping dies down. The headmaster studies the students’ anxious faces. “Fear not, dear students! In the face of such a trespass, Minister Fudge has no choice but to retract the Dementors. Even if Sirius Black is out to harm anyone, the Dementors pose more dangers than him.”

Neatly done, Harry thinks. Voiced this way, all the blame rests solely on the Minister, as if the headmaster had not allowed the creatures’ presence at all.

What follows are some platitudes and reassurances Harry hears and forgets immediately after.

For him, it’s confirmed that the headmaster was behind this year’s disaster, as well. And now he has another summer with the Dursleys to look forward to.

Great.

 

But it doesn’t end there.

Diana Goodwill comes up to Harry and, with a cant of her head, guides him into an abandoned hallway. She secures the empty space around them and, assured of there being no danger of being overseen, she grabs Harry. Her thin, but strong arms wrap around his neck and pull him in until his face rests against her breast, leaving him terribly flustered and her terribly amused.

The embrace is… warm. Normally, Harry hates contact, no matter how fleeting. It always reminds him of pain-pain-I’m-sorry-stop-please. But this hug is comfortable, and Diana smells nice, and her chest is so soft, and her arms feel so nice around him, and he can’t stop a pleased sigh from escaping his lips.

“Oh, I’ll miss you, little snake,” she whispers to him. “Don’t forget about me, right? And be smart! If they chose Smeltings as King, who knows who will follow. But I believe in you. You know that, right?”

Harry is hesitant to nod, but he does, in the end.

Her quiet, melancholic voice abruptly changes. She pulls Harry back by the shoulders, leaning down to look him in the eye. “Even if Nero and I cannot contact you, and even if we can’t help you once I step foot outside these walls, know that we like you and consider you a future ally. Give us time to build ourselves up outside of Hogwarts, outside of Slytherin, and we will stand by you. You know that, don’t you?”

Her soft palm strokes over his hair, his cheek. He nods again, even though he doesn’t know why they would make such a generous offer to him. Just because he is a good study and because King Nero pitied him? Maybe because of them being Godsiblings?

Either way, Harry won’t complain about allies.

Diana pulls him to her chest once more, serious mood broken by her playful cries. “Oh, my dearest Godsibling, oh, how I will miss you! You are so adorable and cute; I do not know how I will last without my weekly dose of your presence!”

Finally, after a long time, she rips herself away from him, dismantling the spells. With a last look and sad smile back, she leaves.

Harry looks after her, following her familiar figure until she turns around the corner.

He feels… cold.

He raises his arms, wrapping them around himself.

It doesn’t help.

A tear slowly drips down his cheek.

 

Uncle Vernon awaits him with a sadistic smile.

Chapter Text

Only, this summer, Harry is rescued early.

Shortly after his birthday, the day after he dreamed of suffering as a wraith and being reborn into a clumsy clay body made by the shaking and trembling and crying Peter Pettigrew, a whole horde of wizards appears in the living room with a terrible and loud crack. Uncle Vernon looks ready to either kill all of them or suffer from a heart attack. Harry’s not quite sure what he hopes for, considering two of those wizards are the werewolf who tried to kill him and the innocent mass murderer who still is guilty officially. The other five or six are strangers. On the other hand is the punishment that surely awaits him for bringing such “freakishness” inside this “good, normal house with good, normal people”.

He hides in the background as the adults start to argue. Uncle Vernon loudly demands that they all leave. A black wizard with a bald head and deep voice tries to reason with him, but if Uncle Vernon is one thing, it is unreasonable. A young witch with hair and features that keep changing depending on her mood gives it a try, next. She tries to impart on Uncle Vernon the importance of having “the” Harry Potter move residency for the rest of summer. Uncle Vernon seems stuck on the “Harry is leaving” part for a bit before he remembers who he is talking to, and he is too distracted looking at the witch’s ever-changing hair colour to pay much attention to anything but this freakishness. He still protests that he doesn’t want to give anything to “you freaks”, not even his hated nephew. The debate, if one can call one stubborn fool closing his eyes and ears and six others desperately trying to convince him a debate, goes on for about half an hour, until Uncle Vernon falls into a rant about freakishness and good people and complaining about their very existence. Shortly thereafter, Sirius Black’s patience finally wanes. He draws his wand, much to the outrage of his companions, and sticks it into Uncle Vernon’s face threateningly.

The discussion is quickly resolved after that.

“Then take the damned freak!”, Uncle Vernon shouts, all the veins on his neck and forehead protruding. “But don’t you bring it back! Take it! Go on!”

He pushes an unfamiliar wizard towards Harry.

A few minutes later, after Harry’s been sent upstairs to pack – as if he’d ever had a room upstairs, as if he didn’t live in the cupboard under the stairs, as if he even dared to unpack anything in this house –, the wizards make Harry grab onto a stinky old sock. He only gets it when the room already starts to move – a Portkey. The world keeps twisting and turning, worse than that time he had a concussion, colours flowing into each other and mixing into a spiral of grey dizziness.

A second later, he stumbles onto a pavement, trying to keep the meagre contents of his stomach inside his body. The ex-professor takes no pity on him, shoving a piece of parchment into his hands. Harry takes a moment until his eyes see anything other than blurs of colour before he studies his surroundings. They are in a street belonging to a larger city, much more cars and people are buzzing about than in Privet Drive. The houses are higher than the simple two-story houses Harry is used to, and much more diverse. Some of the people walking by are giving the group of wizards weird looks, but less than there should be, considering their robes. Probably some charm to re-direct the attention of Muggles, Harry muses. When he no longer feels the need to vomit at the mere thought of reading, Harry turns his attention to the scrap of parchment in his hand, trying to ignore the impatient looks on him.

It’s an address.

Confused, Harry looks up. It’s the same street, but the house doesn’t exist. There’s ten, next to it is four-

He watches as the houses stretch to make room for a grand mansion.

The Fidelius Charm, then. The same one that was so safe that it perfectly protected his parents. And this is considered safer than the Dursley house? It definitely is, no questions about that, but the Wizarding World seems to be under some sort of delusion that he lives a comfortable, spoiled life with someone no-one knows anything about, so why would they more or less kidnap him?

Is this another of the headmaster’s schemes?

Before he can think more about it, Harry’s ushered inside quickly by the exasperated wizards who heave great sighs of relief that he now finally read the parchment that let him in on the secret, as if they were not capable of giving it to him before the nausea of Portkey travel, or having the landing be inside the Fidelius-protected house. Before he enters, he’s warned to be utterly quiet. Apparently, the portrait of the former mistress of this mansion is not happy with the company her son keeps, and tries to scream the guests’ ears off.

Then, this must be a Black residence.

Harry takes in the dark walls, dark furniture, dark atmosphere – then, he’s tackled by a round, red-haired woman he’s never seen before. She introduces herself as “Molly, call me Molly, dear, none of that Mrs. Weasley business”. At least he now knows where Ron’s got his manners from.

She leads Harry to a room and tells him to “feel at home”. Inside is Ron who grins brightly at seeing Harry and starts telling him his life’s story. Finally, he arrives at the point of interest.

Hermione and Ron, of course, told the headmaster all about the happenings inside the Shrieking Shack and outside it, or as much as they were conscious for. With all his political power and immense intelligence, the headmaster was unable to demand a trial for the innocent Sirius Black.

Harry wonders about this and, more importantly, why the headmaster would believe two thirteen-year-olds weakened and almost killed by Dementors. Professor Snape doesn’t seem like he would volunteer information without some sort of coercion, doubly so because of his clear hatred for werewolves and the fact that declaring Sirius Black innocent would benefit Professor Lupin, however indirectly that may be. Professor Lupin, himself, turned into a werewolf, and a werewolf’s memories are notoriously bad for the first hour before the transformation, making him an unreliable witness at best. So why did the headmaster believe them, and if he didn’t, why didn’t he act on this knowledge in some way?

Anyway, it was somehow decided that the “old crowd” should take Sirius Black back under their wings and support him. This, somehow, evolved into using his house as a stronghold for whatever they were or are doing. In order to be able to do that, the house has to be cleaned and “all the Dark stuff’s gotta be thrown out”. For that, it was decided that Molly Weasley should move in. She couldn’t leave her underage kids alone at home, so she brought them along. Somehow, Hermione also came with them. They spent their summer thus far cleaning, dusting, scrubbing, which Ron complains tremendously about.

Harry is slightly bemused by that. If all that happened to him was the no doubt taxing, but easy job of having to restore a mansion as beautiful and grand as this to its former glory, he’d be happy.

He doesn’t say so, of course. As always, he lets Ron rattle on and picks out the one or two sentences that actually contain interesting information, all the while wondering why it was Molly Weasley with her four underage children and Hermione who had to move in, and it couldn’t be someone without so many obligations. Why does Sirius Black need anyone’s help with cleaning, anyway? He’s a grown man; he can handle a few dusty rooms without help. Besides, if Harry’s got that correctly, Professor Lupin has moved in permanently. That’s two able-bodied, magically able young men, who need the help of moody teenagers and an overbearing woman to clean?

Before Ron comes to the most relevant part – why Harry’s been brought here –, Harry’s called downstairs.

The headmaster has arrived in a mixture of ghastly robes and deceivingly kind smiles.

After exchanging greetings and small talk with the adults in the house, leaving Harry standing around awkwardly in the background, he invites Harry to sit down with him in a parlour. Not actually given a choice, Harry follows him as he turns and leads him down dark hallways. They end up in a dusty little chamber. It holds two comfortable armchairs, a fireplace and several shelves filled with all sorts of paraphernalia. It also is coloured in Slytherin colours and displays proudly the graduation diploma of a Black from sometime in the eighteenth century, the ink still pristine and clearly readable. Harry looks at it for a moment, trying to ignore the headmaster, but he waits patiently for his attention with his twinkling blue eyes.

When he has it, he smiles friendlily. With a lazy wave of his wand, the headmaster vanishes the dirt. He gestures towards a chair cordially, as if he hadn’t just demonstrated tremendous power by wordlessly and basically wandlessly affecting so much dust instantly.

Harry is sufficiently cowed. He suspects that’s one reason why the headmaster performed this spell, an unimpressively impressive and subtle power play.

When Harry’s taken a seat, the headmaster remains standing for a moment longer, seemingly staring at a particularly ugly clay figure. Harry knows better – he’s standing because he towers over Harry this way, showing his power and dominance. Analysing the intended effect of the headmaster’s behaviour makes it easier to remain calm and unaffected, Harry notices.

Finally, the headmaster sits down. “I am sorry, my dear boy” – Harry almost flinches – “but all these items are incredibly fascinating, don’t you agree?” He smiles down at Harry in a way he probably thinks is kind, but looks incredibly patronising.

Harry doesn’t reply. He studies the wrinkles on his hands.

Not discouraged, the headmaster continues. “Surely, you are wondering what brought about this change in your summer residence.”

Harry does, actually. But he doubts the headmaster would tell him the truth.

“You see, it is highly unusual for a magical orphan to be given to a Muggle family, even if they are related.” Harry knows, he found out through his books. Apparently, it’s common enough knowledge that the headmaster risks revealing this fact. “Your situation, of course, is quite unlike any other. Not only was your aunt your only relative remaining, unfortunately, but the fact that Voldemort and his men are after you, added to your fame, led me to make the decision that it would be better for you to be raised away from the spotlight the Wizarding World would undoubtedly throw at you.”

Harry translates: I thought it’d be better for you to be raised unaware of your ties to the magical world, knowing nothing of magic.

“But now, dear boy, you have a family in the wizarding world.” From the corner of his eyes, Harry sees that the headmaster casts a meaningful look at him from over his half-moon glasses. “Your godfather, while not innocent in front of the law, has not committed any offence. As such, I thought it best for you to spend some time with him, get to know him, touch onto your roots. Sirius, fortunately, has volunteered to impart you with all the knowledge he has.”

In other words: I now believe that you’ve learned enough that I have to control what you’ll learn, so I’ll have your godfather, who was imprisoned for the last decade and is out of touch with the momentary situation, sprout the propaganda I want you to believe in.

“I hope this solution is to your satisfaction.”

Or: I hope this decision I have made without considering either your opinion or the law – as the kidnapping of minors is illegal even in the magical world – suits you well enough that you won’t complain.

Only after a long pause does Harry notice that some sort of response is required. He nods quickly, keeping his eyes in his lap.

His real opinion or consent is not welcomed, anyway.

A bit later Harry is released and asked – ordered – to start cleaning.

He does without protest, Ron complaining on one side, Hermione nagging on the other.

Summer – though vastly better than any previous ones – can’t end quickly enough.

 

When it finally does, Harry has resolved to stay as far away from Hermione and Ron as he can, or he will murder them. He had to be around them and their attitudes for so long, and he couldn’t even get up and walk away as he would have done in Hogwarts. It was maddening.

The adults left him alone, mostly. There were some tense conversations with Sirius, who’s asked Harry to call him either by his first name or a weird nickname. Their talks mostly consisted of titbits of knowledge Harry’s already read about in first year or stories of Harry’s parents that leave him deeply uncomfortable. It sounds very much like James Potter was a bully who harassed Lily Evans into liking him. It’s interesting that they weren’t soulmates, though. As far as Harry knows, every magical couple consists of two soulmates, if one doesn’t count the fooling-around of hormonal teenagers and the friends-with-benefits arrangements between adults who have not yet found their other half, as well as the middle-aged widows and widowers out for love. Professor Lupin – “call me Remus, please, Harry” – apparently was the fourth of the friend group, additionally to Peter Pettigrew, of whom Harry only learns that he got away and “always looked suspicious, that one. Always knew to be cautious around him, I tell you!”

Harry made one ally, though. The grumpy old house elf was vehemently against all “half-bloods, blood-traitors and mudbloods” who entered the mansion to “besmirch the honour of the majestic House of Black” and tried to hinder every step of the way to cleaning the house. Sirius, with his antagonistic behaviour toward Kreacher, didn’t make the situation any better.

When Harry caught the house elf rescuing family heirlooms from the garbage sacks after the Weasleys had discarded them without regards to their history or uses or actually asking their owner, sanctifying their decision by declaring them dark, Kreacher clearly thought that Harry would scream down the house on him. Instead, Harry calmly picked up one of the objects that Kreacher could not carry, having loaded his thin arms with as much as he could fit.

“Where are you hiding them?”, Harry asked. At Kreacher’s surprised face, he added, “I don’t think that family heirlooms should simply be thrown away, even if they are ‘Dark’.”

He said the word with such disdain that Kreacher’s eyes widened in hope.

Starting from that afternoon spent transporting Dark books and artefacts as well as family heirlooms into the small, dank room where Kreacher seemingly lives and into the attic where only house elves and those approved by the Black blood – whatever that means – can enter, Kreacher started treating Harry like his master, obeying his every order immediately. Harry sat him down and told him that such behaviour wasn’t necessary, that he wasn’t worth it anyway, but he’s long since known that nothing can make a house elf change their mind. When Kreacher noticed how Harry doesn’t like being touched and constantly was touched, how he shies away from loud noises and raised voices, how he sticks to the background, how he keeps his distance, how he dislikes basically everyone in that house, he liked him even more and swore to protect him. Apparently, Harry is “being destined to raise the glorious House of Black to its former glory, yes, you are, Master Harry!”

Then, Kreacher led him through a secret door that apparently only “real Master Blacks, Master Harry, only real Master Blacks” can enter. The first time he heard Kreacher proclaim him as such, he thought with great amusement of his god-sibling’s reaction. She would probably laugh with that mischievous giggle of hers, endlessly amused by half-blood, Muggle-raised, “Light” Harry being more Black than Sirius.

Behind the old, wooden doors, heavy with age, lies a library, full of narrow shelves, stuffed with so many books they are almost overflowing.

Harry spent many, many hours hiding in that room, reading through countless Dark books, one more fascinating than the last. Nobody expected him to be in there; after all, he’s not a Black. Harry’s not convinced Sirius even knows where the library is, anyway. From what he knows, neither his parents nor Kreacher consider him a “real Master Black”.

The books are fascinating, mostly detailing the history of the British Wizarding World through more objective lenses or at least another point of view. The most interesting ones are those focusing on the Black Family. The Blacks always held the belief that purebloods were worth more, but a Mutblut was worth their fresh blood. Only in recent years has that opinion soured. Harry learned that it basically started when Walburga Black was to marry her soulmate, a Muggleborn, who was killed by another Muggleborn because of undisclosed reasons. They probably were never discovered because Walburga, before even mourning her soulmate or properly registering his death, ripped her to little pieces with her spells. With an already fulfilled bond, there was no chance of Walburga having another soulmate, but she had to marry and have a child within five years because of archaic laws that otherwise would have lost her her place within the Black Family – the first thing she changed when she became Lady Black. The only acceptable bachelor available even close to her age and in a similar situation was her cousin Orion whose older soulmate had died of dragon pox. The family chronicle continues on in a formal and stilted tone, charmed to be filled automatically with each major event, and details the first few years of their marriage. They had a cordial relationship, but were never in love. Slowly, their interactions with each other started to sour, and they grew to resent each other and their marriage, arguing for hours on end until deciding to just stay out of the other’s sight. Harry imagines this situation to have been very difficult for their sons, who weren’t old enough for Hogwarts by the time Walburga and Orion as good as split up. The next page started to talk about Sirius. Harry, uncomfortable with the idea of reading of someone’s life while having to look them in the face afterwards, stopped reading at that point and instead turned to a little booklet listing all the soul marks members of the Black Family ever had, an interesting and sometimes funny read that pushed the sad story of Walburga and Orion, almost doomed to fail from the start, out of his mind.

Really, in what situation is the first thing you say to a stranger, “Your warts are as countless and beautiful as the stars” or “You’ve got the same teeth as my house elf?”

It’s a wonder any of the Blacks settled down with their soulmates…

 

Harry thought to get a brief escape when going out to pick up the school supplies.

Unfortunately, the other inhabitants of the house accompanied him. Within a few seconds and them screaming his name loudly, all the eyes in the alley were staring-watching-greed-hunger-hero-worship.

Harry wanted to leave immediately, but remembered how he wanted to become stronger and powered through.

He only had one slight panic attack that day.

He counts the experience as a success.

 

Seeing as he was with several people who are either called “staunch Light supporters” or “Dark-hating blood traitors” who balk at the mere mention of Knockturn Alley, he couldn’t go visit Silvia.

He doesn’t worry about it. Much.

She probably saw it coming.

 

Instead of taking the carriages this year, Professor Hagrid ushers all the students into the boats. As if they were in first year, the students are moved across the lake to Hogwarts.

The only differences are that Harry has a boat to himself – avoided by all the others as if he had a contagious illness – and that Malfoy and Ron by some twist of fate were stranded in the same boat. After about half the trip, Ron somehow falls into the cold water. The glee on Malfoy, Goyle and Crabbe’s faces hints at what really happened. Hermione starts screaming for someone to save Ron, doesn’t anyone know that water demons live in the lake? Professor Hagrid starts paddling over to them, but it’ll take a while since he’s at the very front. Ron’s red head resurfaces. He coughs out water, splashes around desperately and latches onto the wooden paddles. While trying to get back into the boat, he manages to somehow tip the balance so badly that it turns over, drenching Malfoy and his goons. Professor Hagrid arrives and pulls them all out by the neck. He shakes them a bit like a cat would do with her misbehaving kittens before loading them all in his boat. Harry fears that it’ll break, not made for so much weight, but it holds. Professor Hagrid turns the smaller boat made for students back around and puts Crabbe and Goyle into it. Malfoy and Ron, he says, will stay with him so he can “keep an eye on ‘em troublemakers”. Ron is pouting all the way to the castle, and Malfoy swears loudly that “my father will hear about this!”

Harry doesn’t think he’s the only one to breathe a relieved sigh when the students go their separate ways upon reaching the castle.

 

The first day of school, the headmaster announces that Quidditch will not be played this year, which causes a great outcry. Harry thinks that even the cases of petrification the year before last didn’t affect the students so much. Personally, he doesn’t care. He was curious about the game and went to see one back in first year, but all the screams of the spectators were too much for him. Besides, the game was not so interesting that he’d cut his time in the library or practicing short. He also doesn’t get how anyone could get enjoyment out of playing a game where a single mistake could take off your head, or leave you falling to the ground from great heights, or otherwise gravely injure you. Aren’t their lives dangerous enough already? Are they all masochists? Do they like being hurt for nothing but a few house points and the chance at a shiny trophy that means nothing in the greater scheme of things?

Then, the headmaster declares that instead, there will be a Triwizard Tournament taking place.

Harry’s never heard of it before, and judging by the curious whispers all around him, neither has anybody else. The headmaster also proclaims, “Rest assured that the greatest of emphasis will be laid on safety.”

That does nothing to reassure Harry at all.

Before anyone else is standing, he already is outside and quickly walking to the library.

 

On the way there, however, he is intercepted by Neville.

Perhaps that’s the wrong word to use; after all, he could have ignored Neville with his smile and the small gesture of his hands asking if Harry has time for them to meet up in private. But it’s Neville. The library and knowledge can wait for a night. So Harry nods in reply and turns to the left, twisting and turning through the hallways until he ends up in front of the hidden room where he always meets up with Neville. His friend arrives only a few seconds later, having taken a different route.

“Harry!”, he says with a blinding grin. “How are you?”

Harry’s smile is much more subtle, though no less warm. “I’m fine. How was your summer?”

They both take a seat. The room was cleaned by the house elves, as it has been ever since Harry let it slip that he regularly uses it. He makes a mental note to thank them later on.

“Great, really!” Neville starts gushing about all the plants he received for his birthday which is, apparently, a day before Harry’s. In turn, Harry tells him about spending the summer in too close proximity to the Weasley family and Hermione.

“The best day,” he muses, “was undoubtedly when Fred and George produced some runes that turned Ron’s clothes into Slytherin colours. He was so mad! At least his face then matched his beloved Gryffindor red.”

Unlike last year, Neville doesn’t giggle at the story. Instead, he looks thoughtful. “You… you spent the summer with Ron who hates your guts, more or less, and Ginny who stalks you, more or less, and Hermione who annoys you to death, more or less, and you consider it a good summer?”

Harry feels his smile start to slip, but he forces the corners of his mouth to stay curled in the facsimile of a happy expression. “Well, my relatives don’t really like magic, so they don’t really like me,” he confesses in a light-hearted tone, as if it doesn’t still sting, as if not liking Harry is the worst sin they’ve ever committed, as if they didn’t ever hurt him with more than a scathing remark. “And you know Ron – when he isn’t focused on you, it’s hilarious to watch his blunders. He’s got that uncanny ability to put his foot in his mouth. Just the day before we left, he asked a portrait who he and his wife were when the couple clearly were father and daughter, and let me tell you, that lady did not appreciate being seen as old as her father. The day before that…”

Neville is successfully distracted by the stories and too busy laughing at Ron to ask more about the Dursleys. Pleased with himself, Harry tells him about the time Fred and George hid all the books in the house, and Hermione’s almost violent reaction.

 

Turns out, there’s not a single book containing even a mention of this tournament in the library.

Luckily, the library portrait has access to all books that once were on the shelves, not only those presently there. He reads out loud while Harry goes through all spells he’s learned already, from those he learned in first year to those he learned by himself, from Light to Dark.

Both portrait and Harry wonder why a deadly competition was re-introduced. Even with all the safety mechanisms of the past – and there were a lot –, many contestants died. Harry can’t imagine there being more protections at Hogwarts. Back then, the three participating schools pooled all their magical prowess and knowledge into building a site only used for the Triwizard Tournament, surrounding it with all protection spells and shield charms in existence. Still, one contestant three years later died. That was the last tournament ever held.

As Harry knows, while there may be a lot of potions that have been invented since, spell crafting is long and hard work. Larger spells such as a Protection Ward would take at least a decade to create when the inventor focuses solely on it and has no other obligations. So Harry believes that this tournament won’t be any safer than the last one. It can’t be.

A dreadful feeling settles in his stomach.

 

The next morning, they have Herbology. As usual, Neville and Harry are paired up in their own group of two. They chat and generally enjoy the stress-free lessons. Harry cheerfully quizzes Neville on Potions, his next lesson, and tries to bolster his confidence that Professor Snape will not use him as potion ingredients should he mess up another potion. Herbology is the one lesson that the students are allowed to talk in, and there is usually such a buzz in the glasshouse that Harry’s and Neville’s interactions go by unnoticed. Otherwise, Harry wouldn’t put Neville at risk of being seen committing the grave offense of talking friendlily with a Slytherin. He doesn’t want to imagine what the Gryffindors, led by Ron, would do to him.

Neville once more laments that he doesn’t have a soulmate with Harry rebuking him that everyone has a soulmate before they start chatting about the Triwizard Tournament. Harry shares what he found out in the library, leaving out that the information was obtained by a portrait, not a book. When he ends, especially after enlightening Neville about the death rate, his friend has paled considerably.

“And- and they decided to reintroduce the tournament?”, he stutters.

With a grave mien, Harry nods before forcibly changing the topic to gently teasing Neville about the crush the vines of a nearby plant seem to have developed for him. Neville blushes and vehemently denies that anyone has a crush on him before realising that Harry is talking about plants. Upon seeing his face, Harry has to take care to muffle his delighted laughter.

 

A mere week later, everything changes.

It begins with an illness going around, for some reason only targeting prepubescent girls. Ron loudly bemoans that Hermione is one of the victims, therefore making it impossible for him to copy her answers during class or her homework. The first time this happens, Malfoy is so busy laughing at Ron’s expense that he doesn’t catch Pansy Parkinson valiantly trying not to sneeze. Unfortunately, she doesn’t manage to, and shoots spittle and snot all over Malfoy’s face. While Malfoy tries to wipe his face and berate Pansy Parkinson at the same time, Ron laughs so hard he can barely get any breath and turns an ugly red.

This, of course, ignites another feud between Malfoy and Ron, and they spend all day trying to outdo each other with all sorts of nonsense. Ron convinces his twin brothers to play tricks on Malfoy. Malfoy convinces Professor Snape that Ron did something or other which leads to him receiving detention. Ron hits Malfoy with some wrongly pronounced curse in the back which causes him to speak backwards for a day. Malfoy has Crabbe and Goyle hit Ron in the back with brute force.

On and on it goes until the teachers finally have enough of their behaviour and put both of them in detention with each other until they come back down to bearable levels of hatred. The boys begrudgingly “make up”.

As soon as Malfoy turns his back, Ron hits him with a handful of mud.

Needless to say, a mud fight is not “befitting of the Heir of such a noble House as Malfoy” and “not something any, and I mean this, any Gryffindor would start – and I do mean this, Mister Weasley, for not even your brothers ever did such nonsense,” so Ron and Malfoy are delighted to spend another week in detention together.

Because of the lower number of students, however, some classes and groups are reorganised. For Herbology, that means that Harry and Neville are joined by another student. It also means that they will not be able to have their usual amical banter. But Susan Bones seems kind enough, with her big brown eyes and curious disposition. Of course, as a Hufflepuff, she would rather ask Neville for advice than Harry, so Harry more or less does the work while Neville instructs Susan Bones.

But then, the unexpected happens.

After the lesson, Harry as usual waits for Neville after he’s cleaned up. Neville, however, is pulled aside by Susan Bones.

“I didn’t want to disturb the lesson,” she says shyly, proving more sense than most of her peers, “but…”

She pulls up her sleeve, revealing flowing words in black that shift to red as soon as Neville has red them. With a jovial exclamation, Neville bares his wrist, looking at the new words decorating it.

Slightly bitter, Harry decides to leave first, looking at Neville’s awestruck expression and Susan Bones’ joyous grin.

 

Harry’s gut feeling is once again proven right at Samhain when the names of the contestants are read.

The Slytherin table is stuffed full, the students sitting basically on top of each other to accommodate the Durmstrang students. Curiously enough, they all are men, broad-shouldered and stern-faced. Some of them quietly complain about the warm weather, but none of them take off the heavy coats that are part of their school uniform. One of them, an apparently famous young man named Viktor Krum, was already chosen under great applause. The second one to be called up to the headmasters was a dainty woman named Fleur Delacour, the beautiful face of a part-veela and the lithe body of a fighter. She is part of Beauxbatons, a school mainly consisting of girls clad in thin blue garments. In their own way, they are like the Durmstrang students as they complain about the weather – this time the cold, not the warmth thereof –, but refuse to dress up warmer. Of Hogwarts, a relatively unremarkable Hufflepuff named Cedric Diggory was chosen. Harry hasn’t heard a lot about him, but he recognises the face of one of the more popular and well-liked students.

He thinks it’s over, but his gut warns him otherwise.

When Harry’s name comes out of the goblet, he wants to run. He wants to hide.

Instead, he scuttles to the indicated room and faces the situation head-on, like the strong wizard he wants to be.

The other competitors stare at him and question his being there. He stays silent.

Finally, the headmasters enter. They all accuse him of cheating. Is Harry mistaken when he sees a glint of satisfaction in Headmaster Dumbledore’s eyes? As Professor Snape drawls that he’s only a rule-breaker, just like his father, Headmaster Dumbledore grabs him by the shoulders and towers over him while questioning him.

For a moment, Harry has a flashback. But he’s practiced this summer. At the Dursleys, he sneaked outside his cupboard late at night to watch violent movies on silent. At first, a mere trailer set him on edge. Forget the movie, he couldn’t even watch someone being hit. But with time, he got better at seeing violence. Then, he worked on not being so afraid of real-life people. When out shopping, Harry asked people for help. What’s the time, where’s the milk, where’s this street, where’s the bus stop, excuse me, who’s first at the sports competition on TV? He worked his way up. First, he talked to children, then, to their mothers. After that, he tried to ask lone women before working his way up to officials like train conductors and policemen. After that, he questioned fathers and after that, lone men. The first time he asked a man with a moustache for help – no-Uncle-Vernon-please-don’t-please –, he had to hide afterwards to wait out the shaking.

But he got better, slowly.

He thinks that’s the only reason his mind still works while being treated so violently now.

“Did you throw your name into the goblet?”, the headmaster demands.

Harry manages to stutter out, “N-no.”

No-one believes him. He wracks his brain for what he could do. Meanwhile, it’s decided that no, a measly fourteen-years-old like Harry could never trick a magical artefact as powerful as the Goblet of Fire. Therefore, someone else has to have entered him.

Still, his name coming out of the goblet makes it a binding magical contract that can only be broken in exchange for losing his magic.

For a moment, Harry despairs. So either he’ll lose his magic, or he’ll die?

Then, something flashes through his mind – a passage from a book about the Triwizard Tournament that the library portrait read to him.

There’s a failsafe built into the goblet for exactly this case.

“I did not enter my name into the Goblet of Fire, nor did I ask anyone else to do it for me, nor did I ever have any plans of doing either”, Harry says when they ask him again if he had something to do with this. “And I can prove it.”

The adults exchange surprised looks.

“How, my boy?”, the headmaster asks. Does Harry imagine it or does he lay an emphasis on that word that used to send him into panic attacks? “How can you prove something like that?”

Harry thinks of Diana and her lesson to act quickly when you think you could be stopped otherwise, to not waste a lot of time on explanations and to just do it. He brandishes his wand without asking for permission, without saying another word, without hesitation. With the Cutting Spell, he draws blood from his upper arm. He waits until it has run down to his fingertips and drips to the floor, the process considerably sped up by the nature of the ritual and his intent.

He vows, wand in the air, “I, Harry James Potter, hereby swear to Lady Magic that I am innocent of the crimes I am accused of. No shred of my being longs to take part in this illustrious competition. The esteemed guardian of this noble tournament was tricked and mistaken. Lady Magic, I ask of you to strike down the unfaithful one. Strike down me if my words are a lie, and strike down the faulty Goblet of Fire if it worked against its destiny.”

Everyone blinks at him in shock. A man named Crouch is the first to regain his wits. “What did you do?”, he demands sharply. “What was this?”

Relief floods Harry’s being. He’s still alive. He doubted for a moment if there might be a hidden thought inside his head that wanted to participate.

Taking a shaky breath, he explains, “It’s a ritual designed for an occasion such as this, when someone has been entered into the tournament against his will. If I lied and wanted to compete, I would have lost my magic or died. If I was truthful, the goblet would be destroyed. A faulty guardian is no guardian at all and puts everyone at risk. Better it be destroyed now than it chooses a first-year the next time.”

“Such outrageous claims!”, the Quidditch moderator – Harry forgot his name and that fact was all the surrounding Slytherins could whisper about – exclaims. “Don’t lie, boy! You entered into this tournament!”

Harry simply shakes his head.

Headmaster Dumbledore proposes, “If what young Harry said is truthful, the Goblet of Fire should be destroyed now. There’s an easy solution. Let’s go take a look.”

The others follow him out of the room. The hall is followed with whispers that get louder when the students spot Harry. Some point at him, others suddenly stop talking.

“Harry, my boy,” the headmaster says in a voice loud enough to be heard by the students, “if what you say is correct and this ritual of yours works and you said the truth when you said you did not want to take part in the Triwizard Tournament, the binding contract would be ended and the goblet destroyed. So, let us see!”

He waves, and the wooden cover raises off the platform.

The Goblet of Fire is whole. Professor Snape looks at Harry triumphantly. In contrast, Harry is calm.

He raises his wand.

He casts, “Lumos.”

A light sparks from the tip of his wand.

Simultaneously, the Goblet of Fire gives a miserable shriek and splits in half.

The whole Great Hall falls deadly silent.

Harry nods to the contestants, headmasters, judges and professors, and re-takes his seat at the Slytherin table. Hundreds of eyes follow him.

He squares his shoulders and ignores them.

 

After the students are allowed to leave the Great Hall, Neville secretly asks Harry if he wants to talk with eye contact and a hand gesture. Harry complies and makes his way towards the hidden room. Neville already is waiting for him.

“Are you okay? What happened?”

So Harry tells him. During the explanation, Neville turns paler and paler. “I’m sorry that happened to you. Bloody hell, why is it always you?”

Harry shrugs, not having a good answer and really wanting to know the reason himself. Instead of complaining, he simply says, “I’m not the only one to whom fate deals an unlucky hand. And maybe, hopefully, Buddhists are right and karma exists.”

It’s clear that Neville doesn’t know what Harry is talking about, but instead of letting the discussion twist into an explanation of Muggle religions, Neville concentrates on the part he does get and sighs deeply.

“Yeah, that’s true, but you’ve got it especially bad. I mean, first of all, your parents…”

He trails off, unsure if he should continue, their conversations never having strayed in such directions.

Harry leans back and smiles. “I never knew them, so I’m not too sad about it. And it’s been so long… All everyone ever tells me is that I look like my father and have my mother’s eyes.” In a short silence, Harry musters Neville, but decides to go on. “And I’ve read about the war, and harmful curses, and… I know that’s probably heartless and that I shouldn’t be, but compared to some things that could have happened, I’m almost glad that they died.”

Neville flinches, his posture sinking into itself until he resembles the beaten-down, insecure boy Harry thought he had banished last year.

He blinks in surprise and sits up straight. “Neville? What did I say? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-“

Neville cuts him off by raising a limp hand. “It’s fine, no problem at all. It’s just… Do you know how many times I’ve thought that?” His head lifts slightly, just enough that Harry can catch a glimpse of glistening eyes almost hidden under the fringe. “How often I’ve wondered if my parents were better off dead, instead of confined into that damn ward and being forced to live when they’ve even forgotten how to do that?”

Harry feels like he is suffocating. “Wh-what?”

Neville almost jumps to his feet when he realises what he’s just said. He stares into Harry’s stricken face and tries to babble his way out of the situation, trying to justify what he just said, but Harry isn’t listening.

“Your, your parents,” he interrupts Neville’s panicked words, “what – what happened?”

When Neville realises he isn’t being judged, he slowly sits back down, calming his hands that had been wildly gesticulating, “You don’t know? You don’t know. Merlin, you don’t know.” A relieved, if somewhat hysterical laugh escapes Neville. When he’s calmed down, he starts explaining. “The day after You-Know-Who died, Bellatrix Black and the Lestrange brothers tried to kill me for the same reason You-Know-Who tried to kill you, whatever that may be. They thought my parents knew some, some secret or something, and they tortured them. But my parents didn’t know, or didn’t tell them, or they did, and they didn’t stop, and they were tortured and tortured until they snapped and became mad. And now, they are in St. Mungo’s, can’t even wipe the spit off their faces.” Softer, he adds, “Do you think they’d prefer being dead over this, this rotting alive?”

Harry can only open his arms, rightly predicting Neville’s flood of tears, and imagines a little Neville, standing before the people who loved him enough to lose their sanity for him, protecting at a terrible price that their son has to pay, most of all.

That thought keeps Harry awake all night long.

 

The next day before breakfast, Ron confronts him.

Surprisingly, he’s the first to say anything about the incident with the Goblet of Fire besides Neville. Harry’s roommates like always ignored him. The Slytherin Queen gave him a slight nod – a confirmation that she doesn’t want more information, and approval for how he handled the situation. Malfoy looked like he swallowed a lemon the whole evening and recited his trademark saying multiple times, “Wait until my father hears about it!”

Ron, apparently, is disappointed because Harry didn’t tell him how to trick the Goblet of Fire because he would have loved to enter and his family is so poor and-

Harry doesn’t really listen. He thinks about the person who could have entered him. It must be someone powerful and overage. Crossing an age line is nigh impossible, Harry has read. His thoughts also constantly stray to Neville and the trust he showed him last night by telling him his history.

How did he ever deserve such a friend?

When Ron is finished, Hermione steps forward to scold Harry for his “irresponsible behaviour”. He’s kind of disappointed. He’d thought at least Hermione, the “smartest witch of the year”, would understand that he didn’t have anything to do with being chosen and doesn’t even want to have anything to do with the tournament, especially seeing that the headmaster publicly announced exactly that.

Her words go by unheard.

Harry simply doesn’t care.

 

“Constant vigilance!”

All students flinch.

Harry doesn’t. He noticed the new Defence teacher standing in the back of the classroom, observing the students as they chatted, laughed about their teacher being late and were just starting to consider doing some mischief.

The professor limps to the front, lecturing the class on the importance of always being aware of everything always and forever and ever and always, as if he hadn’t done so from the start of the school year.

Harry isn’t quite sure who he’s less impressed with: his teacher for holding the very same speech, or his classmates for still not considering it.

“Today,” Professor Moody announces when he’s finished berating the class, “we will focus our attention on the Unforgivable Curses. The Ministry – Patil, don’t even think of touching that magazine – the Ministry thinks you are too young, but I disagree!”

Then, the professor proceeds to demonstrate the curses. The Imperius Curse is horrible to watch, but beautiful to be under – no-worries-lie-back-let-me-think-for-you-just-do-what-I-say. But because it’s so very enticing, Harry knows to fight against it. He knows that nothing good ever happens and if something does, he is immediately wary of the catch. Much to the displeasure of the other pupils, Harry resists the curse within seconds and is praised heavily. The Cruciatus Curse makes Harry morbidly curious. He wonders if it hurts more than Uncle Vernon’s punishments and how much. Still, he’s glad that it’s not cast at him, watching the twitching spider that is making sounds no spider should ever be capable of. The Killing Curse sounds innocuous enough. A bright green light and – nothing. It sounds wonderful. Harry can think of a thousand ways to die that are more painful. When he’ll die, he almost wishes for this curse to be his end, not Uncle Vernon’s fists.

Then, the professor brandishes his wand. He glares at the students. He raises his wand. He points it at the spider. He clearly pronounces, “Avada Kedavra.”

Harry’s words.

Why are Harry’s words-

Why does he say-

Does he know-

Oh.

 

After the lesson, Professor Moody holds back Harry and Neville. He apologises for possibly traumatising them, or reminding them of bad memories. He seems to be more worried about Harry, who is on the verge of a breakdown. His face is white, his eyes impossibly large, his arms clutched around his middle, his hand around his wrist, his bracelet protecting his words.

For the rest of the day, everyone ignores him, if they don’t throw him pitying looks.

Harry almost doesn’t notice, lost as he is in his discovery.

The Dark Lord Voldemort is his soulmate.

The murderer of his parents is his soulmate.

The one who attempted to murder Harry as a mere infant is his soulmate.

Only after some in-depth talks with the library portrait – not revealing his words, no, never-his-words-his-he-doesn’t-matter-his-words – does Harry think more clearly.

He remembers first year, when the wraith of the Dark Lord Voldemort left him alone. Maybe someone misunderstood something. Maybe his soulmate’s not out for his life. Maybe there’s hope, after all. And if not, as long as Harry doesn’t lose his bracelet, no-one has to know.

At least, some mysteries have been solved now. Harry knows what his words mean, even if he wishes he didn’t – lie-lie-lie-that’s-a-lie-you-can’t-lie-to-yourself-liar. He knows who his soulmate is – ignorance-is-bliss-is-a-danger-never-put-yourself-in-danger-know-everything. He knows why he instinctively trusted Professor Quirrel – subconscious-instincts-wrong-wrong-doubly-careful-no-warning-take-care. He knows why he burned him – soulmate-not-soulmate-soulmate-soul-not-soulmate-body-destroy-obstacle-soulmate-soul.

The fact that he now can stop asking himself those questions is not very relieving, all things considered.

 

Feeling decidedly morbid, Harry sits on the window sill near his bed, hidden by privacy charms and shielding wards. The others are sleeping; it is long past midnight, and tomorrow is a school day. But still, Harry cannot even think of going to bed. His mind is still reeling.

The Dark Lord Voldemort is his soulmate.

His words spell out the Killing Curse, one of the Unforgivable Curses, one of the only curses with no known counter, no magical block, no possibility of survival.

Until Harry.

Harry who survived those words, Harry who wasn’t killed by his soulmate, Harry who almost killed his soulmate as a mere toddler.

Harry whose soulmate hates him.

Or does he?

Does he want to kill him? Torture him and murder him in the most gruesome way possible?

Harry takes out the bones that Lockhart spelled outside his body, the ones he regrew painfully, the ulna and radius that he keeps in his trunk. He strokes over them, inspecting them carefully.

Unbroken, white, dead.

He cradles the bones like he imagines his mother cradled him, clings to them like he imagines a child cuddles their stuffed bear, sobs over them like he imagines a father would cry over his child’s body.

Is that how his soulmate wants him to end up? Nothing but a pile of bones, indistinguishable from someone else? Forgotten but for white remains?

Or does he want him to live? Will he help him fulfil his dream to live happily?

Will the Dark Lord Voldemort be his nightmare or his dream?

Harry wishes he knew which of those options he would prefer.

Happy with the murderer of his parents or hated by his soulmate – what is better?

 

When he falls asleep, finally, still sitting on the window sill and morosely contemplating his life, he dreams.

He dreams of Uncle Vernon, of Aunt Petunia, of Dudley. He dreams of fists and shouts and snide comments. He dreams of “BOY!” and “You idiot!” and “Faggot!” and “You should be grateful we provide you with a roof over your head, BOY.”

He wakes with a gasp and a crick in his neck.

Right, right. The Dark Lord Voldemort is a man.

A very intimidating, very powerful, very manly man.

Not a beautiful woman. Not a giggly girl. Not a sexy bombshell.

But arguably the most powerful wizard in existence – or nonexistence? How existent is a wraith?

He could protect him. No more shouting, no more punishment, no more insults. No mere Muggle would dare open their mouths to speak out in defiance to the Dark Lord Voldemort, and if they do, they won’t be able to do it a second time, if the rumours are true.

No more harm would come to Harry if he was under the Dark Lord Voldemort’s protection.

But who is he kidding? Why is he daydreaming like that? The Dark Lord Voldemort is more likely to kill than protect him. And even if he exchanged the Dursleys for the Dark Lord Voldemort, wouldn’t he just switch one cage for another? The Dursleys would probably even treat him kinder than the Dark Lord Voldemort. They do not have as many reasons to hate him.

He should stop chasing after pipe dreams of people who would shield him and waiting for help that never, ever comes, and instead work on learning, studying, improving so that he can defend himself.

Because of this thought, he stumbles to the library at three a.m. in the morning, hastily clad in school robes, messily tidied a bit, head full of questions and heart full of despair.

 

Only a short time later, a revelation hits him like Uncle Vernon when he’s drunk.

Neville. Neville’s parents. Neville’s upbringing. Neville’s hatred for the Dark Lord Voldemort. Neville’s hatred for everything that has to do with the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Neville who said, “His soulmate must be a monster, to be matched to him.”

Neville who said, “I don’t think this world would survive it if You-Know-Who united with someone like him.”

Neville who said, “I hope he will be the first to not have a soulmate.”

Neville whose soulmate is Susan Bones.

Susan Bones whose family is synonymous with Light and law. Susan Bones whose aunt is high up in the ministry, whose nickname amongst the Dark Slytherins is “Blade of Justice”. Susan Bones who would undoubtably sever all bonds to someone “Dark”.

Will Harry have to choose, not only between betraying his parents and having a soulmate, but also between revealing his soulmate and retaining the first friendship he’s ever made?

Harry tries to ignore the way tears try to rise and bites his lip to banish these thoughts.

Of course not. Neville is a good friend. He would never do anything to hurt him. Both wouldn’t do anything to hurt the other.

That’s the definition of friendship… Right?

 

By the time Harry’s recovered enough mentally to feel relatively balanced again, the time for the First Task has arrived. Neville, aside from shooting him compassionate looks, has understood his desire to work through his thoughts by himself, thankfully, and spends his time getting to know his soulmate instead of worrying over his friend. Harry felt too vulnerable to even stomach a casual conversation, and he had a feeling like he would break under Neville’s gentle words and careful questions and tell him everything, so he asked him to give him a chance to think and feel without an audience.

He does not want to know how Neville, how anyone¸ would react to such a reveal.

After arguing with himself, Harry chooses to go to see the First Task. He’s stable enough, probably, to try a re-entry into society… or into the outskirts thereof that he usually occupies. He’ll keep away from everyone else, but he can’t deny that he’s curious. What dangerous task that’s supposedly not deadly has been elected?

He should have stayed inside.

Harry consciously tries to stay away from the masses of spectators, so he doesn’t go to the tribunes. Instead, he takes a seat on the grass a safe distance from what appears to be the arena. He still can see – probably not very well, but he doesn’t care. His safety is more important than satisfying his curiosity.

He doesn’t need to be high up to be able to clearly observe, anyway. Dragons. Who thought that would be a great idea? Harry’s honestly surprised when none of the three competitors are seriously harmed.

It happens when the last dragon, a great black beast, is herded back into a cage.

Separated from her eggs.

She rips away, coils around her nest and hisses. Harry – Harry can understand her. It sounds slightly weird, the way American people on TV do, the words pronounced in a different way, the emphasis laid on other syllables and the rhythm not matching the ones he hears in real life, but still something he can understand.

§My eggs!§, the dragon screams out. §Don’t hurt my eggs! Don’t touch my eggs!§

The dragon tamers step closer, raising their wands.

The dragon flees.

She grabs her nest and rises into the air. The thick steel chain is too weak to hold a determined dragon of her size and power back.

She flees, of course, to the side where no tribunes are.

Suddenly, Harry finds himself confronted with a deadly beast racing toward him at high speed. She’s spitting out obscenities, cursing up a storm – literally, the blue sky is slowly turning an eerie grey. With her eggs and the nest tucked close to her, she can’t fly. The dragon tamers start shouting at each other and start pursuing her, but a mere human is not capable of competing with a dragon for speed, even if both are on the ground. The spectators also start to scream. All this noise makes the dragon more and more panicked, causing her to blindly run as fast as she can.

She’ll run right over Harry with no hesitation.

His mind is racing. Desperately, he calls out, §Stop!§

She does so in surprise, rearing back for a moment.

§You speak, wizard.§ She cants her head to better consider him. §You speak weirdly.§

The dragon tamers get closer. She gets more nervous, stepping from one foot to another, visibly considering if she should just run over this weird, small creature that can actually speak.

§I’ll help you!§, Harry offers, raising his empty hands and anxiously looking around. She’ll trample him. He’s doubtful if he’d live. If he did, he’d surely be in incredible pain. §I’ll help you get away! You and your eggs!§

The dragon considers him for a moment, but the nearing wizards hurry her decision. She walks closer on stumbling feet and urges him to hurry up. Harry casts an Illusion Charm followed by a Shrinking Charm. The dragon with her clutch now is the size of a rat. Meanwhile, the illusion takes up speed, but is just slow enough so that Harry can jump aside. He swoops up the tiny dragon and watches as the illusion disappears into the Forbidden Forest, the dragon tamers in hot pursuit.

 

Later on, after hours of desperate and unsuccessful combing through the forest, the dragon tamers question him. Most of them are still dirty, covered in mud, sweat and leaves. Their tempers are at a breaking point after not wielding any results whatsoever. They impatiently demand answers.

They want to know what he did to make a raging nest mother stop her rampage, if even only for a second. They ask if he saw the dragon again, later on. They question if Harry was in any way familiar with that specific dragon, or dragons in general, or that race in particular.

Harry only repeats, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know where she is. Have you found her?”

The professors were busy helping the dragon tamers and only now find the chance to chastise him for standing there and not on the tribunes. Harry remains quiet. They don’t want to hear any explanations and “foolhardy excuses”, anyway. Professor Snape makes disparaging comments under his breath of “just like his father.”

The headmaster berates him loudly, but also commends his skills at making the dragon stop. He doesn’t care for Harry’s “ignorance” of what happened, instead praising him, his eyes twinkling proudly.

At first, Harry’s not sure why.

Then, he notices the students. The spectators have not left yet, too scared to leave the supposedly safe wards, not one of them considering that the dragon already broke through them effortlessly and that she would not return to her jail under any circumstances, and especially not one as flimsy as killing all those who watched as she was separated from her eggs. They also don’t think of the wards surrounding the castle which are many times safer and more powerful, deeming the walk too dangerous. They also coincidently stand close enough to overhear everything. Their faces turn green with envy and red with anger.

“Why did he include himself, that attention-seeker!”, they whisper, later on, in the hallways. “Should have just confessed that he tricked the goblet. Dark Magic, I say!”

Why, Harry asks himself, does the headmaster want to isolate him?

 

Harry takes the shrunken dragon with him. Fortunately, she understood that Harry was unable to sneak away while being forced into the limelight. Lacking another place, he takes her to the Chamber of Secrets. There, he once again mourns the Basilisk, the corpse conserved by the cold and untouched by time. Then, he lets the dragon out, explaining to her what’s happening.

§I will allow it, young speaker§, she says. She threatens him not even a minute later that if anything happens to her or, even worse, her eggs, he should kill himself before she finds him.§

As soon as all dragon tamers have left, frustrated, angry, confused but resigned to the loss of the dragon, Harry slips into the Forbidden Forest, returning the dragon and her eggs to their former size and bids them good-bye.

The dragon looks him in the eye for a long time before she nods decidedly. §I will grant you a boon.§

Harry tries to refuse, but maybe he’s found the one creature more tenacious and stubborn than house elves.

She prophesises, §Don’t trust twinkling eyes, and test red eyes, but trust white eyes.§

Harry nods thankfully and watches as the dragon slowly wanders away. He understands only one clue – and the headmaster is not trustworthy in any way, anyway. The meaning of the rest evades him, but he’s confident he’ll get it in time.

The dragon disappears.

 

Harry is on his way to the library when he hears it.

“So, you’re kind of… friendly with Potter?”, someone asks. It’s a girl’s voice, mid-range, not artificially high as some girls like to talk. She sounds a bit hesitant, but also undeniably curious.

It’s not the first time he has come across someone gossiping about him, so Harry doesn’t pay the girl much attention… until he hears the reply.

“I’d say so,” is the uncertain, almost cautious answer.

The voice is familiar.

The girl must then be Susan Bones.

Harry is now in the awkward situation of not being able to walk on without making both of them think he was listening to them. Or could he? Should he take another route?

