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Snape stumbles into Grimmauld Place one night not a week after Harry gets there and while he’s trying not to think about the hearing that’s upcoming, which might mean he’s expelled from Hogwarts. Snape at least provides something else to think about instead.

He collapses on the floor not far from the doorway, and so Harry’s the first one that finds him. There’s blood all over his robes and side, and Harry can see bone. He immediately yells for Kreacher, and maybe it’s because of the panic in his voice, but the elf actually shows up.

He stares at Snape for a second, then at Harry. “Filthy half-bloods be wanting Kreacher to do something?” he asks.

“If you help him—bring him healing potions or something—then I’ll make sure your head’s hung on the wall after you die!” Harry says desperately. It’s the only thing he can think of. He doesn’t even dare do magic with the hearing coming up. He falls to his knees beside Snape, trying to press his hands against the robes and hold back the blood.

Kreacher disappears just as the twins pound down the stairs. “We thought we heard something—”

“Bloody hell,” George adds, and since he’s of age, he at least manages to conjure a bandage and get it slapped over the mess that’s the open wound in Snape’s side. “What happened to him?”

Harry shakes his head and then moves around so that he can see Snape’s face. Snape’s lips are moving, and his face is contorted in a terrible way. Harry kneels down. If these are going to be Snape’s last words on earth, then he wants to hear them.

Snape manages to hiss at him, “Found out—as a spy. Dark Lord—took my blood. Performing a spell to find—” And he goes limp, his head rolling on the floor in a cascade of greasy hair.

Sirius arrives then, and there’s more yelling, and Harry barely makes everyone calm down enough to ask Sirius to send a Patronus to Dumbledore, because he thinks that Snape’s last words about blood need to be heard.

But he never imagines that they have anything to do with him. Why would they?

*

Harry stares at Dumbledore and Snape for long seconds after the words leave Dumbledore’s lips.

Then he swallows against the grainy dryness of his throat, and whispers, “You’re joking.”

“Alas, Harry, I am not.” Dumbledore places his hands over his eyes. It’s the tiredest Harry has ever seen him look. “Professor Snape hoped to take the secret to his grave, but with the blood that Voldemort now possesses, he will be able to track down any person who is linked to Professor Snape biologically. And that means that it is necessary to tell you.”

A second more passes, and then Harry is laughing hysterically, bent over his knees, gasping for breath. Something warm lands on his shoulder and he can hear Fawkes crooning in worry, but he can’t look up at the phoenix. He can’t attend to Dumbledore asking if he’s all right. He can’t think of anything but—

The fact that Snape and his mum slept together some night long ago, nine months before he was born. And his dad, that is James Potter, never knew. And he’s not a Potter, and he’s Snape’s son, and Snape always knew, and never treated him differently, and—

“Harry!”

A charm hits him at the same moment as Snape snarls, “Potter!” Harry sits back up, a little calmed down, and says the first thing that comes into his head.

“You can’t call me that anymore, Snape.”

Snape says nothing, his mouth one long grim line across his face. Harry turns away from him and faces Dumbledore. “You could have just said Snape was caught spying and kept me under the blood protections that you say I’m under when I visit the Dursleys,” he says flatly. “You didn’t have to tell me anything. Can you Obliviate me now?”

“Harry,” Dumbledore sighs, sounding sad and pained. “You should face the truth of who you are.”

Fawkes pushes his beak against Harry’s cheek. Harry roughly shakes the phoenix off, and ignores the bird’s attempts to cry on him. He only has one more question to ask. “Does Sirius know?”

“You think I would trust Black with this? You are truly as stupid as I always thought you.”

Harry stands up and leaves the Headmaster’s office without looking back, even though he Flooed here and he knows he’ll need to wait for someone to Floo back or Apparate him to Grimmauld Place. His heart is pounding and his head is filled with a void and all he can think is that he’s lost. Everything. All things.

He has nothing.

*

“Get out.”

Harry anticipated that, too, once he told Sirius that he was “Snivellus’s” son. He already has his things packed. He slings his bag over his shoulder, and slips the trunk that Tonks was kind enough to shrink for him into his pocket, and goes.

Sirius stops him before he even gets to the stairs, though. “I’ll be having the broom I gave you back. And the Cloak and the Map. Since you aren’t really a Marauder after all.”

Harry stops with his shoulders hunched in as much as he can make them. Then he turns and looks into Sirius’s eyes.

They’re wild with grief. Sirius doesn’t hate him, but Harry knows well enough that this is like losing James all over again, and now there’s nothing left in the world of Sirius’s best friend, and nothing will ever make it right again.

Harry is all too used to that feeling, himself.

“All right,” he says, head filled with dullness, and pulls out the trunk. Sirius resizes it so quickly that Harry almost drops it on his foot. Harry pulls out the Cloak and the Map and hands them over, along with the shrunken Firebolt, and Sirius almost snatches them. Then Sirius reaches for the photo album Hagrid gave him.

No.”

Sirius starts and glares at him. “Those pictures of James aren’t yours.”

“But my mum is still my mum, and you didn’t give it to me,” Harry retorts, sweeping hair from his face.

Sirius tracks the movement of Harry’s hand with his eyes and then begins laughing, nearly the way he laughed when Harry saw him for the first time in photographs on the front page of the Prophet. “What did they do to make you look so like James, huh? Snivellus doesn’t have that poor eyesight, or that hair. They cast the spells. Or Lily did. What are you going to look like when those spells break?”

It’s something Harry hasn’t thought about, and he staggers with the knowledge. But he’s still quick enough to slam the trunk’s lid when Sirius tries to scoop up the photo album again. It’s still not his.

“You’re not going to have the Potter vault, either,” Sirius taunts, stepping back, sucking his fingers that must smart from the trunk’s lid catching them. “Better get your daddy to buy them for you. You know, I never did think you were enough like James.”

“Well, as long as we’re voicing ugly thoughts,” Harry whispers, “I can’t believe that you ran after Peter when I was a baby and your godson, as far as you knew.”

Sirius staggers, his eyes wide and betrayed, and Harry turns and goes down to the Floo. No one knows he’s going to Hogwarts, but where else does he have to go? The Dursleys might take him back if Dumbledore goes with him, but not otherwise, and he can’t stay here.

He’s lost his godfather, too.

*

Dumbledore does talk to Sirius and try to persuade him to let Harry back into Grimmauld Place, but he fails. Harry knew he would. He sleeps by himself in the room that will belong to the Gryffindor fifth-year boys in September, and he practices magic by himself, and reads, and finishes up his summer assignments, and goes to the kitchens to spend time with Dobby when he absolutely can’t stand the loneliness anymore.

He sees Snape only once, when he’s coming out of the kitchens on the way back to Gryffindor Tower.

Harry freezes for a second, then just nods and starts to walk on. He can feel Snape’s eyes on him, knows what he’s probably seeing. It seems that Snape’s acknowledgement of their biological relationship is what was needed to break the spells concealing Harry’s features under James Potter’s. Harry has longer, straighter hair now, although it’s still black, and a longer nose. Otherwise, the changes to his chin and cheeks seem to mostly come from his mum.

“You need not think that you will ever live with me,” Snape tells his back as Harry walks past him. “You would need to be a much more accomplished young man.”

Harry glances back, and he thinks later that it’s his expression of complete surprise that makes Snape blink at him. “I never thought that,” Harry says.

He continues on his way up to Gryffindor Tower, bleakly amused. Why in the world would he want to live with Snape? He’s only actually desired to live with people who love him unconditionally.

He gave up on the blood family who wanted him to be a different person long ago. This is only another iteration of that.

*

Telling his friends turns out to be harder than Harry thought, because he was sure Sirius would have told them. But apparently Sirius just locked himself in his bedroom at Grimmauld Place for the rest of the summer and refused to come out, summoning Kreacher to give him meals. Harry has to listen to minutes of Hermione’s rambling indignation about that before he finally gives up and snaps, “I’m Snape’s son.”

They’re in a darkened corner of the Gryffindor common room with privacy spells woven around them, but Hermione still looks around frantically, as if sure that someone is spying on them. Then she swallows and says, “That’s—that’s why Sirius went mad.”

Harry shrugs, leaning back in the squashy chair he claimed earlier and staring at the ceiling. He almost wonders if he’s supposed to be here at all. Did the Sorting Hat want to put him in Slytherin because of his heritage?

It feels like a stupid thought, but no stupider than assuming he was supposed to belong in Gryffindor because of who he thought his parents were.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Harry says. “He couldn’t stand the fact that I’m not James Potter’s.”

“But how did it happen?” Ron asks, and then turns green as both Harry and Hermione look at him. “Never mind, I know that. I mean, why did it happen?”

Harry shakes his head. “I only got the bare facts from both Snape and Dumbledore—”

“Harry, call them Professor—”

“I’m bloody well not going to,” Harry snaps, turning to Hermione, whose eyes widen at once. “All they told me was that Snape and my mum slept together nine months before I was born. That’s all, Hermione. They were both here all summer, and Snape’s been found out by Voldemort—stop flinching, Ron!—so he could have told me all the truth he liked. But neither did. Dumbledore won’t even meet my eyes. So don’t tell me I should be respectful towards them.”

“But they should have told you,” Hermione says, looking fretful. “Professor Snape doesn’t want any sort of relationship with you?”

Harry shakes his head. His hair is getting annoyingly long, even if it’s also straight now and growing much faster than it did when it was short. Well, he has an idea about what to do concerning that. “He said that he only would if I was a much more accomplished young man.”

“I’m sorry, Harry.” Hermione lets her hand rest on his. “Um, I noticed—I noticed that Sirius had the Map…”

Harry nods. “He took back the Map and the Firebolt and the Cloak. Said that all of them belong to Potters, and I’m not one.”

Hermione stares at him. “But that’s not fair! Even if he was right about the Map, the Cloak doesn’t belong to him, either, and he gave you the Firebolt! He shouldn’t just be able to take that back!”

It makes Harry feel a soft warm flush in his cheeks to know that someone else is on his side, but he shakes his head. “He feels differently, and I did ask Dumbledore about getting my broom back, but he said that he can’t do it.” He looks over at Ron. “Sorry, mate, but I think I’m off the team this year.”

“Harry, you can’t, mate! You’re the best Seeker I ever saw!”

“I think a lot of that was the broom I had, though. I won’t be anything to look at on those ratty school brooms.”

Ron only shakes his head, refusing to believe something Harry thinks is just common sense. “At least come out and try one of the Cleansweeps before you decide that that’s true.”

Harry accepts, because he thinks that he has to, but then Hermione says, “I think what Sirius did was horrible, but can’t you just buy a new broom, Harry?”

This is the most difficult part. Harry fixes his eyes on the wall straight ahead of him and says, “Can’t. The Potter money isn’t mine, either.”

There’s utter silence for three seconds, and then Hermione flings her arms around him and sobs into his shoulder. Harry pets her hair. He would say that she’s more upset about this than he is, but honestly, he was pretty bloody upset earlier in the summer. He’s just had more time to get used to it.

Lying in his four-poster and staring up at the canopy, he’s had time to get used to lots of things, and turn thoughts over in his mind, and accept that, yeah, in lots of ways, he’s alone.

“But you have your books and your cauldron and new robes, mate,” Ron says, his brow wrinkling a little. “How did you get them?”

“Dumbledore went to Diagon Alley and bought them for me. He didn’t tell me, but I’m pretty sure he used his own money.”

Ron turns white and gives him the most sympathetic look Harry thinks he’s ever given him. Well, Ron knows what it’s like to live on charity, too. Hermione pulls back. “Then what’s going to happen next year, Harry?”

“I’ve got a few ideas,” Harry says casually, which is only the truth. But Hermione, if not Ron, would disapprove of the vast majority of those ideas, so he doesn’t say them. “I’ve got until next summer before I have to worry about buying more school supplies, anyway. And the tuition to Hogwarts was paid the year I was born, and they won’t refund it, so I don’t have to worry about that.”

“Surely Professor Dumbledore could talk to Sirius about giving you the vault back! It’s just unfair for him to have your money.”

Harry shakes his head. “Apparently my parents—I mean, James Potter had a will that said if something happened to me, then Sirius and Remus should get the money. I’m glad for Remus, he needs it.” He sinks back into the chair and stares at the wall again.

“But couldn’t Professor Dumbledore do something?”

Harry only shrugs. “I told you, Hermione, he didn’t look at me all summer. Something else must have happened. It’s like knowing that I’m Snape’s son upset him. Or upset his plans, maybe,” he adds, but in such a low mutter that he doesn’t think Hermione hears.

And that’s not just Harry’s impression. When Harry asked about the vault, Professor Dumbledore frowned and said that he was sorry, but that he was sure Harry would find some way to survive. And every time Harry tried to approach him to talk about what will happen to him after the end of this year, Dumbledore turns around and walks in the opposite direction.

Everything there was conditional, too, then. Dumbledore only liked him as long as he was the son of Gryffindors.

Better to know it than not know it.

At least it seems that something else he was afraid of, Hermione and Ron abandoning him when he told them the truth, isn’t coming true. They lift the privacy spells and play Exploding Snap, and then they go to bed, and honestly, this is the most normal Harry’s life has been for months and he’s going to defend it with all his strength.

*

“Potter, what have I told you about dicing your ingredients the correct way?”

Harry looks up. Snape is standing there scowling him, and Harry looks back at him and feels a kind of clarity he never did before.

All this time, he thought Snape hated him because he was James Potter’s son and James Potter saved Snape’s life, and because he looked like his father. But Snape knew that Harry was his son.

Snape didn’t hate him because of what Harry’s father did. Snape hated Harry because he’s a git, the end.

“Nothing, sir,” Harry says easily.

“What?” Snape glares at him. His eyes move critically over the top of Harry’s head, where Harry put his long-hair solution into practice this morning. Now his hair is incredibly short, cut to the tops of his ears, which means that no one can see how straight or shaggy it is or is “meant” to be.

“You didn’t tell me anything about dicing ingredients, because you never bloody explain anything,” Harry says softly, and revels in the silence that spreads throughout the classroom. “Sir.”

Snape only stares some more. Harry finds himself bracing for a physical response the way he would for a punch from Dudley, and then shakes his head and calms down. Snape isn’t going to do that to him. Use the Cruciatus Curse on him or poison him in his sleep, maybe, but not that.

It’s weird how much better that makes Harry feel.

“Twenty points from Gryffindor,” Snape whispers at last. “Detention with Mr. Filch at eight-o’clock every night of the week for the next two months.” And he turns and sweeps to the front of the classroom, where he starts berating Parvati and Lavender for the color of their potion.

Seamus is muttering something about how Harry is causing trouble for Gryffindor just like he’s causing trouble in the papers. Hermione is giving him a disappointed look. Harry just smiles down into his cauldron.

He doesn’t have to care with Snape thinks, not when he’s Snape’s unclaimed bastard. He’s free.

*

“Do you have an opinion on You-Know-Who’s supposed return, Mr. Potter?”

Harry stares straight into the eyes of their new Defense professor, who was present at his hearing, too—also known as, the last time Dumbledore spoke about him as if he was a human being.

Harry knows he should oppose her. He knows that he should jump up and proclaim Voldemort’s return and be the embodiment of all that’s Gryffindor and valiant. If nothing else, it would look pretty weird to be saying he doesn’t believe in Voldemort’s return now, when all summer the papers have been printing nothing else.

But Harry doesn’t want to. He has enough else to concentrate on, including the hostility from his fellow students and those papers and the fact that Sirius won’t answer his owls and Remus’s dithering attempts to make peace between his best friend and his no-longer-really-even-honorary-godson and marks and OWLS and Dumbledore ignoring him and what he’s going to do about money and accommodations for the summer and losing all sense of who he was. Honestly, he’s almost glad that Dumbledore chose Ron as prefect now.

He just says, “No, Professor Umbridge.” That’s even true, because she asked him if he had an opinion about Voldemort being back. Harry has knowledge, not an opinion.

A lot of people in the classroom stare at him. Harry thinks he can see Hermione frowning. Seamus makes a disgusted sound from behind him, but he doesn’t matter. What Harry enjoys most of all is Umbridge’s blinking and mouth movements that make it look like she’s sucking on a sweet.

“You don’t, Mr. Potter? But the papers seem to indicate otherwise.”

“Rita Skeeter is writing most of those articles, and she wanted an interview with me last year and I didn’t grant her one, Professor,” Harry says, shaking his head and trying to look as sad as possible. “So I think she might be acting out of a grudge more than anything else. She hasn’t tried to interview me this year to ask my opinions.”

Umbridge blinks some more, and then tells everyone to go back to reading their books.

Harry smiles faintly and concentrates on the book in front of him. He can tell from Hermione’s by now very definite frown that they’ll have words after class, but for now, he’s just glad something isn’t going end up being a big deal.

*

“Harry, how could you say that?”

Harry doesn’t look up from the Divination essay that he’s writing random speculations for. “Because I don’t care, Hermione.”

There’s a long, long pause. Harry finally looks up. They’re in the Room of Requirement that Dobby showed them, since the opinions in Gryffindor Tower sway back and forth on such a regular basis that Harry honestly can’t do homework there. Of course, the Room looks like a replica of the common room most of the time, so the only real difference is the size and the silence.

Hermione is giving him such a shocked, disappointed look that Harry sighs and lays the book aside. “I didn’t mean that I don’t care about defeating Voldemort.” Hermione still flinches when he says that, but she’s getting better. “I mean that I don’t care about making one bigoted professor believe me.”

“But Harry, if people hear you say that in her class, they’ll think—”

“They already think that, Hermione,” Ron interjects, looking up from his own homework. Harry hides a grin; even Trelawney probably won’t accept the doodles he can see on Ron’s parchment as real homework, unless Ron manages to pass them off as mystical symbols of some kind. “Seamus doesn’t believe Harry, and he’s lived with him for four years. Why should Harry have to go out of his way to convince some random idiots?”

“We have to keep hope alive,” Hermione says, but her voice wavers. She sits down on the overstuffed red chair nearest her and looks back and forth between the two of them. “She’s going to hurt our Defense education.”

Harry sighs. “Our Defense education is already shit, Hermione.” He ignores the hissed, “Language!” “I’m going to have to self-study just to make sure that I pass the OWLS.”

“Or…”

“What?” Harry asks, when Hermione trails off leadingly.

Hermione takes a deep breath. “I was thinking that we could make our own Defense study group. And you could lead it, Harry! Think about it! You know so much about magic, you’ve survived so many duels, you know how to cast a Patronus—”

“No.”

Hermione stops again. At least this time she doesn’t look as crushed as she did before. Maybe she almost expected that. “Why, Harry?”

“I don’t want to.” Harry holds up his hand when Hermione opens her mouth, and at least she pauses to listen to him. “I don’t want to. I have enough else to deal with. And I’m sick of people treating me like a savior and then ignoring me the next instant, or deciding that I’m on Voldemort’s side or a delusional liar. And we’d get in trouble with Umbridge. You know what she’s like, going on and on about how there’s no need for practical spellwork. No. I’m going to live my own life for once.”

“But—you’re Harry Potter.”

“No, I’m not.”

Hermione blinks, and blinks again. Then she looks at her hands, and at Ron, who looks sympathetic but doesn’t say anything. “Someone has to do something,” she finally whispers.

“You know who could?” Harry asks, and Hermione looks at him. “Dumbledore. He could have hired someone for the Defense position before the Ministry could stuff Umbridge in there. He could speak up against Umbridge now. He could tell the papers that I’m not a liar, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even speak to me now. I don’t know why. I asked him, and he turned around and walked the other way.”

There’s an even longer silence after that. Harry goes back to his essay.

Chapter Text

Hermione decides that she’s going to take the risk of starting the defense group anyway. And Ron and Neville and Ginny and the twins all decide to join her in it. Harry wishes them luck, but ignores their attempts to invite him to the meetings and deliberately blocks out any attempt they make to tell him secrets. He has to be able to say truthfully that he knows nothing if Umbridge asks him.

Self-study on Defense is actually going pretty well. Harry finds the spells and practices them in the Room of Requirement during his free periods. It’s like bubbling champagne to feel the magic run through him and cascade through his wand and crack a wall, or fling up a shield made of stone, or counter a curse that the Room obligingly casts at him.

The rest of his life isn’t going so well.

Harry never gets any answer back from Sirius, no matter how many owls he sends. Remus is the one who finally writes and tells him to stop sending anything. “Sirius needs time to come to terms with this,” is what he says.

Of course, Harry’s life isn’t going to stop while Sirius “comes to terms.”

Harry launches the first phase of his plan to make sure that he can have some money to live on in the summer and buy his school supplies for next year, sending a parchment with a nondescript school owl to Rita Skeeter. If you want that interview that you were salivating after last year, be in the Hog’s Head on the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year.

She’s there, and peers at him distrustfully out of huge glasses while the frowning barman watches both of them. “Why are you willing to grant this to me now?” she asks.

Harry raises one of the privacy spells that he’s mastered around the table, and leans towards her. “Because I want to be paid.”

Skeeter blinks some more. Harry is pretty sure that none of the motivations she attributed to him included that. “All right,” she finally says. “But you must know that I’m still under that prohibition your little friend demanded under last year.”

Harry shrugs. “I’ll handle Hermione. She can’t get upset with you if I’m the one who willingly said this.”

Skeeter nods and looks a little more cheerful. “Fine. What do you want me to write about?”

“How my father wasn’t my father at all,” Harry says, and watches in satisfaction as she drops her butterbeer.

*

“I wish to know why you did this, Harry.”

Well, at least Skeeter’s article had one result Harry hadn’t hoped for: it got Dumbledore talking to him again. Although he’s still avoiding Harry’s eyes and frowning at the Daily Prophet spread out on his desk, Harry’ll count it as a victory.

“Nothing I said there was a lie,” Harry points out, leaning his head on his hand. His hair is growing out again, faster than normal, although it is almost Christmas. He suspects the removal of the spells that kept it shaggy for so long are affecting it. Well, he’ll burn it off again this weekend. “I just said that Snape was my father and I don’t really know how it happened, other than an affair, and I’m not a Potter.”

And Skeeter actually kept her word both to pay him and not to write much more than that. Harry even persuaded her to Side-Along Apparate him to Gringotts so that he could open a new account with his twenty Galleons.

“This is disappointing, Harry.”

“What can you expect of him, Headmaster?” Snape’s voice is low and so disgusted that it’s like listening to rustling compost. “The boy is the very image of his arrogant—” He pauses.

The second thing Harry will count as a victory is that Snape can’t reach for his favored insult anymore. And a wonder is that he’s so stupid he keeps trying.

Harry shrugs and watches Dumbledore’s bowed head. “I’m on my own, Headmaster. I’ve lost the only person who ever wanted me to live with them and a lot of things I owned. I don’t even know for sure how my conception happened.” He pauses, but Snape doesn’t want to fill in the silence, not that Harry really thought he would. “This is something I can do. And it’ll get some attention taken off the supposed lies I’m spreading about Voldemort’s return.”