But… it feels so good to hear Neville’s voice again. It’s been weeks since he last talked to him, back when he asked for some time to come to terms with the fact that Dark-Lord-Voldemort-as-soulmate-origin-of-all-things-bad-and-evil-and-Dark-destined-for-each-other-what-does-that-say-about-me?-never-tell-anyone-never-never he saw the spell that took his parents’ lives for the first time, saw the spell that took Neville’s parents from him, saw the spells that changed their lives forever for the worse. Neville, like the perfect friend he is, was very understanding. He even laughed a bit and said that he actually appreciated having a bit more time to spend with Susan, but he was quick to assure Harry that he would still drop everything to talk to him once Harry talks to him again.

And it’s been a long time. It doesn’t feel like two weeks, but more like two months. But Harry needed this time alone, he thinks, to brood and panic and grieve and plan and hesitate and despair.

He hopes Neville won’t hold it against him.

“So, say, what are you two talking about all the time? Nobody really knows anything about him,” Susan continues, the curiosity more prevalent now, swallowing the hesitance more and more as she receives answers.

“Well…” Neville pauses. Harry smiles as he imagines him blowing air from his mouth in a way that is too quiet and long to be called a sigh, his eyes turned to the ceiling as if the answer will be found there, blinking twice when he has thought of something, and firmly looking into his conversation partner’s eyes as he says, “About everything and anything, really. We talk a lot about magic that confuses him, and Muggle stuff that confuses me.”

“So it’s true that he grew up with Muggles?”, Susan prods.

Neville is silent for a second or two. Harry holds his breath.

Finally, Neville opens his mouth.

“Yeah, yeah, he did. Though he doesn’t like… talking about it.”

And figuratively kicks Harry in the teeth.

 

Harry is once again curled up on the sill in the dorms, the cold stone wall behind him long since heated by his warmth. This time, Harry has pulled the blanket with him, wrapping himself into it until only his head peaks out of the heavy fabric. He’s already taken off his shoes and trousers as well as his robes and the button-up shirt. Without the blanket, he surely would be freezing. Even with it, he is cold.

Isn’t it said that betrayal burns hot?

Neville revealed personal information that Harry had told him in secret and implicitly entrusted to him because he was certain that Neville would not tell anyone. Neville basically is the only one Harry has told anything, seeing as he is his only and first human friend. The house elves don’t care for Harry’s past as long as he isn’t harmed. The portraits are more talkers than listeners after so many years of no-one but themselves to talk to. The ghosts like deep, philosophical discussions, not talking about psychological hang-ups. They’ve been dead for so long that they’ve lost their grasp on what being alive was like. They don’t feel physical pain. They don’t bleed, and they don’t break, and they don’t die. They talk about horrific punishments and are full of praise over the countermeasures to crimes. Desperate men who stole a loaf of bread to feed their starving family are compared to each other, everything from deportation to Australia to one hand being cut off detailed in gruesome detail. They would surely not find anything wrong with the treatment of the collective Dursley family.

While Harry also considers the library portrait to be something of a friend, the relationship he has with him is completely different to the one he has… had with Neville. With the portrait, he talks about academic pursuits. They discuss Dark and Light Magic and magical theory and homework and Triwizard Tournaments and escaped dragons and Basilisks and werewolves of centuries ago and now and improving on the protection of the bracelet. They don’t talk about feelings, or pasts, or even really ask about either. They both understand that the other has secrets he would rather keep hidden – Harry still doesn’t know the library portrait’s name, for example – and have a silent understanding that the past is the past and should stay there.

With Neville… Well, as kind and friendly as Neville is, it is impossible to debate the intricacies of an ancient spell, or to go through Arithmentic equations three pages long with him. When talking about academics, Harry is rather teacher than eager student and heated discussions don’t revolve around whether the Light or Dark spell is better in a hypothetical situation, but about whether the form Neville’s Dementer took – a scowling Professor Snape – would be convincing enough a copy that they could knock Professor Snape out and replace him for a lesson or two.

With the library portrait, on the other hand, Harry would never discuss his feelings about his parents’ death, or at least not in the way he did with Neville. He comes to the library portrait and is assured that the way he’s feeling is rational, sensible, even. He comes to Neville and is told whether or not the way he’s feeling is morally acceptable. The library portrait has been alone in his painting, without even another portrait to keep him company, only able to read and read, for such a long time that he’s forgotten that the solution to every problem cannot be found in a book, and that not every problem even needs a solution. When Harry feels bad about his emotions, Neville assures him that it’s normal and okay, listens to him and cheers him up. The library portrait tells him about all the places and time periods where such feelings were normal and where they were not and gives him advice. Both ways are good, Harry thinks, but sometimes, he needs one more than the other.

Until now, he had two people he could go to for that.

But now…

Still, isn’t Harry just too prudish and old-fashioned? It’s not like Neville sold him out completely. He only revealed some secrets, mostly things that are hinted at by Harry’s behaviour, anyway. It takes no genius to see that he had no idea about the Wizarding World before he came to Hogwarts. Not so obvious is how much Harry hates returning to the Dursley family, but if people were attentive enough, they would see and understand.

But for Neville to tell all that to Susan Bones… It was not betrayal, certainly not in Neville’s eyes, most certainly not in the Wizarding World or even the Muggle world, but it felt like Neville opened his mouth to spill his secrets and press a Judas kiss on Harry’s cheek, lips soft and hesitant and unknowing, but felt all the same.

So Harry should not feel so… so betrayed, so deceived, like his defences have been stripped off him. He can’t help but wonder what would happen if he had revealed who is soulmate is. Would Neville have told Susan Bones if she had asked? Would he have gone to the Aurors? To the headmaster? To the press? Would he have told his most dangerous secret for money, for fame, for the greater good?

But no, Harry is unfair. Neville is a good friend, he knows. They may not have had a lot of contact these last few weeks, but that was Harry’s fault. He’ll just pretend he never heard Neville discussing him, and go back to spending time with him.

And he’ll try to forget all about his soul- the Dark Lord Voldemort.

He’ll choose friendship over a false promise of uncertain safety.

 

Shortly after that is the Yule ball. The students are obliged to take dancing lessons. Harry is paired up with Professor McGonagall. Unfortunately, this means that he makes a fool out of himself trying to learn. Fortunately, this means that she often is too busy trying to get the steps into the heads of the hopeless students around her to dance with Harry. He mostly stands by the side and amuses himself by watching the students stumble to something vaguely resembling the beat of the songs.

Ron and Hermione are especially awkward, both clearly new to dancing. They keep staring at their feet and so crash into the other beginners. Every time this happens, Hermione blushes fiercely while Ron scowls and tells the other couple off for dancing into them, even if his lead was the cause of the collision. Malfoy, on the other hand, almost glides over the dance floor, obviously having had lessons for years. Pansy Parkinson, his partner, sticks her nose high in the air, basking in the feeling of her superiority while looking down on the beginners. Neville and Susan Bones make a cute couple, Harry has to confess. With her quiet confidence, she diminishes Neville’s shyness enough that he does not do too badly, even if they mostly lay in each other’s arms and sway to the beat of the music. She excitedly talks about something that has Neville smile in a way Harry has never seen before, a small grin that shines of happiness and joy.

Harry also has fun watching the students become more and more anxious the closer the date comes. They fuss over their clothes. They try to find a date. The young students pester their older siblings to invite them so that they can participate as well. Even the Slytherin dorm is out of sorts. In other words: The students turn crazy. Giggling and blushing girls left and right, hoping to get asked out. Friends huddled close together, trying to talk the courage to ask someone to the ball into each other. Boys daring each other to talk to the beautiful French girls – or at least until they find out that most of them have Veela heritage, after which the Slytherins turn their noses up at their “filthy creature blood”.

Neville blushes fetchingly when he asks Harry for help finding the right bouquet to ask Susan out. When she says yes, smiling into the plants taken from the greenhouses – with Professor Sprout’s permission, of course, and all harmless, and not sending a terrible message in any flower language –, Neville almost bursts from joy… until he remembers that he has no formal robes. Under Harry’s guidance, he writes a letter to his grandmother, asking for some modern ones. Neville tells Harry anxiously that he’s not yet told her who exactly his soulmate is because he wanted to get to know Susan Bones without his grandmother influencing his opinion of her by talking about how advantageous uniting their Families would be, so he is afraid that she thinks someone tricked him into believing to be his soulmate. “When I told her, she wrote back, Is that so? And what if she thinks…”

Harry smiles and guides Neville to drop a few subtle hints as to the identity of his soulmate, not enough that his grandmother will know who exactly it is, but more than enough to assure her that it’s a Pureblood witch firmly on the Light side – because even if all those Light Families argue that blood doesn’t matter… well, their family trees speak for themselves.

Three days later, Harry is entertained by a teary-eyed Neville carefully inspecting the beautiful robes his grandmother sent him. Formal robes are more complicated than normal clothes, but Harry comes prepared with the Fat Friar who was the lowly servant of a noble family before renouncing the secular world, so he knows exactly how to clothe someone in even more complicated robes. With his help, Harry and Neville finish putting the robes on Neville within half an hour.

“When she sees you,” Harry teases, “I bet Susan Bones will break out into tears because you look so good.”

Neville blushes and grins, pleased with himself and his appearance. A day later, Susan asks Neville to see him in his robes to know what sort of dress she should wear. Needless to say, she is pleased with Neville’s appearance, as well.

 

On the evening itself, Harry sequesters himself to the library after having watched Malfoy dress and redress and redress and do his hair and put on make-up and wash off make-up and redress and redo his hair for about three hours. The comedy only gets better when he, dressed up to the twelves, not only the nines, stands next to pug-faced Pansy Parkinson and is ordered to wear another robe since his doesn’t match her dress and image.

On the way to the library, he spies Hermione, dressed in a gorgeous dress, with beautifully done make-up and an elegant hairstyle, lead Ron, with unkempt hair, robes that resemble a woman’s dressing gown that went out of fashion fifty years ago and a smear of chocolate on his cheek, to the Great Hall.

It’s the first time he pities Hermione.

Neville will later tell him, in all the details he remembers, the brilliance of the Great Hall, the wildness of the Weird Sisters, the many dresses and dress styles and colours and make-up and hair styles and robes of all the enthusiastic students, the perfection of Susan Bones. For the last, he will find the most words.

Harry will smile and try not to laugh at his besotted expression, happy at his friend’s joy.

 

The next days, weeks, months are calm, suspiciously so. Nothing extraordinary happens. The students still treat him cruelly, but he’s used to this treatment and now views it as a kind of training. The teachers still eye him disappointedly, heart-broken that he’s not his parents. The headmaster still looks upon him with wary eyes or patronising worry when he thinks someone else notices his stares. His Slytherin brethren ignore him. The guest students seem confused by him and the way he’s treated, but mostly disregard him. He puts Runes and wards and charms and hexes and potions on his bracelet, considering it more important now than ever before to hide his words. He visits the house elves. He talks to the portraits. He chats with the ghosts. He talks to Neville when he can rip himself away from Susan Bones. He does his assignments. He studies. He learns. He grows.

Then, the next task draws nearer, and suddenly, the atmosphere changes.

The headmaster is full of anticipations. The teachers are stressed. The students are more vicious. The foreign students huddle around their champions, eager to assist them in any way. The Slytherins are suspiciously quiet, the quiet that comes with concocting a difficult and complicated plan. Neville spends more and more time with Susan Bones as they grow closer.

Harry is cautious, seeing the warning signs as what they are, but it’s not enough.

The night before the Second Task, it happens.

As Harry is making his way to his bed after dinner, a Stunner comes from the right. He can evade it and the ones from left and front, but one hits him from behind.

He doesn’t even have time to call for help. Not that anyone would help a freak.

 

“That will teach you! How dare you steal Cedric’s applause! How dare you meet a dragon instead of me!”, Malfoy whispers into Harry’s ear before he drops him from the broom.

Harry falls.

He only really wakes up in the moment he hits the cold water.

Immediately, panic spreads through his body. He instinctively opens his mouth to breathe – water. Dark. Helpless. Alone.

Magic.

He tries the Bubblehead Charm. By the time he’s managed to take his first breath and calm down, he’s sunk so deep that he can’t see light in any direction. He doesn’t know which direction leads to the shores close to Hogwarts. And he can’t swim.

Having no other choice, he lets himself sink deeper. He’ll try to walk into a random direction when he’s on the ground and hope for the best. He resolutely bans all thoughts of water creatures, drowning, plants and dying from his mind.

As he nears the ground, he hears singing, shrill notes, deep hums. It’s otherworldly beautiful as much as it is creepy. A little later, strange hut-like buildings emerge from the dark. Harry sinks right into the middle of what seems to be a platform, a stone unearthed from the mud. Within seconds, he’s surrounded by what he recognises to be merpeople, thin and long, but powerful features with lean muscles and fins, the torso ending in a fish tail, their eyes shining with maliciousness and excitement. Every single one of them points at him with sharp spears.

They seem to discuss something when they make out that it’s a wizard boy who sank into their midst. One comes forward, clearly a leader of some kind based on the decorations he’s the only one to carry. “What does the land shrimp do here?”

Harry can’t answer the harsh demand, being under water. He opens his mouth before he remembers and can only close it reluctantly.

The leader starts circling him, harshly asking questions.

“Does the land shrimp want to take the stolen treasures from tomorrow?”

Harry shrinks back from the fish-like face almost invading his Bubblehead Charm.

The leader turns back to his brethren. “It looks confused, the land shrimp. Doesn’t know anything!”

Laughter follows his words. Some discussion in a shrill language that hurts Harry’s ears later, glee sounds out again.

“Does the land shrimp think that it can trick us? Fool us? Steal from us? Attack us?”

With each accusation, Harry shakes his head a bit more forcefully.

“No? Then what happened? Tell us, land shrimp, or we’ll make you!”

Helplessly, Harry looks at the leader. He throws a stick at him. Harry can barely catch it.

It’s a discarded wand, covered in algae.

Swallowing hard, Harry turns his attention back to the leader.

“That’s one of your magic sticks, right?” Harry nods. “Make pictures. Tell us what happened.”

Harry nods again and starts. He casts the Bubblehead Charm again, but instead of putting the bubble around his head, he gives it different forms and re-enacts how he came here. It’s strange working with a different wand than his own, but doable. It takes a lot more magic and concentration.

When he’s finished and the leader has recapped the happenings in words, Harry nods and holds out the wand, hilt first, towards him.

He seems pleasantly surprised.

“We’re in a conundrum, brothers and sisters,” the leader says. “The land shrimp – it’s only a shrimpling! It ended here not out of its own volition, but was forced. That calls for no punishment. Still, it entered our homewaters. That calls for punishment.”

Harry follows the discussion with trepidation, even if he can’t understand a single word. The strange faces make it hard to read expressions. It’s a total surprise when the leader announces from behind him, “It may go if it can pay us. It needs to give us something of worth – but real worth.” He moves to face Harry, once again uncomfortably close. “Not those shiny coins, not those dead trees.”

Harry nods once more and tries to think of anything. Slowly, to broadcast his every move, he reaches for his wand. When he takes it out, he keeps it aimed at himself. Once more, he casts the modified Bubblehead Charm.

It takes on the form of clothes.

The leader shakes his head.

It takes on the form of food.

The leader shakes his head.

He’s already excluded money and books.

For a moment, Harry considers his bracelet. But no, his survival is not worth the loss of his protection.

Looking around for inspiration, he notices one thing. He picks up a stone and carves some Runes into it that he remembers from class. It starts to glow.

Now, the leader is interested. He leans closer. Harry hands over the stone. He inspects it, then hands it to others to do so as well. Another discussion, then, “Acceptable. Twenty more.”

Harry bites his lip and considers his magic power. He’ll try, but he’s already exhausted a lot with the extended and modified uses of the Bubblehead Charm. At fifteen, he lifts a shaking hand for another, but is stopped by the leader. “It knows we won’t kill it if it doesn’t do all of the shining stones now?” Harry nods. “It knows that we will kill it if it tries to flee?” Harry nods again. “Then it may rest a bit and do the rest later.”

Harry relaxes and concentrates on recovering his magic. It doesn’t take as long as he thought it would. Before handing over the last stone, he hesitates.

“What is it, land shrimpling?”

Harry makes a bubble in the form of Hogwarts and mimes looking around.

The leader huffs. “Alright. One fishling will lead you to your stone walls.”

Thankful, Harry keeps the stone back until he’s made five more – the most he can manage.

The leader looks at him with curiosity. “It didn’t have to do that. We fishpeople honour our agreements.” Now, Harry is worried if he somehow insulted them, but the leader laughs, an almost inaudible sound that releases a lot of bubbles, “It should not fear! We honour gifts just as much.”

He turns around and says a few words in his strange language. Two youths come forward in a mixture of excitement, curiosity and fear. Each takes one of Harry’s arms. Together, they pull him in a direction. Beneath them are banks of sand, various water demons and dangerous plants, though all beings able to scatter after catching sight of the Merpeople. Behind them, the mysterious singing starts again. In front of them, the water turns brighter.

A short time later, Harry is on the shore closest to Hogwarts.

When he turns around to thank his guides, they are gone.

As it’s already morning, Harry stumbles his way into the library to research more spells to protect him, knowing that even exhausted as he is, he would be unable to fall asleep, especially in the dorm room with Malfoy and his goons nearby.

At the end of the day, he’s ensured that Malfoy and his goons or anyone else can’t surprise and hurt him that way again.

 

He misses the Second Task, preoccupied as he is with desperately leaning, but later on listens to the gossip.

That was what the Merpeople leader meant about treasures, then.

Not giving any more thought to that topic, he returns to his Potions book.

 

Luckily, the Slytherins consider the dump into the Black Lake payment enough for – Harry is not entirely sure, still. Meeting Malfoy’s favourite animal up close, or, in other words, almost being killed by a dragon? Showing up Cedric Diggory – even if he didn’t do that, couldn’t even if he wanted to, he’s pretty sure. That dog trick he used during the First Task was impressive. Being at the First Task at all? Existing?

Either way, they go back to the ignoring, not plotting silence.

Harry heaves a sigh of relief and pretends not to hear Malfoy mocking him and his parents.

 

“Hey, Neville,” Harry greets at the beginning of the Herbology lesson.

“Hi!”, Neville beams back, but his attention is focused behind Harry. He knows without turning around that his eyes will be fixed on Susan Bones who probably is laughing with her classmates. Neville always gets this besotted expression when she laughs. Whenever Harry gently pokes fun at him for it, he blushes as red as Ron.

Within a second, however, Neville’s eyes snap to Harry who in the meantime has unpacked his bag.

“Harry!”, he says. Then, he stops.

Harry raises an eyebrow in question and looks at him, giving him the time to gather what he wants to say without hurrying him up with words.

“I- That is, Susan- no, I mean, we-,” he stutters, twirling his fingers and biting his lip in nervousness. Finally, he grasps all his courage and asks, “Can Susan work with us?”

Harry feels his smile turn stiff. If Susan Bones, a witness, works with them, they will be unable to chat as they normally do. This is not only because she would see their interactions, but also because she is vastly more popular than both Neville and Harry combined. She has a multitude of friends who like to look at her, mouth words at her or laughs with her whenever something amusing happens. They would also catch Harry and Neville in friendly conversation, undoubtedly spread such and draw Neville down a slippery slide.

His standing within Gryffindor is shaky, at best. He would probably be bullied by the Gryffindors if he “betrayed” them. That also means that they no longer would offer protection against the bullying of other houses, specifically Slytherin. If the Slytherins believed that Harry “betrayed” them by befriending a Gryffindor, they would take their anger out on both of them.

All of this combines to a very bad time for Neville.

On a more personal note, there is also the fact that if Neville and Susan Bones are within the same group as someone as insignificant as Harry, he would be little more than a third wheel. Who would talk to a friend if you can talk to your soulmate? At least, it seems that way, considering what Harry has seen. Probably, many couples escaped his notice because they did not noticeably waylay everything in order to be able to be with their soulmate, but it seems like a vast majority did.

So, basically, that’s two reasons why Neville wouldn’t talk to him if Susan Bones joined their team.

But Neville is always so happy when he’s close to Susan Bones…

“Sure,” Harry says, trying to smile and not seem like the pause he took to answer wasn’t a bit too long to appear natural.

If Neville notices, he doesn’t let on; smiling brightly, he leads Susan Bones over.

“Hello,” she greets in a quiet, but confident and friendly tone. “I’m Susan.”

She offers him her hand. Harry shakes it and nods at her.

“So, what do we have to do today?”, Harry asks Neville who likes to spend his free time in the greenhouses, studying about plants or talking to Professor Sprout. As expected, he immediately sprouts a truly impressive amount of information about today’s plant. Harry prefers listening to Neville who he can interrupt and ask questions while the glasshouse is relatively quiet instead of paying attention when Professor Sprout is talking. Most of the time, some students choose exactly those fifteen minutes to giggle and laugh and gossip, hindering some from understanding what Professor Sprout is saying. It also calms Neville down if he is able to shine with his knowledge, which is exactly what he needs after a double lesson of Potions.

Though Susan’s presence seems to have the same effect.

Both of them listen patiently as Neville explains. Harry only cuts in when he notices his friend going off on a tangent, asking a simple question to turn the topic back to the lesson. Susan watches her soulmate with hearts in her eyes.

They spend five minutes simply paying close attention to Neville’s ramblings before Professor Sprout appears. While she wrangles the classroom into something approaching quiet order, Harry smiles at Neville and ducks behind some plants, circling around them to get to the table with the supplies. When Professor Sprout’s explanation is finished, he knows from experience, there will be chaos worthy of an all-out brawl. Really, is it so important for the boys to not receive pink earmuffs? One could think the world is ending if one of them has such “misfortune” and bemoans his “punishment” loudly.

When he returns with three pots, three pairs of gloves and three shovels, Neville and Susan stand a lot closer than before, holding hands. Neville’s ears are red, and Susan hides a bashful smile by ducking her head.

Harry forces himself to smile as he sets down the supplies and they break apart as if threatened to do so.

“I hope you don’t have anything against violet,” Harry says to Susan, “but these were at the very top.”

“I love violet!”, Susan answers, smiling sweetly. “Thank you for picking this up. You could have asked for help, you know?”

Harry doesn’t say anything to that. Neville and he have a routine. In the beginning of the class, when everyone looks at the professor, Harry will pick up the supplies. After the end of the class, while Harry is cleaning the workspace, Neville will return them. He is often distracted by some interesting plant or other, or the latest growth or fruit or blossom, so he arrives right after the masses have left. Neville doesn’t have the stealth to get the supplies at the beginning of the lesson – the one time they tried ended with Neville dropping everything and tripping into Unicorn Mint which led to him being high all day long. Harry doesn’t have the patience to return them afterward, and especially not the confidence to mix with the group of people.

He doubts that Susan would be quiet enough to do pick up, and he doubts that she is patient enough to return the supplies. On the other hand, she has no problem whatsoever intermingling with the crowd.

But explaining all of this would take a lot of time, and also interrupt Professor Sprout’s explanation, so he keeps quiet.

Susan bites her lip and turns to Neville, quietly asking him something.

She doesn’t try to initiate conversation afterwards for a bit, but about halftime through the lessons, she asks, “So, how is the Muggle world?”

There is a lot of things Harry could say to that. He bites his tongue to contain most of them. “Don’t you take Muggle Studies?”, he asks. “I think Hermione once said something about you getting a better grade than her?”

Susan nods with a bright smile and starts chattering on about that achievement. Most of what she says is outdated – a computer is not a person who sits in the backroom and calculates, for example –, but that was to be expected from a teacher who wears bras as necklaces. Instead, almost a shocking amount of information is almost correct.

Suddenly, Susan halts and bites her lip. She then asks Harry another questions.

“Do you like the Wizarding World?”

“There are worse places to be,” Harry says, thinking of the Dursleys.

Susan’s smile dims and she falls into silence.

The next lessons, she doesn’t try to say anything to Harry that is not directly relevant to their task.

 

Nothing interesting happens until the Third Task, or, more exactly, the day before the Third Task.

It is after dinner, but before the sun sets, night-time still an hour or two away, even if curfew isn’t. The whole day, the students were excited, lost in gossiping and theorising what the last Task would be like. Durmstrang, placed first, whirled around their champion with confidence and anxiety. Cedric Diggory was clapped on the shoulder so often it would be a surprise if he isn’t bruised. Beauxbaton’s champion, taking third place, was nervously wringing her hands, her nose in a book about magical creatures. Her classmates surrounding her tried to cheer her up to little avail. The headmaster revealed the time when the Task would start and wished all champions good luck, but his eyes were firmly locked onto Cedric Diggory as he did so. After all, even the professors want their student to prove their school’s superiority over the others.

Harry was glad when he could escape that boisterous, anxious atmosphere.

Now, he is walking to the library when – in a strange parody of first year – a wand is pressed to his back and he’s ordered to walk in a cold voice. Having no choice other than to comply, Harry steps closer and closer to the Quidditch pitch – or rather the maze that’s there right now.

The unrecognisable voice casts Fiendfyre, surrounding the maze and giving Harry only two options: pass through the opening in the green, living walls or burn to death.

It’s not really a choice.

Harry runs into the maze, barely escaping the hot flames licking at his heels. He stops to catch his breath, but turns around quickly at a weird noise, slithering and quiet. He manages to get a glance at who’s forced him into the maze.

It’s a strange man, licking his lips, dangling Professor Moody’s prosthetic from one hand.

Then, the wall closes.

Harry’s all alone in a deadly maze, filled with dangerous creatures, and won’t be discovered for at least twelve hours as he seriously doubts that his dormmates will report him missing. Even if they did, Professor Snape would probably just scoff at them and send them back to bed, muttering all the while about Harry being James Potter’s son.

A roar disturbs the silence of the evening.

Harry gulps and tentatively starts moving.

 

It’s an even worse nightmare than expected.

Blast-Ended Screwts, Boggarts, man-eating plants, Hippogriffs, Acromantulas, Sphinxes, many, many other dangers and four hours later, a slow and cautious Harry has finally made it to the last corner of the maze.

First, he tried to see if there was another exit, so he oriented himself with the sundown and the cardinal directions and searched the outer layer of the maze as well as he was able to.

Unsuccessfully.

He tried to burn a way out through the hedge.

With no better results than a scorched fingertip.

After the failure of the third spell, he gives up.

By then, he is hopelessly lost and it has become dark and cold. He has to start using magic which he’s tried to avoid, not knowing which creatures are lurking in the green paths. Are there some who are attracted to magic? Will he need the magic power he wastes now later on in a fight? Without a Light Charm, he can’t see anything, so he has to cast and maintain that. As soon as he is able to see, however, so are others, so there’s a sheer endless number of threats. Harry thinks they’re all somehow attracted to him, even if there is no light to guide them to him, seeing as he ditches one creature, overcomes the next and runs right into the claws of the third. So far, he’s prevented serious injuries, but the cut on his forehead, attained during the fight with an especially hideous Blast-Ended Screwt, makes blood run into his eyes, he strongly believes he’s bruised at least one rip while battling with a rabid Griffin, and the way his right knee threatens to buckle with every other step after that fall from when he ran from the Dementor-Boggart is not a good sign, either. He’s out of breath, exhausted, thirsty and hungry, his entire body aches even where it isn’t wounded simply from the exertion of the last hours, and he is so cold. Still, with practice of the damned, he crawls on.

The only ways out, he finally concludes, is to wait until tomorrow – or is it today – and face a public outcry for cheating-trying-to-get-out-still-competing-cheater, or to reach whatever should be reached and hope it provides a way out.

Sadly, Harry doesn’t know what this object or place is, so he can’t use the Point Me Charm. He doesn’t even know if it’s already been placed or spelled.

Actually, he only wants to sleep.

But no rest for the wicked, and less rest for the kid wizard with the Dark wizard – wizards? – after him.

Harry steps forward to face the next obstacle.

 

In the end, he’s absolutely exhausted, bleeding from several more-or-less serious wounds, favouring one leg strongly, unable to move one arm, shivering, hoping for the best.

So, of course, when he touches some sort of cup, he’s transported right into the arms of Peter Pettigrew.

Fantastic.

 

Without much ado, Peter Pettigrew grabs the dead-tired and surprised wizard and binds him to – a grave, apparently. Harry’s almost too drained to even panic. Almost. He tries to guess where he is, if help is coming – when-has-help-ever-come-for-you-get-yourself-out-or-die-help-help-me-please-do-your-best – and who has him. From what Harry knows, Peter Pettigrew has absolutely no vendetta against him. If he did, he could have killed him years ago while he was still hiding in his rat form, safe in Gryffindor Tower. That means something has changed. Harry doesn’t believe that Peter Pettigrew suddenly drastically changed his feelings towards Harry, or that he would have the courage and intelligence to do something so well-thought out, if overly complicated, seeing as he had to spend more than ten years as a rat because he didn’t think his plan for freedom through, so he does whatever this is on someone else’s orders.

Harry has a bad feeling.

To, Harry can read on one side of his bound body if he contorts himself. The letters continue with Riddle.

His gut feeling is proven correct for what name could this spell other than Tom Riddle, who is none other than the Dark Lord Voldemort? The only strange thing is that there is a gravestone erected in his name, and this name on top of it. Didn’t some of those “biographies” and “history books” boast that the Dark Lord Voldemort did not even earn the honour of being buried like the powerful wizard he is? So why is there a grave dedicated to him? Harry doesn’t know any stones, but this one is carefully crafted, each letter perfectly carved, the surface flat without any imperfections. Besides, only the really pretentious gravestones he’s seen on television have angels and grim reapers attached to them. Which opens up another questions: Why would Muggle myths and religions be used for the Dark Lord who stood against everything Muggle? A last slap in the face?

Harry has to stop. In order not to be overwhelmed by his panic, he has latched onto some irrelevant details to keep his mind off reality. He really has to nick this habit in the bud, somehow.

It could very well lead him to a grave of his own.

In that moment, a high-pitched voice coming from what looks to be a deformed baby, but is so inhuman – doesn’t-move-doesn’t-breathe-doesn’t-live –, sounds through the graveyard. It announces, “So we meet again, Harry Potter.” Harry’s name is spit out with enough venom to do Aunt Petunia proud. “Twice, you have now evaded me. But tonight, you will help me rise, instead!”

The Dark Lord Voldemort wants to be resurrected. Obviously, that was clear back in first year – red-eyes-face-on-back-of-head-false-stone-twinkling-deceit –, but now his resurrection is apparently near. He wants his greatest enemy here to witness his victory, his re-birth, his life.

While Harry has come to this conclusion and is bemoaning his bad luck, Peter Pettigrew has started the ritual. He stands in front of a waist-high cauldron, bubbling with water, emitting clouds of steam, and raises his wand in a manner that is clearly supposed to be elegant and theatrical, but falls short by a mile since the caster by far lacks the charisma necessary for such an action.

 “Bone of the Father, unwillingly given!”

Following the ritualistic words, spoken with slight exhaustion, the grave beneath Harry splits, a leg bone lifting out of its depths.

Quickly, Harry notices that he’s here for more nefarious purposes than just to bear witness.

“Flesh of the Servant, willingly given!”

This cry is more of a sob than an intonation of a ritual.

He struggles in his binds to get-away-knife-pain-get-away-hurts-don’t-want-save-me-help-get-away-please in vain, so horrified by the glimmering blade coming closer to his unprotected arm that he only vaguely takes notice that Pettigrew has hewn off his own arm, blinded by devotion to or fear of his master.

“Blood of the Enemy, forcibly taken!”

Crooned triumph in those words.

With a sadistic glint in his eyes, Pettigrew drops Harry’s blood into the cauldron, heating the fire a bit more and getting berated for letting it come close to too hot by the clay creature. The snivelling figure apologises and bows, almost messing up the timing for the snake scales.

The brewing process would be almost funny, a parody of Neville and Professor Snape in Potions class, if only Harry was not forced to watch it, bound to a gravestone.

Some ingredients later, the Dark Lord Voldemort’s infantile body is placed into the boiling cauldron.

Harry is torn between two contradictory feelings – the hope that this ritual has gone wrong, that one of the greatest Dark Lords of all time has not been resurrected to wreak havoc again, that the murderer of his parents and harbinger of so much death and destruction and suffering will not rise, that the one who tried to murder Harry as a mere infant will remain an almost powerless wraith, while another part longs for the ritual to succeed, to bring back Harry’s soulmate, the one who will protect him and love him and hold him, the one to right all wrongs and heal all wounds, the one to take revenge and to avenge and to fiercely guard.

Harry doesn’t know which side he wants to win, which reality he would prefer. But he is helpless to influence the ritual, anyway, so he can only watch and hope and fear and fight back the panic.

He doesn’t have to wait in suspense for a long time, objectively speaking. In reality, between one blink and the next, thick white smoke emerges from the cauldron, hiding the inhumanly tall figure until a sharp command for clothes fills the air. Subjectively, enough time has passed that Harry could have found white in his hair, wasn’t he too transfixed on the boiling fluid in the cauldron, watching one bubble grow higher and higher, tall enough for a man, then higher still, until it pops to reveal the arguably most powerful wizard alive.

When the Dark Lord Voldemort steps out of the cauldron, somehow managing to do so elegantly, he looks over his body in fascination. Harry does the same.

It’s not human, this body, barely more so than the clay child the Dark Lord Voldemort was before. It’s too long, too thin, too serpentine. The skin appears to be scaly and is too white. The bones seem to be more flexible, allowing inhuman movements, almost as if the Dark Lord Voldemort’s arms were snakes. The figure is too tall, too broad in the shoulders, too slim at the hips. There’s not a gram of fat on the body, showing off muscles and concaving the stomach. The fingers and toes are too long, end in too sharp nails, are too bendable, almost as if there was an extra joint. The face is missing lips, nose, hair. The eyes are inhumanely red, inhumanely beautiful, inhumanely cruel as they stare into Harry’s.

For a moment, he hopes. Harry hopes so much.

A small smile. A pleased facial expression. Surprise in those red, red eyes.

Nothing.

The figure steps closer, looming threateningly over Harry. A cold, pale, long finger strokes over his cheek, lighting all nerves it touches on fire. Harry has to bite back the tears threatening to escape. Such little pain should not cause such reaction. Is it because of soulmate-meant-to-protect-hurts-harms-rejoices? An inhumanly high voice hisses, “I can touch you now, Harry Potter. Your mother’s blood protection counts for nothing now!”

A sadistic joy fills the features, twists the lipless mouth into a grimace of a smile, a parody of happiness.

The Dark Lord Voldemort turns away with flourish, his robes flaring out more dramatically than even Professor Snape manages.

“Wormtail, your arm!”

Finally, the red, red eyes move, land on the shrivelling form kneeling at the Dark Lord Voldemort’s feet. The snivelling figure endlessly thanks his master and offers him the stump. He, though, ignores the tears, the pain, the hope, and cruelly demands the other arm. He rips back the sleeve to reveal the Dark Mark.

Immediately, the graveyard is filled with bowing men and women, clad in black cloaks and white masks, their eyes greedy and hateful on Harry and worshipful and fearful on the Dark Lord Voldemort.

What follows is this: a lot of megalomaniac talk, a few curses, and Harry’s inability to keep the irrational disappointment at bay. While he knows that the Dark Lord Voldemort doesn’t know that Harry’s his soulmate, he still expected something to show him that he’s not all that bad, not insane, that it would be safe to reveal his words, that his dream of the avenging protector is not only mere fantasy.

Instead, he gets to feel the Cruciatus Curse.

It does hurt more than Uncle Vernon’s punishments, more than all of them combined, even.

The knowledge that it’s his soulmate – who’s supposed to protect him – who is hurting him causes even more pain, makes it multiply and add onto each other until it is no longer simply pain, but transcends this meagre word, elevates it to something that cannot be named with human words.

But the physical pain is the least agony Harry feels right now.

After all, mental anguish is always more: more painful, more lasting, more final.

 

After admonishing his Death Eaters and taunting Harry for a while, the Dark Lord Voldemort orders him to duel. Harry has no idea how to, never having got more than that one lesson back in second year and never having been interested or bored enough to look it up in the library. He’s not given a chance to protest – not that he could gather the courage to do so. Suddenly, the ropes cutting into his wrists and keeping his tired body upright let go, leaving him crumpled on the grave of the one who created the Dark Lord Voldemort. He would love to press his hot forehead against the cool stone and simply stay here, but a simple gesture rips him to his feet and in front of the Dark Lord Voldemort. Standing ten metres apart from each other, surrounded by Death Eaters, Harry looks his soulmate in the eye and sees nothing but sadistic superiority. His mouth is moving, but Harry can barely hear the words coming out of it, too focus on assuring himself you-don’t-need-a-soulmate-you-never-hoped-for-a-soulmate-anyway-everything-will-simply-go-back-to-normal-ignore-your-words. Finally, the Dark Lord Voldemort demands that Harry bow to him.

He refuses.

There’s no way in hell he will take his eyes off his opponent. Besides, he doesn’t know if he even is physically able to bow right now. His head hurts from blood loss. His leg throbs. His arm is deadly numb.

The Dark Lord Voldemort doesn’t take kindly to rejection. He tries to force Harry.

Bow-to-me-child-peaceful-soulmate-protects-me-bow-to-me-child-soulmate’s-magic-BOW-TO-ME and Harry snaps out of it. The Imperius Curse is even more beautiful and peaceful when it’s his soulmate casting it, but Harry remembers the feeling. He still almost succumbs, his instincts not viewing his soulmate as a threat, but the memory of inhumanly red sadistic eyes reminds him that his soulmate is not kind, not even to him.

He resists.

A spark of reluctant respect, unwilling wonder enters the Dark Lord Voldemort’s eyes, but it’s extinguished as quickly as it’s been ignited.

He almost breaks Harry’s spine as he forces him to bow with another spell, he himself only nodding his head with deriding words.

Then, they duel.

One side is mocking the other. One side is stubbornly trying to survive, just survive.

Harry keeps to Shield Charms, his strength and knowledge lying more on the defensive side. The Dark Lord Voldemort knows no such restrictions. Powerful hex after strong jinx after deadly curse crash into Harry’s shields, one after another. He’s being pushed back, step by step. But a step away from his opponent is a step closer to the Death Eaters, the many-eyed mass laughing and jeering at his back, at his sides, at his front. But Harry can’t spare a moment to panic, doing his best not to lose to the Dark Lord Voldemort’s onslaught, grateful for every chance to catch his breath when the Dark Lord Voldemort pauses for a scathing remark. The exertion of the night is still clear, however. Harry is still injured from the maze, exhausted from long hours stumbling around, cramped from the panicked tension from when he was bound and forced to watch as his greatest nemesis and-his-soulmate-don’t-forget-never-think-of-it-again was resurrected. Thankfully, the Dark Lord Voldemort also seems tired; not having been reborn for even an hour has apparently limited his abilities severely. Otherwise, Harry surely would lay on the ground already, dead or screaming.

Finally, he sees a chance.

The Dark Lord Voldemort stops once more to taunt Harry who uses this moment to cast a Summoning Charm.

The cup lands in front of him.

He grabs it and hopes for the best.

Nothing happens.

He swallows harshly and thinks.

He knows this spell. He’s never tried it, but he knows it.

He ignores the laughter all around him, the hurtful words, the jeers. He breathes deeply once, hopes, and casts Portus.

The next moment, he’s in front of the Hogwarts gates, seeing the glorious castle bathed in the light of the sunrise.

Badly hurt physically and mentally, but alive.

His soulmate just tried to kill him.

In that moment, when reality and the pain crash down on him, Harry wishes he succeeded.

 

The next day, Harry spends burrowed into blankets on the window sill, head leaning against the comforting cold glass, staring blankly into the dark waters.

He’s managed to heal most of his injuries. There’s still a slight limp and his arm tingles, but he can move it again. He’s confident that all his wounds will heal in time; after all, he’s healed from much worse.

Harry sits and thinks. He despairs and cries. He fears and panics. He hopes and screams. He watches as the water turns lighter, then slowly fades into almost-black again.

He remembers the dragon mother’s words. Don’t trust twinkling eyes, and test red eyes, but trust white eyes. He thinks back on the twinkly blue eyes of the headmaster. He thinks of the hateful red eyes of the Dark Lord Voldemort.

His mind strays to the dreams he had, he ignored, he passed off as nightmares, he laughed off as imagination, those almost prophetic dreams of the Dark Lord Voldemort planning. He is such a fool, an idiotic, asinine, stupid fool.

Just as he finishes this thought, he sees:

A young wizard, the Hogwarts Champion, lands, hand still on the cup. His triumphant grin falls into a confused frown. He looks around, but he can’t see him. He’s still here, watching. Maybe the stupid boy is idiotic enough to return. Yesterday, he must confess, was his oversight. He underestimated his opponent too much. In his defence, who would expect a little boy on the verge of unconsciousness and the edge of magical exhaustion to create a Portkey? But he knows he still was weakened from his resurrection, his glorious rebirth, unfamiliar in his old body, estranged from his dearest wand, out of touch with his beloved magic. It will not happen again.

He watches as the boy looks around, shrugs and starts calling out with no hesitation.

So very different from the boy last night. That one might be a challenge to defeat, a fun mouse to play cat for. He loses himself in his daydreams for a bit. He could make him beg, beg for death, beg for forgiveness for being alive, beg for the pain to stop. But no, he would not stop. Every tear would entice him to put more power into his spells, more hatred into his words, more joy into his laughter. The boy would watch everything he loves burn around him before he would torture him, bringing him to the brink of insanity and back down only to do it again, and again, and again, until his mind broke. Then, and only then, would he end the boy’s live. All those who cross Lord Voldemort must pay and die.

It’s almost amusing to watch the boy in front of him stumble around, utterly confident in his safety. It won’t be nearly as fun to see this one die. But alas, the main prize got away yesterday.

He decides to reveal himself. He calls out to the boy, “What’s wrong? Are you lost?”

The boy turns around, a relieved smile on his face. “Well, you see-“ His little nervous laugh is abruptly cut off by a terror-filled scream as he sees him.

Two quick spells later, the boy is caught, immobile on the ground, ready for what he deems necessary to dish out.

It will be a long night, of that, he is sure.

After all, the best thing to return to his former heights is to practice.

Crucio!”

 

Harry awakens with a gasp and tears rolling down his cheeks.

Cedric Diggory, caught, tortured, dead.

Harry can’t do anything but quietly shake apart.

What awaits him will be worse.

And summer is coming.

 

Chapter Text

After a hellish four weeks – pain-soulmate-wants-to-kill-me-panic-fear-Uncle-Vernon-please-no-Cedric-Diggory-dead-soulmate-wants-to-kill-me-exhaustion-long-hallway-spinning-doors-soulmate-wants-to-kill-, Harry is picked up by the headmaster shortly after his birthday. The numbness he’s felt ever since dreaming of Cedric Diggory’s gruesome torture and death that was only tainted by pain and fear is broken by hope – bright, bright hope that he’ll escape his personal hell again. He’s brought to the Black townhouse, like last year. There, he meets up with the Weasleys. The headmaster leaves him in their hands and jovially tells him to enjoy his shopping trip.

The afternoon is spent in Diagon Alley. As the year before, Harry has no chance of slipping away to meet Silvia. Molly drags him along by holding his arm, almost dislocating his shoulder. Harry has to listen to Ron’s jealous and hateful speeches and bragging, Molly’s nagging and Ginny’s swooning while picking up used books – “You really shouldn’t waste your money, Harry! You should think ahead for after your graduation!” keeps him from grabbing new ones – while the daughter, Ginny, is mooning over Harry when she isn’t chastised for “making heart-eyes at a snake!” by the very same brother who can’t choose between being Harry’s enemy or his friend. Molly comments his every move, his every decision, and condescendingly tells him he’d better reconsider. All day long, it goes: “Oh, Harry, do you really think that you should buy an extra book? With the books on your list, you will be quite busy this school year, anyway, don’t you think?” – “You’re a really great flyer! I mean, the times I saw you in Flying Class. I mean, I’m better! But I’m more practiced. But I’m still better!” – “Ah, Harry, you have such expressive eyes…” – “What do you mean by that, Ginny?! They are green, Slytherin green! Can’t you admire some, some red eyes?” – “Do you reckon you need another robe? You already have two. What do you mean, a bit short? Look at my Ronald! They go quite a bit above his ankles. Sure grew up like a Whasperling, don’t you say? He’s so tall now!” – “Mom, please stop embarrassing me!” – “And your hair… How do you get it to look so… perfect?” – “Ginny!” – “Do you really think you need-?”

If Harry didn’t have the direct comparison to the Dursleys, he knows he would have resented the company – even worse – or possibly panicked. As is, he’s glad he’s not back with Uncle Vernon and treats the whole day as a sort of training exercise for keeping his cool.

Is it his imagination or are the people all looking at him? Not like last year, where they all wanted to swarm him and shake his hand and congratulate him, with admiration-hero-worship-greed-envy-hatred in their eyes. No, their looks this year remind him of how the residents near the Dursely house look at him ever since Aunt Petunia started telling everyone about his “criminal acts and violent behaviour”. There’s fear-caution-wariness-hatred-distrust-hatred-disdain-ridicule in the gazes.

Harry does his best to ignore them.

He notices that the Weasleys carefully steer him away from all newspapers and ditch a few reporters. After some consideration, he manages to fake a fall, the kind of clumsy arse-over-kettle fall that’s more slapstick comedy than real life, the kind he’s never had for fear of what he’s miss while falling down – who-goes-where-who-gets-close-hurts-don’t-show-weakness-ridiculed-never-take-your-attention-off-the-path-surroundings-people. In the bare seconds he lies on the ground, seemingly blinking in disorientation, before Molly grabs his arm and pulls him up, he can pocket an old edition of the Daily Prophet.

He remembers the paper from the two months he ordered it in second year. In first year, he was not proficient enough at money-wizarding-magic-owls to get it. In second year, he wanted to see if anything about the petrification victims was written in the paper and if he could get a clue at what Slytherin’s Monster could be.

Until the third victim, there was not a single word written, and then, there was only hear-say and accusations of him being the perpetrator, all information apparently from trustworthy sources. The other articles, also, were more from the realm of gossip than factual reality.

Needless to say, Harry decided to stop wasting his money on such trash.

Still, the paper will inform him about what the Wizarding World at large thinks or wants to think, so Harry picks up another few old prints throughout the day. Shopping with the Weasleys takes about four times longer than doing it alone. Harry doesn’t get it. The shops don’t change that much from year to year, but still, every single one must be entered. Then, they look around for anything interesting. So far, Harry understands. But then, they find something they like, look at the price tag and start thinking. Instead of seeing a ridiculous sum, considering their income and wealth, and putting the item back, Ginny starts whining about absolutely wanting it. Ron starts counting down what his much more accomplished brothers have that he does not own. Molly starts sighing about finances and budget cuts or something like that. Why waste thirty minutes going over an object they all know they won’t buy? Harry doesn’t get it.

But he’s grateful for it because he gets a few unobserved moments where he can buy a paper, take one from the trash or pick one up from the street. For magical people who can Vanish their garbage or set it on fire, witches and wizards are remarkably messy.

After the shopping trip, Harry and the Weasleys end up back at the Black residency where they are greeted by Sirius Black. Harry’s not exchanged many words with him.  Most of their talks last year consisted of either stories about Harry’s parents that Harry listened to keenly before his fascination turned to disgust at James Potter’s action, especially his bullying of Slytherins – which led to a great revelation that James Potter would probably hate his son for being Slytherin, which did not improve on Harry’s gloomy mood at all –, or information on magic that Harry already was aware of and therefore didn’t pay a lot of attention to.

Still, Sirius is Harry’s godfather, right?

While the Weasleys put away their things – for some reason, they are staying here instead of at their home, again –, Harry cautiously approaches Sirius.

He watches him unblinkingly. Something in his eyes makes Harry hesitate before asking, “Is it planned that I’ll stay here, again? Or-?”

“Stay here? You?”, Sirius cuts him off, raising his eyebrows. He looks to the ground, shaking his head. When he raises his eyes to Harry’s again, they are resolute and hard. “You know, Harry, I thought you’d be just like James. I mean, you look like him, exactly like him! Except for your eyes. You have your mother’s eyes.” His gaze turns nostalgic for a moment before snapping back into the present. “But you are not him. This summer, I also was included in the guard rotations around your Muggle family’s house, you know?”

No, Harry does not know. Guards? What would he need guards for? Does this mean he was observed all summer long? They saw the bruises, the cuts, the scars, and did nothing?

Sirius either doesn’t see Harry’s confusion or he ignores him as he talks on, “I’m a man of action. I can’t just sit there all day long and watch a front door when I never know if you’ll even come out today or not! So I went strolling when I was bored, walking around a bit, let myself be pet, listen to the people. The things they say about you – Harry, I’m not against a prank or two, but what you are doing is downright bullying! Your poor cousin!”

As if what James Potter and his group did is any different to bullying! And their actions were real, not thought up by a hateful aunt with too much time on her hands!

“And then the whole business with your aunt’s dog! Must you pick on the poor bastard so much?”

Harry is entirely blindsided by this conversation. He can only listen numbly. The teeth-like scars in his legs itch in phantom pain.

“But then”, Sirius goes on despairingly, “what was I expecting? You turned out to be a slimy snake!”

If Sirius says anything else, Harry doesn’t hear it. His ears are full of static.

His last hope of not spending the summer with the Dursleys sends him away because of House prejudices, because he’s nothing like the father whose name he only found out three years ago, because he believes in lies spread about him without ever asking for his explanation, because he believes in a manipulative old man more than in his godson, because he can ignore the wounds on Harry’s body but not the false rumours about him.

At the end of Sirius’ tirade, Harry numbly nods his head and lets himself be apparated back to hell on Earth.

 

It appears Harry was right to grab some papers, both old and new.

Apparently, he’s the Triwizard Tournament Champion.

No-one knows how he did it, how it could happen, but he’s happily proclaimed a cheater of epic proportions. Nobody seems to remember that at the beginning of the year, he swore on his magic that he never wanted to enter the tournament and that he wouldn’t, even if he had a chance.

The whole wizarding world turned against him the second that article was published, apparently. When beforehand, there were no articles at all, as far as Harry knows, now there’s one about him in every edition.

When Cedric Diggory, “Hogwarts’ real Champion”, disappeared after still holding the finale even if Harry had already technically won, it was unanimously decided that Harry somehow was at fault. The young wizard is still declared missing, not dead. Harry knows he won’t be found anytime soon, his body Transfigured into another gravestone in that graveyard in the middle of nowhere. Considering the state of the corpse, it’s probably a good thing. For a moment, Harry thinks about giving a tip to the Aurors, but when he takes the current political air against him into consideration, he decides against it. Finding Cedric Diggory’s body won’t change anything about his being dead, and if Harry is the one to “find it”, he’ll be locked into Azkaban faster than should be possible.

On top of that, the headmaster published a statement as Harry’s Magical Guardian saying that Harry has seen the Dark Lord Voldemort’s resurrection – a claim that was met with disbelief and ridicule.

Harry doesn’t wonder anymore why everyone looked at him like the Muggles in his neighbourhood when he was in Diagon Alley. He’s painted as a madman who cheated in an honoured tournament, kidnapped or killed another participant and then proclaimed the feared, but dead Dark Lord’s return.

He rather wonders why nobody attacked him.

Though he does wonder: How does the headmaster know of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s resurrection? If he was there, why wouldn’t he stop the rebirth of his allegedly worst enemy? If he wasn’t there, how did he find out? What come to mind are spies and magical devices, but how does he then know that Harry was present during the ritual? The Death Eaters were only called later on, when the Dark Lord Voldemort was already alive and sadistic and Harry hung from the gravestone, half-dead, no longer hopeful and almost broken. Logically, wouldn’t they assume that first the Dark Lord Voldemort returned to his body and then captured Harry? Wouldn’t it also be possible for the Dark Lord Voldemort to have been resurrected and lain low afterwards, a long time before the Triwizard Tournament was even announced, so why is the headmaster informed about the ritual? If his spy is Wormtail, he could have prevented the whole ritual from the get-go. He also could have freed Sirius Black sooner. If it’s not Wormtail, how does he know about the ritual?

And why does he publish the information like this, in the papers, after the scandal concerning Harry’s win and Cedric Diggory’s disappearance, with this emphasis laid on it being Harry who witnessed all this?

Apart from that one outing, Harry spends the rest of summer being worked to the bone, punished and thinking about soulmate-trying-to-kill-me-won’t-protect-me-wants-to-harm-me-godfather-against-me-alone-isolated-slandered-lied-about-lied-to-pain-hurts-stalkers-am-I-watched-now-how-is-the-headmaster-informed-why-is-everyone-against-me-why-won’t-you-help-me-please-soulmate-won’t-instead-will-wants-to-did-will-hurt-me.

It may be his worst summer yet.

 

On the train, it’s almost impossible to hide this time. People are staring at Harry, whispering to each other and pointing at him. He’s just trying to ignore it all, ignore Malfoy’s taunts about “the madness finally striking through” and “the craziness is obvious now, I’ve been telling you for years”, ignore Ron’s protective fury and impotent frustration about Harry’s ignoring him, ignore Hermione’s self-righteous “you shouldn’t tell such lies, Harry, you reap what you sow” and genuine hurt at this not comforting Harry and ignore all the others shouting-whispering-taunting-teasing-ridiculing-laughing-pointing-staring-staring-staring-at-him-please-don’t-no-no. But he manages to get into the same compartment he got the previous years, the little one with the awful toilet stench. Last year, his class learned a charm that purifies the air. Harry uses it liberally now before he sits, thankful to not suffer the smell this year and grateful to be able to use magic again.

About two minutes before the train leaves, a girl knocks. She’s a petite blond with blue eyes that manage to both stare into nothing and pierce Harry. “May I sit?”, she asks in a dreamy voice.

Harry allows her to do so after a bit of consideration, weighing the risk of her scorning him against the possibility of him refusing her. He’s still not good at confrontations. He doubts he ever will be.

She sits down, smiling at him. “You are Harry Potter. I am Luna Lovegood.” Before Harry can decide what to reply to that, she rummages through her bag. Thankfully, she doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the ride, instead taking out a newspaper called the Quibbler. Harry’s never seen it before. He wonders when she reads a page, then turns the paper on its head and continues reading on, but doesn’t ask. Instead of creepily staring at her, knowing intimately what that feels like, he takes out his Potions book. You can never be prepared enough when the teacher has it out for you.

 

At the carriages, a shock awaits Harry. There are large, skeletal horses pulling them, standing motionless as they wait for the students to enter the carriages, only their bony ribcages moving as they breathe. He stares at them, open-mouthed.

No-one else seems to notice them.

Luna Lovegood comes up next to him and smiles again. Her voice comes from far away as she says, “Thestrals. Only people who have seen Death’s face can see them. Isn’t it interesting what Dementors can make us remember?”

She steps into the carriage. “May you sit with me?”, she asks.

He follows her weird request, a bit taken aback to share the carriage with someone else. Normally, he avoids Hermione and Ron, the only ones who want to sit with him, and is avoided by everyone else, so he rides alone.

As the Thestrals slowly pull the carriage towards Hogwarts, Harry thinks something that’s already crossed his mind in the train.

It’s surprisingly nice to share the space with someone.

 

Of course, nothing good can last.

At the Opening Feast, it already starts.

Hermione and Ron storm up to him, demanding where he was, what he did, why he wasn’t with them, as if they were friends. Even if they were friends, Harry muses, he wouldn’t stay friends with people who demand that he immediately tell them all about everything that they want to know. When he – as usual – ignores them, they see it as an affront, as they do every other week, and start insulting him.

He ignores them and just walks on.

At Slytherin table, everyone quite clearly tells him to get lost with their eyes. Fortunately, such gazes have lost their power over the years and he can pretend not to see them. As it just so happens, Malfoy decides to sit down next to him five minutes after he’s taken a seat. Harry, of course, is immediately suspicious and wary. Rightly so, as Malfoy starts eating and coincidently manages to eat as elegantly and beautifully as every Slytherin while also dropping food and knocking things over. It just so happens that all these various items land on Harry’s lap or his plate which, after summer, is empty enough that even a bit of spittle is an addition, and the whole jug of pumpkin juice weighs more than the bits of meat it drops on. To the melodious cacophony of sniggering Slytherins, Malfoy, of course, is inconsolable about his clumsiness and dries Harry with a spell. Unfortunately, he accidently mispronounces the spell a bit, so instead of a Drying Charm, he shoots a Dark Transfiguration spell at Harry that would have turned his nose wooden. Luckily, Harry has set up a ward first thing after being able to use magic again, so the spell fails.

Harry won’t lie, the look on Malfoy’s face is hilarious.

If only he didn’t have to fear his retribution.

The headmaster holds his usual speech which – as usual – consist of little information and much manipulation. But then, the inconceivable happens: He is interrupted. Harry is pleasantly surprised for a few seconds before it sinks in what the lady in pink is saying.

First of all, this is a school which teaches children from the ages of eleven to seventeen, not pre-schoolers.

Secondly, most students only want to be good friends to teachers if they think they’ll get good grades out of it.

Thirdly, the Ministry of Magic trying to control Hogwarts sounds about as nice as having Dementors as teachers.

On the way to the dungeons, there’s more staring-pointing-laughing-scheming-staring-following-observing-staring-staring-gossiping-laughing that Harry tries to ignore. As usual, there’s also a few misfired spells that coincidently almost hit Harry or are negated by his shields and quick evasions.

Almost in the dungeons, Harry runs into the headmaster who goes on to talk to Harry a bit to subtly reinforce that the new Defence Professor works for Minister Fudge, which, thank you, he got from that speech she held. It was not particularly difficult. He is not an idiot.

Then, in addition to that, he runs into Professor Snape who sneers at him and almost gives him detention until he realises, with a falling face, that Harry is a Slytherin and he would present Slytherin badly by having the first student to have a detention be a Slytherin, especially if he himself assigned the punishment.

The resulting grimace is a clear indication that Harry should go over his Potion books again tonight, just to be safe.

In the Common Room, all Slytherins immediately step away from him as if he is contagious. They are not as crass as to badmouth him while he’s standing right there, in contrast to the other Houses at Hogwarts, but their eyes speak for themselves. Unsurprisingly, Harry retreats quickly to the dorm. There, Malfoy tears into him once more, trying to curse and jinx him, but Harry still has his shield up, which protects him as he sprints to his bed, closes the curtains and sets about raising wands.

That night, he dreams about killing that unworthy brat who somehow caused his downfall and practicing the spells on some Muggle pigs. When he wakes up, he’s ill from what he’s seen, blood-guts-brains-screams-break-them-all-give-them-more-pain-laugh-rejoice-finally-again-once-more.

Common sense dictates that the following days should be easier. After hitting the bottom, it only goes up, right?

But when has common sense ever counted for something when it concerns Harry Potter?

 

True to his words, the next days are not better at all.

First, the professors Brand talk to him. During the summer, they followed some ideas and now have reached a point where Harry can’t help anymore. They thank him for his contribution and promise him a first edition when their work gets printed. They also apologise for not being able to chat with him as they sometimes did last year, but they have a lot of work to do now. True to their word, they’re hardly seen, not even at meals. They rush into the classrooms five minutes late and leave ten early, giving enormous amounts of homework to compensate and paying older students and the previous teachers to correct the long assignments.

Then, the new Slytherin King orders them all into the Common Room at lunch. It doesn’t bother Harry so much because after summer, he wouldn’t have been able to eat anything. The other Slytherins, spoiled brats that they are, don’t share his opinion. Even if they don’t show it, they all are incredibly displeased. When the Slytherin King then spends a good ten minutes holding speeches and putting up rules that are specifically against Harry, they all glare at Harry. He is aware that if the Slytherin King did this to anyone else, someone who belongs to a class and has a Year Ruler, there would be heavy protests. But Harry’s been as kicked out as a Slytherin can get, so he has to get himself out of this mess, which he can’t without making the situation worse. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he bears the distasteful glances and disgusted mutters. At the end of the meeting, Harry has been coincidently hit with spells gone wide thrice. His mien doesn’t change, even if he can feel hot blood slip down his back from the Dark spell that slipped through his Light shields.

In addition to that, Harry gets detention with Professor Umbridge for doing – something. Breathing, probably. Her lessons turn out to be as interesting as Harry thought they would. She makes Professor Binns’ lessons look fascinating! In the first lesson, she has managed to patronise the students, forbid the use of their wands and informed them that they’ll basically just read their course book and recap it for the whole year without even looking at their classmates, not to speak of actual talking, while the professor herself will walk around and make a nuisance of herself.

Of course, this results in a large outcry, especially from the Gryffindors. Harry keeps quiet and his head down. It’s not enough to prevent detention, but alright. He’s had multiple of those already, mostly from Professor Snape for not answering questions clearly meant for someone in a higher year or various Prefects when they thought they’d caught him doing something illegal and unnecessary like walking to class or to his dorm. So far, he’s had to scrub cauldrons, gather ingredients in the Forbidden Forest, correct essays from first year students, sort the library and clean dusty old rooms without magic.

In Professor Umbridge’s detention, however, things are a bit more physical. She asks him saccharinely the very second he opened the door, “Did you ever claim the return of Him-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”

Unwilling to lie, Harry denies it.

He’s asked in a sugar-sweet tone if he entered the Triwizard Tournament and somehow cheated his way to the top.

Harry can honestly answer that he’s never wanted to participate and so didn’t and that he has no idea why the magical artefact malfunctioned and somehow thought him to be the winner.

“I see,” she said in return, a sickeningly syrupy smile on her pink lips. “You will write lines for this detention, Mister Potter. Sit down at this desk,” she points to it as if there was more than one in the room, “and write with this quill on this parchment.” These items, she also indicates as if speaking to a toddler.

Harry does as ordered. He takes the quill, then pauses. Remembering the earlier lesson, he raises his hand instead of speaking the way he would do in anybody else’s detention.

It takes a while before she raises her head from the stack of important-looking parchments. “Yes, Mister Potter? What appears to be the problem? You have not written anything yet.”

Harry, taking care not to answer in the very same patronising tone, says, “I have not received any ink.”

She laughs sweetly. “Oh, Mister Potter, that problem should solve itself. Just write until the message, yes, let’s say, sinks in.”

She turns back to the scroll in front of her. Harry raises his hand again.

This time, she turns to him immediately, a scowl on her face. “What, Mister Potter? You are playing with fire. Start writing this instant.”

“What do you want me to write?”, he asks.

Her face is lit up again by a malicious smile. She hums as if she has to think about it. “Oh yes, what about I must not tell lies? But now, no more wasting time, Mister Potter. Hop-hop, onto it!”

Harry follows her orders. She stares at him insistently as he writes the first letter. A short sting in the back of his left hand, red ink. A blood quill?! Those are illegal! The only place allowed to use them is a special department within the Ministry where magically binding contracts are signed, and there, their usage must be quintuple-checked before even being considered! If used too often, the blood quill leaves scars. Because it’s a Dark object, the only healing spells working on it are Dark and, per Ministry orders, almost as illegal as the use of this quill.

From under his bangs, Harry looks at Professor Umbridge. She wears a sadistic grin as she watches him. Without faltering, he continues with the next word. He can’t get proof without having some wounds, and he needs proof, doubly so because he is not only a Slytherin, but also the Boy-Who-Lived-To-Cheat-And-Lie or whatever the papers are calling him now. Compared to Uncle Vernon’s punishments, this wound doesn’t hurt at all, not even speaking of last summer’s Cruciatus Curse.

Harry continues writing, nonplussed. After a while, Professor Umbridge turns back to the stack of parchments in front of her, disappointed at his lack of reaction. After an hour, she abruptly stands up to check if he’s not “slacking off”. She seems surprised to see a page of I must not tell lies. in beautiful handwriting and stutters something about “keeping it up” before walking back to her desk, confused but pleased.

After another two hours, Harry raises his hand again and waits for her to call on him. When she does after making him wait almost ten minutes, she’s clearly bemused. “What?”, she barks.

“I’ve run out of space, so I wanted to ask if you want me-“

“What?!” She jumps up and runs up to him, ripping the piece of parchment away. The size of the letters is uniform and big enough that the teachers can read it while being small enough to be able to fit enough content into the required essay length. It took a long time to get that right, but achieving legible and good handwriting with a quill was harder. Harry learned both.

Stumbling, obviously not prepared for her student to do as instructed so quickly and efficiently, Professor Umbridge releases Harry.

He takes the piece of parchment he wrote on, not having forgotten for what blood can be used in the wizarding world – red-eyes-hope-shattered-cruelty-I-can-touch-you-now-pain –, and, cradling his left hand for a different reason than for his words and comfort for the first time in Hogwarts, heads to his dorm.

 

The imprint disappears the first time, but Professor Umbridge has overcome her confusion and surprise and came back with a vengeance to see Harry break. He has detention every other night now, writing page upon page of I must not tell lies. The pain in his left hand steadily increases, but it’s still manageable and nowhere near the level that would be a light punishment from Uncle Vernon. The script slowly begins to stay overnight, then progressively longer.

It’s disconcerting that no-one seems to wonder why Harry is suddenly bandaging his hand, not that he expected it from the teachers, but at least Madame Pomphrey or his Head of House should be concerned, at least considering how they treat a scratch on a seventh-year who could easily have healed the wound himself.

The library portrait urges Harry to go to someone for help, so he lets himself be convinced and talks to Professor McGonagall, the Deputy Headmistress. She doesn’t even let him show him his wounds, only telling him to “keep his head down” and to “stay out of trouble”. The portrait is as disgusted as enraged. He knows enough of the headmaster to not even suggest him. Within a few days, the portrait has managed to alert the house elves to the situation, even though he is largely isolated and portraits can’t call on house elves.

The vicious creatures band together with the ghosts and portraits for revenge. What they did to Ron and Hermione in first year looks kind, now. They include Professor McGonagall for refusing to even see the problem and expand to involve all professors, but Professor Umbridge gets the worst of it. It goes so far that she is afraid of leaving her personal rooms alone. There are rumours going around that she’s trying to get an Auror guard to accompany her. Nothing comes from it, if the rumours are true. Professor Umbridge breaks out in several very long tirades, revealing that she thinks that house elves are not even second to human and best be put down along with all other creatures. Harry idly wonders if she would be able to do her own upkeep without house elves. When the vicious little buggers hear of Professor Umbridge’s spiteful vow to put through some more creature legislation to hopefully make it legal to hunt and kill creatures without any punishment, they focus almost solely on her, probably making her wish that she never even thought about taking on the post of Defence teacher. Only the headmaster’s orders as their technical owner makes the house elves stop. The ghosts and portraits scoff at the teachers’ attempts at intimidation and merrily continue insulting all teachers who walk by as “blind chickens” and revealing their secrets. There are multiple attempts to somehow silence them, but it’s as if Hogwarts’ magic Itself is against that as all experiments fail spectacularly.

Harry can’t help but be glad, even if he wishes that he himself could do more and that they wouldn’t bother for him. Still, the very thought of them trying to help him warms his heart. No-one else ever wanted to aid the freak.

 

In December, Harry sees that he won’t ever be able to say anything about the blood quill. He’s tried once more to show Professor McGonagall, but she refused. Professor Snape just raised an eyebrow and said, “A blood quill. Do you even know what that is?”

Harry so badly wanted to reply with, “Better than you, I’d think, sir, considering I wrote with one for multiple hours this week alone”, but the retribution isn’t worth a bit of sass.

In October, he attempted to learn the healing spell, but wasn’t very successful, probably because he still hoped he’d be able to tell someone and be able to get Professor Umbridge with all her Educational Decrees away from Hogwarts and therefore subconsciously held back. In December, when he’s serious about ending his pain, he only needs a few tries. Unfortunately, because the existing wounds are so deep, there’s still a scar in the shape of I must not tell lies. Harry doesn’t mind so much. He looks at the scar as proof that he tried to reach out and that he won’t break, that he’s stronger than the pain, stronger than the teachers and stronger than whatever obstacle that’s thrown in his way.

On the good days.

On the bad days, he sees it as a sign of weakness, of his flaws, of being a freak.

He rarely has a good day.

 

In the meantime, the bullying has stepped up another notch.

The Slytherins throw him out of his dorm, but don’t allow him to return to his room from first year so that he has to set up camp in the Common Room which means that the students stay up particularly late and are especially loud so that he can’t sleep while another batch gets up even earlier than Harry himself – which is at sunrise – to wake him with their insistent chatter.

The Gryffindors have fun borrowing all the books from the library needed to complete assignments so that no copies are available for Harry. Luckily, he has the library portrait who can read the texts out loud for him, but working that way takes up way more time than doing it with books he can read himself.

The Hufflepuffs are so afraid of him and that he could do the same thing to them that he did to Cedric Diggory that they run away when they see him.

The Ravenclaws look at him with a cold scientific interest that makes him anxious, wanting to find out what he did, how he did it and why, especially if he can’t provide them with the answers they seek. Some look like they’d love to try out what a vivisection looks like.

Harry is glad when he can hide in Myrtle’s bathroom, the library or the room he lived in for a year.

 

The day before Yule break, Professor Snape has Harry stay back after Potions class. He stares at Harry from beneath furrowed brows. Slowly, he begins to speak, articulating and choosing his words carefully, “The headmaster is under the impression that the Dark Lord has the capability of putting you under his thrall and fears such an outcome; therefore, to my extreme displeasure, he has enlisted me to introduce you to the tricky art of Occlumency. I have not much faith that you will succeed, but the headmaster was not to be otherwise convinced. Be here after dinner. Go.”

Harry goes, his thoughts swirling. The Mind Arts. He will learn the Mind Arts! He read about them and wanted to study them, but it’s close to impossible to apply them without a Legilimens there to help and test the barrier, so he didn’t go into any details about them. He only knows the very basics, if even that. Now, he can learn it! He’ll be able to protect himself!

For a short moment, he’s delighted.

Then, he remembers his teacher.

 

When Harry talks to the library portrait about his Occlumency lessons, the man is surprised.

“What speak you, knave? This noble and crucial skill is no longer taught at this honourable institution? Say, it is Hogwarts of which we are talking?”

Harry assures the man that no, his frame was not moved to another school while he wasn’t looking, and learns that Occlumency used to be taught from fifth year on. Then, the portrait names a few helpful books. Harry tries summoning them, but – nothing.

“Strange, how peculiar indeed!”, the portrait mumbles. They shrug and decide that someone interested in the Mind Arts has borrowed the books for now and concentrate on a charm Harry now has enough power to cast at his bracelet.

 

The first lesson is, unsurprisingly, a disaster.

Professor Snape attacks Harry’s mind without telling him how to “close his mind” and brings forth images of the feeling of failure he gets in Potions when he can’t answer correctly and his potion gets a worse grade than other, worse potions. He barks at Harry, “Again, Potter!”

And so it goes, hour for hour.

Harry is terribly disoriented and dizzy when he finally makes it back to the dungeons. He lays down his usual protection wards and goes to sleep on the Common Room couch he’s claimed for his own.

 

The next lessons are in no way better.

Harry only succeeds once.

Professor Snape was cursing up a storm because of Harry’s “arrogance” preventing him from “even giving the slightest attempt” and for some reason decided to go look at Harry’s childhood.

Harry only got a brief glimpse at Uncle Vernon’s looming figure, remembering the pain and begging, before his magic rose with all its might and threw Professor Snape out of his head so violently that he went to his knees. He released Harry then without saying another word or even looking at him.

Harry went to the library and the portrait. The portrait dug out the Occumency books after Harry told him of the terrible lessons and started reading them out loud to him, giving him tips and pointers, even if it is slow going working through the books like that, so he is informed about the nightmare that is his lessons. The only consolidation is that Professor Umbridge cannot give him detentions on the nights he works with Professor Snape.

They discussed the incident, never naming the memory, only alluding that “Knave, such must have been a horrific memory filled with pain and loathing to elicit such response”.

It was never spoken of again.

 

Something changes after that, though.

Harry doesn’t know why, but Professor Snape suddenly starts being nicer to him.

The next day at the lessons, he invites Harry to ask if he has any questions. Harry obviously begins with the most nagging one, “How does one close one’s mind?”

The professor looks at him with scorn, but answers, then adds, “Which you should know, but you clearly were too lazy to even look at your books.”

“What books?”

Professor Snape musters Harry suspiciously, but answers, possibly at hearing the surprise in his voice, “The books Professor Dumbledore told you to study over summer.”

“He didn’t.”

“Impossible.”

“The last time I spoke with the Headmaster before summer was during the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament, when that dragon got loose and everyone questioned me. The next time he spoke to me was when he brought me to see-“

He stops awkwardly, not sure if Professor Snape knows of his godfather’s identity, his innocence or his whereabouts, but he just waves him on. “I assure you, I am in the know about your appearance this year at Order Headquarters.” It’s interesting that the professor manages to avoid saying if he is part of this Order or not. “Most peculiar that the headmaster tells a story so vastly different from you…”

Harry’s heart sinks. Professor Snape never believes him. So he is surprised when the professor goes on to curse the “old coot” and his manipulative ways.

Harry totally agrees.

“Not even a dunderhead would be quite as abysmal as you after reading those books. Tell me, what do you know of Occlumency?”

From then on, the lessons go on much more smoothly and actually benefit Harry. He slowly learns to erect rudimentary walls to shield his mind and can detect even slight intrusions into his mind. At faking memories, apparently, he’s a genius. Ordering his thoughts, on the other hand, is more difficult. He’s especially stuck on finding an image that represents a safe space with a dangerous enough element to pose a threat, but that at the same time has enough space to store and hide his memories.

When he finally has it, he’s surprised, and so is Professor Snape.

Harry follows the professor when he enters Harry’s mind. First, he has to pass through a trap door guarded by a vicious dog – Aunt Marge’s beast, as snappy as the real one, but with the three heads of a Cerberus. Then, he has to navigate a room filled with false memories. Only knowing about this defence beforehand even makes him search for the entrance to the next room. In there is an arithmantic equation that must be completed. The answer is written on one of the hundreds of sheets floating in the air, all a colourful mixture of numbers and Runic sequences. Some pieces contain only one way, others have both written on it. The equation is the one that brought Harry to question if Ancient Runes and Arithmancy can be combined, and the solution is the one that is the easiest and fastest, containing both. Out of pity for his teacher, Harry appears in his mind and opens the door to the next room. The professor nods at him thankfully as he walks past. This room, again, is filled with faked memories. The professor almost stops, but Harry changes the first memory he takes a look at to an obviously false one, so he keeps going. The next room has a boggart. Out of respect for his teacher, Harry materialises again and wants to guide him past, but he refuses, so Harry turns around and lets him deal with the creature on his own without catching a glimpse of his professor’s worst fear. The next room, again, is filled with falsified memories.

The next, and last, room is the most interesting.

In it stands the Dream Mirror.

Harry’s version of it states this title instead of the real name, but it works the same way. Harry hid his real memories in the details of the picture the mirror shows him. As it’s in his mind, it won’t ever change this image for him, but other people still see their own “heart’s true desire”. Harry figured this method would be fool-proof as no-one else has the exact same image as he.

It works.

First, the professor thinks this room follows the same rule as the others: one with a puzzle to solve followed by one with more trickery or the reward, the same thing Harry thought all the way back in first year when he was forced into the third floor corridor by Professor Quirrel slash Dark Lord Voldemort. When the professor has searched the whole room and rightly concluded that this is the end, he turns his attention to the mirror. When he looks into it, he gasps and his eyes fill with tears. Before he falls prey to the pull the object has, Harry appears before him, cutting off his line of vision and preventing the trance-like state everyone who sees the Mirror of Desire apparently falls into.

“How was it?”, Harry asks anxiously.

The professor has to swallow a few times and take a deep breath before he says, “As close to perfect as you’re going to come without years of training.” While Harry still is floored by the praise, Professor Snape looks around. “Where did you hide your memories?”

Harry explains his thoughts about the mirror to him. Then, he turns around. The picture forms accordingly. A healthy Harry, who, upon spotting Professor Snape, hides his wrist against the darkened figure of his soulmate – Harry is very glad that he didn’t see the Dream Mirror again after the graveyard or else the image would maybe be very difficult to explain, and gladder still that the image is frozen like this now forever in his mindscape –, the mysterious form of his soulmate curling around Harry in a protective hug, left his mother, smiling at him, right his father, laughing.

Harry smiles in slight contentment before reaching out and carefully, under the suspicious eyes of his mirror-self, plucks a thin memory from his father’s glasses. It plays in front of them, showing Harry in the Great Hall, eating and looking around curiously. Harry puts it back again carefully.

The professor keeps staring at the mirror image of Harry’s mother. Harry also looks at her and smiles wistfully. “Did you know her, sir? I wonder if she really looked like that.”

“It’s- yes, she did look like that.” The professor sounds like he bit back a sob.

Though curious, Harry doesn’t turn around, instead continuously looking at his mother. She catches his eyes and winks at him.

They both keep staring for a few minutes more before the professor disappears, having left Harry’s mind. Harry follows him shortly after.

Professor Snape ushers him outside and tells him that he’s learned all he has to teach.

Harry goes without protests, wondering about the tear in his professor’s eye.

 

During the thankfully detention-free Yule break, Harry doesn’t see Professor Umbridge often. Apparently, she’s busy at the Ministry. He enjoys the free time and studies. His wounds, with the help of the Dark healing spell, close up and only remain as silvery scars.

When school starts up again, Harry sees the flaw in this: Professor Umbridge checks the wound after every detention. She would notice if the supposedly unhealable injury healed from one day to the next.

For a moment, he grits his teeth. But this pain is nothing, nothing at all, compared to what he’s been through before. He relaxes again.

Professor Umbridge’s worst can never top Uncle Vernon’s worst, not to speak of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s best, that I-can-touch-you-now-Crucio.

 

With school also come the other students, refreshed from taking a break and rejuvenated for mischief, mainly aimed against Harry. Weirdly, the Slytherin King doesn’t say anything about him during the meeting for the second semester. On the other hand, he doesn’t have to, the Year Rulers are more than happy to pick up his slack. Classes start up again, as well, more difficult than ever. The teachers are stressing that “this is your OWL year” as if the exams were tomorrow.

Weirdly, even after their Occlumency lessons, Professor Snape still treats Harry… dare he say kindly? Harry kind of expected his behaviour to go back to normal, and he’s still a harsh and strict teacher, no question. But now, instead of silently sanctioning, he keeps staring at those students who are laughing-whispering-gossiping-ridiculing Harry until they stop, chastised. Harry’s potions are graded fairly, even if he can’t counter what Malfoy or his goons threw into his cauldron. Sometimes, when Harry gives a correct answer, there’s a ghost of a wisp of an echo of a smile on Professor Snape’s face.

It’s the first bit of kindness anyone’s ever shown him that’s not tainted with second thoughts or bad intentions or hidden motives. After all, if the professor wanted something from him, wouldn’t he have been kind and compassionate and backstabbing from the very beginning? Can Harry be blamed for this feeling? When he meets his professor’s eyes, he looks away, blushing. When the professor praises him, he does what feels like a shy smile, but doesn’t actually move his lips. When the professor praises Harry – insofar as Professor Snape ever praises anybody –, Harry’s heart wants to jump out of his chest in excitement. When the professor walks by, there’s butterflies in Harry’s stomach.

Harry’s well aware that he’s developed a crush. He’s just as aware that it won’t ever go anywhere, will stay unrequited until someone else steals Harry’s heart. After all, firstly, Professor Snape has a soulmate; Harry got a glimpse of a shadow of letters on his right wrist. Even if he doesn’t love them, he probably has someone else. He’s the age of Harry’s parents, after all. Even if he didn’t, why would he want skinny, scrawny, untidy little Harry, the boy he’s loathed for at least four and a half years and only just recently had a change of heart about? Secondly, Harry has I-can-touch-you-now-foolish-girl-step-aside-not-Harry Avada Kedavra.

Still, he admires from afar, cherishing the tender feelings. It’s been so long since he’s felt anything but pain-fear-shame-sadness-panic-humiliation. He grasps onto admiration-amazement-warmth-respect like a lifeline in the middle of a blood red sea, even if he knows that he won’t get to hold onto it for long.

A short reprieve is better than none at all.

 

He doesn’t regret this decision.

Until Malfoy.

 

It starts pretty normally. Malfoy, as Year King, obviously became Prefect, much to his gloating. As obviously, he seeks every opportunity to put Harry into detention. Idly, Harry wonders if it’s allowed for one Prefect to give one student as much detention as he gives all other students combined, but knows not to pursue this thought. Even if he talked to a teacher about it – who’d believe him? At least one Prefect a year has done this to him for as long as he’s been at Hogwarts. Being labelled as a tattletale would hurt his already bad reputation, which he really doesn’t need. So he suffers in silence. Detention is not so long, anyways, and tolerable if not enjoyable as long as it’s not with Professor Umbridge.

Therefore, it’s not surprising when Malfoy finds some reason to give him detention. All around him, people are snickering, enjoying his misfortune, or laughing at Malfoy’s self-righteous mien. Harry doesn’t protest.

“Detention tonight at eight with Professor Snape, Potter,” Malfoy spits in that tone only he can do, equal parts satisfaction, pettiness and haughtiness. Weirdly, he repeats himself, “Don’t forget: eight with Snape.”

He turns around on his heels and struts away, blown up with self-importance, his loyal Crabbe and Goyle following closely behind him.

Harry shrugs and returns to the apparently rule-breaking activity of walking to class.

 

What happens in detention is not normal at all.

Harry knocks on the door. A voice shouts, “In!”

Harry furrows his brows. The voice was male, undoubtedly, but way too young to be Professor Snape’s. Maybe it’s Malfoy, here to gloat and taunt? Nevertheless, Harry opens the door.

It is Malfoy.

But he’s not gloating.

He also wasn’t talking to Harry. He was talking to Professor Snape.

A very naked Professor Snape.

Who stands over an equally naked Draco Malfoy.

Oh.

Harry knew that this crush on Professor Snape wouldn’t and shouldn’t go anywhere, but it still hurts to see that. When he tries to close the door, Malfoy shoots a spell at him. In his shock, Harry let down his shields and so is hit with some Dark Spell that stops his every movement.

So he has to watch all that happens, all movements and every moan.

He’s relieved when it stops.

Then, Malfoy speaks up, lying on the desk in an exhausted slump.

“Hey, Sev. What are we?”

Professor Snape raises an eyebrow. “Soulmates. Why are you asking, has being around all those dunderheads harmed your head?”

Malfoy, still naked, shakes his head. “Nah, it’s just… Do you love me and only me?”

Professor Snape stops doing up the buttons of his shirt, turning all his attention to Malfoy. “I’ll never love anyone but my soulmates. You know that.”

Satisfied, Malfoy pulls him into a kiss. “Good.”

“What brought this on?”, Professor Snape asks when the kiss is over. He studies Malfoy intently.

He shrugs. “Nothing.”

“Is this about Potter’s crush? Why do you think I’d ever even consider him? Oh, I forgot, you are a hormonal, insecure teenager.”

“Sev!” Malfoy hits Professor Snape’s shoulder.

“Anyway, get out of my classroom. I told you again and again that we shouldn’t meet up here.”

“And yet, when I ask you to, you still come,” Malfoy says smugly, then notices the innuendo and snorts.

Professor Snape sighs long-sufferingly. “Teenagers. Now, get out.”

Malfoy, still chuckling, starts dressing. With an almost accidental stab of his wand, he frees Harry who immediately flees.

 

TEN MINUTES LATER, when Harry still tries to calm himself down, Malfoy corners him in the midst of sneering Slytherins and whispering students of other Houses, whispering-laughing-gawking-pointing.

He says, “You are such a waste of space. Why don’t you just do us all a favour and kill yourself? You’re so pathetic. I bet even your soulmate doesn’t want you.”

He laughs. The students close enough to listen laugh. The students who get told what Malfoy said laugh.

Harry runs.

He ends up in Myrtle’s bathroom, shaking, numb. His mind flashes through Uncle-Vernon-please-no-I’m-sorry-Aunt-Petunia-stop-it-Dudley-it-hurts-freak-dog-bites-coward-burning-flesh-under-his-hand-jaws-closing-fang-piercing-green-lights-step-aside-foolish-girl-take-me-werewolf-dementors-dragon-Black-Lake-maze-ritual-I-can-touch-you-now-Crucio-Imperio-soulmate-why-pain-pain-pain-pain-pain-torture-godfather-rejection-I-must-not-lie-heart-torn-Why don’t you kill yourself?

Why doesn’t he?

Harry picks up his wand. Mechanically, he turns it onto his wrist, ignoring Myrtle’s manic questions. Last time, he didn’t manage to do it, disturbed at last minute and punished terribly for staying too long in the bath. Now, he’s undisturbed. Left arm or right arm? Pathetic as he is, he can’t bring himself to cut through his words, his beautiful Avada Kedavra. Right arm it is. Over the shaky scar from a shaking Peter Pettigrew’s shaking knife, a clear and precise cut, hitting all major veins.

He watches the red leak out.

Red permeates his life, he thinks. Red face of Uncle Vernon’s anger, red cheeks of Dudley’s exertion, red walls of his commonly destined House, red hair of an attacker, red eyes of his soulmate.

Red blood.

It’s everywhere.

But now, it’s not red that is his everything.

It’s black.

He closes his eyes and welcomes it.

 

And then, he wakes up.

White.

Hospital wing.

A house elf leans over him and breathes in relief.

“Master Harry, sir, we rescueds you! We house elves! We dids! You bes better now!”

Harry doesn’t think so, but he does his best to smile at the creature and reassure him. No matter what, the house elves were his first living friends, and he cannot bear to disappoint them or make them sad.

The house elf begins to tell the story of what happened. Apparently, Myrtle saw Harry as he cut himself and decided that she didn’t want to share her cubicle with him yet, so she broke her own rules and left the bathroom. She went to the first portrait she found as she doesn’t remember a lot of Hogwarts, not to speak of what persons she’d have to talk to. So, she talked to a portrait. The portrait raised an alarm which caused the news to go in both directions like a game of Telephone. Finally, one portrait arrived in the kitchen where it alerted the house elves. They all fell into panic. Two popped away to speak to Myrtle directly. One went to Harry, then, the other apparated back into the kitchen to inform the other house elves, then brought Madam Pomphrey to Harry who wasn’t bleeding out anymore because of the house elf who’d gone directly to him. Madam Pomphrey brought Harry to the hospital wing where she healed his arm and alerted the Headmaster and Head of House, as is mandatory in such a case. While doing that, she found the marks left by the blood quill and raised an alarm. Aurors were called and arrested Professor Umbridge who swore that the Minister had allowed it. That doesn’t make the usage of a blood quill any more legal, so they arrested him, as well. The newspapers got wind of the scandal and built up a huge story around it, so both parents and other witches and wizards are out for blood. Somehow, the headmaster got away with saying that he didn’t know anything. Anyway, Professor Snape and the headmaster went to the hospital wing and were informed of Harry’s suicide attempt. The portraits told the house elves about Professor Snape’s investigation. He found out how bad the bullying is and what Malfoy said and forced Harry to watch. The house elf takes great relish in quoting him directly, “I thought you were mature enough to enter a relationship with me. Apparently, I was wrong. I thought you were a mature young adult. Instead, I find that you are an immature toddler, throwing a temper tantrum when things don’t go the way you want them to and lashing out on innocent bystanders. Until you regain your status of a mature gentleman in my eyes, I will not be seeing you privately, whether it be in my role as your godfather or as your soulmate. Now, don’t say that I wouldn’t be able to stay away from you. Don’t forget that my last soulmate died and I survived her loss.”

Then, the house elf shakes in anger as he recounts what the headmaster’s first action was: He tried to take off the bracelet protecting Harry’s words. Of course, the charms and hexes and runes on it prevented him from doing that. So, he tried to break them, even though both Madam Pomphrey and Professor Snape protested heavily, defending himself, “Even Alastor Moody can’t see through this bracelet!” He got rid of one charm, the first one. Harry has them layered, and one needs to break one layer after another, from the most harmless to the most damaging and protecting charm. The hexes get more and more violent. The last one is a Dark Curse that kills the assailant if they aren’t intimately familiar with such curses and commit even the slightest mistake. The first layer is to deter anyone from doing more. The charm is the one that causes the bracelet to grow along Harry. As Harry is pretty sure he won’t grow anymore, reading what he did about malnutrition and stunted growth, and this charm is only really needed a maximum of once a month, this layer is only lightly protected by a Pranking Hex. It causes all hair to fall out and the skin to turn the colour the hexed hates the most. Unsurprisingly for the headmaster, for him, it’s green. It takes about a month to wear off. After that layer, the headmaster gave up or was ordered outside by an enraged Madam Pomphrey. Breaking that charm, apparently, weakened Harry even further.

With a glint in his eyes, the house elf promises that the unholy alliance of house elves, portraits and ghosts has plans to their revenge already.

Harry thanks him and hopes the despair at being alive isn’t as obvious as he thinks it is.

 

Later on comes a procession of visitors.

First, there’s Madam Pomphrey who attempts to talk to Harry about his feelings and why he thought he needed to kill himself. He’s drawn into himself and doesn’t say a single word. Finally, she gives up.

Second, there’s Professor Snape. He asks Harry why he didn’t come to him, he’s his Head of House and he would have helped him. Such brazen lies shock Harry into speaking. He looks Professor Snape in the eye and damns him, “I came to you twice. The first time, you told me I was an attention-seeker. The second time, you called me a liar. Why would I come to you a third time?”

The professor brokenly apologises and rushes out after that, face stark white and fists balled tightly.

Third, there’s Professor McGonagall. First, she apologises for not believing Harry when he came to her about his troubles. Then, she berates him, “Still, taking your own life? Potter, that is not a solution! Never!”

She goes on and on, her voice grating in Harry’s ears, before Madam Pomphrey walks in, sees the situation for what it is and admonishes Professor McGonagall.

Fourth, there’s Ron and Hermione. They both cry and promise to be better friends. Harry tells them unfeelingly to get out. They protest and stay, but Madam Pomphrey is in the room and shoos them away. She still remembers the Incident in first year, the broken boy on her bed, the curious and malicious gazes of these two children, and talks to Harry about it, then praises his bracelet. “You know”, she says, her usually cheerful tone replaced by a serious voice, “when you first came in here, and I saw the bracelet and its protections, I thought it was an exaggeration. I mean, beautiful and strong work, but unnecessary, even if children had once attempted to see your soul mark even though you didn’t want them to. But then, with Albus – I swear, I can’t understand that man anymore. Weakening you even further, and going against your wishes!” She shakes her head. “It’s a good thing you made that bracelet, Potter. But be careful; he’s going to try again, I think.”

Harry nods. “Don’t worry. I’d like to see him try. If he was already frightened off by the first layer, I don’t have to fear.”

Madam Pomphrey makes an uncertain face as if she is unsure if those words reassure or frighten her.

 

A few days later, Harry is released from the hospital wing. Apparently, the teachers said something because the other students stop their pointing-gossiping-laughing-daunting. Instead, they fall awkwardly silent as Harry nears. He ignores them the same way he ignored them beforehand.

Their thoughts and opinions haven’t changed, only the way in which they show them.

The Slytherins, led by Malfoy, glare at him.

He ignores them.

Who he didn’t – could not – ignore is Neville.

Right after being released, Harry is stumbling along the route to the dorm when he is interrupted on his trip.

His – ex? – best friend is standing on the route from the hospital wing to the dungeons, playing with his fingers, worrying his lower lip, sweating, pale. When he sees Harry, his eyes light up in relief and agony all at once.

For a moment, Harry considers ignoring him, as well.

But even if he hasn’t spoken to Neville in almost a year, he still is – was? – his first human friend.

So he does what he always does when he sees Neville.

He smiles, a tiny little smile that doesn’t show how content he is, but that also hides how broken he feels.

Neville returns the smile with a nervous little uplift of his lips, a parody of the joyous grin that normally adorns his face. After barely a second, teeth descend upon the lower lip again, pinching the red from the flesh to leave a sickly white.

“Harry,” he breathes. His voice breaks from relief and gratitude. “You are still alive. Oh Merlin, Harry, you are still alive.”

Without caring about the possibility of someone spotting them, the almost guarantee of vicious rumours sprouting and intertwining the entire school in a poisonous web with spikes of maliciousness pointing at Neville and Harry, Neville pulls Harry into a hug.

Harry just… stills.

A hug. He knows what that is, he knows that the word describes the act of surrounding another person or animal or object within one’s arms and pull them or it tightly against you. He knows that parents like to hug their children. He knows that friends hug each other, knows boys embracing each other is “gay” and girls cuddling is “cute”. He knows that a hug is used to show affection and other emotions. He knows that hugs are described as warm and comforting. In romance books, a hug presents an opportunity to describe the smell of the other person as well as either their muscles and the resulting hardness of their body or the swell of breasts and the resulting softness of the body. He knows that hugs can be forced and spooky, as is the case if one participant is unwilling. He knows that hugs can be creepy or weird, if the persons embracing are deemed too different for a hug to make sense, as is the case if someone where to hug a lamppost, or an older gentleman tightly held onto a young girl. He knows that hugs come in many varied forms, from the “manly” clasp of one shoulder to the “girly” enfolding each other with your arms and kissing your cheeks to the “couply” cuddling.

He knows all this, but up until now, he didn’t know what a hug feels like.

It’s not like in the books. It’s not comfortable; his arms are pressed awkwardly to his sides, Neville’s breathing and almost sobbing into his ear – he grew a lot in this year, how is such a growth spurt even possible? It’s more than what Harry grew in the last five years. Weren’t they the same height only the last time they spoke? – and Harry’s glasses are pushed onto his nose so hard it hurts. It’s also not comforting; Harry overthinks what he should do, if he should even do anything, and hugging such a stiff body can’t possibly be nice for Neville, either.

But… it is warm. Harry, who is perpetually cold from not having enough body fat to keep his body warm due to his undernourished form and who always has to wear a thick jumper more than all the other children, isn’t freezing, even though he is standing in one of Hogwarts’ draughty corridors in only a shirt and trousers.

Then, Neville shifts a bit, and Harry can move his arms, clumsily surrounding Neville’s torso with them like he’s seen others do, and adjusts his head so that his glasses don’t cut into his skin anymore, and that makes the hug miles better. Now, Neville curls into Harry as best as he can, being the taller of the two, and rests his head on Harry’s shoulder. The fabric is slowly getting wet as Neville cries.

With inept words and awkward gestures, Harry seeks to calm him, his heart breaking at his friend’s heartbreak. He sweeps his hands across Neville’s back, mindlessly smoothing out the wrinkles in the blazer, rests his head against Neville’s and murmurs, “I’m here. I’m sorry, but I’m still here.”

When he hears this, Neville breaks out in apologies. They fall from his lips like rain from the sky during a storm, landing in Harry’s ear to wash away the last lingering doubts about Neville and whether his friendship with Harry was ever genuine if it was swept aside so easily by Susan Bones, to drown that little voice that claimed that while Harry didn’t reach out, Neville didn’t try hard enough to reconnect to him, and so Harry is blameless while Neville is at fault for their… fallout? Break?

“Never again,” Neville swears, “will I lose sight of what is truly important. You were suffering, very badly, and I didn’t notice. I promise you, Harry, never will I be so wilfully blind ever again.”

Harry presses himself a bit closer, and pretends that his eyes aren’t wet.

 

Of course, with just a few words and a long hug, Neville and Harry aren’t okay to resume their friendship where they left it. Neville still has Susan Bones, his soulmate, his girlfriend, with whom he spends time. Harry still has daunting nightmares about Neville’s reaction, should he ever find out about Harry’s soulmate. Neville has been taken into confidence by Susan Bones and been influenced by her opinions, so he is not as honest with Harry as he used to be. Harry becomes more careful about voicing his view on certain things, like the possibility of Dark Magic not being pure evil, not quite trusting Neville not to tell Susan Bones with her Blade of Justice aunt.

In other words: They are not as close as they used to be, and while some part of Harry mourns it, another quotes one of those pretentious psychology books he read over the summer, saying that all bonds evolve and change over time, friendship not being an exception.

But understanding that this shift in their relationship is natural does not mean that Harry doesn’t wish for it to go back to before, to last year. With all its dragons and merpeople and murderous soulmates, it was much better than the poor excuse of a school year these months were.

 

A few days later, at breakfast, along with all the other birds, an owl lands in front of Harry, carrying with it a letter. He’s slightly suspicious, never having got mail before except for the Daily Prophet, so he throws a Detection Charm on the parchment. It doesn’t show any curses, so he takes the knife to use as a letter opener. The spell casting has attracted attention, however, and a few Slytherins – namely, Malfoy and his goons – make remarks about finally getting fan mail, eh, Potter? This draws even more attention, mostly in the form of frowns aimed at Malfoy. After all, Harry just tried to kill himself, and still is in the phase where other people step carefully around him, not enough time has passed yet for anyone to mock him, let alone the cause of his self-destructive – attention-seeking-accidental-exaggerated – action. Naturally, where there is a commotion, there goes the attention of the teachers. They twist and turn to find out what happened, their questioning gazes shifting between Harry and Malfoy. Only Professor Snape seems to see what’s going on, shooting Malfoy a glare that screams of detention and a serious conversation. Meanwhile, the other teachers either turn back to their meals, or let their scrutinous attention wander over the Slytherin table.

So does the headmaster’s, merrily smiling as he observes the masses of green-clothed pupils consuming food, joke with each other and open parcels.

But the blue eyes get caught by the most innocuous item on the table – the letter Harry is holding in his hand, the knife already partway under the flap, ready to start cutting.

The headmaster looks at it in disbelief, then shouts, “Harry, no! Don’t open that letter! Who knows what’s inside!”

Harry, along with most of the Great Hall, throws him an incredulous glance.

He ignores his words, then opens the letter and reads it. “Lad,” is written in a neat cursive, “don’t you worry. At the bottom, it only can go up. Yours, Silvia. P.S.: No, you won’t see me this summer, either. And don’t you fear, I’m not angry at you for it, or whatever stuff you’ve got in your head, now.”

Relieved, Harry slumps into his seat.

Then, he shoots back up.

Most of the Great Hall is staring at him. No. They’re watching the headmaster who comes to stand behind Harry. Harry folds his letter and puts it back into the envelope which he sticks into the pocket of his robe, the one with the trunk inside.

“Harry,” the headmaster says, “I must insist that you show me your letter and its content.”

In the quiet hall, his voice carries. Whispers set in and are immediately hushed so that the students can hear every word.

“Headmaster”, Harry copies him, “I must refuse. It is my private mail, and I don’t see why you should read it.”

“It could be from Voldemort.”

“As far as I know, he died on Samhain 1981. Wasn’t it you who announced his death back then?”

Harry’s voice is sugar-sweet.

The headmaster frowns.

“You shouldn’t lie, Harry.”

Harry lifts his hand with the scars. “I know. I think it’s sunk in by now.”

The headmaster blanches, but soldiers on, “Anyway, my boy, as the Headmaster of this school I have to guarantee the safety of my students. Therefore, I must check your letter.”

“Do you really check every letter that comes into the school? No wonder, then, that you miss such minor details as illegal artefacts being used on your students. You must be busy. If I think of only the letters that Malfoy gets, each several pages long – you really wouldn’t find time to do anything else. Maybe you should change your list of priorities a bit. Who knows what Dark Lord or convicted criminal is hiding in your school while you are busy with your students’ mail.”

Yes, Harry is pissed about the headmaster getting away with claiming ignorance.

“Now, now, my boy-“ The headmaster interrupts himself and looks around. There’s hundreds of faces, staring at them in disbelief, anger or suspicion. “I think it would be better to continue this conversation in a quiet place.”

But Harry is in the right mood now. Silvia’s calming words still hold, even though he’s beginning to think that she put Calming Draught on the page. Either way, he’s thankful.

“Do you not know the rules of Hogwarts, headmaster? A Headmaster may only talk to a student in private with the Head of House present, and only about school.”

“Now, now, my boy,” the headmaster is getting desperate, glancing at all the silent witnesses again, “I am your Magical Guardian, I am allowed to talk to you in private.”

And oh, Harry has waited for this. “Indeed, sir. But as the duties of a Magical Guardian include looking after their ward and visiting them at least once a year to talk to them, as well as inform them about their magical heritage, I don’t think you have the right to call yourself that.”

The headmaster admits defeat, studying all those faces observing their interaction again.

“My boy-,“ he starts one last time, but Harry, beginning to worry about what other potions Silvia put on her letter, finds the courage to decisively turn back to his breakfast and ignore him. After a few long minutes, the headmaster leaves.

Harry almost slumps in relief, but is aware of all those eyes watching him, all those whispers breaking out, and keeps his posture.

He wonders how much he’ll have to pay for this slight rebellion, but for now, he doesn’t care.

 

The next day, when a newspaper article about the “Letter Incident” is published, Harry thinks of the beetle he sometimes sees flying around and that sat on the table in front of him. The paranoia of animagi spying on him in their animal form never really left him, something he was glad for last year with Sirius Black, and now, with this tiny little nosy beetle.

But being paranoid does not mean that he doesn’t take advantage of all his surroundings have to offer. And if he coincidently sweeps up the struggling beetle and sits it on Professor McGonagall’s sleeve as she walks by on her way to the headmaster’s office to confront him about the article, cursing reporters and planning out their next steps, well, that’s Harry’s business.

The article the next day is a delight, and if Harry finds a noticeable decline of article declaring him a madman, well. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. Or, you know, help a reporter without scruples do something illegal and boast about the benefits loudly.

It’s the same, really, isn’t it?

 

He pays a lot for his rebellion. One day, Professor McGonagall drags him to the headmaster’s office. For the last week, he’s been called up there at least once a day, but always with Professor Snape who still is nice, even nicer than before. It seems that Harry’s suicide attempt shocked him so much that he’s changed. When the bullying, which has not diminished, occurs where he can see it, he punishes the bullies. When Malfoy throws something into his cauldron during Potions class, Professor Snape makes them switch cauldrons. Harry notes with satisfaction that Malfoy’s work with the sabotaged potions is well beneath Harry’s in the same condition. As Head of House, Professor Snape has power over the Slytherin King. He uses it to make the Slytherins accept Harry back in the dorm, furious about his exclusion. He gathers the entire House and holds an angry speech about inclusion, and how the term “House unity” means “House unity”, not “House unity of all persons most of the House likes”. Harry liked the speech the most as he was the only one not admonished directly or indirectly. In the headmaster’s office, Professor Snape observes every word and gesture with raised eyebrows and scathing remarks if Harry looks uncomfortable.

So when Harry enters the headmaster’s office and Professor Snape isn’t there, he is surprised. Even more shocked is he when the headmaster roughly grabs his arm, clutching it close in excitement, and then there is – tight-space-wrenching-him-away-what’s-happening. And they land after what Harry identifies to be Apparition in what Harry identifies to be the Ministry of Magic.

Harry tries to protest, but the headmaster yanks him along as he struts to the elevator. He presses the last button, “Department of Mysteries”. Shortly after, they walk past the spot where Harry saw a vision of a man dying from snake poison. They pass the revolving doors.

Harry manages to break free of the headmaster who smiles at him genially, “I know, my boy, that you are angry at me right now – however unjustly that may be. Still, you cannot escape your destiny.”