“Do not say that name, Potter!”

Harry just raises his eyebrows higher and higher as he looks at Snape. He’s sorry that he’s the son of someone both cruel and stupid.

From the way that Snape’s face tightens, he read the thought out of Harry’s eyes. That’s something else Harry learned, that Snape could read minds. It just increases Harry’s contempt for him. If he could do that and still think Harry was a spoiled, pampered prince…

Harry turns back when Dumbledore speaks again. “Harry, there are many things that you don’t understand. Plans you don’t know are in motion that you might have destroyed.”

Harry shrugs. “If I don’t know about them, then I can hardly be blamed, can I?”

Dumbledore sighs and shakes his head, still looking at the desk. “Have you had any visions lately?”

It’s unexpected enough that for a moment, Harry pauses. Then he says, “No,” only telling the truth. He has nightmares about Cedric dying in the graveyard, but he knows the difference between those and the kind of visions of Voldemort’s activities that Dumbledore means.

Dumbledore sighs again. “Please tell Neville that I would like to see him, and the password for the gargoyle.”

Harry waits, but of course no explanation is forthcoming. In the end, he shrugs and says, “I’ll do it, but because I don’t want Neville to get in trouble, not for you.” Then he stands and walks out of the office.

“Arrogant bastard,” Snape hisses after him.

“Like father, like son,” Harry says brightly without turning.

*

“I just don’t understand why you thought you had to do this,” Hermione whispers to him the weekend after the article comes out, her voice exhausted.

It’s taken her this long to work up the nerve to approach him. Harry wonders idly if he’s that intimidating.

He puts down his Transfiguration essay and answers, ignoring the people who stare at him with big eyes over the backs of the chairs in the Gryffindor common room. The article has silenced some people’s hisses at him just because no one knows what to make of him anymore. “I don’t have any money, Hermione. I did it for that reason.”

She jerks around to look at him. “But once you explain to—I don’t know, Professor Dumbledore—I’m sure that your parents’ will—”

Harry laughs without any humor. “The same Professor Dumbledore who’s been avoiding my eyes all term? And they’re not my parents, Hermione.”

She still flinches as if struck when he reminds her. Harry is getting a little tired of that, to be honest. She acts like she’s the one who has to cope with the heavier burden of knowledge. “But I know—your fa—James Potter probably knew—and the will says that you would inherit as their child…”

“I thought that was what it said,” Harry corrects her harshly. He insisted that the goblins show him the Potters’ will when Skeeter took him to Gringotts the other day, although he had to pay five Galleons to do so, and even then he thinks it only happened because Lily Potter is still his mum. “It turns out that it says the child of both James and Lily Potter can inherit, and that child has to be legitimate, born within the Potter marriage. If there is no child of James and Lily Potter ‘by death or accident,’ then the money goes to Sirius and Remus.”

Hermione sits there, rigid. “Why that phrasing?” she finally whispers.

Harry snorts. The goblins were all too eager to explain that to him, probably because they thought they would have the pleasure of watching his face fall. They didn’t know that Harry has been denying his enemies that pleasure all year long. “Because two centuries ago, it turned out that the Potter child who inherited was only the child of one of the Potters. The husband, who slept around on his wife. His wife’s price for raising the son as her own child, since his mother was dead and she couldn’t have children, was that it would never happen again for anyone else. So all Potter wills from that day forwards have said that the ones who inherit the vault have to be the children of the married couple.”

“You could challenge…?”

“No. It’s pretty air-tight, Hermione. Besides that phrasing, there’s other phrases that close all sorts of loopholes.” Harry didn’t really think he would inherit the Potter vault, not after both Sirius and Dumbledore told him he wouldn’t. They wouldn’t have lied about something he could end up checking. But he did want to see the exact phrasing.

“Funny, isn’t it?” Harry adds after he and Hermione have sat in silence for a few minutes. “I’m losing out because one of my ancestors—excuse me, someone I would have thought was one of my ancestors—couldn’t keep it in his pants, and my mum couldn’t, either.”

“Harry! That’s a horrible thing to say about her!”

“I have no idea how it happened, Hermione. If she was raped or given a love potion or something like that, that’s horrible. But unless she was, she had a choice. She didn’t have to sleep around on her husband. She didn’t have to get pregnant with me. She didn’t have to make my life miserable.”

“If she hadn’t slept with Professor Snape, you wouldn’t exist, though.”

Harry shakes his head. He’s honestly not interested in that kind of logic. “Anyway. It’s why I won’t take the name Evans. I have no idea what kind of person she was.”

Hermione has nothing to say to that, and Harry returns to his studying.

*

Remus writes to Harry and asks him not to come to Grimmauld Place for Christmas.

Harry stays in Hogwarts. At least this isn’t going to cost any money. He spends the time that he’s not doing homework writing to various booksellers, exploring how much they’ll pay for old schoolbooks that he still has in his possession.

It’s somewhat depressing to hear that the ones he’ll get the most Galleons for are Lockhart’s.

Dumbledore takes Neville and Ron and Hermione to Grimmauld Place, and Hermione avoids his eyes when Harry asks why.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she whispers. “There’s something important going on, and Dumbledore explained it, and it actually is important, but—I’m sorry, he asked us not to tell you.” She’s actually wringing her hands, she’s so upset.

Harry closes his eyes. He feels like there’s a winter wind blowing through him, but, well, it’s a castle in Scotland. There’s always the bloody draughts.

He doesn’t want to lose his friends. They’re the only people who have stood by him. The article about Snape being his father eventually got him stares and sneers and jeers and gapes from the Gryffindors, and stares and sneers from the Slytherins. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws no longer seem to know what to make of him.

So, even though he’d also like to know what’s so bloody important, he nods and murmurs, “All right,” and takes Hermione’s hug and Ron’s awkward punch on the shoulder, and goes back to writing letters and sending books.

He also tries to avoid Snape, but that policy fails him on Christmas Day.

*

“I see that you were left out of the Order’s Christmas celebrations, Potter.”

Harry glances up from his plate at the small table in the Great Hall. Even fewer students stayed this year than usual, and it seems as though only four professors are here: Trelawney, Babbling, Sinistra, and Snape. “You, too,” Harry says, and returns to trying to memorize his Herbology textbook. He needs to do well on his OWLS since he’ll have to get a Ministry job instead of relying on the Potter money.

Snape leans towards him, a privacy spell going up around them at the same moment. Harry just raises his eyebrow, not moving.

“You did the wrong thing when you published that interview,” Snape whispers, his voice soft and shaking. He’s furious, Harry thinks with a blink. He didn’t know that he could still make Snape that angry. “You dishonored the memory of your mother—”

“You’d done that already,” Harry retorts, keeping his head low.

Snape jerks back as if Harry had slapped him and stalks away with a deadly glare. Harry rolls his eyes and goes back to his book.

Honestly, he doesn’t understand the man. He won’t tell Harry anything, he mistreated him all these years despite knowing the truth, and he still acts as though he thinks his disapproval matters to Harry? Harry wonders if someone can have brain damage from repeated bouts of the Cruciatus, and is glad that at least he won’t inherit that particular kind.

*

Two nights later, Harry hears that Mr. Weasley died from the bite of a powerful, venomous snake—probably Nagini.

He hugs Ron as hard as he can when he sees him again, and tries not to feel either of the burning emotions that fill him. Guilt for not dreaming of the event. Resentment that Ron clearly knows what Mr. Weasley was doing, what he was guarding, but won’t tell him.

Neither emotion wins. They just burn in him like twin fires.

*

Harry is so busy trying to help Ron and Ginny and the twins with their grief that it takes him a long time to notice what he should have noticed right away.

But then again, no one told him, either. Harry is so sick of no one telling him things but expecting him to react as if he knew.

He just happens to catch Dean’s eye one night when he’s on the way to the Room of Requirement, and Dean frowns but doesn’t scowl at him, and he’s cradling his hand that has blood welling out of the back.

“What happened, Dean?”

There’s a moment of silence as if Dean’s debating whether to answer him, and then he grimaces and extends his hand. “I had detention with Professor Umbridge,” he says, sinking a lot of contempt into the word. “She had me write with a quill that carved lines in my skin. And she wouldn’t let me leave early and assigned me more detentions when I complained, and the words won’t stop bleeding.”

Harry gently takes Dean’s wrist. He thinks he can just make out the words I must not defy authority before welling blood fills up the letters again.

Harry tries a few healing spells, but they don’t do any good. He grimaces and says, “You need Murtlap Essence, I think. That might stop the bleeding. How many times has she done this to you?”

“Only the second, for me.” Dean’s eyes are shadowed. “I know she’s done it to other people, though. Mostly the ones who are Muggleborn or who are pretty vocal about believing You-Know-Who is back. Some of the Hufflepuffs who believe that Cedric was murdered instead of just suffering an accident in the Tournament.”

Harry nods. He was content to ignore Umbridge as long as she wasn’t intruding on his life, but now he has a goal. “All right. Let me have a friend get you that Murtlap Essence. Dobby!”

Dobby appears with a little squeak, gasping and pressing his hands against his mouth when he sees Dean’s hand. “Oh, no, what happened to the great Harry Potter’s friends? Dobby must—”

“Please don’t call me that, Dobby. And it’s lines from a quill that cuts into your hand. Can you get us some Murtlap Essence, please?”

Dobby wrings his ears, looking torn in three directions at once. “Oh, of course, the great Harry Potter is having a different father.” He hesitates, then leans close and says in a loud whisper, “The great—the great wizard is realizing that the Murtlap Essence is in Professor Snape’s storage cupboards, yes?”

“No bloody way,” Dean mutters, and tries to take his hand away. Harry only raises an eyebrow at him, and after a moment, Dean seems to realize that Snape is probably less of a problem than Umbridge right now, and calms down.

“Yes, but he’s my father,” Harry says in the calmest, most friendly voice he can. “So he won’t mind if we take some, you see? But you don’t have to bother him or tell him. He’s still getting used to the relationship.” Dean sounds like he’s strangling next to him.

Dobby considers Harry with solemnity for a moment, then nods. “Dobby can be seeing that. And what does the great wizard want to be called? Harry Snape?”

“Ugh,” Harry says involuntarily, and this time Dean is chuckling openly. “No, just call me Harry, Dobby. That’s all I’ve ever been. Just Harry.”

Dobby abruptly dashes forwards and flings his arms around Harry’s legs. “The Great Harry is so good to Dobby!” he exclaims, and then he disappears. He’s back in about thirty seconds with a thick brown jar that smells terrible, but that Harry accepts gingerly. “Here is the Murtlap Essence! Is there anything else that Dobby can be getting Harry?” Dobby stands straight when he says the last word, puffing his chest out and clapping one hand over his heart.

Harry grins at him as he hands the jar to Dean. “I have an idea, actually. Something to make things a little better…”

*

Harry exchanges glances with Dean the next morning as Dean sits down at the table. Dean widens his eyes at him innocently and picks up a piece of sausage with his fork. Harry snorts, but his fears that Dean might blurt out everything are relaxing.

Harry turns his eyes back to Umbridge, who is sipping carefully at her morning tea. The cup is almost gone. Harry asked Dobby to add the potion when he refills the cup; Umbridge always has two servings of tea each morning. And then things ought to change around here.

“What are you looking at, Harry?”

Harry only shakes his head a little at Hermione’s words, not looking away from Umbridge. Snape is watching him, but Harry doesn’t see what the man is going to get out of that. He won’t be able to prove anything.

There. Umbridge takes another, larger sip, and her eyes glaze. Harry feels his lips curl in a smile that is probably very like his father’s.

At least his voice hasn’t changed, and neither has his courage. “Professor Umbridge,” Harry calls out loudly, attracting more than one eye. “Is it true that you’re torturing students by using quills that make them bleed in your detentions?”

“Yes, of course it’s true,” Umbridge says, blinking a little.

Harry smiles. Her voice doesn’t sound completely drugged, even though her eyes look like she’s under the Imperius Curse. He asked Dobby to dilute the Veritsaerum he removed from Snape’s cupboard with water, so that Umbridge still couldn’t lie but would sound more like herself.

Shouting breaks out all over the Great Hall. Dumbledore is standing and calling for order, but even though he’s casting fireworks from his wand at the ceiling, no one is listening to him. Harry presses on. “How many students have you done this to?”

“Twenty.”

Professor McGonagall is shouting for Harry to stop, but he ignores her. He can feel cold gathering in his belly. He knew Dean wasn’t the only one, Dean himself told Harry that, but to listen to her say it like this makes him want to hurt her. “Why did you hurt them?”

“They were spreading Dumbledore’s lies and defying the Ministry’s decrees.” Umbridge sniffs and folds her arms. “And some of them were filthy half-bloods and Mudbloods.”

The announcement of that word makes even some of the Slytherins go silent. Harry watches Malfoy edge back on his bench so that he’s not so close to Umbridge, and snorts. It seems as though even the ones who have no problem using that word have a problem with doing so in public.

“Did Fudge tell you to?” Harry calls, in the moment before he feels someone cast a Silencing Charm on him. It looks like it’s Hermione, from her wide eyes and shaking head. But he got the question out, and Umbridge is answering it.

“He said I should use whatever means of discipline was necessary. If not for the quill, what would it be?”

That leads to even more gasps and inching back from students at the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables. Harry smiles. He notices that one of the inchers is Ernie Macmillan, who was so eager to tell Harry a few years ago that he’s been pureblooded for the last however many generations. Maybe Muggleborns like Hermione won’t make an impact by writing to their parents, but offended pureblood parents are a different story.

And he might just have cost Fudge his office.

Dumbledore speaks, his voice rumbling in a way that means he must have cast the Sonorus Charm on his throat. “Students, these are unproven accusations. I must ask that you do not—”

“Did you use it on any pure-bloods?” Ernie yells.

“When they defied the Ministry, of course I did. Filthy brats who don’t know their place—”

Why did you use it?” Malfoy sounds as though he hopes against hope that she’ll have a good answer. Harry rolls his eyes, and lets Malfoy see him doing it. That, of all things, makes the git look mortally offended.

“I’ve already answered that question,” Umbridge says, with another sniff, and keeps drinking her tea.

In the end, Dumbledore Silences Umbridge, too—which makes her stare at him with an open mouth—and then announces the cancelation of classes for the day, and that any students suffering from an “unspecified injury” should go to the hospital wing. Then, for the first time all year, he looks at Harry.

“And you are to come to my office, Mr. Potter,” he says.

Harry just sits there.

Dumbledore looks as if he really, really wants to hex him. “Harry, then,” he says. “To my office.”

Harry stands up and goes, accepting the firm handshake from Dean and the pounding on his shoulder from Ron along the way.

*

“What did you was neither right nor funny, Mr—Harry.”

Dumbledore is back to looking at his hands again. Harry sits there peacefully.

“Do you have no answer, my boy?”

Harry points to his mouth. Dumbledore waves his wand and reverses the Silencing Charm. Harry yawns. “I wasn’t the one who did whatever was done to her, sir. I didn’t put anything in her tea or influence her in any other way.”

There’s a long pause. Dumbledore’s lie-detecting sense will say that Harry’s telling the truth. Then Dumbledore says, “But you had advance knowledge of the plan.”

“I could hardly betray the confidence of whoever wanted to stop her from torturing people, sir. For that matter, why was it allowed to go on as long as it was? How was she able to torture twenty students, and none of the staff stopped her?”

“We are in a very delicate political situation with the Ministry right now, Harry. One that I do not expect you to understand. And your erratic behavior has endangered Hogwarts’s position. Even if you do not care for me, surely you care for the school as a whole?”

Harry shrugs. “I don’t see that innocent people should be sacrificed to a political purpose, sir, no matter what.”

Dumbledore draws in his breath sharply, as if what Harry has said surprises him. Harry doesn’t see why. Any idiot ought to have been able to predict that he would act that way.

“I know that we have not always seen eye to eye,” Dumbledore begins quietly. “But, my dear boy, surely you know that I am trying to act in the students’ best interests. I was not leaving them to be—I would not have ignored Madam Umbridge if I was not coming up with another way, a more delicate way, to oust her.”

“What was the way?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”

Harry shrugs again. “Well, it wasn’t coming fast enough for Dean or the other people who were being hurt. So now it’s done. And I’ll go along with the hearing or the punishment or whatever it’s going to be.” At this point, he almost thinks he wouldn’t mind being expelled from Hogwarts and having his wand snapped. Sure, it would be horrible and it would hurt, but then he would be away from all these people who are intent on keeping secrets from him all the time.

“Please trust me that, when I can, I will make all clear to you. And please send Neville to my office.”

*

“What you did was beyond foolish.”

Harry glances up from his scrubbing of the trophy room’s floor. Snape stands like a suit of obsidian armor in the doorway. Harry says, “Why, sir?”, and gives a strong scrub so that he can get a particularly stubborn piece of dirt out of a crack in the stones. He’s pretty sure Filch puts new things here every night so that Harry can find them and get rid of them the next day. He has another two months of detention for what he did with Umbridge. At least she’s been arrested, and Fudge’s perch is precarious, although so far he’s still in office.

“Because the Headmaster was handling it, you foolish boy.”

“I don’t see how, when people were still getting their hands cut open.” Harry dips the rag back in the bucket of soapy water and moves a little so that he can tackle the next thing on the floor. This is a particularly gross-looking mixture of crushed spider and dirt, apparently. Harry eyes it. Yes, he remembers this one from two days ago, but he still uses the rag to knock it to the edge of the groove between the flagstones and then towards the wall.

Look at me when I am talking to you.

Harry glances up, but lets his eyes linger in the vicinity of Snape’s chin. He isn’t about to meet his “father’s” eyes ever again. “What? Sir.”

“You have become ungovernable,” Snape hisses, his hand twitching near his side as if he wants to draw his wand and strike at Harry that way. “I am minded to discipline you.”

“You can do that as a teacher,” Harry tells him sweetly. “Nothing more than that, sir. I looked up the laws, you see. You knew that I was your spawn and yet you never claimed me. That means that I fall under the same category as any ignored illegitimate child. The pure-blood or half-blood parent in that case doesn’t have to support them, but they don’t have any legal rights over them, either. Legal rights only apply with either a claim or ignorance of the child’s heritage.”

Snape stares at him. Harry goes back to scrubbing. The last thing he wants is for Filch to come by and extend his detentions, although only because they cut into his study time. Between half the Gryffindors distrusting him because of his “lies” about Voldemort and the other half because he didn’t join Hermione’s defense group, and the detentions, he never rejoined the Quidditch team anyway.

“You must see that you are going too far.”

“No, I don’t,” Harry says, still keeping his eyes down as he goes to work on an ashy discoloration near the door. “I don’t even know what too far means any more. I don’t know what’s happening with him or the war. No one tells me anything. I’m just another student now.”

“You will never be that.”

Harry shrugs. “I think we’d both be better off if you thought of me that way, sir, now that your excuse to hate me has been removed.”

The next time he glances up, Snape is gone. Harry smiles a little and keeps scrubbing as hard as he can, while reciting Defense incantations in his head.

*

Professor Dumbledore takes over teaching them Defense classes for the rest of the year. He barely speaks to Harry except to correct some of his spells and award points when he gets answers right. He never looks him in the eye.

At this point, Harry is accustomed to the pain. He continues his self-study, and walks out of his exam for Defense confident that he’ll get an Outstanding. He grins a little as he thinks of the proctor’s face when Prongs bounded out of his wand.

Harry.

The low, intense voice makes Harry look up and around. “What’s wrong, Neville?” he asks. “Do you think—”

Neville makes violent shushing motions and drags him down a staircase into a little alcove shaded by a tapestry. Harry thinks that a secret passage opens up from here, something he remembers from the Marauder’s Map, and hushes the pain. “What is it, Neville?” he asks, in a lower voice.

Neville turns a face as ashen as the flagstones on him. “Harry. You have to talk to Professor Dumbledore. You have to tell him to stop.”

“Stop what?”

Neville stares at him with his mouth slightly open, and then, unlike almost anybody else since the revelation that he was Snape’s son, believes him. “Oh, Merlin,” Neville whispers, and he gulps as if he’s forcing back nausea. “You—no one told you. You don’t know what he’s doing.”

Harry shakes his head and conjures a stool for Neville to sit down on. “Take a few minutes to calm down,” he says softly. “Then tell me what Dumbledore is doing, if you can.”

Neville closes his eyes and takes a few moments to pant. Then he opens his eyes. “What do you know about the prophecy?”

“What prophecy?”

Neville makes a small moaning noise. “All right, nothing,” he says, when he can breathe. “Okay. All right. There was—there was a prophecy that got made about someone who could defeat You-Know-Who. There were enough details that You-Know-Who knew th-that it would be someone born at the end of J-July, and their parents would have defied him th-three times. That’s why he attacked your family, Harry. He thought you could grow up and defeat him.”

Harry stands still and thinks about that, while, once again, the future shifts and aligns and crashes like falling bricks in his head. Then he swallows. “That’s why Dumbledore changed so drastically when he found out Snape was my father,” he whispers. “Because he didn’t think that I could be part of the prophecy anymore. Because he didn’t know if my parents had defied Voldemort three times.”

Of course, Harry knows that can’t be everything, because Dumbledore was avoiding his eyes during the summer, before they ever found out about Snape. But it has to be part of it. And Neville is nodding so hard that it looks like he’s hurting his neck.

“Yeah,” Neville breathed out. “And I was born at the end of J-July, too, a day before you. And my p-parents defied him three times. So Professor Dumbledore thought maybe it was me, not you.”

Harry blinks hard, once. “He’s been trying to train you? Or convince you that you’re the real Boy-Who-Lived?”

You’re always going to be the Boy-Who-Lived,” Neville says, quickly, tensely. “But he thinks I’m the one who can defeat V- You-Know-Who. But I can’t.” Neville’s voice is trembling and his eyes are fixed in a blank stare. “Please. All the training that he wants me to undergo? I can’t do it. I can’t.”

Harry swallows. Then he says, “The problem, Neville, is that if I tell him to stop, then he’s going to know you told me. I can’t say how I knew about the prophecy otherwise.”

Even as he’s speaking, his mind is racing, drawing other conclusions. Voldemort probably believes the same thing Dumbledore does, or at least has his doubts about whether he went after the right kid. That would explain why Harry hasn’t been receiving visions from him or anything.

There’s something else swelling up behind the revelation. Harry has to hold it at bay. He can’t deal with it right now.

“That’s true.” Neville looks as if he’s on the verge of crumbling, and Harry quickly grabs his arms and shakes him a little, making Neville lift his head and look at him miserably.

“Listen to me,” Harry says. “No matter what you have to do, just get yourself out of it. Lie if you have to. Fail the training. Whatever you need to. I’m still the one with the stupid title and the stupid scar on my forehead. Sooner or later, they’ll have to come back to me.”

Even though I don’t want them to. But Harry can’t let Neville take the brunt of this for him. No one deserves it, but Neville least of all.