With these cryptic words, he leaves Harry alone in the middle of the Departments of Mysteries.

Harry tentatively steps forwards. The first door he opens leads him into a room he recognises. Only when he’s entered does he notice that it’s the room from his dreams, not the one he came from. He tries to turn around, but the door handle won’t move. Dejected, Harry move on. It’s funny, he muses, how he had a dream about this exact room and those exact shelves only yesterday. Then, the Dark Lord Voldemort tortured Sirius Black, taunting him. He noticed that the vision was false when Sirius argued fiercely that Harry was a good boy and that he would come rescue him, even if Sirius personally hoped that he’d stay away because it was so dangerous and he’d rather die than endanger Harry.

Sighing, Harry slowly approaches the exact row and shelf the vision showed him.

As expected, there’s no Sirius Black. There’s no Dark Lord Voldemort.

There only is a glass ball filled with white mist, labelled with “Dark Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter”.

He feels the eyes from ten rows away.

Only an idiot would reach out now. Harry is not an idiot. He pretends to reach out, but actually moves to grab the glass ball next to the one labelled with his name.

His fingers won’t close around it. It’s like trying to catch water in your bare fist – impossible.

But his actions fool the ones hiding. Dark robes, white masks, familiar voices: These people are what the history books call “Death Eater”.

“Give us the prophecy, stupid boy!”, one demands. The long, blond hair is a good indicator that it’s a close relative to Malfoy who likes to boast that he and his immediate family are the only Malfoys in all of Britain. Malfoy Senior, then. The Dark Lord Voldemort likes to call him Lucius, slipping into Parseltongue at the end of the word. He’s endlessly entertained by the way Lucius Malfoy never fails to blanch at the sound.

“Oh, is ickle little Potty scared?”, taunts another voice, this one female and slightly insane. Bellatrix Lestrange. The Dark Lord Voldemort is equal parts smugly triumphant and disturbed by Bellatrix Lestange’s worship.

“Hand it over!” A deep voice, deeper than any Harry’s heard before. Well, while awake. This, then, must be Dolohov. The Dark Lord Voldemort is especially proud of him since he managed to become a law wizard during his Lord’s… absence? Death?

Harry turns around, showing two empty hands.

Bellatrix Lestrange lets out a sound that is half insane laughter and half enraged scream while her two male companions draw back, their wands in hand. The strange sound tips into laughter. “Ickle little Potty tries to trick us? Trick or treat, trick or treat?! Treat me to the prophecy, and I won’t trick you!” Harry doesn’t move. “Trick me”, a murderous whisper enters her voice, “and I’ll treat you to unimaginable pain.” She laughs again.

Harry still doesn’t move.

Lucius Malfoy runs out of patience and casts Imperio. Harry doesn’t even let the peaceful feeling set in before he smashes the spell down. Lucius Malfoy stumbles. Harry takes this chance to dash off. For a moment, there’s disbelieving silence. Then, under Bellatrix Lestrange’s disturbed guffaws, they rush after him.

Round and round they go, they always too close for Harry to find a safe hiding place, he always too far away for them to get him. But he’s younger and smaller. They catch up.

Wandless and bound, Harry is brought to the prophecy again. With Malfoy’s wand under his chin, he has no choice but to lift it up. Then, easily, he drops it. The fragile ball smashes against the cold stone floor. For a moment, it seems like the Death Eaters want to start shouting and hexing. But when they hear the low voice, they quickly shut up.

All four listen intently as the prophecy replays. Neither can live while the other survives.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

The headmaster and a group of people rush into the hall. Harry recognises Professor McGonagall, Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. He thinks there’s other familiar silhouettes there, a distinct red hair colour here, a broad-shouldered figure there, but doesn’t definitely identify anyone. At the same time, a wave of Death Eaters floods through another door.

There’s a moment of nothing – no sound, no movement, just pure shock. Then, there’s a flurry of spells flying around haphazardly. They mostly miss, but some people go down. On the side of the Death Eaters, there are unconscious people sinking to the ground. A member stays back to revive them. On the other side, the fighters fall down with pained moans and chocked-off screams. Those people won’t be easily reawakened. Harry spots the round figure of Madame Pomphrey, running from person to person, but she’s only one, and the time she needs to take care of a single injury brings four more people down.

Now, after months of dreams, Harry is not fazed at all when a head lands in front of him, the body metres behind it, the eyes open in shock and glazed over in death.

But it spurns him into action.

Not far from the head lies his wand, in the beginnings of a puddle of blood, forgotten in the chaos of battle, dropped at the surprise of the headmaster’s group’s entrance. Harry slips his way to it, grabbing it tightly and trying to ignore the sticky fluid on its hilt.

He is ready.

Ready, of course, to run away from the fights and deaths. He manages to get to the entrance hall, hundreds of floos and lifts to the outside, just a step away from freedom.

Right into the arms of his-soulmate-his-enemy-his-torturer-his-attempted-destined-murderer the Dark Lord Voldemort.

The Dark Lord Voldemort takes a few moments to boast about his clever plan to get Harry here. He finishes, “As soon as I sent you this vision of your beloved godfather there, tortured and bleeding, you came running like a good boy. How laughable you are, you pitiful creature!”

Harry smiles sardonically, brandishes his wand and sets a layered shield. “I didn’t come here out of my own free will. To lure me here, you’d need to think of something real.”

The Dark Lord Voldemort cants his head to one side in question. It takes a moment for Harry to realise that he silently entered Harry’s mind. His stupid brain didn’t see his soulmate’s presence as a threat and didn’t ring any warning bells. The Dark Lord Voldemort rushes through the obstacles as if they weren’t there at all. The only one that gives him pause is the arithmantic equation, but Harry’s traitorous mind supplies the solution almost immediately. He ignores the elaborate halls of false memories that would make anyone else linger. The boggart only turns into a vague image of a tombstone for a second before it’s replaced by Harry’s mutilated corpse. By then, Harry has caught up on the intrusion and arrives to find out that his soulmate is deeply amused by his death.

Now, it can’t be said that Harry is completely talentless in Occlumancy, or that he didn’t put in hard work and his best efforts. But against the Dark Lord Voldemort, a man fifty years his senior, skilled, talented and practiced in Legilimancy, he’s like a child whose only weapon is a bubble of his spit against a man on the other side on the planet with a thumb on the button to activate a nuclear bomb.

In a morbid parody of first year, the Dark Lord Voldemort drags Harry along with him into the final room. The Dark Lord Voldemort takes his time looking around. “Why, Potter,” he comments, smirking, “I didn’t think I left that deep an impression.”

In reversal to the last time they both were in a room with a Dream Mirror, Harry has all the advantages. While the Dark Lord Voldemort is speaking and trying out the mirror, even though he almost definitely knows that he’ll need Harry and Harry’s cooperation to get access to his real memories, Harry activates the second last defence he has to offer.

A Dementor appears out of thin air, suffusing the surrounding air with utter terror and hopelessness. Harry stands next to it, a hand on its bony shoulder, immune to its powers in his own mind.

He speaks to the Dark Lord Voldemort. “Leave. You are not welcome here.”

The Dark Lord Voldemort stares at the Dementor in disbelief. Then, he laughs. He can’t stop laughing, in fact. It’s that laugh that Harry dreams of, very rarely. It’s when something completely unexpected has happened and the Dark Lord Voldemort is exhilarated that there still exist things in this world that surprise him, who has travelled the world and seen everything it has to offer, who has seen more as a child than many see in all their life combined, and is so amused by this occurrence that he doesn’t get angry.

“Very well, Potter,” he says. “In exchange for this revelation, Lord Voldemort admits defeat here. Be proud for this is a singular event.”

Harry swallows harshly as the Dark Lord Voldemort leaves his mind. He knows what he admitted to: The last defences of a mind are always were personal, so the Dark Lord Voldemort now knows that Harry is terrified of Dementors. Also, the only wizards and witches able to have Dark creatures in their minds are those who wield Dark magic. But Harry knows it was the smaller of two evils. His last defence, he hopes he’ll never have to reveal.

When he resurfaces in the real world, the Dark Lord Voldemort has raised his wand. In some sort of twisted duelling honour, he’s waiting until Harry, who is fifty years younger and almost completely ignorant of and untrained in duelling, has shaken off the dizziness that comes from an intrusion into his mind and activating a last defence. Only when Harry lifts his wand, does the Dark Lord Voldemort start casting spells.

Almost like last year, Harry is limited to Shield Charms. But he has not sat idle; his repertoire has increased greatly. He also read about offensive spells, learning their incantations and colours, so that he can shield against them effectively. In a duel with someone of the same age, even if his opponent were to have duelling experience, he’d almost definitely win. By reading about offensive spells, he’s learned a lot. Some, he was so interested in that he tried them out. Others are so simple he didn’t have to.

But his adversary is the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Harry doesn’t even try to attack. He’s cautious and wary, shielding himself from the front, back and sides, and doesn’t take his eyes off his opponent. As is, he barely can keep up with replenishing his protections. The Dark Lord Voldemort is a flurry of mostly deadly spells, mixed with transfigurations and illusions. Slowly, but surely, Harry is backed into a corner, his stamina decreasing and his magic almost run out.

That’s when the headmaster sweeps in to save the day.

It would entice more grateful feelings in Harry if he didn’t see him standing there for a whole minute, just watching and observing with those damned twinkles in his eyes and that bloody smile on his lips.

As is, he’s glad the headmaster has stepped in, and fiercely hopes that the archenemies kill each other off. This thought is followed by a surge of guilt for wishing death to his soulmate, followed by a feeling of justification, followed by more guilt, followed by a wave of memories-anger-sadness-betrayal.

While Harry is caught up in his feelings, the Dark Lord Voldemort and the headmaster circle each other, sometimes shooting off a cautious spell, but mostly waiting for the other to open spell fire.

Then, the headmaster speaks.

“Tom, my boy, put down your wand and end this!”

The Dark Lord Voldemort and Harry snort almost at the same time, the Dark Lord Voldemort’s louder noise covering Harry’s.

“Do you really think I’ll do that, old man?”

A very profoundly sad expression appears on the headmaster’s face. “No, I did not, my boy. I have long since learned that you have no shiver of mercy in your heart, if you even have one.”

The Dark Lord Voldemort laughs. “Because you are the paradigm of all that is good and kind and wise, and you know all there is to know, even about me! But Lord Voldemort is not as simple as that!”

The headmaster shoots a valley of spells the Dark Lord Voldemort ducks beneath. He shouts, “You always were simple, Tom! A boy born with evil already dripping from him, torturing small animals and bullying innocent children, striving to prove that you’re better than anyone else!”

This time, the Dark Lord Voldemort’s laughter is bitter instead of mocking. “That shows what you know.”

Harry notices a commotion: The regular Ministry workers start arriving. Terrified screams sound as they become aware of the supposedly-dead Dark Lord Voldemort fighting with the esteemed Headmaster of a school so far away he has no business whatsoever being here. For a moment, Harry is glad that the truth is out; no-one can declare him an attention-seeking liar, now. Then, he remembers how he never even said a word to the press, or anyone else for that matter, about the Dark Lord Voldemort, and his good mood evaporates.

Meanwhile, the duelling wizards don’t seem to see anything but their opponent and his wand.

The headmaster shouts, “I know that you have no heart, Tom! You don’t even have a soulmate! That alone is proof enough!”

All eyes land on the bare wrist of the Dark Lord Voldemort. That alone does not proof anything. It simply means that his soulmate has not yet showed their soul mark to him. Still, it damns him in the eyes of many of the bystanders. Harry is unimpressed. He has to shove aside some insane thoughts about seeing his soul mark, his words, written on that pale wrist, showing the whole world that this powerful wizard belongs to Harry as Harry belongs to him, that his brain has deemed necessary to conjure right now, and instead looks into those red eyes. There’s a hint of hopeful sadness hidden behind a lot of resentment and hatred.

Then, a sly look passes over his face before he shouts out, “Do you have a soulmate then, Dumbledore? I don’t think anyone could be so unfortunate as to end up with you!”

The headmaster smiles genially as if the mere idea of him no having a soulmate is ludicrous. “Don’t be ridiculous, Tom. A soulmate is someone who fits you perfectly, and I have one just like every human being with a heart does. It is you who is broken as to not have one!”

The Dark Lord Voldemort spits, “I didn’t think you, of all people, would be so glad to claim your soul mark.”

The headmaster’s eyes and mouth open in shock at the unexpected answer and he’s too late to stop a spell that blasts off all the clothing on his left arm. His shields, as far as Harry can see, only stop hurtful spells. A De-Clothing Charm is not harmful, therefore was not stopped. Neither is the next spell, one that consists of a difficult and complex wand movement, but no incantation, so Harry guesses it’s a Dark spell. Above the Headmaster’s head hang aggressively glowing yellow letters, spelling out Judging from your letters, you agree with me that we should eradicate all Muggle scum.

The whole hall, all spectators, both duellers are silent.

Then, the Dark Lord Voldemort says saccharinely sweetly, “How is your dear Gellert Grindelwald?”

As if it was a secret sign, the Death Eaters descend on the masses, each casting one or two spells before disapparating. The Dark Lord Voldemort throws one last glance at the headmaster before turning on his heel and disappearing.

Harry breathes a sigh of relief at being largely ignored and relatively unharmed. He thinks of getting away while he still can without being noticed.

He takes a step towards the floo places.

Everything goes black.

 

Harry wakes up on the cold, damp stone floor of a room made of stone with no windows, no lights and a door locked away by thick bars.

He’s in a dungeon.

After the first panic has passed, he tries to think of a solution.

Then, it comes to him.

He’s a wizard.

He has magic.

He reaches inside his pocket.

Empty.

No trunk.

No wand.

He panics again.

He panics himself right back into unconsciousness.

 

When he wakes up again, he’s watched by a Death Eater. The blond hair is as identifying now as it was in the Ministry.

The details of what follows after are lost in a haze of pain-Crucio-pain-pain-pain-laughter-taunting-boasting-gloating-Crucio-pain-pain-pain-pain-pain-kick-kick-insults-sneers-jeers-Crucio-pain-pain-pain.

 

The next time he comes to, he’s still in the dungeon, still watched, still in pain. The eyes observing his every movement are greedy to take in every sign of pain, heady on the power of having inflicted it and daring Harry to somehow incur the man’s wrath again so that he may repeat the punishment all over again.

Those eyes are familiar in a way the face and eye colour isn’t.

Those are Uncle Vernon’s eyes the day after a punishment. Those are Aunt Petunia’s eyes as she watches him stumble his way through his chores. Those are the eyes of the Slytherins who watched his bed burn, ordered him out of his dorm and made as much ruckus as possible in the Common Room so that Harry would get as little sleep as possible.

Harry resigns himself to even more pain.

He thinks that he’s never hurt so much before. Uncle Vernon doesn’t compare to the Cruciatus Curse at all. Then, he remembers that night – pain-I-can-touch-you-now-pain-Pain-PAIN – and thinks that after all, he doesn’t hurt at all right now.

The Death Eater raises his wand. Harry leans back and braces himself.

That’s when the door slams open, hitting the wall with a terribly loud noise and staying there with the sheer pressure of magic, furious, enraged magic.

The Dark Lord Voldemort storms inside. He doesn’t even throw a glance toward his follower as he orders, “Get out.”

Instead, his red eyes bear into Harry who is frozen where he is, by fear and terror and hope.

“Where – did – you –get – this?”, he demands, lifting up the diary Harry picked up in second year in Myrtle’s cubicle, the one that belongs to T. M. Riddle, to the very Dark Lord standing in front of him now.

He must have broken through the wards keeping his trunk safe, and then through those hiding the diary, Harry theorises in the distant part of his brain that is capable of logical thought and not consumed with fear, terror and surprise.

In response to the question, he manages what he thinks is a questioning squeak. Then, he screams under the Dark Lord Voldemort’s mighty Cruciatus Curse.

When the pain stops, he’s shaking. The Dark Lord Voldemort hisses, “When I ask you a question, boy, I want an answer. Do you understand?” When Harry doesn’t immediately react, he raises his wand threateningly. “Do – you – understand?!”

Hurriedly, Harry nods.

“Then speak!”

“I-I found it, back in second year!”, Harry stutters, keeping his eyes firmly on the tip of the wand. “It was in a toilet, and the ghost- she asked me to get it out, so I did, but it had your name on it, so I hid it!”

For a moment, the Dark Lord Voldemort freezes. Then, fury flashes in his eyes. “How do you insignificant worm know my name? Did the old coot tell you?”

“No, no!”, Harry protests quickly. “The hat! The Sorting Hat told me!”

The Dark Lord Voldemort lets out some words that truly shouldn’t be used around someone underage, and even some people not underage, but they have a strange hissing to them that tells Harry they are in Parseltongue and he should ignore them.

“What exactly did the hat tell you, Potter?” The Dark Lord Voldemort eyes him up and down, looking him over critically. Harry thinks back to remember the exact wording and quickly dips into his mind. Not a moment later, he’s joined by the Dark Lord Voldemort. He tenses all over, ready to activate his defences, but the intruder waves him off. “I only want that one memory. I won’t go looking for anything else.”

Harry is many things, but trusting, he is not. But this is his soulmate. But this is the Dark Lord. But this is his soulmate. But this is the murderer of his parents and countless others. But this is his soulmate. But this is the man fate has destined to kill him. But this is his soulmate. But this is the man who wants to torture and kill him gruesomely. But this is his soulmate.

Harry lets the memory play, carefully edited to start in the middle rather than beginning.

The Dark Lord Voldemort muses thoughtfully. “I’m interested in what the hat saw that made you so afraid of it sharing it, but it’s surely something inconsequential. How curious that you didn’t know of my name before Hogwarts, though.” He throws Harry an indecipherable look. “Apparently, the papers were right for once.”

He leaves Harry’s mind to start pacing, soon followed by Harry who is trying to make sense of the cryptic words.

The Dark Lord Voldemort stops walking and goes on, thinking out loud, “I’ve heard the prophecy, but I am not sure if I want to act on it, based on your behaviour. You use the Dark Arts, you are a powerful addition to the graceful House of my ancestor, you protected my possession, no matter how and why. I will deliberate on this matter for a while. Maybe I’ll make you swear an Unbreakable Vow, or swear fealty to me. Maybe I’ll deem you too high a risk to let you live.”

Harry looks up to him in wonder. Only last year, the Dark Lord Voldemort was hell-bent on killing him. Now, there’s a prophecy, telling them that one has to kill the other, the very same prophecy that led to the attack on the infant Harry, and the Dark Lord Voldemort stops to reconsider his options? That doesn’t sound like the sadistic madman Harry saw in his dreams.

He looks closer.

The scaly skin is – human skin, without any scales, even if it is scarily pale. There’s hints of a nose in the face. The mouth is surrounded by white, slim, almost non-existent lips. And the Dark Lord Voldemort has hair now! He has eyelashes, and brows, and a few millimetres of brownish black on his no-longer-bald head, and the beginnings of stubble.

What happened? Only one eternity ago, or one second ago, they were in the Ministry, the Dark Lord Voldemort didn’t have hair, or lips, or a nose, or human skin! And, dare Harry say it, he lacked the obvious intelligence and smarts the man before him has. That while ago, he was a fantastic dueller who could trick the headmaster into an incriminatory situation, but he didn’t have the wits to move the battle from the entrance hall of the Ministry shortly before the day workers would arrive, leading to his being seen and discovered while it would have been much easier to move from the dark. The Dark Lord Voldemort now, however, stops to consider and think.

The Dark Lord Voldemort reaches a decision. “I’ll leave you here for now,” he decrees. “I will leave you books, for when you are bored, so that you may behave like a proper half-blood Heir by the time you are released from here, if I do decide to keep you alive.” He studies Harry again. “From my time as a teacher, I know that you are studious and clever. Apply yourself here as you did in Defence class, and we shall have no problems.”

Harry accepts the not-so-subtle threat to study as hard and well as he can, and nods.

Also nodding once, the Dark Lord Voldemort sweeps out of the dungeons. Fifteen minutes later, a tower of books arrives, along with parchments, quills and ink to take notes, and a Death Eater to supervise.

Harry can’t see through the pain the first few minutes after the Death Eater leaves him alone, but then, he takes a look at the books. They are the kind of old and elaborate that makes reading tedious. Instead of saying something, the author circles around it thrice before saying it and then explaining it before getting into the argumentation behind it. Harry’s sure he could rewrite the texts without losing any content, but spare two-hundred pages from each book. The topics also are ones he only knows the bare bones of and was never really interested in. He had enough knowledge to get by and always had much more important things to study and figure out than pureblood etiquette, dancing and wizarding law, especially seeing as most of these things don’t actually directly concern him for at least until he’s reached his majority when he was never quite certain if he would live up to that age or if Uncle-Vernon-Dudley-and-gang-twinkly-eyes-dorm-mates-red-and-bushy-hair-beasts-Dark-Lord-Voldemort-fear-panic-pain would kill him first.

Now, he apparently has time and motivation to study it, and study it well.

He opens the first book with shaking fingers and reads and reads and reads.

 

The next- Harry doesn’t actually know. He only knows that some indeterminate time has passed between his passing out, his being transported into this dungeon and the Dark Lord Voldemort’s visit. Then, he measures time with books, but this is not the reading he’d normally bother with. Sure, he’s read textbooks before, and journals, and periodicals, and whatever he needed and found interest in, but this is something else. These texts are convoluted sentences in complex structures in abstract metaphors in confusing paragraphs, in archaic words and grammar, in ancient spelling and antiquated letters. He oftentimes has to read the same paragraph four times to understand that it’s not important at all to the argument, and that’s when it’s irrelevant to the whole work overall.

Then, he frequently blacks out because of various Death Eaters, becoming conscious to find lunch and dinner on the floor, both cold as ice. Well, that’s assuming he gets fed twice every day. Maybe it’s only once a day, or once every two days. Harry’s stomach is so used to infrequent food intake, especially when he has consciously reduced his eating just before summer so that the fasting won’t be so terrible.

But slowly, Harry studies, and he learns.

He learns that he is the Heir to the Potter Family. He learns that things called “Heir Rings” exist and offer protection. He learns that Albus Dumbledore is very low on the list of potential Magical Guardians. He learns that he should have something called a “Godfather Bond” to Sirius Black.

Heir Rings indicate the one who will succeed the Lord or Lady of the Family after the Lord’s or the Lady’s passing or their majority, whatever happens later. They protect the wearer from many poisons, allow entry into the Heir Vaults at Gringotts and are a Portkey to the nearest or safest estate in the holdings of a Family member. Normally, the Lord or Lady of the Family would give the Heir Ring to the child he or she favours the most. If the child would be a good fit as Family Head, the ring accepts him or her. If not, the child can’t put it on; it becomes too heavy or as big as a bracelet or any of a hundred other things. If the Family Head dies without having given the Heir Ring to anyone, all Family members must try the ring on, even if they have no inclination of being Family Head. If there’s only one Family member left, the ring automatically accepts that person. If that lone survivor is underage, the duty of giving the ring to the heir upon their entry in a Wizarding School falls onto the Magical Guardian.

The Magical Guardian, in the most cases, is someone who takes in a child who has lost their parents or the magical parent in case of a witch/wizard-Muggle paring. If the Magical Guardian is unable to raise the child in their own house, the topmost reason apparently being “A boggart refuses to leave my house, and it makes me laugh so much that I don’t want to get rid of it”, then they have to visit the child a minimum of seven times a year, best coinciding with the ritual holidays. They have the duty of teaching the child everything they need to know about their birth family, including specific rites, and the skills needed to revive the Family. Most of the time, that Magical Guardian is either a Family member or a godparent. If no direct magical Family members can be found and the godparents are unavailable, the duty falls onto the one listed in the will of the deceased, if such a thing exists, and then onto the next closest magical blood relative. And so it goes on and on until someone able to take on that title can be found. Magical Guardians for Muggleborns, however, cannot be chosen that way, which is why a teacher takes over the duty for the limited time from when the child turns ten to school entry, after which a volunteer takes over the post. It is explicitly forbidden that a Headmaster or a Teacher may be Magical Guardian to anyone, much less their own students, as that could create a conflict of interests. This opens the question why the Headmaster of Hogwarts became the Magical Guardian of a young orphan whose godparents may not have been available, but who has magical blood ties to basically everyone in Wizarding Britain, having been born to a pureblood father and having two pureblood godparents.

Speaking of godparents: There apparently is a magical bond that connects them and the child, made through the vows the godparent swore at the ceremony to accept their new title. They bind godparent and child together so that the child may always have someone to go to who will accept them and so that the godparent can never harm the child. Even at its weakest, weathered down from years-long separation and disinterest, even dislike between both parties, the bond ensures that the godparent doesn’t hurt the child and that the child can find acceptance with the godparent.

Obviously, this didn’t happen with Harry. There’s a short answer to the question why Sirius Black could say such cruel words to Harry, hurting him in the process, without even cringing: There is no bond. It’s as if Sirius Black were not Harry’s godfather. But he knows that he is; Sirius Black described the ceremony in great detail – this topic apparently having been deemed safe enough to be shared by the headmaster – and what Harry’s read in these books matches up. He even searches through his mind and finds a fragment of a memory about his Godparent Ceremony. He remembers Sirius Black and Alice Longbottom sitting in a ritualistic circle, holding hands with each other and with baby Harry, and smearing purple flowers all over each other’s faces. The purple is a touch of the Potter family; nobody but those present during the ceremony – which are the parents, the child and the godparents, and no-one else – knows about it, and those present can’t talk about it to anyone else, an old curse binding their tongues. Sirius Black, however, could describe the flower, the colour and the smell, which means he really is Harry’s godfather.

Which leads back to the question how the Godfather Bond could be practically severed.

Harry thinks he knows the answer: Albus Dumbledore or Azkaban, and with his bad luck, one seems way more likely.

 

He doesn’t know how long it’s been when Harry is roughly grabbed and led outside of the dungeon. He stumbles along, his muscles weak from lack of movement and overuse of pain, up a narrow staircase, out of a hidden stone door. The first thing Harry notices is the light. It’s so bright he has to screw his eyes shut, a vast improvement to the dim candle light he got down there. In that moment, the sunlight is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

As his eyes adjust to the brightness, Harry makes out the rooms he’s led through. Judging by huge halls, the likes of which he’s only ever seen in the Black manor, this edifice must belong to a similarly powerful or rich family. The manor beyond his prison is like another world. Instead of drab grey stone, the walls are white, and yellow, and green, and blue, and there’s pictures, and paintings, and furniture, and windows, a lot of gold and silver and crystal and diamond.

Harry numbly thinks that he’d prefer the dreary dungeon room over this opulence.

He’s led into a giant hall, with windows larger than the cell downstairs, the ceiling as high as the entire Dursley house, the decorations worth more than Harry’s life. At the very front stands a very luxurious, high-backed throne. On it lounges the Dark Lord Voldemort. He’s changed even more since Harry last saw him, the nose raised like a real human’s, the lips filled out, long strands of hair framing the still inhumanly pale face. The Dark Lord Voldemort throws a glance at the Death Eater, wordlessly ordering him to step outside.

Harry’s left alone, standing on shaking legs, supported by protesting muscles, exposed to the red eyes watching him.

For a moment, he hopes. He hopes so much.

“Potter”, the Dark Lord Voldemort begins after a long time. “I thought hard about what to do with you. It’s a pity, really, that I didn’t hear the full prophecy before going after you that Samhain night. This all could have been prevented.” He sighs, long and deep. “So much wasted potential.” He stands up. “But the threat stands and must be answered.”

Without further preamble, he pulls out his wand, made from a beautiful white wood, and casts Harry’s words.

Avada Kedavra.”

Chapter Text

 

Later on, Harry isn’t able to say how he got away. It could be that his first instinct to duck under the spell had thrown off the Dark Lord Voldemort’s concentration. It could be that the owl flying in right after that had confused him so much. It could be that the asinine Death Eater opening the heavy doors at Harry’s surprised and terrified shout provided an opening. It could be that the window two rooms over was as open as the doors between the throne room and that escape route. It could be that the Death Eaters are scarily disorganised so soon after their Lord’s revival and hadn’t considered the possibility of having an emergency in their headquarters. It could be that he used a Dark spell to locate and summon his wand.

Either way, all that Harry remembers clearly is evading, running, running, running, hiding, running, running, collapsing.

The next thing he knows is punishing that insignificant worm who dared to disturb him and provided an escape for his destined enemy, torturing him deader than dead and sorting through his followers to eliminate anyone else like that. It’s for the best for all of wizarding kind if such people are eradicated.

Then, he wakes up to dreary grey walls, Kreacher’s familiar and dissatisfied mutterings on his side, Madame Pomphrey’s enraged and worried might at the other.

He wishes he could escape this all, but he can’t.

He’s still alive.

 

As Madame Pomphrey explains, everyone knew or at least thought they knew where Harry was, and instead of organising a rescue attempt, they hoped for the best that he’d escape on his own. Now, Madame Pomphrey is shocked at the extent of his wounds, proud of his resilience and wonders about his bad luck. She tries being a therapist again, but her patient is as silent and withdrawn as he was following his suicide attempt, quietly wondering why anyone would confide in someone who admitted to not helping him while he was being tortured because they trusted someone else who said that it will be okay – maybe, hopefully, but the headmaster in all his unending glory thinks so. She believes she’s being subtle as she removes all potentially damaging objects, but Harry sees her, as he sees everything.

He sees that his next visitor, Sirius Black, really doesn’t care that Harry is back, and that he feels genuinely bad for that, but that his guilt isn’t enough to change him. He sees that his third visitor, Remus Lupin, is truly heartbroken about Harry’s predicament, but that he’s too busy and stressed to accompany him often. He sees that his fourth visitor, Molly Weasley, feels bad for Harry’s injuries, but only in the general way someone feels bad about murder victim in the latest newspaper article, not with the same genuine, gut-wrenching sorrow that Neville showed when he first saw Harry after his suicide attempt. He sees that his fifth and sixth visitors, Ron and Hermione, are caught up between feeling bad for Harry and rejoicing in his pain and feeling a guilty pleasure about that emotion. He sees that his seventh visitor, the headmaster, couldn’t care less for Harry’s wellbeing, but that he thinks that now, after the torture and pain, he’ll have a better chance at getting through to him. He sees that his eighth visitor, Professor McGonagall, thinks it’s Harry’s fault for ending up like this in the first place. He sees that his ninth visitor is a complete surprise.

It’s Walburga Black.

The range of her portrait extends to the scenic painting of an idyllic forest clearing opposite of the bed Harry’s confined to until Madame Pomphrey is content with the healing of his wounds, a gigantic piece of furniture more likely built for four rather than only for one person, a bed so grand it makes Harry feel small and insignificant and so exposed he longs for the safety of his cupboard. One day, he wakes up to see Walburga Black watching him with a hawk’s eyes.

“Good day, Heir Potter”, she says. There’s something sharp and testing in her tone.

“Good day, Madame- Lady Black?” Harry’s not really sure on the proper address of the portrait of the dead Lady Black. To make up for his ignorance, he tries to bow as well as he can.

Walburga Black hums in an appreciating way. “Kreacher didn’t lie,” she states. “You are a proper Black.”

“I beg your pardon,” Harry murmurs, “but how can that be? I have to admit I’ve grown up ignorant of the Wizarding World and its ways.”

“Regardless, you have got the manners and attitude of a proper pureblood heir.”

“I barely know enough to get by,” Harry disagrees. “I’ve learned a lot during the school year and this summer, but not enough to make up for my total ignorance.”

Walburga Black musters him intently. “Former Lady Black,” she says, ad nothing. “That would be the correct form of address to the portrait of a deceased Lady. But you may call me by my first name.”

“Thank you, Former Lady Walburga. My name is Harry James Potter, Heir to the House of Potter.” Again, he mimics a bow.

 

After listening to the tales of Sirius Black, the following sound seems impossible: Walburga Black giggles. “Aren’t you just adorable, little heir. You may call me by my first name, and only that.”

“I-I’m honoured, thank you,” Harry stutters. “Please do me the honour of calling me Harry, Walburga.”

She chuckles again. “You are a delight. I think I will come visit you more often.”

 

She does.

In the end, Walburga is in the forest painting, talking to Harry, more often than not. She teaches him proper manners after thoroughly laughing at the mixture he displays now, archaic formulations and greetings not used for a hundred years mixed with Muggle phrases and mannerisms. Tenderly, she talks of her family and also Harry’ relatives. Apparently, his grandfather married Walburga’s favourite aunt. This, in turn, places him high up in the Black Family as everyone else either died or was a woman who married, thus losing the family name and their right to inherit.

They also talk of more serious topics, like Regulus Black, or Sirius Black, or their conflicting views on purebloods, half-bloods and Muggleborns. The latter is easily rectified; Walburga firmly believes that those not partaking in the rules and traditions and culture of the Wizarding World should lose their place in it, an opinion which Harry supports. The first is a tale of the belief of being right mixed with sadness and regret. Walburga still thinks that she was right to advise her son to become a Death Eater, even if he betrayed the Dark Lord Voldemort in the end and paid for it with his life. At the time she made the best possible decision with the information and knowledge that she had. After all, she’d gone to school with Tom Marvolo Riddle; she knew what he was like. Then, along the way, he got lost and consumed by the Dark Lord Voldemort. “Voldemort, in the end, was like the worst parts of Tom Riddle,” she muses to Harry. “It was like the best parts, those that made people want to follow him, disappeared.”

Harry, in turn, tells her of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s behaviour before and since his resurrection and the ostensible return of his rumoured beauty, or at least his humanness, as well as his improved- what’s the right word? Intelligence? Wit? He had both of them en masse before this change. Forward planning? Foresight? Far-sightedness? That one might fit best.

It’s worth reliving a few of the worst moments in Harry’s short life to see hope bloom to life in the painted eyes of his friend-mentor-confidante.

The situation with Sirius Black, on the other hand, is even more complicated than Regulus Black. Walburga likes to consider what she did wrong to have her son end up this way. True, she taught her children Dark magic, but she started them off with the easy beginner spells that she learned and her father and his father. They posed no problem. They were the Dark counterparts of those they learned in school, anyways. So they can’t have led to… his aversion to his family. It may be true that she treated him differently after he entered Gryffindor instead of Slytherin, but Sirius always was a difficult child and she half expected his Sorting. When Sirius continued acting out, she should have reacted without the cold and scathing speeches, perhaps. When he started hanging out with the Potter kid and began his career as prankster, she probably should have explained to him why such behaviour is bad instead of just punishing him. Instead of shunting him when he hung out with a werewolf, she should have protected him. Rather than thinking that the love to his family would win out, she should have brought him right back when he ran away to the Potters. She should have been more of a buffer between the cold-hearted and strict Orion Black and their hot-blooded and lively Sirius, and stood in the way of the scorn and downright dislike that Orion showed after Sirius’ Sorting.

But now, it’s too late for such regrets.

She’s shocked when she learns of the way Sirius Black has acted in recent years. Going after Peter Pettigrew instead of taking care of his newly orphaned godson, she can forgive. Sirius always was hot-headed and rash to act while slow to think. But to treat Harry the same way he was treated growing up is something she’d never thought possible.

She believes it’s entirely possible, on the other hand, for the headmaster to somehow have suppressed the Godfather Bond. Nearly all of the Dark families detest the Dark-hating headmaster, and most do so for good reason, having faced discrimination and patronisation. Walburga goes on long and exhaustive rants about the “worst thing that ever happened to Hogwarts – and that’s counting Grindelwald’s attack on it.”

In short, their conversations are very enlightening for Harry.

So enlightening, in fact, that he can leave Sirius Black with some well-chosen words when they stand around, the Weasleys and Hermione hysterically gathering their stuff and packing, Harry waiting next to the door, ready to go, and Sirius Black right next to him, uncomfortable and observing him from the corner of his eye.

He starts conversationally, “Did you know that Walburga Black visited me sometimes in my room?”

Sirius Black seems honestly baffled that Harry starts up a conversation, and even more so about his chosen topic. “Ahm, no, I didn’t. Sorry ‘bout that, pro-,“ he awkwardly cuts himself off as if he instinctively wanted to add something.

Harry ignores him. “We talked quite a lot, the two of us. Nobody else with whom I could hold a proper conversation.”

Now, Sirius Black is hesitant, then determined. “I get that you don’t get along with Ron and Hermione, Harry, even if I don’t understand why. If that’s supposed to be a guilt trip because I didn’t come up often-“

“In the beginning, she berated me for my manners, mostly, or laughed at me. Did you know that a gentleman doesn’t have to bow to a lady, even though this is the Wizarding World? Or that shaking hands is seen as something Muggle? Instead, you’re supposed to nod to each other.” He doesn’t wait for Sirius Black’s acknowledgement before he continues. “Then, we started talking about more serious things.”

Sirius Black groans. “Did she babble your ears off about blood purity? I swear, that woman…”

“Actually, she did not.” He pauses a bit. “She told me about your childhood, about Regulus, about Orion.” He emphasises the name and watches his godfather flinch as if – as if he was Harry. Harry moves in on the kill. “Apparently, when you came home from Hogwarts for the first time, your father told you that you weren’t his son anymore. You were just another brainless Gryffindor.” Mercilessly, Harry smiles at Sirius Black’s second flinch. “I told her I could relate to you. After all, when I first came here after returning to Hogwarts, my godfather told me that I wasn’t his godson. I was just a slimy snake.”

Sirius Black blanches and looks ready to faint.

Satisfied, yet not quite, Harry turns back to stare at the stairs, where finally, finally, the Weasleys come down in a long row of red heads, led by Hermione Granger, followed by a woman sounding close to a nervous breakdown. Harry would almost pity Molly Weasley if she did not annoy him to pieces with her constant nagging, sticking her nose into things that don’t concern her at all like Aunt Petunia and deciding that she knows better than he does – such as the fact that he and Ron are “the very best of friends, I just know, don’t be so shy, Harry, just admit it!”

Harry tries very hard not to draw parallels between her and Aunt Petunia, but when her complaining voice reaches that pitch…

Thankfully, it’s finally the end of summer.

 

As soon as he steps outside, Harry is assaulted by an owl. He recognises Hedwig immediately. “Hello, darling”, he whispers as she takes her rightful place on his arm. “Do you have a letter for me, beautiful, or were you just lonely?”

Hedwig snuggles up to Harry’s cheek, but extends her foot with a letter tied to it. Harry chuckles, giving in to his owl’s demand and petting her. Only then does he reach for the letter.

“Oh man, Harry, whose owl is that? It’s gorgeous!”

That’s Ron’s obnoxious voice. He continues to oh and ah Hedwig for all of two seconds before turning to his mother and complaining that he doesn’t have an owl, Pig doesn’t count, he also wants an owl. Hermione begins to lecture about the importance of every single life and that Pig is equal to Hedwig, that keeping pets is barbaric – ignoring the fact that she herself owns a cat – and that using owls as letter carriers is a system so ancient it’s surprising it’s still working.

Harry ignores them, cuddling close to Hedwig. Finally, he thanks her and tells her to return to Hogwarts, he’ll be there to see her tomorrow. Reluctantly, she takes flight again.

Molly Weasley stands in front of a limousine, anxiously impatient. “Hurry up, hurry up! We still need to pick up your books! Oh Harry, if only you’d got better sooner! No, it’s not your fault, Harry, I know that, but it still would have made our day a little less stressed. Oh, come on, Ron, into the car! Hermione, did you feed your cat before we left? Ginny! Ginny, where is your hat?”

It takes another ten minutes before they are ready to go.

Actually, Harry doesn’t have a clue why they still don’t have their supplies. Last year, the Weasleys didn’t have a problem with nit-picking his every decision while gathering his utensils. They’d probably be glad to go do his shopping for him so that everything bought would be to their satisfaction. And this year, they have to squeeze it in on the very day that they need to take the train? And if they have so little time, why are they taking a car? Wouldn’t it be quicker to floo or to apparate?

But he doesn’t complain, getting inside the car and waiting for time to pass. It will not be very long now until they arrive at the train and Harry can conveniently lose Ron and Hermione in the masses. He counts down the seconds.

In the car, he looks at the letter, trying to decide between opening it now or in the train. Hermione, the next one to enter, decides for him as she goes on to bother Harry about it. “Oh, a letter! Did that owl bring it? Who’s it from? Ah, is it the same person that wrote that letter during dinner that one time? And Harry, really, you should have Professor Dumbledore read it! And what you said to him! How could you?”

It continues like that even after the others sit down and the car starts its ride. Ginny wants to know if the letter is from a lover, trying to mask her jealousy with remarkably false cheer. Ron is envious that Harry got a letter while he got none. Molly Weasley asks what it is about. Harry very deliberately puts it into his pocket and stares out of the window, contemplating the traffic and last few weeks, still somewhat shocked about Walburga’s friendship, trying very hard not to think about the beginning of summer, and considering the letter.

Harry is only glad that Hedwig brought it to him personally and not into the house. Otherwise, the letter would probably have been read multiple times before Harry even knew that it arrived.

The car arrives at Diagon Alley sooner than Harry expected, even if it felt like an eternity. He is sceptical that a family as chaotic as the Weasleys will manage to buy all the things they need for school in a time slot of two hours. As Harry notices the amount of casual shoppers and the absent-mindedness of the Weasleys, more focused on getting what they need than on keeping Harry with them, he crafts an escape plan. He mutters something about getting some money from the bank to Molly Weasley, who distractedly tells him to go. Before she notices that it wasn’t one of her sons who spoke to her, but Harry, he’s disappeared.

It’s unfortunate that he has a tail, then. Ginny Weasley, the young woman with greed in her heart and lust in her eyes, stalks after him, but is so obvious about it that Harry notices immediately. Having no choice but to really go to the bank, he enters Gringotts. While waiting for a teller, his mind swirls through excuses he could tell the goblins for his visit. They know he won’t need money, having his self-refilling pouch.

While thinking, his eyes catch on a shiny ring with a gaudy jewel on it.

Right. Heir Ring.

“What can Gringotts do for you?”, the teller says, every word dripping with distaste.

“I’d like to enquire about an Heir Ring. I recently discovered that I ought to have one, but never received it.” Harry tries to smile politely. He hopes it doesn’t look at forced and false as it feels.

“Name?”, the goblin grunts.

Harry leans forwards a bit and whispers it so that no-one else can overhear.

“Potter, ha? We’ve been waiting for you. Why haven’t you answered our letters beforehand?” The goblin gestures Harry to follow him. Confused, he does. Even though goblins only have short legs, they walk quickly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get any letters from you.”

“Pah!”, the goblin snorts, shoving open huge metal doors that Harry would have no chance at moving with his weak human muscles. “Don’t you lie, wizard.”

“I’m not,” Harry protests.

The goblin stops so abruptly Harry almost runs into him. He eyes Harry curiously. “Never got a single one of our letters? Even though we sent so many?”

Harry nods, confused about the goblin suddenly believing him. “I’ve never received any mail. Well, except for the school letters, and two others.”

“Elaborate.” Slowly, the goblin starts walking again.

“After my first year of school, an owl arrived at… at my residence in the Muggle world. It carried a letter from the mother of a boy who fancied himself a friend, even though we never are in meaningful contact. The second letter, I received not an hour ago. It was brought to me by my owl. Additionally, I got the school letters. Oh, and for a few weeks in second year, I was subscribed to the Daily Prophet.”

Harry thinks back on the last letter, and on the gobsmacked expression on Hermione’s face as she ripped his OWL results out of his hand and looked them over, already halfway through a speech about no feeling bad about not getting exceptional grades and berating him for not studying more. She stopped mid-word when she realised that Harry got straight Os. That moment almost made up for the jealous rants of Ron, the eye-batting of Ginny and Hermione’s condescending calculations how Harry could have cheated.

“You’re Harry Potter,” the goblin says slowly. He leads Harry to the chair opposite the mighty desk in a side-chamber, looking more like an armoury than an office.

“Yes,” Harry answers, his voice tilting up questioningly.

“People have been writing you letters since you ‘defeated’ the Dark Lord.”

Harry blinks owlishly. “Have they? I haven’t received a single one.”

“Not surprising. Your Magical Guardian probably put up an Owl Redirection Ward around your Muggle home.”

Harry grinds his teeth at the idea of the Dursley house being his home, but nods his understanding.

The goblin continues, “Your Magical Guardian also should have shared the letters with you and stopped the ward when you started your magical education, or at least adjusted it so that it would let approved letters through. And I assure you”, he levels a severe look down his long nose at Harry, “that Gringotts would have been approved.”

“Seeing as my Magical Guardian,” Harry says, probably a bit too harshly, “hardly deserves the title since he spent more time attempting to manipulate me rather than share information, I think the Owl Redirection Ward never has been lifted or changed.”

Uncharacteristically, the goblin smiles, a terrifying thing that is four parts murder and six parts bloodshed. “Your Magical Guardian is Albus Dumbledore?”

Harry is somehow not surprised that the headmaster’s “fame” has spread so far, and the opinion about him is shared between Dark families and creatures. He nods.

“We can assure you, Heir Potter, that we at Gringotts are absolutely bloody livid at this occurrence, and that we will look into it. You may also be reassured that you will now receive the post from Gringotts, and that we will not hold missed deadlines against you. We will reimburse you for the penalty fees we took from your Vaults when you didn’t show up to several meetings and reviews, and instead take them from your… guardian’s.”

Numbly, Harry thanks the goblin who calls for the Heir Ring to be brought up. It’s a small, almost unnoticeable golden ringlet, designed not to get in the way. It’s inscribed with protection runes and the Potter Family Crest. Harry puts it on its rightful place on his left middle finger and watches as it resizes itself.

“Thank you for your visit to Gringotts, Heir Potter,” the goblin says. “We will handle it from here.”

There’s another of those distressing smiles, and Harry’s escorted outside.

He goes to pick up his school supplies mechanically, barely managing to remember that his trunk and all the things within have been left at the manor where he was kept, his thoughts stuck on what happened in the bank.

Mail redirection. What all did he miss?

 

The train ride passes by uneventfully. Harry manages to shake off the loudly complaining Ron, the more loudly nagging Hermione and the flirtingly blinking Ginny and sits down in his usual compartment. He’s not joined by anyone and passes the time with reading over his schoolbooks, not having got the chance to do so as he only got them one hour ago. If he gets frequent flashbacks to the hard floor of the dungeon, the burning pain in his whole body and the ridiculous sentences in the etiquette books, well, he pretends it doesn’t happen.

It’s nothing worse than the nightmares of I-can-touch-you-now-Crucio-dream-me-killing-torturing-tearing-apart that he suffered through last year and pretends to not have any longer this year.

Everything’s fine. Trick yourself and trick the world. Nothing wrong here, nothing wrong with Harry.

He doesn’t see blood whenever he closes his eyes, and he doesn’t hear screams whenever he lies down, and he doesn’t feel phantom pain whenever he relaxes.

Everything’s fine.

Everything’s perfect.

Now, if only he could also ignore those damn feelings his bloody intelligent-cruel-amazing-murdering soulmate keeps accidently sending him…

It all started not long after Harry was released. He felt angry when he was as happy as he could be parlaying with Walburga, and devilishly pleased when all he wanted to do was curse Ron and Hermione to the moon and not back anymore. It didn’t even take a day with the books from the Black library to find out that now that they’ve seen each other multiple times, the one-sided soul bond does its best to drag the Dark Lord Voldemort and Harry together so that it may be fulfilled.

While mildly inconvenienced, Harry feels a guilty pleasure about keeping informed about his soulmate outside of the dreams. He figured out how to keep his feelings to himself after the Dark Lord Voldemort got suspicious and wary after feeling Harry’s annoyed emotions after a visit from the headmaster when he was happily torturing a few Muggle scums to dirty little molecules which he then proceeded to scatter thoroughly. Feeling guilty for disturbing his soulmate, Harry pulled every sentiment into himself. That the Dark Lord Voldemort hasn’t figured out their connection and stopped it from his end is just a side-effect.

Still, if he could start feeling similar sentiments at the same time Harry feels them, it would be much appreciated.

But feeling his soulmate trumps every inconvenience, no matter what Harry’s brain may protest. Logic doesn’t always beat the heart.

 

Before arriving in Hogwarts proper, Harry remembers the letter that his dear Hedwig brought him. He fingers it for a moment, considering, but decides to open it. The strong handwriting is vaguely familiar, and it nags at Harry for a moment before he checks the signatures at the bottom. Of course it would be them! Why didn’t he think of them from the start?

It’s from the professors Brand, telling him that their work has paid off and that they found a common ground between Arithmancy and Ancient Runes. They published their work – adding the journal with the right page marked – and named it. The study is ground-breaking, highly regarded by professionals and facilitates a great amount of work.

Tears shoot into Harry’s eyes as he reads “The Brand-Potter Runes-Arithmancy-Symbiosis”.

 

This year starts unlike the others. It’s not painful or harmful, instead, it’s just… weird.

Firstly, Ron and Hermione seem to finally have got it as they don’t approach him at all. Of course, they have to ruin the illusion by grandstanding amongst their Gryffindor friends and boasting of their status as members of the Golden Trio, but Harry can ignore them easily enough. The only ones who believe them seem to be the ignorant first years; everyone else has seen enough of their interactions to know that if Harry is friends with Ron and Hermione, they don’t want to know what his enemies are like.

The pupils are watching Harry with anticipation.

Malfoy is sullen and withdrawn. He doesn’t even repeat the trick he started last Opening Feast and repeated periodically throughout the year: sitting next to Harry and dropping food and drinks on him or his plate. Instead, he almost slumps in his seat, leaning heavily on his arms, moving his food around his plate instead of eating it.

Harry can feel expecting eyes on him.

Professor Umbridge – well, this year won’t be as pleasant for her as the last one. At least, now, she’ll be close to her beloved ex-Minister Fudge who sits in a cell across from her. Harry makes a mental note to find out who the next Minister is.

There are stares burning into him.

After a quick look around if anyone is watching, Neville shyly waves at Harry from his place at the end of the Gryffindor table. Harry smiles and nods back, the proper pureblood motion he knows Neville will recognise – he’s complained about his etiquette lessons often enough – and get a kick out of. Content when Neville bursts into seemingly inexplainable laughter, earning him strange looks from the surrounding pupils, Harry looks back to his plate.

The students, instead of laughing-gossiping-pointing-hating, stare at him in deep admiration, sure anticipation and fearful hope. Harry would bet his everything that they all think that he’ll beat the Dark Lord Voldemort for them, ignoring the dozen more able and more experienced witches and wizards in the Great Hall alone. Only last year, they all wished death upon him, or at least hoped he would be locked away for the part he apparently played in Cedric Diggory’s disappearance. This year, they seemingly forgot all about it, hoping he’ll fight for them as fiercely as if they were his soulmate. Except not because his soulmate wants to kill him, and they want him to kill his soulmate. Not that anyone knows- Harry shakes off this train of thought and instead concentrates on Professor Snape.

The man scans the masses of pupils before him with hawk eyes, keeping them from doing mischief by looking at them only. Instead of sending hateful glances at Harry, he seems almost… apologetic? Hopefully, he’s not getting ill.

The headmaster, however, is as irritating as ever. He holds a long and beautiful speech about banding together in these dark – or Dark? – times and resisting the Dark together and holding together and- Harry may have forgotten the exact content in his horror at seeing the eager enthusiasm and brainless loyalty in the faces of his schoolmates because of those manipulating words. Harry’s relieved that at least his House mates couldn’t care less and bestow only the slightest amount of visible disgust at the headmaster.

 

Obviously, Harry’s good luck doesn’t last long.

At the meeting in the Common Room, the Slytherin King singles out Harry again, just like last year. He goes on and on about “not having manners” and “filthy half-bloods” and “spoiling our Lord’s return”. Harry just stares blankly at the wall and lets his words pass by unnoticed, instead reviewing which spells and potions he’ll be able to put on the bracelet now. Some are still out of question; he’ll need his full magic power and majority, both of which he’ll only receive at his seventeenth birthday. But he’s a lot more powerful now than he was back in first year, and his spell range reflects that. Maybe he’ll even try that one Dark Shield Charm a-

“Potter! Are you even paying attention?”

Harry blearily blinks back to the Common Room and the sneering face five centimetres away from his. Having got used to such proximity in his training to be less afraid, he doesn’t flinch. He noticed that he only has to think back to that I-can-touch-you-now-pain-Pain-PAIN night, or that hope-answered-threat-wasted-potential-Avada-Kedavra afternoon to endure what he thought impossible only a few years ago, things like people standing close, looming over him or even touching him.

So now, with the menacing Slytherin King standing in front of him, Harry isn’t even fazed.

Or he wasn’t until the Slytherin King decides that enough is enough and Harry’ impertinence needs to be culled. He decides to do the worst possible thing.

He goes after Harry’s words.

“What’s this?”, he says, grabbing Harry’s left wrist and raising it into the air. “What’re you doing with that fancy bracelet, Potter? Can you even afford it? Who did you steal it from?”

Harry refuses to be goaded, only responding by raising a single eyebrow, silently asking the Slytherin King, the one who should know everything about Slytherin, how he could have missed that Harry wore this bracelet for years and years, not even attempting to hide it.

Seeing that this train of thought leads to ridicule for only the Slytherin King, he switches tactics, “What have you got to hide, Potter? Ha?”

A second eyebrow follows the first. Really, as if Harry would go through all this trouble to keep something secret only to reveal it now, in front of all of Slytherin.

Once again, the Slytherin King changes the topic slightly. “It can only be a soul mark. Or maybe you want to hide that you don’t have one?” Has Harry mentioned how ridiculous he finds the whole practice of bullying someone for not having a soul mark if at least half the population doesn’t have one, at least for a few years? “Show us,” the Slytherin King demands. “As Slytherin King, I demand that you show us your soul mark.”

With that, the Slytherin King has broken almost all unwritten rules that exist in Slytherin. It is expected of Slytherins to have secrets, and it is expected that others try their best to subtly find out these secrets and just as subtly blackmail with the gathered secrets while expecting to be blackmailed in return. They call this the “Politics Game”, a name as nonsensical as the game itself. Harry himself is very aware of many of those secrets thought best kept. Sometimes, it pays off being disregarded and easily ignored.

The “Politics Game” is expected and played with gusto, bringing honour or shame on the participants. Revealing a damaging secret that could hurt its keeper is seen as social murder-suicide, killing both one’s own and one’s opponent’s standing. Also, while the discovering and hiding of secrets is encouraged, it is, however, frowned upon to use one’s influence to force someone to reveal their secret – a social suicide equal to publicly uncovering the secret that the last Slytherin Queen was a half-blood when she still was in school.

Unfortunately, exceptions are made for the truly powerful, just like in real life. Therefore, the Slytherin King doesn’t have to fear. Much. He’ll have to deal with the distrust aimed at him by all other Slytherins who know he knows one of their damaging secrets, or now fear that he would force them to reveal theirs. Like a real politician, he’ll have to weasel his way out of that uncomfortable position he just manoeuvred himself into.

But all of that doesn’t help Harry.

Defending himself seems impossible. Maybe, if he had more time, he could think of a strategy. But even now, after a few seconds, he can feel the anticipating gazes of the Slytherins convene on him.

Attack is the best defence, anyway, and Harry is tired of cowering.

“I refuse.”

His bold statement, voiced with confidence, is met with bemusement. The Slytherin King angrily repeats his demand. And again. And again. Then, he tries to take off the now renewed first layer of wards and fails spectacularly. He, coloured an aggressive orange and bald, curses up a storm and threatens Harry to remove the bracelet from his body, or else!

Harry cants his head to one side, observing him with an amused half-smile on his lips. “Do you know who also has this kind of unhealthy interest in my soul mark?” He deliberately pauses. Just when the Slytherin King opens his mouth to answer, Harry pulls this dirty trick he hates when done to him to establish his dominance in the conversation as he continues, cutting the Slytherin King off before he can get a syllable out, “Just last year, in the hospital wing, an attempt to do the very same thing you tried to do right now was made.” A short break, just to let the anticipation build, the minds thinking back and arriving at- Harry sees, from the corners of his eyes, horrified understanding bloom in their faces. “By Professor Dumbledore.” The Slytherins break out in gossip, but Harry only has eyes for the Slytherin King, ignoring them all. “Should I call you headmaster instead of King, Jackley?”

Shaking off the hand loosely holding his wrist, Harry moves to the dorm, point made, profound silence following him.

 

That night, Harry dreams.

He is standing in his throne room, observing his servants as they bow to him, kneeling before someone they by all means should detest. But Slytherin’s blood tops the Muggle scum that dirties his veins. His eyes glide over the proud purebloods, brought to their knees, not even daring to look at him directly unless he demands it. His numbers have shrunk a bit after their culling after Potter’s escape and, more so, after that fiasco that was that night at the Ministry, but no matter. He broke into Azkaban once; it’s laughable that the simple-minded fools of the Ministry think he won’t be able to do so again. But first, he’ll leave them there, let them suffer for their failure to please their Lord, a fitting punishment and enticement to do better.

Lucius, however… He let the Potter brat pass by him, making the whole debacle possible. First that, but he also was caught, questioned, almost gave up all of his Lord’s secrets. Not that Lucius had a lot; he has shown that he cannot be trusted in the way he handled his precious diary. But while Lucius undoubtedly suffers in Azkaban, wouldn’t he have to endure much more anguish were he out, fallen into disgrace, watching his son struggle helplessly?

He almost smiles when he thinks back on that day, the hope in young Draco’s eyes as he called to him, the heartbreak and agony when he revealed his mission… But still determined, oh, so pleased at helping with his cause! As if he needed the help of a little boy to enter Hogwarts, as open and unguarded as it is now! As if he was not a student once upon a time, discovering secret paths out and in!

Seeing young Draco struggle, fighting hopeless and helpless tears at the imminence of failure, wanting but forbidden from asking for help, is most delicious.

Yes, he will allow Lucius to partake in his son’s desperation.

For now, it’s back to business. Pleasure can come later. But isn’t it pleasure combined with business what he’s doing?

He raises his wand, drawing the attention of his subservient servants.

“Follow me.”

And let the pleasure begin.

 

Many hours later, Harry awakes and idly wonders if it makes him as monstrous as the Dark Lord Voldemort that he cared little for the Muggle village that was burned-decimated-screams-flames-curses-injuries-laughter-joy as long as his soulmate had fun and felt real happiness.

Feeling a flicker of contentment and bliss through the bond, Harry decides he doesn’t care.

 

Professor Snape has, this year, managed to get his much-coveted position as Defence professor. Harry notes with great relief that the aggressively pink walls of last year have been swapped with a nice beige. He could do without the pictures showing various torture methods and magical beasts ripping incautious travellers to pieces, but the scenes are not unfamiliar. He’s dreamed of much worse.

He appears to be the only one.

The Gryffindor students throw cautious glances at the photographs, then blanch and look away, some with a green tinge to their cheeks. Neville especially is stuck on the winding figure under the Cruciatus Curse, horrified. Harry winces when he remembers what Neville told him about his parents and notes to track him down after the lesson and see if he wants to talk or be distracted from the no doubt disturbing thoughts that have to be coursing through his mind right now. Harry already knows that throughout the lesson, he will throw concerned glances at his friend, and hopes he doesn’t annoy Neville with them.

The Slytherins pretend like the pictures don’t bother them, but they don’t look at the gruesome images and are pale. Even Malfoy, the newest Death Eater, can’t handle them. In fact, he looks ready to keel over. Harry wonders if he thinks about his punishment should he fail the mission given to him and compares it to these scenes. He is a fool if he does so; the Dark Lord Voldemort would hand out much harsher treatment.

Finally, Professor Snape sweeps into the room. He seems to be in a much better mood than usual. Harry guesses it has to do with not seeing his favoured art being butchered by inexperienced children who bring themselves and all present into grave danger repeatedly by not following his instructions to the letter. Now, all he has to handle are misfired spells.

He starts his class by assuring them all that a war is coming, brewing violence and atrocities before swamping them all, trying to drown everyone. He’ll try his best to give them a safety boat, but if they don’t work with him and do their best, they’ll be left not even holding a safety line.

Harry is impressed with the metaphors, even if many Gryffindors scoff and roll their eyes. It makes it even weirder that they are so fond of the headmaster when the way he talks is even more riddled with them.

When it finally comes to the main part of the lesson, the professor drags Malfoy and Hermione to the front to give a mock duel. As he sets the parameters, he throws a warning glance at Malfoy as he reinforces that “Dark magic is illegal, inside and outside this classroom.” Shortly after, the duel starts. Only, it’s not so much a duel as a one-sided attack. Hermione can’t cast quickly enough, her mind visibly flicking through all the spells she knows to land on the one best fitting to the situation. When she’s found it, her opponent’s spell already has landed. It’s a Light spell, causing her front teeth to grow and keep growing. The Sltytherins break out in sniggers, even some Gryffindors turn to hide their smiles.

Ron, in righteous fury, stands up. Professor Snape demands, “Sit down, Weasley. The duel is not over yet, and interference will be heavily punished.”

“What do you mean, not over yet? Look at Mione! She can’t go on!”

Hasting past the professor, glaring at both him and Malfoy, he gently lays an arm on Hermione’s shoulder. She really looks bad, shaking and pale, tears in her eyes. Harry wonders how she’ll survive the war if this little pain already makes her cry.

The professor answers coldly, “I can’t see anything wrong.”

Sobbing once, Hermione storms out, probably to the hospital wing. Ron throws a dirty look at Professor Snape, open-mouthed disbelief and protective anger. A dark eyebrow rises. Ron turns around and runs after Hermione.

“Very well,” the professor says after a long pause. “This is an example of how a duel does not work. Perhaps next time, someone will show us… a little bit of skill.” He sweeps his eyes over the students. The Gryffindors duck their heads, trying to evade his eyes as if that would make it more unlikely for them to be chosen. The Slytherins, of course, don’t show this weakness. Instead, they meet the professor’s eyes head-on, but they also don’t want to be chosen. Going against Malfoy, the Year King, and winning without the power to back their ascension to Year Ruler would be disastrous. Losing, on the other hand, could cost them some of their status. If need be, the unwritten rules of Slytherin dictate that they fight to their best, but somehow lose at the very end without being obvious about it. Doubtlessly, Professor Snape as the Head of House knows about this, and will try to lessen the burden on his Slytherins.

“What about you, Potter?”

Or he gives the job to Harry who does not face this problem. A Gryffindor, probably, would have given the professor back-talk, given the way he treated Hermione, one of their own, right now.

Sighing, Harry stands and makes his way to the front, straightening his tie on the way there, trying to seem bored rather than apprehensive. House Slytherin was a good teacher in that aspect.

Now, it is Neville who throws concerned glances.

“Did you ever get any duelling training, Potter?”, the professor asks.

Harry wryly thinks back to bow-to-me-child. “Besides that one class in second year, no, Professor.”

Except that he kind of did. The library portrait taught him strategies after that afternoon, but he knows nothing of the formalities attached to duelling, only how to stay alive, has no experience in converting all those theories into real-life scenarios, or even casting the spells quickly enough.

Professor Snape’s mouth twitches in disgust. “Don’t mention that. I said duelling training, not ridicule. Do you know the basics?”

Harry remembers sadistic red eyes glimmering in victory. “First, you bow to each other”, he says. He can’t quite keep the bitter amusement out of his tone, but he thinks that no-one will understand the cause, anyway.

Except for Professor Snape, apparently, who pales drastically. He tries to hide it, hurrying on, “Yes, well, that is… Yes. True. Keep an agreed distance, first. Then, you bow to each other. After that, the duel starts. If nothing has been discussed before the duel, you may assume that it’s to the defeat of one dueller, maybe even to death. The customary distance for this-“

The professor goes on for a while. Harry is glad that he once charmed a quill to write down anything he misses during class in case he ever is absent, or absent-minded. It was a short side-project one day, just to see if he could do it. He’s never missed class before, so he never needed it. But now, a fountain of knowledge exits the professor’s mouth, making the students scribble along furiously. Harry and Malfoy still stand in the front, slightly insecure, but not released yet. They can’t do anything but wait patiently.

Finally, the professor winds down. His facial colour has returned to normal and he’s regained his calm.

“Do you understand?” The look he sends Harry and Malfoy makes it clear they are expected to answer instead of it being another of his beloved rhetoric questions.

Malfoy sneers a bit. “Of course I understand. I’ve been trained in duelling since-“

“Yes, thank you, Mister Malfoy”, the professor cuts him off. He glances at Harry.

“What are our parameters?”, he asks.

Professor Snape hums a bit, thinking. “The same as before, I’d say. Ten metres distance between you two, no Dark magic, keep going until I say otherwise or one of you concedes. You start at my command, and not a fraction of a second earlier.” He pauses, considers the two opponents. “No serious wounds,” he adds, looking at Malfoy meaningfully.

Harry nods and slowly steps back, not averting his eyes from Malfoy. Malfoy sneers again and stays where he is, not moving an inch. When Harry is far enough away, he drops into a perfect duelling stance, perfected through countless hours of private tutoring. Harry does his best to copy him, concentrating solely on his opponent. As if from afar comes the quiet voice of his teacher, laying down some protection wards, creating some room for movement and harshly ordering the other students to stay back unless they want to get caught in the crossfire.

Then, a slow countdown. The pause between each number seems to multiply, adding up to an eternity, and pass like the blink of an eye at the same time.

“St-“ Malfoy fires a curse. “-a-“ Harry erects a shield. “-rt!” Malfoy sends a hex flying, visibly shaken by Harry’s fast reaction. Harry’s shield still stands and he knows that it will hold against this tame little Horn Tongue Hex, so he decides to counterattack. A Body Bind makes Malfoy go down. Harry summons his wand, then puts Malfoy in tight ropes.

What, that’s it?

Harry blinks in wonder. He is so used to the Dark Lord Voldemort, the way he moves his body when he duels or, more often, tortures Muggles or his servants, and especially how quickly he moves when he duels with Harry, that he thought everyone moved like that. Thinking back, that was a stupid assumption. Obviously, the Dark Lord Voldemort must be powerful. Otherwise, how would he have become a Dark Lord if there were many people as strong as or even stronger than him out there?

Even Professor Snape seems shocked, judging by the minute of silence before he announces the fight over. “This was a good example of a duel,” he says, then analyses what happened.

The class is quiet, not even breathing too loudly.

After class, Neville asks shakily, apparently having forgotten about the picture of the Cruciatus Curse or at least not thinking about it for now, “And you never had duelling classes?”

Harry shakes his head. “I only read a little theory.”

“Wow,” Neville laughs breathlessly, “you’ve got a lot of talent, then.”

Harry doesn’t think so. He only has quick reflexes, experience in duelling to the death and a great range of spells. Not voicing this out loud, he instead does that little polite smile the library portrait taught him back in first year.

 

The eyes on him have changed, again. Instead of anger and despair, they are filled with desperation and a helpless call for help.

They seemingly think now that he has the power to beat the Dark Lord Voldemort and, connected to that, the duty to do so, being the Boy-Who-Lived.

Harry has never hated his title more than now.

 

Malfoy struts around the corner, chin lifted haughtily, eyes lowered thoughtfully and worried. Harry observes him, not really sure how to feel. On one hand, Malfoy is troubled, and Harry wants to help troubled souls. On the other hand, no-one’s ever helped him, especially not Malfoy, the source of many of his problems. It’s also nice to see Malfoy taken down a notch. And seeing this spoiled, self-entitled, arrogant boy brought down to the level of the lesser mortals is surprisingly pleasing.

Maybe it’s the influence of his soulmate, Harry ponders, as he watches Malfoy pace and turn and fret without offering aid. He’d only have to guide him to the tunnels the Dark Lord Voldemort gloats about knowing. Or he could show him the Come and Go Room the house elves showed him some eternity ago, the room he stayed far away from in fear of otherwise entering and never coming out again from its miraculous interior into the cold harsh reality of his life. Surely, that room would be useful. Harry’s pretty sure that one could even wish for a zone were Apparation is allowed.

But seeing Malfoy struggle, it is… enticing.

Ah. That’s one of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s thoughts when he remembers the day he gave the mission to Draco with cold pleasure.

But does it really matter where the feelings and thoughts came from? All that’s important is that they are here.

So Harry watches Malfoy flounder and looks on with the detached amusement his soulmate is known for and idly wonders if it makes him a bad person.

He decides he doesn’t care at all.

He only is as bad as the world made him.

 

The first potions class is a shock.

Harry expected to see another teacher, seeing as Professor Snape now teaches Defence, but it’s still surprising every time he turns to the front and sees the stout body of Professor Slughorn smiling happily at his students. It’s weird to be liberally praised and awarded with numerous points.

The potions presented astound Harry, as well, are not what he expected. Not only are they difficult to brew and mostly take a long time, they also are very expensive and very, very illegal to use without permission, especially the love potion, the smell of which the professor waves over to them. For a moment, Harry smells the fumes of the potion in the graveyard, smells dark earth, smells brittle pages, smells mossy grass. He immediately casts the Bubblehead Charm.

Does his soulmate really smell like that?

Harry quickly redirects his thoughts.

At least Neville has dropped out of class, which brings relief to both him and his classmates. As much as Harry likes him, he is a disaster with everything even distantly related to Potions. No more exploding cauldrons that even the best preparation cannot save from uneasy nerves and a teacher’s strict glare. No more squeaky inhales of breath whenever Professor Snape looks even remotely in his direction. No more quiet sighs over the many plants “slain” for Potion making.

Really, Neville is not even half as nervous in Defence. The job change seems good for both Professor Snape and his eternal trouble student. But maybe the photograph of the Cruciatus Curse was not the only reason for Neville’s pale face…?

It also is surprising that Ron is in this class as Harry’s heard him bemoan his poor Potions grade all summer long as this means that he won’t be able to still take the class, which means he can’t become an Auror like he wants to be. Harry shudders at the thought of Ron out there trying to keep people save. Even more shocking is that Ron’s potion doesn’t completely fail immediately. After all, there was a reason Professor Snape gave him the terrible grade he got.

Harry thinks of private tutoring, but judging by Hermione’s bafflement, she doesn’t know anything about his sudden improvement, either. It takes Harry only a few slight movements to see that Ron’s doing completely different things from what the instructions say, but they enhance the potion, not ruin it.

No way in hell did Ron come up with that.

Thinking about it logically, there’s only one way this could have happened.

The old book Ron got until his own copy arrives.

Harry’s moment comes when the practical part is over, the potions brewed more or less correctly and put on the professor’s desk for assessment. While Professor Slughorn raises each vial into the light and ohs and ahs the better ones and mmhs the bad ones, the students clean up. They wipe down the tables, wash their knives and cutting boards, bring their cauldrons to the section where all dirty cauldrons are collected for those unfortunate enough to have detention and return their unused ingredients to their proper place. Professor Snape had them put them into a tray in the front, not trusting them not to store them incorrectly, especially in first year and with ingredients that are easily confused with others, but Professor Slughorn knows no such precautions.

Harry wonders which poor second year will get the Safran’s Heart that Goyle undoubtedly put with the eerily similar ginger root, almost the same except for the tiny fact that one plant has the opposite use than the other.

In the resulting chaos of people running here and there, Hermione eagerly waiting in the front for the grade for her potion and Ron half-heartedly dragging the cauldron by hand even though they learned Wingardium Leviosa in their first Charms class for a reason, Harry switches his copy of the Potions book with Ron’s.

After all, it is wasted on a dunderhead such as him.

 

That afternoon, Harry immediately throws himself at the book. It’s old, the cover ripped, but the inside is well-kept, if worn out. There’re corrections all over it, and spells written in the margins, and instructions on how to reach the kitchen. Dark spells, when Harry thinks about it. No wand movements are indicated.

Harry spends some wonderful hours trying to figure out why the original recipes have been changed.

It’s surprisingly fun.

 

In Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, the professors ask Harry to stay back after class. They thank him for his participation in their project and the questions which started it all. They praise his engagement and leave him blushing and stuttering. Excitedly, they keep explaining certain aspects of the Brand-Potter Runes-Arithmancy-Symbiosis that are hard to grasp without long experiences in both fields, expand on the tests they did and the results they got, and eagerly ask for Harry’s opinion.

Because of that, he’s late to all the lessons after those both classes, but it’s worth it.

In the afternoons, they meet up again in a parody of fourth year. Now, the professors don’t plan and scribble while Harry looks on mostly clueless. Instead, they talk as equals, all at the exact same level of knowledge about the fusion between the two crafts. The professors take care to explain to Harry why they barely talked to him last year and excluded him from their experiments.

“We were just so busy”, Professor Brand the First says with a wry smile. “You saw that in class, didn’t you? Your essays were all graded by a few seventh years who want to go on to study Runes or Arithmancy, did you know that? We barely had time to eat and sleep, never mind meeting a friend!”

The other Professor Brand continues, “And the experiments… Well, it just wasn’t safe for anyone to be present during those; otherwise, we’d have asked you to sit by and watch. But we never knew what the outcome would be, and what or whom it would affect. One time, me and my brother over there switched bodies. Took a while to work out what had happened, and even longer to reverse it! We just carried on as normal, though, so probably nobody noticed. Merit of being identical twins, I guess!”

Ah. That was why for a few weeks, Harry had felt that something had changed about his professors. He couldn’t pin down exactly what had been different; he’d settled on thinking that their hairdos had changed slightly.

“But really, if I think how you could have helped us!”, one professor exclaims, the other nodding along enthusiastically.

The rest of the afternoon is spent praising Harry for his involvement. Harry thinks that all this thankfulness is unnecessary and exaggerated. He barely did anything, and what he did, he did poorly. He’s unworthy of such feelings directed to him, anyway. The Dursleys made sure to beat that into him.

But he sits and smiles and is embarrassed and feels warm.

 

A few days later, Harry happens unto Malfoy. He’s muttering to himself in despair, pacing up and down, worrying his lip between his teeth, lost in thought.

He’s pacing in front of the Come and Go Room, actually.

Harry considers it for a moment. If Malfoy kept going like that, the Come and Go Room would show itself and present Malfoy with a solution to his problem.

Harry steps forward.

Immediately, Malfoy resumes his pureblood mask, showing nothing but a lot of haughty superiority and a hint of disdain before he raises his eyes and sees Harry. The disgust in his mien becomes more pronounced; his nose wrinkles.

“Potter.” He says the name with great distaste. “What are you doing here?”

Harry ignores him and walks past him. He lingers behind the corner and, as predicted, Malfoy loses his mask, stares after him uncertainly. Finally, he deems the risk too high and leaves, his gait becoming more self-confident and self-conceited with every step.

Snickering to himself, Harry leaves, as well. He idly wonders if it was a coincidence that Malfoy was here, in front of the Come and Go Room, or if he knows of the room’s existence. Either way, it’ll be a while until Malfoy will dare come here again.

Mission “Screw with Malfoy” accomplished for today.

 

The next potions lesson, Professor Slughorn pulls Harry to the side, clapping a hand on his shoulder friendlily.

“Dear boy”, he says, beaming with pride, “you are nearly unparalleled in your ability to brew potions in this class.” True, since his understanding of the brewing process increased in leaps and bounds since he’d reasoned out the corrections of the Half-Blood Prince, and he’d also done a lot of independent study. And with Malfoy too stressed to think about messing with his potion, class becomes almost laughingly easy. “Therefore, I’ve decided to invite you to a special outing I will hold next Sunday. Back before I retired, such gatherings were quite famous. My pupils,” he smiles, “called the regular attendance being part of the ‘Slug Club’.” He giggles. Shortly after, his face turns regretful as he says, “On the train, I held a luncheon. Only a few people were present. I’d sent a student out to give you an invitation, but little Colin couldn’t find you, apparently. Oh, it was so nice to chat with students again! There was little Ginny Weasley, maybe you know her? She’s a wonderful Seeker. Oh, and there also was-“ Then, he lists everyone who attended this lunch, followed by all sorts of former members. Harry notes that they all are famous or have famous relatives. “Well, even your mother was part of the Slug Club! Even with the disadvantage her blood gave her, she was one of the best brewers I’ve ever seen! Of course, dear Severus is the best I’ve ever taught-“ The professor stops a little after that announcement, as if he was considering the truth of his words. “-but he never participated, sadly.”

Harry is left dizzy with all the names the professor dropped, as well as adding the information about his mother to the small pile of knowledge he has about his parents. The subtext, however, he can read clearly. The professor wants to induce him into his folds, bragging with knowing him and drawing other famous people in because of their acquaintance.

But he’s dizzy enough to agree to come.

Hopefully, this won’t turn into a disaster like the last time he participated in an event hosted by a teacher – the Duelling Club.

But when has anything ever been easy for Harry?

 

When Harry tells Neville about the invitation, Neville laughs and can’t stop laughing. When he finally stops, he regales Harry with stories his grandmother told him from when she was in school and taught by Professor Slughorn. Soon, Harry is laughing as well.

And more convinced than ever that he should have respectfully declined.

 

He stands in a dark room, considering. Last week, he was in that scumblood village, cleansing them from this beautiful earth. This week, he turned his attention to a small family made up of blood traitors. What shall he do next week?

He remembers the little Potter boy, the wary kid with the fast reflexes and the strong shields. Making a pass on him while he’s in Hogwarts is impossible, but when he’s out? He needs Severus to find out if he’ll leave during Yule break, and send someone to the Ministry to find out were that damn brat lives. He’ll no doubt find some manor, decorated in children’s toys and what rot spoiled little children like. He’d only have to look into young Draco’s room to find out.

Yes, this week, he’ll find out everything there is to know about the Potter brat. Unfortunately though it might be that magical blood thus extraordinary must be exterminated, self-preservation is written into every cell of the Heir of Slytherin.

Harry wakes and is torn between fear at his soulmate’s scorn for him and wry amusement that even he believes those lies about him.

 

On Sunday is the “small gathering” Professor Slughorn invited Harry to. Nervously, Harry dresses up as well as he can, taking his clue from the way the professor spoke of high-profile guests – many high-profile guests. He endures Malfoy’s sneering comments about “how poor can you even be, Potter, to only be able to afford that” and the usual “didn’t your parents teach you better – oh, wait, they died to get away from you.” Ignoring him as usual, Harry considers his hair in the mirror. It’s still the unruly mess it was when Aunt Petunia first took her dull scissors to it, untameable and wild. Harry doesn’t even try. It has proved even impossible for magic to get order on his head.

He gives himself another once-over. Polished shoes, pressed trousers, ironed robe with shined silver buttons, immaculate knot on his only tie, the one he wears for school. Deciding it’s as good as it’ll get, Harry checks the inside of his pockets again. In the left rests the familiar weight of his shrunken and lightened trunk, even if he is not quite used to the form of the new one. The right sleeve holds his wand. The left wrist is covered by his bracelet which is hidden by the robe. His right trouser pocket is filled with shrunk writing material. Who knows what he’ll find out and what his quill, spelled to note anything important when Harry’s not paying attention, will record?

As a Slytherin, Harry learned early to never let an opportunity to gather blackmail pass.

Throwing one more nervous look at the mirror, not reassured by the equally anxious green eyes staring back, he leaves.

 

In the end, he is one of the first to arrive. Professor Slughorn notes this with some delighted exclamations. “May I say, Harry, your robes show a good measure of House pride! No, no, don’t get me wrong, I am quite in favour of that!” He makes a show of looking around and opening the robe, barely closed over his proud paunch. He turns the garment inside out. It’s lined with green velvet on the inside. Winking at Harry, the professor adds, “A Slytherin never quite loses his scales, does he? Oh, excuse me, Harry, that over there is Mister Bagman, an acclaimed guest! I must greet him immediately!”

He scurries away and leaves Harry stranded in a sea of unfamiliar people. Harry traces his bracelet for comfort and braces himself. Nobody’s looking at him. It’s okay.

Swallowing heavily, he sequesters himself into a corner, quietly observing the people. They all wear precious stones and vivant colours, chatting with smiles on their lips and deceit in their eyes, dancing and talking the way other people fight wars. Only a few people are students; Harry knows most of them by name as they are notorious for some talent or a relative. He notes that some students with renowned family members don’t show up, those with little to no manners.

An hour in, Professor Slughorn appears before Harry again, all exuberance and annoying cheerfulness. The many glasses of wine may have as much to do with the wide grin on his face and his red cheeks as the company of so many of his “dear friends”. The next hour, he drags Harry from one person to another, steadily throwing more side-glances at him. There’s a lot of forced smiling and polite conversation. Harry doesn’t want to estimate how often he heard the decorations praised. Honestly, the house elves have done a wonderful job. As befitting of September, the small hall is decorated in yellows, reds and greens. Of course, this is Hogwarts, so some blue is artfully woven into the autumn theme, as well, to represent all Houses. There are tiny little fairies, singing wonderful tunes and giggling red-cheeked, and fairy lights, and real trees and flowers, placed in such a way that they don’t get in the way. Delicate vines are hanging from the ceiling and wrapped around the tables holding the bite-sized morsels of food. The food is praised as often as the decorations. It also is excellent, even if not quite up to the quality it has during the meals in the Great Hall. Not having been starved this summer, Harry whole-heartedly partakes in the hors d’oeuvres, tasting his way through all of them. But as tasty as they are, if he has to listen to someone falsely complimenting the eggs – “Not too hard, not too soft. My wife never manages-“ – one more time, he’ll do something drastic.

Knowing himself, it wouldn’t be something more than stomping away without another word, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Thankfully, Professor Slughorn sees some latecomer and sways away, cheerfully waving left and right, seeming glad to go.

Harry is left behind with some politician or other who tries to convince him to support his stance on some issue or the other without ever even hinting at what exactly his opinion is. Harry pretends to listen.

But then, his bland smile drops off his face.

Is that-? Yes, it is!

Quickly making his excuses, Harry follows that familiar plumb figure.

“Harry, lad! Long ‘ime no see! How’s ye?”

“Silvia! What are you doing here?” He almost doesn’t recognise her. In her formal robes, she looks less like a shopkeeper and more like an esteemed member of the nobility. But he’d never forget that face. In the years since he last saw her, it hasn’t changed even in the slightest. Remembering his manners, he clears his throats and starts over, less enthusiastic. “I mean. How nice to see you here! I have been well. How are you? How is the shop?”

Silvia giggles, patting his cheek fondly. “Ye grew up nicely, lad. Look a ye!” She pinches his cheek, chuckling again. “Ne’er though’ I’d say ‘a. Shop’s a-okay. Me‘s a well. Ye grew so much! Las’ ‘ime, ye barely reached ‘ere!” She points at a length a good deal shorter than Harry was. He ignores it, happy to see his – best friend? Confidante? Helper? – again.

“So much happened, Silvia!”, Harry gushes. His mood sinks as he thinks back on what, exactly, happened, but the company makes up for this bump.

Silvia looks sad. “Yeah, lad. I Saw i’”, she says, wisely and quietly, taking care not to be overheard. “Ye’ve had i’ sad. C’mere.” She pulls him into a tight hug. Surprised, Harry goes with it, and is even more surprised to find that he likes it, clinging back. “Yeah, lad, ye needed ‘a’, didn’ ye? Hug ye old Silvia and feel be’er.” She strokes the skin on his right wrist, the one where the scar from that day last year can still be seen, and adds quietly, “Ye really are brave, jus’ like a ha’ said back a’ a sor’in’.”

“Oh”, Harry breathes. He’s not thought back to the hat in a long time. Not quite true, considering that he showed the memory to his soulmate, but then, he was too soulmate-near-not-murderous-fragile-hope-Dark-Lord-Voldemort-close-wants-to-harm-me-furious emotional to pay attention to the words it spoke. Now, he remembers them again.

See how brave you need to be to conquer your fears every day.

And oh, now, Harry sees. He sees standing up when knocked down, he sees finding ways to persist and resist, he sees plans to grow and be safe. He sees long hours in the library, frightening trips to the little store on the corner to Privet Drive, deep breaths to regain focus and courage. The will to survive, and to live happily.

When he focuses on Silvia again, she smiles at him knowingly.

Harry smiles back – a real smile, because the house elves and the portraits and the ghosts and Neville taught him how to do that.

He wonders if Silvia also Saw that thought. The joyful gleam of her eyes suggests yes.

The rest of the night is spent catching up with each other, which is a bit odd considering Silvia already knows everything important, and Harry knows basically nothing about the shop, owning a business or working, but it’s one of the most scintillating conversations Harry’s ever had.

He goes to bed this night smiling.

The beautiful day only continues when Harry doesn’t dream.

He resolutely ignores that tiny part of him that vehemently disagrees, mourning the sliver of shared-peace-joy-laughter.

 

The next morning, when leaving the Great Hall, Harry is confronted by a red-faced Ron and a teary-eyed Hermione.

Ron screams at him for going to the Slug Club without inviting either Ron or Hermione, ignoring that it wasn’t Harry’s party and he can’t just hand out invitations as he pleases, and that Ron wouldn’t have fit in with his abhorrent manners and inability to avoid a chance to put his foot in his mouth.

Hermione waits patiently until Ron is finished before voicing her own grievances. Apparently, she’s discovered the Brand-Potter Runes-Arithmancy-Symbiosis and is deeply disappointed by the fact that Harry either helped teachers without involving her, or somehow coerced his teachers to give him credit where none is due.

Harry, though tempted to just cast a Silencing Charm and leaving them, lets them scream themselves hoarse. Then, he asks with a level voice, “And why should I care what two total strangers who I’ve told multiple times to stay away from me think?”

The students, of course, have fallen silent on the first hint of a new story to gossip about. Now, they begin their whispering, filling the awkward silence as Ron opens and closes his mouth multiple times, shocked speechless. Finally, Hermione breaks out in tears and storms out. Ron settles for throwing some very nasty glares and two weak curses Harry’s way. Almost absent-mindedly, Harry casts a Shield Charm.

Just when he finally turns to leave –

“Harry, my boy.”

Sighing, Harry turns around.

The headmaster has stood up from his table and looks at Harry with heavy disappointment, his blue eyes still cheerily twinkling deceit-deceit-take-care-take-care-deceit.

“Harry, my boy,” he repeats. This time, Harry doesn’t miss the emphasis on the last word. Is this proof that the headmaster knows of his treatment at the Dursley house, or is the old man simply more observant and willing to exploit that knowledge than he thought? “I know that you insist on not getting along with young Hermione and her dear Ron, but must you really make such a scene during breakfast? I dare say a detention would be most appropriate. I know!” He pretends to have just thought of a most wonderful idea, lightening up. “Once you, Ron and Hermione spend a few hours together, you’ll surely be able to bury whatever hatchet you have with them. So, all three of you will spend Thursday evening with… let’s say Professor Snape, what do you think?”

Harry doesn’t think of anything but the small beetle he saw flying around earlier, and tomorrow’s newspaper article, and the whispering masses separating the headmaster on his dais and Harry in front of the door, posed to leave.

Not wanting to give another reason for the headmaster to exploit, he mumbles something that could be taken as acceptance, nods and leaves.

He’s not even taken one step when that deceptive old voice calls out once more, “Oh, and Harry?” Harry pauses, not turning around this time. “Fifty points off Slytherin for having the professors Brand put your name up alongside with theirs.” A weary sigh. “Really, Harry, you should know better.”

Harry strides out of the doors without turning back.

He still hears the protests break out, the loud, “Albus! That is going too far! Mister Potter indeed assisted us!” by one of the Brand professors, the beginnings of the rumour mill getting to work, Professor Snape, in his quiet cold tune that’s more deafening than the loudest noise, rewarding him seventy points for helping out his professors.

He still thinks of a tiny little nosy beetle, and of tomorrow’s paper.

 

Harry’s right.

The paper the next morning is excellent, the headmaster’s confused and pale face even more so.

An article goes into detail about the accusations levelled against Harry by his supposed “best friends”, as Hermione and Ron have been presented to the public. Clearly a lot of research has been put into it, and it goes on for many pages, detailing each and every time Harry either told Ron and Hermione to stay away, or they were rude and aggressive towards him. Then, an interview is printed. Both Professors Brand tell the truth of what happened in third year, that Harry was the inspiration for the research and helped them out as best as he could for long hours almost every day, and that the only thing he didn’t help with were the actual experiments as they had the possibility of causing a lot of chaos and damage. They even showed an essay Harry wrote for their project, well-researched and many times longer than a school paper would be, and highlighted the passages they took word-for-word for the paper the professors wrote for the magical community, having more experience with such things. The next article recounts the reaction of the headmaster and the resulting protests of both teachers and students. It reminds the readers of the Letter Incident last year, and the Blood Quill Incident, and the Troll Incident, and the Cerberus Incident, and- It goes on for a while, longer than both other articles together. It even has a few sentences on the headmaster breaking one of Harry’s wards on the bracelet he wears following the “assault described in ‘The Golden Trio Actually the Bullying Duo?’”, worsening his condition and running around cursed as a consequence for a few weeks.

Whispers break out, students staring at the discoloured and bald Slytherin King, gossiping and spreading rumours. Harry leans back and enjoys the rage in the twinkly eyes of the headmaster, shining through no matter how much he tries to hide it and smile kindly. He excuses himself soon after to his office.

And if a beetle happens to land on Deputy Headmistress McGonagall’s robes again as she storms up out of the Great Hall to follow the headmaster, well, Harry supposes those vicious little beasts are everywhere now. It is autumn, after all.

 

“Potter!”

Harry is greeted with this irate shout the moment he steps into the Common Room. Baffled, he looks up and – meets the eyes of an enraged Slytherin King.

What follows is a tirade about “representing House Slytherin” and “damaging our representation” and many, many more things, a rant which is almost made comical by the dark orange cheeks caused by the King’s indignation and Harry’s curse.

Harry, familiar with this scene from his years of dealing with Hermione’s nagging and Ron’s jealous complaining, lets the words wash over him. The surrounding Slytherins, very aware of the exact expression he wears when being talked at by Ron and Hermione, recognise it immediately and draw comparisons and conclusions.

The Slytherin King doesn’t.

He also doesn’t see the calculating gazes on him, re-evaluating if he is worthy of his position.

Harry sees and smiles slightly, further infuriating the Slytherin King.

He thinks, standing and smiling and not listening to the waterfall of words around him, that it won’t take long until a new person takes the place of Slytherin Ruler.

 

The detention is… unexpected.

Firstly, Ron and Hermione apologise. Hermione is sorry for her “pre-conceived perceptions and their clouding of reality, I’ll do better, I promise!” Ron promises to be a better friend. Hermione stares at him in anger.

Maybe this time, she’s learned something? She was very concerned about the newspaper article, as far as Harry knows, and became deathly pale when she read it, exclaiming how “this isn’t how I thought – what I wanted – Oh God!” She even cut classes that day.

Is it possible that seeing her deeds written down and judged by a more or less objective outsider is doing her well?

It seems to be, because instead of nagging Harry for not having proper manners and accepting their apologies, she lays into Ron for not apologising properly and not recognising his faults.

“I’m sorry,” she says, tearful eyes seeking out Harry’s. “I’m so sorry for everything.”

Ron starts going on about how Hermione doesn’t have anything to apologise for, everyone can make a mistake, but her angry look makes him back down quickly. He sulks by the side as Hermione stares at Harry with a forlorn expression, unsure if she should say anything more.

Thankfully, Professor Snape chooses this moment to usher them into the Potions classroom, complaining about having to spend his evening with “dunderheads and an innocent brat.”

“What?”, Ron exclaims. “Why are you here?”

Professor Snape throws a positively murderous look at Ron. “Explain to me, Mister Weasley, why you are so surprised to have detention with a teacher supervising you?”

“But- but Slug- Professor Slughorn teaches detention now,” Ron stutters.

If at all possible, the professor looks eve more enraged. “Some… people have… special privileges, Mister Weasely, that us normal people cannot compare to. If that is all, move inside. Or would you like to spend another twenty minutes discussing nonsense?”

Ron opens his mouth, a nasty red on his cheeks. Fortunately, Hermione hits him in the side with her elbow and hisses at him to be quiet.

Harry shakes his head at them and steps around them to follow Professor Snape into the room, wondering why the headmaster wanted Professor Slughorn in the school so badly.

The detention itself is not so bad. Professor Snape has them gut some fish and get the eyes out of a few salamanders as well as collect the blood of bats. The gruesome tasks take up most of their concentration. Harry, familiar to cutting into fish from his long years as cook of the Dursley household, can spare a few glances around. Ron struggles with the salamanders, almost crushing the eyes in his clumsiness. Hermione is not as inept, but more squeamish with her charge. Professor Snape is brewing something. Fascinated, Harry finished as quickly as he can and watches his graceful movements as he prepares the ingredients, the perfect timing as he adds them and the constant flurry of Monitoring Charms on fire, stirring and cauldron content.

Ron starts to grumble about his work, complaining that it’s much more difficult than Harry’s and that the “git” should do it himself if he wants those damned eyes so much. Hermione admonishes him once or twice, then goes back to ignoring him when he doesn’t listen to her.

“Potter”, Professor Snape calls out. “Two fish livers, the blood of a bat and one eye of a salamander.”

Harry rushes to comply. Seeing Hermione’s struggle with the bats and that the blood she gets out of one is only worth half a bat’s blood, he afterwards grabs one of her bats and slowly, taking care that she’s watching him, exsanguinates it with the proper charms. After all, it doesn’t have a heartbeat anymore that would push the blood out of the body, and gravity can only do so much. Hermione thanks him, more than just that simple act would warrant.

Maybe she could the underlying thought that Harry approves of the direction she’s moving in, away from ignorant and self-conceited hurting and towards understanding that authorities and Ron aren’t always right?

Not acknowledging her and Ron in any other way, he settles back to watch the professor brew. Who knows, maybe he’ll pick up a trick or two?

 

During the weekend, Harry receives a letter from Gringotts. Through the headmaster’s renewed warnings not to open any letters he doesn’t know the senders of, Harry reads through it. Apparently, the goblins legally can break any wards threatening the integrity of their bank and business, a loose definition that surely has caused more harm than good. But in this case, it works for Harry, so he doesn’t think of it too much. The Head Goblin of Gringotts, Diagon Alley, London, United Kingdom personally assures him that all and any Gringotts mail will now directly go to him. Unfortunately, he continues, the ward was too strong and had been erected for such a long time that in order for him to receive any mail not explicitly excluded by the castor, it had to be broken in its entirety. For a certain fee, of course, Gringotts would provide another ward. The price makes Harry’s eyes almost budge out of his head.

This afternoon, he decides, will be spent learning Re-Directing Wards.

When the headmaster demands to read the letter, the same as the year before, as if he doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Harry innocently asks why and is told that it could be a security risk.

Harry, still acting clueless, pretends to look over the letter again, flashing the Gringotts seal.

“Oh”, he muses aloud, “the mail from the bank is not safe in the Wizarding World? I didn’t know that. But yes, thinking of Professor Binns… He spent all these years teaching us all about the Goblin Wars. There must have been a great amount of them, I’m sure, if he spends so much time on them. So they can’t be trusted. How good to know! Please, check my mail if what you say is true, Headmaster!”

The headmaster blanches when he thinks of the possible consequences of openly admitting to creature hate and doubting Gringotts’ integrity and safety policies.

Harry’s deceptively innocent eyes flash victoriously as the headmaster backs down, taking the little beetle perched on his hat along with him.

 

Of course, it wouldn’t be Harry’s life without something bad happening.

To be more specific: Howlers arrive en masse the next few days.

To be even more specific: All the Howlers ever sent to Harry arrive.

The letters start about a week after the death of Harry’s parents, coming from Dark supporters and tearing into Harry for “killing” the Dark Lord Voldemort. Another wave comes from grieving Light supporters, berating Harry for not doing it earlier. There’s also the odd Howler with a person loudly congratulating him. Slowly, the letters change their tone. For what probably is a gap of a few years, no new Howlers appear. Then, possibly coinciding with Harry’s re-entry into the Wizarding World and his Sorting, they start up anew, now calling him a dirty Snake and accusing him of working with the Dark Lord Voldemort, or insulting him for sullying the “most noble and distinguished House” with his tainted blood by entering it via some form of cheating in order to spy for the headmaster. Following the happenings during his school years, they get worse, wishing him harm and sending him death threats, ridiculing him for insisting on the Dark Lord Voldemort’s return and harassing him for having harmed Cedric Diggory somehow and somewhere. The next series of letters suddenly announces claims of always having believed Harry, and renewed praises of his person. Where the senders first sought to hurt, they now want to trick Harry into defeating the Dark Lord Voldemort again.

Harry’s very glad for the Re-Directing Ward, suddenly. Considering the amount, the Dursleys surely would have killed him if the letters had all come while he was still in their care.

For almost a week, he can’t go anywhere without a red envelope opening up and screaming abuse at him. Having heard much worse from people much closer to him in both vicinity and blood, Harry isn’t bothered at all. The other students, however, are. When hearing especially rabid curses and swears, they blanch and look at Harry pityingly, but Harry can live with that. He’s as used to ignoring looks as he is to overhearing words. With the tone of the Howlers also changes the students’ perception of them, however. Where they first felt sorry for Harry, they are stricken by the end, probably seeing their own attitude reflected: open scorn followed by pretended love, oftentimes by the now-familiar voices of senders of countless letters.

There’s also a positive side effect, naturally. Now, everyone knows that his mail was blocked somehow and only recently opened.

And a newspaper article proudly proclaims thus to the world, also going into detail about the exact content of the letters. It reminds the readers of the wizarding laws concerning Howlers, most notably that the language be kept more or less polite for no-one can know who’s in the vicinity of the recipient when the letter arrives. An Auror seeks an audience with some students shortly after the publishing of the newspaper about the senders of the Howlers Harry received. Curiously, Harry himself is not asked. Apparently, memories of the Howlers were taken and used to identify the senders. Many of them are sentenced to pay a fine, having sworn at a child or threatened with bodily harm or committed any one of a dozen other crimes. Many students now glare at Harry again, as if he is directly responsible for the misconduct of their relatives and their punishment.

A master of it now, Harry ignores them all.

If there are any more letters, Harry doesn’t receive them, finally having worked out how to put up a Re-Directing Ward. He doesn’t know who’s gladder: he himself or the collective student body.

 

The next day, as so many before, Harry randomly passes by the Come and Go Room. As usual, he discovers Malfoy nearby. The stuck-up pureblood resumes his perfect posture and scathing remarks before leaving in a hurry.

Harry counts this occurrence as another highlight of the day, now, along with the afternoons spent with the library portrait, the evening gossip with the portraits and ghosts, the lunch hour of cooking with the house elves, an hour or two a weekend with Neville and the rare dreams he has of his soulmate that he doesn’t wake up from utterly terrified or horrified.

He doesn’t have a lot of those, but treasures every single one.

 

Over the following days and weeks, the normality of the situation is regained. Slytherins sneer at Harry, the other students flock to him as if five minutes of kindness will make him want to protect them all, the professors give a lot of homework and the headmaster’s eyes twinkle at him as if they want to entice him to do something.

Harry ignores them all.

Then, another letter arrives.

The headmaster, by now, has learned not to concern himself with Harry’s mail more than he does with anyone else’s.

It’s another Gringotts letter. They come surprisingly often, Harry has found. After the initial letter to inform him of the breaking of the first Re-Directing Ward, he’s received all the mail he should have got earlier. There’re graphs showing how much money is in his vaults. There’re letters describing what he stands to inherit at his majority. There’re letters informing him of his duties and privileges as Lord Potter. There’re letters telling him to come pick up the Heir Ring, dates long since passed. There’re letters detailing all the artefacts that are in his vaults. There’s an inventory of property deeds. There’s a register which lists all the items belonging to him that are not in one of his vaults.

Checking the last letter carefully, Harry found out that the mysterious Invisibility Cloak was taken from his Family vault by none other than Albus Dumbledore, along with a few books. As the headmaster was listed as Harry’s Magical Guardian, there was nothing to be done at that moment.

But now, with Harry’s new letter, new paths have opened up.

It says, clearly and black on the yellowy parchment, that Gringotts has investigated the transactions taken by the official Magical Guardian upon finding out that his holding that title is illegal. Some inquiries to the Ministry later, this was rectified, the title instead bestowed unto Alastor Moody – the real one –, a retired Auror who, as Harry knows, is firmly on the headmaster’s side.

Immediately, Harry pens a letter, telling Gringotts to recall all the items and monies the imposter who pretended to be his Magical Guardian took from him, but to do so carefully and gradually as to not arouse suspicions.

Then, he stops.

Is that possible? The bloodthirsty goblins surely would not stop once given the order. They’d see it through, if only the prevent status loss of their bank.

So Harry doesn’t send the letter yet.

Harry waits.

 

When Harry walks to the Common Room, he hears a commotion from a bit farther away. Deciding to indulge his curiosity for once, he goes to see what is going on.

The Slytherin King stands over a group of first years Slytherins with his wand out. He has erected a sloppy Silencing Ward that probably was cancelled by one of Harry’s defences. The first years are crying. The Slytherin King is laughing.

Harry is frozen.

Behind him come some other students, talking and laughing and complaining about their homework. The Slytherin King rails back, confused and nervous, and leaves the first-year students with a threat not to tell anyone, or else!

Indecision nags at Harry. Finally, he approaches the group. It’s one boy and three girls, huddled together closely and assuring each other that it’s not so bad, that it doesn’t hurt.

“Are- Are you alright?”, Harry asks unsurely.

The children, so small and fragile, turn around, almost stumbling over their feet. One girl recognises him and sneers. “We don’t need help from you.”

Harry would almost believe her, if he didn’t know that attack is also a form of defence. The boy, who looks very similar to the girl, probably her twin, reaches out to her with shaking hands and stares around her with wary eyes. One girl is trying to help the other up whose ankle is swollen. Harry brings out his wand, doing his best to ignore the stiffening of all the kids in front of him, and casts Healing Charms at them. Their suspicious frowns are almost immediately replaced by relieved expressions.

Before they can thank or curse Harry, he leaves, only cautioning them to take care of themselves.

 

Then, he freaks out.

What if the children didn’t want his help at all? What if they wanted to figure the solution out themselves, the way he did? What if they resent him now? What if they tell a teacher that he attacked them? What if they are frightened of him now? What if-

Myrtle, who he fled to, doesn’t see a problem.

“You helped them, Harry”, she says gently. “They are glad for that, believe me.”

“But how can I help anyone?!”, Harry replies, still more than a bit panicked. No-one ever helped him. How should he know how to give help?

“You helped me already. You took that nasty black book out of my toilet, and you brought Olive to me. We still write each other. She sends her letters to a house elf, and good Betsy reads them to me and writes down and sends my reply. The things she tells me, Harry! She always had some nagging feeling because I was still there, but not her soulmate, but not gone. You helped her, too. And Zoya! She always wanted to meet me! Moaning Myrtle! Can you imagine?” Her eyes are shining, but not from tears. She’s smiling. “I even thought of going to them, but I don’t want to interrupt their lives. Maybe I’ll visit one day. But anyway! You helped me, and Olive, and Zoya. And who knows how many people you helped when you killed that monster down there!” She vaguely points at the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets. “You always helped someone, Harry.”

Harry never really saw that. Is it true? He set out to fight the Basilisk because – he wanted to help the poor monster who he thought was controlled. He killed it because – it wanted to be killed, and to protect the innocent children above. He helped the professors Brand because – they looked so glad when he did, and thanked him for the work he did for them.

Oh.

 

On the way back to the Common Room, the headmaster stops him.

“Harry, my boy!”, he calls jovially.

No-one else is around.