Neville swallows and then nods. “All right. Harry—if—my grandmother said that she wouldn’t h-house a disgrace to the family—”

“You can come and stay with me, if that’s what you need,” Harry says as soothingly as he can. Not that he has clear plans about where he’ll be staying this summer. “You’re always welcome.” Maybe Neville can even bring in some extra money, and then they’ll have some other options.

Neville turns such a shining, hero-worshiping face on him that Harry feels better, himself. Maybe he can’t do much, but at least he can ease some of Neville’s fears.

“Thanks, Harry,” Neville whispers, and then tenses. Harry hears voices calling down the corridors. Hermione. Ron.

“Do they know?” Harry asks, before he can stop himself. He tried to rely on their friendship, what they could offer him, without asking for more, but now, if they know about the prophecy and the way Dumbledore turned his back—

Neville jerks his head.

The thing Harry tried to put aside to deal with later swells up again. Rage. So much rage it’s going to overwhelm him in a second like a tsunami, if he lets it.

He manages to pat Neville’s shoulder and then Disillusions himself, just before Ron and Hermione sweep the tapestry aside and Hermione says, “There you are, Neville! Come on, we’re going to be late to the post-exam party in Gryffindor Tower—”

They leave. Harry watches them go, and then he is running for the seventh floor, trying to prevent the sharp, lightning-like bursts from breaking out from his skin and scorching the walls.

*

Harry whirls into the Room of Requirement. He asked for a place that’s breakable, and he got it, a room so full of rubbish that Harry can’t see the walls. Tottering piles of chairs and crumbling shelves and torn books and tattered clothes and smashed trunks are waiting for him.

Harry screams, and unleashes.

Black lightning comes leaping out of his skin, and from his wand. It strikes the piles of chairs and sends several of them over, which means they hit other things, which fall and hit still others. The echoes of rumbling and waves of dust rise into the air, but Harry isn’t satisfied, isn’t nearly done.

He stomps on the floor and doesn’t even cast anything, just summoning the screaming fury up from within his soul, sending it ripping out of his wand in waves, not knowing what’s going to happen, just knowing that it will, just envisioning—

It comes out as fire.

Flames that twist up around him and aim for the ceiling, covered with red and gold as if they’re reminders of his House, and forming into snapping jaws, curving fangs, grasping hands that reach out and rip through the rubbish. Harry laughs, knowing that he sounds more than a little insane, and spreads his arms in welcome.

The flame crouches on top of a cabinet and leaps up again, curling into jaguars with orange spots on their pelts and blue-white phoenixes that have blood dripping down their talons. Harry watches as they devour old robes, crystal balls with cracks down the sides, sprawled desks, fluttering scrolls missing the ends, and all sorts of useless old junk that no one wants.

At one point, as the flames scoop up what looks like some kind of silver tiara and toss it around, there’s a shrill, piercing scream that makes Harry clap his hands over his ears. He supposes that there might be cursed objects in here, or things that are just aware enough to know what’s happening to them.

But it doesn’t matter. He won’t let it matter. The scream fades, and the tiara dissolves into a wisp of black ash.

And then the flames turn their attention to Harry.

Harry lifts his head, feeling his singed hair sway around him. It’s growing out again, and he’s going to live to grow it out, and he doesn’t know what this fire is, but he’s going to control it, because he is going to live and fuck everyone who says otherwise.

The fire curls towards him and then recoils as Harry slashes his wand through the air. This time, he deliberately commands the flames to stop, to freeze and come back to him, the way he’ll have to walk out of the room and pretend that he doesn’t know certain things and he’s fine with all of it.

The flames struggle against him, and their will is overwhelming. But so is Harry’s, the boiling sickness that comes from the horrible, horrible year he’s had, and how nothing is going to get in his way.

With a shriek of their own, the flames funnel back down into his wand and disappear. Harry is left in the middle of a cleared space of stones that are partially melted and still smoking.

And he can breathe again.

Chapter Text

Sirius sent an owl that he wants to meet with him. Last year, Harry would have been leaping at the chance, but things have changed. He goes to Grimmauld Place mainly because he’s curious, and because Dumbledore lets Harry use the Floo in the office. He never looks him in the eye while Harry’s doing that.

They meet in the library, where, for some reason, Kreacher stares non-stop at Harry and serves him tea when he asks for it. Harry casts a charm to make sure that the tea isn’t poisoned, and Sirius starts.

“You’re not supposed to do magic outside of school.”

“Technically it’s still the school year, and this house is under the Fidelius, so I think I’m all right.” Harry leans back and sips from the safe teacup. “Now. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“I just—how can you be Snape’s son?”

Harry shrugs. His hair is growing out again, long and straight and dark, and for once he let it grow and just tied it back. Part of that is to annoy Sirius, which he’s going to admit to himself even if he can’t really admit it to anyone else. “The usual way, I suppose. Two people fucked.”

Sirius narrows his eyes. “He hasn’t told you how? Or why?”

Harry shakes his head and continues sipping. “He doesn’t want me to know anything about it. I assume my mum knew, though, because she cast those sorts of charms that would make me look like a Potter and wouldn’t break unless Snape actually acknowledged me.”

“Why would she betray James, though? They were in love!”

Harry gives him an unimpressed stare. “I told you, I don’t know. Find out from the person who does know.”

Sirius closes his eyes. Then he says, “I wanted to apologize. I shouldn’t have taken the Firebolt from you. It was a gift, and—you’re supposed to give up conditions on a gift when you give it to someone.”

“No apologies for taking the Cloak and the Map, though.”

“Those belong to Potters,” Sirius says, opening his eyes bleakly. “And Marauders. I’m sorry, but you’re still not either.”

Harry puts the teacup down next to his chair. “Then I think this conversation is at an end, isn’t it?”

“I—no, Harry, I wanted to say I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have treated you like I did!”

“But you’re apologizing for just one thing, not all of it. I don’t know what you want, Sirius, I really don’t. I can’t go back in time and change who my mother slept with. I can’t give you your godson back. So what do you want?”

Sirius stares at him bleakly. Then he takes a deep breath and says, “I want some kind of relationship with you. Who you really are. I want to know that.”

“I don’t want a relationship with someone who abandons me for months.”

Sirius stares at him as Harry goes back to the Floo. Harry is shaking lightly as he exits it into the Headmaster’s office, but honestly, that’s like a delayed reaction. He told Sirius the truth. And he’s done all right while Sirius sat in his house brooding and deciding whether he could bear to see Snape’s son, hasn’t he? Yeah, part of Harry will always long for Sirius. But he meant what he said.

He wants the Sirius who would have stood by his side from the beginning, not the real Sirius. He wants the one who doesn’t exist.

“A productive visit, my boy?”

Harry leaves the office without looking at Dumbledore. The man won’t meet his eyes anyway.

“Oh, and Harry?” For a moment, Harry pauses on the stairs. “I’m afraid that I can’t allow you to stay anywhere else this summer, not when it would put Professor Snape in danger. You’ll be going back to your mother’s relatives.”

Harry goes down the stairs without answering. Always Professor Snape. Always someone else who’s in danger, whose comfort is being considered. Harry doesn’t understand how him being somewhere else would put Snape in danger, anyway. Voldemort already knows that Snape is Harry’s father. As long as Snape stays behind Hogwarts’s defenses, Voldemort can’t get to him. It wouldn’t matter whether Harry was there or not.

Anyway, Harry is done listening to someone who won’t explain something as vital as a prophecy that determined his whole life to him. He has his plan, and he has enough Galleons now from selling books and interviews to put it into action.

*

“Oh, Harry. Stay safe this summer, okay?”

Harry accepts Hermione’s hug, and marvels a little when he feels nothing at all. Was he desperate to keep her friendship a few weeks ago? It doesn’t feel like it. “Will you and Ron be writing to me this summer?” he asks casually as he steps back from her.

Hermione immediately finds the door of the train compartment extremely interesting. “Um, I’m sorry, but Professor Dumbledore said—”

“That’s what I thought,” Harry says, and picks up his trunk, which he had the twins shrink for him, and walks away across the platform, ignoring the way that Hermione and Ron call after him.

His chest is aching. There’s a burning along the sides of his eyes that might be tears.

He ignores it.

He waits on the platform as if expecting the Dursleys to show up any second, loudly sighing and glancing at clocks when someone seems to be paying too much attention to him. The Weasleys file out, giving him looks of pity that Harry also ignores. When no more wizards have left Platform 9 3/4 for ten minutes, Harry turns and walks into Muggle London.

He makes his way to the Leaky Cauldron with a lot of walking and some dodging of cars when he has to. When he steps into the pub, it’s almost empty. Tom, the owner, glances up at him and blinks, maybe at his expression.

“Excuse me,” Harry says. “Can you tap the bricks to let me into Diagon Alley, please?”

“‘Course, lad.” Tom doesn’t say anything else, and Harry is left wondering if Tom recognized him and is tactfully remaining silent or just thought he was an ordinary Hogwarts student. Well, as long as he doesn’t go around telling tales, it doesn’t matter.

Harry straightens his shoulders when he’s on the other side and pulls a hooded cloak he spent a few precious Sickles on weeks ago from his robe pocket. Then he flings the hood over his head and turns towards Knockturn Alley.

*

“If you’re not going to buy anything, go away.”

Harry rolls his eyes a little as he steps into Borgin and Burke’s. Without lowering the cloak, he says softly. “Oh, but I think you might want to buy what I’m selling.”

Borgin turns and squints at him. He looks even uglier than he did when Harry accidentally came through the Floo the summer before second year. “What you got, then?”

Harry begins emptying his pockets. He chose small, jeweled objects from the Room of Requirement when he asked it to show him a place where valuable things were hidden. Borgin’s eyes widen as Harry dumps a few gleaming bracelets with protective runes on them and rings with big, gaudy stones on the floor.

“And these are yours?” Borgin gives him a quick glance even as he’s stooping down to gather up the jewelry.

“I have full possession of them,” Harry answers, instead of the speech he wants to give, about how Borgin doesn’t have a leg to stand on when he’s interrogating people as to how they got hold of things. His reply seems to please Borgin, anyway. He’s turning the bracelets around and making clucking sounds as he examines them by the sunlight coming through the windows.

Then his expression turns sly. “Thirteen Sickles the lot.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m sure that Helda’s down the lane will be more appreciative.” Harry reaches for the bracelet Borgin’s holding. He did his homework on Knockturn Alley by listening, Disillusioned, to various Slytherin students’ conversations. Borgin and Burke’s has the “best” reputation when it comes to buying Dark objects, but Helda’s is run by a hag who will pay for what you’re selling with less bargaining and haggling.

“Now, now, boy, let’s not be too hasty.” Borgin reaches out a cautionary hand even as he lets Harry take the bracelet. “Helda wouldn’t recognize quality if a rat shoved it up her arse.”

“But I think she wouldn’t try to offer me thirteen Sickles for bracelets whose gold is worth more than that,” Harry points out.

“Well, well, I only meant…need to check the protective enchantments implied by the runes and make sure they’re still functioning, that sort of thing.” Borgin eyes him. “Thirteen Galleons the lot?”

Harry is tempted to accept, but he’s still sure the gold and one particularly big sapphire on a ring are worth more than that. There’s something else that could be priceless, though. “What would you say if I brought you more of this stuff?”

Borgin sniffs. “Exactly like it? There’s such a thing as a glut in the market, lad.”

“Not exactly like. Similar only in that it has gold and jewels.”

Borgin wavers. “Where are you getting all this?”

“Someone thought they could buy my affections,” Harry says, which is perfect truth, just in case Borgin has some of the spells he’s been reading about that detect lies on the shop. It’s not his fault if he and Borgin interpret it differently.

“Huh, fair enough. Thirteen Galleons the lot, then, and you’ll get preference if you come back with more.”

Harry nods, holds the cloak’s hood more firmly over his hair, and departs the alley after he’s taken the money from Borgin. He has more pocketfuls of the gems in his trunk, and he’s sure he can get someone to unshrink the trunk for him.

Life isn’t going to be easy, but it’s survivable. Harry’s goal is to make sure that he can pay for a room at the Leaky Cauldron for a while, and also for his books and supplies for next year. They don’t all have to be new, those supplies.

And Harry won’t have to buy a Potions kit at all. He thinks he’ll probably get at least Exceeds Expectations on the OWL, but he’s choosing not to continue with the class. Some people study independently and get their NEWTS outside Hogwarts.

Harry’s going to do the same thing.

*

No one comes looking for Harry. It startles him a little at first, and makes the same place in his chest ache that did when Hermione said they wouldn’t be writing to him this summer, but then he shrugs. It’s just more proof that he doesn’t matter to the war effort anymore, that Dumbledore thinks he’s found what he needs in Neville.

That also means no one is writing to him and no one is tracking his movements. Harry can study, plan ways to get more Galleons—he’s carried a few messages for Tom and spun a believable enough, half-silent sob story about being kicked out by Muggle parents who don’t care for his magic—and keep his head down.

The summer slides past like slow water. There are no letters from anyone, including Sirius and Remus. His scar is silent. Harry shrugs when he thinks about that. If Voldemort has given up his grudge that easily, because he assumes Harry being Snape’s biological son means that the prophecy can’t possibly apply to him, then Harry will take his out from the war and gladly.

Things run smoothly until the night of August first, when there’s an attack on Diagon Alley.

*

Harry comes flying out of sleep, because there’s shouts and screaming from below. He sits up in his bed at the Leaky Cauldron and he can see the red flicker of flames. Above that is the green shine of the Dark Mark.

Harry immediately leaps to his feet and runs out the door. He leaves his wand behind, because using it would just get him expelled anyway. He needs to finish his education so he can have some kind of independent life.

There are two Death Eaters standing in the broken door of the Cauldron, although as of yet they’re just looking around and gloating about the way Tom cowers behind the bar. Harry focuses as hard as he can on them and hisses under his breath, “Accio wand.”

It works, the pulsing, pulling magic in the center of his chest and the fact that one of the Death Eaters is holding his wand loosely. He grabs for it as it soars across the room to Harry, but he’s too late. Harry snatches it and promptly casts a Confringo right at their feet.

The floor spits wood and shrapnel. The Death Eater whose wand Harry has goes down, clawing at his face. The other one dodges and tries to cast a curse at him, but Harry is already rolling into the shadows under the tables. He casts his own curse between the legs. The Death Eater screams in agony as his femur snaps in two.

Harry Stuns both of them, just in case they’re pretending or able to get up again in spite of their injuries, and then he joins the battle in the street.

The Death Eaters seem to be here to attack the shopowners, as strange as that is to Harry. But, well, maybe it’s just a general tactic to make everyone as dispirited and incapable of fighting back as possible. No one seems to be doing much about Voldemort so far.

Harry sees a group of six or so Death Eaters gathered around a man slumped on the pavement. It seems to be Florean Fortescue. Harry shakes his head and puts the question why? away for a while. Instead, he aims his stolen wand at the cluster of Death Eater heads and casts, “Solis.”

A miniature sun forms in the air between the gathered wizards. Screams rise. Some will be blinded, some burned. Harry casts again and again, snapping invisible ropes around their legs, Stunning them, binding them, and trying one Obliteration Curse on the only one who manages to gather his wits and try to oppose him. To Harry’s delight, the curse takes out both the Death Eater’s wand hand and his wand.

And he might be bleeding to death. Harry really, really can’t bring himself to care.

Instinct warns him at the last moment. Someone is coming up behind him. Harry jumps the Killing Curse and spins around.

Facing him is a laughing, wild-eyed woman with long ragged black hair. Harry remembers her pictures from an article about an Azkaban breakout a few months ago. Bellatrix Lestrange, he thinks, the same woman whose trial he watched in Dumbledore’s Pensieve.

“Is the baby weady to play?” she croons, approaching him. “Is Killing Curse too quick a death for baby?”

Harry forces himself to ignore her words, distracting though they are, and aim for her belly. The curse he chooses isn’t fatal, but it’s a good one for going through shields. Sure enough, when it goes flying at her and Lestrange raises a whirling red defense Harry hasn’t seen before, his spell hits her as if there’s nothing stopping it.

Lestrange looks startled for exactly one second before she starts to vomit her guts out.

Harry dodges off into the night again. He slips from shadow to shadow as much as he can, mostly disabling Death Eaters who look like they have prisoners or might be about to torture people. He wonders grimly where the Aurors are. They ought to be the ones handling this, not him.

Of course, when they start Apparating in, Harry remembers his position: underage, out in the middle of the night with a stolen wand. He promptly drops it and rolls to the ground, groaning, covering his face, the other hand curled around his stomach as if he was injured by a spell like the one that hit Lestrange.

One of the Aurors comes over and nudges him with a boot for a second. “You okay, kid?”

“Think…I’ll be okay. It just hurts…like they hit me,” Harry gasps, blinking up at the man who stands over him without looking him fully in the face, and the Auror either buys it or isn’t that concerned when there’s an alley full of criminals to fight.

“Yeah, all right,” the Auror mutters, and then joins the others in battling a pocket of resistance that Harry doesn’t think he ran into.

Harry closes his eyes and exhales slowly. That went about as well as it could, he thinks. But he wishes he could get over the stupid remnants of his hero complex. The wizarding world has pretty much done nothing for him, and it’s still a year until he can even defend himself with his own wand, for fuck’s sakes.

But he doesn’t think there’s going to be lasting consequences, at least not until he gets back to the Leaky Cauldron and Tom is waiting for him.

“You saved my life,” is the first thing that Harry hears when he steps through the door.

Harry coughs and rubs at his face. He’s let his fringe grow long enough to shield the scar, and his hair really looks nothing like it used to, and he used a few simple charms to change the color of his glasses before he left school. Tom hasn’t said a word about thinking he’s Harry Potter instead of “Elliot Fletcher” the whole time Harry was here. He’s still staring at Harry with an expression of pure hero-worship right now.

“I mean, they wouldn’t have stopped to ask me who I was if they came in and I didn’t stop them.”

“You still saved my life,” Tom says, and looks keenly at him. “And I don’t think you learned to fight like that because you’re a Muggleborn whose parents don’t like him.”

Harry starts to tighten up his muscles, but Tom waves his hand. “No, no. I won’t ask. That silence and letting you stay here without paying for the room the rest of the summer is as much payment as I can offer for a life-debt. I’m not rich. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay you back by saving your life the way you did mine.”

Tom is solemn and serious and Harry isn’t sure he knows how to deal with it. And, well, he probably would have indignantly refused the offer of a free room as “charity” last year, but he can’t afford to do that this year.

“Thanks, Tom,” he says softly. “I’ll count the life-debt paid.”

Tom nods to him with a beaming smile, and, well, that’s that.

*

Harry’s OWL results came through as an Outstanding in Defense, Charms, and Care of Magical Creatures and an Exceeds Expectations in everything else, except a Poor in Divination. Harry shrugs. He’ll drop that particular class, along with Potions, without regret.

Of course, then he gets back to school and it turns out that Snape is the Defense professor and there’s a new Potions teacher named Slughorn. Harry thinks carefully about what to do for an entire hour before he decides he’ll drop Defense, too, and use the resulting free periods to prepare for the NEWT outside Hogwarts along with Potions. No amount of possible learning in the classroom is worth putting up with Snape for an entire year.

He does think the choice is curious, though. Does Dumbledore think the curse can’t do anything worse to Snape than what he’s already suffered? Harry wouldn’t bet on that. He thinks it could make Snape decide to go picking herbs outside the evening that one of the wards unravels due to an unperceived flaw in them.

Then again, it’s not Harry’s problem.

*

Harry’s friends try their best to make it his problem, though.

“But don’t you want a Defense NEWT, Harry? And a Potions NEWT? I thought you wanted to be an Auror.” Hermione’s voice is soft and coaxing as they sit in front of the fire in the Gryffindor common room. It’s tolerable to be there again. One year of Harry not being a hero or a star Seeker seems to have returned his Housemates’ suspicion to normal levels.

“Sure. I’m just going to self-study,” Harry says, and flips ahead in his Defense textbook. Snape actually did choose an interesting one. Harry knows it’s only a beginning, especially given at least three and a half years of shoddy Defense education, but it’s a good beginning.

“You can’t do that, mate.” Ron watches him as though he thinks Harry has caught some kind of contagious disease, maybe the Studying Measles.

“Why not? I looked up the procedure and it’s legal and everything.”

“Yeah, but you’re right here in Hogwarts. They only let people do that who didn’t go to Hogwarts.”

Harry shrugs. “That’s not true, you know. There are people who don’t take a certain class or didn’t get the scores for it and then regret it later and decide they want some career that involves those NEWTS. So they study and go to the Ministry and pass the exams. They don’t schedule them all the time and you can only do them once per season, but that’s all right. I figure the summer after my seventh year is plenty enough time.”

Harry is actually dreaming of taking those NEWTS, and maybe a few others, this upcoming summer. He’s starting to think there would be advantages to not coming back to Hogwarts his seventh year.

But he doesn’t know if that’s possible yet, and he’ll have to aim for studying in general more than just taking all the NEWTS this summer.

“You’ve really looked into this.” Hermione sounds a little disturbed. At the same time, Neville, who’s been sitting near the fire, turns around and starts to listen.

“Of course,” Harry says slowly. He’s disturbed that they’re disturbed. “I wasn’t going to put up with Snape, and that means I needed to think about how to handle Potions when I thought he was going to be the Potions Professor. Since he’s not, I dropped Defense, too, but I can take the Defense NEWT over the summer the same way I can take the Potions NEWT.”

“Harry, you have to be respectful to Professor Snape as a teacher—”

“I am. By not attending his classes.”

“But this is your future!” Hermione is probably more worried about that than anything else. Part of Harry relaxes when he sees that. Hermione has changed a lot, their friendship has sunk, but this is still normal. “You can’t just play around with it!”

Harry shrugs. “Hey, I did that for five years without a choice. The only reason I got an Exceeds Expectations in Potions is that Snape didn’t proctor the OWL.”

“Harry, I’m sure Professor Snape would—”

Harry stares at her evenly, and Hermione has to realize that it’s probably best not to continue that line of discussion. She stares at her hands for a second, takes a quick breath, and says, “All right. So you won’t change your mind?”

“No.”

“What about offering tutoring to other people?”

“Why would I need to? You’re insisting that Snape is a good Defense professor, and that means you don’t need to do an outlaw group like you did with Umbridge last year. And from what you’ve said, Slughorn is perfectly competent, too.” Harry conceals how much he wants to roll his eyes. Slughorn has been studying him with a puzzled expression, as if he can’t decide whether to collect Harry or not. On the one hand, Harry is still sort of the famous Boy-Who-Lived. On the other hand, his value has sunk since he was revealed as Snape’s son, and there was no big battle last year that meant Voldemort showed himself, so lots of people still think he’s lying.

“I just,” Hermione says, and frowns into the fire. “It feels like you’re not really part of it, you know. The whole war anymore.” Her voice lowers.

“I don’t think I am,” Harry says, shrugging. “Both Dumbledore and Voldemort gave up on me, and that was the only reason I was even there.”

All of them still flinch when he says the name “Voldemort,” but Hermione is getting a lot better about it. She looks at him and shakes her head. “I can’t change your mind about this?”

“No, Hermione,” Harry says, and that’s enough to let him return to his studying.

*

Then other people try.

Snape comes up to him one day while Harry is on his way to lunch in the Great Hall, and says, “Potter.”

Harry just keeps walking, because that’s not his name.

Snape steps in front of him and snarls under his breath, “Why are you not in my class?”

“Because you’re a terrible professor.”

Snape stands still. Oddly, Harry thinks that no one might have said that to him before. People are probably subtler when they try to challenge him or get him to pay attention and change his behavior.

“You are as arrogant and spoiled as always,” Snape finally answers. “And it doesn’t matter who your father is.”

“No, I suppose not. I’m still going to be alive.”

For some reason, Snape pales at that and falls back, and Harry can get to the Great Hall and his lunch. That’s all he wants, really. He doesn’t enjoy what brought him here, but he does sort of enjoy the chance to be an ordinary student, one who has to worry about homework and studying and detentions, but not saving the world.

*

When Dumbledore calls Harry up to his office for the first time in months, Harry assumes it’s going to be the same thing at first: Dumbledore trying to coax him to join the Defense class, as a prelude to “building a better relationship with his father” or some such nonsense.

But it’s not. It’s something else.

Something worse.

“You may have been interested in knowing why I didn’t speak with you last year, Harry,” Dumbledore says. He still avoids Harry’s eyes, but his voice is quieter, as if he’s resigned to something. Harry assumes that at least an explanation is forthcoming.

And if Dumbledore isn’t looking into Harry’s eyes, he’s at least not going to be reading his mind. That’s a good thing.

“Yes,” Harry says. “But I assumed it did have something to do with the man who slept with my mother.”

Dumbledore winces, then sighs. “You will have to get used to being closer to him, Harry,” he says. “I thought—there was a prophecy that is the reason Voldemort attacked your parents, saying that the person who could destroy him would be ‘born as the seventh month dies’ and have parents who ‘thrice defied him.’” Even now, Harry notices, Dumbledore doesn’t offer to tell him the whole prophecy or mention that he’s been training Neville because he thought Neville might fulfill the conditions of the prophecy better. “It seemed to apply to you, especially when Voldemort attacked you in Godric’s Hollow and was defeated by your mother’s sacrifice. But knowing whose child you really are, I didn’t know if it would count. Severus did defy Voldemort, but not at the same times as Lily Evans did.”

“That would have been nice to know before now,” Harry says, which is the only reaction he can really muster when the room is still full of silence and lies.

“Yes, well. I was afraid that if I told you, Voldemort would read it out of your mind. Or even out of my mind, if I met your eyes and he happened to be looking through them at the same time.”

Harry blinks a little. “But he hasn’t been active through my scar in a really long time. Why did you keep thinking that? Sir.” He’ll learn nothing if he gets himself thrown out of Dumbledore’s office for insolence.

“I couldn’t be sure that he would decide the prophecy was void, especially since he doesn’t know the whole thing and I must keep him from knowing it. But it is true that he has not sent you visions in a year, and he has—concentrated his efforts on another.”

“How, sir?” Harry asks, with rising alarm. That’s not something Neville mentioned.

Dumbledore shakes his head. Then he says, “Secrets we must keep, my dear boy, secrets we must keep. But I can tell you now the nature of your link with Voldemort. I think you deserve to know.”

Translation: he doesn’t mind if Voldemort knows this. Maybe he even wants him to pick it up from my mind.

Harry just raises his eyebrows and waits.

And Dumbledore rips his life apart for the second time in two years.

*

Harry lies on top of the Astronomy Tower, with his arm curled around his face and his breath hammering through his lungs the way Dumbledore’s words are hammering through his head.

You have a piece of Voldemort’s soul in you, Harry. That’s what happened the night he marked you. He was already unstable from committing so many murders, which splits the soul. He probably intended to create an artifact that would secure his immortality, called a Horcrux. But instead, the piece of soul attached itself to you. It’s behind the scar on your head, and is the reason that you can speak Parseltongue and that you received visions and emotions from him.

Harry rolls over, his cheek pressed desperately to the sun-warmed stone.

So this means—

It means that you have to die. My dear boy. I am so sorry. It means that as long as you live, so Lord Voldemort lives. For a long time, I thought it meant that you were the Boy-Who-Lived as well, but—I might have been wrong about that. I do know that you have to die for the war to be won.

Harry grinds his teeth. He doesn’t scream. There’s something about it that feels wrong, that feels like it would be giving someone the satisfaction.

But if you know this, then you must know a way to move the shard of soul out of me—

I have looked, my boy. As far as I know, a living Horcrux has never existed before. I know of no way to move the shard of soul, no way to end it but by killing you.

Harry opens his eyes and looks up, past the sun, into a corner of the sky covered by grey clouds. He lies there and looks for a long time.

*

His goal alters. He still wants to take his Potions and Defense NEWTS independently and have a future, but first, he has to make sure that he’s going to live to have that future.

He dives into research on Horcruxes and how to perform soul magic. The first thing he discovers is that none of the books he’ll need are in the regular library. Madam Pince only purses her lips and looks disapproving when Harry asks her about soul magic, making it sound like he wants to discover who his “soulmate” could be.

“The Headmaster decided those were dangerous long ago, and with good reason. I shudder to think what some of you impressionable youngsters would do with them. They’ve all been moved into the Restricted Section.”

That gives Harry a problem, because he honestly doesn’t have a relationship with any of the professors where they would probably write him a slip. He considers approaching Slughorn and hinting about an exchange of favors, but his status is too uncertain. McGonagall is distant from him now, Dumbledore even more so.

That leaves one option, and Harry goes back to Madam Pince in a few weeks, after he’s spent some time investigating possibilities for owl-ordering books, with a signed permission slip.

Madam Pince glances back and forth from him to the slip with a strange expression. “Can you tell me why Professor Snape would sign this for you, Mr. Potter?”

Harry takes a deep breath and looks at his boots. “I—I know that part of what happened has been very public, in the papers. And Professor Snape has to be careful not to act like my father in public. Too many people would say it was favoritism. But in private, he does try to do a few favors for me. I really, really want to know if there’s someone out there who could love me for myself and not for my fame or my scar. Could you not mention it to him, though? I know he would be embarrassed hearing about it from someone else.”

He lets her fill in the blanks in the story, which is something that he’s become excellent at doing in the last year. And Madam Pince hesitates, but then her face softens, maybe because the forgery is so convincing. Harry traced the signature that Snape is prone to put at the bottom of his comments on essays again and again until his hand formed a perfect one.

“Well,” Madam Pince says. She hands the permission slip back. “As long as you behave yourself, young man.”

Harry gives her a misty smile, and turns towards the Restricted Section.

*

The books aren’t as informative as they could be, but Harry is working, in some ways, with a greater base of knowledge as he lounges in the replica of the Gryffindor common room in the Room of Requirement. For one thing, he knows what Horcruxes are, and when a book is referring to one even when it dances coyly around the actual name.

For another, he’s already figured out something Dumbledore didn’t tell him. Riddle’s diary in second year had to be a Horcrux. There’s nothing else it could be.

That means that just destroying the one in Harry isn’t going to destroy Voldemort. There have to be others out there; Harry doubts Voldemort would have made one when he was a teenager and then just stopped for decades until the attack on Godric’s Hollow.

But Dumbledore won’t tell him about them, or allow him to be part of the chase at all, probably. So Harry just goes into working on the one in him.

He finds notes, he finds speculations, about living Horcruxes. None of them are coherent, and all of them are bits and pieces in different books, which might be why Dumbledore didn’t spot them if he was trying to find a solution in one place. But Harry finds them, and he writes them down.

And slowly, slowly, it emerges.

Harry knows that it isn’t a guarantee. Maybe Dumbledore even thought about this method and then decided that it wouldn’t work because it would just mean death. It’s not a way of transferring the soul-shard to another object, either, the way Harry first thought.

But Harry fought the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. He knows things that he suspects Dumbledore never found out unless he actually went down to the Chamber himself.

Harry could die doing this. But he’ll risk that against a sure death later, one that Dumbledore might even inflict himself. Or would he require Harry to make some kind of “heroic sacrifice” despite the fact that he was essentially cast aside the minute he wasn’t worth something to the war?

Harry doesn’t want that kind of death. If he has to choose between different kinds.

*

He doesn’t have the Invisibility Cloak anymore, but it turns out that a Disillusionment Charm works just as well for getting past Myrtle, who seems to be sulking in her toilet anyway. Harry lands softly at the bottom of the chute thanks to some charms that give him some floating ability, and begins to walk forwards.

All the time, he argues with himself that this is insane. It’s nearly Christmas, and Sirius has indicated that he actually would like to see Harry this time. Harry should wait. He should enjoy at least one more Christmas—

But he doesn’t know if the conversation Sirius wants to have with him is actually going to go any better than last time. They can’t meet in Grimmauld Place because apparently Order of the Phoenix business is going on there, and Harry still can’t “be involved” in it. He doesn’t know if he would see his friends over the holiday or not, then.

He wants this done.

When Harry reaches the Chamber, he hisses the doors open, and flinches a little at the sight of the giant dead serpent lying there. Then he uses his wand to locate the fang he used to stab the diary.

His heart is pounding, his breath is rushing the way it did the day Dumbledore told him he’s a Horcrux.

He doesn’t know if this is going to work. But he doesn’t know that anything else is going to work, either.

He shouts, “Fawkes!” and waits until the phoenix appears in the Chamber, hovering in the air and chirping inquiringly at him. Then he stabs the basilisk fang into his scar.

The pain is so sudden and immediate that Harry knows he blacks out for a second. When he comes back to himself, he’s lying on the floor of the Chamber and screaming. Blood streams down his forehead. He can feel a slow, wending pain traveling down his face from the scar, although it seems much slower than it did when the venom hit him four years ago.

Someone else is screaming, too. For a moment Harry thinks it’s Fawkes; then he thinks someone followed him down here and is horrified by what he’s done. But then he recognizes the voice. It’s as high and cold as the one that Voldemort used in the graveyard.

I was right. The last time, the basilisk venom started to kill him because it hit his arm. But if a fang hit his scar…

I was right.

Fawkes lands next to him, crooning with a steel tone underneath it, as if to say that he has better things to do than rescue stupid humans from their own stupidity. Harry smiles at him shakily and holds out a hand. Fawkes nibbles at his fingertips before his eyes shine with tears.

They fall onto Harry’s cheek and the side of his face, and the burning spread of the poison disappears. Harry gasps. It puzzles him for a second that Fawkes didn’t cry on the scar itself. Then he remembers that it’s the site of the Horcrux, and feels stupid.

Fawkes draws back at last, giving him another chirp that Harry is absolutely sure is a scolding. Light, dizzy, Harry says, “Yes, Fawkes, I know,” and conjures a mirror.

His face is a mess from the dried blood and some rapidly fading black veins that are probably where the venom went. His scar is even more of a mess, a huge splash of red with a hole in the middle of it.

But when Harry casts some Cleaning Charms and moves his fringe out of the way, he can barely see a line where the scar was. If anything, it looks like the scar on his arm where the basilisk bit him in second year, not the lightning bolt that’s haunted him.

Harry closes his eyes. It was a crazy gamble, but he has his life back. And he’s going to tell Dumbledore about this, so that the man doesn’t carry through his plans to kill him.

Fawkes nips him sharply. Harry looks at him, and Fawkes holds out his tail. Apparently he doesn’t approve of Harry lying around in the cold water at the bottom of the Chamber when there’s healing he needs.

“Right you are, Fawkes,” Harry says, and grasps the bird’s tail for his second ride out of here.

Chapter Text

Mr. Potter! What happened to you?”

Madam Pomfrey hasn’t got used to the idea of his lack of a last name, evidently. Harry doesn’t mind as he lies back on the bed in the hospital wing and smiles at her. “I had to do something about my scar,” he explains. “It worked.”

“It looks as if you stabbed something into your forehead.” Madam Pomfrey scowls as him as she begins rapidly casting spells.

“I did.”

For a moment, her wand pauses and her mouth widens in genuine astonishment. Then she says in a low voice, “What was it?” and casts some more spells, frowning at the results she receives. Harry wouldn’t be surprised if they’re strange. Apart from the fact that phoenix tears would have healed the original wound, she can’t have had a lot of people who have a soul in their foreheads that just died.

“A basilisk fang.”

Madam Pomfrey almost freezes. Then she snaps, “Stay right there,” and hurries away, coming back with an armful of vials that Harry recognizes, from his self-study of Potions, as several different kinds of antivenin, along with painkilling draughts and some sedatives.

“It honestly doesn’t hurt. And Fawkes took care of the venom.”

“You will let me determine that, Mr. Potter. Of all the silly, nonsensical, risky, idiotic…” She doesn’t seem to run out of adjectives as she begins ruthlessly sorting out the potions in the order that Harry supposes he’ll have to swallow them.

Harry shrugs and lets her do what she wants. At least this probably means that he will go to sleep right away, and she’ll be the one to inform Dumbledore.

Harry will have to deal with the man when he wakes up, but not for a while.

*

“Harry. Why would you do something like that?”

Dumbledore is meeting his eyes again. Harry gives a half-smile. At least that means that Dumbledore probably believes the Horcrux is gone, and Harry won’t have to go through some kind of test or fear an assassination attempt in the next few years.

“Because you told me what I had in my scar.” Harry flicks his eyes towards the back of the room. Madam Pomfrey isn’t here right now, but he still isn’t going to use the word “Horcrux” aloud until Dumbledore does. “I decided that I would get rid of it. And it turned out that stabbing the scar worked. It didn’t last time because the fang was in my arm. But my scar was the thing from him.”

Dumbledore closes his eyes. “I certainly did not mean you to go on a suicide mission.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Oh, you mean unlike sending me against a hundred Dementors, sir?” He’s not going to say anything about the basilisk or the Tournament or the Philosopher’s Stone, because there, he’s not actually sure how much Dumbledore had to do with sending him. But there’s no denying that he intended Harry and Hermione to use the Time-Turner to rescue Sirius.

“I knew that worked because of the way that time loops worked. You had survived, so you had to survive.” Dumbledore manages to make that sound reasonable, but Harry only nods as if he’s buying it. He doesn’t really. Dumbledore leans urgently forwards. “You didn’t know if this would work.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“So you were content to die?”

“I wanted to die on my own terms, not by your hand. And you’d told me that I had to anyway, for Voldemort not to win. I don’t understand why you’re so surprised.”

Dumbledore looks away from him. Harry studies the expression on the man’s face, and thinks he finally understands it. Not disappointment, although that’s often been present in the past eighteen months. Not discomfort, even.

Dumbledore is really bloody confused. He didn’t know what to do when Harry was revealed as Snape’s son, he doesn’t know what to do with the disrupted prophecy, and even now, he expected Harry to react in a certain manner and Harry did nothing of the kind.

It sort of delights Harry.

“I did not think you would go off and commit suicide.”

Harry shrugs. “It was a really unsuccessful suicide attempt, sir.” He notices that Dumbledore has a package hovering at his side, and nods at it. “Is that a Christmas present for me, sir?” He doesn’t bother to mask his sarcasm. After all, the last Christmas present Dumbledore gave him was the Cloak, which shouldn’t ever have been his in the first place.

Dumbledore wakes himself up from whatever daze he was in, and nods. “From Sirius,” he says, floating the package towards Harry. A tap of his wand unshrinks it.

Harry knows what it is the moment he sees the shape, of course. He grimaces. “Tell him I don’t want it.”

“Harry—”

“He took it away from me in the first place.” Harry shoves the wrapped Firebolt back towards Dumbledore. “If he’s changed his mind, I want a proper apology, not just a broom that shows up when I wasn’t invited to Grimmauld Place for the second year in a row.”

“I’m the one who insisted that Sirius not invite you, Harry, since sensitive Order business was being discussed.” Dumbledore peers at him over the top of his glasses. “And Sirius has more comfort with gestures than words. I suspect he will offer you an apology someday, but not if you don’t accept the gift.”

There it is again, the conditions, the demands that Harry do certain things when it should be the bloody people making the demands who do them. Harry is about to refuse again when something else occurs to him.

“Fine,” he agrees, and takes the handle of the broom. Sorrow zips through him for a second. He’s really missed flying. Between studying and the endless detentions he’s attracted now and the fact that Gryffindor wouldn’t want him for their Seeker anyway, he never even tried out the Cleansweeps the way he told Ron he would.

But now he has another purpose for the broom.

“You are not angry at me, dear boy?”

“For what? Being upset that I didn’t die?”

“I am very relieved that you lived, Harry,” Dumbledore says in a soft, repressive voice.

Harry just considers him. “Then what did you think I’d be angry at you for?”

“Insisting that Sirius not invite you to Grimmauld Place. As I said, he did want to, but Order business that you could not overhear was being discussed.”

Harry closes his eyes. “Tell me one thing, sir, and I’ll tell you whether I’m angry. You invited Ron and Hermione and Neville. Why did you decide that they could be there, but not me? Was it just because of the Horcrux?”

“Actually, Miss Granger is of age now and a member of the Order,” Dumbledore corrects him, still gently. “Mr. Weasley was there because his family was, and because they need whatever time together they can have after his father’s shocking death last year. Mr. Longbottom was visiting his grandmother, who is also now a member of the Order.”

“Oh, I see,” Harry murmurs. He’s actually surprised he didn’t think of this before. “I don’t follow the rules like Hermione, and you don’t have an adult that can control me, since Snape never decided to step up and Sirius abandoned the position. So you can’t be sure that I’ll be controllable if I’m there.”

“Harry—” Dumbledore cuts off whatever he wants to say, maybe because looking into Harry’s glittering eyes convinces him that it won’t work. “You know the names Snape and Evans are waiting for you whenever you want to claim them.”

“You actually think I would call myself after a father who abandoned me?” Harry asks in shock. “Or after a mother who cheated on the man she was married to and then ensured that I was going to be miserable?”

“Severus knew it would do you no good to claim you. And I’m sure that your mother loved you very much.”

“You’re sure. Right.” Harry knows that Dumbledore didn’t know he was Snape’s son until Snape explained it, because otherwise he never would have thought the prophecy applied to Harry, but that also means he doesn’t know anything Lily Potter’s internal motivations. Harry has come to accept that he’ll probably never get the full story, because the one person who could tell him shows no interest in doing so.

“You need a last name, Harry.”

“I’ll take my own when I find one I like.”

Dumbledore opens his mouth, then sighs and stands. “I’m glad that you’re recovering. And I’ll tell Sirius that you accepted the broom, and that you’ll be awaiting his apology.” He leaves the hospital wing.

Harry snorts and lies back in bed. Dumbledore didn’t once question him on his living arrangements for the summer, despite Harry admitting no adult has control of him. He must be so used to Harry doing what he’s told in the summers that he didn’t think he had to.

That, or he still doesn’t really care about me now that I’m not the prophecy child and not a Horcrux.

The bitterness of the thought slides away into sleep.

*

Harry is satisfied with what happened to his scar after he stabbed it with the fang. It’s become a faded line, which only looks like a lightning bolt if you squint really hard, around an identical puncture wound to the one that rests on his arm. Still more noticeable than the average person’s forehead, but not as bad as the scar the wizarding world used to identify him.

Other people are not pleased.

“Harry!” Hermione exclaims a few days into winter term, when she’s struggling to finish up some big project for Defense and Harry is looking into the descendants of certain wizarding families. “What did you do to your scar?”

Harry looks up with an eyebrow raised. “Kind of you to assume that I did something to it rather than something happening.”

Hermione blushes. They’re in the replica of the Gryffindor common room again, although Harry is getting tired of it and now makes it look like something else when he comes here by himself. “I only—I didn’t notice it, and you didn’t write to us about something happening over the holiday.” She glances at Ron for support, but Ron is just watching Harry thoughtfully.

“Yeah, well, why would I send letters into a silent void?”

Hermione looks away. “It’s just for a few weeks, Harry. And for a few weeks in the summer. Professor Dumbledore said—”

“You could still write to me about ordinary things, you know. The kinds of gifts you got. It doesn’t have to be about Order business.”

Hermione takes a deep breath. “Professor Dumbledore is still worried that our letters could be intercepted and reveal something about the nature of headquarters.”

Harry shrugs. “And you put obeying him above communicating with me. Another reason that I didn’t send you letters, Hermione.”

Hermione closes her eyes for a long second before she murmurs, “We’ll talk about this with you when you’re not as upset.” She slams her book shut and stands up. “Coming, Ron?”

“I think I’ll stay here for a second. Almost done with my Defense essay.”

Hermione nods curtly and leaves. Harry shrugs a little. Every time stings less. He wonders if that means he’s becoming as emotionless as Snape, withdrawing from the people who brought him comfort.

“Mate.”

Harry looks up. “Yeah?”

Ron hesitates, then says, with entire earnestness as far as Harry can tell, “You’re better off out of the war. For some reason, Dumbledore thinks Neville has to be trained or something, that he’s the one who’ll face You-Know-Who. It’s like Dumbledore’s really gone barmy. I don’t know. And this holiday was awful, really. All these awkward silences when someone mentioned you, and no one knew what to call you.”

Harry has to smile at the image. “I don’t like it that you didn’t write to me, but I don’t blame you, really. Dumbledore’s hard to say no to. And I suppose it’s true that one of my letters or yours could be intercepted and reveal something about Grimmauld Place.”

“Mum keeps arguing with Dumbledore. Saying that you should be the one getting the training and that you’re no more likely to betray us than Neville is. But Dumbledore won’t budge.”

“What does Sirius say?” Harry asks, because if he’s going to get actual insight into this, he wants to know. “And Snape?”

“Sirius keeps trying to call you Potter and pausing. Then he glares at Snape.” Ron’s grin is fleeting and bitter. “Snape doesn’t say much since he’s not a spy anymore. Snipes at Sirius, mostly, and Professor Lupin.”

“What does Remus say?” Harry asks softly. The last letter he got from Remus, months ago, still told him that Sirius would need more time. Since then, Harry hasn’t bothered to write to him for the same reasons he didn’t write to Ron and Hermione over the holidays.

Ron frowns. “I don’t think he knows which end is up. He’s said that it was unfair the Potter vault got taken away from you, because you dad—sorry, Mr. Potter died believing you were his son. And then he turns around when one of the twins complains about leaving you out and says that Dumbledore knows best and the Order of the Phoenix are the only ones really fighting the war.”

Harry nods. He supposes that if Sirius decides to apologize to him someday, then Remus will do the same thing. Harry might accept them if they do. He just isn’t holding out hope or pining for it. “Thanks, Ron.” He dives back into his book.