“I thought to offer you lessons this year, so that you are well-prepared to defeat Voldemort.”

Harry flinches. Defeat – kill his soulmate? And lessons, only now? After so many years? After being in so much danger, after nearly being killed so often, after finding his way out of each and every situation – now the headmaster offers lessons?

“No, thank you”, Harry says, turns and walks away.

 

Neville, even if he supports Harry, doesn’t really understand his decision. But that’s okay; he doesn’t have all the information.

Harry hopes it will always stay like this.

 

Of course, that one meeting is not the end of it. The headmaster tries to talk to Harry multiple times more, but he refuses each and every of his “offers”. It happens so often that other students notice and gossip. Harry takes to asking the house elves and portraits to keep an eye out for the headmaster and to tell him when he is close so that he can avoid him.

When that strategy succeeds, come the letters. Once a day, a school owl brings a letter from “Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, First Class Order of Merlin, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot”. It always invites him to a chat to the Headmaster’s Office. Harry ignores them. After a few days, they change to an offer to teach him something to “defeat Voldemort”. Harry sets up his Re-Directing Ward to exclude letters from the headmaster. Shortly after, apparently seeing that his letters don’t arrive anymore, the headmaster sends official school mail which is as impossible to re-direct as Gringotts mail.

But the incessant letters have drawn the attention of the whole populace of Hogwarts and of a tiny little nosy beetle.

Even after the following article, the letters don’t stop.

So, Harry attacks.

He has waited enough.

He sends the letter.

 

The next morning, next to Harry’s daily letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a letter for the headmaster also arrives. It’s from Gringotts, claiming back every Knut and speck of dust the headmaster ever took from any of the vaults that belong to Harry.

The headmaster turns pale, then red in anger.

His eyes don’t twinkle anymore.

 

A few hours later, Harry encounters the group of first years that he saw the Slytherin King pick on. The girl with the twin stands in front of him, stopping him, trying her best to seem fearless. “Teach us the spell”, she demands more than asks. “The spell you healed us with.”

Harry considers them. “It’s a tough spell,” he tells them. “I don’t think you’ll be able to cast it.”

“Teach us!”, she shouts, tears in her eyes.

Harry, now suspicious, watches them closer.

She has a cut on her arm. Her brother steps down awkwardly. The girl whose ankle was swollen last time has trouble breathing. The last girl’s wrist seems to be broken.

Without even thinking about it, Harry heals them.

“Come along”, he says, turning. Hesitating only a little, he leads them to the little room he slept in in first year. He sits them down on the bed and makes them tell him what happened. The story bursts out of them.

 “Our father”, the girl, Arville Pinescrew, sobs, “told us to get a grip and not go complaining about every single thing! Rowan was bleeding from his nose for two hours, and Father told us not to bother him with our triste problems!”

Ethel holds onto Maude, carefully stroking over the previously broken wrist. “Mum told me that’s what I get for going to Slytherin. She said I deserved it.”

Maude clings to Ethel in return, flashing their matching soul marks. “My family doesn’t have the influence to stop him. They don’t want to go against the Slytherin King, or the Jackley Family.”

Rowan adds, “McGonagall told us not to lie to her. Why should a seventh-year attack first years?”

Barely registering his fury, Harry swears to them that he’ll take care of them. He endlessly goes over a simple Shield Charm with them so that they can buy themselves some time, and promises to find a way for them to contact him.

The library portrait helps him with his endeavour, beyond livid about this “corrupt school.”

He says, over and over again, “’Tis not the Hogwarts I loved and lived when my heart still beat.”

They end up with Protean Charms, cast on jewellery.

The first time his new earring burns, Harry is confused, but then remembers the charm and the first years and is out of his chair and on the way to them before he can think about it. It’s only the library he bolts out of, not a classroom, luckily, but he doesn’t think he would have cared, anyway.

He gets to the kids as they help other first years out, each of them sporting some sort of injury. Arville, headstrong as always, demands that he heal them, immediately, but her shaking voice reveals the true state of her feelings. One boy clings to a second-year girl. This is how Harry finds out that this has been going on since last year, only targeting those who don’t have an older soulmate in Slytherin and whose families can’t afford to go against the Jackley Family.

After healing all of the children and also casting the Protean Charm on jewellery they always wear, Harry asks a house elf for a room that is big enough to hold all of them and some snacks. He listens to the children as they cry and tell their stories, then teaches them a Shield Charm, telling them to come to him at any time, for anything.

More than one kid almost starts crying from thankfulness and relief.

 

When he tells Neville, his friend nods in bitter understanding.

“The world is so unfair,” he sighs, and Harry can only agree.

 

The next week, Neville will complain to Harry about Susan Bones, who is kind and just and wants to go to a teacher about this problem, ignoring that Professor McGonagall herself has dismissed the students’ complaints as lies.

Neville’s gaze is far away as he says, “She just doesn’t understand it. She never had to. She’s never lived it.”

Harry puts a consolidating hand on Neville’s shoulder to comfort him, earning a weak smile in return.

No, normal people would never understand people like them. Those who see in black and white simply cannot understand the mere notion of the grey that swamps Harry and Neville.

Poor, ignorant Susan Bones who has never been bullied a day in her life.

Isn’t she just pitiful?

 

Over the past few weeks, Professor Slughorn has become more and more skittish around Harry. Where before, he would take every opportunity to somehow get into Harry’s good graces and praise him, now, he looks and even goes the other way, trying his best to not even get close to Harry.

It’s weird, but Harry is used to weird and bad happening around him, so he doesn’t pay him a lot of attention.

 

Harry, contemplating between a nap and his homework, jumps to attention as his earring starts to burn. Quickly following the pull, he arrives at just the right moment.

An abandoned hallway in the dungeons, leading to nowhere. On one side: Arville and Rowan along with two or three other students. On the other side, caging them in: the Slytherin King. No, Harry decides as he watches him cast a Cutting Hex at the young students, this teenager does not deserve the respect that title bestows. He puts a Shield Charm around the students which forms a protective ring around them, blocking Jackley’s spell.

“What are you doing?”, Harry asks, tone suspiciously airy and light.

Jackley slowly turns around, his tense shoulders relaxing when he discovers only Harry. “Get lost, half-blood,” he sneers. “Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“As long as you keep your wand to yourself,” Harry counters, his voice harder now.

“Pah.” Jackley turns back to the cowering children, his wand going to point at them again.

Harry calmly casts the Disarming Spell and deftly catches the unguarded wand. “Or as long as you keep your wand with me. Good day.”

With all the manners someone who’s only learned proper etiquette four months ago, Harry nods a pureblood farewell and turns to leave. Jackley storms after him, uncannily like Uncle Vernon that day he got drunk. Harry is overtaken by the image for a moment, but then remembers I-can-touch-you-now-pain-Pain-PAIN, closes his eyes to breathe in and out deeply once, opens his eyes and is okay again. Jackley is much closer than expected, preparing to hit Harry.

Compared to Uncle Vernon, he’s terribly slow. Harry could evade him blindfolded.

“Give me back my wand, you filthy half-blood! Those are blood traitors! And House betrayers! Consorting with Hufflepuffs, of all things!”

Tired of the tirade, Harry puts a Feather-Light Charm on the wand and throws it. It flows through the air, and flows, and flows. Thinking quickly, Harry also transfigures some of its wood into wings, watching them flap happily, every movement bringing the wand farther and farther away from its owner.

Jackley screams in horror and hastens after his wand, chasing it out of their view within seconds.

“Are you okay?”, Harry asks the kids.

Arville, always brave, swallows harshly and nods confidently. Rowan, hiding behind her, looks shaken. “W-Why?”, he stutters. “We only met up with our cousins!”

Harry turns his attention to the two girls behind them. “Did he hurt you?”

They glance at each other and the twins, then eye Harry up, gaging if he is worth their trust. Upon Arville and Rowan’s encouraging nods, they reveal the bruised wrists they got from Jackley dragging them around. They hesitatingly confess to Harry that he already did it last year, even once keeping them from going to Potions class because “the dungeons are Slytherin area!” or some such rot. Arville, after hearing that, starts demanding another Protean Charm so that her cousins will be under Harry’s protection.

“That’s so cool!”, one cousin says. “I wish we’d had that last time.”

The other nods empathically. “Maybe Mary wouldn’t have changed schools, then.”

They look at each other, then at Harry. “Can- can you make us more charms?”, they beg. “Just enough for our friends! Please!”

Sighing, Harry agrees. While he’s at it, he also invites them to the now-regular meet-ups where he teaches the firsties the spells they need – to-protect-heal-protect-avoid-never-be-caught-unaware-constant-vigilance-never-where-they-can-catch-you-alone –, and tells them to bring their friends.

 

By the next session, Harry’s students have tripled, he’s had to ward off Jackley thrice more and gained some little tails who feel safer close to him, so now he’s always accompanied by at least two firsties. When they see him in the hallways, they run over to him and, while some cling to him and anxiously stare at the surrounding students, most of them start telling him of their day. They proudly speak of protecting themselves and others from Slytherins – in the case of all non-Slytherins – and all other Houses – in the case of Slytherins. Harry smiles at them gently and listens to them talk. The children almost never want an answer, content to babble at him and get their sorrows off their chests.

Of course, always being surrounded by first and second years has led some vicious people to sprout nasty rumours, and students whisper them to each other. The children get upset by them and want to get into arguments. The next session, Harry teaches them to ignore some things and to pick their battles. He tells them how to get subtle revenge or, if impossible for them, to hire the Weasley twins. He’s heard that they want to open a joke shop when they leave school, but don’t have the money, so they take jobs now. It’s their NEWT year, but the troublemakers always claim that shop keepers only need OWLs and if not for their mother, they would have left school already, and couldn’t care less for their studies.

Two weeks later, walking through hallways filled with joke products and discoloured students, Harry reconsiders his idea. But seeing the content faces of his pupils, well… It’s not so bad.

 

After Potions class, Harry remains behind because he has a question. In the corrected Potions book he got from Ron, there are some adjustments he doesn’t understand, so he’s decided to ask Professor Slughorn about them. But confessing to having a book like that – who knows if it could get him into trouble? Detention for cheating? Punishment for writing into a loaned book? Swapping it from Ron? Maybe he’d get held back, or be forced to repeat the year, or be expelled, or-

Deep breath. Nothing will happen. It’s not illegal to swap books. Right?

Harry starts getting nervous again. Best not to reveal the existence of that book. No chance of punishment.

So, when Professor Slughorn asks him why he’s staying behind, he says, “I was in the library the other night. In the restricted section,” he adds, thinking up a lie about why nobody else – like the ever-smart and having-read-all Hermione – has asked this question. “And I read something rather odd about a bit of ancient potions.”

The Professor has blanched terribly. “What – Potter – why – why do you ask me that?”

“Professor Snape has never liked me very much. Which is why I came to you.

“And – and what is your question about?” The professor seems much more stable now, but is still pale. Harry’s worried about his health.

“Well… It’s called, as I understand it, Hor-”

(the underlined parts are taken word-for-word from the movie Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince)

The professor sits down heavily in his chair, burying his face in his hands. “For Merlin’s sake, Potter! Do you have to resemble him in this, too?”

 “Someone else asked you about the Hormonal Potion?”

“What?”

The professor looks up, horror and despair still in his eyes, but in the process of being replaced by confusion.

“The Hormonal Potion. I wanted to inquire if it’s true that instead of cutting each mint leaf into half, it would instead be better to have a total of seven parts.”

To Harry’s bafflement, the professor pales again.

“Just like him, just like him…!”, he stutters. He shouts at Harry, “You are just like him!”

“Like who, Professor? What do you mean?”

The professor’s gaze sinks into his lap and far away. “I thought of it the night of the Slug Club gathering. It was like looking into the past.” He swallows, searches for words. Finally, the flood breaks and the words tumble out of his mouth, almost uncontrollable, barely slow enough to be understood. “He always wore a black robe, quality not too high, school tie, but what can you expect from one of his background? Wore it the best he could, anyway. Shoes polished – that, he knew well how to do – and pressed trousers, absolutely unremarkable. A black robe, absolutely not special. Sewed some silver buttons on it to distract from the quality. His school tie always had some sort of perfect, rare knot. Thought I’d seen into the past, my boy, when I saw you walk in like that, all self-confident. But, I thought to myself, Horace, you old dog, your eyes trick you. You put yourself into a corner. He was always right in the middle of it, talking with everyone. Oh, what he talked them into!” After this exclamation filled with horror, the professor falls silent for a moment, shaking like a leaf, before he gathers himself enough to go on. Now, his voice is quiet, a stark contrast from the prior emotional and loud speech. “I pulled you into the masses, and you schmoozed and charmed them just like he did.” Louder again. “You even have the same smile!” Another brief silence. “And now, the exact same questions, as if to mock me-! Oh Merlin, what have I done? What have I done?”

Another long silence follows.

Harry is unsure what to say, if to say anything at all. The professor is lost to his thoughts and the past, staring at a full bottle of Firewhiskey.

After an eternity, the professor breaks the uncomfortable silence. He looks up to Harry and says, at last, “You are exactly like Tom Riddle.”

And oh.

Harry knows that name, knows who Tom Riddle is now.

The professor turns away, taking tired steps to his chambers, the bottle of alcohol floating behind him, as Harry processes his final words and blanches.

 

So, Harry is like the Dark Lord Voldemort, he muses in the privacy the window sill offers, pleased that his soulmate and him are a good match, and disgusted that he is so similar to a mass murderer and terrorist, and enamoured that he now knows what his soulmate was like as a child, and terrified that he will change into another Dark Lord Voldemort.

Or no, he reconsiders.

He is like Tom Riddle, who must have been very dissimilar from the Dark Lord Voldemort.

How was he, that boy that grew into a monster? Was he cruelty hidden beneath a kind smile? Was he sharp-toothed pleasure hidden behind grieving eyes? Was he bloodthirsty laughs behind crazed madness? Was he born a monster, or was he made one? Did he make himself into a monster, or was he made into one by the world?

Harry has read the statistics; he’s torn through everything he could find about that topic.

Abused children often grow up to abuse, themselves. They don’t know that soft strokes and kind words can mean love. They grew up with insults and fists. So, to show their affection, they use what they were taught to use. Or maybe they can’t feel affection?

Harry muses that, if he wasn’t the Dark Lord Voldemort’s soulmate himself, he probably also would have believed the rumour, accepted as truth, that says that the Dark Lord Voldemort can’t love, can’t like, can only hate and be disgusted. The Dark Lord Voldemort doesn’t have a soulmate because he doesn’t deserve one, isn’t capable of feeling for one.

But he is the Dark Lord Voldemort’s soulmate, so he knows that the Dark Lord Voldemort has the capabilities of loving him.

But can a capability ever be enough?

 

Harry listens to Malfoy as he talks to himself, thinking out loud, believing himself to be alone. But Harry is there, hidden in the background, ignored as he always is when he isn’t sneered at and watched closely and whispered about behind hands hiding the movements of the mouth as if that would make the sound disappear.

With a thoughtful hum, he leans back against the wall. So, Malfoy has discovered the Room of Lost Things, has he? And he’s found a broken Vanishing Cabinet, of which he owns the undamaged half? And he despairs because it proves resistant to almost all spells he sends at it?

At night, armed with the knowledge of a portrait and a library, Harry sneaks to the Seventh Floor and searches for the Cabinet. It doesn’t take him long to find it, with its sheer size. Some boards are crushed and splintered, one leg lost to time, but he’s seen – and lived with – much worse. Looking it over carefully, he snorts. Malfoy has problems with such light damage? And there’s almost no spells to protect it from being charmed, jinxed, hexed or, most relevant, repaired!

For a moment, Harry remembers the pale, frightened face that muttered about punishment and possible failure and his difficulties and his fears.

Then, he remembers burning-bed-sneering-words-insults-lake-water-Why-don’t-you-just-do-us-all-a-favour-and-kill-yourself?-Professor-Snape-laughter-taunts-hatred-vile-words and thinks his revenge is justified.

He points his wand at the Vanishing Cabinet and makes Malfoy’s job a teeny, tiny bit more impossible.

 

When he gets back to the more frequented hallways, Harry’s pounced at by Arville and Rowan, both proudly telling him about their latest usage of the Shield Charm he taught them.

“And then, the jinx flew right back at that third year!”, Arville says, enthusiastically waving her hands around, Rowan nodding next to her so hard Harry’s worried for his neck. He adds, “It was awesome!”

As most often is the case, Arville then remembers her etiquette lessons and pureblood mask, and she says haughtily, “Not that we needed your help, anyway! We would have got away without you, anyway!” Then, meekly, “Somehow.”

Harry, now more familiar with Arville, isn’t bothered by such statements anymore. He smiles at her and says, “I’m glad. It’s always good to be resourceful and learn how to help yourself.”

Arville fluffs herself up. “Yes, exactly! Now come, we’ll walk you to our class.”

Harry huffs in amusement, but allows Rowan to hold his hand as Arville leads the way to their flying class. There, he’s surrounded by first years who also want to chat with him, complaining how unfair it is that he came with Arville and even held Rowan’s hand.

Bemused, he shakes his head and lets the kids fuss over him, only leaving when he absolutely has to without being late.

 

“Hello, Harry Potter, Lone King of Slytherin.” Harry blinks up at the blond girl who stands in front of him, butterbeer mats dangling around her neck, radishes down her ears. It really seems like he’s finally earned himself a title when he spoke up against the Slytherin King on behalf of the first years, seeing as they now all flock around him like little lost sheep. It’s likely that nobody really knows the reason, only noticed that he’s not carefully excluded by all of Slytherin anymore, but he’s earned himself a bit of notoriety. How this girl knows of it, he doesn’t know. At second glance, he recognises her. It’s Luna Lovegood, the girl with the Quibbler he met on the train last year.

“Hello, Miss Lovegood”, he greets back, nodding in pureblood greeting.

The girl giggles and falls into a curtsey. “Oh, you are a delight.”

That sentence is frightfully similar to one of Walburga’s favourite sayings, down to the emphasis and pronunciation.

“Thank you,” Harry replies, a bit unsurely.

“Don’t be afraid when you are forced to go, Harry”, she says, the gazed eyes on him suddenly clearing before clouding again. “The Bimblefiggs are swarming you now, aren’t they? But you know how to take care of them, Lone King of Slytherin.”

With these cryptic words, she turns and dances away.

Harry blinks after her in confusion.

 

In the Common Room, another meeting is held. Attendance is mandatory. All of the Year Rulers and oldest Slytherins sit on the couches, the younger years or lower ranked members sitting on the floor. Every eye is on the Slytherin King, wondering what this meeting is about. Normally, they are only held at the beginning of each semester. The first one is to introduce the new Slytherin Ruler while problems or problem areas are addressed in the second. The only time Harry remembers that a third meeting was held was in second year, where the Slytherin King told them to not go anywhere alone. Normally, if it’s not a grave emergency, an additional meeting is only held when the Slytherin Ruler changes throughout the year.

“It has come to my attention,” the Jackley says, trying to imitate Professor Snape and failing horribly, “that we have a new player in our little hierarchy. Some of you call him the Lone King, not belonging to any year, but having a following.” He pauses to let the words sink in. It’s a terrible moment to pause, knowing that this is House Slytherin and most, if not all, of the Slytherins knew who he was talking about from the moment he mentioned that this “Lone King” hasn’t been part of the hierarchy, and at the latest when he told them that he doesn’t belong to any year. The only one who matches these criteria is Harry.

Jackley goes on, “This year, not having ever entered the battle for a good position, this-,“ slight hesitation on what word to use, not planned, “-student now participates. Instead of entering the contest for his year, earning a place there for the first time, and fighting his way up to Year Ruler, as we all do, this individual has chosen another way!” Another pause, as unnecessary as the first. No new information has been given that would need to be processed, no mystery hinted at that would need some thinking about.

Most people know exactly who and what Jackley is talking about.

“Harry Potter, my fellow Slytherins, has abandoned all tradition and rules, and convinced the first and second year students to follow him!”

When that dramatic reveal doesn’t get the reaction he wanted, Jackley stops short, confused. He rallies himself, but already has shown weakness.

“So, Potter, why have you done so?”

All eyes focus on Harry, as he expected as soon as the topic was hinted at. He sits on a thick carpet in front of a couch. Behind and around him are first- and second-year students. After taking just one look at this scene, it really is no surprise what Jackley revealed. Now, the eyes assess him. They all heard Jackley flounder, took in his horrible speech, and now are prepared to measure Harry up against him.

Harry stands up. “I have offered what you should have and denied. I have turned your mistake into my advantage, your disregard into my interest”, he starts, then pauses. He looks at Jackley directly, but takes a very short moment to throw a glance at the Slytherins. They are intrigued, wondering what he’s hinting at. This is where you place a pause. “Do you object when I say that you harmed what you ought to protect?”

At this come the gasps of shock and horror Jackley was probably waiting for earlier.

“What – What are you talking about, Potter?”, Jackley attempts to sneer, but his tone misses by a mile. He sounds afraid and uncertain, two things the Slytherin Ruler never should be.

“When I first came upon Arville, Rowan, Ethel and Maude, they were nursing their injuries. Do you deny causing their wounds?”

Jackley puffs up in indignation. “Of course! A Slytherin Ruler would never hurt those under his care!”

“I see,” Harry says noncommittally. Arville opens her mouth to protest, but Harry is more than aware of her personality and glances at her for a short moment with warning in his eyes. She stays silent. “And when they came to me, harmed once more, were you the one to cause that hurt?”

“Naturally not, Potter! Are you going anywhere with your groundless accusations?”

Ignoring him, Harry goes on, “And when I came across Arville and Rowan with some of their friends, also hurt, and claiming that this bullying has been going on since last year, did they lie?”

“Potter, stop playing around!”

“And when Arville and Rowan called me to them, asking me to help their cousins in Hufflepuff who were also hurt by you, did I not ward you off and send you running with your tail between your legs?”

 “I would never do such a thing, Potter! You must be mistaken!”

“Is that so? Then, surely, you will consent when I propose to prove your innocence?”

“Of course! I didn’t do what you lot accuse me of!”

 Harry hums in feigned disinterest, pausing a bit, as if Jackley had not just fallen into his trap. The Slytherin King is sweating profoundly, his eyes searching for a way out, his entire body proving his lie.

“Then, you surely won’t protest if I were to cast the Nightmare Curse at you?”

Jackley pales; his mouth stands open. “What?”

“The Nightmare Curse. Do you not know it?” Harry looks at him challengingly, then clicks his tongue in seeming disappointment. He continues conversationally, “It used to be so well-known only three hundred years ago. It only affects those who willingly hurt a child, those who target ones who have not yet reached maturity, and only when the child is in the vicinity of both caster and target. It used to be admissible in court, you know? But then, someone decided that Dark Magic was bad and evil, and it was banned. Luckily, we Slytherins don’t hold to those rules, do we?”

Jackley blanches even more. Apparently, he can remember that curse now. It causes the target, if guilty, horrible nightmares for every wound a child ever received from them. Harry suspects that Jackley will suffer for a long while. Put on the spot, Jackley can’t think of any excuse not to be hit, just as Harry intended. He can’t protest that it’s a Dark Curse because Harry readily admitted it. He can’t protest that Dark Magic is illegal because Harry reminded everyone that almost all Slytherins cast Dark Magic and those who just don’t have the affinity. He can’t protest that he won’t allow himself to be cursed because Harry tricked him into giving his permission.

Still, he tries, “That is wholly unnecessary! I am Slytherin King! I am above suspicion!”

With that, in Slytherin, he has as good as admitted his guilt. From the corner of his eye, Harry sees how the faces of the audience change. Where before, they were excited to see how this would play out, how the Slytherin King would put the pitiful half-blood back in its place, they now are appalled by the fact that children were harmed, and demand vengeance.

Jackley turns to them, no doubt trying to sway them on his side, when Harry, not waiting any longer, casts the spell. The incantation he chose for this Dark Spell that needs no wand movements is as simple as sinister, “Let him dream pain.”

Shielding as quickly and best as he can, Jackley still is hit in the back. Another strike against him: Never turn away from an enemy until you know they are defeated and can’t stab you from behind.

Immediately, the curse takes effect and Jackley breaks down, screaming. Harry knows he’ll scream once for every injury he caused any child in the room, and then spend a night filled with nightmares for each scream.

A bit concerned, he looks down at his pupils to see if they are frightened by the display, but they all smile at seeing their revenge come true. Shaking his head fondly, Harry sits back down. Immediately, the closest children snuggle up to him, some crying in relief – with their faces hidden, of course, they aren’t stupid enough to show weakness in the Slytherin Common Room – and others thanking him over and over again.

 

By the next meet-up, everyone in the group who is not in Slytherin has also heard of the story. Thankfully, the Slytherins have been smart enough to leave out the fact that it was a Dark Curse that Harry cast. Otherwise, the story has not changed much, unlike the exaggeration rumours tend to undergo. So, Harry instructs them on how to hold a speech. He takes Jackley’s speech as one example, and his own as another and compares them.

“Jackley,” he explains, “planned his all wrong. He thought that nobody knew what he was hinting at, but it’s common knowledge. It’s as if he tried to make it seem new and surprising that the sky is blue.”

He holds an impromptu speech in the same style about the fact that the headmaster’s robes are ghastly to look at, much to the amusement of his pupils, even if they find the speech boring when asked about their impressions.

“Nobody knew where I was going with my speech, however.”

He speaks about the Basilisk, now, since likely no-one of his pupils will have heard of the Chamber of Secrets. This time, they think the speech was surprising and interesting.

Seeing that they understood the difference, Harry moves on to planning pauses, using stylistic features and what else he remembers from the speeches of others, Slytherin Rulers as well as the headmaster, teachers and Muggle politicians, the way Diana taught him in fourth year.

But he also teaches his students to be patient, to catch their adversary in a spider web of sweet words and deception, to listen and recognise lies dripping with honey and deceit and to always be cautious and think twice.

Later on, he’ll be stormed with stories about how these tactics helped them with presentations in class, arguments and tricking their older siblings, asked for advice and better phrases. But for now, he looks into thrilled faces and wide smiles and is content.

 

Neville touches upon the topic of the “ducklings,” as he calls them, once. Harry can only sigh in response.

“I wish I knew what’s going on with them. How exactly did they turn me into their teacher?”

Neville smiles. “You’re doing a fantastic job with them. And don’t you lie – you enjoy it.”

Harry shrugs his shoulders. “Why should I deny it? It’s surprisingly fun. And they are all so cute!”

He launches into a story about Maude and Ethel sitting down all weekend long to draw Harry a wonderful painting to say thank you. Seeing his enthusiasm, Neville laughs out loud.

 

The headmaster corners Harry again just a few days later.

“Harry, my boy,” he starts. “I really must insist that you take the lessons I offer you. They will prepare you for your fight against Voldemort. I’m sorry, my boy, that you have to fight at all, but the prophecy and Voldemort’s obsession force you. But with my lessons, I can at least be guaranteed that you’ll stand a chance. Please, Harry.”

Harry remains unmoved. “So far, I haven’t needed any lessons. I got away from danger on my own just fine. So, once again, Headmaster: Thank you, but no.”

The headmaster sighs wearily. “I feared this,” he says quietly. Out loud, he says, “Then I have no other choice; I’ll have to force you to do what is best for you. Harry, if you do not comply and come to my office on Saturday at five p.m., I will have to call the Aurors in to examine your bracelet. If I’m not mistaken, you used Dark Magic to ward it, didn’t you?” He looks over his half-moon glasses to level a disappointed twinkle at Harry. Blackmail. Simple, boring blackmail. Harry can’t believe it.  “You must know that the Ministry is most intolerant against Dark Magic, especially considering Voldemort’s rise.”

Harry barely holds back a snort. Yeah, right. The same Ministry that allowed its Aurors to use the Unforgivable Curses, some of the rare Dark Magic that actuality can addict and harm the caster, the same Ministry that allows its representative to torture children, is intolerable against Dark Magic and crimes? Oh, how Harry hates this blatant favouritism of one group over the other in the Wizarding World, and those two-faced rules that make one side absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong!

Harry agrees, very reluctantly, to the lessons.

 

Hesitating only a little, Harry remains behind after Defence. While he gets along with Professor Snape much better, it remains true that the professor is strict and dislikes children, idiocy and especially stupid questions. But after Professor Slughorn’s rebuff, his nagging curiosity still hasn’t left and Harry needs to know, so he has no other choice.

“What, Potter?”, the professor sneers.

“I have a question about Potions, professor. Professor Slughorn couldn’t answer it,” Harry responds, keeping out the fact that the teacher never even attempted to do so, too busy comparing him to Tom Riddle.

Professor Snape sighs heavily. “Go on then.”

“In the Hormonal Potion, you need to add four mint leaves, cut in half. But recently, I found a book in which it was noted that three leaves cut into a total of seven parts work better, and I can’t figure out why.”

Harry sees with dismay how this professor also pales with the question. At least Professor Snape is not old enough to have taught Tom Riddle, seeing as he is as old as Harry’s parents during whose school years the Wizarding War started peaking, so he probably won’t have to sit through another comparison and freak out.

“Where did you find my book, Potter?”, the professor demands.

“Your book?”

“I’d like it returned, Potter. Immediately.”

Under the professor’s intimidating gaze, Harry fishes it out of his trunk. At its appearance, the professor grimaces. Harry pretends not to have seen it. He hands the book over.

“Are you the Half-Blood Prince, then, professor?”

Suspicious, he looks up from his perusal of the aged pages. “If that were the case?”

“Oh, this is fantastic, Sir! I also didn’t get why the weight of the Fire Salamander scales should be rounded down, not up, in-“

“And you think I’ll just allow you to pick my brain, brat?” In contrast to the harsh words, the smile on Professor Snape’s lips is wry, his tone resigned, but calm, almost… nostalgic?

Immediately, Harry apologises. “I just got so enthusiastic, Sir!”

The professor waves him off. “It’s okay. You are remarkably like your mother.”

Harry has a lot of questions, but he hesitates to ask. The professor sees this and sighs deeply. “When you are curious, you look just like her. Come along, Potter. You don’t have any more classes today, do you? This conversation is best held in private.”

Harry follows the professor through a maze of hallways. He knows all of them, of course, having explored every inch of the castle in First Year, but he’s never been here since. He later on found out that here are the quarters of the professors and avoided the area thereafter. Now, he’s led to a small room, furnished with a little table and chairs.

“This room,” Professor Snape explains, probably upon seeing Harry gaze around curiously, “is meant for private meetings between a teacher, a student and their guardians. It’s not used as often as it probably should be, so we will be undisturbed.”

Both of them sit. The professor falls into a profound silence, stroking his fingers over the spine of the textbook. After a long while, he unbuttons the cufflinks of his left sleeve, lifts the fabric and reveals a worn bracelet, woven out of colourful strings, now faded with age. “My first soul mark”, the professor says, wistfully, his thoughts lost in the past. As they did with the book, his fingers now glide over the wristband. After another long silence, Professor Snape opens the knots holding the bracelet closed and reveals Why are you crying?.

“I was six and had just had an argument with my mother. She was a pureblood witch, but she married a Muggle, and was evicted from the Prince Family.” He nods to the book, or perhaps to the nickname he wrote into it. “And that girl came up to me. Red hair like fire, green eyes like leaves. She looked like autumn, and had the same temperament – one second calm, the other furious like winter winds. She was beautiful.” A pause. “This girl came up to me, and she asked Why are you crying? So we started talking. She asked me why I wore a bracelet over my left wrist, and I knew that she was a Muggleborn witch. Back then, there still were introductory classes into Wizarding Culture and Soulmates for first year students, and I didn’t know how to explain it to her, so I decided to only show her after those classes. We were the same age, and we’d go to Hogwarts at the same time, so I’d know exactly when she’d learned enough to understand what I was telling her. But then, I was sorted into Slytherin, and she went to Gryffindor. The Houses were almost worse back then, on the cusp of a war, so we faced a lot of pressure, but we didn’t stop being friends. Still, I didn’t dare tell her that I was her soulmate. I’d kept quiet for so long, so I thought I’d wait a bit longer, gather my courage and tell her when the situation was better and she wouldn’t be bullied for having a Slytherin soulmate. Then, that thrice-damned Potter started showing up!” Professor Snape’s voice, quiet and peaceful, turns to bitter hatred. “He bullied everyone who was not a Gryffindor or Light or similar enough to him, along with his friends. One day, they – they –“

The professor looks at the verge of sobbing, so Harry quickly interferes, “Sirius Black talked to me and boasted about their ‘pranks’. I know. You don’t have to go on.”

A few deep breaths later, the professor is calm again. “And I was so angry, so furious. I made a stupid mistake. I called Lily, beautiful, loyal Lily, a mudblood.” A shaky breath. “And she cut all ties to me. Never spoke to me again. When I recognised what mistake I’d committed, I talked to her, begged her to forgive me. I even told her that we were soulmates. But she didn’t believe, wouldn’t even look at my wrist. For years, she’d pestered me to show her. And now, now that it was important, she wouldn’t look! She said that it was only a cheap trick to get her back, now that she was going out with Potter.” A short pause, a whisper. “It would have been kinder if she’d killed me.” Louder. “She went out with the one who bullied all of Hogwarts, who stood under Dumbledore’s protection and never could do wrong. She dated the guy she hated only a few days ago, who harassed her day in, day out!”

Heavy breaths fill the silence.

“Do you see now, Potter?”, the professor finally asks, looking beseechingly at Harry. “Do you see why I couldn’t like you, even if I wanted to?”

Harry nods. “I am his son while I should be yours”, he breathes.

It all makes so much sense now.

“I am sorry”, Harry says.

The professor snorts.

They sit in silence, lost in their own thoughts, for a long time.

Then, Professor Snape clears his throat and rights his posture. “Well, Potter, I don’t think you really got anything of that, but, well…”

He trails off.

Harry smiles wryly, tenderly caressing the bracelet around his own left wrist, eyes far away. “I understand all too well how it is to have trouble with one’s soulmate.”

When Harry turns to leave, Professor Snape calls after him, “Seven parts because seven holds many magical properties, as shown by Arithmancy, and three leaves because without a cut, the juices wouldn’t mix as well with the potion, which leads to needing four leaves.”

Satisfied to have received the answer he was asking for and so much more, Harry thanks his professor and goes away.

 

The headmaster catches Harry a few days later. With a strict mien and some choice words about Dark Magic, he “convinces” Harry to follow him to his first lesson. He swears him to secrecy, but fortunately has the decency not to demand a Magical Vow or Secrecy Contract. He probably knows that Harry would have walked straight back out, regardless of the consequences.

The only problem is that it’s not as much of a lesson as it is a memory viewing.

Of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s childhood.

Only a few seconds into the memory, following the Ministry worker into the broken shack and looking at the situation inside makes Harry’s stomach rebel. The following conversation is disgusting to hear, filled with hatred and insults. Harry has to take care to control his expression carefully after first hearing Parseltongue being spoken. Nobody knows he understands it, after all. The vile comments almost make him recoil, but remembering that the headmaster is watching him closely helps him repress every change in mood and face.

Watching the memory is almost better than hearing the headmaster analyse it, however. He doesn’t give any sympathy to the poor Merope Gaunt, blaming her for reacting the only way she could to get out of the situation she was caught in and still get the only thing she’d ever wanted in her entire life. As Harry listens as the headmaster tells her story, he finds it sadly confirmed that many abuse victims turn into abusers themselves. Though: The headmaster never breathes a syllable that it was rape what she did to Tom Riddle Senior. Harry, familiar with the skewed view of the headmaster in general and the Wizarding World as a whole, doesn’t bring it up. If a professor’s first reply to complaints of illegal acts being committed and bullying both is disbelief and “keep your head down,” what should be expected from the headmaster who lets these situations go on?

And for being born from his mother’s rape of his father, the baby, according to the headmaster, is condemned to never being able to love and, being unable to love, only can become a terrible and violent person?

At the end of the “lesson”, Harry is thoroughly disgusted with both the headmaster and the Wizarding World as a whole.

The next meet-up with the first and second year students, he explains to them what abuse is, why it should be avoided at all costs, why the abuse victims should be helped and believed, and what can go wrong. He shares the story of Merope with them and goes into detail about consent.

By the end of the talk, most of the children have red cheeks. Unsurprisingly, since they are still at the immature age where boys have not yet started to be interesting and girls are yucky all around, and many giggle at the mere mention of “boobs” or “sex”. A lot of them confide in Harry later on that most purebloods never educate their children or at least their daughters in the ways of biology. Harry is properly horrified, thinking of what can go wrong and probably does go wrong all the time, and shares his findings with the library portrait. He doesn’t find anything wrong with it, but confesses that he comes from a time period where it was normal for people to run around naked and have sex outside the bedroom, or – lacking another room – in the same space as their children, and so everyone except for the really high nobility knew what sex was about. Harry himself only knows the basics that his Muggle primary school teachers provided and his own body shows him, so he delves deeply into the biology section. During his studies, he comes across many mysterious words he’s never heard before – prostrate, or uterus, or spleen, or sinew – that he didn’t even know existed or were also part of the human body.

He thinks of Muggle schooling, then, the few details he remembers, and the fact that Uncle Vernon often complained about the improper nature of the many naked men and women in Dudley’s biology books. Harry bets they go a lot more into detail than just saying, “You’ll find it out by yourself in the wedding night.”

Harry shares his knowledge of the human body with his pupils at the next meeting, and shows them how to summon and conjure bandages and how to heal the Muggle way.

Some complain about it, but Harry remains firm in his opinion.

“It’s better if you know some method to heal yourself, even if it is not even mediocre and takes a long time, than to run around wounded and maybe get even more injured.”

They agree with him, probably thinking back on the injuries they themselves received and how even the slightest relief from the pain would have been appreciated.

In total, Harry spends almost a whole month of meet-ups explaining their own bodies to the children, showing them how to treat them well and how to remain healthy.

Many stay sceptical, but plenty of them come to Harry with their stories of how the lessons helped them. Harry encourages them to tell them to their year mates as well, and most begrudgingly agree that maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time to listen to such “Muggle garbage”, after all.

 

Not very long after the last so-titled “Muggle lesson”, Yule break begins.

His students all gather around Harry, each saying goodbye and wishing him a “Happy Yule”. They hug him and demand that he don’t forget them over break and that he better start the New Year off with something as not-Muggle as possible, or else they’ll have to see if Harry can evade all the spells a group of first and second year students can fire at once. He chuckles at them and returns their “Happy Yule and peaceful New Year’s Day!”

It seems like his lessons on traditional wizard traditions really stuck, he muses, entertained by the enthusiasm with which most children look forward to going home. Some, he notes, are not happy at all. He makes note to talk to them in private when he can and find out if it’s just a momentary sadness or if there’s something more sinister behind their dispirited behaviour.

The break is mostly spent in the library, as it was the last years. Only, now, he sometimes has children seek him out for aid on their homework. For Yule proper, he enlists the house elves on finding small trinkets to give his pupils small presents. He charms the lost quills and pretty feathers to change colours and become hot when there’s danger to the wearer nearby. Surprisingly, he also gets presents. In return, he receives everything from cheap chocolate to expensive books. The little devils haven’t written their names on the paper, probably knowing that he’ll try to return the more costly gifts. Harry sighs, shakes his head fondly and smiles.

Surprisingly, Harry also receives another gift.

It’s a broom, expensive and the newest on the market. It reminds Harry that he hasn’t flown in years, even if he liked it a lot back in First Year when he still had lessons. But in Hogwarts, it’s forbidden to fly if you are not on a Quidditch team, and not well received to take even a broom you own on an unsupervised trip. Harry doesn’t have the money to waste it on a broomstick he only can use about two times a year, and who knows what Malfoy would have done to it if he’d got his fingers on it. The other students mostly fly during the breaks, but Harry isn’t kidding when he thinks that Uncle Vernon would have killed him deader than dead for even taking out a broom in the Dursley house.

Along with the broom comes a long and weeping ten-page letter overflowing with apologies from Sirius.

Harry is not quite sure how to react to it.

Oh, he doesn’t doubt that his godfather is serious about asking for his forgiveness and regretting his behaviour. That man doesn’t have a single bone of deception in his body. But Harry’s not certain he wants to have any meaningful contact with a man who swore to protect and care for him, but dropped him at first chance, who is supposed to be mischievous and playful, but only was a bully, who is supposed to be an adult, but behaves like a spoilt, ignorant teenager, who is supposed to be Lord Black, but heeds every order the headmaster or Molly Weasley throw his way, who is from a famed Family, but hates all of his blood relatives.

Indecisive, Harry thinks back and forth for the rest of the week before resolving to allow a casual pen friendship.

Sirius is overjoyed, his next letter even longer. If Harry looks carefully enough, he sees something on it that looks like slobber, as if an ecstatic dog grinned over it.

He decidedly does not want to know.

 

Only a few days later, the headmaster orders Harry to his office, again.

This time, they watch the memory of the then deputy headmaster. He speaks to a nasty woman who reminds Harry uncomfortably of Aunt Petunia. They have the same spark of disgust in their eyes when they talk about the child in their care – here, Harry Potter, there, Tom Riddle. She stinks of alcohol worse than Uncle Vernon ever did, and looks as greedy as Dudley.

Harry’s heart sinks.

He’ll see his soulmate as a child, and just from watching Mrs. Cole, he knows it’ll make him furious and force him to helplessly and impotently wish for someone to take young Tom Riddle away from the orphanage, hopefully before he even comes to an age he’ll remember later on.

The following conversation breaks Harry’s heart. Where the deputy headmaster sees nothing but contempt, thievery and violence, Harry sees a desperate call for help unheard and the desperation to do anything to change the situation for the better. Where the young version of the headmaster sees insolence and disrespect, Harry sees disbelieving hope and wariness. Where the headmaster sees a threat, Harry sees a distressed child handling the abuse hurtled his way the best he can. Where the headmaster leaves with suspiciousness, Harry leaves with compassion and sadness.

The discussion is as hard to take. The headmaster wants to convince Harry that the poor, struggling boy he just saw was already destined to be evil. Harry disagrees. The “magpie-like tendencies” were the result of finally changing something, bettering his situation, and taking trophies of it, and not a proof that the Dark Lord Voldemort already was born rotten. The headmaster tells Harry in all seriousness that the “Dark Art of Parseltongue” foreshadowed Tom Riddle’s future as a Dark Lord and murderer.

Harry is gladder than ever to never have revealed that secret, and sad for the same reason since he can’t throw the fact that the headmaster wants the help of a “murderous Dark Lord in the making” in his face.

But Harry is happy to have seen that memory. He hated every second of it, but still loved seeing his soulmate as a child and comparing how similar they looked before snake features overtook the one and glasses the other. Still: Now, Harry knows his soulmate’s birthdate. How fitting, he thinks, that he first saw Tom Riddle on New Year’s Eve.

More morbidly, he muses if tonight will be a Birthday Raid.

 

Harry’s right.

Muggles are turned into screaming birthday candles.

He is well pleased by their song, celebrating his birthday. New Year’s Day, the day to be together and receive love and hope.

A twinge runs through his heart, but he ignores it with the ease only someone familiar with such pains can.

He’s never had love. He never needed love.

The living birthday candles are attention enough.

Ah. They burned to death while he wasn’t looking.

It doesn’t matter. There’s more, unused ones all around.

Harry wakes gagging and crying, the smell of burning human flesh in his nose and the heart-breaking loneliness in his heart.

 

The first day of school, Malfoy and his goons wait for Harry inside the Common Room. Malfoy has, apparently, pulled himself away from his secret mission from the Dark Lord Voldemort long enough to see that the hierarchy has changed. Harry now also holds a title, one never before used, and is thereby in a weird limbo as no-one knows where exactly he stands. The Potter Family was quite influential, and Harry’s fame plays in his favour, as well. His grades are among the best of his year, and his magical power, though never shown off, is at least decent, and probably strong, considering his bracelet. The only chance to prove his rank is therefore to duel with another Year Ruler to trump him or her in the hierarchy. Lower years don’t dare to fight against someone so much older and more practiced than them, and the seventh years are busy with their own scuffles, seeing as the Slytherin Ruler is in the progress of being replaced and they as seventh years have the best chance to rise ranks.

Malfoy apparently decided that he’d rather attack than wait for Harry to challenge him to a duel.

“Potter!”, he belts. “Submit to me or be forced to!”

Harry snorts. “Are you alright, Malfoy? You look a bit queasy.”

As far as insults go, it’s a weak one, but the ever-narcissistic Malfoy feels personally attacked.

“Duel. Now,” he coldly demands.

Harry, knowing he has no choice, sighs wearily. “If you insist.”

Malfoy raises his chin and looks down his nose on Harry. “You need to be shown your place, half-blood scum.”

What would Malfoy think if he knew that the Dark Lord Voldemort is a half-blood, as well? If not before his rebirth – it could be argued by some delusional individuals that Merope Gaunt instead dipped the love potion into a pureblood’s cup –, then after, seeing as Harry’s blood now flows through his veins. Unfortunately, Harry doesn’t think he’ll ever find out. He wouldn’t give up one of his soulmate’s secrets just for cheap kicks, and the Dark Lord Voldemort would never come out and admit it, prideful creature that he is.

So Harry says nothing. Malfoy waits for a bit, then jerks his head to the middle of the Common Room. It’s void of chairs and tables, a makeshift duelling platform surrounded by spectators.

Harry’s students swarm him, all fluttering around in worry. Arville orders, “Defeat the ponce, and don’t you get hurt!”

Rowan grabs onto his sleeve and just looks at him with his big, watery brown eyes.

Harry sighs again. They all are impossible.

“Nothing will happen,” he soothes them. “It’s an Honour Duel, not a fight to the death.”

They don’t seem convinced, but release him.

“Well, well, Potter,” Malfoy tuts. “Are you finally finished, or do you need to kiss a few knees more?”

Harry bites down the scathing remark on his tongue and lifts an eyebrow. Malfoy sneers when he notices that’s all the reaction he’ll get.

“What are the parameters?”, Harry asks.

Malfoy attacks.

Luckily, Harry is ready and lifts a Dark shield with a few words, not needing his wand for this spell.

Frustrated, and more and more angry and desperate when none of his spells can penetrate the shield, Malfoy throws himself into his attacks. Suddenly, Crabbe and Goyle start adding their hexes to the spell fire. The surrounding Slytherins act indifferent to their participation. It’s common knowledge that you never get only Malfoy. His two loyal goons always accompany him. They go on for a while. Harry, surprised by the strength of his shield – after all, it broke after only one of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s curses –, but confident in it now, leans back and watches them.

Should he strike now and win the duel? Should humiliate them more?

Does he want to enter the endless battles being in the hierarchy brings with it?

Decision made, Harry sighs again with every intention of bowing out elegantly.

For the next curse fired by Malfoy that isn’t too harmful, he releases the shield and is hit. His hair rapidly grows, covering his eyes and leaving him blind. Contrary to his expectations, however, what follows is not a Disarming Spell, or a jinx or a hex.

It’s a Crucio.

Harry sinks to the floor, holding back the pained moans. This is not as painful as it was in the graveyard. Because of the inexperience of the caster, or because it isn’t his soulmate cursing him?

Finally, the spell is lifted. Malfoy rejoices, laughing loudly and hard.

Then, he does the unforgivable.

He turns on the children, on Harry’s students, on the ones he swore to protect and nurture.

Malfoy looks down his straight nose on them, sneering, “I guess you’re under my command now. Bring me some coffee.”

No-one moves.

“Well, chop-chop! Onto it! No dilly-dallying! Get to it!”, Malfoy says.

He lifts his wand, the tip lighting up in the same red of the curse he just fired at Harry.

Harry sees red. He moves instinctively, flicking through all the spells he knows to land on one Malfoy will have problems with. Hitting him in the back, he turns him in a white ferret.

The Common Room is utterly silent.

Everyone turns to look at Harry.

He is standing right over where he fell, wand lifted cautiously at Crabbe and Goyle.

“This”, he says, looking right past the ferret called Malfoy to his students, “is why I told you that a duel is only over when one dueller is disarmed and unconscious.”

Now, it’s the children’s turn to cheer. They laugh and clap their hands, hug each other and almost start to cry.

The furious ferret turns on Harry. More quickly than he expected, the animal sits on his shoulder, ready to bite into his ear. Lowly, Harry muses, “I find it interesting that you have white fur, Malfoy. I thought there might be a bit of black right here.”

He strokes over Malfoy’s ferret arm.

The little animal squeaks and scurries away, Crabbe and Goyle chasing after him.

Harry muses how long it’ll take for them to figure out that the common solutions don’t work, and what they’ll tell Professor McGonagall. He doesn’t think Crabbe and Goyle are capable of such fine wand work.

An hour later, during lunch, a white ferret bites Ron in his nose, much to the surprise of the nearby students. Disappointed girls head back to their seats, deciding not to risk petting the pretty animal.

Harry laughs to himself, his students giggling along with him.

 

The next memory concerning his soulmate that Harry has to watch is of Morfin Gaunt himself, even viler and uglier than in the last memory. Harry once again has to hide his flinches and discomfort at the vile language that leaves Morfin’s tongue in Parseltongue. The horrendous man is arrested for murdering the Riddle family.

This whole scenario is suspicious from the very beginning. Morfin doesn’t look like the kind of man who has the magical ability to cast any curses, not to speak of one of the Darkest that exist. Those Unforgivable Curses may allow anyone with enough power and willpower to use them, regardless of whether they’re better suited for Light or Dark magic, but they require a lot of capability. The library portrait told Harry that you can cast the Patronus Charm ten times in a row before you can safely cast the Imperius Curse once. That tells nothing of the strength the mind has to have in order to withstand the temptation of these curses.

Morfin Gaunt looks like he has neither the magical nor the will power to cast an Unforgivable Curse. But he looks very much like the stereotypical Dark wizard Light wizards and witches imagine, with wild hair and wild eyes and weird words that leave his tongue in hisses. He has the right criminal background and the right family to fill the role, so he obviously must be a Dark wizard, and Dark wizards are never kind or friendly or have any positive feelings.

These Aurors don’t seem to doubt the verdict at all.

Afterwards, the headmaster tells Harry that he knows that Tom Riddle, out for revenge, killed his family and framed his uncle for it.

Harry thinks that’s ridiculous.

How can he just know? Can’t it have been anyone who wanted some money or kill some Muggles or something like that? And the headmaster makes it clear that he believes that Morfin has the ability of using the Unforgivable Curses. Why is he so certain that Morfin didn’t cast those spells, especially as all the evidence links to him?

But he doesn’t question. As always during these “lessons”, Harry is quiet, watches the memory, listens to the headmaster’s faulty analysis. When he’s dismissed, he leaves without another word.

More is not expected of him.

But one thing, Harry doesn’t doubt while walking outside that night: that his soulmate killed Tom Riddle Senior and his parents.

Really, if Harry found out that his parents are living somewhere out there, safe and warm and fed, while he stumbles around beaten and starving and always so alone-hurt-please-help-me-why-won’t-anyone-rescue-me, he’d probably also do something drastic, and he doesn’t even live in a war time.

 

The next morning, Malfoy comes strutting in, puffed up like a peacock. He pretends like he didn’t spend almost a week as a ferret until Crabbe finally brought him to Professor McGonagall and stuttered something about a mispronounced spell, an utterance to which she raised one sceptical eyebrow, but didn’t comment on.

When he sees Harry, he blanches, but continues on as if nothing happened.

The other boys are watching Harry, looking for any dominance display to cement his position as Year Ruler, and Harry… does nothing.

He never wanted any position. If he wanted to, he would have entered the tedious Politics Game and risen to Slytherin King with all the secrets he and his network of ghosts, portraits and house elves have and can gather, but he’s utterly disinterested.

He turns back to his book.