Ron finishes up writing his essay, then puts a hand on his shoulder when he leaves the room. Harry looks up.

“I’m not going to join the Order of the Phoenix when I turn seventeen,” Ron says firmly. “I thought about it, and I don’t think anyone knows what they’re doing anymore. And they’re just pushing poor Neville around all the time, and his gran lets them. I think she wishes he was the hero instead of you.” He clutches Harry’s shoulder harder. “I’m sorry for not writing to you. I want to be your friend no matter what your name is.”

Harry reaches up and clasps Ron’s hand back. It took Ron a long time, but because of the way that Harry tried to help the Weasleys through their grief for Arthur last year, he didn’t drift as far away as Hermione in the first place. “Thanks.”

Ron nods to him, and leaves. Harry flips another page in the book he’s holding and smiles.

He has to check a few more tomes to be sure, but it doesn’t seem like there are any laws or customs against what he’s planning to do.

*

“I noticed that you haven’t been flying on your Firebolt, Harry. I thought you would rejoin the Gryffindor Quidditch team after Christmas.”

For some reason, Dumbledore has called Harry up to his office again, and is dancing around the subject as usual. Harry fixes his gaze on the perch where Fawkes is staring at him as if to make sure that he isn’t bleeding basilisk venom from the forehead again, and smiles at Dumbledore a little. “No, I sold it.”

Silence, except for the crackling of the fire and the rustling noise as Fawkes shakes out his plumage. Harry watches the phoenix. He wonders if it’s his imagination that Fawkes is keeping his side or tail pointed towards Dumbledore, never facing him directly.

“I’m sorry, Harry. Why would you sell it?”

“To have money, so I can survive the summer.”

“Given that you will be living with your relatives, I hardly see—”

“And to have money to buy my supplies for my seventh year, of course. Since you didn’t bother buying me anything for this year, I assume that I’ll be on my own for that, as well.”

Dumbledore has gone back to the subtle confusion again when the door that leads to the moving staircase abruptly opens and Neville storms in, throwing his hands about. “No!” he shouts when Dumbledore opens his mouth, maybe to tell him to calm down. “I refuse! I am not going to be the blasted Boy-Who-Lived anymore! I quit!”

Harry blinks. Dumbledore blinks. Neville throws something into the middle of the floor—it looks like a scroll—and storms out again.

“You were putting pressure on him to become your new Boy-Who-Lived, weren’t you?” Harry asks, and shakes his head. Now he can show his knowledge, since Neville himself has revealed it. “You shouldn’t have. Neville could be a hero, but not the way you want him to be.”

“What would you know about it, Harry?” Dumbledore’s voice is weary. He steps around his desk to pick up the scroll. It unrolls briefly enough to show some pictures that make Harry think it’s a scroll on battle tactics.

“Because I’ve seen how brave Neville can be,” Harry murmurs, thinking of how Neville stood up to him and Ron and Hermione in first year when he thought they were wrong, and how he kept going to Potions classes with Snape for five years despite being terrified of him and attends Defense classes now, and the way he joined Hermione’s rebel Defense group last year. “You can’t train him to kill Voldemort, though. Or stand there and let himself be killed. Could he even do that?” he adds. “I don’t think he’s a Horcrux.”

Dumbledore closes his eyes, his face slumping into weary lines. “I must ask you to leave again, Harry.”

Harry shrugs and stands up to do so. He suspects now that Dumbledore wanted him there to say something about heroism to Neville, or instruct him in how to be a “proper” Boy-Who-Lived, or something.

Well, it doesn’t matter now. Dumbledore doesn’t have a hero. Harry supposes he should be terrified by that, but Voldemort has left him alone now for long enough that he doesn’t feel like part of the war. Just surviving takes all his energy, anyway.

*

“He can’t make me part of it again!”

Neville is serious enough about his “quitting” that he lifts his voice against Ron and Hermione outside Defense class the next week. The hilarious part is that Hermione is trying to hush him, and Ron gives Harry a look of embarrassment, both of them looking as if they won’t discuss it in public.

Just to be a bastard, Harry leans on the wall where he was walking past on his way to NEWT Charms, and lingers.

Neville glances at him and seems to find strength from his presence. “Ask Harry,” he snarls at Ron and Hermione, stabbing his finger towards Harry. “What he was having me do was inhuman. Just like all the pressure he put Harry under when his last name used to be Potter!”

“Neville, let’s not talk about this here,” Hermione hisses. She reaches out to take his arm. Neville shakes her off. Harry wonders if it’s the first time Hermione has really realized how tall and muscular Neville’s grown.

“No. There’s nothing to talk about. I quit.” Neville stalks off. Harry shakes his head and follows him. Neville will be on his way to NEWT Charms, too.

Harry does glance over his shoulder once, because he’s still being a bastard. Ron is holding Hermione back and saying something softly to her. Probably trying to convince her that no matter how “unreasonable” Neville is being, it won’t do any good to go after him now.

And Snape is standing in the door of the Defense classroom, watching either Harry or Neville—Harry can’t tell which—with dark eyes and a drawn brow.

“I’m sorry,” Neville says, drawing Harry’s attention back to him.

“For what? You didn’t do anything.”

“But that’s the problem. All these years and I never spoke up when you were doing something heroic and people got after you for it. Or when Dumbledore was trying to put you under this kind of pressure.” Neville grimaces and rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t even know how you can stand to be friends with me when I just—looked aside.”

“Dumbledore actually didn’t try to put me under the kind of training he did you. He had something else in mind for me, I think.”

“Yeah?”

Neville is giving him such a look of undisguised curiosity, and they’re in the middle of an empty corridor, and Harry has got good at privacy charms, and anyway, Neville probably already knows about Horcruxes. Harry gives in to temptation and lifts his strongest charm around them, one that makes the world outside the boundaries fuzzy. He leans towards Neville. “You know what a Horcrux is?”

Neville jumps and gasps. “Y-yes,” he says, with a return of his stutter.

“Well, my scar had one.” Harry taps his forehead, and Neville follows the motion of his fingers with a look of fascinated horror. “I think Dumbledore’s plan was for me to confront Voldemort and die. That would get rid of the Horcrux, and it would help make him easier to kill. I don’t think he ever meant for me to fight Voldemort, but then you didn’t have the Horcrux in you, so that was what he would have had to train you to do if you were going to fulfill the prophecy.”

Neville looks ill. “But he did something to your scar so you don’t have to?”

“No, I did that. Got rid of the Horcrux.” Neville swallows but doesn’t say anything, so Harry adds, “Stabbed myself in the forehead with a basilisk fang.”

Harry!”

It’s an appalled noise, but Harry just laughs. “I thought it might work, that’s all, and I wasn’t going to go around being a Horcrux or let Dumbledore kill me. And it worked, definitely. The Horcrux is gone now.”

“How did you survive?”

“Fawkes came and cried tears for me, just the same way that he did in second year when I faced the basilisk for the first time.”

Neville shakes his head, looking overwhelmed. “And that’s why I can’t make a good Boy-Who-Lived, Harry. I could never do something like that and survive.”

Harry grips Neville’s arm. “Don’t think of yourself that way. If you really want to chew on something, chew on this. The title wasn’t about the way I survived Voldemort’s Killing Curse, or Dumbledore would never have started doubting that I was the right prophecy child. It was about a symbol, someone who could inspire hope. Don’t chastise yourself because you refuse to be Dumbledore’s figurehead.”

And for the first time in what seems like a full year, Harry sees Neville smile.

*

Harry paces in a circle around the bathroom and looks out the window again. It’s a serene night, the night after the exams that have ended his sixth year, and the view from Gryffindor Tower is grass and woods and more grass and more woods. Harry sees a flicker near the edge of the trees that’s probably the herd of thestrals he met through Care of Magical Creatures grazing. They would be alarmed if something was wrong, he thinks. Which means he should get out of the bathroom and go to bed.

But he can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong.

He happens to be looking in exactly the right direction to see a flare of movement near the Forest, and to see the thestrals abruptly break into a canter and take flight. Then dark, robed figures are flooding out of the trees. There is something running on four legs beside them, and overtaking them, moving faster than a charging horse towards the castle.

Harry glances up at the moon. It’s full.

He wishes now that he’d kept the Firebolt. It would aid him in getting to the battle faster. On the other hand, he can hardly fight them by himself. He raises his wand and casts a variation of the firework spell that Dumbledore tried to use to get people’s attention last year when Harry was questioning Umbridge under Veritaserum.

As the night explodes into red and gold, and light rips across the grounds, Harry casts Sonorus on himself and yells as loudly as he can, “DEATH EATERS! DEATH EATERS ON HOGWARTS GROUNDS!”

Then he’s running out of the bathroom, shouting to wake up Ron and Neville and the others, and pounding down the staircase to the portrait hole, ignoring the unhappy and confused sounds behind him. His mind is clear, pointed crystal, more sharply focused than it was even during the battle in Diagon Alley he fought in. He knows what he has to do and he knows how he’s going to fight.

When he gets out of the portrait hole, he pauses to repeat the firework spell and the shouted warning, ignoring the scolding of the Fat Lady behind him. Then he casts another charm on himself, one that Professor Flitwick talked about in class but didn’t actually teach them to cast. Another place where Harry’s self-study came in useful.

His body becomes light, almost floating off the floor. Harry runs to the stairs and hurls himself down.

He bounces and rolls from step to step, going down far faster than he would have been able to otherwise, and when he hits a corner, it’s the work of a moment to push himself off the wall and down the next flight. He reaches the ground floor of the castle in two minutes, and casts the firework spell and roars the warning one more time, before he cancels the Human Balloon Charm.

Now he has to fight. He’s done what he can to try and alert.

Harry stands within the door of the entrance hall, and sees the moment when the Death Eaters cross under the line of the light that’s starting to fall from the upper windows. There is a werewolf next to them, a twisted nightmare much larger than Remus in his animal form, with grey fur and a long streak of silver down his spine. And crawling next to them on the other side is a serpent so large that Harry stares.

That has to be Nagini.

Which means Voldemort has to be around here somewhere.

But Harry doesn’t hesitate. Some of the Death Eaters split off, heading around the wall to strike at doors they probably think will be unprotected, but the majority of the group, and the werewolf, is coming straight for the entrance hall.

Harry feels wild joy surge up through him, joined by rage as he pictures what that werewolf could do to innocent students. He aims his wand and casts no incantation, just reaches into the center of himself and pulls the way he did when he was in the Room of Requirement last year.

The beast-fire answers him.

Suddenly the darkness is torn into long slashes as golden chimeras stalk through it, and dragons wing above them, red-orange flickering abruptly into white as Harry’s will give them heat. They don’t even glance at Hogwarts and Harry; his will is too firmly clamped onto them this time. Instead, they head straight at the Death Eaters, and particularly the werewolf. Harry watches as one huge clump of flames becomes a looming golden werewolf, jaws parted and howl ringing through the night.

The Death Eaters freeze for a moment, looking genuinely surprised. Then they start trying to set up shields—all but the werewolf. He hurls himself straight at the golden one, paws stabbing out in front of him and answering howl rising.

Harry has a moment to wonder if the fire will be enough, given how resistant werewolves are to magic, before the wolves meet each other in midair. There’s a long crackle and hiss, a smell of burning flesh, and then a pattering of something landing on the ground. When Harry can see past the flash that accompanies everything, he knows that it’s the werewolf’s blackened bones.

The Death Eaters are frozen and staring again. Harry jerks himself back to the battle. He has to take advantage of their surprise while they’re still caught in it and haven’t figured out a way to fight his fire yet.

Pluviasempra!” he calls, another charm that Professor Flitwick mentioned but they didn’t actually cover in class.

The miniature rainclouds form at once over each Death Eater’s head, dumping down so much rain that it can drown people, the professor said. There’s a lot of screaming and cursing and countercursing, but Harry doesn’t care.

He’s turning to face Nagini.

She’s closer than he thought she would be, drawing back for a strike. And she’s hissing something that sounds meaningless to Harry, which brings a smile of fierce joy to his face. He had no way of testing before this whether his Parseltongue abilities had actually died with the Horcrux.

But they have. And Harry sings out the command to the fire that’s crowding up behind him, eager to gnaw on his spine if it can’t have anything else. “Come!”

Once again, the flames take the shape of the beast they’re confronting as they loom up before Nagini. This one is a basilisk, fittingly enough, curled scarlet plume standing up from its head and its body solid and thick with dark red scales. It hisses defiance at Nagini, who hisses right back, and they collide with each other.

That worries Harry, for a second. Voldemort must have put powerful protections on his snake if she thinks she can take on a fire that charred a werewolf to pieces—

But not powerful enough, Harry realizes with relief a second later as Nagini bursts into flame. The basilisk breaks apart at the same moment and reforms with open jaws around Nagini, tearing her and swallowing her, chunk by burning chunk. It makes Harry shudder a little with the violence, but he doesn’t turn away. It’s still not as violent as his rage that the Death Eaters would dare to attack the school at all.

Then, at the last moment as the basilisk swallows something that might have been a piece of Nagini’s tail, the screaming begins.

Harry staggers backwards, his hands flying up over his ears and making his wand clunk into the side of his head. That’s the sound he heard from his scar as the basilisk venom struck.

Nagini was a Horcrux? His fire can destroy Horcruxes?

Harry’s mind flies back to the moment in the Room of Requirement when something screamed as he destroyed it, and a slow smile widens across his face. That would mean that he’s actually destroyed four of them now, and while he has no idea how many Voldemort made—for all he knows, it’s hundreds—it feels damn good.

Snape.”

Harry glances over his shoulder automatically, and Snape is fighting behind him, although his gaze is fixed more on Harry than the Death Eaters he’s cutting, shielding from, blasting apart. His face is pale, though.

Then the voice speaks again, and Harry realizes that it’s coming from in front of him, and it’s familiar, and it’s addressing him.

“Sorry, not who you’re looking for,” he says conversationally as he turns around. “But it’s nice to see you here on the battlefield, Voldemort. Not hiding behind rats and snakes for once, huh?” A simple flex of his will, and his fire rears up at his back, this time coalescing into a single huge Nundu that makes the ground crumble and burn beneath it with a stamp of its paw.

Voldemort stares at him with live, furious eyes. But Harry doesn’t think he’s imagining the fear in them. He has no idea if someone would have told Voldemort about the change to Harry’s scar; he has no idea how many spies Voldemort has in the school. His gaze now is constantly on Harry’s forehead rather than his wand.

“How did you get rid of the scar?” he rasps.

“None of your fucking business,” Harry replies cheerfully. He’s so full of rage and joy that there’s no room in him for fear. He whips his arm forwards, and the Nundu leaps over his shoulder straight for Voldemort.

Voldemort spits a counter, and the fire dissolves into cold mist in the midst of its leap. Harry glares. Then he pulls raw magic up his wand and hurls it at Voldemort, with no idea what it’s going to turn into. Maybe more fire?

Instead, it becomes a huge, swinging blade of a sword that glitters like ice. Voldemort barely ducks the sweep. When the sword comes back around, he does manage to raise a shield that cuts it in half, but that still leaves a big piece of it that nearly stabs him in the heart. Voldemort barks a sharp word that makes it flicker apart into little sparks of light.

By now, people other than Snape are finally starting to pour out of Hogwarts. Harry hears Dumbledore call, “Surrender, Tom. Surely you now by know that you have no Death Eaters left.”

Wow, really? Harry’s fire must have been more destructive than he thought, or maybe Snape and the others took care of more of them than it seemed.

Voldemort doesn’t bother responding to Dumbledore’s demand, just shoots a corkscrew of green light at Harry that he dodges, and then the duel is on.

Harry is careful to create spell effects that can strike back at Voldemort from a distance or in front of him or that are aimed at the ground and air around him, because locking their wands in Priori Incantatem again is not what he wants. It seems that Voldemort is being careful to do the same thing, although his eyes glitter with such hate that he probably wishes he could just cast the Killing Curse and be done with it.

Harry laughs as he watches the rock he tore from the ground bounce off a shield next to Voldemort. Voldemort bares his teeth. “Why are you laughing, you foolish child? You must know that I will win.”

“I’m making you struggle for it,” Harry says simply, and then he goes back to saving his breath for the spells he barks.

Voldemort is beating him back, though, slowly but surely, towards the school. He’s less tired than Harry is, and he knows more spells. Harry can feel his heart hammering so much that he thinks he’ll lose it out his ribs any second now, and his breath comes in pants more than it comes in spells.

Then Voldemort explodes the ground in front of him, and Harry isn’t quick enough. He half-tilts into the opened pit at his feet. Voldemort takes a step forwards. Harry looks up defiantly. Dying like this is still better than the torture he’d face if he was taken captive, or the death Dumbledore had planned for him.

Sectumsempra!

The spell that travels part Harry isn’t like anything he’s heard of before, and he watches in shock as Voldemort’s chest is the thing that practically explodes this time, showering Harry in blood. Voldemort is screaming in pain and fear, although he doesn’t die. He simply steps back and vanishes with a shimmer of motion that doesn’t seem like Apparition.

I’ve got to learn that spell, Harry thinks, blinking blood out of his eyes, at the same moment as a hand closes on his arm and hauls him roughly out of the pit.

“What were you doing, you stupid boy?” Snape is looming over him with frantic fury in his eyes.

“Fighting,” Harry says, and grimaces as he realizes some of the blood got in his mouth. He spits and takes a deep breath, looking around. The ground is covered with bodies in several directions, but at least all of them seem to have the white masks that the Death Eaters wear. There’s barely a sign left where his fire burned the werewolf and Nagini. “Is everything over with?”

“Yes, thanks to you.”

There’s a note in Snape’s voice that Harry doesn’t want to listen to and has no idea how to answer. “Oh. Good,” he says vaguely, and then crashes to the ground with exhaustion.

Chapter Text

“I don’t think you realize that the fire you cast is a Dark spell, Harry.”

Harry rolls his eyes up to the ceiling of the hospital wing. Right, this is what Dumbledore has been harping on about since he awoke. Not about the fact that Voldemort and the Death Eaters got so close to the castle, which means there must have been a traitor who could let them through Hogwarts’s defenses. Not praise of Harry for warning people and handling most of the invasion by himself. Just all this concern about how Harry apparently used Dark Arts, and the fire is called Fiendfyre.

Harry isn’t going to share this feeling with anybody, but that’s kind of an awesome name.

“I didn’t cast a spell,” he says, timing the revelation for just when Dumbledore looks like he’s opening his mouth to begin again. “I got angry and wanted something to happen, and the fire was what came out.”

Dumbledore gives him another one of those confused looks. Maybe Harry’s wrong. Maybe it’s not mere confusion. Maybe it’s more senility. I mean, Harry thinks, as he scratches idly at the bandaged wound on his side that he doesn’t even remember taking, it’s happening so often.

“That is impossible.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “You were the one who kept saying that the Aurors would arrest me once they performed Priori Incantatem on my wand. Do it yourself. See if there’s any trace of the spell you were worried about.”

Dumbledore is silent for a moment, but then he picks up Harry’s holly wand and does it. The names of the incantations that rise from it, combined with images, go too fast for Harry to read them, but what’s there must support what he’s saying, because Dumbledore turns back to him and says, “You cannot have wandlessly controlled Fiendfyre.”

Harry shrugs and says nothing. Dumbledore is like the people who still deny Voldemort is back, except worse, because he saw all this right in front of him, while the other idiots at least have the excuse that they weren’t in the graveyard and might not have been at the battle last night. Harry is done with Dumbledore.

“I cannot understand,” Dumbledore says slowly, “why you charged into battle yourself, instead of waiting for adults to catch up with you.”

Harry leans his head back and laughs and laughs. He laughs while Dumbledore tries to question him again, and he laughs while Dumbledore stands there looking hurt and offended, and he laughs while Madam Pomfrey comes in to tell both of them off and give Harry a Sleeping Draught.

There’s still an edge of hilarity haunting his mind when he slips into sleep.

*

“Can I talk to you?”

The voice is so low and deferential that Harry honestly doesn’t recognize it. He looks up from his trunk, which he didn’t bother shrinking this time because he’ll be living out of it this summer, and blinks when he sees Snape standing in the portrait hole of Gryffindor Tower.

This is really fucking weird. Harry draws his wand and flicks it in several motions that should reveal both Disillusioned Slytherins hiding nearby and whether this is someone wearing an illusion spell to appear as Snape. He hasn’t mastered the incantation that would let him detect Polyjuice in someone’s blood yet, unfortunately.

“I am myself,” Snape says, and he does sound more like himself. “I do not know what name to call you by. I thought I would let you guide the terms of the conversation.”

“A conversation I don’t want to have?” Harry taps his wand against the trunk to Lighten it, the last bit of magic he’ll be doing with that wand until July thirty-first, and picks it up with one hand. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go catch the carriages to the train station.”

Snape draws back, but follows him down the stairs. Harry really has left it dangerously late. Then again, he didn’t get released from the hospital wing until this morning, and then he lingered downstairs because he didn’t want to get questioned by half of Gryffindor. He only came back when the Tower was mostly empty.

“I am sorry.”

Harry turns around and casts another detection spell on Snape. He folds his arms and scowls at Harry, but keeps talking. “I had no idea that you had—made yourself that sort of student.”

Harry cocks his head. “Is that why you saved my life?”

“I saved your life because I could not stand there and see Voldemort kill you.” Snape sneers lightly. “You may ascribe what motivations you will to me for that. I still do not understand my actions.”

Harry nods, although he’s not really surprised. He thought Snape didn’t, or Harry would have had an earful by now. And, well, it’s not like Voldemort could really hate Snape more than he does or make him any more of a target. He might as well save Harry’s life.

“You are much more powerful and dangerous than I thought you were.” Snape eyes Harry from beneath his own fall of hair. Except that Harry finally burned the ends of his when it got past his shoulders and continues to tie it back, that part of them looks a lot alike. “I would like a chance to get to know you.”

“Because someday you’re afraid that I might turn my wand on you?”

“That is part of it. The rest is that confusing mixture of motivations I told you about.”

Harry studies him. He does believe Snape, as weird as that is. If nothing else, the man hasn’t approached him much this year outside of his initial demand to know why Harry wasn’t in Defense Against the Dark Arts. He’s mostly waited and watched. He hasn’t even tried to assign detentions to Harry’s friends for being his friends.

“I still have to get a move on to the carriages.”

“You can use the Floo in my office to get to the Leaky Cauldron.”

Harry freezes for a second, wondering if Snape knows that he lived there last summer and is heading there again this summer, then shakes his head. Unless Snape speaks of it openly, Harry isn’t going to, either. “Fine.”

He follows Snape down to the dungeons. Snape Disillusions them once when they cross the path of a gaggle of Hufflepuffs frantically dragging their baggage to the carriages. Harry watches them go. They’re mostly second-years, and he would give a lot to be as innocent as them.

A lot. Not everything. He wouldn’t give up what he’s learned in the last few years, or the person he’s become.