The other boys gasp at him in disbelief, but quickly regain their perfect Pureblood Mask and pretend that nothing is wrong, that their Year Ruler didn’t just reject his position and deny his power. With slight hesitation, they go back to kissing up to Malfoy.

Harry turns a page and doesn’t care about their confused stares.

He’s got a bracelet to curse.

 

In the evening, after a day dutifully teaching his students about the Art of Ignoring Someone Until They Are So Angry That They Explode, Harry is called to the headmaster again.

This time, the memory is from a house elf. It shows an older Tom Riddle. He looks terrible, Harry thinks, way too thin and pale. His smile is too sharp, his eyes too cold and his words too kind.

The woman is terrible. Not only is she overly self-important and over the top with every gesture, she also has no self-preservation or basic instincts. From first glance, Tom Riddle screamed predator and danger at Harry, but Hepzibah Smith doesn’t seem to get it.

Tom Riddle hands over a bouquet of roses and kisses the sweaty knuckles.

Fiery red rage flashes through Harry. It takes him a minute to understand what is happening – he is jealous because his-soulmate-smiling-touching-kissing-this-bitch. He tries his best to stamp the feeling down, tries not to compare the situation to I-can-touch-you-now and how Tom Riddle treats this strange old cow better than his soulmate.

She simpers from her seat in an overly comfortable, old chair, “Oh, Tom, you know, I- do you have a soulmate?”

Tom Riddle, having sat down in the much less comfy seat across her, smoothly answers, crinkles around his eyes and hatred in them, “I have not found him or her, yet.”

“Oh, well, you’re still young, and a strapping young gentleman like yourself has no troubles finding a love or two, right?”

She blinks her heavy eyelashes and laughs a coquettish laugh. Tom Riddle giggles along with her, but doesn’t reply. From his silence, she obviously draws her conclusions. She leans forward with some difficulty and grabs his pale, long-fingered hand between her two paws.

Harry sees green.

It’s difficult to pay attention to what’s going on, but Harry can’t get the next sentence out of his head.

“You are alone, and my soulmate died years ago, so… do you want to practice, so that you know what to do when you find your soulmate?”

Did Tom Riddle practice? Did anyone else look at his sculptured body? Did anyone else follow his jawline and neck and chest with their eyes and their fingers and their tongues? Did anyone else dare put their lips upon that person that belongs to Harry, that the universe and fate have gifted to Harry and to whom they have given Harry?

Harry breathes deeply and shakenly.

Where did those feelings come from? He never even considered Tom Riddle or the Dark Lord Voldemort in such a light! Never even thought to consider it!

“But,” a voice whispers in the back of his head, “you also never watched as your soulmate was propositioned by someone else, and didn’t immediately reject them.”

Stone-faced, Harry watches as Tom Riddle manipulates Hepzibah Smith into showing him Hufflepuff’s Cup and Slytherin’s Locket. And oh, how Harry understands the greedy glint that enters his eyes! Not only are those rare artefacts, the locket is a Family heirloom. Not only that, it was also the object his mother’s hope lay on as she was forced by her desperation to sell it. Not only that, it also led to the greed that ultimately killed her. Not only that, it also validates Tom Riddle’s ancestry.

For Tom Riddle, its worth must be unimaginable.

When he has to return it with reluctance in every line of his body, Harry knows what happened next.

When the headmaster confirms his suspicions, Harry has to hide a satisfied smile, viciously glad.

 

That night, he muses about how much his soulmate has influenced him, but notices that – he didn’t. Not much, at least.

Harry always was fairly indifferent to the suffering of others, much too concerned about himself to even look at someone else. Since coming to Hogwarts, this has changed, but he’s still not the person to march against inequality and unfairness. He only started actively doing something for his fellow humans when he had the ability. He could have tried to go against the bullying House Slytherin faces in first – okay, then, he was too shy and new to the Wizarding World to do anything, but in second – okay, that was the year with the Basilisk when he was too afraid, and most of Hogwarts right along with him, but in third – well, everyone hated him then, and he’s not someone who’d go out of his way to help those who hate him, but in fourth – right, he was too busy fighting for his life back then and everyone hated him more, but in fifth – that year, he couldn’t even help himself, so how could he have helped others?

Wait – does this mean that Harry is not as apathetic to others as he thought? While it’s true that he doesn’t care what happens to those he hates and those who have chosen their path and their fight like the Order members that died that night in the Ministry, he actually went out of his way to help innocent bystanders this year. He still does whenever he abandons his homework, the conversations with the library portrait and his work on the bracelet to spend time with his students.

So, the only thing his soul link has gifted him thus far is his further disinterest in strangers and the ability to see unimaginable gore and torture without blinking.

Or not?

Harry’s head hurts from all this thinking. What made him the way he is? How is he? Who should he blame, or should he thank them?

As if in response, his soul bond sends fiery rage through him, the Dark Lord Voldemort furious. Harry checks the time – a regular Death Eater meeting, then, the ones held once a week and often resulting in dreams.

He sighs and decides to stop thinking about anything, focusing on his bond and the transmitted feelings.

Is it unhealthy that he gets so much comfort from the echoes of murderous rage?

 

Not getting much of a pause, Harry is called back to the headmaster’s office the next morning. He wouldn’t say it’s his least favourite memory this far – all of them are very, very terrible – but this one is horrific in terms of his soulmate. Instead of the thin, pale salesman that looks a bit off, Tom Riddle is waxen. Something is wrong with his features – it seems like they shift whenever Harry blinks. His hair looks like it’s falling out by the minute and growing back as quickly. His nails seem to sharpen and become blunt over and over again. His smile is as piercing as his eyes. Something is wrong with Tom Riddle, and it’s obvious to anyone.

It’s especially apparent to the headmaster who was looking for an excuse since the very beginning in that orphanage and the little boy who said he could talk to snakes. So it comes as no surprise that Tom Riddle’s application as the new Defence teacher is rejected. Harry can almost see the moment the last clinging fragments of hope in his eyes shatter and they become hard and red. Harry is here, witnessing the moment Tom Riddle left and the Dark Lord Voldemort rose.

And the headmaster watches in smugness as the boy shatters into what he feared and caused, but always – always – saw.

And Harry watches as his soulmate loses the last bit of hope for Tom Riddle to succeed in this world and decides that the Dark Lord Voldemort has better chances.

The sad thing?

He was right.

Chapter Text

The next lesson, Harry teaches his students to not let prejudice blind them, and not to stick people into boxes. He goes onto a long tangent about Mutblut and Mudblood and why goblins govern finances, not wizards, and in which areas house elves actually are better than wizards.

They all are confused about what prompted this topic, but know Harry well enough to know that he wouldn’t tell them if they asked. They start discussing what Harry said with each other when they think he’s left. Most of them grew up in the Wizarding World, so many things go against everything they believe to be true. The Muggleborn amongst them protest some of the more blood fanatic opinions while some more kind-hearted kids argue fiercely for creature rights. With both sides unable to win the discussion, the voices grow heated quickly. Just as Harry thinks that the first wands will rise and the room will turn into an all-out brawl, Arville shows off all of her 1.36m height, looks down her nose on people a head taller than her and says with authority, “I’m going to the library, and I’ll prove why I’m right.”

With astonishment, Harry watches as his pupils all split up in camps depending on who believes in what opinion and how they almost run to the library to research and find out why they are right.

He’s torn between being proud and amused.

Well, seems like his lessons on not believing everything their teachers or parents tell them and non-violent solutions to conflict really struck home.

 

Imbolc, as every year, is spent in the kitchen, cooking and baking and laughing with the house elves. This year, however, a few curious children accompany them. Some just sit on the side, watching, but others are more heavily involved. Arville, in particular, is into stirring. In fact, she stirs so hard that she’s covered everything around her in flour – herself, Rowan, two nervous house elves wringing their hands, the cupboards and the floor. Their close friends Maude and Ethel stand nearby, laughing at them good-naturedly.

Harry smiles and turns back to Katlyn and Kathleen, whose looks are as different as their names are similar, to explain the next step in the recipe.

Finally, after hours of work, they are done. They baked cakes, muffins and biscuits before decorating them. Some cupcake masterpieces needed an hour and copious aid of magic to be exactly how the kids wanted them. The helpers each get a biscuit, then are sent on their ways to take their hard work and give it to someone less fortunate or to set it on a windowsill. Chattering, they go, whispering to each other what they thought of, what they are thankful for.

Harry himself is left with an unhealthy amount of sweets. As always, he gives one item to each house elf who, as always, heavily protest and then thankfully cry. Taking the last remaining goods, he leaves in search of an unoccupied windowsill.

Instead, he finds Ron. Hermione is nowhere to be seen, but some of Harry’s students stand around, clearly having stopped after seeing Ron and knowing of his antagonistic relationship with Harry. They may have the utmost confidence in their teacher, but they still worry.

“Hey, mate!”, Ron says, smiling broadly.

Harry nods in acknowledgment and tries to walk by. Ron doesn’t let him, loudly musing about the basket Harry is carrying, the smells emerging from it, and where did Harry get those?

The jealousy-envy-greed-lust-hunger-hatred is clearly written on his face.

Harry explains, “These are just some baked goods I got from the house elves.”

As expected, Ron explodes. His face turns an unhealthy red and he makes himself as tall and broad as possible. “What? Why’d they give you food? Where are house elves?”

He probably has a thousand more angry exclamations, but Harry interrupts him by offering him the sweets.

“Wow, thanks, mate!”, says Ron, temper tantrum forgotten. He smiles at Harry and reaches for the basket.

“Think nothing of it,” Harry says mildly. “It is Imbolc, after all.”

The surrounding kids break out laughing, a few traditional Purebloods giggling along.

“Whatever,” Ron grunts, blind and deaf to everything that isn’t food. He doesn’t notice at all that Harry just insulted him.

It makes the victory so much sweeter, especially when one of Harry’s students who is a Gryffindor later tells them all about how Ron lost his temper when Hermione tried to tactfully explain to him what Imbolc is and that Harry’s present was not a kindness, but an insult.

It is sad when a Muggleborn fresh to the Wizarding World knows more about it and its customs than a Pureblood, though.

 

Speaking of Hermione: A few weeks into the new term, Harry is cornered by her. Looking around habitually, he doesn’t spy Ron. That strikes him as weird. Extra cautious, he erects some shields and puts his back against the wall.

Hermione watches him with something like… regret and understanding in her eyes.

It makes Harry uncomfortable.

“Harry…”, she begins, then stops. She averts her eyes and swallows heavily before looking at him with strengthened resolve. “I’m sorry.”

Harry waits a beat, then says, “Okay?”

“No, it’s not!” Her outburst shocks both her and Harry. She waits until her fast breathing subsides and she’s calmed down. With a shaking hand, she reaches up and pushes a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “I mean… I’m sorry.”

This time, Harry doesn’t say anything and waits her out. She visibly searches for the right words. Finally, she gives a shaken laugh. “I’m sorry, I sat down yesterday and made notes on what I want to say, but now, I’ve forgotten it all. But that doesn’t matter!” She looks straight at Harry again. “I’ll just – I’ll stumble my way through, okay?”

With a deep breath, she stands up straight and starts, “When that – that article came out – you know, the one in the Prophet? – of course you know… Well, I – I started thinking. I never really saw what happened like that – such, such despicable actions, and so mean and mean-spirited. I just…” She stops to gather her thoughts. “What I said to you that first day, in Transfiguration, that was nasty and unfair of me. I built up a picture of you from the books I’d read, and I thought you had to be like that. And you were so different, so I was disappointed, even though I had no right and no reason! And then, with Ron – his world view is so… black and white. I never really noticed because all of my friends are like that. But Slytherin doesn’t mean Dark and evil, does it?”

Her eyes shine suspiciously. Harry eyes her with panic – will she start crying now? And what’s up with all those thoughts that go against the Light side? Does she even notice that she started thinking too much for the Light and the headmaster to be comfortable with?

Hermione wipes her eyes with her sleeves and laughs wetly. “I’m sorry. I’m such a mess, and the situation hasn’t been so unfair to me as it’s been for you. Oh God, it must have hurt so much…”

Harry doesn’t say or do anything to dismiss or strengthen her conclusion, but she takes a look at his icy face and visibly decides that she is right. Thankfully, she lets the topic rest.

“Whenever I did something wrong, the teachers said that I didn’t do anything wrong, but they hadn’t seen the whole situation. And Ron, he always said that I was right! He grew up in the Wizarding World, I thought, he must know best! He’s my soulmate, right, so he must want what’s best for me, right? But he wasn’t! I trusted him and in him! And you suffered for it. I’m so sorry, Harry. So sorry!”

She really starts crying, great heaving sobs and ugly grimaces, snot and huge tears. Harry doesn’t know what to do. Luckily, she calms down within a few minutes.

Harry observes at her closely. She looks pitiful, with tear tracks still on her face, her hair a mess, shoulders drawn in and cowering. Sighing, he conjures a handkerchief. She takes it, staring at him with big, wet, regretful, hopeful eyes.

He sighs again.

“I understand – it’s not easy to suddenly find yourself in a completely different world, I know. And you just did what you were told was right. I understand that.” A sardonic smile flits over Harry’s lips. His right fingers caress his bracelet, the words beneath. “You shouldn’t always assume that your soulmate is right.” Her sharp eyes flit down to his hands, questions swimming in them, but she bites her tongue, no doubt drawing conclusions and deciding that she doesn’t have a chance of getting them answered. “Nobody is always right. Not books, not teachers, and especially not Ron.”

She understands that now, he can see it in her body language, so he adds, “There is nothing to be sorry for. Forget about it, but don’t forget the things you learned from it.”

Hermione starts nodding with so much strength Harry worries about her neck, her eyes welling with tears again. She manages to hold them back this time – barely. Harry nods her a polite good-bye and leaves.

“Wait!”, she shouts after him. He half-turns, eyebrow raised in question. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

He nods and goes away.

 

First Professor Snape, now Hermione – what about Harry screams that he wants to know the life stories of the people who harmed him? It is interesting and helps him understand them and their motivations, but it doesn’t change anything about the situation. They hurt him, and he was hurt, and he still is hurt. They and their decisions shaped and formed him, and he thinks he wouldn’t be so alone and jaded if they had decided on friendliness, not cruelty.

Then, he thinks of his soulmate, and decides it’s for the best he learned early on that not everything is good and kind in the Wizarding World, and that even here, you can trust no-one.

Though he wishes he could have been spared that bitter knowledge.

 

Still reeling from Hermione’s apology, Harry is called to the headmaster’s office.

“I have a small task for you to fulfil, my dear boy”, the headmaster says in a low, confidential tone that makes Harry want to bristle and hiss like an angry cat.

The headmaster continues as if he can’t see it. “The following memory has been… you could say falsified. For our endeavours, it is of utmost importance to recover the true memory. Unfortunately,” the headmaster sighs and spreads his arms as if it doesn’t visibly rankle him to admit this, “that seems impossible for me. Firstly, let us watch the false memory.”

Reluctant, Harry follows the headmaster to the Pensieve and dips into the memory.

Professor Slughorn greets him, along with a person very familiar to him. It’s Tom Riddle, still a student, immaculate hair and pressed clothes. His eyes are a deep grey, his skin pale, but not unnaturally so.

He is the most beautiful thing Harry has ever seen, especially compared to the caricature of his soulmate that he saw in the last memory.

He can’t avert his eyes as Professor Slughorn dismisses the Slug Club. He only tunes back in when the professor speaks, full of surprise and mild rebuke.

“Tom? What are you still doing here, my boy? Curfew will start in ten minutes. Run along, dear boy!”

Harry doesn’t imagine the distaste in Tom Riddle’s eyes at the familiar address, but Tom Riddle smiles, friendly and open. His eyes stay hard.

“I just had a quick question, Professor.”

The professor chuckles and motions him to go ahead.

He does. He says, “I was in the library the other night. In the restricted section. And I read something rather odd about a bit of rare magic. It’s called, as I understand it, a Horcrux. I came across the term while reading, and I didn’t fully understand it.

(once again, the underlined parts are taken from the HBP movie)

Harry blinks in surprise. Wasn’t that similar to what he asked the professor? That afternoon when he reacted so poorly, and basically accused Harry of turning into the Dark Lord Voldemort?

The memory turns white and foggy. The voices become distorted and echo weirdly as Professor Slughorn denies Tom Riddle whatever knowledge he seeks and throws him out.

“This is the part of the memory that is faked”, the headmaster announces in a grave voice.

Only an idiot would not get that, but Harry doesn’t complain. It would never get him anywhere.

But something else is clear to Harry now.

Why Professor Slughorn suddenly returned from his retirement. Why Professor Snape, after years, almost decades of longing, finally got the Defence post.

How far do the headmaster’s machinations actually reach?

Harry doesn’t want to know, he thinks.

The headmaster leaves the pensive, Harry following after him. He walks to his overloaded desk, bracing his hands on the wooden surface. How he finds the room to do so with how little space is empty remains a mystery.

“My dear boy,” the headmaster says, aiming a stern look from twinkly eyes over half-moon glasses. He stops to throw a glance at the comfortably looking plush chair in front of the desk, a non-verbal command for Harry to sit down. Harry remains standing right where he is, ignoring the disappointed frown. After a moment, the headmaster clears his throat and goes on as if nothing happened. “Do you know what a Horcrux is, my dear boy?”

Hearing this address, Harry is reminded of Professor Slughorn and Tom Riddle’s reaction to it. He’s sure his eyes show a similar disgust. The headmaster blithely goes on, “It is a magic most vile and Dark, my boy.” A pause to convey just how abhorrent it is. Harry thinks about all the Dark magic he’s cast and tries to estimate how much of it would be “vile” in the eyes of a Light fanatic. All of it, probably. “This magic, my boy, splits the soul into pieces by committing a crime most hideous, and putting this part into an inanimate object for safe-keeping.” Harry is still reeling from the information that souls really exist – or is it something else, the essence of a person, or the magic, instead of the part of them that rises to heaven if you were good and that is punished in hell if you sinned or were a freak? –, so he honestly is surprised when the headmaster reveals, in a grave voice, that to split your soul, you have to kill someone.

Harry disagrees. If your soul, whatever it really is, split every time you killed someone, many wizards and witches would run around with broken souls. And is this only murder, or the act of killing someone? What if a child accidently pushed their sibling down the stairs while playing, fatally injuring them? Does this one accident ruin them for life? What about Healers? Would it count as a kill if their patient died during treatment? What about abortion? Who would even count as the killer, the pregnant woman or the Healer doing the procedure? Or is it only cold-blooded, premeditated murder? Then what about all the hot-headed crimes of passion? Does it only count if you know you killed someone? Do you need to kill your victim in a certain way? Does it have to be a certain person, or someone particularly close to you, or someone fitting certain criteria?

In other words: Harry is unimpressed by the explanation, but the headmaster doesn’t give him another. Instead, he goes on to explain how he guesses that Tom Riddle made more than one Horcrux. He wants Harry to sweet-talk Professor Slughorn into revealing the real memory so that they both know exactly how many Horcruxes were made.

Harry doesn’t try to tell him how it is impossible for him to get anything out of Professor Slughorn who has taken to ignoring Harry and turning around whenever he sees him, which leads to comic events, but not much room for asking for favours. Harry knows he wouldn’t be listened to, and if, not believed.

The headmaster smiles genially and puts an old, clunky ring on the table. “I found this”, he reveals, voice lowered as if telling a secret. “I retrieved it from the Gaunt shack at great personal cost.” The blue eyes glance to the right and down before quickly swinging back up. “Secured under a powerful curse rested this ring.” Harry looks at it closer. It looks like the heirloom that one of the Gaunt men, he doesn’t remember who, wore in an earlier memory. “I have not found out how to destroy it yet, but this is a Horcrux. Normally, only one can be created, but Tom always was a most tenacious student. I fear he did not want to do what everybody else did and strove to surpass them. Feel the ring, my boy. It drips with Dark and the foulest of magic.”

Harry notices the threatening aura radiating from the ring. His brow furrows as he tries to remember where he felt that before. Something ordinary, but weird. Innocent, yet dangerous… The diary! It’s been so long since he tried to discern something about it, and a while since he thought about it, and a-few-months-since-summer-an-eternity-a-blink since he last saw it, his memory fuzzy from the Cruciatus Curse. So the Dark Lord Voldemort – or Tom Riddle? – did create more than one Horcrux.

The headmaster starts to prattle on about one thing or another, but after listening to a bit, Harry tunes him out. It’s the same sort of speech he regularly gives, something vaguely threatening and immensely manipulating.

A few moments later, Harry is released. He leaves with a heavy feeling in his stomach, like he just got the final clue to some puzzle and just hasn’t pieced it together yet.

 

He figures it out not too long later, in the kitchen with his house elf friends. They all swarm him, as thrilled to have him in their midst as always. Suddenly, they all start talking about Arithmancy, or Professor Brand, or an Arithmancy magazine. When everyone begins to speak at once, voices high and fast from excitement, the sounds begin to overlap until Harry has trouble discerning what they are trying to tell him. Normally, they are pretty good about understanding what the stupid human doesn’t get and slow down, but sometimes like now, they are too elated to consider such inane things.

But the topic strikes a chord within Harry.

Arithmancy.

Powerful in all magics.

When did Professor Slughorn completely lose it? What did Harry say? Something about – seven.

Seven Horcruxes. No, that would be eight parts. Six Horcruxes, one main soul.

Seven.

One diary. One heirloom ring. Extremely important to Tom Riddle. Following that logic… Slytherin’s Locket. Going along with it: Hufflepuff’s Cup. Also rare. Other rare objects? Other founder objects? Gryffindor’s Sword is not a Horcrux – it is hanging in the headmaster’s office, and under his fanatical attention, the Dark Magic would not have escaped his notice. Rowena’s Diadem? Lost to time, but lost to Tom Riddle? Unlikely. Makes five. One main soul. One missing. Diary, ring, locket, cup, diadem, self. His wand? No, it’s extremely difficult to do anything drastic to a wand, which is why there are so few wand makers. It’s possible to change miniscule parts of its wood, but it’s impossible to transfigure the whole wand, or otherwise change it with magic. A wand is stuffed to the brim with the potential to conduct magic and its unique personality with a touch of premonition as to who it will choose. There’s no room for a soul shard. A robe? Not special enough. A book? Maybe. His father’s gravestone? Too obvious and big.

But wait – did Harry just figure out the great mystery within five minutes of seriously thinking about it when the headmaster, multiple decades his senior and holding infinitely more knowledge and resources, remained ignorant? Even if the headmaster doesn’t know even the slightest bit of Arithmancy, the fact that seven is the most powerful magical number is well-known. Even Muggle fairy tales include that knowledge!

Was it all just another plot? Something to include Harry, to force him to cooperate and entice him into fighting against the big bad Dark Lord who is his soulmate?

His hands clenched into fists and surrounded by worried house elves, Harry resolutely stops thinking about it.

 

All the turning and tossing doesn’t help him sleep that night, so Harry is up as soon as curfew ends and slips into the library to confer with the library portrait. Tough Harry was careful and quiet, the man dazedly blinks out of the facsimile of sleep a portrait has, groaning quietly. “Knave? What is your purpose at this early hour?”

Harry hurriedly whispers the events from yesterday to him. By the time he’s got to the bit about the Horcrux, the man in the portrait is awake and enraged, also slightly shocked.

“A Horcrux? This most vile thing is not of Dark descent, knave! You need a wand movement, and an incantation, probably even a ritual. It is as Light as anything can be! I still remember when it was invented.”

A young woman and her soulmate stood a few days before their marriage when he fell ill and died. Struck by grief, the woman mourned and wept for many days and nights. Her parents encouraged her to travel the world to forget her heartache. After much convincing, she finally did. In a land far away, she first heard the rumours, the fairy tales children and widows and widowers told each other. A soulmate is conjoined by the soul, they said, and when one has died without meeting their soulmate, they are born again. With this story, they explained how people can have two soul marks. But, they whispered, even if the soul bond was already fulfilled, the departed soul cannot stand to be away from its mate and strives to return. They spoke of a legend of a man who patiently waited for his dead soulmate, never cheating on him and never losing his feelings for him. The gods saw his faithfulness and his love and returned his soulmate to him. They whispered of a woman who was turned immortal and outlived her soulmate, always looking for her afterwards, and she would always return to her, still her soulmate, even if she didn’t remember their shared past. They murmured about an old monk on the top of a nearby mountain who bound his heart and lifeblood to the trees and stones to await the soulmate who passed away young, and how she rarely remembers so that they only can meet up every third lifetime and how the monk weeps for ten weeks after his soulmate’s next death each time so heavily that every three hundred years a great flood fills the valleys below his mountain.

The young woman heard all this, and made a desperate plan. She wanted to achieve immortality, or longevity, and await her beloved soulmate’s rebirth, to love him and hold him and kiss him again. She returned home full of determination and spent all her life figuring out how to outlive what Magic had given her, working until she was old and bitter and grey. In her search, she committed many atrocities before she finally did the worst thing imaginable. It is unclear what exactly she did, but it left her soul in tatters. Triumphant, she took one shard and put it in her most precious belonging, her wedding ring. The soul, attracted to the rest of it, left the gold and returned to its place within her. Enraged, the woman ripped the piece out again and put it into another vessel. The soul came back to its rightful place whenever she came too close to its container, so she left it behind and went to travel the world again, searching everywhere for her reborn soulmate. It took years and decades and centuries, but she never tired of waiting and searching and hoping. But when she finally found him, he was repulsed by the monster that stood before him and tried to slay her. In her fight for survival, she followed him and was herded and finally she discovered – with her soul, she had also given away her ability to feel, to plan, to think, and had succumbed to madness and insanity. In a moment of clarity, she looked back on her life, on her endless wanderings and her crazy workings and her infinite cruelty, and she wept. When she looked down, she saw that she had returned to the place she had forsaken, the place she had left that piece of her soul behind. Finally whole again, she cried bitter tears and apologised. Her soulmate did the kindest thing he could to this piteous woman in front of him, and relieved her of her suffering. He spent the rest of his life travelling as she did, telling everyone the cautionary tale of the Woman Who Couldn’t Let Go.

“Unfortunately, knave, the greed of the human heart knows no end. This tale was taken as an instruction, and many strove to attain immortality as the woman did. Few succeeded, but their names went down in history as those of madmen, exchanging their sanity for a shallow dream, for all of them met their demise and none attained their goal of immortality.”

Harry stands in front of the portrait, captivated by his tale and the emotion in his voice. For a moment, he considers asking, hesitates, but does.

“Did you know someone who attempted to do this?”

The man laughs tiredly, bitterness leaving his body instead of mirth. “Did I know? Knave, I was one of those foolish men. The Horcrux gave me nothing, and took all. Fortunately, my soulmate discovered my most inane deed and managed to trap me in close proximity to the vessel of the shard, and I returned to my normal self afore I harmed myself or others.”

Harry thinks back to the Dark Lord Voldemort, and how he regrew hair and nose and skin and intelligence as he confronted Harry and held his diary, his Horcrux. He makes a soft noise of understanding.

With it, the portrait is reminded that he is not alone and turns to him. “Your task, should you embark on it, is not impossible. A Horcrux can be destroyed in multiple ways. If the memory of your tale is not imagined, it would be quite undemanding to recover some Basilisk venom. Thus, this Dark Lord is slain with nay difficulty.”

“It is not that simple,” Harry says with a sour twist to his mouth. “This fool did not stop at one Horcrux.”

The portrait blanches. Harry continues his tale from where he left of, telling him about the headmaster’s mission. When he ends, the portrait’s cheeks are red with anger and righteous fury. “This man deserves not his illustrious title of headmaster, but a proper beheading! Facilitating such atrocities, and then laying all the unmeasurable responsibilities on your able, but young shoulders, knave! And that Dark Lord! A blight to his title! Never in a thousand lifetimes would I have dreamed of this esteemed title falling to such ruin! Multiple Horcruxes…! How could- Oh…”

Harry doesn’t know what his face did, or how else he revealed himself, but the portrait’s features soften. The rage bleeds from his eyes, and his voice is soft when he continues talking. “There still is hope, knave, which is nigh impossible to destroy. Oh, so young and so struck by misfortune and hardship! Fortuna does not smile upon you kindly.”

Swallowing harshly, Harry looks away from his bracelet – oh, so that gave him away – and bites his lip.

“Knave… Harry.”

The vocalisation of his name catches Harry off guard and he looks up, right into the kind eyes of the portrait.

“Never lose hope.”

Harry snorts out something – be it a bitter laughter, or a relieved sigh, or sarcastic huff, or a suppressed sigh, Harry himself doesn’t know – and excuses himself for today. The portrait doesn’t stop him.

He has a lot to think about.

 

In the end, Harry turns his thoughts from his soulmate to the headmaster, a topic far easier to think about and less likely to lead to furious heartbreak or endless tears.

He considers, again, what happened to him.

Growing up – pain-please-stop-no-don’t-please-Uncle-cousin-Aunt-please-please – unaware of magic. Being introduced by Hagrid, the lovable oaf who is forbidden from using magic and is loyal to the headmaster. The Incident with Ron and Hermione. The whole fiasco with the Philosopher’s Stone and the possessed teacher. A Basilisk being allowed to sleep under a school full of children. Cases of petrification happening left and right. A possessed student. A phoenix showing up last-minute to aid. Being attacked by Dementors. The werewolf teacher. Sirius Black being arrested illegally and innocently. Peter Pettigrew hiding out in a pureblood household and under the headmaster’s nose for years. The Godfather Bond being suppressed. Being brought to the Black townhouse where the Weasleys and Hermione already waited. The tournament Harry almost was forced to participate in. The swapped teacher. The proclamation of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s rebirth without Harry ever revealing anything. Keeping all news from him. The whole of fifth year, from Sirius Black’s rejection to Professor Umbridge to the ignored bullying to the lies about his previous Occlumency training to being forced to go to the Ministry to being abandoned to being spectacularly faux rescued to being abandoned during his being kidnapped to being kept isolated in an unfamiliar room. Professor Slughorn’s return. The “lessons” about Tom Riddle. The “mission” from the headmaster.

A terrible conclusion dawns on Harry.

All his life, all those misfortunes and difficulties put in his way, all the pain he had to endure – was it all to make him into the perfect Light saviour, to make him kill the Dark Lord Voldemort, to give him this one goal in life and set him on it like a bloodhound? To make him search for Horcruxes the headmaster and his much more able supporters would find much more easily?

Harry sees red.

This really has gone too far, now. Harry has been obedient and calm, but this is over now. No more pulling punches. If the headmaster wants a puppet so much, he should have chosen someone else.

Now, it’s time to hit back.

 

When Harry returns to the library the next day, the portrait doesn’t say anything about his soulmate. He remarks on the bloodthirsty glint in Harry’s eyes, listens to his plans and whole-heartedly agrees.

So do most ghosts – some are still convinced that the headmaster only meant well.

So do the house elves – fed up with seeing their Harry suffer.

So does Myrtle – encouraging Harry with all she has.

So Harry holes up in the library for a weekend.

So Harry sends a letter.

 

At dinner, Harry sits down calmly, trying not to show his vicious anticipation.

The headmaster makes an announcement, something about holding together and learning all they can so they can stand against the Dark and doing their best at their respective tasks and jobs, whether they be in school or elsewhere. Harry snorts at the blatant attempt to guilt-trip him.

Then, the moment comes.

A Howler arrives.

Some teachers roll their eyes good-naturedly at the overzealous parent who sent one now, instead of in the morning, while others seem worried about the content, seeing as all of Hogwarts is gathered at dinner and the embarrassment for the recipient may cause problems. The students whisper to each other, some gleefully guessing who the letter will be for and the contents, others pale and frightened that it belongs to them.

It all stops almost immediately, Harry notices, when the owl carries the letter over to the headmaster.

Everyone leans forward in curiosity.

The letter pulses once, twice.

The teachers exchange confused looks.

The flap opens.

The headmaster blanches.

The letter flashes red, once.

A beetle rises into the air.

“To Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, First Class Order of Merlin, Grand Sorcerer, former Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot”, Harry’s voice says, cold and clear and quiet.

“Since for the past few months, you have seen it fit to write me with your signature as well as all your titles, I have taken it on me to reply in kind. Only, after re-reading the letters I received, I noticed that some of your titles are not up to date. I took it on me to correct your oversight, former Supreme Mugwump. I will now impart some information on you that you should be very familiar with. For the last few years, I have gathered much knowledge of the basics of the Wizarding World, such as these facts concerning Magical Guardians.

It is well-known that a Magical Guardian must fulfil the following criteria: They must hold the well-being of their charge as close to their hearts as their own health. They must inform them of their duties in the Wizarding World. They must not be employed by any educational institution that their charge will enter. They must pay their charge regular visits. You fulfil neither of them. Therefore, your being the Magical Guardian of Harry Potter was illegal while you held that title. Therefore, your entering my vaults and helping yourself to artefacts and Family heirlooms is considered theft. Your publishing statements in my name is slander. Not being my Magical Guardian, you also had no right to decide where I would grow up. Therefore, your placing me with anyone, Muggle blood relatives or not, is unlawful. Even if it weren’t, a man of your renown should know better than to set a baby in a basket with only a flimsy blanket on the doorstep of a Muggle residency on the second of November. This is child endangerment in addition to kidnapping. As you are not my Magical Guardian, placing a Mail Re-Directing Ward on me was illegal. Even if you were my Magical Guardian, keeping the ward up without informing me of it after my entrance into the Wizarding World was unlawful. Not informing me of my Heirship to the Potter Family and the duties connected to it is a crime, as well.

Considering all these offences, I was advised to sue. The trial will take place on July fifteenth. Present yourself timely at 10 a.m. to the Wizengamot.

With little regards, Harry James Potter, Heir to the Potter Family.”

Pure silence.

Carefree, Harry puts a helping of Shepherd’s Pie on his plate and starts eating.

A beetle rises and lands on the brim of the hat of a stunned Professor McGonagall.

The whispers start. The staring starts.

Harry eats on, seemingly uninterested in what’s happening around him.

The sea of children who’ve enveloped him into their midst turn on him with questions in their eyes and smiles on their lips. They notice Harry’s forced nonchalant attitude and the way his eyes flit around the hall, taking in any and all possible threats, and copy him, deciding that their queries can wait for when Harry holds his next lesson.

The headmaster storms out with a pale face and angry twinkles in his eyes, Professor McGonagall on his heels.

The murmurs rise in volume.

The heavy door bangs shut.

The remaining teachers try to calm the situation and the students down to no avail. Finally, they send everyone to the Common Rooms.

Harry rises and walks with the other Slytherins, feeling something like appreciation and respect in their side-eyes, but not caring.

They missed their chance as surely as the headmaster and Light side did.

 

The next lesson Harry holds with his students is filled with overly excited and curious children. Harry can’t tell them the real reason for the sudden owl – surely, the Dark Lord Voldemort would kill anyone who has grasped even a wisp of his means to immortality, no matter how few details they know and how old they are. Instead, he tells the story to them as if he only very recently found out about all the conditions a Magical Guardian has to fulfil. Some may look a bit sceptical, but are willing to let his little misdirection pass. Some of those who know him best don’t believe a word he says. He’s advised more than one of them to hold back their feelings and information and plans until a point in time arrives when it is important to unfold their hand, but that they otherwise should keep their cards hidden the best they can. They know that something must have happened that Harry chose to sue the headmaster now, and “I just found out” is not the reason.

They also all know Harry well enough to have understood that if he doesn’t want to tell them something, he won’t.

After the lesson, Harry stays a bit to listen to the rumours his students have come up with or heard from the others. Some of them are very amusing, others disturbing. Apparently, Harry sued because he found out that the headmaster had an affair with his mother and is actually his father. How that would work, seeing that Harry looks like a carbon copy of James Potter, is uninteresting to the gossipers. They also whisper that the Dark Lord Voldemort and his mother… Harry cuts that thought off determinedly. That is a layer of gross he doesn’t ever want to consider.

Most of his students decide that the headmaster must have done something to Harry that deserved retaliation, but they stumble in the dark when it comes to figuring out what. They connect the fact that the headmaster was hounding Harry to come to him for lessons earlier in the year with the momentary situation, but can’t figure out what happened to warrant such drastic measures. The nasty little buggers now want to go around asking the ghosts and portraits for help.

Harry taught them well.

Smiling, he leaves them to it.

The only one who knows is the library portrait, and he would never expose Harry’s secrets.

 

A fuming Professor McGonagall leads Harry to the headmaster’s office. The whole way from the Slytherin dungeons to the office, she holds her tongue, but the air around her clearly speaks of her displeasure. Harry is not clear who exactly she is angry at – the headmaster for committing crimes or Harry for unravelling them –, but her brow is furrowed more than it even was when the Weasley twins started their bombardment of cheat sheets during the final exams last year. Her steps are purposeful and fast, and her hands are compulsively stroking over a wrinkle in her robe. Every few seconds, she stops to right her glasses, and once a floor, she swats a persistent bug away.

Harry trails behind her, a bit amused by her trying not to show her feelings and utterly failing to do so. He is waiting for her to say something to him, but she keeps her mouth shut in a strict line.

Finally, they arrive in front of the office. For Harry, the entrance always sprang open immediately, but the professor has to speak a password first – a very nonsensical password. After a moment, Harry recognises the logic behind it – the less sense a password makes, the less likely it is to be guessed. But still, Muggle sweets?

A soft weight lands on Harry’s shoulder. He steps into the circular room at the top of the staircase, keeping back a shudder of distaste by habit.

“You wanted to see me, Headmaster?”

The words may be polite, but the tone is icy.

The headmaster pretends not to notice. He smiles broadly, his blue eyes twinkling. “Yes, yes, my boy. Sit please, sit!”

He spreads his arms generously as if doing Harry a favour by offering him a seat. Harry remains standing, eyes on the wrinkly old hand. It’s black, looking stiff and dead. He knows that the little bug probably won’t be so attentive to all the details, so he asks, “What happened to your hand, Headmaster?”

The headmaster glances at it as if only now seeing the injury.

“Oh, this, my boy. I did tell you that I ran into a nasty Dark curse, did I not?”

“And it rots your body? Have you found a cure?”

Harry fiercely hopes not.

The headmaster sadly shakes his head. “Unfortunately, my boy, this is a curse that cannot be stopped, only delayed. Dear Severus was kind enough to contain it in my hand for the time being, but his potions won’t work forever.” He sighs heavily, then visibly brightens again. “But enough of that, my dear boy. Let us sit down.”

As always, Harry remains standing. Why the headmaster expects a different outcome every time he tries the same thing, Harry will never know.

The headmaster doesn’t seem bothered by Harry’s disobedience. He goes off on a manipulative tirade of taking it easy on the elderly and sick and the return of the Dark Lord Voldemort. A few sentences in, Harry interrupts him, “So you are trying to tell me that I should drop charges against you?”

“Well, my boy, to say it this bluntly…”

“That is an abuse of your authority as headmaster, and correct me if I’m wrong, but even in the Wizarding World, it is forbidden for the one sued to blackmail the one suing to stop their lawsuit. Is that not the case, headmaster?”

Harry locks his hard eyes on the headmaster’s blue gaze that has long since stopped twinkling.

“Indeed, my boy, but we are at war-“

Ignoring the ridiculousness of that statement, Harry interrupts, “So during wartime, no crimes can be punished? Does that mean that what Dolores Umbridge did, torturing children and scarring them forever with illegal objects, would be legal now? Should the professors not stop fights and bullying when they detect them? Make cheating unpunishable? And if someone has enough of it all, could they just curse the whole school to death without a punishment?”

The headmaster rises angrily from his seat. “That is not what I meant, my boy!”

Harry, though he flinches, steels himself and refuses to back down even with the towering adult in front of him, retorting, “What else did you mean when you said that? If not that no crimes can be punished during war, then, that you alone are exempt from punishment? Is that the case?”

“I see that there is no talking with you, Harry. For that, I am sad, but we have more important issues to worry about.”

Harry snorts.

The headmaster sits down again, trying to return to his earlier, placid and happy expression. He fails.

“I found one,” he whispers. “Another one, better said.” He fingers the clunky ring on his finger. It still emits a ferocious Dark aura, and it surely is not helping with the curse to carry its cause so close to the injury, but the headmaster seems unbothered. “I want you to come help me retrieve it.”

Harry casts another steely gaze at the headmaster. “No, thank you. It is forbidden for students to leave Hogwarts if not for the Hogsmeade weekends. If not, students must be accompanied by their guardians. I do not have a Magical Guardian, therefore, I cannot leave the castle.”

Unsaid in his tone swings you-should-know-that-you-are-the-headmaster.

This statement is a lie; the guardianship rests with Alastor Moody, the real person instead of his Death Eater impersonator – Harry hopes –, but he counts on the headmaster not knowing, or at least not acknowledging it right now, if only for the curious little beetle.

The headmaster takes one of his weird items into his hands and turns it around and around, staring at Harry. “In such unsafe times, my boy, it is important not to obey all the rules!”

“Is it not said that Hogwarts is the safest place in the whole Wizarding World? What purpose would it serve to get me out of it?”

His voice swells a bit. He still is furious about being forced back to the Dursley family even if Hogwarts is so much safer, allegedly.

The headmaster shakes his head sadly. “The safe way is not always the right way.”

Harry remains silent. He knows that his protests are token, mostly given for the audience, as he knows that every protest he says will fall on deaf ears. And besides – his expression speaks without words.

“The item I suspect is Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup, my boy. We saw it in that memory along with the locket, do you remember? I managed to track it down. Right now, it resides within Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault.”

Under the serious gaze directed at him, Harry blinks in confusion. “The vault? As in, the Gringotts vault? As in, the Goblin Bank? As in, the place in the world most protected against thieves and robbers? And you want to break into it? Of Bellatrix Lestrange, notorious Death Eater?”

The headmaster nods gravely. “I know it will be difficult, my boy-“

“You want to break into Gringotts and you want me to tag along?”

“Your talents are of the utmost-“

Harry shakes his head. “No. I do not want to be forced to commit a crime. And if you did attempt to break into Gringotts, why would you take me along and not one of the more skilled, more experienced witches and wizards under your command? Professor Flitwick is a half-goblin! Professor McGonagall has decades more experience than me!”

The headmaster, having regained the upper hand, smiles genially. “Sometimes, my boy, fresh eyes are needed.”

Harry’s hands curl into fists, and he tries his hardest to keep his voice level, but the volume still rises and he can’t quite keep the anger at such gall out of it. “Then take someone from your Order! They, at least, all are overage and can actually use magic without being kicked out of school for it!”

The headmaster shakes his head sadly. “It needs to be you, my boy. There is no other.”

“I refuse! You cannot force me to commit a crime!”

Harry turns to leave, cautious and suspicious, but he is not fast enough to evade the wordless and wandless Disarming Charm, nor the next hex that binds his hands behind his back or the curse that steals his voice for a while. Harry is not good enough to use magic without both words and wand, and Dark Magic requires at least one of them to work. The office door clicks with finality as the key turns and floats into the headmaster’s hand.

Harry is trapped.

The headmaster is smiling at him, kindly and friendlily.

“Are you ready to go?”

Harry flexes his shoulder, dislodging the beetle, and tries to find a way out, but the headmaster simply curls his fingers. Harry is pulled by an invisible force and stumbles into the fireplace where the headmaster uses Floo Powder to get them to Diagon Alley.

The last thing Harry sees before the green flames whisk him away is a shiny little beetle, getting bigger and bigger.

 

They land in one of the many fireplaces of Gringotts. On all sides, they are surrounded by goblins milling about. One or two glance at them in distaste, but most of them are too busy with the queues of impatient wizards waiting to be led to their vaults or to conclude some other business.

The headmaster walks right up to the very front of a queue, Harry magically yanked along. For a moment, Harry hopes that someone will see and help, but when has anyone ever lifted a hand to aid? The rope binding his hands may have been turned invisible, but that doesn’t stop his hands from beings unnaturally pressed against each other or the rope imprints on his skin from showing. Harry knows his movements are weird and abnormal, with his entire body leaning back from the headmaster, trying to resist the pull, but stumbling forwards a few steps every other second. His face is twisted with determination and horror.

But nobody notices.

Arriving at the front, the headmaster stands waiting. The goblin doesn’t look at him, so he clears his throat. Finally, the goblin turns to him. It’s not one that Harry has ever spoken to before. He’s very certain he would remember that nasty scar that seemingly goes from his – her? how do you even differentiate between male and female goblins? – cheek all the way down to the toes.

The headmaster smiles kindly, his eyes twinkling. “Good evening, Master Goblin.”

The goblin turns back around, uninterested.

The twinkles are lost, and the smile lacks its friendliness. “Good evening, Master Goblin,” the headmaster repeats, louder this time.

Without turning to face him, the goblin says, “The queue is there for a reason, Dumbledore, and not even an illustrious criminal such as you can bend the rules of Gringotts.”

A vein begins to pop on the headmaster’s forehead. “I really insist-“

“No, I really insist. To the back of the line, just like everyone else,” the goblin interrupts, then gives all his attention to the witch he was talking to before, leaving the fuming headmaster ignored.

Finally, he moves, muttering about how goblins are a disrespectful people just loud enough to be heard.

Harry thinks he knows why they treat the headmaster badly.

Standing in the very back, the headmaster starts humming as if completely unbothered by the whole situation.

He attempts to ignore the stares, but Harry notices how he twitches whenever a bad word about him reaches his ears, how the unkind eyes on him make him uneasy, how the gossiping behind cupped hands makes him nervous.

Harry doesn’t get why he’s so tense. Harry lived like this since his entry in the Wizarding World, and even beforehand, and no-one even thought to ask him if he was uncomfortable with it all. And now that the headmaster experiences it for once, he already starts complaining about it?

He decisively turns away as far as the spell will allow it and tries to turn his thoughts away from what will await him. Being forced to rob Gringotts – stealing from the goblins – Harry would ecstatic if he can survive tonight, but he doesn’t count on it. He’s doubtful that his continued breathing is important to his “companion”, and he can’t watch out for himself with tied hands, tied tongue, unable to use magic.

Slowly, the line inches forward. The horror stories he’s heard about Gringotts and the fates of the ones attempting to steal from goblins occupy Harry so much that the time passes by quickly. In the blink of an eye, they are at the front again.

The headmaster pulls out a smile and a rusty old key.

“Vault 402, if you please,” the headmaster says in a friendly tone.

“Is that your vault, Dumbledore, or another of your fake charge?”, the goblin replies, unfazed by the threatening glare he – Harry remembers that only male goblins can work with wizards and witches as female goblins are a lot more bloodthirsty, shuddering when he thinks of what they must be like – receives in return.

Between gritted teeth, the headmaster forces out, “It is mine. It is my family’s. It has been this way for four generations.”

The goblin snorts and rings the bell to call another goblin to lead them down.

This goblin is younger, only just old enough to have stopped growing. He nevertheless has a confident gait and raises his head proudly.

“Key,” he demands. The headmaster hands it to him. It undergoes a careful examination before the goblin nods. Without another word, he turns and walks off. The headmaster hurries to follow him, forgetting about Harry and the spell so he remains standing there.

“Please,” he says to the teller, too hurried to even be surprised that his voice is not still silenced, “he’s trying to break into the Lestrange vault, call-“

He shuts up abruptly as the headmaster is reminded of him and pulls him along with the spell again.

The teller blinks slowly, then nods at Harry. A broad, blood-thirsty smile splits his scar in two.

“Let him try,” he says, loud enough for Harry to hear, “and if you manage to get anything, return it to the owner.”

Harry nods and is yanked out of sight, into another of those uncomfortable carts that takes him on another harrowing trip, this time even worse since it takes much, much longer to arrive. They pass by waterfalls, a bound dragon, up and down, up again, left, right, a worryingly large collection of human skulls, down, down, and then up sharply. A few traps are still splattered with old and sometimes fresh blood. A waterfall pushes all the spells off Harry, but the headmaster smiles serenely and looks at him and says with his eyes, “What are you going to do now? It’s already too late for you to escape.” Each twinkle sings, “Too late, too late.”

Reluctantly, Harry stays put.

The headmaster smiles broader.

The cart comes to a stop.

 

Within seconds, the headmaster has put the goblin under compulsions, or used the Confundus, as the innocent bystander leaves them alone. Not even sparing a glance at the vault they arrived at, the headmaster smiles at Harry and says, “I knew you would be convinced.” He ignores the disbelieving expression on Harry’s face and blithely goes on, “The Lestrange vault is a floor beneath this. Thankfully, I have managed to obtain a copy of the key.”

He proceeds to conjure a rope and dangles it down between the rails. With an inviting gesture, he says, “Youth before age, as the saying goes. Go ahead, my boy, I’ll be right behind you.”

Harry hopes not.

He also hopes to not have to climb down, but he doesn’t want to find out if the headmaster is all that adverse to simply pushing him off if he doesn’t comply, so he stiffly scrambles onto the thin rails and grabs the rope. Slowly, he starts descending. The last time he did this must have been in Primary School, and his muscles definitely feel it. Still, he grits his teeth and carries on, sliding down a few centimetres at a time. Finally, he sees the end of the rope and the floor – and the distance of about five metres between them. Tired as his arms are, he won’t be able to get back to the top. And does he really want to when the headmaster would surely force him down again, anyway?

For a moment, he considers using magic, but he’s still underage for a few weeks, and therefore could be forced to quit school and go back to the Dursleys – this time infinitely.

Swallowing hard, gathering his courage, he lets go and – flies.

Until the harsh landing. Harry feels something in his leg give way as he lands in a crouch, immediately going into a roll to minimise the impact. He crashes into the wall hewn of rough stone because of course he does. He didn’t get hurt too much by the landing alone, so the wall has to help out the floor. His nose cracks and spurts blood.

Behind him, the headmaster lands on light feet.

“Oh my,” he says in false compassion, “did I not make the rope long enough? Are you alright, my boy?”

Harry shoots him a venomous glare. Obviously, he is not alright, and Harry himself would have made the rope to be at least twice as long to be on the safe side, but can you suspect such foresight from the wizard praised as the greatest there is? – Except for the Dark Lord who everyone is so afraid they won’t even say his name, but whose title apparently automatically makes it impossible to be stronger than the strongest of the Light side.

The headmaster, as usual, ignores him. He proudly walks past him without healing him or offering him a hand up, not that Harry would have accepted it. He inspects the vault while Harry painfully gets to his feet. Behind them roars a dragon. §Pain! Pain! Hurts! Where have the colours gone?§

It talks the same way the mother dragon at the Triwizard Tournament did, weirdly, but understandable. The pain in its voice makes it harder not to react to it, though. Harry turns around to look at it. He finds a white dragon with glazed eyes, looking unseeingly into the nothingness. Its paws are bound with hard iron shackles, but in such a way that it can neither move nor melt the metal with its flames. Pity bubbles up Harry’s stomach like acid – and as unwelcome. He has no time to worry about anything or anyone but himself right now, and he hates when pity is directed at him, so why should this dragon feel differently?

“Ah, my boy, see! It only needs a little twist to be as good as new!”, the headmaster calls out. Reluctantly, Harry pulls his eyes away from the pitiful creature in front of him and looks over to the headmaster. He is twisting and turning the key in a conjured soft cloth, trying to remove the rust. Harry is familiar with such tasks, spending most of the first week of July doing the same all over the Dursley garden, and knows a thousand things that would work better than rubbing it against a piece of cloth, but he remains silent. After a few more minutes of fruitless labour, the headmaster is content and sticks the key into its hole. Then, he tries to turn it.

It doesn’t even move a millimetre.

“What? That’s strange,” he wonders aloud, trying again with more force.

Nothing.

He tries again, putting all his weight into it.

Same result.

Finally, he admits defeat.

“Come here, my boy, and help out an old man! My muscles are not what they used to be.”