And the same is true for whatever kind of “improved relationship” Snape might be angling for. Harry has no trouble walking away from the man if he wastes his time or if he’s only doing this on Dumbledore’s orders.

Snape’s quarters turn out to be gloomy except for the presence of a large mirror on one wall. Harry sits down on a couch made of dark leather and watches Snape as he sits in a chair that faces the fire more than the couch. Snape takes a deep breath and begins.

“I did not claim you as my son because your mother did not want me to.”

Harry blinks, but says nothing.

“She wrote to me after you were born. Just once.” Snape’s eyes are wide and blind and staring at the wall next to the fire. “She said that she knew immediately that I had sired you, but she intended to raise you as James’s child. She cast charms on you that would keep you looking like a Potter unless I acknowledged you. They were the only sort that would pass undetected by most spells, but they had that inherent fragility, that I could ruin them. So I complied.”

“You had no reason or right to go on doing that after she was dead.”

“I loved her with all my soul. The only thing I could do for her then was to honor her wishes. She made it clear to me that she loved you with all her soul.”

Harry sighs. That explains some things, and it makes it sound like his mother wasn’t a horrible person, which does ease some of the clutching questions in his mind. But he’s not going to just sit there and listen to this and accept it. “Then why did you treat me horribly when I was a student at school?”

Snape swallows. “All I could think was how I could never have any sort of relationship with you. That everyone thought of you as James’s son. That he was dead, and still triumphant. I could not even reveal it to Albus, because that would have been enough to begin destroying the charms Lily had placed. And Albus was insistent that I maintain my cover as a spy in case the Dark Lord returned. Any tender treatment of you would have endangered that.”

“That’s not enough to excuse it.”

“I know.”

Harry pauses. He expected some kind of justification, or attempt at apology. He’s getting neither. Then again, he supposes that Snape is probably saying this because he knows the plain truth is all Harry would accept.

“How did you and my mum sleep together? I think you owe me that story.”

A muscle jumps in Snape’s cheek, but he doesn’t disagree, staring at the fire. “She was a particular target of the other Death Eaters. They were infuriated that someone they considered inferior to them was so brilliant with Potions and Charms, and in fact bringing some of them down. Because of that, after one of the spectacular battles where she defied the Dark Lord, both Albus and James insisted that she stay behind the lines. She was going slowly mad with confinement. She sneaked out and—I think she came to seek me out because she was going to duel me. Or kill me.”

“That doesn’t explain how you wound up in bed together.”

Snape’s eyes close. His voice is very flat. “I saw her and I dropped my wand and got down on my knees. I told her that I’d betrayed her and she had every right to kill me. She was—angry about that. She was so much like you. She slammed me into the wall of the house where she’d found me, a Death Eater hiding place that she’d discovered…I don’t even know how she discovered it, but it must have been before Albus and James told her to hide.

“She was screaming at me, asking me how I could do this when I was a half-blood myself, with a Muggle father—”

Harry chokes.

“Yes, that is my heritage.” Snape is holding himself so stiff now that he looks injured. “It is another reason it was a mistake for me to join the Death Eaters. She held her wand to my throat and told me she was going to kill me. Honestly, in that moment it would have been a relief.

“But then she grew upset about how I wasn’t fighting back. Lily did not have it in her to kill a helpless man.”

“I wish she had,” Harry says, the words slipping out of his mouth before he can think.

“No more than I.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say to that, and Snape falls silent, which was not at all the purpose of Harry’s interruption. He turns his wrist at Snape like he’s one of the Fiendfyre beasts, encouraging him to continue.

Snape takes a breath and does so. “She gave me back my wand and told me to duel her. I did, but I had little heart for it, and she beat me easily. She held her wand to my throat again as I lay on the floor and told me that the war had driven her mad. Everyone expected her to be to obedient and do what she was told. She couldn’t stand it.”

Harry has to swallow against an unexpected rush of burning in his throat. So she was like me. They treated her like me.

“She said that she was going to give us something to wake us both up. If we were mad, we should act mad. And I should act alive instead of dead. And that was when it happened.”

Snape falls silent. Harry studies his face and can see nothing but regret. And weariness. He seems to know that this won’t repay the debt between him and Harry, that he can’t pay for anything with just this.

“It sounds as if you didn’t feel a lot,” Harry finally says. “How could it have happened without you feeling more?”

Snape draws in a deep breath. “I cannot recount to you exactly what that moment was like. As Lily said, we were mad. It could never have happened in any other place or time. I was ready to die. She was ready to kill. I consider it a strange—thing that we slept together instead of her leaving my corpse there.”

Harry supposes he can kind of understand. It would be hard for him to describe the kind of rage that led to him destroying the Horcrux in the Room of Requirement, too. “I’m not ready to forgive you.”

“I know.” Snape tilts his head downwards so that his hair slides across his face. “I told you the story because you deserve to hear it. If you want more than this, I will give it if I can.”

“There are still things you can’t give.”

“Yes. I cannot change the past or take back my treatment of you.”

Harry considers that, then nods. There are things he wants from Snape, but expecting him to invent some sort of super-Time Turner doesn’t solve anything. “Has Dumbledore told you about Horcruxes?”

Snape winces in silence. Then he says, because Harry keeps on staring at him, “Yes. That was another reason, foolish though it was, that I did not think seriously about claiming you as my son. I knew that Albus was rearing you in such a way that he expected you to die—and I intuited that long before he told me why. I wondered why I should attempt it, merely to expose myself to more grief.”

“And it meant you didn’t have to climb out of the neat little trap of self-loathing you created for yourself.”

“Yes.” Snape doesn’t flinch again, but simply watches Harry with a vague look of approval, as if glad that Harry is seeing him whole.

“Fine. First, I want you to tell me why Dumbledore appointed you as the Defense professor this year, when he has to know the curse would make you leave the school somehow, and Voldemort was hunting you down.”

Snape still flinches at the name, still opens his mouth as if he’d like to scold Harry for saying it, but holds himself back, and simply says, “Albus had a plan in mind where I would gain the Dark Lord’s trust and embed myself within the Death Eaters as a spy again. Then I would leave the school at the end of the year, after a very public and staged falling-out with Albus, and the curse would be satisfied.”

“But—that didn’t happen.” Harry finds himself glancing around as if the room will be taking them back in time. “It’s the last day of school, after the exams, and it didn’t happen.”

“No,” Snape says softly. “In the end, I refused. I told him that the Dark Lord would never trust me again no matter what happened, and that what he wanted me to do was repellent. I will indeed leave the Defense post now, but it will simply be to resume my Potions professorship.”

Harry blinks. “And foiling the curse is as easy as that?”

“It was what Albus planned for Quirinus.” It takes Harry a moment to recall that that was Quirrell’s first name. “Before he knew that Quirinus was allied with the Dark Lord, of course. Albus thought that he could teach Defense for a year and then return to Muggle Studies.”

Harry rubs his hand through his hair and says, “Okay. Then I have another request to make, although it won’t have as much impact as it would have if you were still going to be the Defense professor. I want you to act like a decent teacher. Stop favoring the Slytherins, stop making caustic comments, stop assigning students detentions for breathing, stop expecting people to know exactly how to brew a potion from unclear instructions you put on a board.”

There’s silence. Harry looks up and sees Snape staring at him with slightly parted lips. He slams his mouth shut a second later and says, “How will that benefit you?”

Really.” Harry leans forwards, and Snape is the one who flinches and looks away. “You think I only care about myself? It’ll benefit me knowing that people like Hermione aren’t being picked on! That they have a chance at a decent NEWT score!”

Snape clenches his fingers down into the cushion beneath him. Then he says, “After the way they have treated you—”

“They always did that, though,” Harry points out. “It’s been worse in the last few years, sure, and some people started doing it who never did before.” His mind snaps to Sirius briefly, but then he goes on. He’s had a lot of practice ignoring his thoughts of Sirius and Remus. “I care about them. I care about you proving that you can do this.”

“How long do you wish this to last?”

“The rest of your life, of course,” Harry says. “But if you make it two years—the amount of time that you made my life a living hell—then I’ll consider talking to you more often and seeing about some kind of…father-son thing.” The words feel unnatural in his mouth. He supposes that’s as good a sign as any that he’s thoroughly made the transition from wanting to be someone’s son to accepting that he has no parents.

“Is there anything else I can do?”

Snape’s voice is low and painful. Harry watches him. His head is bowed, but he appears to be listening. And at least he’s told Harry the story of his birth and Harry can rest assured that his mother wasn’t raped or under a love potion or a horrible person.

“I want you to tell me anything that Dumbledore tells you. If he still tells you anything,” Harry adds. He supposes that he can’t blame Snape for being left out of the information circle if Dumbledore’s decided he’s untrustworthy. “And answer another question for me.”

“Yes.” Snape looks up.

“So you saved my life the other night. Was it solely because I’ve become the accomplished man you wanted for a son?”

“I told you that I did not know—”

“Yes, yes, you didn’t know all your motivations. Well, I want you to dig down and start thinking about them, Snape. I don’t want all the answers if you can’t give them to me now, but I want some.”

Snape thinks about that, keeping his gaze on the fire. Then he draws in a deep breath and says, “For years, I was ashamed mostly of having betrayed the prophecy to the Dark Lord and not claiming you as my son.” Harry closes his eyes but says nothing. “Last night, I was ashamed of something else. Or perhaps I had been ashamed for a while and had not realized it. I was part of those who left you alone.”

“And expected me to falter and die. Or come crawling back to you.”

“Yes.” Snape’s voice is barely a whisper. “That night, I knew that you should not die. I finally accepted that I could not change the past, but I could change how I treated you now.”

Harry considers that, then nods briskly. That’s more honest than he expected, and it doesn’t make any kind of claim on him or bleat about kindness the way he thinks Dumbledore would—if the need for an apology ever occurred to him. “Fine. Then I’m going to go to the Leaky Cauldron for the summer.”

It’s a gesture of trust, and Snape turns to face him at once, obviously recognizing that. “That must be where you spent the last summer.”

“Yes.” Harry holds his gaze. “If you tell Dumbledore this, or if he reads it out of your mind, I’m going to make you regret it.”

The threat actually makes Snape relax, which is twisted enough that Harry wants to laugh. “I have mastered Occlumency as well as Legilimency, and even the Dark Lord, who has more raw power but less finesse than Albus, never read the truth out of my mind. Only when he took my blood and used a certain ritual did he discover anything.”

Harry nods. “Fine. Then I’m leaving now.” He heads for Snape’s Floo, and Snape shows him where the powder is.

Snape doesn’t say anything to him, but stands back and watches him. Harry allows it but doesn’t look back as he tosses the powder into the fire and says, “The Leaky Cauldron!”

*

Tom welcomes him, and even though it’s annoying to have to put his wand aside, Harry is still pleased about his summer circumstances. He is pretty sure that he knows enough now to attempt the Defense NEWT before he goes back to Hogwarts, and so he signs up for the summer one, the day after his birthday.

He spends his days revising and reading, again, and maintaining a pleasant enough owl-correspondence with Ron and Neville. Both of them offer him little tidbits of information, the kind that are less likely to get them in trouble if Voldemort or Dumbledore find the owls. That’s fine with Harry.

Neville is the one who sends him a short letter halfway through July: Completely forgot that you probably didn’t know this. 7 H.

Harry stares at the letter in silence for a long moment. But he’s sure he knows what Neville means. Seven Horcruxes.

And with the diary and the thing in the Room of Requirement and Nagini and the Horcrux in Harry himself, Harry has destroyed four.

Harry grimaces a little. He hopes that the information Neville is reporting is accurate. Or rather, he hopes that Dumbledore got this one right when he decided that seven was the true number. It’s not like Neville would know outside of that. He’s just reporting what he heard Dumbledore say or what he told him.

Three more, Harry thinks, standing up and looking out the window of his room into Diagon Alley. The people walking there are cautious, and not all the shops are open, but it’s actually better than it was around Christmas. Voldemort and his Death Eaters haven’t been seen and haven’t done anything since the night they attacked Hogwarts.

Where would they be? What would they be?

The problem is Harry doesn’t know. The diary is something Voldemort owned when he was a boy, and Nagini was a living snake. The others might be childhood belongings or snakes, too, or maybe other living beings. Harry can’t make any progress on destroying them until he has that knowledge in his head.

Why should I destroy them? Why should they be my responsibility?

Harry lets his lips twist a little. It shouldn’t, and he doesn’t technically have to claim it now that Dumbledore and the others have left him out of things. But it’s like the way he defended people at Hogwarts. Innocents will still suffer if Voldemort lives.

But at the moment, I don’t have any ideas.

And one thing Harry has learned is not to waste time. He goes back to revising some of the spells that are almost certainly going to show up on the Defense written exam.

*

On July thirty-first, Harry walks through Diagon Alley to Gringotts with a blinding grin on his face.

He gets a few cautious looks, but he’s still wearing his hair long and his glasses charmed a different color, so not many people recognize him. The ones who do seem to consider whether he might use his “mysterious fire,” as the Prophet calls it, on them, too, and draw aside.

The goblin who stares at Harry is as impassive as all of them have been since he surrendered the Potter name. “What do you want?”

“An appointment with the Officer of Names,” Harry says, and hands over the twenty Galleons that he knows the appointment will cost.

The goblin’s eyes widen for a second, showing unexpected grey depths in the yellow, and then narrow. “Are you of age?” Only of-age wizards can choose a new surname without parental approval, which is the sole reason Harry has waited this long.

“Today is my seventeenth birthday.”

The goblin grunts as if to say he’ll be checking on that, then jerks the Galleons off the counter with a clawed fist. “Come, then.”

Harry is led back through a labyrinth of small, twisty corridors, although he has a charm on his wand that will let him find the way out again if he needs to. The Officer of Names turns out to have a huge door with blood-stained axe gouges on it that Harry looks at politely. The goblin who escorted him back here seems disappointed he doesn’t have more of a reaction, but throws open the door and announces, “A human to see the Officer of Names!”

Behind the door is the largest office, and the largest desk, Harry has ever seen; it’s more than three times the size of Dumbledore’s. Harry steps in and walks ups to it, ignoring the fact that it’s black, looming over him, and holding a goblin behind it who sits more than ten feet above his head.

“I thought my name was Harry Potter,” he says. “It’s not. I have come to claim a new name.”

The Officer leans towards him, a jagged knife clasped in one hand. “Will it be Snape or Evans?”

Harry laughs. “Neither. It’s going to be Gryffindor.”

The Officer drops the knife. It clatters on the marble counter in front of him and he catches it before it can fall far, but he’s glaring at Harry. “You cannot claim that name.”

“Yes, I can,” Harry says, and smiles a little. “I studied the matter. I can claim any surname I like provided a number of conditions are met. I have to be of age, there has to be no one in Britain currently using that name, I have to have at least a slight blood connection, and there have to be no vaults assigned to that name currently in Gringotts. I checked on all of those. All true. So.” He lifts his eyebrows a little. “Is the Officer of Names going to do the job I paid him to do?”

The Officer picks up the knife and glares at him for a moment. Then he gestures curtly, and the knife goes flying to Harry. Harry picks it up and makes the proper cuts: one for the lips so that they will not speak the old name but only the new one, one to his forehead so even the third eye will only see his new family, and one to each palm so that his hands will touch and spread glory and money only in the new name.

Then he tosses the knife back into the air. He can feel both the Officer and the goblin who led him here watching. They probably want the ritual to fail, Harry thinks.

He doesn’t care. It isn’t going to fail.

The knife spins in place for a moment, then stops spinning and glows with a brilliant golden light. It drops back towards Harry, who braces his palms out beneath it. He can’t show fear.

Luckily, he’s got pretty good at that.

The knife stops with its point resting on the cut on his left palm, and glows again. The light spreads out and up Harry’s body, and when it fades, the cuts on his palm are miniscule lines. Harry knows the same will be true of the ones on his lips and forehead.

“Harry Gryffindor,” the Office of Names says, becoming the first one to greet him by his new name, as is proper. He’s scowling all the same. The goblin behind Harry makes a choked little sound.

“I’ve come to add some Galleons to my vault,” Harry adds casually, pulling out the bag that he’s been keeping most of the money from the Firebolt sale in.

That changes the mood considerably, even if the goblin who takes Harry back out to the main area of the bank chokes a little more at having to talk about the Gryffindor vault.

Harry walks out of Gringotts with a swagger that he can’t help in his pace, and sends an owl to Rita Skeeter, asking her if she wants the first interview with Harry Gryffindor and how he changed his name. Then he goes back to his room.

Skeeter’s owl comes back to him the next day, after he’s already sat his Defense NEWT at the Ministry and come away absolutely confident of an O. She would indeed like that interview, and she’s prepared to pay him thirty Galleons—the extra ten Galleons for a Pensieve memory of Dumbledore’s face the first time he talks to Harry about his name.

Harry laughs, and agrees.

Chapter Text

As it turns out, Harry doesn’t have to wait until the start of the school year to get that memory to send to Rita. Dumbledore visits him the very next day after the Prophet prints the interview, walking into the Leaky Cauldron and giving Harry the most disappointed look of, probably, his long career.

Harry looks up at him and arches his eyebrows a little. “Did you know I was staying here, sir?” he asks. He has to wonder if Dumbledore has been keeping track of him the past two summers and just didn’t care until he was made to care, or if he assumes Harry left Privet Drive the instant he turned seventeen.

Dumbledore only nods his head and shoos Harry upstairs. Harry sees that Tom is watching him, and frowns a little. Tom’s eyes flicker from the back of Dumbledore’s head to a bottle under the bar.

Touched, Harry shakes his head. He doesn’t want the old man getting in trouble with him, not when Tom’s been so kind as to repay the life-debt with free accommodations.

They go up to Harry’s room, and Harry sits down on the bed and lets Dumbledore have the chair. His sleeve falls away from his right hand, and Harry blinks. It’s so blackened that it looks as though it’s been burned, but it definitely doesn’t smell that way.

What could have—

“Oh,” Harry says, and he can’t help the small smile that creeps up the side of his mouth. “Did you try to take on another Horcrux by yourself, sir?”

Dumbledore turns to him sharply and stares at him with what seems to be actual anger. “You were never so cruel a young man, Harry, I thought,” he says, “to mock the cause of a man’s death. Is it taking your new name that’s made you so different?”

Harry thinks about it a little. He wishes that he could say that he doesn’t feel anything about Dumbledore dying, but he feels a little. Mostly annoyance that he’s probably never going to admit he’s wrong, though.

“I’m what circumstances made me,” Harry says, and lounges back against his pillow. “What did you want to speak to me about, sir?”

“Your—new last name. Harry, how could you?”

“Well, you see, sir, when a bunch of adults with their heads up their arses leave someone without gold and any means to buy supplies for themselves, then this is what sometimes happens. Although the last name bit happened because I was hardly going to call myself Snape.” Harry isn’t as opposed to Evans as he would have been before he heard Snape’s story, but it isn’t impossible that there’s some Muggleborn out there called Evans right now, and he needed a name he was sure that no other wizard or witch in Britain was using.

Besides, he likes the scandal and shock and attention that the name is going to attack. He likes standing on his own.

“I destroyed a Horcrux,” Dumbledore says abruptly. “The way you did. And Severus has confirmed that your Fiendfyre destroyed Tom’s serpent on the battlefield. That means three are gone.”

“Five,” Harry says, and this is the expression that he thinks he might actually share with Skeeter. “There was also the diary in second year, which must have been one, and when I lit a Fiendfyre in the Room of Requirement last year, I heard something scream exactly like a Horcrux as it died.”

“What was it?”

“There were several objects it could have been.” Harry shrugs. “What matters is that five of them are gone now. How many would you say are left?”

Dumbledore stares at him steadily. Harry aims his eyes promptly at the blankets on his bed, and taps his hand a few times. He isn’t about to let Dumbledore read his mind and betray information that he got from Neville.

“Two,” Dumbledore says slowly. “One of the reasons that I invited Professor Slughorn to the school last year was because he had talked to Tom Riddle about Horcruxes when Tom was a student. And seven is the most powerful magical number, or at least it was said to be in a conversation between Tom and Horace.”

Slughorn’s first name, Harry remembers after a short struggle. He nods. “Then there are two left. Do you have any leads? And are you going to involve me now? I didn’t know if you thought I was the Boy-Who-Lived or not.”

Dumbledore glances away, frowning. “You were marked,” he whispers. “But Tom also doubted that you could be the child destined to defeat him with your parents’ defiances scattered across so many different times.”

“By the way,” Harry says, “my mum really did defy Voldemort three times? That’s not just something that you thought was convenient for the prophecy or something?”

Dumbledore gives him a look even more scandalized than one that he gave Harry when he heard about the five Horcruxes that are gone. “Why would I make up something like that?”

“You seem to really believe in this prophecy. I thought that perhaps you invented some facts so you could have your symbol of hope for the people of Britain.”

“Harry—I, no. I would never do something like that.”

Harry shrugs. “So back to the Horcruxes. Do you have any leads on what they are and where they are?”

Dumbledore continues to stare at him. Then he clears his throat and says, “Yes. I believe that they are most probably Founders’ artifacts. Tom Riddle had an interest in them, based on memories I recovered. Perhaps the one that you destroyed in the Room of Requirement was something related to Ravenclaw?”

“The others are what? Slytherin and Hufflepuff? He probably wouldn’t want something from Gryffindor.”

Dumbledore sighs a little, as if Harry’s refusal to engage with him is just a childish temper tantrum, but he nods. “And because the artifacts that Gryffindor left behind, like the sword, are guarded carefully in the school. I believe that a locket that belonged to Slytherin and a double-handled golden cup that belonged to Hufflepuff are the treasures we are seeking.”

There’s a sharp pop from the corner of the room. Harry whirls to his feet with his wand in his hand, but there’s nothing there. He narrows his eyes and casts a detection charm. Dumbledore starts to draw in his breath and then stops, probably because he remembered that Harry’s birthday was a few days ago.

Harry watches the shape that the blue smoke of the charm forms in the air. It can’t tell him exactly who was watching him, but if it formed the shape of an owl or a goblin or a hooded and cloaked wizard, he would know.

It doesn’t. It’s the shape of a house-elf.

“Dobby!” Harry calls, without taking his eyes off the corner. Dobby appears in front of him at once, with a hug that nearly knocks Harry back onto the bed. Harry pats his shoulder and nods to the blue smoke shape, interrupting Dobby’s speech of gratitude.

“There was a house-elf watching us, and he left when we were discussing some very sensitive information. Is it possible that you could track him down for us?”

“Anything for the Masters Gryffindor!” Dobby says proudly. He doesn’t look at Dumbledore as he abruptly disappears.

“Harry. Is that how you were able to put Veritaserum into Madam Umbridge’s drink?”

Harry ignores Dumbledore, watching the struggle that seems to be going on in the corner. There are two shapes flickering in and out of sight there, and if Harry didn’t know better, he would say they were wrestling. But then they appear, and that is what they’re doing: Dobby has his arms clasped firmly around Kreacher.

“Kreacher is not being a spy!” the ancient house-elf yells. He finally gets his arms around Dobby’s elbows and throws him off, but Dobby grabs Kreacher’s ankle before he can disappear. Kreacher huffs and turns towards Harry, his ears wriggling. “Disgusting Master’s disgusting godson is having a whiff of Darkest about him,” he snaps.

Harry blinks. “I have used Dark magic—”

“Not that. That is dark. This is darkest.” Kreacher nods at him, and then reaches into something that Harry doesn’t really want to think about, wrapped around his loins, and pulls out a glittering golden locket. “Kreacher was watching, when disgusting Master’s disgusting godson came back for the last talk with Master. He knew disgusting godson had been around the Darkest.”

Harry remembers the way Kreacher was staring at him in Grimmauld Place then, which he honestly didn’t think significant at the time. He nods. “Yes, I destroyed a Horcrux then. With Fiendfyre. Is that—”

“This is being the darkest that Master Regulus died for.” Kreacher’s eyes are filling up with tears, and snot dribbles down his nose onto the locket’s chain. “Master Regulus was being good. Was turning away at the last moment. Master Regulus loved Kreacher best.”

It takes some time to get the story from Kreacher, but when he does, Harry honestly feels ashamed about the way he used to treat Kreacher, and the way Sirius probably still does. Regulus really loved Kreacher, and it sounds like Kreacher loved him back. And the locket in front of them is gleaming with the same shimmer of Dark Arts that Harry now knows was around the diary. Then, he just thought it felt sort of greasy.

“We must bring it back to Hogwarts,” Dumbledore says gravely. “We can destroy it with the Sword of Gryffindor, which was infused with basilisk venom when…”

He trails off. Harry thinks it’s more than hilarious that Dumbledore still can’t talk about the deeds that he did as Harry Potter, as if they’re tainted or worth less somehow because of who he’s beoame.

“Or we could destroy it right here,” Harry says, who thinks that maybe the locket will hurt Dumbledore like the other one, whatever it was, did. Dumbledore must have acted pretty stupid to get hurt destroying a Horcrux when Harry’s taken care of four of them and only got injured twice.

“There are no basilisk fangs in this room.”

Dumbledore’s voice is pretty repressive. Harry grins at him and puts his wand down, closing his eyes. His joy is surging up through him. He has a new name. He has Dumbledore stymied. There’s going to be a way to destroy yet another Horcrux, and then they just have one more to go.

Well, and they have Voldemort to battle.

And that’s what begins to add the necessary rage. If Dumbledore had told him all this earlier, if he’d supported and trained Harry the way he was trying to train Neville, they could have defeated Voldemort years ago. Dumbledore could have done it, even, once he started thinking that Horcruxes existed. This shouldn’t have had to happen.

The abandonment. The refusal to look at and talk to him. The keeping secret of vital information. The pressure on Neville. None of it.

Harry roars aloud, and when he opens his eyes, a wisp of Fiendfyre is dancing above his cupped hands. “You might want to get out of the way,” he says casually to Kreacher, and then he clamps his will down on the flames.

They form a miniature dragon, beautiful and blazing and made of gold, but fierce. Harry can feel it struggling against his control. He ignores that. He has a strong enough will to stab a basilisk fang into his own bloody forehead, he reminds himself. “Get the locket,” he says softly.

Dumbledore is opening his mouth as the dragon zooms towards the locket. He’s just starting to say, “Harry!” when the locket opens and dark shadows stream out of it.

Harry watches them without moving, keeping his hold on the Fiendfyre dragon. The shadows are flickering crazily from one shape to another as if they’re all drunken werewolves. Sometimes they look like the young Tom Riddle from the diary, and sometimes they’re Snape, and sometimes they look like Ron and Hermione.

What do you fear?” the locket asks in a low, thick voice that’s just on the edge of Parseltongue.

It doesn’t know what to show me because it doesn’t have any idea what I’m afraid of. Harry feels his lips twitch as he says, “Not much,” and gestures the dragon forwards with a clenched fist.

It hits the locket, talons out and a stream of fire blowing from its jaws as if it’s imitating a real dragon. The shadows shriek as the flames hit them, the familiar sound of a dying Horcrux. Harry doesn’t hold his ears this time. He watches as it dies, as the chain of the locket turns to slag and the twisted form bends and smokes, until it vanishes in one more blast.

The dragon turns around and tries to breathe out on Harry’s books. Harry opens his fist and lets his emotions go at the same time. The Fiendfyre vanishes.

It’s very silent in the room. Harry politely doesn’t look at the way Dumbledore is almost cowering on the chair, and Dumbledore politely doesn’t accuse Harry of being evil.

Kreacher then begins to sob and try to kiss his hands, and Dobby starts scolding Kreacher and telling him that the proper way is to hug Harry Gryffindor’s legs, and it provides a needed distraction.

*

“I didn’t think that you would talk to me again.”

Hermione’s voice is soft, subdued. Harry shrugs at her from where he sits in front of the fire in the Gryffindor common room on the night of the Sorting. “You can apologize and tell me the truth, if you want. That’s the only way that I’m going to talk to you.”

Hermione takes a deep breath and sits down on the chair across from him. Harry watches her. A strand of his hair catches his attention from the corner of his eye, and he grimaces. At least it shows no tendency to be greasy, but it still grows damn fast, and he’ll need to burn it again.

“You know that Professor Dumbledore was really afraid that V-Voldemort would intercept our letters? That it was a real fear? He wasn’t doing it just to torment you.”

Harry rolls his eyes and picks up his book. Hermione grabs his wrist. “Wait, Harry! Please tell me what you want to hear!”

Harry shakes her off. “I already did. And the first thing you do instead is start excusing Dumbledore. He upended my life and didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me why, and then he wanted to just come back and pick me up like I’m a piece of rubbish he decided he needed. Stop excusing him.

The stool at Harry’s feet trembles. The fire in the hearth flares higher. Ron and Ginny are looking at him with wide eyes, and even some of the others are standing as if they’re about to run. Neville, though, is hiding his grin behind a pot he’s tucking seeds into.

“I,” Hermione says, and her head droops. “Professor Dumbledore was wrong to do that.”

“Yes, he was.”

“I just—I wish you’d talked to me more about what you wanted to hear, Harry. About what would have been the right thing to do.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Not abandon me? Not hide all sorts of secrets from me without even knowing if I would ‘betray’ you? But you did that. It really makes you seem like you weren’t friends with me, Harry. You were friends with the Boy-Who-Lived.” Briefly, his gaze meets Neville’s. There’s at least one other person here who knows exactly what that’s like.

Hermione nods, her eyes on the floor. “Are you going to be joining the war effort or not?”

Harry stands up and walks towards the seventh-year boys’ bedroom. Hermione leaps up but doesn’t chase after him. Instead, she calls, “Harry, please wait! Please just tell me what needs to happen!”

“I already did,” Harry answers in a low voice without turning around. He thought this would hurt more, this final rupture between him and Hermione, but maybe it’s not because of all the minor ruptures that have happened along the way. “You still haven’t apologized.”

“I’m sorry!”

Harry turns around and drapes his arms over the banister, watching as Hermione gulps and looks up at him. “Fine. Then we’ll discuss it later, in a more private setting, and if you attempt to drag me into the war again, this is finished.”

The entire Gryffindor common room is silent as Harry walks into the bedroom and shuts the door behind him. But at this point, Harry has accepted the fact that he’s going to cause waves no matter what he does. They might as well be waves of his own devising.

*

The new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor is an Auror named Nymphadora Tonks, a cheerful young woman who mostly has pink or purple hair and turns her nose into a pig’s snout on the regular and can counter any spell someone sends at her. Harry is mildly impressed with her, but less so once he finds out she’s a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Still, the textbook she chose sounded interesting enough that he bought it. He can always learn more even with the Outstanding he received on his Defense NEWT.

Searching through that book and all the others he can find, though, brings up no mention of the spell that Snape used to save his life. Harry scowls at his ceiling for several nights before he decides that, yeah, he needs to know. He writes a short note to Snape asking what book he can find Sectumsempra in and uses a Wind Charm to blow it under the door of Snape’s office.

A note comes back the same way, whipping onto his pillow and through the closed curtains of his bed one night when Harry lies awake reading.

No book. I invented it.

Harry finds himself staring at the note, his fingers clutching the sides of it so hard it gets a small rip in the middle. Then he puts it down and stares blindly at his curtains.

He hasn’t actually thought much about what he wants to do if he survives the war. He used to think that he wanted to be an Auror, but after seeing more about the way the Ministry works and how people will turn on him, he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Healing sounded complicated enough to be interesting, but the actual day-to-day work probably wouldn’t be.

Creating spells, though…

Harry flips the note over and writes several different questions on the back, including how hard creating spells is and how in the world you get started in the first place. Harry is lambasting himself for not thinking of making up his own spells before this. Then again, when it turned out that his fire was Fiendfyre, he assumed he probably couldn’t create anything new, only use old spells in new ways.

The note that comes back is more of a scroll, discussing the theoretical aspects of spell creation and how to be sure that an incantation you create will have the desired results. The last part of it is a list of book titles, which Harry goes to the library at once to look up. It turns out none of them are actually in the Restricted Section.

Snape apparently did his research on spell creation the way Harry did his research on Horcruxes, piecing together the necessary knowledge from lots and lots of sources.

Harry sighs a little when he realizes that, and shakes his head. He’s coming to accept that, well, he has some similarities to both his mum and the man who sired him.

He doesn’t have to like them, but on the other hand, it would be stupid to give up on something so powerful and interesting just because Snape can do it, too.

*

Dumbledore doesn’t summon him to his office until the middle of October. Harry goes, wondering what it’ll be this time. He can imagine lots of things, but what he thinks is likeliest is some kind of lead on Hufflepuff’s cup.

He doesn’t at all expect to walk in and find Sirius and Remus there.

“No, I don’t think so,” Harry says firmly, and turns around. The door to Dumbledore’s office seals itself off before he can touch it.

“Be reasonable, Harry,” Dumbledore says softly. Harry avoids his eyes, but he can smell the flesh of his rotting-burned hand—whatever it is—from here. Dumbledore still hasn’t told Harry what exactly happened to his hand or what kind of Horcrux he got rid of. “Sirius and Remus are both sorry for what they did, and they realize that they underestimated you and judged you on account of your parentage. They are here to apologize.”

“And their apology is so sincere that you had to trap me into staying for it, right?” Harry spits, turning around. He hears Sirius’s breath catch as he sees Harry’s face, probably because of the resemblance of his tied-back hair to Snape’s. Harry rolls his eyes. “Fine, right. Where’s the apology?”

“I’m so sorry we treated you the way we did,” Remus says at once. “I—I wish that I’d overcome my objections earlier.”

“What objections could you possibly have? That I was born at you?”

“Harry, come on, pup, enough.” Sirius takes a hesitant step forwards. “It was pretty extreme, you have to admit that, to realize that I was godfather to Snivellus’s kid all along.”

Harry snarls at him, and the air around him crackles with the same black lightning that happened that first time just before he unleashed the Fiendfyre. Sirius freezes. Harry turns to Dumbledore. “If you’re not going to discuss the Horcruxes, then let me out before I tear my way out.”

“Harry, please understand. You need a family around you, since Severus has refused to be that for you.” Through the haze of Harry’s rage, he still notes that Dumbledore apparently hasn’t noticed the scrolls he and Snape are writing back and forth to each other, or the conversation they had at the end of last year. “Your anger and your magic are getting out of control. You need the grounding of a stable adult influence—”

Stable. The man who spent twelve years in Azkaban?” Harry laughs, and the lightning lowers and outlines his fingers. “Let me out or I’m going to tear my way out, Albus.”

“The spells on the door are too powerful for that.” Dumbledore never raises his voice. “Harry, please, be reasonable—”

There’s a blaze across the room, one that shocks Harry out of his fury a little bit. If he’s unleashing Fiendfyre, he’d like to know it, so that he can actually control it. But the fire lands on his shoulder, and he realizes it’s Fawkes, who’s shaking his tail and chirping so hard at Dumbledore Harry can feel the vibrations down through the bird’s body.

Dumbledore is the one who freezes this time. “Fawkes?” he whispers.

Fawkes whips himself around, still chirping vehemently, and flies over to the door. A sweep of his claws, and it opens. Harry marches through it, and Fawkes flies past him down the stairway, all the time crooning softly like someone muttering under his breath.

When they come out at the bottom of the moving staircase, Harry looks at Fawkes. “Thanks. You didn’t have to do that.”

Fawkes lands on his shoulder again and nuzzles his beak briefly against Harry’s chin. Then he turns and hovers in front of the gargoyle, making a noise this time that sounds like an apology.

“You don’t have to apologize to me for staying with him,” Harry says quietly. “We all make our own choices about that. I might have stayed with Sirius if he’d been smarter about it. And maybe you can keep Dumbledore from getting worse.”

Fawkes answers him with one more little jerk of his head and flirt of his tail. Then he flies back up the moving staircase, and Harry continues back to Gryffindor Tower.

*

“Mr. Gryffindor.” Professor McGonagall still makes a sour grimace when she has to address him that way. Harry, on the other hand, finishes putting his Transfiguration book back into his bag and beams up at her.

“Yes, professor?”

“I found this attached to your robes when you walked into the classroom. My door carries charms that alert me to the presence of such objects. I presume it is not something you have introduced yourself?” McGonagall holds out a small silver pin that looks like the kind some of the pure-blood students use to pin their cloaks.

“It has a Tracking Charm on it,” McGonagall adds.

Harry simmers for a second, but he’s come to acknowledge that it doesn’t do any good to burn with rage all the time. He shakes his head. “Can you tell who set it up, Professor?”

“Honestly, I think it was probably one of the students. The level of skill on the charm is much weaker than it would be if an experienced adult cast it, and someone attached to Hogwarts would know about the spells on my door and be able to create something that evaded them.”

Harry pauses. It’s just a thought, dashing across his mind like a quick comet, but he’s come to trust those flashes of instinct more than he trusts most people in his life right now. “Could you reattach it to my cloak, Professor?”

“Are you sure you want this sending information about you to an unknown entity, Mr. Pot—Gryffindor?”

“Trust me, Professor. I want to find out who’s receiving it.”

McGonagall gives him a dubious glance, but nods and waves her wand. The pin reattaches to his robe hem, and Harry leaves in a thoughtful mood.

Someone had to let Voldemort and the Death Eaters through the wards last year. It had to be someone in the castle, and Harry’s bet is on it being a student, based on—well, mostly gut instinct, but also the fact that there don’t seem to any professors who are either acting suspiciously or under suspicion.

Students, though? There are plenty of those, including some who are old enough to have the Dark Mark on their arms.

And Harry wants to find out who it is. In between his million other projects, admittedly.

*

Harry raises his wand. It’s taken him until almost Christmas, but he thinks he has good information, finally, on who placed the Tracking Charm on him and a good lead on Hufflepuff’s cup. All because he’s been working like mad on his books.

No thanks to Dumbledore or Hermione, Harry thinks, then shakes his head. He can’t be distracted right now. This is his first time using one of his newly-created spells seriously, and although he’s tested it before, it was under circumstances where he always knew where it was trying to point him.

Invenio fontem,” Harry intones carefully. Harder than figuring out the incantation was figuring out the wand movement that should go with it. He finally let his body take its own path on that, and in the end, a sweeping movement with his wand from right to left at chest height and then a little clockwise circle at the end felt most natural.

A silver, triangular stream of light snaps out from his wand and strikes the cloak pin where it lies on the sheets of his bed behind drawn curtains. The pin rises in the air and wobbles for a second. Then silver light strikes out from it in turn, forming a path along the floor.

Harry grins, Disillusions himself, and follows it.

He quickly finds out that the charm isn’t perfect. For one thing, the silver beam points through solid stone if that’s the straightest path. Harry has to adjust continually as he sneaks down stairs and around corners, and sometimes cast from side to side or go up a whole flight to find it again.

But in general, it leads him steadily downwards. Harry finally stands at the top of the stairs that lead to the dungeons and watches a sliver of light plunge further on.

He sighs. “Would have to be a Slytherin,” he murmurs, and follows it.

The silver light points insistently at the patch of bare stone that Harry knows, from second year, hides the door to the Slytherin common room. He waits for a few minutes in the hope that someone might come in or out and he can slip in, but it’s late at night and he isn’t that lucky.

Harry closes his eyes and carefully casts another Defense spell that he learned from some of the books he found while researching spell creation. When he opens his eyes again, the corridor seems to be made of flat crystal planes that lie on top of and next to each other. Harry drifts slowly forwards, an effort of will, his body now smoke as he gets it to pass under the wall and into the common room beyond.

When he’s in the common room, Harry quickly releases the charm and changes back to human, and glances around. The fire is low-burning and there’s a tall boy asleep on a couch in the corner, but it’s a dim one far away from the silver line of light. Harry follows the light up the staircase to the seventh-year boys’ bedroom, and opens the door softly.

There are only four boys there now; for some reason, Crabbe didn’t come back this year. And the silver light falls on the bed with a trunk at its foot that has a truly stupid set of silver dress robes draped over it.

Harry cancels his charm and eases the curtains open. Malfoy’s sleeping face doesn’t at all surprise him.

He casts one more spell that will make the sleeve over Malfoy’s left arm transparent, and shakes his head in disgust at the Dark Mark visible there. Yes, he still doesn’t have proof that Malfoy was the one who let Voldemort and the Death Eaters in for the attack last year, but he has good enough proof that Malfoy is a Marked Death Eater in the school.

Harry passes softly out of the Slytherin common room and up to his Tower. He’ll speak to Dumbledore in the morning. He’s still the only one who has the power to actually expel Malfoy.

*

“Yes, Harry, I was aware that Mr. Malfoy is Marked.”

Harry looks at Dumbledore in silence, although he jerks his eyes away again when the man tries to catch his gaze. Harry stares at the wall. “Is he the one who let the Death Eaters in for the attack last year?”

“Yes.”

Harry stares at his hands, and the way they’ve ripped the cushion on the chair beneath him. “Why did you allow him to stay? Why didn’t you say something to someone?”

“Because there is still the chance that we can save his soul. He has done a terrible thing, but in the end, none of the students in Hogwarts died, and he may yet change his mind. If we expelled him now, he would do nothing but run straight to Tom. He needs a chance to reconsider.”

“No students died in Hogwarts last year because I was there.” Harry lifts his eyes, and Dumbledore recoils before his gaze. “And how was I less innocent than he is? But you were talking about the Aurors arresting me for using Fiendfyre last year, and you completely turned away from me because of something I couldn’t even help.”

Dumbledore hesitates a long time. Harry actually wants an answer this time, though, and he waits.

“I didn’t know that you were a Horcrux for certain until after the diary incident,” Dumbledore finally whispers. “But I knew from the prophecy that you were most likely to either die fighting Voldemort or have to murder him.”

“So there’s nothing worth saving in me, right.” Harry’s voice is flat. “I could never be innocent from the beginning, right?”

“My dear boy, I am sor—”

Harry stands and walks out again. His gut is churning, but his mind is clear. There’s nothing else he can go to Dumbledore for, even about finding the last Horcrux. His charm ought to let him find it, anyway.

And he’s had enough of Dumbledore putting a bunch of innocent children at risk to protect someone who might change his mind. Harry knows what he knows, now, and he’s going to put it into action.

*

Two days later, the Prophet blares the headline about Draco Malfoy being left right next to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement Head’s office with his left sleeve gone. Someone takes photos of the Dark Mark and smuggles them out of the Ministry to add to the article, too, before anyone can stop them.

Harry doesn’t know if they’ll actually find any evidence that Malfoy let Death Eaters into Hogwarts or spied for Voldemort, but they don’t have to. The Dark Mark alone is enough to get Malfoy a trial, and Malfoy’s seventeen now, which means that he can’t duck Veritaserum on account of being underage.

Dumbledore tries several times to talk to him. Harry ignores all of the attempts.

*

Harry receives the Marauder’s Map back as a gift from Sirius for Christmas, and ignores the temptation to write back. Remus got him an enormous book of curses and countercurses, which is at least useful.

The most useful gift, though, is a battered Potions book with familiar handwriting in it and a note next to it.

This is a book that contains considerable improvements to the standard brewing methods, as well as incantations for some of the spells I created. My mother’s maiden name was Prince, hence the title on the cover. Use it well.

Harry hesitates for a long time. Then he writes back to Snape, a simple note that says, Thank you.

It’s the only thank-you he sends to an adult that Christmas.

*

Harry smiles as he stands outside Hogwarts, the bitterly cold April wind whipping through his hair. It’s the Easter holiday, and he’s ready to use the charm he created to find Voldemort’s last Horcrux.

He’s tinkered with some of the charm’s aspects, so that, among other things, the silver beam of light is only visible to him now. He’s tested that by using it right in front of other people, none of whom reacted to it.

And he’s also used it to find objects he left in Hogsmeade. It’s about as ready as it will ever get, he thinks.

Harry places a picture of Helga Hufflepuff flat on the ground in front of him. It’s not a portrait; Harry knows he would never get away with using a portrait for this. But this is a fairly nice, enlarged, copy of one he found in a textbook, with Hufflepuff clutching the cup that he’s pretty sure Voldemort stole and made into a Horcrux.

Invenio fontem,” he murmurs, waving his wand over the picture but keeping the movement and all his attention focused on the painted cup.

For a moment, the silver light darts out and then fades away, as if it’s not sure what to look for. Harry holds his breath.

And then the silver beam strikes out, leading like a stab of light from a lantern overland.

Harry mastered Apparition last year. He turns on his heel now, to make the first of many short hops along the beam of light.

*

The silver light pointed straight into Gringotts.

Which, admittedly, might be a problem.

Harry leans back on the wall of the shop across from Gringotts and considers. He’s Apparated here every day of the holiday, wondering if there is any way to take out the Horcrux other than a frontal assault. He’d prefer to avoid that, given where his money is stored.

Well, everyone always says that goblins will do things wizards pay them for. But Harry doubts he has enough money to pay them to give up an artifact from one of their vaults—especially if they do know what it is and are storing it anyway. The problem with goblin neutrality is that it plays as well into Voldemort’s hands as it does into Harry’s.

Harry taps his fingers idly against his knee. Well, when in doubt, just ask.

*

“I beg your pardon?”

Harry’s request got him brought immediately before Ragnok, who seems to be an important goblin, based on the size and location of his own office. Harry relaxes in the chair in front of him, and meets his eyes.

“Yes, I asked if there was anything you wanted that I could trade for the corrupted Hufflepuff’s cup you’re keeping. It’s a Horcrux that Voldemort created to keep himself tied to life. I can’t pay for it in Galleons, but is there something else you want?”

Ragnok trades a baffled look with the goblins who escorted Harry in. Then he faces Harry again. “You are not in fact proposing to rob this bank.”

“No.”

“But on the other hand, you are asking us to give up something that’s stored here.”