Harry ignores him. Is that man a wizard or not? Seriously, one little word and the key would be turned with more force than a whole flock of Hippogriffs can generate.

Magic tucks him closer against his will. Having no other choice, Harry tries half-heartedly to turn the key. The headmaster calls him out on it and tells him to do his best, so he tries a bit harder. Surprisingly, the key turns, seemingly against its will. The heavy stone door creeks open, surprisingly loudly.

A push.

A clash.

The door is closed.

And Harry is inside.

 

A Patronus appears before Harry has found his bearings again. It talks with the headmaster’s voice.

“Harry, my boy, I will hold off the goblins that surely are already gathering their weapons because of their alarms. Meanwhile, search for the cup!”

The Patronus – a majestic phoenix not unlike the one Harry saw in second year – stays where it is, watching over Harry.

Blackmail. Blackmail. First, the headmaster locks Harry into a strange vault, and now, he blackmails him into finishing his task, fulfilling his goal, while he leans back and relaxes!

Harry has half a mind to just stay here, staring at the Patronus petulantly, until something gives. And it’s Harry who knows how to deal with almost a week of starvation, not the headmaster. Besides: If the goblins really come ready for war, the headmaster won’t last long. Harry probably won’t go unpunished, but maybe he’ll get off easier, seeing as he was forced to take part in this theft. Or rather attempted theft, if they are caught?

He fingers the trunk in his pocket. Worst-case scenario, the headmaster can fight them all off or erect a ward to keep them away, he still has some food from the house elves, so if he rations it carefully, he should last around a month, more if he only eats the bare necessities. If he goes to Dursley-level, it’ll probably keep him for two months.

So Harry sits down, careful not to touch anything, knowing better than to do so in a Goblin-protected vault, and lets go of the tension in his body.

The Patronus judges him with its shining eyes, but Harry closes his eyes and ignores it.

With the little beetle and its writing prowess, it’ll take until tomorrow for the whole Wizarding World to know what happened today. Maybe someone will come safe him then. Harry snorts. Right.

Maybe the goblins will take his warning to heart and not punish him at all. That seems more likely; the goblins strike Harry as a people who are strict and hate all wizards and witches, but fair as long as it isn’t wizard vs. goblin.

Then, the Patronus touches a pile of gold. It topples over and multiplies. The room heats up. Unbothered, the Patronus marches on, leaving behind priceless heirlooms that multiply and become hot.

Harry wants to curse. Of course it can’t be that easy! Of course, he will be forced. Of course there is no other way! Of course Harry doesn’t have a chance to wait it out if he doesn’t want to drown or be cooked to death by artefacts worth more than all Harry has ever owned combined and squared. He swings his head around in panic, trying to find a way out, before he rallies himself, takes a deep breath and forces himself to think.

The headmaster will open the door if Harry gets Hufflepuff’s Cup. So he’ll get it, and beg the goblins for mercy or a quick death. Harry swallows his nerves through his dry throat, made hoarse by the heat, and nods to himself. He can do this. He can ignore the pain. Quickly, quickly. In front of him is a shelf. Atop of it stands a cup, golden and glimmering, just like in the memory. How to get it?

Before it can get too far away, swept along with the flood of gold, he grabs onto some sword, hanging on despite the pain and the hotness that now has reached his ankles. He lifts it higher, higher still, and manages to get the cup down from the shelf.

It’s the wrong one.

Harry sacrifices some precious time to look for the right one, ignoring the heat that swaps over his shins as he does so. There! – No, wrong again. Over there is only silver, and there only bronze, but there-! Similar enough to be possible, too far away to be sure.

The hot trinkets brush Harry’s knees. He has no time to make sure. As fast as he dares, he moves over the slippery coins and ancient cloth and priceless artefacts and their worthless copies, hoping that he won’t slip. He would go under, be swept away with all the fake riches, either drown or feel like he is burning alive. Already, he’s almost as thirsty as that summer when teacher-blue-hair-freak-worthless-freak-not-worth-our-attention-not-worth-food-not-worth-water-not-worth-cupboard-into-the-garden-I’m-sorry-pain-please-please-I’m-sorry and he’s still ways off.

Finally, he gets there. The gold goes up to his hips. He stretches and reaches out with the sword, surely now melted into his palm, forever one, inseparable. Too short, doesn’t even touch the handle. Tip-toes. Nothing. Harry curses his malnutrition-caused shortness more than ever before. He tries to tread the trinkets as he would water, but he’s never swum before if revenge-push-water-where-up-where-down-air-please-I’m-drowning-sorry-sorry-never-meant-to-intrude doesn’t count, and has no idea how to do it since the gold is too heavy to push away like he would water. Still nothing. He tries to climb up the shelf, but all he does is unload another dozen or so of replicas. Nothing. He tries again. Nothing.

Finally, he lucks out.

Harry hits his foot against a heavy brick of gold.

It multiplies.

First, cursing from the pain of gold up to his chest and a stubbed foot rather than only a toe, he doesn’t get it. But then, he does.

He bends down, ignoring the chalice hitting his chin, and stacks one hot brick of gold over the other. Two are enough, even if now twenty more lie around. He steps onto the pile and reaches out with the sword again. It hits the handle, threatens to tip the cup over into the ever-growing sea of gold, sealing Harry’s death, but after a few harrowing seconds, it rights itself. Harry doesn’t waste any time on a sigh of relief, immediately reaching out again. This time, he gets it. The cup hangs down the sword blade. The gold has risen to Harry’s chin, and that is standing on two bricks of gold. Otherwise, he would be drowning by now.

“Headmaster,” he shouts, “Open the damn door! Headmaster!”

Nothing – for many heart-wrenching seconds.

Finally, the Patronus – silently watching all along – nods its head and leaves with soundless swings of its wings.

Harry braces himself.

Now, he’ll find out if the headmaster brought him here to die.

Why would he? Why here? It would be easy to arrange for an accident at school. And why would he even want to kill Harry?

But an accident would harm the reputation of school, headmaster and teachers. And why wouldn’t he? He wasn’t ever kind to Harry.

But not being kind doesn’t mean he wants Harry dead.

It also doesn’t mean he wants Harry alive.

The door cracks open.

Immediately, a myriad of gold pours out, swarming the unsuspecting headmaster. He shouts out loudly in pain, stumbling back. Harry is swept along with the gold, but manages to change his course enough so that he ends up pressed harshly and hotly against the blessedly cool stone wall right next to the door instead of falling down with the gold where it disappears beneath the rails, landing very, very much deeper. The headmaster stumbles, almost falling down and in danger of being carried away, but he manages to keep his balance and weather the storm. It takes almost a minute before the steady golden stream stops.

“Harry!”, the headmaster shouts. “Harry!” He runs forwards the best he can, stumbling through the still-open doors. When he spies Harry, he deflates in relief. “Harry, my boy, thank Merlin! Are you alright?”

This time at least, he has the decency to flinch under the dirty stare Harry levels at him.

Harry walks up to him on unsteady feet. He takes the cup into his hand and presses it to the headmaster’s chest. As soon as he touches it, it multiplies and turns hot. Then, he turns away and walks out of the door. Fumbling, the headmaster barely stops the priceless Hufflepuff Cup from falling down, crying out when its copies cascade down his front and the original burns his fingers.

Pain fills Harry’s every fibre as he staggers along. One foot in front of the other – next one – right again – left – right – slowly – carefully – left again – almost there – right – don’t fall, you won’t get up again – left – right – don’t pause, you won’t get moving again – the hilt has stopped hurting – left – only a bit more – right – and the next st-

“Harry!”

The headmaster hurries after him, somehow having found a chance to heal himself a bit. Instead of looking like he lost a fight with a dragon, like Harry does, he only looks tanned, as if he’s just returned from a beach holiday.

“My boy,” he says with deeply compassionate eyes, “I am so sorry. I had no idea that the vault would be cursed with such Dark and dangerous spells. Had I known, I would have gone in myself.”

Harry ignores him and trembles on. He knows for a fact that one of those curses, Gemino, is a Light spell because they learned it in Transfiguration not a week ago.

“Oh, it pains me to see you suffer like that.”

With a relieved sigh, Harry sinks down against the stone wall and presses his face against it. It feels like it’s the body part that got hurt the most, the most revealed and with the softest and most vulnerable skin. He pulls up the hem of his trousers to check the skin there. The headmaster lets out another soft, “Oh dear Merlin, poor boy, I am so sorry, so very-”

Harry doesn’t even try to pay any attention to his babbles. The skin is an angry red and hot, but there are no blisters. Blood or some other fluid runs down his cheek; he can feel it clearly, but he’s not too interested in finding out where it came from or what exactly it is. Already, his head aches fiercely, and his hands still feel like they’re on fire. He looks at them quickly: The right palm is burned so much that he can see muscle under the black remnants of the once healthy skin. If he squints at the left, the one where he held the sword, he can see white of a kind he’s only seen a few times on himself. How high must the temperature be to burn through skin and muscle to bone? He stares at the palm blindly, mind lost in useless thoughts to keep off the agony. But it’s creeping in, quickly building up to a crescendo, until all he knows is blinding anguish, a torment the like he has never experienced before. His thoughts try to focus, but are unable to. He doesn’t know if he’s crying, if he’s screaming, if he’s still breathing, he only knows bright-red-unending-agonising-unstoppable-indescribable-unmentionable-unforgettable-unbelievable-burning-unbearable-excruciating pain. It feels like all his life led up to this, this moment of nothing but pain and more pain, like now he’s punished for being-a-freak-being-a-Slytherin-being-James-Potter’s-son-being-Muggle-raised-being-afraid-being-the-Dark-Lord-Voldemort’s-soulmate-being-Harry-Potter all the mistakes he’s made.

Oh, how he wishes it would end. End, no matter how, for better or for worse, only end!

The pain finally dims. In a total opposite from the way it came, it’s slowly receding, as if fighting every step, reluctant to go back to where it came from. Clear thought returns to him, and Harry thinks, “It’s over.”

He thinks, “Am I dead?”

He doesn’t care.

Sweet, sweet relief.

It could come from anyone, from the Dark Lord Voldemort, from Hermione, from Malfoy, hell, even from the headmaster, and Harry would thank them on his knees, weeping from joy.

Only, when he’s regained enough strength and clarity to do so and opens his eyes, he sees – nobody. He’s all alone, still in the corridor he was in, still leaning against the stone wall, now no longer cold, that he collapsed against, still uncomfortably thirsty, hot and sweaty, alone. From far away come noises as if from a fight; Harry identifies the headmaster’s voice, and those metal tones are from the blades the goblins love to the point of figuring out a way to use them as wands.

But Harry detects a foreign presence in his head. He instinctively knows that it’s the Dark Lord Voldemort, and just as subconsciously, he knows that it is unconsciously done. His accidental – or wandless? – magic is supported by the Dark Lord Voldemort’s vast oceans of power, even through a half-made bond the other has no idea of. This help is speeding up his healing. Harry watches as the skin on his right palm grows back rapidly. The left is still terrible, still burned to the bone in places, but Harry knows that his magic prioritises getting into a condition that enables escape over an overall okay state. He’s willing to bet that his head injuries have already been healed while the face is the same mess with the exception of all wounds above his eyes that could start bleeding and thus blinding him. When he moves with confidence in his magic, his legs shift, healed except for a small limp that won’t really bother his run. He still is cautious as he climbs to his feet, aware what blood loss and this terrible thirst can do to balance and circulation.

Harry stumbles, still so terribly, terribly hot and thirsty. He needs something cold, something to cool down his wounds, something like icy stone. He sinks down the wall a few steps away, moaning as the cold eases the burning pain a bit further. It is dangerous here, Harry knows. He’ll just take a moment, just a second, just until the worst pain is over. Maybe his soulmate’s magic will soothe him, maybe he’ll get some feelings, like that… Is that affection? Is the Dark Lord Voldemort back in his rooms, alone with his beloved Nagini, doing what no-one sane would dare call cuddling? Combined with the coolness against his hot, hot body and his pain-muddled brain, the illusion that this feeling is directed at him draws Harry into something that is not awake, but not unconscious, either.

Steps are coming closer. Harry only groans, still too out of it to really react.

They stop in front of him.

Finally, Harry gathers the power to look up.

The teller with the scar stands in front of him, mustering him sceptically.

“For someone forced into this, you sure look bad,” he grunts.

Harry explains, “I was locked in the vault. Here-“ He offers the cup – why does he hold it in his hand? Since when? – to the goblin. “That’s what the headmaster came here for. I’m sorry, I wanted no part in this, I-“

“Shut it, wizard,” interrupts the gruff voice, like stones being rubbed against each other until they are nothing more than sand. “Your newspaper came. Some witch told the story on the front page. Why you stupid wizards all need to run to the news and for money when lives are on the line, I will never understand. And looking at you, you endured enough to keep something. You even tried to warn us. As far as wizards go, you’re not bad.”

The goblin hesitantly pats Harry’s shoulder, tactfully ignoring the fact that Harry’s mouth stands wide open in surprise and disbelief.

“Keep it,” the goblin says. “Or leave it here somewhere, or return it to the owner. As far as Gringotts is concerned, you won that fair and square. Just get out of here. Not all goblins know the whole situation, so you better hurry. If you end up dead, no-one’s to blame but you.”

“Thank you,” Harry stammers. Remembering his lessons with Walburga and the confirmation of both modern books and the library portrait, he offers, “I am in your debt.”

As expected, the goblin is surprised, but then, his lips curl into a broad, bloodthirsty smile.

“You’re going to regret that, wizard boy. Now, get out of here.”

Harry nods, fleeing in the opposite direction of the goblin who produces a long, sharp sword from nowhere and storms into battle with a vicious grin.

Then, Harry stops, fighting down his instinct to run and run and run until his legs give out.

He needs to think about this. With deep breaths, he calms down enough so that his brain can start working again.

How can he get out of here? What tools does he have? Magic still is forbidden as long as it’s not accidental – or wandless, magic which he is not capable of – and he’s still underage, so he needs something else. The sword, the one he took out of the vault, could be helpful. Is it still around?

He turns back and has returned to the spot he woke up at in only a few steps. And yes, really – a golden sword, sharp blade, ornamented hilt. He has no idea how to use it, but it’s better than nothing. He grabs it with his right, the left still burned open. The hand remembers the shape of it, having held it so tightly for so long. His left fingers twitch, sending a wave of pain through him. He grits his teeth and ignores it.

Resolutely, Harry turns back. The goblins must have come down here in carts. Maybe he can use one of them – no, impossible. He doesn’t know how to operate them. Maybe he can follow the rails? Impossible, as well. He knows that they cross each other all the time, and the way is nonsensical with all the ups and downs they took on the way to the headmaster’s supposed vault. Probably, some of those where just to disorient the costumers. If that was the case, it worked perfectly. Harry can’t remember anything but a sense of nausea and fear. He knows that they passed by some rivers, and were drenched in a waterfall, and that there was a – oh.

The dragon.

Maybe he can convince it to fly him to the top?

But it was bound and chained. Can it even fly? Would it help him? Does it know a way out?

Footsteps sound again. This time, there are a lot, and they are slower, going back and forth a few times, as if – they were fighting, and one side was forced to back up, and sometimes fought back a step before being forced away again.

As soon as he’s come to this conclusion, the headmaster turns the corner, erecting a ward that, judging by the flicker, won’t last long. He takes the break to catch his breath and wipe the sweat off his brow. Upon seeing Harry – standing or still there? –, he takes an almost comic double-take.

“Go, my boy!”, he shouts. “Take the cup and go! I’ll be right behind you!”

The cup.

Does Harry take the cup along? It is, after all, stolen property.

But, on the other hand, the goblin said that it was earned. Does that mean it is his?

Does he want it? What would he do with Hufflepuff’s Cup? Or with the Dark Lord Voldemort’s Horcrux?

Wait, the latter could be useful. Maybe he’ll be able to bargain his way out of another one of those scenarios he seems to be manipulated into or otherwise finds himself in every year, this right now being only one of six examples. If he can ever overcome his irrational need to keep his soulmate alive, and the survival instinct that tells him to stay as far away from him as he can, and his heart which yells at him to hurry to his side and never leave it, he will need the cup in order to kill the Dark Lord Voldemort. That means he has to keep it reasonably close.

Decisively, he grabs the cup and places it in his pocket. On second thought, he chances a look at the headmaster who is watching him with a smile on his face. Harry pulls a grimace that hurts every single muscle in his face up to just below his eyes and looks away. He hurries around a corner and quickly pulls out his trunk, the one still unfamiliar in its contours and colour after only one year of use. It’s better protected than the last one, at least, and cursed, as well. The bracelet is as good as finished, after all, and it will stay that way as long as Harry doesn’t develop a deeper understanding of magic that goes beyond what Hogwarts can teach him. This leaves him with a lot of free time, and he used most of it on the trunk. He pushes the cup inside as fast as he is able to, shrinks the trunk again – it is done with the ritual of tapping his wand to the top of the trunk, spelled the same way his first trunk was before he lost it to the Dark Lord Voldemort’s curiosity – and returns it to its place in his pocket.

The fight has drawn closer still, close enough that Harry can understand every spell and every casual conversation. The goblins apparently take this as an exercise, going up in pairs until they are defeated and exhausted, and then changing so that everyone can get “some training in”.

Harry runs away quietly, around twists and bends, having to double back twice.

Finally, he arrives at the place where the dragon is chained down.

  • Great dragon,§ he hurriedly says, §let’s make a deal. I will free you from here, and you will take me out of this building. Is that to your liking?§

The dragon sniffs around for a bit, its sightless eyes turning from side to side and upside down.

  • Yes, yes, wizarding boy, let’s deal, let’s deal! I’m free, you’re free, and we’re all gone!§ the dragon croons, flapping its great wings as much as it is able to in excitement.

Harry swallows harshly, wondering if this really is the right way. Can’t he escape by some other means? The speech patterns of the dragon give him flashbacks to the Basilisk, so great and so mad, lost to time and a master long gone. Does he really trust this dragon whose white, blind eyes can’t even see?

Suddenly, an epiphany strikes from nowhere.

Don’t trust twinkling eyes, and test red eyes, but trust white eyes said the dragon mother who he freed along with her eggs during the Triwizard Tournament. For so long, it puzzled him, and he gave up the mystery as impossible. But he knows better now, all parts deciphered. Twinkling eyes obviously mean the headmaster, the red eyes stand for the Dark Lord Voldemort, and white eyes must be the dragon before him.

Deciding to trust the mother dragon’s sense of debt, he doesn’t hesitate.

  • I will use this sword with its sharp blade to hit against the shackles binding you to the ground. As soon as they break, I will jump onto your back. If you need my aid, I will guide you safely to the top of the building. Is that agreeable to you?§

The dragon hisses manically. It steps from foot to foot as if impatient, its tail thumping against the stone floor. §Get out of here, get out of here! Yes, yes, I agree, I agree, hurry up, hurry up, get me out of here, get us out of here! You free me, I free you!§

Harry stumbles between its great legs, its belly low enough that he has to crawl to the shackles. He doesn’t dare walk around the dragon for fear of being seen by either goblin or headmaster or mistaken for someone else and killed by the dragon before he can speak to it. Fortunately, the iron is slightly rusty, making it easy to break the bindings even without any knowledge or experience with a sword. The second chain is as easily broken.

Great wings start to swing.

Panicked, afraid to be left behind, Harry hurriedly climbs onto the back of the white dragon. It’s broad, scaly and incredibly uncomfortable. He grabs onto a sharp stony bone jutting out to protect the dragon’s neck. As soon as he’s done that, the dragon takes off. At first, it hovers only a few centimetres over the floor, but swiftly, it rises. Within seconds, they float above the battlefield. The goblins let loose screams of either surprise or fear as they sight the dragon, but Harry tells it which way to go without running into any hindrances and it leaves without breathing his doubtlessly fearsome fire on those who have kept it captive.

High in the air, Harry’s eyes land on the sword that’s still clutched tight in his right. For a moment, he debates leaving it behind. It would be the right thing to do, the good thing. He’s not received permission to take this treasure along, and getting away with liberating one item from Gringotts already seems too good to be true.

But, he decides, if he broke into Gringotts, stole something and got out alive despite all that, he should also have something to show for it.

He pulls the blade closer to his body, leans against the dragon and directs it on how to get out without harming itself, any more-or-less innocent bystanders or Harry.

The dragon is eager, determined to get to see the sky again, and thus fast. Within a minute, they come to the very top of Gringotts. Hoping not to destroy anything too important, Harry tells the dragon, §We are at the top. Blow your fire and burn our way free, great dragon.§

It does so. They rise up in a cloud of steam, molten stone dripping down on all sides of the hole the dragon is breathing into life, until, finally – a spark of blue that changes to white, a hole of sky, a horizon of freedom.

  • Colours! I see colours!§ With a joyed cry, the dragon swings high, Harry hanging on for the ride of his life.

And what a ride it is!

 

All too quickly, reality returns. Regretfully, Harry asks the dragon if it would like to go North. It has heard of Hogwarts before and is curious if it is as terrible as it’s heard, so it asks a ton of questions. Most of them are very much outdated. Harry would like to believe that dragons are just that far behind on the developments of a human school, but fears that the solution rather is that the dragon was kept captive for that long. He swallows down his righteous fury and concentrates on answering what he can, translating his impressions of the school and its surroundings into words and those into words a dragon that has not seen the light of day in too many years might understand. It’s the first time he has talked this much in Parseltongue, and Harry finds out that it’s not as taxing on tongue and larynx as the human language is. Even though he now regularly gives lessons and talks to his students during the breaks between classes, speaking a lot or for a long time is still taxing on him, so he appreciates being able to say as much as he wants to without strain.

After an hour that seems more like a minute, the both of them arrive at the Black Lake. The dragon is curious about the squid and wants to see if it can sight it, as much as that is possible with its blind eyes. Afterwards, it will return to its birthplace, hoping to find another dragon. Harry thanks it and wishes it the best of luck.

  • Deal, deal, we made a deal, no thanks to me, no thanks to you, a deal is a deal,§ it hisses at him. Harry is too inexperienced with the dragons’ weird way of talking to reliably tell if it is scolding or laughing at him.

Anyway, he repeats his thanks. They land at the edge of the lake and the dragon asks some last questions about the squid and has Harry point out where it likes to relax before they go separate ways. The dragon dives into the lake with an enthusiasm that would make a toddler pale in comparison, almost drenching Harry who has started walking back to the castle.

Only a moment later, he wishes he had not.

On the doorstep waits the headmaster.

 

Harry is greeted cordially with a broad smile.

“Harry, my boy! I was worried because you were taking so long. However did you convince the dragon to take you here?”

Harry ignores him with the ease he ignores his changed clothes – a garish purple with sickly green spots and pale orange cats chasing after them – and the shrivelled black hand.

The headmaster stops him from walking past him by grabbing his shoulder. Harry tries not to react, but he can’t contain a slight flinch. It causes him to move all those muscles that are connected to all those burns and he hisses in pain.

“Do you have the cup, my boy?”, the headmaster asks, heedless of the injuries Harry’s sporting.

Harry considers, but briefly nods.

The headmaster’s eyes start sparkling. “Excellent, my boy, excellent! I had full confidence in you and your abilities. Let us confer further in my office.”

Harry’s protests go unheard, so he grits his teeth and fumes in silence as he is steered to the headmaster’s office. The only saving grace is that no-one is around except for a few portraits, so no-one will see the injuries and force Harry to Madam Pomphrey. Then, he would be forced to explain what happened, and surely, the authorities would be called and Harry would be arrested. He’d rather wait for the next Prophet article that should proclaim his innocence before testing out who would believe his word over the headmaster’s. Even if the goblin said that the newspaper has already been sent, who knows if anyone in the school has already received it. Better safe than sorry, Harry doesn’t resist the too-tight grip on his bruised shoulder.

Arriving at the office, the headmaster releases Harry and stands behind his desk. As usual, he offers Harry a seat with a cordial smile. As usual, Harry completely ignores him. As usual, the headmaster doesn’t react to his little act of rebellion.

“We already have managed a step further than I imagined possible, my boy,” the headmaster says. He pulls the chunky Horcrux ring from his right middle finger, lifts it, eyes lit in contemplation. “So small, and so much destructive power,” he muses, his eyes straying to his black fingers and lingering there. “My boy, you must know that my time draws to an end.” His gaze rises, locks onto Harry, his blue eyes startlingly free of twinkles. Now, he doesn’t look like the slightly barmy old headmaster the world sees. He is serious, hard, a warrior about to order a difficult mission, a commander ready to pass on the baton, the man who is whispered to have frightened the Dark Lord Voldemort away at both their heights. But still: The glasses and long, silvery-grey hair make it obvious that now, one of the major players of the war is past his prime while the other is about to reach his again and bring this war to heights an old man simply cannot climb anymore.

And Harry knows that he was chosen as the one to take on the burden that the headmaster shoulders, that he should succeed the roles and responsibilities that man carried since the day he fought against the Dark Lord Grindelwald and won and became the hope and symbol of all that is Light and good.

Unfortunately, Harry is not Light, and he is not good. His magic is a mix of Light and Dark, his moralities and loyalty strictly lying with those he is closest to, not an abstract idea of humanity or the Wizarding World.

They may have chosen and elected and selected and decided that Harry is perfect for the new role as the Dark Lord Voldemort’s suppressor and enemy and greatest foe and conqueror, but Harry is not what and who they think he is. In their minds, he is the perfect little Light lamb, following their leader’s orders long after his death, ready to lay down his life for the greater good, but they never saw him. They always saw what they hoped and what the headmaster and the newspapers told them.

The poor little boy with the dead parents and the scar on his forehead and the prophecy giving them all hope and telling them that it’s okay to lay all the burden and difficulties on a boy’s, an infant’s shoulders and assuring them that they won’t have to do anything to be saved.

They don’t see Harry. Harry who cares for his own survival, and that of his students, and that of the house elves, and that, questionable though it is if it can be called that, of the portraits and ghosts. Harry who fights not because he can and thinks it is right, but because he must. Harry who doesn’t care for Light or Dark, good or bad. Harry who only wants what he wanted since he was a small boy, who told the Sorting Hat, “I want to live happily.”

Harry whose soulmate is the very man they all urge him to fight against and to see as the pure definition of evil when he is so much more and more complicated and complex than their sheep minds will ever be able to understand.

They don’t see Harry.

He doubts whether the headmaster does.

The thing is: Harry is not stupid. Give him what information he needs, or let him take the time to research, speak to the house elves and portraits and ghosts, confer with the library portrait, discuss with his students, think it over, and he will reach a conclusion and find a solution and stand by it and figure it out.

He doesn’t know how far the headmaster’s machinations reach, but he knows that every year, every manipulation, was an attempt to get that Light saviour the people all expected from the moment they were told about the scar and the prophecy.

He knows that the headmaster stood in front of a bleak wall. He knew that the Dark Lord Voldemort would rise again, knowing of his Horcruxes, but not when or how. He knew that no-one believed him except for those closest to him. He knew that once the Dark Lord Voldemort returned, everyone would clamour for the one who had chased him away once, that babe that could almost kill him before he could even speak a full sentence.

So the headmaster tried to give them that saviour they all thought they’d get.

He tried to influence Harry by leaving him unaware of the Wizarding World so that he would not grow up high on praises, pushed to the ground by expectations or drowned by ridicule. He sent Hagrid who would only tell him what the headmaster wanted Harry to think. If Harry was convinced that very first day that all the headmaster does is just and right, and that everything Slytherin and Dark is evil and wrong, he would get that Gryffindor warrior the world was expecting. When Harry went to Slytherin, the headmaster tried his best to stir him up against the Dark Lord Voldemort, throwing him in his path to show him how bad and evil and worth of defeat and death that being, less than a ghost, more monster than man, is. He tried to get Harry to accept his Gryffindor characteristics by sending him down to fight the Basilisk, Slytherin’s Monster, the culmination of all that the Light warrior would hate, Dark and Slytherin and snake and poison and pain-madness-sadness-sorrow-grief that the headmaster couldn’t see. He tried to have Harry accept a person with a stance similar to the headmaster’s as his friend, as a Godfather to show him all that is wrong with the Wizarding World, the corruption and inequality that is prevalent in this seemingly perfect world. But he also didn’t want to lose one of the most crucial players of his side on the board in case Harry pulled harder than he was pulled, couldn’t risk the loss of money and Auror abilities and hatred against the Dark and madness enough to stand up against it, so he cut the Godfather Bond. In fifth year, he wanted to warn the people, but the Ministry protested so his hands were bound. Maybe he even felt like the torture Harry suffered would lure him closer to the fake smiles and twinkling eyes of the Light side. Maybe he really didn’t know about it. And then, it was too late. Harry believes that the headmaster knew then, when Harry had attempted suicide and was lying in the hospital wing and was about to die and his magic still clung to the bracelet, desperately trying to protect his words, that something was off. But he had set all his hopes, all his people’s hopes on the young Light Gryffindor, eager to fight against the Dark and the evil and the Dark Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and it simply was too late to back out.

So he tried again. This year, he tried to convince what his attempts to influence hadn’t managed, only to fail. So he turned to blackmail, and threats, and violence.

Harry understands all that.

But that doesn’t make it better, and it doesn’t make it right.

As Harry is a slave to his group – and he knows he would kill-hurt-die for those kind house elves who were the first to accept him, those portraits that always advised him, those ghosts that always encouraged him, those students that always needed him and gave him a purpose, maybe even that soulmate that is so terribly lonely and broken –, the headmaster is a slave to the Wizarding World.

Harry only hopes to never turn out like that, to sacrifice the small part to maybe protect the bigger, to fight for the greater good and not the individual. He does, to an extent. If he had a choice between Ethel getting her arm broken or attacking her assailant, he would try to incapacitate the attacker before they could harm his other students, perhaps even worse. But he knows that he would not have been able to set Ethel on a path that would make her willing to take that broken arm and fight back regardless. Fiery Arville, and sweet Rowan, and shy Maude, and clumsy Ethel, and all his other students – he would not be able to plan out their destinies like that, like a puppeteer sitting high above all others and watching them dance to his whims.

But the headmaster can, and did, or tried to, and that alone turns Harry away from him. How can he say that everything Dark is bad when he himself is the one to throw a child before the wolf in the hope that he would learn to fight back before he is eaten?

How can he ever trust such a leader? With his smile, he could lead him to a certain victory as well as to his death if it benefited the Wizarding World.

So, to the unspoken question, the silent request to succeed the headmaster, the unsaid order to be what the Wizarding World thinks him to be, Harry says, “No.”

The headmaster’s smile dims. “It is undoubtedly true that I will die, my boy, as sad as it is, and soon at that. Dear Severus estimates another two months. I almost think it will be less. But worry not, as death is merely the next great adventure.”

Harry isn’t sure if the headmaster misunderstood him for real or if he is pretending, but he doesn’t care. He hurts all over, the dried blood on his face, his hands, his clothes is sticky and overall, he feels grimy and as if he could sleep until the brewing war is over.

So yes: He is done with playing along for today. He is done listening to an old man who will never take the time to listen in turn, to try to understand, to see another way but the reality he envisioned when he heard a prophecy and saw a scar.

He is done.

Just as he turns to leave, the door is blown up.

The headmaster reacts quickly, throwing a spell at Harry that leaves him invisible and another to keep his body frozen, letting him crash down on the floor, his side and head crashing against the hard tiles painfully. He says, “I entrust it to you” and throws the ring at him. It hits Harry’s chest, rebounds a bit and lands in front of him, close enough that he can see it.

He can also see the whole room, cooped up in the corner as he is.

He sees Professor Snape, billowing cloak and raised wand and regretful mien. He sees Bellatrix Lestrange, cackling in mad joy. He sees Draco Malfoy, pale and shaken and frightened and so relieved to have fulfilled his mission.

Harry completely forgot about him and the Vanishing Cabinet. The Dark Lord Voldemort didn’t ever think that Malfoy would be successful, so Harry followed his lead and made do with throwing a few curveballs his way. But maybe the Dark Lord Voldemort changed his mind, and Harry just didn’t dream about it. Maybe, Malfoy surprised him as much as he caught Harry off guard. Maybe, it wasn’t Malfoy to fulfil the mission, but Professor Snape.

It doesn’t matter either way.

Here they are now, Death Eaters in Hogwarts, Bellatrix Lestrange’s crazed bloodlust almost unchecked, Malfoy too timid to interrupt her, Professor Snape too focussed on the headmaster.

The headmaster mouths at him, “Please. Please.”

Please what? Please don’t do this? Please don’t kill me?

Professor Snape lights up in a spiteful happiness and dims with a resigned sadness.

His wand lights up green.

Ah. Please kill me.

Before the curse can be shot, Bellatrix Lestrange looks around the office, wandering into the line of fire. She peers into cups, lifts lids, shakes cans, watches the weird knick-knacks the headmaster has standing around.

“Nice office you have there, Dumbledore,” she observes, almost nonchalantly. “Better than Azkaban, let me tell you this. Warmer, too. Did you get fed the last years, Dumbledore?” Now, the madness takes hold of her, turns her to the headmaster who blinks up defiantly at her. “Did you? Did you suffer like we did? Every day, all day, Dementors, hunger, cold! But I wasn’t afraid, no, no! I never lost hope! I always knew my master would return! Always knew! Never lost hope! And I was right! Right, I was!” She giggles, her voice lowering again. A silly little hum, something a mother would sing to her fussy baby, escapes from her blood red lips. When she speaks next, pausing in her wanderings to lean close to the headmaster, it’s almost a whisper. “Where is the boy?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” the headmaster calmly replies, his eyes hard and bearing into the madwoman in front of him. But his temple gives him away, little beads of sweat gathering to broadcast his lie.

Bellatrix Lestrange cackles again. Malfoy flinches with each harsh laugh, sinking into himself and hiding behind his soulmate, his Severus Snape who watches, unimpressed except for the fingers tightening around his wand.

Still giggling, she casts a Dark hex, her wand moving through the pattern lighting fast. The headmaster can’t shield in time, not having expected her to attack, and his hands are pressed to the floor. Bellatrix Lestrange walks in front of him, tittering about something only she finds funny. She casts another Dark spell, this one without wand movements. “Piss yourself in fear!”, she chants.

The headmaster wets himself. She starts snickering, holding onto her sides as she sinks to the floor in laughter, tears forming in her eyes as her gaze stays focussed on the hideous robe and the wet stain on it.

A good five minutes later, she stands, straightens out her dress that was already dirty before she rolled on the floor in it, and goes back to serious within the blink of a second. “But I never lost hope in my master,” she repeats, this time without madness colouring her tone. Instead, her voice is soft and worshipful. “And my master held his promises. Those who harmed me and mine, they burned. And theirs burned with them. Sweet, sweet screams, sweeter revenge.” Her eyes close, her lips forming a bloodthirsty grin, no doubt relieving the same fire-house-street-village-burns-screams-I-have-avenged-you-my-faithful that Harry is thinking of. He remembers the tears of joy in her dark eyes that turned into great heaving sobs of pain and grief, finally out in the open. He remembers her husband hugging her, crying along with her. He remembers him amplifying their screams, comforting his faithful in the only way he knows how, through violence and pain and painful catharsis.

He understands.

The same way he understands the desperation that drives the headmaster, he understands the devotion and madness that drives Bellatrix Lestrange.

The woman opens her eyes, expression peaceful before it twists into something determined. “So I need you to tell me where the boy is.”

The headmaster looks horrified by the story he just heard, that act of kindness and compassion and utter cruelty.

He doesn’t understand.

So he tries to do the only thing he knows, tries pity and sorrow where he should have shown vindication and joy.

And he sticks his wand right into the hornets’ nest.

“You poor girl. I still remember you, bright-eyed on your first day here in Hogwarts. It is not too late for you, you can still turn around, there is still a chance-“

He is interrupted by an almost lazy, almost bored Crucio, but the madness shining in those black eyes refutes the bland expression.

“My master wants the boy found. Tell me where he is, or I will rip the whole school apart.”

Harry can tell that the headmaster is confused by this turn of events. He probably thought they would run in here, trying to kill him. No doubt that’s why they’re here, but the Dark Lord Voldemort can multitask. His bewildered eyes flit to Professor Snape, but his gaze is averted.

It is clear that the stupid man thought that the professor was on his side, would tell him everything he needed to know, when it is obvious that Professor Snape is bound in more than one way. He carries the symbol of the Dark Lord Voldemort, is marked as his soldier. His soulmate and his soulmate’s family stand amongst his ranks, and it is clear how much he loves Malfoy to all who want to see it. It would be simple to threaten Malfoy and make Professor Snape dance to the tune of whoever has Malfoy in his grasp.

And oh, how the Dark Lord Voldemort makes the professor dance.

The headmaster looks resigned.

“I will never tell you anything,” he proclaims, “so you might as well just kill me.”

His eyes flit to Professor Snape once more and catch an almost imperceptible nod.

Bellatrix Lestrange cackles again, loud and mad. “Alright, alright, just a bit, just to test!”

She starts shooting curses at him, Light and Dark, using all three Unforgivable Curses, the Killing Curse missing the headmaster by a mere millimetre. Still, he will not break his silence, resisting every attempt. By the end, he’s screaming and crying, but not a single syllable has passed his lips.

Bellatrix Lestrange looks reluctantly impressed. She snorts and turns around, her dark gaze locking onto Professor Snape. “You can have him. I already had my fun.”

Her gaze sweeps away, returns, sticks to Malfoy. He looks like he’s on the verge of either fainting or vomiting, his horrified eyes unable to look away from the beaten and bloodied form that once was the headmaster.

Does he see his own body superimposed over it, spying what could have been if he didn’t succeed in his mission? He should not bother; the Dark Lord Voldemort can do much better. Harry’s seen it. This is child’s play in comparison.

Harry’s attention is directed to the headmaster who is trying to move as best as he can. Bellatrix Lestrange starts teasing her nephew about his queasiness, the professor trying and failing to divert her attention and to explain and excuse. Nobody notices how blue eyes bear into seemingly nothing, how they glaze over in what can only be Legilimancy, how they remain this way for long, long minutes.

Harry doesn’t see any of this. He sees a blink of blue eyes, and then he concentrates on throwing the invader out of his mind. He fights with all he has, but it is not enough. At least, now it is only inexperience that leads to his loss, not his traitorous subconscious deciding that soulmate-safe-don’t-attack-don’t-warn-no-alarm-everything-alright-help-soulmate-safe.

Clearly, the headmaster has been told what Harry’s defences are as he does not stop in those rooms filled with false memories. He keeps going, revealing his Boggart to be a young man with heterochromia that Harry identifies as the Dark Lord Grindelwald, his arithmantic capabilities to be more than good enough to figure out that most likely, the Dark Lord Voldemort parted his soul six times to get to seven soul pieces without having Harry harass Professor Slughorn for that information, and his image in the Dream Mirror to be the very same man that his Boggart represented.

The headmaster begins wandering about, searching for a way to solve this puzzle that has no key to everyone who is not Harry. Harry materialises behind him, having readied his defences. A Dementor representing his ability to cast Dark magic and a Patronus representing his ability to cast Light magic await the headmaster. He looks at them with a surprised look, obviously knowing that most people are only capable of high-level casting one field of magic. He fires off his own Patronus, the phoenix driving away the Dementor before it can do much harm, but it is obvious he does not know what to do about the Patronus. There exists a counter spell, hidden deep within the memories of the library portrait, fallen out of use, but the headmaster doesn’t know of it, and even if, he would never stoop so low as to use Dark Magic. He sends his Patronus at it, and while it doesn’t dissolve Harry’s, it keeps it in check.

But it leaves the headmaster free to do as he pleases. He ignores Harry, striding around in quick paces, looking for something, seemingly readying himself for something, lifting his wand to his head, about to do something, and Harry doesn’t want to find out what.

So he calls on his final defence, the one no-one knows about, the one designed to kill.

He lets loose his memories.

He rains down green-lights-please-not-Harry-step-aside-take-me-foolish-girl-pain-pain-pain-please-don’t-Uncle-Vernon-help-me-save-me-whispers-gossiping-staring-venom-spreading-dog-biting-pain-pain-pain-stop-it-Dudley-please-hunger-thirst-so-hungry-please-exhaustion-drowning-in-the-lake-in-burning-gold-please-stop-I’m-sorry-stop-it-please-please-pain-pain-laughter-I-can-touch-you-now-broken-leg-broken-heart-broken-arm-bones-removed-cut-wrist-shame-fear-pain-hunger-pain on the intruder. The figure crashes to the ground in anguish, writhing in agony. Harry feels no pity for him. He knows that the real body of the headmaster is horribly damaged now when the figure dissolves – not that he wasn’t before, tortured and broken as he was.

Harry opens his eyes in the real world and takes a deep breath. Opposite of him lays the headmaster in an awkward crouch, half-sitting, half-lying, eyes bearing into his. Suddenly, they shoot open in shock before the body sinks backwards.

Harry is bemused that his mind killed one of the most powerful wizards of the last two centuries, weakened though he was. For a moment, he feels nothing but relief. Nobody will force him to fight now, putting him into dangerous situations in the hopes of convincing him to become the Light warrior they all want. For a moment, he is happy. Then, reality crashes into him.

The headmaster has died.

His spells died with him.

He is clearly visible, clearly vulnerable, right in front of Bellatrix Lestrange, Professor Snape and Malfoy.

Instinctively, his hands close, his eyes roam, trying to find something with which to resist, to fight, to protect himself, even as he knows that it is useless. How often has he looked around this office in boredom as the headmaster droned on during the “lessons”? He knows there is nothing to help him.

The only thing he has is himself, and his injuries, and his shock, and his pain, and his fear.

The professor’s eyes widen in surprise, first at Harry’s appearance, then at his wounds. His gaze softens and tries to convey his apologies. Malfoy spots him next, releasing a triumphant cry and alerting Bellatrix Lestrange. She is the fastest to react, her hand reaching for her wand. Still slightly disoriented from the battle in his mind, Harry has no chance to counteract this quickly. The spell hits him and turns his body unresponsive to his brain’s commands again. He is lifted, unable to protest or to protect his head as it hits the ceiling. With a giggle, Bellatrix Lestrange rights him under the glare of Professor Snape. He takes over the Levitation Charm as Bellatrix Lestrange swirls around. She lets out a despairing scream at only encountering the headmaster’s body.

“Until the very end, you keep on screwing our plans up! Sevy was all out for revenge, you bastard, and you die before he can get it?”, she screams at the body, kicking it in her anger though the headmaster can’t feel it anymore.

“Bellatrix,” the professor stops her before she starts dismembering the body in her rage. “We have what we came for. Let us return.”

At the reminder, her face lights up again. She is skipping down the stairs, humming again, seemingly at peace with the world, leading the way out of Hogwarts.

Malfoy whispers to Harry, “Now, Potter, you will learn real pain! What you saw just now, that is nothing compared to what my Lord will do to you!”

Harry would feel more threatened if Malfoy did not still look very green, and if Harry didn’t have two bargaining chips in the form of a ring and a cup, one hidden in his hand while released for those few unobserved seconds, the hard stone cutting into his palm, the other in this warded trunk.

“How do you feel, Potter?”, Malfoy spits, getting louder as his anger burns hotter. “Are you going to cry for your precious Dumbledore? Are you going to wallow in despair? You should, you better do! Once we get you to my Lord, and he hears of my great plan and how it succeeded, I will get to pay you back for all that humiliation! I will cut off your arms and your legs, and I will carve up your chest, and I will-“

“Enough,” Professor Snape interrupts with a sharp look at Malfoy. The teenager, no, boy, for that is all he is, pampered and not knowing of what he talks, blanches and visibly starts musing about what he did to receive such reprimand. Harry floats closer to the professor and is spoken to just loud enough to hear the whisper of, “For all that it’s worth: I am sorry.”

Harry tries to convey forgiveness with his eyes; after all, the professor has the least to do with the situation, as far as Harry knows, and meeting his-soulmate the Dark Lord Voldemort again is inevitable, thinking about it now. He will tell him that he does not want to participate in any fights, that he will retreat and not battle for or against him. Hopefully, that will be enough.

Bellatrix Lestrange cackles again, the noise getting louder shortly before it abruptly cuts off as Harry’s world turns black.

 

He is staring at the boy, once again. He looks so small like this, asleep until he knows what he’ll do with him.

At first, he wanted to torture and kill him, enraged by the ring the boy was holding, clinging to like a lifeline. Now, he wants to wait, to wake him up and interrogate him. But the boy has an uncanny track of escaping, no matter how impossible it seems, so it is best to keep him vulnerable and unaware as long as possible.

He strokes over his head. The raspy stubble that would not grow any longer has thickened, maybe even lengthened a bit since he took hold of his ring, his Horcux. He feels like he can think more clearly. Logic tells him to discover all the secrets about the boy he can for now, starting with that trunk hidden in his pocket, dripping with protective magic.

He reaches for the shrunken object as the dream fades.

 

It is later. How Harry can tell that, he doesn’t know. All he knows is that now, his hair has finally grown, escaping the hairstyle it was in since it first grew back, since he held his diary. He stares at the cup sitting on the floor next to the boy, among the other trinkets from the trunk.

This is the second time he salvaged a Horcrux from the rubble of ordinary knick-knacks in Harry Potter’s trunk, schoolbooks and notes, quills and clothes, ink and parchment.

This is the third Horcrux that has been brought back to him by Harry Potter, the boy sleeping in front of him.

His fingers twitch with the urge to torture the answers out of him, but he knows the risk of waking the boy is too high. He starts wondering what else the boy is hiding, what he can safely discern without the danger of the boy getting away again. Last time, he escaped from Malfoy Manor, weak from dehydration and malnutrition, without use of his wand, without prior knowledge of escape routes.

Luck guided him as surely out of his hands as it led him into them.

He will interrogate little Draco, so proud of his success, so haughty about this minor accomplishment.

There must be something else he can discover about his fated enemy before waking him up and ensuring his certain death.

 

Now, a week later, it is Harry’s birthday. It seems fitting to unpack his secrets like presents, a parody of a normal birthday with the birthday boy giving instead of receiving.

A soft leather bracelet sits around his left wrist. He’s seen it before, assumed it was a fashion trend, or a safety measure to protect his soulmate. Now, he looks closer, and he sees the power it radiates. He would be impressed if it wasn’t his enemy’s work and if he didn’t have to undo all these wards.

He sighs and focusses on breaking through when he stops and looks closer, his gut warning him. He looks the work over again and finds layers, hexes and curses interwoven with protective charms, Light and Dark combined to give the best defence.

It seems like it will be an even more arduous task than imagined. But why should he do it, anyway? He is a Dark Lord; he has lackeys to do the dirty work for him.

He calls for Wormtail, pathetic excuse for a wizard though he is. The rat comes to him, trembling in fear and excitement. Upon seeing the sleeping boy, his face does something complicated, twists into something that is grief as much as it is malicious joy. He whimpers, “Master, master, how can I be of service, what shall I do for you,” on and on until he raises his hand with a Stinging Hex.

The useless creature in front of him twitches from the slight pain, yelping. It is clear that he has never felt real pain, never had his back whipped until blood flowed freely, never had his face dunked under water until he wished for death, never was starved and cold and alone. No, this wretched being, more rat than human, always slept comfortably, ate without worry and experienced real joy. Even while he was nothing more than a wisp, barely clinging to live with all of his will and magic and power, this rat was safe and warm and fed.

He feels his lips twist into a scowl. Coldly, he orders, “Take off this bracelet.”

The rat, visibly confused, tries to pull it off. Before his grubby fingers can make contact, electricity rises and shocks him. Wormtail stops, looks pitifully at him, but he will find no mercy there, no forgiveness for him who only returned out of fear, not duty or loyalty.

“Go on,” he commands.

Wormtail tries the exact same thing again only to be shocked again.

He feels like sighing.

Finally, Wormtail figures out that he can use magic, so he tries whatever he can think of – an impressive amount, if he is honest, and certainly many more than he’d expected. The rat attempts to pull the bracelet off with magic, only to grow hair rapidly all over his body. He attempts to make the bracelet big enough so that it will be pulled off by gravity, only for his hands and arms to swell for as long as he holds onto the spell. He attempts to make the bracelet invisible, only to be hit with a swarm of bees. He attempts to transfigure the bracelet into water, into air, into glass, only to be partially transfigured into his Animagus form, sprouting a tail, losing fingers and growing blunt, ineffective claws, only for him to be shrunk to the size of an apple, only for his hair to be ripped out painfully.

Seeing that it is useless, he releases him. Maliciously, he calls after the rat as he scurries away, “Be careful of Nagini for she is hungry.”

He relishes in the frightened squeak.

Next, he calls another Death Eater, bidding her to remove the spells. She manages three layers which colours her hideously, sucks the warmth from her and dunks her in cold water. He sends her away before he can lose her, one of the respectable fighters still left from before his untimely disappearance.

She sets a trend that is followed all afternoon long. One by one, a Death Eater steps forwards, attacking the protective charms, hexes, curses. One by one, they are unable to continue. The curses get worse the further down they get, no longer ripping out every hair painfully, but severing limbs, no longer cooling the body dangerously, but setting it on fire. Finally, only two layers remain. One spell enables the bracelet to retain all the attributes it had before, still rendering the Death Eaters unable to trick the bracelet into revealing what lies beneath by any other means than painfully breaking the last layers. The last keeps the bracelet where it is.

Both spells are guarded with deadly curses, one so Dark the light almost flees from it, the other so Light the dark seemingly escapes from it. The bracelet is surrounded by a grey mist, almost otherworldly in its appearance, neither light nor dark and both at the same time.

He calls for prisoners, one a witch too curious for her own good, one a wizard associated with the Order of the Phoenix. He promises both freedom if they manage to break through the spells.

The witch tackles the Dark spell with expertise, being a Ward Breaker. But she’s not careful enough, bringing down the charm, but also expelling her blood through her mouth like a geyser. He doesn’t bother removing the blood stains before telling the other prisoner to enter. The man sinks to the ground in despair at the sight of both the blood and the unconscious Harry Potter before him.

He doesn’t take pity on him, coldly ordering him to remove the last layer.

The man is shaking as he tries to. He stops short when his blood starts clotting, leading to his death.

He calls for someone to take the body away and to retrieve the next prisoner.

Finally, when the dungeons have been sufficiently emptied, he himself tackles the curse. For long moments, he tries to figure out how to best do it, finally finding a weak point and bringing the layer down. He reaches for the bracelet, but his instincts warn him again. Another prisoner stands in front of the door, waiting. He calls her in, commanding her to take the bracelet off.

At first touch, a potion starts to eat through skin, muscle, bone. She’s screaming, rolling on the floor. He stands closer to examine the leather. It is layered with potions and poisons, one atop the other, a fine layer of paint separating the liquids and keeping them from reacting to each other. He calls for Snape, resident Potions Master.

The sour man arrives within seconds, not sparing the still screaming witch on the floor a glance. All his attention is focussed on his Lord, but his eyes still flit to the boy lying on the bed. Upon receiving instructions, he sets to work. He identifies the potion or poison and disposes of them, either brewing the antidote or vanishing those for which it is safe to do so. He takes a day for this, filling the room with potion fumes and angry, though impressed, curses.

Finally, after Snape is done, another prisoner lifts the bracelet, him having learned the lesson to not underestimate the bracelet and its defences. It takes some time for the captive to figure out that she has to alter the runes stitched into the leather to touch the bracelet without pain. Until then, he relishes in each pained scream.

And finally, finally, the bracelet slides down the slender wrist.

It is white, that skin, as if it has not seen the sun in years, and looks so vulnerable, like even a nick of a knife would sever all the blood vessels and go right through to the bone. The prisoner puts her dirty hands on that pale, perfect skin and turns the arm to reveal Avada Kedavra.

A connection flares to life, searing through him, binding two halves of a whole together, sealing them unbreakably.

Oh.