“Yes.”

The goblins have a long argument in Gobbledegook. Harry watches them and keeps his hand nonchalantly in his lap. He knows they’ll take it as a threat if they see him touching his wand, and honestly, Harry doesn’t want that. What he wants is simply for them to cooperate.

He does have wandless magic to use if it looks like the argument is getting out of hand, of course, and they might just take his head as their price instead.

Ragnok turns towards him. “We want two things. You will give them both to us by the end of May, or we will not give you this cup.”

“Yes?” Harry leans forwards to show he’s listening.

“One is the Sword of Gryffindor.” Ragnok’s eyes shine in a way that make Harry push his estimation of the goblin one step towards “fanatic.” “We made it. It belongs to us. It is not a treasure of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We want it back.”

“All right,” Harry says. “And the other thing?”

Ragnok pauses again, as if he thinks that Harry is going to make a fuss about things. Harry fixes him with a bland smile and waits. Ragnok finally nods. “The wizard Ludo Bagman who owed us gold went on the run, and what we seized from him was not enough to pay the debt. And then your Ministry covered it up and insisted that they would not hunt him down and bring to trial. We want him back.”

Harry smiles a little, thinking of his Tracking Charm. “I have until the thirty-first of May?”

“Yes, Harry Gryffindor.”

“Brilliant,” Harry says, and stands up. “Nice talking to you. We have a bargain.”

He saunters out of the bank, whistling. He has a hat and a phoenix to approach about the sword, first. And while the Sorting Hat might not think anything of him in particular, Fawkes is unlikely to deny Harry what he wants.

*

“Ludo Bagman?” Harry asks as he steps out of the shadows around the fire. He thought he might have to track the man halfway around the world, but it turned out that he never left Britain. He’s just been camping on the outskirts of Muggle towns, where neither wizards nor goblins will particularly want to go.

Bagman jumps, staring at him. He’s wearing a ragged group of clothes at first, but when Harry looks closer, the spells on them break and dissolve. He actually has warm robes, although frayed and patched ones. The spells are only deep enough to keep Muggles from noticing him right away.

“N-no. You have me wrong. My name is Luvido Borkman.” Bagman has adopted a ridiculous accent that makes him sound like a parody of Viktor Krum. “Yes, yes, Borkman. I do not speak your English.”

Harry rolls his eyes. The one big limitation of his Source-Finding Charm is that it can’t point him directly at people or objects; instead, he has to find or use something that they’ve touched or which resembles them. But the goblins gave him a Galleon they’d seized from Bagman, and that worked well enough.

“No, you’re Ludo Bagman, and you’re coming back with me.”

“Luvido Borkman does not know who you are. Luvido Borkman does not speak English.”

“Harry Gryffindor,” Harry introduces himself, with a small bow of his head. “Are you going to come back with me or not?”

Bagman tries to burn his legs from underneath him, but he’s slow compared to Voldemort or the Death Eaters. Harry leaps over the childish curses and hexes, and then casts a Body-Bind that hits Bagman and ties his head to his knees. Bagman’s eyes roll frantically at him as Harry snuffs his fire and takes his wand.

“You don’t understand,” Bagman whispers, dropping the accent. “If you take me back to the wizarding world, the goblins will kill me!”

“But they’ll also give me what I’m bargaining for,” Harry says with a short shrug. “And they might not kill you, as long as you either pay back your debt or work to fulfill it.” Indentured servitude for wizards to pay off debts to goblins is something Harry learned about when he was researching the process of taking a new name. It’s not common anymore, but humans can still choose it over being beheaded.

“You’re very callous for a Gryffindor,” Bagman says, and snivels.

“The name was a choice, not one I was born with,” Harry says cheerfully. “The only family lineage I have to live up to is the one I choose to live up to. Shall we go?”

*

Ragnok’s eyes won’t stop moving back and forth from the captured Bagman to the Sword of Gryffindor that Harry’s leaned on the side of the chair. He looks at Harry and then away again, studying the walls as if expecting the real person who brought the goblins’ enemy and the goblins’ sword here to burst into view.

“Both Bagman and the sword, as you requested,” Harry says as calmly as he can. “And it’s the twentieth of May. I believe that I requested Hufflepuff’s cup?”

“How did you do this?”

“With the help of some invented magic and a phoenix.” It’s the perfect truth, not that they’ll believe him. Still, it hurts less when goblins doubt him than when people who have been his friends for years do. Harry bares his teeth in a faint grin. “The cup?”

“We can’t just go around giving artifacts away, sir,” whispers one of the goblins standing behind Ragnok. It sounds like they’ve either forgotten Harry can hear them or forgotten they’re speaking English, but Harry doesn’t think they would forget something like that. No, this is a deliberate insult.

“You also need your reputation as flawless guardians of wizards’ gold,” Harry says sweetly. “What would happen if I told certain people that the goblins won’t keep the terms of their own bargains?”

Ragnok leans forwards. “I have slain wizards for less of an insult.”

Harry tilts his head a little, and lets a whisper of Fiendfyre spark along the side of his arm. “I know that you must have your sources on who really won the Battle of Hogwarts last year. Do you want me to show you why?”

Ragnok backs down with grumbles, and sends a goblin into the depths of the bank to fetch the cup. They refuse to tell him which vault it was actually in, but that’s not something Harry had to know, anyway. He already knows it was probably a Death Eater, and that’s enough for him.

The cup glows as they bring it into the room. Harry smiles a little. His sensitivity to Dark magic has increased enough that he can make out the shimmer of a curse around the edge of the artifact’s handles.

How like the goblins not to mention that little detail, Harry thinks, and seizes the Sword of Gryffindor, and whirls it to the side, smashing it into the cup.

The goblin holding it drops the cup from nerveless fingers as it begins to scream. Harry doesn’t cover his ears at all this time; after six Horcrux deaths, he expects this. Instead, he watches as a shadow rises, apparently trying to escape, and then the sword’s edge gleams and catches it. There is one final hiss, and the cup, a twisted hunk of metal with a deep slash in the middle of it that cuts almost all the way through, falls still.

“Why did the sword destroy a Horcrux?” Ragnok asks when the office has been silent for perhaps a minute. “We infused it with many properties, but never that.”

“I infused it with basilisk venom when I killed a basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets in my second year,” Harry says lightly. That makes the infusion sound more deliberate than it was, but it won’t hurt to have the goblins respect him a little more. “The sword is yours. Have a nice day.”

*

“Harry.”

Harry beaks from sleep, his wand cradled in his hand and his face turning at once in the direction of the voice speaking his name. His mind is running through various scenarios about how someone could have got into Gryffindor Tower and irritation that his sleep is being interrupted when he needs to prepare for the NEWTS tomorrow—

The lanky figure in the corner of the room carries a barely-lighted wand, but the voice is familiar enough, as is the hair that looks like his. “The Dark Lord is here.”

Harry immediately stands up and reaches for his own wand. “Are you sure?”

Snape bends his left arm a little, and Harry can make out the Dark Mark with a ruddy tinge to the flesh surrounding it. “I can feel the Mark burning the way it only ever did when I was in the same small space with him.”

Harry nods. He wonders for a moment if Voldemort felt the destruction of his last Horcrux and that’s why he’s here now, or if he just meant this to be symbolic, attacking right before the NEWTS. Well, Harry supposes it doesn’t matter.

He’s spent most of the last three years, if not before, preparing for this moment.

“Lock yourself inside your quarters and arm your wards,” he tells Snape absently as he brushes past him down the staircase. “You’ll want to have your protections up in case something goes wrong and they get inside the school.”

“You are not my father any more than I have been truly yours.”

“What does that mean?” Harry hisses out of the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t really have time for Snape being difficult right now. He has to continue running steadily downwards.

“It means that you cannot command me to stay behind.”

“Do you realize that if he sees you on the battlefield, he will kill you?”

“How much more does that apply to you, his greatest enemy and the one who dueled him to a near-standstill last year?”

Harry grimaces in acknowledgement. Well, at least Snape is a good dueler and has unexpected skill with spells thanks to the ones he’s made up that probably not even Voldemort is aware of. And Harry doesn’t have time to argue with him, either. “Come on, then.”

They’re about halfway down the stairs to the ground floor when Snape pauses and swears under his breath. Harry glances at him, wondering if Snape can sense the presence of Death Eaters as well.

“Do you not smell it?”

“What…” And then Harry does, the smell of rotting flesh, the same scent that he had to get used to coming from Dumbledore’s hand. “What is that?”

“Inferi.” Snape locks one elbow against the wall and gestures hard, performing another charm that Harry doesn’t know, one which makes the stone of the stairwell transparent around them. Harry looks out where the entrance hall would normally be, and onto the sweep of grass that leads towards Hogsmeade.

Snape mutters something else, and Harry’s eyes take on the acuity of an eagle’s. Voldemort hasn’t come through the wards this time, but he’s just outside them, and beside him are shambling shapes. Harry shudders. Voldemort has brought an army, thousands of Inferi. He doesn’t know whether they can destroy them all.

“Do you wish me to fetch Albus?”

Snape is looking at him. Harry takes a deep breath and nods. “You probably should. I wanted to defeat Voldemort myself, but I’m not as arrogant as I used to be, and I know that’s going to be hard enough to do without this army.”

Snape nods and slips away up the stairs again. Harry watches as the Inferi begin to hammer on the wards, which will probably wake Dumbledore up before Snape can get to his quarters. Voldemort is depending on brute strength instead of a traitor to get him inside this time, it seems.

Harry scowls. He knows the Inferi are vulnerable to fire, but he can’t possibly conjure enough Fiendfyre to get rid of this whole battalion.

There’s a soft, sweet sound above him that spirals into song. Harry startles and looks up. Fawkes is hanging over his head, giving him the same sort of sideways disapproving look that he did when Harry was lying in the blood and water of the Chamber. Harry smiles a little and extends his hand.

“Take me out and over them, Fawkes?” he asks.

Fawkes’s tail comes down, and then they’re in the air, sweeping down the dizzying twists of the staircase that remain as if they’re soaring through the Chamber. Harry laughs despite how bleak everything looks as they fly out over the grounds of Hogwarts like a shooting star. The Inferi don’t pause and look up at them, showing they don’t have even that much free will, but a central, tall figure in the middle of them does stare up.

Voldemort, Harry thinks, and casts Sectumsempra at him almost without thinking. Voldemort ducks it, but it cuts apart two especially hulking Inferi on either side of him.

Fawkes deposits Harry near the edge of the army. Then he flames into the sky and spreads out his wings, singing. His song grows louder and louder, and Harry can see the beginning of a corona appearing to outline his wings and head. The image seems to expand outwards with his feathers, growing lines of light, becoming bigger.

Fawkes is doing what he can. Time for Harry to do what he can.

It’s hard to find the rage for the Fiendfyre this time; the joy is easier. But Harry reminds himself that he isn’t actually guaranteed to stop the Inferi, even now that Voldemort is mortal, and that he’s alone right now. Voldemort wouldn’t hesitate to cut apart Ron if he makes it inside, to kill Ginny, to drive Neville insane like his parents. He’ll torture Snape to death and make what’s happening to Dumbledore’s hand seem kind.

For the sake of what they have been to him, for the sake of what they are now, and for the sake of all the other innocents sleeping in their beds, Harry cannot let Voldemort win.

There’s also the fact that he has his bloody NEWTS to take tomorrow, and he wants to graduate and become a free adult.

There. The fire bristles along his shoulders, and Harry gestures sharply for it to leap over his head and move in on the Inferi. When it does, it takes the forms of phoenixes, larger and more bloody-colored than Fawkes, and the Inferi explode into balls of burning, dry skin and bones as if they’re made of dead wood.

Voldemort is already turning towards him. “Come on, Tom,” Harry calls to him, and beckons with two fingers like the insolent little bastard he is. “Or are you afraid to face a Gryffindor?”

Voldemort’s face is as red as it can be when his skin is that pale. He begins to drive the Inferi apart with sweeps of his wand as he makes his way through the Inferi to Harry. They’re too mindless to just get out of the way, it seems.

Harry grins and readies himself.

And just then, Fawkes dives.

He’s become a glowing, radiant fireball, larger than the sun when it rises in the morning, and Harry can barely make out the shape of a bird at all in the shining wave of flame and light and death. Fawkes’s song is more like a scream as he smashes into the Inferi and sets lines of heat blazing and leaping in all directions. In seconds, there’s a wildfire raging there, and Fawkes’s song seems to drive it faster, like wind, leaping from dripping, sludgy head to head.

The song itself is making some Inferi fall apart before the fire even touches them, Harry would swear.

Voldemort rises above the chaos, actually flying without a broom, and Harry glares. He never knew the git could do that. That’s something he will definitely have to learn after he survives this battle.

Well, time to take Voldemort’s advantage away. He’ll have too much of one if he can hang there above the battle and just fire everything at Harry from a higher angle.

Voco!” Harry yells. It’s one of the curses that were in Snape’s book, and his notes warned that it would get a violent reaction, but a violent reaction is exactly what Harry needs right now.

Voldemort shoots towards him, called by the spell and compelled to come nearer. Harry has a glimpse of startled red eyes, and then he ducks out of the way as Voldemort smashes into the ground. His flight magic appears to have been thoroughly disrupted. Harry grins and casts a spell to break the bones of Voldemort’s legs while he’s still trying to stand.

It only catches one of them, and Voldemort hisses like an angry cat. “Harry Potter.”

“Not been my name for a long time. It’s Harry Gryffindor, now. Honestly, keep up with the times, Voldemort.”

That earns him a Blasting Curse aimed right at his chest, but Harry knows how to shield from that one, and then they’re back in the same kind of tense duel that happened at the end of last year. But this time, Harry knows a lot more than he did, and Voldemort can’t survive a direct hit like he did last year when he escaped the Sectumsempra curse.

All his Horcruxes are gone. The man, the monster, facing Harry is mortal.

“Did you realize that I found them all?” Harry asks softly as they circle. The earth around them is torn up by explosions and ripped and furrowed with curses that would have killed them if they landed. Harry is bleeding from a cut on his scalp, and the smoke from the fire Fawkes has caused billows around them and dances back. Harry had to dismiss his Fiendfyre a little while ago; it was simply too hard to keep control of it and concentrate on the duel with Voldemort at the same time. But the Inferi are thoroughly burning up in Fawkes’s flames, and Harry doesn’t really worry about them interfering.

“What are you talking about?”

“The diary,” Harry says, and sees Voldemort’s eyes widen. “The cup. The locket. The snake—”

Voldemort casts at him in Parseltongue, and Harry swears as it creates a swarm of biting insects that all slam into his left shoulder at once. They bite so fiercely that Harry knows his arm is going to be disabled even before it hangs limp next to him.

But that isn’t his wand hand, and Harry never thought he would get out of this unscathed. He keeps his gaze on Voldemort, and murmurs, “Did you think that you would live forever? So sorry to disappoint.”

Voldemort roars, and the roar becomes a curse Harry has never seen, rising like a wave of purple light and developing claws and fangs as it goes. When it flexes and rushes at him, Harry knows that he can’t avoid it. He opens his mouth to speak a shield that might turn it back.

Prohibeo!

The spell hits Voldemort’s beast and chews half of it into small sparkles of light. Harry follows the direction of the curse with his eyes and sees Snape striding through a corridor of pulped Inferi, Dumbledore behind him.

Voldemort turns around, clearly enraged so much that he’ll engage with the enemy behind him instead of in front. Snape only lifts an eyebrow, saying nothing with such disdain that Harry hopes Voldemort will lose control.

It works. Voldemort begins a long incantation, wand swinging back and forth in his hand like a pendulum and gaze fixed solely on Snape. From the way Snape pales, Harry assumes he recognizes the spell and it’s a bad one.

But Voldemort’s back is to Harry. And there’s a spell Harry read about, not in Snape’s book but in some of the books he got from the Restricted Section, and he certainly has the power to cast it even if he’s never tried it out.

Carnifico!

The magic rips from Harry, taking more strength than anything else he’s ever cast except Fiendfyre. It erupts in an intense white beam from Harry’s wand and makes him sag to his knees. But he keeps himself upright enough to watch what it happens. He’s not going to miss this because his face was pressed into the dirt.

Voldemort hasn’t turned around all the way yet when the white beam reaches him. Harry catches sight of Dumbledore standing with his mouth open a little, and Snape—Snape’s eyes are fixed unwaveringly on Harry. He’s not looking at the spell.

Which cuts Voldemort’s head off.

The gore spitting from Voldemort’s neck is a lot thicker and a lot worse than Harry thought it would be. Harry jerks back, but he can’t keep it from splattering his face. And then he does lose his precarious balance and tilt down.

But not before he sees two things.

One is Voldemort’s head rolling like a Quaffle across the ground and fetching up against one of the tussocks of burned grass.

The other is the intense pride in Snape’s eyes.

*

The aftermath of the battle is filled with lots of voices, most of which Harry doesn’t listen to.

Dumbledore comes to sit by his bed in the hospital wing in silence, except to tell him that he never wished for Harry to become a killer. Harry assumes that was part of the reason Dumbledore wanted him to walk to his death as a Horcrux sacrifice, so that he wouldn’t have to commit murder. But it’s stupid, so Harry only stares at Dumbledore until he leaves.

Snape is the one who tells him that Dumbledore’s poisoned hand is slowly causing his death, and it’s unlikely Dumbledore will survive more than a few months. Harry shrugs. He honestly can’t feel much about that.

Hermione and Neville and all the Weasleys show up to hug him and exclaim over him and, in a few cases, cry over him. Harry allows that, but when Hermione tries to tell him how reckless he was to go out to face Voldemort and an army of Inferi with only a phoenix for company, Harry stares at her until she leaves.

It turns out that the Wizarding Examinations Authority postponed the NEWTS because of the battle, which is a bit of good news. Members of the Ministry show up, too, to try and interview Harry, and also to make vague threats about the kind of spells he cast. But Harry has perfected a glare that threatens a lot without saying much, and in the end, they leave.

There are a lot of newspaper articles published. Harry ignores them. He does receive an owl from Rita Skeeter promising to pay him for the real story whenever he’s ready to publish it. Harry grins. That’s something to look forward to when he’s passed his NEWTS and recovered from the bloody fucking magical exhaustion that’s keeping him in bed right now.

Sirius and Remus come into the hospital wing. Harry receives real apologies this time, but he’s not going to resume a happy-go-lucky relationship with them the way they want, and Remus at least is smart enough to know that. Harry stares at them until they leave, with Remus tugging Sirius out of the hospital wing.

He receives owl after owl: marriage proposals, people congratulating him and saying they knew he was the real Boy-Who-Lived all along, offers to go into business, writers telling him that they can write his authorized biography whenever he’s “ready to cooperate,” vague threats, old people clucking over the young people and their tendency to just dash out and face Dark Lords on a whim, and Ministry flunkies stating that he has a variety of jobs waiting for him after graduation. Harry burns all but the funniest ones.

Among the voices he has to listen to is Madam Pomfrey’s, but she admits that, other than healing the shoulder Voldemort attacked with his insect swarm, there’s not a lot she can do for him. She does keep him in the hospital wing for three days for magical exhaustion.

Snape comes into the hospital wing regularly to sit with him, but he almost never speaks, so Harry doesn’t have to choose whether to listen to him or not.

*

It’s two days after his NEWTS. Harry sits on the ground near the lake, stroking Fawkes’s back. Fawkes was exhausted by the battle outside Hogwarts just as Harry was, and actually spent a week as an egg instead of a chick. Harry held his breath over whether he could come back, but he did, and now a tiny baby phoenix is asleep in a makeshift nest that Harry made out of strips of woven paper. Fawkes is too little even to burn them.

Footsteps sound behind him. Harry glances over his shoulder. Snape is standing there. He hesitates, and says, “May I sit with you?”

“It’s a free lakeshore.”

Snape still sits down a distance from him, and watches Harry out of the corner of his eye. Harry watches Fawkes, and the ripple of the waves coming to shore. It’s a peaceful day, quiet and half-sunny. The clouds passing high overhead look as if they might drop some rain later, but not right now.

“Have you thought of what you’re going to do after graduation?” Snape asks abruptly.

“I’m going back to the Leaky Cauldron for a while. I still have a free room there thanks to saving Tom’s life. When the Death Eaters attacked Diagon Alley a couple years ago,” Harry explains, when Snape cocks his head. “And then I’ll look for a small flat. I can afford a house if I go in with several other people. I might stay at Longbottom Manor for a while, Neville’s invited me.”

“And your—future plans?”

“Watch my back for a while.” Harry smiles without humor. The defeat of Voldemort has prompted the surrender of some Death Eaters, but not all of them. In particular, Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy have vanished, and with them, Draco out of the Azkaban cell he’d been put in. Well, Harry already knew the Ministry was corrupt. “Continue on my path to become a spell-creator.”

“If you would like any help…”

“I’ve been talking to Hermione. She says that you’ve been a surprisingly decent Potions instructor this year. But it was two years, Snape, that was the bargain. I won’t deny the help you gave me this year, but it’s not enough to forgive you or think of you as a father yet. Don’t push me.”

Snape only nods. He actually seems relieved. Harry remembers the man’s confession that he would have been happy to have Lily Potter kill him. In a way, Snape is so self-loathing it probably reassures him to have this conditional stance Harry’s taking to him, that he might earn forgiveness someday, but not any time soon.

What would he be, without his self-loathing?

Harry isn’t sure. He’s not sure that he will find out, if Snape reneges on his side of the bargain. On the other hand, maybe he won’t. And the pride in the man’s eyes when Harry took down Voldemort was a nice sop. It could be more than that, someday. Still, someday isn’t today.

Harry might also be closer to Sirius and Remus someday, but not any time soon. He and Hermione might have a closer friendship than their current cool conversations that end the minute Hermione starts trying to tell him what he should do, but maybe not. He and Dumbledore might make peace before the man dies, but Harry doubts it.

On the other hand, “maybe” and “someday” involve lots of pleasant possibilities, as well. Harry might invent a spell that astonishes everybody and leaves more of a legacy in people’s minds than him being the conqueror of Voldemort. He might find a really nice place to live and set up strong enough wards that he can lead a remotely normal life. He might find someone to marry, have children. He might travel the world and become a legend in other countries.

He might have a baby phoenix who goes with him.

Harry doesn’t know. He refuses to cage all the possibilities in words.

Snape nods again, after a long moment. “If I can give you help, let me know.” And he stands. Harry thinks he’s going to walk straight back to the school, but he pauses.

The moments thunder past like heartbeats.

Snape says, in the most subdued voice Harry has ever heard from him, “If someday you would permit me to claim you as my son, I would be proud to do so.”

He leaves. Harry looks out over the lake and smoothes the phoenix down beneath his fingertips.

He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

Harry smiles. His life has been predetermined by so many things: prophecy, weird parents, people who thought they knew what was best for him.

It’s kind of exciting to have no idea what comes next.

The End.